Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself. But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires: To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully. To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving. -Kahlil Gibran

Disclaimer: JUST an FYI, lest ye think me heartless and cruel, that I did have Mitch read this to be sure that it was okay with him that I was posting something personal about him, and he said absolutely. Because in general, he is my biggest fan.

_______________________________________________________________________

Winter has ended, finally, finally, finally, and all of the green things have returned, pushing out of their cozy hiding spaces. I have five tulips who have managed to survive my terribly sandy soil and the two gophers that we have been trying to assassinate for the entire year. I don’t know what color any of them are yet (the tulips, not the gophers), but every day the kids and I check on them as they reach up to the sky, each day growing a little stronger, and a little more confident as they seek the sun. Spring always teaches me a lesson about persistence, and strength, and having the courage to believe that staying hidden deep inside the earth is not THE PLAN, and that there is something bright and beautiful waiting for you… but only after the transformation happens.

The trees are getting their leaves back, and every dawn and dusk the air is so full of bird song that it’s a wonder to me that we ever had a winter at all. Some people have accused me of forgiving too easily, and times like these make me believe it. Tonight after the kids went to bed I walked alone to the edge of my backyard where the grass becomes woods, which was all covered in a foot of snow only a few weeks ago, and I looked up at the setting sun.

About a week ago, we put in our 30 day notice with our landlord. Tonight I packed the first box—full of little boy clothes that fit Gavin when we got here, but now are so laughably small that my laughter almost turned into tears. When your babies are babies, one year contains so much living. He was not quite two years old when I brought him here. He had only been walking for a few months, and at first, he couldn’t stand the feeling of the grass on his bare feet. By the summer’s end, he refused to put on any shoes.

My anniversary is in a few weeks, and even though 6 years is typically not considered a milestone, it’s a pretty important day for my family. Because last year, just before our 5th anniversary, we were living in a different house, and I had given that landlord our notice, and I was packing up boxes of Gavin’s and Maren’s clothes, and I was using every spare penny that I had to put down a deposit on a two bedroom rental.

Two bedrooms; one for me, and one for the kids. Because I was leaving their Dad. I was leaving my husband.

My children were my singular focus. Every time someone called, or the few times someone came over, I sent Maren and Gavin out of the room before anything was said. I warned our family members not to bring anything up in front of them, and became an artful conversationalist, changing the subject over and over again if they did. Mitch and I worked out a routine—he would be here to eat breakfast with the kids every morning, and he would come here after work to have dinner with them at night. And then after bedtime, we would go our separate ways. I don’t know how he spent his evenings and nights during those months. As for me, I set my intentions on two words—“And then,”

Finding one task at a time, clearing that task, and then starting the next. Pack the kids. Call the bank. Call our insurance carrier. Say the words, over and over and over again, until they are hardly even words, they are just syllables, they are just letters, they are just sounds, just sounds strung together that could mean anything. They are so casual, they could be just as easy as calling your bank and letting them know that you are going on a vacation and they should be expecting some strange charges. Except the words were, “I am leaving my husband.” And no matter how many times I said it, it felt like the words were not just sounds. They were alien, and awful, and sharp. They walked up my vocal chords, they pulled at my lips and forced their way out, leaving my throat raw and bruised. But I said them, because it needed to be said. Over and over.

And then…

They’re young, I told myself. If Mitch and I worked things out, Maren and Gavin would never even know that this time had happened in their lives. And if we didn’t… well… maybe all they would remember was that one day he was there, and then one day he was gone. Maybe they would grow up thinking that this was normal, that all parents shared meal times and bath times but then lived in different houses.

It’s salvageable, I told myself, and yet, I called a divorce lawyer. We met with a therapist, together and individually. We both wanted to make things work, but in the meantime, I needed to make decisions operating under the assumption that it wouldn’t. And so, I packed up our entire home. I cleaned it, scrubbing every nook and cranny, knowing that the return of our security deposit was the only way that I’d be able to pay rent the next month. And on the rainiest day I can remember, Mitch and his brother moved the kids and I into our little house in the big woods.

That first night was awful. There’s no air conditioning, so I couldn’t bear to close the windows, but there were so many mosquitoes that we all had to sleep underneath the covers in the stifling heat anyway. Every noise outside woke me up, and when the kids finally came running into my room at the crack of dawn, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.

And then we ate breakfast together at our little table. And then– we went outside to explore.

Maren found butterflies, and wild flowers, and leaves that were green on one side and white on the other, so when they blew in the wind they looked like they were sparkling. She put her back against the wall of the house, and then yelled, “Conga-bunga!” and ran as fast as she could all the way down our hill until she hit the woods with the sparkling leaves, and then she would lift up her arms above her head and twirl.

Gavin found frogs, and mud, and sticks and rocks and snail shells, which he immediately began to collect. Every time I washed his clothes, I pulled out new artifacts from his adventures that day. His little legs grew so strong running up and down the hill in our backyard, his shoulders inked golden in the sun. He is not much of a talker (who would be with such a chatty big sister?), but at night, he would look up at the stars and say, “Look at the beautiful stars, Mama.” He doesn’t let me hold him anymore, and struggles manfully when I hold his hand, but he will let me rock him and sing him lullabies.

We all screamed when a snake slithered beneath our trash can. Twice our trash cans (and the structure that surrounds them) have been knocked over by bears. We named the bunnies that lived under our porch Benjamin and Tom, and Maren was delighted to discover that they really do have cottontails. We waged guerilla warfare against two pocket gophers, with little success. The kids painted a million pictures on our front porch. We ate a million popsicles. We fell asleep under a million stars.

While the kids played, I would walk the perimeter of the yard, dreaming about where we could build a coop for chickens and a barn for goats. I wanted to plant fruit trees and become a beekeeper. On the hottest day of the summer, I cooked down about a bazillion strawberries and made jelly. I bought a lawn mower—a reel mower made by Fiskars—telling myself that I needed to buy something that I didn’t need Mitch to help me maintain. Something without spark plugs, without oil changes, without trouble shooting that would involve machinery that I didn’t know anything about. Mitch reminded me constantly that I was definitely smart enough to maintain a lawn mower, but just the idea of looking at an engine was overwhelming to me. So I found a different way. Everything I did was like that—finding a new way. And then finding another.

I knew right away that I was not at all mad enough at Mitch to give up seeing my kids every day. And, eventually, I knew that I wasn’t mad enough at him to keep him from seeing his kids every day, either. Don’t get me wrong—I was angry. So angry that sometimes I felt like I was being burned from the inside out. Angry for so many, many things. Angry at him, angry at myself, angry at my new life, and angry at the one I’d walked away from. Angry at my family back home, who wouldn’t return my phone calls. Angry because my family up here weren’t really my family—they were his family, and the distinction had never mattered until now. Angry because I felt betrayed, angry because I felt like I had worked so hard to build a life for us that was what we wanted, and none of it had mattered. And angry again, double over angry, and exhausted, and broken, and exasperated, and shake-your-fist-at-the-heavens pissed– because I knew I’d have to do that work again. Because I knew—just like the first time we had locked eyes in the choir room ten years ago, and a shiver had gone all through me, and it was all the excitement of meeting someone for the first time, but all the joy of seeing an old friend again after a long absence. I knew.

The only way to deal with the anger, I found, was to let it rage, and hope that when the ashes cleared away the best parts of me would remain. I endured the transformation, and prayed that I would have a blossom and not barbs, and that my petals would not be colored with bitterness, resentment, and pessimism. I didn’t pray that it wouldn’t hurt; but I remember when I woke up one day and realized that it didn’t anymore…. not as much, anyway.

But even so, the old ways were gone by then; and I knew I’d never fit back into what we’d had before. So, one day after dinner, I told him that: just that. We couldn’t have what we had before. We would have to find a new way.

