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”.

Discomfort and Joy

I’ve been writing down notes on little scraps of paper about the sweeter things I want to remember from the past 9 months. This pregnancy, which has overlapped with the strange liminal time of the pandemic, has been full of discomfort– but not without joy. These notes are part of my prayer to remember to savor this time, just as it is, even though it is not what I had hoped it would be. Great joy is often made up of the smallest, simplest things.

Raspberry Zinger iced tea. It has helped so much with nausea and hydration. I hope I still like this after the baby comes. I put two tea bags each in two quart-size mason jars and let them sit until they’re cool enough to touch, then pour them into a pitcher I keep in the fridge.

Lyle bringing me breakfast in bed every. single. morning. It has helped with the nausea and just made me feel so loved and cared for.

When Sky and Robin started calling the baby Peaches. Robin loves to nestle next to me in bed, put his ear to my belly and say, “What you DO-EENG in there Peaches?” He doesn’t stay still long enough to actually feel her kick under his hand. But Sky has become very expert, feeling for baby’s foot like a serious little midwife. She laughs out loud whenever the baby moves. To her it is brand new magic each time.

My Zoom baby shower! It filled me with so much joy and love at a time when I was feeling very low. And it restocked our nursery with much-needed items we had given away once Robin (who we thought was our last baby) grew out of them.

Taking walks around Salish Pond near our home when the weather was nice and I was feeling well enough. Getting to see my big kids explore together.

My kids playing nicely together for longer stretches of time. Where before this was sporadic and short-lived, they’re 9 months older now and they’ve learned a few things about resolving squabbles, apologizing, and what kinds of games they like to play together. It’s really reassuring as we approach the time when Mommy will be much less available to referee their fights or make suggestions for their play.

Homeschooling Sky and watching Robin’s curiosity bloom. I love having plenty of space for them to create. It is so sweet to see them busy with projects at their little tables.

My friend Stephanie’s incredible support. This woman watched my kids for eight hours on the day we moved to our new home, after gathering and delivering piles of moving boxes she spotted on her Buy Nothing page, and also spending several days painting over wallpaper with us. She has sent me encouraging texts as well as satisfyingly snarky ones acknowledging how crappy pregnancy can be. She is currently filling our freezer with meals. Along with her own two kids and two brand-new puppies, she’s watching my kids so I can rest. And she’s on-call to come scoop them up or stay with them when I go into labor. And probably a kazillion other tiny things my weary mind is forgetting in this moment. This woman’s heart and her friendship make me cry happy tears.

Enjoying a fire in the fireplace at our new home. The kids are mesmerized by it, though we really have to watch Robin, who seems destined to become fire-obsessed like his daddy. I especially love sitting by the fire with Lyle after the kids are in bed, dreaming together of who this little girl will be, and what it will be like to have not two but three wild kids in our home soon. This fireplace, this home, and this family have been dreams of ours for so, so long, and it feels so good to enjoy them.

Reconnecting to my church community through Zoom morning prayer and virtual church services. They have been praying with me through all the ups and downs of this season. Their love and humor, and their powerful prayers, have helped me get through it.

Lots of snuggles with my kids. Nothing like “morning” sickness to make all-day-jammies-and-movies a new tradition.

Knowing Sky is going to have a sister. She is already talking about what she wants to teach this baby girl. I grew up with an amazing sister and I’m so happy Sky gets to have one, too.

Savoring my Non-Instagram-Worthy Pregnancy

Me in May 2015

Her heartbeat is strong, immediate.

“155 beats per minute!” says the intern cheerfully. My midwife, Catherine, adds this to my record on the computer.

“Wow, she’s excited!” Catherine says. 

She has just finished reassuring me that I can go back on the antidepressant I had stopped taking when I saw two lines appear in April. After years of  worsening, debilitating symptoms, and countless incorrect diagnoses, I had finally found a way to manage my cyclic vomiting syndrome. Within a few months on a low dose of amitriptyline, I had finally felt like myself again. And then I was unexpectedly pregnant, and my former doctor advised against continuing a class C drug. 

