.mid-february update.

So I’ve been a bit AWOL as of late. I think I’m mostly done licking my wounds around not getting the most recent position I was up for. I understand why the committee made the choice they did and I would have made the same decision were I in their shoes. It still leaves us in an economic hole, but at least it doesn’t register as a personal affront. Things are tight, very tight, and they’ve been that way for a while now. So when I let myself down the rabbit hole of “when is this going to happen for us?” it can get bleak up in my mental landscape. Most of the time, though, I trust the process, know that I am lucky to have a full-time job while I’m looking, and keep putting myself out there (over and over and over again). I used to say it was like riding a horse, but now I think it’s more like riding an angry ostrich (those things are mean!).

Our kids are a pretty cool antidote to all of the career worries, though. Louis is going to be one next month!?! How in the world did that happen so fast? He’s cruising all around (though no independent walking yet). He’s starting a few words: “mama” and “hi” and I swear I got a (p)”omo” out of him the other day! He loves to rub his head against us (like a cat marking its scent). And he adores games of peek-a-boo, which will send him into squeals of giggles. Seriously, this baby is just the level-best. He smells good, he’s still bald, he nurses all.night.long, and he will eat anything you put in front of him. I mean anything. He’s like Mikey from the old Life commercials, or maybe a billy goat. Take your pick.

Three-year old Bram is a rollercoaster of emotions for all involved. The spontaneity of his sweetness, empathy, and physical affection is enough to just bowl me over sometimes. Last night, we were pretending to be on a fishing expedition in the ocean. I secretly dressed up as the Loch Ness monster. Then, instead of trying to eat anyone, I sang a sad song about not having any friends. To this, Bram burst into actual tears and gave me a HUGE bear hug and said that he would be my friend. This is the second time that one of my made-up silly songs has sent him into tears of empathy. That kid. Love him. And just to be crystal clear, this is the same kid that had a thirty minute temper tantrum (involving growling and hysterical crying) in the middle of the night last night, too. And he’s still v.e.r.y. sensitive to sugar. They had a juice snack at school yesterday for their Valentine’s Day celebration, and he proceeded to come home and flip the f%$# out on our lunch guests. I’m sure some people think we’re crazy or over-protective to say he’s “sugar sensitive,” but the difference in his behavior is like night and day. As an adult, it’s so telling about the way that sugar lights up our brains like a drug. I hope we’re able to communicate health and moderation around this as he grows and is making his own food choices.

We’ve also got a big post that we need to write soon about some major shifts in our thinking about homeschooling. It’s been a possibility swirling around for the last year or so, but we’ve started talking and researching with some specificity lately. To be clear, we love the part-time preschool that Bram has been at this year, but it’s not going to be a long-term choice for our family (mostly from a financial standpoint). And we have some real interest and desire to take a more intimate and active role in the boysies’ education. We’re weighing our options and making a game plan. Like I said, more soon…

small deaths and resurrections

Maybe it’s my age.

Maybe it’s these small children and their unequaled talent for making every day (hour. moment.) a roller coaster. No better metaphor for the soaring, giddy love and the stomach-dropping worry (and none more haunting for me, lover of the ground).

Maybe it’s the narratives of Christ newly at work in my mind and my heart.

But whatever it is: all I see, everywhere around me, is life as a series of tiny deaths and resurrections.

Friendships that collapse under the weight of too-different lived realities and selfishness and small failures of heart and word, only to swell and rise again in surprisingly sweet ways.

Hopes for hard-earned dream jobs vanishing in a phone call and taking self-worth with them as they disappear. New – smaller, humbler – hopes rising in the bruised places that remain. Hopes that hurt to the touch, that make you wince, and yet.

Feeling like you must be doing something wrong raising your sons because: why are they so violent? Sword, stick, mean guys, hunters. From whence – in my quiet, simple, peaceful home – does this come, this obvious failure, this obvious failure of mine. And then a call. A book on its way. A setting down of old narratives (always) and an embracing of what is and must always have been: an attraction for power that I cannot feel but that I must make space for. That I must, even, love. And then I do, suddenly. Love.

The ebbflowebbflowebbflow of marriage. Marriage with young children. Marriage, which dies. Marriage which is miraculously reborn in a look or a letter or twenty minutes, finally, of eye contact and a shared blanket. Not a trip or a date or a romantic gesture, but a shared blanket and a little bit of truth. Marriage, which is sweeter than I could have guessed, not in spite of the deaths, but for them. Not less sweet, but sweeter, though also so much like a bruise. Like the place in my spine, my mid-back, that is always sore to the touch, but which I long to have touched.

