Oh, this delicious month of May! I hope I remember it always, these warm afternoons on the back deck, string lights overhead, green canopies reaching up from the tree limbs and almost to the rooftop of our brick house. Throughout our little 1960s neighborhood, on the hour, all day long, you can hear church bells chime from a few blocks away, clear and loud, shooting out hymns from my childhood into the bright blue sky, and some days I almost can’t believe the magic of them, mixing with the rustle of leaves in the wind, dogs barking next door, someone’s lawnmower at work. I have already lived many Mays, but it is this May in which I’ve taken special delight, in large part because of the white, plastic adirondack chairs we recently purchased for $12 apiece (what a pittance compared to what they’ve returned, hours in the sunshine or the evening chill while Rocco plays on blankets at our feet); and, also, in perhaps much larger part, because of something I sense changing, finally changing, in me, something which previously has kept me from being able to fully know a lightness of spirit or the simple pleasures the days of May can bring. I am hesitant to write about it here, wondering if I can articulate well what I mean, but, since for near eight years, this place has been my journal, my craft, my recorder of momentous occasions small and big, I believe it will do me good to try.
The chairs are easier to explain: I’ve told myself for months I was waiting for something—the deck to be refinished, the lights to be hung, the baby to be born, the winter to be over, more money to spend—before I would eventually buy some outdoor furniture to enjoy, but, at last, one recent afternoon while running errands, Tim and I saw these cheap, simple chairs, and we agreed, for now, the waiting was done. Getting those first two chairs—we would later go back for two more—in the back of our little sportswagon wasn’t easy, but, after pushing down one side of the backseat, taking out the stroller, moving around the blankets and wedging it all back in just right, we were homebound with the purchases that would turn out to transform our outdoor life. My only regret now is all those lost months we could have been spending time together outside, if I’d just settled for buying something suitable for now. Often this last week, sitting beneath swaying branches, I’ve thought to myself, is it any wonder studies link trees with human health, like the U.S. Forest Service says? Or that time spent in green space is connected to lowered stress, according to Science Direct? Or that the Psalmist writes the heavens declare the glory of God?
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts,” says Robert Louis Stevenson, “as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” It is not just the trees that have been changing and renewing my weary spirit this month, but, for what it’s worth, it is at least them. It is them and a hundred other details, circumstantial things like $12 chairs and warm sunshine on my skin, non-circumstantial things like realizations that only culminate from wide collections of books and articles and podcasts and conversations and hard questions that began to hit me after having a child. I am seeing God differently—sweeter, better, bigger. My mind is being changed.
Along with time amongst the trees, May has also brought the return of seasonal farmers’ markets to Nashville and, along with them, the start of peach season. I love peach season. Is there anything sweeter or more summery than biting into a soft, juicy fruit over the kitchen sink, juices dribbling down your chin, your arms, your fingers? Is there anything harder to ignore than the innate pleasure of that sweet nectar on your tongue? What match is the chill of winter for a moment like this?
At the market downtown, a brown bag of freshly picked peaches costs $8, and when you hand over your cash, the seller urges patience. “Wait two or three days! Leave them in the trunk of your car to make it quick!” But, memories of previous years’ peaches dancing in my head as soon as I saw the stand, I was already fantasizing about fresh fruit for breakfast or lunch even as I walked back to my car. I count it yet another serendipity that, one short day of keeping the bag on my counter later, when I reached into the bag for a peach to gently squeeze, it gave at my touch.
My sophomore year of college, I read a short, little book. Here it is on Amazon, only mine didn’t look like that picture; it was violet and hardcover and had an image of something, I don’t remember what, in the middle of the front. I’d grown up in a religiously earnest or, mostly earnest, world. I’d been reading my Bible since I was a young teen. I’d attended a private high school with chapel every week. There were a lot of weird and also wrong things that happened in that world, and I’ve spent a lot of my adulthood trying to make sense of them, but, what is significant to my own personal story is that God met me in that world—me, personally—so that He was, to me, not the god of my teachers or the god of my parents, but the god of me. He was, and is, the God I inwardly cried out to in 2002, believing I was about to die, in the split-seconds in which I flipped my Volkswagen Jetta on Wisconsin black ice. He was, and is, the God I have prayed to alone in the kitchen or with Tim in our bed or, lately, on Tuesday nights, with a sweet group of other women at my church. Yet nonetheless, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when I read that small book, that I first began to see something about Him that I had never seen before, something that has continued unfolding and expanding and enlarging in the fifteen or so years since, something that I am starting to believe will only keep enlarging for me as long as I live. My highest thoughts cannot contain Him. My highest hopes aren’t high enough. If there’s one thing I’m sure of in myself, it’s that I long to be happy, to know joy, and increasingly what started with that little book in college is becoming more tangible to me in Him.
