Gratitude list, November 2022

stars glittering
the night sky, when I’m up late
feeding the baby, falling into
bed
& the arms of my spouse
for a few more hours of sleep before
daybreak
fresh coffee & hot oatmeal
little hands reaching for me
for games of peekaboo
songs & cuddles
for the wide embrace of our village —
grandparents
dear friends
good neighbors
teachers
pediatricians
therapists
our congregation — with whom we raise
our children
for music while I’m doing dishes and folding
warm towels just out of the dryer
for naptime, blessed naptime,
a moment of peace amidst the chaos of
Legos & crayons & rounds of Uno & kitchen dance parties & “another snack please!” & playdates & playgrounds & tag
long walks in the neighborhood
the scent of burning leaves
& the way sunight catches in the leaves
at golden hour
dinner to make,
bathtime bubbles & squeals,
for sharing stories & poetry & prayers,
goodnight kisses & “I love you”s
& when the dog curls up on my lap
& the whole house is
quiet
holding a freshly sharpened pencil
& a blank page on which to praise
this one holy and beautiful life.

First blush

All summer she basked
in the sun.
Now the days are dwindling,
the autumn wind is gusting,
and hope courses
through her veins.

She changes quietly
she has much to do before
becoming
a tree of splendor,
before she sheds
each ruby leaf
and finds the beauty in release.

“Be gentle,” she whispers
to the others (but more so to herself)
“Give me grace
while I transform.”

Our world

after “This World” by Mary Oliver

I would like to create a home
in which there are rarely any messes,
but that seems impossible
given the fact that children live here,
considering the Legos that sprinkle
our playroom floor and prick
our soles,
a deck of cards fanned out 
across the coffee table,
oodles of library books littering
the kids’ bedrooms, each object a portal
to another realm where imagination reigns
and couch cushions meld
into the body of a race car,
a swingset transforms
into a shuttle rocketing to Mars,
stones unearthed
from the flowerbeds become 
marble.

“We could be rich!”
my son cries, cradling his prizes,
holding them out to me like offering.
Dirt speckles his grin,
dresses his hands and feet,
piles next to him on the patio,
I sigh,
send him to rinse up, pick up my phone
and scroll the news,
confronting a barrage of harshness.
I sigh again,
but he laughs, unaware,
spraying his palms clean with the garden hose
— or is it a fire-breathing dragon?

(I would like to create a world
in which there are rarely any messes
but that seems impossible
given the fact that humans live here, 
and they keep hurting
each other.)

I glance at my son’s hands,
fresh and five years young,
whatever they graze
shape-shifts from ordinary
to extraordinary.
Could they fashion
marble from our muck?
Maybe
we could be rich.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Ordinary Inspiration.”

On growth

Growth in this season doesn’t look like I thought it would.

Sometimes growth is a giant leap, a trust fall into the unknown.

Other times, it’s incremental, a series of small steps taken again and again. Growth is showing up to the path, putting one foot in front of the other, falling into bed at night exhausted, and waking up the next morning to walk again. It’s taking a detour or a rest when circumstance calls for it.

Almost always it’s a bit uncomfortable.

There’s a certain kind of vulnerability to growth too, trusting and leaning into the change and knowing there may be old habits you have to shed in order to reach your full potential. Like a gait that needs to be improved, change requires practice and time.

I’m leaning into that tension. I’m recognizing that much of the growth I have to do in this season is slow and unseen, and it cannot be rushed.

Ultimately, growth is a product of faithfulness and courage.

Being afraid

and showing up anyway —

a pilgrim on the path of life.

To ride on his own

bike ride

And on this splendid summer day, a boy learned to ride his bike.

He zoomed down the alley while Dad jogged behind him and Mom stood with the baby, holding up her camera. The boy couldn’t quite understand the funny look on Mom’s face — was she smiling or crying? Maybe both?

“Wonderful, wonderful,” she kept saying. And it was wonderful to push through the wobbles and ride strong and steady, to feel the slight breeze on his face, to gain speed, to move through the city all by himself. What kind of adventures awaited him this summer? Where would he go? Who would he become?

Head held high, he raced into the night.

Howl

Some days
I am more wolf
than woman,
and I am still learning
how to stop apologizing
for my wild.
—Nikita Gill

When the news breaks over NPR, I don’t handle it well. I hear the words “shooting” and “elementary school” and flick the radio off in an instant. Shoulders tense, I ease our SUV forward through a crowded intersection while my mind churns backwards, grasping for names: Stoneman Douglas. Columbine. Sandy Hook. (Later, a principal I know posts on his timeline a list of U.S. schools traumatized by gun violence. It is 245 lines deep.)

