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.
One name for so many seasons: magnolia season, daffodil season, tulip season, and, now, dogwood season.
Each day, something is lost and some new beauty is born.
I could never pick a favorite spring season (and I haven’t even mentioned the lilacs), but I do know what it is I love about the dogwoods: they light up the shadows.
Here, from where I sit at my desk, I can see a thick, dark line of trees along the fence. It might look foreboding except that there is a lacy pink-and-white dogwood dancing on the edge of the darkness.
It is so pretty I have wasted more than a bit of my writing time googling hammock.
On Mother’s Day, I went for a drive. Alone. Because the irony of Mother’s Day is that I lose all patience for even the usual tasks of motherhood. Like wrangling four kids into carseats and listening to them bicker.
Just down the street from our house is a church like something from a child’s picture book. It is almost perfectly square and has a tall white steeple.
Of course, the child’s picture book never shows the tacky roadside notice board. This one said: We know life is hard. You are not alone.
I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated anything spelled out on one of those yellow plastic signs. Even the sentiments with which I agree bother me with their cheesy puns or too-cute rhymes.
But this one … Well, honesty is eloquent. Love sings.
I have nothing against John 3:16, but these may be the very best words for a churchyard sign.
I’m tempted to write them on my hand. Life is hard, but I am not alone. I think these words, and remembering that they apply to me and to everyone I meet, might help me respond to life with more gentleness. More compassion.
Life can be hard. It can be hard even on the good days, the days we feel at home, the days in which thank you, thank you tumbles easily from our lips.
Our lives are edged with shadow.
I write my own thank yous out in this space. Thank you for my family. Thank you for my home. Thank you for bringing me out of the wilderness and into this good, green land.
But we all live with shadows, whether we are walking through a wilderness or not.
Here is where you might expect me to point to those dogwoods and say something about silver linings or unexpected blessings.
I refuse to do that.
I think we sometimes act as if truth isn’t worthwhile unless it can be summed up in one sentence or organized into five lessons or bound up with bullet points.
I am a writer, I love words, but I know that words – more often than not – fail us.
Sometimes the only true thing is to say as little as possible. Perhaps, to say only this:
“Look! Do you see? A dogwood tree like pale pink lace dancing at the edge of darkness.”
Taken by Yours Truly at Chicago's Art Institute. This painting, with its people like stone columns, always reminds me that living in a crowd is not the same thing as living in community.
Our airplane tilts away over city rooftops, and I feel as if I am leaving home in order to return to a house. It is not an altogether blue feeling (it is a house inhabited by my favorite people, after all), but it is disorienting. An emotional confusion to match a physical one; as the plane banks, I can no longer tell if I am pointed toward ground or sky.
I’ve spent four days trying to understand what I left behind when I moved away from Chicago. It seems important to do this, because I do not yet know if my life is a straight line heading always away from it or a curve that will one day return. I think the only word for what has been lost is community, but that word seems beyond inadequate.
In Florida, when my husband leaves for a business trip, I lie awake wondering who I would call if one of the children had an accident or became suddenly ill. I know that there are people in our neighborhood and people in our church who would graciously, even eagerly, help out, but it would involve some tracking down of phone numbers and many apologies for having “bothered” them in the middle of the night.
Living in community meant that there were no apologies.
We frequently woke to midnight phone calls, whispered midnight prayers for friends in crisis, made beds on the floor for small children whose parents were racing to hospitals. I have rushed behind a curtain in the emergency room to find a friend sitting at my son’s bedside: the friend who held him down for the epi-pen, the friend who drove him to the hospital.
But community is so much more than a safety net.
It is a web of interdependence that is often uncomfortable, even painful. It is the downstairs neighbor who calls (again) because my children are pounding on her ceiling (again). It is the woman pushing the stroller down my street who asks me (again) for bus money. Walking near my old building this week, I saw her, remembered her, and was not at all surprised when she stopped me to ask for money. I passed her again on my last evening in Chicago, and she asked (again) for money. I hand over my bus pass knowing that she will always need, and I hope, for Jesus’ sake, that someone will always be there to give.
Community is trying to keep the kids quiet in the kitchen in order that the group of church ministry leaders meeting in the living room won’t be disturbed. Community is making the bed in the spare room for friends of friends. Community is waking up early to make them breakfast, too.
Community is being inconvenienced.
It is straightening up the living room in order to host a weekly gathering for a church small group when all you want to do is climb into bed. Community is when the unmarried, male graduate student from that same small group surprises you with home-cooked Indian food two weeks after your baby is born.
Community is life in abundance.
This is the gift of the one who made us (the one who said it is not good to be alone): to be poured out again and again in order to be filled again and again. Of course, I am not talking about martyring oneself so that bitterness and resentment destroy all hope of relationship. But I have seen that when I open my hands to give until it hurts I receive … oh, I receive so much in return.
On Sunday, I sat once again in my former church. I was joined by a friend, and we both had tears in our eyes just for the joy of sitting next to one another. She turned to me and whispered, “This is our life,” and I knew just what she meant.
This is our life: it is real, it is now, it is beautiful and difficult, and, above all else, it is shared.