Easter

So, Easter. I’ve been blowing Lent and Easter off for a few years, but this year (after blowing Lent off) I went to a huge service at a huge church downtown, and was dripping with memories about Easter at my childhood church—specifically, how the regularly-attending members looked down their noses at all the backslidden “nominal Christians” who packed the pews on that Sunday alone. I remember looking at the Easter-comers and thinking how confused about life they must be to only go to church once a year. Like, what were their lives like? Without regular church? Why were they even here?

Anyways. It’s a weird fuckin set of memories to carry into an Easter service when I haven’t darkened a church door in, like, some time. I also remember that there were few single moms who came to my church when I was a kid, and every time I saw one, I had this sense of moral badness, like the mom must’ve fucked up pretty bad to not have a husband, or (almost worse?) a non-Christian husband, and was stressed-looking—not because she was the only single mom at a church full of judgy nuclear families—but surely because she knew she’d fucked up pretty bad somewhere along the way to be coming to a church without a man. She had to know what we were thinking, and she had to know we were right.

Such weird things to remember thinking. How old could I possibly have been? 8? 10? 13? And there I was, yesterday, at Church Street UMC, on the other side of that strange, evangelical equation. And I remembered, too, that people-pleasing kids, such as I was, tend to pick up what the grown-ups like and try to run that ball forward as far as possible until a flag comes out. Which is why super-zealous Christian kids both creep me out and make a lot of sense to me, at the same time. I’m sure if I’d told a single mom at my childhood church that she needed to get right with God and bring a man next time, my parents would’ve had heart attacks. But beneath the surface, I knew what this church thought about people who were open about being different, unafraid to make mistakes, or unrepentant about choices the leadership thought immoral. They were outsiders.

Back to the Futurepast

I’ve been trying to write more, here in the last few years, about my childhood in a nondenominational evangelical (mostly homeschooling) church community, and I’m aware that without a shit ton of context, it can sound like I’m hating on church everywhere. I’m hyper-aware of that partly because a friend read a blog I’d written, thinking I was hating on her church, and was really upset about it. It feels impossible to explain to people like her what my experience growing up in this unique faith community was like. Her experience was completely different, as was most people’s. It wasn’t till I read Priestdaddy that I got this sense of “Ok so there were communities like mine all over the country.”

It was an oh-shit moment.

One of the things that feels impossible to describe to people about my childhood church experience, is that it was truly all-consuming. For much of my childhood, according to my memory, the only real socialization me and my six siblings got was going to church twice a week. Church was our friends, our extended family, our faith community, and as teenagers many of our first jobs were with church elders and deacons. Our playdates and sleepovers were with church kids. We babysat church babies. My illustrator-sister’s first artwork graced the church bulletin. My first poems were deeply religious. Nearly all of the church elders homeschooled (well, their wives did most of the work) their kids, so the lessons we got on Sundays and Wednesdays mirrored the lessons we got from our Christian homeschool curricula, often passed from family to family as people’s kids moved through grades.

Once we hit high school, we went to the homeschool co-operative once a week, but most of those kids came from backgrounds like ours (or even more restrictive—we knew families of 11, 12, 13 kids, where the girls had to wear dresses, head coverings, t-shirts and shorts when swimming, and lost half their childhood to becoming assistant-mothers, and many of them I barely saw speak except quietly to their friends or families).

But this all-consuming nature of church wasn’t just for us kids who didn’t have anywhere else to be—we accepted #thatchurchlyfe because the only adults we knew, pretty much, had also accepted it.

I get, partly, the excitement and allure of a life that was completely (so far as it was possible) wrapped up with Christian services, Christian friends, Christian ministries, Christian teaching, and Christian functions. I’ve learned about the momentum the evangelical movement was gathering, at that time—a sense of rightness with God, a sense of personal and communal healing, a sense of political and economic power, a sense that pulling away from the mainstream would result in a more pure, untroubled community—and there’s a lot to like about it. These communities nurtured some really good cultural gifts. But I wonder (and no I haven’t read any books about it, ugh, BOOORING) if the clannish nature—a sort of codependency-writ-large—wasn’t part of this movement’s slow fall/change. At some point, when you’re experiencing some financial success and personal healing, you’re going to start marketing. Am I right?

And that’s what I remember of high school: nonstop Christian marketing. And the kind of marketing that I recall—whether of original sin, the “Proverbs 31 woman,” the shushing of women in church, altar calls, conservative politics, purity culture, Christian homeschooling, that all-important distinction between Calvinism and free-will, between “secular” music and “Christian” music—it usually wrapped people up quickly in a cocoon of Christianness. I remember being afraid of “non-Christians,” which is what they were almost always called. Instead of like, you know, “people.”

As a kid in church, I was watching the adults, and they seemed (again, to my limited brain) to have not much going on besides church and Christian homeschooling. Obviously, since most had 4-13 kids, there wasn’t time for anything else! As a parent and homeowner, oh my god, I really really kind of get it. As a mother, I think I get it even more. I was in survival mode as a mom for like 3 years—to be popping out the babies every 2 years and then homeschooling them would put me in a state of perpetual survival mode, wherein church would be life-support, in a sense—and when church is life-support, you swallow the good with the bad. You can’t be messin around with what those elders are doing! You’re just trying to have a moment of peace where you can just have a Cadbury Egg and the bedroom door is LOCKED.

