Yet I Hold What I Have

For a few years I expected the worst. Justin would be late from work and I’d stand at the window looking out at the desert, certain he was dead. When he traveled I would imagine if he didn’t return. I realized I didn’t know anything about chunks of our shared life. He tracked our finances. He knew how to fix a wobbly chair. He planned our summer vacations. For years I expected the worst but continued to allow the kids to climb, jump, run and bike fast. Now the fear that my spouse or child might die is a fear that keeps quiet, but during my early motherhood that fear would swell to a point of certainty. If I called Justin and he didn’t answer, I began to cry. The afternoon I saw my two year old daughter had opened her bedroom window by standing on a little chair and was sweeping dust off the sill with her hand, I went cold. I didn’t shout but I held her tightly, feeling dizzy at the thought. We found a way to lock the sliding window and screen.

I might have expected the worst because I understand that the worst can happen to people. I was Polly Klass’s age when I saw her picture on People magazine at the checkout. I was twelve or thirteen when I read The Diary Of Anne Frank. I heard about an Olympic runner in Bosnia who trained despite having to dodge bullets. I learned about mental illness. I read about the Holocaust. I didn’t understand Rwanda. My great-grandmother told me her mother and infant brother died in the flu epidemic and when her father could not raise his remaining two children, he gave my great-grandmother and her brother to a couple who provided, but were not warm. The worst can happen to people.

And people live through. Continue. During those early years of motherhood, two things happened that started to shape my relationship with fear, suffering and grief. Midway through a difficult pregnancy, my friend Liana gave birth to her third son who lived one hour in the hands of his dad. That is now seven years ago but the memories of Liana on bedrest, and the phone call that told me she’d lost her son, still turn my heart. A few days after she was released from the hospital, I stopped by a cafe to pick up a coffee and saw her a moment before she saw me. She was sitting at a table waiting for her husband who was inside with their boys. She was empty armed and blank faced. The mercy was, Liana didn’t try to rearrange her features to make me okay. The second thing that happened was my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. I did not know Rose well, but I knew she loved her son, wanted another baby, was excited about homeschooling. One summer I talked with Rose in my mom’s kitchen, encouraged by her straightforward faith in Christ. But when Rose died, I ached with shame at how much I worked at love, how uncertain I was at parenting. I ached with fear I might die before I learned how to love my children simply, sacrificially.

The following few years I practiced more honesty in my faith, more neediness. Motherhood was a catalyst to surrender, heart change, fuller joy. Fear subsided as I learned my identity in Christ, as I preached to myself the great care the Father has for each of his children. But fear also subsided as I witnessed others suffer loss and walk sorrow.

I am still finding a way to say this next part. During this past year I imagined myself inoculated against those losses we count as worst: spouse or partner, child, body. I am so comfortable with my ordinary suffering. The low grade depression like a background hum, ready to swell or lessen with the roll of my month or year. The pains of having much and so managing or neglecting gifts, like hiring help with housework, deciding where to get take away, sorting a closet full of clothes, or choosing what to do on a wide open Saturday. I like my ordinary suffering. I have witnessed others’ suffering. I have empathized and entangled. I do not want to wash my child’s dead body. I do not want to kiss my husband’s dead body. When I stepped into a conversation about suffering and grief with Sabrina, she surprised me by saying God does not give us more than we can bear: a platitude I would not say to any bereaved person, she could say within the year her husband died. She carries so much. She is as loved as I and we are both held in the Spirit, but when she said that I thought, Well, there you go. I can’t bear it. That single truth summed up my supposition that God understood I could be near grief, intercede, care for others, but that I am also ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression.

All of us are ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression and some of us can barely handle that. While I pretend proximity to great loss might inoculate me against great loss, the better comfort is this: we all suffer, we all lose. I move toward and away from this thought but find such comfort in the connectedness of my experience and yours, the lack of anything new under the sun, the truth that we all suffer, we all lose. I do not need to stand at the window waiting my turn. I am allowed to live with peace and joy. I surrender fear. Let my husband go away from me and return. Let my children bike ahead and arrive. Let me run alone at dawn. Liana and Sabrina live and grieve and live. Rose grieved and died. I hold what I have. I cannot do more today.

