Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bad People Go to Hell and Other Parental Panic Moments

My lovely blue-eyed seven-year-old daughter giggled. "Bad people go to the devil when they die," and my charming bow-tie and button-down-shirt wearing son giggled, too, "Yeah, but we're going to heaven because of JESUS."

I stuttered and stammered, "Well, it's true that Jesus saves us," I said, "but I'm not sure about the devil. It'd be a bad place to go, that far away from God.  I don't know about the devil." Or something like that. Yammer. Stammer. Pause. Continue eating pizza. End of theological discussion.

Oh, Lord.  Lord, Lord, Lord.  It's moments like this that cause my adult brain to short circuit. What do I say?  What do I believe?  How do I say what I believe without oversimplifying to the point of error?  Can I even communicate a non-deistic, grace over deeds, mercy over judgment concept to my children?  

Can I just hand them some Popsicle sticks and glue?  Here, stick these together. They make a cross! Wee!

I've thought about and pondered the existence of God for twenty years, ever since my best friend scribbled, "At least I know where I'm going when I die," in a folded and creased sheet of notebook paper, ever since I asked my mom, "Do you believe in God?" and I thought to myself, Of course she does, everyone believes in God, but she sat on the beach blanket next to me and said, I don't know.

I don't know.

It's possible that the greatest gift my mom ever gave me was this uncertainty.  Maybe that sounds crazy.  Maybe if she had said, "Of course I do," I would have nodded and thought, "well then, there you have it. There is a god."  

But wrapped in that single, simple, honest answer was this: permission. Permission to doubt. Permission to seek. Permission to question. Permission to believe.


She could have said, "Of course I do," her heart racing, ready to deliver the sinner's prayer to me right there on the shore of Lake Erie, right there, perform the accept-Jesus-into-your-heart prayer, and maybe it would have meant something to me.  She could have said, "No, I don't. I think it's ridiculous to believe in god," and I might have nodded, okay, that takes care of that, Lisa can eat her perfect cursive handwritten note.

But no, with one sentence a door opened, because paired with faith is always doubt, and what is the good news of Christ if not freedom?  Freedom to question?  Freedom to wonder?  Freedom to demand answers and freedom to rest in mystery?  

And then there was that note.  I think about that note often, how it's hot poker burned and I flinched.  Where will I go when I die?  Is there an afterlife?  Oh, the many ways I've answered this question, heaven, hell, dust, earth, eternity, purgatory, asleep in the ground, awake in the clouds... and yet even today Idon'tknowIdon'tknowIdon'tknowIdon'tknow.  

Oh, I believe in an afterlife.  I believe in heaven, the love of Christ, ever-presence in a place as good as and better than this world, a place of wholeness and healing.  But also there is (or can be) heaven on earth, healing and redemption here, now.  That is a message I can hear and understand with more clarity and immediacy than any eternal heavenly location - that which is unfathomable, mysterious, but no less real... or possible.

But the question of the devil, well, maybe?  Why not?  I don't know anything about hell, its physical location, whether a loving God would condemn a mortal being to burn for all eternity, but I know there is (or can be) hell on earth, a life spent in bitterness and ruin, destruction and vanity and greed, a life spent entirely separate from God, serving one master, serving one's own interests, or maybe even serving the burning desires of Satan who wants to kill and destroy, to drive people away from God.  Maybe?  

"At least I know where I'm going when I die."  My best friend's note was a catalyst.  What do I know?  What do I believe?  That note was followed not by condemnation but by invitations, to Bible studies, dinners with her parents praying, the Billy Graham revival in Cleveland, our shared college dorm room, worship services we attended together, prayers we uttered together, and Bible verses we exchanged. All of the merciful, miraculous, and mysterious ways our paths have intersected these twenty years are an entirely other kind of testimony to the grace and power of Christ.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Grace.  Permission.  Freedom.

So what do you give your children?  I want to give them an open hand.  I want to invite them into "Here's what I believe, but."  Yes, I believe in a huge, loving, powerful, merciful, just, faithful, mysterious God of the universe.  Let me show him to you as best I can.  I hope that you will see him and feel that presence in your life, that faith will surpass doubt.  I hope that the love of Christ will be real to you, that it will ever change you, ever humble you, ever shape you into a fuller version of yourself, the very best version of yourself, and that the same love of Christ will compel you to love others deeply and fully, so they too may experience the love of Christ.

And when you ask me a question I don't yet know the answer to, please dear God let me have the humility to simply say, "I don't know," and may the mystery be enough to keep both of us searching.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Right Where I Need To Be

A few weeks ago, after Brandon and I returned from celebrating our tenth anniversary, I looked ahead at our calendar for October.  There were a lot of commitments that required a lot of babysitters, which translated to many nights and weekends away from the kids (and several hundred dollars in childcare and travel expenses).  I of course love to get away, especially when it is for good things, like time with my husband, writing conferences, and poetry retreats, but with Brandon gone every weekend and me working full time, it just didn't seem fair to the kids to escape leave so much.  I emailed my friend in Kentucky and reluctantly pulled out of the poetry retreat that was to take place this weekend.  I let my cousin (awesome babysitter) know that I decided not to go, and promptly willed myself to forget about the retreat.

