Most of the cactus pears have dropped to the ground or been eaten by this time of year, but in a few sheltered places they remain. You may know that several parts of this cactus are edible. The deep burgundy pears must be rubbed against something to clean off the spines. Then they can be sliced and eaten raw in salads. The cactus pads also have spines to be removed, after which they are sliced and boiled for a few minutes till tender. They are served in Mexican dishes, sometimes with eggs, as nopalitos.
This prickly combination of tasty food surrounded by sharp spines calls to mind something my older sister once said. I was having a difficult time and wracked with indecision and self blame. “If only I had done everything perfectly, then I would not be in this situation,” I told her.
She said a few simple words that shined a bright light on my situation, “There is no path with all of the good stuff and none of the yucky stuff.”
Those few words still shine a light on my path. There is no way to redo the past so that you avoid the difficult circumstances you are in without gumming up something you find really valuable and sweet about your life. There is no perfect you who never makes a mistake.
This process of fumbling along doing the best you can, which is sometimes not all that good, is just how it is. My sister’s words helped me forgive myself for my errors in judgment, for the ways in which I had harmed others, for the countless imperfections bulging out at every turn.
I am sharing her wisdom in case you too are weighted down with self blame. Forgiveness is a process, including self forgiveness. Today is a day to come to peace with the things you didn’t do and the things you did do that you wish you could fix. Write them down in private. Read them aloud. Say out loud, “I forgive myself for putting my little sister in a refrigerator box and tipping it over until she cried” or whatever things make your list. Forgive yourself out loud for every item on your list.
When I visited the neighbors’ hens, they didn’t invite me into the henhouse. I just went uninvited and opened the cover over their nesting boxes. Thinking about that now my behavior seems kind of rude, but the hens were unfailingly gracious. They climbed up their ladder and stood by their nesting boxes as if they were vendors at a flea market, showing me the wares in their booths.
While I looked, more hens kept coming into the henhouse to see what the excitement was about. A customer! Admiring our eggs! They seemed happy to show off their spacious house, their cozy little nesting boxes, and their colorful eggs.
The hens are clearly accustomed to people peeping into their nests and collecting the eggs. They also seem quite willing to share a nest. Once a hen has laid an egg, she doesn’t defend the nesting box. She leaves it for the next hen. Perhaps they have a way of knowing whether an egg is fertile and therefore worth sitting on.
The ability to tell if an egg is fertile would be such a helpful tool, saving lots of wasted effort and ensuring that her effort was directed in a fruitful way.
We humans lay little eggs too in the form of starting projects. It’s important to have lots of ideas and project starts because a significant portion of our projects won’t come to fruition in the way we envision. If we don’t start things, nothing ever gets done, but if we don’t know when to walk away from an egg instead of sitting on it, we waste a lot of time.
I worked on a project for several years, gathering information, interviewing people, analyzing my results, and writing a first draft of a book. I spent quite a long time sitting on the egg. When it eventually became clear to me that egg was not going to hatch, I walked away and left the nesting box for whatever was coming next.
Once we have spent a long time on something it is hard to give it up. But what time we have spent is not coming back. All we can decide is how we spend our time going forward. As soon as you get the first whiff of that rotten egg smell, no little chick is going to come out, and no amount of sitting will change that. Walking away allows you to lay new eggs, more likely to hatch. Continuing to sit is both futile and smelly.
Count the eggs in your nest today. Not every egg will hatch. What ones do you want to keep? To leave? To invest time in? A caregiver needs less work, not more. Mindfully choose which eggs deserve your warmth and attention.
I know the last thing you need is a kid, but I couldn’t help myself. This is our neighbors’ baby goat, about a week old. He looks like a cross between a goat and a domino. There were a dozen or so little goats and their mamas in this enclosure near the barn. They can go inside and out as suits them. This little fellow decided to sun himself on a bed of straw.
The little goats are more comfortable with people than lambs are. This guy came up to me and sniffed my pant legs, looking to see if I had gotten into anything interesting. I had, since I had been out with the dogs that morning. The little goat found the dog smell intriguing. Or maybe it was the me smell. I’ll never know. In any event he found my pant legs fascinating.
With my neighbor’s encouragement I picked him up and he settled comfortably into my arms. His fur was clean and soft. When I rubbed his head I could feel hard bumps on the top that will grow into horns someday.
Baby creatures are ridiculously endearing. They are tiny, yet almost always perfectly formed. Something about them just makes the heart go squish.
Suppose this guy wanted some of your lunch. Could you refuse him? I think not. This little goat doesn’t do anything productive, yet he is adorable, worthy of care and concern and maybe even your lunch.
You, though, somehow got the idea that you had to be productive in order to be lovable. First you need to take care of this thing, then another. Only when everything is all checked off your list can you take out the fantasy novel you have been saving for just the moment when you were worthy of reading it. How can a baby goat be worthy of love just by being there, but you have to complete your list of self-assigned chores in order to qualify?
You are lovable even with all your chores undone. The only one who believes otherwise is you, and you can just quit that. Yes, there are things to be done, but if you feel like curling up in a patch of sun today, just do it.
