Make Room

I’m pumping gas on my way home. Black night, 25 degrees, a mean wind that licks you cold on the cheeks. No gloves. At six months pregnant, I can button but the top two buttons of my puffer coat.

I aim for $15 in the tank.

I’ve just left church, the warmth of my Mom-group Bible study, where we’ve nibbled banana crumble muffins and sipped decaf and talked about Psalms. The psalms, the same songbook Jesus sang from; but mostly, we’ve talked about those wet spaghetti things we call feelings. About how we are rational creatures, but also relational creatures, and God itches for us to climb up into His lap, for us to be candid about every heart twinge, cloudy doubt, and sea squall of the soul.

Every note, we agree, is a precious key on the piano. Yes. God can handle any song we pound out.

I am tangled in this knot of sticky thoughts for most of the drive home, and when I twist the front door, hands still raw and cold, I leave on my half-on coat but kick off the boots. I meet my husband in the kitchen, heave my purse down on the island.

“How did it go, with little guy going to sleep?” I ask, glancing up to the ceiling, as if I can see my 4-year-old through the walls.

“Good,” he smiles, and he’s hiding something. “He actually wanted to do something special at bedtime tonight.”

I wait.

“He told me he wanted to ask Jesus into his heart. So we prayed.”

*

Being a mom–now soon to be a mom all over again–keeps sobering me to the idea that I’m really just a mid-level manager. I’m really just stewarding something, hopelessly trying to steer the launch of some product that somehow also intends to launch itself. My kid isn’t some art project for tacking up on the fridge; he has a little heart, one that he owns. A little heart fitted with a little front door, and drilled into this door, a little peephole; one he squiches one eye as he looks through. I try to remind myself to be patient, that he alone decides when and why to lock or unlock it. To bolt or double-bolt. It’s a heart a mother aches to try to lead and knead and fight for, but ultimate, one that he owns.

He guards this door. I don’t.

Of course we have been praying. Every night, before bed, I press his hands into a little prayer sandwich, nestled between the two of mine. Like I’m trying to fold him inside me. Sometimes I brush my lips right by his ear, as we pray, to smell him, and we always slip in the hope that someday he, Patrick, will make the brave decision to open the door. To invite God to wipe off His boots and come in.

“After we prayed,” my husband said, “He looked down at his chest and asked if God might be a bit squished in there.”

I laughed.

“He worried he’d have enough room.”

I have to write that down, I think, and I creep upstairs. I push open the door we keep two inches cracked, the hall light barely glowing the room, and I can see him sleeping on his side, hands tucked tight beneath one ear, like a kitten balled up. He is a small hill at the head of the new twin mattress we set up just last week.

And yet the first thing I think is How did he get so big? 

How did it actually happen? 

I smile, again, in the dark, thinking of how he must have looked, at bedtime, bowing down and surveying his row of little ribs. How he must have crinkled his brow, thinking God just a bit claustrophobic, God’s big turret legs bent at the knee. God bottled tight as genie, one cheek mushed flat against the gold of the lamp.

I was in Target’s checkout lane several years back when a boy, maybe the same age that Patrick is now, looked up from the candy display, unglued eyes from the gummy worms and the Snickers bars and locked gaze with his mom. He asked: Who was doing that?

Doing what? 

He pointed smack at her belly, an insinuating finger. When I was inside of you, in there, being built? My bones and stuff. Who was doing that?

I don’t recall quite what the mom said, but I remember how she said it: in soft, dodgy sputters, with half-believing little shrugs. They weren't big-T Truths; they were the paper kind you'd crack out from a fortune cookie.

But the boy’s words seared into me, because they were intent, prosecuting.

Who was doing that?

I remember how his words stamped hot into my heart. I remember because there was more heat in his question than there was in her answer.

*

I stroke the swell of Patrick’s cheek before breakfast the next morning. I ask him about it, about his prayer. His cheek still reminds me of marshmallow.

“What made you want to?” I ask.

“I want to go to heaven,” he says.

Someday,” I tell him. Maybe warn him.

I won’t pretend he understands the full sweeping theology. Propitiation, I think. That was the word… the big, lawyery word that leapt out at me in our study the night before. I remember blinking at it, when it flashed on the TV screen, and thought: what a fat sinker of a word. Weighty word, heavier concept. Stop any stranger on the street, and they’d grope around explaining it.

