The Parable of the Pear Tree

In the autumn of 2014, Sherod and I had just finished moving to Lowndesboro. The last moving boxes had been unpacked, the renovations in our house were almost done and we were expecting Sherod’s son and his family, along with our girl María, to come for Thanksgiving. We were also getting our minds around the opportunities for gardening and growing our own food, giddy with anticipation. 

One of the first things the Mallowman did was buy some very young saplings: three pear trees, three peach trees. We fenced in the back third of the back yard and began to get that space ready for spring planting. The 6 saplings went into the ground in a single row. There was already a fig tree growing close by, three blueberry bushes that have been faithful in giving fruit each year and a scuppernong vine. A couple of years after we planted the saplings, Sherod also planted a blackberry bush that has now flourished so we have 3 vines growing all along the fence. I think we will be able to start picking the blackberries next week and the harvest promises to be massive.

It took a while—about 3 years—for our peach trees to start producing fruit, though before that, they did have blossoms on them each year. A trip up to one of my favorite places in Alabama, Petals from the Past, meant we came home equipped to provide better care for our peach trees and over the next couple of years, we had a small crop of peaches from one of the trees. Then, two of them produced sweet, delicious fruit—the kind you eat fresh off the tree, with peach juice running down your face and you just don’t care because the fruit is so delicious.  This year, all three trees are loaded, so much so that Sherod has had to cull them all. Fewer fruit have more intense peach flavor, are healthier and bigger.  At the Curb Market last Saturday, the baskets of peaches I used to buy for about $8-10 now cost 15 or 16 dollars and I am grateful that we will be able to provide for ourselves this year.

And then, there were the three pear trees. They grew more slowly. And year after year, nothing. Not even a single blossom on any of them. No sign that they’d ever bear fruit. Sherod and I took to walking by them to issue a quick reminder:  ‘y’all remember the fig tree in the Gospel? Y’all remember that a tree that doesn’t bear fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire? Just sayin’…”  For the last 3 years, every year, Sherod has announced the end is near, he is about to cut down those danged trees.  

Early this spring, one morning Sherod called me out to the garden. We stood looking up at the middle of the three pear trees, amazed and thrilled. There were blossoms on it. And then, after the blossoms had dried, teeny tiny little pears. There aren’t many. Of those, quite a few show signs that insects have had a feast. But there are maybe a dozen that are perfectly pear shaped, with just a small blush of red, that keep growing and growing.  Pear harvest usually happens in August and September. There’s no telling whether or not these beautiful little fruit will be good for picking. I can’t feel bad if critters that need them get to them first. I don’t know if we will get to feel that special joy we always feel as we feast on food we’ve grown ourselves. But that doesn’t matter.

One of the laws of physics says “If an object A exerts a force on object B, then object B must exert a force of equal magnitude and opposite direction back on object A.” I wonder if for every parable of woe, there might be an equal and opposite parable to be considered. If so, the message for today is this:

The parable of the pear tree.

Once there were pear trees that yielded no fruit. For years and years, they were tended carefully, they had been planted in rich soil, they grew tall and slender and beautiful but yielded no fruit. The farmers grew weary of all that tending with nothing to show for it. They threatened to cut the trees down. They fumed sometimes. And yet. And yet there was something that hesitated, at the thought of simply destroying a living being that had beauty all its own, even if it bore no fruit. It wasn’t necessarily grace–perhaps just inertia–that kept those fruit trees alive, but the trees bore another fruit it took a while for the farmers to see. The trees showed the farmers that along with care and all the other things they did for them, the trees needed patience. An abundance of patience. Patience. A gift of the Spirit. So many second chances, we lost count of how many. But enough that at least one finally bore the fruit we so wanted. In the end, isn’t that the truest truth about the one we call our ‘God of infinite love and mercy’…

The 100 Day Challenge

The Pool & Pecan Grove

For a time, I fancied myself a writer in the making. I will always remember with great joy the summer I was selected to participate in one of the Collegeville writer workshops with Lauren Winner; Kate Bowler was one of the other participants in my group and since then, several others have published wonderful books. I am glad to keep pecking away at this thing of trying to put words around life and I no longer lay claim to that title.

