How I Planted a Willow Tree

Our back yard is longer than it is wide. It’s about 1.7 acres, and the lingering woods still cover most of the last .7 acre. If you’re standing on the deck looking at the woods, you notice a bare patch on the left. The woods break, and there’s a swampy stretch of soft earth and weedy hillocks for a few yards before you reach the towering evergreens marking the property line on that side. From it’s shape, it might once have been the end of a very long drive way. The deer wander through it, passing on to the trees.

During some recent moment of quiet, I remember telling myself it would be nice to plant trees in that bare patch, bringing the woods across to the evergreens. I was eating breakfast, I think. Or staring out a window thinking about saving the planet.

The moment passed. The day continued. The thought vanished.

In a wholly unrelated instance, months before, my mama gave me a tree for my birthday. She doesn’t live nearby, so we researched “trees that deer might not eat,” and she sent me a check, with the understanding that I would buy the tree at a local nursery. Our research and my love of flowering trees led us to select pink dogwood as the object of our desire.

This is not my tree. Photo by Jonathan Hanna on Unsplash

I waited through the end of winter, mentally dropping a pink dogwood in various spots and deciding whether it would do well there. As the spring advanced, I asked the farmer who mows our lawn if he could dig a hole when I had the tree. He said yes and suggested a different spot than the one I’d thought of.

I kept looking and picked another location. The not-yet-present pink dogwood had now been mentally located in three places.

Spring came, sun shone, weather warmed, and I began tree shopping in earnest. The first place had one white dogwood left, no pink. I dithered, but decided to check the other place.

The other place? Had Everything! But no pink dogwood. Apple trees, cherry trees, grape vines, blueberry bushes, oak and maple and holly and too many others to recall. But no pink dogwood.

Voila! The perfect conditions for my brain to run wild! I called my mama, and we debated the merits of starting an apple orchard, or pear, or peach, or planting raspberries in rows (probably near the shed). I skipped from tree to tree, idea to idea, while she asked Google if deer would eat my choice-of-the-moment.

But then, I found a willow tree.

Sneak preview. This is my tree.

Decades ago in an earlier world, we played under a giant weeping willow at my Aunt Greta and Uncle Fred’s house. The wands swept the grass with their finger-tips. We parted them with eager little hands and slipped into a green pavilion, peopled and furnished by make-believe.

I looked at this present-day willow, nearly ten feet tall, its roots bound in a plastic bucket and its fingers reaching into the blue, and I fell in love.

It didn’t fit in my car. At all.

Leaving my love to the guardianship of a red SOLD tag, I raced home to purloin my neighbor’s truck and his good offices as a tree escort service.

Back again, 10 minutes before closing time, my neighbor and the tree-selling staff person lifted the willow into the back of the pickup and secured it with twine and Boy Scout rope-tying knowledge.

Then we drove home.

Did you know that willow roots can grow up to 100 feet from the base of the tree?

And that they are notorious for entangling and crushing sewer lines?

Not a consummation devoutly to be hoped.

As it turns out, the sewer line runs through the backyard, and the willow, like the dogwood, could not be planted in the spot originally chosen for it.

Evidence of the sewer line’s course across the yard

Taking my daughter, a tape measure, and impervious boots, I paced out 100 feet from the sewer line, bringing myself full circle, into the muddy patch I once considered in my dream of reforestation.

And because it’s such a muddy patch, the earth is soft enough for a distracted writer of children’s books with a good shovel, a sunhat, and some pants she doesn’t care about to dig that hole herself.

So I did.

I wrestled with the earth and muddy gloves and slippery boots. I followed directions and dug a hole twice the width of the potted willow’s footprint.

Muddy Blue Jeans taking a selfie with best friend Dirty Boot.

My husband and I hauled the willow across the long yard to the hole and between us, we coaxed it to relinquish its imprisonment. We set its feet in the wet earth, tucked in the roots, and I said a small prayer for it and kissed the tip of a graceful branch.

I dragged out the hose. It’s actually several hoses connected. It’s long, but the yard is longer.

As I was trekking across the space between the end of the hose and the roots of my tree, carrying pitchers of water, I remembered that quiet moment when I’d thought of planting trees here. I saw myself unknowing, pressing along through one decision after another with no recollection or foresight, finding the end of the string where I might have wished to find it, the dream accomplished despite the scattered pathways that led to this good end.

Home, planted, and reaching for the light.

War Is Exhausting

Speaking as a veteran’s wife, one thing people forget about war is how uncomfortable it is. I don’t mean in the obvious ways (bullets, bombs, fire), but the lost amenities that would comfort us on ordinary days.

Today, ask a question about each thing you touch: how would war affect it?

Could you still turn on the lights?

Take a hot shower?

