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?”

The alchemy of delight

“…the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
—Ross Gay

It’s raining again. Gray drenches the sky and crimson leaves confetti slick sidewalks. I sit in my orange writing chair finishing an assignment when my preschooler pretzels his body over mine, presses his face in close and demands, “Dance with me! Dance with me!”

“Not now buddy,” I sigh, patting his back. “I’m working.” I have five more minutes to myself before I begin my *regular* workday.

“Just a little bitty bit?” Jack says, his voice rising. He’s tugging at my hands so I might spin him ’round the living room, serenaded by the soundtrack of Frozen.

“I’m. Working.”

“A teensny bit?”

“I’m sorry honey; I can’t right now,” I say, giving him a half hug. “You know I’d love to, but I have to work. Daddy’s watching you today. Ask Daddy.” Jack scampers off while I turn my attention back to the screen. Damn. Already 9 a.m. I snap my Macbook shut and retrieve my work-issued Surface.

Recently, I scrolled across an Instagram comic called, “A portrait of the artist as a mother with a day job.” With each square the artist at work is interrupted by competing duties the call of “Mom!,” the ding of a text message, a Zoom meeting invitation until she is drowning in word bubbles. Her person and her art aren’t visible in the final picture.

I felt SEEN.

The artist is certainly privileged to have a day job that allows her to work at home, but with her kid in the mix, her time is punctuated by interruptions. All those competing demands for her attention literally bury her joy.

Fingers to keyboard, I rifle through work emails for a bit and then Jack is back, snuggling himself under the blanket that covers my shoulders.

“Jack?” I say in my stern-but-kind teacher voice. “What are you doing over here?”

“Tickle me! Tickle me!” He’s splayed himself out over my lap now, eyes wild.

Raising the Surface up and away from his body, I say, “Not now honey.” My inbox shows I have some magazine galleys to edit. I wiggle my free fingers under Jack’s armpits, half-shouting, “WHERE is your father?” Jack erupts in a fit of laughter; my terse mouth gives way to a smile.

//

At lunchtime, Jack and his father stand in the kitchen, sparring over the menu. As of late, Jack’s “best food ever” is Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup, a one-time purchase for a sick tummy that became an oft-requested grocery item. Jack wants soup today. Jay wants him to eat something substantial. Finally, they settle on Lipton with a hot dog.

Now that the kitchen is tranquil, I slip in to refill my empty water bottle. I’m rubbing my tired eyelids when Jay cocks his head to the side and asks, “How are you doing?”

I take a swig of water before answering. “I got my period this morning,” I say. (I don’t say: Again. After months of us trying for baby.) “You know how I’m doing.”

His lips form a frown and I wave off further discussion. I announce I am going to take a shower.

“That sounds like a good idea,” he says, offering a sad smile. I’m turning toward the stairs when he adds, “These hot dogs are going to go bad tomorrow. What do you wanna do with them?”

In the bathroom, I turn the shower knob up to the hottest setting and step into a steaming stream. Hot water pelts my face, and I think of all the times in 2020 I’ve shared a cry with this shower.

Ross Gay writes in his The Book of Delights about the human need to hold joy alongside hardship. I like that I can claim two emotions side by side and allow one to enhance the other. Like a good cry in a hot shower.

//

Afternoon sun drifts into the kitchen while I slice halved hot dogs down the middle. I nestle thick dominoes of cheddar inside then wrap the affair with a triangle of Pillsbury crescent dough.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Jack’s back in the kitchen.

“Hey bud. I’m making something special for my lunch,” I answer, rolling a dog in dough. “We had some extra hot dogs we needed to use up. Want to help?”

Jack locates his step stool and sidles up beside me to observe the slicing and stuffing. I suggest he help wrap, but he’s already distracted, digging around in his old play drawer in our kitchen. When Jack was a toddler, we filled up this drawer with cooking nicknacks just for him at the urging of his first daycare teacher. The items inside were perfect for busying little hands while we were cooking. Now Jack’s going on 4 and Jay keeps saying we should clean out this drawer and fill it with “useful things,” but I don’t have the heart to change it. Part of me hopes we could use that drawer with another baby.

By the time the cheesy crescent dogs are in the oven, I notice some placemats on the hardwood floor just outside our kitchen.

“Jack-Jack,” I chirp, pointing to the placemats, “what’s that?”

“I’m making a picnic,” he replies, grinning.

“Well, that is just the sweetest thing!” I praise, watching him place tiny wooden appetizer plates onto each placemat. All items from the play drawer.

“Here are extra spoons,” he adds, laying some plastic baby spoons down and pointing to his setup.

“That is very thoughtful, Jack,” I say, turning to slice some Gala apples and cucumbers. “The food should be done in 10 minutes and then we can have our picnic!”

Seated on the dusty hardwood and holding a wooden appetizer plate topped with Gala slices, cucumber and a cheesy crescent dog, I’m grinning. Each doughy, salty morsel transports me back to childhood. I tell Jack that my mom used to make these for me when I was little.

“Well, when I was a little kid… ” he starts, snuggled in the lap of his father, launching into an elaborate, made-up tale about ancient Ooo-gypt (Egypt).

