If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”
The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.
I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.
I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.
A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.
I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.
All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.
After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.
This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.
I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.
I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.
Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.
Here, then, is the beginning of the story.
It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”
I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?
I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”
You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.
Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.
My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27
*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy
Spring has finally come to Maplehurst, and we are living in a watercolor world. Trees are smudged with the almost-neon green of new buds. The ground is blurred by the purple and white of wild violets. Move your head too quickly, and the brilliant yellow of the dandelions might just look like a lightning strike.
For several days, I have noticed a spot of garish orangey-red near the laundry room steps. I assumed it was a child’s toy. Something awful and plastic. Today, I realized it was a patch of tulips striped orange and yellow. They have large, black polka-dots in their middles. They are the tackiest flowers I have ever seen, more like circus clowns than plants. These tulips, bursting out near the propane tank, prove spring does, in fact, have a sense of humor.
I was twenty-one before I witnessed a real spring, the kind that only comes after a long, cold winter. We were living near Washington D.C.. I had never seen redbuds and forsythia, cherry blossoms and tulips. And the dogwoods. Oh, the dogwoods.
I’d been raised by a farmer-turned-gardener, but I’d never paid much attention to plants. That first spring, something woke up in my twenty-one-year-old soul, and I’ve been paying attention to plants ever since.
On a walk to see the cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial that spring, I noticed a spectacular flowering tree. It looked as if a hundred thousand delicate, pink-winged birds had come to rest on its branches. I took a closer look at the flowers, and I knew they resembled magnolia blooms.
I may not have paid much attention to Texas flora beyond the justifiably famous bluebonnets, but I, like any southern girl, knew that magnolias never lost their dark, glossy green leaves. I also knew that magnolia blooms are pure white, as big (or bigger) than a baby’s head, and they merely dot the tree, like ornaments placed just so.
In other words, this brilliant pink explosion of a tree could not be a magnolia.
But it was. That year, that first spring, I learned the difference between the south’s evergreen magnolias and the deciduous varieties grown farther north. I learned the difference, and I chased it.
After two years in Virginia, it was time to choose a graduate school. I took one look at the blooming pink magnolias lined up against the gothic grey of quadrangle walls and knew I’d be moving to Chicago.
After Chicago, I lived for two years in a Florida house with an evergreen magnolia centered proudly in the front yard. It was lovely, yes, but it reminded me that I was living in an eddy. My life had turned backwards and sideways. For two years, I had no spring.
Nine months ago, we moved to Pennsylvania, to this Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. I knew the old tree planted north of our front porch (a tree that must be as old as the house itself) was a magnolia. A deciduous magnolia. The largest I have ever seen.
And I’ve been waiting.
Waiting for God to keep his promises, waiting for life to get a little easier, waiting for spring – spring like we haven’t seen for three years – to come.
This was waiting as it is meant to be. Waiting with hope. Waiting with full expectation. This, not because I’ve finally mastered the spiritual discipline of waiting, but only because I have lived through a few winters, and I have seen them all end.
I have been waiting with eyes wide open because I could see the tree always outside my window. I knew what it had in store for me because I’ve seen it before.
But never this big.
Never this beautiful.
Never this good.
“Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Song of Songs 2: 12
Today is the day for a miracle …
Today the calendar says spring, but when has the calendar ever told us anything true?
As I write, darkness has dropped, the wind is howling, and the hanging porch lights are twisting like terrified animals on their chains.
The sound of this wild March wind does not make me feel cozy. It sounds too much like someone in pain.
Today is the day for a miracle …
I keep telling myself spring is already here. I’ve known for days that it was time to plant. Peas, lettuce, radishes, beets, spinach, swiss chard … so much needs to be in the ground.
But who has faith for gardening in the midst of snow flurries and sleet?
Today is the day for a miracle …
The apple trees we ordered months ago have arrived. They look like apple sticks. The children do not believe me when I tell them we’ll bake pies. I’m not sure I believe myself.
But I’ve seen more winters than my children, and I do know this: the day when daffodils emerge is not the day for hope. The day when seedlings show the bright green of new life is not the day for faith. That day came and went.
This is the day for a miracle. This day. The dark day. The cold day. The day when all you can see is mud and broken things, like so many toys strewn across the backyard.
Easter Sunday is not the day for miracles. It is the day for praise.
Every miracle we ever needed, every miracle we ever wanted begins on Good Friday.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
*Today I am listening to this song by Hans Kraenzlin
There were years when a little flag would start waving in my head any time I heard someone say God told me to do this or God told me to do that.
A red flag.
It sounded too much like crazy-talk. I’d never heard God’s voice, so what makes you sure? What makes you special?
Now I am that crazy person.
I’m the one setting eyes to roll with my casual God told us this and God gave us a dream, and, the boldest of all, God promised …
That’s the big one, isn’t it? Talk of promises is crazy and dangerous all at once. To talk about promises is to set oneself up as special and risk looking like a fool.
I am that fool.
This is how I got here: desperation. It was the not having, the hurting, the longing, and the pain.
It was that one time I threw my Bible against the wall. I could see the pages bent and the cover smashed, but I could also see words that were so comforting, so particular, I was tempted to make Bible-throwing a regular spiritual discipline.
It was that time I screamed at heaven, until I turned the corner around the clump of trees and saw an optical-illusion moon so enormous and fiery I couldn’t tell what it was. But I heard it. It said, “I’m here. You’ve been heard.”
Sometimes, it wasn’t pain so much as utter emptiness. When there are no friends and no activities, when the phone never rings and you’ve given up the job you pursued for ten years, small things begin to sound very loud.
Like the verse that pastor shared from the front. I was one of a crowd, but those words were an arrow and I was the mark.
Like the song that came over the speakers just as I asked my question aloud. That song with the answer.
Or, all those times (so many times) when all I could do was open my Bible on my lap.
And that’s all it took. Because there it was. Right there.
I’m wary of prescriptions, of three-step plans. But if you want to hear the voice of God (and think very, very carefully whether or not you do), then this is what I suggest:
Lean in to the pain.
Listen to the silence.
Let the emptiness be just what it is.
“When God seems silent and our prayers go unanswered, the overwhelming temptation is to leave the story – to walk out of the desert and attempt to create a normal life. But when we persist in a spiritual vacuum, when we hang in there during ambiguity, we get to know God.”
– Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life
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