On Motherhood and Living in the Present

As I shuffled through seventeen years of memories captured on film, her doe eyes followed me from photograph to photograph. So did her smile–gap-toothed, then crooked, braced, and at last, perfectly straight. I discovered her all over again–at two years old, at ten, at sixteen. A highlight reel of both the extraordinary and the everyday scrolled across my computer screen. Her life unfolded over four continents of landmarks, oceans, and mountains in far flung places.

I watched, mesmerized, as she opened her arms to the waiting world.

As seventeen years scrolled by me in a blink, I re-discovered my daughter, but to my surprise, I also re-discovered myself. Years of photographs found me either front and center with an arm slung around her shoulder or hovering close in the background–a flash of tanned leg, a turned back, extended arms carrying flaming candles on chocolate cake. Other times, I stood behind the camera, narrating the story of my daughter’s life as it blossomed in slow motion right before my eyes.

Bloom. Click. Blink.

I’ve carried a secret fear for years–the fear that the complexity of my inner life eclipses the day to day living of my outer life. I  spend too much time in my head, in a book, in emotions and words stored up for no one but me. I often wonder if I become so wrapped up in my own inner stories, that I forget to live the one unfolding in front of me.

I worry that I missed it all, that the doe eyes and ready smile and open arms are a product of my imagination, rather than permanent tattoos inked onto the skin of my day to day.

The photos reminded me of the truth; I co-wrote the narrative of her life. I didn’t miss a thing. Every first, every last, every familiar gesture, every friend, every party, every rolled eye, and crooked grin. I flutter in and around all of them, sometimes front and center, sometimes just outside the frame, sometimes behind the lens as a witness to her story unfolding.

I couldn’t erase the smile from my face as I read her story in photographs. This second reading of her life confirmed my fears are unfounded. I was present, and I remember each of those moments with clarity.

I remember now too, how those photos only tell part of the story. They don’t tell of the private moments when I sang her to sleep or read her books at bedtime. They show nothing of the prayers whispered, the hopes met or deferred, the dreams dreamed, the tears cried, or the sleepless nights that make a surprise return when teenagers begin dating and driving.

The photos tell a story, but the heartbeat behind all that living? It’s pure poetry.

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How to Navigate a Season of Endings

As summer approaches, bringing with it big changes in the life of our family, I find myself feeling out of sorts. I am graduating from my MFA program, and I don’t know what’s next in my writing life. I will no longer spend long days reading books with a critical eye and writing papers based on them. No one will be waiting at the other end of an email for my next essay. I will have a new degree in creative writing, and no tangible way of putting it to use on paper.

Just as I graduate, so will my seventeen year old daughter. Her entire life spreads out in front of her like a blank canvas. Everything is before her, and this stands in stark contrast to my own experience. I often wonder what lies ahead for me when my own canvas is already full of color, spread in thick strokes towards the outer edges. So much lies behind me. So much of my canvas is already painted.

No one told me that releasing a daughter into the world makes a mother dig deep into her own story of becoming. It is both a rejoicing and a mourning–for who I could have been, for the surprise of who I am today, and for what my girl will be. I don’t think I have the words yet for what it feels like to let her go or how hard it is to set my younger self free in the process.

I’ve reached a season of endings, and I can only see the faint outline of new beginnings ahead. Perhaps you are out of sorts or in a season of endings too. I don’t have five steps to fix it, but I do have a few guiding principles I hope will keep us moving forward into the unknown with more freedom and less fear.

Treat yourself and your open-ended questions with kindness.

In his poem Unquiet Vigil, Brother Paul Quenon writes “Be Kind. Myself, to myself, be kind.” When I read those words, I was most struck by the punctuation. Be Kind. Period. No caveats, no qualifications. Be kind to myself no matter how complicated, effervescent, difficult, or joyful the feelings. Be kind to the past me, the present me, and the me who exists in the future. This feels impossibly hard some days, but with practice, it grows easier.

Learn to love the questions.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”~ Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

I want to place these words like beads on a length of string and finger them like beads of prayer. During a season of change, the questions I ask are more important than the answers I think I need. The answers rarely announce themselves, but rather they arrive in the quiet of living into the questions.

Hope and wait quietly.

“It is good that one should hope and wait quietly..” ~Lamentations 3:26. I often wait with fear as my loud companion. Fear drives away quiet, whereas hope invites it in. Living into the questions with a spirit of kindness allows for hope to have its way. I can ask myself questions about the future without giving in to the cacophony they can create in my soul. I do this by entering into a season of unknowns with a posture of open handedness rather than entering with closed fists. I can’t receive my past or my future when I grasp for answers or fight the questions every step of the way.

In this season of endings, I want to enter open, free, unencumbered by a need to orchestrate my own feelings into something like a mathematically correct, classical symphony. This is jazz, baby. There are no neat resolutions, but I’m improvising my way through the notes, receiving them as they come, with hope and kindness and love for unexpected melodies.

How to Face a Fork in the Road

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

~Robert Frost

We fanned the college materials across the kitchen table. Competing school colors and fresh young faces stared up at us, offering an invitation to a future full of unknowns. My husband sat behind his laptop lost in a world of spreadsheets and cost projections and numbers with too many zeros behind them. I sat lost in a reverie of little girl laughter and long-ago conversations about growing up. He lives for the spreadsheets, while I live for the story behind every promise bound up in those college letters. Our daughter, seventeen and on the cusp of forever, sat across from us. On the table, the road split and forked in every direction.

We’ve approached this decision from a great distance, enjoying the long road leading up to it. Our firstborn lines the path of her life with delight, like a path covered in yellow daisies. We knew the road would split and splinter away from us eventually, but most days it seemed more like a rumor than a reality.

Just as it should, our daughter’s daisy strewn path widened quietly, while alternate avenues tunneled away from our feet overnight. The paths appeared in all manner of directions: the foreign or the well-traveled, the mysterious or dream-like, the ordinary or the distinct. They appeared with every kind of descriptor, but none of them appeared with a sign pointing “This Way.”

So, we found ourselves around the table with our spreadsheets and our Rory Gilmore pro/con lists. We laid out our research and our preconceived notions, our arguments for and against, and our core beliefs. But, it’s our dreams and our tender hearts that want to lead the way forward into this future. Discernment is difficult when the heart longs to lead one way, and the head leads another.

I find myself facing these kind of alternate path decisions often, and I second guess myself, wondering what “other” life might wait for me on the reverse side of my decisions. I’ve learned to keep a few guiding principles in mind when my emotions run away with the should have/could have beens. As we take tentative steps towards our daughter’s future, we’ve kept these same thoughts present with us as we approach this fork in the road.

Few decisions are perfect.

Perfect paths don’t exist. If they did, we would look for the magic that would lead us to them without fail. Every decision will have drawbacks and rewards. We can pro/con our way to some of them, but in the end, only God knows the end result. Someday, we will too, but until then, faith will help us take the leap into imperfection.

Few decisions are permanent.

My husband reminds me of this all the time. With the exception of having babies, very few decisions can’t be undone. It may be painful and costly, but it may be the undoing that is our re-making. There may be more lessons learned on the return trip home, than lessons learned on the initial journey.

Few decisions predict the ending.

We can’t know the end from the beginning, and this is a gift. Few of us would choose the road less traveled if we knew exactly what pain, heartache, and rough roads lie ahead on it. We must make our decisions knowing there will be challenges, but there will also be wild beauty.

My daughter will choose a path soon. It may be strewn with daisies or weeds, but my hope is that it’s lined with roses. Thorns, while painful, help us grow, and by them we recognize all that is fragrant and soft and sweet in the blooming.

Hiding in Plain Sight

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A ring of keys swung from her hip, and I could hear her clinking down the hall long before she came into view. Her name was Ida, and she was the geriatric security guard employed by my high school to police the front doors. We held opposing goals; mine was to avoid her and all other adults while slipping in through the triple set of front doors of the red brick school building.

Her goal was to catch me…

To read the rest of the post, join me at More to Be.

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Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for Shannan Martin’s fantastic new book Falling Free: Rescued from the life I always wanted.  Leave a comment on the blog or on my Facebook page for a chance to win. I’ll choose the lucky winner on Wednesday, October 5th.

On Transformation and Weakness Made Strong

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“Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing.” ~Marilyn Robinson in Gilead

We’ve easily spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on her smile. First it was the headgear, then pulled teeth, then braces, and retainers, and unbelievably, braces again. I need a part-time job to afford this child’s teeth. Her brother, fourteen and already free from the shackles of brackets and wires, teases her. She hates it, and smirks when she discovers a fifth grader she coaches will have their braces removed before her second set comes off.

She is a seventeen and over it.

She doesn’t smile the way she used to–open-lipped, wonderful, wide. She is closed-mouthed, covering the scaffolding of her teeth with pursed lips. She is not a child who should keep her mouth shut. She is all things bright and beautiful, and her new Mona Lisa smile is too subtle, too unlike her in every way. She is laughter. Now, she is laughter compressed, caught behind a cage.

I can’t relate to the frustration of finally achieving straight rows, and then beginning the process all over again because your teeth simply won’t behave. I never wore braces, but I have perfected my own Mona Lisa smile. It’s the smile that covers up the change taking place behind it. The smile that hides the weakness beneath the surface, and the complicated system I’ve rigged up to manage this perceived weakness.

I am weakness made strong in Christ.

I know this, but often, I don’t live this way. I forget that the agent of change in my life is not the systems I’ve created or the people I love or my inner drive for perfection. It is the power of God come alive in me through Christ. It is sufficient grace.

Transformation begins in the quiet chambers, in the deep darkness, but it doesn’t remain silent. It can’t be covered up by a pursed lip or a cupped hand or status symbols or false humility or aspirational quotes or trick mirrors. Transformation is ugly before it is beautiful. Our metamorphosis through faith can’t be contained. It is weakness made strong, crooked made straight, darkness made light. It is a miracle preparing.

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Coming soon: A giveaway of Shannan Martin‘s new book Falling Free. I received an advanced copy, and I wrestled with it for weeks. Shannan and her family left behind their comfortable jobs and their idyllic life on beautiful patch of farmland, to live among the urban poor and work in prison ministry. This book will shake you up, and quite honestly, I needed the shaking. Maybe you do too?