a thrill of hope

It doesn't happen all that often, but sometimes it does. I blink my heavy eyes and roll out of bed, one foot at a time - I slip out of my too-big-but-perfectly-lived-in pajamas and into stretchy black shorts that make me wince because my legs feel like sausages, stuffed into too-small cases. They used to be strong, but they aren't anymore - and I remind myself that I need to start running again.

I pull the pink mat out of the closet and kick Ellie's toys under the loveseat. I roll out the mat, find my water bottle and start the DVD. I sneak a peek at the sleeping baby and whisper a prayer that she stays quiet, and slowly and softly pull her door shut. Click.

And then I begin with child's pose and for the next 30 minutes I stretch and sweat and loosen my joints in a quick but brutal yoga sequence, starting the day with a liturgy of motion that lulls my breath into rhythm and quiets my ever-spinning mind.

__________________

I haven't written in a while. It's been a whirlwind of days, measured in living a life that I've missed like crazy the last 3 years. We're home and while we haven't unpacked all the boxes, it has taken a surprisingly short amount of time to unpack our souls, to settle into the pace of community and work and family and favorites.

And I'm tired. I'm sore. The last 3 years have been an extended stretching, a re-sorting of my life and priorities, and I feel like every knot in every muscle has been rubbed out but my body is feeling the weight and the work of that.

Despite the meta-level amazingness of this last year, the birth of our snuggly and wonderful baby girl, the long-awaited phone call that brought us whirling home, the joy of being back in the daily presence of old friends - I would say this has been a hard year. Our dear friends lost their baby; I wrestled mightily with post partum depression and anxiety; I went through an extended and very difficult season at work - a season that brought out the best and the very worst in me and everyone with whom I work; Price has yet to recover from bells palsy, which means he looks and talks different than he used to, and he is in pain far more often than most people know.

And I have, for the second time in my adult life, gone through an extended period of doubt. It's like I lost my footing, and I was wobbling on the edge of faith and fear, not sure which side I would land on.

I remember driving to Target on a Sunday afternoon last January, and the only thing I could scream with tears racing down my cheeks was - Jesus, be real. Jesus, be real. Jesus, please be real.

That has been my chorus, my lockstep-with-every-breath prayer for the last 11 months and counting, the refrain that beats with my heart.

I don't know what He is doing in me. I don't know why faith is hard for the first time. I know that it is getting better, day by day, but that it requires more of me than it ever has - at a time when I have less to give than I ever have. I keep praying the words of Hosea 6 -

“Come, let us return to the Lord;
    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will raise us up,
    that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
    his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
    as the spring rains that water the earth.”

This passage is not easy. He has torn me. He has struck me down. I need to be healed, revived, bound up, raised.

But God isn't easy. Faith is not easy. I remember the Apostles, filled with fear and trembling, and the coming of the Spirit to fill them with strength. I remember Thomas, filled with doubt, needing to touch the open wounds of Christ to fill his soul with faith. I remember Peter, saying "no" three times, needing the gentle correction of his Savior to fill his heart with surety. 

I have memorized Lamentations 3:22-23. I recall it on command so many times a day, praying it with my meager faith and my skeptical heart, praying for all things new in me.

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness."

Doubt lingers, like the bitter taste of three-day-old wine, offending my senses with the first sip. I watch the news again, and I break into pieces. Where is He, and why is the world so so broken? How are His promises real? Jesus, please be real.

We squeeze into the crowded rows of our old church, in the center-front, a few rows up from where I stood that February day years ago and felt Him speak louder than every before, when His presence was a real to me as the person standing next to me. And tears smart in my eyes because I want that innocence back, that simplicity that made faith easy. And I know in my heart that it won't ever be that way again, that I will wrestle like Jacob with the person and work of God for the rest of my life.

We sing Oh Holy Night. My heartbeat quickens, my palms sweat. It's hot in here, but it's a strange warming that has me pause.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

They felt this too, those long-ago hymn writers. I open my new prayer book of the Psalms by Tim Keller each morning, and I read of David's doubt and faith, swinging back and forth like a pendulum, keeping time with his moods. And I am not alone. I am claiming the ache of the ages, the promise of a King who will come like spring rains.