And he said, in a way that still breaks my heart when I think of it, “You are the mother of my children. You are my wife. Even if you had divorced me months ago, in my heart, you’d still be my wife. And I will love you forever.”

And so, with persistence, and with time, the frost receded. The memory of warmth returned, and with that, the winter ended. Spring served as a reminder that we have to be brave. Sometimes we have to believe in something that is unbelievable: that there may be something better after we get through the pain of growing. That if we can allow ourselves to be fragile, vulnerable, weak, and so, so small– but also single-mindedly damn-it-all determined—we can let the transformation happen. We get to bloom.

Tonight, after the sun set, I turned around and looked at my little house in the middle of the forest, where my children were sleeping, where my husband had spent the evening teaching our two year old how to stir fry chicken and our five year old how to peel carrots (“Look at me, Mama! Just like Daddy!”).

I am happy. I am so happy. But I will miss it here. I will miss that woman—that wild woman who rolled in with her two babies in tow and gritted her teeth and found out that, in the end, she’s not half-bad. That she wasn’t quite so awful as maybe some would have liked to have her believe. But I think, though, that if I could talk to that wild woman again, she would shake her head at me and tell me to run. “Are you crazy?” She would demand, “Do you know how hard I had to work to become you? Do you know how badly I hurt, how much I cried, how lonely I was, how scared I was? Move along, lady. You owe it to me to get going, and to live well.

I’ve always known that my kids deserved the best of everything, but for the first time in my life, living in this house, I started to feel like I deserved something good, too, and that it didn’t make it worth any less if I had to go get it for myself. Sometimes, actually, it made it worth more.

I used to say this to myself all the time, “You are smart enough to do this.” Or, “You are strong enough to get through this,” But last summer, my mantra changed. I am enough. I would tell myself, while I snuggled my babies against thunderstorms and nightmares, and studied for graduate school, and worked, and made huge decisions, and mowed my own damn lawn with my own damn lawn mower. What began as a plaintive reassurance that I wasn’t screwing everything up became something else. It was my kick to the teeth of everyone who’d put me here. It was my battle cry, and I said it to Mitch, I said it to the heat, to the mosquitoes, to my bank, to my professors, and to my enemies, who often masqueraded as my friends. Guess what folks? Behold. I am enough.

….I wonder sometimes. Do you think maybe the spring blossoms carry with them a memory of what is was like before the bloom? Of how safe, and tidy, and easy it was to lie dormant under the earth? I wonder if the tulips, even as they are so proud of their bright petals, might also wish that they could go back to the way it was before, when their brightness and their truth were still secrets. I think that they would tell you that both ways are painful, but that the old way was, at least, less dangerous.

But you outgrow it, they would point out. You have to risk it, they would say.

You have to grow. You have to bloom, in order to see the sun.

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Some thoughts on theology, desire, and shame…

The sermon at my church on Sunday was about freedom and the Ten Commandments. It wasn’t just a good sermon, it was a fabulous sermon. I’ve been very lucky in my life to usually follow pastors who have some very awesome things to say.

So, my pastor was talking about freedom and he mentions The Garden of Eden, and how he pictures that to be the ultimate freedom. Adam and Eve were in Paradise, free to do whatever they wanted, as long as they avoided the Tree of Knowledge. And of course, they didn’t, because they’re human, after all, and it wouldn’t make much a story if Eve told that serpent that she was already full on persimmons and pomegranates.

And then he mentioned this, “ As soon as they had eaten it, they were given understanding and realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves.” (Genesis 3:7) The way that I’ve always understood this verse is that they became ashamed of themselves, or embarrassed by their nakedness, and hid from each other and from God. This event in history is known as The Original Sin.

For some reason in church, sitting with my family, it occurred to me that this didn’t make any sense. Because the reason that Eve had been created was to be a companion for Adam. God straight up told them, “Don’t use protection. Have lotsa babies. That’s basically the point.” So… I mean come on. Nice little sunset, nice walk on the beach, a good meal of Not- Wisdom-Granting Foods, and you get the picture. One thing leads to another. I am sure that Adam and Eve were enjoying themselves.

I don’t want to gross anyone out here (my Dad reads this, after all…) but I’m pretty sure that we are all familiar with the concept of two adults living together. Now, I’m an American woman who grew up during the Bush era, so I have been pretty much trained to believe that my own sexual thoughts and desires are definitely wrong and evil, but since falling in love and being in love with the father of my children for many years, I now know that Desire is more than what popular culture would lead us to believe. I’m not saying I’m a saint or that I don’t ever think that I wouldn’t mind running into Dylan McDermott some time when maybe I remembered to shave my legs and throw some lipstick on, but Desire– Desire with a capital D– is totally different with my husband than the way I remember it from back in Ye Olde Single Days. Which is why, as I was listening to this sermon on Freedom at church on Sunday, I realized, for the first time, that there is basically no possible way that Adam and Eve hadn’t already been working on populating the planet. They were innocent, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t Desire each other before they ate the Fruit. It’s simple math, people. And there’s nothing shameful in that.

So, then, I thought, well hey, what’s there to be ashamed of? What was the problem?

So then I started thinking about the word Nakedness. Our society is so superficial that of course, the only way that we’ve ever been taught this lesson is with the idea that they looked at each other, got a little hot and bothered, and needed to cover-up (I read an entire article a few years ago about how women aren’t supposed to wear yoga pants anymore because they are designed to be flattering and men just can’t control themselves. This is the kind of thinking that leads us to believe that sex/desire are bad, bad things). The thought made me roll my eyes a little, to be real, because I’ve only been married for 5 years and there is basically no way I can think of that Mitch could see me that would be embarrassing at this point in the game. Not to play the mommy card, but after your partner has seen you split open from hip to hip and his own offspring pulled from your insides, there just really isn’t much left up to the imagination.

But… there are times that I don’t want him to see me. In the real sense and the figurative sense.

I believe that I am a beautiful person who does ugly things. When we fight, I go too far. Sometimes I’m selfish, and I know I’m being selfish, and a part of me doesn’t even care, as long as I get my way. I don’t tell lies, but sometimes I just don’t say anything. Sometimes pieces of my past catch up to me, and even though I haven’t done anything wrong and all my husband wants to do is help me, I don’t want to be around him. I punish him for things that someone else did.

So I thought about Adam and Eve, and how they had probably been sinning before they ate the fruit. I mean– come on. Are you really telling me that Adam didn’t snatch some grapes off of Eve’s lily pad and not tell her that he took them? Maybe one day Eve was super angry at Adam for not putting the bark down on the toilet puddle, and said some things she shouldn’t have. Maybe Eve really, really liked cashews and was hoarding them and hiding them from Adam. You know, married people stuff.

What I’m saying is, they didn’t suddenly start sinning when they ate the Fruit, at least, I think they were doing the kind of sinning that we recognize as sinning. They didn’t think it was sinning, because they had Take-Backs, because they didn’t know any better. However, by deliberately flaunting God’s command to them, and becoming ‘wise,’ they realized that they had no where to hide. They realized how vulnerable they were. They realized they’d done some messed up things to each other, and some messed up things to God, and they were ashamed.

We are often told that sin is what keeps us separated from God. I’m not saying that is untrue, but I was thinking about Adam and Eve, and how unlikely it was that they hadn’t sinned prior to the Fall, the real difference was that they were innocent. They were like little kids pushing each other in the sand box. They didn’t know any better. Once they did, once they were wise and the veil was lifted, they were more than just guilty. They were ashamed.

So maybe, it’s more than just sin that keeps us from God. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to accept Grace and Forgiveness, and do better next time, the way that little kids do when they mess up.

And maybe that’s what keeps us from each other, too. We don’t want anyone to see us Naked– not truly naked. We’d rather spend hours a day at a gym to get the perfect body, thousands of dollars on our bright, white, straight smile, too much time on our hair and make-up, too much money on our clothes, all of it in the hopes that it will be enough to make someone look past what is REALLY there when we are our most Naked.

