What About This Joy?

How is it that the light of midday in August falls flat and heavy; it seems to near bake even the greenest of grass into a sickly hue by it’s unrelenting glare.  My toddler shifted on my lap, beyond squirrely.  My baby twisted and grunted and bucked around his grandma’s lap with the vigor of a newly mobile seven month-old.  The older three wandered around, a mix of listlessness and wildness.  It was forty-five minutes until the next tour through the historic Rockford Plantation; too little time to go grab a bite to eat first, too much time to hope for consistently decent public behavior out of my crew.  We sat on the long backless bench in the shade of the wide front porch, there on the periphery of history, and the light fell flat and heavy.

What about this joy?  Even there, baking in the heat, and hoping the baby’s cloth diapers would hold out long enough, and wondering how on earth I’d keep my littles from getting obnoxiously loud in the quiet museum of a home we were soon to tour; this joy, this bubbling mirth, just below my skin, pulsing through me steady.

Tonight too, facing the sink piled high with cooking pots and greasy dishes, I was all smile within.  Even as my toddler threw his unwanted food right onto the floor, onto the clean floor and rice went flying.  Even as my soul was awash with sorrow over the latest Planned Parenthood video, deeper than the surface storms of annoyance, anger, and despair, there it was, and is, joy.

I know it is the Lord’s doing, and I thank Him, acknowledging that it is a mercy, a grace.  There is something within me now unbroken.

I would call it joy, or this….light; it is love, and I feel held in it.  Much to the annoyance perhaps of my dear ones, it started when I began learning about Orthodoxy; when I began experiencing the Church in it’s liturgy and it’s people.  Something broken became unbroken, and the love of the Lord and the presence of Christ moved from my head to my heart.

I’ve had a dream without sleeping, and I don’t remember when it was, but it’s clear in my mind.  I’m in the sea, black waves rising like mountains, thunder and lightning crashing, swimming hard to keep my head just above the swallowing water.  I’m so tired and so scared.  Then through the peaks of the waves I see a man in a boat coming toward me.  I know, in the way one knows things in dreams, that it is Jesus.  He’s wearing a rough brown robe and there’s peaceful determination on His bearded face.

The scene switches and my face is pressed tight against a coarse fabric and arms encircle me securely.  I am held by Him.  I feel the waves rocking the boat beneath our feet and I burrow my face into His chest and breathe.  I am rescued, found, safe.

I didn’t get to see the rescue; I didn’t get to see how I went from near-drowning to held-safe.  Gratitude, soul-deep gratitude and strong peace, and arms locked around me protectively.

I would never have guessed that it would be Orthodoxy that would bring the knowledge of God’s love for me down into my heart as an experienced love.  But it did and I don’t need to know why it was this way for me.  I am rescued, held, loved; that is enough.

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Out of Nowhere

I stuffed green beans into the hot jars as the sky grew black.  I had just picked those beans, squinting into the over-bright sky through the dense leaves, my eyes trying to sift through the shapes and find the edible ones, long and slender.  Now the sky was breaking wide open and cracking whips of electricity, and the rain came down as though poured from a bucket.

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It was in the middle of prayer, there laying on my side in bed, all peace and petition, that a rank fear latched onto me.  Like a black blanket being lowered over me, a malignant presence, but this has happened enough times before, and there is always a remedy:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The darkness pulled away, but my heart was still disturbed.  I padded across the hallway to check on Henrik.  He was running a low fever, and had refused supper, and sometimes a mother just has to lay her hand on that little belly and feel the life there.

Returning to bed Dustin was awake and wide-eyed.  He’d had a terrifying dream, gunshots firing and his heart was pounding to beat the band.  He’d had his nightmare at the same time I had experienced that dark fear.  We wondered about that as we lay in the moonlight.  We prayed.

It can all come out of nowhere.

One minute sun and clear skies, the next torrents of rain and lighting crashing.  One minute peace, the next a spiritual attack.  In both, there is within this thanksgiving for shelter, for protection.  A sense of being held.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  

                                                                      Psalm 41:10

As the horrors of the Planned Parenthood videos have rocked the nation, I pray for a bit of blindsidedness, a bit of out-of-nowhere, caught-off-guard reality checks for our convenience-worshipping society.  I pray that those who were comfortable in their distance and apathy will be rattled to the core, blind no more.  I pray that there will be no shelter in their excuses, their rationalizations, their loyalty to the sexual revolution’s mantra of sex without consequence.  And I pray that they will say, “I knew it not, but now I do, and can no longer abide it”.  And I pray for God’s mercy upon them and for shelter true and good, the Father and His startling, strong love.