Now, after months of struggling under constant nausea, deepening sadness, and stress from an increasingly isolated pandemic pregnancy, I find myself suspecting depression. I need relief, support– beyond what fragments remain of a previously robust support system. It’s beginning to dawn on me how much I’ve been trying to hold together, especially for my children, and it feels so good to admit that I am struggling, that this has been hard.

The intern asks if I’d like to record the heartbeat on my phone, so my husband can listen to it. Suddenly I am flooded with images of all the appointments and ultrasounds he has missed this time around, and all the times I’ve sat in offices like this one, masked and alone, often hurried along, to reduce potential exposure to the virus. 

Instantly my eyes brim over and a sob escapes from my chest, like a strange fish hauled up from the depths. I am so happy, and so sad, at 33 weeks. So grateful for this baby, and so heartbroken by all I’ve missed this year.

I wanted, from the beginning, to truly enjoy this pregnancy. To savor the indescribable feeling of growing another brand-new person, likely the last little being we’ll welcome into our family. To savor her. To wonder over everything she brings with her, all that lies ahead that we can’t know. Listening to her heartbeat, I feel regret over how difficult it has been to do much more than just survive this pregnancy. How many times have I picked myself up again in the name of just getting through it

I finish my recording– 30 seconds of that incredible sound– make my next appointment, and head to my car in the falling light. I douse my hands in sanitizer and take off my mask, and I ask God what I can do to savor these last few weeks. I don’t want to just get through them. I want to find small ways of celebrating and recording our time together, for better or worse. There is no denying that this pregnancy has been difficult, and yet I still want to remember what it felt like to carry our daughter.

A picture comes to mind, one my husband took of me when I was pregnant with our oldest, over five years ago. It was an airless day in late May, a few days past my due date. In the picture I am sitting in the yard of our rental house, a misshapen straw hat on my head. My belly is huge and my posture bears the distinctive air of defeat and surrender that only late pregnancy can bring. I am half-smiling and half-grimacing, and my eyes are closed as if I’m sleeping. I’m not sleeping, though. I’m blinking. This is a frame caught on old-fashioned film with Lyle’s TLR camera, and with no digital proof to check, it was the only shot he took. (On the same roll of film, there were images from our wedding four years prior.) It’s the last picture of Sky and me together in just this way, a few days before I went into labor for the very first time.

In the picture, to me at least, I look totally and supremely over it. I winced when Lyle showed it to me months later, after developing it in the darkroom. I had had visions of sweeping gowns and flower fields, the kind of maternity shot Instagram would have me strive for, and this? This lumpy, tired woman in an old lawn chair? Definitely not what I had in mind. 

“Look how beautiful you are,” Lyle had said in complete sincerity, misty-eyed as he looked at the image, then up at me, cradling our daughter. I thanked him then, but put the photo away for a long time.

Now, arriving home from the midwife, I play the heartbeat recording for Lyle and the kids and I tell him I think it’s time to get that old picture out. Looking at it now, I love it because it is real and it is ours. I love the man who took it, who looks at the picture and sees peace, and the tiny person in that huge belly who has become unaccountably tall, funny, and wild about her world.

This picture reminds me that I’ve been here before, in just this same imperfect, uncomfortable, kind-of-over-it way. All of it is sacred, and so worthy of savoring. My previous pregnancies, just as they were, brought us our daughter, my spark and flint, and our son, with his soft-centered mischief. Who will this new little one be? This time around has been painful and difficult, but it has been ours: mine, his, this baby’s, our family’s. This is our time together, and I don’t want to forget it. 


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 “Savor”.

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.

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

Silver Linings and Giant Dark Clouds

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Last night I had a good long talk with a dear friend over a glass of wine and Google Hangouts. I am still savoring the warm feeling of connection, and gratitude for our friendship. Among other things, we talked about the rollercoaster of emotion we are all riding, and grappling with the challenge of feeling all of it.

She shared something writer and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg talks about in reference to another emotional rollercoaster, one that my friend and I know much better than the current virus-powered one: writing. The act of creating something can also open our hearts and bodies to the full range of human emotion. We can feel excitement, curiosity, and desire to make tangible the thing we can see in our mind’s eye. We can also feel anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear. Don’t get swept away, Goldberg says.

