A Theological (Mis)Treatment of Hello, Dolly!

There are at least three things I know to be true: one, this week always sucks for me, no matter how much I think it won’t; and two, I have a very slight obsession with the movie, Hello, Dolly! When I say “very slight,” I really mean it. It isn’t like my obsession with, say, acronyms, Trader Joe’s chocolate yogurt, or good books. But it’s there, nonetheless.

So today on the way to drop Rachel off at pre-school, I was thrilled when she and Aaron both requested to listen to the HD soundtrack. I love the songs, yes, but more importantly, the songs make me happy. This week, I’ll take any form of happiness I can get.

After listening to the first track several times in a row because Aaron demanded it, we moved on to the other tracks. We were singing with gusto, using jazz hands, and largely being dorks in general. As I sang along, I could vividly picture the long-legged, loose-jointed dancing of Barnaby and Cornelius, and I wished I were free to move around rather than stuck behind a wheel.

It was good, it was fun, it was what we do.

But then, as it does every year, the unbridled grief came, right there on Ritchie Highway in front of the gas station that for some reason has statues of cows in front of it.

As I belted out the chorus, “And we won’t go home until we’ve kissed a girl!” it occurred to me with painful alacrity that not all little boys get to grow up and kiss a girl.

And I was suddenly just done and over, dabbing my eyes with the Scruncii I leave in the cup holder in case of wind and hair emergencies. I checked the rearview mirror and, thankfully, the kids were too busy singing and staring at cow statues to notice their mom had just melted into a nauseated puddle of sorrow and mascara.

I somehow managed to drop Rachel off but leave her part of the class project, due today, in the car, as well as talk to several teachers without anyone noticing that the entire world had turned to ash.

On the way home, Aaron blissfully snoozing away in his car seat, the CD played on, and I realized that the HD soundtrack is much more than mere songs: It is, in fact, both a deep theological work as well as an almost perfect representation of a parent’s grieving process. (The two are not exclusive, nor are the “whys” listed here inclusive.)

Dolly, despite her seeming cheer and Subliminal Man-style humor, is a grieving widower. After years spent mourning her husband and helping other people fall in love (she works as a matchmaker, among other things), she wants to move beyond her grief and discover what life has to offer her:

Life without life has no reason or rhyme left
With the rest of them
With the best of them
I wanna’ hold my head up high.
I need a goal again
I need a drive again
I wanna’ feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by…

This is a turning point for Dolly, and it is only two songs later that she decides she can’t live in daily grief. She does this in “Love is Only Love,” when she sings about finally, years after her loss, looking to fall in love:

If it’s love you’ve found
Your heart won’t hear a sound
And when you hold his hand
You only hold his hand.

The violins are all a bluff
But if you’re really wise
The silence of his eyes
Will tell you
Love is only love
And it’s wonderful enough

And just like that, she has found her hope: Love may be only love, but love is everything. She can love Ephraim (husband one), she can love Horace (soon-to-be husband two). And she can love them both equally, wholly, and passionately, because love is not finite. And if you let it, love will resuscitate and resurrect you into who you are meant to be and allow you to enter into the world of the fully living. Which Dolly does.

The now fully living Dolly walks—no, sashays—in all her glorious finery into Harmonia Gardens (her old stomping grounds), and sings:

Here’s my hat fellas
I’m stayin’ where I’m at, fellas.
I went away from the lights of 14th Street
And into my personal haze,

But now that I’m back in the lights of 14th Street
Tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days

Dolly’s overjoyed and overwhelmed and over par.

Do you hear the ice tinkle?
Can you see the lights twinkle?

I hear it tinkle.
I see them twinkle.

Wow, wow, wow, fellas,’

Dolly’ll never go away again.*

You see, she is living the resurrected life. She is living love. That is a hard thing to do, but once you’ve got it, it is, as Dolly says, the most emphatic of wows.

That doesn’t mean the rest of life will be forest green shutters and late nights by the fire for Dolly or for any of us. It won’t be. Love is hard. Marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Grief is hard. And no resuscitation, no amount of resurrected living, can take grief away. It can only make it better, bearable; tortured moments fewer and further between.

