Pretty Baby

I wasn’t planning on having children. Actually, I was planning on not having children. Until my now-firstborn, now-twelve-year-old, first made herself known. That extra pink line on the plastic strip might as well have been an angel, and I would have benefited from the routine angelic greeting, “do not be afraid.” I admit I cried myself to sleep that night, but it seems I always take a night to freak out before changing my plans in any major way. Sometimes even the sweetest surprises are first met with salty tears.

And now, we are two-thirds of the way to that tiny baby’s high school graduation.

Week 15 of #songaweek2016 included an extra challenge, to write a song in the form of a recipe. I already felt like writing a song about my daughter, so I found a way to squeeze it into recipe form too.

Take a smidgen of him and a dash of me
Bake for nine months at ninety-eight point six degrees
Then when my body feels like it’s about to break
It’s time to open up and meet my babycake

Pretty baby pretty baby with her daddy’s eyes
Pretty baby pretty baby mama’s sweetest surprise

Give liberal breastfuls of milk to my sugar and spice
Try not to scream the first time she bites
Blend up some squash and put it on a teaspoon
Pretend it’s on a mission and she’s the moon

Pretty baby pretty baby with her daddy’s eyes
Pretty baby pretty baby mama’s sweetest surprise

In a medium class combine her with twenty kids
Sift through all her papers and art projects
Roll out chores and charts so she gets her work done
But ditch the cookie cutters, let her make her own fun

Pretty baby pretty baby with her daddy’s eyes
Pretty baby pretty baby mama’s sweetest surprise

Sometimes my little sweet gets a little saucy
Sometimes she flames up like bananas foster
Then I let her settle

Let her sweetness age, let her take her time
Gotta wait patiently for the finest wine
Then however she decides to pour herself out
She’ll outsparkle all I’ve dreamed about

Pretty baby pretty baby with her daddy’s eyes
Pretty baby pretty baby mama’s sweetest surprise

 

Word Limit

[I wrote this after a school-morning parenting moment with my preteen daughter earlier this year. Sometimes I am just as amused at my words in moments like these as I am at my daughter’s!]

You absolutely adore your teacher, and he fiercely cares for his students. One day when I am volunteering in the lunch room you walk in and sit down, and you are crying. Your teacher confides in me that he doesn’t get it why you cry sometimes and can’t say why.

I get it. You know why, but it’s not a talking kind of thing. You and I sat on the couch this morning and tried using words to unravel the problem, but it only wound tighter, tightening along with your shoulders, along with my tone of voice.

Using words, we outlined the problem something like this:

You need to make your lunch so you’re ready for school.

I can’t. My life is so hard. I’m lonely. I hate it here. I want ramen noodles. Please buy me ramen noodles. We don’t have anything I can make for lunch.

I just went shopping yesterday. We have plenty of food.

No we don’t.

Yes we do.

No we don’t.

How have I failed so miserably as a parent? We need to leave this country. You need to see how most people live. You have clean water and more than enough food and a safe place to live every day. You get to go to school every day, and have few other responsibilities in life. How can I show this to you?

You hate me. I make you feel like you’re a bad parent. I need to leave. I’ll move somewhere else. You don’t want me.

Words, which I love, often fail me in my parenting efforts. So I close my arms around you, my dear miserable child, and close my mouth. Your shoulders relax, my throat loosens, and eventually, you are in the kitchen making your lunch and singing.

Baby to Mama: Push Push Push!

Lots of things can inspire people to push to a new level.

You can see someone else do something amazing, and start to wonder what you may be capable of. For example, watching the Olympics. Or this guy. Or the last moments of last night’s Super Bowl!

You might have a drill sergeant or a coach or teacher or boss who yells and punishes and demeans you to draw those hidden reserves of strength from you. It works for some people, some of the time.

