Foreseen in Joy

This post is written by Sarah

I got to sleep in this morning and as I drifted slowly awake a memory came to me of my first Mother’s Day. It was 2012 and I was six months pregnant with Micah. Some dear friends of ours, Arthur and Min Lee Ang were also expecting a child. Together with a couple single friends from our church we all went out for brunch after the service to celebrate. The day was chilly but the sun was warm so we ate out on the patio. As I remembered this scene I got out of bed and remarked to Andrew, “That was one of the best days of my life.”

“Really?” He asked, sounding a bit surprised.

It’s strange which memories really stick with a person through the years. It isn’t always the ones expected. But I will never forget how I felt that day. It was joy and a quiet excitement and expectation for a promised hope just four months later. That length of time was also enough to infuse a twinge of longing and impatience into the joy. It was exquisite.

Many parents grow cynical and there is a lot of chatter on the internet about the struggle that is parenting. Did I really understand that first Mother’s Day the difficulties I was going to face? I never really knew frustration until I became a mother. I never knew how long days could feel, or months, or years. My mother told me that my childhood flew by for her. How… peculiar. How unlike my experience.

Hear the following poem read aloud in Berry’s own majestic Kentucky-bred voice:

X of The Sabbath Poems
by Wendell Berry (1979)

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap, 
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good. 

Now that I have TEN children to care for each day, I obviously think about parenting a lot. A lot, a lot. About what it is. About what it is not. And I have decided that more than anything else, parenting is like this poem. A seed falls into the ground and then we spend a lifetime tending it. We till and water, sweat and toil. Sometimes we walk through our fields and admire the little shoots springing up and enjoy the breeze. Both mostly, we get dirt under our fingernails.

What’s more parenting isn’t just any farming- it’s farming in the long term. It is,

“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.”

Sequoias are a crop that take a lifetime or two to grow. This crop is made of hard wood. Progress is slow and each ring on the trunk takes tremendous effort. Yet someday they may become giants. They will outlive us all, ever green and sturdy.

I worry all the time about the outcome of my labors. It is easy to get caught up in the anxiety of knowing that in some way, every parent damages her child. Will they have good memories? If only I could predict which strange ones will take root in their little hearts.

This anxiety is amplified exponentially when it comes to my teenage girls. And the fears are not unfounded. I soil my knees as I kneel down to pull the weeds with their prickles and burrs. I water these saplings with my tears. I did not plant them and I will not be the one to harvest, but it is my solemn duty to stubbornly prune and shape them while they are in my charge.

Someday when these girls leave me, possibly tomorrow, there is a real possibility that they will not be successful human beings. Even the strongest among them will struggle through the rest of their lives. The weak wither or burn up in a wild fire, destined to become a sad story in the local news for half a news cycle. Often I will never even know which way it will go. It is an awful lot of work to tend to these trees for such an uncertain harvest. But Berry whispers to me

“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.”

Believe me—parenting is not very immediately rewarding. It takes an immense amount of faith and so little of the outcome depends on our work anyway. “Great work is done while we’re asleep.” Children and plants alike grow in the night by God’s magic. As Berry says, we just have to leave it to grace and assume a Sabbath mood of rest. I have to believe that those who go out weeping carrying seed to sow will return with sheaves and songs of joy.

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