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

departure

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This week, a departure for Kevin and me, a Sabbath rest:
20141002_085327Tucked away, pulled back from the busy road and held–but lightly–by the trees, we hide beneath the fog.  Sound is magnified here, somehow, or perhaps it is that other noise removed leaves room for hearing birdsong, the cheeky chatter of squirrels, the deep-throated gurgle of tree frogs.

Here, we agree on the need for departure.

Yesterday, or maybe the day before (we have allowed for the dissolution of schedule and time, so I don’t know), we spot a turtle on the path, meandering, and we stop to consider the bright pattern of lines across its shell, the smooth intricacy. Here, we line up our hands palm to palm.  We line up our thoughts too, and they blur about the edges, like the borders between us.  I give thanks for oneness, because I never really know where he ends and I begin.

“I see more gray hair these days, around your face,” he says, and I laugh and reach for the rough skin around his jaw.

“And you’re still that guy,” I say.  “All these years, and you’re still that guy.”

He breathes and I breathe; we breathe.  We are too close to home to be completely removed from the rhythms of our normal life, and the truth is that our kids live with too much responsibility, too much potential for emergency, for us ever to breathe unaware, no matter where we are physically.  But this week, we have stretched our Sabbath moments and found quiet pockets for listening.  And as the insects crescendo, we exhale thanksgiving for seeing, for Light, for the first faint hints of red and gold in the leaves, the sight of trees jeweled with red berries, the colors of sunset reflected in water.

For the first three days, clouds held this place in shadow, like a palm-cupped treasure.  I look at the sky and see the veil of my own emotion, the thickness I carry but never really have the inclination to attend to preferentially.  We all have these clouds, and sometimes we feel swallowed up by them and sometimes the Light breaks through and reveals the blue of sky, the golden waves collaborating for the green of leaves and grass.  I don’t have to dissect the clouds to consent to the Light that diffuses them.  Today, that Light shines, warm.

20141002_085513Here, we agree again on Sabbath days, when we close down the screens and remove the noise and just decide to breathe, to see, to laugh, to taste the sweet things and hold them on our tongues.  Here, we agree on finding those carved out and set aside places with our children too, on drawing away together just to sit in God’s hands, to gather grace gifts in our fingers.  Sometimes we need little more than the space to notice the flecks of color in each other’s hair. All this connection in our lives—the tones and clatter of keys, the motion of quick thumbs across the digital gloss—it’s good and wide and even happily effective, mostly.  It dissolves miles of distance.  And some use it better for building, for sharing, for gathering.  But here, we agree that sometimes the constancy and availability of media can keep us from noticing simple stunning things like the way leaves drift down from the trees or the sudden profundity of sunlight.  We can miss the glint of webs in the grass; the thin, nearly invisible gossamer holding everything together; the dew drops shining like diamonds.  We can miss the testimony etched right into living.

So here, hidden well beneath the fog, we agree on the need for departure.  We agree that it’s significant and also good to draw away, to fast from distraction.

We agree that our Sabbaths need not be a legalistic observance anymore but instead should be a grateful and intentional celebration of grace upon grace.  As with every undeserved gift, we steal away the joy of it when we grow more critical than we are compassionate, when we assume that another’s appreciation of rest can be measured in exactly the same way, at the same time, even concocted of the same formula or balance.  I cannot tell anyone else how to receive Light nor how to capture it, but only that it is—He is–and that it changes everything about living to see Him, to feel Him, to know Him.

Held carefully separate, we hear clearly the testimony of God.  We catch stanzas sometimes quietly, sometimes shaped with words and phrases—magical, wild, beautiful.  And together, we exhale thanksgiving, especially for the precious souls who allow us, by their own sacrifices, the grace to slip away and embrace peace.

everything is broken

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Deep, empty night, and we brush our teeth, looking across at each other with eyes like moons.  We both feel hollow-carved, like vulnerable husks reaching hungrily for rest.  I have no thought except for the feel of the sheets beneath my legs.

And then, a crash.

Kevin and I look at each other briefly, asking questions we don’t speak out loud.  He leaves the room to explore, and I refuse to speculate.  I swish water in my mouth, wipe the still line of my lips with a towel, blankly observing the orderly lines of routine.

In a moment, Kevin returns.  “Well, we have a mess to clean up downstairs.” He says this evenly, walking into the closet and back out with his shoes, sliding them on his bare feet.

Mess and clean up really aren’t filling words, at least not for a mother.  I spend so much of my energy pushing back against those words, ripping them up like weeds that creep into our growing space.  I do not, in the moment, have enough strength left for mess and clean up.  I want to ask for rest first, but he sees this question in my eyes and explains.  The heavy framed mirror above the mantel has fallen away from its anchor, disrupting the things just below.  Everything is broken.  There’s glass everywhere.

Everything is broken.  Yes, sometimes.

The first thing I think, as I slip on my shoes, is I don’t want to see.  Irrationally, I wish for someone to come in with the energy no one has and pick up all the pieces for me.  I want them to restore order and beauty before I summon up the courage to be a witness.  I want redemption, just without any significant cost.

But since I won’t leave my husband leaning weary and alone over the mess, and since I don’t want my children to cut their fingers and feet, I descend.  And when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I moan.  I want to make less of this silly grief.  I want to call it a sigh, the sound that rose in my throat.  I want to say I was silent and picked up brokenness like obedience, like a Will worthy of a sacrifice.  But that would be a lie.  Instead, I mourned the loss of something beautiful, a tiny soul-oasis assembled from a collection of gathered things.

I know.  It could have been much worse.  And that’s what I tell myself as I drag the trash can into the living room, as we carefully lift the bigger shards between our fingers and plunk them in.  I tell myself that truth, that thanksgiving lies in the recognition that none of us were downstairs when everything shattered, that the glass bits now covering the chair didn’t break skin and draw blood.  Nearly everything on the mantel was made of glass.

And everything is broken.

The best living is an art, and so I pour creativity into home decorating, shaping tone and inspiration out of color and texture and symbol.  The mantel is a special project for me, a canvas I renew and change with the seasons.  I have an affinity for glass objects because of their ability to reflect and handle and carry Light.  I appreciate that the eye glances beyond the transparent, fragile thing to the substance of what fills it, the beauty it offers, without missing the delicate line of unique shape.  Glass is other, more stunning because of it’s intrinsic qualities, more functional because it yields to shaping.  When I decorated the mantle for Summer, I conjured the unique quality of light on the ocean in the golden hours, when the water looks opulently green against a pure, wide sky.  I’m sure the art of it wasn’t readily obvious to everyone, but something about it soothed my soul when I passed by or finally sat down in the emptiest hours of the day.  This particular arrangement glimpsed something I hold carefully, a gift I shelter.  Creation testifies, and creation shatters with the Fall, and just briefly, I mourn the loss of beauty.

“Sometimes it feels as if nothing I enjoy can remain untouched.”  I speak honestly, in an empty, carved-weary voice, a paper-thin sound, and flat.  I speak into the shattered fragments resting carefully on my palm.  I know better than to grip them.  I gather enough brokenness to hold without cutting myself, and then I walk to the trash can, and let the pieces–still reflecting—fall free.  The glass is beautiful, even broken.

“I know,” Kevin says softly, still finding pieces, still throwing them away.

We find glass around the corner, in the bathroom, in the adjoining room.  Glass fills the baskets, the chairs, the shelves below the TV.  The tiniest bits glitter, dangerous, and the largest ones threaten with majestic, jagged arcs.

“I just really, really liked this,” I say.  “It was so pretty.”

An hour, and we still find glass in unexpected places, scattered far, hidden in shadows.  We gasp–it’s everywhere–and intermittently discuss shattering, the way it broadcasts destruction, the way the pretty things become dangerous when they are broken.

Kevin speaks gently, from a space beyond the pieces, “This is what happens when we pull away from our anchor.”  Four years—maybe five—and that mirror hung solid.  It wasn’t the wall anchor that failed but the one attached to the mirror itself.  Finally, it just gave way to the heaviness, shattering everything in the path of its fall. This is what happens when we pull away. I stop and gather in the mess of it, and Kevin smiles. “Should I stop and take some pictures?” It’s as though he sees the writing in me, the etched script I feel.