Freedom, I think, is being able to be Naked– both literally and figuratively– and not feel ashamed of what you are. That doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It means you’re a beautiful person who sometimes does ugly things. And you’re working on it. And that’s where Grace comes in– Eternal Take-Backs, as long as we promise to try harder next time.

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Because It Needs To Be Said:

It’s been a long time– too long maybe– since last I unleashed my fancy word-dicing ability upon a stranger. I am a little feisty in general, maybe even sassy, but on the whole I conduct myself the way I would want Maren and Gavin to conduct themselves. And today– truly– was no different.

I took my kids to Itasca State Park this morning, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been (and a definite addition to all y’all’s bucket lists). I came very prepared, because the last time I visited was a total Disaster From Mosquito Hell, and I am pretty sure I have PTSD from it.

There’s a million things to do at Itasca, but in general, I take my kids for a little trail walk to the Headwaters followed by a picnic lunch.

 

The Headwaters is a place that is unique. It’s a stream, basically, that comes out of Lake Itasca. What’s special about it is this stream is actually the Mississippi River. For real. The water I was splashing around in today will be in the Gulf of Mexico in like three months. They have the Headwaters set up so that you can walk on a bridge across it, ford the stream yourself, or climb over rocks.

Maren has been there about a hundred thousand times, is a fairly confident swimmer, and what we teachers like to refer to as a Good Listener. So I strapped her into a life jacket, gave her a few reminders (“if you fall down in the water, just stand up.”) Then I put Gavin in his life jacket, and the three of us splashed in.

This was Gavin’s first time in the river, as last summer he wasn’t walking yet. In general, he is the most dangerous combination of baby: he refuses to believe that his age and relatively small size and strength should be considered “limitations”… and he is not afraid of anything. Anything.

Things were going okay– I kept a firm hold on Gavin and one eye on Maren. A few times she slipped on the rocks and my heart was in my throat, but she remembered what I said. She just stood up, took a breath, and kept going. I was so proud of her when she made it to the other side, waved at me, and started back.

But– to be honest– Things started to go downhill fast, as these things tend to do. Gavin saw a bunch of fish. He slipped my hand and toddled merrily away. The water is not deep and the current is not strong, but even so, it swept his feet out from under him and my baby went cruising, face down, for the rocks.

I scooped him–sputtering and then howling– out of the water. I decided this was a good time to look at my clock– almost lunch. So I started yelling for Maren that it was time to make a quick exit.

Now, I think it’s fair to characterize Maren as a very good girl who, on occasion, likes to visit the Dark Side. This was one of those times. She heard me– her little golden head cocked to the side instinctively at the sound of my voice calling her name– and then she decided to pretend I didn’t exist.

So my slippery baby– still howling– and now terrified of the water, was begging to be out out out, climbing up my head like some Siamese cats I have known– and Maren was across the river acting like she was an orphan. So I reacted instinctively also– I got out my teacher voice. The classically trained opera singer voice. The voice that has saved countless preschoolers from running into the street and even one very determined second grade class from completely disappearing on a field trip to the botanical gardens. And boy howdy– I used it.

Maren stopped immediately and came splashing through the water, her shoulders raised and her face obviously abashed. I knew people were staring and I was blushing, but I pretended not to notice and told her to take off her sandals, rinse out the rocks, put on her shoes, and meet me by our bench.

I took Gavin to the bench and wrapped him in a towel, took off his trunks and started getting his clothes out of the bag when I heard the sound that turns all Mothers into Wild Animals. Maren, still in the water, was seriously screaming for help.

I turned around and couldn’t see her– my brain was reminding me that she was in a life jacket, and as long as I could hear her she must be okay– but there were so many people that I couldn’t see her. I was terrified that she had slipped and was somehow stuck.

I unceremoniously plopped Naked Gavin into his stroller– where he perched like a baby bird, clinging to the side, his long legs crunched underneath him, because I hadn’t actually set him in the seat the right way and he couldn’t figure out how to get his legs through the holes. I tore back through the crowd, and found Maren just where I had left her–bawling. I did a once-over to see where she was hurt, while she screamed that she was crying because she couldn’t get her damn sandals on her wet feet.

I will admit that i was angry. I could not believe that Maren had used her “i am in big trouble!” Voice when she wasn’t. But I helped her, stood her up, and turned around, already planning my sermon on Better Solutions for Small Problems. I was met by several stony faces watching me. Some looked away as I raised my eyes, but many– mostly women– were plain out gaping. One woman shook her head. I realized then that the crowd had gathered around Maren when she was screaming because they wanted to watch the spectacle, not because they thought she was in danger.

As I picked her up, one older lady with HUGE sunglasses and a visor (so, basically a Walking Stereotype) said to me– to my face, with my sniffling four year old in my arms,

“Why are you all alone? Don’t you think it’s pretty irresponsible to bring two young kids here by yourself?”

Oh yes. She did.

And Internet, I let her have it.

The audacity. The sheer nerve to tell a stressed-out, solo stranger that she is a bad mom. I have been working with kids for a long time, and every anti-bullying initiative that goes through addresses the wrong issue. Kids are bullies because adults are bullies. This lady was a bully, and this crowd was ripe for bullying. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. No one was going to step forward and tell her to back off. No one was going to offer to help me, or ask if they could help Maren. Whether or not they agreed with her didn’t matter. The crowd was maybe not guilty, but certainly they were complicit. We are a society of people who would rather keep our heads down and stay out of things, and in so-doing we become accomplices to monstrous crimes. 

But not today. Because this lady had picked the wrong runner in the Mompetition.

I am pretty proud of myself for having the presence of mind to put Maren down and tell her to go to the bench. I took two steps closer to that lady, and I kept my voice low. I looked right into her huge sunglasses, and said (you know… With a few colorful revisions…) this:

‘Why am I alone? Do you want to know the answer to that question? Is there any possible reason for me to be alone that would be acceptable to you, or would have made this situation more comfortable? Do you not realize there are about a million thousand reasons for a woman to be on her own with her kids, and NONE of them are irresponsible? What if I were a Dad with his two kids here– wouldn’t you be just gushing over how sweet a guy I was to bring the kids on my own?

Well I am on my own, about 98% of the time. It’s not how I prefer it, but it’s how it is. Does that mean my kids shouldn’t get to enjoy their summer? Should I deny them an experience that is awesome and amazing because it might be a nuisance or a handful?

Did you really think– at any time– that my kids were in any danger? I highly doubt it, considering you didn’t offer to hold my crying baby or to help my daughter with her shoes. Instead, you waited for a whole crowd to be around to point out some Nasty Idea you have in your own brain. Well, aren’t you Mother of the Year 1967? I must have missed that issue of Bat Shit Crazy magazine, where you decided to let all us solo moms know that we should be staying locked up, fenced in, and waiting patiently for SOMEONE to come and tie our shoes for us and give us permission to take our kids to the park. No thanks.

And you want to know the truth, lady (and all ladies)? My parenting style IN GENERAL rides in the zone between unmitigated fear and uncontainable joy ON THE DAILY, so yes, absolutely, I was scared that today was going to be a big mistake. But what would be ‘irresponsible’ would be letting that fear keep me from showing them the world. I don’t need your help judging and questioning and peddling hindsight like it’s your own patented invention. I am all stocked up.’

I marched back to my kids– straightened out poor Gavin and clothed them both, and then handed them both a banana and graham cracker and we started back to the car. I took my time, and it was a very quiet few moments, in which my chatterbox Maren, for once, had no questions. She just drank everything in with her big brown eyes.

