in which we are all – begrudgingly – images of God

I do not like the experience of pregnancy. There. I said it.

I like the fact of being pregnant. I love the gift of life, the sheer blessedness of getting to bring a child into this world. I love the answer to prayer brought by pregnancy after infertility and miscarriage, the undeserved grace that this is how our story turned out. I love the overwhelming abundance of a healthy pregnancy, knowing that – for now – everything looks good with the baby growing within me.

But I hate the way I feel and think and act while pregnant.

I hate morning sickness that drags months beyond what every expert tells you is “normal.” I hate taking medicine merely to function beyond the overwhelming nausea. I hate the exhaustion that sends me to bed at 8:30 most nights. I hate the nagging back pain and the chronic discomfort and the unmentionable side effects. I hate how big I get so quickly, how eyebrows raise when I tell my due date because it doesn’t fit anyone’s mental math of how I must be packing my hospital bag already.

I do not glow. Mostly I glower.

And then – because of the infertility and the miscarriage and the awareness of how pregnancy and parenthood have brought unexpected suffering to so many people I love – I feel guilty on top of everything else.

No wonder the baby’s estimated arrival date is circled and highlighted and exclamation-pointed on every calendar I can find.

  . . .

When I started reading Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, I was wary. Of course I love a good practical theology as much as the next girl with a Master of Divinity degree, but I could not bear a feel-good tribute to pregnancy’s bountiful blessings.

Thank God, the author felt the same:

Pregnancy is at the heart of God’s work in the world. Pregnant women are the image of God among us. But those truths are sometimes hard to see…I still can’t bring myself to say that I love pregnancy. But deep down, I really do. Pregnancy is a place where heaven and earth meet and constipation takes on cosmic significance. What’s not to love?

I decided I could stomach this spiritual spin on What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Over the past few weeks, Jobe’s book has made me think about pregnancy in a different light.

When I threw up in the kitchen sink on the morning of week 22.

When I admitted to my husband that the maternity coat that was supposed to last the long Minnesota winter was perhaps getting a teensy bit snug.

When my chiropractor whistled and said, “Wow, you’re one tough cookie,” at the last adjustment to relieve my throbbing low back pain.

None of this was what I wanted. But this is simply the reality of pregnancy in my life.

So where is God in all that mess?

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Jobe’s book reminded me to look at the flip side of pregnancy’s suffering. To see the grueling work of creation, the giving work of laying down your self for another, the groaning work of birthing new life into the world.

All of it is shot through with God. But not the doe-eyed Precious Moments God plastered across Hallmark cards and nursery decorations.

The God I meet in pregnancy and the work I do in pregnancy are nothing like I expected. But I’m realizing that they might reveal even more about God’s truth than I want to admit.

God’s work in the world is nauseating. Feed the poor? Care for the sick? Visit the imprisoned? Most of what that demands makes my stomach churn.

God’s work in the world is uncomfortable. Love your enemy? Give all you have to the poor? Forgive 70 times 7? I’m already squirming just thinking about it.

God’s work in the world is unpredictable. Set my people free? Come and follow me? Go and make disciples of all nations? None of those detours were in my plans.

God’s work in the world can be peaceful and glowing, joyful and thrilling. But it can also be tumultuous and dark, unsettling and disruptive.

And if the work we’re called to do in the world is God’s work, and if the image we’re called to bring to the world is God’s image, then I don’t get a nine-month reprieve from this deepest calling of the Christian life.

If I’m trying to see the God-image in other people, I have to try to find it in the mirror, too.

. . .

So maybe it’s ok if strangers stare when they see me pregnant.

Maybe it’s fine if I look bigger or feel sicker than everyone thinks I should.

Maybe if we all bear the mystery and likeness of God to each other – and I believe we do – then pregnant moi is a visual reminder that the image of God stretches far beyond our expectations.

Whether we feel beautiful or broken, sick or strong, there is still God behind our eyes and in our bones.

Even tired mama eyes and aching pregnant bones.