I can see that he’s right, that the destruction left in the wake of our lost focus can extend far beyond the realm that we imagine; that bits of our broken lives can lurk sharp in the shadows, under things, in spaces we believe to be safe from damage.   Everything is broken by the Fall.  That is the nasty, jagged truth of this place.  When we think that we can stand apart from the One who holds us; when we forget how much we need His accomplishing strength to remain steadfast, when we pull away from our anchor, we fall hard and crooked and shatter Light-gathering lives.  We keep looking for Eden, longing for the untouched beauty of creation, for that unbroken joy, and it’s heaven-planted, that yearning. It’s God’s own grief over His lost treasure, over the untouched beauty of the covenant He created. Our living cuts and breaks, but He descends, allowing His own tender skin to be sliced by the shards of us.  He grips our broken pieces in His own tender palms. He speaks truth, new life, over the dead valley. He restores beauty out of brokenness at great cost, and then, because of Him, our Joy at last remains untouched, pristine, kept as an inheritance for us.

Kevin vacuums the shards we only glimpse as glints against the carpet, and I finally turn to speaking gratitude over the details, the timing, the emptiness of the room when the mirror fell.  I’m thankful.

It could have been worse.  Sometimes, it is.  But oh, I’m overflowing thankful for the Hands that collect up the brokenness of this place and grip us hard, redeeming, shaping us into something all new.  So see beyond the glass of me to the bits I still reflect, to this hope that fills full:

Because of Him we can be beautiful, even broken.

beautiful in His hands

beauty

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From a grassy field roadside, I gather up the picture of a broken barn with history clear tumbling from it’s splintered walls, the jagged boards dark, like the trunks of trees.  These planks, hewn from deadwood dragged, shaped over sawdust piles, sanded, treated, painted; nailed sharp, clean, with a satisfied whack—these planks caught the sweat of the arms that lifted them.  These once looked all new, once seemed strong and solid, fresh and functional, like we do when we’re young.  But now, the barn has settled and spread, becoming a watchful art, an eccentric mosaic, peace and wild flowers, hay heaped sweet, the deep knowledge of life lived full.

I stare at the barn as we pass, gathering in its elegance, thinking about how it now returns to what it once was, not the sleek, polished, conjured thing it came to be early, but the organic truth at the core—the raw dark wood smelling of earth.  I can’t look away.  Grass grows green in the wall cracks, as though while the structure sinks, the ground rises up to meet it. I can see the grass has gone to seed, and it twists, bending in the breeze.  This is the way for all of us—conjured and pristine and fashioned, then lived down to the easy glimpse of soul, something more beautiful if we can embrace our years and everything that comes with them.

A mile or so ago, we rambled past an old plastic monstrosity, rusty, with cavernous fixture hanging, shattered glass and mud-crusted tires, faded letters on the side where someone carried the branding away.  I can’t help but think of it now.  On the side, flat planks covered over the breathing, light-giving places, spray-painted black with just three words: mad mad mad.  Sometimes we wear our anger like those planks, and what we close out for protection might have been our only chance for light and breath and life.  So when we pass the barn, I realize it’s not old and worn that makes the carved-out spaces ugly.  It’s fabricated.  It’s the sleek shell that cannot settle, the hard surface with no open place for growth, destruction without the opportunity to absorb the changing-wind.  Plastic only empties.  Pretense cannot be reshaped.  It crumbles and litters, and the earth does not rise up to receive that which it cannot recognize or embrace as its own.  Bitterness only hardens us to fullness and strips away our elegance.

The presence of the barn at roadside creates a stark contrast that captivates me.  I want to hold it in my palm, a treasure.  A single path winds away from the barn, wide-possible and beaten-smooth so long the grass allows it.  Life pops up and flies over the path, the field—flies, maybe, an occasional moth, a bird.  I reach with my mind, not quite capturing the untamed things that I glimpse only in an instant.  I wish I could stop and take a picture.

