In front of our house is a huge prickly pear cactus. I planted this monster from a couple of single cactus pads I found on the street one day while biking through the neighborhood. Ten years later, it is taller than I am. It may yet take over the house.

But it is, no question, a beautiful plant. Folks walking by often pause to look at it. From the window next to my piano bench, I watch people stop and take pictures. Last spring, I was out watering the front garden when a woman walked up to me on the sidewalk, “Do you live here?” Yes, I said. “Oh! I want you to know that I have painted your house. I love this house and the garden. It is a perfect New Mexico house.” And then she pulled out her phone. There it was: an oil painting of what was clearly our house. There was the red chile ristra hanging by the front door, the sunflowers outside the courtyard wall, the towering pile of cacti covered in yellow blooms.

I just stood there, my mouth hanging open, both flattered and speechless. Flattered that someone had noticed my efforts and work, but also flabbergasted that we—a couple of midwestern transplants—could have created anything in this desert, let alone something beautiful, something worth capturing as a piece of art.

What people immediately notice about our mound of cactus outside the courtyard walls is that the individual cactus pads do not have thorns. This is unusual, a quirk of the species. Most prickly pear cactus have two-inch long spikes that threaten to impale anyone walking by. Our cactus is so unusual that it provokes questions and wonder. My favorite question has come so often that I have lost track of how many people have posed it: Does Matt pull out all the spikes on the cactus for you?

This is puzzling, for at least three reasons, the first being that anyone thinks that Matt is doing anything outside in the garden except to wander around in the evenings, drink in hand, and—in his words—“survey his domain.” Second, that our friends would think that this might be how he shows his love to me is both sweet and mysterious. Finally, it blows my head off to imagine that anyone who knows us thinks that we might spend our limited time pulling out cactus spikes. Wow. Just wow. I want that kind of time and space in my life to come up with—and execute!—harebrained ideas like pulling out cactus spikes for the good of the neighborhood.

Time and space are what we simply don’t have enough of. Most people don’t. And while it may seem ridiculous to spend one’s time fussing with a pile of cactus pads, maybe it’s no more ridiculous than how we do spend our time: hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we fuss over notes and rhythms, phrase and sound, piano students and choir singers, trying to smooth out the prickles and thorny patches. It’s a full and good life, and one we never stop being grateful for, but we long for time and space.

In this Advent season of anticipation, we remind ourselves that time and space are coming. Beginning Christmas Day, Matt will be on sabbatical until mid-February. We both missed the summer backpacking through Europe when we were young (it’s hard to travel lightly with a piano on your back), and so now, we are putting a pause button on our lives, running away with our backpacks and heading to Europe for a month to find some much needed time and space. We can’t wait.

It is deceptive to believe that our cacti don’t have spikes. They do, but they are thin and tiny and almost invisible to the naked eye. If you brush across the plant, they will jump into your arms and hands by the dozens, and they are impossible to get out. This, of course, is the spiritual lesson: nothing is perfect, there are thorns everywhere.

And this too is the tension: we love our lives, our home and garden, our work and our two cats, but it isn’t perfect. Sometimes there are real stresses and difficult decisions to be made. Sometimes people we love are hurting. We cringe at the news of the world. We want the good stuff to stay forever. We want to paint a charming picture of our world. We want to hang onto our idea of the thorn-less cactus. It doesn’t exist.

When we get anxious or worried, we breathe. A lot. And we remind ourselves to pay attention to the time and space of the present moment. It’s all we’ve got.

May you find time and space in 2020, dear faithful readers.

Have a blessed holiday.