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 Old nursery rhymes: a penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle–three objects fast becoming outdated, unknown by my children, though they know Mommy’s going to school to become an acupuncturist, to use what my oldest calls my “soft needles” to help people with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”.

The Baby is Almost One

Iris at ten months

In two weeks and four days our baby– third baby, last baby– will be one. One: the lilypad from babyhood to something more. Not quite toddler, but getting too big to nurse, outgrowing booties, grabbing the spoon from my hand.

Not always, but plenty of times, I have held her in dark rooms rocking her to the shushing of white noise and willing my body to memorize hers. To know her weight at each age, knowing how my memory changed so quickly as my older children grew, my brain somehow erasing the previous stage to replace it with the child-shape in my arms. I have held her wanting to hold onto the moment, to her, or at least to know I was fully there, taking in as much as I could.

Not always, but a lot, I felt pure happiness just holding her, not wanting to lower her into her crib.

I haven’t planned her first birthday party, haven’t called it a party, even. It will be her, and me and her daddy and her siblings, and Nana and Poppy. A round little cake, a balloon, a candle, her crinkly-eyed smile. The crinkle of paper and her pudgy hands, clapping. It will be four days after Christmas, in that bridge of time between the biggest parties of the year, and I want it to be quiet. I don’t want anything to distract me from that one small flame. I’m so grateful for her, and for my motherhood, for her brother and her sister. The magical thinking of: if I can just love each moment enough it will make up for all the times I held my babies and wasn’t present, was angry or tired or hopeless, and didn’t love the moment enough. I didn’t know how fast it would go and that it would eventually be over, each babyhood year.

What does it mean that she is our last baby? Didn’t I think each baby was our last? I never bought a tiny cake pan to make their first birthday cakes. Each time I borrowed one, thinking, Oh, why buy something I’ll use so rarely, but also, I couldn’t possibly be this lucky again. Maybe that is the mark miscarriage leaves. Surely this was just a fluke. Or the strange insatiability: will I always want another baby, the way a child always wants another ice cream cone? Maybe it’s a type of hungry math– if I add and add and add, it will cancel out the heartbreak of those zeroes. Love doesn’t work that way, but hunger doesn’t understand that.

with Robin at 9 months

A mother of four, Maya Rudolph described herself in an interview as “addicted to babies,” and sometimes I feel that way. Not fixated, not obsessed, but habituated. To what? To the possibility? A mother of four. I’m exhausted with caring for three, and the road to Iris’s kindergarten year looks long, and still I find myself folding and storing away a few pairs of threadbare maternity leggings, a stack of my favorite onesies. Not in the keepsake boxes I’ve started for each child, but in an unmarked, mostly empty box in the basement. As if, like the unplanned first birthday, if I don’t think about it too directly I don’t have to face its meaning.

The keepsake boxes are labeled, layered. At the bottom there is the pink sweater Sky wore at four months, and on top are the pair of ballet shoes she just outgrew– too beloved to toss, too worn to save for her sister. There are the brown fuzzy booties that warmed Robin’s feet from January to May of his first year, turning him daily into bear cub, and there’s the orange astronaut jammies he loved so much, wore so often I can’t imagine them on Iris. And somehow there’s a box, too, for Iris: her going-home outfit that now looks improbably tiny, her first bathing suit that won’t fit next summer. I wonder how it could be over so soon. I wonder how to explain to myself that having another baby doesn’t bring the other babies back– not Iris as a newborn, not Sky at six months, not 9-month-old Robin, not the babies that faded away before they could be born.

How do I explain this to my heart? Not the organ, but very much the organ, too– its terrible, incredible pumping. The heart is the first thing I knew of each of my children, as a little feathery beating on a grainy screen. The heart is the part of me that has physically ached, each time I crossed the threshold of birth, with the weight of a love no one could have explained to me. And my heart is also something that isn’t flesh and doesn’t understand flesh’s finality. My heart wants to go back and forth through time, or suspend it, and linger in the nursery rocking each baby again.

This part of me isn’t rational. She’s very persuasive. I won’t give her the keys, but I also trust her to show me where to pay attention.

The baby is almost one and I haven’t planned a thing. Already she is pulling on my hands, pulling herself up to stand, laughing and wobbling into her next year.

with Sky

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 leads 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. Sometimes I think Christianity is a kind of remedial course for stubborn souls like mine, the ones that keep cycling through lifetimes without shedding the sticky sap of pride, jealousy, arrogance.

*

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?

*

A related fear: That angels are for people in the bible, not regular people like me, with static cling and a habit of spending just-earned money on tarot cards. That angels, like tarot cards, are a type of spiritually-suspect accessory it’s best not to mention to your Real Christian friends.

*

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 Them. 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.

*

Theology overwhelms me, like Costco. So many options, each item massive, containing much more than I feel is necessary, but at the same time not containing all I need. The closest I get to a theological home is Liberation Theology, but even there I hover, unsure if I’m welcome. Does a white, middle class, cisgender woman, living on the unceded lands of the Clackamas, Cowlitz and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, belong there? Could I ever be anything more than a hypocrite? Is that sort of a given within Christianity anyway?

*

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”.

When You See the Heartbeat at Coffee + Crumbs 

1496066704917

In early June, my essay about waiting to miscarry appeared on Coffee + Crumbs.

“When You See The Heartbeat” is a short essay describing the two weeks between an unpromising first ultrasound just before Christmas, when the heartbeat was detectable but weak, and a second scan after the new year. Writing this essay helped me process the swirl of hope and fear I felt as I waited.

In January, we lost our hoped-for baby at 9.5 weeks, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest, iciest winters in a city wholly unprepared for snow. It was a long and difficult winter. Spring’s arrival never filled me with as much hope and relief as this year.

On June 2nd, when this essay went up on the site, I had my first ultrasound for the baby I’m now carrying. This time, baby measured right on track with a strong heartbeat. I sobbed through that ultrasound, thinking of the baby we lost and this new little one we are so hopeful for. We are praising God that we’re at 14 weeks now, and praying this baby will be born healthy and full of life in early January of 2018.

I share this essay for anyone who is waiting, anyone who is grieving the loss of even the tiniest life. I share it in hope and with an outstretched hand if you are feeling alone in the middle of your own dark winter– even in high summer.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs.

On Creativity, Marriage, and Parenting on Coffee + Crumbs

 

C+Cphoto

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

thought-catalog-217861.jpg

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.”

Writing About Climate Change

Here’s a letter I wrote for Dear Earth With Love, a collaborative community chronicle of personal stories about climate change.

My dear friend Jo created this project. I encourage you to write your own letter to the earth, responding to your personal experience with climate change. It could be a letter, poem, story, song, or spoken word piece. It could be a video of a dance or performance; a painting, collage, or sculpture. Whatever medium suits you best, use it and make something– then submit your work.

Dear Earth With Love holds rolling submissions, with a deadline posted every few months.  The next deadline is August 31, 2016.

Read the beginning of my essay here:

Continue reading “Writing About Climate Change”