I want to remember Halloween with my kids this year. But it seems a little late to say anything about it. Three of my favorites from trick-or-treating:
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Yesterday the kids made a list of things babies should know about their parents. Mister was the first to make a suggestion. And he did not need any time to think of his answer. “Let them carry you,” he said.
I keep thinking about the words of his heart, so ready on his tongue. My baby knows something about being carried. He was carried on the back of his mother as she tended to soil and hearth. He was carried away by a social worker, when his mother knew there was nothing left to give. He was carried up and down the alley at Horizon House by the Nurse, who said he refused to be comforted, howling through sunrise and sunset. He was carried by me – the Embassy, airports, the streets of Wiesbaden and Chicago. We did not bring a stroller or even a backpack with us to meet our baby. We knew – or someone told us – that our child would need to be carried in our arms.
At first, Mister did not let his Daddy pick him up. And we respected that. We trusted that there was time for bonding, and we could be patient as he learned to trust us one at a time. But after three weeks at home, one day my husband picked Mister up and headed downstairs. I listened to the protests dampen as they rounded the right angles between upstairs and down. Then it was quiet. And then there was giggling. Now, that moment – being scooped up into Daddy’s arms – is one of Mister’s favorite stories to tell.
“Remember when I didn’t want Dad to hold me but he picked me up and we went downstairs to play?”
“I remember,” I smile.
“Ya,” He says patting me on the back.
Now he is 54 pounds. When he falls asleep in the van, I have to wake him up to walk instead of carrying him inside. If he falls asleep when we rock, I have to wait for his Dad to come by and take him to bed. When he asked to snuggle on my hip during singing time at church, I have to say no. He has gotten to big to carry.
So now we hold hands, which will soon be uncool. When we no longer hold hands maybe we will walk side by side. And talk on the telephone.
My dad once told my husband to carry the kids whenever they asked, warning that the window of time for carrying is shockingly brief. He was right. My babies are growing up and out of my arms and into a world that asks much of them. So, Mister’s timely word to the babies of the world feels sweet, wise and old like his soul.
“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4
Saturday, November 5, 2011
In celebration of news that a friend is becoming a Mom, the kids compiled this list of things babies should know. The list is in order of suggestion, with the first coming from my sweet baby boy, who does (I think) know a thing or two about getting to know parents.
Here are some things you should know about your parents and this life:
1. Let them carry you.
2. They snuggle you.
3. If you fall down the stairs, they can catch you.
4. If you are scared, you can tell them.
5. Don’t whine and cry and jump out of your crib when you are too big for a
6. Parents can help you reach stuff.
7. Parents are fun.
8. They can help you when you have an owie.
9. If you don’t listen to your parents you can get into a lot of mischief.
10. If you get a bump on your face, you have to let them squeeze it.
11. Mommies say, “Its okay, Baby.”
12. They can take you back to the sidewalk if you run in the street.
13. Parents will make things for you.
14. Don’t wake your parents up.
15. Don’t try to climb on top of the table and fly off it or pull things off of
your parent’s computer.
16. You should hug your parents.
17. Your parents will sing to you if you ask.
18. Don’t wipe yourself if it’s a messy poop.
19. Kiss your parents.
20. Listen to do them and do what seems right.
21. If you go to the beach, you might want to know, “Don’t eat the sand!”
22. You can sink.
23. Don’t be scared because there are lots of nice people here.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Someday I want to post about the amazing questions Mister has been asking lately about skin color. It has been deep around here lately and I want to remember what his heart was telling me about being a brown-skinned baby in a white family at age four.
But until then, here is one of conversations where my intentions to nurture fell flat, flat, flat...enjoy a giggle on us!
I love this picture from Rwanda and finally framed it yesterday. I was excited for the kids to see it and fit it into our conversations about race. To me it speaks to prayer and community. When Mister saw it he said, "Why are those people all waiting for sanitizer?"
