when the writing happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
hilary

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

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

 

dear jackson: about your dad’s second book

Dear Jacks,

You are finally asleep. You have taken to resisting it unless someone is holding you, rocking you, standing up… you have a pretty specific list. I love how much you already seem to know about what makes you happy: our faces, your bright red fox toy, your yellow and purple rattle. You light up this world, you light up the rooms where you are. You’ve caught the hearts of your nurses and your doctors, and that smile – oh Jack, that smile – we will do almost anything to see that smile, to catch it for just another second.

Last night your dad gave you a bath. You smiled and smiled and smiled at him. You already know a lot about your dad. He is the one who sings to you with the record player, the one who catches you up in his arms, keeps you safe, rolls you over and over, tummy to back and back again, helping you be strong. He is so good at that work, helping us be strong.

I want to tell you about your dad’s book – Out of the House of Bread. In the chaos of your arrival the months slipped by. I meant to write this when he finished it, as soon as we knew about you last year. I meant to write this all summer, while we were waiting to meet you. I meant to write this all fall, and time rushed past, slow and too fast all at once.

Your dad wrote a book that kept me, that keeps me, tethered to a life of prayer. It is a book about bread. It is a book about talking to God. But Jacks, this is the thing. It is a book where Dad lays out gently, moment by moment, practice by practice, ways for people to connect to Jesus. It comes out next week, right before you are four months old.

You must have heard him pray, all those long months while you were growing inside me? He would close his eyes and place his hand over you, and you would kick him back with your fierce assertions that you were listening, that you were there. He would pray with the Psalmist, pray with Scripture, pray with wonder. He would help me pray the examen. He would pray, day in and day out. He still prays this way.

Your dad wrote a book about prayer. I bought you a copy. I know someday, when you have questions (because we all have questions) about this living conversation with God, about the work of prayer, this is the book I will want to have ready to give you.

The kitchen is a place of great prayer in this house, Jacks. When you have questions about the work of prayer, I will tell you to go into the kitchen. I will tell you that there, sitting with your dad, I learned to pray.

Chances are good Dad will be in there, his hands full of spices or dough, his eyes alight. Chances are good that the kitchen will be a place where you go to talk with God. Chances are good that God will meet you, again and again, along the hallways and among the smells and tastes in this home.

When you ask me what to do, what to pray, I will offer you this book. I will offer you this kitchen, so well loved by your dad. I will tell you that this is where God meets us.

Your dad will teach us so much about prayer. Much of it will be lived, something we can’t write down. Some of it he wrote down, in this book, and we can read it again and again and practice it together, the three of us and everyone God sends to join us on the way.

I wanted to tell you this, Jacks – your dad is a man of prayer. I can’t wait for you to ask me those questions. I can’t wait to give you this book.

Love,
mom