how to win while losing at motherhood

“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14

She clung to my shoulders with her arms and knees, her neck wrapped on mine as the fountain misted our backs and absorbed our squeals. As soon as the wind changed, she anticipated the next mist and around the Bailey Fountain we went – a blurred, bouncing spectacle for the tourists posing in front of the mysterious, mythological scene. The sun beat down just as the mist dewed our faces and there are no photos of our delight. It lived so perfectly in that moment, just after 12 noon on a Tuesday.

Her little, tumbling giggle surprised us both. It was almost too generous – too full and wild. And, if I was guessing, I would say this is a little bit why little children can come to Jesus. 

This full and wild generosity of a child is unrestrained – like their Maker, ready to unleash lavish goodness in response to beauty and in the middle of delight.

There are many ways an adult can ‘become like a child’ and none of them are so easy. I have moments, like the fountain, where delight washes over and nothing ‘adult’ matters. But, most moments, I am aware of my unfortunate maturity. I squirm in skin that has worked hard to shake free of dependence – to get established and known and significant. But, the world is stingy with delight, starved of any true kind. All my slow (and unsteady) progress toward adulthood often feels like chasing after the wind. Meaningless. Culture doesn’t help me get past this curse – I’m constantly reminded that my life is supposed to be linear, that my work is supposed to build and progress and flourish into an evolving and important identity.

There is another baby bulging out of my belly, did I mention that? That’s very adult. The second time around is different for all the obvious reasons, but also because I am not in my first months of marriage and my brother did not just die. But my favorite part has been watching Zella’s sweet affection grow with the size of my belly. She leans in to sing her own made up songs. She tells the baby about all the excitement of this world (mostly noting the baby will get to drink milk). She perceives when the baby is awake and asleep. I’m glad she is paying attention; her wonder pulls me in.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;

I think about that stanza often. It plays in my head without invitation and all my neurons rush to find its melody. Maybe the elusive “winning” is the undercurrent of my everyday, the obvious wanting in every disrupted simple task. The edge of the full dustpan tips on the trashcan and empties on the floor. Not winning. The internet refreshes on days of blog rambles and doesn’t save a word. Not winning. The laundromat increases their prices 8 quarters more than all your cash and the nearest free ATM is 10 blocks away and your potty-trained lady just made a puddle by washer number 4. Not winning.

But God undoes win-lose scenarios – actually disappears them, and not because my daily losses are unimportant or irrelevant. But because he cares so intimately about the sweeping and the creating and the laundry, that He redeems and redefines winning completely. His measurement is an altogether different scale, interstellar dimension status. If not, the “right man on our side” would have been one big loser.

Were not the right man on our side,
a man of God’s own choosing

I get now why He let the little children come. They aren’t so wrapped up and weighted down with losses. Or, at least they aren’t keeping such close track. Or, they get His measurement system – where delight can disrupt the scales in the middle of a series of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad moments. If I’m honest, I need a million of those blurred, bouncing moments – chasing fountain mist with a giggling toddler. I need almost constant reminders of the different win-lose dimension scale.

In a recent talk (which, BTW is winning), Jen Wilkin said, “Human love is based on need. God’s love is not. His covenant stands because it is in no way dependent on me.”

Because God is altogether different, in being and knowing and doing, He is hope against wind chasing. Even as we become like little children – embracing their delight and dependence – we must be supremely aware of His absolute goodness and absolute other-ness. He is true and present in a windstorm and on a still day. In our struggle against a world of devils, it is His truth that triumphs through us – not because of all of our wind chasing, but because He is good. That is why He can be so generous, why His generosity never changes with temperaments or time.

His absolute goodness is in Him like our infinite humanity is in us.

good work, neighbor love, and kingdom come

I stretch out my limbs and too quickly my fingers reach the walls of our apartment. The cluttered cubic space shouts for thrown open windows and, in Brooklyn springtime, the windows shout back. Zella Ruth is sleeping now, so I have a chance to splatter thoughts on this page while the busses whir and that persistent man sings on the corner. His voice almost convinces me, six floors up.

But, back to these walls – these boundaries of our existence and mine especially as I newly articulate the bold title of “at home work.” The sun splashes against the wall of our kitchen – a hot, glorious reminder of a Spring long come and I stand in it awhile before clearing the remains of fresh salsa construction from our tiny countertop. I remember Zella’s scurry steps into the bedroom to babble very seriously about a broken something in the kitchen… and her pained brow when I found a special bowl in pieces on the floor. “It’s okay, Mama! It’s okay! I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry.”