Outside, Inside, and Deep Inside

I have been ever-so unavailable.  Not busy, just occupied.  With gazing in awe at all the winter-buried life bursting up and out of the ground; the rhubarb looks as though it is gradually going to take over the world.  The peach tree is covered in blooms and the strawberry leaves which have bravely remained a silent green all winter are coming alive and alert and verdant.

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I’ve been planting seeds and hoeing the earth and watching the earthworms wiggle.  The skies, oh the skies so mesmerizing as dark clouds crouch at the horizon and then run across the sky, whipping-up wind and sending sideways rain.  All this fuss and fury and beauty-blitzing after the sober quiet of winter; it’s enough to leave me slack-jawed.  Even if it would just be the magnolia trees, heavy with soft pink flowers, even then.

Indoors, the soap kettles are always being filled and emptied and cleaned and filled again. Soaps stand curing and piles of it sit waiting to be clothed and labeled.  My babies are fed, changed, and played with.  The Lord knows the laundry and I make quality time together a habit.

Truly indoors, below the skin and in the soul, the heart, the mind, another scene, another realm of duties and joys.  Radiant joy is there, gratitude and peace.  Also despair, and the prayers that surround it and carry it off as able.  Yesterday I fought despairing thoughts all through the day.  No one had died, I and my family were all healthy; it was just the disorganization and mess that had settled in my home that battered me.  From the attic to the cellar were vast evidence of lack-of-care:  discarded dirty socks, playthings left scattered, piles of papers, construction supplies, and on and on.  Familial negligence, some laziness, some sin; a mess.  I was overwhelmed and angry; “How can they live like this?  Why doesn’t anyone care how things look?  Why did they tell me they cleaned when there’s dishes and dirty clothes under their beds?”.

Then I remembered to pray.

And I simply started.  Started to clean, to organize, one drawer here, one corner there; staking a flag of peace and order in every conquered space.  And God led despair away from my side while I was cleaning; I hardly heard it leave.

The Non-Farm of Now

The most self-torturous thing I do is to take a drive through farmland.  Especially farmland with plenty of sparkling streams and stone barns from the 1700’s and farmhouses that have hosted many a human story over hundreds of years.  If there is a summer kitchen AND a functioning pump house AND a spring house, I near choke on my longing.  If there are lambs frolicking about I am undone.

There’s something so wrong in it and I don’t see a way to fix it; when a county that is bursting at the seams with banks and shopping centers keeps paving over prime farmland in the name of more of them.  I just look at that good dirt, those wide sweeps of it, acres of it, that could keep on feeding us and supporting a family, and I think acerbic thoughts and half-sentences about the businessmen who see every bit of open ground as a financial opportunity rather than the treasure that it is, just as it is.  All for ANOTHER Chipotle or a Staples or a (shudder) Walmart?

And what of the farmers whose families through the generations have been sustained by the land, and suddenly in their retirement years they decide to parcel off their inheritance to developers, to be hacked into grids of streets, peppered with homes, and never again to be a farm?  Do they consider what they received?  And how many would love to take up their yoke and earn their bread that way, but because developers can offer so much they can’t even buy five acres?

So, no farm for us, leastwise here in Lancaster County.  And no chickens, no goats; our township having some prejudice against animals that actually produce something usable.  It is nonsensical.  But so is paving over farmland, so the course must be set.  Dogs?  That you have to haul in feed for and pick up poop for, poop which isn’t fit for composting but must be hauled out with the trash?  Sure, as many as you want!  Chickens?  That feast on bugs, mosquito larvae, weeds; who break down leaves into fine compost, who turn kitchen scraps into delicious eggs, whose manure benefits the gardens?  No, none of those.

I am aware I am ranting.

Switching course…. In my non-farm of now there’s still a lot of learning and living and production happening on our little .33 acre.  This spring will see three beehives up and running (Lord willing), three elderberry bushes, three grapevines, two apple trees, a peach tree, a nectarine tree, blueberries and strawberries, rhubarb, and a whole garden full of produce and herbs.  There will be clothes on the line, jars in the canner, and herbs in the dehydrator.  There will be kids in the mud, sticks that were swords and harpoons strewn about, and slowly rusting bikes in varying degrees of disrepair.  There will be life, cultivated right in the teeth of weeds and deferred hopes and expensive farmland and zoning ordinances.