I lock eyes with Jay and we share a chuckle at our little storyteller. He’s shifted the tone of an otherwise dreary day in the time of coronavirus. There are dozens of moments like this one, if we look closely.

Gay in his book of essays goes on to say that “witnessing delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily … requires vigilance.” Life lately feels like being buried in obligations, but ticking back through today prompts me to wonder, are all those little heartaches actually signposts of blessings?

Perhaps digging for delight is an act of faith.

“It’s the little things,” Jay remarks, holding my gaze while Jack chomps his cheesy crescent dog.

“It’s the little things,” I repeat, thinking maybe I will write about this. Then I take another bite of joy.

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 this series “Unexpected Joy.”

Joy at the water

“I just feel… trapped.” 

I sigh this into my phone for what must be the 200th time in 2020. My therapist’s on the other line, likely sighing alongside me. She asks what’s trapping me.

It isn’t one thing, rather, it’s everything, I say, listing off the usual suspects — coronavirus, global warming, our lack of childcare, nonstop deadlines, mounds of dishes. I know we’re lucky. I should be grateful. Right now, I’m not.

She hmms and ahhhs, nudging me on. Searching deeper, I confess a greater truth: I’m worried about my husband.

A cancer survivor, Jay’s been wrestling with health concerns during this pandemic. What’s more, his small business was adversely affected by it, and contract work is sparse. He’s not as happy as he once was. Then again, neither am I. With so many uncertainties ahead, Anxiety’s ensnared us and stalled any hope of forward motion.

I miss my pre-pandemic husband.

I miss my pre-pandemic self.

Later, my therapist asks a pivotal question: “If you were free, where would you go?”

I inhale sharply. Free to go anywhere? The thought feels too sinful to entertain. I imagine one glorious night alone in a hotel room where I read and write for hours, take a long, hot shower and sleep without fear of my preschooler rousing me. This isn’t a dream I can realize without abandoning Jay, so I dream bigger — I dream for us.

It all comes rushing out in a breath: All the Chicago beaches are closed, but two hours away there’s this little beach town called South Haven where a favorite author spends her summers, and through her words I’ve learned so much about it, and it seems like a nice place to vacation. Maybe we’d rent a house there. We could watch our son Jack play in the sand for hours.

“Why don’t you?” My therapist’s voice is playful, almost teasing. For years she’s been my confidante and my lifeline, offering simple yet revelatory suggestions such as “Be gentle with yourself” and “Try taking a daily walk and see what happens.” Her advice has never failed me.

My dream takes root. It will be weeks before I decide to act.

***

What you need to understand about cancer is that it can’t be fully understood. 

Cells in our bodies are dividing every day – skin, hair, nails and so on. Occasionally they go rogue and divide like wildfire, creating tumors, some benign, others malignant. Those malignant tumors are cancer. Scientists have determined that genetics and environment influence those imperfect divisions, but much is still unknown. 

For example: How does a perfectly healthy 32-year-old who weight lifts, eats his oatmeal and generally has a stress-free outlook get cancer?

Cancer is a thief in the night who steals the one possession that always grounded you — the good health you took for granted. I write knowing that that story is Jay’s, not mine, to tell.

Yet ever since Jay had cancer in 2018, it’s colored my outlook. Life is short and cancer is a constant reminder of its brevity. There is always one more test, one more scan for recurrence lurking around the corner, determining our future. 

Jay’s evaded death before, so COVID-19 scares us more than your average Americans. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not.

Cancer is a thief.  

***

One Sunday night in August, I flip open my laptop, determined to book us that beach house. While Jack sleeps and Jay plays video games in the basement, I meticulously search VRBO for rentals in South Haven, eventually settling on one with a pretty blue kitchen, three beds and two bathrooms, a cozy couch and elegant, arched doorways. It’s open the weekend after Labor Day, a time when the beach won’t be crowded. I consult no one and press “Book Now,” grinning at my secret.

Etching the dates for our long weekend into my otherwise empty planner, I pause, trying to recall when Jay’s next CT scan happens. I don’t believe I’ve created a schedule conflict, but I’ll need to check with him. I finish the entry, planting a seed of hope. 

The next morning, I share the news with Jay. To my surprise, he OKs the trip, which lands just after his scan but right before he’ll receive test results. My stomach in knots, I ask if he wants to reschedule. He waves me off. 

We invite Jay’s parents to join us. We decide that we’ll all quarantine the week leading up to the trip so everyone feels safe and comfortable. 

A month later, I stuff beach towels and sunscreen in my suitcase, flanked by Jack, who bounces back and forth pleading, “Is it vacation? Is it vacation? I want to see Nana and Papa!” He hasn’t seen Jay’s parents since Christmas. I smile wearily and say, “Soon, buddy, soon!” 

Vacation cannot come soon enough. 

***

The house is just like its pictures, with the blue kitchen, cozy couch and arched doorways. 

Seeing my mother-in-law Jane reunited with Jack, I blink back tears. “Nana!” he cries again and again, beaming and running to her. Jay and his father bend their heads toward each other, deep in conversation. I order pizza and treat the adults to a serving of my homemade sangria. That night, I go to bed full and happy. I don’t think of cancer at all. 

The next day, we flock to the beach after breakfast. It’s breezier than I’d hoped, but the sun soars high and clear in the cloud-speckled sky, warming our shoulders. 

Once our feet hit the sand, Jack rockets toward the water. 

Jane and I keep watch, scanning the blue-gray waves as they roll in and out, sweeping the sand smooth repeatedly. As Jack frolics, I remark to Jane, “There’s something healing about the water.” She nods vigorously. To our right, Jay lounges on a beach towel, soaking up sunshine. I feel the tightness in my chest loosen, and wonder if he feels the same.

After lunch, we trek to a beach called Pilgrim’s Haven. Stones of all shapes and sizes blanket the shore and I realize we’ve unwittingly hit a home run with Jack — he’s currently obsessed with rocks and gemstones. Jack scampers off, picking through them one by one. 

Jay and his father stand at the water’s edge, skipping stones. I imagine them tossing our worries into Lake Michigan, waves swallowing them whole. Jay sets up a treasure hunt for Jack, burying in the sand a small wooden chest filled with toy gemstones I bought for this occasion. I snap photos as they laugh and dig and think this is the happiest I’ve seen Jay all summer.

The treasure found, I settle into our camp chair near the water’s edge. I set my eyes on the horizon, where sky blurs into lake, and listen to the lapping tide. Rain clouds gather in the distance, but for the moment, all is calm. 

***

On our last full day in South Haven, I sleep in until 9:30 a.m. I wake with a start, realizing the whole family’s risen before me, likely minding not to wake me. I read The Book of Longings alone at the table while munching granola and sipping coffee. The morning stretches out, still and quiet. I’ve been handed the precious gift for which I’d been longing.

Plotting out our day, I see the forecast calls for steady showers, but it looks like there’s an opening from now until lunchtime. If we want to enjoy the beach, we must act quickly, so we grab towels and speed to another spot my father-in-law’s discovered. 

Under a gray sky, Jack scales sand dunes topped with prairie grass and ubiquitous yellow flowers that attract a smattering of Monarch butterflies. He weaves up and down the shoreline, avoiding other beach-goers. He’s edging closer and closer to the South Haven lighthouse and farther from where Jay and his parents have congregated. I sprint after Jack in my trusty powder blue Nikes, amazed at his fleetness. 

Running on the beach, I am struck by how fast it’s gone, this vacation, this year, and though Anxiety lingers like the approaching storm, I want to seize this rising Joy and let it carry me to Chicago.

From the middle of a sand dune, Jack turns to me and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” I point toward the other end of the beach and he’s gone again, zipping toward his father. I bound toward them, shoes barely touching sand. 

What answers wait for us on the other side of vacation? Will they ever find a cure? What questions will remain unanswered?

Seagulls circle overhead and a spritz of tide baptizes my ankles. If the rain comes now, I’ll run right through it. Life is brief and storms are to be expected. It’s also undeniably dazzling, this joyous race toward home.

Sand and water extend for miles out ahead of us. I think, in all of 2020, I’ve never felt so free.

My sweet son living his best life in South Haven.

Momentum

It was a bright, warm day in early May. She’d taken her son to the train tracks at his request, let him meander along the platform and observe the scene. Clear blue sky juxtaposed thick steel beams and rugged asphalt; the Chicago skyline shimmered on the horizon. It was the type of day she might even describe as perfect, except for the whole pandemic situation, and that her son was edging too close to the end of the platform.

“Stop right there, buddy, that’s far enough,” she said, her breath quickening. The surrounding prairie grass shuddered in the soft breeze. 

“Why can’t we go on the rocks, Mommy?” he whined, turning around. She was already jogging toward him, the taste of metal in her mouth.

“It’s not safe there, buddy,” she said, snatching his hand and pulling him away. “This is too close to the tracks.”

“Mommy, can I see a train?” 

She glanced again at the tracks leading north toward the jagged Chicago skyline. She wanted to go back home. “I just don’t think there are a lot of trains running right now, you know, because of staycation.”

Her son’s face fell. “Staycation” was their word for the pandemic, for the endless hours of play they’d logged since sheltering in place, for a break from school for him but no breaks from Mommy and Daddy, for a break from plans and a social life that was slowly breaking them. First a fond word, then one that produced groans.

“OK, let’s check the schedule,” she conceded, pulling out her phone and locating Metra’s website. What had she expected bringing him here? That he’d be content to stare at empty railroad tracks? “Well, what do you know? There’s a train coming in seven minutes,” she told him. “We can wait here … but you have to sit with me.”

They plopped down cross-legged on the hot asphalt and waited, him snuggled back in her arms gazing ahead at rows of tracks. A white butterfly danced above their heads, perhaps searching for a flower or just enjoying the feel of flying.

Sunlight warmed her shoulders, and she felt something fluttering inside her, too. What was it, peace? Or maybe anticipation? She’d nearly forgotten the feeling.

Far in the distance a light appeared, first a pinprick then a widening beam. The train whistle blared, and it felt as though the ground beneath their bottoms began to rumble. She caged her arms around her son’s small body and shouted, “Jack, it’s coming!” 

