Loaves and Fishes and Mothers

This post has sat in my drafts folder for over a year.

A year ago, I had a newborn and a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and no childcare. A year ago, we were a year deep into the pandemic and I was way past the point of an empty tank. In this metaphor, if the car is me, I had long since broken down on the side of the road. I wasn’t even trying to get somewhere anymore.

Most mornings, not every morning, I turned on Daniel Tiger for my kids and opened up Zoom to join a handful of people from my church in morning prayer. I found a brief respite and comfort in praying for the needs of others, and asking for intercession for my own needs: some variation on the theme of more patience, more sleep, more courage, more love.

I found relief– and hope– in the closing prayer: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

I wanted so much for God to do infinitely more in me.

On every front, in every direction I looked, I was failing. I wanted to be in the streets, protesting, or helping feed and house neighbors in my city, but I couldn’t even manage to create peace or assuage hunger in my own home. Not significant enough. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, I cried in front of my kids just about every day. Not strong enough. I’d manage to choke back my frustration and respond calmly to one or two sibling squabbles, only to lose it after the third or fourth, making little eyes well and chins quiver in spite of my most desperate efforts. Not patient enough.

Locking myself in the bathroom so I could take a few deep breaths, while the baby wailed from the next room, I’d succumb to self-berating thoughts: Not selfless enough. All day, I looked forward to Lyle’s return from work, only to hear harsh and accusing words come out of my mouth the minute he walked through the door. Not loving enough.

Where is God in all of this? I wondered. What does it mean to have God’s power working in me? When does that kick in?

Any time I could get a break for 20 minutes, I started listening to podcasts on the Way of Love from the Episcopal church website. I’d sit in the big recliner downstairs with my earbuds in and close my eyes. One day I heard Bishop Mariann Budde give a reflection on the General Thanksgiving, another of my favorite parts of the morning prayer liturgy. As part of her encouragement to develop a daily habit of reading a small amount of scripture every day, she gave an example of a time when her daily practice of reading the bible really showed her that this is how God wants to speak to us.

Thirty years ago, when she was an associate priest and a new parent–with all the sleep deprivation and constraints on her time and energy that that entails– she had the opportunity to serve on the board of a local food pantry. She wanted more than anything to be able to volunteer more of her time, to visit the food pantry and be part of its day-to-day operations, but in the end, all she was able to do during her one-year term was to show up at the monthly meetings. She drove to the last meeting with a speech of apology prepared, feeling badly for not having been able to do more, and was left speechless when the board chairwoman gave a speech of her own, praising Mariann effusively for all that she had brought to them during her time. Mariann reflected that the chairwoman’s words “didn’t change my internal assessment of my contribution, but I also didn’t get the sense she was lying.”

The next day during her regular time of prayer and reading, she opened her bible to the story of Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The disciples are anxious at the prospect of feeding a crowd of thousands, and they go to Jesus with their worry. They ask Jesus to feed the thousands, and instead Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” We couldn’t possibly, the disciples reply. We don’t have enough. Jesus asks them, “What do you have?” And with their meager offering of a few fish and a small amount of bread, Jesus calls down blessings on the food, turning it over to God and then asking them to distribute it. You know the rest of the story. How there was more than enough the feed the thousands, and baskets of food remaining.

In her armchair 30 years ago, Bishop Budde reflects, she realized she had experienced that miracle in her own life. By God’s grace, what the people on her board experienced from her– what felt like an meager offering– was more than enough. “What Jesus needed from me was to making my offering, however insufficient it seemed to me,” she says. “Every day, in fact, I am still faced with needs I cannot meet and tasks I cannot manage. I don’t understand how the miracle of abundance works, I’ve only experienced that it does.”

This reflection brought me so much peace and reassurance, during a time of complete overwhelm and disappointment in myself. I’d never before thought about the disciples’ participation in the miracle, how Jesus repeatedly invites his followers into the experience of God’s love and abundance. You give them something to eat. Offer what you have, and turn to me, trusting me with the rest.

That Bishop Budde’s experience of abundance happened right in the midst of motherhood made the message all the more immediate to me. In her beautiful essay “Multiply Me,” Samantha Stephenson writes of the freedom that comes from admitting our own insufficiency, as mothers. “Everyone is crying,” she writes. “It’s need after need, and when do I rest?”

Like Mariann and Samantha, I, too, feel overwhelmed by the needs all around me, and frustrated by my inability to meet them. The miracle and mystery of the loaves and fishes is all about God’s sufficiency, Christ’s mercy– and yet it’s about the disciples’ faith, too. It’s about the heart-change involved in turning over more of your life to God. If I want to experience God’s grace and abundance in my life, I need to keep turning to him, in prayer and in reading and in mothering, too.

Lord, multiply me, I pray,” Samantha writes. “I pray wondering when grace will kick in, until I realize it isn’t coming. It’s already here.”

It’s the not-enoughness that is the gift, she writes. It’s in our insufficiency that we are able to experience God’s grace, in the stretching of our bodies and hearts, in our turning and returning to God in word and prayer.

This essay has sat in my drafts folder for a year. It’s a year later, and I am sitting in a coffee shop in eastern Washington, the first plane flight and first trip I’ve made since March 2020. I’ve just spent a nourishing, cup-filling 48 hours in the company of three other mother-writers, people from different corners of the West whose writing I’ve admired from afar for some time. It’s a rare privilege for each of us to do this, to make the drive or book the flight or arrange childcare. None of us takes it for granted, and most of us won’t have an opportunity like this again for a while. We’ve met here to write, and we’re writing now, but we’ve also met here to talk, to swap stories and ideas and share the frustration that mother-writers know so well: not enough time for writing, not enough of a “platform” to meet the publishing world’s standards. How can it possibly be enough, the weekly two-hour window of babysitting time, the irregularly-shaped margins of the baby’s naptimes, the newsletter or the blog post? Are we doing it right? Should we be doing more?

None of us have come away with answers to those questions, but I think (I hope) we’re each returning home with encouragement to keep going. To keep offering what we’ve been given, what we have, as mothers and as writers, and trusting God to multiply it. To somehow turn our not-enough into more-than-enough. In a way, the conversations we’ve had are the more-than-enough, an experience of God’s provision through friendship and love.

In a few hours, I will get back on the plane and return to my family, to Lyle who’s been solo with all three kids while I’ve been gone. The next few weeks are so full, I’ve printed and reprinted a calendar grid several times to keep track of all the obligations I’ve promised to fulfill: Zoom meetings and errands, dance classes and swim lessons, doctor appointments and clinic shifts. Somewhere in there, I plan to study for the acupuncture school module next weekend, and maybe I’ll find a few scraps of time to read and to write.

