I’m looking hard for Christmas this year. I feel my broken edges, sharp and pointy, and I’m tired and weary from the world. I’m needing something holy. I’m trying to find Jesus, trying hard to see the babe in swaddling clothes, the one who brings light and love and makes things right again.
Maybe Christmas looks like twinkly lights, strung along roof lines and spun around bushes. Is this holiness – these tiny dots of light, twisted and tied into a brighter picture? One small LED bulb isn’t much on its own, but step back a bit and I can see the shape of a reindeer, or the letters that spell out “peace.”
My small light isn’t much on its own, either. Sometimes, even, a bulb or two are missing or out. Maybe if I string my little light offerings with your little sparks we can step back and see His burst of glory, the grand story spelled out in twinkles. Peace for each other, one small light at a time.
Today I’m sharing with Christie Purifoy as part of her Advent Series. I’ve had the joy of visiting with Christie at her old farmhouse, and the kids got a kick out of collecting eggs from her chickens. I’m honored to be included in her beautiful community of writers. Today i’m writing about looking for Christmas, and ultimately it finding me in the most unexpected places. It’s about holiness. And light, and rock concerts.
Most people pass our house, the first time ’round. It sneaks up on you, this small white house in the middle of the hill on a busy road. I’ve been told that the road wasn’t so busy, years ago. I’ve been told that they used to sled down that hill, down the middle of that road. That was a long time ago.
We’ve lived in this house for eight years now. Eight years ago, it was just Mark and me and a dog and a cat. We knew we’d have a family, someday. We even figured this is where it would start.
We bought this house from an older woman named Helen. Helen was a widow who lived alone here in this house on a hill. No matter which way you come, there are stairs to contend with here. Drive in the garage, and you have to climb up the basement stairs to get to the living space. Stay out front and you have to climb the stairs with the sidewalk to get to the front door. These stairs were wearisome for Helen, and along with the upkeep of the house and grounds, she decided it was time to move along. I wonder what it was like for Helen, packing up and leaving this house. Do you know that her husband and his brother built it, concrete block upon block more than sixty years ago? Do you know that she raised three kids in this house?
That is the piece of the story that I’m looking at now, the part where Helen raises three kids here. Because what I can also tell you is that just after signing the papers and sealing the deal to make this house our own, I scoffed at the idea that anyone could raise three kids in this house! That was fifty, sixty years ago! My, how they did things differently! I simply could not see any way that a family of five could share this space here and now in the early 21st century.
Here I am, eight years later, raising three kids in this house, in 2014. I am tasting my very words.
If Spring and Summer push me out of the house and into the outdoors, then Fall and Winter draw me back in. Don’t get me wrong: we are a family who knows how to bundle up As long as the sun is shining (and sometimes even when it’s not) we throw on the extras and head out to play. It can take an extra dose of motivation, but it is almost never wasted. We reap the benefits of fresh air in pink cheeks and cloud-breath. Because here is the reality: this house is small. Certainly for three always-growing children who need to run and climb and kick balls.
Our cozy cape cod is beginning to feel like your favorite sweater that no longer fits.
It’s easy to see only the lack, to voice the complaints and ungratefulness. I can drive in most any direction and see much more than what I have, and nothing can rob joy like comparison. I would by lying to tell you that I am sweetly content in my space all the time, because I’m a real, human person, and gratefulness is work. Perspective is work. And when the three kids are each throwing super balls around the one main space we have for living, or they have, again, monopolized the furniture by turning it into a fort, or when there are bathroom emergencies with only one bathroom, it can be hard to find the right perspective.
“The very close quarters are hard to get used to, love weighs the hull down with its weight.” indigo girls
Love is our anchor here. I’d be foolish not to admit the close quarters, to call it like I see it. Because the quarters are close, and they are hard to get used to. But it’s this love that I come back to, again and again, when my frustration festers. When I put on my glasses and see through that lens of love, then I can remember what I know to be true. Yes, there are probably more slip and falls, more bumps and bruises, because we’re all running in each others space. But: we are in each others space. I am witness to the spun stories of kid imagination because they are told at the helm of this ship, where the kitchen meets the family room. If this was a different house, if these kids were playing in some far flung play space, I wouldn’t get to hold the treasure of these stories. It means that we play in collaboration much more, because you can’t build a tower or a fort or a robot alone when you have other kids breathing in at it, too. It means that we take turns choosing what music we’ll listen to, and we say sorry an whole lot. I think it’s making us in to the kind of people I want to be, and to be with.
