When Skies are Gray

Spring didn’t make a very friendly entrance this year. Day after relentless day of pounding rain and gray skies. The legion of ants, making their annual trek from the maple, across the driveway, up the walls of our house into the kitchen. Temperatures that stubbornly include a “4” in the 10’s place.

And the final clincher – the spring-like buds growing in our hearts without a single encumbrance throughout the winter suddenly froze over last week with an abrupt change in Baby Boy’s case.

We still have him, and he continues to flourish and bloom. But now, a future that seemed admittedly hazy to begin with, forks out in several paths, some of which cause my gut to clench.

Right along with the foster parenting upheaval the first week of spring, biological parenting also weathered some icy blasts, reminding me of my frailty as a mom and my lack of control over the destinies and choices of my children.

This parenting business is such a journey of faith. We toil in the ground, tending the soil and the seedlings, delivering this seemingly smart lesson and that supposedly rich experience. We pull weeds and add nutrients. We make mistakes. Although there are myriad books and scriptural applications, there are no absolute promises that one’s child will take root, grow, and flourish in the way you hope.

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In foster parenting, one hardly dares to hope. I mean, who has hope for a little seedling that is pulled from its plot of origin, replanted in someone else’s garden, only to be transplanted hither and yon, at the whim of the “gardening authorities”?

But hope, one must. It is, after all, a pillar of what remains when all else fades: Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith brought us to this place, in this garden, with these little plants. Love, which sustains and stitches us all together. And hope like the promise of sunshine when skies are gray.

I hope because of our God, whose glory it is always to have mercy. This line from a book of prayers, repeated itself 21 times across the week, multiplied in my thoughts across the days, and melted icicles of doubt the first week of spring.

A track from a pretty little album I sometimes play when I’m home with Baby Boy came on this week: “You are my Sunshine”. Is there a single parent who hasn’t sung this in a rocking chair with a child? The melancholy last line of the chorus, whimsically leaving my lips without a thought with my older kids, chokes me up now.

Onward we walk into the ever lengthening light of spring, remembering that the light we carry from the hand of our merciful God will guide us through the storm. And while we walk forward, we enjoy our little sunshine, whose smile makes us happy, even when skies are gray.

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Stitches

In my family, if there is one thing that goes with a new baby, it’s a quilt. We have stacks of homemade quilts in closets, and sure enough, when Baby Boy arrived in October, more were added to their number.

With each of her nine great-grandchildren, my grandmother eagerly awaited the news from the gender-revealing ultrasound so she could commence quilt-making. Our foster care licensing period was troublesome to her. We had many a conversation in which I assured her that I had no way of knowing the age, gender, or even expected arrival date of our first foster care placement. Perhaps a block-pattern blanket in colorful fabrics for the twin bed would be nice?

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Quilt made by Barbara Pruitt

The last three months with Baby Boy have been peppered with big “firsts”, like bright patches on a quilt: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, smiles, snow. But mostly, our days have been stitched together with unseen, unremarkable moments that make up a life, a family.

snow

Days stretch out one after another, with hundreds of acts, mundane and intimate. Hours staring into his eyes, touching his skin, speaking strong and silly words into his ears. More minutes face to face, skin to skin, and voice to voice with this little guy than time spent on anything or anyone else combined. This is what babies require and these are the stitches that bind him to us, but more importantly, make him human and whole, capable of stitching on to other, future loves.

It’s a mystery, the way the ordinariness of repetitive caretaking tasks, performed with love and without expectation, add up to important neural connections and human flourishing.

It’s another mystery how God calls us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice for others, and this is a spiritual act of worship to Him.

I’m less in my head and more on my knees (as in, changing diapers, not prayer), with weight in my arms and snot on my shoulder these days. I don’t have time for deep thoughts or grand adventures. I have had those seasons and I will have them again. But for now, it’s a liturgy of the ordinary (slowly savoring a book by this title – thanks, Heidi!). Baby Boy was knit together in his mother’s womb by the hand of God, and for some reason we get to shelter and nourish this soul with flesh.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

It’s 9:45pm. The two big kids are sleeping over at their grandparents. Four months ago this would have equaled a quiet, blissful evening of no picky eaters or sibling squabbles, and a lazy morning with long cups of coffee and conversation on the couch. Fewer dishes, longer sentences.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

Instead two of our baby-holders are gone and we will spend the night coaxing sleep out of a coughing, congested infant. In the morning, when Baby Boy just can’t be coaxed any longer, one of us will pour coffee into two double-walled stainless steel thermoses, while the other pours milk into a hungry mouth.