I’ll offer what I have, and I’ll fall far short of my own and others’ expectations. I won’t be able to meet the needs all around me in the way I want to. But I’ll make time each day to read just a little bit from the bible, because I know that is where God will continue to speak to me, and give me an experience of his abundance.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

By Heart

Love is a fire truck, red as a heart, I whisper to my one-year-old in her pajamas. Her hands, perfect dimples and seashell nails, fumble with the pages, eager to turn them before I’m through with the story. She mimics the siren’s woo woo woo just like her brother did when he was smaller, shuts the last page emphatically like her sister used to do. We know this book by heart.

She knows what’s next, too, in the bedtime routine. We turn on ocean sounds from the owl lamp on her dresser, more static than waves after six years of service. We turn off the light, and my baby rests her head on my chest, pops her thumb in her mouth to listen while I sing and rock.

*

What do I know by heart?

Good Night Moon, its lilting rhythm intertwined with the guilt I felt when sleep-training our first-born. Where the Wild Things Are, the vine of its rhyme wrapped around memories of our precocious talker, who would complete the final phrases of each line: His mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said…? “I eee you up!”

Songs from library storytime. The Paw Patrol theme song. Old nursery rhymes: a penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle–three objects fast becoming outdated, unknown by my children, though they know Mommy’s going to school to become an acupuncturist, to use what my oldest calls my “soft needles” to help people with pain and sadness and sleeplessness.

Slowly, I’m memorizing the Shu Transport points, and the five systems of the Balance Method, flipping through flashcards kept in my jacket pocket, in line at Winco. Little by little, I work this ancient medicine into my heart. Halfway through acupuncture school, half of me is always studying. On the walk to school, tracing the edges of little hands to find Large Intestine 5 in the dip beneath the thumb bone, Heart 9 at the top of a tiny pinky finger.

*

There are some things we can only know by heart. There’s no other way to account for it.

It’s just before sunset and I’m at Fossil Beach with this guy I know. We are 20 and 21 years old and we’ve spent the fall hanging out in each other’s tiny kitchens between classes, cooking each other oatmeal, or sharing jam jars of wine and talking late about Robinson Jeffers and planets and our families. Then today, he asked me to spend the afternoon at the beach, and we packed a paper bag picnic and I climbed, heart pounding, into the passenger seat of his red truck. I was sure he could hear my heart then, and I’m sure he can hear it now, sitting side by side on this driftwood log, staring at a peach sky.

When he asks if he can kiss me, I know — I know. My heart is in my mouth and I’m so sure of the rightness of us, it scares me. Years later, I’ll still struggle to describe what I feel in this moment, how my heart seemed to know who this was. I’ll wonder if I’ve overlaid the moment with every moment since then– 18 years of loving him.

*

Maybe it’s both. A flash of recognition, the heart understanding something you can’t speak aloud. And also speaking words aloud, until they sink deep into your heart. You learn something by heart, by accident or on purpose, through repetition. Until it becomes dull and meaningless (a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush), or until it shines with the gleam of purposeful reuse.

Like the sturdiness of recited prayer: old words gripped tight as a banister, steadying feet for the climb. I started with the Lord’s Prayer as a child, copied it onto paper in Sunday school, then clung to it through childhood nights when I braved the dark alone, whispering the words over and over to myself.

Decades later, I am praying one decade of Hail Marys at a time, learning the Anglican rosary. Running my fingers over plastic beads, I find small spaces of peace between naptimes. I speak the words aloud and feel connected to the millions of people who have said them before me, are saying them now. It becomes both my prayer, and not mine. My words, and not mine. I am a mother with very human worries in my heart, and I am somehow connected to the Holy Mother in the space created by these prayers. The worries still and settle like the beads, sliding into place.

“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved,” Paul wrote to the first believers two thousand years ago (Romans 10:10).

Belief and knowing happen deep within us, where there are no words. But belief can be sparked by words, by testimony and prayers, poetry and letters. And when we believe– when we fall in love with God– we have to speak it. Like the circle of beads, belief and words are interconnected. A mystery.

Even Paul, encouraging those early believers from a distance, was sending them older words they would have recognized, from the Torah: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you may obey it.” (Deut 30:14)

I want the word of God near me like this. In fact, I’m realizing anew how much I need the word of God every day, all day long. Otherwise, I forget. I fall asleep, again and again, just like the disciples. I say I want to hear God’s voice and know God’s purpose for me, but really I have been refusing the simple (not easy) truth that God’s purpose for me is the same as for everyone who tries to follow Jesus: to point others to God, to be used by God.

To hear God’s voice, I need to bring not just prayer but the bible into the rhythm of my days, in whatever way I can manage it. Reading a Psalm and a chapter of a book from the New Testament before I clear the lunch dishes. Listening to a hymn in the car on my way to preschool pickup. Tucking a verse into my stack of flashcards. I want to have more of God’s word in my heart so I can better hear what God has to say to me each day. So I can have the word in my mouth and in my heart.

*

Rocking my baby in the dark, I’m doing what I do every time I put her down for a nap or for the night: focusing every part of my attention on her, taking all of it in, as if I’m studying for a test. I’m learning her by heart, because each day feels like a train that carries us further from babyhood, closer to the future.

Outside the door, I hear my husband ask our son for the nineteenth time if he’s sure he’s done with dinner. Doesn’t he want some of the yummy green beans? We both know all he’s had to eat is the bun around the hot dog, a swipe of ketchup. And still there’s patience in my husband’s voice. Kindness, and weariness too.

After this comes the long trudge across the desert toward the oasis of bedtime– all three kids asleep, and maybe some time for talking again, just the two of us. These days it’s mugs of tea and not wine, but there’s still talk about poetry and planets and our family.

But first there’s teeth-brushing, pajama-wrangling, small-naked-person-chasing down the hallway. No, I don’t know where your bear slippers are. Yes, I will fill up your water-bottle. It’s time for a story. It’s time for lights out. Okay, go to the bathroom then come right back. Yes, I will sing you a song. No, you just went to the bathroom. Good night. It’s time for bed. It’s time for bed.

Most nights, I am so desperate for them to be in bed, I try to speed things up. But some nights, I remember to weave prayer into their bedtime routine. I want them to have this habit. There’s one we’ve been trying out lately that they like, from a little book, Praying with My Fingers. Each finger represents a different group of people to pray for: friends and family, teachers, leaders, the sick, and yourself. I count with my fingers, and learn how to pray.

In a way, children already know how to pray, I think. They have their ears resting on God’s chest, listening to the heartbeat there, like my baby does. I think this is what Jesus means by having a childlike faith. Children know they are small and need help. They know they are loved, and that someone knows what they need, and cares about their hurts and their worries. I am teaching my kids, in my imperfect way, about God, hoping they’ll love Jesus. But they’re also teaching me, about trusting God and resting in his unconditional love.

