Friday, December 13, 2013

One Year Later: Mourning Like Job

 
I've bristled at the story of Job ever since I studied the book in my sophomore English class at USC. When my professor announced that we would be studying Job, as in the from-the-bible book of Job, the one wedged in between Esther and Psalms that I'd heard countless sermons on over the years, I just assumed he would turn out to be like half of the teachers from my bible belt upbringing, who would sneak in Christian content whenever they could get away with it.  I certainly was not prepared for his unemotional bible-as-literature approach or his scholarly arguments about how Job could not possibly have been written by a single author.

Up to that point in my life, the bible had always been treated as a sacred thing, and the most outspoken doubts I had heard about its accuracy or relevance came from my own brain and were smashed down as quickly as they came up.  But that semester, I read through the book of Job and tried to absorb it simply as ancient literature, as I had the Iliad.  For all my professor's animated arguments about dual authorship, I can't for the life of me remember why he was so convinced the book must have been written by more than one person.  Even at the time I wasn't particularly swayed by or even concerned with his argument.

What stuck with me, though, was a comment by a classmate who sat near me.  She said that was the first of the bible she had ever read, and she couldn't get past the fact that God gave Satan permission to basically torture his most faithful servant.  She wanted to know if that's how Christians thought it worked: when bad things happen to you, it's because God gave Satan permission to strike you down.

"Oh no," I told her, "I think that was just a one time thing.  Besides, God gave him back everything he lost and more in the end."

But, she pointed out, that's not exactly how it was.  Poor Job didn't get back the same family.  He got a new family, which would be better than nothing, but he still had to live with the loss of his ten kids and probably at least one wife (they did like to take more than one wife back then).  I mean, sure, it was decent of God to make him rich again and give him the exact same number of kids, even with the same gender breakdown of three daughters and seven sons, but that still wouldn't undo the grief of losing the first family.

When I go back to Job now, I always think about that conversation.  But, over the years, I've realized there's something else about the book that gets under my skin: I am no Job.  My default response to suffering is to shake a fist at the sky.  I cannot even imagine reacting to the news of the death of all ten of my children by falling to the ground and announcing "may the name of the Lord be praised."

-

One year ago, I absorbed the news about the shootings in Newtown as if I had been dealt a physical blow.  Never has a news story affected me in that way, and I think about that town and those families more often than I think about many people I actually know in real life.  I am not connected to their stories in any way, and yet I feel bound in grief to them.

When I heard on the radio the other day that the families of the slain planned to honor the anniversary of their deaths by asking everyone to perform an act of kindness in their honor, I felt momentarily in shock at the grace and hope and beauty of the request.  I felt, too, a swell of confusion at how any parent whose son or daughter had been gunned down could still believe in the goodness of people, could still retain enough innocence to suggest kindness as a response to what seems to me like the overwhelming evidence of evil.

-

I am no Job.  When I sit in the ashes of grief, tending my wounds, I find that it is so hard to see past myself.  What does it take, I wonder today, to be willing to praise the name of the Lord in all things, in the deepest dark hole of despair?  What does it take for the parents of murdered children to advocate kindness?  How do I begin to learn to give thanks for what is, even when it is so far from what I wish it would be?

I have spent so many days wondering what the holidays will be like now for the families of Sandy Hook.  I have imagined them unwilling to put up Christmas trees or gutted right through by the sight of twinkling lights.  Not once did I imagine them thinking of the rest of us, able to see past themselves and wondering how to use their unwanted spot in the limelight to fight off the darkness.

Perhaps that's why we were given the story of Job, because it is so hard for many of us to see past ourselves when we find ourselves in the ashes.  Perhaps we need to see that healing comes when we turn our eyes away from our own wounds and see that, even in grief, our lives are a strange, aching, haunting, beautiful gift.  Whether we take one breath or seven hundred million, the experience of living itself is still a gift, something that should fill us with wonder and make us fall to our knees in praise.

The gift of our existence is not a life of ease, not a promise of prosperity.  The gift of our existence is being wrestled from the womb of an imperfect woman into an imperfect world, coming in and going out wailing and covered in grime, and in between never quite getting the balance of the long, slow days and the short bursts of moments that can only be described as wondrous.  The gift is living in a machine so mystifying, the sparks of neurotransmitters firing in our brains can feel like a glow in our chests when our eyes detect the familiar shape of a person we love.  The gift is knowing love, even though we may lose it, and the gift is also knowing we may lose it but wanting it anyway.

I may not be any kind of Job, but I am learning, bit by bit, that words of praise can come even to a mouth caked in ash.  I still mourn, and I still stand with those who mourn, but I am beginning to glimpse the wondrous flare of choosing to kneel in praise, right there in the ashes, kneeling to praise the gift of this life I have been given, and to praise the gifts of life that were given and were also taken from us.  I am no Job, but I have been tempered by the fire of pain, too, and I am learning to be thankful, even for that.


Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

For What Comes Before the Merry and Bright



The Christmas tree went up last night, and I admit there was the tiniest bit of rebellion in the act because I get so tired of hearing all the outrage about how Christmas is encroaching on Thanksgiving.  I mean, Christmas is my favorite holiday, my favorite joyful, sparkling piece of the year, so I guess I'm not too concerned with its slow and steady expansion over a holiday that seems to me to be just one overblown meal planned and cooked for days and eaten in half an hour.

Yes, the Christmas tree went up last night, and I'm not sorry.  In fact, I think I showed some fairly impressive restraint in leaving the rest of the trappings boxed up in the garage.  But the tree is up, and I can smile just thinking about all those twinkly lights reflecting off the windows in the room.  This time of year, I just feel I need a dose of that shiny cheer.  I touch the ornaments we have collected over the years with a kind of reverence, remembering with each one the time in which it was acquired or made or received.  I walk around and around the tree, making sure the decorations are spread evenly, that the red is not too bunched and there aren't too many angels hovering in one spot.

The winter is a dark and sterile season, when the trees drop their leaves and turn to skeletal forms that shiver in the biting wind.  The grass turns brittle beneath our feet.  The sun sleeps long nights and, when it awakes, offers only the watery light that feels thinner than the summer days somehow.  We are entering a dark and barren season, and often I think of the Christmas lights as powerful weapons against the dreariness of this time of year.

But today, I was thinking about how maybe that's the easy way out, diving into the brightness of the next celebration before sitting with the simplicity of the one at hand.

Because what this holiday asks of me is both much more simple and much more complicated.  A day of giving thanks is so very straightforward.  It doesn't require gifts or wrapping paper or special songs or trees or lights.  It just requires me to be grateful for the things that I have received.  But as simple, as perfectly straightforward as it is, it can also be, or at least I can make it feel, rather complicated, too.

I can so easily turn this day into a list, a list of all the things that I have been given for which I feel prompted on this one day to say thank you.  And so I make my list, and I read it off, and I dutifully say thanks for this and thanks for that.  But really, I am thinking of whether the turkey will be done on time and whether someone will need to make a run for ice before the store closes.  Really, I am just going through the motions like a child who recites a prayer he has heard his parents say, knowing the words but faking the meaning behind it.

The honest truth is that it's easier for me to dive into the glitz of Christmas than to wade through the slow and methodical process of cultivating real gratitude, the kind that doesn't just show up once a year but that underlays everything that I do.  It's much easier for me to gloss over Thanksgiving because it reminds me how much of the rest of the year I spend not giving thanks.  It reminds me that I struggle with a very immature kind of entitlement that makes me believe I deserve all that I have been given and that I have a right to mourn all that I wanted but didn't get.  It's a complicated day for me because I can say thanks with the best of them, but I struggle with being able to live it the rest of the year.

The Christmas tree is up, the lights are reflecting off all the windows, and I take great comfort in how the glow seems to ward off the long, dark nights.  I am for merry and bright, I am for holy jolly, but perhaps I can also be for the stillness that comes before the lights and the carols.  I am thinking today about how to begin the quiet work of being thankful, not the flashy celebration of the next holiday, just the simple reverence of learning to be thankful in all circumstances.


Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License

Friday, November 15, 2013

In All the Places I'm Broken


When I was a child, my mother had a broken white pitcher on a shelf in her bathroom.  The way I remember it, though goodness knows time can warp these stories, my mother had long wanted a white pitcher and bowl set. In my mind, she visited the store often, picking up the pitcher and then putting it back with a sigh because it was a purely decorative item, just something beautiful she hoped to place on an empty shelf over her bathtub, not the kind of thing the mother of three young children gets to buy for herself very often.  So when she finally walked into the store and bought the set, she was so excited she wasn't paying as much attention as usual on her way out of the store.

