Sometimes from the start of a day a dull ache builds, spreading slowly from the curve of my back well into the sharp edges of my shoulders. It is the sore feel of self dying, the good ache of need, the one meant to remind me that God accomplishes and satisfies (Deuteronomy 8:3). But the truth is hard to see in the center of a sigh, and I thrash through these weary days the way I do a long run, alternately groaning and telling my body, my thoughts, to be quiet and obey (1 Cor. 9: 26,27). I plead to see rightly, to be well focused, to dwell in His vast and mighty palm.
Mothering is an honor; a true gift of grace; one of the most purposeful, invested, impactful uses for a God-shaped, God-held vessel and also one of the most difficult. On my better days, I grasp this enough to stand still in a stolen moment and think, “I get to do this. I get to do something that matters this much,” but then, there are these other days, the days that have taught me that living how in the world, asking for the increase of faith, is less about doors flying open than about learning to trust God when those heavy planks remain firmly closed and He says, walk through. I’m learning more solidly with every passing day that it isn’t about how I can but about how He will, and that real trust is more a transformation sculpted in by a holy hand than the decision of a temporary mind.
I stand in the kitchen on one of these dull gray days, twisting a hand towel around my fingers, drying away the wash water, feeling lost in a turmoil. I spin through my mental list—laundry (probably ready to fold); supper for tomorrow prepped; tonight–what will the sides be? asparagus, maybe, and cucumbers; dishes clean; counters wiped; this floor really, really needs to be scrubbed; what time do we need to leave? It feels as though I am forgetting things, as though they hang invisible in the air around me waiting. Riley stands just next to me, carefully slicing sausage and tomatoes, sliding the pieces down her cutting board with a knife. Today it is her day to help me cook, her day to learn the way I did—by practice. I reach out and touch her on the back, but she is intent, focused. Her eyes remain fastened on her work. She has pulled her hair back into a short ponytail at the base of her neck, and one strand has escaped and hangs in front of her eyes. She blows at it periodically. Riley hates to have her hair loose while she’s working.
“You’re doing a great job,” I say to her, reaching up to loosen her ponytail holder and regather her hair a little higher, sweeping up the errant strand with my fingers. Just that tiny moment makes me smile, knowing that details like these don’t go unnoticed by God, that He attends to me carefully too; that His hands often move just slightly over the smallest things out of tenderness for me.
“Mmmhmm, I am,” Riley says, nodding, her eyes still and determined. Slice, slice, slice. The knife skids along the wood plank as she slides the pieces away to make room for more.
Zoe bustles around the kitchen making cupcakes as a surprise for her sister, dripping sticky things on the countertops, leaving bits of trash in careful piles next to bags and containers of ingredients she has used and hasn’t yet returned to the pantry. My mother eyes scan the room for potential dangers, for waste, for possible destruction, anticipating what could be before I break away to fold laundry. I lift the carton of eggs and restore it to cooler climes, but Zoe hardly notices the intrusion into her space. From time to time, she bends over her recipe, doing math in pencil, tripling the amounts. Now, savoring the moment for the second time, I feel thankful for her growing ability, her creativity, her desire to make her sister feel special. Now, I marvel at the young woman she’s slowly becoming; that she wants to practice. Now, I give thanks that functional math comes easily to her. Now. But not just when I feel the ache in my back and the sigh in my throat and I have lost clear sight of color. I wish I could say that eucharisteo always instantly overwhelms my complaint, but that would be a lie. I am only just a sprig and have not yet come to leaf, and in the wake of my spinning, the twisting of the towel around my fingers, I sigh over the crust of sugar that will coat the handle of the refrigerator door when she finishes, the trash bag bulging with wadded paper towels.
For a while, I manage to seal my shadowy thoughts between my lips. I smile and nod approvingly when she says, “Mom look,” or “these will be SO good,” or “Aren’t they AWESOME? I will let them cool today and frost them tomorrow.” I think of how it must have been for my mom back when, all those times when young, eager me bounced into her cluttered, busy, that floor really, really needs scrubbing kitchen. Somehow, she mothered so that I only remember my early successes, so that I never stopped wanting to learn. Somehow, she rooted me as an artist, an experimenter, an adventurer. I smile at Zoe and turn to go, telling myself to be thankful, leaving her to her learning. The laundry. You need to fold the laundry.
My left foot lands on the first stair, my right hand just grips the wood of the post, and Zoe calls to me. “Mom? Uh, Moooom?” Her voice bends around this name, and for just that foolish moment, I want to shed it and leave it at the base of the stairs.
But I turn around, and walk back into the kitchen, and she hears the steps and just keeps talking before she can even see me.
“Mom, I don’t have enough yogurt. This only makes 1/4 cup. Is there something I can substitute?”
I stand still, taking in the sight of her with batter on her fingers, on her shirt. She stands poised on the other side of the island in the kitchen, as though she holds court over piles of crumpled paper and drying goop. A spoon, sludgy up the handle, has sunk into a mixing bowl in front of her. I do not see her then with the right eyes, or I would take her picture and freeze her just this way. I would gather the vision of her and hold it carefullly in my hands. She has all the messy glow of an absorbed artist, standing there, waiting on me to speak. I turn to Riley, noticing that she has run out of corners on her cutting board. Sliced meat piles up around her fingers.
“Sour cream,” I say to Zoe slowly, carefully, controlling the words, “but we don’t have any of that either.” Usually, we are a dairy-free household, and I don’t invest in a lot of substitutes like these. I walk to the cabinet and take out a large sterling soup pot, placing it on the counter next to Riley. “Riley, you can put these in the pot now,” I say to her, reaching for the knife in her hand, “like this.” I lift the cutting board over the pot, angling it so that I can use the knife to push the pieces of sausage and tomatoes off and in. In my mind, something simmers: I have work to do, more than I can manage in these hours, and now I will also have to run to the store. I, I, I. Zoe knew she wanted to do this. Why didn’t she look at the recipe in advance so that I could buy the ingredients when we did our shopping for the week?
Adam walks into the kitchen with Riley’s gratitude journal, tapping at something with his finger. “Mommy laughing,” he says. “May I have Mommy laughing, please?”
I open my mouth, and out comes the frustrated sigh I have held, the words I have tasted bitterly. “Zoe, why didn’t you think about what you needed before you started baking?” She’s young, she’s learning. It takes time. I hear this, feel it pressing into me, but I have already released the flood and I can’t gather the words back. I can feel the steel in my eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know…I just didn’t think about it. I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly defeated, her tone falling hard.
“What else do you need?” I ask her, gesturing toward the smudged, dog-eared pile of recipe papers on the edge of the counter.
She pauses, studying my eyes, then scans the recipe.
“You need butter,” I say, pointing. “For the frosting.”
“Yes,” flicking her eyes back to mine and then down again, “and the yogurt, and—Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“I know,” I say, sighing, still more sighing and the words flowing chilly. “You don’t understand. I have so much that I need to do, and I can’t even move out of this room.” I, I, I. This day doesn’t belong to you. I know the voice, and it’s meant for hearing ears, and at the moment, I am disparaging, not listening. “I know you’re just learning, but next time, I want you to think about this before we do our grocery shopping for the week.”
“I will. I’m sorry.”
“May I have Mommy laughing, please,” Adam says, pointing at the gratitude journal, tapping his finger against the page in staccato. Riley hasn’t acknowledged the conversation, hasn’t turned. She stands with her back to us, still slicing, and it barely registers in my mind that the pieces on her cutting board seem very, very small.
“What do you need?” I say to Zoe, again, looking at the recipe.
Adam moves in front of me. Tap, tap, tap. “May I have Mommy laughing, please,” he says again, more carefully, drilling me with his bright blue eyes.
“Ha, ha, ha,” I say deliberately, offering Adam the kind of smile he gives me when I force him to let me take his picture. Riley slices, slices, slices, her back to me, and Zoe lists, “I need yogurt, butter, and let’s see, umm, heavy cream, and that’s it. That’s all.”
I start gathering keys, purse, scanning the room again with my mother eyes, and that’s when I see Riley’s face. That’s when I catch tears off the edges of her cheeks on the tips of my fingers. She blinks and the tears silently roll like a cleansing river, and she just stands there slicing, letting them slide away. I am crushed by her grief, small, torn into bits like the pieces of things cut by the knife in her hands. Oh, how these small deaths hurt.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Is it Zoe and me?” She has reacted this way before, when our argument wasn’t an argument at all, when we bantered back and forth as a joke, but this time it’s as though she’s much more destroyed by the exchange. I look at my fingers and a Word echoes: He was grieved (Genesis 6:6). Our sin doesn’t just inspire God’s wrath. It authors His grief. She grieves because I have chosen myself.
Riley nods, just the tiniest movement, not willing even to look at me. Yes. It’s because of Zoe and me–because of me and my words.
I sigh again, feeling that ache throb up the length of my back, wrapping my arm around Riley’s shoulders, lifting my hand to touch her wet cheek. “Oh, Riley, we’re okay. I’m just a little frustrated, but it’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
I ease the car into a parking space at the grocery store and I wonder if I could just sit there for a while and breathe. I press my fingers into my eyes, along the bridge of my nose. I pull my key out of the ignition and gather my wallet and push myself out of the car and walking, walking across the parking lot and in. And as quickly as I am in the store, I am leaving again, gripping a bag in one hand, a receipt in the other.
And that’s when I hear my name. He keeps calling, even when I refuse to hear. Because God notices the smallest needs; because He lifts His hands to capture my hair, because He catches my tears with His fingers; because He even gathers my errant, barbed words when they rip, scarring, into His wrists, a friend walks into the store this day just as I walk out. She waves, bright and elegant, delight lighting her face. He will take great delight in you (Zephaniah 3:17). The testimony comes not just in the greeting, but in the way she leaves her cart just sitting, the way she stops, walking over to hug me. “I have a gift for you,” she says, but I hear more, the echo of something deeper, something David wrote long ago, whispered strong right into me. How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you (Psalm 31:19). His gifts to me are abundant and merciful. This kind friend and I exchange just a few simple parting words and move apart, and I realize that she cannot know, maybe still doesn’t know, how she is God’s arms around me on a weary day, the whisper of His voice, the gentleness of His hand on my wet face. Maybe she doesn’t know how God has used the tiniest thing at just the right time—the smallest lift of her held solid in His hand—to make this dead seed bear fruit (John 12:24), but just that delight, just that hug, gathers and presses and plants. And so He says that the kingdom is like a seed planted in a field that becomes a tree big enough that the birds perch in its branches (Matthew 13: 31, 32). It’s not the size of the seed that matters, but the fact that it’s planted by His hands; not the strength or beauty of the vessel, but the fact that He lifts it; not the big things we purpose but the smallest ways He moves that accomplish the lasting, healing, building things.
So I go home and wrap my arms around my sticky daughter, and I whisper into her hair, “I’m sorry.” And as I stand up again, I laugh out loud, because I think maybe I taste cupcake batter on my lips.