until it stays open

God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

You have two choices when you feel it happening.

You can let your heart stretch to the point of ripping open to the beauty and agony of living in this mortal world.

Or you can pull the protective shield back over the vulnerable center.

You can break or you can burrow. I have done both.

Only one gives life.

. . .

This morning I will drive to the hospital early, before the roads crowd with commuters, before pale sun softens dark sky into grey. I will carry my son into the surgery center. I will let strangers wheel my baby away and put him under. I will watch the clock and chew my nails and pretend to read while the surgeon operates on him.

A quick and simple procedure, the nurses promise. He will be fine, logic and lots of wiser people assure me.

But what if? I still wonder.

Always this is the winding worry that wraps around my thoughts. We each know the exception, the unexpected, the fluke, the tragedy. We press the threat away, shove the rare possibility to the farthest corner of our mind.

That cannot happen to us. It will not happen to us.

But still my heart beats and fears to break.

. . .

I think back on The Big Times I had my heart broken. My brother’s death. That awful break-up. Infertility and miscarriage. Friendships forever changed.

I dealt with them well and I dealt with them terribly. We are all works in process.

But whenever I let the heartache change me, when I let my bruised soul stay stretched out so much longer than I thought possible, when I made the grueling choice again and again to let this loss soften my sharp edges into empathy – that was when I discovered God.

As if I were tripping over an obvious root on the path – oh! there you were all along! – and remembering that this was exactly how growth happens: you love, you lose, you live on changed.

Does God break our hearts on purpose? Make us suffer to learn a lesson? Theologically I bristle at these thoughts. This is not the nature of love.

But I do know that something strange and surprising happens when I sit with loss. When I refuse to push away pain. I find God in the midst of it. 

I learn how God’s heart breaks over and over again with ours. I begin to understand again how the mystery of dying and rising is the shape of loving wisdom.

Even when I want to protect myself from pain, small scared creature that I am.

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Today I will open my heart up again in a tiny way to the terror of loss.

Today I will choose to lift up in prayer those who lie alone in hospital beds with no one to worry over them.

Today I will try to remember parents who are losing their hearts and minds right now as their beloved child suffers in their arms.

Today I will make myself sit with the uncomfortable truth that all my children will know pain, loss, suffering and heartache deeper than I dare to imagine for them. None of us are spared this truth.

But today I choose to wedge this heart open with love, too.

I choose to see my oldest son’s sparkling blue eyes and wonder at the gift of his life in mine.

I choose to let him go again into the wide world that can hurt but also heal him.

I choose to give him time, presence, comfort, attention – all the simplest things that children crave – by giving up all of my own.

Letting go and letting our children change us. These are two of the hardest and holiest practices of parenting. It is an unrelenting school of humility, this daily learning to love the creatures we help to create.

But how good it is, too, when our hearts widen beyond what we thought possible. When we see what starts to happen when we stay open.

. . .

He will do just fine with this, his doctor assured me earlier this week.

He’ll do better with it than you will, she added, looking at me over her glasses with a doctor’s wisdom and a mother’s empathy.

She is right, of course. I believe this in my bones.

But if I let my worrying heart break open and stay open – here and now, again and later, a thousand more times through their childhoods and beyond – then maybe I can do better, too.

Maybe I can pull from broken fear and leap into wider love.

i sing it for you

I roared at them tonight.

And when I say roared, I mean bellowed from the very core of my being – the tired, angry, frustrated, exasperated, unheard and unnoticed depths of my body and soul, from which I was completely and utterly and maddeningly sick of having asked, cajoled, coaxed, pleaded, begged, demanded, and commanded them to listen to me tonight. To obey me.

And when they did not, I roared.

I had already taken away dessert when fit upon fit was flung over dinner. I had banished bath once they started fighting with each other and throwing trucks over the banister. I had threatened even to storm out of the bedroom without a single book read, a single song sung, a single prayer whispered.

None of it mattered. None of it made one whit of difference.

