Thursday, December 29, 2016


Life just wasn’t making sense that day. Disorientation and misunderstandings and general malaise hung about, shadowing and distorting everything. I’d yelled viciously at my kids, spoke harshly to my husband, and couldn’t seem to flake off the ugly, encrusted callous of resentment that sheathed my heart. It felt like it would take a sledgehammer this time to break open again. I was so weary, blearily and blindly stumbling and stagnating in a haze. I needed thundering capitulation, fire in my belly, a total rebirth. I needed light in my eyes.

So I told my husband in my best closed-for-negotiation declarative voice that I needed to go on a bike ride. Looks like rain, he said. I didn’t care. The screen door had barely slammed behind me when I set off, two wheels grinding and skidding over gravel. I pedaled furiously and angrily over the blacktop of the rural county road where we lived. I headed away from town, into the wide open vistas of the eastern Colorado high plains, where brittle scrub brush and the loneliest trees in the world and the most evil weed known to man, the “goat’s head”, scrabbled out a living for themselves.

I could never quite get used to this landscape, which felt utterly alien to me, having grown up deep in the woods of Missouri where I waded in the creek and hid among the trees with a child’s delight for secret spaces. Here there was nowhere to hide, from God or man or coyotes. Every night their howls chorused in a round, piggybacking on one another ominously as their hunt began. I swear I heard the terrified, strangulated cries of something that they’d caught being devoured one night. These plains were somehow more wild and savage than the forest or even the mountains.

But I rode and rode on the deserted highway. And I started to complain, venomously. At first it was aimless, to no one in particular, just to myself, I suppose. And then I started railing against God. I believe we’re allowed to do that. I believe that even more than praise, God wants Raw. God wants Real. And I believe he loves us so much that he will provoke it out of us before he’ll let us die behind our masks.  

So I railed and ranted and expelled all the acrid bile I’d been suppressing. The sky blackened along with my mood and I rode on, a breeze at my back. Where are you, I asked God? Can you show up just once, tangibly, unmistakably, vividly? Why do I feel this way? Why has the joy been siphoned out of motherhood, my sense of wonder deadened, the color leeched out of my life?

A car roared past once or twice, giving me a wide berth, but otherwise I was totally alone. After half an hour of desperate raving into the silent air, which was gravid with the tension of the looming storm, I gave up. This is futile, I told myself. Pointless. I’m going nowhere.

I decided to go back. I turned in a wide arc on the road and suddenly it was upon me: stinging rain propelled by a unforgiving wind, assaulting me as the effort to pedal the bike increased tenfold. Lightning rifted the map of the sky like a phantom white river and the torrent began, as though the lightning itself had torn open the womb of the clouds. It was like I’d turned my face from day and immediately been hurled into the night. I cursed as my leg muscles began to burn and stooped my head and stopped every thirty seconds to wipe raindrops from my glasses before realizing it was a Sisyphean exercise. I was going to get sopping, soaking wet, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was nakedly exposed on those shelterless, barren plains, a good 3 miles from my house with torrential rain crashing down on me. My teeth chattered and the wind was relentlessly antagonizing me like a single-minded, endlessly resourceful villain, intent on nothing but my demise. And I was taking it all very, very personally.

I couldn’t believe it. Was this my answer? It felt like a challenge, and I was ready to meet it. I was all spite and anger and bitterness. I was Lieutenant Dan hanging from the mast with one arm waving free, cavalierly hurling insults into the storm, taunting and asking for more. I was gloriously hysterical. I laughed at the absurdity of my predicament while at the same time tears of sorrow and futility poured down my cheeks, rivulets quickly swallowed by the glut of rain that already obscured my vision. Darkness visible, darkness risible. I’d been wrenched from my finger’s hold at the end of my rope and was in total freefall.  

I was so busy squinting at the road ahead of me that I didn’t see it until it was fully formed, vivid and color-saturated but at the same time ethereal and otherworldly. It arced above me, framing a heavenly dome over the road ahead, as though it were heralding the entrance to Oz or Vahalla or the Garden of Eden. I braked my bicycle and planted my feet on either side and stared up in awe. In the space of a few seconds, it seemed, the torrent had been tamed to a fine sprinkle, a refreshing spray.

There it was: a perfect double rainbow. A perfect curve, linking treasure to treasure, wedding heaven and earth.

I stood there for a good five minutes, wonderstruck and stultified. A few times I looked around for another sign of human life, incredulous that no one else was there to witness this marvel. There was no one. No cars, no one. A few cattle ruminated lazily in the field, a few birds tentatively sang and, invisibly, slugs and ants and insects and voles worked or slept in secret lightless places below the ground. Just all of creation and me: living, breathing, luxuriating in the majesty of the One who made us.

