the empty due date

I wrote this on the second anniversary of the due date that wasn’t. 

I wasn’t going to share it here. Then I was reminded that we all carry our handful of hard days each year: the death of a loved one, the anniversary of an accident, the memory of a loss, the date of a tragedy.

If we live long enough, our calendars fill with these days. Empty and full. 

How we remember them is what matters. 

. . .

There are no rituals for this, what you’re supposed to do with a day that would have been circled in red and bursting with exclamation points and ticking with excited countdown.

An empty due date.

This day came and went last year, and it comes and goes this year. It will always be yours. You wake up in the morning; you know it is here; and there is nothing to do but go forward.

Maybe you are grumpy or maybe you are weepy or maybe you are just plain pissed at the world. Maybe you lose your temper at the kids or maybe you squeeze them extra tight while they squirm away silly or maybe you find yourself looking into their squinty laughing eyes and realizing that someday you will tell them about this. Someday when they are older.

Maybe you pull out some proof that it happened, because your hands need to hold. A picture of an ultrasound or a card from a friend or a bittersweet beautiful thing you bought to remember. Maybe you light a candle or play a song or try to pray even when the words ring hollow because it feels like today’s darkness should be sacred somehow.

Maybe you carry this day silently, not wanting to tell anyone what you’re mourning. Maybe you confide in a friend who understands, who won’t judge your sadness when the world seems stumped that you still think about it. Maybe you let yourself cry into the collar of your husband’s shirt when he walks in the door, because even if he doesn’t hold the memory of loss in flesh and blood like you do every day, it was his baby, too.

And maybe you simply move through the day’s hours with the motions that keep all of us afloat when we do not know what else to do. You wash dishes and sweep floors and cook dinner and switch laundry from washer to dryer. You catch glimpses of the clock out of the corner of your eye, mentally calculating when this date will depart for another year and not a moment too soon.

You don’t know what to do with an empty due date. No one does.

You just do. And you let that be prayer enough.

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baby’s first holy week

Sweet boy, here we are. In the holiest of weeks.

It all started on Palm Sunday. You solemnly gumming the long green palm in your father’s hands. Your brothers waving their palms wildly around the air (bonus points for whacking a sibling in the eye). Me watching all of you, half wondering why we bother to bring you to church, half realizing that the wonder of Holy Week is to see it through a child’s eyes.

We will take you three boys to church three times this week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. I will prepare for each outing as I prepare for nearly everything as a mom of littles: with low expectations and plenty of snacks. As always, Holy Week will be nothing like what I envision and exactly what I need.

But here is a small secret I will share with you and only you. (Because you are new and mute and thus good at keeping secrets.)

You already know what this week is about. 

. . .

On Holy Thursday we wash feet. You know about this, too.

You know the warm water into which you stretch your wriggling limbs, your eyes darting to bathtub tiles as if you remember this sensation from long-ago, the wet dark warmth of womb. You are slippery in my arms holding you fast over the awkward tub ledge, laughing as your feet dance through clouds of bubbles.

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This holy week, we will slip off shoes and tug off socks and pour warm water over each other’s feet. There is so much of God in this simple truth of washing. How we serve one another in the most basic and bodily ways. How we help to transform dirty into clean. How we bend low to hold what is holy.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Thursday we break bread. You know about this, too.

You know how to lunge for a crust of whatever we’re eating, chasing crumbs around your highchair tray with pudgy fingers. You join us at table now and open your mouth wide for a share of our food. And when you corner a big-enough piece and carefully connect hand to mouth with concentration, satisfaction stretches across your plumpest cheeks.

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This holy week, we will cup our hands to receive the One who came to be bread. There is so much of God in this simple truth of feeding. How we feed the least among us first. How we break ourselves open to become love for each other. How nourished we can be by the smallest taste of the divine.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

 . . .

On Good Friday we kiss what we love. You know about this, too. You are besieged by brotherly affection: kisses smacked on the top of your soft head, arms wrapped fierce around your tender neck, small hands tugging your toes. You erupt in grins when I cuddle your chin and you nuzzle your nose into my shoulder when I kiss you goodnight.

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This holy week, we will wait in line to bend down and venerate a stark wooden cross. There is so much of God in this simple truth of loving. How we lift up what the world overlooks. How we let what is soft meet what is hard. How we give daily thanks for life, even its sacrifices.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we wait. You know about this, too.

