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?”

A slant of Light

Advent journal, 12/22/20:

It’s my birthday. As I write, I am wondering what wisdom I have to share after 35 revolutions ’round the sun. Probably something about motherhood or paying attention. Or how to listen, how to make peace with your body, how to spot a seed of faith in a field of doubt. Those are essays I’ll write someday, once I find that pesky seed.

Earlier this month, I took a Zoom writing workshop led by an author I admire. I hoped the experience would advance my work in progress. Yet, as I sat across from a screen filled with accomplished writers, many of whom have degrees and accolades I could only dream of obtaining, I thought, “How did I end up here? What lessons do *I* have to offer?” I found myself lost in doubt.

Honestly, I thought I’d have more figured out by 35. My peers are growing their families and platforms and making job moves. During a pandemic! It’s been a good year, all things considered, but my two big dreams? Neither came to fruition.

While walking to the woods, I confess this to a friend over Voxer and my voice cracks. She is a pastor, and someone I can trust wholeheartedly, and sometimes when I Vox her it feels like I’m talking to God. My voice cracks as I finish my message and I’m confronted with the reality that my plans aren’t God’s plans, and perhaps I ought to loosen my grip.

When my boots touch the trailhead, the sun’s dipping toward the horizon. Sunlight washes over barren branches and brittle leaves, painting them gold with its Midas touch. I turn toward the source of light and a word comes to mind: Peace.

***

I don’t know what you’re longing for this December. Maybe it’s rest. Maybe it’s an end to loneliness or too much togetherness. An end to this pandemic, to injustice. A baby to adore. Someone to notice your unseen work and tell you it matters. (It matters.) Maybe it’s all that and more.

I’m sharing this because I’d forgotten: as surely as the sun sets, waiting seasons end. You uncover answers — or not (a non-answer is an answer, too). You release old ways and make room for revelation. You stop searching, scatter new seeds, trust their growth. A virus dies. A long-awaited child is born.

We witness a slant of Light.

Hungry for stories

bookshelves
photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

The vent above the laundry room, located directly beneath my bedroom window, was the best spot in the house for reading. The natural light there could not be beat, plus it offered peak airflow. What I’d do is snuggle my back against the white dresser, position my bottom and feet over the vent slats, then prop across my thighs my latest book — in fourth grade, I was fond of the Little House series — and lose myself in the story.

When the Midwestern wind howled at our walls, I’d tent a fleece blanket over my body like a Snuggie and grasp the magic tome that transported me out of the suburbs and into the frontier with Laura and her pioneer family. We collected sap and made real maple syrup, churned butter, carried out the day’s chores and danced to Pa’s fiddle in their cozy cabin. I was fascinated with Laura’s life: there was always something to do or explore, people used their hands to make everything from meals to calico dresses, and new adventures awaited every season.

I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales in the mid-90s, an era in which I played Oregon Trail on early model Macintoshes and ate McDonald’s Happy Meals regularly. I imagined pioneer times with a great fondness, perhaps because I never felt like I fit in much in my small world. We’d moved to Aurora, IL, from Clarksville, TN, when I was in second grade. By the time I arrived on the scene, it seemed everyone already had a friend group at McCarty Elementary. I’d left mine back in Clarksville.

Books became my closest companions, my security blanket, my transport away from the loneliness that ached inside me. A quick and early reader, I was voracious for stories. I visited The Met for the first time thanks to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I solved myriad mysteries alongside the Boxcar Children. I became obsessed with hieroglyphics due to The Egypt Game

Then I found a girl in the pages of A Wrinkle In Time whose sensitivity and longing to be liked matched mine. The passage “‘Why can’t I hide it, too?’ Meg said. ‘Why do I always have to show everything?’” roused tears of recognition.

There was so much to learn about the world – and myself – and I was discovering I could do it through stories. Each book I finished left me hungry for more.

Woosh. After the vent in my bedroom blasted hot air, my blanket would trap it, toasting my body long after the air shut off. Between the heat, the light and these stories, I wanted to grasp onto the warmth I felt and never let go. 