_MG_4736IMG_2592IMG_0966IMG_1283IMG_1772work4notbusy4diapers2diapers3IMG_1895 IMG_0665 IMG_0672 IMG_1933 IMG_2139 IMG_2142 IMG_2146 IMG_2147 IMG_2155 IMG_2158 _MG_4875 _MG_4888 _MG_4890 IMG_4933 IMG_4947 IMG_2305 IMG_2309 IMG_2315 IMG_0966 _MG_5001  Yes, there will be life.

Winter’s Deep

_MG_4751 _MG_4753 _MG_4756It can be taken as a bother.  Pinching, wincing, painful faces we pull as we slip and shuffle over slick sidewalks to our cars.  There is a face as well for scraping frost off the windows, especially if some of it ends up on that vulnerable gap between glove and sleeve.  There’s the way the seats inside creak with stiffness and we get tangled in a battle between our scarves and our seat belts and how the heater never catches up until we’ve arrived at our destinations, and there’s the fact that the children will always ask that you turn up the heat, and you’ll bristle because you’ve explained how heaters in cars need time to warm up a million times plus twenty.

Winter, after the twinkly brightness and joy of Christmas have passed, can seem like a gray that pains, a long stretch of ache, and mothers can start climbing the walls.

Here we haven’t had much snow yet, but 27 days without sunshine seemed significant.  There was precipitation and cold but not concurrently, so we had a lot of rain and mud and children who weren’t spending enough of their exuberant energy out of doors.  That’s crazy-making, for all of us._MG_5246 _MG_5247

From last year, when the snow wore the children out on a regular basis.

Now, this year baby Tobias came and it feels like I carry Summer’s warmth, and Spring’s flowers, and Fall’s bright leaves all in my heart at once.  The winter hems us in, tucks us into our house where the tall old windows let the light pool out onto the dark yard.  It lays sleep on the roses and the grapes and, praise God above, the weeds, and my to-do lists are all house-bound.

IMG_2039It’s enough to know that the seasons will keep rolling around again, isn’t it?  When my children are driving me batty with their big bodies crashing through the house in a game of tag and their noise is prodigious, it’s enough.

Because in winter’s deep there’s a baby tucked into my arms, soft little fuzzy newborn head below my chin, and the winter hems us in, and the windows spill light into the dark.

What The Water Carried

It’s like those wind tunnel-money games that you see at fairs and such where people try to snatch at the twenties and ones whirling past them in a vortex.  The moment they grab for one of the flying greenbacks, it’s halfway around the tube on the other side.  Words can be like that, when life is whirling all crazy-like.  Have you seen someone try to cheat by forming a dam with their arm against the side to corral the cash?  Here’s my attempt to corral the words that have been flying right past me and around me this week.

I awoke the day after Christmas with mild contractions; they soundlessly tightened and coiled and released and barely registered discomfort.  They were unremarkable in and of themselves,  except for their regularity.  I puttered about the house, putting away the Christmas chaos, washing diapers, and all the while my abdomen went through these silent waves of tightness and release.

We alerted Dustin’s mother that “this may be it” and dropped the children off at her cozy home.  Then we ran some errands and decided that we should have a date before the baby came, and settled into a booth at our favorite Mexican place.  What says “help labor along” like really good spicy guacamole?  And Mexican Coke?

IMG_2993  The Contraction Nazi, also known as my dearest Dustin, kept a lap timer running and if I didn’t have a contraction within five minutes of the last one, he shot me a disapproving glance.  We had a lot of laughs over our guacamole.  I felt too pain-free to go to the hospital to be checked, so we headed to a local park to walk and see if they’d get stronger.FullSizeRender-19 Ah, the hilarity of being fully ripe.  We phoned the midwife and asked what we should do.  It’s never a clear-cut answer; I’ve had labors 10 hours long and labors three hours long.  She said we had an open invitation to come in, so we did, but felt foolish walking in there without some verifiable, legit pain-wincing in my face.  “You’re too happy to be in here”, laughed a nurse, but when they checked me and I was five centimeters dilated, they took me a little more seriously.