It is Advent, and I am weary. My muscles are sore from the last 3 years. I am stretched out and fragile. I am ready for my King to come.

running with ghosts

seneca park path

I laced up my sneakers and breathed deep. I downloaded the latest episode of Marketplace, cued up Kai, punched the orange button on my phone that logs my miles, and started to slow jog. 

I’m reclaiming myself, I thought. 

Finally. For months I’ve been feeling so utterly disconnected from everything in my life, like I’m watching from a corner as my days unfold without me - I’m mute in the corner, screaming with no sound at it all to pause or slow down or something, but the world is still spinning and it won’t stop, not even for a second. 

I set off and as soon as I turned the corner, the truth slammed into me like a truck. 

You can’t reclaim yourself.

My feet hit the pavement and with each beat and bead of sweat, it became more and more clear. 

It’s not the same, and it never will be. 

___

Something happens when you have a baby for the first time. You get a baby, of course, but - at least I’ve found - you lose yourself. 

Every routine, every selfish tendency, every ounce of physical and emotional freedom, every carefree spur-of-the-moment ability to have a dinner date, a phone call, even a hot shower - these little and big things disappear, drowning in a sea of newborn cries and sleepless nights and fear and faith and all the things. 

It’s like for the past few years life has been a dandelion, round and full of white puffs, waving in the sun - and here and there a puff dances off on a gust of wind because life and priorities change, but then all at once a great huff sends every bit flying in every which direction, and there you are - a stalk, bobbing in the wind. It is utterly delightful to be wrapped up, physically and emotionally, in a tiny screaming babe, who smiles and giggles and shouts. But you aren’t you anymore, because of all of her. Will you bloom again? Yes. Will it be the same? No. 

It is utterly disorienting, like waking up with the same body but with an entirely different brain … and if you’re like me, a brain whose synapses start firing differently, awkwardly, awash in a flood of funky hormones, and they don’t quite click back together the way they are supposed to. 

And so from the first days after Ellie was born, I have felt like I have been running a marathon back to who I used to be - desperate with each step to grab onto anything from the past, anything that feels normal, anything that feels like home. 

And it has gotten better, as she has grown and my body has smoothed back into place (sort of, in some places but certainly not all) and my work has gotten back up to speed and we can usually at least bring her out to dinner or to the grocery store or to Target. I can catch glimpses of how it used to be and buy into the lie that we’re on our way back to the old normal. But it’s not the same, and it never will be. 

I’m running with the ghosts of my old self, trying to keep pace with everything I used to be and do - and as is often the problem when you measure your worth by doing and all of the sudden you can’t do, at least not like you used to - I’m falling so far behind it feels like I’ll never catch up.

______

When Ellie smiles, her entire face explodes with joy. Sometimes it takes her a minute to get it just right. Her stunningly blue eyes will engage, the corners of her plush rosy lips will turn up, and then it happens - magic. Sometimes a giggle will squeak out from the back of her throat, deeper and richer than I think a little girl baby’s giggle should sound, but it is, of course, perfect. 

I do everything one-handed, and everything takes approximately 15 more steps than it did before. 

We used to always run late for everything. That hasn’t changed, we’re just even later now. 

I get tired. It's hard work, this new parenting thing.

But she’s mine. She’s ours. Her personality is bigger than I ever thought possible. She is curious and fast, she likes to speak her opinion loudly and will squeak and squawk for minutes at a time. She’s a Rainer, through and through. 

She’s my girl - my bright, beautiful, crazy, wild, magical girl. 

And as every day requires me to lay down more and more of myself, to pour out physically and emotionally and spiritually everything that I have, to wear myself out in the service of this tiny babe who looks like me, and sounds like me, and I hope wonders and wanders and fights and thinks and loves like me, it makes sense to me now. 

I’ll never reclaim myself, because I am no longer just me. 

