Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Hopes and Fears of All The Years

I finished The Birth House, by Ami McKay, on the plane back from Florida this week. (Swimming in the sea in the days before Christmas is a childhood memory come back to life. Somehow it seemed right. One particular swim, just after dusk on the Tuesday evening after the eclipse, was marked by the bloodred rising of a full moon out of the belly of the Atlantic. The moment was mystical. If I were Aztec, I would have fallen to the ground in fear. As it was, we all stared in awe at this orb rushing out of the horizon; even the waves seemed to forget to roll.) But back to this beautiful book about a remote Nova Scotian fishing village, Scots Bay, during WWI and the decades beyond, and its women healers who helped "sing the babies down."

Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born to a Rare man in generations, is taken under the wing of Miss Babineau, an aging and wise Acadian healer and midwife. Miss B. trains her to take her place among the women who marry, birth and die in Scots Bay during the 1920s and 30s, before running water, electricity and hospitals with maternity wards.

Dora's experiences are revealed to us partly through her journal. I was moved by her entry for December 26, 1917:

December is a month shadowed in darkness and fear. With every lamp blazing, with oranges and stockings, ribbons and holly, whether Christians rejoice or not, this is the truth of the season. As a young girl, I felt the shock of the annunciation, my belly sinking into hurt every time I listened to Gabriel standing winged and menacing over Mary. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee . . . Not once did sugar plum faeries dance through my window on Christmas Eve. Instead, my dreams were filled with the hiss of Gabriel's whisper bringing the terrible message that heaven had made a mistake and I was to take the Blessed Virgin's place. With a blanket over my head, I would wait for the dawn knowing that poor Mary must have suffered more than anyone ever knew. That in that hour, she swallowed the spirit of the Christ Child down into her belly, crying into the night, knowing He would have to die. [Some] might call it blasphemy, but when I told Miss B. about it, she said, "That's a sacred dream. The blood you share with the Holy Mother is what sets you achin' like that. The same blood she shares with all women."
Having and raising children must be perhaps the most faithful work ever. After all, we cannot see their particular end. No matter how hard we try, we cannot even control their particular path. Too often we find ourselves kicking up against the immovable force of who this child really is. And, there are times when we have to stand and watch, knowing that the particular steps are their journey to take. We cannot take those steps for them. To try to is to deny our children the benefit of learning through experience those things that cannot be learned any other way.

Yet, there is something I believe we mothers can do. Dora tells it this way.

She and Miss B. are preparing to help Mabel, "a plain living and dependable" mother of two, birth her third. Dora cannot help but notice Mabel's effect on her family as she sends her children to her neighbors so that she can concentrate on "do[ing] what she needs to" without "frettin' over givin' them a fright."

Her belly almost too wide between them, Mabel leaned towards her shy, quiet husband, giving him an awkward kiss on the cheek. She tousled the hair on her little girls' heads saying, "You be some good for your auntie. Mind your daddy and say your pleases and thank-yous." Two little strawberry-blond heads nodded together as they looked up at their mother, smiling, reaching out their hands to rub the roundness of her one last time. . . . Big as a barn and nearly ready to drop, Mabel Thorpe still made motherhood look easy. Miss B. says, "It's a mama's faith what keeps her children right. I'm not talkin' 'bout the churchgoin' kind, neither. Miss Mabel's got faith in goodness. Tell me you can't help but believe in it too just by lookin' at her."
Faith in goodness. That's within our grasp, to believe utterly that at the root of this world and the hearts of others lies goodness, and to show our children that this is so.

Merry Christmas.

Title, from "O, Little Town of Bethlehem."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tomorrow Never Knows

I am a very capable person. I know how to work hard. I can even work smart sometimes. I'm good at solving problems. I know how to plan for all eventualities: Say we go to the lake, in the middle of July when the temperatures 105. Well, I've got extra towels, a flashlight, toys for nieces and nephews, sweatshirts and pants of all sizes (even sizes my kids are not), enough food for two meals—in case we decide to stay overnight or maybe the glacier pulls loose above Stewart Falls and blocks the canyon road, I don't know. I coach soccer with two extra jerseys, of both home and away, two extra pairs of socks and shin guards, three water bottles, two goalie jerseys of different colors and an extra pair of goalie gloves. I like being (over)prepared. It takes the guess work out of everything for me. There are no unimagined eventualities. Call me pessimistic, call me anal, call me compulsive but knowing that I have a pair of cleats, or shin guards, or three pairs of socks, and a 401K in the back, allows me to relax, and focus on the task at hand.

For the capable, like me, faith as a working principle is not really a necessity. When you're well-educated, married to a good man, the daughter of good parents, and the mother of healthy, mentally stable children who haven't yet flown right off the edge of the cliff when they've tested their wings, faith as a working principle is more of a purse dog. You carry it around, it looks pretty, but it doesn't really have to do much work. By this I mean, my life, its traditions, culture, communities and people, have prepared me to be able to make my way. And if I can't make my own way, I know people who can help me find the way. The future has always taken care of itself, because I have been able to take care of myself.

Lately though, the future's been a little less controllable, a little less viewable. Despite all the counting, the scrutinizing, the planning and knowing and extra pairs of shin guards, there are some days and months even I can't see how it is to be done. By "it," I mean anything really—finding employment, envisioning a child's future, making sure he hands in his assignments in college, carrying out necessary educational goals, meeting financial obligations, preparing for the next soccer game, trying to teach moving off the ball into passing zones, or procuring the fiancĂ© visa from the American Embassy in Amsterdam in time for a wedding—anything where intellect and reason cannot see, let alone make, a way through. You know those moments (days or months): when you look ahead and it's like your life screen suddenly switched to Aux2, and no amount of pushing the remote is going to get it to play Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

It's not a place I'm comfortable in. "I don't know," is not an expression that sits easily. On those rare days, in my employed state, when I could see the edge of the abyss and had no solution, I have traditionally resorted to hyperventilation, then chocolate and white bread. Loads of chocolate and white bread. That's not a healthy place to be. Filling the hole in the center of me with food and chocolate, while questions in the vein of "what am I . . .? what are we to . . . ?" run through my head. It's the controlled panic of those with a little faith; people like me who keep faith groomed and tucked, like a Shih Tzu with a pink ribbon, in the Sunday bag next to the lesson manual and a spare bag of Swedish Fish.

Lately, I'm learning to stand in a more faithful place. It's really hard work to stand there, and remain there. This is no miniature schnauzer faith. This is blue heeler, English pointer, Kentucky bloodhound faith. Faith that keeps eyes fixed forward, nose tilted in the air, body low to the ground. Faith that listens for whistled or spoken commands from a voice it knows and trusts. Faith that moves forward, following a whispered scent of something that passed that way before.

I used to watch sheepdog trials on television when I was a teenager. (Television had just come to South Africa. We'd watch anything including sheepdog trials and bowls a.k.a. lawn bowling). A huge hillside, a group of long-legged, black-faced sheep huddled on one side of the bowl, a small pen tucked somewhere on the other side of the valley from where a single figure and a single dog stood. The camera would focus on the dog, on its eager eyes, its tongue hanging out, its body low to the ground, just waiting for a command. Could be a whistle, a low "walk on" even a hand gesture, and off the dog would race, down the hill, across the stream, like a streak of black-and-white against the green. From above you could hear a string of whistles and chirps as the handler directed the dog toward the sheep at just the right angle to start the corralling process. Sometimes the sheep would head straight for the pen, sometimes they'd run, like startled chickens. The dog kept on working, head cocked, making adjustments, right turn, left turn, creep slowly forward, dash to the rear, its eyes would never leave the sheep. Listening, always listening. That's working faith. Faith that waits, at the ready, listening. Then moves forward steadily, into space, moving toward a pen it sometimes cannot see.

