Joys of a Simple Nest

I am horrible at keeping plants alive.  Almost all of them meet the same ugly fate after they have been under my care for an extended period of time.  They dry up, the leaves turn brown, and eventually, the life inside of them withers away.  I am a plant killer.  There, I said it.  Presently, I’m trying extremely hard to keep two hanging baskets on our front porch alive.  So far, so good.

Days ago, I headed outside to water their thirsty soil.  As I lowered the geranium from its hanger, a small wren rustled the still green leaves and made an escape toward our dogwood tree.  I set the basket down on the porch and then folded back a few of the wide leaves, looking through the foliage from various vantage points.  My eyes quickly spotted what I was looking for – a simple nest tucked away therein.  

It was quite remarkable.  This earthen bowl was intricately woven together by threads of straw, bent twigs, bits of mulch, and a blanket of white fur resting on the wood floor.  Nestled within the curved edges were three delicate eggs, speckled and pale.  It is no wonder birds sing the loveliest tunes.  Their work is honorable and inspiring.  They are masters of balancing art and function as they build their simple nests with the hope that the lives held within may thrive. 

While I examined this bird’s home, I thought about how little I know about the actual construction of a house, as in nada.  Humanity has shifted away from individuals mastering many of the basics for survival.  We know so little about building our own homes, procuring our own food, and clothing our own bodies.  Instead, we’ve turned our attention to earning a paycheck so that we may outsource a good portion of these ventures.  I can’t help but wonder if we lost something valuable in this transition. 

My most meaningful moments are often tied to helping the life around me and the life within me thrive.  I find these moments while singing “Country Roads” to Parker just before his eyelids fall heavy with sleep. I find them as my hands pick red, ripe tomatoes from Jamie’s garden.  I can taste the refreshing bruschetta they will soon become as I walk back through dewy grass with a couple in each hand. I find them while I exchange a handful of old blueberries for a still warm egg from our chicken coop.  I find them as I sit on my front porch swing while the rain pours down around me, watering the plants I’ve left to wilt.  I find them as I teach the boys how to make overnight oats, and as I clip lavender hydrangea blooms and dip their stems in a mason jar filled will cold water.  These simple acts are full of life.  They are sacred.

These days, it is easy to confuse living with having.  Lifestyles require a host of needs and endless wants.  We seek out bigger houses, shinier cars, fancier phones.  We feel pushed to work longer and harder so that we may obtain more or better stuff.  We are left with less time to enjoy the goods we work so hard to purchase.  Eventually, we are not the owners of our belongings; instead, our belongings begin to own us.  The consumer becomes consumed.  We hardly whistle a tune while we labor away each day.  We feel worn and weary and empty when we come home to our overflowing houses. 

The complexity of modern life is exhausting.  We have a finite number of minutes within each day and so many roles to fill, so many tasks to complete.  We live on the edge of sanity, if we are lucky.  A more simple way of living feels like the answer I’m looking for.  Staring at the wren’s nest, my home starts to feel a bit too large, a bit too full of stuff.  I wonder what meaning lies in our too full schedules, in our too full rooms. I feel a rush of envy as I behold the tiny nest surrounding this wren’s most precious possessions.  

Maybe living is more about flying light, just as the birds do.  Maybe the art of thriving is rooted in simplicity.  

Would our tune sound as lovely as a Mama bird’s if we embraced the joys of a more simple nest?


The Barefoot Life

With spring’s arrival, we shed shoes and socks at our house. This brings great relief as there are never 4 (much less 8) clean socks to be found, and the search for them can consume every bit of ten minutes. Spring means no more sock hunting for me. Instead, four little bare feet now race into the day.  

Bare feet ride on scooters down the sloped sidewalk, gaining speed along the way. As the scooter collides with a patch of grass adjacent to the road, they press hard into the ground, braking fiercely until friction works its magic. They stop and savor the ride for a second before they scoot back up the sidewalk, anticipating another wild ride.

Bare feet walk behind a bubble mower, right next to Daddy as he cuts the grass. They move with great pride in every direction across the half trimmed lawn. Eventually, they gallop toward Daddy and help push the real mower right beside him in perfect parallel lines. This slows the process significantly, but mostly, no one minds.   