Off to walk the halls.  Still no pain and contractions that stretched to eight minutes apart at times.  We really didn’t want to do the walk of shame; back out the lobby, still pregnant, dragging an unopened suitcase, sheepishly going home.  I prayed, I prayed for God’s mercy and for pain.  They checked me again and I was at six centimeters, though the baby was high up.  They admitted us and I was so relieved.  There is something about going to the delivery room and seeing that little heated bassinet just waiting there in the corner that makes everything seem right and ready.

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The contractions became much more business-like.  The kind you breathe through and make you smile tight and have just an edge of pain to them.  Circumstances in other deliveries made using the jacuzzi tub not an option, but this time I gladly could make use of it.  I lowered my body into the swirling water and instantly relaxed.

I am a fish.  The last one out of the pool, the ocean, the river, you name it.  I even like washing dishes because of the way water feels slipping over my hands, the way it sounds dripping and splashing.  The cool of it or the warmth of it.  I take a soak in our bath nearly daily.  I breathed deep; so very much at home.  I wouldn’t leave that warm tub for two and a half hours!

Floating there, the hum of the jacuzzi, the jets pushing against my back, my legs, my shoulders, I was suspended, at peace, even as the contractions became more pain than pressure, somehow it seemed that the water carried it with me.  I was not marooned out in the open air on a hospital bed.  I was cocooned, held in a warm embrace.  Cushioned.  The hours passed easily, until just the end.

A groan was pulled out of me.  The water couldn’t carry all of this.  My heart knew fear as the pain took my breath away.  I arched my back out of the water, I looked at my husband with fear in my eyes.  Things were changing and the pain had suddenly entered my cocoon with a ragged edge.  My water broke and the pain knifed deeper.

It’s a panic-filled feeling, being at the mercy of unrelenting sharp pain that barely fades before building again.  I grabbed at one hope and asked for my husband to tell them I needed an epidural.  NOW.  I had wanted to have a natural birth, but I couldn’t imagine even a half hour of contractions like the ones that were currently gripping me.  “Help, SAVE ME!” my body screamed.

I could barely walk to the bed (with good reason as you shall soon understand), having two contractions from the tub to there that left me on tiptoes and howling, my legs crossing over themselves protectively (also with good reason).  Contractions one on top of the other, no breathing room between, clenching my husband’s hands and by now, scream-groaning LOUDLY.  I pleaded:  “Isn’t there ANYTHING you can give me?”

They assured me that they were going to “get me comfortable”, but they all knew there’d be no time for that.  There were smiles of knowing going on when I wasn’t looking, and they told me sweet lies to keep me hopeful.  The nurse and midwife stepped out to “see about the epidural”, leaving one newbie nurse in the room.  My scream had a new ending to it all of a sudden as a push gripped me.  I did not push, my body did.  It could no more be stopped than a sneeze could.  I felt my body opening around something and yelled out the obvious, “THE BABY IS COMING!”.  The nurse peeked under the sheet and her eyes widened.  Baby was crowning.

We were at a local Eastern Orthodox church a few weeks ago, enjoying an Advent service, when one of the ladies in the choir chanted “Lord have mercy” forty times.  We were amazed as the repetition went on and on.  It seemed a thing impossible to do without the words getting all confused and jumbled.  But as I lay there with a large head splitting me open and the pain all bright and fiery, I think I did more than forty “Lord have mercy”‘s all in a gush.  And He answered, oh and how.

She raced to the door to get help, but my hollers had alerted the midwife (from down the hall, for shame) that things were moving quick.  She burst in and one push later he was here, whooshing right out much to my surprise and relief.  I was astonished, flat-out bewildered, and I brought that slippery, wonderful baby boy up on to my chest and began a five minute litany of “I can’t believe it-I can’t believe it-I can’t believe it-I love you, baby-I can’t believe it”.  It was so fast.  So furious.  So natural.  The water carried most of my pain, and a few long minutes I carried it, and then, mercifully, birth.

IMG_2999Our own sweet Tobias John.  Eight pounds, ten ounces of wonderfulness.  Tobias means “The goodness of God” and John means “The Lord has shown favor”.

This year Eastern Orthodoxy has taught me two useful phrases and my life has vascilitated between them like a pendulum:  “Lord, have mercy” and “God provides”.  One a petition, one a recognition of God’s sustenance and faithfulness.  Living with these two sets of words has kept me living open-handedly to God, trusting Him more with the unknowns and the unexpecteds.  It is a good place to be; like in the water, cushioned from the blows, carried through them, experiencing pain but not being consumed by it.