What does Margaret, black-and-white Border Collie, think, when she sits there, at the crest of the hill, next to the leg she knows so well. Down below she sees the pen and the sheep. Do thoughts of "You seriously want me to get those sheep into that pen . . . again? " Does she recognize the stubborn ewe with the white socks that always, always takes at least three others with her somewhere else, and roll her eyes? Does she worry, "What am I going to do with that ewe? Why can't you get a different group of sheep?" Does she, eyes closed, lower her head onto her paws in fear that she just won't be able to get those sheep in the pen this time?

When she hears, "walk up" coming from the hill telling her to approach the sheep in a straight line, does she think, "I really think I ought to go right, around that knoll and sneak up on them from behind. Walk up's kind of a dumb approach to take right now. Besides if I walk up, then I've got to go through the thistle, and that hurts." When she hears, "take time" and knows her handler wants her to put more distance between her and sheep that are easily spooked, does she barrel on forward because she wants to get those sheep in the pen as fast as she can. From what I remember, Margaret sits, enjoying the sun, sensing the change in the pulse around her, catching the wafting scent of lanolin on the air. Waiting at the ready, trusting that her handler will send her and direct her as he always has in the past.

I recently finished Matterhorn, by Karl Malantes, a novel set in the Vietnam War. In one chapter, two black soldiers, who have opted not to go on a nighttime mission (which is sure to mean death for at least one of the squad), start a conversation in the silence they are left in when their platoon leaves without them. This exchange captures for me the hard work of a working faith.

"You think we go to heaven when we die?" Jermain asked.

"I don't think nothin'. I believe Jesus take care of us when we die." Cortell looked at Jermain. "Believin's not thinkin'."

Jermain took that in for a while. "What if you're wrong?"

Cortell laughed. "What if you wrong? You been worse off than me all you life. I got the safe bet, not you."

"I didn't say I didn't believe."

"No, you just playing it safe and not choosin'. Jesus don't want you to play safe. You don't get anyplace if you don't choose."

"I don't want to go nowhere but back to the world."

"Yeah, I be right there with you." Cortell said. He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Ever'one here think it easy for me. I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-going Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles. Well, it just don't work that way." He paused. Jermain said nothing. "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued. "I see my friend Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine. What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelelujah? You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose my heart." Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words. "I lose my heart." He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control. "I sit there and I don't see any hope. Hope gone." Cortell was seeing his dead friends. "Then, the sky turn gray again in the east and you know what I do? I choose all over again to keep believin'. All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool. I choose anyway." He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him. "It ain't no easy thing." (Karl Malantes, Matterhorn, 466).


I live surrounded by flowers. As the sun shifts lower into the sky, and the temperatures break from ungodly hot to blissful, the garden beauties are having their last hurrah. The pot plants have burst into a second blooming now that the scorching mid-summer sun has passed over head. The Echinacea, the English daisies, the fall asters, the foxgloves, nasturtiums, bellflowers, zinnias, and English geraniums, even the scullery maid petunias, are giving it all they've got left on the back slope and in the front beds. The immigrant sunflowers, who've taken root at the edges and hems, are pushing ten feet, despite the limbs and heads they've donated for my vases all summer long. All these plants need is water, light and soil, in the right ratios and consistencies. Give a foxglove morning sun, afternoon shade, and long, soaking water, and it's remarkable what it can become. Give the Russian sage relentless heat all day long and little water, and it thrives, turning dry places, like Las Vegas traffic islands, into cloudbursts of lilac.

Matthew tells us to consider the lilies of the field, "they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet, I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Matthew goes on to admonish, "Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, 'What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . Take no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."

Just what exactly is it we're supposed to consider about these flowers. I think it's the grace and steadiness with which they grow and prosper: "they toil not, neither do they spin." This capacity to become, without wasted effort and worry, I am coming to learn so very slowly, is part of a working faith. I'm coming to know from the pit of me that when, like Cortell, I choose to continue to believe, the necessary happens, not through my own efforts, but through generous divine attention that has noticed me and will cause events to come together in a way that my "morrow" is sufficient.

Sometimes, I try to envision what the creation of this earth must have looked like. The creative team is told to cause the dry land to appear, to cause the sun and moon to appear, to cause the earth to be filled with moving creatures and all forms of plant and animal life. What must it have felt like to stand, at the edge of uncreated space, and to start in motion the movement that would cause the earth, the oceans, the skies above to appear? That's the faithful place. The place inside us where we stand and choose to believe the story and to speak the words, when ahead—as far as we can see—is only raw chaos, unrefined, unmoulded, a nothingness.

It's the time between the spoken word, the articulated need, and the response that is my greatest schoolmaster of faith. I've filled this space with panic and pleas. It doesn't do anything except make me so nervous I can't breathe. Yet time goes by all the same. Whether I choose to breathe deeply or to hyperventilate has no effect on when the manna comes. As I look back on this learning curve, I am half-embarrassed at my flailing, my wailing, and my nervous motions as I wait for God to work his will. I almost don't doubt that God will be able to work things; but, it's as if I must have been convinced that the volume of my distress (the sighs, the deep breaths, the panicked walking up and down the mountain, the talk-talk-talk at Kevin) could somehow speed up the response time.

I only wish I could have been more poised in my faith place. I'm getting there. Being a part of conclusions that are more than the sum of what I am or can do creates poise, because I come to know, again and again, that all I can do is walk and work towards and into. The manna always comes.

Title, "Tomorrow Never Knows" by Bruce Springsteen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Difficult Part

Let the fragments of love be reassembled in you.
Only then will you have true courage.
–Hayden Carruth.

WE HAVE A PAINTING in the hallway to our bedroom. It’s called “Lovers Running” and shows a man and a woman dressed in white on a green hillside, holding hands, and running in their bare feet. Sometimes I get the title mixed up and call it “Running Lovers.” (I imagine they’re running away from their house filled with dripping toilets, incontinent bulldogs, and children with science fair projects that need to be done.) The same artist, Brian Kershisnik, has another painting called “The Difficult Part.” It shows a man and a woman in black leotards trying to perform a gymnastics move. One figure is standing on his hands while the other holds the feet. The woman holding the man’s feet is trying to balance one of her feet on his upended head. While the bodies look smooth and pliant, the move itself looks difficult and the stance is clumsy. Brian has said this piece is his metaphor for marriage. I know what he means.

I am, even after all the feminist seminars and graduate degrees, a die-hard romantic. I read them all: Jane Austen, Anne of Green Gables, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, even Anne; Little Town on the Prairie; Love Story; Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Wuthering Heights, not to mention the forbidden-by-my-mother Mills and Boon romances I would buy for five cents at the used bookstore or the Saturday fete and hide in the upstairs bathroom towel box. So my image of marriage involved both of us eating breakfast on the outdoor patio of a restaurant with yellow-and-white striped awnings and wrought iron chairs, laughing at something as we ate raspberries and cream, followed by bacon and brie on crusty rolls.

I had not envisioned fights. I had not envisioned aloneness. I had not thought of separation, of doing on my own, and of difference. I certainly had not contemplated dishes. Dishes had not been a regular occurrence in my childhood, growing up as I did in South Africa in the apartheid era. I think Kevin entered marriage realizing it would entail dishes but not thinking it would be his responsibility, growing up as he did in Provo, Utah, a place that fought vigorously against the ERA. As a result, it was sometimes days before dishes got done in our new house. I probably walked by and looked at the sink and thought, “Wow, look at those dishes.” He walked by thinking, “For the love . . . look at those dishes. When is she going to do them?” It didn’t really cross my conscious threshold that those dishes were, in any way, my responsibility—at least not more than once a week. And they certainly weren’t more my responsibility than his. Such is the assumption built into a woman raised with domestic help. I knew how to work hard. It just had never involved dishes before. (I still wake up every morning and hope for housekeeping.) I believe it took about a decade for the idea that dishes must be done daily to sink in.

While dishes might be a simple thing, they are an emblem of the unexamined assumptions and expectations we enter marriage with. Some, myself included, thought marriage was an endless love affair, and we’re continually disappointed the first, fifteenth and hundredth time we find ourselves doing the laundry or the fourth grade Indian report alone. I don’t know how often I have stood in my son Christian’s room, or the laundry room, or surrounded by 300 unmatched socks and thought, “Who signed me up for this?”

It would have been good, at the beginning, to decide the following: Who does what and why? Who folds our socks? And, are those socks pinned or tucked? Who cleans our toilets and cooks our food? Who pays our bills? Who spends our money, and on what? Who makes our money? And why do they do it? Because they’re good at it, they enjoy it, hate it less than the other person hates it, don’t mind doing it, have more time, or (please . . . no) they are a man and a woman.

Do we hold hands in public, and rub feet under the table? What about Santa and the kinds of gifts he brings (are they wrapped or unwrapped)? What constitutes devotion and modesty? What about nudity in front of the children, about sex, about talking about sex and euphemisms for sex, about football on Sundays, about sex on Sundays, and dessert after dinner. About spanking children, raised voices, what exactly constitutes swearing, and which words on which continent? Whether it’s better to read a book in the middle of the day or clean out the back of the car. How to fight, which includes reading minds, reaching out, who apologizes first, and how long any particular marital Cold War will be allowed to last. Because, as much as it alarms me, we fight—not well, very quietly, but still cold fighting.

Still, after twenty years of living together, Kevin and I still don’t read the situation accurately because of the assumptions we brought. Just last week, Christian and I were doing an experiment for his junior biology class. It involved Jell-O and laundry detergent and enzymes. I wanted to go all out, with photos and a visual timeline of the changes in the Jell-O’s surface structure. He wanted the Ford Pinto version of the experiment. So, while we set up, we debated whether we needed the camera and the ruler and the spotlight. I was talking over Christian; he was talking over me. He might have called me “Tessa,” and I might have accused him of taking the lowest common denominator approach to life. We bumped into each other and grabbed things from each other. I probably uttered a guttural “Ugh!” or my standard, teeth-clenched, “Child of mine” in frustration.

Kevin stood at the stove watching us. Then he said sharply to Christian, “Don’t talk to your mother like that.” I looked up in surprise. “Like what?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. “Raising his voice.” I looked at Christian; he looked at me. We squinted at each other and cocked our heads, as if to say, “What’s his deal?” We both said, “We weren’t arguing. We’re just figuring out how to do this.” “Oh, well, it sounded like arguing to me.” I’m thinking, “And so what if we were arguing . . .”

After some thought, the penny finally dropped (hanging, as it had been, over my obtuse slot for twenty years) that this soft-spoken man had been raised by soft-spoken parents, who probably didn’t raise their voices when they said, with regularity, “Damn it to hell, Kevin, what did you do that for?” On the other hand, “cackle” and “raucous” and perhaps “irreverent” are the words that spring most easily to mind when encountering two Meyers in one room. Not right or wrong, just different. But this difference strikes at the heart of Kevin’s assumption about a happy home, and I become troubling to him. It is only the last few weeks that I realized my way of expressing myself loudly, viscerally, is, at some level, still disconcerting to Kevin. He doesn’t know yet that my noise, like a blue jay, is just to mark my presence and means no harm.

Comes a time when the answers you thought you knew don’t work for you, or you don’t work in them. When the conclusions you reach or are being drawn to (and are a little reluctant to own) are different than the dreams you dreamed together watching sunsets while eating burnt almond fudge. Experience brings want into sharp focus. After all, it is easy to shoot for the stars before the story’s even started. But when you’re in the middle marriage chapters, it may become clear that, even though you dreamed about a four-volume historical biography with him, the marriage you are capable of and interested in delivering is more like a quick summer read or maybe a slim volume of poetry published posthumously. The question is, how to tell, especially if in the telling, you trample his dreams.

After four children, I’d had enough. Not that the Lord had told me I shouldn’t have any more children. I was just done. Kevin wasn’t. I was. I suppose I could have decided to have just one more, to really prove my devotion. I probably would have loved it anyway. But I didn’t want to. Four was my limit, the place beyond which I just couldn’t go. Is that the line at which my faithlessness manifests itself? Perhaps. There are moments when I wonder, as I look at my four, what another would have been like; sometimes, I apologize to Kevin for not having another. I traded in our dream of driving the gleaming black Cadillac Escalade of families and provided Kevin, instead, with a serviceable, tan Ford Taurus.

In replying to my questions (which were really missives seeking his blessing to stop), Kevin’s response to my unwanting was always, “You know what I want, but you’re the one who has to have them.” Just last weekend, we were catching up lives with one of Kevin’s high school friends. Jay, who played forward to Kevin’s two-guard, has six children. Our first four are within days of each other. Where we stopped, Jay and Jill carried on (all the way down the hill without spilling a drop). I heard Kevin say, “I would have liked more but Tess had to have them all C-section.” Jay, an oncologist, said sympathetically, “Oh . . . that’s rough.” I sat there in the hot tub of La Quinta Inn Red Rock/Summerlin and thought as I looked at my husband, “Ah, you sweet man. That’s the story you tell others so I look brave.” In his telling and his soft voice, I sense again the goodness at the center of this man. I see, for the very first time, that in living with me, he has jettisoned his larger dream of many children. And has done so quietly, without so much as a ripple in my particular pond, dropping his stone quietly at my edge.

On the other hand, my dreams have not been so gently set aside. I have clutched them tightly to my chest, tickets to some longed-for Broadway play I’ve only read about and haven’t seen. Did I know that when I married Kevin he would be a hardwired entrepreneur? I should have probably guessed, but I came to our marriage with the assumption that if one went to law school, one became a lawyer. All the discussions about what businesses he could start, and how to develop his cookie dough idea, or his sports camps idea, or his reading program idea, didn’t ring as loudly to me as his action of starting law school. Now, twenty years later, I know differently. It was a hard thing to know. I kept looking back, comparing what I thought I was getting with what we actually were. Lot’s wife and I could have been sisters, frozen as we seem to be in the motion of backward-looking.

I don’t know what was so attractive about the notion of Sodom or an attorney husband. Maybe Ildeth and I know those particular ideas. We’ve turned them over in our heads, and built futures in them. They feel like home to us. Both Lot and Kevin have paid dearly for our wanting to nest in a dream.

In one of my sacred ceremonies, the words “give” and “receive” feature prominently. The woman is supposed to “give” herself to her husband. The man is to “receive” his wife. I have struggled with that difference and others in this ceremony for years. There’s a chagrined corner in my soul that the religion to which I devote myself appears to treat men and women with such a different, uneven hand. In fact, I didn’t attend these ceremonies for a few years because the explanations for the discrepancies sounded contrived, even patronizing, and I had not yet found my own.

I know now why I am directed to give myself to Kevin. It is my nature to give all of me to those children (granted only four) whom I mother; to be present with my husband with one ear listening for a knock on the door, and a slice of brain composing grocery lists. It is in my particular female nature to look back, to hold onto, to make sure everything is perfect, and to compare the real to the ideal. It is my idealist’s inclination to give only my best parts. I don’t want the others to see light of day. Some part of me, the part that mourns the lost new-clothes feeling after the item is washed for the first time, wants only new, only good.