And just as she stepped out onto the sidewalk, maybe because she was shifting her grip to pull out her keys or maybe because a gust of wind hit her, her fingers slipped and the package fell out of her arms.  When she got home, she found the pitcher in two pieces.  The handle had broken off at an angle that left jagged little stumps of arms on the body of the pitcher.  And though it had mostly survived a fall that could by rights have shattered the poor pitcher, though my father promised her he would glue it back together, I remember the sharp disappointment on my mother's face over the loss of this one, beautiful thing she had wanted so badly.

The pitcher was mended, as promised, and the pitcher and bowl took up residence on the shelf over my mother's bathtub, as planned and yet not as imagined.  Because in breaking, in being glued together and always ever needing to be turned just so to hide the damage, the pitcher ceased to represent whatever it was that my mother had wanted from it.  It could no longer be that one clean, white, beautiful thing she had bought for herself.  Instead it was just another broken thing, just another worn, glued together mess in a house full of worn, broken, mended things.

The funny thing is, now that I think back on it, unless I had heard my mother tell the story of dropping the package, I would never have known the pitcher was broken.  To me, the pitcher still looked perfect.  I even liked the angle she had chosen to hide the cracked handle; it seemed a strategic placement to best show off the whole shape of the thing.

Lately, I have come to understand that pitcher as a metaphor for a truth I must, it seems, learn again and again.  Because I am a worn, broken, mended thing myself, and I am always placing myself at some awkward angle to try and hide all the cracks that run through my life.  And even though I know that about myself, know how riddled I am with the effects so many falls, I keep working to position myself just so, both hoping and never quite believing that no one else can see the damage.

It's amazing how our perception can get so distorted.  Here I was, sure that everyone could see every little place I was falling apart and, at the same time, sure that no one was as banged up and glued together as I felt.  But this weekend at our church's women's retreat, I happened to be privy to a series of conversations that reminded me both how messy are the lives I think are glossy and clean and how glossy and clean some people think my own life is. 

There are any number of examples I could give, but most of them contain stories that do not belong to me. So, here is one little shard of my own disaster I can share.

Lately, I have been tempted to pull out of church entirely, not for my usual reason of oh crap this place brings up a lot of angst for me, but because I have been embarrassed about Lincoln's behavior while he's there.  In our early morning practice, when I am still in charge of him, he's been exhausting and defiant.  Some weeks I am already close to tears by the time I drop him off at his class, and I say goodbye to him at his classroom door with a knot of fear in my belly, wondering what report will be waiting for me when I pick him up.  And wouldn't you just guess I've made sure I carry this burden alone both because Sam seems to handle Lincoln better than I do and because he is completely unperturbed by reports of Linc's bad behavior at pick-up time.  Somehow I have managed to strap on the full weight of the I've failed as a parent yolk and also throw in a healthy dose of why can't I just let these things slide off my back?

Until this weekend, I had been so focused on being nervous about his behavior and then feeling guilty about being nervous about his behavior, that I had almost forgotten that some people might not just see us as that family with the difficult special needs son.  I had forgotten that it was possible there were people who didn't just see us a burden to the children's ministry, people who didn't blame us for being the worst parents ever and secretly wish we took a lot more vacations.  So when a woman I barely knew told me it seemed like our family has it all together when it comes to Lincoln, I couldn't help but remember how we all seem to exaggerate not only our own cracked surfaces but also the smoothness of everyone else's fragile facade.

Until this weekend, I had forgotten how many people adore our Lincoln, how many of the children in his class run over to greet him and and wrap him in hugs when he arrives.  I had forgotten that my worry about his behavior does not change the fact that he is welcome in this church and in his class, that he deserves his own chance to learn bible songs and meet new friends and adjust to the rules of a different environment than he experiences the rest of the week.  I had forgotten that it's okay for this to be hard for me, even if it's not as hard for Sam.  I had even forgotten that while he is in this very labor intensive period of his development, it is okay for me to just be worn out and fed up and that I could maybe enjoy having someone else watch him for a few hours instead of carrying this unwieldy woe is me cross, always worrying what new challenge he might present that particular morning. 
See, what happens after weeks and months and even years of holding ourselves just so, afraid to be seen in a bad angle or let the cracks show, is that we become rigid, with thoughts and lives and bodies so distorted they hardly know how to let go, to let our guard down, relax and drop the calculated pose.  I don't know about you, but I'm tired.  I'm tired of feeling like that old, cracked pitcher that can't ever be turned to the side lest someone see the damage.  I will tell you right now that, from every angle, there's going to be some damage.  I am just holding on by my teeth in about a dozen ways at any given time.

Let me take a moment to remind you that you can tell exactly nothing about someone's life by the way it appears on the outside.  And also, let me remind you that people can tell exactly nothing about who you are if you spend all your time trying to hide all the imperfect, broken and mended bits.

I wish we did less of that.  I wish we didn't always feel like we had to hide the places we've broken and come back together.  After all, some people think you end up stronger in the broken places and others think the cracks are where the light gets in.  I wish we had the bravery and the patience and the compassion to accept the broken places of the people in our lives.  I wish we took time to ask each other about those things, and I wish we weren't afraid to start conversations in which we share our own.

I wish we saw the beauty of mended vessels, honored the scars, watched for the light coming through everyone's cracked open lives.  I wish we shared more how we have ended up stronger in all the places we've been broken.  I wish we talked more about who we are, who we were, and who we're becoming than what we look like or what we buy or wear or eat.  And I wish we saw in ourselves the light of redemption coming through all those holes and cracks and scars because, until we do, we will always wear ourselves out trying to keep our bad side turned from the world, will always see others through some falsely optimistic lens, and will always see ourselves as broken pitchers, whose worth has been dashed and whose damage cannot be undone.




Image credit, used under Creative Commons License

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Seven-Going-on-Everything

He's seven-going-on-eight, but he sounds just like his father, and every conversation is peppered with words I can't believe he knows.  From the backseat of the car, he talks and talks without a break, moving from one story to another without any kind of transition.  One minute, he's telling me everything I never wanted to know about arthropods, and the next he's telling me about learning to play volleyball in gym class.

He'll be eight tomorrow, and he is this perfect wiry, breezy thing, all ribs and elbows.  Every day I am amazed at how stubborn he can be, at how earnest he can be, at how gentle he can  be.  I love to imagine him in the gym, his wiry limbs akimbo as he learns to serve a volleyball.  I can feel his excitement radiate up from the backseat, carried on this wave of words.

"This is a spike," he says. "Look mom, you have to look at me.  This is a spike."  I glance in the rear view mirror to watch him mime the move.  "This is a set.  And this is a bump."  I peek up in the mirror to watch each move.  He says, "See the bump? That's the bump, with your hands together like that.  But I'm terrible at it."

Sometimes when he's talking, I see him as a kind of tremulous, overfull balloon of innocence that the world is salivating, slathering to burst.  His eagerness wells up, bubbles out of him.  His simple joy, that thing we call being childlike, it radiates from him.  I take doses of it against the chronic disillusionment that has settled in my chest, drinking in like a tonic the simple euphoria he can find in almost anything.

But every so often, I start to hear the first strains of that virus, that disillusionment, color his voice.  He is starting to learn defeat, starting to be colored by the jaded vocabulary of people whose words are barbs.  This is how you play volleyball, but I am terrible at itWhy even try, his tone says, because I'll never be good at it.  I might as well just give up now.

--

For me, it was running.  I had to suit up in my P.E. uniform and take that damnable Presidential Fitness Test, and in a grassy field next to my elementary school, I became versed in defeat and in shame.

I was the slowest one in class, and I finished the last lap alone.  The embarrassment of being watched by all my classmates would have been enough to sting, but just to drive the point home, my coach stood there lobbing cruel jabs at me as I shuffled desperately for the finish line.  My classmates, my friends, laughed as he berated my slow pace.  I kept pushing forward, miserable, every breath burning my lungs like I'd inhaled shards of glass.

