The Grouchy Ladybug (I Died a Hundred Deaths Last Halloween)

(This post originally appeared here last Halloween.  It's one of my favorites, so I thought I'd run it again this year.  Enjoy!)

It’s rainy and cold and we’re all keyed up and worn out from being trapped indoors for two days by Hurricane Sandy. I wake up, too late, and squeeze in a shower while my one-year-old twins, still in dirty diapers from the night before, wander around the living room. Their whining amplifies to full pitch as my shower cues them in to the possibility that I’ll be (gasp!) leaving for the morning. The preemptive separation anxiety continues through breakfast and packing everyone into the van to take my oldest to school.

After drop off I cart the remaining three kids back into the house. We mull around, waiting anxiously for the babysitter who'll be staying with the twins while the four year old and I head to his preschool's Halloween party at a local nursing home.  I have been dreading this event ever since the October calendar came home. 

The twins seem to relax and almost simultaneously my son's anxiety about the party rises.  Peppering me with questions, he asks, 
“Will there be people from the nursing home in the party?”
“Um, I’m not sure, honey.”

“Will they see me in my costume?”

“Are you going to dress up?”

“I don’t want to wear a costume.”

I've been “against” this party from day one and I know that my son, so robust and cheerful at home, will be shy and clingy in a new place. So like a Good Mother I plan to accompany him, despite my own teeth-clenching, foot-dragging antagonism toward it all.
“Solomon,” I say, “what if I wear a costume too?” I emerge from the back room wearing the fuzzy black antennae from my daughter’s ladybug costume.

“Ok,” he says, brightening, “you can be a black beetle.”
Then, I can feel myself giving in, letting go a little more as the idea strikes and I say, “What if I’m a ladybug? I can steal Sophia’s costume.”

He approves and I have just enough time to gather the red and black-dotted wings and my camera before the babysitter arrives and the oldest twin dissolves into a raging stream of tears. I run in circles grabbing things, carrying the littlest one and nearly run out the door with him, before the sitter stops me and grabs him saying, “This one’s staying.”
Then we’re off to a party I don’t want to go to, but also don’t want my son to miss. We drive through the rain and find his friends in a large room coloring at a table while elderly people in wheelchairs sit in a wide circle around them. The residents watch, their eyes hungrily absorbing the beauty and innocence, the luxury of so much youth in one small space.

My son is clingy, shy and tired, overwhelmed it seems, by the noise, the crafts, the games.  

I do my best to get into the spirit of things. 

I help with glue and tear bits of tissue paper, I assure a fretful child that it doesn’t matter where he puts the eyes on his pumpkin. I laugh with the other Moms over the resident who rides in on a wheelchair, pretending to scare the kids with a mask, all the while giving a growing peep show as his robe slides further and further open. I take a smiling picture with my son, a little Iron Man snuggled up on a ladybug's lap.
By the time we get home, though, I’m over-stimulated and frustrated at my inability to love Halloween, to love loud parties and candy. The twins are exhausted and hungry when we walk in and they’re drawn to me like magnets, pressing their tiny bodies onto me in desperation. It’s all I can do to untangle myself, causing more tears and desperation, as I head to the kitchen to make lunch. Solomon is sorting and dumping candy, dancing and singing and blowing the whistle from his party bag and the twins are screaming in their highchairs, desperate to make it clear how deeply my absence has wronged them.

Then I’m yelling, “Stop it” as I throw an apple-peel all the way across the kitchen.  It bounces off of one twin and they both sit staring, shocked into silence and my son, that sweet four year old boy, offers to play his whistle to settle them down.
*   *   *
There are days when being a mother feels like dying a hundred tiny deaths. A hundred letting-gos, a thousand surrenders to more noise, more movement, more demands than I feel capable of handling.  I’m not complaining, I simply want to be honest about the stretch of motherhood and how quickly, how fiercely, I shrink back from it.