Each feeding, silly face beckoning a smile, massage, pick up, put down, pacifier plug, and diaper change is our sometimes-joyful, sometimes-exhausted offering, helping stitch together the one thing every human infant requires more than food itself: attachment.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

We are the temporary substitute for the natural attachment that has been broken in his case. Entering into this brokenness is messy. But as Ann Voskamp writes in her new book, “the only way to care for the disadvantaged is to disadvantage yourself, which is guaranteed to turn out to your advantage” (p. 200).

Baby Boy adds colorful patches to our life, making us more beautiful than we were before. The abrupt shattering of my mostly-controlled, comfortable routine with the sudden appearance of diapers, bottles, crying, and sleeplessness reveals my own brokenness. My idols of comfort and control. My impatience with others, selfishness, and pride. The ordinary tasks of relentless baby caring make me weak, and I remember my need for the One who is strong, whose steadfast, never-failing love covers my failings. He patches the torn mess of my efforts with strong threads, forgiving and reminding me to forgive.

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Quilt made by Carolyn Nichols

A snuffling baby boy cries out, wakening from a too-short nap, and John picks him up, rocking him back to sleep. We don’t know how many more days or months we have with Baby Boy, but today, we will sew down another line, maybe less crooked than the one before. He may never know it was us who pieced and stitched together the first strips of his quilt in a symmetrical, Dryden-ish pattern, but that’s ok. His unique fabric is forever sewn onto ours – a flurry of color and chaos, transforming ordinary into art.

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First Week

It all began much like the other two. A professional placed a 7-pound human being into my outstretched arms, fully trusting I was up to the challenge.

My heart burst into a million pieces, and in ways I don’t comprehend, a rush of warmth spread through my body.

All the prayers, classes, pages of documents, inspections and preparation of our home and hearts culminated in this moment.

Within a couple hours, Grandparents, Aunt, and Uncle were over with food and diapers. And after eight years of rest, John and I initiated Night One of zero REM sleep.

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Feeding, changing, rocking, gazing into one another’s eyes, attachment, sleep deprivation – it is all very familiar. But. Instead of postpartum hormonal weeping, it is a different kind of emotional maelstrom.

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It’s inexplicably loving this baby like he is my flesh, knowing he is most definitely not my flesh, and not even mine. It’s knowing he needs to be loved and held and nourished like a son, but understanding he is another woman’s son who would be holding and nourishing him if she could. It’s grieving for her and him, truly wanting their brokenness to mend and reunite, yet all the while greedily inhaling his sweet scent and kissing his smooth skin. It’s splitting the night shift with John (because bottles), big sister and brother snuggles (already anticipating their grief), and writing in a first-year calendar (that may never be complete).

I’m starting to understand. Foster care is a gift and a knife.

 

 

“Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”

My seven-year-old was in the middle of an existential crisis. It started with some rowdy play with his older sister, which ended badly – yelling, punching, crying, storming off. Then, some Peter Pan-ish despair: “I don’t want to grow up! My body is getting bigger and it’s hurting my sister and I didn’t mean to hurt her. And Ellie is growing up and losing some of her imagination! I don’t want to lose my imagination!”

Followed by deeper questions about his own existence: “If I had never been born, who would I be? Where would I be? What would be me?”

Followed by even deeper questions about existence itself: “What if God isn’t real? What if the earth created itself or was created from space or from science? What if a different God created space?”

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Jack reads a lot of science-related nonfiction about outer space, geology, weather, and physics. They are books written for children, but based in current scientific theory nonetheless.

Jack also attends Sunday School, reads The Action Bible, and has parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family-like friends who, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, live lives which are “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”.

