Sometimes my life feels small.

I left the kids at home with Sam last month, for the first time ever. I flew on a plane by myself for the first time in three years, and spent three days without my family. I cried a little the day before I left, preparing things and writing lists and making arrangements for me to be gone. I cried, not because I didn’t want to leave, but because I didn’t want Clara and Sammy to feel sad after I left. But I only cried a little because, quite frankly, I was too tired to really care about how they would feel. This pregnancy has been tiring, and I don’t feel like myself, and I can sense the introverted parts of me creeping to the surface as they tend to do when I’m carrying a baby. I’m relieved to see the seasons changing and to finally wave goodbye to summer, with its never-ending social engagements and that underlying expectation of having fun fun fun all the time all day long! It’s exhausting. And hot. So now as the rains come, and the leaves flame out, and the cold eases over us, I am pulling us back inside our house, so that I can pull back inside myself.

When I was this far along with Sammy, I was in my last semester of college. Clara was 14 months old, I was 30 weeks pregnant, Sam was still working out of town, I had a full-time schedule at BSU and I was directing a musical that I wrote for an elementary school. I was busy and stressed, barely pulling myself across campus, steeling myself through Clara drop off and pick ups, and then hustling to evening rehearsals with a cast of 30 kids. I was accomplishing a lot every single day, small tasks and enormous projects, working towards a degree and a creative endeavor and parenting too. I look back on that time with pride, but also with a nod of love to that girl, who was so spent, and so overwhelmed.

Life doesn’t look like that now. It’s two years past that season. Winds have shifted, the earth has rotated. I am older, rotating too, walking along curious new paths.

Sometimes I miss school. And having a job. Sometimes I miss the hustle of my old world. Even though I love being with my babies, and it would kill me to leave them with someone else to work outside my home. And if I’m honest, most jobs feel like jail to me. I’m not great at doing the same tasks every day, which is why I got a writing degree and plan on a life of poverty-stricken (free-wheeling) creativity.

But the thing is, sometimes my new world feels little. The reality of my life is that I wake up early with two tiny kids and tend to them all day long. My life isn’t centered around them, but it does move around them and their needs. I mean, it has to. There’s not much they can do without me. And in the endless apple slicing, face-wiping, story reading, sleep coercing, listening and disciplining and training, I sometimes wonder if I’ve forgotten how to do anything else. And in those moments of insecurity, of hoping I still matter and hoping motherhood hasn’t rendered me irrelevant, I worry that I am losing myself in the slender margins of caring for my children.

I guess there’s a part of me that wonders if everyone feels this way. Do we all compare ourselves to ourselves? For better or worse, do we gaze upon our past selves or future selves and wonder when we will arrive, or when we lost our fire? It’s like I’m afraid that I’m not as good as I once was, but also that I’ll never be the future self I dream of becoming. What an odd vice to squeeze through, those two pressure points of my past and my future; as though either one of those ghosts could clear a path for me.

Will I feel this way when I’m 40? When I’m 60? When I’m 90?

Sometimes my life feels little. Does yours? When this happens, when I sit at my desk and write into the wind, or when I’m chopping vegetables, or walking, or talking with one of my sisters, I consider this quiet, seemingly small time, and what it’s worth. In my life, and in all of ours lives.

Because sometimes, we work at jobs we don’t love. We get degrees we don’t remember caring about, or we drop out because we don’t know what comes next. We trudge along in stagnant relationships, praying for a new fire. We can’t seem to finish our novel or start our business. We feel stuck. We are waiting for success and fame and love to come bounding our way, all while we wake up each morning and pour ourselves a little bit further into our daily work. 
Sometimes we feel little. And in a world that wants microphones and platforms and influence, this quiet toil is dismissed as the time before we arrive, before we become. 

I refute this. I refute it in my own life, and I refute it for yours.

My friend Jimmy died when he was 24 years old. And his life was rich, grand with friendship and accomplishment. Thousands and thousands of people mourned his death, and still ache for him today. That’s not normal. 24 year olds don’t carry that kind of a legacy with them; but Jimmy did. After his death we all told story after story about him, written in letters to his wife, spoken over drinks at the wakes held all over the world for him, whispered to his parents in reverent tones: stories of how Jimmy changed us. They weren’t stories of grand acts of valor. It wasn’t because he was brilliant (he was) or that he was brave (he was) or that he never failed (he did.) Jimmy’s life mattered in the quiet moments. In Bible studies with aetheist friends who trusted him. In med school classes where his peaceful spirit shone like a spotlight. In loud laughter, in worship on Sunday mornings, in expensive scotch and cheap beer on Saturday nights, on the crags of the mountain tops he scaled on weekends. In how he treated his little sister. In how he loved his wife.

I think about what this quiet time means for me, this season of small movements, and I look at Jimmy. I remember that this moment, this is it; this is what matters. What I do with my hands. What I say. Who I love, and how I love them. That’s what the quiet time reminds me of: that the essentials are simple. And that my work is essential, no matter what it looks like to anyone else. When done with great love, and great humility, all of my work matters.

Sometimes my life feels small.

Good. May the smallness remind me of God’s greatness, and press me towards the grandiosity of living in the light.

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why we don’t have another baby yet.

There’s a fast-approaching date on the calendar that I’ve been waiting to experience. It’s the day that Sammy turns 16 months and 16 days old, the exact age of Clara when he was born. I look at him every day and can’t imagine having a newborn at home as well. I don’t know if it’s because Clara is our oldest, or because she’s always been a little more observant and socially aware than he has, but Sammy seems so much younger at every stage. We dote on him, it’s way too easy to dote on him, and he also has Clara to direct and control his life (which she attempts with great pleasure and a small iron fist), and for these and many other reasons he still seems like a baby to me. Let’s be honest, it probably also has something to do with the fact that he is still nursing. I never really knew how I felt about “extended” breastfeeding until I found myself doing it, and it turns out I am not a fan. Every time he sits up afterwards and says “Ahhh! All done!” I am embarrassed for everyone in the house.

Maybe it was just ignorance, honestly, that convinced me to get pregnant when Clara was 8 months old (she’ll be so much older when he’s born! I said. She’ll practically be an adult! I said) but when it came time to think about our third baby, I felt a definite hesitation. Not in the longing for a baby; I daydream about our other children constantly, and pray every day that I can have more. But I haven’t felt a peace about trying again. Isn’t that strange? I never felt this kind of pause with our other pregnancies. I don’t normally pause for anything, in fact.

My family, my big family of my siblings and their spouses and my parents, recently struck a conversation about our Meyers-Briggs personality profiles. We all took an online version of the test and then read through each other’s profiles, gawking at how accurate they were and how different all of us are. I am an ENFP, an introverted kind of extrovert, full of ideas and love and short on follow-through and common sense. I’ve read through lots of information on my personality lately, trying to figure myself out and how to be a better person.

Mostly what I’ve noticed is that I am impatient. I am the opposite of a perfectionist: I am a “it’s good enough and if it’s not I’m sure we’ll all survive anyways” kind of a person. This is mostly because I have so many ideas and dreams that I couldn’t possibly be expected to spend any time finishing and perfecting just one of them, how dare you suggest it. Also, I am lazy. These traits cause problems for me, especially with my husband, who is too particular to even let me do the laundry because I forget which t-shirts don’t belong in the dryer. I just don’t care about doing things right, or about how they will get done, and I fail to see any value in following a set of rules for something that can be done faster and or easier.

And what a surprise, but I pay for this mindset constantly. My teachers always said, “You have so much potential if only you would finish something,” and they were right. I am impatient and I suck at being faithful in the details.

But now, as a mother, there’s not a lot of room for that part of me. Mundane tasks, maintenance chores that no one notices unless I don’t do them, a day revolving around the essentials of life; this is my new normal. (Do you know that children must eat at LEAST 3 times a day? It’s never-ending with these people!)

This is hard for me. It is hard almost every single day. But you know what? And this is my qualm with all those personality profiles, all of those lists of strengths and weaknesses: They don’t leave much room for grace or transformation. Because I can change. I mean, I can’t change who I am. I will always prefer major projects to small tasks. I will always enjoy creatively solving complex problems to doing the actual simple, good work of everyday life. But I am not my own person anymore. I don’t answer to Jessie, I don’t worship at the altar of Jessie, and I sure as hell don’t need Jessie and her personality traits determining my life. Simply put, Jessie makes a lot of messes. She’s not exactly my role model.

Inside of those four letters- those ENFP traits and ticks- I depend on the God of mercy to sift through me. Like the farmer methodically sifting wheat and chaff, like a judge and her intuition sifting fact and fiction, I pray for refinement as God sifts through me and presses the truth of who I am into my soul, letting the unsightly habits fall away one by one.

What does this have to do with babies? Well. We don’t have another baby yet because God said Wait. I know it was God, because it wasn’t me. Impatient, jump head first off the cliff me- she would have tried to get pregnant a long time ago. And I know it wasn’t the devil because he actually normally sounds a lot like me, which tends to make him  more convincing of course, and I would have told myself YES, go for it, now is always the right time.

I haven’t always heard God so clearly. Motherhood has chastened me, gripped me, led me into a lifestyle foreign to my tastes and behaviors. This isn’t some creative project I’m working on, these children and my home like some grand masterpiece preparing to be revealed; this isn’t one of my plays or my essays or even a full day of creative work culminated in a finished product. This is a long study. This is devoted work. This is work of the heart, produced by steady movements of my hands and my body, a work that is making me quiet down the demons of my personality and be still. Be steady. Listen. 

And in the listening, I heard Wait.

So here I am. With my two beautiful kids, an ache in my skin for many more, and a renewed trust in the One who knows me and keeps me, loves me and cherishes me, and is doing the work of sifting and refining me.

Wait. Be still. Be refined. 

Waiting is so hard! Waiting is the worst! But in the waiting, I’m hearing so much. I am mother; but I am more. And I am less. I am Jessie, which means I am impatient and impractical, foolhardy and visionary; but I am learning to listen. Learning to be the truest version of me. With kids, without kids, whatever: the sifting is necessary. And it’s good. So- I wait.

 

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(Imagine her sunscreen budget.)

 

 

Clara’s stutter

For months and months, Clara has insisted on saying our prayer before we eat dinner. Every night it’s the same rushed breath of thanks,

“DearJesusThankYouFoodAmen.”

She folds her little hands and bows her little head, squeezes her ocean-tide eyes shut in a squint and her two year old liturgy tumbles out in a hurry. Sam and I barely have time to close our eyes before she finishes. And though sometimes we’ll follow up with our own prayer, we grin about the swift manner of hers every night, smiling across the table at each other as we pick up forks and napkins and start our meal together.

For awhile, Clara didn’t want to pray until her baby brother assumed the posture she deemed necessary; that is, bowing his head and closing his eyes, and folding his pudgy hands on his tray. He never obeyed her requests for stillness, of course, and she would sigh in exasperation at his incompetence, then proceed with her nightly thanks-giving ritual. This first born girl of ours loves a good ritual, and she especially loves a sense of order.

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For most of this winter, I’ve been worried about a stutter that Clara developed sometime in December. She started losing the start of sentences- it wasn’t the kind of stutter where a syllable is repeated, it was the kind where a syllable is held. So she would have a thought and get stuck on the first word of her sentence, or maybe just the first letter. Instead of a quick two-syllable “Mama,” her lips would press together in a long and forceful “Mmmmmmm,” unable to move through the rest of the word.

The stutter came out of nowhere, like a wall of flood water, rushing over her speech and drowning her voice. She’s always been verbose, babbling coherently since four months old, but hearing this stutter take over stole my confidence in her communication. I had to hide tears as I watched her try to speak, her eyes rolled back in concentration, her entire body tense, fists at her side, perched in frustration up on her tip toes; if I could have spoken for her, I would have. She had something to tell me and she couldn’t. She had a need and didn’t have the words to ask. She wanted to talk with me and instead found herself wading through the thick mud between her thoughts and her tongue. It was the first time I’ve had to wonder if there was something wrong with her, and I spent many nights laying awake thinking about it, sick with concern.

