Does Christmas Even Matter?

Does Christmas even matter? Would the world be worse without it? Why doesn’t it seem to make things better, this holiday framed by giving and generosity? Why isn’t this month when we aim goodness towards each other, enough to change our minds about each other?

Christmas doesn’t matter. Not without Advent.

Christmas without Advent is a carnival of the senses, a blind attempt to understand what is wrong on Earth and then fix it with traditions and sincere endeavors of kindness. The trouble is, it doesn’t work. Christmas doesn’t fix anything. But we keep at it year after year, knowing that there is something important in those holy days. Like children trying to count the stars, we aim our sights at the lofty goal of “peace on earth” and believe for a few weeks, with enough good-will and twinkly lights, that it really might be possible.

Quite opposite from the festivities of Christmas and yet inextricably tied together, Advent asks us to consider the story of Jesus of Nazareth and reflect on why that story matters 2,000 years later. Christmas is a burst of wild flame that quickly disappears; Advent is a slow and quiet campfire that says, “Listen. Remember. Wait.” And what are we waiting for?

To be restored. To be saved from the horrors we create.

The problem with the trappings of our modern life, with our heated homes and cozy furniture, our bowls full of Christmas oranges and the clean water in our taps, is that the beauty and convenience by which we are surrounded allows us to imagine ourselves progressed beyond the need to be saved from anything at all, much less ourselves. Our accessibility to ease and our addiction to comfort (and the addictions our comfort produces) convince us that we, in and of ourselves, are worthy of the wealth we’ve inherited.

Only when my vision is cleared by the humbling work of reflection and repentance (a worrisome  and churchy word, but really just means to change my mind and turn another direction) can I find any reason that Christmas matters at all. If I am the ruler of my life then who cares if Christ came, because I don’t need a King anyways. Who needs a king when our tiny kingdoms of self will suffice? And how can we hear the crumbling mortar of the castle walls when the world is eager to remind us that we are doing great and that you are all you need? How can I assume a posture of Advent, of expectant waiting and joyful giving, when I sit so comfortably in the warmth of my convenient life?

And yet, we know. The seed of dissatisfaction blooms full and tangled as we age and cannot escape who we have become, are becoming. Something is wrong, we know it, so we invent worries and inflate problems. We drown in a 2-inch puddle of neurosis, and every day is another reason for unhappiness. We avoid the truth of our selves and what we lack by choosing to look outward and blame, rather than gaze inward and repent.

The longing and waiting of Advent cannot penetrate those of us who cannot remember or bear to consider what it is we need saved from, what it is we wait upon- which is the depravity of our own hearts, and the arrival of a King who shines with a piercing kind of light. We cannot generate this light on our own and we cannot heal our own broken hearts, and this disconnect between what the world says about us and what we secretly know about ourselves is uncomfortable. So we cover it up with hard work, nice things, and the magnification of petty concerns.

Here’s the goodness that we miss in the crowded rooms of our comfortable lives, the actual truth we think we are afraid to encounter: Not that we are unworthy of love or beyond repair, but that the darkness within, those false selves we parade around as protection from the pain and betrayal of life on this planet- the good news is that those shadow selves can be healed. We fear the depth of our darkness and so we avoid admissions of guilt, but then we stomp right past the relief of the light and the rest comes in the waiting. 

When we step in the glowing love of the Light of the World, we are made into our true selves. But because it seems impossible to hold two seemingly opposite truths in my frail human hands, that I am not enough and yet I am absolutely loved, I spin my own story instead, where I am the center, I am the hero, I am not perfect but at least I’m not those other people. Advent doesn’t matter because I’m not waiting for anything, because I’m already here, and I can make things better on my own.

It is not the walls of my house or the confines of my neighborhood, the food in my fridge or the stream of information on my screens which keep me from Christ and the ache of Advent; it is the walls of my imagination, the confines of my narrow perspective, the appetites and ambitions which convince me that the ache is for something else, something I can produce, something someone else can give me, something I just haven’t found yet. My easy access to resources momentarily shelters me from the reason for Christmas, which is that without Jesus, I cannot find the peace I so desperately seek. Surely after all these thousands of years in which we regularly wish for peace on earth and joy for all, we can see that nothing will change when left to our own ideas and machinations. It takes a revolution of the human heart, a fire lit by an outside source and left to burn in our blood and bones, to ignite change that matters, change that lasts.

Advent is the invitation to light a candle and altar the darkness. It is a call to the King who came as a baby and lived as a man, beside us, with us, ever for us, forever triumphant over the wrong within and outside us. Advent is on the lips of the martyrs, in the arms of mothers and fathers, it is sung by the choirs and chanted by the oppressed, it is full in the hearts of the bereaved and yes, still, it is in my home, in the tree trimmings and gifts, in the candles we light every day as we join in the groaning chorus of all creation,

Come, King Jesus. Make it right. Make it right in me, that I might work with you to make it right around me. I light these candles to remember you, and to say thank you for remembering me. 

