in the news
He crouches down next to the crib in the dim room lit only by nightlight. Slowly he bends forward until his forehead brushes the wooden slats where our son’s head rests, a dark tangle of damp curls.
They blur together in the dark, father to son.
I watch from the doorway. The broadness of his back, the curve of his calves, the grip of his fingers resting on the tops of his knees – all poised to act. I wonder how he can keep so still, all his attention focused like a laser beam on the sleeping boy in the bed.
We both search for some sign of distress, beyond the bandaids that wrap round our baby’s arm where the wasps stung. All the first-aid guides I’d dug out of the bathroom cupboard while he was screaming in my ear just a few hours ago warned that an allergic reaction could still arrive hours after the attack.
We’ve never had a child stung before, so here we are thrown back onto the shores of brand-new-parenthood, sputtering and bewildered at how little we know. Are we supposed to wake him to make sure he’s not swelling up? Would we be able to hear on the baby monitor if he went into shock? Should we have stocked an Epi-pen at the ready for emergencies like a bedtime bee sting? Are we needlessly anxious?
We have no clue.
So he squats, crouched by the crib, staring into darkness, waiting for what seems like an agonizing stretch of time. As minutes drag past, my mind starts to wander. Back to the newspaper lying on the kitchen table downstairs, the latest article on Syria that I’d half read and flung aside in frustration: too much. Back to our loss, still cycling through my mind in regular sad rhythms: too soon.
And I start to wonder, as I keep watching from the doorway, my own breath held, how on earth God holds it all in tension.
How the divine power which set the universe spinning could ever be concerned with my heartache. How the force of love incarnate could let such evil massacre babies with warfare. How all of our wants and wounds could ever be gathered under the gaze of One.
But as I keep staring at the strong back bent low to peek through the slats of the crib, I wonder if I see some glimpse of how God might watch each of us, the wasp-stung and the war-torn. How such love could laser in on smallest needs in weakest hours and embrace all of us, too, even in the violence we never cease to wreak upon each other.
Because the world has always been this big and this small. Heated debates over bombing and nervous jitters over back-to-school. Thousands screaming over blood stains in the city square and two crying behind a hospital room’s closed doors. And somehow we who dare or dream or deign to keep believing, believe there is a God who is Good all the time.
I cannot – will not – ever fathom how this works.
But finally he turns to me, smiling in the shadows. “All clear,” he mouths in a half-whisper. We sneak back out of the room.
And all week, as I keep brooding over Syria and grieving the small moments that still catch in my throat, I carry with me this image of a night watch. How the strongest can bend low to care about the smallest. How a father’s attention can focus in an instant when his child’s face is salt-streaked with tears.
Maybe the divine is never so distant as our fears would spin us to believe. Maybe God is always this close, right on the other side of where we rest, watching each one, holding a whole world in love’s heart.
I will never be a first responder.
My knees go weak at the mention of blood, let alone the sight. I have been known to get woozy over a bad paper cut.
So whenever I see photos of police officers running into smoky scenes, racing in when the rest of us are rushing out, I marvel.
At their courage, of course. At their selflessness. But above all at the proof of their training that rewires their instincts to trump our natural fears.
They do what I would be too terrified to do.
Here we go again, I cry to Boston. Another average Monday blown apart by bombs, another everyday event forever redefined by evil’s horror and violence.
I watch the footage and the photos and the Facebook feeds, and deep inside my stomach knots to one gnarled instinct: run. Grab your kids and go off the grid and head into the hills far, far away from this horrid world where children are blown apart at finish lines.
Would it be so hard to leave comfort and convenience behind if I could simply assure we’d be safe?
But I look at those men and women operating under instincts that are not my own, their knee-jerk reactions that run toward rather than away, their hands that reach out to help rather than cover their heads. And I remember that I, too, have to retrain my instincts towards selfishness and self-protection.
Because this way of Christ runs right toward pain and suffering and fear. It runs toward the blood and the brokenness. It runs toward the fear and the evil and the worst of what we humans can inflict upon each other in hate.
This was never a call to flee the world and run away, but a call to rush in where peace and prayer are needed most.
To remember that at every ground zero of human evil, God is somehow there, too – among the cries and the suffering and the death itself.
And I cannot run from that.
Even before the conclave met, it was his new favorite book.
