Letting Life Speak

Today I am going to begin a new weekly writing tradition.  I’m going to practice noticing.  I’m going to, as Frederick Buechner said, listen to my life.    I’m going to try to let Life speak for itself, in an attempt to coach my eyes to see again.


Yesterday we took all five children to a Brewers/Cubs game in Milwaukee.  I overpacked a small blue and black backpack, stuffing down diapers and extra clothes and formula.  I jammed three pieces of white bread and two bananas (just call me Betty Crocker) into a jewel bag and forgot bibs.  I changed and re-changed Everett and Mae, finding tiny old shoes that haven’t been worn since Sophie and Cohen donned them years ago.  They both kicked them off within seconds, but I appeased my need to control the situation by balancing the shoes in the carseat, telling myself they would wear them in the stadium, right?

After waking up too early to binge-watch Elena of Avalor, the kids were operating at less-than-optimal levels.  Fights ensued before we even wrangled them all into the car, Cohen furious that Sophie had “stolen” his seat. Amidst kicks and cries and wails, Jacob attempted to calm the temper of our eldest: “Buddy, buddy, just try and use some strategies to calm down” he said from the driver’s seat.   And then- without hesitation from the backseat: “I don’t LIKE STRAT-TEH-GIES!”– the words spilled from Cohen’s mouth, so loud and primal his voice rivaled the throaty grovel of a seasoned rock singer.  We laughed (because really, what else?) and ignored him (until we couldn’t ignore him because he was kicking Sophie’s seat). But then we ignored him some more and he got tired of being mad.

Our drive continued, and Jacob noticed his receding hairline in the rearview mirror and Ellie noticed the cattails in the fields outside.  I researched road trips on my phone and Jacob said “seriously?” and I’m proud that it only took me few seconds to discover the irony. With our destination 10 minutes away, GPS lost its marbles as we encountered new construction, and we marveled at the height of the crisscrossing ramps and swore and barked at the kids to stay quiet. But even with GPS off the table, we found our way (like people do).

Upon arrival at Miller Park, we squashed the babies legs into carriers and Ellie clutched my hand as we made our way up the escalator to our seats in the upper-deck.  We caught the opening home run on a TV just before finding our seats.  By the bottom of the first inning, Everett had pooped.  By the top of the third Sophie was whining for food.  I changed Everett in a stinky bathroom and noticed another mom waiting for the changing table.  She was kind and said “take your time.”  Ellie called out from a nearby stall that she didn’t have any toilet-paper and the woman in the next stall over slid her some, saying “I have a daughter her age, too.”

We gathered our free hotdogs and apple-sauce and made our way back to our seats.  There was a moment when Everett sat on my lap munching on his bread, when I slowed down and breathed in the warmth of new spring air.  The sun glinted off the west end of the stadium, turning everything beyond his little head golden.

There were requests for ice cream after cheering for the “cowboy” in the sausage races. We ran into an old college friend eating our mini-chocolate cones.  I was scarfing cheese fries (because a hotdog isn’t enough), and Everett was eating breadcrumbs off the ground.  We said we should get together over the summer, and I think we will.

We made our way back to the car just before the bottom of the 9th.  Ellie and Cohen raced across the footbridge, weaving their way in and out between the throngs of adult legs.  “They’re with me,” I would say to the onlookers, my own feet shuffling along, Everett’s head bobbing in the carrier.  The kids poked each other with an umbrella on the way home, but we didn’t have any tears (except from the babies.)  Everett bit Jacob’s thumb with his two little front teeth, which made Cohen laugh uncontrollably.  We ate spaghetti and then wiped spaghetti off the floor and picked spaghetti out of hair.  We fell into bed.

After all was quiet, I found myself in my darkened room. The windows were wide open and the summer-like wind was strong.  The stillness was broken only by the occasional, gentle snap of billowing curtains.  After my breathing slowed, I could also hear the faint sound of a clarinet playing, the wind carrying its melody gently from a neighbor’s window to my own.  The music lasted for at least twenty minutes; it changed– or perhaps revealed– the atmosphere in the air; it conjured a gentleness that could only be felt.  I fell asleep to Rhapsody in Blue.

Everything speaks.  Everything.  Tiny baby toes too small for shoes, a big brother’s indignant shoves,  swaying cattails and slightly cold hot dogs.  Fly balls and foul balls and home runs.  Summer winds and tired limbs, silence and song.

