Monday, December 30, 2019

"One day your life won't be like this" (A revelation revisited)

SpaceShoe/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Close to seven years ago, when I was in the thick of my late-20s lifestyle -- full social calendar, regular cultural activities, a respectable level of "adulting" -- I paused in my hither-and-titherness with a blunt thought:

One day my life won't be like this.

At the time, my reflection featured the (assumed) differences between living life as a single, childless woman versus as a married parent. But now I am a married parent, and as my first full year of motherhood draws to a close, the blunt thought has resurfaced, bubbling just beneath my consciousness as I strive to make it to midnight on December 31 with all three members of my family unit healthy, happy, and more or less intact.

One day my life won't be like this.

When I mull over this phrase today in the post-holiday quiet of my house, with my husband at work and my child at daycare, with my brain and body under my sole discretion for eight blissful hours, I appreciate anew its lack of judgment. The revelation didn't say my life would become better or worse, stronger or weaker, richer or fainter. It simply pointed out that my life was destined to change -- that where one lever would push up, another switch might flip, and all manner of proverbial doors and windows would disregard their latches and flap indiscriminately in the shifting breezes of time and circumstance.

One day my life won't be like this.

In one respect, my revelation has become a mantra. I whispered it under my breath during midnight nursing sessions and long hours of maternity leave. I shouted it from rooftops when a particularly hard period resolved. I have cried over it each time I recognize that habits or traditions I held dear are quietly evolving. I sigh it whenever, for the 8 millionth time, I wash a small plastic object festooned with my child's drool.

One day my life won't be like this.

But in another respect, my revelation has become a reminder. The words call me to remain present and aware, to participate in my life as it's currently shaped rather than reach for a shadow existence that may or may not gain form. And rather than repeat the sentence, I pray it, rolling each word through my heart like a bead -- smooth, warm, pliant -- to impart those same qualities to myself.

One day, my life won't be like this. Or this. Or this. It will simply be life, and it will be mine, to make of it what I will.

Prayer #342: Going, Going, Back Again

God of constant re-discovery,

I think I've learned something, only to lose the lesson amid life's daily push and pull, and then when I learn it again, I renew my delight and awe with the slobbery joy of an infant discovering her hand is attached to her.

As I absorb anew a revelation long known to me, I call on Your profound patience to ask once more: Ground me in my current dreams and frustrations, as well as in the wisdom that every personal epoch has benefits and drawbacks. And douse me not only in the grace of perspective, but also of presence -- the breath between words, the rests within music, the sight before waking.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The thirst to rejoice

Leaping for joy. Art-Hax/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"... Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

—Philippians 4:8-9, NAB

I've been grouchy for a fair bit of 2019. Not deeply, not irrevocably, but more frequently than I have been in other years, almost certainly due to learning how to be a parent and enduring sleep deprivation and questioning my career path and inching toward my writing goals and feeling less than awesome in whatever I pursue and wondering if my hair is finally turning gray and did I mention sleep deprivation.

Oh, and the world continues to be on fire. That too.

So when I attended my church's annual Minkisi Ministry retreat earlier this month, I did not walk in immediately connected to its buoyant theme "In Total Praise." That is, until the gospel music began, and the congregation engaged in call and response, and I tuned into the fact that I haven't attended any retreat in god knows how long. And the combination of those things illuminated that the next eight hours were holding space for me to be with God, so I let my body release its omnipresent tension, loosening me enough to sing, to breathe, to weep.

Celebrant Fr. Robert Boxie said in his homily that day, "The sure sign that God is alive in you is joy." Until he said it aloud, I didn't realize how thirsty I was to rejoice. For all the emotions roiling through me in this past year of constant change, I have rarely wallowed in joy, even though -- or perhaps because -- it has often been the most intense experience.

But as Fr. Boxie went on to explain, joy is not "reasonable," nor does it mean "to cheer up or be positive." At many points this year, joy has felt akin to pain for me -- a bone-deep, heart-twisting, breath-stealing sensation, one I'm afraid to repeat for fear it will break me. So to hear that joy does not mean happy was to relieve myself of a limited human concept and embrace a mystical one -- the promise that we can access, in the words of Paul's letter to the Philippians (aka, "the letter of joy"), "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding."

The onslaught of joy left me wrung out by day's end, like I'd run a spiritual marathon without proper interval training. But I also experienced the physical peace that comes from honest exertion, which signals to me that the effort was well placed. As retreat leader Therese Wilson-Favors said, "Praise tunes us into God's sufficiency." In a year when I have often felt incapable or inadequate, how glorious to remember that I am enough. That God is enough. That our union is joy itself.