It’s a practical bit of advice, as well as a deeply profound, lifelong practice. It is perhaps the practice, for Buddhists and for people who practice mindfulness meditation. For writers, when our purpose is to create something, the practice is to hear the unhelpful voices of fear, anxiety, and doubt, and then gently dismiss them to focus on setting down the next word. Word by word, we make sentences and then paragraphs.

This is hard work. This is often unpleasant work. Most of the time, for me anyway, it doesn’t feel the way I think “meditative” should feel. It feels like digging away in the dark, tunneling into places I didn’t expect to find, and letting go of the places where I thought my writing was leading. For me this is the work of the creative Spirit alive in me, and I write because it is thrilling to participate with it, even though it mostly feels terrible at the time. When a piece of writing is gestating in me, I can get broody as a hen, grumpy and distracted if I don’t have or make the time to write, whether because I am afraid or just busy with the daily tasks of mothering, running a household, studying, and working on freelance projects.

Right now I am brooding over an essay that has been with me for years– as the seed of an idea, grit turned over in my thoughts over the course of weeks and months, and then smoothed into a sudden rush of words that now sit in a Word document on my computer. It is something about empathy, and fear, and not getting swept away, and how strange and difficult that becomes during certain tides of life.

This writing project and its questions have resurfaced with the pandemic. I find myself reflecting, during the day, on the shape and edges of empathy and compassion. I’m wondering how to witness my own and others’ emotions as we adjust each day to a new layer of information and questioning over all that remains unknown. How can I do this without getting swept away? Maybe the practice is to notice when I am getting swept away, and then clamber back to shore again.

There’s a lot of writing out there right now about grief, and how we are each allowed to be in this time in our own way, and how grief is a nonlinear and cyclical experience. I am no stranger to grief, and one thing I know about it is that it can become all-consuming. It can become difficult to recognize yourself within its grasp. It can start to feel as if grief is all there is, and all there ever will be.

What I know of grief is how it moves in me, and that is necessarily different from the way it moves in others. There is no “right way” to do it. I am trying to remember how I wanted to be spoken to when lost in grief. I think the words I needed were very few. Maybe no more than, I hear you, I am with you, I love you, You are strong even in your fear and your pain. I am not sure I even needed to hear I am sorry for your pain, or This too shall pass.

My friend and I went on to discuss what it was about the phrase silver linings that so grates on the senses, and we decided it was more than just its overuse. It’s the subtle forcefulness of the image, the way it requires focus on only the beauty of the possibility of light. The language itself asks us to entirely ignore the big dark cloud between us and the light.

Right now it feels like many of us are asking if it is okay to see and feel both, particularly those of us who hold more privilege, live in wealthier countries, and find ourselves spending a lot of time at home managing anxiety and fear, our own and that of the people we love. Can we appreciate the moments of light that shift through this oppressive dark cloud, without denying the cloud’s existence– the reality of the virus, all the lives it has taken, and all we still don’t know? Can we accept that in some ways light and darkness require each other, give each other shape– without suggesting that the darkness is good? How can we hold all of these contradictory emotions in our hearts and bodies?

In the wake of the sudden shift, in my state, from monitoring the virus elsewhere to the sweeping changes of a stay-at-home order, I’ve struggled to find the capacity to witness others’ grief and fear, for fear of getting swept into it. Perhaps because the virus’s arrival stateside came on the heels of a major mental health emergency in the life of one of my loved ones, I found myself with almost nothing in reserve. To heap more worry over things I could not control, onto the already mountainous pile in my life, threatened to break me, and I could not risk breaking, because I have children to care for. As a result, I feel I am failing some of my friends in their time of need for compassionate witness, because I often feel I don’t have the strength.

I’m working to find that strength, in a way that feels healthy. Maybe it’s finding a deeper, wider strength that doesn’t live in my body– the strength of faith, for lack of a more precise word. I will admit to fear about feeling fear, that Depression-era relic, which is somewhat new to me. While ordinarily I don’t shy away from heavier emotions, these days I find myself clinging more tightly to the light. Where I once felt shame for finding joy during hard times (and it’s always hard times, for someone, somewhere,) right now I am treasuring those moments, even seeking them– whether that’s in the mundane beauty of daily life with small children, or while taking in news from the global community, looking for stories that detail the unexpected and the resiliently human.