I’ll never reclaim our marriage because we are no longer just us. She is us, we are us. We are richer and braver and stronger and weaker and a hell of a lot more tired all at the same time. 

1+1=3, now. Our two-piece puzzle now has a third piece, and all 3 of us won’t fit in the same frame that the two of us used to. And so we can’t reclaim it, but we can do the harder work of reframing … of making room in already full hearts and lives for a little one who makes it all so much brighter and better. 

It’s not the same, and it never will be. 

 

adventures in pretending we know what we’re doing, volume 1

Chapter 1

In which we decide to build a garden.

monster squash

monster squash

Price built me a container bed that runs along our side of the neighbors’ fence. At least, we think the fence is hers, not ours. Primarily we believe this because the fence on the other side of the house looks different, so we assume that one is the other neighbors’. 

In case you were wondering, we are “those people” on the street, whose grass always gets a little too high before we mow. (Or really, before he mows, let’s be honest about our use of pronouns.)

Currently there’s a small strip of totally unnecessary earth on the left side of our house, if you’re looking directly at it from the street. I will never understand why they didn’t pave the driveway all the way to the edge of the house. But they didn’t, and weeds grow there, and now the weeds are so tall we can see them through our dining room window. 

And so, given our clear propensity toward immaculate yard-keeping, we decided to build a garden. 

Because, vegetables, you guys. 

Also, it's part of this whole “buying into the Pinterest/American/HGTV dream,” which - by the way - we’re finding out is not really our dream. 

But I digress.

And look at apartments by the river in my free time. Because yard work, you guys. 


Chapter 2 

In which we shop for plants.

We don’t do anything without crazy amounts of research (it took me, I kid you not, 3 weeks to choose which brand of baby spoons/cups/plates/bowls to buy for Ellie. 3 weeks. And every time I asked Price for help, he said - it’s ok to do your research. This is a big decision. Agggh.)

Copious research completed, and armed with a diagram of my garden bed with little drawings of each type of vegetable thoughtfully arranged with its ideal companion plants, we entered Home Depot.

And then it happened. I saw all the plants. Then I saw all the seeds.

Price was off doing what he should have been doing, sticking to the list and talking to the crotchety-old-Home-Depot-guy-who-knew-everything-and-knew-instantly-that-we-knew-nothing about the best type of lumber with which to build our raised bed. 

But I was greedy, eyes glazed over with the thought of all that I could grow in my little bed. And so I looked down at my sketch, and back at the seeds, and snuck a few extra things in my basket. 


Chapter 3

In which Price throws away the pumpkins.

The bed is built - wonderfully, I might add, except that we decided to make it longer than originally planned and now it’s only half-finished, but the one half is full of mostly healthy plants, so I consider that a win. 

But back on the day we made the bed, I laid out all of the plants and seeds I bought and sorted them with all the companion planting wisdom I could find on Google. 

“I think I’ll put the pumpkins on the end,” I said.

“PUMPKINS?” Price asked, incredulously. 

“Yeah! Pumpkins!” I said with cheer. 

“Do you know how big pumpkins get?” he asked, opening Google on his phone as he spoke. He showed me Google’s response. I shrugged it off, but I felt the pit of embarrassment growing in my stomach. 

“Well, pumpkins are good companion plant for corn,” I said with confidence.

“CORN?!?!?!” Price responded, half with amusement, half shaking his head. “What kind of rednecks do you think the neighbors will think we are when they look over the fence and see corn stalks poking up?"

“Cool urban farmers?” I offered. 

“No.” was the only response I got. 

I continued to work, reading the packets and plant markers, figuring out how far apart they said I should plant each thing, and then over-confidently deciding that surely each plant didn’t need that much space, and figuring I could cram them all together in my little 16x2.5 foot bed. 

Then I got to the pumpkin seeds, and raised an eyebrow at the front of the packet which proclaimed in all caps - BIG MAX. 

Gulp.

I flipped over the seeds and read - the very thing that I should have done a day earlier at Home Depot, but I didn’t because OHMYGOSHWECANGROWPUMPKINSWHEEEEEEEE, am I right? 