Or, as I poignantly discovered yesterday, love might do it. Love and joy and a bit of parental pride too.

silasrunThis kid, if he were your kid, might inspire you to do something you didn’t think you could. Maybe you have one like him. Or maybe you love someone else as fiercely as I love this kid, and then you might also know what I’m talking about.

In this photo, my son is a few years younger, but he’s doing the same thing he’s been doing every day, almost since he first balanced on those two legs. He’s running. Back and forth, lap after lap after lap. Muttering and shouting to himself, jumping, waving arms now and then, the star of the story in his head, pounding out the joyful rhythm of life coursing through his veins.

On Saturday, Silas toured the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and the athletes and stories he encountered inspired him to start his own training. On Sunday, he announced that he would run around the block 20 times. Nathan went with him, and used his phone’s Strava app to track it.

Ten laps around the block, and Nathan was done. They had gone 2.5 miles at an average pace of 9:38 per mile. But Silas wanted more! He had said 20 and he meant to do it. So I said I’d go.

Six and a half years ago, I decided it was time to get back in shape, and so I started running. My first accomplishment was running one mile without stopping. Over the years, I pushed until I was regularly going on ten-mile runs, and my average pace peaked at (or dove to?) around 9:30 per mile (which is nothing special, but for recreational running, respectable enough).

Then we moved to Colorado, where the air is thinner, which makes running harder – and since we’ve moved here, I’ve never run further than six miles at a time, or at a pace much less than 10 minutes per mile. Lately, I’ve been averaging closer to 11-minute miles, and hardly running more than two miles at a time.

Which, of course, is fine. Even great, relatively speaking. And I’ve been content with that.

But then, yesterday, Silas wanted someone to run ten more laps around the block with him, and as he had already worn out his dad (who, to be clear, is in great shape but just not much of a runner), it appeared to be my turn.

Knowing that just two days before I had eked out two 11-minute miles, and that Silas had just rocked two-plus miles at a pace of more than a minute per mile less than that, I wondered how this might go. But, he had just run two miles, and I was coming in fresh, so maybe these next ten laps would go a bit slower.

I brought my phone so we could track our pace on my Strava app. Since Silas didn’t have a good way to carry it securely while he ran, he emphasized that I needed to keep up with him so he could get an accurate reading of his pace.

I said I would.

And we were off.

The kid showed no signs of slowing down.

“Pace yourself, now, Silas! Remember you’ve got to keep running for ten laps! And you’ve already done ten so you may be tired.”

“I know, Mom. I’m fine!”

“Great!” But I wasn’t so sure about myself. Legs felt fine. It was the lungs that protested. I concentrated on breathing, and keeping up with Silas.

We counted the laps as we passed our house. “One!” I panted.

“Nine more to go!” Silas joyfully shouted.

Help! my mind screamed.

We made it to four.

“Only six more now!” piped the happy little athlete.

Six more! But we hadn’t even run six yet. We had run four, and we were going fast, and I was breathing hard. When we had actually gotten to six, we would still have four more – as much as we had just run – still to run! How was I going to manage?

“Are you getting tired, Mom?” Silas asked as we turned a corner and I began to breathe especially hard.

“Not really, just having a little trouble breathing! How are you doing?”

“Great!” chirruped the cherub.

“Awesome!” cheered the panting mother.

We ran, and counted, and ran, and talked a bit.

And then, somehow, we were at nine. One left! I could do anything now!

And we did. We sprinted for the finish, and I stopped the app and insisted we walk just a bit to cool down, and when those ten laps were complete, my phone told me we had just run 2.5 miles at an average pace of 8:54 per minute.

Even in the flatlands, even on short runs, I rarely saw the number 8 for a minute-marker in my average pace.

My boy had just run five miles in a little over 45 minutes, on a whim, in the mile-high Colorado atmosphere.

And, probably more remarkably, he pushed his mother to shave two minutes off her average pace – not with inspiring platitudes, not with barks or insults – but with something much more powerful.

He did it by tapping into the love I have for him, and sharing his absolute joy of running with me.

This morning, still basking in the glow of yesterday’s achievement, I went out on my own and ran an 8-minute mile, and another 10-minute one to finish out a daily run.

I didn’t know I could do that, not before yesterday, not before I ran with Silas.

Who knows how serious Silas will be about continuing his “training”? I hope we can keep it up together for a while at least.

But whatever the case, and far beyond the realm of running, I learned something deeply important yesterday – that if you want to break through to a new level in anything, or help someone else do so, love and joy might just be the ultimate motivators.

Child-Woman

I closed out another journal this morning. Here’s an entry from earlier this year, written after a particularly painful evening of parenting.

Oh ten-year-old girl with the rages and rolling eyes, the cry and play of a child, the body and mind leaning towards adulthood. You are loved, and lovely. You are unpredictable, awkward, unkind, collapsible. Headstrong, indecisive, brilliant and naive.

I, young one, am your mother. I am wise and baffled. Patient and irritated. I love you. I do not always like you. I am not old and wise enough to never feel pain at your unkindnesses. (No, that’s not where wisdom would be found. Love feels the pain. Wisdom – and love again – can reach beyond it, to embrace you, to envision you in truth, a child-woman writhing in growing pains.)

Sleep tonight, my small darling. Sleep and be refreshed. You are not in-between two realities. You are fully functioning, smack-dab in the center of one reality, this one, the reality of your living self at age ten-and-one-half. And I am honored to know you here and now.

Bread of Life

God’s fingers were floury from kneading the bread dough.

She wiped them on her apron

Then stooped to pick up the baby

(He had been crying and pulled himself up by her pant leg, his snot and

tears spotting her jeans at the thigh)

She kissed his cushy cheek

Hoisted him on her hip

Smoothed a stray strand of hair

And laughed when he sneezed unexpectedly.

On the radio the band struck up a tune

So she took his chubby hand in her callused one

And they danced around the kitchen

Afternoon sun dappling the linoleum

School buses whooshing by outside

Neighborhood children chattering down the sidewalk

And there in the middle of it all,

Bread dough rising quietly.

Apple of My Eye

In early June in Minnesota this year, it seemed we lived in a world of rain, a land of gray. I think we spent two continuous weeks under granite skies, and my nine-year-old daughter began to feel it in her light-hungry soul. The perpetual gloom, combined with the haunting bedtime thoughts about death and loss that are common to her age, brought an above-average precipitation of tears welling up from a previously-unplumbed depth of grief and questions in her being. We were packing to move across the country that month, far from the familiar hugs of grandparents, a thousand miles from the back doors of the neighbor girls she loved like sisters.

This girl was not my idea. I was not inclined towards having children, because although I have always adored babies, children (those little people who want birthday parties and sleepovers and repeat, “watch this!” over and over and interrupt intelligent conversations to repeat their favorite lines from inane movies and litter the world with cheap plastic toys and fingernail polish) are not my strong suit.

I was a child once. And this does give me a window on my own daughter’s childhood. But just as her birth was not my idea, neither is her self. As I wrote here, she is a whirlwind of imagination and action. My child self was a model of compliance. Trying to understand her most mystifying elements through the lens of my childhood too easily leads to comparison and value judgments.

But when I remember that Luthien was never my idea, and that her continuing unfolding is not my idea, I relax a little more into the One whose bright and colorful idea she is. I support, encourage, seek to inspire, educate, discipline, celebrate and love this inexplicable human, but she is not my grand idea to be worked out precisely the way I think best.

She is the apple of my eye and the stars in my night sky, but apples don’t feed eyes and stars at night don’t keep their beholder warm. My baby, my child, my girl came from me, changed and changes me, has marked me forever – and yet, she has her own road to travel, distinct from but ever intertwined with mine.

Here’s a song I wrote in those gray weeks in June.

Lyrics:

You are the apple of my eye

But eyes cannot eat apples

You are the stars in my night sky

But stars are too far away to keep me warm

You are my darling baby girl

And babies need their mothers

I am your faithful failing world

I rock you in my arms and cry along

A long long night

Oh will it ever end?

A hard hard fight

I wish we both could win

You are a flash of color bright

Inside a kaleidoscope

You ask me sometimes late at night

Is anybody there looking through?

You are a mirror in the woods

Reflecting all around you

You show the trees they’re looking good

But secretly you’re lonely for a face

A face of love

A face with patient eyes

A face you’ll know

From your feeling of surprise

You’re growing into summer now

You’re thirsty like a flower

With all my heart I’ll show you how

To spread your petals out and drink the rain

The rain that soaks

And chills you to the roots

But don’t lose hope

The sun will come out too.

Children and Snow

On this first day of spring, my brother’s wife is laboring to birth the last of my parents’ grandchildren. This child will probably get a new name today, but for the last nine months he has been Baby Omega.

On this first day of spring, I am bundled in layers and confronted with a cold snowy world outside my window.

These things have me thinking about how children are like snow.

Both children and snow are a beautiful inconvenience. Both are a gift that comes when it pleases, or when God pleases, or the forces of nature and life, or random blind chance, or some crazy-quilt mix of these, depending on who you ask.

Both start as romantically anticipated events, at least to some of us – those who wish for white Christmases, those who dream of a baby cooing in the cradle in the new house we just bought.

The first snow is magic and mystery, and so is each new baby. The world hushes, slows, becomes one eternal sacred moment.

Then the snow hardens to ice chunks, soils itself with sand and salt and animal droppings, and generally gets in our way. The baby wakes us up every night, spits up on our clothes and our furniture, grows teeth and bites us.

The winter wears on and we settle in to the new reality. We read more books, go skiing, build snowmen, drink hot cocoa. We wake when the baby wakes, which is no longer a shock to the system. The babies grow, and we accept the relentless school-night routine (dinner, clean-up of kids dishes table floor, bath, storytime, prayers, kisses, lights-out, drink of water, lights-out, comfort for nine-year-old’s existential fears, lights-out, comfort for six-year-old’s scary dream, lights-out . . . ) as our basic reality, just like we accept that we can’t run barefoot outside in the snow (though our children don’t always concur).

We dream of summer. We dream of empty-nest years. Middle-aged couples in the child-free restaurant booth near ours (the one with children chattering about Phineas and Ferb and parents droning, “sit down!” and “say ‘excuse me!'”) look as exotic to us as the posters for Jamaica hung in the icicle-bedecked windows of the travel agency downtown.

The snow is going nowhere, though the calendar says it’s spring. The children seem to be in no hurry either.

But every day has moments that catch us off-guard with their goodness. The color of the light on the snow at sunset, the waking adult we glimpse in the graceful stride of our golden-haired daughter.

The days and the years carry on. One day the snow is more absent than present, the child’s life is lived more out of our home than in it. All of us are refreshed by the spring, with its sprouts and sunshine, this new season of our lives ripe with energy and possibilities.

But then winter, with its gifts we never asked for, gifts we never did experience as well as we could have, softens in our memories, and we are just a little sad that we never officially said goodbye to the snow, even as it faded right in front of us.

A Long Walk, A Thousand Miles From Newtown

On Saturday Silas and I walked downtown to buy a book for his kindergarten class gift exchange.

On Friday our town had been a snow-covered Christmas-fairy-tale village. Then it rained. It rained on Friday night, and all day Saturday. The rain erased the snow and exposed the husks and straw of fall to the numb gray sky.

We bought our book and headed home through the mist. Everything was crying. We moved slowly and silently, my 37-year-old legs newly attuned to his six-year-old pace.

The cheerful Christmas music piped through Central Park’s loudspeakers sounded alien and anachronistic.

We passed the post office and the library, who face one another across Broadway. Their flags waved wearily where they had fallen, halfway to the muddy ground.

We passed my children’s school, whose flag also trailed low, heavy with its load of grief.

We passed three neighbor boys on bicycles. I smiled and said hello. They were painfully beautiful.

That was a very long walk. I am still tired from it.

Random Thoughts on a Touchy Topic

When I was young, I knew with certainty that abortion was wrong. It was a black-and-white issue. A baby is a baby is a baby. Life begins at conception, and abortion stops a beating heart. Abortion is murder. I couldn’t understand how anyone could see things otherwise. I was sure that anyone with a different opinion was godless and heartless.

In my young adulthood, I met a young man who was also an evangelical-striped Christian. But he voted Democrat and identified himself as pro-choice. He explained that even if abortion was a moral wrong, he didn’t think it was right for a mostly-male Congress to be making laws governing women’s choices about what was going on inside their own bodies.

My thought-evolution on this issue has continued. Currently, I would say that I am undecided.

Here is a random list of thoughts and things I have learned related to this issue. These are not points or arguments. Please don’t read them as such. I am thinking out loud:

Planned Parenthood is mostly about providing low-cost or free health care to women. I was always taught that this organization was pretty much pure evil, so even today when I know better, just the name “Planned Parenthood” still elicits a visceral negative reaction for me.

Medical technology has advanced so that surgery can be performed on babies in the womb, and babies can survive birth at earlier stages of development than ever.

The phrase “every child a wanted child” rings a little hollow to me. It has been used as a pro-choice argument that no child should be born to a mother who doesn’t want him or her. I agree with this sentiment, but I think a better solution is to build a world where people welcome and support children (and by extension, pregnant women and mothers of young children), not where unwanted children are denied existence.

I find the ideas on Feminists for Life‘s website intriguing, especially their FAQ answer regarding criminalizing abortion (though it seems a bit evasive).

Adoption is often held up as an alternative to abortion. But carrying a pregnancy to term is a major life disruptor in and of itself, especially if a woman already has young children (and most women who get abortions are already mothers of previously-birthed children).

It is possible to hold a pro-choice position concerning legislation and a pro-life position concerning morality. I suppose this would be a libertarian position, similar to positions on other issues such as drug use, alcohol consumption, sex, and religious beliefs.

This is a controversial issue for good reasons. The entire journey that an egg and a sperm make to become a newborn baby happens inside a woman’s body. Is it really good policy to dictate to her what she does about that activity going on inside of her? If we can make laws about whether women may terminate their pregnancies or not, can we also make laws about how they will treat the growing child inside their body? Can we make it illegal for pregnant women to smoke or drink?

Why are so many “pro-life” people also outspoken critics of welfare in any form? If you want to reduce abortions, wouldn’t you want to help build a world where children are cared for, no matter their household income – and where women have access to contraception to prevent pregnancy in the first place? But I understand that many people who are opposed to government-sponsored welfare think that churches and community groups should be the ones providing poverty relief. And that’s another non-black-and-white issue for another day . . .

According to recent demographic research, poverty – and the inadequate health care and lack of access to contraception that goes along with it – is a significant contributor to the choice to abort a pregnancy. This blog post and video discusses this information more.

Referring to his daughters, President Obama once said, “I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” Unfortunate choice of words, I’d say. Whatever he meant by that, I think it reflects the reality of our patriarchal society which marginalizes women and even more so marginalizes children (and the elderly, mentally/physically challenged, etc.) and the people – often women – who care for them. Once again, this raises for me the reminder that abortion must be understood in its larger context of social and systemic issues that de-value people who don’t “keep up” with the expected pace of American life – 16+ years of formal education, 40+weekly hours working a “real job,” etc.

That’s a long enough list for now.

Abortion, like life, is not a black-and-white issue. I’m weary of both pro-lifers and pro-choicers ignoring the complexities involved  (though of course not everyone from either perspective does so).