I mean, we all get judged. And we all judge. There are times when I see some little girl throwing a total tantrum at a restaurant and I think, “Hm.” And look at my little angels– forgetting that just an hour before they were so wild I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. But how this lady got to be as old as she was and not realize that you CANNOT say things like that to people is absolutely beyond me. Bullying– and really, most social situations– are about an exchange of social currency. An exchange of power. This is why it seems like some kids just don’t succumb to bullying, even if the bullies try. Those kids don’t play the game. When you know who you are, and you are blissfully and courageously yourself, your power isn’t up for grabs. But even so, sometimes it’s necessary to push back when a Power Vampire shows up; to let them know that you get it. You’re on to their game. And sometimes when you win those battles, you win the next one for someone else, too. I can guarantee this lady won’t be picking on any strangers, at least for awhile. She’ll have to settle for terrorizing her own family for awhile.

As we were driving out of the park– Gavin already snoozing– Maren said, “Mom, I love you.”

“Thanks, pumpernickel. I love you, too.”

“Even when you are mad.” She clarified.

“Oh sweetie.” I said, feeling awful. “Of course I still love you, even if I am mad. And I wasn’t really mad at you today, I just needed your attention.”

“I know.” She said agreeably. “I mean that I love YOU. Sometimes grown ups ARE mad. Right?”

“Yes. Sometimes I am.” I said. And she replied, wisely,

“Well. I love you. Even when you fight.”

And that’s about as much of a stamp of approval as I need today. Or any day.

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On Baking Bread and Being a Revolutionary

                The town I grew up in only had a half dozen restaurants, and I remember when Subway came to town. I was super excited because it made me feel very suburban, and I was in junior high and going through that phase where you want so desperately to be from Anywhere Else. My family went, stood in line, designed our sandwiches, and paid. My dad—a cheapskate by basically all accounts—was not just unhappy at his bill, he was downright depressed. “For sandwiches.” He kept saying, shaking his head. “I could build better sandwiches for a week for what it cost for these.”

                None of us said anything about it (because it was pretty typical), but a few days later, lo and behold, in our fridge a huge hoagie sandwich came into being, and Dad was right. It was delicious.

                “Why do people eat at restaurants?” I remember asking. “If we can make food like this at home?”

                My Dad replied with a term so vile that I do not think I can write here without some Mommy group trying to boycott me, but let’s just say that it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me at the time. That’s how my Dad communicates, though, in that Buddha-On-The-Mountaintop way, where it’s almost always a metaphor and it might take years—years—and one night I will wake up and say, “Oh.”

                Wait a minute, you may be saying. This a post about baking bread! What are we even talking about?

                 I’m getting to it, promise.

                Some of you may remember that when I got married, my cooking repertoire consisted of cereal, soft drinks, and the occasional pasta dish (with canned sauce and the world’s cheapest cheese). When I got pregnant, I knew that I was going to have to figure some things out. Because, though it was a very confusing time for me, I did manage to understand that although babies fall under the category of Complicated Machines, at the very least, one thing I was fairly confident that I could figure out was how to feed them. So I taught myself to cook.

                And some of you may remember that I could not breastfeed, which was a huge downer, and that Maren had sensitivities to both dairy and soy, so we had to buy her seriously the World’s Most Ridiculous Formula. The first time I bought it, I didn’t even care what it cost because finally the kid was eating and sleeping for the first time in her young life. But about the hundredth time I bought it, I was wondering if it was so expensive because in order to make it they were having to milk Magical Formula Fairies from the faraway land of Similac.

                And a few months into this, the formula was recalled because there were too many insect parts in it. So the company was all, “Hey guys, better stop buying this crazy expensive powder that your Baby needs to survive until we can figure out how to get the insect parts back to a reasonable amount.”

               I felt so betrayed. Like, I’m basically paying a second mortgage on this damn formula, is it possible that we could get, I don’t know, maybe a version with NO insect parts?

                And as it turns out, No. No you cannot. Because, as I learned more about processed foods, there is no such thing as baby formula, baby cereal, baby food, what-have-you that does not have insect parts, rat feces, human hair, etc, in it. In fact, any food that is made in a factory has an acceptable amount of these things in them, and typically the only time a company will issue a recall is when someone has gotten sick or when an inspector sees a problem with their own two eyes. And by that time—by the time Maren’s formula was recalled—who knows how much awfulness she/we have eaten. First I had to feel guilty that my breastmilk wasn’t getting the job done, and then I got to feel guilty that to replace that milk I was feeding her ground up grasshoppers and rodent poop.

                Ever since then—so for almost five years—I’ve done everything I can to feed my family whole food, real food, food that I prepare in my kitchen, myself, with my own two hands. I promise I am not THAT LADY– Maren and Gavin have had plenty of neon orange sticky nasty Macaroni and Cheese in their lifetimes. I’m just saying that I do what I can. I made Maren’s baby food, and refused to put Gavin on formula (even when I had to fire a pediatrician over the issue. I didn’t make as much baby food for Gavin, largely because he came out of the womb as a first grader and graduated right from breastmilk to table foods, and I imagine that any day now he will graduate from table foods to consuming entire convenience stores, parking lot and all).

                But the other thing that I discovered along this journey, besides all the insect-part stuff, is that industries make money by convincing us that we need them, and most of the time we don’t. Before I was a mom, I think I saw approximately ninety bazillion ads about how I would never possibly make it through my first year of parenting if I didn’t have a freezer full of Pizza Rolls, Ovalteen, and fish sticks (all things that my kids have never had, by the way). The ads are designed to make us feel like we are failures and our children will end up as serial killers that hate us if we serve them canned spaghetti sauce that does not rest on top of the pile of spaghetti, the way that the other canned spaghetti sauce does, or that the embarrassment of being presented with a piece of fruit instead of an Oreo cookie may cause them to grow a third eye. Industries have convinced us that we are too busy, too stressed, and frankly, too stupid, to do some of these things ourselves, and in doing so, they have crippled us. We have largely forgotten how to do some of these things—things that our grandmothers literally would have perished without doing for themselves.

                Don’t get me wrong, I am not a martyr who is seeking out first prize in the over-all Mompetition. Really, at the core, I’m just a kid from the 90s looking for a machine to rage against. And I found that it was really empowering to be able to take some knowledge back and remember that most of this junk that we’re paying someone else to do for us we could do ourselves. And one of the things that is very easy, so laughably simple that it makes me sick that I ever DIDN’T do it, is making my own bread.

                I am not here to debate with you whether or not wheat is healthy (it isn’t). That’s a battle for another day. My family eats a lot of bread—my kids have a sandwich at lunch every day. My husband is a German, and as such he often will eat bread with his bread. He and my son make everything into a sandwich (Seriously. Everything.). My brother-in-law wrote a book entirely devoted to sandwiches. We are bread people.

                Nevertheless, I am by no means a bread-making expert. I can make fancy bread/rolls, and I feel like I’m pretty good at it, not that I’ll be going to any county fairs anytime soon. But what I really wanted to do today was write a blog post for people who say that they can’t make their own bread because they don’t have time or don’t know how. Because you do have time, and oh-my-gawd it’s so easy that I promise you, you definitely already possess the skills to do it.

                Here is my process:

1)      Get a big bowl. Sometimes I use a spaghetti pot if I haven’t done the dishes for awhile.

2)      Put in that bowl: a literal dash of salt, 3 tsps of yeast, 3 cups of flour, and 1 ½ cups of water.

  1. The water should be warm, but don’t get too worried about that. As long as it isn’t super hot or super cold.

3)      Mix that shit up.

  1. Don’t get too worried about this, either. As long as everything in the bowl is together and wet. (Note that if you are fancy, this is the time to add fancy ingredients, like caraway seeds, goat cheese, basil, oats, what-have-you. But if you are not fancy, and usually, I am not either, then just leave it)

4)      Cover the bowl and leave it on your counter.

  1. For real.

5)      The next day at about the same time (or a little sooner, or a little later. It doesn’t really matter), turn your oven on to 450 and let it sit there for half an hour.