I look at my boy in the white morning light that comes hot off the snow. I look at him and wonder, How well? How well do I honestly understand half of the miracles I dare to believe?

I think about this for days. And it’s only yesterday, looking down at my own chest and into my white journal, laying it all down so I never forget, that it dawns on me: that I have somehow lost the same wonder and worry. My preschooler can barely pencil his name, but knows enough to hesitate whether or not he is someone God can stretch big and wide into. He knows that he is small, that he is trying to shoehorn infinity into a soul the size of a seashell.

“Does He have enough room in there?”

I laughed. I laughed when I told my mom, my sister. But there’s a piercing purity in the question, and I wonder if I, as pastor warned just weeks back, have become a bit of a legend in my own mind. If I have forgotten my true size and scale. If I have in some way forgotten God’s.

Isn’t is a suburban proposition, that the God who jingles Neptune and Mars like spare change in His pocket would dare to dwell in so tiny a cul de sac? In a girl built of breath and bone?

That He could build galaxies and still be delighted to make home in the dusty part in me?

And when, exactly, did I come to think of this as metaphor, not miracle?

When did I forget the mystery, how He actually beats and breathes and lives in our hearts? When did I last worry, or wonder, or gasp at the insanity of it: the truth that I walk around daily with a piece of God crackling within? Not a docile, flickering, birthday candle flame, but a fire fierce enough to waste a forest?

Does He have enough room in there?

Mom: This Year, You’re Not Getting a Card

My soul curls up in the corners when I buy greeting cards.

Something in me balks at the convention, the grocery store rack of suggested sentiments, the playing GO FISH. Pluck one out. Crack it open. Scan, shake my head, set it back. Over and over until I find a match. A skeleton key. A few lines that unlock, sort of, the fuzzy things tucked low in the heart.

I hate the pressure, on a prescribed day of the year, to rouse all the right feelings. To re-visit everything that’s been implied (hopefully), and verbalized (hopefully), and (most importantly, most hopefully) shown on the other 364.

Worst: the scalping. $4.49 for that pinch of poetry?

I’m exaggerating only slightly. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and feel a certain dominion over words, a pride in telling them how to march, Forward! Maybe it’s because it feels non-intimate, having to bridge hearts with heavy cardstock. Maybe it’s because there are only ever two flavors: Silly-sarcastic and saccharine-sweet.

Would you prefer a good giggle, or to avail yourself of a pocket-pack Kleenex?

Mother’s Day: Funny

Mother’s Day: Sentimental

I need to find Mom a Mother’s Day card, but where is it?

I need a card that tells her how, a few months ago, I sat at a stoplight in the slow February snow and was overwhelmed by the certainty that, as much as I know her, she remains so much a mystery to me. This is something I became sure of as I watched home videos a few weeks back, and saw my mother, then my age, scooping young me up out of the mud puddle at a family reunion. She’s wearing a pair of cute short-shorts, her hair long, butter blonde, and swishy as she walked, and in that moment I became so suffocatingly aware of this: That my mom has whole histories that predate me. That I have lived so much of my life, nearly all of it, so innocently and indifferently unaware, so un-curious about who she was, and how, exactly, she got here.

This is the ignorance of childhood, sure. We’re receivers. Moms sweat out, and we sop it up, little sponges. We take.

Show me the card that says, “Mom, I’m sorry I haven’t listened to more stories. Mom, I’m sorry I haven’t asked more attentive questions. Mom, I want more of you. The whole you.”

Show me the card that admits to this woman who held me within her, rocked me over her hard-thumping heart, that while she put the world on hold to worry about me, I have not stopped to turn around and say thank you and worry enough about her.

My mom is probably the strongest woman I know, burying both her parents a month apart, at 39, and then Dad, at 45. Tugging us three wiggly girls to church every single Sunday for almost two decades, more or less on her own. Going back to college in her forties and huffing out the mandatory mile in that “freshman” gym class, next to teenagers. Launching a career after two decades at home. My mom isn’t a trooper; she’s Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Plunging forth. Life has sharpened its sword and sliced into her, but every single time she’s grabbed a needle and started stitching herself back up. Quietly, too. She is unslayed, unburned, refusing to wall off her heart, refusing to stop running.