But as Cornelius sings in what is for a grieving parent the most heartbreaking song on the whole damn album, none of that matters. Because in the end, we have this truth to hold to:

It only takes a moment
For your eyes to meet and then,
Your heart knows in a moment
You will never be alone again. 

I held h[im] for an instant
But my arms felt sure and strong
It only takes a moment
To be loved a whole life long…

And that is all
That love’s about
And we’ll recall when time runs out
That it only took a moment
To be loved a whole life long!

And so this is the third thing I know to be true: He may have only had a moment, but in that moment, Jeremy was loved his whole life long.

* I cut out all the lines that weren’t Dolly’s. (and even cut a few of hers.)
PS – I hope it’s clear that much of this is tongue in cheek. Then again, some of it absolutely is not.

Is Parental Discipline a Black and White Issue?

Let’s be clear from the start: this is not just about Toya Graham.

Toya Graham is the woman captured on video physically disciplining her son for throwing rocks at police officers during the Baltimore protests, hitting him several times in the face and head, forcefully removing his hoodie, and pushing him away from the crowd while swearing and yelling at him.

The clip went viral, and Graham was quickly labeled “Mother of the Year.” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts praised her actions, saying, “I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out there tonight.” Some on my Facebook feed applauded her actions, quoting Scripture as support: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

But after the video made its rounds on social media and news sites like CBS, other opinions began to emerge. Graham was branded a child abuser and a prime example of violence begetting violence. Calls of “racist” were directed from and to both camps of opinion, rendering discipline an issue of race, class, and cultural norms.

You can read the rest of this very non-controversial article (haha) at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics
.

Churches Unite to Reverse Foster Care Wait List

In recognition of foster care awareness month, this month’s Red Letter Carpet features Aaron and Amy Graham. Aaron and Amy have a career-long history of helping those in need: prior to moving to DC, Aaron started the Quincy Street Missional Church in a low-income neighborhood of Boston where he served for five years, and Amy served as a foster care social worker. In 2013, they co-founded DC127, a faith-based non-profit with a mission to unite churches around reversing the foster care wait list in Washington, DC. It both recruits and supports foster and adoptive homes and prevents children from entering the child welfare system by supporting families in crisis through its partnership with the national Safe Families for Children movement. Aaron and Amy also founded the The District Church, where Aaron is lead pastor and Amy is the discipleship pastor. They have adopted two children, Elijah and Natalie.

You can read my interview with Aaron and Amy here.

GrahamFamily

Things That Are and Could Have Been

She—my baby girl Rachel—so badly wants babies. And we tell her: go to college, get married, have babies, in that order. She’s cool with this (she’s five), but the problem is: she really doesn’t like boys. Except her big brother, and sometimes her dad, and even less often her little brother. Boys, she says, are the losing team. They stink, and have too much body hair, and if they nursed babies it would be dirt-milk. So how to achieve her goal of motherhood? This, I want to tell her, is a problem women have faced for centuries.

She informed us tonight at dinner that men aren’t necessary for the birth of babies. My husband took umbrage at this and sought my support in convincing our daughter otherwise. I cocked my eye at him and said, “That’s a fine line, dear. She’s talking about carrying the baby inside and giving birth and nursing it. Do you really want to cross that line and tell her just exactly how it is that men contribute?” That put an end to that, and our daughter remains convinced that mamas are all that are needed. A lot of mamas think this too, and it’s kind of dragging us womenfolk down, all this hard work of going at life and parenting alone.

I should know: I did the single parent thing for right at twelve years. Technically I was married for about 18 months of those 12 years, but not in such a way that anyone would’ve noticed. Overall, those single years were some of the happiest of my life. My son makes for a wonderful life companion and I am the most introverted of introverts so being alone kind of suited me. But while happy, those years were also extremely, extremely hard. Like Chris Rock says, “Sure, you can be a single mom, but should you be?” It depends, of course, so I’ll just leave that one alone. Too many caveats.

