when it has been 20 weeks

Dear Jackson,

You have a name! You love to remind us with every ultrasound visit that you are a boy, and the name belongs to you in the best way – it’s been yours for so long. I love using it when we’re on the go, you and I, grading papers or dancing in the kitchen or sitting on the porch, just being. I love talking to you with your name, Jackson, rolling off my tongue.

This week we learned a little bit more about you, Jackson. We learned different things from different places – a phone call and a follow-up detailed ultrasound and a genetic counseling appointment. It’s been a lot, but I think you probably know and feel my hand over the place where you’re moving, that sense of change in the air, new plans, new preparations.

You’ve got a facial cleft. From what we have learned so far, it extends up from your lip and involves your right eye and that side of your nose, and it goes back into your palate too. It happens sometimes; our bodies do unexpected things.

You have some unique things ahead, Jackson. We are so grateful that we know now, when you’re still wiggling around showing off your arms and legs, letting us hear your strong heartbeat. We are grateful because we can start to make sure we are ready to take care of you when we finally meet you this fall. And every single person who comes into the world needs taking care of. Me, your dad, the people who will meet you and take care of you in the hospital in September, the people at church, your grandparents. You will need some particular things – you’ll need help eating, maybe with breathing at the beginning, and the doctors will do some really amazing things to help you with the cleft so that you can grow, grow, grow – so that you can become your full Jackson self. But everyone needs. Everyone has scars that help tell the stories of their lives – I am praying that you become proud of yours, even as I am proud of where they come from, proud of your mighty self here at 20 weeks, proud of you.

Listen to me, my beloved first son: you have been befriended by the Almighty God. God is walking into every room, every waiting area, every surgery, every MRI or ultrasound or counseling appointment or wellness check, ahead of the three of us in the wild journey of becoming the family that we could not be without you. God is walking out ahead of us, and whenever we look around at the waves or the walls or the unknown-ness of it, when we cry out or you cry out, I want you to hear me: Jesus immediately calls back to us, “Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of needing help in the beginning. Do not be afraid of what could happen. Do not be afraid, he whispers to me as I look at your ultrasounds on the fridge –  do not be afraid of the many statistics that cannot add up to the story of your one impossibly precious life.

So, Jackson, you whose name means God has been gracious, and whose middle name, David, means beloved, friend. At this the end of our twentieth week together, I put my hand over you and feel you push back at me, defiant already, sure of your own becoming, and we are making our hearts ready for you. We are making our hearts ready for the bigger wonder of who you are – the wonder of taking care of you, of learning your favorite things, of your discovery of the world.

We can’t wait for you to be here with us, Jackson. We can’t wait to hold you and kiss all these places that bear the marks of being human, of being alive. I can’t wait to meet you. Every piece of you.

All my love,
mom

i pray you have a wilder imagination

Dear tiny person, 17 weeks alive now,

You will start hearing my voice soon – the sound of my heartbeat, loud and steady, the movement and rhythm of my body in the midst of all the ordinary work of these spring days. And you’ll hear Dad’s voice, the voices of the people around us, the noises of this life you’re coming into.

I have been hearing a lot of questions about you. People ask me, “but how will you still be a student?” and “will you quit school?” and “aren’t you going to need more time off?” and when I say no, they look at me surprised, a little concerned, a little knowing. They let the silence hang between us, the wide-eyed looks that carry the message across the inches of dusty floor – surely, surely, you didn’t think all this was possible. haven’t you underestimated how hard it will be? 

I am praying that you never hear these questions from me.

I am praying that when your dad and I hold you, we tell you the stories, again and again, that we are a people who never underestimate anything but the power of the Lord Jesus to walk into our lives and unfold the most surprising, most marvelous, most extraordinary things.

Your life is the gift that your dad and I never imagined we would be so privileged to see so soon. Your life is the greatest gift God has given us.

I pray that I do not ask you questions that say your imagination is too unrealistic. That you can’t possibly think you can do this and that at the same time, that you are underestimating how hard it will be, how much work it will be, how likely it is to fall apart.

