Motherhood.

In the dead of night I forget what it means to be a mother. What does it mean? The baby whimpers and wrestles out of her swaddle. I can barely open my eyes, but I can see her in the half darkness, her face illuminated yellow by the nightlight from the hall. The body aches when I move, still transitioning down, down, down from the sixty extra pounds it hauled around when I carried her. The feet wince, and it’s not even one step, or two to her crib. I think that being a mother means I should move like a diving bird, a rescuer, quick as a thief, stealing her up and close to my heart.

But in the dead of night I forget what it means to be a mother.

The two year old stirs from our bed. Her head moves onto the pillow with her daddy and I notice in a heartbeat the way their lips curve the same way while sleeping, silent, still. In a moment there will be a mess of noise, and the two year old will wail angry and thrash her legs for being startled awake and it’s funny how this is how I feel too, from the dead of sleep. We are like rabid beasts, mouths foaming, still in a dream. She forces herself into a sitting position and screams. I think surely our apartment walls are paper thin and I will soon see the blue and red glow of a police car parked out front for the unfitness of my mothering. As we try to console her, my fear turns to panic at the imaginations of our surrounding neighbors. I am shaking, trying to hold her, to smooth her sweaty hair and hold her thrashing limbs but nothing, nothing calms her. My husband, in desperation, threatens to put her in time out. But she is screaming while asleep, and so she can’t comprehend his voice.

Suddenly, I am in the midst of the worst parenting night during the best time of my life so far. With both children wailing, I remember.

I remember our first apartment. We moved in right after we got married. I didn’t know then what I know now, that the silence that moved me to think long, important thoughts, and the time I had to apply mascara would soon be stolen by two thieves that I would create. My best creation ever. The most infuriatingly wonderful, love/hate relationship of my life. One minute I am holding my babies, smelling their skin, their hair, their eyes, and so overcome, that I am brought to tears by the intensity of my love for them. In the next nanosecond I can be spun into such a furious, red-hot and animalistic anger that I wonder if a sleeping beast lives inside of me, because she is clawing at my skin to get out and unleash her fury.

I didn’t know.

I remember our first apartment had thin walls. I was one day standing barefoot on the bathroom tile doing my make up when I heard the sound of a child screaming. There’s abuse happening, I thought. There is a child being abused right this second and God chose this as my day off. God chose me to hear this. The screaming grew louder, intensified with crying and my skin prickled. I climbed into the bathtub and put my ear against the wall and listened. I could hear yelling and more screaming, and what sounded like a bath running. A mother is drowning her child! I knew it was true. I couldn’t let this happen, not when God chose me to hear this. My heart was pounding and I was sweating profusely as my adrenaline shouted, “Save the babies! Save all the babies!” I ran. I ran as fast as I could down the stairs barefoot and stole like lightning out the front door. I had visions of wan, emaciated children from commercials in my head and I was about to be a hero. Maybe even a national hero. Maybe this would go global and I would be on Oprah. I was at their front door. I pounded angrily. The sun beat down on my back. Nothing. I waited, listening, and then pounded harder. Would they think I was the UPS man? Would they think I was an undercover cop? Yes, a barefoot undercover cop. I straightened, stood taller, hands shaking. Then there were noises inside, rustlings and the turn of a deadbolt and the door opened. A woman stood there holding a child like he was a bag of flour under her arm. She looked sweaty. The little boy was about two and wrapped in a towel. He was kicking to be put down and saying inaudible words that could have been cuss words if I knew the language. The mom seemed to be breathing heavily, like she had just been exercising. I peeked around her to see if there were another abuser. But then I realized that she was not in exercise clothes, but pajamas. I considered all of this, and then I spoke.

“I’m your neighbor,” I said in a strong authoritative voice. “I heard a child screaming and crying and I have some concerns.”

