Faith, Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction, Parenting

How Deep the Mother’s Love for You?

I think that, now, you may love me more. It is possible that the older you get, the more you understand our relationship, and how it’s predicated on the faith you seem, at times, to know far better than I do.

I have watched you at church, where I didn’t regularly take you until you were well over 18 months old. When you raise and wave your hands and your face is awash in beatific reverence, I know that you’re mimicking nothing, that whatever gestures of worship you extend are yours, untaught and unrehearsed. To your guileless toddler mind, I will never leave you or forsake you is less a stray line of dialogue in a holy narrative and more an earnest incantation, a promise, a governing tenet, a truth.

With every day that you open your eyes and find me here, inches away in a bed we share, your confidence grows. I can be your dim earthly reflection of God. Ours can be a fixed and unquestioned bond. Your mother can be immovable.

This confidence has been slow, gradual, earned, but the affection that now attends it is unabashed. I have waited for you to comprehend the fathoms of what I feel for you. Every embrace is an echosounder; every kiss is understood as another nautical mile. But I suspect it will be years yet before you discover the truth of this mystery.

How deep the mother’s love for you? Like the Father’s (and your father’s), it is floorless.

In just over a month, you will be two. But if anyone were to ask me, you’d be 200, a Highlander, a water sprite, a warrior, iridescent and timeless. You have been with me a kind of forever. This is the thing so few really know about children. You presage yourselves, whirling around in the twisters of DNA and dust that compose us. And we know, long before we know, that you might someday be and also that you may never exist as more than the cells that encase the nuclei of promise we could never live long enough to see fulfilled. In this way, when we are aware of ourselves and invested in you, we will always know more of you than you know of yourselves.

Every day, mothering you takes fresh meaning, issues new instruction. Consider, for instance, the meals and how we divide the portions. We eat in genial silence, exchange smiles around our chews. But when our allotments dwindle, you do not entirely trust that I will leave you with more than you need. You stuff all that remains into your tiny mouth, so that you become, for a moment, a puffin. Your eyes grow wide and unsure. You wonder if I will be angry, if I will mistake your self-interest for greed. You needn’t fear; it’s my job to know that you are not selfish, but hungry. It’s my mission to feed that which quickly hollows, a longing that is not meant for food.

At this age, you are insatiable, acquiring time, numbers, language, love and hoarding them for a future you’ve no way to know. I am beginning to understand that more than anything, my role is to reassure you:

I am not here to take but to give. 

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

Things We Whisper, Things We Shout.

There are the nothings, either sweet or scolding, offered in the cool of an afternoon or hissed in the heat of a moment. There are the alleluias, the Celtic Gloria, the antiquated verses of crescendoing hymns. There is the fact that you are beautiful–without modifier, without exception–and that you are also capable. There is the secret to accepting compliments: be gracious and thankful; feel no obligation to volley them back to their givers. Your only imperative is not to be smug. There is the advice my mother gave me: there will always be someone more skilled or more lovely than you. And there is my amendment: that is an inconsequential thing. There are confessions, of risk, of a fluid faith, of profound uncertainty. (I do not often deal in absolutes; I have been, too often, proven wrong.) There is God as we imagine Him, in visions: yours is of a massive hand stroking the crowns of children’s heads and leaving streams of gold dust in its wake; mine is of a listener, a philosopher, whose riddles will woo and thrill and confound me well into eternity. There is the confession that I do not mind not knowing, that though I trade in scholarship, daily darkening the halls of academe, I feel safest when I am unsure, when I am not so arrogant as to claim that I know better than others what should be right for all. And there are the scraps that swirl on the wind, debris upon which the wisdom of ages is scrawled. We catch them, like lightning bugs, like butterflies, pull them apart, read their wings. Sometimes, love is haggard, one tells us. Its garments are sooty and tattered. We nervously pass it on sidewalks, afraid to open our purses as it dares to ask alms. It retreats into alleys under our scathing gaze. We deny it its work and its glory, unable to recognize it as it is, unwilling to touch it long enough to brush the embers from its medals. Love rarely comes in gleaming armor. Love hobbles up, discharged from war.

These are the things we whisper, when you’ve climbed my legs and torso like a tree, used my arms as sturdy limbs, and dangled.

The things we shout are fewer. We need only raise our voices in accordance with the stakes. And too few things in the life I’m fashioning for you prove dire enough to necessitate the noise. Still, we are more than able of turning ourselves into cannons. Our hearts are as volatile as powder kegs; they are riled by hate, ignited by injustice. We do not like to be told who we are; when we are underestimated, we are ferocious. If ever your rights are threatened, know that I will roar for you–and that sound that will escape this bodily cage where I’ve kept it corralled, will be like nothing you have heard or are likely to hear again. Of a truth, the time is nigh, the day is close at hand, when I will lower you from the limbs where you love to perch and tuck you safely into the cavern I’ve prepared. You will dip your fingers into the well of a mortar and streak my face with the indigo you find. We will kiss and, before we part, we will howl like Dahomey, like wolves up toward the open ears of moons.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

Reconsidering Mary, Mother of Jesus.

My mind can finally fathom Mary. Not her bypassed virginity nor the angel that quelled her fear, not her courage, her confidence in God’s peerless, perfect will nor the charm it must’ve taken to cajole her husband into journeys and mystery and a cessation of questioning.

It is in but one way that I can access her—finally, after all these years of believing her to be beyond my grasp—and this way seems the most significant of all.

I know her by her surrogacy, by the way it feels to give birth to a child to whom she believes she can never stake full claim. I recognize the oddness of feeling a strangulating sense of impermanence, even as I bathe her, feed her, infuse her language with manners, even as she becomes a warm somersault in her sleep, her tiny hard-heeled feet using my body as her gymnast’s mat. Even then, in her sleep, when she feels closest, if only by proximity, I never settle into an impression that she is entirely mine.

Instead, there’s a strangeness, an isolation, in loving a small, breathing parcel who feels so unfamiliar, so separate, so intended for a purpose that sits apart my own, so certainly on loan, and so expected to grow impatient with my heart as her holding pattern, as a velvet-lined cage with a door that will surely stick.

I cannot imagine raising Jesus. This is where Mary seems preternatural. This is our point of departure, for I know that even with a husband who loved me enough to completely overlook that his firstborn is a changeling whose presence is owing to a God he’s never actually seen, and even with the other, more normal children I could pin to the ho-hum, incontestable work of biology, I would not have known how to behave like a mother to him. I wouldn’t have known how to chastise him, wouldn’t have believed I needed to, him understanding God and thus understanding His expectations far more fluently than I. I wouldn’t have known how to love him with reckless abandon.

This is difficult enough with my daughter, who came to me in the most undramatic of ways. No tangible angel preceded her. No voice from heaven boomed. She is not the Son (or Daughter, as it were) of Man and so I can’t possibly feel the pressure Mary must’ve felt to get raising her “right.”

But I feel pressure just the same, not to smother her or to grow too dependent on her company or to make myself her barnacle. She is happy and well-loved; of this I make certain. And she cannot know how motherhood feels, not like an all-encompassing state, not like an eclipse of the light that shone before it, but at times, like only a sliver, like a condition that constantly moves so that it is difficult to pin down, to apprehend, to treat.

And so, I suspect that I do what Mary must’ve done. As often as I can, I abandon the morrow and ignore, for now, the woman I see in the eyes of the girl. I listen to her, noting the cadence and questions that lift at the ends of her prattle. I listen, so that I might know her and, in knowing her, earn her lifelong confidence. When she is ready to flit off into a life I cannot imagine, I believe I will understand why. This is far more important than feeling like she is a wind that I can possess.

I invest, for even my shortcomings have something to teach her. I warn her of the world that awaits beyond my arms and our door. And more than a daughter, I interpret her as an ally–for this is a relation that can remain unwavering. This is a kinship we are never meant to outgrow.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Leap.

By manipulating the shape of the body in freefall, a skydiver can generate turns, forward motion, backwards motion, and even lift.

A wounded deer leaps highest. — Emily Dickinson

On its surface, this day is no different than others. It adheres to the same 24 hours as all the rest. The sun rises and sets at hours consistent with those in the days surrounding it. It does not break from established weather patterns, does not undo the laws of gravity, does not defy velocity. It is but a day.

But I tell you of a truth: we are made for risk. We are made for the meticulous building of traditions and for the very sudden breaking from them. Listen, feel the hard gallop of blood through the veins to the heart through the veins. This is how were meant to move through this, the only life we’re given: quick, but with deliberation, forceful and regenerative.

We were meant for leaps, for freefalls–and just in case our fears make us forget, just in case the trappings of acquired finery cause a kind of amnesia, God occasionally grants us this: an extra revolution of earth ’round sun, a 366th opportunity to do what should be done daily.

Leap.

You will not perish. You will kiss lovers you would not have known, if not for the casting off of cynicism. You will break ground that, undoubtedly, would’ve been colonized later, by someone else who understood what it meant to manipulate a fall, a failure, in ways that become strengths. You will triumph where others see only defeat. You will tilt your head, close an eye, squint, make viewfinders of your fingers and gaze at the figure before you in the glass, gaze until she becomes someone to be revered, someone different than she was in years, in days, in moments before and who will be different still in the days to come. You will finish a thought, a deep, a pursuit once discarded–reconcile with a decision long past.

You will take your children–biological, imagined, mentored–and pull them close with the sound of your lowered voice. Say, you may feel fixed as stone, but you have the freedom of vapor. Say, I have heard that, in the air, we become zephyrs. But this can only be confirmed though the leap. Say, I love you. This should matter. This should be a propulsion. When you feel yourself sinking, spread your arms, let your heart unfurl like a bolt of raw silk, and trust that love’s current will carry you.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Gradient Grace.

The gift is stunning, arrayed in scarlet satin, adorned in gilded bows. Here, says the giver, presenting it with relish. I have chosen this especially for you. I am giving it according to your need. There is no other occasion, no other motive.

You believe him; your need hastens that decision—for as you open the decadent package, you see it is a platter piled with money. There is no promissory; this is not a loan.

You fall at the giver’s feet. I am overcome. You kiss his ring, tell him he is a pillar, a paragon. I do not know what I would do without kinsmen like you.

But it is only this last part that perks the ear of the giver. There are others? I am not your only source? I am not your sole rescuer, your singular kinsman, your only salvation?

You are not my salvation at all, is what you think, but before you utter words, you rise and stand at full height. No. Of course you are not, you state with certainty, for the people who love and care for you cannot be numbered, even if they do not have the means to help you stave off your personal hellhounds.

The giver is deeply displeased. He reaches into his satchel and brings out a cluster of cords. Here are my strings; they are many. Accept them along with the gift or you will depart with nothing.

You remember your pining for more than the crusts of bread, for a well-soled shoe, for the luxuries of a parlor’s grooming. You wince at the echoes of creditors, cringe at the memory of the computerized self-checkout voice barking a grocery total that staggers you. You calculate the balance of days that your daughter will spend wearing diapers.

I will fasten myself to your strings, but only for a time.

The giver grins. Then this is to be an indentured servitude. I will alert you when the racks of my conditions have been cleared.

Years later, you still rub your wrists. You are better off; no one is after you. You can walk with your head held aloft, owing nothing. For all intents, for every purpose, you are free; you’ve the papers to prove it. But the cosmic damage has been done.

Now, when anyone offers to help you, you are wary. You recoil from beautiful packages; you tremble at the hand that proffers an unearned check.

Every generous gesture is greeted with a bemused half-smile and a polite, but resolved, “No thank you.”

It is better to give than to receive. It is easier, too.

They mistake it for pride, the new givers. Just learn to take a compliment, a gift. No reciprocity is expected, they insist, their patience wearing thin.

But they do not know the grace it requires to accept without distrust. They do not know how desperately you have to parse your gratitude. It must be pulled from the uncompromised parts of yourself; you must find it in the unbroken places, where the last giver could never seem to shatter you by calling you a “user” or an “ingrate.”

It amazes you that you are even still capable of such grace, and anyone who knew the serfdom you’d escaped would grant you the gradation you will need to achieve it. You will learn to open your hand, without expecting the sting of a lash. You will recall the small flourish of curtsies. But you will not apologize for the years it may take to do so. And you will never again be so clouded by need that you will extend your gratitude and graces to wolfish givers.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Counterfeit Forgiveness.

Beloved, you will find that in this life, you will often be called upon to provide others with absolution. They will come to you, either truly contrite or else out of obligation or duress. They will either offer a specific apology, quite clearly aware of the hurt or the slight they’ve inflicted, or else they will say they are sorry you misunderstood their intent, implying they do not intend to assume responsibility for whatever they did that upset you. This latter is called non-apology, and non-apology is a semantic labyrinth; if you are not careful, you will find yourself at a loss as to who should be doing the absolving.

This will only exacerbate the offense.

The act of pardoning should always give you pause. To exempt someone from the fallout of their actions is a weighty, unwieldy thing. It can be like offering to clean up after the volcano whose lava has obliterated the homes of your family. It can be like deciding to keep as a pet the pit bull that bit your baby. Neither the volcano nor the dog knows the destruction it has left in its wake. Neither the volcano nor the dog can comprehend the acts of apology or absolution. To forgive, then, means nothing to the offender.

This does not mean forgiveness will always be difficult. After all, the person in a position to forgive holds the cards, holds the keys, holds the power. She has everything to gain and nothing to lose. And so, initially, you will feel quite like a royal raising her scepter: All is forgiven; your debt has been cleared. Go forth and offend no more! And you will feel quite emptied and cleansed by the act of it.

See, it is rarely that first offense that is challenging to forgive. It is rarely the second that singes us when memory reignites it. It’s that seventh insult; that fifteenth incident of neglect; the third lie or the ninth or the twenty-seventh. It is the arrogance that allows your offender to believe himself exempt from apology. Or the strangely righteous indignation that seeks to insist that you are, in fact, the offender and any anger you feel is your fault.

These are the conditions under which bitterness best takes root. These are the conditions under which forgiveness seems nearly impossible to impart.

At this point, you are likely wondering why anyone would continue to offer her company to the type of person who would offend her thirteen or thirty times. She wouldn’t, unless her ties to him were essential. She wouldn’t unless, for every offense she could number, there were five rescues, three gifts, ten acts of love.

In my life, this has been the case, exclusively, with family. Their slights hurt more than anyone else’s, their investment in and hope for my success far greater than anyone else’s. They can give so generously with one hand and then take so cavalierly with the other.

The past year, in particular, held more than its share of offense. And I have struggled more than usual to excuse it. To ensure that this new year holds none of the hurts of the last, I have been reading about forgiveness—or more specifically about counterfeit forgiveness. Apparently, counterfeit forgiveness is defined by five distinct characteristics: stoic numbness; minimization; psychoanalyzing the offender; holding one’s breath emotionally; or being an overachiever.

I am guilty of four of these things.

I spent much of your first year, either numb, minimizing, excusing someone’s psychological damage, or sucking up all that I should’ve been letting out. I said I was okay when I wasn’t. I said things were no big deal, when they meant everything. I complied with my offenders’ need to “just drop it and move on.”

Your second year has already been different. I have learned to lay the axe at the root of offense. I have stated, in no uncertain terms, that I am displeased. I have refused to be baited into unnecessary conflict.

One can never truly argue who argues alone. Daughter, we have so much ground to gain and to recover. I have no energy to expend on assuaging the bruised egos of others. I cannot afford to entertain every hurled accusation, every thinly veiled aggression, every insidious rumor. If I did, I would become like a cursed fig tree, small and shriveled, unable to grow.

These declarative statements have been a step, but they are not yet true forgiveness. That will take a bit longer this time. But I will acknowledge the lava, will hold its magma ‘twixt my fingers. I will cry out to God and ask why. I will cry out again when I have allowed myself the time to grieve, accept, and understand.

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