Real Abundance

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Abundance is usually considered a good thing.  In fact, we often pray for it, long for it, and give thanks when we receive it.  Abundance is a blessing in our minds.

So in my foggy headed 5:45 am reading of today’s scripture for my Advent study, when I came across the line “I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry,” my first response was a sigh of relief and a wholehearted YES.  Then the next line came.

But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

And I felt like a bigger fool than even the rich fool in the gospel.

Oh how I long for stability, certainty, security.  I wouldn’t mind being a recipient of all the seemingly good things this world has to offer.  But Jesus is not of this world.  Jesus came to turn the world and all it holds dear upside down.  More often than not, if we are moving towards Jesus, we are turning away from the things the world says we should value.

So then I asked myself—abundance of what?  Abundance of possessions?  of money?  of things?  Or an abundance of the immaterial and eternal—love, joy, faith?

I find myself apologizing for our home.  The old carpet, the curling linoleum, the countertops with the finished rubbed off and covered in stains that won’t come out.  We scrub and clean and despite our best efforts, years of carelessness from former tenants leaves things shabby.  But why am I asking forgiveness for my home as if it were a character flaw?  Lack of granite countertops and wood floors doesn’t define who I am as a person.  Our old car shouldn’t elicit shame from me or contempt from others.

Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  My life right now has an abundance of wet baby kisses.  An abundance of giggles as my husband plays with our daughter.  An abundance of family reaching out to help.  And abundantly long days spent at home with my daughter, a sacrifice we make because our definition of abundance is bigger than the amount printed on a pay check, more important than the clothes we wear.

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The rich fool builds bigger barns to save more, hoard and hide away, desperately seeking peace and security.  But all of those efforts are fear driven.  There is no security in the things of this world, only in Jesus.  Real abundance comes from His grace.

We all know what it means to be rich by the world’s standards.  But what does it mean to be rich by God’s standards?

I realized that I spend a good part of every day dwelling in fear and worry.  Shadowy nameless worries about money and supporting our family and how we will ever be able to grow our family in the future.  How will we have all the children God sends, that we truly want?  How will we provide for them?  How will we manage not to be a burden in our old age?  These are some of my biggest fears.  They are very real to me.  They darken my thoughts each day.

I resolved that today I would not allow worries about money or the future to enter my thoughts.  Instead I will focus on being rich in what matters to God and on the many blessings He has bestowed upon us.  He always provides, always saves us.  And once I make it through today, I’ll try my best to do it again tomorrow.  One day at a time, filled with God’s abundant love.

 

If you are interested in participating in Waiting in His Word, an Advent lectio divina scriptural study designed by Nell, Nancy, and Laura, see the Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1695487650680941/

 

A Walk with Gratitude

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There is something different about the light this time of year.  As the day nears its close—so much earlier, as if it is weary after the long year—the sun settles in a muddled gold behind the woods, the black silhouettes of the pines stark and certain.

The sunset is mellow and poignant, full of all that the year as seen, aging and wise.  None of the sweet pinks and pastels of a spring evening or the sweeping, impressive vistas of a summer day turning to night.  This time is quieter, contemplative.

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I walk with my daughter, push the stroller endlessly up and down the block, through the neighborhood, counting the minutes before Daddy comes home and my body can start to sigh with relief.  But something stops me.  I start to concentrate on the small things my daughter notices, the small, simple things that this tiny child, close to the ground and fascinated with the miniature, readily and easily considers.  Walking with my daughter I start to see through her eyes, the little things that delight her, that begin to delight me.

Ferns nestled in the dark recesses of a ditch.

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Minuscule golden flowers—weeds, really—that she longs to pick.

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The startling blue of a  jay’s feather discovered in the grass.

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Simple things that would not even register for most people.  She approaches them with so much gratitude, ecstatic with each new amazing microcosm of God’s natural world.  She sees so much beauty in the ordinary.

