It’s not the first time I’ve voted but it is the first time it has felt like a funeral — faces grim, strained looking down at phones as the long line winds around the corner (corners) and the cold November wind whips dead leaves whirling down the sidewalk.
Yet, this isn’t the saddest thing about this day. That, instead, is the empty preschool playground I stand beside; the sun-bleached picnic table picnic-less since March, the fence leaning, the swing-set empty, the imagined children’s voices.
My journal is falling apart. Partly from natural causes (it’s hardcover, and those seem to get hit harder by life), but partly from unnatural causes (Evangeline discovered she can slip her little finger under the spine and I think she’s addicted to the glorious feeling of destruction). I found this particular journal at the bookshop downtown. It’s much larger than I usually use, but I loved that it didn’t have lines. I’d gotten it in my head I could be more creative without lines, that somehow I would begin to channel my artist friends and write in circles, sideways, and doodle in beautiful colors. This of course never happened. All the blank space just invited me to write in various sizes and lean my lines at slants and cause general visual mayhem. It does not look artistic.
My very first journal opens with an entry about learning to ride my bike. I am five years old. I remember the day vividly: my father holding on to the back of the bike, giving instructions, my extreme frustration. Hardly any of this is in the entry, except for a sentence about my dad helping me learn. The other thing that isn’t there?
The fact that my little brother, a mere three-year-old, zoomed past me as I struggled to keep my balance.
He learned how to ride a bike the same day I did. I remember watching him zip along the sidewalk at daring angles, even while I could barely muster the courage to go down the slight hill. My fear of risk showed early, but it didn’t show up in my journal.
I’ve been thinking about the curated life a lot lately. Stay-at-home did many things to me — many things for me — and one of those things is that it made me more attached to my phone, to the internet, and to the world. I started most weekday mornings with NPR while I made my coffee and Evangeline’s breakfast, I moved to Facebook and Instagram when I wasn’t teaching or in a zoom meeting, and I listened to podcasts about the ills of our nation, our world.
Social media grew into something I had never experienced before. Suddenly, what we posted was barometer of our politics and our hearts. What we did not post was a measure of the same. I would hover over a post, wondering if I should like it.
What does it say about me if I like this?
Who will feel supported?
Who will feel ignored?
I got up in my head, thought far too much about how I appeared, and realized there was no way to present my full life — my full self — on a screen. My likes or comments could be misconstrued, and in turn, flatten me into a self that lacked natural human nuance. I started to question the carefully constructed profiles, not as one new to the fact that they exist, but as someone wondering if they are merely a symptom of something greater.
I am always curating my life, whether it’s online, in person, or in my own head.
What I choose to talk about, how I say it, what I highlight, all these things add up to a particular story with a particular slant.
It doesn’t stop when I close the computer or when I put down the cell phone. It doesn’t stop when I finish a telling a story that is factually true but has a twist. And it doesn’t stop when I’m all alone, thinking over my day, or maybe, my life. When I watch short videos I’ve recorded on my phone — moments captured because I knew they would be sweet — I realize how different iPhone recordings are from the camcorder home movies of my childhood: long, tedious vhs tapes with rambling conversations, absent-minded half-hours with the camcorder on the floor while child-feet wander in and out of view. Those home movies are so much closer to life than the ones I’ve been capturing in 15 or 20 seconds. They are not all of an adorable little girl filled with joy. Having my phone at the ready is amazing, and I am so grateful. Yet, it allows me to create multiple “perfect” moments without context. Likewise, my journals are carefully shaped even if it is subconscious, and my own mind seems to be shaped, too. How I tell the story of myself to myself is a strange thing to behold.
So what, you might ask? What does this matter? I am not sure. I know through counseling and the courses I took that the narrative we tell ourselves is important: it crafts our sense of self and what we tell either empowers or degrades us. I also know that what I present of myself online is incomplete, so I can only assume that what others present is incomplete, as well.
None of this is revolutionary, but as I anticipate a winter with less human interaction and more lit-up snippets to swipe past, it feels even more important to remember. People are flesh and blood, with stories and dreams and pain. Journals may brush over them, posts may be beautifully constructed, and even the voice in our heads may have a certain way of hiding the truth, but that doesn’t change the fact that nuance, gray area, and paradox seem to be at the heart of human experience.