“Big Max pumpkins can grow to be 100 lbs!” I read.

And then I laughed until I couldn’t breathe, and handed the packet to Price, who shook his head and threw the packet on the ground.

“No.” He repeated.

I wonder if those pumpkin seeds made it to the landfill, and if one day the paper packet will biodegrade as all paper products do, and if one or two of those little seeds will sprout up amongst all the trash and then some kind landfill employee will look over and see hundred-pound pumpkins growing all around. 

Probably not, but it’s kind of fun to think about. 


Chapter 4

In which I am afraid of the rain. 

Later that week, we climb into bed and I hear the rain start to fall - harder and harder and harder. 

“Price! What if my plants drown??? They are so small and weak!"

Price: “I’m pretty sure water is good for plants."

I’m very anxious. This seems logical, but it’s just raining SO HARD. 

Price: “I don’t know anything about gardening, but I do know that plants need sun and water. I think it will be ok.” 

The next morning, the plants are ok. Obviously.

In fact, it rains every day for a week after my little garden is planted, and the plants get bigger and stronger and I think - maybe we can actually do this.


Chapter 5

In which we are warned about squash and mint.

Apparently, mint is of the devil.

I don’t even really like mint all that much, but I like mojitos. I also like appearing to others like I know what I’m doing about basically everything, and being able to successful grow herbs (or anything) in my garden seems like one of those things that I would like to be proud of. 

And so I planted four types of herbs, based on my taste as well as what the Internet told me about companion planting, but apparently no one on the Internet warned me about mint. 

They did warn me about squash, but of course I didn’t listen. 

When I excitedly told my mom about everything I planted, she stopped me when I got to mint. 

“Mint will take over your garden. Not kidding,” she said. My mom is a successful gardener. In fact, one summer when I was a teenager my parents planted a massive garden in the backyard. My dad planted 30 tomato plants (for real). We gave away tomatoes to everyone we met, all summer long. 

“Ok,” I thought. 

A week later my mother-in-law, also a successful gardener, came to visit. “Oh that mint,” she said. “You should pull it up now. It will take over your whole garden."

I started to believe them, and for the last three weeks the #1 item on my agenda has been rip up mint, move to container

Has it happened? Of course not. So maybe the mint will take over, and we will give up gardening forever and just make mojitos every night. And then everyone will come over and drink our mojitos, which is kind of the same thing as giving away tomatoes all summer except that mojitos are better. 

My mother-in-law also seemed hesitant about the squash. I planted 4 squash plants, approximately 18-24” apart. This seemed reasonable to me, as I didn’t have room to put them 48” apart like the container suggested, and I assumed at least 2 of them would die. 

This was, in fact, the guiding principle of planting my entire garden. At least half of this will die, so I might as well plant as much as I can.

I went out of town for a week and came back, and not only were all 4 squash plants thriving, but they were HUGE. 

Oh well. 

They are, as I type, brimming with bright yellow squash blossoms. The mint is out of control and I again plan to remove it from the garden this weekend. We’ll see if I get around to it. 

My poblano plant and a cheery cherry tomato plant fell over last night in an epic downpour (I knew too much rain was dangerous), so I need to tend to those first if the rain ever stops. 

I’m still suspicious of too much rain. I’m rather concerned about the size of my squash plants, and I’m still pretty skeptical that I will get any sort of harvest at all anyway (except for the mint, of course). 

But it’s an adventure, and we don’t really know what we’re doing, but I think we will figure it out or at least have fun trying. And that’s kind of what life is all about anyway.  

The End


To Ellen

To Ellen, on the occasion of your 4 month checkup - which is by no means any spectacular kind of event to the watching world, but in our own little world of everyday magic - when a smile is equivalent to a double rainbow and a giggle is as remarkable as the eruption of a long-dormant volcano - it is no doubt a proper occasion for a letter.

