How I Know He’s Mine; or “Why I Didn’t Eat the Baby”

G turned four and suddenly the edges of his cheekbones stood out prominently. His baby cheeks seemed to melt away overnight. The strong lines of his face speak strikingly to his Mama’s. The dimples dance on each of their faces in the same spot.

The confident edges of their faces come from my love’s mom’s side of the family. Their noses come from her dad’s side. I see her family played out across his charming smile.

I would be jealous, a bit, maybe, except they both turn my heart to a puddle. I would almost be sad that I don’t see my mom’s smile on his face, my dad’s blond highlights in his curls.

A co-worker once told me: “Humans evolved so that babies looked more like their father when they are first born. That way the father knows that the baby is his and he doesn’t eat the baby.” I blinked. “I didn’t eat G,” I replied, “and he doesn’t look like me at all!”

He has never looked like me, but from early on I have known that he is my child. At eight months he rode in the front carrier, his tiny self leaning in against my heartbeat. All spring we took daily walks, each day stopping under the branches of the crab apple trees. We watched the buds begin to form, to grow, to burst forth in their delicate flowers. Each day he kicked his legs as we got near the trees, then stared up at them grinning with eyes aglow.

He watched me dance when he was just learning to take tentative steps. He reached his arms up to be held and spun in the dance.

At two he would take things out of one bag and redistribute them into another. Over and over he sorted the world around him. He seemed to seek an order to the potential chaos.

Now at four he just cracks me up. “Baba,” he insisted out of the blue one day, “we have to put the shoes in order.” For fifteen minutes he hung out in the hallway by himself, sorting our plethora of shoes into piles: his, Mama’s, mine. Then from there into pairs, and from pairs into sequence. My heart leaped with joy. When my love came home that night, she implored: “This is craziness. We are never going to keep these in order. We have too many things to bring in and set down when we come in to make sure our shoes go in order.”

G wouldn’t hear of it, though. Like a champ he enforced his “every shoe has its home” policy. “Mama, yours go here. Baba, remember your shoes.” He kept it up for about a week, until his attention was distracted by the next shiny thing.

He is, surely, my child.

My love is outnumbered by us every time she turns around. If she does the laundry, I anxiously buzz around it until she says “unless you want to fold it,” knowing that I do. I desperately do. Because the towels have to be folded and set in the linen closet so the folds show on the outer edge and the top seam faces the wall. My love could not care less. She legitimately has more important things on her mind.

“Mama, come see!” G called after an extended period of silence in his room last Saturday. She returned with laughter shining in her eyes and showed me the towel he had folded, perfectly, on his own.

(My love read this, laughing, and said: “I wish I could convey enough how similar you two are. I say ‘two peas in a pod,’ but that doesn’t even get at it. You have this way of carefully folding something. Anything else you might be doing or anything else happening in the world around you be damned. This thing, you think, this folded towel is perfect.”)


Courage and Clarity

G turned four on Tuesday. I still sit on the edge of his bed some nights, watching him breathe. These past summer weeks have hung hot with humidity. My brain has been foggy with the weight of it. I find fear and worry sliding back in around my thoughts.

I watch G in his idiosyncrasies. I see the elegant ways he carries himself. His gracefulness and his craving to be beautiful will cause him problems in life. I do not doubt it. Fear slides in around my breath.

Tonight the thunderstorms have finally passed through. The air is not so heavy as I keep watch beside him. This is the child, I think, who says: “can we go vote again?” This is the child who says: “Baba, we have to say a pray for the dead squirrel.” And the prayer he says? “May all people be kind and love one another.”

In the stillness of night it dawns on me: if there was ever a little boy who could yearn so badly to be beautiful and carry it off, it would be this one. His brave soul is clear-sighted. What he knows he knows without doubt.

There will be people who tell him boys can’t be beautiful, that he is not good enough, that he’s a disgrace. I’m not going to imagine them and hate them tonight. I’m not going to fear that their short-sightedness will lead G to shame and self-destruction as he grows.

I’m going to remember G’s prayer: there are people who are kind and love one another.

This is the child who sat in a highchair in the diner at 18 months old, wooing the waitresses, I think, The child who made eyes at the motorcycle dude in leathers, waiting for dinner in that same diner, until the dude came over to our table and read books to G. What child woos the motorcycle dude at the diner?

I’m going to remember how I learned to pray: when you worry, don’t ask for the thing you worry about to go away. Ask for the strength to face it.

If I fear that he will be isolated, I have to teach him courage to build real relationships. I have to teach him to trust his values, his heart, even when people say things he doesn’t like. I have to teach him to speak his truth in a way that turns others’ hearts towards him.

