Today I Am 38

So much has changed in the last six months, but in the year of our Lord and Coronavirus, my dog still sleeps in the cradle of my crossed legs each morning as I drink tea and watch the news with my husband. 

Our lives used to be busy. There was no breathing room, just constant and glorious activity as we filled each minute with movement, and when there was a spare moment, we looked for ways to fill it. For me, it felt like the right and admirable thing to do, to be that social and that busy. We are social creatures, after all; we need people. I love our community and the wide network of friends and companions we are fortunate to do life with here in our small town. 

But then high speed downshifted to stillness. With all of the distractions of obligation and activity lifted, under the veil of all those other commitments there were three children, one husband, one dog, one home. 

There are homes with unfavorable situations and homes where people live alone, where social distancing and stay-at-home orders meant complete and total human isolation. This is, categorically, not good. It is not good for man to be alone. However, in this house, we are not in complete isolation. My current and only community is the one previously so easy to be babysat or left behind.

These are my people, the ones I longed for before they came into my life, the ones I’ve ushered around to help them connect with as many others as possible, the ones I’ve left home to be elsewhere – all good and filling and wonderful places and people and things, but so many people. So many places. So many things. 

In mid-March, Brandon and I got sick with suspected cases of COVID-19. Four and a half months later, I’m finally feeling more myself again, with only lingering symptoms the last couple of days: a headache, slight tingling in my fingers and toes, still a little fatigued but better. I am hoping this is it and there are no more relapses, so we can put this behind us.

But I do not want to leave behind us the sacred space we’ve made. The sudden downshift was hard and stressful, but in the wake of that disruption there’s peace. Plenty of sleep, good sleep, regenerative sleep. And space. Space for card games and books, walks and birdwatching. There’s room to converse, where before there was only room for orders and directives—eat your meal, wash your body, go to sleep, clean your room.

I am 38 now. Lydia will be leaving home in four years, Elvis in six, Henry in nine. These are my people and their time with me is now. I do not want to miss this opportunity to know them better and for them to know us. 

In the midst of the chaos and fear and anxiety swirling in our society, this space we’re in is sanctuary, this summer of boundaries is wide open for long hours with a limited number of loved ones deepening relationship, developing greater intimacy, pouring into one another.

I couldn’t make space on my own so the Coronavirus did it for me. In this physically distanced place there’s so much room for gratitude, clarity, and holiness to fill this small microcosm of our world with glory. I treasure it. I don’t want to miss it. 

I am 38 now. I don’t know if I’ll ever wear makeup again. I don’t know if the dark circles under my eyes will disappear as I continue to recover from COVID. This just might be what you get from me from now on, people. I don’t know when sickness or death will visit our family, or how long we each have with our loved ones.

This day, though, I have this day. This husband. This daughter. These sons. This mom and dad and mom-in-law and dad-in-law. These people in our close circle for this moment. This moment is hard and this moment is holy. Let us be in it, still in it, be still in it. 

In the Wilderness of Coronavirus

In Ohio, our community interactions began to dwindle on March 15 with the closing of restaurants and bars, then dropped off sharply over the course of a week. It is now April 15, a stay-at-home order has been in place since March 23. If the order is lifted on May 1, it will be 40 days of life as we knew it, disrupted.

I don’t have to list off the things we’ve lost, both big and small, during these 40 days. The individual injustices and disappointments have rained down almost daily, let alone personal losses, job losses, the suspension of freedoms, the loss of human life, and perhaps what is most unmooring, the collective sense of security that cushioned our daily lives. All gone. Any guise of certainty we had before regarding our immortality has been taken away, replaced with this reality: There is no way to know whether any of us will get sick or die from the coronavirus.

Of course, we have always known this. Everyone dies. This isn’t news. The difference is how universal and communal this particular revelation is right now. The whole of humanity is likely wondering whether or not they might get sick and die from this one thing. 

We’re experiencing and will continue to experience collective grief for all we have lost, and this grief will permeate our futures in the form of habits we develop and coping mechanisms we’re forming in these long, slow days. Our grandparents kept bread bags and drawers full of twist ties for decades after the Great Depression so that we could dump them into the trash after they passed. We will adopt our own practices that get us through; we will vigorously wipe down every hard surface with Clorox Clean-Up until we’re dead.