Oh well. Try again tomorrow.
Friday, October 14, 2011
I did a lot of yelling this morning. I like to think of it more as extra loud doses of logic and instruction. I like to think that when I am yelling, I am helping my children understand that the helpful advice I am giving them is so valuable it is worth sharing with the college-aged neighbors who are probably sleeping but might also need to be reminded that “WE WASH OUR HANDS EVERYTIME WE GO TO THE BATHROOM” or that “WEARING A SHIRT WITH YESTERDAY’S SNOT IS NOT OKAY - YOU HAVE LOTS OF VERY NICE CLOTHES THAT ARE CLEAN BECAUSE I WORK SO HARD TO WASH AND FOLD THEM.”
So, there I sat at 6:50 am with puffy eyes and pillow creases, sitting on the floor in my pajamas, folding laundry and yelling, yelling, yelling. Peanut came and stuck her face up against mine – nose to nose – and said, “Can you be nice, Mommy?”
It was a fair question. At the moment of asking, my niceness was most definitely MIA. And Peanut knew she was going to be stuck with me all day. And she did not want to be stuck with the yelling Mommy, so she calmly asked the question. And I decided that maybe she was right and the day would go better if I decided to act like a grown-up, or at least like a grown-up worth growing into.
So, we have been on a run. And on a bagel date. And the blanket she peed on last night has been washed. There has been some singing and silliness mixed in with Friday chores.
And so, as an apology to Peanut and a confession to the Village, I offer Peanut’s favorite mood-changing tune.
Thank you, Jesus, for little people and big reminders.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I can't even pretend to be profound today. My brain is full of sugar and happiness and there is an enormous crown on my head. My birthday was this weekend, and I want to remember a few details.
We went to the pumpkin patch/corn maze with grandma and grandpa. We snuggled under blankets and watched a Disney movie that made me cry (of course). I did not pick up my homework or any dirty socks (both of which await my inevitable return to reality).
Sister made me breakfast in bed: sugar smacks, four marshmallows, an apple muffin, and a half-eaten cherry yogurt. Delish. I was drinking my coffee in bed downstairs when I heard the party starting to make its way down the steep wood stairs to the basement where we grown-ups moved a few years ago when we found ourselves outnumbered by babies. "H-a-p-p-y B-i-r-t-h-d-a-y t-o *crash* *spoon hitting each stair* I'm okay, I'm okay! I'm glad I remembered not to use anything glass!" The birthday parade arranged itself on my bed and ate my breakfast for me locust-style. Then Sis sneezed. I found the sticky, slimy bits of chewed marshmallow on the comforter later.
And she made me this great crown. And everyone over the age of three got to take turns with the camera. I am chubbier than last year. And a have a few more wrinkles. But I think I am a better mom and a more fearless woman. So bring it, Birthday. I'll take what your handing out.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Horray for the village! This morning I talked with the little man’s teacher, our dear friend and caregiver and the amazing physical therapist, who is helping me to turn my head to the right and left. We all had ideas. We are are paying attention. And I am feeling so grateful. Sometimes we share our hearts and they get squashed. Sometimes we share our hearts and our little trading pieces are picked up without exchange - or left on the table to dry out or get carried off by the birds. But sometimes, just sometimes, we share our hearts and someone hears. And that is beautiful. And sometimes the thing they hear is better than the thing we meant to say. And that is answered prayer.
"My dear children, let's not just talk about love; let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living truly, living in God's reality. It's also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us [or our babies] than we do ourselves." I John 3: 18-20 from The Message
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Instead of doing homework tonight, I am distractedly processing the tummy ache that showed up with Mister's comments tonight about being left out at school. Being left out has been the nightly report for a week now, and this mama has a sudden urge to withdraw him and spend the year eating ice cream and throwing rocks. Who would want to hurt the heart of this sweet, sweet boy? Without much agency outside of a friendly e-mail, I am posting the following, as a reminder to myself that these babies are on loan, but never alone - not even at the school where my baby got left out today. :(
When my husband and I were making plans to travel to Rwanda, I was regularly asked the obvious question: “Who is watching your children?” I have often, and with distain, accused my husband of rehashing events. “Its true,” he will say. “And you pre-hash them.” So, because Rwanda was far away and it appeared we really would be going, I began The Prehash.
