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.

19579016_10155272689862870_857382562_o19576921_10155272684872870_239883823_o19576732_10155272691072870_388051801_o19549686_10155272690242870_1975488990_o

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.

19549638_10155272689517870_439591357_o19551425_10155272689457870_753017870_o19578566_10155272689202870_836205666_o19578624_10155272690652870_407640209_o19619488_10155272690612870_1465474112_o

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.

19402150_1731900600173411_1224631954213731074_o.jpg

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.

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.

18765711_10155191823642870_3377743497382432174_n

on loneliness and a deep, deep well

I’ve been really struggling lately with the nights away from the boys. Standing in the doorway of their room. Feeling something like paralysis. Knowing it will serve them if I use that time to rest, but struggling to do so.

I met someone amazing, someone with whom I share much connection, but I discovered that I’m in no way ready for that. It was escapist: not the connection, but the timing. As wretched as it is, I need to be standing there in the doorway of their room. I need to be alone when I do it. And I need to unlearn the things about myself that the end of my marriage taught me. I would be nicer to have someone kind unteach me those things, but it wouldn’t be real that way. It would be a propping up. I need the quiet. I need, even, the loneliness. And here’s something I’m proud of: realizing that I need that made me want it. And wanting it made me willing to take it. And that makes me feel brave in a way I’ve never felt brave before.

But brave or not: the loneliness. It is awful. The heartache of losing a marriage against your will. As a friend recently (and gently) pointed out to me, how we experience divorce depends a lot on our subject position in its ending. If we didn’t want it to end, if we lost our partner and time with our children through no choice of our own, the feeling can be a little like hostage taking. It can feel like being robbed. Still, all these months later, it makes me sit up in bed gasping in the night, struggling to breath.

Loneliness. And so I decided to reach out to a group on social media, a group of queer moms. And what’s come of that has been remarkable.

Here’s what I wrote in that space:

Hi all. I’m hoping for some community. My wife ended our marriage last year, and we’ve been slowly transitioning our boys, ages 5 and 3, to a two-home family. Until recently, they spent most of their nights with me, but that is shifting now to a more even division.

I never imagined that I would spend nights away from my babies. I have meaningful work and deep friendships and yet: parenthood is far and away my strongest joy. The nights the boys spend away from me are crushing. I can hardly bear their absence from our home, from their bed. Not adding an extra blanket before I fall asleep; not checking their breathing; not having my youngest wake up in the night and stumble in to me; not hearing my oldest call for me in the early morning. It is anguish.

I have an incredible support network, a strong prayer life, and well-established comfort and coping measures. And yet: those nights feel endless. I’m not really asking for advice, but I would love the witness of any of you who have experienced loss of this nature. I would love just to feel a little less alone.

The response? Dozens and dozens of comments from mamas who have experienced the same loss. Who are still in the depths of sorrow. Who are past that, mostly, and healing. Who have found strength and power and new life. Who haven’t yet. Who have drawn closer to their children. Whose children are struggling still. Who say:

Yes.

And: I went through this. 

And: Your words brought tears to my eyes because I remember.

And: This is crushing. I know. I know it is.  

You are mourning. It will get easier. 

I am so sorry for your pain. I am so sorry. 

You are not alone. We are here. 

Sister: you’ve got this. 

Know how they knew to say all that? Because every bit of sorrow I’m feeling has been felt before. And is felt now. And will be felt again.

I spent much of the first twenty-four hours after their comments started rolling in crying.

Though community and community experience is extremely important to me, I’ve been mostly coping with this in specific terms (i.e. with regards to me and my boys). I think that’s all I could handle. I wasn’t ready for empathy: for thinking about the scale and scope of this pain out there in the world. I wasn’t ready to know this was a community unto itself.

The thread on that page exploded the privacy of my experience, which felt a little like diving into a deep body of water: water that is anguish and pain and loss, but also water that is shared. That is healing. That spans time and space.

I have felt these past days a deep sense of connection with all of the moms who shared, and with the countless mamas and papas and parents who have had to face this loss. It is not a source of connection I’d have chosen us to share with one another, but it is a source of connection, and for that reason it is also a gift.