Sleep through the night?

Clean your clothes?

Make tea?

Shop for food?

Go somewhere quiet?

Take a break?

Call a friend?

Check your social accounts?

Log in to your online banking?

Get through your To Do list?

Work and get paid?

Close your door and lock it?

In disaster areas, exhaustion is universal. Of many causes, one is that NOTHING is automatic or simple. Every tiny task becomes an arduous, often unsuccessful quest. Most needs are unmet, and it’s not possible for the average person to solve the problem.

Life, in fact, is out of control.

Control is a civilian, peace-time myth. In war, it is no longer sustainable. So if you still think you have it, give thanks for the lights and the food and your favorite corner of the sofa.

Oh Lord, comfort the comfortless.

Without Your Consent

Can we stop saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent”?

That’s not empowering. That’s pain-shaming.

It’s also a load of baloney. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart.

Yes, we choose our response to injury, just as we choose our response to affirmation, boredom, opportunity, regret, and all the other facets of human experience. But when we state that a person who feels hurt is consenting to their own injury, we are enabling the one doing harm, not freeing the injured. The perpetrator can now be as hurtful as they desire to be because the pain is your fault, not theirs.

Hurtful words hurt. Hurtful behavior hurts. The pain they cause is real, and it is CAUSED. It comes from the sender, not the receiver.

So let’s stop skipping that part. Before we accept responsibility for our response, let’s assign responsibility to the person and context that made it necessary.

Unhappy Holidays

For what it’s worth:

HOLIDAYS ARE HARD.

We soak up a lifetime of unconscious hopes and assumptions about love, family, success, happiness – and those assumptions crash headlong into reality in moments when we expect to be celebrating.

You are a real person, and if you are reading this, you are not in heaven yet. Neither are the people you know and love, or the people you are related to and can’t stand. Neither are the people posting pictures of the life you wish you had.

Earth is the struggle place. If you are struggling, good job! That’s what we’re here for. You are not a loveless ugly failure. You are a human being, created in the image of God, doing the work He is granting you on your journey to grace and joy.

On earth, we catch glimpses. Minutes, or even seconds of light and relief.

Keep your eyes open for the brightness that finds its way through the cracks around you. Rest in that love for the moments when you can see it. Then pick up your tools and get back to work.

No matter what they tell you, no matter what they show you, the people around you are also struggling and waiting.

List of Orthodox Christian Children’s Books

I was thinking of writing an article encouraging homeschool teachers to include at least one Orthodox children’s book in regular language arts curriculum each year. This led to the idea of making a list of children’s books by grade level. And that led to my best effort at compiling a master list of Orthodox Christian children’s books written in English and currently in print.

No doubt I’ve missed some. The world is a big place, and so is the internet. It wouldn’t be hard for a little Orthodox book, or even a little publisher, to escape my notice.

This list will need constant updating if it is to become a lasting and useable resource. But it is at least a beginning.

CLICK TO SEE THE LIST.

The list is housed in a Google spreadsheet. At this writing, there are 182 entries, and I am aware of at least 6 more titles that will release before the end of 2021. That’s a lot of books!

The spreadsheet makes some attempt to include notes on what’s in the books, what they could be used for in a Sunday school or homeschool classroom, or for family reading. That part is very incomplete for the simple reason that I’ve read or even seen only a fraction of these books.

TRENDS I NOTICED

Without reading every book on the list, my insights are limited. Based simply on the covers, blurbs, and other readily available details, I noticed several things.

1 – The number and quality of Orthodox children’s books appear to have increased greatly in the last 10 or so years.

2 – Orthodox children’s literature is largely catechetical.

3 – Fiction is rare.

4 – Books of any kind for older children are rare.

5 – The quality and style of illustrations varies widely.

6 – Board books are relatively new in this market, but they are popular and more are being published.

WHAT I THINK

People want good books to support their children’s faith. The number of newer publishing houses and their offerings suggests an active effort to fill the holes for this market. The larger Orthodox publishers in the United States have expanded and improved their children’s line in the last decade. Also, with the evolution of technology and publishing resources, smaller companies can form and produce professional-quality books for niche markets in ways that were not possible in the past. I saw some books and companies I felt were a direct result of this evolution. This is encouraging. I love to see people spend fruitful effort on what matters to them.

One question kept recurring to me as I worked on the list. How many of these books would a child read spontaneously? Are these books children would choose for themselves? Are we simply producing the kind of book an adult makes you read?

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with reading books you were told to read because you need to learn the information they contain. This is a healthy life-long discipline we should acquire as children. Every aspect of our spiritual life can sometimes require self-compulsion, and the care and love that has gone into creating the books on this list make them accessible and valuable.