I died a hundred little deaths this morning and will surely die a hundred more before nightfall on this, the day of the dead. But I know, thank God, that this dying, this surrender, makes me new again. I may die a hundred times a day, but I'm just as often made new, reborn in the face of a chubby, gap-toothed grin, a gentle hand seeking mine for reassurance. Just today I was resurrected by the voice of my son calling cheerfully from the back of the van as we made our way home, “I can’t wait to be old so I can go to the nursing home to live.”
*    *   *
Later in the day as I'm making chili for friends who're coming to trick-or-treat with us and the twins again stand whining at the gate that divides them from me, my Dad calls.   He wants me to know that my maternal grandmother has died in the nursing home where she's lived for years now in North Carolina.  
As I stand over the stove, stirring the chili, I find myself surprisingly grateful. 
Grateful that, though I couldn't be there with her, I was here, at a nursing home with my son, the very same morning. I think of my Grandmother's life and the many little and big deaths she endured. I think of the ways I get so focused on what I'm giving up, that I nearly miss what I have right here, right now in front of me. It occurs to me that I live such a grace-filled life, full of opportunities for surrender, continually pressing me toward the edge. 
*   *   * 
The chili's done, waiting in a pot on the stove and everyone's home.  I sit in the living room during the brief lull before company and costumes and the poor older twin, who just can't pull himself together, sits crying on the floor. 
I scoop him up in my arms, settle in the rocker and watch as he drifts into a heavy sleep.   I love the moment, the rocking, the slow, calm hum of a sleeping child. 
He stirs briefly and lifts his head, looking around in confusion before throwing up all over both of us.  Then he leans forward, laying his head back on my chest with that pile of warm, smelly goo laying like a layer of glue between us.   I died and rose again in that moment, hugging him tight until my husband came to help us both get cleaned up. 
*   *   * 
Every day of the dead, every Halloween, gives way to all saints day and I wonder if we too, dying in our little and big ways, aren't also being moved, continually, from death to new life. This dying is a surrender, a stripping bare by letting-go until all that remains is love.

Searching for Home


I sat in the front seat of the van as it rocked and vibrated with the energy of four children who WAITED for a full twenty minutes or more as their Dad and I took turns touring a dingy apartment.  Running through the rental with speed, all I remembered afterwards was the Dark and the Dirty and the teenage girl who huddled apologetically with two small dogs on the back porch. 
I watched from the van as my husband, the gentle, slow negotiator stood talking with the landlord.  The apartment was too much money and, in the long run, we couldn't get a month-to-month lease. 
We visited a second place, also dark and dirty, and stood talking with the owners while the twins clung to us, caught up in the anxiety of a New Strange Place.  We were pitiful, all but pleading.  We carried those boys through a damp and moldy basement, past a man who spoke no English and sat alone on a bed in one room.  Then we stood in the kitchen making nervous small-talk, patting the damp sweaty heads of our sons, while we waited for the owner to tell us whether we could do a month-to-month lease. 
The storm clouds that had gathered all afternoon broke on the way home and we four ran through a driving rain into the house we would soon leave.  We were discouraged, disappointed.  With only a few weeks until closing, we had no where to live. 
Our realtor gave us a key to an apartment he owned and my husband and I walked through by ourselves, tentatively, not expecting much.  And it wasn't much, but it was better than what we'd seen, so we took it, but still, we had to tell the kids.  There was no new house, just an apartment with a tiny yard and no swing set. 
I worried what they would think, would they be disappointed? 
I knew what I thought, I was disappointed. 
*   *   *
A week later, on a Friday, we took the kids to see "the new place."  We warned them about the yard, we worried they'd think it was Strange and Lonely.
But when we opened the dingy old door, the kids poured in like sunlight though stained glass windows, filling the house with a rainbow of noise, laughter and excitement. Light and loud, they floated through the house like bubbles blown off the soapy tip of the wand on a windy day and it was then that I saw, I felt, I knew.
Home is - will always be - where these ones are.  And though we're hunting still for a better nest, what matters now is this home that lives and moves and breaths around us, this home made of hearts, hands, and dirty feet. 

We try to get the whole family dancing to this song as often as possible.  Check it out.
This post is linked with Playdates With God.

