Sunday, December 30, 2012

For Every Fistful of Loss

The snow finally came on our last day, a blanket of redemption covering the sins of the land.  Our footprints were lost, as were the sloppy snow angels we made and then promptly trampled in the melee of our snowball fight. The sled track so carefully carved into the old snow was no more visible than the impassable roads, and all I could think was that it was a beautiful inconvenience.

We had a lovely Christmas in the mountains, and we had dutifully checked off each real winter experience on our lists: skiing, sledding, snowball fights, snow angels, Christmas day sleigh ride, hot chocolate.  We stomped our boots at the front door to knock off the snow clumped around their laces and hung wet mittens to dry while little ones were changed into warm pajamas.  It was a perfect little dose of winter for these warm weather bones, but our vacation was scheduled to be over that morning thank you very much.

The unwrapped presents were packed in the back of the car next to the overstuffed suitcases, the kids were strapped in their seats, but the tires would only spin maddeningly, looking for purchase on the stretch of road just at the base of the driveway.  The inches of snow that had erased all evidence of our loping winter games from the hillside also erased all hope of us sleeping in our own soft beds in our own warm house that night.  I looked over at Sam, his hands draped hopelessly across the steering wheel and his jaw clenched to bury the tirade he wanted to offer the layer of snow sparkling peacefully in every direction.

Sometimes when there's nothing else to be done, perhaps especially when there's nothing else to be done, I cannot stop bumping up against what feels like the distinct unfairness of my lot.  Back in the house, the rest of Sam's family was still eating breakfast and shoving last minute items in their suitcases when we filed back in to wait out the weather.  I looked out the windows, nursing a bitter kind of frustration at being reminded just how little control I have over anything.  The sun was coming up over the mountains, a fiery red sliver that became more and more orange as it revealed itself.

Surrender is rare for a control freak like me, and when it comes it's like a wordless prayer that just hums right through me.  That morning I looked out at the mountains, at the speckling of trees far as I could see and the red sun climbing doggedly into another day, and I gave myself to that wordless prayer of not-my-will-but-yours-be-done, that blessed relief of acknowledging how little control I have over anything.

Tonight another year groans with the insistent ache of the dying.  Its midwinter breath is cold and thin, its light weak like the watery eyes of an old man.  The skeletons of spring's proud trees rattle their arms in a brittle dance of mourning.

I slip from this year as if releasing myself from a shroud, leaving behind a handful of sorrows I have carried with me throughout the year, clutched like stones in an angry fist.  I am reminded that the only memento I will carry with me into the new year is a fresh batch of lines pressed into my forehead.  Though I yearn for the hopefulness of other New Year's dreaming and scheming, I am clouded by the death rattle of a year in which I feel I was angry and sad and disappointed.  How can the new come from this, I ask myself.

But tonight, I also think of that morning in the snow.  I remember how I threw my coat on and grabbed Lincoln and threw his coat on, too.  I remember how I took him outside to let the snow fall on our faces, to let the beauty wash away our disappointment.  I remember how he stood on the bottom step of the patio because he hates walking in the snow, and yet he gave a happy yawp to the sky when he saw how the snow made his mamma smile.  I remember how I spread my arms to greet the damnable snow, how I turned my face to feel it, how I laughed into that moment of surrender.  All day long, that joy stayed with me, though our plans were shot and we did not, indeed, get to sleep in our own soft beds that night.  Still, that night, when I closed my eyes, it was in the arms of the man I love, with my babies snoring in sleeping bags in the next room.  It was in a warm room because my sweet in-laws, who put us up for the night, know how we hate to be cold.

Tonight is New Year's Eve eve, and my boys are asleep in their rooms.  My husband is on his way home from work, full of stories and probably cold and ready to warm his hands on my cheeks.  Tomorrow we will say goodbye to the year that I had as little control over as any other I have ever known, though I admit it feels a more fiercely independent set of a dozen months than most I have known.

So, I will close my eyes and throw a blanket of snow over this dying year.  A blanket of redemption to erase the scars and ruts and divots that tripped me time and again these months past.  I will throw my arms out and tip my chin up to the sky and laugh that next year I will be just as helpless to control anything as I was this year.  But I will laugh, too, because for every scar and rut and divot waiting for me, there is also a blanket of snow to blot it out.  For every sorrow, there is a red sliver of sun coming over the mountains.  For every angry fistful of loss, there is the hum of surrender, just waiting to surprise me when I least expect it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

For All Those Songs About Mary

"28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” - Luke 1:28-33

I've always had a thing for songs about Mary.  There's this one I wrote about once, and then there's this one that my sweet friend Andrea has sung in church, sounding like an angel herself, as she always does when she sings.  And then of course, I grew up hearing "Breath of Heaven" and "Mary Did You Know" every year at Christmas.  For some reason, those songs about Mary were always my favorite, and I would turn up the radio and sing and let tears gather like murky glass across my eyes.

We weren't supposed to worship Mary, not in the churches I grew up in.  Fascination with the mother of God, the kind of fascination I had always felt about Mary, leaned perilously close to that slippery slope of idolatry.  Mary was nothing special, according to the sermons I heard over the years, just an ordinary girl.  She wasn't chosen because she was great; she was great because she was chosen.  In fact, chances are, she was only chosen because she happened to be betrothed to the guy who happened to have the proper ancestry at the precise moment in history it was needed.

But it didn't matter because Mary was my way into the story.  The miracle of Christmas, for me, has always been seen through Mary's eyes.  Reputation smashed by the words of an angel. Not sure if Joseph would see her through to the end. Thinking she was half crazy and all the while repeating like a mantra I have found favor with God.

In my mind, she was reluctant, not sure she wanted this role. 

And then the long journey, swollen and lumbering, no room at the inn, the floor of a stable, those lightning bolts of pain.  All for what?  A child born to die a hideous death, broken and used up for someone else's crimes.

In my mind, Mary held her son to her heaving chest and looked hard at his face.  What did this Son of the Most High look like, after all?  In my mind, she saw herself and maybe even Joseph, too, saw herself imprinted on something that did not belong to her.  A gift from God; no, a loan.  Only a loan.

In my mind, she is to be pitied because the infant she held was only born to die.  To eat and drink and sleep and talk and see the world and then die a young man.  And she held him, perhaps knowing this son did not belong to her entirely, but not knowing he was a sacrifice, the sacrifice.

I imagine that as she wrapped him tight in his makeshift newborn gown, she marveled at how tiny he was.  He would have seemed, like any newborn, too fragile for this hard world.  So small both feet could fit inside her fist.  A disc of soft skin on his head where the bones of his skull had not yet grown together, a necessary evil for entrance into the world and a liability the moment you emerge.

These bodies are so soft, so fragile.  Just clay over sticks, bags of blood too easily spilled.  Last week in Connecticut we saw that all too clear, all too painfully clear.  I cannot catch my breath from it, to tell you the truth, and I am only a witness to the mourning of mothers and fathers with empty arms.  When I look at my boys, I want to throw myself over them, wrap them in armor, hide them in my big bed, kissing their heads and praying no one finds us.

I know the truth is that we all give birth to someone who is going to die.  We pray and hope and work and bleed to give them as much time as we can, to keep our children fed and clothed and healthy so they will outlive us.  But every mother gives birth to someone who is destined to die.

It's just that we pray, we all pray, that their days will be many between first breath and last.  That they will live to become gnarled old prunes who die under a quilt as the sun is coming up, dreaming of the wind in the hair they once had and a warm kiss on their cheek.  That they will know every joy and pain we knew, and then some, before they go.  And above all, that they will not go before us because anything other than that is unthinkable.

I don't know the grief those parents in Connecticut are feeling tonight, but the mother of God does.  What cruel kind of joke was that, to ask a girl to birth a savior, never telling her what it would cost her?  We talk of the sacrifice God made, sending his son to die, but we forget that his mother inherited that grief, too.

