presents

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Evening, and twinkling lights glint on gold thread.  I ask Adam what he wants for Christmas and he says, “Presents.”  The word lights his eyes and tumbles out of his mouth with dancing laughter and an “Oh!” that wraps up the feeling of a bow-topped gift given, handled, expectantly shaken.

“What kind of presents?” I say, reaching over to touch his hair with my fingers.  But instead of telling me what should be inside, Adam tells me how to wrap it.

“Blue.  Blue presents.”

I laugh out loud, pulling my son close to me, because suddenly I hear my own voice, my own conversations with God, in my son’s conversation with me.  How often do I talk to God not about what I actually need—Him, so much of Him—but what it should look like on the outside?  I have these lists, see.   But when God asked Solomon—Ask me for whatever you want me to give you, Soloman asked for “an understanding heart (1 Kings 3:9).” The Hebrew words–shama leb–literally mean a hearing soul.  Instead of some self-styled wrapping, Soloman asked for the gift inside, the gift of God within.  Solomon asked to be spiritually hearing.  Ears to hear are Spirit ears, and so God was pleased with his request.

“Okay, Blue presents,” I say to my son, loving him for his answer, even though he hasn’t yet arrived where I want him to be in the conversation.  In the same way, God says to me, Okay, you want a quiet day.  But what do you want to find inside the quiet?  The answer is simple, and yet it is every good thing at once.  I want Him. I want to find Him.  I need to find Him there inside the quiet, waiting to fill me.  God gives Himself, and He is the gift I want.  But sometimes, like my son, I’m stuck on the surface of things, and my heart just doesn’t quite hear the substance of the question.

“But what do you want to find inside the presents, when you open them? I ask Adam.  “What do you want to find inside?” I move my hands in pantomime: here is the gift, here is the paper flying, here is—Wow, what’s that?!—the gift inside??

Adam smiles.  The description had been more than he wanted to offer me anyway, just something he grasped at wildly because he doesn’t know what else to say to satisfy me.  He giggles, slithering out of my arms. “Presents,” Adam says again.  “Presents for Christmas.” He doesn’t want to be more specific, and in this, I think he’s wise.  His answer leaves plenty of room for my creativity, for my tenderness for him.  I enjoy seeking out the gifts that will bring him both initial pleasure and lasting joy.  God says,  If you, then, though you are evil–but in a physical sense, the word actually means “blind,”and I am knife-struck by the truth of it–know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask Him?”

Another thing touches me now, as I walk back into the glow of the kitchen: Because Adam struggles to find words to speak to me, I also delight in his specific requests and long to honor them, especially the ones I find truly genuine.  I know that when I speak to God from a hearing heart, guided by eyes that really see, asking Him for spiritual things with spiritual words taught me by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13)—indeed, He pantomimes for me, too–He longs to honor my requests with still more of Himself.  Indeed, God gave Solomon wisdom and great insight, a breadth of understanding”—of spiritual hearing–“as measureless as the sand on the seashore (1 Kings 4:29),” and He gives the Spirit without limit (John 3:34).

Suddenly now I see it clear, led by Spirit-star: Every day is an unwrapping–giddy fingers sliding under ribbon, expectantly peeling back paper, tossing the top half of the box aside; and every season, Christmas.   Christ comes and is coming.  He gives Himself, here with us, often in the most ordinary, life-scented scenes:  a baby, new-crying from a rough-hewn trough.  “God gives God,” as Ann Voskamp writes well, a refrain repeated so simply (The Greatest Gift) it might be easy to miss the profoundity.

So today, I unwrap a thousand grace-gifts, heaped into my arms.  And God’s Presence is inside every present—He, who wrapped Himself twice over in flesh and blood and bone.  I am your shield, your very great reward (Gen. 15:1), He said to Abraham so long ago, right in the moment of covenant-love, of you are mine and I am yours and whereever I go, you will go.  He says, Every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17), and I have given you everything you need (2 Peter 1:3).  I hear.  It’s just that sometimes, like Naaman (2 Kings 5), I specifically ask that He show up in a way that fits my own conjuring for majesty.  I want the parting of the Red Sea instead of some spit in my eyes that helps me see, or a swim in a muddy river to heal me.  Like the first disciples, I like to imagine my King in the jeweled crown instead of the crown of thorns.  And when God says that He works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), I want that good to look like the exact rendering of my wishes instead of a better rendering of Him living in and through me.  I often talk to God not about what I actually need but what I want it to look like in physical terms, how I want it wrapped.  Because I forget that the real gift is HimGod with us; and I forget that He often chooses to come humbly, even sacrifically.  A baby in a feeding trough (Luke 2).  A gentle whisper instead of a shattering wind, an earthquake, or a fire (1 Kings 19:11-11-13).  The every day sacrificial things, the skin and bone and blood things, the gentle things—these are the familiar wrappings He chooses for His gifts.  But inside, inside the humble and the daily, shines the stunning radiance of His Presence.  His gifts only wait the unwrapping, the careful cradling, the glee-spinning recognition of a hearing, seeing soul.  And “God gives God,” that I might see, that I might hear, that I might speak, that I might find the gift of Him.

I think now—from here in the covenant intimacy of Advent—I will follow the example of my son, and when God whispers deep, Ask me for what you want me to give you, I will ask for Him, for absolutely all of Him.  I will ask for a hearing soul, for spiritual words to ask for the gift inside instead of how I want it to look on the outside.  For presents–or Presence–because He is every gift, the gift given, the gift coming.  Or, to put it as Moses did, I’ll simply say this: Show me your glory.  Give me eyes to see.  Because I don’t want to go unless you’re with me (Exodus 33). Wherever you go, I will go.  Wherever you stay, I will stay, that covenant refrain.

There it is now, the answer.

What do I want for Christmas, Lord?

I want you—all swaddled up and waiting for me, in the middle of my gritty living.

to be with you

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“Don’t come into the kitchen,” she says, rushing over to me as I walk in the door, as Adam squeezes past and dumps his bag on the table, emptying it of its contents.  “It’s a surprise…Don’t come in.”

I close my mama mouth and smile, even though I’m thinking that I already know the surprise—she’s baking something—and I told her yesterday that we don’t have time for that in the afternoon after school.  But they get to a certain age and stop trusting, even though they still can’t see farther than a few feet in front of their own faces.  This too, is how I can be with God, little girl thinking I’m big, thinking I know what and how and when and should be when I can’t even fully see.

“Just—go do something you need to do,” she says to me, pushing a strand of hair back behind her ear with sticky fingers.  She has something gooey—maybe chocolate?–on her cheek.  I’m sure my messy serving makes God treasure me up too, when I stand goopy in front of Him, telling Him I have things under control, “special things,” “surprise things,” just for Him.  And all the while, He knows the mess I’m making.

“Okay,” I say slowly, measuring words, trying to decide if I should remind her to clean up after herself or expect first that she will show the responsibility to do it without the reminder.  Has she grown enough to have my words written somewhere deep?  And I wonder if I should bring up the timing.  She doesn’t have enough maturity to understand pace and balance and waiting.  But oh, she thinks she does.  Yesterday, she wanted to make gingersnaps, and she had said so as though it were a whim that would take her about ten minutes to accomplish.

“Those take a while.  You really don’t have time,” I had said, and immediately saw her deflate, the way we all do these days in the face that word—wait.

“You want to have our time, don’t you?” I say it gently, nudging her heart, training her to look further than this moment.