So with all this in mind, allow me to flip my usual script of gratitude during Thanksgiving season and emphasize joy instead -- the ultimate prayer of thanks.

Prayer #341: Exult

To exult once meant to spring or leap up, to leap for joy. Yet somewhere in English's shifting sands we lost this visceral meaning and now use the word to signify rejoicing, elation, triumph.

Powerful words to be sure, but part of me grieves the original definition. Its active focus would help me remember -- simply by speaking it -- that my very body is built for praise. I am meant to leave the ground, to suspend myself mid-air, to stretch toward the firmament, when I remember how I'm loved.

God who leaps and bounds toward me, put this word on my lips and its energy in my limbs. May I reach for You with my whole being. May I embody worship.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On one year of photographing my child

Moving toward the future, September 2019.

For me, the toughest part of parenting is the photography. Am I taking enough pictures? Am I taking them at the right moments? Am I capturing the times I'll care most about? Did I develop a cute enough theme for the monthly photos? Did I remember to take the monthly photo on the actual date? Do I have enough storage left on my phone? Where have I saved past photos? What are their filenames? Have I shared recent pictures with family and friends in the way each individual most prefers -- email, text, shared link, private third-party aggregator? Can I put just one on social media, or should I continue to abstain in the name of privacy?

Enter the creeping "shoulds." I should get in the habit of reviewing and culling photos monthly; that way it won't be such a huge endeavor later. I should mark my favorites as I go; that way I have a short list for special photo gifts. I should make an album every year on his birthday; that way I never forget. I should print photo gifts for the parents and godparents; that way they'll be reminded of his special bond with them. I should stick some on the fridge, take more to work, keep them all updated in as real time as possible as he metamorphoses second by second into an entirely new person, one I know on a molecular level yet one I re-meet every morning when I walk into his room and see him standing ever taller in the crib that once dwarfed his swaddled body. That way I won't miss a moment. Not one. Not a single blessed second.

Then anger bubbles up. For on top of being a parent -- no, on top of becoming a parent -- I am expected to simultaneously experience and document the transformation of the little human who made me one. I must be present, yet objective. Open, yet prepared. He must look cherubic and/or funny and/or advanced in every photo. If he does not, I have failed him. Apparently, no middle ground is permitted.

You see why I'm exhausted.

As this inexhaustible topic loops through my consciousness, I think back to a photo of me taken a year ago when I was 8 months pregnant and floating in a kayak during our babymoon weekend getaway. When I reflected on this photo one month into parenthood, I wrote:

... when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.
(Side note: Only someone who was still getting a consistent eight hours of sleep could have written those words. Right now, the sole state of being I want to transition to is napping.)

What do photos of my 1-year-old reveal? They show a chubby Gerber face, inexplicable blonde curls, delicious thigh rolls, little hands constantly pointing. Many pictures catch him pre-smile, which will mislead future generations about how often he grins and laughs. Quite a few are blurry because he rarely stops moving. There's usually a brightly colored object sticking out of his mouth. Sometimes he's clothed.

Invisible to the neutral observer will be his near-constant giggling, reliably invoked by actions as goofy as snapping cloth napkins or playing peek-a-boo around the nearest corner. The pictures don't replay his little voice, which sounds more like a kid's every day. They don't convey the full extent of his mesmerized curiosity, his tenacious exploration, his burgeoning sense of self, his deepening will. A photo couldn't capture his sly "aha!" expression last night when he realized that holding food over his head evoked a strong reaction from his parents and that he could file away this practical information for future and entertaining use.

I know these backstories and qualities because I live with him. But no photo or video can communicate his essence. Hell, I grew and birthed this little being, and even I am shocked by how individual, how distinct he is. I have created a human who is of me but not me. That fact blows my mind every day. So I snap, post, and stare hungrily at blurry pictures to anchor us in life's whooshing current and to ground my quixotic grab at immortality.

A more useful exercise going forward, I think, would be to consider "what was invisible to me at the time." In the moment a particular photo was snapped, where was my brain? My heart? What was I sensing or feeling? What else was happening in my life? What did I just, or what was I about to, discover? Did I take the picture because I thought I "should," or because I couldn't help myself? Did I manage to make the moment indelible not because I fixed a detail in pixels, but because I captured a transformation in progress?

Though the 1-year milestone is bittersweet, I'm pleased I can stop the monthly progress shots and take one thing off my to-do list. Overall, I'm getting better at predicting the baby's movements and timing my shots. Plus, now that I'm used to sleep deprivation and farther along the steep learning curve of new parenting, I'm developing a photo storing system that I hope will make projects easier going forward.

