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 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.”

 

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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anamnesis

Anamnesis: remembering that makes present.

We use it to talk about the Eucharistic prayer, which moves us back through Christ’s Last Supper, his offering of self, body and blood. His invitation to community. His death. It brings us to that table. It makes the time of two thousand years collapse.

Anamnesis: remembering that makes present.

Sense memories that move you back into a moment long gone, and yet not gone at all. And yet startlingly not gone.

It happened in the car some days back. An old song came on, and I was driving with my boys on a bright autumn afternoon. And then, too, riding passenger next to my dad through the Adirondack Mountains the summer I turned twenty-one. I was a present daughter to my dad who is gone, and a mother to my boys who weren’t here. Driver and passenger. Young and nearly twice as much life behind me. Expectant and just this broken. It wasn’t a memory. Two light qualities at once. Different air. I felt weak after. My dad was dead again.

Leonard Cohen is dead now too, and Donald Trump will be president. Our babies are angelic and bright and so little of their story is written. I miss my wife as though there’s a hole clean through me. That slate-eyed creature, my fellow journeyman. My once fellow journeyman.

I recall us. Remembering that makes present. Anamnesis isn’t always a gift.

I move back through this space looking for clues. Six years of our story. I search that twenty-one year old daughter. I can’t save her from feeling this one day. I can give her these boys, but she’ll have to parent them in the world. She can have them, but so will the world.

I have never before understood how dangerous hope is. Like walking a rope held taut between twin towers.

Cohen’s last offering was this. It feels like a portent. John Brown’s body, as Melville showed it to us: Hanging from the beam. I don’t know what happens when we kill the flame. I don’t know what happens.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

an invitation to rest

This is something I wrote a few weeks ago for a blog I now keep for my work. I have other posts in mind for this space: an update on these not.still.tiny humans; a relatively honest account of marriage at ten years of togetherness and two preschool-aged kiddos; a little about the explosively gorgeous (for the human that is me) work of ministry; and an attempt at explaining why it is (though baffling, though maddening, though wildly impractical) impossible for me to give up on the idea of a third child. But this (below) is a thing we’re doing, and have been doing for a month now, and have already been pretty damn changed by. And so I share it with you.

Thanks, by the way, for your kind and robust welcome home. I think I’ve been unsure what to write here because I wasn’t sure what would be, to you, worth reading. What you said was: my voice. Our voices. That’s worth reading. I’m not sure there’s a kinder message than that.

And so, an invitation:

A thing that has been said to me is that I’m not great at relaxation. And it’s something that worries me because: I believe in rest. I’m not interested in more-is-more life, or parenting, or work. And I’m for sure not interested in busier-is-better spirituality. The people I most admire move more slowly than that. They make more space.

But I don’t move slowly. At least not on the surface. On the surface, I’m not great at relaxation.

I tried to greet this reality by imagining a way out of some of the work in which I engage. But the truth is, I engage in it because it feels worth doing. And I imagine that’s true for most of us. How I parent. How I labor. What I cook. The walks I like to take and the books I like to read. It’s all important to me. More important than the indulgence I’m supposed to want.

And yet I’m tired. Most of the time. Part of this is because I’m a parent of young children and – ask any of us – tired is a thing. I’m also lucky enough to have deeply fulfilling work, which has the gratifying if exhausting consequence of meaning I long to do more. I stay up late at night because doing more brings me joy. And so: tired.

But I’ve been offering space lately to this question: how might I meet my need for more rest without giving up any of the beloved endeavors to which I offer myself? Without ceding to the notion that I’d be somehow more whole if I binge watched Orange is the New Black instead of reading theology and listening to sermons once the kids go to bed.

And so I’ve turned to an old practice. Like, Genesis-old. Then-God-Rested-old. Sabbath. I’m far from alone in this return, of course, though what I see of this practice being practiced is scattered. And it is by all accounts countercultural in contemporary America.

