Sunday, May 5, 2019

Gardening and the Gift of Work

Our garden is in, or at least most of it.  We still have sweet potatoes to plant, but those go in last, once all chance of chilly weather has passed.  But other than that, everything has been planted, and that is no small feat.

Not many people raise gardens these days, I’ve noticed.  Sure, a few people set out a tomato plant or two, and some may even have a raised bed with some lettuce and onions, which is great.  Few things are more rewarding than growing your own food, even if it is just in a small bed or pot.  But to really garden, to grow food across a large area of land, to produce enough to eat fresh plus put into storage for the coming months or years, is a pretty big undertaking, and certainly less common now than it used to be.  I have a lot of theories about why that is the case.  Fresh foods now are more readily available in groceries and at farmers’ markets, people eat out more, most people don’t have time to process their own food, many yards aren't suited to gardens, and many more are in subdivisions where gardens aren't allowed.  All are very valid reasons not to grow a garden. But for me, being able to raise a garden and provide the freshest, healthiest foods for my family has always been important.  When my husband and I bought our first house, the deal clincher was that the house had a great garden spot that came with it.  Kitchens and bathrooms can be remodeled, I thought, but a relatively level ridgetop spot with full sun and clay-loam soil cannot so easily be created.  

This past week, we planted corn.  My father, who turns 80 this summer, and I, share a large garden spot, and so when it was time to plant corn, he joined me and my son, Joah.  The sun was hot, and I worried a bit about him over-exerting himself, but he knew and I knew that it was time to plant, and that if we were to get it into the ground before the rain came the next day, we had to do it then.  I lined up the string for the corn rows, and my son grabbed the furrow hoe.  He insisted on making all the furrows himself, and I apprehensively agreed while my father watched.  The first row was a bit too wavy, and a part of me wanted to straighten it out for him, but before I could say anything, my father spoke up, “Great job, Joah.  Now, let’s make another one,” and before I knew it, the two of them were planting corn together.  “Now, Joah,” my father said, “planting corn is a spiritual exercise as much as it is a physical one.”  I smiled.  I’d heard this story every year as a child when I planted corn with my father in his garden.  He’d always insisted that if you weren’t right with the Lord, any corn you planted would not come up.  Manys the time when I was a small girl that my father would ask me to drop the corn seed into the ground rather than doing it himself, and now that I am grown, I fully understand why.  On this day, he and I were letting Joah do the same, for as we all know, children are closer to God than we adults, and my father and I didn't want to take any unnecessary chances.  Joah dropped each seed into the furrow patiently and deliberately, then followed up by using his furrow hoe to cover each row with soil.  My father said proudly, “Out of my ten grandchildren, I’m glad I have at least one who likes to garden.”  

I thought about that for a minute.  Of all the people in our extended family, it is only Joah who seems to take an interest in gardening.  My other son, my nieces and nephews, and even most of the other adults in the family, all head in the opposite direction when they see me heading for the garden, especially on a hot, humid day such as the one we were having on this particular day.  But not Joah.  Whether it is hoeing corn or digging potatoes, stacking firewood, or spreading mulch, Joah is ready to pitch in. The bigger the job, the more he is up for the challenge, and there is one very simple reason for that.  Joah is not afraid to sweat. This is not to imply that the rest of the family does not occasionally work hard.  They do, and they have the achievements to show for it.  But I also believe that most of us are not like Joah. Most of us make a point of avoiding hard work unless it is absolutely necessary whereas Joah just seems to take pleasure in working hard. At a young age, he has discovered that their is true joy in being a worker.

When my father was Joah's age, all the families in this community raised gardens.  They had to in order to survive. As a result, their lives revolved around the seasons and the harvest and they found pleasure in providing for themselves. Today, this same community has some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and is plagued by an epidemic of obesity, depression and drug use. They left gardening and hard work in general way behind at least a generation ago, and sold off the homeplaces with the prime garden spots in order to pay for an easier life.
While in my father's generation, people took great pride in caring and providing for themselves, and making a "hard earned buck", today, the attitude seems to be that if you work hard, you are a fool.  Of course, the latter mindset is a fallacy, and no wonder those who believe it are often plagued by physical health issues and mental stress. If only they realized that the ability to work is a gift from God.

