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.

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.

image

start seeing sacraments: reconciliation

Every week I’ll share a few favorite images around one of the seven Catholic sacraments, to celebrate my new book Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting. Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…

sacraments

Here’s the truth about reconciliation. It’s hard to photograph.

(It’s even harder to practice.)

Trying to capture everyday glimpses of sacraments has been a good exercise. Also a challenging one.

Because baptism and Eucharist? I see them daily in bathtime and mealtime. And I can snap a quick shot in a second – my kids splashing in water or sharing bread at our table. I smile and savor a sweet pause of a moment, a reminder of God’s humming presence at work around us all the time.

But reconciliation? That’s the ugly underbelly of family life. Tempers lost, toys thrown, loud protests and louder cries. The angry moments you cringe to imagine a stranger (or even friend) might dare to darken your doorstep and see how things really are in this house when we sin against the ones we love the most.

How could I capture that on camera?

Tender moments of offering repentance and seeking forgiveness are often too intimate and sacred to share. When we are honest and true, sorry and sorrowful, we are also most vulnerable. Which is, I think, why God invites us to practice this sacrament in quiet humility, one-on-one.

But the few images that I found were scenes I stumbled upon. And isn’t that always how God works, in the stumbled-upon moments? Tripping over truth right beneath our feet.

One afternoon I was playing with the camera, charming smiles from the sweet baby cooing on a soft blanket while his brothers squabbled on the porch behind us. Then I realized the arguing in the background had finally simmered down. Now the boys were building something strong and sturdy together.

Here they were – two brothers at each other’s throats all afternoon until they realized they’d never get their project finished unless they worked together.

And I almost missed it because I was focused on what I thought was beautiful.

IMG_1340

Weeks later we were enjoying a lovely, lazy morning on vacation. Breakfast outside, warm sky overhead, nowhere to go and nothing to do but bask in the sun and each other’s company. I went inside to grab my camera and snap some shot of billowing clouds behind Floridian palm trees. Idyllic inspiration.

When I came back out to the cool concrete deck, there was a sobbing son in his father’s arms. Some minor infraction had reduced him to tears; they had to talk it out quietly and calmly. What it means to disobey and apologize and forgive. (I am still learning this; aren’t we all?)

I forgot about the sun and sky; I had to sneak one small memory of what this moment might look like in image, forgiveness in a frame. What it probably looks like every time I, too, bend my wrestling, wanting, wandering will back towards the One who welcomes its failings with comfort and love.

image

. . .

In the Catholic tradition, this sacrament has more names than any other.

Confession. Penance. Reconciliation.

Maybe we need all these hues of the same truth because there are so many movements wrapped round repentance. We speak our sins; we ask forgiveness; we promise to do better. Turn, turn, turn.

Or maybe we need mouthfuls of names to remind us how often we need to practice this lesson of love before our God. Over and over, again and again. Here at home, out in the world.

Everyday reconciliation. Where do you see it?

spiritual practices with newborns: cleaning

Yellow-stained diapers are hanging outside on the deck, bleaching in the sun. Pump parts are drying on the kitchen counter. A rolled heap of wet mattress cover and crib sheet waits on the floor in front of the washing machine. Burp cloths are draped across couches and chairs.

(And as I type this one-handed while nursing, the baby spits up a whole mouthful of milk on my last pair of clean jeans. Ok, my only pair of postpartum jeans.)

If feeding is the most basic of human needs, cleaning up after feeding feels like the most bodily.

Babies bring with their cooing charm every imaginable smell, shape and color of bodily fluid. New parents almost universally agree that they never dreamed so many discussions would revolve around the state of their offspring’s output.

Wiping dirty bottoms, swabbing runny noses, washing soaked sheets, and chasing curdled spit-up – there’s nothing romantic (or even vaguely pleasant) about such tasks required by newbornhood.

But there’s something powerful about the transformation of cleaning up after small children. (Even though it’s always temporary. Another explosion inevitably occurs five minutes later.)

As a parent, you have the power to deal with whatever mess is currently distressing your child. You can change dirty into clean. Wet into dry. Foul into sweet.

As children age into adolescence and young adulthood, the messes become more complicated, less easily fixed. So for now, amid the diaper pails and laundry heaps of the baby stage, there’s something satisfying about being able to help in simple ways.

Even if the cleaning never ends.

wash

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51: 7, 10

In Scripture, there’s nothing small about cleansing. Ritual washings to make humanity holy. Baptism’s plunge into a rushing river. Even a great flood to wash the world anew.

God cleans, clearly.

And for us? Cleaning means forgiveness, too. Transformation. A second chance.

Of course we have to keep practicing it over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Because that’s the deeper lesson we need to learn – of how to live with each other, how to acknowledge what is damaged and dirty, and how to keep starting fresh.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Every new morning that starts with a leaky diaper and a shoulder drenched with spit-up.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. So that I can care for those around me, through their stains and smells and splatters and shortcomings. (And my own.)

There’s a lifetime of spiritual practice in that.

You bathe the baby, and he wets all over the dry towel. You change the dirty diaper, and the fresh one stinks as soon as you snap up the onesie.