Prehashing helps me scour the horizon for missed details. It also takes the wheel of my heart, allowing me to lean way out of the passenger window and collect all manner of borrowed trouble. At one point in this frenzy, I found a small bit of quiet and filled it immediately with the sound of my own voice, worrying to God about the trip. Then I got distracted by a memory that filled my heart with gratitude for my little family.
“Thank you for letting me borrow your babies,” I told him. When I later found a piece of paper and I pen I wrote it down and read it again: “Thank you, Lord, for letting me borrow your babies.”
At church the next Sunday the people around me sang sappy songs. My chest started to tighten and one juicy tear fell from my right cheek only my lap. “Who is watching your babies while you are gone?” the music asked. I heard myself answer back. “Jesus is watching my babies. And we also hired someone we love and trust.” Invited to this particular worry His name sounded fresh, strong and promising. Infinitely able. Embarrassingly obvious.
He was always watching them.
He is always watching them.
He will be always watching them.
In the yard.
While they sleep.
When Mama is away.
We were driving home from our daycare provider’s house on Thursday. Mister called from the back of the van, “Mom, do you know what happens if you don’t wash your hands after you go to the bathroom?”
“What happens?” I asked, curious to know what new information he had on a subject over which we have a history of frowny-faced tug-o-wars.
“If you don’t wash your hands when you go potty,” he lengthened out his words for effect, and even though I was facing forward, I could tell by his voice that he was leaning his head into his words with big saucery eyes. “If you don’t wash your hands when you go potty, you get the Throwups.”
“That sounds terrible,” I said. “I guess we better wash our hands.”
I sent up a little thanks for the village and the smarterthanmom-neverheardthatbefore authority of the other people who love my children.
This morning I woke up bleary-eyed and foggy, but with the words to a little praise song spinning around: “Give us clean hearts. Give us clean hands. Let us not turn our soul to another.” Of all the things.
My house is functionally clean, though seldom tidy. I don’t use spot remover on the kid’s clothes, because if I did, I would be living in the scary basement room with our washer and the stain stick; when three children roll down a grassy hill for half a day, there is not really that much that can be done. We take out the garbage when the lid starts popping back up after I push on it. I am quick to pick-up their toothbrushes when I find them by the toilet. I try not to vacuum too often, because all three of them hate the noise and cower, screaming on the top buck under a blanket (which is slightly different than the rest of the day that they spend yelling and giggling on the top bunk under that blanket). I have even tried to convince myself that the ring around the tub looks nice and completes the mood we were going for when we put up the chair rail that separates the blue and brown halves of the wall. I am not proud of any of these things, but confessing them showcases my confusion at waking up singing songs about cleanliness.
“Okay, God,” I said out-loudish. “I will try to hear this.” Clean hearts lead to clean hands. Washing is biblically important, biblically symbolic, part of the communal experience. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (John 13). He also let that woman wash his feet with her tears and expensive perfume (Luke 7). Specific directions for a basin were part of the Tabernacle architecture outlined for Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 30). And included in the directions was a warning that the priests must wash or die. Then there was the accusation by the Pharisees when Jesus’ disciples didn’t follow Moses’ rules. Jesus draws the crowd together and decides the issue: “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (Matthew 15:10-11). “…for the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34.
So, that is it, I guess. I want clean hands. I want a clean heart. I do not want to offer my soul to another. I want to speak a clean word, a true word, a word worth speaking. I want to speak from the heart, words seasoned with Christ. So I guess I will have to hand over the mop and bucket – a fearful act, if I am being honest.
