At the end of the day, sometimes it may seem like your work has been barren or purposeless. The kitchen floor you swept is coated in crumbs and the detritus created by small fingers, safety scissors, and yesterday’s mail. Toes and chins and palms go through a rotation of cleansing and grubbing, over and over. One meal is done and half cleaned up only to start another. The devil would whisper that manual labor is below our educated minds and skilled hands, repetition bores us, and fortitude is futile. Have you felt this?

We listen to books on tape nearly all the time in the van. It started out as a last ditch effort to preserve my sanity and ended up being a treasured ritual. Right now, we’re engrossed by The Secret Garden. How had I forgotten how much I love this book?!? Much of the text is woven into descriptions of spring taking hold of the moor and life sneaking out of the deadened grey corners of the secret garden. At the same time, that growing and living spirit creeps into the hearts and bodies of Mary and Colin, two strong-willed but peevish and sickly children. It got me thinking about what changes a person and how much positive change has to do with being in a place that makes you want to be a part of it and with people that affirm your individuality but invite you into a culture, a way of finding meaning and ritual, that is larger than yourself and formative to your perspective. [Also, I want to be as wise as Susan Sowerby when I grow up.]

Each mother has the opportunity to form the culture of her home. It happens, whether intended or not, because your home reflects you. It happens especially through stolen (or cautiously preserved) moments of leisure–how do you and yours laugh and play, create and build? And, like a garden, some homes will be cultivated with an emphasis on order, others with fecundity and mystery, others with health and practicality, and so on. As long as you are not cultivating something poisonous or sowing salt, there are many types of beautiful gardens.

Sometimes, I think we are too tired to realize that we are creating something. We think of our repetitive work as the essence of our day, and we forget to be intentional and find meaning in the in-between. Several times in the book, Dicken (the animal whisperer) was shown to be an expert in planting things in the broken crevices of old walls. He didn’t waste an opportunity for beauty and life. How easy it is to fill the crevices in our lives with a quick check in with social media or resentful thoughts or unnecessary noise! I’m learning that if you use those bits of time, you can grow a beautiful garden indeed. Maybe I take a moment to set up a project for the children and buy myself 30 minutes free from sibling dispute. Maybe I take time just to watch them or ask them about their play so that I know them better and can better respond with understanding during a future moment of tension. Maybe I read or draw. Maybe I turn on a podcast with the Scripture readings of the day. Maybe I steal 50 small moments, or just 10, 5 even. And suddenly, there is much more substance and meaning and beauty to my day because I took time to notice and foster it. I am more myself, and a better version of myself. And inserting love into servanthood transforms my day.

One of my favorite saints, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, said, “The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.” If this is true of our hearts, it must also be true of our homes. This doesn’t follow one mold. I like to think about the homes of my closest friends when I was growing up.

Anna’s home was full of her many siblings and laughter. There was a rough-and-ready nature to all of them that eschewed what C. S. Lewis in Screwtape would call the temptation to undue “delicacy” and that embraced teamwork (I did a good number of chores and weed pulling at their house), flexibility, and exploration. I learned valuable life lessons there like: I was a picky eater, there are such things as kindred spirits, boys have much better hearts than people give them credit for, and you are able to grow a pumpkin vine by accident from an old Jack a’ Lantern.

Christy’s home was white carpeted with fresh flowers on the table and an aura of calm. She and her sister and parents seemed to make everything they touched more refined and personal, and when you visited, you too were treated with warm kindness and intimacy. Christy managed to convey that spirit to her dorm room in college too, where I was often invited during “paper weeks” to tea and cookies and left feeling much more refreshed and loved.

Therese’s home told you stories upon stories of their passions. Paintings by the kids and stained glass windows and woodworking carefully crafted by her father decorated the house, juxtaposed with relics from travels. Pictures of friends and family were always on display. Political flyers and stickers propagated of their own accord, it seemed, in the corners and spare rooms, a testament to their involved patriotism. You always knew you would learn something new at their home, and lively conversation would jump readily between matters of the soul to the subtle battles of an embroiled republic. As an added bonus, if you came in late Fall, there was always copious amounts of pie.

In addition to my own home with its many virtues, these environments each helped form something of my aspirations and vision for my own home someday. And now, I can look back on the years where I was just surviving as a young, working mom of littles, and I can see that the seeds were being planted for the home we have today. Every home is an amalgam of the husband and wife, and it creates its own culture. (I also may be noticing a few “weeds” I’d like to pull that have sprung up in our garden …)

I find that focusing on the family culture I want to form helps me when the voices of the Mommy Wars or the latest parenting or housekeeping blog distress me. Have you seen this image? [copied from @Hulafrog]

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In order to block that out and be single-minded, you have to have a vision for where you want to end up. And, forgive me if I have more imagination than just feeding my kids (though, that’s pretty hard some days too). So, here’s my vision that suits our personalities and passions and priorities …

We want our home to remind you of the outdoors, and doors and windows to be opened often with comings and goings of children and fresh air and guests. We want there to be humor, personal conversation, lots of learning about everything, and an infusion of the spiritual realm in the natural one in all we do and think about. Creativity and beauty and exploration is worth a little mess and mud. Respect for God, each other, people, animals and nature, and things is essential–in that order. Truth creates trust. Comparison is the thief of joy. Nourishment of body and soul is important. Seek to understand before you react. Gratitude reaps joy. Embrace rhythm. Simplicity. Beauty. Tradition. Time for silence.

I’d like to add Order, but the general profussive nature of our children (and myself) is making that challenging right now. I’m also certain that some expert would tell me to narrow my goals to one sentence with lots of precise, power words. Not gonna happen. We are not masters, but we are intentional apprentices at living family life. And we have good mentors and the example of a Heavenly Father to guide us.

Kierkegaard wrote: “She [woman] was created to deal with the small, and knows how to give it an importance, a dignity, a beauty which enchants.” Remember this when the fragments of your day seem too little to build something great. It only takes a small trickle with an occasional torrent to create an impressive ravine with a unique ecosystem that is beautiful and attracts life and visitors. The amazing thing is that once you get it rolling, the other family members tend to perpetuate those rituals of love and family culture that are life-giving to everyone there. Tend your garden, mama. And don’t be discouraged. I’ll leave you with one last quotation from our story …

“Much more surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Have courage.

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