We are the made-in-the-image ones, the remarkable animals called “human” who can reflect, can know, can marvel, can wonder at the deep mystery and deep majesty of it all. This was my rainbow. Mine. I felt like I had just been baptized again. The world exploded anew with prismatic color and burgeoning beauty and humming aliveness and I knew I had shed the callous husk that had been suffocating my heart. I smiled and laughed and awed at this undeserved extravagant gift, bestowed on me when I’d been nothing but ungrateful.

Lesslie Newbigin said that the ineffable mystery of God is not so much a metaphysical one that arises from pondering the vastness of things as it is a moral one. “It is the mystery of a holiness that can yet embrace the unholy,” he said. The mystery of the vastness is ever present, to be sure - as one of my favorite poets, David Berman, says: “The sea is always there to make you feel stupid.” But it is indeed the sense of lush, opulent generosity - undeserved, unearned, and sometimes even unasked for, yet rained down upon us - that lies at the very crux of the universe.

Without wonder, our souls grow faint. We desperately need the refreshment of our own personal rainbow. Sometimes it does come from the stars, the sky, the ocean. Sometimes is comes from within our most treasured relationships. And often it comes in completely unexpected circumstances, halting us in our grumbling, head-down, belabored steps. Although it is indeed a gift and we don’t necessarily control when it befalls us, I believe we can cultivate our hearts to receive it.

For me, the sense of awe and delight that was so native to childhood barely survived the postured jadedness of adolescence. It was nothing more than a whisper somewhere deep inside me, a rumor of lands of milk and honey long since forgotten. Watching our children’s awe at the most fundamental things - the things we don’t even see anymore because they’ve so far receded into life’s taken-for-granted background - is so pure and delightful and sweet. But I believe we’re called even higher, to a mature sense of wonder that sees the holiness underpinning the world and the people surrounding us, the eternal holiness that animates and fructifies and bespeaks life. And at the core of this wonder is hope - not even directional or specific hope, but pervasive hope, wild hope, indestructible hope. A hope like that can only flourish when we listen to the call of wonder - a call that says stop, be still, look around, listen. There could be a double rainbow right in front of you, calling you home.

An edited version of this article was originally published in MOPS International's Hello, Dearest Winter 2017 magazine. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ladies of the Sand and Sage

(I had a hard time finding a suitable visual to accompany this post. Hopefully this particular selection will become meaningful by the conclusion!)

I don’t belong here, I thought to myself while politely nibbling on a store-bought sugar cookie with industrial-strength icing. Across the table there was diabetic Dee, with her cantankerous rants about the endless parade of incompetent doctors she had to see. She’d sent tact packing long ago - probably with some choice words on its way out - and wasn’t afraid to tell me repeatedly that my long-haired son needed a haircut. Then there was petite Elva, whose arthritis had contorted her hands and whose lack of hearing constantly prompted her to ask me to speak up. There was Betty, who yearned for more talk of sanctification and what she called “old time religion”. There was mildly autistic Norma, who was prone to violent coughing fits. She had a historical feud with strong-willed Dee, and current relations were tenuous. There was Susan, who always left early to return to her job at Wal-mart and whose mother had been fighting cancer for years. And then there was Ellen, my dear neighbor, who, in her cheerfully and relentlessly persuasive way, had talked me into coming to what I affectionately (eventually, anyway) called “Old Ladies’ Bible Study”. We’d moved to a completely unfamiliar rural area nine hours from our native Kansas City, and Ellen had quickly gathered me under her wing. She’d invited us to play cards and marbles and taught me such delightful new-to-me sayings such as “show ‘em whose hog ate the cabbage!” and the infinitely wise “even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes”. Steven and I puzzled over that one - do hogs even like acorns? - but we quickly absorbed it into our vocabulary.

But Ellen had also somewhat strong-armed me into joining Old Ladies’ Bible Study, making a strong sales pitch that didn’t ultimately resemble the actual product. I don’t belong here, I told myself again. Weeks of corseted resentment now strained against my very best show of forced politesse. The pride and arrogance that festered beneath my facade of humility began to say terrible things. I wasn’t old, first of all. I wasn’t sick. I belonged among youngish, hip people, I told myself - people who know what kombucha is, at the very least! But fine, FINE, I thought. Maybe there is indeed a silver lining: maybe they can learn something from me! (Did you hear that? It sounded like radiant, divine peals of laughter, all melody and light, holy howls spilling forth from the belly of God himself. WEIRD.)

So I soldiered on. I kept showing up. And showing up. Biding my time, I thought. Gracing them with my semi-youthful presence. For weeks, my stubborn eyes refused to see and my bitterness relented to a background hum of adolescent-grade ennui. And then something very strange began to happen. I started to love these women. Week after week as they shared their vulnerabilities, their joys, and their sorrows, I started to see them and meet them as God’s beloved. Maybe it was when Dee, still scarred from her husband’s abandonment decades earlier, tearfully shared the story of her high school sweetheart showing up at her door one day out of nowhere. “I forgot what it felt like to feel loved by someone,” she said. Or maybe it was when Susan emphatically pounded the table in front of her and said, as her voice cracked, “This right here is my church. It’s here with you ladies.” Or maybe it was when Norma also broke down in tears one morning, her face grimacing in anger and pain, shouting “Just look at my teeth! I’m ugly! I know I’m ugly!” The next day I mailed her a letter - her favored means of communication - reminding her just how beloved and beautiful she is to God. At the following study, she hugged me, and I knew I’d been accepted into her sphere of trust. The hug was wooden and her eyes averted after she gave it, but it was incredibly precious to me because I knew hugs from Norma were neither profligate nor did they come cheap.

