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Fresh asparagus with mint.     YUM!

Fresh asparagus with mint.
YUM!

I am at war. I’m fighting a mighty battle, and I’m not sure who is winning. This pernicious enemy goes underground and emerges in sneaky places, taking me by surprise. Right now I’m convinced I’m outnumbered, but there is no way of knowing for sure how far this one will go. Just when I think I’ve decidedly won a battle, I blink, and discover a new line of attack. The latest is in the asparagus bed. I’m talking about the spreading mint, of course.

When I first decided to put mint in my garden, I was aware of all the dire warnings — DON”T DO IT!   Full confession here: I think it was arrogance on my part to believe I could control it. I’ll just stay right on top of it, I thought.  I really love being able to pick tons of fresh spearmint for summer time iced tea, or special garnish or sauce flavoring, or even just for rubbing between my fingers when I’m out for a garden stroll.  I had the perfect spot in my raised bed veggie garden, all boxed in, surrounded by landscaping cloth and wood chip path.  Dear hubby Jack even put in extra deep edging all the way around.  As my mint flourished and looked contained, I grew lackadaisical about it.

Sure, I’ve had to hack back some stragglers now and then, but mostly it seemed under control.  Until this spring when lots of bright green mint began to show up along the garden path, ten feet away!  Jack and I (well, mostly Jack) undertook a fierce project to tame back this invasive — we raked back the wood chips and ripped up the hard-pack paths where the roots were growing along deep underground, and with our bare knuckles, going along inch by inch, pried out every last shred of mint root we could find.  In fact, the whole mint bed came out, I even sifted with my fingers to recover the tiniest bits of white root tips and get them gone.

The smart thing might have been to eliminate the idea of mint altogether, and simply plan on harvesting from a neighbor when I’m in the mood for tea, but , no , I insisted on burying a deep trash barrel in the same spot, drain holes in the deep, deep bottom covered with a fine wire mesh.  I have to say, Jack was a good sport the whole time, as he supplied the labor.  Okay, this may buy me a couple years of self-contained mint-pleasure before it finds a way to escape (mint roots can go down three to four feet when they’re desperate, I understand!) but I’m stubborn that way.  I want to have my mint and grow it too.

Anyway, we thought we had it licked, and I went on about the zillion other spring chores in the gardens, like trying to get my carrot seeds in and pry dandelions out from among the daylilies.  And then the mint began cropping up in the middle of the raised asparagus bed!  Now, asparagus grows from deep, deep roots, buried about a foot down.  The only way for the mint to get in is from underneath the twelve-foot path, under the high side of the tiered asparagus bed, and we’re talking here about eighteen inches deep!  How do I dig down to find the bottom of the mint without destroying my asparagus?  And the roots are spreading everywhere!  AARGH!

Oh Father, my Creator, and the Gardener of my soul, facing and weeding out the tenaciousness of sin in my own heart is a truly impossible task.  I’m unaware of the roots until some meanness or selfishness in me pokes up, and I hurt the one I love.  You alone can reach my depths, and root out the nature of my sin from its very source, and even then, only as I rely on You and sincerely yield to your loving conviction.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
See if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the way of everlasting truth.

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[I wrote this post last summer but didn’t feel brave enough to post it then.  My friend is visiting again soon, and I’m posting now in happy anticipation of her visit.)

 

Every girl wants to be Beautiful.
wine & candlesThere have been two or three times in my life when I’ve actually felt “pretty”.   And I’ve been called, more than once, “cute’.   Now, cute may be flattering when you’re eight years old, and maybe again when you’re 80, but when you’re in your middle years, mature and lovely, “cute” is not what you want to hear.

We had a dinner party here the other evening.  Aromatic reds and chilled white wines and sparkling crystal were set on white linen out on the table in the garden, bright flowers all around, and avocado-spread toasted rounds, tequila-glazed grilled chicken, creamy risotto, and arugula salad.  A friend who travels the world, volunteering with service and education projects in unlikely locations, returns to Vermont about once a year and spends some time with us.  She also happens to have a Masters  degree (from an Ivy League School) in French Bread (honest!!), and when she visits, loves to put on a dinner party.  I simply offer to help cut vegetables and set the table.

The air was clean and warm and laughter flowed, well into the night after the stars and bugs came out.  After the second mosquito, we  took our wine glasses and meandered inside, and at some point, I think after I dribbled some wine onto my chin as my Palsy side doesn’t work so well and sometimes drinking without a straw is a challenge, anyway, somebody said “ah you’re so cute”.