Defeat. Triumph. They come hourly. They go. They stay, some of them, layering on top of one another until they form a mountain on which you stand, often feeling alone. A mountain from which the world just looks different. Not better or worse, but so different.

Another year in this humble gift of a house with the snow piled up outside and the sun shining. Shining today. More liminality, and another chance to learn to accept it as the only thing that won’t ever go. Dreams clung to. Dreams discarded. Dreams wrenched away. Dreams you never would have thought you’d dream rising into your heart and surprising your mind. Making you smile. Making it all new again. Scaring you again.

Boys that belly laugh and boys that hit and boys that cry and boys that kiss. Heartbreak and gratitude at turns. At once. The work of trying to notice. To just notice. To die and come back again and just notice.

dream chasing and a Bramble-Bug turns three

Ten comments to my existential-crisis-post of last week. Ten thoughtful, wise, loving comments. Thank you for that; you are deeply wonderful. Even the fact that – with your busy lives and your kiddos and your not enough time – you take the time to READ these meanderings is a gift.

Anyway, many of you are saying: do the community work. And that’s full of wisdom. My only thing is: I really don’t multitask well. At all well. When I have lots of little two- to three-hour things to do in a week – hell, when I have even two of them – I feel distracted. And when I feel distracted, I am not my wholly present self. And when I’m not my wholly present self, I panic. And I feel like I’m failing everyone. I don’t know how working parents do it. Even my wife: I watch her and how she moves in and out of roles and I feel at once impressed and disoriented. It took me a long time to see this part of myself – and even longer to stop judging it – but there it is: I lack a certain fortitude when it comes to balance. And hear this: I know what a privilege it is even to KNOW this about myself. It means that I’ve been allowed to step back. To do one thing at a time. It means that others have taken up the slack for me: in money making, in activism, in life. It is an indulgence. But I am easily knocked off my game, and I am scared of taking on a two-year responsibility that could chip away at my already shoddy equilibrium. So I’m not sure. But I have one more week to decide. At any rate, your comments warmed me. And lots of them made me laugh, as when a mama over at Queer Conceptional said “you sound like the sort of person who gets satisfaction out of the chasing of dreams, and there is value in that.” Yes: the thing I’ve most learned about myself through this journey of parenthood: I lack practicality. For better or worse – and make no mistake, it’s often for worse – we are dream chasers. J is better at covering that in herself than I am, but I sometimes think we’re unfit for practical life. But we’ll see. I’ll read your comments through a few more dozen times.

In terms of chasing dreams: we have a three-year-old KID in our house now. Yesterday was January 19th. A big big day in our little little house (Emmett Ever in 2011 and Abram Adrien in 2012, of course). It came on the heels of J taking part in a three-day anti-racism training. I hope (hope pray hope) she’ll write about that here soon. My mom spent the weekend with me and the boys (such a joy, and SO generous of her). B’s party is next weekend – I’m making these for a small gathering of our most beloved locals; we’ll all build snow-creatures outside before coming in to eat them – so this weekend and his actual birthday were all pretty low-key (a good thing since we’re all lousy with head colds). B had his first-ever Montessori walk around the sun on Friday, and we all got to watch. He was just pure light from being so happy. Then my mom gave B an incredible set of liquid watercolors (thanks so much for the recommendation, Erica!), and we spent the bulk of the weekend creating. Here are a couple of process and outcome photos; more to come on these, and why you should invest in them if you can at all.

Their first experiment:

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The hearts we made with glue, salt, and watercolors: the big Bram-Bubbie-Mama work of the weekend. B will spend the next few weeks writing his name on the back of each of these, and then we’ll use them as Valentines. I am in love with each one, and with the memories I have of watching my mom and son make them.

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photo 1

And here’s a photo of what our birthday kiddo saw when he came downstairs yesterday: a handmade banner, a Winnie the Pooh balloon, and the magical dollhouse that came to him courtesy of his Grandmom (J’s mom), his Pomo, and his Mama. It used to belong to our most beloved children’s librarian (Mr. Bill. You’ve probably heard of him. He must be quite famous.) which makes it doubly wonderful. We have somehow amassed nineteen dolls to live in this two bedroom house, so J has taken it to calling it the “Lesbian Duggar House.” She is (adorably) less reverential than me.

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Anyway, Bram is three. Lou will be one before we know it. J knows even more about the catastrophe that is American racism, but she is all kinds of fired up to use (and sometimes silence) her voice in the service of ending it. These head colds won’t last forever. I thought I was too sick to keep caring (alone) for these kiddos today, but then B went to school and I had a meltdown from missing him. They are nice, these reminders that you’re right where you should be. I look forward to the day when we can do really meaningful service work with the boys on MLK Day, and I think it’s magical that sometimes B’s birthday will fall on that day. And we get to share our lives with these boys. These brothers, who are ever learning. I just can’t begin to understand the grace of it all.

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nostalgia

Nostalgia: “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Or, if you’re me today, for television shows that ended. (The West Wing.) For graduate school. (Course work, coffee, days buried in novels, dinners with smart, smart friends.) For career paths not taken, but imagined and then cast aside. Nostalgia to the point of panic.

Does this ever happen to you? Is it my Achilles heel, this oversentimentalization?

How do you know you’re making the right choices?

Sometimes I think I should have been a speech writer for Bartlet. Or, you know. Obama. That I’m smart enough. That if I had just known early enough. Sometimes the shine I see on my (truly gorgeous) life falls away and I think: I’m wasting it.

Because who finishes a PhD and then jumps ship to change diapers all day and try to pry open frozen 2001 van doors in -10 degree weather?

And because yesterday, Bram told me he was mad at me for not making milkies. He wanted to nurse and J wasn’t here.

And because my house is cold and my activism is so local it rarely makes it out my front door.

Most days I think: this is activism. Nurturing, deep nurturing. In this world: that is activism. But today I wonder how it would feel to draft language for the State of the Union. To feel important to someone with the language skills and the comprehension needed to express that importance. It is absurd, but there it is.

I have a couple of options for the next year or two, but I don’t have time for both. You tell me what to do.

Option 1. I’ve been encouraged to run for the position of communication’s officer in my union. It has a stipend that might, just barely, cover the few hours of childcare I would need to pull it off. It would give me the chance to spend three solo hours working at a coffee shop a week (when school’s in session). It would be one way back in to a form of activism (organizing) that I believe in. And it would allow me to connect with people in the community who might have suggestions to offer when, one day, I find myself ready for a full-time career again.

But Option 2. A few months back, I started a novel. And I haven’t gotten very far yet because: No childcare. Short naps. Teaching. The short hours between their bedtime and when I stop functioning are already too full, and I don’t multitask well. At all. What I have, though, is an instinct that it’s worth writing. That it’s a story worth telling. And that I’m the person to tell it. In a perfect world, J would find the right new job, and I would sit a couple of semesters out from teaching, and I would try. Try to write it. Get it out there. See what comes. Which may, of course, be nothing. But which may be a whole new path. Which could – even if only in the most remote of possible future worlds – lead to me being a writer. Of novels. A mama and a writer. A person who didn’t forsake her career to raise babies, but who faithfully put that career on hold and found – lo! – that all along the thing she was supposed to do was just waiting patiently for her to arrive.

But there’s no tiny stipend to that. No money for a sitter. And it won’t help me network. And it will only be of service if anyone ever reads it, and there is every likelihood that no one ever will.

And I don’t multitask well, so I know that I need to choose.

What would you do? I mean, if the job of Toby Ziegler was already taken. What would you do if you were me?

let’s hear it for the boy.

Our youngest son is nine and a half months. And I remember this from his brother: nine and a half months bears some new resemblance to personhood.

For awhile, I thought I had loved B sooner than I loved Lou, but that’s not it. It’s that with Bram, I loved motherhood. I was falling in love with motherhood. And that was new. But it still took awhile to understand the canyon-deep love that is parenthood because to love someone canyon-deep, to love them middle-earth-deep, you have to know them. And that takes time.

At three years, that is clear. At three years, loving right down to your child’s marrow is easier than breathing. Easier than breathing.

But now, at nine months with my youngest child, the canyon-deep is coming.

To wit:

Until recently, I was content to surrender Louis to J for the nights: I hold him all day. He is yours now. But now, I climb into bed and reach for his hand. Now all day isn’t enough. Now there is no enough. Already. And instead of thinking why did this take me so long I think how magical must the Bluebird be to have me here already. 