I pray that you will hear me say instead that our imaginations should be wider, and wilder. I pray you will hear what I know in my bones, that we too often live limited lives because we limit our imaginations. We think that motherhood and philosophy graduate seminars can’t possibly both be successful; we think that you must choose between art and biology; we think that you cannot travel AND or be married AND or work this challenging job AND or …

and we teach this to each other, with our well-meaning questions and our expectant looks, with our heartfelt, “but how will that work?” Our imaginations grow small in the shadow of what we think more realistic.

I pray that your imagination is wilder than that. I pray that you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, who will call you to get out of the boat, to leave behind what you know, to go into towns and cities, to leave the empty tomb with just the wild hope and these words: “I have seen the Lord!”

I pray you know that this is enough reason to rejoice in even what seems difficult or strange in the eyes of the world. It might not satisfy other people. And right now when I put my hand over the place where I know you’re growing, and I tell those who ask me these questions that I am not afraid to be a student and a mother, to be a wife and a philosopher and to hold you in the long nights and read to you about epistemology and the Rainbow Fish –

when I do this, it probably doesn’t satisfy the person who asked me.

But if it does not – if the question still lingers, how can she think all this is possible, then I dare them all to take that question and place it before the Lord Jesus. I believe Jesus will widen their imagination. I believe that Jesus will remind them of the stories:

Abraham, who left everything he knew to follow God,
Moses and the people of Israel, who followed God into the water of the Red Sea and walked safely,
Ruth, who left everything she knew to go with Naomi,
Hannah, who did not leave God alone in praying for her son,
Mary, who gave birth to God Himself in Jesus,
Peter, who got out of the boat, and even when he doubted, cried out and Jesus saved him immediately,
of the people Jesus healed, and ate with, whose faith, whose wild imagination carried them into the very heart of God.

And I believe that you, and me, and Dad, we are one story numbered among the thousands that Jesus tells about those who love Him. They are all stories of wilder imagination. They are stories of people who love, and this love, it casts out their fears, their idea of limits, their idea of what will be too hard and too much and so hard to imagine how it will all work. 

And so, beautiful, breathtaking tiny human being listening to my heartbeat, I pray that you are filled up all these many years with a wild imagination. I pray that you feel these stories around you, in your bones. I pray that you know most of all that God loves you, wildly, beyond your imagining – and when God calls out to you, you need never fear – it is His love, calling you to Himself.

Love,
mom

love is the unrelenting muscle

By now maybe you’ve heard through a grapevine or around the web, the news that Preston and I are expecting a baby. I had thought years ago I would do a lot of blogging about becoming a mom when it happened, that I would want to catalog my daily questions and thoughts in the midst of all the changes and strange cravings and morning sickness, the moments of realization, the moments of gratitude.

I don’t, anymore. It seems a season for quiet, for listening close, for making silence, as we used to tell my Sunday School students. Becoming a mom is among the most wondrous things that has happened in my life – but I probably won’t say too much about it here.

But I want to tell you about the sound.

I want to tell you about the sound of his or her heartbeat, at 9 weeks, in an ordinary doctor’s office on an ordinary Friday, trying to lie still as my nurse practitioner moved the Doppler monitor below my belly button. At first it was just the sounds of searching out the little life that I’ve been taking on faith is growing inside me, but then.

Then, there is this sound, this unbelievable, unyielding, steadying heartbeat. And it isn’t my heartbeat. It’s hers, or it’s his. It’s the baby’s heart, beating away.

The heart is the most unrelenting muscle I have ever heard. The heart is the muscle that begins its work and does not cease, not for one moment. And it begins first. It’s already beating as the brain grows and takes shape, begins to assemble thoughts still as mysterious as whatever lies on the other side of this thin place, where heaven and earth are tremblingly close to each other.

The heart, beating. It sounds so ordinary and then it sounds so unbelievable. Her heart has been beating for weeks now, without me knowing. His heart began to beat before I knew it, before we tuned in with the monitors and the watches and the steady checking in of doctor’s offices.