On a teary day, when she pressed her nose into my chest and trembled, I had promised her a special hour every afternoon.  “I just need you.  I need time with you,” she’d said that day, and the words came out broken and muffled by my shirt.  And I thought about how I need God, the time pressed up against Him, just that desperately.  That was the day we started curling up on the couch together, sometimes sipping hot chocolate, sometimes watching a crazy cooking show on TV.  It wasn’t easy at first, because always the work waits—the housework, the homework, the heart work—but she and our time together are so important.  I have come to look forward to that slice of time bookended by my girls on either side, big enough now to feel solidly warm.  I have come to cherish their murmuring, the extra whipped cream swirled into my hot chocolate, the way they lift my arms and crawl under, resting against my shoulders.  They remind me–every day–that time with each other is a priceless gift, something worth protecting, something worth intention.

“Well, yes, but I’ll make the gingersnaps and then we’ll have our time.  I’ll make them for that, you know, as something special.”  We always believe and then will come.  But something always slides in front of those words.  And I’m thinking, I don’t need anything more special.  Just my girls next to me, just their breathing with me, just the way they smile and it reaches their eyes.

“Honey, there’s not enough time for all that,” I’d said, insisting, seeing stacks of dirty bowls neither of us had time to wash and her homework spread out across the table. And yesterday, she had relented.

“Oh alright,” she’d said, resigned, in a shadowy tone that hinted at a lack of appreciation on my part.  If only I could see things her way.

But today, she hears my “okay” and turns away from me, already involved in her own plans.  She ignores my hesitation.  I watch her back from the doorway, the way her wrist moves as she whisks…something.  She has a YouTube video playing, another woman’s voice chirping directions into my kitchen.  It strikes me that she’ll dismiss my heeding, right before she turns on a video to learn how from someone else.

“It’s going to be done soon,” she calls, and I know soon from her perspective, so I go upstairs to fold laundry.

I am putting things away, carrying warm stacks in my arms, when she bounds up the stairs with a coffee mug in her hands, spooning out steamy bites.  “Taste this,” she says, extending the spoon.  “It’s a single-serve cookie.”

“Mmm,” I say.  It’s pretty good.  Sweet. But I can’t help but think single-serve…that means she’ll make at least three more.  Three times soon equals supper time, and later than usual.  But I stay silent.  Sometimes, she has to learn by experience.

“You still can’t come in the kitchen!” She yells, scampering back down the stairs, blonde ponytail swinging with her shirt tail.

So I turn my attention back to my work.  I sort more laundry, start the machine.  I take a shower, but sliding into later all out of order only makes me wonder how it will feel to have to think about supper.  I usually reserve the winding down things for the hours when I can actually wind down.  I wait, but she never comes for me.  Something else has superceded and then.

Finally, I go downstairs anyway, thinking I will have to spoil the “surprise not a surprise” and insist on moving back toward productivity.  We have missed our time already, and that disappoints me.

And all for a steaming bite of “pretty good” in a coffee mug.

I step into the living room and discover that dusk has descended.  The room looks gray.  I have not been here to turn on the lamps.  Riley lays on the couch, pressing her head into the back of it, and I wonder if she has a headache.

“Are you okay?” I ask, moving around the room to usher in the light.

“Aren’t we going to sit together and watch something?” She says, and I realize no one told her about the change in our routine, that all this time, she’s been waiting for us.  All this time, and she hasn’t done any homework.  Sometimes, we paralyze the productivity of others with our own fast and furious objectives.

“Oh honey, we’re out of time for that today,” I tell her, and I see her sister glance up from the table, where she sits working.

“Um, Zoe?  What are you doing?”

“Homework,” she says, almost coldly, returning her attention to the paper in front of her.

“I thought you were making a surprise?”

“Oh, that.  Well, I did that, and now I’m working on my homework.”

“Where is it?”

“It was that cookie…in the mug.”

“Yes, but weren’t you making more?”

“It didn’t work, and you were upstairs working, so…”

“So?”

She puts down her pencil and stares at me.  “The second one didn’t work, and you were still upstairs working, so I started my homework.”  She lifts a hand in front of her, flat, as if to say, “What else was I supposed to do?”

“Honey, Riley has been waiting on us all this time.  She hasn’t done any homework.”

“Well, that’s not my fault.  You were upstairs working.”  She stands, sensing my frustration, and walks over so that she can see me, so she can read my eyes.

“You told me not to come in the kitchen because you had a surprise for me.  So I went upstairs to work.  And now we’ve missed our time together.  It’s supper time.”

She positions herself in front of me, and immediately her eyes fill.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t think of that.”  She confesses then that she’d forgotten even that she told me to stay out of the kitchen, that for a while she’s been waiting on me to return.

And that’s when I tell her that for two days she has wanted to “make something extra special,” when all the special I need is her, that the time we have just focused on each other is enough for me.  “A cookie is a nice addition—maybe one best planned for a weekend, but the time with you is much more important to me. I love that you wanted to do something special for me.  I do.  But you are my extra special.”

Over and over again it happens that I say something to my children and then God lifts a sweeping hand and shows me some part of myself—the little girl I am before Him, the grown daughter He wishes me to be.

Advent is so often a frantic season, too time-hungry for the waiting upon Him it was meant to be, sometimes even too list-long for the time together that makes our remembrances meaningful.  I have been thinking of Christmas things and Kingdom things, so many exceedingly special things—and all ultimately to please my Father, but I am suddenly reminded that I am His extra special thing, as He is mine.   When the time comes, my heartfelt doing is itself a delight, but only when it comes secondarily to my participation in that relationship.  When what I do keeps me from Him, it’s only a disruption, an out of order activity.  And waiting is itself a precious gift, a gift that preserves and protects the most meaningful things from my impatience and limited perspective.  Waiting gives me time to see, to know, to understand, to listen, to learn.

Advent is the whisper of God to the soul frantic even just to please Him.  Wait. Look for me. Come, sit with me and be.  Love me.  There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3: 1), but He knows more of time than me, and I am still too spiritually immature to understand pace and balance and waiting.  So I stand in front of my daughter, teaching, and He blows right through me, teaching, and the lesson for both of us is the same.

Trust me in this, I say, and He says, deep. Everything special finds its ultimate measure in one tender truth.  It all blooms from just one seed, one blood-thick root from which we must never allow ourselves to be distracted or torn away:

You needed me, and I came to be with you.

Nothing is more special than that.

traveling {feasting; and on our way to the Feast}

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We will travel a long way to be with family.

Dark as pitch in the pouring rain, lights reflecting on the wet road, and our kids settle in with pillows and blankets—two wide-eyed; one quickly asleep again.  I grip a tumbler full of coffee–black and murky like the night sky–in my chilled hands, preparing myself for stiff knees and bags pressing against my legs; for quick, careful trips into public restrooms, for everyone passing me their trash and asking for snacks. We will drive nearly all day, a day that will be a third longer for the early hour in which our journey begins.

They say it took many of the Wampanoag two days to walk to their harvest celebration with the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  And after they arrived, they erected their own shelters.  The Pilgrims had only managed to build a few homes.  So instead of squinting past light-glare on black snaking roads, maybe they felt the rain on their shoulders, heard it splattering the leaves of trees.  Instead of feeling bags against their legs, maybe they packed what they needed against their weary (and wary) parent-backs.  Travel has long precipitated the grateful savoring of blessing.  But this really wasn’t the first Thanksgiving.  Human beings have made these journeys, celebrating harvests, for an eternity.

