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.

Fire in Her Belly

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.

Maybe we all have fire in our bellies.

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]

Three-Year-Old Freedom

She sits in front of me on the bus, her dark head barely visible over the blue seat. Pink bows keep two small braids from unraveling by her face, and her head turns swiftly as she tries to take it all in through the window.

I am on my way to church — not necessarily against my will, but most definitely against the yearning I feel to roam all day in the sunshine and write with my friends by the Charles River. But I made plans with another friend (in part to make sure I did indeed get up and go), so here I am on the bus that will take me to the T station. I have been audacious enough to ask to be blessed, to ask that God would somehow bless this thing that I find so difficult to do in this season of my life.

With an old man at the next stop enters the hot stench of an unbathed body, and I bristle, both at the smell and at the rudeness of the girl next to me, covering her nose, pouting. The old man looks at me, and I smile — a peace offering — because it won’t be long before I, too, offend people with aging.

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It is the Sunday after a trip to the midwest and the Sunday before I jump right back into all that I left behind. I performed a makeshift grocery-run on Saturday, I diligently did my laundry, I celebrated a friend’s engagement with champagne, and I realized I hadn’t read half as many pages of my stack of books as I had planned. At choir, I leaned in and whispered: I feel like I’m in college choir again. Like those days when I was at the beach but had to come back to campus for practice, and I can’t focus and all I can think about is the ocean and the sun.

I was giddy with something (holiday-high, maybe?), and I sang but I also laughed through rehearsal. Sally and I topped it off with our classic buffalo chicken calzone, and here I am, the next morning, praying that choosing this church to call home, at least for now, is right.

The little girl reaches out and touches the back of her father’s thigh. Her hand is small and her fingernails are perfectly-shaped crescents that I imagine her mother carefully clipping after a warm bath. The girl gazes up at her father’s face. He does not look down, and I realize she is merely checking in. She doesn’t need acknowledgment, only presence.

I am captivated.

We funnel off the bus and onto the T. I do not mean to, but I am sitting directly across from her. Now she stands, her little body full of the confidence so many of us grown-ups lack. She knows to grasp the T pole with both hands — she knows the world loves her.

I snap a picture.

I feel guilty, a thief. But I am spellbound and I can’t explain it.

When we reach my T stop, I get off, knowing I will never see her again. I had wanted so badly to reach out, to cup the top of her head with the curve of my palm, but her ease and wonder would not be possessed. She unselfconsciously took in the world and demanded that it love her.

And I did.

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Lost Letter

photo-11-e1435232845365.jpgI found it a few days ago, tucked into a book as an impromptu marker. I’d used one of my favorite notecards and I remember writing the letter in February, sitting in the little white chair in my bedroom.

I’d meant to send it, like any letter, but somehow it’s been hidden for the past five months.

I toyed with sending it now, but my curiosity got the better of me. I tore it open, read the words I’d meant for a friend. A time capsule, this letter that was never meant for my June-self, contained not only comfort, but truth.

I had no idea the difficult conversations I’d be having over the next few weeks, nor the “change” (really, changes) I felt coming. All I knew was what I read, what I felt, and how beautifully scripture pairs with Mary Oliver in a handwritten letter.

“For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar —
The Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand.”
-Isaiah 51:16

Dear K,

This was part of my Lenten devotional — good ol’ Henri Nouwen! — and it struck me for a few reasons. The biggest one, though, is that God’s words fill our mouths. God fills our mouths with his words. There is so much power in that but the number of times I do not feel God’s words coming out of my mouth would seem to disprove this fact. So in those moments when we are most afraid, most vulnerable, most ready to throw our hands up and despair, that is when the power of God’s Word (God’s words) can lift us out of ourselves.

But hand-in-hand with this power is God’s protection. I think it was this combination of truths that brought this verse so deeply into my heart. Because as little as I feel God’s strength and power within me, I would say I feel his protection even less. Sometimes I feel I march through the gates of whatever “righteous” battle I’m waging at the time, but despite God’s power, I am left unprotected, easily hurt, and most often very confused.

I think perhaps there is a little bit of your New York in that: full of strength in the beginning, a sense of extreme vulnerability, and a feeling of no protection afterwards.

I feel on the cusp of some “great change,” and I don’t necessarily mean factual, physical, geographical. I think this Lenten season holds a mystery for my discovery, and when I woke up and read my devotional, writing to you became the first step in that pursuit of quiet, of rest, of opening up to hear God speak.