I’ve had this other realization, too, about this space. I’ve been noticing the house in photographs, and I like what I see. When I take pictures of our life in this house, just the ordinary pieces things like the kids reading together, or a photo of a tower and its proud architect, our small space is there, as the backdrop. In fact, this background of a a house is starting to seem like it’s very own character in these pictures. I can see the book shelves that line the walls, with the curly cue black brackets. My eye is drawn to the hard lines of tables and chairs, and soft spaces of sofas and pillows. The arch above the hallway, the wood floor, the baskets that hold toys and books – each creates artful composition in this family space. As I’ve noticed these vignettes, I realize that I actually love this space. Seen in this small scale, I get this creeping warmth that makes me feel cozy and at home here. Sometimes, it’s good to take a different angle, see the whole scene differently, through a smaller square, focusing in on the details. This is the home we’ve created.
And then, just as equally, the opposite is true. Sometimes, it’s good to pull back that lens, and take in the wide angle panorama. This happened to me, too, this Fall, when we were all outside playing. The kids wanted to run up and down the hill, and I took a break from whatever yard work I had been doing to sit sort of mid-point on our hill and watch them. From all the way up here, I could hardly notice the busy road, which we often complain about. The weed-grass that can be utterly gross and frustrating just looked green enough to be a yard, any yard. The house is smaller, still. The trees tower so, so high over head and the sky and clouds above that, giving such a spacious and eternal feel to the whole thing. And with that perspective, it’s easy to feel just like the kids running on the hill, ready to lean in to the free fall and wait for liftoff. In those moments, I want to be no where else, live no where else.
How could you raise three kids in this house? This is how.
Oh Renee. You are five now. Which seems impossible and of course the only truth all at the same time. But I think we say that about every day of you. You are constantly miraculously surprising, and yet, so consistently yourself.
Renee, you have fun. Always. This year, you are part of a real-deal soccer team. No more clinic camp for you. You practice each Wednesday, and it is my absolute favorite thing to cheer your name loud and clear on Saturday mornings. You are there in your pale blue jersey, the littlest on the team, but no one would ever tell you that, and you don’t stop moving the entire time. Your skipping-run and wide smile say it all.
When there isn’t fun, you make it.
You are never bored, nor are you ever boring. Your ingenuity and imagination have me constantly chasing you down some rabbit hole. You tied your jump rope to a lawn chair the other day, then climbed up the ladder to the play house of the swing set, towing that lawn chair behind you. You were not even deterred when it became clear that the chair was too big to fit through the opening. You see all challenges as opportunities (and how did you ever learn to tie knots, girl?)
You collect. It hardly matters what: stones, sticks, bugs, tickets, books, words, stories, friends. But you know each thing individually, remember its story and significance, and can recount it to me with such conviction that I, too, can see it.
Your preschool teacher pulled me aside to tell me that she loves the way you talk about things – that you “prefer” something or other, for instance.
I write down what you say almost once a day. Because you are that amazing.
You have this ability to articulate so specifically, so accurately, and without the pretense of worrying how it will sound or what people will think. Your vast vocabulary lends itself to such directness.
Here is one of my favorite Renee moments: You climbed the ladder to the monkey bars on our swing set. You are quite capable of doing monkey bars, but the ones you like best are only five feet or so off the ground, giving you a bit more security in the whole venture. Ours soar above that comfortable height, and mostly you can motivate yourself to do some hanging before tucking back into safety. There you were, at the top of the ladder, gearing up to grab that first rung and swing out. And it’s in that moment where your vulnerability and articulation meet. “I’m trying to beat this trembling out of me” you tell me strongly, forming a fist and gently rapping at your heart. After a few false starts you back up again to stand tall on the ladder and declare “I still have this trembling!”
Renee, the ability to say those types of things, to put words to what it is you are feeling even if you don’t understand it and even especially when you can’t control it – that is magic. Use it well.