Marriage reveals me to be the kind of person I suspected I might be but never thought would be dragged to light. What’s more, the revelation is a public one. Being Kevin’s wife and the mother of Julia, Christian, Seth, and Adam means they see me flail about trying to figure out how to live with them. You know, it’s not like I’m going at it sideways. This is the bedrock center of a meaningful life: wife, mother, daughter, sister. I’m really trying. And still I fail, often and routinely, with those I care about most.

Kevin doesn’t like it when I am helpless or make demands on him that he doesn’t want or know how to fulfill. He doesn’t like it when I retreat into silence. He doesn’t like it when I swear at our children. He’s perplexed, even slightly troubled, by my fascination with old, female nudes (as in geriatric, not antique). He would go to bed every night at ten if he weren’t married to me. He would also have more money. He would be able to drive the route he wants and pick his own parking space, without my constant correction. He wouldn’t live in the old house we do now, with cracking walls and two acres to tame.

I never before supposed I would be the cause of Kevin’s disillusionment. That merely being me, with my blue jay noises, my average capacity for child-bearing, my need to hyper-control, would cause him to drop his dreams silently by the way. But, he receives me. Every single part of me, including the part that spends too much money and doesn’t match socks and only wants four children. He makes room for me in his life, under his breastbone, next to his rib. Despite my noise, my mess, my irreverence, and my utter obsession with the material and not being found lacking (just a few of the many), I am, I am starting to believe, his favorite person and his favorite place to be.

There, for me, is the rub of marriage, the most difficult work, the hardest part, and the most grace-filled: that on some days, even my present best is not good enough for the marriage and family I want. I hate those days. Those days when I realize that this requires so much more of a better me than I had ever before supposed. And that this—this me, with the grease stain on last season’s crew-neck which is missing a button—is all I have to give. And still, still, Kevin looks for me. He looks for me when I walk into church. He looks for me when he enters the gym. He comes to find me wherever I am in the house when he comes home. He reaches for me across the bed and pulls me in.

That painting in our office, with the woman and the man in that awkward stance. It looks, in a certain light, like she’s trying to stand on his neck. And, while he’s doing his vain best to balance on his hands with his feet in the air, he’s letting her.

Originally published in Segullah, Vol. 6 (2010): Inside and Outside of Marriage.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tell Me, Tell Me . . . Do You Love Me?

I'm hardly through my first double something—either sit-up, crunch or v-up—with nineteen more to go on this first round, and she's already into her news of the day. She is Kristina, my trainer. A lovely creature, with doe-eyes, a B.A. in Fine Art, and a fridge-pack beneath her XXS Gold's Gym trainer shirt, who's found an equally enthralling creature with whom to spend her waking and some sleeping-on-the-couch hours. It's early days yet, just the first couple months, but the rhythm of their relationship has a swing to it that looks promising and feels familiar.

"There is one thing that bothers me about Ezekiel. He hasn't said he loves me. I'm just dying to tell him I love him, but I can't."

"Well, just do. Just say it," I puff, as I crunch through the sixth, seventh and eighth.

"No, I can't be the first one to say it," she declares. "So, I'm resorting to things like, "I would say 'I love you' right now but, of course, I don't yet." She rolls her eyes at her own transparency.

"And what does he say to that? What number is this?

"Twelve. He doesn't say anything. He just smiles at me. Or he reaches over and rubs my head. Sometimes he puts his arms around me and just holds me tight and breathes in deeply. I think I can see it in his eyes. But, I just want to hear him say it. Just once." She moans, a little. "That's twenty."

I lie flat on the floor, arms and legs in dead starfish pose. I let out a small wail: "Oh dear, you poor thing. That's what it must be like being married to me. I never say it. And that's all Kevin wants to hear. This must be how he feels. You poor things."


One of the things Kevin wishes he could change about me is the way "I love you" trickles from my lips. Slowly, reluctantly, like calcium carbonate at the end of a stalactite. "Love ya" is never coming out of my mouth—the hot knife through the buttered end of everyday conversations, like it seems to in this culture. (I walk by a girl walking to her car. She's tossing out "love ya's" as she throws her backpack into the back seat. From what I've eavesdropped, she's actually talking to her roommate, not even a love interest.) And then, when I do say "I love you," (perhaps on a day that coincides with the blue moon or the summer solstice), then the next question is always, "Why?"

"Why? You want to know why I love you? Isn't it good enough that I love you?"

"No. Tell me why?"

Then out of my mouth comes some lame thing about that I just love the Kevin-ness of him. That thing about him that makes him Kevin. By the look in his eyes, I can tell that's not what he wants to hear. He wants something about his sense of humor, his brilliance, his athletic ability, his leadership, his charisma, his cheekbones. But I don't offer that. I've got rocks in my mouth. And I try to explain that there is not a specific thing that makes me love him. I just love him. And I'll continue to love him, even when those things are gone.

Yes, there are certain things I enjoy about him. I like the way he can make me laugh out of nowhere. I like the way he has calf muscles that look like somebody took a chisel to his leg and cut in at a 45-degree angle. I like his soft yet courageous heart. I like his mind, even though I don't get how it works. I used to like his curly hair, but that's a cruel memory now. I like the way he thinks about me, and lets me be. I really like that moment when he starts to run, the way his body moves from stationary to flight in such a smooth motion. At a certain angle, I stare at his wrist bones; but only at that angle. However, those things can change. He could lose a leg, and then where would the calf muscles be? Gone, just like the hair. He could put on 50 pounds more and not be able to move at all. So what good does it do to list off a grocery list? Besides, the question always makes me feel like a performing seal. Like I have to find something about him that is the reason I love him.

I think the first time he asked me this I did actually attempt to answer him. The things I offered weren't of the ilk that he found pleasing. They were trivial. Like wrist bones, and the shape his mouth takes when he's about to say something that he thinks might not be well received. He shook his head at my answers and said, "That's not reasons to love somebody." "Well, that's all I've got." I could see his disappointment but couldn't find it in myself to dredge up cosmic causes for me and him. You know, like he's Superman, the Clark Kent to my Lois Lane, the lid to my pot, the cream to my scone.

My mind goes through these things as I see him waiting for this answer. Then I offer, "I just love you. There's no because." Especially when I see you every day, and sleep next to you every night, and wait for you when you're late, and watch you sitting apart from me at church, and wait for you when you're late, and pick up your socks, and talk to you while you fall asleep mid-sentence, usually before ten, and try to go back to sleep again while you shuffle around the bedroom in the dark at four in the morning.


One very hot Saturday at the end of July, I stood in the driveway of our home with my three sons. We each held a broom in our hands; Seth holding it so non-comittedly that he was soon banished to stacking chairs. Our task: to sweep the driveway before the wedding party arrived to take their pictures before the reception. "THE WEDDING" filled this summer. I had spent weeks, it seemed, on my hands and knees, planting, weeding, transplanting, mulching, and trimming in preparation for Kelsey and Matt's wedding. Kelsey's the daughter of close friends and we had just finished our landscaping overhaul—a match made in heaven.

That afternoon, between the ceremony and the reception, we were at home doing final touches, like erecting the wedding arch, stringing the lights and setting up a hothouse of cut flowers. Kevin's final touch, he was convinced, was that the driveway needed to be swept.

