From the Other Side of the Hill

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It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe in. –Wonder Woman

I woke up hungover on my fortieth birthday. It’s the only way to ring in special occasions, really (see: my wedding). This time around, the nausea was thanks to a fundraiser hosted by The Kid’s school at a swanky local event space with an open bar. Open bar are two of the deadliest words in the English language, in my experience at least, and when combined with the fact that a) we had friends over for a drink beforehand and b) they were just about the only people we knew at said fundraiser, the conditions were ripe for a champagne-storm of epic proportions. Also, everyone was dressed according to the theme in their MTV finery, so YOU sit at a table next to a fifty-year-old Axl Rose and see if you don’t end up wasted.

Mornings come early these days, so I found myself downstairs on the couch before I would have chosen were it not for our #preciouschildren. The Husband made coffee, bought donuts, and handed me gifts, the latter of which I wouldn’t mind becoming a part of our usual Saturday routine. After the presents were opened, he handed me the laptop I’m typing on now and opened it to a screen, telling me to press “play.”

That was when the magic happened. The boys’ faces appeared first, filmed in the backseat of our car singing me Happy Birthday. Falteringly, and distracted by squirrels, but I’ll judge their performance with them later in private according to our “Points Equals Love” system. Then an array of American faces paraded across the screen and told me what I meant to them. I laughed, I cried, I barfed (unrelated).

I changed.

Not clothes, dummy. (Though I did do that too, after a shower during which my hangover began to lift and I sang a few bars for TH from Gloria Estefan’s timeless classic, “Coming Out of the Dark.”) I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the video was life-changing. It recalibrated me. It reset something deep within my soul. It moved me…to where I need to be.

This is what happened: it unburdened me.

Some think that if a person has a blog they post publicly, then said person must be a narcissistic asshole. Untrue. I’m an asshole, sure, but not because I post a blog. I post a blog because I’m better at written communication than verbal; I need to express what’s going on in my head to make sense of it and quiet the voices there; and honestly, because the words will fight their way out one way or another and better here than on the nightly news. But no matter how many therapeutic benefits there are to this dressed-up navel-gazing, I am constantly hit with reality bricks that make me realise I will never Figure It All Out. I will never stop learning. It’s annoying, because I’m really old and I’ve been through a ton of school (check my student loan statement). But as I watched these faces I love smile at me, and heard their voices tell stories and express their version of events, I was amazed yet again to realise how I can skew reality with my own issues: my anxiety, my fear, my need to control. It’s the same realisation that hit me when I was living in New York and stood up at a Q&A with Tim Keller to ask a question and was terrified because of the voice hissing in my ear telling me I was going to look stupid, and it’s this: I have a lot of self-hatred built up within me.

Y’all, I didn’t know. I thought I’d dealt with it back in New York and left it there. But becoming a wife and mother has opened up new realms of ways to beat myself up. To tell myself I’m awful in sneaky, insidious ways, most of which revolve around listening to anxiety and heeding its lying commands. What happened, when I heard so many of your voices, is that I found a different narrative: one in which I am loved, and flawed, but doing okay. One in which my kids are doing okay. One in which I am as beloved as I try to help others believe they are.

I don’t think I believe that. Not enough.

Good thing though, is that the object of my faith doesn’t depend on the strength of my faith. I spent the rest of the weekend looking at my family with new eyes: not as objects to corral, but as gifts to enjoy. It was a honeymoon period that I know will pass along with the waves of life that tend to define each day as “good” or “bad,” as if life can be distilled to such terms. But for a couple of days there I was able to just look around, and breathe…and glow.

This is grace.

So thank you. Thanks for showing me a beautiful version of this story, one that’s so hard to see in the mire of daily life. Also, thanks for showing me how many of you count your favourite memories of me to be the ones involving gastric emergencies. Now THAT’S a life to be proud of.

On Sunday, hangover-free and slightly more rested, I took TK to a birthday party for a girl in his class. It was at a little cabin in the woods overlooking the sea–two minutes from our house–and I was still glowing. Still walking on air. Usually I approach these events with a healthy dose of apprehension and even more anxiety than usual: will he be comfortable? Will be participate? Will I have to talk to people? We walked into the party and it felt like home. We hiked through the woods in search of unicorns, and laughed and ate cupcakes. Then came his turn at the pinata. It was a bit much for him–he gave a valiant effort, but making contact between the stick and the donkey was tough. So I walked up behind him, put my hands over his, and swung. It was awkward, and we looked like assholes. But we were doing it together. A few minutes later, the adults got a shot, and I was nervous.

You’re going to look stupid, hissed the voice.

I paused. Then, “Fuck you,” I told it.

I grabbed the stick and swung. Twice, I hit the shit out of that piñata. And it didn’t break. But right there beside me stood TK, watching and learning. And when the next person came along and did break it, TK and I bent down along with everyone else, gathering the treasure together.

