It's 6:30 am and the sky is still dark.
Only a few days before Christmas arrives. Wanting to start the day with a little quiet time, I find myself in the living room on the couch with only the lights of the Christmas tree to keep me company. I think back to when my four kids were still under this roof. There was a lot more activity in those days leading up to Christmas - more concerts, parties, shopping trips, and admittedly - more chaos. But watching the anticipation and excitement of the wait build in my kids is something I still treasure. We'd open doors on the little Advent calendar hung on the frig, and light the Advent candles as many evenings as we could, counting down the days until Christmas Eve.
Now that the nest is empty, there's more moments of quiet and calm. I'm learning to appreciate each season of life and the changes that tag along, but I'm savoring the constants as well - like the sky is still dark at 6:30 am on a mid-December morning. And there is still excitement that builds during the wait for Christmas' arrival.
But waiting isn't always fun and excitement. Sometimes the wait is hard. Sometimes it feels like I'm holding my breath, and worry can sneak into my days - depending on the situation. Waiting for a diagnosis, a job offer, for reconciliation with a loved one . . . we all are waiting for something.
I think of Mary as she waited for the birth of her baby. I imagine she was filled with anxiety of the unknowns that lay ahead. She must have waited in wonder, that of all the women through all of time, she was carrying God's son. She waited with with joy when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her with great praise. She waited with bravery, willing to take on what God was asking of her - to carry the Messiah as a virgin. She waited filled with peace, placing her trust in God and his promise.
And while she waited, God was working in her - growing in her.
This forces me to look in the mirror and examine my own waiting posture. Like Mary, I wait with a mix of emotions - anxiety of the unknown, impatient for an answer and resolution right now. At times I wait in wonder, perplexed at why the answers are so evasive. But there is also peace and contentment in the waiting because I know God is working things out for my good. Even joy finds a place when I focus on the blessings, no matter how small. It's in those moments that I see the wonder of His grace and love.
Yet the wait can seem long. We wait for Christmas - it always comes. We wait for spring - it always comes. We wait for answers - and the answers always come - not always with the speed and surety that we crave. Sometimes its 'yes', sometimes its a 'no', because there's something different, and maybe even better, that's coming; and other times its 'not yet'. Through it all, I have learned this: in the waiting, God has not forgotten us. He is working behind the scenes, growing in us. He asks that we be still and trust him because He is God and He is good. His love for us is a constant that we can hold on to.
So my prayer for each of you is that you unwrap the gifts of joy and peace as you wait, no matter what you are waiting for. If you are holding your breath and are filled with worry, may you find moments to breathe deeply, to pray, and to be calmed by His presence. May you find contentment, and know that you are growing while you wait.
And for this week, in these next few days, may your wait be filled with wonder - the wonder of Christmas. May we all see it through the eyes of a child again.
As she gathered the fallen rotting apples into her skirt, she could feel the presence of danger. She stopped and looked up to see herself surrounded by ten Doberman pinschers staring her down, growling, frothing, ready to attack. She froze in fear and prayed, Lord, let it happen quickly. But it didn't. They didn't move. Then a man's voice "What are you doing here? You are trespassing, and these dogs are trained to kill, but for some reason, they haven't killed you. If I see you here again, I'll kill you myself".
This was one of the stories Gina Schoenherr, our current Artist-in-Residence, shared with me about her mother. As a young woman with two small children in Germany during the time of the holocaust, her mother lived in fear, darkness, hunger, and dread. She escaped death many times, yet she never lost hope. After living for 5 years in a displacement camp, she brought her two children to a new life in America.
Stories of courage like this amaze me - the determination of the human spirit, the love of a young mother, and her trust in a God who is faithful. We all have experienced darkness in our lives, maybe not to the extent of Gina and her mom, but we can relate to it in our hearts because we know - we've seen glimpses of darkness and evil. Some of us have endured dark valleys. Some of us may be in one right now.
But darkness doesn't win. Darkness can be the backdrop for the stars in the night sky. Richard Evans said “It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.” I believe the way out of darkness is found in a simple word: hope. Hope is the light that shines through the darkness. Hope can sustain us and bring us to a brighter place.