I start to panic. I wince; tense my shoulders. And then I think He said, “You don’t have to be brave. You just have to show up. Let me do the work. I will be gentle. It really is time.”
I headed out to walk a country road and “listen” for God, not because I wanted to, or because I felt lonely for His presence, but more because I knew I was stuck and mad with a thing or two to say to Him. Being stuck and mad with an agenda is not the best way to start a listening walk, I realize. But that is where I was and I want to tell the tale honest.
We talked about my shortcomings in my marriage. We talked about my insecurities about my body. And mostly I just got madder. Finally I stopped and said outloud-ish, “I don’t know what you want from me. I can’t win this one.”
Somehow, in my mid-thirties, I still think this is a game, a contest, a quest with winner and losers and prizes at the end. I have a penny pinned to my chest with my race number. I am hoping to be one of the top fifty finishers. I am hoping for a PR so I set my stopwatch.
But in marriage there are no winners. In parenting there are no winners. In loving, healthy community, there are no winners. The whole paradigm is plum broke. I have constructed all of my relationships, and my image of myself, within standard American binaries.
It has to be this or that.
Right or wrong.
Friend or enemy.
I am either smart, or I am not.
I am either pretty, or I am not.
I am skinny or I am fat.
I am present or far away.
I either know the whole answer or nothing at all.
This is making me tired. And mad. And now I have to rethink everything, including the life of Christ. We grew up singing songs of victory on Easter morning. God wins. Satan looses. Even my faith is built around notions of success. Christ died to win once and for all. Or is that all of the story?
Maybe Christ died and was raised again to break the binary. Before Christ, there was only God and man, and a great cavern between. Christ built a bridge, and bridges are never about winning. Bridges are about relationships, exchanges and access. By the great mystery that is Christ, God draws near and I can enter, trembling, the Holy of Holies. And so can the next guy who believes. No winning. No striving. No more looking out for Number One.
I chewed on all of that as I walked. The silent shadow of a little airplane hugged the hills and I looked up. And what I saw was beautiful. Airplanes don’t flap. They don’t strive. Their pilots learn a little physics, tip their hat to Bernoulli, and let the wind do the work. I want to be an airplane.
"For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ." I Tim. 2:5
Monday, September 19, 2011
I walked in the graveled edge of the road, away from the Monastery where I was attending a silent retreat. I walked, breathing and brushing off the webby mental moss that had taken over. When I had arrived, I had felt God reminded me that this was our special weekend away – just the two of us – a celebration of our life together and a chance to get reacquainted.
On the country road I mentally wrote him a little note. Not too sappy, but something understated with a black-and-white picture on the front of people in love. “I like being married to you.” I said. “You are gentle with me. You are fun. You are trustworthy. We have so many lovely memories together.” I let me mind wander around the fields while my body walked. And I felt like he was really there.
But he did not walk beside me; we were riding a tandem bicycle and I was in back. Riding a tandem is something I have had some experience with. It is something I really enjoy – it is one of the many hobbies my husband and I had before we were outnumbered by children. I like riding on the back of the tandem because it I get to enjoy being outside with the ear of my husband on which I can lay a steady stream of my thoughts. I get to look around at the scenery. I work hard. I get sweaty. I get to make observations and do lots of talking, but when I am on the tandem I never get to see exactly where I am going; what lies ahead is blocked by the back of the one who steers. But the view on either side is often breathtaking, and since I do not have to pay attention to the road, I get to really look – at houses, people, mountains, sunsets, signs, cloud formations, and everything that is stuck to the pavement.
As I thought about life on the back of the tandem, I tucked my head slightly forward, like I would have in “real life” and rested my cheek against His back, letting it shade me from the breeze and the sun. I breathed in the aroma of outdoor exercise – sweat, wind, skin, chain grease and fabric softener. I closed my eyes and said to Him, “I like it back here. Thanks for driving. Let me know if you see any potholes.”
