Acting As If

My oldest is taking piano lessons. I sit on the teacher’s couch, petting her small dog Charlie, watching my 7-year-old pick up new concepts like a little vacuum cleaner. She’s too small to reach the pedals. Her feet rest on a blue bathroom stool; she sits on a Peanuts pillow. She forgets which hand is her left and which her right, laughs at herself, tries again. She calls half-notes “the ones with the holes in them,” and her teacher beams with delight.

I try to notice and remember new rules and instructions, the better to supervise her daily 15-minute practice sessions at home. Don’t let your count speed up, let quarter notes be quarter notes, say the numbers as you play. The stem goes on the left, the note at the top, for left-hand descending notes; on the right with the note at the bottom, for right-hand ascending notes– or is it the other way around?

She is far from playing songs, and I wait for her to become bored, or frustrated, but she doesn’t. Each day she makes the most minute progress, each week adding just enough new material to challenge without overwhelm. It is slow-going, and yet I marvel at the speed with which she learns and assimilates new information. I marvel at her teacher, who has taught piano lessons in her home for decades. The patience it takes, the confidence that with diligence and repetition, these small steps will add up to something bigger– the freedom to pick up a piece of music and play it.

The piano teacher is also a mother of grown children, all homeschooled. As my daughter and I embark on our first “real” homeschool year (pandemic at-home kindergarten notwithstanding), I seek out her perspective.

Was it worth it? Was it hard? Can I do it?

Yes.

Homeschool, for us, is proceeding much like piano. Short, daily lessons. Trying to plan the weeks so they build on each other. Having patience and confidence that these small, nearly invisible steps will add up to progress. Setting simple goals and objectives for the year. A paragraph of neatly-printed text without letter reversals. An ability and desire to pick up a chapter book and read it straight through, independently. Being captivated by a particular moment or era in history, and immersing herself in it.

Some days I have an ambitious lesson plan and we accomplish most of it. Other days, I pencil in the bare minimum and we struggle to meet it, waylaid by a wailing, overtired toddler who refuses to be put down, or a brother who dumps all the kinetic sand on the floor and refuses to pick it up. I worry I’m not doing enough for her. I doubt my abilities. I add left-handed notebooks to my Amazon cart. I go to the Zoom meetings our charter school holds for learning coaches, and I see the huge gap between where I am now, and where I’d like to be as her teacher. I make another lesson plan for the new week to come.

Meanwhile, at 21 months, Iris reminds me that human minds are made for this. She chirps out new words every day without any formal teaching effort on my part– and in fact, as the youngest of three, with woefully fewer enrichment activities than either of her siblings had. There are no library storytimes or music classes, but we have a DVD of Baby Signing Time, and she now sings the theme song, and peppers our days with vocabulary. She plays independently in the sandbox and garden more than the older two ever did, because she kind of has to, and she ends each day covered in dirt and very happy. Dirty! she says, wiggling her fingers under her chin. All clean! she says when we plunge her chubby hands into the sink.

Somehow there is enough time. Somehow there is enough energy and enthusiasm on all of our parts. Somehow we are making it through the days. With my son in half-day preschool three days a week, and a babysitter who helps me twice a week for four hours, it’s becoming possible to both lead my daughter through her second grade year, and get myself through my last year of acupuncture school. In some ways, watching her learn is helping me learn. Having confidence in her is forcing me to have confidence in myself, as both a teacher and a learner.

Sometimes that confidence is simply acting as if, and trusting God to make it real. Act as if I have plenty of time. Act as if I believe I can homeschool my child, and get through school, and pass the boards, and the many other objectives that feel daunting when I face them as mountains I must climb all at once, rather than through tiny steps and repetition.

God is making a way for us, using our tiny steps and repetition. As much as I can, I get up half an hour earlier than the kids to sit in the pretty floral armchair in my office, with a blanket and a candle and my Bible. I act as if I want to, on days when I really don’t. I act as if I know how to pray, when every day I am humbled by my wandering mind and sleepy thoughts. I act as if I believe God loves me as much as I believe He loves, is in fact crazy about, everyone else. And God is so generous in response to my meager offerings. Each day I feel my desire to know and to love and to serve God increase just a little bit more.

