courage and a little autumn easter

My little downtown is buzzing on this last hot day of autumn. The humans are everywhere: in the park, in cafes, outside the library. Full sidewalks and busy streets.

I love working downtown. I walk these streets everyday. I bring lunch back to my pretty, historic church in a paper bag, or eat outside at a little public table, alone or with friends. I can hear our bells for a full square mile: from the medical college, and the big movie theater, and the hospital, whose halls I sometimes walk to escape the elements.

Today I lingered out there. Walked longer than I meant to, stepping left or right to make space on the sidewalk for others. I listened to Josh Ritter and Jason Isbell in one ear, and the sounds of community happening in the other. Today will be the end of this late-season heat. Tomorrow will be cool. It’s easy to love something when it’s going away.

This is an Easter post. It has taken me a long time to be willing to come back to life. Being happy again meant accepting a life in which my children live in two homes. A life in which I can’t always look at (or look after) them. All that time lost. All that mothering to somehow do from afar. It has been suffocating to accept. It has been death. These words are not too strong. They barely even begin.

And the pain remains. I will carry it for all my days. But new things are arising alongside it. A new willingness to find pleasure. To revel sometimes. To live again. To leave the desert and stay out on those same city streets past midnight, seeing this town that I love from new angles and new heights. Different lights and shadows.

Meanwhile, Bram started kindergarten. He is struggling to make his way. Courage is so, so beautiful when you know how much work it takes. He sometimes thinks his fears define him. What he can’t see is his willingness to grapple with them. What that means. He is a thousand times braver than he knows.

And Lou started his second year of preschool. He is a fierce and intense creature. His anger comes when it will, and it is a force. His love comes spilling out too, and it is even wilder.

They are present, passionate, invested, and joyful. They are curious. They have not gotten out of this unscathed, but they are strong and well loved. Spending so much time alone with them has been a shimmering gift.

We spent the summer grieving Nemesis.

We might get kittens on Thursday.

Our home is a sanctuary. It is our little world, and it is holy.

And I am here. Praying a lot. Noticing.

Some days, I doubt my ability to meet someone I even want around for however long I’m blessed to be here. Year after year. For all of it. Feeling so compelled by someone that I let them into this bubble that I share with these angel-boys. 

But then I remember what it is to surrender to the work of loving another human. Choosing that. And I also know some things about love. Like how good it is at sweeping away our resistances. And how possible it makes impossible things.

I smile now at the freedom of dating. That’s new. And some of the things I want surprise me, and that is a nice feeling too. It’s also lovely to have the space to look for those things: to privilege them. To wait and trust and be open.

Like kindness, of course. I never knew to prioritize that before. And gratitude. A foundational sense that this is all just gift. To hold it both that seriously and with that much lightness.

And open-mindedness. An ability to imagine why folks think and feel as they do, however much it differs. A natural ability to hold space for that, and not judge it.

Tomorrow will be cooler out there. Sweaters will come out again, and boots. Color will wrap itself around us: richness before the barrenness of white snow and bare branches. And I welcome it all. The quiet closeness of my home with the boys and, for the first time, the brave adventures to which I’m called when they aren’t with me.

 

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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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on desert wisdom (or surrendering to reduced circumstances)

There’s a thing people say a lot now. It is well intentioned and kind, an attempt at reassurance. It goes something like: “at least you can get more rest now, though. So that when you’re with them, you will have even more to give.”

I am sure people feel this way. I know people who feel this way. It is truly reasonable.

But for me it doesn’t work that way. I don’t feel rested when I’ve been away; I feel unsettled. Our routines are disrupted. I need to feel their bodies again, to hold them and come back into us. To smell them, though some of their smells are different. It takes work to fall back into the rhythm that is our family this way, and work then, again, to force myself out of it. All that work more than absorbs the extra hour or two of sleep I get those nights.

Another thing I wish I could find comfort in is moving on. J has. Since the beginning. The boys are spending more and more time with J’s partner now. All those intimacies. It is startling and gut-wrenching, and that fact is irrelevant, and damn if that doesn’t have some lessons about life. Anyway, I want that too. I miss being a family of four, that energy. The recognition between parents of some angel-sweet moment, or of a rising frustration. The day trips and shared splurges and compensations we make for one another. The being in love and in parenthood all at once. To just move on. To refuse to be robbed by this of the third child I still long for. To fill the space when they’re away with dates and parties and courtship. But my efforts even to start down that road have produced panic. Rising anxiety. There’s no space here. This isn’t about resting more, being restored, settling into new love. None of that simple stuff offers comfort.

But the other day, I was reading on my porch: Kathleen Norris’s Dakota. And I found these words and suddenly the first glimmer of freedom-in-this was born. She was writing about living in the plains, about space and absence and chosen loneliness. And she said,

I had stumbled upon a basic truth of asceticism: that it is not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person…. A healthy ascetic discipline asks you to rejoice in these gifts of deprivation, to learn from them, and to care less for amenities than for that which refreshes from a deeper source. Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are.

