Sunday, September 30, 2012

To Lincoln, on His 5th Birthday

My sweet son,

When you were still in my tummy, only a flurry of muted swirling and bumping inside me, I bought a baby book to chronicle all the milestones you would achieve in your early years. I just knew you would be an overachiever, and I would be right there every time you learned something new to scribble the date of your latest brilliant endeavor.

I must admit that I was never very good with those baby books.  By the time you came along, I was too busy chasing after you and your brother to stop and jot down exactly what day each tooth came in.  And there was something more after you joined our family, more than being too busy.  See, you made us realized that those baby books, with their expectation of a certain kind of progression at a certain pace, represented a focus on performance and measuring up that suddenly seemed downright misguided.

I'm sorry to say that before we knew you, your father and I had the tendency to believe that what a person accomplishes determines their worth.  We understood that how much money someone has or what they look like doesn't mean much in the bigger scheme of things, but sometimes we forgot that how talented or athletic or smart someone is doesn't make them worth more than anyone else.  Just sometimes, mind you, but I guess you can see why we needed you to come in and remind us that the worth of a person is inherent and unshakable.  It doesn't work on a sliding scale based on how many degrees follow someone's name or how well someone can complete a triple axel.

But you know, I still remember what we wrote in your brother's baby book, in the space where it asked us to write a letter to our new baby.  It took me a few months to write it out because every time I turned to that page, I couldn't imagine condensing everything I wanted to say to him down to one lined page.  Finally, I sat down with my pen and started writing out my hopes for his life.

"I don't care how much money you make or what job you end up doing. I hope only that you find something you love doing, and that you give yourself time to pursue that.  I don't care who you fall in love with or where you make your home.  But I do hope that your life is characterized by love, that you spend your days loving the people that surround you."

See, I almost understood.  Almost, but it wasn't until you arrived to challenge my notions of worthiness and achievement that I understood it clearly.  Until then, I was buried beneath the weight of perfectionism.  It wasn't just that I expected other people to demonstrate their value by the virtue of their performance.  No, it was that I believed my own value was still up for debate, that I had to do enough, act perfectly enough, to establish my worth as person.

Like I said, you can see how badly you were needed here.  Here we were, acting like we thought we were supposed to act, hoping it would earn us the love and respect we weren't sure we were good enough to receive.  Frankly, I don't know how we kept it together until you got here.

And now, we are celebrating five years of having our priorities forcibly restructured.

Five years of your infectious smile, your all-encompassing hugs, your dogged focus on whatever it is you want at that moment.  For half a decade now, our family has been lit up by the light of Lincoln, glowing from within and fueled on the battery of your remarkable spirit.  You're not a saint, by any stretch of the imagination.  You aren't the stereotype we hear about so often, with the sugary smiles and the announcement that "people with Down's are such happy people."

You are so much your own person, your own interesting, funny, willful person, that we don't always even stop to correct people anymore.  We used to say, "Well, it's not called Down's.  It's called Down syndrome, and they aren't all alike."  But now we say things like, "Lincoln is very happy, until he's not.  Pretty much like any other kid."

Because you are like any other kid.  You are so kind one moment, rushing to comfort a friend in tears, and then you go and throw a matchbox car at someone's head.   You are so stereotypical sometimes, a perfectly stereotypical little boy who turns everything into a gun and is constantly covered in dirt and who-knows-what.  You are so hard to handle one moment and so easygoing the next.  You are perhaps the most affectionate child I have ever seen, and yet when you want to go it alone, well then that becomes the hill you will die on, by golly.

Today, as we celebrate your 5th Birthday, I can only tell you how grateful I am for the lessons you're teaching me, for the perspective you have brought into our lives, and for the joy you give us everyday.  We are so proud of who you are, Lincoln.  We wouldn't change one single thing about you.  Happy happy birthday, my sweet boy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Passenger Seat

We have just watched one of those strange, two minute, glossy church videos that come from who knows where but always fit the sermon topic. They seem to come in three flavors: inspiring, heartbreaking, or humorous. Today's video was one of the humorous ones, a parody of a product that all married people need, apparently: a man translator. The woman speaks, and the translator tells the clueless man, in a growly voice with caveman syntax, "Me not fine. U no go!"

Around us, couples chuckle, the husbands with their arms draped around their wives' shoulders, looking over at them occasionally and nodding. The lights come up on this morning's speaker as everyone puts down their thermal coffee mug and loads up the bible app on their phone.

The speaker stands on the stage wearing a tool belt, preaching about the tools needed for a successful marriage. He talks about the tools men use, the drills and hammers and screwdrivers. Reminding us that women use tools, too, he pulls out a pink and white hair appliance, a straightening iron or some other such device intended to primp our pretty little outsides.

