When Family isn’t Free

My daughter has a best friend that has been around for longer than she can remember.  They have a special, funny little world that they have had to take online, since we moved away.  But sweetly, and defying odds and expectations, the distance has not separated them.  They are BFF’s in the shared heart necklace sense of the word.  O’s little sister has honorary status as a BF (just one F short of full fledged forever), and her cousins have been grudgingly granted status as BFC’s (that’s Best Friend Cousins to you.) If that conjures thoughts of Sister Wives to you, you’re not alone. (as in, me too;)  O and H have been working on a master plan for their life their last two Skype dates.  It was apparently deemed complete today, as my daughter ripped it “just a little, to make it seem old mommy,” and squirreled it away into her secretest faux treasure chest.  And what does this list contain?  Well, I really couldn’t explain it to you any better than my kidlink, so I will type a full and unabridged (and “un”spell checked) version for you below, complete with original illustrations:

H & O’s (badly spelled) and well thought out master plan:
PA (Plan A): earning money
PB (Plan B): geting a job
PC (Plan C): geting more money
PD (Plan D): geting a car
PE (Plan E): geting a house
PF (Plan F): saving up cash
PG (Plan G): fashin contest
Ph (Plan E): Dog shoe (*show)
Pi (Plan I): get a casle
Pj (Plan J): Be prinsesis


O’s dad reports that she was crushed to realize that all those extra letters mean “in case the first plan doesn’t work out.”  I am terribly pleased H isn’t putting all her eggs in one basket.  Which brings me to two points.  One, my own plan A for life required some literal eggs in the basket, if you know what I mean.  If you don’t, let me share my daughter’s version with you.

“So, mommy, it’s like this”… (we like to summarize a lot of things this way.  And by we, I mean H, when she gets into “telling me how it is” mode.)

….”Daddy’s got shrimp that have to swim to the eggs, but they maybe just don’t like yours, or can’t find them.  Or *squint*, you’re just out?”

And that’s it, in a nutshell.  I’m just out, for reasons no one can explain.  And by no one, I mean doctors and specialists. The only thing I know for sure is it is definitive. H is not a product of my eggs or daddy’s “shrimp.”  She is a special gift whose story I may tell another day, or leave alone for her.  But she was unexpected, and did not come, as J.M. Barrie would say “fresh from God.”  Each year of her growth is a little neon light flashing “one more year without.”  Not because she isn’t our sunshine, but because of her.  She has no built in playmate, no long term safety net.  She has no sibling to call her own, just as we have never had the private experience of “expecting” to call our own.  This loss is a leaden, heavy thing that presses down on our lives, sometimes with more weight than others.  Time does not diminish it.  It is apart from the experience of being a parent.  I am a parent, but I long for the experience of “expecting” a child.  Of bringing all my years of waiting to a close. Which brings me to point number two.  Expecting.

When I was in 5th grade, I have a clear memory of sitting in the back of a school assembly, and fixating on some (random) woman and her baby, and wondering what would happen if I just grabbed that baby and ran out the door.  I was the same age as H is now.  10.  And I had a baby radar that superseded all other desires.  I was crazy for barbies and my little ponies, for drying elmer’s glue on my hand and peeling it off, and for microwaved cheese.  But none of these pleasures came close to my over-riding passion for tiny toes and feather soft hair.  I dreamed of babies, the way H dreams of dragons and castles.  But at least in her list, there is a fall back plan.  Plan E: Get a house.  Maybe the castle won’t work out.  But hey! There’s always the car & the house.  And the possibility of a dog show or fashion show, to drum up extra cash;)  H is practical.  We just got hot water for the first time in 4 months.  We walk everywhere.  She gets to see the dentist after the rent is paid.  She knows all about Plan B.  She gets that you need cash if you want the castle.  It is a theme. She is a wiser 10 year old than I was.  When I was 10, this was my list:

PA: Have babies.

PB: Adopt babies.

I just read a really great post by a man who experienced years of infertility with his wife, and summarized it into ten words.  And it made me think of H’s list.  There are two things I would have liked to warn my 10 year old self, so I could have prepared for Plan J.  The inability to make a baby is a very real possibility, and the ability to beg, borrow or steal one is not.  You may laugh or scoff at this, but I am not joking.  Contrary to messages prevalent in popular culture, the following is NOT true:  adoption is not easy, and most people who have failed to get pregnant do NOT get pregnant the minute they do try and adopt.  Do NOT tell this story to anyone who know who struggles with this particular sadness.

When you are 10, 20 is old and 30 is ancient.  Which means that, at the ripe old age of 35, I am decrepit.  I am feeling it.  I don’t even need the 10 year old me as a mirror.  I understand now what a mid-life crisis is.  It is looking back and realizing that you don’t have a castle, or a house, or a car, or a baby.  And that even if you were willing to throw over the first three for the latter, it probably wouldn’t be enough.  It isn’t enough.  The years have pooled into a particular moment in which you realize that “that” thing you dreamed of all you life probably won’t happen.

