follow the thread together

After 17 years of formal education, during which people told me what to read for at least three-quarters of the year, it was refreshing (and a little bewildering) to graduate from college and realize that I could now choose my own books. For a while I kept on picking from the should-reads, trying to form a good balance of Correct and Recommended Reading Material– I know this is an important classic, somebody I respect told me about it, I feel guilty that I was an English literature major but never got around to this one*. But then I realized that if I wanted to alternate frothy romances with 1500-page historical sagas, then plow through the complete works of Willa Cather, then pick up a completely unrelated book about Haitian healthcare or astronaut science, and then read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for the fifth time, nobody could stop me.

WOO HOO HOO it’s lucky I have a library card or there might soon be zero bucks left in our bank account.

Anyway, last summer I had a grumpy baby in the house and needed a truckload of levity to balance him out. So I checked out a string of comedienne memoirs. And this summer, as I watch my two oldest children figure out how to play well together, I’ve been remembering what Amy Poehler said about improv comedy: that onstage, you must always try to answer the other person with a Yes, and. Acknowledge what they said and then build on it. (“Look, a dragon!” “Yes! What’s it doing with that potato?”)

In the same vein, I am trying to encourage my girls to “play on the same side.” They need to receive the other person’s ideas as potential fuel for their own. Instead of each trying to seize sole control of the script, they need to follow the thread of the game together. They can’t be so tightly clamped to their original vision that unexpected suggestions threaten their mental stability. 😉 As they mature, they’re able to act more like an improv troupe–your success means my success–and less like two divas elbowing each other over the soprano role.

So then I start overhearing conversations like this:
“Let’s play Lick the Bug!”
“Ok. You be the fly and I’ll be the toad.”

Hmmmmm . . .

the two

*Lord of the Flies, The Color Purple, Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, anything by William Faulkner or Sylvia Plath…still have not read. Don’t intend to. And I finally admitted that I simply don’t like Flannery O’Connor. No thunderbolt of judgement yet.

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old lynchpins of identity

I have a note on my phone labeled “for talking,” a collection of all the stuff I would like to hash out with my husband but can’t even remember over the dinner table, where John flings macaroni onto his head and our daughters inquire about plant reproduction and the political history of New England. So this note gets pulled out on date nights, when we are holding cocktails instead of sippy cups. And it has also become a repository for Stuff Maybe I Should Write About, Or Just Tell Somebody About Because It’s Kind of Interesting.

One nice thing about being so flippin’ busy with motherhood? I have precious little time for guilt-trips about writing. I never blog, yet the world spins. My children grow– sometimes like weeds, sometimes like shyly blooming flowers. Friendships sprout in funny, unexpected, gracious ways. The long-haul investments that I’m making slowly accrue. And I realized last year, amid a panic over losing myself because of motherhood, that I’ve too narrowly defined my identity according to certain things I’ve accomplished– long in the past– and then I’ve believed I need to maintain those exact things in order to be THE TRUE AND BEST ME. So I had firmly framed myself as Writer Girl or Book Lady, and then trembled when changing circumstances threatened those traits. But those changed circumstances actually offered me new opportunities! To teach, to create beauty in my garden and house, to pull people together through persistent and honest hospitality. These are all such good things.  I was simply afraid to latch onto them and to admit that I’d drifted from my old lynchpins of identity.

(Hello, I am a risk-averse houseplant who loves safety nets and well-worn grooves.)

Sometimes bold faith means leaning stubbornly in towards a talent or interest that you have. And sometimes it means smiling peacefully as that talent appears to collect a bit of dust.

Though I think I’ll blow the dust off now and again.

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life in circles

I know my life will ultimately read as a line: beginning, middle, end. From that first spark of life given in the womb, to the march of divinely ordered chapters where I find myself now, to the last page when God finally carries his good work to completion, things are proceeding in one definite direction (and hallelujah for that). But linear as life looks from heaven’s viewpoint, I experience it in circles.

The circle of daily repetition. The circle of weekly repetition. The comforting yet sometimes heartbreaking circle of seasons, with each new spring or autumn bringing rich memories, but also a sharp realization that last year will never come again, we’ve moved on. And the constantly expanding or contracting circles of my capacity, which– for now– expand or contract according to the age of our youngest child.

Once past my first trimester, I can maintain a respectable level of energy and ambition right up until birth. But right afterwards: goodbye energy! Goodbye ambition! And I don’t mourn them much at first. I’m too busy kissing pink baby toes. Then once my body has healed and I’ve had my fill of cozy mornings in bed with a newborn, I get a smidgen stir-crazy. I remember all the things I’ve missed, again crave the physical and mental space that I need in order to do more than survive. Life has flattened. My brain has atrophied. Help! Do I ever get the deeper parts of me back? Do I ever get to stretch my wings outside of this nest of bare necessity?

Since adding tiny people to our home, I have treasured these lines from Psalm 16: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Yes, my brain resurrects from its postpartum daze. My wings find more room to flutter as the lines of my inheritance, so to speak, start to creep outward. But even before that, the portion was beautiful.

Twice now I’ve tasted a good season of fullness, able to breathe and imagine again, only to have my boundaries retract for another baby. I’m on the way outwards with John, I think. He sleeps, he plays, he squawks like a baby seagull when he’s happy . . . in the margins, I get to read giant novels and sketch out my summer garden. He still requires more attention than my first two but I’m feeling that returning freedom, that sense of being “me” again. I don’t have any plans to repeat the cycle. Not soon.

But with apologies to Winnie-the-Pooh, you never can tell with babies: if I had a dollar for every “unintended” child I know, I’d be able to take a pretty sweet vacation. It freaks me out sometimes. To lose my newly-staked space and retreat to a basic skeleton of life? Oh no. Yet the small portion is worthy. God would be there. (And a pregnancy isn’t the only thing that could suddenly change the lines. Who’s to say what other unexpected change might hem me in, perhaps even more long-term than a baby?)