Merry Christmas, friends. And a blessed Advent as we wait and work in hope.

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At Christmas We Remember Each Other.

My husband’s family is full of wonderful, generous, beautiful, insane people who open their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve and digging into stocking gifts is delightful, kind of like tiptoeing towards the magic of Christmas morning, but it’s not what I grew up doing. And I didn’t mind the new tradition at all until we had kids. Then I looked at my own little family and the idea of my kids opening their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of crawling into bed to dream of morning was, in a word, ludicrous. And besides this 12 hours too-early stocking theory, my husband also thinks Christmas trees should be fake. Less mess, he (rightly) claims. It’s like Christmas tyranny. Might as well throw out the cocoa and drink kombucha, clean up the garland and do some yard work instead of snuggling on the couch and crying when Kevin McCallister finally sees his mom again.

I had no idea that we needed to make all of these decisions as our family grew. I thought that families came with holiday traditions instantly established, Thanksgiving dinner menus chiseled on stone tablets, the children all smiling participants in each ritual as years pass by. What really happened to Christmas was this: We got married, made a family, and had no idea what to do next. Fake tree or real? Hang lights on the house or avoid a huge power bill? Do we believe in Santa? Do we believe in traveling in December? Do we give lots of gifts, or are we minimalists? Is eggnog actually a thing and do we drink it?

What’s strange about this side of the holidays, the grown up side, is the newness of our family culture versus the established expectations of our parents and the people around us. In our effort to set the tone for how we celebrate any holiday, Christmas or otherwise, we must contend with ingrained notions of normal while wrestling with the fact that our children will someday go their own way and make their own decisions, which may or may not hearken back to their childhood with us and our fake (Real? Still haven’t decided) Christmas trees. What if they follow my sister into Messianic Judaism and ask for Hanukkah gifts? What if they marry someone who always spends the holidays in Florida? Or worst, and most annoying of all, what if someday they announce they are gluten-free and won’t even eat my Christmas morning waffles?

But really, buried beneath the self-imposed stress or imagined urgency of all the decisions, the question I suppose I’m really asking is this: Does any of it matter? 

I know, I know. “Why can’t this girl just be a normal person and not question every single detail of life? It’s just a stocking, for goodness sakes. Her poor husband must be exhausted.” To which I reply, yes, he is. But also, I think these things are worth asking.  Because traditions, like loyalty, occupy a slippery slope. If we follow rules, ideas or people without asking what good they produce, we run the risk of either missing their goodness altogether, or worse, passively allowing toxic patterns to develop in our lives.

So I have to ask myself: how can I spend so much on these last weeks of the year -so much time, energy, emotional currency, actual currency- when it seems the world is in a constant state of crisis? How can I buy a tree for my living room when over 25 million men, women and children don’t even have a country to call their own, much less a home with a living room? How can I blissfully hold my children by the fire while my dear friends enter their first Christmas season without their little boy? Where is the line between frivolity and celebration, ignorance and peace? Can I find space in my heart to hold both? Can I know the weight of suffering while also choosing to participate in the building of something good, one tiny detail at a time?

I think that, really, what we do on a holiday is merely an attempt to hold beauty in our hands a moment longer than usual. I wake up on Christmas morning and kiss Audrey’s soft round cheeks,  creased from her pillow. I touch Clara’s curls resting on the collar of her Christmas nightgown. I catch Sammy in my arms as he leaps down the stairs. I kiss my husband as he pours our coffee. I slide bacon into the oven, wipe maple syrup off little fingers, talk over the rumbling furnace as the vents wake up, pour waffle batter sizzling into the press, and smile as our kids open their gifts. I form these traditions, the waffles and the singing and the prayers and the matching pajamas, knowing that while the details are incidental, those details are also scaffolding in the history we build. It’s like squinting at a house trimmed with white lights, softening your focus until all you see is a glow. Each light matters, but the wonder is what they display all together.

The traditions are why we keep coming home, even when it’s hard. The stability of home, the aggregate of family stories and inside jokes, the shared pain of loss and grief, exists in the house we build out of memories. And as mother, I am the memory keeper. I am the magic maker. That’s the pressure I feel with my young family, I suppose- the pressure of what we will say to each other about these days in years to come, the dream of a future where my family loves each other and continues to gather under the covering of what we built.