Bare feet race across the lawn and toward the chicken coop, delivering apple cores, melon rinds, and old lettuce to the hens. They bolt behind the coop and suddenly stand on tip toe so that eager eyes can peer into the egg boxes. They jump at the sight of an egg or two. Then grass crunches underfoot as their owner carries tomorrow’s breakfast in each hand.

Bare feet splash and romp and prance and stomp. They soak in a muddy puddle that was formed by curious boys wielding a water hose on a lazy afternoon. Pants come off; dirt wiggles under untrimmed toenails while mud splatters porcelain legs.

At the day’s end, four small feet hang over the edge of the sofa exposing adventures in filth and freedom. They are black and grass stained and stinky and caked with dirt. I know deep down that this is the mark of a day well spent. I corral the bare feet into the bathtub and douse them in soap and warm water. I scrub them clean, knowing that tomorrow, all my work will be undone.

For in the morning, bare feet will rise and reign again.

What’s the Rush Anyway?

Two years ago Jamie and I took the boys to an egg hunt in Blacksburg. Jackson carried a blue plastic basket in one hand as his two-year-old self waited on the outskirts of the egg hunt zone. I patted his blonde head and asked, “Are you ready?” He smiled back at me, looking mostly perplexed. “When it’s time,” I explained, “you’re going to hunt for eggs! Pick them up and put them in your basket.”  It sounded easy enough. 

Eventually, a man entered a green field littered with hundreds of plastic eggs. He spoke for a few minutes reviewing a list of a few “do’s” and “don’ts.” Finally, he declared, “On your mark, get set, go!”

The kids were off. A mob of two and three-year-olds and their parents swarmed the field. Jackson took off at a snail’s pace. I followed closely, hustling him along. He spotted a nearby pastel egg and reached down to pick it up. “Put in in your basket!” I exclaimed. But he wouldn’t be side tracked. He had found an egg! His very own egg! He was enthralled. As he held up the blue egg for me and Jamie to see, a full smile delighted his round face. He shook it and listened to the rattle of a foreign body within its shell. He turned the egg over in his fingers as he inspected it carefully. He wanted to free its contents.  

I remember being pulled in two directions as I stood beside him that day. On the one hand, I felt a little impatient. I wanted to tell him, “Put the egg in your basket and let’s keep going! There are more eggs to get, baby. C’mon, let’s go!” He was missing the point. And on the other hand, I felt like all my hustling might actually be stealing the joy of the moment. Maybe he was doing just what he needed to be doing as he stood pondering the egg and the mystery within it. Maybe I was missing the point. Maybe I should take a step back and just watch.  

So I did. All around me I heard the excitement of kids and parents on the prowl for eggs. People were pointing and chasing and laughing. I watched as Jackson stood in the middle of the chaos examining his plastic egg. Eventually, he set it carefully in his basket and started looking for a second one. Then a third. After he placed the third egg in his basket, we looked around and all the eggs were gone. The field lay empty.  

I wondered if the next phase of the egg hunt would entail a full scale melt down, but it didn’t. He was completely content to plop down in the grass with his three lovely eggs and savor the glory of them.

It struck me that day that quantity is not always the best measurement in life, that faster is not always better. Maybe the best measurement of an experience is our ability to fully engage with it. Maybe we can only do that when we slow down, when we listen to the call of our own hearts, when we tune out the hustle, when we savor the moment unfolding.

Somehow, adults have become hard wired to focus on having more, doing more and being more “busy” than we can pleasantly bear. Not surprisingly, we are an anxious, exhausted, and overburdened group. But kids don’t start out wired that way. They are curious. They are investigators. They delight in the process, not in their productivity.  

This year, I’ll wander green fields again with a different two-year-old sidekick. Who knows what Parker’s egg hunting style will be. Maybe he will be fiercely efficient as he collects dozens of eggs or maybe he will snatch them from a little girl’s unattended basket. Or maybe, like his brother at that age, he will take a more laid back approach. I don’t know all that much, but I feel certain that I’ll remember to leave my hustle at home that day. Should he hold a yellow egg in his hand and shake it about, there will be no second guessing this time. I’ll crouch down to hear the rattle right along with him. Really, what’s all the rush about anyway? Childhood and parenting, Saturdays and Spring, chocolate and egg hunts are fleeting as it is. 

