“I begin to think there are better things than being comfortable.” -George MacDonald (At the Back of the North Wind)
For months I’ve guarded her night’s sleep, careful in our little one room house not to disturb her, always thankful to lay down myself, but it wasn’t yet 3:00 AM as I stood over the bassinet by our bed and scooped her up. She stretched as I carried her out into the cold, across the walkway we share with the guest house and into the fire lit room where my sister lay on the bed with her own baby, just an hour old.
I’ve seen many babies come now, in all kinds of ways, but always they come indignant, and always from those gathered around come the same questions— we lose our heads a little— How could someone so little belong here with us? How could someone so big come out of a woman? To the first we say she’ll grow so fast, and to the second, you’ll need to take it easy, knowing full well we haven’t answered a thing.
As I came and held my confused little bundle up to her cousin, everyone laughed because she smiled like it was Christmas morning, and it was, in a way– It was the morning of the advent of Evangeline, and what a very good bit of news she was, all red and hungry.
But it was an impulsive and nonsensical thing to do, for it took Helen awhile to get back to sleep. I did it because I’ve found that children, maybe especially little girls, love nothing more than to hear their birth stories…
“…and then you looked around, Sally, and tried to hold your head up from the start. You were a marvelous baby, that’s what everyone said.” She knows this by heart and loves to retell it herself.
“I wasn’t there yet,“ Adah will add. “I asked Mama where I was and she said I was in God’s plan.”
I guess I woke Helen up that night so that she could be there in Eva’s story, an important character on the scene, as the first of the children to meet her and the one closest to her age, only just arrived three months before, a sort of John the Baptist preparing the way, reminding us all of the disruptive gospel of every human child, a very costly grace.
But I also woke her up, in my sleep deprived foolishness, just because I wanted her to see what I was seeing and share my joy, and she did. She’ll remember it too, by the telling of the story, which is how we all remember the crucial things, now I come to think of it.
One night in 1936, the Aurora Borealis was seen in Ridge Spring, South Carolina. My friend, Dr. Keith, told me this— he was there. He was one of the many children pulled out of bed and brought outside to see. It was beautiful, remarkable. Dr. Keith would grow up to accomplish many great things and travel the world, and yet among his favorite stories, the ones he especially wanted to share, there would be this one: what I saw in the sky.
Dr. Keith was a reliable source, but still I researched this and found the Northern Lights have indeed been seen this far south before. There is a legend that warns not to whistle for the lights, or your breath will be caught up with them, and so they must be feminine in nature, for I’ve never yet met a woman who liked to be whistled for.
I like to imagine the adults that night in Ridge Spring. Maybe they were just finishing the chores or rocking on the porch in the cool of the evening . Dr. Keith’s father was the only doctor in the town and still traveled by horse and buggy. Maybe he was waiting up, expecting a call any moment. Perhaps on the outskirts of town, an old woman was slowly dying or a young woman was near to giving birth.
I know now firsthand the deep relief a parent feels when their child is asleep in their bed. It would take something big, something really special, to wake them up after the great work of putting them down. Perhaps some of them just couldn’t do it that night, not for anything. Perhaps they said to themselves, I’ll tell them about it in the morning, it’ll be just as good, knowing it was a lie. Perhaps some were frightened by the lights, and didn’t want to scare the children. But some of them looked up, amazed, and they recalled the wars, the diseases and the darkness of this old earth and how similar the days can be, and so they ran in and scooped up their babies and held them up before the waves of bright and colorful light— a gift to them forever, for remembering.
If you have found a way to introduce yourself to me personally, I’m so grateful, and I remember you. My life has changed. With marriage and a baby coming so close together, I find that my time is less my own than ever before. Our little girl loves very much to be held. I have learned to write with one hand slowly making its way across the keyboard. That backspace button is more painful than ever, yet still so unavoidable.
