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).

Birthday Cards

Brandon took the boys to buy birthday cards for me yesterday. Lydia made me a card with a picture and quote of Dwight Schrute on it. Elvis’ card made me laugh, and Henry’s card was all warm and fuzzy about how special moms are (Henry said “I picked it because it has so many nice words in it”). They picked them out by themselves.

I often struggle to find cards that say exactly what I mean to say, and I should probably just take Lydia’s lead and make them myself. But this receiving of cards from each of my kids so perfectly captured their personalities and our relationship that I’ll gladly take Hallmark any birthday.

As much as I struggle to find the best card, I still love the habit of card-giving and receiving when it’s done with intention. So much of what we do and say and write, even, is virtual. But to pick out or make a tangible love note for a loved one, write in it, and mail or hand that note to someone has an added weight to it that leaves an impression above and beyond the everyday exchanges.

I wish I could have been another set of eyes in the room when the kids gave me their cards. In my peripheral vision there was hope and anticipation, waiting to see my reaction, a silent plea for Mom to “get it,” receive that unique gift of love they each had to offer, and return it with the same cup overflowing.

In the Spirit of What Are the Chances

Sometimes you sit down in a hospital or restaurant or airport, and when you take a moment to look around, you find yourself in the presence of someone who looks a little familiar. Okay, really familiar. Is that so-and-so’s doppelgänger, or is that actually them? What are they doing here? You tilt your head a little and feel kind of embarrassed for staring so long and as intently, until they catch you.

What happens next is a glorious coincidence of time and space pulling two life trajectories together. It’s just this instant, all this ricocheting energy and shifting plans and tragic randomness, when Love seems to bring about a collision.

Eyes light up.

How wonderful to see you here! Where are you headed? I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances. This is your first time in town in five years, and here I am, with my family, out to dinner because we just didn’t feel like cooking? It’s so good to see you.

What are the chances? We ask, shaking our heads and grinning.

We are delighted – de-lighted – when our “eyes light up.” It must be the presence of the Holy Spirit transferring much-needed joy, much-needed hope, much-needed faith, this de-light. This coincidence. This holy happenstance.

Because, really, what are the chances?

When Friends Stop By

My son’s buddy rings the doorbell. My daughter’s friend rides up on her bike. Friends pull in the driveway and come in through the garage.

We always wanted to be a home that others felt comfortable entering, the kind of place other people’s children trust.

When we lived in Copley, this open door policy extended to several families in our neighborhood, but none more than our backyard friends whose sons became so close-knit we merged their names: “Benry.” Our son, Henry, went to visit Benny this last Sunday night, overnight. Ever since, he’s been mourning again the loss of that best friend tucked in his back pocket, the way they used to stand up from the sandbox and tell each other, “See you tomorrow!”

“I had way more friends in Copley than in Ashland,” he lamented last night. Fresh on the heels of his visit, it might feel that way. There isn’t a little boy we’ve found right around the corner just yet, and the season in Copley for Henry was an unusual gift of the kind of friendship that probably won’t ever fade away.

Brandon has friends like that, friends he was literally born across the street from. I have a friend or two like that, women I can call today who knew me as a gangly tomboy not much older than Henry is now. Near or far, we’re able to be ourselves again together, pick up very nearly where we left off.

There’s something powerful, something precious about history built and weathered with a friend. These are the friendships my kids are building now. “Just stop by” friends. “Just thinking of you” friends. “How are you really doing” friends.

Come on in, dear ones.

The Gift of Writer’s Residencies

Tonight, I attended the opening reading for the Ashland University MFA program where I used to work. After knowing every student, faculty member, and visiting writer for the first seven years of the program, it is still surreal to walk into that space and not recognize most of the faces.

But what was especially lovely and what hasn’t changed: the pre-reading warmth and laughter. The variety of faces and ages, the clusters of like-minded writers together, gathered to hear one distinct and celebrated voice read from their work.

Justin Phillip Reed and his poems and his shadow and the light

It reminded me what a gift spaces like writer’s conferences and residencies can be. There aren’t many other spaces where you are given long stretches of time to join in the intimate wrestling through of other humans’ truth telling. Monasteries maybe?

Yes, there are craft seminars and workshops in which we critique the syntax and character development, the line break and form. But each writer brings some ball of twine they are working to unwind, drags behind them a field of mown or trampled straw they are trying to gather into perfectly contained bales. We get to bear witness to this truth telling, this truth making, collectively as a community. We get to celebrate when the bales have been hefted by sweaty hands and backs and stacked on the wagon, caught by some capable editor of bale-balancing.

Somewhere, a writer in workshop mode is thinking, She’s really letting this metaphor get the better of her. I know, I know, just let me have this moment in the field, with the straw and the twine.