Let’s be brave enough not to always push the limits of more and better and faster. Instead, let’s live well. Let’s know our own hearts and take good care of ourselves. Let’s know other’s hearts and care for them. Let’s live fully engaged with our people and our moments. The sum of these moments is uniquely grand. It all adds up to a life.  

Have You Noticed

Have you ever noticed the way that kids notice the world?  

Last week, Jackson and I were walking hand in hand down the brick sidewalk in front of the library. He carried his canvas bag from preschool over one shoulder and his lean body bounced up and down beside me with each step he took. 

Christmas decorations were being set up along Main Street just in time for the evening parade. The walkway before us was lined with a row of lamp posts that had been wrapped like candy canes with a ribbon of red. Suddenly, Jackson stopped in his tracks as his eyes took in the new look of a familiar location. He pointed and galloped over to one of the recently transformed lamp posts. “Look at that, Mommy!” he exclaimed. As his fingers traced the ribbon he explained, “It goes round and round like a twirly slide! And it feels so soft, like velvet!” He grinned and the gap between his two front teeth was revealed. I knelt down beside him and traced the edge of the ribbon with my own fingers. “It does feel soft!” I agreed. I sensed that he was offering me a gift.

We walked across the street making our way toward the parking lot behind the coffee shop where I had parked the van. When we came around the corner, the town’s Christmas tree came into view. “Wow!” Jackson sighed. We ran together straight for the tree. He climbed up the stone wall and shimmied carefully around the top of the stone ledge, making a complete circle around the tree. He stopped now and then and craned his neck upward, absorbing the height of this towering green giant. He paused to look at all the ornaments along the way – a shimmery snowflake, a large red globe with stripes of golden glitter, sequined candy canes, twinkling stars, red bows. 

His fingers brushed against the pine needles that marched along the branches like hundreds of soldiers. “Feel this, Mommy! It’s so prickly!” I reached out and ran my fingers slowly along the rows of green needles and realized that Jackson had indeed been giving me gifts the whole morning, the gift of noticing. He was showing me the world. As I was learning to open his fine gifts, I remembered that often the best gifts aren’t wrapped in shiny paper at all.  

I helped Jackson jump down from the stone wall. His feet landed hard on the pavement in one swift thud. Then he looked at me and said, “Let’s step back and see the whole tree!”  

And so we did. We stepped back, farther and farther, until we had a sweeping view of the proud Christmas tree in front of us. I crouched down beside him while our eyes took it all in – the mighty star perched at the very top, the mountain of green branches stacked from the base to the highest peak, the ornaments clinging tightly to strong limbs. We noticed the endless strands of cascading lights and wondered what it would look like at night with each bulb aglow, twinkling in merriment. 

I’m learning that the gift of noticing is a never ending present. The world is always fresh and waiting for us to find and appreciate something new. We just have to pay attention, to watch closely. With much ease, Jackson often reminds me to notice the small wonders in life. He reminds me that the tiniest of details can be worthy of pause, worthy of acknowledgement. And lest I forget, he reminds me of the beauty in noticing the bigger picture. In taking a step back to look at how all the details merge together to form the larger, grander view. 

Motherhood is chock-full of lessons I never learned in all my 17 years of sitting in a desk at school. Sometimes we get so caught up with the details of life, that we forget to step back and see the big picture and what really matters. Other times we find ourselves working so hard at the grand scheme that we forget to spend the minutes of our days engaging with the small moments of life. I’m learning that both are essential. These opposing forces are each worthy of our precious, precious time.

Betty Smith wrote, “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or the last time. Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” As I watched Jackson on that warm December afternoon, I realized that this is the song of his heart. 

He finds wonder in all the simple joys. He notices the world and all its beauty. He marvels at it. And guess what? His days are filled with glory. I think Betty is on to something. There is much beauty in the small wonders. There is much beauty in the bigger picture. May we remember to pause and notice all the big and all the small, that is all around us. Imagine the glory that’s waiting for each of us in all of these gifts, yet unopened. 


Oh So Blissfully Inefficient 

My phone rang with a call from an unfamiliar number. When I answered, the voice on the other end explained that I’d left my debit card at Wells Fargo and they could hold it for me for only 24 hours. Oops! I thought back through my day. I’d deposited several checks earlier and then, like the crazy person I am, drove off before the teller had a chance to send my debit card back through that mysterious transport tunnel.  