The woman smiled and I mistook the exhaustion in her eyes for the sly, cover-up of a criminal. She put the squirming boy down and he ran off into the safety of darkness and now I could hear more children living in there. A baby was crying. The woman looked behind her and apologized. She said words I can’t remember about two year olds and baths and laughed the kind of laugh that said, “You know how it is.” It was the kind of laugh a person would laugh if they were having the worst, best day of their life.

The laugh of a mother.

I didn’t have the guts to say, “Look, I know you’re an abuser and I am watching you.” But I let my eyes say it, and I let my body language turn suspiciously at the end of the sidewalk as I marched off with all of the power and authority I could muster. Like a hero.

Like a twerp.

When I went back into my apartment that day I probably drank a glass of water and arranged some flowers in a vase. Then I probably applied more mascara and did some online shopping or repainted my toenails, all while listening for more screams.

I am looking at my own children screaming and I am looking at my husband and laughing a strained and nervous laugh. This is how it is. You know how it is.

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The result of hardship on my marriage

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I have never known a time of lack like these past 10 months of my life. My husband is in grad school with three full-time internships. Every penny we make has a place to go, and some weeks there is not one thing left over. This was not what we pictured when we excitedly addressed wedding invitations and ran around Target scanning registry items (After all, when you’re soon to be married there is much hope to be found in towels that look like a Downy commercial and an expensive set of knives.) We heard it would be hard and that all newlyweds face financial difficulty, but it never set in. I have never really known lack in my life, and so I couldn’t even picture anything but the sweetness of being married in our own little house forever, chopping vegetables on our new cutting board while sipping wine with Bublé in the background. For awhile, it was like that. Then came the long nights waiting up for my husband, who had to take on more and more hours as his class load and work load got heavier. Many of those nights I would kick a soccer ball around our apartment in my nightgown just to stay awake to see him. These past ten months I have learned for the first time what it means to help somebody else shoulder a load, to stand behind them and cheer them on when it seems like every bit of stability we know is bound to crumble at any moment.

In only ten months we have encountered closed doors, shattered dreams, hunger, fear for our future, and fear for the health and full function of our child after she is born. I now know the relief of a food pantry, of needing food so much, and filling my box with canned vegetables and cereal, overwhelmed by the fact that it’s free. I have learned the new humility of accepting unimaginable gifts, and the truth of God’s provision with unexpected checks in the mail. Every moment I live in the reality of what all of this hardship has done to my marriage.

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We have known faith shaking helplessness yet somehow, face-to-face with all of it, we have managed to thrive. On more than one occasion my husband has turned to me and admitted that he has never felt so blessed in his life.

And we are, suddenly. In every situation. More than ever.

Yesterday I found blackberries for 99 cents. Ninety-nine cents. What a luxury, blackberries. I watched them travel down the checkout line in their plastic container and I felt like crying. Because I felt rich. I felt a rich, blessed feeling that was more than I had ever felt when I had more than enough. 

What is this overflow of goodness? Without extra money, we have more time for winter walks. We connect over which food is most healthy to buy and freeze for smoothies.  I am awakened with a kiss every single morning without fail, from a husband who smells like toothpaste and is never resentful that he is about to face another fourteen hour day. We have more time to spend before bed in hysterics over bodily functions because there isn’t a TV in our room. When he sees so much worry brimming up inside of me, he stops the car to pray. And when he comes home long after I’ve been in bed, this man literally tucks the covers up around me. We live in one room with a space heater, but it is the coziest, sweetest time of my life. Nothing brims over like the blessings that money could never offer us. The simple every day wonderful things that lack has given us as the most unforeseen gift of all.

I’m gonna miss this.

Now we are moving. Into a beautiful new house.

What if someday I forget this hard beginning? It feels like we have been trying to plow the rocky ground for so long. I want to remember the tears of frustration, and the anger at God. The helplessness. The confusion. Why is this happening to me? Why aren’t my dreams coming true?