Picture this: our driveway is 100 yards long, shaped like an old-fashioned thermometer, with the bulb end close to the house for parking. It's asphalt, which sheds little grey pellets after the winter's cycle of snow-melt-freeze-snow-freeze-melt. As part of the landscape overhaul, we had a turn-around installed next to the elm tree, and two new parking spaces cut into the left side. Both the turn-around and parking spaces are covered with pea gravel. Winter detritus and pea gravel, and delivery trucks and cars up and down make for a not-quite-so smooth driveway.

In my eyes, it didn't look so bad. I didn't look out there and think, "Oh, heavens, we've GOT to sweep the driveway." Because who wants to sweep a driveway, especially our driveway? I wanted to plant the last few daylilies that I had picked up at $2.50 each that morning at Home Depot. The flower bed was to the north of the house, near the garbage cans. Nobody would see them, but I thought they would look just great there. But, I could see, by that twist of his mouth, that Kevin really wanted the driveway swept.

As he was finding power for the DJ and spreading bark under the crabapple trees, he didn't have time to sweep the driveway. That's why I was standing there, in 95 degree heat, with three reluctant sons, sweeping the driveway. The conversation went something like this:

"Why are we sweeping the driveway?"

"Your dad wants it swept."

"Tell him to come do it himself."

"He's busy doing other stuff. We can do this. He wants it done. So we're doing it. . . . And do it properly. To get this gravel up, you're going to have to really bend down into your broom. Use your core, bend your legs." This is me in my best, rational, calm mother voice, when inside my head I'm thinking, "The whole freaking driveway . . . he's got to be kidding."

"I'm only 10. I don't have a core," Adam whines. Half-hearted sweeping motion, like he's trying to get dust priceless China with a push broom. "This isn't working. We'll be sweeping right through the reception."

"Get your whole body into it. Lean into the broom. Move it into a pile. Then go get the shovel and the wheelbarrow."

Christian, voice of reason, trying to sound really adult: "I don't see why this is necessary."

I'm starting to lose my Virgin Mother-like calm as I realize how long this will actually take us. So, I level with him, one pseudo to another: "Christian, I don't think it's necessary either. But, it's really important to your father. Every time he looks out here, all he can see is this driveway. Something about it makes him cringe. So, we're sweeping the driveway. We're going to give dad an hour of our time and sweep this bloody driveway. Part of being married is doing what you can to give your partner what they want. This we can do for him. Hopefully when you're married you'll do things for your wife that you think are totally unnecessary but that will make her happy. This will make Dad happy. So, we're going to do it." I look at him, as the sweat runs into my eyes, and I can feel the dust creeping under my fingernails—my worst. "Alright?"

He looks at me with seventeen-year old chagrin mixed with a little affection, "Alright! I just asked."

We swept, we piled, we shoveled, we barrowed and dumped. Amazing how much debris can accumulate over a winter and a spring in pieces no larger than a young, green pea. At one hour, we stopped. The driveway looked like we'd given it a haircut and a shave. Who knew it could "clean up so good" as Grandma Rose used to say? I didn't have eyes to see that one. But Kevin did.


Back to the question: "Why do you love me?" Instead of asking "Why do you love me?" Kevin should ask me, "When do you love me?" Then I would have lots of answers and things to point to: I am loving you when I stand out in 95 degree heat sweeping a driveway that bothers only you. Not only that, I actually coerced, cajoled, threatened, and cheerleadered two sons to sweeping that driveway with me. I am loving you when I sense you awake and unable to sleep at four in the morning, and turn to offer what I know puts you right back to sleep. I am loving you when I let you sleep on late Sunday afternoons and put out the chairs for yet another youth meeting at our home. I am loving you when I buy the big bottle of roasted, salted cashews and the Australian black licorice. I am loving you and seeing you clearly when, after years of resistance, I drop my unspoken but probably still sensed desire for you to "just get a job with a company." I am loving you when I listen to you unload about the day, and actually bring my brain to bear on some of the issues you face. I am loving you when I give up my writing day to finish your projects. I'm loving you when I dress up in pioneer clothing, bus to Wyoming and push handcarts with other people's teenagers because you have to go. I'm loving you when I match your socks! That's when and how I love you.

If I can make a statement like "I love you because . . . ," it naturally follows that there's also an "I don't love you because" somewhere in there. Surely love, the relationship of love, isn't a cause-and-effect. Is it true that because Kevin makes me laugh, I love him? Some days he doesn't make me laugh. Some days, I just roll my eyes and half-bite my tongue. Some days he just gives me a wide, wide berth, and has been known to banish me to my room. So on those days, do I not love him, because I'm not laughing, and does he not love me because I'm shouting at his children? No. We're just not enjoying each other so much, and we're both watching and waiting to see what is needed. (Timeouts in my room with a book! Divine.)

Ultimately—in the end, and the middle and just about as soon as the honeymoon ends—long-term love has nothing to do with the object of love, and everything to do with the one loving. It should be enough to say, "I promised to love you. So, I do. And I will. Just watch."

Title: from "Do You Love Me," by The Contours

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On That Beautiful Morning Sun

I'm walking again on the mountain, after a hiatus for the past month. From the path, I can see the entire city laid out beneath me in meticulous squares, lives stretching to the lakeshore, one straight road at a time. The Monopoly cars are busy down there. But, up on the trail, the mornings are mine. The sun hasn't quite made up it up and over. The air is still and, for the first time in months, there's a chill against my upper arms as I start walking.

The path is also used by the local gas company as a maintenance road in case the huge pipe underneath my feet should rupture and mimic the long-awaited earthquake along the Wasatch Fault. So there's a median and a two tracks. Tickseed fills the median and lines the edges of the tracks. No matter which side I choose, I feel like I'm walking between my own personal corps of yellow-faced marines. Every morning, I feel like nature's throwing me a wedding. I can smell the damp underneath the summer grass, where the dew hasn't evaporated. Sometimes, I disturb a shadow of deer (although most of them are in my garden, eating at the salad bar).

It's quiet up there on the trail. Occasionally, a biker will pedal past. This morning I saw a fellow walker on my periphery as I started out. All the way from Y Mountain to Rock Canyon and back, only one other walker on this mountain side. Toward the end of the outward leg, I looked down from the trail into my in-law's yard where my father-in-law was standing, like Adam between his peach trees, surveying the late summer garden. I would have shouted but I don't think his hearing aids work past thirty feet.

Some mornings, Dave Matthew sings to me, "It's good for the soul when there's not a soul in sight." I think I know what he means. I find my place when it's just me on the mountain. Walking alone, just me and the creeping sun, the smell of summer rotting beneath the grass, and my iPod, invariably I have the moment. It's the same moment and happens after I've been walking for a while and I pass from the shadow of the mountain into the sunlight. When I feel the sun on my skin, and the chill gives way to warmth, I have to stop.

I turn my face to the sun. My eyes are closed. My arms stretch up to touch the sky. My fingers are spread wide. If I open my arms out just wide enough, I can feel my chest muscles pulling into my shoulders. I breathe deeply through my nose. I feel the cool air flow through my nostrils and down into my chest cavity. I feel as if I am swelling from within, like the center of me is expanding. If I weren't so chicken, I would stay there for longer than the few moments I allow myself. But mostly I am a nervous supplicant, afraid that my devotion will be seen by Chuck and his golden retriever. So, I repeat the embrace every few steps. (From afar, I must look like I'm conducting a band in some southern high stepping competition).

I've seen that pose before. Hiking into Delicate Arch one summer day a few years ago, my sister Margo suddenly stopped on a red rock slope. She turned to the sun, set her feet shoulder-width apart and raised her hands to the sun. "Sun worshiper," she proclaimed. I'm not sure if she was naming a yoga pose, or her personal religion. But she was beautiful. So I took her photo.