“…He leads me…” Psalm 23
Friday, September 2, 2011
Yesterday we celebrated Forever Family Day. It is our family's own little holiday where we remember that by marriage, adoption, birth and the grace of God, we became an “us”, and that process and covenant is something worth celebrating. Sis wrapped up things we already had and gave them to us as gifts. Mister chose the balloons. Peanut ran the impromptu hallway relay races naked, and everyone laughed until we cried. It was a good day.
Often, when I feel really grateful, I think of the second book to the Corinthians, where the writer bursts out in praise to God for his indescribable gift. Because I love that verse and because the language is overly familiar, I looked up a parallel translation from Eugene Peterson. The Message says that generosity to others produces in the giver an “abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings [to] everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they'll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!” (9:12-15).
And that is our story. We have been carried, buoyed, fed and loved by so many generous hearts. And so we understand that a celebration of “us” involves a desperate gratitude for the village that has made us who we are and has prayed us into being.
So, my heart says, “Thank you, Jesus, for making us a family. And thank you, Jesus, for the circle.”
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Today I asked my son to color a picture for his birth mother. I am preparing to send her some photos and I think he is old enough to participate in that process. I don’t plan to read him the letter I wrote. But if I were her, I would want to see the things his amazing little mind does with a pen, and see the way he prints his name in large, wiggly block letters that slope off the page. So I asked him to draw something. He was hesitant, but finally conceded when I suggested he could sit with me at my desk – the one that is ineverywayofflimits every other day. So I typed and he drew. Then he heard that his dad was outside with tools and he disappeared.
When I found him later helping his daddy, I asked him to tell Dad what we had been up to, hoping to encourage him to think and talk more about the other mama in our lives. “Who you making a picture for, Mister?” my husband asked. “I am making a picture for the girl who held me in her tummy,” he answered. He said it sweetly and with some reverence. Holding someone in your tummy is a big deal. And I love his choice of words. She did hold him. Close. Tenderly. As long as she could. It was a good choice of words.
But she did more that hold him in her tummy. She was his mother. And that is something that hurts my little man a little too much to talk about right now. It is hard enough for him, I think, to make space for a second woman who bravely and lovingly gave him the gift of life. But pregnancy is not parenting. The event of birth is not parenting. Parenting is making food and washing clothes and singing songs and kissing bloody knees. Opening up his heart to the truth that someone else loved him in that way pushes his little heart to the edge of a deep canyon where parents sometimes disappear for reasons that just aren’t good enough. Today my son was willing to let someone love him and hold him before he was born. But he was not willing to draw a picture for a mama.
All of this silently breaks my heart. All of it. She is an amazing woman who did her best and then made a sacrifice I shudder to think about. She was his mother. And she was good at it. She loved him and he loved her back. And all of that, at least today, was too much.
Mister is teaching me that sometimes we can only hold fragments of the whole. And that is okay. Even God knows that we can’t be left alone with all the truth in one day: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” John 16:12.
So I will write the letter. And he will draw the picture. And we will pray that those two pieces of paper, fashioned in love, find their way into the hands he and I both secretly dream about when we are sleeping.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
The midday sun called giant drops of sweat from my brow as I attempted to weed the steep, rocky and neglected slope of our backyard. As I wrenched the weed-trees from the hard, dry dirt I took a birds-eye view on my own bent back. Years of intermittent attention to the yard trains the eye to know which weeds will require a dandelion puller to coax the roots up and which ones, tender and not yet tangled with the soil can be pinched out with ease. Weeds growing in the shade are easily plucked, having grown lazy in the protection of larger things. The ones which have had time to grow under the life-giving, yet cruel, eye of the sun take more work; they have struggled to survive and have sent their roots down deep.
There were lots of those kind.
So, as I struggled against the things I let grow, I thought about weeds and what they teach me about fear and hate.
