“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce, “The Dead”
I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.
And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.
I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.
But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.
And this place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.
After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.
Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.
The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.
But I do not think we are always given that choice.
I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.
This is suffering unfinished.
I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.
And I wanted it finished.
As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.
We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.
This place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
Two years ago, I wrote a few words for my son. They added up to something that wasn’t quite a story. I think they were a prayer. Also, a confession.
I meant them for all of my children, but it was this boy who drew them out of me.
The love we have for others – but especially for the weaker ones, like our children – is often laced with fear. That is our lot in this world: to love and to know that loving makes us vulnerable. Vulnerable to loss. To pain. To worry.
Some of our loves are laced with more fear than others. My love for this boy is like that.
However, in loving him, I have seen something strange but beautiful, something hard but good: the worst moments are the ones that wash my love clean of all the fear.
Somehow it takes having our worst fears realized, to know that our worst fears are not worth fearing. Because, ultimately, we are safe. We are loved. We are held.
Recently, my son began a new school year at a new school. He was nervous. I was nervous for him. Despite my prayers, despite my hopes, his first day went about as badly as a first day could go. Possibly, it was even worse than that. At the end of this terrible, no-good, very bad day, I remembered what I had shared two years ago. And I knew this: our worst days may be the answers to our best prayers.
(the following is edited from the archives and was originally titled The Only Thing I Pray My Children Grow Up to Know)
The second-born, my oldest boy, starts kindergarten in just a few weeks. Not only that, but he will ride the bus (which is, possibly, a bigger deal for both of us even than kindergarten itself).
I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the days are long but the years are short. These summer days drag (how to fill the time between dinner and bed?), but I will wake up tomorrow and watch my son graduate from high school. I know this, and it has prompted me to wonder: what do I want this boy to grow up to do? To know? To be?
Like most parents in these enlightened days, I say, “I only want him to be happy. Whatever makes him happy. If that means becoming a doctor, great. If it’s an auto mechanic, fine by me.” Unlike most parents, I suspect, I really do mean it.
I’ve spent enough time around highly-educated Ivy-leaguers to know that the things which spell success in our culture (straight A’s! a University of Chicago degree!) are not necessarily markers of either success or happiness.
Not only that, but I know that there is some kind of Murphy’s law of parenting: whatever I plan for my child, the opposite will happen. My father gave me only this bit of advice as I prepared for college: “Study anything you want, but be practical. Don’t major in English or History.” I was never a rebellious child, but Murphy’s law kicked in and, by the end of college, I was graduating with a double major in English and History.
What then do I want for my boy? For his big sister? His little brother?
Only this: to know deep down in their heart of hearts God loves them. Truly, that is all.
Unfortunately, there is such a big chasm between head knowledge and heart knowledge, between assenting to an idea or concept and feeling the truth of it deep inside. I tell them over and over: you are loved. By me. By others. But, most importantly, you are loved by the Love who created everything beautiful and that Love is vaster and more intimate than you may ever know.
I heard that too as a child. I sang these words in so many Sunday school classes: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But I didn’t know. I nodded my head and agreed, but I didn’t really know.
Praying that my children know God’s love is sometimes difficult. It is as if I am praying that they suffer. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is some other way in which this knowledge can travel from head to heart, but the enormity of God’s personal love was only revealed to me in some very dark places.
Looked at another way, I am not praying they suffer. I am praying they be comforted.
And this is what I want for my babies? Yes, this is what I want for them: that, like Hagar, they will one day say, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
This is my prayer:
“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
I’m afraid that it will hurt, but I promise you: it is worth every tear.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42: 5)
We wake again to the most terrible news.
Like many of you, I turn the radio off when my children stumble, sleepy-eyed, into the kitchen. In an hour, they will sit in their own elementary school classrooms, and I don’t have answers for the questions they will ask.
I pack lunches, and my own head pounds with questions. Old, old questions.
Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
We are not the first to ask these questions, but they have grown more insistent over the years, not less. At one time, God walked among us. But we have seen so much trouble since those days. We have cried rivers of tears.
I sometimes think I have the answers. When Jesus, speaking of resurrection, says, “Do you believe?” I say, yes. I believe.
But belief is not the same thing as answers. Not, really. Belief cannot silence questions like Why and Where were you?
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Because I believe, I reach too quickly for answers. Because I write stories, I move too soon to imagine happy endings.
In other words, I do not follow the example of the One I profess to follow. It seems too hard to do what he did: to let myself be moved. To let myself be troubled.
To let the tears fall.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
I don’t have answers for a day like this. How does anyone keep going after a two-mile-wide nightmare overtakes them?
I don’t know.
I hope – I can only hope – that when the time comes to stand up again and move, I will be there, cross in hand, following.
Following the suffering King.
The man of sorrows.
The one who stays and weeps and is moved by our questions.
Why? Why? Where were you?
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.”
I’ve been so sick for so long that looking back over the past few months is like staring into a dark tunnel. I’m just glad to be at the other end.
I’m a little too worn out to fully analyze the experience. Maybe some things are meant to be endured and survived rather than understood.
Still, I do know that there is a metaphysical, spiritual conundrum that we never quite escape in this life. C. S. Lewis called it the “problem of pain.”
Why do we get sick? Why do we hurt? And, hey, if we’re going to ask these questions why not go all the way … why do our babies get sick? Why do so many children suffer?
Of course, I don’t know how to answer those big questions. Does anyone? Lewis himself offers a bounty of wisdom, but it isn’t as if even he lets us off the hook. We won’t find the ultimate answer in a book. I believe we’ll find it one day in a face. Jesus’s face. But, I haven’t yet looked into those eyes, so, for now, it’s all hope.
Even if we can’t fully answer the “problem of pain” on this side of life, I don’t think we’ll ever get close if we ignore the little problems. The everyday pain.
When Jesus said to pick up our crosses and follow him, I don’t think he was telling us to suffer in silence. To just shut up about it already! Though, I admit, I sometimes picture him rolling his eyes in response to my whiny prayers. But, in my mind, it’s a fond exasperation.
That picture – of someone picking up their cross and following – is kind of nice, actually. As if Jesus were telling us that even our pain is a part of the story. Even our pain matters in some way. Pick it up, bring it along, I’ll take care of it, he says. Maybe today, definitely someday, it will be dealt with.
I won’t forget the tears you’ve cried.
So, what do we do in the meantime?
I’m not sure, but for the first time in months, I’m taking a good look around.
By the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel I can see blue skies. I can feel a warm breeze. And the scent blowing across my face is the heavy sweetness of backyard orange blossoms.
Here is another moment that begs not to be analyzed. It’s meant only for joy.