Swimming lessons did not go well last week.
My daughter loved every moment of them until last week. She would skip around the locker room with freshly-toweled hair, pausing to say that she couldn’t wait till swimming again. But after weeks of kicking and paddling, the teacher decided they were ready to paddle by themselves. Although my daughter’s floatie was cinched around her waist and a pool noodle was looped under her arms, she was terrified. When the teacher let go, she froze in the water, legs stick-straight, arms wide, fingers splayed. She cried a guttural cry and then frantically grabbed for her teacher. When her teacher backed out of her grasp, she got angry and began screaming “STOP! Stop it! Stop!” until the teacher finally grabbed her pool noodle again. She spent the rest of the time whimpering at the side of the pool, trying to convince me to take her home.
As a parent, it was excruciating. As she flailed outwardly, my stomach twisted and turned inside. I’m wired to protect her and to keep her safe. For one crazy momma-bear second, I considered hopping in and grabbing her, rescuing the little girl who needed no rescue but desperately believed she did. But I know the way to keep her safe in the pool is to push through the lessons, even when she feels unsafe, so I relegated myself to cheesy thumbs-up signs from the bleachers.
I want her to be safe.
And this isn’t really about swimming.
Up until this point, parenting has been largely about enfolding. Hold her in my arms. Wear her in my sling. Buckle her into carrier, swing, and stroller. Make sure the gate is latched in the backyard, make sure I’ve got a tight grip on her hand in public places. Parenting has been safety-by-containing.
And now both she and I are learning new skills. Kindergarten looms on the horizon, school busses and mean kids and exposure to thousands of things that I’ve intentionally filtered out of her life so far. It makes me sentimental and nervous and scared all at once to watch her grow. (“Stop it! Stop!”) We’re both a little terrified. So she works on getting her ears wet, on her “scoopers and kickers,” and I try to figure out what she needs for the days when the buckles no longer hold her, when her legs are tall enough to jump the gate.
My husband always says that we can parent by building up walls to keep the world out, or by equipping our kids to thrive in the world. Safety-by-containing vs. safety-while-engaging. And although these heartstrings bind tighter than any five point harness on the market, I know this:
When it comes to what we’re building up, I choose her.
The boy across the street is learning to ride his bike. Just a couple weeks ago his dad was holding on to his seat for balance, and now his son takes off down the street, at once wobbly and fierce. His dad jogs behind him, close enough to scoop him up if he falls but too far to reach him before the ground scrapes his skin. Seeing the pride on both their faces, I know it’s not a bad thing, this ever-growing distance, skinned elbows and all.
Outside the pool, there is this gigantic pedestrian bridge that spans the road – a hulking eyesore with peeling sky-blue paint. My daughter’s fascinated by it. I’ve promised her that the day she paddles across the pool, we’ll climb it. I imagine us running up the ramps out to where the cars speed under us, our hair blowing in the wind. We’ll yell “We did it!” through the fencing and our words will get carried off in the traffic and the breeze, the two of us together, learning to swim.
Spring’s here, finally. Winter stayed past its welcome, but the tree outside our house budded anyway, defying day after day of snow and gray skies. It’s not pretty yet, but the grass is greening and those buds are promises hanging from the branch, ready to pop. I open the windows even though it’s still cold. I need to inhale spring, to close my eyes and remembering how sunshine feels on skin.
Everything’s ready to bloom, but I’m thinking about falling.
We love living in this community. There’s a lot of love growing in this place, and it often feels like we are smack-dab in the middle of it. As a mom, the fastest way to my heart is to sincerely love my kids, and I didn’t know so many people could fit in there.
There’s the friend who sent us this, back when my daughter’s tiny heart was just a flutter, back when only a handful of people knew she existed. Already in the heart of God, oh yes. What a sweet reminder.
There are the friends who brought meals and encouragement and rocking arms for a baby who was nicknamed “cry-cry” (and this new mother could’ve shared that title.)
The friend who helped us plan financially for our first child, teaching us one-on-one in her kitchen, my nauseous self nibbling my way to debtless one cracker at a time.
The friend who came over and taught me her couponing system, bouncing my little girl on her hip as she talked.
The friends who knit blankets, prayers stitched into the fibers that my kids snuggle even today, still covered by love and yarn and prayers.