The Israelites traveled “home” to Jerusalem at least three times a year for holiday celebrations, and each of these to be with Family, to commemorate God’s generous, gracious giving—God giving freedom, God giving His words, God giving shelter when His children still had no homes.  They sang the Psalms of Ascents (120 to 134)—as in ascent to the mountain of Jerusalem—as they traveled in wandering crowds, marrying their voices with the sound of footfall and wind.  Their blended voices reached up, needy:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
 My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore (Psalm 121).

And so too, before we pulled out of the driveway, we bowed our heads in the dark, reaching needy.  First Adam prayed—his words quick and halting—because he believes every prayer is his to begin, then Kevin, asking safety, watching over; the Lord as our shade, keeping us from harm.  In place of electronic screens, signs (and the alphabet game—but did the mothers and fathers still perhaps contrive some happy sight-hunt for the children?), even books, they offered prayers–the songs of steps, of pilgrimage—in wavering harmony.

The pilgrimage accomplishes much.  It reorients and clarifies, requiring first a collection of daily gifts—clothes, food—and among them now a few extravagances I often blindly take for granted. Packing always makes me sigh, because it seems always an activity of great haste.  My mind floats back to collected treasure, as I recognize that Passover—the most important of the Israelite pilgrimage holidays, the celebration of freedom—commemorated the hasty departure of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been enslaved.  They slathered the blood of sacrifice all over the doorframes of their homes and consumed the sacrifice with their cloaks tucked into their belts, their sandals on their feet, their staffs in hand.  The bread did not have time to rise as they rushed away from slavery, taking not only the essential, daily things, but the plundered extravagance of Egypt gathered from God’s open palm (Exodus 12).  In haste, they packed.  In haste, they ate.  In haste, they traveled away from opression with God as their provision, their guard, their freedom, their lives.  This journey began a pilgrimage home that lasted only longer—lifetimes—because they stumbled, believing more in what they could see than in what God would do (Numbers 13).

And so our lifetimes are pilgrimage, as He transforms us–over hours and miles and much difficulty—into people who believe in what He will do instead of what we see.

It took Mary and Joseph four days to travel to Bethlehem, and she full pregnant with our Hope.  Ask any mother close to laboring:  there’s a burning instinct to stay close to home.  But Mary would, by Grace, come to know a thing or two about faith, about living out what God can do instead of what she sees—a weary journey, government forced for the census, and nowhere to weather the gripping birth pains except a stable, smelling heavy with the scent of animals.  I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said,” she’d told the angel (Luke 1:38), but she might have imagined the birth of a King would happen a little differently than this hurting in a barn and her baby wrapped and sleeping in a feeding trough.  She would journey a lifetime—sometimes in great haste—learning to store up God’s promises, His words, His will instead of the limits of her own soul-pierced view (Luke 2:35).  It’s almost Advent, and I remember.

God’s people have lived as Pilgrims, traveling to celebrate the harvest of His Grace, since humans departed from faith, from His shelter, from Eden.  We have since been returning, reaching up to Him, needy; giving thanks for His provision even as we ask.  And we have been told to admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in [our] hearts (Col. 3:16).  It’s the activity of Pilgrims bent on trust.

Outside, snow falls in fat flakes.  Just hours past sunrise, and the trees, the road turn treacherously white.  But oh, it’s beautiful.  We gasp—our first sight of snow this year—gathering up the glittering, elegant.  White as snow.  Though your sins are as scarlet—(black-red with the blood of sacrifice slathered over)—they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be as wool (Isaiah 1:18).  Come now, let us settle the matter, God had said.  He would settle this thing that sent us traveling.  He would be the settling, the sacrifice, the reason we exchange our filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6, John 11:44) for white robes (Zechariah 3:4, Luke 15:22)—the clothes of holy priests and pure brides.  All creation testifies (Romans 1: 20). Every time I see snow, I see redemption.  I see Him bringing us home.

We will travel a long way to be with Family.

And so pilgrimage precedes the holy days, and God says “go forth and come to Me,” and the dark winding roads and the rain and our weary bodies and desperate need all eventually help us learn to trust in Him instead of ourselves as we ascend to His mountain.  And along the way, we give thanks.  Because somehow, He satisfies, though not in just the way our human, limited minds conceive.  He is not so limited.  He still humbles us and feeds us.  He still disciplines us as children, because He loves us.  And somehow, these new, white, grace-plundered robes He gives don’t—and won’t—wear out (Deuteronomy 8: 3-5). And without thanks-giving, there’s only futile thinking and foolish, darkened hearts, and exchanging the glory of God for idols that can and will never really satisfy us (Romans 1: 21-23).

So, He beckons us—instead—to travel toward the Feast:

Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills;  a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you (Deuteronomy 8: 6-10).

Every so often, one of the children–following our trip on their digital maps—calls out the hours left.  Every hour brings us closer to Feast and Family, to history and embrace, to new joy and celebration, to remembrance and the shared observance of Grace.  I am ready to get there.

This Thanksgiving, when we have eaten and are satisfied—stuffed, even—we will continue our praise to the Lord our God for the good He has given, and the greater glory coming, because every mile of the pilgrimage draws us closer to Him.

eucharisteo {and the secret to significance}

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We sit in a restaurant not far away, because she’s tired and I’m tired, and it need not take long to get home.  Time comes and we sit down, having carefully protected the hour.  She begins by announcing a blemish, because our hearts have been friends an uncountable age, and we see no need for glossing over life’s realities.  In this way, she shows kindness, offering me the permission to notice her flaws.

Her voice sounds rough, clogged a bit by living.  She’s just on the edge of recovery, having found little time to indulge the illness that has tried, relentlessly–and yet unsuccessfully—to thieve away what remains of her resolve.  “I sound much worse than I feel at this point,” she says, and I understand.

On the outside, it appears that the day has appointed us differently, but the truth we gather together overlaps with nodding congruency.  We follow Jesus, and this we both embrace with its costs, because we believe in the greater glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).  Today she has worked at home, and I have roamed, landing back only to launch again.

We scan the menu and I begin to unfold the wealth of responsibility lately curling into my days, my breath, my prayers.  “I go for a run and let it go,” I tell her, without needing to explain what this means, that I pray and relinquish, that God reminds me that both the opportunity and the accomplishment belong to Him.

She nods and just listens, and in her sharp eyes I catch the reflection of my confessions.  She understands how I’ve been called, the way I’m shaped, how He holds me in a way that changes where and how I step.

“You know,” she says finally, “I heard this thing the other day—or I read it—no, I went and I listened (and that’s how it is, how quickly we lose track of the immaterial details), to a speaker who said that sometimes life doesn’t allow you the time you want for “quiet time,” but that everything we do is done with Him, that it’s all focused there.  I do laundry, and that’s about walking with Him.  I teach my children, and that’s about Him.  I cook dinner, and that’s Him too.  It’s all about Him.  And that helps me so much, because right now, I have so little time for quiet.”

She offers me her own list—the truth that her husband has had to work such long hours; the things she’s concerned about for her kids; the way the journey overwhelms and complicates and wearies.  We speak in woven sentences about our daughters and the clinging ways they need us, the ways they watch, the wild ways they absorb and crave us.  And without the words I’m praying, I know that each of these are separate conversations she’s having with God.  It is much…so much.

And I nod and listen, and I wonder if she sees in my eyes the reflection of her confessions; if she knows I hear her.

For a moment, I forget that we both need shared strength so much more than sympathy.  “You must be exhausted,” I say to her.  “I don’t know how you’re not just one big puddle.”

Before I see in myself the reflection of Peter and him saying, “Never (Matthew 16:22),” and me saying, “This should never happen to you,” her eyes flash, with passion and without rebuke.

“I am so needed right now, and that is such a tremendous gift,” she says, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear.  “All these things I do all day, they’re significant.  I know without a doubt that I am used to bless other lives.  Yes, it’s wearying.  But that’s what it is to be poured out.  It’s not going to be easy.  I’m going to be tired.  My body is going to have a hard time keeping up sometimes.  But that’s okay.  That’s following.  I’m picking up my cross (Luke 9:23).”

She makes me smile for all her fire, for the way she speaks truth right into the air of this place.  I recognize her testimony as my own.

“Truth,” I say, lifting my drink.

“So many people feel insignificant,” she says, and precious souls come to mind, dear ones I know who often still wonder.  “But I know.  I know that I am so needed, and that is such a blessing.  I don’t want to take that for granted.  I am significant because He pours me out.  When I start feeling tired and overburdened, I start thinking about that.  That’s how I can always give thanks.”  That’s eucharisteo: thanksgiving for sacrifice.

I see that she has in mind the things of God and not the things of men.  And so we speak of Jesus, the way He never suggested that comfortable would describe following, even as He promised glory, the radiant wealth of God.  And I give thanks that she requires that I affirm her thanksgiving, that I encourage her pursuit of Kingdom first.  I give thanks that she is my sister, that she testifies clearly to this:  It is my joy to lose my life for His sake.

And so, I leave the table nourished not on bread alone, but on the very words that proceed from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3).   It is the real Bread she holds in her palm.  She offers me, by her testimony, the Bread of Life, the true first thanksgiving meal, the best gift of Grace.

*~*~*

At the table of Thanks–which really is the eucharist—I give thanks for all of my sisters.  I used to pray for sisters, and now we crowd the Table, warm. You brighten this place with your flickering eyes, and the strength of your truthful voices fills the empty spaces. You each offer me the Bread in your palms.  Thank you for being so signficant to me.

I get to

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It is the way she says it—all laced with delicious joy—that makes me stop.  She sounds the way I might were I to say I get to sleep in or I.can’t.believe I get to lay on the beach and just read—like she’s just realized a thrill, an unexpected and rare gift, and she savors the sweet taste.   Except she says, “Oooh, yea!  I get to—the teens get to—wipe the tables and clean the kitchen up after dinner on Wednesday night!”

Early, and I am on my way—slipper clad—to pull the blankets off her brother’s shoulders and lay a palm against his warm sleepy cheeks, but her tone makes me stop and turn to look at her.  My thankful girl, curled cozy under a blanket, sits sipping coffee on the couch.  Riley’s hair still flys around her face in crazy directions, a thick blonde mess that reminds me of the mop of curls that covered her head at three.  Occupied with her morning ritual, she looks up at me and smiles, fresh with the scripture she’s been listening to, the “thank you’s” she has carefully noted in her journal.  She gives thanks simply, for things I take for granted every day–the bathroom, the porch, her bedroomthree things behind doors, today.

Sometimes I give thanks that there is nothing ordinary about her.  She challenges me, this sweet soul God entrusted to me.  It still blows my mind that He has placed her in my care.

Her eyes, just now, are bright—all light, and I realize, suddenly, that she feels elated.  Giddy, even.  Her heart still surprises me, even after all these years.

“You’re excited, aren’t you?”

She blinks as though I have asked something I should already know.  The expression is why wouldn’t I be, but this melts into a delighted “mmmhmm,” and a nod, as she returns to her overview of Facebook.  She also begins the day with an online birthday wish (because then everything she does that day will be marked by the remembrance of someone’s celebration—“Mom, I have a Social Studies test on so-and-so’s birthday”), a dozen likes, and a little scattered joy.

And so it happens, that as she discovers on Facebook that the teen group will serve by cleaning the kitchen after our Wednesday night supper at the church building this week, she feels elated.

“Mmmhmm, I’m excited that I get to wipe the tables Wednesday night.  I get to help clean up after everyone eats.”

I get to.  Not I have to or even I will or I’m going to, but I get to.  I get to serve someone else.

Admittedly, I most often sound that way when I speak about some self-indulgence, and it occurs to me, catching the light in her face, that service is her delight.  The notion that she can serve feels to her like reading a book on the beach or sleeping in late.  She counts the opportunity as a gift, and this is a way I am only just beginning to live.  More and more I am excited to get to participate in God’s activity, to get to witness His accomplishment.  Slowly those words have begun to replace others in my own speech.  But I am a work in progress.

The words we use—not the carefully measured ones, but the ones that fly casually out of our mouths—indicate something about the inclinations of our hearts, the light and the shadows, the temperature, the focus, the treasure.  Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34,35).  And when it comes to truly sacrificial service, my benevolent words still usually follow the activity instead of precede it in anticipation.  Honestly, most often I count the costs to myself aloud first—I want to do this, I know this is good, but I wish I didn’t have to get up early or go anywhere today or lose the chance to…And I hope it won’t happen this way, or they won’t do that thing, or it won’t take up so much time.  Always I ask for re-centering, challenged by the truth that a pure and truly God-centered, Christ-reflecting heart serves unselfishly, without even recognizing the giving as a sacrifice (Matthew 25:37-39).  Mine is a King who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many (Matthew 21:28).  And a true servant lives to serve, finding nothing extraordinary in her sacrifices.  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty (Luke 17:10).'”

With my whole heart, I long to one day hear my Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:21), and even now, I often whisper Mary’s words over my living: I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).” But standing on the stairs, looking at my daughter giggling wide-grinned over the opportunity to serve, God opens my eyes still more, touching them once again that I might see.  This is what it looks like—crazy-haired and light-eyed and thankful—the freedom of pure joy in selfless service; the delight that recognizes no special goodness in self, no nobility, no extraordinary reason for pride.  She’s simply glad to get to.

hungry

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Early morning and the coffee steams.  I wrap my fingers tightly over ceramic, breathing in the morning, stopping hungrily beside a window to gather up the light breaking in the sky, the emerging lines of trees, the faint colors of gold and orange and emerald. I feel desperate for a few moments of quiet waking.

“NO, Daddy.  Stop it, Daddy,” Adam says, looking intently at Kevin, holding his hand out in front of him in halt right there posture.  I look at my son and see length—length of arms, length of folded leg, length of gaze.  Adam looks determined, adamant, firmly set against.

“Oh come on, just one bite,” Kevin says, smirking ever-so-slightly, lifting his own fork to his lips.  Kevin’s hair has more silver in it than it used to, but the humor in his eyes always looks the same.

“No.  Not…” Adam growls, hunched over his food, poised in assertion.  “Stop it eating my eggs,” he says emphatically, eyes sharp.  I can tell that Adam feels more frustrated than usual that his mind traps the words he wants to say, that he stumbles over making a verbal point, but he is too determined, too motivated, too needy to give up.

“I’m not eating your eggs,” Kevin retorts.  “But I want to.  Let me have a bite.”

“Oh come on.”  Adam sighs deeply.  “NO, Daddy.  Daddy, stop it.”

I walk to the table, coffee in one hand, and lean over to whisper in Adam’s ear.

“Stop it asking eating my eggs,” Adam says quickly, flicking his eyes over to Kevin again.