***

My first real job after college was at a large, progressive church on the Gold Coast of Chicago. I’d grown up in a church due to my mother’s work as music director and organist for Immanuel Lutheran; never had I ever imagined working for one. I’d studied English Literature with a minor in New Media Journalism and, as graduation loomed, I dreamed of becoming an editorial assistant at a fancy magazine in New York City. Maybe I’d work at one of my favorites, Self or Glamour. Or I’d become a cub reporter for a local newspaper before moving onto the Chicago Tribune. I’d worked all four years at our college newspaper and interned at a magazine senior year. I thought I had a fleeting chance at making it.

My career aspirations disappointed those who asked, “What are you going to do with an English major? Teach?” No, I had no intention of teaching. I wanted to write. 

Instead I found myself situated in the old servants’ quarters of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, copy editing bulletins. It was 2008, and the economy was in free fall. Unpaid internship opportunities beckoned, but I couldn’t afford to work for free. A chance job opening, passed on by a professor, led me to work here, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Chestnut Street, where privileged shoppers met persons begging for coins, where rich and poor alike found solace from the city’s cacophony in the church’s gothic sanctuary. 

I would have missed this opportunity, were it not for Professor Ed Uehling. For the final required class for my major, I’d debated between a popular Children’s Literature course and Uehling’s course on Contemporary Literature. I chose his course, likely because it best suited my schedule. Thanks to him, I fell headfirst in love with the genre.

I feasted on Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars. I savored Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The most delicious book on the syllabus was How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Each of these authors were still alive and writing to the world in which we lived. The thought exhilarated me. 

Even with (or perhaps because of) the pressure of OMG-what-will-I-do-after-graduation building in my head, I dove into alternate realities and faced familiar truths in the pages of those books. I wrote the strongest papers of my college career and developed a good relationship with Uehling. When he suggested I consider the editorial assistant opening at the church, I applied. At that point, I was desperate for paid work.

“She has been too frightened to carry out any strategy, but now a road is opening up before her,” Julia wrote of Yolanda, one of the Garcia sisters. “She clasps her hands on her chest—she can feel her pounding heart—and nods.”

Like Yolanda, I wasn’t quite sure of the path I was taking, I only knew I had to be brave and embrace it.

Several months into the role, I stood in the church narthex, slipping stacks of sermon booklets into the literature racks. Hands full, I resisted the urge to question if I was wasting my time here. After all, everyone had to start somewhere, and why not start with a salaried job with benefits?

The task completed, I turned and took in the expanse of the sanctuary – rows upon rows of empty pews; its vast, vaulted ceiling; panes of jewel-toned light that streaked down from stained glass creating a mosaic on the floor. Come Sunday these pews would be full. I’d witnessed it myself a handful of times. Though I was already intimately familiar with the church’s inner workings, it never quite felt like home. Especially on a Sunday morning.

Sitting through an unfamiliar liturgy, I longed for the Lutheran hymns and prayers of my childhood. But I hadn’t yet found a congregation of my own.

Each week, as I reviewed Fourth’s “News and notes bulletin” for typos, every book club or Bible study posting spurred unexpected pangs of jealousy. Young and new to Chicago, I realized something: I wanted what these people had – community.

***

A couple years later I was at my desk in the church reading during my lunch break when I happened across an essay called “What To Know When You’re 25.” It left me breathless.

I was 24 at the time, and work at the church had grown stale. I couldn’t figure out how to move forward so I just stayed there. Even though all our friends were getting married, my college sweetheart hadn’t yet popped the question, and I didn’t dare push him. Furthermore, we still hadn’t found a church for ourselves in Chicago. 

I was drifting.

How had the writer of this essay stepped inside my consciousness and rendered it in words for all to see? I couldn’t fathom it.

I printed her advice in my planner: “Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. Walk away, try something new. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming.” 