So here’s to second children. Loving them is all about them because the you part is already sorted. Loving them is just as canyon-deep, and seeing them is just as sweet. Maybe sweeter because it’s all about them. Louis did not make me a mother; he made me his mother. His mother, who gets to notice things first (alongside J, of course).

Who gets to know how much he loves foot rubs.

And that he loves to have his hands held.

And that when you say his name he lights up with his whole body, as if the very creator of the universe were holding him close. As if no one has ever felt more loved.

That if you say his name from across a room he will catapult himself towards you.

That he loves to crawl with something in his hand such that whatever it is thuds loudly against the floor with each forward gesture. That the thud of the forward gesture brings him glee.

That a thousand moments a day bring him glee.

That when he drops something he gasps and raises his hands in a gesture of panicked surrender. Of surprise.

That he is infinitely surprisable. That nothing is already expected by this child. That everything is a gift, and so new. That everything is treasured.

Made of gratitude, this one, and delighted to be here. And oh to be near him. To be near him is to be led by his tiny hands to the sweetest of things.

To second children, who bring their own magic in their own time. To my second child, who pulls his mouth to mine and belly-laughs into a kiss. Middle-earth-deep, you joyful soul.

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the jar once empty

A second cup of coffee with smooth, fresh almond milk. Two sleeping kids: the littlest wrapped snugly to my chest. A clean, well-organized house. A novel I hold myself back from out of anticipatory sorrow that it will one day soon end. Two novels at the ready for when that day comes. A new Sufjan Stevens record. A peaceful and intimate marriage. A generous, patient, and kind family of origin (and of marriage). Great good friends. A soft bamboo sweater and a gram of saffron. A cold Michigan day. These are the things of my new year, and friends, that is sweet. If there’s a sweeter moment to be had, I’m not sure my heart could stand knowing about it.

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In eighteen days, Bram will be three whole years. We’ll have a snow-creature party: outside if there’s snow and with paper and cotton if there’s not. And just a blink of the eye after that, this sleeping Bluebird will be one. This past year has been a challenging one. As I’ve said here before, the infant years ask things of me that I have to search deeply to find. I have withdrawn, feeling possessed only of enough to care for these children. Withholding. At a remove from the world outside. But I catch glimpses these days of a new lightness, a new willingness on the part of my soul to come forth. It is of Easter, of spring, more than it is of winter. But when met with the quiet, and the darkness, and the cold – as it is now – it leaves me feeling reverential and sacred and honored to be here. Honored to live.

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I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Though of course I fail, I work all the time to uphold the values I have come to believe in. I am devoted to continual work. But this year, I find myself drawn to the new year not for the chance to resolve to be something better – some more disciplined version of myself – but out of a sense of newness and curiosity and abiding awe.

I want this year to understand grace. To take the Christian idea of God’s love and practice it myself. In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s John Ames tells his son, “your mother could not love you more or take greater pride in you. She has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. So that is the honoring of the child. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone.” This is what I like, what I find so nurturing right now about Christianity. Not the notion of eternal life (to which I give absolutely no thought), nor the (unanswerable and therefore, to me, uninteresting) question of God’s existence or absence, but the lived salvation of love. Of grace. Of having an image after which to try to fashion oneself. To be “godlike” in loving my children. Myself. All of us. Life.

There have been times when I resented this small, old house, the broken door handle on my van, my old clothes. When my life looked shabby: shabby couch, shabby house, shabby marriage. There is a lens through which it still appears as such. But there is another lens through which all of this shines. Through which tattered is loved and loved is glorious. Through which every imperfection comes with a story and those stories come together as a kind of life and shabby is a thing of glory. That’s how it appears to me now.

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So my intentions as I slip quietly and faithfully into this new year are all born of curiosity.

To understand the food I make as spiritual and not just bodily nourishment. To understand paella. To understand Harira.

To understand prayer. To understand grace.

To be God-like in loving the being of others.

To serve. To listen so that I might know how best to serve.

To be like the kitten in Margaret Wise Brown’s The Little Island, whose eyes, upon learning “how all land is one land under the seas,” are “shining with the secret of it.”

