We are rounding the bend. We are nearing the end.
These sacred days will soon reach their fulfillment.
With Christmas on the near horizon, I am so pleased to offer you this Advent story from my friend and fellow writer, Bonnie O’Neil.
The memories come flooding back to me, as they do on many a cold, dark December night. Flashes of a night, just like this one, many years ago. I was younger then, bright-eyed, full of hopes and big dreams.
The streets are deserted, save for my husband and me. I hear the click-clack of my soles on the cobblestones and press forward, click-clack, steady on. My feet, I cannot see. All is belly, swollen with the joy of life inside of me.
The wind howls. I wrap my garments tighter around me.
I reach out for his arm to steady me as I go. My feet falter on the uneven stones; his strong arm upholds me. It is just the two of us in this foreign land. There will be no mother by my side as I prepare to deliver my first-born child.
Inhaling the cold December air, I exhale the promise of all things new and wonderful. My warm breath hangs in the air, luminous against the cold dark night, and I sigh with relief that the child lies safe and warm inside me tonight.
Mystery, all is mystery and wonder. It is just days, hours perhaps, before I step into the vast unknown and begin the mysterious journey of motherhood. All is wonder. What will this child become? What kind of mother will I grow to be? There is much to ponder; there will be much to treasure in my heart.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary and her journey of faith until I was expecting a child of my own. All is Nativity in December, so when you are awaiting your own Christmas baby, I suppose it is natural to stop and reflect on the wonder not just of the incarnation of the Christ child, but also of the faith of the young woman who said yes to becoming His mother.
She was a teenager; I was 30. But that doesn’t mean I knew any more than she did about babies. In fact, she probably knew more! Her cobblestones graced the streets of Bethlehem, far from her Nazareth home; my stones lined the streets of medieval Paris, where my husband and I were living, farther still from any family or close friends. I can feel her aloneness.
There is no fighting the loss of control. It is too late for that now. I sense her acceptance of “what is”.
Her story was, of course, far more faith-stretching than mine. By faith, she accepted that the impossible would become possible as the Son of God became incarnate within her very womb. By faith, she accepted a life of ridicule and judgment as all manner of false conclusions were drawn about her. By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.
No matter how old we are or how long we have been trying to walk by faith, we all still have times when we feel like Mary. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant. Unqualified to accomplish a small thing, let alone a big thing. And how like our God to come in those moments and ask the big thing of us.
To say yes to God often involves saying no to myself. No to my in-the-moment need for retribution or recognition. To choose the Mary way is to choose the self-emptying way. It requires nothing less than the intentional surrendering of my will so that I may hear the voice of the Father calling to me.
It is the daily invitation to echo the cry of the God-Man, not my will but yours be done.
To embrace the mystery of Christmas is to accept the mystery of the unknown. It is to throw off the burden of needing control and easy answers and choosing instead to entrust our lives to God’s loving hands. It is to choose a life of outrageous faith amidst a world that says it will only believe once it truly understands. It is to declare with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”
In this Advent season, we can all be carriers of the Christ child. We choose every day whom we will serve – the Lord and others, or ourselves. May we, like Mary, choose the mystery of a faith-filled life.
Bonnie O’Neil is a gifted writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, on the edge of bucolic Chester County, and is the mother of three mostly-raised children. She is passionate about helping others experience the God of love, finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, filling her senses with beauty, and exploring all things France.
I am a mother well-acquainted with the fears and anxieties of raising a son with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and Bonnie’s wisdom, born of hard experience, has become a special gift to me. I can say of her what she has written here about Mary: “By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.” With Bonnie’s encouragement, I am doing the same.
Already a consistent blogger, Bonnie has plans to begin writing out the lessons she has learned during her years of raising a medically vulnerable child. I encourage you to sign up here to receive those upcoming blog posts by email.
We’ve been here before: waiting for that callback from the on-call nurse, waiting to find out if we’re headed to the emergency room with this child.
But it never has been this child.
Her older brothers, yes. From staples in the scalp to midnight croup, from epi-pen jabs to that one nightmarish choking incident. We’ve called 911. We’ve opened the door for paramedics. We’ve carried little boys out to the car in the cold and dark of the night.
After thirteen years of parenting, we aren’t frightened by much. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we’ve reached a state of calm. It takes a lot to rattle us.
When Jonathan carried Elsa to the car on Labor Day and headed for the emergency room, I wasn’t afraid. When he called to say they were admitting her to the children’s hospital, I wasn’t afraid. When they told me the next day that she needed to stay for a second night, I wasn’t afraid. Asthma is our family inheritance, after all. From grandmother to mother to daughter and son. It is familiar to us.
When we brought Elsa home again, her virus-weakened lungs having been strengthened by inhalers, and fluids, and oxygen in a snaking tube, we remarked on how capable we had felt through the entire ordeal. Maybe after four children we had learned a thing or two? We know when to call the doctor’s office. We know how to trust (in doctors, in nurses, in God above).
