We had a booming year for cucumbers; there are jars and jars of bread and butter pickles and some experimental dills. Next to them are jars of green tomato salsa, green beans and a long shelf full of little sweet dumpling squashes. On the floor, five gallon buckets with oats and wheat berries wait to be turned into fresh bread all winter long. This time of year, with nine of us at the table and snow days ahead, there’s a drive inside to have the pantry shelves and freezer full. Just like a mother mouse finding seeds in the brown grasses, I find myself pushing my cart through the grocery store with an eye for what will keep.
I think of my great-grandmothers; Isabella came on a boat from England with a store of knowledge. She knew about finding herbs and roots and how to make people well. I imagine her, with small Charles and little Lucy trailing along behind, studying the Maine woods; an early scientist identifying plants and a doctor tucking her prescriptions away in a basket or apron pockets. When Lucy was a mother herself and held my grandmother in her arms, it was still natural to look to plants for food and medicine. But, as time passed and pharmacies with strong, effective remedies grew, it didn’t seem valuable to hold onto these old ways. So, this fall I turned to Amazon Prime and put in an order so that the cabinet would be stocked with children’s Tylenol and cough syrup and vapor rub. The pantry has cans of ginger ale and Gatorade for those seemingly inevitable belly hurts with little ones. I know Isabella and Lucy would have been thankful for a storehouse of these simple things that I can take for granted, like a way to so quickly bring down a fever in a small, hurting child. Still, there’s a wistfulness inside that makes me long for a walk in the woods beside these grandmothers, bent over the leaves and digging in the dirt for roots and being taught some of the old ways.
We had our first snowflakes last week. They came down in intervals with a cold sleety rain. My husband says he’s making an appointment to get snow tires on the van. The children want to know where their snow pants and boots are and we locate tubs and make sure everyone has sizes that fit. Everyone has grown a size or more since spring.
There’s a fire in the woodstove every day now. And, rows and rows of firewood neatly stacked outside ready for little boys to see how high they can stack it in each other’s arms and still make it up the porch steps and through the house without dropping any; little boys that are strong for their age and grin when I tell them, “thank you for keeping our family so warm.”
I think we’re nearly ready.
I love the sense that we are prepared and can face days of being snowed in and still be warm, with food on our table and hot cocoa in our mugs.
But, even with all the coziness and feeling ready for winter days ahead, the last few weeks have been hard for me. I know there are people who struggle with dark, hard, debilitating periods of depression. I’ve had days of feeling down and melancholy, but never to the point where I would alarm a doctor if I filled out a questionnaire. So, it was surprising to me how heavy I have felt. There were some days when I could barely function. My kids had half-hearted schooling and minimal mothering with movies to keep them quiet. A couple of times, after getting a bare bones meal on the table, I would go straight to bed when my husband got home from work. I had nothing to give, no joy in anything, no desire for anything except to be alone in the dark and quiet.
I think this began with an email I woke up to one morning. The words were from a close friend and her news was devastating. Not only did my heart break and bleed with empathy for her pain and anxiety for her future, but old hurts from my own life were broken open. Old fears resurfaced and the world that had seemed bright and full of kind people seemed dark and deceptive and full of evil. It overwhelmed me. I couldn’t pull out truth or Bible verses to lift the weight because everything seemed so meaningless. Why had God created a world with so much darkness to begin with? The presence of the darkness just swallows any joy in the flickers of light. I was heavy and dark and only desiring quiet.
But, with seven children busting through my bedroom door and begging for snacks or to be read stories, that desire to be still couldn’t be satisfied. I’m sad to say that it wasn’t with joy that I tended to their needs but it was with a discouraged drag of my feet. It was overwhelming to see, when I stopped feeling the motivation to sweep or pick up, how quickly our house became a disaster of puzzle pieces and crushed food and random sticks and rocks from outdoors. The chaos made me want to retreat even more.
And, it wasn’t just from the kids and the messes that I wanted to retreat. I didn’t want to answer the phone, emails from friends wanting to make plans made me cringe, my husband picked up groceries on his way home, and I started day dreaming of how I would take a six month sabbatical from church. The darkness I was giving into wanted to isolate me. The darkness wanted to drag me into a place where I couldn’t receive love or hear truth.