When I came over the finish line, my face beet-all-over and my lungs screaming, he read my time off the stopwatch around his neck and spat more hateful words at me.  "That was terrible.  There's no reason for you to run that slow.  That was absolutely ridiculous."

I just stood there and cried silently, right in front of the whole class, this red-faced, terrible girl who was broken and slow and ridiculous because she could not even run one freaking mile.  It did not even occur to me that he could be wrong, or that those words might be entirely inappropriate for a teacher to say to his student.  After all, everyone else had run their laps in a time that wasn't ridiculous or terrible, and they had done it without their lungs burning like they were trying to breathe under water.

--

He is seven going on I-already-know-everything, his childlike effervescence so susceptible to turning into distrust and apathy in the coming years.  Right now, he is over the moon for his first fish tank, newly set up and waiting for its fist occupants tomorrow.  He experiences a near manic bliss over an afternoon with a stack of construction paper, a pair of scissors, and a fresh roll of scotch tape.  So much of the shine is still on him; so much of the fairy dust is still in his eyes.

And yet, he announces one day that he doesn't like to sing in front of people, and he tells me from the backseat of the car how he is terrible at a move in volleyball though he's played the game just twice in his life.  Already the vocabulary of defeat infects his language.  Already, though he's not quite eight years old, he is quick to tell me what he can't do.  Already there are things he has given up on entirely.

I tell him, from the front seat, that I doubt he's terrible at volleyball.  I remind him that thinking he's going to fail at something will pretty much guarantee he fulfills that expectation.  I assure him that two days of learning to play volleyball is not nearly long enough to decide whether or not he is good at it.  I suggest that maybe he could try doing something for the joy of doing it, without grading himself on it or letting other people tell him how well they think he's doing at it.

And, though I don't say it, I pray silently that his innocence and his exuberance are tenaciously rooted in him, that they will be nearly impossible to blast out of him.

Then, I tell him the story of how I decided I was terrible at running because of one bad experience as a child.  I tell him how, because I let that experience color my view of myself, I spent two decades not realizing the reason I ran so slowly that day was because I had asthma and was smack dab in the middle of my first asthma attack.  When you decide you are terrible at something, I say, that becomes louder and stronger than the truth. 

The truth, for me, is that I am still a slow runner.  But, this morning I put four more miles on my new running shoes, and I haven't needed that old inhaler in a few years now.  It's a truth that has taken me many years to dig out of the ashes of those ear-splitting messages of defeat.

"You're almost eight," I tell my oldest son, "and you have so many years of life coming, so many things you will get to experience.  Why would you want to cut yourself off from something you may find out you really love to do?"

You're right, of course, he tells me.  But then he falls silent and watches the freeway flash by outside his window, and I can't help but wonder how far gone he is already.  He's seven for one more day, and then I will have lost that year forever.  Tomorrow, he will be eight.  Have I said enough?  Have I listened carefully enough, beneath the talk of arthropods and gym class, to the real story he is trying to tell me?  Because he's seven-going-on-everything, and I can hardly keep up with him already.  He's seven-going-on-eight, still a soft and malleable thing in a world that's barbed and rigid, and I can only hope the tremulous balloon of his innocence will hold for one more year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All We Like Sheep

{Today I'm writing as a part of a synchroblog celebrating the release of Addie Zierman's book When We Were On Fire.  I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I have loved reading Addie's blog How to Talk Evangelical, where she has been writing her way through the often cringe-worthy hallmarks of being raised in the Evangelical tradition while delicately addressing what it feels like to have moved from being "on fire for the Lord" to feeling burned out by that once-bright flame.}



There is an old recording of my older brother around the age of two reciting Isaiah 53:6.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he lisps in the high voice of a toddler.  "All we like sheep have gone astray," my mother corrects him.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he announces, catching the emphasis but not the correction it contains.

I don't even know if that recording still exists anywhere outside of my memory, but it remains for me this weighted piece of evidence that explains much about my youth.  From the beginning, it felt like my brothers and I were born to be Christians.  It was inconceivable that we would stray from the good words our parents were stitching on our hearts.

My father is a pastor.  My grandfathers on both sides were pastors.  The world of little plastic communion cups and steeples adorned with peeling paint and hymnals nestled in strange holsters in the backs of pews: that was my world, that was my place.  I can still smell those basement rooms with linoleum floors and folding chairs where we ate casseroles at potluck dinners and the same pastel mints at dozens of baby showers.

It was all part and parcel of my identity, and I knew I would never, could never leave that world. 

See, I was born in the early hours of a Sunday in July.  My father told me once, as we ate at the IHOP in the town where I was born, that he sat in that very same booth and ate pancakes a few hours after my birth before driving an hour back to our little town to lead the music at church.  I understand my mother was back behind the piano the next Sunday.  If I had been obedient enough to show up on a Tuesday, I wonder if she would have missed a week at all.

I used to tell people I might as well have been born under a church pew.  I'm not sure how I expected it to come across to people, but I meant it as a kind of brag.  Despite everything that had been drilled into me about how salvation was supposed to work, I still wanted to claim it as some kind of birthright.  I still felt the need to tell people I was born into it, that I didn't choose it, but it chose me.

And yes, I would have called myself "on fire for the Lord" in those days.  I was fluent in Evangelical, too.  I had a pink leather bible and a prayer journal and a closet full of Christian t-shirts.  I would have seen you at the pole every September, and when I did, I would have invited you to the bible study I helped lead after school in one of the chemistry classrooms.  And if you'd come to the bible study, I could have told you my testimony right there on the spot (somehow making it sound more exciting than "Hey, what can I say? I was born into this!") before nonchalantly throwing out an invitation to our Friday night youth group lock in.

To be honest, it's hard to imagine myself as I was in those days.  The way I tend to remember it, that old costume just came apart at the seams one day. But in truth, it was years of trying to tamp down unanswered questions, singing those praise songs louder and louder to drown out the hum of the uncertainty gaining momentum within me.  It was too many days of feeling like a marionette, just believing I was supposed to wave my arms and walk to stage left according the the script I had been given.  More and more, I felt like being the good Christian soldier meant being a caricature of something, a showman, an act.

I think perhaps the person I am now was birthed in the parking lot of a church in southern California one night just after dusk.  Of course, I was born into the sterile room of a West Texas hospital, so I guess I should say I was reborn into this person one night in the church parking lot.  Which is fitting, of course, since Christianity was always supposed to be my rebirth.

That night at our weekly bible study, I started thinking about all the cruelty and pain in the world.  All the rape, all the murder, all the hunger, all the loneliness.  I started thinking about all the things that never felt like they had lined up for me, all the strange passages in the bible I couldn't make heads or tails of, all the questions that could only be answered with vague platitudes or promises that we would understand more when we got to heaven.  And suddenly, that big youth group room seemed to shrink down around my ears, and I stepped out for some air.  I knew people would think I'd gone to the bathroom, but instead I walked downstairs, across the dark floor of the gym where we had played volleyball an hour before, and out into the parking lot.

There, next to the sidewalk that ran between the gym and the main church, was a broken metal pole that had been cut down but never removed from the dirt.  Probably once it had held a sign about who was allowed to park there or where visitors could find the nursery, but someone had cut the metal pole down to about 18 inches tall and left the base in the dirt like a mangled, iron tree stump.  And for some unknown reason, I started to kick at that old metal stump.

I didn't even know I was angry until I kicked it once, and then it felt so good, I kept kicking it over and over until the sole of my shoe was ripped from the leather and my toe was pouring blood inside my sock. When I was finally done, the old base of that pole had been dislodged from the earth, and everything in me had come unmoored, too.

Afterwards, I sat down on the curb to check out the damage to my foot, and in the silence I could feel the cold place in my chest where the fire had burned right out of me.  That act of defiance, that petty vandalism, was the rending of my character's costume, the snapping of my marionette strings.  Sitting there in the quiet parking lot, I understood instinctively that the pretty facade of faith I had been tediously holding together had finally ruptured.

 "All we like sheep have gone astray," I remembered.  And from the burned out hole in my chest, I felt the biting cold of fear that I would be just another lost sheep.  Gone astray, turning to my own way.  I knew the on fire days were gone, and I thought bitterly that I hadn't asked for any of this.  I was born into this, I said to myself.  I didn't choose it, it chose me.

