Volunteer tomato plants

I aspire to have a magnificent garden someday. In my imagination, I grow heirloom tomatoes, delicate lettuces and beans with cranberry speckles. I know just what to plant and where to plant it and when to get the plants in the ground. I can identify any insect that might enter the domain of my beloved garden and the best way to eradicate the sinister ones. I can feel an approaching storm in the marrow of my bones, accurately predicting the rainfall my plants will receive.

 

Unfortunately, this is all in my imagination. If only dreaming were the same as doing. Instead I spend most of my outdoor time in the spring at soccer games. Someday…

 

In the meantime, I have been able to grow one thing abundantly—cherry tomatoes. There are few foods in this world that I love as much as fresh-grown tomatoes. In the summer, we eat a lot of BLT sandwiches and green salads with homemade ranch dressing and pasta tossed with sliced grilled chicken, olive oil, chopped garlic, ribbons of fresh basil, halved cherry tomatoes and a bit of sea salt. But I’m just as happy to eat a bowl full of sliced tomatoes topped with a big dollop of cottage cheese.

 

Because of this great love of the tomato, it’s such a thrill when I see a tomato seedling pop up which I didn’t plant. It’s a bonus plant, an unexpected gift. As I watered my little row of cherry tomato plants this morning, I found the little fella, trying its best to grow in the shade of its bigger and more productive brothers. I spoke to it (I’m that Crazy Tomato Lady you’ve been hearing about), and told the baby plant to keep on going so it could give me some of those ruby-like tomatoes which I crave.

 

This was a good kind of surprise, one that I didn’t see coming but welcomed with open arms (or, in this case, open mouth). It made me wonder if I had ever been the volunteer tomato plant for someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice to give someone a good surprise? How many times have I overlooked or ignored an opportunity to go out of my way to do something for a fellow human, not out of obligation or personal glory, but only because I had a chance to brighten that person’s day?

 

This week, let’s look for an opportunity to be an unexpected surprise for someone. It can be a stranger or a neighbor or a person you’ve known your whole life. Don’t let them know it was you, but do let them know they are loved. It doesn’t have to cost anything. It just takes a little effort and selfless motivation and a desire to bloom where you’re planted.

Why we do difficult things

Parenting is hard. This is the eternal truth I was pondering as I rubbed the back of my ankle right after my older son slammed into it with the grocery cart. You give them a chance to prove themselves, such as saying that they can follow behind you up and down the aisles with what amounts to being a metal battering ram, and sometimes they disappoint you. Being a parent can be a really tough job, but that doesn’t make me want to quit.

 

We have a saying in our house (by we, I mean and by saying, I mean homework time mantra): “When things are hard, we try harder.” It works for memorizing multiplication facts and learning to ride a bike. When a task just seems too difficult to complete, I tell them, “Rossers don’t quit.” Those are my standard pep talk declarations.

 

Other than the obvious reasons not to give up (“Multiplication is something you will actually use your whole life! You just have to learn what 8 times 6 is!”), there are other, ongoing reasons not to quit. Each time we conquer a fear or accomplish a new skill, we add another layer to our confidence. These successes strengthen our resolve, making the next hurtle a little less daunting.

 

I love stories about people who truly overcome adversity to do really great things, people who don’t quit even when things seem impossible and the world tells them they’re no good. An example of this kind of insane rise against all odds is the story of Dr. Ben Carson, famed neurosurgeon and current HUD secretary.

 

Dr. Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit, and he was at the bottom of his class academically. The key to his eventual success was his mother. “I was fortunate enough, you know, to have a mother who believed in me when everybody else was calling me dummy,” he said in a 2005 NPR interview. “She prayed and asked God to give her wisdom. What could she do to give her sons to understand the importance of academic achievement, because we were doing terribly in school. And she came up with the idea of turning off the TV and making us read books…You know, it did incredible things for me because, you know, between the covers of those books you could be anybody, you could go anywhere, you could do anything. And it begins to broaden your horizons. And, you know, within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.”

 

Cresting that hill made the next one seem climbable, and the next one, and the next one. His mother wouldn’t let him and anyone else define him as a “dummy.” She made sure he knew it would be hard work, but it was within his grasp.

 

You have to assume that if we only do easy things, growth will be minimal. And besides, our most important tasks (like parenting) are just supposed to be difficult (like parenting at the grocery store), but we’re not alone. As C.S. Lewis said, “God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain.”

Testing

There’s plenty of talk about standardized testing these days. Do they make kids too stressed? Do we test enough? Too much? Are they an accurate gauge of a teacher’s performance? Should the testing dates be spread out more or consolidated into fewer days? My answer to this as a former teacher and a current parent is…I have no idea. What I bring to the table is a discussion of the plight of a testing proctor.