I haven’t written much about you and while I could come up with an abundance of excuses, the truth is I don’t quite know what to say. Because you are here and you are you and I never could have imagined it would be like this. Even as we meticulously researched every item on our registry, as we prayed each night for the little bean growing in my belly, as I struggled with my ever-expanding flesh and wondered if indeed things would ever feel normal again, it was never this - this wild and magical new normal that we're discovering together.

It was exactly 1 year ago that we found out you were coming … when I stumbled out of bed, bleary-and-teary-eyed and called to your dad from the ugly green bathroom in our St. Louis rental. He assumed I needed him to kill a bug - the high-pitched almost panic in my voice tinged with the softness I use when I call for him, because I know he will always be there and it will be okay, come bug or baby. But it wasn’t a bug, and it was a baby, and we stumbled through the next 9 months with alternating optimism and terror, with tears and with joy. 

And it feels to me we’re still stumbling very much on the same path - optimism and terror, joy and grief, feeling utterly incapable and totally equipped at the same time. Because now we know you - you are us, you are a lot of him and a lot of me, and a little bit of just you mixed in for good measure. Your personality is blooming like the tulips in our backyard - loud and bright and beautiful. 

It is a gift everyday to be your mama. And yet it’s a gift I’ve been hesitant to unwrap, like all beautiful things. It’s like putting on a jacket that doesn’t quite fit yet - the sleeves are a little too long, and I’m not quite sure about the color. Because it’s new and it’s different, and wearing it means that I am new and I am different. And new and different isn't always easy for me.

You always hear those stories of parents whose lives change the second they see their baby for the first time. Of course, my heart did - but it was not the rainbow-filled, love-rush, estatic, life-altering, love-at-first-sight kind of moment they warn you about. It feels more like I’m wearing you in like a new pair of shoes that you love more and more with each passing day because they fit better than they did at first. You wouldn’t know, because you don’t wear shoes … but one day you will, and the metaphor will make sense.

We could blame it on hormones, which crashed into me like a hard spring rain on a tin roof for the first two months of your little life … days that were so lost in an utter fog of ALL THE FEELINGS and family and not even knowing which way was up. Days where we breathed in-and-out prayers for friends who were at the same time losing their grip on their new little baby, when I would grab your hands tight and pray for “your best friend Everly”. And sometimes still I break down in tears when I change your diaper, or when I find spit up in my pocket, or when you fall asleep in my arms because it is so sweet and so painful, the beautiful mundaneness of diaper changes and nursing and google-searching at all hours of the night. I wring out my lament with your poop-stained clothes, my tears flowing down with the water from the sink, washing away the stains but not the scars. And I take deep breaths and I ask God where he was and what he was doing and why them and why not us, and I scoop you up and whisper that you’ll meet her one day and it will be just like you were friends all along, because that’s how it will be in the Kingdom of God. 

Your name is Ellen Rose, for the strongest women I’ve ever known - your great-grandmothers, stubborn nurses both, who would have loved with you with the fiercest, most stunning kind of love. And so we named you for them, laughing all the while that if you turn out to have half the personality of either of them we’re in for a bumpy ride. You are the new (the next?) generation, named for the old - for the flagship matriarchs of our beloved families. And I pray every day over your sweet little head that you will be big and strong, that you will love the Lord, that He will use you in mighty ways. And when I think about how much my grandmother would have adored every inch of you, I feel that tingle again, of loss and grief. Yours will be a story of joy, of reclaiming pieces of those sad places in our hearts that appeared when we lost Jean Ellen and  Helen Rose. Because we finally found a way to honor them that salves some of the wounds, that allows them to live again, that gives their legacy a fighting chance to be carried forward into new days. Because love like that - and like this - deserves to be remembered. 

And so to you, my precious one, my Ellie-Jelly Bean, my Ellen Rose, Ellie Belly, the baby rapper known as Lil’ Smilee, thank you for each day, for putting up with your crazy and wildly unprepared parents, for giving daily grace to a new mama whose not quite sure what all of this is, but whose heart is waking up a little more every morning. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift, and may we steward it well all the days of your life.

Happy four-months-and-a-few-days to you, dear one.