Oh, this light. If only I could bottle it up! This patch travels up the kitchen wall, another climbs the bedroom above our bed, and a generous warmth makes a wake across the living room in midday. Windows are beauty and ours are giant, stretching almost floor to ceiling.

But, these walls. Every time I wash my hands in the bathroom, I wonder about the workers who tiled the walls. I wonder because it’s a curious construction, almost like a child’s mosaic the way the slivered pieces sometimes dwarf in comparison to the grout around them. And where the wall is uneven, more grout is applied and the effect is three dimensional. A statement of sorts about living in New York. Art.

We love this place. Even around the newest luxury condo, we can see the tips of the trees in Prospect Park, waving like sentinels and beckoning us to play in our neighborhood’s backyard. We often do. 

Well, anyway, the kingdom is here. In between the grout tile mosaic and in the view through dirty windows and under the gate leg table that opens up to fit twelve in our living/dining/den room, as long as everyone is cool with shoulders touching. The kingdom is in this midst.

I remember a sermon from a while back – one of those well known passages I almost tuned out but later I couldn’t get out of my mind. The kingdom is in my midst like the brothers in Luke 15. Their inheritance and mine is available right now, in its entirety. The robe, the fattened calf, the signet ring, the feast, and the best last name. Any good thing I can imagine requesting? Mine. A vast richness I could not possibly spend or exhaust or even fully enjoy. It’s that much inheritance. And the only way I can’t get to that inheritance is if I am not free.

The kingdom of God is freedom. 

But a kingdom has walls and gates and guards and I am skeptical like the son that there is any freedom inside. My mind drifts. I imagine the dreams I dreamt once – the ones that somehow wore charity and luxury at the same time, where dinner was never late or burnt or frustrating. Dreams chase freedom. And we chase dreams, hoping the blank will get filled in, “I just want to be able to ____” and the story ends well or doesn’t end at all.

And, I think, dreams are only bad if they have you convinced that you are not already free. 

The Band spins on the record player, a leftover request of Zella’s for “mugik” and that sermon from awhile back crackles over my laptop, “Both of these sons are on the precipice of being dead, of being lost… What’s most important to know is that you need to be found by the Father who wants to pull you into His feast.”

Hm. This kingdom, the kingdom of God is in the midst of us – another sermon especially settled in my bones. It’s a comfort and a horror to know that it’s here when I’m all unraveled and here when the knick knacks are all prepared for company. It, the kingdom, Jesus. Here.

Maybe this heart was getting annoyed at my spiritual procrastination and so started ahead that I might catch up. Or maybe these few sermons and a talk from Galatians 5 just started swimming together in the same direction in my spirit (do sermons swim?). This kingdom that came in Jesus had a vastness to it, a depth reaching outside existence. Yet, it was present physically in Jesus and is still present physically with us. The kingdom is here, and with so much repeat in the New Testament.

The message feels so precarious because the inheritance is so vast. The kingdom of lavish inheritance is everywhere, so why does our air feel so impoverished? Those brothers felt it too. With all the inheritance anyone could ever grasp for, neither was satisfied. They wanted a better freedom, something more fitting for the appetites in their bellies. Something not so established by a father who has everything. Something not so… available. They wanted different walls with different rules and different work.

And these walls, remember. And this work.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

Called to freedom, yes. Use it to serve neighbors? Sounds like constraint. Freed to be constrained? Sounds like gates and guards again and that generous father’s farm. 

There was a watercolor disaster in the living room yesterday. I said things like, “I am very disappointed,” and “Mama is sad,” to a not-quite-two-year-old who doesn’t yet understand the cost of an area rug. Deep breaths, we take them together. I pretend like I’m teaching her about coping mechanisms for frustration, but it’s really about keeping me under control. Inside these walls and inside this work is the vast and glorious kingdom inheritance, but I will keep feeling impoverished unless I claim freedom.

Teaching on Galatians 5, Thabiti Anyabwile says Christian freedom is the antidote to the Galatian error, that freedom is even the goal of the gospel that we must embrace, enjoy and cherish. “We are freed to inherit all that Christ has purchased for us,” he said, “…but we must remember what we are freed from.”

I am freed from the desires of the flesh and freed to an inheritance. I am freed from a dream of better walls and different work, freed from the betraying appetite in my belly. Freed from chasing an answer to the open ended and paralyzing question, “What is my calling and God’s will for my life?” Because it all comes in the same inheritance-freedom package. 

Q: What is my calling and God’s will for my life?
A: That I would be free and use my freedom to serve others.

This inheritance that we are freed to accept – it so blesses us and so fills us that the greatest dream we can dream hangs like mist in the air above our fingertips. In love, serve one another. This is the most freed act. There is no haggling about worth or comparing about value, no hierarchy of importance or ranking of achievement.