A Story With Dragons In It

He walks out from behind the tall stacks in the children's library, holding each book like an offering.  His brown eyes turn up to meet mine, searching for a verdict.
"Can we get this one?" he asks. 
Somehow, despite being unable to read, he finds them tucked in among hundreds or thousands of books, the ones filled with dragons and swords, monsters and pirates.  He pulls them randomly from the shelves, chapter books two or three inches thick and I receive each request with dread. 
As resident bibliophile, I'm also the literary gatekeeper at our house and somehow the job seems so much more difficult, so much more complicated when it comes to my five-year-old son.  He wants to read about adventure and conflict and I am worried about violence and magic and things beyond his understanding.   I don't want to shame his natural curiosity, but I want to be careful too.
He holds up a thick burgundy book with a heavily embossed cover.   A fire-breathing dragon flies menacingly over a mountainous village.  The title, "Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons" is scrolled in medieval script beneath the dragon's wings. There are gem stones embedded in the cover and each page is filled with elaborate illustrations of maps, dragon lore, and even a detailed dragon "life cycle."  The well-made pages look aged and weathered and there are pull-out booklets filled with secret writing and spells.
I look at the book and I look at my son. 
I see his longing and curiosity, he will absorb this book like a sponge.
"Yes," I say, "we can get it." 
He responds immediately, roping his sister into reading aloud right there in the library. 
During the two week borrowing window, he pours over the pictures and we print page after page of dragon coloring pages from the internet for him to color.  He practices drawing dragons of every shape and size.  My husband and I discuss the book and the difficulty of choosing boys' toys and books that are interesting but wholesome.  We consider the fact that we both loved "The Hobbit," which centers around a quest to slay a dragon and wonder whether it's too early to introduce the "Chronicles of Narnia."
Mostly I wonder if I should have said no, if other parents, more Christian ones perhaps, would've said no.  I think about the fact that my yes came from a desire to bless, not the dragons and spells, but the curiosity and hunger for adventure the dwells so naturally within each of my boys.   
Then, one Sunday at church, the older kids sit drawing while the adults sing and I look down to see my son drawing the outlines of dragons on his plain white paper.  I wonder what the people around us will think; I wonder what I would think if it was someone else's son. 
Pushing my worries aside I sing and pray.  Looking down I catch him watching the man to my right who's singing with gusto.  His open face absorbs the man's singing in the same way he absorbed the dragon book, then he bows his head again to his drawing.  
When the singing stops I sit and he eagerly pushes his paper toward me.
There are two dragons, one on each side of the page. They stand with their heads raised to the sky, toothy mouths gaping as fire pours out and up. One boasts a pair of jagged wings and both are covered in scales, surrounded by piles of jewels. 
"Are they dragons," I ask, "and are these their gems?"
"Yes," he says with pride, "They're singing their songs to God and giving him their gems." 
*   *   *
We watch and wait and worry our way through parenting, like poorly trained refs working a Championship Game.  Convinced that every call we make matters in some way, we wait and wonder how it will all add up.    
In her book, The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris, a poet, describes the book of Revelation as "A Story With Dragons in It" and says the following, 
"Dragons within, dragons without. Evil so pervasive that only the poetry of apocalypse can imagine its defeat. And to do that it takes us to the limits of metaphor, of human sense, the limits of imagining and understanding. It pushes us against all our boundaries and suggests that the end of our control--our ideologies our plans, our competence, our expertise, our professionalism, our power--is the beginning of God's reign. It asks us to believe that only the good remains, at the end, and directs us toward carefully tending it here and now. We will sing a new song. Singing and praise will be all that remains. As a poet, that's a vision, and I promise, I can live with." (emphasis mine)
In Norris' words, apocalypse sounds a lot like parenting to me - a challenge so extreme that it pushes us beyond all knowing to a place of trust.  Trusting and tending, we nurture the good and bless it and in so doing, we write the song across our hearts, across our lives that we will all one day sing. 
And, who knows, maybe the dragons will be singing too.  

This post is linked with Jennifer Dukes Lee and Imperfect Prose.