The true lack would be if I forgot all of this. If I went on to my big beautiful house in Tennessee and after my husband graduates, I was suddenly able to fill my cart at the grocery store and then stop to fill the tank before arriving home. Unpacking my wealth into separate cupboards and starting dinner with the big screen TV on in the living room, I listen intently to the news. I go on filling my heart and mind with every meaningless thing under the sun which is setting out the kitchen window, gold spilling behind the trees. Of course I never notice, because I am checking Facebook messages on my i-phone while stirring the pasta sauce and listening to commercials.

In our one room packed to the brim with everything we own, my husband knelt down and looked at me funny. He had just returned home, and I could smell the food on him the minute he walked through the door. It was a few weeks ago, and I was reading a book about breast feeding schedules. He changed out of his Copper Kettle shirt as usual because my pregnant nose cannot handle the lingering scent of butter and grease he brings home with him. In fact, tonight when he opened the door I was suddenly annoyed with the anticipation of that smell. He asked how I was and I snapped something curt before ignoring him completely.

“Uh, Babe?”

I looked up and he was kneeling there next to the bed looking like he had some serious news. “What?” I slammed the book down on my lap, exasperated.

“I just wanted to take the time to ask you…” He cleared his throat. “Will you be my Valentine?”

It was the sweetest thing. On a normal night. I laughed out loud.  All I could think to say was, “Are you real life?” I hope he skips all the Valentines gifts he could ever buy. In one moment, I am outdone.

This year, on our first Valentines Day, we have so little, yet I am filled up with more blessing than I ever dreamed possible. I never dreamed it could be this good.

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Happy terror, and I need Depends.

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Hi. I look like my daddy!

I was recently asked if it feels odd to have a human being shift positions inside of me. The feeling is no longer odd, even after only about 6 weeks of small hands fluttering, or a tiny bottom taking a seat on my bladder, it all feels as natural as gas (I’ll get to that). No the odd feeling, the overwhelming weirdness has more to do with this growing sense of awe and terror. Happy terror. The depth and height and overall bigness of being pregnant grows as I grow. This feeling is perhaps brought on by the idea that I will soon hold her in my arms. Tiny being. Fragile soul of whom I’ve co-created in the secret darkness of myself from where so much mystery has always lived. Maybe I’m afraid of lifelong responsibility, or maybe I am aware of what my journey will entail. Her little clothes are lined up on tiny hangers on an open rod in the basement room where I live. Her small green slippers hang from a clothespin above our bed. Recently we’ve begun sleeping with her little lamb between us. All the while this growing sense of awe and terror spills quietly behind our every moment. There is a wishing that we had more time just us, being married, and also a longing for her that we thought we’d never know. Both unexpected, just as our life now is everything and nothing we thought it would be all at the same time. Just ten months since our wedding day it still says, “Just Married,” in faded yellow letters on the back window of our car. We’ve discussed leaving it, and putting up the, “Baby on Board,” sign right under it. Hello, controversy.

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Every day now is marked by the simple things that I am so excited to do:

Lift her into her car seat.
Study her in the rearview mirror.
Sing to her in the car.
Lay next to her and study her hands.
Study her, period.
See my toes on her feet.
Walk into a public restroom when she’s eight and say her name like I am looking for her. (Why she would be in a public restroom alone at eight years old, I’m not sure, but I have played this scenario out in my mind many times while trying to name her.)
Unexpected awkward things about growing a human of which I am part horrified, part fascinated with:
I now have the physique of a cute troll.
I’ve consistently sprung a leak.
My legs swell up like sausages, but my feet stay small.
I now hemorrhage from my teeth.
The act of attempting to drink 3-liters of water per day is constantly on my mind.
If my husband touches me with his toenails in bed at night I kick him hard. In the morning I sweetly deny it.
Gas. No control. Slipping a few on accident in a public place and then running away. (Or rather, slowly hurrying quickly away).
If I happen to sneeze, laugh, or cough with gusto, I am in sudden need of Depends.
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It Begins.

