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


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”.