This kind of stuff happens to me all the time. At least once a month, I’m standing in line getting ready to pay for groceries. I’ve got a cart full of produce, snacks, cheese, and all the ingredients for dinners. After the last item is scanned, I reach into my purse and pull out my wallet, only to discover that my debit card is not tucked into that tiny sleeve. The first time this happened, I was embarrassed. I told the cashier, “I’m losing my mind. I’ve left my debit card at the house. Can I run home and pick it up then come back to pay?” He explained they could place a hold on the purchase and leave the cart of groceries at the front of the store. I could just come back to the service desk to pay when I returned. It sounded easy, except I’d also be lugging two kids back to the house, then back in Kroger, then back to the house again. Grocery shopping had turned into a marathon workout with all kinds of physical and mental obstacles to overcome.

When this situation happens now, it doesn’t even bother me. I know the drill. The cashier is always really sympathetic. They say niceties like, “People do this all the time. It’s no big deal.” But I always wonder if they are merely remembering back to the last time I forgot my card. Once after admitting I had no money to pay for the copious amounts of groceries in my cart, a nearby bagger tried to make me feel better by sharing stories about other customers who were equally incapacitated. She explained, “A while back a lady forgot her wallet, but when I looked into one of the reusable bags she’d brought from home, I noticed her checkbook was tucked right inside the bag. I held it up for her. She was so happy that she wouldn’t have to run back home!” 

I replied, “Yeah. That was actually me a few weeks ago. You found my checkbook that day. Thanks again!” Clearly I have a problem. 

So, the debit card was misplaced again and I was slightly annoyed with myself. How can someone lose that thing so often? Usually, I’d grumble at the inconvenience of it. I’d now have to drive back down to the bank and pick it up, one more thing to do in the day.

But on that day, Jamie had gotten home early from work. The boys were napping quietly upstairs. It was uncharacteristically warm for November. Bright sun. Blue sky. I thought about driving down to pick up the card, but then reconsidered. We live less than a mile from the bank. Maybe I would take a stroll downtown to pick it up.  

A stroll, by definition, is to walk in a leisurely way. I decided that this was what my body needed. Slow walking. Some leisure. So I set out down Virginia Avenue. The sun played peek-a-boo behind towering oaks. With each step, I felt the light cross into my eyes, only to have it hidden again behind a cluster of leaves or a branch. A light breeze flowed. Red leaves rained down into my hair. I walked on. As I turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the sun came out in full bloom. I felt the radiant heat on my skin. The warmth. It was savory. I walked on. As I approached the downtown shops, I stopped and peeked through the windows. I saw customers reading magazines while the color of their hair was slowly changing beneath a cap of foil. Kids sat on benches waiting for their shaggy hair to be trimmed. I saw jewelry and scarfs beckon me to come inside shop doors. I noticed the grey and brown stone facade of a corner church. The way a lovely bell hung downward, just waiting to ring out. I walked on.

I walked past shiny firetrucks and then passed Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy. I remembered buying orange limeades there years and years ago. I’d go sometimes after high school and place my order at the front counter. I’d watch as the worker sliced real oranges and limes in half and then squeezed them on a hand cranked juicer. The juice would pour down into my styrofoam cup and then they’d add sugar water and crushed ice. I’d pay them with a few crumpled dollar bills from my pocket and sip on my drink the whole drive home.  

I was nearly to the bank by now. I walked inside and admitted to being the crazy lady who drove off earlier leaving her debit card behind. They laughed and after they confirmed I was indeed, Sarah P. Garst, they passed my card over the counter. I put it back in my wallet, tucked tightly into the empty sleeve, and headed out the door and back into the beautiful world.  

As I walked back home, I thought about all the rush around us. The way we push our bodies to go faster than they are meant to move. Our brilliance in innovation and our commitment to efficiency have left us moving at speeds unimaginable over a century ago. Speeds unnatural. Speeds that we are now chained to, as we run endless errands, drop kids off here and there, and simultaneously try keep up with the day to day order of life. How much can we cram into one day? The answer is, more! It leaves us exhausted and running on empty. This change of pace was a welcome relief. It lifted my spirits to feel the pavement under my feet as I strolled along. To use my body’s natural ability to reach my destination. And this slow meandering had an unexpected gain. I actually noticed the world I live in along the way. I saw things unseen from the vantage point of passing cars. I noticed all the life that is nestled and folded deeply within the act of living.

