Life right now is the first day of summer and the longest day of the year.
This is the day that brings us nearest to that time and place when “there will be no more night” (Rev. 22:5).
But even the night is brighter than most. As the ripe moon rises, it scatters the last few tattered clouds until it shines like silver in our faces.
“Look!” I tell my two-year-old nephew. “A strawberry moon!”
“Yes, Auntie Christie,” he says. “A watermelon moon!”
We wander down the avenue while fireflies come out to play. They buzz and snap. It is a fireworks extravaganza for the fairies.
My sister catches one in her hand, and we crouch, there, on the edge of the driveway, with firefly light in our eyes.
One more night, and I sit with my four children at a memorial service for a child.
The room is decorated with twinkle lights. We are indoors, but here is the night sky. Here are the summer fireflies.
After the songs, and the words, and the prayers, we step outside and into the setting sun. Everyone holds golden balloons on golden strings until – a whistle and a cry – we let them fly.
“These balloons are for you, Adam!”
“Balloons! For you!”
The kitchen is filled with balloons.
“Happy birthday!” they say. “Happy birthday,” everyone sings.
It is my birthday. It is my son’s birthday.
“This is the day, more than any other, when I confront the ties of love that bind me to the living and the dead. The old world and the new” (Roots and Sky, p. 174).
Death, where is your sting? What victory do you have?
You are so small I cannot even see you. You are blotted out by this bright summer light.
But, Life, oh, Life. You are so full. You are as weighty as the dropping sun. You are as sharp as the silver moon. You dazzle my eyes, and you break my heart.
Like the Israelites of old, when I see the fire and the glory belonging to the Lord of Life, what can I do?
What can I do but kneel with my face to the ground, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chron 7:3).
Three posts for you on my birthday:
In A Land of Small Wonders (written for Emily P. Freeman)
Why I Grieve On My Birthday
Why I Give Thanks On My Birthday
It is summer.
Like the season itself, there is no ambiguity in this statement. It is a fact as plain and self-evident as the sun that now rises straight up to the top of the sky or the green tomatoes waiting on their vines.
In one of those rare congruences, the academic calendar and the moon calendar and every kind of calendar we might consult in this house agree that it is now summer. And most convincing of all, the fireflies are back. In the evening, I can see small, dancing pinpricks of light everywhere I turn. They flash and flash, and I imagine a crowd of fairies practicing their nighttime photography.
All month long, I have been tempted to use one particular word. I am tempted by the low humidity and the cool breeze. I am tempted by the first blooms on the rose bushes I planted in March. I am tempted by the orderly lushness of the green garden. Broccoli and carrot tops and kale exploding along their neat rows.
I want to say, but then I do not say: It is perfect.
I talk myself down from that word every time. Because tomorrow it will be hot or because the beetles will begin chewing on the rose leaves any day now or that lettuce will surely bolt (and turn bitter) in a week.
But I have confused perfection and permanence. Whoever told me that perfect is only perfect if it lasts?
My son and I share a June birthday. He is, has always been, a good and perfect gift. I can remember him at six months old and how I wanted him to just stay. Like that. Forever. I had already seen my daughter, my firstborn, turn from fussy baby to fierce toddler to fiery preschooler, and I had celebrated and mourned each beautiful transition. But I wasn’t sure I had the energy to do it all again. I thought my chill little baby boy was just perfect. Today, he is eight, and that, too, seems just about perfect.
But perfect isn’t permanent.
We celebrated our birthday with a canoe ride down the Brandywine River. The Brandywine River is as sweet and magical as it sounds. We paddled, we drifted, we observed the round stones of the riverbed through a few shallow feet of clear water, and I watched the back of my little boy’s head. From where I sat at the rear of the boat, I could hear him whispering over and over, “This is amazing. This is just great.”
This is perfect, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.
I used to think that earth was the place of imperfection and heaven the place of perfection. I used to think that this life was imperfect and death was the door toward perfect. I used to think that this world was change and impermanence and that other world? That’s where everything stays the same, forever.
But I no longer think it is quite so neat. I no longer believe the lines are so thickly drawn. And this is good news.
Today, I think that the kingdom of heaven Jesus spoke of so powerfully is more like a river. And that river is breaking out in deserts all over this place. And in so many corners of my shifting, changing life.
And I am determined. When perfect bubbles up, I will no longer avert my eyes. I will no longer bury it in a flurry of doubt and pessimism (it won’t last, it isn’t real, nothing is ever perfect).
Instead, I will dive in. I will say, this river is leading me home.
When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.
They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.
Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.
I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.
In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”
Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.
There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.
It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.
It was not easy.
It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.
Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.
But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.
Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”
You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?
Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.
Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.
Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.
And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.
There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.
We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:
God is good.
There is no need to be afraid.
And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.
Today, he turns four. My beautiful boy.
These are the books we read together. These are the books that will one day bring me to tears when I pack them up in boxes.
This Saturday’s book recommendations are all Beau-approved. And he is one discerning little guy.
I can no longer remember if I bought this book with Beau in mind. I think I did. All children love balloons, but Beau’s adoration is of long standing and un-paralleled intensity. Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai is beautiful. A book for little people and their grownups.
The story is simple but profound. The illustrations will melt your heart.
Best of all, this sweet little story of a girl and her balloon was one of the few books Beau was willing to sit through at age two that he still enjoys today.
This one’s a keeper.
Helen Oxenbury is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bently, and illustrated by Oxenbury, was definitely purchased with Beau in mind.
Here is another one for littles and their parents. We appreciate the story of a child’s imaginative play (complete with giants who turn out to be mom and dad coming to bring Jack in for bed), and they get inspired to build their own backyard, dragon-proof, tent fortresses.
This is an old-fashioned book that doesn’t feel even the slightest bit old.
Alphabet books are funny things. They tend to feel baby-ish, and we often acquire them when our children are too little for alphabet lessons. The inscription in my copy of Gyo Fujikawa’s A to Z Picture Book reminds me that I bought this one for Beau’s first Christmas (he was eight months old).
Most books purchased too early begin to fade into the wallpaper of our lives. Understandably, we forget to pull them out when they might be age-appropriate. Thankfully, I remembered this one in time.
Beau (unlike his older brother at this age) has a strong fascination with the alphabet. I’m not sure if it’s an interest unique to him or if he’s been inspired by his two older book-reading siblings, but this book is exactly what he needs right now. It’s the kind of book he can actually “read,” and that means a great deal to this always-trailing-two-steps-behind third born boy.
Alphabet books are a dime a dozen, aren’t they? This one, however, is a work of art. Fujikawa’s illustrations are equal parts adorable and intricate. There is a gorgeous mix of black-and-white ink drawings and softer pastel full-color spreads.
This is a book to linger over, searching each drawing, slowly turning pages.
This is a book for sharing, side-by-side, underneath a quilt on a rainy day.
And only the best books are snuggling books.
Happy birthday, Beau. I love you.
p.s. I know you better than I did last year. You are one year closer to the Beau I glimpsed in that river of prayer.
I want my children to know that God’s love is as real as the cupcakes and green tea we shared on Monday afternoon. It’s as real as this house that shelters us from cold and frames our daily view of the sunset.
But this is actually a hard thing to believe, and my daughter goes straight for the crack in my story: what about the kids who have no cupcakes? What about the student my health teacher just told us about? The one with no money for a visit to the dentist? The one who is about to lose his house because his parents ran out of money to pay the owner?
And I can hear the real question whispering beneath our conversation: isn’t it a terrible thing to suppose God loves one child with a gift of cupcakes while another one is left to starve?
I’ve been listening to this firstborn of mine for years, and one word that always comes to mind is wisdom.
She reminds me that wisdom doesn’t necessarily know the answer, but she does ask good questions.
That is a good question, I tell her. I don’t know the answer.
All I really know are the stories that make up my own life. While I don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces (in other words, a God who makes my life easier and more comfortable with special little favors), I do know that God loves in big ways and small.
Maybe God is loving you right now with cupcakes, I tell her. Maybe he is loving that other child with a bowl of rice from an aid worker.
One time, I tell her, God loved me with a sofa.
It was just over a year ago, and I had this farmhouse dream in mind. It was a dream about caring for an old house and a bit of land and welcoming lots of people around our table. In my mind, it looked like an antique sofa. The kind with a carved wood frame and pretty little legs. I don’t know why the dream looked that way to me, but it did.
But I was very sick that last winter in Florida. I spent every day in bed trying to breathe, trying to avoid the wicked, golden tree pollen wafting through the air.
Until the day, dear firstborn, when I couldn’t take your cabin-fever complaints, your boredom made manifest in bickering. I grabbed you and my inhaler and took off for some thrift-store therapy. I don’t think I ever felt so far away from my dream as I did then – struggling to breathe and desperate for escape. From pollen, from warm winters, from bickering children, from all of it.
We walked into the thrift store – headed for the twenty-five cent children’s books – and I saw it. My sofa. My farmhouse sofa.
But, we don’t have room for another couch, you said. You’re right, I said. We don’t have room in our Florida house, but I don’t think we’ll always be here. Dear God, tell me I won’t always be here. Desperate for breath. Dying to escape.
I bought that sofa. It sat in our Florida garage for a few weeks until I had enough faith to write the check. That’s when I googled upholsterers.
I chose the one with the coupon and the free in-person estimate. He loaded my sofa into his white van, and I went back to my sickbed. Not even a sofa in the garage to remind me of my dream.
Months went by, and there was no reason to think we’d be leaving Florida anytime soon. The sofa wasn’t ready when he said. Weeks went by, and I emailed. Soon! he wrote back. More weeks went by, and I emailed again. Very soon! he wrote.
I tried not to think about my farmhouse (but all I could think was where is it? And when will we go there?). I tried not to think about my sofa (but all I could think was where is it? And did I pick the right fabric?).
June 23. My birthday. 5 pm and there was a phone call. Your sofa is ready, and I’m in your neighborhood. Can I bring it by?
You and I, we don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces. You and I, we can’t ever forget that starving child (which is as it should be).
But I know my own story, and I know God gave me a sofa for my thirty-fifth birthday.
Today, I am sitting at my desk in an old, old farmhouse. I can see my sofa from where I sit.
It was made for this house.
Which is as inconsequential as a parking space. And as miraculous as anything I know.