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.

 

 

 

here we are

It’s afternoon here on a cold, bright Sunday. Both boys fell asleep on the drive back from brunch, and though I should transfer them, there is pleasure in the sun shining in through my car windows and the vibration of the engine still running. I can hear them breathing. I can see the leaves falling from the trees in my backyard.

Our nation is in trouble. My marriage is in trouble. That word falls short on both fronts. These are not things I would choose, but the first theological rule is: what is, is.

“Here we are,” I have learned to say this past month, and again this past week. Here we are. Violence around us, and fear and blindness. Heartache. Here we are.

I want to stand still. I can move through but cannot live in the emotions of suffering: shock, terror, rage, anguish. The small pleasures of each moment are everything these days, and I’m becoming brave enough to live in them. The feel of a boy-hand sliding itself into mine. Warm skin. A friend’s open-mouthed laughter. My mom’s voiced smile. Hot cocoa from a thermos made for sharing. Sisters who will read me to sleep while I shake. Sisters and brothers who answer the phone. Kindness anywhere it shows up, in whatever form. 

How I linger to admire, admire, admire the things of this world that are kind.

Winter is coming, and I’m breathing my way into that. Disappearing days and clean, white, paralyzing snow. I cannot save us from anything. I am, by circumstance, more hermit than hero. But I can watch these boys sleep through my rear-view mirror. I can look at the sun on Lou’s face and worry that his cheeks are too hot. I can bake until our whole house smells like gingerbread. I can kneel down and embrace and receive wet kisses. I couldn’t pray for awhile, but I can again. Reaching beyond the enormous gulf and into the eternal, which is vast enough to restore me. My image for faith: a high open window.

One day I hope our kids will read this space. Everything I’ve written here is for them. We are made of stories. We get to choose how we tell them. We get to choose how we tell them.

 

this call

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

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

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

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

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

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

unchurched

I’m currently preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, which I hope to receive in January. Amusingly, I recently restructured our confirmation formation process, which now makes me the first person moving through a structure I built myself, and have yet to witness. If it isn’t a rich and pleasurable experience, I have only myself to blame. ;) This post is by no means a spiritual autobiography, but it is way in to that work: a brief examination of some sweet ways that kid-me found God.

Though I was what church folk call “unchurched,” it’s no effort at all to see the groundwork of the religious life I now adore shimmering throughout my childhood. I already needed all this back then, and the Spirit: she’s a damn good guide.

Prayer: We didn’t seem to pray. Not at the dinner table and not with much structure elsewhere. At least not with any regularity. I remember a song my dad used to sing about a father who sees his daughter praying at night. The image of her kneeling in her darkened room was so vibrant to me in its foreignness. We didn’t pray in any formal way, but oh how our prayers found voice. A whole chorus of voices: Kris Kristofferson. Leonard Cohen. Willie, and Johnny, and June. Bob Dylan and Carole King and Harry Chapin. John Prine and Rosanne Cash and all the storytellers. All the truth tellers. They lamented and longed and witnessed and hoped in ways I recognize now everyday in the Hebrew Bible. In the Gospels. Make me an angel that will fly from Montgomery; make me a poster of an old rodeo; just give me one thing, that I can hold onto. To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go. We sang off-key along with tapes on old decks. Together and alone. Whenever we needed it (and we knew when we needed it, and we needed it all the time). When I think about the pleasure I get now from prayer – the warmth that spreads from just below my throat – I know that we prayed back then. We did, we just never called it that.

All the company of heaven: There is a good bit of loneliness to my early memories, but there’s also a whole lot of community. I think of this sometimes during Eucharistic Prayers: joining our voices with angels and archangels. I look around and feel the presence of those long gone, of those around me, and of those yet to come. That’s something liturgy does. But I remember tapping into it as a child too, and not in a nave. The repetitive comings and goings throughout a community that was ours. The Cigar Factory for breakfast, the lock-up to bail people out of jail, where the cops would bring me something sweet. The music shop and the dress shops; the old curvy roads that bordered the lakes. Everyone knew us and we knew them. Coming and going: something bigger than us. Community. Not of God in any deliberate sense, but of one another, which feels to me now to be pretty much the same thing. The smiles and the kindnesses we’d pay, the kindnesses we’d receive. There was a boldness to the way we lived that suggested we were connected to it all. It was loud and communal, and that was nice.

The bread and the wine: The table. Only then it wasn’t one table: it was hundreds. And it wasn’t a sacrament, but it was an offering. Unconsecrated, but not unholy. Restaurants throughout our city. Tables and waiters and rituals we knew. Food we appreciated with enthusiasm and gratitude. Food we bought for others without reservation. Take, eat. Giving and receiving. No prayer, but thanks, which is prayer. Not the body and blood, but something that filled us and changed us nevertheless. Restaurants were our church. Eating was communal and ritualistic. It fed us far beyond the literal sense.

Churches: This is such a funny part to me now: the parade of churches. To my knowledge both of my parents always believed in God. My dad left the church out of shame; I think my mom felt let down by it. Or if I’m really looking at this, I guess I think it let them both down. Anyway, we went sometimes. A scattering of memories, we went. We shook hands. We sat with bulletins and waited. And then we heard the thing that cheapened it all. The thing that put women in their place, or talked about the sins of the abortionist or the homosexual. The prostitute. The vengeful God. The stuff that my mother could never abide. I can’t get a beat on whether it was five times or fifty, but I know in a bodily way the sense of walking down a center aisle and out a big set of doors – my small hand held in my mom’s grownup one – in the middle of some preacher or another’s bad sermon. There’s not much to my feminism (or for that matter my theology) that can’t be tied back to that side of my mom: it was fearless. When I went with me dad, it was different. Still the searching, still the trying, but then this quiet from him. I wish I could talk with him about God now.

So that’s a start. More, probably, to come; thanks for reading. I hope it’s a good, good day where you are.

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.