I drove by one such field this afternoon, with its circular bales tossed in perfect random patterns, and now it’s here, too, dragged along with all my other straw to be woven into this little truth, my little truth about ordinary life for this particular ordinary day.

Ordinary Time

Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com

I know I’ve already said it here, the thing about this season of unproductivity and feeling at a loss for words for most things, and it’s true—in the last year since The Family Bible Devotional came out, any time I’ve sat down to type a thing, anything not tied to some dollar-generating deadline, my fingers have hovered anxiously over the keyboard. What do you really have to say, Sarah?

But sometime in the last month, I remembered poetry and playfulness. I remembered how fun it is to make a thing sound beautiful, to let language dosey doe some, to spin a little ditty, to tell a simple story just because this small moment is a moment of human experience, and isn’t it just beautiful?

Also sometime in the last couple of months, I began another devotional compiled by Sarah Arthur—At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, and the concept of “ordinary time” caught my curiosity. Again, being a member of a church that doesn’t follow a traditional liturgical calendar, I had never heard of ordinary time, the long season in the church calendar between Eastertide and Advent, during which the followers of Christ just go on living.

It occurred to me early on in this devotional that this is the exact season of my life. I am in ordinary time. There is no advent preparation for and celebration of new life; all my babies are born and school-aged. There is no Lent, no deep season of sacrifice and lament leaning heavy toward the grief of Good Friday and the resurrection of Eastertide. Our immediate family unit is in the long season of in-between: No one is being born. No one is starting school for the first time. No one is graduating. No one is getting married.

Ordinary time could be filled with the tediousness of survival. We eat, we drink, we sleep, we work, we play, we find ways to keep our children occupied. Ordinary time sometimes feels this way. In the gaping yawn of ordinary time, it’s easy to become anxious for the disruption. What if’s creep in. I find myself worrying over when the next Lenten season will be upon us, who will suffer, which loved one might we lose, and how bad will I sink in that grief?

When tragedy strikes others in ordinary time, it’s as if I’m watching an approaching thunderhead, flashing with heat. I find myself counting up the seconds between the light and the roar. Is it coming closer? Is it coming for me and my own?

The fear of the storm on the horizon knocks the wind out of whatever contentment and joy I might have otherwise had in this season of the ordinary, when my child begs for a bedtime snack, insists he kiss every section of my face before saying his final goodnight.

Ordinary time is the longest season in the liturgical calendar. It’s what makes up most of our days on this earth. There are only a handful of miraculous anniversaries each of us celebrates and remembers; in between are all of these minutes. I want to inhabit them more fully, abide with the holy ordinary.

That’s why I think I might try to write something daily, something unburdened with the weight of saying something, something solely for the sake of noticing. I’m weary of rebutting the world’s loud opinions. The burden of taking a stand on this issue or that does not feel mine to carry and yet I’ve felt some self-inflicted pressure to be loud, righteous, just, to join the noise.

Maybe that’s why writing has felt so stifled these last twelve (to eighteen) months. Maybe I’m asking too much of it. Do we really need yet another megaphone in a sea of megaphones? Maybe by seeking after the ordinary, I can find that still small voice I most long for when coming to this keyboard. Maybe I can be witness to the microscopic miraculous, and find solace in the monotonous.

There’s so much ordinary time ahead. I wonder what tomorrow will give.

Joy Comes in the Morning – The Power of Eastertide

Between Midnight and DawnFor Lent this year, I picked up a different kind of devotional compiled by a writing acquaintance of mine, Sarah Arthur. The book–Between Midnight and Dawn–provides a selection of Scripture passages (Psalm, Prophet, Epistle, Gospel) paired with poems and excerpts of fiction from both contemporary and canonized authors for each week of the Lenten season. When I first bought the book, I assumed that the devotional was just for the period of time leading up to Easter, so as I hit Holy Week and still had a good third of the book left to read, I wondered what more could be waiting for me after Easter Sunday.

The traditional season of Lent is supposed to be a period of time to give up chocolate and lose weight… I mean, to reflect upon the days of teaching and conflict that led to the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. It is a sober period, and not just because we tried to abstain from alcohol this year (loosely… we’re a fallen people who live in freedom and may have had a couple of celebratory drinks with friends). Lent reminds us of our tendencies toward selfishness and our deep need for grace and illuminates again for us God’s incredible covenant commitment to love and accept us in spite of ourselves.

Our denomination (Brethren) is a “low church” tradition and doesn’t typically follow a liturgical calendar, and I didn’t grow up with any real sense of the seasonal rhythms of the church, but most people know about Lent and lots of people know about Easter. After 40 long and punishing days of remembering Jesus’s suffering, we spend one day celebrating his resurrection. He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! And then for most of us, we go back to normal, ordinary time.

