High Cotton

“Autumn comes late in Alabama.” –Harper Lee

Fall may be a long time coming, but it brings with it many charms. Some of them, like football, start while it still feels like summer. But then the days start getting shorter, the nights a little cooler. By late October, there’s welcome relief from summer’s heat and a few leaves starting to fall. We don’t get many vivid colors in this neck of the woods. But what we lack in fall leaves, we make up for with football, fields of snow-white cotton, harvest festivals, pumpkin patches, corn mazes. The harvest season brings family and friends together in so many ways, reminding us how much we have to be thankful for.

Football is one of my favorite things about fall. What I like most is the atmosphere that comes with it–eating boiled peanuts, the marching bands, the crowd of both young and old, the strong sense of history and tradition. Daddy was the quarterback of his high school team and a diehard Auburn fan (his uncle, just a few years older than him, played at Auburn in the mid-1950’s). We didn’t go to games when I was growing up, but we spent most Saturdays watching them on TV. He was very vocal–both cheering and criticizing–and I loved hearing his running commentary during the game. Watching football isn’t the same without him.

This year, my oldest daughter transferred from a private Christian school in a nearby town to our local public school. It’s been a good change. Homecoming week–working on the freshman float, the parade, the game, and her first homecoming dance–was such fun for all of us! It’s a great feeling to be part of the community in which you live. My youngest daughter loved going to the home football games and wants to be a cheerleader and a “wand” twirler. (She’s learned most of their cheers already.)

Southeast Alabama is known as the peanut capital of the world, but there’s still a lot of cotton grown around here, too. I love to watch crop dusters (especially old-fashioned biplanes) spraying defoliant on the cotton fields, and I love the sight of a defoliated field covered in snowy fluff. Daddy grew up in north Alabama and started picking cotton at an early age. When he graduated high school in 1956, local schools were still being closed for cotton-picking every fall. Some of the farmers planted watermelons at the end of a row all along to provide a moment of refreshment from the hot, back-breaking labor. They hoped for tall cotton plants because it meant not having to stoop over so much–thus the phrase “in high cotton.” Even as a strong 17-year old athlete, Daddy still wasn’t able to outpick his mother, a small woman with the hands of a man and an amazing capacity for hard work. He certainly inherited that capacity for hard work, though. I love how they rejoiced in little things–a watermelon, a tall patch of cotton–to help them get through the exhausting labor and the tough times.

We attended Fall Farm Day at Dothan’s Landmark Park this year. It gives a glimpse into what life was like in rural Alabama years ago. It brings to life the stories I’ve heard Daddy and Granny tell. From corn-shelling and chair-caning to soap-making and butter-churning, I felt like I had stepped into Daddy’s childhood. There’s an old house with a dog trot breezeway and a well just outside the kitchen, an outhouse, and a variety of farm animals–chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and mules (whose character Daddy knew well from plowing Granny’s large garden).

In later years, Daddy and Granny loved to reminisce about the “old days,” but they were thankful their cotton-picking days were past. It’s important to pass their stories–their legacy of resilience and endurance–on to the next generation. I’m so glad that Landmark Park gave my daughters the opportunity to experience part of their heritage.

As we count our blessings and celebrate Thanksgiving this week, let’s give thanks for the beauty and bounty of fall and for the little things that help us get through the tough things. We’re in high cotton.

“For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” Isaiah 51:3 (ESV)

A Season of Rest

Our 3-year-old had pneumonia last fall and spent the week of Thanksgiving in the hospital. We ate our turkey and dressing and turnip greens on a hospital tray…but honestly, it was delicious, even more so because we were about to go home! (I’ve spent several holidays in hospitals…and all I can say is, God bless the nurses and doctors and staff who give up precious family time to serve those who are sick.)

That Thanksgiving Day I was more keenly aware of God’s blessings and more thankful than ever before. My little one was alive and on the mend! We’d had a few very tense days…including isolation due to suspected MRSA as well as the possibility of being transferred to another hospital for surgery if the pleural effusion (fluid that had collected outside the lung) formed an abscess. Thank goodness both of those scenarios turned out to be only a scare.

