how to speak their language

He loves math. I do not. We have to learn how to love each other.

When I say he loves math, I do not mean it as mere preference or interest or opinion. I mean it as the air he breathes, swallowing numbers in hungry gulps, pushing answers back into the swirling world of equations around him.

I mean it as the water in which he swims, life-giving and all-surrounding and impossible to isolate from the basic fact of his existence.

He watches the numbers at the gas pump like a hawk, tallying up how much more we spent last week. He clutches the grocery receipt like a treasure map, rushing in the back door to his toy cash register to add up the sum again. He does division as a kindergartener that I worked on as a fifth-grader.

This stumps me sometimes.

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A few weeks ago when he came out of surgery, barely able to flutter open his eyes, still groggy from anesthesia, he started multiplying the numbers on the monitor screen next to his bed: if you take the oxygen rate times the heart rate, you get 9800. 

The nurse turned, wide-eyed. He’s a math guy! An engineer, maybe? A scientist?

I do not know. He is mystery.

. . .

I never intended to have children to pass on any particular part of myself or my spouse. Heredity is too strange and humility too important for anything else to have factored in.

Yet I still puzzle over how drastically different these children can be. Yes, this one has his nose, that one has my cheeks. But their minds are wildly and blessedly their own.

I cannot even comprehend how differently they see the world, even though each is his own unique product of the equation of same mother plus same father.

Thankfully we are more than the sum of our parts or the product of our parents. How pale and predictable the world would be if our temperaments or talents could be so easily summed up.

But a child who sees the world in numbers? Words fail me.

I know how to snuggle up with our boy who loves books. He and I can pull a pile of tattered paperbacks onto the couch and lose ourselves in a sunny afternoon. I breathe in the warm scent of his hair, dark like mine, and remember hours of my own book-strewn childhood stretched out on the library floor.

I trace the words on the page with my finger like my father did for me. I watch my son’s brain turn and click as he starts to understand how letters make words and words make sentences and sentences make stories. He loves this. I do, too.

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But I cannot choose to connect only with what is easy and immediate. What looks like me or my experience. I also have to meet my children in strange lands and unfamiliar territories.

I must let each of them lead me.

And right now one wants to teach me how numbers are as fascinating as words, how equations are as beautiful as paintings. I make jokes about how I would be lost without my iPhone calculator, but this is unhelpful in the long work of learning to love deeply and differently because of having these children in my life.

So what if one of my sons surpasses me in knowledge long before I feel ready to let him take the lead? So what if another one’s personality seems so different from mine or his father’s that it baffles us at times?

Stepping back and learning from each of them is my daily challenge. And a grateful gift. They remind me that faithfulness, not comparison, is the heart of this calling.

. . .

Years ago I heard the physicist and author Brian Greene talk about how his father encouraged him as a child. Even though they spoke different languages.

He was a composer, musician, singer, vaudevillian. So music was his language. From a young age, I got very excited not about science, but about mathematics. Because my dad taught me early on the basics operations and I became captivated by the idea that by using these little operations, you could do things that nobody had ever done before. My dad would set me 30 digit numbers by 30 digit numbers and have me multiply them, big sheets of construction paper. No one had ever multiplied those numbers before.

His dad didn’t love math, but he loved music. And he loved his son. So he realized that he had to learn to translate and nurture a gift he didn’t himself possess. Or even understand.

This is why I have to learn how to love math (at least a little).

Because each child will need something different from me. Each child will invite me to grow in new ways. Each child will grow into someone beyond my imagining.

And as their parent, I want to meet each of them where they are.

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joy, meet relief

Can you hear it in their voices?

Once you cut through the baffled wonder and divide the nagging disbelief and set aside the stuttering astonishment, there it is: relief.

He is risen. He is risen? He is risen! It’s not a matter of simple punctuation. There are a thousand reactions to surprising news, and the Gospels cover nearly every one. Mary thinks she’s talking to the gardener. John and Peter race each other to the tomb. Thomas can’t believe his eyes.

But by the end of each of their stories, there is always a category shift.

The turn to joy.

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Happiness is often distinguished from joy. One is fleeting; the other is lasting. One is surface; the other is depth.

But here’s a difference I hadn’t noticed until this Easter.

Until I nursed the baby in the wee grey hours of Sunday morning, the baby who had slept all night, finally, blessedly, miraculously slept all night after months of terrible waking. Until my only thought as my whole self relaxed to let him feed was relief.

And then I remembered how joy can come from relief. 

It is not exactly happiness, because we are so worn out that we cannot smile easy. And we are changed by what we have been through, wrung from worry and exhausted from fear. But we still feel this deeper exhale, this turning back toward trust, this unspoken knowledge that we will carry with us a wider, wiser, richer understanding because of the dark slog we have trudged through.

A loved one waits for test results. All signs point to the worst. Then the doctor calls to say, “All clear.” We sit stunned. We exchange glances, barely believing. Then we start to let down toward joy.

The joy that knows this could have ended a thousand different ways, all of them terribly. Yet it didn’t.

The joy that embraces not only a good ending, but a new beginning.