A few weeks ago we were driving into Philadelphia, which you affectionately call Center City. It was a beautiful fall day. The highway winds next to the Schuylkill River, and as the October sun was slanting low the light was glinting and sparkling off the water. Tall building began to rise up in front of us, and the train yard and Art Museum were coming into view. Your voice broke the silence of the back seat: “I like going into the city because I get to see things I haven’t seen before.” You are observant about things that never catch my attention. It is one of your best gifts. You help me really see.
You know how to party in style. For weeks you’ve been giving me tips about this year. The pictures hanging from the window, the pink streamers, the party hat with sparkles – it was all exactly to your specifications (and if wasn’t, you let me know). You know how to celebrate, and how to be celebrated. Renee, I have so much to learn from you.
Your birthday list included two teepees (a big one for you, and a little one for Little Bun). You asked for a set of belts for your birthday. Not just one belt, or some belts, but a set. And because ‘Bin is that amazing, she made sure that you had a set of belts for turning five.
And because, Renee, you turn me inside out with such joy, it feels selfish to keep it to myself. Here are some of your recent gems:
“He mads me out!”
“I’m trying to act, and respect, like a sheep.”
“Today I’m kinda feeling like a mommy…”
“It feels normal; it feels like the inside of a skunk,” telling me about the olives on the tips of your fingers.
“All night long there was fluff in my head, so I couldn’t read my own stories: my dreams.”
“Something is interesting: after I drink my tea, my teeth feel like a rug.”
Piglet says “I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” and that’s how I feel about every day with you, Renee.
I love you. Happy 5th birthday.
You can read more about Renee and her birthdays: four, three, and two.
The sun is setting early again, rising late like a teenager. It happens every year, of course, and I’m reminded of my own awareness of time. Just like the shadows stretch and change as the sun takes a lower path, the trees that create the shadows are stretching, too, taller this year than last. Watching these shadows this last year, I begged that I, too, would be changed. This world of ours moves not in a circle, but in an ellipse, and I didn’t want to be spinning endlessly anymore.
I couldn’t have known last September, or even in January when I choose my word for the year, what it was that I was asking of myself. I did not anticipate the things that would force change in my life, the things that would teach meaning. I did not know then the ways that I would seek out patterns out from seeming disorder, or the ways that I would choose wild adventure in the face of security. I could not have known the ways that my path was indeed being stretched beyond a circle. I did not fathom the shadows, the changing light, the shifting landscape.
I look at the poster in Griffin’s room now, the same one that inspired my word “Learn.” It is a Nikki McClure print, mostly black and white, of peas growing all tangeldy towards the sky. They are held up, woven through twine, as they stretch up. The print is called “Learn.” Learn. The pattern here is that those evenly spaced peas, with their curly-cue tendrils and delicate blooms, need to be trained up. They need to be supported, held in place, or else their sprawl would rot them into the ground, unable to get the sun, the air, the space that they need to grow into the fullest truth of what they are as peas.
What I know now, though, is that those peas are aggressive survivors. Vines have a life of their own, and they stake their claim on most anything that they make contact with. They wrap around in tight little curls, and it’s hard to tell where one tendril begins and another ends. It can be difficult to discern one plant from another.
The cucumbers in our backyard garden were like this: aggressive and productive. They reached out and wrapped around anything they touched. Yes, I had given them a general suggestion of support, an encouragement to grow where I wanted them to grow. But ultimately, they sought their own wild path. It was tangled, and involved almost every corner of the garden. Cleaning out the beds this past weekend, I was still surprised to find cucumbers dangling from vines that I didn’t even know existed. Those cucumbers didn’t need to be trained up. They could not be contained.
Maybe it’s not beautiful. Maybe it’s not the pattern that I was hoping to find, the neatly strung peas supported with twine, held in place, finding the space that they needed to grow into the fullest truth of what they are as peas.
