(my submission to our church’s Advent Calendar Project for today, day 20)
Psalm 80:1-7 / Isaiah 42:10-18 / Hebrews 10:32-39
By Leslie Linebarger
For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools. I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.
And just like that, we depart, hours after we arrived. Hours after we scrambled to get there, followed by days of doing one thing and then the next thing and then the next. After all of the hard work and the hard conversations and the hardness of just getting there, we arrive at the airport so that we can turn around and go right back home. As we board the plane in the twilight of the day, the sky deepens to all shades of pinks, blues and purple, and the lights of the city begin to illuminate everything around us. There is a line of planes on the taxi-way, the longest that I’ve ever seen. We sit there on that plane, inching our way up slowly in the traffic jam of airplanes. We sit there, each of us in our own place with our own feelings, alone with our own thoughts, facing forward with our seatbelts tightly fastened. Some of us coming from visiting family, some of us going to a funeral, some of us returning from a business trip, some of us hurtling headlong into a completely unknown future. All of us human beings with all of the joy and grief and heartbreak and delight that comes with being human.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we round the corner of the taxiway, and suddenly the tiniest sliver of a yellow moon becomes visible on the eastern horizon, reclining on its back with Venus shining brightly just over its left shoulder. As the plane inches ever closer, it occurs to me that I’m breathing deeply for the first time in days. This is an unfamiliar feeling but not at all an unwelcome one. It’s a feeling that must be something close to letting go, or release, and I feel it welling up within me, this glorious deliverance from the constant fight to just barely hang on. And finally, finally, as my breath has grown deep and a calm has come over me in the midst of the waiting, it’s our turn.
The engines rumble louder underneath us as we speed toward that fingernail clipping of a moon that we had glimpsed earlier. We are shoved back in our seats as the wheels come up, and we grip our armrests, pushing against gravity and its relentless hold on our bodies. In silence we rise into the night sky, the city lights below us crisp in the clear December air, scattered everywhere in no apparent order, seeming to dance as they twinkle up at us. In the midst of the dancing, chaotic colors of tiny, sparkling lights, there are also large, soft circles of yellow light lining the streets, constant and unmoving; the circles on the ground put there by the streetlights above them, straight and orderly, guiding drivers home ever so gently. The colors are many and lights are tiny, spread out beneath us for miles and miles. I press my face to the window and gaze at the vastness of humanity and I catch my breath at the beauty of it all. Yes, this is release. This is letting go. I am free and I am soaring through the night sky and I have zero control. As the city lights begin to fade away, the darkness spreads over the vast, growing, black ocean of an earth beneath us. The mountains before us are swallowed up in the impending darkness.
All is now black.
But I have hope in the midst of the darkness.
I am on my way home.
Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
I wake up way too early for how late I am going to be up tonight, on this Holy Saturday. Wide awake at 5:30, I lay there, trying to will myself back to sleep for about an hour. I squeeze my eyes shut tight. I try to find comfort on my left side, my back side, my right side. At 6:30, I decide it’s no use and I quietly gather my sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes in the dark of our room and I sneak out the door. I walk straight out the front door, where the fog is so thick I can’t see to the end of our driveway. It hangs from the leaves of the eucalyptus trees and runs in steady streams to the ground so that it sounds like it’s raining, even though it isn’t. I walk down the driveway and pause for a moment as two deer have also paused and stand there, staring at me. Their ears are straight up, their muscles are tensed, they are on high alert. Then slowly, slowly, they turn and gracefully walk into the woods. I wonder if they might have been figments of my imagination as they have now disappeared from sight completely and it’s as though they never really existed.
Our dirt driveway is damp with the fog and it smells of eucalyptus and earth and moss. The succulents growing wild on either side have started to sprout large, pointy flowers in the middle of themselves. Even the weeds are beautiful this time of year as the spring rains have turned them a brilliant green color and some of them even have tiny yellow and purple flowers at the ends of their impressive heights.
I turn onto the main road and I walk, noticing the sounds of lizards and snakes and God knows what else skittering through the undergrowth on the side of the road, the spider webs perfectly formed overnight that reach from branch to branch, the baby rabbit that ventures out into the road, waits for a moment and then hops right back to where he came from, his white, fluffy, perfect ball of a tail bouncing right along with him.
Last night, the full moon rose through this very fog as we sat around the bonfire, doing our Good Friday meditations. At the end of the service, the bell clanged 33 times, one for each year of Jesus’ life, and we left in silence and drove home through the fog.