It’s not the post I read that resonates in particular, it is all the comments below. The women who have put themselves through Plan B (clomid), C (fertility treatments), D (donor eggs), E (2nd and 3rd rounds of donor eggs), F (failed adoptions), and are now trembling at G, so very angry at all the people around them that glowingly succeed with Plan A.

I get this.  It is perhaps a dirty little secret, but I’ll just let it out.  When you were dreaming of boys and swatch watches, I was dreaming of babies.  When you were getting on birth control and worrying about your weight, I was dreaming of babies.  When you were dreaming of white weddings and an Italian honeymoon, I was dreaming of babies.  I know, you wanted them too.  But did you want them with the passion and singularity I did?  And so yes, irrational and petty as it is, I am angry that it all came so easy to you.  It changes nothing, but you should know how it feels.  And don’t ever expect that I, or anyone else floating around in this little raft with me, will move on or get over it.  We are painters that didn’t get to paint, and musicians who do not get to sing.  We despair.  And listen up, 10 year old me.  We are not, as my husband likes to say, Brangelina.  We cannot afford the adoptions.  It’s not because we don’t want to.  These dreams, as my own 10 year old has figured out, require cash. Ironically, I suppose, I “shared” a cute little image on Facebook today, in which cheery little stick people declare that “the best things in life are free.” One of them, of course, is family.  Which I guess makes me a fraud of sorts, because family isn’t free for everybody.

I wrote a post yesterday about a family who got news that their very young, very loved little girl will not be with them much longer.  Plan A is not going as planned.  I would like to assign some cosmic meaning to it, but I can’t. God doesn’t love them less or you more. If Plan A or even Plan B went, and continues to go, as planned for you, please tremble carefully there, with the gratitude and respect it demands.  I know your life isn’t perfect.  But be kind with those around you who cannot reach the shore.  It is exhausting.  All I can do is hope that in 25 years, H will still feel about O the way she does now.  “She’s my sister, right mom?  We’re close as sisters, she and I.”  That may be as close she gets.   I hope they have some cash-but if not, at least they can share an umbrella.


Be Still My Soul

I received an e-mail this morning from my sister.  She was at a prayer meeting at her church, and learned about two friends who just discovered that one of their two children, still a very young child, has a rare brain cancer and will likely die within the year.  In the course of their prayer,  some people slid into spontaneous song, and as they did, this small child who was being prayed over joined in with the ABC’s. It was, my sister wrote, “the sweetest, most hearty version of the ABC’s I’ve ever heard, followed by the Itsy Bitsy Spider & Be Still My Soul.” I imagine God’s heart swelled.  This is the love he compels us toward.  Not a love the pushes others to bended knee and demands Latin incantations no one understands; not this, but love that sings a soulful ABC’s, followed by the Itsy Bitsy spider.

It reminded me of David Duncan’s marvelous book “The Brother’s K,” and his memorable anti heroine Vera Klinger.  She is a devoted 7th Day Adventist, with a harelip and a lisp, who prays sincere, vulnerable prayers.  She is guileless and sincere in the way many ostracized children are.  She is the soul of spiritual ABCs.

I love the picture of community projected by this image.  A small group of dissimilar people praying over a great heartbreak in an act of faith that rebukes the cynicism of our time, that says these gatherings are futile, these acts are foolish.  Willing, in fact, to participate with whole hearts in the foolishness of a spiritual ABC.  Mother Theresa, her own life a rebuke to the narcissism of our culture, made the simple statement that “What I do, you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do.  The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things.  But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”  And what is greater than the moment of solidarity shared between people who cast off cycnism for tenderness. 

small things

On his blog, Bent and Tender, Winn Collier contemplates the biblical story of the Pharisees, trying to engage Jesus in condemning an adulterous woman for her errors.  He writes “I find it curious that when the Pharisees asked Jesus if he was ready to grab a rock, John notes Jesus’ precise movement. Jesus, the story says, “bent down.” He did not answer. He did not theologize. He crouched low and doodled in the dirt.”

He doodled in the dirt.  The God of the universe narrowed himself down into a skin suit, and joined us in our smallness,  but not our pettiness.  He saw the world from where we stood, but not as we saw it.  I’m a mother, and am very often guilty of scolding my child for doodling in the dirt.  I have a very difficult time seeing the world as she does.  Of putting down the dishrag and picking up a puppet.  Of ignoring the smudge of dirt for the smile below it.  I wish I was more like a member of my sister’s community.  Ready to forget the plan in order to sing a spiritual Itsy Bitsy spider.  I know it’s what God wants from me.  Be Still my Soul.  Such a difficult task.  Such an important goal.


P.S.: If you’d like to do one small thing with great love, you can donate here to bless the above mentioned family, for their last season with their daughter.

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

I am an English teacher, with all the parts of speech loving neurosis that it entails.  I am an English teacher of the second language variety (not to be confused with the literature teaching variety!).   In honor of National Poetry month, I’m posting a favorite.  I love it because, more than highlighting the beauty of English, it highlights the failures. Or more particularly, the failure of words to really say what we often wish to.  Because I spend a lot of my day trying to help people say what they do intend, I have a special fondness for this brilliant poet, and this poem in particular.  In homage, I have included my take on the “problem of language,” as C.S. Lewis would likely have called it in a poem that follows.  Hope you enjoy.  Happy Poetry Month!!