I think about God as a patient piano teacher, helping us through our scales and laughing with us when we forget which hand is our left and which is our right. The gap can be painful– where we are vs where we want to be; what we mean to offer God and how very little we are able to give– and yet isn’t it also something to marvel at? We have a God who comes close to us, a Creator as near to us as a teacher sitting on the bench beside us. A wider Love and Mercy than we will ever be able to imagine.


Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Loaves and Fishes and Mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General Thanksgiving

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


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

By Heart

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

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

*

What do I know by heart?

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some Imperfect Thoughts on an Imperfect Faith

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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


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

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”.

And Saturday

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photo: lyle poulin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo: lyle poulin

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

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

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

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

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Slow Summer Reading: A Review of Relief Journal

Summer went by quickly for me this year.

With a wiggly baby and active preschooler, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from the park to swim class, back home for the baby’s nap, and out again for another fun summer activity from our bucket list.

By day’s end I was tired, but I’d try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before falling asleep. Reading has been a huge part of summer for me since I was a kid, and I’m continuing that tradition with my own children. We all participated in our library’s summer reading program. While my kids and I tore through almost 100 picture books, it took me all summer to finish my small stack of non-fiction books.

I felt energized by all of this activity, and engaged in my reading, and I also had to consciously create time to slow down– to plan days with nothing on the schedule, put away all screens for a few days here and there, go barefoot in the backyard grass and dirt with my preschooler, and just sit on the back porch with my husband after the kids’ bedtime.

So I was grateful when the most recent issue of Relief Journal landed on my porch, smack in the middle of a heat wave in the middle of July. It had been a while since I’d made the time to sit down with this or any other print journal and just enjoy reading new work from a range of writers. I really loved this issue (spring 2018) and I wanted to share my reflections on some of my favorite pieces.

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Susanna Childress’s essay “Age Appropriate” absolutely floored me. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and I continue to think about not just its content, but the way in which Childress weaves together political commentary, personal narrative, and even a bit of nature writing, all with a poet’s ear for rhythm and eye for image.

She writes about the challenge of talking about difficult subjects with her young son. How should she tell him about the loss of babies who would have been his younger siblings? How does she explain police brutality, and the shooting of black parishioners during a bible study, and why his black friend’s mom has to have completely different conversations with her son about playing outside? In some ways, there is no “age appropriate” language for the territories of grief and injustice. Childress does a breathtaking job of taking the reader with her through a maze of questions– her own and her son’s– that ultimately have no easy answer.

I admired the clarity and directness of Chris Anderson’s poems “Transfigurations” and “You Never Know,” which tackle mystery in different but complimentary ways. What really happens to the bread and the wine in communion? How do we comprehend the paradox of Christ? What happens when we die? I liked how conversational these poems were, how apparently simple because of ordinary syntax, ordinary diction. This is the kind of poetry that really get to me, the kind that is able to say something essential yet utterly new, in language that feels as worn and familiar as a kitchen cutting board.

I love Marjorie Stelmach’s work, and her poem “Salt” in this issue is no exception, with its cascade of vivid imagery and precise sound spilling into sudden revelations like, “Somedays, it feels right to be weathered,” and “I know/ I’ve taken safety for granted, as if it were earned.” In “Vinegar,” she writes about Christ’s death on the cross and the mystery of faith as reflections of our own reality– we are spiritual and physical beings, needing both the concrete goodness of earth and confirmation that this isn’t all we are. I love how this poem begins with “If it’s true,” which seems to me is the ongoing dialogue of faith.