When I got sick with baby number two, the friend who rushed over with a hospital-grade thermometer and swept my one-year-old off to the zoo.
The friends who, when my husband traveled out of town and my Caesarean stitches were not yet healed, stopped by to lift my toddler out of the crib each morning. And put her in at nap time. And lift her out when she woke in the afternoon. And back again at bedtime.
The friend who offered, instead of a meal, to clean my bathroom, Christ-hands scrubbing my grout.
Everything’s ready to bloom here, but I’m thinking about falling. They’re tied together, newness and birth and falling under the weight of it all. Falling, and being caught.
I think of those trust-falls that groups do for teambuilding, where one person stands with their hands across their chest and falls backwards into the arms of everyone else. When I was overtired and post-surgical and sick and falling, so many arms caught me.
When I think of that catching time, my hands still go to my heart.
My list above is from just one season of many we’ve lived here, and they’ve all brought blessings like sunshine. We can breathe deeply here. Extend our roots deeply. Fall a little more deeply each day.
For S and T
When I was growing up, I loved dandelions. My parents didn’t use chemicals on our yard, so as soon as the ground thawed and a couple spring rains came, dandelion weeds would pop up everywhere. I loved their sunny faces, their tiny lush petals, and the wispy puffs at the end of their life that would carry wishes off on the breeze.
(Once I picked a bunch and tried to sell them like a lemonade business. My mom bought them all up, either as a nod to my entrepreneurial spirit or a desire not to be known around the neighborhood as the weed sellers who lived on the corner. Now the local CSA has dandelion greens as a product, which proves I was just before my time.)
Usually, I’d pluck a bunch and make chains. I’d dig my thumb nails in to split the hollow stems in two, then tie the halves around the bloom of another flower, over and over. It was messy work, dandelion juice seeping out of the fibers. Sometimes I’d accidentally brush my hands to my lips and taste the bitterness. But at the end, I’d have a garland, a necklace, a crown.
I have a friend who blog is Blooming Joy. The subtitle reads “Finding the joy springing up out of the dirt.” In my head, I’ve always envisioned tiny seedlings in carefully edged gardens, rising up from tilled soil to burst into bloom. Today I’m thinking of those dandelions, leaves jagged like the jaws of their predator namesakes, pushing up and out in unexpected places.
My friend’s had her share of weeds. Stephanie and her husband Travis have dealt with some excruciatingly painful events invading like dandelions, unwanted and unexpected. They parented their infant daughter through health, illness, terminal diagnosis, and death. They carry wounds that are healing but not yet scars, that maybe never will be completely. They have experienced deep grief and sadness, but they’ve handled it all with such strength and love and honesty. They are not sad people; they are people of joy.
I appreciate their joy. It’s not greeting-card joy, born out of tidy platitudes that reduce life to simple sentiments. It’s faith-joy, joy that can stand even against the unanswered questions. It’s faith that God is not dead, that Christ’s absence from the tomb means God’s presence with us always, even in the shadow of the valley of death, even beyond. It’s faith in a Christ who, in the midst of his own suffering, knew there was still joy set before him.
They know, too – there’s joy still coming.
Joy rooted in faith doesn’t stop when we’re split open and hollow, when the bitterness is strong enough to taste, when our breaths exhale wispy prayers that fade into the sky. Faith-joy holds it all up to God, the bitterness and the blooms together, trusting that he will weave them into crowns of life.
It’s spring here, officially, although you wouldn’t know it from the twenty degree weather. A thin layer of snow covers everything like dust in an attic. Where the grass pops through, it’s brown and wilted. A season of plowing has left tire ruts in the ground along the driveways, a bent sapling, stray rocks on the lawn. A months-old snow pile sits at the end of the parking lot, shrunken and black with exhaust.
It’s still cold enough for scarves and gloves but I leave them at home. I’m tired of the barrenness. We walk out in the mornings and breathe through our noses, waiting for the scents of pollen and buds and soil. Our spring clothes are ready, sealed in plastic bins in the corner of the closet.
I long for children running and shouting in a place that is not my living room.
I long for forecasts that don’t use phrases like “wind chill” and “lake effect.”
I long for news stories that don’t use words like “victimized” and “unconscious” together.
This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I long for arrivals: for lush green palms to cover the dusty paths, for sun-kissed knees and shins and forearms and ankles, for breezes thick with life. For hope.
