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 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.

 

 

 

 

this marriage

This is a hard post to write. Especially following that sweet update about our sweet, sweet boys. This is true mostly because this post is about marriage and – as many of you understand in personal, painful, tired ways – marriage is often not sweet.

And there’s not a lot to say about marriage that isn’t a cliché. Most of us have tried and lots of us have failed. It’s a wretched little trap on a good many levels. It’s also painful to talk about because even though it’s hard, and we all know it, we’re supposed to be getting it right. And it’s a gross and a flinchy feeling to confess that we’re not nailing it. Because what will people think? And so we’re often not honest. We sit in our homes, and we try, and we feel lonely. We feel lonely though chances are our neighbors aren’t nailing it either.

This is compounded, for great hordes of us, by the ineffably HARD variable of young ones. The child-raising. Which because I know you know how much I adore it, I feel free to characterize here simply as work. And in some ways, it demands the same bigness of us that marriage does. Grace, and kindness, and patience. Compassion, and curiosity, and openness, and humility. And really: when one, or two, or more little ones need these traits from us all the time, it is hard to find space to offer them to someone who can take care of their own self. Someone who doesn’t rate in the triage because they won’t run out into oncoming traffic outside of the library. Someone who can live without your grace, and kindness, and patience, and compassion, and curiosity, and openness because they are grown. Because you are not their parent. Except of course that marriage can’t live without that stuff.

This summer was one of our marriage’s darkest chapters. By its outset, we had both finally found profoundly meaningful work, and we had settled into our beloved home. Our kids were finally big enough to climb into their own car seats (when they happened to feel willing to do so). No one was nursing, and if we were content to let them sleep where they wanted, they’d pretty much stay asleep all night. There was, relatively speaking, more ease than there had been before. And maybe for exactly these reasons – because there was space – we looked at our marriage, and we felt betrayed by what we saw. What we saw made me sad, and Jax angry.

Some other making-it-hard facts:

  • Jax has struggled with that charming contemporary American notion that if this is hard, especially if it stays hard for awhile, it might be better to ditch. It is not surprising that Jax thinks this. This is exactly in keeping with what we’re taught about intimacy. I suspect that I only don’t think this because I have a natural proclivity towards suffering.
  • I have some abandonment issues. I need eye contact, reassurance, gentleness. My favorite moment in the original Pooh book is this little exchange:

 Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

  • I feel a tremendous call to a third child. Jax does not.
  • Jax has some stuff around religion that has made my call to ministry a difficult thing. That has hurt my feelings. Jax responds to hurt feelings with anger. It’s a cycle. I’m sure we’re not alone.

The painful truth that this summer has yielded is that it is possible to imagine life on the other side of this marriage. And of course it is. When people say that some degree of suffering is “unimaginable,” they’re not being honest. Or what they mean to say is “I pray that never happens to me.” We’ve all imagined the hell of losing a child. We’ve imagined it precisely because it would be hell. So, it’s imaginable.

But the great glory – on the other side of a summer full of fleas in our home, and Trump’s bid for the White House, and great marital craters – is that I can imagine life without Jax, and I still don’t want it. I would be okay, and I still don’t want it.

There’s an us here that makes these storms worth weathering. Hurtful, but worth weathering. And not just because Jax is the only one who knows why we sometimes sing “Tina” instead of “Dinah” in “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” or remembers eating cold pistachio pesto pizza on the floor of my kitchen on our first date. Who held Bram’s other tiny hand when they took blood out of his newborn foot when his bilirubin was high. Who felt the biting sting of the hospital not putting my name on first Bram’s birth certificate, and then Lou’s. The only other person who knew the terror of Lou’s fall down the basement stairs. Who knows that Bram’s face lights up when his parents sing together. But it isn’t just the history: the eight million irreplaceable private moments that no one on the outside of a marriage could ever grasp. It’s that we chose each other. I chose Jax. And not just the valor or the passion or the boldness, but also the mood swings and the defensiveness. The hard stuff that gets bigger with sleep deprivation, and outside insecurities, and job pressures. The hard stuff that grows when that’s what gets noticed. I believe in this partnership. I am defeated by this summer, but I’m also in love.

My mom and I were talking the other day, and she asked if I was scared that we might not make it. I said I wasn’t, and I tried to explain why. I feel like one of the things I saw growing up was an (understandable and yet worrisome) willingness to let one’s struggles mean more than they need to mean. To let the drama of hard times lead one to the myth of greener pastures. But this middle class home in this Midwestern town. These deeply lived values. This dance of marriage that is so often not pretty: I don’t want anything greener. I mean, I want the fleas to be gone, but mostly, otherwise, this is what I choose.

It’s hard to be honest about marriage, which is maybe part of why we fail at it so much. So if you’re out there, and married, and some of this resonates, then I’m glad I wrote it. I have no big answers, but I think that this work is part of the thing that will save us. I can’t explain what I mean by that, but I feel it in both my guts and my theology. We are meant for these struggles, and for the messy graces we discover within them.