You can’t make this stuff up.
From the messy piles of paperbacks strewn across every room of our house, a few children’s books have squirreled their way onto my own bookshelves. Now every day my oldest boy bursts through the doors of my office, demanding to read the Francis book.
So we do. He curls in my lap, and I turn the pages. We both agree our favorites are the pages bursting with birds whose colorful chorus sings with the saint:
Some say papal-mania is settling down. But I still see a steady stream of striking articles and thoughtful reflections written about the new leader. Sunday morning I sat down with a cup of tea and two rowdy boys to read this piece in praise of a “slum pope” and this subtle, surprising report of journalists being blessed by a pontiff, regardless of what beliefs they held.
Now every time I sit with my son and read a Song of Francis, I think more deeply about what it means to be a servant leader. A heart for justice, a desire for peace, a vision for those on the margins.
No matter what profession my boy chooses, no matter what callings whisper in his ear, I hope he will become this kind of man. The kind of compassionate, caring person whose life is known by humility and hope.
The power of hope lifts me up this Lent. Another Easter is almost on the horizon, and already I see signs of resurrection. For a Church who knows darkness, the Spirit reminds us of light. For a world scarred by scandal, the Spirit reminds us of life after death. For a people polarized, the Spirit reminds us to turn together towards the poor.
No man is perfect. Not a pope, not a preschooler. But what can bend us slowly towards better is love, perfect love that casts out fear. I feel that today among so many Catholics I know. The power of hope.
The gift of Easter. The song of Francis.
For over a week, half a post for Ash Wednesday sat waiting for me to finish it. And it started like this:
Anyone else feel like the gentle green of Ordinary Time just got yanked out from under their feet, and now they’re sitting plop in the purple of Lent, scratching their head and wondering how we got here so fast?
Is it even allowed to be Mardi Gras before Valentine’s Day?
Or am I the only anxious one who still has Christmas thank-yous on her to-do list?
From whence it wandered into ramblings about how maybe the fact that the dates for Easter and Lent change every year keeps us on our toes, on edge even, makes us more mindful or less likely to lull into complacency.
Which bumped into Scriptural allusions about how you know neither the day nor the hour.
(Which was apparently going to wrap back round to parenting or family life or something else that this blog claims to be about.)
But then we all woke up to the papal game-changer of the century (or rather, six centuries) and the looming start of Lent seemed even more surprising as we all sat around puzzling and pontificating (ha) about how we could possibly have a new pontiff by the time these forty days finished.
So now what are we supposed to do, I wondered. I thought about scrapping this post completely. But then it struck me that if this news is the Hayley’s Comet of ex cathedra announcements, I better scrape together two words about an all-points-bulletin Catholic news story that will surely never come again in my lifetime.
And that was precisely when it hit me:
Perhaps the early Ash Wednesday and the unexpected announcement from Benedict aren’t so far apart after all.
Both remind us of mortality, a sobering reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return.
Both mark the beginning of a time of great change, a season of renewal.
Both capture the popular imagination in surprising ways.
Ever try to find a parking spot at an Ash Wednesday service five minutes before it starts? Good luck. Catholic churches are crammed on this unofficial holy day. Every year I notice more and more people packed into the pews. Something about this simple penitential practice, this smear of ash on foreheads, touches us deeply.
Ditto Benedict’s decision. Sure, yesterday was full of ignorant chatter and conspiracy theories and snarky Catholic jokes. But it was also full of surprising resonance, of reporters and religion professors and regular church-goers agreeing that resignation could be wise, that retirement could be well-deserved, that respect was due to a powerful leader who knew when to step down, when to take leave of a calling that was ending.
It’s the eve of ashes, and it all feels surprising. But it’s always jarring when death interrupts life, isn’t it? When reminders of mortality upend our neatly planned calendars of The Way Things Are Supposed to Go?
Weren’t we were just waving our palms to welcome him in? Are they really so quickly burned to ash again?
Yesterday the O-antiphons of Advent began.
But mine started early, driving home last Friday on a snowy freeway, catching the afternoon news after a day of meetings.
Oh God, no. Oh God, not again. Oh God, not children.
So many words have been spilled since Friday, and yet I keep struggling to voice how deeply this news wounds. As a mother, of course. But deeper, as a person of faith who tries to make sense of God’s ways, who wonders how we can respond in turn.