He whipped his head toward the approaching train face. Dark and large it galloped toward the station, a rush of wind and sound and power. Suddenly their patch of platform now seemed far too close to the beast. The whistle sounded again and Jack pulled his hands to his ears, shaking under her embrace. She wanted him to look at the train but he’d shut his eyes tight so instead she drank in the sight for both of them.

The train’s brakes squealed to a halt, stirring up hot dust. A conductor hopped off, glanced around the deserted platform, and spotting Jack, waved. Jack still had his hands capped to his ears, but, recognizing the train’s conductor, he lifted them and waved back.

The train cars were nearly empty. She wondered what would happen if they up and boarded one. What adventures could they have? What people would they meet? Everything was canceled, but she was spinning a plan in her head. She could take a day off work and they would take the train to the city, then explore Union Station. They might visit the Field Museum via an extra train or bus ride, and he could revel at Sue, the T-Rex model. Of course, before training home, they’d have to stop at Garrett’s for a bag of cheddar-caramel popcorn. Her mind buzzed with possibilities. She wanted to take Jack on a train ride … once the pandemic was over.

Nearly as soon as it arrived the train bulleted away. Jack unwound his legs from her lap and watched it barrel under a bridge on the south side of the tracks. Standing tall, he looked as if he was ready for a new adventure.

“Mommy, that was cool!” he said, arms swinging. “Can we go to that bridge next?”

She smiled and contemplated his thought. “Absolutely.” 

“It’s a beautiful day, Mommy!” he said, already bounding toward the forest path where they’d eventually find the bridge. The prairie grass swayed in his direction.

She scanned the open sky, the train tracks and the wonder gleaming in his eyes. It was the kind of day she might describe as perfect.

“Yes,” she said, bounding after him. “It really is.”

Image by: 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. To read the next post in this series, click here. 

Work, worth and paying attention in the time of coronavirus

Why can’t I focus?

I write this in my pandemic journal, because I read journaling is a gift during this time and because “you’ll want to tell your grandkids about the 2020 pandemic” and because I already keep a journal. 

Focus? The situation at hand requires me to “work” from home with my preschooler underfoot. Regular interruptions to “go potty with Mommy,” to “get a snack with Mommy,” to pop in on yet another Skype meeting — stilt my productivity. I shift one production schedule back no less than three times. It takes twice as long to edit an article.

Seems like a cruel joke that I picked “pay attention” as my 2020 intention. Now I’ve forgotten the question. Oh yes. I write:

Why can’t I focus? 
A: Your son keeps interrupting your workday.
A: Your work keeps interrupting your parenting.

Jay and I split up parenting shifts. When I’m with Jack during the workday, I find myself preoccupied by the tasks awaiting me in my inbox. 

Lately caring for him feels like tossing a stick of dynamite back and forth, neither of us wanting to get stuck with an explosion. We know this is hard for him, too, and we’re doing our best. But it’s not enough — we can’t replace his friends or teachers or grandparents. 

Uneager to dissect my failings, I set down my pen.

While unloading the dishwasher that evening I’d confessed to my husband, “I just feel so guilty all the time.” 

“Why?” he asked, collecting a stack of dishes. I tallied it up in my head: mom guilt, work guilt, too much screen time guilt, wife guilt, guilt that our home looks like the cross between a child’s birthday party gone awry and a war zone, guilt that we are safe while others suffer. 

For years I’d measured my worth as a Highly Effective Woman, meeting deadlines, achieving goals, caring for others, clearing clutter. She didn’t seem to live here anymore.

“Just… everything,” I sighed, holding up a grit-flecked glass that would need hand-washing. “Dishwasher didn’t do its job again.”

***

Jack’s at the dinner table finishing a slice of peanut butter and jelly toast while FaceTiming with my mother. My phone leans against a mega-sized jar of peanut butter reflecting just his face in the frame with his grandma’s, as if they’re chatting at our table. His eyes dance as he tells her about the birdhouse he and Daddy placed in our tree. I watch him smile wide; I grin too. Conversation slows.

“Okay, now, ask her how her day was,” I prod, gently touching his shoulder.

“Grandma, how was your day?” he says. I mouth, “Good boy!”

She begins to answer, but Jack’s already launching into another story.

“Honey,” I interject, tapping his shoulder again, “That’s all fine and good, but you need to listen. It’s Grandma’s turn to talk.” I catch myself sounding like Mama Bear from Jack’s beloved Berenstain Bears books. My son keeps talking, oblivious or ignoring me, and I repeat myself. 

“Honey, you need to listen.”

My own words startle me. What is my attention — or lack thereof — trying to tell me?

***

Days later, a colleague shares an article on productivity whose point seems so obvious I don’t know how I missed or dismissed it. It triggers a memory from last summer.

“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friend Seth told me over drinks at a work conference. His insight made me cringe. 

“No, I don’t think so,” I answered, swirling my pinot grigio.