For beneath my low-humming stress is a sincere desire to create a meaningful record of my child's life -- of our life, together. I want him to marvel at his growth, learn his personal history, and be rooted in the continuums of family and time. And as with every aspect of parenting, I want to give this gift freely, without self-judgment or criticism, and with compassionate love for who I truly am as a mother and person.

It will take more than a year to get there. In the meantime, I'll keep snapping photos to remember the process.

Prayer #340: Darkroom

What did humans obsess over before photography became accessible and ubiquitous? What method of recording beckoned them? Were they more comfortable with their mortality, less curatorial about their legacies? Or were they too busy surviving to want to document the slog?

God of profligate light, concentrate Your beams through the negatives burned in my memory to reveal the positive image within. My Technicolor life makes me sensitive to the full visible spectrum, so deploy darkness judiciously to develop an illuminated print. For we self-absorbed subjects are far from black and white. With us there can be no safelight -- only a blind and tentative hope, followed by brilliant understanding.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The curious case of imposter syndrome

Spot the imposter. Andrew Gustar/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Before the Meeting

My writing group has in hand my manuscript, my precious baby, the one 10+ years in the birthing. What an arduous birth it's been, a creative labor beset by fits and starts, motivation and stagnation, eager confidence and crippling doubt, all leading to this. This. A meager, nondescript word for a momentous occasion.

As any writer will tell you, to arrive at a functional "first" draft (first only in the sense that this version is the first one fit for consumption outside your desk drawer) is to free-dive into murky depths with blind faith that pearls await you. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that finishing a manuscript is like choosing to live as if the afterlife exists -- as if, eventually, your effort, attention, and sacrifice will reap untold dividends.

My own first draft, or at least my conception of it, has been kicking around for more than a decade. After setting many well-intentioned and then-ignored annual writing goals to turn this blog into a book, I finally reached the end of my rope in the aftermath of becoming a mother. Now time was scarce. Now I had to maximize stolen moments. Now I had to shove aside the exhaustion and overwhelm and reclaim the flickering pilot light of my essential creativity before a gas leak exploded the house. (Confession: I need more sleep to craft stronger metaphors.)

So for the first time in many years, I set a writing schedule and ... I stuck to it. The night before we left for vacation, after a marathon day of final edits, I shipped my 300-page tome to the four members of my writing group. For a brief and glorious moment, I experienced the singular euphoria of reaching a milestone, achieving a goal, and realizing a vision all in one act. Then I considered that these same four members were tasked with evaluating my labor of love for both its artistic and possible commercial merits. My euphoria evaporated, and with it any ounce of confidence I had in my original vision.

In terms of first drafts and the allure of potential, I have been down this wavering road before. To pursue a dream is to name it, clothe it, make it visible -- and thus vulnerable -- to the world. Once my art escapes the safe confines of my mind, it becomes subject to criticism and rejection. And yes, while the chance exists that the work will engender connection, appreciation, maybe even celebration, is the chance significant enough to counteract the fear of irretrievable failure?

We meet this weekend to discuss my book. I will report back.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological term that refers to a pattern of behavior wherein people (even those with adequate external evidence of success) doubt their abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

-- Samyukta Mullangi, MD, MBA; Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, JAMA,Vol. 332, No. 5

After the Meeting

Sometimes your dream catches up with you, and when it taps your shoulder, you faint from shock.

Such was my reaction at the meeting when my writing group handed my heart back to me wrapped in warm blankets, affirming for me that laying it on the line with honesty and vulnerability was worth the risk. When my writing has made thoughtful people laugh, cry, and contemplate, then I have to think I am on the right path. That my vision is not a fever dream in disguise. That the still, small voice is right yet again.

None of this means I have skirted failure for good. But for now I have banished my fear, and instead filled the hole it left with audacious hope. Onward.

Prayer #339: Imposter Syndrome

Is my art to be endured? Submitted to? Inflicted upon? Or is it meant to be placed with confident authority on its own inch of infinite bookshelf, sandwiched between other heartfelt works, part of an unceasing cascade of human expression that arcs toward the divine in a desire to illuminate it?

Stand beside me when I retract my hand from the spine, for at first I will hesitate to leave my soul so exposed. But the longer we stand there, bearing witness to the courage required for and of creation, the more I will grasp that You are not an editor, not a critic, but rather a patron ready to endow my work with inspiration.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Grief for the life I once led

Starting summer traditions early. August 2019.

My grief first crept in on a splash. We were at my aunt's house for a pool party on a perfect summer day, and my cousins' young children had been in the water since the moment they arrived. Twirling off the diving board. Turning on the jets in the hot tub. Leaping from adults' shoulders. Running-not-running along the outer edge. Barely pausing for food. Protesting when it was time to leave. Each dive, each shout, each whiff of chlorine, it all combined for a blue effect -- bright blue of water and sky in my eyes, and a melancholy blue in my heart.

