on champagne and learning to walk

Preston bought me a nice bottle of champagne tonight. The kind of bottle that means we are having a big celebration, that there is something amazing deserving of the best feasts. We drove to buy the champagne after I finished class for the day, just after I got my comprehensive exam results. Our exams are graded; I got an A-.

While Preston drove, he declared that this was worthy of that nice bottle of champagne. I called it “pretty good.”

What he wanted to celebrate, I wanted to say only, well, I passed. 

I couch my pride in a constant future improvement, I feel good only if I get the chance to do even better next time. But of course, there is no next time for comprehensive exams. That’s part of the joy, isn’t it? It should be. But there I was, holding the nice champagne in its paper sack in the passenger seat, calling it only “pretty good.”

What is it about the future that dulls the shine of the present? What is it about the possibility of something even better that makes the real somehow less glorious than God has declared it to be?

I told someone this summer that, Jack? He is the real. He is what my ideals give way before. The ideals of me as a mother in her all-natural, breastfeeding, right-kinds-of-product and no-screen-time and … glory. That sheen of imagined glory. I said that Jack has cut through it all. He looks at me and I give way. I give way to his real laugh, that dolphin squeak of joy over his trach. He looks at me and I give way, I give way to the goodness of the formula that keeps him growing, the screens that bring him people telling stories in ASL, in a language that he already seems to love. I give way to the real of his life.

Why won’t I let Jack cut through the sheen of my imagined glory as a student?

Why do I hold the nice champagne and permit myself only to say “pretty good”?

This is the summer where Jack first started to learn to walk. He pulled himself up onto chairs, plastic toy tables that make over 1,000 unique noises, along precarious couch cushions. He fell and he pulled back up and he banged his hands against the surface and he laughed.

This is the summer where I sat down to watch him learn how to walk. I could have given that up, I could have studied 30 more hours a week, I could have spent my time grasping the sheen of the student I think I ought to be.

And when I first saw the A-, I said to myself, you could have, you should have. 

Jack was learning to walk. He wanted to hold my hands in the dining room and cross the floor on two feet. He wanted to be held and then to launch himself away from my chest to grab the icon of St. Michael that hangs on the wall near his door. Jack was learning to play peek-a-boo with me. Jack was ripping my copy of Marx and Wittgenstein in his frenzy to stand up independently, pulling my high stack of books down around him.

Was all that only pretty good? Was all that not worth the champagne, the celebration?

I am learning to walk, too. I am learning to walk down that well-worn path and answer myself differently. Was it only pretty good? No, it was more. It was the fullness of what I had, it was pouring out the hours, the understanding, the work. It was spilling out onto the altar the hours I had spent – standing bent double to anchor my son’s first steps – perched in a chair on the second floor of the philosophy building reading and rereading Kierkegaard, Mill, Hume – worrying myself sick over Heidegger and misunderstanding Marx – singing a human being to sleep.

I am rewalking the well-worn path and saying something new. It isn’t just pretty good, it is good, full stop. I gave way to the real of my son’s life. I gave way, but I did not give up. I gave way, but I did not give in. I gave way, but the way was still full, still fruitful, still full-stop good.

 

We popped the champagne, we laughed and kissed Jack and watched him try to pull St. Michael off the wall.

This is good. Full stop.

Love,
hilary

when I haven’t joined the gym

I used to live for the exalted feeling of sneakers on my feet at 4:30. The work day ended I would change clothes in my tiny office, slip into new running shoes-real ones-and take off down the three flights of stairs and bound out into the woods behind the campus where I worked. I ran, and I prayed, and I felt in the singing of my bones a bond with the world, with God, with myself.

I have an eating disorder. She is not easily described or categorized. I like food, and I eat it. So far, it seems reasonable, the relationship we are all supposed to have. But there are stretches of days and hours and weeks where she panics at the thought of ice cream and wine and that extra bag of pretzels last Friday lunch. So she writes me notes to remind me that delight will always cost me something, and here I will pay in ounces and pounds, the disappearance of my hip bones under flesh, the dress from three months ago too tight here, and there, and there.

