Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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When Christmas Hurts

I began this poem in the margins of my church bulletin last Sunday.  Our prayer request time had been (not unusually) raw and real, with brave people daring to admit that they weren’t doing “fine, thank you.”  It’s amazing how this honesty spreads across the sanctuary.  After we cried together, prayed together, and stood together to sing; something changed.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the closest I can come is to say that Joy seeped in through our cracked walls.

*

As words came, so did tears.

Tears like rivers, slowly cutting through bedrock.

Rivers carving out channels where there weren’t channels before.

And

we were swept downstream

together.

*

There in a jumbled heap

we looked at one another again, no,

we looked for the first time that morning

and saw the eyes of grown-ups

who were barely hanging on.

*

What do you do,

we whispered to someone listening,

when you are counting for Christmas to be over?

What if the missing is just too much

and each twinkling light stings?

What do you do if this was not the plan?

*

Tissue boxes arrived,

we passed them around,

but still we sat, breathing together.

Now we were waiting,

hands resting on the backs of our neighbors,

we were waiting for hope to come.

*

Hope does not come with happiness.

We knew it.  Happiness is too thin.

Hope needs friction, not fa la la la la.

Tensile strength, not tinsel.

We needed a Christmas strong enough

to bear this sorrow.

*

And it was given.

It was given the moment we stopped grasping, and

with hands on backs and true words spoken aloud,

we received it.

We were surprised.

The hope came through joy.

*

We stood to sing.

Joy to the world.

Joy to the messed up real world.

Joy, which is not candy,

but medicine.

*

*

I am indebted to the author and anti-sex-trafficking advocate Christine Caine for this metaphor: “Joy is not ‘imitation happiness’.  If happiness is like candy, then Joy is medicine.”  I have been thinking about this phrase since I read it in her painful and hopeful book, Undaunted, and I am grateful for her hard-won wisdom.

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How Having Children Ruined my Life {Now a Series}

Once upon a time (okay, it was 10 months ago) I wrote a post called How Having Children Ruined my Life.  What I didn’t know then is that a lot of people were thinking this very thing.

The blog-hosting site I use has a ‘stats’ page that shows how many visitors land in my particular corner of the internet and what they read while they are here.  I mostly avoid this information like the plague, as it brings out every junior high insecurity that I thought I shed (ahem) two decades ago.

But there are two stats that I check regularly.  The first is a map of the world showing the number of readers per country.  It is (you may hear my junior high voice here if you like) just so freakin cool to have readers from Australia, Tanzania and Qatar.  The reach of the internet astounds me sometimes.

Number two helpful stat has to do with search engine terms.  Simply put, I can see how people got to my blog, and if they came via a search engine, I can see what it was they googled.  It’s fascinating, though, in the case of my blog, a little depressing.  The vast majority of the search terms say something like “having kids ruined my life”, “my baby ruined my body”, or “my children ruined my marriage.”

You get the theme.  Something very precious to me (life, marriage, body) is now ruined, and I think it began about the time that baby showed up.

Oh, how I get this.

****

For me, the lowest point came early.  She was only five months old, and it was Mother’s Day.  We were staying with friends on the other side of the state.  She was sick, and all she wanted to do was nurse, nurse, nurse.  I was also sick, and wanted sleep more than anything I have ever wanted in my life.  But no.  In five months, she had never slept for more than three hours at a time.

She wasn’t about to start now.

And I felt trapped.  Cornered.  The feeling had been building for months.  Raw memories of her traumatic birth, my failure at birthing,  still gnawed on me.  I couldn’t walk across a room without searing pain.  Every night came with dread and panic.  I was drowning, and the waves went on forever.

Sometimes I fantasized about being so sick that I would be sent to the hospital, just so I could sleep for one night.  But no.  Here I was, sick as a dog, and she was still demanding.  Still screaming.  There was no way out.  It would never end.

The dam burst.

“I HATE being a Mother,” I sobbed, “I hate it, hate it, hate it.  I just want out.  I just want this all to be over.  I’m done, I’m ruined.  Everything is ruined.”

And oh, how I meant it.

****

Ruin: to spoil or destroy something.  

Ruins: the remains of a building, city, etc., that has been destroyed or that is in disrepair or a state of decay; a fallen, wrecked, or decayed condition: The building fell to ruin.

