Step by Step

Twelve years ago, I would watch my now sister-in-law, drop and do ten each time she passed the fireplace in her bungalow living room. Often times she’d have to put down the laundry basket or a kid to complete her regimented sit ups, push ups, or jumping jacks.

“There’s no time for the gym but if I do something each time I pass the fireplace, by the end of the day, I’ve had my workout,” she’d say.

I thought she was crazy. I chalked it up to her days as a captain in the Unites States Army. Maybe that routine was hard to let go of.

Still there was no arguing she was in great shape. She was almost ten years my senior, had four small children, and was in much better condition than the twenty six year old me. There was something to her madness, I just wasn’t sure what it was. Working out had never been my thing and doing it in five minute spurts throughout the day was just plain depressing.

Seven years later, carrying some extra pounds and two babies of my own, I sought the advice of a nutritionist to get myself into shape.

Her recommendation was a novel one: eat less, exercise more. The eating less part, was a struggle but doable. Exercise more? With two small children in tow, how the hell was I supposed to do that?

“Forty five minutes of cardio, six days a week,” was what the nutritionist prescribed. I laughed. 

Week one I decided I’d do twenty. Usually between 7 and 8 at night, after my husband was home, dinner was done, and the kids were cozy in their jammies, I’d hop on the treadmill and huff my way to the day’s end.

By week two my husband set up a little black and white TV in eye shot of the treadmill. By the end of that week, thirty minutes was not that big a deal, the length of a Seinfeld re-run or a cooking show.

By the end of that first month, I’d worked my way up to forty-five minutes which often became an hour to finish whatever program I’d started. Exercise was quickly becoming something I looked forward to. It made me feel good and I was seeing the difference.

Last summer, while sitting around the pool, a friend asked me if I wanted to go for a run the next day.

“I don’t run,” I said. Sure I was still doing the treadmill most days, but that was only a kind a sorta run. My friend was a real runner the kind that did marathons. 

“We’re going tomorrow morning at 7, just join us.”

“Okay,” I said, fully planning to cancel by text around 6:45. 

But the next morning I found myself more curious than tired. So I went. Three women, all runners, and me. For the first mile I talked non-stop. If I could wind my way through a conversation, I might forget that I was not on my treadmill. By mile two, I was feeling okay, good actually. And by the time we reached the coffee shop that was our finish line, I felt like I could keep going. 

I did it. Until that moment I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it. Running long distance had never been a stated goal of mine (of which there are many). But slowly, step by step, jog by jog, I was a runner. 

This morning out on my now daily jog, I thought of my sister-in-law and her crazy regimen. I get it now. 

Life happens in increments. It’s daunting, impossible even, to “get into shape”, “lose twenty pounds”, “find the love of your life” or “write a novel.”  But if you do it carrot by carrot, date by date, word by word, most things are possible.

You just have to be willing to drop and do ten. 

My God

My God

When grappling with the usual calamities of youth, things like heartache, injustice, bullies, not making the cheerleading team, my mother always had the same response. “Pray about it,” she’d say with intense ease. Her words relayed comfort, but her eyes had a “this is important” demeanor. And so even though I felt like saying, “I didn’t do well on a test, I’m not flunking out of school altogether!” Generally, I’d say a quick pray for good measure.

I always knew my mother’s intentions were honorable. I was also fairly certain that the spiritual leader of the universe did not have my misguided attempts at being junior high cheerleading captain on his 1984 priority list. Despite any efforts my mother made to convince me otherwise, this was something of which I was sure.

I was also fairly certain at an early age, that God, my God, was a good guy with an acute sense of humor. I don’t know why I never thought God could be a woman. Maybe because early on it was mostly me and my mom and I felt the need for a guy in the equation. 

Or, more likely because the figure pictured in the literature of the liberal, for a Catholic church, we attended was a Bohemian looking twenty something man. Somehow I knew that he, God and Jesus, was with us. And, I hoped he was patient since my mother conferenced him in a few dozen times a day.

I recall thinking of prayers, and probably religion in general, as a sort of equalizer between what could happen and what actually did. Like the time when I fell down our rather steep stairs and my mother quickly garnished the all white bottle of holy water from the pull down desk she had inherited from her grandmother. Within seconds of easing my tears, each of my scrapes and would-be bruises were blessed with dabs of water. And since nothing but a few achy muscles resulted from the fall, I remember thinking that the stuff must work. No broken bones or gashing head wounds. Just some routine pains.

As I got a little older, I naturally began to question. Was all this praying really necessary? Somewhere in my early teenage years the questioning turned to sarcasm and then round about sixteen a healthy hostility set in. My mother’s faith in God and his ability to cure anything and everything began to simply make me mad. It occurred to me that she was wasting quite a bit of her time, and therefore mine, in deep prayer about situations that she should just plain take control of herself. And so, as she’d recite her “pray about it” mantra, I began rolling my eyes at her blatant disregard for reality.  

Surprisingly, though, I never stopped praying myself. Sometimes, like before a test, I’d find myself doing a safety prayer. The kind that just can’t hurt. But, mostly I really prayed and believed that he was listening. 

