Cultivating a Garden

God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures.

— Francis Bacon

April showers bring May flowers. They also bring weeds. This month, I have been reminded of this as I enjoy the fresh beauty of the outdoors, both in my yard and in the gardens around my school. In March, I was giddy to see the trees were budding in purple Virginia fashion and daffodils were springing up. Later came black-eyed Susans, irises, peonies, and roses. I was frustrated to find that many dandelions (I cannot concede these be counted as a flowers), wild onions, crab grass, clover, some unidentified spiny thing, and a host of other undesirables also sprang up. The garden out my classroom window looked a little more like a wild jungle than a peaceful garden. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. One afternoon after school, I went out and pulled up as many weeds as I could. I had a huge pile of weeds when I was done, yet the garden still looked over run. I realized that part of its appearance was due to an overabundance of good things. Many of the flowers had not been thinned out recently, the ground cover had not been trimmed back, and the bushes and trees needed pruning. Meanwhile, at home I helped my mom pull out a patch of irises. We only did this because this was the second year in a row they had not bloomed. Why not? The previous owner of the garden had let them become too crowded and overgrown by weeds. The soil was also full of rocks that had worked their way up to the surface. A garden needs cultivation.

God makes all things perfect, but he has made things living, not static. Yes, there is much to enjoy in untouched nature, but in the beginning, God placed man in a garden and told him to tend it. I wonder what tending the Garden of Eden would have involved. Did Adam and Eve prune the fruit trees? Try to develop varieties of plants? Arrange the plants as they wished? Remember this was before the fall. They did not have to fear weeds or the toil that Adam was later cursed with, but they still had responsibility and work.

A garden is such a lovely metaphor. Even when we have planned something well (a schedule, a relationship, habit, etc.), we need to continually be working on it and cultivating it. Just because the garden is laid out well, does not mean that you can leave it alone forever. Because of the curse, you need to look out for the weeds that creep in and then multiply when they have an entrance. Even just preventing or removing the bad is often not enough. You also need to make sure the good, planned things in your life do not overrun the rest. A crowded garden is typically unhealthy.

Enjoy the spring in your garden! In your literal and figurative gardens, be willing to do the hard work of cultivating so that you can enjoy the flowers and the fruit in their appropriate seasons.

I Can’t Stay Away

Spring Break is a beautiful thing. It is so good to have a break from teaching to relax! I was able to return to Guadalajara for the week. Many people here and there have asked me how hard it was to adjust back to American culture or if I have experienced reverse culture shock. The transition has been easier for me than I had expected. I think this is for a few reasons. First, I was quite busy as soon as I arrived home in the U.S. and had a lot going to keep my mind engaged. I was very focused on the task of figuring out my role in my new school and organizing and setting up my classroom. Another thing that made the transition easy was that I kept a tie to Mexican culture by joining a Spanish speaking small group. This helped me make friends with people who know something of the experience of living in Mexico (or another Spanish speaking country). I can keep speaking Spanish, talk about Latino culture, make bilingual jokes, etc. I even have discovered a place to salsa dance in my home town. It is not quite the same as dancing in the streets of Guadalajara, but it was one of the activities I was sad to give up so I am thankful that I still get to do it sometimes. Salsa also provides another opportunity for speaking Spanish! Finally, I have been looking forward to this trip since the summer, knowing I would not be saying goodbye to friends forever.

I prayed for my trip that I would get quality time with as many people as possible. He was so faithful to answer! A fun surprise started out the trip as I had the same flight to Atlanta as a high school group from my school going to Belize. I enjoyed chatting with them in the airport and on the plane. Sunday, I spent the full day with my church on a retreat. It was so encouraging to see how the church has grown in depth and number and many of the individuals I have prayed for are thriving. Monday was dedicated to the school. I wandered around the campus catching up with American and Mexican teachers, staff, students, etc. I loved having lunch with my former students and then playing games with them at recess. I went back nearly every day for this sweet time with my not-so-little ones.

 

Throughout the week, I caught up individually with many people, often while eating (another thing I have been looking forward to on this trip). I have missed avocados, frijoles, lonches, Mexican popsicles, and, most of all, tacos! It was great to be able to enjoy authentic food and it was so refreshing to go deeper with friends and hear about their ministries, goals, struggles, and joys. I shared tears more than once and lots of laughs as well. God is taking such good care of them, even when I am away. I knew I could trust him with them when I last said, “Adios” (blog post: Good in Good-bye).

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My last day, some of the Lincoln teachers joined me in going to Tlaquepaque. We had fun looking around in artisan shops, taking pictures, and even caught a free show which included traditional Mayan dancing, dancers from Veracruz and Jalisco, and live Mariachi music.  I bought a piece of art made by the Huichol people. I recently have been doing some research about this people group. They are one of the least reached in Mexico and are located not far from Guadalajara. I bought the art to remind me to pray for them more often. As a closing gift, I coincidentally ran into the only friend I had not been able to contact during the week. I loved my break and I hope I can visit again soon.

 

Photos are my own.