I think I saw a lot of this, growing up. I’m not sure I’ll ever get “the real story” if such a thing exists as a single linear chronology. But when I remember the adults at my church, I remember adults who seemed to have no/few interests outside of church topics, church finances, church ministries, church events, church music, church clothes. Probably because I was a kid and they didn’t talk about the other stuff till the kids were all outside playing, but to me, as a kid watching adults, it seemed that they didn’t find their jobs that interesting, didn’t have fun hobbies, and didn’t play sports or make art. Most of the literature they talked about was Christian, and cultural trends were often pooh-poohed, if not villainized. They only thing I could see that they deeply enjoyed was being together, chatting, and that intangible euphoria of “the nearness of God’s spirit” felt during services.

When I visit a church, now, as an adult, I see church members milling & mixing and get a little nostalgic about that connection. “Being part of something larger than yourself.” But completely folded into the nostalgia is an enormous sense of warning, of deterrence. Even in churches that are so benign!

With the sense of belonging, I remember the claustrophobia. It’s a bummer. As a kid and teenager, so much of the time I spent with church adults involved what I knew to be purposefully opaque smalltalk. When I was around the women (mostly the only adults I spent time with), especially in the intimate setting of the women’s bible study, I recall expressions of suffering and a sense of futility, a sense that they were powerless—the only agency many of them seemed to have was the choice to accept their lives. I heard many stories from the women in my church about what to do with suffering: after you accept it, God will reward you with happiness. This passive acceptance seemed, to me, to be their only real outlet for self-determination, and it became a virtue of the highest order. It was intertwined in my mind and body. Christ accepted his cup of suffering. Mary accepted her duty as mother of God. Certain disciples and prophets (looking at you, Peter and Jonah) had trouble accepting their lot and they got disciplined. Job both accepted and did not accept his cup of suffering, verses to support either lesson were excised at will, and I never heard a sermon on the ambivalence in Job till I had graduated college.

Get in loser, we’re going church-shopping

But, I like Jesus. I tend to like people who like Jesus, because Jesus was/is a pistol. I want to go to a church.

So when I visit a church and see the same shiny happy smiling crowd, I can’t not wonder if their leadership is controlling and misogynist, if their kids are allowed to ask questions, if their teenagers are taught that they can be trusted to explore. I just happen to know a lot of faith communities are insular, toxic, hide a lot of nothing behind elaborate services and liturgies, and I really don’t want to find another one like that. I’m always flashing back to this thing I used to hear at my childhood church, that people who went around visiting churches to find one they liked were “church shopping,” ridiculous at best, sin at worst: if you don’t like the church where you are, make it better! You can’t leave! Haha the doors are locked! In your face! ACCEPT IT BIATCH! And when I think about that, I remember that’s what cult leaders do too, and I wonder if it’s even a good idea for churches to have paid leaders. But I digress.

Visiting this church, this year, this Easter, was a pretty great experience. Yes, after all that. Because all that (see previous 100 paragraphs) is all in my head at the same time when I talk about church, go to church, drive by a church…(kidding on the last one, sort of?). All of it. Which is why you might be a friend IRL and never have talked to me about church: Um, I tend to avoid this enormous and emotional topic!

So anyway, this service had a choir, a brass quintet, an enormous & beautiful nave, Handel, all things I actually would have just paid $5 to see on any other Sunday of the year. But there was also—for all of those elements—very little pomp & circumstance, very little sermonizing on the emotions Jesus and contemporaries “must have” felt and very little reliance on sermons and theatrics and lighting and props to create catharsis in the audience, and I felt freakin respected.

I cried at the simple, feminism-lite sermon, at the two female reverends, at the beauty of the building and the music and the nostalgia of being in church BUT ALSO! at the idea that the women who came to the tomb of Jesus (the subject of the sermon) had 1) understood that Jesus was dead and that they had been dumb to hope, but 2) carried on with simple works of love, and then 3) were gifted with this precise experience of overturned expectations—no, Jesus was a dud, wait no Jesus is a divine Israeli empire-buster? ok neither one then? some third thing?—to prepare them to be literally Christianity’s first “evangelists” or preachers.

I.e., God, the universe, or Jesus, or whoever, intended the human experience to be a carrying-on of good work in spite of serially lost hopes; an openness, a willingness to be surprised by new hopes after losses, new third things. But what is that good work of love? Probably different for every single person. And how can I create in myself an acceptance of serially lost hopes without becoming like a sad fucking individual?

Basically I just wrote this post to say, I really liked this one church service, and I’m church shopping. Now that I’ve used SEVERAL?? hours of my free day this week writing this, I’m both wondering why this topic felt so vital, and being relieved that I could get some of the wild & conflicting energy I have around church out on a day when I really wanted to get some of it out. Thank God for preschool.

 

 

 

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I had a baby. I never knew
where a door was. His tinnitus unbearable
so white noise in every room. I never knew
where I was. I was chasing
a small light through tunnels
with my baby like we were being
chased. The sun rose behind clouds.
At three years’ distance, I don’t know
how else to describe why I never
got well, never listened to music,
put away my art and novels and poetry
without any feeling except a feeling
of emptiness. Now, three years on,
I bring out my old CDs to entertain
my daughter because she is boundless
energy and the sun has risen behind clouds
yet again in my dry body, and
the music of my twenties grows—
I turn off the white noise machine—
the music of my twenties has lifted
my body in its loving arms. I’m not
yet touching the ground. Clouds move beyond
me, leaving me and a bronze sun.
Like climbing above layers of stratus in a jet:
ah—there we are. This is recovering
from PPD, then. Learning to feel again.
That I can outlive learning to feel again.
Lying on on the mud and gravel where it knocks
you, nose bloody, mouth broken, the smile
of a healed paralytic on your face.

