The leaf & cathedral that moved me to tears

MJ met Mr. Bear, our new ottoman, this week.  I told the kids this is as close to a pet as we’re going to get for awhile.

Because we’re a little busy around here. Especially as we enter full on swimming mode for the Unsinkable Margaret Joy. There’s this survival swimming program (Kiss Aquatics) which is 3 times a week and yet, within 4 months, MJ will know how to swim. This is what I call “brutal swimming lessons”, the way my mom taught us – throw ya in the pool.

There’s been a lot of throwing lately – Seb & Eric’s nerf gun battles have exploded across the house. There are green plastic nerf pellets on every shelf, in every corner, and of course, in MJ’s mouth. Project “Seb let’s locate all the pellets, put them in a Ziploc up high, and treat them like Legos – never on the floor again” began Thursday evening.

If it’s been a little busy around here – I imagine your own hectic schedule is no less busy.

You have your own to do list pile that never seems to get completed, your Gmail Inbox that haunts you, the pile of “bring Dr. Seuss books to 2nd grade” and “don’t forget to give to the lacrosse fundraiser” and “hit the grocery list for bananas, milk and can you find acai bowls?” that awaits every mom every morning.

Which brings me to the leaf that made me cry. I’d read this in Tim Keller’s book a few years ago and though my work took a different form at The Wall Street Journal, the feeling of futility has not changed.

Work is a blessing and a challenge, as outlined in this excerpt taken from TK’s Every Good Endeavor pages 10-15:

“Niggle was of course Tolkien himself, who knew very well this was one of his own flaws. He was a perfectionist, always unhappy with what he had produced, often distracted from more important issues by fussing over less important details, prone to worry and procrastination. Niggle was the same. 

We are also told that Niggle “had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.” Niggle continually put the journey off, but he knew it was inevitable. Tom Shippey, who also taught Old English literature at Oxford, explains that in Anglo-Saxon literature the “necessary long journey” was death.

Niggle had one picture in particular that he was trying to paint. He had gotten in his mind the picture of a leaf, and then that of a whole tree. And then, in his imagination, behind the tree “a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.” Niggle lost interest in all his other pictures, and in order to accommodate his vision, he laid out a canvas so large he needed a ladder. Niggle knew he had to die, but he told himself, “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.”

So he worked on his canvas, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” but he never got much done. There were 2 reasons for this. First, it was because he was the “sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.

He used to spend a long time on a single leaf,…”trying to get the shading and the sheen and the dewdrops on it just right. So no matter how hard he worked, very little actually showed up on the canvas itself. The second reason was his “kind heart”. Niggle was constantly distracted by doing things his neighbors asked him to do for them. In particular, his neighbor Parish, who did not appreciate Niggles’ paintings at all, asked him to do many things for him.

One night when Niggle senses, rightly, that his time is almost up, Parish insists that he go out into the wet and cold to fetch a doctor for his sick wife. As a result he comes down with a chill and fever, and while working desperately on his unfinished picture, the Driver comes to take Niggle on the journey he has put off. When he realizes he must go, he bursts into tears, “Oh dear! said poor Niggle, beginning to weep, ‘And it’s not even finished!’” Sometime after his death the people who acquired his house noticed that on his crumbling canvas his only “one beautiful leaf” had remained intact. It was put in the Town Museum, “and for a long while ‘Leaf: by Niggle’ hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes.”

But the story does not end there. After death Niggle is put on a train towards the mountains of the heavenly afterlife. At one point on his trip he hears two Voices. One seems to be Justice, the severe voice, which says that Niggle wasted so much time and accomplished so little in life.

But the other, gentler voice (“though it was not soft”), which seems to be Mercy, counters that Niggle has chosen to sacrifice for others, knowing what he was doing. As a reward, when Niggle get to the outskirts of the heavenly country, something catches his eye.

He runs to it – and there it is: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.”

The world before death – his old country – had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.”

Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work – the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing – it is there.

There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek – the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community – will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.”

I mean, have you read anything more beautiful?

So the leaf made me cry. And then a friend of Leslie’s (thank you Julie!) shared this beautiful piece on invisible moms by Nicole Johnson:

“One day I was walking my son Jake to school. I was holding his hand and we were about to cross the street when the crossing guard said to him, “Who is that with you, young fella?”

“Nobody,” he shrugged.

Nobody? The crossing guard and I laughed. My son is only five, but as we crossed the street I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m nobody?”

As Nobody, I would walk into a room and no one would notice. I would say something to my family, like “Turn the TV down, please.” And nothing would happen. No one would get up or even make a move for the remote. I would stand there for a minute, and then I would say again, a little louder, “Would someone turn the TV down?” Nothing. 

That’s when I started putting all the pieces together. I don’t think anyone can see me.

I’m invisible.

It all began to make sense! The blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I’d think, “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” 

Obviously not; no one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner. No one can see me, because I’m the Invisible Mom. 

Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more. Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? 

Some days I’m merely a clock to ask, “What time is it?” I’m a satellite guide to answer, “What number is the Disney Channel?”

Some days I’m a crystal ball: “Where’s my other sock? Where’s my phone? What’s for dinner?” 

Hands, a clock, a crystal ball—but always invisible.

One night, some girlfriends and I were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. She had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and was telling wonderful stories. I sat there, looking around at the others all so put-together, so visible and vibrant.

It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic when my friend turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package and said, “I brought you this.” It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: “With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.” 

In the days ahead I read—no—I devoured the book. And I discovered what would become for me, four life-changing truths:

1. No one can say who built the great cathedrals—we have no record of their names.

2. These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.

3. They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.

4. The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything. 

In the book, there was the legend of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built. He saw a worker carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, “Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it.” And the worker replied, “Because God sees.” 

After reading that, I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, “I see you. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. 

“No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, no last minute errand is too small for Me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become. But I see.” 

When I choose to view myself as a great builder—instead of Invisible Mom—I keep the right perspective. 

When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, “My mom gets up at four in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand-bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.” That would mean I’d built a monument to myself! But I don’t want that—I just want him to want to come home with a friend and share a wonderful meal as a family.  

The author of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree. I disagree. 

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right—which is why we may feel invisible some days. But one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible mothers.”

I read this after sharing a delicious Costco hot dog with MJ, discussing the merits of King Kong with Seb, hearing about the latest “there could be a shooter” drills from the girls at Kenston, investigating this new Chagrin restaurant called Sapphire Creek opening nearby as a possible date spot, filling up the car with gas, recycling our zillion Amazon boxes, unloading yet another load of dishes, typing up the schedule for the next 2 weeks to post on the fridge, wiping the counter, folding yet another load load of laundry….and stopped to realize I’m building 4 Notre Dames? It’s just an amazing thing God’s entrusted to me:

img_2150 (1)

Also amazing, Seb’s new mug:

Similarly amazing, Pheebs throwing a Valentines Day party  for the kiddos at The Salvation Army homeless shelter last month. Look at these cuties:

May we all paint our leaf and build our cathedrals with grace, joy and hope this week. Amen.

 

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