This past week, the day that we put the last of the seed into the garden, was also the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.  It’s a lesser known feast day for St. Joseph, as the big one occurs on March 19, which many Catholics, including my family, celebrate with cream puffs and sweet treats.  However, this year, on May 1, I thought it appropriate that my family was celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker by doing nothing more than tiresome, hot, sweaty, unnecessary manual labor.  We worked, we sweated, and we did it for no reward beyond the knowledge that we were blessed to be able to do it, and we were led by a little boy and an old man who both know that hard work is the secret to a rewarding life.  

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

7 Quick Takes - How Lent Went

Happy Easter!  
I presume when most read this post, it will be Easter time.  Alleluia!  We made it! I don't know about you, but I'm licking a few emotional wounds from Lent, mostly caused my own failings. If the 40 days of Lent teaches me nothing else every year, it shows me just how weak I truly am.  All my best intentions, plans and Lenten resolutions just went out the window several times, and even Good Friday ended on a sour note when I lost my temper with my family (only an hour after going to confession, no less) thanks to my own anxieties.  It happens. But now it is Saturday morning as I write this, Holy Saturday.  Jesus is in the tomb and I find myself in an awkward and uncomfortable transition, waiting for the forgiveness that I don't think I entirely deserve. Maybe this is how the apostles felt on Good Friday night? Surely, they must have felt the heaviness that I am feeling today that comes from betraying Jesus by letting our own fears and anxieties take control. Yet as unworthy as they felt, Jesus loved them anyway, and once they recognized their failure and asked for his forgiveness, he used them for his greater glory, and they changed the world.  Maybe I didn't do so great at Lent but I tried.  I'll keep trying.  Satan may have had his way yesterday but he will not prevail.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.

So, other than the predictable spiritual trips and falls that I took during the past 40 days, there were a few highpoints.  Perhaps the greatest of these was our family trip to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Alabama.  I'd always wanted to visit, and when debating where to go for our annual Spring Break trip, we settled on combining a trip to Chattanooga (to see the trains, of course, because #boymom) with my desire to make a one day pilgrimage somewhere for my birthday.  I just ended my 5th decade of life (whoa!), so I wanted to make it memorable.  After listening to three boys squabble in one backseat for five hours, trust me, it was memorable!  I still question why we never got a mini-van.  Yet, all that aside, the trip was worth it.  The weather was perfect, the Shrine had very few visitors that day, and we got to spend time in adoration, holy mass, doing outdoor stations, visiting the grotto, and just enjoying the beauty of the drive and the grounds.  We saw Fr. Miguel (from EWTN) and were blessed to see Mother Angelica's crypt.  For me, the whole day was my personal thank you to Jesus for being so merciful to me.  How could I possibly regret getting older when I know that every day is his gift to me?

Happy Birthday, Mother Angelica!

During Lent, we also celebrated St. Joseph's day.  Since my kids are gluten-free, I always try to come up with an alternative to the traditional pastries served on this day.  This year, I attempted a gluten-free puff pastry. It took a lot of butter and tasted good, but didn't puff up worth a hoot.  So, back to the books for a new recipe for next year.  We topped it off with some whipped coconut crème and the kids loved it, anyway.  Anyone have a gluten-free puff pastry recipe that really works?

March always means two things around here (besides Lent).  Wildflower walks and potato planting.  We were lucky enough to get some dry weather (after a foot of rain during February) long enough for the soil to dry out so that we could get our taters in the ground.  My family eats a LOT of potatoes! So, I wanted to grow a bunch.  We planted about 40 pounds of potatoes.  If all goes well, we should harvest at least twice that much, but it'll all come down to the weather and the potato bugs.  My boys are already excited about how much money they're going to earn this summer picking potato bugs off the plants.  Last year, they earned about $30.  I think I better lower my rate this summer!

The foot of rain from February did make for a fabulous wildflower display this past month.  It's been a long time since I've seen the wildflowers as gorgeous and prolific as they've been this spring.  Here are just a few photos I took from one of my favorite hiking trails. Every week from mid-March until mid- April, there's something new in bloom in our forest.  One week, the hepatica carpets the hillside, two weeks later, the mayapples have taken over.  Then, the leaves pop out on the trees and the whole show is over again until next year.

