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

watch over us

In the past couple days, I have:

  • eaten a bag of popcorn for lunch
  • stood out on my fire escape in a snowstorm (a very underwhelming one)
  • used the mom voice to co-workers who are twice my age and raised my mom’s teacher eyebrows at them
  • gone to sleep early
  • had weird dream/nightmares about a giant pizza
  • eaten a personal, Brooklyn organic pizza for dinner (with a side of mint chip ice cream)
  • squatted in the middle of a crowded train after shedding a few winter layers – whatever it takes to prevent the unthinkable, folks
  • sang in every room of the apartment
  • talked for 1.5 hours with my uber wise grandparents
  • wrote and performed a rap over skype to my mom’s 6th grade class (who are in the middle of a hip-hop unit)
  • spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to coax Baby K into acrobatics with folk music
  • read a bedtime story to my favorite Michigan family, who were all snuggled into my nephew’s bed
  • sent a million urgent emails that my office won’t read, about what they are supposed to have done by Friday at 3 pm when the plug is pulled on our current office and we move into our new space

And that’s just the past couple days and that’s not even all of it. I just want to let you in, friend. I wanted you to know it’s not all saltines and sadness over here in the big city. Even though it’s been awhile since I’ve successfully buttoned my pants (let’s be honest, I haven’t done that for a LONG while), we’ve been able to fit a good amount of laughter into these winter days.

I can actually remember when the first laughter happened, after the very dark night of early pregnancy and the flu. I felt okay when I woke up that Saturday and we woke up slowly, smiling. We ate a bit and I still felt okay. (And all the while inside I was saying, “So far, winning!”). I remember, several times, hearing myself giggle and being surprised. What an unfamiliar sound – that laughter – and oh where has it been?

We ran a few errands and I still felt okay, so we got really ambitious. We went to Long Island City with our heads down against an unforgiving wind to get to my coworker’s birthday party. After mingling with the Irish, English, Polish and Spanish accents, we hit up a little cafe in the West Village where our friends were playing. By this time, it was getting respectably late and we were both impressed. On the way to the subway with our silly friends, we stopped to buy what I was craving (Cooler Ranch Doritos) and then took up the whole sidewalk like the younger version of ourselves – up to clean mischief.

I remember thinking how strange it was to be so surprised by my joy – surprised by the sound of laughter and surprised by the feel of a smile stretched across my face. It felt good and illusive all at once, like the longing the C.S. Lewis always talks about.

I listened to a sermon by Tim Keller recently, at the suggestion of my therapist. It was called, “Praying our Tears” and I should probably listen to it again. “Expect tears, invest tears, and pray your tears,” he said, after reading Psalm 39:12-13 and Psalm 126:1-6.

If we’re talking Psalms, there are more lamentations than any other kind. That makes sense to me – the weight of sorrow needs a place to land. The world is brimming full of it, with the words of even one story. And I have a hard time believing there will be a harvest from my sorrow (Psalm 126:5), if I plant my tears. I am okay to let my sorrow be an end in itself – that thing I crawl up inside when nothing makes sense. And I have been struggling to let sorrow and joy live together.

But God says I have to plant my sorrow. As Keller says, “to see my tears as an opportunity for fruit and growth.” That’s a far cry from where I am now, but I can hear it and that feels like progress. Joy will be the harvest when I plant my tears in compassion for others, in prayer, in love, in patience. Tears actually produce joy, he says. Again, I’m a critic. I believe tears can produce joy (2 Corinthians 4:17), but I am a critic in my weak flesh.

“There’s a kind of joy that comes through avoiding tears – that doesn’t really change you. Then there’s a kind of joy that comes through the tears that does.” – Keller

I’m learning.

His last point answers the question, How do we plant our tears? Prayer. Pray everything – all the biggest and worst and most confusing emotions. Pray them with shaking fists and pray them in the hot shower and pray them in confession kneeling in church on Sunday. Pray. Pray for opportunities and direction and fields and the right soil. Pray for strength to throw out the sloppy, wet messes and pray for belief in what is planted. Pray.