We know how to stay calm.
We know how to move on.
A week has gone by, and it occurs to me there is something I don’t know. I don’t know how to stop seeing it. I don’t know how to forget.
When I lie in bed at night, my mind replays one moment over and over: Elsa, lying in our bed and working so very, very hard to breathe. The muscle at the base of her throat flutters with each quick and shallow breath.
It looks like a small butterfly trapped just beneath her skin.
On Monday, one week after she went into the hospital, we celebrated Elsa’s fourth birthday. She opened presents in the morning, and we ate pink birthday cake in the afternoon, but her favorite thing was the iridescent butterfly balloon.
She carried it around the house. She played with it outside in the yard. She lay down in the grass and held it over her head. All the better to see those butterfly colors against the deep blue of the September sky. All the better to carry on a laughing conversation with a soaring balloon.
The weather lately has fluctuated between just right and still too hot. We’ve spent a lot of time outside in it regardless. Elsa hunts for caterpillars in the herb garden that grows just outside the kitchen door. These particular green caterpillars seem very fond of Italian flat-leaf parsley.
I found one perfect, orange butterfly wing fluttering in the grass. I thought at first it was a butterfly, and I wondered why it didn’t fly away as I approached. Leaning down, I saw that it was only the one wing, caught on a blade of grass, moving back and forth in that day’s hot, dry wind.
Lord have mercy, I thought, this child I love is as fragile and vulnerable as a butterfly.
I am, too, I suppose, no matter how solid my own body feels when I plant my feet on the ground of my garden.
We are gossamer.
We are tissue-thin.
Liable to be whipped about in the slightest wind.
What is it Scripture says?
“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
Those words have always made me feel sad. And afraid.
But I have learned how to be unafraid. I have learned that. There is sadness, yes, but there is beauty, too. We are like flowers. We are like butterflies. We are jewel-colored. We fly swiftly. We dance in the wind.
I want to forget, but these are precious things. God, I pray, make me strong enough to remember all of it.
The broken wing.
The brilliant orange.
The broken lungs, and the small, laughing voice.
Give my own weak lungs breath to sing the whole Psalm, all the way through:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children …
Praise the Lord, you his angels …
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, …
Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul.”
There are days that plod, one after the other, days of sameness and stasis.
Summer days are often like that. Sometimes it is a hard thing, and sometimes it is a gift. Our recent vacation days in the Adirondacks were a gift, but remembering them now is like remembering one long day, so slow and similar were they.
Then there are days when you can feel the planet tilting and swirling beneath you. These are days when change rushes toward you like the wind, and you are flung toward new horizons as if shot from a circus cannon.
All four of my children went to school on Monday.
It was only four years ago that we came to Maplehurst. Only four years ago that my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward third grade, her first-grade brother trailing behind. My little boy stayed home for games of Candy Land, and our baby girl would be born in only a week.
Four years sounds like nothing at all, but it is nearly an eternity in the life of a child. This week, my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward seventh grade, her fifth and second-grade brothers trailing behind.
And Elsa Spring started preschool.
Our little sorrows seem as nothing, especially when they are sorrows of abundance. How silly is it to cry for our lost babies when our arms are filled with growing children?
I too would laugh, I too would call this folly, except that I have seen how easy it is for me to discount every form of grief. Like so many, I privilege “closure” and “recovery.” Like a foolish accountant, I weigh the world’s sorrows on a scale. The loss of a child weighs the most. The loss of a spouse a little less, the loss of a sibling or a favorite aunt still less. The ordinary grief a mother feels watching her children grow and leave her behind counts not at all.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?
We grieve the baby we wanted but could never have, the baby who died too soon, the baby who lived but grew up to leave us.
We grieve, we grieve, we grieve.
In Housekeeping, her perfect poem of a novel, Marilynne Robinson writes: “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return.”
If we pretend that this life gives enough comfort and consolation to erase our griefs is it because we fear we can hope for nothing better?
If we assume that what is lost is lost forever, then why not take what little comfort we can, wherever we can?
But if we persist in the wild belief that the world will be made new and whole, that everything lost will be found again, then we must go on grieving.
To turn our back on sorrow is to turn our back on hope.
These are the things I tell myself, seven months after Shawn’s death. Twenty years after Michelle’s death. Twenty-four years after Sissie’s death. And four years after I birthed a baby girl who would not long remain a baby.
Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost.
Time is sweet grace because it propels us, ready or not, like it or not, toward a hoped-for day. A day when all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.
On that day, the promise inherent in our precious memories will be fulfilled. The half-forgotten and the dimly-recalled will take on flesh, and greet us by name, and together we will go home.
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
Officially, summer is still days away, but we are already knee deep in it.