My husband squeezes my thigh, as if he can draw the frustration from my tensed up muscles, and it does calm me, miraculously. I know he loves to tell the story about the Christmas where I got power tools and he got cooking supplies and a musical on DVD. I know he is also squeezing my leg to diffuse his own frustration and keep him from making a huffing sound in the middle of the sermon.
~ ~ ~ 

{Photo Credit}
It was a shock to me that this is a contentious issue. I came into this world through the pain of a woman, was held and fed by a woman. At church, I was told about Jesus by women almost exclusively. At school, far more of my teachers were women than men. It never occurred to me that Christians, this group so intensely invested in family values, would put their second best in the child rearing game and send off their star players to the cold, spiritually dead business world.

Why would they let women spread the good news to the group overwhelmingly likely to be drawn in by it (since everyone loves to spew the statistics about the hefty percentage of believers who come to faith in childhood), and yet declare them unworthy to stand up and lead those same believers when they have reached adulthood? It didn't make sense, logically speaking.

And also, I couldn't find a way to fold that message of male domination into the picture Jesus left us. I couldn't find it in the way he treated women, or the admonitions to love our neighbors as ourselves, or the assertion that there is no male or female because we are all one in Christ Jesus. How could we be one, if half of us were unfit to lead adults and the other half of us uninterested in leading children? How could you love someone as yourself and yet give them fewer rights, fewer options, and less respect?

~ ~ ~

The sermon isn't terrible, isn't necessarily offensive.  He puts a gentle, muted accent on the different part of the different-but-equal-roles picture he's painting. Doesn't directly engage in the "wives submit" portion of that morning's passage.  He speaks of his wife with love, describes her as supremely competent, implying perhaps that she is even more competent than he is.  A more natural leader, a better decision maker. 

I realize that's a hallmark of this kind of sermon, the praising of the wife's abilities or the jokes about the wife wearing the pants in the family.  We aren't implying that women can't lead, these stories tell us, just that they shouldn'tHey, it's not our idea to put women in the passenger seat, it's God's.
~ ~ ~

On the way home, I am actually in the passenger seat. My husband is at the wheel of our new red minivan, and our boys are in the back seat, tired and hungry after a long morning at church.  We are tired, too, from the years of holding our tongues and squeezing each other's thighs to keep us both calm.  We wonder briefly if church is worth it, worth this disappointment and frustration, but it is a quiet, passive thought that has no meat to it, no weight in it.

We will climb in the minivan again next week and take our usual seats, digital bibles loading as we wait for the inspirational video to start.  We will be there, week after week, because we have decided to walk this walk with other people.  We remind each other that people are flawed, and that we are people, too, broken in a thousand spots ourselves.

Some weeks we'll get frustrated all over again by listening to someone tell us who should be in the passenger seat and who gets to drive.  But some weeks, instead of squeezing each other's thighs, we'll look over at each other with knots in our throats because we get a glimpse of why we sift through the nouveau rituals of modern evangelicalism.  Some weeks we will see the indescribable beauty of lives coming together, of broken people laying themselves bare in front of other broken people, all of them looking up together and begging for healing, and redemption, and understanding.  Some weeks, we will catch a glimpse of grace lived out, and when we are back in the minivan, Sam at the wheel and me in the passenger seat, we will look over at each other and clasp hands over the center console, locked in a silent prayer of thanks.

This look at faith and feminism was written for the September Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival being hosted this month by From Two to One

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Wake Up Call

He wakes at 5:47 every morning, drawn from his bed at that exact moment day after day as if summoned by some raucous alarm heard only by his tiny ears.  The click of my bedroom door unlatching, a sound normally so faint, slices through my sleep like a gunshot, and I sigh a mumbled curse into my pillow.  The moment of waking, always too early for my taste, is harsh and grating, but my young son stands by my bed steadfast in his mission to pull me into the waking world.  Sleep claws at me with the urgency of a desperate lover, and I must rip myself from its embrace forcefully and remind my feet how to swing down and greet the floor with the clumsy thump of the half awake.  The light in the bathroom is abrasive, my pupils shrinking so fast it makes my head hurt, and my hand comes up instinctively as if to block the sun itself.  It hurts, waking up this early.

And perhaps waking is always painful in its way.  It is always passing from one stage to another, and for a breath of a moment we are in both places at once, still walking the halls of our dreams even as our eyes bring the room into focus.

When I think of what has woken me up, really woken me up into my own life, it has always been heralded by the sharp sting of pain.  I found God again in childbirth, when all the distractions and breathing tricks were eclipsed by the intensity of the pain, when I retreated inside myself, willing it to stop, and found myself calling out to God with a faith so raw and so unyielding I almost forgot the pain.  My husband repeats, when I mention this hospital bed redemption, the quote that says "there are no atheists in foxholes."  I have never been in a foxhole, but I have come to the end of myself and found more.  I found an awakening at the cross street of desperate and out of options that has dug in and built itself a cozy home in my life.  I can't unbelieve what I discovered in that moment of surrender. 

Childbirth is an awakening I cannot get past, cannot get over.  As a visceral experience, it is mind-boggling, and as a point on the spiritual journey, it is like scaling Everest and then continuing on to what suddenly feels like a sloping, grass-covered valley.  I remember the day after my oldest was born, I was in the hospital room with my father.  I began to nurse my newborn son, barely knowing what I was doing and clumsily throwing the blanket over us in an obligatory nod to modesty.  My father stood, I assumed in an attempt to flee from an awkward moment, but instead of leaving he stood over us and said a few simple sentences that healed decades of old wounds.

"You know how much you love Nico?" he said to me.  "You know how already you feel like you would do anything for him, give your life for him if you had to?"  I looked down at the hungry, suckling, restless baby boy in my arms and nodded.  My father said, "That is the way we have always felt about you.  Even when we didn't see eye to eye or it seemed like we were punishing you, it was always because we loved you this much."

And just like that, every argument, every punishment, every rigid parental declaration became the best guess of two people who loved me fervently, unflinchingly.  No matter how many times they had said over the years that they were doing something difficult because they loved me, it always felt somehow punitive and unfair until I understood love as they meant it, love as I now felt for my son.  Even if I didn't agree with their approach, I instantly embraced their intention in a way that I could not have without the awakening of birth and motherhood, though I was but hours into the journey.

Motherhood woke me, in ways I just didn't expect.  It often feels as if it multiplied me, stretched me, moved me outside of myself.

The one who wakes me at 5:47 every morning, our youngest, has always been my biggest awakening.  When he came squalling into this world, unwilling to resign himself to his own awakening, I saw only a beautiful, scrunched up little face and a frame smaller than I remembered any baby could be.  But the air went out of the room and I think, in hindsight, Sam and I were the only ones who didn't hear the silent something's wrong vibration.  The team from the NICU was somber, and baby boy number two was whisked from the room in a hushed flurry of procedural efficiency.  The doctor was sewing up the hole she had just opened in my belly, telling me to stop laughing or crying or whatever was shaking the suture sight, and I was telling Sam to go with our baby boy and watch over him now that I was unable.

It all felt different from the first time, but as I waited in the recovery room for so much longer than I expected, I chalked it up to a scheduled c-section.  I was so much more aware this time, I told myself. But, as it turns out, I was in that painful in-between state, no longer asleep and not yet awake.  Finally, Sam came and told me the words I will never forget.  "He is perfect and he is beautiful and the doctor thinks he has Down syndrome."

It was the confirmation of something I had known for months, something I had felt but not understood.  And at the same time, it was a shock that woke me with insistent pricks and stinging nettles.  I pulled the pillow I didn't even know I had out from under my head, thrust it over my face and cried.  Sam pulled it away and asked, "Why are you crying?" with the innocence of one whose love has eclipsed his fear.  And I told him each selfish fear I had, slipping each one from my mouth like slipping one link after another onto a chain that this son would wear around his neck.

And the whole time my nurse stood there, stationed like a speechless soldier at the palace of my sorrow.   She remained still and quiet beside me, until I sent Sam back on his mission of watching the boy I could no longer monitor by counting the kicks he lobbed against my uterine wall.  And then my nurse asked if she could pray for me, and she held my hands, and she prayed over the lives of my young, confused family.  She was supposed to leave then, her shift was over, but she didn't want me to be alone.  So, she stayed with me and never let go of my hand and told me that this boy was lucky to be born into our family because we were all meant for each other.

I chalked that up to mumbo-jumbo, to not knowing what to say in the face of tragedy, until I saw the awakening this child would engender in me.  He comes to me at 5:47 in the morning, and I am ripped from the laziness of sleep again, day after day.  He comes in every day, wearing his Down syndrome all over his face, speaking it in the babble that is only sometimes words, and I awake again at the miracle of his life.  I stir, deeply, at the sight of his perfect body loping into my room, at the sound of his husky voice calling "ma, ma" at me.  This is the person who expanded my love beyond the selfish bounds of family to all people.  I look at my Lincoln, and I remember my capital-a Awakening.