The moment I realized the peaches were ripe, I imagined Rocco’s reaction to them. To me, the appeal of peaches is a known pleasure; to him, it is a discovery yet to be made. So when he woke from his nap, after he’d nursed, he, Tim and I walked out to the deck, we set down an old tablecloth and placed Rocco on top of it, and we handed him a peach. In moments, his three small teeth were breaking the skin, taking in the ripe flesh, juices running all over his hands, his arms, his legs, the cloth. “Mmmmm,” he kept saying while he ate it, almost as if he were letting us know it was good. As much as I love a good peach, I love seeing him love it just as much. What pleasure to give my baby something good and see him like it! What delight to get to be the one to hand him his first, ripe Georgia peach! As soon as I think that, I think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to them who ask him!”
Lanier Ivester, in her 2013 post, “Mercies,” writes of a similar turning point and how “it changed the inner landscape of my life and would gradually affect the outer one, as well. I literally began to laugh for joy—right there in the midst of my pain—at the outlandish dreams that started to take shape: the things I suddenly knew I had always wanted to do, but had become too hagridden with convention to seriously consider. Dreams of books written and read; of studies and travels; of boats and music and poetry and the footpaths of England; kinships, liturgy, and a livelier life in Christ! Dreams more remembered than devised, it seemed, though I had never thought of some of them before. And in that deep remembering, I found something I had lost along the way, something so precious it had captured my heart with the love of Christ in the first place: namely, desire points. Beauty beckons beyond itself. Longings, whether attainable or not, are sign posts to safe haven, the inconsolable sehnsucht that lures our hearts to the Love we’re made for.”
Real love, love that seeks another’s highest good in what God says is good, is a love that enlarges and expands and grows our world and possibilities; it doesn’t shrink them. Real love opens new doors and dreams big dreams and isn’t so overridden with guilt and shame that it’s afraid to take a step. I am sad to see how I’ve thought so little of the love of God that I’ve thought I had to earn it. I’ve been afraid of how I’ve failed it. I’ve nursed guilt for things He’s already declared forgiven and gone. I’ve put so much emphasis on my small reality when a broader, larger scope beckons me beyond myself. My very longings for joy are sign posts to safe haven, as Lanier writes. They are precisely what push me deeper and further into knowing Him.
So often when I’m making something to eat or buying groceries at the store, I look at the smells and textures and colors in front of me, the sheer diversity of it all, the wonder! And I think, I’m so grateful for these pleasures. I’m so grateful to slice ripe peaches on a cutting board and sidle them alongside slices of mozzarella cheese and leaves of basil, to drizzle balsamic vinegar and honey on top, to sprinkle fine sea salt and to crack black pepper as a finishing touch. These small acts are, to my heart, acts of incarnation, acts that point me through the tangibility of food to the intangibility of the One who gives it to me. But, also, so often, I am discouraged by the evil in the world, by the pretense, the manipulation, the abuse; I’m weighed down by it; I carry it, as if my melancholy is the only weapon I can use.
Lately, through trees, through food, through books, through long talks with Tim, God is opening my perspective to a new freedom I’ve never known before, one that makes everything inside me want to shout, “Yes!” What better rebellion against evil than joy? What greater weapon against manipulation than freedom from it? I cannot change every wrong, but I can be a person, one person, who sees and savors the One who made her, in small ways and big. I can freely enjoy doing so! Because of this, gloriously because of this, more than ever before in my life, the future is filled with possibility. Real joy is available to me the moment I awake. I am, or, I think I am, experiencing that inward restfulness, actually apprehending it with a spring in my step, instead of waiting for someone else to tell me that I may. Otium sanctum: I walk in today’s duties believing they matter to Him, believing there is beauty in them, expecting it, finding it, taking ownership of my role! Oh, may God resurrect in me the “forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment” at my existence, as G. K. Chesterton described it. May he take my desires and, on the contrary to shrinking them, may he continue to show me where they’re too weak.
Peach Caprese Salad
It would be disingenuous to claim this as a recipe, when truly it’s a method, one that I first saw on Pinterest and then vaguely remembered when I was in the kitchen slicing the season’s first ripe peaches this month. All you need to remember are the ingredients; the proportions are truly up to you. What you wind up with is a softer, juicer, seasonally appropriate version of caprese salad, where every bite is both juicy fruit and satisfying cheese.
Fresh, ripe peaches
A ball of mozzarella cheese
Fresh basil leaves
Fine sea salt
Slice the peaches and the mozzarella into similar sizes, and layer them, peach, mozzarella, basil, peach mozzarella, basil, across the size of your plate or dish. Drizzle balsamic and honey on top; salt and pepper to taste.