I take a deep breath. I close my eyes, but only briefly, because my daughter is standing by my knees, her arms stretched up up up. She has just dropped a hard book in my lap for the fifth time, and no, it is not a different book. It is the same book, the one I would never choose, the one the doctor’s office gave us to teach her about musical instruments. She couldn’t care less about the musical instruments, no matter how much I try to connect the real live piano with the representation of a little red piano in her book. She flips past these pages with a determined goal: to get to the pages with babies. Once there, she points her perfectly straight, amazingly tiny pointer finger smack-dab in the middle of their faces and shouts “bahbah” as loudly and joyfully as I’ve said anything in my life.
And here she is, begging me to read this book again. To say the instrument names over, even as she hurriedly turns the page before I can get the words out. I think for a moment of the good old days — last week — when her book of choice was From Head to Toe by Eric Carle, or even further back, The Very Hungry Caterpillar? How could I have been so foolish as to bemoan reading those colorful, sing-songy, semi-narrative books? Oh to go back to last week!
Do not worry. Of course I picked her up. Of course I set aside my desire to read my own book (On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and my, I am now reeling at the end of it) and instead managed to read-in-full three of the ten pages before she lost interest, snapped the book shut, and shimmied down my calves to the rug, off on another living room adventure. Every time this happens, I stare at her, my head a bit tilted in awe that this darling creature thinks nothing of abrupt demands and even more abrupt declarations of utter boredom.
As with most things right now, even this has two sides — one annoying, one endearing. I’ve been reading How to Raise a Reader (“The New York Times” has an online guide), and the authors state that even this flipping through, this gazing at pictures, this baby-babbling is, indeed, reading. The other day, just as I sat down in my white chair with a bowl of cereal, she toddled over with a book grasped in both hands (this one, I think, was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom), and I said, “Evangeline, Mama’s eating breakfast. I’ll read to you after, okay?” I said this with no thought that she would listen, understand, and back away peacefully. But she did. She looked at me a moment, then turned around, plopped down on the floor, and opened the book on her splayed legs. She read to herself, and I chewed my outrageously loud granola and watched with wonder. Maybe the monotony of reading the same book all day for a week was instilling some sort of independence. Maybe I wouldn’t regret the majority of the time I stop doing what I’m doing to gather her in my lap and read. Maybe I’d never have to read that silly musical instrument book again.
This is Day 36 of our social distancing, Day 36 of us waking up together in our cozy home (when the furnace doesn’t stop working in the middle of the night), Day 36 of oatmeal with apricots for breakfast and Zoom calls and FaceTime and hollers across the street with neighbors.
There is so much the same. Over and over again, I do laundry (well, really, over and over again I should do laundry), and the number of dishes this tiny family accumulates by the end of the day is monumental. I simultaneously wish Evangeline would please, please, choose another book, and look back with nostalgia at the various little things she’s already outgrown. I have an up-close look at her movements through time, and as I watch her try again to stack a book on top of her sippy cup, I think about how she has no idea what is going on in the world. To her, this is some lucky turn-of-events: both parents home, all the time, and in no rush to go anywhere. She doesn’t understand when we listen to the news in the morning, when I get melancholy in the afternoons, or when she reaches out to touch her grandparents’ faces, why all she feels is a screen.
I remember a poem I wrote after college. The main event is washing brown eggs in the kitchen sink with the pads of my fingers, but the underlying feeling is repetition. I tried to write about the mundane, repetition, and joy. I thought I knew what those things were, how they overlapped. I didn’t know yet about Brother Lawrence or his book The Practice of the Presence of God, and so it was like discovering something for the first time with my own heart and hands (I am growing more careful to value these discoveries as different from those made second-hand; it is too easy to dismiss personal revelations [non-divine] because others have already had them).
Now, nearly ten years later, and I am re-learning the soul of my poem. I am re-learning the wisdom of Brother Lawrence. Evangeline knows nothing of this, or, maybe, she knows it all — the joy on her face when we do the simplest things.
I write this wrapped in a blue blanket in our little white house. My arms still fit around a sleeping baby, but it’s not as easy as it was a few months ago. Her breathing is a bit labored (remnants of a difficult morning), and the twitch of her hands against my stomach feel like the movement of life.