It all comes together in the marvelous symphony of what IS– each smell and sound and sight, each taste and touch coming together to create a life.

May we See.


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Losing Our Grips

I would sleepwalk through this morning.  The clouds would hang low in the sky, the air too warm for February.  I would see people in the halls, smile and say hi, hold doors open, nod my head during class discussions, squint my eyes into half-moons to indicate inquisitive thoughts.  I would stare at my computer screen, google doc after google doc, and I would make three loops to the bathroom to avoid having my face crash into my computer.

But in the middle of today, I was jolted from my somnambulatory haze.  Because today, there was a fire alarm.  I followed the crowds outside and found a small circle of teachers.  We hugged our elbows or stuffed our hands in our pockets to avoid the cold, shuffled back and forth in an awkward dance to adapt our bodies to the brisk February air.  We didn’t have our phones and we didn’t have our laptops.  The tasks and to-do lists we carried had been left back in the abandoned building, and all we stood outside with was ourselves.

The air woke me up, and so did the other people.  It was bright, and I bet they could see the zits on my forehead.  They could see the lines around my eyes and I could see theirs.  We talked about the weather “it’s supposed to hail tonight” (shuffle shuffle, hands in pockets, more dancing) and we talked about the upcoming afternoon’s obligations.  We talked about a project due for gradschool class (sniffle, shuffle, sniffle). And then the bell rang again, indicating that it was safe to return to the building.

Small conversations are kind of revolutionary for me.  I am kind of an anxious person.  Having your life be governed by bells is actually a glorious thing for a person who dreads small talk.  Awkward silence?  That’s okay, because the bell will ring in a minute, and it will be time to gather up your laptop and keys.  Too many tasks and deadlines? — no need to fret, because after all, fulfilling these duties is something I can control— I can hold my responsibilities in the palm of my hands, carry them in neat, manageable piles; I can master deadlines with to-do lists, check-boxes and hardcore multi-tasking.

But the system controls us by making us believe we can control it.  Thankfully, however, a fire alarm rings, the routine is upset, and we’re faced with real people.  People who must dance to keep their feet warm, people with zits and wrinkles, with eyes that are hollow or shining. People who have fears and awkward quirks and dreams and maybe some spinach in their teeth.

Any time you are brave enough to look someone in the eye, you lose a little bit of your grip.  Because you cannot control a person like you can control a task, you must surrender to what is instead of what could be.

I practiced the art of losing my grip tonight with my birthday girl, Ellie.  We sat across from one another at a small table in Dairy Queen, she sipping an Orange Julius, me wolfing-down an oreo blizzard.  Kids are the ultimate antidotes to the illusion of control– — they remind me that my incessant attempts to hold their behavior, their feelings, their future in my protective palms is futile.  What I can do is be present (which is SO FREAKING DIFFICULT)– I can bear witness to their joy and their sadness and they can bear witness to mine.

“What makes you laugh?” I ask Ellie.  “Jokes,” she grins, stealing a bit of my Blizzard.  “And what makes you angry?” I question. “When people steal my toys.” “What makes you happy?” She smiles, her mouth wide and her teeth brown from chocolate, her hair stuck out in untamable, staticky wisps.  “My family,” she says.

She finds my shining eyes, and I find hers, and we are tired and happy together.

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from reaction to response

Up until now, we have said things to the babies and they smile.  Sometimes, when we say their names loud enough, they turn their heads to meet our gaze.  They play in their cribs after bath time and the rising pitch and pace of our repeated ‘peek-a-boo’ refrain makes them bend their knees up-and-down with excitement.  Before dinner every night they crane their necks to follow whomever is in charge of dishing out the purees– they trace our steps from the bib drawer to the pantry, and their eyes follow our hands as we spin the rice cereal into mush round-and-round.  Before tonight they have reacted to our words, but until tonight, they have not really responded to our words.

But that changed, because Everett learned how to clap today.  I think my mom taught him, but she didn’t say that she did so maybe we taught him?  I noticed him waving his chubby, smooth hands together, cushions of soft skin separated by the lines of his tiny palms, like the curves of a padded seat cushion around its buttons on a hard-backed kitchen chair.  One palm finds the other and I ask “are you clapping Everett?”  He catches my eyes and haphazardly waves his arms back and forth, smiling with delight when one hand unexpectedly meets the other.  He has always liked to bang things (oh Crush– you Bruiser!) and it’s almost only natural to let the one arm swing without direction and without aim (but oh, with gusto!)– into the other. We cheer and applaud every time, circling around him.  “Yes! Clap, Everett, clap!” we yell.  And he claps and we yell and he claps.