And this matters to you, because your heart, your faithful, steady, unrelenting muscle has been beating in you for longer than you can imagine. It has kept you.

I think about how we connect the heart, not the brain, with love. I think how we talk about the heart of God, not the cerebral cortex. And though God is far beyond any attempt to imagine Him having a literal heart, I do not think that we are completely wrong to imagine ourselves, to imagine this world, as in the heart of God.

Because God’s love is the same unyielding, unrelenting, steadfast muscle. God’s love is the patient, ever-present sound echoing through our bodies and our lives. God’s love is not too tired to carry us. God’s love is the unrelenting muscle that carries us.

And this baby, he or she is reminding me that there is something not to be forgotten about the mystery of a heartbeat. About the mystery of how we say that we are close to God, that we are held in His heart, that God loves us.

Because love is found in the unrelenting muscle of our lives. And we must love this way: unyieldingly, mysteriously, beginning from before we know it or decide it and continuing long after we think we have done enough, that we are satisfied, that the other person does not love us back or we have given too much of ourselves. We should love this way because it is costly but it is freeing, because it is difficult but familiar, because it is unlike anything in the world and yet it is the foundation of the world.

We should love one another this way, because this is how God loves.

This baby, he or she has a heartbeat set in motion by God. And this heartbeat, which is different from mine, is teaching me to love again more wild, more free, more unrelenting. Like a heartbeat.

Love,
hilary

the impossible brightness, again

“It is not the critic who counts.” Almost a year ago, I wrote a letter on my blog about that. I was talking about the cocoon we spin around ourselves, one that is supposed to protect us from things failing or falling apart or changing uncontrollably. I was talking about loving, daring greatly, how in that work and wonder the critic in us, the cocoon-spinner, does not count.

Far beyond romantic love, I spin cocoons of protection around every paper, every possible declined application, every possible mistake, every possibly possible … you understand, I think. I spin cocoons of anonymity and safety, of carefully worded posts or no posts at all, of endless caveats of when I become more of … then, I will do and be and think the braver things.

But daring greatly is not about the someday marvelous thing we might do. It is not the moment we suddenly defy ourselves and our cocoons and spite the critic in us. Those are marvelous moments, yes, but they are not all there is to daring greatly.

Daring greatly is believing that you carry in you the impossibly bright love of God. It is about entering into the impossible brightness that God prepared for us before we did any marvelous daring thing. It is in all of our tiny revelations, our smallest moments. Daring greatly is saying, “I need to talk to you about this,” three fourths of the way through the long flight when you’ve already argued and made peace and you think, if I say it now I will surely ruin everything. Daring greatly is pressing the “send” button when you’re so sure that if I send that, it will be rejected. Daring greatly is getting on your knees when you think every trace of God’s calling and purpose has disappeared, and even then, saying, Our Father. 

And it’s showing ourselves to care too much, to be un-aloof and earnest and eager and people of a brighter believing:

it’s doing the dishes and trying to find the Chinese restaurant in the unfamiliar town so you can do something spontaneous for someone you love, it’s making and remaking the same plans as you learn the rhythm of a friend’s heart, and it’s helping on a logic problem even though you could say you don’t have time,

it’s praying with, not just for, it’s being unembarrassed in the restaurant or the bank or the escalator in the mall to pray blessing over the stranger in the grey flannel two steps up from you,

it’s admitting that we are lights in the world, even in our yoga pants during rainy Mondays when we feel the least influential, admitting that we are lights that God would have put on a lampstand to illumine the house long before we ever thought ourselves worthy.

Because love is impossibly bright, and it is already alive in us. Because Jesus has gifted us His brightness, not for ourselves but for the house, for the stranger who knocks on the door, for another’s stepping toward Jesus.

Daring greatly is not just for the marvelous things that defy gravity – it is for the every day revealing and sharing of ourselves as bearers of the impossible brightness of God’s love.

That is the impossible brightness. That is daring greatly.