Will Write for Attention

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My family and I recently took a trip to Fiji. (I will pause momentarily for your pity.) My husband billed the “vacation” as part of my present for my upcoming fortieth birthday, even though since (a) the kids came along, and (b) trips with kids aren’t vacations, then by deductive reasoning, (c) I did not get a vacation for my birthday. Nonetheless, it was one of many experiences we’ve been fortunate enough to have because of our move to Australia. The only other way I could see myself ever getting to the South Pacific is as a contestant on The Bachelor and let’s be honest: they aren’t going to do another season with old people. Oh, and I’m already married.

We were eating lunch one day by the pool and a couple caught my eye. While my husband asked if I was listening to him, I studied this pair intently, then turned to Jason. “I think that’s Bradley Cooper and his girlfriend,” I whispered nervously.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

Beginning of Moonlight

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The days are getting longer.

This is the opposite of what I’m used to. In Atlanta, the days are getting blunted at both ends, the summer season inching toward fall. Here in Sydney we are creeping upon spring. Also creeping up is my birthday, this weekend. My fortieth, to be exact. And among the things I never expected to be doing in my life? Celebrating it in Australia, where I now live.

It’s the same, but different.

Like the better part of an hour that I spend in the pool on Thursday mornings, that initial chill giving way to motion and warmth, a new kind of breathing–intentional and quick, timed. One leg moving after the other as always, arm followed by arm, but with the lightness of air giving way to the resistance of water. Learning to move the same, but differently.

I had imagined a large gathering–and I usually try not to imagine large gatherings–but for such a year, I wanted to be surrounded by the people I’ve known and loved for so long. The people who helped get me here. What’s shaping up, instead, is the same but different: a celebration at a local restaurant with a few people I’ve come to know within the last few months. I’ll be a bit more nervous, what with the lack of years of buildup and acceptance of all that is so…me about me, but so far so good. I haven’t completely alienated anyone yet. These are people who know–are getting to know–the me now, the one with a husband and kids and crows feet and anxiety and occasional dips of depression, the me who is adjusting to an across-the-world move and passes through varying stages of honesty about it. These are people whose faces are somewhat new to me yet were already known by a grace that put them in my path, even before I asked for it last year. This is something to celebrate: making it through life thus far, but even more, making it because grace kept showing up.

I plan to drink lots of champagne, is what I’m saying.

Like I did the other night; well, two glasses to be exact, before dinner, when The Husband and I were heading out to meet another couple. I’d considered, in the midst of my social anxiety flare-up, a Xanax, but I try to stick to OTC on double dates. So I entered the restaurant with my hard edges slightly softened and spent the next three hours getting to know lovely people who–along with their kids–were put in our path by the love that answered my prayer last year, those pleas gaining names and faces over the intervening months. We talked about life and struggles and all the other things you do when you’re wanting to be real, to be known, which I do–and don’t. Like everyone, I guess? Because the legwork is so hard and involves the type of vulnerability that isn’t so much a currency of our social media exchanges, the baring of cracks and crevices that time and life have worn in our hearts, the places where we hurt and are afraid. Oh, and we laughed. We’ve had such dinners with such couples before, different but the same, and I suppose there are people who just float through this stuff but I always have to talk myself down from treating it like an audition. Then the moment comes, and you’re sitting with real people and realising that life is happening. That it keeps happening.

Which is how you got to be almost forty.

There are people who say they love getting older, what with all the wisdom and knowledge and whatnot, and I think that’s partially true. I, for one, would love to pass on the hormonal changes and poor sleep and aching knees and gray hairs. But I think about the me from twenty years ago, and how she could run farther–and did. Like, away from herself and everyone else. How, even though she had more free time and got more sleep, she didn’t know herself. She was barely beginning to do that–and what a journey it’s been: jarring, unsettling, chaotic, but real. How it’s still happening, within the context of a family, a foreign country, new friendships, and a recently increased dosage of antidepressant (#thanksdoctor).

This weekend, I’ll get to stop and look around at all that. Besides champagne, isn’t that what birthdays are for?

On Sunday I sat in church while TH took the kids to their class, and we sang a song that I already know–that we sang in Atlanta all the time. It had been in my head the night before–chalk it up to prophecy, intuition, the spirit, or time travel–and it sounded the same now, but different: different voices, different accompaniment, different feelings. It had always made me cry before, looking around at the faces whose struggles I knew. Here, I’m just now getting to know them. The legwork is hard. But it’s happening, in spots and with people who pop up, who were already known even as I’m just getting there and they are too, with me. Sometimes it happens slowly, over several coffee meetings and tentative conversations until a dam breaks and the truth comes out: “You too? I thought I was the only one!” Other times it happens over a three-hour dinner fuelled by wine and our kids’ already-existing connection. The point is, it happens. It’s happening.

That evening we made it to the beach a bit later than usual, but it was okay because the days, they’re getting longer. Which feels wrong, yet right. The boys–all three of them–played on the sand in front of me, and I watched the water begin to glimmer as the first rays of moonlight hit it. The end of the day, with no more guaranteed even as they seem to keep coming surely anyway, the end of one thing becoming the beginning of another, different and the same.

Signs of Life

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“It’s just not even worth it to go out,” I whined as we stood in the driveway in the dark. The boys were inside with their babysitter, our Uber was nine minutes away, and we had a twenty-five minute commute through traffic to get to the Opera House. At this rate we’d barely have enough time for a pre-show glass of champagne, and HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GET THROUGH A SHOW WITHOUT BUBBLES?! We had rushed from swim lessons and home to the bath and downstairs to make dinner for the boys so we could get out the door. I was tired and irritable. Not to mention resentful, as usual, of all the duties that seem to fall on me as the mom. Not to mention blind, as usual, to the ways The Husband steps in.

I needed a drink.

But more than that, I needed–I need–to see. It’s what The Kid says to me all the time when he wants my attention, especially first thing in the morning: “See me.” I wake up and spend the better part of these mornings in his ass, with it poking in my face first thing because (a) he climbs into our bed without fail during the night; and (b) he prefers to sleep head-to-foot. So there I am, boy butt in my face, and a few minutes later that same ass is in my face again, now with him standing in front of me as I wipe it. Because we are not yet ready for poos in the toilet, apparently. Not when Mom has abandoned her doctorate to become Chief Ass Wiper (CAW) of TK’s nethers.

But “see me,” he says in the dark, before the sun has risen and before I’ve fully awoken and while the air is either still with possibility or heavy with responsibility, depending on how you’re wired. Me, I’m the latter, and let me tell you like you don’t know already: it’s hard to be Type A within a family. The rest of the people in the home, for their part, spend a lot of time lifting their legs to allow the vacuum cleaner to go by. I, meanwhile, count crumbs and wipe scuffs and scoop Cheerios and try to see it all as life, not burden.

How am I doing so far?

(Ask my pharmacist.)

There are the moments, though, when I am reminded that not all hope is lost. As though this is breaking news, even though preaching grace to myself has become a full time job–but I still forget. The boys and I were walking to TK’s school the other morning and the girl walking with her mom in front of us halted suddenly. I stifled a groan and grabbed our stroller before it hit her. Then she darted off the sidewalk and to the grass, where she began picking flowers. The next day, the same thing happened with a different girl. And the flowers–I hadn’t even seen them until someone else did. Spring bursting through the ground for the taking.

And TH, he said it the other day when Little Brother began yelling about some displeasing occurrence: “I wonder where he gets that temper?” It startled me, this trait we share that I hadn’t connected. It’s so easy for me to look at TK and see our common anxiety, to focus on that while wondering where this laid-back little guy came from. Then it’s pointed out for me that we can both light a room on fire. So maybe it’s not the cutest of genetic gifts, but hey–it’s ours. They’re ours. So the next day, at that swim lesson, I repay the favour when LB is climbing out of the pool with that knitted-brow expression: “He looks just like you right now,” I say to TH, and though we’re headed for a stressful next couple of hours (for me, anyway), his nod and smile ground me in this moment that belongs to the four of us.

On Thursdays, as always, I send TK to school with his News folder, but this week I imagine him up there, speaking to his class in his Loud Voice–“GOOD MORNING, KB!”–and it strikes me with brand-new ferocity that he is becoming a person. This is terrifying and wonderful. I feel overwhelmed, and incredibly privileged to have a front-row seat to it. The next day the school’s maintenance man tells me he’s leaving. This is the one who gifted TK with two vintage model cars from his own collection. He tells me that TK is a special kid–that they all are–but that James has something that makes you take to him. That he’s a blessing. Later, when I’m reading with TK’s class, one of the boys has a book with a character who has TK’s name. He grins, turns to me, and I think I know what he’s going to say, but I don’t. “That’s like our James!” I’d thought he was going to say your. I’m profoundly moved that he didn’t.

That night we made it out of the driveway. Our Uber driver was delightful. We even got a glass of champagne. Then we listened to two people who aren’t from there talk about my home state, and I watched as a concert hall full of people related. I listened as a New Yorker told an Australian about a square peg who couldn’t find his place, and about the beauty that happened anyway; about how he wanted to pursue a light ordinance in his town to keep the stars visible as neighbouring towns encroached. I listened as the audience, including TH, drew a sharp intake of breath at the stunning things others can help us see. I thought about my own square-peg status that pops up reliably, about how my anxiety mixes with bouts of depression to render me standing bitter in a driveway; but about how much it also lets me see. About what the New Yorker said about the Southerner whose own depression and outsider status were both born of and fuelled by an ability to see things the way they should be and to be angry when they weren’t that way. I thought the next day about it when I was at the beach with my three, the sky darkening with coming rain into a sapphire that mirrored the ocean, making the two almost indistinguishable. About how there would be days when I wouldn’t notice that, but there will be days when I will. Like today. About how that night out? Was totally worth it in the end. How all of it is.

