Friday, December 24, 2010

what you can learn from stories you have never liked


over the past several years, it has become our tradition to give luke the gift of a special family outing for christmas. i'm not sure how it started, really. probably accidentally. but it is meaningful in so many ways to us now. for one thing, it's hard to compete with what awaits luke on our annual christmas pilgrimage to our "homeland," aka syracuse, new york: mountains of snow, all of his grandparents and all their requisite indulgences, dozens of cousins, doting aunts and uncles galore, big black poodles...what more could a boy ask for, really? his same-old, same-old parents--with their limited budget, inability to conjure up snow on demand, and dog-less-and-local-family-less life--can hardly compete. and so, instead of trying, we decided several years ago to invent something new.

we celebrate what we call our "family christmas" in north carolina the day before we pack up the car and head north. luke looks forward to finding out first thing in the morning what the day holds; this year, it was tickets to see the voyage of the dawn treader in 3d, followed by dinner out at an italian restaurant. it was, as is always the case with our family christmas outings, a fun time together and a special treat.

the movie choice this year was all sam, though. while luke and sam love the chronicles of narnia (along with the rest of the world, as far as i can tell), i have never been able to get into them. (insert here the collective gasp of most everyone reading this post, for whom the narnia books have either been life-changing or childhood favorites or both or something else ridiculously significant.) i like to read most anything, but fantasy has never been a category i've been able to get into. i'll confess that i have started the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe more than once and have never finished it. if you know me and my ocd-ish inability to leave a book unfinished, you'll know how significant that is. anyhow, i had no argument with sam's choice: of course, this would be a perfect choice for luke. and i'd be glad to tag along despite my shameful lack of knowledge of narnia.

anyhow, that's an unnecessary amount of rambling to get to the point. the movie was great fun, although my boys tell me that it departed from the book in lots of really significant ways. for my part, i'm almost convinced to pick the books up again and give them another try. although i'm not all that good at entering into the fantasy, the allegory intrigues me enough that i think i'll give it go. but all this background is to lead up to this, perhaps my favorite line from the movie (which luke and sam tell me is not from the book, unfortunately): "i spent too long wanting what was taken from me and not what was given." it's king caspian who says this, and it doesn't really matter why, not insofar as this blogpost is concerned, anyhow. but the line was striking to me in many ways.

i won't go into all of them here, but suffice it to say that sam and i spend (and have spent recently) a significant amount of time wanting what was taken from us. but how much do we focus on what is given to us? i think of luke and my recent ramblings about my wishes for my mothering of him; of anastasia and her busy life inside me, soon to be outside; of my family and friends; of my work and the people i am privileged to serve and serve with there...i could go on and on. caspian goes on to say that he has been given people and that's what he must focus on as their king. similarly, i have been given people whom i am meant to serve--my family, my community--and i cannot be so wrapped up in wanting what i have lost that i fail to focus on what i have been given to do.

caspian won't forget his father, of course, nor do i plan to forget wishing eliza were still here. but the line stuck with me, is all, and made me eager to adjust my focus, at least sometimes. what amazing gifts and callings i have been given, and i'm glad for the reminder not to lose sight of them.

(and now that christmas eve has nearly become christmas morning, i'll quote another favorite movie line, this from forrest gump: "and that's all i have to say about that." at least for tonight.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"we got no troubles..."

"life is the bubbles under the sea," sang sebastian (you knew it was sebastian, right? from the little mermaid, of course. my favorite disney movie of all time, in case you were wondering.)

i have always loved the water, for at least as long as i can remember, and probably longer. pool, ocean, lake, river, whatever. if i can swim in it, i'm happy. really big bathtub? great. in fact, i remember when we moved when i was in sixth grade and our new house had this really fantastic huge old fashioned tub...anyhow, i digress.

my wallpaper on my computer at work (that would be the computer at the editing job i just quit, thankyouverymuch, which is a story for another time) caught my eye the other day. actually, to be honest, it was my last day there, and i was staring at the screen trying to get motivated to edit one more flier before i could punch my proverbial card for the last time. anyhow, i was staring at the screen, mesmerized by the picture there and completely ignoring the flier, since i'm being honest, and it got me thinking about how and when we learn about the sharks.

the wallpaper was this picture of paradise:


amazingly crystal clear blue water. dreamy. it made me think of what the water used to look like when i was a kid--the first glimpse of a pool below as we flew over florida en route to nana and papa's house, of green lakes in the summer when we went there to swim, of the rivers and hot springs we swam in and jumped off cliffs into on our trip to yellowstone. you can't see it in that picture as well as i could when it filled my desktop, but that water is perfectly clear. no seaweed, no rocks, nothing swimming as far as the eye can see.

but i know those things aren't true. after all, that's a picture of the ocean or some sea somewhere (and oh, how i'd like to know where because i'd really like to live there). and i know full well what lives in oceans and seas: fish and crabs and other relatively harmless (and yummy) things, plus other things of varying harmfulness, like the jellyfish that stung me a few years back or the sharks whose attacks make the news every summer. so what i wondered as i daydreamed in that desktop was when i realized those waters weren't completely clear after all.

there comes a moment, doesn't there, when we lose our innocent joy? when what we've learned in school about sealife collides with our family vacation and we realize that things live under that beautiful playground in which we swim? there are sharks in those waters.

it's the proverbial sharks i was thinking about, of course, in our proverbial waters. like when we realize our parents aren't always right. or that doctors can't make everything better. or that some things that hurt can't be fixed. or that there isn't always a happy ending like in disney world. it's a gradual process, i guess; we don't realize those things all at once. i'm sad that, at age seven, luke has already learned some of those things. it makes me cringe to think of it, really, because i want his waters always to be the crystal clear playground in that photograph, with nothing lurking underneath. can we regret growing up? or, at least, regret that others have to?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

because i'm not a one-trick pony

(here's the proof that i think blog-worthy thoughts about things other than grief sometimes, too.)

we finally decorated our christmas tree today. it has become a tradition for us to get our tree on the first sunday of advent--which was two weeks ago, mind you--but somehow this year it took us those two weeks to finally drag the boxes out of the attic. it was those boxes that got me thinking.

most every ornament on our tree has a story, as does most every ornament on most every christmas tree, i'd wager to guess. and there are ornaments not on our tree that have stories, too, like the ones given to us for christmas in 2000, the first year we were married. before we headed home for christmas that year, we put up a sad little fake tabletop tree and discovered we had basically no ornaments with which to decorate it. that christmas was a year of practical gifts, things our budding life together needed--a shiny new metal toolbox for sam, and, among other things, quite a few very delicate, beautiful ornaments for the next year's tree. without my knowledge, my dear new husband packed all my beautiful ornaments in his shiny metal toolbox--"packed" in the sense of just putting them in there--and checked that toolbox with our luggage on our flight home. needless to say, those ornaments never made it on our next year's tree.

but i digress. (you should know that we can--and often do--laugh about those ornaments now. but in january of 2001...well, they really had been beautiful.)