I look at him and am reminded that I have been commanded to love others first and foremost.  I am reminded that I am not commanded to love them despite their flaws but that, if anything, I am commanded to love them because of their differences and imperfections.  I am not commanded to find the most worthy and lavish them with God's love; I am commanded to find the least worthy and shower them with glory.

I wake into the young years of my motherhood every morning, and with each day my eyes are opened wider and wider to the changes this experience has woven into my existence.  Every leaky sippy cup, every dirty diaper becomes an act of grace, a ritualistic washing of the feet of the people who have come here to shake me out of myself and wake me to a world beyond own selfish demands.  And though each bit of awakening is painful and jarring, it is also good, and somehow sweet and unspeakably welcome.

This post was inspired by the September theme AWAKE over at SheLoves Magazine.  Be sure to click over and read all the other stories of awakening.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The View from This Side

Instead of a mirror, there is a window.

Over the row of sinks in the bathroom at my work, where I wash my hands several times a day, instead of the ubiquitous oversize mirror, there is a tall window that spans the length of the room and looks out on downtown Austin from eight floors up.  The low canopy of trees, thick and green from a mild, rainy summer, strings along in clumps at knee height to the taller buildings and brushes the forehead of low-slung strip malls.  In the distance, the freeway buzzes with the whirring of cars that seem like toys from this far away, always running in two lines, speeding away from each other.  Just before the raised skeleton of the upper deck, as we call that particularly treacherous stretch of freeway, is the hospital where both of our boys were born. 

As I wash my hands, instead of staring at my reflection and making quiet, critical huffing sounds over my this-or-that flaw, I stare out at the upper floors of the hospital and imagine myself back in the place where my life was irreparably changed twice.  I remember being on that top floor for hours on end, that floor where they house the two pound premies and the babies, like ours, whose transition into this place of light and noise and oxygen is tenuous and bumpy.  I remember standing in that NICU and looking out the window at the other side of the view I now have from my office bathroom, looking toward the spot where I stand now when I'm washing my hands.

And every time I'm standing there, looking out at the view, my first thought is not how beautiful, though it is. My first thought is how strange there's no mirror here.  Of course, there's a mirror on the side wall that you pass as you leave the bathroom.  But there's no giant stare-at-yourself-whether-you-want-to-or-not mirror to gape at while you're at the sink.  Instead of a ritual of vanity and criticism, instead of the well-honed pairing of liquid soap with an overlay of self-deprecating inner dialogue, I have this beautiful, sun-drenched, loping vista to absorb when I take a bathroom break. 

I am accustomed to using that hand washing time as an opportunity to remind myself of all the ways I don't look like the women I see on TV, and in ads and movies and at the gym.  I am rather practiced at using those few seconds to tell myself what needs to be fixed. 

Instead, I get to look out at this city I have adopted, at the place where I brought life into the world,  the place where family and friends gathered around me, touching my sweat stained back, kissing newborn flesh that 24 hours ago had been in my belly, watching me grapple with fear and confusion and anger that coexisted, somehow, with a love that took the breath right out of me.  I get to look at that view five days a week, and instead of staring at myself for those two minutes when I am washing up, I get to ask myself if the shape of my arms or the roundness of my stomach are really that captivating, really that concerning and all-consuming after all.  I look out at that view, and I'm forced to think about what beauty really means.

{Image Credit}

"Beauty is not in the face," Kahlil Gibran said, "Beauty is a light in the heart."  I happened on that quote one day after watching the most breathtaking beams of light coming through the clouds in a sky so blue its intensity hit me like a thud in the chest.  And below that quote was an ad that said, "Drop a jean size in two weeks," above a picture of a pair of folded jeans, unworn, nondescript jeans, implying that the number on the tag, not the kind of jeans or the person wearing them, was the important part.  It was as if that ad was saying that it doesn't matter who you are as long as you have the right number on the tags inside your clothes.

And what I realized, instantly, was that I'd spent my entire life looking inside my jeans at the number on the tag, expecting that to tell me whether or not I was beautiful.  I had been comparing myself to other people to decide if I measured up.  I had been thinking that I should look seventeen and waif-ish with long hair and high cheekbones forever, no matter how many times I carried a child or blew out my birthday candles or hurt and broke and then came back together again.

There I was looking at the size tag on my jeans for an indicator of beauty when all along I should have been looking for a light in the heart.   And not just looking for a light in the heart but cultivating a light in my heart.  What can a number on a little loop of fabric tell me about myself that speaks louder than the lines I have earned around my mouth from smiling?  Or the little vertical line in between my eyebrows I have earned worrying about my family? Or the callouses I have earned on my fingers from playing guitar?