I wonder how many voices this barn has held, what the walls could tell of foot fall and laughter, of hiding, of stolen moments, of dung and animal breath and sweet, dank life.  All of it matters—all of it gives this place its soul, the easy and the awe, the wonder and the sudden, empty pain, the abundance and the scarcity.  Rain has soaked these broken timbers, mingling with sweat and blood and shadow.  Even sun-drenched, the walls look fresh soaked, rich like fertile soil.  Wind has softened her angles and opened up her spaces, turning worn, empty holes into wild sculpture and freedom.  She tears away her shiny cloak and becomes the truth, the raw, stunning God-made truth of salty tears and unchained joy, the truth of sighing and back-aching heavy, of warmth and gathered light.  She, this old, weathered barn, sits peaceful strong in a wind-blown field, unafraid.  She laughs at the days to come.  She has learned the secret of being content.  She can do all things, because she knows her Strength.  She knows the real source of her beauty.  So I gather up that exquisite old barn, carrying her with me down the road as I travel.  She is like so many beautiful women who mentor me with wrinkled, silver-haired, life-worn love, wrapping arms about me, shoring me up, showing me what beautiful is.  They do not pretend perfection.  They sit peaceful strong while the lightening cracks and the puddles widen and breathe the truth about living.  And they are magnificent.

 

gather up the good

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Sometimes life strips us clean of words, and we sit together, quiet.  And maybe it’s that way so we’ll stop to listen.

We walk through the rain and into the funeral chapel, gathering damp hugs on our way through the door.  We sit first, and then we stand, winding in long lines past photographs and video, awards, and hats still dingy with soil and sweat, dropped on top of a polished piano as though this cherished man just left them there and walked into another room.

A week of words twisting, words sharp, words missaid and misunderstood, and I’m carved out, hollow of things to say.  I wear the quiet like a blanket, like a shield.  Sometimes I wish I could get through without touching other lives, without brushing up against your shattered places, without cutting into you with mine.  Sometimes, it’s awfully tempting to protect myself.  But, that’s never really been the way with Him.  And oh, I love Him.

It’s quiet until we get to the family.  Quiet, but not silent.  I feel sore and bruised, tender enough to hear, open enough to see, because oddly I feel hidden, like an angel-led traveler to another place, another time, another life.  He does promise to hide us—our lives (Col. 3:3), our tattered souls from trouble (Psalm 27:5), our weary bodies  from wicked enemies (Psalm 17:8).  But He’s pretty clear that when I want to hide, it’s Him I should run to (Proverbs 18:10, Psalm 143:9), not all the other things behind which I tend to cower.  God does all the hiding of me, sheltering me carefully, when I need it.

From where I stand in line, I watch people touch each other—a gentle hand laid on top of another, a clap against broad back, a time-lost embrace.  On a couch against the wall, some women dab their eyes with tissues, jerking new ones from the crinkly packet to pass over and beyond each other.  They say nothing, only carefully placing their warm bodies close.  They sit behind her—the suffering wife now widowed, close enough to reach, close enough that she can feel them.  I watch them reach for her and squeeze her hand.  Yes, it’s quiet until we get to the family, and all it takes is I’m so sorry, and the son, his eyes start filling.  He clears his throat and steps away from his grief.

And I listen.  I hear sorry and sorry and sorry and anything at all I can do and we’re here. We’re here for you.  I hear so quickly and can’t believe and missed.  Really, really missed. I hear love.  I hear laughter and stories about remember when, and it’s all history and relationships and the journey shared that matters now.  Now, when it seems as though this man left his hat on the piano and disappeared from the room.  Surely all these people weren’t happy with him all the time, surely they sometimes bruised each other badly, surely sometimes he made them angry.  But now, it’s only the good collected and kept, gathered up in clasped hands and wrapped arms for safe keeping.  Why does it sometimes take loss to make us gather up the good in each other and hold on to it?  Word says love keeps no record of wrongs, and love isn’t self-seeking, and and love does not dishonor others (1 Cor. 13:5).  It’s so like the enemy to convince us to justify the way we collect up our pain and build walls of unforgiveness and judgement around the living, the breathing, the stumbling.  Because it doesn’t take a sacrifice to love someone who’s gone.  Don’t speak ill of the dead, we say, but what about Don’t speak ill of the living (Matthew 5:22)?

