Ode to light-catchers

After Dale Chihuly’s “Glasshouse”

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

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

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

God only knows (a sonnet)

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

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

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

Eyes for Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Contagion

Your hands are raw from multiple washings. 

In the span of three days, your inbox was flooded with warnings: “School Health Update”; “Office Closure”; “Parenting in the time of Coronavirus”; “Coronavirus in preschoolers: Symptoms and what you need to know.”

This is the one that scared you: “Coronavirus updates: More lockdowns are starting.”

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, March Madness, Church last Sunday — canceled. Daycare is closed. Work is remote until the month’s end. You suspect this will last longer.

You watched the virus numbers climb all weekend. The tone of the news, containment measures grows more urgent. Your stomach churns. You call your elderly neighbor and remind her you are here to help. You call your mom, desperate for the sound of her voice.

At 6 a.m. on Monday, you went to the grocery store wearing plastic gloves. With shaking hands you filled your cart to the brim with dry and frozen goods. There was no toilet paper or bleach to be found. You threw out your gloves afterwards, wiped down your car, washed your hands with scalding water. In the kitchen, unloading groceries, you break down. 

You think of your Dad, a grocery store manager, and all the other grocery store workers. The doctors, nurses, government workers, police officers. The homeless population here, and elsewhere. The vulnerable elderly — your grandmothers, both in their eighties. You bow your head and pray.

Your book club just read Emily St. Mandel’s, Station 11. In it, a virus much worse than this one wipes out the majority of the world’s population, effectively breaking down society. You believe that won’t happen, not with this virus, but the similarities are eerie. And yet Station 11 is a hopeful book, featuring a vagabond band of actors and musicians who travel from town to town spreading cheer. The troupe’s motto: Survival is insufficient.

Your thoughts keep circling back to it.

You know what we’ve forgotten: we rely on each other. 

You do your part to stop the spread, but keep your humanity. You stay home, disinfect surfaces, donate to others, contact your loved ones. You wash your hands again and again and your preschooler’s hands, too. 

You know that so much of this is out of your control. That you are dust. To dust you shall return.

You control what you can. Your fingers tap tap tap, heat up the keyboard, tell a story that’s still unfolding. You hope putting your fears down will make you less scared. You come home.

You look out at the empty streets, witness the neighborly care that’s unfolding. You are not alone.

Portrait of one mother

She
is busy
picking up
pouring out
meeting
needs.

She
is careful
keeping
watch
time
memories
peace.

She
is thirsty—
motherhood
doesn’t deal out gold stars—
what about her
needs
likes
wants?

She is still
surveying
her home, life,
the small miracle they created,
she knows
to him, she is
rest
She smiles.

She needs 
                  peace.
      wants
                      rest.
She is
Love (d).

Faith and doubt

Chelan river

I stand at the edge of the river, gazing out at the horizon. Azure sky and mountains and wind and sunlight surround me, threaten to engulf me. Alone on a bridge in central Washington, I listen. Rapids rush beneath me. A smattering of leaves flutter down from a distant tree.

I wonder what it’s like to live someplace where the earth feels so alive it’s singing to you.

Earlier this year I stopped going to church for a season. Not because I don’t love my church or because my church hurt me. On the contrary, I love my church community. Deeply. I stopped going because I couldn’t hear God speaking to me there and I couldn’t bear to take communion while feeling like a hypocrite.

The truth is, I was angry at God. Everyone is carrying something, and for two years, I’ve carried the weight of family illness. I questioned. I doubted. I buried myself in work. Anything to avoid the deafening silence of prayers unanswered.

I have spent 10 years working in ministry, telling stories of God’s creative and redeeming work. Being a professional Christian typically does not afford time or space for a faith crisis, you keep working through it all. You cannot stop.

But when the opportunity to press pause, to take a sabbatical this fall became available to me, I applied, knowing how much I needed it. I needed to step away. For my family. For my heart.

Today I’ll take a boat to Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the mountains. I’m going there to rest. To listen. To worship. To write.

On the bridge: This song, it’s not so much a voice as it is a feeling. Warmth. Joy. Presence. Comfort. I let out a sigh. How long have I been holding my breath? And I consider: Perhaps God also speaks to us in our darkest moments. In the silence. In the doubt.

Banana bread, gun violence and facing the daylight

He just wanted banana bread. Eager to please and to get us out of the house, I obliged. 

We sat side by side in a bustling Starbucks, stealing a moment together before work and school. My son slurped apple juice and nibbled at his bread. I sipped my coffee, barely tasting it. Eyes glued to my phone, I scrolled and scrolled for answers I knew I wouldn’t find. 

Irritated, I looked up. That’s when I noticed my son staring down every visitor walking in the door. Morning sunlight framed his sweet face and curious blue-green eyes.

Before I could smile, the door swung closed and I took a breath. What was I thinking bringing him here? It’s not safe here. It’s not safe anywhere anymore. 

Last Saturday somebody strode through the doors of a Walmart, gun loaded with hate. A Mommy and Daddy died shielding their baby from his bullets. 

A day later, news broke of a second shooting closer to home, then word of more violence in our city. Blood-soaked, lifeless bodies on linoleum tiles and hot pavement. Lives cut short. Hundreds of families shattered forever. With trembling hands, I balled up our trash and swiftly rose.

“Jack, we’re leaving now,” I announced.

“Uppy, uppy!” he pleaded. And even though he’s perfectly old enough to walk himself to the car, I didn’t hesitate. I hoisted him in my arms, busting outside.

I punched the start button on the car. Elmo’s upbeat alphabet rap blared through the car stereo, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Brian Bilston’s poem “America is a Gun”:

England is a cup of tea. 

France, a wheel of ripened brie.

Greece, a short, squat olive tree.

America is a gun.

I gripped the wheel hard. I don’t know how to tell him why we rushed out or why, a week later I won’t bat an eyelash when I bring him with me to get groceries. 

America is a gun. The sentence tumbled around my head as I turned into the Montessori parking lot. The need to offer my son an explanation pressed on me and I took my time unloading him from the car.

More than anything, I want us to live in a place that reflects the values he’s learning in school and at home: That there is more than enough for us all, if we share. That everyone deserves to be treated with love and kindness. That we all have a right to live — without fear. How can I tell my son those ideals have been compromised by our nation’s leaders? And fellow citizens? 

I don’t want to shield him from the violence of the world, but the need to shield him from crippling worry feels more right. 

After lacing up his shoes, this is what I did: I bent over and kissed my son’s cheek, twice. Then I repeated our weekday morning benediction, “I love you buddy! Have a good day!” before he entered his classroom. And, with a prayer for peace pounding in my tender heart, I opened the door and stepped out into the daylight.