The sprinkler is making its rainbow arc for Elsa and her two-year-old cousin. Even the big cousins have stained their t-shirts with grape-juice popsicles, and we are shifting our Friday-night, homemade pizza from the oven to the grill.
Everything is a little hotter, a little louder, a little messier. Everyone is a little happier, a little more relaxed, and a little more likely to lose their temper.
We’re still waiting for the last day of school and the longest day of the year, but summer has already arrived.
I feel incredibly grateful and more than a little nervous about the coming months. My kids will all tell you that their mother is not at her best when the air is humid and the house is crowded and the children are singing, “I’m bored.” Because, like afternoon storm clouds, time can hang a little heavy in the summer.
I am grateful for these words from Abby Perry. She is a writer who lives with her family in my Texas hometown, and she knows summer heat. She also knows that time is a gift and every season reveals the One who first established its rhythm.
by Abby Perry
Two little boys found their way into my bed this morning, snuggles turned to wrestling each time one felt the other had greater access to me than he did. They are Owen and Gabriel, whose birthdays at the end of summer will turn them 4 and 2. Their dad is out of the country for two weeks on a mission trip. We have Backyard Bible Club each evening this week.
Summer has begun.
We live in Texas, where it has been unseasonably rainy recently; the scorching weather holding off just a few weeks more than usual. But today, it is in full force. 90 degrees before noon and I am remembering what it was like to work long, hot summers at camp in East Texas, what it feels like when my legs stick to the chair at an outdoor wedding, what our air conditioning bill will soon be.
A husband out of the country, two little boys so dependent, so rosy cheeked in the sun. Gabriel, the youngest, has a neuro-genetic disorder that results in the need to wear braces everyday, his pudgy legs covered just below the knee to his toes. Owen asks to go to the pool and I fight immediate overwhelm, wondering how I will make it work with Gabriel’s schedule since he is only supposed to be out of his braces for an hour of each 24.
It can be hard for me to believe that the summer is a time for flourishing.
“Can’t I just take this season off?” I wonder. “Go quiet, hibernate a bit?”
I internally answer my own questions before I’ve even finished asking them. It is not hibernation that I’m truly craving, it’s rest. It is soul quiet, whether my hands are busy or calm. It’s certainty that I am thriving in my place, that I am where I should be, that I am contributing and not merely letting the days pass me by. What I crave is the confidence that I am redeeming the time given to me, with all of its caveats and demands, expectations and interruptions. What I crave is not something I can find by looking into myself, or by gazing at my calendar. It is not something I can conjure up through scheduled breaks, nor hard work, nor abounding family time, though each of those endeavors have great merit.
I wonder if you’re craving the same?
What we crave is something only to be found by looking upward. There is treasure we search for that is only discovered when we seek an orientation to the True North, when we remind ourselves of our position and protection under a good and sovereign God.
I glance at the Liturgical Calendar sitting near the sink and am reminded that it is the season of Ordinary Time. It is the season for ministry and discipleship, the season for hands to the plow and eyes fixed upward and forward, the glory of God and the service of others ever before me. The calendar reminds me that though I do not wake up each morning convinced of God’s sovereignty over time, nor go to bed each night certain of His goodness, His grace abounds all the more and sets a cadence for my days. He makes my paths straight, allowing me to be oriented to him, to set my pace by Him, to move my feet in rhythm with Him.
As we seek to live well in the summer months, through work and play, labor and rest, may we find ourselves certain of the infinite One who is not limited by the finite restraints we live within on this earth. May we exchange the complaints of the hurried heart for the gratitude of the surrendered soul, confident and joyful in each commitment we make, resolute when we need to say, “no.” May we carve out space for long evenings on the porch, kids making up games late into the night and falling into their beds with that outdoors induced exhaustion that produces the sweetest sleep. May we find opportunities to serve and to seek the peace and prosperity of our communities, our hands and feet guiding our eyes away from ourselves. And in it all, may we remember our desire to flourish and to see others do the same comes from the Giver of all good gifts, and that time, in all of its wildness and wonder, is one of them.
Abby is an old soul, a Jesus girl, better in writing. She is a pastor’s wife and mom of two boys, one of whom has a neuro-genetic disorder, which Abby writes about (among other things such as faith, liturgy, depression, social issues, and literature) at www.joywovendeep.com. Abby directs communications for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts – one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations, the other supporting area foster and adoptive families. She has a soft spot for books, podcasts, learning about human relationships through television and movies, personality typing, and pasta. Abby holds a B.A in Communication from Texas A&M University and is completing her graduate degree at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Twitter & Instagram @abbyjperry | Facebook Page: Abby Perry
After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
And, you are all invited to join the Summer Book Club at Grace Table. This summer’s pick is Roots and Sky, and the conversation takes place in June. Sign up today!
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?