When I introduce myself to the other parents on the playground, I pray that I have the courage to say “he loves beautiful things” with composure when they gawk at his bedazzled flip flops and flowing skirt. I pray for the confidence to carry myself with other adults as though it ain’t no thing to see his handsome face ringed by shoulder-length curls. If I am confident, they can relax and feel like they don’t have to make a thing of it, either.

I pray, too, to hold both calm and certainty in my voice when other adults want to, or need to, make a thing of it. I will listen. I will ask them questions about how they think. I will gently work to expand their ideas of gender. The fierceness will beat in my heart; the calm certainty will sound in my voice.

I will build the relationships with the adults so that they let their kids build relationships with G.

If I want him to build real relationships, I have to devote my time and effort to building real relationships for us. It’s okay if the laundry’s not quite done; we are going to go hiking with our friends. It’s okay if the floors aren’t quite scrubbed; my mom is coming to
visit. If I fear that his style and mannerisms will isolate him from the generic crowd, I will build him a devoted inner circle.

For there will be friends who will want to stand beside him as he prays that “all people be kind and love one another.”

Tonight, as I watch his curls splayed out across the pillow, I pray for faith that others love beautiful things, too. For if they love beautiful things, they will love G.

Forgiveness in the Garden

“I hope I didn’t offend you,” he replied after a pause.

He held his watering can steady amidst the sunflowers and day lilies he cherishes.

“Oh no,” I said, watering my peas in my plot next to his, “you didn’t. I’m used to people assuming I’m straight. I know I look straight.”

Dusk pulled at the edges of the sky.

“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as looking straight,” he murmured. His eyes were on the plants, the density of their leaves, the blooms that needed dead-heading, the length they’d grown in the few hours since he’d last tended them.

I don’t know if he knows my name. He watered my plants tenderly while I was away last week. Amidst the heat, he filled watering cans with tepid water to “make sure the plants’ feet don’t get too cold.” He doused them with Miracle-Gro and regaled me with tales of how the lettuce shot up, the beans got their blossoms, in the week that I was gone.

He seems to be here amidst the plants always. G and I come running out at all hours, to weed or water or show off our plants to visitors. “We planted the arugula from seed!” G will exclaim to anyone who’ll listen. “But the beans are the BIGGEST plants that we started as seeds! The zinnias have THREE blossoms now! Look how big the cabbage are!” He’ll show you how to weed, if you let him.

G loves this neighbor-man in the garden. He follows around him, shouting his name, pointing out plants and asking what they are. The neighbor-man obliges.

Usually the neighbor-man is business-like in his knowledge. He wants all of the plants in our massive community garden to thrive. He doesn’t much care if the gardeners are happy or not. It’s the plants he watches.

Tonight the light was ebbing out of the garden. G had gone running across the grass, searching for bits of a broken pinwheel. The neighbor-man asked me how long I’d been together with my wife. I said we’d been together six and a half years, married for almost five. He told me that was a long time.

I listened to the water drops settling in around the cosmos.

“Sometimes it feels like a long time,” I said, “like we’ve been together forever. Sometimes it still feels like something new, like something fresh.”

He said he’d been married 29 years, it will be 30 in August.

“That’s so long,” I said, “Do you ever get tired of each other?” I wondered if he would take the question, or if he’d go back to lecturing me about the temperature of water I should be using on the plants’ sensitive feet.

“No,” he said, “never. You’ve got to enjoy talking with each other. You’ve got to marry someone who has different strengths than you do. Everyone has their shortcomings, but together it works out.”

He reached for the next watering can. “I forgive her for her shortcomings. I give forgiveness because I want it in return.”

Because I want it in return.

I want forgiveness. I rarely let myself say that. Instead, I focus on hating myself harder for my shortcomings than other people are likely to hate me. If I’m more disappointed in me than they are, their disappoint won’t hurt quite so much.

I want it in return.

I have sidled into churches in strange lands throughout my wandering life. In the quiet of a deserted sanctuary I let tears spill forth as I ask again and again for forgiveness. I never ask it from the real people in my life. I’d be too scared. I wouldn’t know the words to use. I tiptoe up the aisle, slide into a pew beside timber beams, let my eyes raise to the cross at the front of the sanctuary. I can feel the guilt slide down off of me. It sits quietly next to me, letting me breathe for a moment in hope.

In rare moments of clarity I can be present in a church and remember that I am not alone. Generation after generation before me turns to God asking him to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We imagine he is merciful. We imagine we can each be merciful.

I want it.

Light ebbed from the garden. The watering cans were empty. The neighbor-man began walking back to his house to refill his. “G!” I called, “It’s time to head in.” He ran to my arms, and I lifted him up to my hip, carrying him close to my heart. “He told me something important,” I told G.