A few weeks ago, Suleika Jaouad, who, like Kate Bowler, is an exquisite writer about life at the edge of death, put out a challenge on an Instagram page she created early in 2020 as the pandemic laid hold of us. Called the Isolation Journals, this page was intended to challenge people to push beyond everything militating against writing and creativity. Now she was issuing another challenge: a 100-day effort to engage in at least one act of creativity a day. I jumped on the bandwagon.

Before too long, I found myself pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an act of creativity. It’s easy to say photography counts. To write. Gardening? It has more to do with facilitating growth and life than the creative life of an artist or writer. Following the general parameters of a recipe to make a new kind of jam? Eh… Sitting quietly, simply observing how beautiful the roses in my garden have been this year, how quickly the phlox is growing and how my lavender is thriving on the front bed? Almost certainly not.

Each day, I have been aware of the challenge. However, I can’t say I have been faithful in actually meeting it. And in an unexpected sense, I have discovered that what I am doing is about another challenge.

It’s been Alabama hot for the last week, and night temperatures have stayed above 70 degrees F. It’s felt like pool time was here and at the same time, every day there’s been something that got in the way. Even before it’s time to start enjoying the pool, there’s a rhythm that I have to re-establish each year. The pool needs daily tending, a small set of chores that will make the pool a delight in the late afternoon for the spouseman and me.

Perhaps the hardest part of the chores involves little animals that get caught in that wide expanse of shimmering water, who hop in without thinking, or, on a couple of occasions, actually just fall in. It happens mainly at night. It used to be that my work was about using the pool skimmer to fish out little dead bodies, I always squeamish, always wincing at the horror of it. These past few days I’ve discovered if I get up early enough and head out to do my job, I can actually save most, sometimes all, the little frogs that hopped or fell in during the hours of dark and cannot get back out. It still gives me the heebee-geebies, I’m always slightly terrified one will end up jumping on me (that’s a whole different story), but I get it done.

This morning, after I’d finished my daily rescue mission, I thought back on the previous 24 hours. Yesterday morning I think I messed up around my sermon and some visitors to the church I served. It left me feeling just awful and aware life is like that; no matter how much I want to, I can’t always wrap things up nice and neat. Then, after the service, I had three commitments I needed to keep with people who are sick and with an organization that’s just asked me to serve on their board. I was getting ready to head out when my phone lit up with text messages. A person I’d had fairly regular contact with a number of years ago was in crisis and trying desperately to get in touch with me.

I moved my commitments around, excused myself from the one that couldn’t be rescheduled. Then I worked into the evening with someone who was so terribly isolated and afraid that I could see that even breathing was hard for them. I had no fixes. I had no cures. I am still concerned for them and what lies ahead. But I do have some more clarity about the 100 day challenge, as I can manage it.

At its core, at its most basic, the daily challenge is more simple and far harder for me right now. I try to show up. That means paying attention. Staying engaged. When I fall short, acknowledging that and trying to make amends. It also means knowing my limits, holding the responsibility lightly and with the indifference Ignatius of Loyola so eloquently described: we do our very best without investing in one outcome or another. These days, for me it also means getting on that elliptical of mine that I love to hate to have a good workout, at least 6 days a week. There’s more of course, but in the end, it is basically that my challenge for a 100 days (and for a lifetime) is to show up.

For the duration of the challenge, here and on Instagram, I’m going to keep trying to describe small acts of my life that include creativity, at least some of the time, but also speak to drudgery and how much of the work is plain old persistence. I am carrying the challenge more lightly, though, not beating myself up because I can’t claim to be a writer, an artist, or even a particularly creative person on any given day. Instead, I have to trust that showing up counts for something.


You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (St Augustine)

St. Benedict of Nursia is considered the founder of the kind of monasticism we are most familiar with in Europe and the Americas. In the mid 500’s, Benedict wrote what has come to be known as the “Rule of Life”—a detailed blueprint for the ordering of life in a monastery community. The Rule is broad in scope and also incredibly detailed. Although I bridle at a lot of the more patriarchal requirements and expectations, I find myself drawn to much of what it describes about communal life.

Recently, I was looking at a certification program in spiritual direction that led me down a rabbit hole that felt right to explore. Even today, a person wishing to become a Benedictine religious must go through a year-long probationary period. At the end of that time, if the person continues to feel called to this life and is found to be able to do so he, she or they takes a binding vow. In Latin, the vow is “stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia” (stability, conversion of manners, and obedience).