She writes me warnings, exhortations – if you don’t join the gym you’ll just keep gaining weight, if you only did yoga you’d be a better mother, don’t forget that someday you’ll regret the extra indulgences… everything in moderation, Hilary, no excess, self-care, self-love, it’s what well-balanced people do… 

She was the reason I put on sneakers every day and ran and ran and ran. I was running away from her, running to fulfill her, running to keep her at bay and keep her my best friend.

I had a baby almost exactly 10 months ago. In the chaos of the NICU I lost the weight of him, all the evidence of his presence in my body, so quickly that I seemed disjointed in my skin. For the next nine months I pumped milk for him, and when I pumped I thought briefly of how the calories would slip away from me, safely into someone else, how I could breathe freely for a little while because the eating disorder, she was satisfied with the knowledge that nothing I ate could come haunt us.

She promised me that it was better to be this new, loose self ill-fitted in her skin, that it was good to see the ridges of ribs and spinal chord. She promised it made up for the fact that I hadn’t joined the gym. It made up for the fact that I hadn’t put on those sneakers, that I didn’t even know where I had left them.

I stopped pumping earlier this summer, and my flesh appeared again, different, new. The eating disorder sat next to me on the couch, weeping. How could I – become so different, lose control of my body – but she dried her eyes and she resolved with a smile – now is the time to join a gym, Hilary. Other moms do it, other moms make time for self-care and self-love and they go running with their babies and … and… you can, too. You’ll be okay that way. 

She is always promising me that if I stretch a little farther I will hold onto something better and more beautiful, that feeling of exaltation she used to give me on those long runs in the woods. She is always promising me that riding on every run is the proof of my commitment to doing what is best for my body, my self, my family, my world.

It’s time to join a gym, Hilary. 

I miss the woods, the exaltation of them and the singing, the place where I would stop and look at the water and feel myself in the world and in love with the world. I miss the way the ground pressed up against my feet and the burning of my lungs while I raced myself up the hill. I miss the sweat and the satisfaction. I miss the simplicity of giving her what she demanded of me, the daily thirty minutes, the sense that it relieved me of guilt, that it washed me clean.

And I cannot love her anymore, the eating disorder, the person she promises me I’ll become if only I give her what she wants. I cannot love her anymore, and I wonder how to escort her out of my house, out of my car, out of my closet. I wonder how to give up all her promises and to press my hands into my skin again and to feel my bones only as mysteries beneath flesh. I wonder how to put Jack on my hip, day after day, and notice that it holds him on its own, how to feel gravity dance with my feet and to see that there are marks, memorials, of pregnancy on my stomach.

I cannot love her anymore, and so I don’t join the gym. The tiniest, first beginning, and a new feeling – not exaltation, not absolution for a guilt she invented – but hope.

Love,
hilary

this can carry us

I learned to pray when I learned to drive. Those smooth, familiar backroads, at age 17 too hasty in hoping to be older. At the stoplights where even now I do not notice how I know where I am going, I just turn, left, then right, then right again. I learned to pray driving past the old white house covered with vines and lilacs that only bloom for a week, a glorious hidden week in May, the kind that sneaks up upon you and shatters your resignation with joy. I prayed the unconventional hours: early morning requests and questions, the late evening thanksgivings. Often, I repeated this: I love you, Jesus. 

When I slink into the driver’s seat, even now when I go home to visit, I feel the pull of those hours, the richness hidden in rhythm and repetition: I love you, Jesus. I remember the drives, keeping those hours, the expectation, the simplicity. The lilacs bursting forth against the old white house.