The second instance came on a Friday after work. "Let's do something summery!" I begged my husband. "Let's go the beer garden." We picked up the baby from daycare early and headed straight for the neighborhood hotspot where every other local parent was apparently scratching the same itch. We chugged our beers before the baby could grab them. We attempted to feed him at the sticky picnic table. We contorted our bodies to keep him from staring at the big screen TV. The three of us were sweating all over each other, and we adults added burger grease to the occasion. The whole affair was hurried and harried, but by god, for a brief hour we were part of adult civilization. Yet as we drove home to get the baby bathed and in bed, my grief tightened.

The third moment materialized at the end of a long, tiring work day spent in a windowless room on a team retreat. I had to figure out alternate arrangements for breast pumping (enter the executive director's office) and returned to the room late, breast milk in hand, at the start of our afternoon session. Then, at day's end when we were on our way to happy hour and mere blocks from the bar, I remembered I'd left my milk in the facility's fridge. I hustled back a half mile to catch the staffers before they closed the building, hustled back to happy hour, shotgunned a glass of mediocre red wine, and bid adieu so I could make it home in time to see my child before he went to sleep. Later, I saw pictures on Instagram of my colleagues building Jenga towers at the bar and giggling about new shared jokes. My grief -- tired, sweaty, lonely -- congealed.

Summer has always been my favorite season because it signifies freedom. Freedom from early darkness, freedom from biting cold, freedom to enjoy meals and drinks outside, freedom to stay up late reading books, freedom to sit and do nothing near or in any available body of water.  Even as an adult with real responsibilities, I have always felt lighter during these months because the grooves in my brain forged from my past's most ideal summer days re-activate, promising that this carefree part of me does and always will exist as long as I nurture it.

But in this, my first summer of parenthood, I am finding it hard to believe the promise. With maternity leave and my return to work behind me, and the full reality of Parenthood-with-a-capital-P sinking in, I am finally absorbing the loss of my former life. Right now I can't play in the pool all day. I can't leave the house after dinner to get an ice cream cone. I can't wander to a watering hole with my friends. I have defiantly stayed up late reading pageturners, but I pay for it more dearly when my infant awakes at 4 a.m.

Where is my childhood? Where is my young adulthood? I can hear them in breezy leaves, feel them in sweat trickles and bug bites, taste them in cookouts and cooler beers, smell them in chlorine and salt water, but their presence is ephemeral, gone almost before I realize I'm experiencing a memory, not reality.

In a particularly blue moment, I asked into the void of Twitter if other parents, new or seasoned, have experienced this sense of loss. Here's what people replied:

"An old blueprint for a new life." "A beautiful if slightly teenage feeling." These descriptions not only validated my moodiness but lent it structure. I recognized the sensation for what it truly was: a signal that yes, things are different now; yes, I am in a new stage; and yes, my life will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways, forming new grooves next to old as pathways to a more varied, complex existence.

Ever impatient, I'd like to have the grooves settled now. But only time and experience and surprise will shape them, so I'll just have to wait. Wait, and imagine what's ahead. Wait, and mourn what's behind.

Prayer #338: Buried Treasure

Hand-drawn maps always make buried treasure seem thrillingly accessible, easily found beneath an exaggerated X, tucked deep enough to warrant enthusiastic digging but not so deep as to break a sweat.

Meanwhile, eager map readers gloss over the other meaning of "buried" -- to lay in a grave, to inter -- and understandably so. No one wants their adventure tainted with death, loss, or finality. They want to anticipate only their future wealth, practically assured by the clarity of the directions.

What happens, though, when the directions aren't clear? What if the route is more littered with obstacles than we thought? And in a cruel twist of expectation, what if treasure we had at journey's start has disappeared by journey's end because we had to bury it to keep moving?

Adventurous God, be with me as I bury the old and direct me as I discover the new, for the richest joys are also the deepest -- worth the wait and worth the effort.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Why we must "confront the unwatchable"

Look me in the eye ... (Paul Godard/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After the 2016 election, my already scattershot absorption of current events plummeted. I developed the habit of only occasionally scrolling headlines and infrequently scanning my weekly Time magazines. I stopped reading the Washington Post Express during my train commute. I had never watched cable news anyway, but now I avoided online clips too. Even NPR, my primary news source as a car commuter, got the cold shoulder; only recently have I been able to stomach regular news segments again.