I was ashamed. I’d committed the sin of the Pharisee for the billionth time in my life and been blind to it for the billionth time. Deep down, I had believed I was better than them, and condescendingly believed only I had something to offer them while failing to see how much they had to offer me. “Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life,” Henri Nouwen said. I hadn’t paid attention at all, and instead shut my eyes and stuck my fingers in my ears and keened an obnoxious and ridiculous tune of snobbery. Is there anything more laughably bizarre than snobbery? But God, he is so very good. He chose the foolish things to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame the strong. Those who I thought were last were, in fact, first. But God loves us too much to allow us to languish in the hell of arrogance, the prison of pride. The lozenge of humility is bitter at first, but gives way to the richest sweetness. And savoriness, if you please. We’re talking the Everlasting Gobstopper here. Jesus said those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. I suppose it’s possible to white-knuckle our pride and resist the humbling, but then we lock ourselves out of love.

Now when I think of how often the refrain of “I don’t belong here” flitted through my mind during those early months, I think of that Stephen Stills song “Love the One You’re With”. Yes, it’s overplayed and we’ve all heard it a thousand times but I like it, and yet its lyrics - particularly the chorus - I’ve always found at best inane and at worst downright heretical. Heretical because the ideas of soulmates and destiny have been foundational to my belief system in the past (If you can’t be with the one you love?! But that’s silly! I shriek). And in a way, they still are - but I hope I’ve come to a more holy understanding: you can indeed be with the one(s) you love, because the ones you’re with are the ones you’re meant to love.

He works through us to heal us, to give us the gift of communion with him and to feel his presence and taste his mercy. Jesus is here. Not yet in full, but he’s here. I know it, because I’ve seen it and felt it and breathed it. I came to that small circle of women believing I was superior, because of my relative hipness, because of my urbanity, because I’d read some theology. How little these things actually mean! I’m thankful for the merciful humbling, thankful for the privilege of sharing with these women, for receiving such unconditional kindness and hospitality and warmth and, finally, being able to give it in return. I’m thankful I was granted a measure of seeing - real seeing - that broke through the darkness of my ignorance and pretension. But that’s grace for you - even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why we homeschool, in too many words

First: I’m not a homeschooling zealot. I was dramatically (and, I hope, permanently) disenchanted of my brief love affair with zealotry regarding parenting choices years ago. But that’s another story.

I do believe there are right and wrong choices, yes, but when it comes to somewhat amoral decisions such as how your child is educated, certainty is not really an available posture. The impossibility of knowing the outcome of the choice dislodges certainty and makes it illusory at best. Public school, private school, homeschool… they are indeed quite different. Different formational experiences. We all like to think there’s some kind of level of reason outside of time and space, independent of particularity, to which we can appeal and which issues absolute certainty. That’s our bothersome Enlightenment brain rearing its bewigged, eminently reasonable head again. I’m not referring to trusting God - that’s faith, which is not coterminal with objective certainty, a thing that doesn’t exist, as much as we like to believe it does. I’m talking about the idea that we can appeal to some standard in order to be absolutely certain that a given decision is right, independent of trust in God and the Holy Spirit to lead us. The short answer is that we can’t.

(panicked shriek of horror)

And so, if I belabor my decision too much, I start to freak out. I start trying to use the internet as some kind of oracle to validate my choice (trying to use the internet in this manner is a voidish rabbit hole if there ever was one, because what is the internet but a cacophony of fallible human voices, each vying for supremacy in a neverending welter of grotesquely profligate verbiage? Wait, why I am writing this and publishing it on the internet again?).

I wince and feel a small bud of fear start to unfurl in my belly when reading testimonies of homeschooled children who are now adults and blame their home education for things such as social anxiety, listlessness and ineptitude. Apparently there are those out there who feel they are socially leperous, anxiety-ridden, malformed and misinformed, yet are simultaneously conscious enough of their inability to function to blame said inability on their homeschooling and seethe with burning hatred for the fools who spawned them into this cruel world.

But the same fear blossoms when I read or hear victim stories of the relentless, viperous bullying that seems rampant in schools. I fear Izzy and Arrow will be shaped by others’ mean-spirited words, mired in the pit of our hypersexed and useless pop culture, so drawn daily into the drama of the machinations of the school caste system that an education won’t happen at all. I fear they won’t develop independently, won’t have time to develop their gifts, will become overly identified with the “labeling” that springs from good and bad grades or test scores. I worry school would cripple rather than nurture them.