In a world of dark shadows and cold hearts, on a planet full of one sorrow after another, personal and global pain barking like an angry dog at the boundaries of our lives; in this hard place, I believe that mothers and fathers are co-creators with God, the source of Love, creating goodness with traditions that are clothed in generosity. Like a heartbeat thrumming in the background of our lives, the way we celebrate sets a rhythm for how we remember. Because in the end, that is what we do at Christmas. We remember each other. We remember the God who remembered us in Bethlehem, all those cold nights ago. We remember those who have been forgotten. We remember what we’ve done, we remember what we’ve lost, and we find ways to stand shoulder to shoulder and face the same direction. We make dinner rolls from tattered recipe cards. We sing songs we can’t remember learning. We hold each other up to the light and whisper, in the tender tones of forgiveness and invitation that seem to come a little easier as the year slows and ends, “I see you. You matter to me. Today and all the days.”

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and from my heart to yours: Truly, dear one, you matter. Today and all the days. Let us be generous, and build something good to cover the ones we love.

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The teeth are dying.

My oldest child keeps losing her teeth, one tiny white chiclet after another twisting out and leaving gaping holes behind. She lost one of her top front teeth this week, and I held it in my hand for a long time afterwards, turning it over and examining each angle, remembering the nights it kept us both awake. She was 7 months old and I was 26, finally finishing my bachelor degree despite the exhausted wide-eyed wonder of new motherhood. My husband worked out of town most of each month, so it was just me and the baby, our love story an expanding plot line in my life. I wrote so much about her that first year, each university writing class another avenue to explore the intensity of mothering and the raw vulnerability which follows. I remember strange details from those times, magnified by novelty and loneliness. I remember the smell of her milk soaked pajamas. I remember her smooth cheek against mine as we slow danced back to sleep. I remember the low light in her nursery, the way shadows held us up like prayers as we learned each other’s heartbeat in those bleary, wakeful nights.

And those brand new teeth. I remember the pain of those particular tears. She’d wake up crying 4, 5, maybe 8 times in one night, pain bleating from her throat. Each tooth was another triumph, a sharp and solid reminder that she was growing up, becoming more and more human, less celestial. Less angel in my arms.

These hard-won teeth now fall into my waiting hands and I stare at the little girl standing in front of me, her eyes shining proud with tears, blood dribbling from her mouth. I stare at the teeth and wonder, Aren’t these mine? 

She loses them with no thought to the getting of them, because she does not remember those long nights. The pain flitted away with the rest of her babyhood memories, which are now just pictures of an infant she does not know, stories as disconnected as the lone tooth in my hand.

So I hold the teeth, and the girl runs off with her fresh dollar, which she will assuredly squirrel away like all her other money because at 6 years old she is already more responsible than most adults I know. For her 6th birthday she begged for a luggage set, not only for the fun of traveling in style, but for the deeply satisfying task of packing and repacking her own clothes, with no family members rifling through her neatly folded outfits. She starts school tomorrow as perhaps the most mature kindergarten student of all time, better prepared for the ruckus of school than most kids, and still I cannot stand the thought of letting her go.

I want to hang a sign from her neck that says, “This is my darling girl and she is a gift. Please act accordingly.” I want the world to know what a treasure walks in their midst. I want them to adore her and give her all the room she needs to grow. I want them to understand how hard I worked the last six years to raise her. I want to collect my shout of joy when the doctor lifted her into my waiting arms, and surround her with it like a song. I want the world to learn the harmony. I want them to sing it with me.

Her teeth are falling out because she does not need them anymore. They are too small. Insufficient for the task at hand. Her body lengthens, stretches towards the light like the sunflowers in my backyard, those impressive ladies who bow their crowned heads each night and raise them each morning, queens awakened by summer, just like my August-born  daughter. My little queen, regal and filial, blood of my blood, heart of my heart, is blooming like a six year old ought to bloom; her curls fall across her shoulder as she writes me love letters, her cheeks flush with pleasure when she runs after a soccer ball, her thin legs bruised with adventure and bravery.

Baby teeth fall out because the roots die. The roots which held the teeth in place disintegrate and so what choice do the teeth have but to break ties and be ransomed for pocket change? After all, they did not come easy. This makes their barbaric end, wrenched from the tiny mouths where they taught a child to chew, swallow, and talk, all the more disturbing. Does no one respect the price paid for their entrance, the work they have done ever since? I nursed those teeth into existence. I held my baby to my chest and nursed her aching jaw, the milk between us a silent exchange of comfort and apology. The world hurts, I whispered to my baby. You didn’t know yet. You had no idea. I’m so sorry to tell you, but the world is not always good. Even our own bodies hurt us. I kissed her hand and sang my prayers, startled at how badly I wanted to absorb the pain for her.

Childhood is a field of wildflowers you only pretend to own. It is a dreamland, an incohesive collection of agony and bliss, tremendous moments of goodness and misery positioned like mountains among the endless stretches of the mundane, days we will never return to, will mostly forget. And if childhood is a dream, mothers guard the slumber. When suffering comes, we do not stand idly by. We kneel. For when we cannot fight, we learn to pray. For the crying baby when new teeth break through. And for ourselves when the roots are gone.

