a summer of paradox

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My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true

Carrie Newcomer, “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go)

It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.

Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.

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I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.

So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.

And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain

This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.

Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me. 

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.

It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.

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It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.

It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.

And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?

Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.

I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow

I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.

I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.

Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.

And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.

So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.

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A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.

Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!

what to do next: supporting couples through infertility

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I never expected this.

Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.

But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.

The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.

So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.

What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?

IMG_5943Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”

Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.

Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.

My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.

Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.

You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.

IMG_5831Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.

Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.

And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.

See what happens.

When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.

And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.

Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.

. . .

If you are new here, welcome! Check out a few favorite posts or more reflections on infertility. And please take a moment to subscribe, or follow Mothering Spirit on Facebook or Twitter.

If you’ve been following for a while, thank you! Here are a few more places I’ve been writing this week: at Practicing Families on raising three white boys after Ferguson and at Small Things With Love on why we owe our babies to NFP.

dear couple in the pew: i see you {on infertility & invisibility}

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Dear couple in the pew across from us:

I see the way you grip each other’s hands when you notice us. I see the way you try not to cry while you watch our kids. I see the way you kiss her forehead quietly; I see the way you lean your head on his shoulder, blinking back tears.

I see the way both of you stare straight ahead, willing yourselves not to think about it.

I see you. 

While my husband and I are trying to corral the Mass chaos of three small kids, your eyes catch mine and then quickly look away. Turning from the sight of someone who has what you want.

Anything to keep from dwelling on what a young, growing family means to you.

I see you at the grocery store, too. At the park. At the restaurant. At the work party, the neighborhood potluck, the family reunion.

But somehow it feels even more painful when I see you at church. Maybe it’s because I know you’ll have to watch our motley crew for a whole hour, not just one quick turn down the store’s aisle or a sidewalk’s length at the park.

But mostly it’s because I remember sitting right where you are.

Praying with Kleenex balled in my fists, praying with tears at the corners of my eyes, praying for the strength not to envy, praying for this to be the month, praying to a God I clung to and yelled at, all at once.

I know the way you’re thinking, because I used to do the math just the same. Early 30s, I bet. Three kids. They’re so lucky. Our time is running out. It’s never going to happen for us. I hate this.

I wish I could tell you it gets better. I wish I could make the miracle happen for you. But besides my prayers – which you always have, and always will – all I can tell you is this: I see you. 

I see your pain and I see your struggle. I don’t ignore it or forget it just because my arms are full of drooling babies and squirmy toddlers.

I remember that is one of the worst side effects of infertility. Not just the crazy hormone swings or the monthly disappointment or the gut-twisting ache when yet another friend calls with yet another excited pregnancy announcement.

It’s the invisibility. The way you feel like the world can’t see your pain.

And the awful truth? The church doesn’t always see your pain either.

Rare are the prayer petitions for couples suffering from infertility or miscarriage or stillbirth. Even rarer is an outreach ministry, a support group, a prayer chain – any resource to tell you that this community cares for you and grieves with you and hopes with you.

But things can start to shift once we start seeing each other. Once we remember that we are seen. Once we remember all the ways that the Body of Christ can be wounded.

IMG_7666Because when I see you, I remember those days, months, and years of infertility. I remember not to take my kids or my chaos for granted. I remember to pray for all those who are in pain or who are longing.

So while you’re sitting there at church on Sunday, feeling alone in your pew and alone in your heart, remember that someone out there sees you.

That there are those of us around you who have lived with that heartache, whether we went on to have children or not.

And we never forget what it feels like to grieve, to cry, to curse, to pray every Sunday, every day, again and again, for the one chance that will change everything. Or for the strength to accept a life that looks different from what we hoped.

We see you. And when we see you, we can start to be part of the change.

Part of the church that can pray for your pain. Part of the community that can support you in your struggles. Part of the Body of Christ that remembers that without each other, we are not whole.

This is how we learn, how we love, how we grow. By seeing what is invisible. 

And I see you.

In love and hope,

From the mom in the opposite pew

these are the waning days

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Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.

- from the prayer journal of Flannery O’Connor

Right now the days are waning.

There is a thickness in the morning air, the cling of August humidity, beaded in droplets on the windows. The reluctant slide of late summer into early fall, the slow turn of seasons. The steady tick of each almost-school day on the calendar, edges furled by an almost-kindergartner equal parts itching to start and dragging his feet to stay in summer’s ease.

