On Being Finite and Turning 32

“I hate self-reflection,” someone told me the other day. I pushed her to give me details, to figure out where the discomfort lay. As someone who has never been able to avoid self-reflection, no matter how hard I try, I was fascinated.

It seems to me that thinking about who we are, why we do what we do, and processing experiences is just a part of being human. The word “self” in front of anything can feel like navel-gazing, and I can’t deny that this is a pitfall for me. But to do without debriefing life? This seems rather empty.

Because reflection has always been second nature, I knew something was wrong when I stopped remembering. What did we have for dinner last night? I made plans for this afternoon? Along with this forgetfulness came my inability to verbalize what was wrong. Gabe’s patience is legendary, and I tried to tell him what was going on, but for the first time in a long time, I just didn’t know.

Planners – Sacred Ordinary Days

I asked for a copy of The Sacred Ordinary Planner for Christmas. As the world demands attention, other things have been neglected. God has not shouted at me, but he has been whispering, and nothing points me back to Him more than my insufficiencies. It is not judgment I feel — although, perhaps at times I should — but more God quietly reminding me that I am finite.

There are many ways that this finitude has come to light. Multiple times a week, I need to remind myself that I cannot heal other people’s relationships, that I cannot be the best (or favorite) teacher of every student, and that not sticking to a budget 100% does not make me a weak person. The most glaring of these though, is the daily work of mothering. I never knew I had a strong imagination; as a little girl, I longed to have dreamworlds like L. M. Montgomery’s characters, castles in the sky I could escape to when I was lonely. I didn’t know that my imagination just took me elsewhere: to a farm with rolling orchards and familial partnership, to writing and publishing books someday, to singing opera in a sparkly navy gown (before I even really knew what opera was).

Likewise, I didn’t know that I have imagined what kind of mother I would be long before I became one. Not in some tangible, obvious way. Becoming a mother felt so far off for awhile that I forgot it was a possibility. It’s more that I imagined This Other Me who would suddenly appear, with patience and creativity and endless joy. I imagined easily floating through days where my children learned, where I created, and where we all grew in a bond of mutual admiration and respect.

This is not to say that these things never happen. Evangeline is without question a delightful child. Her weaknesses are beginning to show; her humanity is peeking through her demands, through her longing to connect. It is more that I am still me, and I struggle with being at the beck and call of anyone, let alone a little girl under three feet tall. I remember that attachment is healthy, that flour flying all over the floor and counter is worth Evangeline feeling the thrill of baking, of being a helper. I remember these things, and I seek connection with others who feel the same way. There is no other way for me to be, so how to refine the way I am?

When I sit down to write in my planner, I don’t yet know quite how to use it. Do I make lists? Set goals? Describe whatever inner landscape I’m experiencing that day? I keep missing days, and the amount of reflection that is required at the beginning of each week feels impossible: Reflect On This Week — Reset Next Week.

How can I do this when each week feels daunting?

How can I devote energy to reflection when all my energy has been sucked up by work and by others and by my own exhausting cyclical thinking?

When rest feels unattainable, and 5:30AM comes too soon?

I turn 32 today. An unremarkable number, although prettier than 31, I would argue. As I read the lectionary yesterday morning with the book resting on my belly, the little life inside me kicked against it. I won’t read into the action — as tempting as it may be — but I will reflect on the burgeoning of new life even within the body of an aging one. God speaks in many ways, and maybe one of those ways is a tiny baby’s movements, the rolling of a growing belly.

Every morning, the first thing Evangeline does when I pick her up her from her crib is bend down and kiss my belly.

“Baby kiss!” she says gleefully.

To distill her joy and make it available to everyone. To bottle it up and save it for myself on rainy days when tears come and problems feel unsolvable. I know she will eventually encounter life. She will meet people who hurt her — I will hurt her — and she will begin to feel the more complex emotions of adolescence and adulthood. But a little part of me wonders if perhaps one of her greatest gifts will always be her joy, and if that is what she will use to change her world.

I turn 32 today. We will eat takeout, reminisce about the past year, and dream towards the future, towards spring, towards new life. It will be hard for me to turn off my work brain and turn on my home brain. We will be exhausted by a little voice that repeats, by a little body that wants to be near, by refusal to eat dinner and demands for “Chocolate!” But I know that I will look up at Gabe across the room and smile, because the things in our life that take the most work are the things that are worth it.

Repetition

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.

She is Her Own

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.

And yet.

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.

Life from Ashes

 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.

Ash Wednesday

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.

[Photo credit: Gabe Knell]

5 Reasons I’m Ready for Motherhood

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.

Photo: Leighanne Evelyn Photography

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.

I didn’t think I’d ever find a place to use this hilarious photo. I can’t help loving it. I call it: “Overlooking the Estate.” Photo: Leighanne Evelyn Photography

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?