i was at hand

Posted by on January 15, 2014

Looking into the butterfly house © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.


What the Figtree Said

by Denise Levertov

Literal minds! Embarrassed humans! His friends
were blushing for Him
in secret; wouldn’t admit they were shocked.
They thought Him
petulant to curse me! — yet how could the Lord
be unfair? — so they looked away,
then and now.
But I, I knew that
helplessly barren though I was,
my day had come. I served
Christ the Poet,
who spoke in images: I was at hand,
a metaphor for their failure to bring forth
what is within them (as figs
were not within me). They who had walked
in His sunlight presence,
they could have ripened,
could have perceived His thirst and hunger,
His innocent appetite;
they could have offered
human fruits–compassion, comprehension–
without being asked,
without being told of need.
My absent fruits
stood for their barren hearts. He cursed
not me, not them, but
(ears that hear not, eyes that see not)
their dullness, that withholds
gifts unimagined.

* * *

This poem, like most, if not all, needs at least three readings. I like that the fig tree is the one speaking, happy to fulfill its destiny as a poetic metaphor, since it had failed to come in handy as a fruit tree.

I am thinking lately about works and efficacy, the efficacy of my life in general. I am thinking about service, the quality of being serviceable, useful, bringing forth gifts that other people can use, living a good life, not shunning the work that each day demands. I am thinking about what goes into making good choices each day, putting one foot in front of the other, even on days when the feet are heavy; pulling out, more and more, what is abstract on the inside and, in a hands-on way, turning it into something tangible on the outside.

Being at home now with my girls has led me into this place that feels like a baseball dug out within me. I’m running up and down the stairs countless times per day, bringing things out of the cool, dormant shadows of storage into the playing field where crates of things are being pried open for distribution and use. For the first time in my life I really feel that I may make some strides in the area of home economics. I am spending a lot more time in the kitchen doing economical things like making our own tortillas instead of buying them at the store. I have all the ingredients in bulk as I write this to make a massive batch of granola bars. I am planning to triple a waffle recipe and freeze them for quick breakfasts– maybe breakfast burritos as well. I whipped out two lasagnas the other night– one for us and one for a family at our church that just had a baby. These things never came easily to me in the past but maybe I’ve finally exercised my domestic muscles enough that I’ve broken through to a new plateau of domestic fitness. Or it might have more to do with willingness and simple understanding of what it takes.

In any case, my mindset about domestic things has evolved quite a bit. I thoroughly accept now that food preparation takes time– a lot more time than I used to be willing to allocate. I did not write a New Year’s resolution but, keeping it simple, made only a few mental ones so that they’d be easy to remember and easy to realize. One thing I would like to do in 2014 is spend more time in the kitchen. I am thinking ahead more. I’m thinking, here and there, how and where I can prepare and be a step or two ahead of my constantly hungry children (their constant asking for something to eat drives me crazy, it’s true, but there is apparently nothing I can do to stop it).

“Do something today that your future self will thank you for,” is the general idea. Like ready-made granola bars.

On a similar theme I’ve been thinking about slowing down in other areas. My husband has been reading the book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mikics. I probably won’t read the book, but, completely contrary to the message of the book itself, have picked it up and skimmed through it a few times. I’ve also heard a little from my husband about the book’s theme– enough to get a (hurried) notion of what it is about: read slowly and deeply; be willing to re-read books you’ve read before; be willing to go back and re-read parts of books you are currently reading; be willing to press on when a book you are reading gets difficult or tedious. Make it through to the other side, go back and read that part again, don’t speed through in order to, as it were, check it off a list.

I might read the book but honestly, just this little summary was enough to inspire me to try a new tactic with reading in 2014. I applied it immediately to a book I started while we were in the lap of in-law luxury in Tennessee over Christmas (that is, we were enjoying an adult/child ratio of four to two, which meant that I had a lot of free time to read) and I spent a lot of time curled up on the sofa throughout the day next to my mother-in-law’s lavishly decorated Christmas tree, reading. I was reading Sigrid Undset’s biography of Catherine of Sienna. For portions it is a page turner but then becomes difficult at parts. Two words: Medieval Italy. I found myself half-reading and half-tuning-out a few chapters in the middle, populated as they were by Popes and Italian city-states. I was doing the thing I often do when history is involved: letting it slide through the sieve which is my brain. Not so this time. I made a conscious decision to simply go back and re-read those medieval-Pope-riddled chapters. No rushing to the finish line this time, no sir–just engagement with a worthy book. And I was so glad. I realized when I went back how much I had missed, particularly a short anecdote about a particular miracle that Catherine performed which, compared to many of her other miracles, was not at all flashy but almost pedestrian and therefore easy to overlook. But I liked it almost better for that, and was glad I went back and discovered it rather than pushing hastily through.

Slow food, slow reading: join the movement(s)!

I’m still not done with the book. We came home and life went back to what you might call normal. So the last few chapters have remained un-read. But I will go back and read them, and try to read them well. Maybe I will even re-read the last chapter to get a running start back into the book, a practice I have unequivocally shunned in the past.

So, this is all I have for today. There is much more I could write about, but I need to go make the soup we are supposed to have for dinner tonight. I must work the works I need to work while it is still called today…or something like that. Homeschooling has been going well since we started back after our long Christmas break, which is another way of saying that if someone casually asks me about it in a social situation, I won’t go into an internal tailspin of anxiety and then, later, in the quiet hours of the night, sink privately into a dark night of the soul. I’m being facetious. But truly, it’s going just fine now that it is actually going again and I might want to write another update about it soon. I am learning a lot.

{Poetry Wednesday}

  1. Manuela
    January 16, 2014

    Reading you blog posts makes me realize that you are now a very different person from the one I knew in the village. Although, it sounds like you are actually not different but more yourself than ever. I enjoy reading about your journey towards slowness.

  2. annajouj
    January 18, 2014

    Dear Julia–
    As we walked home this evening, I was telling Peter about you and about our friendship. As I relayed to him how much I'd resonated with your recent posts, I realized I had not told you the same . . . so I resolved to do so. For one, I miss being with you–even so far back as dancing to "3's the magic number" 🙂 For two, I'm grateful for your posts about the educational journey and about your home life. Recently I too have been discovering the joy of slow food. In part because of the reality of cooking in this country, but also because there is a simply fulfillment that comes from feeding those you love with your own hands. Hmmm . . . I sense the need for my own writings on this subject now, thanks to you!
    Thank you, my friend, for being who you are. I miss you.