what i was struck with as we decorated the tree this year, though, was not the stories behind the ornaments. i enjoyed those stories as much as always, of course. but as i unpacked the boxes, i was struck with their familiarity. the boxes! a few years ago, i bought some of those fancy rubbermaid ornament storage boxes, as our now-overwhelming collection had outgrown the few random boxes in which the ornaments were packed--"packed" in the sense of wrapped carefully and individually in bubble wrap or tissue paper, of course. but some of the old, un-fancy boxes have retained their contents, too. i was amazed at the stories those boxes could tell.

they're random shipping-type boxes, these are. at least one was from gifts shipped to us that same first christmas and bears our first address together--that ghetto apartment in durham that not many of you who are reading this have known us long enough to remember. several boxes have years' worth of scribbled out labels on them. one bears the now-obliterated words "for luke's eyes only"; it was used the first year he was in preschool as he brought home things he had made for us over the course of december. he needed somewhere secret that he knew was safe to stash these treasured projects (or he needed somewhere for me to stash them for him after i unpacked them from his backpack, somewhere safe where i was sure not to see them), and so he used this box, which he kept under his bed, labeled to ensure its safety.

the wrappings for those ornaments are also strangely familiar, like the perfectly-square pieces of bubble wrap, leftover--it must be--from our move from the ghetto apartment to the middle-of-nowhere-but-in-the-middle-of-everything townhouse that, again, few of you will remember. (we wrapped pretty much everything very carefully in bubble wrap for that move, traumatized as i still was from the only-six-month-old memory of my lost ornaments.) i think some of that bubble wrap is in those boxes, still protecting ornaments from our second christmas. there was--until this year, and i wonder what happened to it--in one of those boxes a yellow plastic bag from fay's drugs, our drugstore throughout my childhood until it was taken over by eckerd in 1997 (so says wikipedia, since my memory is not that specific), also protecting some ornament with a story of its own.

protection, containers, vessels...i'm pretty sure that on most nights i'd have something more profound with which to connect my thoughts about boxes of stories and ornaments. earthen vessels? hmmm. perhaps not tonight. i think maybe it's enough to just enjoy the stories in those boxes.

(maybe i am a one-trick pony after all. at least maybe this week.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

label-maker

don't let this define you, he said.

i think i may have mentioned here before (darned if i can find where) that, as has anyone who has been through a significant loss, i heard some comments that were less than helpful after eliza died. i knew that all of them were shared with the best of intentions, and so for the most part in each case i was able to receive the good intention and ignore the foolish vehicle for its delivery. but these words didn't roll off my back so easily. don't let this define you. thankfully, they were offered in the context of a conversation in which it was appropriate for me to push back--and so i did. i had completely forgotten that conversation until i recently heard the same words offered to a friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer: don't let this define you.

before i explain my pushback, i should explain that i understand the good intention behind the words. for my friend with cancer and for me in my loss, the intention (i believe) was the same: don't cease living because of suffering, don't give up on all you know and are because a bad thing has happened, don't lose your identity because of this new label you wear: cancer patient, grieving mother. i am grateful for those good intentions.

but what i said to the friend who offered me these words was this: i believe that losing eliza is intended to define me. not in the sense that i should always and ever be only a grieving mother; those of you who know me well know that was never a risk for me. but in the sense that in some inexplicable, providential way, this was intended for me and is meant to change me. death is evil--don't get me wrong--and was never what God intended for us. but "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose" (romans 8:28). even evil things He can and does use for our good.

i know that losing eliza has changed me, which is not to say that i wouldn't give it all back if i didn't have to lose her after all. but since that is not mine to decide, i will decide what i can, which in this case is to be grateful for those changes and the way that her life and death were intended to define me. if i believe in a God who is God of the whole universe and of every single hair on eliza's head, a God who is all good and wants the best for me and eliza always, a God who is completely in control, then somehow or another, God is in everything i experience, be it joyful or painful. He allows the painful things...or something equally hard to swallow: one way or another, He is in them. and they are meant to define me. what has resulted from the trial of losing eliza was meant for me, and God is all over it. He has defined (in the sense of creating) me through losing eliza, and that is--somehow, and the Lord only knows how--good. in one sense, my friend was right: i shouldn't be defined by losing eliza in the sense that i might become nothing but a grieving mother. but in quite another and perhaps more important sense, i know that i needed to let losing eliza define me. this suffering is mine and i am God's, and through this as through everything i experience, He is making me into what he has intended for me from the beginning of time.

let Him define you--that's my advice, i guess--even when the vehicle for the defining feels more like painful re-fining.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

turn, turn, turn

it's time to be sad again, he said, kneeling by the bed in the dark. we had been arguing, i think--and who knows about what, as is almost always the case with those things--and i suppose i had gone to bed, seeing no other way to put an end to it. it's time to be sad again, here in the dark.

it seems to me that for the most part, we resist cycles. we artificially heat and light the annual dark, cold seasons; we medicate monthly bad moods; we travel to warm places when it's cold and cool places when it's hot; we starve and exercise and surgically rearrange bodies that mature into sagging or stretching or drooping. we strive for equilibrium in our emotions, our environments, our habits. we don't want change, cyclical or otherwise.

but resist as we may, we live in a world dominated by cycles. if you go to school with luke, you'll probably learn about the water cycle. there's the cycle of time: resist as we may, whether we get out of bed or not, morning will follow night, every night, for as long as the Lord sees fit to perpetuate that cycle. the seasons are cyclical, of course, as are the holidays that appear in them. for many people, emotions are cyclical, affected by light or weather or hormones or other indeterminate factors. this is part of why i appreciate the liturgical church year, as i think i've mentioned before. ordinary time is always followed by something extra-ordinary, green followed by purple, red leading to white. (if that's all foreign to you, here's a decent, brief explanation of what i'm talking about.) try as we may to celebrate christmas in july, like luke with his interminable whistling this summer, that's not the time for it, and christmas will not come then.

i'd prefer to resist the cycle of sadness, too. i'd prefer to call out in the dark, no! it's not the time to be sad. i won't be told when to be sad! i won't let the calendar dictate what this sunday will look like for me--or any other day, for that matter. last year, as december 12 approached, sam and i were convinced that it would be a day like any other. it was clear when 9:15am arrived that day that we were completely wrong.

i'd prefer it if this were not "the time to be sad." i'd prefer to preserve advent and christmas as times of joyful waiting and leave the sad for some more convenient time--or never. but the fact is that i have no choice but to submit to the darkness when it arrives. unlike in my modern, electrified house--in which i can flip a few switches and pretend that this cold, dark night is in fact a warm, sunny day--i cannot turn a dark emotional season into a bright one. there are dark seasons that cannot so easily be turned on or off. and maybe there are times to be sad.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
(go ahead, sing it. you know you want to. i am. turn, turn, turn.)

what ecclesiastes 3 goes on to say is that God "has made everything beautiful in its time" (v11). the fact that everything has its season--birth and death, planting and reaping, weeping and laughing, casting away and gathering in, seeking and losing--is no accident. the cycle of seasons is made beautiful in its time. i have to believe that we're built for submitting to those cycles (inasmuch as they're healthy, of course, in which i do not at all mean to ignore the fact that in our brokenness, those cycles can be broken, too). put simply, if it is time to be sad, i'd do well to listen to that, to submit to it, to learn in it, to grow through it.

and in kneeling in the dark, recognizing that it is time to be sad again, i will all the more appreciate the light, the morning that follows night every time in its turn.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

grieving gratefully

grief doesn't go away. and today i figured out another reason i'm glad it doesn't.

