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.


dear hilary: if the impossible is true

Dear Hilary,

I’m learning a lot about probabilities right now, and how to apply them. I’m learning that there are high probabilities for some things and low ones for others, based on evidence, based on prior ideas or beliefs, based on… you name it.

What if there is no probability for something? What if there is no probability that God is real, the way you talk about God? Is trusting in something that isn’t really trustworthy is a bad idea?


Dear Probably,

I have a high probability for believing that I am sitting in my apartment typing this to you. I have a low probability for believing I am a brain in a vat, or secretly a monkey typing on a typewriter into infinity. I suppose lots of things are possible, but they have low probability.

Honestly, though, what a curious idea – that you would measure belief by something like probability, up and weigh and judge things by how rational they are and seem. It’s not a bad way of going on for some things, but it isn’t the only way we measure belief. It isn’t the only way we measure familiarity or trustworthiness.

So maybe I wonder whether the probability of me being a brain in a vat or being a monkey typing on a typewriter to achieve Shakespeare’s Hamlet is really in the end the best way to think about your questions about God.

The Incarnation kind of messes around with all our probability.

What is that line, from the L’Engle poem? Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the Child.

Probability is a way of filling the room, the paper, the equation, with reason. And sometimes, when you’re filled up with reason, there is no room for the Child. There is no room for the Incarnation in its particular, improbable, unyieldingly unlikely way, to live in your heart.

I’m just now learning a lot about probability and probability calculus. I’m learning about how much we trust something based on what appears to us to be true or on what an authority says versus what we see, or think we see…

There is a beauty to what it can show you about how you think. There is a goodness and a truth to it, too. But there is this resistant, stubborn part of my heart, or maybe the whole of my heart, that says even when it is good and helpful, it’s not everything.

The improbable is sometimes remarkably true. And our measure of believing in that improbable truth can’t be contained in the neat lines of a pencil on a calculus problem on graph paper.

Had Mary been filled with reason. Maybe this is a post about reasonable-ness, that elusive thing we so often want to defend us. We want to be justified in being angry and hurt and confused when something happens, or being elated and grateful and full of joy. We want reasonableness to keep us on the straight and narrow, give us the right opinions, protect us from being fools or from being in error. We want a hedge of protection around the happenings of the world.

There’d had been no room for the Child.

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that we should stretch enough to make room for?

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that makes room for us?

I want to tell you, young philosopher in the making, you who seek the probability, the justified and justifiable reasons, and even you, who might be reading this, who think that the best thing is the most probable thing –

Welcome the wonder of the impossible: the Lord, come among us as a child.

Let us make room.


I’m leaning harder

“You’ve changed.” He tells me this as we’re getting ready to turn in for the night among the whir of electric toothbrushes and the ripples of the brush through my hair. I turn, still trying to loose stray knots from the red lion’s mane around my neck. “Changed?”

I know you’re thinking that this is an obvious one: marriage changes you. 

He nods. “Yeah. You’re more sure of yourself. You’re leaning harder into Jesus, too.”

We keep talking, our voices circling in the dark, how things are new and different, how my thinking has sharpened on some things, how we’ve both learned to weigh and sift our words anew, because we live with someone who wears our words like birth marks on their skin. We slowly drift into the silence, the comforting dark of another day that has been put to rest.

But I can’t fall asleep. I’m still thinking about that, the leaning harder, the change.

It’s not that marriage changes you that surprises me: it’s the weight of the change. It’s the way you carry the change in your ribcage and guard it like your bones guard your heart. How you feel it differently, more than just self-awareness or increased confidence or courage, feel it some more physical than that, feel it in those tugging counts of the hairbrush and in the whirring electric toothbrush.

I’ve said for years I don’t do change well. That I’m a creature of habits of my own making, that if I want to be spontaneous I want to the only one in control of that spontaneity, the one who decides to change the plan. I’ve declared foolishly that I’m just not very good at it and thought it would be a sufficient excuse to never have to do it. I thought God would give me a pass on transformation bigger than the ones I say I’m ready for.

But the Spirit moves us along in the wiser pace – the pace we wouldn’t set for ourselves. So here I am, being changed in big ways, ways that make even the word marriage bigger because it has now begun to mean all that changing, all that becoming between me and my husband and our voices circling in the dark.