I know it was meant as a sincere compliment, but I worked at a smile and a laugh  through my trembling lips and ducked into the potty room.  I sat on the edge of the tub and had a good 4-minute cry.  Then I splashed some cool water on my face, holding my palsy-side eye closed with my finger of course.  And then I looked in the mirror.

I so long to be composed and sure and beautiful, able to sip a simple wine without concentrating on how my mouth is working; and feel instead awkward, lopsided and disfigured.  The face looking back at me wasn’t me at all — I’m still unfamiliar with this palsied face, even though it has been three years.  I don’t know who this person is, that looks so unattractive to me, with her twisted smile.  The threshold to this pathway of thinking is wide and strong, and there alone in the bathroom, with sounds of laughter and conversation coming through from the room on the other side of the door, there at that moment I had a choice to make.  “I am NOT my face,”  I chose to remind myself.  Inside, my life is full of fun and joy and strength and dignity and, yes, beauty.  My life and love can still shine through my one good eye.  And these people here are all friends, which means they know I love them, and enjoy them, as they do me – and they see past my face.  Way past my face.  I stood there, and chose to smile at myself in the mirror.  And half of my face smiled back, and my eye was full of joy, and it was a beautiful smile.

“I’ve learned my face is an incredible gift,” said Mr. Roche…”Not the kind of gift I was excited about, but it’s a gift because I’ve been forced to find my inner beauty….And I’ve learned that my experiences are universal experiences. Everybody feels disfigured, whether it’s on the inside or the outside. When you step out of the shower in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, you know what I’m talking about.”

[Quote from a 90-minute program on ‘Inner Beauty’ with Post-Gazette executive editor David Shribman serving as moderator]

 

You can see my other posts on living with facial palsy:

“What’s in Your Smile?”

“Smiles, souls and Zinnias”

“Til We Have Faces”

 

 

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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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O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What thou, my Lord, has suffered
was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor,
vouchsafe to me thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

 

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Do you ever have moments where delirious joy just bubbles up and takes over? Your chest is barely big enough to contain your heart? Worship and praise tumble out without words but sound a lot like laughter? It surprised me this morning…. Gladness simply from being alive.

I was sitting in my morning chair on the porch, sunshine on my face, my eyes closed, listening to the family of phoebe’s babbling away, the cardinal boasting from the top of the oak, and suddenly the quiet breeze carried a thrush song from down in the woods, beautiful and eerie. At the same time the breeze brought the sweet scent of the newly opening Concha d’Or lilies and when I breathed deep to take in that spectacular, powerful perfume, heaven came with. I was aware of all the senses, from the taste of warm coffee to the sun to the songs and smells, and it overwhelmed me with joy. Moments before I had been praying for dear friends and family, and my cheek was still wet from a few shed tears. The sun magnified the passion on my cheek and in my heart. More than my body could contain.

This brief moment this morning stirred me with wonderment. I remember hanging clothes on the line yesterday, stretching wet sheets in the hot sun, and heard myself belting out the refrain “I-EE-Yie will always love You-oo-ou”. I most certainly didn’t rival Whitney, or dear Dolly, but in God’ ears I’m confident it was pleasing. (One reason I’m grateful we don’t have near neighbors out here in the countryside☺) Sometimes I can’t help but sing hymns while I’m working around the house — especially hanging out clothes, for some reason. Praise and thanksgiving and unexpected joy just happens. And this morning with the sun on my face, I marvel at the miracle.

Because, not so many years ago, I was curled up in a ball, terrified to be alive, terrified to be with people, terrified to wake up in the morning, and I had two young children. Chronic depression and anxiety had been with me all my life, and really didn’t know any other way to experience being alive. Sadness and exhaustion and emptiness was normal, but I managed to keep up appearances. How JR suffered for me and with me….

My anguish was a daily prayer and cry to God: Why?? Help me help me. I had tried to commit suicide several times in the past, mostly a scream for help I understand now. Receiving the truth and person of Jesus Christ had probably saved my life, literally, and provided Hope. There was One who loved me. Yet, still I battled the depression. I curled up with the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, and let Jesus be my Counselor. At the bottom, at the worst time, my only lifeline seemed to be clinging to Psalm 27: “I would have despaired, unless I believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord…” I clung on, and waited. Hope was my only hope in the midst of my despair. I WILLED myself to believe that, someday, in my life, I would see and know God’s goodness.