I’m starting something new. In January (good Lord willing), I will begin sharing a monthly email-post, by subscription. For $1 a month, you will receive what I’m calling The Local. It will be a piece like what you’re used to reading from me, especially focused on the mundane, as well as a brief book recommendation and a gardening section (with seasonal tips if I have them or comforting stories of failure).
I plan to work the next couple months on collecting a little stash of writings so that I won’t disappoint, and also try to figure out the best program to use for this purpose, the one most suited to someone who has no wi-fi, no iCloud storage and no patience.
Thank you for stopping by this slow place, where I sit on the back porch. laptop balanced precariously on my knees, distracted by the birds at the feeder, thankful for the rain still shining on the trees.
Our baby came on a Sunday morning, came quickly. In the hardest moments I tried to slow down and imagine something easy— my husband skipping rocks in the back creek, but it was difficult to get past the image of being lifted up high on a mountain. This mountain was inside me too, bearing down hot, tearing me open. When they laid the little girl on me it was hard to believe it was her all along, dark and beautiful and quiet. A daughter.
Most everyone thought she was a boy. We thought so too, and wanted a son. We live a good life for a boy and there’s plenty around here for a boy to do, but when we met her she was what we wanted. When we had to return her to the hospital, I told the Lord she was all I wanted.
Since then I’ve asked him for many other things. Where else would I go? My grandmother often said he took special care of babies and fools, but I didn’t know how necessarily they go together. I am simpler now, less ambitious, incapable. I wonder if she felt that way too, as she strapped us into that little Buick and played the Electric Slide tape for the hundredth time. But Nanny, soft and clean, smelling of bleach and bacon, with her voice like Edith Bunker’s and her endless supply of chicken nuggets and nursery rhymes, she was all we wanted. She never set out to become a mother, but I did, because of her.
Our baby is four weeks old today, three weeks home. She has seen the cows with their new calves and the riotous, buggy garden, has felt hot horse breath and smelled ginger lilies and tasted my sweat in her milk and listened to the rain on the tin roof and the ee-o-lay of the thrush from the woods.
As for me, I haven’t done a thing but care for her. I feed her and change her and I try to remember to drink water, and the days go quickly by. There’s a lot I’m not doing. The grass is high and the okra is overgrown, and the chickens went a week without food, but in this, I am reminded that this is a good life for a girl, and there’s a gracious plenty around here for a girl to do.
I used to think motherhood was too much a focus in Christian circles, as if all women didn’t suffer from and struggle with the same things, but I realize now that no one receives encouragement who doesn’t need it, for a woman devoid of adequate sleep and nutrition will soon find herself devoid of love and patience, and considering the fragility of babies, we praise the tenderness of mothers, not because it is always true, but because it needs to be.
Her name means light. I’ve been asked if she was planned or a surprise, but she was neither. She was expected, in the same way you look for the stars. And so I see now that she was assumed, which is a dangerous thing, yet this is oddly less true now as she lays eight pounds solid on my chest.
Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, spoke of how necessary it is for the demons to keep our minds on the past or on the future, but not on the present, for the present is all lit up in eternal rays.
The momentary present is where a beautiful soft-boned child is given to a distractible, bumbling woman, prone to tripping and cutting corners, and God saves them. The momentary present is where the same woman sits up at night to nurse again, weak and complaining, and wakes up five hours later to the sun and the wiggling happy grunts of her baby, because God gave them rest.
The momentary present is where you grieve. It is where you wait for what you want, or used to want when you had hope. The momentary present is where old ones die, yes and are remembered, and new ones are born, not to fill their place, but to fulfill it, to go on with their story. The momentary present is where you must keep on in a long obedience. It is where you might be suddenly, surprisingly, remade. It is where mountains are born and where a man skips rocks across the fern-laced oak-mirrored waters of a quiet creek.
The momentary present is where our beautiful baby lives all the time. You might say she is fully invested. Helen is gospel light in a broken vessel, a conduit of grace, a receptacle of mercy, always in need of topping-off, as am I, her mother.
