Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Girl Who Held Me

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

A Sunny Farewell

Thank you, Summer. You were wonderful. Let's do it again next year.

We're off to school...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Weeds, Pineapples and Love Bigger than Big

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


3:00 PM
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.

4:00 PM
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

Grandma Jeanne

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.

A bed.
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.