Show me a card that burns white hot with that kind of daughter-pride.

Show me the gloomy card that tells her I can’t imagine life without her. That I have nightmares of it. Show me the card that tells her she’s the first person I want to run to with my savory bits of secret news. Show me the card that so perfectly tells her, even when I worry she’s forgotten it, that she remains the most beautiful person I know, not just inside and out, like the cliché goes, but in places that are beyond inside, and beyond out. Places I can’t lay a finger on, places I am still discovering, the older I get and the more I ache and the more I am impressed that she has done this mother-thing, this woman-thing, with worlds more patience and grace than I can imagine. Where is the card that gasps how fatigued I am by her example, because she is even beautiful to me in ways I still don’t understand? In ways I want to be more like?

Show me the card that thanks her, over and over, for sitting on the couch as teen-me cried over boys (or lack there of), and doubted my own ability to juggle a baby (or get one to quit screaming), and gnawed my nails down about stopping school and stopping work and changing majors and changing dreams and generally worrying, fretting really, over the warm shame of what others might think.

No one cared, and yet she did.

And she listened.

Mom, I’m verklempt.

I never knew how hard, how permanent, how un-undo-able this mother-thing was until I had a kid of my own, until I learned what it’s like to have part of your heart go walking around in somebody else’s body.

Until I had a kid I had to feed three times away, whether I felt like it or not. A kid that needs consistency, whether I feel constant or not. A kid that needs bedtime stories, and bubble baths, and for me to “look! look! look!” A kid that, today, leaned too far forward in the half-bucket swing and ate woodchips and bloodied his lip and wanted to nuzzle his runny wet nose right into the crook of my brand new spring jacket.

Mom.

There are no good words. Thank you for being my first fan, my first friend.

Thank you for being my mother.

How to Love Someone Who’s Gone

Can I tell you a quick story?

Last summer, shortly after the book was contracted, I spent the weekend at our family’s little lake cottage, just an hour south of Rochester.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom that afternoon. We’d just finished lunch, and our plates were stacked into a neat tower within the sink. The banana peppers were back in the fridge. I was talking to her, telling her how it felt like some part of this story remained unwritten.

Not unlived. Unwritten.

It felt like, as much as this book was about Dad, so much of him was still missing from it. It was like I’d taken a colander and tipped over the cloudy spaghetti water and strained the best bits of him out. Where was his minstrel magic, his Mary Poppins way of finding the play in everything? Memoir is about making room for other people, I know; it’s about scooting over and creating sacred space for them to sit, to see their story within your own…but had I moved too far over? 

Had I written Dad out of a book that I had been trying to write him into? Had the story become almost too much about the hollow, the world with him now gone?

The funny thing was, he wasn’t gone. Not all the way. And how could he be, if I was still finding bits of him carved deep in me? In the trickster maneuvers of my little sprite-niece? How could he be gone if he kept leaking out of our goofiest stories, the ones we couldn’t seem to stop telling around an orange fire? How is it that we still carry people forward, all these years later, and how is it that they still whittle and shape us? And how might these questions become even more urgent if we do believe in a coming grand finale, if we hug firm to a hope that we will one day meet up again?

What do we do in the meantime?

These are almost too important questions, but I knew I needed to try and swing at them, and that the book would be better for it. So I did the only thing I could think to: I pulled a chair out to the edge of the dock, and wrote.

And so there’s this chapter now, one which I lovingly call the “magic” chapter. It zooms you fast-forward to here, to now (ok, to last summer’s version of “now”), and it is some of my most audacious thinking, asking how, how, how in the world we carry such slippery things: Other people? Their legacies?

I’ll stop jabbering, and leave you with this…

And This: God Gives to The Naughty List

It’s 7 a.m. and I tell Patrick to get my slippers. I poke my feet out from the sheet at the side of the bed, wiggle my toes, shiver-saying, Brr, they’re cold.

He pans the floor, finds the pair, stands up, slippers me, but backward.

“Other way, Doodle.” I shake one back down to the floor. “You’ve got the left one on my right.”

“Oh, yes,” he nods, makes the swap, re-covering them so they pitch the right way.

And then I swing feet down to the floor.

  Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

Maybe I should be embarrassed that this is how we do Mondays. That I make my toddler fetch (but in my defense, my mom went even further, making us girls brew her coffee back when we were small enough to have to consult her, every morning, about dose: Mommy, I forgot–how many “leaping” teaspoons?)

Once I’m slippered and sufficiently caffeinated, I upshift, slippers to sneakers, and we drive to the gym. I deposit Patrick in childcare, tell the workers I’ll be on an elliptical, then pop in ear-buds and dissolve into podcasts. I am catatonic and happy and hamster-wheeling for 45 minutes before I squirt down the machine and unthread my wires and wipe my brow, one quick sip of warm fountain water before I requisition the kid.

He sees me and smiles and sprints to the gate, hand still twining a fire truck toy.

“Time to go, buddy,” and I tap the Hot Wheels. “Engine stays here, though.”

You see where this is headed, right? Know how it ends?

With me working back finger by finger, peeling the red sucker out? And how, with each small surrender, he’s writhing more and more, frenetic about shaking me loose, rocketing his volume up, UP, UPPPP, like maybe there’s actual glue on the skin, like I’m leaving whole swaths of it bloodied and stuck behind?

I put him on hip and start walking, fast. And he presses his little mouth like a megaphone to my ear.

I. WANT. MY. FIRETRUCK.

“It isn’t your fire truck.”

(Snot-sniffles, then the reprise. Louder.)

I. WANT. MY. FIRETRUCK.

I set him down beside our car. Squat, find his eyes, then his ear, the left one. I tap it like it’s the head of a microphone. Testing, testing. Is this thing on?

He thinks I’m funny when I do this (or I pretend that he does, because I think it’s funny), but the point is, I’ve got something to say. I speak softly and sternly and wrinkle my nose in supreme mommy-concentration. Slit my eyes into severe little slots, so he knows: This is important. This is business.

And then I start singing, and it’s a warning, ominous:

Oh, you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry…

And like that, there I am, in the parking lot, preaching the holy fear of Santa. His everywhere eyes, his fussy bookkeeping. I am indoctrinating my child in the great cosmic accounting that is Christmas, making sure he keeps an eye to his back, always minding the hidden cameras, because Big Brother Santa is nothing if not a persnickety and adjudicating fellow, his red jelly bowl jiggling as he tallies your score.

And will you move forward? Rack up enough for the good list?

By the time we get buckled into the car seat, the whimpering has nearly stopped.

I meet Patrick in the rearview mirror.

“Are you a nice boy?”

He is tentative, even in the eyes. The answer’s slow.

“Yes.”

“And Santa brings presents to the good little boys, right?”

It slips out, the whisper of a grin. This time, the tone’s brighter, a flush of hope.

“Yes.”

I put on a blinker at the light, and that’s when I realize I’ve set up the math so simply: Be good, get good.

Green arrow, I take my left.

I am teaching my kid karma, I think. But I’m sure not teaching him Christmas.

 

***

See, God.

God, the Father, a perfect a parent as I am not, I am just now, the next morning, here in my kitchen, remembering something. That he has but one list, and it’s this: the short-fallen list.

The not-perfect, not-holy, selfish-and-ingrown list. But it’s the preening list, too: it’s for all of us who are so good at peacocking, prancing around cute and proud.

A list for all of us whose best deeds are day-old dish rags and smudged finger paintings and gravelly skinned knees from all the lusty acrobatics, all the leaping and lunging and running and trying, breathlessly wanting to be enough, but here we are: Not enough.We’re polishing clumps of clay, scrubbing them down until there’s nothing left but our mud-mangled hands.

So, he’s got a list, too, God does, with every last one of us on it.

And here is the wild part, the deviation, the hold-on, hey-stop, can-you-rewind-that moment: Do you see it now?

Play it back, slow: See him sweep over the list and check it twice and frown and nod and look at his palms, then nod again and do some kind of manual override on the whole system?

See him wrapping it, swaddling it actually, his best gift, himself? See? Because here it comes: He’s sending it down anyway, because he so totally and instinctively loves, because that’s his whole nature, to reach out and stretch out and love us even while we are yet…

Is it just me, or are you, too, just now finally getting it?

The insanity, how it’s just backwards, a total plot-twist? Unprecedented, sure, because look:

He’s giving the Gift to the naughty list.