This morning I walk through this mysterious wonderland, full of sights and sounds and smells. I notice my body reacting to the cold, damp air as my hands grow numb and I tuck them inside the sleeves of my sweatshirt. I breathe in the pollen of the new life that’s blooming all around and I feel a constant sneeze developing somewhere in that middle place between my nose and throat. I reflect on how that very Jesus, very God, was the creator of all of it. Of these trees that drip, these animals that run and slither, these grasses and flowers that bloom, of even my very being and the little hairs inside my nose that filter some but not all of even the microscopic particles in the air. And he walked among it himself in his body those 33 years.
Today I will fast as I wait for tonight. I will prepare food that will fill my senses during this last stage of my Lenten fast. I will take the freshly prepared food to the feast that will happen at midnight at the end of our Easter Vigil service. As I go about my day and as I run whatever errands need to be run, I will be thankful for whatever these flowers are that bloom wild on the side of our road. I will decide that they are my very own Easter lilies, placed here just for me, to remind me that he makes all things new.
Even now as I write, the sun is beginning to break through the fog. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
Death will not have victory over Life.
Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.
I arrive at church, we start the service outside and hear the story of Christ the king, riding into Jerusalem, victorious;
We wave palms and sing as we process into the church.
Once inside, my grandson reaches his hands up to me,
Arms outstretched, total surrender, face gazing upwards.
I hold him.
He lays his head on my shoulder and begins to relax,
I sway to the rhythm of the liturgy,
I sway to the reading of the passion of the Christ;
It’s a long and solemn reading today.
Ezra is easily lulled to sleep by both the swaying and the reading.
At long last, the retelling of the story is finished,
“By the words of the gospel, may our sins be blotted out,”
And the ornate blue and gold book from which the gospel was read, the fragrant incense wafting heavenward, the priest, the deacon, the acolyte and the cross… they all process back to the altar and we are seated.
I sit and Ezra wraps both legs and arms around me, and turns his head slightly upward,
One cheek pressed to my chest, mouth open, breathing evenly, deep in slumber;
I gaze at his sleeping face as the homily and then the liturgy continue.
We spend the next hour this way.
An endless hour participating in a heavenly dance while gazing on my sleeping grandson, as he snuggles against me;
I contemplate his face with a long and loving look,
I breathe in the scent of him as I give soft kisses to the top of his head,
When my daughter looks at me and at him and we exchange knowing smiles, I mouth to her “I love him so much.”
He sleeps on, even when the liturgy has finished, and we go forward to receive the Holy Eucharist;
I kneel there with his sweet, baby breath in my ear, softly snoring on my shoulder,
I eat and I drink and I turn him sideways so that even sleeping, he can receive a blessing along with the sign of the cross on his little forehead.
I remain kneeling while the priest who is also my husband, asks my daughter kneeling beside me, who is also Ezra’s mother, if he can also bless the unborn child in her womb.
He places his hand on her growing belly and says “the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, be with you and remain with always” and he proceeds to make the sign of the cross, and I watch his eyes grow big as he whispers to our daughter “Did the baby just kick?”
Her eyes grow even bigger because she has not yet felt this baby move and she says “I think it did!”
She looks at me, smiling, as he walks on down the line and she whispers in amazement, “It’s still moving!”
We stand and walk back to our seats where I settle in again and Ezra nestles deeper, eyes still closed, breathing still rhythmic;
I take it all in, still tasting, still swallowing, still digesting.
Amazed that I am here, that I am loved, that I am loving.
Thankful for this hour
… and for the hours yet to come.
We arrived at the campground in Malibu right at 2pm last Friday for Callie’s birthday camping trip. We set up our tents, we set up our food, Ezra crawled around like a wind-up toy in the dirt, and then we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. When we found ourselves under the pink clouds, we kissed all the people that we loved. And then we walked back and prepared food in the dark and made s’mores around a campfire and slept under the meteor shower. We woke up to stunning sunlight filtering through the trees and cooked ourselves breakfast while we kissed babies dressed up as ferocious bears and laughed at so much silliness and warmed ourselves by the fire. Then we walked back to beach and carried strollers across the sand and some of us surfed while the sunlight turned the ocean into millions of sparkling diamonds. Some of us had funny faces before we wiped out. Some of us crawled on the sand and pushed our little cousins in the strollers. And some of us took it all in with thankful hearts before checking out at noon and driving the three hours back home.
Grace and I started yoga together. I think it might be saving my life.