I called my grandmother the other morning while cooking breakfast. I was making hashbrowns her way: Grating the potatoes and browning them on the stovetop. I made our little bantam eggs over-easy and sliced a tomato thick, just like she used to do. I made another cup of coffee, extra sweet this time. She remembered all these things when I told her about them, about how she used to bring me breakfast in her bed on a tray, with a bell to ring if I needed her, but I never did, because she and Pop were always right there.
Today is our baby’s due date and I am feeling different today. I don’t expect to write again for awhile. We haven’t much longer to wait now, and even though I have been impatient at times, I know I would wait much longer if I needed to.
We do not know if the baby is a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, but we do know that the baby is human and will be born in need of convincing. My calling will soon be, in all the little ways and with the rest of my days, to restore the trust and hope in that fallen heart, that he or she might truly believe that they are held and known and safe, that someone will come when they cry and be there when they are scared or confused or happy. I will be so far from God-like in my own sin, but I know, from all I’ve seen and heard, that I will deeply influence their thoughts about His own disposition toward them. Like my grandparents taught me, all unaware in their big love, I want this child to know that he or she has both a bell to call on Christ, and also no need to ring it, because he is already right there.
But dear reader, what I say and what I do can so often be like the Arbor Day seedlings, incorrectly labeled and not as grand as the vision, so please ring that bell on my behalf… and I will write again, Lord willing, on the other side.
We spent many months running posts and barbed wire. It’s hard work— fencing around here. We are in the odd bumpy toes of the foothills which means a lot of gullies, and you can’t leave an opening across a ravine big enough for a young cow to squeeze through.
We were getting cows for the first time— real Longhorns from Texas, twelve of them.
We thought we were ready, and one day they came in a big cattle trailer. This was only four years ago, and I was there. I don’t remember that day, but I remember that night. All had been well. The herd had been eating in the rich green field prepared for them. Serene. Pastoral. Just like we imagined. We went back to the house and before dark, Dad went to check on them. He came back, red face ashen.
“They’re gone,” he said. “I can’t find them.”
It was just the three of us then, my parents and me. Mama rode with dad on the Ranger and I set out on foot with a flashlight. They rode the whole enclosure, checking all the gullies, thinking they were bedded down, and I walked the line. Then I walked the pond on a hunch and picked up tracks on the opposite side. The cows had swam across not long before.
In all our reading on cows, no one told us they would do that.
I followed the tracks down a steep hill and to a large creek, and up the other side. They were running away from our beautiful land like bats out of hell. Looking into the thick woods beyond the creek was like that scene in the Two Towers, when Aragorn tracks the hobbits into Fangorn Forest: That wasn’t our land. Worse than that, it was nobodies land— It was the National Forest, and I had explored it enough as a kid to know you could get lost in it during the daytime with a map and a compass.
My dad is an impassioned man, fiery, working harder than ever now into his seventies. The Longhorns were his dream, one of many. I remember him looking across that creek with me into the forest. And I remember, just for a moment, his defeat.
But it was just a moment.
We found the cows that night and roped them and corralled them into a makeshift pen, and called our neighbor Johnny, in the wee hours of the morning, to come help us with his trailer. Johnny is the kind of neighbor who doesn’t really want to hear from you unless you need him desperately in the middle of the night. He answered his phone and showed up cheerful, like he’d seen it coming. Maybe he had.
I’ve always loved the feeling of bringing humanity into the wilderness, like with a picnic or even just reading a book under a tree. Rounding up those wild-eyed cows under the moon shining through the deep forest many miles from our boundary line was satisfying in that way. It seemed appropriate that Texas Longhorns should take us through that kind of struggle, a sort of baptism in pioneering, by hauling tail clear across the pond in search of some more promising land of promise.
After that, we ran the fence line straight through the pond, but it wasn’t really necessary because they haven’t done it again since then. Maybe they realized it was too much trouble to walk back to Texas. Or maybe they didn’t like it in the forest, and tell their calves scary stories about that night.
Or maybe, like all of us, there was something in them that just wanted to see if we would come looking for them and how far we were willing to go.
This is my morning exercise. This is the nesting of my mind, my attempt to straighten house and ready myself. I have done it in three three-hundreds for the kind souls who keep coming back to read more.
First, the Baby
People keep asking if I’m ready. I don’t know. There is a bassinet from Jesse, with a soft blanket from Jeanne inside. There is new cedar shelf on the wall and a knitted deer from Ruth on top. There are cloth diapers from my idealist friend and disposable diapers from the rest of them. Our bags are packed. I have swallowed the vitamins and peed in the cups and planted the vegetables. There are flowers in the window boxes and the corn has tasseled. I have gained over thirty pounds. I have caught the mouse.
I have married a kind man. He is patient with me. He makes things beautiful. He says soon our lives will change forever. We will have another person with us for a long time, Lord willing. We will not run off so easily and get soaked in the rain anymore.
Our time alone went by so fast. This is what every dying person says, given the time: It went so fast. Soon we will die a death together. We will come back to life with a baby, less sleep and a gravity and weight of responsibility unlike any we have known. Even in the ICU, you clock out.
My friend Kimberly said when she went home with her first child, she couldn’t believe they let her just walk away with the baby like that.
My friend Lore shared this quote recently, and I can’t shake it. Children are, like these other good gifts, a fruit that comes both from and to the deepest part of you. They are born of fellowship. They call out all the beauty and love you didn’t know you could have and all the ugliness that needs to wash away.
Am I ready? Oh I hope so, but I don’t know.
Then, the Turkeys
We have new neighbors, a young family that has set up a weekend mini-farmstead, but they have a turkeys and the turkeys stay all week long. I have come to disbelieve in the domestic turkey, like the atheist disbelieves in God, which is to say, their existence is daily forced upon me and I resent it.
I would argue that there is just no need for the domestic gobbler when they live so contentedly, blessedly, in the wild. A wild gobbler is like a good preacher: he knows when to stop. He has love for the open air and respect for the lunch-hour. He knows his listeners will more readily chase the truth when it is bold and startling, like the pealing of a bell, then elusive, like a great hunt. This is art.
This is also what it means to eat well, wouldn’t you say? To have some respect for your food. I no longer have respect for the domestic turkey, insidious as a peacock and not nearly as attractive.
It is a fact that you don’t become neighbors in a true sense until you need each other. In the rural south, there is often a thread of violence in this, as in these actual phone conversations:
My dog is running loose and he’s stupid but please don’t shoot him.
If you see my dog, would you please shoot at him so he will come home?
There is a rattlesnake in my yard, would you come shoot it?
And so in keeping with this, I plan to take the new neighbors cookies and a card. The cookies I must work on, but the card is ready: Hey welcome to the road! Here are some cookies. If you need any help killing your turkeys, please let me know.
And finally, the Father
It is possible to live a steady quiet life and still feel like the human trampoline, to quote Paul Simon, flying, falling, tumbling in turmoil. The human heart is a landscape wide enough to hold the prodigal son in the pig pen, the elder brother in the bitter field, the distance between them… but it is too small to hold the father. This is what I am learning.
To become like the father takes time, but more than time. It takes the initiative of the Father, the first love, the first move. Then it takes pain. Room will be made inside yourself, a place for people to grow. You will hurt to be touched. You will weep and leak and bleed. Lines will come out across your skin, wrinkles, veins, dark spots and white hairs, like words on a page: there was a man who had two sons. You will let them come. Every day you will become less like the woman in the magazine and more like home, recognizable in every frame, familiar. Son, you are always with me. They will know you by your hands, your feet, your side, your voice that will need to be heard every day, that will ever call out, will ever respond. You will not wait to give yourself away. You will not wait for them to grow better or wiser or more careful. All that I have is yours. You will let your youth be over. You will become like a map in the hand, used, pocketed, recalled to mind, forgotten.
Above all you will become easy to find. This is who the father is: He is. He cannot, will not, wander off, and neither can you. This is how you will die, for the children. This is how you will live.