Each day we lose a little light. Browned grass crunches beneath our bare feet, and the tips of leaves start to curl under, steeling themselves against fall’s first chill.

These days are waning.

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Thomas’ third birthday is tomorrow. When we carried staggering armfuls of moving boxes into this house, he was a barely crawling baby. Now when he chases his brother around the kitchen, he’s prone to smack his forehead against the same counter-top that caught Sam’s height when we were first adjusting to our new space.

Another pile of 2T clothes are stuffed back into plastic bins, awaiting a third toddler-to-come. And the pale yellow room that was Thomas’ nursery has been vacated for another, the baby who starts to stir in his crib when we creep into our bedroom at night. Soon Joseph’s wide, unblinking blue eyes will gaze round at strange new surroundings that will one day become as familiar as the back of his own hand. The cycle starts again.

We are always changing. Life with growing children – carne che crese, my Italian father-in-law reminds me – simply sets this truth in high relief.

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But to wane is to leave behind. Thomas’ years of at-home all-day are drawing to their end. One more week and his size-7 velcro shoes will slip off at the preschool doorstep. He might cry a little, and I know I will, and in that way is it any different from the day I birthed him into being? I will always be surprised by my twinned joy and sorrow at the long string of goodbyes that my children’s childhoods ask me to practice en route to adulthood.

These days are waning.

. . .

My maternity leave is waning, too.

These three long months in which I learned to love a new soul, with all the bodily love that babies bring. In which I was wrapped into the enfolding embrace (sometimes smother) of life at home with littles, full-time.

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It has been sweet and hard and almost everything I hoped it would be. I looked around – even in the chaos and the crazy and the children climbing on couches despite twelve stern warnings of doom and impending emergency room visits if they did not stop – and I saw that it was good.

Which makes me reluctant to close this chapter and start a new one, even eager as I am for all that lies ahead, too. This is the promise of the moon. Even as things wane, there is the promise of waxing days to come. Light increasing, brightness building day by day.

This summer has taught me that we are always changing. I need the constant change of children and the unchangingness of God – and Sunday Mass and ancient ritual and dependable moon – to help me see this truth pressing up against my face each day.

It is the quiet, steady presence of the divine Light that peers into the darkness of our nights with a small sliver of silver hope. Even when the moon seems gone, we know it is never gone.

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Tonight the moon is a pale sliver. Like the tiny curve of a baby fingernail, snipped quick before he can scratch his smooth face when startled from deepest sleep. It casts a thin shadow of its glowing fullness, once luminous and round, an expectant silhouette.

Tonight I am watching my children slumber. Two twin bed frames stretching out in the grainy darkness of a newly shared room. Embroidered “Samuel” and “Thomas” pillowcases draped at the foot of each bed, staking their claim like homesteaders’ flags. School will separate these playmates in two short weeks. Their worlds will widen, then settle back in together each afternoon. They are on the cusp of change, as always.

Tonight I am glancing at a faded summer to-do list. Penned with vigor when the baby was still bouncing within. House projects, writing projects, endless organizational aspirations. Most of them undone. Which is good and fine. Which is peace.

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Tonight I am wondering what I leave behind in this summer and what I take with me.

On the phone with a friend this afternoon, I heard myself saying words I haven’t spoken in so long. Words like spaciousness and silence and stillness and so much less stressed. And I know this is not simply because professional work has been on pause (because if you know me, you know I always stretch to fill all the hours and moments anyway).

But because I feel like I am finally learning how to live my life.

Isn’t that a strange thing to say, 33 years into such an endeavor? But baby number three is teaching me something deep and unexpected. How to let go of all false sense of control and fall into the goodness already around me.

Even with the hard edges that this summer brought – and there were some awful, dark times – I feel such a sense of joy wrapped around me. Gratitude so thick I can weave my fingers through it.

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This is what is waxing in my life. What will keep rising and glowing and rounding into fullness even after we leave these long August nights behind.

The embrace of who and what I am called to be.

How it will cycle through seasons and changes, but promise to remain.

How it was Here all along.

where is home?

Posted on Updated on

I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
And folded in this scrap of paper
Is the land I grew in.

Half An Acre” by Hem – 

Right now I am home.

Sitting in the house that we own. Where we are raising our children. Where mail arrives daily bearing my name. Where we welcome family and entertain friends. Where I pull weeds and paint walls. Where my car pulls into the driveway and my shoes slip off in the doorway.

And I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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The gate agent accepts my folded slip of paper and scans it with a beep.

“Heading home?” she asks, smiling down at the baby in my arms and the two boys running ahead down the jetway. I look at her and wonder how to answer.

What makes a home? The people in it? The relationships they share?

The permanency of an address? The bigger sense of time and place wrapped around four walls and a roof?

Home is here and home is there.

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Right now I am home.

Where the school bus picked me up every morning by the tall elm tree out front. Where we dragged sleds through the backyard to the sledding hill. Where I curled up on the sunlit carpet to pour through books. Where we sang grace for dinner. Where my brother died and every childhood dream I had was born.

Where I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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For the longest time I had my parents’ number listed as home in my cell phone.

The first number I’d memorized, the digits dialed by grade school friends and high school boyfriends, the number I called from college and abroad, the 10-digit combo where I always knew I would find a voice happy to hear mine, even if just a familiar answering machine.

After I was married, I punched in our newlywed number as Our House. Another house was still Home. Whenever I noticed and thought of changing the obvious, I changed my mind. Did I fear I would lose home forever if I claimed another?

One afternoon I made the switch. Idling in some parking lot, killing time, playing on my phone. That oldest familiar number became Mom and Dad. Ours became Home.

After all, if I wanted to list every place that felt like mine, the list would be blessedly long: Michigan houses and Indiana dorm rooms and French apartment buildings and Minnesota backyards.

I began to see how home was a more expansive concept – more accepting and embracing and growing and shifting.

Maybe this was the moment I understood home theologically. Maybe, as with Sabbath, we are made for home.

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“Is this home?”

Thomas’ dark brown eyes blink up at me through the dusky light settling in the bedroom, the last slants of summer sunset stretching through the shutters.

“This is Gramma and Papa’s home,” I tell him. “It used to be my home, too. This is where I was little.”

“I’m little,” he declares firmly, soft jaw jutting out his resolve. “So this is my home, too.”

“But our home is in Minnesota,” I remind him. “We go home on the plane tomorrow.”

“No,” he insists with a shake of his head. “We stay home here. And then we go home, too.”

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Somewhere I read that every great story is about leaving home or trying to come home. Scripture is full of this. Eden exiles and Exodus wanderings and exhortations to shake the dust from your sandals if the place does not welcome your message.

We are always coming and going. Departures and arrivals. Trying to find where we belong.

There is something ultimate in this longing, I know. Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee. But maybe what Augustine missed was that it’s not only our hearts that are restless. It’s our legs and our feet and our ears and our arms. Our whole self.

Toes that tire of work-day heels and ache to slide into slippers at the end of the night. Ears that once buzzed with children’s babble and now hope to hear grandkids’ feet clamoring up the front steps. Arms that wrap round the beloved waist and itch to slip into bed together again.

Longing for home is a whole body restlessness. Yearning to settle in where we are known and loved.

What Christ meant when he dreamed up rooms in my father’s house and what Eliot knew when he wrote to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

What we all know in our bones. From home and to home.

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But I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open
Every burden taken from me
Every night my heart unfolding
My home

a different assumption for today

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August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that at the end of Mary’s life, she was assumed into heaven, body and soul.

You might assume, if you knew I was an Associate Missionary of the Assumption, that I had something to say about today’s feast.

But here’s the truth about how I started my AMA year in France.

I came to Compiegne, jet-lagged and jumpy to start this post-graduate service stint, with just a wee bit of cradle Catholic baggage stuffed inside my giant backpack.

Fresh from college graduation, ink barely dry on the diploma, I felt shaky-sure about faith but full of questions about church. What was the role of women? What was Catholicism’s hang-up with sexuality? Where was my place in the whirling middle of it all?

When I showed up in the pebbled courtyard of 3 Square Eglise Saint-Germain, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeking. Clarity? Conviction? Christ-in-others? Maybe all of the above.