{Image Credit}
As I start to peel away the layers, asking myself how I could still be so caught up in the beauty myth after all this time, I start to ask myself what I think is really beautiful.  And what comes to mind are the wrinkled knuckles of my mother's hand that I would rub my fingers over when I held her hand in church.  What comes to mind is the sight of a friend laughing, her head thrown back and her hair falling over her shoulders and her tummy folded softly over the waist of her jeans, perfectly in her body and unaware of her body at the same time.  I think of a nursing mother in the middle of the night, exhausted and half dressed in her stretched out pajama pants, bent over her little one, cooing at the hungry baby curled on her lap.  I think of an old woman pouring tea for guests, never stopping her story as the steam escapes the pot and slips up past her sagging cheeks and swept up hair.

I think of the beauty worn into used skin, stamped on the face of a person whose softness has been stretched, dried, cracked, lined, moisturized, rested and worn out again.   I imagine the lightning bolt shaped lines etched into broken bones that have healed.  And the crinkled parentheses that bookmark happy eyes that have been beaming for decades.  The hypnotic tone of words spoken by one who has lived them, the clinking of dishes being washed by a loved one while you follow dinner guests out onto the patio.

The beauty, the real beauty, of the people around us is ground in, tattooed on.  I think beauty is earned, not happened into.  I think it is found in the brokenness of our lives, in the hope that allows us to reach for more while still holding the ashes of the last heartbreak in our hands. Beauty is in the faces of those who, despite darkness all around, have a light in their hearts.  And in the faces of those who recognize that true beauty in someone else.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bomb Threat

Even when you know it's probably a hoax, you can't get it out of your head that it could be real. My legs were shaking on the stairs, as I was swept up in the wave of people fleeing the 8th and 9th floors.  At every flight, others joined us, streaming onto the stairs, eerily silent except for our feet shuffling on the concrete steps. I was clinging to the rail as I went so the silly trembling of my knees would not cause me to misstep and fall forward into the woman in front of me. 

Outside the rain spattered our faces as we clustered near the door, repeating the same fragment of news we all knew, the emergency message we had all received: Evacuation due to threats on campus. Immediately evacuate all buildings. Get as far away from buildings as possible.

Someone walked by, shouting, "Get away from the buildings! We're supposed to get away from all buildings." I looked up and almost laughed.  Three buildings hulked around and behind us, tall, beige matchy-matchy numbers whose sprawling, interlocking shadow we would have all been in, had the sun broken through the clouds that morning.  In front of us, a small field that housed a massive metal sculpture bordered the busy street.  The footbridge over the street just led to more buildings wedged in, end to end.  Real estate is expensive here; it just makes sense to squeeze the buildings you need into the space you have.

Except, of course, when someone is threatening to blow one on those buildings up.

No one was using the word bomb yet, but the word was thrumming in my mind, and I realized then I was listening carefully for something beyond the conversations around me, actively listening for the deep bass of catastrophe to rattle the pavement and rise, screaming up the EQ scale until it rent the still air in a shower of brick and glass.  If it was a bomb, I thought, we wouldn't get warning.  If someone was going to blow us up, they wouldn't tell us first.

It was a hoax, I told myself, as I stood there in the rain and felt nothing rumble the ground beneath my feet.  Word spread through the crowd: Go home, leave campus altogether.  Get in your car and drive, if you can.  If you don't have a car here, just start walking.  And, suddenly, standing in a cluster of buildings that might explode at any moment seemed sheer madness. 

As I walked to the car, I had to pass between two buildings, their parallel walls facing off silently, as they had for decades.  I walked quickly between their feud, hoping this would not be the moment that one would lunge forward to make contact with its old foe.  I didn't realize until I passed through to the parking lot that I had been holding my breath, and when I finally got out in the open and sucked in some air, I laughed nervously that I was acting like I'd passed through the valley of death.

And as I drove away in a slow line of fellow evacuees, when I should have been sighing relief and calling people to tell them I was fine, instead I was looking at buildings and, in my head, seeing them explode.  Not imagining it, per se, just waiting for it to happen, knowing what it would look like.  Because we all know what that looks like.  We've seen it in the movies a million times.  We've even seen it on the news.  These images are not foreign to us. 

Two years ago, the university was on lock down because there was a shooter on campus.  Yesterday, we were evacuated because there was a bomb threat.  We are not strangers to violence.  On Tuesday, we marked the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  On Wednesday, we watched an American ambassador be murdered over a distasteful movie.  Before that, there was the Texas A&M shooting, the Sikh temple, the movie theater. 