I think of the routine my son and I stumbled into, through the creativity of desperation, at his first preschool drop-off last year. Let’s tie strings to our hearts! I whispered, getting down to look into tear-filled eyes over his mask. He whimpered, but watched as I pantomimed unspooling a long thread, whipping it in the air like a lasso. He giggled as I coiled it around my heart, then very carefully tied the other end around his. Remember if you miss me today, you can pull on your heart-string, and I’ll feel it. Sometimes now, he runs into his classroom without looking back. And sometimes he gets out his invisible string, and he lassos my heart.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Love Looks Like”.

Some Imperfect Thoughts on an Imperfect Faith

I pray for others daily, even though I don’t know how prayer works. Does it “move the hand of God,” as a former pastor used to say, prompting me to visualize an arcade game, a claw crane grasping at tiny rubber ducks? Is it more about the person praying, an engagement with the Holy Spirit that changes our own internal state, so that we become God’s hands and feet in the world? Is prayer an act of connecting to an energetic force, something already at work, and allowing ourselves to feel our participation in something huge and real, something that definitely impacts our hearts and others’ lives? All of these feel true to me on some level, and I don’t need to know definitively to believe in prayer, or to pray.

*

My prayers are flimsy sometimes. Little half-sentences tossed up to God as I drive the car, brush my teeth, chop carrots. Other times they are long conversations that blend into that middle zone of consciousness, between alertness and sleep. Sometimes writing feels like prayer. Sometimes looking at a sunset or into a baby’s eyes, feeling music fall deeply into my chest, putting my hands into dirt feels like prayer. Maybe prayer is a bridge, something that can take many shapes, that can lead us from one place to another, even if at first it’s just one step.

*

A perennial worry: That I’m not doing enough to nurture my children’s faith. That my own faith is still forming, still blurred around the edges, so what is it I’m imparting?

*

As a family, we pray sporadically before dinner– short, simple prayers of gratitude for our home, a hot meal, our health, and each other. Sometimes my daughter asks specifically to pray, and surprises me with things I didn’t know she was thinking about. Please help the people who don’t have homes. Please make the virus go away.

*

My husband isn’t Christian, but he’s come along with me to different churches over the past decade or more, as I’ve returned to the faith of my childhood after long absence. He’s sat beside me during sermons, in small groups in people’s homes. He’s helped move couches and tables and loads of compost for parishioners, taken our kids to church events, watched me get baptized for the second time. He’s made me beautiful crosses– a small wooden one for prayer, a metal one I’ve hung near my bed, a tiny silver one on a chain. Sometimes I think he is more of a Christian than I am, in the way he loves.

*

I believe in angels, and have a strange fear of them. It’s getting better. I mean I feel like I’m closer to entertaining the thought of connecting with them. A friend tells me our angels are waiting for us to ask them for help. They can’t help us unless we ask. I love thinking of this. I used to think of angels like the heavenly version of busy state representatives. I have no idea what they do, and it’s better to just thank them and stay out of their way, lest I disturb their work. But what if they’re actually bored, waiting to hear from us?

*

My daughter draws pictures of angels in long gowns with fairy wings. They always look joyful, and breathless from dancing. One of my favorite memories with my husband is of dancing like fools to 70s funk, at a wedding where we knew only the bride and groom. How much freer you can move in a space like that, where there’s neither a past nor a future, just a feast. That’s how I imagine the hereafter feels. I hope there’s still a specificity to us. I want to dance with Lyle there, and know I’m dancing with him.

*

Last night I dreamt about the industrial areas in our city and the people trying to survive there. Concrete, shadow, graffiti, tarps, tents. Places where the housed and the privileged, like me, don’t go, or where we drive past in sealed, air-conditioned cars. In the dream I could see the beauty possible there, resistance like a hand brake, making a space even for a short time where people are fed, listened to, their wounds cleaned, their clothing washed. I’m afraid to do those things. I’m afraid not to. In the dream they were connected, the places and people abandoned, and the things and images pursued instead. Then the city became my soul, the abandoned places became the parts of me that I choose to neglect and ignore. This is the location of the work I think Jesus does in us, and where God calls us to seek him. That’s about as close as I get to defining my faith.

*

It’s only partially true that I’ve returned to the faith of my childhood. It’s more like I’ve returned to the address, but the house that was there is gone. Maybe I am rebuilding, or maybe I’m sitting on the bruised foundations, wishing I could remember to seek God with the simplicity of the child I was.

*

Still at the center of all my questioning, there is someone. A presence, a pulse, a ground. I get annoyed with myself, my whining, my disappointing way of repeating mistakes, but this is what I know to be true: God still calls me Beloved. Has always called me– called all of us, incredibly– Beloved. And that’s reason enough for me to press on, to keep trying to know God and do the work God has for me today.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “True”.

Perfectionism and Redemption: A Lenten Reflection

I’ve been working on this essay, making notes on a waterproof notepad in my coat pocket as I walk around the reclaimed quarry, now a wetlands park, near my house in the morning.

On one of my walks, my friend and priest joined me. I tried to explain what I was writing about, how I’ve been drawn to this metaphor of the reclaimed quarry. As a child I grew up near one such project, but always dismissed it. I used to say that when I grew up, I’d live somewhere wilder, more natural. And here I am, raising my three children near just such a place.

It’s perfection versus redemption, she said kindly, and I was floored.

That’s exactly it.

Lately I’ve been more and more struck by the ways in which perfectionism colors so much of what I do, see, think. From conversations I’ve had with other women, I’ve started to think that this is a symptom of living in the toxic sludge of our industrialized, patriarchal culture. I know I’m not alone.

I also know that perfectionism doesn’t define me. That voice that says I just need to be better cannot define me if I turn to God, and away from the destructive voice that tempts me to think I am only deserving of love if I am perfect.

Today, I went for my morning walk and took a minute to read the day’s devotion in Forward Day by Day. The scripture read: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The devotion writer went on to reflect on the impossibility of those things. No one can do them. Jesus was the only perfect one, and he came to free us from ourselves, simplifying those commandments into these: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

“In our desire to meet these requirements,” the devotion author writes, “God is pleased, even when we fail.” Then he closes with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The final secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise.”

Those last words fell deep this morning as I looked out at the calm water. There was one fisherman on a far bank, the first person I’d seen that day. There were little sparrows zipping in and out of the willows. There was the sound of a leaf blower somewhere, and traffic. There was the tick of my watch, my inner knowing that I had ten minutes before I needed to be home, back into the ongoingness of pandemic parenting, so that Lyle could go to work.

These words calmed me. They unraveled, for just a moment of clarity, the tangled threads of my longings: to hear and know God’s voice, to know God’s will for me, to have a clearer sense of purpose in my writing and mothering, to better serve God in my community and in all my relationships. My longing to know I am serving God well, that I am going to God in prayer not just for myself, but not just for others, either. I came to see how even in my deepest longings, perfectionism keeps me from accepting Grace.