I have thoughtful friends who send their kids to school, and their reasons generally seem legitimate, well-reasoned and good to me. I have thoughtful friends who homeschool, and their reasons also generally seem legitimate, well-reasoned and good to me. I know very devoted public school teachers who work very hard and have a deep and real love for the little souls in their care. I personally had a couple of teachers like that, but also some who were apathetic and did the bare minimum required of them, and sometimes not even that - perhaps because of burnout from overwork and underpayment - but were negligent teachers just the same. It’s a most troubling impasse. So I start pleading with God for a definitive answer and then looking to the skies for a stone slab to fall with either “yes” or “no” engraved upon it. I start wondering where I can find a set of urim and thummim. But nothing can give a definitive answer. Even when I appeal to God in prayer, never does He seem to give me a definitive answer on this question in the way I define and desire definitiveness.  

And yet, and yet… I have to admit the chorus of “Freedom” by George Michael resounded through my head when, en route to that sacred space known as The Library, we drove past the full school parking lot (just a block from our new home) on the first day of school in our district. Freedom, sweet freedom! Freedom from the endless testing, the herding, the distractions, the generalized dread that every school day engendered in me as a child.

In kindergarten, my teacher was Mrs. Whipple, she of the vivid red lipstick and besequined sweaters for every occasion. I don’t remember learning a great deal in an academic sense - I was already reading - but there was plenty of play and frivolity and made-up words like “conkywampus”, thanks to Mrs. Whipple. We all adored her. Kindergarten was only a half-day, and each morning just before noon my mom would pick me up and I’d ride home to a lunch of Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli while watching Sesame Street. Life was very, very good. It was golden.

Then came first grade. My teacher was Mrs. Michaelson, of the floor-length and lace-collared schoolmarm dresses and the tensely permed hair. Everything about her suggested an austerity that simply would not humor such things as fun and whimsy. I didn’t jibe with her and yet she wasn’t necessarily the source of my misery. Suddenly, I hated school. I hated everything about it - the constant forced socialization, the lack of reading time, the lack of privacy. There was also something beyond words about it that sucked the joy from my nascent mind and tender little heart.

An inexplicable dread would begin fermenting in my gut upon awakening and realizing it was not a Saturday or Sunday morning. I would contrive some kind of crisis in order to miss the bus and my mom or dad would be forced to drive me, weepy and inconsolable, to the school parking lot where I’d beg them, in vain, not to make me go. Eventually they took me to a psychologist or psychiatrist and all I remember is that I thought he was handsome like a Disney prince which made the whole ordeal ten times worse and I sat there staring hard at the cumulus of wadded-up tissues in my lap and was mostly silent or gave monosyllabic answers as tears rolled down my cheeks.

Summer came, and once again I was allowed to revel in the freedom of days that were my own. Summer is still my favorite season. But 2nd grade loomed, like a doom-portending dust storm on the horizon, slowly, almost imperceptibly creeping nearer. It was only June and then suddenly it was not and you realized you hadn’t eyed the horizon for some time and there it was, nearly upon you, the coming school year, intent on ruining the final vestiges of summer fun with its villainous whispers of imprisoned days and pointless busy work.

And so it went. Each school year, I became slightly more adept at navigating this world I vehemently disliked. 5th grade was notable, not for its educational richness (academics were a mere formality and background to socializing), but for the “dating” that began that year (which was really only in name; I was a dork but as far as I know no one was actually going anywhere together). As for middle school: let us never speak of it again! High school, eh. I made treasured friendships that have endured to this day, and did have a couple of brilliant teachers… but the environment of “school” still felt stifling. I am reminded of one time a couple years ago when we were playing Pictionary with a group of friends in Lamar, one of whom had twin teenaged sons. Steven was drawing something that must have appeared to be an incarcerated boil because one of the twins yelled “zit prison!” which was piggybacked by a retort from his twin: “high school!” Ah, yes. Zit prison, how apt.

I feel I should say at this point that this is entirely my experience as I perceived it then. It may sound spectacularly hyperbolic to some, but it was real to me. I passionately loathed school. My husband did not. I have friends who did not. So, am I projecting onto my children? Possibly. I make every effort not to vilify school to them, though, and have made it clear they’re welcome to try it eventually if and when they desire. Am I imposing my will on my children? Yes, absolutely. That’s impossible not to do, and furthermore would be undesirable. To do so would be some kind of philosophical construct - “neutrality parenting” (an absurd neologism I’ll go ahead and coin) - that would not, and could not, make any substantial contact with reality. We live in a world of particularity and embodiment, and it is good. We make decisions for our children that will be heavily formational. We make them actively or passively, but it’s impossible to avoid making them.

