A baby in my arms, round-cheeked and solemn-eyed, stretching out his chubby hand towards an ice-cold window, swirls of first snow gusting just beyond the glass.
Three times I have watched.
Pudgy fingers smudging up against the pane, leaving a breath of fogged fingerprints behind. Brow furrowing, steady eyes silently wondering what is this? Cold and hard are not the usual domain of babies, the newest ones whose softest skin we wrap in fleece blankets and cuddle with feathery kisses.
Three times I have felt this sacred hush.
What it means to introduce a child to the world outside, a world which can be hard and cold and harsh and cruel. A fleeting foretaste while still safe in mother’s arms of what it will mean for them to brave the beyond.
Three times I have welcomed this same invitation.
To remember that what is hard can also be holy.
The book is here. The hard part should be over. The dreaming and the writing and the editing and the re-editing and the waiting are behind me. This new baby is in my hands, and it is rushing headlong into the world, too. Now all should be calm; all should be bright.
Except this is never the way it works, is it? In writing, in parenting, in life.
Right when I thought I had hit that sweet spot – of work and family and home all humming along so much better than I dared dream when I pictured life with three kids – right then was the instant something started to unravel.
The child care set-up that was steady and smooth? Now yanked out from under us. We’re scrambling to re-calibrate, and everything is up in the whirling air.
How to juggle all these callings. How to handle all the good work we’ve been given to do. How to be the partners and the parents we’ve promised to be.
All will be well, Julian of Norwich reminds me, in that nagging, knowing truth of the long view. And I believe this. But in the short term? All ain’t great.
It’s far from the end of the world, but it’s the complicating of our small world as it spins today. Stress sneaks back in; what’s nicely knit unravels; we run on fumes and we run down. I know we will be fine; we’ve been here before and we’ve come through. But still.
This is still hard.
And this is still holy.
The lesson each baby teaches me, dimpled knuckles banging at snow-streaked window, is that life is always juxtaposed in tensions: soft meets hard, warm meets cold, safe meets scary.
These edges press up against each other all the time, but we lull ourselves into thinking we are confidently on the safe side of calm and control. Instead there is hard, and God is here, too.
So there is holy.
I cannot – will not – say that all that is difficult is divine. There is evil, injustice, abuse, and deceit that cannot be baptized by any best perspective.
But among the few stones of hard truth I have collected about God in the few decades I have been seeking, I know this: God is present.
When it seems it cannot be so, when we ourselves cannot see it, when the whole maddening crowd screams otherwise. God is present.
So whenever there is that too-familiar twisting crunch – of time, of nerves, of expectation, of budget, of hope, of health, of heart – I try to breathe some peace into the space between. To remember how the hard and the holy meet.
To turn over and over in my mind this silent memory of first snow: of each quiet, curious baby perched in my arms, peering out into a world of white, a stark new landscape that covers in strange drifts what was once known.
To see what their fresh eyes see, to feel what their smooth fingers feel, and to trust what their calm wonder trusts. That they are still held.
That we are, too.
We celebrated both boys’ baptism anniversaries a few weeks back. (Now you know why I’ve had baptism on the brain so much lately.) Their days are only a fortnight apart, so in the blur of busy schedules we set aside a single night to celebrate and remember.
As I was setting the table for their special dinner, my son snatched his baptism candle out of its holder and playfully held it in front of his mouth as if to bite. Coyly offering one of his beloved kidisms, he teased: “Does it taste?”
He offers this phrase about anything he knows he’s not supposed to eat, as he watches his younger brother jam everything into his mouth. No, we shake our heads – books and crayons and blocks and chalk do not taste. Food is the only thing that tastes.
But as I smiled and chided him with the response he craved, I caught the half-truth in my words. Dinner and dessert were not the only things that night that would taste. The anniversaries we celebrated tasted, too. The chew of communion bread before the baptism, the crumble of cake at the party after. Even the earthy chrism oil that lingered on my lips when I kissed my baby’s forehead, slick from the sacred smear. All of it tastes.
. . .
I thought about taste as we passed the pasta that night, snuck extra helpings of dessert and savored memories of special days. Anniversaries do indeed taste, some bitter, some sweet.
There are wedding days we remember, the festive dates we celebrate with happy memory of cake and champagne and crying at “I do.” There are death dates, the dreaded days when we don’t know what to do with ourselves but call up someone else who loved them, too, and simply sit with each other in the sad strangeness.
All sorts of anniversaries mark our calendars: jobs started, homes bought, trips made, degrees earned. And all of them taste. We notice the date, circle it on the calendar, and all at once we’re flooded with thick memories of the sight, sound, smell, touch, taste of what the day held.
But exactly what is the taste of anniversary? Is it the cake and candles, the silver and china, the special sacred of set-apart? Or is it the deeper memory of the most-important moments that mark our lives – the births and deaths and gains and losses whose tastes are imprinted so firmly in our minds we almost salivate as we remember.
I think of the dinner I gobbled down after bringing my first baby home from the hospital, how delicious the simple saute tasted when my mom heaped it over steaming pasta: it tasted like love.
I remember the cellophane-wrapped cinnamon rolls that my younger brothers and I unwrapped together in the kitchen the day after our brother’s funeral: it tasted like grief.
I return to the last Thanksgiving my family held in my grandparents’ home after both had died, the stories and laughter and tears we passed with dishes and wine round the table: it tasted like clan.
Maybe it’s a reverse Proust: memory that jogs taste, and not the other way around. But all of the anniversaries that remain retain their own particular flavor.
. . .
My cheeky boy who asks each day what tastes is now nearing the age when my first fuzzy memories emerged, the shadowy snippets that a young mind seizes: a play of light upon the nursery floor, a scoop into beloved arms. I wonder what his earliest memory will be, how it will taste as he savors it over and over.
It will be only one of a lifetime full of anniversaries and every-days that linger in his mind’s eye. But that first taste will teach him how to remember: with senses wide open.