In her book, All Creation Waits, Gayle Boss writes, "The dark is not an end but the way a new beginning comes.". These days leading to Christmas are known as the season of Advent, which means coming. It is an ancient advent custom to light a candle each night, adding a candle each Sunday, greeting Christmas Eve with four flickering candles. Each candle is a symbol: hope, joy, love, and peace. It's a custom that I look forward to every year - lighting a candle, reading a bit of scripture or a devotion, and singing a verse from a familier Christmas hymn. It helps me prepare. It settles me, calms me, and reminds me of the hope that we have - the One that we wait for. That's the baby in the manger - our savior, Jesus. He's the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome him. (John 1:5)
How about you? Where are you right now? If you feel surrounded by darkness, remember that a new beginning is coming and hope is the way through. Join me tonight in lighting a candle of hope. “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” - Anne Frank
So much truth in those words.
‘How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!’
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson
It comes quietly. The soft snow slowly spirals down covering branch, leaf, and earth. The first snowfall is always a bit magical, gently signaling that winter is at the doorstep. How do you greet winter - with a sigh, a grumble, or quiet cheer? Though outside the landscape will lie dormant in shades of white, gray, and brown for the next few months, color and growth can be found inside our homes in our indoor gardens.
Tending to those houseplants teaches us lessons of patience and nurtures our spirit, but there is something especially wonder-filled about watching an Amaryllis emerge from, let’s be honest, an ugly bulb. Nestling it into a warm bed of rich brown potting mix exposing its shoulders in a pretty pot is a lesson in faith and hope. That unassuming bulb is full of potential beauty! So we plant. Then we wait.
A green tip begins to emerge! We watch as it pushes up from its cocoon, stretching and reaching. Then, with bated breath, we witness not one, not two, not even three, but four buds swell. A glimpse of color is revealed right before the miracle comes into its full glory. Like wings of a butterfly, the flowers fully open, and nothing else can compare with their beauty. The subtle colors of the slumbering landscape outside the window make the perfect backdrop for the bright, bold colors of this horticulture diva. Can there be any question why Amaryllis means ‘to sparkle’?
Amaryllis flowers come in many colors: deep burgundies, pure whites, rich reds, and elegant stripes. There’s even a terra cotta hue with a burgundy throat and white edging each petal. It’s amazing these lovely plants come with such little demands. All they ask is that you enjoy their beauty. Perhaps this is what is meant by the art and soul of winter: to plant hope, see the beauty in this season, and share it with others.
What a gift of wonder! Who can you share it with?
Learn more about growing Amaryllis here.
The autumnal rite of planting bulbs holds the promise of spring beauty. As we fall into the season of senescence and dormancy, many think the window for planting spring bulbs has closed - but it hasn’t. Early November is actually a good time to plant in southeastern Wisconsin.
The optimum time to plant is when soil temperatures have dropped to around 55 degrees. In a normal year, this happens in early October and extends into November. Last month was the warmest October on record, which means soil temperatures are also warmer than usual.
For us procrastinators, this is good news! There is time to get tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs tucked into the ground. And here’s a secret not many know: as long as the ground hasn’t frozen, you can plant! If you can get a shovel into the ground, you can dig, drop, and get it done. Granted, bulbs will perform best next spring if their roots have had time to develop this fall, but bulbs are full of stored carbohydrates which is enough energy to push out leaves and flowers next spring.
TIPS FOR PLANTING
Keep the following in mind as you plant:
THREE UNUSUAL BULBS
The world of bulbs is vast, so go beyond the classic red and yellow tulips and yellow daffodils. Here are three of my current favorites:
* Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’, also known as Summer Snowflake, is a snowdrop on steroids. It grows 24” tall and 24” wide and blooms mid spring.
* Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ adds whimsy to the garden with it’s large purple flower heads. I prefer this one to others for two reasons: it’s the first Allium bulb to bloom and the seed heads stay green when picked as a dried flower.
* Narcissus ‘Bella Estella’ is not just another white and yellow daffodil. The name translates to ‘Beautiful Star’ and bears two flowers on one stem. But her best feature is her fragrance!
No matter which bulbs you choose to plant, you aren’t just planting bulbs - you are planting potential and hope. A few minutes spent now leads to several weeks of enjoyment when next spring’s colorful display rewards you.
The sun sets quickly as I bundle up and head outside. Tonight will be our first hard frost and I have zinnias to gather. Snip. Snip. They were beautiful this year, lasting well into November. I think of all the butterflies that lingered on each blossom gathering sweet nectar. Snip. Snip. I've been watching with fascination how cut-flower farmers like Erin Benzakien @ Floret Flowers and Tiffany Jones @ Blomma Flower Farm gather seed to breed new varieties of zinnias. It has inspired me to save seed for the simple act of planting them again next year. Snip. Snip.