I’m weak-kneed from the changing. Maybe that’s why I lean so much harder. Maybe we lean into Jesus not out of the virtue of feeling like we have the time, or we simply desire it – maybe we lean in desperation. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength, and his joy in my changing in the ways that are perhaps much more than I wanted is the strength in me to do the changing, to submit to the changing.

So I lean harder on Jesus because Jesus calls the change forth from me in this marriage, in the little ark of family that my husband and I make every day, and because Jesus is the way to change.

But what about that other part? Me being more sure of myself?

I’m still awake, my eyes searching the ceiling, my hands over the blanket, tracing a pattern in the quilt. Most of the changes these past weeks make me weak-kneed, remember? So how can that make me sure of myself?

In an Orthodox church near my hometown there is an icon of Mary, called in Greek the platytera, which means “wider” or “more spacious.”  The icon is of Mary, her womb a golden circle with Christ inside, holding up a hand in blessing. Mary’s hands are outstretched, a position of prayer.

I think about that icon often, for it puts an image to the meaning of Christian – to be a bearer of Christ. To bear Christ in this world, even as Mary did. Somehow this is not separated from her hands in prayer, the way that she is presenting Christ to the congregation in the icon, even as she presented him while he was on earth and even now as we in turn are sent out each week to put on Christ, to see Christ in one another.

Maybe being sure of myself is in this: I am learning what it means to put on Christ, and therein lies my real self, my self that is raised to new life in the power of Jesus. Maybe being sure of myself is not a confidence but a clinging, my own hands and weak knees opened in prayer, my own feeble heart even now becoming more of a home for the living God.

“I’ve changed.”

I whisper the words in the dark as I begin to fall asleep. Perhaps it is its own prayer.

Keep me leaning on you, Jesus, where I can be sure of myself.


when this is a thought about marriage

Preston starts his posts with that word, “when” – an invitation, I think, to realize the passing of time and the not-passing-of-time, the way when you sit to read his words you remember that you are exactly where you are, reading, in your kitchen or on your iPad. It’s funny how the vocabulary of the one you love begins to seep into your own, their words swirled next to yours, the way tea steeps in a mug on an early morning.

I’ve been thinking about marriage – maybe that’s not so surprising – and when I think about it, inevitably, I start thinking about the ways we talk about marriage. I think about the advice blogs, the story-becoming-advice blogs, the blogs that remind us that this a great big work, different from anything we’ve tried before, blogs that remind us that this is also the most normal unfolding of life, the most apparently inevitable thing, the way that they hold your hand or kiss you good morning is the only thing that could be.

And my head fills with other people’s thoughts faster than its own sometimes, trying to think my way into wisdom about marriage, sewing a patchwork quilt of what other people have done and thought and tweeted and posted and shared. But my stitches fumble, and when I look over at him in the quiet of the morning, the pieces slip to the floor. I can’t read my way into being good at marriage. I can’t repost or borrow or sew together thoughts to cover us in the moments when we don’t understand each other, or those moments, even more surprising, when we understand better than anyone else ever has.

And maybe, before journeying down the road of what someone here and there says will make this work, I must close my eyes, lean into what is right in front of me. The way he says hi on Skype, ties his tie when we are going out to dinner, the way we laugh or curl up to watch Game of Thrones together or the way that we  both know when it’s a night to stay in, instead of go out, a night to pray, a drive where we will talk about deep things in the church or a drive where we will ask about our favorite praise songs growing up.

Once, before Preston and I got together, before the full unfolding that would be this love story, I went for a walk with a friend. It was warm, the end of May in New England, when the world bursts green and the sun plays with the trees, throwing its light on everyone who passes by. We walked, talking about marriage, talking about love, and I remember so desperately wanting to store up everything she said, learn and memorize her words until they sang out from me as if they were mine. But as she talked, and we wandered out of the woods, back into a small cluster of houses around a pond, the afternoon stretched long and we leaned into it.

She didn’t want me to memorize her stories. She was telling me as a way to push me towards discovering my own. She was sharing about her life, her marriage, not as blueprint but as beautiful, as the wonder of how God led her and her husband into and out of each thing. She was telling me, not because she knew best, but because she knew how much of the story we must write on our own.

I don’t know if I believed her at the time. But I do believe her, now, in the months that still stretch out before our wedding, in the nights in and out, the jeans and sweatshirts and the salsa dancing club and all the wonder of the in-between every day learning each other.

It isn’t a blueprint. It’s just all, always, beautiful.


dear brothers

Dear brothers,

You’re each in your own worlds a bit these days, high school and college, relationships and summertime, work and landscaping and extra physics prep and climbing trees. You’re together in some of those worlds, when you disappear into the cave of the living room to play video games or watch Duck Dynasty or the Sox game.

I don’t think I tell you often enough how much you have been teaching me.

Take that drive home for instance, the other night, when you were willing to listen to me while we played Eric Church off my iPod, how you told me about your excitement for our someday-families being close to each other, about the cousins we haven’t ever had before, about the wonder, about the time. You and I don’t always talk about the future, and we’re in a forever competition about who knows more Harry Potter trivia (you do, but I will never give up the fight on it), but when you said that I could feel that future smile at us from wherever it lives right now. I could imagine it, all the siblings drawn closer together, children and spouses and laughter, more food than we could possibly eat, the sun lingering on the horizon line just for us, just for those summers.

You heard me, and I heard that you have a bigger heart and a braver one and that man, I have so much to learn from you about the kind of love that really forgives and forgets and chooses joy even when we’re pissed off. Do you know that? That those years of Calvin and Hobbes at the kitchen table, the years of us eating with paper napkins and a simply set table and not having the cable or the new computers – that all of that, it has made you a tremendous man? This past winter, when I realized I was homesick for you even though we live in the same house, I tramped out through the snow to where you were creating a different world, your imagination still wilder and wider than most, and you taught me how to climb the tree and look out over the back yard, even though I’m scared of heights? Do you remember that? And how you taught me about building your own forge from the bits of old metal we don’t need anymore laying around behind the shed and even though we didn’t say much afterwards, that afternoon I sat on my bed and cried and laughed with God that you, my youngest brother, are who you are.

And then there are the coffee mornings, older younger brother, and how we slip into a routine without realizing it, our hearts beating out on our sleeves, in the quiet space we draw between eggs and toast and unlimited refills. There are those mornings when I confess my jealousy to you, where you teach me how to ask forgiveness, really ask for it, where I tell you that I am afraid I might never find what I’m looking for and you so gently remind me how much of it has already found me.

You and I drying the dishes while the kids we love refuse to fall asleep and their parents will be home soon? You and I watching Raylan (me terrified), the house gone to bed? You teach me to love the every day and to be watchful over the people I love. You teach me to care more about the condition of my kindness than my clothes and to treat others with more respect than I would probably offer on my own. I run upstairs to you in the midst of the visit that is changing my life and you’re awake, and we lie on our mattresses and talk into the night about how this is becoming real, and you’re there with wisdom and patience and you remind me that God is good. And on the drive home from church and lunch I caught my breath again because I saw a truck that looked like yours and I remembered that in our family you are always the first to offer peace to our hearts and slowest to anger and in this, God shows me what it means to love as He loves. I saw a truck that looked like yours, and I just had to smile. What a gift you are.

So brothers, who are so different and yet of one mind, all I wanted to ramble about in this blog post, which has gone on a long while now, is that you teach me, and you remind me, between Duck Dynasty and the grill and the summertime, that there is not one thing in this world quite like having brothers – and not one thing in this world like you.

your sister

this is where I learn something

A day is not a long time. 24 hours, minutes ticked by in neat regular fashion, so many of them already dressed in the colors of what we must do – emails that need writing, conferences that need planning, phone calls and food and sleep and sweating to Zumba routines in your brother’s bedroom so you don’t break the 200 year old floorboards of your upstairs hideaway. Not every minute is extraordinary. But sometimes a stretch of unextraordinary ones, sleek and swift, upend you.

I am driving back to Berlin to fly home. I start thinking about my blog. The rows of trees along the autobahn are neater than the ones at home; the fields are bright yellow with an unidentified crop. The cars blur past our windows, a sky still swollen with rain that hasn’t started falling. I’ve been in another country; it feels like going home is to travel somewhere unfamiliar again.

I’m thinking some unpretty thoughts about my blog along the German highway. I’m defensive against this nagging worry about me and writing, and something someone who really matters said to me before I left, “Are you their Holy Spirit?” And he was right – that’s the question to stop me short.

But the defensive thoughts have lingered across the ocean and some days of separation from the online world, my lungs full of self-righteous air, so justified in what I think I do when I write about perfectionism and being “enough” and grace.

And in the way of it, as it always is when you travel, you catch the eye of the land spread out before you and something looks back at you. Maybe it is just the gentleness of the horses in their pasture, but the one who makes eye contact with me has a fierceness about her that makes me momentarily afraid. She isyoung, stamping her foot impatiently at the green earth, and she tosses her mane just as we flyby. We stare at each other a while after.