Morning Poem
by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear

like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging  —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted – 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
wether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Love,
Catherine

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Who Am I?

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We play this game in class with the last few minutes on Fridays. I call it “Who Am I?” but really it’s just “20 Questions,” and only sometimes do I make them choose Greek and Roman mythological characters. One student leaves the room while the rest of us decide which person he or she is.

They love making boys goddesses and girls gods.

And so we’ll choose a character and call the exile in. He or she will commence asking yes-or-no questions until eventually it becomes clear who he or she is supposed to embody.

The thing I keep noticing is this response from the rest of the students.

Let’s say it’s a girl, and she only knows that she’s from mythology, she’s male, and she’s not a god. Her next question might be:

“Did I defeat a lion?”

Every time, the rest of the class guffaws in disbelief.

How could you ask that question?

OBVIOUSLY NOT.

Oh my gosh…!

I didn’t quite understand what was happening until this week.

While one student stands ignorant in front of her classmates, the rest of them can only function with their knowledge. They’ve forgotten (in the span of about .65 minutes) that not everyone has the same information they have. This student asks “Did I defeat a lion?” with less knowledge than they have, but with enough to wonder, hmmmm…maybe I’m Hercules…

Student: “Did I get punished by the gods?”

Chorus: “HAHAHAHA!”

Student: “Did I become an animal?”

Chorus: “WHAT?!”

After a few rounds of this teeheeing and finger-pointing, finally I stood up.

“Listen, guys,” I said, “you have to remember that she doesn’t know what you know. Her questions make complete sense because she doesn’t know already that she’s Theseus. The question only sounds crazy to you because you already know.”

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I have this vision of something big and grand that would open high schooler’s eyes to the great wonderful world. I have this idea that our faith is too small, too cultural, and that to get these kids out where Christianity looks different but transforms just the same is part of my job.

I look at my students, and I want to dump every ounce of experience and wisdom I’ve gained through trial and error into their beings so that they don’t have to do it themselves.

I wonder how parents do it. How do you watch these little half-yous-but-not-at-all-yous walk the earth and not suffocate them? How do you let them function in their ignorance? And it isn’t ignorance in the negative way, so much as it is a stage.

You can’t force experience.

RIght, you can’t, but what is experience if not created?

How do you not expect your children, your students, to be in the same place you are?

I am constantly reminding myself that I function at a different level than these young minds and souls I teach.

They don’t know who they are.

They walk into the room, and they don’t know who they are, so their questions, the way they interact, might seem strange to me, the one who has just a bit more knowledge.

The one who progressed smoothly (and not so smoothly) through the stages of growth to arrive at a non-arrival where things are still being worked-out.

Even people all the same age are not in the same place. Whether it be actually (some are married, some are single, some have children, some travel the world) or just internally (some feel confident, some love their jobs, some long for more, some have faith that pumps life), we are all spinning on different trajectories.

And that’s okay.

I will never have the calmness of my high school friend, who, when I asked her, “What do we have to look forward to?”, said:

“Well, I’m a pretty content person. So I don’t know what to say.”

That will never be me.

We’re spinning different stories, but we’re both playing our own games of “Who Am I?”.

Shutting Up

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I’ve thought of many books and inspirations that I’d like to pump into your veins to inoculate you from the traumas of living on this planet in a human body, but in the grand scheme of things I really, truly know that you will find all the wisdom you need at the moment you need it.

This is what I opened last week, slipped out of a little brown envelope and held in my hands. The card was perfect for me, complete with the stamp of a chicken and Rumi quote about birds flying and falling and flying again.

At first, I thought:

What?! Please, please, inoculate me! Send me every quote, every book, every shard of wisdom you have because right now I’m feeling so incredibly overwhelmed by being who I am and not who I am supposed to be.

But then, after a few moments of feigned irritation, I realized she was right.

I wasn’t ready.

And just as I have been suffocated by genocide in Iraq, Ebola in Sudan, the anger of supermarket workers and strikes, the racism and fear and riots, the brokenness of my students, the brokenness of everyone I love, the brokenness of me, I wonder if I would be equally as suffocated by bits of wisdom that I’m not yet ready to digest.

~     ~     ~

This was where the rest of my post was, the part where I write about learning to shut up and stop giving advice, stop giving wisdom. Where I stop myself from talking.

Then the irony caught up with me.

“You will find all the wisdom you need at the moment you need it.”

That was enough wisdom for that moment. And this one.

Good Things #45: A Face that Shines

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Exodus says that the people could tell Moses had been with God based only upon the look of his face.  It is real when it is real hard. Don’t go to a place to preach, go to help and in helping earn the opportunity to share the reason your face looks different.”

I asked my uncle about missions and what he thought about them and I tried to explain why I wrestle with a lot of what I see around me. And this is what he sent me.

It has been my prayer since opening his email.

Does my face look different? Does it shine?

Am I breathing in that I may breathe out?

 

Bleeding Out

Even if I was lonely, even if I was broke
Even if all the dogs in the pound let me know
Saying it’s never over, it never ends
Grab the guns and the ammo, let us descend
To the darkest of prisons, and break their defense
We will rattle the cages, rules will be bent
Oh, remind us our days are all numbered not spent
And peace it comes easy, like mist on a ridge

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
All the worries folks tell us to break all of our ties
To our families and loved ones, we leave when we fly
To these cities we think we need in our lives
Oh you Manhattan jungle, you tangle our pride

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out

All the buildings, they lean and they smile down on us
And they shout from their roof tops, words we can’t trust
Like you’re dead, you are tired
You’re ruined, you’re dust
Oh you will amount to nothing, like tanks full of rust
But we scream back at them

From below on the street

All in unison we sing, at times, been redeemed
We are all of the beauty, that has not been seen
We are full of the color, that’s never been dreamed
Well, nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies
[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out.

My Hands are Dying

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Today, I’m writing over at my dear friend Hannah’s blog, Breathe Deep. It’s a story that took a long time for me to be able to write, but it felt good to write it.

And for the first time in twenty-two years, she found a reason to plead for herself. Her blood, her gelatinous lungs breathing in and out. It was quick and suddenly she saw her hand – red and plump like Mickey Mouse’s – and she thought Oh my gosh, I am getting old. Look at these veins, and she hurriedly covered the purple spidery arm with a sweater.

You can only ignore for so long. The next morning the blood still pooled, the arm still hung heavy and without its customary strength, and she decided a doctor would know. If only to tell her nothing was wrong, go back to your little life of serving coffee and greasy eggs and feeling self-important. You are not so great as to be seriously ill. But that was a mistake because one place after the other, the ultrasound with its beat-beating and the reduction of her insides to a white-gray image from Mars. “Clot,” they said. 

It’s one of the those stories that had to start in the third person and grow more personal from there. To keep reading, head over here.

Come back Friday to read Hannah’s guest post about her own version of in-between living.

Maundy Thursday

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He spoke of the four cups of wine and their significance, how the Lord used four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 when speaking about Israel:

I will bring you out…

I will rescue you…

I will redeem you…

I will take you…

Why is this night different from all other nights?

I wrote a letter to a college friend the other day, and faith came up, the strangeness of it, the constant shifting. I’ve changed more in the three years since college than I ever did when I was there, and my faith has been moving, too. I keep reminding myself that this isn’t something to be afraid of, that wrestling with doctrine and rightness of things and my own inconsistencies is exactly the way it should be.

It does scare me a little.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

God is not stagnant. Many of my friends are packing up and moving. God is not stagnant.

I am not moving house, but I am moving, constantly shaking things up, walking a new rabbit trail, searching and finding and searching again. I use new words to talk to God, but more than that, I find new ways to listen. I thank Him for the sun, and I thank Him for His unending forgiveness that I need daily.

God is not stagnant.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

There was a time last spring. I was in the throes of – I’m not sure what to call it – an emotional upheaval? A spiritual awakening? I’d just read Lauren Winner’s Still, and I wasn’t sure whether to be angry, sad, hopeful, or just realize its honesty. She wrote about the middle-place of faith, how sometimes we dwell in this space far longer than we anticipated. Throughout the whole book, her voice feels monotone, like her soul is weary with this middle-ness.

I sat in church, listening to my pastor’s words over the eucharist, and I was filled with fear.

My palms began to sweat. I stared at the communion table. It was the first time I realized what awe felt like.

The magnitude of what I was about to do, the bread and drink that would pass my lips, filled me with a visceral fear.

I have never had that same experience again, but I long for it.

The silence at the power of God.

The knowledge that He is so much more than I think He is, and thank God for that.

What makes this night different from all other nights?

To look forward to the feast of the Lord, when all is made new. To look forward to breaking bread with my Savior. To be shocked into wonder.