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.