 

 

 

on fixing and faith

Friday night we fought sleep and selfish hearts as we rocked ... and rocked and rocked and rocked ... our fussy baby for what seemed like (and was) hours. It was a hard night, thankfully one of only a handful we've really had since the very early newborn days. I think we're pretty lucky as far as fussiness goes - but then, this is the first baby we've had, so we don't really know.

It is a privilege every day to wake up to her chubby cheeks and just-now-turning-blue eyes, blue eyes like her mama's and her daddy's, blue eyes that seem to hold our entire world in their blueness.

I have a friend who likes to say, "motherhood is sanctifying." I can think of nothing closer to the truth these days, these days dulled by quietness and rhythm, and punctured by cries that bounce of the blue walls of our house and land like bombs directly on the carefully constructed idols of perfection that guard my heart.

I like to fix things. I like to find out what's wrong, rationalize the pain/suffering/brokenness, and then I like to fix.

My mom pointed this out to me last week when we were home, and Ellie Rose had started fussing up a storm at seeming all hours of day and night. To google I went, and I searched and I read and I wondered and I searched some more. "I think this is it!" I said. "Infant fussiness peaks between 6-8 weeks. That must be what's going on," I rationalized.

My mom smiled.

"How did you ever parent without google?" I wondered out loud.

She smiled again.

"You can research too much, you know." She said. "Sometimes babies are just babies."

But when my baby cries and I can't figure out what's wrong, when the usual tricks don't lull her to sleep, when her reflux flares up and she cries out in pain and then cries even harder while I give her her medicine, I feel like it's me that has failed.

When we were first home from the hospital, Price prayed over us one night, our new little family. And he prayed that we would not try to fix our baby from being a baby. It was profound and prophetic, and it's something I still have to pray every day. 

It's not just with Ellen, either. I like for there to be a reason for suffering and sadness, if those things have to exist at all. I don't like to think that it just happens, the result of brokenness in the world that we can't control. If I hear a sad news story, I research it more - trying to find the action that caused the sadness, to rationalize it away. When friends or family are sad and there's nothing I can do about it, I disconnect.

Sometimes things are so broken and unfair and there's no fixing them. And I don't like those things. I struggle to enter into that brokenness. I don't know how to deal with it. Numbness takes over and freezes out not only the sad, but the joy. If it can't be fixed, numbness is the next best thing. Because then I don't fail. But the sad isn't always mine to fix, or sometimes it just can't be done.

When we were preparing for parenthood, we went to a class at Covenant where the professor stressed that we are to love our children the way God loves us, to live out his love in a tangible way so that they may see him and know him.

I remembered that the other day, when we were driving in the car and Ellie started screaming. Just all-out, top of her lungs, the world is ending screaming. And I smiled at her, scrunched up in the back next to her car seat, in the glow of headlights shining in the raindrops dancing down our windows. I smiled because I knew she was frustrated and sad, but I knew it would be ok. We would make it home. I would feed her, change her dirty diaper, and snuggle her to sleep.

But she didn't know that, and she didn't understand my smiles or my whispers that it would all be ok, that I knew what she needed and I had a plan to take care of it.

And that's when it hit me, that at least at this stage of our lives, this is what it means to love like God loves us ... and that this is how God loves me every day. He sees the brokenness. He sees my friends with utterly broken hearts, and he knows I don't know what to do or say other than "why?" and "help." He sees the fears that keep me up at night, the idols that keep me a safe distance from him. He sees me kicking and screaming, fighting, fearing.

But he loves me, he knows what I need, and he has a plan to take care of it.

One day, we'll make it home. Everything will be ok. But in these quiet, desperate days, I just want answers and the ability to fix. And there aren't always answers or rationalizations. I don't always have the ability to fix. So I'm praying for the faith to trust the One who does.

"There is good news, there's a promise that no matter where you go, you will never be alone.

In the dark, in the doubting, when you can't feel anything, oh his love remains the same.

As sure as the sun will rise and chase away the night, his mercy will not end."

Ellie Holcomb, As Sure as the Sun