My visceral response to our present world lies in that word: "stomach." My gut twists and tightens when I hear our politicians speak. The writer in me is aghast at how events that would be considered major climaxes in novels become mere footnotes in our emerging historical record. I feel nauseous and dizzy when I allow the full reality of our climate crises (political, moral, ecological) to wash over me. The news exhausts me physically and emotionally, to the point where it's easier to hide. And though I know so much around me is just plain wrong, so blindingly un-Christlike, I hesitate to debate it because I don't know enough "facts" (even though the core of most issues is not about statistics, but souls), and I hesitate to act because I feel like the only person against a dystopian world.

That's why this Los Angeles Review of Books article, "Confronting the Unwatchable," struck a deep chord in me. Authors Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Baer discuss the "sprawling maelstrom of visual atrocities that we now consume as part of a habitual media diet" and how sustained exposure to those atrocities has dulled our appropriate responses of outrage followed by action. Either we avoid the unwatchable entirely (like I do), or we "hate-watch" to a degree where we're either desensitized or demotivated. Of note:

"While social media users lock into their airtight echo chambers, and white supremacist trolls and conspiracy theorists alike routinely disavow the documentation of homicidal violence, it appears that evidentiary truth has fallen victim to cynical reason. Call it an effect of “fake news,” or simply patent denialism, it is clearly a symptom of the broader decline of belief in traditionally refereed sources of journalistic news and expert knowledge. This is precisely what makes our current moment unwatchable — not just the excess of indigestible images, but the pervasive lack of faith or hope that an encounter with these images will be of any consequence whatsoever. The unwatchable represents the aesthetic condition of a political moment in which the future looks bleak, unavoidably catastrophic, and increasingly uninhabitable."

But as the article's authors explain, our world is better served when we keep our eyes open and train them on that which disturbs us:

"As a political gesture, confronting the unwatchable asks for more from the future than chronic precarity or inescapable cruelty. Instead, it demands that we face Medusa head-on. Only by refusing to misrecognize the unwatchable — as anything other than a dire symptom of our catastrophic times — can we debunk the medusan fallacy and imagine a different way forward. The unwatchable, as both a critical concept and a portent of our future, provokes us to build a transformative new politics in the ruins of liberal optimism." [...]
"Confronting the unwatchable opens up a third way, allowing us to envision new forms of seeing, modes of thinking, and spaces for public collectivity to stake out that vanishing middle ground between personal responsibility and powerful political action."

The idea of a "third way" appeals to me. It captures what has disappeared from our discourse and our actions -- creativity and commitment -- as we move to the poles. But we can only be creative when we know exactly what we're facing, and we can only be committed if we know we are working toward good. At the moment, I am neither because I am hiding from the call.

Ostriches are the popular example of the frightened creature that sticks its head in the same when danger arises. It turns out, however, that this image is a myth. If ostriches actually did that, they wouldn't be able to breathe, plus they'd be vulnerable to whatever was bearing down on them. Rather, ostriches dig holes to lay their eggs, and the mother birds periodically insert their heads to turn the eggs.

Here truth offers a better lesson than myth. I'd rather be alert, aware, eyes on the horizon, ready to respond while needed, while also nurturing in a safe, sacred space a pulsing hope for the future. It is time for me to face Medusa's deadly snakes, or else settle for a world of stone.

Prayer #337: Turn the Eggs

Dirt everywhere. Grating my eyes, filling my ears, plugging my nostrils as I plow my head deeper into the shifting hole. The sensation frightens me; how can I be mere inches from sunlight and fresh air, yet leagues away from comfort and freedom? But I remind myself: I am burrowing with purpose. I am burrowing through the grit and dark to find what I planted at the outset and to remember why I did.

My nose reaches the thin but sturdy shell. I know the egg by its scent -- chalk among earth. And it seems to recognize me, too, though neither of us can see the other. Tap tap. Its greeting comes from within, accompanied by a faint vibration.

Here -- faceless, wordless -- we sense our kindred desire to connect and pass our vulnerability like a basket of fresh bread. But while I remain anxious, the egg waits unperturbed. It is confident it will crack at the exact right moment to gift the prepared with revelation.

Oh, that I had such confidence in my quest to emerge. If only I could swallow the dirt as I burrow and consider it the cost of doing business in a broken world.

I nudge the egg. As it turns, it sighs and hums: Not yet for me. Perhaps, though, for you. And it's right, of course, so I pull my head back, rushing the dirt again over my eyes and ears and nostrils, and squint instead at the garish sun.

God who helps us turn the eggs, remind us that fragility is deceptive; we are all stronger than we think.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A reminder that God is

starlen/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

At a lector training this past weekend, as part of our contemplation and immersion in the Word, the facilitator exhorted us to "stop a few times a day" to pray.

"Prayers," she said, "are reminders that God is."

God is. Full stop. No adjective. No noun. No active participle. Just a state of being: is.