Those ugly twins also grow in places were nothing else seems able. They put down roots fast, and pop up, unwanted, in the corners of the gardens I neglect. They flower boldly in the sun, and are ever-focused on sewing their own poisonous seed, usually with great success. Sometimes, like the weed-trees that are ubiquitous around our town, they decorate themselves with delicate flowers that color the hillside misleadingly in Spring. Then, the purple and pink petals give way to thorny stocks and wide, green leaves, which sting and scratch my arms in Summer.
Working in the yard today to stem the tide of unwanted thorns and thistles sent my mind to the Rwandese sisters we met at the Pineapple Cooperative. On the day we visited they had just elected a new leader. They told us through an interpreter that they had been having some problems. The interpreter later explained that the root of much of the conflict in the cooperative was deeply social and deeply personal. The farm has been built and is kept up by Hutu and Tutsi women, and the scars of genocide tug and rip in the closeness of community. The seeds of healing, where they can be found, send up fragile, tender shoots. Only some are blessed with fertile soil and an accommodating sun. Others are trampled. Some wither, break and blow away.
Thinking about those women working side by side has me thinking again about community and our profound misunderstanding of it here, at least in my neighborhood. The bedrock individualism that defines us, makes it impossible for us to understand or even imagine the lives of those we do not know or conceive of how our lives, in actuality, are tethered together with unbreakable cords. Thinking again about those women is challenging the basic premise of my “me”-ness. Can I really exist as a soul before God, without responsibility to others? Is there, in the end, any part of me that does not grow out of someone or something else? If I accept that I am a small part of something larger – how big is bigger? That is not a question I really want to ask; or at least not an answer on which I am really willing to wait.
But what these women are teaching me is that the land needs to be farmed. The babies need to be fed. The people need to be healed. And those tasks must be met with linked arms. As Reuben Welch says, we really do need each other. And that need leads us to places of contact that blister. Father Gregory Boyle sees that “finding some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God.” And I am starting to see, to my great horror, shame and joy that I have walked in both of those sets of shoes.
I remember the first time I heard the hymn The Love of God. It warmed my bones and made them hungry for the grandeur of God. Thy hymn was written by Frederick Lehman, with lyrics based on the Jewish poem Haddamut by Ben Isaac Nehorai, from the Aramaic, circa 1050. Lehman says that the lines of the third stanza (my favorite) were found scribbled on a wall of an insane asylum. They paint a picture of God’s love that I could not have imagined:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
When I hear that hymn, I cry because it reminds me that the love of God is terrifyingly immense; big enough and strong enough and gentle enough to cover women who farm with the wives of men who killed their brothers, husbands and children. And yet the love of God is close, like a breeze, running over the upturned face of a man locked away for spilling the contents of his tortured mind. The love of God is bigger than my biggest fear and deeper than the roots of the things I hate in secret. It is intimately close, like sweat on my skin. It can grow beautiful things in rocky soil.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:11-12
Thursday, August 4, 2011
The house is quiet – three grouchy kids in three separate rooms, silent if not sleeping. I sit down with a cup of mostly decaf and a bible study I want to finish before the end of summer and the start of school. I close my eyes to quiet my spirit, open myself up, find the part of me that recognizes that there is more going on in this room than furniture. But the little me that is spiritually sensitive is sometimes hard to find, harder as the day moved toward noon, nearly impossible to coax out of hiding after lunchtime.
But this is the hour that I have and I want to spend it in renewal. So I close my eyes and try to breathe. But today, for the third time this week, when I close my eyes I see something bizarre, unnerving, altogether uninvited. And since I have seen it three times, I think it is time for me to sit, write, and hopefully hear what it is my spirit is trying to say.