“I don’t want to stop asking.  I want a bite,” Kevin says, grinning fully, and I cut my eyes at him, sharing the smile.  He shrugs, chuckling.  “It’s like I always say,” he says to me, “if you want Adam to talk, ask him for his food.”

I can’t help but nod.  It’s true.  Adam is very serious about food, especially right now.  In fact, I always know when he’s hungry, because he paces back and forth in the kitchen, peeking into my cookware.  And it is a very motivating time for conversations.  I can usually get him to talk to me about whatever I have simmering, and I make him practice actually telling me that he’s hungry.  Say, “I’m hungry, Mom,” I tell him.  Say, “When will dinner be ready?”  I don’t need him to say the words to know what he’s thinking, but I want him to say them for the sake of the relationship.

It’s a funny thing, that these conversations could be so necessary for Adam and yet so painfully annoying to him.  He does not yet fully appreciate—especially over the issue of resolving his hunger—that engaging in relationship with us is even more crucial than consuming every last drop and crumb of his food.  He doesn’t yet understand that we actually value his hunger for the way that it motivates him to talk to us.  And often in the midst of my hunger, I also miss the primary reason God allows me to feel hungry: to draw me deeper into relationship with him (Deuteronomy 8:3).

In fact, often I become fixated on need and want, allowing hunger to paralyze me into pacing and squinting for signs of that one desperate thing that has become the focus of my longing.  And I forget the simple things, like how to turn to God and say, “I’m so hungry.”  I forget that my relationship with God and my seeking after Him (But seek first His Kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well, Matthew 6:33) should take priority over the object of my hunger, lest that thing become an idol and cause me to forfeit grace (Jonah 2:8) or, in other words, relinquish my inheritance, my Birthright (Genesis 25:29-32).  Patiently, in times of greatest hunger, God draws me deeper into conversation with Him.  He asks me to talk to Him about the things over which I feel the greatest desperation.  “What is it that you’ve glimpsed, that you’re salivating over?”  And, as He has promised, His Spirit even teaches me the words to say—spiritual words about spiritual truths—when I cannot conjure them myself (1 Corinthians 2:13). He draws me closer so that I can see that more important than the need itself is the truth that my hunger will only and always be satisfied by the work of His hands.

So, no wonder God not only satisfies my hunger but then extends His fatherly hand and asks me to surrender the very thing He has poured out on my life in blessing—energy, creativity, resources, beauty, love, generosity, mercy, grace—the wealth of Glory and the fruit of His Spirit.  Wasn’t this essentially the exchange between Abraham and God over Isaac?  I have given you this precious gift.  Do you trust me enough to place it in my hands again, to sacrifice it for my sake?  

Finally, Adam relaxes against his chair, focused again on eating, and Kevin’s eyes twinkle.  These exchanges between them have become a predictable ritual, and yet they seem new to Adam every time.  Just yesterday, Kevin convinced Adam—finally, after much effort—to put one single piece of cereal into Kevin’s extended palm.  But almost immediately, Adam changed his mind.  “NO. No, Daddy.  Give it back.”  It makes me smile to think of this now, cradling my coffee mug in hand, noting my own hunger.  Often I am similarly uncharitable with the gifts God has given—for He has given every gift (James 1:17).  I place my treasures in His hands in surrender and then just as quickly want to snatch them back—No.  Wait.  I need those for myself, having forgotten that these exchanges between us have become routine; that He continuously fills me and pours me out and multiplies the blessing; dismissing the fact that He has shown Himself both Powerful, Loving, and Faithful in all things.

Early, I stand hungry, gulping in the peace, the quiet newness of the morning, and abruptly, as I surrender to the pace of the day, I am reminded that the relationship itself—with the One who can, will, and does faithfully care for me—must remain the truest focus of both my hunger and my faith-driven trust.  I am reminded that the moment I whisper thanks for His abundance towards me, I must resolve to surrender all these gifts back into His hands, trusting Him to refill me again.

In the kitchen, I fill the sink, sliding my hands under the soapy water.  I smile broadly over my son as he finishes his breakfast, warmed by another sudden realization, the gentle touch of a grace-filled hand upon my needy soul:  If my son–the son I love–should finish all that food and turn to me again in hunger, or still yet, if he should graciously give it all away before his own needs have been met, the certain truth is that I will not rest—could not—until I have filled his plate again.  So how much more then will God most certainly meet my needs?

~*~

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him (Matthew 7: 9-11)!

the way she loves me

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In the morning, on the way to school, this is His nudge for me: You need to touch your daughter.  

So I reach over and take one of her hands in one of mine, steering the car with the other.  Zoe doesn’t look at me, but she squeezes gently, running her thumb back and forth over the lines in the knuckle of my thumb.  She does not let go, but holds on to my hand as she looks ahead into the bright, new sun.  Her blonde hair looks radiant at the edges.  She talks to me—sometimes so quickly she can hardly breathe; sometimes slowly, as she swallows tears; sometimes dreaming, with her eyes turned up—but she talks to me, and her voice fills the space between us.

My daughter still has a thousand shades, sometimes still so wildly young, sometimes older, and thoughtfully serious.  But the greatest miracle of it all to me—this mothering another soul—is that I am someone she needs.  I can never quite wrap my mind around it, that I should be so significant to her, me, with my introverted sighs and my jumbled up thoughts and my clear understanding of my own inadequacy.  I am never quite “all together.”  Even my fingernails look chronically uneven, and I hardly have time to fix my hair, and I rarely finish cleaning the kitchen right after breakfast.  I often–so desperately often, like a breath–whisper thanks that I am a vessel well Held by a mighty, unlimited hand; that truly nothing is impossible for God.  And so it astounds me still, in a ridiculous, awe-gripped way, that my children feel most comfortable by my side.

I tighten my grip on Zoe’s hand, the connection resting in her lap, remembering how just days ago she leaned into me, and I felt the bone of her nose pressing, and she murmured into my shirt, “I just need to spend some time with you.  Just me and you.  I just…I just need to talk to you,” and I suddenly realized that she was crying.  So, I swept her closer to me and I whispered, “Okay.  We’ll make time for just you and me,” and in my mind I saw all the times I used to sit with my own mom in the afternoons, drinking coffee, talking until my words clear covered her.

Zoe nodded into me, a quick assent and shuddering, digging her fingernails into my back, and I bit my lip and smoothed her hair with one hand.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her then, but she just shook her head.

“Oh, nothing.  It’s not anything.  I’m just tired.  And I just need you.”

And so we stood there a while and I held her close to me, faintly remembering a time when the whole length of her fit into my arms.  Something echoed back to me then, a bit of inspiration I had gathered some time ago from Ann Voskamp’s 10 Point Manifesto for Joyful Parenting (and you can print it from there too, and yours will be rumpled and tack-marked like mine): “Today, I will hug each of my children as many times as I serve them meals—because children’s hearts feed on touch.  I’ll look for as many opportunities to touch my children today as possible—the taller they are, the more so.”  Zoe is almost tall enough now to look directly into my eyes, and sometimes she’ll come stand beside me and tell me clear, “Mom, I need more hugs,” and I whisper thanks that it’s not left to a guess or my dull perception of things.  The older she gets, the more it seems that she needs of me, the more I catch her trying to absorb, and maybe it’s the way that she sees this place now, with a little less pixie dust.