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All of the outward signs of the inward change have begun. With every beat of my heart I am aware. A human soul is being knit in the depths of my womb. Shaky hands, my stomach quakes and turns with the presentation of this new life, of this deep creation He knits within. Needles cramp in my lower belly and everything swells with new pain, sharp and alive. How could I be the walking, talking valise of a human being, curiously wrought, His lips breathing words into my core? Whispering, He speaks, parts cells, and Creator calls a soul alive, awake.
It has begun. One soul. In my soul.
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If I could yet hear the gentle thrumming of your heartbeat or the cadence of your cry, I might understand a part of how He moves in the depths of me, moves aside the darkness and lights the chambers of my gut with flame. Human spirit in my spirit I sense you clay in the potters hand, water smoothing stone, awake and alive.

A Love Story

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Photo courtesy: Andy Hubright

Nathan and I met at Lipscomb University in 2008. It was on the porch outside of Starbucks, and when he first meandered up to me and my friends he had an apple in one hand and his laptop in the other. He took a bite of the apple, chewed it coolly, and then opened his computer to show our table of girls a distasteful Youtube video. With his striped sweater and shoulder length, dark warrior curls held back with a green headband, Nathan seemed wild and uncouth. I didn’t like him at all. With dramatic annoyance I pushed away from the table and sat up on the deck railing with my arms crossed. Nathan took another bite of his apple and wandered away with a small smile. He was in no hurry, happier than anyone I had ever seen, and he took no notice of me whatsoever.

So it began.

For the next few months he seemed to appear wherever I was: In the lobby of my dorm relaxing on the couch and playing his guitar, or receiving back scratches from various girls in Starbucks as he did his homework. Girls liked to play with his hair and give him back massages. They liked to sit with him and hear him sing. Looking back, this is all I seemed to notice. I decided that I would not be like the other girls. I would not fall for Nathan McCarty and be the next girl to back scratch him to sleep in the student center!

On the night of Valentines day 2009, Nathan showed up with some of his friends and moved to sit across from me at the dinner table. Suddenly I realized that he was doing an awful lot of staring in my general direction. I kept fantastic composure during the duration of that dinner, although I remember feeling shaky and shy about his attention. My good friend had come from Iowa and was not only his perfect match, but had been singing his praises for days. I stayed silent, but in my heart I knew just by looking at him that he was only interested in one person. I reminded myself that Nathan was great with the ladies and I would not fall in love with his Disney movie features and beautiful surfer-hair.

One dark night, his smiling face appeared at the door where I was working on night watch in the dorms at Lipscomb. We spent an hour together talking, just us two. The conversation had petered out to an awkward silence when Nathan leaned forward and asked if he could kiss me. Totally aghast, I leaned back the other way, and exclaimed, “No! I am working!” He got up and headed out the door. “Well, he won’t be back,” I thought. Fifteen minutes later, as if his pride had been completely unaffected by my rejection, his face appeared again at my door. He had brought me dinner.

He started leaving little gifts on the windowsill of my dorm room. Flowers. Leaves. Muffins. Then notes. Poems. My stubborn will could not hold my heart back. He worked at Abercrombie and Fitch and would come visit me smelling like he had bathed in Fierce cologne. I was done for.

It seemed he was everything I wasn’t: Popular, boisterous, confident, social. I started writing about his hands in my journal, and he kept a little black book full of poems of which I may or may not have snuck a peek from time to time. All the other girls who had fawned and scratched and sang seemed to dissolve in mid-air. I had become the only girl. With curly hair and our love for nature we just went together. I had never known such sweetness and honesty and carefree wonder as those first few months being loved by Nathan. For the next two years he called me his Pearl.