This is what I see when I close my eyes and attempt to prepare myself for prayer – a woman (me, I guess) shaking the metal bars of her cell with the full weight of her body. She is yelling, but there is no sound. I don’t know what to do with her, so I just open my eyes when I see her and tell God what we will have to start the study without a proper spirit. The first time I saw her I think I said something like, “So, clearly my heart is not in the right place, but I think I can learn anyway. Do your best, God.” The second time I saw her, I sighed. And today I just closed the bible study and picked up my pencil.
I know I am prone to anxiety. I know last August, as summer was stretched to its last translucent threads and I thought about starting school again I could not find my pulse. It is August again, but this year I have armed myself with Psalm 131, which I have been wearing like a pair of those functionally hideous oversized wrap-around sunglasses (only old people wear) that fit right over everyday spectacles. I have been wearing those verses like an amulet, a shield. They have been a parasol to shade my fragile spirit from borrowed troubles. I sleep with them like a scrap of baby blanket. I drink them with my coffee. “I have not concerned myself with great matters . . . like a weaned child with its mother I am content . . . put your hope in the Lord.”
But just when I was getting familiar with the peace of resting in the lap of God, I headed down to the maximum-security prison where I am sometimes a guest teacher. The privilege of spending time with writers in prison is humbling, deeply real, and often raw. It is an opportunity I hold loosely and with great reverence. The men who share their writing with me do so bravely and at some cost. They bare their souls, which are often more fragile than we might expect. They tell of childhoods stolen, lost and wasted. They tell of parents violent, addicted, and absent. They remember loves lost, obscured, imagined. They respond to each other’s writing with respect and dignity. They show me what community looks like when it grows delicate and green in the places where the concrete has cracked and the wind has swept a little soil into jagged bits of promise.
It is my honor to spend some time with these men. But herein lies the fundamental problem with witnessing humanity in the places where it stretches out an unlikely hand. The hand becomes human. Suddenly it looks like mine. Suddenly it feels familiar. Suddenly my stomach turns as I play back the way I walk to the classroom without making eye contact with the men in phone booth sized cages waiting for whatever men in phone booth sized cages wait for. And the way I ignore the attention of the blue shirts who hang on the fence outside the sally port. When I am in the classroom, I feel hope and the energy of a dozen muses zings around the room like bits of light through a prism. And every time I leave and fumble for my car keys in the parking lot I want to scream.
So maybe that is who I see when I close my eyes – me screaming and shaking the bars, unable to really process my time inside. Or maybe it is something else. I really don’t know. But I know she wants to be heard. I know she wants out. Or maybe she wants in. And I, mostly, want her to go away because she reminds me that I am powerless on my own. She reminds me that “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Her silent screaming works like acid on the fabric of the little shelter I have built for myself.
Since I can’t seem to shake her, I pray and ask God to go with me into that little space where she is standing, knuckles twisted and bleeding around bars that will not bend. I ask Him to bring along the promise of His comfort and His strength. I ask Him to sing to her, not so that she will forget what it is that has her so upset, but that she will find a road through it while she is still tethered to reality.
I go around the quiet house to invite the big kids out of their rooms. Mister pretends he is sleeping – lying on his back with folded arms and a smirk. He snores when he sleeps and always ends up on his tummy, so the act is not convincing. Sis is downstairs, having migrated from the couch to the whiteboard where I find her drawing.
“Wow, that looks great,” I say.
“Yah,” she agrees. “What does realistic mean?”
“It means something looks like it really is in real life.”
“I thought it meant that it was true. Because this drawing is realistic. I really was just sitting here thinking about space camp then I went and drew myself doing that exact thing.”
Realistic. Reality. Realness. It had not been five minutes since I had used that word. And here she was, drawing and reminding me of what is real and what reality looks like to a young mind. Reality means that rosy cheeks are represented by dark circles of marker. Reality means that thoughts hang around above our heads in little bubbled pictographs. A realistic drawing is one where the artist gives a true representation to the contents of her mind.
