How to Be Idle and Blessed

I remember the first time I heard the line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” After contemplating the world of a grasshopper on a summer day, Oliver asks her reader if they know how to really pay attention, how to be still and quiet. The poem ends with an oft-quoted question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

A bunch of green asparagus spears in a brown wooden bowl on a butcher block table.
Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot these days, as we emerge from winter and tax season, as leaves start to spring onto branches and we start thinking about school ending and summer beginning.

When I first heart this question, I felt an urge to think about grand goals, wild dreams, and hopes beyond my imagination. I took it seriously, this call to live into my one and only precious life. I don’t want to waste a thing. What will I do with all these unexpected opportunities, with all that I’ve learned, with all that I hope to accomplish?

Suddenly this question turned into a to-do list. First, I’ll read these books. Next, I’ll take this class. Then, I’ll reflect about those experiences as I make a plan of action to implement my newfound knowledge. Last, I’ll be an expert in this new field, finding opportunities to share and participate in new conversations.

I don’t think those hopes and goals are unrealistic or out of the realm of possibility. But I do think I’ve completely missed the point of Mary Oliver’s question if that is my takeaway.

In the middle of the poem, before this famous question, Oliver notes,

I don’t know exactly what prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

As we enter this season of spring cleaning, family recalibration, and these last weeks of the school year, I can let my list for what a One Wild and Precious Life looks like completely overwhelm the call to be idle and blessed.

I’m learning to balance this blessed observation and living in the present with the need to sit down and do the work. Sometimes the work is that playtime idleness my girls crave. Sometimes it’s the mundane chores of cleaning and cooking. And sometimes it’s the actual work of sitting and writing or crafting ideas to the page. Nothing is as set and clear as I’d like it to be.

I’m remembering this poem in this season of life, though. That my call is to deep observation. That learning takes years and often the outcomes aren’t what I was expecting.

This season of quiet and growth has lasted longer than I expected. I know that planting seeds and putting down roots can take years. I love what my friend Tina says about growing in the longterm. After she planted asparagus, which takes three years to produce, she reflected,

 It takes commitment to plant asparagus, and perseverance. More than that, it takes vision. To plant something right now that won’t bear fruit for years to come requires vision. It requires we trust that the good life is not always the immediate life. The beautiful life is not the quick life. Instead, it is the cultivated, grounded life. It is the life that believes in waiting for the fruit, in holding out hope that something good will come, and it is the belief that trusts in the work we cannot see with our eyes.

Tina Osterhouse, On What’s Saving My Life Right Now

So, to mix metaphors and ideas, I’m planting asparagus and fruit trees, I’m taking time to observe the grasshopper and small details, I’m leaning into this space of the quiet and quotidian.

I’m remembering to hold myself to a different standard, one that is more about planting and less about harvest. I’m doing the work, in hopes of a fruitful result but I won’t know for sure until late summer. And that’s the beauty of life and learning and gardening, isn’t it?

What are you planting this spring? Do you like growing quick lettuces, late season tomatoes, or longterm asparagus? How do you balance that waiting?

Allowing What Is Already In You To Swell Up

The other day my Facebook memories reminded me that it had been a year since I took the girls to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade. The photo is of us bundled up, huddled together in the freezing cold. Elle is leaning over a cup of hot cocoa, too cold to hold it herself.

The caption reads, “We did it! It was cold, there were tears. But I brought a thermos of hot cocoa and we marched with our community. We talked about the work Martin Luther King Jr did and the work that still needs to be done. On the drive home, after we warmed up a bit, I asked if they’d do it again. Elle said no, she’d rather go to a park. But Bea gave an enthusiastic green light, check, yes! I’m remembering that raising activists takes time and that hot cocoa makes the coldest moments bearable.”

The memory was well timed because just a couple days earlier, Bea had asked when the Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade was happening again – she cannot wait to create a tradition. (I haven’t heard the same questions from Elle. Maybe she’s sticking to her park plan…) It doesn’t take much for Bea to create an annual event – she loves planning and traditions but it still made me glad that this is one she looked back on with fondness and hope for reprisal.

As we’ve settled back into our routine and I’ve had a little more space in my days to reflect, I’ve been thinking that it’s been two months since I returned from the RubyWoo Pilgrimage. That first month was filled with thoughts and ideas and hopeful next steps, even if those were a ways away. But now, with more time and more routine between me and that journey I started to feel a little discouraged. What have I done in those two months? It doesn’t feel like much.

I’m reminded of a paragraph from one of my favorite childhood books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s at the end of the story after a great mystery has been solved. Mrs. Frankweiler says,

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.

