becoming a tortoise

I linger at the enclosure surrounding the African spurred tortoise. I want one to make eye contact with me. Jack kicks at his stroller, ready to move on to see the two rhinoceroses around the corner. I push the stroller aimlessly back and forth, small bands of sweat beginning to form in the creases of my skin where I am expanding – it seems minute by minute – to make room for our second child. I keep looking at the four tortoises in the enclosure, silently crushing the weak grass under their ancient feet, their heads edging out past their shells ever so tentatively, sometimes barely even enough to see their dark, watchful eyes.

I have loved turtles for a long time. When we pass them on our walks by the Brazos river and I see them sunning themselves on a log I call out “Hello, ancient ones!” Sometimes I am sure this prompts them to dive into the water. Other times I seem not to disturb them at all, and they pile one on top of the other, a precarious cascade of shells.

I love their silence, the millions of years they’ve treaded the water and the grass. I love watching them slip from a log into the water or slowly venture to eat a piece of fruit thrown in by a caretaker. The African spurred tortoise might live up to 150 years; the Galapagos tortoise up towards 200. I cannot imagine so much life; I cannot imagine how much it must weigh, how it would feel. I wonder if their shells are markers of this longevity. I wonder if they carry the weight of such long living with them.

I don’t know hardly anything about turtle memories; I know that mine fails spectacularly. I think about this as I sit on my couch, realizing that I am yet again afraid of the coming semester. How will I do it all or be enough. The worries are scratched and wobbly, a record that’s been played too long and too often. I’m tired of this narrative, aren’t you? Not just the narrative that whispers to us that we really aren’t and really can’t (after all, just who did we think we are). But I’m tired of the story about that story, I’m tired of running through the week fighting off dragons that might never breathe fire, and parading my sword around as a badge of honor.

The turtles move so slowly through the world, and their living stretches out farther than my own. Why am I racing? What am I trying to catch up to? Who do I think is about to leave me behind if I stop to take in a lungful of wind off the Brazos and call out to the ancient, quiet ones below?

In Deuteronomy 6, Israel is told: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

I need to hold again in my hands, on my forehead, this great task, this one aim. I need to become a tortoise, and carry the commandment on my back – I need it to weigh me down again, to slow each movement and hour and day.

There is no one I need to catch up to, nothing I might lose, no way I will be left behind. If I am quieter, if I move less rapidly, if I take these words into my heart and bind them to me – perhaps then I will be quiet enough to remember the Lord my God. Then I will move slowly enough to see Jesus.


when i meet my ghosts

The ghosts cling to me, thin and cobwebbed. They trail behind me. I don’t notice them for 1,000 days and then I play a song, five minutes of praise and the ghosts crowd the car, clamoring for my attention. They all want to hold my hand. They all want to remind me, to whisper their moment back into life.

There are 43 days of ghosts and then there are 180 days of ghosts that surround them and there are moments that stretch too far forwards and backwards to count.

They are ghosts dressed in scrubs and halogen lights. They are ghosts that use hand sanitizer and take off all jewelry below the elbow. They are ghosts of footsteps and clipboards and bedsides.

I tell myself we have moved farther out on the water. I tell myself that me and God, we are so much farther out, we are finally okay together again, we can talk.

But when I sing that the grave cannot hold what your grace has justified, when I try to sing that this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it then I am a living ghost, driving the old roads by the Waco airport, praying, believing for a miracle that became 43 days and two surgeries and 7,000 cotton tipped applicators and 104 trach changes and two nights where only the ghost of my heart kept beating and only the ghost of my lungs kept breathing as we suctioned and prayed and ran out of oxygen and drove to the hospital.

What should I do with these ghosts? One moment I declare that they should be banished, for there is no use for them here where we are all living. And then I feel my daughter moving inside me and I see my son moving outside me and I realize that I do not want to give them up to the God whose name I sometimes cannot really speak. I do not want to know how frail my own arms are. I do not want to keep going in pursuit of him. I imagine that Peter’s sinking was not just because he doubted, no, it was also weariness, because the days are long and the nights can be longer, living with the mystery of the Son of God. I imagine that the work of faith to keep your feet afloat was too much for him – how often it is too much for me. How far away Jesus must have seemed on that dark water. How far away Jesus seems to me when the ghosts remember for me how very deep and dark is the sea.

This is not a story of banishing those ghosts, this is not a story of dismissing them with the fierce words of promise or the declarations of Zephaniah spread over me like a shield. This is not a story of taking respite from the storm in the Word because here the Word is in the storm, and the Word is troubled waters, in the very midst of them, not just a peaceful bridge over.

But the Word of God is not a ghost.

No, the Word of God is living and active, and sharper than a sword… and it pierces past my memories and the clouds of tears in the Target parking lot. There is no easy resolution. But there is encounter. Among the waves, in the water itself, there Jesus comes to meet me.

It’s been almost two years since I walked the hallways of the NICU. And there are songs that call up those footsteps and Subway still tastes like waiting for a surgeon’s call – but now I see Jesus walking next to me. We haven’t talked much about those days.

But we somehow have been in them together.


when the writing happened

Five years ago, I was graduating from college, fraught with excitement. I see myself in the embroidered dress that didn’t fit quite right but I wore defiantly, insistently, because it was the symbol of the woman I wanted to be – carefree, long-haired, successful, spontaneous… Isn’t it funny how we imagine future selves by the clothes they will wear? How we dress up to become someone we think would be better than the person we already are?

I remember driving through the silent back roads of New England towns, the dress put away, the ghost of the scrap of paper where I’d given the college boy my address hovering near my right hand. I listened to “Holocene” on repeat and furiously tried to make my mind form complicated thoughts, serve up explanations sophisticated enough for the woman I thought I could step into being.

Five years ago I longed to be a writer. I read poetry in quiet corners of campus and once I read John Steinbeck with a cold mug of coffee in front of me – the cream swirling reluctantly towards the top as the hours ticked by. I told myself I wanted to be one of those people, Marilynne Robinson and John Steinbeck and Christian Wiman, Ted Kooser and Erica Funkhouser and Edward Hirsch, people who made poems out of life and who mades living itself kindling for a flame of words.

I used to exchange poetry by email with a couple of coworkers on Fridays. It didn’t last, sadly, like so many of my well-intentioned plans for writing. I was so good at telling myself I was and would be and must be a writer that I didn’t need to do much writing.

I dressed the way I thought writers must dress. I listened to Bon Iver driving those backroads and imagined how someday I would build a world in words and a reader would drive with me and feel the slick new pavement, the sudden silence of the car wheels beneath our feet. I believed this is what would make me meaningful.

I wrote a book. I wrote it looking nothing like a writer and feeling nothing like the woman I promised I would become in order to be that writer. I wrote the book because writing it was the single thread back to Jesus I could find when the maze of the NICU closed in and I could not sleep for worrying and I could not pray for not sleeping and I could not believe what I had always believed I would believe.

That is where the writing came. It stole up on me, a strange friend in the nights and I was not ready.. I had no clean Moleskin journals, no special sharpie pens for observing the world. I had not perfected the look of a writer, the feel of the words tumbling forth free. I thought writing would be like breaking a necklace of pearls – one snap, one idea, and the beauty would just spill out and clatter on the table and people would rush to snatch up as many as they could.

But for me writing this book was becoming an oyster, shell rough, cemented to a rock and clinging hard at the regular chaos of the tides. Writing this book was building up a single pearl from a single grain of sand that found its way in uninvited and unexpected. My book is not the pearl, really – I think the pearl must be my whole life, my being with God, and maybe the book is the single grain of sand or maybe it is just a glimpse inside this oyster shell – a peek into the becoming of another believer.

I hope, in any case, that the book is a story of this becoming.

There is so much to tell in the next few weeks – there is news of publishing the book, titles and covers and preordering and how very much I want to share with you this glimpse into the opening of Jack’s story and the opening of mine, too. I want to thank you for reading this blog, this haphazard collection of snapshots. I want to thank you for following along with Jack’s story in particular, for how you’ve listened and loved and prayed us through.

This book I wrote in an unprepared season, when my table was not laid and my lamps not lit. A grain of sand and a lot of silence. A lot of my hair pulled back in a messy bun for days on end.

But somehow the writing arrived, and now, soon, the book will too. I can’t wait to share this with you.


dear june: when it has been 18 weeks

Dear June,

Hey girl. I have been writing this in my head for a while – these days go by so much faster than they should. Your brother – have you felt him poke you yet? – keeps us moving, sun up to sun down, and there is little time for writing. But God makes enough time for us to be just where we are before we go somewhere new. There is enough time in forty weeks of waiting for you to be in this togetherness.

Let’s just come right out with it: when we went in for your ultrasound, in the same octagon-shaped room where we learned a few things about Jack, it had a heaviness to it that is hard to explain. I want you to know right away that it is not wrong for our lives to be changed by what happens in them. Heaviness is not always bad – for me and your dad, the heaviness was a heaviness of remembering what a gift it is to see you before you are born. And it was a heaviness of remembering that Jesus first walked us back to that room two years ago and when we walked out we were made new. How do I explain this? We became something in that room. We became the us that we are now –

or, I should say, the us that we were when we walked in to see you.

It will be easy to think that your brother changed our life because of some details about his ultrasound (details about eyes and chin and cleft lip and palate). It will be easy even for us to think that those details are what made everything different. We had a different kind of pregnancy than we had expected; we had a different journey through hospital hallways, in broom closets turned conference rooms, waiting by the phone for surgeons to give us updates.

But you changed us on Friday just as much as your brother changed us two years ago. You changed us with your kicks and squirms, with your chin and eyes and tiny hands waving on the screen.

We are always being made new by each of you. We are always encountering the heaviness and the goodness of becoming parents to you, because you and your brother make us the mom and dad we are. By your faces and hands, by your laughs and kicks, by your willful determination and your very living.

You are our first daughter, and we could not be more excited, more anxious to meet you. I used to imagine how it would feel to learn I would have a daughter. But this is far beyond what I imagined; you’ve brought me somewhere my imagination couldn’t ever reach. I love you to the moon and beyond it; I sit in this chair, where we will sit in some handfuls of weeks together, and I realize that I am not the same as I was when we walked in to your ultrasound on Friday. You’ve already started making us new.

We named you Junia, after the apostle that’s just mentioned – the smallest glimpse in the Bible – of someone whose life was radiant with light. I pray that your life, June, is radiant too. I pray that it defies and surprises. I pray that it is heavy with the goodness of walking next to Jesus. That goodness is not always pretty or easy; becoming your mom and Jack’s mom has not always been pretty or easy. But it is and always has been radiant.

Here we go, June – as one of my favorite songs says, “into the dark and wonderful unknown.” May Jesus illuminate our going with his radiance.

All my love,

when this is the mom I am

I am standing on my front porch staring at some random dead bugs on the concrete. Jack is pulling at my hands to go down the stairs into the sun. I don’t know where the sunscreen is and I can feel a mosquito biting my ankle. I try to swat it. I slap myself hard on the ankle and the mosquito buzzes away. Jack laughs. We go down the stairs and he immediately runs toward the road. I run after him and he laughs as he sits down on the hot sidewalk to stare at something amazing I can’t see, the sun beating down on his blond curls because I have lost the will to strap his head into a hat and I start to think to myself – if someone sees me right now with my kid’s head uncovered in this sun what will they think of me? 

I think about dragging him back inside to find the sunscreen. I should. I really, really should. I should also buy him some sidewalk chalk and maybe a trampoline, because I think good moms have these things to encourage outdoor play. Or was it that I should move to a nearby creek and let him wade in and befriend a local turtle? Or was it that I should put him in a sun-resistant suit of armor before letting him outside? I can’t remember. I tell myself that good moms, whoever they are, must be doing something different.