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what i’ve been reading lately

Yesterday I made a shocking discovery.

(For a book-lover, that is.)

I was rummaging through my bookshelves, trying to find something for work. When I suddenly realized that I had completely failed myself.

I hadn’t organized a single book I’d read since I became a mom.

Allow me to back up for a minute. Of course I’ve shelved all the books I own. (It took us months longer to get settled into this new house when we moved with two teeny kids, but I did manage to get that essential unpacking done in short order.)

And of course, the book geek in me did find time to arrange by genre: all the theological tomes together on one towering bookshelf in my office, fiction on another, poetry and art history on a third, and old French paperbacks (and even a few of my husband’s books I let him sneak in) on the fourth. Perfect, right?

Wrong.

Because here’s the full geeky truth: the only way I really want my books arranged is autobiographical.

(When John Cusack whispered that same line about his record collection in High Fidelity, I swooned.)

I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl. I kept books together on the shelf that I read at the same time (because of course, true book lovers are always reading more than one book at a time). And as I finished each book, I filled up the row.

I loved looking back and remembering the serendipitous connections I’d made between books – the novels I read during that winter, the poetry I dove into after that breakup. My life made sense through books, and my shelves told the story.

Fast-forward a few years? I’m lucky if I find a home for the stacks of books that (still, to my husband’s dismay) steadily enter our house year after year. Now when I finish something, it sits on my nightstand for six months, then on the floor of my office for a few more weeks, and finally – in the last-minute flurry before visitors are coming over – I shove it thoughtlessly onto the shelf where most people would assume it belongs: novels with novels, non-fiction with non-fiction, and so forth.

So since I became a mom, I have no record of what I’ve read. Fail.

It’s not looking good for my housekeeping skills to improve any time soon, especially not with #3 on the way. But I realized that I could still chronicle my reading adventures if I only wrote them down somewhere. This combined with the fact that I’ve gotten some of my favorite recent reads from other bloggers’ suggestions means that I’m inspired to pull together the list of what I’ve been reading lately (or rather, what I’ve read since the beginning of this pregnancy, because – let’s face it – pregnant women are obsessed with documenting the passage of those long weeks till the due date.)

And because I’m always eager to get new suggestions, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately, too! Make no mistake: we’ve got many months of winter to go in Minnesota, and I need all the good reads I can get while the wind howls through the blizzard outside.

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading. The beginnings of a virtual, chronological bookshelf of reading through maternity (five years after this journey started):

What I read to make myself feel better at the beginning:

Let’s start serious. Pregnancy after loss is hard and dark. I needed help and hope to boost my spirits during that tentative first trimester. Roxane recommended After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman’s Companion to Healing & Hope, and I was so glad I took her advice. This small book is a comforting collection of stories and suggestions, gentle and healing, about grieving and opening yourself up to the possibility of another child. I’d highly recommend to any mom who’s suffered a miscarriage.

Moving on. (My sense of humor is too twisted to stay in the melancholy forever.) When I was sick beyond anything you’d want to imagine in those first few weeks, I could barely make it out of bed some days (and every evening). Curled up with my trusty Kindle, I tried to find any offerings from our library’s e-collection that would take my mind off the gut-wrenching reality that is me in the 1st trimester. And I came across this – riveting? harrowing? choose your clichéd but true adjective here – story of a catastrophic climb up Mt. Everest in 1996. I flew through Into Thin Air, grateful for every awful description of altitude sickness and toes lost to frostbite, because it reminded pitiful, pathetic moi that things could be much, much worse. Always a good lesson.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows I never care if I’m late to the party. Even if I’m years late. I Don’t Know How She Does It was so hyped when it came out a decade ago that I was too annoyed to read it then. But – returning to pathetic, pukey me confined to my comforter – I came across this one from the aforementioned e-library offerings and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

I hated this book. The narrator’s frenzied descriptions of her life as a working mom stressed me out just reading them. And yet I made myself finish it, just to see how things turned out. (Which proves to you how desperate I was for distraction.) But it’s still worth remembering on my chronological shelf since it does define one image of motherhood our culture is wrestling with today: the woman who tries to have it all.

What I read when I started feeling 2% better:

For me, the second trimester doesn’t bring so much relief as sheer annoyance at how long I’ve been feeling sick. So once I made myself get out of bed for good, I stopped reading solely on the Kindle and started dipping into real paper books again. These three were perfect to read in short snippets (even while pretending to hide in the bathroom – let’s be honest about how mothers of young kids sneak in their reading time).

I adored this book. Katrina Kenison’s writing is beautiful, and I’d long admired it from afar. These short pieces in Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry felt like deep breaths in my frenzied days, like sitting down with a dear friend over a warm cup of tea. Katrina is wise and real and thoughtful and inviting, and when I reluctantly finished the last essay, I started scheming which book of hers to read next. I wish I could buy this for every mom I know.

I doubt I would have ever read this book if a dear friend hadn’t literally dropped it in my lap. I’d heard of Nadiz Bolz-Weber in the blogosphere and appreciated some of her radical Jesus-thoughts as an edgy Lutheran pastor. But I’d never spent any real time with her writing until Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. And I thoroughly enjoyed it: thought-provoking, challenging, laugh-out-loud hysterical at points.

This memoir-ish collection of essays made me think hard about bad habits it can be easy to fall into as a person of faith – I especially loved her notion that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and another group to declare ourselves in the moral right, Jesus usually winds up looking back at us from the other side – and I’m so glad I took a chance on a book I probably never would have picked up otherwise.

Another book I wish I could give to every parent I know, new or experienced. On a rare bookstore jaunt at summer’s end, I found this volume tucked in the back of the poetry section. I tend to be wary of poetry collections (too often full of the schmaltzy and sentimental), but I was drawn to flip through this one and immediately I ran up to the counter to buy it.

Morning Song: Poems for New Parents is a wonderful collection of poems celebrating everything from conception and birth to sleepless nights and first steps. But the poems chosen so thoughtfully by its editors resonate far beyond the first year and the first year. These are classic and contemporary poets reflecting on the deepest truths of what it means to bring new life into the world. I’m still savoring this one.

What I’m reading now:

Eowyn Ivey’s incredible novel The Snow Child almost convinced me that the frozen north is a beautiful place to live. I’ve rarely read such vivid, poetic descriptions of the land as a character (1920’s Alaska, in this case), and her creative spin on the traditional fairy tale versions of a heart-breaking story about a childless couple and the fantastical child that changes their life was simply a gem to read. One of those where you let out the long sigh when you finish the last page, wishing it weren’t over. This book was brutal and surprising and nothing what I expected when I started reading, but I won’t soon forget it.

A few years ago, I started noticing a pattern in my favorite essays from Notre Dame Magazine. They were all by Brian Doyle. Then his words started showing up in reflections in Give Us This Day, and I read his words again in the National Catholic Reporter, and I started wondering why I’d never sat down with a good stack of this man’s brilliance?

Oh my.

This book is incredible. I’m savoring it in small bites, like one of those delicious restaurant desserts you want to make last, and I’m elbowing my husband in bed every other night to make him read one of the zinger reflections in Grace NotesThis will assuredly not be the last book I read by Brian Doyle. (Here are a few teasers to convince you.)

Sarah Jobe’s theological reflection on the joys and pains of pregnancy is the other book vying for my attention on my nightstand these days. In a bittersweet way, her book’s title – Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy – rings even truer for me today than when I first bought it for myself, back in late July when I was delighting in the prospect of baby #3. When we lost that baby, the confusing become much more real. For months I couldn’t pick this book up, remembering how excited I had been to buy it, my treat to myself to get through that first trimester of blech and burden. But just a few days ago I came across it again (at the bottom of a stack in my unorganized office – see, dear reader, it all comes full circle!). And I’m so glad I decided to jump in.

