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Tag: mothering

what it takes: an inventory of the heart

a woman i have come to love dearly, a woman as close to human sunshine as might be, birthed an idea a few months back, to gather women on the eve of mothering day, for a special mothers’ mass at the lovely little catholic church in the leafy little town where we live. she asked if i’d write something, and then tiptoe to the altar and read the words, something of a reflection at the end of mass. i said yes, of course.

a handful of the lovely women who were there asked if i would please, please, please give them a copy of what i wrote, because they wanted to give the words to women they loved for mother’s day. of course i said i would, so here they are. 

Long, long ago, so long ago now I can barely remember, but back in the day before there was anyone on the planet who called me his mama, before I was the first one anyone thought to call in the deep dark of the night or the soul, before I was the one who two humans were certain would know where to find any lost object under the sun, get them out of any imaginable jam or tight-spot or pickle, before I was the one who pinch-hit as therapist, philosopher-in-chief, laundress, driver, nursemaid, human alarm clock, short-order chef, in-house theologian, and occasional dispenser of wisdom or knowledge or simply Advil and band-aids, I had no clue how clueless I was in the mothering department. 

I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight and the popcorn disaster and the mess in the bathtub that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed. 

And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, your turn to haul in the groceries, hold the keys to the car, give up your window seat on the airplane, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching — for the next 20 years. And then some.

Nope, no one could have truly clued us in, into this life-leap that catapulted us into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.

Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than two sacks of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain DCFS — or your mother-in-law — might be called, and you’d be revealed as not-yet-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department). 

Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or dozens of times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?

After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d plotted it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a Post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”

But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn-baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again. 

You felt that hot streak of motherlove rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul. And there is no turning back. 

No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best, best friend that you really blew it this time. 

No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were actually proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.

No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.

Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year. 

You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray. 

You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens to hear before your heart pounded through your chest — until the click finally comes.

You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever. 

No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces. 

To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — one that unspools from inception, and knows no pause. 

Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.

Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, just after the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, lying on the Green Bay Trail, bloodied and banged up, thrown from his bike, after you’d raced to the ER, prayed every prayer under the sun and the moon and the night stars, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes, you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Seuss and 101 Dumb Baseball Jokes till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign finally came, you dropped to your knees and swore to God you would never, for an instant, take for granted the messy kid who could not, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.

And then, too soon, comes the day when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — from that college quad or that airport terminal — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.

And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.

And you ask yourself — how in the world did you do it? 

And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, this mother you’ve become, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.

You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him. 

And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering. 

And it is for the strong of heart. And it is all of us. Every blessed one of us. 

So help us, Mother God. Amen.

and so, on the eve of this next round of Mothering Day, blessings to all who mother in all forms of the life-giving verb. especially to my very own Original Mother Nature, and my very own “other mother,” my mother-in-heart, who happens to be mother to the man i love for life….to everyone for whom this day comes with crushing heartache. and for every someone who has found deep inside herself capacities and wonders she’d never have imagined. may we all be blessed. this old world desperately needs a whole lot of mothering. xoxox

tell us your signature tale of motherlove: who taught you, and what were her most lasting lessons?

p.s. photos up above are, left to right, my mama shielding me from raindrops (and everything else) the day we brought sweet Will home from the hospital, and — eight years later — the day sweet Will shielded me from raindrops the day we brought sweet Teddy home from the hospital. 

p.s.s. a few years ago, at the mothers’ mass at old st. pat’s, our little church downtown, i gave a version of these very remarks; my sunshine friend asked me to give the same reflection, but of course i tweaked for this week’s mass. because writing, like mothering, is an endless exercise in revision. 