It’s going to be at least 40 days. Forty days! 

This is hard, and no one will ever want to go through it again, but there is good to be found in the wilderness. There is hope woven in the suffering.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

Forty is significant. In Scripture, the number “40” often symbolized a season of testing or preparation. Moses spent 40 years in the desert before God called him to help the Israelites escape Egypt. The Israelites wander in the desert 40 years before they are allowed to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the Devil.

What new thing is being prepared in our hearts as a church, as a country, as a world, during this time? What old thing is being dragged into the light, deemed unessential after all, and is ready to be discarded? What new thing is taking its place?

I believe one of those new things is a more firm sense of solidarity and connection. For so long and still, many of us have operated in the States on our islands of individual freedom. I should be able to go to whatever beach I want. You can’t tell me how I should live. I should be able to congregate wherever I feel led, with whomever I desire, on whatever day of the week. I have my rights!

For the first time in decades, perhaps, we have been encouraged, recommended, and to some degrees forced for the public good to consider others more important than ourselves. In an ironic twist, by forcing separation it has brought us, with one mind focused on a collective good, closer together.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…”

Philippians 2:3-5

People are generally self-centered and driven to meet their own needs. This is not supposed to be the way of the Church, and yet, so much of our narratives about our relationships with God have become individually focused, from our worship songs to our Bible study to our disconnected “us vs. them” narratives that cause separation and fear of the other, in all of it we have lost the communal nature of faith. The Scriptures address the Nation of Israel, the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven. He has a plan and a purpose for you plural, you nation, you body, you kingdom, you people, to prosper you and not to fail you, to give you all hope and a future. There ought to be a Southern American Version of Jeremiah 29:11: He has a plan and a purpose for y’all, plans to prosper y’all and not to harm y’all, to give y’all hope and a future.

From our individual homes this Easter we participated in a virtual church service, and to some degree, our church family has never felt closer, more intimate, more vulnerable, while practicing social distancing. The fanfare, the polite morning greetings, the brave face even though our personal worlds might be in crisis, it has all fallen away in our shared crisis of this moment.

We are all always going through hard things. But right now, the hard thing is all of ours to carry. And for the moment, we are all carrying these burdens together. And isn’t that what the Church is supposed to do? Isn’t that beautiful?

At the beginning of the year, the “word” I heard for myself in 2020 was “make space.” Who knew how much space would be made for me, for us?

What do we do with all of this space? How can we live out the truths we’re learning right now – that love is strong, that community is important, that people are precious, that life is sacred, that family matters, that nature persists, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.

It is up to us to determine how we emerge from this wilderness. What new thing can we see God doing right now? What way is he making? What river is he carving? What dry bones is he resurrecting? What walls is he breaking? How will this hard thing break us, and how will Christ’s love and comfort in the midst of this wilderness fortify us for what comes next, the slow emerging, the entering into the Promised Land of tomorrow?

When You’re Off Balance

My prescription arrived, finally, five days ago. It’ll be a few months before it fully takes effect, but I’ve already begun to notice a difference, a fog lifting. When you’ve been living off balance for a while, it’s easy to forget what normal feels like until it is, normal, again.

A couple of years ago, I started to feel “off.” In the wake of learning about my mom’s cancer diagnosis, moving, and taking a new job, the circumstances of life finally felt like they were leveling out, and yet I wasn’t. For as optimistic and hopeful as I usually feel, I felt gloomy most days. I started to experience weird, small changes in my body that were frustrating given the attention I gave to diet that should have made me the healthiest version of myself. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, my body kept on behaving strangely. I felt anxious and depressed.

I brought up all of these minor symptoms with my doctor in January a few years back. Thankfully, he listened to my complaints and didn’t write them off as just entering mid-life, just gaining weight, just breaking out. 

It turns out that my adrenal gland over-produces the hormone androgen. Symptoms of hyperandrogenism include acne, inflamed skin, male pattern balding, hair growth in places women typically don’t want hair, weight gain, and other unpleasant things a person doesn’t really want to happen to them. Not surprisingly, hyperandrogenism also comes with a side dish of anxiety and depression. My doctor referred me to an endocrinologist, who prescribed Flutamide, a drug that is typically used to treat men with prostate cancer, and other than having to take a cancer drug twice daily for the last three years, things have been pretty great.