The Laundromat (and Self-Pity)

The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon. - Jean Pierre de Caussade in The Sacrament of the Present Moment

I stood in the sunny back room squeezing soapy water out of the final load while flies buzzed in lazy circles.  The washing machine was dead, so I wrung the legs of my husband's jeans until my hands burned from the soap running out, then sent at text to my husband to tell the landlord. 

Laundry never stops for a family of six, so while we waited for the repair man to pronounce it dead and the landlord made up his mind about replacing it, the piles and baskets crept slowly higher until finally, I was forced to take matters into my own hands. 

I lugged two baskets, "pressed down, shaken together and overflowing," out to the van and filled my pockets with quarters from the change jar.  I remembered the laundry detergent (miracle!), my journal, and a copy of The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean Pierre de Caussade. 

It was a beautiful day, sunny, bright and cool after summer's last stretch of heat and nap time to boot and as I drove off with a van filled with enough dirty clothes to clothe a small army, the temptation to self-pity welled up within me. 

The laundromat sits in the middle, two blocks from the house we sold and two blocks from the apartment we're renting and though I've passed it a thousand times driving and walking, I've only been in it once. 

I pulled up and parked, popping the trunk and made two trips hauling everything in through doors that stood propped open.  A mild breeze mingled with the smell of fresh, clean laundry and everything hummed with the steady breath of washers and driers.  I tested my knowledge and technical skills to get the machines running, then settled at a wide low table that stretched across an enormous window at the front of the shop. 

The view was beautiful - crisp fall perfection framed by bright leafy trees that spread out before me, wide and expansive.  It was heavenly and I relished the silence, with my journal and reading laid open, cast in autumn's natural glow.

I tried to take a picture, I texted my husband, "I found my new office," and I settled down to dine on a moment of unexpected delight.   

Self-pity can be a pleasure, a pleasing meal for the unhappy heart, but it requires a condemnation of the present moment.  This almost always cuts us off from the possibility of finding pleasure, joy and gift in places unexpected.  By absenting ourselves from the present, we absent ourselves also from God's presence there.

I turned my heart on purpose that day, away from desire for what wasn't and into the moment that was.  Or rather, I should say, the tug of that blue sky and spacious window filled with the low hum of silence, turned it for me.  Looking into what was, my heart was tuned to the "movement of grace" and lifted along "light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child . . . like a floating balloon."

This post is linked with Playdates With God.

Laundry (Folding Prayers)

"So, how do you pray right now?" she asks, "Mostly prayers on the fly?"

"Yes," I say, thankful to hear that my repetitive refrains of "please, please, please" count for something. 

"Laundry can be a time for prayer," she offers, "holding each person in prayer as you fold their clothes." 

It's not a new idea and based on the basket-fulls at our house, has the real possibility of moving me toward sainthood. 

"I've heard of that," I say.  Then I add, "When I fold the kids' clothes, I think of them and I can feel my compassion for them welling up inside of me.  I feel like that's something like prayer, do you think so?"

"Yes," she says, "that is prayer."

This post is linked with Five Minute Friday.  Click over to read most posts on the prompt "laundry."

Hopes Deferred (a Prayer)

God of the summer rain,
send us each
a moment
of shaking laughter or tears
to crack open
the dry, barren land
of our hopes deferred.
 This post is linked with dVerse Poet's Pub.

Life is a Field (this is not a Detour)

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
(or wrong turns and right turns),
there is a field.  I'll meet you there. 
*   *   *
If life’s a highway, then I’m in trouble.

I felt good when I turned 30, knowing I had checked off enough boxes on my to-do list. I was trucking right along.

But then things changed, life started taking strange turns.

I forgot where I was headed and why.  I started to notice little things on the side of the road, signs pointing in different directions.

I had children . . .

and then more children.

We filled a sedan and then moved on to a van (it’s full now too).

*   *   *

When I was in graduate school I had the definitive sensation that life was a race (an academic one to be sure, no sweating involved). Success demanded that we perform like those inconceivably tall, thin runners who win Olympic medals – stripped down to a tiny pair of running shorts and the lightest of shoes, pressing on toward the prize, forsaking all else.