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Mauna Kea observatory

Meanwhile, my nine-year old reads the story of the very sick woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and is immediately healed. “Why didn’t Jesus heal my friend’s mom?” She asks, still trying to process the death of a classmate’s mother to cancer this year.

I used to think the never ending “why” questions at age three were hard. Now I realize they were just relentless, and many times, didn’t require thoughtful answers. I practiced this theory during the week I spent with my three-year-old nephew in Hawaii this December. When he started a volley of questions, I finally figured out that I could flip one back at him, “Why do you think, Johnny?” Satisfied with his own response, that usually quelled him for a bit.

This strategy only goes so far with my older children’s post-modern thought processes. While I want them to wrestle with hard questions, discover and stretch their own faith muscles and reasoning skills, I do ultimately want them to discover Truth with a capital “T” – not a truth that is defined by themselves, or the most current scientific journal.

It’s the Truth that leaps from our hearts, longing for eternal relationship when we have to say goodbye to a loved one; that yearns for justice when we see violence against the helpless; that rises in applause when we witness sacrificial love; that marvels at the infinite vastness of the universe and the infinitesimal micro-wonders of a single cell. The Truth that whispers to us that all of this, everywhere, couldn’t just be meaningless biology and chemistry and physics.

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So, when Jack’s relentless, existential questions became too much for me at 8:00 that night (and John, the hard-question parent, was out), I reached out to my friend Phil Long, the Pilot-Poet, a man awed to heaven if there ever was one. He responded to Jack’s angst with a poem, written Dr. Suess-style for a budding scientist-philosopher.

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It’s a little long for a seven-year-old, with a few words a bit beyond him, but maybe it was also written for someone like me – his mom, who doubts, struggles, and wavers with her feet planted in earth and eyes stretched to heaven. It reassures me that the answer to nothing is actually a big something. A big someone to be precise; someone who, Phil likes to say, created the universe and composed its laws through poetry – His very Word. Someone who reached down from heaven, caressed earth as a babe, a seven-year-old boy even, and shrank the distance between eternal and finite, heaven and earth.

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And there, my son, is a good place to start.

Nothing, More or Less
By Phil Long
For Jack

We live in a universe
That appears to be
14 billion years old
And if we can believe
What we are told
It really is
Nearly that old
And it came from nothing
Nothing at all

And not just no thing
This claim un-includes
All sorts of anythings
That ever were used
All matter and energy
Just for a start
All forces and fields
And every last quark
Every boson and muon
And gluon and screwon
Every photon, electron
Every neutrino
Every dimension, pretension
Every casino
Every force and attraction
Every quantum fluctuation
Every sucking black hole
Every Hawking Radiation

Just keep making lists
Until physics is gone
Take away all of it
The music and song
Leave a bunch of nice concepts
All floating in space
Then take away space
And take away time
Take away every single mind
Leave nothing to chance
Leave no thing behind

Leave a bunch of laws
With nothing to rule
A bunch of ideas
With no one to fool
A bunch of theories
With nothing to test
Nothing to attract or repel
Or connect
Nothing to be
And nowhere to go
Leave no thing and no where
And start with zee-ro

When we dream about nothing
We all make mistakes
Our nothing is something
Because we’re wide awake
We think of nothing
As if it were actual
When the fact is
A nothing like that isn’t factual
A nothing that’s something
We’re trying to think
Is really a subtle
And devious prank
Our thinking is something
Instead of a blank

But if we want to believe
That all came from nothing
We must first grasp nothing
As a thing-less something
So here’s a solution
To get us to zero
To help us grasp
How it all became
To give us a little
Conceptual grammar
To fill this fine Blank
That preceded the Bang

Nothing is less than
What we insist it is
Absolute absence;
Complete nonexistence
Without potential
Or possibility
A one-sided equation
Equal to infinity
It can’t even be
Thought of at all
It can’t be considered
Imagined, conceived
It can’t be denied
Or ignored or believed
Nothing is never
Minus nil minus naught
Nothing is complete and utter
Without
Nothing is exactly
“What rocks dream about”

From this, we are told
Without even a blink,
That all this that is
And all that we think,
Suddenly happened
Without any cause
That the universe
And all it’s laws
Simply happened somehow
Without reason or rhyme;
Every iPhone, quad-copter
Chainsaw, and time
Just happened to happen
By chance or by shuffle
By no cause or effect
Without any kerfluffle

Our brightest physicists
Can’t get nothing right
They all start with something
Since nothing’s elusive
And end up with conclusions
Much less than conclusive
But we have to have nothing
Before we can start
And nothing’s a difficult thought
To impart.