Praying has been hard for me. I’m a steadfast, headstrong believer … but praying is hard sometimes.

This song has been helping. It feels to me like a prayer – one without answers or a lot of boldness, but a prayer that is honest and believing. A prayer that lets me laugh and cry in the same day without having to sort it out.


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

words after four saltines

I have been doing nothing for almost five days. Really, nothing. The flu kind of decided that for me, but I still have four saltines and a glass of water in my belly and it’s been a few hours – so I’m calling that a victory.

Somewhere, in the haze of many steamy hot showers (one of few things I can do), I heard the words, “Isn’t this what you wanted? To escape.” I could have been mad, but the truth was too true. I wanted nothingness – long days of nothing – and here I squirmed and slept and sniffled and well, everything else for five days. And, of course, I don’t want nothingness.

All the same things are still essential, for living. All the same things are still true, about life and beauty and God. Because when you drop a rock or a giant boulder into a lake or an ocean, the mountains don’t move.

Maybe they do, I would make a bad geologist. But when I think about all the ways the surface of our lives has been disturbed and rippled and waved, it feels like there is nothing unaffected. It’s like we are in a science fiction movie and everything has gone wavy – no piece of matter is firm enough to really matter because everything ripples to the touch.

It’s been about five months since Will died in a car accident and I’m not the same person Patrick married six months ago. He gets the groceries and cooks the dinners and makes me laugh when I don’t want to leave the apartment… again. I am rippled and wavy and hormonal and pregnant and very, very sad. I sleep often and cry in his arms and sometimes pray with him because I know he is such a good man for making me do so. But, the other day, he said something that hurt very bad because it was very true. We were talking about regular things and future things and life things. He said something like…

“Care, I realized that your heart is not up to me. Maybe the Lord is working on your heart and I can just support you, but I can’t fix anything.”

He said something like that. And a couple days later with a few saltines in my belly, I know it’s true. Because when that boulder fell into our depths and rippled up our lives forever, the mountains didn’t move. It felt like they did and sometimes I have to double take to see if the skyscrapers are shifting, but the mountains didn’t move.

Anything that was essential six months ago, for living, is still essential now.

I talked to my dad on the phone today. He was headed home from work and was just calling to check in. I said “Hello!” and he (like always) sighed into, “Oh, hi – how we doin’ today?” I love that. Because we are thousands of miles apart, but his empathy reaches me just fine. He’s “doin'” how I’m “doin'” and vice versa.

Anyway, he’s been thinking about living too. We all have, I’m sure.

He was reminding me about ornery Will. You may not have met him, but it was about six years in elementary and middle school. He was getting into things and sometimes it wasn’t cute, it was bad. One of our punishments on the farm was to run around the house (genius on my mom’s part – to get us out of the house and tired) and I’m sure Will accumulated the most laps. He was ornery. Dad said there was a very short time that he was on medication for something (not orneriness), but that didn’t last long. When Mom and Dad saw him resigned and quiet, they agreed they would do their best and believe God for the rest. It sounds cliché, but my dad said, “Caroline, we really believed God could take our ornery boy and grow him into a godly man. And he did.”

I really admire my dad for saying that. And I love him for remembering Will’s years of serious orneriness. And I love God for being trustworthy like a mountain.

This week, I memorized from Daniel 2:20-21, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons. He removes kings and sets up kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.”

I’m not all the way there yet, but I believe God is the mountain that didn’t ripple when everything else did on August 2. I believe He is the same and all the same things are essential, about living. I guess that means I have a sturdy place to be sad. But, I want to believe it also means I have a steady footing where I can be useful as a wife and friend and sister and daughter and mother. I want to believe that, because He changes times and seasons, removes and sets up kings, gives wisdom and knowledge, and He guided my brother into godliness.

in the midst of my escaping

I’ve been listening to this song by Young Oceans, called The Gates. It makes me uncomfortable because in the middle, if I sing all the words, I am a liar. The music sounds more confident than I feel, but the words betray a heart that feels so many other things.