My son recently discovered dandelions, and his big sister has been teaching him how to blow the tiny seeds, attached to their parachutes of fluff, into the air. His whole face lights up when he spots one in the grass, during our walks to the park when there’s a break in the rain. (While playgrounds are closed, public parks are still open, for now, in Oregon.) His joy over the flowers makes me smile, and his sister’s tenderness with him. Meanwhile, the empty streets remind me that this is no ordinary day, and the dandelion seeds make me think of how the virus spreads, carried on breath and air.

Both are real, the light and the dark. When we get swept away again, I want to practice saying to you and to myself:

I hear you.
I am with you.
I love you.
You are strong even in your fear and your pain
.

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A few stories:

The 50-year-old hermit who knows a thing or two about social distancing
How the U.S. fought tuberculosis using community-based public health strategies
Rebecca Solnit on how disaster shakes loose old power structures

 

 

 

First Book, First Reading

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Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.

Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.

Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.

All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.

I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.

I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.

Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.

Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.

Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.

That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.

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Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.

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Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.

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The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.

I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.

I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.

On Creativity, Marriage, and Parenting on Coffee + Crumbs

 

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I’m delighted to share my essay “Through,” published this month on Coffee + Crumbs. This essay is about how becoming a parent transformed my relationships– to my husband and to my creative work.

Coffee + Crumbs has been a lifeline in these early years of parenting. I’ve looked forward to each new essay appearing on this collaborative blog about motherhood, because I can always count on the words published there to be affirming, encouraging, and real. I appreciate how this collective group of writers and editors does not shy away from the hard parts of becoming a mother– and how the readers respond with kindness and support.

And as I’ve folded laundry, washed dishes, prepped dinner, or collapsed on the couch after my little one’s bedtime, I’ve LOVED listening to the C + C podcast, with its humor and helpful advice on everything from adoption and being a working mom to making time for spiritual practice and finding the perfect postpartum bra. (PS, there’s also an awesome monthly newsletter you should subscribe to right now. It’s probably the only newsletter I subscribe to that I read, reread, and save. Click here and look for the subscribe button on the right.)

One of my favorite things about growing as a writer has been finding publications that really fit my voice– and becoming part of the community of readers. It seems so obvious: you should publish where you read. And yet actually doing that has made such a difference in my life. It has connected me to other readers who resonate with my writing, and to writers whose work I love, too.

Read my essay “Through” on Coffee + Crumbs, leave a comment, and join this amazing community of mothers, readers, and writers.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs

Writing in the Margins

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Here’s a short essay on how I write poems, a contribution to the “25th Hour” column at Mothers Always Write, on process and mothering.

As mothers who write, we often stretch and steal and bend time in order to make new work. The writers in this column compose poems in their minds as they rock babies, prepare lunches, or wait in the school pickup line. They carry notebooks in their purses, and write on the back of junk mail envelopes at the post office. These mothers always write, even when we’re not writing.

“In the Margins”speaks to the way I’ve stretched time throughout my life, writing poems since I was young, always at the edge of things.

How do you make time to write? Do you write in the margins of life, too?

Read my essay at Mothers Always Write, then click over to my poem “Sunflowers.”

An Essay on Growth Charts at Mothers Always Write

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Read my essay from November about childhood growth charts. In it, I reflect on what it means to measure your child’s growth, and your own personal growth as a parent.

I’m catching up here on the site after a bit of a post-election hiatus from social media and the digital world in general. I wanted to be sure to post about this essay because I learned a lot while writing it.

This essay took shape during an online writing workshop called Boot Camp, organized regularly by Mothers Always Write. MAW is an online journal I came to know and love last year when my poem “Bean Saving” was accepted for publication. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know other contributing writers at MAW through reading their work, and supporting one another as moms and writers.

If you’re a mom who writes, consider taking a workshop with MAW. In fact, there’s one coming up next week, March 6-24!

Read my essay “A Vocabulary of Growth,” and check out my previous publications for MAW here.

Image via Mothers Always Write.