It’s not all about my kids.
I know I’m breaking a cardinal rule of mommy blogging with that one. But this truth runs deep in my tired mama bones:
It’s not about me and mine.
I can’t shake the stubborn, squirming fact that this call to motherhood – this gift I took into two shaking hands when the two lines on the test blurred clear to pregnant and I flung open the bathroom door to tell a father (because he was finally a father!) that everything had changed – this beautiful, exhausting vocation is not simply to the three children whose scuffed shoes are tumbled across our front hall rug.
It’s a call to stretch my heart into a mother’s love for all children.
To burst beyond the limits of what I want to cling to as mine, safe and small. To peer into the pain of how the world’s brokenness crushes millions of hearts like mine – mothers who carried babies and nursed babies and soothed babies and loved babies. To remember how small but mighty shifts can happen once we start seeing each other.
My three wee ones may be the lens through which I view this parenting story, but they are not the whole story. The story is about all of us.
And your children have shaped me, too.
Your kids are starting new schools, clutching those tiny cartooned backpacks or hiding nervous eyes behind teenage bangs. Your kids are braving bullies on the playground or tackling learning disabilities with this year’s IEP.
Your kids are teaching me that God fills us with courage from our earliest days.
Your kids are widening what they know of love, welcoming a new baby or foster sibling into their home. They’re fumbling into tender new friendships after a cross-country move. They’re learning what it means to mourn a grandparent who has gone beyond.
Your kids are teaching me that God’s love is inexhaustible.
Your kids are grown (if any of us can place that verb in past tense). They’re off to college with extra-long twin sheets for the dorm bed or they’re waving goodbye from the International Departures gate. They’re finally starting their first real job and going off your phone plan, or they’re having sweet, small babies of their own.
Your kids are teaching me that God longs for each of us to grow.
Your kids are still not here. They are desperately wanted dreams, slipping just out of reach again this month. They are hopes and glimmers and the mystery of not-yet, but you still love them wildly.
Your kids are teaching me that God is the Source of Life Itself.
Your kids are teaching me because their lives are bound up with mine. And it haunts me, this Body of Christ, this woven-togetherness.
Because what happens when we re-member each other back together is that all the rigid boundaries quiver and crumble. My family. My house. My kids. My life. No. Ours.
One shared stream, and it is one holy blood that pulses in our veins.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
She never bore a baby herself, but how many pausing photos have we seen of her, wrinkled eyes smiling, sickly scrawny newborn pressed to her cheek, love touching love in the filth of Calcutta’s gutters?
Teresa understood this truth in flesh and bone, and they called her mother for it.
The children who don’t have enough rice to scrape together for a meal, whose dry tongues crack for clean water to drink, who toss and turn to sleep terrified of gunshots outside or abuse from down the hall – they tug on my heart, too. They have to.
Otherwise I have not changed. I have not let my children change me – these wriggling babies whose bodies were once held within my skin, whose hearts beat beneath mine, whose life was sustained by my own.
And they have changed me mightily.
So I have to keep probing this uncomfortable truth. It’s not about me and mine. It’s about yours, and theirs, and all the ones I will never know face-to-face.
It has to be ours.
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?
For those of you who are new here, you might not know that I have a book coming out this fall (eek!!).
Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting (Liturgical Press) is the story of how I came to see ordinary life at home with kids as a way to live out the sacraments we celebrate at church. It’s also a story of infertility and miscarriage and all sorts of stumbles on the path to parenthood.
But mostly it’s the story of how my children have taught me about God in unexpected ways.
Last week I was chatting with a friend about how my letter to couples struggling with infertility went viral and how I struggled to write in the aftermath. After all, our infertility story ended with kids, and that’s what this blog has become: a place to explore parenting as a spiritual practice.
But I kept thinking of all these readers who had written me their own heart-breaking stories of infertility. What words could I share about my life today, crazy in the chaos of children, that would speak to them?
I came away from that conversation with a single clear thought: keep writing what you know is true.