The saying holds true: cleaning while your children are growing is like shoveling while it’s still snowing. Cleaning never ends. But neither does forgiveness.

(Good to remember while scrubbing dried spit-up off the car seat buckle. Again.)

. . .

For a new twist: while you’re washing and wiping, think about some struggle or sin in your life that you wish could be scrubbed clean. Or pray for the strength to help your child get through the bigger messes they will face as they grow.

What cleaning task do you find satisfying? What do you dread?

a new year: what to treasure, what to trash

We’ve been playing endless rounds of Sorry!

Two, three, four games a day aren’t enough for my boy’s insatiable appetite. Maybe it’s the combination of cards with numbers (which he’s always loved) and games for a group (which he’s learning to love). Or maybe it’s because beloved cousins introduced him to the board game at the cabin over New Year’s, thus cementing in his 4 year-old mind the concrete connection of coolness that links friends and getaway and holiday.

Whatever the reason, we’re stuck playing Sorry! from morning till night.

There are worse childhood games to get roped into, as any adult who’s ever tried to cheat to end Candyland can attest. And I actually enjoy playing Sorry! (at least the first time or two) because it takes me back to sprawling on the living room floor as a kid, flipping over the dog-eared deck to crow at the cards that would send my younger brothers back home. Even more than Memory, this game offers enough surprise and strategy to hold a grown-up’s wandering interest.

And it makes me wonder if there’s something to be said for saying Sorry! all day long.

sorry

. . .

Forgiveness is the thorniest bramble of the Christian life. Sometimes I dare to dream I could do a decent job at this Christ-following business if it weren’t for this aggravating truth: that love means forgiveness and forgiveness means love.

Instead, I’m much more inclined – as any cerebral introvert will understand – to brood over the times I’ve been wronged. To nurse secret, sullen grudges over the times I’ve been hurt.

I turn them over and over in my mind, these small slights or serious wounds, until my brooding polishes their jagged edges into smooth stones, comforting to hold in the warmth of my palm. Whenever an old hurt arises – when I’m back in the company of someone who hurt me, or when a memory re-surfaces painful words from long ago – I dig around in dusty pockets for these trusty rocks, to trace their familiar outlines once again, to assure myself that I was right in feeling wronged.

But to what end? What good does this brooding and turning and returning bring me? Perhaps it soothes the soft, small child inside who wants the world to go her way. Or perhaps it builds up a false façade of maturity, of look-what-I’ve-endured.

Either way it rings hollow.

There is no love in resentment.

. . .

I love the dawning of a new year: its hope of renewal, its promise of change.

Lately I’ve found the practice of resolutions to be an encouraging inspiration. As in New Year’s past, I’ve made a few that I hope will bring blessing, no matter how much or how little I end up pursuing them. (And since sharing resolutions here has helped me keep them in the past, I’ll try again.)

First, after a year in which I threw myself into a writing project that stole nearly every moment of my scant free time, I want to return to nurturing friendships that too often got pushed to back burners in 2013.

Second, in an effort to be more mindful of the way I spend time with my kids, I want to be more intentional about their faith formation at home. (An effort which you think might flow effortlessly from a theologically-trained mother, but too often tends to stumble over too much head knowledge and too much fear of screwing up.)

As in every year, both of these resolutions spring from an ever-growing desire for a slower, simpler life and the yearning to nurture meaningful relationships with those around me.

But in resolving to deepen love in these concrete ways, I wonder if I’ve pondered how much forgiveness this will take along the way. How often these happy-new-year prospects will ask me to pardon myself and others.

How often I will have to practice saying sorry!

. . .

On January 1st, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Maybe there’s something fitting for our own resolutions in starting the new year by remembering a woman who said yes to great change. Who made a decision that transformed her life. Who let herself be open to the ways God would call her to become something new.

For this feast of Mary, Notre Dame’s FaithND invited me to reflect on the day’s Gospel. As I studied the story from Luke, I found myself returning again and again to this line:

But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

For a woman who must have known deep hurt, who surely heard the cruel words that others tossed behind her back, who had plenty of reasons to become bitter by brooding, Mary chose instead to collect the small gems of beauty and hope. She cast aside the trash of other people’s opinions. She smoothed into tiny treasures the words that she could cling to in darkest hours.

Here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder

I’m in awe of such wisdom and confidence, such trust and courage. What might it mean for my own habits and choices, my own decisions and resolutions?

. . .

A few months ago, I came across these words: “Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”

Such an intriguing twist on our insecurities.

I’ve carried these words with me, trying to muddle out their meaning for my own bad habit of brooding. And I’ve come to this conclusion.

The judgments, comments, even whispers of others only matter to the extent that I respond with love (which is to say, 9 times out of 10, with a heart full of forgiveness.) The opinions of those I cherish, like my children and my friends, should certainly be my business – but only to the extent that I keep trying to respond to them in love, to allow myself to be changed in ways that draw me closer to Christ.

Who is forgiveness, love, and peace.

So I launch into the new year with these questions in mind: What do I treasure? What do I trash?

What serves God and what serves only me? With my resolutions – and Mary’s courage – close to my heart, what changes could this fresh start hold?

courage from the tomb

What took more courage: going into the tomb or coming out?