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After a few months of no improvement, and seeing the exhaustion on my little girl’s face when other adults or children couldn’t understand her, I reached out to my friend Danielle, who is a speech pathologist. I wrote with Clara’s symptoms, her ticks and struggles, and wept as I typed. There was nothing physically ill about her, and her health didn’t seem to be in danger; it was the emotional toll of her speech difficulties that was killing me. I watched again and again as she gave up, starting sentences and then quitting, frustration radiating from her body. It broke my heart to see her in that kind of darkness, her world cloaked in jittery misunderstanding.

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I didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Danielle wrote back the next day with advice, and with a blessed ray of sunshine: don’t worry, she said. Don’t worry! Stutters are very normal for kids her age. They almost always start at 2 1/2 (which was almost her exact age) and wouldn’t be considered a problem until she turns 5.

Between Danielle’s advice and some research, I counted the things we needed to avoid:
-Finishing thoughts or words for her (did that constantly, whoops).
-Telling her to slow down or take a deep breath (did that every day, shoot).

And a few things that would help:
-Sam and I speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and clearly, modeling a relaxed speaking style.
-When we saw her getting irritated with herself, gently remind her that we were listening and that we weren’t in any hurry.
-React to her message, not the delivery. Basically, pretend there was no stutter. Just respond to what she said, no matter how long it took.

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It’s March now, spring unfolding on sunny patios, floating on afternoon breezes, stretching into trees heavy with blossoms. It’s spring and it was 75 degrees outside today, so I took my kids to the park. Truth be told, I’ve taken my kids a lot of places this week. More places than usual. I tend to be a “one outing a day” kind of a mom, if that, but this week I blew off our normal pacing and we went. Despite the fact that my kids have spring colds. Despite the fact that they’ve missed a few important naps. Despite the fact that sometimes they just didn’t want to go. They wanted to stay. But the sun keeps getting warmer and I have that energy I get at the rise of new seasons, so we didn’t stay much at all. And today my house of cards came tumbling down, joker sides up all the way around.

Neither of my babies slept last night. Their coughs choked them awake every hour, their bodies restless without the anchor of decent naps all week. This means, of course, that I didn’t sleep either. But I plan a park and playground meet-up for a bunch of my friends every Friday, and I didn’t want to miss today. So I gathered up my coughing, weary kids and wished for the morning sunshine to clear our heads. Clara was a mess. She cried all day. She didn’t nap again, too tired to find sleep. Wilted by the sun and my somewhat reckless scheduling, she fought me all day. Her attitude was impossible to deal with, not only because I felt responsible for her exhaustion but also because she’s not usually so volatile. So we fought, and I was tired, and she was tired, and Sam is on call so it’s been a lot of parenting alone this week, and Sammy ate an old sticker off the trashcan at the park, and yes. It was a long day.

We finally sat down for dinner, happy that Sam was home with us and that bedtime was finally in sight. Our dinner, a lackluster collection of leftovers and cut up fruit, wasn’t exactly inspiring. But at least we were eating together. We bowed our heads to pray, Clara taking the helm as usual, and I snapped my head up in surprise as she began.

“Dear Jesus, Thank you for food. Please keep Nona and Poppi safe. Thank you for Mommy making our dinner. Amen.”

She pinched a green pea in her fingers and popped it in her mouth, oblivious to my tears and Sam’s shock. It was the first spontaneous prayer she’s ever shared at dinner. It was the first time I’ve ever heard her thanking God for me. And it was a moment, for me, of two points in time touching in delicate completion.

Her stutter has vastly improved over the last few weeks, and her language has taken on a new sophistication as her speech corrected, marked with a new sense of memory and time stamps, correct sentence structure and polished thoughts. It’s a noticeable difference to everyone who knows her, but especially to me, and tonight was a tender reminder of how far she’s come.

It was just like Danielle told us: She was stuttering because her mouth was working to catch up to her rapidly forming 2 year old brain.

And it was just like we pray for our children every single day: That we would raise them to be observant, kind, and thankful people.