And what I know is true is this: the three small boys who are blessedly napping upstairs while I write – they have become three guides on my spiritual journey.
They are challenging and comforting and constantly coaxing me to ask why.
They make me ask uncomfortable questions about my life and my beliefs.
They give me pause to step back and wonder where God is calling me.
They remind me to slow down and lead me to prayer.
I think of all the wise soul friends who have helped me along the way, and I have to add these three names to my list: Samuel, Thomas, Joseph.
They are the best untrained spiritual directors around.
As part of the practical theology project I’ve been working on for 5 years, we’ve created a video series called Lives Explored in which everyday Christians share stories about their sense of calling – to professional work, to relationships, to people and places.
In part of his story, Ken says this:
I am really a firm believer that God will help you with your life if you are open to it. You have to really be open, you have to listen, you have to look, and you have to expect it to come from the strangest places. Any person you meet, there is something you can learn from them.
I love how this wise woodworker sums up so succinctly what centuries of saints have studied: the mystery of the presence of the omnipresent God. The truth that even toddlers and kindergarteners and babies can teach adults about the divine.
With Ken’s words echoing in my head, I’ll be sharing – this week & next – three things that each of my kids has taught me about God.
If you’re inspired to sit down & reflect on what the people closest to you have taught you about God, please share your thoughts in the comments. Or add a link to your own blog post below and I’ll post a round-up at the end of next week.
What have you learned about how God loves, forgives, calls, and heals –
from your spouse, children, parents, 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.
First, thanks to all of you who sent so much love with my big announcement last week! I’m floored by your support and can’t wait to share my “baby” with you very soon.
Second, I’ve been getting lots of questions on the details (apparently cryptic reflections on liturgical feasts aren’t enough to satisfy your curiosity?) so I wanted to answer the questions I’ve been getting via email and social media.
What’s the title? What’s it all about?
The book is called Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.
I call it a spiritual-memoir-meets-parenting-memoir with a twist. It takes the seven Catholic sacraments as a lens for looking at life with little ones in a whole new light. So it’s a sacramental theology from the ground up – the sticky, Lego-strewn, does-anyone-ever-mop-this-floor? ground zero of parenting.
But the book can perhaps be best summed up by this hysterical – unofficial! – trailer that my brother made me. (Ok, actually it’s nothing like this, but I can’t stop laughing when I watch it.) If anyone can catch every single pop culture reference upon first viewing, I will send you an autographed copy of the book:
Who’s the publisher? When is it coming out?
I’m delighted to be working with Liturgical Press, and the book should be out by early fall 2014. Will keep you posted!
And finally, the #1 question I seem to get regarding the book:
How did you find time to write this???
People always want to know how I do this. (I know I’m far from the only mother-writer who gets these baffled looks.) My guess is that it’s the same way any of us make time for the passions we love: stealing spare moments and carving out corners.
But here are five ways I able to write this book (while raising two young kids, working part-time, and surviving a challenging pregnancy or two in the past year):
1) I slacked off elsewhere. I cancelled my gym membership after our second son arrived, and I’ve felt guilty about the lack of exercise ever since. But something’s gotta give in every season of life, and in this stage with little ones underfoot, working out is what I let go. Physically? Not so healthy. Emotionally and spiritually? I’m much happier if I spend my free time on writing. I know someday I’ll have time for regular exercise again, but for now chasing preschoolers and squeezing in yoga will have to suffice.
Also, housekeeping chez nous took a sharp nosedive in early 2013 when I started seriously working on this project, and it has barely recovered. Don’t look too closely at the bathrooms next time you come over. Trust me.
2) I had lots of help. Being blessed with a supportive spouse who sees my writing as a calling makes this work possible. I took a lot of Saturday mornings to write at coffee shops, and he regularly took on the boys’ bath/bedtime routine solo to give me extra hours to write at night. I couldn’t have done this without him.
But I also asked for help from others when I needed it: I paid for a few extra hours of childcare with our sitter when my schedule allowed it, and I leapt at my parents’ offers to watch the kids whenever we were visiting them. Writing a book is a team effort.