There was the day a few weeks ago that I set about extricating a hydrangea bush from an aggressive vine. We had neglected this bush for years, and why I chose now to deal with it, I’m not sure, but there I was. Soon, I was buried deep in the green and brown shade of these plants, trying to parse out one from the other. It was muggy out, and soon the sweat was dripping into my eyes, down my neck. The work was hard. It was difficult to find the beginning of the vines, difficult to distinguish what was what. The vines were insidious and strong. This bush had been choked off from air and sunlight and I had little hopes for what would remain. When I eventually followed one vine around long enough to find a root, I used my weight to pull and dig to get it out. Sometimes, cutting one strategic piece would release a long tangled clump of green and brown. It was hard work, and I kept working.
This year it has been hard to know when to be a pea, allowing myself to lock on to supports and aim to reach benchmarks with predictability, and when to be a cucumber, full of life-force and tangled fruitfulness. It’s harder than I thought to know what to prune, to trim out and cut back, and what to allow to blossom. Can I even distinguish one plant from another? How can I tell which one is being choked out and which one needs to be pulled?
I found that hydrangea bush. It was still there, hidden under the cover of those aggressive vines. And it still had life in it. It wasn’t dead at all.
I haven’t been honest with you. It’s been difficult to be here, in this space, trying to write as though my life is the same as it’s always been. Because it’s not. I need to come clean with you (it’s the only way that I can find my way back to my voice again). What I need to tell you is this: Louisa died. She was only four months old. It was unexpected, and the absolute definition of tragic. She was, is, part of my tribe.
This has changed everything for me.
These months since, I’ve been carrying this deep awareness of time. It’s like I can see the hourglass tipping, watching as each grain of sand moves from the top to the bottom. I have only so many grains of sand, and once it’s gone I can’t ever get it back. I’m afraid of the scarcity; I’m fearful about waste. I want to know how to hold those moments, how to understand them and appreciate them. How can I recognize each grain of sand for the gift that it is, before it is gone, slipped right out of reach, never to be had again?
I am afraid of missing this life. I’m afraid I’m not holding it tightly enough, or loosely enough, or not having enough fun and wonder and glory, or having too much fun and not doing enough of the hard things. I fear the scarcity of the moments, that they will run out without warning, and that I’ll have regrets. I fear the risks involved to live the life I want to live, the life that will make my soul take liftoff. Because the only way to get liftoff is to get off the ground.
I don’t want to miss the adventure of my very life because my eyes are on the horizon scouting out the next one.
Here is my adventure: this prayer of exhale, the glory of rainy days and hide and seek games. The smallness of step stools at the kitchen counter, where arms reach and lengthen to stir the pot of soup. Mine is the adventure of darkness creeping over campfires, the perfume of wood smoke in our hair and our on our skin, the words spoken breathed as benediction to this life of smoldering love.
I’m coming awake to it all (this is my prayer).
It looks like this: awake my eyes are open wide to the wonders of it all – I’ve tasted the fresh harvest of the backyard garden, the carrots pulled from the dark of the earth, to be surprised by their length and girth even – faith fulfilled in the palm of a two-year-old’s hand. I’ve watched the sunset, night after night, rhythms to count on, vivid and wild colors fading to concrete darkness and then later, the promise of a new day. I’m coming awake alongside the dirt and the mud, the creek beds and rocks. I’m watching flower petals, spent and used up, riding the current of the creek as the gurgling bubbles tinkle soft lullabies. My prayer is in each step of the hike, each careful foot fall of climbing through fields of ancient boulders. Each inhale is an invitation for me see, each breath out a quiet thanks for it all.
Oh, I know I’ll have regrets. I’ll mess it up. Things will be hard. I’ll fall, and hurt; I’ll watch others fall and hurt. There will be worry. And maybe it’s naive of me to think that it all adds up, balances out. That the risks equal the reward. That the climb equals the view. But maybe it’s not.
The kids have this new fascination with the screen saver on the computer. It scrambles through the photos, and they stand all three in a line watching as they flash by. Grant is especially good at calling out, with specific detail, a narration of these photos. It’s kind of like watching a highlight reel of the last year or so. What I realized, though, is that these highlights look like life. Regular old life. We take pictures of things that nobody would have thought to take pictures of 20 years ago. We take pictures of cooking dinner, of swinging on the swings, of reading books on the couch. Photos are ubiquitous now, because we carry our cameras in our pockets. I think we know – weknow – that when we aim the lens, we are focusing on that very moment, calling it out for what it is. These very small, very ordinary moments form the highlight reel of the adventure of a lifetime.