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She is both. She is sharp like flint, soft like moss. She’s our baby but so, so quickly becoming a little girl. She fights us and she whines when we say no. She rushes to her brother when he wakes up each morning, eager to reconnect and kiss his soft cheeks. I love her so- I love her so. I love the synapses firing in her head, I love the bruises on her shins, I love the curls on her head, I love the blue and the green in her eyes, I love when she laughs and I love when she teases, I love all the ways we are different and all the ways we will one day be the same.

My God, what a gift. What a gift, this and every part of motherhood. This and every day with her and with him. The babies sleeping as I write. The children I longed for. The ones we get to call ours. 

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Uncomfortable Love: Merry Christmas

Christmas is coming, and we need to talk about love.

It seems easy, at this time of year, when my house is slung with cheerful decorations and twinkling lights, when I’m wrapping up gifts and singing soft Christmas lullabies to my babies as they fall asleep each night;

it seems easy to know what love looks like.

Isn’t that love there, flickering in the pooling wax of advent candles? Listen, it’s there, in the reverent strains of O, Holy Night, The Stars So Brightly Shining.
Isn’t love so pretty at Christmas?

But real Love? The kind that builds us up, brick by sturdy brick, the kind that doesn’t  make sense, the kind that never gives up?
Real love isn’t always pretty. It’s not always easy or comfortable or found in the warm glow of holiday nights.

Sometimes, love is uncomfortable.

Sometimes, love is inconvenient.

Sometimes, love can even look downright unholy. The Bible is full of stories that are full of the kind of uncomfortable love that makes us cringe and look away, because it’s just too complicated and inconvenient to try and understand.
The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in a desert… that’s love?
Hosea marries a prostitute and welcoming her back again and again and again… that’s love?

Even in the opening lilt of “Away in a Manger, No Crib for a bed,” we are handed the uncomfortable picture of a baby born in the barest of circumstances, welcomed to the world on the dirty floor of a dirty stable.

Why does this holy love look so,

unpolished? humble? even foolish?  

In this Advent season, as we pause and reflect on the coming of our Savior, let us revel in the strange and surprising love illuminated by His birth.

Love is a scared young mother in Bethlehem, arched in pain as she labors with the bloody birth of the Christ Child, giving herself over to the Task at hand.

Love is a nervous father, called to carry the Holy Burden of marrying this pregnant teen before him and calling the son she bears, his own.

Love, Emmanuel, God with Us, left Heaven and came to earth,
on a journey from an all-mighty kingship, to helpless body of a baby.

Love came down because Love didn’t mind
our dirty hands and our broken hearts.
Love came down because HE WANTED YOU.

He knows you, He sees you, He heard you, and yes yes a million times yes-
He. Wants. You.

Born without a bed. A man without a home.
Infant in a crude and simple manger,
teacher hung on a crude and simple cross to die-

His life? Was uncomfortable.

His love? Is transformative.

It’s  a moment of crisis. A tilting, hinging fulcrum in time, a grip on your heart so great that you can take or leave it
but His Love cannot be ignored.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave his life for us. And there is no greater love than this, than he who lays down his life for his friends…
and, dare we say it?
This inconvenient, unholy thought on the holiest days of our winter season…
love laid down his life-

for his enemies.

This messy, Perfect Love goes slogging through the worst of times.
When the mud is deep. When the edges are frayed. When the frame on which you’ve built your very life  has snapped beneath you:
This Strange Love presses on.

Love came down into our darkness and shone a great light.
Love came down into our darkness.
Love came down.

For you.

 

Merry Christmas.

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i just want to keep the curtain shut tight.

This morning Clara climbed up on the couch and snuggled next to me while I watched the Today Show and nursed Sammy. The camera panned over to Jennifer Hudson right before a commercial, and the singer waved to the camera with a happy hello. Clara smiled, waved back and said “Good morning!”

After a second, she turned to me with furrowed eyebrows and asked, “Mom? Can she hear me?”