I was good at running that race, it came naturally to me and the rush of running, of living like that, was amazing. It was like a drug.

We lived just outside of Princeton, within a block of Rt. 1, a major four-lane highway with cars rushing endlessly in both directions.  But when we headed West on Route 1, away from Princeton and onto the PA turnpike, traffic slowly began to lighten. The view along the side of the road changed from gas stations and box stores to woods and open fields. Sometimes there were deer grazing and, if we looked closely, we might see a cat out hunting or a hawk resting in a tree.

Driving along a change would come over me as the space around me opened up. I could see the horizon in the distance and seeing it, knowing it was there, I found myself less compelled to rush endlessly after it.

*   *   *

The college I attended had a trail that ran through the woods with paths branching off to a creek and an old farm field. There was a tree in the middle of the field, as there often are, where farmers used to tie their horses to stop and rest at mid-day or enjoy a picnic lunch.

I used to go lie in that field on a blanket beneath the sun and breeze.

When you lie down in the middle of a field time and space open up around you. There’s no highway, there’s only the present – weeds and flowers, bugs and air, sun and sky – and you are small and in the middle of it all and it’s not a bad feeling.

There’s no one path through the middle of a field that’s lain fallow for a long time. There are many paths. Some made by deer or mice. Places where the grass is pressed down for resting or the earth is dug up for a home or hideout. There’s no end and no beginning, there are many sides; no from and toward, only here and not here.

This isn’t to say there’s nowhere to go, only that the pressure to go or stay disappears and exploring the field becomes a joy rather than a chore to be checked off of the eternal to-do list.

Let me tell you something else – I have found God in that field.  

Now don’t get me wrong, he’s in the highways too, traveling with you in your car or van, but I most often find God in the fields.  

He likes to hang out there on off days. I’ve seen him sprawled out on a blanket with a book in hand or just staring at the sky (God’s especially fond of looking for pictures in the clouds). Or sometimes flying a kite, enjoying the tug and pull of the string as the kite swoops and glides.

*   *   *

Man, I keep thinking about that field more and more these days.

I don’t live by the highway anymore, just on a small side street in a semi-quiet town. I’m trying to let myself believe my life isn’t a highway.

Maybe it’s a field.

Maybe all of the blessings that keep cropping up in my life, the ones that don’t fit into the plan and seem like distractions, are like wild flowers popping up scattered in a field.

I’m starting to believe it.

Maybe there’s nowhere else I have to be.

If you feel the need to keep on trucking, Godspeed and traveling mercies to you, but if you get tired and need a break, don’t forget about this field – I’ll be here. 

There’s plenty of room, feel free to pull over and rest for awhile.

This post is linked with Playdates With God and #ConcreteWords.

Ordinary (Five Minute Friday)

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
William Blake

The whole world is dripping, gray, water running through the streets and pooling in the Quick Stop parking lot. 

In this light, the apartment walls are dingy, ashen, crisscrossed with shadows.

And, everywhere, piles, so that it seems as though the stuff in our house is pooling together like the puddles outside. 

The twins put noodles down the vent, noodles from a box they scrounged from the pantry and tore open like the little wild things they are.  Laying on their bellies, peering through the grate that leads to the basement below, they're pleased and excited to recall where the noodles have gone. 

"Hot-hot," they exclaim, "Noodles!"

Everything, to them, is an exclamation point.  Everything extraordinary - the sun, the clouds, the rain, the discovery of a shadow moving as they do. 

All the world a miracle, the finite infused with the infinite and to us, they are the miracle, these little beings whose minds see no clear divide between the ordinary and extraordinary.  

All our lives are spent seeking an awakening, a return to that same unity of vision.

This post is linked with Five Minute Friday.  Click over to read more posts on the prompt "Ordinary."

Conversion (A Poem)

The way a snowflake melts
into a river,
this is one way to explain it;

the way everything is changed
and yet what was remains,
now part of something more.

This post is linked with dVerse Poets Pub.
Photo credit: HERE.