At that point, it was 11 a.m. and I was on my second of five activities for the day -- up early with the baby and my visiting parents, lector training in the morning, friend's baby shower in the afternoon, early dinner with my in-laws, food shopping that night. So I was already tired, both from activity and anticipation. Tired enough to want to heed the call to pause, but stretched enough to resent having one more thing to do.

Ever one to encounter revelation through syntax, however, I appreciated this simple sentence because it left God on God's own terms. It did not attempt to ground the divine in human metaphors or place our relationship in earthly frameworks. God just gets to be God, I just get to be me, and somehow we'll meet in the middle for a companionable cup of tea.

How easy then to pray. How easy to ask questions of God, to co-celebrate, to release my grip. How easy to stop in the middle of a teeming sidewalk, spin the opposite direction, and find myself grinning at the sensation of the world rushing past, for in that moment of suspension God joins me, closer than my own breath, happy to be noticed, happy to be.

Prayer #336: A Gentle Reminder

Do stop and rest a moment
not to talk
not to plan
just to be still
just to breathe
for in the space between inhale and exhale,
the catch that signals life suspended,
you'll know me
in my truest way.


Thursday, May 23, 2019

What nobody told me about becoming a mother

Mother's Day, 2019.
My first Mother's Day was ... weird. Not in a bad way. Sure, the weather was crap and I experienced the topsy-turvy gift of my mother making me breakfast, but the first was no big deal and the second was quite sweet. Rather, it was strange in that off-kilter, reality-tilts-left-of-expectations way, as I took the opportunity to step back, draw a breath, and acknowledge that -- holy crap -- I am a mother.

Case in point: Our daycare sent home an arts & craft present (my first of one thousand to come), and when the baby "presented" it to me, I had an out-of-body moment. I am a person. A person who is a woman. A woman who is a wife. A wife who is a mother. A mother who is a person. A person who is working very hard to remember that she is a person and to nurture the person she is. And this person is also now holding a finger-painted flower on a decoupage stand with her baby's grinning mug pasted beneath the words "Happy Mother's Day!", and these words apply to her.

It was and is surreal.

When will it truly sink in that this is now my life? Maybe it has and I don't realize it because I'm waiting for a lightning bolt different from the one that's already struck. Maybe I've always felt like a mom, long before biologically becoming one, so the actual transition has been more logistical than mystical. Or -- more likely -- this whole plate shift/sea change/reordering of my existence is a leviathan parked in front of me, and I'm working too hard to wrap my arms all the way around it when I'd be better served to rest my arms, lean my cheek against its leathery skin, and instead listen for its beating heart.

I was prepared for sleep deprivation and breastfeeding learning curves. I was not prepared for the fact that my heart would break every time I regard my child. I did not think I would always see our lives and deaths bound up in him. I did not realize how pure he would be, how essential -- the raw ingredients of a human, the distillation of a soul.

My heart breaks wide open every time I make him laugh with rolling R's and plosive pops, when we lock eyes during feeding, when I glimpse his two sprouting teeth, undeniable reminders of his growth. And my heart breaks when I consider all the discovery ahead of him, all the pain, all the transformation. It's not so much that I want to shield him from pain (probably because I know it's impossible); it's more that I want to help clear his path, hack away the thorniest undergrowth, and guarantee him a successful, rewarding adventure.

But that's not how life works -- it's not life, period -- and thus my heart breaks for who and what I hath wrought, because he is so beautiful and so unaware of all that awaits him. No wonder I weep nearly every day. We parents wade constantly in coursing rivers of love; we overflow with it; we stand in the current saturated and sopping, and the humans we steward absorb it like spiritual Shamwows, full and fulfilled.

This relentless current, the bends in the river, the rapids we've yet to chart -- it all breaks my heart. Nobody told me it always will.

Prayer #335: Chrysalis

My heart breaks when I nurse him. I cuddle his growing body against my skin and listen to his breathy sucking, and my mind wanders down any path that presents itself, always ending at the acknowledgment that such moments will be but a breath themselves in the scheme of our shared lives, and I mourn the passage as I live it.

My heart breaks when I drop him off at daycare. He eagerly leans from my arms to stare at the rambunctious toddlers who race to greet him, and I realize that at this tender age he already has a life distinct from mine, whole days that pass with experiences and interactions and formations I will never fully grasp.

My heart breaks when I am called "Mom." Because how is it possible that I'm a mom, the kisser of boo-boos, the reader of books, the filler of forms, the hug and the scold and the logistician rolled into one? How can I be what my own mother was and is, when all I feel like is a floundering, off-balance, incredulous version of myself?