I wanna wake and feel Your glory
I wanna speak in tongues of angels for You Lord
I wanna sing a song eternal
I wanna trample on the curses of the earth
I wanna call upon Your healing
I wanna see the sick and weary be made new
I wanna swim inside the blessings
I wanna swim inside the blessings of the Lord

It’s all the things I want to want, but I’m too weak or frail or scared or lazy or tired or selfish. Or I am all those things.

The beauty of Christmas – Christ coming to earth – came wrapped inside wrapping inside wrapping inside wrapping this year. It came slow like the full nine months of labor pains, much deeper than I’ve ever anticipated this season before.

And when I shake with sobs in bed or pray for water hotter than my tears in the shower, I need Emmanuel. I need the truth of “God with us” on earth. When I wish I was 13 years old again or when I go to sleep to be hidden, I need Emmanuel.

I’m not proud of wanting to escape. But when life is hard, you just dream of it being easier I guess. Easier commute to work, easier free time, easier time management, easier professional life, easier marriage, easier living, easier. Not lazy, just better. I’m not proud of wanting easier.

Maybe that’s why I love liturgy so much. It makes me say the words I do not feel. And that’s why Scripture memory is a life vest these days. Even if those are the only words I repeat, the only ones I sing… even if I don’t feel them completely, I know there is a gift wrapped inside a gift wrapped inside a gift that is more inside than any thief of joy.

God with us. He is here, even when I am not wanting Him. He is here, when I want to be elsewhere. God with us, pursuing us in love.

Did You say, ‘seek, you will surely find’?
I am searching, Lord turn Your eyes to mine
But I’m weary, pacing at these gates
Jesus come, come now, don’t delay

Like a child, ever faithful may I be
This I ask, God of mercy hear my plea
I have wandered with a soul impure
For this scorn, Father, send a cure

Last week, I memorized from John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die…”

It’s one of those verses that’s hard to say, but I stumble through. I speak and trust God will grant the belief I need to be moved by these words. He is good and true and He is holding me up in the midst of my escaping.


 

Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

“I will slow the pace”

Today, the rain.

The slanting, pounding, and unforgiving kind.

I’m only a little bit sad I can’t go to the laundromat, again. Instead, I am nursing a tall glass of water, lighting my new creamy Anthropologie candle, and letting this Rain for Roots album preach to my heart.

Simple truths.

I could say I am singing these songs for my little one – so I will have all the words memorized when Baby K comes. But, the truth is, I need to hear this invitation. I need to remember that God is not rushed in His love for us. He invites us into a slow and steady love, full of peace and rest and strength.

My pastor mentioned a passage in Ezekiel several sermons ago that I had never heard. In Ezekiel 16, God is remembering the history of the people Israel and compares it to a baby being born. This baby was abhorred, thrown out into an open field without clothes and without care, without compassion. But when God passed by, He reached into all the naked, bloody mess and said, “Live!” Our pastor had us imagine a God who would tend to an infant child like a mother or a father would – with gentle hands and sweet assurances.

God deals with us in such a way, with kind and slow attention to the dryness on our elbows and the rain that seeps through our boots to our toes. God cares for us in such a way, but I forget.

Yesterday, I forgot.

It was a day like a backwards onion, an ugly one. Layers on layers of frustrations and emotions but I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the root of it all so I could be “okay.” I do not trust pregnancy hormones and I already had a bad relationship with woman emotions. I would rather swallow everything down with the eight glasses of prescribed pregnancy water I am drinking everyday.

It got messy in the middle. You would think that a girl who has morning sickness-ed (and stealthily recovered) at the Q train Canal stop, the reception desk, the conference room, and various bathrooms could swallow down an onion’s worth of emotions. Nope, sure could not.