And speaking of shows, while we were in Chattanooga for our Spring Break, I got to take a little mom-break (because mama can only handle so many trains) and went to see the movie "Unplanned" while my men when to ride yet another train.  I wasn't sure what to expect from the film, but given what I'd read about it, my interest was peaked, so I seized the opportunity to go see it and I'm so glad I did.  It is one of those movies you don't forget easily.

I admit it did trigger some painful feelings related to my past miscarriages, but I found the film to be tastefully done and extremely respectful of those on both sides of the abortion issue. More than anything, it helped me realize just how important our pro-life witness is, whether it be large or small.  That point was driven home to me even more the following day when I was sitting in the car with my toddler, waiting for my husband and boys to come out of a take-out restaurant.  My windows were rolled down and I was reading a book (this book!). Suddenly, I heard some loud, raucous teen boys making comments about my vehicle's "Choose Life" license plate.  They were not nice comments.  When they noticed that I was sitting in the vehicle, they piped down, got in their car (which was parked next to mine) and took off, but not before shouting an obscenity out the window and spinning their tires. I just ignored them. As my husband said, they are young, they will learn.  Added to the irony of that encounter was the fact that I had taken this photo just two days before when we visited the Shrine. If this isn't a cultural war, I'm not sure what is.  Lord, help us.

So, I suppose you could say that Lent for me was very much a rollercoaster, just as most of my life has been.  Lots of little stuff, some big stuff, too much to contemplate, really.  I watched Notre Dame burn, mourned a cousin who died too young, rallied for Life, watched others mock it, and celebrated my own. I talked to Jesus on Holy Thursday about things heavy on my heart and heard only the worlds "Die with me," leaving me with only more questions.  That night, as a family, we remembered the Lord's last meal with our own version of a seder supper. We reflected upon the greatest gift Jesus gave to us in the Eucharist, and then we spent the next 24 hours failing at holiness. And in between it all, the potatoes grew, and the wildflowers bloomed, and we waited for Jesus to make all things new again, as he always does.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

No Real Advice (Reflections on Infertility)

You think you’re over it, but then you’re not.

That, in a nutshell, is how I would describe life as an infertile woman.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as Tom and I prepare to speak to a group of couples who will be attending an infertility retreat.  What can I possibly say that will give them hope?  Infertility is filled with days and days of feeling hopeless and abandoned, fearful and anxious.  Dare I tell them that even if they become a parent, either through a miracle baby, or by adoption or fostering, or all three, they may never really be over it?  For me, it is always there, lurking in the background, waiting for a trigger. In spite of having three children now, in spite of being pre-menopausal, I am coming to understand that my scars of infertility will last a lifetime.

Perhaps it is worse the longer you are childless.  I don’t know.  My primary infertility lasted almost nine years before I finally became a parent. That’s a helluva long time, especially because infertility is measured more by months than years.  Secondary infertility has continued for me since then.  Throw in three miscarriages, one successful pregnancy that was marred by a devastating fetal diagnosis, and six agonizing years of being in the waiting pool to adopt, and I suppose it’s not surprising that I still have a few triggers.

I found another one of those triggers this past week.  I was lying in a dark room, and the ultrasound technician was shaking a bottle of gel.  “This should be warm,” she said as she applied it.  I suppose that was meant to be comforting, but the words took me back to another day, another ultrasound.  It was an ultrasound to see if my baby, the one I’d been praying for for so long, my miracle, was going to be a boy or a girl.  We were so excited, so filled with joy and anticipation.  But the joy was quickly gone as we realized there was more to that ultrasound than just gender identification.  My baby had borderline ventriculomegaly.  It was to be the first of many ultrasounds that I would undergo in the next three months, each used for diagnostic purposes, each wrought with fear and concern over what would be found next.  All told, I’ve had dozens of ultrasounds now, and only a handful of them ever brought good news.  Too many of them revealed a weak baby, or a dead baby, or a very sick baby or a flawed body that couldn’t produce a baby.  

