Some thoughts on light

I. Sunlight streams through the tree outside our bay window. Hearts of shade and light decorate pale hardwood. Green leaves rustle in the breeze. I watch from our couch, right hand poised to write, eyes mesmerized by the interplay of brightness and its absence.

II. At the start of 2021, I chose “light” as my word of the year. 2020 had been a heavy year for our family. I needed a word that evoked levity, joy, hope. I like that “light” is a noun (something that makes sight possible), a verb (to illuminate) and an adjective (of little weight). I like its relevance to Scripture, poetry, nature.

III. I tell my son “God is light” and he watches for the sun in the mornings. “It’s another grumpy, gray day,” he’ll remark when it’s cloudy. “It’s sunny today!” he’ll chirp at fairer weather. How interesting that light — or its lack — changes his mood so completely.

IV. Me, I capture light with my pen and my smartphone camera, committing my favorite images to memory. I cherish dazzling sunsets and the secret dots of light that appear in the afternoon on our bedroom closet. When I walk in the evenings, golden hour sun slips between the slats of fences, striping the sidewalk. God’s signature frames the tips of houses and covers wildflowers in a hazy glow. 

V. On “grumpy gray” days, I remind my son that light is still present, it’s just hidden behind the clouds. (I need this reminder, too.) Even at night, stars sparkle in the velvet sky and the moon reflects the light of our closest star. “You can find the light of God everywhere,” I say to him, “if you look closely.”

My body, a wonder

She used to race, Nikes flashing across worn asphalt, Lakefront wind slicing against her, heart pounding, flying free.

She swam, limbs threading Lake Michigan’s rough, cool waters, gulping air, rocketing herself forward, weightless. Back then, she measured her worth with numbers: pounds, pace, calories. Afraid of everything and nothing.

She once saved two men from drowning.

Nearly drowned herself in tears when she labored for hours, failing to deliver, landing in the OR, waiting with bated breath for her baby’s first whimper. For 20 months, she nourished his small body with her breasts.

Sometimes, I am astonished by her power.

Other times I’ve felt trapped by her, my body: too flat-too heavy-too blotchy-too lumpy. Wished I could shed her like a second skin, my body. The times she’s attracted honks, heckles, stares, touch without permission? Wished she wasn’t so dangerous, my body.

But there was also this: her standing in the dusty infield, mit held high, mit finding the ball again and again and whipping it through the air to the tune of cheers. “You’re out!”

She traded her cleats for tap shoes, dancing across the stage, singing and smiling. Oh how she danced — once at a swanky, smoky club in Madrid with seven levels, dressed in blue jeans, black top, very American, eyes laughing. She was thirsty for pleasure, and drank of it joyfully.

Shape-shifter, she’s spun and curved and stretched her limbs on the mat into a dog, a crow, a cobra.

She’s softer than she was last spring. New creases and curves grace her form, stubborn weight sits at her once taut middle.

Yesterday morning I took her for a walk in the neighborhood. The sun was out, and whirligigs sprinkled down from the Maple trees, twirling lazily in the sunshine, scattering across the pavement like confetti. She can twirl too, this soft, strong, aging body of mine. She still runs on occasion — mostly after her son. She is still afraid of everything and nothing.

She isn’t done changing. Not even close.

I wonder, what will she do next?

Ode to light-catchers

After Dale Chihuly’s “Glasshouse”

Call it foolish, call it futile,
say flamboyant if you dare.
As for me, I’ll call it radiance,
suspended in the air —
a glass dragon roaring 
with amber, fire, maize,
mid-flight, bouncing beams,
ever-wrestling in its cage.
Or a vine of glossy poppies
honey, rose, persimmon glow 
floating high in a rare greenhouse,
never meant to seed or grow.

From my vantage point I watch
them juxtaposed against blue sky,
and Seattle’s Space Needle reaching
for the star that grants us light.
What was the artist thinking?
another bystander might ask.
Does a fragile glasshouse
matter amid brokenness en masse?
(All these tired, hungry people
looking for a place to rest.
Such extravagance demands
we raise our eyes, pause and reflect.)

Me, I could’ve stayed
for hours bathed in warmth,
beneath the sun
roused by beauty,
held by brightness
from the Maker’s hands was spun.

God only knows (a sonnet)

Where can we get a baby?
my son asks, his blue eyes piercing
in the morning’s heel.
It’s far too early to navigate this task.
Oh Jesus, where are you? Please take the wheel!

He wants a brother — he’s an only child.
Stalling, I tell the tale he loves to hear,
You once lived in my tummy —
isn’t that wild?
He nods and smiles at me, his joy sincere.

A baby is a miracle divine:
from clay the Artist sculpts a newborn soul
with aptitude to love, create, refine.
How wonderful the sight is to behold!
My thoughts don’t make it to my child today;
instead I say, It’s a mystery. Go play!

Eyes for Easter

One of my favorite Bible stories is that of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. Her grief still fresh and sharp, she believes a visit to Jesus’ burial site promises a private space to mourn.

But when Mary arrives, the stone has been rolled away. The perfume still lingers, but the grave is empty, save for a couple angels. They ask her why she weeps. “They have taken away my Lord,” Mary sobs, hot tears flooding her cheeks.

Nearby a gardener lingers. Mary rushes toward him and begs him for answers. Then, and this is what makes my heart catch every time, the supposed gardener — Jesus — calls Mary by her name. She hears his tender voice, turns to him and cries out, “Rabbouni!” (Teacher.) Jesus is alive; he has risen! Mary sprints to spread the good news.

This moment at the tomb defies all logic and reason and sense. Yet I cling to the resurrection promise because I need Jesus — the master gardener whose radical, inclusive love nourishes new life — alive in my heart today.

If we listen and look closely, signs of the resurrection abound: in the verdant moss covering a fallen tree trunk, the friends who call us by name and hoist us out of depression, in all our endings that offer a fresh beginning.

God, give me eyes for Easter now and all my tomorrows. Alleluia. Amen.

Advice to myself at the close of a pandemic

tulips

Be gentle
with yourself.
Listen closely
to your heart
to the robins’ chirping
to neighbors, far and near.
Speak slowly,
and with intention.

Breathe in the aching beauty
of this strange world — open
restaurants, churches, playgrounds,
children’s laughter sailing in the breeze,
your son hugging his grandparents,
exhaling without fear of harming them.

(You can cry — it’s healthy to cry.)

Unmask your trauma:
name each wound, each loss,
and cradle it close
apply the salve of time
and progress. Remember healing
is rarely linear, rather, it unfolds
mysteriously.

Make plans but hold them loosely.
Let time stretch out before you like
a rolling wave. Savor it.

Stay humble,
and cultivate kindness.
Keep disrupting hate
in all its ugly manifestations
search your heart
call it out
call your reps
send a call up to your Creator.

Keep tending to simple pleasures —
yellow tulips on your table,
mint chip in a sugar cone
from the corner creamery,
a lazy morning snuggling in bed with them,
new library books to devour —
relish their sweetness.

Move at your pace;
don’t let the rush
of hustle lure you
into the race again.

The truth? There is no race.
But there is one sun
around which we all orbit
searching for meaning
and love, and
aren’t you glad you made it this far?
Can you feel the thrill of spring rising?

Dare to dream again
make it bold
make it juicy
make it lavish with hope.
This is your
“one wild and precious life”
said the poet.
Now what will you do with it?


// inspired by Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to myself”; final quotation from Mary Oliver.

At home together (a tiny love story)

photo: Rachel Liv Photography

I.

The first notable thing about Jay was his hair: shockingly blonde and spiky.

The second: He was late to class on day one, strolling in during introductions. The only open seat was next to me, so he took it. His very presence shifted the air from stale to charged.

On our first date, we talked for hours about school, Greek life and growing up. He was my foil: analytical, relaxed, naturally gifted. Yet we worked. Being together felt like home.

II.

I spent the following semester in Cambridge, England. When a classmate’s boyfriend booked a flight to visit over Thanksgiving, Jay did too. 

Under the glow of fluorescent lights, I scanned the crowd at Heathrow Airport. Jay’s hair caught my eye first: blonde spikes gliding across arrivals. When he saw me, his gait quickened. He dropped his backpack and wrapped me in an embrace. A stream of travelers flowed around us, rushing to their destinations, but us? We’d arrived. 

We saw several sights that week. Yet the memory that stays is Heathrow — his hands around my waist, my head against his chest. Being held. 

III.

We are eight years married, with a home in Chicago. Over this pandemic, we’ve spent most of our time here with our son Jack, a preschooler. 

Recently, Jay left for his first work trip in nearly a year. Without him, these walls feel hollow.

One night over video chat, Jay reads Jack I’ll Love You Forever. After Jay closes the book, Jack circles his arms around the phone. Jay “hugs” him back, blowing kisses.

What is home? Not a place, but a feeling inside. It’s the joy that he brings when we’re wrapped in his love.

image: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this post as 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 read the next post in the “280 words” series.

He is four

at four

He is brightness and joy,
the glow of the warm sun
rupturing cloud cover.

He is the boom-boom-pop of fireworks,
the roar of the mighty lion,
laughter rising from my belly.

He is crisp apple slices
and ooey gooey cheese pizza,
chocolate chip cookies fresh outta the oven.

He is “Follow me!”
“Come to me, Mommy!”
and “Just one more story?”

He is Hot Wheels races,
Magna-Tiles with Daddy,
our brave superhero.

He is not what they say boys are: hard.
He is sweet and strong,
wild and tender.

He is the leap of faith,
the spark of curiosity,
“Who is God?” and “Where is Jesus?”

He is scaling a sand dune,
chasing the tide,
pointing me to beauty.

He is the bubble bath, the fuzzy robe,
the last kiss before lights out.

He is not the seeker nor the one who hides but
the feeling of being found.

He is a prayer
and its answer.

// Celebrating my son, who turned 4 at the end of January.

Miracles in the year of pandemic

// Spring //

They said we were experiencing a pandemic. They said that we’d be under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. They said “don’t be afraid” but people were hoarding toilet paper and Lysol and it all seemed very apocalyptic, like a scene from Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

My husband tracked rising case numbers in an excel spreadsheet, while I coped by doom-scrolling doing downward dogs in the living room. Sleep came in fits and starts, and my appetite diminished. News of the coronavirus consumed us.

Yet, alongside my looping worry of “Would we be okay?” a peculiar thought arose: this sudden pause made me happy. I even declared to our preschooler that we were on a “staycation.” (Ha! An older, wiser Erin is shaking her head.) Five days a week, since he turned three months old, life was: rush out the door to daycare, rush from work to daycare pick up, rush through dinner to playtime, rush through bath time to bedtime. Rush. Rush. Rush. Rush.

I’d longed to be the kind of mom who was present and unhurried. 

In the year of pandemic, we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms.

My son Jack blossomed, too. He’d begun counting and recognizing letters. Snuggled under his comforter, he told epic bedtime tales of imaginary treasure hunts, races and rescue missions. Jack traded his red balance bike for an orange “big boy bike” with training wheels. He adored dancing. Together we’d twirl around the living room, accompanied by “Into the Unknown” and other songs from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. 

I witnessed it all. Miracle.

// Summer //

People picked up a plethora of pandemic pastimes: baking bread, cross stitch, watching Tiger King. (Remember that?!)

I started walking.

First as a means of self-care, an activity my therapist suggested I try to manage my anxiety. In the beginning, I took short bouts around the block with my dog Gus, usually over lunch or after dinner.

As the days warmed and lengthened, I began leaving Gus behind to explore the trail that edges our neighborhood. (A pug, he can’t handle much heat or distance.) I wanted to know where the path ended, and if I had the stamina to reach it. I wanted to see how far my legs could carry me.

The habit gelled. I came to crave the rhythm of my soles touching ground, my breath rising and falling, an inner stillness earned in the midst of motion. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers skirting the path, Northwest Chicago’s deer gracing me with their presence, other walkers on the trail. Open sky, open path, open heart. Walking became a form of prayer.

One summer night, reeling from the news, I walked and walked until I finally reached the path’s end. An OnBeing episode featuring author Jason Reynolds flooded my earbuds as I stood and surveyed a nearby baseball field. That dusty, empty field looked like it had been deprived of care for ages.

Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the country and world after a white police officer suffocated George Floyd by pressing his knee on George’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds. George, a Black man, cried out for air, cried out for his mother, but was shown no mercy. Even typing this now I want to wretch.

Jason said, “Black folks have a right to have a conscious rage. … If you are a Black person who is conscious in America, then you are basically living in a state of anger.” His words washed over me as I stood outside that crappy baseball field and wept for our broken country. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cries. I cry too.

My feet drug as I trudged toward home. I had miles to walk and little drive to keep going. Up ahead, I spied a cloud of insects shimmering in the sunset. I veered off the path to investigate.

Ah, dragonflies! I couldn’t help but smile. I marveled at their circular dance and brilliant shine, even catching the eye of a fellow pilgrim on the path who’d stopped to watch. We shook our heads together in wonder.

In a chapter of Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist offers a meditation on the Celtic concept of “thin places.” A thin place is where the sacred and ordinary intersect, where the line between heaven and earth blurs. She wrote, “When we find a thin place, anytime, anywhere, we should live differently in the face of it, because if we don’t we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us.”

It was a miraculous and biblical thing, those dragonflies soaring in the sun, lifting my heart, reminding me of God’s goodness. A thin place. A salient sign of beauty amid brokenness.

// Winter //

I was having a down day, one of those days when you move through life’s motions as if you’re a zombie. I needed a nap, and maybe some Advil for my throbbing headache. During December, it feels near sacrilegious to admit you’re hurting. But I was hurting. 

Christmas had come and gone, a quiet day mixed with joy and grief. We rejoiced over Jack’s delight as he opened presents. We grieved memories missed with extended family due to the pandemic. I’d just turned 35, a bittersweet day during which I reflected on two unrealized dreams: I longed for another baby. I longed for a book deal. Achieving both was taking much more time than I’d expected, and it felt as if both dreams might slip out of reach. If we ever conceived again, I’d have a “geriatric” pregnancy. And the writing workshop I did earlier that month, the one I hoped would advance my work in progress, had deflated my confidence as a writer. I felt lost. 

On that down day, I bundled up in my heavy coat and returned to the trail I’d grown to love. Clumps of snow and ice had infiltrated the barren forest, and the trail was a bit… slimy. With each mud-caked step, I attempted to untangle my thoughts.

In two of the three essays I’d brought to this workshop, the leader noted that it wasn’t clear to the reader if the narrator was okay. “Readers need to know their narrator is going to be okay,” she said. “I can tell she’s okay in this piece, but not the others.”

Those essays I wrote touch on dark seasons of the soul. Even re-reading them in the workshop made me agitated. I wasn’t sure if I, the author, let alone the narrator, had recovered from the trauma. I asked myself why I was writing this book.

I had reached a dead end. Ice-glazed trees shot up from a massive frozen puddle. There was no way around – too much ice. I needed to retrace my steps. Walking home, I recalled that I had written through these difficult times – a disorder, family illness, a faith crisis – to heal and to uncover hope. I wanted to write the book I needed during those seasons so it might bless someone else who needed it. Goodness grew in the darkness, I knew, I just needed more time to dig for it.

When you exit the trail that edges our neighborhood, there’s a gravely old road that leads you to the place where the sidewalk begins. Nearby you’ll find a lone old-fashioned light post, reminiscent of the world of Narnia, on a meticulous patch of lawn. The sight is a marker that home is near.

Is the narrator okay?

After I took up walking, I called it my escape. Most often I was escaping the house, the crushing exhaustion of working and parenting for months on end without outside assistance. Other times I escaped a deluge of deadlines or news of another tragedy. On the path I felt free, powerful and a little wild, like the fawn I spotted crossing into prairie grass one summer afternoon. She was so sure of herself and peaceful.

A block away from home, I increased my pace. In a couple minutes, I would walk in the door, shed my coat and be greeted by Jack and my husband. Jack would abandon his Magna-Tiles, hug me and invite me to dance. We’d turn on “Into the Unknown” once again and twirl until we were dizzy. Later, I’d return to the page, hunting for hope and beauty. I would not abandon the book, or my dreams of another baby. I would keep trying. I would be okay. The narrator is okay.

Maybe walking wasn’t so much an escape as it was a return. What was I returning to? Creation, of course. A semblance of community. Peace and quiet. Deep questions that niggled me. My faith. Myself.

Heroes and villains

All I can think of is the news — the violence at our nation’s Capitol, the security breaches, the deaths, the racism on display. Worry lodges itself in my stomach while I scroll, scroll, scroll, searching for answers. The question I keep coming back to: Who have we become?

My son only wants to talk about superheroes. He suggests he could use his “powers” to help. He says it sounds like people are really angry. We often talk about how, when we’re angry, it’s easier for us to hurt others.

“They are,” I answer. “And it’s not our job to fix this, the Justice Department will do it.” I pause. I am not sure I believe my own words. I go on, “Everyone who made bad choices that day will be held accountable; some will need a long time out.”

My son is in preschool, and we are trying to teach him about the difference between right and wrong. We want him to know that God created this world and everyone in it and called it good. We want him to know there are no bad people, only good and bad choices.

This is what I’m thinking about at bedtime, while we read from his book of 5-Minute Marvel Stories. Captain America must block MODAK, an alien bent on taking over the universe with the aid of mind-controlled creatures. Once the hero breaks communication between the villain and his minions, the minions are freed. “I’m glad they’re okay, Mommy,” my son says, and I give him a squeeze. He has a tender heart, just like his mama.

As I kiss his head and wish him goodnight, I wonder what it would take for us to free ourselves from seeing our neighbors as villains. I know it’s easy to cast myself in the role of hero, rather than admit my faults. I know the story we read is missing repentance and reconciliation, true justice and mercy, grace and healing. It’s missing a hero who modeled the way of love. What will it take for us to write a new story? What will it take for us to create a just society?

We need to use our powers. We need to pursue the path of love. We need to speak out against hate. But we can’t do it alone.

“Hey buddy,” I ask, curling up in bed alongside my son. “Can we pray?”