I met Patrick at Brooklyn Fellows class and we went through an ancient prayer exercise called The Examen where you use Scripture to move through these five meditations:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

It was a bad day to have this kind of meditation. Review the day with gratitude? I had spent much of my day feeling faulted and failed. Pay attention to my emotions? They went haywire. I had a meltdown. I fell completely apart while saying, “I hate that I’m falling apart.” There was a lot to pray about. Looking forward to tomorrow was hard.

When we got home, I jumped right into bed. Patrick came around to my side to tuck me in with encouragement, but I pulled the sheets over my head and said, “I can’t talk to you right now.” I don’t know why I said that. I knew the tears would come and I didn’t want him to have to deal with the onion I couldn’t seem to swallow or peel, even with St. Ignatius and his ancient prayer exercise.

He didn’t let me hide. He hugged me as I cried it out and listened as I sputtered, “I don’t even know myself… I’m so frustrated that I am angry… and I am angry because I don’t like who I am right now, because I don’t know what to do about it.”

I don’t know how long he listened or how long I cried, but at one point he pulled back the covers and said, “Get up. We are going to pray.” And we knelt by the bed and he prayed it out. When he got done with all his honest words I said, “Amen.” He didn’t let me stop there.He refused to let anger sleep in our bed. I think you should pray, he said.

I was still tense and slobbery, but I got some words out and relaxed into a simple conversation that has lately been God’s one-sided, “Come.” I confessed anger and asked for peace. I started to feel the slower pace of His rest and I started to believe He had compassion on my slobbery face.

Come to me,
Walk with me
Learn the rhythms of my grace

Come to me,
I have all you need
Learn to rest even while you are awake

Are you tired?
Are you worried?
Worn out from the day?
Have you been in a hurry?
I will slow the pace

My sister got some hard news this week. My mom had a hard day on Friday. Some might say these days feel the worst, but our family has respectfully redefined our use of superlatives. That is part of the onion layers, too – the figuring out emotions and frustrations in light of the great grief weight. I think we fall apart more than we stay together, but that’s why there is this simple truth about the tender care of a Father who slows the pace.

In New York and Des Moines and little Lewis. In Michigan and California and Ames. In every place where there is hurting, every place where there is brokenness, and every place where God’s creation lives, there is an invitation to slow the pace.

a deep and bellowing good

I am not prepared for this, for Advent.

Last week we feasted and gave thanks and it was the starkest thanks I’ve ever offered, I think. It was rickety and raw, like the rusty farm gates on my childhood farm. It was a functional thankfulness that felt very different than singing “Count Your Many Blessings” with all my aunts and uncles and cousins in the basement of Grandpa’s house. No less abundant (my head tells my heart) but very much different.

I think that’s okay.

A special place had been prepared for each guest and our table boasted a capacity crowd. The whole day was arranging and baking and tasting, folding special printed napkins and finding/ironing the tablecloth we bought at Fat Albert’s, the neighborhood “everything” store. Olive branches hung from string lights above us and the Feast of Thanks groove mix mingled between our shoulders.

I blinked it all in behind candlelight and treasured the rickety emotions for later sorting (ahem… still sorting). We represented a collection of states and histories and families and stories, memories and pains and wounds and griefs. But we were all present and belonging at this table set for us.

There’s a little snapshot of the crowd gathered. We were present, each of us breathing and eating under a canopy of twinkle lights in a Brooklyn apartment in the middle of New York.

And now it is Advent – that season where we prepare to remember that God sent His Son to be born into this world. God sent His Son to breathe and cry and joy and struggle and feast and gather and mourn here, on this very earth.

My heart is sluggish and resistant to the idea of anticipation, but just today I realized how I have been very desperately looking for signs of life for a while now… looking for proof that life is good. Not family portrait good or campfire songs good, but a deep and bellowing good – the kind that carves the grooves my grief runs through. And here, in Advent, is God’s affirmation.

Earth was not just a good enough place for the Son of the Creator of the Universe. God sent His Son to get bruised knees and dusty feet and a full belly in a place that He still loves, for a people He still loves.