Streptococcus attacked my tonsils
savagely just before Christmas,
now I’m one blistery sheet of hives
from the penicillin course.
Like my therapist friend suggested,
I asked my skin what it’s trying
to tell me. It replied: You need rest.
I replied: Can’t, I’ll rest when I’m dead.
It replied: You’re not going to die.
You’re going to live forever.
Surprise. Fucking rest. Shit.

 

It’s a cool December morning, scurf of leaf litter under trees and by the fences, pieces of blue moving with gray clouds. Tiny bit of snow wandering in the air.

I read a thing from the BBC about cold remedies just now. Garlic capsules and zinc lozenges are in, orange juice is out. Part of the piece was in a larger font: In a study on echinacea supplements, people taking daily doses of the herb who believed in its immune-boosting properties had milder and shorter colds than people who did not believe. In this time of my life, when I’m trying to metamorphose into a stronger, healthier woman, trying to move toxic elements out of my life and relationships, the idea of the placebo has a novel glimmer.

I’ve always known that some people who believe they’re getting efficacious medicine or therapy will improve despite being essentially “wrong” about the therapy. But I’d always understood this as slightly sad, because I hate anyone being lied to or the truth being hidden. More than almost anything, I hate seeing (or imagining) the moment when someone realizes they’ve been wrong to hold an optimistic belief. The placebo effect has always had a sinister sheen to it, too, for me, since I grew up in a culture steeped in the power of belief and its dualistic partner, the terror of disbelief: the steadfast certainty of “true believers” doesn’t exist in vacuo—certainty exists because God has given it. Certainty unmoored from the assurance of God is ridiculous, terrifying, damnable. I don’t have time right now to hammer all that out, but people from a conservative Christian background will get this.

So, these dark shades on the placebo effect have been lifting as my faith evolves. I no longer am what you’d call a “true believer”: I look for truth, and find it outside of evangelical (and episcopalian, and anglican, ad infinitum) fences. I’m trudging along in the footsteps of people much smarter and braver than I am, but am relieved to find the grass isn’t scorched & poisonous on the other side of the mainstream Christian fence. One particularly beautiful piece of ground is the placebo effect: mind over matter. (Though the placebo effect exists in mainstream Christianity, no-one in that world would admit it. And only a small groups of people outside the mainstream have considered the gifts of religious “placebo.”)

Anyway, I want to take care of myself—I want to learn how to not let my husband’s negativity or rage hijack my sense of pride in myself, or resonate too deeply with my old shame patterns of thought/belief. I want to learn how to look carefully inside myself and see strong, wise parts, instead of broken, slimy parts. I want to learn how to look carefully outward, scheduling my time so that I do the things that grow me, educate me, calm me, and beautify my experience of being a human skinsack. I have spent much of my life waiting for other people (or God) to take care of me for me. Feeling powerless, trapped, or stuck is a real killer. But I have never been, and it’s possible no conscious human can be truly powerless, truly trapped, truly stuck. The universe, or God, has seen to that.

What I would have called a transanctional relationship with the divine, in my early twenties, I now call a partnership. Calvinism fades mercifully, the power of my mind and my body are called up by a determination to—insofar as I can—heal myself.

God, whoever God is, clearly created the placebo. Because the placebo effect is, in fact, a miracle. And who is working the miracle? Both of us? God/the divine and—me.

This blog feels particularly pat and smug, for some reason. I’m actually writing it because I’m truly turning over a new leaf in my life, and it’s incredibly hard. If I write down what I believe, and what I want to grow into, investigate, then it keeps lighting candles for me in a place that feels—still—pretty dark. Trying to make big changes to a 9-year old intimate relationship feels like wandering in snowy hinterlands without a proper coat. Trying to grow, heal, and learn while being mother & primary caregiver to a young child feels kind of similar. But knowing that I can feed myself wilted garlicky greens, roasted beets and turnips, and herbal teas—and that no matter what my body does with them, my mind is using them to heal me—this is good.

 

At the farm where I work, we’ve had some heartbreaking losses this summer. Fall crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, beets, and chard are seeded in the greenhouse in the heart of our hot, humid Tennessee Valley summer, and transplanted into the field in late July and August. Healthy transplants usually need no protection in the field besides wildlife netting (if deer are around) or row cover (if they’re high-stakes, expensive crops like broccoli and cabbage, which our climate doesn’t coddle and our bugs find irresistible). Harlequin beetles, cross-striped cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and aphids usually stay out in the fields, and only attack these brassica crops once they leave the greenhouse. Having been grown with high-quality seed, beautifully rich seed-starting medium, and vigilant watering under our high-summer shade cloth, they’re healthy enough as transplants to survive a moderate pest and heat onslaught in the field. This summer, however, the bugs took advantage of our farmers’ first beach vacation in ten years to move into the greenhouse and set up a 24-hour diner. My co-worker and I were in charge of harvesting and binning our CSA program’s produce for the week, and we just couldn’t stay on top of the bugs in the greenhouse. Kale, broccoli, cabbage, and Romanesco were reduced to a lacy, wormy mess.

Other growers in our region either use chemical pesticides or have given up trying to transplant fall brassicas completely, for the most part. Our farmers have high standards, and have tried ambitious fall plantings each of the nine years they’ve farmed here in Knox County. But success rates have been low. In order to keep bugs off the fall transplants in the field, we have to cover them with white, fleecy row cover, but even the lightest cover available (“bug cloth”) can trap enough of our end-of-summer heat and humidity to stunt growth, or kill. Our system of transplanting, covering, and removing cover can go awry if other parts of the farm need emergency attention, and we can lose all our fall broccoli and cabbage if the weather doesn’t cut us a surprise break. That’s what happened last year. This year, only half the fall brassica transplants made it into the field, and once there, half were so stressed by bug damage and heat that they died in the field. So precious late-summer work hours were spent direct-seeding hundreds of dollars’ worth of kale, cabbage, and broccoli seed into the field.

It’s difficult for our farmers to have to lose so many valuable crops (what’s a CSA without kale?), so much money, so much time trying to remedy a possibly irremediable situation, and then to have to look forward to next season, knowing outcomes will be the similar unless the already-fine-tuned system is tweaked some more … or altered entirely. And to have a reckoning like this linked to their first vacation as a family? Insult to injury. Another reason to doubt there is such a thing as “work / life balance.”

It’s been a difficult summer. But all summers have been difficult for me, since I became a mother. I need to work, because I need to contribute to household income, and because I turn into a crazy ass bitch if I spend too much time alone at home with my kid. I need to see other people, do other things. But working 6 hours at the farm in 90+ degree heat, going straight to Mary’s school to pick her up, then taking a shower and having to choose to either start dinner or “play”—a pretending game that involves me taking the lead in setting up imaginary scenarios and Mary’s stuffed animals of choice taking it from there—is exhausting. I just barely have the energy. My husband comes home at 6:30 or 6:45, plays with Mary or goes to the bedroom to lie down. We eat, divide evening tasks, then after Mary’s in bed Marshall watches tv and I usually do, too. I want to say, “This is not how I imagined I’d be spending my days at 32,” but I stop myself because I have a lot to be grateful for. But then I realize that most people can truthfully say this at 32. So I let myself say it.

Farming is usually uncertain. Farming is the definition of uncertainty. Farming is organizing a few elements within an open system, and having five backup plans. Farmers without government subsidies are staking their livings (and sanity) on uncontrollable outcomes, and farmers who don’t own their land (or have irrigation) are doing even more. Why do they do it? I think because they want to. I can’t think of any other reason you’d do it. I think small farmers met the life cycle of the earth in a vivid way, at some point in their lives, and fell in love with it. They sailed for the first time, were pushed and lifted by the wind, harnessing it, and felt yearning and love. Growing food for a community, and caring for the soil, is as beautiful a calling as any other—but for small farmers, the lack of a “safety net” beneath them makes the uncontrollable elements a normal part of everyday life. They hill their corn, and know storms and straight-line winds (if not hurricanes) will come. They care for seedlings, looking over them carefully every day, knowing that deer and rabbits and caterpillars are out there waiting. They lay irrigation, knowing that flooding could come, or drought. They know, in other words, there is loss ahead, and that that loss is unpredictable.

And so it amazes me that our farmers were brave enough to run a diversified CSA program for eighty families, and then to have two kids. Kids? TWO?? Babies, nursing, teething, crying, laughing, crawling, adding more high-stakes uncertainties to this exposed system. But why should I be surprised, since farmers already know more than most of us about how little control we really have over our beds of seedlings, our kids, our lives.

I’m honestly doing my straight up best. I’m hanging on to this farm because—exhausted as I am—I know it’s my teacher. I want to learn from it, because I want to learn from the earth, which is the only teacher I’m finding I can trust at the moment. Earth’s children grow up from the earth, eating the earth, breathing the earth, within the earth (no matter how little we realize it): I’m from the earth, and returning to it for lessons on living makes the most sense of anything I can imagine. And I do learn.

I learn that bacteria, viruses, and fungi are omnipresent in the soil, that there is no such thing as “pure soil.” I learn that plant roots “listen” for water, and some mine nutrients from deep ground and pocket it for future use; I learn that eggplants and some winter squash abort their blossoms when it’s too hot; I learn that leaves wilt in the hot sun, sending their moisture down to the roots so that leaf cell walls won’t break down, and then receive it again at dusk. Much of what I’m learning is, it seems like, how to interact with difficult times. How to sort and apply these lessons is less intuitive. Sometimes I feel like a delicious kale transplant, facing its first days in the field, and then I wonder if I will always feel this way. Unfit for the climate, or ecosystem.

But then I remember the severe drought we experienced in 2016, and how one field, sowed in a pea-and-vetch cover crop and only receiving a fraction of an inch of rain, managed to send up plants—out of nothing, with nothing, except the earth and a few drops of rain. Those plants were small, stunted, forced to flower early and go to seed, but that field became to me a symbol of true survival: not everything that lives after damage has truly survived, but some that live after damage are able to flower, and seed. They are small, what they create is small, but they are alive and have created something. And—more than that—they created a second chance for themselves, as they drop seeds and try again in a more hospitable season. This is what I want for myself.

What is the root of my pernicious envy? I grew up somewhat financially insecure, second oldest in a family of nine, and am a people-oriented socially inept hermit wrapped up in conflicting creative energies. I compare myself constantly to other people to see how far “ahead” or “behind” I am. I do it all the time. And I mean all the time. If you wondered why I struck you as competitive and resentful, yet charmingly yearning, then that is why. I don’t make a good pet.