The teeth are mine. But they’re useless, relics of a time that exists only in my memory. No one can account for the hours I spend with my small children. Even them. I alone hold these days, turning them over in my hands like pearls, tiny and smoothed over with time. These years are mine, a gift of pure strength and grit, a dream I am slowly waking from as they get older. I am not done yet; I ache for the depth of our oneness when I held them so close, so often. But they have bigger jobs to do now. Their worlds expand with each breath they take, and what can I want for them except a life teeming with the most sincere joy? And how can I expect joy without suffering? Theirs, and mine.

The teeth are falling out, but new teeth are growing in their place. God teaches us to see the emptiness not as absence, but as an open way, necessary for new life. Today, oldest daughter, I try to remember the same. Pain does not just mean an ending- it also signals beginning. The blood and the twinge, an introduction to a fresh start. I won’t begrudge your grown-up incisors or 6-year molars. I’ll trade you for a dollar and kiss your curly ponytail, watching wistfully as you skip away.

 

Fireworks

It’s 100 degrees by lunch time every day and firework stands pop up on every available corner, but I can’t help thinking about Christmas. The 4th of July always makes me think about Christmas. Kids from all over town pedal bikes across sweltering pavement to stare at clapboard walls pasted over with firework posters advertising things that ought to be shouted, like “The Avalanche” and “Black Night Explosions” and “Fiery Clouds.” The sweaty kids agonize over what to buy, hand over their sweaty, crumpled dollar bills for Black Cats and firecrackers, then ride off with backpacks full of explosives.

My mom used to be the one selling those explosives; she was the one in a lawn chair with a book to read when things got slow, the one organizing shelves of combustible merchandise, the one running the firework stand for a week every summer. My parents did not lead a simple life. My dad pastored a small Baptist church (very small, more like a large dysfunctional family than a congregation) and owned a remodeling business, while involving himself in countless other endeavors. An entrepreneur to the fullest measure, he is a man of dreams and hypotheticals, a man of longing and heartache. The way I remember my dad in my childhood is the way I feel when I see old pictures of him: Enthralled, distant, equal parts afraid and adoring. There’s my dad at graduate school in 1978, head full of blonde hair and face alight with a slightly smug gap-toothed grin as he cradles his first baby. There’s my dad in 1989, father now to seven children, blonde hair receding rapidly off his head, a half-demolished house in the background, adventure in his eyes. It is completely shocking that my dad even has 7 kids. As a grandfather now, he is the dad I think he would’ve been if life hadn’t squeezed around him like a vice for all those decades of raising us and a church and a company, all at once. He was not an available person. But if you’ll believe it, I don’t resent him. Because while I love my father, and crave his approval even now, it is my mother who holds my childhood in her hands.

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My mom likes to say that she tricked my dad and asked for 14 kids so they could “meet in the middle” and have 7. The truth is, many of us were surprise arrivals. Conservative Baptist members might dress up for church, but apparently they have no qualms loosening up in the bedroom. Almost every family we knew had at least 4 children – I don’t have any memories without a pack of kids around me, cousins and friends alike. And at the head of the pack stood my mother, dark hair loose around her face, shoulder pads giving authority to her knit shirts and dress jackets, full of a desperate desire to give her kids the love and safety she didn’t feel in her own childhood.

With her husband working for God (no money) and a fledging remodeling business (fluctuating money), my mom walked the fine line of managing a house full of kids and their constant needs (soccer fees! new shoes! medical bills! dental appointments! groceries! clothes! mission trips! tutoring!) and fighting back her longing to give us everything we wanted. While no child should get everything they want, the truth is, it hurts when you know you can’t do it anyways. As a mother now, I ache when I think of how my mom daydreamed with us about what she would do if money wasn’t a factor. She didn’t tell us about trips she wanted to take or things she wanted for herself; she dreamt of redecorating our bedrooms. Of buying brand new wardrobes for us instead of piecing them together from sales at Shopko and hand-me-downs. Of sending us to every summer camp we wanted to attend. As a little girl I couldn’t understand the yearning behind those conversations, how primal a mother’s desire is to be generous and good to her babies. That bone-deep drive is why our mother stood at a temporary firework shanty in the parking lot between The Wave (a now defunct burger join in west Boise- sorely missed) and the 7-11 gas station (also gone) and hocked sparklers, Family Value Variety Packs, and tiny boxes of snappers for one week every summer. She stood in that parking lot, working for a friend who owned several firework stands, so that 6 months later she could create a Christmas miracle in our living room.

I never knew.

I never ran down the stairs on December 25th, glanced at our piles of gifts, and thanked my mom for selling fireworks and saving the money to buy us beautiful dolls and coveted boom boxes. I didn’t know where our gifts came from, how my parents suddenly had extra cash to fulfill the wishes of seven kids and make dreams come true. I just knew that Christmas morning was my mom’s dream come true. I knew she beamed as we opened each present. I knew she curated each of our gifts to create a perfect, individualized experience of joy. My mother was the goodness of my life, and Christmas morning was her only chance to lavish that goodness on us in tangible, material ways.

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The rest of the year she and my dad took care of us, loved us, provided for every need and some of our wants; but Christmas existed on a different plane. On that holy day my mom burst with love and glowed like her fireworks, and that light got into us. Her sacrifice lit something inside each of sons and daughters, and it made us generous. Kind. It made us love our own children in a way I don’t think we could have managed without a mom who led the way, in the scorching heat of a Boise July, in a plywood shack full of roman candles and slow burning fountains of sparks, with a paperback mystery and a cold soda and a resolve that only a mother can hold.

We celebrate the 4th of July to celebrate our freedom, and we eat burgers and light  fireworks in gratitude for the sacrifices that make our democracy possible. But when I watch that twilight sky erupt with color and the smell of sulfur falls around me in a neighborhood full of hollering kids, I think of my mom and her sacrifices. And as a mother of three babies, humbled and tired in ways unimaginable- I am more thankful than ever.

5 things.

I titled the very first post on Horney Mom Tells All “5 Things,” and it documented the 5 things I’d learned in the month since my first child was born.

One month. I’d been a mom for 30 days and already had 5 things to share, which endears me to my past self in a strange, warm way. The “5 things” are a study in punch drunk love, and reading them stirred up that infatuation of new motherhood that completely overtook me when Clara arrived.

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But it made me think- If I met that new mom at the park, the one with a 4-week-old Clara in her arms and eyes full of stars as she tiptoed into motherhood, what would I say? Could I hold my tongue, avoid shaking her by the shoulders with a wake-up call about future pain and mistakes? I hope so. I hope I would hug her, smell that newborn baby with every fiber of my being, and tell her these 5 things from 5 years later.

  1. Babies normally survive colds. 

It’s difficult to believe this when your 5 pound infant sneezes for the first time, or when your 5 month old runs a fever, or your 8 month old keeps coughing, but those are not emergencies. Do not go to the emergency room. Use the nose-sucker from the hospital, give her lots of breast milk, buy stock in Children’s Motrin, and honestly, honestly, everything is going to be ok. You’ll never sleep again, for so many reasons, but everyone will survive.

2. You will finish college. It will be hard, and you will cry a lot, but you will do it. 

Don’t get so mad at all the other people who aren’t doing school with a newborn and a husband who’s never home to help. Those kids are selfish idiots, you’re not wrong, but so were you, babe. Remember your freshman year? Cut them some slack. Also, use your time away from home to work harder than you’ve ever worked on anything. Live in that library. Write with abandon. If your sisters tell you the baby is fine and you can take your time to study, take your time to study, dummy. The baby doesn’t miss you. Someday you’re going to hold all your kids on your lap and tell them that college isn’t for everyone, but in this family we finish what we start. You didn’t walk to school uphill in both directions in a snowstorm, but you will graduate from college with a 15 month old baby and 37 weeks pregnant. Someday that will mean something to them. It will pulse with their blood and become part of their story, just like your mom’s survival is so much a part of yours.

3. It’s ok to stay home on weekends.

You will never, ever get this time back. Ever. You don’t have to go out to dinner with friends, you don’t have to get a baby-sitter, you don’t have to apologize for soaking up every single second with your little girl. By next year you will have another baby, college will be over, Sam will work in town, and you will actually crave time to yourself. For now, when you’re not at work or school: Don’t leave her side. Any friendship worth it’s weight will make space for this time in your life, especially if you get better at answering your freaking phone calls and texts. Your friends will survive without you, but your baby will just grow up. You will register her for kindergarten and she will ask you every single day when school will finally start, and it will break you to pieces. Hold your tiny baby. Kiss her soft hands. Sing over her with the sacred, tired tones of motherhood.

4. Write everything. 

That baby book you bought will remain mostly empty, so you need to write everything down. Stories, snippets, jokes, milestones, memories, struggles, successes, good days and really bad ones; write them. For the sake of your children, who will inherit your words as a tilted family history. And for the sake of yourself, write everything else too. Write what interests you, what makes you mad, all of the thoughts you can’t escape- write them down. Just like babies grow up and you’ll never get this time back, unwritten words disappear and you will never remember what you meant to say. Also- it is imperative that your kids see you doing what you’re meant to do, because if they understand your personhood and passions, they will hear your voice more clearly than if you remain a one-dimensional figure. Stay up late. Get up early. Write.

5. Be kind. 

To yourself. To the kids. To Sam. You will all fail. You will hurt each other. Your beautiful baby will disappoint you to the point of actual, physical heartache. You will yell at your beautiful children in a voice that surprises everyone, even you. Sam will be impatient and you will be impatient with his impatience. There will be one million reasons to get frustrated, upset, and angry, and your reactions will not be ideal. But practicing kindness will change everything. Being mean won’t make water stay in cups or kids listen better. It won’t make husbands more thankful. Being mean in your thought life won’t make you run every morning or use Instagram less. Being mean just makes you a mean person. So be kind. Practice every day, and pray for a kindness that comes from Jesus transforming your heart, because kindness will transform your family. You are the mother. And they will all follow you.

 

 

Of course, what is the most frightening part of saying anything, writing anything down? How foolish I may look in the future. The fact that 5 more years are currently passing. And then ten. And then twenty. What would I tell myself now, from the future? What am I missing, now, that I will regret?

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
-Joan Didion

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We labor for inches, we labor for glory.

The story of creation ends with a woman. God spins out light. Night and day separate. Mountains topple the horizon. Oceans deepen, roll with the movements of the newborn moon. Rain forest canopies awaken and stretch to the sky. Beetles scuttle across untouched desert canyons. Then comes Man, fresh and strong. He rules over the animals, most evolved of all, but still: not quite enough. Something is missing. Dust blows upward and out walks Woman. The pinnacle of all things made, all things lovely, all things good. And from Her will continue all life, forever and always after, life from that goodness, life from that dark unknown womb, the center of the human race. But in the fall from perfection came the mandate for pain; the demand for life to be birthed in harrowing battle. Forever and always after would Woman fight this battle for new life, bear the pain of the future, carry within her the life and continuity of every race and people on earth. Woman labors for her children, labors for her community, labors for the extraordinary and for justice. Woman fights the battles with grace and love, proof and proof again that God saved the best for last. 

 

10 reasons toddlers are terrorists.
Clara, 19 months

Finally, as of this week, our daughter Clara is potty trained. I say finally because we tried earlier, a few months ago, and it did not go well. In fact, this whole spring has been a trying time with our almost 2 years old daughter. She’s a geyser of emotions, with both a steady outpouring of opinions as well as the occasional and shocking burst of FEELINGS. All the feelings all the time, you know what I mean? Some days have felt dark, dark, dark. I just could not get ahead of her demands, could not find my bearings in her sea of emotional waves. Her screaming, sobbing fights during that first round of toilet training were an apt picture of all the outbursts that peppered our days together. She fought everything so hard, with a ferocity that belied her slight frame. She looks like a baby but emotes like a teenager, and the balance between allowing her space and being consistent in discipline is a delicate one. Especially these last few months. Especially in this move towards toddler hood for my first born.

Clara was born in late August, my hospital room lit with afternoon sun and the dry heat of a high desert summer. She was born as the afternoon shone bright outside, her birth as blinding as the midday sun.

When my Clara was born, I needed noise. Her birth day was loud and violent and exciting. I threw pillows, I bit a couple of people; it was a hectic clamor of anticipation.

The pain of her birth lodged itself directly in my lower back, a piercing that did not stop. Ever. Since it was my first baby I didn’t know any different, but now that I’ve had a “normal” birth with my second born, I can see that back labor is another beast altogether. It doesn’t tune up and down, coming and going like the radio waves of contractions. It just stays and stays and stays and stays.

I needed a full room to birth Clara. My three sisters, my husband, three of my dear friends, and the most amazing nurse gathered around and held me up through those agonizing hours, literally and figuratively. At one point my sister Jamilyn was rolling an ice-cold diet coke up and down my back, while my cousin Jenna let me bite her arm as I writhed around, tilted over hospital bed in desperate cries of prayer.

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When it came time to push, I closed my eyes, gripped the bed, and bearing down three times, my body released Clara Noelle into the world. She shrieked, her big eyes dark and furious. Everyone cried with joy, clapping even. The umbilical cord had not yet been cut when I turned to Sam and said, “We gotta do this again.” The next days, weeks, and months were the best of my entire life. “Clara” means clear, bright, famous; and she has been all of those to me. She is a sharp light, her eyes a blue both cold and fierce. She is the sort of kid who gets noticed wherever she goes. She is difficult. She is lovely. She is small and incredibly loud. And that pushing, that insistent grip on my heart and body; it did not stop with her birth.

This is perhaps the part of parenthood that most surprised me. I think, from the outside, I assumed that children sort of roll through phases, transitioning seamlessly from baby to toddler to little kid and then one day they graduate high school and you repaint their bedroom after they move out. This has been anything but true for me and Clara. Some days it feels like I fight for every moment, for manners and obedience and creativity and independence and safety all at once, never one along with the other. The labor process that began on that summer afternoon was just that: a beginning. The genesis of a  process that may have ended in my uterus but has expanded on and on into my fingers and my heart and my home.

The longer I’m in this world of motherhood the more I understand that while some miles come quite easily, there are some inches that will nearly kill us.  And it’s those inches that get me. It’s those days and months when my labor with my children seems too exhausting to bear, those are the ones that leave me wrung out. Wondering why I try at all.

Woman cannot escape her call to labor forth life. Whether she birthed a child or has taken in another woman’s children, or she labors for her valued and worthwhile work, or she engages in the act of art or of business or of friendship: She is the seat of humanity, the thread of peace that holds our world together. I truly believe that. I truly believe in the innate power that lies in my daughter, in my mother, in my sisters, in myself; the power to struggle for what is good and to regard the wonders which our anguish produce.

Woman. We continue to labor long after our children gasp their first breath. We continue to suffer the pains, to ride the waves, to beg for mercy, to fear the unknown, to long for the other side and then wonder why we worried in the first place. We wear the scars of growing hard and fast, the scars of emergency decisions, the scars of a stretched and torn heart, made to expand but not without pain. We labor our children through these times of change, from diapers to toilets, from reading groups to locker rooms, from crushes to broken hearts, through scathing friendships and rumors and our precious childrens’ own breathtaking, horrifying mistakes. We struggle to breathe evenly, we hunker down inside ourselves when the pain overwhelms, we cry out when it’s just too much and the end will never come. And even if we choose not to feel it, to administer some form of delusional epidural, we will feel it all later.

We cannot escape the agony of parenthood.
We cannot escape the habitual act of guiding our children from one world to another.
We cannot escape the strain,

or the glory.

The glory.
The glory that is ours to witness.

For when the birth is over, when the smoke clears and the sweat is wiped off foreheads; there is new life. Glorious, precious, gasping new life. And as ridiculous as you might think I sound, that is how potty training felt this week. That is how my entire spring felt. I labored for Clara. I fought with her and beside her. I will always labor for her; because I am her mother. I will push and breathe deeply and let go when it is time to let go because I am mother.

I stand on the other side of this enduring battle of our long spring months with tears in my eyes because I see the pride in hers. I see the light of accomplishment on her face, sense the steps of maturation that gave her such growing pains. I beam with a love born on a hospital bed and expanded with each beat of my wrecked and humbled heart.

I am Woman. And when these moments of glory arise, when they cut like a welcome spring through a parched land after rainfall; when they appear like that moment when you stare long and hard enough at the night heavens and the stars suddenly multiply into millions; when that glory comes, I will pause. I will stop and sit and say thank you to the heavens for delivering yet another jolt of surprising, iridescent, starry skied glory after a night full of blinding, wondrous labor.

 

*Originally published July 2014

The Explosion.

4 years ago, I blew up my bathroom. Here’s the story in case you missed it back then.
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OK so last night I posted a picture of myself on Instagram, with my car full of babies in the background, and laid out the woeful story about how my week (HOW IS IT ONLY TUESDAY) has been, and the overwhelming response was,

“Yeah, but your hair looks great.”

While this affirmation helped my self-esteem, seeing as I spent the better part of an hour on Sunday evening pulling out gray hairs (how long does this method work before hair dye comes into play? When should that bridge be crossed?) and bemoaning my extreme post-natal hair loss (seriously, it does not stop. I’m sure an entire underworld, complete with a mayor and a bustling city square, has taken up residence in the nest in my shower drain). So my hair situation has been depressing at best, what with the balding and the graying.

And especially because I haven’t had any hair products or hair tools since July 25.
July 25, 2014.
The Day I Blew Up My Bathroom.

This is the story of the Explosion of 2014, and The Terrible Pictures That Followed.  Would you like to know how to take the worst family pictures of all time and eternity? Gather in, I’ll tell you. Listen closely so you know what steps to take.

1. Have your baby get really sick the night before your photo shoot. 
I’m talking waking up screaming at 1:00 am covered in vomit so thick that he can’t open his eyelids, crying for hours on end, a downright miserable kind of sick. This way, he will be pale and limp in the pictures the next day, and you will also be pale and shriveled due to only sleeping for two hours the night before. If you’re looking for pallid, squinting into the blessed light of day pictures, this is a perfect beginning.

2. Plan a 15 hour road trip following your photo shoot. 
We planned ours for a family reunion in Colorado. This created plenty of frenzied packing, stressing, and a general sense of urgency around the day that translated really well into the photos.

3. Have out of town family stay at your house the night before the shoot. 
This way not only will your sick baby leave you tired, cranky, and in a hurry to make that early morning golden hour of light, but you will also feel an unnecessary duty to make coffee and breakfast for your brother and sister in law and their sweet baby. They won’t be expecting it, they’re much better people than that, but you might as well kill yourself to make it happen. It will make sense later, I promise.
Just kidding, it will never make sense and your family pictures will be terrible.