Back At It

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I passed him walking away from the classroom The Kid and I, with Little Brother in tow, were walking toward. For the first day after a break, he looked like I felt: not quite up for it. “Back at it,” I said as we passed him, the dad of one of TK’s classmates, and we both smiled upon re-entry into the routine established now over half a school year, the chaotic mornings and often-emotional drop-offs, the lunches made and belongings lost, the rushing and tension. An old shoe that fits but takes some struggling to get into.

I was swimming in the South Pacific two weeks ago.

You wouldn’t know it, though, in these moments of non-holiday real life, when it’s so easy to forget and painful to remember the lazy days and long sunsets of vacation. And here, with year-round school and more frequent breaks, there is ample opportunity to revisit the difference between monotony and its opposite, to separate and come back.

When we reached the classroom, that classmate held out a batch of stickers she had told her mum she wanted to get for TK because they were cars. And he loves cars. And his people here, our people now, know this. She shyly handed them over and I tried to take a mental picture, to make note of this moment to add it to the list: all the ways we’ve been cared for. Being back isn’t so bad, sometimes.

“Reality is an ally of God,” says Richard Rohr, and sometimes I think if they’re friends then maybe I don’t want to play with either of them. Reality can be so…real. Like the weekend days that should be sunshine and ease, and I end them in a puddle of regret, ingratitude and frustration marking my movements and making it easier to believe the hiss in my ear, that maybe I’m the poison of negativity in this family? Maybe I’m bringing the rest of them down? It’s gotten to where people are checking on me, after all, and rather than the gift this is–that I am known–it makes me wonder just how thin the line is between anxious and calm, insanity and sanity, and if I’m about to fall off it.

Then friends tell me that they, too, have imagined other lives. Guiltily, or alongside jokes, or flippantly, the real voices I hear, they are struggling ones. And triumphant ones. And defeated ones. They know all the descriptors, all the words, because they live them in between each sunset.

I had never been fully submerged in the Pacific Ocean before. I had wanted it to be a sort of baptism, a washing clean of the old me. I’d return to our regularly scheduled life with greater patience, more clarity, a more durable fuse. That lasted about half the shuttle ride to the airport.

But there was this: that the three of them were waiting on the shore for me. That they never seem to leave, and funny how that can feel like both a threat and a promise. Like a life raft, to be known. I emerged from that water the same person. I emerged from that water, and I walked toward my family. I seem to keep doing that, too.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my ovaries. They might see forty approaching and be frantically pumping out hormones, trying to remain relevant. Maybe it’s an anxiety/depression dip. Or maybe it’s just hard, being one of those people who inconveniently feels and thinks about all the stuff. All of it. No matter how many times I take a break, it always comes back, this whole thing of being…myself.

But there is this: TK was without his usual therapist these first two weeks back, and wouldn’t you know that that was exactly when the student teaching crew started, and he took to one of them as much as she did to him, and now…he’s covered. He always was, wasn’t he? I just didn’t know yet. There is his teacher, who celebrates every achievement, who brought his handwriting book out today just to show me all that he’s done, how he’s growing. There are the regular Friday nights with a friend, naughty laughter and rosé champagne. There are the photos TK used to avoid that he now yells “Cheese!” for.

Author Pema Chödön writes, “If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”

Nowhere to escape? Sounds familiar.

She goes on: “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing…they come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen, room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Falling apart? I know me some that. I do it…well, every day, it seems. This endless process of falling apart and coming back together that I think will end and am now understanding is just life. I won’t improve past it. I can only make room for it. And I think about what a dear friend said before we left: “Give yourself space.” I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Space for all of it: for the crazy and sane, for the meltdowns and triumphs, for the sad and happy. There is space enough for all of it, for all of me, spread out as it is–as I am–over Sydney, and New York, and Atlanta, with even pieces of me scattered about the South Pacific now. There is room for all of it, within a grace that names me, that knows me, whether I am underwater on holiday or struggling to take deep breaths on land, its steady waves always promising that each shore is home.

I Named You

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I’ve never been a huge fan of my name. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) It’s always rung 80’s alarm bells in my ears, and I get tired of repeating “IT’S WITH A P-H” to everyone who has asked throughout my life. I remember, though, finding out that names have meanings by way of a plaque that hung in my childhood room, which told me that mine meant “crowned one.” At the time it felt as about as ironic as it does now: If I were a princess I’d surely have less child poo under my fingernails, and if I were an angel I’d manage not to say fuck so frequently.

But the idea that names had meanings imbued an awareness within me to look for the meaning in all of them. In all words. In all things. It’s exhausting, but it has its perks.

Lately the boys are having back-and-forths that play like unintended comedic sketches, invented words and gestures tossed between them resulting in furthered banter, laughter, or tears. (They love to put each other in time out no matter how often I assure them neither has such authority. It’s almost like they don’t listen…) They were thrown together–we ALL were–even more tightly than usual last week, when our family took our first South Pacific holiday to Fiji. The Husband and I (he gleefully, I with tears and reticence and, later, glee) took advantage of the nanny service and kids’ club offered at our resort for a few of the mornings we were there. The Kid and Little Brother took advantage of their parents’ absence to eat only dessert and throw sand at each other. Everybody won.