Later on,  to test his memory and to justify my awe, I ask him to do it again.  No actions, no modeling– just the word.  The sound brought forth from the idea in my mind that came from I don’t know what before that. (What comes before the idea?)  This abstract request  takes on shape and sound and rolls across the room into Everett’s tiny ears where he is perched sideways on Jacob’s lap.  They enter into the wide empty vessel that is his mind– up until now a mind filled only with little bursts of pre-lingual longings.  Just an amorphous, mist of yearning- desires to be held, and to drink, and be held again. The mist knows darkness is lonely and warmth is better and nothing beats the goodness of peach-flavored puffs. The sparks and synapses do not yet know the names of things but somehow know those things.  But that was until tonight.  Because tonight a word took shape and entered that fog– entered that fog not as sound but as meaning.

The wonder!

I say “clap” and he claps! Not a reaction but a response.  From idea to word to mind to action.  And I see the meaning there, on that no-longer-blank canvas, spilling out across his mind in beautiful white burst, like the seeds of a snow-white dandelion pressed up tightly against glass.

He’s delighted and we’re delighted.  Who knows what words will come next?


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This Now

I can remember rocking Cohen as an infant in his room in our old house.  The yellow glow of the streetlight dimly illumined the outline of the blue curtains his great grandmother had stitched in preparation for his arrival. A small CD player crooned lullabies, and our first board books lay shiny and new in neat stacks on a sturdy bookshelf that is now broken to pieces.  I held him close with my nose to his cheeks and I imagined how he– this infant– would take care of me as an old woman.  I saw him carrying me up the stairs, my arms draped over his strong, broad shoulders, my legs too weak to carry the vessel that would be my body.  In my mind, he carries me the way my mom carried my grandpa in the weeks before his death– our bodies frail, rested, and fully reliant.  The tiny life I held in my arms that night would one day hold me.  Past and future blurred. This baby holds me.

It is an odd thing, to recall a vision of the future within a memory. What was and what will be blur together in this present moment– this Now in which I write.  This now is– as all the great mystics have said–the only reality.  This now holds eternity within it.

This Now holds a six year old Sophie awake in her bed, spinning yards and yards of stories, words tumbling from her rosebud mouth; words that were once indecipherable have become inextricably linked with meaning.  Through her smudged, purple glasses– she no longer sees just pictures, but now understands the words that will one day– and I see this future– bring her to life.

This Now in which I type holds the softly breathing, three-year old Ellie.  Bruised knees, orange toenails, hair uneven from too much twirling.  She’s in our bed, comforted by my sheets and my presence.  She is dreaming of the joy she has brought and will bring.

This Now in which I type holds the eight year old Cohen writing at his new, black desk by the light of a lamp that belonged to me as a kid.  He scribes thank you notes for his birthday,  testing out loopy and unfamiliar cursive letters.  He wears ninja-turtle footy-pajamas and his tongue sticks just slightly out of his mouth as he concentrates.  He takes the time to write out the word “sorry!” to the respondent whenever he makes a mistake.

This Now holds a sleeping, open-mouthed Mae, her belly full and content, her skin shiny and smooth and covered in soft pajamas now faded from her sisters’ wear.  Everett fell asleep a while ago, “finally” content to sleep in his own bed after weeks of only sleeping in our arms. A few nights ago we had to let him cry; it was necessary and so awful. I know this “finally” that I type will one day only be fleeting,  and I hope the future me will show the current me some tenderness, will tell her it’s all right that we did this.  I believe she will speak tenderly to her past.  This future me whispers what she knows from experience and what I know from advice:  that it’s all fleeting.  I cannot seem to shake myself of the gravity of this truth. And perhaps I cannot shake myself from this truth because even now I hold this future wisdom.  By grace there are glimpses of eternity.  The baby I hold, holds me.

Within me lies the woman I will become– and perhaps it is she who whispers to me these truths I cannot shake.  All is well, she whispers gently, all is well because all will be well.

It is true we contain multitudes, for within us lies both past and future.  Within us lies the eternal Now.