I hadn't yet felt the urge Margo felt to stand so, to align herself with the sun, and to worship at its warmth. But this late summer, I've recognized in myself the same physical/spiritual need to come to that stillness, arms stretched high, chin tilted and hands reaching heavenward. I feel on the cusp, "born before the wind; younger than the sun." I'm sailing into Van Morrison's "mystic."


The ancients built altars in their holy places. They made sacrifices and brought offerings to these altars of earth and uncut stone. Noah, upon leaving what must have been a stinking, musty place of shadows, and stepping onto a dry earth with all his beasts and creeping things alive, built an altar and "offered burnt offerings." Following a prompting, Abraham gathered up his family, and left his homeland. At the place where God spoke to him, Abraham built an altar. Then he travelled on to Egypt. After waiting out the famine in Egypt, he made camp again at the holy place of that altar and "called upon the name of the Lord."

I don't know for sure what physical posture Noah and Abraham assumed when they came before their holy altars; or Elijah, Saul and any other number of Old Testament worshipers for that matter. But I'm sensing that, even with millennia between us, their bodies before their earthen altars and mine upon my mountain path would not look so different. Abraham tells the King of Sodom, "I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth." I know that feeling, that physical urge to stand still before the almighty, to lift up mine hands unto.

In our modern temples, we come to prayer at an altar. I've never been completely comfortable in those movements of the ceremony. I'm a somewhat diffident pray-er there; the gestures and motions feel awkward and cramped, and so public. But lately, on my mountain slope, I think I have felt to pray as the ancients and as our modern ceremony intends but can only vaguely suggest: body and face aligned to the sun, arms spread wide to embrace the warmth, my skin turning golden in the morning light, every muscle and bone and sinew stretching toward.

Title: Van Morrison, "Brand New Day."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Thought God Drove A Silver Thunderbird

Sitting here working to Marc Cohen, raspy vocals, syncopated piano, hot afternoon on the cusp of the summer solstice, and suddenly I'm smiling at the image of God driving down Main Street in a silver Thunderbird, hairy arm resting along the top of the door frame, fingers tapping out a rhythm, shades on his face, slight smile tugging his lips, as he feels the evening sun across his face.

The lyrics actually go like this: Cohen describes a car driving down the street, with so much chrome you can't even see the driver--who has a fondness for Brylcreem and pocket combs--and then he imagines what the driver says to him, "Don't you give me no Buick. Son, you must take my word, If there's a God in heaven, He's got a silver Thunderbird. You can keep your Eldorados and the foreign car's absurd, Me I wanna go down in a silver Thunderbird." I like the image of God in a silver Thunderbird, sunburned forearm beating the universe's time with his middle finger. Works better for me than God in a minivan, or God in a three-piece suit with Hitler-path in his hair, or God in a white polyester robe and Santa Claus beard.

But, I don't know whether what I envision is even close to the center of Him at all.

I'm having what I'm coming to think of as "a man of God out of Judah" moment these past few days. This particular man of God is chosen by God to warn Jereboam about his false temples. After successfully delivering the message and then healing Jereboam's hand when it had shriveled after reaching out to touch the altar, the prophet turns to leave.

Jereboam asks him to stay and eat with him. The Man of God out of Judah declines, saying that one of the constraints of this particular mission was that he was to "Eat no bread, nor drink water, nor turn away by the same way that [he] camest" (1 Kings 13:9). So Man of God out of Judah leaves, apparently having passed his particular prophetic test. On his way, he gets stopped by "an old prophet of Beth-el" who tells Man of God out of Judah that he is also a prophet, just like Man of God out of Judah is, and that an angel has told him that it's alright for Man of God out of Judah to have dinner with Old Prophet from Beth-el. So, he does--which he shouldn't really . . . but when one of your own fraternity comes to you and says, "Hey, come to dinner," do you really get suspicious?

As soon as the meal is over, Old Prophet chastises him, "Thus saith the Lord, Forasmuch as thou has disobeyed the mouth of the Lord, and has not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God commanded thee, . . . thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of they fathers." Sure enough, on the way home, Man of God out of Judah is attacked by a lion, which lion is kind enough not to eat his carcass but to keep the ass upon which Man of God out of Judah rode company until Old Prophet comes by to pick up the body.

I don't like Hummers. I don't get people who drive Hummers. I just don't get Hummers, cars or drivers, on so many levels. Somehow, they feel wrong to me. The same wrong I feel when I see the university's ROTC soldiers practice military maneuvers in the park just as the elementary school gets out for the day and the children walk home past soldiers in full regalia and rifles wriggling their way between the black locust trees. Bizarre. When I read about Man of God out of Judah being killed by a lion, albeit a vegetarian lion, it felt like God just drove through my world in his suspiciously squat, carapaced, slinty-eyed Hummer. I don't recognize Him. And, in all honesty, don't really want to know that version of Him.

The last week of May our chestnut tree was a vision of Spring. Teenage leafs, in Vermont green, surrounded virile, fully pink-stamened chestnut tree flowers. In about a week, the tree would drop all its beauty in messy, oily clumps on the newly poured patio, like mascara the morning after. But for that glorious week, the tree took center stage in the garden.

Until it snowed. Not a polite dusting. But a heavy, wet, low-ceilinged, dark grey storm that started as I walked into the gym, was still going an hour later, and kept on going for hours. Heavy, wet winter snow falling onto peonies, and forsythia, and basket of gold, and daffodils, and the trees in their Spring finery.

The chestnut had lost the third of its branches facing the mountain by the time I got home. Some branches had completely broken off. Others were ripped in two, like a simple fracture, a tiny sliver of under branch still hanging on vainly. Then there were the Greenstick fractures, branches so badly bent, that even though they appeared intact, they were, as far as lifelines and arterial blood go, cut off from the main trunk.

I saw her through the kitchen windows, bravely trying still to be beautiful with her back third ripped away, and screamed. "Just, no! No! No! No!" "What on earth is it doing snowing a week from June. Why on earth does it need to snow now? It's enough. Just enough."

Kevin walked in and heard me, "What's the point in getting angry? Don't tell me you're getting angry at God?" That's when the guy rope slipped out of my head and I lost my mooring.

"I'm not angry at God. I'm just angry--at whatever God makes the weather. This is ridiculous. It's enough that I have to live in this place. It's enough that I have to have snow for five months of the year. It's enough that I have to learn to ski, and that I have to live through February and March, the most depressing months of the year. It's enough that we've had the longest winter in living memory. This is enough. It does not snow in May. It is not supposed to blizzard in May when all the trees are in full leaf. This is absurd."

I turned again and looked out the window. Yes, the chestnut was still mangled. "Just no! No! Enough. It's enough." I screamed. One of those shoulders back, chin at the sky, arms spread out wide in a question mark, howling at the moon screams. Then I got out the phone book and started calling trees services to see who could come and heal my crippled chestnut tree.

A Sunday morning last month, I was on my pre-church walk. This particular Sunday morning took me along an old lane which used to run through orchards that, even though long forgotten and untended, still fruited because the roots of the trees fed off the earthen irrigation canal. After the canal got pressurized and piped about ten years ago, the trees didn't have a source of water much past April when the ground absorbs the melting snow for a few weeks. So, they don't fruit like they could.

This particular morning as I ventured down the lane, I noticed that the plum trees were carrying fruit, as if they were getting weekly irrigation water. Then I noticed apricot trees amongst the plum trees showing gold at the end of their branches. As I rounded a slight turn in the lane, where a natural spring seeps slowly across the path, I lost my breath. There she stood, beside the spring, in all her beauty. An apricot tree, perfectly proportioned and dressed with golden orbs apparently arranged by the best Macy's Christmas window dresser heaven had on call. Archbishop Latour would have been proud to have her in his diocese garden. I just stood there and looked at her, smiling at her beauty, at her defiance, at her absolute confidence that she was an apricot tree, and always would be, even if they piped the canal. (I talk to my plants).

The thought crossed my mind, like the dash of the lizard's tongue, "No fruit in July, if not for that snowstorm in May, and that long ugly winter that never ended." I thought about that as I tromped my long way home. Would I have chosen to lose the backside of the chestnut tree so that this apricot tree could bear fruit this summer? No, not really. But, there never really was a choice. There was just a snowstorm that broke things and destroyed buds, and ripped the heart out of hundred-year-old trees. And now, there is an apricot tree in all her proud, golden-balled beauty.

On the way, as my feet walked and my arms swung and Colin Hay was singing about his beautiful world while the sun hit my bare shoulders, I felt a knowing slip into place: "Get one, get the other." I felt a space open up in my head for the God who shows himself in the snowstorm, the God who, this particular day, shows up in a way I had never imagined, in the Hummer or the minivan with a briefcase.

I see her every year, when I register my teams for the upcoming soccer seasons. She epitomizes tawny. Golden skin, copper hair, freckles like pennies. We had classes together at university twenty-five years ago. She runs for miles, and volunteers as the registrar for the local soccer league. Her children play the piano, and soccer. Her husband coaches soccer, and works at the university. Her front room has a piano and her front lawn always has a couple of kids. She's me, with longer legs and better wind and better hair.

I saw her yesterday. She came shuffling around the corner from her kitchen into the front room. She must have weighed 80 pounds. She was white. White face, white thin legs, white knitted cap pulled low to her white cheek bones. I stared at her in bewilderment.

"I have cancer. As of a month ago, I have lung cancer." I reached out to touch her, to steady the altar, like Jereboam. Not quite taking it in, feeling the sheer incomprehensibility well up in my eyes.

I still can't take it in. How a woman in her early forties, who has never smoked, and who runs ten miles a day, comes down with lung cancer, I don't know. Doesn't make sense to me. Makes me, just a yearly visitor, want to shout out, "No! Enough. This is just enough." I thought about her all day, as I drove, and sat in the coaching course, and got into bed. She floats across my consciousness, an unanswerable question. All I can dredge up is a faint refrain with words like, "works of God being made manifest." The lizard tongue that flicks across my brain.

After Sunday School the day I talked out my bewilderment about thinking I know God, and then coming to realize that he sends lions after prophets who have completed most of their mission, Reynie, a therapist with troubled youth, came up to me and said, "I've thought for a while that the reason we are given the frontal lobes in our brains is so that we learn to overcome the frontal lobe, the need to reason, to have it all make sense."

Sometimes, all we can do is kneel before the unknowable, and wait for God to show Himself. Then to make space for Him when He does, if it is different than we imagined. I don't know how He plans on showing up in Mel's driveway, but I'm asking that the delivery van, when it shows up--and I utterly believe it will show up--bring Mel an apricot tree, in all her golden-fruited beauty.

Title: from Marc Cohen, "Silver Thunderbird."

Monday, June 21, 2010

But I Said No, No, No, No

I'm driving north this morning on I-15 to spend three hours in continuing legal education classes. Today we'll be discussing capital murder case litigation. On the seat next to me is a pregnancy test. If I'm brave enough, I'll pee on it during one of the breaks. I don't think I'm brave enough though.

I've been awake since four this morning contemplating the meaning of the oily roll of abdominal muscles that I feel. Are these cramps? But no bleeding--yet. And these tender boobs--period tender or pregnancy tender? I'm not tired. Not the tired like I normally get when I am pregnant. Then again, the last time I was pregnant, I was in my first year of law school and working. I should have been tired, extraordinarily, head hitting the carpet while trying to study for Property Law final tired.

Can I even remember when I last had my period? I have the day the American Express card and the mortgage payments are due engraved on my heart. All the others are entered on my phone, three days in a row, to keep me on track. One would think that I would remember the day of my period. But I don't, not accurately anyway. Hence the slow-building panic that is spreading cold across the bottom of my gut.

I always thought IUD's were 10-15 year propositions. Somehow I am remembering the conversation between me and the physician's assistant who inserted it as her saying, "So this will last you about ___ years," and me thinking, "Great, I'll be about 42 and surely I'll be done menstruating by then." I don't really remember the actual year number she gave me.

Standing along the third base line fence yesterday evening, Monique informs me, upon hearing of my ruminations of a possible pregnancy, that "Yes, I love my IUD," and "No, they're only a seven to ten year deal."

"For real?"

My heart sinks a little lower than it already is. I'm realizing that perhaps IUD's are not the same as water filters in the fridge. The red light is more than just a suggestion. My African-raised brain sees the red light on the filter and thinks, "We get our city water from a mountain spring. Why does it still need to be filtered?" I make mental note to call OB-GYN in the morning, for first visit in ten years. But, I fully acknowledge this might be a little bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Or whatever that simile is in reverse. Raising the drawbridge once the Trojan horse is already within the city walls?

Kevin grabs me this morning, asks if I have started bleeding yet. I shake my head. There's a gladness in his eyes. Almost a giddiness at the prospect. He would shout Hallelujahs from the rooftop. His hands grip both my upper arms, he's leaning into my face, our eyes are only inches apart. "We could be having a baby." If he giggled, he would be giggling.

I don't want a baby. I've just uncovered what I think may be my hipbones, or at least the subcutaneous fat that was covered by the extraneous fat, both of which lie above the hipbones. I've been able to sleep through the night for the past 2 years without children in my bed. I have a really cute, polka-dotted purse from South Africa which doesn't accommodate diapers and wipes. I've been dying my hair for the past 10 years. If I went white, like I am underneath, I would look obscene: a pregnant, wrinkled, white-haired crone--somebody who shouldn't be having sex, let alone be getting pregnant. I'm 44. I'm afraid of Down Syndrome. Have been since a child. Paranoia, straight up and rampant, but real nonetheless.

On the other hand, I'm strong. I can bench press. I can do lunge to one-legged stand with 25 pounds in each hand. I can do ball bridge and side bridge raises with 20 pounds tucked into the hollow between my hipbone/hipbone fat and ribs. I can dig clay soil and clear irrigation ditches for hours. I'm unemployed. Julia just moved out. We have an empty bedroom. Maybe Kevin's dream of twins will come to fruition.

My mind swings back. I don't want to play Solomon to my own dilemma. I don't want one baby. I don't want two babies. We're done. Perhaps I will miscarry--like I have before. Even knowing the emotional suffering in the the aftermath of miscarriage, I hang my 44-year-old hat on the hope of a possible miscarriage for my possible pregnancy. Because I have actually been in this panicked state before, I know that I won't get an abortion. I've thought long and hard and decided that I probably wouldn't be able to carry through with that procedure. I know Kevin would find it hard to live with a wife who could and did. But, there is always the hope of miscarriage.

One of the most pregnant lines used to describe Mary is she "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." "These things" were, of course, the news that she was pregnant, and would give birth far outside the normal order of things, that angels attended the birth, that shepherds traveled miles to see the child and then returned spreading the news. Most people view her silence as the indication of her humble nature, her devotion to God, etc., etc., etc.. I'm thinking there are other explanations.

One, she's not sharing her thoughts with Luke writing decades later. Had Elizabeth been given page-space in the New Testament, between Luke 1 and Luke 2, to write a journal of the discussions the two strangely-pregnant women had in the three months they lived together, there might be other ways to skin this particular story. Two, Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart because her world as she knew it, as she had imagined it, the future as she had planned it had just been blown to shreds. What could she say, without casting her lot with the unbelievers?