Every day I spend a few hours in the car, driving children where they need to be, sometimes making multiple trips to retrieve forgotten things.  I make meals and carefully place pills and monitor blood sugars and insulin pods.  I watch watch watch for signs of emergencies.  I clean–probably not enough—but I clean and I wash and I fold and I insist on responsibility and chores and commitment.  I pray God will not let me miss a teachable moment.  I try so hard to build and plant and nurture, to create warmth and refuge, to love them all well.  I serve—sometimes halting happy with a cup of morning coffee in my hand—gathering in Riley listening to her Bible because she understands better what she hears out loud and Zoe in the kitchen making herself a smoothie for breakfast and Adam’s groggy, blanket wrapped telling me “I love you too,” and I give thanks.  It’s chaos, but it’s a grand chaos.  It’s our chaos.  Sometimes, though, in the time-chased middle, it’s easy for me to miss that touching my children isn’t a lightness.

It’s not in the list we mothers make when asked what we did in the course of the day.  It’s all the pressing through we list, as though that gives the day its significance, not “I saw my children—not just looked but saw,” not “we talked and I really listened,” not “I hugged my children as many times as I served them meals,” with the hugging first, ahead of the meals, ahead of the carpool, ahead of the not enough hours in the day.  It’s not that the other things aren’t important, but only that these other things, these love stopping us still things, are more to them.  It makes me smile, the truth of it.  I’ve never had a child come stand next to me and ask for more of anything else.

And it seems to me—seems, but more a knowledge written certain into me—that this longing for more of Him—more closeness; more time; more talking—just you and me talking; more “I just need you,” with our fingernails digging into His back and the bone of our noses pressing into His chest—this is what God really wants His loving children to seek first, to prioritize, to treasure.  But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33). Instead, we tend to ask for more of His working for us, for more of “all these things.”  And it’s not that these things aren’t important, but that the other should be more to us.

So, you need to touch your daughter, He says to me, and I reach across the seat, gathering her hand in my own.  She holds my hand all the way to school, rubbing my thumb.   I vow, feeling the still-young softness of her fingers, to reach for her more–to reach for them more–and to consider it one of the best ways God lives and works in me.  And so, in just that way, God uses her to teach me to love Him the same clinging, vulnerable way that she loves me.

 

it was nothing

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Standing in line, and the black belt whirs, moving my groceries forward and beyond me. Up here in the front of the store, it’s noisy and crowded.  Lines snake back, crooked and jammed.  Carts rattle.  In front of me, the tables in the cafe are full of people talking and eating.  A little voice cries somewhere close and a mama speaks hard, lacing the words with iron.  I can’t see her, but I can hear the grip of weary tough-mama love in her voice.  Silently, I offer up the smallest prayer for her, for the bit of energy and patience I know she needs.  I’m shopping alone today, but this is the place in the store where Riley usually starts holding her breath and stops looking me in the eye.  This is the place where she scares me a little, when anxiety clutches her throat like a claw and she clings to me, and tears slowly roll down her cheeks.  Up here in the line—where everything seems to crowd together like my groceries, pushed against the metal lip at the end of the belt, squished and jumbled and crooked—this is where my daughter panics and I pray us through the paying and out the door.  But today, it’s just me.

One lane over, the clerk calls out cheerily as people approach her.  “Hey there, you ready to stop waiting and get out of here, sir?  Come on up here so I can help you.  How are you doing today?”

Just like that, she starts an amiable conversation, while I heave my heavy bulk boxes up on that neverending conveyor.  I don’t stop to look back. I am focused on the time and it’s not enough, and I am sure I will be dumping groceries on my counter and running back out the door to pick Adam up at school.  Still, I can hear them talking.  I can hear the smile in her voice, and the thin line in his that becomes more curved as they speak.  In five minutes, he changes from flat reluctance to jovial laughter.  Next time, he’ll choose her line again.  As a matter of fact, I wish I was in her line.

The clerk behind me reminds me of a woman we met at a diner in Seaford, Delaware the weekend we traveled to the area for Kevin’s Ironman.  I don’t remember much of the town.  As a stop-over stay-over place, it seemed tired, gray, damp, and cluttered with brands half-glossy over cracked and faded asphalt.  Of course, we arrived at dusk.  But besides the general blandness of the stretch where we found our hotel, I remember two things:  the notable number of diners in our immediate vicinity, and this woman who worked in the old-fashioned chrome-topped hole-in-the-wall next door to our hotel.  The place looked like a camper, striped sticky pink and taffy blue, and on the roof we saw a lit sign that only boldly declared “DINER.”  We walked across the parking lot to eat there only because the front desk attendant in the hotel had raved about the food, saying she ate there nearly everyday.  “Tell ‘em Alice sent you over, and they’ll give you a discount,” she’d said, smiling, “And tell them to give you a booth in the back.” So, we ventured over, and it felt like walking back in time.

Inside, a woman greeted us like we’d stepped into her home.  I don’t remember her name, but her warmth cut the chill in the air.  She said, “Unh huh” and “yes” the way some people say “Uh,” filling the spaces between her words with assent.  “We’ll get you fixed up, unh huh.  Unhhuh, we’ll take take care of you, yes.  Unh huh.”  Her eyes bright and her smile wide, she walked around the diner laying a hand against the backs of the chairs, stopping to talk to the other patrons, a pencil deftly tucked into the brown hair she’d swept up into a bun.  She wore lipstick the color of marashino cherries.  I noticed right away that the busy room was filled mostly with older people, silver-haired, bent.  She raced across the room to open the front door for a man who looked almost too weak to stand up, and then she wrapped her hands around his arm and focused on his face as they moved across the room.  She spoke a little louder than she had before.  “Unh huh, Mr. Evans, yes.  Unhhuh, how are you these days?  Did your surgery work out okay, unh huh?  I sure have missed seeing you, yes.”

She really sees,” I had said to Kevin that night, leaning over the table, our water glasses. “She does more than waitressing.”

He smiled at me, picking up my thoughts. “As working for the Lord, not men.” Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not men (Col.3:23). It’s a passage we pass back and forth, to encourage each other to live beyond the physical details. This lady in the diner had inspired us, and we told her so.  She looked surprised, batting her hand into the air in front of her.  It was nothing.

“Well, unh huh, it’s been a pleasure to serve you, honey, unh huh, it has.” She had said then, all warmth.

I put a bumpy cauliflower on the conveyor belt, then the bananas and the eggs.  The clerk helping me bends over the register, hardly seeing me, grabbing items and tossing them in the cart next to her.  I wince.  I’m sensitive about where my groceries land and how.  Well, she’s quick, I’ll give her that, I think, looking down at my watch.  I have one more stop to make before hurrying home to stow the cold stuff.  Suddenly, I remember one more thing, and maybe it’s this one more thing and the press of time and the way I stand weary-buried in my thoughts now that keeps me from seeing her.  All this thinking about really seeing, about living beyond the details, and I miss seeing the woman right in front of me.

I pay for my groceries, and she hands me my receipt, and finally I really look at her.  She looks burdened, her eyes heavy with something I can’t quite discern, some pain or complaint.  She looks at me flatly, saying nothing, not even any of the most ritualistic pleasantries.

“I hope you have a great day,” I say, smiling at her.  She just nods once, silently dismissing me, her mouth in a thin, hard-pressed line.

I push my cart out the door and into the sunshine, thinking about how different this clerk is from the woman behind me, the one in the diner, these special servants living beyond.  She was really kind of rude, I think thickly.  That plank in my eye clear blocks my sight.