3) I learned when I work best. Once I started paying attention to the natural rhythms of my mind and body, I figured when the best times are for me to do creative work: before dawn, between 10 am and noon, and after 9 pm. Now I don’t try to force myself to write during other times of the day, and I find that flow comes much easier.
Of course, my life doesn’t always align with my creative energy. So I stock up on caffeine and chocolate to work during naptime when I’m home with the kids, or I stick to editing tasks during my “off” hours. But knowing when I find flow helps me stop banging my head against a wall when things aren’t going well: I check the clock and decide when to start again later.
4) I organized against my nature. This might contradict my own advice in #3 (know thyself). But I am not a type-A person. I’d much rather enjoy a lazy day, go with the flow, and act spontaneously. Most of the time that doesn’t jive with running a household or raising kids. So over the past year I’ve forced myself – with gritted teeth – to develop some type-A habits.
I methodically meal-plan every week so I never have to come up with dinner ideas at 5:00. I charted all our household chores and made a weekly/monthly schedule so I don’t have to remember what needs to be done. I still bristle at sticking to these uber-organized systems, but they’ve freed up enough precious moments for writing every day to make it worth it.
5) I stuck to a schedule. This is what happens when a humanities major meets an engineer: one person delights in work plans, the other rolls their eyes. But when I got serious about finishing this book in one year, my husband sat down and helped me make a weekly calendar that would allow me to write and edit every single chapter within the allotted months. (I guess this combines #2 – team effort – and #4 – unnatural organization.)
Bless his heart, he hoped I’d track every hour I spent on the project so that I could know exactly how much time it took to write the book. But I will say that knowing exactly what I needed to work on every week, rather than following inspiration’s whim as is my fancy, made it possible to pull off pregnancy + book in a way that surprised even me.
So there you have it: what it is and how I did it. And what a gift this opportunity has been – I am so humbled and excited by how everything has worked out. I can’t wait to see what this year will bring…
This is the moment I’ve been trying to imagine.
When she unwraps her baby from where she’s been carrying him close to her heart for the miles and miles it took to get here. When he stretches his arms and legs in that instant, jerky way that newborns do, shocked by the sudden shift of space. When the old man reaches out his gnarled hands, trembling at the thought that this could be the One he has been waiting a lifetime to see.
When the mother hands the child over to the stranger.
When she lets her heart go.
. . .
I used to think the Gospel of the presentation in the temple was all about Simeon and Anna.
Those marvelous wisdom figures, the prophetic pair, the ancient elders, the seers seeking their savior. Simeon whispers such strange words to Mary, how her heart will be pierced. Anna can barely contain all eighty-four years of her joy, rushing out to tell anyone who would listen that the long-awaited anointed one was finally here.
But I wonder now about Mary and Joseph, too.
The tired travelers, exhausted from their long journey to Jerusalem. The poor couple, unable to afford anything more than a pair of birds for their offering. The new parents, still bewildered by the birth of their baby.
How did it feel to let him go for the first time? To place him into unknown hands? To hear such surprising words spoken about what he would become?
The thrill and fear of such a presentation.
. . .
There are everyday presentations, too, of course. Opening up to a dear friend over coffee. Dropping off at day care in the morning. Undressing for the doctor’s exam.
The moments when we hand over what is most previous and beloved. When we hope that others will hold our dreams with as much tenderness as our own heart surrounds them.
And so on Friday afternoon, the Friday before the Feast of the Presentation, I slipped the big stack of plain white copy paper, printed with 1-inch margins and page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, into a big envelope. I drove it to the post office, weighed it, slapped on the postage, and listened to it drop with a thud into the bottom of the mailbox. I stood there staring at the blue steel that separated me from something that was safe in my fingers just seconds before.
The book I spent a year writing. The book that the publisher will put out this fall.
A baby of sorts. A firstborn of another kind.
A piece of my heart, pushed out into the world, now in the hands of strangers.
. . .
This is the moment I’ve been trying to imagine.