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We stop and talk with our neighbor, a widow and grandmother who can remember the early days, when I was struggling to heal and pushing my baby, new and fragile, down the street, careful of each bump, laboring to walk.  She tells us that the storm of a few days ago brought down a giant pine in her backyard.  Because of the direction of the wind and the angle of its lean, the pine miraculously fell on its side across the width of the yard.  Had it crashed forward, it would have taken out the whole house.  Her son offered to call a tree service to have it removed, but she said she wanted it to stay for a while. She liked to sit out on the porch and stare at it.  In it she saw God’s mercy and care, sparing her and saving her, and she was certain her husband in heaven had had a hand in it all.  That fallen pine told her that her husband was watching over her still.

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On this Thanksgiving eve, I am thankful for the small, simple things in my life.  The blessings from God that are quiet and small but perhaps more important than I can ever know.  I strive to have eyes of gratitude that delight in God’s creation as my daughter does.  And like my neighbor, I try my best to see God’s mercy and love in things that might usually bring fear and misgivings.  Each day I get to choose.  Do I see Him present all around me?

 

The Grandmothers

I step over piles of blocks, scattered books, and sundry puzzle pieces, and peer out the window, searching for signs of life on our street, a reminder that the world is not just me and the spirited, beautiful, relentless baby girl at my feet.  The day is now in slow motion, and the afternoon stretches before me like an endless ocean, the waves pounding back and forth and wearing down the sand.

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Across the street, our elderly neighbor is out, a rare sighting.  She drags a stool across her yard, sits down on it, and crouches over, painstakingly reaching for and picking up pine cones.  There must be dozens.  Each outreach of her arm, every labored motion, makes me ache for her.  I am overcome with a feeling that I must do something; someone should do something for her, and I was the only witness to her determined undertaking of this gargantuan task.

As if I’ve forgotten who I am and what I am, I start for the door. I am going to answer the call for help.  I feel a tugging on my hand, the frustrated sounds of my baby girl wanting to be picked up.  So I answer another call for help, a different one than of the moment before.  I know what my first priority must be.  At the time, E was only just over a year old and not able to walk.  She was intolerant of pack ‘n’ plays and even a few moments of my attention placed on something other than her ignited her fury.  There was no way I could manage anything in this moment other than E.

Suddenly I find myself brimming with outrage.  This poor old white haired woman, mother of 5, struggling to bend, laboring, her arthritic body putting forth effort it barely had to give.  Where were her children?  Where were her grandchildren?  How could they let her do such a thing?  And for that matter, why was she all alone?

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I stopped myself.  Almost slapped my palm against my forehead.  Somewhere across a 24 mile lake, then across our country’s greatest river, someone could be saying the very same thing about my own grandmother!  My beloved, cherished, 78 year old grandmother who lives alone—by choice—and insists on doing things clearly beyond the limitations necessarily imposed upon her by age and ill health.  For a moment, I longed to make a trade.  Why couldn’t my grandmother be the old lady across the street?  Why couldn’t they swap places?  Then I could care for her the way I should, make certain she wasn’t over exerting herself, treat her with the dignity and devotion that years of her love and sacrifice demanded.

Our society doesn’t function like this anymore.  We live spread out, pulled apart by forces seemingly beyond our control, all in our own little homes on our own little lots, small households with great demands, dictated by the almighty Busy.  As a historian, I can tell you this is a recent phenomenon.  Prior to World War II, most people lived in homes that contained extended family members.  There was no such thing as a nuclear family.  There were just families.  You lived with your grandparents.  Mothers had the help and guidance of their mothers in the same household; children were raised by parents, grandparents, sometimes even aunts and uncles.  No one had to worry how Grandma was.  Grandma was right there. This goes back to ancient times.  Mary would have been raised in a compound surrounded by parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and, if disease and hardship had not already taken them, grandparents.  Just as Mary is the mother of us all, the women in the households of Nazareth would have mothered all the children present, whether or not they birthed them themselves.  Jesus, who calls us all his brothers and sisters, would have come from a family in which extended members were regarded with the same closeness as siblings.

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I suppose I am an anomaly.  I would love to live with my parents.  I practically do.  My mother and father’s home, the home in which I grew up, is a mere 10 minutes away from ours.  My daughter spends 4 hours a day, 3 days a week, with my mother.  I consider my mother, along with my husband, of course, to be my partner in raising my child.  We see my parents almost every day and go over on the weekends for dinner and family occasions.  I feel so blessed to be able to do this.  I cannot imagine how hard it would be, both physically and emotionally, not to have them actively involved in our lives.  I only wish my grandmother could be here with us, too.