Come, Lord Jesus. Save us.
Last week, my daughter brought home a coloring page from Sunday School. On the back, she’d written her name in crooked preschool letters. She’d flipped around the Ds to Bs, so her name was a different name entirely. Underneath, her teacher had written capital and lower case Bs and Ds, and then my daughter had written her name again correctly.
Her Sunday School teacher is amazing. She has a doctorate in reading. In this house where we love words so much, that’s like being a rock star. I love the way she lovingly incorporates reading skills into each lesson. In her room on Sunday morning, it’s not God in one hour-long slot and literacy skills for another time. They’re all together; God and the gifts he’s given, wisdom and truth and kindness cresting over each other like waves.
My daughter’s name is important. I believe it is written on God’s hands, each letter inscribed across the flesh of his palms. I admit I’m not sure what that means entirely, but I believe those hands are actively working in the world. I believe they’re open and cupped with mercy, and my daughter’s life is written into that plan, steeped in that mercy.
A receiver of mercy. A bestower of mercy. That is what her name looks like.
I believe those palms rest on her teachers’ shoulders each day as my daughter writes her name, nudging, “Teach this child who she is.” So we work on the letters, parents and Sunday School teachers and preschool teachers together. With crayons on paper, we note the number of tines on her E, the directions of b and d. We’ll keep working until she knows her name like the back of her hands.
We’ll keep working till she knows herself like the palms of God.
She changes from her gown to her footie pajamas and heads for the computer, asking if she can type. We open a blank document and her little fingers steer the mouse, change the font to 72-point. Her eyes scan the keyboard, searching and searching, and then she presses a key.
She doesn’t believe in the space bar. She hits enter, sound out a short aaaaaaaaaa, searches and pecks. She hums, searches more, finds the m.
“How do you spell beautiful?” she asks. I stretch out the syllables, remind her what it sounds like, and she finds letters for each phoneme, slowly listening and choosing and searching and typing.
She is four, and our words are truths she plucks from the air and puts on paper as her own. The spelling is laborious but the believing comes quickly, simply and surely.
Soon enough, the typing will come with ease. Soon enough, she’ll discover the question mark, rearrange the words, find herself afraid of the answer.
I stare at the screen, her first autobiography, primitive and succinct, and make a silent promise to her: I will sound it out, always.
I will remind her of the strength of her legs, the contour of her face, the taper of her fingers, the beat of her heart. Beautiful. I will point it out in the games she creates, in the paper she cuts and glues until it becomes something new. Beautiful. Like a mirror, I will reflect it back when I see it, the giggle she can’t stifle, the snack she shares, the way she runs as fast as she can to deliver a note to our next door neighbor.
Beauty. Tiny glimpses of the divine.
When she begins to hate her round cheeks or her nose, I will sound it out. When the world tries to redefine it, to reduce it to pettiness and prettiness, I will say it slowly, certainly, clearly. When her braces make her smile close-mouthed, I will sound it out. When her heart gets broken and her face puffs up from crying, I will speak it over her like a blanket, stretching it out syllable by syllable. When she offers goodness and is ignored, misunderstood and mocked, I will tell her what she knew when she was four. You are beautiful.
On the days when her actions are ugly, I will remind her. Beauty redeems, renews.
And on the days when she doesn’t believe it, I will hold it up for her like a sign until she believes again.
In great measure. In giant, shouting font.
My daughter’s favorite coat is long and minky-soft, zebra print with a ruffle around the bottom. The inside is lined in hot pink. Last week she wore it with big white furry boots and a red boys’ snow hat that looked like a race car. She carried a fluffy white stuffed cat in her arms. It was quite the outfit, completely over the top. She wore it, happy and beautiful.
The zebra coat is a loaner, actually. It came our way by means of a complicated pipeline of hand-me-ups and hand-me-downs that my mom friends have designed to maximize the cute-clothes wearing in our group. It doesn’t matter to my daughter that someone else’s initials are on the tag. It’s hers because she wears it, because someone draped it across her shoulders.
She just turned four, my little girl in zebra stripes. We joke that her birthday is becoming a season in itself. Our family lives out of town, so we started celebrating a couple weeks early when relatives surprised her with a couple gifts. We had cupcakes at her grandpa’s house and more cupcakes the next day with two of her grandmas. When we returned home, traveling friends stayed overnight and brought a gift for her. Her godmother had her over for a special dinner with cloth napkins and jewels scattered across the table. On her birthday, more friends stopped by. Relatives posted a video of them singing birthday wishes. Others left messages for her.