But I gathered myself up, a clumsy adolescent in broken tennis shoes, with the sole flapping all the way across the gym and back up the stairs to that bible study room.  They were closing in prayer, so I kneeled down, ignored the throbbing of my split open toe and the throbbing of my ruptured identity, and I prayed, "Well, Lord, what now?"  My toe bled into my sock and my leg ached all the way up to my hip, and I knelt there waiting for someone to say amen.  So be it.  So maybe I would wander, maybe I would go my own way.

And maybe, just maybe, I would still find my way home.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Six Years Ago Today

Before becoming a parent, I never quite realized how my child's birthday would feel like a kind of spiritual anniversary to me.  One year ago today, I say to myself, two years ago today, three, four, five years ago today, life came out of me and screamed bitter cries over the injustice of that sacred act.  No matter how different they look from year to year, I always remember them as they looked the moment I first saw them: furious at their expulsion, limbs nervously flailing, faces all scrunched up and slimy, their tiny bodies the most beautiful, terrifying sight I could imagine. 

Six years ago today, our Lincoln came into the world, angrier and scrawnier than his brother had been, a teeny little barrel-chested screamer who just cleared seven pounds as he bemoaned the cold shock of being laid on the delivery room scale.  I remember thinking, after the near ten pound bowling ball his brother had been, that seven pounds and one ounce was awfully small.  I remember the few minutes we had with him in the delivery room, me with my neck craned from the operating table trying to see everything, trying to memorize everything, while my doctor made cryptic comments about too much bleeding and could I stop moving while she tried to sew me back up. 

Six years ago today, Linc's life began not with balloons and shiny, wrapped up gifts, but with that gritty, biological baptism from which we all emerge.  And for a brief few minutes (who knows how many minutes it was really, though it seems so few in recollection), he was just another healthy baby and we were just another set of ecstatic parents begging to hold our slimy little miracle.  We had time to take a family picture, and for him to be laid on my chest for a few seconds.  But so quickly the whispers turned nervous, and our little barrel-chested screamer was rushed from the room.

See, for us, Lincoln's birthday is also the anniversary of his diagnosis, and the hard truth of it is that our memories of the day reflect about five minutes of undiluted celebrating and about 23 hours and 55 minutes of confusion and fear piled on top of the wonder and joy we expected to be feeling that day.  That first day, we heard the words Down syndrome, we read the ominous handout the hospital offered us to understand what this diagnosis would mean for our son, and we cried and rallied and cried some more.   Probably no more than an hour after his birth, our Lincoln was moved to the NICU and fitted with all manner of tubes and wires.  By the end of his first day, we had met our son's cardiologist, neonatologist, and speech therapist.

That day six years ago was a long, intense roller coaster.  From those seats by Lincoln's shallow, plastic crib in the NICU, we just could not imagine what year one or two would look like, much less year six or sixteen.  So, we decided right away that we would not even try to imagine how his life would unfold.  We would just be along for the ride.  We would let him show us what he could do instead of letting everyone tell us what he most certainly could not do.

We didn't know how year six would look, so we resolved not to get caught up worrying about it.  Instead, we would love him right then in that moment, and we would keep loving him moment by moment, not crossing bridges we hadn't come to yet, not fretting over what  struggles he might or might not ever face.

And so, with that decision, Linc's birthday also became a day of remarkable freedom for us.  We wouldn't be bound to what people thought our son would or should be, we wouldn't be slaves to worry over the things that could go wrong his health, and we would learn to live in the moment, enjoying every single day we had with our son.  Even those long days in the NICU.  Even the croupy nights and the days when the only word he spoke was a constant and emphatic NO (okay, we're still in those days a bit, I fear).
 
During those NICU days, the tubes and wires coming off Linc's body tangled every time I tried to pick him up, and I fretted to Sam that I would never get the hang of holding him with all that baggage tying him down.  But Sam reminded me that slow and steady does it, and he helped unwind the tubes and lay our son in my arms.  Last night, as I frosted birthday cupcakes, I fretted to Sam that I would never get the hang of taking Lincoln out alone, that I would never learn to manage his stubbornness or teach him to stop bolting away from me at top speed.  But Sam reminded me that slow and steady does it, that it's okay to cry because some days this is hard, but that we don't have to take on the challenge of all the days at once.  We only have to take on this day, that for this day we had survived and in the morning our baby boy would be six years old.

I always think of Lincoln's birthday as the day we were all born into a new kind of life, a rich, full, scary, hilarious, messy life. So happy birthday, Lincoln.  We have loved you in every moment of your six years of life.  We are so grateful to have you, and we thank you this year, as we have on all your other birthdays, for teaching us to let go, again and again, day by day.





Friday, September 20, 2013

Right On Through to the Other Side

The sky is grey and close today, pressing down on us as like a thug seeking some kind of repayment for the rain it has begrudgingly given us.  Thunder rumbles discontentedly from time to time, deep and oddly disconcerting after the months of unblinking summer skies. The ominous sky blots out so much of the view from my window that I can almost believe there is nothing else out there but the heavy-handed clouds and their ceaseless spitting.

And yet, below me on the sidewalk, umbrellas move in chorus like the backs of shiny beetles hard at work.  There is life out there, yes, even under this murky, parasitic sky.

I've been watching out the window all morning, trying to be one of those people who cheers for the rain and says what a blessing it is and all that, but instead thinking of the sky as an allegory and wondering how many of those umbrellas are covering the heads of humans whose minds are as grey as this sky.

It's funny, when you work on a college campus, you spend your days with people in such disparate situations.  You have teenagers being dropped full force into sudden adulthood, the smell of childhood still fresh on them no matter how hard they try to cover it up with cologne and beer and lipstick.  You have the working weary, donating yet another decade to a desk just to keep the electricity on and a gallon of milk in the fridge.  You have the countless, all-too-often-unnoticed workers who scrub the floors beneath those desks, who fry batch after batch of the french fries students will later blame those for the "freshman fifteen" they gained.  And you have the academic elite, who publish papers in journals most of the rest of us have never even heard of, who have long titles and framed pictures on their desks of the time they met the president.

Each of these groups are full of people being stretched tighter and tighter every day, just trying to make the grade, to make ends meet, to get that promotion or finally get tenure.  All of these people are sandwiched together in a strange powder keg of competition and stress and too much closeness and not enough contact. And not one of these people is exempt from the danger of the grey-ness that can fall over us.

Yesterday I sat through a meeting on campus safety, the kind of thing I find myself doing from time to time.  It was a PowerPoint extravaganza of how hard we are trying to keep the fragile dam of one person's frailty and confusion from erupting and sweeping away all the rest of us.

Halfway through, one of the speakers was pointing his finger like a gun and walking us through the sequence of events that happened at Virginia Tech, firing his words and popping his finger at us out in the audience, probably never dreaming how disturbing the image would appear on our end of the discussion.  He talked about those who survived at Virginia Tech, and what they had done to get out in time.  He talked about the shooter on our campus three years ago, and the bomb threat on our campus last year.  He talked about what happened at the Navy complex in Washington on Monday.  He talked about Newtown, and I tried not to let my mind walk the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary and imagine the horror of that day, though the stories of Newtown have burrowed their way into my conscience like no other tragedy I have ever known.

Next, we heard from the desperate triage we have assembled here, the counselors and helplines and hotlines, the people who reach out to those in times of distress, all the numbers to call if you are falling hard and fast into the current of despair, or if you fear that someone near you might be.  I listened with a bit of fragile hope at how much we all want to help, but I also heard the unspoken part about how we can't help anyone unless we know they need it.  I remembered, from the times I've been there, how hard it is to know that you need help, even when it's clear that the current is rising and you aren't sure you can keep swimming much longer.

Later in the meeting, when the room was opened up for questions, someone asked about the part on our glossy, color-coded handout that said sometimes in an emergency, when all the other options have been exhausted, you may have to work together to take out an attacker.  For a few minutes, we talked about throwing trashcans, books, anything we could find at a gunman.  We talked about splitting in two groups, one to surprise and the other to disarm the suspect.  We talked about hiding in closets and barricading doors.

And the whole time, I was looking around the room and wondering who was afloat and who was quietly sinking.  Not perhaps into the despair that rips open and tears through the lives of everyone around you, but at least into the kind of grey that tangles up your mind and gets you thinking there's nothing beyond that impenetrable cloud of sadness.