Love,
hilary

when this is the seventh month of gratitude

I promised a long while ago that I would keep up this accounting of gratitude for marriage, for the spin of our ordinary days, for the way you learn to move, two by two, day by day, in the quiet and the loud and the in between. I promised myself, maybe in some way I promised this blog, this space I keep carving in, bit by bit, marking where I am and where God is.

We’ve been married almost eight months.

When I say that it sounds long and short. It sounds like newlyweds and it feels like we’ve been married forever, we’ve always been here, always been rounding another bend of time. I forget to be faithful with the laundry. I get mad at myself which makes me avoid it even more, til there are two laundry baskets and a hamper full of things quietly asking for my attention, for my simple act of caring for the space we share and the work we take on, two by two. And it’s so gentle, this forgetfulness, that it makes me so angry I’ll pick a fight over something completely unrelated because I have this idea of what kind of person I should be in a marriage, what kind of house I should keep, what kinds of things I should do and say and feel and think…

I get mad about the laundry. That’s the truth in this seventh month, and the gratitude is as simple as that: he waits for me.

He waits for me through the rage portion, the avoiding eye contact and getting eerily quiet portion. He waits for me to lose my temper and then go silently inside myself to find it again. He waits even when his hands are full of dishes. When we have only 10 minutes to get somewhere and we are already behind. He waits.

And in waiting, he keeps his heart open to me. He waits for me to find the words, to find the thread, to walk my way back from the edge of cliff or from the confusion or the silence.

Marriage is the fullest kind of mirror. It shows the ways that you’re loved right in the midst of showing you all the things you really do and say and think. It reveals and it redeems. Marriage calls you out of your secret, silent heart and into that hallowed space where your belonging sings in your bones. In this, the seventh month, where I know I’ve gotten mad about laundry or sad about not going on a walk every day or worried about absolutely everything for no good reason… in this seventh month I can list for you all of those things, but what I know most deeply is just this:

The love of my life will stay at the sink with the dishes undone or sit in the car when we’re already late or hold me in our living room with all that unfolded laundry, and all the while, he is teaching me that love is patient.

I’m grateful for this: that the love of my life waits for me, especially now that we’re always around each other, always nearby, always close. He still waits. And that waiting is a great gift.

Love,
hilary

when I choose the economy of God

“So, I guess you’re going to have to figure out three things.”

This is my husband, in the still, dark room where we sit and write with the rain outside and the quiet inside. He’s talking about gratitude, something I’m resisting, and I don’t have a good reason, I should tell you that right now.

Actually, I should tell you that I have some bad reasons.

In the economy of an anxious heart, your minus columns are always outlasting your positive ones. In the economy of a perfectionist heart, a minor dip in expected performance is the 1929 crash of Wall Street. A lower grade than you expected of yourself or a missed opportunity to make friends with someone or some nice thing you can’t quite put your finger on but you’re sure you failed to do. You name it for yourself and suddenly it is another thing you’ve forgotten, and you work and live on an ever steepening incline of failure, and somewhere along the way you’re also drowning in your own misunderstanding of yourself, and you’ve mixed your metaphors together so you are a drowning person climbing a mountain with a top you can’t reach, pushing a rock maybe, like Sisyphus, or maybe just pushing yourself, hauling yourself up and up and up and already you are sure you have been defeated.

That’s me sometimes. I don’t know if it’s ever you, but it is me. It is me when the grades and the papers and the research ideas come back with critique or comment or areas for improvement. It is me in the quiet fights and the loud ones. It is me lying in bed on a random Saturday morning cataloguing the friends I haven’t caught up with lately or the places I have not brought peace or the way I should have and could have and would have been a better me.

The economy of God looks nothing like the economy of my anxious heart.

The economy of God is God coming towards us, promising abundant generosity for the laborers who work an hour and those who work a full day. It is a strange, terrifying generosity, the kind that makes my neat columns of deserving and undeserving and the weight and sift of my measurements look foolish. The kind that puts us to shame in our race to merit and earn, but rescues us in the midst of it too. God laughs, I imagine, and sets us free.