“I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

“…And then I turned again to that other world I had taught myself to know, the world that is neither past nor to come, the present world where we are alive together and love keeps us.” – Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

” In every cell of our body, in every trait of our face, in every movement of our soul, our past is the present.”- Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now

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The Real, True Dulcie Campbell

It is believed that Plato and his Greek peers at times referred to God as “the really real.”

A few days ago Sophie brought back a picture book from the school library.  It was called The Real, True Dulcie Campbell.  On the cover a young girl in a red, gingham dress stood atop two large barrels of hay.  She clutched a thick, story book to her chest with one hand and a gardening pitchfork in the other.

The book opens: “One Saturday afternoon, when Dulcie Campbell was doing her chores, it occurred to her that a terrible mistake had been made on the day she was born…” Our main character finds herself amidst pig slop and chicken feathers, shoveling straw into a dilapidated chicken coop.  She belongs to a mother who wears “worn-out old bunny slippers” and a father who sports “scratchy whiskers” on his face and cow poop on his boots.  She’s got a brother who  “steals her underpants” and a dog “who sniffs people in embarrassing places.”

The chicken coop and the cow poop and the annoying brother are just a little too much for Dulcie.  So she reads.  She reads to escape.  She reads about princesses in silken gowns and royal thrones.    She figures she must have been switched at birth, right? The real, true Dulcie Campbell doesn’t belong in this mess!  So one day she declares to her family,  one fist poised high to the sky in a gesture of triumph– “I must go now to live the life I was born for!

I’m Dulcie.  Searching for the real me.  Convinced she’s to be found in some castle– perhaps with some prestigious post-graduate degree and a published novel under her belt.      In a home with coordinated vintage decor instead of honey-oak trim and 90s striped wall-paper. I imagine kids who bathe nightly and go to bed after one tuck-in.  I’m Dulcie- and I’m not getting my story from books, I’m getting my story from news feeds and advertisements and constant comparisons.

I’m Dulcie when I’m convinced I must go elsewhere to find my life.  When I search for myself anywhere but here.

But here’s the thing.  Dulcie marches off in her gingham dress and slouched knee socks clutching her book full of fantasies.  She finds herself in a barn-turned-castle and reads and reads.  And she becomes that princess.  And she discovers princesses are put through some crazy shit.  Sometimes they are forced by wicked queens to wear rags and sleep in ashes.  One was poisoned.  Another was locked in a tower.  And as Dulcie lives her fantasy, the barn-turned-castle begins to fill with terrible trolls and ogres– witches and wicked fairies.

But then, an epiphany.

Dulcie stares at all that evil, all that wickedness and says “Hey, wait a minute!”  A pause.  “If I’m not a princess, and I truly am not, then you guys aren’t real either.”  And the barn is a barn again.  Sure- it’s not a palace.  It’s milk pails and rolls of baling wire– it’s syrup stains and dirty socks, daily lesson plans and stacks of crudely written, to-be-graded papers. It’s reality.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

When I see my world for what it is– not for what I fear or hope it could be– it is true, I’m not a princess.  But the reality is that I’m here.  And when I see myself for what I am, I am able to see the monsters for what they are.  And they are milk pails. And dirty socks.  And crudely written papers.  Sometimes the monster is even narcissism or racism or fanaticism.  Or death.  But in the face of the real me, those villains are less villainous.  They are real– yes.  But being grounded in the realness of me has put them in their proper place.

And now– to conclude our story- something beautiful happens.

Dulcie is in the castle-turned-back-to-barn.  Far away, a voice was calling. ‘Dul-cee!  Dulcie Campbell!’  And faster than the West Wind, Dulcie ran out out to the barnyard.  She flew toward the sound of her real, true name.

I want to run to the sound of my real, true name.  I want to leave behind the fantasy of comparison, of earning self-worth, of proving myself to an audience who doesn’t matter. I want to fly toward my real self– faster than the west wind.  I want to return to reality, return to myself.  Because The Really Real is calling my name.

Can you hear it?  Can you hear your name?  Let’s run.

Quotations from The Real, True Dulcie Campbell by Cynthia DeFelice

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Jacob looks at Mae. “She looks older,” he says.  She lies on her back, legs bouncing unintentionally toward the ceiling.  Sharp, happy little coos.  Soft, baby breaths.

Open. Close.