 

For several years, I’ve volunteered to be present in a classroom while these standardized tests are administered. This job is in equal parts necessary and redundant, super easy and painfully boring. The proctor’s main job is to exist. That’s it. Sure, I’m supposed to walk around the classroom, help pass out testing material, dispense the occasional tissue, but mostly I’m there to prove that everything is legitimate. Nobody is trying anything shady, not that they would.

 

I’m not supposed to look at my phone or read a book. My eyes should always be scanning these kids as they work their way through reading passages or solving math problems. As the room grows deathly quiet, I inevitably get sleepy, so I decide to get up and move around a bit. In my quietest sneakers, I walk up and down the rows of desks, glancing at their booklets without really focusing on anything, just making sure they’re on the correct section and there are no stray marks. (Curse you, you ruinous stray marks! Who knew a light swipe of a #2 pencil could bring on such doom!)

 

After a few days of this, my mind begins to adapt to this change of pace. Like a prisoner in dark, solitary confinement, I look for anything to amuse myself: world maps and inspirational posters. I start cataloging facts, such as how many kids are left-handed and how many wear glasses and whose constant sniffing leads me to believe he suffers from pollen allergies and would benefit from a morning dose of Claritin.

 

Though I don’t know these kids, I begin to feel that I do. My heart presses me to wonder about them and root for them and pray for them. I try to give a reassuring smile to each student who might happen to look at me, hoping a friendly expression is encouraging.

 

Being a testing proctor isn’t a difficult job, but it does require a deceleration, a slowing down of productivity, a temporary devotion to almost monastic pursuits. I become jealous of the classroom teachers when they pull out the Clorox wipes and busy themselves with wiping down counters. At least they have something to do. I crave that kind of useful service.

 

Unrelated to the buzz you usually find around the debate about standardized testing, this annual activity is a reminder for me to be observant. I often forget how powerful the act of just watching can be. Noticing little things about people I barely know—like who has to bounce his leg up and down continuously to stay focused and who can’t stand when someone near her is bouncing his leg up and down—is like a window into their personalities. These observations are the beginning of understanding. To quote Sherlock Holmes, fiction’s keenest observer: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” I seek to do both.

Bearing with one another

Last week I was honored to speak at a Mother/Daughter Tea at a church in town. It was a lovely event with tea and coffee and cupcakes and lavender sachets. I came away believing that we really should institute a regular afternoon tea time.

 

I shared a story with these dear women about my dental struggles.Several years ago my dental hygienist pointed out some worn down spots and asked me if I grind my teeth. I’d been having ear aches that weren’t infections, and once I started thinking about it I realized that my jaw was always sore. She asked me if I was under any particular stress. At the time, we were in year three of what would eventually be four years of trying to bring our adopted son home from Africa, so yeah…I was stressed.

 

During that time, I had unknowingly directed my stress and frustration and worry on my poor mouth. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, causing damage to my gums. I would go on to have gum graph surgery and my dentist recommended I use clear plastic aligners (instead of braces) to correct my misshapen bite.

 

I’ve been through dozens of this plastic teeth movers now and from one aligner to the next, you can hardly tell there’s any change. It’s a tiny tweak, slight modification. But over the many months, the minor modifications add up to a new bite that will cause less stress on my gums and help me keep my teeth.

 

At this point in my talk, the women I shared this with were probably beginning to regret inviting me to their Tea. But I went on to explain that in relationships with each other, we can create bad habits. Dysfunction doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s a slow teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching process. And this can be the case with mother/daughter relationships. An irritation or misunderstanding becomes a habit of slamming doors and shouting names. It’s hard when these habits become formed, but they don’t have to remain forever. That kind of stubbornness is a sin and God will always be on the side of breaking those sinful patterns, especially when they disrupt our families.

 

So we must look to Scripture for guidance. In the book of Ephesians, we see what the Apostle Paul thought was most important to say to fellow Christians while he was in prison in Rome. Ephesians 4:2-3 gives us some essential truths.

 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (NIV)

 

In other words, be humble and gentle as Jesus was when he washed his disciples’ feet, choosing the posture of a servant over the attitude of a bully. Tolerate the differences you see in each other because you choose to love in an unconditional way. Then work diligently, with expectations of restoration, to become one as you join together in harmony to sing a beautiful hymn of goodwill.

 

If we can do these things in our relationships with each other, we can take those small steps toward healing. It will take patience, and sometimes there will be setbacks, but the sweetest fruit often take the longest to ripen.

Cheerleader

I was never a cheerleader in school. For most anyone who knows me (or who has seen me attempt to clap and sing simultaneously in church or have a conversation while jogging on a treadmill without tripping myself), this is not a big surprise. I was more of a “help-paint-banners-for-the-pep-rally” kind of girl, which doesn’t involve cartwheels or rhythm or a basic understanding of sports.