I’ve been through beautiful periods of self-appreciation and self-forgiveness, free enough of spirit and mind to take hours-long walks, to see petals, leaflets, Mare’s Tails, dewshine, hues, glints, and grassy contour like I was new to the planet. I have been free, at times, to see and love the world the way I think it deserves to be seen, and loved. I’m a poet, and will be my whole life, whether I #amwriting or not.

But I’m the kind of person who sometimes makes a terrible mother. Sometimes ye olde conflicting creative energies blow up into shame-rage cyclones, and the isolated nature of this early-motherhood gig compounds the destructive forces. Once I finally had a kid, I never looked at the ill, dented mugshots of mothers who had hurt their children the same way again. Now I know what it feels like to be consumed by negative forces, swirling overwhelmingly within the self, and have to selflessly take care of a kid at the same time. I know what it feels like to want to hurt everything within reach, but retain the freedom of movement that my mind still has that mothers who try to drown their kids have lost. I always know where I am, and what’s happening to me. I always calm myself, talk myself into stillness. Stillness is an excellent consolation prize when peace is not to be had.

Postpartum depression and anxiety (with a dash of OCD) was a trip. But I never fought for a diagnosis because I’ve had periods of overwhelming depression and anxiety throughout my life—I knew something was wrong, postpartum, but I was kind of familiar with going through the wringer, and everybody around me told me that early postpartum felt like going through the wringer, so? Here we go through the wringer I guess? This is taking a really long time though?

According to Enneagram (have you taken the test what is your type & what is your partner’s type & all your siblings & also your parents), shame is a powerful motivating force for those with my personality (type? profile?). Shame is big for most everyone, but it is really big, for me. I am slowly making my way through Daring Greatly, Brene Brown’s Big Shame Book, and finding it all resonant. Somehow I know that my impulse to compare myself favorably with others is directly connected to my lifelong struggle with jealousy and anger, though I don’t know what to do about it yet.

I pulled some SOS quotes from Brown’s book and sticky-noted them to my dashboard, hoping that I can learn some mind karate techniques. My paraphrasing: 1) I can be warm and understanding toward myself when I fail; 2) feeling personally inadequate is common to humans, this doesn’t “just happen to me”; 3) I can be “mindful” by neither ignoring negative feelings nor “over-identifying” with them so that they sweep me away (Brown 131-132).

Maybe you’re like me, and can hardly imagine not flaying yourself within an inch of sanity for your failures. Maybe you, like me, believe that you are uniquely inwardly misshapen and maladjusted and therefore mammoth struggles are something that you have that not many other people have, those other people who look so chill and chic. Maybe you have “surfed” negative emotions like it was your sport of choice since early adolescence, and crying in bed has always been your idea of a relaxing night in. Eh? If so, these points are HARD TO UNDERSTAND.

But the fact remains that they are saving me.

Motherhood, right?? *slaps knee, spills drink*

Motherhood is to my life what salt is to a dish, a catalyst, an intensifier, it raises the boiling point, the air is super-saturated and super-thin up here. Army-crawling through my low points isn’t cutting it, anymore. Retreating to get a handle on my negative emotions isn’t possible, anymore. I can’t hibernate or become a hermit. So this is why I think motherhood is forcing me to grow up. I can’t get lost in my negative feelings anymore, so I have to slog down into my strange subconscious and do weird inventories, organizing motives, responses, etc. I have to read self-help books like they’re candy (Codependent No More and Daring Greatly were fucking incredible, next up: The Dance of Anger!), and write things that sound like the most common of all common sense on sticky notes and try to memorize them.

Those creative energies have to find new outlets, new syntax, new vocabulary. Even new purposes. I used to write at every serendipitous shoulder-tap from my own personal muse, but now I basically have to used my own hands to bend my own knees and force my own ass to sit in a chair and start writing in what feels like a new language that I have not got down yet. Ugh, God. And I have to soothe that horrible sense of being-at-the-very-beginning-again by creating other things, like gardens, bouquets, quilt blocks, herbal teas, roasts, raw salads, pestos, marinades. And when I can slow down enough to be kind to myself, I can (to borrow some language from my Evangelical days) rejoice, exult in my work, and in that little being who neither competes with me nor against me, who never envies me, who never compares me to all those other moms that I compare myself with daily: my own little kid.

One of my best “a-ha moments” as a mother came from a podcast interview, in which a childhood development researcher said that families (and communities) benefit more from a “gardener” approach to parenting than a “carpenter” approach. Yes, yes of course. A child is not a work-in-progress in a closed system, but a plant growing in an ecosystem that is (almost) impossibly complex. The accompanying thought, months later, was that I have to learn to treat myself like a plant instead of a WIP, too, if I’m going to ever be comfortable treating my daughter like one.

I haven’t written in a week, and after having cried about it and generally felt like a failure, I am back at it this morning. Unfortunately, my brain is motherhood-mush and highly distractable, tending to focus on how I’m going to take Mary to the mall today so I can look for some summer pants, with pepperings of intense jealousy that other adult people have time to write novels and screenplays while I’m just losing gray matter (because I’m a mother, look it up sheeple) and becoming more irrelevant to the world BY THE DAY.

Yeah yeah yeah, my “grand revelation” last week about how my “roots” are “perennial.” “Wow.”

OK I HAVE TO SETTLE TF DOWN.