“What did he say?” G asked.

“He said that we need to forgive others when they aren’t perfect. And that we need to forgive ourselves.”

I watched his forehead wrinkle. “Why is that something important?” G asked.

I looked at the dirt beneath his fingernails from weeding in the peas. I listened to his breath, steady now, that gets so excited when he learns the names of the plants from the neighbor-man. I felt his long legs kicking down around my knees, full of strength and confidence in tending his rows. Will he walk with the clarity of the neighbor-man someday?

“Because it is,” I said.

The Prayers We Say

G stood by the stream bed. His racous run across the yard had been halted by his memory that a lone, soft squirrel lay dead at edge of the stream.

We had found the lifeless body this morning, while scoping plots for perennials. We had discussed that it’s whole body was still there, fur and tail and legs and paws, but it’s life was not. We talked about how other animals will come and eat it, recycling it’s body back into the world.

“Will it hurt him when they eat him?” G asked, “will he feel pain?”

“No honey,” I said, “His thinking and his feeling are gone. He can’t feel anything anymore. That part of him has already been recycled. The life part of him is already becoming new life.”

He stared at the squirrel a long while before taking my hand and digging holes for the new flowers.

Hours later, he stopped his play to again watch the squirrel.

“Baba,” he called, “Come say a pray for the squirrel.”

“A what?” I asked from across the yard.

“A pray. We need to say a pray for the squirrel.”

A prayer.

This three year old child, who’s gone to church just a handful of times, wanted a prayer for the tiny dead being.

I knelt by it. “Would you like to say it honey?”
“No, you,” he said.

“Dear God, may this squirrel have had a happy, healthy life of running, jumping and leaping. May the living part of itself be happy and surrounded by love now. May its life be recycled into new living creatures.”

G looked at me. Relieved but not fulfilled.

“We need another pray,” he said. He thought. “I’m going to say one. It’s not a funny one.”

His brow furrowed as he gazed at the small creature. He found his words with care.

“May we all be kind and love another,” he said earnestly.

Thank you, G, for the prayer.

How to Teach Children About Social Justice

Our church struggled today to “teach children about social justice.” Let’s try again.

First, teach them about God. Walk with them in the woods, holding their hands against the bark of living trees. Scoop the worm up with a gentle palm, feeling her living muscles pulse as she moves. Watch for the chipmunk, bright and quick. Their energy is your energy; it is all the living pulse of God. Let awe be born in the childrens’ hearts.

Keep teaching them about God. Hold the child close when he comes to you for a hug. Sing raucously with her when she’s joyous; sit by her side through the night when she’s sick. Wrap your home in the love of the generations that came before you. Teach them love until they readily and honestly say “I love you!”.

Teach them about the grace of God. Wash them with forgiveness in addition to laundry soap when they spill their dinner one too many times. Tell them when you’ve made a mistake yourself, own it quickly, and genuinely seek a way to make it better. Let their hearts fill with courage.

Teach them gratitude for God’s abundance. There is enough for everyone, you say, as you pass out grapes to your child and her friends. I love you both, you say, as you wrap one arm around your spouse and the other around your jealous toddler. Help them trust there is enough.

Without love, there is no reason to care if some are oppressed and others are not.

Without grace, the white guilt and self-doubt will strangle us and stunt our efforts.

Without gratitude for abundance, we will be too afraid to share equitably with others.

Without awe, we forget that our souls are boundless, our connection irrevocable.

Teach them awe, love, grace, and gratitude, and their hearts will be courageous, their thoughts will be clear. When they see other human beings in the world around them, they will know them as kindred spirits. From that place of connection, they will not be able to tolerate injustice.



Ways to Know You’re Loved

I scoop the socks out of the chaos of shoes by the door and drop them in the hamper on my way to brush your teeth.

You should know, child of mine, you are loved.

It’s in the scoop, the drop, the constant patter of chores happening in the backgrounds of Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons and evenings after bedtime.

I learned this from your Nana.

Watch the perfect folds I make in the towels, the careful, tidy stacking of them into the linen closet. Can’t you see the devotion?

She told me just to do some each day. A steady stream of chores keeps the household running. She never stopped taking care of the details. She wrangled the potential chaos of three growing children down into a gentle thrum.

There are only three of us here in our household, but we take up a lot of space and energy. You need stories told to you, our hands wrist deep into 3-D puzzles, a cacophony of art supplies at the ready. I gently sweep up the floor around you.

Nana has aprons for cooking and waterproof gloves for cleaning. She has a whole tiny house full of garden shears and shovels, saw horses and saws.