(1011 words)

Kleines Cafe, Vienna

This is an essay draft, the ideas from a late morning coffee. Verb tense is a small mess. I need to read the whole thing aloud to hear what I want it to sound like. This next school year will very likely be our last in the Middle East and lately I’ve been feeling more afraid than hopeful for change. Also, this summer I’ve been seeing pregnant women, babies and toddler every third step and that’s turned over more thinking about my early motherhood, a time that remains lovely and difficult to remember. Anyway, there might be something to this start. I’ll find out if I go back to it in a month or two.

The online reviewers give Kleines Café 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a café locals go to and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That was the latte I ordered after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated what looks like easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the café in front of me saying Kleines Café with two doors open to its small rooms, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered if there were two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.

I was going to write. When you go somewhere to write, be a little picky about where you sit. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a back or side at Kleines. You go in and you’re in the middle of the whole room wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood backed swivel stools is where the waiter double checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I could have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sat near the door at a marble topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There were two more tables on my side and then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.

I ordered a latte and opened my notebook. All morning I’d thought about the regret I have, for a couple of years when the kids were little and I wavered, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m enjoying my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to relative ease of having school age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God. Maybe it was my age or being a new mom, but when the kids were babies I looked at myself and saw this vein of pride that for years had pushed me to seek the approval of others.

Parenting is humbling. And parenting in a social media blitz of links and posts is devastating if you aren’t sure of your own purpose. Even if you are sure. So I opened my notebook to write more about this. I didn’t figure it out. Instead I sort of paralyzed myself playing a highlight reel of my approval seeking ventures.

My daughter strings together nonsensical lyrics, walks through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sat in Kleines Café thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that sureness. I thought of my mom too who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from armor most teenagers wear. Now, at thirty-five, I get a little nauseous at the thought like me because it’s a heavy chain to drag through all my places and relationships.

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Underscoring Nothing

Today I played with syntax. More on that tomorrow. Near the end of my writing session, I decided: One more page. Usually one more page is my push to say what I really want to say, but today, it was my push away from what I really want to say. We all have things that show up in our notebooks every other session. Sometimes I want a break from that repetitive thought – whether an idea, worry, memory, feeling, prayer. Sometimes I just want to not scratch the itch. I want to pretend ___ isn’t there.

I think composting is a valuable part of writing practice, but sometimes I just don’t want to rake through the mulch again. So today when I sat to write one more page, I was (and wasn’t) surprised how difficult it was not to give ___ its space, or even to name it.

Because I’d just finished messing around with a syntax exercise, some of my phrases seem looser, coming unbidden. That was unexpected and fun.

In the following I’ve boldfaced ideas I might return to. Do that in your own WP, circling or underlining words, phrases or ideas that you want to come back to at another session.

I want to rearrange, order effort my home. Pull a room from dropping off. All there out there first thoughts penned carefully one word one word one word but still a tinge of wild, like smeared paint. This is what happens when I quit thinking about ___ (always at the base of my skull, a little stone). I need a break from ___.

Steadily writing one plodding word after another, one more away from ___ which shows up here even when I want to quit thinking it: a little stone taking up space in my page as a short underscore. Underscoring nothing. Literally underscoring nothing.

All that nothing holds at least a hundred words I am not wanting here because those hundred words (more) have been written a few pages back, a few notebooks back; those hundred words have been prayed on the treadmill, cried on my bedroom floor, whispered at the kitchen sink. If only I could whittle ___ to one hundred words.

I would feel better and worse about everything.

I was going to write about my home. ___ gets in my way. God, please.

My daughter wants an art table. I want one too, to keep our dining table. Our dining table. We orbit. We put stuff on every surface. I have a box of papers I think might be too important to pitch but I’m not sure. Sometimes I think about the mess we’d leave if we all died in a car accident: know our lives by a cupboard of child’s drawings, bins of Lego, hidden chocolate bars, writing on walls, garlic stuffed green olives, a baking stone, mismatched furniture. It kills me to think of anyone else deciding what to keep when they open a drawer of hair bands, sunglasses and a lone playing card.

This makes me sad. It makes me want a kind of order. An art table. A world map.

I think I can stop now. I can go home and open the drawers, decide what we keep.  I am afraid once I quit putting one word after another here that I’ll be full of ___ again, giving ___ more than a hundred words. I almost want to write my way through the end of this notebook, about anything but ___. Fuck. Instead, I finish here. Go make room for an art table.