I’m coming awake to it all (this is my prayer).
The glory is there, calls me in, bends me low in a whisper of thanks on the soccer field, the early evening slant of light catching the blades of grass, igniting the bodies that lengthen, reaching outward, burning up until they, too, show only glory revealed. The clouds, fluffy and weightless, part only enough to let heaven touch earth and in that moment all is free of care. I’m in it, my own arms and legs lost to the glory of stretching and running after them, giggling and chasing. And then I’m watching the scene, no longer in it, but next to it, writing it on my brain, closing my eyes tight to recall every detail: the scent of the freshly mowed grass, the shriek of Renee’s laughter, the warmth of the sun on my bare skin. I memorize their faces, the glow of their eyes, the sweat slicking their hair back from their faces. Oh, what a life.
Each morning for the past week or so, I look at the windows. I check the bathroom window, the bedroom window, anywhere I may catch a glimpse. I’m looking for our spiders. The ones who, last year, were committed to hemming us in, wrapping us up in their silken beauty.
Our windows are empty.
Our windows are empty and I am deflated. Instead of these painstakingly geometric works of art, I see only cobwebs. Junky and dust-like, they only serve to remind me of all the work there is to do, still.
After looking and hoping, I give myself over to the disappointment. My head is lowered, studying nothing on the ground, when I nearly walk straight into a web. It’s not covering our windows this year, but instead stretches widely across our front porch. Each bay of the porch, from baluster to baluster, displays the diligent work of these spiders. In the morning rush of getting out the door to wait for the school bus I stop abruptly in my tracks, holding the kids back, but they have already seen. Our eyes widen at the delicate precision of these webs – there are at least four of them. Last year’s spiders hemmed us in with their tight and exacting weaving, but this year on the front porch these spiders’ webs are expansive. The threads are almost invisible until the sun plays on them, and resting on each tight center is a fat, black spider.
These are not dusty cob webs.
After our silent admiration, and then our vocal oohing and aahing , we march down the stairs, continue on with routine. A hand slides down the railing, without thought or care. It knocks loose the anchor and just that quickly a web is torn apart. We suck our breaths in tight with the realization, and a hush falls over us. Tendrils of the web float out with the breeze, weightless in the air. It was an accident, this destruction. I anticipate tears from any one of us, but I am wrong. No one cries.
That evening, I’m reading aloud on the couch with the Griffin and Renee, trying to corral the energy of overtired bodies and minds. I trip over my words as my eye is drawn to the movement I see out the front window. From my place on the couch, facing out into the world, I can see the busy movement of the spider, the one whose web was knocked down early this morning. His black silhouette looks like a paper cut-out except that it is moving so fast. Quick and deliberate, but not hasty and worried. I continue the story, leaning on my memory of a book I’ve read countless times, but my eyes don’t leave the spider. A selfish thought enters my mind – I don’t want to share this moment. But then I remember the morning, the oohing and aahing, how quickly it all disappeared. I show them. We stay on the couch, watching the spider rebuild.
Oh, Mark, today you turn thirty six. You were eighteen when I met you, eighteen when I fell in love with you and you with me, and somehow now it’s eighteen years after that. Aren’t we still those teenagers, swept up in the whirlwind of romance and hot summer nights? I think we are. Since then we’ve become grown-ups in this world together, or are we just playing house? Maybe that’s the same thing. You do the math, and now we’ve hit that point in both of our lives where from here on out it’s more together than apart. We are just as much a part of each other’s growing up, growing out, now.
You turned 18 and I made you a mix tape. Songs were a love language of mine, still are. We still have that tape, and I’ll be sad the day when we own a car that no longer has a tape deck. 18 years ago we listened to that tape, saying so much without having to say anything, while you unwrapped your other gift – a picture of us, probably our very first together, in a frame with a hand-painted mat around it. I scrawled a quote around it, though these 18 years later I don’t remember what it said. I still think you’d love a mix tape and a picture more than most other things I could give you.
Who knew then that we’d be celebrating the rest of our birthdays together?
Maybe you remember when we felt like the Beach Boys were singing our anthem when they would sing, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” If we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. We leaned into this getting old part, hoping that it turned the key into our future together. And it did. Maybe we are just getting what we asked for. Is it that simple?