A few days ago Jacob and I celebrated our 10th anniversary. He made pink pancakes shaped like hearts. He was sleepwalking and smelly, his hair in two large, unkempt, Wolverine-like waves.  After pancakes we watched our wedding video.  I saw my 22 year old self– all giggles, bouncing-shoulders, and smiles.  My posture was better then, and so was my tan.  Jacob’s tuxedo jacket hung over him like a blanket.  When Ellie noticed how he had ditched it later on at the reception she asked him, “Where’s your cape?”  Everyone was sweating in that chapel.  Everyone.

We did a lot of: “Wow!  Cousin _______ was only 5 then!  That’s younger than Sophie is now!” And “In another 10 years, Cohen will be 17!”  We watched as Grandpa Bud and Grandpa Joe and Katie took their turns walking down the aisle.  And we missed them.  Once again we marveled at the passing of time.  How a decade can pass by in the time it takes to open and close our eyes.

The day after our anniversary– yesterday– we went to the 100th birthday party for my aunt’s father.  I watched from afar (feeding babies again) as people formed a semi-circle around Mr. Anderson to sing him Happy Birthday.  Their voices were gentle in the large backyard, eventually soft as they found my ears.  They celebrated his life, and he looked at them and he cried.  And I am not sure, but he might have been thinking, “I blinked.  I blinked and here I am.”  And there he was, fully alive in his tears, fully grown into the beauty that is the world.

Open. Close.

Today Jacob got a chance to talk with his own grandparents.  He dropped them off at their house and they talked about Katie, about what life was like before and what it’s like now.  Grandpa Jake took his cane, pointed it fiercely at his granddaughter’s picture, and said in a voice both wavering and strong, “I look at that every day,” and with a pause, “And I talk to her.”  Then he shuffled into the next room.

Everyone concludes it all goes by in a blink.  And the especially wise don’t even say this anymore, perhaps worried that the cliche will steal the sacredness from truth.  I trust this when I hear it.  So I’ve tried something recently.  I take a look at what is around me– Jacob’s back as he lies in bed, Sophie squinting in her smudged glasses, Ellie methodically chewing a grape.  I close my eyes.  I open them.  Slowly- like how an artful cinematographer films someone who is regaining consciousness. I open them and close them, and they are still here.  The people I love.  I blink and something that can only be grace lets me see them even after I re-open my eyes.

Tomorrow morning we will probably look in the mirror.  Or at the sky.  Or in the eyes of a stranger.  Things that were once only coming will now finally be and will one day be no more.  May we see these things.

Open. Close.


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The Crazy

Bedtime– Family room–Sunset.

I’m feeding Everett– he swallows and slurps, his breath loud and content.  Ellie is screaming.  Cohen has taken her white shell necklace, and now he’s lying on the floor refusing to get up, refusing to change into his pjs, and refusing to give back the shells.  Sophie is trying to hold a conversation with Papa Gary on the phone, telling him how her favorite part of art class was making water lilies like Claude Monet and how she’s excited for her Moline birthday party.  She can’t really hear him over all the screams.

The call ends. Ellie has transferred into the land of the inconsolable, and getting upstairs is difficult (understatement) when Everett is eating and Mae prefers to be held as well.  Jacob sucks it up and tells Ellie to grab his neck and to not let go.  He will carry her up the stairs, piggy-back style, with Mae still in his arms.  She grips his neck and her feet dangle.

I finish feeding Everett and find the havoc that is our upstairs.  Ellie is still sobbing, her mouth stretched open so wide her bottom teeth are visible, crying that her nose is runny and she had to stop the boogers with her dress.  Sophie stares at me, head-tilted and twirling her hair, oblivious to her sister, and asks me, “What are you most excited for mama?  To decorate for my birthday or for me to go to art camp?”  Cohen has taken all of his sheets off his bed in order to curl up on his floor.  I convince myself that my decision to not brush teeth tonight is acceptable and does not make us savages.

I deposit Everett in his crib so he can listen to Jacob sing to Mae, and I return to Ellie, who refuses to wear my initial offer of a princess nightgown and reluctantly accepts a hello kitty top instead.  She requests the pacifier we have been trying to give up for months now (but who can deny that wide, crying mouth?) and makes her way into our bed to fall asleep.  I sing her “busy day” and Sophie stands next to us, clutching my neck in the middle of prayers and whispering to me, “What are you more excited for?  Cheerleading practice or art camp tomorrow?”  I answer her and pray some more and lead her to her room.  “Put on some pajamas,” I say, leaving her to stare at her dresser which is somehow still standing even though all six drawers are hanging completely out, waterfalls of underwear and swimsuits, skirts and pants and mismatched socks.  Another baby has started crying, and I pass Jacob in the hallway.  He kisses me hard and his breath smells of coffee and he makes me look him in the eye when he says “The crazy is good.”