To bear the son who would break your heart only to save your soul.  Poor, wonderful Mary, the highly favored one, the mother of sorrows.  She will always be my way into the story, you see, that girl who was promised glory but offered grief.  We groan with her now, in the season of advent, crying out together for release, for comfort, for salvation from the terrible pain of these fragile bodies and wounded spirits. I am her now, it almost seems, huddled in a cloak on the back of a donkey, just waiting on a prophecy to be fulfilled.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too Soon

The sky has been dark all day.  Outside my window the city has been grey, hemmed in by heavy winter clouds that hang over us poised and heavy, ready to weep.

It feels so appropriate, too, because today it just feels that the world is dark.  It feels that there is more darkness than I can imagine, more than I can understand, more than I can bear to share this planet with.

The night before last, when I asked my seven year old son what he did at school that day, he told me they had a "stranger danger" drill.  "What's a stranger danger drill?" I asked him.  "It's where we stay in the classroom and have to be very quiet.  The Vice Principal came around and knocked on the door to get in, but we just ignored him and stayed completely quiet."

The image was haunting to me, my first grade son standing against a bulletin board with one of those cheerful scalloped borders, practicing what it would be like to hide quietly in his classroom as a shooter tried to get in the door.  I thought about it again Friday morning even before I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  And now I cannot rid my brain of the image of those children sitting in their classrooms while a madman roams the halls.


I've worked for the same university for five years, and in that time, we've had a lockdown because of a shooter on campus and an evacuation because of a bomb threat.  The day the shooter was on campus, I learned that the trunks of police cars hold a terrifying arsenal.  I saw officers storm buildings with semi automatic rifles and riot gear.  Helicopters roared overhead while the campus-wide alarm system pierced the silence every few minutes. "Shelter in place," the voice on the alarm system told us, though we were desperate for direction, for reassurance, for any news at all.

We watched for signs of our own potential doom by streaming CNN on our computers.  No one told us anything except to stay inside and lock the doors.  We waited while the police searched building by building for a second shooter that would turn out to be just a rumor, and though we weighed the odds of coming face to face with this supposed shooter on a campus as large as ours and accused ourselves of being silly for worrying, we all called our mothers and husbands and children.  Just in case.

It wasn't until I was clear of the campus and headed home to see my boys that I realized how scared I had been.  The muscles in my back ached from hours spent watching death unfold and wondering if it was coming for me next.


I spent the day today with my five and seven year old boys, holding them and kissing them like I hadn't seen them in two weeks.  While they took turns on the "good" swing in the backyard, I carried the guitar out, sat on the patio, and played "O Come O Come Emmanuel" over and over, singing, praying the mournful words.  Later, while they watched a movie, I pulled out my phone and watched the internet argue over gun control. 

I have strong feelings about this, of course.  I think I know the best way, but then who doesn't? My brain has been around this subject and back again in the last 24 hours, and I have spent more time than is altogether healthy researching statistics and reading terrifying comments on articles I shouldn't have read in the first place.  I've read gun control blogs and the NRA website.  I have tried to wrap my brain around this, best as I can without losing myself to uncontrolled emotional reactions to the events of Friday morning and my fears about humankind in general. I know that most people have made their minds up too completely to hear anything I say as more than angry rhetoric.  In the end, though it may not ever do anyone any good, I have some thoughts to share with anyone who is at the point where they are considering buying a personal firearm. 

I want you to remember that if you buy a gun, you will not just own that gun on days when all is right with the world. You will own that gun on the worst days of your life. If you find out your wife has been cheating on you with your best friend, if you find yourself in a impenetrable fog of depression, if you learn that your entire life savings is gone in an instant.  You will have that gun on the days that make it almost impossible to see reason, to even recognize who you are.  If you are prescribed a medicine that alters your sense of reality, if you learn that your daughter has been raped, if you get blackout drunk one night.

You will own that gun on days when using that gun can begin to seem almost reasonable.

And if you can say with complete confidence that you know you would never use that gun out of hurt or anger or confusion, good for you.  That is admirable.

But, say, do you happen to have a roommate or a spouse or a child?  Because you will also own that gun on the worst day of your husband's life, the day he finds out you've been cheating on him with his best friend.  You will own that gun on the day your son decides to impress his cousin by showing him his daddy's pistol.  You will own that gun on the day your best friend, who has a key to your house, realizes that her depression will never go away no matter how many prescriptions they throw at her.

You will own that gun on days when the people around you, who know where that gun is and most likely how to get to it, are watching their lives fall apart.  Can you be as sure about them as you are about yourself? Can you be sure that none of them will one day take a turn that would lead them to use that gun to take the lives of others?

Can you be objective enough to recognize the signs if one of your children is no longer stable enough to be in a house with a gun?  Can you be sure that you will know it in time, that you won't be seeing your son or daughter as you want to see them rather than as they really are?  Can you be sure you will see the truth before he hurts himself or someone else?

See, owning a gun changes the likelihood that violence will enter your life.  For starters, the risk of homicide is three times higher in homes with firearms.  For every time a gun injures or kills in self-defense, it is used 11 times for completed and attempted suicides, 7 times in criminal assaults and homicides, and 4 times in unintentional shooting deaths or injuries. Keeping a gun in your home means that it is 3 to 5 times more likely that someone in your home will commit suicide by any means and 17 times more likely someone in your home will commit suicide by firearm. 

Think you would only use that gun for self defense?  Sadly, in an assault situation, people with a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot than people in an assault not possessing a gun.  Overall, guns kept in the home are 22 times more likely to be used in unintentional shootings, murder or assault, and suicide attempts than in an act of self-defense.  In fact, 41% of gun-related homicides, home invasion or in any other situation, would not have occurred under the same circumstances had no guns been present.

Think your children would never touch your gun? That they have been taught too well or don't know how to access it?  Well, 22% of children whose parents swore their children had never handled their firearms, when questioned separately, said that they had indeed held mommy's gun at least once.

That's the thing about owning a gun.  Whether or not you mean to, you are making your gun available to everyone in your life on the worst day of their life.


The sky is dark now, the sun has been set for hours.  My boys are safe in bed, but I will check on them before I climb into bed myself, thinking of those heartbroken families in Newtown. I don't know how long I'll continue to feel like we are living under this cloud, this cloud of unspeakable sorrow hanging over us.  My spirit sends an anguished cry up, a prayer with no words, as I read the names of the fallen.  

I know guns didn't walk into that school on their own and do this.  I know it's not so simple as that.  They were carried in there and used by a man, and there is an issue of mental illness and who knows how many other elements to consider.  But let's not pretend that if that man had walked in there throwing spoons, the result would have been the same.  Let's remember that the guns we own are not as off limits as we think they are.  Let's have the hard conversations and discuss what this means about personal responsibility, regardless of what the government decrees about gun ownership.  Let's talk about it too soon because it's either too soon or too late for other families, too late for other innocent children and teachers and movie goers and shoppers and pedestrians and college students.   

All statistics from here, here, and here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When the Old is Cut Away

He hates to have his hair cut.  When the clippers come on with a shudder and a raspy buzz, he begins to shake instinctively.  When he feels the vibration on his scalp, he takes that long, silent breath that we recognize as the preparation for a wailing, piercing cry.  He pulls away from the clippers and tries to climb out of the chair.  We have to hold his head firmly, hold him still and watch him plead without words to be released.

We were warned, in the terrifying lists of what to expect we received after Lincoln was born, that children with Down syndrome might have sensory integration issues.  We heard that Lincoln might be easily overwhelmed, sensitive to noise, uncomfortable in a crowd.  Early therapy sessions often focused on incorporating a variety of sensations, having him run his hand along different textures, watching his reaction to sounds, helping him get accustomed to being held and patted and talked to by people.

The funny thing was, Lincoln never seemed phased by any of it.  He welcomed every experience, stuck his hand into boxes filled with rice and little plastic animals, oblivious to how uncomfortable the exercise was supposed to make him.  He hugged every new therapist and visitor that came through the door, laughed at every loud toy, grabbed for every flashing light wand that was introduced.

But, when it's time to have his hair cut, he starts shaking so hard I can feel it in my own bones.

During the last haircut, as I sheared off a couple inches of Linc's hair, I discovered something that had been almost hidden in the shaggy mane he'd been growing. I had noticed that his hair was looking thinner in spots, but I told myself it was because it was too long and was parting in odd places when it was disheveled.  As the long strands were released, though, falling in clumps all around my feet, half a dozen bald patches were revealed all across his scalp.  Little nickel and dime size spots of perfectly bald scalp, once hidden in a nest of tousled hair, now glaring out at me like pearly islands in a sea of chestnut hair.

There he was crying, my own sweet child, while I stripped away three months' growth of hair that had unknowingly worked as camouflage for his sudden hair loss.  And there I was, crying and trying not to shake apart myself, lashing out at God for this petty unfairness. "Oh, Lord, isn't he different enough?  Did you have to make him start losing his hair, too?"

Sometimes I am so sure that every single straw is going to be the one that breaks me.  Each small thing piles on, and I just know this will be the one that crushes me beneath its weight.  This just felt like one more why in an endless string of unanswerable questions.  Why, God, did you let this happen? And this? And this, too?  How could anyone ever see the sense in all of it?

I don't really get on my knees when I pray.  Half the time, I'm in the car on the way to or from work.  Sometimes I pray when I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain that I just know will find a hole in our old roof and reveal itself in damp, gray patches on the ceiling. But somehow I always think of it as getting on my knees.

Except when the whys start.  Then I'm on my feet, chin jutted out, defiant, raising my fist at the sky where I, in my lingering Sunday School innocence, still think of God as living. 

I guess I'm supposed to get the parallel.  I am doing something my son perceives as painful, but I am doing it for his own good.  To help him, protect him, care for him.  Linc can't understand why just yet, but I know that it's for his own good that I cut away the old, matted hair.

I'm supposed to recognize God in that, see Him standing over me, shearing away the old and revealing a new self.  But, as I stand there over my crying son, I am as confused as he is.  Why does it always seem that when the old is cut away, it only ever reveals some mottled patchwork that I would have preferred to keep hidden?  Why does it always feel like loss and never like rebirth?  Why does it hurt so bad to have the things we want cut away to make room for the things we need?

And there we are, the mess of us on the back porch struggling through a long overdue haircut together.  Lincoln is crying as I work, and I'm holding him close, holding him still, telling him softly all the while that I love him, that I'm not trying to hurt him and it's for his own good.  He doesn't understand me, though, and he just makes it so much worse by fighting against the inevitable.

I'm thinking that I know I'm supposed to see the parallel here, but if God is telling me those same things, that He loves me and that it's for my own good even if I can't understand it yet, I don't hear them any more than Lincoln hears the same words coming out of my mouth.

In the end, I sit in the chair and hold my son, sitting on clumps of discarded hair and rocking him until his cries subside.  I don't try to make him understand anything in that moment except that his mother loves him.  I wish he understood, wish he trusted that I would never want to hurt him even as I wrestle with the understanding that much of parenting is denying him want he wants in the moment.  In essence, it's hurting him selectively, hoping that these small injuries will save him from those potentially fatal wounds later on.

I see the parallel, but accept it begrudgingly.  Maybe Lincoln does, too, as he rests in my arms so securely, with a trust I feel I have not earned in recent moments.  "I love you," I tell him, pressing my lips to his mottled patchwork hair.  "Yo, maw," he says: I love you, too.

{Today I am linking up with Joy from Joy in this Journey for her December edition of the Life:Unmasked series.} 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Of Sugarplums Dancing

I'm not as naive as I seem about this. I can see that the artificial tree is baring its metal ribs in between the gaudy ornaments, half of which are handmade or flimsy or chipped from years of being knocked off the branches. I can see that the ripple of sparkling light coming off the tree is just the same old strand of white lights reflecting off the cheap plastic icicles hung to camouflage the poor tree’s ribs.

I know it’s out of fashion to love Christmas as much as I do. We’re supposed to grumble about how early the stores are waving it in our faces. We’re supposed to roll our eyes at the corny, overplayed music. We’re supposed to proclaim that the consumerism has killed this season’s magic, buried it under piles of 60 inch LCD televisions and sparkly candy cane striped candles that hit the shelves six weeks too early. We’re supposed to be too busy to remember what it is we used to like about this season, anyway.

But I love this time of year. I sing those songs like a drunk fool at a karaoke bar. I can’t wait to haul out the artificial tree and string up those ornaments, handmade and chipped and mostly ridiculous. To me, this season is still magical.

And it’s not because I’m some kind of Yuletide Pollyana. In fact, I think I love this season because my default setting is stuck somewhere between cynical and vaguely disappointed on almost any given day. Most of the year, I look around this angry, selfish world and I can’t believe that phrases like “Christmas cheer” have ever entered the cultural lexicon. Most of the time, everything seems so broken that I can’t imagine we could ever be, even for a few weeks of the year, a people full of peace and hope.

Of course, it's overdone and commercialized and all those things people like to grumble about. It's easy to let the commercials and the magazines poison us with unattainable images that seem to mock our modest attempts at making things merry and bright. Our shopping lists get longer ever year, and our budgets shrink. We inflate the value of things and buy into the advertising lies that tell us giving someone more stuff is the same as loving them. Several years ago, I mandated that I would no longer try to buy for everyone. I gave up and admitted that I will never find just the right gift for everyone in my life, and now Sam and I don’t buy presents for anyone but our children, each other, and our parents. And it's almost freeing, that simplicity, until a cousin or an aunt or a friend gives us something shiny to unwrap, and I feel that good old fashioned guilt sneak in and tell me I'm not doing enough.

No, the Christmas season isn't perfect.  It isn’t Currier and Ives for anyone. I almost never get to see my family on Christmas, and every year I am not with them, the missing of them is a raw and swollen place in my chest. This year, I’m beginning to see that my boys will never get to share the wonder of waiting for Santa together because we’ve got a seven year old who’s starting to get wise about the guy and a five year old who doesn’t even understand who Santa is yet. It’s just another reminder that my boys are growing apart as one skyrockets through childhood and the other lingers in his extended toddlerhood. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to admit that I won’t get the one thing I wanted most this year, won’t get it this year or ever, unless some miracle comes. The dream of another baby seems to be passing away right along with this spun out year.

We realize these things this time of year, the gaps and holes in our lives. Christmas does not bring the sadness, just illuminates it under the glare of a million icicle lights. We will never be with everyone we love on Christmas. Someone is always too far away, or too angry to share a room with us, or gone into the ether like one of those ghosts of Christmas past. The old wounds, no matter how long we’ve lived with them, start to ache this time of year.

But Christmas isn’t meant to remove us from our lives and drop us into some perfect land of happy gumdrops. It’s not supposed to be a day or a season where everything is perfect. It’s supposed to be a time when we all get together and hope: collectively, ridiculously, humbly all hoping in unison.

And I think it’s beautiful and inspiring and breathtaking that we still do. We waste electricity to fling cheer at the street, covering our houses in tacky colored lights and darn near breaking our necks to do it half the time, just to try and tell everyone who might drive by that we have not given up. We still believe, we still hope, and we will cast our light out there into the darkness of the long winter nights so maybe others will see and know that they are not alone.

We outgrow wonder, and yet we keep on selling it to our children, in stories of fat men in red suits and reindeer with glowing noses.  We keep selling them that little bit of wonder because their wonder is contagious, just as ours was to our parents.

We tell the story again and again of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem, of the pains that came and how there was no room in the inn.  We sing songs about a girl giving birth in a pile of hay and laying a savior in a manger. We remember that angels sang and that shepherds came first, and later wise men came bringing strange gifts. 

We go to candlelight services and sing "Silent Night," and though we do it every year, we are moved every time at how dark the room is before the flames spread from wick to wick, and how bright it seems when we all raise our little, glowing flames in the end.

I just think it's all like magic, how we do that every year, and I don't care if it's out of fashion or naive or just plain overkill, I think I will love the Christmas season until the day I die.  So, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and let your heart be light. I'll have my lights on for you, just in case you need to remember that someone still believes, someone still has hope, and you are not alone.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Life I Thought I Would Have

Lincoln always closes the door behind him.  He loves to open and close doors, never misses an opportunity to complete the cycle.  He lets himself into our bedroom and closes the door behind him with that telltale click.  Even the sound he makes when closing the door is expressive, recognizable.

Lincoln moves almost soundlessly to my bedside.  If he didn't insist on closing every door he walked through, he would move in complete stealth.  He makes no sound until he sees me stir, and then I am calling out to him, pulling him into the bed, kissing whatever piece of his head I can reach easily.  He climbs in between Sam and me, wriggling under the edge of the blanket, laughing.  I kiss him again and again, his skin still baby soft, and I ask him how he slept and did he dream and does he love me.  He responds with cheerful babbling, an animated telling of nothing I can understand, though to him, clearly, it is a lively story.

Nico arrives next, standing in the doorway for a moment and peering into the dark room.  When he hears our voices, he scrambles into the room and up on the bed.  Lincoln makes room for his brother, his favorite human, saying his brother's name happily as he scoots back and holds up the edge of the blanket in welcome.  He pronounces it Neeto, Neeto, and I say, "Nico, your brother is saying hello to you."

"Hi, Linc," the older brother answers, and Lincoln wraps him in a hug.

~ ~ ~

The paint is peeling on the broad side of the house, and the shutters are in mismatched shades because one day I decided I would just repaint the trim and the shutters myself and then almost fell off the ladder and haven't been able to get back on that particular horse.

There are holes in the carpet on the stairs where the dearly departed cat scratched his last will and testament into the fibers with a final, vengeful burst of strength.  He still resides on the property, though, buried under the big tree in the yard.  The rain and the sun washed his makeshift headstone down to almost nothing, but we all know the spot anyway and to us it's like he's still there somehow when we stand near that patch of dirt.

Someday, I know, we'll put enough spare dollars together to get the house painted fresh.  We'll rip up the old carpet and put some lovely replacement down.  For now, we hope the new growth on the Live Oak trees out front will camouflage the mismatched shutters, and I have an old throw rug draped unconvincingly over the worst part of the carpet on the stairs. 

~ ~ ~

I don't greet the day singing.  I never have, and I probably never will.  I begrudge the morning, wincing my way into the day.  I roll from the sheets and lumber, shoulders hunched, into the bathroom to begin my morning routine.

Weekday mornings are a thing of cruelty.  Up at five to exercise, in the shower by 5:55 so I can be in the car to sit in traffic by half past six.  Even two minutes late getting out the door, and I'm cursing at the clock and sending angry glares at the obsessive braker on the road in front of me.

Weekends, though, we lay in bed with the boys til the decadent time of 6:15 or so, all holding each other, crowded up under the blankets.  I kiss whoever dares come near me, kiss noses, knuckles, foreheads.  We lay there all of us together, me tossing out sleepy kisses, Sam trying to sleep, the boys squirming more and more until the peaceful interlude disintegrates into a wrestling match.  And then, I release the dog from her crate, and we parade one after another down the mottled stairs.

In many ways, this is not the life I pictured back when I was doe-eyed and untethered.  The house was supposed to be bright and clean, perhaps not bigger and better but definitely less worn down.  I was supposed to be more accomplished and less puffy.  The kids were supposed to be enrolled in art and music and soccer and gymnastics.  They certainly weren't supposed to eat so much sugar or know how to work the TV remote themselves.
And at the same time, in many ways, this life I ended up with has given me so many things I never thought to want for myself.  There is love and warmth here, respect and hope.  I live in a house full of people who like being together, whose most common frustrations come from not feeling like we are getting enough attention from each other.  We are woefully inept at enrolling our children in much of anything, but there is always a game of soccer or a light saber battle to be had in the back yard.  We eat dinner at the table like a proper family, and though nothing in our house ever thought of being white glove clean, we do manage to get the counters cleared and the dishes done sometime before our heads hit the pillow. 

And in the morning, whether the hateful alarm chirps at me or the click of the door rouses me, though I still don't bound out of bed singing, I wake into another day of a life that's both less than I anticipated and more than I dreamed.  I open my eyes into a loved existence, a place where I am cherished and needed and kissed and hugged more than I ever imagined I would be.  The beauty of the life I ended up with is that it shows me every day that the life I thought I would have was so preoccupied with the appearance of a good life and so unaware of what actually makes up a fulfilling existence. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Carving Turkey and Other Sacred Acts

There is ritual here.  The smoothing of the tablecloth, the excavation of the good dishes.  The hot blast of the oven opening to reveal the poor, delicious bird.  The smell of onion and butter cooking on the stove first thing in the morning that morphs slowly throughout the day, taking on various notes as dishes vie for coveted space in the oven.

There is much routine in our lives and precious little ritual, precious little honored formality about our habits.  Routine we see as boring, as grating even at times.  We do not elevate the morning tooth brushing routine to something sacred.  We do not honor the reverent act of browning hamburger on a nondescript Tuesday night.

But the Thanksgiving preparation is honored.  It is ritual shared and observed, beloved and remembered from one year to the next.

{Image Credit}

The ceremony of preparing this meal links us to every Thanksgiving in our living memory, reminds us of every year we've shared this ritual.  It reminds us of watching our fathers pull out the electronic carving knife and jack-knife their way through the bird, reminds us of watching our nervous husbands wield the carving knife for the first time, then of watching our children watch our husbands tackle the thigh meat, now so smooth with the carving knife after all these years of practice.

The scent in the kitchen is loaded with a thousand memories, some that come forward and others that crowd in silently, an undercurrent that gets twisted up in everything.  In the next room, someone is watching the parade, or the game.  Our hands settle into the rhythm of peeling sweet potatoes, and we watch the strips of discarded skin as they fall, still clinging to a bit of orange flesh.  There are diced onions in a pile on the cutting board.  There is a list somewhere, perhaps only in our heads, that we are checking off as we go.  Everything must be done in order.  And the rolls will be forgotten, either forgotten to be thawed or forgotten to be taken out of the oven before their bottoms blacken.  And the ice will be melted in the glasses when everyone sits down because, of course, the turkey will take longer than we expected.

{Image Credit}

And then we will come to the table, where the work of a whole day or more will be eaten in half an hour or so.  But for a moment, while the foods sits growing cold on the table, we will stop and give thanks.  Thank you for this food we are about to receive.  Thank you for this family, this life, this breath.  When we get started, the list stretches on and becomes at once infinite and also singular: thank you for everything.  Everything I have ever known and will know.

I live a life of too little ritual.  Too much routine and too little ritual.  Perhaps for that reason above many others, I cling to the traditions of the holidays.  I breathe into the petty rituals, the simple work of my hands, the evocative smells.  I set out the china with solemn care, and I fold the napkins earnestly because there is a timelessness to the ceremony.  And each tiny ritual is an act of gratitude, yet another service paid into the great debt of gratitude we all owe.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Hard Work of Giving Thanks

There's a handmade banner that says "PARTY" hanging across our dining room window.  It's left over from a birthday party we held almost a month ago, and somehow it has just become part of the landscape.  It's not that I don't see it.  I just don't recognize it as something particularly disruptive, something that needs to be fixed or cleaned or removed right away.