I tried to breathe through that ultrasound this past week. I glanced at the technician’s screen, and then at her face, and then back at the screen.  I know now that most of the techs are very good at not showing emotions, not disclosing anything before the doctor walks in.  And I prayed.  Please Lord, help me accept whatever the results may be.  It was over in just a few minutes, the technician left to show the results to the radiologist, and then returned almost as quickly.  This time, she smiled and said, “It looks like just a small cyst and nothing to worry about, but come back in 6 months and we’ll double check just to make sure.”

And just like that, it was over.  Everything was okay again. It wasn’t breast cancer.  Just a cyst.  A stupid, annoying, stop-your-heart cyst in the wrong place.   I texted my husband with the good news, and he replied, “I guess the rosary worked,” to which I replied, “Yeah, I guess.”

But I know better, and so does he.  The infertility road has taught us nothing, if not that prayer does not always give us the results we want.  It certainly isn’t magic yet so often, I still think of it that way.  When things work out, God is good.  When things go south, where is God?  I didn’t pray hard enough versus I prayed so hard.  This must not be part of God’s plan versus God has a plan.  None of the clichés satisfy.  None of them answer the greatest question that haunts mankind, the question of why things happen the way they do.

As I drove to the hospital that afternoon, I thought about all the scenarios that could play out if I didn’t get the good news that I was so desperately hoping for. None of them were pretty.  I told myself that I didn’t have any of the risk factors that seemed to come with breast cancer, so of course, the odds were that the news would be good.  But then I thought about my friend whose husband died of lung cancer, even though he’d never smoked.  And my friend who’d just lost her father to premature heart failure even though he’d always been a vegetarian and athletic.  I thought about my co-worker, who is a single mom and only few years younger than I, and who went through surgery for breast cancer last month. I thought about all the people who have been dealt a hand that just seems unfair.  Completely, unexplainably, unfair.  Infertility is like that.  It is one of the most unfair things a woman can go through, as she faces head-on a body the defies her very being and what she believes she has been created for.

And there’s the rub.  There’s the crux of it all.  What we have been created for is the delusion.  I like to think that I was created to be many things.  Daughter, sister, wife, mother, biologist, friend, advocate. I like to think that God will keep me around just a little longer because he has important work for me to do.  And maybe he will and does.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I am being delusional.  Maybe that is not why he created me.  Maybe I’m not here to do a job.  Maybe I’m here to do only one thing, and to hopefully do it well.  Maybe that one thing is to simply be faithful.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll say this week when I look face-to-face at other couples who are carrying a pain that I know so well.  Having been in their shoes, I know there’s not much I can say.  I avoided people in those days of primary infertility when they said with a big smile that they had kids.  I scorned people who tried to convince me that it was all part of God’s plan. I questioned people who said I just needed to pray harder.  Nobody could say much of anything to me during that time, and I didn’t want their advice.  I only wanted their empathy. I wanted their compassion. I wanted to know how I could possibly remain faithful to a God who I felt had abandoned me. I wanted to know why I had been created, because the reasons certainly didn’t seem obvious.

I don’t have cancer, at least not yet, and I am going to try to do as much as I can to try and prevent it. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe today, maybe years from now, I will once again face something that seems completely, unexplainably unfair.  And I will question God.  I will pray and my prayer will not be answered in the way I want.  Or perhaps it won’t be me this next time. Perhaps it will be my child, or my niece, or a dear friend, or even a stranger. Perhaps I will find myself standing beside someone who has all the same questions that I have.  I won’t have the answers.  Nobody does.  But I can tell them someone else went through the same thing.  He did nothing wrong, he was faithful, he prayed, he led a good life, and in the end, he was shamed, tortured, murdered.  His life taken from him against his will.  And at the time, it all seemed completely, unexplainably unfair, because it was.  

I’ll think about that during these upcoming days of Lent.  If nothing else, Lent reminds me that this world is cruel, and that life is mostly a trial, just as Jesus’ was.  I’ll be thinking of that at the infertility retreat.  The pain that those couples and I have experienced will always be there.  But so will He.  So will He.  We need only be faithful, and to remember that we are in good company.  Beyond that, I have no real advice.