One day, when I was little, I was fishing with a boy named Connor. I was not the kind of girl who had crushes. I was the kind of girl who had a rock collection. I didn’t like boys, not in that way. I liked to do things. For instance, I liked to catch fish and cut out their eyeballs and paste them on my forehead. And I liked to be with kids who were likewise creative. Connor was like this and catfishing was what we were doing.
I did a lot of this. I didn’t have brothers and there was nobody but me to set the bait and manage the hook, so I did it all, and I guess I thought it was pretty tough stuff because people said so. Connor wasn’t a country kid like me, even if he did like to fish, and I guess I was thinking for a while that I could take his lunch money if I wanted to.
But that day on the dock, something happened I’ll never forget. Connor landed a big she-Cat, flipping wild as a Texas wind. He couldn’t hold it still, so in his city-boy tennis shoes, he happily, senselessly, stomped on that fish. He stomped once, proud of himself, and he stomped again. Then in a second, in a frozen moment in time, the beautiful slick, razor-sharp top barb of that giant Cat went straight into and up and through the top of his foot. There it stood, straight smack-dab in the middle and high in him, territorial, like the flag on the moon.
I screamed royal. Connor threw up, and then after further consideration, he threw up again. He was white. I might have been green. Adults came running down the hill, and someone grabbed the fish and pulled it off and someone (thrice blessed) washed the puke away.
And then, and then, dear reader, do you know what Connor did? Connor went right back to fishing.
After a while I did too, but I can still remember, looking out across the pond at the cattails, the existential ramblings in my little heart and if you care to know them, this is what I was thinking: So that’s a boy… and I’m a girl. We are mostly alike and yet we are remarkably, distinctly, totally…. different. The only thing that can explain this is that we must have been made special… made to be just this way.
I was glad I was a girl that day, and have been ever since. I was glad Connor was a boy, too, though I couldn’t for the life of me, at the moment, say why.
My husband and I fish a lot together and we always have, in ponds and rivers and lakes and creeks and stagnant snakey pools. Fishing is what we mostly do when the work is done or tiresome. He is a serious fisherman, while I sometimes just lose my rod, aimlessly watch the water-bugs and eat all the food, but still he often makes me think of Connor, for without him, my days would not be near as lively, nor as tragic, not anywhere as comedic, as what happens in this world, in this wild and watching world, in this world charged and waiting for a spark….
I have a friend who keeps a safe house in Africa for converted Muslim women. She often texts to ask how I am feeling these days. She wants to see pictures. My heart is continually stung by the loss those women have known. Most of them were given little to no chance, even from childhood, of a happy healthy marriage or of children.
They look into me as a story they want to hear again. This kind of tender heart opens my own, more than anything, to the reality that I do not belong to myself. My existence is a gift to others. And a hurting heart that can truly marvel at the beauty of someone else’s life and appreciate the good another person has, is perhaps the highest evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work of grace in this fallen world. I do not have this heart in me, not yet, but perhaps I will be taught.
It is tempting for me to downplay the mercy to these women, to share with them all the difficulty and heartbreak too, so they will not envy me. But then I remember this child— this child they mostly care about— I did not create him or her. It is not my right to lessen his glory. Those beautiful little lips peaking out from the mystery, they belong to the God who keeps these women in a similar way: safe, tucked in, held close, seen and known only intimately, by those who love.
Like my child, these women are small. They are hidden away, like a treasure in a field. But this can be a hard place for humans. The passing of time can feel like a waste and our safe-house like a grave. It is easy to wonder what we are for, when others seem to be for so much. But when I see this baby on the screen, even in the strangeness of his fragile, jerky skeleton, I can better understand how God sees us and that he would freely give the son he had enjoyed so long to us who did not even have the hearts to love him, is a story I will forever want to hear again.