But what I found the moment that big front door swung open was one single certain truth: these Sisters of the Assumption knew how to welcome. They were all wide smiles and warm embraces and let-us-take-your-bags and can-we-make-you-a-cup-of-tea and we-are-so-delighted-you-are-here!

Until that moment I had known few French people and even fewer religious sisters. But suddenly these five women buzzing around me in long burgundy skirts and pale violet veils were bursting apart all of my stereotypes.

They were loving and laughter and compassion and generosity. They were a Mary-and-Elizabeth welcome every time I stepped over their old stone doorstep, before Mass or after work or any time they invited us volunteers over for dinner, which was so often I still hear Sr. Anne’s wise words echo every time I set an extra plate at my table for an unexpected guest: if there’s food enough for five, there’s food enough for six. And if there’s food enough for six, there’s food enough for seven. You see?

Every year I think of the sisters on this feast day. The women I knew who gave their lives to the Assumption. They taught me a different way of being in relationship with others: the women praying and working beside them in their community, the children running around the pews in the parish, the adults with disabilities whom they served in L’Arche homes. They taught me how truth and love are embodied – in laughter, in dancing, in dessert, in daily prayer.

And they helped me change my mind about Assumption. They helped me come to see that embodied love is what today is about.

I think back to a time when I tripped on Marian feasts like today, when I stumbled on my own assumptions of what dogma and doctrine meant. Then a year spent in community with women whose love for Christ and the church hummed in their every breath, who gave the length of their years and the strength of their bodies in quiet service to all who needed welcome – that year changed everything.

Did I know then that the sisters’ faces – wizened and youthful and pale and dark – might be the closest I could glimpse to Mary’s own? Over time my assumptions shifted, slowly like the soft rub on stone over a well-worn step. I weigh what I believe now – about women and sexuality and Christ and the church – with what I thought I understood then. And I realize that I see a feast like today in different light: shades of mystery and possibility.

And above all love and relationship, which is the essence of who God is and what we are called to be.

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Assumptions. Do we grip tight to them? Or are we willing to let ourselves be lifted above them?

Beyond the way we think things should be, beyond what we think bodies are capable of, beyond what our beliefs think possible?

What do we assume today? About the world, relationships, religion, church, God, each other? How might God’s embrace of us – our whole lives, body and soul – begin to soften our hard edges?

Today’s feast is about welcoming the unexpected and celebrating the goodness of love, in flesh and faith. What Mary did all her life.

May it be for us today as well.

how to pray with baby: in peaceful moments

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The last in the series on how to pray with baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments:

. . .

holding - fHolding

To pray:

The Lord, your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he acted with you before your very eyes in Egypt, as well as in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord, your God, carried you, as one carries his own child, all along your journey until you arrived at this place.

Deuteronomy 1:30-31

To practice:

Notice your habits of holding your baby. Is your back arched? Are your shoulders slumped? Your wrists aching? Each time you pick up baby today, be mindful of the way you carry him or her. Make small adjustments to relieve the tension in your body.

Pray to God for the strength to carry your child throughout their life, not only when they are small enough to carry, but as they grow into adulthood.

Ask for the wisdom to know when and how to shift the way you hold your child, whether in your arms or in your heart.

 . . .

Resting

To pray:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
   from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
   and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
   serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
   and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

Isaiah 58:13-14

restingTo practice:

When your baby finally closes eyes to sleep today, let yourself lie down and rest for a few minutes.

Even if you have ten thousand other things you should be doing, even if the sink is overflowing with dishes, even if your older kids are running wild downstairs, even if you don’t have time for a real nap, simply let yourself rest and breathe deeply for several good minutes.

Take a Sabbath break in the middle of newborn time which follows no schedule. Allow your thoughts to settle and your love to rise.

Honor your body’s need to rest as a sign of strength, not weakness. Let yourself remember that it is not up to you to do it all. Delight in the truth that God’s ways, not yours, are ultimate.

. . .

Beholding

beholdingTo pray:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established; 
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them? 
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:3-5 

To practice:

Go outside on a clear night and look up at the stars. Remember how small your life is – your worries, your problems, and your fears – when seen against the vast universe above you. Give thanks to God who created the heavens and the earth.

Go inside and watch your baby sleep. Remember how big your life is – your joys, your loves, and your gifts – when compared to the tiny child before you. Give thanks to God who created this unique life and all its potential.