When the kids’ club closed, as it always does, we collected our genetic belongings and took them to the family pool, decidedly less serene and more urine-soaked than the adult pool, and watched them enjoy their newfound comfort in the water, the product of their recent swimming lessons. At one point I was standing between them in the shallow entry as they stomped around. LB likes to announce himself these days to anyone who will listen: “I Will. Will Phillips,” as though he’s recently acquired MI6 status, to which TK will usually reply either, “I’m James Phillips,” or the more inflammatory, “NO! You’re gossy gossy!” which makes no sense but never fails to enrage LB anyway. This particular afternoon LB was tossing out his ID even though I was the only one within earshot, so my lips, loosened by a lunchtime pinot gris, uttered back sassily, “I know that! I named you.” He looked up at me with wonder, as if such an idea had never occurred to him.

The boys have been interested in their origin stories recently (I blame Facebook memories), asking about the time they spent in my belly and how they “came out” (which has me feeling grateful for C-sections and their less, ahem, intimate form of arrivals). When LB can’t sleep I whisper to him about the late-night rush to the hospital; TK loves to hear about his kicks (which persist to this day) and how tiny he was. Meanwhile I think back to us at that time, TH and I, sweetly stupid and planning for what can never be planned for, choosing names we liked then learning how suitable they were only later: TK as the supplanter, uprooting what had come before (sleeping in, for example, and small, predictable dreams) and LB as protector, the meaning playing out like prophecy as he comforts TK when he’s troubled: “It’s okay, James, there’s nothing to be scared about.”

But the best part has been watching them stretch beyond their names and try on each others’ for size, TK patting LB in the backseat when he cries as only a two-year-old between naps and no naps can: “It’s okay, Will. I’ll make you happy.” LB reveling in the sounds he makes that entertain his older brother and distract him: “I make James laugh!”

The last few weeks have been rough. It’s seasonal, hormonal, everything I guess, anxiety dogging me even when vacation beckons, reminding me that this is a condition, not a mood. And I wonder, in the midst of it, which problem runs deeper, my anxiety or my distrust: distrust in the meaning of my name, in my identity within the realm of grace, in the promise that all will one day be made new? The answer matters little when I know the alchemy will always be there, this mixture of both pulling my eyes away from what is changeless and true. But it can be so easy to look away, to want to run even, when grace’s movements feel so aggressive, when they seem more like interruptions than rescue: TK’s constant questions after years of speechlessness, LB’s unceasing desire to be held. While we were all piled in bed one night on our trip, the kids had a hard time settling in the new environment. Suddenly I felt a piercing stab right at chest level and realised TK had, in his excitement, chomped down on my boob in a way he hadn’t since they fed him over five years ago. “WHY?!” was the question I was now asking him, the physical pain competing with the frustration of my body never feeling like my own space, not for years now.

I really do want so many answers. Some days, all I seem to have are questions.

And yet there aren’t enough answers, not often. Not reliably. There are words, though, and names, and the hardest relationships I have are with the two whom I have named, and with the one who named me. The one who calls me beloved even as I call my children that, often through gritted teeth as I’m about to crawl out of my skin if they touch me one more time. These two who protested as we dragged them down to the sand bar I’d escaped to the day before, a bed of shells and earth right there in the turquoise water. I want them to know what I know–the beauty and healing of salt water–even more than I did, the Gulf becoming the South Pacific. So we taught them how to ride the waves, and for a moment the anxiety leaked away, and yet remained, their tiny bodies bobbing along with the rhythms set in places we can’t see: the terror mixed with euphoria, the fear mixed with ecstasy, the alchemy that occurs only when life is being fully lived. Yet another question entered my mind, but it was as though from a poem written on my heart, unforgettable even when I think it’s disappeared or I’ve been lost from it–“Who is this, even the wind and the waves obey him?”–and the answer to it being the answer, the changeless and unrelenting answer, to everything.

Why Again

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Sometimes the thought of writing again, of trying to find beauty in the past week, feels like undergoing a massive turd-polishing endeavour. There are days when the walls close in and the hormones spike and the kids are screaming and I’ve snapped way too often and I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to look for the good. I want to bitch about everything.

So I do. I do it with my “Oh, You’re an Asshole? ME TOO!” contact list. And they nod their heads from across the ocean or street or table and agree that yes, we are privileged beyond measure and yes, this shit is still hard. Every. Single. Day.

She’d sent it in a voice text, this message that had me nodding my head, and messaging back YES YES YES, that she keeps being brought back to the same place, the same lessons, even though a part of her thinks she’s already mastered this basic stuff and moved on to the next level. But what we’re learning, what we already suspected and have to keep finding out, is that there is no next level. Not this side of eternity. There is this: live, screw up, get forgiven, repeat. There is no ladder, no glorious Arrival to a life less messy, less plagued by brokenness, less life-y. There are only different problems that expose the same things about us: we’re not enough. We never will be.

