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 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.
Because 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
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.
. . .
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.
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.
. . .
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.
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.
. . .
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.
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.
Continuing with the practical side of spiritual practices with newborns, here is the 2nd in this series of simple ways to pray while caring for a baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments.
. . .
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I put my hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.
Psalm 119: 147-148
Next time you are up with baby at 2:00 am (or 3:00 am, or 4:00 am – or all 3!), think of all those who are also awake at this late hour: employees working the third shift, tired parents tending to sick children, monks and nuns praying the hours.
Pray in solidarity with those who work while others sleep. Pray in thanksgiving to God who is always present, watchful and waiting.
. . .
… I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
As you rock back and forth with your baby, let the rhythm set the pace for your prayer.
Meditate on a two-part prayer that matches your movement forward and back.
A-men. Je-sus. Yah-weh.
Or choose the four-part cadence of the ancient Jesus Prayer:
Jesus Christ / Son of God / Have mercy on me / A sinner.
As you connect with your rhythm and breath and baby, let yourself be lulled and comforted as you quiet your own soul within you.
. . .
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Whenever you wrap your baby in soft blankets to keep her warm or tight swaddlers to help him sleep, think of Mary wrapping her newborn child in love and warmth. Ask for Mary’s guidance to love, protect, and care for your child.
. . .
But I will sing of your might;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.
Psalm 59: 16-17
When you sing to your baby, think of someone who sang favorite lullabies to you as a child: a parent, grandparent, older sibling or baby sitter.
Hold their love in mind as you repeat verse after verse. Give thanks to God for the small, simple ways we share love with each other.
And when you run out of ideas for songs to keep you awake while you help baby fall asleep, try a church hymn – an old classic from growing up or a new favorite from today.
Add your voice to the church’s song of praise to God, who is faithful in the morning, all day, and at night.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – in fussy moments!
First: a confession. The series on spiritual practices with newborns? Turned out nothing the way I expected. What I thought would be a practical guide turned into my philosophical wanderings as I processed this summer. Great for me, maybe less for all you new parents who told me you were excited for the series. Thanks for reading along anyway!
Second: an inspiration. All those practices I wrote (and rambled) about? Still wonderful ways to pray when you have a new baby in your life. For those of you drowning in diapers and midnight feedings, I’ve compiled a list of short Scripture verses and quick prayer practices that you can do while caring for baby.
All day long. Up all night. For fussy moments. For peaceful moments.
. . .
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The next time you’re tempted to check the clock when feeding the baby – how long has it been since he last took a bottle? how long have I been sitting here nursing her? – close your eyes instead and give thanks for all the good meals you have enjoyed in your life. Thanksgivings, Christmases, date nights, nights out with friends, family dinners at home.
Pray for someone with whom you shared a memorable meal. Pray for you and your child to nurture generous hearts to share with those who are hungry. Pray in gratitude to God who feeds you.
. . .
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Each time you clean up after your child today – diaper change, bath-time, spit-up, wet crib sheets or worse! – offer up a petition for their future.
May they always know love. May they always be surrounded by people who care for them. May they always grow in the ways they care for others.
. . .
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
When your baby gets hurt – from shots or diaper rashes or bug bites or scratches – remember that your role as a parent is not always to protect them from every harm, but to help them handle life’s bumps and heal from life’s wounds. Humbly ask God for the strength and wisdom to love like this.
Each time you try to soothe your screaming newborn, hold in mind one way that they may need to heal from hurts as they grow: rejections by cliques and crushes, disappointments in sports or extracurriculars, academic failures, high school heartbreaks, challenges in college, professional and personal setbacks.
Ask God to guide your child through the journeys of hurting and healing that lead into adulthood. Pray for resilience and forgiveness for both you and your baby.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – up all night!
Mommy, I just want to hug you around your scars!
