what we hold tight & what we let go

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

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

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

You hold on.

 . . .

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

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

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

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

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

And to learn what to let go.

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

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

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

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

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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

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

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

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

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

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

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

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

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

I hope.

 . . .

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

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

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

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

the hard and the holy

Three times I have held this moment.

A baby in my arms, round-cheeked and solemn-eyed, stretching out his chubby hand towards an ice-cold window, swirls of first snow gusting just beyond the glass.

Three times I have watched.

Pudgy fingers smudging up against the pane, leaving a breath of fogged fingerprints behind. Brow furrowing, steady eyes silently wondering what is this? Cold and hard are not the usual domain of babies, the newest ones whose softest skin we wrap in fleece blankets and cuddle with feathery kisses.

Three times I have felt this sacred hush.

What it means to introduce a child to the world outside, a world which can be hard and cold and harsh and cruel. A fleeting foretaste while still safe in mother’s arms of what it will mean for them to brave the beyond.

Three times I have welcomed this same invitation.

To remember that what is hard can also be holy.

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The book is here. The hard part should be over. The dreaming and the writing and the editing and the re-editing and the waiting are behind me. This new baby is in my hands, and it is rushing headlong into the world, too. Now all should be calm; all should be bright.

Except this is never the way it works, is it? In writing, in parenting, in life.

Right when I thought I had hit that sweet spot – of work and family and home all humming along so much better than I dared dream when I pictured life with three kids – right then was the instant something started to unravel.

The child care set-up that was steady and smooth? Now yanked out from under us. We’re scrambling to re-calibrate, and everything is up in the whirling air.

How to juggle all these callings. How to handle all the good work we’ve been given to do. How to be the partners and the parents we’ve promised to be.

All will be well, Julian of Norwich reminds me, in that nagging, knowing truth of the long view. And I believe this. But in the short term? All ain’t great.

It’s far from the end of the world, but it’s the complicating of our small world as it spins today. Stress sneaks back in; what’s nicely knit unravels; we run on fumes and we run down. I know we will be fine; we’ve been here before and we’ve come through. But still.

This is still hard.

And this is still holy.

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The lesson each baby teaches me, dimpled knuckles banging at snow-streaked window, is that life is always juxtaposed in tensions: soft meets hard, warm meets cold, safe meets scary.

These edges press up against each other all the time, but we lull ourselves into thinking we are confidently on the safe side of calm and control. Instead there is hard, and God is here, too.

So there is holy.

I cannot – will not – say that all that is difficult is divine. There is evil, injustice, abuse, and deceit that cannot be baptized by any best perspective.

But among the few stones of hard truth I have collected about God in the few decades I have been seeking, I know this: God is present.

When it seems it cannot be so, when we ourselves cannot see it, when the whole maddening crowd screams otherwise. God is present.

So whenever there is that too-familiar twisting crunch – of time, of nerves, of expectation, of budget, of hope, of health, of heart – I try to breathe some peace into the space between. To remember how the hard and the holy meet.

To turn over and over in my mind this silent memory of first snow: of each quiet, curious baby perched in my arms, peering out into a world of white, a stark new landscape that covers in strange drifts what was once known.

To see what their fresh eyes see, to feel what their smooth fingers feel, and to trust what their calm wonder trusts. That they are still held.

That we are, too.

seeing stars in sunlight

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

~ 1st reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

I always thought Abram was staring up into a dark night sky, dazzled with stars-as-descendants, breathing in cold crisp air as he tried to believe the impossible for a childless man of his age.

Turns out I was wrong.

Read the rest closely. The sun sets later, as the story slips into Act Two of the fateful covenant, as Abram and God seal the deal over a nighttime sacrifice and a burning torch of hope in the darkness. So the day was likely still bright and blazing when an aging Abram was first asked to trust in stars he could not see.

I’m deeply grateful to Ignatian Spirituality’s Just Parenting blog for this insight that turned this Sunday’s Scripture inside out for me. Because I never realized how the time of day adds a final layer of implausibility to the story: God drags the old man outside into noontime sun, tells him to count all the stars he can see and then trust that he’ll have offspring so many.

Either the cruelest joke or the crucial test of faith: to trust what you cannot see.

. . .

Infertility is the foundation of my parenting.

When I’m sinking into a dreadful day of tired tempers and toddler tantrums, when I’m floundering and grasping for air as I spiral downward, infertility is always the solid ground I finally touch with my toes, the reassuring firm beneath my feet from which I pause and push off to rise, to gasp up to the surface again. I remember and right my thinking:

 At least I have them. At least we were able to have children. At least they exist.

Any small annoyance is relativized in the face of my babies’ being, the sheer graced gift of their lives. No matter the current crisis, my view is widened to the scope of what matters. My momentary maternal failings become but a blink.

I remember that I have the blessing of a bad day as a mother.

Because it means I mother.

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I wonder when these daily, weekly, monthly reminders of the blessedness of bearing children will start to fade. Like the people who live tucked in the foothills of towering mountains or stretched along the edge of the vast sea – I always wonder when they start to take the landscape for granted. Time settles us into the way-it-turned-out as if it were always given. But it is never simply given.

The immensity of what we’re asked to trust, in those rare times when we’re asked to truly trust, only becomes visible later. We see what was obvious only in a different time or season.

But in the blinding sear of midday, when the sweat runs in rivulets down our back, when our necks crick from craning skyward, it is easier to wave it away, shrug off with a sneer.

It is always easier to walk by sight than faith.

. . .

Now the stars are clear as night. Now I start to sense the scope of what I was called to trust when parenthood seemed far from predictable. Now I see the bright sparks against the black sky, the wider span of a greater plan than I could grasp during long months of waiting and wanting and wondering and wallowing.

Did I trust the noontime promise, the prospect of distant lights that would shine brighter when I needed them in deepest dark? Mostly what I remember from our years of infertility is sadness, anger, bargaining with God, weeping with jealousy at others’ good gifts.

But from where I watch tonight, staring out at a winter’s wash of white stars shining through cold darkness, I see clearly. How the wrestling with God, the willingness to trust the divine with my deepest desires, was trust enough for that time. Because it saw me through the heat of day to the calming cool of night.

I wonder what I am called to trust today. What noontime stars am I unable to see, squinting into the sun? What promise of a wider view, a multitude beyond imagining? What prospect so much bigger than my one small life, but of which I am still a part?

I stand at the window watching stars and I marvel at Abram’s trust.

All that he believed he could see at midday.