Seth is one of my oldest friends. We’ve studied Kierkegaard together, he’s my husband’s fraternity brother and we see each other occasionally for work and social events. He knows me. “Yeah, you definitely are,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

I imagine telling him today that I’m failing. That my back is breaking under the weight of my pride and high expectations. Deep down I worry I never was a Highly Effective Woman — this proves it. I have no color-coded schedule, no sourdough starter, no stomach for offering at-home haircuts. I want to pay attention but most days, I’m a distracted mother. Most days, I barely cobble words together.

At this, Seth would just shake his head. 

The next time I crack open my journal, I return to the previous entry, drawing wisdom from the article:

Why can’t I focus?
A: You are in the middle of a pandemic. 

***

“Mommy, it’s rainy again,” Jack sighs, staring out our droplet-streaked front window.

I join him and zero in on puddles pooling across the pavement. I’ve taken the day off work to spend with Jack and I don’t want to waste it indoors. I ask, “Wanna go puddle jumping?” 

“Yay! Yay! Yay!”

I help Jack into his green froggy rain boots, throw on sneakers and grab our light jackets. We venture out our red side door and crack open the garden gate. Sidewalks — well-trafficked on fairer days — stand empty.

Rainwater-drenched grass overwhelms my nose. My son releases his grip on my hand and barrels straight for a puddle. A neighbor with a black Portuguese water dog waves hello before crossing to the opposite sidewalk.

The pearly clouds overhead temporarily dry up as we scour the neighborhood for the perfect puddle. This one by the street is too dangerous. This one on the sidewalk is too shallow. We keep going.

All the while, I catalogue beauty: Verdant green grass juxtaposed against crumbling city asphalt. Trees shifting from flowered to leaved. Violets sprinkled through common patches of grass. The tiniest drizzle of rain kisses my face, igniting my senses.

I’ll record this in my journal, I think.

Now the rain’s picking up again and I’m tugging Jack toward home and he’s tugging me the opposite direction, unwilling to end the search. In the middle of the alley, I stop.

“Jack, I think I’ve found it!”

He turns his head. “What Mommy?”

“Your perfect puddle,” I point. “Look!”

We rocket toward the puddle. SPLASH! Jack jumps in and stamps his feet while I stand back to observe, scanning the alley for cars.

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. Black mud cakes the outside of his frog boots. 

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. The rain grows heavier. His cheeks turn upward in delight. 

Mine do too. I keep watching: I want to imprint this moment to memory.

“It’s time to go buddy,” I finally say. “Why don’t you take one more splash in the puddle?”

SPLOTCH! 

Raindrops slice through the air. Holding hands, my son and I jog the full quarter-block to our house, never stopping until we reach the finish, hearts hammering in our chests.

I throw back the gate, unlock the red side door, usher Jack inside and pause, suspended between the glow and warmth of home and the wonder of a spring storm. Between dry and wet. Safe and wild. Failing and flying. Proving my worth and simply trusting it. Before every obligation comes tumbling back, I stay still, listening to the raindrops.

Something of value

rainbow

“There’s no treasure here,”
my son said, shaking his head
while we strolled city sidewalks,
taking in pink tulips and taking care to
keep 6 feet of distance from our neighbors.
(He’d been searching for an X marks the spot,
a close to our winding journey—
no luck.)

I wanted to admit Jack was right,
mind-mapping all the good things we were missing:
the playground and playmates and Grandma and
what it feels like to move about freely.

Then I spotted not an X, but a
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 etched in pastels.
Jack hopped, giggled, whirled to me.
“Mommy, come on! It’s your turn!”
Even though I didn’t feel like it,
I leapt.

Later that day, he spied 
beams of light caught in raindrops, 
Hope
refracted across the sky.

There’s no clear end in sight,
and frankly, I’m weary.
But there’s hopscotch.
And rainbows.
And, arguably, treasure.

Saving daylight — with him

Sunset photo by Hoang Loc
Photo by Hoang Loc

Whenever I replay it in my mind, the scene starts here: Me at the rear car door, hovering. Him with his head craned back, stalling.

“Mommy,” he starts.

“What Jack?” My words are staccato. My toes aren’t tapping, but they might as well be. I’m sandwiched between my three-year-old and the daycare parking lot, the end of one workday and the start of another (Evening Mommy). What I want from him is complete compliance. What he wants, I think, is the same thing he’s wanted since day one of daycare when he rejected all of his bottles — to act in complete defiance.

“I see the moooon!” 

“Where, honey?” my voice softens. 

His pointer finger shoots up, his voice rises, “There! There!” and I follow his gaze to the crescent moon, barely a fingernail clipping, hanging low in the cerulean sky.

“It’s so shiny,” he remarks. And he’s right — it is. We linger, eyes up, heads tipped back, suspended in time. When I finally buckle Jack into his carseat, I thank him for making me notice the beautiful moon. He beams proudly. 

Now in the driver’s seat, I press the ignition button and notice the dashboard clock reads 5:55 p.m. Classical music floods the speakers. I punch the radio off. I can’t shake the feeling I’m doing this wrong — motherhood. That I’m missing out on most of it, the wonder and joy of my son being three, because I work. This hunger for what I can’t have — a different life — wakes with a grumble.

What if all I’m getting is just a measly sliver of the moon? What if all I’m giving is waning light?

“Mah-AhhM! Why are you not moving?”