I have been lurking in the shadows of too many well-framed Instagram photos. I have clicked on the links and noted the hashtags. The start of this summer I found myself knee-deep in jealousy – how does she come up with all those games for her kids? How does she look like that every day? How does she have time to do everything? How does she remember to drink enough water and eat the right proteins?

Here is the truth. I forget to drink enough water. I can’t come up with a fun game for an almost-2-year-old to save my life even though I spent years babysitting to earn enough money to waste on Tommy Hilfiger-esque purses and wishful-thinking American Eagle tank tops. I see how much fun other moms can make the summer for their kids and I think about things like going to get ice cream sandwiches from a food truck and I do it once and it’s 95 with nowhere to sit and Jack protests being taken out of his carseat only to be put back in it because there is no shade and he won’t wear a hat and so we go home with melted ice cream and I click on Instagram and somewhere in another part of the world someone’s kids are grinning with their ice-cream smeared faces and I spill my ice cream on the only clean shirt I have left.

I became a mother because someone made me one. I became a mother to that someone and that someone looks at me, at the end of the day in between whatever chaos has been made, whatever has been said or not said or whatever games have or haven’t been played – that someone looks at me and his face says safety. His face says joy. His face says love.

God let me co-create. God let me in on the work of bones and blood and scraped knees and waiting rooms in day surgery. God let me in on the gutsy glory of my son. What else is more important? What food truck or sidewalk-chalk or photo can keep me from believing this?

This is the mom I am. The mom who sometimes faints because she probably did forget to hydrate and standing in the sun can overwhelm the body. This is the mom I am. The mom that doesn’t know what to play with her kid half the time and reads the same book over and over, and spills ice cream down her shirt and is pretty sure that Daniel Tiger songs will be the only ones she hangs onto by the time she is 90.

And my kid’s face still says safety and joy and love. He still crawls up in my lap at the end of the day, if I’ve been working or I’ve been with him, if I have managed to eat lunch on time or only at 3pm by standing in the kitchen stuffing my face with Goldfish while he listens to “Satisfied” from Hamilton for the 37th time. He still asks for the same song and the same Where do Diggers Sleep at Night? book and when I read it, my voice scratchy and tired, he still smiles at the same places and turns the pages himself.

This is the someone who made me a mother. And this is me, his mom.


what my mother taught me about miracles


When I was about 16, I found a $100 bill fluttering behind a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. It was being blown around mounds of almost-melted snow and the cracked, dusty white spots on the pavement where the salt and sand trucks have left their long footprints. I saw it, a flash of green, as I was crossing to the Italian sandwich and wine shop across the parking lot. I stooped to pick it up and unfolded it to see Ben Franklin’s face peeking back at me.


Standing in my kitchen thirty minutes later, my mother hummed out a tune that has become something of a hallmark for the memory – “I found a hundred dollars on the street, boom-BOOM-boom!” To this day, we only mention that parking lot and we both burst into song, usually accompanied by percussion on the back of chairs or pulling mugs from the cabinet. “What are the odds?” I remember asking her. She paused, and smiled, reaching for the cheddar cheese in the fridge. “God is watching out for us,” she replied.

At the time it didn’t quite seem like an answer to my question.

My mother sees the world saturated with the wondrous. I think it must be the scientist in her – for the kingfisher, the bald eagle, the mushroom spores, the deepening riverbed, the melting snow pulling back to the reveal a tired but faithful New England spring – these are the stories she tells me of her morning dog walks. These are the reminders she offers to me on Wednesday mornings when all I seem to offer back is worry or fretting, the impossibility of laundry and school and learning ASL and teaching it to Jack.

My mother tells me about the mushrooms and the nearby owl she couldn’t see but she heard, high up in a tree somewhere between the marsh and the upper field.