In our class last night, I looked over at my daughter in the yoga studio. She used to be the age of my littlest grandson, Jude. She used to look at me with searching eyes and misery on her face like he does now, unable to speak, and begging me to comfort her. And now she’s suffering through down dog with me and neither of us can speak. We just try to breathe into the discomfort and find comfort and balance as we stretch and grow. And when it’s all over and we are in our final resting pose, we lay there and the smell of patchouli and peppermint comes closer and gently touches our face, our shoulders, our ears. We can go on.
The clock minute hand on our living room clock fell in the something-30 position permanently. We watched it fall from the number 12 the other night. It swung gently back and forth for a bit until it landed in its final resting pose at the 6. The hour works but the minute is permanently something-30 now. Maybe I should touch its face with peppermint and patchouli.
I gave up gluten, which is something I have stubbornly resisted for the last 8 years or so. And most dairy, carbs and sugar. My migraines have all but disappeared and I’m getting my mind back, slowly. Yoga ain’t hurting either, let me tell you. It seems that the head and the mind and the body and the breath might all be connected.
I finally grew my bangs out. I’ve tried to do this my whole life. Now that I’ve finally accomplished this long-standing goal, I can’t tell you how much I want bangs again. It totally wasn’t worth it.
Did you know that kids these days order stuff online on their phones and then take screen shots of the confirmation once the order is placed?. Nothing to print. Nothing to email. Geniuses, these millenials.
Speaking of millenials, what is the deal with sharing photos and videos on apps that disappear after you watch it once? Seriously, I don’t get it. All my journalistic, loyalistic, historianistic, nostalgistic personality traits kick into overdrive and then can’t handle the shock of the utter sadness once they realize that things not only don’t last forever anymore… they don’t even last for seconds. It kills something deep inside of me and I feel like I can’t go on.
Skinny jeans also kill something deep inside of me. When, oh when, will jeans that look good on me (and other people, ahem) come back into style? Soon, please oh please.
Last night, driving home from yoga, we rounded a corner and there was that harvest moon, as big and as round and as yellow as I’ve ever seen it, rising over the hills that border us to the east. Early this morning it set over the Pacific Ocean and I would have liked to have seen that, but the sun in all its glory had overpowered it by then, ushering in this new day of work and stress and gluten-free meals. But last night… last night belonged to the moon and the stars and the music in the car. Last night belonged to those of us who got to experience its magic and to the One who created all of it and who breathes life into all of it and who brings balance to the chaos. We can go on.
My grandson, Jude, was born three weeks ago. Three days ago, he was baptized. On the day after the baptism, there was a total eclipse of the sun.
All of these things take up three sentences on a page. All of these things take up more space than I have room for in my heart and more meaning than I have words for, though I sit here trying to come up with words the best I know how.
The day after the baptism, on the Monday where much of the country experienced a total eclipse, we spent the day visiting with family who had come to town. My parents were here, along with Chris’ parents and I took the day off work to rest and spend time with them. After the clouds had lifted that had completely blocked from view any partial eclipse that we may have experienced here on the central coast of California that morning, we decided to head to our favorite beach. We ate lunch outside at one of our favorite restaurants, while basking in the sun and the ocean breeze, and watched the waves crash over the sand and avoided the swooping birds trying to steal any scraps that may have fallen from our plates. After a walk on the beach and some ice cream, it was time to head back. We were in two cars, and half of us wanted to go see Callie’s house, while the other half who had already seen Callie’s house and were exhausted decided to head straight home. It just so happened that we who were exhausted and heading home in one car together were me, my mom, Sadie and Jude.
I drove, my mom sat beside me in the passenger seat, Sadie in the back seat, with Jude in the car seat next to her. And there we were, Great Grandma, Grandma, Mother and Child, all in one car together, when my random music shuffle began to play “Mary” by Patty Griffin. We drove home without speaking, along the highway overlooking the Pacific ocean, with the brilliant sun sparkling off the water and we let the music overtake us.
Mary, she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Every time the snow drifts, every time the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts, she’s always there
Mary, the Mother of God; she experienced this thing with us. She experienced grief and love and joy and sorrow. As I get deeper into this mother journey that I am on, I am ever more drawn to Mary. She carried God in her womb. She bore him. She loved and nurtured him. She lost him. She grieved him. She points the way to him even now. She is the ultimate mother; she is blessed among women, of which I am one.
As we sat there, the mother of the mother of the mother of the baby, each of us lost in our own world, I was struck by how universal the grief of motherhood is. We deliver our children into this world through unimaginable pain. We endure more pain as we survive those first difficult, blurry weeks of new hormones and little sleep and not knowing how to best feed and care for this creature that we somehow love with the fiercest of strengths.
