At Christmas We Pray.

I’ve been married for 10 years and here is the number of times my husband has put Christmas lights up on our house:

Zero.

He doesn’t care about Christmas lights on the house, he barely even cares about Christmas, and no matter how much I love the season of lights, I’m not going to put them up on the house myself… I’ll just stay inside with my coffee, thanks though. So we’ve never had them out.

Until now. Because this year, we have the relentless persistence of a three year old and a five year old, in awe of the neighborhood light shows, wondering aloud when Daddy will put our lights up, because these relentless children cannot fathom a reason not to. So, up the lights will go, our house a cheery string of twinkling reminders that children are meant to get us off our seats and into a life we never could have imagined. Children are a decisive interruption of self; startling mirrors and joyful invitations all at once.

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Christmas with my children is startling, too. Tradition doesn’t matter to a young child- it is all brand new, all open to questioning, all free to close examination. Christmas is one of the only shared celebrations the world over, a holiday so steeped in cultural customs that most people blink in surprise when they find out other family’s rituals, like the bizarre people who open gifts on Christmas Eve or the crazy ones who use a pretend elf to spur on good behavior. We know it’s all invented, though, right? We invent traditions and then act like they invented us. These are where my children’s questions come from, the rituals they see acted out as though there is no other way to act. But to a new human, even after just a few years on Earth, all of these things are so clearly made up. Who is this Santa? Why do we give presents? Did Jesus have a Christmas tree too?

While it’s exhausting to be questioned about every decision all day long, I’m glad for the opportunity to consider my life and my habits. Childhood scrutiny is a powerful magnifier, and lately it’s given me clarity on this particular holiday season. I know this – I could leave every tradition behind, leave my house un-decked and the tree in the forest and the presents on the store shelves, and still have a reason to love the holiday season, which is this: At Christmas, we pray.

Every year, as Christmas approaches and we try to make it special with outlandish traditions and shallow rituals that often bring stress and debt, there is something more happening. There is a stirring in the world. There is something that happens on these winter nights, something that speaks mystery and love to us, even when we aren’t sure what that means. We know there is more. We might call it love or hope or peace on earth, but in our heart of hearts we know there is something better to be had, and at Christmas we are allowed to wonder what it is. So we “send love” or “hope for peace” or “wish you a happy new year,” but what we’re really doing?

At Christmas, whether we know it or not,
we pray.

I know it’s weird to talk about praying. Especially if you don’t usually pray. Or you think it’s wasted breath. Or you’re downright opposed to the idea. And we don’t really know what it is, right? We use the word ‘prayer’ like we use the word ‘wish,’ which is like swimming in a puddle and calling it the ocean. The unknown element, the secrecy with which we must approach prayer because it is so intensely personal and within, makes it all the more complex to write about, to speak about.

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My daughter said something last night in her bedtime prayers that made me laugh, and then made me think. Sometimes my kids just rattle off their prayers as a quick list of “thank-you’s,” thank you for mama, thank you for daddy, thank you for food, thank you for our beds. Sometimes they pray for people they love. Sometimes they don’t want to pray at all. And sometimes they pray in a way that brings heaven crashing into their bedroom, a stream of glory lighting their tiny bunkbed full of stuffed animals and blankets in a way that renders me silent, sets me still in the face of a God who listens intently to my children, and in the face of their astounding faith in the divine listener.

Then last night my 5 year old prayed, “God, Jesus, Holy Spirit- I just want to SEE you guys. Can you please make me see you? And Mary and Joseph, can you bring them back to life so I can see them too? I know they were here on earth a LONG time ago, but you’re still the Holy Spirit today, and I know you can do it! I love you. Amen.”

Ridiculous though it seems,  I felt such a presence in the exactness of her prayers. She said what she wanted. She said it with confidence because she thinks God loves her enough to listen to anything she has to say. I mean, she doesn’t even feel that way about us like she used to. She’ll preface a question or request with disclaimers like “This won’t take long to help me,” or “I know you might say no.” She doesn’t trust us to listen with an open mind, which is partly because we’ve been listening for 5 years and have developed a non-sense meter that tends towards suspicious, to be honest. But in her prayers? She speaks openly. She speaks with abandon. She speaks like a child, loved and free.

I read this a while ago and it struck a cord in me that keeps playing and playing:

“Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray.”

I could read that sentence one million more times and still wrestle with everything it means. Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray. Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray. The prayer itself, the very movement of the thing, is a gift. The unknown of the process, the slow blossom of a seed in the awaited response: the mystery is in the alchemy of the act.