My friend Annie has gone on a road trip out west. She’s been sending me pictures of canyons and rivers and mountains I will likely never see myself. But for three days now I have not heard from her. She is somewhere in Texas, which feels like a distant star. I remember a time when I was worried about Annie. I thought she might be deceived by something and I talked to my sister about it. Oh don’t worry about Annie, she said, She’s got more sense than ten of the rest of us. This is true. It is also true that Annie has that tender heart that the angels gather around, like the crowds peering down through the clouds into the Grand Canyon. She is safe. She is somewhere in Texas enjoying the God who enjoys her.
“Lift the rock and I am there; cleave the wood and I am there; call for me and I will listen…”
A familiar idea in the Christian dating and courtship world goes like this: find out the other person’s faults so you can either reckon with having to deal with them for the rest of your life or practice one of Paul Simon’s many ways to leave your lover while you still can. Something like that. The flip side is to be honest about your own sins, which is always a very good idea.
Without discrediting this, I would like to tell you something remarkable. In my experience of marriage so far, it is possible to start over. It is possible for all your failures and usual behaviors to not translate into every new and fresh morning. It is possible to be changed. It is especially possible, I think, when someone promises to love you forever.
The way I handle conflict now with my husband is completely different than how I lived in my family. It isn’t perfect. It needs a lot of work. But every time I sit there covering my face, unable to speak, afraid of being wrong or hurtful, I marvel at how much I have changed, and how suddenly it happened. For years I cast forth withering looks and spewed out things I shouldn’t have said, praying for grace to change, unable to make it happen.
It is a fact in gardening that not all growing days are the same. The moon, the rain, the lightening, the cloud coverage, the genetic code of the little embryo itself, all that threatens growth, these things play out in a drama mostly hidden from all our searching. We can plan and figure, but in the end, we are dabbling childlike in holy things. They say the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow, and so it is in marriage, too. We promise to be there. To see what happens. To come back again and again.
If you are dating and not happy, if you are unsure and unsettled, if you’d like to slip out the back jack, then I reckon you should. But if instead, you are in love with a person of character, but you are afraid of all the sins, yours and his, and afraid of all the threats and pests and diseases you know so well, remember, dear reader: You are a living thing, and so is he. You can be made well and you can bear fruit and you can find yourself uncertain of who you are anymore in the best kind of way. The old can pass away. A new thing can come. You can wake up one morning, startin’ over.
This is, after all, what mornings are for, and you were made for mornings.
For three weeks I have had lunch with my grandmother. For three weeks she has listened to me ramble on in quotidian details: doctors visits, camping trips, meal planning, the garden. For three weeks she looks at me sideways for awhile before she smiles and laughs and asks if I’m going to have a baby. For three weeks she gets quiet and shuffles around and looks away until she finally asks if I ever got married. For three weeks I’ve told her again about myself and all that has happened to me.
This is the woman who raised me. She loves me, she hugs me. She splits a sandwich with me. She is glad to see me and she knows I belong to her, but she cannot remember who I am.
We are without a church home. This is a new experience for me, but it feels something like my relationship with my grandmother. There are things happening on Sunday mornings: a drive, kind words, sermons, singing, communion, but there is nothing that feels like progress. I am starting over again, as a stranger in a strange land. I am both shaken and still inside, tired of explaining who I am, content to just have a seat, oddly at peace with these things.
I have heard it said that the Church is like our mother and so I think she would be slow to cast us out, but at the same time, mothers cannot always take care of you. Sometimes all you can do is visit every week and sit down in her house, whether she knows you or not.
I want you to talk to me, my mama said the other day, please talk to me until I lose my mind. I smiled and said I would. But I know, if that happens, I will be talking to her still, and I will scrounge in her kitchen and make us a sandwich.
My nieces call her Big Mama, and though she is a little lady, it suits her well. I am lucky to share a garden with her. Sometimes we over-plant each other and sometimes I pull up weeds she liked the look of, but we are in full agreement that the flowers should be given as much elbow-room as the vegetables (sometimes just a little bit more), no matter what the men might say. Here are some pictures from Big Mama’s spring garden from this early morning: