“Sometimes in the morning, if there is rain on my window, I pretend one drop is our house and one drop is grandma’s, and I draw a path from our house to hers.” My daughter shared this sweet thought with my husband the other morning.
When we moved here eight years ago, this town was full of strangers. The other day my dad asked if this was home now.
This is where we drop our luggage after a long journey, where we sink into the couch and sigh and let the cats settle into our laps. This is where we’ve borne our children, where they sit for breakfast each morning and read the cereal boxes. When we drill our phone numbers into their memories for emergencies, it’s this area code they recite. When it storms, we look through these rain-sprinkled windows.
Our parents and siblings are spread now across five states. We point it out to the kids on our colorful United States floor puzzle, families several jigsaw pieces apart but still interlocking. The kids don’t completely grasp distance, even when we measure in movie lengths or numbers of naps. Their extended-family relationships have been shored up with video chats and holiday gatherings, with out-of-state trips, with relatives coming for weekends. We’d love to see our extended family more, but we’re thankful for the way they make our kids a priority however they can.
We’ve made the hours-long journey to grandma’s house more times than I can count, celebrated birthdays around her table even if they’re a week or two away or a month past. They’ve ran the span of her yard in superhero capes, rolled bocce balls down the slope of her hill, stood silently as deer made their skittish, graceful journey across her backyard. They’ve scaled playgrounds with their cousins, ran laps around my aunt’s house, carved pumpkins on their grandfather’s back porch.
My daughter can’t navigate a map, but she knows the path between two raindrops. Her fingertips trace the distance in breath on glass, knowing the people who love her are always close to home.
Last weekend, my mother-in-law came to visit, her car packed with luggage and her father’s old tools. She and my husband spent the weekend building a loft for my daughter, four generations intersecting on sawhorses in our driveway. Over the course of three days, hubby and his momma measured and cut, sanded and painted, drilled and assembled. When they were finished, we had a beautiful loft, painted blue to match the sky on the rainbow wall in my daughter’s room. There’s a butter-yellow platform with stairs that go halfway up, wide enough for a reading nook in the back, high enough to hide below. It’s amazing.
The bed is everything we want for our children. We’ve built something sturdy and beautiful, strong enough to support their wild moments, soft enough to catch them if they rise too high and bump their heads. It’s a safe place for the quiet, vulnerable moments, for reading and resting and dreaming. We try to parent like this, with great thought and labor. We seek plans, lay foundations in measured care, choose values that will hold firm as they grow, that will catch them softly when they fail and fall. We don’t parent perfectly, but we parent intentionally.
We are not nearly as intentional about our yard. Sometimes, when the weeds get too high next to our garage, I think I should just stick a scarecrow in the ground and call it our weed garden. When I start talking scarecrows, my husband knows it is time to pull out the weed wacker. This year, though, we’ve become accidental gardeners. First, one of my daughter’s teachers gave her a pack of flower seeds, which we planted in finger-dug holes in the front yard. Next, our neighbor offered us her gardening extras – two tomato plants and a pepper plant. (We accepted, largely due to my daughter’s recent hypothesis that green beans come from frog legs. Apparently we are in need of agricultural education.) We dug up the weeds from a sad flower bed in our backyard and planted them, along with some chives that another friend offered. We threw down a bag of mulch we found in a corner of our garage. For the next few weeks we watered our gardens, the flowers in the front, the vegetables in the back.
Then, I got pregnant. In the stomach-churning first trimester, it felt like we pushed the pause button on our lives – on play dates and museum trips and neighborhood walks. On grocery shopping, whenever I could avoid it. We were just getting by, and gardening was easily abandoned. And still, as the weeks went on, blossoms formed on our vegetable plants. Tomatoes started growing on the vines. The cutest little green peppers soon joined them. And, in our front yard, the flowers have popped up, blooming in brilliant colors on tall, leafy stems.
I believe our kids benefit from our measured parenting. I think God blesses the work parents do, the hard labor, the long, seemingly endless battles. Even at our best, though, we are limited. I’ve seen much grace in our lives in the last couple months, in my plants and my kids. The God who dresses the lilies of the field and the zinnias in my yard doesn’t stop when I’m exhausted and sick. In my just-getting-by days, in the times when intention fails, when my measurements fall short, he’s there. God is at work in the dark and overlooked places, breathing life into forgotten seeds, calling them forth to bloom.