 

In spite of this, I do find opportunities to cheer people on (no pom-poms required).

 

My older sister texted me the other day and said, “I need a pep talk. I don’t want to go to the grocery store.”

 

Here was my reply: “You got this!! It’s a magical place!! Your children won’t be there!! You can lean on the cart when you get tired!! You can go to the deli and ask for cheese samples!!”

 

Miraculously she responded that it worked! She was on her way to Kroger!

 

This should’ve been my career—Professional Pep Talker. People could sign up for my services (maybe download an app on their phones? Something I understand as well as I understand sports), and then they could text me when they need motivation. Dear Penny Pep Talk, tell me why I need to finish this research paper? Or Hey Pep Talk Lady! I’m going crazy! I just can’t match any more of my kids’ socks! Help!It would be so fun!

 

Being able to cheer each other on is one of the best parts of being human. The Apostle Paul knew this when he told the church in Thessalonica, “So encourage each other to build each other up, just as you are already doing.” (TLB) Paul encouraged them to keep on encouraging each other.

 

I recently spent a few weeks teaching a Bible class for women at my church on Wednesday nights. Talk about professional encouragers! These ladies are phenomenal! Women of different generations sat around tables and drank up the reassuring news from the Scriptures. Then they poured out love on each other, building up their sisters. Paul would’ve been so proud!

 

So here’s the good news: if you always wanted to be a cheerleader but never made the squad, you’ve got another chance. Someone somewhere sometime today is going to need your encouragement. Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate? Encouragers!!

A Golden Afternoon

For the first 6 ½ years of our marriage, my husband and I lived in Memphis. The majority of that time was spent in a modest, brick house built in the 1950’s on a sidewalk-lined street shaded by dozens of towering, deep-rooted trees. As is often the case in older neighborhoods, many of the homes were inhabited by elderly people—some couples but mostly widows. It was a quiet street nestled in the heart of such a busy city and we loved it.

 

Beside the fact that our best friends lived across the street, the main reason I look back on that home so fondly is because it was the place we brought home our newborn twin daughters. Our girls lived there until the weekend they turned 2, when we moved to Murfreesboro.

 

Next door to us lived an older woman named Golden Crenshaw. The first time we met, I was playing with my barely crawling babies on a blanket in the front yard. Ms. Golden walked over and invited us to her house to meet her housemate. I nervously entered with a baby in each arm, eyeing all of the breakable knickknacks in the warm living room which seemed to tremble in the presence of such small and possibly destructive children.

 

Ms. Golden introduced me to her late husband’s aunt. She was a tiny, frail woman well into her 90’s and I was instructed to call her “Aunt” (I have no idea what her name actually was). The women asked me about the girls—their names and age. They asked me where I was from and what brought us to Memphis.

 

Ms. Golden inquired about my name. “Abby? Is it short for Abigail?” she asked.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered politely as a wrangled my restless babies. “But no one really calls me that.”

 

“Well, we shall call you Abigail,” responded Ms. Golden. “Won’t we, Aunt?” She said a little louder.

 

And that’s just what they did. In all the universe—other than the person who calls me back to see the doctor while I’m waiting in the waiting room, only Ms. Golden and Aunt called me Abigail. In spite of their precise attention to decorum, they exuded warmth and acceptance and a genuine interest in a fairly exhausted young mom. It’s like how some people can wear the color yellow while others just can’t. They could pull off the Formal Southern Thing without seeming stiff or snobbish.

 

Ms. Golden did most of the talking with Aunt chiming in every once in a while to answer her niece-in-law’s question. Aunt would mostly stroke my daughter’s baby soft hair with her worn fingers and smile. They told me about Ms. Golden’s late husband and her daughters, one of which had also passed away. That first afternoon, they shared their stories and asked me mine.

 

Over the next year or so before we moved away, we’d visit from time to time. They gave the girls matching dolls for Christmas which the girls would eventually take on many walks down those lovely, shaded sidewalks in their miniature pink doll strollers.

 

I recently found one of those baby dolls, abandoned and unused lying face down in a dark corner of the play room closet. I picked it up and thought about that hot afternoon with Ms. Golden and Aunt. Then I thought about the other women who early in my marriage encouraged me and valued my thoughts: our church’s custodian who told me I was beautiful even though I was nearly 9 months pregnant with twins and ridiculously swollen. The scores of women who brought us meals after the girls were born. The doctor’s office receptionist who gave me diapers from her own baby’s diaper bag when I ran out during a long day of appointments for my 18-month old who had a broken arm. Women who were there for me just when I needed them and others who were there the rest of the time.

 

When it seems that the world tries to convince us that we should tear each other down to make ourselves look better, I will think of these women. As Helen Keller—the inspirational author and speaker who had to rely on others to be her eyes and ears said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”