Let’s begin again: Good morning. Because it is a good morning. Today I’m going to the mall to get summer pants, and treat myself, because I’m so jealous that other adult people get to sit in their quiet offices and write so many pages of creative nonfiction. And poetry. Dammit. One more try, then.

Good morning. Because it is a good morning. After a long dry spell, it is raining. I have easily a dozen large projects that I dream about finishing, but one of them—gardening—is moving forward. And it’s moving forward because I have prioritized it. It’s as simple as that, actually. I feel powerless and victimized by the demands on my time, as a working mother, but I have to remind myself (every day) that I’m NOT diving for individual pearls with only a snorkel mask; I’m allocating resources, of which there are many. I.e., life is not a game of Whack-An-Emergency, but more like Operation. Every wrong move triggers the loudest buzzer I’ve ever heard.

And! Neither of those children’s games are metaphors for real life,  just for my perception of my life and responsibilities. I’ve had to hit re-start on my brain three times already this morning.

It is a good morning, because I have a whole day ahead of me, and I get to allocate resources.

A chipmunk jumped onto the brick sill outside the window, just now, tiny and shiny russet, like a fallen oak leaf. Its tail, short and brushy, and ears like the smallest clamshells, or snailshells. Wow. It looked around with those quick movements unique to squirrels and birds, I saw its black, liquid eye, then in a burst it gathered itself and flung itself across the sheer brick, out of sight. It’s been raining, it’s been dry, and my seeds and plants are gathering toward greatness out there.

Sometimes I look at the natural world and am impressed by its unending cycle of growth. Nothing can truly kill it for long, nothing but nuclear holocaust or polluting corporate dystopia. Nothing so far. An isolated stand of hackberries and mulberries, brushed up with privet and honeysuckle, are slowly encroaching on the southeast corner of our property, a few inches a year. If a pandemic wiped out human life in this neighborhood, or city, these trees would finally be able to raise their thousands (millions?) of seedlings that pop up each spring, that we anxiously slice to fragments with the mower.

I like to calm myself with the thought of this house becoming a home to chipmunks and coyotes, forest marching steadily over and underneath it, till it is truly inside a wood. Our bluebells would spread, and irises, and the Bermuda grass and ground ivy would—finally—move elsewhere. I don’t want to think of myself, our family, as an environmental pollutant, an impurity, or an alien element. But our stain of blindness and frantic energy belies our natural place in this world: yes, a fellow-competitor, but a companionable competitor. If there’s such a thing.

How to allocate resources, how to compete companionably. How can I assert myself in my environment, plant a thousand seeds, and protect my roots? And what is a more useful metaphor, a tree in a clearing, or a biodiverse farm? How much control do I really have over what grows into my life, and how I myself grow?

If I’m longing for relief from burdens of responsibility, that’s important to consider. What can I let go, today? What little spirits of wildness can I let into my head, while letting the frantic energy out? The answer, again and again, is to look into my little wild heart and my daughter’s little wild heart, and let the dishes go to hell. Or, maybe I’ll do the dishes and let the garden weeding go to hell. Because dinner can’t go to hell, no way, cause it’s gonna be pizza and pizza is greatly beloved by my little wild heart.

I have this friend. And we are trying to do so much. She’s trying to do more, since she has two kids, and one of them has had a lot of heart surgeries because of a congenital heart defect, and basically has PTSD from some of those times when her son could have died. I’m just over here trying to sort out my socks. Just kidding—I’m trying to deal with my past and create my future, just like the rest of us. And what a shit-show it can be.

So this friend and I have something in common, and that’s high-achievement, perfectionism, and an amount of ambition that feels alternately inspiring and impossible. Actually, two of my friends are like this (probably most of us, to be honest), and the friend I thought of just now told me that she knew her pattern of “I feel like I’m killing it … and then I want to kill myself” was unsustainable, long-term. All of us high-achieving perfectionists can make that roller coaster work for us WAY longer than makes any kind of rational sense, and I think it’s because we remember what it was like before we had kids.

So many people—once the adorableness of our children has been the topic of conversation for a few minutes—open their mouths and “Do you even remember what life was like before?” comes out. Oh my god.

It’s a personal “pet peeve” of mine, because there are times I have regretted having a kid, and since no parent is supposed to admit that, I’m often in the position of having to smile and force a small agreement-laugh through my nose when asked (rhetorically) whether I have amnesia and forget what it was like to be a free and independent young adult with prospects.

I’m sort of kidding, but sort of not. All the truisms about parenthood (and motherhood in particular) rain down on my head and shoulders these days, when I’m wanting to make bread AND do the week’s meal prep AND clean out grass roots from the garden area AND go to an anti-white supremacy demonstration downtown AND split the goddamn bulbs in the front flower bed. This first friend and I, we think about our choking bulbs all the time. Who has time? I don’t even usually have time to condition my hair in the shower.

No, having experienced the vast surprising fun of creating a new human, I wouldn’t go back; children are a shock and a delight; I am growing in ways I might not otherwise be forced to; sacrificing greatly to nurture a kid is, in fact, worth it, for me. But I remember what it was like before. I daydream about it.