Until I thought, maybe I’ll try to wean myself off of this drug and see if I’m better now.

It wasn’t that hasty, really. This summer, my endocrinologist moved practices. Before she relocated, she had suggested trying to drop down to one pill a day to see how my body handled it. I figured since I had to find a new doctor anyway, I’d go ahead and drop to one pill a day, and then no pills once my prescription ran out. I thought maybe the stress of the season of life I had been in previously might have caused my adrenal gland to misbehave, and maybe now, things would be normal without needing to take a medication to balance out. 

This turned out to be a bad idea.

When you’re off balance, it isn’t just the physical symptoms – the hair loss, the acne, the sweating, the weight gain – that surges again; the entire lens through which you perceive the world shifts and blurs. Normal, everyday events spin into potential catastrophes. When your husband is late from a meeting you worry that maybe he got into an accident, maybe the police didn’t know to call you, maybe you’re a widow now and you don’t even know it yet. When your daughter doesn’t answer her phone after school you think maybe this is the day she’s been abducted by a sex trafficker. You imagine your son falling off his bike into oncoming traffic and your heart skips a few beats in fear. These are all processed with the cool logic of an irrational mind that needs to figure out what it will do if this highly unlikely scenario becomes your reality.

Maybe worse, the weight of every-single-thing-that-happens drags you into sadness, weariness, and loneliness. You are on edge. Your off-balanced brain and body tells your heart lies. Maybe your husband’s focused attention on his phone isn’t attention to a news article or a friend’s comments on a football game, maybe he is texting someone else, someone he loves more, even though your husband has never given you any reason to consider such a thing; he is honest and trustworthy and loyal, more loyal on the enneagram tests than you are, even. 

But you think it anyway. 

You might leave a women’s book club meeting realizing how everyone else has their person – everyone else has someone they trust that knows them so well and they all must feel fulfilled and loved all the time but not you, not you. You know that isn’t true, either, but in the moment it feels so true

At the height of imbalance, a weekend your friends spend together without you might trigger absolute loneliness, which might spiral into feelings of worthlessness, which happens to spiral when everyone else is occupied, everyone else that might be able to shake you free of this spiral. It feels like you’d be an interruption, a problem, a burden with all of your burdened worthlessness. 

It makes you wonder whether anyone would notice—. What if you were to just—. 

This stream of wide-eyed sobbing might scare you enough to send your despairing self into the cold, winter air where the Spirit snaps you back, and you breathe, and you breathe, and you try to remember that this is probably hormones. This is probably not reality. Probably not, but you are still so sad and so broken and so hurt, and this imbalance magnifies the hurt. This off-kilter, off-balance, unhinged, raw version of Sarah can’t see beyond normal hurt and hormone-inflamed hurt. 

It is exactly how I feel and so not me at the very same time.

There are people in this world who don’t feel like themselves. Something is off and it makes them acutely aware of their bodies, self-conscious and anxious and depressed. It manifests itself in a million different ways, mental health, sexual health, physical health, and more. Sometimes the right thing is medication. Sometimes there is a physical abnormality that triggers your body to be other than its best, most balanced self. 

The body is so complex. We are wired for relationships – when those relationships are healthy, we glow with physical health, and when those relationships are toxic, that toxicity can manifest itself in physical symptoms. When work stresses us out, our immune system reacts. And when something is diseased, abnormal, or imbalanced in our physical bodies, our mental and spiritual and emotional health is bound to be impacted. 

I am grateful for modern medicine. I am grateful for the gift of cold, crisp fall air that shocked my soul back from a ledge I never imagined myself standing on. I have never felt so low. It was frightening. I don’t want to feel so low again.

It has been five days back on Flutamide. It will take months to revert some of the symptoms of hyperandrogenism that spiked this fall and winter, but even in these first few days, I’ve noticed a significant clearing in the fog. 

The sunrise is beautiful.

Light and Heat

For Christmas, a friend of ours gave us his 55-gallon fish tank and stand after I mentioned on Facebook that we were considering an aquarium for Henry. It was one of many delightful surprises on Christmas morning.

Before we can add fish, we need to make the environment right. Our city water needs to be dechlorinated. A filter has been installed, the rocks have been added, the artificial plants sway next to the rock castle and bridge and tiki hut fish home. All that’s left to do before we buy the fish is install a new lightbulb and make the water warmer. This afternoon at the top of my grocery list is a lightbulb and a submersible heater for our soon-to-be newest residents.

All I need too, really, is a little light and heat.

Warmth and light have defined the last week and a half around here. It’s the in-between period in which most everyone feels a little disoriented after so many weeks of anticipating Christmas and eating all the carbs. We celebrated with family in multiple gatherings with gifts given and received, and it was warm, and it was light. We extended our Christmas celebration with a trip to Kalahari’s indoor waterpark, and it was warm, and it was light. Our friends celebrated a white elephant Christmas with us combined with laughter and drinks on the 27th, and it was warm, and it was light. Yesterday, with our children’s friends over, I played games and read a book and mostly rested, and it was warm, and it was light.

And now, we’re all turning toward a new decade. In the waning minutes of 2019, I’ve sensed with some anxiety a quiet, nudging voice suggesting that maybe I should prepare myself to make space.

For what, I don’t know. Maybe just more space to be warm, more space to be light. More space to do laundry (which I’ve neglected these past few days). Maybe more space to write. Maybe space to breathe. Space to exercise. Space to stare at fish in a tank and reflect on what it means to stop being so busy and just be, just keep swimming (thank you, Dory).

Simultaneously I wonder whether the whole idea of space is a luxury of the privileged, which I am, surrounded by plenty and able to even consider the idea of space, instead of being entirely occupied with meeting my immediate, basic needs. Maybe those are the concerns I need to make more space for, more space for bearing witness beyond these walls.

Maybe “make space” is just the Spirit’s calling to be quieter amidst all the noise, to clear out the clutter of senseless worry. Maybe make space for more hope, less doubt, more confidence, less fear.

Well, anyway, the point is, I don’t know what I’m supposed to make space for, but these are the words I’m hearing these days, make space, make space, make space.

The only space I know to make right now is space to listen and wait on the Lord to make whatever that space is known.

And to make space for fish.

Photo by Gabriel P from Pexels

Things Fall

Henry and I splashed up and down the creek with a dozen other wilderness explorers searching for things worthy of being found. He had a net and a bucket and competitive drive; I had flip flops, a smartphone, and creek walking experience.

More than anything, Henry was on a mission to catch minnows. I served as his spotter. “Here’s some!” I’d shout and he’d run over and swoop his net down into the water, hoping to be faster than the darting fish.

I was looking for other interesting things, mostly—fossils in the creek bed, orange mushrooms, trees stretching tall and straight and climbing out of roots that cling to hillsides in spite of the dirt having been washed out from underneath them, good light to catch my littlest child growing more and more into himself with every passing hour.

As I stared into the water, a caterpillar plummeted to its not-death from some high leaf and landed in the stream right in front of me. It was one of those white caterpillars with a couple black dots on it.

“Henry! Check this out!” I called. We found one just like it a couple years ago on a pin oak in our backyard in Copley. We had never seen one like it, which isn’t saying much for him but is quite something for me, having inhabited these parts of the world all my life. That was probably three years ago already, when he was five and so much smaller, just beginning to love all of the wild things. And here we are now, every sentence from my explorer beginning, “Did you know…” or “Look!” or “Mom, come here!” followed by some fun fact I may or may not have already known about the world.

We watched our creature fallen from heaven crawl with impressive speed for his inch-long body and turned the stick over and around so he wouldn’t fall into the water again.

Sometimes things fall right into your lap. That wasn’t what you were looking for but here it is and it’s the perfect thing, just what you needed, just what you desired but never expected. You are doubly blessed, by the thing itself and the surprise of it, the grace and mercy of it.

Mornings, Revised

Just a few days ago, the mornings were ours, and with it the slow rising, the steaming cups of tea, the sky changing shades of red and orange and gold until the orb finally burst over the horizon.

And then we had two middle schoolers.

It’s day two of school. The dog and I are sitting in our usual spot. Our daughter is knocking on the bathroom door to enter (it isn’t me in there, I promise). Our son is not moving from his heap of blankets, previously unacquainted with what it means to wake up everyday at 6:30, so my husband is playing “Bang the Drum” by Todd Rungren on repeat until he gets out of bed. The tea is still steeping.

When they were young, the evenings were ours. Our two oldest were bathed at 7 and in bed by 7:30, leaving us at least 3 glorious hours together, alone, to watch tv or play scrabble, or if I was feeling inspired to write. As they’ve gotten older, bedtime has gotten later. And now they’re taking occupation in our mornings too, banging cabinets, not getting out of bed, making lunches, eating breakfast… it’s like they think they live here too or something!

This morning shift means either we get up even earlier or I have to accept the season for what it is: a new season of transitions. A season during which time transforms my small people into people who borrow my shoes and clothes and stand next to me to see whether they are as tall as me or taller yet. A season during which their fears and worries grow abundantly more complex and singular, and it takes time to navigate those concerns. A season that requires so much more of us than changing diapers ever did. And while it feels at times inconvenient and disruptive to our time right now, this time will be over with them in ten years. That’s it. And then the whole house will be ours, filled with empty spaces and no children’s alarms or cabinets slammed or trips to school.

It’s morning, and Brandon has to leave the office now to take the oldest to school, and if I don’t get up from the couch soon I’ll be running late, and our youngest will be rushed out the door, and then we will all be on our way to our independent jobs and responsibilities.

For every season, a time to give something of meaning to the day, a time to help something grow.

Local Stories

I love the companionship that is born when reading a book set in a familiar place. I’m currently reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It’s a novel that takes place not only in a familiar geographic region but also a nostalgic era of my life, with characters the same age as myself during that season.

There is pleasure in shared spaces and shared history, even if this author’s story is fiction, there’s something that delights us to hold a place in common with others. It’s the same feeling I have when someone says, “Oh, we vacation at that beach too!” or names a far-off city I visited once, or “no kidding, you’re from _________?! Us too! Small world!”

The same sensation overwhelmed me standing outside of Westminster Abbey, walking the halls of the Tower of London, all the strings of history that have been woven to arrive at this present day.

There’s so much more entangled in physical space. Memory presents its prickly burr and sticks, accumulating until a place is heavy with it. With Ng’s characters in Shaker I remember trips to Beachwood Place with friends and the collision of my very white upbringing with other ethnicities, I remember all the complications of being female and mother and teen girl. I was there. With Scott Russell Sanders I explore the wilderness of Northeastern Ohio. I was there too.

And on and on it goes, the local and personal turned into a sharp spark of connection that says we are not so alone in our experience here in this world. We are bound together in this humanity. These narratives draw meaning from the otherwise random chaos of experience. Me too. I was there too.

Morning Tea

Most mornings, our alarms go off simultaneously. Sometimes I hit snooze. Sometimes he rolls over for another ten minutes. One of us gets up and fills the kettle.

We have two pink chairs in the office that face the Southeastern side of our yard. These days the sun rises between two giant Norway spruce and casts long streaks of light on our freshly sown lawn of Kentucky bluegrass and some other mix of seed we thought was the same as the other bag.

Summer mornings are quietest during this stage of our lives. The children sleep. When the water kettle pops its distinctive click (it’s an electric kettle – no whistle), Brandon is usually the one to pour the water over waiting tea bags. We choose each other’s mugs carefully – these mugs mean something. When they’re ready, it’s a quick drip of honey in each cup and stir.

There was a time a decade or so ago when love was rougher, one or the other of us wouldn’t pour the other a cup. Aren’t you going to make me some tea? I think it was him who said it, maybe me – it doesn’t matter because we’ve both felt it – that sharp whip of need and neglect. When one of us is filled with hornets in the morning, we tease, aren’t you going to make me some tea?!

We meet in the office. I sit cross-legged on one pink chair. He sits in the other. The dog hears us settle in and her nails click on the hardwood floor to greet us. This is her favorite part of the day as well, when she gets to wake up for a minute and then fall back asleep in the cradle of my crossed legs.

This morning against the backdrop of our giant pin oak a hummingbird hovered and danced. Sometimes there are deer that wander through after bedding down in the woods behind our house. Other times a hawk, a whole chorus of birds, a scurry of squirrels.

These pink chairs were Brandon’s grandma’s chairs. They are particularly suitable for watching birds. We often catch cardinals in our framed view of the yard and say hello to Garnet, visiting us here so often. We sip our tea and watch the sun creep higher.

This is the perfect cup, my love.

Flocks Fly Together

Today on the way back from a work meeting in Northwest Ohio, we drove through farmland patterned with rows of corn and fallow fields. As we drove, I watched along the road a flock of common birds lift up and land and lift again in a wave, moving together as if performing some long choreographed dance.

I love to watch the way birds move, such harmony, such unity. I’ve become a watcher of birds, a bird spotter. Their music in the morning or afternoon or evening gives me pause as I listen for their returned call. But this dance is a different kind of language, the language of hundreds of bodies responding to each other’s every move, ever aware of the other, ever adjusting to make room and lift and land.

According to my colleague, only about 40% of the usual corn crop and 60% of the soybeans made it in the ground in Ohio this year. It’s one of the worst, and yet the farmers are still at it, dependent on the weather and the soil and the sun, the machinery, the seeds, the turn of the earth.

I listen from time to time to the morning Ohio AgNet Report and think about the ancestry record of farmers in my family tree—generations of men who made their way, for richer or poorer, off the land. This year, there’s far less corn than normal on the family farm but it’s still there, it’s still growing in the ground that has caught the sweat of my family for well over a century, at least five generations worth working the soil. Even in the midst of dearth, there’s hope for the next crop. It’s what they do, aunts and uncles, cousins and sisters and brothers, in a long-practiced and choreographed dance. It must be written into our DNA, the same way flocks fly together.

Not the same flock as today, of course, but wow, how ’bout them birds?

When Your Day Isn’t Interrupted by a Mass Shooting

This morning, you went to a church and sang about a Good, Good Father. The pastor preached about the in-between, this space we inhabit, so ordinary, working and walking, singing and sighing, navigating our way around the grieving, who have just been struck by the reality of what we keep at arm’s length or farther. They are the length of a WalMart away, the distance from you and the person sitting at the other end of the pew. No one walked in and shattered stained glass windows. No one took shelter under a pew. No one screamed.

When you need some black beans for a potluck later, you send your husband to the convenience store. His only questions before leaving are about the number and size of cans, salted or unsalted. He doesn’t even say “I love you” because he’ll be home so soon, so soon it’s silly to say such things in this quick passing. The convenience store is brightly lit. It sells toothpaste and deodorant. Someone walks into the store to buy pantyhose before a wedding. Someone walks into the store to buy a birthday card. Someone walks into the store to buy a pack of Band-Aids. No one walks in carrying a weapon.

Maybe later you’ll go downtown to the local favorite spot, have some drinks, listen to some music and laugh with friends who have no intention of dying tonight. You’ll discuss the annoying and beautiful things your kids do because they are still alive, having missed out on becoming someone’s favorite gun-related statistic.

No one (we know of) has bought into the propaganda, no one (we know of) is following extremist bloggers on social media, no one (we know of) is hoarding weapons and prepping. There are a few people you remember who said and thought and shared crazy things once, but they support causes you don’t, and you don’t follow them anymore. They are out of sight and out of mind and almost out of your life. It’s almost like those threats just don’t exist, just couldn’t explode the ordinary life you live.

It’s just another ordinary day, and if we’re among the lucky, it stays that way, the TV spinning silently through another round of news, thoughts and prayers on automatic, just pull the trigger and they’re there. It’s some other town, another city.

And then distant friends mark themselves safe on Facebook, and for a second, maybe it’s just a little closer, now. Just a little closer. A little close. A little too close. So close. Too close. WalMart and schools and bars and churches in every town. Thoughts and prayers a pile of spent shells, the pew not quite so long.

Michael Murphy, Gun Country, (2014).