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It was a colorful day, with blue and white sky and hillsides dappled red and gold.  The sun was bright and warm, the black dirt cool and damp.  There were potatoes and carrots still in the ground, the last of the vegetable garden, and it was a day in between the rains – a day to finally finish the garden for the year and put it to bed.  I love square foot gardening – I can plant exactly 9 seed potatoes in my 3-foot square, and harvest just enough to last us through a winter’s worth of fennel-roasted or garlic-mashed potatoes.  And if I’m lucky, I’ll have a few left by the first of June which are just starting to sprout long leggy things from their eyes (ooh, try to picture that!) and I can use those to start my new crop.

I use a small garden fork to get me started, but end up sifting through the dirt with my bare fingers, it feels so earthy, and love to pop out those spuds, gently brush off most of the clinging soil and place them in my bucket.  I remember planting that piece of budded eye last spring, ignored it all summer except to pick off an occasional potato beetle and now find it solidly fascinating to harvest the miracle of growth and know I can put a pile of produce in our little root cellar.

The carrots also fill an entire square, and I actually thinned them pretty well this year so they have grown nice and straight without too many tiny ones.   Kneeling or sitting next to the box, I can take hold of a green carrot top with one hand, rock it back and forth just a bit with my other hand as I shove my fingers down into that cool dark soil and pop up the carrot.  In one motion I swipe off most of the dirt while twisting off the green tops with the other hand.  The tops will go into the compost pile, and the carrot root goes into my cart.  One after another, grab, pop, swipe, twist, I am like a machine.  Pretty soon I am not even thinking about what I am doing, and realize I am working like in a frenzy.  There are a lot of carrots here, and I want to be done already.  The clouds are moving in.  My back hurts, and the tendonitis in my elbow is screaming.

Funny, but in one instant I am reminded of an old monk I once watched harvesting carrots.  I don’t remember exactly when, or why, but many, many years ago, it must have been in the early fall, I was visiting a Benedictine monastery, the beautiful Weston Priory in Vermont.  While strolling through the lovely grounds, I came upon the large, tidy, fenced-in vegetable garden.  There in the middle of the garden, kneeling in the straw, was an old monk in a rough brown robe.  I watched as he unearthed each carrot, one by one, and reverently laid it out in front of him, creating a straight row of orange and green against the soil.  He worked in a rocking motion, back and forth, and from where I stood, it looked like he bobbed in prayer over each carrot.   The whole scene was filled with an astonishing peace and completeness.

I actually stood and watched the monk for quite a while.  It seemed to me an inviting example of what Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the presence of God”.  I was captivated by his deliberateness, alone there in the garden, cultivating discipline.  I don’t think he ever noticed me.  The image was very vivid, and I did nothing more with it at the time than tuck it away.

Here then, years later in my own garden one late fall afternoon, I considered the discipline of harvesting carrots, and decided to give it a go.  Each carrot, a singular gift.  Each root, from a tiny seed placed in the soil months ago.  Each one, unique and unlike all the others.  I tried to slow down enough to consider each carrot as I pulled it from the earth.  I laid it down, tops and all, along the edge of the planting box, instead of tossing it right into the cart.  I noticed the gentle softness of the leafy greens. I noticed the heady aroma of fresh carrots, its own perfume. I noticed the sweetness of the rich soil.  I noticed beauty, simplicity.  One single carrot after another.  I noticed quietness, peace.  God was there.  I imagined Him enjoying each carrot, even as I did. Time slowed.  I slowed. I actually started to listen.  For a short while anyway.

Then I’d had enough.  After about four dozen carrots, which, at maybe 5 seconds each, is only 4 minutes, I was ready to be done.  I was ready to finish the carrots, rake the garden out, empty the compost, clean up and go inside and make myself a cup of tea.  The last section of carrots went grab, twist, plop, and the chore was finished.  But when I straightened up and brushed the dirt off my hands and black-kneed levis, and looked down and saw the pretty row of colorful carrots serenely lying there, I realized what I’d missed.  A powerful truth of spiritual discipline nearly bowled me over:  “That’s why it’s called Discipline!”  I couldn’t pull it off, not without concentration and disciplined effort anyway.  I managed only four minutes of patience, then I couldn’t do it any longer.  How much practice would it take to maintain that presence for an entire carrot crop??!  And what a harvest of peace and grace that could be, indeed.