In the midst of so much that is being reordered and rearranged in my life these days, it was the commitment to and promise of “stabilitate” that most intrigued me. Although the easiest translation for stabilitate is stability, I think a there’s a synonym that better reaches for the intention of this promise: steadfastness. In practical terms, for people making this Benedictine vow, it means they willingly choose to remain for the rest of their lives in the monastery community within which they take this vow.

In my previous post, I described the restlessness and mobility that has shaped life for many in my family from one generation to the next. I described the reassurance I have felt when I thought, “well, I’ll just move” as a means for trying to reinvent myself, as a way getting closer to doing and being what I thought was more true to who I am. Now, I also see how much I was guided by the impulse to “run away from,” which, wrapped in nice paper, gets described as “getting a fresh start.”

Something strange, and increasingly lovely, has happened as Sherod and I have made this little homestead ours. We don’t have a very big circle of friends here but we are so grateful for the ones we have. They are friends for life. It isn’t only that I claim this place as home, but that this land, the trees, the sunshine early in the morning, even the coyotes howling at night, have made a claim on me as well. I pay attention now in ways I never did in other places I have lived.

The day the small tornado hit Lowndesboro, Sherod and I, who were spared, took less than a minute to hightail it back home to cook lunch for the folks who were gathering to start responding to the damage in our small town. It wasn’t but a couple of hours after my dad died before the food, and flowers, and care started pouring in.

Things are also asked of me by the land because of what I see. A few Sundays ago, the morning was crisp and cool in the sunlight as I headed to church on Old Selma. This is a winding country road with very, very little traffic. It finds its way through fields and wooded sections, where the tree canopy grows across this somewhat sorry excuse for a paved road making it beautiful, no matter how sorry or full of potholes. My path constantly intersects with the journeys of wildlife.

This particular Sunday, right before I got to one of three creeks the road goes over, I saw something making its way across the road, painfully slowly. I know what comes with this time of spring into summer—right about now, love is a burnin’ thing for turtles around here and they are on the move. I’ve known that for a while. When I first moved here, I only recognized turtles after I had passed them on the road. Then, I became more aware and more careful, slowed down, went around them, and thought, ‘hurry little one.” But seeing turtle ‘road kill’ became heartbreaking. I now keep a travel pack of handy wipes in my car and I do whatever I need to make sure to help those little ahistoric creatures get off the road. Turtles carry a lot of salmonella so after I’ve carried one across the road in the direction it was traveling, I make sure to clean my hands carefully. Turtles can also bite so how I pick one up matters.

On another Sunday, a great big turtle was crossing but I realized I needed to go a bit further to park my car safely. As I got out, I saw a jeep come to somewhat of screeching halt right behind the turtle. The guy got out, lifted and carried the turtle to the other side. When I thanked him, he said he’d figured that’s why I had stopped too. I have no idea who this person is and yet now, in a way I don’t really understand, it feels like we are neighbors and kin.

I get anxious thinking about aging out here in Lowndes County, especially if I am widowed. I have landed in a very unlikely place for a liberal, feminist immigrant with family scattered across continents. The impulse to move, to leave, to start anew, is still in me. But I have claimed this place as home, and now this home makes more and more of a claim on me. I am privileged by that claim. And I am slowly, as slowly as a turtle crossing Old Selma road, making a vow of steadfastness, of Benedictine stabilitate. Restlessness little by little giving way to peace.

In My Garden

Wright Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg,  VA, 
West Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg,  VA, 
Edificio Santa Fe, Calle 64, Bogotá, Colombia, 
Buddig Hall, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, Jena Street, New Orleans, LA 
SPO 84, Sewanee, TN
Elkins Ave, Nashville, TN,
Prince George Drive, Huntsville, AL
Briargate Lane, Madison, AL
Joslyn Street, Memphis, TN
Bay Pointe Drive, Memphis, TN
SW 152 Ave, Miami, FL
SW 75th Ave, Miramar, FL
SW 23rd Ave, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Brown Hill Rd, Lowndesboro, AL

These are all approximate addresses of the places I have moved to since I left Colombia in 1978. Some were just about moving to a different house in the same city. A lot represent significant dis/relocations. They paint a picture of our very mobile society. They also part of the arc of my family’s story. For at least 4 generations, as my ancestors became adult, they left their home in Sweden. One went to Germany, though my great grandfather ultimately returned to Sweden with his family.  My grandfather Knut moved to Côte D’Ivoire, and then to France, before emigrating to Colombia with my grandmother, Rosa. Vera and Hans, my maternal grandparents emigrated to Panamá and eventually moved back and forth between Sweden, New York, where my mom went to school, and Panamá. As a young child, Dad was shipped off from Colombia to go to school in Sweden and did not come back to Colombia until he was in his mid-twenties to take over my grandfather’s business in Cali. On a visit from New York, to meet her Colombian fiancé’s family, my mom ran into my father at a party and within 18 months, the previous engagement had been broken off and she and my dad were married and settled in Colombia. With one brother in England and the other in Holland, and me in Alabama, the tradition of generational resettlement has continued.

I think restlessness, hard family realities, curiosity, and, perhaps, even some courage and hope about starting anew, have shaped this wanderlust. There are achingly difficult moments that are inevitable with a scattered family. Yesterday, I was busy when I got a text from Hans, my Dutch brother. He wanted us to FaceTime at 4. Right on the dot (because that Swedish punctuality matters!), he called. Hans had read the leaked Supreme Court document in the morning and wanted to know if I was OK. It was sweet and thoughtful. Four o’clock in Alabama is 11 o’clock in Tilburg; Hans looked exhausted. But we had a lovely conversation and I would have given just about anything to actually sit with him, to live close enough to visit with him regularly. I miss him.

For all the challenges, those life decisions that’ve been made from one generation to another run deep in me. Recently, some friends who are Sherod’s age and have serious health issues moved into an Episcopal retirement community in Asheville NC that offers a full continuum of care for the elderly. I had already been thinking about the years ahead. Fourteen years younger than my spouseman, I know it is realistic to anticipate that I will survive him. As I age into those terribly vulnerable years when life is drawing to an end, I ask myself, “who will I turn to for care?” Hearing about the place our friends have moved into, my immediate thought was—there it is! That’s it! I will get the care I need without imposing on anyone. I’ll be safe. I won’t be alone. Whew! I’ll just move there.  

Yes. Just move, tear up roots, leave the roses, the pecan grove, the quiet Alabama mornings, the dazzling stars I love to look at out in our small homestead in the country.  Move. Again.

As the political and cultural rifts in this country widen more and more, as less and less feels sure and trustworthy, I also wonder: should I try to leave, emigrate again? I could very easily get residency in Spain and Sweden, I could go back to Colombia, I could go back to Panamá. I could. I could move again.

Now, that answer to fear and a desire to have some say over the final years of my life doesn’t work. Deerfield offers every bit of the gracious loveliness that our years of saving, our inheritances, and the performance of the stock market can afford an aging person.  And, it is safe because it has insulated itself from the rougher edges of life. I’d be surrounded by folks very much like me. My life could be curated and distilled into everything that is comfortable and easy to love.  I gulp when I think about that possibility. I don’t find any real hope in other countries either, especially given my daughter, that extraordinary young woman, who has such needs, who is so fragile.

In the meantime, our small farm/homestead has become a place of unending joy for me. These days I get up around five. I do my daily ‘Liturgy to the Gods of Good Coffee” and sit in my favorite spot for quiet, reading, and reflection that ends with me saying Morning Prayer.  By then, it is 6 in the morning and there’s light outside. I take my shears and my trug to do the rounds of the flower beds and our vegetable garden. Sunny and Gilbert, our barn cats, follow me. Usually so does Tux . Occasionally, Mo is with us too. The thing is, after a quick breakfast, Mo loves nothing more than to jump on our bed so he can have a nap before getting up for the day.  I think he also likes cuddling with his fast-asleep human. No matter who comes along, this daily pilgrimage proceeds in fits and starts with a whole lot of gamboling on the way. 

Mostly, I just look, pull the occasional weed, marvel that now that the nights aren’t so cool, things are growing so fast. The roses are blooming with an astounding exuberance so a good part of the time is spent ‘dead heading’ and gathering flowers.  I laughingly shared with a friend that it is here, in West Central Alabama, that I have discovered my inner Baptist self. There’s a hymn beloved around these parts of the world, with an opening verse and refrain I have too have come to love for what it tells me about these daily pilgrimages:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

Time out of time. Heaven on earth.  Every single last thing I could ever hope for. Life abundant. An invitation to consider the Benedictine Rule of Life. To be continued