in the past, i've been glad it doesn't go away for some reasons about which i have some questions regarding their health value. i've been glad to hang onto it as a last remaining tangible bit of eliza. i've been loathe to let it go because it felt like all i had left. like losing my pain about eliza's death is somehow "getting over it" in a way that means having lost her more completely than before. that's real and true and far from unique to me, i know. i'm not sure, however, how healthy it is. but today i figured out another reason i'm glad to still grieve having lost eliza, and i think this one is much healthier.

last night, sam and i were talking about what we have done with our grief--or perhaps more accurately, what it has done to and for us. i had a few thoughts on the spot. i think i've developed a different type of compassion. i've learned something about how to show up for people. i understand myself and my own needs better. i know suffering in a way i never knew before, and i'm able to share that with others. i have become more transparent for sure, as evidenced by some of what i post here. none of this is meant to sound like i have it all nailed, of course. but God has used my grief to teach me some things, is all, and i think those things have clarified for me who i am and what He has for me to do.

but the part of that conversation that really broke me was when i talked about what i wish my grief had done for me. this is the really raw, hard part: i wish it had made me a better mother. if anything, i'm afraid it has done the opposite. i wish that in losing eliza i had learned to be more grateful for luke. i wish my selfish impatience with his seven-year-old-ness--his slowness to make his bed in the morning, his lies about whether or not he has brushed his teeth, his failure to unpack his backpack after school despite repeated requests, his constant arguing with any parental directive at all--i wish my grief could cause me to see past my impatience with these childish failures and allow me to be grateful that he is here, and he is seven, and he is healthy, and he will someday (deo volente) be eight. why is all my eternal perspective and compassion for others and yadda yadda yadda completely lost on my child? why is it that while most of my life seems to benefit from the good parts of my grief, luke gets only the exhausted, impatient, fragile part?

it was as i sat waiting for luke in the carpool line today that i realized this is the great mercy in the persistence of grief: it is not finished changing me. if it were gone, if i were over it, then its failure to make me a better mother would be over and done with. but the fact that i still grieve, the fact that this week is painful and life-changing still and all over again, means that my grief is not done with me. it means that i can still look forward to the changes it is effecting and will effect in my life. and i can pray that growth as a mother will be one of those changes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

sufficient unto the day

"Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (matthew 6:34).

a nearly-crash landing on our flight today should produce in me some deep thoughts, no? while my head was as near my lap as it can get (not very near thanks to anastasia, i'm afraid), while my arms were braced against the seat in front of me and sam was holding luke's head down by the back of his neck (read your seatback emergency instructions--who knew that's what you were supposed to do?), while the flight attendant was ensuring everyone knew where the closest exits were--while all of that was happening, i should have had some sort of life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment, shouldn't i have?

not so much, as it turns out.

don't get me wrong: it was scary. but honestly, until after we landed and found out the whole story of what had happened--pilot's panels out, cockpit filled with smoke--we didn't have the time or information to realize how scary it should have been. the pilot and flight attendants did an amazing job of making sure we knew how important it was that we did what we were told without causing anyone to panic, despite the fact that they gave us very little information.

this is what surprises me the most. as i was just sharing with a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer and is about to undergo a major surgery, i'm the type of person who wants all the information. throughout eliza's life, i was so frustrated by doctors who wouldn't explain it all to me--all the possibilities, all the ramifications, all the possible treatments. even if none of it proved to be true, i wanted to understand everything i could so i would be prepared. i felt that way about God, too; i could handle whatever was going to happen with eliza, just as long as He prepared me for it.

despite the fact that many of eliza's doctors learned that i could in fact handle whatever information they had, that i would persist in asking questions until they told me what they could, they very often had few if any answers to give me. the same was true with God: although He has all the answers, obviously, He did not frequently give me lots of information in preparation for all of the many important moments in eliza's life. the lack of information i had throughout eliza's life and since then has always frustrated me. if only i knew! and i have for a very long time been convinced that since this was how i was wired, it must be right and good.

our near-crash landing (which ended completely safely, by the way) today is a good real-live metaphor for what i apparently refuse to learn: just enough information--and not all of it--can be a protection and a gift. had the flight crew answered all of our questions in the moment, had they given us all the information we thought we wanted--what was going on? what was going to happen? what were all the possibilities for landing scenarios?--not that there was time to answer any of those questions...but if they had, would that have helped us? would we have been safer or calmer or better prepared? no. we were given what we needed for the moment, and that was it. i'm pretty sure i've read that God works the same way.

"The LORD said to Moses, 'I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, "At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God."'

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, 'What is it?' For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, 'It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: "Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent."'

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

Then Moses said to them, 'No one is to keep any of it until morning.'

However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers for each person—and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. He said to them, 'This is what the LORD commanded: "Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning."'

So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 'Eat it today,' Moses said, 'because today is a sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.'

Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.' So the people rested on the seventh day (exodus 16:11-30).


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the alpha and omega

this week, as our church staff sat down together for morning prayer, one of the other staff members mentioned how satisfying it was to begin on page one. if you've ever used the book of common prayer, you'll know that the scriptures with which morning prayer open are determined by the season; and if you pay attention to the liturgical calendar, you'll know that advent is the beginning of the year. thus the opening scriptures for advent are on the first page of the morning prayer rite.

i had just been thinking the same thing when the other staff member mentioned his appreciation for starting on page one. i had chalked my page-one satisfaction up to my ocd-ish need to have things complete, start to finish, and added it to my list of obsessions with patterns; my absolute inability to leave a book unfinished, even a bad one; and my refusal to start watching a movie from anywhere but the beginning, even one i've seen before. but i got to thinking, of course, about advent being the start of the year.

i have heard one friend of mine quote another mutual friend (though i've never heard him say it directly) as having said in defense of liturgy that if the church doesn't tell us what time it is, the world will. (having acquired this brilliant quotation by hearsay, i'll feel free to interpret it at will.) if the church doesn't tell us that christmas comes at the end of four weeks of waiting, the world will tell us it begins on halloween. if the church doesn't tell us that easter comes only after long weeks of penitence and self-examination, the world will send us bunnies and colorful eggs right on the heels of our valentines.

but do i really think of advent as the start of the year?

for me, advent feels more like it's about endings than beginnings. this next couple of weeks is a time of waiting to recognize for a second year the anniversary of eliza's death, this year smack on gaudete sunday (more on that here). then i wait a couple more weeks for yet another christmas when i won't hang her stocking along with the rest of ours (or will i? i can't remember what i decided last year). then after christmas, i'm yet again waiting, this time for eliza's birthday, just a few short weeks after epiphany.

that seems all wrong. i'm supposed to start the year in this waiting anticipating beginnings, not dwelling on endings. or am i?

the thing is that beginnings and endings don't need to be all that different after all. (here i'm tempted to bust into singing "the circle of life." but of course i won't.) because what is the point of an ending but to begin something new? of course, the prime example here for me is the knowledge that the end of eliza's broken, painful, earthly life was the beginning of her eternal, heavenly, whole one. the advent of her real life, so to speak. then there's the whole seed analogy--that something has to die in order for something new to grow--repeated in too many trite sympathy expressions for me to bear repeating it. but how is it for me that this season of waiting to remember endings can be about starting the year afresh?

because in my pain, which i will not deny at this time of year any more than any other, i can be brought to my knees afresh. i can bathe in fresh gratitude for the gift that is christmas--and the many, many other gifts in my life for which i forget to be thankful. i can start over precisely because of my brokenness and suffering, because i've already been driven to my knees in my wrestling with endings. what better place to start the year than on my knees, keenly aware of my need for what is offered to me anew yet again?