After I’d given my nails a good scrub and as I sipped my steaming cup of blueberry tea, I pulled Richard Foster’s book down off the shelf.  It has been decades since I read Spiritual Disciplines.   But there was something I wanted to be reminded of, and I found it, underlined:  “Instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem…The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.”  And that’s where I do want to live, really, in the depths.  In the presence of God.  And a brief four minutes is no measure.  But something has stirred in me, and I sort of wonder if I may give it another go.  Maybe not with carrots, at least not this year, but maybe I’ll go about my morning reading a little bit differently.  Or, maybe I will need to join a monastery.

I’m gently encouraged as I remember that Jesus understood (Matthew 26:41) :

 Couldn’t you stay awake even one hour?  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. 

and sometimes carrots just turn out like this

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Let me ask you a question… 

When you hear “photo-time, smile for the camera” do you panic and find you have a sudden urge to hide in the bathroom until the photo taking is finished?  Do you instinctively cover your face with your hand? Do you suffer through comments like “what are you so unhappy about?” when you’re only aware of feeling good?   Does the helpful suggestion “Smile!”  make you want to cry?  When you meet someone new and offer them your best smile, do you recognize the flash of awkwardness and discomfort that crosses their face in a micro-second before they recover enough to greet you?  When you’re un-self-consciously enjoying yourself, talking and laughing and smiling freely, do you notice others staring, looking away, or looking uncomfortable because of you?  If not, if you don’t relate to situations like these, maybe, without realizing it, you have “smile privilege”.  What I mean by this is, maybe you have the privilege of enjoying a normal smile without ever giving it a thought.

I know I did.  Until I lost the ability to simply smile with fullness and ease.   I never considered what an elemental gift it is to be able to communicate openly with a smile — a simple and effective non-verbal instantaneous communication that says “I like you.  I am interested in you.”   Psychologists know that smiles have a powerful and instinctual effect on us as humans.  The simple act of smiling is often contagious; people typically react favorably and are more comfortable around you when you are smiling. Who doesn’t take for granted the fact that smiling transmits happiness, friendliness, warmth, and liking.  So, if you smile frequently, you will be perceived as being more likable, friendly, warm and approachable.   bp half smileBut for those who can’t smile, the loss is very, very real. The immediate, non-verbal communication is broken, the person may subliminally be perceived as unfriendly, unlikeable and unapproachable.  Two-plus years with residual Bell’s Palsy and permanent facial nerve damage to one half of my face, leaving me without the ability to move the muscles that automatically produce facial expressions, has certainly opened my eyes to the unexamined ‘smile privilege’.

And led me to be thinking about all kinds of other privilege as well.  You know, the things we take for granted that make life easier, if we think about it.  Like, for example, ‘white privilege’.  Or, if you’re female, you bump into ‘male privilege’.  Put these together, and you get the Biggie:  White Male Privilege, or WMP.

Our denomination has been working carefully at a program called the Damascus Road Project: Dismantling Racism.  This process begins when the “light goes on” so to speak, and we’re “knocked off our horses” and are transformed.  Until we recognize, personally, that we  — racially white in the United States of America I mean — live with an unexamined prerogative to access, education, acceptance, inclusion, familiarity, etc, we can have no concept of racism and white privilege.   If you are white, since when did you go to a drugstore to buy bandages, and choose the package that says “flesh-colored”.  Really?  Whose flesh?

I always thought racism was contemptuous, prejudicial, biased thoughts and actions.  “I’m not racist,” I would have insisted, “Look at my African-American friends.  Remember, I’m the one who got rocks thrown at me over the hedge and teased ‘nigger-lover’ by other children in my neighborhood, for playing with the kids of a family from Nigeria.  I’m not the one who’s racist.”  Only lately have I come to understand that racism is much more subtle than being overtly prejudiced.  It begins with ignorance of the privilege that comes with being white.  It begins with taking something as simple as bandages for granted.  And the process of dismantling it begins with recognizing, in the first place, that privilege exists.  The same goes for sexism, I might gently add.  Or Good Healthism.

Which brings me back to smiles.  If you’re a “smilist”, I hope that the next time you smile today, you will enjoy the privilege, bask in the ease and access it provides you, and delight in its rewards.  And then smile again, for me, and for all those who live with Facial Nerve Palsy.

When 1 + 1 equals 2.
Brain confusion: Which side of the face do you automatically respond to??

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