God, how will I hold this constant heartbreak for the rest of my life on earth? You tell me I won't. Instead, I must let it hold me  -- a cozy shell for my transformation, protection for my bone-deep love, growing clearer every day as I prepare to emerge anew.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

What happened when I gave up social media for Lent

Sign off, pause, take a break. Lynn Friedman/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This Lent, I gave up my mobile social media apps for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram -- aka, the Holy Trinity of my time-wasting, soul-shriveling phone usage. And though I still signed onto Facebook and Twitter occasionally via my web browser to keep tabs on work projects (plus, let's be honest, it's hard to quit cold turkey), I held myself to only checking immediate notifications, then closing out.

In deleting the apps and limiting my screen time, I was committing to fasting from distraction with four concrete goals in mind:
  1. to refocus my attention on meaningful interactions and investments of time
  2. to break my addiction to mindless scrolling
  3. to read real, professionally reported news
  4. to learn what I would miss if I wasn't in the mix

The first couple weeks, I was horrified to discover how deep my muscle memory had become. Any time I paused -- be it on the metro platform or at intersections or before bed -- I'd reach for my phone and watch my thumb move of its own accord along familiar routes, only to find its usual destinations removed.

What's more, similar to the year I gave up chocolate (#neveragain), I honored the letter but not the spirit of my sacrifice. Just as I had upped my sugar cookie consumption in response to the absence of chocolately goodness, now I was seeking different feeds to scroll -- for example, A Practical Wedding, which is silly because I'm now married for almost three years. But the content was frothy, fun, and escapist, and it tickled the digital pleasure center of my 21st-century brain.

However, I also discovered what I didn't miss. Strangers' anger, for example. Ignorant commenters. Blurry photos from mere acquaintances. Blatantly biased headlines and memes. Losing 30 minutes of my life before bed every night. Detracting from the precious little time I already have with my child during weekdays. Reciting vacuous online comments out loud to my husband. Putting free and personal information into the ether that allows corporations to profit off me. The subtle but pervasive narrative of comparison and competition that undergirds the whole grasping system.

And I gained a lot, too. A reminder to be intentional, for instance. A step toward breaking the stranglehold my phone has on me. Renewed appreciation for texts, calls, emails, and visits with actual, in-real-life friends. Recommittment to news -- i.e. reading articles in full from legitimate news sources. Catching up on friends' blogs. Sailing through several books. I felt calmer and less wired before bed. And above all, I encountered the humbling but ultimately freeing reality that the world doesn't grind to a halt without my status updates or emoji-laden captions -- and in fact, without the burden of generating them, I am producing more valuable, fulfilling, creative work.

Forty-plus days after I deleted the Holy Trinity, my addiction is far from broken. I have not re-installed Facebook and Twitter (nor will I), but I did add back Instagram, with the goal of monitoring and limiting my usage, for already I feel again the alluring tug of the pretty/fast/fun scroll.

At least now, however, I feel more clear-eyed about my relationship to my device, these apps, and the overall commodity of attention. Each time I take out my phone, I am more likely to think, "What's the best use of my time right now?" And more often than not, this brief pause, this short reflection, is enough to redirect me toward something more restorative like a phone call, a book chapter, or -- heaven help us -- peaceful stillness.

Prayer #334: Attention Span

A bridge is only as useful as the feet that traverse it. Lead me from the bank of mindless ignorance to the far shore of rich contemplation, in ways that both simplify my soul and enrich it. And when I pause to peer into the tranquil water below, may the smooth surface reflect a person present to the moment she's experiencing, at peace with her journey.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

How giving birth made me a feminist

"I need feminism because I love." Laura Forest/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Fourteen hours in, and my contractions finally turned from intermediate pain to near-constant pressure. Every sinew in my body screamed "Push!" while my breathing grew more jagged. It wasn't as easy now to huff my way through the intervals, not as easy to concentrate on the paradigm-shifting end game of meeting my child. Sweaty, sore, worn out from watching the too-large hospital wall clock plod along in 20-minute increments, I turned to my mother and said through gritted teeth, "If this experience doesn't turn someone into a feminist, I don't know what will."

After I spent four years at an all-girls' Catholic high school, I would have sworn up and down the Bible that I was a feminist. After I absorbed, aghast, the blatant misogyny laid bare in the 2016 election, I would have sworn up and down my ballot that I was a feminist. After I watched the #MeToo movement unfold with uneven and often dispiriting results, I would have sworn up and down the newspaper that I was a feminist.

Then I gave birth, one of the rawest, most intense experiences a woman can have. It was then that I finally understood on a visceral and corporeal level the power of having chosen this course for myself, and it was then that I questioned if I had ever understood feminism in the first place.