Then there’s Laura Arciniega’s strange speculative world in “The Shell,” which made me deeply uncomfortable in a good way. A mother is baking bread for her young son, and later a young couple visits the family, and they walk on the beach. It’s a seemingly simple story. But there is something different about the mother, the bread, the son, and the beach. The father tells the son a story: “Far away, there is a place where the day passes so slowly that a hen knows she’s about to lay an egg before she lays it…” We learn that in this world, a lifetime takes only a few weeks. To me, this story is about the strange weight and flexibility of time, which is so relevant to me in this phase of early motherhood.

There are many, many other poems, essays, stories, and even a comic diary in this issue that challenged me and got me thinking. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Relief, this issue would be a wonderful introduction.

Overall, I was left with deep gratitude when I finished this issue. It took some time– a month and a half!– to read and absorb each piece in here. Yes, part of that is because I’m the mother of two small children. And another part is that this is a carefully, lovingly crafted journal, filled with work that does not shy away from the full range of human experience. I read and thoroughly enjoyed each piece in this issue, and that’s something I don’t often experience in a literary journal.

I felt impressed by the work of this work, the generosity of time and effort the writers poured into these essays and poems, so that I as a reader could be changed. I felt impressed by the work of the students at Taylor University who put this journal together under the leadership of editor Dan Bowman, a fellow SPU MFA alum.

It was an encouragement to me as a writer to continue my own work, and a reminder that good writing takes time, in the making and in the receiving. In the end, it is so worth it.

 

When You See the Heartbeat at Coffee + Crumbs 

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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.

Creative Lives: In Conversation with Julie L. Moore at Ruminate Magazine

clem-onojeghuo-205193-unsplashLast fall, I received the enormous gift of an extended conversation with poet Julie L. Moore, facilitated by Ruminate Magazine.

Here is Part 1 of the series “Creative Lives,” a slightly edited version of our email exchange in which we discuss the highs and lows of pursuing a life in poetry.

In Part 2, we discuss writing community and the poets and writers who have shaped us. And in Parts 3 and 4, we talk about the process of building a collection of poems, and how we respond as poets to the aching, changing world around us.

I hope you enjoy this conversation on poetry and the creative process.

Photo via Unsplash

Miscarriage, Faith, and Self-Compassion

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I recently had a miscarriage, and moving through grief with God has taught me a lot about myself– especially how much I have to learn about self-compassion.

I’m excited to be a guest blogger at Voice of Courage today, sharing a short essay about trusting God through times of change.

Trust feels a lot different than I expected, and I’m thankful for the people God has placed in my life in the past several years who have helped me deepen my faith. I’m learning that there is room in faith for all kinds of emotions, including the heavy sadness and anger that come with loss. I’m learning that there is room in my relationship with God for feeling whatever I am feeling, and that when I choose to trust God, it actually means feeling everything a lot more deeply.

This dovetails with ideas about self-compassion from the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness practice. I believe God is Love, the ultimate ground of being. In Christ, God took on human form and knows our suffering intimately. Jesus tells us to Love one another even as you love yourself, and yet most of us– maybe especially in the Christian tradition– have a hard time loving ourselves. I know I do.

I have found a lot of help in learning how to do this through prayer and meditation, and through reading books by Buddhist authors and mindfulness practitioners. Since my daughter was born, I’ve found a mindfulness and self-compassion practice SO helpful in my mothering. A copy of Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers, a gift from my sister, sits dog-eared on my bedroom shelf. In addition to some basic information about Buddhist thought, it includes lots of practical ways to practice self-compassion and mindfulness as a mother. I don’t see this as a conflict with my Christian faith, because I believe God wants us to love ourselves– and mindfulness really works. I haven’t found many practical books on self-compassion in the Christian tradition. (If you have, let me know!)

If you are reading this post because you’ve miscarried, I am so sorry. I wrote this blog post for you. I hope you will find something helpful here, and just chuck anything you read here that doesn’t help. I am with you, sister, and I know this hurts.

Losing a baby is hard. Really, really hard. Because our culture throws a strange net of silence over miscarriage (though I think that it’s changing for the better), it can feel like there is no space where your grief is welcome. And yet miscarriage can bring on a huge, heavy grief that needs a lot of room.

So what do you do?

