Blond-haired. Blue-eyed. Math-brained. First-born. All things I am not.
And yet this boy, this so-longed-for Samuel – he teaches me about the inner fabric of my own heart and the walls of my soul. By his pushes, by his pulls. Most of all by his tender heart.
1) Sam taught me that God is a faithful companion.
Waiting for Sam taught me about the mystery of prayer – that it is not about the answer, but about the asking.
Waiting for Sam taught me about growth through pain – that it is the paschal mystery of dying and rising to a changed way of being.
Waiting for Sam taught me about God’s stubborn companionship – that it is closest to our heart when it feels furthest from our lives.
Yes, we “got” a baby after our years of waiting. But that fact is not what taught me God’s companionship. It was the long Advent before parenthood when I felt God sitting with me, silent and steady in the dark.
I have never forgotten those days, and every time I look at my children – especially sweet Sam – I remember infertility and I remember God’s companionship.
By our waiting, he teaches me.
2) Sam taught me that God is a caller.
When it came time to choose our first boy’s name, we loved Samuel right away. Hannah’s story was one we held close to our hearts while we were waiting: her tears and her hope. And her child’s name – because I asked the Lord for him - fit our own gratitude perfectly.
But it was the rest of Samuel’s story that has taught me more about God. That God is still speaking. That the tugs on our heart or the voices in the night may just be nudges from the divine.
When I hear or speak Sam’s name, I hear echoes of the story of Samuel and Eli: Here I am, Lord. I’m reminded to keep listening, to lean on the wisdom of mentors and elders, to trust that I will be led if I respond. And not to be afraid of where I am called.
By his name, he teaches me.
3) Sam taught me that God is ancient and ever-new.
What a blessing and a burden to be the first. (Writes a third-born.) Sam gets to try everything before the others and boast of his size and age, but he also has to break us into parenting every step along the way. I imagine he will delight and struggle with being the first, much like every other first-born I know.
But here’s the thing he teaches me by going first: God is always already there.
Each time Sam reaches a new milestone – and we too, as his parents – I find God in the newness. In this season of school, I am finding God in the widened circle of people who will care for him. I am finding God in Sam’s delight in what he is learning. I am finding God in the freedom of letting him take small steps into the world without me.
There is nothing tired or musty about God. That wild whirl of Spirit energy, born of life and love itself – it brings constant change and surprise.
Of course it can be painful to learn and grow. Of course I’ve stumbled plenty of times along the way, worrying about Sam when I should have been marveling in wonder, wrestling to control what was never mine to wrangle. But I am better for the stretching.
I keep finding God in the surprise of what Sam brings as our trailblazer.
By being the first, he teaches me.
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.
But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.
So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.
Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.
And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked -
Do you remember when every night was full of possibility?
When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.
When the air was electric with anything possible.
When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.
Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.
Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before.
And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.
But of course it cannot last forever.
The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.
Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.
Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?
The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.
But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.
Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.
Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.
There’s so much promise brimming there.
Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.
So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?
Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.
But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.
. . .
Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.
But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.
You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.
But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.
As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.
My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Be still and know that I am God.
Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.
All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.
God was there somewhere, in what you held.
Be still and know that I am.
Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.
All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.
God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.
Be still and know.
Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.
All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.
God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.
But maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.
One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.
This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.
But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.
Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.
Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.
Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.
Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.
Watch God find you there. Again and always.
Be still and know that I am God.
He gazes at me, steel blue eyes searching. He gazes. And gazes. Sometimes so intently, for so long, that I have to work to hold my own gaze steady, to meet his eyes with mine.
This is part of the (happy) work of having a newborn. Watching them. Watching them change in front of your eyes. Cheeks rounding, lashes lengthening, hair thickening, thighs plumping, fingers uncurling.
Wondering what they will become. Wondering who this person might be, whose life I hold in my hands.
My grandma used to call this stage “the baby’s face unfolding,” waking to the world. My mom tells me this each time she visits to help and hold our newborns.
It is the same story all parents watch, over and over again. A first chapter opening in a brand-new book.
But you have to look to see it. Behold.
. . .
He’s an old soul, my friend declares, handing the baby back to me. You can always tell by their eyes.
Later I think about her words and wonder if we’ve gotten them backwards. Even setting aside reincarnation, as we Christians do, the saying suggests that contemplative, quiet babies are wise beyond their years. That they hold some distant, ancient knowing behind their eyes.
But babies are able to hold our gaze so intently precisely because they are brand-new. They have no filter yet to smudge up their view of the world, no hurt, no grudge, no knowledge of evil. Their innocence is what permits them to disarm us by their unrelenting gaze. They will not avert their eyes out of shame or drop their glance from embarrassment, not yet. They have not learned that lesson.
What we see blinking back at us in their eyes is not the wisdom of the aged – as clear as their vision of the world can be. Instead, babies bring utter openness. Unclouded vision. Eyes not yet dimmed by the cruelty or sorrow they will inevitably see. Not worried or weathered or wearied by years.
He is a young soul, in fact. Behold.
. . .
What does it mean to behold?
In Scripture it’s the greeting of the angels. Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy.
In church it’s the reminder that recaptures our attention every time we gather round the table. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
In literature it’s an air of importance. Lo and behold… There’s a weight to beholding, beyond watching or seeing. You are witnessing an impressive sight.
Even the parsing of the word – to be and to hold – signals a notable duality: you must take a certain stance and accept what it offers.
And when you contemplate in the way that beholding invites, something will happen. You will appreciate or perceive or understand or discern differently than you did before.
You will be changed.
. . .
The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.”
This summer I’m beholding my own life, too.