A while ago I made a commitment to myself. It was shortly after we moved down this long dirt road and into a place where it would be easy to become isolated. I made a decision to listen to that voice that pops up sometimes and tells me to withdraw from church or friends or social interactions; to listen, recognize it and to do just the opposite. If I start hearing lies run through my head like…
You’re just tired… you need to take a break from church or having people over and spend time with just you and God in the woods and quiet….
No one really cares about you so don’t bother them with your troubles… you should be strong enough to handle it yourself, anyway…
Don’t call that friend… she’s so busy… there are more important things on her plate than listening to you talk about yourself…
When I start thinking thoughts that if followed through would separate me from people, I know it’s time to send an email or pick up the phone. It can feel so humbling to send an email saying, “I am feeling really down this week. I don’t even know why… but if you get a chance to call sometime I could really use a friend to talk with.”
And, just like storing food on pantry shelves or medicine in a cabinet, I try to prepare for times when I barely have the strength to reach out. I try to give stores of friendship to women in my life so that they can call on me when they barely have strength as well. The truth is, this world does have a lot of shadows and murky areas, and we are going to feel the weight of sad things. And, we just weren’t designed to go it alone.
Our church is really wonderful about providing meals to people who are sick or who have just had a baby. I have had seven babies while a part of this church family and on average have received probably eight to ten meals each baby. Not to mention when I broke my wrist and was delivered lasagna five or six times (I’m not exaggerating… the kids started asking what kind of bread we were having with our lasagna instead of what was for dinner). Preparing meals and caring for people in this way is such a kind, wonderful way to live in community. But, honestly, this was so hard for me to accept. As an independent New Englander, I know I can plan ahead and put meals in the freezer and we can do just fine on our own. I always had the urge to say, “Thank you anyway, but we don’t need help. Don’t put yourself out on our account.” I’ve had to learn and be stretched and to grow in the area of receiving. Receiving meals and receiving relationship. It is so much easier to be the strong one offering a helping hand. But to accept the hand that’s offered, or to reach out and ask for a hand, is so much harder for me. It’s coming to terms with both my need and my worth. It’s admitting that I’m weak and believing that I’m worth helping.
Several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve needed to do both. The ladies in my church have a prayer group where we share requests through email. I sent off a couple of humbling emails. I have had to answer the phone and respond to emails and say ‘yes’ to getting together with friends, some of whom reached out just because I had admitted I was struggling. One friend brought me and my kids into her house for an afternoon and we shared the sweet medicine of laughter. She’s a friend that I have a big store of history and vulnerability piled up from years of truthful conversations, so I didn’t need to say much. She knew why things were hard and we could just spend time together pushing the darkness back and letting in more light.
Today, I just got home from a visit with another dear friend. Earlier this week I couldn’t imagine packing up all the kids and getting us out of the house and being energetic enough to visit. But I said yes. And, I’m so glad I did. More light came pouring in.
I finally feel like I’m coming out of that darkness that wanted to swallow me and isolate me. Some courage is seeping back in and some energy is starting to flow again. As it does, I find myself being so thankful. Not just for the stores of food to keep us fed or medicine to keep us healthy, but the store of community that God has blessed me with; friendships and a connection to a church family that has been tended and preserved through time.
One of the last things Jesus told his friends, after he had washed their feet and fed them a meal, was that he had a new commandment for them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “
For a long time, the mark of being right with God had been holiness. Jesus was drawing his people together and giving them a new mark. His disciples are known by their love for one another; the humbling, sacrificial, self-exposing, grace-extending love of Jesus pouring from heart to heart.
If you feel alone today, and like there’s a cloud or weight of darkness, please take the one little (though I know it can be so hard and daunting) step of reaching out and letting someone know you are feeling that way. I would love to have a cup of tea with you and hear your story, whether you are feeling strong and happy or whether you are discouraged and down. Since distance is an issue, sometimes the telephone or email has to serve as our virtual tea table. But those thoughts that tell you it’s a sign of weakness to reach out or that nobody wants to hear just aren’t true. God created us with a need for one another. He knew that in all seasons, the joyful bursts in summer, the cold and biting days of winter and all days in between, we do best when we are together. The love and truth and grace he wants to pour on you and me, he so often pours through the words or touch or listening eyes of a friend. My lesson this month has once again led to a prayer… may he give us the strength and the grace we need not only to give, but also to receive this kind of love. And, may He produce in us the commitment and authenticity to work and grow stores of this kind of friendship, which is more precious than any wealth of provision on pantry shelves.