4. Hire a photographer site unseen because you’ve been pregnant and/or nursing for almost three years and after one sip of champagne you’re tipsy and ready to BID THE CRAP out of that silent charity auction. 
It will be three months before we actually manage to take these pictures, but sure, $100 for a photo shoot and an 11×14 print? Here’s my bid number, gents. Just let me know where to pick up my prize. Also, is there a private room where I could use the hand-held breast pump in my purse? Thankssomuch.

5.  Wake up before the rest of the family on your photoshoot day and get ready fast.
Don’t worry, you can do a few touch ups before you leave.

6. Try to get yourself, your husband, a 6 month old and 2 year old out the door dressed in their best and beaming with smiling faces. By 8:20 a.m.
Go ahead.

7. Leave your make-up on the bathroom counter and your flat iron plugged in.
You’ll need a few touch ups right before you head out to the photo shoot that you barely remember paying for.

8. Is everyone almost ready? Go drink some coffee. 
You deserve it. You need it. Put your tired feet up for a quick minute and talk to your sister-in-law about how fun the family reunion is going to be.

9. Startle at the sound of a bomb going off. Wonder what that alarming noise just was. 
A shelf that ripped from a wall? A gun shot? A broken water pipe? Everyone needs to slowly lower their coffee mugs and go find the source of the cracking thunder that came from somewhere inside your house. 

10. Search the house. Then open your bathroom door. Blink at the carnage. 
At first the shrapnel on the floor won’t make sense. Neither will the mist hanging in the hair, choking all of you. It’s ok. You’ll start putting the (literal) pieces together.

Yes…
That’s part of the flat iron.
And there’s the blow-dryer, cracked in half.
And here’s another piece of the flat iron.
And what’s this?
A slick and lethal piece of metal, blown across the bathroom, etched in gold with the words “Root Booster”.

A tall, thin aerosol can, $50 worth of root boosting magic from my overpriced and snobby salon, BLOWN TO BITS BY THE HEAT FROM MY STRAIGHTENER.

My straightener is strewn into every corner, springs, titanium and cord spread all around my bathroom.
My toiletries bag, packed for our trip to Colorado, packed with at least 5 pounds of shampoo, conditioner, make-up and hygiene products-
has blown over the top of my shower.
Over. The. Top. Of a 6 foot shower door.

Such was the force of this explosion. Weeks later, I would find a tampon on the window sill above my shower. Find scraps of metal plastered to the wall in a film of hair product. Find tiny pieces of make-up brushes and hair spray bottles on the shelf above the towel rack.

So not only was the baby sick and his parents exhausted, not only did our photographer spend two hours calling our son “Sawyer” because we didn’t catch it the first few times and eventually were too embarrassed to correct her, not only did she tell us to let Clara “be Clara” which basically just meant disobey our every command because she knew another grown up was letting her get away with murder, not only did this result in Clara skipping away from us and quite deservedly falling into an ankle deep off-shoot of the Boise river and ruining her dress, NOT ONLY was all of this happening on a Saturday morning right before we drove in a rented car for 15 hours to Montrose, Colorado;

but I was also dealing with a minor case of PTSD.
“That could have killed one our kids,” I sobbed to Sam as we attempted to clean up the mess before we left the house that morning.
“It could have blinded me, or killed one of us, or sliced our necks open!” I could not stop crying, could not stop imagining all the ways my idiotic mistake could have ruined my life. Sam tried to console me (after starting to chastise me before realizing I was doing a fine job of it on my own) and told me to wipe my eyes and get in the car, because we had pictures to take.
Pictures I was forcing him to take, he reminded me.

I haven’t allowed myself to buy any expensive hair product, or replace any of my hair tools since that day, in deep and sincere penance for my stupidity. I used a 4-inch long hotel-sized hair dryer from my guest bathroom. If I needed any heat styling, I stopped by my friends’ or sisters’ houses before I went out, sneaking into their bathrooms to use their straighteners or curlers and hair spray.

I’ve been having a bad hair day since July 25.

Until yesterday. When I finally gave in and bought another flat iron.
Thus, the amazement via internet of what I could actually look like. Thus the approval of the world at large.

And in case you’re wondering, I don’t have any of those family pictures to show you. I can’t blame all of it on the photographer, because most of the blame lies with Sammy being sick and Clara being naughty and Sam being annoyed and me being strung out on fear,
but the pictures were not worth purchasing.
Not even the free one.

So thanks, internet and instagram friends, for the kind words about my hair. Thank you for reminding an irresponsible, graying old lady that with a little bit of heat and product and trapping two kids in a pack n’ play in order to shower and style this head of falling out hair,

I still got it.

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