We’d made plans to visit in August. She was already five months old, and I knew my great uncle would love to hold her. A trip to Portland always made me happy (there’s something about driving over the Piscataqua that turns me into a seven-year-old in summertime), but I knew we’d only be able to stay a short while. Uncle Alan was not doing well, and the last thing I wanted was to tire him out.
It didn’t happen. We got a message — he’s in the hospital, he’s so sad he can’t see you — and I wrote saying we’d see him soon.
I saw my Uncle Alan for the last time on Friday.
Evangeline saw him for the first and last.
I had this image in my head: little Evangeline sitting on her great-great-uncle’s lap, him laughing his full-belly laugh, the sheer size of him filling the hospice room.
When I got there, I was embarrassed by my childishness. A man in hospice does not laugh with his whole body. He does not hold an infant on his knee.
But he did smile. He did know who we were. He did talk to us. But there were so many things I wanted to say and couldn’t.
I will miss your sweet birthday notes on Facebook. I’m surprised how much I looked forward to them. I am surprised at your genuine love.
I wish I were as joyful as you were. I’m sure you had dark moments (who doesn’t), yet you emanated peace.
What will happen to our family history when you’re gone? Who will curate our memories with such care, such attention to detail, and such deep adoration for those who came before?
I will treasure the old books you gave me at graduation. I will keep your notes throughout the years. I pray my daughter has someone in her life who gives her beautiful things and encouraging letters.
I will never forget how you supported my writing. It started with my little magazine, “Ruminations,” and your subscription and dedicated reading of a silly girl’s silly writing. But it continued. I’ll miss thinking of you reading this blog, each entry like a conversation I hope to have.
I never thought I’d be a teacher, and yet how could I avoid it? With such a gifted, influential educator in my family, how could I not be born with a little inkling of teacherness?
The thing I’m learning about mourning is that after the first experience, it is never isolated again. Grief piles on grief, death conflates with life conflates with death, and each time I mourn someone I love, I find myself mourning all those who died before. I cry for my uncle and my aunt and cousins he leaves behind, but also for my Grampa long-gone, my Great-Gramma, for the very fact that everyone I love will die. I look at my baby and I cannot believe it.
Now, when I garden, my grandfather is there. Now, when I garden, my great-uncle will be there, too. When I thin rows of carrots, I see my Grampa sitting on an overturned bucket, doing the same. When I choose flowers for my bees and the hummingbirds, I will see my Uncle Alan and his beautiful gardens. “In the Garden” joins “How Great Thou Art” as songs that conjure an entire person every time I sing them. My Dad will help me pass on these familial traditions to my daughter, and even though she may feel removed from those who came before, she will know them in stories, in music, and in gardens.
It was a simple print hung on the wall of a house I hardly knew. I was fourteen, I think, maybe fifteen, and I saw it as I was leaving. The black ink outline of a woman’s full, pregnant body, the orange flame of fire inside. I must have looked confused, or maybe I asked outright: “What is this?” because the woman who lived there tried to explain.
Mary, human body filled with fire, Jesus, Holy Spirit, pregnant with fire, flesh.
I wasn’t much older than fifteen because I was unable to understand. Art — like life — was still two-dimensional, and the idea that an image that wasn’t real could represent the true was too hard for me to comprehend.
I still see that image every Advent, burned into my memory like the fire in her belly.
Last Advent, I, too, was expecting my first child. I basked in the joy of sharing that time with the Church calendar, and I loved that we had much to wonder about. Many of our questions have been answered (she has Gabe’s eyes, my smile, and her own sense of rhythm), but there are still so many. Every morning, she wakes up new, and just when I think I have mastered this parenting thing, she changes the rules. I am grateful that we have been able to make her life beautiful and comfortable, even while so many parents struggle to fill their children’s tummies.
Last Advent, I sang in a stretched-thin gold dress for three nights. I ran out of breath on nearly every musical line, but my voice felt strong. The baby liked the music. I was happy to squeeze a six-month belly into my old concert dress.
This Advent, I had a dream of her sitting in the concert, her eyes wide with delight. I thought she would love it. Gabe, even, thought it was doable. So he dressed her in a plaid Christmas dress and tights and sweater.