Sometimes when I am dragging stuffed animals and snack leavings out of the yard on my way to starting dinner, I think about how I used to climb trees and wait to be blown about by the wind, like a flag, or a bell, wait like I had nowhere in the world to be—because I didn’t. Sometimes when my daughter has her pants around her knees and is yelling for me to wipe her butt, and I have to leave the garden for the afternoon (after only having been able to weed one small area), I think about the long, lazy afternoons I used to spend alone or with friends at outdoor café tables, languorous and dreamy in the summer dusk. Sometimes when I have eight things I want to get done in a day, but after work I’m exhausted and I realize I can only do two of the things, and only one if I want to spend any time sitting down before I start dinner, I think about how I used to lie on my bed on my days off, reading and reading and reading and reading, till the shadows got long and the air grew cool.

One answer for me has been a hard pill to swallow, and even now I’m not sure I’ve swallowed it totally. It might be stuck in my throat right now. And that answer to my tearful, ragey, or numb responses to having so little time to do the things that used to make me feel whole and peaceful has come in different forms from veteran parents: Make new good times with your kid.

How? I’m working on it, after resentfully (“UGH” & “FUCK FUCK FUCK”) rejecting that advice for a few years. (And, to be fair, there are very few “new good times” you can actually have with a baby; now that my daughter is three, things are different.) Yes, my creative work will, in the end, have to wait for a while to be reborn. My love for solitude will have to wait to be reborn, my immense satisfaction in long to-do lists, manicuring both the front and back yard at the same time, fast-tracking the kitchen renovation. I used to look at this kind of admission as an admission of failure: I have failed to bring my whole self to the present, or to motherhood. But nothing essential can be lost for long, and losing ground in the battle for solitude and productivity is temporary. Solitude and productivity will come back, sooner than I thought: they are trickling back in, they are sending up different-looking shoots in surprising places. I still hate this, but finding fun with my toddler is the medicine I need.

Another friend—a writer whose kids are almost grown up—wrote to me in the midst of the fierce chaos of my early postpartum days, saying that when her kids were young, she had accepted that creative work would not get done in the same way as before. (She remembers the before, too, ha!)  She instead let her new environment reshape it. Instead of sitting at a desk and writing stories, she invented stories to tell her kids at night, working from prompts they gave her. At the time, I couldn’t hear this. All I could hear through my postpartum noise was, “You can’t be a mother and write.” Returning to that email a year later, it brought tears to my eyes and a place in my ribcage tightened suddenly, unbearably, because I knew she was right, and that I could understand her.

I work on a farm, and I’ve always been attuned to the mechanisms of the natural world—I should know this stuff. Our vocations are deep, perennial roots, and can’t be killed by the winter, or even a few winters.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

First lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

And why not? Why not.

I sit at a desk on another morning, stomach stretching and grumbling, feeling a bit crabbed and bent over, my beautiful coffee steaming in my face, and here is my 32-year old self in a robe and out there is a yard with old pines and sugar maples in it. And I read Whitman’s pride with himself, pride of himself—or better, pleasure. What does it stir in me? Envy, mostly.

Let’s go back to the dawn of time. Just kidding, let’s go back to the Enlightenment. Kidding again. Let’s just go back to my childhood.

Like any childhood, it had its glints of gold, and moments of joy and excitement that I won’t forget until death or dementia. But as I remember them from that time, my parents were stressed, tired people, whose main support community was a church plant started by young evangelicals fired up by remnants of the Jesus Movement and its energy, but bound securely by Calvinist theology. I’m still trying to pick apart how this community grew together and stayed together for decades—till its children grew and (for the most part) ultimately left it. Preaching and teaching, from my earliest Sunday school memories through high school and my waning attendance as a young adult, were heavy on sin, repentance, and grace. As any self-respecting Evangelical church should be, right?

But along with any focus on sin comes a concurrent obsession with it. Leaders spent more time defining sin hierarchies, rehearsing the virtues that scooted them further and further from any dangerous sinners’ circles, and writing congregational rules (as a non-denominational church, their pastors and elders were not subject to any larger governing body) than anything else. Children were expected to memorize Bible stories and verses about sin and repentance, and how God’s two main satisfactions in humankind were 1) that we were made in God’s image, and 2) that we repented. In a nutshell.

As a child, the imago Dei message was wholly contained, to me, in the idea of power: God is power, and God created small pieces of life to walk around under that power with a little power of its own. That “little power” was little indeed: by it, I could choose to adhere to God, or to run from God. All decisions in my young life were overlaid by this binary. As a girl, especially, I wasn’t taught that I had power to choose a nontraditional path through life, to take issue with conventional theologies, to disobey authority, to explore non-believers’ beliefs with an open mind, or to openly disagree with men (and most women) older than myself. I grew into a teenager who could barely speak in public, whose private life no one knew but my diaries and the God to whom I confided all (and whom, since I adhered outwardly to the structure of my church and family, I assumed I pleased).

As a sensitive type, I came to the conclusion on my own that God wasn’t mainly interested in power, but beauty, with all the mysterious complexity it necessarily involved. It was a subversive idea (for my community) that grew in my own private garden, carefully and secretly tended. I defined beauty by painting in broad strokes: I connected beauty with freedom, pleasure, play, deep attention, and love, small fiercenesses that defied categorizing and shushing. To me, the moon and stars, as I sneaked outside as an adolescent on summer nights with a blanket and pillow, affirmed my decision to break my curfew.

(No I had no real reason to fear repercussions from sneaking into the yard at night to stargaze. My parents probably knew I did it. But the rules that shaped my childhood were significant enough that I certainly wanted no one to know I was bending one, because bent rules had often resulted in revocations of small liberties before. I learned not to risk. And for the love of god I would never admit to anyone that I loved—LOVED—masturbating! All pleasure felt suspect in my childhood subculture, but sexual pleasure was the most suspect of all.)