I hope and pray that one day when my mother is stooped and frail I will be there to lean in and take over the task at which she is struggling.  And if not me, then E’s sweet hand, no longer the tiny, soft baby hand I know so well, reaching out, serving just as she was served.

 

 

When You Have the Music in You

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“For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for.”
—St. Augustine of Hippo
Sometimes I catch my husband glancing at me with a smile on his face. I will pause for a moment and wonder why. Then I realize I’ve been singing all along, entirely unaware of the song in my heart pouring out of my lips. I blush and say, “I’ve got the music in me.” And it’s as if it overpowers me, takes over me, and spontaneously soars from my mouth.

But it’s more than music that is in me. Clearly, obviously, without question, it is God. How else can you explain that something coming from nothing, the quiet one moment and the exuberant rising and falling of voice the next? And how can you explain the feeling I get when I let my mind go, my thoughts fall away, and the magnificent fervor of song rise up through my whole body?

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I truly believe that singing is a kind of prayer. And it is certainly a form of praise. So often in prayer we seek things, bring petitions, ask things of God. This is perfectly acceptable. In fact, he tells us to do this, encourages us to come to him. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to send him praise as well? Can you imagine how God must feel when, after listening to so many pleas and woes and recitations of complaints and fears, He hears someone glorifying Him, singing out the joy that God inspires within?
Sometimes when I don’t know what to say, when words have fled, when my thoughts are all a jumble, all I have is song. They are the songs I learned long before I could actually read the words and follow along in the hymnal, some of the earliest sounds of my memory, songs that have remained ingrained in my mind long after the Periodic Table of the Elements and sine, cosine, and tangent formulas have faded away. I reach for these songs, and they never fail me. They always deliver me from the immediate situation, from my worry, from my fear and bring me to a place far beyond those things. I actually feel lifted up when I lift up my voice.

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I do it in the shower. A lot. I do it when I wash dishes or fold clothes. I whisper those wonderful words as I fall asleep at night. Recently, when pacing back and forth watching my second graders pick apart their lunches, I found myself singing under my breath.
Not until adulthood, when I really began to seriously read the Bible, did I discover how closely those good old church songs adhere to the words of Jesus, to the poetry of the Psalms, the messages of the Gospels. I never thought I knew many Bible verses word for word, but then I realized when singing out that I knew far more of them through song than I ever realized.

St. Therese of Lisieux said that “prayer is a surge of the heart.” I can think of no greater example of that than letting your voice ring out in praise of Him.

Seven Quick Takes—All Saints’ Day Edition

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1.

Sunday was All Saints’ Day, so we headed for the cemeteries.  In New Orleans, All Saints has always been an important day.  Called “La Toussaint” by the French Creole inhabitants, they would all meet in the cemetery to clean the tombs, decorate them with candles, flowers, and other ornaments, and sometimes even picnic and socialize with relatives.  People still observe this old tradition, but the cemeteries don’t see the crowds that were present in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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2.

Unfortunately, the forecast called for a 100% chance of rain.  We visited St. Louis Cemetery #2, in part for my research work, in part because it is my favorite cemetery.  We had intended to go to St. Louis Cemetery #1, the oldest in the city, the final resting place of some of my husband’s relatives.  The rain started coming down in sheets, and the wind picked up.  We realized that we would have to postpone the other cemeteries.

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3.

We went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral.  They had a choir, instruments, and an amazing organ, which made the Mass even more ethereal.  I thought about all the people we had just seen in the cemetery (and by “people,” I mean dead people in tombs; my connection to the past is strong) and the fact that many of them had spent their lives sitting in this very church, participating in Mass just as I was.

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4.

I was struck by the image of the Sacred Heart, so visible from where we sat, even with lots of tall people in front of me.  It seemed an appropriate image to focus upon on a day when we honor saints, who strove to have hearts like Jesus.

5.