One thing is true: my daughter is loved lavishly.
I don’t believe in “too much love,” and I am so thankful for people who remind my daughter that she is cherished and dear. I know, though, that many kids are also phenomenal, and yet not all have a parade of people waiting to pour love and cuddly toys upon them. I know it’s unfair. I don’t want her to become spoiled or entitled. Sometimes, it leaves me a little conflicted.
My daughter has no such conflicts. She is loved. It is hers because she wears it, the love of so many people draped across her shoulders. It bears the marks of the people who have passed it down. It is broken-in love, lavish and soft. It is bright and loud, sometimes a bit over the top. When she wears it, she is beautiful, bold enough to stand against the piercing winds.
It’s almost eleven pm. Already, my daughter has cried out at least four times. She has these nights infrequently – usually when she is getting sick or when she’s had a long day. We run in, and her eyes stay closed, her mouth drawn into a frown as she cries out. I kneel by her bed, try to whisper her away from whatever scares her. Sometimes I sit on her bed and sweep her into my lap, hoping to wake her fully so I can find out what is wrong. She doesn’t respond, buries her head in the meat of my shoulder and tries to fall back asleep. When I lay her down, she tosses a bit before her body quiets and her fists spill open on her pillow. I say softly: “Shhhhh. I’m here. It’s OK. You’re in your room in our house. I am protecting you. You’re safe…you’re safe…you’re safe.” I know she isn’t fully conscious, but I speak the words anyway, truth like a blanket tucking her in. I hope that on some level she hears me, rests.
We spent last weekend at a cabin on the Alleghany River. It was ten minutes off a real paved road, a rustic little place backed up against the mountains with a dock along the shore. The dock was our favorite spot, poking out into the river like a finger testing the water. My daughter loved to walk the length of it, take tiny steps from one wobbly platform to another. My son tossed sticks into the water and watched them float away until they were out of sight. At night, after the kids were asleep, my husband and I lay on the dock with our hands behind our heads, Milky Way ribboned overhead. I forgot how many stars there are, stars upon stars upon stars. I felt like the sky, clear and calm and full, and we stayed there until our eyes grew heavy and the river started to rock us to sleep.
I know God’s language is clouds and fire, mountains and stars. He spoke them into being like my fingers type words, syntax set with the waters’ divide and the rising of the sun. He embedded his promises in all of them, promises upon promises, but I forget. I worry. I get overwhelmed. Daily distractions pop up like parking-lot lampposts and obscure the stars and the promises. He speaks them anyway, truth like a blanket, his love bannered over me like the Milky Way. He leads me besides quiet waters. He restores my soul. And sometimes, even through the distractions, I hear. I rest.
It’s summer. We do summers especially well here in the north, where snow may fall in October or May. Even early June sometimes keeps us in the occasional sweatshirt, so when summer really comes it’s like cracking an egg, sunshine and warmth running thick and golden across our town.
I take the kids to the town festival – my two little ones, and two more who fall into the sweet category of chosen-family. I’ve known them since their momma could hold them both at the same time, one on each hip. They’ve known my kids from birth. Even before that, when my babies were still in my womb, the boys prayed for them by name, earnest and velvet-rich words of children who know their prayers are heard and avail much.
My children are silent and awestruck. They take it all in: fried foods and flashing lights and music and crowds. I’ve got a strip of ride tickets in my hand and a couple of guys who can’t wait to use them. The rides seemed so innocuous five years ago, but now I feel my stomach plunge as I watch them careen into the sky. They go so high. They go so fast. I lean forward to tell my kids the screams are fun screams. I say a quick little prayer that the boys will choose rides that aren’t named after ways to die.
They’re preteens now. Their faces grow more angled, their shoulders broaden, foreshadowing the young men they are becoming. They choose the Matterhorn, which, despite its mountain moniker, stays blissfully low to the ground. They’re old enough to catch the eye of two whispering girls who hop into the car behind them, and young enough not to notice. They wave at us enthusiastically before the ride starts. We wave back, standing in the shadow of a midway stall where a dunk-tank clown taunts the passersby. For the next ninety seconds, the boys are a blur. Our eyes search for them, but before we can point them out, they’ve flown by.
