may it not, therefore, dry up and blow away

I am home now, in a quiet house where my boys are resting. They are sick today: fitful sleeping and too-fast fever breathing. I’m staying near to their warm bodies. We have candles lit for their healing; we have prayed. We will read today, and touch, and wait for health to come. This stillness is a gift. There is coffee and the house is clean.

In the last couple of weeks, we watched our girl-cat die. We spent days and nights with her as her body shut down. The boys held bowls of water to her mouth once she could no longer get up to drink. They laid a favorite blanket on the floor for her once she could no longer stay safely in the bed when, for brief stretches, we had to leave. They whispered into her fur and kissed her head and diminishing body. She slept so close to them until the very end. Nearness to us was her final comfort, and we gave it. I hope they remember this: the love they offered and accepted, how unafraid they were to face the truth of her leaving. I hope they carry it into the losses they will go on to meet.

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She died stretched out next to me, taking up more space in death than she ever had in life. J came over in the night to help me move her body into a box and prepare it for the boys to see. I was overwhelmed; coming was a kindness. Later my friend Matt helped me dig a hole three feet deep, stopping to cut thick tree roots and unearth rocks. Matt is no stranger to grave-digging – deeper graves, and for much heavier reasons – having offered what he could in the face of injustice, preparing space for death row inmates who would be lowered into Georgia red clay. This was not that. Not state-sanctioned evil. Not Georgia heat. Just a beloved nineteen-year-old cat who died in my bed. A small three-foot grave and two boys watching.

And then, of course, we taught my sons how to lower a body they love into the ground.

I already understood myself to have made promises to this house. It is a century old. I am its fifth owner. We belong to one another. But digging so deeply into the earth has changed my relationship to the land. Surrendering beloved flesh to it. Using sharp shovels to tear it apart. Small-boy-handfuls of dirt to put it back together again. The land is changed. My sons are changed. I am changed. It took thirty-eight years of living to lay down such roots. It took grief and the fragmentation of loss.

I am made weary by the events of this year. I am still stunned by all that has taken place. But I am sturdier than I knew. I think a lot now about women of the past. My mothers as far back as they go. All our mothers as far back. Brave. Resilient. I feel myself lengthen into their untold stories.

These words by Kathleen Norris have stayed with me.

The Plains are not forgiving. Anything that is shallow – the easy optimism of a homesteader; the false hope that denies geography, climate, history; the tree whose roots don’t reach ground water – will dry up and blow away.

I feel I was given a legacy of hope. That it was passed down in both blood and stories, despite or perhaps because of all the reasons that wouldn’t be true. And I’m thinking these days about the responsibility of passing down hope: of offering it while taking care that it isn’t shallow or light. I watched as these boys met with this close, intimate death. Watched their hands cradle her stiff body without fear. They kissed her goodbye again and again. They never looked away. They know she’s in the ground; they put her there. In that way, they have roots now too. This moment denied nothing that is. This moment was not shallow. May it not, therefore, dry up and blow away.

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A tiny epilogue: Days later, we dug once more to build a fire pit deep into this small bit of land. We used bricks that came from the house J and I brought these boys home to, our first home. Then my mom and cousin Linzie lovingly painted this mural on part of our fence: an offering, a gorgeous and powerful gift. Death and community and beauty and hope. Deep roots and blue poppies. Resilient mothers as far back as they go.

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but joy though

In spite of (and in some ways because of) all of the hard stuff I’ve written about in the past eight or nine months, the boys and I have been living pretty deeply into the joy of these ordinary days.

I have wanted, in this sacred space, to be honest about the story of this year, but I also want the story of our joy to be clear. Both/and. Loss and love. Heaviness and light.

five morning vignettes

Morning 1:

Bram calls from his room. “Mama!”
Me: “Yes, Bug?”
Bram: “Come here; I am lonely!”
Me: “Come to me, Baby. Your brother is asleep on my arm.”
Bram, after some silence: “Do you remember the tablets??”
Me: “Um, Moses’s tablets? Yes…”
Bram: “They say not to fight.”
Me: “They say to listen to your parents.”
Bram: “They also say to be kind.”
I go to him, smiling. We share the sweetest snuggle.
When Lou wakes up and stumbles in twenty minutes later, Bram looks up at him and says, “I got mama out of bed with the ten commandments.”

Morning 2:

I wake up to the feel of hard, cold metal hitting my head. It is Lou. He is hitting me over the head with the old-fashioned Winnie the Pooh alarm clock I bought for him. The irony of this is not immediately clear to me. As I rub my pounding head, he says sweetly, “Good morning, mama!”

Morning 3:

Bram calls from his room. “Mama!”
Me: “Yes, Bug?”
Bram: “Nothing. I just wanted to be sure of you.”
I go to him.

Morning 4:

Lou is laying behind me. He begins to trace his fingers up and down my back and side to side, in the shape of a cross. He says, “I am giving you a blessing.” Then he whispers, “The Universe Dances.”

Morning 5:

Bram comes in to my room in the early morning and crawls into bed.
After a minute, he asks: “Mama, when is your birthday?”
I say, “July 10th.”
He says, “Okay, what is your favorite animal?”
I think for a minute and say, “Maybe wolves? I like the way they are in community together.”
He says, “Okay. So for your birthday, I’m going to ask Pomo to help me buy you some wolf shorts. Black, fuzzy ones. Does that sound nice?”
“Yes, Bug. Fuzzy wolf shorts sound like the nicest.”

 

my life goes on in endless song

I always imagined this space to be primarily about witness. Witness of lives unfolding; a record of a journey; a set of journeys running alongside one another for whatever time was permitted.

I still imagine it to be so, though it was once a record of marriage. It was once about trying to make new life, the struggles of that hard work. It was always about God, for me at least, but it was once about God from outside institutions devoted to the holy.

Life changes, it does.

And yet the idea of forsaking this space, of casting it aside, feels wrong. Inaccurate somehow. Like a lie. We are not a series of stops and starts, but one long purple line, as Harold might draw it.

This place is witness. We are still breaking into blossom. We break; we blossom. We are not permitted the latter without the former, so our prayer must be always to return to the latter. To see it. To receive it with whatever gratitude we can muster.

Bram turned five more than a month ago now, which is a thing of great beauty. Lou will turn three later this month. J has what we call a nest, which is only a handful of blocks away from the home I thought we’d share for the rest of our lives.

The nights I spend without the boys are the darkest I’ve ever known. They are, as one friend said, the shadow of the valley of death. The house is an empty chamber. It feels like nothingness, as do I. Like air void even of oxygen. Nothing can make up for their absence: no person, no strong drink. I have come to expect the waves of panic and despair. They come and go as they will, and I am required merely to weather them.

I have never been without a partner, not for more than a few months. Not in my whole adult life. And not without J for a decade, which is, it turns out, a long time. And so, though the temptation is there to fill this space with the certainty of someone new – someone solid enough to anchor me, someone beloved – I am called away from that impulse. The call is painful, and yet it is clear. I listen. I wait. Not now.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and my thoughts are with our beloved sons. And with their sister, whose ashes are held in a tiny, pretty urn in the same room where – in the grey light of this late winter day – they will receive ashes on their foreheads.

I’m thinking too about how little I understand time: my dad gone four years now, J having moved on, and my children growing at a speed that leaves me dizzy. The losses mount and startle, but the gifts are relentless and just as surprising.

I am facing this Ash Wednesday as a mama, and a minister, and a breakable human. I am grieving, and I am standing still. My God is a slaughtered lamb, and the demands of that truth are weighty, and exhausting, and worthy of the time they require.

I plan to write here as part of my Lenten discipline. I have stories to tell, and I will do my best to tell them.

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this moment

Thank you for receiving my last message: to those who commented and those who only read. It feels like an ethical imperative, telling as much of the story as we can in these public, connective spaces. To tell only the pretty parts is, in a way, to lie: to help create the illusion that insomuch as you’re suffering, you’re mostly alone. That on the days when your boots are heavy, you’re out of sync with a light world around you. And of course that’s never true. The world is always both buoyant and defeated by gravity. Whether it’s tethering us down or we’re lifting it up is just a matter of moments.

I’m writing this now in our hospital cafeteria, which is two blocks from my church office – in the downtown of our beloved city – where I sometimes come to think, or walk, or work. I’ve always loved hospitals, and so far none of the hard moments I’ve lived in them – holding Emmett Ever, saying goodbye to my dad, watching heartbeatless ultrasounds – has dampened that affection. People everywhere, all the time, are vulnerable (to accident, to tragedy), but there’s a recognition of that in hospitals. People in these spaces are the tiniest bit kinder to one another, more cautious. They are what feels to me to be 3% gentler, quieter, braver, and more aware of those around them. Eye contact is different: softer. It’s a tiny shift, but a recognizable one (if you’re looking).

This moment finds me in love with the coming of autumn. I am protesting the still-hot afternoons by refusing to take off my sweater. I am ready for the change that’s coming.

It also finds me having reconnected pretty magnificently with my wife. The best part of a hard stretch must surely be the coming home again, the invitation to meet your love once more as some new being you get to discover. We kicked off a new chapter with a movie date: Hell or High Water. Because my wife knows my love of cowboys, and bank heists, and class struggles. Of those over-expensive photo booths and holding hands in dark, cool theaters. I am declaring this an autumn of dating. I’m declaring it a season of discovering more of what’s been right in front of me.

Finally, this moment has me enjoying the pleasure of my brother-sons. One story I can’t stop thinking about. During a recent Lou-nap, Bram and I were building with Legos. We needed more of a few different bricks, and I found an old “boat” that Lou had built, but that I hadn’t seen him playing with for weeks. I said, “Oooh, there are lots of pieces we could use in here, and I don’t think Lou would mind if we took it apart!” Bram – who you should know is profoundly focused and serious about Lego creation and was desperate to find the pieces we needed – put his hand on mine, looked me in the eyes, and said calmly but firmly: “He’ll mind, mama. He will mind.” This loyalty. I pray that whatever they face, this loyalty will always help to steer them.

 

 

 

 

these boys

Today, like so many of us, I drove my big kid to school: in Bram’s case to his final year of Montessori preschool. He was nervous and reluctant, and also curious. He ran out the front door and kicked rocks around the driveway for awhile. He wanted to listen to Cloud Cult’s “Transistor Radio” on the way. He sang along, like always. I said, “That journey his grandpa sends him on? That’s like your journey, Bug.” I watched him gathering his nerve in the rearview mirror. I listened to him slow his breathing.

I’m writing this from a table in the coffee shop where I wrote a lot of my dissertation. Where we came after we lost E. Where we brought B the first time we left the house with him. That was a lifetime ago: two lifetimes, literally, for my kids. Not long ones, but of course we’d do well not to measure life by length.

At four-and-a-half, Bram is a firestorm of passion, focus, curiosity, and brave imagination. He is self-conscious about his physical abilities: nervous on playgrounds and critical of how he runs and bikes, as if someone has told him he isn’t good at those things (though to my knowledge no one has). He holds back nothing on the creative front, and is steady in his confidence in himself as an artist. If he asks you to describe some recent experience, to remind him of a detail from an encounter, it’s so he can go home and draw it. He’s a storyteller: he tells tales silently, with colored pencils, for hours; with Legos in deep concentration; in a loud, dizzying voice as he spins around the house. He is a careful and kind brother, son, grandson, and friend. He holds his fingers up in the shape of a square to tell me he loves me. I think he’d make eye contact for hours.

When I told him that some people think we are all of the figures from our dreams – so he’s not just the little kid who’s scared; he’s also the beast chasing the little kid – a smile stretched across his face for whole minutes. When I asked him if he wanted to finish a drawing he had started earlier in the day, he said, “I don’t want to, mama, I need to. An artist needs to finish what he starts.” He told me on a walk to the library last week – out of the blue, at an intersection – that he wants to be a baker, a construction worker, and a priest when he grows up. This would surprise no one who knows him.

At two-and-a-half, Lou is a wild and beautiful creature. His will is fierce and seems to come from somewhere profoundly deep within him. He is built mostly of courage and curiosity, and he’s like a cat: capable of immense and startling acts of love and loyalty, but on his terms. Once while working together with Play-Doh, he said – without even looking up – “I miss you when you’re at work, mama. I love you too now.” We just kept working. He has a head full of blonde curls, lashes that go on forever, and the last vestiges of the skinny bird arms and legs he had at birth. We still call him Birdie, and it still fits.

He is maddened by any suggestion of passivity: he wants to push the stroller, cook the food, wash dishes together, turn all the pages, get himself dressed, put on his own shoes, and fasten his own seat belt: “not you, not you!” If you look away for a second, he’ll sneak off to the snack drawer and situate himself on one of the benches at our dining room table with an absurd number of pretzels or graham crackers. If you call him from another room, he’ll run to you full force, shouting “My am coming!!” He is rarely cautious, though he avoids deep water and new people, and he constantly asks me to drive more slowly. Like his brother, he loves teases and inside jokes, and his eyes light up when he’s in on something. His favorite song right now is Josh Ritter’s “Cumberland.” It is entirely possible to imagine him living happily in the country. If you pretend to forget song lyrics and sing them wrong, he’ll say, every time and with endless delight in his voice: “not like THAT! Like this!” and sing them the right way. He’ll repeat this as many times as you’re willing. If he’s sad and you offer him a diversion, he’ll often say, “Okay. That would cheer me up.” If you’re sad, he’ll offer you pretend strawberries until you smile. Strawberries, every time. His favorite game is the Run-Hug, which his Pomo invented. It is exactly like it sounds.

