every square inch

I army crawled out of the bedroom last night, but the floorboards right by the door gave me away, even as I was singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” in slow fade perfection. The hymn is her usual sleep inducer, but I guess a nasty cold will make a baby uber aware of being alone. This baby at least, this Zella Ruth. In the middle of every stealthy retreat, she would reach out sweaty, pudgy hands and lift her chin with eyes still closed – expecting to find me on the other side of her still soft touch.

For the first time in almost seven months of mamahood, I kept a log of rectal temperatures and naps as I swam inside my little one’s red eyes and employed my own clothes for snot rags (not the first time for that).

This morning I was glad for the sanctuary of Lincoln Road under the sunshine and blue skies of an unseasonably warm January day. I irreverently mixed “Peace Like a River” and “It is Well with My Soul” on the short walk to the pie shop, thankful for a coat and a baby to cover up my snotted garb.

This Sabbath is slow and staccato, long snuggles interrupted by gravel coughs and wet sneezes. Her wispy hair has started to peek out over her ears and we still aren’t convinced of its color.  Sand or cypress wood grain or amber, maybe. I’ve had time to inspect the curious patches of length on the top and back of her head, neither looks like fashion.

This Sabbath is not how imagined motherhood, not that I was ever romantic about it. Zella sits in a diaper next to me, in my pajamas. She is momentarily entertained by the feel of her fingernails on her pale pink snowsuit. I am seizing these moments to listen to Epiphany music and write a few rambled thoughts. This makes two weeks of home church.

It was supposed to be a big storm last weekend, but we’ve heard that before. We woke up slowly Saturday, eventually making fluffy buttermilk waffles and sitting in the late morning window light to watch the flurries gather on the ground. The neighbors joined our lazy fun around 11 am for snowfall projections and cheese boards and card games. Curiosity led us outside, where the blizzard was real. I made it a couple blocks and 10 pictures before I decided it was best for me to pick up the essentials (hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and dark chocolate covered cranberries) and hold down the fort.

I felt like a real mom – you know, the kind that stays inside so there is something warm to eat when the cold adventurers are soaked to the bone. With Zella Ruth still strapped to my front, I started the soup in between capitalized texts to all my adventuring friends: MTA IS SHUTTING DOWN AT 4! MAKE SURE YOU CAN GET HOME.

Then my husband called,

“Hey, is it ok if everyone comes over?”
“Yeah, that’s fine, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get home…”
“I know, how do you feel about having all of them spend the night?”
“Oh…. Ohhhhhh! Oh. Yes, uh, ok yeah. Yep, let’s do it. Ok, yeah!”

And that’s how nine pairs of boots found their way to our door, wet layers got draped over radiators and shower curtains, and a vegetable chicken soup doubled in depth.

I can’t be certain, but I think it was a full house.

The crowd huddled around stovetop hot chocolate and chips and salsa and hummus before the soup was ladled out to a stack of bowls. And somewhere into the evening in between board games, those who could find dry socks fetched groceries for a second dinner from our corner market.

All the ingredients for our church’s monthly Burrito Bar were sliced and diced in the fridge when we found out church was canceled the next day… so the breakfast menu was easily set and additional invites were sent out to friends and neighbors.

And that is how we spent Storm Jonas – covering every square inch of our apartment with humans and board games and chicken soup and whiskey and hot chocolate and laughter and burritos and coffee and a doorstep full of snow boots.

Every square inch.

The living room full of sleeping bags and the clogged bathroom sink and the tiny-turned-industrial kitchen and my heart and the slow flushing toilet and the deep, snow covered streets and the baby girl on my hip – all of these square inches.

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” ― Abraham Kuyper

Now this baby girl lays on my lap, sleep-nursing after afternoon company and before a small crowd returns for dinner. Her cheeks have less flush and her sneeze has less slush, thank God. I think we’ll have leftover spaghetti squash… no, probably not enough. Maybe the chicken thawing will stretch if it’s over a salad? Ooh, or maybe a mushroom red sauce? Probably the easiest would be some sort of stir fry… I’m not sure.

I never had the imagination to picture this scene – this baby stretched across my knees while I hover over her to write this blog post and simultaneously brainstorm impromptu dinner plans. There are lot of things I do as a mama that surprise me. My mama self is not near as organized or gentle or patient or forgiving as I think I had hoped. I can remember seeing moms and saying, “I totally want to do that with our kids…”

In my private thoughts, I hoped I would shed all the worst of me like old skin when I had a baby and put on all the best of me like mom pants. In my public thoughts, I knew that was never a possibility.

I never thought I would be the mama nursing her daughter while sitting on the toilet… or the mama who wears pajamas all day and then also the next day… or the mama whose life is entirely rearranged by a little tiny human and her red eyes… or the mama who just spliced three blog posts together in order to post something on her blog.

I thought it would be hard, and it is. I thought it would be good, and it is. I thought it would be adventure, and it most definitely is.

Patrick brought home the bulletin from church today and the closing hymn was “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It makes me feel like we’re doing church every time we lay Zella down to sleep and that makes our home feel sacred. It is really what we are after – a closer walk with the One who owns all the inches in all the sabbaths and storms and sleepovers.

Ok, babe is awake and folk songs can only distract for so long.

 

a holy hush did not hover

IMG_8272The advent wreath is uneven – dried eucalyptus folded and woven around a green foam ring with four purple candles sticking up like smooth royal towers in a bramble patch. My grandpa made the wooden base that holds the large, white pineapple candle in the center. And the bulky tradition sits unceremoniously on our table, on top of a feast-speckled fabric runner and underneath long eucalyptus branches leftover from a chandelier I couldn’t throw away.

The irreverent transformation of our antique gateleg table did not have all the feels of spiritual renewal. No mystery hid in the clinking of cider and whiskey glasses. A holy hush did not hover above our bowls of butternut squash soup.

We ladled out seconds and then reclined to read the liturgy for the first week of Advent. Tam struck the match that lit the first candle – the candle of Hope – and Grace read from Matthew 13,

35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows,[c] or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

I heard my soul saying the emotions are spent. We are dead broke on emotions so I don’t try to wrestle more out. I just say, “Ok, soul.” And then I heard the words from this passage and thought, but at least let’s stay awake.

The neighbors must have opinions. Our windows were open, on the first day of the first week of Advent, to let the last cool breezes of autumn hug our shoulders. While the good folks next door were high-fiving touchdowns and shaking fists at referees, we were singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” … all the verses. And then we sang the first verse again to layer some harmonies under the skillful conductorship of our friend Jeremy. The prayer of confession sounded the most Monty Python – all nine of us confessing out loud, with the same words, how we have strayed and how badly we need to be rescued, forgiven, and restored.

It’s the 14:39 mark in Bach’s Cantata 140. After the soul pleads salvation’s quicker coming for six minutes, Zion hears the watchmen calling… and I say to my soul, let’s stay awake for this.

Wake up and don’t sleep through this. Be awake to plead and to grieve and to joy and to see and to fail and to receive and to hear. Be awake to anticipate the song of a Savior.

Be awake for Advent, I say to my soul – all the irreverence of it… the leftover decorations and the mess of it. Be awake and at all costs stay awake. Invite enough shoulders around your table that elbows touch your side. And when you get sleepy, soul, light a candle. When your eyes droop, soul, read Scripture. When you have no ceremony, soul, raise a toast. Stay awake, soul, because there is a song after the song you are singing and you will want to hear.

God, please help me stay awake.

when you need an ebenezer

I stood there in the dark with the weight of her – soft knees tucked almost to soft armpits, her fresh bathed head pressed against my shoulder. She fit perfectly in my arms, not yet sleeping but not struggling against it. So, I held the weight of her and looked long into her slow blinking eyes, especially round and knowing in the window light.

We filled our bellies with breath, my weight holding her weight and moving from side to side. Slow and holy. Her soft fingers played on my wrist and I wondered why I would ever rush these moments.

What do I tell this little life that fits so snuggly in my arms? What do I say about wars and rumors of wars? How do I nursery rhyme this world for her?

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

The lines came out because I needed a lullaby. I guess I needed something to say to those round eyes looking up at me in the dark. The verses tumbled together with the chorus and a little monument grew in the corner of our bedroom. Count them, name them, remember Him, praise Him. When I trailed off, I felt my little bundle fill her lungs with one big, shaky breath and then let out the sweetest sigh I have ever heard. It filled the quiet completely.

It’s nights like this I need an Ebenezer.

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’ ” (1 Samuel 7:12).

Yes, ok. Remember and sing and believe and sway and sigh and say our redemption.

she is not ours

I know I have not nested enough or planned enough or read enough or enoughed enough – with this whole parenting thing, I mean. I know this because it seems like all pregnant ladies have lists – to do, to buy, to think, to read, to reflect, to pray.

There are also the “don’t worry if you haven’t made a list – this is the one list you’ll need” lists.

I’m not as organized as I used to be (or maybe I am just more honest). I have no lists. [Actually, that’s not true – I am keeping a list of songs that pop into my head unannounced. So far I have: 21 Questions by 50 Cent, Away in a Manger, Video by India Arie, The Storm is Passing Over, We Like to Party, Easter Song by Keith Green, I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross. And those are just the songs that come when I’m near the pen and paper at work where I keep track.] 

do daydream about baby’s hair color and baby’s imagination and what kind of family we will be when baby turns five.
do have doubts about being a mom, though with every day my body confirms that I am created for it.
do imagine what Brooklyn will look like from new eyes as a stay-at-home mom.
do wonder about the privilege of welcoming a baby with special needs – if that is one of the surprises waiting on delivery day.

A few days ago I gave a strange, bullet pointed version of “my story” for our Brooklyn Fellows class. In the process of preparing, I remembered some precious words my mom said once on a terraza in Santa Lucia, Honduras. My parents were visiting from the States for a week and I had taken them to all my favorite spots – the garbage dump school, the feeding center, the orphanage, and the home for boys – before bringing them to my student’s home for a late lunch (except that, in typical ambiguous fashion, Alejandra and I had never communicated or confirmed this plan… so my dad ended up eating a LOT of pastel (cake) and coffee in the absence of meat).

When my dad was on his third slice and my mom had shared all of our galavanting stories, Alejandra’s mom asked, “Don’t you worry about Caroline being here?”

She answered it just like she would her age or her affinity for the country life, “Well, she’s not ours. She is the Lord’s.” So simply, so true.

I nodded with all my silly, missional enthusiasm. I had done a lot of things in that wonderful country – hitchhiked in El Salvador and La Tigra, been stranded overnight hiking a mountain, driven students through El Centro at night, been pulled over by fake cops, taken students with bodyguards on mission trips, rode in the back of pickup trucks, wandered up to houses that looked like mechanic shops, accepted invitations from neighbor-strangers, stayed up all night with students baking pumpkin muffins and making sushi at 2 am, argued with cops who pulled me over and wanted to take my car… the list is too long and too embarrassing to recount. Not all of it was wise or prayerful or good.

My parents prayed a lot. And they never told me to slow down or to move back home.

“She is the Lord’s.”

I don’t know yet the kind of courage it takes to believe that as a parent. I think it’s the way she said it – like I am first God’s family and I am on loan. It was a fact like the price of corn, but it came out like she was announcing I had royal relatives. It rippled across every belief in my heart that God is sovereign and a kind of kinship welled up as if to say, “I am the Lord’s!”

All of the Scripture I read as a child was not mumbo-jumbo. All those verses and sermons and conversations in the kitchen before dinner and talks before morning milking chores – those were about my Father. I belong to Him.

And He is a good keeper, the best.

I have thought about my mom’s words often, especially this past year when we have held so tightly to Will with possessive pronouns: my son, my brother, my husband, my friend, mine.

And even as we push against it, God is saying, “He is mine. He belongs to me. I am his keeper. And I do not fail.”

That’s hard to hear.

It was a strange time to get pregnant – in the first few months of marriage and in the first few months of grief. But God never stopped being faithful, never stopped keeping promises, never stopped claiming us as His. So, now I pray that when people ask, “Aren’t you afraid your baby will…” we will respond, “Oh, Baby K is not ours. Baby K is the Lord’s.”

It sounds crazy, but I can still hear it spoken over me, like last year’s corn prices and the announcement of royal heritage.


Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for not claiming me as your own – for doing the harder thing in confessing that I am the Lord’s.

|kept|

He wore a blue Nike track jacket, but I didn’t know that until we were above ground at Union Square.

My head started to clear with the smell of city rain and I realized clumsily: I didn’t know this man who had walked me up the steps from the subway, thrown down his backpack on the sidewalk for a seat and was now carefully explaining that he would walk 10 feet to buy water from a food truck. I was nodding. He would be back in less than two minutes. More nodding. I sat there on his backpack and breathed. There was laughter hidden somewhere in my future self – looking back on this very personal NYC moment. He returned with water and I drank the whole bottle. I leaned on his arm and we went back to the subway after deciding that water and fresh air had cured the worst of my spell. Then he found a seat for me on the 6 train and we talked about life in the city, his wife and the family they want to start, and all the neighborhoods they have lived in. I asked if he would be late to work and he said he would be just fine. When I assured him I could make it the three blocks to my office beyond Grand Central Station, he went on to 57th.

And that was how I met Rick, my Tuesday subway angel.

My doctor said it is one of the most common calls she gets – fainting in the subway. The morning rush is shoulder to shoulder, the overheated air is stale, and the underground is dark like a cave. Over the course of this pregnancy, I finally learned what my sister has been telling me since I moved to Brooklyn in 2013: Care, you can do whatever you want – nothing is surprising in NY.

And it’s true. I’ve crouched in a corner of the Q train, thrown up in a subway grate, bypassed the bathroom line at Bryant Park, worn tennis shoes with everything, thrown up in Starbucks cups, stretched out pre-pregnancy work clothes, thrown up in trash cans, used an embarrassing amount of dry shampoo, thrown up in ultrasound appointments, consumed a senior citizen’s portion of fiber, and regularly rubbed my belly like a little buddha. Oh, and one of my coworkers just left an entire box of thin mint cookies on my desk, so I might add “consumed an entire box of thin mints in one sitting” to the list (Update: proudly did not).

I’m not a pretty pregnant lady. But I didn’t have time to create expectations about my pregnant self in the whirlwind of marriage and moving and newlywedding and grief and winter and the general pace of life in the city, so I guess that means I’m not disappointed. It’s probably better that everything is a surprise.

And the surprises come in all kinds of ways.

The other night, I lost track of time while I tracked the rolling and tumbling movements on my belly. I still can’t believe there is a human in there. I watch and I hold my breath for the next fist bump or soccer kick to bulge out beside my belly button… and then my eyes get big and I gasp, “Oh! There you are!” Every time the sensation of a little, moving human surprises me. There is a little human in there.

And I am the home for this little human for another 9 weeks (maybe less if Baby K gets antsy).
I am the home, but I’m not the keeper.

The words “you hem me in” are making new sense from Psalm 139. This baby is hemmed inside the walls of my womb – kept on all sides. And I am learning that God’s keeping of us is the purest preservation and the most perfect protection.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121 ESV)

His is a keeping that never sleeps, never tires, never wearies, never pauses. His is a keeping that is attentive to tiny fingernails and to terrible nightmares. His is a keeping that is secure like a mountain and tender like a magnolia.

This is a Psalm of Ascent – a song the Israelites would sing as they traveled up into the city of Jerusalem, believing God was literally keeping them from the harsh sun, the dark night, and all evil. Just as he keeps the heavens above the earth, he is keeping us too.

He will keep your life.

That line really gets me – that promise to guard and protect my life and the life inside my womb. I close my eyes and imagine He is keeping us in the same way, in the cleft of the rock and in the palm of His hands. I open my eyes and don’t know how analogies translate. All the tidy “hemming in” gets pushed outside the lines in 42nd Street traffic and fluorescent lights and fainting subway episodes.

But, there He is. Keeping me.

imagining again

We have been casting vision lately.

Though we wrote a marriage manifesto in the weeks leading up to our wedding and our marriage vows at a basement bar several nights before we spoke them in front of God and friends, our first eight months of marriage have been heavy on the doing and light on the planning. Not all bad and not all good, but kind of like the icy cold blast from a garden hose on a hot August day in Iowa… or like the last 100 feet of a winter sprint to the front door of a NY apartment in February. There is no time to think or plan or consider, but enough time to feel the giddy tingles of the moment – the energy that catches in your chest when the shock of cold water hits you or the allure of a warm apartment lobby comes into view.

Nobody casts a vision in front of a spraying water hose or while jingling keys outside an apartment on a frozen February day. Well, I don’t anyway.

Meanwhile, I think all that stuff has been rumbling around. You know – the stuff of “what we want our lives to be like in the first year of marriage, for being a good neighbor, for being a good friend, for when we have kids, for community development, for when we do Lent, for Saturday mornings, for groceries and planning dinner parties and pancakes.”

You know, visions.

I overheard a young, coarsely stubbled man express his fears to a friend at the Starbucks on 51st Street. He said, “Dude, you gotta get me in on your next trip. I mean, I’m 24 and it’s like, I see my cousin – she’s married and has kids. And I see my friends who are married and they just disappear. I need to go to Iceland, Argentina – yeah, man you’re like my friend that is still, like, doing active stuff and living life. I mean, like, this is our prime and I want to do everything you know…”

There was more, of course – talk of places to eat and trending neighborhood and updates on where old friends are now – but I only half listened because I was trying to find a few square feet of quiet city space to sit between work and home group.

I kept wondering what that young man is so afraid of and what has made him afraid.

Last Saturday, as Patrick and I were reading “The Good Life” by David Matzko McCarthy for our Brooklyn Fellows class, the dust settled a little on all the doing and chasing and rushing. We would read a few paragraphs and then let the words tumble around between us and our baby in my belly. We are really very different people, Patrick and me – the way we approach challenges and the way we express sorrow and the way we show love. But, we are similar in that we fear a safe and sheltered life – the kind of life that is insulated (as much as we can control) from struggle and invites others in only when it is convenient. We didn’t really have the words for that to make sense until we let those paragraphs tumble around our Brooklyn apartment.

Comfort is not the goal. Loving is the goal.

How can we love the Lord best with our routines? What neighborhood allows us to live in slow community and love our neighbors with our time and resources? What do decisions about schedules, apartments, baby, and dinner invitations look like when we are not trying to protect our image or our comfort?

We don’t necessarily know the answers, but that’s why there is vision casting. That is exactly why imagining together with community feels so sacred – because God is involved in the mystery of saying “yes” to his heart. He is trustworthy when there is no obvious path for our “yes,” when we are not calm and collected and ready for anything. He is trustworthy when we do not have a plan and do not know how to find one. He is trustworthy when we imagine things that don’t make sense.

Dreaming and delighting in God’s vision for renewal has been a hard thing since William died. I don’t believe it less, but I do participate less. And I have so missed the sacred participation of trusting God to hold steady so all the unknowns of imagination can make wonderful happen.

I think I am ready to start imagining again.

dear little one | the accordion man

Dear Little One,

You are the size of a large banana now. Somehow I can’t picture that – you stretched out so long in my belly. Last week you were a mango, so I’m confused by all this fruit measurement. Maybe we will keep measuring you by fruits when we meet you on this side. That would make your Daddy chuckle.

This morning I squinted against a the cold winter sun on the subway, the reflection so bright I could see it with my eyes closed. It’s not the kind of sun that heats your skin and freckles your cheeks. A winter sun is confusing that way. I remember waking up before the winter sun, as a little girl in Iowa, and watching the moon bounce off the quiet snowdrifts. Everything was dark and still; I thought I could get lost in those fields looking for cows huddled in nooks and behind trees to shield the cold. I felt very little under that dark, diamond sky. I still do.

But, this morning it was the winter sun not the winter moon that blinded my closed eyes. I was on the B train going into the city, early enough for work that I could pick up a decaf latte at Le Pain Quotidien (for the mornings I feel fancy). Also, early enough to walk slowly by the accordion man so we could both hear the melodies that fill the stretch of tunnel between 6th and 5th Avenue underground. He is a little man with a kind face and belted trousers. His hair is combed and he has set his stage just so. I try to navigate the strangers so I can walk close enough for him to see me smile as he sways to his classical song.

Can you hear the music?

This morning, as I walked by, his tempo rushed into a dance for just a moment – swelling over the top of my head. I hope the notes made their way to you.

This little accordion man is like the winter sun, but underground. He is there with his open suitcase and floating fingers every morning, serenading the early hours of the waking world in that cold and dull concrete hallway beneath the sidewalk. He has a sweet sadness I wish you could see. Maybe you hear it in his music, but it’s why I try to take the morning tunnel walk with Midwest pace… The pull and push of his keys somehow melt the concrete a little bit and the sad tone is one I welcome. It is honest and beautiful and true.

Can you tell Mama is sad?

I heard somewhere that you can sense my emotions and my attitude. I don’t feel good about that, but I suppose (if that’s true) you are meeting me the most honest way. I love you, little one, but my love is not as deep or as pure or as holy as I want it to be. My love does not lack sadness or pain or doubt. My love for you is complicated and overwhelming and growing faster than I can understand. Forgive me already, little one, for failing at love. You will find soon enough that we all fail at that. But it is a funny thing, Love. Love doesn’t need for me to succeed to reach you. These are lessons for other days, lessons we will learn together.

A good friend told me, in moments of mother-to-be panic, I should think about one of your features. She chose fingers and toes. I seem to keep thinking of the wrinkles around your knees. I can’t tell you why. Girls do not think fondly of wrinkly knees, but I am thinking about those little creases as all one pound of you stretches and somersaults and grows in new fruit measurements every week.

Can you feel our affection for you?

I’ve been writing you letters in my head for weeks but I realized you would never read them. I guess today I just really wanted you to know about this accordion man at 42nd Street – Bryant Park. He is wonderful and sad and beautiful. I would love to know what you think of him.

love,

mama


Read more letters to my little one here.