“What happened, Mom?” My five-year-old calls out from the backseat of our SUV. His three-month-old brother fusses next to him, hungry.

I stare out at the graveyard we pass daily on our commute home from preschool and try to make sense of this moment. Miles away in Uvalde, Texas, there are moms and dads who won’t pick up their children from school tonight. Oh God, those parents…

“Mom?”

“Something really terrible happened, sweetheart,” I say, keeping my voice steady. I should be trembling, I should be sobbing, but instead I’m numb to this fresh punch of violence (I’m still trying to process/grieve the last two mass shootings). I need to tell my oldest what’s going on, but I can’t bring myself to say it. Not yet.

Last week, we visited his new elementary school for an open house. My incoming kindergartener wore a blue dress shirt and his dad helped him comb and part his golden hair. Hand tight in mine, he roamed the halls, later breaking free to run up the staircase and skim his fingers over the desks in various classrooms. I watched him, so tall and so curious, beaming with pride. How would he grow here? Who would he become?

Today’s news reminds me that kindergarten is the milestone I’ve been dreading since he was a tiny babe fluttering inside my belly. Because I live in the U.S., where we ask school age children to kneel under their desks for active shooter drills and pray ours will be lucky enough to graduate alive rather than make meaningful cultural and legislative changes to prevent school shootings. Statistically, these events are rare but the terror that it could happen to us haunts me. In 2018 with a pack of angry parents, I walked Chicago’s streets holding a sign that read “I’m marching for my son,” hoping against hope that by the time he got to kindergarten our country would address this travesty. Shamefully, we haven’t.

The baby wiggles and fusses in my arms as I unearth him from the carseat to nurse and send his older brother to fetch himself an applesauce. Once they’re fed, I busy myself cooking dinner and scrolling. Distracted, I’m slow to marinate and bake the tofu, and I also miss tired cues from my youngest. When my husband gets home, it’s clear to him the baby needs a nap.

Overtired wails fill the walls of our home but fail to loosen the primal scream caught in my throat. 19 innocent babies gunned down by a guy with an AR-15. Two teachers too. What kind of madness is this? My husband is on baby duty, and I keep fixing dinner, but I want so badly to stop and wail with our child.

When the tofu bowls are ready, I can’t eat. Instead I go to the nursery, scoop up our babe and nurse him down to sleep in the rocking chair, one hand cradling his body while the other grips my smart phone. I scroll, scroll, scroll. I text a friend: I feel gutted. Then I close my apps and make a donation to Everytown for Gun Safety.

For the remainder of the night, I stay there, clutching my youngest. He sleeps comfortably in my arms. I sleep fitfully, waking often to turn the news over in my mind and debate our school choices. Could I homeschool? If I keep my five-year-old here with us will that be enough to keep him safe? Should we relocate to Canada? Like a wolf in her den, I scan my environment for threats, afraid to release my pups because what if they are hunted?

In the morning, I nurse the baby and change his diaper. I make a plan to contact my senators, Dick and Tammy, when the house is quiet. I kiss my eldest twice and hug him hard before he leaves with his dad for preschool. “I love you, Mom!” he cries, light-up Sketchers flashing in the doorway. “I love you too, buddy!” I whisper shakily.

All day I follow news from Robb Elementary, refreshing my Times app for updates between tummy time, naps and breastfeeding. I read about the sweet lives of the lost children and their heroic teachers. I wolf down every bite of the story I can, but my appetite — for what? a reason? a word of hope? — remains unsatisfied. There is one image I can’t get out of my head, a photograph of a woman, possibly a mother, mid-sob, her dark hair spilling over her loved one’s shoulder, where she rests her head. Her eyes are wild; she is part wolf like me. Was this the moment she heard she lost her baby?

I wonder if this is how God cries too — like a bewildered, grieving mother.

In a couple hours, I will pick up my son from preschool again, eyes watery at the sight of him. I will ask him how his day went and make him breakfast for dinner. I will tell him over pancakes what happened at Robb Elementary without giving much detail. “This makes me mad and sad,” he’ll reply. “I’m mad and sad too,” I’ll say. “So is God. God weeps with us.” My son will then ask why it happened. I’ll answer with a half-truth: I don’t know. (I do know that complacency won’t prevent future tragedies. Why are we being held back from common sense gun reform? Why haven’t we seen new mental health initiatives? Why not both? Why do many of our elected officials offer thoughts and prayers then keep doing… nothing?) We’ll hang our heads together. I’ll pray, Lord, those sweet, innocent children — our children — did not deserve this brutal ending. We don’t deserve to live like this. Lord, hear our prayer. Oh Lord, have mercy on us.