This is a picture Bram came home and drew after meeting a girl he found magical. She is seven, and a dancer. Those marks are the colors he’s decided are good for making skin tones. He is always working on craft. Those are her hands folded in front of her body. She’s Native American and was wearing traditional clothing: those are feathers, moccasins, and bells at the bottom of her dress.

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This is classic Lou.

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This is a drawing Bram did of our church awhile back. Every time he sees it (hanging in my office), he says quietly to himself: “I need to do a new one.”

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These are tombstones the boys made when – as is his way – Lou killed a fly and – as is his way – Bram cried over its smashed body and made us bury it. Lou gave this task the cursory attention that he sensed his brother would require. Bram wrote this on his: “Dear God, did the fly have a good life? Was it sick or was it not? [Something illegible to me.] In your name we pray. Amen.”

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And this is a typical market Saturday: Bram with his best friend, Clara, sure of their little world together; his brother following behind: ever curious about B & C’s activities, but also absolutely on his own quest.

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a small mile

One week from tomorrow, we will leave our little cottage behind. We will drive away from the place that both J and I have lived longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere else, and we won’t live here anymore. We will leave without a puppy-cat who moved in here with us, but with his sister. We will leave with two boys who were conceived of, conceived (mostly), and brought home here, and whose entire conception of home is these walls and floors and smells and colors, and this air quality. And this view. We’ll take E’s ashes with us, and the boy who isn’t Saul will still be turning three somewhere, and it will never matter to him that we’ve left the house that was once his home. After packing up with a good half dozen generous parishioners helping, we’ll drive our rented U-Haul one small mile away, to a modest and lovely house in a working- to middle-class neighborhood that has beauty, and that speaks to our values.

And then we’ll live there instead. With one chalkboard wall in the kitchen for meal planning and family notes and boysie creations. With the color of saffron on the other kitchen walls, and a mostly working fireplace, and original wood floors, and a finished attic with wide pine floor planks. With double the square feet we have now, and double the bedrooms, but nothing grand except that it will be ours, and we will be privileged to have it, and that alone is grand. We’ll paint the door the slate color of my wife’s eyes, and we’ll finally buy a sofa, and a low bed frame. And a college kid and his dad are making us a farmhouse table and two three-seat benches. Bram will find a big box of real Legos (given to us by another generous parishioner) waiting for him in his room: his first foray away from Duplos and into big-kid-ness. Big-kid-ness in a room that, I pray, he’ll get big in. The driveway has an old basketball hoop, so someday we’ll go to a store and come home with a basketball and that will be countless hours of our lives. Some other day we’ll have saved up enough money to finish the basement and buy a pool table, and that will be other hours. There’s a deep freeze in the basement, and a small canning room with perfect rows of glass jars, all of which is lovely in its simplicity, and its pragmatism, and the care that it implies. The people we’re buying the house from ran a small neighborhood church in the living room for five years, and though some of our perception of Christianity differs from theirs, the house seems to carry with it those hours and years of praise, and dedication to service, and love of God and community, and that feels like a gift to inherit. Today my mom texted to say that she’d picked up the first season of Life Goes On at a garage sale and did we want to borrow it. So maybe J and I will watch some of that as we muddle through whatever it means to leave and mourn – as four individuals and also as the animal that is one family – a set of walls that is jam-packed with memories. To let time pass. To get to know a house to whom we are strangers.

This little cottage knows heartbreak. Probably the new house does too. Certainly it does. Like this cottage, it was built in 1927. I like to imagine the family who built it. Their laughter and their failures and their frustrations. They loved this city of mine. Of theirs. I like to imagine the other ways in which our lives collide in spite of the years. The house holds all of those secrets, and I respect it for knowing what I never will. But I never imagined heartbreak when we moved in here, and that’s not true now. Instead, letting myself fall in love with a new home feels like a way of accepting what we’ll face inside of it. The suffering and the joy. The firsts and the lasts.

This cottage and this blog have been homes of mine for all these years, so it seemed necessary to honor the one I’ll leave behind in the one I’ll carry with me. Thanks for granting me the space to do that. Here are some photos of our cottage-dwelling boys by way of tribute.

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