 

***

I am one kids’ pageant, three peppermint lattes, and fourteen dozen peanut butter balls into my season. Two tree-fetchings, too (we helped the in-laws cut theirs, then dragged ours up from the basement). My shopping’s done, the babysitters queued, Pandora set to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas Radio, and yes: we have watched Frosty eight times.

It still hasn’t snowed, at least not enough to stick, and I’ll be honest, I’m finding it tough to jostle my head into quite that right place, the one you try to dial into this time of year. It’s like I’ve got a bum set of bunny ears, bad antennae, and can’t quite get a station, just some scrambled fuzz. I know it’s unseasonably warm, but I also know this has got nothing to do with the thermostat, because Christmas isn’t a kind of climate any more that it’s something you wrap, or sugar dust; I know you can’t roll it out smooth with your old wooden pin, or punch it out, shapes from the dough, or tray it up in the oven, because it isn’t something you frost, or Amazon-order, or dollop with cinnamon dots, or ship for free, or even, let’s face it–and this last one might be the kicker–it’s not something you even actually feel.

I know, in the head, even in the dark of the heart, that Christmas isn’t that flimsy, but I treat it that way. Every year. I don’t know why, but I baby it, try to shim it all up, set it in place, so carefully. I do. I still always treat it like some breezy thing; something finicky, something that flutters around and you try to get your clumsy hands cupped around it the exact smack moment it pauses to land. Christmas isn’t as slippery as I make it out to be, but my lungs forget. They huff breathless, anyway. They forget what some part of me knows even deeper: that Christmas is firm, cold fact.

That it is truth, it is gospel, a piercing, probing Light slicing the darkness, a nail driven, the white bright fire of the un-overcomable dawn, rising on a new kind of kingdom, a new kind of economy: Where justice is served and now look, mercy is set hot on the table.

I know that Christmas isn’t the party, but the invitation.

Stop it, stop it, stop the striving already. 

I know that Christmas isn’t how you arrange the plates or fold the napkins, but this: God, in spite of everything, laying it all out for us.

Not whether or not we deserve it, but because he’s so darn sure that we don’t.

 

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Isaiah 9:2

 

The Bravest Prayer

I put a premium on honesty, and on your time, so this year’s turkey missive will be mercifully bare and brief:

Does your heart feel a bit fuzzy, like it’s swaddled in too much cloud cover, like you can’t bring it close enough to the surface? Like it’s thick, like it’s feeling full-time, so sore for friends whose tables aren’t going to be set quite the way they’d want?

Pull up a chair.

Today, Thanksgiving, I keep thinking about what it even means to be grateful, and how to do that when in some ways you actually aren’t, when you look down into the bag and it seems someone has screwed up your order, when you are so hungry and so sure that you paid for something better.

And you wonder: How in the world you can trick yourself into the emotion of the day, thanks.

So: If you are having a hard time saying this, saying thanks, maybe a smaller goal today would be this: Saying ok.

Not ok, “it’s ok,” because maybe it’s actually not, but “ok,” it’s ok, because it will be ok, somehow, somewhere, someway. Eventually. Eternally. Ok, then, for then, even if it is not exactly ok now.

I keep thinking of Mary, and the walloping news: You are going to bear God’s baby. You are going to have to let go and move over and set your table differently: You are going to have to make room for heaven.

Know it’s all happening a bit out of order. Know you weren’t expecting this, and yet, ready or not, get set, go: You are the humble avenue God wants to use for his greatest gift.

Mary’s prayer, her Magnificat, is one of thanksgiving, and praise, sure, but maybe it is also one of submission, of being small and scooting over; of incredulity, that God still sees the humble, that still he pays on his promises, that still he remembers us.

That he still wants to use us.

That he still notices.

Maybe, as much as it is a bold and warm and effusive thank you, thank you, it is a bowing prayer, too, because bravery always starts that way, with the head hinged.  With an illogical “it’s ok” prayer; not because the details are all ironed flat or the flight is smack on time, but because God says so, and God’s say-so is bankable, backed, secured.

Maybe it can be ok, will be ok, because he is God, because he is working all things on the loom, weaving all impossibility, the hurt and the hopes and the how-comes.

It so it can be ok. Even when it’s not.

And maybe we can start here.