expansion

There’s an indulgence to this little stretch of time. This time when my family is holding steady: me and the boys. My mom. When my work is solid and beloved. I am not restless. I love my home, and the labors to which I set myself. My children. My city. And my friends! Good Lord, my friends. This morning – on my little drive to the church – I counted some twenty humans who saved my life this year. Who saved my life. They did.

I spend time alone. When the boys aren’t with me – when I let myself sink into that – I choose who to be with. Where to go. I explore. I read when I want. I drink cheap wine and listen to music I adore. I stretch out in bed. I wake up slowly. I listen to the coffee as it brews. I miss the boys and feel out of sorts. I long for them, and then just walk with that. Is is okay.

I date when I want, and find pleasure in it. I don’t need it. I sit in our little chapel during the Eucharist on Wednesdays and love everyone so much I ache. I stand at the threshold between church and chapel on Sundays and take in all those faces. All those stories I’ve come to care about. All those stories now entwined in mine. I love them all with perfect madness. I am dizzy from loving them. I say, “it might kill me, all this love.” And friends say, “Thank God we’re not called to survival.” It is okay to die for love. There is resurrection.

And in this fertile space – when I let it feel fertile and not barren, which is all in the looking – I have learned some things about me. And I like that too. New discoveries. It feels indulgent even to be breathe deeply enough to make those.

Like: here’s one secret this year has taught me.

I still love cities. The anonymity of a crowded sidewalk. The voices. The coffee cups, and alleyways, and sharp buzzing air. But now I can be charmed by wide open countryside. And also by small towns with rundown two-block-long Main Streets. These spaces all have gifts to offer, and I can see those gifts now with grateful eyes.

And they call to me. Maybe I’ll stay in this solid, old house. It is sweet and stable and never showy. It is two miles from my beloved downtown. I could finish the basement some day; put in a second bathroom. Restore the fireplace. Lay tile. When it needs a new roof, I could put metal up there. I could love it that long; offer myself to it that fully. It is good and it is enough.

But maybe, too, these boys and I will land in a smaller town somewhere nearby. A town with a little grocery a block away where I could send the boys on their bikes to grab butter or lemons.

Or on some stretch of land: a barn with old rafters, tall trees to explore, winds that spring up and startle. With farmers for neighbors, and pitch black nights, and stars all over the place.

Those landscapes surround this beloved city, and I’ve ventured out into them, and I like what I see. They sing to me quietly, and I find myself open to their songs.

Isn’t that lovely? The invitation to feel open to possibility? I have so few answers these days, and I’m learning to settle down in the face of that.

Here’s a pretty prayer I pray sometimes.

May I open my heart and mind to continuous growth, unexpected change, and the perpetual unsettling, liberating expansion of being alive. May I have the courage to name and sanctify this moment that is shaping me into the image of the ever-evolving Divine. Blessed are you, our God, the Renewing One of the world, who has allowed me to reach this time of transformation.

Amen.

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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.

 

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.