Like the Rings of a Tree

"The Boys of Sayre" is written on the back of this photograph. 
My grandfather, Ralph Hausknecht, is in the front on the far right.

Our lives are made up of stories, like a tree is made up of rings.  The oldest stories circle us, hold us, growing and shifting as we grow, they wrap around our very lives, holding us to the past, shaping the way we face the future. 

*   *   *

My Grandfather was a veteran of the second World War.  I was a thin scrap of a girl with long brown hair and bangs, when he sat at the kitchen table with me.  His fingers held the worn black pages of photo albums, turning pages, touching and talking, but his stories ran past me like a stream in the woods, like the wind through leaves and I, being young and green, could not take them in. 

What I do remember is his presence, sweaty from working in the garden, his thinning hair combed-over, the way he simply was.  Watching an episode of Call the Midwives where Nurse Lee cares for an elderly veteran, I am swept through with a longing for that man who died some twenty years ago now. 

In the bathroom of my grandparents' house is a wooden drawer that holds the scarves and a beautiful comb and mirror set he mailed home during the war.  As a child, I would shut the door and stand behind it, fingering the silk and silver, those tokens of love that flew half-way across the world to the woman who refused to marry him before he left, to the woman who refrained for fear he would never return. 

Grown now, I gather these stories like sticks fallen to the forest floor, I search the stories of his life, counting and adding them like rings of a tree, carving out an image of who he was, who he is, as he lives still in the shape of his stories. 

Telling the stories of my ancestors, I imagine them growing as I speak, as I write, as though through my words I can conjure a mighty grove of trees; giant oaks and speckled sycamores, twisted and worn with age.  I gather my children there in their shadows, turning like he did, the worn, black pages of photo alums.  The stories run by my children's ears, like so many streams, but deep down, in a place I cannot see, they are drinking them in.

Talking of what was we grow together into what will be. 

This post is linked with Playdates with God. 

If You Want More . . .

These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.  Psalm 104:27-8

*   *   *
It was as though the room had tilted to one side, like a ship careening over the waves so that the twins and I, sliding, now sat clustered at one end of the table.  They were "na," done with their small lunch and broken bits of crackers and cheese were strewn across the table. 

Isaiah stood, grinning, in the chair on my left and Levi was planted on the floor between us.  He was done with climbing on the table (as per my request) and stood looking up at me, his mouth open and waiting like a baby bird. 

They wanted, desperately, the soup I was eating.  The same soup they rejected by the bowlful the night before, now made positively alluring by the fact that it was mine. 

Nutrition is nutrition, so I scooped small bits - three kernels of corn, a few pearls of barley, a drop of broth - onto the end of my spoon and ladled it into their mouths that waited wide with exaggerated expectation. 

They love to be fed in this way, they'll eat almost anything if it comes from my plate, my spoon, my outstretched arm extended from my own smiling, expectant face and, truth be told, I love it too.  It's a game of pleasure, of need and fulfillment and we're all pleased as punch as their mouths open and close to the rhythm of bites like happy clams opening and closing with the movement of the tide. 

Then, eyes sparkling, Levi clamped his mouth down tight on the spoon, refusing to let go and smiling like the cat who swallowed the canary.  Wrapping his small fingers around the neck of the spoon, he held on tight despite his smile as I tugged and wiggled to set it free. 

Finally, exasperated, I asked, "Levi, do you want more?"

He nodded his head, a quick up and down that extended from his tightly pressed lips, raising and lowering the spoon that was wrapped in his hand and mine. 

"Then you're going to have to let go." 

Whether it was reason that spoke to him or the resolve in my voice, he let go immediately and made ready for more as I spooned and filled Isaiah's waiting jaws. 

I heard my words as I said them and, also, heard more than my own words. 

"Do you want more? . . . Then you're going to have to let go."

*   *   *

God sits at the table in front of a wide and smiling bowl of soup, steaming.

Standing nearby, my mouth is open, waiting, expectant, delighted as each good thing passes down, happy.  Happy to be eating, but more so, happy to be loved in this way, nurtured at the hand of God. 

And I am learning to let go of the spoon, and even, if I have to, the soup, trusting it will come and go as all good things must; trusting in the joy of the moment, in the love of one whose hand stretches out, always, with good things, like the long arm of a mother extended from her own smiling, expectant face. 

This post is linked with Imperfect Prose and #TellHisStory.

The Butterfly and the Rat

The twins ran to the kitchen shouting, "Mow! Mow!" and I followed to confirm the sighting. 

For months now they've named and claimed every "mower" they see as we drive or walk through town.  Every lawn mower, leaf-blower, golf cart, etc. elicits a liturgical call and response between the three of us:

"Mow! Mow!" they shout, cueing my, "Did you see a Mow?" and their reply, "Yep!"

They squeezed in together behind the wooden baking table and stood pointing out the window with looks of unadulterated glee.  I bent down and squeezed in too, to confirm their sighting, and scanned the dirty concrete alley-way that divides our house from the next.  The small alley is where we keep our trash in tightly lidded containers and the neighbor's bikes and scooters lay scattered.   

Looking out from where I crouched wedged behind the kitchen trash and between the window and wooden counter, I saw an old scooter handle that stood leaning against the wall and thought, "oh, that must be what they see." 

"Mow," I confirmed, "you found a mower." 

But they continued to shout and point with bright expectant faces and I looked again, following the worn metal handle down toward the ground.

"Oh!" I thought, as my gaze came to rest with horror on an animal that lay dead against the wall of the neighbor's house and I knew then what they were trying to say.

"Mouse, you found a mouse," I said.

They echoed back, "Mouse! Mouse!," their voices filled with even greater joy at my evident understanding.

They were giddy with delight and I was impressed that they knew the word, though there was no pretending that thing was a mouse.  It was a long as my hand, a good eight inches from end to hairy end with another six to eight inches of tail - a RAT. 

They loved it, of course, this wonderful, magical "mouse" that lay "sleeping" in the alley and they stayed, jubilant at the window, as I fixed lunch and texted my husband while the word "RAT" ran on an endless loop through my brain.  We'd already dealt with ants and I expected to see evidence of mice when winter set in, but rats??

It lay out there in the sun all. day. long. giving me the heebie-jeebies and making it hard to think about lunch or dinner. 

"A rat," I thought, "a RAT!"

Would you believe me if I told you that earlier that day, sitting on the crooked gray concrete steps in the front of the row home we're renting (as, I suppose, that rat lay dying in the back) I heard the voice of God?  Sitting there in the crisp fall sunlight as the twins played "mow" with a variety of broken tree branches, a beautiful monarch butterfly landed briefly on the sidewalk and God spoke, I swear, straight into the heart of me. 

The butterfly floated on large, unwieldy wings, looking like it was taking its first flight ever and I felt a glimmer of hope, that maybe things were going to turn out OK after all. 

And then we came in and not thirty minutes later, there was the RAT and I was tempted, yet again, to despair. 

But oh, that rat, it was a gift too.

That rat gave me the gift of freedom, the gift of laughter and astonishment, the gift of letting go.

A beautiful butterfly flitting is one thing, but a plump gray rat, laid out in broad daylight is another, and more than God's words about the butterfly, which I have yet to fully embrace, that rat made it clear to me that God is here. 

How can I explain it except to say that this is where I live, here where my feet crunch and track across the dry dirty ground, here where the cigarette butts float into our yard with the heavy rains.  Here, in this place, where the smoke wafts in through open windows and a cabinet knob pulls off in my hand.  In this place, I find the butterfly's message hard to embrace, though I try. 

That rat was a gift, it confirmed my despair, my frustration and freed me from unnecessary guilt over my own unhappiness.  More than that, though, it invited me to surrender, to letting go, to looking out the window eager and astonished to see just what might turn up next. 

My husband went out after dinner to bag the rat and our older two scrambled to get their shoes on in time to witness.  He scooped it into a plastic bag and added it to the trash, but not before lowering the bag for the kids who were clamoring around him to see, to wonder, to marvel. 

God comes to us all in so many guises, the bible confirms it - God in a cloud or pillar of fire, God in Balaam's ass, in a fig tree, a wildflower.  And so it is that God is made known among us, God with us, God in human flesh, God in a butterfly, God in the rat between two houses on West Louther street.

This post is linked with Playdates With God. and A Holy Experience.


At seven,
she is like the first
green shoot of spring,
full of the promise
of what's to come.
This post is linked with Five Minute Friday on the prompt, "She." Click over to read more five minute posts on the prompt.

Writing It on the Walls

Don't tell my two-year-olds, but in a classic case of role-reversals, I've been writing on the walls while they nap. 

It all started in the morning when I woke in the darkness and smacked my head straight into the wall of things I hadn't done the night before.  My mind crowded instantly with images of the bags that needed to be packed, the lunches to be made, the papers waiting for initials, the clean laundry that sat souring in the washing machine, and so-on and so-forth, so that I was sinking from the start. 

Then, as the morning progressed, I yelled at my son and brushed coldly by my daughter when she wouldn't stop crying over banging her shin on the stairs. I had an all-out screaming competition with a two-year-old that consisted of the word "no" being exchanged at louder and louder volumes until my throat was sore and he collapsed in tears.

And then, after loading the stroller into the van and out and packing it with toddlers and pushing it through three sets of doors, they wouldn't let me walk my kindergartner to his classroom (did I mention this was his first full day of school?).

Yes, that's how it started. 

But there were the emails too, and dishes and the crumby, crunchy floor and two two-year-olds climbing in and out of the cupboard with a seemingly unending barrage of "Poop! Poop!"

Then we had the WIC appointment which, thankfully, didn't require finger-pricking, but the twins whined the whole way there and all the way to the farm stand where we spent our checks on tomatoes and corn, cucumbers and peaches.

I relished the silent ride home while the twins crunched on cucumbers, I thought things might turn out OK after all.

Until we parked and I backed into a tree with what I'm hoping was my bumper.  

I didn't even stop to look at it because I still had two little people to get out of two buckles each and across the street and even on that short little trip, shoes fell off and had to be replaced and they battled over crossing the threshhold of Home just. because. they. could.

Then the neighbors came home from the funeral, home from burying their baby boy who never saw the light of day, who died in-utero at thirty-nine weeks because the cord got pinched.

And I didn't know what to make of it all, only that it wasn't going well and I couldn't fix it, not any of it.  

But somewhere in the middle of it all, as I stood desperate in the kitchen, the words of Julian of Norwich came to me.  Julian, who lived her life cloistered in a cell with two windows - one that faced out on the world and one that faced the alter and cross.  Julian, who lived in a time of war and plague and deep anxiety, yet dared to believe and claim that we are all held, all sustained by the love of God, her words echoed through me,

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Julian's words sank into me like an anchor, a life-line, restoring, reconnecting me to the One who is life, the One who was and is and will make all things well.  So I wrote them down on contact paper and posted them over the sink.

I think of that baby, so close to life, but cut off, inexplicably from its source, and I think that I am often not so far from that. I wrote Julian's words on the wall, so I could remember, when everything seems dark that there is something, someone, who holds it all, holds Us all in the palm of his hand.

The Kissing Hand (Kindergarten and the Scent of God)

It was the first day of kindergarten.  My oldest son and I walked toward the low brick building holding hands and he reached over with his right hand to pull on my wrist, pressing his small hand deeper into the crevasse between my thumb and index finger. Pressing, pulling, he buried his hand in mine as I asked, “What are you doing?”

“It feels like it’s slipping out,” he explained.
Then I held on tighter, adding, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let it go.”

Inside, he sat on a large alphabet rug with his classmates, his long legs folded under as his teacher read Audrey Penn's, The Kissing Hand. I sat at his desk in a tiny chair that pushed my knees to my chin and braced myself against tears as I listened to the story of a Mama Raccoon and her son parting for school.
The story is based on a scene the author witnessed, where a mother raccoon placed its nose on its baby’s paw and the baby pressed the paw to its own face, as a way of remembering its mother’s scent. In Penn’sbook, the mother raccoon kisses her son’s paw, telling him,

           . . . whenever you feel lonely, and need a little loving from home, just
          press your hand to your cheek and think, 'Mommy loves you, Mommy
          loves you.'  And that very kiss will jump to your face and fill you with
          toasty warm thoughts.

Later, the young raccoon, Chester, repeats the ritual for his mother,

          "Give me your hand," he told her.  Chester took his mother's hand into
          his own and unfolded her large, familiar fingers into a fan.  Next he
          leaned forward and kissed the center of her hand.  "Now you have a
          kissing hand too," he told her. 

We moved to another part of the room and I crouched beside my son who sat now in a chair just his size in front of a large piece of paper. He sponged cool green tempera paint onto my outstretched hand and I pressed it firm onto the page. Then I coated his with yellow and he too pressed his hand down, leaving an imprint on each side of the page; one large hand with long green fingers and a smaller one, yellow as the sun.
Sitting in that room that felt so empty and far from home, I wondered how God’s love would be made present there.  Then I realized it would be, in part, through my son, who carries the love of God that his father and I have massaged into his limbs, his bones, his heart; that he is the scent of God’s presence to his classmates and that I am the scent of God’s presence to him.
And I thought of the One who the prophet Isaiah says, has engraved us on the palms of his hands.
God who, like a mother, carries his children with him breathing deep the scent of his people even as he whispers, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” 
*   *   *
Click on the video below to listen to Audrey Penn reading The Kissing Hand.   
(This post is linked with Playdates With God).