TK _ WK hug

my sweet boys the day we left the taller one at law school…(almost two years ago)

hardly invisible…

highest hope

the work of the heart might be imperceptible in terms of its inner churnings, but not for a minute will i concede that it’s any less Nobel Prize-worthy than tense negotiations on some faraway international border.

i write defiantly this morning because in just the last half hour my world has been shaken by a friend i love who is on suicide watch with her son. and for my friend and all who love in ways seen and unseen, all who have run out of words, run out of hope, i say, you are not alone, and we are throwing you every lifeline this old lifeboat has ever known.

i know what it is to be afraid for my children. i know what it is to see some measure of brokenness in their eyes. they’re human, after all, and what human makes it through unscathed?

but i don’t know what it is to have to lock up all the sharp objects, and all the potentially lethal ones too. i cannot imagine how much it hurts to breathe when each and every breath comes dry and hot and not without effort.

this is not the hallelujah mothering day post you might have imagined. life never unfolds by the calendar. not in the places that matter. i worked with kids with cancer, i saw them die on christmas, on birthdays, yes even on mother’s day. i saw them die despite all the prayers and the pleadings of the ones who, in a minute, would have given their own lives — the ultimate pleading, “dear God, take me instead. please.”

that it’s mothering day weekend, and my champion-of-the-heart friend is trying with all her might to simply make it to monday is, in so many ways, the essence of what it means to take on a life beyond measure. i count in my life so, so many glorious souls who mother beyond measure, who love beyond measure (in my book, blessedly, those two things are synonymous, interchangeable, neither one tied to biology).

they are the ones who belong in my great hall of courage. the ones who, hour by hour, stand up to forces that would surely topple any lesser mortal. i know women who’ve watched their baby, their one-year-old baby, be wheeled into brain surgery, and then spent the rest of their days pushing wheelchairs, threading in feeding tubes, chasing down every last therapy that might ease an ounce of some suffering. i know women — and men — who’ve bent low, all but collapsed, to kiss the forehead of a child who has just breathed his or her last. i know others who’ve stood at the bus stop, swiping away tears, as the big yellow bus rumbled away, carrying a child and the bully who taunts.

all of which is to say, in bold sweeps, that taking on love is no greeting-card endeavor. it comes in a thousand million equations, as many equations as there have been humans on earth. no one arrives without a mother, and no one — no one — could make it through infancy, or toddlerhood, or too far beyond, without the tender fierce protections and vigilance of one heart being sealed to and for another. in the world i inhabit, i’ll posit that motherers are indispensable clear through to forever and ever.

pray for my friend, please. pray and pray mightily. pray even harder for her son, a beautiful beautiful child who is finding it so hard to be.

pray for any and all who, day by day, hour after hour, take on the weight of the heart. of carrying one someone across some invisible finish line — staying alive, writing the exam, that the blood test comes clean.

it’s mothering day just around the bend. and every one of us with a heart, we have work to be done. maybe invisible. never ever imperceptible.

here’s a poem that fell in my lap just after i read my friend’s email. it’s titled “invisible work”…

and may your invisible work move the mountains you pray to be moved. no questions asked this week, just blessings and prayers. 
xoxox
 
Invisible Work
Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean these poems only
but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare
I interviewed years ago,
who said, “It’s hard.
You bring him to the park,
run rings around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner,
and there’s no one
to say what a good job you’re doing,
how you were patient and loving
for the thousandth time even though you had a headache.”
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself
because I am lonely,
when all the while,
as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon.
There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s heart.
There is no other art.
~ Alison Luterman ~

oh, it matters

nest and egg.jpg

a nest that tumbled from my pine trees the other morning, and the speckled egg of the white-crowned sparrow who’d so diligently constructed the breathtaking weave of stick and leaf and, for a dash of birdly pizazz, the cellophane strip.

if there is one thing i know, if there is one thing i’ve been breathing for nearly 24 years, plus the eight months that preceded, the eight months from the moment i saw the little white ultrasound dot blinking and blinking with blessed assurance, it is this: mothering matters. life-and-death matters. whole-or-empty matters.

mothering matters in those hours when someone you love is at the end, the very end, of his or her rope. when that someone is near despondent with hopelessness. or maybe just burning with fever.

mothering matters, too, in all the in-between times. the barely noticed times. the i-remember-you-love-this-jelly-more-than-the-other-kind times. the you-missed-the-bus-again-?-!-! times; oh-sure-i’ll-drive-you times…

to mother, in the way that i mean, is to become the vessel that your child, your someone who loves you, needs. not in a hollowed-out i’m-nothing sort of a way. but in a mighty, i’ll-be-what-you-need, i’ll-be-whatever-you-need sort of a way. or i’ll try anyway.

it is to be living, breathing empathy.

empathy, my etymology friends tell me, is a relatively new word, one coined just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908, drawn from the german, from Einfühlung, a word coined by a german philosopher, to mean “in + feeling” as a translation of greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from the assimilated form of en “in” + pathos “feeling.”

to mother, my friend the deeply soulful writer katrina kenison says, “is to be fully present for another, in a spiritual sense.”

can you even begin to imagine the job description?

try this: must be willing, for the duration, to cradle against the harshest winds, cruel winds. must be alert to cries in the night. and ones at the end of long-distance phone lines. must have basic first-aid skills (kisses to cuts and bumps, required). must be willing to lie, wide-eyed and heavy-hearted, for long hours, sometimes from midnight till daybreak. might be skilled at celebrating small triumphs, ones that no one else might notice, but you know because you’ve been listening and watching, and you’ve seen how steep was the path your loved one was climbing. must let go — not of the heart, but of the everyday choices. must watch make mistakes. must try not to scold (scolding, a verb i grew up with does nothing but chafe at the soul, nip at the bud of the blossoming beautiful child). must forgive. yourself and your someone you love.

i could go on. i will go on. for the rest of my days as i keep close watch on this masterful, mystical art of mothering.

i’m struck, often, and saddened, at how dismissed mothering can sometimes be. in a world of power suits, apron strings were relegated to the back of the pantry. even though every one of us knows how deep a blessing it is to be mothered by a full-throttle motherer, one who deftly knows when to hit the gas and when to let up — when to be the the hand at the small of the back and when to stand quietly off in the wings (whispering whole-hearted incantations the whole while) — i think we sometimes forget — as a society — the power and magnitude of mothering. we forget, perhaps, how deeply this world needs what we know, what we do, endlessly and tirelessly.

a few weeks ago, i was out and about talking about motherprayer, the book i birthed last month, and a lovely woman, a woman with two grown daughters, raised her hand, and recounted that just that very afternoon, she’d been talking to one of her daughters, and she’d lamented the fact that she’d “never done anything important” with her life. but, then, she said, sitting and listening to what we’d been saying about mothering, it had just dawned on her that maybe, after all, she had done something important. maybe raising two beautiful daughters, who in kind were raising beautiful children, maybe — it dawned on her — she had done something important indeed.

oh my.

it was all i could do to not leap from where i was standing, and enfold her in a hallelujah squeeze of enlightenment. so, instead, i swallowed the lump in my throat, and stood there marveling at what she’d just realized.

and, now on this second friday in may, here we are on the brink of the day when, for one short whirl of the sun, we hold mothering up to the light. my prayer, this day and every day, is that we catch a glimpse, a deep glimpse, of its glories. that we think deep and hard about the difference that motherlove made in our lives, how it allowed us to catch the updraft, how it dried our tears and set us on our way.  how it always, always listened. how maybe it whispered, every once in a while, “you are so beautiful.”

your motherlove might not have come from your mother. but, surely, there was someone somewhere who loved as a mother loves. and you learned, perhaps, to love in that way.

and so it continues, the blessed and glorious love like no other: motherlove, stitched with courage, shimmering with radiant light. brave, raw, messy, ever beautiful.

to every motherer everywhere, may you be wrapped in pure blessing. today, tomorrow, and every day after.

with all my love, b.

what would you add to the job description, the mothering job, i mean?

for the whimsy of it, here’s a little video my beautiful publisher, Abingdon Press, made. it’s me reading an essay from Motherprayer, and it’s the one in which i make the case for celebrating mothering, the verb, and not just mothers per se. it’s making the case that it’s the particular art of loving, one that belongs to anyone who mothers, that is so deeply worthy of a national holiday. It’s All About the -ing

i’m dashing to take my little guy to school, so i’ll check soon as i’m home to make sure all is in working order……

and a happy blessed birthday to one of the most glorious motherers i know, our very own lamcal, who is magnificent and a profile in pure mother courage. 

fallen nest and egg

little nest, and fallen egg, brought inside for safe keeping. and beholding. and honoring.