Monday, December 29, 2008


There are certain home-movie clips I'd like to have on hand, along with a personal assistant who would play them on demand. For example, upon holding a newborn and feeling the sharp pang of longing in my gut, I would shout "roll the tape!" and the nearest wall would show choppy scenes (soundless but for the old-fashioned ticking of the film) of my chubby-bunny-postpardum-body, hunched and resembling the grim reaper, patting the crying newborn propped against my shoulder. The film would zoom in on the clock, showing 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m., then cut back to me, looking even grimmer, alternating between nursing, changing tar-baby poops, and patting the baby's back.

To drive the point home, the film would then show a certain date on which I did not have a newborn in my home-- say, June 2, 2008, and zoom in again on the clock: 10 p.m., me in bed, 2 a.m., me in bed, then 4:30 a.m., me still in bed, sleeping soundly upon a drooly pillow, the only noise in the whole house the quiet and peaceful dripping of a leaky faucet. I would gently hand the newborn back to its mother, offer a kind remark about its sweetness and beauty, then head for the door, clicking my heels into the air like Maria in The Sound of Music, carrying her guitar-case to the Baron's house upon escaping the Abbey.

Later, finding myself at the end of my parenting rope, feeling the strands of Love, Joy, and Mercy unravelling in my grip, leaving me dangling on the precipice of the abyss, one finger wrapped fiercely around Hope, I would shout "roll the tape!"

The film would again materialize upon the wall, this time showing the offending child at his/her cutest.

Eli: calling out sweetly from his bed at 6:30 a.m., "Can I come to Mama's bed?," then sandwiching his small, soft body between Tobin and I, delightedly wiggling his bottom back and forth, then accidentally poking me in the face with his bony little elbow and patting me gently, saying, "Oh! I sorry Mama! You okay?," then leaning in closer, his sweet-hot breath on my face a preamble to his whispered words: "Mama, come closer so I can give you some nice snuggles."

Or Sylvia: running into my bathroom in the morning, stripping off her jammies, hunching her naked body into the shape of a little bird, perching like a baby owl on a branch in front of the floor heater, scrunching her face into various silly and welcoming expressions since words elude her at this hour, then, without warning, spinning her legs like a cartoon runner and sprinting out of the bathroom, leaving spiraling dust bunnies in her wake.

Or Eleanor: jumping out from under my blankets when I come to bed at 10 p.m., pouting her bottom lip to say, "I tried to go to sleep but my heart just kept saying, 'I want Mama,'" then, ignoring my scowl, smiling broadly and leaping out of bed to follow me into the bathroom like a faithful puppy, asking me one hundred questions about make-up remover, zits, and floss as I get ready for bed, then moving into a series of existential questions involving the universe, people, and made-up animal breeds with horse hooves and dog fangs, my face initially showing annoyance but then a rush of love as a magical shift in perception changes my time from scarcity into abundance.

I know that someday I will sit in a comfortable chair and hanker for the days of my youth. I will sniff the air like a blood-hound, hoping to conjure the smells of newborn babies, spit-snuggled blankets, and dirty necks through olfactory memory. And then I'll remember my trusty personal assistant, and I'll command in a craggly yet authoritative voice, "roll the tape!"

I'll expect the wall to show my young husband, looking handsome and acting kind, and my children-of-old being cute and hilarious. I'll be surprised-- but just for a moment-- to see instead a clip of myself making dinner at 34, my face surly and tired, surrounded by three interrupting children, each demanding different and competing things, one pushing another aside, while the third clamors up onto the counter to get a better look at what I'm cooking. Then I will laugh a wise, ugly, old cackle that comes from the depths of my flabby old-lady belly, not caring if anyone hears me, and I will feel blessed from the top of my dry, flaking scalp to the bottom of my splitting, yellow toe nails.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas, Heavy on the Advent

Perhaps there's such thing as too much time to prepare for guests, I thought as I scraped three-year-old Halloween stickers from the window with an exacto knife.

The house was so clean I imagined that if it spoke, its voice would sound like a squeaky rubber ducky. The guest room closet, the storage room, the piles of construction paper, glue, ribbon, and yarn from the art room...we cleaned it all, creating a huge mound of "household goods" to donate to the first curb-side pick-up-for-charity-van that comes down our street. The fridge was full of food; the daily menu neatly printed and magneted to the front. We had three new board games, three new liquors, and a list of potential outings that read like a "Christmas in Seattle" brochure.