It was the familiarity of Sandy Hook that shook me up. The day before the shooting, a school was bombed in Syria, killing sixteen, half of whom were women and children. But that tragedy was a mere blip on the evening news, the daily digest of the continued slaughter of the innocents. My husband mentioned it over dinner and I shook my head. “I can’t handle Syria anymore. Too much. I can’t handle it.”
But now, school heaped upon school, bodies heaped upon bodies, babies heaped upon babies, I keep thinking of Sandy Hook and I keep thinking of Syria. As I finish my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents, as I write cards. Everything seems surreal in the sight of parents sobbing over tiny coffins. Every year I wrestle with the consumerism of the holiday, feeling lonelier and lonelier as I whisper this is not what Christmas means. But this year, the contrast feels starker than ever.
. . .
Today was the first day I dropped my boy off at school since last Friday. As I rounded the car to open his door and unbuckle his car seat, I suddenly felt my heart leap into my throat. How was I going to leave him here? His safe little preschool, in the small town clap-board church, loomed large in a darker world where everything seems dangerous now.
I halted, hand on the handle, wanting to dash back around to the driver’s side, slam the door shut and squeal out of the snowy parking lot. Flee back home where everything felt safe.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
So I breathed in cold, crisp December air. I opened the door, bent down and smiled. “Let’s go, my love! Time for school!” False cheer in my voice, fake grin on my face.
I pulled his hood up over his small head, tucked his mittens into his coat sleeves, trying not to cry as I thought about parents doing the same routine on last Friday’s morning drop-off.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked as he smiled up at me. “I do,” his quiet response.
“And do you remember who’s always with you, in your heart, so you don’t have to be sad or afraid?” “Jesus,” he whispered.
“That’s right. God is always with you.” I hugged him extra tight.
Why did I need to remind him today? Did I need some small sense of protection, some meager assurance that if a murderer burst through the doors of his preschool, he might remember love in the midst of fear? So sick, the ways our minds spin right now, scared and wounded in the face of unimaginable suffering.
But still I walked him across the icy parking lot, swung wide the door and swept him inside. His lovely teacher greeted him with a warm smile as she welcomed him downstairs. And against every fiber in my being, I turned and pushed the door open wide to leave.
I started to tear up as I left the parking lot, memories rushing back of the first day I left him there, the first time I left him with a sitter to go to work, the first time I realized he was no longer snuggled up safe inside me.
How can I do it, over and over again, I wondered as I drove away. How do I keep pushing my babies out into the world?
And the answer came clear and quiet: I have to do it the same way I first birthed them.
Through my own inner strength. Surrounded by the support of others. Leaning into the grace of God.
This is the only way I know how to parent. Maybe it’s the only way I know how to live in this world. It’s surely the only way I know how to celebrate Emmanuel this year.
Remembering that Christmas is not something I do, but something that was done by God, for all of us.
Remembering that in so many corners of the world Advent is always held in this tension: a small light flicking amid death and violence and fear.
Remembering that the Nativity story starts with one scared mother, birthing her baby into a painful world, bearing light into utter darkness.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
My children seemed even smaller today, even more fragile and fleeting.
The whole day shifted, slanted towards helpless with the news. Everything felt ugly and overwhelming and exhausting, like being punched in the chest, the core of my heart.
What to say or do or think in the face of horror, of violence wrenched upon a corner of the world, so much like our quiet own, ripped inside out and left bleeding and broken and raw beyond recognition?
The second I got home, I gathered my boys in my arms, smothered their hair with my kisses. Tried to breathe in the simple fact of their existence before they squirmed away. Before they went back to laughing, playing, whining, reading. Being.
For the rest of the day I watched them with other eyes.
I watched them from the corner of the kitchen over dinner. From the bedroom doorway during bathtime. From the top of the stairs while they giggled under the Christmas tree.
I lingered on the normalcy of our night, the ordinary peace of our day. And with every regular breath I felt behind it the weight of families in nightmares, the wail of parents plunged into the deepest loss, the darkness I cannot close my eyes to name.
. . .
Both boys’ skin seemed translucent today. The palest flesh on such small bones, warm blood racing through thin veins just below the surface. At any moment, it seemed, their heart could stop and mine would, too. Any ordinary day. A day of school or church or the mall or the movies – nothing feels safe, nothing feels sacred anymore.