It’s so f-ing depressing I could jump off a bridge. There’s a big one down the street. I’M TEMPTED.

But here’s what would happen in that scenario: I would see the view. I would remember their faces, the ones that drove me to that bridge and the ones that save me from it one and the same. And I would go back to them. And I would appreciate them for five minutes before heaving another sigh and learning another lesson. GOD IT’S EXHAUSTING.

The Kid is an endless broken record of “Why”s these days. Yeah, THAT kid, the one who didn’t talk until he was four, he won’t stop now. And one of his primary modes of communication is to ask about everything. OVER AND OVER. Why does his brother do this and say that? Why did the lights turn off? Why are they on? Why were the kids loud at school? WHY about everything that happens, everything that is, all day long from waking up to drifting off to sleep, with no interruption. I’ve shifted to telling him to ask his brother or whichever person he’s wondering about; short of that, I repeat the phrase “I don’t know” almost as much as he utters his “Why”s. I don’t think I can overemphasise how insane this whole process drives me; how the endless questioning from my formerly nonverbal child sets off a fuse in me that threatens to blow me to the bridge or bottle (the bottle is closer, luckily…?). Then I remember asking my own mother, and grandmother, my own endless “why”s and being gifted something called The Big Book of Questions one Christmas in an apparently kind-hearted but firm way of getting me to shut the hell up. And so my temptation to believe in karma kicks off again, which renews afresh my impulse to be in control, which just ruins everyone’s day.

Just when all hope is lost (AGAIN), something happens. Among those things that have happened: I’ve stumbled upon a garden in the downtown park across the street from where The Husband and I spent a kid-free night while my parents were here; I’ve stumbled across a man kneeling for his morning prayers in that same park; TK tells my mom he loves her for the first time; TK’s therapist cancels their session and the two solo hours I had clung to like a life raft immediately vanish, so I spend the morning with TK and we run into one of his teachers, who greets him lovingly, then the cashier at the book shop recognises him too–“There’s the lift operator!”–and yet another person has gone from stranger to friend; TK and I eat lunch at his favourite restaurant and he smiles at me from across the table in between a million questions.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m currently writing this from the couch, where TK sits beside me emptying my wallet and asking me about each thing within it. I AM VERY CLOSE TO THE EDGE. But I’m realising, or at least choosing to believe, that just like TK has the same questions over and over, and just like I keep being brought back to the same places over and over, there are breaks in the action, in the war that life sometimes feels like in which the beauty, or a hint of it, peeks through. Sometimes it’s barely a glimpse, a whisper that gives me one more breath. But it’s enough to make me think that maybe this whole thing isn’t actually a war; maybe the war is just happening within me. And maybe what’s happening around me is actually setting me free. I keep expecting the breaks in action to be the bulk of life, but life is happening in all the moments. What a bummer; I wanted to get past the shitty ones.

I want answers for all my questions too; all my unspoken “why”s that I utter with my frustration over things not going the way I planned or being within my control. What I am being told, in the absence of a direct answer, is that I am free from having to reach a goal. Knowing I will never arrive liberates me from having to achieve anything. And so I am brought back to the same places–the questions of my childhood echoed in the questions of my son’s; gardens in the middle of cities; forgiveness after not enough-ness; friends among strangers; endless echoes of faithfulness stretching across this life, the sameness of it all somehow becoming its beauty.

It Takes (More Than) a Village

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“Why did God put me in KB?” The Kid asks me sleepily as we lie on his bed. Another question he knows the answer to, this one concerning the class he’s in at school. I may be spiritual, but I don’t like to overspiritualize things, as the shits and f-bombs in my writing will attest. This avoidance is likely a product of my geographical origins, the result of growing up in a platitude-heavy section of the Bible Belt, in which God’s name was invoked for everything from racism to football games. But years away from that buckle of the Belt, and an immersion course (called Life) in grace have shown me, undeniably in my case, that there’s a hand greater than mine writing this story. And I’ve told as much to The Kid and Little Brother, citing everything from the sunrise to boo-boos, beauty and healing, Atlanta and Sydney, and now, KB and TK’s place in it. His place here. He’s reminding me that he’s always listened; he’s also showing me his, and our, need for a context, a narrative in which to find ourselves that allows for a place prepared on our behalf. A place where his teacher had written the words on his report: “James is a gift to our class.”

So I throw it back to him: “Why do you think?”

And he echoes the answer I gave him about one hundred questions ago, the answer revealing itself to be true every day, in our every interaction: “Because he knew there would be friends for me there.” And he drifts off to sleep.