So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16).  The voice speaks clear, familiar, too firmly to ignore.  So I drop my compaint and take up a prayer for whatever heaviness I have witnessed, for whatever this woman carries that hurts.  I think of my dad and the way he sees everyone, the way he always has time to make someone smile, the way he’s always doing more than just putting things on a conveyor belt and paying.  I feel the irony of it, that in those moments I could have been living beyond, living more than.  I could have made it my mission to make her day different, to offer her strength, to encourage her a little, but I had been focused on what I needed and how she was serving me.  And all that self-centering just leaves me blind.

So, I stack my groceries in the car, giving thanks for the food, for the money to buy it, for the car to drive home—Ten thousand reasons for my heart to sing…Bless the Lord, oh my souland then I ask for eyes that see and not from a worldly point of view, for a perspective for living more than and beyond the details, for a heart more familiarly focused on serving others than on how well they serve me.  Jesus taught that the righteous will not even know they have served the Lord, that in humility they will not recognize it as an honorable act, because serving others will be like breathing; like just living; like it was nothing; like “Well, unh huh, it’s been a pleasure to serve you, honey, unh huh, it has,” to the one with a truly transformed heart (Matthew 25:37-39).  And all our redeemed pauses will be assent.  Unhhuh,yes Lord, send me.

 

so live now {and do it well}

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I don’t know how much time I have left.  

bubbles

Afternoon, and autumn leaves wander and twist to the earth, fluttering through the grass and along the sidewalk.  The sun makes a blaze of the trees.  I stop for a moment just to see, putting down my work, stunned by the fragility of life.  I don’t know how much time I have left.  I feel it in the goosebumps rising on my arms as I take in the turning.  Fall always reminds me to feel grateful for moments.  Because today is always the only day I have, and now the only moment.  It shouldn’t take tragedy or loss to capture my attention.

Upstairs, I find Riley sitting on the floor in front of the washing machine, pulling dark clothes out of the basket beside her, pushing them into the washer tub with her hands.  I stop still in the hallway.  She turns to me, golden hair falling softly across her shoulders.  A lock falls brassy over her sweet-deep ocean-eyes, still displaced from yesterday’s zig-zag part, and she carefully tucks it behind her ear.  Her fingers are long and slender now.  Hers is a quiet depth.  She smiles—so beautiful, just a slight, smooth acknowledgement, resting a wadded, gripped pair of jeans against her knee.

“Hi Mom,” she says, and the smile comes because she observes and understands and absorbs more than most people would believe.  She knows I measure her expressions, searching for hidden seizures, for side-effects from the pills, for some unexpected emergency.  She’s patient, but she doesn’t like my watchfulness.  She doesn’t like to draw attention.

Are those circles under her eyes?

“You okay?” I ask her, and she looks away at the jeans in her hand, the washing machine in front of her.

“Mmmhmm,” she says, pushing the jeans inside.  I can see the glint of silver, the holes in the tub where the water trickles out.

“Why are you sitting on the floor?”  Are you more exhausted than you should be?  Seizures make her sleepy, the pills can make her sleepy, but Riley resists sleep.  She never wants to miss anything.  In the young woman she has become, I see the baby with round cheeks and gold curls all over her head who used to thrash in my arms and cry out in anger over feeling tired.  I once held her tightly, sweaty against my chest, so she’d be still enough to rest.  People with autism are supposed to be limited by anxiety—that’s the stereotype—but Riley lives full, satisfying a continual hunger for new experiences, new people, new places, despite the fact that too much sensory information at once leaves her teary and steals her breath.  I have lead her out of buildings, commanding her to breathe, rubbing her back with my hand, holding her while she cries into my shoulder.  I have seen what anxiety does to her.  And still, she walks easy, freely, into living.  She lives—awkward, silly, innocent, messy, and completely okay with every season.

“I don’t know,” she says, blinking at me.

It makes sense, really.  The washer loads from the front, and it’s easier to see when the tub is full if you’re sitting right in front of it.  I’ve never thought to do that.  She is practical and resourceful, and completely unhindered by the usual way.  Sometimes, when we ask her why, she says, “It’s just my technique.”  It makes me happy to see that she’s content—even confident about—doing things differently, in the ways that make sense to her.  But I am so accustomed to shattering surprises that sometimes I over anticipate them, as a protection.

I walk over to study her a little more closely, and she stands.  I reach for her face, cradling her chin in my palms, sliding my thumbs along the line of her cheek bones.  I smile at her and her eyes fill with tears—a sudden flood just when I feel ready to dismiss my worries.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Mmmhmm.”  She nods, and I can tell she’s working to convince me, even as tears begin to slide down her cheeks.  I don’t know if she’s willing nothing wrong or troubled by my scrutiny, and I am instantly frustrated because I know that I will not know. What is happening to her that I can’t see? Am I passing her worries–fear–she doesn’t want, doesn’t need? We’re well past the days when I had to remember to push down on the toe of her shoes with my thumb to check for too small or limit my words to a crucial few so that she would understand, but there are still some things she can’t explain, maybe doesn’t even understand, about her own feelings.  She can’t tell me the things that would make me stop watching her so closely.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” she says, and her voice wavers, breaking in the middle.

I smile at her, offering her reassurance.  “It’s alright if you want to sit on the floor to load the washer.  I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” she says, nodding.  “I know you’re checking on me, Mom.  I’m not having any seizures.  I’m okay.”

“Alright, then,” I say, kissing her cheek.  “Get back to it.”  And I walk away because she needs me to let her be okay, whether she really is okay or not.  Two steps and I turn back.  “Hey–“

She looks up at me, wary.

“I love you.  I’m proud of you.” I want to say the things that matter, as though it’s my last opportunity to say them.  I don’t know how much longer I have, and not because of seizures or fear or some forboding premonition, but because I just don’t know.  And still, sometimes I take moments, opportunities, for granted.

She laughs, a giddy-free sound of joy that makes her smile wide.  And just that quickly, the heaviness I glimpsed earlier disappears.

I walk to the window and watch Zoe running around the trampoline with three other kids.  Her hair has browned with age, like mine, darker every year.  It flies out in ribbons, and even from where I stand I can tell that the strands framing her face are damp with sweat.  I smile to see her out there crazy-wild, always surrounded by a knot of friends, not yet too grown for vibrant imaginary tales.  But she’s growing tall too, and I don’t know how much more time I have left touching her sun-warm skin when she comes inside, cheeks flushed happy, smelling like the wind.  Kevin feels it too.  Sometimes he stands at the window and says what I’m thinking, “Not much more time to see her like this.”

I tell my children not to let fear steal away living. And it’s these things I say to them that echo back to me.  So I stand at the window, watching the trees catch fire in the sunlight, stretching for balance, for the way to enjoy the Fall without fretting over a Winter that might never come. Fall is a savoring season, a changing, maturing beauty.  She flames and steams and sits warm in the hands.  She is meant to be noticed and appreciated and touched, but she cannot be gripped and forced to stay.  Fall whispers a startling, careful truth, a truth that makes me gather up gifts and hold them in open hands, open for gathering more, open for the wild freedom that makes them beautiful:

The fragility of life only makes our living more significant.

harvest

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Sometimes wishing for something else, something better, something other, nearly spoils the planting.  In our hands, we carry seed to sow, seed gritty in our fingers and sweaty in the palm.  But standing in the middle of I don’t want to, we scarely imagine the blooms that will come once we reluctantly leave those hard, dead bits buried and find the courage to watch and wait.