Red Bird, Black Bug

(this is what I'm listening to as I type, though we live nowhere near a field)
*   *   *

At our old house, the cardinals swooped and soared through the back yard, pausing on a tree or fence before flying through the air again like a flaming arrow flung.  Here, at the apartment where we are living in-between, and only a few blocks from where home used to be, there are no cardinals.

There are slugs, though, which is something we never had at the old house - big hearty ones measuring in excess of five or six inches.  They slip silently along the side-walk and I narrowly miss stomping on a big fella in the early morning rush for school. 

No cardinals here, just slugs.  And crickets. 

The whole place is filled with their drone when I step sleepily down the stairs in the early, dark morning.  They pulse relentlessly, these black, singing bugs.  Some days it feels like their song is holding us all aloft and, unlike the Cardinal, that bright messenger winging through my days, the lowly crickets tune is constant and in this I find some small measure of comfort; we are carried along moment by moment by the cricket's song. 

*   *   *

Over the past year, I've written a lot about cardinals and birds, if you'd like to read more, try This Nest, These Birds or A Prayer for Winter.

This post it linked with Five Minute Friday for the prompt 'Red.' Click over to read other posts. And, yes, this did take me a little more than five minutes . . .


The Smoker

He was middle-aged,
with a shock of honey-blond hair,
dressed in a suit and tie.
Crossing the street in front of me,
he stood on the far corner,
smoking a cigarette,
waiting to cross again.

Raising the thin tube to his lips,
he took a drag, tilting his head
as if to follow that breath to the end.
Then he held it for a few seconds or more
and let it go.

“That’s how I want to live,” I thought.
Breathing deep,
holding on for a moment,
then letting go.

This post is linked with dVerse Poets Pub.

Learning to Float, pt. 2

(This story was originally posted last summer as part of a longer essay, click HERE to read part 1.)
I’m headed to the biggest grocery store in town on the day before the fourth of July. This is only the second time I’ve ever gone shopping alone with all four kids and I know it’s a fool’s errand, doomed from the start.

My heart sinks a little at the sight of the full parking lot.  The sun beats down mercilessly on the blacktop as I anxiously calculate the time that remains before the twins are due for another nap. 

As I turn off the engine, my oldest shouts with urgency from the back of the van, “I have to go to the bathroom!” 
Of course. 

I unload the stroller and position the older two on either side.  The double stroller is like a pontoon and the kids and I float along like rafts tied-on as we ride the tide toward the automatic doors.  I grab a cart and assign roles.  One will push the stroller and one the cart, as I carry the list and pull things from the shelves.   
I see a friend with whom I’ve been meaning to connect, but time is pressing on me – time before the babies break down, time until the older two break down, time until I break down – so I brush her off.  Now a second friend is trying to chit-chat as we turn and head for the restroom.  I refuse to enter the bathroom with the older two, a passive-aggressive expression of my frustration at the inconvenience of this pit-stop. 
I’m tense and irritable at the crowd and the scene we make. The aisles, like the parking lot, are packed with shoppers loitering, choosing slowly, chatting and generally in. the. way.  
I’m trying so hard, fighting, resisting.
In the pause of our bathroom break I can feel it, the invitation to surrender. 
What am I so afraid of?  What do I seriously think can go so wrong that this trip must be a battlefield, an attack against which I’m perpetually braced? 
The question sinks from my head to my heart until I can glimpse an alternate view, until I can taste the prospect of adventure and fun and possibility, until I relax and start to float. 
And so we float through the store, our boats bumping the aisles and strangers’ carts and each other. 
We laugh at Levi who pulls boxes off the shelves with fixed determination when the stroller wanders near the aisle's edge.  We absorb the smiles of strangers as my kids squabble over who gets to help with what and I stand like an air traffic controller waving people past us and directing kids, my tiny fleet of beautiful, floating boats.  
*   *   *
What is life if not one long lesson in the art of letting go, of learning to float in the sea of grace and mercy that lies below and within and all around us everyday, every moment an opportunity to surrender.

This post is linked with Playdates with God.