I grew up believing that love would have this undeniable affect on my character. It would be the power to change me, secure me into the happily ever after that my mind had fabricated into destiny. Much to my surprise, love took a shovel, dug up my insecurity, and lay it out like an open grave. Nathan knew how to handle some of my battles. He was supportive and understanding as he taught me humility and love. I fought to grow up and heal, but we were too young to handle the anger and sadness I felt. Nathan tried to carry me. Literally he did, picking me up and holding me and fighting, fighting, fighting to show me love. I gave up on myself and in that way, I gave up on him. He had to let me go. I cannot express the pain of those days. It seemed Nathan hated me. He would barely speak to me. The loss was so great that I would wake early in my dorm and race to the hall windows to watch him walk from his dorm to his first class in the morning. I sat on the floor in my pajamas and held my breath as he walked slowly, his hands in his pockets. I cried until he disappeared. I do not know how I had the strength to face those days.

We ended our relationship soon after, on the night before I graduated from Lipscomb. I walked across the stage knowing Nathan was watching and that we had hurt each other too deeply to ever go back. No bridge could reconcile us. He attended my graduation party, and spent the evening bent over his cello, tuned out of the world, out of me. I sat next to my dad in an arm chair and cried. It was the last time I saw him.

When we stopped speaking and went on with our lives, I was faced with an even greater realization of what I had lost. I tried to talk to him, to contact him, but the Nathan I had known was gone. For months I was faced with myself. The burden of my loneliness would shape who I was forever. Time after time I drove past his house, sometimes on purpose. My heart would leap out of my chest and I would cry angry, cry rage. Every day I hiked at Radnor Lake, and every day I prayed for Nathan. I prayed out hate and abandonment and I prayed Nathan would thrive and find peace. Sometimes I prayed that he would love me again. Sometimes I hid under the shadows of summer trees, deep in the heart of Radnor and wept for my mistakes. With every step I learned to ask God to do His will, and as I walked out redemption and healing, I learned to hear His voice in the wind through those trees. Soon I understood that God’s will probably wasn’t Nathan and I let him go in my heart.

After a long time, Nathan appeared in my life again. We were acquaintances with a long history that didn’t brood anymore but existed with acuity when the other one was near. The arms of God kept me strong, and I leaned into His will. Some nights when Nathan was at my house playing cards with the guys who lived upstairs or visiting friends that I lived with, I would tell my roommates that I had to go buy milk and get in my car and drive through the night. Sometimes I drove for an hour and cried. Sometimes I screamed. All the time I asked God to take away what was and create something new. I never came home with milk.

One day I found a little pearl on the mantle of my fireplace.

Swept clean like the rooms of an old house, we found our friendship, and it was a friendship that we hadn’t known before. We could not step into the old dance. All of its subtle systems and silent glances did not cue the words that had once driven us a part. There was change because we had grown, and the way that we worked a long time ago, even as we tried to step into it again, didn’t work at all. Slowly, with every choice to love, the anger that had ruled our relationship fell away. This time we knew that the choice was ours.

For the next two years, in making hundreds and hundreds of unloving choices we learned that love at times, felt unnatural. It meant accepting and holding the ugly, the confused, and annoying. It meant failing, and loving that failure. It meant committing to treat that failure with love. The goal and the climb was the unconditional acceptance and tenderness that helped to shape us. By our growth we learned the character of Christ. This is the most holy road. As we continue, we will grow closer to Jesus, and know who He is more fully. We will help each other know His voice, the sound of it, and His face, the unconditional love in His eyes.

On November 5, 2012, Nathan took me on a rigorous climb up Beans Hill in Percy Warner Park. There is no trail to get to the top, so we forged a path, slipping on loose dirt as we clung to trees to catch our breath. We reached the summit, looking down behind us in wonder at the steep and rocky incline. He led me deep into a quiet grove of yellow trees and I was caught up in the stillness, thinking of how I had learned to listen for the voice of God in the quiet, and the wind in familiar trees. Time after time it was just me and Him in the shadow of the woods, and now this incredible man was listening with me.  Nathan knelt down and I knelt down next to him. He laughed and stood me back up, and then he held my hand and asked me to marry him. It felt like absolute thrill I have never known. The gift of opportunity to grow even further with the one who has seen me at my worst filled my heart with absolute wonder. The Lord has given me a man that I have watched fight hard battles with me for four years. Even when it meant he had to leave so I could learn to fight alone. God gave me a man who  knows how to pray for me, and with me, and He teaches me more about His own heart every day this way. I am grateful for a new journey full of battles to fight. They are all opportunities to keep climbing with Nathan. His name means Gift.