Certain events in our lives make it impossible not to pray, even when we don’t know to whom or why we speak. Survive a terrible accident: thank you, we breathe. Hold a terribly ill child; please, we weep. Nothing is going right and we falter on the edge of despair; help, we plead. There is tug inside of us towards grandeur, towards a felt presence, towards a tender goodness, towards the sunset and the baby’s healthy heartbeat and the saved marriage and the miracle rent payment and the rescued children; the doubters, the hurt, the angry, the deserted, the lonely, we break under the pressure and open ourselves to prayer like the earth split open on a fault line. Disaster and beauty and desperation and joy bend our knees and soften our hearts until prayers escape our lips, messages to the sky that make us feel at once vulnerable and fortified.

Christmas does this. It reminds us of something. The traditions, silly they may be, can actually be a road inward, a path towards a feeling we can never quite shake:
We are homesick. And Christmas reminds us of that, so at Christmas, we reach for home. We light our candles and our windows. We give good gifts. We gather. We eat. We laugh. And though we don’t know it, through it all, we pray.

I can’t explain prayer. I can talk about it, I can tell you about it and how it changes me every day, I can write about it, but I can’t ever really give it to you. “Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray.” That’s the mystery. And that’s what I’m inviting you into this Christmas- let the mystery settle around you. When you feel yourself looking around, wondering who to thank or who to ask for help or who is speaking to your heart in ways you can’t seem to explain; close your eyes, whisper your prayer, and look towards home.

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Home.

After I got married, my husband Sam convinced me to live in Nampa, Idaho, his college town, a town so far outside my future casting I would’ve laughed in disbelief if you’d told me I’d spend ten years there. I grew up two cities east of Nampa, only 30 minutes away, but we rarely drove out there as kids, past the acres of mint and corn and rolling fields of sagebrush until we crossed the county line and entered what seemed like a whole other world. But then I married Sam and he bought our first home in the only place he’d ever lived since college, and here I am, ten years later, emptying cupboards and finally moving away.

I never liked Nampa. I didn’t try very hard, but childhood prejudices run deep, and the embarrassment of moving outside the “real” city nipped like a dog at my heel. Buying a different house 20 minutes away wasn’t a huge change, but it was enough to silence the angst. Hell, even the angst embarrassed me, because I think not liking where you live shows a discontent spirit. Isn’t it a kind of immaturity to complain about where you live? Just choose to settle in, and if you really need to leave, then go.

But here’s the thing: I’m sad to leave.

I am. I cannot believe I’m writing that, but somewhere between the cheese factory and the smells and the lack of bookstores, I found home here. I’m leaving with a clutch in my chest because leaving means more than I thought it would; it means stepping off the tiny stage of our life here, away from dear neighbors who handed out popsicles and cried on my couch, away from best friends a minute down the road, away from the circle of errands I ran each week (Winco-Costco-Library-Bank-Coffee Shop-Car Wash-Local Mailing Post-and let’s be honest-Target) and now I have to find a new way around a new town and a new gas station and a new mail place, which all sounds easy when I type it out but it’s the actual doing of the thing that’s awful.

I’m also afraid to go because I know what happens when people leave. I have 6 siblings and they all left, even me, and I’ve never forgiven any of us for growing up.

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I was never close to my oldest brother. We barely knew each other as kids. He’s eight years older than I am, so he left for college when I was in 5th grade. Still, you know what I did when he left for a university in Ohio? I sobbed. I climbed in his bed with his blanket that smelled like his grown-up cologne, pulled it up to my chin and cried so hard that I fell asleep. I would miss him, yes, but mostly: I knew something was over. Even as a 10 year old, I knew that an era of my family, a particular chapter of our story, was closed forever. We would never all live in the same house again, not ever. As a family of seven children, so much of my identity wrapped itself in the presence of my siblings, in the strangeness of our large family compared to small families. When our oldest brother left, it was the beginning of the end. We were fracturing, taking paths seven directions away from each other, and my ten year old heart knew it and hated it.

I’ve hated leaving ever since. Mine and anyone else’s.

Clara, my oldest child, will be five at the end of this summer, old enough for kindergarten. This feels like a blow. In all honesty, it’s a blow to my ego. For these past five years I’ve sort of marveled at my position in life, moving through the world with a certain amount of pride at the ducklings lined up behind me, my three small children all in a row. I’d state their ages like an apology, knowing the stranger in the store would do the math and be very impressed and very sorry for me, all at once. That felt good.