So standing there simmering, alone and exhausted at the end of a lonely and exhausting week, I roared at them. I don’t even know what I roared, something stupid about how I was going to yell even louder than they had EVER HEARD ME YELL IN THEIR LIVES if they didn’t just LAY DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP RIGHT NOW DEAR GOD HELP ME I AM LOSING MY MIND.

And as all terrible tyrants eventually learn, tirades tear down even the stubbornest among us.

I stood there in the dim dark (lit only by nightlight, oh it was pathetic) and listened to my angry racing heart throb in my ears and caught the solemn wide-eyed stares of a hundred stuffed animals watching me with pity.

Then one small boy started to whimper into his pillow.

The other reached out to me with thin striped pajama arms, desperate for a hug.

I caved. Of course I caved, a thousand times I caved, oh Christ of my heart, my stupid, stubborn, selfish heart, I caved.

I crawled into bed with one and kissed the warm fuzz of his forehead and whispered for forgiveness and promised to do better tomorrow. I sang him a soft penance of a lullaby. One extra verse, just to be certain.

Then I turned and tip-toed into bed with the other, wrapped my arms around his scrawny neck and pressed my lips to his tiny ear. I told him I loved him for always, even when I was mad I loved him always, even when I was tired and frustrated I loved him always. Did he know that? Yes, he loud-whispered back, yes he knew that.

Then I asked him what I could sing, what sweet song he could hear that could possibly right a night of wrongs, what ancient hymn I could borrow that would help heal the broken words between us.

Lullaby, he replied. I want Lullaby.

So I sang. Lullaby, and good night.

The final verse ended, trailing off with guardian angel promises into the settling dark around us, I turned to kiss his forehead one last time to go.

But as I bent towards his small round face, moonlit from between the curtains, he stopped me.

Mama, do you know what’s funny? Whenever I hear you sing that song to the baby when you’re putting him down for nap? I think you’re singing it to me, too!

Hot tears pricked the corners of my eyes; I caught my breath and held it fast. How can they be real, these children of mine, maddening and mystifying all at once? How can he understand exactly this, without understanding what it means at all?

Oh sweet one, I finally told him, once I let that last held breath slip heavy into the silent space between us. I am singing it for you, too. 

I am always singing it for you. For all of you.

He smiled softly. This I saw clearly, even in the grainy dark of their room.

From the other bed I heard one more rustle of sheets and the flip-flop-turn of a not-yet-asleep brother: Mama, I think that, too. I think you are singing that song to me, too.

We are all echoes of each other, of someone else’s love.

If there is any song I hope to sing, with this small beating gift of a life I still wake each new morning astonished to find offered to me once again, it is exactly this:

I sing it for them. They sing it for me. I sing it for you.

the trash tells the story

A month ago I ran into a friend as we were both rushing into church from the whipping winter wind. She held the door for me, and I sprinted inside, breathing steam. As we shivered in the entryway, trying to warm up, she said, “Oh! I meant to tell you – I read your book. I liked it!”

“And wow, it was really personal.”

I stumbled through an awkward thank you and mumbled some self-deprecating snark about hope my kids won’t sue me for those stories. But as we kept talking and wound our way down the hallway, my stomach slunk a little lower.

Because I’ve heard comments like hers before, and I know what they mean.

You’re telling stories I’m not used to hearing.

You’re writing words I’m not used to reading.

. . .

There are plenty of topics I’ve written about – in my book or on this blog or elsewhere – that could make people blush. Sex, pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, depression, death, and grieving.

(To say nothing of everyday stories of lost tempers, harsh words, parenting fails.)

All of this is part of “parenting as spiritual practice,” in the way I understand parenting, faith, and spirituality. Writing, too. Truth-telling is hard and holy work. Honesty is rough, but essential. Because beauty only blooms when barriers come down and we see each other, face to face.

Sometimes I envy novelists. Fiction is the highest form of writing’s art, in my opinion: not only to tell a story well, but to create characters and craft a whole world. But that’s not the kind of writing I’m called to do. It’s not the story I want to tell.