This is our history, our love story, and it is just the very beginning.

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Day off. Off day.

 

The gray day lifts a wilted petaled finger to my eyelids. Out of the
depths of the thickest sleep I stretch my heart out of a half-dream.
There are slivers of light, wind tossed bushes against the glass,
feet-falling on hardwood above- somebody’s work heels stomping minutes
out of the morning. I am one to throw a leg over the bed and blink,
taking in the familiar foot, the pant leg twisted up revealing white
ankle. Day off. Off day.
I know by my second cup of coffee that I am living uninspired. I have
to put it on, force it on, like an outgrown coat, the elbows
threadbare, buttons missing. Oh, but I do try to don the old sense of
wonder. Crouched at the window I stare into the leaves of a bush,
still blinking, stirring the thickness of sleep, trying to smooth
stormy thoughts into the easy goodness of another day.

The branches tap out wind-rhythm and I long for a willow tree on a
grassy hill. Tiny leaves tremble, life veins pulsing, I imagine,
pulsing the winter out of watery blood and begging for spring. All the
while they dance, tap-tapping on glass, trembling, performing as the
wind tosses and rushes, leaving stillness, emptiness. They count the
seconds, I count with them. Above me the heels take the stairs,
thunder down, the rush of late rain. Lightning a slamming door. The
performance.

I stand in the mirror and I am slap-dash and rumpled. Make-up smudged
under one eye, hair in a knot, tied by sleep dreams. I straighten the
still twisted pant leg, cover the white ankle. Covering. Performing.
The day will begin where I end, and I know that tomorrow I will don
the outgrown coat and perform again, the whole world watching. Life
veins pulse weak until my tired eyes close, open heart contracted in
the critique of day. I separate it into hours and checks and weeks and
all the while am tossed by the dance.

Without Him I can’t perform. I stand at the mirror and remember how he
said he would not break a bruised weed. Long ago I stood on stage and
twirled my banner to the rhythm of a given song. The stick snapped and
banner fell and I was standing still, heart racing, white knuckled. My
swollen heart closed in the exposure to my audience. Stillness.
Silence. Uninspired. I leapt off the stage and ran.

He begins here. Always where I end and leave off, He begins. As I am
standing rumpled in the mirror, having donned a threadbare heart where
life has gnawed the fiber, the very fabric right out of me, He begins.
When I am not enough, when the very life-blood in my veins is frozen
over in a winter of gray mornings and I have been tossed by the
performance and exposed like the white ankle of a pajama pant-leg
twisted in a nightmare, He begins. Where I don’t have the right words
to fill the silence, and I go to work lacking the confidence to appear
joy-ridden, and when the shadows under my eyes won’t cover since I
have lain awake and wondered at all the ways my attempts at success
won’t fit because I have been uninspired for so long. So long. He
begins. Where I want to leap, take the long, flying leap off the stage
and quit. He begins, waiting to pulse His life into my swollen heart,
filling the vacancies, all of the vacancies that beg me to quit. To
end.

I forget, so long I forget that when I end He begins. There is a
resolution that is not my emptiness or the yawning gulf of all my
insufficiencies. The world labels me insufficient, a failure, but He
touches my heart and smoothes my rumpled mess, and in the mirror,
where I end at the dawn of another gray day He whispers soft,
untangling the knots twisted by my nightmares, my imagination. “I
begin. I begin. I begin. Move in me, the life in your veins, the Way
to go, the Hope for a new morning. I begin. I begin.”