And my mother sees the most ordinary of stories infused with this same wonder. The God she taught me to love who made kingfisher and owl is the God whose miracles are often unrecognized. My mother taught me that it does not diminish the word miracle to acknowledge that the exact amount of money hiding in the cupholder of your car when you need to pay a toll is a kind. When someone you love shows up unannounced with a McDonald’s cheeseburger, just because. When, despite everything working against you, the train is delayed just 5 minutes at the North Beverly station and you make it.

Nearly two years ago, I thought I gave up believing God worked in miracle. The halogen hallways and the broom-closet-turned-conference room on the third floor of the under-construction wing of the main hospital in Temple must hold the ghosts of my old beliefs. I set my face towards what felt safer and more realistic. I said it was too late and I said that this is what we have to do and I signed consent forms and listened to people explain echocardiograms and g-tube placement procedures.

I was often a shadow on the walls at church. I darted up to Communion and back, afraid to confront Jesus and afraid to let him see me avoiding him. I prayed by counting the toes on my baby and feeling the weight of his tiny foot in my hands. I signed more consent forms, I learned new hallways at doctor’s offices.

And then our car needed repairs.

It is so completely ordinary, the kind of thing that my grandpa – my mom’s dad – would say, “Well, that just happens, Hillie” as he cracked open a can of pop from the garage refrigerator and reached his hand into a bag of Utz potato chips. I can see him, now, sitting on the back porch of the house where my mom grew up, smiling at the regularity of the things that happen in a life.

Our car needed repairs and money is tight. And we made a plan, we figured out what we could do when, we set our faces to the path ahead and put our hands to the plow, as my mother would say. I didn’t think about Jesus, or a miracle. I thought of the plan.

This is how the might of God comes. In a Mazda service station. In the regularity of car repairs. Preston told me a few days ago that some people on the internet, reading his piece in the Washington Post this week, had asked if they could help. And then he told me that they had banded together and the entire car repair had been paid for. All of it.

I want to say this is a miracle. The regular kind. The kind that come disguised in wintry parking lots or dog walks in New England or car repairs that people take care of for us.

The regular kind of miracle: women at the tomb bringing spices for burial. Me in that rented SUV in a Mazda service dealer and then in my kitchen pouring Cheerios into a tupperware. The feeling of water swirling through your sandals as you step out of the boat.

And from the miracles I sneak a glance at Jesus. We are in Easter season. Jesus looks back from his risen, glorious body bearing all the marks of his life. Still it is not ever too late for me. 


My mother told me ten years ago that the hundred dollar bill I found was connected to God watching out for us. The story itself is faded, except for the song we sang in the kitchen.

My mother taught me ten years ago – teaches me still – that in a world so saturated with the wondrous it should not be surprising that God is paying much attention to us, so much that it is not too late to ask to be shown again the kind of love he has: a love of generosity through his friends that make your car repairs possible or bring cheeseburgers, a love of tolls and late trains, of owls and kingfishers and winter that always gives way to spring.

I thought I gave up on miracles. I’m sure many days I still live as though they are too far for me to believe. But I keep calling my mother, listening to her tell me stories of this wondrous world and the God who made it. That is a miracle, too.


dear jack: the oxygen itself

Dear Jack,

You got your trach almost exactly 18 months ago. Its birthday is three weeks after yours – it’s always chasing you, trying to keep up, but you’re always a little ahead of it. This is the way that you are with the whole world, I think. Running out a little ahead, exploring and climbing and pushing your way through clumps of grass and tree branches and holding your hands under the hose outside.

Your trach follows you, and yesterday, we learned that it will follow you a bit longer.

It might seem like this is confusing. You aced your sleep study, you breathe on your own all day while you run around. And so we thought, me and Dad and your doctors, that yesterday would be the day you didn’t need the trach anymore. We told people about April 11, and their excitement translated to prayer and hope and smiles and imagining with us all that could change, would change when we left the trach behind.

But yesterday you showed us that your busy self needs the safety of easy breath at night. You who love to babble at us all day long need an airway free of obstruction when you sleep. And the trach gives you a safe, secure airway, one that lets your lungs breathe this gift of air and give your body oxygen, breath by sacred breath.