Nothing New

Everyone wants to be original, creative, the first to do something. It is the mark of our culture. We are independent and unique. We value fresh, new, innovative art, music, and technology. Originality is held as a virtue. Does being original make one better than the rest?

I am also a product of my culture. I want to be seen as creative and unique, especially in my writing. I like when I can come up with a fresh idea or can think of a clever frame for a story. I feel like the written word is one of the few areas I am truly creative. In other areas, I am usually just following a model. I can cook well because I can follow a recipe well, I can sew or makes crafts well because I find good patterns. I can play beautiful music because I practiced technique and play exactly what is written by a composer.

In a book about the history of classical education, I read, “They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and say it perfectly.” This quote reminded me that newness is not the end-all. It is completely acceptable to imitate what is good. Even the Italian renaissance, which I tend to think of as a time of fresh creativity, was actually an imitative era. It was a rebirth of the classical style of art, literature, architecture, etc. Renaissance thinkers and artists studied the written works of the Greek and Roman authors and admired their architecture and art. Success was measured by how a work held to the classical standard. The renaissance led the way into the modern era by looking back to a previous era.

Many people can be “original” without saying or showing anything worthwhile or beautiful. I want what I say (or make or do) to be first worthwhile and true. Secondly, I want to say it well, beautifully, and with clarity. If what I say is also something new, well and good, if it is even possible to say something truly original. In the end, what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Quote from Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons.

Photo is my own.

Trying Could Mean Failing

Many of you know that I am a perfectionist. I like to get things exactly right the first time. Unfortunately, I have the tendency to avoid things that I don’t think I can do just right. In the new year, I have a uncharacteristic desire to try something new, even if that means I cannot do it perfectly.

I have been taking harp lessons again with a new teacher. At my first lesson, she mentioned she likes to teach how to arrange music. I had never tried to arrange anything. My friends who could play anything by ear always left me mystified. I am not very creative, but I can follow instructions really well. I have always relied on finding the best music and then learning to play it just like it is written. I decided to step out and try arranging a song since I had a willing teacher. I chose to start with I Wonder As I Wander (a nice minor key Christmas carol). It took me several weeks just to come up with a brief intro, interlude, and conclusion with little variation to the left hand (bass clef). It was hard to get started and there were several times when I kind of looked at my harp and looked at the blank staff paper and wondered if it would be easier to just write some notes down and then play them and keep trying until I hit on something. I finally got out a simple arrangement and even used some music writing software so that it looks like published music. You know what? I like it. I have decided I want to continue arranging in the new year with the help of my teacher. Even though it isn’t my natural bent, I hope it will get a little easier each time and I will be a little more satisfied with the result each time. I definitely have already learned a lot more about music theory and how written music works on the page just after one song. I had hardly ever thought about arranging my own songs before and definitely not composing, but now I even have that in the back of my mind. It might be a few years away, but it could happen.

Apart from the new things I want to do this year, I will also be doing some things that I am more used to. I am going to be helping my church with a free English conversation club that is available to the internationals in our area. I am excited to get to meet new people and to brush up on my ESL skills. I also want to continue blogging and write more fiction this year.

I encourage you to try something new, even if you try it and don’t like it or if you don’t stick with it the whole year. Remember that even if you fall short of your goal or fail utterly, a step forward is still significant and you can learn as much from failure as success.

 

Photo credit to Lauren Brouillette

Advent: Christ is Coming!

It has been a long time since I have enjoyed the Christmas season so much. Even though I have been home for Christmas the last two years, I have missed the lead up to Christmas that starts with Thanksgiving. It was so fun to be here for Thanksgiving, get to help with decorating the house, attend Christmas parties, and take part in the Christmas traditions that I have missed. I think the other reason I am enjoying it so much is that I get to teach my 1st grade class about Christmas. Our public schools are no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas (they are allowed to teach about it academically if they teach about other religious holidays equally). This means most schools did not decorate for Christmas, have a Christmas performance, or otherwise celebrate.

It is such a privilege to teach at a private Christian school where I am encouraged to celebrate and teach about Christmas in a meaningful, religious way. Having ties to the Reformed Episcopal church, our school made the distinction between the Advent and Christmas season. While advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, the Christmas season starts with Christmas day and continues until January 5th, the day before Epiphany. If you were wondering, Christmas season is 12 days. That’s right, the song is talking about the 12 days after Christmas, not before.

For 6-year-olds, waiting is hard. For that matter, waiting is hard for adults too. I am constantly catching myself wishing I could get this sooner and get through that quicker. Advent is all about waiting. Advent reminds us of the overarching story of the Bible and how the Israelites (and really the Gentiles unknowingly and even creation) waited for thousands of years for the coming of the Messiah. We talked about how many of the prophecies about the Messiah were written during some of the darkest days of Israel’s history, when their princes and priests were both corrupt and the nation was about to be destroyed. God gave them reminders of the hope to come, though it was still far off. As we think of the Israelites waiting and hoping, we remember that we are also waiting and hoping for Jesus. We are waiting for his second coming when he will come as the reigning king, bringing justice and destroying the curse.