She made it through the first song. She didn’t want to listen to us, she wanted to sing with us.
That’s the problem with a baby who’s used to singing: she doesn’t know when to stop.
I use the term “singing” lightly. She scream-sings, shout-sings, utters every single emotion she experiences with her voice. She doesn’t know how not to interact with people — how to just let them be — and so she is apparently a difficult concert baby (which is to be expected at nine months, I suppose).
I was sad to see them get up and leave the room, but also relieved.
Did you hear that baby in the back? Ruined every single cadence.
After Gabe took her out (they paced the entryway for a bit, went downstairs, listened through the floors), we sang a set about flowers, the idea of Mary as a Rose, Christ as a Rose. The lines flooded over me.
There is no rose of such virtue As is the rose that bare Jesu, Alleluia.
For in this rose contained was Heaven and earth in little space, Res miranda.
Here it was again: “For in this rose contained was Heaven and earth in little space.”
Fire in her belly.
Res miranda — marvelous thing!
As Madeleine L’Engle says, “I do not understand the incarnation. I rejoice in it.”
This is beyond my understanding. It is beyond my reason. I remember feeling the baby move inside me and wondering who this baby would become. How much harder would it have been to allow Jesus to become who he was? Just as I wrote last spring, she is her own, and Mary must have wrestled with the same feelings I have: This is my baby, and yet he is not. He was the fire in my belly, and yet…
I often think what a terrifying honor to hold the Son of God in your womb. Then I think what a terrifying honor to hold any human in your womb. I think of the women who desire a child but aren’t able to carry one. I think of the babies who aren’t wanted. I think of my own mother, the exhaustion, the stress, the deep ache of love. I yearn for a world where hearts are not broken.
I didn’t want to go grocery shopping. The baby was fussy and she’d finally fallen asleep in the car, so I put the whole car seat in the cart instead of carrying her in the sling. Market Basket is always busy, but not quite as bad in the middle of a Wednesday. As I walked through the door, I immediately felt angrier. People are going to get in my way. A woman looked at the baby and said “Oooo, a baby,” and then kept walking. That is so weird. I only needed a handful of things. I tried to walk in an organized way through the aisles so I would not need to backtrack. I decided not to get two bags of string cheese for my husband. I saw a woman who looked very sad, and I wondered if I looked sad. I didn’t feel sad, but sometimes you don’t look how you feel. I saw a man approaching me with his cart. He’s not going to stop. He’s going to make me stop. I got angry. He looked up at me. He stopped his cart and smiled. I was embarrassed. “Thank you,” I said. He kept smiling.
I’m not good at using stolen moments. They creep up on me unannounced and suddenly she is gazing entranced at the moving ceiling fan or sleeping soundly in her narwhal swaddle. I’m never sure how long they’ll last, and too often I fill them with scrolling through various websites rather than doing soul-feeding work or soul-soothing rest.
[Like right now, for instance, the baby has been sleeping peacefully in her bassinet for nearly an hour. As soon as I start typing, it’s as though she hears the clicking of the keys and thinks: This is no good. I should definitely be hungry now.]
[Twenty minutes, one bottle, one huge burp, and some intense spit-up later…]
There are so many times that have been absolutely lovely these past few weeks. I can’t explain what an immediate change came over me when she smiled for the first time. Suddenly I was no longer an unnoticeable feeding machine. I had become a Being with whom she wanted to communicate (and by “communicate” I mean beyond the sweet whimpers of loneliness and the screams of hunger). Suddenly it was much easier to get up in the middle of the night when I knew she would look up at me with the darling love of a tiny baby. And then she started with the smallest of “coos” and I was hooked.
There is a lot of repetition. Feed, burp, clean spit-up, change diaper, repeat. Over and over I am forced to learn patience and perseverance.
[Once, the baby was screaming for food before I could get to her. Her grandmother leaned in and said, “Patience, Evangeline, it’s a fruit of the Spirit.” She will not learn patience from me, that’s for sure. Perhaps we will learn it together.]
There are times when I feel bored. This, of course, makes me feel deeply guilty, as though boredom means lack of love. I immediately cuddle my baby to assuage my inner judge. She smiles at me even now from her inclined pillow, and I am reminded that she is perfectly content. We are living alongside each other. She looks around, flails her arms, smiles, and I am able to write and try to remember our separateness as truth and gift.
We are forever entwined, but separate, and this is both terrifying and liberating.
I realized not long after she was born that I was in for a lifetime of walking a tightrope of worry and love. I am no longer responsible for only myself. This little one depends on us for everything, and the thought makes me lose my breath.
But then I remember her autonomy. Her dreams. Her future.
They are not mine.
They are hers to dream up, to build, to live.
She is her own.
I may be overwhelmed at times with the mundane, but I am blown away by the miracle that is this young one who is both of us and neither of us at the same time.
At 3:06AM on March 6th, a scream ripped through a small sterile room. The woman lying on the operating table never thought she would be there: legs double-strapped down, a blue tarp suspended over her head, her body convulsing as the hormones raced and swirled and left her. Like so many things, this was not what she had pictured. And like so many things, ultimately, it didn’t matter. The scream was good — proof of working lungs and a long labor brought to an end.
What is the meaning of life on such a day? Brought into a world that is broken on the day that serves as a reminder of the death of all things. Better to be born on Resurrection Sunday! New life on the day of New Life! I continue to wonder what the significance of an Ash Wednesday birth will have on this life that is currently curled up on my chest while I type around her.
Lent has had a unique place in my life since I first started observing it. I didn’t grow up in a church tradition that practiced Lent, and my ignorance of its value was clear when I thought giving up things like chocolate was supposed to mimic Christ’s sacrifice. Only later, after college, did I realize it wasn’t supposed to be the same as Christ’s sacrifice, but to be a constant reminder of that most sacred gift, and the season of lament began to hold new meaning for me.
There have been Lents that broke me. Or, perhaps, it is that I was already in mourning and the church calendar lined up to allow me to grieve. I have appreciated the coinciding of cold, dark days with lament, and I have read daily devotionals, prayed daily prayers, given up daily distractions. I have mourned the loss of relationships, prayed for the strengthening of others, and sought Christ’s transformation in myself.
There are so many things to be worked out in the active intentionality that Lent provides.
There are so many things to be waited on in the rest and contemplation that Lent demands.
This Lent, however, is starkly different.
Her eyes are almond shaped. She has her grandmother’s lips. Her favorite thing is to stretch her little limbs as far as she can and move as much as possible. She does not like to be swaddled, and she loves to look out windows.
Life doesn’t always line up with the meaning of days. Sometimes you miscarry on Easter. Sometimes you bury your grandfather on the most beautiful sunshine-filled day in August.
This year, my Lent looks like wonder. Wonder at this tiny human who was once inside me and is now outside me. She was born on Ash Wednesday — for dust you are and to dust you will return — and her birth meant no ashes, no church for me. Her birth on the day of ashes didn’t even factor into her name, and yet Evangeline seems the only name for a baby born on this day: Bringer of Good News.
It seems to me there is no better vocation, no better blessing.
Three and a half weeks — the new amount of time I have until March 14th. I know it could be any day, really (March 14th is an arbitrary date designed to give me some planning ability, most of which will be thrown out when the real day arrives), and this is both exciting and nail-biting. Every weekend, we tick things off dresser, changing pad, bookshelves, pack-and-play, and it makes me happy in this new, strange way. As if, on this new planet of coming-motherhood, I am actually going to be able to see a problem/need, and fix it. My life is not a free-for-all, but rather, in some ways, I will still be able to do what I need to do to live a happy life.
Because I promised my husband — and because I think it will be a helpful, cathartic experience for me — here are five reasons I AM ready for motherhood (some just as humorous as the reasons I’m not…)
1.I can tell a good story. Not only that, but I can read a good one, too. When I was in second grade, I would put my little brother down for a nap after lunch (one of homeschooling’s lesser-known-perks). We’d go up to his bedroom, and I’d read him stories before he fell asleep. Sometimes, this looked more like playing/jumping on the bed/not really getting ready for a nap, but mostly what I remember is learning how to read to a toddler.
Fast forward to the five-year-old girl who stole my heart in my early 20s. We spent long summer days swimming in the pool then drying off in the sun, and each time she would say, “Catherine, tell me a story,” her strawberry-blonde hair hanging in thick wet strings down her back. It was easy at first, but then I began to run out of material (she demanded true stories, ones I had lived, so imagination was no help). I needed direction. “Give me a category,” I started to say, and amazingly, this worked. She’d think for a minute, her forehead furrowed, and then say things like “Animals!” or “Cake!” or “Spiders!”. Somehow this was just enough guidance to get my wheels turning. I don’t think there was even one time I didn’t have a story to tell, and now I know what to do if my little one is as inquisitive and story-loving as she was: Give me a category, I’ll give you a story.
2. I learned how to fold the Marie Kondo way. This is no joke. I watched a few episodes, was annoyed with most of the people, and came away with some amazing folding techniques. I don’t know what it is about seeing my underwear, socks, and camisoles neatly lined up in accessible rows that makes me think I’ll be able to conquer this laundry-phobia. It’s so less daunting to look and see that I have four pairs left (read: four days until I HAVE to do laundry), then to scrounge around, wonder if there’s anything clean, and be unsure about how long I can wait. Even the smooth rows of off-white diaper liners are bringing me hope (but have you ever tried to fold baby socks? what is the point?).
3. I own a car seat, a diaper bag, and I will soon be in possession of roughly 24 cloth diapers. I’m pretty sure all you need to bring your baby home is an installed car seat, so I’m a bit ahead of the curve with a diaper bag and soon-to-come diapers. I even have two boxes of wipes, a breast pump (my least favorite, least exciting, and most terrifying product to-date), and various other accoutrements. I have a sweet stuffed bunny from my city-friend (if you’ve been reading this long enough, you might remember her and her many words of encouragement), a string of handmade felted bees from a work friend who knows me better than I’d thought, and other darling and necessary items that make me excited to usher a new life into this challenging and beautiful world.
4. Gabe. At first, this was tossed around for a good laugh between us as I was coming up with five reasons. And then it became the most important. Apart from my God who gives me strength and peace, it is Gabe who makes me the most ready to be a mother. I’m not one for public displays of love for my husband, mostly because no matter what picture I post or what words I string together, nothing really explains our relationship. Nothing can really describe what it’s like to know there is someone who will always have my best interests at heart (and now the best interests of our child). There is someone (other than my mother) who will listen to me as long as I need him to without seeming exhausted (I said seeming…).There is someone who doesn’t get angry at me when I roll over a thousand times while he’s trying to sleep, someone who makes me dinner when I’m just too tired after work, someone who is looking forward to days and evenings when it is just him and our baby because I have choir or work or what-have-you. There is no twisting his arm with this man, and I am so grateful.
5. I have people. There has never been a time when I was left on my own. The grueling hours of reading, writing, and singing in the practice room that came with college were always accompanied by other similarly-worn-out friends who were more than willing to go to a coffee shop and work while simultaneously chatting and sipping London Fogs (or the occasional chai). When I look back on those days, I remember the dark feelings of I’m not good enough, I’m faking this, what in the world will I do when I graduate? Now I wonder if my actual days were as trying as they seemed — without even a car bill at the time, in some ways, I was freer than I will ever be again. But I felt heavy, I was scared of the unknown, and people were there.
Then came the years after college, a blur in many respects, but people were there. They listened to my wonderings, fears, dreamings. We journeyed through years of dating (still one of my favorite topics), career-searching, and city-hopping. They gave me advice, took my advice, and I’d say my early twenties were the years of my biggest transformations. My people taught me how to love better, how to fight in a healthy way, how to sit down at the island of a mature, beautiful woman, pour my soul out to her, and gather her wisdom like pearls. They taught me how to not be afraid to ask for help. I know how to say “Things are not okay, I am not okay,” but then also how to respond when they, too, feel untethered.
And now, in the beginnings of my marriage and that moment right before change comes, I know I am not alone. My family reminds me they are always there, that there is nothing we can’t figure out. My friends hug me when I’m sad and then make me laugh, reminding me that not everything is as serious as it seems. I wasn’t quite sure what my fifth reason for being ready would be, but without a doubt, it is the people in our lives who have made Gabe and me who we are. Why would our baby be any different?