Weeds

weeds image

A couple of years ago we purchased my husband’s childhood home from his parents. I love the sprawling backyard that overlooks a farm – waking to the pink light of the sun rising over the field, the distant sound of a tractor, the wild turkey that pecks and scurries around our landscape, the old maple trees that stretch and provide shade.

I especially love all this when I’m not distracted by the weeds popping up out of the ground cover and those big patches of dirt where we took out the old shrubs and haven’t gotten around to re-planting anything yet.

One late, summer afternoon my husband came home from work to find me irritable and pulling weeds with my youngest son crying at my ankles. “We’ve got to do something about this yard,” I griped as a warm welcome-home greeting. He looked up casually and calmly said, “Well, our choices are to care or not to care.”

He’s so level-headed, steady, and full of common sense that it sometimes makes me crazy.

During the 10 years I visited this home before it became mine, I never once noticed a weed in the backyard. I once asked my mother-in-law if they were there. They were. They just didn’t torment me until they became mine.

Maybe — as much as I hated to admit it in that hot, irritable moment — Tim was on to something. It is my choice what I get to invest my time and energy in, what I get to care about. I’ve made choices — to parent, to teach, to write — so if I care deeply about those things, what will I have to let go?

I hate the busy game. “Are you busy? I’m busy. Much busier than you.” I fall into this trap so easily, (especially during that precious sliver of time called “prep hour” at school when the students disappear and I’ve got 54 minutes to pee and get my entire to-do list checked off) though it accomplishes nothing and creates stress for people on both ends of the conversation. But as a mom of three littles who teaches middle schoolers and a college class on the side, who really wants to write, and who is also an extrovert struggling with saying no, my calendar most often leans to the full side.

For years I’ve been tucking away wisdom of others on this topics of choices and time. One of my favorites — one I return to when I’m too busy finding excuses to get my butt in a chair and my thoughts on paper —  comes from Anne Lamott. (You’ll want to read the whole article right after you finish with this one; it’s so good.) She begins with:

“I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.”

She then advocates for figuring out what things we’re going to need to give up if we’re going to write or live with any passion. Less social media. Letting the housework go. Skipping the news for a night.

For me, letting go is also an exercise is not being enticed by the guilt about the things I feel like I’m supposed to care about.

For example, as much as I’m afraid to admit this in a public forum (oh, the judgement!):  I rarely put laundry away — retrieving unfolded clothes straight from the laundry baskets next to the dryer works for us. And I sometimes feel shame or guilt when I admit to people that I hire a friend to help us keep up on housecleaning during the school year. But doing this is what enables me to free up the space to parent, teach, and write better.

Recently, I was telling my mom that after a long, frustrating day, my best therapy is often getting into my kitchen, turning on some music, pouring a glass of my favorite red wine, and cutting vegetables. Cooking. Mixing stuff. Making stuff. Concocting. The time passes and the kids stop by to whine and ask for stuff and I just keep going. I don’t mind — it feels worth it. She looked at me with sudden understanding in her eyes and said, “That’s how I feel in my garden.”

If you’ve ever been to my mom’s house, the first thing you’d notice is the garden. The flowers. The pots and perennials and flower beds. The lush colors. The life all around you. She loves this. This is her thing. I water my plants when they look like they might fall over and die if I don’t. She doesn’t just water; she fertilizers daily, people. She can’t pass by a weed without stopping to pull it out. She takes the time to prep and prune and preen. And she loves to give this time. She thinks nothing of it. The time passes and she doesn’t mind.

Here’s the thing: I notice my mom’s beautiful garden, her flowers. No one notices my weeds. Because they don’t matter to me.

But I do hope they notice the things I care about fully, the things I invest in. I hope when they come for dinner they can feel love and warmth from my kitchen. I hope when my students show up in my classroom they feel love and warmth from the teaching. I hope when I put my writing out in the world others from love and warmth from that, too.

When I think of my friends one of my favorite things about them is watching them living out their passions — their passions for dancing, for writing,  for caring for orphans, for parenting, for teaching kids with special needs, for composting, for nutrition, for counseling — the list goes on. That’s not to say that these passions are easy or that the work is always fun, but there’s a commitment to it. There’s time that’s made for it because it not only matters, it fills them up somehow. And it’s so good to watch them give their good to the world.

Part of living into grace is loving those gifts — my own and others around me — and acknowledging that my weeds are fine. I can have weeds because although I love and appreciate a beautiful garden, it’s not my thing. I have other things. You have things, too.

And comparing “not my thing” to “your thing” would be silly.

So, this morning, I’m staring at those weeds in my backyard with love, not contempt. Because leaving them allowed me to get this written.
Now, go and do your thing.

Middle

Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something

 Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.

Photo credit: unsplash.com; Alex Jones

When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”

I teach the years most people try to forget.

“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.

There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air.  Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)

Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said,  “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable. 

Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying).  It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.

But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)

 There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…)  Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.

I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.

Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.  

We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.

Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.

When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see.  We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.

We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.

Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story.  And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.

Photo credit: pixabay.com; jacqueline macou

I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.

The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”