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.

Love,
hilary

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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.

Love,
hilary

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.

grace, a year later (sharing at Christie Purifoy’s)

I get the chance to share a piece at one of my very favorite writers, Christie Purifoy. Her book wrapped me up in a new way to see the seasons, in the world, in my life, in this always-beginning relationship with God, anew. It has meant so much to me, and I’m honored to share at her space today. Join me?

Here is a little excerpt:

I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.

Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.

We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.

Keep reading, over at Christie’s?

Love,
hilary

dear jackson: on daring, and prayer

Dear Jackson,

When you were small, in what feels like a different country, hidden behind hills of time, when you lived in the country called the NICU, I used to number the minutes. I used to count your breaths, the dip and climb of your oxygen. I used to pray each time you inhaled that the breath would come back out and that you would take another one. I prayed single words as you breathed – keep. breathing. one. more. breath. It was not that you were in imminent danger, exactly – the doctors told us daily that you were stable, that you were safe – but having once witnessed what it was for you to cry out for oxygen, I could never shake the need to count each rise and fall of your chest.

Today I realized I have stopped counting.

Now I watch the rise and fall of your chest with a confidence that comes, not from the little tube we slip in your neck each week, not from the nurse who watches over you in the long nights, but from you.

It comes from how you run from your room to the record player, how you bring us the puffs when you want more, how you love to be chased down the hallways. It comes from how you laugh when you see us, hair sticking up wildly in all directions, when you wake up from naps. It comes from how you press against me in this phase of being afraid of strangers and then how you push away from me back into the world. You are daring, you are adventurous, because you feel safe.

And so I stopped counting your breaths.

I tell you this as a way of telling you something about prayer. I prayed once by counting. And now that I have stopped, that I have dared to believe you’ll breathe without being watched, I find myself at a loss for how to pray. It was easy when there was panic, to keep me focused, to keep the demand right in front of God. Is this trust, I wonder as I watch you attempt to crawl up onto the couch? Is it resignation?

We are in a new country, God and I, unfamiliar and brighter. I have to squint my eyes to make out the horizons of where I think I might be going. In the old country of the NICU, the only way I could talk at all was to yell and to count. Now I have stopped counting and stopped yelling – what is left? How will I begin to say something again?

 

 

So I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, together with the Father who is without beginning and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages Amen.

I once memorized the feel of these syllables in my mouth, in the anxious wanderings of my freshly 18 year old heart, my knees knocking as I stood in the unfamiliar familiar, Greek and English twisting up and out, past icons and candles, the singing. Every Amen is a comma in the Eastern Church, a pause in the endlessness of worship. I would walk in, often a few minutes late from idling in the car afraid to walk in alone, worship having already begun. I would leave clutching the blessed bread from the priest’s warm hands, a piece of the liturgy to go into the world with me. Every Amen a comma, a pause.

Back then I thought it proved something to pray conspicuously. I would go into the small windowless study room on my floor, a few doors down from my room, holding a small white spiral bound book of Orthodox prayers – all but announcing my piety to the tangle of women walking the hallway or simply finding the time to take a shower, do their homework, sink their roots into college. I would fumble through the prayers at noon, holding a knotted bracelet to count repetitions of the Jesus prayer. I would make confession, ask forgiveness, pray in a more righteous voice as time went on. I hid my heart in the glorious prayers of other people – surely, God would be more impressed with me if I prayed in ancient words instead of my own.

But I want to tell you, Jack, you whose spirit is full of daring, full of courage, full of light – prayer for me now is laughter. Prayer is silence, prayer is half-formed thoughts I say in between tickling your stomach. Prayer is singing “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” night after night and feeling your head sink onto my shoulder as you remember where we are all going – out into that Jordan River, out towards home.

Do not be afraid if someday you reach for words – your own, the Church’s – and you find your hands come back to you empty. Do not be afraid if you come out of one type of prayer and walk the road for a long while without knowing what to say next.

