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.
I’ve written about my extended family before.
These are almost always stories of absence. The cousins we have yet to meet. The grandparents we too rarely hold. Family, for us, is always too much or too little.
I am a foreigner to my own family,
a stranger to my own mother’s children.
Our lives are stretched across too many time zones. My father has always said it is a good thing our country is not any larger because then we would only live farther apart. But with one sister’s imminent move to Hawaii, our country has suddenly grown much larger. And we will, indeed, live farther apart.
But summer days are reunion days, and through some miracle of spirit and frequent flier miles, we came together.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I have found this to be true. But now I know that absence grows other good fruit. Because the holes in our lives where family might be do not stay empty. These gaps and fissures turn out to be fertile ground for things like hospitality and community. Friendship and adventure. Without family to lean on, we become needy, but these needs are always met.
We come together and discover that we do not have less but so much more. We have family, and we have friends. We have family, and we have neighbors. We have family, and we have our communities. We have family, and we have life in abundance.
We have more.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
I’ve been thinking about my Summer List.
This once-favorite tradition hasn’t traveled well. I started writing Summer Lists in Chicago. At first, they were just for me, but my oldest child did contribute an item or two in recent years.
A Summer List is exactly what it sounds like: a list of activities and experiences you want to do and have before September arrives. It might sound sentimental and overly precious, but my Chicago Summer Lists were deadly serious things.
Having endured months of bitter cold and forced hibernation, I often felt a little stressed at the beginning of Chicago’s second season (you know, don’t you, that Chicago is called the Second City because it has two newspapers, two baseball teams, and two seasons? You don’t need me to tell you what those seasons are, do you?). A Chicago summer offers so much goodness, I actually worried about fitting it all in.
What if Labor Day arrived and I hadn’t seen a film on the grass in Grant Park? What if the wind turned cold, and I hadn’t yet eaten apricots and just-made goat cheese on a blanket at the Green City Market? What if busyness or laziness kept me from packing up the kids and the snacks and listening to music under the stars at Millennium Park? What if we said “yes” to too many weekend birthday parties and forgot to leave time for blueberry picking in Michigan City?
Thus, the Summer List.
Those lists helped me to make the most of a glorious but, ultimately, fleeting season. It felt like an antidote for the to-do lists that kept me rushing and preoccupied the other nine months of the year.
The problem with a Florida Summer List is that the season is not fleeting. I’ve discovered that this part of our country also has two seasons: hot and not so hot. Everything I could think of to write on my list today caused me to think, “Well, but I’d rather do that when it’s not so hot.”
Beach? I prefer to collect seashells in February sunshine. Pool? Yes, of course, but we’ve been swimming since March, and I’m already a little tired of wet swimsuits. The zoo? It was beautiful in January. Disney? Not if you paid me. Too many tourists this time of year. And did I mention the heat? Maybe fruit picking? Beau’s two favorite episodes of Caillou are the one in which Caillou picks strawberries and the one in which Caillous picks apples (which makes me very, very happy). Oh, but Florida’s strawberry season ended months ago.
So many people love Florida because the joys of summer last for most of the year. And even I can’t complain about weather like this. After all, I enjoyed those grilled pizzas in January. But what do I make of summer now? Is there anything special about June, July, and August when our activities and experiences are mostly the same? What is summer, anyway? A date? A point of view?
For now, I’m focusing on the one thing I have in abundance only during these months: time. I’m not teaching, baby girl isn’t due to arrive until the end of September, my two oldest are out of school, even the two-days-a-week preschool is on summer break. We have time.
We’ll get bored. We’ll get hot. No doubt, tempers will flare. But, unlike summer itself, these hours will never come around again. Once crossed off the list, they’re gone for good. I do not know what they’re for or why they’ve been given, but I’m glad that, for now, they’re still mine to anticipate. Each hour listed neatly on pristine paper.
Edited and reposted from the archive.
My father likes to say it’s a good thing our country isn’t any bigger. If it were, he jokes, our family would live even farther apart.
It always makes us laugh. Then sigh. Because it’s painfully true. From western mountains to eastern beaches, southern swamps to midwestern plains, the members of our immediate family have spread across the miles to create a kind of star map, the lines of our constellations drawn with automobiles and airplanes.
This past week, quite a few of us (we never do seem to gather the whole) met in my Florida home for a week of beach, pool, and grill. A family reunion. A family vacation.
The parents of a toddler and infant buckled their weary selves into the car, along with the bottles and sippy cups and squeezable applesauce, for the two-day drive to family. The mother whose husband couldn’t leave his military duties dutifully packed the minivan and buckled the three kids into carseats. The grandparents drove two days (or was it three?) to help us hold babies, take photos, plan multiple forays to the grocery store.
We talked long and late over the noise of eight grandchildren. We fixed snacks. We changed swimsuits. We packed picnics. We fixed more snacks. Sometimes we remembered to feed ourselves.
At least once each day we’d look at one another with half-smiles to say that vacations with young children are more work than work. In other words, going back to work, returning to our everyday, would offer more rest than this vacation.
And that is as it should be. We don’t vacation together for the rest. We do it for the fun of it. We do it for the memories. We do it for each other.
Despite (or because of?) the chaos and messiness of a family vacation, my thoughts this week often turned toward the theme of rest. Maybe the adults in the house weren’t resting (though, I admit to doing quite a bit of reading by the side of the pool), but the kids certainly were.
No, they weren’t necessarily sleeping in or taking long naps, but they were enjoying rest.
True rest, I think, looks a lot like this: all is provided (watermelon and grilled cheese appear, as if dropped from the sky) and you have no control (mother decides if it’s pool time or movie time, quiet time or monopoly time).
The only tasks on the to-do list are to receive and to let go. Receive the good gifts, let go of the need to plan. The worry about tomorrow.
“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
(Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
The firstborn and I will be back in Chicago soon. Four days with the people and places we both love best.
I feel an urge to write that we are going home, except that we aren’t.
It isn’t only that we sold our Chicago apartment 18 months ago. It isn’t because we have no family there. We do have many friends, and they were our family for ten good years. Rather, it is that I was once planted in Chicago. I’m not planted there any longer, though I haven’t yet laid down roots in any other place. I feel as if (actually, I hope as if) we are in between homes. (Florida, you are lovely, but I do not think you will ever be home.)
Perhaps I can write of Chicago from my daughter’s point of view. She was born there, after all, and has more of a claim to the place than I do. Here is the hospital where she took her first breath. A few blocks away is the converted hotel (with a tunnel where Al Capone once smuggled gin). It was her first home. Here is the museum that became her own private wonderland; fairy castle, baby chicks, and all. And there is pebble beach, our pebble beach, where we swam in summer and climbed ice dams in winter. Even now when I stand at some water’s edge and look to my left, I half expect to see the glittering wall of a downtown skyline. Perhaps she does, too.
In this life, home is always temporary. In Chicago, I learned that it is possible to feel at home in a temporary place. It is possible to breathe deeply and live thoroughly in a home that won’t always be home.
Possible, yes, but never a given. Or, perhaps I should say that it is exactly that: a given thing. A grace thing.
When God tells his exiled people in Jeremiah that he will bring them home one day, he also says: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage …” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). His gift to them is a home in exile. Permission to live, even as they wait.
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills.”
The two of us. Pre-digital camera. Pre-parenthood. (Just barely) pre-9/11.
I still have the airfare ticket stub marked September 11, 2001. Ten years ago, we didn’t use e-tickets.
Also, there were no smartphones. This partially explains why it isn’t the images of destruction that have stuck with me (images we didn’t get a good look at for nearly a week). It’s the voice of our pilot.
We had just begun our flight from Shannon airport in the west of Ireland home to Chicago, when a deadly-serious voice sounded over the speakers: “Something terrible has happened,” it said. “The FAA has closed all airspace, and we will not be continuing this flight.”
Our plane was grounded in Dublin, a city we hadn’t planned to visit during this, our first, trip to Ireland. Jonathan and I didn’t say anything while we sat on that plane waiting to disembark and collect our luggage packed with dirty laundry. We only looked at each other. Later, we discovered that the image in our minds had been the same: mushroom cloud.
Somehow the actual story was harder to believe. An Irishman with a working cellphone began hearing stories, and they spread quickly from row to row. Attacks? On New York City? Washington D.C.? We shook our heads, said we didn’t believe it.
A few hours later, the airport employee helping me find accommodations in Dublin said it was like something out of a disaster movie. That’s when I understood.
Jonathan left me with the luggage and went searching for a television. He found one at the airport pub. Walking back in my direction, he looked stunned.
I could only pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
For a week, we wandered around the city, feeling as if we might never get home. We guarded our torn ticket stubs as if they were a king’s ransom. We saw confused looks every time we handed them over to another ticketing agent. It was hard for them to understand that when the towers fell we’d been caught in mid-air.
Some small, rational part of our brains kept repeating that if only we knew when we’d be going home we could enjoy this unexpected vacation in Dublin. But we were counting pennies, dodging raindrops, and washing a suitcase full of clothes at the laundromat. It didn’t feel like vacation.
While on vacation we had spent our carefully saved dollars on bed and breakfasts that served Irish porridge with just-picked blackberries. In Dublin, we had a small lumpy bed and were served canned beans on toast. Want to make an American feel wretchedly homesick? Just serve her instant coffee and canned beans on toast.
The world had shifted on its axis, we understood that unimaginable evil could rear its head at any time and in any place, but we couldn’t comfort ourselves with the well-loved and familiar. The flags at half-staff were Irish ones.
After several days in Dublin, we were promised a flight home, but we would need to get back to Shannon airport. We said goodbye to the lumpy bed and took an all-day bus that brought us back across the country, to the place where we had started.
When international airspace reopened, we were there, again, at Shannon airport. They had no record of our names, and we had only our tattered ticket stubs.
We spent one night in the home of a family preparing for their daughter’s wedding. Two stranded German tourists were across the hall from us. The wife said not to worry, we were no bother at all, and she cooked us a big fried breakfast. The husband drove us back to the airport for another try.
At the airport again, we sat on the floor and listened as Aer Lingus employees filled up a plane to Chicago with names called out one by one. When there was exactly one seat left, they called my name. I said that I wouldn’t get on any plane without my husband.
We were wondering whether we could interrupt the wedding weekend with one more night’s stay, when a woman in an official green uniform came running up and shouting, “Does anyone want to go to Baltimore?” We raised our hands. Then, following our guide, we ran.
We also prayed, “God let the doors still be open.”
We weren’t headed home, but it was close enough.
We remembered a friend who lived near D.C. Jonathan, miraculously, remembered his phone number. He picked us up, drove us to his own home, gave us a beautiful, not-at-all lumpy bed.
We managed to find a tiny, out-of-the-way rental car business with one car still on its lot. We took it. Twelve hours later, and one week after 9/11, we slept in our own bed.
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy place where the most High dwells.”
(Psalm 46: 1-4)