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Seeds of Grace: Empty Canvas, Revisited

My sorrow, when she’s here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane.
Robert Frost

As we move in to the months of autumn, I’m beginning to tend to the things that will enable us to settle in for the winter — or at least as much of a winter as we ever get here in Southern California. The days are rapidly shortening and in the last week, the night time temperatures have dropped well into the 40s. This is my signal to take a beauty break, get back out into the garden, and start tidying things up.

For those of you who have been reading here for a few months, you may remember when I posted about starting our garden back in June. I thought it might be fun to share with you what I ended up with.

No matter how many plants and seeds I nurture along, I can never get over the miracle of life in the garden. This year, there were a few surprises. The tomatoes were seedling transplants that took forever to get going. But once they did, as you can see they literally took over the entire plot! I’ve never had such high-maintenace tomatoes in my life! They grew outwards and trailed more like a squash vine than the tall, more bushy tomatoes I am used to. Some of the branches were easily 10 feet long or more. Obviously, they refused to be confined to tomatoe cages or really to be contained at all.  While producing a great deal of fruit, these hardy plants eventually posed a danger to the rest of the garden community by blocking the sun. Thus, the beans and peas died, the basil shrivelled, and the parsley had to fight to stay alive. Today I cut it way back to let in some light and cleared away the not-so-lucky plants who were unable to thrive under the vast tomatoe canopy. 

Two unexpected miracles. . . . this little half-eaten kale plant was started from a tiny seed back in June. It struggled to survive and at one point, I really thought I’d lost it. Suddenly it started growing. After 4 months its still under 6 inches tall and shows continual assault from some unseen pest. But I am hopeful that it’ll survive to provide at least a few meals for us this winter.

The other miracle are the brussels sprouts, also started from seed. The seed which produces this alien-looking plant is quite small, and the gardening catalog I purchased them from emphasized that brussels sprouts are not easy to grow. Ever hopeful, I figured I’d plant them and see what happened. Like the kale, they took forever to sprout and it seemed like they were barely hanging on for months. But in late August, these too took off and have continued to thrive, despite the encroaching tomatoes. Amongst the layers of leaves (which the gardening catalog says to leave on to protect the young stalk) we can see a central stalk forming with the beginnings of the buds that will eventually become the sprouts! These guys still have a long way to go — today I discovered powdery mildew on some of the lower leaves, likely caused by the tomatoes blocking the sun. Still, I’m hopeful. . . .its amazing that, after everything, such a tiny seed can produce such a large plant. (And I know that a lot of people simply despise brussels sprouts, but if these little ones make it, I’ll be sharing a recipe that will convert you, guaranteed!)

As I help the garden move through its final phases, I am reminded that each season in nature symbolizes a corresponding season of human life. As I enter into fall, I am reminded of my aging, of the miles I’ve gone on my journey and those I still have yet to go, and see that in the perhaps not-too-distant future I may enter the winter of illness and death. In her wisdom, the Church seems to be aware that, consciously or unconsciously, we may be having such thoughts about the road we are walking and so she ushers us into the last two months of the year with the great feast of All Saints. 

The Feast of All Saints reminds me that I am living in the fields of the Lord. Looking to all of the holy men and women who have gone before me, both known and unknown, I am reminded of the fact that, no matter what things may look like on the outside or how much it may feel like I am struggling just to survive or how many pests threaten to devour me, the seed of grace (God’s life in me) which I received at baptism is alive, producing and responding to the tending of the Constant Gardener.

In his book The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 1, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Legrange uses the analogy of the seed to explore the truth of the gift of sanctifying grace we are given at our baptism. The invisible seed of grace is in many ways similar to the tiny kale seed, or brussels sprout seed, I planted. It is pure potential. Legrange says that, “The value of a seed can be known only if we have some idea of what should grow from it; for example, in the order of nature, to know the value of the seed contained in an acorn, we must have seen a fully developed oak. In the human order, to know the value of the rational soul which still slumbers in a little child, we must know the normal possibilities of the human soul in the man who has reached his full development. Likewise, we cannot know the value of sanctifying grace, which is in the soul of every baptized infant and in all the just, unless we have considered, at least imperfectly, what the full development of this grace will be in eternity.” The full development of this seed of sanctifying grace can be seen in the lives of the saints, who share with us their experiences on the path to holiness. Just as each acorn contains within it all that is necessary to become a great oak tree, so each of us possessed of sanctifying grace contain everything necessary to become a great saint, however little and unknown we may be.

Typically, people associate the advent of spring with growth, new life, and rebirth and the Church is no different. But the Church encourages us to focus on the opportunities we are given for growth and rebirth throughout the year. At a time during the natural year when many in the secular world may find themselves occupied with thoughts of loss, decay, and death, the Church reminds us through the feast of All Saints, and the commemoration of the Holy Souls, that there hope in new life and that this hope is not seasonal but is rather a daily, year-round truth. God promises us through His Son that He will make all things new.

Entering into autumn through the gateway of remembering our family in heaven reminds me to look again and be grateful for the tiny seed of grace I received at baptism, and to recall that while my own garden might be on its way out, God is still nurturing, planting, pruning, and feeding the garden of my soul where all of the seasons exist simultaneously.

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.