While God’s interest in beauty (freedom, pleasure, play, deep attention, love) was, superficially, taught at my church and in my home, I saw no one in either place who seemed outwardly to prioritize these things, unless it was some of the women who closed their eyes as they sang Sunday morning hymns, looking rapturous. There was a pleasure that was allowed: music. Music indeed, and my own singing of it, was one of my first experiences of beauty, and more importantly, the idea that I could create beauty. But beauty was still, for me, defined within the limits of evangelicalism. I really hadn’t been exposed to any other system.

And then came G. M. Hopkins, whose Protestant but radical love of beauty gave me my love for poetry, a new little vine I cultivated, and whose green umbrage took over my garden. And you can’t love poetry for long without loving Walt Whitman. And “Song of Myself.”

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” “I loafe and invite my soul”—freedom, deep attention, and love emanate therefrom. But how can he love himself? How can he find deep attention to himself pleasurable? And how can that pleasure be unstained by shame? Of any kind??? I was sincerely puzzled. Calvinism teaches that humans are essentially marred, dirty, sinful, slothful—pile any and every malign epithet on us and history shows us we deserve it. For the Calvinist, every good human action springs from God in him, not him himself. Humans possess a substance that is not God, which is “self” (bad), and a gifted substance (gifted at “salvation”) that is not self, but “God” (good). I had been taught this from the cradle. How can someone love herself? I wouldn’t understand it till I became a mother, till I was in my 30s.

Today my alarm went off at 6:15 instead of 6:00  (lost so much sleep in a 5-day period I felt like I had the flu, probably also should start taking an antihistamine just before bed because my throat, nose, and sinuses are feeling v. raw and throbby). I’m dragging myself up this morning. Instagram tried to keep me in bed, scrolling, but I managed to resist. For a tired crawl from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom to the bathroom to the office, where I am now trying to be pithy for 11 minutes and then I have to put on mud-encrusted Carhartts and go to work. I remember being excited about this writing project, and the slow build-up to actually starting it. I’m not feeling the excitement now, but according to People the important thing is to sit, and write.

God I’m tired. Yesterday I was so tired I felt like my head was a big steel keg, and stimuli gonged it softly every few seconds. Inside was jelly and the gonging sent thoughts traveling from one side to the other, little slow determined journeys. V. heavy.

This morning I can tell is going to be better. I’m eating something besides fig bars and coffee this morning, and I really did probably get almost 8 hours of sleep last night. I don’t know what I’m having for lunch, unless I have a banana and 3 of those super-expensive fruitynutty bars I got for 99 cents each (on way sale) at Kroger yesterday. Was going to save them, but? Who am I kidding? Ok so I’ll have protein. (I’m the worst at feeding myself. Why? My main daily preoccupation when I’m *not doing well in life* is what food to feed the fam for dinner, and that sometimes means I feed myself total garbage from 6am til 6pm, I behave really like a Smokey Mountain black bear rummaging through a campsite. Is this refined flour? Ooh yeah. Wait where did this wrapper come from, did I eat that already? Oh but there’s crumbs in there yay!

So the build-up to starting this project.

Red azaleas and lavender irises are blooming in the green shadow outside the window. I love irises but feel like they’re too cool & elegant to care about me. I do know that Nature doesn’t give a fig for the human race, but most plants have a very compliant kind of attitude about it; irises make me feel like if I say the wrong word they would all move out, maybe just go ahead and load up with all their iris friends and leave Middle Earth. I haven’t picked any since we moved into this house 2 years ago because I want them to like me first.

Anyway yeah ok right this writing project. I have 6 more minutes. Next time I get up to write (tomorrow morning, MUST happen NO EXCUSES) I’m going to go into a few things:

  1. Saving myself from drowning since no one else lifting a finger to do so, smh.
  2. Saving myself in order to (do what I can to) save the marriage, since I don’t think it could survive both of us being unhealthy to such a degree at the same time. Fortunately husband is also taking steps to gain health, and at the end of our therapy session yesterday our therapist basically said “You guys are halfway already to making this work for you,” and I was like (in my head), “Can I pat self on back? No that’s dumb he said ‘halfway’ you still have to get into Mordor ugh.”
  3. Saving myself involves being #codependentnomore and trying all the old numbers for God in my phone to see if anyone has his number or knows how I can contact, AND writing and reading. Writing and reading are what my soul is made of, and I used to say to myself (back in college days) “I just don’t know what would happen to me if I couldn’t write! *hair flip*” as if I was so sure that would never happen. Well guess what happens! *Draws self up fully into light, ominous music, claws clacking, scales glinting* Yes, I can forgive my younger self. And, theoretically, I can forgive my current self. Saving self also includes a thousand things, because in my life I have loved a thousand things. Can I make another bullet point for this? Yes I can.
  4. Saving myself involves resuming active love for the following: songbirds, flowers, gardens, exploring forests, sitting outside and thinking, baking cakes, distance from social media, creating visual art like quilting or bookbinding or home decor*, reading Hopkins and Howe and Hirschfield and Rilke and all the other spiritual writers and poets that I’ve been longing to return to but life is a maze & how, and lying on the grass and letting the earth hold me up, AND climbing a tree and letting the tree lift me up.

*assuming home decor is art. It is right? At the very least I need to put actual art up on the walls of this house. My God. I need that so bad.

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