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We visited the tomb of the Sisters of the Holy Family.  Henriette Delille (1813-1862) was cofoundress of this first order of nuns of color in New Orleans. Over 250 names of nuns interred in this tomb are on record.

Henriette was the product of placage, a system in which a white man, usually Creole or French, would enter into a relationship with a free woman of color, often keeping her in a home on Burgundy St. or the edge of the French Quarter, providing for her and the children that would follow. Even if they had wanted to, the couple could never have entered into a legal marriage. Henriette rejected the expectations that were held for her. There weren’t many options for a free woman of color in New Orleans. (Certainly there were many who owned their own businesses, etc., but many did so with the support of white men. Placage was a reality and a way of life for many.) She clung to her faith and worked her whole life to establish an order of nuns for women of color. She dedicated her life to sacrifice, service, and hard work, helped educate children in the community and cared for the elderly. She was named Venerable by Pope Benedict in 2010.

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6.

I see dead people.  I kid, but honestly—the past isn’t past in my mind.  I suppose by thinking about, talking about, and researching those who are long dead I seek to honor them and their memories.  As long as they are in my mind and their names are on my lips, a part of them lives on.

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7.

Despite my love for historic cemeteries and the countless hours over several decades that I have spent in cemeteries, I can’t visit the graves of my grandfather and great-grandfather, the two closest people to me who have died.  It hurts too much.  And I don’t feel them present with me when I’m at their graves.  I feel their presence in other situations.

Linking up with http://thisaintthelyceum.org/sqt-seven-ways-to-stop-anger-from-stealing-your-day/

I Capture the Castle Captured Me

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

I had heard about this novel for years but had never gotten around to actually reading it. I saw a movie adaptation many years ago that did not impress me. Truly it left no impression at all. I couldn’t recall any of the plot points! About a month ago, my mother ventured forth to the library and then visited us for lunch and a chat. She pulled the book out of her bag, and I was instantly drawn to it.

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I Capture the Castle. The title alone is refreshing and captivating. As unusual and whimsical as the narrative itself. It evokes images of knights charging across draw bridges and catapults trying to wreak havoc upon the impregnable. And of course the author meant to hearken back to that time. But what it truly refers to is the protagonist’s efforts to capture her life with her eccentric family while residing in a medieval castle in rural 1930s England. Cassandra’s journal immediately draws you into her life, the pastoral landscape, and the summer she leaves girlhood behind.

How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

Some of it is absurd. But it’s supposed to be. Utter whimsy. Things that would have driven me crazy in other books caused nary a roll of the eye with this one. I believed it all. It didn’t feel put on. Even when it was over the top, it felt enjoyable and natural. Perhaps best of all—I was remembering our honeymoon in Ireland, explorations of castle ruins, the stones of old monasteries, crumbling abbeys.

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I read it like a starving woman devouring a feast. As someone who deals with non-fiction throughout the day, namely slavery and plantations, honestly some pretty heavy stuff, this read felt like a lark. The descriptions were so vivid that I felt like I was sitting with my feet in the kitchen sink with Cassandra as she began her journal.

Perhaps watching someone you love suffer can teach you even more than suffering yourself can.
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

I can’t keep track of how many books I read. I’m always reading, and I’ve read a vast quantity of books in my life. It takes a lot now for something to stand out. I Capture the Castle captured me.

It was one of those books that came along at just the right time. I needed this book. When it fell open in my hands, it was perfect timing, just the right place in my life for it.

At 1 am, unable to sleep, I felt for the book on my nightstand and tripped out of our bedroom and into the living room, seeing my way around by the lightning bursting across the sky. A giant storm was upon us, the first we had had in all of October, much needed and somewhat strange. It was late October; we had not had rain since the very beginning of September. Highly unusual for south Louisiana, and just long enough to get me unaccustomed to rain, for a storm to seem an extraordinary thing.

Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known. The thought came to me that perhaps it is the loving that counts, not the being loved in return — that perhaps true loving can never know anything but happiness. For a moment I felt that I had discovered a great truth.
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

But aren’t massive thunderstorms generally extraordinary things? Aren’t we all riveted by them? Don’t they transform our moods? And so I finished reading I Capture the Castle in the midst of a full own Gothic dark and stormy night, atmospheric and evocative and so very enjoyable in every way.