I can’t do this.

Not yet.

For the time being, I become a wolf. I hold my baby close and howl.

Time to fly

Last Wednesday, I bid farewell to a job I loved. It was my dream job, the job that combined my passion for words with my deepest held beliefs, a job that rattled and refined that faith, a job where I encountered the Divine in the voices of others. It was more than a job, it was a call.

This call sent me to Budapest, Boston, Johannesburg, Houston. I met Lutheran parishioners, pastors and neighbors on the margins — some who fled their homes to find haven in the U.S., some still searching for a home in this country. I heard hymns of praise and songs of lament. I witnessed ministries that fed bellies and souls. With my trusty laptop and reporter’s notebook, I captured it all, being careful to record the truth, no matter how inconvenient. When I sat down to craft a story, each line felt like a prayer. The work tethered me to hope.

Most days, I worked from the office. Pre-pandemic, I had a cube with a view of the courtyard, my space nestled next to five of my favorite coworkers. I met dear friends here — kind, talented people who laughed and cried and did excellent work alongside me.

This is also the place I worked when I became a mother.

All in all, I spent nine years stewarding sacred stories for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — years of listening and telling, growing and becoming.

There are occasions in life when you look around and realize that the tidy nest you built no longer fits, and you’ll need to leave in order to fly. After much prayer and discernment, I resigned to pursue my vocations as a mother and a writer.

There will be time to reflect more, to announce what’s coming next.

For now, I’ll close with this: It was an honor and a privilege to play a role in making known the immeasurable love of God.

Where I’ve prayed (an incomplete list)

At the foot of Hart Lake, wisps of breath swirling in the alpine air, marveling at the breadth of sky and pines and Cascade Mountains, feeling so small, feeling the expansiveness of God’s presence;

In the Chapel of the Resurrection for 10 p.m. worship, surrounded by classmates, basking in the glow of candlelight, singing “Jesus Christ is the light of the world — the light no darkness can overcome”;

On an operating table at Lutheran General, hearing his cries, seeing his face for the first time, tears of joy rivening my cheeks, my heart full of awe and thanksgiving;

In the kitchen, peeling and chopping carrots,
swishing the mirepoix with hot olive oil, delighting in each crack and sizzle;

At the beach in Cinque Terre, raking my fingers through fine sand, sweat beading at my chest, already sore from the day’s hike, already dreaming of the night’s gelato, young and alive and enamored with the world’s beauty;

Snuggled up in my son’s bed, asking for forgiveness and safekeeping, pleading for peace, giving thanks for shelter, love and family;

On my yoga mat, arms splayed out wide, forehead and knees and palms pressing down, surrendering to gravity, my whole body curled in a posture of devotion;

At Fourth Presbyterian Church, pausing in the aisles to notice how to the stained glass crafts a mosaic of color on floor, lifting my eyes to the pews to see the ones who find sanctuary from the biting Chicago wind on an ordinary weekday;

On the sidewalk with my son, knees powdered with pastel, chalking rainbows, hearts and flowers, the words “Run with Maud” and “We’re in this together”;

Flat on my back in the middle of a field of wildflowers, exasperated by negative pregnancy tests and abandoned drafts going nowhere and the isolation of the pandemic, lamenting the loss of life and lack of justice, searching the clouded sky for hope and answers, whispering, “God, are you out there?”;

Facing the altar of Resurrection Lutheran Church, cupping my hands to receive the bread, the body of Christ, the grace that grounds me and sets me free;

On the pages of my journal, scribbling thoughts, seeking wisdom, searching for direction, asking God what would you have me do, how will you use me now, how can I attune my ear to your calling;

At my childhood dinner table, fingers interlaced, head bowed, voice intoning “let these gifts to us be blessed”;

One of the holiest places I prayed: In the woods near the North Branch Trail with my son, clutching a dandelion puff, scattering seeds into the breeze with one exhale, wondering where and when they’ll take root and blossom.

Eugene Peterson said, “Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.”

I am trying to remember this, that prayer is less about asking and more hearing. That I can encounter God in the woods or in a sanctuary, at the table or under a veil of stars. That prayer can happen anywhere, if only we have ears to listen.

Adam Richard: A redemptive birth story

I fastened my hospital-issued smock and hefted my achy body onto the bed. Machines hummed. The smell of disinfectant permeated the air. A Christmas morning kind of excitement buzzed inside of me. Today was the day! After 39 weeks, we were going to meet our second child.