What it would feel like to be done with the solitary stage of writing. What it would mean to open myself up to the world of edits and critiques and readers. What it would sound like to say I wrote a book and have it be past-tense.
The thrill and fear of such a presentation.
I wanted to share this news here in a thousand different ways – in excitement, in hope, in gratitude, in humility, in wonder, in relief, in disbelief.
But maybe this is the only way I ever could have shared the news – of the other creation I’ve been gestating and readying to birth this year.
Through the lens of another story.
Because that is, at its heart, what I hope my calling as a writer means. That I thrust these small stories of mine out into the world, and someone – maybe you – catches a glimmer of their own life in a new light because of these words.
And if reading is an act of communion, then it must start with a presentation. Of joys and sorrows and laughter and loss and learning all over again what it means for me to be who I am: a mother, a writer, a lover, a child of God.
Which means I have to let go.
And see what comes next.
2013 was a fun blogging year for little moi.
And – perhaps most importantly – I was delighted to turn a few blogging connections into “real-life” (as in, welcome to my messy house! and my wild kids!) friendships off-line.
(To think I still owe all this to a crazy idea I had years ago when I decided to start a blog and tell no one.)
Inspired by the “Most” Posts at Amongst Lovely Things, I decided to dig back through the past 12 months of blogging to unearth a few memorable moments in these five categories:
Post with the most clicks: This is Heavy. But We are Also Strong. I loved that Blooma (a great resource for Twin Cities moms!) picked this post to rerun on their blog this week, because it was one of my surprise favorites this year. I wrote it in my head one night while cutting cantaloupe with my youngest, and I never dreamed it would strike such a chord.
Interestingly, it’s still my page on Prayers for Pregnancy that gets the most views (5,000+ this year, yikes). Believe me, I’m cooking up something new for 2014 on praying through pregnancy…so stay tuned!
Post with the most comments: On Carrying and Missing. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, having miscarriage become such a stark part of our 2013. But it was, and so many of you sent your words of love, and I will never forget any of it.
Post with the best picture: When The Marriage Dust Settles. The jumble of photo booth shots from a family wedding sums up the lovable chaos of our lives right now: all four of us clamoring all over each other, laughing and cuddling and making goofy faces for the camera. And at least one boy grinning upside down in every shot.
Post that was hardest to write: The Gossamer Veil. This was one that made me weep while I was typing, but it might be the truest thing I wrote all year. Ever since I was a child, I have carried with me a sharp, deep awareness of the thin thread between life and death, and losing our baby brought all of this too-much-reality right back to the surface of grief. But I’m so grateful I wrote it.
Post that was your personal favorite: When A Calling Comes Full Circle. I loved that the Christian Century blog network picked up this post, because it strikes at the heart of the work I’ve been blessed to do on vocation with the Collegeville Institute: What does it mean to listen for God’s call? What happens when life interrupts our plans? And how can the paths-not-taken come back around when we least expect them?
. . .
Looking ahead…What will 2014 hold? A new baby in May, thank God. And another big surprise I’m getting ready to birth, too…so stay tuned. (You might just have to follow Mothering Spirit on Facebook or Twitter to hear the news first!)
One thing is for sure: none of this would exist without you, the ones who read what I write. Still such a humbling head-shaker for me. You are the ones I count among the many blessings of 2013, of one more year spent spinning around the sun.
May this last day of December be filled with light and laughter and love, wherever you spend it.
Mama, do the Our Father in French tonight.
He whispers his request as he burrows under the comforter, eyes flashing bright in the dim of his bedroom draped in night. Of course, I agree. And in an instant we’re off. I close my eyes and start to sing, and for a moment I drift back.
The cold stone church, frigid even in summer. The rows of plain wooden chairs with ancient woven seats. The prayers of the Mass turned to poetry in another tongue, the words I committed to heart to keep from flipping through my missal every moment like the obvious outsider that I was, even after a year.
I’ve forgotten so many words from that time – the names of strange vegetables at the market, the polite way to ask for directions, the slang on the corner store magazines. But still the language lingers, if not on my lips then deeper.