Driving home yesterday, I felt not relief but resignation.  It may not be the buildings I walk between on the way to my car.  It may not be on the campus where I go to work everyday.  But somewhere, right now, someone is turning the ache inside them into a weapon aimed at the world.  Someone is funneling their anger through a gun barrel or siphoning their hurt into a bomb.  Someone is taking the brokenness in their spirit and twisting it into a way to break others.

And when I think of that, I want to pray to the vending machine God from my youth, the one where you put in a prayer, or a dollar, or an hour of service and get a blessing in return.  I want that God back so that I can beg Him to stop the blood flow, to end the endless stream of violence that is the world we know.  I want the simple God of ask-and-ye-shall-receive to swoop in and protect the faithful.  

But the funny thing about growing out of the infancy of your faith, about finding a grown-up kind of faith, is that you stop believing in easy answers.  You stop looking for formulas and empty assurances and step-by-step instructions because you realize that this life is a series of experiences, not answers.  The ambiguity is built in, part of the package. 

You learn, slowly, that the easiest thing in the world to do is take your aching soul and look for the wrong things to soothe it, look for the easy answers to make it all better.  You learn that it seems so easy to fill the black hole inside you with food or liquor or sex or prestige or money or violence.  You learn that they are all different dialects of the same language, that they are all trying to fix the same problem, and that they are all like pouring gasoline on an open flame. 

The other funny thing about growing out of your childhood faith is that by the time you realize that all of these solutions are bound to fail, all of these terrible ideas we have to silence the emptiness we feel at times, you realize you don't have the script anymore to pray your way out of them. You close your eyes and don't even know what to ask anymore.  You realize you are just as hurt, just as broken, as the people who are turning their hurt into weapons.  You realize that the only difference between them and you is that you have given up trying to fashion a solution from the tools of this world; you have laid yourself in the arms of something bigger and admitted defeat.  I cannot do this alone, you have said, I need some guidance here.

I'm not always sure it's enough, this new kind of prayer, but I say it over and over again.  Day in and day out, I say it with all the faith that is left in me.  I cannot do this alone, I need some guidance here.  The admission of defeat, the wringing of hands, seems to be the key.  There may not be answers, but there is peace in letting go of the reins.  Each day, so far, it has carried me through.  And in this world of confusion and grief, though it feels like thin armor, it is the rock to which I am tethered. I cannot do this alone, I need some guidance here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ashes on Our Eyes

That day, eleven years ago, I wrote a song.

After the phone woke us, after the confusing early morning instructions to turn on the news, after watching the smoke and the fear and the death, I got in the car and drove to school. I worked evenings in those days and took classes at the community college during the day.

It was my second week in a songwriting class, and I was just a quiet imposter in the back row who could only play about four chords on the guitar and had only ever written one sappy love song. The instructor sat with heavy shoulders and tired eyes in a chair in front of the chalkboard. He held his guitar in his lap, though he never played it, just held it there like a security blanket between him and the cruel events of the morning. Maybe half the class was there that day, but some, those who had been in other classes all morning, had not heard the news yet. Our instructor told us quietly what he knew, what the news had been saying so far, and he sighed and hunched over his guitar and seemed suddenly much older than all of us.

And then he sent us home with an assignment: put your pain into a song. “This is what songwriters do,” he told us, “They give a voice to the cultural events of their day, they document the wars and the political upheavals, and they grieve and love and heal through music. So, go home and be songwriters.”

And that’s why, on September 11, 2001, I sat in a chair in the spare bedroom of our cheap Austin apartment and wrote a song that spoke of what I knew then, that spoke of people trapped in darkness like I believed people in the rubble of the towers were trapped. Waiting to be rescued, with families calling for them in the cloud of smoke, watching people walk the streets of New York covered in ash, pale like ghosts.

But when I share my September 11th story, I don’t tell anyone about writing that song. I tell them about the night before, when my husband and I had a picnic on a mild September evening. I tell them about the blanket we spread on the grass, about the real wicker-with-gingham-lining picnic basket we had back then, about the wine and the good cheese and the chocolate. That September 10th, as we were starting our third year of marriage, we sat together and marveled at the stars and at each other and at our unbelievable luck to be born into this country, of all places, during an era of extended peace and prosperity, of all times.

I remember we talked about our grandparents, how they always seemed thrown together in the romantic, terrifying flurry of war. To us, it seemed that in those old war-crazed years, people grabbed onto love like drowning fools, desperate for stability in the rocky waters of pre and post-war life. In a matter of months, or even weeks, people the same age we were that very night would meet, fall in love, marry at a courthouse or neighborhood church, and then kiss goodbye at a train station, not knowing if they would ever see each other again.

Just another WWII romance - my grandparents.