It's an interesting philosophical place to be, contemplating what to do where there is really nothing to be done except wait and see, or pee. But, of course, this isn't philosophy. It's simple biology, physiology, with a very complicated result. My body is suddenly more than just my body. It's a receptacle, a safe harbor, a waiting place--mine and perhaps somebody else's.

Perhaps by design human pregnancy is nine months long. Nine months is a long time. Almost long enough to get a heart into the same place the body has been for three trimesters. It's long enough to feel the hiccups, to get to know a child's nature, to see whether she pushes back in a game of womb-tag, or if he rolls over, twice a day, like a walrus changing painful, lumbering position. It's long enough to grow fond of the little intruder and intrigued enough to meet it. It's long enough to get so large, so inflated, so swollen that you'll do almost anything to get it out. Long enough to realize that the clothes at Old Navy are so much cuter now than the one's available at Mervyn's 20 years ago. Long enough to finally give yourself up, the Lord's handmaiden--to chip away at the disbelief, the amused absurdity that a child could result because you forgot to change the water filter. And certainly long enough to find your own Elizabeths with whom, in the sanctuary of female space, you can scream and cry and quiver and waiver and move beyond that to some kind of bewildered faith, so that when the official story is written, it will say you "kept all these things and pondered them in [your] heart."

That's what I'm hoping anyway.

Title: from Katie Tunstall, "Black Horse & The Cherry Tree"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wish I Could Keep You Much Longer

One of my larger neuroses that I've carried with me like a hump on a dowager's back since I gave birth to Julia almost twenty years ago is that I am not really a "real mother."

Perhaps it has something to do with me working, part- and full-time, since before they all were born. Or maybe it's because real mothers don't fall dead asleep in their own beds hours before their 16-year old son returns home. They prop themselves up on the edge of the couch and wait, in fitful dozing. Or real mothers don't flinch when they hear Andrea Westley say that her favorite time of day is that 3.30 hour when the door slams and the children pour through to eat the freshly baked cookies. And a real mother certainly wouldn't say to her child, who, also having heard Andrea Westley say said statement, asks, "Why don't you do that for us, Mom?", "Well, make friends with Danny Westley and go home with him."

Whatever the reason, I have always felt a little deficient when it's come to mothering. I enjoy my kids; I actually enjoy being with them, talking to them, watching them. But, just this afternoon, during a third- and fourth-grade Little League game, Adam stood with the bat on his shoulder while the umpire called an inside ball his third strike. And, mother-of-the-year-me, shouts from the bleachers, where I am sitting with my sister, "That's why you just swing on the third strike." Never mind he's catching for the second time in his life and hit a two RBI double during his last at-bat and then stole home, and the pitch was so inside, it would have hit the edge of his cup, if he were wearing one.

Just before that, Laura had just confessed to me, as we talk about adjusting to the hours of summer that sometimes she thinks that just a little baby would be quite fun (She's just turned 41, and her youngest is 7). I think about that same prospect of "just a little baby" (while I shout at Adam), "Just take me out behind the shed and shoot me." (I'm 44 and my youngest will turn 11 in a few months, but every few months I panic because I think my IUD is about worn out and my eggs are obviously not).

So, there are times when I just think I'm not quite into it enough. I feel that other women feel so much more deeply about motherhood than I do. I'm sure they are overcome with paroxysms of joy and delight at the sheer contemplation of motherhood, in theory and in actuality. They dream of babies, theirs and others, and feel to fly to Haiti to adopt, legally or otherwise, all motherless children. I'm surrounded by professional mothers. Sometimes I feel like I'm the one who got hired for the night-shift at 7-11.

Nevertheless, there are four people who call me mother, and sometimes "Tessa" or "Tess-dog," if Christian is so inclined. My first and most fabulous recipient of my mothering faux pas (what is the plural of pas?), Julia Rose, moved out just before Mother's Day. Yes, it's only to an apartment three blocks away and she still comes grocery shopping at Julia's Mother's Pantry after her mother has gone grocery shopping at Costco. But, she is not here when I wake in the morning, and the molecules in the house don't vibrate as much without her presence.

However, I hadn't actually cried about her absence. I hadn't pined for her, gone off my food. Life went on. Sometimes, when I would drive up the driveway and her car wouldn't be there, I would think, "Oh, Jules isn't home yet." Then I would correct myself, almost like Goldilocks, and say, ". . . and she's not coming home." But no tears. No heart torn from my breast by her absence. I had wandered at my rather measured reaction to her departure. Was this, yet again, another small sign in a series of small signs, that I didn't have that pure, Vitamin D enriched, mother's love running through my veins?

The first Sunday after she moved out was Mother's Day. My first Mother's Day without her on the bench. Understand, she is my bookend, the warm body that sits to my left and does up the hook-and-eye that is invariably left undone as my dress is thrown on at 10. 45, 15 minutes before the opening hymn. She's the wet finger that wipes away the mascara flecks that come to rest on my cheekbones after having been applied in the parking lot at 10. 57. She's the other girl in the family, part of the female bulwark against which all the maleness comes to crash. Yes, she had called me earlier that morning from Texas where she was playing softball for her university to wish me "Happy Mother's Day." But, it was at that particular moment, halfway through the opening hymn, I noticed, in my marrow, she wasn't there next to me. For this first time, on this geranium day, Julia Rose wasn't next to me.

I started thinking about her, about the Julia that has filled our lives, that we have watched and wondered at for nineteen years. I thought about the things I did to her that I have never done to any of my other children, because I learned, through her, that they did not work and never would. The reading I forced her to do before she knew the words, the cries I told her to swallow so I wouldn't have to hear them, the soccer camp I signed her up for at which she made no friends and sat, alone for two hours each dinner time, waiting for the next sessions to begin. These are just a few of the more flagrant fouls I have committed.

I thought of all these things. Then I thought of the conversation that we had had just a few days before talking about her studies. She told me she wanted to major in Business, with an emphasis in Entrepreneurial Studies--just like her father. Then she said something which dazzled me: "Mom, I just really want to be a mom. I think that would be so much fun. I can't wait."

Can I admit that I looked at her with wonder? That I let go of the breath I seemed to have been holding since she entered the world, the deep breath that I took at the beginning of the venture and forgot to exhale. My worst efforts notwithstanding, this young woman, this first child of mine, actually wanted to be a mother. Now perhaps it was to provide her children with all the things I haven't, like baby books, and cute outfits (none of which will, she swears, involve overalls) and coordinated frames for school pictures, and make-up and hair-styling lessons, and mixers and Kitchen Aid appliances in cherry red that actually get used. Even so, that she wanted to mother, having experienced my mothering of her and her brothers, was the sweetest benediction.

So, I sat on the pew, thinking these things, marveling at the munificence of that child's heart. I thought of my efforts: fierce, flippant, short-tempered, wide-armed and tolerant, analytical, generous, sharp, always with some kind of distance, to allow them to almost-fall on their own first. And yet, despite all this, she was not scarred or scared. I felt my being fill with longing for her. I would not have kept her back. Yet I missed her, missed her, missed her. Was that really all we got with her? Just those short few years? We talk of fibers of being. That day I knew what that phrase meant. The longing welled up from I don't know where, but came swelling through my gut, breaking out through my shoulders, and, if I had looked with capable eyes, was flowing through every row to fill the chapel. A church filled with my mother-longing for my child whom I cannot keep with me any longer.

Title: from "Keep You Much Longer," by Akon.