I hug some more of this precious man’s family, people I don’t know, and some I’ve known so long we’ve had plenty of time to forget some of the details about each other.  It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one of the women, and I can tell she doesn’t remember my name, but she knows my face, and that’s enough.  She hugs me hard and nods and talks about how quickly her kids have grown—and mine—and I can see the thought dancing behind her eyes Come on, why can’t I remember her name? And I can also see that she’s trying hard not to let me know, that this grieving and loss she feels are more than enough for now.  She doesn’t want to bruise me with her forgetfulness.  But I am clear carved of words and knowledge too, and what I see and hear is that we share motherhood and the feeling that time comes and they grow tall and we look in the mirror at older versions of ourselves and we find unity over what we have in common.  And so, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntyche, their names like different chords of the same song, to be of the same mind in the Lord (Phil.4:2), because when we stand awkward and carved and unsure in front of each other we always have that to agree on.  We can replace our self-protection with His sacrifice, with His refusal to defend Himself, with the way He laid down His life for us.  That kind of unity changes the tone of forgiveness.

When at last I reach this dear man’s wife, standing lonely of him at the end of the room, she’s all stripped of words.  She shakes her head and clutches my arms and looks around because she’s lost a part of herself, and she says, “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”  We are not so puffed up of knowing when life has humbled and crumpled us, and the truth is that we all carry something hobbling.  She can only place her hand flat on the casket and look at me solid and say, “This, this was the love of my life.”  I see that the love of him is the only thing she still knows, the needing him, the wanting to be right beside him.  And I see that this is some dim shade of what it means to love with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; to trust with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; to be devoted.

In the Old Testament, when something was devoted it was destroyed, that it might not be secondarily used or kept for another purpose.  And Word says I’m to be wholeheartedly devoted to God, and also devoted to you, to honor you above myself (Romans 12:10).  Every kind of holy devotion still means the sacrifice of self–the destruction of me and me-living and me-focus and me-protecting—that my life might not be used secondarily for another purpose.  And that means that I’ll stand stripped of words and knowledge, shaking my head and tender-lost, and I’ll say to you, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.”

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong.

I don’t know what you should do.

I don’t know what I should do.

I don’t know more or better or absolutely.

I don’t know how to see well when I’m crying, or how to hear well when fear clamors, or how to keep from falling down when I’m weak.

I don’t know.

I don’t know anything of my own.  I can do nothing by myself (John 15:5; John 5:19).

And then, I’ll look at you solid, and I’ll say, “But He, He is the love of my life.”

And on the basis of knowing only that, I’ll open my arms up to love you, and maybe we’ll share the pain we carry and learn to gather up the good in each other.

she

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She could not have known about the day, its prickly criticism and thick heat, its challenge and pursed lips and ungracious attitude.  She could not have absorbed its unkind words.  She could not have known how it all felt gray, in spite of the sun, or how many times I wondered why am I doing this and felt God’s hands gently righting my crazy-knocked gaze.  She could not have known how much five minutes of her love, her grace, her gratitude would lift my arms when I felt unable to hold them aloft any longer.  She could not have known that her presence in my life would turn the tide of battle.

So, the only explanation is that she listens deep.  She, not the one but the many of my sisters; she who moves wild with the changing wind, who allows God to lift her hands and move her fingers and work her voice into joy and peace and mercy.  Word says He sounds like rushing water, and so she feels to me, like cool refreshment at the roots where I have settled to grow.

My phone dings, and it is she, a Facebook message that comes when I am swallowing pain like a thick knot in my throat, when the evil whisper rises to a crescendo:  Give up.  Come on, you don’t need this.

I check the notifications quickly, a habit I learned when my children developed potential emergencies, and she makes me smile—just a woman’s silhoutte still instead of a photo, in a round like a floating window.  I am so thankful for how important you are, she has typed, and, I love you!

She is a friend.

Moments later, she sends a text, The spirit of discouragement is widespread…pray for encouragers to lift up those who are burdened.  She reminds me to pray, to climb up in my Father’s lap for safety.  And as I read her text, I feel the way her prayer has already wrapped me, drawing me in, a protection.

She is a soul-sister.

Praying with you! I type back.  I had a FB message from one of those encouragers when I got home!