And this possible freedom sprung up. This deprivation, these reduced circumstances. They have been harder to stomach because unlike a monk I did not choose them, and yet. And yet here they are.

It is easy for me to give thanks for blessings. And easy, even, to be grateful for hardship. This thanks-for-deprivation possibility is new, and I feel ready to bump up against its edges and see what it yields. It is nice even to feel strong enough for the curiosity to arise.

So here I am. With the divorce finalized and my girl-cat of half my life dying. With the boys growing and thriving in two homes. With my mom and friends and family who love me like mad. With this sometimes-too-quiet house and its simple good bones. With me.

With me.

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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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unchurched

I’m currently preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, which I hope to receive in January. Amusingly, I recently restructured our confirmation formation process, which now makes me the first person moving through a structure I built myself, and have yet to witness. If it isn’t a rich and pleasurable experience, I have only myself to blame. ;) This post is by no means a spiritual autobiography, but it is way in to that work: a brief examination of some sweet ways that kid-me found God.

Though I was what church folk call “unchurched,” it’s no effort at all to see the groundwork of the religious life I now adore shimmering throughout my childhood. I already needed all this back then, and the Spirit: she’s a damn good guide.

Prayer: We didn’t seem to pray. Not at the dinner table and not with much structure elsewhere. At least not with any regularity. I remember a song my dad used to sing about a father who sees his daughter praying at night. The image of her kneeling in her darkened room was so vibrant to me in its foreignness. We didn’t pray in any formal way, but oh how our prayers found voice. A whole chorus of voices: Kris Kristofferson. Leonard Cohen. Willie, and Johnny, and June. Bob Dylan and Carole King and Harry Chapin. John Prine and Rosanne Cash and all the storytellers. All the truth tellers. They lamented and longed and witnessed and hoped in ways I recognize now everyday in the Hebrew Bible. In the Gospels. Make me an angel that will fly from Montgomery; make me a poster of an old rodeo; just give me one thing, that I can hold onto. To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go. We sang off-key along with tapes on old decks. Together and alone. Whenever we needed it (and we knew when we needed it, and we needed it all the time). When I think about the pleasure I get now from prayer – the warmth that spreads from just below my throat – I know that we prayed back then. We did, we just never called it that.

All the company of heaven: There is a good bit of loneliness to my early memories, but there’s also a whole lot of community. I think of this sometimes during Eucharistic Prayers: joining our voices with angels and archangels. I look around and feel the presence of those long gone, of those around me, and of those yet to come. That’s something liturgy does. But I remember tapping into it as a child too, and not in a nave. The repetitive comings and goings throughout a community that was ours. The Cigar Factory for breakfast, the lock-up to bail people out of jail, where the cops would bring me something sweet. The music shop and the dress shops; the old curvy roads that bordered the lakes. Everyone knew us and we knew them. Coming and going: something bigger than us. Community. Not of God in any deliberate sense, but of one another, which feels to me now to be pretty much the same thing. The smiles and the kindnesses we’d pay, the kindnesses we’d receive. There was a boldness to the way we lived that suggested we were connected to it all. It was loud and communal, and that was nice.

The bread and the wine: The table. Only then it wasn’t one table: it was hundreds. And it wasn’t a sacrament, but it was an offering. Unconsecrated, but not unholy. Restaurants throughout our city. Tables and waiters and rituals we knew. Food we appreciated with enthusiasm and gratitude. Food we bought for others without reservation. Take, eat. Giving and receiving. No prayer, but thanks, which is prayer. Not the body and blood, but something that filled us and changed us nevertheless. Restaurants were our church. Eating was communal and ritualistic. It fed us far beyond the literal sense.

Churches: This is such a funny part to me now: the parade of churches. To my knowledge both of my parents always believed in God. My dad left the church out of shame; I think my mom felt let down by it. Or if I’m really looking at this, I guess I think it let them both down. Anyway, we went sometimes. A scattering of memories, we went. We shook hands. We sat with bulletins and waited. And then we heard the thing that cheapened it all. The thing that put women in their place, or talked about the sins of the abortionist or the homosexual. The prostitute. The vengeful God. The stuff that my mother could never abide. I can’t get a beat on whether it was five times or fifty, but I know in a bodily way the sense of walking down a center aisle and out a big set of doors – my small hand held in my mom’s grownup one – in the middle of some preacher or another’s bad sermon. There’s not much to my feminism (or for that matter my theology) that can’t be tied back to that side of my mom: it was fearless. When I went with me dad, it was different. Still the searching, still the trying, but then this quiet from him. I wish I could talk with him about God now.

So that’s a start. More, probably, to come; thanks for reading. I hope it’s a good, good day where you are.

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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