These words today assured me that not only do my efforts please God even when I fail, but that it is God’s promise, it is God’s will that I will love God. Even this God will do for me.

In the space that my longing makes, within its contours, this is where God enters. Maybe I will always feel scattered, tangled, maybe I will always have this sense that if only things were different, or maybe if I tried harder, then I will know God’s will and love God better. But here in that question, Grace appears again. Jesus appears and says, “Even this I will do for you. Even this I have already seen, loved, and covered.”

Things will never be perfect, including my perfectionism, and God says, I want you to live and love anyway. In doing this, you serve me.

Amen.

Written on February 26, 2021

Practice the Way of Love this February

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

My 5-year-old loves Valentine’s Day. What’s not to like? Hearts, cards and coloring, plenty of gluestick and stickers, pink and red, cupcakes, and candy. Pretty much all of her favorite things. Much like Target and Walmart, she has been preparing for this since, oh, the day after Halloween.

It’s too bad her mom is something of a Valentine’s Day scrooge.

In my defense, I think it’s a lot of pressure to put on one day. I love my husband, but planning and getting dressed up for A Romantic Date is just a recipe for disappointment for us. Not because he isn’t romantic, or because we hate flowers and chocolate. I am a huge fan of flowers, chocolate, and said husband. And for the record, at this point in what feels like a decades-long pandemic, we’d love the chance to have a kid-free conversation somewhere clean while wearing unstained clothes. In terms of my marriage, it’s the prescriptive nature of the Valentine’s Day formula that gets to me, because what makes us feel connected as a couple, what leads to feelings of happiness and “being in love” fluctuates so much from day to day and year to year.

I’ve long felt this way about February 14, but I’ve felt it especially keenly this year, when the news has been rife with escalating hate and hostility. Early on in the pandemic, our church began calling the practice of wearing a mask and staying six feet apart compassionate distancing, emphasizing how these seemingly-small habits are about protecting others as much as they’re about protecting ourselves. For me, it’s this shift in terminology that encapsulates the heart-change our country desperately needs.

It’s the narrowness of the Valentine ideal of love that feels woefully inadequate. I need– and maybe as a country, we need– to honor so much more than just romantic love. And I need to honor it for more than the space of a day. So this February, I am going to try to intentionally spend time each day reflecting on and practicing the kind of selfless, active love Jesus came to teach, the love that shows up in the bible as agape: “the love of God for humankind and of humankind for God.” And to keep from taking myself too seriously, I’m inviting my kids to join me, and I’m inviting you, too.

I recently finished reading Bishop Michael Curry’s book Love is the Way, after getting hooked on his “Way of Love” podcast this fall. The Way of Love is a set of practices the Episcopal church developed under Bishop Curry’s guidance, meant to help modern Christians follow Jesus in today’s world. The practices have been incredibly helpful to me, as an Episcopalian who feels like I’m always just starting out, just barely beginning to know Jesus. In this season of sleep deprivation and young children, where it feels like we’re always hovering just on the brink of chaos, I’ve been clinging to a shorthand from Bishop Curry, via Martin Buber.

How can I practice following Jesus– how can I practice agape love– in such a way as to move “from me to we”? How do I move toward I-Thou in an I-It world?

To put this into a framework my 5-year-old and 3-year-old can understand, this month we’ve been talking as a family about “big Love” at the dinner table. Lest you think we’re getting deep over here, let me assure you these are quick conversations. My son eats a few bites of dinner, I get a few words in edge-wise, and then he’s off on his usual, exasperating mid-dinner mad dash around the living room, naked. Sigh. This is why kids are the best spiritual teachers for moms like me who tend to let Pinterest get the best of them.

Nevertheless, here’s what we’ve come up with. Paraphrasing the Great Commandment in Matthew, we’ve talked about how Jesus says the most important thing we can do is to love God with everything we’ve got. And the next most important thing is to love ourselves and other people, plants, and animals as best we can. This includes even people, plants, and animals we don’t like very much. (Jesus doesn’t mention plants and animals but to me the spirit of the verse is there.) Then we asked our kids what kinds of things they’d like to do next month to celebrate that kind of love.

We’ve talked a lot about Mama Earth as a family, to cut the whining about things like using both sides of the paper and walking instead of driving to the library. So my daughter immediately suggested that we pick up trash and make some art out of things in the recycling bin. “And mama, you don’t have to wait for one special day to take care of the earth,” she exclaimed earnestly. “We can do it tomorrow!” (Be still my over-achieving heart, something I said sunk in!) I wrote her ideas on the list, and added a litter-picker to my Amazon cart (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while anyway.)

Here are some of the other ideas we have. A fellow writer recently introduced me to the idea of “floor and ceiling goals,” so I’m dividing this into bare minimum practices and more aspirational ones. (We’ve got three kids under five, I am barely sleeping, and my word for the year is grace. I will be happy if we manage even one of these. ) Please add your own ideas in the comments, and let me know if you decide to practice a whole month of Love, too.

Bare Minimum
Give thanks to God before dinner
Practice using our “reset” buttons when we hurt or yell at each other
Try out a self-compassion meditation for kids with Headspace
Make and mail cards to people we love
Paint rocks with hearts, prayers, and encouraging messages; hide them around the neighborhood.
Share some of our saved sunflower seeds with our neighbors
Read about a plant or animal that scares us and see if we can appreciate something about them
Take a walk at the pond near our house and pick up trash
Learn about a new non-profit and make a donation
Bring food to All Saints for our neighbors who are hungry

More Ideas
Read books, sing songs or learn poems about loving ourselves
Practice one new habit to take better care of our bodies.
Write in our prayer journals together (Sky has this one; I have the “forgiveness” version of this one)
Practice praying for our enemies/ sending them lovingkindness (personally I want to spend some time praying for and learning about folks on the other side of the political divide)
Try to do something kind for someone in our family each day
Leave a chalk message of love on a sidewalk near our house
Set up and fill our Little Free Library with books (we have a kit ready to go, but this feels waaaay ambitious, and I’d be delighted if it happened this month)
Choose and give away some possessions in our Buy Nothing group
With kids in our pandemic pod, make and mail a big thank-you card to Governor Kate Brown
Learn about animals, plants, or people who are struggling and make a list of ways we could help
Send some flowers to friends we know who are sick or sad
Make a map of the garden we want to plant this spring
Practice one new habit to take better care of Mama Earth
Find ways to thank the people who help us– doctors, people who deliver groceries and packages, our priest


This Difficult Advent Hope

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The baby sits heavy in my pelvis. Her heels and fists roll under my skin, her head burrows lower, her toes press against my ribs. There is enormous pressure. Eating is a problem. Some nights I can’t hold onto my dinner. I choose between eating and sitting upright on an ice pack, or skipping dinner so I can lie on my side and relieve some of the pressure. My sleep is broken, my dreams vivid and often frighteningly focused on death– apparently not uncommon during the third trimester.