You understand, she is the one and also the other.

I gather the mail in my hands, lifting it from the counter where Riley has left it for me, neatly stacked.  And on the top, a puffy envelope sits all wrinkled from the trip it took to get to me.  And inside, she has sent a note with a she-knows-me gift, just a simple message using a word all made of love, a family word no one else understands.  Just simply enjoy, and love.

She is a precious, cherished aunt.

I stand holding her note, feeling embraced.  That word—enjoy—captures me with its powerful prefix en, which means to confine in or place on, and additionally, to cover on every side completely.  She reaches out and wraps me up in joy like a blanket, like a robe, like a shield.  That’s her word, I think, because it describes what she does for me always, what she has done all week.  Two minutes, five, three, and she sends me a photograph of my mom doing something or a luna moth or a butterfly, maybe with a phrase, but always that I might enjoy, that she might wrap joy around me—completely and covering every side—like her arms, enfolding.

I walk upstairs to fold some clothes, breaking away for a moment from a tangle of homework and snacks and projects and routines and supper.  I sit on the bench in the hall, just a moment, because I have to tell her:

You sent your note when I needed it most.

And you, you have embraced me all week.

You are a gift.

I lift towels from the basket and press my fingers into the warmth of them, folding them into satisfying lines, smooth, uninterrupted surfaces.  My back is to the door, and I am praying, asking God to silence the thoughts I shouldn’t have, to fill me with Light that obliterates shadows.  I don’t feel her behind me until she slides her arms around my waist and squeezes tight, pressing her nose into my spine, inhaling as though I smell sweet. I’m sorry you’ve had a hard day, she says.  I love you.  All the hurtful people, all the terribly hard things, are rotten pumpkin seeds.  I drop the towel and in my hands and turn to hug her, and our laughter falls and twists and curves around us.

“Rotten pumpkin seeds?”

“Well, if I had said just pumpkin seeds, you’d have thought about roasting them.”

This makes me laugh harder, until the healing reaches through me and into my heart.  I give thanks for honesty, that she is old enough to carry the truth:  It’s been a hard day.  She doesn’t ask me for details, doesn’t tempt me to say more than I should.  She just hugs me more often.

She is a daughter, stunning and open.

And then, she is my mother.

She is a gentle text that comes just after, a message that says, Love you, even knowing that I might not find my way back to the phone to respond.  She makes me smile as I gather my phone and rush downstairs to answer a question—someone’s calling me from below—and to stir supper simmering.

You’ve met her.  Not my mom or my daughter or my aunt or my friends, necessarily, but her She is every age and every size and every shape.  She is feeling and thoughtful and warm.  She is gifted and creative and funny.  She builds and touches and covers me up, safe.  She takes whatever minutes she can find just to lift my weary arms and hold them up a little longer, just to remind me that I’m important.  She isn’t one–not just one person or one friend or one way; she is all of us together, caring for each other, speaking life right into the days that feel like death.  She is the reminder of a sure and final victory, of a better inheritance than all this temporary.  She is Love—not the limited, conditional, if-you-please-me kind; not the lesser that means “I like you a lot, but not enough that you’ll ever hurt me;” not the one day here and another gone; not the only if I like you; not the when it’s easy or convenient; but the real thing, the Love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Yes, she covers sin with grace, with joy on every side, with forgiveness and mercy, with strength and warmth and whatever she has that day, and always at great risk to herself.  She is the Love that keeps no record of wrongs, the Love that doesn’t envy or boast.  She is every shape and contour of Grace, the stunning vibrancy of gifts given while yet unmerited.  She is the reflection of the God who loves me, shining strong so that I can see, even when my eyes are too weak.  She is the powerful gentleness of His hands, holding me.

She is immeasurably beautiful.

At the end of a hard, prickly day, when I swallow pain like a knot in my throat, she reaches for me.  She, with her many arms, with her voice like rushing water.  And so together, as one day fades into another, we move on; we grow; she and I, with our roots full soaked and tangled up somewhere deep.