IMG_3010IMG_3023IMG_3025IMG_3028And my gratitude swells and my cup runneth over, and I’m held, hands open and soul filled with awe.  God is good, and He has shown favor.  Glory to Him.

When A Nun Bought Breakfast

I awoke and patted the empty bed beside me. Dustin was long gone, off to hunt with his dad.  Henrik yelled “MOM!” from his crib and the air held a waft of #2, and a lament rose from downstairs, “Moooooom?  We’re hungry.”  Saturday morning and I felt a resolve settle over me to make it a happy one despite how very much I just wanted to burrow under my blankets and sleep.

Our local greasy spoon offers a $1.99 breakfast, two eggs any style, home fries, and toast.  I did the multiplication in my head; we could enjoy the adventure and joy of a breakfast out for $10.00 plus tip.  Manageable.  I hollered for all of them to get ready, and they hollered back “Where are we going?”, to which I remain obstinately silent.  I like surprises.

We pulled into the restaurant and filed in, four kids and heavily pregnant me.  I quietly asked the waitress if the breakfast special held true on Saturdays too.  “No, just on weekdays”.  The multiplication ticked through my head as I shifted Henri on my hip.  My pride urged me to just go with the flow, don’t embarrass yourself.  But the bill in my mind had suddenly tripled and I just couldn’t do it.  I murmured “Okay, I think we’re going to try somewhere else, sorry”, and tried to coax my confused herd back out the door with minimal show.

“Why are we leaving, Mom?”

“They don’t have the breakfast special today, so we’ll go another place I have in mind.”  My budget-minded brain was spinning numbers and possibilities.  I didn’t notice the Irish nun following after us.  As I got Henri hefted up into his seat I heard, “Excuse me….I couldn’t help but notice your predicament.  Someone paid for my breakfast this morning, allow me to pay for yours.”

I looked in her caring eyes, her gray hair peeking out from under her bandeau.  “No, no, really, thank you, it’s okay, no.”

She volleyed back a series of insistent “Yes, please, yes, do take it, I’d love to bless you.  Yes.”

“No, really, you’re so kind, but….”

“I insist, yes.”

This went on until she pressed $25.00 into my mind, placed her aged hand on my pregnant belly and said, “May God bless this little one.  Take care.”

“Thank you, thank you so much.”

She walked away and I turned toward my car full of children and vomited.  Strange response, eh?  Unconnected to her caring generosity, I assure you.  I had taken a prenatal vitamin that morning on an empty stomach and apparently my body didn’t take kindly to that.  The kids watched with wide eyes.  First we’d entered and left a restaurant within a minute.  Then Mommy had had a battle of no’s-and-yes’s with a nun.  Then Mommy threw up.  This was a lot to process on a rainy Saturday morning.

I got in the car and sat behind the wheel, breathing deep and trying to pull myself together.  “Are you okay, Mom?”

“Yes.  I’m okay.  Okay.  (deep breath)  Wow.  That dear nun just bought us breakfast.”  The kids took all that in while I drove to a Bob Evans (because there was no way I’d go back into the greasy spoon a second time that morning).

The Bob Evans breakfasts were quite a treat, and were surprisingly cheap, and the bill came in far below the nun’s provision.  And the menus weren’t greasy.  And the coffee was good.  And I didn’t throw up in the parking lot.  Win-win-win.  The kids asked with the straining hope in their eyes if they could have a quarter to buy peppermint patties at the register.  The dear nun had made a way; “Sure!”

They nearly danced with joy, and it made me realize for how long my answers have had to be “no”.  It felt like Christmas!

Sophia walked over to where I was waiting by the door and handed me a “Yorky Patty”.  The joy of the morning had rubbed off on her, and she wanted me to have a treat too, from her own coin stash.

Now I lay on the couch with my swollen ankles propped up, listening to the rain, and thinking of the beautiful nun with an Irish brogue and her stubborn generosity and love.  And I realize that God has been so attentive to me, to us, in this last month of pregnancy.  Sweet mercies here and there, that added up, are astounding.  And I’ve neglected Him, I have.  I haven’t been reaching for Him near as much as He’s been reaching for me.  I am most undeserving of all His kindness, grace, and mercy.  I am as astounded by His love as I was by the nun this morning, and what can I do but say, “Thank You”?

Oh, thank You, Father, thank You.

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