This Thursday, my poet friends posted photos of their road trip south, and from my office desk I pouted.  I was supposed to be getting ready to head out for Louisville.  I sighed.  It would have been such a good time to hang out with these friends.  I reminded myself of the much-needed downtime with the kids, the bushel of apples ready to be sauced, and the cash that was staying obediently and responsibly in my bank account because of this decision.  But that doesn't mean I didn't throw a small tantrum on their Facebook comment section.

After work, the kids and I were off to a great start to the weekend.  Everyone ate dinner without whining.  The paved path through the woods and field behind our house beckoned.

"Do we have to wear a helmet?" Lydia asked, and I considered for a moment saying no. We had ridden the path in the field without helmets lately.  Elvis was nearby, getting ready to ride his bike, listening for my decision.

"Yes, you should still wear your helmet, since we're planning to ride through the woods."  She strapped it on.  Elvis did, too, and we set out for a leisurely ride through the woods.

The new path is only paved for about fifty feet into the woods before it transitions to gravel and dirt.  Since the weather began to turn a few weeks ago, pine needles and leaves have begun to fall across the trail.  I love the pine needle floor of the forest, the canopy high above our heads, the scratch and rustle of the squirrels through the fallen leaves.  We rode along, Henry in the tow-behind trailer and Elvis and Lydia speeding ahead.

Just over the peak of a small hill, I heard Elvis scream.  I rolled my eyes and smiled and sighed.  He is always falling, and every little bump and bruise causes him to erupt into tears.  I pedaled my way over the hill, Henry sitting in the tow-behind trailer.  There he was, splayed out on the trail, still on top of his bike.  Lydia was slowly making her way back to Elvis.

"Oh, buddy, are you okay?" I asked him, helping him to get untangled from the red Lightning McQueen bike and stand up.  He looked up at me with tears streaming and blood dripping from his lip and chin.  "Oh my goodness, Elvis, come here." I gave him a hug and worked his fingers and wrists, asked him to move his arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken.  It was clear he split his lip.  There was a small cut on his nose and a small bruise forming on his forehead where his helmet likely jammed into his skin, a couple small cuts under his chin and on his neck.  I stood for a minute, balancing my bike and Henry and holding Elvis.  A man with a dog came down the hill and held my bike for me while I inspected Elvis some more, considering what to do next.  It wouldn't make sense to take Henry out of the bike trailer and walk all three of us back, and the handlebars of Elvis's bike were bent out of shape.

"Elvis, can you walk back beside me?  I'll go real slow with Henry, and we'll leave your bike here," I said.  He nodded while wailing and hiccuping, still shaking from his fall.

"I'll ride back to the house and then come back for his bike," Lydia offered, and I said that was a good idea.

"Be careful!" I yelled.

We walked/rode back out of the woods, Elvis rubbing his neck and crying, me rotating between "Oh, buddy," and "It's okay, you're okay, you'll be fine," and "I love you, little man," until we were out of the woods.  It was still early, and we passed others running and walking along the trail.  He kept touching his fingers to his bloody lip.  Each time he did this and saw the blood, he cried harder.  Almost back to the house, Elvis spoke for the first time since his fall.

"My tooth," he muffled.  I stopped.

"Your what?"  I asked, bending over to look closer at his face.  When he fell and looked up at me, I could have sworn he was missing a tooth, but maybe he had recently lost one and I just mis-remembered?

"I lost my tooth," he cried again.

"Let me see, open up a little so I can get a good look."  His mouth was bloody; there was a dark gap where one of his front teeth had been.  "Oh no, Elvis, do you remember if you had already lost a baby tooth, or was that one of your adult teeth?"

"It was one of my adult teeth," he said, his big brown eyes watery.  I couldn't remember -- had he lost his top teeth already, or was it the bottom that were permanent?

"It's okay, buddy, it'll be okay.  We'll figure out what to do."

So began our weekend.

His other front tooth was loose, too, and I urged him not to play with it.  The next morning, I woke up congested -- tell-tale symptoms of a sinus infection brewing -- and Henry seemed a little congested himself.  Elvis threw up twice.  Concussion?  Probably.  I took him to the dentist.  She confirmed that they were, in fact, his baby teeth (thank God), and his permanent teeth had not suffered any damage from his fall.  Whew.  Crisis averted.

The boys and I enjoyed some time with my mom Friday morning, and after I put Henry down for his nap, I fell asleep on the couch.  For almost three hours.  Henry slept just as long, and Elvis put together four puzzles, colored two pages of a coloring book and some posters, and played with his Legos.  Other than a fat lip and a couple of scrapes, Elvis seemed back to normal.

I had some girlfriends over Friday evening, and after they left, Henry proceeded to wake up every 90 minutes until 6 a.m. the next morning, thoroughly congested and struggling to breathe.  My sinus symptoms worsened throughout the night.  When it comes to sicknesses, my tendency is to head to the doctor's office at the first sign of symptoms rather than let it hang on for days and days, but I've been trying to break myself of this.  Most things need to run their course, and I've paid enough co-pays to know this now.  I spent Saturday hunting on Pinterest for home remedies to treat my sinus issues and Hank's chest congestion.