For now, I enjoy my larger circle.

Without wringing my hands over when it will shrink again, and without depending too much on it staying as it is.

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courage in a long gray stumble

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

-Joshua 1:9

I wonder how many people, under what varied threats and catastrophes, have taken heart from these words. I like to visualize myself standing in their ranks. Locking elbows with others who lacked courage on their own, but drew on the diamond-hard presence of God for strength. I’ve never been one to seek out risk– and happily, my circumstances have rarely been perilous– but still I have fear. I have dismay. You don’t need to be a trailblazing missionary to tremble in your boots at the prospect of tomorrow.

Indeed, it’s the very smallness of my tomorrows that overwhelms me. The sense of triviality, of invisibility, of no one paying me any mind, of building nothing recognized by the world, of devoting myself to tasks– cleaning, feeding, encouraging, correcting– that vanish like so much smoke (and then clamor to be done again the next hour). I am terrified of wasting my life. And in the face of the massive frustration and waste built into mothering young children, I’m tempted to mutter “vanity of vanities!” and give up entirely.

This slog looks too long. This path looks too flat. This land looks too gray. I’m scared, I’m tired, I’m stumbling and I’m done.

Courage– where would that take me, if I had it? Maybe to a more exciting, fulfilling place. I could carve out a fascinating career, be a groundbreaking something-or-other. But that would mean chucking my children overboard, or at least neglecting the discipling and nurture they so desperately need from me. I know that many women faithfully combine the two, but I do not feel that calling. I toy with the idea, but for me, dramatically shifting my life away from its current pattern of motherhood and homemaking would be wilful force, not faithful boldness. God would not be there.

So the question is this: Is God here? Is he indeed with me wherever I go . . . even in this long gray stumble? Whether or not I believe this will make every difference in how I go on.

And I do believe it.

I believe that today, “strong and courageous” means staying. Opening my heart to my children and my hands to their needs. This is not wasting my life. It is not. It is not.

It means shutting my ears to the scream of the world, telling me that I need a platform! a brand! a polished resume! a Twitter following!!!!! Courage sticks out its chin and says no, fear and fatigue, you will not crush me. You cannot. It means accepting that this way of life will be hard; that its hardness will not be a signal to flee but weirdly a sign that I might be doing it right.

If I have this courage, I can jump into the void of the unrecognized.

You know, even without faith, I could still stay the course out of hapless resignation. Plod-plod-plod with eyes glumly on the ground. The other morning, though, as I read the first chapter of Joshua in between breaking up fights and mopping up yogurt, I had a flash of something further that courage might bring: joy. I am convinced that God not only sees what I do. He stands beside me as I do it . . . and “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

I’ll have to fight for it. But joy is there to fight for.

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a renaissance of silliness

One of the nicest surprises in mothering John (so far: he is a mere seven months old, with plenty of surprises yet to bestow) has been my own growth in humor. Ironically, our crankiest baby has done the most to increase my sense of whimsy.


I grew up in a lighthearted family– a home that valued deep thinking and hard questions yet where you could at any given time witness a GLOW-style throwdown between baby dolls, trip over a Napoleonic fleet built of newspaper, or hear some overly clever person, standing on his head, recite “The Jabberwocky” in an exaggerated Russian accent. The world was very serious, but we didn’t need to be quite so serious in return.

After I had Ellie, my fun sensibilities died off a bit. I was so burdened with the new responsibilities of motherhood that once the necessary things had been finished, I had no energy left to think outside of the box. And as my creativity typically feeds off other people, once I was facing down a nonverbal baby all day, I lost my edge.

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God with us, or, why I listen to Christmas music all the time and not just in December

I have always had an awkward relationship with my emotions. Tender feelings only escape me via the written word, and I fear that I never quite get them right, even then. Darker feelings– any wrestling, really, with the world’s cursed realities– I try to put to bed quickly. Run away from the canyon’s edge and you won’t fall in.

That sentiment nonsense is messy, and I hate messes. Especially if they involve crying. I prefer to stew about the problem for a while, talk through it with great animation and volume, and then Move Right Along. Even as a kid I lived a great deal of my life in books, happy to experience other people’s stories but uncertain about what I myself felt.

This is not a good way to live, I found out late last year, because emotions are human. They are a gift, a sharp reflection of God that we get to carry with us. Squashing mine for decades on behalf of convenience and pride was fairly unhealthy. So I stopped squashing. I started to let myself feel, and let myself be an absolute wreck, and often I have hated it– but it has been a holy thing because I have invited the Lord in, to the weakness and fears of my heart, the places that I don’t want to go and certainly never wanted to open up for visitors.

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in the shade of God’s kindness

So we finally had that baby: John Warren, the cutest and happiest one yet. He came at the tail end of May. At ten days overdue, I was anxious and achy and kind of mad. Went to bed on Friday thinking I might have to try induction, then woke up on Saturday in labor. Hurray! It went so smoothly and quickly– with the inevitable pain, but very little fear. I worried my way through Zoe’s birth, and I am so thankful for the courage that God gave me with John.

When I held him for the first time I forgot, at least for a while, the awful things about this pregnancy. All I knew was that a new soul had been safely brought into the world and I was miraculously going to be his mama. I knew that the dark places I had walked during pregnancy had not spoiled my child, that they had not placed any barrier between us or detracted from the love I felt for him. And on the way home from the birth center, I suddenly began to cry, overwhelmed with both joy and disbelief: we had done it. It had been so hard, both the carrying and the delivering of this baby, but we’d come through that wilderness passage and could stop a while in the shade of God’s kindness.

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