6)      When the half-hour is up, go get the dough out of the bowl.

  1. It will smell yeasty and be very sticky. I usually sprinkle some flour over the top of it and then pull it out by working it away from the bowl and into the center. But don’t get too worried about that, either. I have had my four year old do this step and everything turns out fine, it’s just that afterwards your counters and your four year old will also smell yeasty and be very sticky.

7)      Put the dough into a loaf pan.

  1. If you are lacking a loaf pan, pull the dough into a roundish ball, like when you were a kid and played with playdough. Set it on a cookie sheet, or a pizza pan, or even back into the same spaghetti pot (as long as it’s oven safe). Some people prefer this, because the loaf comes out looking like one you might have picked up at the bakery. My favorite, if I am going to do it this way, is to throw down some corn meal on our pizza stone and then sprinkle a little more on top of the Dough Blob before baking. The effect is very Fancy.

8)      Put it in the oven for about 35-40 minutes.

9)      Enjoy the smells.

Pull it out and let it cool, because it is very tasty but it is also very hot. The best way to enjoy this bread, in my opinion, is with real butter and also raw honey. But don’t take my word for it, because I’m basically a poster child for real butter and raw honey, and would eat those two things on pretty much anything. Seriously.

                This will make a small loaf. In the summer, I do this every day during nap time. While one loaf is baking, I get the other one started. During the school year, I make two or three loaves on Saturday (that is, I double or triple this recipe) and bake them on Sunday, and we usually have some heels left over to throw to the birds, turn into bread crumbs or croutons, or feed them to Gavin, because he is like a human garbage disposal, will eat anything, and is not super convinced that food needs to taste good in order to be consumable. You can also turn these loaves into soup bowls by dusting off your Playdough skills and shaping them a little bit.

Fresh loaves don’t last very long, so you’ll have to eat it quickly. Some people get annoyed that fresh bread/pastries don’t last as long as the stuff you buy at the grocery store, but remember that the reason that crap is lasting longer is because it’s full of chemicals. Like formaldehyde.

There are other ways to make bread—obviously—and this is actually not even my preferred method. I actually really like to get elbow deep in a nice soft dough, slap it around a little, and show it who’s boss. But that way does take more time, as well as a little more instruction on technique. And I think that is why it became so easy for industries to be all, “You can’t do this! YOU NEED US! Please, eat this cardboard tasting Bread-ish product and pay us for the privilege!”

So, there you go. If you are a person who has thought in the past that you can’t do something like this, please try it this week and see how it goes. And most especially, if you are someone who knows how to do something else that I don’t know how to do, please write me a blog post about it so that I can learn how to do more stuff. Because I feel like I should be getting Mother of the Year for all the cooking I do, but my kids are decidedly not impressed. Time to learn a new skill.               

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The Art of War

“No energy in the universe can be either lost or destroyed.” The Law of Conversation of Energy

“If you believe that there is even a slight possibility that this could happen in your town, then you need to do everything you can to try to change that. Because it’s always someone else’s town until you wake up one day and it isn’t.” -Father of a Sandy Hook Massacre victim

___________________________________

I spent some time today thinking about explosions. I was never a very good science student, so most of what I know comes from watching Bruce Willis films with my dad back in the Days of Yore. One thing, though, that I understand about explosions is that they seem to happen very quickly, and they seem to be very uncontrollable. And they tend to lead to other destruction—fires, for example. Shrapnel. Or, put another way, trauma. Terror. There’s a children’s story where the protagonist cuts a pillow and lets all the feathers fly into a field. Scooping all of the terror and fear away from all the victims of the Boston Marathon explosions would be the same as picking up all those feathers and then repairing the pillow such that you could believe that it had never been cut.

                I remember reading the law of conservation of energy in high school. It was one of those things that, when you stop to think about it, feels like God is maybe lifting the veil a little bit and letting you glimpse the design of the universe. For a moment, I felt like I was no longer looking through a glass darkly—instead I was understanding one minute piece of the puzzle. It was fleeting, but it has also become an anchor of my faith, and a source of deep serenity in my soul.

                The law states that there is no energy in the universe that can be lost or destroyed. Imagine, if you will, a spider web covered with drops of dew. The web trembles from a breeze. Spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known to man, and yet a slight wind makes it tremble. That wind—that breath of air—that is my daughter’s laughter from last week when her Dad made a funny face. Imagine a snow covered tree in a still and silent forest, and suddenly the snow slides down, as if it is being pulled by a string. That shift in the atmosphere– that is my brother, playing on his timpani to some Shostakovich overture that I have never heard, 600 miles away.

Every night, my grandmother sits down on the edge of her bed and sighs—just as she has done every night for the last 90 years. Imagine how much time and space can be filled with 90 year’s worth of sighs. Imagine all the butterflies that have been forced to change course due to the sheer weight of my grandmother’s sighs.

                People who lose limbs still feel their extremities moving years after they are gone— they describe it as a tingling as if they are moving their toes or fingers, but of course they are not. If you can imagine that—imagine reaching to pick up your coffee cup with a hand that does not exist, but the energy is still there, making your every nerve tingle, the synapses in your brain lighting up with electricity trying to make sense of it—if you can imagine that pain of missing a limb, just imagine losing a child.

 

Even if the parents in Newtown have never heard of the Law of Conservation of Energy, they know what it is. They are living it right now. They wake up at night, their arms aching, and not understanding the ache they sit up in bed and then realize that their muscles are remembering the weight of their children. They sit quietly at the breakfast table and then look up, so sure that they can hear the echo of their child’s last exuberant laugh echoing through the hallways of their house– so sure of it that their ear drums are vibrating. They might not know how to explain it—and maybe they don’t want to talk about it because people will think they aren’t coping very well—and that’s too bad. Because I think that any of us who have loved and lost could tell them that we understand—they aren’t being haunted. Their children are not gone. The energy from every laugh, every smile, every bounding leap and every whispered prayer, it’s still out there in the universe—reverberating. Bouncing back. Over the years it might fade. It might get harder to catch, to recognize, to feel. But it’s still there, always. It cannot be lost. There is no force in the universe that can destroy it. And that is sacred.

                Of course—it goes the other way too. I think about Adam Lanza, or the people behind the Boston Marathon explosions, and I think about the energy that they contributed to our collective story. I think about all the hours they spent planning their attacks, and how every action they took during that time was an action built on hate. On selfishness. On cowardice. On evil. And unfortunately… that energy is out there as well. And now that it is out there, it also cannot be destroyed. It cannot be lost. Adam Lanza was firing his gun for a matter of minutes—but his evil energy has permeated our culture and will live with us for years. People these days always reference 9/11 when they talk about tragedy—and I’m no different. I was 17 years old when the towers fell. I watched on TV from my high school choir room when the second plane hit, and I remember the whole world realizing—in one instant, together—that it wasn’t an accident. That something was happening. And I can still feel that awful deadweight in my stomach.  

                I am a Christian. I am a mother, and I willingly brought children into this world. I am a teacher, and every day—every single day—I see miracles happen with my children, with my students, with my colleagues, with the families that I serve. I believe in the goodness of people, even though there is so much evidence in my personal history and throughout the world to demonstrate otherwise. I believe it because I don’t know how not to believe it—just like I wouldn’t know how to stop loving pancakes. It might not be hard science—but there it is.

                The explosions that I am talking about are designed to hurt people. Their creators focus all their energy into destruction. I wondered today if there was an equal but opposite force—a goodness bomb. A love explosion. If there was some way that someone like me could create a force of energy so strong that 187 people could have a piece of their heart or soul healed, that 3 lives would be saved, and that all the people who were there to witness it would be forever changed—all in a matter of minutes.