I vividly remember a moment in college when a friend asked for my advice. After describing all of her options, she looked to me and asked, “What would you do?” Without a moment’s hesitation, to my slight embarrassment, I said, “I’d pray about it.” It was probably the first time I acknowledged my own faith in prayer, no longer just an extension of my mother’s.

Once, early in our marriage when faced with an important decision, my husband and I decided to pray.  Together.  It was an awkward moment.  Between the two of us we had several decades of praying experience, but neither one was particularly comfortable with the public prayer approach. So after a few seconds of  “you go, no you start” I just launched in.  

As I began outlining all the details, telling God that we weren’t sure of our next step, that we appreciated the options, but needed his guidance, I looked over at my husband who was clearly trying to contain laughter. “Then you say the prayer!” I blurted. 

“It’s just a little more free flowing than I am used to” he said, still trying not to laugh. And then I began laughing because I knew exactly what he meant. I talk to God like I am talking to a friend not an almighty being that big statues are built to or wars are fought over.
The God of statues and rosary beads has never been in sync with the being to which I pray.  I’m not sure that guy would’ve been well suited for the early on journey, with my mother and me. That God always seemed a little too organized.

I grapple with that God and my God, and with the endless litany of rituals associated with my religion. I avoid disgruntled Catholic conversations at all costs. I refuse to defend my religion. I’ve never relied on other human beings to interface with My God and I’m never quite sure what to say to people who do.

Last week in church my eight year old leaned over and in a half whisper asked, “Has anyone ever met God? How do we really know he exists?”

I thought about punting the question until later so that I could better formulate my response. Instead, I said in half whisper, “That’s where faith comes in. You have to figure out the answer to that question for yourself. That’s why we’re here.”

He stared straight ahead. I worried that I was too vague or not emphatic enough. My response was a far cry from the “pray about it” mantra I’d been handed at his age. I was ready for him to ask me what I thought. To give him the comfort that his Mom believed. But instead he turned to me and whispered, “My faith tells me it’s 50/50.”

I smiled. And I was pretty sure My God, the long haired hippy God, was smiling too. 

In The Garden
by Holly Howley

At the end of summer, just as the nights turn crisp and mums multiply, I make my ceremonial sauce. Forty juicy tomatoes that’s what it takes. Trial and error has gone into that number. It’s enough to make sauce for a few meals with some left over for the freezer. After all, these are not just any tomatoes. They are tomatoes from the garden. 

Growing up we had a garden. I recall few details of the actual planting but I remember checking daily for progress and cheering when the vegetables miraculously sprung from the ground. So, thirty five years later when my husband and I bought a house that came with a backyard garden plot, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my own kids. 

I soon realized, though I had no idea what I was doing. That first year we, my two sons and I, did a lot of research. And then we planted way too many seeds, way too close together. Second year, we sowed half the seeds and everything farther apart. It was one of the hottest summers on record. The entire garden grew with rapid speed. Most nights July through September we enjoyed something from our homegrown harvest.

This year, a little more confidence has settled in, along with a healthy respect for what  lies before me. It has taken me a while but I now know that even the weeds have their place.

This morning as I poured over the past prime plants, picking the late blooming tomatoes for my ceremonial sauce, I felt the familiar struggle of the changing season. In the garden, in me. The garden has come to mean much more to me than the produce it provides. I’ve learned a lot, over the last few summers, in the garden. 

Space. Plants, like people, need space. When they are crowded they either get power hungry or topple from the weight of others around them.

Balance. Plants also require water and sun. But too much of either is, too much. Balance is important.

Timing. Never water in high heat. The water bakes the plants and makes everything droopy. It’s the same as trying to reason with a tantrum throwing toddler in a grocery store. Let the intensity subside, and things will work out just fine.

Imperfections. Get rid of weeds before they’ve fully taken root. If you wait too long, it can be difficult to tell which is the plant and which is the weed. After a certain point, it’s better to have some weeds growing side by side with the plants than to kill the vegetables trying to destroy the interloper. And sometimes, it turns out, the plants and weeds grow just fine, together.

Freedom. Let plants roam. I try to plan out the flow of the garden so that the rambling summer squash vines don’t invade the more controlled eggplants and tomatoes but in the end, the plants do what they want. I gently nudge them and tie them together on sticks and cages. Plants like people need direction, support. But don’t give them too much instruction. They’ll find the warmth they need, after they figure out which path is best for them.

Share.  There is nothing like the taste of juicy homegrown tomatoes or the tangy punch of garden leeks except the glory of sharing something you’ve grown with an unsuspecting friend.  

Letting Go. There is no perfection in the garden. I love getting my fingers dirty, tending the baby plants, sowing the growing fruit. But it isn’t orderly or pretty. I am usually a sweaty, buggy mess after I’ve spent time in the garden. And despite my best efforts in May to pristinely plant seeds in perfect rows, by July the garden is a twisty, twirly magical mass of green, ready to burst with the season’s bounty. 

Then just a few short weeks later, the vines wither, the fruit is picked, and even the weeds grow weary. Summer ends. 

And that’s when I make my ceremonial sauce--to remember--summer in the garden.