Inextricable from this decision-making business is cost. There is a cost for every choice, no matter how good, thoughtful, prayed-over, read about, considered, analyzed, or urim-and-thummimed to death.  I tend to use excessive weighing of pros and cons as a deflective tactic to avoid actually making a decision. At some point, the weighing must end. And we must rest in our decision - and, if that decision requires further work on our part (as homeschooling most certainly does), invest ourselves in that work without reservation.  

So, we decided to homeschool. Why this decision, above the other? Because of my experience. Because while I believe it’s good to be exposed to many different people, challenging people even, but I’m not sure the right time is ages 5 or 6 is the right time for doing that independently for many hours 5 days a week, as the powers that be tell us it is. Because I want my children to be firmly rooted in their sacred belovedness and worth and the sacred belovedness and worth of every single person that has ever lived and will ever live before they venture out independently into a world that seems bent on belying that truth. Because I believe institutions are by nature not hospitable environments for the human soul; because they thrive only insofar as relationships can grow within - and sometimes in spite of - them. Because most of the time, I love having my children at home; I love learning together and I treasure watching them bloom. Because I am open to change if it quits working. Because I believe in mercy and grace and that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him. Because, over and over again, God has told us to not be afraid.

I don’t sound very sure about my decision, do I? The truth is I’m not, at least not every single day. Some days sparkle with the crystalline fruit of wonderful books, learning with ease and curiosity and engagement, the immediacy of Christ's nearness and the luminous here-and-nowness which accompanies it. Love is the engine and it makes everything shine. Other days, it feels like nothing is working and we just give up and go to the library. I hope my children will be glad we made this choice, but I have to live with the possibility that they won’t be. And yet, there is nothing left for me but to trust, and test the fruit, and wait, and enjoy the nectar of daily life in the meantime.

And it is, indeed, nectarous (a word I made up and use here to mean "of, like, or pertaining to nectar" because one of those small handful of great teachers I had told us we have complete and unrestricted license to make up words).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Birth and the Passion of Mary

“All the ways old aren’t new.
Still the only way past is through.

Little stars that form Orion’s belt,
Before ziggy rat we wept and knelt.

Though sweetness bled from our one tongue,
Like bare nerves plucked, that passage stung.

The cleaving of the cleft is near.
The dust mote’s sigh, the nebula’s tear.

For the billionth time since time began,
Our Savior pup will be born again.

I wrote this poem while I was pregnant with Arrow. At the time, I was tiptoeing warily toward Christ but was still easily distracted by detours, various new-age esoterica I’d been dabbling in for years, and, of course, my own pride and ego. “Ziggy Rat” was my affectionately named ziggurat model, expertly hewn by my father-in-law, that I’d adorned with a rainbow pattern and used as an altar in our living room. So, while it’s theologically inaccurate to say Christ is born again and again with each birth, I’m going to let the poem stand, not the least because I can’t think of a better rhyming couplet at the moment. The coming of Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us, the confounding mystery and majesty that lies at the crux of the universe, was exceptional in a way that no other birth has ever been exceptional. And yet, in some resonant, refractive way, I believe every birth is miraculous. Birth itself echoes the Christological resonance of all creation: we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it won’t produce a harvest. Because for him and by him all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made, literally everything is a recapitulation of Jesus’ death and rebirth. Everything. And giving birth itself contains a residue of death, of trauma, of pain so intense the rational mind can’t contain it. Both times have been like that for me, and neither time did I go willingly.

Before Izzy was born, I was blithely ignorant (and haughty in that ignorance) of what awaited me in giving birth. I read books and watched documentaries and obnoxiously proclaimed to anyone who would listen that I was a planning a natural birth. Most people would smile sweetly and nod, some would roll their eyes and guffaw and say something like “just you wait”, while I frowned in offense. Only one of my co-workers at the time, Alberta - a woman in her 60s who had borne three children - penetrated my defenses and let my own nascent fears - the ones I tried to conceal with arrogance - ricochet brilliantly back on me. Alberta was real. She was so very real, and I loved her. One morning as I climbed the stairs slowly behind her - she had a bad hip that made her limp - I asked her if I could help her at all. She turned on me swiftly, an eyebrow raised in amusement and incredulity, and said “What you gon do? Push on my behind?”

“So, Alberta,” I began one afternoon when I was about six or seven months pregnant with Izzy. “I heard labor just feels like really bad menstrual cramps, is that true?” Her smile was barely perceptible. She was too kind to laugh at me, and too honest to pacify me with lies. She shook her head, just, staring at me all the while. “Well, I’ve had really bad cramps,” I fumbled on. “How much worse could it be?” She stared at me a bit longer and didn’t answer, the smile still faintly on her lips. She never answered me and just swiveled ever so slowly back to her computer, finally taking her eyes off me and allowing her head to follow her body only when she’d fully turned.