I remember this girl from law school who was pretty much the most anti-marriage woman I’d ever met outside of a punk club. “It’s the worst contract for women ever! It’s killing us and bringing us down! We’re losing our selves, our careers, our potential!” And so on and so forth. That (wonderful) woman is now happily married with two kids and often posts Pinterest-worthy photos of homemade crafts on her Facebook page. She also is now “self-employed,” which we female lawyer-types know is really shorthand for “I want more flexibility than the jerks who run law firms (and some non-profits) will let me have.”

There is also the infamous case of Gloria Steinem who said women need men like fish need a bicycle (as in, not at freakin’ all). She is now married as well. I’m not sure if she’s happy or not because I haven’t checked. But regardless.

My personal ambivalence towards marriage could be because my first marriage was such an abomination. It was full of abuse, affairs, bar fights, and lots of drugs, none of which were perpetrated, had, started, or used by me. The innocent party stands highly wronged here, and though I’ve reached a level of forgiveness, the PTSD is a little harder to shake. What did come from that first marriage are two of the most beautiful people God ever created, and lots of what some might call “wisdom,” but only because it’s stuff I learned before the age of fifty; to anyone over fifty it’s mere common knowledge.

For some Godforsaken reason I decided to get marriage at fifteen. I think being pregnant had something to do with it. My parents yelled and screamed and forbade the marriage (as they should have), but his parents were gleeful and facilitated the whole shebang. I realize now the reasons for this were many. One, they were happy that their oldest son, whom they worried about greatly, had found a gentle and God-fearing partner who could influence him for good. Two, seeing as how I was pregnant, and that they were fundamentalists Christian types in a kindly and charismatic spirit-led sort of way, they figured we better make things legal to please Jesus.

So off we went in the middle of the night in an old Mustang that ended up stranding us halfway to the airport. Me, scared, pregnant, and hungry. Him, just happy to be doing something frowned upon by the establishment.

That baby, the one making me hungry, is the one who later died at not quite one year old. But even after that the ex and I stayed together and soon had another baby. That baby is now eighteen, in college, and the love of my life. Without him—as I often say while loving and hugging him hard—I’d probably have wound up in a cardboard box somewhere, spanging and dumpster diving with a tear tattooed on my face.

But instead, I’m here.

In case I haven’t mentioned it thus far, let me now say with emphasis: things happen for a reason. So I try not to even question it, this voluptuously curvaceous life, choosing instead to marvel at the mundane, squint so as not to bat my eyes at the ironic and absurd, and keep focused on the faithful, such as finding myself squarely in these middle years, strangely, dizzily, ironically, married.

Again.

You Will Know Us By the Dirt Under Our Nails

My first son.

Jeremy.

Everything begins and ends with him. He and Jesus are my alpha and omega, but only Jeremy is my magic baby awaiting me in Heaven.

I promise you: he is.

And when I find him, he will still be almost eight-months-old. He will still have red hair and the most gorgeous, luminous white skin you’ve ever seen. He will still have the gummiest of smiles, and arms for only me.

When you grieve, if you grieve—and I hope you don’t—you will understand. You will get religion in a heartbeat, unless you swear off the Gods for good and let yourself die inside. Which you might, because some people do, but I hope you aren’t one of them.

I think this was even the first argument I had with the man whom I later married: could someone whose child died not believe in Heaven?

“Religion can’t be your crutch!” this childess man of twenty-something years and no prior marriages said to me.

You know nothing.” Hot words from a seething girlfriend said through clenched tight teeth. Maybe he didn’t know anything then but he does now; he will shout “halleluiah, happy birthday” with the best of them, and if he’s humoring me I don’t care.

I want to dig him up and hold him.” My friend whose son just died wrote these words to me. “Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Good Lord, no,” I wrote her back. “You’d be crazy if you didn’t want to. You’d be crazy if throwing out his last crap-filled diaper was something you wanted to do. You’d be crazy if you laid aside his lovie the first week after his demise and said, ‘I guess I don’t need this anymore.’ The grieving mom’s job is to do whatever the hell she wants to do. And if that means getting dirt under your nails from clawing at the freshly turned earth on a Berkeley hillside, then by all means, get to it. I’ll loan you my nail brush and a shovel.”

A grieving parent has no limits. Grief is everything for a long, long time. Forever, even, for all I know, because frankly, I’ve just gotten to where I don’t allow myself to think about it. It’s been over 20 years, but even now, as I type, I don’t think, or feel. I worry a bit that when I go to bed that having written these words might force my brain to think, to love, and so maybe I’ll stay up just a bit later, type until sheer exhaustion weighs down my head and hands, so that then I can blissfully, ignorantly, blank-mindedly, sleep.

But if you are a thinker instead of a stuffer, I imagine your life will be pretty unbearable for somewhere close to always.

I’m sorry to burden you.”

That’s what my friend said to me somewhere in the middle of a 2am email when she couldn’t sleep and needed comfort from someone in this exclusive club of moms who have lost.

“You should apologize for that apology,” I may have said, or not, but certainly should have if I didn’t.

The Dead Child Club is gratefully small, and if you’re a member you’d better be prepared to welcome new members with open hearts and honest words, no matter the time of day or if Comcast is finally on the other line. When my son died I didn’t know anyone else who had lost an almost-one-year-old. Miscarriage, yes. Stillbirth, yes. Adult child, yes. 100% healthy, beautiful, learning-to-crawl bright-eyed baby boy? Nope. Is any one of these experiences easier or harder than another? Only God knows that, and it’s a question I think is better left unasked.

The first time I met someone who confessed to having lived through the same as me was about fifteen years after my loss. I was shocked. But I was also comforted: “There’s someone else! She gets it! She knows!” I wanted to shout from the rooftops, hug her tight, have her over for dinner. But our encounter was short—ironically she was performing an ultrasound during my 20-week prenatal checkup—and we never crossed paths again.

My friend’s son had a disease I can’t pronounce or spell, and that is so rare no one puts any money or thought into researching it, or raising public awareness through rubbery bracelets and walks for the cure. My son died of SIDS. It is much more common, but without a known cause. One fatal illness presents within the womb, the other during the quiet of sleep.

I mean, what the f*?%? We lay in our beds, eating ice cream, fat and happy and pregnant, and all the while certain death is building in our bodies, masquerading as pure joy.

Once bright-eyed beauties, grieving mothers are rendered greasy haired and malnourished. They are the real life living dead. Trust me on this. Although its been 20+ years, I’ve yet to convince my eyes to smile and I’m much less buoyant than I was all those years ago. I wonder who I would be today without this gaping hole, this miserable loss, but since it hurts too much to think about I usually don’t come up with much of an answer.

I ask you: How can these hollow-cored, hollow-eyed women believe in a God who could take their babies? Or, if believed in, how could they love him? Believe he loves them? Well, that’s a really good question. It’s right up there with questions about the Holocaust and genocide and war and rape. How could any of us believe in, or love, God in this kind of world?

There are a lot of folks out there who try to answer that question, and I think most of their answers are full of holes joined by high hopes that no one will think to look below the surface.

God has a plan.”

“Why would this be His plan?”

It will serve a purpose in your life.”

“Screw that.”

God doesn’t control these things; we all do our own stuff down here while God watches and eats popcorn.”

The list goes on. Some of it may hold water, but overall it’s all just a bunch of baloney. You either do or you don’t, and you either draw closer or further away. If you’re lucky, you draw closer. You feel in your bones the truth of God’s power, and love, and knowledge that all things will knit together through your misery, somehow, someway, should you just let it.

But really, you should probably never try to convince a member of the Dead Child Club that there is a loving God. Instead: Pray for them. Love them. Let them hit you with small angry fists and smear snot all over you. It’s the least that you can do.

The Telling Ground

Those who say we encounter crossroads in life are idiots. I know no one who walks a straight line for years then suddenly hits some great, game-changing T in the middle of the road. Instead, the crossroads and forks and dead ends come fast and furious most days, one after the other. Others sneak up on us as we’re on cruise control, dozing at the wheel.