As I write this, I’m six weeks pregnant. It’s the sweetest little secret, like carrying around a diamond in my pocket. Already somewhere deep inside me, the tiniest of hearts is fluttering. And even though this is my third go-round, this quiet miracle stuns me every time.
My head can never get too far in the clouds, though. “Morning” sickness keeps me planted, usually on my knees on the bathroom floor. When I’m not vomiting I’m trying ridiculous remedies like walking around holding a lemon to my nose. Some of my lousiest parenting days are unfolding right at this moment, like the other day when I laid down the whole afternoon and let my kids gorge themselves on Netflix videos. I’ve also perfected parenting from one place: hide-while-I-seek-you-from-my-chair and let’s-read-a-story-here-on-the-bed.
The first time, when I was pregnant with my eldest, I felt guilty that I was doing pregnancy wrong since I didn’t enjoy it. And then I felt guilty that my little lima bean would sense my negativity and grow up emo. The second time, I felt guilty that my one-year-old would be forever scarred by the days I spent hunched over the toilet instead of creating stimulating fine-motor activities. And now, with my healthy and well-adjusted preschoolers as testimonies to grace and resilience, I press play.
I have no energy, I have no appetite, but I also have no nagging guilt. Not much, anyway. So, there’s that.
This, too, shall pass. Meanwhile, hello again, Caillou.
I’ve heard people say morning sickness is a good indicator that the body’s producing enough hormone. I found it when I googled, so it must be true. But in my searching, I found something even more interesting: some scientists theorize that morning sickness and food aversions exist to protect the baby by preventing moms from eating toxins. Morning sickness usually abates after the first 14-18 weeks, which is when the organs form. Moms usually have aversions to meat, fish, eggs, spicy foods, certain vegetables – foods that, especially in the pre-refrigeration days, harbored a lot of bacteria that could damage fetuses.
I like this theory. In the past, morning sickness has been one of the many things rising against me first trimester, along with craving empty carbs and crying every time I read Tina Fey’s thoughts on motherhood. But now I’m realizing this ol’ body is with me, not against me. I’m praying each day for this sweet baby. I’m doing everything I can to be a haven for this child. And physically my body is doing the same thing, protecting even now, sheltering from danger. It’s a little unnecessary in these days of at-my-fingertips knowledge about listeria and nitrates and proper food handling. But still, I understand, this body fighting like a warrior for something worth defending.
Even at these early weeks, Baby, this truth is clear: I will always fight for you. I will always protect you. Even when it’s primal and a little violent and my eyes stream and my legs shake. Even when it’s undignified and messy.
I will be weak so that you can grow strong.
We’ve got a great playground in our backyard, a hand-me-down from friends who outgrew it. It’s far nicer than anything we could afford, and we love the chance for kids to work out their energy in a way that involves neither our couch nor the cats. Late in the day, the sun peeks through the trees and dances on my kids’ faces as they slide and swing and climb to their hearts’ content.
Last week, in the midst of play time, my daughter let out a shriek and exclaimed, “Eww! A bug!” My husband, who is our one-man bug patrol, was mowing the lawn with earphones in, so even when he was in view I couldn’t get his attention. (Well played, husband.) So I sauntered over, expecting an ant or spider. Two insanely ugly bugs were latched on to the underside of the platform. They were giant and gray with huge eyes and long, bent soul-crushing front legs. (They looked straight out of Starship Troopers, or what I think Starship Troopers bugs would look like. I didn’t see the movie because bugs are gross enough without Hollywood’s touch.) Inside I was saying “EWW! A bug!” but someone needed to be the grown-up, so I put on my best parent face. I said, “Wow! I wonder what kind of bugs they are? Now we have a science mystery to solve!” My daughter looked at me skeptically and said, “I think I’m just going to swing instead.”
I took photos (carefully, trying not to get too close) and shared them with a few friends online. One friend identified them as cicada exoskeletons. She told me the cicadas had already molted, and that the creepy things that looked so much like live bugs ready to devour us were actually empty shells. I was doubtful, but after doing some internet searches I realized she was probably correct. I found some cool molting videos and a coloring page of the life cycle of cicadas, and I showed my daughter. “Like a butterfly!” I cooed, which is true in the sense that I am like an Olympic athlete. But my kids were comforted by the fact that they weren’t alive, and my son was especially comforted by the fact that he could, with parental permission, whack something with a stick.