There are all these Wizard of Oz moments as a parent, when you have to decide whether to pull back the magic curtain a little bit further and reveal a truth about the real world, or let them keep imagining a more exciting existence. These moments are a teeter-totter of emotions for me: excited to see her mind exploring the limits of reality, sad because I know what disappointment lies ahead, hesitant to reveal too much too soon or too little too late. When they ask these questions, when they finger the folds of the curtain and look to you with curious eyes, what do you do? How do you know which conversations to have when?

This morning it’s an innocent question about the limits of a television screen. But what about tomorrow? Or next year? Or ten years from now, when her friends and the world around us are whispering and shouting messages that I can’t begin to sort through and file away for her?

If parenthood doesn’t send you to your knees in prayer, I don’t know what will, I’ll tell you what.

For today, for now, I told her the truth. No, Jennifer Hudson didn’t hear you. That’s not how TV works. She nodded, kissed her brother’s head, then slid off the couch and asked me to pour her a bowl of cheerios.

And so it goes.

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This is how you grieve.

Start with an empty room.

Open your arms, stretch them out in disbelief, tremble with a fear that cannot be breached, and gather your things. You’ll need some help, here, if you can find it. The room may be quite large, but also it could be impossibly

suffocating

shoulder-bending small.

If you find your sad self in this kind of a tiny room, stooped over, nagging kink in your neck, and fighting an eye spasm, hold someone’s hand and wait.

This room will grow.

Start with an empty room, and gather.

Drag in a table. Line it with dishes, or flowers, or scratched out angry letters, or bottles of booze, or chewed up plastic straws. Or nothing.

You need this table.
You need a surface.
You need a landing.
This may seem exhausting.

It will be exhausting.

Now find a lamp for your room. Maybe one with a dimmer switch? Because some days will be darker than others and you want to show the lamp that it is necessary and
yes, lamp, you are appreciated.

You may need more than one lamp. 

You will find all of this aggravating.

Pull an area rug to your room. Not wall-to-wall coverage, you need some distance between you and the floor and the walls and the oxygen. Your rug fibers ought to cushion your knees:

In prayer. In pleading. In the frenzy of your wild anger. In the quiet of your stuttered breaths.

Make sure it’s thick. 

Unfurl the rug, strand by strand, and feel the weight in the room.
Feel the world beneath your feet, ok?

Imperative: couch. bed. chair. instruments of quiet, feather-filled stops.

Your couch will be important.

Trust me on that.

For the sake of your tired body, trust me on that.
For the sake of aching ribs.
For the sake of solemn skin, stretched too far across hungry cheeks and dry lips.
For the sake of empty elbow crooks.
For the sake of wilted eyebrows.
For the sake of drowsy blood flow and cramping fists.

For the new iron casing around your chest and fingers,
the weight in your bone marrow that you cannot lift or shake or lose.

Please wearily accept the gift of respite:
when you sleep without dreams,
when your baby wakens and calls your name,
when the sun shines hot through your car window,
when you remember how to spice your spaghetti,
when hope pokes a tiny sprig in your direction,

Rest.
Find your couch,
Stretch across your bed,
and rest.

Live in your room.
As long as you need, stay in your room.

Welcome in guests, if the room will hold them. 

Explore it. Scrape the floor, crawl the corners, examine the bumps in the walls and the cracks in the ceiling. Trace every inch.
Fill a vase or a hundred old bathtubs with your tears.

The dead do not mean well. They come, they go, they leave us behind to tread the deep murky waters of in absentia. Heaven may hold them, but earth holds us, tether bound to the grocery store and decisions for tomorrow, which is terribly unfair when our hearts have recently begun a slow descent into our guts. Who needs grapes and milk at a time like this?

This is how you grieve. 

Start with an empty room.
Gather your things.
Settle in.
Move about.
Rest.
Rage.
Wonder.
‘Til you are left with one wooden chair.
Send the rug to the cleaners.
Haul the couch to the curb.
Stack your dishes and tidy your angry letters,
water your flowers and give them away.
Sit in the wooden chair.
Remember the room when it was crowded with sorrow.
And when you are ready,
And you’ll know when you are ready,

 

 

 

 

leave.