And then Izzy came, as babies inevitably do, and in a swirling terror of pain and blood and doctors and nurses invading my utmost vulnerability against my will, he was born. I am never doing that again, I swore. And then fifteen months later I stumbled out of our bathroom tearfully to show Steven a positive pregnancy test. He started smoking again. I fell into a depression and the fear engulfed me: I have to do this again. I have no choice. And then Arrow was born in an aura of candlelight in a tub in the middle of our living room, no doctors, no bright lights - just one kind and hands-off midwife, her assistant, my best friend and Steven. It was a far better experience, of course, but I remember still feeling shellshocked afterwards, and realizing that the darkness, the death, and the suffering couldn’t be avoided through the right environment and the right caregiver (though I feel strongly about those things). The death of birth was inescapable, that moment or handful of moments or eons (who knows? It’s impossible to tell) at transition when you become convinced that the whole “baby” thing has been an elaborate charade for what is actually taking place: your very person is being destroyed from the inside out. You are being eviscerated and you are going to die. I had one common thought after birthing both of my children, as much as I could formulate cohesive thought at the time: what the HELL just happened? (After Arrow, I also remember thinking “I can’t believe that is how babies come into the world. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.” and also “I deserve a plaque and $50,000!!!!!!”)

Am I scaring you? I hope so and I hope not. I find it interesting that the account of Jesus’ birth - and I am referring to the actual physical account of the birth, not its cosmic significance - in the Gospels is pretty matter-of-fact. Actually, it really isn’t an account at all. Mary gave birth. That’s it. The expected physiological sequence of events occurred which always presage a human child born into the world without hindrance and so, it happened. Does that mean God doesn’t think birth is a big deal? Not at all. Scripture is rife with allusions to birth and its power. Birth deserves a holy reverence as a sacrament that is completely beyond our control, and as a powerful way to share in the sufferings of Christ. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, even went so far as to say that women will be saved through childbearing. What was a curse in the garden becomes a blessing - if we let it, if we go willingly, if we surrender, which, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve never really done in birth. Yet even so, and even though I sometimes shudder with fear thinking deeply about the hinterland of birth, about the pain so vast it seemed like my body could not contain it, would not contain it, that searing intensity that snatches words from the throat and cognition from the mind, even then - I still say: worth it, worth it, worth it. And to think, this love I have for my children that makes such suffering worth it is but a trinket simulacrum, tainted by sin but with its mysteriously made-in-the-image core twinkling with the echo of its Maker, of the love the Father had for us that made the cross worth it.

But why? Why the darkness before the dawn, the death before the resurrection? Why did God make this world so topsy-turvy, so paradoxical, so enchantingly and disorientingly upside-down, where the first are last and the last first and the aggrieved are blessed and the foolish things confound the wise and love never fails but human power and wisdom do? Where weeping lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning, where Christ descended in order to ascend, where faith alone is certainty, where suffering is joy and to die is gain? Where God became flesh and dwelt among us in the most vulnerable form possible, a newborn homo sapien? And why did he make a world that can’t be understood except through this son, through Him for whom and by whom and through whom all things were made, and even then not an intelligibility so much as a trusting, a falling, a surrender that brings joy and peace? You can’t put your finger on God. I don’t know, but I know it can be trusted. And I don’t even know how I know that… but I do.

So, I wonder this Advent, why did God choose Mary? Because she was young and naive enough not to know what awaited her? Or because she was beautifully innocent, and had faith like a child? I wish I could say Advent was a purely joyous experience for me, infused with a hopeful waiting that both knows the Savior has already come and looks ahead to his return. But it isn’t, if I’m being honest, because I know that preceding either of those events is birth. And even though I know Jesus’ most constant refrain (do not be afraid!), and I say and believe all the things I wrote above about birth and its significance, there are two things that I still fear, two things that stubbornly malinger on the periphery of my consciousness, taunting me with their enormity, their epic bigness because they not only bookend but also bleed through and inform and shape life itself: birth and death. And both contain the other within them! And I know that before Christmas can come, before Immanuel - God with us - could arrive, Mary had to give birth.

I can see her. A girl of about 15, 11 years younger than I was the first time I gave birth. She’s in a barn and not a harshly illuminated hospital bed or an inflatable birthing tub in a candlelit living room, but it doesn’t matter anymore, because she’s in the thick of it: the contractions that radiate through her young body, her barely adolescent body, widen her eyes and send her mind into a stratosphere better understood by the animals lowing and bleating and shifting anxiously around her than her own husband. Did she cry? I can’t imagine she didn’t. Did she moan and writhe and beg God for help? I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have. Did the same ugly guttural sounds issue from her throat as did mine when she pushed, and did she start crying when she felt the defeat of her baby’s head retreating, as I did? Did she shake her head and despair at the moment just before the final push, when it seemed absolutely impossible that this baby could actually emerge, that she could have the strength and the courage to push through the white-hot fire and deliver the son of God into the world? Or did she have faith? Was she quiet, gentle, as accepting as she had been of the pregnancy itself of this passage, the monumental cleaving of where even her husband had not yet been?