And this image grows in my mind–a row of dilapidated houses, broken windows, crumbling walls.  Lives destroyed.  Marriages in a state of decay.  Long city streets full of vacant houses, waiting to be demolished.

Ruined is a very strong word.  Ruined implies that any good is now past tense.  After all, once the floorboards have rotted and the roof shows sky, can it provide shelter again?  Once a house has been neglected and deserted, can it ever house a family again?

Once a life has been ruined, can it live again?

And the answer, my friends, is a definite maybe.

****

Renovate:  

1.  to restore to good condition; make new or as if new again; repair.

2.  to reinvigorate; refresh; revive.

I live in the midst of both ruin and renovation.  Pittsburgh is a rust belt city, which basically means that the end of our industrial ‘glory days’ left a lot of vacant houses and factories in its wake.  Most of these buildings were built more than a century ago.  Some neighborhoods have recovered more quickly that others; but, as a city, we still have a long way to go.

Each house is a painstaking process.  A century of wear plus decades of neglect cannot be easily overcome.  It would be much easier to just tear them all down and begin again.  Demolition. Sometimes it is the only reasonable way forward.

But sometimes there is another way.  Renovation.  Sometimes if you scrape and paint, and pull up the cracked linoleum, an old house will begin to reveal its treasures.  Sometimes if you strip away the layers, something begins to emerge that we call character, as in ‘Those houses in the city have so much character.’  There is something rich here, something deep, that cannot be recreated without a century of wear and many long weekends of work.

There is something to this concept of renovation that makes ‘ruined’, in hindsight, an important chapter in a meaningful story.  But renovation is not automatic.  The path of least resistance is always decay; renovation is a purposeful, continual choice.

Eight years ago I married both my husband and his century-old house.  Since then, I have learned more than I knew there was to learn about sill boards, leaking chimneys, and copper plumbing.  Then we had two babies in two years, and the wear and tear on our house (literally and figuratively) increased a hundredfold.

Sometimes I think that it may just fall down.

But there are tools of renovation, and when I use them (or submit to them), there is hope for this weary mother who no longer hates her life.  I will list three tools I know well.  They shape me even as I sit here and type.

One)  Find people who are for you.  As in, not against you, but for you.  On your team.  Cheering you along.  Helping you back up when you fall down.  And here’s the real trick…  some of them must be physically present in your everyday life.  Not on facebook, not across town.  If you can get them to move in up the street, do that.  Because the isolated nuclear family model is absolutely toxic.  You cannot do this on your own.  You need a cheering squad, a pit crew, and someone who owns a pickup truck.  As a minimum.  Call them now and set up coffee.  I’ll wait here.

Two)  Make time and space to do the things you love to do.  Grow in the things that give you life.  You.  Not your kids, not your spouse, not your mother.  You.  The person who is not just a parent but is also an artist, a musician, an athlete, a _________________ .

You’ll have to fight for this one, and perhaps you will find that the biggest battle comes from the inside.  As a good friend of mine used to say, “We love the misery we know more than the mystery we don’t know.”  It’s scary and constant, but do it anyway.  If you don’t find a way to be poured into, you will be a dry well, fulfilling your obligations and enduring each day.  Please don’t do this to yourself and the people around you.  You have things, unique to you, that give you life.  Pursue them, and overflow.

Three)  Pray, and if you don’t know how, ask someone to do it for you.  I am aware that I may lose some of you at this point, but as I reflected on what I had to share, I just couldn’t ignore this.  Praying, real praying, is not pious or polite or carefully constructed.  It’s more like finally getting it out, getting it all out with snot and stuttering to that friend who is listening as you cry.  It’s like screaming at your ceiling, “Are you even listening to me?!?  I can’t take this much longer!” or grinning at the sky, “You really think you’re funny, don’t you?”  It’s like whispering “thank you” or “help, please, help” when you can’t think of anything else to say.

When I was in the middle of that horrible first year, I had a hard time praying.  Simply put, I was mad at God and didn’t want to talk to him or her.   So I fell apart at church, and someone prayed for me.  I told people that I was struggling, and they put their hands on my back.  Healing, peace, love, joy… they just kept asking, for me, when I couldn’t get the words out.  And slowly, softly, things began to change inside and outside of me.

Slowly, softly, I was being renovated, and it goes on today.