“Yes, yes, look at all these little ones I’m raising with such love!” I’d want to shout on the street. “Look at me, shaping their world with such intention!” It felt like a badge of honor. It felt like a statement. Even on the bad days, it felt like victory.8IMG_2858

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So, now what? Clara turns five and then Sammy turns four and then Audrey turns two and then suddenly they’re all going to Ohio for college and I’m crying myself to sleep in their beds?

As I prepare to leave the only home I’ve known as a married woman, or as a mother, I find myself counting steps between rooms, stretching my arms between walls, pressing kinetic memories into my hands and feet. I want to remember the weight of my babies in my belly in this hallway. I want to remember the smell of their hair while they slept in this room. I want to remember everything because for some reason, I can’t see past these days. Some people can’t wait until their kids are older and more independent; they can’t wait to have a bigger house and move on in life, stop changing diapers and paying baby-sitters. Not me. I know that leaving this little house in Nampa means a part of my story is over.  A certain melancholy settles on me when I see my kids exerting independence, taking steps away from me and smiling as they go. I’m glad to see them grow; I’m excited to have parts of myself back that I haven’t seen in years; to think and to write and to dream without them attached to me; but it’s a bitter kind of sweet. A wistful kind of glad.

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I pack up this house and I cry. I’m turning a page in our story, a page that changed me, one that holds the early arc of our marriage and the unfolding plot of motherhood, and that’s a heavy thought to carry around as I put pictures in boxes and unplug lamps. I don’t want to stay the same… but can’t we just stay for a little while longer?

A house is just a house and a town is just a town, until it’s not. At some point, it becomes a symbol. Nampa will forever be the place I saw God again. It holds my church, where I found peace after years of darkness, it holds the friends who held me up along the way, and it keeps the home where I really, finally, grew up.

The nursery where I rocked each newborn to sleep.
The tiny hallway I paced on endless nights of early contractions.
The kitchen sink where I gave three babies their first bath, one year after another.
A patch of front yard where we spent our afternoons learning how to be neighbors.
A front porch for sunset drinks and cracking pistachios, where Sam and I laughed at each other’s jokes and talked about our future.
The kitchen where I learned to use knives, to follow recipes, how to slice raw chicken.
The front door where my college diploma arrived on the same day as my infant son’s birth certificate.
The living room where I learned how to write.
The floors where my children crawled, toddled, and finally walked.
The walls that heard Sam and I learn how to fight, on painful days and through hard years.
The corner by the fireplace where we had our first ten Christmases.
The quiet bedroom where I taught my children how to pray.
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I never meant to stay  in this house or this town for this long. But I wouldn’t give back one minute of it, not one second.

This little house made us so happy for so long, and I’m afraid to leave because what if we’re never this happy again?

It’s nonsense. I know. People move. They survive. But me and Sam? We’re stay-ers. We land and we stay. We don’t move houses, we don’t move churches, we’ve both had our same friends for 20, 30 years- we stay. Leaving is uprooting, which requires replanting, and I’m nervous. Not just to start over in a new home, but to leave behind everything that this home represents. My identity is moving with my address. The kids are getting older. The house is getting bigger. The world is getting harder to keep out. The warmth and safety of our tiny life is slipping through my hands with every box I tape shut.

The future is too big to try and carry around while I pack my past, so I won’t. I’ll let myself be here for now. I won’t shame myself for being sad that someday soon my babies will be big kids who don’t remember the yellow walls of the nursery where we sang them to sleep.

I know we’ll have great joy in the coming years in a new town in a new house where my kids are big. We can’t possibly know the joy that waits, or the sorrows, or all the normal days in between.

But for now, in this nearly empty house? I already miss my ducklings, and I miss the place they called home.

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All of these pictures were taken by Audrey Choate of Raft Media, for an At Home session that turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of our life.  If you spend your money on anything this year, make it one of these sessions. Put all the beautiful, honest pictures in a book, and give a book to each of your children as the most valuable, lasting gift  I can imagine; a glimpse of a regular day of their childhood with you. 

Click here to contact Raft Media

Dear difficult child,

Dear difficult child,

Sometimes I wonder if I’m exaggerating how much trouble you make all day. Am I being dramatic, I wonder, just collecting your mishaps like funny postcards to share with people, or laying them out like a storyboard to explain why it’s not actually my fault that you are so hard? Here’s how I know you’re a difficult kid- I suddenly relate to all the other parents who have difficult kids. We exchange stories like shell-shocked war reporters, still stunned at the lives we suddenly find ourselves living, lives where we have no idea how to parent our own children.