We suffer, and then we grow strong at those points of suffering. Maybe like the Japanese tradition of adding gold where pottery cracks: we grow beautiful there. What I saw in that thread was pain grown beautiful.

The moms on that thread, they offered me wisdom, and bravery, and honesty. They witnessed to me so that I could witness to them. Now when I stand at the door to my boys’ room, I know I’m doing it in the company of many. In blessed company. It is a deep well, and water heals.

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.”

 

this call

I’ve updated this space about my wicked sweet kiddos, and about our finding-sure-ground-again marriage. But I haven’t written much about this new work, which is not so new anymore, I guess.

When I think back two years to that first time we walked through the wide, old door and into the nave, I am flooded with sense memories. I remember the smell: melted candle wax and wood polish and autumn air. I remember the feeling of wrapping Lou in the back of the church during a hymn, his tiny body pressed tightly against me while he fussed: expanding lungs against tiny expanding lungs, heartbeat against heartbeat. I remember pacing the narthex until he finally fell asleep, and then wanting to go back in, but being unable to stop crying. The sensation was of release. Relief. Lightness that by necessity meant tears. I remember Bram’s toddler-voice during the homily: “Jesus Christ?! ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ has a Jesus Christ!” I remember the awkwardness of that first time at the altar, and the longing to go back, which hit me at once. I also remember the shyness of my longing: how desperately I wanted to be invisible, and yet also never to leave. To be held and yet left entirely alone. Like I had come home, but no one else would think I belonged there. That one took quite awhile to shake.

But when I remember that first day – how it felt – I see and feel other things too, things that weren’t part of the physical experience. This gorgeous downtown church feels, in my memory, like a simple, tiny chapel in the middle of some vast green countryside. I have the inexplicable impression of a wooden porch and creaky doors, of the smell of wet timber and pine needles. Of the warmth of radiator heat. Of having received real bread and not the small round wafers we use. Of not crying at all. Of not feeling out of place. Of a room with fifteen people instead of a hundred and fifty.

When I think of the start of my work in ministry, this is the day I recall. Not the day I was baptized (accepting a hand knit shawl as a symbol of our shared work), and not the day I sat at my desk for the first time, dizzyingly overwhelmed. Not then, but this first day and the open doors and the landscape behind me: both city streets and pastoral hills. All those years of feeling like I couldn’t find a point of entry were of service. As unlikely and naïve and providential as it must sound, a thirty-five year Advent season – waiting, wanting – was just right. Right enough to make me smile now. I don’t think I ever could have been casually religious, and it is a kind of suffering to try to imagine knowing this was here and not being a part of it. I was only ever built for immersion, and immersion wouldn’t have been right before now. For me, faith requires the offering of faith. Means serving as a conduit. I was called that first day at the rail. The families under my care. Their marriages and their struggles and their joys. Their longing and despair and peace. Their children’s ashes in our columbarium, which I visit and pray with, though none of them know about that. The welcome heaviness of loving them, and worrying over them, and taking seriously the privilege of it all.

I feel about parishioners differently than I’ve felt about people before. A different way, I mean. Differently than I felt about students. Differently than I felt about people I served alongside. Even parishioners who leave: whose work takes them elsewhere, so that I wait for e-mails and updates to know how they’re doing. So that I feel lightness and joy when I see their faces again. There’s a different thing my heart does. It is a unique kind of loving people, being a part of their work with God. It is soft and warm. It asks for investment, commitment, love, detachment, and connection. It asks for presence.

I’ll preach in this old church for the first time October 16th. I got to preach in a small chapel at a Benedictine monastery over the summer, but this will be different: hundreds of people, and home. Because my mom and wife are generous souls, I’ll wear a lace alb, which is feminine and flowy and also a kind of homecoming. And I’ll be standing about four feet from that place I first knelt to receive. Maybe I’ll also still be in that countryside chapel. But in the meantime, I’ll read widely and deeply and try not to give in to the sense that I’m wildly behind. The timeline I’d have chosen for myself would never have yielded offerings this sweet.

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.