what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

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I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.

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.

to retrain my instincts

I will never be a first responder.

My knees go weak at the mention of blood, let alone the sight. I have been known to get woozy over a bad paper cut.

So whenever I see photos of police officers running into smoky scenes, racing in when the rest of us are rushing out, I marvel.

At their courage, of course. At their selflessness. But above all at the proof of their training that rewires their instincts to trump our natural fears.

They do what I would be too terrified to do.

Here we go again, I cry to Boston. Another average Monday blown apart by bombs, another everyday event forever redefined by evil’s horror and violence.

I watch the footage and the photos and the Facebook feeds, and deep inside my stomach knots to one gnarled instinct: run. Grab your kids and go off the grid and head into the hills far, far away from this horrid world where children are blown apart at finish lines.

Would it be so hard to leave comfort and convenience behind if I could simply assure we’d be safe?

But I look at those men and women operating under instincts that are not my own, their knee-jerk reactions that run toward rather than away, their hands that reach out to help rather than cover their heads. And I remember that I, too, have to retrain my instincts towards selfishness and self-protection.

Because this way of Christ runs right toward pain and suffering and fear. It runs toward the blood and the brokenness. It runs toward the fear and the evil and the worst of what we humans can inflict upon each other in hate.

This was never a call to flee the world and run away, but a call to rush in where peace and prayer are needed most.

To remember that at every ground zero of human evil, God is somehow there, too – among the cries and the suffering and the death itself.

And I cannot run from that.

the sheer aliveness of tonight

My children seemed even smaller today, even more fragile and fleeting.

The whole day shifted, slanted towards helpless with the news. Everything felt ugly and overwhelming and exhausting, like being punched in the chest, the core of my heart.

What to say or do or think in the face of horror, of violence wrenched upon a corner of the world, so much like our quiet own, ripped inside out and left bleeding and broken and raw beyond recognition?

The second I got home, I gathered my boys in my arms, smothered their hair with my kisses. Tried to breathe in the simple fact of their existence before they squirmed away. Before they went back to laughing, playing, whining, reading. Being.

For the rest of the day I watched them with other eyes.

I watched them from the corner of the kitchen over dinner. From the bedroom doorway during bathtime. From the top of the stairs while they giggled under the Christmas tree.

I lingered on the normalcy of our night, the ordinary peace of our day. And with every regular breath I felt behind it the weight of families in nightmares, the wail of parents plunged into the deepest loss, the darkness I cannot close my eyes to name.

. . .

Both boys’ skin seemed translucent today. The palest flesh on such small bones, warm blood racing through thin veins just below the surface. At any moment, it seemed, their heart could stop and mine would, too. Any ordinary day. A day of school or church or the mall or the movies – nothing feels safe, nothing feels sacred anymore.

After I cuddled the smallest to sleep, I paused for a moment by our front door. The strong steel door, the door with the lock and deadbolt, the door that blocks the world outside. The thought of opening it tomorrow, of grasping their small mittened hands and leading them out into the cold, choked me with overwhelming.

Taking a single step outside seems an act of faith after a day darkened by so much death. It’s an exhausting prospect, this vulnerable living, this throwing ourselves back out into the world, day after day, never knowing how or when the end will come for those we love, whether that end will be sudden or violent or terrifying or tragic. We never know; we can only keep going. And trying and helping and loving along the way. The simplest acts of living, of chosing to go on, become a daring defiance of violence and hatred and evil and horror.

. . .

This afternoon, my oldest, oblivious to the news I’d flipped off, asked with a grin if we could to do some baking. I figured there was nothing else to do but to do something.

We pulled out flour and eggs, peanut butter and chocolate chips. He snuck extra licks from the spoon as we stirred. I figured life’s too short to care about a few germs.

His baby brother grabbed the sugar canister and stuck his chubby fists inside, spilling out handfuls on the floor. I figured why not add some sweetness to the day.

So we baked. We sang. We played piano. We danced in spinning circles before bedtime, once more, always once more, once more extra on a broken, bittersweet, too-much night like tonight.

In short, we lived. And tomorrow, I pray we will get up and do the same.

Tonight my babies are tucked safe and sleeping in bed. But tonight I think of all the beds that go empty, all the places on the globe where violence and murder and fear are all-too-familiar. I think about God’s head bowing low, bearing the weight of all this pain, grieving the world so far from its created beauty.

I wonder how we go on. But I know that we go on. I am left with nothing but the sheer aliveness of the ones I love, the stubborn fact that we are still here.

That we still have to face the test of tomorrow.