Thank you, faithful Father, for the difference she makes.

how she grows

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In the car at night and I can’t see her face, just the blur of headlights and the jostle of cars weaving in and out of lanes, just the green-lit signs labeling exits.  From behind me, she speaks, and the tentative way she shapes her words tells me that she chooses this time for the cover of darkness and the fact that I can’t look into her eyes.  This way, when she tells me she thinks I was wrong, she doesn’t have to watch my face.

“Mom, you know after everyone left my party, when we were talking about my friend, about her being disrespectful?  You know?”

“Yes.”  She’s measuring me, carefully testing my tone and the speed with which I speak.  She’s listening for open, interested, hearing; and also cautiously for angry, resentful, defensive.  So I wait, focusing on the traffic in front of me, the shoe-shaped silver car in my immediate view.  The tailgate is covered with coastal stickers.

“Well, I didn’t like that.  I mean, I don’t think…….Well, it felt like we were talking bad about someone else.  You know, in that way we don’t want to do.”

“Okay…” I inhale, remembering the morning in question, the morning after the birthday slumber party.  Kevin left early for a long workout, left me tangled in sheets and half hidden under my pillows for a rare extra hour of sleep—maybe, could it be possible?—before the kids woke and needed breakfast.  I heard nothing until my mom woke me with her soft hand on my cheek, the silver hair slipping out of her ponytail.  She and Dad had been with us that weekend, visiting for Zoe’s birthday.

“I’m sorry to have to wake you, but Adam just threw up.  Apparently he had a problem with his pod last night.  He has ketones, and we’ve been giving him water, but he just threw up.  And the girls are all up.  One of them had a nose bleed and the one helping her used all the tissues in the bathroom and still couldn’t get it to stop.  We cleaned up the floor…It was all over her arms…and you know Zoe wanted us to make waffles for breakfast.  I didn’t want to have to wake you, but when Adam threw up, I thought I’d better.”

I put my hands over my face.  I remember that, turning my head up toward my mom, covering my eyes with my hands.  It had been one of those weeks when everything converges at once—Adam’s first day of school coming and all the gathering of medical accessories, the binder I’d made him to structure blood sugar testing away from home, his Open House; Zoe’s birthday and all the special she should have in celebration, the gift shopping and decorating and inviting; the other-focused things we want for always, the lifting and encouraging and offering strength to those running short of it.

“Well, you know I don’t think any differently about your friend,” I say to the brake lights, the glint of silver in front of me, wishing I could stop and look at my daughter, already respecting her courage.  “It was just a mistake.  We all make mistakes.”

In my mind, I see the morning, how I went downstairs and Mom and I made waffles for the girls, because that had been Zoe’s request; how this particular friend showed up just as we were putting plates on the table, how much I instantly liked her.  She has sparks in her eyes, this friend, and her smile turns in an unexpected way.  From the beginning, she doesn’t mind talking to me.  Meanwhile, Adam lays on pillows in the living room, looking gray.  My dad gives him small sips of water from a cup with a straw every few minutes, and from the kitchen Mom and I listen for the sound of Adam’s voice, for signs that he’s better, while we juggle hungry questions.

Yes, this morning had indeed been ripe for misunderstanding.

“I didn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be friends.  You know that, right? I say, continuing, looking in the rear view mirror but only finding twin beams.  “I was being honest about it, though. I do think she was disrespectful.”

“She was.  I was upset about it too.”  Zoe’s words come quickly, in a rush.  “But Mom, she’s not normally that way.  I don’t know why…I think she just wasn’t thinking, that she didn’t realize.”

It’s so bright, that grace, that compassion, that looking mercifully at a human heart, that Christ-seeing.

Zoe speaks from the Spirit, and Word floods my heart, first this: And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Corinthians 5:15,16); then this: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7); then this: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20); and then this: Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses (Numbers 12: 8)? In just this way God presses His fingers right into me.  The Spirit moves through me, a wind that leaves nothing the same in its wake, opening my ears to hear.

I see them, Zoe’s friends, gathered around our table, and it is an unusual mix—a few girls I’ve known so long that I speak to them as though they are mine too, and a few completely new to me.  This new friend of Zoe’s with the sparks in her eyes bristles when I tell another of the girls now getting up from the table—one so familiar as to know how to take my mother-tone—not to tell me she’s hungry again thirty minutes after wasting half of a waffle at breakfast.  This new friend lifts the hair off of her shoulders with her hands, gathering the long, spiraling lengths of it together behind her and murmurs, “I’m hungry ALL the time.” But this doesn’t settle with me until later, looking back.  At the time, I barely register the clue to her discomfort.