She took it all in stride–the IV, the blood draws, the X-rays, the ultrasounds, the CT scan. (I think Doc McStuffins prepared her to face all of that without fear!) As long as Mama and Oscar the otter were by her side, she could be brave.

A few days after we went home, my blood pressure shot up and my lupus symptoms flared. That’s what stress will do for you. But a situation like that will also stop you in your tracks and put life back into perspective.

I mentioned in my last post that we’ve been through some intense trials during the past three years. They followed each other so closely that there was never much of a chance to stop and catch our breath or really rest. I had no choice but to keep putting one foot in front of the other…you know the feeling. That’s exactly what I needed to do during that season to help myself and my family get through those things. But when we came home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, our little one had barely enough energy to sit up on the sofa. It was time for something other than just-keep-moving-and-doing-the-next-right-thing. It was time to rest. We all needed it.

Because I have lupus, I try not to overcrowd my schedule, I have to take occasional naps, and I’m used to saying no to extra activities. But for this season, I needed to cut back even further to allow extra downtime for us to recover.

It was the best thing I could have done. Christmas was the simplest it’s ever been…and it was even better without all the stress! I thought life would return to normal after the holidays when she was strong enough to go back to preschool. But she got sick again within a few weeks, so her doctor recommended that we keep her home for several more months to allow her immune system time to rebuild.

I think we all needed this time of rest to be restored. We’ve had our share of ups and downs during this season, just like any other, but we’ve been better able to cope with life’s demands. (And my blood pressure returned to normal, too.) I feel more alive and at peace than I have in a long time.

If you’ve been in a difficult place and feeling overwhelmed, just trying to survive…I commend you for keeping your head above water and just getting through it. I also highly recommend giving yourself the restorative therapy of slowing down. It can be difficult to cut back, but the benefits far outweigh the sacrifice. Even a small change can make a big difference.

A season of rest is good for more than just the body…it’s also healing for the soul.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” Psalm 23:1-3a (ESV)

A Fresh Start

blue morning glory

How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Mine were always a flop, so I quit making them years ago. They stressed me out and left me feeling like a failure…which is pretty counter-productive, don’t you think?

I need a fresh start more than once a year…more like daily (and sometimes more often than that). L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, said it best: “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

Some people focus on a specific word each year. I like that idea–a word to live by–but I never can choose just one. Living day by day is the best I can do, seeking and trusting the One who knows all my days, who provides just what I need at the very moment I need it most. And I usually have no idea what I actually, truly need anyway, but He does.

Sure, I have dreams and goals and plans, but I’ve just learned to hold them a bit loosely…because life sometimes intervenes. The past few years have been very difficult for my family. In 2014, we lost Mama’s mother and my Daddy in a 3-month span, then my husband’s grandmother a week before Christmas and Daddy’s mother on New Year’s Eve. I was so overwhelmed, so ready for the end of that year and the beginning of another one. I didn’t think I could possibly handle anything else. But 2015 quickly proved to be no better, just a different kind of intense stress that turned our world upside down and tainted most of 2016 as well. But you know what? We were cared for so very tenderly through it all. The grief, the hurt, the scars…they’re still there, but they are being changed, being healed. And we are stronger for them.

So if life has been crazy and your New Year’s resolutions got stopped in their tracks, don’t worry–you’re welcome to start over anytime. I’m so thankful for fresh starts, today and everyday.

I’m learning to make each new day better by praising the One who always cares for me and by looking for His good work…because even on the hardest days, there are gifts and blessings to be found. I’ve discovered that the act of writing down those daily blessings helps my attitude tremendously (and gives me something to look back on, especially when life is tough). If you’d like to try it, there’s a free download here at Under the Sycamore (ashleyannphotography.com) for a simple monthly calendar that you can print out to record the best part of each day.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)