His sky blue eyes flash. His brows furrow. The cheerful animals plastered across his summer pajamas – a grinning monkey and laughing elephant atop a fire engine – smile up at me in stark contrast to the glare on his face.
For weeks he’s been told not to fling his arms around my waist. He can’t plop down into my lap when we read stories. I can’t carry him down the stairs. And he’s just plain sick of it. Tired of dealing with the aftermath of my surgery. I am, too.
But the scars are still healing. We have to keep waiting.
I thought I had postpartum healing figured out the third time around. Lots of rest. Lots of help. Hot baths. Healthy meals. Slow walking. No lifting.
And it turned out that my recovery from birth was even easier this time than in the past. Four days after Joseph arrived, I honestly felt like my old self. No pain, no soreness, no need for Tylenol. Of course I took it easy for a few more weeks, having learned the hard way how quickly a new mom can overdo it and end up paying the price. But I felt amazing, and I was grateful.
We kept remarking on it, astonished, in the few moments of adult conversation we’d steal after all the kids were tucked into bed at night. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but you seem to be feeling great.”
I agreed. I joked about waiting for the other shoe to drop.
. . .
Healing became the theme of our summer, by no wish of our own.
First was recovering from the aches of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, of course. I expected that.
But then there was this awful appendicitis that landed me back in the hospital six weeks after giving birth.
And then we suffered a shocking death in our family.
And now people we love are waiting for test results and prepping for surgery.
In short, we’re surrounded by a lot of pain. Personal and communal, physical and emotional.
It will take a long time to heal.
. . .
Do pleas for healing get flung up towards heaven more than any other prayer?
All my life it seems I’ve been praying for someone to get better. Brother. Grandparents. Relatives. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Co-workers. Acquaintances. Strangers.
Many of those people stayed sick. Or got worse. Or died.
What exactly do I believe about healing anyway? Is it the reward of the lucky few? The result of the right treatment? The randomness of sheer luck?
And what does God have to do with it? Everything? Or nothing? I’m still not sure.
There are a few things I know. You need the right people to help you heal. People with expertise or experience or compassion or love. (Sometimes even all four.)
You need plenty of time. At least as much as experts advise. Sometimes much longer.
And things will never be exactly as they were before. Like the childhood scars that tried to teach us this truth. Pale pink ridges over once-smooth knees.
. . .
At first it seemed strange to see healing as a spiritual practice. After all, I had no choice in the matter: the baby and the appendix both had to come out. My body had to deal with the aftermath of each.
But when surgery shoved me back to bed after I thought recovery days were behind me, I started thinking about the cycle of suffering and healing. Is it an illusion whenever we think ourselves to be whole, as if healed were a past participle, tidy and complete?
I look around me and I see one family mourning a brother, another mourning a mother, another dealing with an awful divorce, another dealing with a terminal illness.
Around each of those wounds are circles rippling outward: relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors who are affected by each of these losses. And the world writ large is groaning with pain, too. Russia and Iraq and Palestine and Israel. Too much.
Maybe the post-partum period is a microcosm of how suffering and healing shape all our lives. Some mothers have easy deliveries, some have traumatic births. Some of us have blissful babymoons, some have wretched recoveries. We do nothing to merit these experiences, but we must live through them as they come. We must try to heal as best we can.
To help our broken hearts to stay open, not bitter.
. . .
Three thin lines trace across my skin. Scars from the surgery. Still rosy red, still new enough to remind me daily of the difference between before and after.
This summer will be folded into my story just like soft new scars. This was the summer that Joseph was born and Uncle Jim was killed. (And my appendix failed in the middle of it all.)
But isn’t this the way our stories always wind? The physical and the emotional woven together. The personal and the communal weathered together. The beauty born of pain and the anger born of grief.
Eventually our skin will stretch to cover and accept the scar. We will be changed.
This is surely where God is found in healing. In our carrying of each other’s stories. And in our trusting that something good might be born of pain.
My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
. . .
Where in your life are you healing? How have you been changed?