I know you’re difficult because I have other children who are more compliant and easier to sway, children who cry and ask forgiveness whenever they even perceive my disappointment. They, of course, carry their own battles, a life spent overcoming their need to please and their desire to be “good,” which isn’t something I want for any of my children. ‘Good’ is false. I want you to be true. To be kind. To be passionate. To be wise.

So while other kids will fight their own battles quietly and with a little more grace, you are different. Your battle is not against the desire to be liked, or to please others. Your battles have no grace. Your battles are trench wars, dirty and transparent and exhausting.

Speaking of grace in the fight; have I mentioned all the ways I’m afraid I’ve already failed you? All the moments I fought with you instead of for you? All the days I wished away? All the times I couldn’t see your precious heart past the blur of your busy hands? The times I heard your name on my lips in a voice I pray you won’t remember?

I feel guilty writing about this. It’s your life. Your childhood. It’s your basic personality. Do I really want you to know how I felt so useless and inept being your mom? Do I really want you to have evidence of the war I carried in my own heart to do what is best for you? When I actually just had no idea what to do with you at all?

But this is my life too, right? You’re mine. For better or worse. For all my failures, for all your challenging ways, we are in this together. I am the sieve through which you are being sifted. You can’t go unchecked. I have to raise you up, I have to guide you towards adulthood, I have to hold your hand even when you’re yanking it away from me, because parking lots are dangerous and you may disagree but guess what? This is just the small stuff. The world is coming at you, and I have to get you ready. Ready for drivers who aren’t paying attention. Ready for friendships. For jobs. For love. For life outside these walls.

And being your sieve? It’s a sharp kind of work. Sharp learning curves. Sharp detours. Sharp words directed at me. Sharp words directed at you. Sharpening of us both. Being the sieve doesn’t mean I can’t have a voice about doing the sifting. Or that I can’t write about the pain. But it does mean I have to remember something important.

Here’s what I need to remember:

You are not broken.

You’re not broken. 

You are difficult. Some days you are impossible. Some days I am out of ideas before breakfast, so overrun and overwhelmed with your stubborn push and pull that I want to melt into the floorboards and be mopped away with the 3rd cup of water you just knocked over while disobeying again. I kneel by your bed most nights in tears, praying while you sleep, asking forgiveness for my mistakes, begging God for a small measure of mercy as I stumble through these days with you.

 But you aren’t broken. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re incredible, in fact. You are a force, an enigma, a complicated tangle of bad ideas, brilliant solutions, and paths that I can’t imagine taking, but that you somehow see without even trying.

There’s such a power in you, difficult child. I can feel it when you fight me, I can feel it in your defiance, I can see it in your pursed lips. Your body is strong. Your mind is set. Your will is flint. These traits are not easy to parent. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. With wisdom and time, these will be your greatest gifts.

Here’s what I’m not going to do: I’m not going to leave you to your own devices. Let you be. Ignore every “stage” and hope you mature out of yourself.

I promise you this, baby. Look in my eyes, you tornado of a person-

I will not give up.

I will pursue you and your heart to the ends of the earth. I will ask you to grow. I will sit with you in the dark of your cocoon. I will lean in and lean hard and hold you as you pull away, hold you until it’s time to let go, because you are my person and I am your mother, and the love I burn with puts the flames of the sun to shame.

Spill 1,000 cups of water. Break the things I love. Wreck our car. Fail a class. Skip curfew. Fight with us. Fight with all you are, with all you’ve got. We aren’t going anywhere.

And one day, you will be grown. So God help me, God give me everything I need, moment by moment, God be my manna in the desert of the hard days with you: I will fight for you. I will kneel by your bed each night. I will lay beside you when you fall. I will stand and rejoice as you become exactly who you are meant to be, sharpened and softened in all the right places, not by your tired and inadequate mother, but by the God she called out to when she did not have any answers at all.

You are my child. You are the dream of my heart. You are a million answered prayers all at once. And yes, you are difficult. You unbalance me, you shake me to my core, you humble me in every single way I can express.

Believe this: You, my love, are exactly who I wanted.

 

Love, from this day in this year and all the years to come, 

Your mama

Every mother prays.

Every mother prays.

She whose faith is her marrow.
She whose faith chirps timidly on her shoulder.
She who claims no faith at all;
every mother prays.

In gasps, in whispers, in sighs and shouts,
every mother recognizes their ineptitude, along with the sacred ground upon which they walk. And there is no better recipe for prayer than
fear and longing and love,
those three currents which push the blood through a mother’s veins.
Fear of failure. Fear of loss.
Longing for answers in dark nights.
Love that buries her and brings her back to life.

Every mother prays.
We pray for the children we never knew. For the children we lost.
Deep cries for the children we hope to hold.
We pray for the ones who run to us,
who call us home.

We pray for the ones who already grew, who cannot possibly understand the moaning prayers poured over their lives, the impossible scales which balance what a mother intended to do,
and what a mother actually did.

And what the child will remember instead.

Every mother prays.
She does this because even when God is not who she imagines or
even someone she believes exists,
in the thick of mothering, prayer escapes without a word on our lips.
Wordless poems of fear, longing, and love.
Feelings explained with a shrug because who could guess what happens under
a mother’s breast,
in that ever-expanding heart of hers,
that space which smells
like her neck in a hug and tastes
like her mouth in a kiss and sounds
like her breath in a song?
Every mother prays. Because what else can one do in that holy ache of kindred love?

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The Breastfed Gospel.

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I spent my 30th birthday in bed, moaning in pain from a knock-out case of mastitis. Mastitis is an infection you get from breastfeeding, except it affects the whole body. It’s like the flu, if the flu was trying to kill you. My incredible mother-in-law Debbie used an entire week of leave from her job to stay in town and care for me and my kids, since my husband had to work and I could not get out of bed. It was the sickest I have ever been; at one point Debbie was spoon feeding me applesauce as I deliriously cried in her arms, unable to lift my own head. I hadn’t showered in three days, I was sticky with breastmilk, sweaty from my fever, and could not stop weeping. It was quite the birthday party. And also, GOD BLESS MY MOTHER IN LAW.

I have had a baby at my breast for most of the last 4 years. I have taught myself and three newborns how to nurse, I have kept three children alive with my milk, and I have suffered greatly at times in order to do so.

Breastfeeding seems like a normal, easy task when you see other women doing it. They sidle their baby up to their chest, an invisible transaction occurs, and then they both go back to their lives. I love nursing my babies, but it is most certainly not the easy task I once assumed. It demands physical and emotional sacrifices that can’t really be explained: I can tell you that it hurts to have a baby learn to suck on my nipple, and I can tell you that when my milk comes in a few days after birth I can’t sleep from the pain of engorgement, and I can tell you that setting aside all other responsibilities every two hours all day long means that I lead a life of constant disruption; but none of that makes sense until it’s your own baby, pressed tight to your own chest, trying to drink milk from your body.

The complications of breastfeeding often feel like the hidden shame of new mothers. Because we’ve seen so many depictions of it happening so freely, when problems arise (when, not if) we wonder why we didn’t know how hard it would be. We wonder why everyone else nursing looks like an oil painting that might be entitled “Peaceful Mother and Baby at the Brookside,” when our own experience looks more like uncomfortable latches and too much milk and choking babies and not enough milk and infant reflux and painful breast infections and tied up tongues, and wanting to give it all up because we are tired. 

Damn the brookside, we say.

I’ve never wanted to give up nursing my babies until my birthday bout of mastitis. I wondered why in the hell I was putting myself through such madness. Because there is another way, of course, and baby formula is a remarkable answer to how we can feed our babies when breastfeeding isn’t working. I have no qualms with formula. I’ve seen both sides of the bottle-fed equation: the mom grappling with her guilt over using it, and the happy, healthy babies drinking it. I know there are lots of studies that tell us breast is best, and I think breast milk is a miracle from our bodies, but I also can’t tell a lick of difference between the kids given formula and the kids given milk. The kids are all fine.

I know this about myself- it’s not about bottles versus breast for me. I don’t keep breastfeeding for the baby’s sake; I do it for my own.

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I keep nursing because – and maybe this is petty, maybe I shouldn’t admit it- breastfeeding cleanses something in me. That’s why it’s so important. Not because I think my kids will be ruined by formula, or because I want to prove something to someone, or because I think breastfeeding will make an enormous difference in the lives of my kids; I breastfeed because it requires an offering.

Like a lamb on the altar, I offer my body for the sake of a greater cause, and pour out my life to save the life of another. It is a hallowed act, one I find hard to match. There simply aren’t many ways to sacrifice myself so easily. My privileged way of life doesn’t naturally produce opportunities for pure, selfless giving. Even sex with my husband, the most raw and exposed of interactions, can exist in a vacuum of self. I have to be deliberate in that space, be mindful in the giving of myself and accepting of his vulnerability, to become one out of two when I often prefer to just be one, if only for the beige ease of being independent. 

Motherhood is a balancing act on the pendulum of martyrdom and selfishness; somewhere in the middle is a meeting, joy in the giving, but also peace in receiving what I need to be healthy. I don’t want to be a shadow of myself, burning at the stake of my children and their future. And I don’t want to be a shadow of a mother, cooly standing in the corners of my children’s lives.

And though I live under a gospel of grace, the law now abolished by love, there is still an essential element of sacrifice in my faith. A sacred transformation takes place when I offer myself on the altar, when I lay down my own life for the sake of another. That’s what breastfeeding is to me- here is my body. Here are my open arms. Here is my time. Here is my life. Let me nourish you. I wonder what would happen if I could find that depth of love for everyone, not just my babies.

This is something that continually draws me towards the Christian faith: the fact that though my salvation is complete, and God has finished all that is required to forgive me, there is still a wholeness yet to come. We will be made whole. He is writing love into me, circumstantially and holistically, through pain and suffering of every weight, through the mundane and the grand. So though the work of being saved is done, there is still a great work being made in my life to reveal the goodness, the completion, the truly loved and realized version of me. That’s beautiful. And it is unique to the God I worship- no other god or religion makes this distinction. There is no earning anything from the God of the Bible. There is only grace. Only sacrificial love, righteous justice. And there is no perfected version of human on earth, no priest or holy woman or prophet above anyone else, because we are all being perfected until the day of Christ Jesus. I love that.

We can’t be perfect. I can’t. I can barely manage to be kind of good, and only on a few odd days. But I can pay attention. I can look for ways to be softened, to be humbled. I so badly want to be made whole. And if I know anything, it’s that being made whole only comes after being taken apart. For me, right now, breastfeeding takes me apart. It makes me pause. It makes me give up time and space in order that a baby might live. And in that time, in that space? On my couch, on a park bench, in a public bathroom, at church, at the booth in the restaurant, in a class that I’m teaching or a group that I’m leading, I sit with a baby at my breast and offer my body up to another, humbled and amazed.

When I pray outside my house at night, under the hazy stars of a suburban neighborhood sky, muffled street sounds a block away, breathing in the air of home, I always ask for more of God. And over the roofline, across the horizon, settling like dew on the windows to the rooms which hold my sleeping children, I always hear these words come floating right back:

Pay attention, dearest.
I’m right here. 

 

 

 

Always wear nice underwear to buy groceries.

I should have seen this coming when the lady at Albertsons saw me in my underwear, but listen: I cried a lot on my birthday this year. I tend to feel an expectational forcefield around holidays and special events, and I work hard to create happy, lovely holidays. This was an easier feat before we had three small children. Not that our kids don’t make life happier and shinier in exponential amounts; they are the reason we keep traditions at all. Those three beautiful faces are the reason I make pink pancakes in February, the reason I stay up late hanging decorations before birthdays, the reason the dollar section at Target suddenly seems like a very important stop before any holiday (Tiny buckets. Tiny sponges. Tiny buttons. All useless.) I love to make my kids’ lives happier, even though I don’t want to worry if they’re happy, because I know happiness doesn’t really matter or last. They have to choose joy, eventually. (This is the absolute conundrum of motherhood- to love giving them what we know does not have much to do with us in the end.)

My kids are 4, 3, and 1, which means their world keeps spinning on special days and they just keep on being themselves, which is a fast way to ruin a party, I am sorry to report. “Kids ruin birthdays,” I told my brother the morning I turned 31, hoping my kids didn’t hear me say it. But also kind of hoping they did. I was in a bad place, ok? The morning was hectic and full of fits. Then the older two injured the baby because of their wild wrestling, and I was furious. Like, wicked stepmother tossing people into dungeons, furious. I don’t like animals but I found myself wishing for a mean pet to follow me around and scare my kids straight.

On a normal day, my kids are 85% wonderful and 15% mean-pet deserving. On my birthday last week, I cried because their percentages took a dive in the wrong direction. Bear markets all around. Again, I should have seen this all coming when the night before my birthday, I ended up nearly naked in front of an Albertsons grocery store employee.

In every grocery store, there is a sign outside the bathroom that says, “No merchandise permitted in bathrooms.” Which, fine, I understand, and who wants their cart full of groceries in a public bathroom anyway? But what- and I am asking this in all sincerity, and would appreciate tips- what are you supposed to do with the baby and the cart when the other kids need to use the restroom and they’re not big enough to go on their own? I never know what to do. Leave my cart and food in the hallway and hold the baby and my bag while helping the other two kids? Leave the baby and take the bag and pray that no one wants a grumpy baby with a runny nose anyways?

On this particular occasion, I was in a very small hallway that barely fit my cart and the bathroom was small too, and only one child needed to use the toilet. So I left Clara, my four year old, in the hallway, with the baby and the grocery cart, and tried to take Sammy in as fast as I could so the girls wouldn’t be alone for too long. We went in the bigger stall together, and after he was finished I sat down to pee, knowing it would be a long time before we were home and everyone was unloaded and I was allowed a few minutes to go to the bathroom.

Here’s where the trouble starts.

Toddlers, as a people group, love two things:

-opening and closing doors

-not listening to their parents

This is especially true in bathroom stalls, I’ve found. They love to turn that shiny latch and let themselves out, I think simply for the power of it. But since I always have to be the one who pees last, and we all use the same stall, they’re always opening the door while I’m still sitting there. I’m usually sitting on a public toilet with gritted teeth while anger-whispering “Do. Not. Open that door” and slapping my kids’ hands away from the handle.

Again, my kids are actually decent human beings whom I enjoy very much.

But public bathrooms aren’t their sweet spot.

So I’m sitting there in the Alberstons bathroom with my pants around my ankles and I hear a small commotion in the hallway where my girls are, and then I hear the baby crying. I stand up to put my pants back on, and in a perfectly timed sequence of humiliation:

  1. Sammy opens the bathroom stall door,
  2. I stand up in my underwear,
  3. An Albertson’s employee opens the bathroom door,
  4. I am still standing in my underwear,
  5. The employee looks at me standing there in my underwear,
  6. I hastily pull on my pants,
  7. Sammy marches out of the stall,
  8. The Albertson’s employee apologizes,
  9. I apologize,
  10. The employee gestures towards my crying baby,
  11. I rush out to the baby,
  12. The employee informs me that the baby is ok, she’s just crying because a  man who came out of the men’s restroom said hello to her,
  13. I finish buttoning my jeans and then pick up the crying baby,
  14. Clara loudly retells the whole story,
  15. I hustle Sammy back in the bathroom so we can wash our hands,
  16. The Albertson’s employee steps around us so that she can use the restroom,
  17. I get my kids out of the hallway and hurry up to finish my shopping,
  18. I field 100 questions about life and liberty and where gum comes from while in a long line to check out,
  19. I get out my debit card to pay for our groceries,
  20. and hand it to the checker,
  21. who in turn asks me if the baby is doing ok,
  22. because it is the lady who minutes ago saw me basically naked in a bathroom stall.

On our way out of the store, as Clara was singing a love song at the top of her lungs and Audrey was throwing a screaming fit because she wanted out of the cart, Sammy walked in front of me and I didn’t see him before his heel got clipped and he fell to the floor crying. Not a huge problem, of course, because he was wearing his new bike helmet that he refuses to take off, so his head was fine. This all happened right as my friend Stephanie waved hello from where she was watching us stumble down the aisle in mass chaos. I was sweating profusely at this point, from my efforts to contain Audrey’s 18 pounds of fit-throwing, and also from the kind of humiliation reserved for mothers with small children.

After putting all our groceries away that night and staying up late to clean my whole house (because the only way I wanted to wake up on my birthday was to a spotless home), I woke up tired and surprisingly surprised at how the next day went with my kids. Because really, people who bust open bathroom stalls and sing loudly in public and lay down on dirty linoleum floors to cry cannot be trusted to make sure you have a happy birthday.

They cannot.

Still. I had many beautiful surprises on my birthday; flowers and sandwiches and cherry pies and friends who love me; it was a sweet, sweet day. And when my little family sang Happy Birthday to me at home that night, my three year old son, that helmet-wearing bathroom bandit, was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t even finish the song- he just lovingly kissed my cheek and buried his head in my shoulder with tears in his eyes, and told me he loved me “the whole world, even to heaven.”

Happy birthday indeed.

So, now I know. This is my version of 31- sticky and exhausted, and often surrounded by bare bums- and as humiliating as mothering can be, it’s the ultimate gift. My joy is deep, and their love is as good as it gets.

Now I just need to find a new establishment where I can buy our French bread, and everything will be fine.

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Birthday with my babes.

A millennial just won an Oscar for the movie he made, and I know why.

No one would write this article except a millennial, you’re thinking with a roll of your eyes, and you might be right. You’re correct in assuming my status as a millennial, about a childhood spent knowing I could’ve crushed “Legends of the Hidden Temple” and an early adulthood that started with MySpace and ended with Snapchat. So yeah, I’m a millennial, and while there are certainly traits of my generation that are not only embarrassing, but appalling, there’s a reason that 32 year old Damien Chazelle just became the youngest director ever to win an Academy Award, for directing “La La Land.”

chazelle

You heard me right- 32. That means he wrote the script for “La La Land” in his twenties and won an Oscar for directing it a few years later. His composer, Justin Hurwitz, who won an Oscar for Best Score? Also 32 years old. Two millennial friends, making history.

I know why Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz won those awards at such a young age, and how Damien made that movie happen. There’s a lot of talk about us millennials, a lot of well-deserved disdain towards our general attitude of entitlement, but let me tell you something- we are also poised to change the world. Here’s how:

We think we can.

Sounds assine. Let me explain.

Damien Chazelle won that Oscar because he wrote a movie and then believed he could make it. He shut down a freeway and directed a complicated musical number using an entire freeway on-ramp because he had vision. He won an award for a very millennial trait, which is that we are willing to try impossible feats because we tend to believe in ourselves… because you told us to. It was written on every pencil in our teacher’s prize box, on every cat poster in the counselor’s office; you said it when we were nervous to try out for a play, our coaches shouted it during our games; pop stars sang to us about it…. And we took you at your word. We think we can do anything, because that’s what you told us. So when you think we’re crazy for wanting fulfilling jobs with amazing paychecks, a happy family, and a successful side small business that we start in our garage: remember, you told us we could do it. We might sound crazy and yes, some of us are entitled pricks, but a lot of us simply took you at your word and decided to do what we set out to do.

Like win an Oscar for an old-school Hollywood musical that we wrote and directed with our friends.

This particular strand of chutzpah has an obvious parent: Google. YouTube. Reddit. Instagram. Facebook. We know that social networking, search engines, and community information canvassing aren’t simply recreational. These laptops and phones attached to our fingers are passports to a world of knowledge. Why argue a detail, like how far it is to the moon or how many people live in Somalia, when the answer is in your pocket? Why hire a plumber when you can just learn the basics on YouTube? Who needs a wedding DJ when your friend curated a killer Spotify list? You might say this means we don’t think for ourselves anymore, or that we are lazy learners, but we know that it just means we can do anything we want to try. There is a freedom that comes with access, and the motto of our entire age group might as well be: “Let’s try.”

Also- we live a life examined. Ok, yeah, selfies aren’t actual self- examination. But the truth is, even though a lot of us didn’t have social media until high school and college, we spent our formative young adult years in a fishbowl society, where The Real Word made us want to be watched and then the internet made it possible. Our lives are on display in a manner unknown to any previous groups of people, which makes us self-conscious, self-aware, self-centered and  self-deprecating. In light of all that self, we have another skill: when you ask us how we’re feeling, we know the answer. Thanks to you, of course.

You asked about our feelings a lot when we were kids, even developed curriculum around the idea of sharing our feelings, probably mostly in reaction to the fact that your parents did NOT ask you about feelings. Did this also create a group of kids who can’t believe when college professors and employers don’t care about their precious emotions? Well, yes. Does our generation put too much stock in an emotional currency that changes by the moment? Absolutely. But we are also connected to ourselves in a layered, nuanced manner, because we’ve been allowed to explore our psyches.

Encouraged our entire lives to look inward, some of that prompting produced selfish masses of navel-gazers, but it also produced an entire generation of feelers. And feelings are what draw us into the plight of others, because mature feelings develop into empathy, and in this age of technology and connection and GoFundMe accounts, we know how to create change that is powered by our empathy. Which is why we give our money away, and start non profits, why we take jobs for less pay because they mean something to us, and why we actually think we can change the world.

So please excuse our occasional selfies and our obsessive need to stay connected. Don’t worry when we change jobs with the wind and still live with our parents in between traveling gigs. It might not make sense, but trust me: we are working hard, and we want to leave this world better than we received it, just like every generation before us, and every generation after.

Speaking of which, I can only imagine the articles my children will write to convince all of us that they’re not really robots, and they care about the world too.

I probably won’t believe them, either.

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future robots.