teach without words

My front porch is a healthy slice of heaven.

Oh, it’s not perfect by a long shot. The paint is chipping, the swing has been permanently tattooed by someone I have never met, and the renegade dandelions sprout up audaciously between framing hostas. But these things do not outweigh its charm. It faces northwest, the perfect angle toward which we can watch the sunset and drink long draughts of that enchanted northern breeze. Tractors circle the house on every side, kicking up pixie dust wherever they plow. The swing is wide enough for me and four children, and we often use it as our time machine – reading and flying, reading and adventuring, reading and resting. My husband bought me a beautiful hanging basket of flowers, with which I am smitten. They are petunias (I think), and they adorn this slowing-down-space with a generous grace from the corner just below the ledge that the swallows have claimed for the season.

It is loveliness incarnate to me.

As is often the case, two of the boys are swinging gently while reading together. The older one, usually known for his torment of the small ones, is almost paternal in pointing out pictures of hippos and apples and igloos and helping the two-year-old learn. That, being the miracle it is, was certainly not something I was eager to interrupt. But adrift in the cadence of the swaying seat, inhaling peace in all its glory, I happened to glance up at my petunias and notice that they needed work. There were many dead blossoms, hanging there withered; and upon further inspection, I also discovered the soil to be dry as a bone. Sensing it would not be too disruptive, I tiptoed back into the house and filled a pitcher with water.

The boys were still engrossed when I returned. I watered the flowers and began the ever-tedious process of picking off the dead ones, to the tune of pleasant boy voices and “no, look, Buzzy, this is an oc-to-pus in the background. Water ran out of the bottom of the plant and just as I was thinking this moment could not get any sweeter, the dog tipped her head up at the steady stream of water coming from above and started licking it.

My oldest daughter appeared by my side then, although I didn’t notice her coming, still absorbed in dog hilarity – watching that hairy beast snatch a rogue drink from such an unlikely source. And her words startled me.

What are you doing, Mom? She spoke and my eyes met hers, blue on blue.

I glanced at my hands, still tenderly, patiently tugging at the wilted blossoms.

Oh, this? Well, some of the flowers are dead and need to be pulled off, I explained, like so.

We pluck together for a moment, my rough hands and her smooth both keeping rhythm with the coo of mourning doves who find their own swing on the wire that runs from the house to the pole near the street. Sacred northerly breezes lift her hair here and there. The boys are studying that camel picture in the book for all its worth.

Y’know, I used to do this job for my mom when I was a girl your age . . .

And I surprise myself. I wonder where in the world those words came from. Maybe it was the sprinkle of magic on the wind or the melody of repetitious cooing punctuated with squeak of swing’s back and forth lilt that coaxed it out. I never told anyone how it made me feel to sit in the sun – breeze now teasing, now caressing my hair. I never admitted to the glory I sensed in the small task of caring for a thing of beauty, holding in my hand the death and the life of the earth-bound. I never fessed up to finding the thin place in the veil that hangs between heaven and dirt when absorbed in the minutia of common everyday gardening. How it made me feel at the same time both so loved and so small.

But somehow, I knew it was time for her to feel it, too.

And sometimes things are better taught without words.

Our fingers work side by side, and then she gets an idea. She braces herself with her hands on the railing and leaps – first balancing on her knees, then trusting one foot at a time – and gingerly shuffles down toward the basket, only the railing beneath her feet. She reaches out to prune the top flowers, but with her hand still tightly affixed to the pole, she can only reach a few.

Mom, I want to do the top, but I think I’m gonna fall if I don’t hold on to something . . . and she extends her hand in my direction.

Instinct grabs her by the forearm and we’re connected now by so much more than blue on blue. I steady her, yes, but holding her tight, it dawns on me slowly that there are many ways in which she steadies me, too. I wonder back to my childhood days in the sun and my mother who planted petunias. How that simple job gave me so much more than just a disciplined work ethic. Did I steady her as she (perhaps unwittingly) provided that thin place for me to feel the grasping and holding of God in all its beautiful fury?

Perhaps I did.

Perhaps she does.

And could it be? Perhaps this is what mothering is all about.


when you teach without words and find yourself the learner

by Kelli Woodford time to read: 5 min