God tells me often that I ought not to imagine myself so wise and knowing. But I’m 22, and I assume that I can learn it on my own and teach it twice before my time.  I place my words around me like fenceposts and bricks, laying my comfort and security in them, but the true things I say, o dear foolish heart of mine?

God gives them because I need saving.

Maybe the mare who looked at me could see that I confuse the two, the why I write and the who I want to be and the real way of grace.

Maybe she shook her mane at me because of that.

Or maybe God has been speaking to me about this for weeks and it was only her look that stopped me in my brick piling fence laying defensiveness. God has been speaking.

I don’t have wisdom about being a perfectionist. I write about it, here and here and all over my heart, but I don’t have it. What I bring is just this: that God sometimes lets us write out what we do not really know in order for us to learn it. What I bring is me, bricks and fence posts abandoned as I walk curious toward the truth that God saves me, and the most surprising thing is that is forever a one-way street. We set tables, that person with the right questions tells me.

And we bring our words not as bricks but as bread, here for the breaking open and sharing, here because we are all hungry.

Back on the road in Berlin, I am now thinking about the mare in the field. About the sleek and swift moments that upend us. About how traveling, however long and far, brings us home again.


dear hilary: the bass notes

Dear Hilary,

I know that my life is littered with problems only a privileged few could complain about. I know that I’m not really complaining about what is worth complaining – and I tell myself as I peel the parsnips and chop onions for some vegetarian thing I am convinced I should eat because it would be good for me, that I shouldn’t be feeling so confused and lonely and irritated as I do. But I want to know – I’m hungry to know – what is the point of the sadness? Is it okay to feel sad, even if there isn’t a good reason?

Peeling the parsnips

Dear Peeling,

Hey there, hon. Before we go any further down this road, I need to tell you first just a yes. A yes as you chop and peel and worry and scream to loud or soft music or kiss random strangers in a subway car or wish you were kissing them or eat vegetarian or Five Guys burgers. Yes. It is okay to feel what you feel.

Permission is not a thing we should seek for our emotions. That’s a lie that we’ve been taught – that we need to ask first before we allow our hearts to keel over with the things they’re already carrying. They are what they carry; permission is irrelevant. So you, rich in love or money or college degrees, poor in clarity or money or college degrees, mixed up between them all, you must give yourself more breathing room. Chuck permission – the question of “is it okay to feel…” right out the window.

Let’s start where you are: you feel sad.

You peel the parsnips – a beautiful sounding phrase, love – and you are lonely. And it simply does not matter one bit if I tell you that I am peeling potatoes, another person is chopping lettuce, and three other people are eating ice cream straight from the carton – and that we are all, in our own ways, feeling the pull and dip and gravity of sadness. That we, too, wonder about what is ahead, or what we have just emerged from, or what we are sitting in right now. When you feel loneliness, I do not think that you can comfort yourself out of it. No amount of “solidarity!” or “we’re in it with you!” or “buck up it’s not that bad!” will help.

What will help is to keep peeling the parsnips.

What will help is to ask your lonely, your confusion, your unidentified emotions, to pull up a chair as you work. Don’t ask them to say everything – just allow them to accompany you in the midst of your daily life. Invite them to sit with you in a coffee shop or gaze at a sunset on your drive home. Ask them to play Switchfoot’s “Where I Belong” on repeat. Wander up and down the grocery store aisles with them. They are not against you.

They are, instead, the bass notes. 

In good music, we listen first for the melody – for the soaring notes, for the lingering treble. We pick out the main theme and wait for it as it darts between other notes. We think of the song, and we hum that line.

But in most music, love, there are the bass notes. These are sometimes sweet and soft, sometimes insistent, sometimes fiery, sometimes desperate, sometimes lonely. The bass notes hold the melody. They deepen it and give it a new shape.

I think that this is what your sadness, the things that you complain about but wish you didn’t – is, at its root. It is the bass line of your song. It is deepening work, these nights of peeling parsnips and sitting with loneliness. It makes your melody a fuller story, in a way that nothing else could.

That is the miracle of the bass notes: though they go often unnoticed, they do remarkable things. 

So I urge you – wherever your days take you, remind yourself: some days I will sing the bass notes. Some days I will build the song of my life in the deep and difficult things. Peel the parsnips, and love the bass notes.

The song could not be so good without them.