When you first got the trach, I told you that what Dad and I wanted more than anything was for you to breathe easy, to know what it was like to breathe without fighting for it. And you do this so beautifully, Jack. And that’s what matters. What matters is the oxygen itself, what matters is that fierce molecule of life, what matters is that you run around and play and sing and sleep without worrying or fighting to keep oxygen.

You are already so much bigger than the trach, Jack. Your life stretches tall and far like your favorite maple tree in the front yard. You love to be chased and tickled and you love to dance to the record player and you love to throw the green frog kickball in the backyard. Keeping the trach for a while longer, for however long you need it, is so small.

Sometimes it might seem not so small. Sometimes people might point or stare, or ask what it is, sometimes people might think it is harder for you to do things. Sometimes the rhythm of our home might feel really different from the homes of some of your friends, and it is a little different. But what I want you to know, when it feels different, when the trach feels like it separates you or when people stare or don’t know how to talk to you, when you’re scared or angry –

you can ask Jesus to tell you the story of you and your trach. You can march up to the throne of God and ask, in a way I can’t ask for you, to hear the story of your creation, the story of how God calls you, you, Jackson David, very good. You can go out onto the water where we look for Jesus and you can wrestle and argue and fall down and be rescued and keep arguing and being rescued every day. This is the fullness of life with Jesus, Jack. It includes argument. It includes telling our stories and hearing our stories told.

So for however long you have the trach, however long you need it, however long it helps you breathe easy, I pray that you keep asking Jesus to tell you the story, that you keep asking to see the goodness and fullness. I pray that you keep running and chasing and laughing when you’re tickled. I pray that you keep loving the feel of water in your hands and splashing in the tub. I pray that you live in the fullness of easy breathing. As for me, I’ll be thanking God for that small bit of silicone, and the wondrous life of yours it helps protect.


on a lemon tree

I read Rainer Maria Rilke to my plants. They’re two small bushes, lime and Meyer lemon. This year is the first I ever thought seriously about growing something, tending to it, watching over it. I have been too good for too long at letting plants die in their original pots. We bought rose bushes last summer I never planted. They scorched in the July Texas sun, and every so often I would feel a sadness come over me when I looked at them. That’s how it feels, I would almost say out loud. Overwhelmed, and scorched by the sun, by the heat of the rush and bustle. 

I learned later that it was also the slow creep of depression, settling in along my veins, my brain quietly putting its seratonin production on bedrest. Without knowing it, my body rearranged itself to survive. It is a miracle that they do this; it is a miracle that so often we do not notice until much later.

So this winter, so new to the feel of a daily pill and a gulp of water, so unsure of how to permit myself to walk slower through a quick world, I bought these plants. I positioned them near a south window. I let them drink in the winter sunlight and overheated our living room by pulling up the blinds for hours at a time. The lemon tree flowered quickly, filling me with a strange sense of achievement. Of course, when I stopped to think about it, what had I done? But I didn’t worry myself with it too much. I watered and I lifted the blinds and I took credit for the first tiny lemon that sprouted. I felt a sense that the season would turn around for me. I would get better, heal quicker, return to my usual pace.

And then I forgot to water the lemon tree. The lime tree is vigorous, pushing upwards with new leaves almost daily, though it is stingy with blooms so far. But the lemon, in all its exuberant growing, had five or six tiny lemons on it immediately, small and green and perfectly shaped.

And I forgot to water it, and those beautiful tiny lemons, signs of my imminent return to some mythic normal, fell off. A branch or two turned brown, the green shrinking back further and further into the main stem.

I wept and fretted. I brought the trees outside. I repotted the lemon tree. I watched in apprehension to see what would happen.

The tree is still alive, and it’s still flowering. I can’t get those first lemons back. I can’t take credit for its living; though I’m some part of the story of its first losses.

What is this all about?

When the first lemons fell, and I felt the salty taste of despair in the back of my throat, I remembered having read that reading to plants, or playing them nice music, can help them grow. I reached for the first book of poetry I could grasp – the collection of Rilke, a daily reading. I opened to that day. And it said:

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 4

It’s Rilke who said that so much of everything that is most true, most important, is unsayable. And poetry is the gesture, the promise, that though we cannot say the unsayable, we can glimpse it, we can approach it.

I feared the loss of the lemon tree. I feared the loss of a myth of returning to normal. I feared slowing down permanently in a world where the pace quickens, quickens, quickens.

I read to the trees still, read to myself while reading to the trees. I read it out loud to the backyard and the fading Texas sun. And now it’s been a few months of learning the companionship of depression and its unpredictable arrival. I do not know that I will come back to a place I’ve been before. I do not know that I wish to.


the size of faith

“The size of your faith is not measured by the things you ask for.”

I said this as I watched the spearmint wilt under the heat of the water. Preston and I have taken to steeping the leaves themselves in our teapot some nights; it makes us slow down, at least for the ten minutes we set our timers to. We let water do its mysterious work. We wait.

I found myself saying this to someone who was waiting with us for a second steeping of the leaves. We had been talking about big dreams that we all have, and the often insignificant size of the steps we take towards them every day. I am always quick with a sentence of empathy, support – but this one seemed to come from my mouth without me being the speaker. The size of your faith is not measured by what you ask for. 

We poured the tea, and we all went back to scribbling in notebooks the small next steps we might take towards realizing a big, beautiful dream. And I kept thinking about how it could be that I said something without having thought of it, read from my mind like so much ticker tape. The steam of the tea slowly settled as the cup grew colder in my hands. Long after we went to bed, I was still awake. Who was that speaking? Was that for me?

Some days I am a wistful believer, a sideways-glancer, a noticer of those who stretch arms wide in worship and those who get readily, consistently, obediently to their knees every day. I keep a kind of faith envy nestled somewhere near where my collarbone meets my neck. That’s where I feel it, a small lump when I see someone whose faith fairly sings, who is a small speck on the horizon of the water, running to Jesus. I screw up my eyes to try and glimpse what they’re doing – I imagine them, pants or shorts or dresses soaked, feet pulling deep water up to the surface with each step, eyes fixed on the man who looks like everyone and no one, his arms stretched wider than seems possible in these limited muscles and bones. I imagine that meeting triumphant, full of love. I imagine this in my wistfulness, and I turn back grumbling. I’ve been in and out of the same boat ten thousand times. I have made it maybe ten steps on the water. I keep thinking I will see Jesus and my eyes hurt from peering in sun and fog and rain and ocean spray and so I turn back again and again to the boat.

The size of your faith is not measured by what you ask for. 

Could that have been Jesus, sitting with us, watching water hiss and steam rise, waiting for that second cup of tea?

And if it was Jesus, how can he be the same Jesus who I squint to see greeting the wilder faith of others so far out on the water?

Jesus is the measurer, the keeper and maker and beholder of our faith. Jesus is as unafraid to get right up next to the boat as he is to stand back and call out.

The size of your faith is not measured by how far out you ask to go.

Sometimes, asking just to get one foot in the water is harder than asking to run ten miles on a surface that shouldn’t hold us up. Sometimes, asking just to gain the strength to go to the next service, to walk up to Communion, to be held by someone else’s prayer or someone else’s faith, is a bigger ask than asking to see before our eyes a miracle of feet help up on the open sea.

When I realized it was Jesus, I prepared myself for the reprimand. Envy is vice, clinging to my collarbone, keeping me grumbling in the bottom of the boat. I prepared myself with guilt and ashes and shame.

Jesus does not come with those. Jesus comes with the same impossibly wide arms and the same embrace. Jesus gets into the boat with me on the days I cannot get out of it, and in his quietness he touches the lump in my throat, the envy at my neck, the same quizzical look in his eyes. The size of your faith is not measured by how far out you asked to go. It is not measured by how far out anyone else goes. I can feel the envy slipping away, dissolving like steam in the air.

It is enough to ask for help getting out of the boat; it is enough to ask for help in asking.


what freedom might be

It’s alleged that Robert Frost once said, when asked what freedom was, that it was “being easy in your harness.” I remember the cold tiles under my feet in the room where we had poetry class, that winter my junior year of high school. We huddled over words that we were almost too young to encounter, but just old enough to know what we were meeting was – must be – a kind of scarce beauty. My hand curled over the page to scribble title, words, the stray phrase that I memorized by the repetition of the pen along the thin blue lines and empty white spaces.

We were working on villanelles, difficult poems with difficult rhythm, a scheme of lines repeating, tumbling over each other. At first, we were tasked with repeating the lines exactly, no flourish or artistry. I remember how our feet and eyes shuffled at the apparent strain on our creative spirits. “But,” I remember thinking, “how will my poem be free if I have to repeat all these lines, over and over? Isn’t that why they call it free verse?”

My teacher knew my question and answered it aloud. “Robert Frost said, ‘Freedom is being easy in your harness.’ The villanelle, this week, is your harness. Our task is to learn to be easy in it.”

I am thinking these days about what it might mean to be free. I suppose most specifically I think about this in the strange intersection I am often in, between school and motherhood and my own writing, in the spaces where I most often feel constrained by my life. I always want to stretch an hour to be just a bit longer; I always want just fifteen more minutes for the thing I am doing now or the thing I know I need to be doing later. More than once this week I caught myself checking the time while my son slowly, deliberately rolled his blue plastic ball towards me, grinning wildly. I was thinking about how to make the afternoon last just a bit longer, because there was laundry and there was reading and there was some other thing that I had written on a list somewhere that felt much more important than my son and his blue plastic ball.

I wonder if I have filled my head with so many boxes to check as a way to stave off the possibility that it might be as simple as riding a bit easier in the constraints of my life. It might be as simple as laughing and rolling the ball back towards my son.

The week of the villanelles in poetry class I struggled to write a single word. Each one felt too insignificant to bear repeating; nothing felt worthy of being written down so many times. I deleted so many sentences. I ripped pages out of notebooks. I very nearly turned in a blank sheet of paper.

I just began a ballet class. On Monday nights I leave behind the hum of the world and enter a hum of concentration, beginning in my feet and tracing its way up my back and along my arms and up into my head with its flyaway hairs caught in a headband. We are asked at the end of each barre exercise to go into sous-sus and often to then bring one leg up into coupée or passée. All of this is in a delicate few seconds where we suspend our bodies on the balls of our feet, lifting ourselves farther and farther up. “Find your balance” the teacher tells us. Some days I never find it, my hand hovering over the barre and grasping it too quickly, afraid I will fall. Some days I feel it instantly, the living wire of tension holding me up suddenly lights up and I can even smile as I feel myself aloft.

But most days it is a few, hard-won seconds of balance, a few, hard-won seconds of that perfect hum of tension, that feeling of having suddenly reached a point where it is easy, where the limits of head and feet, of arm and leg are met fully and somehow this produces balance. In those few seconds, I am free. And then most often I tremble, my foot shifts just slightly, and gravity pulls me back.

Ballet and a villanelle, and wasn’t this a post about freedom? Perhaps it still is. Perhaps Robert Frost was not wrong to tell us that freedom is being easy in your harness. Perhaps freedom is exploring the limits of the repeating lines of a poem and the few seconds of balancing yourself on one leg. Perhaps freedom is most often a few, hard-won seconds, a few hard-won lines of beautiful words. Perhaps there is no good way to describe it, and my longing for achieving freedom (as if it could be grasped, as if it could be possessed once forever) too often leaves me without it.

I did write a villanelle. It was the hardest I have ever worked on a poem in my life. It was the first time I heard my voice peeking through my words. A few, hard-won seconds of freedom – it was still the birth of something beautiful.