I don't know how someone gets sad or confused or angry enough to take the life of another person.  But I know what it's like to get so sad you question the validity of your own life.  I know what it's like to get so sad it feels like you are living in quicksand and every step is so hard you're not sure there will be a next one.  I wish I didn't know what that feels like, but I do.

And I know what it feels like to come through it, slowly and painfully through that mire, until you find yourself on the other side.

Sometimes, on days like today, I am so keenly aware of how many people are living through the grey that swallows up everything in its sight.  I am so aware of how many people are watching the grey-ness of others turn to black and explode out on the lives of others, painting them grey, too, in the aftermath.  I think of the people I walk by every day, never knowing just how thick are the clouds building behind their eyes.  I wonder how many of them are believing there's nothing on the other side of that grey but more grey, and if they're really unlucky, the terrible black that can't be contained.

Days like today I want to scream from my window at all the umbrellas down below me, "Don't worry, it's okay!  It only seems to go on forever, but that's just another one of its tricks!  There is an end.  There is another side.  Just keep walking, keep going, keep telling yourself there is another side!"

The city is praising this rain today, though perhaps cursing the traffic it breeds.  We are a state of blue skies and sun so hot it burns right through the springtime green by mid July.  We know there's a big, round sun just on the other side of this rain.

And let me say to you, if you are mired in a time of grey that you can't see past, a sadness or a pain so thick you can't imagine there's an end to it anywhere in your future, let me promise you that there is more than this grey for you.  I hope you will take the word of someone who has come right on through to the other side.  I hope you will hear me shouting that there is hope, there is relief, there is joy to be found still in your life.  Tell someone now, right now today, that you are overwhelmed.  If they can't help you, tell someone else.  Keep telling people until you find one who can help you plot a path out of the worst of it.

These storms, they run their course eventually.  They always pass in the end.  Be brave and patient.  Be honest and accept help when it's offered.  Be shameless in fighting the clouds when they gather; use every resource at your disposal.

And remember, when you come on through to the other side, to watch for the others who have not made it through yet. Watch for them and keep a hand out to steady them as they go.  Give them the good word of life on the other side.

Safe travels out there.  Mind the rain, and the grey that comes on us sometimes.  Be a light if you've made it through, or look for one if you haven't yet.  Godspeed.



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Bulls and Blindness and Bowing


There have been days when I could hardly stomach the very way he sets his bowl by the sink after dinner.  There have been days when I was forced to plunge my hand into a pool of cloudy broth and noodles because he stuck his dirty dish smack dab in the middle of another dirty, un-emptied dish, days I found myself cringing at the starchy residue on my fingers and the slop of old soup he has slung across the counter and, ultimately, at the grating friction of two lives bumping up against each other.

After fourteen years of getting my hands dirty on the mess of his leftovers, you'd think I would have come up with some better plan than letting the muscles in my neck flex wildly when he plops his plate somewhere that, in my never-humble-enough opinion, it doesn't' belong.  But we are a mess, the two of us, a jumble of lives that sometimes agrees on nothing more than owning this jumble as our mess.  Perhaps that's why, after fourteen years, I still tend to think that there is a right way of doing things, and then there's his way of doing things.

I will be the first to admit that in the delicate china shop of our marriage, I am the bull.  In fact, I am so stubborn that my father actually warned Sam in our marriage ceremony to be prepared for my strong will.  I am so quick to see my way and so slow to see almost anything else.  I can be rigid and selfish and harsh, and sometimes I fumble so spectacularly through our marriage that I am sure it will break apart in my hands.

On my worst days I am convinced that, when the Christian folks who love to quote those verses about wives submitting to their husbands see people like me, they huff and nod to each other that I am pretty much making their own point for them.  After all, here is a woman who writes about equality and has been known to criticize the treatment of gender roles in modern churches, and who also freely admits that her bull-headed nature can be very hard on her marriage.

And I guess it might be easy to assume, since I do write about feminism and equality, that I don't believe in submitting to my husband.  It might be easy to assume that my stubborn pride, my famously bullheaded nature, keeps my from bending to the will of this man I have married.  It might be an easy leap to make, when you read about how I think women deserve more respect, authority, and freedom, to assume that I believe some inverted system is in order, with the long suffering women taking the lead and the brutish men finally being kept under our thumbs.

But, see, that's where these arguments about submission so often get derailed because many of us who bristle at the notion of wives submitting do so not because we have some vested interest in taking charge or getting our way, but because we believe the message of the gospel is just not intended to be used to keep anyone under anyone else's thumb.  We don't believe in correcting the balance of power; we believe in the redemptive nature of exposing the pursuit of power as the dead end that it is.

There are people like me who believe that when we sing the words of "Amazing Grace," we do not mean that we once were blind to the rules but now we can see all that small print that spells out exactly how to behave.  We believe, instead, that our eyes have been opened to the freedom of submitting to a redemption that exempts us from the hierarchies set up by the world.  We are free from the rat race, the beauty pageant, the "he who dies with the most toys" mentality.  We are free from the desperate addictions to power and fame. The blindness of trying to find our worth in how big our houses are, in how sexy we look, in how perfectly we eat, in how flawless our grades are - all of that film, the distorted cataract of living in a world that runs on "me! me! me!" power, is removed.

We once were blind, but now we see.

The legacy of submission survives better in the church than perhaps anywhere else in the Western world.  We submit to this blanket redemption called grace, joints popping as we get down on knees that can hardly remember what it feels like to kneel.  We submit our bodies to the water in baptism, a symbolic death to ourselves.  We submit our lives to service, to humility, to deference to a God never seen or heard by the eyes and ears we believe were actually crafted for us by this God.  We bow our heads and close our eyes, make our very posture submissive and come to the Lord as children, crying "Father, father!" with mouths aimed down at the floorboards.

There are many of us who believe that submission is the key to having our blindness removed.  After all, the pivotal image of our redemption, the foundation for our faith, is a man willingly submitting himself for crucifixion.  Which is why someone as bull-headed as me can revere the freedom found in the act of submission while simultaneously denying the necessity of wives submitting unilaterally to their husbands as an integral component to the Christian faith.

Because we are also called to submit one to another, and there are some of us who believe the call to submit to each other is a powerful reminder that our tendencies to retreat into legalism or place our weight on the leaky lifeboat of power-as-status have no place in the relationships of people who have been freed by grace.  There are some, like me, who believe that you cannot both submit one to another and also establish a static leader-follower structure, that setting up a hierarchy within the marriage necessarily means you are not able to be mutually submissive.

Maybe there are some folks who would be surprised to hear me say that I do believe in submitting to my husband.  In fact, we are bound to each other in the mutual submission we have been called to, and every single day, I have to make the choice to temper my bull-headed nature with the humility and tenderness and patience my marriage deserves.  And every single day, so does he.

After fourteen years of cleaning soup off the counter, I have realized something about this model of shared selflessness: it allows for a level of respect and intimacy I couldn't share with someone who was propped up as my leader, someone who got to override my opinions, someone whose judgment mattered more than mine when it came right down to the tense, gritty moments of decision.

That's why I find myself taking a few deep breaths and clamping down on my tongue when my husband plops his bowl into a pool of old soup, spilling his way all over my nice and tidy idea of the right way to do things.  And it's also, I believe, why Sam gets as fired up about this whole "wives submit" business as I do, why he aches for the friends we've watched bristle and argue and even buckle under the strain of an unequal marriage.  It's why we spur each other on, why we don't feel the need to compete against each other, why we have remained a safe place for each other even in the worst moments of our marriage.

It may always be in my nature to be a bit of a bull in a china shop about things, but every day I get a chance to practice walking softly and calmly, head bowed, mindful of where I'm placing my feet and my horns and my sense of self importance.  Every day, I watch the two of us learn in a million, sloppy, hard-earned ways how submitting to each other helps keep our eyes open to the greater freedom offered by our redemption.  It helps us remember that once we were blind, but now we see.



Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To My Lincoln, on Starting Kindergarten


Dear Lincoln,


Today I downloaded the school supply list, and I wrote down all the supplies you will need for the year.  Tonight, I will go home and dig through your dresser, counting how many pairs of shorts and jeans and t-shirts still fit you after your massive spring growth spurt.  Undoubtedly, I will find some leftover relics of a smaller size, some shirts pushed to the back corner that you haven't been able to wear in some time, and I will pull them out and lay them on my lap, smoothing out all those bottom-of-the-drawer wrinkles and seeing an image in my head of the way you looked in that shirt.  And it will physically grieve me to move that shirt to the pile of yesterdays, the stack of things to pack away or give away, the fleeting mementos of the days when the tags in your shirts measured your age by months and we called you "the baby."

In a week, you'll be starting kindergarten, and I tell you, my little man, I'm not sure what to make of that.  This morning, I did the ugly cry all over the steering wheel on my drive in to work, just thinking of you as a kindergartener.  Then, I laughed at my silly old self, then I cried some more. 

It's kind of funny, really, how hard this is for me.  I'm not a stay at home mom who's struggling with her identity now that her last child has left her days, and her house, a sudden, deafening quiet.  We haven't spent the last half decade with you tugging at my apron strings all day.  Heck, this isn't even your first year at this school.  You've been in preschool in the same building for almost three years now.

But, this is kindergarten.  This is the real thing, little man, and somehow it's just different.

I'm not sure I'm ready for you to enter the world just yet because you are still so small and so fragile, and I still slip and call you "the baby" sometimes.  Every year of your life that passes, spiraling so fast that neither of us can catch it, is a reminder of how fast you will be gone, how soon you will no longer be mine to raise and hold and sing to sleep at night.  It's a strange thing to love someone who is constantly becoming less yours.  It's a strange thing to be in a relationship where, every year, the object of your affection moves farther and farther away from you.  Needs you less.  Wants more time on their own and is actively building a life not based on you even while you can do nothing but build a life based on them.

And it's a strange thing to be charged with caring for a person, hardly feeling like more than a child yourself some days, and realize that the tiny little person you are trying to protect is going to have to live in the same world you do.  The same mixed up, often confusing, sometimes cruel, angry, violent world you live in.  Ah, son, I wish we'd gotten it in better shape before I had to send you out in it, but this is the world you and I have to live in.  There's nowhere else, not in this life, and so we'd better get used to the idea of you living out in it.

And baby, I can't make any promises about what this world will be like for you because, yes, some people may be cruel some of the time.  But also maybe the world really is changing, and maybe more and more people had mammas who raised them right, who will know how to be kind and look for the good in other people and make friends with people who aren't just like themselves.   And I hope you know that I wish I could protect you from the bad ones, but the only way I could protect you from the danger that people can present would be to hide you away from all people forever, and that would be its own kind of punishment.  Just ask Rapunzel.

The last few years, I have read this letter written by a woman named Glennon Melton.  It's a personal letter about her experience with a boy named Adam that she went to school with, a boy who was different from her and who she missed knowing because she was too preoccupied with how different he seemed.  Now that Glennon has learned from her mistake, she reads this letter about Adam to her children every August at the beginning of the school year.  A few years ago, she shared her letter with the world, and now there are a lot of other moms and dads who read this letter to their children every year, too.

So every year now I read this letter, too, and think of you.

See the thing is, though you don't understand this yet, to some people, you will be Adam.  And Lord how I pray that millions and millions of parents are reading their children letters like this and teaching them how different doesn't mean worse and how you never know where you might find a remarkable friend.

But I know, just because I've been in this world longer than you have, that some kids aren't ever getting read letters like that.  And their mammas and daddies are using words full of hate, words that they will pick up soon if they haven't already.  I know that some kids won't understand how to treat an Adam, and they will say or do things that hurt you.

I know that some kids will look at you and just see Down syndrome.  They won't see how you are funny and kind and intense and loyal and independent.  They won't know how to see all of those things because they have been taught, in so many direct and indirect ways, that the differences they see in you are the biggest, most important things about you.  I'm sorry that you may meet people who haven't learned how to treat others with kindness and respect.  I pray, more than you will ever know, that the number of those people is small and getting smaller everyday.  But, to some people, you will be like Adam was to Glennon.

And here is the rub.  They are Adams, too, in a way that they won't ever quite understand. Because what matters to people like that is being cool, being accepted, being powerful or popular or receiving enough attention and appreciation to try and fill the hole of emptiness inside them.

But to us, what matters is being kind and genuine, being honest about who we are and seeing how we are fundamentally so much like everyone else down where it really matters.  What matters to us is taking care of our fellow humans, serving people in love and humility, always trying to leave this world better than we found it. So in a way, people who are cruel and exclusive and uncaring are Adams to us because they just don't fit in with what we believe is important.  And those kinds of Adams deserve our love, patience, and understanding just as much as we deserve theirs.

I'm not going to say it will always be easy, learning to live with those kind of Adams, learning to treat them with understanding and forgiveness.  I think we'll have to learn that part together.

I know you don't understand any of this yet.  For now, your world is full of a million little adventures, full of stories and music and laughter.  And the good news is, despite some of the bad parts of this world and despite some of the Adams you may meet, your life will always be full of little adventures.  It can always be saturated with stories and music and laughter, if you want it to be.  That's the great part about kindergarten, the part I both love and fear, that it is just the beginning of you going out into the world and making your own life.

So go out there and get started.   Have a great year in kindergarten.  Go ahead and get started on the rest of your life.  I love you.

~ Mom





Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Thing About Birthdays

Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

We are sitting across from each other in a restaurant booth just large enough that we can't quite lean across the table and kiss, which we know because we tried, awkwardly, after he made a toast to celebrate my 35th birthday.  There is a plate of bacon-wrapped quail legs in between us, and I keep looking at it and thinking that it seems vaguely out of place.  We aren't the fig-stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail type most days.  But, here we are talking about how Sam has never had a wedge salad before and how the tiny quail bones make me almost sad enough to not eat them.  Not quite, mind you, but almost.

And it feels strange not to have the kids there with us because we travel in a pack these days, but at the same time it's always been second nature for me to sit across from this man and tell him everything in one long, filter-less outpouring.  We are one big parents-out-on-a-date cliche because I can't keep myself from telling the waitress that we are out because we have a babysitter, with a giddy emphasis on those important words, and Sam can't help but tell her that we are celebrating my birthday, though really we are just saying these things for ourselves, for the sheer joy of announcing our own personal celebration.

It's not until the quail plate is cleared, with those tiny bones heaped up like some macabre miniature graveyard scene, that I fully recover the memory that had been stirring as I watched that plate sit between us.

Fifteen years ago, we somehow ended up with a gift certificate to Chili's, and as we were sitting across from each other in that restaurant booth eating our free meal, we realized that it was our first real date.  We were already inseparable by then, already talking about marriage, and yet our entire relationship had occurred as whispered conversations in crowded parties and late night talks in each others' cars and on each others' couches.  We lived in a kind of pack back then, too, barely out of our teenage years, mostly renting cheap apartments with roommates, a group of friends all sort of living on top of each other.  It seemed the natural reaction to the loneliness of outgrowing the family of your childhood and not yet having the family of your adulthood; I think we all tried to douse that loneliness a little by not ever really letting ourselves be alone.

So, Sam and I fell in love in a crowd, fell in love in stops and starts that made us the train wreck that everyone couldn't help but watch for a while.  We stumbled through one messy transition after another, from friends to dating, from dating to engaged, from engaged to married. Not one second was picture perfect; not one milestone failed to trip us up.  At Chili's, on our first real date, Sam said, "Well, if I had realized this was our first date, I would have ordered something nicer than a burger."

But I didn't care, really, because when I was with Sam, I had always kind of felt like we were the only people in the room.  What did I care if there were other people around us all of the time?  When he looked at me, I couldn't see those other people anyway.

If you think about it, celebrating the same day each year is a bit arbitrary.  We might just as easily measure our lives by the meals we've shared or by the restaurant booths we've sat in.  Fifteen years ago, my boyfriend and I ate a free meal in a Chili's booth.  Fourteen years ago, my fiance and I designed our wedding rings at a different restaurant booth, sketching out our ideas on a cocktail napkin that I still have tucked into the pages of a scrapbook that I never got around to finishing.  Today we sit together, grinning at the novelty of a dinner out without the kids.

It's funny how all of those memories come back like a faucet turned on full force.  In this one moment, the waitress is removing our plate and I am remembering all the booths we've sat across in the last decade and a half.

Crystals of salt from my empty margarita glass keep getting stuck to my elbow.  You'd think that might motivate me to sit up straight, but even after 35 years of trying, I have never managed to learn to eat without leaning on the table.  My belly is full, and I am tempted to walk around to Sam's side of the booth and lean, warm and sated, against his side.  Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

And I answer, distracted from my reverie, "Yes, but this is the calendar we have adopted, and this calendar lends itself to a repetitive, annual schedule."

But that's not what I mean, because celebrating another year of this life has little to do with the calendar and more to do with being able to celebrate each day as it passes so that, at the end of a year, I have spent my time soaking up the particular marvel that is my own meager existence.  The thing about birthdays is that they really are arbitrary, in a way, and if everything about our growth is hung on that one day each year, then the celebration is just some robotic kind of ritual we keep up as a matter of habit.

The thing about birthdays, though, is that they magnify who you have been all year, that they become this vivid slideshow of how far you have (or have not) come.  And as arbitrary as it may be, I can't help but wonder if this is why we become less and less enthralled with our birthdays over time, that as each year shows less and less growth than the year before, these slideshows of another year past can become increasingly painful to watch.  I look across the table at Sam, and I can't help but see all those years, all those meals, all those tables.  I can't help but mention our two lost pregnancies and how much of the last year was mired by my frantic desire to get pregnant again, to hold one last baby in my arms before I hit the too-old-for-procreation age of 35.  Birthdays can leave you feeling misshapen like a candle still soft from burning, but that's the thing about birthdays, we get to watch the shape that we've become from all this use and all this life and all this trial by fire.

I am halfway to 70, and who knows, maybe my child-bearing years are over, though I hardly feel different than that girl who sat at Chili's on a belated first date 15 years ago.  I am drinking a toast to the end of my 35th year, and the thing about birthdays is that they should be a look ahead just as much as they are a look back.  I am wiping margarita salt off my elbows and realizing I have never ordered quail for myself in a restaurant and thinking how far we've come, this husband and I.  And through all of it, I am thinking that this coming year is going to be the best one yet.  I am sad and happy and still messy in my transitions, and I am just so glad to have another year to get it right and mess it up and eat cake and make toasts and introduce Sam to wedge salads.

That salt follows me, like confetti, all the way home, and boy am I glad for its persistence, just another souvenir of a life well lived.


Image credit, used under Creative Commons License

Friday, July 19, 2013

Of Pink Shoes on the Senate Floor


This morning I put on my pink running shoes and my new pink running shirt, snapped the leash on the dog, and hit the sidewalks of the suburbs.  The sun was just coming up over the rows of nearly identical houses with proud stone and brick facades, though I was looking at their peeling wood-clad backsides, and the sunrise sweeping across the horizon was pink, too.  Pink and purple swirled like the colors of fairy wings and princess dresses we love to put on little girls.

I realize sometimes that I talk about running like one of those wiry, sports-bra-and-bike-short wearing devotees of the pavement, one of those people who talk about their mileage as if they were cars. But I am just a faithfully chugging little engine that could, someone who is daunted by every hill, someone who has to worry about things like chafing and whether I should try and tuck my inhaler into the strange little pocket in my running pants.  As I love to tell people, I run because it doesn't come naturally to me, because it is a hard thing for me to accomplish.  Every single time I step out the door and break into a jog, it hurts; my muscles scream and my lungs burn.  I do it because I have a perverse need to prove to myself that I can.

I run (and sometimes walk and often hobble home in exhaustion) because I don't want to live a life focused on what I can't do.  I run to remind myself that I am more than my fears, more than my habits, more than my dress size.  I run to remind myself that I am strong, powerful, resilient, brave.  I run because it feels good to do more than you are entirely sure you can do.

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Half a decade ago, the morning after Hillary Clinton dropped her bid to become the democratic nominee for president, I heard on the radio, "Now we can finally get down to figuring out who is the best man for the job."  I don't think the radio personality who so casually let those words slip meant that he was happy the race was finally down to what was familiar, that he was thrilled to report that, like every presidential election in our country's history, sifting through the frontrunners would mean choosing the best man for the job.  I think he honestly meant that the world could stop focusing on this distracting sideshow and start focusing on the main stage.

It's just that, for those of us who have never had a chance of reaching the main stage, his words stung.  They reeked of privilege, of the comfort of being able to choose between two men, of the familiarity of arguing over the color of the debaters' ties and the comparison of the candidates' wives as potential first ladies.

I don't in any way mean to downplay the significance of choosing a president who does not look like every other president we have had before that.  Believe me, I celebrated the landmark nature of our president's victory both times he was elected to office, but there is part of me that can't forget that we still only had the option of choosing the best man for the job.  When I think about that comment I heard on the radio, it reminds me of a quote I heard recently: "Privilege is invisible to those who have it."  The man who so casually told a national radio audience that we could calm down and choose the best man for the job said those words because it did not occur to him that always only having two men to choose from was a deep, ingrained, systemic problem.

~     ~     ~

I watched people talk about standing with Wendy in retrospect.  One of the survival mechanisms I have evolved is only taking in bite size chunks of social media and not feeling like I have to keep up with it all at all times.  It's been a steep learning curve for me, and I especially wish I could handle it all in large chunks like others seem to be able to do when I see a movement like this hit the internet.

But for me, it was the next morning when I realized what had happened.

My first thought when I started seeing the pictures and videos of the crowd at the Texas Capitol that night was how my husband, Sam, loves to show the capitol building off to visitors, how he has often been teased for showing it over and over to the same people as we drive around town, not unlike the "Look, kids, it's Big Ben!" scene in the European Vacation movie.  I thought about how Sam takes our boys to visit the capitol on Texas Independence Day and how I have run down the steps of the UT Tower early in the morning and looked out at the capitol's stone facade all lit up and gleaming from a distance.

The day after Wendy Davis' now famous filibuster, I stood on the steps of the tower and looked out at the capitol again, thinking of those pink running shoes and how tired her feet must have been.  For some reason, I couldn't get the image of those shoes out of my mind.

I know for so many of the people who went to the capitol that night, it was about the bill in question.  I know the abortion debate is pretty much the divisive political issue of our generation and that many people vote for candidates or entire parties who match their stance on the issue.  And yes, of course, I have my own strong (though often muddied and not yet fully cemented) opinions about the issue.  It wasn't the debate itself that hooked me, I guess is what I am trying to say.

For me, the reason I found those pink shoes on the senate floor so iconic was because it was just such a powerful image of a woman making a stand for what she believes is right.  For me, I could not help but feel a surge of pride at watching a female senator stage a filibuster to argue for the rights of the women in her state.  I couldn't help but feel that constriction in my chest, the tightness in my throat that precedes tears, when I saw the footage of the crowd taking over the filibuster with a roar of protest.

Because, not only does it feel good to do something you are not entirely sure you can do; it also feels good to watch someone else do it.  It feels good to watch a woman put on her pink running shoes and face the world as a strong, powerful, brave person.  It feels good to watch someone stand, watch someone rise.  We rise with them, when we see it, just as we break apart a little, too, when we watch others cower and hide and believe the lies that tell them they don't deserve to stand themselves, that they don't deserve to rise.

I can't help but think about those pink shoes on the senate floor every time I pull on my own pink running shoes these days.  I'm no Wendy Davis, certainly, but I do know what it feels like to grow tired of standing up for something, to wear your feet down just trying to stay upright some days, to wonder if you can hold your own against the barrage of criticism and the endless work of pushing against the tide.  I know how hard it can be just to stand up in the first place, to trust your own weight to the strength of your convictions, never knowing if they will buckle beneath you.

But one other thing I've learned the past few years: when you stand, you carry me, and when I stand, I carry you.  So, I'll keep strapping on my shoes, keep saying the hard things that need to be said, and keep watching for you to put your shoes on.  And I'll be cheering when you rise, because I'll rise, too.



Image credit 1 & Image credit 2, both used under Creative Commons License

Friday, June 21, 2013

Halfway to Somewhere

It's almost impossible for me to believe that it was 17 years ago when I sat in the window of my old dorm room, wedged in next to my roommate on that uncomfortable ledge, kicking our feet in defiance of the sidewalk from our new second floor home.  The L.A. air rushed past us and ran along the cinder block walls of our room, rustling the photos of friends from back home we had plastered over our beds.  I remember we thought it was so funny that a line of elementary school children in navy blue and white uniforms paraded below us just as the Indigo Girls sang in the background:

"I sit two stories above the street,
It's awful quiet here since love fell asleep.
There's life down below me, though,
The kids are walking home from school."

I listen to that song today, and I can still smell that old dorm room.  I can still feel the air coming off Figueroa Street that should have been bitter from asphalt and rubber and exhaust but was somehow sweet and vaguely floral, a smell so distinctly spring-like that, when I remember it, I ache to smell it again.

I was 17 years and one month old to the day when I moved into that dorm, which means that I am as far away from that moment today as I was, in that moment, from my own birth.  That year was halfway though my life so far, that moment when I felt so adult and aware, that moment which has been frozen in my brain like a photo that was never actually taken of my youth.

~      ~     ~

I didn't get a photo of the Jacaranda trees in bloom, either.  When I came back at the end of the summer, the Jacaranda trees that had seemed so docile during my freshman year were lit up with purple blossoms.  I walked across campus, watching the trees sprinkle those purple petals all over the sidewalks and thinking how it looked like a wedding.  Little did I know I was marching to get my heart broken, off to meet the boy who would dance around it for a week before he could get the words out, the boy who would seem suddenly distant, who would show me goodbye before he could make himself actually say it.

I can still remember the way he looked the afternoon I saw the Jacaranda trees in bloom, laying beside me in the grass, looking at the sky and not saying much, as clouded as the sky above.  I remember I took my camera out and started taking pictures because somehow, for once, I sensed that these were images that were swiftly fading.  Maybe I realized I wasn't entirely sure I would remember the way he looked if I didn't have a photo, back in the days when photographs were still things to be clutched in your lonely little hands.

~     ~     ~

I may be the only one who feels this way, but I don't think you could pay me enough to be 17 again.  I won't lie, the nostalgia I feel for pieces of that year can be intense.  I'm quite sure nothing will ever smell like that wind off Figueroa Street rattling around my first dorm room.   But in between all those frozen images, and even built right into them if I'm honest enough to admit it, was a tangle of insecurity and angst and sometimes downright anguish that almost choked the life right out me that year.  If you'd watched me lumber through my 17th year, you'd probably be shocked I can sit here and wax poetic about that particular period of my history.

Next month I'll be 35, and I think now how this is halfway to 70.

Tonight, when I took my youngest son to bed and said, "Goodnight, I love you," he replied, "Good day."  He said good day because every morning when I leave him, I tell him, "I love you, have a good day."  And when I said I love you this evening, he repeated the sweet words he's heard me say to him countless times: I love you, have a good day.

He smiled at me, his little feet kicking the covers, overjoyed at my laughter, overjoyed at the shower of kisses I rained down on him.  "Mom mom mom," he giggled, his name for me a joyful benediction falling from his lips.

Sometimes it hits me, in moments like that, how you never know which moments will become the snapshots.  We're always halfway to somewhere, I guess.  Lord willing, I will live long enough look back on this year as a halfway point, and I hope when I do, I will see this as a time when I made the most of the two remarkable lives that have been entrusted to me.

I am certainly happier now than I was at 17, and not just happy in that bright, flighty, elusive way but deeply, quietly happy.  Fulfilled, I guess you could say.

My children's laughter has infected my life.  Their joy has remade me.  Our first baby came when I had lost hope in just about everything, though I wouldn't have admitted that to you at the time, and from the moment I held him in my arms, I felt something I didn't even know I had lost.  When I am 70 years old and I look back on this period of my life, I'm sure I will remember that I was tired, yes, and frustrated sometimes, but I believe I will look back on these years of young parenthood not just as crackling with nostalgia but as lit up with joy and hope and sticky, sweaty, dirty, affectionate love.

"Mom mom mom," Lincoln sang to me this evening, his feet kicking at the underside of his blanket.  And that kicking, it reminded me of my own feet kicking out of the window above Figueroa Street.  It reminded me that our boys' rooms are on the second story and that my husband and I used to sit in those window sills and look out at the neighborhood children coming home from school and dream of what would come from our new son's life.

The sky outside was starting to darken, my son's window now more mirrored than transparent, the hour long past when school children would walk by below.  But I couln't help singing a new lullaby to our second child, one of the songs that was the soundtrack of my youth:

"I sit two stories above the street,
It's awful quiet here since love fell asleep.
There's life down below me, though,
The kids are walking home from school."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Out of the Fog

I haven't written in several weeks, and I find myself now coming back to the blank screen as to a friend I haven't spoken with in a bit too long, as if the cursor can feel the strain of our separation and we are circling each other, waiting to see if we still have that same old rapport.

I feel as if I'm coming out of a great fog, as if I am remembering what it feels like to be myself.  I guess I'm wondering, too, if the cursor and I will have that same old rapport.

The last six months have been like a grinding weight that fell on me slowly, that incrementally chipped away at my energy, my buoyancy, my mood.  It's been half a year of near constant sickness, of countless rounds of antibiotics, of going under the knife to have my tonsils removed, and then wading through the painful, hazy days of recovery.  At some point in early spring, I found myself questioning if the old shackles of depression had slipped themselves around my wrists again, binding me to days of darkness and apathy. I couldn't quite discern whether it was the round after round of sickness or the beginnings of depression that kept me from having the motivation to tackle the pile of mail on the counter or get out and run or sit down and write something already.

And without knowing, really, what caused the tremendous funk I've been in, without knowing whether this surgery will be able to curb my tendency to turn every cold into a full blown infection, still I sit here tonight feeling pretty good and being in a place where I will take an evening of feeling pretty good as the gift that it is.  Today I went to the gym at lunch, something I haven't done for months and months, since long before this funk set in, and when I settled back in for an afternoon of work, I thought to myself, "I remember this feeling.  I remember feeling tired and overheated and sweaty beneath my work cloths and strangely, euphorically good."  I think the quicksand took me so slowly I didn't even realize I was sinking until I was nearly buried.  And tonight, it's like I am looking down at my muddy pants, suddenly realizing I've crawled out.

I've been listening to this song "I Won't Give Up" by Jason Mraz over and over because that's a certain sickness I have, ruminating on the same song, keeping it on repeat until I've understood exactly what it has to teach me.  This song reminds me of my husband, but I haven't been able to listen to it for a while because it hurt to hear; it made me think of what it must be like to be married to someone who's sick all the time, who's sad or cranky or sleepy or in pain more often than not.  Tonight, though, this song makes me think of how lucky I am to be married to someone who shows no signs of giving up on me.

There's no one else I would rather have tie my hospital gown in back and make fun of the way I look in a paper hair net.  There's no face I would rather see when I'm coming out of anesthesia.

Sometimes I think I never love my husband more than I do when we are in the hospital together, sitting in some waiting room or some exam room or some recovery room, because we are always laughing.  Everyone around us may be grim, but we are like teenagers, speaking in our carefully honed language of sarcasm and inside jokes, giggling and making too much noise.  Sam still acts like any exam room we are in is some kind of amusement park, and he wants to see everything the place has to offer.  He's opening cabinet doors and blowing up latex gloves like balloons while I'm chiding him and praying the doctor doesn't come in until Sam is done exploring.  And I realize every time he starts wearing the one of those little face masks like a yarmulke that we are constantly pulling each other away from our own extremes, him loosening my white knuckle grip on following all the rules and me reminding him to maybe not break all of them.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you are going to need someone to set their alarm to bring you medicine and ice every four hours, day and night, it's pretty great if that person can also be someone who makes you a better version of yourself even on your best of days.  It's pretty great if it can be someone who smiles and reminds you he promised in sickness and in health, and he meant it.  And he means it.

I feel soaked through with gratitude this evening, thinking of the way I was cared for in the past months, thanking my lucky stars that both my mother and Sam's parents came to help out after the surgery.  It was time I expected to be lost to the blur of recovery, and yet it turned out to be the kind of quiet, everyday, unassuming time that we almost never get to share with our far-flung families.

I'm thankful that I am remembering how it feels to have sore muscles, that even though my brain wanted to fixate on my reflection in those floor to ceiling gym mirrors, I did a right decent job of drowning out the concern over the size of my thighs by meditating on the work, by making the movements a prayer that said, "Thank you Lord for this miraculous body and what it can do."  I'm thankful that I'm coming out of that great fog, that it turns out the cursor and I still have a mostly amicable relationship. I'm feeling pretty good tonight, and tonight that's all I need, this long overdue feeling.  I'm feeling pretty good, and right now, that's enough.