(and here i'll rejoice in living in the south where i can avoid yet another requisite trite image of a world that is a clean slate, bathed in snow just in time for starting over at christmas. but do with that what you will.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

and as for that photo update

recently, when i wasn't busy sleeping (because building a person is really exhausting)...

(wait, that's sam...no fair!...)


or working as the editor for a community college marketing department or the children's minister at our church (i don't take pictures of this stuff)... or watching luke perform with the african children's choir (okay, this video is funny--rhythm, not so much, i'm afraid)...


video
or rooting for the syracuse chiefs...wait, i mean the durham bulls...



or sending luke off to his first day of second grade...


or watching him play soccer for team ireland... or trying (not very successfully) to capture a hint of fall, which was very long in coming this year... or climbing a mountain with my parents and luke (at hanging rock state park right here in north carolina--beautiful!)... or visiting with nephew alex (who was maybe luke's age last time he visited)... or trick-or-treating with my handsome little skeleton and his buddies (i promise he's handsome in there)... or celebrating my parents' 60th birthdays at the beach... or watching luke sing a duet in the thanksgiving assembly...
video
i was...ummmm...mostly sleeping. because, really, building a person is exhausting.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

spoiler alert

if you're reading along in the all saints advent devotional daily, don't read this post--you'll get to it on december 6. (if you're not reading the devotional, you can! and should, i might add. you can download it free right here.)

for the past several years, i've written a short reflection for our church's advent devotional and have then shared that reflection here. on this first sunday of advent, here's my contribution from this year.



An Advent reflection about suffering?

In a recent conversation with some friends about the question of suffering—why? whence? and those sorts of things—I started thinking about the suffering of the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Superficially, we understand what happened to him, and we’re right there with Jesus: the son makes a bad choice, and so he suffers humiliation and starvation as consequences. That’s tidy, and it fits with our sense of justice just fine. Right on, Jesus. A good lesson for children, even: respect your parents or else. See what happened to him? Jesus said so! But is the prodigal son’s suffering really about judgment? Plenty of people make bad choices and don’t suffer for them. So why does the son in Jesus’ parable suffer?

I suspect the answer is in the result. Until the prodigal son suffers and is overwhelmed by his circumstances, he does not realize what he has forsaken, what he is lacking. His suffering illuminates for him his need and sends him searching for the only thing he knows that can meet that need.

It’s a terrible thing to say to someone who is suffering, so please don’t. But all the same, I think it’s true: God allows us to suffer because he wants us to recognize our need. If someone had said that to me in certain painful periods of my life, I would have been tempted to hit him. But now, outside that suffering, I can recognize its truth. When we suffer, really suffer, we are driven to desperation. And sometimes it’s only in our desperation that we can recognize what we’re really desperate for. Unless our situation is really bad, we’re pretty sure we can handle it ourselves, solve it ourselves, recover from it ourselves. But when things are really bad? We recognize what we are not, and what we need most of all: God.

I’m sorry, you’re probably thinking, but what does this have to do with Advent?

For me, the joyful waiting of Advent is inextricably linked with the suffering-filled waiting for death. In Advent 2008, two days before Gaudete (joy? really?) Sunday, my nearly three-year-old daughter Eliza died. She had spent her life evading a death sentence of an illness, had spent the weeks since Thanksgiving (thanks? really?) waiting to lose her life-long battle. On December 12, 2008, I experienced an unbearable weight of suffering that could drive me nowhere else but to my Father, the one whose birth into a world of suffering I was to celebrate in only a matter of days. Christmas that year was not about gifts—I barely managed to purchase any and have no idea what I received—or carols or feasts or family. It was about a baby I had lost and a Baby who had come to Earth to be my only hope in that loss. It was about being driven by my overwhelming suffering to the only One who could meet my need, from starvation home to my Father. My Father who was about to become the Son, the Answer to a question I was only just being forced to realize I needed to ask.

Last Advent and this, too, remain inextricably linked with pain and sorrow and suffering and grief for me. The challenge is whether or not I’ll remember to let that suffering drive me Home into the arms of the long-awaited Baby whose birth—and certain return—is the antidote to all that pain. Will I be reminded in my need, like the prodigal son, that the only cure for my starvation is found in my Father’s house? Will I be driven Home?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

the best laid plans, part 2

the questionnaire the nurse handed me read something like this:

is this your first pregnancy? no
if no, what number? four
how many living children do you have? one

(listen here.)
This is not how it should be
This is not how it could be
But this is how it is
And our God is in control

This is not how it will be
When we finally will see
We'll see with our own eyes
He was always in control

And we'll sing holy, holy, holy is our God
And we will finally really understand what it means
So we'll sing holy, holy, holy is our God
While we're waiting for that day

This is not where we planned to be
When we started this journey
But this is where we are
And our God is in control

Though this first taste is bitter
There will be sweetness forever
When we finally taste and see
That our God is in control

this is not how i would have planned it. if you had told me ten years ago that i would, in 2010, be pregnant for the fourth time, i would probably have told you that i wasn’t sure i wanted that many children. how small our minds are.

i don’t like being pregnant. not one minute of it. i am not a particularly sick pregnant person; i don’t gain record amounts of weight or experience dramatic swelling or unbearable back pain or any of the other stories people tell. but i dislike it all the same.

i think what i dislike most about it is the sense that something—quite literally, someone—else is in control of my body. don’t usually eat breakfast? too bad. you’ll now wake up ravenous even before sunrise. like to keep busy? too bad. you’ll now be forced to pause for a nap every afternoon, no matter how uneventful your morning has been. enjoy chicken or avocadoes? too bad. you will now be repulsed by them or any number of other quite ordinary things—and will develop equally extraordinary cravings. and if none of these things that will happen in just the first few weeks is enough to turn you off to the whole experiment, just wait until junior gets to swimming around in there. alien possession? i think so.

i don’t like to be out of control. and if i live with any kind of illusion that i am in control, pregnancy provides ample reminders that i am, in fact, almost entirely out of my own control most of the time. i’m just not always as aware of it. when i am pregnant, i take prenatal vitamins. i eat healthfully, as much as i can stand it, and i stay away from alcohol and even over-the-counter drugs. every time, that’s what i do. the first time, this resulted in a healthy, brilliant little boy. the second time, a little girl with more congenital defects than one body could handle—including a brain full of holes—who wouldn’t live to be three years old. the third time, a miscarriage at 7 weeks gestation. and this fourth time? well, that’s just it: though i will follow all the same healthy pregnancy rules yet again, i have no control over what that will mean for my child.

have i mentioned how much i dislike being pregnant? but even as i am frustrated yet again this time around at the lack of control, i am learning to be grateful. because despite what i may imagine, i really don’t have any more control over the rest of my life than i do over this period of my life or over the little life growing inside me, either. just as i would never have planned four pregnancies and their varied outcomes or lemonade-cravings or waffle aversions, so would i never have planned so many other things in my life, either. work in a church? live in the south? be a minivan-driving soccer mom? be overweight, out of shape, and completely disconnected from any athletic activity? have a yard full of weeds? never.

it's funny, though; despite the fact that i'd much rather it be otherwise, the struggle isn't to find a way to gain more control. take more vitamins? eat fewer food additives? drink more water? not really. the struggle is to give up more, to rest more in being out of control. “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world”--john 16:33. overcome the whole world? really? since i can't do that, i figure i'm better off in the hands of Someone who already has done it. and i'll take joy in the promise that there will be sweetness forever.