It's amazing how quickly we become acclimated to things.  The newness wears off, our vision adjusts, and it becomes just part of the landscape.  A new couch, a new car, a new shirt.  All fresh and shiny at first, then someone gets crumbs all over it, and it becomes just another thing to clean or fix or put away.

I haven't written a word all week.  I didn't want to talk about gratitude anymore, didn't want to think about it or write about it or record the things I'm grateful for on any dang list.

One of the things I'm learning about gratitude is that in order to be grateful for things, we have to be keenly aware of them.  We have to see them with an honesty and intensity that requires more effort than the lazy, passive way we have of looking at things in our autopilot mode.  It's work, noticing the details of your life in a way that allows you to be deliberately grateful for them.

Most days, it's easier to keep the blinders on.

Today we had lunch early because we were hungry and because it's the weekend and we weren't beholden to any kind of schedule.  Sam was working, so the boys and I sat down to eat, and as we ate Nico related a lesson from school on Friday.  "Mom, did you know if there were only 100 people in the world, only 33 of them would be Christian?  And only 5 of them would speak English?"

Though I'd heard some of this before, I let him tell me, nodding solemnly at each proclamation.  "Only like twenty would own a computer, and a bunch of them couldn't even read.  I don't remember how many.  And I think 15 of them would be starving.  And do you know what a starving person looks like?  You can see their ribs and their stomachs look like this."

He pulled up his shirt and sucked in his stomach, creating a cavernous hollow in the skin of his abdomen.  Then he released his breath, and the smooth, rounded belly of a healthy seven year old popped back into place.  He sat down and picked up his sandwich, pieces of meat falling unnoticed out of the side, uneaten food I knew would sit there on his plate until I tackled the dishes later and fed it to the disposal.

When food is not scarce, when you always know where your next meal will come from, it's hard to feel grateful for every morsel.  To do so, we would have to remember at every meal, with every bite, those who are starving.  We would have to live in the terrible dichotomy of having in a world full of people who, buy and large, have not.

But what a ridiculous predicament, to have so much I can't feel grateful for it all because I don't know what it's like to do without.  I have never know starvation.  I have never slept out in the cold, on the street.  I've never been unable to give my children shoes or jackets or even books and toys.

Tonight the news headline said, "Israel Bombards Gaza Strip, Shoots Down Rocket," and when I clicked on the link to read the story, the sidebar advertised another story, 'Twilight Movie Theater Shooting Plot Averted."  I didn't have time to finish reading the article because Lincoln called, "Maw, I need a snack," and I had to run off to keep him from rifling through the pantry.

Violence rages far and near.  On the Gaza strip, mothers hold their babies in quaking fear, feeling uncertainty rattle the foundation of their homes and their sanity.  Somewhere in Missouri, people file into a theater never knowing a man had been planning to pepper those very aisles with bullets.  Hunger stretches out far and wide, and all around us here, too.  And yet, I can find the selfishness to say I'm tired of working so hard to feel grateful for the much I have been given. 

The other truth I am learning about gratitude is that being truly thankful for something is admitting to yourself that it won't always be there.  It is facing uncertainty head on, saying thank you for these fleeting moments in which I get to enjoy this sunset or this newborn or this feast.  It is saying I know this can be taken from me at any momentI know this won't last.  So, thank you for however much of it I will get to enjoy before it disappears. 

And in that sense, yes, I will have to remember those who are hungry with every bite I take.  I will have to remember, as I tuck my boys into bed, how easily tragedy can strike.  I will have to live in the dichotomy of having and losing, in the uncertainty of never knowing when something or someone will be taken from me.  And, ultimately, I will have to remember that a life of gratitude means not getting mired in the fear of what will come but getting lost in the joy of what is, right here and now.  A life of gratitude means knowing it will all be gone, and me with it sooner or later, but for now, for this moment, I will see what I have been given and I will lift a mighty cheer of praise.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Motherhood and Gratitude

I am in the days of feet pounding on the stairs, of sticky hands on freshly cleaned surfaces, of dogs scratching at the door to go out and then in and then out again.  I am in the days of leaving a store in disgrace, trying to wrestle an uncooperative toddler to the car without dumping the contents of my purse all over the parking lot.  I am in the days of need voiced loudly at all hours, the days of stubbornness and tantrums, of belonging to everyone else first.  This is the season of young motherhood, and the soundtrack is the relentless noise of obligation, ringing off the walls in every room.

In these days, when the silence doesn't arrive if you don't find it, make it, dig it out yourself, all the noise becomes a way of life.  And in these days, even quiet isn't as quiet as it used to be.  Even when the toys have stopped squawking and the dogs are napping on the couch, the should be's are rattling around like tins cans in your head.  I should be starting another load of laundry.  I should be cleaning up the kitchen.

Some days, I think I'm ruined for everything.  I feel stir crazy when I stay home, guilty when I go off to work.  I wish for a night out with my husband but spend the whole evening uneasy when we get a babysitter, my mind still at home with the kids.  The noise makes me jittery, distracted, but somehow it feels that life is supposed to be noisy these days.  The quiet feels false, unwarranted and manufactured.  I am in the season of noise, after all.  What kind of bravado must a young mother show to carve out a quiet space all her own, when she does not really belong to herself in these days?  The noise is too loud and the quiet is not quiet enough.

And truth be told, though it wears me thin, I love it.  I don't want to be able to turn off motherhood like the volume on a speaker.  It is not an inconvenience that keeps me from myself.  It is a miracle, and an honor, and if anything it makes me a more fully realized version of myself every day.

I am in the days of kissing little boys' feet fresh from the bath, as they come to me wrapped in hooded towels, smelling head to toe of some candy-scented soap.  I am in the days of children fighting for a spot on my lap, the days of hearing the chorus of mom mom mom in two part harmony from the back seat.  I am in the days of watching a child learn to speak, hearing the words come together clearer and clearer every day.

This is the season of wiping noses, brushing little teeth with Spiderman toothbrushes, crouching down to dress them and being the shoulder held on to while they pick up one leg at a time and slide it into their pants.  This is the season of breathless stories about sauropods, counters littered with coloring pages, floors sprinkled with a Lego minefield.  This is the season of being someone so enormous to two people, so larger than life, that in some ways they will never get past it.  This is the season of being irreplaceable.

I come to this idea of daily gratitude, constant gratitude, like an eager student.  Tell me how this works.  Show me how to be grateful through and through, how to look at the world through a lens of thankfulness. Show me how to stop taking so much for granted.

But in motherhood, I am an old hand at gratitude.  I cannot look at these boys I carried inside me and see anything but miracle.  Every finger, every toe, every freckle, every hair.  They are wonders to me, wonders that I cannot believe I had any part in creating.  I do not ever grow accustomed to the mystery of life, the miracle of birth.

And I am in the days of new wonder still, the days of kissing tear stained cheeks and rocking tired bodies. I am in the days of clanging noise that sounds instead like a song, a rich and complicated melody that echoes even out into the stillness.  I am in the days of belonging to everyone else first. This is the season of giving life, and then giving and giving and giving life, day in and day out.  This is the season of giving thanks with my hands, of bearing their weight in my arms or falling to my knees before them, anointing them with tears and washing their feet.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In All Things

This morning the fog was so thick, the freeway seemed to disappear into a wall of white mist.  Cars obediently followed the road into oblivion, disappearing one after another.  And though a panic rose in me when I realized I didn't know what lay beyond that veil, I drove headlong after it, following the cars in front of me and leading the cars behind.

The edges of the world were blurred, at least that little piece of world I travel in the mornings.  I could only see the road right in front of me, the cars charging along beside me.  Everything else was swallowed up.  It's a bit of a lonely, quiet feeling, as if you are really and truly cut off from the world.