The most free thing anyone can do with freedom is serve others. And not just the glory, headlining kind of service. The quiet kind – make a meal, tidy the toys, clean the dishes, disinfect the toilet, arrange the bookshelf, run the errands, write the letter, invite them over, wash the laundry, crunch the numbers, listen to the neighbor. You get it. Also the glory kind – definitely keep that around, but not for glory’s sake. 

This cold traveled slowly and took about one week to get from my chest to my throat to my nose. Now, it is flowing freely on this flour sack kitchen towel and my shirt sleeves, which I’ve newly re-purposed as handkerchiefs (why don’t we carry those anymore?!). One was not enough. The hum of the restaurants and traffic and sirens at street level drift up and settle between my cotton ears.

And there is good work to be done in this midst.

living slowly, breaking ground

Slow does not seem to happen anymore.

Slow hangs like an abstract painting between more palatable pieces – between fast and lazy. This season is sick with fast and lazy, with running around shopping malls and with hiding under thick covers. Too much spending and too much rushing, too much pampering and too much justifying selfish pursuits. Too much. And the hustle is exhausting.

Somewhere along the way, we equated slow with “unproductive” and savor with “inefficient.” We let ourselves slide into routines of excess that glorify our gluttony. We are either obsessing about productivity or obsessing about recuperating from productivity.

We forget to experience good things slowly.

Last week was an exception. Last week, twelve new and old friends gave beautiful meaning to the phrase, “reclining at table” when we lingered for hours over our Thanksgiving meal. Our hodgepodge living room was candlelit and crowded. The laughter reached all the empty corners where bare walls still meet bare floor. We passed our potluck food around three stretched tables and no one was rushing. We lingered. From appetizers to desserts, we lingered.

A week later, I am learning these lessons of slowly. I am learning to be selfless with a “list of things to do on my day off” when what I think I want is fast and lazy. No, everyday cannot be a day I host a thanksgiving feast in my apartment. But everyday can be about intentionally experiencing good things slowly, like conversations and thoughtful gift making.

Rush, buy, build, pamper, play. I can’t keep up with the Joneses and I don’t know who can. I’m going to be honest: are the Joneses even happy, whoever they are?

It isn’t about doing less in life. Well, maybe it is. Maybe it is about choosing wisely so the good things we choose can be done slowly. I am tackling a “to do list” today, just like anyone would on a day free of 9-5 schedule. But, I want to tackle it slowly. I want my checkbook and my dayplanner to reflect a slow, savored, unselfish day.

And then, I guess I want that to be every day. It’s an upstream swim here in NYC, but it is everywhere.

This song by Sara Watkins is on repeat, literally. The rhythm reminds me to breathe deeply and walk slowly when more important people are rushing around my shoulders. The words remind me that slow living is not less important, not less accomplished. Living slowly and savoring good things is still hard work with sweet reward.

Living slowly is about breaking ground for good things.

There is a reward inside our slow, hard work when it is done unselfishly. We are free to be unselfish because Christ gave Himself for us. We are not confident in our efficiency and neither do we trust our cleverness to complete what we’ve started in breaking ground. We do not revel in past accomplishments or dwell on past failures. As we build on broken ground, we are not hasty in construction or worried about completion because that has already been promised.

We savor good things when we work slowly for others, trusting God to complete and perfect the work. He will take our hodgepodge to-do lists and our hodgepodge gatherings and our hodgepodge 9-5 work days – He will take them all and make them productive. We are left to savor slowly the miracle of working and serving and loving at all.

pancakes, parks, practical humility

Not every idea is a good idea.

I am a fearless brainstormer, so I suppose I would know. If it takes 100 ideas to find a good one, I will crank them out. I will suggest hovercrafts, paper plane deliveries, and real-life choose your own adventure novels without any sort of hesitation. I love ideas probably because I love imagination and getting to use both is like being set loose in a playground or a zoo (or a playground zoo, which sounds equally dangerous and exciting).

When I moved to New York City in August, I tried to keep my ideas to a minimum. I tried not to imagine too clearly what my life would be like – the ways I would serve and love this new place. Because I have lots of thoughts about what it means to love a city, and I’ve lived in a few. Every city (and rural, Midwestern town) has its own heartbeat – its own way of doing things and its own resistance to doing anything differently. I was not surprised to hear New York City’s heartbeat pumping rhythmically in public transit and peddlers and power struggles. There is definitely a New York state of mind and I am still not sure what my give-and-take should be in adopting it.

Either way, I live here and because I live here, I want to love well here.

When I move to a new city, I want to be intentional about knowing needs before trying to meet needs. But that takes a lot of self-control and I’m not always awesome at that. Which is why I stopped at the corner of Parkside and Ocean Ave to ask the small crowd gathered there if they would eat pancakes in an hour if I brought them back to the park.

The back story on this pancake idea is as long as winter darkness, so I’ll spare you. The short version is this: I want to love my community, want to get uncomfortable, want to serve intentionally… and I got antsy about it. I threw the idea out to a few people and I had both yeah-sayers and nay-sayers. The idea for pancakes in the park came because pancakes were part of a far-off-probably-never dream that required much more structure and probably some sort of involvement with the FDA. When I shared the idea, my friend said I should just start somewhere.

The park at night seemed like a good starting place. I could flip the (chocolate chip and maple) cakes in my apartment and take them over to the park in my bike basket. What the cakes lacked in fresh hotness they would make up for in sweet deliciousness.

I’ll admit, it was a haphazard plan.

The idea was like a battering ram and I was convinced it would knock down the barriers I still feel in this community, convinced this idea let me serve my community (and convinced that service would make this place more home).

I love pancakes, so that’s clearly not the problem. I also love parks (anyone would be crazy not to in the city), so that isn’t what made this idea fall flat.

The problem with pancakes in the park is that I stopped imagining too soon. I stopped being persistent about the process of knowing my community, thinking I could still love them well with an idea that made sense to me.

After the little group at the park laughed at me and I laughed at myself, we had a good conversation about the neighborhood and then I ran home whispering a pep talk about not giving up. It’s good to get practically humble – to realize you are holding a battering ram up against a mountain that isn’t supposed to move.

It is good because when you let go of a bad idea, you are free to think of something else – something better. Sprawled out on thrifted and sidewalk-swiped furniture, a new brainstorm happened and new plans are in the mix.

Pancake Mondays is going to be a thing that will still legitimize my Christmas ask for a griddle, but the action will happen much closer than the park. I’m hoping to host a monthly or weekly gathering of neighbors and friends for pancakes in my apartment instead. We’ve met many of the people on our floor, but have yet to get beyond the “nice to meet you” pleasantries and what way is better than a regular invitation to the best meal of the day served at night?

So far, I’ve got a roomie and an incredibly supportive boyfriend on board along with several other friends who want to join the party. I’m not sure, it could still fail and that’s okay. Practical humility is what you need if you want to serve your community well. There will be bad ideas before there will be good ideas and sometimes good ideas turn sour.

I haven’t completely given up on distributing food to strangers, but I have a new strategy for that as well. Patrick once carried around a container of my homemade cookies while running errands and he ended up offering them to the cab driver, the rental car attendant, and his neighbor. They seemed to like the gesture, at least no one laughed at him. So, I have thought about baking batches of cookies and then distributing them to friends to carry in their bags to give out when an opportunity arises.

Of course, all this is to be continued (including my ongoing humility lessons). I will keep learning to put down the battering ram and hold my ideas loosely.

Regardless, something will get baked and I think I’ll be able to find people who would enjoy it.

if concrete tears could hang like a cloud

If all of New York City’s concrete tears could hang like a cloud across the concrete streets, it would be the heavy haze of this early evening. My homeward bound steps felt like sadness tonight, which is unusual because I have learned to love my commute (and the love came easily).

I felt deeper the tension of people in close proximity absent any affinity for one another. I felt that tension on the subway platform and on the J train and when the crowd of people threw elbows and pained expressions at Broadway Junction. I felt it more tonight than I have before.

Perhaps it was the fog – because when I stepped off the B44 on Nostrand, I promise I looked the city in her face and her eyes were brimming but her face was dry. It was like she was holding back, trying to hem in whatever hurt had happened on Thursday. And the hurt that happened was thick.

It’s getting darker. These days turn to night before I am ready. That might be the only sad thing about autumn – it sleeps too early.

I could blame the melodrama on the quesadilla I ate today, from the Mexican place by my work that is run by a nice Chinese couple. But I’d be lying if I said the tension didn’t feel real. It does. But, who is surprised? The city is a ruthless place. But, there is always tenderness. 

There is always beauty inside and around ruthless. Always. And every once in a while, when I let the stubbornness of my soul soften up, the Lord shows grace so I can see. Grace to see His provision and grace to believe His provision is enough.

Grace.

The end of this day is full of grace because the whole day was full of it but my soul was just now soft enough to see. When I knocked on my neighbor Elsa’s door to respond to the note she taped on mine, I found her with a beautiful flowering plant to share. Later, when I opened my door to a knock, I found Patrick with a bag of groceries and dinner plans. When we sat in our now a-little-less-empty living room drinking cinnamon and nutmeg, I found laughter.

And this is grace. Sweet grace when the concrete tears hang like a cloud on concrete streets.

when you are a regular wanderer

Everyone has a “lost in Manhattan” story… That’s what they tell me, anyway, and it’s meant to be some consolation.

I wasn’t exactly lost last night, but I don’t exactly mind when I am. Most people regard wandering as accidental and unfortunate – because accidents shouldn’t happen on the regular unless your life is Amelia Bedelia (ahem).

I am a regular wanderer and last night my wandering footsteps were chasing the colors in the leaves and the warm light hidden on the horizon. After work, I blitzkrieged my friends to see if anyone wanted to suck the marrow out of the autumn day and several responded. So, I said yes to plans in Manhattan and yes to plans in Brooklyn with more optimism than is New York appropriate.

I ended up at Madison Square Garden on quite the transit detour on the A (where I sat beside a tired looking middle-aged cosmetic surgeon who had obviously had work done on his cheekbones). I heard about his 14 hour work day and his second home in Conneticut and his 3 day work week. After a few loop-de-loops and train hops, I successfully toasted Oktoberfest beers with Ashley on the High Line, where we giggled at the people gathered for stargazing. We wanted to say, “We’ll save you the trouble: you can see about five, but there is a star-studded blanket beyond these city lights that is very visible from Iowa.”

From there, I navigated another underground maze to catch a train back to Brooklyn. Except I didn’t look at the sign on the train I ran down the stairs to catch.

After I sat down in a huff, a curly haired hipster smiled and said, “Well, that’s the most graceful near-miss if I’ve ever seen one.” I kind of just sighed and said, “Yeah… now to head home.” But as I said it, I looked up to realize I was on the wrong train headed in the wrong direction.

“This train isn’t going to Brooklyn, is it?”
I could tell he wished he had better news, “Nope.”

So, I scooted out and caught another flying metal bullet to meet up with group number two in Brooklyn at Alice’s Arbor, where the wine was already poured and a girls night was underway. After the right amount of laughter and story swapping and dessert devouring, we parted ways and I waited for yet another train to see Patrick and marvel, blurry-eyed, at the thoughtful gifts he brought back from Europe.

And THAT, friends, is how you stretch a day from 5:30 am – 2:00 am. Start unnecessarily early to catch the Autumn waking up on Eastern Parkway and then let the day roll out in front of you until you’ve tucked it in on the other end.

That is how it’s done in NYC, at least by this Amelia Bedelia character. Say yes to things, chase autumn to pieces, sit on park benches, wait for trains, take the wrong trains, laugh at misfortune, and always be willing to toast.

That’s how yesterday went down for this regular wanderer.
Today, I’ll turn in early.

why we want to hide away

I know I’m pushing it… using the “we” in reference to myself inside the group called “New Yorkers.” I’m presuming a lot at this point, fresh off the Midwest-is-best plane and barely two months new in this metropolis. But, if you would, just let me for this one post.

I think I’m starting to understand why there are fewer apartment parties and more occasional, casual gatherings.

New Yorkers (natives and transplants) talk about plans in extremely vague and non-committal terms. Inevitably, every New Yorker has had a “really rough week” and it’s not just a line. It’s legitimate. This is a crazy place and the public transportation gives you plenty of time to ruminate over all the week’s awry events. In addition to all the people involved in your personal and work life, the sheer number of faces you encounter in any given day pushes anyone (no matter how social or strong) into survival mode.

How do I keep my head above water?

Never mind the gallery showings and premieres and benefit galas, how do I stay alive without going crazy? It’s true everywhere, but it feels truer here in New York, where the options are like a million menus of different languages shoved under your chin while a million different people wait for you to make your decision.

Before I moved here, I listened to a sermon by Tim Keller on living for the city – intentionally loving and pouring into the urban space because it is an open door in a way other places are not. A native Midwesterner and natural potluck lover, intentionally loving a city makes sense. Hosting and greeting neighbors and being busy makes sense.

But, this is overload.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying I think I understand why we want to hideaway. I get why hosting is hard. I am tempted to say the same “it’s been a rough week” to anyone who asks me to hang out this weekend. I am tempted to slide into vague, non-committal assurances when plans come up. I am tempted to be selfish because it feels more like preservation.

So, now I’ll believe even this temptation is not too much. There is room and space and mental energy to host and love and pour out intentional service into a city that sometimes tries to sap my strength. I’ll pray my heart believes what I know is true when I want to hide away.