However it was, the impossible became possible with God: our Savior slid into the world, from compression to expansiveness, from the flesh-swaddled wombworld into the boundless ether, his slippery skin marbled by vernix and blood. It was a dirty birth but birth IS dirty and bloody and earthy and kind of horrifying, something our neurotically antiseptic hospitals, with their multiply-santitized beds and instruments and bleeping monitors belie. Miracle, infinite beauty, wonder, mystery: God with us. God, HERE, visible, tangible, flailing his weak little limbs and desperate for the comfort of his mother’s breast. Vulnerability incarnate. God incarnate. It was miraculous beyond miraculous.

I remember the feeling afterwards, the profound relief and joy that a child had been born into the world. Arrow was born at 7:13 p.m., but we stayed up almost all night, just watching her, with her watching us, and all of us luxuriating in the miracle. The stultification of the pain made space for the wonder. The salting with fire cleansed me, gave me childlike eyes to see. The death of the suffering nourished the new life.

Yet, somehow, it was still incomplete, and the darkness lingered, I believe because I didn’t yet know Christ. Could it be different now that I do? I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to give birth again. I pray I do, but I wonder: could I finally go willingly? Why is it so hard for us to die? Because we don’t trust that there could be something infinitely better on the other side? Because we don’t trust that the glorious, prismatic resurrection awaits? Even if we’ve witnessed it before - and I certainly have - we still don’t believe there is a depth and breadth of beauty and mercy and joy that could possibly account for all this pain, could possibly make up for all this suffering, could possibly redeem all… this. But oh, there is. Jesus’ questions resound in my cynical heart… Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?

One of the hardest parts about birth is that you have to go more deeply into the pain in order to escape it. To find relief, you have to will yourself to feel more pain. You have to consciously go against every self-protective instinct of your body and mind. Truly, the only way past is through. And it is so hard. IT seems impossible. And with us, it is. But with God, nothing is.    

Always, always, the dialogue goes like this, between my flesh and His spirit:

How can I get out of this?
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.

Okay, but can’t we just do a little death this time? Like a half-death? Or maybe I can just sacrifice an animal or something?
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

But I don’t want to die. It’s my life! Mine!
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

Lord, help me die. Help us all die. Help us trust that on the other side of death is resurrection far beyond our paltry, beclouded imaginings. And if the resurrection after our “small” deaths on earth is this sweet, how much more the beyond? I lost touch with Alberta and I have no idea if she is still on this Earth or has gone on to be a fresh witness in the cloud. If it’s the latter, I can imagine that subtle knowing smile, the holy silence, were I to ask what heaven was like. Is it good? I heard it’s like here, but way better. Is that true? 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Parents just don't understand... or wait, maybe it was me.

I had no idea what it meant to truly love and honor my parents until I had babies of my own. Before that, it seemed there was an unbridgeable disconnect between us, made all the wider by soft-focus memories of my childhood, where parent-worship was indigenous, natural, simple. Adolescence felt like a fall, and suddenly their foibles and flaws and incorrigible “themness” stood out in sharp relief. To my myopic teenaged eyes, it was like they’d been born into middle age.

Sure, there were rumors of their alleged youth. There were photographs of them in a ragged Neiman Marcus hat box in one of their bedroom cabinets where they were all fresh and toothy and smooth-skinned in their denim bellbottoms. There were some tired stories that I’d heard a hundred times about my dad’s misadventures while growing up in LA with his three brothers and some vague, wistful allusions to what my parents called their “beach bum days”. But despite the evidence, I don’t think I truly believed they’d ever been under the age of 30. I didn’t believe they’d ever breathed that same adolescent oxygen that I did, fraught with giddy anticipation and electric possibility and cataclysmic drama. When my mom held me and smoothed my hair the night I’d come home from a school dance crying because all of my friends had been approached by boys while I watched in growing horror, knowing I’d be the last one, left all alone, bereft and loveless - and I was - I didn’t trust her well-intentioned perspective giving. I was a late bloomer too, she said, and once you bloom none of this will matter anymore. You’ll be beating them off with a stick, my dad offered, with what seemed to me an absolutely delusional air of confidence. They couldn’t possibly grasp the tragedy and utter mortification of being a 15-year-old reject., which I was certain was a permanent and indelible stamp of identity.

My love for them was mercurial, selfish - one moment I clung to them desperately as the tether to childhood that could keep me from drowning in the swells of adolescence, and the next I scorned them totally.

In young adulthood, the tension eased somewhat, but things still weren’t reconciled. I didn’t feel known by them anymore, nor did I feel like I knew them. The division rent by my ugly adolescent rebellion and their incomprehension of the dark, moody person I became was still deeply felt, If submerged.