But not us, Sam and I said that night. We were part of a placid generation stumbling lazily into a new millennium with the confidence that we had time for anything, time for all of it. We were so far removed from the danger of war, it hardly seemed real. We went to bed that night wrapped in phrases of contentment, chocolate and red wine on our lips and starlight in our eyes.

Then, in the morning, we woke to smoke and debris, to sadness and terror. And it seemed we were jolted into another time, a past that we had spoken of the night before as if it were a quaint, almost fictional cultural experience we would never have ourselves. It was a wake-up call so vivid, it has driven the memory of that song I wrote right out of my mind. In the days that passed, then the years, it seemed more important that September 11th, 2001 be remembered as the moment that shattered our illusion of safety and stability than that it marked the day I wrote my second ever song.

Today, though, I woke thinking of that song because it is, for me, a poignant snapshot of not seeing the whole story. That day, as I pieced together amateur, melancholy lyrics, I wrote in the voice of an imaginary survivor trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers. Someone on the news said that people would be found, lots of people clustered in stairwells and random air pockets, scared people waiting to be rescued. There were reunions waiting to be had in those mountains of brick, I believed that day, miracles to be seen as we sat at home watching it all unfold on TV.

Little did I know how naïve that hope would turn out to be. I only saw the part of the story I could bear to see, as inaccurate as that was, and every time I think of the song I wrote that day, I remember my naiveté. I remember what it feels like to look back and realize how little of the story you knew, what it feels like to view the past through the crystal clear vision of hindsight.

I need to remember today how little of the story I know, what skewed vision I have in the here-and-now.  I need to remember it works both ways, that both good and bad seem sharper this close up, but that both begin to come into focus from a distance.  This week I have a narrow focus and a weary heart, and I need to remember on this horrible anniversary that today, just as I did eleven years ago, I am only seeing one small part of a much larger picture.  I need to remember today that no tragedy, no sadness, stands alone, that it is all part of a much bigger story whose print is written so large, we can hardly make out the letters from here.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

When Hope Comes

Lincoln woke with blood on his face, and seeing the red smeared on his cheeks, I froze a little, sucked in my breath, pushed away thoughts of terror.  I don’t do well with blood. Cleaning his little face, scrubbing the dried red streaks from his cheeks and chin, I had to fight off an insistent round of nausea.  He stood so still, in his blue and green pajamas, the top of his head just an inch or two taller than the height of the bathroom counter.  So small and still in the early morning hours, like a little smudged statue being meticulously cleaned beneath the builder-grade vanity lights I have always meant to replace in our master bathroom.

Just a bloody nose, I reminded myself.   People get these all the time.

I cleaned him and clucked over him and sent him out of the bathroom with the solemn responsibility of holding a wad of kleenex under his nose while I finished getting ready for work.  Just a bloody nose.  People get them all the time for no reason.  Just, well, Lincoln has never gotten one before.

Lincoln has never woken with dried blood streaked across his face. And, in truth, I am a little gun shy right now, and everything seems like an omen.  Every seemingly benign thing seems to hold some lurking danger, some unexposed threat just waiting to release itself.

Because the doctor says Lincoln is big and strong.   Putting stethoscope to chest, the doctor says Lincoln’s lungs sound better than he’s ever heard them and everything is in order except for one tiny little detail, this pesky heart murmur that hasn’t quieted down as it was supposed to do.   I’d like him to have another echo, the doctor says.   Just to see what we’re looking at, he says.

And we understand because we speak doctor by now.  We speak heart murmur, echocardiogram, patent ductus arteriosis.  We are fluent in nebulizers and bilirubins and oxygen saturation and auditory brainstem response.  Five years ago, we were blissfully unaware of the new language we would absorb quickly, being immersed in the culture of it, as they say is the only way to really learn these things. We learned the language of child-with-health-problems and its sister dialect, child-with-special-needs, the alphabet soup of ECIs, of STs, OTs, PTs, of IEPs and PPCDs.

So now we say things like, “I guess we better call his cardiologist,” and, “The last echo showed his PDA closing nicely.” Over the phone, my husband says, “Let’s sit down this week and hammer out a schedule for his trip to the ophthalmologist, the dentist, the cardiologist and his five year check-up.”

That's when the rest of it comes over me, the rest of what Lincoln's life has taught us.  Beyond new lingo, beyond complex fears and an unsettling sense of foreboding, life with Lincoln has taught us that hope comes in the dark places.  You can come to hope, always, willingly come to hope and drink deep no matter how much light has fallen on you.  But, in the dark places, hope comes to you.  Hope finds you when you cannot come to it, stands beside you in hospital rooms, swims to you in the murky recesses of poisonous thought, hunches beside you in moments of drunken despair.