Advent has always been good news of great joy because I remember God’s provision in Christ – that God invited us in our sin to meet our Savior. But, this year I needed to feel God’s deep and bellowing affirmation that life on earth is not a consolation prize. We are not in a waiting pattern for something better, later, next, sometime, future.

In the middle of strife and sick and thorns and death and my rickety thanks, God is affirming that His redemption has already started. He is still knitting life together in wombs. Today, I heard a heartbeat in mine. That static-y “wooga wooga” sound is nothing like pleasantries and everything like bellowing affirmation.

I signed up for counseling today and my scattered heart needs it, but this was a special kind of therapy in a doctor’s office on 46th Street. I was squeezing Patrick’s hand and we were both watching life wiggle around inside my belly. “Oh, so active!” they said. We giggled and marveled and asked silly questions. And God affirmed, deeper than all my efforts to be okay or move forward or understand.

And it’s all very complicated, but I am holding on to that affirmation that God is making new life, because that somehow affirms all the lives that He is sustaining.

I can’t believe I am awake past midnight. Pregnancy is beautiful, but pregnancy is also super weird. At least I had some good Christmas tunes to keep this late night company.

Psalm prayers + silent Saturdays

I am glad for Psalm prayers I don’t write and for Saturdays where silence can really stretch out. I didn’t realize I was whispering at the bagel shop until the sweet red-haired girl leaned in closer and raised her eyebrows over tortoise shell Warby Parkers, “Sorry, hon, what did you say?”

“Um, ehm.. I’d like an egg and avocado…”

“Oh, you want number 4 on 7 grain? Anything else?”

I felt like a child whose mom sent her out for eggs and this redhead knew I was breaking the rules. But I just bought a Dirt Devil and I’m hosting Thanksgiving, so I read the [free copy of the] New York Times like I belonged in the adult world. I picked up a few groceries on my way home. And when I got home, I stayed. I baked and pureed pumpkin, hand wrote a few cards, made brown sugar+cinnamon+chocolate chip cookies for tomorrow, put away dishes and drank tea. (Okay, I also ate four Oreos but I did not feel good about that). At some point in the middle of the candlelit silence, I read this:

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses. (Psalm 33:6-7 ESV)

And I breathed prayers without any new words. All these Psalm words are prayers enough and my words can’t get that big. My words can’t make heavens and my breath can’t make host to fill them. The waters ignore my commands and the deeps don’t respond. Only God can do this. And only God would want to cause this kind of creation commotion when He needs no one and no thing.

I feel very created today, very in my place.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-22 ESV)

Why is the One who gathers the waters in a heap also my help and shield? And how is He that?

The radiator is hissing in the corner, sputtering like antique apartment heaters do. It feels selfish to stay indoors, but I don’t feel well and I can’t remember the last day when I didn’t have plans. I suppose that is an excuse. Scripture needs silent space and time. I came to no conclusions and wrote no prayers; I don’t feel better or wiser. But I am remembering. I remember who the Lord says that He is. And I remember that I trust Him.

I trust that He is God and He has not given up on His redemption plan. He is very much in the middle of making all things new – old things and dead things and dry bones and this old, stubborn heart.

I’ve been a lot of inward lately. Last week, I was walking out of the subway after a frustrating stop-and-go “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead. We apologize for any inconvenience” situations. I was bundled and hunched and leaving sighs on the sidewalk when someone touched my arm and pulled me close. Patrick was leaving to go to work, but caught me just in time to say, “Hey, I love you.” I hoped that he couldn’t see all the self-pity in my face because the streetlight lit up his and it was full of the best husband love.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1 ESV)

Sometimes living is labor. I don’t mean working the 9-5. I mean just living. I let Psalm 127:1 sing over some of the silence today until it felt like my deeps started to listen.

And I remember. Unless the Lord builds the house (read: plans, days, vocation, prayer, family, community), I will labor in vain. My building efforts end up being for my own glory or my own preservation or my own pride. But, the Lord – He is a great builder and none of His plans go to waste. None.

It is still Saturday and there is a bit of it left to savor.