 

I Know You Will

My daughter and I are about to be separated for 16 days, by far the longest time we have spent apart these last nine years.

Ellie leaves first by heading off to Eagle Fern Camp – her first overnight camp experience. A couple days later, I leave for Kenya. One of the most difficult parts of my decision to travel to Africa was this departure from Ellie.

That is not to say that leaving my son Jack will be easy. After all, I will be gone during the last couple weeks of the Year of Little Boy, Six. He is a mama’s boy through and through, and I anticipate some tearful nights during those weeks. jack

But some children are tethered to us with stronger cords, not because we love them more, but because of the way they have made us wrestle – with ourselves, with them, with God. Ellie is such a child.

Within the first days of her life, we noticed that, if awake, Ellie was rarely in repose, but would arch forward  from her swaddled or buckled-in position with eyes wide open, earnestly taking in the world, gathering observations, making judgments, per se. The stimuli around her were like data to be mastered. After the first few weeks of newborn rest were over, daytime sleep was a battle to be conquered, and if she was vanquished (napping), at least she had the victory of not going down easy and staying asleep for only enough time to unload the dishwasher, change the laundry, and take two sips of coffee. ellie 6m

Then there was the feeding battle. Nursing Ellie was never an idyllic, bonding experience. Here’s a fun little rhythm we practiced: she’d cry to be fed, then cry as she waited for letdown (which was likely prolonged due to my stress over my stressed-out baby), then I’d cry, then she’d cry louder at my crying, then she wouldn’t sleep.

The first nine months were pretty much a blur. I remember thinking, how do women do this, all over the world, with so much more daily hardship than I have?

By 10 months, Ellie had gathered enough “data” to start using it to control her world in another way: Speech. Her favorite things were spoken in two syllable, repeating consonant-vowel strings: “Fa-fa” was “fan”. “Cah-Cah” was “clock”, looked for, pointed at, then enunciated with the assumed demand that her grown-ups repeat the word, looking at the favored item with appropriate excitement.

As any self-respecting speech-language pathologist/first-time mom probably does, I counted all my child’s words in preparation for her one-year checkup with the pediatrician. Ellie had 75 words. The count grew so rapidly after that, I stopped keeping track. When she was two and-a-half, during a particularly stressful moment in a parking lot, she astounded me by carefully verbalizing from the back seat, “I feel exhausted when you say those words to me.” Was she miraculously reading the Social Communication IEP goals I write for my students? Who knows.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to win arguments with children who were that clever with language and emotional manipulation at the age of two? ellie2 ellie 2

But here’s the thing: she is the girl I never knew I always wanted. She delights me with her interesting observations and conversations. She sees things so clearly and can discern and describe ideas I never considered. She is smart, brave, strong, and adventurous, #LikeAGirl.andy and ellie 1andy and ellie 2We love each other ferociously, even when we don’t exactly act like it. My relationship with her draws out both beauty and ugliness in me, which I can assign to their rightful places. Mostly, she has drawn me closer to Jesus, because he knows her and loves her in ways I can’t. Sometimes there are no books or google searches that will reveal answers to the questions I have about her, but Jesus leads me gently as I parent her and that is a comfort. ellie

Ellie listens to music as she falls asleep, and I recently bought her a CD by J.J. Heller called I Dream of You. Tears sprang the first time I listened to one of the songs, I Know You Will, because it put words to the kind of feelings and prayers our relationship triggers. It’s a hopeful song when you’re parenting a child who baffles, exhausts, and worries you, but who also carries a glow so bright you know she’s gonna shine like a city on a hill.

I know she will.