But did you know there’s a whole other season in the church calendar after Easter called Eastertide?

I didn’t know that, and after spending the last 18 years in regular church attendance, I feel a little robbed. Eastertide is another 40 days or so blocked off to remember Christ’s resurrected ministry, the freedom and Word and light we are all welcomed into and supposed to live into daily. It’s a period of rejoicing, joining the earth in singing praise to the God of the Universe made man who conquered death and grants us life and life abundant. Sing praise! Sing praise!

Ironically, during the Lenten season I found it difficult to get low and reflect with any emotional reaction to the suffering of Jesus, but during most of the weeks of Eastertide, the opposite is true. I’ve just been melancholy – pockets of joy and delight and laughter, yes, but underneath there’s been anxiety, foreboding. The sour taste that sometimes accompanies those moments you feel surrendered to beauty. Bittersweetness whispers, “You are happy, now, but just wait. Just wait. This will be taken from you.”

So what do you do when you’re happy during Lent and sad during Eastertide? You keep bringing yourself to the table to listen and be reminded of the fullness of Christ’s love, the totality of Christ’s presence with us during both seasons of sorrow and seasons of joy and seasons of mysterious gloom.

Even when you aren’t feeling it–whatever “it” might be–He is there, the Comforter, showing his scars and preparing a dinner over a beach bonfire. And there: joy, separate from the emotional experience of happiness or sadness. Fullness. Gratitude. Love.

A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance

I spent this weekend with my mom and daughter in Savannah, Georgia. It couldn’t have gone any better – the weekend felt scripted and presented to us in a ribbon-tied package filled with as much stress-free and joy-filled time as possible. We toured and walked and ate and drank. We sunbathed and swam in the ocean. We watched chick flicks and took many Uber trips.

Elsewhere, others inherited new burdens of grief, worry, loss, and tragedy. A friend learned her lifelong hopes of bearing children probably won’t be fulfilled. A friend’s sister is extremely sick again and needs another expensive surgery. A writer I love and admire is dead at 37, leaving behind a husband and two babies under 3 years old.

It is hard to hold so many distinct and disparate realities at once, joy sharpened and made bittersweet by the awareness that it will not always be like this. We have these seasons of peace; if we forget that grief and loss are never strangers for long, we might just miss a moment to let love and joy pierce our hearts, and by their wounds, keep us whole.

It does not seem possible – yet, even, still – that my mom is sick with stage 4 kidney cancer, because right now everything is almost fine, almost well. The sun shined over us all weekend, and now we are burnt. We each have different shaped hands and feet but the same funny looking pinky toe with a little bit of nail polish color on it. The future tried to elbow in through graveyards and sideways comments from Uber drivers about stages of kidney disease, but they were brief, fleeting reminders – awareness grief is out there, waiting, then shooed away on the Savannah breeze. The only care we had, right there, right then, involved choosing our next restaurant and deciding who was going to pay. Not wondering why, or how long, or when this season will come to an end.

The only way to weather this strange and often cruelly indifferent world is carrying what we are given undergirded by love. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. When grief and pain and suffering and loss drop their weight on us, love carries us and draws us together – those who grieve and those who rejoice. In that space we hold each other.

Keep holding on, friends. We need each other.

On Not Writing

You guys, I used to be a writer. I used to have thoughtful thoughts all day long and scribble them in notes on my phone to reference later in a blog post or article, sometimes three or four a month plus writing projects and essays in which I thought more thoughtful thoughts and then sent them out to be published and read in small literary-sized pockets in the world.

I used to write things.

When blog posts dry up on other writers’ blogs they’ll chime in sometimes and say, “Oh, sorry I haven’t been active here lately; I’ve been so busy working on my soon-to-be-published-by-a-New-York-Publishing-House-guaranteed-best-selling-memoir. It’s coming soon! Pre-order on Amazon!”

That isn’t happening here. Other than one poem I wrote last week because the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire on the Monday of Holy Week and how can you not write a poem about that, all I’ve been doing with my writing is feeling guilty about not doing it.

A couple weeks ago, my friend Dinty posted a quote from Mary Oliver, “The most regretful people on earth, are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” I’ve thought of that quote several times since, wondering if I will ever feel the call to creative work again, or if I’m neglecting the creative call, straight up ignoring it, not giving it the time of day, starving it, backing my car over top of it ’til it’s good and dead, etc. etc. etc.

Maybe the part of me that used to be a thoughtful, reflective human committed to processing out loud for all the world to read hasn’t shriveled up and died but just retreated for a time. Life is very full these days. The children rise and sleep on schedules far more similar to my sleep requirements than ever before, and they require so much more attention these days, now that they aren’t alien preschoolers but real, actual thoughtful people. They want to talk about things. I need to listen longer. There aren’t as many windows for me to space out and let the miniature meditator wander around in reflections.

Also, the husband who used to travel all the time has a normal job now. I don’t have as much time to reflect on how sad and lonely I am with him gone because he isn’t gone anymore, and I’m not sad and lonely nearly as often. And there are so many episodes of Parks and Recreation to watch! We have so many series to catch up on!

Also, the weather is getting nicer and I’ve gained, like, 20 pounds in the last three years, and it’s always been true that when I set my mind on exercise, there’s no time for writing. The reverse is true, too – when I am writing, I tend to not exercise. I want to prune trees and plant a garden and take a hike and pack the camper for the weekend and walk the dog and ride a bike and shoot some hoops and play catch and there’s walls to paint in the house and groceries to unpack and meals to prepare and laundry to fold (ohhhh shoooooot. The laundry.)

Sing it with me, folks – there’s only so much time.

My children are almost 13, almost 12, and almost 8. We are swirling in the busiest days of our family’s life, working full days, busing children to afternoon activities, aiming to live full lives with friends and family. I put together a lamp the other day and bought house plants.

And I didn’t make time to write.

I love to write. I love to play with language and make connections and think thoughtful thoughts and share them. But before the life can be reflected upon it has to be lived. It has to be inhabited. This current habitat is tender and full, green and lush. I have spent seasons of my life observing the moment, listening for the memory or soundbite so that I could reflect and write about it later, instead of just being.

Just be for a minute.

That is what is happening these days. I’m being a wife. I’m being a mom. I’m being a daughter. I’m being a director of content marketing. I’m being a friend. Or at least I’m trying to be. I’m trying to be here, active in this quite real world.

And this is probably all the writing I’m going to be doing about it.

Looking Back… When I Used to Write:

2018: Birth Stories – Three Clerihews
2017: Earthiness
2016: This Week in Books and Words and Legos
2015: April in Books and Birds
2014: April Showers
2013: Tragedy and Faith
2012: Books 4 & 5, 2012: A Double Life and Bring Down the Little Birds
2011: Explaining Easter
2010: Nada. The whole month. Because I was pregnant in April, and then not pregnant in May. This is the post before our fourth miscarriage: Elasticity Is Heaven
2009: Easter Saturdays and Thunder

What I’m Reading:

It’s been a great start to 2019 for books – I’m currently reading Between Midnight and Dawn, a devotional for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide compiled by Sarah Arthur. It’s a beautiful collection of poetry and Scripture readings that have brought new light and inspiration into this season for me.

Before that I read Peter Drucker’s Effective Executivea practical and in-depth look at what it means to be a leader of professionals. I’ve thought of the content in Drucker’s book many times since reading it. I highly recommend it for anyone who finds themselves in a position of leadership with a bunch of other really smart people.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Look at all of the writing I just did about not writing!


The Lost Babies

Henry: “How old would the other children be if they were born?”

Me: “I think 14, 13, 10, and 8.”

Henry: “I would’ve liked the 8-year-old. We would have been buds.”

I don’t know if it’s strange or awesome or awkward that all three of my kids know about our multiple miscarriages. We don’t talk about them, really, but I guess the few times we have made an impression on Henry. I haven’t told him that there’s no way we would’ve had seven kids… or that if even one of those lost babies had survived, none of the amazing little people living in my house right now would be here – not with their particular genetic structure or personality or mannerisms. Maybe he’ll realize that one day, but for now, I like that they would’ve been buds.

I like to believe there’s some kind of soul recycling machine God employs for babies that don’t make it (I know, it sounds a bit like reincarnation, but I’m not making a theological argument right now – just a wondering.). Maybe Lydia, Elvis, and Henry were false starts the first time around and caught the next ride into this world to arrive as they are now. Probably not, but it sounds like something the God of the universe could figure out.

It’s all such a mystery, all of it – the conceptions, the losses, the redemptions, the births, the questions, the pockmarked and cratered bits of answers. Part of trusting God is leaning into those questions, and part of trusting God is resting in the mystery, without a whiff of a composed word in reply, except, perhaps,

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:1-3)

body-coffin-essayMy essay, “The Body Is Not a Coffin,” is now available for purchase on Kindle. It explores the complexities and questions having miscarriages can bring to one’s faith in God. My husband and I experienced four miscarriages – a partial mole pregnancy, a very early miscarriage, a miscarriage when on birth control, and a miscarriage after hearing the heartbeat. Our first two miscarriages happened before we had babies and our second two happened between when our second and third children were born. Each of those experiences changed and shaped our understanding of God and our relationship to the Creator of the universe. If you’ve experienced a miscarriage yourself, I hope this essay helps you feel less alone.

Download the Kindle version.

(Previously published in Under the Gum Tree and selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018)