We have to remind ourselves that sometimes, the least efficient way is better. The slower way can be good for our souls. If I’d driven down to the bank, I could have completed the task in a mere five minutes and checked another task off my list. My stroll took a lot longer than that, but what it lacked in speed, it gained in perspective. And the quality of my experience, the recharging of the mind and body, can’t be measured.  

The next time I had a yoga class, I considered driving over to it. It takes exactly one minute by car. If I drove there, I’d have an extra 15 minutes to clean up my kitchen. I could rinse the dishes left in the sink, load the dishwasher, wipe off counters and still make it to yoga on time. But I chose the least efficient route. I used that 15 minutes to move my legs and open my eyes to the world. I strolled along the stone pathway and soaked in the mountains in the distance, a squirrel scampering up an aging tree trunk. My legs pulled my body along. I breathed in fresh fall air. And I decided, it’s a beautiful thing to be absolutely, unequivocally, oh so blissfully, inefficient.   

Front Porch Swing

The boys are peacefully sleeping away in their shared upstairs bedroom. Long eyelashes sprawl up and away from resting eyes. Chests rise and fall in soft, even rhythms. I don’t really see any of this, but a girl can imagine it. I tiptoe through the house some days putting away all the contents of bins that Parker has dutifully dumped onto the floor. Sometimes, I get a head start on dinner during the napping hours. And sometimes, I crawl into my own bed immediately and fall into the soundest sleep.

Parker always wakes up first. It’s never an ‘I’m so happy to wake up’ kind of sound. There is usually a lot of wailing and screaming involved. Followed by a fierce kicking of the crib rails, followed by him shouting, “Get me out of here!”

I trod up the stairs and into his dark room. His cheeks are red and wet with tears. I reach over the crib rail for his favorite blankie and drape it over one shoulder. I pick him up and he gently rests his cheek onto his blanket, breathing in the familiar smell. He wraps one arm around his bear and as we walk out of his room, his eyes close again.

We walk down the steps and toward his favorite place. The front porch swing. It’s nothing fancy. The seat is weathered boards covered with a peeling white paint. It hangs from the ceiling of the front porch by two rusting chains that travel down into the armrests. Between the wooden slats, tiny spiders have taken up residence, building fortress-like webs. But oh, the glory. The sway. The creak. The breeze. It’s amazingly divine.

I sink down onto the swing and Parker curls into me. My foot pushes us gently backward and I fall into an easy rhythm. Back and forth. Back and forth we go. Time melts away as he sleeps. I watch the squirrels as they pass on high wire, I hear the endless chatter of birds in the cypress trees, I feel Parker’s soft flesh as he relaxes completely into my arms. And this goes on. Day after day around 3:30. His favorite place is turning into my favorite place.  

Some days I wonder about the swing. About its stories. Our house isn’t fresh and fancy – it was built in 1939. Quite possibly, the swing is original, though I’m not certain. I think about the stories it could tell. How many people have rested their weary legs in its seat? How many kisses has it shared with couples, young and old? How many friends have sat side by side catching up with glasses of red wine in hand? How many grandmas have held tight to grand babies as they tickled little piggies and kissed sweaty foreheads? How many kids have piled on to it and sailed higher than approved by their panic stricken parents? How many other toddlers have slept there in their mama’s arms? I’ll never know any of those answers. But I can imagine it’s a great many. 

Soon, I see Jackson looking out the front storm door window. He’s half naked, as usual. He runs outside and climbs right up beside me on the swing. I hold the boys close and breath in the simple joy of the moment. It reminds me that all the best things in the world cost exactly nothing. On the swing, life feels slower, simpler. The world shifts. I forget how over-scheduled, over-worked, and over-extended we have all stretched our mental, physical, and emotional selves. Distractions fade. There is time to just breathe.

The swing waits for us each day. It collects our stories. It reminds us to pause and rest our weary hearts. It delights us with its motion. It helps us slow down and savor the simple joys. It is the heart and soul of our home. If you happen to stroll down Virginia Avenue, please, please, please, take a seat on our front porch swing. Rest your legs. Clear your mind. Breathe in and out. I promise, you won’t regret it.