That writer’s name was Shauna Niequist, and the essay was from her book, Bittersweet. I later purchased a copy and practically inhaled its contents. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to write like her someday. More than that, I wanted to live her stories — rich stories of marriage, motherhood, close friendships and deep faith.

I was hungry for those stories. Now I needed to seize them for myself.

***

It’s 7:30 p.m. and my husband is putting our preschooler to bed upstairs. In our basement I’ve set up my laptop on a box and I’m facing a Zoom grid of nine other women. We raise our glasses — some filled with wine, others tea and one whisky — to the screen and virtually toast our friend Ashley for her recent birthday. Due to COVID-19, we’re meeting remotely.

Ashley thanks us, then remarks that it’s been nearly 10 years since we started this book club. Shortly after I read Shauna’s essay, Ashley joined the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church. We became fast friends, bonding over books and faith and staff happy hours. 

On one of our lunchtime walks around the track near Northwestern’s downtown campus, I told Ashley how much I admired Shauna’s cooking club that she writes about in Bittersweet. I always wanted to have my own small group like that, I said, but my group would meet to talk about books. Ashley agreed that it sounded lovely. 

As we turned back to the church offices, I grew bold. “Well, why don’t we start one?”

Ashley turned to me and gushed, “I love that idea!”

We decided she’d host, and we’d invite some coworkers and friends from college. Our first book would be Unbroken, a fascinating true story of a man’s resilience captured by Lauren Hillenbrand. It was Ashley’s favorite.

That first meeting was a great success, and thus, we kept our club going. Over the years, we read contemporary fiction and nonfiction, occasionally dipping into the classics or poetry. We most often read books by women — Ann Patchett, Sue Monk Kidd and Elizabeth Gilbert were favorites. The year I got married, Ashley and some of the book club girls attended my wedding. The year I started working at my dream job as an associate editor for a magazine, we read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. On a cool spring night that sparkled with the joy of another dream realized, I hosted a foodie book club on Shauna’s Bread and Wine, complete with her mom’s blueberry crisp.

As some book club members inevitably moved away from the big city, we stayed in touch and kept recruiting new members. We’d celebrated engagements, weddings, promotions and new babies. We’d watched books we loved turned into movies and attended readings of favorite authors. My participation waxed and waned, especially the year I became a mother. Yet page after page, books brought us together. We created a beautiful story with each other in nearly 10 years.

Realizing I’ve been daydreaming, I redirect my attention to the computer screen. Tonight we’re discussing A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum, and one of our friends says she’s worried it promotes negative cultural stereotypes.

I disagree. This book covers domestic abuse and misogyny, I say, but it’s also about the unique strength of women. Though its heroine is isolated in her struggles, in the end, she derives courage to act from reading and from motherhood. The mothers in the group nod their heads in recognition. 

Conversation shifts to the next topic, and I think of a line of Etaf’s that drove straight through my heart: “It’s the loneliest people who love books the most.” 

I watch the smiling faces of each of my friends, some of whom moved years ago and are now tuning in for this special remote gathering, and offer a silent prayer of gratitude. Etaf’s words about loneliness may be true, but when bibliophiles come together, magic happens. In this time of COVID-19, while we cannot meet in person, when I long for nothing more than human connection, this feels especially significant.

“Reading her books, she was beginning to find a different kind of love,” Etaf later writes. “A love that came from inside her, one she felt when she was all alone, reading by the window. And through this love, she was beginning to believe, for the first time in her life, that maybe she was worthy after all.”

I smile and soak up the moment’s warmth, thankful for the young girl who loved books and the young woman who decided it was time to push her narrative forward. For the friends — in books and real life — who helped me see I am worthy.

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.”

some signs of hope in 2020 (a list)

the faithfulness of wildflowers
& the changing seasons,
children laughing,
for once a good news story,
hot coffee (preferably first thing in
the morning),
dogs, especially puppies,
the friend who texted, “everything ok?” when
you didn’t show up to Zoom book club,
your new haircut, &
this poem that made you realize
you weren’t the only one
who felt like that,
dreams (sweet ones) scrawled in
your notebook
alongside mantras like “one day at a time”
& “you are enough,”
geese soaring someplace warmer,
prayer,
people standing up for racial justice,
voting for kindness,
your son, &
how he beams at you when
you’re holding hands
twirling.