ImageThe Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
-by Jack Gilbert

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

From THE GREAT FIRES: POEMS, 1982-1992 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)                        


The Distant Land of Dandelion Clocks

Querer, it means to want and love in Spanish.  I want you, I love you. 

Te quiero.  Te amo. Love we say in English.  I love you,

I love hamburgers.  There is no coral shore between. 

In English, you can like a person.  In Spanish, they fall well to you. 

In English, we fall in love, in Spanish, enamoremos.  Our wires are crossed, the language so close, but not quite.  

I wish, I wonder, I wonder if I can tell you how to wish. 

I wish I could tell you the depths of wonder. 

Me pregunto too pedestrian, deseo too profound. 

A wish as gossamer and fleeting as a dandelion clock;

wonder as dark and glittering as the evening dome. 

The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, as elegant and useful as an iPhone. 

The Chinese invented logograms, as dense and rich as an old city library. 

Each character a haiku;  

east is  

where the sun rises  

behind the trees. 

The elegance of simple phonemes

trumping the poetry of pictures over time

goes unnoticed.  

We are travelers, like the men who gave us our alphabet. 

We cast aside what will not fit in the boat, or get us there fast enough. 

What lies in the deep beneath us?  An answer to the question, perhaps.

Quizas, tal vez.

How to translate a wish?

It’s the color of the madrugada, with its still blue and clear air. 

The wind sighing soft through the trees as you walk home with your father

on a quiet autumn day. It is a mosquito helicoptering past in the dark

that disappears in the light.

It smells of baby powder and coconut sunscreen

on the thick band your husband lost on a beach somewhere,

held captive by a galaxy of sand. 

It is the taste of batteries and sangria. 

It is the cashmere skin and apricot breath

of someone else’s baby.


And wonder, that other sunken treasure?

It is the weight of the night that wakes you

and won’t let you sleep. 

It is a verb, full of i n g, and rounder than the moon. 

It is a prairie, a wheat field of uncut grass with the wind passing through. 

It is quiet, and tenacious as a weed.

It makes a person smaller and the world broader,

and cannot be contained by a word






These are the Days that Must Happen to You

“Sometimes right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives you a fairytale.”

These are operative words.  These are the words that I once stamped on invitations to my hurried, imperfectly perfect wedding.  As in once upon a time.  A once upon a time that did not include a big poofy dress or much glitter.  It was a good requiem to our life.  In our wedding, a friend read the words to a Walt Whitman poem that turned out to be prophetic-The Open Road:Image

Listen, I will be honest with you
I do not offer the old smooth prizes
But offer rough new prizes
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is called riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve.
However sweet the laid up stores,
However convenient the dwelling, you shall not remain there.
However sheltered the port, however calm the waters, you shall not anchor there.
However welcome the hospitality that welcomes you,
You are permitted to receive it but a little while Afoot and lighthearted, take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before you the long brown path before you, leading wherever you choose.
Say only to one another:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money; I give you myself before preaching and law:
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Ironically, Whitman also wrote “Song of Myself,” so he is a fitting object lesson.  I read today that a representative from Planned Parenthood openly confessed that the organization supports the right of a mother and doctor to decide what will “happen” to a child born after a botched abortion.  Of course, “happen” is code for disposal, in the case that said mother and doctor agree that such a child does not have a right to exist.  It just so happens that today is the day my daughter and I got to the Spartans in her history book, and read about their practice of killing baby’s at birth whom they deemed too weak to exist.  It is a chilling parallel to our times, as genetic engineering is more of a reality than a theory, and we call the woman who reject their off spring “mothers.”  Too often, we are more interested in songs to ourselves, than the road less traveled. George Carlin died this week, and after years of associating him with crass humor, I was surprised to read a quote demonstrating his great wisdom.  I can’t plagiarize the whole thing, but here’s a marvelous bit:

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

As the mama of a kidlink that was so unplanned she didn’t even come from my body, and arrived quite inconveniently when I was a single in grad school, I think I can safely say that LOVE gives you a fairy tale.  Not selfishness, or fear.  Love.  And even though we all know life isn’t usually a fairy tale, it doesn’t hurt to hum the theme song to Charlotte’s Web once in awhile, and remember that perhaps we have the wrong color of glasses on, and maybe it is, more than we realize.

“It’s not so unusualImage

when everything is beautiful;

it’s just another ordinary miracle today.

The sky knows when it’s time to snow

Don’t need to teach a seed to grow

It’s just another ordinary miracle today.

Believe me, when you live near the dryest desert on earth, a seed growing and snow falling are both miracles.  And raindrops on spider webs-exquisite!  Take it from my own little fairy tale-it’s her favorite song!  May love prevail.  May love, like grace, fall down on you and me.  May it give you the fairytale that nothing else will.  May it save the lives of precious children, and give us all new eyes for the ordinary marvels of our lives.  May we be more like the Athenians than the Spartan’s.  Concerned with truth and beauty, and leaving something for the future.