The jar on the left is filled with scraps of paper, little good things written down throughout the year just past. That jar is closed now, untouchable, gone in its way. The jar on the right is new. It bears only the heart we bring from year to year. In one year’s time, it will be full and gone and untouchable, but we’ll have lived it. That in itself is miraculous to me, the jar at one moment empty, and at the next full and gone. I most of all want, this year, to just sit with that. The passage of time and its swiftness and the impossible sweetness of that. The jar once empty and then forever full.

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co-laboring

So I found this concept of co-laboring in marriage. And I found these pages: people writing to their partners about how they co-labor. I found, on one particular couple’s blog, a list of links to these letters, all of which are examples of couples who want to “stake a claim in their marriages over and over again.” And it’s our fifth wedding anniversary, me and J. And we co-labor, my wife and I. And when I’m at my best, or even anything close to my best, or even halfway decent, I think marriage is powerfully important. Old-fashioned. Backbreaking. Humbling. Not right for everyone. But I am made small and large in just the right ways because of the submission and vulnerability and bewildering struggle that marriage requires. And so, though these co-laboring letters all seem to be about heterosexual unions, and though some people in this movement might not even honor my marriage, I’m taking hold of it anyway. Because: co-laboring. Yeah.

So.

Dear J,

Five years ago today at four in the afternoon, we sat in a silent room and tried to meditate on what our marriage vows might mean. I say “tried,” of course because in that silent room there were almost all of the people who mattered most to us, and there were nerves, and my arms were cold, and sometimes our parents were crying. And people spoke up, saying what was in their hearts to say about us, about marriage, about the mysteries of living. Laura read Li-Young Lee. Christine read the marriage certificate, the language of which I had agonized over. Silence or not, I’m not sure I gave much thought to our marriage vows during that hour. I never have triumphed in the big moments.

You looked so handsome at our wedding. That’s a thing about you really: even when you’ve nursed all night long, even with bed-head and an unwashed face heading late to work. Even when I’ve been mad enough to want to scream – and unable to scream because: oh these children whose needs trump my impulses – I’ve been unable to see you as anything other than beautiful.

I wonder sometimes, in that way we do, what it would be like not to have one another. I think that’s when I can see what you’ve done for me most clearly because when I get past thinking that your house would be a mess, I realize that you’d probably be more safe. I wonder if it crossed your mind, sitting in silence that day: how much risk you were assuming in marrying me. We joke about it sometimes, but one would be hard-pressed to find a less pragmatic wife than you’ve found in me. You, with your lists and your love of a schedule and your distaste for any deviations from a plan. In no small part because of my calling and your grace-filled trust of it, plans are laughable in our lives. And yet. When I see you most clearly I see you by my side on a tightrope with no safety net. And when I see us there it’s me who’s most afraid. You resist. You push and grouch and want to hide. But then, when the time comes, you never chicken out. You show up and I hang back and it’s because you are brave. You are deeply brave. You could maybe have had – if nothing else – an easier life that required less courage. But you chose me because you are, in the end, mostly made of courage.

And so you get up and rush out the door. You leave me at home with our children because you know that my heart would break otherwise, and you honor me deeply, saying, “this, with you, is the best place for them.” And you fight and struggle against circumstances to provide for us all because there is a fire inside of you that calls you to do that. And each time you come home to us you come home with a deep well of intentions and love and wonder and you say that I’m the optimist, but that’s only the way it is on the surface. I have instincts; you fight and trudge and try to pray. We fail again and again, but you keep coming back to our table with almost grandiose intentions. And those intentions keep us going. You are our dreamer, though I might be the only one who knows this.

So we trudge. We co-labor, and that labor is backbreaking. We have babies and lose babies and our marriage collapses and then swells again. We try to carve out the space to be gentle with one another after the endless days and years of being gentle with these beings with whom we’ve been trusted. We negotiate. We fail. We pull each other out of dark places. And more days than not, you surprise me. You, pushing your tie to the side to nurse our babies and finding a way to open your heart just a little bit more. You are still that radical marching topless in DC, but now the things you fight for are even closer to home, and the risks are even more real. And the thing about you is that you know it. And you are terrified to take those risks. And then you leap. Every time.

So happy fifth anniversary. You are brave, and pure, and fiercely loyal, and even when I barely have time to look at you in a whole day I never forget all of that. I meant it when I told Bram about my love of valor. When valor is your thing, it’s pretty hard to find someone you can fall head over heels for. But five years ago today, I married you. And now I get to see every day what valor looks like at its messiest and most sincere.

Yours,
Renee

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