These hours keep me praying in the long summer of expecting my first son. These hours keep me, my younger self’s prayers, ones about God’s glory being revealed to me, or the fullness of God’s wisdom being shown to me, or the love of Jesus, my younger love of Jesus. These hours keep me, praying somehow still over me from the week of bursting lilacs to the week of driving to Temple, of learning about Jackson, of new glories.

I have wanted to write about praying for Jackson, but the truth is, it’s really the old prayer I’m praying, that the Spirit is praying in me and for me: I love you, Jesus. I find you so beautiful. 

My son knows my voice. This overwhelms me, since so much of the day I am quiet. We talk in snatches, I tell him about what I’ve been reading, I tell him about his cousins, his grandparents, how much love is waiting for him. I tell him about his doctors, too. I tell him that he will love them, that they are helpers, people God gave special gifts to for helping kids heal and grow and be strong. I am telling myself all these things.

He hears about this ordinary life all day, carried around inside me with his fierce, strong spirit: he hears Preston read One Hundred Years of Solitude, me proclaiming my craving for red velvet cake and ice cream sandwiches, my laughter with his dad, our plans for crepe myrtle trees and a backyard garden and a library of books just for him. And he hears me on the couch or the bathroom floor, some mornings getting dressed, how those are sometimes hard moments in my expectation. How I cry sometimes because I am new at this, new at even the very act of becoming a mom, becoming his mom.

So the old prayer, the lifeline – I love you, Jesus.

He hears that, too.

May this be the forever thread running through our days together: I love you, Jesus. 

I love you with the first light slinking through the blinds, with long hours of reading, with appointments and ultrasounds and so many pictures of Jackson as you are forming him. I love you when I pray laughing or weeping, or both at the same time. I love you with the bursting lilacs all those years ago, the first hours set down, that resound now. I love you with everything in me that is unfinished – with the poem that that line comes from, Robert Bly, I think.

I love you, Jesus. 

This is the well-worn prayer. This can carry us.

Love,
hilary

when i am listening to coldplay

Lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones.  

This song is in my top five of all time.

If I made you a playlist, sometimes, I wonder what story it would tell of me. I made one, right now, thinking about it, but I don’t know what the story is.

A story of trying.

A story of waiting.

A story of belonging, of leaving, thinking myself the one left behind sometimes.

But more a story of always being found.

I have a story about this song that I can’t quite remember, me standing in the back of a crowded gym after I had graduated from the school I love near my hometown. The a capella group in the school sang it, harmonies built with raw voices, and no one was afraid, and no one’s voice trembled. I think it was the time that I was so sure things would not come back together, after a year of the try hard and try even harder life…

And then they sang,

lights will guide you home. 

I don’t know how to explain this, exactly, but in the quiet tumult of these last weeks and months, I have been listening to it again.

lights with guide you home. 

That’s how I want my son’s journey into the world to be – lit up, illuminated, glowing with the fierceness of love.

That’s how I want all of us, the wild and ragged band of us, to journey through the world. I want us to live illuminated.

That try-hard life, it feels far from me now. It isn’t – I’ve asked so often for something to do, for an explanation of how I didn’t try hard enough, for a list of the should-have-dones, my voice cracks with over-asking. And some days I am heavy with the lie that we earn the life we have, that it is ours to possess, ours to control.

The truth is that Jackson belongs to me, but I don’t possess him. Jackson’s story, Preston’s story, my family’s stories, they belong in mine, and mine in theirs, but the stories aren’t ours, not our creation or our prop or our possession. The world shifts under you when there is a person arriving, a new life, a new wonder… and it all changes again, and you’re cradling your belly in front of the bank teller and you realize that you are not the same. That you don’t want the life that is hard won or earned – you want the life that is too full to be your doing.

You crave the life too full, too good, to graced with God’s intimacy, to have been your plan.

I remember that self in the high school gym, her with her try-hard tears and the weight of a world she doesn’t quite know yet on her shoulders, heaving them forward. I want to tell her that it will be okay, that she will learn in about two hundred and twenty weeks that she will not want the hard-won trying life anymore. I want to tell her that instead, she should let the words sink into her bones, nestle there. I want to promise that her life will be lit by the fierceness of love.