You are already resigned to the fate of third children, waiting while someone else’s need is greater or screams are louder. Your wide eyes soak up your surroundings while you wait your turn for attention, quietly filing away whatever you glean from the chaos around you.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of waiting. How we must keep faith through long stretches for a dream to grow. How hope can be the heaviest weight to bear. How love wins despite evidence to the contrary.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we tell stories. You know this, too. You grab clunky board books at naptime as I whisper well-worn words in your ear. You bat the pages back and forth, and a knowing smile curls across your cheeks as we rock to the rhythm of rhymes I memorized ages ago.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of telling stories. How stories make us who we are. How the divine mystery speaks through holy word. How sharing long-ago tales makes them real again before our eyes.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Easter Sunday we sing and we feast. You know about this, too.

You clap your hands for lullabies and Old McDonald, each new verse like an Alleluia of joy. You gulp down sweet peaches and smooth pears, devour messy scrambled eggs and slimy avocado chunks. You delight in music and meals, whatever sweetness is offered to fill you up.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of singing and feasting. How celebration sets all five senses on fire with joy. How we are an Easter people, hard stones of our hearts rolled away to find an empty tomb echoing promise. How we cannot keep from singing.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

This is a hard and holy week. This is a hard and holy life.

What a gift to share it again, anew, with you.

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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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.

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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.

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. . .

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?

how to pray with baby: up all night

Continuing with the practical side of spiritual practices with newborns, here is the 2nd in this series of simple ways to pray while caring for a baby: all day longup all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments. 

. . .

wakingWaking up at night

To pray:

I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I put my hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.

Psalm 119: 147-148

To practice:

Next time you are up with baby at 2:00 am (or 3:00 am, or 4:00 am – or all 3!), think of all those who are also awake at this late hour: employees working the third shift, tired parents tending to sick children, monks and nuns praying the hours.

Pray in solidarity with those who work while others sleep. Pray in thanksgiving to God who is always present, watchful and waiting.

. . .

Rocking

To pray:

… I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Psalm 131:2rocking

To practice:

As you rock back and forth with your baby, let the rhythm set the pace for your prayer.

Meditate on a two-part prayer that matches your movement forward and back.

A-men. Je-sus. Yah-weh.

Or choose the four-part cadence of the ancient Jesus Prayer:

Jesus Christ / Son of God / Have mercy on me / A sinner.

As you connect with your rhythm and breath and baby, let yourself be lulled and comforted as you quiet your own soul within you.

. . .

Swaddling

To pray:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

To practice:

Whenever you wrap your baby in soft blankets to keep her warm or tight swaddlers to help him sleep, think of Mary wrapping her newborn child in love and warmth. Ask for Mary’s guidance to love, protect, and care for your child.

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. . .

Singing

To pray:

But I will sing of your might;
   I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
   and a refuge on the day of my distress. 
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
   for you, O God, are my fortress,
   the God who shows me steadfast love.

Psalm 59: 16-17singing


To practice:

When you sing to your baby, think of someone who sang favorite lullabies to you as a child: a parent, grandparent, older sibling or baby sitter.

Hold their love in mind as you repeat verse after verse. Give thanks to God for the small, simple ways we share love with each other.

And when you run out of ideas for songs to keep you awake while you help baby fall asleep, try a church hymn – an old classic from growing up or a new favorite from today.

Add your voice to the church’s song of praise to God, who is faithful in the morning, all day, and at night.

. . .

Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – in fussy moments!

the forgotten days of holy week

Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.

Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary. 

But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.

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The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.

The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?

Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?

These are the last days. They matter.

Soon we will remember how everything changes.

. . .

The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.

Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.

My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.

Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.

Ready and waiting.

Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.

I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.

And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.

. . .

I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.

I love Thursday, I lean into Friday, I learn from Saturday, I leap into Sunday. But right now are the days before. The days that ask me to pause.

These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).

Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?

The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.

I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.

And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.

morbid? motherhood & mortality

“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”

His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?

We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.

He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.

All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.

What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?

Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.

So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?

. . .

Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.

I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.

So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.

You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.

But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.

Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?

Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.

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So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.

We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.

Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.

But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?

Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?

. . .

Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.

In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.

As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.

But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.

Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.

And children are a part of this journey, too.

This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.

Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.

Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.

Be not afraid.

. . .

I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.

Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.

Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.

As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.

I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.

All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.