Once my counselor asked me what the big bad was that would happen if I didn’t win. If I didn’t get perfect grades or perfect GRE scores or a perfect record of performances. I still don’t know the answer to that question. I think that was her point.

I want the economy of God. I want the economy of generosity, the economy of grace. I want the rescue from drowning my way up a mountain I can’t ever finish climbing, the setting free. I want the economy that will force me to give up my pride in making each and every thing perfect, my disappointment at myself when things aren’t just as I would like them. I want Jesus, in the end, whatever it might cost me and my well-worn anxious heartbeat.

And so I do have to figure out three things, write a story that is full of the richness of a generosity I didn’t earn, full of receiving blessing where I can’t say my goodness or my rightness is the reason, but the only reason is the sufficient reason is that God loves. That’s the new story. God loves, and the richness of the story is there. I’m caught up into it, and set free by it, and this is the better story.

Preston asked me for three things. I won’t tell you what they are, but I’m thinking I might keep a journal somewhere, and start writing them down.

And so in a little way, widen my welcome of the most wondrous love.

Love,
hilary

when I find dirt on my wedding shoes

I had a plan for my wedding shoes, even before Preston proposed to me. I’d seen them in a magazine the previous Christmas and in so many wedding Pinterest pictures. They were the perfect color pink – ballet pink, the kind that’s gentle but strong and not too flashy but not too pale – made of what look like satin ribbons, flat but elegant. I’ve wanted to be graceful like a ballerina for a long time (far longer than I actually studied ballet, I should admit), and these were the shoes I imagined wearing.

They fit perfectly, and I kept them in their box without ever touching them or wearing them. I would show them off in hushed whispers, the tissue paper crinkling, slip them on for no more than ten minutes and always inside. I couldn’t imagine ever wearing them anywhere – they were the thing I thought would make me beautiful.

photo by Ebersole Photography
photo by Ebersole Photography

And today I was cleaning our closet on a whim listening to the rain outside and I tried on my wedding shoes again, just to see. I don’t know if any of us are very far from thinking beautiful things are magic, and so I stood amid the dust and the old scarves and the sweaters and I slipped them on.

They fit perfectly.

They’re covered in dirt.

I began a lament, half-formed the words on my tongue and half whispered them to the mirror, looking up and down and wondering where all this dirt had come from, if I should put them somewhere safer than in the midst of all my other ordinary shoes, as if they should be kept safe from my ordinary life, from my growing self.

But I couldn’t stop looking, noticing, and then I realized: the dirt makes them beautiful.

The dirt is the witness to the growing of a young marriage, the beginning, the glorious running through the world and the slowing down, the catching each other, the catching ourselves, the being constantly caught up in God. They’re bearing the marks of marriage: the almost five months, the honeymoon where we got tattoos and the wandering through the grounds of my high school where we got married, the scuffs of grass from down by the river where we walked in the haze of a Texas summer. I can squint and see the mystery green pen marks I tried to erase with a Tide pen now permanently etched at their edges. They’re wearing history now, a bit of rainwater, worn from being stamped in frustration or impatience. And they wear the history of love, how different and the same it is, how easy it is to forget that love is always moving in wild uncontrollable circles, bringing more people in, bringing you closer to the one you love, sealing the ark and the ache of marriage with every click of the lock and every first peek of sun too early in the morning.

We tell ourselves to make memories because time goes too fast, to take pictures, to Skype every detail back home lest we lose sight of who we are or were or could become.

But perhaps our lives are already bearing witness to it. Perhaps it is we who are too worried to notice that the rest of our ordinary is holding and bearing to us the story of us, of our marriage and jobs and moves and fights and triumphs. Perhaps our shoes, even those we were so afraid to touch, are beautiful when we let them wear and retell our stories.

Perhaps the dirt on my wedding shoes is a better storyteller of this hallowed beginning than I can hope to be.

And perhaps, I should stand still in the perfect pink shoes now flecked grey and brown and that funny hint of green in my closet on a Saturday and listen.

Photo by Ebersole Photography
Photo by Ebersole Photography

The story they tell is so beautiful.

Love,
hilary