I bought my first tube of caulk this weekend. I turned the fans on, scraped off the mildew. Around the edges of the tub I went, wondering if I had it right at all.

Throwing you up into the air, a jumble of hilarity as you land on the pillows, I catch a glimpse of organized chaos around us. Nana gave me a legacy to carry on, dear child.

Know that the sweeping means you are loved.

A Letter to the Angels

Dear Angels,

You know I never thought I would get here: the eve of turning 36. I was sure my life would burn out sooner than this. It was a reasonable idea, really, back as a little kid living with a big disease that will never, ever, go away. I thought living to 35 would be impressive, unlikely. Thirty-six was too much to hope for.

But you didn’t. You persistent bastards. You kept showing up. You lifted my face up, towards the sun, towards tree limbs silhouetted against dusk, towards winds that swept me this way and that way across the country. I still look up, you know.

You ran rampant among my family members. You kept lifting up my mom’s feet to come check on me in the night. You kept enough hope in her heart to teach me to trust my body and not fear it. You snuggled down with my brothers and I to watch Bob Ross teach us to make trees out of darkness. You threw us off the docks and into the lakes together, a chaos of splashing and diving for Koosh balls, strong bodies swimming free.

You sidled up to my best friend, S, and her mom through my childhood. You whispered to them that I was strong and could do it, too, as S and I ran obstacle courses we made up on the playground. You stood mediator between us, as we spatted about who got to use which toy as we built elaborate homes for stuffed animals, our early contentions teaching us to listen more closely, offer of ourselves more easily.

You angels wrapped wings around me as I sang with second grade classmates: “To everything, turn, turn, turn! There is a season, turn! turn! turn!” The toughest boy in our class teared up, singing. His grandma had just died, and he felt lost without her. I remember that, angels, that you held this class together, around him. We saw suffering, and knew it. You held our hands to the fire of suffering, letting us see it, bear witness, learn to hold still and be present.

You angels didn’t give up when I got awkward and angry as a teenager. You waltzed yourself into a science classroom and made me laugh with a near-stranger so hard that our teacher sent us from the room to recover our composure. We felt the breathlessness of connection–in those laughing fits my edges faded away, her edges faded away, and there was nothing but the exuberance and joy of human soul.

You angels sent me outdoors, too. Eyes up, Katja, you’d say: the energy of a beating world is all around you. This grace of existence means nothing without a context. I pressed my ears against tree trunks, listening to the creaking and rustling sounds, like sap pulsing in the spring. My body felt small against the trunks as my breath felt rampant and wild and whole.

Angels, you sent me away from home, too. You put me in the care of a man who believed that high school kids could do something of value. He put us to work in cities like Detroit, teaching us to build houses and ramps and repaint cellar floors. When we scoffed at the people we were serving, he slowed us down to near stillness. He focused our eyes so that we would see their humanity. Angels, you gave me the courage to use my broken Spanish to talk to a refugee for the first time, as we danced on the repainted cellar floor. His daughter and wife, his hija y esposa, he had had to leave behind. He is safe here, but they are not. Angels, you gave me courage to enter these moments. You set my spirit ablaze and broke my heart on his words.

You are relentless, angels. There weren’t years of rest, to catch my breath and say “well that was intense, now I shall stop caring a moment and move on.” You beat me over the head with human experience. You carved deeper into me a need to hear others’ stories. You kept at it like reckless teenage drivers some years, faster and faster until I wanted to holler “STOP!”

Instead you taught me unconditional. When I was thirty, five years ago, a loved one died. I steeled myself to be shunned by others. I expected to be outcast by those I love. You tiptoed in and held their hands, bringing family members and friends gently to my side. You showed them how much to offer, so I could stand to accept their love. In their love, I found rest.

You blew my mind, too, angels. You made me impulsive enough to run back upstairs to my love’s apartment one night and declare “We can’t hang out on Friday night! I have all of these feelings for you and can’t be your friend anymore!” Maybe not the most graceful pick-up line ever, angels, but you had given me enough brazen belief in honesty to say the foolish words aloud. We were married a year and a half later.

And then the baby, who’s now a boy. He’s like one of you, embodied.

Thank you for your relentless pursuit of keeping me alive. I am so grateful for being here tonight. Thank you for the reckless belief in honesty, angels. Thank you for all those times you stripped away the trappings of human bodies and let me just be, fully present, in a conversation with another person. You taught me grace. You taught me to let go of the ego and see our humanity fully, utterly, connected.

It’s 10:07 pm now. There are two hours yet until I reach 36. You’ve given me a life’s worth of blessings already. Keep with me through these next two hours. I promise to never let go of the quest for grace.