I’m steeped in narrative theology. When I started reading about it in graduate school, it felt so obvious. Wasn’t it precisely in our lives and our experiences that we came to know God? This is the way I have always understood faith. So I loved finding a body of theology to back up my hunch – that we can find our way to the universal through the personal. That we can find our way to the divine through the human.

And yet.

I’m still wary of sharing too much. My beloved ones become characters in a book when I write about them. I worry about this.

I try to stick to my own story, but lives inevitably intersect – family, friends, strangers. I have to proceed with prayer and care in the ways that I tell a tale authentically, so that I don’t cause pain or betray trust or cross a line.

All in the name of telling a good and true and – yes – personal story.

. . .

My first essay was recently published at Mamalode. It tells a story of the most mundane subject: the trash.

We’ve all got trash, heaps of it. The clinking spill of wine bottles in the recycling bin after a party. The cardboard box bonanza following Christmas cleanup. The Kleenex mountains during cold season, the gift wrap crumbles during birthday week, the pious piles of de-hoarding inspired by spring cleaning.

We empty baskets and drag bins out to the curb once a week. But when do we stop to see what story the trash tells about our lives?

When I finally dragged the whole mess out to the garbage can, sweltering in the August sun, I cried as I dumped its contents into the gaping mouth of the dark brown bin. That was the story of our baby. Gone.

While cramping with cruel empty labor on the cold bathroom floor, I had yanked the wastebasket over toward me so I could throw up. In my panicked haste, I had chipped the smooth curve of its bottom rim on our bathroom tile. Every morning since that day, I have stared at the wastebasket’s chipped edge.

A jagged reminder of the baby that died.

Click to read the rest at Mamalode.com

The only way I know how to write is to tell my own story.

It will be personal. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it might be yours. And you, the ones who read, you are the reason I keep going.

You are the reason I sit down here and try to tell some small truth about what I’m learning on this long walk – of parenting, of faith, of the spiritual life.

You are the reason I’m not afraid to get personal.

Because if something I tell in a story might touch your own life, might help you feel less alone, might let light in through the cracks, then we will change each other for the better. We will help each other become more human.

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we care about the crumbs

In our family’s parish, we eat bread. (This is not a theological discourse on the real presence; this is a simple recipe.)

Each Sunday, instead of the thin white wafers traditional to Catholic communion, our priest breaks brown bread. It is held high in his hands for all of us to see and heaped high on silver plates for all of us to eat. It wasn’t what I was used to as a cradle Catholic. But I have come to love everything about this practice.

I love that the simple bread is baked each week by members of our parish. It tastes like loving service.

I love how our priests have to take time to break the wide flat circles into hundred of tiny squares. It tastes like holy transformation. 

I love that the Eucharistic ministers need the help of altar servers to hold the plates while they offer the Body of Christ. It tastes like living community. 

Most of all, I love what real bread requires of those of us who eat it.

You have to hold it carefully in your hands so you don’t drop whatever small square you’ve given.

You have to chew it carefully and consider what it means to consume the Body of Christ.

And you have to care for the crumbs.

. . .

Since Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (ok, there is theological discourse here after all), we pay particular reverence to the bread-turned-body and the wine-turned-blood.

Watch the next time you’re at a Mass, and you’ll see this. The patient wiping of plates after communion. The careful consuming of every last drop from the chalices. And the watchful care for every last crumb.

Cut back to adolescence. I’d see communion ministers scurry to snatch up a dropped host or rush to daub a spill from the cup, and I’d roll my eyes. Honestly, what’s the point. Is Jesus really in that little speck of a broken wafer? Do we really have to go through all these theatrics? Can’t God take care of himself?

Now flash-forward to present. I’m in a pew with three little children. Three messy, noisy, squirmy children. Three small people often scorned by society as a pesky inconvenience (e.g., a distraction from their parents’ professional pursuits) or reviled as an utter burden (e.g., a constraint of freedom, a drain of finances, a strain on resources).

They are crumbs in the world’s eyes.

And I love that I am part of a church that cares for these crumbs. A church where children are seen and blessed. A church where children are called by name. A church where all parts of the Body of Christ are welcomed, regardless of appearance or ability.

. . .

Every Sunday at Mass I watch the Eucharistic ministers. Whenever their plate is empty and the last person in line has been fed, they look down carefully. They look all around them. They stop and stoop to pick up any crumb they see.

We do not act like this anywhere else. We do not care for the crumbs.

The dirty homeless man with the cardboard sign, the pudgy teenager with Down syndrome, the elderly woman hunched over her walker, the immigrant family speaking a strange language, the drooling adult in the wheelchair – we would rather rush by them all, avert our eyes, busy ourselves with our phones or our conversation, hurry on to anything more important.

We miss the crumbs. And He is there. 

Christ had time for crumbs. Children, women, poor, sick, lepers, outcasts, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, strangers, thieves, criminals. People who were pushed to society’s margins, dumped to the dirty streets, shoved to the dark and desperate corners.

He had all the time in the world for them.

I want to be a part of a church that echoes this truth each time we break bread. That we don’t just celebrate what is whole and beautiful.

We care about the crumbs, too.

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the holy beautiful of right now

The sink is piled with crusty bowls from breakfast and crumbed plates from dinner. Four loads of laundry sit in the silent dark of our upstairs bedroom, waiting to be folded. Piles of Legos cover the coffee table. Two decks of cards are scattered across the living room floor. Half-broken crayons line the kitchen baseboard. Three pairs of boots are flung by the back door in a snowy heap.

And somehow it is beautiful.

I do not see it always. I do not see it often. But there is wild breathing beauty all around me. I cannot escape it in any cluttered corner. I fell in love with a boy in college; we got married on a bright blue day in July; now three more people exist in the world because of us. This strange stunning truth brings me to my knees.

Children plaster our walls with art, hide surprises in our shoes, throw their dirty socks over the balcony even though we’ve told them a thousand times not to. They tumble out of their chairs at dinner because they laugh so hard, and they run around screaming with glee whenever we chase them before bath-time. They tackle each other with hugs and loud-whisper naughty words in each other’s ears, and when all three stop to grin at each other, I feel like my humble heart could actually explode out of my chest.

Right now might be the most beautiful time in my life. And if I don’t notice now, I won’t remember later.

Sometimes I think all my problems are blessings. Too much good work, too many people to love and care for, too much living packed in too few hours. One day there will be quiet and peace and calm control once again, but there will never be the messy, joyful, puzzling delight that is right now.

There is holy beauty in this: a heart and mind filled to overflowing.

So I try to let myself stop. To see, smell, touch, feel, breathe it. All I can do – maybe all that any of us can do – is witness. Notice and delight in whatever goodness, whatever God-ness is thick around us, even in the midst of the heartbreak that is living in this mortal world.

I know tonight my children will wake me from sweet sleep and tomorrow they will drive me batty with whining and every day this week I will likely lose my temper. But I will never once take this grace-filled life for granted.

It is the humblest, holiest gift I have been given.

. . .

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it. What is it that makes the world opaque? It is care.”

– Thomas Merton

when you’ve done everything the wrong way

I sat there squirming in my seat, fingers cramping from writing too fast, frantically trying to scribble down everything she said.

Publicity must done be in advance of publication; six months minimum if you want anyone to notice; early early early is all that matters

A solitary Saturday, a workshop with writers, a warm cup of tea in one hand and a copy of a book I’d written in the other. I thought it had the makings of a perfect morning.

Instead my head spun as the expert kept advising about agents and interviews and networking and advance reviews. While the only coherent phrase I could conjure was that stupid cliché: drinking from a fire hose. Gulp.

When the workshop slammed up against the clock and skidded to a halt, I skittered out of the classroom before anyone else had even snapped shut their sleek laptops. I called my husband from the snowy parking lot, stamping my boots free of slush, trying to laugh it off: I guess I should have been here a year ago. Oh well.

But as I drove home, coaxing my scattered thoughts back into settled silence, all I could think was that it felt so familiar. That frantic sense of feeling so lost, so stretched, so overwhelmed, so far behind the game that had only just begun.