I have also been teaching about the traditions that come out of Europe as they were passed on to the U.S. (though I was excited to devote a day to Mexico and talk about Las Posadas and the Poinsettia). We started out learning about St. Nicholas, who was from modern day Turkey, noted for his generosity, and who argued for the divinity of Christ in the Council of Nicaea. We talked about various traditions and legends associated with St. Nicholas in different countries, made some traditional ornaments and crafts, and thought about gift giving as a way to show generosity and kindness in remembrance of Christ’s selfless giving. I even got to wear my amazing vintage Polish dress that I got this fall. I can’t resist an opportunity to dress up, even at school!

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I love having our beautiful Victorian home decorated for Christmas for the first time. I have enjoyed making and buying gifts, singing so much Christmas music, and…eating Christmas cookies! The waiting time before Christmas is so sweet. I will be sad when it is over, but looking forward to what the New Year holds.

Photo by Laura Barnwell

This Our Hymn of Grateful Praise

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies;

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

Every morning when I get up and look out my window, I am awed by the beauty around me. The mountains forever call my name and the hues of the bright trees catch my breath. When the sun sets, I again am amazed. Our God is the great God of creation.

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For the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night,

Hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

As much as I love the season of spring when all is new, as much as I love the mid-day sun when all is bright, every hour has its place and purpose. No matter the season or time of day, I am thankful for the plan God has for me and how He is teaching to be here now.

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For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child;

Friends on earth and friends above; for all gentle thoughts and mild:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

I am incredibly thankful to be with my family during this season of life. I have missed them so much and am glad that I can be present as a daughter and sister. The friends God has placed around me and around the world are treasures to me. For the friends who are near, and far, and those who have gone ahead of me to eternity, I must thank God for His gracious gifts to me for the time I had them close.

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For Thy Church that evermore lifteth holy hands above,

Offering up on every shore her pure sacrifice of love:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

I cannot even begin to describe the great mystery of Christ and the Church. I do not understand why Christ would sacrifice Himself for her that we could have fellowship with Him. Neither do I understand how He allows us this incredible communion amongst each other and how the church can come together out of its many diverse parts to bring a song of praise. He knows that we need this kind of community.

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For Thyself, best gift divine, to our race so freely given; 

For that great, great love of Thine, peace on earth and joy in heaven;

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

Best gift of all, the Giver. Thank You that we can know You intimately and that You are the source of all peace, joy, love, and hope. All that is beautiful and good comes from You. To You be glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.

 

For the Beauty of the Earth text by Folliott S. Pierpoint

First three photos are mine of Thanksgiving 2016. Fourth photo is Carola Venega’s of part of the Church in Mexico.

Season of Fullness

As lovely as the weather is in Guadalajara, I have missed the seasons. I have been very cold recently, but I’m investing in some warmer clothes and the fall trees are so beautiful it is almost worth shivering inside my house. It has brought me so much pleasure to watch the changing leaves. It was just a few weeks ago that every leaf around town was green. Last week, they were hinting about changing, and this week there are more reds, yellows, and oranges than green. I was thrilled to be able to go on an afternoon hike with my sister last weekend. We climbed Mount Pleasant. It was only an hour from our house, but I had never been there. The drive out through pastures and winding mountain roads was beautiful. The hike itself was… fantastic… in the sense that I felt I was in the setting of an epic fantasy. The position of the sun casting shadows, the steady wind cooling and rustling the leaves, the golden ferns, and the top-of-the-world view all added to the experience.

I know that I haven’t been writing as much recently. It isn’t because I don’t have anything to say or because life seems boring compared to my exotic time overseas. It has actually been that my days are pleasantly full this season. It seemed that in Mexico, after school, I would have hours each day without anything to do. Now, I did everything possible to get out and enjoy Guadalajara. On weekends I would try to do something fun or see something new and make the most of the fact that I was living in another country. However, I was not surrounded by my regular hobbies, books, and projects that I had back in the states. I spent a lot of time on the internet, or if I was trying to be productive, writing for my blog.

This school year, now that I am back in Virginia, I have been very busy with school, even after school hours, and always seem to have something to do or someone who wants to spend time with me. It is fun being around all of our family’s craft and sewing supplies whenever I have a creative idea. It is fun to go yard-saling and get something cheap that needs a little tailoring or altering to make it meet my needs. It is fun to have my harp in my home and be taking lessons again. I’m so enjoying music and brushing the mothballs off of my repertoire to be able to play for other people. This morning I enjoyed playing in The White Hart coffee shop downtown. My new harp teacher even came by to see me. It is also nice to be able to go most places in Lynchburg by myself safely, without having to persuade someone else to go so that I can go myself.

So far, I would say it has been a good transition. I do miss Guadalajara very much, but it hasn’t been overwhelming or a burden. I’m very thankful to have found the Spanish speaking community here and I have the opportunity to speak Spanish at least once a week if not more often and I know that connection is helping me. I still think in Spanish sometimes and that always makes me smile. We’ll see what develops next season. I will try to take the time to reflect more so that I don’t miss anything and you can share it with me.

Photo belongs to Bri Barnwell.