To be clear: this isn’t a post that extols the virtues of a long-held practice of Sabbath-keeping, though plenty of those exist. It isn’t a summary of the scriptural origins of the practice, though consider reading those because there’s immense wisdom in what our desert mothers and fathers had to say on the subject. And it isn’t a deep-dive into the theology behind Sabbath-keeping, though Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a pretty gorgeous one of those, if you’d like to read alongside me. Instead, this is an invitation. Because like many of us, I work best in community. And because I’m guessing that lots of you wish you knew how to slow down too. I’m not alone in needing more rest, and I’m not alone in being unsure how to get it.

So (the Tiniest Little Bit) About Sabbath:

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori (badass former presiding bishop for the whole Episcopal Church, thank you feminism in religion) teaches here that “Sabbath can be an opportunity to learn more deeply what God asks of each of us — loving our neighbors, each one made in God’s image, as we love ourselves.” And, I mean: I for sure need to work on that.

Jane Carol Redmont describes Sabbath keeping as “a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy.” But Redmont also writes about how hard it is to get students even to experiment with the practice. I met with such resistance when I tried to get students to do media blackouts: to unplug for forty-eight hours. Lord have mercy; they found even the suggestion traumatic.

Rabbi Heschel writes what is, perhaps, my favorite recommendation. He says, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement….to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And then there’s also this.

Sabbath-Keeping as Protest:

Author Stephen W. Smith writes that “when practiced, Sabbath-keeping is an active protest against a culture that is always on, always available and always looking for something else to do.”

Boom. Right? Fuck yes to that protest?

It was in talking this through with my wife that the reasons for our cultural resistance to true rest became clearer to me. We’re offered ways to buy rest: television, movies, dessert, alcohol, amusement parks, vacations, prepared food brought to our table. And don’t get me wrong: aside from amusement parks, I dig these things. But really, most of those forms of rest are stimulating, right? They might bring pleasure; they’re surely entertaining; and they offer a passive form of indulgence – maybe even luxury – that might pass for rest. But they aren’t likely to bring us stillness, a sense of enough, or gratitude for what is and not what can be made to be. They won’t make us aware of how amazing it is that our hearts are all beating.

Heschel writes: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.” It seems to me that real rest is a form of celebration. And it doesn’t make anyone money. There’s nothing there to market to us, which is probably why we’re culturally discouraged from making space for it. There’s nothing to sell because rest, celebration, means we already have all that we need. Enough. It means more than enough.

Our First Sabbath:

So this week, for the first time, my family kept a sort of Sabbath, which consisted among more nuanced shifts of a commitment to abstain from all internet/media activities. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (because church work means I can’t keep Sabbath on Sundays), we put the devices away. We played music from neglected CDs on our old player in the kitchen (instead of our carefully curated playlists on Spotify). That first night, when the kids were sleeping and the chores were done and it was only 9:30pm, I settled in our old glider and read almost fifty pages of a novel in a dark house with no glowing screens. And then I prayed for longer. And then I slept.

The next morning, we went to the farmer’s market, and I didn’t take pictures of my kids’ faces when I said they could have the freshly fried donuts they smelled from the other side of the market. I didn’t take pictures when they saw red sunflowers or tasted the most perfect yellow tomatoes on earth. I was just there.

When we got home, I cooked lunch slowly, enjoying the sound of the boys playing outside, and the feel of my cool kitchen, and the indulgence of good food. We invited friends over spontaneously, and watched the kids get wet and muddy. I paid a little more mind to my breath, to my posture. I paid a little more mind to my wife. I worked (cooking, parenting, sweeping the floor), but more slowly, with intentionality and joy. I took pleasure even in washing dishes. I worried less about how long bedtime would take. There’s no evidence, but I think I smiled more.

I’m in, at least for the year. At least until next August, some version of this will be our lives from Fridays at sundown through Saturday nights. I’m already looking forward to next week. If you think you might join us, will you let me know? I’d love insight into what you’re reading, or how you’ve kept this spiritual practice in the past, or how your family practiced it growing up. I’d love to know how it works for you now. Even in this new, fumbling stage, I am grateful to be on this road, and I would be thrilled to have company.

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