But the snow. That beautiful, peaceful, quiet-making snow, shaking resolutely from the sky as if intending to entomb us within our homes, the whiteness and volume reminding me of my blind Nonnie gently shaking salt into her hand and then dumping it out on her food. It persisted day after day, thwarting pre-holiday school schedules, closing down government, and demanding that everyone stay home to think and prepare.

So I organized our CDs, cleaned out medicine cabinets, sorted and purged toys. I prepared six pie crusts, wrapped them in swaddling, um, foil, and lay them gently in the freezer to wait.

Then the first call came: Tobin's parents could not come. There was too much snow, for goodness sake. They couldn't drive out of their half-mile long driveway to get into their little Eastern Oregon town much less drive to Seattle. Still, Tobin's sister and her family would come, so there remained hope of cousins playing cheerfully and adults sipping wine.

Then the second call came: Tobin's sister would not come. She took her 5-year-old daughter to the doctor because of a lingering cough and found out she had pneumonia. Thus, there would be no grandparents, no cousins, no sisters and in-laws; only our little nuclear family, a phrase which, at this point-- after too many days home-from-school, home-from-work, home-home-home-- only brought to mind images of Chernobyl.

I'd like to say that, with the grace of Mary herself, I serenely uttered heavenward, "let it be as you have said." That I didn't, for example, sulk around the house for a day or so, questioning whether the in-law's driveway was really unpassable, or whether pneumonia was even contagious, or why I am part of this family that can't problem-solve its way out of a simple little snowstorm. But frankly, I've never related to Mary very well. She is perplexed when the angel visits her, whereas I would be scared stupid. She accepts the news of her impending pregnancy right away, whereas I would, well, negotiate a little. ("Hold on there, Gabriel/Michael... can I call you Gabe/Mike? Do you think there might another option? Let's not be hasty. Would you mind just talking me through God's thought process here...")

Still, I did spend some time thinking about the little ironies in our predicament: whereas there was no room in the inn for Christ to be born, necessitating his manger-birth, we had many rooms, all clean and ready, and just lacked guests to fill them with. While I'm sure that a creative pastor could turn this into a sermon, I personally don't understand its significance, or whether it means anything at all, other than perhaps I have an overdeveloped literary sense.

We tried to invite the Christs among us to come on over and share in our bounty. But friends were busy with plans already made, and we didn't extend the invitation to the Other Christs, you know, the hungry and cold living a few miles away at Tent City, or the bag lady outside our neighborhood QFC.

So perhaps it is right and well that I felt a little lonely this Christmas, that it was more "Silent Night" than "Joy to the World." Evidently you don't need clean windows to welcome a baby.

Come, long-expected Jesus.
Ignite in me
a flame of joy that cannot be snuffed out by personal disappointment.

Come, long-expected Jesus.
Create in me
a yearning for peace that permeates my family, my community, this country, and the world.

Come, long-expected Jesus.
Kindle in me
the ability to love each person as you love them.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Creep

I'm startled when I see the man out the front window. I'm expecting that at any second Eleanor will walk to our house and up the front stairs, coming home from the school bus.

He's tall and gangly, this man; accompanied by darkness. It's in his face, which is shadowed by a navy or black hood. It's in his hands, tightly gripping a chain leash, against which a brown and black doberman strains. It's in the inward curve of his posture, which reminds me of a trench-coated highschooler, plotting his attack for months in a dingy basement before bringing the gun to school. Everything about him screams deviant.

He's walking toward our house, toward the corner that Eleanor should occupy at this very moment.

Wait here, I say quickly to Sylvia and Eli, I don't like the looks of this guy.

I shut the front door behind me, cutting off their questions in mid-sentence: What guy, Mama? Why don't you like the look...

Impossibly, in two seconds, hundreds of questions flash in my mind. Has he been watching her? Where would he take her? How many hours of daylight remain so we can search for her before it gets too dark? Do I call 911 first, or a neighbor to take care of Sylvia & Eli while I chase after him in my van?

I bound down the stairs and reach the corner just as he's walked past it.

There's no sign of Eleanor yet. Her bus is evidently running late.

I am relieved.

Then, with growing alarm, I watch the man as he walks his dog up the stairs, and enters the house next door to ours.

I see now: he is our new neighbor.

My plan is to introduce myself to this man, to bring him a plate full of cookies, or a loaf of homemade bread. I want to look him in the eye. Perhaps I'll find no darkness there after all.

(I never should have read The Shack).