Even when I thought I’d left it behind.
. . .
Some choices seem definitive. I dropped the journalism minor when I fell hard for the humanities. I left the English major behind when art history flared its passion. But I could never quit the French. Even when it was impractical, indulgent, unemployable, save for the doctorate too many professors tried to push me towards.
So when I finally had to admit to myself that there was a turning, that the longing was no longer for language, that the tug was towards theology – the deepest of the humanities, the heart of the cultures I loved, the Word before all other words – I had to grieve the loss.
There were dreams – of a Parisian address, of doctoral programs abroad, of years spent pouring through poetry – that I had to let slip away.
Maybe somewhere deep down I wondered if it might bubble up again, if I could come back to the conjugations and the circumflexes and pick back up where I’d left off.
But I never really thought it would happen.
. . .
People would ask sometimes: you’re teaching the boys French, right?
And I’d look up at them with dark circles under my eyes from bedtime battles and mid-night nursing and early morning rising to tug soaked sheets off the crib again, and I’d think to myself: you’re kidding, right?
But then little by little, it started to creep back in.
A nursery rhyme here, a church hymn there. A few cooking words in the kitchen while we’d bake. A simple grace before meals. Then one rainy afternoon I taught the oldest Notre Père and we were off.
Suddenly he was digging out the children’s dictionaries and asking me to tell him words-in-French from his favorite books and correcting his little brother’s toddler version of Frère Jacques.
How did we get here? I’d wonder.
. . .
I’d only grabbed the church bulletin out of habit, something to read for the thirty seconds between strapping the last kid in a car seat and starting the car to drive home. But that Sunday a small notice in the corner caught my eye: French translators needed.
Turns out our sister parish in Haiti was sending a team to visit us this fall. Since they didn’t speak English and our folks didn’t know Creole, everyone’s non-native tongue was the only way to email back and forth.
You’re kidding. I thought to myself. I could actually help them with this from home?
So here I am now, the giant black French dictionary back on the desk, the dusty Micro Robert off the shelf to check verb tenses, even the Google Translate cheat to look up words that didn’t exist a decade ago in my college texts. I’m back in the world of delighting at what translates well and laughing at what’s impossible to culturally correspond, back in the world where we reach across differences through the power of language, back in the world where words matter deeply.
And with each email request that pops in my inbox, I remember how much I love this world.
Would I have had the courage, the confidence, even the chutzpah to blow off the dust and start the rusty wheels squeaking again, if it hadn’t been for these little boys who dragged me back first? It’s a terribly humbling thing, to spend years of your life perfecting a language and then fumble for the most basic turns of phrase years later.
But my son’s Montessori teacher talks over and over about synapses, about stretching out the tiny tendrils of a preschooler’s mind so that years from now, when he comes across rhombus or ovoid or quadratic equation, the synapses will already be reaching out across the divide to let the spark jump that much quicker.
Maybe callings run across these same impulses and energies. When we spend years chasing one dream, plowing into the work and sacrifice it takes to strive for a worthy goal, then even when we turn and take up another direction, the pathways do not close completely behind us. There’s still electricity waiting to leap across the now-dark abyss.
In all my work on vocation, these are my favorite stories. Not I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 5 years old. Not I stumbled into this work, though looking back I can see God’s hand.
But I had this dream once, and I thought I let it go, I thought my life turned in a very different direction, but then it turned out that years later, I did get to follow that dream after all.
So when he cuddles under the quilt and asks me to sing Je vous salue Marie again, I always say Yes.
You never know where Yes will lead.
What a strange place to realize why you write (because yes, by now you must own that you are a writer) – deep in the thick of Wisconsin woods, tucked back by the leafy shores of a wide sparkling lake, waiting in the white clapboard building of an old YMCA campground-turned-college, surrounded by a hundred pastors twenty years your senior (and you the only Catholic for miles, and a lay woman at that), wandering in your own thoughts as the retreat session begins with a call to prayer.