A fierce kick jabbed my belly. I looked over at my husband and grinned. “Baby boy’s moving and grooving in here. He’s ready.” 

“Oh good,” Jay said, looking up from his phone. He surveyed the room’s white walls, tiled floor and medical bassinet. “Babe, I’m pretty sure this is where you stayed after your first c-section,” he said.

“Really? This room…” I said, trailing off, scrutinizing the space. Five years ago, I came to this hospital to deliver our first child. After hours in a birthing suite, contractions pulsating through my pelvis, fear rising in my throat, body laboring to deliver and failing, I was rushed to the operating room. Following our newborn Jack was swept away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with my husband, and I supposedly landed here. “I don’t remember it,” I continued. “Maybe I was in shock?”

To mother a NICU babe is to walk the fine line between fear and joy, hope and heartache, holding on and letting go. We were lucky enough to bring our miracle home within the week, but like the c-section scar above my uterus, the trauma and relief of it all still marked me. Something about today’s procedure felt like closure. If this could just go smoothly, I prayed. If you could give us peace, O God. Please.

A resident appeared at the front of my bed with a clipboard in one hand and pen poised in the other. My nurse stood at my side, working to attach my IV while the resident fired off a series of medical questions:

Any allergies?

No.

Do you smoke or drink?

No.

Is this your first c-section?

No.

What went unsaid: the first was an emergency. My OB, who performed the surgery, recommended this planned c-section for our second baby. I wished she was here now so I could stop answering these questions. 

The IV finally landed, pricking my hand. I flinched. “Sorry,” the nurse said. “That had to hurt.”

“Any other surgeries?” the resident asked.

“Yes, I, um, had a D&C last spring,” I replied, straining to keep my voice even.  

Her face dropped. “I’m sorry.”

I glanced toward Jay from his chair near the bed. He grimaced. I hated how this line of questioning laid bare our greatest pains. I would always remember the baby we lost, but I would not let grief darken this joyful day. “It’s okay,” I said, placing my hand over my belly instinctively. A tremor of movement grounded me.

Mercifully, the resident had reached the end of her list and excused herself. The heart rate monitor quickened, its percussive beeps filling the void. 

“Your baby’s heart rate just kicked up a notch,” the nurse clucked. “He’s fine. He must know today is his birthday!”

“Oh yes,” I laughed, sensing the tension in the air dissipate. “Let’s get this kid out of here!”

***

Medical staff in blue scrubs and hair nets milled about, readying the Operating Room for surgery. I sat on the edge of the table and thought of Jack. My five-year-old would love all the blue here — it’s his favorite color. Would he also love his baby brother? Or would the transition from only child to big brother upset him?

From the age of three he’d cajoled, “Can you get me a baby brother?”

“It’s not that simple,” I’d explained.”You can’t just ‘get’ them. Babies are a gift from God. All we can do is pray for one, and even then it might not work out. ” 

So, during bedtime prayers Jack began asking God for a baby brother. Jay and I prayed too. For years, I thought the answer might be “no.” Today, we’d get to hold our holy “yes.”

“We’re going to have you curl your torso forward,” a nurse commanded, bringing me to the present. Tightness coursed through my body — Jay wasn’t yet in the OR, and I missed his calming presence. Softening her voice, she said, “I’ll hold your body against this pillow, like I’m giving you a hug. Ready?” 

I held my breath and leaned forward while my anesthesiologist began his work. The position grew more and more uncomfortable by the minute. Soon my legs would begin to tingle, I knew. Soon they would position me on the table. And then what?

Up until this point the c-section had sat on my calendar as a finishing line, the glory at the end of a marathon pregnancy that included two jarring hospital visits for monitoring preterm contractions. But it wasn’t the finish line at all — first, I had to endure this surgery.  

Unlike my last c-section, I’d be awake for much of the procedure. I’d been so focused on making it to this day I hadn’t considered what it would feel like. I shifted in my seat. 

“Erin, I’m gonna need you to be still just a little longer,” the anesthesiologist directed. 

“Almost done,” the nurse murmured. “Lean into me again.” 

With one final push, the dosing was complete. A fuzzy feeling crawled up my legs while the nurses repositioned them on the table and assisted me in laying down. While they prepped my stomach and groin for surgery, I felt a strange sensation, almost as if my soul was suspended over my body. Let this go smoothly, I prayed. Let his life begin peacefully. 

Jay appeared at my side, bringing me down to earth. I couldn’t feel my legs or wiggle my toes but I felt his hand on my shoulder, an anchor.