Me and Henry at the football game a couple weeks ago
By Saturday night, Henry's breathing was frighteningly forced.  I called my friend Julie who came over with some essential oils, and even though I had tried steaming up the bathroom, a humidifier, chamomile oil and peppermint oil, honey, and hot tea, we gave her treatment one last shot.  Still no major improvement.  So, it was off to the emergency room.

You know, of course, that my husband was out of town this weekend, as he is every weekend in the fall.  This is how it goes, tragically funny how these things happen.  The last major incident was Elvis's kidney stone back in March, which set me further down the spiral of an unconfirmed mental breakdown.

As soon as I scooped Elvis up off of the bike path, I knew why I had to call off my weekend poetry retreat.  And when the sinus congestion clogged up my nasal cavities, and when Henry's chest heaved and wheezed on Saturday night, I knew why I was home this weekend.  It felt like God providentially said, "Nope, not this time," two weeks ago.  "Nope, you need to be with your kids.  You need to be Mom.  The poetry can wait."

I don't always feel this way, of course.  I leap at opportunities to get away, and I think that's healthy for me and for my kids.  But other than a smidgen of envy at the laughing, eating faces of my poet friends, I felt no regret about being home this weekend.  Disappointment, yes.  Disappointed that we had to spend it sick, nursing fat lips and receiving breathing treatments at 11 p.m., cancelling plans to watch the Browns with my husband at the stadium.

But I was here.  I was present.  I was available to snuggle my loved ones on the couch, to watch Despicable Me and Cars 2 and several dozen episodes of Looney Tunes, and to rest.  Sometimes that is exactly what we need.  Exactly where we're supposed to be.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl is a deep exploration of two extremely influential individuals on the author’s life: her mother and her father, though much more emphasis seems to me to be on the mother. There's an intended irony, I think, in the author's title, the florist's daughter. Hampl has always considered herself "his girl," and throughout the book, Hampl shows us the benign relationship she has with her mom... at least until later in the book. The memoir could be considered a comparative analysis of Leo the Lion and Stan the Gentleman, interwoven with a final reconciliation of perception versus a broader reality that the narrator, as daughter, missed, and naturally - we aren't often granted a more objective stance from which to view our parents. The narrator’s position is, notably, bedside next to her dying mother, and throughout the book we are returned here, in the final days of this era; though we might go away from the bed for pages and pages to explore the past, we always return to the bedside.

Throughout the text, Hampl establishes parallels between her parents and the landscape. Her mother is the downtown store; her father is the greenhouse. Her mother is urban, her father is rural. Her mother is sophisticated/from up the hill; her father is wild/from down the hill. There’s uptown and there’s the greenhouse. There’s local and there’s travel. The landscape and geography of St. Paul and its surroundings serves as the perfect vehicle for Hampl to navigate the ways in which she finds herself relating—or not relating—to her parents. As Hampl explores the world of her childhood and her parents’ upbringing, the florist’s daughter gradually realizes that she is not just the florist’s daughter. With distance and experience, the depth of her mother within her surfaces along with an understanding of Leo the Lion. This revelation to the reader and the narrator, too, comes late in the memoir, when Hampl writes this single sentence paragraph: “And I’d thought I was his girl” (page 201).

There’s much to praise in Hampl’s rendering of her parents. Using key phrases and descriptions of her parents, she is able to establish and carry their personae throughout the memoir, reminding the reader who these people are. I am impressed by Hampl’s exhaustive descriptions and explanations of her parents. A perfect example is on page 52, when describing her father’s relationship to St. Paul:

“But the attention my father demanded was a world away from the note-taking watchfulness of my mother in the corners of charity balls. She was tracking. He was filled with wonder. St. Paul provided all the beauty a person needed—St. Paul and an occasional trip into the glory of the Minnesota lake country. Leo the Lion plotted guided trips to Ireland that he argued were a waste of time and money. The Thoreau of St. Paul, he said Europe could wait, he hadn’t seen all of Minnesota yet.”

This beautifully rendered sentence out the mouth of a lesser writer might have read: “My father loved St. Paul and didn’t care to go anywhere else, even though my mother tried to arrange trips to Europe.”

Lately I have been picking up on a writer’s use of key repetitions and their effectiveness. Even in this paragraph, I can grab “note-taking,” “charity balls,” and “Leo the Lion,” three prominent characteristics that Hampl has affiliated with her mother. This seems extremely useful to me in building a character across many pages of a book. They are unique details about a person that help us to understand who she is, and repeating them reminds us of these qualities.

Hampl is also a master of sequence and timing. The reader discovers truths about the narrator as they happen—we experience her naïveté in the florist’s shop with the navy man and the epiphany of the “almost rape” late in the book, not to mention her awakening to the relationship she has with her mother. It seems that as the scenes unfold, the narrator gradually comes to a clearer understanding of her mother, as if by sitting bedside in the hospital with her, she has turned on a slow defrost against a severely frozen windshield. By the end of the book, the windshield has been made clear so as to navigate the way from here forward.