But I cut through the fog with a happy heart today, uncharacteristically buoyed despite the sky's gloomy countenance.  I gave thanks for the grey morning, for the eerie spectacle of mist devouring everything on the periphery, and remembered that I should add the fog to my gratitude list later.  I drove with the radio turned down low, my mind circling around the idea of gratitude, scratching at the surface, poking at the meat of it, trying to uncover its secret.

It seems I came into this month of gratitude thinking it would be a tame and uncomplicated exercise.  I would practice being more grateful, and in turn I would feel happier.  Simple as that.

But everywhere I've turned the past few weeks, I have run face first into a reminder that a spirit of gratitude requires more than simple list making.  It started with this piece by Ann Voskamp, in which she speaks of giving thanks as a means of healing a broken spirit and says:
"Praying continually, this thanks in all things, this is what fulfills the commanding ache for joy always...  Thanks to God is what that calms the wild heart. Anger makes us sick and weak and bound and the therapy is in the thanks."
And, reading it, I realized the requirement is not finding something to be grateful for even in times of grief or fear.  The requirement is giving thanks in all things, for all things.  Accepting everything as a gift: the loss, the sickness, the death, all of it.

Photo of the Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story

This is not the picture of gratitude I was expecting to emerge from this month of giving thanks.  See, I was looking for an easy prescription.  Take two of these and call me in the morning

The last thing I expected was to learn that instead of turning away from the disappointment and the frustration and the heartache, I was supposed to look them square in the eye and give thanks for them.  Not what I had in mind, thank you very much.  I was hoping that by looking at the rosy side of things, by diligently writing down the pretty images I came across throughout the week, I would hardly notice the pile of disaster lurking over in the corner.

This weekend I was on a retreat, and wouldn't you know it the speaker told us all about finding joy by cultivating a spirit of gratitude.  And she went right on to talk about maintaining that joy, and the gratitude, through trials.  It seems I am to have this message pounded into my head, like it or not.

In between the sessions, I went out for a run.  We were out in the Texas Hill Country, and the November afternoon was pushing 80 degrees.  And though I told myself I wouldn't dwell on it, I couldn't help but remember it was the day before the due date I was given for the child that we lost this spring.  I decided that I would outrun the pain of that loss, right then and there, and then I would bury it out there, pounded into the gravel of the trail.

I'm out of shape these days, so I would sprint as hard as I could until I thought my lungs were going to explode, and then I would drop back into a walk.  After the first two or three sprints, I was crying hard, gasping for air and sobbing so loud I prayed I wouldn't run into anyone else out on the trail.  It felt good, cathartic, final.

And on my way back to the cabin, all the fight gone out of me, I asked myself quietly whether I could be thankful for that loss.  Not thankful despite it, but thankful for it.

Out there the answer was so clear.  Yes.  I can be thankful even for that.  For the joy the pregnancy brought me, for the look in Sam's eyes when we saw the heartbeat, grainy and faint on the monitor.  For the way I have grown through this experience, this trying and getting and losing and trying and not getting and waiting and wondering and despairing and then hoping again.  I can be grateful even for something that stings as mightily as this does.

I was thinking of that moment this morning, driving into the fog.  The landscape was muddled, hidden, mysterious.  But in my mind, I was back there under the clear afternoon sky, gravel crunching beneath my shoes, the muscles in my thighs burning, asking myself if I could be grateful and finding that I could, somehow, be grateful even for the heartache.

Could it be that simple?  Can I just choose to be grateful in all things?  Is it possible that this rich, visceral kind of gratitude can simply be opted into? 

Outside my window, the fog was devouring cars one by one, coming for me and yet never reaching me.  I began to see the fog like a hollow monster, something that looms so large but can be sliced right through.  And I wondered, is that what a grateful heart can do, cut right through fear and sadness?  Beneath my hands, the steering wheel hummed, and outside my headlights scratched at the wall of mist.  I said thanks for everything I saw and felt and thought, and it all became an unbroken prayer, a whispered javelin hurled at the veil of mist around me.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}

Friday, November 2, 2012

How the Walls Come Down

It will be like chipping away at an old wall, a battlement built up slowly and added to, piecemeal, over the years.  Fortified by fear and worry and that never ending thirst for control.  There will be no catastrophic collapse of this old thing, no ram's horn blast and battle cry to reduce it to rubble at my feet.

It must be undone bit by bit, I tell myself.  This wall of discontent must be disassembled stone by stone, each piece knocked loose by one blast of gratitude, of peace, of contented release.  It will be work, this dismantling, the endless, exhausting work of letting go.  It will be day in and day out of raising my eyes to the heavens, opening my arms to my own helplessness, accepting the blows of failure and sadness and loss unprotected.  It will be coming out into the open, exposing my back to the elements, and picking apart this wall with dirty, calloused fingers.

{Image Credit}
This morning, I stopped on my way into the office to watch the moon.  A thin veil of clouds was moving across the sky, flying past the moon and being cast in a blue-tinged halo that wrinkled and shimmied with movement.  I stood still on the sidewalk and watched those clouds, in such a hurry to get where they were going, and the faithful moon inching slowly, confidently across the night sky.  The moon would soon be blotted out by the sun, and likely those delicate clouds would be burned away, too.

It was beautiful and fleeting, and it had nothing to do with me.  The sleepy moon could not feed my hungry body, could not warm my cold skin, could not give my head a soft place to fall.  And yet, it warmed me though and fed me and held me, that sight.  It made this fledgling gratitude muscle flex hard like a spasm deep in my stomach.

And just like that, I was marching around that old wall, blowing my ram's horn, readying my battle cry.  Perhaps it's not piece by piece, I thought.  Perhaps it's a brittle thing, this tendency to be dissatisfied, and it will be blown open, blown apart by one echoing, guttural yawp of gratitude.

{Image Credit}
When I thought about it later, I almost laughed to myself at the simplicity.  I was going about this whole gratitude thing like a ledger.  I would write down all the ways God has poured richness on my life.  I would see the richness that was already there, and I would finally be satisfied.

But, perhaps that's why it has always felt like being grateful was an assignment, because I was making the whole thing about me.  What I have, what I am, what I think.

This morning, I saw something else about gratitude.  Maybe it's about anything but me, maybe it requires turning away from myself and looking out.  Maybe it's not about believing I have enough things, not about letting go of competition, not about getting a higher view of my circumstances.  Maybe it's about remembering how small I am, about the privilege of drawing breath under a sky of dancing clouds, bathed in moonlight, and suddenly seeing more clearly than in the brightness of midday.  Maybe it's just grace in a different cloak, a glimpse of the gap between what I deserve and what I have received.

So, for now, I will be here walking around this wall, blowing my ram's horn and believing the wall will fall.  Soon, it will be time for the battle cry.  The air is thick with momentum, and the stones are already rattling in vibration.  And I take in a breath, deep into these miraculous lungs, and prepare to pitch my voice into the sky. 

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Coming to the Table

Tonight the ghouls and goblins will be out, and I will lead my children door to door, encouraging them to thrust open bags into our neighbors' faces, saying "Trick or Treat" but also really saying gimme gimme gimme what's mine. And then, we will come home and watch the neighbors' children come to the door saying gimme gimme, too. They will be superheroes and princesses, pirates and kittens, store bought and homemade.

I will sit, stand, sit again, barely time to settle on the couch in between the dinging of the doorbell. I will feel jangled and nervous and over it well before it's over. And I will think they are all cute, all of these children, and I will see my boys as new creatures in their costumes, though I know it's only a bit of cheap fabric painted to look like the real thing.

The boys will dump out their loot on the floor and become giddy with the sparkly, sugary wonder of it, drunk on the power of owning something normally so sparingly doled out to them. Left to their own devices, they would eat so much candy their bellies would be round and hard like turtle shells. So, I will police their sugar consumption while sneaking off to rip open a fun size wrapper so often that I become the one with a twisted gut and a film on my tongue that nothing seems to take away. It will be my own chant of gimme gimme gimme as I teach moderation yet practice excess in secret, hoping that what my children don't see can't corrupt them.