Friday, November 26, 2010

the best laid plans

you know how it goes. i had some ideas about what i'd blog about when i finally got around to it, a grand scheme for a photojournalistic-style post about what i've been doing these months i've been absent. today was to be the day. the day after thanksgiving, luke and sam off running around doing who-knows-what sport, trying to burn off the stir craziness that comes with a day off from school. after hosting the big meal last night, i was promised this day off to catch up on photo editing and writing and to reinvent this space. things conspire, don't they, to set awry those best laid plans? as my ancient desktop computer--which hasn't been turned on in a month, probably--seems to be suffering from the lingering tryptophan in the air, the photos just aren't happening today despite the hour i've already spent just to download them from my memory card. another day...

*********************************

for today, though, i do have a story. i want to tell you about a little girl with whom i have fallen in love.

her name is anastasia. i haven't ever met her. (have you never fallen in love with someone you've never met?) so i can't tell you what she looks like, really, since i don't know. what color her hair is, what color her eyes are, whether she's chubby or skinny--i don't know. i don't know much about her personality, either, whether she's funny or spunky or shy or precocious or mischievious. i don't know her favorite color (but mustn't it be purple or pink, like most every little girl?) or her favorite animal or what she likes to eat or what she likes to play.

how do you fall in love with a stranger? well, this little girl is hardly a stranger to me. i do have a couple of photographs of her, of which this is the best, i think:



here's hoping my computer is feeling up to the task of sharing lots more pictures sometime around st. patrick's day.

**********************************

there's a story, of course. isn't there always? (here's the backstory, in case you haven't read it or heard it before, to the saga that is baby-naming for sam and me.) what i didn't relate in that post, but which those of you have known me for a while already know, is that not only can't sam and i agree on names, but we also can't agree on when to agree on a name. sam has a thing about waiting until the baby has already arrived. suffice it to say i don't have that same thing.

ahem. to the story.

since our in-utero moniker for our previous children, zeph, had died along with the baby whose ex-utero name we would never know, we needed a new nickname immediately for our newest addition once we found out about his/her existence. it so happened that we started this conversation one evening after having hosted a high school bible study in which the mysterious character of melchizedek showed up. so there it was, of course: melchizidek, or mel for short, since we didn't yet know whether we were having a boy or a girl.

meanwhile, nearly two years ago (!), not long after eliza died, sam had a dream that we had another baby girl. her name was anastasia. (he'll tell you he doesn't remember this dream, mind you, but he's very glad i do.) it seemed an appropriate dream for a greek-speaking father who had just lost his daughter, as the name anastasia comes from the greek word for "resurrection." and anastasia was a name we had considered for eliza but had scrapped since we didn't really like any of the nicknames associated with it.

a couple of months ago, then, when we found out this baby was a girl--having gladly called our baby mel in order to stall until the ultrasound to even begin the doomed-to-be-difficult conversation of finding a name for our newest addition--i made a passing joke about how we could just skip the name books altogether and name the baby anastasia. sam replied astonishingly in the affirmative: you don't ignore a vision like that (even one you don't remember). yes. she is anastasia.

i waited a week or so, certain he would have had second thoughts or another idea, and then asked him whether he was ready to start pulling out the name books.

oh, no. i've already been telling people: she's anastasia.

and so it was done. at 18 weeks gestation, our little girl had a name. our little person--a person's a person, no matter how small--was no longer mel.

**************************************

but luke, my first tiny love, has to show up in this naming story, too, of course:

luke came with us to the ultrasound during which we found out the baby was a girl. he was absolutely mesmerized by all that he got to see--a tiny beating heart, tiny kidneys, tiny perfect spine. when the sonographer announced that the baby was a girl, as you can imagine (and which is a whole 'nother story for a whole 'nother day), sam and i had some difficult mixed reactions. enter luke to save the moment. his immediate reaction: "well, i guess melchizidek is out, then!" and thank goodness for that.

meanwhile, sam has been insisting that anastasia will not have a nickname. we each have reasons we're not fond of the usual choices: stacy, anna, annie. (a friend told me that anya is a common russian diminutive for anastasia, and i love it. so i'm working on sam.) luke, of course, has overheard all these conversations. recently, he declared to me suddenly, "but she has to have a nickname!" when i inquired as to why, he responded, "i can't even spell anastasia!"

so we rectified that problem.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

on comebacks

winston churchill is credited with having said, "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time--a tremendous whack."

i have more to say, more of the same new thoughts all over again at which to whack away. i'll be back friday. for real. to stay.

Monday, July 26, 2010

when i'm not working...

...which i usually am, i'm not blogging either. so what am i doing? not taking many pictures, i'm afraid. but here's a taste:


day trip to the coast, for four hours of nonstop swimming


a fan divided: durham bulls vs. syracuse chiefs. he decided to dress for both (bulls hat, chiefs shirt) but was secretly rooting for the bulls, who shut out the chiefs 5-0--and rightly so, on wool e. bull's birthday!


and that was just this weekend! can't beat summer.

Friday, July 16, 2010

merry, merry

christmas in july. it’s a phrase usually reserved for advertisements for cars or mattresses, i know. consider this my pitch to make it a reality for all of us.

six-and-a-half-year-old luke has mastered the art of whistling. and for what reason i’ll never understand, he has taken to whistling christmas songs. sometimes hymns, sometimes “jingle bells,” always repetitive. it’s july, mind you, and no one has heard a christmas song in months—-except on those “christmas in july” advertisements, of course. how luke—-who watches no commercial television, for the record—-got christmas songs in his head i have no idea. but they’re in there, which means they’re out here, too, of course, and in my head right along with his.

i’ve been thinking about those “christmas in july” advertisements as i’ve hummed along with luke’s renditions of “hark the herald angels sing” and “deck the halls” this summer. why is it that car salesmen want you to think about christmas as you consider buying a car, even as the thermometer pushes one hundred degrees? because christmas, of course, is the time when we anticipate the best and most extravagant gifts. if you can consider your mattress purchase as exciting as presents stacked under the lighted tree, you just might take the leap and go for the deluxe model. it’s christmas, after all.

and, of course, we know that christmas is in fact the time we set aside to remember our best and most extravagant gift: Jesus. john 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” don’t get me wrong: i’m all for setting aside a day to celebrate what an amazing statement that is. but what if we didn’t wait until christmas eve to anticipate that very best gift? what if we woke up every morning—-in december and july and every other month, too-—thrilling at the prospect of the most exciting gift of all, just as we did when we were children anticipating the shiny wrappings and the twinkling lights on that one particular morning? what if the summer sunlight streaming through the blinds in the early morning hours reminded us just as readily of God’s great gift to us as the hanging of wreaths and the singing of carols? what if a crackling thunderstorm was christmas to us just as much as a gentle snowstorm? i think that would be Good.