I find Cohen still in his clothes. “You’ve got to change into your pjs,” I tell him, “You crawled all over the dirty gymnastics floor in those clothes.”  So he takes off his clothes and collapses naked onto the floor. He’s lying on a bunch of star wars figurines and I tell him he’s the opposite of the princess-and-the-pea.  “Seriously, you want to sleep on top of all those toys?  You can’t feel them??”  And he giggles and says no and finally puts on his underwear himself.  I start to leave his room and he says “Sing to me.”  “Daddy already sang,” I tell him.  “Sing me busy day,” he instructs again, ignoring my response.  So I start to sing about ninja camp and the rain storm and eating macaroni and cheese for dinner.  I start to leave and he says, “Now sing me ‘Love is Deep’ and ‘Amazing Grace’.  So I continue to sing.  I start Amazing Grace in a rush, like I’m stuck in fast forward, but then I’m somehow listening more than I’m singing and I slow down because it seems silly to sing a song about such sweetness when you are in a rush. Soph finds me, clings to my waist and starts to head-butt me in the back, and the moment is over.

I finally take Soph back to her room.  She climbs into her bunk, still in her ketchup-stained shirt from dinner. I tell myself to be okay with this, too.  We will bathe these barbarians tomorrow (Right?).  I pass up a giant stack of books and she requests a few more.  I leave her room, forgetting to sing and give kisses– but decide not to go back in, because she seems okay with that.

Now I’m back in our bedroom, Ellie already totally passed out while I type.  Jacob has finished the last verse of his makeshift lullaby, and all are asleep.

For some reason or another, or perhaps no reason at all, it seems like this year has been rough on people– way more rough than the first-world problems of tonight.  Death and depression, anxiety and sickness, boredom and busyness– sometimes strangely all at once.  I’m not sure why.  Kiss yourself in the mirror with your coffee-breath and whisper it: The Crazy Is Good.  Then hum Amazing Grace until someone head-butts you.

It sure beats not singing it at all.

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Shells and sand

Our last morning of our vacation: we emptied the remaining food from the fridge and stuffed dirty clothes into overladen suitcases.  I gathered up toothpaste and toothbrushes, the girls’ toy ponies, the babies’ receiving blankets.  I watched Cohen ever-so-carefully dump the shells he had collected into a ziplock bag for safe-keeping.  I grabbed a baby and held Ellie’s hand and followed the line of people that was my family down the stairs to where our cars were parked in the driveway.  It was only us and my parents who remained at the beach-house which had held over 20 people for the last week and a half.

The house had been a base for numerous pool games, ping pong matches, and gin rummy tournaments.  The kids would change from their clothes to their swimsuits and back again, moving back and forth from from the ocean, to the sand, to the pool like the waves in which they were splashing.  They ate too much ice cream and too many Cheetos and were giddy to be allowed to drink apple juice with every meal.  I managed to get out one morning to walk along the shore with Everett, his head buried in my chest, a blue sun-hat perched on his head and covering his eyes.  Our family triumphed in an escape room, spun out our tires at a go-kart track, and attempted to keep the kids from not going crazy on a harbor boat tour with chips and hotdogs.  Mostly, I fed babies.  But when the babies ate, I watched my dad laugh with his brothers, shouting out dad-jokes and clapping their hands, chortling with the simple truth that there was no where to be but here–eating ice cream and playing pool– with each other.

Now- the last morning of our trip– nearly everyone had left to return home and its responsibilities: some to Boston, to Virginia, to Maryland– most back to Illinois.  After carrying several suitcases down from our now empty house, in addition to several of the items that failed to fit into suitcases, I watched my dad take a Trader Joes bag to the side of the driveway.  He was by himself, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know I was watching him as he scooped up some sand to take home, letting it fall through his open palms to the bottom.  He folded up the bag and carefully placed it in the trunk of his car, sliding the excess sand from his hands to indicate the task was complete.  I remembered Cohen and how he packed his shells.

Cohen cried as the last bags were put into the trunk.  “I don’t want to go home,” he hiccuped, letting the tears run down his cheeks. I felt that way too, so I cried with him.  Annie Dillard found vacation weekends with her family so Beautiful it hurt her to watch them start, because she knew that with the beginning would come the end.  Which is silly, but also true.