E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing enough to create young activists. Shouldn’t we be going to more marches, reading more books, digging deeper into the injustices around us? Yes… and, we need to let these experiences swell up and touch our lives. I love knowing that Bea still holds the memory of her first march dear – that she wants to continue this tradition. Who knows? Maybe we’ll expand to more. Maybe this will spark an interest in justice down the road.

For now, I’m remembering to give life time. To choose the activities that make sense for our family in this moment on the journey and to trust the process. I want to be careful as I raise my girls – that they will want to continue this new narrative as they grow older, without burning out at a young age.

I want to remember this for myself, too. That I’ve been given a whole lot of new information in these past two months. I’ve continued to read books, to dig deeper, and to question more. But I also need to let things sift and settle, to create time and space to allow all I’ve learned to swell and grow.

On Monday, we’ll likely join the march again as we start to set down roots and traditions in activism. And like last year, my biggest goal will be to stay warm and have fun. There will be plenty of time for deep conversations and grappling with reasons it’s so important to show up and march. For now, we’re gathering information and letting it grow.

What are some ways you are leaning into facts and ideas you’ve accumulated? How are you holding space for them to swell?

Slowing Down to Enjoy the Journey

For my birthday, friends gave me a gift card to a local bookstore with instructions to enjoy an afternoon browsing – either online or in person. I thought about this invitation to simply look at books and so I invited my friend along. We both have young kids so time spent together in a bookstore seemed amazing.

We spent the morning wandering the store, talking about life, meandering in our conversation. There was no agenda and it was lovely getting to simply catch up. I even decided not to buy a book from my to-read pile and let a title jump out.

It was such a reminder of the need to be intentional with friends. This woman and I see each other fairly regularly, but rarely one-on-one. I was tempted to spend a morning alone but knew that I would rush through the store, buy something quickly, and return home to relieve Frank of errands. Having a friend with me helped me slow down and enjoy myself a bit more.

Last week we were in California visiting family. One evening, after the girls had gone to bed, my aunt was working on her Bible study and I was reading. She invited me over to talk through the lesson with her and we spent the next hour discussing and combing through a verse in Nehemiah I most likely would have skimmed over on my own. In the midst of reading about those involved in rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, we talked about current events, our own views of qualification, and how God uses us in unexpected ways. My daily quiet time is alone, but this was a reminder of the importance of sitting side by side and talking.

img_3240I’ve been thinking about modeling a lot when it comes to my life and my girls. It’s faster and easier to do things without them. Dinner prep is way less frustrating and a lot safer without my two sous-chefs. Reading my morning devotional is a lot more pleasant when I can focus on the words. And yet, that’s not reality. So, I pull out extra carrots at dinner and let Bea chop them. I brush my teeth while reading Spurgeon and letting Elle climb around the bathroom. I include and model what my own day looks like.

Just now, I’ve struck a deal with Bea to help me clean the playroom. She originally suggested I do it while she was at school and in some ways, it would take a lot less time and be a lot less stressful if I did just do it myself. But it’s not my playroom or my mess. So we agreed that we’d do it together.

Time alone to rejuvenate is something that is essential to most of us, in varying degrees. But I’m reminded more and more that life is done together. It may not be easier but when we choose to sit side by side, the journey seems richer.

How do you intentionally slow down? What are some ways you stop to enjoy this journey?

Summer

Even though it’s not officially summer until the end of the month, June signals the start of the season, in my mind. I’ve never had a job that didn’t recognize summertime – either in that it was only for that short season or because we had it as a break. Even with only working a couple days per week, the last gallery tour of the year made me gear up for summer mode. Even my weekly book club is scaling back and incorporating family picnic dinners instead of discussions into our routine.

I’m looking forward to this summer. Bea is old enough to start backyard camping, and our goal is to finally figure out family camping – it’s been two years, which seems way too long! I’m looking forward to boredom and hammocks and parks and water tables and hiking and no schedule. In some ways, I think we’ll have more fun since Bea is more adventurous. In other ways, I’ll have to be more creative in getting us out of the house, since the backyard seems smaller than last year.

Last night, Frank and I kept the TV off and our phones put away and sat on the back patio, drinking beer and watching the garden after Bea went to bed. As we were chatting, we saw a hummingbird fly to our newly planted, hummingbird-attracting flowers. It flitted around for a while, drinking nectar and exploring. I hope s/he spreads the word. Bea has been looking longingly at our feeder, saying, “I hope birds come someday!” Now, maybe they’ll come back during the day.

Can you spot the hummingbird?
Can you spot the hummingbird?

The outdoor time, the slower pace, the lightness and warmth, the fresh fruits and veggies, grilling and eating outside. Even in the unbearable heat that seems to last longer each year, summer is such a social and active season. It seems to reset the busyness of spring, with tax season and planting and reconnecting. Summertime is when we rest and slow down.

What are some of your favorite summertime activities?