The Gift of Contentment

In high school I envied the popular kids who went skiing and owned puffy jackets in primary colors. I wanted such a coat. Further, I believed that owning such apparel would mean that I had arrived. When the LL Bean catalogue appeared in our mailbox, I snatched it up to my room and sat in the sun turning pages and wishing that I were in them. That I was one of those beautiful people with ski goggles and perfect smiles and two Golden Retrievers on a plaid mat by the fire.

After I graduated, I worked for two years at the Hannaford deli in Yarmouth, Maine. I made $7.50 an hour, then got a raise to $8. Rolling in such sums, there was only one thing I wanted. I drove down to the North Face store in Freeport and spent the better part of an hour browsing the racks. A wad of twenties burned in my pocket. I finally settled on a brilliant red jacket marked down to $250. I tried it on and it fit. The tag read “Expedition Rated.”

north_face_himalayan_Jacket
The North Face Himalayan Jacket, intended for use on Mount Everest. Seriously. Perfect for suburban living. Photo via North Face.

Once home, I zipped up the jacket and went out to shovel snow. It was twenty degrees with a wind chill. Still I felt hot. I rolled back the hood. Burning. I unzipped the front. Steamy. With growing alarm I realized that my prized jacket was too warm to use. I shrugged it off and threw it on a snow bank. I felt like a fool.

The jacket followed me to college in Indiana, not because I planned to use it, but because it was an integral part of my self-deception that stuff could make me feel valuable. During a chapel series on helping the poor, the speaker initiated a clothing drive. Each dorm should put boxes in the halls to collect jackets for the needy. I opened my small closet and saw the puffy North Face coat. I stripped it from its hanger and dumped it in the nearest cardboard box. I had worn it exactly once.

For each of us, I think, there is a red puffy jacket that symbolizes we have arrived. A flashy car, a better job, a tiny dress size or a large promotion or an attractive life partner, any one of which we think will make us feel content.

It will not.

Contentment comes from within. It comes from knowing our place in the world and loving God and our neighbor. Contentment cannot be found on a North Face rack anymore than it can be found in the pages of an LL Bean catalogue or at a wedding altar or at the bottom of a gallon of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Whatever your jacket is, let it go. God says you are valuable today. Right now. In the mess. In the debt. In that sucky job or that fractured relationship or that anxiety disorder that just won’t relax. There’s work to do, for sure, and we all need to grow and change, but God cannot love you any more and he will not love you any less. No matter what. He’s promised.

So throw that puffy jacket in a box and look around at the world–your world–that needs you. There are things that only you can do. There is love that only you can give. There’s a God who adores you right now. It’s a wonderful thing to live in that love.

The Gift of Waiting

I realize it is unfashionable to say so, but sometimes my personal ambitions have to wait. While society encourages immediate self-actualization, nature provides a different sort of wisdom.

Last year I wanted to plant blueberries. I bought a soil test kit and discovered that our garden soil pH was too high. Experts said the only way to satisfactorily lower the pH was to introduce sulfur pellets into the soil and let microbes digest it. This would take a good year. I felt crestfallen. Wasn’t there a faster way? A microwave solution, ten seconds and *ding!* you’re done? No, said the experts, there wasn’t. At least not if I wanted healthy plants and a good crop. The only thing that would improve my soil was time.

It has been a year since I’ve written much. Last April, Josiah came into the world kicking and screaming to join Oliver who was entering his terrible twos. It took several exhausting weeks of tantrums and tears–only some of them the boys’–before I realized that my book manuscript and blogging had to stop. I hoped the hiatus would last a few months. A writer, after all, is what I fancy myself.

Three months of poopy diapers, spit-up, and time-outs turned into six months which turned into ten, and I realized that I was unready to write again. My family needed me in ways that regular writing prevented. It hurt to give up my dreams. I felt in some small way that I was dying.

blueberry_bushTwo weeks ago I planted blueberry bushes in our garden. They leafed out nicely, small roots digging deep into the soil they love. A year that appeared idle was all the time working hard beneath the surface to transform unfit dirt into healthy soil. Another year or two should bring a good crop. It doesn’t seem so far away. I doubt any other blueberries will taste so sweet.

Today, I look at those tiny plants and smile. My own heart has changed, too. More fit, I hope, as a place where words and ideas can find nurture to leaf out and produce a good harvest. A year of learning to live behind the scenes, hands folding laundry or up to the elbows in dirty dishes, a mind scattered between two small lives and the incessant clamor of need. Somewhere in the middle of this chaos life has sprung up. It’s hard to tell exactly how it happened or when. The soil remains unseen. There’s only one way to test it.

I write.