Summer is breathing its last here in Nashville, and I’m ready for the energy of a crisp fall day. Right now it’s only a hope as temperatures continue to soar. But there are signs in my garden that change is coming. A pair of goldfinches arrived last month just as the purple and white coneflowers turned to seed. They come like clockwork every year to announce that summer is nearing an end.
I don’t want to wish away the days though, even the hottest ones, so I’ve come to love the gifts of summer. Like life itself with its changing seasons, there are things to embrace while the opportunity is at hand.
When the heat and humidity crank up in June, I turn from walks with my neighbor to the pleasures of swimming. I love the water, and once I finally get around to reinstating my YMCA membership for the hot months, I wonder why I waited so long. I find space in the family pool and swim laps, dodging children and others like me, who’ve come to get their exercise and have fun in the sun.
Throughout the late spring and summer, I begin most mornings on the porch overlooking our courtyard garden. I celebrate when the hydrangeas are fresh with color, and the daylilies open up. I commune with the bold little hummingbird who thinks she owns everything. She loves the sage flowers that bloom scarlet, coral, and midnight blue, and bullies the bees for her territory. Sometimes she even hovers inches away from me as I sit on the porch reading and praying.
Before heading back into the house, I walk the garden for a close-up view. Among the blooms, I see the large stone that Nick and Krista Barré gave us years ago when I began to plant the Art House cottage garden. It’s inscribed with the words “Flowers and Song.” I look at the statue of St. Francis, a gift from our friends, the late Don Murdock, past director of Laity Lodge, and his wife, Carol. I thank God for our long relationship with that special place in the Texas Hill Country, which began with their invitation twenty years ago.
I have a Celtic cross that gets covered up by the over-eager black-eyed Susans. It was a gift from Sam and the kids when I graduated from seminary. Two years ago, Brown and Debbie Bannister gave us three delicate rose bushes to plant in memory of Chuck’s mom. I see them and think of her. I call them the Alice roses.
I don’t think about these things when winter arrives. I put the garden to bed after the first couple of hard frosts and forget about it until spring. But in the summer, I notice and remember. I give thanks for the beauty, the meaning, and for those who’ve loved us.
Every year when school breaks for summer, we do a special event with our four grandchildren called Super Silly. This year we created Super Silly Chopped, our own version of Chopped Junior.
Chuck designed a fun, artful logo and ordered personalized chef’s aprons for all. Along with the aprons, we presented each child with a white box of identical food items. They had access to everything in the pantry and fridge, but they had to use all the ingredients they were given. Pork, Tzatziki Sauce, dried Mandarin oranges, bok choy, rainbow carrots, and multi-grain chips for the main dish. Chocolate chips, bananas, plain yogurt, corn flakes, and white beans for the dessert round. Most of it made some kind of sense (for example, they could crush the chips to make a breading for the pork), but it was up to the children to draw their own connections and create something completely unique. The white beans were thrown in as a wild card to add an extra touch of silly!
The kitchen was buzzing with so much creative energy that night. The kids chopped, sautéed, blended, and baked, all with great imagination and skill. Everyone went to bed exhausted, proud, and happy, with a Super Silly memory of fun, love, and teamwork.
When I traveled to Laity Lodge in late July to speak at a retreat on Vocation, Motherhood, and Artmaking, I had all of this on my mind—the creation of memories, gardens, and beauty. I thought of the incredible privilege we have to take our God-given gifts, abilities, personalities, and preferences and make something with the stuff of our lives. In the process of living, we add to our interests, become more thankful for simple pleasures, and make our histories. The creative life in Christ is a whole life – all of it.
Throughout the long weekend at the Lodge, we talked about the meaning of vocation and how the word is big enough to contain the creative work of motherhood and family life, and the work of an artist’s life. What’s more, vocation is a framework that can hold our entire life, giving significance to every part of it.
My friend, Steven Garber, offers a foundational definition in his book, Visions of Vocation. He writes, “The word vocation is a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.”
In her book, Wonder Women, another friend, Kate Harris, adds something I’ve found to be wonderfully true, “Vocation takes in the whole of our unique personhood…[it’s] a work in progress—we are ever and always living into it over the course of a lifetime.”
I’ve always had a hard time answering that well known get-to-know-you question: What do you do? One word or one sentence can never contain the diversity, history, and dimensions of anyone’s life. I want details and stories!
If I answered the question the way I really want to, I’d tell about my past and present work, and the themes that connect through the years. But I’d also talk about the joy I find in baking bread and how much I love jigsaw puzzles! I’d say that I’m working to become a better citizen by paying closer attention to news and current events. It takes time to read, watch, and listen so we can make informed decisions. It’s worth it though, and all a part of caring for the world we live in.
I am aware of the need for simple identifiers, a quick way to begin a conversation with a stranger. We can’t give our entire bio every time we meet a new person, or talk about all the ways our skills and interests keep expanding with age. But I do wish for better questions – from myself and others. Instead of asking each other, what do you do? What if we said, tell me the story of your vocation. Tell me who and what you care about and how all of it brings focus to your days. Granted, answering would take more time, but the conversation would be far more captivating and meaningful.
Recently I was poking around on Ancestry.com, looking for information about my mother’s family. My curiosity was quickly rewarded. I was thrilled to find out that my great-grandfather was an oatmeal miller. There’s so much more I want to know. Now I have a starting place.
I was equally elated when I accidentally stumbled upon my great Aunt Clara’s obituary. Aunt Clara is my great aunt on my father’s side, and her obituary is a beautiful tribute to her long and storied life – all very inspiring.
Aunt Clara’s vocation as a caregiver is the common thread through her professional and family life. She raised two daughters, helped her elderly parents after the death of her first husband, and worked as a registered nurse for 50 years in California, New Mexico, and Texas. “Her favorite experiences and some of her best stories were from the late 1940s, when she was delivering babies in Mesilla Valley farmhouses with Dr. Paul S. Jones, O.D.” After retiring in San Francisco from Government Health Services at the age of 70, she took care of her oldest brother in El Paso for sixteen years. “She was always there to care for the ill, to lend an ear or a hand wherever it was needed.”
Amazing! But that’s not all. “She excelled in many types of needlecraft” and gave gifts of her handiwork to friends and family. She enjoyed reading, and when her sight failed at 90, she listened to audiobooks. In addition to all this, she had a green thumb and loved roses! This beautiful line says it all. “Loved ones will celebrate Clara’s life and honor her braveness, spirit of adventure, perseverance, and humor…”
In these lovely details, I know Aunt Clara better. Her life was the great unfolding of a long vocation – history lived with loving care.
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In the front of our house, on both sides of the garden gate, is a patch of lemon yellow daylilies. My best friend, Maggie, planted them in her first house after moving from California to Nashville thirty years ago. When she moved again a few years later, she dug them up and gave some to me. I planted them in the Art House garden. When we moved four years ago, I divided them again and brought some to our new house. They’re now fully mature and put on a grand display in June.
When the daylilies bloom, I pay attention. They are announcing the arrival of summer and all the pleasing, lasting rituals that come with it. I think of my decades of friendship with Maggie, and how season after season, we’ve cheered each other on in the long creation. Her gift signals me to notice and remember, to give thanks to God for friendship, beauty, history, and love.