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.

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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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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a small mile

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

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

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

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

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