That her husband will love her so much better than the boy who didn’t see her.

That her son will kick her at the most extraordinarily right times, reminders of his abundant life even in the midst of what shadows, what feels dark.

That God will move, and keep moving, calling out from ahead and behind and next to her – Take heart! It is I – do not be afraid. 

That she will have, not a planned life, not a hard-tried and hard-earned and hard-won life. She will have a life softened and lit by love.

Lights will guide you home,
and ignite your bones

This time, I sing it softer. A lullaby. A reminder. A single, glimmering hope.

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

when I am keeping a quieter vigil

I have a thousand stories that I haven’t told.

It’s snippets of moments of remembering, the way that our hearts remembering, outside of time, bending it back and forth hoping that the truth of it will illuminate in the quiet, heartfelt, wondering places. Last year I wrote some of the stories down, a flood of remembering, in the way that when something changes you want to put it back together, make it a new story so that you can understand why and how and if it even was the way you thought it would be.

I have stories of high school, stories of college and the first floodlit after-years. I have stories about midnight drives through the towns of my childhood and ones about walking the dog on a marsh field with my mother in the cold before winter, thinking about how I never imagined being able to grow up, only to turn around and find that it was happening all along.

I have stories about the poems I used to write and the ones I write now, how my poetry is a scattered collection of skeletons, ideas that I love because they show me who I was not so long ago.

When I think about blogging (and, dear friends, it’s been such a long time since I’ve written over here), I think of all the stories I’ve been telling: stories of confirmation and falling in love, stories of Easter vigils and long car rides home, stories of missing my grandmother and letters to others about how to be unafraid of the beautiful monsters in our closets.

But today, as I sit in the sunlit corner of the building where I do most of my reading and writing these days, I realize that I am keeping a quieter vigil. These are the days of collecting stories, gathering them around me like echoes of the Psalms, stories to rage and stories to pray, stories of God’s wonder and God’s silent watchfulness, stories of me, learning and unlearning the world. These are the days when the world lights and darkens, when I watch the fan above the bed in the early morning, when winter is coming, when the seasons gather us on their unrelenting way.

I wonder if we are too quick to think all the stories are for the telling of them, and not our own hearing. I wonder if I am too quick to worry that I have been quiet on my blog, that so much has happened in these last few months and I’ve said so little, my space gathering a bit of gentle dust.

And then I wonder if the stories won’t be better, when they are told, for having been kept a little longer in a quieter vigil?

So, perhaps it is not so terrible that I am gathering the stories in, that I’m out on the plains of my life caught up in the work and worry and awe of living, and perhaps it is, even, a great and mysterious thing to be silent and watch it unfold, so that when I find words for the stories, find movement in my heart to tell them, there will be a richness that might not have been otherwise.

In my quieter vigil, I might write here or there, and I’m collecting the stories in notebooks and napkins, and oh, how good it will be to bring them forward in the time that is right. Vigil-keeping, it is a practice, a work, but we are the better for it.

I will leave you with this, a bit of what I’m pondering in the back of my notebook, in scribbles and half finished thoughts:

The goodness is sitting on a swinging bench. The goodness is next to us, near us in from of us and so why do we cry out except because we hope for more than an intangible idea we hope for a weighty glory of sunlight and dirt and squirrels climbing trees. I am along on this bench writing in my journal which is really a supposedly philosophical notebook and my pen keeps smudging as I go I remember the freewrites and how they must have been more about freedom than writing more about light and air touched and sensed and the scratching pen and distant frisbee thrower and how here in Texas the sky is a different color blue. Here the trees have grateful roots in dry ground, rain is a surprise and so always remains a gift like the freedom in writing. How can we know the world without knowing its beauty? 

Love,
hilary

i write to keep believing

Someone once told me that my blogging personality was like sweetened, condensed milk. She said it perched on the edge of the swiveling chair just inside the office where I worked. It was late on a Thursday and I was working overtime, filling in for someone on maternity leave, half-distracted, half-exhausted, maybe less than half-hearted. She swiveled, proud of the declaration, or maybe just the uniqueness of her metaphor, I’m not sure which. I must have turned around in an angry kind of way, asked “What?” in that biting tone girls perfect for and against each other, and she stopped twirling, poised to defend her view. “It’s not really how it is with you, is it, the stories you tell on your blog? It’s just… sweeter.”

I think tiredness offered me a good reason to accept defeat on the point, so I just nodded and started to close up the office. We didn’t talk about it again, but it still lingers, that metaphor, that question – is that really how it is with you – that makes me wonder whether I’m really being honest with anyone who happens to read this. Wonder if, somehow, I’m lying to myself.

Preston, a few years ago – “You have opinions and thoughts. And you should put them out there. Your blog should be a place you explore those things. Edgier.” I don’t remember the order he said those things, or if he said all of them, or if some are my interpretation mixed with his words mixed with the fog that accompanies memories. I do remember he was Skyping me from his kitchen while he made lunch for a friend of his. I do remember that we were still trying to figure out what being friends would mean to two people who had been so entangled in not-realized-it-yet love letters. I do remember that I was drinking iced green tea with lemon that my mother buys every summer from a plastic cup.

I wrote a post in response saying that I couldn’t write an edgy post because that wasn’t me. Sweetened, condensed milk me.

I wonder still whether I should have written about my opinions of education reform.

My counselor and I in a late January evening, the night black and the stars few and far between. Her office is warm and well-light, which makes the night seem blacker as I stare determinedly out the window. “I don’t want to talk about it.” And her wisdom, always pouring through – “But does anything grow the eating disorder as much as silence? As much as pretending it isn’t there?”

And so I blog a few posts and whisper in them the fears that feed it, the fears of enough, the fears of how I look and what it means and whether I am beautiful. I don’t want to say much more, and I go back week after week saying that I didn’t write or I didn’t really talk about it, and my counselor, and her wisdom: “But you will know the right places to talk about it, and the right people to talk about it to, won’t you?”

So I go back to writing about Jesus and the ordinary aches of a heart growing up, I put my one word in front of the other in a steady parade of characters on the screen.

This afternoon, when I’ve despaired over enough of the workload I have to leave it behind for a few hours, I ask Preston for a writing prompt. He reads me something from Joan Didion, about truth and fact and writing and why she keeps journals and the words dance by me too fast. But I start to think about this blog. Why do I write?

I don’t write for sweetness. I don’t write to make the days drift by in a haze of vague hopefulness or nice feelings.

I don’t write for edge – I don’t think I would even know anymore what that would be, a raw honesty that forgets the truth that spaces are our responsibility, that something belonging to us means we answer for what we bring forth into the world in it.

I don’t write, even, to keep a journal of what I have and haven’t done and accomplished and worked through or where I have or haven’t failed or fled.

I write, I discover, to keep believing.

I write to fix my hope in the firmness of the Resurrection. I write to hear Jesus calling for me. I write to believe that Jesus is calling for me, to believe that there is a wild calling on my life in the days where I don’t believe it. I write so that, in saying it out loud, I can hear it. My heart has a quiet voice sometimes next to the girl in my head with her giant megaphone, and I write to hear over the noise of my life.

I write to believe, to keep believing.

O Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief. 

I don’t think I have ever told anyone that’s what I pray most of the time when I sit down to blog.

Except, now, you.

I don’t remember a word of the Joan Didion quote Preston read me. But maybe the point of it wasn’t to remember that, but to remember this: that writing is getting quiet enough to hear and believe in Jesus, writing is making my heart louder than my head. 

And writing is receiving: grace enough.