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.

How to survive a pandemic without losing it

The lightning bugs are gone. They’ve been replaced by the cicadas — blaring their calls of chicka-chicka, chicka-chicka, zaazz, zaazz. There are legions of cicadas, I suspect, hiding in the evergreens that overlook our backyard and in old oaks that line our neighborhood, aptly named Forest Glen. Some other writer might romanticize their singing, but me? I can’t stand it.

This week during dinner Jay spied a cicada hovering outside the window, watching us stuff ourselves with pasta. Our son Jack found one belly up in the backyard. I watched another land on my favorite tree outside our bay window and narrowed my eyes. “Move on already; I’ve had enough of you,” I sassed, as if the cicada could understand me. It stayed.

On this Saturday night in August, Jay puts Jack to sleep, I walk our dog Gus and the cicadas chicka-chicka and zaazz at Fortissimo. They are really belting it out and this is not what I want to hear after a day of relentless whining. I am tired of the noise. I am tired period, nevertheless I am walking because Gus needs it and I need it too. I’m only planning to walk him around the block when a slant of gold catches my eye. I realize it’s nearly sunset.

Gus is already trotting toward home, so I tug his leash and redirect us toward the horizon. We veer right at LaPorte, passing a homemade yard sign that says something like “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” which encouraged me at the start of COVID-19 and now reminds me of those cheesy motivational posters with kittens and eagles on them. I’m still thinking about that dumb sign when a gaggle of unmasked teens approach us, forcing me to swerve into the alley. The alley is nearly empty with a good view of the setting sun and I should find this calming, but the cicadas continue their chicka-chicka-zaazzing so I don’t.

Other things that are bothering me: Obviously this pandemic. I desperately miss our friends and family. We’re homeschooling Jack this fall and missing his village. Jay twisted his knee last Saturday and has been grouchy ever since then. Jack’s been especially rebellious, and if I’m not careful, I can let their moods sour mine and I spiral into darkness.

The glow on the horizon propels us forward, toward the train tracks. Gus and I jog up the stairs and take in the view. The last time I was here, Jack and I watched a mid-day train pull into the station. Tonight the sun hangs low, lighting up an entourage of puffy clouds. The cicadas’ song is nearly drowned out by nearby traffic, making Gus bark.

I sit down on the cool pavement, set my dog on my lap and stroke his fur, murmuring, “It’s okay buddy, settle down. Stay.” Gus quiets and his breathing slows.

North of us the sun casts light on cotton candy-colored clouds. This is all I can see from our backyard at sunset, however, up here on the tracks, my perspective broadens to include the city skyline, southeastern clouds blotted with indigo and the sun herself shining in the heavens.

Like a crack of lightning, I remember a mantra I recently heard from author Anne Lamott. Anne was on a podcast with another author I love, Glennon Doyle, and Glennon asked Anne how she found hope amid despair. This episode was recorded years before COVID-19, yet the question is strikingly relevant for 2020. Listening on another walk, I cranked up the volume.

Glennon said, “Anne, how do you find hope?”

Naturally Anne shared a lot of wise and witty advice. What she offered last was so revelatory and practical it stopped me in my tracks — a mantra I had heard before and forgotten.

Anne answered, “Look up.”

Now I tilt my head back and observe the expanse above, rimmed in violet. I imagine black space beyond us, our planet orbiting the sun, the Milky Way galaxy swirling through the universe, and there’s a plane cruising low in its flight path to O’Hare, bringing me back to earth, and there’s a blackbird, flapping across the sunset, and here’s the crescent moon, popping out from behind the clouds. This takes my breath. The moon had been here all this time and I missed him?

Eyes on the moon, arms around Gus, I sit still and keep looking. The constant buzzing — of cicadas and the cars and in my head — falls silent.