They don’t tell you how close birth and death become within the body of a pregnant person. Pregnancy holds us in a layered experience of beginnings and endings, whether at the literal level or more figuratively, with the death of control over your own body, the end of your old identity and its transformation into a new one. This third time around, I know there is no way to give birth to another person without being changed myself.

In these last weeks before birth, the baby’s body has nearly taken over mine. I can feel myself drawing inward. My thoughts have trouble adhering to anything that isn’t about this impending birth. Approaching labor feels like entering new but familiar country– a passage I navigate alone, even though I’m accompanied by and accompanying a brand new life, even though I feel God’s nearness.

My 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter is more curious this year about who Jesus is, how God could come to earth as a child. For the first time, she is feeling out the deeper meaning of her favorite holiday. We are slowly making our way through The Jesus Storybook Bible, and she has lots of questions about God’s character: Why would God bring flood? Why would God ask Abraham to do that?

As we move out from the simple warmth of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” and into more complicated territory, I find myself feeling grateful for my own experiences of questioning, of having my faith shaken. I try not to tie everything up in a bow for her, but instead admit the places where I also feel stumped, while still helping her understand that she is held and loved. This is tricky stuff. As we look at the Old Testament stories together, I’m careful to draw her attention back to the arrival of Jesus, to show her the ways that all of these stories are Advent stories, anticipating Christ’s coming. But Christ’s coming contains within it Christ’s life, death, and resurrection– the whole story of Love’s struggle to be born in us.

Meanwhile, my nearly-three-year-old son is busy exploring the shapes of our nativity set as we unwrap one each night. Sometimes he goes to sleep clutching a tiny plastic lamb. Sometimes I find a miniature Joseph in the seat of a toy helicopter on the bathroom counter. Listening to the nightly story of the little bear following the star, or trying to blow out the Advent candles as I light them, my children are doing what children do. They are making sense of this new mystery with their hands and feet, their eyes and ears– with their bodies.

Our Creator came to us in a body, and worked out our salvation in a body. He experienced birth, growth, fear, anger, joy, sadness, love, suffering, and death. Faith can easily become something we do just with our thoughts, and I’m grateful for the ways the liturgical year and the Episcopal tradition invite me to experience faith in my body. This Advent, worn out by a challenging pregnancy, I feel more than ever the paradoxes of this difficult year– its unexpected gifts alongside pain and grief– and with increased intensity, my longing for hope.

This is the third time I’ve been pregnant during Advent. The first ended in miscarriage, the second brought us our son, and this third time we are expecting his little sister. Expectation, anticipation, waiting– these are vulnerable states of being. Along with the births of my two children, I have expected and anticipated and then lost two little lives, and I am not “over” them. They have become part of me. I carry those wounds in my body and have come to understand the lack of resolution as its own kind of healing– as a place God enters and redeems, over and over, as the years pass. My active, earthside children run and play and fill me to bursting with love, with gratitude for the privilege of mothering them. I kiss their soft, round cheeks and hug them close. Along with these deeply satisfying experiences in my body, the experience of losing their two siblings is also part of my faith, this lifelong process of getting to know God.

When I started thinking about writing for this month’s theme, “tethered to hope,” my mind filled with images of that word tether. I could see the rope my husband uses to strap lumber and tools to his truck, the promise of useful things his hands can make to help us. I could see an astronaut floating in the terrifying vastness of space, tethered to a shuttle by a slim cord, the only hope of a return to earth. And I could see the umbilical cords that connected me to each of my babies, and my son’s curious gazing at his belly button, the mark that first tether left on his body.

These images tell of security, safety, connection, promise. But a tether can be troubling, too. It can be a chain that keeps us in places where we don’t want to be. In reading through the book of John recently with my prayer group, we found ourselves pausing at two little verses, where the disciples are struggling to accept who Jesus says He is. Some of his followers have begun to desert him, and Jesus asks the Twelve: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answers him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)

Once you know that truth deeply, with your whole being, it becomes impossible to walk away. That can be both freeing and terrifying, especially when our human minds fail to see when we have misunderstood something about God’s character. My prayer group talked about how each of us has come to a place in our faith where we felt trapped by it, tethered to a truth that can be difficult to grasp, yet alive. And we each described feeling like Jesus was holding onto us, even during times when we felt angry, hurt, lost, and confused by our faith. Even when we felt like giving up. With the loss of my first baby, I remember confiding in my pastor that I felt strangely imprisoned by my faith. Having only recently returned to church after long absence, I felt suddenly trapped inside of a new/old truth. I could not let go of it, and it did not seem to want to release me, yet I felt utterly confused about its author. God the Good Father exists and is in control, and his children experience terrible suffering in this world.

This remains an unsolvable equation for me. Through loss, God shows me that instead of trying to solve the equation, I can rest in the assurance of God’s love. I can look at the ways God has brought healing, has written the Christ story inside of my own story. From out of pain and loss and death, God grew in me greater empathy for others’ suffering, deeper awareness of God’s presence, stronger relationships with my partner, my family and friends.

I am careful not to place these things on either side of an equal sign. The liturgical year is so meaningful because it is cyclic, because in our bodies we continue to live out the mysteries of the Christ story. It is both solved and unresolved. We are always somehow waiting for Jesus to be born, waiting for His resurrection, and waiting for His return– even as we mark and celebrate the fullness of these things.

In this Advent season of 2020, my kids keep me connected to joy, even as I acknowledge the devastating losses this year has brought us all. Every morning, my daughter moves the snowman to the next pocket on her Advent calendar, and asks me, “Is it solstice yet?” She is thinking of winter, of hot cocoa, snow, and sledding.

In this hemisphere, Jesus comes at the peak of the year’s darkness, when the earth tilts furthest from the sun. Hope comes to us in the middle of the longest night. In 2020, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and an end to this very long night is still uncertain. It can feel painful to remain tethered to Hope, to all that God promises, when so much is unraveling around us. Advent teaches us that this is exactly where Jesus meets us– not in our picture-perfect Christmas cards, not in our matching jammies or gift-buying, not in our untroubled certainties. Jesus meets us outside of the limits of town and faith, in the stable of our brokenness, and He promises restoration and redemption.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Tethered to Hope”.

The Same Sea

Last night I went for a short walk along Netarts bay. Children and dogs ran back and forth on the wet sand, and the water was flat and still. It was hard to believe it was the same sea that only hours prior was slamming against the rocks, tossed by stormy winds, as the first of the season’s dangerous king tides battered the Oregon coast. Last night, the wind threw the plastic beach chairs on the porch against the sliding glass door, over and over, and this morning the sea is choppy again. The wind whistles and shakes the little beach house, and I shudder, thinking of getting back in my car in an hour to return to my family after this short retreat.

How different the same sea can look at high and low tides, especially when they are this extreme. How different my own outlook can be when the weather is stormy, inside or out.