. . .

Each time I birthed my babies, I felt this joy-from-relief, overwhelmed in those spinning moments after delivery, surging with intensity that words fail to capture, a swirl of pain and exhilaration, delight and delirium, disbelief and astonishment. And always joy.

Knowing this moment could have ended a thousand different ways, so many of them badly. Knowing the stories of strangers and friends for whom death met birth in heart-breaking ways.

But then realizing with my own heart, seeing with my own eyes, whispering to my stunned self, that it wasn’t. That we were here and safe and okay.

Deep joy pulsed in each of those delivery rooms, bustling with nurses I barely saw and bright lights that paled around me while I watched a brand-new face blink open to a new world.

I wonder if Easter morning was like this, too.

Running from an empty tomb, scrambling to tell someone else, racing to see a body gone, feeling that heart-racing thump of no, no way, really, yes is this real, can this be? Desperate dreams and wildest prayers and all of them answered – he is not here! he is alive? – but not in ways any of them could have imagined in a million years.

His friends knew the joy that comes from relief. From knowing it could have, should have, would have been so different. Yet here they are. Life is categorically changed, and they are reeling from deepest joy.

Two thousand years later and we are still puzzling to parse out the meaning of that day. I still don’t understand this – the turning inside out of everything that makes sense, the upheaval of existence itself, the strange promise that a shadow of the same waits for each of us.

I do not understand it but I believe it in my bones and every time I feel my body release into the joy that flows from relief, I wonder if maybe we all know what it means to witness resurrection.

To sink into a possibility that you never dared to let yourself imagine, and to discover that it was exactly what you hoped all along.

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 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

lent: what we need is here

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

– from “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry

Deep breath. Eyes closed. Flying leap.

Each new Lent feels like this. Jumping into the unknown. Flinging ourselves into the arms of the divine. Wondering where on earth we will end up.

We know it ends at the cross and the empty tomb. But the deeper journey into these 40 days? It can wind into unexpected places. Darkest corners and lightest hopes.

If we take the journey, we will be led. This is always Lent’s promise.

What we need is here.

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Ash Wednesday starts out this season of surprises.

Churches are packed even though there’s no obligation. Long lines wind down the aisles. Strangers smudge dirt on each other’s foreheads. We tell small children they are mortal dust.

Each year I write about Ash Wednesday. A mother’s prayer to mark the day. A reflection on motherhood and mortality. Thoughts on tragedies global and local that cross Lent’s path.

It is a mysterious and moving day of the year for me. Maybe you feel it, too. The shifting ground beneath our feet. The uncertainty that shudders when we let go of comfort and clinging old ways. I resist change; I need it more than ever.

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Last night at dinner we talked with our kids about subjects rarely broached at supper with young ones. Prayer and penance and poverty. Why we make sacrifices. Why God asks us to share with those in need.

I looked around the table and realized that these are my companions on Lent’s journey: a kindergartener, a preschooler, and a bouncing baby. My life is not a monastery. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Right here in our daily chaos, this is my prayer this year: to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.

What we need is here.

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As I make my plans for Lent, I’m reminded of my own advice to lower expectations, make small time for short prayer, get creative in easy ways. 

One of my favorite Lenten posts is running this week at Call Her Happy – How to Live Lent as A Busy Mom. I’m grateful that Jenna gave me the chance to remember this season is lived within the contours of our own lives.

I try to let go of the expectation that I can pray like a monk in an abbey with all the time, space, and place set neatly before him. That’s not my life. Nor is it my call.

Instead, I can pray like a busy mother. 

I can take two minutes to greet the day with a whispered word of thanks. I can share a short morning prayer with my kids when they wake up. I can bless our food at meals and remember those who will go without today. I can pray with my kids on the drive to school and in the quiet of their rooms before bed. I can slow down in the day’s whirlwind to give thanks for the gifts in my life.

I don’t have an hour to meditate, but I have hours with many small moments I can fill with a word of blessing, praise, or petition. In this season of my life, that is what I have to give.

And I think God, who cares for us all like a loving parent, understands and blesses that truth.

(Click over to Call Her Happy to read more…)

Lent will give us what we need, if we let it. This is the holy, humbling truth.

Deep breath. Head bowed. Ashes traced. Prayers whispered.

What we need is here. 

Here Is The Prayer

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I stir in the dark before dawn. Black trees outlined through our windows slowly sharpen into focus as the sky lightens into blue behind them. I slip between sleep and waking, but reluctantly leave the dreams behind for good. I think of turning towards the prayer book on the nightstand and resting my eyes on a morning psalm.

Then the baby starts to rouse.

Gentle at first, waking as I am, but soon more insistent, his coos rising to cries on the monitor. I slide out from under the warm comforter and pad down the hall to scoop him up, snuggling his fleece covered limbs into the curl of my chest. All I can see in the dim nursery light is his smile.

I forget about the morning litany waiting back on my nightstand. Here is the prayer.

. . .