After dinner, our son likes to disappear, as though the meal has stuffed him full—maybe not of food, because he always seems so growling hungry–but full of our warm company, of light reflected off of glazed plates, of sister-chatter, of fork-clinks, of thought too, because we force him to talk to us.  He always asks politely to be excused, to put on his pajamas, to go upstairs.

Sometimes Kevin calls Adam back when he’s half way across the living room and on his way; when I’m noticing the angle of shoulder, the jut of blade, the way our son’s pants hang low, always a little too big for his waist.  I have to buy for length.

“Aw, come on,” Adam will say, losing both patience and politeness in one moment.  He’ll lift a long, thin arm with man-sized hands—I’ll sigh, thinking “Where did he get those hands?”—and point significantly toward the staircase.  “UPstairs.  May I go upstairs, please?”

“No, I’m not finished talking to you.  Come here.”

Down go the shoulders in definite slump.  Adam tries to bend his tall frame into the most visible display of dismay he can manage.  His sigh is audible, but he makes it while walking back toward Kevin at the table.

So tonight, when we tell him he has to stay to play UNO, he looks defeated, and we are not surprised.  “Not Uno. Uno is finished.  SOR-ry.”  Sorry comes out sing-song and insincere.  I’m sorry, but not really. He never really wants to play.

“Yes.  We’re playing Uno.  Sit down.”

“Aw, come on.  Uno until…” He taps his watch with one finger, tilting his ear toward me as if to say, I’m listening.  How much of this do I have to tolerate?

“Say how long, Adam.  How long will we play Uno.”  I say this patiently, watching his face, wondering how long it will be before I don’t have to remind him of this particular sentence.

“How long will we play Uno,” he says, but resignedly, because whatever the answer, he knows he won’t like it.  I know and he knows that what he really means to say is more like, I don’t want to play Uno.  But there’s no real purpose in coaching him through that one because, well, he’s playing.

“30 minutes.  Uno until 8:30, and then you can go upstairs.”

“Yes,” he says, sliding into the chair next to me.  But we deal the cards and he leans over to me and says, confidentially, “I want to go upstairs, please.”

“I know,” I say softly, smiling.  “Uno until 8:30, and then you can go upstairs.”

“No Uno until 8:30,” He says a little louder, irritated, jerking back against the chair.  His hair is rumpled, smooth in places and in others standing up, as though he’s been running hands through, though I’ve never seen him do that.

“Okay, fine.  No Uno until 8:30.  Uno until 9:00.”  I pick up my cards and arrange them by color in my hand.  Adam leaves his in a messy pile in front of him.  He sees no need to look at them in advance, no need to arrange anything, no need to consider.  This is not fun.  This is endurance.  He knows that if he has a wild card, he will use it when he needs it but will not change the color.  He will match color ahead of number, because he is always, always, always reluctant to disrupt his routine or any established pattern. And although he loves to celebrate a winner–because he loves shared joy, it isn’t important to him to be the winner.  Games exist as an unfortunate social exercise, a series of tolerable steps.  For us, they are a tottering, deceptively simple bridge we force our son to cross in order to find his way closer to the rest of us.  Sometimes that is the most significant purpose in our have to: it brings us closer.

“Uno until 8:30,” he says quickly, picking up on my addition, turning toward me, even his eyes.

“Okay, but only if you stop complaining,” I tell him, returning his gaze.  He is so extremely intelligent, so resourceful, so quick.  He has taught me not to underestimate.

And so we begin taking our turns, and Kevin and Zoe exchange quips over skips and color changes and draw four‘s.  Adam dutifully plays and draws and waits.  And waits. And watches the time.  He claps for Riley when she wins, but when we begin shuffling the cards a second time, he turns to me, lifting a finger in front of his face.  “One more Uno.”

I shift my eyes to the clock.  We have time for two more games, maybe three.  “Uno until 8:30,” I say calmly.

One more Uno,” He says, gently, showing me his long finger, the one in front of his nose.

“8:30.”

He glances again at the clock, then sits back again in his chair, accepting.  And so we begin again, taking our turns, Riley laughing when she needs to draw cards, when someone skips her.  Adam takes turns without fanfare, simply waiting for the numbers on the clock to change.  He moves his eyes from watch to clock to cards, watch to clock to cards.  And then somewhere along the way, I lean into Adam and say something deliberately offbeat and silly, trying to get him to participate in our fun. This is not something we want him simply to endure, but something we want him to enjoy.  “Hey Adam, do cows lay eggs?”

“Yes,” he says, barely listening, barely considering the question.

“NOoo,” I say, reaching for him, playfully squeezing his arm, touching his face. And it as though the random humor of it thaws his reserve, his distance, as the words finally reach him.  He squeals, catching me with bright eyes, dissolving into a giggle, and Riley with him.  And that is best of all, because he loves her joy.  He reaches for her, flicking one of her ears with his fingers.

We flick our thumbs with the cards, slapping our discards against the table.  Every time Riley puts a card on the pile, she feels compelled to stop and carefully line up the stack.  Order is important to her.  Adam plays a wild card on top of a green “3,” and I ask him, “What color?” even though I know he’ll never change it.  I offer him all four choices—Adam, yellow, green, blue, or red?–to be sure he knows he can choose any, but he insists with now temporary seriousness.  Green.  The color stays the same.

As play passes from me and moves to Kevin, Adam leans over close to me.  “Horses lay eggs,” he says quietly, but the words crescendo as he speaks, rolling out with his laughter.

“NOoo,” I say, reaching for him again, and Riley dissolves.

“TrACTors”—he can hardly say the word, it shatters into laughter the middle—lay eggs, ahhhh…” Adam says, leaning next to me and then falling away, giddy.  His grin stretches wide and he snickers and snorts and convulses as though I’m tickling him.  By some gift of grace, I have tickled his soul, and I am suddenly lost because I can’t quite contain the wealth of it.

“NOoo, tractors don’t lay eggs,” I retort, mocking incredulity.

Riley’s laughter makes her cheeks pink, and Adam reaches for her.  He so loves her joy.  It almost seems that he seeks her happiness ahead of his own, that this is what thrills him—to see her delighted.  Kevin says “Uno,” then Zoe,  and Riley smiles and bites her bottom lip.  Adam leans into me again.  “DA—he is gasping with the humor of it—DadDY lays eggs!”

At this, Kevin laughs too and says, “What?  I do what?”

Adam squeals.  His eyes twinkle.  He shifts in his chair, gathering in our shared amusement, our laughter, our appreciation of his humor.  He has forgotten the time.  He has found a way to connect, to say something we understand, to bring us all joy—at once and collectively.  And he feels satisfied.  I see this, watching him scan our faces, watching his smile deepen until it moves his arms and twitches in his fingertips.  And it seems to have taken him by surprise, because just moments ago, he nearly wished this time away.

And I sit back, confessing to myself that I also felt weary-worn for this game, nearly too tired for the stretching, for coaxing him across the divide.  I gather up his joy—his joy over our laughter—a grace-harvest for a reluctant heart—and I give thanks that what we think we want for ourselves is not always best, that the things we reject and defy and initially wait and wait and wait our way through often do bring the sweetest lasting fruit; and still more, that the opportunity to touch each other, to let go, to bring and plant and savor joy is truly a gift worthy of our self-sacrifices and our intentional purpose.

Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.~Psalm 126:6

If we try hard to bring happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also. To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it. ~John Templeton

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