Nearing the end of this pregnancy, I’m wrapping up 36 hours of solitude on the Oregon coast, at the end of a year of extremes, and I’m thinking about tides, seasons, solitude vs loneliness, and answered prayer.

The God I know is a God who speaks through bodies and relationships. There is so much I don’t understand about how prayer works, but I want to name what I’ve seen and experienced in the past few weeks, in writing and praying about feeling lonely.

I continue to feel God’s presence in the shared silence between verses during Zoom morning prayer, knowing that the men and women I pray with carry me in their hearts the way I carry them in mine. Sometimes there are practical things we can “do” to respond to one another’s needs and prayers, but most of the time there is the simple act of praying together, even though we are apart, all of us turned toward the same presence of God.

I’ve started reading through the book of John and praying over Zoom with a few dear friends once a week, women I’d lost touch with when the pandemic hit. What began as a book club many years ago grew into a more informal friendship rooted in a practice of praying together. Off and on over many years, through illnesses and job transitions, longed-for weddings and babies, we have had the privilege of watching God move in each other’s lives. Even in seasons when we were too busy for book clubs or studies, we’d still meet at the same bakery every few months to catch up on each other’s lives. That bakery closed permanently during the pandemic, and I realized I hadn’t connected with them in some time. I’ve been so grateful to rekindle that bond, in spite of the distance.

More chances to renew friendships and strike up conversation have emerged. Another good friend and I started reading Rachel Held Evan’s book Inspired together, and talking through some of the questions it raises for us over Facetime. I had an outdoor, socially-distanced meet-up with another friend and her children (in masks!) whom I hadn’t seen in months. And some hard conversations about risk tolerance happened with friends in our bubble, allowing me to see how much love and understanding holds up those friendships, and making room for more time spent with other grown-ups, something I’m realizing I really need to feel well.

All of this has helped give me the strength to be more honest with my children. I’ve told them that it’s hard work for Mama to grow a baby, and I need them to help by picking up their things when I ask, and being kind to each other. I’ve been amazed by the way they’ve responded when I’m vulnerable with them in this way. One day, I let them see me cry and they brought me stuffies and tissues, patting my hand and saying, “It’s okay to be sad, Mama.” What an incredible reassurance. I must be getting something right, for all I feel I’m failing them, if they can respond to me with such empathy.

Being here solo on the coast is one half of a babymoon my husband and I won’t get to take together: I stayed with the kids one weekend so he could get a few days of rest on his own, and now he’s done the same for me. I felt a little nervous that a solo weekend would only exacerbate the loneliness I’ve felt at home, but instead I’ve had time to catch up with friends on the phone, and reconnect to the writing practice that makes me feel whole.

Writing has felt less lonely since I joined Exhale last month, a positive and encouraging online community of mothers and writers, many of them women of faith. I’ve been surprised by the way it has helped me find time to write, and how good it feels to be writing again, even a little. Making that small step led to more connection than I expected: two writers I admire read and shared my last post with their readers, and I watched my words reach many more people than they ever would have otherwise. I am deeply touched by that generosity. It has felt so good to read your comments here, and to hear from friends in real life about their own struggles with loneliness. In this long season of parenting in a pandemic, there is comfort for me in knowing that I am not alone in feeling alone.

Meanwhile, my fellow SPU alum Charlotte Donlon has just published a book on faith and loneliness called The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads us to Each Other. The title could not more perfectly encapsulate what I’ve felt in the past few weeks. News of this book reached me just a few days ago, and I’m still marveling over the beauty of that synchronicity. I ordered my copy and can’t wait to read it. I hope you will too.

I see and feel God moving in all of this, a prayer answered many times over, and I’m so grateful. The extreme tides of 2020 are far from over and I know the sea will get stormy once again, so I am writing this down to remember God’s faithfulness, and the gift of renewed connections.

On Pebbles, Daniel Tiger, and Loneliness

Photo by Lindsey Middleton on Unsplash

We have a rock collection in our house. Some are from special places, some are precious stones, but most of them are ordinary pebbles that just felt good in our hands, picked up from creek beds and beaches. When my oldest feels worried, which is often these days, she sometimes picks up a purple stone with a slight indent, and rubs it with her thumb to comfort herself.

It’s a bit of polished agate I found at a bookstore in Philadelphia, when I went to visit a childhood friend expecting her first baby, whose husband was fighting cancer. I picked up the rock to soothe my own worries, for my friend and her husband’s pain and her son’s future, as well as for my children, a seven-hour flight away and missing me. I brought the stone home and gave it to my daughter, and she would often slip it into her pocket before preschool drop-off, or whenever she found herself somewhere new and scary.

I’ve been thinking about that rock lately, and worry, and how to move through scary places. An introspective person by nature, I am usually pretty comfortable and familiar with my feelings. But this year has utterly shaken my usual ways of processing my own emotions and helping my children with theirs.

Photo by Cody Chan on Unsplash

In March, as the virus took hold in the U.S. and the borders of our home life began to close in, I tried to write about how silver linings were simultaneously irritating me and keeping me sane. I wrote about trying to hold space for my friends’ emotions while honoring my own. I wrote about how I found myself on the lookout for anything joyful, hopeful, and kind.

At the same time, I chafed at the pressure to only see the good. How do I let the good moments in, and truly experience them, while also feeling my fear and grief? How do I allow myself to grieve, when so many are suffering far worse than I am?

Sometimes, you feel two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay, Daniel Tiger sings to my children. I look up from the computer. As I write this, I’m scanning news headlines and Googling sight word activities for my daughter, while simultaneously rescheduling her dental appointment, again, for as far in the future as possible. As 2020 comes to a close, we are no closer than we were in March to a time when a simple dental visit seems worth the risk. I want to ask Daniel Tiger how to be okay with feeling seventeen feelings at the same time, still, while also doing four things at once.

How to reconcile this mix of worry and overwhelm, a constantly frustrated need for time to myself, with my gratitude for the warmth of bedtime snuggles with my kids and the latest funny thing my youngest said? Underneath my unraveling patience and depleted stores of empathy, there’s appreciation for our simplified family routines and more time to be together. So it’s strange to admit that the feeling I struggle with most is loneliness.

My in-person interactions with adults have been narrowed to my husband and the two families in our bubble, all of us just barely making it through each day, often too exhausted to talk about how we’re really feeling. Could we put it into words even if we tried?

Then, too, I find myself longing for connection that grounds itself in shared beliefs. I join Zoom morning prayer with a few church members when I can, but I miss being physically in the church building with them, being able to cry together, touch hands as we pass the Peace, taste communion bread and share coffee-hour snacks. My oldest is just reaching an age when I can begin to share my faith with her, but how can I give from an empty cup?