Every Amen is a comma, a pause, and courage is sometimes pausing long enough to feel God’s friendship in the weight of your son on your shoulder. That is prayer enough. God hears.

Love,
mom

a story about skin to skin

I got to share some words over at Lisa-Jo Baker’s space yesterday– words about mothering, words about what I had expected from my first pregnancy and how everything and nothing changed when Jack made his grand entrance into the world. It’s a day late to be posting but of course, the real work of mothering involves convincing a 14-month-old that it really is raining outside (getting into coats and boots and going outside, then crying, then coming inside…).

It’s a story about the wondrous hard work of mothering. It’s a story that you have all helped me write, as you ponder with me this walk into being someone’s mom. It’s a story you’ve taught me to see, in all your comments and prayers and well wishes. I know it’s been quiet around these parts, but the semester is ending and there is new space carved into my week to write and reflect.

I can’t wait to walk through it with you.

I spent a year and 20 days grieving an empty five minutes. They were the first minutes of my son’s life, minutes of quick, quiet NICU intervention hidden from me where I lay, bleeding profusely onto the delivery room floor, the doctor remembering three stitches in that she hadn’t in fact given me an anesthetic before starting to sew me back together. They were the five minutes I had once imagined as the moments of transformation, the moments I thought I would become a mother, the moments when I would begin, if there is such a thing as beginning after nine months of pregnancy…

Keep reading over at Lisa-Jo’s?

love,
hilary

dear jack: one

Dear Jack,

Today you are one. You said “mama” to me yesterday, looking straight at me, babbling it over and over and over as you pivoted in your trademark style, tried to turn over the trash can, unplug a light and topple a bookcase. This morning we went outside – the air is finally cool and light against our skin – and you stood up on your own on the sidewalk and looked at me defiantly. You’ll take the step when you want to, and you want me to understand that clearly.

Before you were born, there was a lot we didn’t know. We didn’t know what it meant to have only one eye and ear. We didn’t know what cleft surgeries were like, the stiff smell of sanitizer in the room where we waited for you to come out of surgery. We didn’t know the particular beeps of oxygen saturation monitors, when they dip a little low, or too low.

But I talk about that a lot, don’t I? And today, on your birthday, I want you to hear what we did know. What we have always known.

 You belong.

We always knew that. We knew that in the first search for your heartbeat at 9 weeks, the first ultrasound at 12 and the second that become the next seven. We knew that when I was sweating through the fetal MRI, and when we drove back and forth to the hospital. We knew that through timid genetic counselors and surgeons and phone calls. We named you and we knew you. You belonged from the beginning, and we belong with you.

You know what else we knew, buddy? We knew that a different body doesn’t make it a broken one. We told you – did you hear us back then? – that you are the very fullness of the image of God and Jesus rises with his hands and feet and side split and opened and these are what the world calls broken but we call glorious. You have always been the fullness of that image.

We knew it then and we learn it from you every day. And we learn to keep electrical cords and breakable cups out of sight, that the trash can in the bathroom makes the best drum, that it’s better to ride in the big laundry basket and that our laughter is funny enough to laugh at.

All this ordinary glory.  One year doesn’t seem like enough time to contain it all. Time itself seems to have stretched to make room for all that you’ve given us.

One year ago, you took your first few breaths. John the respiratory therapist helped you, but you pulled your breathing tube out on your own when the nurses weren’t looking. And every day since, you’ve lived fully and unapologetically and determinedly, and you’ve pulled out trach and gtube and laughed at me while doing it, you’ve learned to sit up and stand and crawl and almost walk even though they said you were “disenfranchised” and you never look back unless to check that we’re keeping up. You pull us into the gift of your life. There won’t be enough words for it, maybe ever.

When you were born, you took all my old life away with all its old thoughts and fears, all its questions, and those first few breaths, you gave me back a life that’s bigger.

I’ve always loved you with my whole heart. One year in, Jack, I love you with the whole heart that you’ve made wider.

Love,
mom