After I cuddled the smallest to sleep, I paused for a moment by our front door. The strong steel door, the door with the lock and deadbolt, the door that blocks the world outside. The thought of opening it tomorrow, of grasping their small mittened hands and leading them out into the cold, choked me with overwhelming.
Taking a single step outside seems an act of faith after a day darkened by so much death. It’s an exhausting prospect, this vulnerable living, this throwing ourselves back out into the world, day after day, never knowing how or when the end will come for those we love, whether that end will be sudden or violent or terrifying or tragic. We never know; we can only keep going. And trying and helping and loving along the way. The simplest acts of living, of chosing to go on, become a daring defiance of violence and hatred and evil and horror.
. . .
This afternoon, my oldest, oblivious to the news I’d flipped off, asked with a grin if we could to do some baking. I figured there was nothing else to do but to do something.
We pulled out flour and eggs, peanut butter and chocolate chips. He snuck extra licks from the spoon as we stirred. I figured life’s too short to care about a few germs.
His baby brother grabbed the sugar canister and stuck his chubby fists inside, spilling out handfuls on the floor. I figured why not add some sweetness to the day.
So we baked. We sang. We played piano. We danced in spinning circles before bedtime, once more, always once more, once more extra on a broken, bittersweet, too-much night like tonight.
In short, we lived. And tomorrow, I pray we will get up and do the same.
Tonight my babies are tucked safe and sleeping in bed. But tonight I think of all the beds that go empty, all the places on the globe where violence and murder and fear are all-too-familiar. I think about God’s head bowing low, bearing the weight of all this pain, grieving the world so far from its created beauty.
I wonder how we go on. But I know that we go on. I am left with nothing but the sheer aliveness of the ones I love, the stubborn fact that we are still here.
That we still have to face the test of tomorrow.
Don’t tell my husband, but I spend much of my day with other men.
As I sip the day’s first mug of tea or chop vegetables for dinner, their familiar voices float around me, winding from the radio, room to room. Reassuring voices, deep and gentle.
Sometimes serious, sometimes playful, their rises and falls intertwine with mine – sometimes laughing, sometimes lecturing. Toddler yells and baby screams always interrupt right when my interest in a news story is peaked, but I never worry. Steve and Robert will tell me again next hour.
They’re my faithful partners in parenting, from hectic Monday rush through slow-news Friday.
. . .
I grew up on a steady diet of NPR. Even after nearly two decades of eating vegetarian, the trumpet fanfare for “All Things Considered” still reminds me of onions and ground beef sauteing on the stove as my mother stood and stirred while she listened.
I remember guffawing with my dad to “Car Talk,” rolling my eyes at “Prairie Home Companion,” even complaining on endless road trips that couldn’t we please listen to ANYTHING else besides the news because that’s for ADULTS and it’s boring. (My youngest brother declared I was officially old once I started slipping, “I heard this interesting piece on NPR…” into conversation.)
But what I have come to cherish as an adult is not NPR’s solid reporting or even-tempered commentary. It’s faithful familiarity. NPR sounds exactly the same to my ears now as it did when I was ten years old. So much changes, technology rises and falls, the latest new fads come and go, but news-on-the-radio is stubbornly old-fashioned. Just the way I like it.
That’s why I love Steve and Robert. They remind me that doing things the old-fashioned way – whether it’s diapers hanging on the line or vegetables from our backyard garden – is a good way to live. That I can draw more wisdom from my parents and grandparents than from the latest glossy magazine. That as life constantly changes, we need some things to stay the same.
The steady voices of Steve and Robert and Renee and Michele set the rhythm of my days in this season of life. They bring a perspective to my kid-dominated days that’s bigger than my kitchen table. They pull me outside my front door even when I’m at home. But if I’m honest, it’s not the news or the politics or the arts that I truly love. It’s the adult voices that accompany me through the days, the antidote to my work-at-home, mother-at-home loneliness.
That’s why I count them as partners in parenting, just like the friends we meet for playdates and faces we see at preschool drop-off. They’re part of the community, the wider world, the proverbial village, that’s helping me raise my kids. With a mindset that goes beyond mothering and a concern that goes beyond my children.
(If only Robert offered to change a few more diapers…)