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

I have been pregnant for most of the pandemic, coping with all of the changes to life-as-we-knew-it while riding a roller-coaster of physical changes. Instead of bread and wine, I have had a bottomless mug of morning sickness, heavy fatigue, and no childcare. Preschools closed, along with libraries, playgrounds, community centers, dance classes, and indoor play groups. My own school went to online learning in March, halving and confusing what should have been a year of in-person instruction in acupuncture, an unavoidably hands-on art. We struggled as a family to find time for me to finish my schoolwork in preparation for a leave of absence. And then we moved. And then the wildfires started.

I write all of this down not to inspire pity– no doubt anyone reading this is dealing with similar struggles, and more– but to remind myself of the specific context for my depletion, impatience, bouts of despair and discouragement, and yes, even rage. Parenting small children was already hard. Parenting small children while pregnant would have been hard. Parenting small children while pregnant and then moving to a new home would have been hard. 2020 has only multiplied those challenges and added new ones. It’s all too easy for me to overlook this, and I am learning afresh this year that truly practicing self-compassion is no longer optional.

Here’s another thing that’s no longer optional: my faith.

I am learning, again, how much I need God, and have always needed God. I am learning, again, that it is possible to turn to God after a season of “sleeping.” Learning that I have been sleeping, again, for some time now. Remembering that this is how faith works, at least for me: forgetting, remembering, beginning again. That my feelings of loneliness, isolation, disappointment, and sadness can become doorways, in Jesus, toward a deeper knowing of my belonging in the mysterious Love that is always seeking us.

I am learning that despair can be a blessing– Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. After despair sips the sweetness and color from everything, after I stop ignoring the pain with my busy task-completing and project-creating, after I admit how unloved and abandoned and mad I feel, the Spirit comes into my emptiness and fills me with a kind of stillness that allows me to see God again. Not as I once saw God, not as I wish God would be, but as God is. Passages from the Bible have news for me again– For behold, I make all things new.

I have hesitated for so long to try to talk about this, or write about it, because it feels so precious and hidden and wordless. But something else Jesus has been showing me, through my loneliness and disappointment, is that some of that loneliness is of my own making. I haven’t been my full self in my relationships. I haven’t been honest, with myself or with God or with my family and friends, about how much God matters to me. How important living with God, living a life of faith, is to me. So if I now feel like I don’t know how or who to talk to about these things– about wrestling with paradox within the context of an abiding belief in Love– whose fault is that but my own?

Jesus says, You are forgiven, and you can turn to me this minute and begin again. Turn to me and be saved, for I am God, and there is no other. So that’s what I am doing. Unexpectedly, I am finding joy again, even here and now, in 2020. It’s not loud or bright or especially sociable, but it’s real joy. It’s like a smooth pebble you find on the beach, and slip into your pocket, and somehow you know it was meant for you, and has been there forever.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Unexpected Joy”.

Dear Baby

June 5, 2020

Dear Baby,

Sometimes I think I know your name. Those are happy moments when I trust you are alive and healthy in there, your little heart still beating as I saw on the dark screen three weeks ago now, such an impossibly small but undeniable claim, I am here.

I discovered you were there on Earth Day, about a week after I had unexpectedly spent several days unable to keep anything down. You were a secret I carried with me for a few days, just the two of us aware that you were there. Not planned, but not unplanned, either. A sweet reminder of hope, renewal, possibility.

You don’t do it on purpose, but you bring that reminder with a heavy dose of all-day nausea and fatigue. At ten weeks today, I’ve been sick for about six weeks now, and it’s been hard. Especially as the pandemic goes on, and painful old structures get torn apart in hearts and in the streets, and there’s so much I want to give my energy to. Mercifully the days still pass as they always have, and with each morning we’re getting closer to the time when the sickness might finally subside.

There was a baby who came between your two older siblings, who only stuck around about this long. I felt this sick every day that baby was with us, so the nausea doesn’t reassure me much that you’re okay in there. I am trying to keep hopeful, to steer back toward trust when my mind starts to veer into worry. I want to trust God and to trust you, that your spirit has its own course and you will do what you came here to do, for as long you’re meant to be here. I want to believe in your life, as Sophfronia Scott writes so  beautifully. I don’t want to choose to believe in death.

Yesterday we put an offer in on a home we really love. I can imagine you and your brother and sister playing in the big yard with its wildflowers, long driveway, and tall trees. Carrying you and carrying my hope feels a little like that– walking through empty rooms and letting my heart move in. Your crib in our room at first, a baby gate at the top of the steep stairs, the Moses basket downstairs so I can put you down while I fold laundry or break up a squabble between your siblings. I arrange these things like a dollhouse, knowing none of it is certain. Motherhood has taught me nothing ever is. Each of us is a miracle hidden in plain sight.

Love,

Your mama

August 5, 2020

Dear baby,

Two months have gone by since I last wrote. I can feel your little feet or hands fluttering low in my belly. Every time I feel this fish-like swirl, I catch my breath and let amazement and gratitude course through me all over again. I am so glad you are still here with us. 18 weeks going on 19! It seems like too much goodness. I am still practicing believing in it, believing in you. Last week we closed on our new home– a different one than I’d thought, but the right one for us, I hope. It feels surreal that so much of what I’d imagined for so long seems to be taking shape. Hidden inside, somehow your little bones, muscles, skin, and eyelashes are forming. You can hear me singing now. Maybe you can even hear your big brother say, “Hello, bey-bee? You in dare?” as he does every morning, climbing into bed next to me and laying his little ear on my belly. Your sister wants to name you Lemon, Peaches, Jane, or Lindsay. At least she’s got all her bases covered.

At our new home, we are ripping out 60-year-old carpet and asking for advice on polishing and sealing the hardwood underneath. We are limbing trees, uprooting ivy and holly, and removing overgrown rhododendrons and shrubs that block the light from the windows. I imagine carrying you into these rooms in December or January, gray months when we will need all the light we can get.

The truth is, we need all the light we can get right now, in high summer. The virus is still taking too many lives, and the social change we desperately need is still slow in coming, with plenty of cruelty on its heels. The government of the country where you will be born seems more hell-bent than ever on protecting property and capital over human lives– but the truth is this has always been the case. Truth and light are not easy to take in, but they are as vital as clean air, food, and water. I always imagined I’d provide much more than that for you and your siblings, but lately my prayers are that simple, that tinged with fear. I pray that you and I and our family will survive the virus as it continues to rage this fall and winter, and that there will be enough of a planet for you to live on when you’re my age. I pray that we all make it until you’re my age, and then some.

But I am not sorry you’re coming, not sorry we brought your brother and sister into the world. Whatever comes, I don’t want to ever regret choosing you three, and I pray that you will never regret your births, either. I pray that you will each do with your life what you’re meant to do, and that you’ll get to be who you’re meant to be. I pray that my mothering makes that possible. I love you already baby girl.

Love,

Mama

August 20, 2020

Dear Baby,

On the grainy gray screen in the dim room, you open and close your tiny mouth, move your hands (five little fingers!) toward your mouth, cross and uncross and kick your legs. Your heart’s four chambers open and close rapidly, like the bellows of a bull frog’s bright yellow throat, in the pond where I take your siblings on cool mornings. Your body is as real and whole as any being in the natural world. Mostly unseen and quiet, your little life hums away.

The ultrasound technician calls you a cooperative baby. She takes her one hundred pictures in record time. She says she sees nothing that concerns her, that you are active and healthy and well. I feel like the richest woman in the world. It is 7:30 in the morning and I have been asked three times for my name and birth date, had my temperature checked twice, submitted to the eye-watering tickle of a Covid-19 nasal swab, all to be cleared for this chance to witness your shape on the screen. I see your skeleton, your profile, the innermost shapes of your organs– all of this an intimacy that feels invasive, excessive, but that nonetheless gives me goosebumps.

You’re really in there.

You’re really a little person, sent to us, mysteriously meant for us. Waiting to emerge into the waiting world. I don’t remember feeling this way with your siblings. This baffled, this late in the game. Still surprised, at 21 weeks, more than halfway through pregnancy, that we’re actually going to meet you, and welcome a brand new person into the insular world of our family. Our world that has grown even more insular these last six months, circumscribed by an unseen virus and the ever-changing borders of its reach, as we map the strange new reality we live in.

In just a few days, we’ll pack up the rest of our belongings and move everything to our new home. It isn’t far, not even over the county line, but it feels definitive in a way all of our previous moves haven’t. This is a home with the big backyard we always pictured for our family, well before we even pictured you. There’s a Norway maple with a thick limb perfect for hanging a swing, a sweep of firs at the top of the drive, rabbits that come to peer, curious, from the overgrown berry bushes at the back of the property whenever we visit. Already your brother and sister know to kick off their shoes, and run barefoot through the soft grass and shade. I picture you learning to walk and then run with them, and pray that we’ll get to watch you all grow up there.

There’s been grief, loss, worry, and stress in these early months of your budding life. Knowing you are there has brought us light and joy. We can’t wait to bring you home.

Love,

Mama

And Saturday

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photo: lyle poulin

Like a lot of families, we have been starting seeds indoors. Delicate lettuce and nettle on the windowsill, sturdier basil, squash, and sunflowers on the back porch. With the quieter, slower pace of life during the pandemic, we have time to witness their growth. After very minimal effort on our part, after a week of watering and no sign of change, we start to notice the first movements of the first seeds, a barely perceptible shift from darkness into light.

It is the Saturday before Easter. In the chronology of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, Saturday is the and. Limbo time. Liminal. It is the day between two starkly different days. Between the painful, terrible truth of the death of a controversial, radically loving man, at the hands of the people he came to liberate, and the impossible, mysterious transformation of that death into supernatural forgiveness, into eternal life for him, and the promise of the same for everyone who chooses to take on the work of loving bravely and sacrificially.

On Good Friday, the man Jesus is put to death– his body hung on a cross, murdered, and buried in a cave, with a heavy stone rolled over the entrance. On Easter Sunday, his body is mysteriously absent from that tomb, and all kinds of strange, inexplicable things happen. He appears to his followers, not as an apparition but in his body– a changed body, but human flesh and blood nonetheless– to tell them to get up, to celebrate, because he is not dead but more alive than ever. And it just gets weirder and better from there. The whole story of Christianity begins there, on Easter Sunday when Christ rose from the dead.

But Saturday? Saturday is dark. Saturday is the heavy dark silence of the tomb, the feeling of no escape, no exit. Saturday is an eternity without Easter. Saturday is the finality of death, is death as the last word.

It strikes me that we are living in Saturday times. The pandemic feels like Holy Saturday on repeat. A Groundhog Day of in-between, of and, where death is the only thing that feels certain. It feels even more necessary, and even more difficult, to hope for Easter this year.

I think of my church, where I haven’t been since Christmas. In the Episcopal tradition, the cross is covered with cloth during Holy Week. We try to suspend our knowledge of the rest of the story. Having sung our last Alleluia the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and with the Lenten season almost behind us, our mouths are parched with its absence. In years past, on Sunday after Sunday before Easter, I have had to stop myself from sliding easily into that familiar word, and so by Holy Saturday my whole body feels like it is leaning forward, at the edge of my seat, waiting for the word to flower on all of our tongues. At midnight, the Easter vigil marks the transition from death to new life, and with sunrise, Easter’s promise breaks through with light in the darkness. Alleluia: Praise the Lord. Joy and triumph.

Christians living after the crucifixion have the benefit of knowing this promise. We know the whole story at the outset: that inside of darkness there is light, inside of despair there is joy. This is the human story, the paradox of great suffering existing alongside great love, that Jesus came to offer us. But on Saturday, in Jesus’s time, his friends and followers didn’t yet know this.

So on Holy Saturday, we practice that not-knowing. And it is terrible. For me, it’s really hard to sink into that knowing, to allow myself to feel that bleakness, that absence of escape from the tomb. This year, it feels less like an intellectual exercise, and more of a reckoning with what I feel all around me.

What is the faith of the follower who does not know, has not yet experienced the return of Jesus, Love’s triumph over death? What did it feel like to be Mary Magdalene in the hours before sunrise? She does not yet know that when she goes to the tomb, she will find the huge stone moved from the entrance, the whole cave flooded with light, empty.

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photo: lyle poulin

So it is called Black Saturday, Joyful Saturday, Holy Saturday, Great Sabbath. And, and, and. All of these in one.

I feel like I am always, despite my meager prayers and my best efforts, the follower who does not yet know. Only in my most private moments of despair have I felt what I think of as Love breaking through, something I don’t think even approaches what I imagine Mary Magdalene must have felt when she saw the empty tomb and later her beloved teacher again. The certainty she must have felt with her body, canceling out her mind’s disbelief. I feel like most of the time I live my life inside of and, in limbo. My mind constantly fighting my body’s knowing that Love is alive and waits for me.

Inside this dark, endless Saturday of the pandemic, I struggle to make any movements toward faith. My prayers are wordless. My doubt and fear take up most of the space; keeping my hands busy and being present for my kids fills in the rest. The most I can do is try to keep a small space open in my heart for the possibility of Love’s return. I want so much to believe that life triumphs over death, but it’s hard to do. As it must have eventually become, even for Mary, once the shock wore off. Even after you see it, feel it, know it, it remains difficult to hold onto, because we are human.

So even though we are always in need of Easter, always in need of God’s mercy for our failures and mistakes, and the reassurance that we belong in Love, I feel it more deeply this year. I’m not even sure what that means at the literal level of the mind. It just feels like my body is leaning more heavily toward Alleluia, like my eyes can’t get enough of the sight of seeds sending out green shocks of light, breaking loose through dark soil.

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