As soon as we got into the backyard, my kids dashed valiantly to the playground to knock down the cicada shells (which was a little scary, honestly, because I was only mostly sure they were just shells.) Sure enough, one gentle poke with a stick sent them falling down, empty and crumbling like paper. My daughter said, “I wasn’t afraid once I learned about ‘em.” And it felt like one of those “The More You Know” videos from the my youth, like maybe Tutti from Facts of Life would step out with the collar popped on her bedazzled jean jacket and say, “Cicada shells aren’t scary. They’re not even alive.” And then a star would shoot across the screen with a rainbow burst and a sprinkle of piano keys.
I think this is true: knowledge trumps fear. It was utterly ridiculous to avoid half of the playground because of bugs that were not even there. And I think of all the friends and opportunities my kids will miss if they grow into adults that let paper-tiger fears keep them from engaging the world. I hope I can teach them now that when they feel uncomfortable or afraid of something they don’t understand, they can ask and educate themselves and poke those fears with sticks until they crumble. And while some fears are valid, my kids don’t need to be shackled by those fears. They can rise, like stars. Like butterflies.
But not cicadas, because, ew.
It was beautiful, really. I am certain that not all inner struggles will resolve so neatly. But one day at swimming lessons (the second-last class), my brave little girl stopped panicking and started paddling.
I was out on the playground with my son, whose lessons come after hers. We’d relegated my husband to bleacher-moral-support duty, with his swimming background and his calmness and his promises to text me every few minutes with updates. But my phone had stopped working, so it wasn’t until I stepped into the pool area that I saw her.
On her own.
She paddled out to her floatie toy, then threw it further and retrieved it again, circling the pool in wide, happy arcs like a doodling pen. Her eyes were lit up with pride and we both kept smiling. My cheesy thumbs-ups got a little out of control and I think at least once I trumped them by throwing a fist in the air. (Looking back, I feel like I should probably be embarrassed, but I’m just glad that I didn’t actually open my mouth and yell, “Boom! That’s my girl!” like I was thinking inside.)
She got out and my husband and I covered her with accolades and a towel and wrapped arms around her in big drippy chlorinated hugs. Then she and I headed quickly into the locker room because we had business to take care of.
We had a bridge to climb.
We stopped in front of it so I could snap a couple photos, and she posed with her fists raised in front of her like a boxer. And then she raced off. She’s fast. I ran after, up the ramp with stairs spread out like platforms. At the top, she ran out into the middle and our hair blew around us and we shouted victoriously just as I’d imagined. She did a little dance, hips wiggling in the mismatched clothes she picked out, hair damp and tousled and wild. And then she went running to the end, and down the other side, and then back up again. Her sneakers pounded on the rusty metal, diamond-shaped openings framing the blur of cars below.
On the way down, she tripped and fell hard onto one of the platforms. And then got up, brushed it off, and challenged me to race across the field to the playground.
I was hot and sweaty. Out of breath and out of shape. I was wearing sandals that were not good for running. But I kicked them off and ran anyway, because her face lit up with shrieks of laughter.
Because every victory needs a victory lap.
And because, boom. That’s my girl.
Swimming lessons did not go well last week.
My daughter loved every moment of them until last week. She would skip around the locker room with freshly-toweled hair, pausing to say that she couldn’t wait till swimming again. But after weeks of kicking and paddling, the teacher decided they were ready to paddle by themselves. Although my daughter’s floatie was cinched around her waist and a pool noodle was looped under her arms, she was terrified. When the teacher let go, she froze in the water, legs stick-straight, arms wide, fingers splayed. She cried a guttural cry and then frantically grabbed for her teacher. When her teacher backed out of her grasp, she got angry and began screaming “STOP! Stop it! Stop!” until the teacher finally grabbed her pool noodle again. She spent the rest of the time whimpering at the side of the pool, trying to convince me to take her home.
As a parent, it was excruciating. As she flailed outwardly, my stomach twisted and turned inside. I’m wired to protect her and to keep her safe. For one crazy momma-bear second, I considered hopping in and grabbing her, rescuing the little girl who needed no rescue but desperately believed she did. But I know the way to keep her safe in the pool is to push through the lessons, even when she feels unsafe, so I relegated myself to cheesy thumbs-up signs from the bleachers.
I want her to be safe.
And this isn’t really about swimming.