A couple strolls the platform and it seems they are on a date, so I stand, take one last glance at the moon and the fading sunset, and lead us home.

Walking Gus down our tree-lined streets, I believe that’s the last time I’ll see the moon, but I’m wrong. Just like Jack’s book, Max and the Tag-Along Moon, at every turn I spot a white crescent winking back at me, reminding me of my smallness in the order of creation.

Max doubted the moon when he couldn’t see it, then at the end of the book, it returns and he understands the moon is constant. This too I’d forgotten: What often appears as chaos is part of God’s cosmos.

The cicadas buzz and this time, I smile and look up.

Light follows us all the way home.

Catching light

Credit: Canva

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” —Leo Tolstoy

On nights when our son drifts asleep easily, I practice yoga in the living room. I flick off the lamps, light a candle, crack the windows and flow while the last hints of pink sky wane to navy. Though this happens twice a week at best, it’s become a favorite habit. 

I’d just rolled out my mat across the shadowed carpet one evening when a yellow burst drew my gaze. Flash-flash. 

Mother of pearl, was that a lightning bug?

Flash-flash. I approached the window: now there were two pulsing in the night, twisted in a primal tango, tale as old as time. Soon a dozen bursts of light cha-chaed, waltzed and flirted in the warm air.

Watching them, I smiled. Finally, one sign of summer untainted by the coronavirus. I couldn’t wait to tell Jack. 

***

Once, in the early days of COVID-19, a colleague introduced over video call an icebreaker: name something you were looking forward to that got canceled due to coronavirus. Trips, graduations, weddings, family gatherings and work events came up. I was missing a writing conference at which I’d hoped to pitch my book. Although the organizer intended this as a light-hearted activity, the effect seemed quite the opposite. (Yikes!) At least we were suffering together?

Four months later, events keep piling up: celebrations, vacations, trips to the pool and beach in our city. Everything canceled.

Our calendar’s stayed oddly clear of typical summer activities and yet in some states life’s returned to its former rhythms. Whereas during lockdown it felt as though we were “all in this together,” now, as we await a vaccine, there’s such a wide range of behavior I feel unmoored. Should we take a risk and travel or stay home and miss out? Keep our son home or send him to preschool this fall? Neither choice feels great.

Much of this summer — who am I kidding? — this year has felt like stumbling around in the dark after a power outage. I’m flicking light switches hoping they’ll still work. No luck here. Maybe here. Then — shoot, that’s going to leave a bruise! —  I’m bumping around the house, searching for a flashlight. When I finally find one it only emits a faint glow. The batteries are out. 

***

The following night, I was on bedtime duty again when I broke the news to Jack.

“Buddy, the lightning bugs are here!” I announced, helping him out of his clothes and into the bathtub. 

“Mommy, what’s that?” he said, untangling his legs from his pants. 

“Well, they’re bugs that glow and they only come out at night. They should be out around bedtime, I think. Here, hop in the tub and I’ll try to find a picture on my phone.”

He splashed in his bubble bath while I Googled photos and showed them to him one by one. Jack, barely glancing up from his Batman figurines, wasn’t impressed, and I had to admit they were underwhelming. So I kept searching and called up a video from a town in Tennessee known for its lightning bugs. 

“Ha! Found it!” I declared, holding up my phone victoriously. Jack peered over from the tub. “Jack-bub, let’s dry you off and I’ll show you this video.” 

Snuggled in his Paw Patrol towel he sat on my lap as we watched hundreds of tiny lamps illuminate the forest. Jack’s eyes grew wide and when the video was over he turned to me and said, “They have light in their bodies?”

“Yes, they do!” I said, fluffing his wet hair. 

“Why?”

Jack has officially entered the “why?” stage of childhood, which is adorable/exhausting. I didn’t have a good explanation for this. I did *not* want to have the sex talk so soon and found myself a bit flummoxed. I stared at my phone, wishing it would deliver an acceptable answer.