the fact is that Jesus is no better gift to us on december 25 than on july 25 or any other day. i would, however, like to reserve luke’s untuned-guitar version of “jingle bells” that is my soundtrack right now for just one day a year…

Thursday, July 8, 2010

college makes you think



that's what it's supposed to do, right? good news, mom and dad: not only have i finally used my ten years of french study, but i am now thinking things directly related to college. your gazillion-dollar investment has in fact paid off, so you can rest easier now.

last week, sam and i took luke to visit our alma mater, hamilton college (that's the chapel up there in that photograph, incidentally, worth noting for being the location of sam's and my wedding; for being a historically significant building, built in 1827 and thought to be the only remaining example of an early three-story church in america; and for having a quill atop its cupola, symbolizing the college's commitment to teaching the art of communication, which will matter to my story in a little bit, if you'll stick with me). we introduced luke to coaches and professors, showed him dorms and dining halls, told him stories (only the ones appropriate for six-year-olds, mind you!) and highlights. when i pointed out the building where most of my english classes were held, luke was incredulous. "you didn't learn english until college?" i explained that studying english in college meant reading lots of good books and talking about them. to which explanation he even more incredulously declared, "i want to go to a college where all you do is read books all day!"

which got me thinking--you knew it would--about the power of retrospection. luke is right, after all. it is pretty amazing, when i think about it, that i spent four years of my life consumed by nothing other than reading books and diving. that's it. those were my jobs. reading, writing, and being in the water. don't i consider those my hobbies now, hobbies i struggle to cram in between so many other jobs, hobbies i would choose to do above all else? i vaguely remember college being stressful, but i can't for the life of me figure out how it could have been, looking at it from here.

and if you're a mom of more than one child, you've likely thought similar things in retrospect about life with your first baby. when luke was born, i quit work and stayed home. as a newborn, luke slept, ate, cried, slept, ate, and slept some more. my job was to do those things with him. and that was it. i vaguely remember thinking that his newborn weeks were most certainly the hardest i had ever endured. two years later, when eliza was born, i looked back at luke's newborn life and wondered what on earth was so hard about it.

hindsight is 20/20, or so they say.

this train of thinking can take me in two different directions, the first of which is somewhat dangerous, i think. if i can look back at all these different phases of my life and say that if i knew then what i know now, i would never have thought they were hard, then looking forward can be very intimidating. for if what seems hard now will soon seem easy in comparison to what i will be experiencing, what can possibly be to come? it's a fearful thought. i do not think i would have liked to have known, when i was stressed out by an english paper, that i ought to just appreciate how simple life really was because in a few years i would have to endure the loss of my daughter. similarly, i would not have wanted someone to tell me, when i sat up at night grudgingly nursing luke, that i would soon spend three years straight sitting up at night "nursing" his dying little sister. hindsight is 20/20, maybe, but foresight is not always desirable.

but the other direction i can go with these thoughts is toward gratitude. if i can look back at college and be grateful for having spent four years doing things i now know to be among my greatest loves, if i can look back at luke's newborn weeks and be thankful for the hours i spent as his one-and-only and he mine, why can't i start thinking now about the things i'll look back on about today and be grateful for them now, instead of waiting for hindsight to kick in? wouldn't i have enjoyed college even more if i had remembered to be thankful for the gift of four years of nourishment of mind and body? wouldn't i have loved luke's newborn weeks much more if i had remembered to be grateful for his healthy needs and my ability to meet them?

this is my challenge to myself, then, and i invite you to join me, too. what will i one day thank God for about my life right now? i'm going to thank Him for it today instead.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

mais bien sur!

it's funny, is all.

once upon a time, i decided to take french. in seventh grade. i'm pretty sure my parents would have preferred i take spanish--more useful, of course--and then in high school, maybe i should have taken latin--good for those sat scores and so much more, don't you know, and oh how helpful it was for sam in our years of dealing with medical terminology--but i took french. six years in junior high and high school, and i always loved it. so i went off to college, determined to major in english--which i did, despite advice to the contrary from all around--but decided to stick with the french, too. four years later and i opted not to write a french senior project along with my english senior project, knowing full well it wasn't of any use anyhow, and i left with a french minor. my ten years of study came in handy when i hopped around to france and a handful of other francophone countries while i was studying in london, and i occasionally used it in communication with students when i taught at the community college (but oh, how much more useful spanish would have been here in north carolina!). it's been most useful, to be honest, in communication with sam; since luke learned to spell so young, we had to find another way to discuss things we didn't want him to hear, and since sam took plenty of french, too, it has served us well. well enough, actually, that i had to stop teaching luke french a few years ago because it was starting to interfere with our ability to keep secrets (de la glace àpres diner? mais oui!). anyhow, that's been the extent of the usefulness of my french in the ten years since i graduated. not much of a validation for my minor, but oh well. i loved it anyhow.

meanwhile, i sort of used my english degree for a few years as the writing specialist at a local community college; though it was a degree in english lit and i was teaching developmental english, i occasionally had use for my literary skills in tutoring more advanced students, and i certainly had use for the skills i picked up as a writing tutor in the writing center where i worked as an undergrad. but for the most part, i'd say, i did the typical liberal arts grad thing: i learned to communicate well and make a generally good impression, and i went on to find a job based on those skills and not some specific technical skills i had acquired because of my major. later, once i'd left the writing specialist job and spent several years at home full time, i got called back to the community college to work as an editor in the marketing and communications department. again, not something my english lit degree qualifies me for, specifically, but a fine fit for a liberal arts grad. i've been happily editing away for about a year now.

fast forward to this past week, my second week at my new job as children's minister at our church. (my qualification for this job, by the way? certainly not my college education. though i'm pretty sure i mentioned here in a post once upon a time that i've learned more from my kids than i ever did in any class...so i guess that, plus a passion for what i'm doing, qualifies me as much as any liberal arts degree!) anyhow, this past week i set to work on a pen pal project to connect the kids in our church to the kids at our sister church in butare, rwanda. as i prepared the materials for our kids to fill out--little booklets introducing themselves and sharing a little bit about their lives here in north carolina--i had a good chuckle. because i realized that in order for the rwandan kids to have a better chance of understanding the notes from our kids, they would need to be translated...into french.

ten years later, in my job as a children's minister--for which i have absolutely no educational qualification--i found a use for my useless ten-year-old french degree. i think God is funny that way. just another little reminder how much bigger His plans are than ours. thank God.

you're all my favorites


if it weren't the sad truth that all but a scarce few of my children's books are packed away in the (too too hot) attic, i'd have a very appropriate quotation from this book for you.


but alas, mid-june in north carolina feels more like mid-july this year...so you'll have to imagine the quotation.

i love you, my three favorites. happy father's day, bayba.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

read-aloud

no, that title is not an encouragement to read this post aloud. as much as my husband is always trying to get me to engage in family read-alouds (insert gagging noise here), and as much as i am known to love to read aloud to children (ask my little friend e.k., bringer of many books to my lap)--as much as all of that is true, i will never encourage you to read this stuff aloud. disclaimer complete.

when is the last time you read something aloud with a group of people? if you're the churchgoing type, you've probably read plenty of prayers aloud. but in a large group, the effect i'm going for is kind of lost. so when is the last time you read something aloud in a small group? have you ever noticed how people emphasize different words?

recently, i read some scripture aloud with three friends. i've forgotten now what the passage was that we were reading, but i remember well the effect. i noticed that each of us emphasized a different word. for example, had the sentence been this one from psalm 37--"Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday"--one of my friends would have emphasized the verb "commit," another the subject "he."

i find that when i read passages like that i emphasize the word "will." i think it's something about claiming the promise embedded in that sentence. the Lord will keep his word, and we can rest in that. for me, the emphasis isn't on who will be doing the thing or what the thing is to be done or to whom it will be done; rather, for me, the focus is on the certainty: it will be done.

which says something about me, i'm sure, and about God, too. but it also highlights something that i love about the body of Christ. we're all looking in the same direction--upward, presumably--but we're all doing it with a different focus, a different perspective. when you put four people together to read a scripture passage and each person emphasizes a different word, the result is a collective emphasis on all the words. and that is Good stuff. we can't see all the glory of God at once, each individually, but we can each focus on the piece we can see, and together we can work to reflect it all.

it makes me want to read this passage from psalm 57 aloud with a small group of friends, too, because i think it's as important to emphasize our commitment as it is to focus on God's promises: "My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!" (emphases mine. how about yours?)

Friday, June 11, 2010

where i am today

(this is a repost from a couple of years ago. it's still true. and it's where i'm spending my weekend--and so not doing any new blogging. the original title was "raw.")

there are lots of things that aren't much good until you get past the outside. pistachios. eggs. tootsie pops. corn on the cob.

but i'm thinking more of a watermelon.

to have a husband with whom i am completely honest, completely open, and completely raw all the time is an amazing blessing. i could never think to ask for more. but to have a friend who searches out the raw--splits me open to the get to the inside--is an incredible bonus gift.

like a watermelon.

there's good, sweet, juicy stuff inside. and some hard seeds, too, not good for much, except maybe enjoying the spitting them out. but a watermelon has a thick skin. it requires a sharp knife, a strong arm, to get through to the raw insides. which have a sweetness that compares to nothing else.

i have a beautiful, strong friend who, with the delicacy, precision, and confidence of a surgeon, splits me open.

i can count on her, whether i like it or not, to split me open. a sharp knife, applied in just the right spot with just the right amount of pressure. the juice begins to spill almost immediately. it's sticky. but she's in it all the way to the sweet center, laughing as we spit out the hard seeds and endure all the messy stickiness that comes with getting to the raw sweetness.

my skin is thick. it means nothing to her. just like a watermelon rind is good only for what is secreted away inside, so my thick skin is only what hides away what she loves about me. and she'll get it, no matter what knife she has to use.

come to think of it, those seeds we spit away probably have their purpose, too. probably.

(she'll laugh at my comparing myself to a watermelon, too. and i'll love her for it.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

for my mama, her favorite

beauty.

attempting to drink it up.


(oh, but i wish you could smell it!)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

of helium

it was another moment when i wished i was a painter. or a photograph would have done fine, but it's not the sort of moment when you happen to have a camera. and anyhow, you can't take a picture while driving 45 miles per hour. not a good one, anyhow.

i was driving down the four-lane road and came to a place where there was a break in the median for cars entering from the cross street. as i looked to see if there were any cars coming, i saw a balloon. it was bright yellow with some sort of red design, and trailing behind it was a red string. it was the big round kind, delightful.

what was striking about that balloon was that it was rising straight up, from just a few feet off the ground, as if just released. the surprising thing: there was no one there. no car with an open window, no child crossing the street, no parking lot or group of people or store or anything anywhere nearby. that is to say there was nowhere for that balloon to be coming from. but it was rising and continued to rise, straight up. it wasn't floating, like an old balloon long ago released, rising and sinking rising and sinking. it was clearly on its way up, still full of air, as if it had just slipped from a child's hand that very moment.

anyhow, i'd like to have a painting of that. or a photograph, all the cars and trees and median and whatnot in black and white. all shades of gray but for that bright, round balloon.

how many different metaphors are there for a balloon rising? balloons have come to symbolize so many things. they are released in celebration and in mourning, in joy and in desperation. they represent childhood, festivals, birthdays, and graduations. they show up at memorial services and cemeteries. and, if you're a kindergartener learning about the ocean, a balloon released outside represents a threat to ocean life, not to mention birds and other creatures nearer to home.

some people think of balloons floating to heaven, delivering messages to loved ones who have gone before. if you know me, you know i don't tend to think that way. i was tempted to imagine the invisible child who released that balloon, to imagine some ghost (?) of eliza playing. but that sort of thing doesn't resonate with me, either. instead, i'll just file that untaken photograph, that unpainted painting away in my mind somewhere for when i need a bright spot in a gray world, a colorful reminder that there is something rising above the colorlessness that surrounds me.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

a love letter in lyrics (with links--click the asterisks should you prefer a soundtrack) because i always have a song in my head


lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.*

it all started sometime in 1995 when we went to see rouge*, a french film, together. it was an extra credit project for french class, and we were two brown-nosing students looking for our a+ grades. or so i thought. i was at the time--i kid you not--actually jesse's girl.

jesse is a friend, yeah, i know he's been a good friend of mine.
but lately something's changed that ain't hard to define.
jesse's got himself a girl and I want to make her mine.
*

once upon a time, quite literally half my life ago, i fell in love with a boy. it wasn't at that film that day, which i left still thinking we were just two friends looking for our a+ grades. it may have been on that long walk with jack the black lab to the football field very close by. it may have been over phyllo chicken with my family on my sixteenth birthday, my gift those black leather string necklaces with the one colorful bead--remember? it may have been on the screened porch, when all our plans for surviving the fall of the globe light overhead failed. was it on the walk to westcott theater with the jaxon co. to see il postino*? i'm not sure.

the only boy who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man. *

sometime between rides in the tank and prom night, between college applications and a gym class drowning, between freshman orientation and 4:30 dinners, between diner equivalency and slices from tony's (or roma's?), between hot pot ramen and junior spring across the pond, i knew i would marry the brilliant, pensive, handsome boy with the strawberry blond curls.

i was a baby then, i know. am i grown up now? somewhere along the way, we grew up together.

it's been a long, hard road to hell and back. your love meant trouble from the day we met.*

i know now that loving someone fully and completely, wholeheartedly and forever does in fact mean trouble from the start. i know that marriage is asking for a challenge. doesn't paul warn against it? but God is after our sanctification, and how better to sanctify us than to create us with the desire to be one with another, to give our whole selves and lives to each other even as He invites us to wield the chisel in sculpting each other to look more like Him?

we have--and i daresay i do not exaggerate here--been to hell and back over the last ten years. we have grown up together in ways no one ought to have to grow. we have been chiselled together and by each other, and even as a sculpture emerges only as much of the raw material is destroyed, we have emerged--are emerging--through and because of much pain.

but of course, that block of marble is better for having been chiselled, is more beautiful for having its original form destroyed.

my sam-mule, my bayba, my hus, my love: you have always been beautiful. today, ten years after we made it official and fifteen years after we knew we would, you are more beautiful for all the santification you have endured. you are more brilliant, more thoughtful, more intense, more passionate, more tender, more loving, and far deeper than the boy i loved for all his depth and passion, his brilliance and intensity half a lifetime ago. your curls are blond-er than they are red now; is that a symptom of sanctification? you are being washed white as snow even as we continue to slog through the mud together. i would have it no other way. that is to say, of course i would prefer another method of sanctification to chisels and mud...but in this world in which those are the only Way, i would endure it and fight through it with no other than you.

why does the past always seem safer?
maybe because at least we know we made it.
and why do we worry about the future when every day will come just the way the Lord ordained it?
*

so i'm excited to rush into tomorrow with you. the past sometimes does seem safer, the future scarier. but our past is anything but safe--and we know we've made it. so let's celebrate half a lifetime of yesterdays, my love, but let's celebrate a lifetime of tomorrows even more. let's delight in what's to come, safe or otherwise. i cannot wait to wake up with you again tomorrow.

and every time i ask you assure you're doing fine,
but your heart looks good by smiling.
you couldn't fool mine.
and by the end of the night your pillow sits to dry.
in a crowded room you're singing, but on the inside you sigh.

and i'll still love you beyond what words can say.
ill take your every suffering moment and bring a better day.
i'll still love you more than what i hope to be.
let me wrap my arms around you.
let me take your breath away.
*

to you who know my heart, smiling or otherwise; my pillow, dry or otherwise; my every suffering moment: thank you for taking my breath away. happy anniversary, my love.

love is the answer, at least for most of the questions in my heart,
like why are we here? and where do we go? and how come it's so hard?
it's not always easy and sometimes life can be deceiving.
i'll tell you one thing, it's always better when we're together.
*

i love you more...than anyone else. ;) jinx fizzy fizzy fizzy.

(the pictures, a somewhat random selection of favorites, in case you're curious, clockwise from top left corner: high school prom, 1996; Greyledge on Lake Ontario, 1998; wedding, 2000; same; two weeks ago, in Baltimore at friend's wedding; summer 2000, our first in NC. and yes, i'm sure some photograph-worthy stuff happened between 2000 and 2010, but pretty much all of those pictures include children. which was not the point of this collage.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

overdue

maybe it's because i've got the library on my mind.

our nearest library branch closed a year and a half ago for major renovations, and it reopened today. library-loving nerd though i am, i avoided the crowds and fanfare (a mariachi band, even!) of today's reopening celebration. but you can bet i'll be there before the week is out. and anyhow, i've been talking about it with my friends with much anticipation. so i've got the library on my mind. and overdue books, too, which never ever ever happened to me until a year and a half ago. never mind that i can renew online; somehow, i've always got books overdue now. i just renewed some today, in fact, two days before they were again overdue. whew.

so maybe that's it. or maybe it's this article, written by my friend who, unfortunately, knows the pain of losing a child. she recently reposted it on her blog, and i read it again and found it to be very true, indeed. you should read it, too.

or maybe it's the book i'm reading, jayber crow, and the part i've just read tonight about sons going off to war and not coming home. and how their fathers are changed, made somehow inaccessible and distant, as a result.

whatever it is, it got me thinking.

**************************************

the day eliza died, i had some library books that were overdue. returning library books--or even just renewing them online--wasn't much of a priority for me in that last week of eliza's life, so the books were overdue. this was, mind you, the first time this had ever happened to me. ever. (legalist, yes. i know.) i'm always on time, early usually, and my library books are no exception. they are never overdue. i remember gathering them up from their various locations around luke's room and stacking them on the bookcase by the front door, ready to be returned. but by the time i finally returned them, they were way overdue.

after eliza died, and even as she was dying (heck, throughout her whole life!), we were amazingly well cared for. if you've read any of her story, you know about the endless meals, the house cleaning and painting, the gifts, the childcare, the financial support...our great big, worldwide family grew and grew and grew over the years she lived and after she died, and we could not be more grateful. friends and family and even strangers were endlessly creative, astoundingly selfless, and absurdly generous to our family in ways unimaginable. they met so many needs, lavished on us so much love, opened their hearts in so many ways. so many people knew well not to ask, "what can i do?" but just did what they knew and what came naturally, and it was so very, very Good. i cannot even describe how well loved we felt, and even now it brings tears to my eyes to try.

but here's the thing, the thing my friend's article explains, the thing this book i'm reading describes of the families whose sons have been lost at war: my library books were overdue. i seem to remember mentioning to someone that they needed to be returned--no doubt someone who was already busy caring for us in so many ways--asking if someone might return them for me. even as i was surrounded by people asking what they could do, by people doing so many amazing things for me and my family, no one knew that my library books were overdue. no one knew how troubled i was that they weren't being returned.

it sounds foolish, i know. and really it's what the library books represent that i mean to point to. but you knew that, right? no one--not even sam--could know that what i needed was for my library books not to be overdue. because no one--not even sam--was experiencing what i was experiencing in those days and weeks. this is the isolation of grief, that not even your child's other parent experiences what you do in the loss of your child. no one knew that maintaining that little bit of order, of returning my library books on time, meant so much to me.

which is not to say you shouldn't follow the advice in my friend's article and love on grieving people in any and every way you can think to do. but know even as you do that you will not understand. you will not meet every need. you cannot go there with them, wherever there may be. no one knew that there for me was the library, and no one could have known. physically, emotionally, i couldn't communicate that to anyone, nor could anyone have found out by asking, "what can i do?" that what i needed was for my library books to be returned.

****************************************

i returned the books and paid the late fee, of course, and did it within the few days between eliza's funeral and our christmas trip up north. i probably could have explained away their lateness and had the fine excused, but there was no way i was subjecting the poor librarian to that (literal) sob story. and perhaps i was cured--just a little bit--of my obsessive tendencies concerning library books, as i have paid quite a few more late fees since then. (or maybe it's just because our local branch has been closed and returning the books has been such a pain. yes, i think i'll go with that answer.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

words i love

appropriate, in a pentecost sort of way, that i would come across these words in my book this afternoon:

As soon as I shut my eyes, I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old everyday lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.

And I knew that the Spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that had made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly.

--from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

the scriptures describe the descent of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire. but the Holy Spirit is so often associated with water, too, as in the words of the baptismal rite prayed in church just this morning:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into this fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again through faith in Jesus Christ may continue forever in the power of his risen life. To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.


what do fire and water--generally regarded, it think, as opposites--have in common? power. it's no accident that, in that fiery sunset photo up there, it's difficult to tell whether you're looking at the sky or the water. the apparent chaos the character j. crow describes as he describes the flooding river, the strength of that water and the human lack of control of it--that's power. i imagine the situation at pentecost may have been similarly overwhelming: tongues of fire, people speaking in foreign languages, the multitudes rushing to hear. clearly, Someone other than the disciples or any new wine was in control. and it was powerful. "And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting" (Acts 2:2). like a flooding river, the sound of such a mighty wind from heaven must have been powerful and awe-ful. and beyond control.

"As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea." awe-some. it is Good to be swept away.

(and yes, twosquare, i'm finally reading it! finally reading...)