“How are you doing, babe?” Jay asked.

“OK,” I exhaled. “A little nervous.”

“You’re doing great. Once this is over, we’ll have our baby.”

When my OB entered the room, I don’t remember what she said but I do remember hearing her voice and feeling comforted.

Tools clattered behind the blue curtain separating me from the lower half of my body. Surgery had begun. As the medical team worked, I busied myself with visions of holding my newborn skin-to-skin post-delivery, an experience I didn’t get with Jack. The nurse had assured me this time would be different. 

The surgery progressed slowly. At one point, my OB called for extra support and I felt my breathing quicken. A queasy sensation came over me. I turned my head right, then left, then faced the ceiling. Was this what a panic attack feels like? I turned to the anesthesiologist and said, “I think I’m feeling sick.” 

“I’m adjusting your medicine,” he said. “Hang in there — you’re almost done.”

Almost done — almost at the finish line. I closed my eyes and focused on the warmth of Jay’s hand on my shoulder. My breath, flowing in and out. The cold table against my upper back.

Something was happening behind the blue curtain. “Nay, nay, nay!” rang out across the OR. 

In a moment reminiscent of the opening to The Lion King, a chunky baby held by gloved hands soared above the curtain. Our Adam. He was alive. He was healthy — he looked so healthy. I blinked back tears of joy.

“He’s here,” I whispered to Jay. “He’s finally here.”

“I know!’ he replied, smiling wide. “Good job, babe.”

While the staff cleaned and tested Adam, my surgery continued behind the curtain. I felt slight pressure as the medical team worked to clear the placenta from my uterus. 

A friendly nurse placed a swaddled Adam in Jay’s arms so we could greet him. I kissed his forehead and turned to Jay. “He’s just so beautiful,” I said, eyes shining.

“You have to get a picture,” the nurse gushed, and just like that Jay was handing over his phone and we were crowding around our newborn. 

In the photo, Adam’s sweet face squishes against mine while Jay’s hand cradles his small body. You can see my oxygen tube, hospital smock and silly hairnet. Jay, too, wears a hairnet with his mask and scrubs. You can see a mom and dad beaming so big, we appear to be glowing.

***

Daylight fell softly through the blinds of my maternity suite. Propped up in bed, I held Adam to my chest and studied his face while Jay dozed on the pullout couch in front of us. Adam’s eyes may have been shut tight, but he was awake and hungry, his tiny mouth nuzzling my skin in search of nourishment. 

It’s funny how some life events create a full circle. Adam was born five years and two days after his older brother. In the same hospital. Same procedure. Same doctor. Like his brother, Adam is a miracle.

Two boys born five years apart was not my original vision for my family. I had a plan for us and my life now looks nothing like I thought it would. In fact, it’s better.

While I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I trust that God is the author of all that is good. I trust in little graces — moments when God’s presence shines through and wakes us up to our identity as God’s beloved. Preceded by a difficult birth, two cancer diagnoses, a pandemic and a miscarriage, Adam is a very good gift only God could bring forth.

Adam began to nay softly. My free hand positioned him in my arms for breastfeeding, laying his body sideways atop a stack of hospital pillows. The movement took herculean effort after surgery. I felt the sharp jab of his mouth latching to my breast, then leaned my head back against a pillow.

In Hebrew, Adam means “(hu)man” or “the one formed from the ground.” Jay and I chose his name less for its biblical origins and more because we liked how it sounded. Nevertheless, I can only attribute Adam’s arrival to the faith that grounds me. God had given me a second chance to become a mother. God had held Adam and me throughout surgery, keeping us safe. And God was holding us now as we learned to love each other. 

Satisfied for the moment, Adam pulled his head back and pursed his lips, settling into sleep. Soon I’d need to rouse Jay so he could help me swaddle him. For the time being, I cradled our little grace in the sunlight, delighting in every breath he took.

Newborn standard time

These are the days of
his small head nestled
against my chest
skin — velvet smooth, unmarred by time —
to
skin — a soft place
to
dream,
drink,
rest,
grow (some days,
I swear, I can see
him thickening
in the shelter of my arms)
and some days blur into nights
cradling him close
feeding
and being fed
by his warmth
our two hearts
beating in sync
his slate blue eyes
searching for mine,
which of course, are bloodshot
and glad (some nights, I swear, holding him
feels like heaven on earth)
some nights
I feel suffocated
by all he needs
and these are the nights that blend into days
when golden light lingers
at the edge of the crib
each day becoming a little longer
as if to say,
“Take heart,
change is coming,
so be sure to
treasure these days.”