It felt like when I first became a mom.  

. . .

Maybe you are blessed with uber-confident friends, but pretty much every parent I know is convinced they’re screwing up somehow.

I used to think it was unavoidable in these blurry early years, when everything is brand-new and we’re all amateurs and our training is on the job.

So many small stumbles. The night I lost my temper at a sleepless baby only to learn he was cutting shining pearls of new teeth. Or the week I was convinced the toddler was misbehaving and it turned out he had a double ear infection. The days I hollered at one child and the culprit turned out to be the other one.

Mini mistakes in the long run. But in those sinking moments, it still felt like I’d failed the ones who had been entrusted to me. Like I’d done exactly the opposite of what they needed.

But as years passed, I started listening to all those older and wiser and calmer parents, the ones I hope I might become someday. Turns out they feel they’ve done plenty wrong, too. Too little or too late, too much or too long. What can you do but forgive yourself?

Rare is the sweet spot sensation, the celebratory whoop of having nailed it. More familiar is the fumbling, the floundering, the fudging of our own uncertainty under a thin but hopeful veneer. We’re trying. Tomorrow we’re going to try again. Most of the time, that’s enough.

Good things happen – to us, to our kids – either because of what we’ve done or in spite of it. Ditto for the bad things.

So this book stuff? It’s the same deal. Did I follow all the experts’ advice, did I do all the shoulds and musts and needs and have-tos, did I have any clue what I was doing when I first set out?

No. And that will be fine. It will be enough.

. . .

“You only know what you know,” the teacher tried to reassure me when I finally braved to raise my hand and ask what if it’s too late? “If the book came out in November, you can still do something. Probably.” What to do but shrug and smile?

I’ve heard the same consolation before. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know in the past. For what you didn’t do. For choices you made not knowing any better.

Even when it feels like we’ve done everything the wrong way, that moment of realization can still be a gift: the clarity that we’re actually doing something right. Because we’re still going. We’re still doing, guessing, hoping, moving forward, waking up again tomorrow and starting again.

The way winds long – whether it’s parenting or faith or simply trying to live as human in the world. And we’re still on it. We’re still going. We’re still doing plenty right.

. . .

The baby woke at 4 am. I stumbled into slippers and padded down the hall to his room. When I opened his door, he quieted at the sound of my voice. I scooped him up from his crib and felt my way to the rocker. I nursed him as I dozed, then he stirred and I roused to change his diaper. Moves I’ve done thousands of times before.

Only once I’d settled him back to sleep and I turned back to the door to feel for the knob – only then did I realize I’d done everything in the dark.

It’s been that way for two babies now, this knowing how to night-parent by instinct. Moving through the darkness, not even a nightlight to guide my steps, yet doing exactly what I need to do: nurse, change, soothe, love.

If I’d told myself when I was a brand-new mom that I wouldn’t need bedroom lights blazing to figure out how to latch the baby on correctly or how to change a diaper without making a mess, I would have laughed out loud. Impossible.

Now I’m learning to find my way in the dark. No expert taught me that. But it feels just right.

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how to choose life today (wait, you already did)

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…I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life
Deuteronomy 30:19

You already did it today.

When you rolled over and kissed your husband good morning. Or when you threw on that old bathrobe and trooped down the hall to feed the baby. Or when you scrambled eggs for the kids before they caught the bus. Or when you bought your co-worker a coffee on the drive to work. Or when you held the door for the person behind you as you walked into class from the freezing cold.

You chose life.

It didn’t feel like it, did it? The small stuff never does. But right there in that tired moment, that ordinary instant, that moving-on-to-the-next-thing rush, you chose life. You chose Christ.

Every day the choice is set before us a thousand times. Life or death. Good or evil.

Not only in the dramatic decisions or the public protests or the election year ultimatums, but in the thousand tiny choices set before us to do good each day. To choose love. To serve others.

And it matters that you choose life…

Click to read the rest of today’s devotion at Blessed Is She.