“Is it because that’s the way God made them?” he suggested, tilting his head ever-so-slightly, and I chuckled, thinking of past conversations we’d had about God. 

“Yeah, exactly!” I said, standing us both up. “Hey, let’s look out the window and see if they’re outside!”

We rushed to his bedroom window, scanning the neighbor’s yard for signs of light. Nope — it was still too early. Jack pushed out his bottom lip and pouted.

“Sorry buddy, it’s too soon to see them,” I said, sighing and turning to retrieve his pajamas. “We’ll catch them another time, I promise.”

***

On a recent call, my writing mentor told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to “lighten up a bit.” 

I nodded. Yes, yes, I needed to do that. (Cue internal screaming.)

I’m not a funny person. I’ve never been one to crack a joke or step into the limelight; I’d rather laugh on the sidelines. I adore my friends with a knack for humor. Some of my favorite writers infuse their words with levity — Anne Lamott, Ross Gay and Brian Doyle. Have my words ever made someone laugh? It almost seems like a joke, which is… telling.

I knew this was good advice, advice that would make me grow, and days later I found myself turning it over in my head as I scribbled my frustrations in my journal. Look for the light, Erin, I imagined her saying. 

For my book project, I’m writing through two particularly dark periods in my life because I want to make meaning out of them. These are stories I return to again and again in my writing because they’ve stayed with me, changed me. I wonder, maybe I’m revisiting them now because I need to be reminded of what’s on the other side of this metaphorical power outage.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote and while I didn’t say anything funny I did see something else show up on the page — hope.

Look for the light.

***

After my conversation with Jack, I did some more research on lightning bugs, which I learned from Google are the Midwestern words for fireflies.

Elsewhere they say “firefly,” but whatever they’re called, I learned that these bugs belong to the Lampyridae family of beetles, and the name derives from the Greek “lampein,” which means “to shine.”

Lightning bugs shine when they’re looking for a potential mate. 

I’d like to offer more light to you, dear reader. So here, take this iced beverage and here, make yourself comfortable and here, let’s peer a little closer at the jewels of a midsummer night.

Flash-flash.

***

A couple days later, I was wrestling Jack into his sloth pajamas when he wriggled free and fled to his bedroom window. 

“Mommy, I see a light-bug!” he said, pressing his hands and nose on the window pane.

I dashed over to join him. “Oh wow, really, buddy? Where?”

Jack bounced up and down, pointing, “There, there, there!” 

Flash-flash.

Like a string of Christmas lights they blinked on and off, lazily twirling and whirling against the dusky sky. My hand flew to my heart and I released a giant exhale. 

“Oh wow, honey! You finally saw some, ” I said, reaching over to squeeze his shoulder. 

“They’re bee-ooutiful,” he gasped, standing at attention. 

“Yes, they are.” 

***

29 years prior, a barefoot girl in an oversized t-shirt chases lightning bugs on the thick, cool grass of her family’s front yard in suburban Chicago. Giggling, she tries to capture them with her hands but the light is ephemeral, the darkness obscures her vision and each time she lunges forward her hands come up empty. Still, she loves the chase.

Flash-flash.

Then something miraculous happens. Right before Mom calls her to go inside she finally catches one. Cupping her hands she holds the gleaming creature in a treasure box of her own creation and studies its value. 

It appears the glow is hers to play with, capture and release. This was before she learned to fake lightness to please others. Before two painful seasons taught her that the bleakest night can illuminate what matters most. That darkness and light were fleeting and could coexist.

In fact, they enhanced each other. 

Opening her hands the girl liberates the lightning bug and it flutters out into the night’s sky to join fellow light-bearers, all the while she admires its contrast against a backdrop of darkness. She will not forget this moment, she will carry it with her years later when she is grasping for something bright to show her the way forward. 

The girl no longer needs to please others, but she does need a nudge toward a flash of light when the power’s out. She’s beginning to wonder … maybe light wasn’t something she needed to catch. Maybe it was inside her all along. 

And now? She shines.

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.