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.

Love,
hilary

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dear jackson: the work on the ground

Dear Jack,

I have begun so many letters to you. Each one drifts away from me in the busyness of joy, this business you set me about, to be your mother, to become your mother. Day in and day out, you set me back on the ground, back at the beginning. You are learning to sit on your own, and you always turn back to me, grin widening to let me in on the secret – that all the work begins here on the ground. You turn back to your toys and you press the button one more time, the music comes back on, you clap your hands, we repeat.

All the work begins here on the ground.

This was the time, last year, of my first letter to you, named as you are, Jacks, Jackson, Jack. More often we call you buddy. Most often we call out to you with our laughter, and you call us with yours.

Last year I told you that you might need a little help breathing and eating. That was true, but last year it was so new and we pricked our fingers trying to hold all the hard words at once, searching the damp and crinkly pages of the ultrasound for answers. It was rushed and we were trying to be unafraid for you. I want to reach back to me then, I want to reach back with you and your laughter, your smile that is wide enough for past and future, for a world good and difficult. I want to reach back through the folds and wrinkles of time to tell her that it is you, learning to sit on your own, who can make us unafraid. That it will be you teaching, not me.

This time last year I wrote to you, afraid as I was that we wouldn’t begin on the right foot with the right language with the right protections around you. This time last year I thought my skin and muscles and bones weren’t enough to keep you safe in the world where most people have never examined a stoma in a neck, where most people don’t know how a barium swallow study is performed, where to have only one eye or only one ear is to beg a question – “So someday, will he look normal?” This time last year I thought I was to stand in the gap, stretched far and wide like the thin coils of wire that hold up bridges. I would be the wire and the bridge, I would be the guard and the keeper, I would be safety, salt and light.

I imagine someone might think I’m telling you too much about myself, the ways I thought, the things I feared. But transformation’s not a work I want to hide from you, not anywhere, and I’m in a chrysalis too, little one, and you should know how much of me God keeps changing.

I wrote you a letter May 9 last year, afraid to fail in giving you exactly whatever was right to give you. I was up high above the ground, whispering over and over, making rope and a bridge out of Jesus’s words, take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. But here you are, calling me to the ground. All the work begins here on the ground, here where we take off our shoes. I wanted to build you a bridge to keep you from what I feared was a dangerous world, a dangerous life.

Instead you have brought me to the ground of your life, you have set me to work unraveling the rope I wove so tightly, fear coiled inside it. You have set me here, among your favorite toys – Sophie the giraffe and the multicolored hedgehog, your zebra blanket, the orchestra turtle – and here I see how you haven’t needed me to build you a bridge or carry you away, you’ve just wanted me here sitting with you, clapping and singing and making animal sounds, doing it all on repeat.

It is impossible to write, Jack, what you’ve taught me, but the closest I can come is to tell you that I am here on the holy ground of your life unraveling a bridge I didn’t need to build, neck deep in love with the self you’re becoming. You lift up your arms to meet mine and we laugh. We reach back to a year ago, we pull that woman down to the ground with us, to pull her into the holy, into the good. You reach around for another toy to shake. You laugh again.

All the work begins on the ground, buddy.

Love,
mom

 

until every good gift is given

The shower is just a little too hot. I’m weak-kneed still from the work of bringing Jack into the world. I steady myself against the walls. I feel each minute pass. I feel the weight of the water, the easy way that I breathe. How I long for Jackson to know how easy it is to breathe. How I long for that miracle of breath, that gift, to have been given differently. How grateful I am, in the tangled way of things, that it is a gift God will not rest until He has given it.

Jesus and I have never before had so much and so little to say. I keep entering the throne room, watching and waiting, and I can’t see anything. And the throne room becomes the ocean and I am unsteady on my feet. My boat is gone, the night is thick and starless. And the ocean becomes the desert and I am the Israelites wandering their 40 years, every sky an impossible hope for manna. And the desert becomes the ark, and there is the steadiness of that water from the shower – the rain that falls, keeps falling.

The throne room is the ocean.

How many weeks did we walk on water, Jesus? How many hours did I lean late into the night, walk the space of Jackson’s room, the kitchen, the living room, praying the prayers I had never known to be possible? How many nights did You come towards me, those words repeated? Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid. How long did we kneel together, Lord, the three of us somehow dwelling together in this feeble self of mine, in this feeble house? And it is here in the midst of the ocean that You declared Yourself King over the lights, the lives.

The throne room is the ocean, and the ocean is the desert.

The NICU measures the world in three hour increments. The lights do not tell time, and minute by minute, feeding by feeding, we watch the joy of our hearts grow, become more himself, reveal his personality: strong arms, strong legs. He sleeps like me, hands curled up by his face. I wonder every morning in the shower whether we might yet get a phone call, a miracle reported, whether we might walk in to discover everything changed. Morning by morning, no report comes back. I wake up each day desperate for manna. Jack grows, we rejoice. How many sets of three hours have I lived?

The throne room is the ocean, and the ocean is the desert, and the desert is the ark.

We have lived days and nights of rain, the seas swelling far higher than our small boat. We have lived inside the smallest perimeter – hallway and bed and bits of highway in between. We have lived, and are still living. We sent out a dove – we wait in the ark for the promise of dry land, the olive branch.

The throne room the ocean the desert the ark. They are one. They are the places of God’s unthinkable nearness. They are the places of encounter. They are the places where I walk out with my son, with our family now made more whole than we knew it could be, day by day, minute by minute. Your living is your prayer, my mother tells me. You are alive, you are still living. This is the prayer of the throne room, the ocean, the desert, the ark. God is unthinkably close. The world is difficult, beautiful, and new.

He will not rest until every good gift has been given.

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

a story about learning

I was on my way out of the classroom on a Thursday when he handed back my paper. In it, he told me he had been honest, as I had asked. And then, as I kicked gravel under my Puma sneakers in the hazy fall sun, I read his comments.

He told me that I was a better writer than what I had produced. That I had, in my gleeful mistaken assumptions about the author, the text, the implications of the words on the page, taken offense to the author of the text. I could have done much better, he wrote. 

I cried about it hysterically on the car ride home, one of those few days when I was picked up alone by my Dad and we got donuts from Dunks on our way back to our old red house, the home of what I thought was my list of ceaseless triumphs. I am a good girl ever being re-formed back into a whole self, and in high school, I ran myself hard in marathons of expectations and disappointments, the weight of each heavy in my heart. 

There is something about being new to graduate school that, if you’re new or old there, or new or old in any kind of work, big or small, apparent or hidden, that keeps making me think of that high school version of me. 

I was so unwilling to allow for wrong. I was so unwilling to believe that some things are learned by slow osmosis. By a silence that enters and changes us, by a year upon year returning to the same question the same text the same author the same gracious God who is over and through and in all. No, I would tell myself in the walk between buildings, you must learn immediately and remember forever. You must never make the same mistake twice. You must never relearn something you should have known or were already taught. 

It was true for me in French class, loathing my forgetfulness of the conditionnel passé. It was true in theater, forgetting a line or a gesture that was all-important in the scene that we had already rehearsed. It was true in friendship. It was true in faith. 

So by the time I was a senior hearing my favorite teacher tell me that I was, in fact, a better writer than what I had turned in, I cried hysterically on the way home because his words meant I had to relearn something. I had to go back. I had to try again. I had to revisit something I believed I should have already mastered. And that must mean, I thought, that I was never capable of knowing it at all. That I was never going to be smart enough. That I was never going to see the light or come to a good conclusion or write a better paper. If I couldn’t do it perfectly now I could never do it. 

Eventually, I realized God was there. 

I don’t mean footsteps, or whispers in fire or rain or wind. I mean the slow awakening, that itself is the result of practice, of grace received, of many mistakes. And ours is not a God who believes in instant mastery. 

There is no lesson that is not to be relearned. There is nothing to be either good at (and capable of) or bad at (and incapable of) in the most important works we do. There is natural gifting, yes, but how gracious and wild and freeing is it that even those with abundant gifts are given the same tasks to work at, again and again? 

That we are all taught to trust God over the whole of life – each season, each event, each uncertainty – and that such relearning is not for the faint of heart only but also for the strong? 

That we are tasked to revise, reimagine, recreate, relearn the most glorious things about God in the most mundane and everyday ways? 

Because there is nothing new under the sun and that makes everything new. 

I can’t do it – faith, graduate school, philosophy, creating a family, learning to cook, teaching – any of it, perfectly, and I don’t serve a God who sees me as a failed marathon runner in expectation and disappointment. 

I serve a God who retaught His disciples the same things about the kingdom of heaven in many parables. I serve a God who reteaches the people Israel the meaning of trust in Him, in manna, in the stories of Abraham and all the faithful, in the prophets. I serve a God who is unafraid to teach me again the things I couldn’t understand, didn’t do right or perfectly or well, the first time. 

Maybe in all of us there is a hidden high-school self that is asking us why we can’t just wake up and not need to relearn all the things we keep needing to relearn. Maybe in the work you do, wherever you are, there is a self asking why you think you can do it at all since you couldn’t the first time, the thirtieth time, the hundredth time. 

To that voice, in as much love as I can muster, I say: there, in the repetition, in the almost-giving-up, is the God who leaves us breathless with how He loves to teach us the same things for the thousandth time. 

We don’t need to be afraid to re-learn. 

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: the solitary inch

Dear Hilary,

I’m sorry. I say I’m sorry probably approximately 218 times per day. I say it to basically anyone about basically anything. It’s my catchall, my secret weapon. Say I’m sorry and then the conflict can end, right? But lately I’ve started to hate the word sorry. I use it when I don’t think I mean it. I use it when I’m just tired and want to not be having the conversation anymore, when the explanations for myself run dry or I don’t know how to justify being sad or being angry or being any of the emotions I’ve spent my whole life putting in the, “THIS IS DANGEROUS LOCK IT IN A BOX” category of my heart. I don’t know what to do. I am mad at myself for being mad at myself, or sorry about how often I say sorry. Help?

Love,
I’m sorry for even asking this

Dear I’m Sorry,

Hey love.

Been a little while since you’ve let all that out, eh?

Or maybe just a few days, if you’re like me, and you sit in the counselor’s office and say the same things week after week, that you don’t know how to build a person who believes in herself as herself because the habits run deep, habits of denial and apology and habits of self-deprecation and self-doubt, habits of keeping those emotions at bay so that now they loom out at you in the night and  you really didn’t feel like you had to apologize about that thing you said or worried about or over-thought, but you did and now you don’t know how to take it back and you think you’ll always be like that, always the one in the wrong, even though yes you know that it’s supposed to be shared and aren’t you just a failure for not sharing it better, eh?

Sound familiar?

It’s an agonizing discernment, when we’ve done wrong. We avoid it, all of us. All. Of. Us. You included. Yes, I bet you didn’t see that coming. I didn’t either. I assumed for the longest time that I was the only person in the world who was able to be accurate about what was her fault – everything. Every fight. Every misunderstanding. Every agony.

And in doing that, I built the safest protection of all: protection from the truth.

Because here it is, the uglier truth: by apologizing for everything when you know perfectly well not everything is actually your fault, you’ve excused yourself from really owning your wrongs. You’ve allowed yourself to think that there isn’t really anything wrong with you except the deliciously dramatic EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE and so by doing that, you’re keeping the real work, the work of looking at a fight and saying, “that was ugly and fierce and mean” at bay. You try to take the whole thing into yourself and in doing so you sneakily get your fix of absolution. You get the control back. You get the safe feeling back.

Let’s be free of that, shall we?

You will have done some things very wrong in this life. You will have done some things very right. Sometimes you will fight a good fight and at the end you will both cry and rage and not be sure how you made it through but you did. And sometimes you will stay in the same place and some times you will need to gather your courage like a fur coat around you and plunge into the winter of being risky and vulnerable and not say sorry as a way to escape the fight but only say it after you’ve fought longer and harder than you want to know the truth, to live the truth.

Most days it will be only one single solitary inch of work. Most days it will seem like nothing, like you’re still doing what you’ve always done, falling back into saying “sorry” as a way to make it all better or make it all go away (or make it all belong to you). Most days being in a fight will still terrify the living crap out of you and you will think, I am going to die. But you are not. You are going to live.

You are going to live more gloriously, too. With every solitary inch of work. With every moment of saying, “Am I sorry? Is this mine?” you move. You move that inch and that inch is full of glory.

I’ve long given up the ghost on becoming “perfect” at not being a perfectionist. I am one, and it moves and lives, and the solitary inch has to be full of glory because most of the time that is just what we can do. It is glory-full, even when it isn’t done exactly right or you still apologize too much or you’re still kind of controlling.

Every solitary inch of work we do is glory-full.

Love,
hilary

for when love is desperate

I woke up in the haze of the night, that space where the sunrise is slowly bleeding into the day, where rain casts an enormous shadow, where there are things like jury duty and immediate deadlines and the last plane ride of the man back to Texas.

Sitting in the eerie, half empty room with the other wanderers with their bleary-eyed coffee, their newspapers and knitting, their snuck-in granola bars eaten quietly, it struck me that this journey is almost over – well, perhaps, almost begun. Or both.

I can’t tell you why, but when they dismissed us – justice reached between the hallways and the bank of elevators – and I was driving back in to work, to meet that deadline, it hit me: this is the man I’m marrying.

This is him.

I started to laugh, but at the same time I started to cry. I was laughing and crying along a 10 mile stretch of road that I have never seen before, with small clumps of pansies blooming in the median boxes, the rain still hesitantly pounding the windshield, and two UPS trucks turning left and right and me in between them. I was laughing at myself, at this beautiful world, at the fact that in that moment I realized it:

I’m marrying the person I always and never imagined.

I had to tell myself that I was still driving, that this is the middle of the workday, that the world is racing past me and there are places to go and deadlines to meet, because in a moment, I am a heap of tears and shaky breathing and laughter, so much laughter it seemed to rebound off the walls and windows, carrying me.

I think this must be what it is like to fall desperately in love.

Not a hurricane, no, but the steady second, third, hundredth time falling into love. This is the we’ve been engaged for a long while now, the we know who does the dishes and sets the table, the ordinary missed words and not missed eye-rolls, who loves hummus and who loves sea urchin, where she always forgets her glasses and where he always puts down the car keys. This is the falling in love again with all the familiar, with all the still-surprising, with the way that love turns out to be eating leftovers on the floor or walking to the pond when the sun finally comes out and warms the earth.

I always imagined that it would be as simple as that, the person as inevitable as breathing. I never imagined it would be so good, goodness essential as breathing.

This isn’t the post where I can say anything profound about love, other than I didn’t realize how much you keep falling into it. How you fall into it, again and again, when you realize that this person still thinks you’re the best thing that has ever happened when you oversleep and mess up plans and forget things. How the fact that he knows how much I love hummus and steak makes me cry. Or how he never lets a day go by where he says, “Hello, beautiful,” and there I am, hopelessly falling into love.

This is the post where I say that I spent that drive laughing and crying because I’m getting married to Preston. Because it’s the hundredth time I’ve fallen in love with him, and love it wild, and sometimes I could cry with how extraordinary it is. And laugh.

Love,
hilary