Up until this point, parenting has been largely about enfolding. Hold her in my arms. Wear her in my sling. Buckle her into carrier, swing, and stroller. Make sure the gate is latched in the backyard, make sure I’ve got a tight grip on her hand in public places. Parenting has been safety-by-containing.
And now both she and I are learning new skills. Kindergarten looms on the horizon, school busses and mean kids and exposure to thousands of things that I’ve intentionally filtered out of her life so far. It makes me sentimental and nervous and scared all at once to watch her grow. (“Stop it! Stop!”) We’re both a little terrified. So she works on getting her ears wet, on her “scoopers and kickers,” and I try to figure out what she needs for the days when the buckles no longer hold her, when her legs are tall enough to jump the gate.
My husband always says that we can parent by building up walls to keep the world out, or by equipping our kids to thrive in the world. Safety-by-containing vs. safety-while-engaging. And although these heartstrings bind tighter than any five point harness on the market, I know this:
When it comes to what we’re building up, I choose her.
The boy across the street is learning to ride his bike. Just a couple weeks ago his dad was holding on to his seat for balance, and now his son takes off down the street, at once wobbly and fierce. His dad jogs behind him, close enough to scoop him up if he falls but too far to reach him before the ground scrapes his skin. Seeing the pride on both their faces, I know it’s not a bad thing, this ever-growing distance, skinned elbows and all.
Outside the pool, there is this gigantic pedestrian bridge that spans the road – a hulking eyesore with peeling sky-blue paint. My daughter’s fascinated by it. I’ve promised her that the day she paddles across the pool, we’ll climb it. I imagine us running up the ramps out to where the cars speed under us, our hair blowing in the wind. We’ll yell “We did it!” through the fencing and our words will get carried off in the traffic and the breeze, the two of us together, learning to swim.
Spring’s here, finally. Winter stayed past its welcome, but the tree outside our house budded anyway, defying day after day of snow and gray skies. It’s not pretty yet, but the grass is greening and those buds are promises hanging from the branch, ready to pop. I open the windows even though it’s still cold. I need to inhale spring, to close my eyes and remembering how sunshine feels on skin.
Everything’s ready to bloom, but I’m thinking about falling.
We love living in this community. There’s a lot of love growing in this place, and it often feels like we are smack-dab in the middle of it. As a mom, the fastest way to my heart is to sincerely love my kids, and I didn’t know so many people could fit in there.
There’s the friend who sent us this, back when my daughter’s tiny heart was just a flutter, back when only a handful of people knew she existed. Already in the heart of God, oh yes. What a sweet reminder.
There are the friends who brought meals and encouragement and rocking arms for a baby who was nicknamed “cry-cry” (and this new mother could’ve shared that title.)
The friend who helped us plan financially for our first child, teaching us one-on-one in her kitchen, my nauseous self nibbling my way to debtless one cracker at a time.
The friend who came over and taught me her couponing system, bouncing my little girl on her hip as she talked.
The friends who knit blankets, prayers stitched into the fibers that my kids snuggle even today, still covered by love and yarn and prayers.
When I got sick with baby number two, the friend who rushed over with a hospital-grade thermometer and swept my one-year-old off to the zoo.
The friends who, when my husband traveled out of town and my Caesarean stitches were not yet healed, stopped by to lift my toddler out of the crib each morning. And put her in at nap time. And lift her out when she woke in the afternoon. And back again at bedtime.
The friend who offered, instead of a meal, to clean my bathroom, Christ-hands scrubbing my grout.
Everything’s ready to bloom here, but I’m thinking about falling. They’re tied together, newness and birth and falling under the weight of it all. Falling, and being caught.
I think of those trust-falls that groups do for teambuilding, where one person stands with their hands across their chest and falls backwards into the arms of everyone else. When I was overtired and post-surgical and sick and falling, so many arms caught me.
When I think of that catching time, my hands still go to my heart.
My list above is from just one season of many we’ve lived here, and they’ve all brought blessings like sunshine. We can breathe deeply here. Extend our roots deeply. Fall a little more deeply each day.
For S and T
When I was growing up, I loved dandelions. My parents didn’t use chemicals on our yard, so as soon as the ground thawed and a couple spring rains came, dandelion weeds would pop up everywhere. I loved their sunny faces, their tiny lush petals, and the wispy puffs at the end of their life that would carry wishes off on the breeze.