That said, I freely admit I was a child best reached through her imagination. Even as an adult, I often find myself most drawn to things I’ve encountered first in fictional settings. Stories are the way I find and remember meaning.

The books I’ve written for children are all either fiction or creative non-fiction (for example, an incident from the life of Saint Ia, told imaginatively in simple language). I don’t feel qualified to write instructional non-fiction.

I say these things to be clear about my perspective. In my mind, the height of excellence in children’s literature is achieved when some great truth shines directly into a child’s heart through a beautifully crafted, genuinely engaging story. In that context, the distinction between what is and is not Christian literature fades. If you are a Christian wherever you go, you can encounter and ponder your faith in fiction as well as non-fiction.

I know not everyone is like me. I know that many child THRIVE on non-fiction reading. I believe Orthodox children need and want more of every kind of book. When you consider how many secular books a child can read in the course of a childhood, 182 Orthodox books is not many at all.

For my part of the effort, this list urges me to keep working on Orthodox-infused fiction for children. It’s a craft that takes practice. A weak story wobbling under the weight of a catechetical agenda accomplishes little. God grant me strong stories that carry something essential with love and grace.

The Best Part of Writing for Children

This.

This is the very best part. I love writing because I’m made that way, and I adore seeing my words illustrated. But my favorite blessed miracle of it all is a little one happily reading a book I wrote.

I love the innocent little beings we are before the world gets to us and the struggle begins. I love the warmth of our better selves that surfaces when we care for children. I love that the veil is thin for these little ones and the flutter of angels still discernible around them.

Perhaps I also love the reminder of my own journey through that little world. The shabby picture books on a shelf in my office, the ragged rag dolls and moth-eaten stuffed animals in a crate downstairs, the old photos in which the incandescent light of home still shines…these are treasures I plan to carry till I lay my burden down. They are a door I like to stand near, treasuring the glimpses I catch when it opens for a moment, reminding me that time is circular and limitless.

The Children’s Hour

BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Between the dark and the daylight,
      When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
      That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
      The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
      And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
      Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
      And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
      Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
      To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
      A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
      They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
      O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
      They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
      Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
      In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
      Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
      Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
      And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
      In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
      Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
      And moulder in dust away!

Photographs, for better and for worse

I’ve been thinking about time, and markers that show me time passing. For example, when my child gets to a certain stage in school and is doing the same things I remember doing, but doing them differently, I see technology as a marker of time. I made posters. This generation makes PowerPoint presentations.

Another marker just struck me. I have no engagement photos. Not one. Smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. Our engagement was a purely private event. I have many “photos” of it in my heart, but there was no one there to document it for us. Thinking about it, this makes me glad.

There’s something about photographs. I love them in many ways, but sometimes I find they step in and replace memories. The memory is intangible. It floats around inside you, bumping into other memories, feelings, passing time. It’s powerful and fragile. It’s so easy to look at a photo again and again, until you remember the photo, the way the event looked from the outside, instead of what you saw from the inside, living through it.

Memories can fade. A photograph can be more permanent. But it will also, always, be incomplete. A photograph could never document that I remember walking inches above the ground in the golden rain falling outside the cathedral where he asked for my heart and hand.

Snowflakes and Blackberries

It’s snowing this morning, and coincidentally, I ran across a few words I jotted down about snow, several years ago. It was one of those moments that stretches your mind and reminds you of divinity and cosmos.

This reminded me of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her words on blackberries.

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Searching for this quote, I rediscovered the longer poem of which it is a part, and found that it articulates my own belief about the spiritual nature of art. I kept reading, and Elizabeth kept building out the thesis in keeping with my own sense of things.

Human beings are inescapably spiritual. We are inescapably natural. We are created in the image of God, incarnated as He was, fully human and whole-souled just as He was fully human and fully divine. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe all creation is lifted up in Christ. ALL CREATION. This means I see God as much in a tiny snowflake as in a book of theology. I love that.

As a writer, I know I can’t let go of spirit to write about natural life. They are not separate. Not in the smallest detail. Some writing is more obviously “spiritual” or “religious” than others, but I believe all good art, perhaps I would say all “genuine” art, has as much spiritual as natural content. The measure of its greatness is the extent to which the fire of heaven shines through it.

Elizabeth says this more beautifully than I could, so here are her words to feed your thoughts on this snowy morning.

From ‘Aurora Leigh’
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift 5
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant’s face here, coarse and lined,
You’ll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension’s competent,
You’ll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Aye, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed: an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?
The bird’s not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Decades later, I still remember it.

What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?

When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.

There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.

Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.

Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.

A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.

Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.

Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.

I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

and often is his gold complexion dimmed.

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade

when in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.

Sonnet 18 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
By William Shakespearehttp://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/by2g21, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.