                And then I wondered, very cynically, why Einstein couldn’t have spent his time pondering THAT, rather than paving the way to make a nuclear bomb. If a dude gets all pissy and decides he wants to hurt a bunch of people, the answer is literally at his/her fingertips: buy a rice cooker. Build a bomb. Dust off hands. Walk away.

                Not so for us good guys. I spent all day trying to think of one single good thing that I could do—one explosion that I could set off—that would change people for good the way that the explosions hurt people. And I couldn’t come up with anything.

                Which brought me to my next science fact: Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The possibility exists, not necessarily to reverse every action—but to stop every action.

                And then it hit me.

                My friends, our only choice, our only option, is to go guerilla warfare.

                We have to start thinking like the enemy.

How much time did you spend today thinking about how much GOOD you could do? How much time did you spend thinking about healing people, or loving strangers? I can tell you this: probably not as much time as Adam Lanza spent hating us. Probably not as much time as the Boston bombers did planning their attack. Did any of us research a way to heal people that we’ve never met? Did any of us think about events coming up in our cities where lots of people would be present, and think of ways that we could leave these strangers feeling healed, happy, or peaceful? Have any of us dedicated time to finding ways to get our message of goodness to as many people as have ears and eyes, the way that Westboro Baptist Church does for their message of hate?

                The enemy is very focused. Their attention does not waver. The enemy does not allow themselves to be distracted, and does not consider any price too high to pay to do what they set out to do. In a post that went viral yesterday, Patton Oswalt (a comedian) said that “the good outnumber you (the evil). And we always will.” And I agree- I absolutely agree. Just imagine what we could do if we had a fraction of the focus, the desire, the drive what these guys do.

                I feel like the basic attitude in this country amongst the good people is that we are all just doing what we can, just doing our best, just keeping our heads down. I am here to tell you that it isn’t enough. I am here to tell you that if we pushed back with the same energy that Adam Lanza put into planning his massacre, the scales would balance, and the next Adam Lanza might not ever exist. How could he? How could someone have so much hate inside them if they are surrounded by love—love that is not fuzzy or un-definable? Love that is focused, measureable, and above all– active.

                I don’t know how to say what I want to say here. I guess, what I want to say is that this system—you know, the one where we all say we are good people and that we are all doing our best, but none of us are really loving at our full capacity—is not working. In fact, it may be the problem. It’s time to try something new. We have to let it love and goodwill consume us the way that hatred and illness consumes them.

Step 1: Assess your talents, your strengths, and your ability to love.

Step 2:  Assess your surroundings. What is available to you? Where could you go/Who could you engage with?

Step 3: What does your love look like/How can it be measured?  What action can you take?

                Example: buy three loaves of bread, sandwich meat, and sandwich cheese. Maybe some bottles of milk or water. Set up a table downtown and start handing out food, no questions asked. Pray for everyone you see.

                Example: Volunteer at your local school. Do anything, even if it seems stupid. Make copies. Make coffee. File papers. Coach softball. Build a website.

                Example: Give till it hurts. This could mean money. This could mean time. This could mean talents or other resources. Give and give and give, because the opposite is what the enemy does… Take and take and take.

                Example: Go to a place where people work really hard in the heat. Hand out water.

                Example: go to a thrift store and buy shoes. Go to poor schools and drop them off.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t discriminate. Don’t set conditions. Don’t worry about who is scamming the government or who could be working harder or who deserves what. When you love someone you don’t worry about things like that. The haters don’t ask any questions.

The haters don’t discriminate. They have equal opportunity hatred, and it is one-size-fits-all. They are not worried about if their bombs only kill conservatives, or liberals, or women, or gay people, or straight people, or black people, or whatever. It does not concern them who their shrapnel embeds upon. We should fight back with equal opportunity love, and we shouldn’t worry about some of it rubbing off on people we might not really like all that much.

And also this:

Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Because they aren’t.  And my children, and your children, are counting on us.

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A Christmas Sermon

Dear Internet:

                I’ve been feeling a little blue this Christmas season. I haven’t really been able to pinpoint a reason why, but if I’m being honest I think it all boils down to money, which is sad. I know that Christmas isn’t about money—I know that it isn’t about gifts. It never was for me growing up; some years we didn’t get gifts at all and I don’t remember ever feeling sad about it, because for us Christmas was more about being together, making music, laughing…. I felt like it was a day for us to reset ourselves to our default mode before the new year got underway—a day to remind us all of the people that we really wanted to be and the folks that were most important to us.

                This year, though, I’m having a hard time focusing on that. Maybe it’s because I have an almost three-year-old who has started to notice Christmas for the first time, and this will likely be the first Christmas that she remembers. Maybe it’s because I have a new baby, and even though he won’t remember this Christmas I will remember it—and I want it to be beautiful and special just like Maren’s was. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen my brother and father in almost a year, and sometimes when you’re sad and lonely you just want to be somewhere where you know that you are loved best of all.

                Maybe it’s because all of our friends and family members have had good years, are celebratory and happy, are chit-chatting about their awesome plans and trips, and the fabulous gifts they are buying for each other (and for us), and it makes this knot in my stomach pull so hard on my heart that I think it could crush my lungs. Because 2012 has not been a very good year for us—in a manner of speaking, of course.

I line up my blessings—I had a son, I was told that I could have cancer and ended up having a UTI, I was in a nasty car accident and walked away from it with minor injuries, we moved to where we wanted to raise our family and we both got jobs in a terrible job market—and I know that all I should feel is overwhelmed with blessings. But… there’s a practical, cynical side of me that also looks at all those blessings and sees the price tag attached to each. Hospital bills—holy hell, hospital bills. Credit cards we maxed out to move. Nine long, scary months where I couldn’t find a job—any job. Dropping money we didn’t have on interview clothes, then having to upgrade my wardrobe from jeans and company polos to professional attire. Gas prices that keep going up, and up, and up. Student loans entering repayment. Daycare for two kids. And on, and on, and on, infinity plus one.  

This morning as I make my lists and check them twice, I do have the stress attached to being able to afford Christmas presents for my own children, let alone five nieces and nephews, extended family that are precious to us, our parents that have been generous and loving this year, co-workers and bosses and bla bla bla…. But my bigger stress is wondering how I will fill my gas tank to get to work next week. What I will do when Gavin, who grows like we are trying to fatten him up for Christmas dinner, grows out of his latest batch of clothes. How I will possibly avoid defaulting on our student loans, or bouncing a check to our gracious daycare provider. How I will continue to feed my children the healthy meals that they are used to, that nourish Maren’s growing body and provide the right nutrition for the milk that is my son’s only food. It’s enough to drive someone crazy, and I finally have started to realize why some people turn to drinking or other vices to relieve the pressure of this crazy world, of this crazy season; why some people are full of bitterness and ugliness for the hard years they spent trying desperately to turn it all around, only to have a car accident, or sudden illness, or other surprise take control out of their hands. I see now why some people would rather shut out the holidays and spend them alone then have to face other people’s unbridled joy.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is The Little Drummer Boy. The line that always gets me is, “I am a poor boy, too.”  I remember my Dad telling us in some of our harder years, “There will be no Christmas in Mudville.” I don’t have a single bad memory from any of our Christmases—I don’t remember ever feeling disappointed or let down. But I know now, as a parent, that even so, the weight of those years must have pressed heavily on my parents’ chests. They must have put on brave faces Christmas morning, and for days and weeks prior they must have been plotting, scheming, and searching their every resource for a way to give their children a bright and beautiful holiday. Things are tough. It’s exhausting.

                Last night I went to a Christmas concert at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and they had a beautiful backdrop that featured a nativity scene. And I found myself thinking about something I’ve never thought about before—Mary and Joseph, and how they must have felt that day. Maybe it’s because I have a new baby myself, but I found myself feeling so much empathy and big-sisterliness towards Mary, even if you don’t believe in all the supernatural stuff. History tells us that Mary was a teenager—probably only 14 or so. She was pregnant and unmarried—a major no-no in those days. She and her fiancé were ordered by their government to uproot and return to the place of Joseph’s birth to register for taxes—so they dropped everything to make the trip, even though Mary was suuuuuper pregnant (I once drove from Omaha to Minneapolis 8 months pregnant and thought that I was going to die. Imagine taking that trip on a damn donkey).  As the story goes, when they got there, they went to an inn to find a place to stay and it was full, presumably from all the other people coming home to register. So the innkeeper, who I always thought of as kind of a jerk, was actually being kind when he told them they could stay in the barn (which, as I have been informed by one of my pastor friends, was actually probably a cave).

                They went to the barn, and Mary had her baby. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about that—Holy Scripture is decidedly unlike Facebook in that we don’t get to hear any of the grisly details of Jesus’s birth. No TMI. No placenta pictures or snapshots of a dazed looking Mary holding the Prince of Peace while he was still covered in gore while Joseph high fives the anesthesiologist.

But, as mothers, we can imagine and fill in a few blanks. Maybe she had been in labor on the donkey for a few hours, maybe even all day, and either didn’t notice or didn’t complain. Maybe they got to the inn, collapsed in the barn, exhausted, and as Joseph began to snore, she began to feel labor pains. I picture her sitting up, her hands on her tummy, waiting, waiting, waiting… biding her time until she knew that she was right. And then turning to him and saying in a soft, quavering voice that it was time.

What I can tell you as a mother was that she was definitely terrified, and that Joseph was probably not much help (I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but let’s be real. He’s a carpenter, Jim, not a doctor). In fact, culturally, Joseph probably left all together. It’s possible that Mary had witnessed other women having babies at some point, but not definite. In those days, women were a tight knit group—probably Mary had been imagining this moment surrounded by her mother, her sisters, her cousins. Older women with experience that could help her. The Bible doesn’t mention if any midwives were summoned, or if the innkeeper’s wife came out to help. Childbirth is a woman’s battle, after all, and the Bible was written by men. And lo, the King of Kings was born in a barn, amidst manure and dove droppings, spiders and noisy chickens. It was probably dark. It was probably really hot. No matter what the Christmas carols say, I bet that it was awful. It sounds like a total freaking nightmare to me.

                If Mary was anything like me, I bet that she was feeling the kind of full-on happiness and full-on despair that parents are so used to. Flooded with love for her baby, I bet she felt desperate, and frustrated, and terrified for him. I bet that her fingers trembled when she swaddled him, and that tears ran down her face while she counted his fingers and toes, held him against her body to keep him warm, brought him to her breast to nurse. And I bet in her mind she was thinking, “What am I going to do?” Maybe she was even angry with God—by all accounts Mary was a woman of deep faith, but if anything will test your faith it is being totally responsible for the life of someone else and not knowing how you will manage it. I wonder if she, like me, thanked God for this beautiful blessing, but in the same prayer cried out in anger—something of a medieval, “REALLY?!?!?! I delivered the Son of God in a barn?!?!”

                I bet that within a few minutes, that stubborn hard-heartedness set in. I bet that she took a couple of deep breaths, and focused on the joy radiating from deep within her being. I bet she watched his eyelids fluttering, and listened to his breathing. I bet that she told him, right then and there, “Nothing will hurt you, little Joshua, my son. Everything will be all right.” I bet that she was being one of my daughter’s favorite made-up emotions–  scave—when scared is what you’re feeling, but brave is what you’re doing.

                The older I get, the more that I realize that being a parent is the most important work of my life. It’s 20 or so years of super intense, all-in, full-time work. It took me a long time to come around to realize that there are parts of my life that I value deeply that simply will not matter as much to the world as this part of my life. I’m a good singer, I’m a decent writer, I’m a very good teacher, but all of those vocations are just background noise for the Big Show. I am Maren and Gavin’s mother. There is no word holier to me than “mama.” That’s my real job.

                Don’t get me wrong—I am no Mary. My children are not Jesus, although it is amusing to imagine the toddler Jesus refusing to potty train (ahem). We all entertain ideas that our children will grow up to cure cancer or invoke world peace, but the truth is that we are just as fiercely proud of them when they end up becoming teachers and business consultants, musicians and parents. Regardless… they are like royalty. Because they are the best hope for our future.  I could not love my children any more if an angel had come to me in a dream and told me what they would become. I love them because they are.

                And the amazing thing about being a child—they don’t know about my stress. They don’t know that I’m scared. They don’t know that sometimes I feel lonely, or beaten down, or disappointed with how things have turned out. They love me, too. Because I am their mama. I am their safe place. I don’t know if Jesus knew as a newborn who he was. But I know that when he opened his eyes and saw his mother, he knew who she was. Because that is part of the magical journey that is parenthood. We recognize each other. We know. In a world of surprises and doubt—it’s a certainty.

                Did you know that the word “Amen” means “so be it” (or, for you trekkies: “make it so.”) When I found that out, I felt like it was kind of bossy. I felt like God is the one who gets to say “so be it,” and we are the ones who deal with whatever-so-becomes. We don’t tell God what to do—we tell him what we’d like and we thank him for what we have and we hope for good things to keep on coming.

                But last night at the concert, while I was listening to hymns and thinking all of my melancholy thoughts, I thought that maybe it’s more of a supplication than I had thought before. More of a ‘let it be so’ than a ‘so be it.’ I thought about the word, ‘hope,’ and what it means. I thought about prayer, and how much of our prayers are tenuous deals about such silly things struck with the creator of the universe. I looked down at my hands in my lap. I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt better.

                Here is a lyric from one of my favorite songs last night:

                “In your goodness, you have made us to hear the music of the world. The voices of loved ones reveal to us that you are in our midst. A divine voice sings through all creation. Alleluia. Amen.”

                The night of my car accident, I was lying on the couch with my eyes closed, trying not to sleep because of my concussion, trying not to feel the pain that I couldn’t treat because I am breastfeeding, and trying to be happy to be alive even though what I was really feeling was fear for how we were going to get through the next year without declaring bankruptcy. And Mitch—my rock—said, in despair, “What is God trying to teach us?”

                When you have a baby, there is a scary silent moment after they are born when you are waiting to hear them cry—the cry means that their soft, unused lungs have swept into action. Neither of my children were in any particular danger when they were born, but even so that silence stretches on and on. Everyone in the room gets quiet while you wait—and it’s only a couple of seconds in most cases, but it feels like an eternity. With both my children, I felt that that first cry was their declaration, “I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!” Hearing their voices for the first time was more of an affirmation of faith than anything I had experienced in my life. Being in the birthing room is a like a super concentrated droplet of the stress and terror of everyday life. Because even after all your careful plans, the care you took in preparing for this moment, anything could go wrong. There is so much pain, so much confusion, so much fear. And yet… Out of all the ugliness of the birthing room—here. Here it is. The voice of God speaks, and says, “Let it be so.”

 

I can tell you with no question that the voices of my children are what make me believe that the world is still beautiful. My college choir director once told me that he could tell when I sang that I had heard the voice of God. I wonder sometimes if my voice has changed ever so much since having my children, when I hear it every day.

                I feel that my job as a mother is a constant, continual prayer. I feel like I look at my beautiful, perfect babies, and I just think something that Mary must have thought on the first Christmas. I look at them, and I think— there! Here it is!

My masterpiece, my sonnet, my opus, my blood, my tears, my life’s worth. Everything good inside me has a second chance—an opportunity to rise up away from the bad things I also own, and rule. These children are my sacrifice, my prayers, my trials, my joy. They are my only hope. They are my assurance that there is a God, that He is paying attention.  

And their perfect bodies will grow, and they will be strong. And their quick minds will be bright and brilliant. And their voices will reveal to the whole world that there is something of goodness left to be had. They are my music. They are my songs. These are my gifts to the world. The angels told Mary how special her baby was, so she knew what she was carrying. I haven’t had any nighttime visits from winged trumpeters, but I know how special my babies are. And my babies know—in the eyes of their mother, they are the most important people in all the world.

And because I have been blessed with them—because they will ultimately bless the world—there must be a reason to keep smiling and laughing, and making music and trying to make it. Christmas morning will be bright and beautiful because we love each other. Because I, like Mary, live in an uncertain world, and am surrounded by things that I did not picture for myself, or plan for my life, but have found a reason to be happy, to be joyous, to be forever thankful. In your goodness, you have made us to hear the music of the world. The voices of loved ones reveal to us that you are in our midst. A divine voice sings through all creation.

Let it be so. Let it be so.

And to those who are hurting, like I am hurting…. Merry Christmas. Keep the faith.

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One of the three year olds in my preschool class once gave a long and lengthy lunch-time prayer that went like this: “Dear God, Dear Father, Dear Lord– thank you for the birds.”

Every day, Maren says a simple prayer before her meals. She is so used to this tradition that we have to pray at restaurants– even fast food ones. At night, we say the Lord’s Prayer together and then one of us says, “God bless…..” And Maren makes a list of every person she’s ever met in her life, the cows across the street, Ole the Bow-wow (her grandparents’ dog), and sometimes her stuffed animals. On occasion, abstract concepts get a nod as well. She’s been known to ask God to bless sunshine, dancing, and the sky.

This year I actually did something for Lent for the first time ever. I’m friends with lots of people who give things up for Lent, including one dude who typically gives up being Catholic. I’ve never participated, because I’ve never understood it, to be honest. I thought Lent was about making a painful sacrifice, to keep us humble– and I’m not saying that I’m little miss humility, but I could just never think of anything good enough to give up.

Maybe carbs.

This year, I read this great article (sadly I can’t find the link now…) that talked about really digging deep into your relationship with God, and deciding what things were getting in the way of deepening that relationship. If soda, or chocolate, or watching basketball were seriously becoming a hindrance to your spirituality, than those would be good things to ‘give up.’ In my case, however, it’s not distraction type things getting in my way– it’s more things I’m not doing, or things I’ve left undone (holla Lutheran liturgy!).

So one of the things I’m trying to focus on this Lenten season is being a little more open about my faith. I don’t feel like I’m super secretive about it or anything– but I do feel like a bit of a double agent. I’d say a good 90% of my friends are not Christians, and disagree pretty heavily with Christianity in general. So sometimes I’ll find myself just not saying anything when religion comes up– because its easier not to fight about it. To be fair, my GOOD friends know how I feel about Christ and spirituality and would never say something that makes me uncomfortable, and I try to return the favor. But…. I guess lately I’ve been feeling like I’m better at communicating then I give myself credit for. And so maybe what I have to say wouldn’t really make people so uncomfortable. Which I guess is a long-winded explanation for why I am writing about this today.

Ahem.

Maren is so used to praying before meals and at bedtimes that when Mitch is out of town, we have to call him on the phone at bedtime so he can say his prayers with us. Typically, she says a few words of the Lord’s Prayer, and then a big huge AMEN at the end. And then the God blesses, which could take twenty minutes.

When we started praying with her, it was more of a habit-forming deal. Mitch and I are religious, obviously, and– to be quite frank– it’s pretty important to us. We’re the type of people who want to do things genuinely and authentically. We spend a lot of time thinking about our faith, and a lot of time discussing it. It’s one of the things I like best about our marriage.

Even as people who have been Christians for years, there are still topics that are hard for us sometimes. Prayer is one of them.

Here is the thing. I know that a lot of Christians feel like God is up there listening to our prayers and like… I don’t know. Handing out prizes like a genie in a bottle. I don’t think I agree with that particular visual. I do think that God is listening… but I don’t think that when we pray, we are waiting for our lucky sevens to line up so that whatever we asked for comes into our waiting hands.

Some people have had some amazing experiences– myself included– and believe that it is the result of God answering prayers (for example: ask me sometime about how I knew Mitch and I would get married a few days after we met). I don’t want to take away from the idea of miracles, because I’ve seen them happen. On the other side of that, I’ve also seen terrible, horribly sad things happen to people for no good reason. People I love have experienced tragedy. How does prayer fit into that? What can I say– that some people pray more? Or harder? Or BETTER? There is no answer for that. So then, you might say, why pray at all? If it doesn’t AMOUNT to anything, what is the point?

You know…. the older I get, the more comfortable I am getting with not having the answer to everything.

But I think my answer hinges on my own relationship with God. My idea of God the Father is so very similar to an earthly father– our Dads want us to come to them with our problems, even if they can’t fix them. They want to hear about our victories. They want us to tell them what we need— but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to GIVE that to us. I know the kind of father Mitch is– his instinct is to give Maren the skin off his back if it keeps her from experiencing even one moment of pain. But he knows that giving her what she thinks she wants all the time is not always what is best for her.

One of my clearest memories from being a young girl was the first time an adult that was not my parent yelled at me (and I mean really yelled!) and when I went home and told my Dad about it, he hugged me so tight that I can still feel his fingers on my back over twenty years later. He couldn’t change what happened. So he did what he could do. I think that God is like that. One time, I was singing a solo in high school where I had to pretend to be an angel singing to men fighting in the Civil War. I sang one note and then could distinctly hear my Dad starting to cry in the audience, because he could feel what I was feeling, and because he was so proud. I think God is like that, too.

And I remember one time when we were little, and our cat Butch died. My little sister picked up his dead body and carried him into the house to my Dad, and asked him to fix him with his tools. My dad took Butch from her and shook his head. “I’m sorry honey.” He had to tell her. “I can’t fix this.”

I think that God is like that. I don’t think he is up there, keeping tallies so that he can dole out rewards to people who pray more, or to withhold happiness from people who don’t (remember the prodigal son?). But I know…. somehow I just know that he is there. I think that the praying is more for US… not for him.

This idea started to form when I would listen to Maren pray. The reason we added the “God Bless” part of our prayer time was so that she had ownership of her prayers, rather than just repeating/listening to what Mitch and I say. And when I was listening to her prayers, I realized that she’s telling us all her favorite parts of her day. All her sadnesses and jealousies and disappointments are forgotten about, and instead she focuses on the sunshine and dancing and Ole the Bow-wows of her days. And then she lies back on her pillow and sighs.

Maren has no idea that her words are being lifted to a deity. Even if we explained it to her, she wouldn’t understand (or care, probably). But it makes her feel better– you can see it on her face. Just before bed she goes back through all the reasons she has to be happy, and they are most likely the last things she thinks about before she drifts off to sleep.

Whether or not you believe in God…. doesn’t that sound nice?

As a mom, my prayers these days are focused on the health and safety of my family. I can tell you honestly that each night as I drift off to sleep, the last things I think about are my husband’s breathing, my daughter’s smile, my unborn son’s strong and steady heartbeat. And I picture a bearded, flannel shirt wearing old man listening to me, blue eyes twinkling, and either saying, “I’m so sorry, honey,” Or “It’ll be okay. You’ll see.” Or something like that. Because that’s what my Dad would say.

I’m not much of a theologian, as I’m sure you have noticed. My opinions and ideas on religion have been based mostly on my life, and not on learning Greek and researching the original text. I know that praying makes me feel better– whether or not God is actually going to give me that brand new Honda CRV I’ve been asking about for the last few years. For me it’s not really about what God is going to GIVE me… or, put in other terms, how God is going to answer the prayer. For me, praying is more about being mindful of the things I should be happy about, and letting go of the things that I have no control over.

I don’t know if I’ve explained all of this very well. But I guess the point is– I want my prayers to be like Maren’s. Because there are soooo many miracles…. like dancing, and sunshine, and the sky.

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