Feminism, as a reminder, is broadly defined as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. I stand by an even broader definition: that feminism -- and indeed, a commitment to equality everywhere, on all bases -- is about empowering individuals to make the life choices that are right for them.

For me, giving birth sat at the intersection of my personal privilege, individual choice, and access to systems such as decent healthcare, paid parental leave, job security, and flexible work policies. My privileges -- being a white, educated, upper-middle-class employed person -- statistically pointed me toward a safer healthcare experience and greater financial security. As for individual choice, I do not want or need everyone to choose what I chose. What I want, and what I believe society needs to aim for, is the third item I listed -- to develop and promote systems that allow anyone and everyone to make the healthiest, wisest choices for their given situation, without impediment, prejudice, or judgement.

In providing such systems, we acknowledge each person as a human being with inherent worth, and we grant them the dignity of autonomy. This to me is the fundamental promise of feminism -- the desire to stand with and for all people, to see them as fellow cells within the Body of Christ, and to lavish love on them accordingly.

I saw this promise personally fulfilled in my safe and joyful birth experience, and I experience it again every time I adapt a workday to spend time with my little one. I want everybody to feel this empowered, rich with such abundant and varied options that they are always able to pursue the courses of action that lie closest to their hearts. In this way we will help people realize God's vision for them and for our world as a whole.

Prayer #333: Midwife to the World

Mother God,

Make me just. Make me angry. Make me humble. Make me bold. Make me prophetic. Make me warm. Make me clear-eyed. Make me creative. Make me loving. Make me steadfast ... all so I may midwife Your idyllic vision and help deliver the world You long to see.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The light under the door

fotorita/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I was growing up and facing a new transition, my mother always said to me, "Just remember: In one month, you'll know where the bathroom is."

I carried that idea forward through college, my first (and second and third) job, grad school, marriage ... the "bathroom" becoming a stand-in for all the unknowns, all the nameless fears, all the "what ifs" that scurried around my brain before I embarked on a new stage. And time consistently proved my mother correct; within a few weeks, I could reliably identify the bathroom's location alongside many other useful lessons and insights.

Now I'm staring down the next logical transition after pregnancy and motherhood: ending maternity leave and returning to work. I already know where the bathroom is at my office. Yet I fear I will need to relearn everything else as I forge my new identity as manager, employee, peer, and parent.

At this point you're probably saying, "Julia, go back and reread your own opening paragraphs." The transition I warily eye will pass. I will be made anew. Until then, however, all I'm seeing is the light under the door -- the sole sign that something else awaits.

What is on this side I know? Un-vacuumed rugs. Scuffed walls. Discarded toys. Crumbs and paperwork spread across the kitchen table. My baby's sleepy head resting on his father's shoulder. That little face pulling back from nursing to regard me. My dwindling personal space. My sacred free time. The life I have created and know so well. Who I used to be.

What is on the side I don't know? The only thing I'm sure of is the light itself. An occasional shadow breaks it, but I don't know yet to what or whom those shadows belong. How big is the new room? What does it hold? Where do its other doorways lead? As a fellow new parent put it, each stage presents different strengths and challenges, and I'm certain the room will hold those. Along with new priorities. New vocabulary. Discoveries about myself and others. A life I will re-create and come to know. Who I will become.

Ultimately, the only answer I need today, right now, in this moment, is to know the light is on. It flickers in mystery. I will learn soon enough what it illuminates.

Prayer #332: Right to Passage

All ye who enter here, take note: The choice to cross this threshold is yours. Your feet on the creaking timber, your fingers on the sticky doorknob, your cheek on the peeling paint -- the movements alone will beget revelation. Thus, proceed with optimism. Simply opening the door is challenge and gift enough.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Let the darlings die

jev55/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0


No need to outright kill these darlings, but if their number does come up, don't stay the execution. Let them wither and fade into a cloudy past that grows murkier each minute, obscuring why you held the darlings so dear to begin with.

At their wake, honor the value they once held while confessing their ill fit for the present. Where the darlings hold lessons, heed them. Where they brought pain, release it. If needed, mourn their loss. Above all, embrace the fallow field that follows.

But do not think you owe the darlings more. Pat the headstone, leave the flowers, be on your way. A fresh horizon beckons.

Prayer #331: Death Grip

Our panic is understandable. No one likes to forego familiarity, even when the familiar is out to get us. Yet seasons flow, priorities shift, and the landscapes we considered immutable reveal their subtle differences in photos taken then and now, illustrating how both beheld and beholder are bound to change.

God of slippery sands, nudge us toward getting a new grip, one that relaxes our entrenchment and instead fortifies our present lives. Help our most darling selves die natural deaths so that we, renewed, might dance on their graves.