This unimaginable pain somehow produces the greatest joy imaginable. Some of us are even blessed enough to make it here, to this stage of motherhood, where we support our daughters through this same cycle as they become mothers themselves. Some of us are even blessed enough to still have our own mothers with us at the same time. That’s a lot of mothering through the years, right there, all coming together in one little green car, driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.
I looked in the rear view mirror, as the song talked about Mary being covered in birds, who can sing a million songs without any words, and I saw my daughter, gazing at her son asleep in his car seat. The same daughter who has filled our lives with song from a very early age. I thought about Mary, how she carried within her the very God who created those birds who sing those million songs who inspire all mothers everywhere to sing to their little ones as they gaze at them in love.
I thought about the baptism the day before, and the mysteries that took place as the parents and godparents made vows on behalf of this little protesting man-child. I thought about how my husband and dad, Grandpa and Great Grandpa, baptized my grandson, where grace was poured down in the form of water and little Julian Van Brigham was marked with the sign and seal of the cross. I thought about his receiving of his first taste of the holy eucharist wherein he and all of us present filled ourselves, our very bodies, with God himself, just like Mary was filled so many years ago.
These mysteries are too great to process. This pain and this joy together sometimes feels too great to process. This journey of being a mother is too great to process. One thing I know: this little guy is loved more deeply than he could ever possibly fathom.
I’m glad that we only have to take it one day at a time.
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
(Annie Dillard from ‘Total Eclipse’)
When I started this blog over (gulp) eleven years ago, I was preparing to go to Eastern Europe, for my first-ever trip over the ocean. We were thinking of moving there permanently as missionaries and I was scared to death. Just agreeing to get my passport and go on that two-week trip was one of the most terrifying things I had ever worked myself up to do. Trips like those are always life-changing and that one was no exception. Looking back at the much younger mother of three that I was then, I almost don’t recognize myself, but I know that I was one person before I went on that trip and somebody else when I came home. We didn’t end up moving there. We ended up staying in Texas and not being missionaries at all anymore. As both my husband and I continued becoming more and more of two different somebody elses, we found ourselves on a long and painful journey through a very dry land. We didn’t know when and if we would ever drink again. Although I didn’t intend it to be when I started it, much of this blog is about that journey.
And life went on. The kids grew older, got married, had babies. I grew older, moved on, got a very busy job, and lost much of the time that I once had for reflection. We didn’t end up staying in Texas. We ended up coming out west and allowing ourselves to be planted right near the world’s biggest body of water, where we are drinking deeply of God’s goodness, both in body and soul. In the midst of these years, there has been so much joy. In the midst of these years, there has been so much heartache. In the midst of these years, there has been love. Always love. So much love.
Last week, I returned from my third-ever trip across the ocean. We finally went to visit our dear friends, the Beans, who moved to England ten years ago. In those ten years, they became somebody else, we became somebody else, all of our kids became many little somebody elses. But what was amazing about this trip was that in spite of all the changes, love remains. Ties that bind loved ones together are strong; strong enough to withstand the storms of many years and many miles. Deep enough to fill even the most parched lands. Restful enough to leave room for reflection while in the company of one another.
We went to England, the four of us in our ever-changing little, hodge podge family: Chris, Grace, Crystal Mistal and me. While in England, we drove 5 million miles in a rental van with nine of us while singing and laughing and talking and sleeping, we walked 5 million miles over lands where our ancestors walked, we cried at the overwhelming beauty of buildings and the remembrance of those who built them and worshiped in them, we had many deep conversations and many great, big laughs, we renewed our spirits and let our eyes be opened and our minds be at peace. Like usual, I took far too many pictures to post, but here we are on a hill overlooking a beautiful country that will now forever have a piece of my heart. (If you click here: England Pictures, you can see all 437 pictures from our trip, if you are someone who cares…. I think I have at least a few readers who care but I won’t subject the rest of you to it!)
Speaking of pieces of my heart, right here are two of them. Seems like my heart keeps breaking into more and more pieces at this stage of life. Sometimes I don’t know how it goes on beating. This girl in this picture, who was once our baby, is about to start her senior year of high school and I don’t know what happens after that. This man in this picture, who was once my high school sweetheart, now has wrinkles by his eyes and gray in his hair and says “well, well, well” just like an old man, every time he sees his grandson.
Maybe looking back, I don’t recognize who I was, and looking now, I don’t recognize who I am… but looking forward, I know there’s hope. My heart goes on beating, in spite of the breaking, the world goes on spinning, in spite of the changes; more babies will come, more loved ones will die, and we will swim on in these deep, deep waters of our baptism while loving one another and drinking it all in.