These are just some opening thoughts to a conversation I hope we can have here. Let’s talk. What do you think? Or feel? Or wonder? Or what have you experienced? Or learned? Or considered? I’m looking for a thoughtful and respectful conversation about an often-heated topic. So it may be a good idea to read your comment over one extra time before you make that final click.

*Update: Recently I heard this OnBeing podcast  with David Gushee and Frances Kissling about abortion. I highly recommend it as a model of thoughtful conversation on this issue.

Peace to the People

When the Occupy Wall Street movement began over two months ago, I just wasn’t interested. The national political scene mostly tires and annoys me, so I don’t pay much attention.

Then there was the UC-Davis pepper spray incident, apparently not the first of the pepper-spray incidents. How about an 84-year-old woman? But I digress.

There they sat, quiet and stubborn college students; and there they stood, riot-geared tough-faced police.

I don’t know or understand the whole story. I know police work is difficult and complicated. But a scene like this leaves me cold, wondering what in the world we have come to. So do the vicious comments people scream at one another in the cyberspace around such videos.

Contemplating the scene after watching it the first time (and having a good little cry), I saw children all around. Idealistic and strong-willed children sitting on the ground. Threatened and insecure children strutting in their sunglasses and holsters. Simplistically-indignant children shouting “Shame on you!” at the bullies.

But no one stepping out of their pigeonhole. It probably wasn’t the time or place, but it seems we have less and less times and places for people to un-dig their heels and speak with kindness, patience, and genuine interest to one another across ideological lines. (A stream of pepper spray sort-of discourages such things too.)

Most of us have learned from childhood that we must fight to win. Of course, not at home with your sister (“share your toys!”). But in the movies and the storybooks, and definitely in the adult world – we have learned that you can’t prosper if you don’t beat down the bad guys. The good guys win. Not everybody. Only the good guys.

Republicans and Democrats, Tea Partiers and Occupiers, and many of us watching from our comfortable armchairs, are too often colorblind. We can only see ourselves and each other and the world at large in black and white. We line up people and ideas on “good” and “bad” sides, and then we start shooting – or spraying, or shouting. And we miss the depth of colors, the beauty, truth and goodness mingled with selfishness and brokenness in life at every level.

This is not to say we don’t form opinions and speak out for them. Personally, I am glad the Occupixies are doing their thing, and I much prefer this movement to the Democrats and Republicans (and philosophically I prefer it to the Tea Party, but I admire the grass-rootsiness of the TP too). But ultimately, we’re all a little lost, aren’t we? And it probably wouldn’t make things any worse if we practiced more patience and peace, listening and learning.

As I contemplate the UC-Davis pepper-spray scene – from my comfortable armchair – it’s easy to spout grand ideals about peace and love. But in the heat of showdown moments in my own life, I have stood (or sat) in each of those positions. I have sprayed and been sprayed, and I’ve shouted at bullies too. Sometimes, we become so passionate about our ideals or enraged about injustice, or even threatened and impatient, that we do dig in our heels or lash out at others; and I’m not suggesting that we can or even should keep such things from happening at all costs. History has taught us that “good guys,” eager to stop evil on every front, can all too quickly become “bad guys” in their very acts of fighting evil.

Occupy Fort Pierre National Grassland! - a day in our peaceful parenting protest

In discussing environmental and agricultural concerns, Wendell Berry called gardening a “complete action,” because it is not only a symbolic protest but also an actively-implemented solution to the problem it protests. Though I won’t be joining any tent cities, I have realized that I can launch my own protest just as effectively right where I am. I think maybe peaceful parenting, like gardening, is a complete action, and in watching the Occupillars, I am inspired to keep at it.

Today, my family and I look together for the good in each person. Today, we practice love and respect with one another. Today, also, I scream at my children and they push and punch one another. We’re good and bad, and everything in between, but we continue to get back up, apologize, and start over again.

Peace begins at home. But it doesn’t have to end there.