Now I find myself in the midst of my “tired-thirties”. It seems nearly impossible to find a place in the car for the sand and the shells– let alone savor them. But while I’m here in this middle part of life, there lies just beyond my reach and recollection, a carefree past and wizened future.  And these seemingly opposing forces blur together, not so opposed after all.

Old men will still eat ice cream like kids, and I’ll feel the sand in my hands again.

“When you enter this life, I pray you depart, with a wrinkled face, and a brand new heart.”-U2


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Little and Big

Everett & Mae (or Crush and Maisy as we have taken to calling them) arrived in the world on April 14th, 2016– at the same minute.  Their arrival was anticipated (and delayed) for weeks, if not months.  Contractions all through March, a scheduled induction on the 13th which was pushed to the 14th.  A call in the middle of the night on the 13th saying they needed to push us back yet again (which we ignored).  A decision to have a C-section that was yet again delayed because the operating room was occupied in a birthing unit already operating at full capacity.  About an hour before their arrival, my doctor, a strikingly beautiful and unflappable Indian woman, asked me: “Do you believe in destiny?”  Numb from the waist down and foggy from my epidural, I didn’t know how to answer her. (But really- how can you?)  Before either Jacob or I could find words, she continued “Back in India people believed in destiny.  They would try to schedule their babies to be born at exact times for something like astrological fortune.  But their plans always seemed to be pushed back.  You remind me of them today.”

Destiny did hide in little pockets of the arrival of Everett and Mae– in between the puking and pain killers, the scrubs and the surgery– for some reason (dare I say it?) they both demanded to be born at the exact same minute– 8:55 pm.  It was as if they knew after all that waiting– after the delays and the false contractions and reschedulings– they both knew the best time to arrive was then.  Their near-simultaneous arrival not only surprised the doctors and nurses, but the hospital’s computer system as well– babies had to have a different  birth-minute in order to be entered separately into the system.  But not Everett and Mae- they needed to arrive at 8:55.  It was their destiny.

It’s hard to think about things like destiny when you change approximately 27.2 diapers a day and assign 47.7 time outs and pick up countless bits of paper off the ground because your children are fascinated by making things like tickets to fake movie theaters (eldest) and rose petals (first middle) and making circles (second middle.)  It’s hard to think about destiny when the pacifier falls out at 2:56, and then 2:58, and then 3:02 am from baby #1 and must be replaced when baby #2 hangs precariously from your left arm.  It’s hard to think about the Big Things when the little things continually barrage you– the smelly sheets and the cluttered mudroom and the mac n’ cheese that is getting carried away by the family of ants that has inhabited your kitchen.

But then you go finally get out for a walk and your head is swimming with all those little things and you barely have space to pray “Let me focus on what matters.  Let me say yes to the things that matter and no to everything else.”

And you realize the little things actually ARE or at the very least CAN BE the Big Things in disguise.  Things like Destiny, and Grace, and Love.

Little things like Cohen describing the recipes he wants to make, describing with detail upon detail about the “berry twirls” he learned about on Noodle & Doodle.  His voice still soft and gravelly from his tonsillectomy.  And how I hope he will talk to me like this even when he is older.  The brave way he takes his medicine and is concerned about all the homework he is missing and diligently starts the 10 page packet of word-searches he received (Yep, it’s the end of the school year.)  How his smile is like a beginner’s game of Tetris and how he’s growing like a weed out of his size 7 pants (which you can only hide at the top of his closet when he’s not looking, because he would wear them until he was 30 if we let him)

Little things like Sophie coloring at the table, writing the only words she knows over and over again– words like “I love mom and dad” and math problems she has memorized like “4 + 5 = 9”.  How she draws pictures of roses and tulips and enacts dramas with her ponies.  How– out of all the books at Barnes & Noble– she requests a chapter book with no pictures and says “Can I please read this in my bed tonight??” (Even though- as noted before– the only words she knows are words like Love and Mom and Dad.)  But I guess sometimes those are the only words she needs.