When I was cutting your hair last week, I noticed gray hairs poking through. We laughed at them, and I maybe you’re thankful you keep your hair so short that it’s mostly unnoticeable. Later than night, lying in bed, I wondered what you’ll look like when that gray comes in longer, thicker – silver fox, wise and lithe and strong.
I can’t believe my own goodness because the creases along your eyes, weathering your face, have only strengthened your rugged handsomeness. Your face has been chiseled well with the years. Those crinkles along your eyes are from your deep and abiding smile, your ridiculous and uncontrollable laugh. I’ve watched that smile for years, I’ve known that smile forever.
You’ve been a runner for as long as I’ve known you. Like all things, your running has ebbed and flowed. This summer, though, you set your sights, you aimed and fired, and your work and training were solid. I’ve seen you run and run without much thought, without the right training, and never pay a price. In fact, mostly you’ve been rewarded. But even with this year’s solid base, that commitment to do things right this time, your knee didn’t agree with you. Is that your age showing, throwing down the gauntlet, begging for the challenge? 36 is not 18. Though that knee wanted to lay down and give up just two weeks before your big race – that last race of the season, the one you set your sights on – you kept fighting. You pushed through. 18 is not 36.
I’ve been doing some rearranging in the house lately, (no surprise), and I emptied out on old chest that had been our coffee table. Inside were dozens of photo albums. The top layer had books of the kids, but as I dug deeper there were scrapbooks from the first few years of our marriage. The kids and I yanked them out and sat on the couch turning each page carefully as I fielded questions. They are all so curious about this life that we had before them. These are our stories in here, which makes them their stories too. These are the stories that maybe someday will be told to grandkids, to anyone who will listen. I began telling our stories.
There is a picture of you, and then of me, standing in front of a frozen waterfall somewhere near Lake Wallenpaupack that one winter when we went away, a gift from your folks. It was a tough time for me, and so for us – my parents were splitting, and it felt hard to walk, to move forward, as if there was no floor, no ground. We explored crazy antique stores and saw the movie, “Chicago” in a tiny movie theater in the rain. You remember, of course, the ceiling fell in while we were sitting there, dumping water into that theater and you knew it would happen the whole time. You eyed that bulging ceiling tile, catching the rain from some leak somewhere, and you knew that it would burst. We laughed when it happened, people shrieking around us in surprise, and continued to eat our popcorn.
With those photo albums on my lap, I studied our faces, our postures. Our eyes. We were young, yes, but that’s not so much it. Sometimes I think that I am, we are, so entrenched in this life of small children, in the parenting and the work of this family, that it’s like wandering around up close to the world. The details are beautiful but wildly abstract and out of proportion. It’s not until I step back that I can see the panorama of life where we are – to see how this piece fits into our beautiful puzzle. Our puzzle is big, baby, and from where I am it’s easy to lose track of things. But we’ve laid our corners, put our border pieces together, and we’re filling in the rest, piece by piece.
This year, we’ve been picking up the pieces of the puzzle, examining them up close, feeling their edges and figuring out what belongs. There have been many that don’t. The life lessons have been strong this year, not for the faint-hearted, and our days are numbered, all of us.
There is that famous line by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” We are growing old together, yes, but I’m not convinced. What if the best is right here, right now, wherever we may be? The best was when I was 16, you were 18, and you drove too fast in your batmobile car through my sleepy neighborhood. That was the best.
The best was when we I waited for you at the top of College Hill in the dawn, a whole college campus asleep except us, that very first time you drove up to see me in college. That was the best.
Was it the best when we struggled to find each other, to find our place in the world, to unleash purpose in our hearts? What about then? The mountains of Colorado, dense forests along the way, the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Something tells me that, yes, that was the best, too.
The best was when you turned 30, and tiny Grant and I waved at you while you soared above our heads strapped into that contraption with the big motor and a gigantic parachute stretched out behind. Paraflying, you were free like a bird. That was the best.
Today, singing an off-key happy birthday to you around a campfire, this is the best.
And if we’re lucky enough to see thirty six plus thirty six make seventy two, I have a feeling that that will be the best, too.