I don't hate Halloween, jaded as I sound about it. It's not the holiday that's the problem. It's that I have begun to lose perspective. I have slipped into a kind of hazy autopilot mode, where I look without seeing and hear without listening. I feel like I am missing my own life, like I am slogging through too busy and worried and distracted to see the abundance right in front of me.

Tomorrow, the thankful month begins. November heralds the approach of Thanksgiving, with its prayers of gratitude mumbled out over tables laden with bounty. With it cornucopias and its plenty. Thanksgiving has always been one day of the year for me, but this year I am beginning to understand that it must become a way of being if I am to shake myself free of the gimme gimme attitude that always just seems to leave me wanting more.

I have to relearn, when I feel nothing is ever enough, that enough is a mindset.  I am blessed beyond measure, and yet I look across my life with greedy eyes, not seeing what I have been given and somehow always feeling that something is missing. I think of that scene in the movie Hook where Robin Williams as Peter Pan sits down at the table with the Lost Boys.  To Peter Pan's eyes, the table is bare, and yet the Lost Boys are happily filling their forks and stuffing their mouths.  And only once Peter wills himself to see what is there can he finally see the banquet spread out before him.

I am ready to see what's already on the table before me.

{Image Credit}

So this month, inspired by Ann Voskamp, I am going to begin writing down what I am grateful for every day.  I am going to set some basic rules about technology that will allow me to be more present with my family.  I am going to get outside every day, for a walk or a game of soccer in the backyard or a lunch hour under a tree with a good book. I'm going to look for a thousand small ways to practice gratitude, ways to slow myself enough to inhabit the moment, and ways to be happy with what I have instead of believing I need more.  More food, more time, more stuff.  I will look for the enough that only gets buried beneath all of that more.

For this month, I dedicate myself to giving thanks, to seeing the enough that is already here, all around me.  This month I am ready to come to the table with new eyes, ready to see the bounty that has been here all along, the plates set, the candles glowing, the glasses full.  It's a new tradition for me, a month of giving thanks, that I hope will be repeated, at least in some small way, every day that follows.  I hope, if you are ready to begin a tradition of gratitude, you will join me this month in starting your own list and in coming to your own table with fresh eyes.

Happy November!

Monday, October 29, 2012

My First Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

"As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of 'biblical womanhood,' there is no one right way to be a woman."
                         ~ Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I don't normally write book reviews.  I like to think that what I do here is just tell stories about everyday life, hoping to catch moments that hint at larger truths.  But because this book is important to me and the faith I am growing into in my adulthood, because this book is also about using everyday stories to get at a larger truth, and because since finishing this book I cannot stop thinking about it, I could not help sharing my thoughts about it.

By chance, I was offered an advance review copy of Rachel Held Evans' new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master.  I read it slowly at first, thinking over each chapter, but as the momentum of her project grew throughout the book, so did my eagerness to keep turning pages.  The book reads as part anthropological experiment, part diary, and part bible study.  Inspired (or perhaps confused) by the idea of modern biblical womanhood, Evans has devoted a year to researching and living out this biblical womanhood ideal as literally as possible.

In addition to ten rules she agrees to follow throughout the year (ranging from modest dress to submitting to her husband's will in all things), Evans chooses a specific virtue to focus on each month.  Gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace: each month she digs in to the meanings and implications of one aspect commonly associated with the idea of biblical womanhood, gathering scriptural references and historical perspectives on the virtue, while also creating experiences that allow her to try out the physical incarnation of each aspect of this feminine ideal.  At the end of each month's chapter, Evans examines the story of a woman from the bible who exhibited the trait she has been studying for the past thirty or so days.

By adopting these experiences, everything from sitting on a roof and camping out during her time of uncleanliness to observing traditional Jewish holiday rituals and spending a weekend of silent reflection at a monastery, Evans is able to examine this issue from within the arc of a story.  The experiences, and inevitable misadventures, she has while trying to act like a true biblical woman give us both the fodder that makes Evans an easy target for critics and the substance that provides for a real transformation that this author-as-character displays within the pages of the book.  Coupled with the casual, direct narrative that makes this book read like a diary and causes us to feel at times as if we are peeking in on something we're not supposed to see, the monthly tasks Evans has assigned herself have us laughing, cringing, and cheering along with her. 

It is exactly at the honest and often awkward moments Evans describes that early rounds of criticism are aimed.  Evans has been accused of mocking the bible by her hands on approach, often by people who have not actually read the book but who are basing their reactions on the premise itself.  I understood that the organized Christian church at large was never going to embrace this book because they have come to equate the idea of biblically prescribed gender roles with the male dominant church and home leadership hierarchy that they believe is unquestionably God-breathed.  The tradition of patriarchal leadership is so deeply ingrained that many in Evangelical church leadership cannot fathom entertaining a reevaluation of this interpretation without expecting a baby-with-the-bathwater type loss of everything they believe.  So it comes as no surprise to me that critics have attacked both the book and its author whether or not they have read anything beyond the blurb on the back cover.  This book would necessarily seem dangerous to those whose faith is, at least on some level, contingent on God prescribed gender roles.

And that is truly a shame because what Evans reminds readers in A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that biblical womanhood, as it actually worked in biblical times, does not even remotely resemble the 1950s inspired ideal advocated today.  As Evans notes, "Despite what some may claim, the Bible's not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today.  The text predates our Western construct of the nuclear family and presents us with a familial culture closer to that of a third-world country (or a TLC reality show) than that of Ward and June Cleaver." The picture of biblical womanhood, as it appeared in ancient Israel, was one in which women were property of their husbands, girls were property of their fathers and could be sold into marriage or slavery (whichever would bring a higher price, of course), men regularly took multiple wives and often also kept slaves and concubines who were expected to be sexually available to them, widows were expected to marry their husband's brother, and rape victims were either stoned to death or expected to marry their attacker.

Obviously, this is not the biblical womanhood the modern church intends to reclaim.  Evans gently pokes at this wound, this uncomfortable revelation that biblical womanhood, as it's peddled today, doesn't really exist by examining other traditional faith practices.  Who would know more about modesty than the Amish and Quakers?  Who could teach silence better than the monks?  Who could address the thorny issue of multiple wives better than modern day polygamists?  Evans does not intend readers to adopt the rituals, faiths, or lifestyles she researches.  She does not suggest that present day Christians should begin to live by Old Testament laws.  Rather, she highlights the fact that Christians, men and women both, are supposed to be governed by the freedom of grace, not legalism, an obsession with standards, or a rigid adherence to conformity.

God did not leave us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure the length of our skirts. He left us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure our intentions, and that is a task much harder to achieve and almost impossible to quantify.  It is much easier to acquiesce to the safety of rules and regulations.  Thou shall not show your thigh is much easier to police than thou shall not have a self-seeking spirit. 

For me, the genius of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that Evans does not write as an authority preaching to the eager masses.  She writes as the humble seeker.  She writes it as one who is honestly asking, "Is there one set way God expects women to behave? And, if so, why doesn't anyone agree on what that is?"

By coming to the project with curiosity and vulnerability, Evans does not simply discuss the twelve monthly virtues but lives with them, bringing them to life in her closet and her kitchen and her bedroom.  In openly learning, questioning, and confessing her shortfalls as they relate to her list of virtues, Evans shows us a shift from the formulaic, stereotypical view of each virtue to a more nuanced and layered understanding.

Gentleness does not mean scouring away boldness and replacing it with unwavering timidity; instead gentleness "begins with strength, quietness and security."  Domesticity is not synonymous with female divinity, and yet cooking can be a kind of divine meditation.  Valor can be reclaimed from Proverbs 31, and cries of eshet chayil can be voiced as an anthem rather than an assignment.  Marriage and family, though both lauded callings, must be remembered as secondary because, as Evans reminds herself: "As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ.  And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar."