As I gather armfuls of zinnias, I consider how November is a month for gathering. We gather the harvest of pumpkins, squash, and any cole crops that remain in the garden. We gather warm coats, hats, and gloves for the impending cold. We gather firewood for the fireplace, and then we gather around it's warmth. But most of all, in November, we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving. A day set aside to pause and reflect on the abundance of blessings we have. If you've been following me here on the Naturally Bella Journal, you are well familiar with how I feel about recognizing small blessings found in every day living. They are present in every day - good or bad. In every situation, in every moment, there is something to be grateful for. Opening our eyes to the small, seemingly insignificant blessings is powerful! It can lift us out of depression, fight off anxiety, and leads to contentment and joy. Each blessing is a gift. As a believer, I know that each gift comes from above. Each gift is a reminder of how much we are loved by our heavenly Father.
If we are honest with ourselves, our blessings overflow into abundance. Don't you love that word? Abundance. It means having an excess of something. Abundance feels like being rich, even without money. Standing out in the garden holding armfuls of zinnias made me feel like a wealthy woman. Recognizing this abundance of blessings can overwhelm us and touch the heart. It can move us to tears and even to our knees as we are lavishly showered with this undeserved love and grace. Have you ever experienced this?
There is a time to gather all those blessings, to recognize and name them, and to give thanks for them. But it doesn't stop there. Living a thank-filled life isn't only about the gathering. "Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts," - David O McKay.
Yes! Thankfulness leads to gratitude. Humbled by our abundance and compelled by His love, we show our gratitude by giving to others. Perhaps this is why Thanksgiving (the season of thanking) is followed by Christmas (the season of giving).
Through the act of thankful giving, we also experience abundance! This is the lesson of abundance. The more we give of ourselves, the more we are filled with intangibles like peace and joy. So this begs the question: how can I live an abundant life today? It is not in the gathering, it is in the scattering. It is in the giving as much as we can, that we receive more than we ever imagine.
I think about this as I'm sorting through zinnia seed heads. Scattering carries an element of randomness. We scatter seed letting it fall where it may. Out of this abundance of flowers that filled my small bit of earth, I'm thankfully gathering to gratefully scatter next spring. But I need to do more. I am compelled to do more. What if I give them away, so others can also experience their beauty and the joy they offer?
Let's begin with daily intentional giving, and scatter without limits.
This is how to live a truly abundant life.
1. List three things you are grateful for right now.
2. How do you define an abundant life?
3. Who do you know that has a need?
4. How can you become a gift to that person?
Herbs add flavor to our cooking and to our lives. It’s a shame to let that end with the first frost. Keep the magic growing indoors all winter! Imagine snipping fresh rosemary in the middle of winter and adding it to your soup or chicken. The aroma released smells amazing! Yes, herbs can be houseplants and just like other houseplants, the trick is to get the light, water, and humidity right.
Below, you’ll find the herbs that grow well indoors have been separated into three groups along with some growing tips.
Chives - Pot up in the fall and allow to freeze before bringing in. They need a south or bright west window.
Aloe vera - Grows best in moderate bright light. Avoid direct sun.
Mint - One of the easiest herbs to grow indoors! Give it moderate to bright light and consistent moisture.
Sage - Place in a south window that receives direct sun. Keep it on the dryer side. Water the soil, not the foliage.
UNDER ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
Cilantro - Needs 5-8 hours of light each day; also grows well under artificial lights.
Parsley - Grow in bright light or artificial light.
Basil - It needs as much bright light you can give it, or grow under lights. It’s best to start new basil plants from seed late in late summer. Always remove the flowers to encourage leaf production.
A BIT MORE CHALLENGING
Lavender - 5-6 hours of direct sun daily. Water soil, not foliage. Let soil dry out between waterings.
Lemongrass - Direct sun in a south-facing window is best. Reduce watering in winter, but never let the soil dry out.
Oregano - Needs 5-6 hours of bright sunlight every day.
Rosemary - Give it bright light with some direct sunlight. Set in trays of pebbles and water to increase humidity and never allow it to dry out. Misting frequently will also help.
Thyme - Pot up in fall and allow to freeze before bringing in. Give it 5-6 hours of direct sun. It may need supplemental artificial light.
So are you ready for an herbal adventure? You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain by growing herbs as houseplants.
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!