Later, when Adam finally moves off the floor and starts spinning again, when the color at last returns to his pale cheeks and I know for sure we won’t be going to the hospital today, I ask this new friend of Zoe’s not to beat Zoe’s mylar dolphin-balloon  into a wilt with her hands.  Somehow I’ve finally processed Zoe’s fleeting glances at the balloon as it rises and falls in the air.  I finally hear Zoe say, “Hey, can we play with something else?” And I finally realize that her friend ignores her, that she continues hitting the balloon, pulling it up and down, making it “swim.”

I feel as though I say it kindly—“Please don’t do that.  It’ll make the balloon deflate a whole lot sooner.”

At first, Zoe’s friend ignores me too, until I reach for the balloon strings and gather them away.

“I had a round one like this and it didn’t deflate for like three months.”

“Right.  Well, this one will not last that long if you keep hitting it like this.  You girls find something else to do, okay?”

Her eyes flash, this friend who had been so lovely in the beginning.

“Can’t you just buy another one?”

“I could.  But why would I want to waste this one?”

She slows her speech, enunciating the first word carefully, as though I am slow to understand.  “Beecccauuusseee, we want to play with it?” Thus, her poor choice unfolds.

I admit it:  wastefulness and disrespect kindle my anger quickly.  I press my mouth into a line, and when I speak again, the words are iron.  “Well, Zoe doesn’t want to play with it.  Find something else to do.”  I walk away, taking the balloon with me, and everything simmers.  But when everyone leaves, when I hand the last tote bag and pillow through the door, I openly discuss my distaste for this friend’s behavior.  And thus, my poor choice unfolds.

It’s astounding how quickly our conversations can deteriorate, how easily we move from discussing facts to making assumptions and judgments, often as we try to support and justify each other.  It is a short conversation, but one that we would never have had had I managed not to offer a commentary to anyone except the One who knows hearts.  And four days later, my daughter still relives our words, trying to figure out how to tell me that things took a bad turn on our end too.

“…We don’t know anything about her,” Zoe says, reassured by my listening, “and we shouldn’t decide what she’s like or why she said that stuff or how she is just based on that one mistake.  We all make mistakes.

I grip the steering wheel, because I still want to defend myself.  I still want to talk about Zoe’s friend’s disrespect and how it shouldn’t have been instead of listening carefully to my own conviction.  But the Spirit rushes through, writing Word all over me, and I see that my daughter is correct, that she has the heart I want her to have: the heart of grace, mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness.

“You’re right,” I say to her.  Just that.  “You’re absolutely right.  I should not have said anything more about it.”

Sometimes, I justify critical speeches as the honest rendering of my feelings, and I behave as though the mistakes of others are more unforgivable than my own.  But the truth is that I’ve been shown immeasurable grace, and God has forgiven me far more than I could ever forgive anyone else.  It’s the worldly point of view, the self-centered one, to see other people in light of how I perceive that they have mistreated me instead of seeing them as treasured souls for whom He also died.  His love is impartial.  Every other soul is just as cherished as my own.  And I’m not to live for myself anymore but to live for Him, to be like Him.  A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  Jesus never dismissed difficult people nor stopped loving them, even when they nailed Him to a cross.  Oh how keenly I feel the plank in my own eye, and I want to remember that feeling.  I want the clear and humble view of that plank now to stop my mouth from pointing out the tiny bits of sawdust in the eyes of another (Matthew 7:3).  She loves much who has been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), and I have been forgiven so much.

I want to be a Christ-follower who loves enough to obey, who asks Him to change what I see, what I think, what I say.  And in the dark of night as we drive home, I give thanks that my daughter is also my soul-sister, that she seeks to be like Him too, and that she has the courage to expect me to live what I teach her, what I believe.  The greatest love is courageous unto accountability.

My, how she grows.

~*~

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

Oh set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).

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