So what am I to learn here? This home, these babies, the dishes in the sink are real. So are the phone booth cages and the signs that say 'No Warning Shots Will be Fired'. Trying to hold these two places in my mind at the same time feels impossible. But I feel called to bear witness to more of this world than what transpires in my home. And so I ask for grace and strength to see without despair and be faithful to the realities that open up before me – here and there.
I took a picture the other day of a pair of brightly perfect pink Gerbera daisies is a turquoise vase. I liked it so well I set it as my Facebook profile picture. But tonight, instead of sleeping, I lay awake in my bed thinking about how unlike the pink Gerberas I am and I think the photo will have to be changed. Granted the World Wide Web is all about false advertising, but there is just something unsettling untrue about the Gerbera as it hangs to the left of the things I post in cyberspace. I can’t relate to the perfect pinkness or the silky petals. I can’t pretend I wear clean clothes every day. In fact, I can’t even make it to a second cup of coffee without realizing my total inability to parent the sticky little people that swarm, hover and sometimes sting each other around my knees. So I think the picture will have to go.
I think I will try thinking of myself as a handful of green olives, subdued and melancholy with a flavor that can’t be appreciated until adulthood. Olives have pits so you have to be gentle when you eat them, lest they chip a tooth. They live in a briny jar that can keep them fresh almost forever. Yes. I think I want to be an olive. Olives give me hope that someday the eldest will look back fondly and see that I was so wise and helpful all these years.
Tomorrow I think I will offer one to Mister just for the shear satisfaction of watching him turn up his nose and tell me how things that are green make him cough and pitch his head forward in a way that is not his fault. I will remember that my job is not always supposed to be fun. I will remember that these children have been given to me for a season to love, cherish and grow, which it turns out makes me hot, tired and mad. And then I will eat a small bowl of olives and let the briny juice run down my fingers, thinking about how good things get better with age.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
This is my Grandma Jeanne. She lives with my parents so I get to see her when I visit them. I can’t even begin to say anything intelligent about her amazing faith, faithful life, or zest for living. I really don’t want to even try. But she is on my heart these days because her memory is chewing away at its own edges with increasing voracity and the reality of what that means burns long and hot in my chest.
My grandpa had a heart attack and died decades ago while cutting the base off of their Christmas tree. He had already made gifts and signed the cards. She was left, shockingly, during Advent with all of retirement ahead of her and a boat of a car only he would drive.
She had been an only child whose address changed often as she packed and unpacked between the homes of her aunts. The early years had not been generous, but her marriage had given her a husband to dote on, four children and a hallway full of 8x10s. Home was everything.
Now, my dad tells me, sometimes he finds her sitting as the sun sets in the living room reading the same page of the paper over and over, tired with wrinkles around her eyes pinched slightly in fear.
“It nighttime, Grandma.” He says.
“Do I have a bed here?” She asked.
Of her own.
She does not remember where it is or even if there is one for her. This breaks my heart.
Thinking about Grandma Jeanne and her crumbling mind always leads me back to early morning images of her returning from the one-mile walk around our neighborhood which she took almost every morning between cups of coffee. One day, as she was coming in, she turning and explained to me what it was she was up to as she made left turns around the grid of suburbs where my parents live.
“When I walk, I pray for my grandchildren by name,” she told me.
And I suddenly knew with great assurance that she had been holding me up all those years. I had felt her prayer. Known it. Rested in it, only to have it finally pointed out.
As I look at my grandma now I wonder about those daily prayers. Does she still pray for us? Can a woman still remember to pray even when she can’t remember if this world has a room for her? Where do the pieces of our minds, laid slowly to rest, go when they are gone? Do they spin and twirl like a feather on the wind, ahead to heaven where they are collected in anticipation of a new body?
I think maybe they do. I think maybe treasured scraps and corners of my grandma's mind are already with Jesus. And I am almost sure that the very breath in the lungs of this woman is prayer. Even if she does not know she is praying for me, I think her heart remembers as it pumps. Because her family is her life. And her heart is strong.