The daily in and out of breathing, living, being, mocks us. It tells us one week we are on a calm and determined path, and the next that we are certain of near death from sheer exhaustion and stress. I can think of no greater sad sack in this regard than me. It seems that every month or so I email my prayer team friends, saying that my husband and I are at a “great time of change.” A time of important decision-making. That we feel the winds of change a blowing’, taking our lives somewhere we never anticipated they’d go, but we just know—know!—that God has “A Plan for Us.” And my friends smile and nod across our virtual divide; “praying!” they write on our private Facebook page, followed by cute emoticons. But I know they must be rolling their eyes at yet another of my “crossroads” moment, coming mere moments after the last.

Example:

“The kids are doing great! Our marriage has never been better!”

Six days pass.

“I need prayer! Our oldest got a speeding ticket, the youngest hasn’t slept in days, and marriage is just too hard for words!”

Sigh.

God gives us much more than crossroads. He gives us sinewy snakes and wiggling vines and magic trick glasses that tease us into thinking they’re half full, right before convincing us of their emptiness and that He’s leaving us to die of thirst somewhere just past the last gas station in a 100-mile radius.

I have guessed for the last several years that this has something to do with being in one’s thirties. That the thirties are a time of changing jobs, career-ladder climbing, raising a multitude of children, and maybe even taking care of aging parents. Marriages have often hit the magic number seven, the year infamous for being the most rocky of them all (at seven years in, there’s usually a five- and two-year-old running around, tossing rocks with great abandon into one’s happily-ever-after path). But when I wisely assert this gleaning in front of older friends they laugh and say that being of a certain age has nothing to do with it:

“There’s always something!” They say with a nod and a smile, all but patting me on my sweet little head.

And I see that this is true. I see it among my older friends, my family. Those in my church, and the people who I’m somehow friends with on Facebook although we’ve never even met.

Prayer, prayer, prayer, they say. “We need prayer.

Sometimes it’s for cancer. Sometimes a sick dog. Other times the death of a child. But always, always, it’s something. Really, it’s kind of funny if you think about it. On one of your darker days, when all the humor you can muster comes straight from the gallows and you haven’t yet showered by 4pm, if you can step outside yourself to look in, you might see a little humor shining through. We’re all so chaotic, convinced we’re neurotic and that everyone else is better than we are, while at the same time thinking snidely of all the ways our neuroticism is superior to that of others—it’s really quite absurd. We’re all so desperate. Desperate to unplug, to declutter, to simplify, to keep Sabbath, to be less judgmental, to eat less sugar, to self-improve while also accepting ourselves just as we are. And all the while we’re hitting T after T in the road, convinced that each is the best and last and hoping our insurance covers whiplash.

My good friend’s son just died.

He lived slightly less than one year, and each day was torture. Torture for him, for his family, and surely for a God who doesn’t enjoy seeing good people suffer. Those of us who cared were tortured, too. We wanted so very much to take the pain away but couldn’t. So instead we cooked and cleaned and babysat and called (or didn’t call) and texted (or didn’t text). Whatever we could do, we did. But her son died anyway.

My son died, too, also not making it quite a year in this curveball world we live in.

And to this day, they are both still dead.

So yes. There’s always something.

It’s true that some of us have more “something” than others, but it’s also true that some of us just hide it better.

Me, I’ve gotten to a point where I barely hide anything at all. To be sure, I spent one of my life’s many vignettes doing just that, but now… I write. For two years now I’ve put my whiny words to electronic paper, or sometimes its my perceived wisdom and wit, hitting the little button that says “Publish,” sending my very essence out to the few folks who actually take the time to read about it, which always surprises me.

Many of my friends do this, too. We’ve joined up our little bloggy selves into a little bloggy sphere in which you will find us high-fiving and fist pumping and in general being the mutual admiration society for one another’s words. And, occasionally, one of us will hit a larger audience than ourselves, something that feels good and gives hope to those of us who are convinced we can’t go on living unless we’re a) better understood, b) teaching a life lesson we’ve learned in all our infinite wisdom, or c) making someone laugh at the quirkiness of our kids and personal lives. Even better is option d—helping others feel understood.