On Good Friday the thought of going into the tomb overwhelms me. Too much blood and betrayal, too much violence and grief.

I drag my feet, wanting to stay in Holy Thursday where we break bread and wash each other’s dirt away. Yes, there’s betrayal and violence that night, too, but something feels safer in the celebration of service than in the commemoration of death.

When I’m thrust into Friday, it’s painfully dark and the Gospel makes me squirm and can’t it be Sunday already so we can get this mess behind us?

So whenever I close my eyes and try to imagine how Friday felt, the mocking and the beating and the pounding of nails into flesh, I’m awash with wonder at the courage it took Christ to die.

The courage it took to enter the tomb.

But this Easter, sitting in a dark church flickering with small candles of hope, I thought about the courage it took to leave the tomb.

Saturday must have felt so quiet and empty after Friday’s passion. Alone and safe in a cold stone cave. At last. Away.

Was he tempted to stay there? To let the hard work be behind him and the protection of death’s distance keep him safe from those who hurt him?

I used to think resurrection was a fairy tale trick, a golden glimmer from a magic wand that spun breath back into dead bones with a presto-chango burst of brilliance. But maybe resurrection is much more real, much harder.

Maybe resurrection starts with the courage to forgive.

The courage to move past pain and violence and death. The courage to move towards love and peace and life. The courage to walk out of the tomb and embrace humanity again.

I wonder if this is the reason Christ’s friends couldn’t recognize him at first, when they saw him in the garden and met him on the road. Not because he was a magical masquerader, but because he was utterly transformed by the courage that is deepest love. The courage it took to overcome humiliation and abandonment and rejection. The courage it took to forgive.

He looked different because he was different. Love won.

And the life that came from that courage – the life and the love and the hope and the faith and the Spirit that is still humming in so many of our bones – it takes my breath away with its truth.

The way everything is transformed when we live as if love wins.

. . .

So often I’m tempted by the tomb, tempted to stay in the solitude of safety and selfishness when I’ve been hurt. I’m tempted to hunker down against a world that doesn’t understand, that never understood.

But the call to live as an Easter person – to live into resurrection, to say no to despair and say yes to love – is a call that transforms. A call to have courage and let love win and leave the safe quiet and step back out into the world again.

I think of this often when I think of my children. How life will inevitably hurt them. How friends will betray and companions be cruel. How accidents will happen and mistakes be made. How their hearts (and probably bones) will be broken. How they won’t make the team or get the job they want. How people they love will die or abandon them.

Of course it’s not my job to shield them from any of it – it’s never our place to shield from life itself. We cannot hide in caves away from the world outside, content ourselves with licking our wounds from a thousand small deaths. The only thing I can hope to help them see is how to get up each time, breathe deeply, forgive and love again.

Try to let love win.

So my Easter prayer becomes one for courage. To shape a humble life that shows my children something about courage and forgiveness. To bear my own witness, my own small flickering light, to the love that wins.

for the mornings we yell

For the mornings we wake up determined to make it a better day, and then we don’t -

For the times we promise to soak up the sweetness of these fleeting years, and then we wish them away –

For the days we want to fill with laughter and song, and then they’re darkened by bad moods and cross words –

For the meals we make with love and hope that they’ll be enjoyed, and then we grit our teeth as they’re gagged while chewed –

For the playdates we plan to share the long days with good friends, and then we’re annoyed that a sick child screws up our schedule –

For the glossy parenting magazines whose advice we dog-ear with good intention, and then we shove the stack in the recycling bin instead –

For the calm, cool, collected moms we envy when we wrangle our whiny bunch into the grocery cart, and then we glower over how we’re doing worse at this job than everyone else we know –

For the naptimes when we catch up on the world’s news and resolve again to treasure the rare gift of healthy, safe, sheltered children, and then we’re screaming at them by suppertime –

For the eyes that want to look with love and capture how quickly our kids will be grown and gone, and then they narrow with frustration at messes and mistakes and missing shoes –

For the hands that hope to hold and hug and help, and then they clench into angry balls that bang on the kitchen counter when no one listens to us –

For the boiling-over moments when we try to breathe and breathe and not lose it completely, and then we do –

For the nights we try to treasure bedtime instead of tick off the minutes till we’re done, and then we’re flooded with guilt when closing the bedroom door behind us feels like the best part of the day.

For remembering we’re humans raising humans,

for knowing if we teach our children nothing else, we’ll teach them how to bend down and open arms and say I’m sorry because we have to do it daily ourselves,

for the chance to keep screwing up because it means we keep going,

for forgiving ourselves,

and learning slowly how forgiveness takes the shape of a cross – pulled down in love, stretched out in embrace.

For trying again.

For today. For you.

. . .

Today was supposed to be the last in the series, my part to add to the wise women who shared their stories of how they nurture their mothering spirits, how they find peace in the midst of parenting.

But inspired by this dad’s truth spoken here, and a morning that called for this instead of that, I’m waiting till tomorrow to write about calm. Because today I needed to write about chaos.

Because I thought I might not be the only one who needs to hear it.

And maybe you can share it with another mom who needs it, too.