We laugh in low voices as he get dressed for work. The big kids are still sleeping, and as I splash my face with warm water, I contemplate the sweet prospect of a quiet kitchen and a hot cup of tea. Maybe I could pull out my journal and write for a bit before they wake. I slip on thick wool socks for the cold winter floors downstairs and turn the knob on our bedroom door.

Then I find a small boy waiting right outside, gazing up at me with wide eyes.

I sink to my knees and without a word he folds himself into my lap, clutching his beloved stuffed animal to his chest. We snuggle in the silence for a few minutes, and then he whispers, “Mama, sing ‘Morning Has Broken.’”

I forget about the journal downstairs. Here is the prayer.

. . .

The morning tumbles headlong into a cacophony of kid sounds: laughter and whining and cries and squeals. So many questions and complaints and requests to help, to watch, to get, to come here please.

My head is spinning by noon, and I’m dreaming of naptime quiet and a chance to center my thoughts. I serve their lunch plates piled high with favorite food, and as I sink into my own chair, I’m tempted to tune out while they eat.

Then I see their small faces in front of me, watching me expectantly.

I take a deep breath and smile back. I lean my elbows onto the table and ask them each what they want to do after nap. Soon we’re sharing silly rhymes and they’re teasing each other with nicknames. We share cookies after plates are cleaned, and I give silent thanks for the gift of lively kids at my table.

I forget about the centering meditation. Here is the prayer.

. . .

Bathtime always finds my energy at its lowest. Bedtime is teasing, just around the corner, but there are faces to wash and teeth to brush and nails to clip and pajamas to tug on tiny feet.

I pray for patience as I wrangle the wriggling, giggling boys into the bath. I can almost taste the freedom that comes with closing the last bedroom door. I imagine curling up on the couch with the warm dog burrowed at my feet and a good book to lift my thoughts.

Then they start to splash each other with shouts and smiles.

I can’t help but laugh at their simple delights. The water splatters the walls and soaks my jeans, but their mischievous grins make it all worth it. I remember that this was what we wanted all along – a house brimming with life and laughter.

I forget about the devotional downstairs. Here is the prayer.

. . .

Maybe the secret to prayer with small children is not memorizing the Our Father or teaching them grace before meals or pulling them to church on Sunday.

Maybe prayer is about abiding. About presence. About seeing God in small moments.

The promise we make to our children echoes Jesus’ words of love: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Maybe the prayer we teach them – the practice of God’s presence that we hope will sustain their lives – can be exactly this, too.

Prayer as beholding. Prayer as presence. Prayer as promise.

. . .

After books and lullabies and God-bless-everyone, I linger a few last minutes in the rocking chair with the baby who woke up just as the older two were winding down. His tiny head tucks under my chin as we rock gently, and I savor the sweetness of a baby in my arms. In the dim glow of the nightlight, his pudgy fingers float up to trace my hair. He turns to me with dark eyes smiling.

Finally I glimpse the whole truth, the God-soaked-ness of each moment with them today.

Finally I am here. God is here, too. Here is the prayer.

A version of this reflection originally appeared at Practicing Families

what the presentation means for parents

We have to let go.

We knew that, right? People told us from the beginning. The years fly by so fast and before you know it, they’ll be grown and enjoy this time before it’s gone.

We smiled and looked down at the baby in our arms. We knew they were right but we couldn’t imagine not holding this child.

We knew they would grow up one day, theoretically. They would push us away, they would slam the bedroom door, they would refuse to talk to us. They would probably tell us they hated us one day. (We knew because we did all those things to our parents, too.)

But we still couldn’t imagine what it would really feel like. To let them go.

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So we practice letting go a thousand times.

We let go of their chubby hand for a split second while they take their first toddling step towards the couch.

We slip away for a date night while grandma waves goodbye from the front door.

We walk back alone to the car when the teacher promises they will be fine.

Each time our instinct is to reach out and pull them back to us. Each time our heart and mind are divided between need and want, us and them, now and later. Each time there is no script for when or how. Only the bittersweet truth of time and growth.

And the nagging knowledge that they are not ours to keep forever.

They were never ours alone.

. . .

Today’s Feast of the Presentation is this same practice for the Holy Family.

Here are Mary and Joseph: brand-new, bewildered parents. Here are Anna and Simeon: expectant elders. Here is Jesus: newborn and newly named.

They are all letting go. Mary and Joseph hand over their child into the hands of strangers. These prophets hand over their expectations of what their savior would look like.

And God lets go, too. Lets the Son of Love be brought to the temple, hinting at the heartbreak that will happen one day when Jesus comes back to Jerusalem.

Simeon whispers this terrifying truth to Mary, tries to warn her that you yourself a sword will pierce. But his mother can’t grasp what this will mean for her child. For herself. None of us could.

We can only practice letting go in small ways.

We can only trust that we’ll be given strength for what’s to come. 

. . .

Last year on the Feast of Presentation, I wrote about letting go of another baby, sending my book off to be published and wondering where it would go. For those of you whose hands have now held it, I am humbled. Thank you for reading. 

And to the stranger who wrote these words, you took my breath away. You are the one I wrote it for. There is so much light trying to get in. What a gift when we help each other clear away the grime.