You can release yourself to the fear and anger and pain, or you can release yourself to the hope.

When I think of a hole in my son's heart, I want to release myself to the fear.  What if it didn't heal itself, like the doctors said it would?  I want to release myself to the anger.  We're going to have to think about heart surgery again, after four years of believing we'd dodged that bullet?  I want to release myself to the pain of not being able to protect my son, not from nosebleeds or bullies or holes in his heart.

But instead, I release myself to hope.  I release myself to the hope that waits for me in the darkness of my fear, unwinding my angst like a long, coiling receipt that documents every moment spent on worry.  I lay my burden down, miles and miles and years and years of worry, like shedding an old skin.

I cannot promise that Linc's heart is healthy, but I believe it is.  I look at his strong body, the way he runs and climbs and jumps right along with his brother.  I remember the months when he did not seem this way, in the beginning when he was a pale, skinny newborn who refused to eat, who slept all day and night.  I think of the doctor calling him big and strong this week, and I remember that Lincoln was given to us, not to any of the other 90% of people who would have terminated him in utero.  I remember how far he's come, and I lean in hard to the hope that promises me how far he will go.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September When It Comes

Via Pinterest

When September comes here, in deep-heat just-south-of-center Texas, the claws of summer are still dug into us.  Backpacks are sitting, half zipped, on the counter and the fresh soles of school shoes have been marked from use, but the heat still shimmers off the pavement at midday.  We still wear the gloss of sweat on our arms here in September, still feel the wall of air constrict our chests when we climb into a hot car.

Perhaps the light lengthens, begins to pull harder at shadows and grows shy as the evenings grow late.  Perhaps we can feel a shift as the heat loosens its grip almost imperceptibly.  It doesn't evaporate, but suddenly it seems tired.  Suddenly we sense that summer is looking over its shoulder, preparing to take a step backwards.  Or perhaps September has a certain smell that reminds us and promises us that summer will not last forever, for all its steely bravado.

This year, I felt September walking in on thin legs, reedy things that threatened to buckle at the knees.  I thought at first it would be no match for August, but then I remembered how the month would wage a quiet battle, gathering strength until one day I would walk out the door and feel the weight of summer lifted suddenly from the air.  Let summer flex its muscles; fall will creep in stealth-like and wait, in the stretched-out shadows of summer's fading light, for its moment to strike.

Today I thought of all this, visions of pumpkins dancing in my head.  With August gone, I have an acute sense of the end of my children's fourth and sixth year.  Next month, they will be five and seven years old, despite the fact that my brain has them perpetually frozen at two and four.

And I take this bitter pill of watching them grow out of their baby faces and their tiny fingers and toes without a shred of grace.  I feel the cord stretch between us, the one that once bound us but now only remains in my mind, feel it tugging at the core of me, and I want to scream for them to stop growing and changing and moving farther and farther away from me.  Come sit in my lap, I tell them, and let me hold you just a little longer.  

I believe every other mother on the planet takes this better than I do because, if they didn't, why would anyone do this ridiculous thing?   I tell people how nice it is that the boys are more self sufficient now, but beneath it there is the constant droning realization that I am slowly losing them, releasing them.  I will let them go, little by little, because they deserve to be free from their silly mother when they are ready, but I will not like it.

Except that tonight, after their showers (because good grief they have decided they take showers now), after I wriggled the little one in his pajamas, they lay in Lincoln's bed together while Nico read a story.  I went downstairs to finish up the dishes and listened to the faint sound of their voices, Nico reading about the Pokie Little Puppy and Linc babbling and laughing.  When I made it back upstairs, they were lying side by side on their tummies, blanket draped over them both, their hair still wet with fresh combed lines like the grooves in a harvested field.  At two and four, I remembered, they did not know how to love each other like this.  They played near each other, fought over every toy the other one touched, more coexisted than anything.

But right now, they revolve around each other, two satellites, each caught in the other's gravity.  I remember, nights like tonight, that watching them grow into this golden period of mutual adoration, watching them grow toward each other, eases the ache of watching them grow away from me. And so, I put away August and turn the calendar to September.  I dream of pumpkins and let go of two and four, as much as I can.  I imagine the boys as men, with strong bodies and faces I hardly recognize, and I hope that the joy of seeing them as adults will still ease the burden of losing the children they are today.

Meanwhile, September is already at work silently around us, pushing against summer and leaning into fall.  August retreats, and October waits, poised, on the horizon.  And I head to bed with the air conditioner singing in the vents but feel, somehow, an unexpected chill as my back touches the sheets.