They exit the ride smiling, and my daughter decides that she wants to ride too. We’re nowhere near the kiddie rides, but she is adamant. I’m about to tell her no, to offer a bribe or consolation prize, when I see the Tilt-a-Whirl. It’s bubble-gum pink with cupped benches that spin in small circles. This ride’s greatest risk seems to be centrifugal vomit, so I say yes and hand over three tickets.
She hops out of the double stroller and they climb the stairs hand-in-hand. The sign says she has to ride with a responsible person, and I debate that definition in my head. We wait forever, my mind contriving possible disasters. What if her shoelace gets stuck in the track as they walk to their car, and no one notices, and the ride starts up? What if she hates it, screams in fear for the next two minutes? I call up instructions to have her sit in between the boys, and they nod. One puts a protective hand on her shoulder.
They board the ride. She’s snug in the middle, like when they play video games on the couch and she wedges herself between them to watch. They pull the bar down across their laps, and she grabs on. When the ride starts, their car spins and I can’t see them. When it spins into view again, her face is pure joy. Her eyes dart from side to side as she tries to focus, mouth agape, laughing. The boys laugh with her. Her head lolls forward a little, and then the car catches a hill and spins faster. She leans back, looks up, laughing harder. I laugh, too, suddenly amused and relieved and sentimental all at once.
It’s so beautiful, this moment blinking in the midway lights. How did we get here so soon? Sometimes it terrifies me, the speed of this life, the dips ahead I am blind to see. It’s warm and gold like summer, though, this journey with the people I love. We sit leg to leg and shoulder to shoulder, holding tight and laughing, heads thrown back to the sky.
I was not ready. I went anyway.
Originally, I enlisted a running buddy and we developed a pretty straightforward plan: do an eight week training program, run the race at the end of it. Unfortunately, due to several different factors including crutches, crises and unexpected out-of-town trips, neither of us was prepared to run. It was important to us to still complete the 5K, since we were participating long-distance in a tribute 5K in memory of our friends’ daughter, so my running buddy became my walking buddy.
Other than the Komen Race for the Cure several years ago, in which I bobbed down city streets in a river of thousands of pink-clad casual walkers, I’ve never participated in a 5K before. There were a few hundred participants in this one, and most of them were runners showing off lots of thigh muscle in die-hard runner clothing, fancy smartphone armbands around their biceps. And then there was me, wearing my race shirt (apparently most people don’t wear their race shirts to the race – who knew?) and baggy shorts. However, I’m pretty sure that once I pinned my race number onto the front, no one could tell the difference.
In addition to the awesomeness of an official bib number, the race started with a pistol shot in the air. (At least it sounded like a pistol. I was pretty far back in the crowd because I didn’t want to get trampled by the real runners, so I didn’t actually see it. But it’s nice to hear a gunshot in an urban area without feeling the need to duck and cover.) And there were real tables of people handing out water along the way, with empty cups scattered across the grass by the runners who were so dedicated that they did not have time to use the trash can. Hard core. And there was a nice person clocking us at the end of the first mile, which was amusing – nothing like official proof that you are not very fast.
We weren’t running, but we clipped along at a pretty good walking speed for most of the race, close to the front of the non-runner crowd. The race was two big loops around an urban park, which meant that halfway through, we got to watch people who were twice as fast as us cross the finish line. A few hundred feet into the second loop, we noticed that one of the police cars on race patrol was coasting at our heels. Apparently, most of the walkers had stopped after the first loop instead of doing the full 5K, and we were the last people in the race. The very…. last…. people.
Well… we may be newbies to this 5K thing, but we were certainly not about to be last-place newbies. So we started running. We ran past several people. We speed-walked past several more. And then we saw the orange cones marking the finish lines, and we ran the rest of the way. I’m sure it was humorous to the people at the line to see us almost-last-place folk carrying on like champions, cheering as we ran across, grasping each others’ hand victoriously in the air.
We felt honored to complete the race in celebration of the life of Samantha, and in support of our friends who will race this coming weekend. Still, I expected the 5K to feel a little disappointing and anti-climactic. After all, we’d failed to reach our goals. Instead, I found it inspiring and fun. I still don’t understand how people can get addicted to running, but I can see myself doing more 5Ks – and running all the way.