“Sorry honey,” I say, my voice faltering. I don’t turn around to face him. Careful as ever I check the backup cam, reverse, signal and merge onto Pulaski. Pulaski divides a crowded, crumbling cemetery; tonight the western sky above the gravestones blazes with magenta and persimmon fading into blue. I want to slow the car to a crawl and gape, maybe turn into the cemetery lot to take in the horizon.

Eyes back on the road, I exclaim, “Look honey! Look to your right!”

“What, Mommy?” 

“Honey, there’s a sunset,” I say, motioning toward his window.

“It’s a rainbow!” Jack shouts with glee. Jack loves rainbows, and I hold this fact tenderly, knowing there may come a day when someone tells him it’s not acceptable for a boy to love rainbows. I hope he keeps loving them all the same.  

“Sort of,” I chuckle. “The sky lights up with all kinds of colors when the sun goes down. What colors do you see?”

“I see orange … and pink… and blue…” he trails off.

I glance back at Jack, eyes wide and smiling. I will tell him this, I resolve, that boys shouldn’t be ashamed to love this beautiful world with an open heart.

At Foster, I turn right and drive straight toward the sunset. The skyscape shifts to peach and lavender; the fading light silhouettes a crop of trees in shade. I recall a stanza from John Mayer’s song, “3×5”:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it when
I’m in the mood to lose my way
But let me say
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life

“What do you see, Mommy?” Jack’s view is a bit obscured now, and I have the better vantage of the sunset. 

“Hmmm… I see new colors — peach and lavender and blue darkening above us.”

I hear him sigh and add, “Almost home, buddy.”

Pulling onto our street I realize Jack and I only have a few more sunsets to watch on our commute home before the light patterns shift. Daylight Saving Time is coming.

For the next three days, Jack will ask me about the sunset. Together, we’ll delight in bright hues painted across each evening sky.

A week after Daylight Saving Time, everything will be different. Daycare will be closed. I’ll receive a mandate to work remote — effective immediately. The social distancing and lockdowns will begin. The grocery store shelves will be picked over. I’ll call my elderly neighbor, my grandmothers and my parents, ending each conversation close to tears. I’ll cling to my husband’s frame in bed, mind churning over the COVID-19 pandemic, body starved for sleep. I’ll hold my head in my hands, stomach knotted with worry, and pray. My son will watch and mimic my motions.

I’ve read that three is when memory begins to form in children. Later, I’ll wonder if Jack will remember any of this — the food rationing, the “staycation with Mommy and Daddy,” the world as we used to know it turning. I hope he’ll remember learning to play Go Fish on the living room carpet, games of tag in the backyard, homemade bread, long baths and daily FaceTime with his grandparents. I hope he’ll remember relishing those sunsets from the car, a fleeting ritual, but one that brought us so much joy.

Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

For the time being, I park the car in our garage, blissfully unaware of the changes to come. Hands busy fixing supper, I wonder:

Am I missing out on moments with Jack because I work too much?

Yes.

Can I still teach him how to savor the light?

Also yes.

Much later, when the pain overwhelms, I’ll return to that night and embrace its delicious normalcy. Old, insignificant worries. A new resolve. My son forever pointing me to beauty — light.

And here, maybe I can save this sunset for us, and maybe my son will read about it someday, when he’s in the mood to find himself in words.

Image by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this part 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. To read the next post in this series, click here.

My hopes for you

Today is my son’s third birthday. We started our morning with pancakes and raspberries for breakfast, and he got to open a few presents. At school today he’ll wear a birthday hat and pass out goodies bags to his friends. When our son comes home, we’ll celebrate with tacos and cake, then surprise him with his first “big boy” bed.

Although this milestone is certainly bittersweet, the feeling I want to savor most right now is hopefulness. I’m proud of the person Jack is, and I’m excited to nurture him and watch him grow in the year ahead. This year I’m starting a new tradition of writing my son a birthday love note. I’m posting it here to share a snapshot of his life at three, and because I thought you might enjoy it.

Dear Jack,

Today you turn three! This is what Daddy and I love about you:

You are creative. You are an expert play-doh mixer and sculptor. You add depth to bedtime stories, suggesting appearances from Superman or the Paw Patrol. Your make-believe world — of pirate and rocket ships, rescue missions and birthday parties — amazes me.

You are playful. You giggle at Goofy and Olaf the snowman. You cry, “Tickle me! Tickle me!” laughing without abandon. You’ll flop into fresh snow, crunchy leaves or grainy sand, flap your arms and make an angel.

You are strong-willed. You throw tantrums when you don’t get your way. Most days, you refuse to jump in the pool and put on socks. As for mealtime, you stick to a strict rotation of your favorites — like tacos, nuggets and pizza — rather than try new foods.

You are loving. You crave our touch and attention. You call, “Play with me!” when you need a playmate and “Uppy!” when you’re “too tired” to walk. At dinner, you slip out of your chair to finish your veggie burger in my lap. At bedtime, you sit in Daddy’s lap to read stories, head snuggled close against his chest. You give the best kisses.

You are generous. You share your Hershey’s kisses and your strawberry smoothie with ease. You loved handing out goodie bags at your last birthday party. You like to “help” with the dishes.

You are thoughtful. You ask, “Who is Jesus?” and “Where is God?” You notice when I’m feeling sad and when Daddy and I are mad. You suggest hugs and time outs when you notice we’re overwhelmed.

You are sweet. You love our dog Gus, rainbows and your grandparents. Some nights you sing yourself to sleep. You like to hold our hands.

You are a wonder. You are all this and more than we can possibly imagine. You are learning and growing daily. You are our teacher.

Sweet boy, these are my hopes for you:

I hope you hold on to your sweetness. That you’ll keep feeling your big feelings — and that you’ll be unafraid to tell us about them. That, when faced with a difficult decision, you’ll choose to be brave and kind. That you’ll remember to include others.

I hope you fail. I hope you’ll make mistakes, get rejected or cut from the team. It’s an odd hope isn’t it? But leaning into discomfort is how we develop grit. When you, inevitably, get knocked down, I hope you’ll rise up, keep going or change course.

I hope you never doubt the power of your voice. Today you boldly declare your needs and wants. I admire that about you. I hope you’ll continue to speak up, both for yourself and for the common good, and that you learn it’s equally important to listen.

Most of all, I hope you know how deeply you are loved — by us and by your Creator. 

Happy third birthday, Jack. You light up our lives with love, joy and wonder. We are so, so grateful for you.

P.S. Those hopes for Jack are my hopes for us, too.

Lessons from 2019

The Cut recently informed me that although some people don’t keep a diary, most of us have inboxes that serve as a “fossil record of our lives.” In other words, ancient emails are a window into our stories. Reading this, a small chuckle escaped my lips. I’d been sifting through emails the day prior for evidence to corroborate dates for an essay I was revising. What struck me most about my old messages was their tone. My voice seemed strange yet familiar, young but not naive, kind yet scared. Who was this woman? Me but different.

On this 20th day of December in 2019, 48 hours from my 34th birthday and 12 days until New Year’s, I wonder: Who was I on the cusp of 2019? And who will I become in 2020? The whole truth lies not in emails but stories —  lessons — from the time between. 

One: Why does it ache?

Trapped with my mouth wide open and torso at a 45 degree decline, I examined vintage Chicago posters while the dentist finished cleaning my teeth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said, putting down the floss. 

“So, you’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked him, craning my neck to the side.

“Your teeth look great, though you’ll probably want to start flossing more — the gaps between them grow wider with age.” With the flick of his switch, my chair whirred to eye level.

I repositioned myself and tried again: “It’s just my teeth, they were so achy.” 

For weeks they’d ached, pain fading in and out. They hurt first thing in the morning and at bedtime. They occasionally woke me up at night. They hurt whenever I switched from one activity to the next, almost as if my teeth were petulant children demanding my attention. I brushed, flossed and went back to work, ignoring them. 

Little mouths needed brushing, dishes of every size kept piling up in the sink and deadlines too were stacking up in my planner. Visiting the dentist never made it on my lengthy to-do list; it got lodged in my brain someplace between almost out of dish soap and don’t forget to file your check requests before sabbatical. 

“Right.” The dentist nodded.

I licked my teeth and tasted fluoride. “And now they’re fine,” I said. Coincidentally, the week I made the appointment, my pain disappeared.

The dentist shrugged his shoulders and stood to leave. We’d already gone over this — no evidence of grinding or gum disease. No cavities.

“Sometimes these things have a way of sorting themselves out.” He smiled and moved to the door. Conversation closed.

It bothered me that the dentist didn’t have an answer. What caused the pain? I wondered, picking up my complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste and summoning my driver. I zipped up my jacket and waved goodbye to the receptionist. Moreover, how did it heal?

Outside crisp leaves tumbled across the street and wind cut through my jacket. Fall in Chicago is a short, poignant season one must be careful not to miss. The neighborhood trees were showing off gold, crimson and burnt orange and I realized I had the entire afternoon free before my son returned from school. I could go for a run in the woods or cozy up with a good book. Maybe I’d start a chili.

Waiting for my ride it struck me: I was no longer in a hurry.

I’d replaced piles of dishes and deadlines with extra playtime and travel. After months of making appointments for my son but not myself, I had an eye exam, annual check-up and this dentist visit. I was officially on leave from work and yes, life was slow.

For now.

Eventually sabbatical would end and working motherhood would sink its claws back into me. I smiled up at the gray sky. I wanted to hold onto this feeling — hope — and carry it with me to the next season. I wanted to start paying attention to pain, and to its release.

Two: A messy dilemma

I hold two passions in my heart: one is my family, the other, my career. I’m lucky I landed my dream job as a magazine editor. I’m doubly blessed I realized my dream of becoming a wife and mother. I’m living the dream.

Yet these two dreams often seem at odds with one another, and though I believe that’s a false dichotomy, there are days I curse motherhood for crippling my career and days I blame work for my lack of presence with my family. Both are lies. Both are true.

When my son’s weeklong spring break from school approached,  I submitted my vacation days and cleared my calendar just for him. In my planner, I sketched out daily agendas: on Monday, we’d go to Cafe Little Beans, on Tuesday, we’d stay home and watch Disney movies, on Wednesday, we’d take a nature walk, and so forth.

Wednesday arrived and I loaded up my son Jack and our dog Gus into the car and drove to the forest preserve for our walk. The sky was clear and blue, pale green buds sprinkled trees, and when we approached a clearing, I let Gus off leash for a romp in the grass. Jack pointed and giggled as Gus sprinted out into the empty field. “Go on buddy,” I said, gently pushing him forward. The ground was moist and smelled of yesterday’s rain. With a little coaxing, Jack made a beeline for Gus, who appeared to be drinking out of giant mud puddle. 

“Oh no! Wait. Honey, don’t go in there,” I yelled out, waving him back. 

“Mommy! A mud puddle!” He said, stomping his feet with glee. 

Too late. In an instant, Jack’s shoes were caked with black-brown mud. Then he plopped on his bottom and the mud speckled our dog’s white fur. Safely positioned on the edge of the puddle, I sighed, thinking of the bath they would need later. This was not on my agenda.

“Mommy!” Jack cried, pushing himself back up. “Come splash with me!” 

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

Three: Brave

What I remember most about our conversation was his attitude. Leaning over his scotch at the bar top, my friend was the definition of casual. This was the same carefree guy I knew from college and also someone entirely different. He was a pastor, after all.

So when I confessed to him over drinks I still had doubts about my faith, I couldn’t have predicted what he said next. 

“Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he said throwing back a swig of scotch.

My mouth dropped. I stirred my seltzer water and searched for the right response. “You too?”

“I mean, who hasn’t?”

What I’d wanted from him was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband got sick and my dad got sick and why people kept getting shot by angry white men with assault rifles. I wanted an antidote to doubt.

Instead of that, he offered, “Me too.” My pastor friend understood the doubts and the questions and the creeping worry that death was just the end. What I wanted wasn’t what I actually needed. What I needed was a companion in doubt.

This conversation wasn’t an anomaly. I talked to many other pastors this year who echoed similar sentiments.

On a walk in the woods, I got to know a pastor who admitted she didn’t have the best answers to age-old faith questions related to suffering. At coffee, my pastor listened to my frustrations at length and nodded with understanding, quietly holding space for me.

Over pancakes, one very important pastor I admired told me he hoped I’d write about it — my doubts. I wanted to tell him I’d been trying to write about doubt and pain all year. Instead I sat and sipped my coffee.

I often wrote in the literal darkness. Early in the morning before my family woke. Late at night when they were asleep.

Entering the darkness in words doesn’t necessarily stump me, it’s the getting out that does.

Another pastor whose writing I adore wrote this of darkness: “Those of us who should follow Christ, therefore, should expect a lot of darkness. That is where God finds us and also sends us.”

Later, when it was time to make edits to a story I wrote that seemed too sad and irreverent, I discovered a shred of Hope threaded through my prose. I set down my red editing pen.

Perhaps exploring doubt is a sign of evolving faith. I’m finding there’s beauty in the darkness. I’m learning to pay attention to my pain — and joy. I believe I’m entering 2020 a little braver than before.

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 this series “2019.”

Jesus Christ, Advent and the grace of Christmas radio

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The digital clock on my dresser flashes 7:55. Late, we are going to be late. I sprint across the hallway, snatch socks and deposit them at my son’s feet. “I need you to put these on now.” “Nooo! I don’t wanna,” he screeches, folding his arms. The last thing we have time for is a standoff before school. I crouch to his level and grit my teeth. “You need to try because you are a big boy now and I cannot do everything for you and we are running late.” I say this in my mom-means-business-voice.

He puffs his lip out. “Mommy, you do it!” To which I cry out, “Jesus Christ!” Not my finest parenting moment.

Then: a whirlwind of tears and apologies, a quick sock tutorial, shoes, hats, coats. My heavy sigh as I lock the door. The dashboard clock reads 8:10. Late.

It’s December, a time when moms are supposed to be merrily gift shopping, addressing holiday cards and executing traditions. Our tree’s lit and we even baked Christmas cookies, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m running behind. That I don’t measure up to the other moms. I don’t have enough cheer to give my kid. (He’s never met Santa; our holiday budget’s tight.) Christmastime, it’s magical and a rush. I hate rushing.

My son does too.

I turn on Christmas radio as I back out of the garage, but I’m not really listening, too busy mind mapping all the mistakes I made that morning, ways I could have been more prepared.

While the masses deck the halls and check their lists, the church observes Advent, during which we assume the posture of expectation. Advent, with its moodiness and calls for repentance, is incongruous with the holiday hustle. I like this about Advent.

At the stop sign, my son shouts, “Mommy! Mommy!” “What honey?” I answer. Light snow falls, lining the trees and streets. I hope it sticks. “It’s a Christmas song,” he says, bobbing his head.

My ears register “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” “Oh!” I say, stunned by his sudden cheer, the mercy of fresh snow and forgiveness. “Fa-la-la,” he adds, beaming. This does not even go with the song.

Jesus Christ, I think to myself, smiling. That’s who Christmas is all about — the gift of a child, born to save us from ourselves.