Most of my friends write about God and Jesus. I do, too, but not like they do. They teach lessons. They have studied and learned and applied good things and strong principles to their lives and really, really want to teach others to do the same. Me, I just ramble. Funny thing is, those few writings in which I do impart something I’ve learned are much more widely read than the ones when I write about, say, my youngest’s latest foray into potty training. Go figure.

But what I’ve also found among those who miraculously keep coming back is that they read not for a lesson, but because they love to see my “something,” and know that I might just understand their “something” too. And they’re right: I do. I’ve got very little to teach and even less wisdom to impart, but life-ache and absurdity and hilarity in the trenches? Those I’ve got those in spades.

And the answers? Some of them I have, others I don’t. Some answers are only known by the creator of this universe, and maybe someday I’ll find them out. So much of life is about waiting to find out. I often don’t even know I’m on a exploration or scavenger hunt or deep-sea diving excursion until the thing or place or coral reef I didn’t even know I was looking for jumps up and hits me in the face. Or lightly taps me on the shoulder, which is sometimes even worse: a whispered word I’m not quite sure I heard, or heard correctly. It’s the misery of “if”: If this, then that. If not this, then that. He lives but he doesn’t. I suffer but you don’t.

So there’s pain is in the telling. So what? There’s also catharsis. More importantly, there’s sharing. Telling is talking; sharing is giving someone part of you, hoping it benefits part of them. As ironic as it may seem, sharing the hurt and the grime and the rise from the ashes that you simply know you didn’t deserve but somehow got anyway is actually very good for the soul. Mine, yes, but hopefully too for the souls of others who need to hear of things equal to or greater than or less than all that they are and will ever be.

And so here we are, in the telling.

When I can, if I can, you will find that telling here. In bits from larger projects (books!) I’m working on, no chronology needed, hopefully each piece standing—a little wobbly maybe—on its own. If you think they’re worthy, I’d love if you shared them with others. And if you have thoughts on these excerpts I’d love to hear them.

I think.

Happy two-year anniversary to me. Not to be too dramatic or anything, but thanks for being here with me.

THE TELLING GROUND COVER

Wood Between the Worlds

Yesterday it rained ice.

It was both incredibly beautiful and incredibly dangerous. Roads were slick and limbs fell. Rachel attempted to capture our Narnia on film, but quickly desisted when the White Witch appeared in the form of a slippery walk and bruised tailbone.

We stayed warm. We played games. We teased one another about books read, or not read, in our youth, and stared often through the curtains. It seemed the ice would never end.

Today we woke to a crystalline world. The trees drooped and dragged the ground, weighty ice straining their knobby and arthritic joints.

“Look, Andy,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”

We marveled and salted and scraped and shoveled and marveled some more.

At some point, when I didn’t even know I was listening, I noticed a steady rain. Water fell fast from things on high; I reached my hand beyond the overhang but felt only the cold and wind.

It wasn’t rain I heard. Instead, the ice was melting, falling onto ground fast turning to mud and marsh. It was louder than rain, this sound of spring emergent. I stood in awe, listened hard and heard the sighs and rhythmic breath of birth, the left-right-left of marching time.

The metaphor did not escape me.

This last year has been a full one. Full of ice and snow, cold and wind, the latter never blowing in our favor. A Hundred-Year Winter indeed.

But spring is near.

Heralded in the soft drip of melting ice, in the sounds of birds, tentative, hopeful. In limbs weeping, shedding icy burdens, stretching up and out in welcome to the much lighter heft of shiny green.

This week’s forecast calls for more snow: Giving birth takes time. And as it always does, spring will fade. We turn a mere quarter and the friendly leaves of summer become foe, covering our lawns and overworking our rakes. The cornucopia of fall foreshadows the hard and lean of winter.

This metaphor also does not escape me.

But neither does it stifle the hope of an emergent spring.

(Turn up the volume to enjoy the video at the end. The photos and video were taken with my iPhone, and from the warmth of doorways. Please forgive my lazy efforts here that do no justice at all to this glorious revival.)

Related posts: Snow, Frankincense, and Myrrh
Sehnsucht
2014: The Year that Really, Really Sucked