It’s the same story that LB knows as we claim our seats on the Sunday ferry and he belts it to all the passengers: “My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. THAT. IS. TRUE!” They’ll grapple with faith on their own throughout life, of this I’m sure, but they’ll have this when they enter that fray, this awareness of something, someone greater than themselves, who may now be the stuff of Sunday school and colouring books but is also author of sunsets, and them.

And how could it be any other way? When TK emerges from the classroom one afternoon, he’s telling me about the loud noises, explaining something I can’t understand, and his therapist expounds: that there was a story read, and the kids got excited and started providing background sound effects, and it startled and upset TK so that he began to cry. And immediately, the kids encircled him, arms around his shoulders, one telling the other to be more quiet, one grabbing a tissue for him and planting herself beside him protectively. And when I looked for an opportunity to find her mom to tell her how much it meant, that opportunity never seemed to come, until it did. One morning when LB and I were late to the gym because of a preschool tour, and we almost didn’t go because it felt like Too Much, but he urged me and I caved, an empty treadmill and an hour alone urging me too. And there she was, walking right past me, her first trip back after a long illness that she opened up about right there beside me, and we talked about our kids and began to know each other.

So how could it be any other way? How could it, when we arrive to school a few minutes closer to the opening bell than usual and I see them, this community of which we are now a part, and we are welcomed into it, kids running up to TK and moms greeting me? Our village, minus us until we are there.

This is all well and good in sun-dappled moments at drop-off, but then there are the ones when the village has retreated to their own homes and so have we, and everything feels stolen from me, and I am just angry. The empty spot in TK’s mouth revealed itself after a frenetic lunch out the other day, and the tooth was gone but no one knew where. In that milestone moment, I pulled him and LB up beside me and showed them the video of Peppa and the Tooth Fairy, but inside I raged. So many milestones missed or delayed, and this one too, this moment where I should have been able to take the tooth and hide it under his pillow, then transfer it to some safe spot to keep forever, a bit creepily maybe but still–the first tooth lost! And these challenges, this God-forsaken spectrum, robbing me of that as the tooth sits on the floor of some restaurant or within his stomach, no one knows, and I just wanted to hit something. It was Too Much. It was Too Much when we went to the mall the next day and he fought us between stores for another lift ride, and then the next day when we went on a God-forsaken “COMMUNITY OUTING” with his head therapist and the entire population of our suburb seemed to watch as he melted down for the lift again and all I wanted was a drink. Or an escape hatch in the floor. Or…another story? Not this one, with these challenges, with two kids clinging to me and sobbing and an audience beholding it and me, entirely unappreciative and unfit and with two more hours ahead at the therapy centre.

TOO. MUCH.

I read it here a few hours later, how we high-reactives tend to hold our torsos in tension–it’s a hallmark, how cute–and I remembered the two anaesthesiologists who commented on the tightness of my spinal cord, and the difficulty of the needle penetrating it for the epidurals, and it hits me: I have literally been trying to hold it together my whole life. It took two kids to puncture that, to break through.

After therapy is over, the three of us climb into the car and drive home in the dark. That’s when I remember the groceries I bought with them six hours earlier, sitting there in the trunk melting and going rancid, and it’s Too Much. I text a friend group and tell them so, and they counter back with truth. I text The Husband that I feel like a failure ALL THE TIME, and he writes back with a different version of the story. Then I cry, which makes me realise I haven’t done that in a while, which is really too bad because salt water, it is healing. Letting go, it’s healing. And the release opens me up to see it: that I am often so bad at this, this story of ours, but that’s okay, because it’s not just me here. And it’s not just our village. Through the cracks there is room, and I can breathe again, and I tell the boys the best part of the story: how they’re made to be just the way they are. God-forsaken? Hardly. We are having our own debrief here in the dark after the hour-long one back at the centre, post COMMUNITY OUTING, and this one? It’s less well-lit, and less organised, but it’s so much better. It is music on the radio that I downloaded just in time to hear the words my soul needed to breathe again, and at the mention of our story’s author, LB pipes up from the backseat with the part he knows–“God takes care of me”–echoing the part TK knows, the part I know, even when it’s all Too Much, even when I’m trying to be in moments that don’t exist instead of this one, where the author continues to write.

One at a Time (and All Together)

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“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” –Blaise Pascal

I keep forgetting to look at the water.

It’s all around me: on the walk to school, in pockets along streets we pass in the car, outside our bedroom window, and there, most boldly, at The Kid’s school, the harbour sitting below us in early-morning serenity. The water I’ve longed for a view of my whole life, and I continue to miss it. Because, you know, #life.

“What I want is what I’ve not got, and what I need is all around me,” Dave Matthews sang back in 1994, the heyday of my insecurity and identity-building, and I clung to the words for the wisdom I thought they provided, a message just for me in my rule-following glory: suck it up and be grateful. Well, now I’ve got both what I need and what I want, in almost dizzying measure, and here I am measuring my life in coffee spoons anyway, and complaining to anyone who will listen that my diamond shoes are too tight.

And yet…there’s grace for it all. Every moment of it.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? For me, at least. To stay in the moment.

This morning the universe seemed to be conspiring against me, which is a philosophical inconvenience when one believes in God, since “the universe” is a Person, and as such He seems to have it in for me most days before 9 am. The boys were taking their time (read: NOT) obeying my instructions, which I delivered as though we were approaching the beaches of Normandy and survival depended on our hustle; in reality, we were leaving for school drop-off with time to spare. But tell that to my high-anxiety, Type A personality (and when you do, wear a bullet-proof vest because she is packing…and bitchy). I couldn’t find the remote to the garage, which as a sentence I think may be the most #firstworldproblem ever uttered, and there was a bunch of other shit I can’t even remember but seemed pretty damn monumental at the time. Then I tried to compose a prayer out loud and just felt like the biggest joke ever. WHAT BUSINESS DO I HAVE PRAYING FOR/IN FRONT OF MY CHILDREN? What will they learn from that: calm prayers uttered from the lips of a manic freak who just rushed them through their morning as though our lives depended on it? For that matter, what business do I have praying at all, after such a display of faithlessness, living as I do like the world depends on my control of it?

Well…I’d humbly submit that I have every business, in both cases. I mean, I still need air.

So I prayed, and the air defused a bit of the tension that filled it, and these two faces that keep showing up every morning, they looked back at me in trust. And I was reminded of the night last week, when they just would NOT STOP TALKING at bedtime, and all I could picture was the cover of the book Go the F*ck to Sleep and it is possible I kept quoting it under my breath. Then I felt both their tiny bodies, one under each of my arms, and the warmth and life coming from them, these two beings, these two boys, I longed for for longer than I even know. And I breathed, which also means I prayed, and it sounded like “Thank you.” Thank you for bringing me here independent of my trying and my identity-building and my rule-keeping and -failing. Thank you for this life that sucks the life out of me and gives it right back.

Last week TK had three hours booked at his therapy centre and Little Brother’s babysitter cancelled, so I ventured out in desperation with LB away from the centre and toward the centre–of the unfamiliar suburb where we know only one spot, twice a week. We walked twenty minutes and passed a playground and landed at a bakery. At the bakery, we had a biscuit and a conversation, and we stopped at the playground on the way back. The impending sunset and just me being me brought on nudges of anxiety that threatened to become waves, but he wanted to stop and jump off some steps in front of an office complex anyway. So I breathed/prayed and let him. A woman inside, sitting at her desk, saw us and waved. LB grinned at his achievement: “Higher! I higher!” A walk with a boy, with my boy, it can change an afternoon if I just show up for it.

Yesterday I was rushing, AGAIN, with time to spare. LB moaned in the backseat about his shoes hurting his feet, which I thought was bullshit but checked on anyway after we pulled up to TK’s school. I thought of the mindfulness technique I picked up in therapy: take the time to feel the moment. UGH. But I did, taking each shoe off, then each sock, and replacing them. It took maybe…a minute? He looked up at me, trust in his eyes. “That’s better,” he said, then his eyes moved to my initial necklace. “Where’s my letter?” he asked, and it took maybe…twenty seconds? To have a moment of finding the W, holding it out to him, seeing the recognition in his face, of being mine and my being his.

We walked together to TK’s classroom, where the kids were finishing lunch. His teacher grinned at me conspiratorially, handed me a thin but firm envelope. It wasn’t a report. It wasn’t a list of goals. It was his school photo packet, and she and his therapist and I went through them together. “That’s him,” she said to me as I held up the largest photo of his beaming face. “They so got him with that shot.” TK and LB came up next, followed by the rest of the class, who giggled and grinned over the photos. “Aww, look at James!” Then the other kids left for recess, and were it not for therapy, for all our challenges, the next moment wouldn’t have happened, and what would be the good in that? Because the therapist led us over to the corner where a car park sat, constructed in wood and glue and buttons and lights and love, three floors put together just for my boy. TK’s teacher grinned, and I tried not to cry, and later TK asked me why the therapist/friend had made it for him. “Because he loves you,” I told him. “Because you are so loved.”

These moments that come because of who and where we are, and what grace is, leading us to them not by our own effort but even more incredibly, through our ceaseless failures to recognise it until we have nowhere else to turn and nothing else to do: beholding the glory in front of us and staying there, an act of worship as simple and difficult as praying, which is to say, breathing, which is to say, #life.

Will Write for Attention

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In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. In my anxiety-crippled reality, I just discovered that a thing called secondary drowning exists. Yay! NEW WAYS (FOR MY KIDS) TO DIE THAT I HADN’T HEARD OF BEFORE.

We’ve been in Sydney nearly six months and there are countless “favourites” among our crew: the local, world-class zoo; Sunday morning ferry rides into the harbour for church; the amusement park fifteen minutes from our house; water views at every turn; late-afternoon trips to the beach. But one of my greatest thrills occurs every Thursday, when the local weekly paper is delivered to our mailbox.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!