Little things like Ellie saying “poon” instead of “spoon” and “kunk” instead of “skunk” and how she enjoys reading the “crapbooks” instead of “scrapbooks” (Because, as my speech-pathologist friends would say– she hasn’t mastered her “s- clusters” yet.)  How on our date to Starbucks (excuse me– Tarbucks–) she bounces up and down on her knees and eats the top of her blueberry muffin by smashing it in her mouth like a Neanderthal.  How she passes gas and giggles and then gets distracted by a squirrel outside.  How we notice a stunning rainbow as we drive home and pull over and get out of the car so we can see it.  “Let’s take a picture!” I tell her, reaching in my pocket before I remember I left my phone at home.  “Aww darn.  That’s okay,” I tell her, “We can take one with our minds.”  I see her curls and her stained green dress and the round cheeks on the profile of her face.  Her hazel eyes match the greenish gray of the sky.  And then we look at the rainbow and say “click.”

People have recently often asked us “How’s it going?” (the ‘now with 5 kids’ is implied) and I don’t really know how to answer.  The simplest response might be, “Well, it is going.”  Because really, it just goes.  And I mean that in a good way.  Life goes– the night becomes the day again until night replaces day.  And I watch it and I get to be part of it– of the tiny things that are actually Big Things when you think about them.  About how this little life might just be my Destiny.

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Rain and tears

We are getting close.

Closer to diapers and midnight feedings.  Closer to swaddles and newborn cries.  We all feel it, and sometimes the anticipation feels like when both a mother and son recognize the first day of college is sooner than they think , or when a father and daughter know her wedding day approaches.  The anticipation rises and rises and the love we don’t know what do new with in the face of such a new beginning oft presents itself as impatience, frustration, and anxious energy that widdles away at already-shortneed  tempers and overstrung nerves.

Today was a day I could feel the anxiousness rising in all of us– in Ellie’s little punches, in Sophie’s refusal to lose in Candyland, in Cohen’s barreling through his sisters’ carefully created puzzles. All of the anxiousness feels kind of like someone holding your throat or squeezing your chest. We don’t need to be anticipating babies to feel it.  It’s the state of being overwhelmed, of thinking thoughts like “My children will never listen” or “This house will never actually be clean” or “I will never feel rested again.”

That’s the kind of day it was.  A day of thinking about the nevers.

But then we sat down and had soup around the table.  We spilled cheese and pretzels and turned on some music.  We talked about how the ice cream social is coming up at Sophie’s preschool, and I mentioned how Ellie would be attending not just as a little sister this time, but as an upcoming student.  Sophie tilted her head slightly and caught my gaze with her deep, brown eyes.  “So next year,” she said thoughtfully, “I won’t get to see Ellie on her first day….” She paused, “Because I’ll already be at Briargate?”  She ended what began as a statement with a question, and there was sadness in her inquiry. She wouldn’t be there.  With the little sister she’s spent every day with for the past three years– singing and puzzle making and coloring and cavorting with through countless imaginary places.  Ellie would experience something big without her, and she was curious and a little sad about such a change.

And I lost it.  The dam that held everything together through the day– the barrier bound with impatience and anxiety broke– and I melted at the goodness of the love that was Sophie caring for Ellie and Ellie emulating Sophie.  “I’m crying cause I’m happy,” I blubbered as all three kids gave me quizzical looks.  “I’m happy, I’m just so happy you have each other.”  Ellie got out of her chair at the opposite end of the table and ran to give me a hug.  Cohen followed suit and Sophie reached across the table to hold my hand.   As I hiccuped to catch a full breath of air amidst my sobs, I felt myself able to truly breathe for the first time all day.  What happened tonight at dinner was more real than all the chaos– all the not listening, the impatience, the messiness.  It all paled in comparison to what was GOOD in that moment.  

After dinner everything looked different.  That’s the only way I can explain it.  There were still unwanted punches thrown during after dinner wrestling, there was still a back up of dishes in the sink and a major unfinished project in the garage.  But my tears at the recognition of goodness kind of made all that stuff look silly.  I had prayed before dinner, “Thank you for the rain that makes everything new,”– and as the wind howled and the lightening flashed,  I realized the ground was not the only thing made new by water.  

In my waiting I had unintentionally created a desert– the arid air convinced me that the mirage of impatience and exhaustion was somehow real.  But water let’s you SEE reality in the desert, let’s you see the mirage for what it is: That the nevers are actually quite temporary and ultimately the LOSERS in the game.  The reality of love trumps the illusion of bitterness every time.   

So we continue to wait– all of us.  But I see the air is heavy with spring now–  I know that life is waiting to be unleashed.

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