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As I shut the book, before I lumbered back to sleep, I realized I was incredibly thankful that I read this now and not when I was younger. Timing again. Not only did I need this book now out of a deep desire for whimsy and description and absurdity and a strong and unique narrative voice. I needed it now because had I read it as a teenager, I would have romanticized things. I would have lamented the ending, just as I did when Jo March doesn’t wind up with Laurie in Little Women. I would have wanted Cassandra to go off with the gentleman, even though he asked her for the wrong reasons. I would have felt sad for her.

Now I feel something entirely different. Cassandra, you are so young. You have your whole life before you. So much has been gained in this experience. Use all of this and use it well. Let it guide you. There will be chances for love, other men, time for all of that later. Right now, just live. And when it’s time, the right man will find you. Or you will find him. Honestly, you will find each other.

Timing. It always comes back to that.

Let Me Learn from my Daughter

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It is 2 am and there is a cry in the dead of night. One moment stillness, the next a piercing scream crackling over the monitor. I leap up and am on my feet running before I even fully comprehend what is going on, my brain still asleep but my whole body fully alert, heart pumping, adrenaline racing. This is how I respond to my baby’s cries. This is what I do when she wants me in the darkness, when the rest of the world slumbers and all else is quiet. I do it every time. Even after giving myself permission to be a bit less vigilant, a trifle more relaxed. I just can’t do it. I hear my child’s cry and my response is instantaneous.

We are go, go, go all day long. There is not a moment in which I”m not saving her from something. She, of course, interprets this as utter torment. All I do is persecute her. I imagine her with a Veruca Salt voice, a tiny, shrill baby version of her British accent, screaming, “But Mommy, I want the electrical cord now!” As I struggle to focus on my work—work that requires serious attention, work that is my passion—I look up, and she is gnawing on the electrical cord, wedging herself under the armchair, pulling down the lamp, knocking over chairs onto herself. She doesn’t want me to stop her from doing any of these things, but she certainly wants me to help her out once she is in them. I swoop in, save the day, avert the crisis, soothe and comfort, then start all over again.

Then there are the things she desperately wants to do but that would wreak havoc on the tiny little world that is our home. She goes for the remote, our cell phones, my hair. She rips my pearl necklace apart and leaves the glass apothecary jar in shards. She must pull every diaper off her changing table. She has to pick every flower in the yard. She cannot abide not being allowed to climb into the dishwasher. These are desperate needs!

We listen to the same music over and over again. She demands it. We read the same books over and over again. We pace up and down, up and down, seeking an elusive nap.

These things are hard. They challenge me. I go to bed exhausted every day. But I am not complaining. This first year as a mother, I’ve learned more than I have in all others combined. This past year with my daughter, she has taught me more than all my teachers, professors, and priests ever managed. She has taught me far more than I have ever taught her. My daughter has shown me God’s love, and she has given me the best understanding of God my Father that I can ever have as a mere human being.

I cry out, and He is there for me. Any time. In the darkness, in the dead of night. Especially then. My baby can’t stand to be alone, struggles with stillness and silence and the thoughts and fears that accompany those things. I do, too. And He is there for me, just as I am for her.

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I am non-stop. I don’t give Him a break. He is constantly saving me. Countless moments every day, year after year, adding up to a whole lifetime. And I am fairly certain that there were many, many times that He saved me and I knew absolutely nothing about it at all. In fact, there were times He was busy saving me when I would have told Him that He was doing the exact opposite. Jobs I was convinced I needed that would have been all wrong for me. Men I desperately wanted to be with who would just have made my life miserable. Hard lessons I didn’t want to face but needed to learn. Long roads that made me weary but that I had to walk. Oh why did He torment me so?

I imagine His sadness as He sees me make another bad choice, turn in a wrong direction. There she goes judging others again. Here she is worrying and ingesting instead of just trusting in me. Here she is asking again, another list of demands.

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And it’s repetitive and exhausting and disheartening. But still He carries me, paces up and down, up and down, soothes and comforts and never stops loving me. There is nothing specific I did to make Him love me. I don’t love baby girl because she is so adept at crawling or because she tried broccoli and liked it. And there never was a time He didn’t love me. I can’t remember when my love for baby girl started; it was just always there. There is nothing she could do to make me stop loving her. My love for her doesn’t disappear because I wanted a good night’s sleep or because carrying her makes my neck ache. It doesn’t work like that with her. Or with Him.

Even in the midst of the crying, the defiance, and the frustration, she clings to me and looks up with eyes shining with trust and devotion. Oh God, let me learn from my daughter. Help me to always cling to You. Let me always look to You with trust and devotion. May I always be confident in your boundless love. Even at 2 am when my body is longing for sleep but my baby girl is longing for me more.

Written July 2012, just before my daughter turned 1 year old.

The Right to Write

Sometimes it takes utter desperation to write.

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It is easy to disparage the mommy bloggers. It is easy to roll one’s eyes. Then one day you happen to be a person who longs to write who also happens to be a mother. And your days revolve around home and baby and domestic life. You see how the mommy blogger trap is made. And you become more sympathetic. And finally you are empathetic. You arrive at a place where you realize the most important things in life are domestic, the most basic needs of our existence are met at heart and home and from mother.

Before you reach that point of no turning back, that place of drive and need, you are up against exhaustion. You are up all night with the baby. Then the baby grows, and she finally sleeps. But you discover that she more than makes up for the hours of tranquility she allows you at night during the long, non-stop days. She walks, she understand, she is alert and observant and demands. You are ecstatic at these developments, but no longer can you sneak in work. She knows! Are you doing something that pertains to a world and a life apart from her? She knows, and she will call you on it.

You ask yourself—why do anything else? There is work. Work you enjoy and that helps put food on the table and pay the mortgage each month. There are dishes in the sink and toys to be put away and goodness, shouldn’t you be printing out another set of her photos and recording what she is up to each day of each month for posterity’s sake? And within you, there is a need to communicate, a desire to connect, and a longing for story. Her story. Your story. Your husband’s. The stories of countless families both past and present. You think of the mothers rocking their babes to sleep over the decades, over the centuries, and you realize you are all connected, and you long to express that somehow—that amazing epiphany that arrived when you were bleary eyed in the hours of deepest darkness as your rocked, rocked, rocked the beloved child for whom you prayed so long and so hard.

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You contemplate the negatives. Privacy. Discretion. Modesty. All are reasonable. Yet you weight them against the positives, the needs. You set it aside. Your mother wouldn’t like it. Don’t put anything down on paper, she says. Why does the world need to know your thoughts? She is right. She always is. You sigh and walk away. The baby needs you to read again, and you never say no to a book.

Then one day, she will not nap. Refuses. Is adamant that she must stay awake all day long and that you must spend every second of that day entertaining her. No, she will not be like the other babies and play quietly and independently. Such a silly idea! No, you must be her constant companion, she must constantly hear your voice, you must constantly perform. I remember longing for a baby, and I know I would never complain about these demands, that I would never turn away from her. However. . . she is exhausted. She is hysterical. She is sad. This child needs a nap in the worst way.

You exert yourself, you apply all advice ever given, you rock and bounce and drive up and down the block and worry about her teeth and administer Tylenol and do everything humanly possible to provide this poor darling with the relief she so needs but refuses to allow herself.

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Finally your best and oldest friend, sensing your distress, sends you a message. Put her down. Give her a few minutes. She will sleep. You will both get what you need. It kills you as you do it. But there are these wonderful blogs. . .mommy blogs, some might call them. . .and they talk about faith and family and life in its deepest and most true realities. As you read them, you are not alone. I am not alone. We have all been here, longing for rest, for ourselves, for our babies.

And so the utter desperation sets in. Pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard. Capturing this moment, both exhausting and beloved, the fleeting joy and frustration of having a baby, memories you never want to lose. The clasping at strength and patience in the midst of your worst selfishness. How can we not be there with each other, how can we not connect in every way given to us? The very vulnerability that makes it a risk is the reason why we must. Fingers to keyboard now.