Self-compassion means taking care of yourself, but because grief doesn’t proceed logically or linearly, self-compassion doesn’t look the same from day to day. Sometimes you can barely pick yourself up off the floor. Sometimes you don’t eat well. Self-compassion means accepting ALL of it– and not beating yourself up because you’re not grieving or doing self-care “right.”

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Here are some things that have helped me take care of myself.

  • Talking about the loss with people who feel safe, including a professional counselor specifically trained to counsel women through miscarriage.
  • Reading about miscarriage, especially stories of personal experience. Links below.
  • Praying through a set of liturgies the Episcopal Church developed specifically for reproduction, including stillbirth, abortion, and infertility. I LOVE my church.
  • Watching Netflix while eating ice cream/ drinking wine/ in the tub. Perhaps all of the above. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to laugh and have a good day, and then wake up depressed the next day. Grief moves in unpredictable directions, and I find it helpful to give myself permission to check out for an hour or so when I need to (and have childcare).
  • Writing. I am working on an essay about losing my baby. Writing this blog post, slowly, over the course of weeks, has also helped me direct my focus outside of myself and connect to the reality that I share this experience of suffering with all humans.
  • Acupuncture, swimming, yoga, walking, massage, and anything else that brings stress relief and relaxes my body.
  • Saying no, doing less, and being really careful about who I connect with. I’ve also checked out of social media for a while.
  • Practicing meditation, especially guided self-compassion meditations with Kristin Neff. (I found the audio book at my library, and the second link has a few free ones online.)

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When you miscarry, well-meaning people can say unhelpful things, like God has a plan, It just wasn’t time for this baby, or probably worst of all, I don’t believe it’s actually a person yet. (Yes, someone I love really said that in my presence.)

Some people won’t know how to support you, and it’s okay to be pissed off about that. After you’re done feeling pissed off, you can ask for what you need, and you can keep learning how to give yourself what you need.

I am INCREDIBLY grateful for the wealth of support I have received from my family and friends through this grief. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I wanted to write down some of what I learned while grieving, in part so that I can remember how to support others, too. And in part because it might be helpful for someone out there who wants to be there for a grieving friend. I know everyone grieves differently, so these are just observations drawn from my own personal experience.

Here are some ways you can support someone grieving a miscarriage.

  • Be there. Be there, be there, be there. Send a text, make a quick phone call, spend an hour sitting on the couch beside them, take them out for tea. Just say I’m here and I’m with you. That’s it.
  • Don’t try to fix it. You can’t fix it. Please don’t give advice that isn’t asked for.
  • Listen. Ask if the person needs to talk. Ask if it would help to talk about what happened. The details of miscarriage are murky in most of our minds, and it happens so differently for each woman. Personally, it really helped me to talk about what was actually going on in my body and it helped when someone was willing to listen calmly and empathically, without pity.
  • Send a card or flowers. It really does help. It’s what people do when someone dies, and miscarriage is no different.
  • Pray with them. If you are the praying type and they are, too, offer to pray with them over the phone or in person.
  • Offer (simple) help. Get groceries, bring a meal, watch their child. They might not take you up on it, but it will probably be meaningful to know you’re there.
  • Don’t forget. When it’s been a month, or when the would-have-been due date arrives, or a year later, you can bet that the date is sitting heavy on their heart. Reach out with a text or a call and tell them you’re thinking about them, and you haven’t forgotten.

Things to Read

“Hope is what my grief is held in.” From a beautiful essay on Coffee + Crumbs.

“Such a Thing.” By Kaitlin Barker Davis.

“I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t.” By Laura Ortberg Turner.

glow in the woods. This site is about baby loss of all kinds. Be cautious here if your grief is fresh, because many of these essays can be extremely hard to read.

Coming to Term.  A book about a couple’s experience with repeat miscarriages, including a lot of personal accounts from other people.

Come and Gone: A Miscarriage Remembrance.” An essay by the author of The Science of Mom.

ALL PHOTOS VIA UNSPLASH