(Once I picked a bunch and tried to sell them like a lemonade business. My mom bought them all up, either as a nod to my entrepreneurial spirit or a desire not to be known around the neighborhood as the weed sellers who lived on the corner. Now the local CSA has dandelion greens as a product, which proves I was just before my time.)
Usually, I’d pluck a bunch and make chains. I’d dig my thumb nails in to split the hollow stems in two, then tie the halves around the bloom of another flower, over and over. It was messy work, dandelion juice seeping out of the fibers. Sometimes I’d accidentally brush my hands to my lips and taste the bitterness. But at the end, I’d have a garland, a necklace, a crown.
I have a friend who blog is Blooming Joy. The subtitle reads “Finding the joy springing up out of the dirt.” In my head, I’ve always envisioned tiny seedlings in carefully edged gardens, rising up from tilled soil to burst into bloom. Today I’m thinking of those dandelions, leaves jagged like the jaws of their predator namesakes, pushing up and out in unexpected places.
My friend’s had her share of weeds. Stephanie and her husband Travis have dealt with some excruciatingly painful events invading like dandelions, unwanted and unexpected. They parented their infant daughter through health, illness, terminal diagnosis, and death. They carry wounds that are healing but not yet scars, that maybe never will be completely. They have experienced deep grief and sadness, but they’ve handled it all with such strength and love and honesty. They are not sad people; they are people of joy.
I appreciate their joy. It’s not greeting-card joy, born out of tidy platitudes that reduce life to simple sentiments. It’s faith-joy, joy that can stand even against the unanswered questions. It’s faith that God is not dead, that Christ’s absence from the tomb means God’s presence with us always, even in the shadow of the valley of death, even beyond. It’s faith in a Christ who, in the midst of his own suffering, knew there was still joy set before him.
They know, too – there’s joy still coming.
Joy rooted in faith doesn’t stop when we’re split open and hollow, when the bitterness is strong enough to taste, when our breaths exhale wispy prayers that fade into the sky. Faith-joy holds it all up to God, the bitterness and the blooms together, trusting that he will weave them into crowns of life.
It’s spring here, officially, although you wouldn’t know it from the twenty degree weather. A thin layer of snow covers everything like dust in an attic. Where the grass pops through, it’s brown and wilted. A season of plowing has left tire ruts in the ground along the driveways, a bent sapling, stray rocks on the lawn. A months-old snow pile sits at the end of the parking lot, shrunken and black with exhaust.
It’s still cold enough for scarves and gloves but I leave them at home. I’m tired of the barrenness. We walk out in the mornings and breathe through our noses, waiting for the scents of pollen and buds and soil. Our spring clothes are ready, sealed in plastic bins in the corner of the closet.
I long for children running and shouting in a place that is not my living room.
I long for forecasts that don’t use phrases like “wind chill” and “lake effect.”
I long for news stories that don’t use words like “victimized” and “unconscious” together.
This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I long for arrivals: for lush green palms to cover the dusty paths, for sun-kissed knees and shins and forearms and ankles, for breezes thick with life. For hope.
Come, Lord Jesus. Save us.
Last week, my daughter brought home a coloring page from Sunday School. On the back, she’d written her name in crooked preschool letters. She’d flipped around the Ds to Bs, so her name was a different name entirely. Underneath, her teacher had written capital and lower case Bs and Ds, and then my daughter had written her name again correctly.
Her Sunday School teacher is amazing. She has a doctorate in reading. In this house where we love words so much, that’s like being a rock star. I love the way she lovingly incorporates reading skills into each lesson. In her room on Sunday morning, it’s not God in one hour-long slot and literacy skills for another time. They’re all together; God and the gifts he’s given, wisdom and truth and kindness cresting over each other like waves.
My daughter’s name is important. I believe it is written on God’s hands, each letter inscribed across the flesh of his palms. I admit I’m not sure what that means entirely, but I believe those hands are actively working in the world. I believe they’re open and cupped with mercy, and my daughter’s life is written into that plan, steeped in that mercy.
A receiver of mercy. A bestower of mercy. That is what her name looks like.
I believe those palms rest on her teachers’ shoulders each day as my daughter writes her name, nudging, “Teach this child who she is.” So we work on the letters, parents and Sunday School teachers and preschool teachers together. With crayons on paper, we note the number of tines on her E, the directions of b and d. We’ll keep working until she knows her name like the back of her hands.
We’ll keep working till she knows herself like the palms of God.