And then I started dating a magical man with the most uninhibited laugh I’ve ever heard and we got engaged and married in the span of a feverish two-and-a-half months, and our first child was born a little over a year later. I was broadsided by the raw reality of birth and newbornhood. This, I thought? This is it? My pregnant delusions of spending my days drawing or writing with a peaceful, sleeping newborn in a basket by my side seemed dangerously laughable as my very soul was nearly pulled asunder by the darkness of postpartum depression. Still, as the darkness finally cleared and our family began to heal, I held tight to my childhood wounds and my belief that I was incompetently parented and I was going to be different for my child. Better.

Underpinning it all was this stubborn belief that my parents hadn’t really loved me, really loved me in the infinite and heartbreaking way I loved my child. I looked at my infant son and felt this oceanic devotion and exquisite tenderness that I didn’t believe they could have possibly felt for me.

When the revelation came it came swiftly and weepily and beautifully, as revelations do. This love and that love are one and the same. It took my breath away, to realize that my parents looked at me with that same gaze. They kissed my irresistible infant cheek, too, wiped my bottom (if that ain’t real love…), they clapped and grinned and squealed when as a toddler as I grew and tentatively explored the world, they praised me as I learned to read and write, they wrestled with answering my impossibly big seven-year-old questions about God and the universe and all the endless “why”s, and they watched with grief and worry while I zigzagged a reckless path through my late teens and early twenties. They rejoiced as they watched me become a mother. They delighted in me.

The most profound revelations are those that should have been apparent all along, but are hidden by our error, our egos. There wasn’t space in the shallow mindset of my youth for a love that is human, that fails sometimes, that needs forgiving, but still loves - really, truly loves - until I had children of my own. It was like I blamed my parents for not being perfect, fully-formed people when they bore me. The thread of motherhood knit together the wound caused by being imperfectly, sacrificially, sometimes blunderingly, but lovingly parented through my own imperfect, sacrificial, mistake-saturated and above all love-filled parenting.

Now that I am a mother, I know - parents are people, too. Now I can finally love, appreciate, and yes - honor- my parents, in their glorious, beautiful, broken “themness”. I used to long for the untainted parent idolization of childhood. But I don’t anymore, because the full circle love is more sumptuous and full. Our children’s love for us as the heroes of their small worlds is precious and pure. But the whole story is even better. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Hello, big blog world!

From the dawn of my conscious memory, I always wanted to be an artist, not a writer. Artists seemed so very deep, mysterious, alluring, decadent, adventurous; cerebral in an unhinged, mercurial, non-academic way. I believed they had license to be ruinously self-indulgent, and were exempt from the normal rules of decorum and mundane functions such as bill-paying and DMV visits, the stifling practicalities of the banal world inhabited by other, non-artist people. Artists! They lived in vivid color and libertine freedom.

What I wanted least, on the other hand, was to be a writer: that kind of pallid dorkwad whose self-consciousness is like a hall of mirrors, neverending and exasperatingly egoic... One who practically herniates herself with excitement when her interlibrary loans come in, was voted "best vocabulary" in her senior yearbook, who leafs through a new book with an expression of near-ecstasy as she inhales deeply the indescribable synesthesiastic bouquet of "Fresh Book", who had ample time to read gluttonously in high school because she never got invited to any parties, who was so enamored of British literature that at 16 she (mostly) inadvertently developed an affected pseudo-British accent that prompted people to frequently ask whether she was from New Zealand or something, and not Blue Springs, Missouri. Oh wait, what? Ha ha. HA. You thought I was talking about myself! Good HEAVENS, no! But... you know. You know the type.

So, I desperately didn't want to be who I was. But words and books were all I had, and they became a shield. Sure, I was chubby and acne-plagued, but I knew what "lachrymose" meant, dang it, and I took every chance to lord what I perceived as my meager advantage over other girls. Nevermind that a large vocabulary has virtually no currency among teenage boys...

Words became an end in themselves, which is so tragically misguided it's risible. ("Risible" is a fancy word for "funny"... apologies to Fancy Nancy. I have a five-year-old daughter). I still remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan sing "she's read too many books, she's got nails inside her head" and I realized my unique dysfunction, which was not so very unique. I was overeducated and cynical. I'd made words an idol, missed the forest for the trees, put the horse before the cart, etc. I was all style and no substance. I actually believed there was some intellectual singularity that could be achieved through words that would save me and give me satisfaction at long last. I always displayed my bookshelves prominently because I wanted people to know that I had read many books because that was my identity. What a crappy identity! Thank God - he chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." - 1 Corinthians 1:18

I hope, now, I have something worthwhile to say. I hope the spirit speaks through me. I hope my words bless and are just the right amount of salty and shot through with light. This isn't my first rodeo in Blogtown, but the first one, which I wrote in very sporadically from my early twenties on, is too littered with new-agey chakra prattle to be public. Maybe someday I'll republish Arrow's birth story, I dunno. But for now, my solemn promises to you vis-a-vis this particular blogging experience is to never address you as "dear reader", refer to my writing as "musings", or use the word "literally" as a superlative. Now let us jump headlong with rapturous joy into this big beautiful blogosphere!!!