I believe now it was the Holy Spirit herself, willing within me, and moving mountains. Courageous intervention from friends, medication, finally enough sense of safety to be willing to share my story and ask for help, all these things aided to bring me up out of the pit. And set me on a high place. A place where quiet joy is a true habitation. Where I enjoy simple things and find myself singing in the sunshine. or the rain.  Where the bounty of the earth brings deep satisfaction. Where the Holy Spirit continues to enliven and surprise me. Where the companionship of Jesus is rich and real.

I am humbled in my joy this morning to remember something the Vicar said in Les Miserables: “The most beautiful of altars,” said he, “is the soul of an unhappy man who is comforted, and thanks God.” Sometimes, the gratitude bubbles up out of nowhere and takes me by surprise.

Clematis & Star Gazers

single yellow Hollyhocks

Lovely scented Lily

Black Raspberry

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bountiful Bee Balm

I need to eliminate my monarda.

Wait, that’s not exactly accurate. I WANT to eliminate my monarda.

No, wait again.  If I don’t eliminate my monarda, I’ll be sorry.

I was happy to plant it, seventeen or so years ago, when I was first putting in the perennial border garden. I was digging up whatever looked like a flower struggling to survive in the overgrowth that was the yard at that time. We had just moved into our old farmhouse, vacant for the past decade, and I was trying to make sense of what I found growing under the tangle and trying to create order from the chaos.  I adore the scent and the burst of pure passion of these firework flowers.  I carefully transplanted a small clump and nursed it to vitality, adding more and more perennials to my new garden. Most of the plants were stragglers I found buried in the weedy tangle of the old gardens and others were gifts from friends who were cleaning out and dividing old plants and more than happy to share with me.

Do you know what sorts of plants your friends divide and are happy to give away?? Those that are invasive and have begun to take over their own gardens! I was glad to receive anything at all, so merrily planted monarda, lysimachia, campanula, evening primrose….

I was new to flower gardening, actually, and had a lot to learn.  I soon learned that these pretty plants wanted to take over the world.  They sneakily send out their tendrils beneath the surface in every direction, popping up new plants in the most unexpected places, like in the middle of the iris patch, or between stones in the garden pathway, or under the clothesline.  Too late I learned that if I pulled up the wayward plant like a weed, ten more would spring up from the remaining roots.  Now my beautiful, sparkling magenta monarda is simply TOO MUCH and has gone TOO  FAR, invading EVERYTHING!  I’ve tried everything I can think of to contain it , and now must do something drastic.

I don’t like to admit that I have harbored invasive tendencies in my soul as well.  Nurtured and nourished secret demands and judgments and vows that started out, perhaps,  in response to a hurt or an unmet need of my own.  Unspoken, unvoiced and unknown even to myself, but powerful nontheless:   I deserve your attention and understanding; if you slight me, I will unloose an arrow of unkindness from my lips to pierce your soul….   If you hurt me like that again, I will withdraw from you in cold silence….   I am so disappointed, and you can be sure you will know it.
Yesterday I had a fight with my beloved JR.   Well, it wasn’t truly a fight, but we hurt each other.  We didn’t intend to; but we didn’t intend NOT to, either.  Our tender places and prides got in the way.

I was impatient with disappointment — he said he would do something and didn’t follow through.  At least not on my timetable.  My good longings got tangled up with gnarly roots of disappointment and impatience, and what sprouted wasn’t pretty.  He was hurt, and I was hurt, and  thus we experienced yet another opportunity for repentance and grace.  After 30+ years of marriage, we have faced plenty of such opportunities, and have learned the art of the “Do-Over”.    But ‘Why, O Lord?  Why do I do what I don’t want to do, and fail to do what I truly want to do??’  I deeply love this man, and DON’T want to hurt him.  Haven’t I tugged at these same old roots enough?  Haven’t I tried diligently to eradicate these old tendencies?  Disappointments happen, but unkind impatience is not a lovely response!

I’m so grateful for the Spirit of Christ, who forgives both me and JR equally and equips us to say “I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt you.  Let’s try that again.”  But:  Am I grateful for the keen opportunity to experience this amazing grace, yet again?  If all  these ugly old roots were expunged, maybe, yes, I would be happier and nicer to live with.  But would I miss the sweet aroma of grace?  Would I perhaps slide into smugness and a different kind of pride?

Meanwhile, my Bee Balm invades my Baptisia, and I don’t know what else to do except dig up the entire garden and replant ONLY the non-spreading perennials.  But, dilemma:  I LIKE the Bee Balm, and I would miss the wonderful aroma and the butterflies and hummingbirds it attracts. What in the world did Eve do in the Garden of Eden??!

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