Ultimately, Evans' resilient faith points us back to this ultimate truth again and again throughout the book. Though she writes powerfully and authoritatively on scripture, tells an engaging (and funny!) story, and makes compelling arguments for a new approach to gender roles within the church, it is her ability to turn the spotlight back on the individual reader's life that makes A Year of Biblical Womanhood truly exceptional.  In each chapter, I found myself searching my own heart and remembering that whether I do it from the end of a spatula or a scalpel or a pen, my true calling as a woman is to bring glory to God. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Meditation on Gratitude

 The landscape of my mornings is grey, industrial.  Walls of semi trucks hem me in on the freeway in my predawn commute.  The light comes in thin beams and pools, from hundreds of headlights, taillights, street lamps, but it is feeble, spotty, shifting.  No match for the darkness that sprawls across the horizon.

Everything looks grey in this half-light, and with the color all gone out of everything, the buildings and miles of asphalt seem to dominate my field of vision.  The walk from my car to the office is a concrete maze, long serpentine swaths of sidewalk, walls rising up around me on all sides, everything that same grey.

I arrive cloudy, as if all that grey has bled onto me a bit.  The morning is half gone by the time I realize my face has settled into a vaguely grim expression.  A hardness around the eyes, lips pressed into a thin line.

{Image Credit}

It's not just the tangle of traffic and the dark mornings.  Somehow lately a creeping, pervasive sense of dissatisfaction has settled over me.  I greet the day already behind, feeling the world owes me some debt it has not made good on.  It seems there is never enough, not enough time, not enough money, not enough rest.  Slowly my default has gotten reset to not enough, and yet it is suddenly that I notice it,  when I catch in my mid-morning reflection the grim expression my face has adopted.

I know the prescription for this creeping malaise, know it because it is a solvent for most maladies of the spirit.  But it must be applied daily.  Every single day without fail because as soon as you stop, the malaise begins to build again.

I start with the view outside my window, where the sun is high and the world has regained its color.  The trees shimmy in the late October wind, the pedestrians stream by, the cars slide along in a blur.  Everything is life and movement.

Then I move on to my hands, watching their understated brilliance as they flex and release these ten healthy fingers.  I feel the air come in and out of my lungs, breathing as a conscious act, breathing as a prayer of gratitude.  The muted purr of respiration is a lyric I sing over and over, finding the reverence in the unwavering repetition.  I am life and movement, a masterfully built machine whose own mechanics remain unnoticed unless they falter.

I am breathing in and out a prayer of gratitude for my life, these eyes that see, these hands that clutch and lungs that gasp.  I am beginning the slow work of resetting my default, recovering the wonder of being alive, of being given another day to breathe prayers and pump blood in and out of the pulsing knot of muscle in my chest.  It is one small treatment, a dose of gratitude.  In my mind, I say the words thank you for giving me this day, and in saying it try my best to mean the day I have been given, grey and traffic and all, not some other imaginary perfect day.

It is a beginning, and for today it is enough.  Thank you for giving me this day, grey as it began, green as it became, black as it will end.  I've been too long away from the medicine of simple gratitude, and my spirit has grown cloudy.  Tomorrow will need another dose.  And the day after and the day after.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Camels Through the Eye of the Needle

He sits in the swing, punching buttons on a calculator, dressed as Thor in his new Halloween costume.  Every time the calculator gives him a correct answer, he lets out a gleeful, surprised little gasp.  "This thing is so smart!" 

He turned seven this weekend, and the oversize calculator was a gift discovered after the others.  "What's this?" he asked, pushing the package toward me.  "Well, it's a machine that does math," I said.

"What? It does math? Show me!"  He laid his Thor hammer down on the table and pulled open the package.  Once he had retrieved his prize, he punched at the buttons, trying to produce this computational magic.  His cape was caught on the back of his chair, a twisted red spiral behind his barely seven year old head.  I unhooked it and smoothed it behind his back before reaching over and hitting the power button to amaze him with the appearance of the zero in the calculator's narrow screen.

The innocence, the wonder of discovering something as everyday as a calculator, thinking it a magic machine, while wearing a super hero costume - well, it had me a-flutter with maternal ooh and aah type fascination.  I looked at my son as if I had never seen him before, as if we were just meeting.  I remembered all at once how many things I tell him every week, no every day, that he has never heard before.  How many words his father and I define on any given day, how many concepts we explain.  I remembered, suddenly and with a keen sort of nervousness, just how much we are shaping the person he will become. 

"See," I told him, punching the buttons as I went, "If you add four and seven, what do you get?"


I pressed the equal sign, and the number eleven appeared on the screen.  I didn't think he could be any more amazed by the fascinating technology, but then he read the package and reported breathlessly that this magical machine was solar powered.  "I'm taking this thing outside, where it can charge up," he said in a reverent voice.

                                                                                             ~  ~  ~

Sometimes, when I'm on the freeway driving in to work, I will top a hill and see the tangle of traffic ahead and think not just how long my trip is going to take, but how many people there are in this city.  As a number, on a page, it reads like a ranking.  We are this big of a city, and that's supposed to mean a variety of things about what's available here.

But some days, I realize that all those numbers, all those digits crowded around a comma or two, are flesh and blood people.  I see the cars on the freeway and remember that they are all holding lives like mine.  And then I think about how many cities there are in the world, how many lives.  It's an incalculable weight, that number of people, when seen as not a number but as actual lives being lived simultaneously on this big old rock.  Just thinking about it can give me a rattly, anxious breath.  So many souls clinging to the gift of their existence just as fiercely as I cling to mine.  And so many of them going to sleep on dirt floors, or with stomachs aching from hunger, or with the axe of war slicing through their lives indiscriminately.

My mind can't be wrapped around it, the vast pool of humanity.

I can't seem to see beyond the end of my nose most days.  Thor and his calculator dominate my view, Thor and his little brother and their father.

As he sat on the swing tonight, our little Thor would punch in numbers and ask me how to say them.  "What is eight with six zeroes behind it?"  I would answer, "Eight million," knowing that I could not begin to describe what eight million of anything means.  I remember reading once that it would take something like ten days to count to a million, assuming you spoke one number per second. 

I looked at my son tonight and felt distinctly unequal to the task of preparing him for life on this planet.  How can a person who struggles so much with having a comprehensive worldview somehow raise a son who can see beyond the end of his own nose? If I have my head so mired in American values and privilege, how can I teach these boys to have a broader view?

As he asked me numbers, I wanted to tell him the bits of trivia his father would have said, like 50,000 is the number of light years to wherever or eight million is the number of cells in a so-and-so.  But instead, I let him get his fill of his calculator, calling out numbers on cue and smiling at the little boy in a Thor costume playing with a simple discount store calculator as if it were an iPad or a Game Boy.
When he tired of the new toy, he climbed in the hammock beside me, his cape pooled beneath him, his arm wrapped around my waist.  "Do you know how lucky you are," I asked him, "To be born in this country, at this particular point in time?"

"I know," he answered, "Because now we have solar calculators and people didn't always have those."

"That's true.  But also many people in the world even today will live and die without ever seeing a calculator.  Many people own nothing but the clothes on their back.  Many, many children can't afford to go to school.  In some countries, children are forced to work terrible, hard jobs.  And I don't know why those people were born where they were born, and you and I were born into a place where we have plenty to eat and a warm home and more toys and games and gadgets than we will ever need."

He thought on that for a few minutes, and I thought on how the lives I was telling him about were as abstract to me as they are to him.   And we swayed together in the hammock and held on to each other and felt too small and also too large in our own delirium of self importance.  Then, we were called away by the little brother, and it was time to think about getting dinner together.  The moment was gone, and as I walked back into the kitchen, I couldn't help but think about that camel trying to squeeze itself through the eye of the needle.