For the first time in a long time, I’m looking around at everything I have and finding it so good. Yes, there is the exhaustion of the newborn days. And yet I have felt profoundly happy ever since this baby arrived. For a while I joked about it to friends as “really good hormones.” But now I start to see how much deeper this joy and gratitude runs.
I found new motherhood hard, really hard. I remember in the early days reading about the shift that happens when your first child turns five. All of a sudden you glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel – that your life will not always revolve around dirty diapers and 2 am wakings. That your child is growing up, and quickly. Becoming a person before your eyes, a walking, talking, someday-even-rational human being with all the fullness and wonder of what it means to be human.
And I feel that now, with Sam heading off to kindergarten in the fall. Perhaps for the first time, I feel myself settling into motherhood with deep-seated joy, less tinged with the anxiety that accompanied his birth.
I look around me at our growing family, this beautiful bunch of boys, a husband I adore, work that I love, writing that sets my heart on fire. And I feel so blessed, so deeply wrapped in the presence of God. It has been a hard summer already, physically and emotionally, and yet I have not lost sight of the deeper joy here, the stream of goodness running through it all, clear and fast and strong. I can behold my life in bright sunlight, eyes open and willing to hold the gaze.
And I am able to be what I hold.
. . .
The babe is at that lovely stage where smiles start, now only small bursts of wide-cheeked delight, fleeting rewards for the monkey faces I ape at him, over and over, hoping to catch a grin. I have to watch him for a long time to see them. He is teaching me the practice of beholding: the discipline of deciding to stop and see what is right before my eyes.
Perhaps that’s the lesson in beholding: that you have to be here and hold on if you want to witness the joy, to catch the goodness that rushes behind, beyond, underneath the surface.
These things are trustworthy and true, these moments of joy we know to be of God.
Watch the beauty unfolding before you. Watch your own life blossoming. Watch it bring you joy.
Write these words down. Behold.
. . .
For a new twist: today look your child or loved one in the eyes. Behold them. How does it feel to hold their gaze without words? Where do you see the good – the God – within the life you love?
Lots of people love Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
I am not one of them.
I know it’s mostly good-hearted cheer, encouragement for the journey, and wise words from a man who’d seen enough of life to know that the secret lies in looking ahead.
But these two pages drive me crazy: “…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”
“NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”
What’s wrong with waiting?
Most of us spend much of our lives waiting. Waiting for a situation to change. Waiting for a relationship to heal. Waiting for health to improve. Waiting for a holiday or a homecoming. Waiting for test results, an acceptance letter, a job offer, a new opportunity, a shift in scenery or season or mood.
Aren’t we all waiting somewhere in these winding lines? For crying out loud, Christians are supposed to be waiting all the time.
Lest I be accused of being too harsh on Dear Seuss, I get what he’s saying. Don’t be passive. Don’t get stuck. Don’t expect life to magically improve if you’re not willing to work hard.
But to be true to life’s reality, the book could just as aptly be named Oh, the Places You’ll Wait!
Because we spend just as much time idling at the stop light, itching to accelerate, as we do with the wind whipping through our hair as we race ahead.
Waiting isn’t an evil to be shunned, a burden to be avoided, a drain to keep us from enjoying life. Waiting is life.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
. . .
Around here, we’re waiting all the time now.
The clock ticks painfully slowly. Each morning over breakfast, the kids ask when the baby will be here, and I shake my head at the sink, attempting to smile cheerfully while I scrub dishes.
We don’t know! We just have to wait!
I’m an eager and impatient person by nature. Waiting can be excruciatingly hard for me to bear. At 39 weeks pregnant, weary and waddling, I’m consumed by waiting. How I’d love to breeze past these pages of boredom and in-betweenness, of long lines and longing faces.
But life never works like that. Waiting is where we grow. Where God works on us in the long and quiet dark.
Waiting is work, but it’s holy work. God is here, too.
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.
. . .
Ironically I wrote this almost exactly one year ago. I didn’t know how much of the next 12 months would be filled with waiting: waiting for a baby, waiting to heal from losing that baby, waiting for another baby, waiting to work through my fears.
When impatience starts to get the better of me, when I find myself straining forward to see what’s next, when I tire of trying to live in the present, I wrestle with waiting.
But wrestling never wins; it is only when I stop to catch my breath that I realize there is only This. In preparation for That, perhaps. But waiting is about the present, not the future.
It’s the only way I can live right now.
To parent is to wait: to watch, to witness, to wonder what comes next, to want more for your child than what they have today. But to wait is also to be forced to slow down, to relinquish the illusion of control, to put your desires on hold while life makes other plans.
What could be harder than waiting?
This life is a relentless pull, asking us to stop when we want to go, making us release when we want to grab tight. We have to wait in the midst of all this back and forth. We never know what’s coming; we waste our time worrying about what never happens.
But when we wait – that is an act of faith.
Waiting is holy time, not wasted time. Psalms sing it; Jesus spoke it; centuries of Christians believed it.
So maybe the wild Technicolor imagination of the esteemed Dr. was right all along. Everyone is just waiting.
But I believe that’s not half bad.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6
In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.
That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.
The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.
The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.
So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.
The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.
She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.
The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?
She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.
She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.
To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.
. . .
Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.
But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.
I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way.
I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.
I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.
I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.
I wanted someone who understood.
. . .
Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.
It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.
Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.
I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.
And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.
The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.
Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.
And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.
To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
Who has helped midwife your dreams?
They are buddies, our two boys.
Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.
A duo that’s about to gain a third.
I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.
Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.
Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.
It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.
Even the smallest ones.
. . .
One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.
To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.
A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.
We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.
Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.
Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.
What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.
So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.
. . .
What is lost?
The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.
The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.
The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.
What is gained?
The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.
The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.
The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.
We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.
Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.
So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.
And so can be again.