From over your shoulder someone flutters a piece of paper onto your lap as strangers’ throats clear and chairs shuffle to start the opening prayer, and you look down to read these words:
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope -
not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower;
nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through);
nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is Gonna Be All Right,’
but a very different, sometimes very lonely place,
the place of truth-telling,
about your own soul first of all and its condition,
the place of resistance and defiance,
the piece of ground from which you see the world
both as it is and as it could be,
as it might be, as it will be;
the place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
but joy in the struggle -
and we stand there, beckoning and calling,
telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
- Victoria Safford
And you know the prayer must have continued around you, with all those pastors’ kids and smooth-talking preachers warbling on perfect pitch in the summer breeze, sweet enough to break your heart. But you, you have to sit back down into that awkward plastic folding chair and you have to stay with these words, breathe them in, feel them hum against your heart as you clutch the paper in your hands.
Because these words speak why.
Why you started this journey, why you keep tapping these words, why you keep wondering and writing any chance you get – because the only truth you can tell in this maddening world is the story of your own small life.
And because perhaps in telling it, in flinging it out into the void while you retreat, vulnerable and doubting again, you might just hear some faint echo ring to your ears, some tiny rattle of the lone pebble dropped down the dark well.
This well that starts on your own soil, in the middle of your messy backyard, ringed round by little boys who giggle while they spray each other soaking with the cold clear stream of the garden hose.
This well that starts on the surface of the everyday but sinks steadily downward to the deep, to the secrets buried below, to the source of the water that flows beneath us all. The aquifer of human experience, one wise teacher once taught you.
So every day when you sit down to write (because it is every day, it must be, it drags you out of bed every dark morning before the babies stir, every nap time when you sink into the couch to seize the quiet, every exhausted evening once the same boys are tucked bedside again), you write with this aim in mind: to plant yourself at the gates of hope.
To refuse stubbornly to let go, even when the world spins cynical around you and whispers nagging doubts in your ears – no one cares about these questions any more, about God and faith and truth; it’s a waste of time, you know.
To sit tight in the lonely place of truth-telling.
To keep trying to hone the craft, to find the just-right words, to seize the struggles and the searching and the soul and the sacred in this everyday.
To say yes, there is still joy. Always, in the struggle, in the call, in the resistance, in the seeing. There will be joy.
And because all of these things – digging in your heels to hope, never letting go of what you love, teaching truth-telling, honoring the holy, naming the joy – all of this is how your heart is being reshaped into a mother’s heart, too.
For you this writing and this mothering linked arms from the first days and swore a fierce blood promise never to part. And you know they will not.
So even when you are hundreds of miles from the ones you raise, they are still – and will always be – your prayer and the words you seek. For they will always be your joy in the struggle.
They will always be the truth in your words.
How will you celebrate your work today?
Look at laundry in new light to see how every day is a labor day.
Remember the ordinary, extraordinary labor that brought each of us into this world.
Take a page from my pastor on making room for kids in the midst of our work:
It’s adorable, of course, to watch a tall man in flowing robes lean over to talk to a tiny toddler. But sometimes I wonder if we let these interactions change us, if we who are parents let ourselves learn from our pastor.
I admit that I don’t always make such gracious space in my work for my children.
They pull over chairs to the counter in the middle of my dinner prep, and I sigh because little hands will now make a mess in the flour and steal veggies off the cutting board.
They show up at my elbow while I’m writing and ask to sit on my lap, and I grumble because I’m in the middle of finishing an important project with a pressing deadline.
They appear in the middle of folding laundry or sweeping floors or washing dishes, and I mistake the real work for the chore at my hands, not the moment unfolding in front of my eyes…
Read the rest at CatholicMom.com…
Check out our suggestions of hymns and blessings for Labor Day from the Collegeville Institute Seminars.
And these awesome Labor Day prayers written by my friend Genevieve at the USCCB.
Finally, treat yourself to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer on the holiness of everyday work. I’ve loved her music for a long time, but the beauty of her voice and words have become healing for me this past month:
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With bits of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent