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Beauty Break: Welcome Autumn

Today was littered with tiny, ordinary gifts that brought me back to the present moment . . . a prelude to the autumn leaves soon to come. Sharing with you the gift of —

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

* A succulent chicken roasting slow, redolent with the aroma herbes de provence and sliced shallots

* The first cool rains of autumn, washing away the dust and dry of summer

* Sipping the first spiced apple cider this fall

* Making pumpkin honey bread with chocolate chips and pecans, its scent in the oven warming the house

* My son excited, telling me how happy he is with the rain, and the cider, and the bread, and the chicken, and the season

* The voice of my child reminding me that it’s the little things in life that make it wonderful

* Feeling like I could BREATHE for the first time in a very long while

Hoping this day brought whispers and gifts of autumn your way . . .

Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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The Summer Bookshelf

One of my favorite things about summer is the extra time it affords me to lose myself in books. As a child, I remember whole afternoons spent reading after chores were done. Sometimes I hid away in a makeshift tent of blankets. Other times, I nestled for awhile in the tree in our front yard, just high enough so the random passer-by couldn’t see me from the street. I always felt like I was doing something special and secret and wonderful. Then there were days when my friend and I would pack up some snacks and traipse across the street from her small farm in the wash that ran through town and climb to the top of the low hill to find a place under the trees where we’d spend the afternoon reading comics.

The sheer luxury of this type of relaxed reading is now whittled away by the busy days of parenthood and home schooling, work and life in general. I spend most of the rest of the year reading for work — as an English teacher this is both a privilege and a curse. I DO get to read some of the greatest works every written, but I also HAVE to read those works, whether I’m in the mood for them or not. Those days of total freedom to read wherever and whatever the wind blew my way were truly remarkable and while I can look back with greater appreciation now, in hindsight, I have a sense that I realized the gift of those pockets of time and to revel in that freedom even then.

Child Reading, By Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The reason I can say this is because I see the same awareness in my own son. At 10 & 1/2, he is aware enough to realize the gift of being given hours a day to lose himself in books and to look forward to it with great excitement. He himself has told me often that he didn’t hear me because “I was so engrossed in my book.” He has this knowing, this relationship with books, this sense of passing time without worry or care, somewhere far off. For him, one of the high points of every summer is signing up for the Summer Reading Program at the library. Actually, it’s a high point for both of us since a couple of years ago we discovered that I could sign up for the adult program and it was something the two of us could do together. We are fortunate that our main library here has an excellent Friends of the Library volunteer group which hosts a Festival of Folktales every June to kick off the Reading Program. Skippy has me mark the calendar months ahead and eagerly awaits this afternoon filled with games and music, shows and books. It’s a sign to us both that we’re done with the hard work of the year and have a few weeks to relax the pace and spend extra hours turning pages on the patio or on the beach.

This year has been particularly busy and challenging for me for many reasons. So much so that I could hardly slow my brain and heart down enough to dream about what I might want to read. As Skippy and I wandered the stacks on the Festival day, each taking turns hunting out the titles which were to earn pride of place on our bookshelf, I felt bereft and disconnected and unsettled. Nothing was speaking to me. I shared this uncomfortable and unusual (for me) feeling with Skippy.

Without missing a beat, he said confidently, “Mom, read something fun! Why don’t you read something classic? Read something you’ve read before! Books are made to be read again and again. That’s what the classics are for. Read Frankenstein. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before. I’ve read books over again. Read something you WANT to read.”

His words sort of stopped me in my tracks. Was this my son? Where did he acquire such wisdom, and at such a young age? Clearly, the years spent doing exactly what he was now encouraging me to do had had an impact on him. It took seconds for me to reach out then and take Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out off the shelf and add it to my bundle. A classic? Yes. Read before? Yes, nearly 15 years ago. Perfect for a summer read? Yes, absolutely.

Woman Reading In A Cashmere Shawl, by John Singer Sargent

Skippy’s advice broke the barrier for me and opened the door to a better mindset, one open to greeting summer and those delectable hours to be shared together lost in books. The Voyage Out wasn’t the only book I chose. It joined a long list of other happy choices: The Beekeeper’s Lament, A Gift From the Sea, poetry from Ranier Marie Rilke, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. I am also looking forward to (finally) finishing Treasure Island with Skippy and starting The Lord of the Rings together. We’re also planning our first excision into audio books with To Kill a Mockingbird. Finally, a friend and I are hoping to read and discuss Woolf’s Orlando together.

I may get to all or only some of these. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the hours are free to dip in and take my time and luxuriate in turning those pages for yet another summer. That I am able to enjoy this with my son, and that he realizes this gift, makes it all that much sweeter.

And you? What’s on your summer bookshelf?

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.