Nature can be festive with its vibrant colors, especially against the subdued palate of winter. The cypress trees along the creek turn a beautiful cinnamon color in winter. Their branches make a fountain of orangish brown above the creek, like the spray of silent fireworks celebrating the new year.
Cypress trees are caregivers of the creek. Their strong roots hold back the bank, preventing erosion, especially when the water is flowing fast. Our engineering work along the bank used stone and concrete to reduce erosion. When the creek came up quickly after a storm, the strong force of the water lifted the engineered erosion control. What kept the layered stonework from being carried away were the strong tree roots that held it back.
Before we had the cypress trees, fast moving water would cut away the bank and strip it of vegetation. Now the bank holds steady.
Caregivers are the cypress trees in their environments. You preside over the situation and don’t appear to be doing much until things start to go awry. When things start heading in a bad direction, you step in, taking early action to prevent the avalanche of catastrophe.
Your patient often doesn’t see the problem you averted. Instead she sees you making changes and telling her what to do or not, as if you know best. Since she is mentally compromised by her disease, she doesn’t think she needs you to help or intervene, and this can make for a pretty high stress and thankless situation.
What you might not notice right away is that to the left of the cypress tree is a clump of brushy bluestem, one of our native bunch grasses. While the cypress are the big, visible workers in bank stabilization, they have help. The bank is lined with tiny plants with little root systems all doing their part, working with the cypress to hold back the bank.
You too, have small support systems in place. Just last week you called a friend for help, saying you just needed a break. He came in the morning and took your patient on a day of activities, promising not to return till late afternoon. Finding a way to take a break like that is relying on your ecosystem instead of doing all the work yourself.
Lean into the ecosystem you have built. Yes, you have deep roots and you are on the caregiving front line, but when you don’t feel up to the task others are willing to help. They can do small things, but those small things make a big difference for you. It has been tiring to build this support network, and it is constantly coming unwound in places and requiring maintenance, but because you have grown an ecosystem, you don’t have to be the hero every day.
Shirk some small responsibility today, one that someone else just might pick up and do.
When you drive up the road and arrive at the Bossy Spa, you will see a battered sign on the gate. If you are not from Texas, you may not recognize this flag, but as every Texan knows, it is the Texas state flag.
Texans are ridiculously proud of our state, and you’ll see the state flag flying on gates and fences and walls in a way that you would never see in a state like Florida. I just did an internet search for the Florida state flag, and it looks totally foreign to me. Of course that might be because I have never lived in Florida. Perhaps they too fly their state flag on everything from beer labels to beach towels.
You can tell by looking that this is not a flag made in a factory in the far east. It was hand painted, probably on scrap metal, since this kind of corrugated tin is used to protect the sides of our barns and outbuildings. The flag has been hanging on the gate for the more than ten years we have owned the place, and we found it hanging on the gate, already faded.
I like the old flag on the gate. It is unabashedly rustic and sets your expectation when you enter that everything is not all spiffy inside. This flag suggests that behind this gate we use what we have, we don’t mind a few dents and scratches on things, and we see beauty in imperfection.
That is how I see you too, beautiful in your imperfection. You have a few wrinkles around the corners of your eyes, but your eyes light up and sparkle when you laugh. Some bright white hairs have woven themselves into what I think of as your real hair, but your hair is still as lovely as ever.
Caregiving has made you tired, but in spite of the tiredness in dealing with your patient randomly switching off certain fuses and shutting off the water under the kitchen sink, which threatens to but has not yet burnt out the motor in the dishwasher, your inner light still shines.
You know the Sanskrit word bodhisattva? It describes someone who is so filled with compassion that they benefit all suffering beings. I have news for you. You do not have to be this holy person. You radiate goodness, just as you are. You may think, screw that, I just want a break, and I agree, you need one.
Still, as you go about your day, taking care of your loved one and yourself and your house and your job, your essence comes through. In your most patient moments and in your most exasperated moments, you are imperfect, but you are putting goodness out into the world. There is nothing special for you to do today. I just wanted you to know what good there is just by you being you.
These formations are called frost flowers. They appear when the ground is above freezing and the air temperature is below. The roots take in water and when they send it up to the plant the water freezes, bursting the stems and sending ice crystals out into the air.
That is what the science literature says about these things. I call them snow swirls, and I think there are other possible explanations for their appearance. They look like scarves, and I wonder if the plants get tired of looking brown and bare in the winter and they are just accessorizing.
It is also possible that nature is just showing off, letting us know that it can make gorgeous formations that make the mona lisa look drab. If that is the point, I am duly impressed.
Of all the possibilities why nature is so extravagant in draping the natural world with beauty, I choose this one. These beautiful snow swirls are for you. They are little gifts that say that despite the tiresome repetitive conversations with your demented wife, there is beauty in the world.
Since you don’t have time to find your own snow swirls, they are here for you to enjoy for a few minutes before you must go out and investigate that odor that might be burning polyester. You wish you did not know what that smells like, but of course you do.
Before you go I want you to know something about all this extravagant natural beauty in the world: You are part of it. You are your own unique snow swirl. Your soul is artfully draped around stalks that look dead and dry. You may not feel gorgeous right at this minute or even after you brush your teeth and comb your hair, but dear one you are as lovely as any snow swirl.