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

IMG_0796

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.

IMG_0810

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.

IMG_0793

 

On Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem “More Strange” at Image Journal

Angel_StatueI just started writing short introductions for Image Journal‘s weekly online feature Poetry Friday.

I love these assignments because they introduce me to new work and new poets, they get me engaged with a journal I love, and they get me thinking– not just about my craft but about my faith.

Especially the poem I recently read and wrote about.

Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem “More Strange” is a compact powerhouse of emotion and complexity. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few weeks, moving through some heavy sadness over the brokenness of our world, while simultaneously beginning to wean my 14-month-old. I’ve been feeling weighed down by the violence in the news and grappling with my vulnerability, wanting to protect my child from what I have so little control over. It’s easy to forget God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s all too easy to imagine that grief and pain have the last word.

So this poem has helped, and I’m so grateful when poems help. To me, this too feels like a small sign of God’s living presence– that art heals, that humans can be conduits through which healing can flow. It makes me grateful that I write, that God planted the seeds of an abiding interest in poetry when I was very young. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Bagdanov’s poem is about the most intense grief I can fathom– Mary’s loss of her son– which becomes so much more than human grief, through the mystery of God’s saving grace.

Read Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem at Image Journal here.

Image: By MarcusObal (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons