Tag Archives: childhood

Loyalty and Longing: My March Confession

Every Easter morning I can remember, my father would be singing up from the grave He aroooooossssse! purposefully, mischeviously even, as he poured pancake batter over the griddle and we scrambled to get ready for church. It was a family joke of sorts, sung sometimes on other mornings, tying the resurrection to the daily difficulty of getting out of bed. But I knew he sang the words with a deep reverence too. I knew that being made new was central to his theology.

Easter is almost here again. The bulbs we planted last fall are shooting up out of the ground, the temperature outside is slowly creeping upward, and I’m optimistically packing away the heavier coats and scarves. There is warm rain falling outside, and it smells earthy when I step out of the front door. With these changes come a fresh energy, an ease of work. I’m cleaning, brightening, sorting. This is how things are supposed to be.

It’s been a year of quiet, of going inward, of letting go. The years that led up to this year were louder, angrier, heavier with emotion. But this year–from one Easter Sunday to another– has been mostly, mercifully, quiet. Perhaps, after all this anger and frustration (which is to say, anger) and impatience and sadness and whatever else it has been, comes a longing.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of belief and faith:

Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing, he [James Fowler] says, though often we speak of them as if they were. In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon” or “to give the heart to” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief’ and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system–the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true. The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, is that when faith is reduced to creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughful people are going to decide they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard the word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self, but when they hear “faith” used to signify belief in a set formula of theological truths, the light in their eyes goes out. When I listen to college students talk about faith, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe that only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” No one asks, “What powers do you most rely on? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.

Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 143-144, emphasis mine

I knew as a child that my parents’ actions–my father’s prayers, my mother’s devotion to reading and reciting scripture, and their focus on passing these things down to us– stemmed from a faith that was larger than they could fully express, though they tried. It truly was something they had “set their hearts upon”. I want to honor their reverence, while making a more open space for my own.

Last Easter I sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today with so much gladness in my heart, after eating breakfast with a kind community of people and sharing in the fun of watching children hunt eggs in their pastel frocks and button ups. I had the glorious luxury of singing the words without dwelling on whether I believed them–I simply sang, loud and happy, because the song is beautiful and because it is familiar. I felt a loyalty to it. I still do. It’s of those homesickness things, Easter.

Right after that beautiful Sunday it all just fell apart. I let it. I didn’t return to any sort of church until late November, using Sunday mornings to try to heal myself instead. It wasn’t because of that welcoming and anciently forward-thinking congregation at all, and it wasn’t because of the genuine outpouring of faith my parents gifted me as a child, or the many beautiful people of faith I’ve known over the years. It was because of other elements of American Christianity I’d observed as I paid more attention–the anti-intellectual attitude, the refusal to see other points of view, the rigid insistence that one interpretation of Scripture is the only one possible, the demand to be served, to maintain rights and status and privilege–all behavior that makes no sense for people who claim to follow the ultimate servant. This was not something I wanted to align myself or my children with, and so I started picking it apart. I think I understand now why people can be so resistant to questioning–once you start it’s nearly impossible to stop.

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My religion of birth, Christianity, was given to me as absolute truth. I do not see it this way. I see it as a useful and beautiful story, one of many that the people of this Earth have assembled over long periods of time. The question inevitably, eventually, must follow: if this is merely a story, useful and beautiful yes, but just a story, is it worthwhile? I say, and choose to believe, that any beautiful story is worthwhile. The beauty I find, in Christianity or elsewhere, informs my daily actions and in turn what my children will find important. This is the hope that gives meaning to my life. It is enough.

My parents, in their own way, taught me to pay attention, and that’s the same thing I am doing, just in my own way. I believe in ritual and beauty and metaphor. I am trying to be brave enough to let my children believe in some things in a literal sense so that later they can know it was a foundation for something else. I will always protect. I cannot control. They will draw their own conclusions, when they are ready.

Perhaps it is a gift that can’t quite be understood before its right time comes: to lose one thing in order to find another.

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Christmas, in a moment

Two weeks ago, our little Aimee spiked a fever, became lethargic, and refused to eat. She slept. And slept. And sat up to drink juice, and slept some more. It was worrisome, but I figured she’d pull through it like our kids always do. Three days passed, and she wasn’t getting better. We were watching her chest rise and fall way too fast, muscles pulling in, sucking in air. All she wanted to do was sleep. Ricky bundled her up and took her to Urgent Care on Saturday morning. Her oxygen level was 83%. They called an ambulance.

My family was in town, and we had plans to spend the weekend at a cabin, with snow and a cozy fire and presents and the like. It all fell away. My brother helped me get to the hospital (my keys were in the vehicle Ricky had taken), my mom went into laundry and cooking mode, my other brother played with the boys. Family.

At the Emergency Department, Aimee was receiving breathing treatments, fighting her mask and looking pitiful. She kept rasping juice….drink…..go…..no and we could only hold her, and try to distract her, and keep her from pulling at her lines.

Her tests started to come back. Negative for flu. Positive for RSV. Chest x-ray shows right lower lobe pneumonia. She was still breathing so fast. Her heart was beating 180 times each minute. Faster than a newborn. Grunting. Retracting.

Albuterol, Xopenex, repeat, repeat. No significant response. The doctor came in and said Aimee needed to be transferred to a Pediatric ICU for close observation and high-flow blended oxygen.

I tried to get Ricky his backpack and phone charger before the transport team arrived, but had just pulled into our driveway when he said they were there. He went with them, and I told the boys what was going on and started getting things together.

Aimee was well cared for. We all were. The high-flow oxygen was holding her airway open, providing positive pressure. She stopped grunting, which had been her attempt to stent her own airway. She had been working so, so hard. The first night, I slept in the chair, pulled right up to her crib, lulled to sleep by the knowledge that she was on monitors and they would alarm if anything went wrong. I was so grateful for that. It was like having that first newborn–just needing to know that they’re still breathing until you get used to the idea that they’ll be okay.

Ricky and I switched off, twenty-four hours each. Aimee was a little better each day, and we texted each other updates. O2 down to 6. Back up to 8–she started grunting again. Down to 7. Down to 6 now. Clear liquid diet. O2 at 3. Soft diet. Assessments every 4 hours now. Watching Dora. 

We couldn’t eat in the room, so I talked with other parents in the kitchenette over our food, asking about each others’ babies, offering well-wishes. You feel a bond with other parents whose kids are suffering, and walls break down a bit. You recognize the same tired, brave look in their eyes.

After four days, she was transferred to the regular pediatric floor. No more glass door and constant lights. Oxygen at 2. Regular diet. These markers of progress being checked off, one by one. Little victories.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she was lively enough to video chat. Nicky did his silly slapstick routines and it was the first time in a week we had seen her smile. Oh there you are, little girl. We’ve been missing you.

I packed up the boys and we made the now very familiar drive into downtown Baltimore, and went up to the family lounge outside the unit to bring Ricky his lunch. To our surprise and delight, both boys were allowed to come in for a visit (Silas with a mask, since he’d been coughing) and Aimee lit up.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited, along with other parents in the PICU, to upstairs and “shop” for any kids on my list. A volunteer handed me five tickets and took me to a ballroom filled with toys (and very nice toys at that). I chose some things for the kids and took my gifts to a row of more smiling volunteers who wrapped them for me. I put them in the corner of Aimee’s room, thinking maybe we’d have a chance to open them. At that point, she wasn’t excited about anything, so I knew it might not happen.

There is something magical about more than one child in a room. They speak to each other differently than we can. So when Aimee and Nicky and Silas were together, the mood changed completely and their two tired parents felt a new energy.

Since we had this unexpected time together, we (giddily) told the kids we had a surprise for them and pulled out the presents. It was a much sweeter moment than I’d thought to hope for.

We had our Aimee back.

Even though we were able to go home later that evening, taking our girl with us, that moment was what made it Christmas. There is no better gift than having your people all together in one room.

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third parent

You were Spirit-filled women wearing soft perfume and pantyhose, shoes kicked off and crying freely, arms raised, mascara smeared, interceding for husbands and children. You listened and gave advice, and encouraged me to get up and sing into the microphone. You praised. You nurtured. Full of spirit, indeed.

You taught me the sacred stories, Sunday after Sunday. You told us the story of Noah and the Ark and we sat, our full attention on your facial expressions. You taught us to sing, to harmonize, to act, to tell stories through music and motion. You gave us a space to fall down and get up again.

We gathered for potluck meals after hours-long Sunday services. It was like eating around a fire after a hunt, I imagine– everyone so hungry for food and so full of human companionship, tapping into an ancient need.

You were men in three piece suits with shiny cufflinks, giving sermons about the End Times and insights about Old Testament prophecy, selling books afterward. Once, as I sat in Sunday evening service on the second row, you called me out for not paying attention. With a red face I raised my notebook to show you I was taking careful notes of your words. You apologized and moved on. I wanted your approval.

You gave up your Saturday mornings to do car washes with us, raising money for camps and conventions, buying us pizza and soda, and you may not have known but known we looked forward to it all week: your attention.

We snuck out of Wednesday night service and went down the hill behind the church, for no real reason other than we could. You found us and brought us back inside. You let us throw pies in your face and tolerated our immature sense of humor without ever letting us know it. You cried with those of us who missed parents, who came to church looking to fill holes in our lives. You made us believe we would change the world with our prayer, our witness, our zeal.

You took us to the river, to Mexico, to Africa. We held ourselves down on the Land Rover seats, driving along bumpy red dirt roads, and I heard you say if one of those fags ever tried to touch me…; my face went hot and I don’t remember the other part of that conditional. I learned that you could be small and scared and pitiable.

One of you sang in the choir and took out your rage on your wife at home. More of you practiced compassion in your families. You drove miles to pick me up, let me stop by your house after school, gave me cold water and cookies, told me stories and gave me important clues about this life.

You gave me a car. You looked me in the eye. You teased me for the impossible crush that lasted all through my teenage years. You drove us out for a concert and almost hit a horse on the way home, and we rolled toward the front of the van, waking rudely from our sleep on the floor. 

In college, when I tried to sort out the complications of falling in love, you told me that if I married that boy, God would take away my calling. I followed my heart (thankfully) but spent the first year of my marriage trying to figure out what that even meant–to lose one’s calling. I had once thought you wise on a spiritual level–discerning–and it took so much time to see what it was for what it was.

You told me stories of the day I was born, how I wore a onesie that said The Apple of His Eye and you sang skidamarink a-dink, a-dink, skidamarink a-doo, I love you whenever you saw me, even at my Dad’s funeral all those years later.

I remember thinking you were God when you stood behind the pulpit. All through my childhood, I saw your face when I prayed. 

I’ve been thinking lately about this village; about what it meant. We, the children, were given heavy things to carry. We were given great amounts of love and affirmation. We were given falsehoods with the very best of intentions, and I’m still unpacking them. 

You were my third parent: teaching me how the world works. How much love we’re capable of, how little we really know.

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all the good

There are things that drift away
Like our endless numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made
And she’s chosen to believe
In the hymns her mother sings
Sunday pulls its children from their piles of fallen leaves

-Iron & Wine, Passing Afternoon

I was allowed wild. I spent days in the sunshine, gathering dirt into a big metal bucket, spraying water from the hose, mixing it into a consistency just right for my purposes. A rusty-but-solid metal table served as a perfect oven for the discs of earth I formed. I sat in the grass while they baked in the sun, caught garter snakes, picked at scabs, had big romantic thoughts about being a pioneer. Over and over.

Repetition and big open spaces of time. Sun-soaked skin. Dirt-perfumed hair. My soul was well-tended.

Messing around with dirt is a hopeful act–investing in beauty and nourishment together, trusting in the eventual delight of the senses. It implies not living day-to-day. It implies rootedness. It implies faith and looking forward to the future. When my precious cakes were ready, I’d gleefully break them apart, scrub off the metal table, stack my kitchen supplies and look forward to doing it all again the next day.

I learned something nameless in those hours, but left it outside the doors of church because it wouldn’t fit through. Two messages came to me in those days; two ideas planted way down deep.

One: this life matters in and of itself.
Two: this life only matters in the context of the next.

I hope what is true will root down and remain, and what is false will simply float away, like I used to think I would do someday.

//

Standing to have the ash smeared on my forehead felt like a reunion with what I used to know: it’s no waste of time to live here. I’m growing less afraid to salute the sun after knowing a dense cloud of gray days. My children instinctively flow out the door like a thawed creek, digging for worms and gathering sticks, oblivious to time. I spend time pulling off winter-soaked foliage to reveal richly dark soil underneath. My fingers bleed and my nails are black; they look honest to me.

I was given, in part, a religion of earth. I was given time. Baptized in a deep river, sun-grown during all those solitary days, with a seed planted that fearful, contained systems have kept dormant far too long. I choose to risk it now.

I’ll take the possibility of being wrong in exchange for not needing to make the up-springing of green things my enemy.

I will love it here. I will make a home here, dig down and let the cool soil soothe my burning hands, after so many years of snatching them out of hellfire. 

Oh, to see again what the little girl knew. All the good is God.

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April 3, 2014 · 11:12 am