The author writes in such a thoughtful, unsentimental way about the power of pregnancy as an experience of co-creation with God, of bearing the marks of Christ, and of embodying the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit. Much more to say about this in weeks to come; she’s really got me thinking about pregnancy in a whole new light. (Every other page is underlined or dotted with exclamation points, so you know it’s good stuff.)

So there you have it: nearly 22 weeks of reading. What will the next 18 bring? Only the library and my Kindle can tell… But I want your suggestions!

What are you reading these days?

this is heavy. but we are also strong.

Last night before dinner I stole a few minutes while the quiche was cooking to cut up melon for tomorrow’s breakfast. The evening news hummed along on the radio, and the boys played peacefully on the porch. I savored the clean slice of chef’s knife into cantaloupe.

For one of those rare moments, everything around me rested calm and content.

But little ones can hear the sound of silence; it’s the most seductive siren they know. Sure enough I turned back to my cutting board to find the smallest helper had shoved over a chair from the table and was ready to help.

“What you doing, Mama?” he asked, bouncing where he stood.

“Cutting melon. Do you want to eat some?”

“No. I want to hold it,” he insisted, pointing at the half melon waiting on the counter.

“Really? You can try to hold it if you want, but it’s big – be careful.”

(Always with our warnings. As if we could rescue them from falls and spills and snares by words alone.)

He lunged for the melon’s slick surface, its round face bigger than his own head. His chubby hands grasped the sides firmly, and I watched his arm muscles start to quiver slightly as he raised it an inch off the counter.

“Ooo,” he marveled. “It’s heavy!”

“But I am strong.”

. . .

A professor from grad school used to remind us that the measure of maturity was the extent to which one could live with ambiguity. Why do I still find myself stuck marveling in adulthood how often I have to hold paradox in trembling tension? It grates at me not to resolve the unresolvable.

Maturity means growing into the space where the world does not make sense and yet we agree to live there. Because it can still be good. Because there is no other option. Because we are always asked to carry more than we think we can.

A friend who taught kindergarten once told me a story about how he helped his young students understand that they could feel multiple emotions at the same time. They might complain to him that they were tired, but he would remind them that they were also strong.

I loved this idea. I tucked it away in the back of my mind – remember this when you have kids – and along the way of raising our young boys, these dichotomies became part of our family parlance.

You might be tired, but you’re also strong.

You might be sad, but you’re also brave.

You might be mad, but you can also be calm.

And that night at the kitchen counter, marveling at his own small strength, my toddler made the connection for himself. He held the tension in his hands and realized it was nothing to resolve.

It was simply something to hold.

. . .

So many people I know are carrying something heavy these days. Kids who are sick or parents who are dying. Unemployment or overwork. Relationship anxieties or financial stress.

Maybe it’s just the nature of living in this broken world as fragile humans. But sometimes what we’re asked to carry feels overwhelming.

Given that context, my current woes seem eye-roll-worthy by comparison. Morning sickness that drags for months, exhaustion that feels never-ending. I know it means a healthy baby, and I never take that truth for granted. But my younger brothers can attest that I am a notorious wimp when it comes to pain: I whine about the slightest discomfort and will never be described in an obituary as saintly in long suffering.

So nausea and vomiting that feels like a three month stomach-flu-meets-hangover? Not my easiest burden to bear.

Even when I try to keep the complaining to a minimum, the litany is always circling through my head. Please God, make it stop; please let me feel better today; please let me be near the end. 

In my mind, the body becomes the burden.

But this body has borne my babies, birthed my babies, nursed my babies, too. This body has brought forth life, even as I’ve had to lay it down in a thousand small deaths. This body has allowed me to do some of the best work I’ve been blessed to do. 

So while this body may feel heavy now – while it may be a burden when I’m lurching for the toilet or dragging myself out of bed (or shuddering to remember how much bigger I’ll get by pregnancy’s end) – this body is also strong.

Pregnancy’s paradoxes remind me of what a two-year-old already remembers.

That we are each asked to shoulder the weight. But we are also strengthened for the carrying.

. . .

What weighs heavy in your life these days? Where are you also strong?