Tootsie Rolls and the Big Question

The other day, I told my four year old he couldn’t have a tootsie pop and so he asked me the big question in life.

The barber had just offered him the lollipop for sitting still during his hair cut. With big eyes, he turned to ask me if he could have it.

“No, honey, I’m sorry.” I replied as gently as I could. “It has dairy in it.”

Not gently enough to ward off the following monsoon of tears. He cuddled on my lap, his body racked with sobs. Meanwhile, his brother got his curls clipped, announcing occasionally, “I can have dairy.”

So he asked me the big question. The one we all wonder about.

“Why did God want me to have allergies?”

Okay, so maybe that’s not the big one. But at the heart of it lies the thing we all wonder about. The thing that keeps us up at night. The thing that we wonder when we watch the nightly news.

“Why does God allow suffering?”

It’s a pretty basic question. It’s haunted us since we first conceptualized of not just a God, but a good God. If there is an all-powerful being – and one that supposedly has the best interests of humanity at heart – why do terrible things happen? Why are fear, disappointment, and pain part of our daily existence?

I don’t know.

I don’t fucking know.

If we extrapolate from this logic, we can easily conclude that if there is suffering, then there all-powerful being must either be a) dispassionate to the suffering of the world, or b) a fictious construction. Unfortunately, this conclusion also does little to answer the question of why we suffer. We could figure that if the world is governed by randomness, and then make the assumption that randomness has an inherently destructive bent. We don’t have to wonder why if the answer is, “That’s just the way things are.” 

But we still don’t know why.

I do know that my faith doesn’t run from the issue of suffering, even if it does little to answer it. We are invited into life’s deepest mystery. We aren’t asked to push it away, but to own it, to feel it, to live it. And to fix it where we can. I take comfort in this invitation, but no answers.

I didn’t know what to say when my son asked me why God wanted him to have allergies. I told him I didn’t think God did want him to have allergies. I told him I think sometimes nature makes mistakes, and God hates that and feels sorry for us. 

It didn’t help. He still wanted to know why. Fair question.

I told him that sometimes yes, bad things happen, but they can help make us better people. I told him about my own allergies and intolerances, and how I was pretty mad when God gave me those. But maybe he gave me them because he knew one day I would have a little boy with his own allergies, and that my struggles would make me a better mom.

It’s such a B.S. answer. He doesn’t want to be a marginally better father one day 30 years from now. He just wants a tootsie pop.

All our Sunday School answers for why bad things happen to good people are pretty weak. “Trials and tribulations make you a better person!” “Suffering makes you appreciate the good things in life more!”

Are we really going to stand on the shores of Caribbean islands and tell people that they are now better people because a hurricane just flattened their homes?

I mean sure, when it finally rains here in Montana after months of fires and weeks of smoke choking our valleys, I will probably be more appreciative the gray skies than I would have otherwise. And having a healthy pregnancy after a miscarriage will give me an added sense of gratitude when I finally hold my baby in my arms. But let’s not pretend those are equal trade offs.

“Without suffering, there would be no hope,” we opine to hurting people who now want to kick us in the teeth. 

In fact, I think the opposite is true. Without hope, I think there would be no suffering.

Without hope, we would just have to accept the random, awful churn of the universe. We would be unaware that there could have been a better life. We would be ignorant to the fact that our loved one should have lived, our bodies should be without pain, our loneliness should be replaced with belonging.  We wouldn’t know that life should be better.

But we do. And that hunger eats away at us. 

Because hope exists. Hope reminds us continually that this is not the way the world is meant to be. It nags at the back of our mind when we hear about famine and violence, “This is not the way things are supposed to happen.” It irks us when we watch winds, fire, and water blow through communities, “This is wrong.” Hope irritates us as much as it comforts us. We suffer because we know pain and poverty are not facts, but failures, of our world.

Logical or not, I believe in that hope behind the suffering. Hope is the knowledge, the belief, in a better life and it is as real as our pain. It is as good as it is painful. But I know that hope exists.

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Good nights


I fell in love with my husband while desperately trying to avoid him.

We lived together in a house with six other recent college grads, sharing one shower between the eight of us. By day we worked around the city, in shelters and in childcares, and by night we broke bread. One by one we trickled off to bed in the evening, and I sat up, waiting for a few moments of peace and quiet in a still house.

I have never fallen asleep easily. As a child, I lay in the darkness, watching headlights brighten my walls and disappear again. I wondered where they were headed and if stars could really shoot out of the sky. I stared at the square green numbers on my alarm clock, until I eventually would unplug it, and me oversleep my alarm. 

In high school, I stared at bright screens, typing gossip and homecoming plans until a parent stuck their head out of the door and asked how I could still be awake. Then I would step outside, to stare at the silhouette of a mountain and the stars stretching above it. I thought about nothing in the silence only utter exhaustion can bring. 

The house my husband and I lived in was rarely quiet unless everyone was asleep. I hated the unease of trying to sleep while others were awake. Their laughter, their footsteps, even their tiptoes, were constant reminders that the world kept on churning while I closed my eyes. I needed the silence to assure me I could rest. And so I waited until everyone has fallen asleep before I would turn in.

But so did one other person.

At first, I talked out of politeness, hoping he would soon fold and head to bed. But I soon began to enjoy our evening conversations. As we talked, the clock turned from reasonable to late, to middle of the night, to the wee small hours of the morning. And eventually, it was love.

We don’t stay up talking much anymore. Our evenings are filled with work and workouts, children coming out of bed with an owie or a nightmare, television and ice cream. I still can’t resist the quiet, however, and often wait until my husband begs me to come to bed before I acquiesce and relinquish the stillness.

But now, I am never the last one in the house awake,

As I lay down, the little one wakes. Knees enter ribs, toes press against sides, and tiny fists tap the confines to say hello. I am never alone anymore.

After the birth of each child, I have found myself waiting up again.  I waited for the dust to settle, the fog to lift, for the days and the nights to get just a bit easier. I waited for peace to renter our lives. I waited for a few moments to just be myself again.

And each time, I found no longer know who I am.

Motherhood doesn’t change you. It recreates you.

For now, I cherish the movements inside my body that keeping me awake night after night. And I long to fall asleep to stillness once again. But I am not sure who I will be the next time I sit up alone in a full house. As each child has grown from a nursing to a toddler, I have grown alongside them. I have become a better person, but a different one all the same. I can wait up as long as I would like, but the stillness of the night is always an illusion. The dark rolls on, pressing to an uncertain sunrise.

You cannot wake the same person you went to bed as. You cannot survive a night unchanged.

There is satisfaction in a sleeping house. It is a job well done, even if it is one that will begin again shortly. I can find some rest in that.

I made that


I learned to knit when I was nineteen, in a sunny shoreside beach house with my aunt. I cast four yellow stitches on to a needle, and began to knit. Three minutes later, I slid them all off, wrapping the yarn back into a ball. I started over, and over again, and over again until eventually I had something resembling a triangle.

It was supposed to be a square.

There were several more lopsided dishcloths over the next few years. They were followed by a scarf made out of expensive wool, twisted into a simple garter knit stitch that did not do the yarn justice. After this came hats that fit no one, and scrapped attempts at baby booties that never made their way to baby showers. 

Eventually, I gained some competency. I still dropped stitches, and watch rows of holes cascade down my work to the sound of me swearing. Rows were knit and subsequently unknit. But now, when I bound off the final stitches, my projects were recognizable. A sweater. A blanket. A pair of mittens. 

We like the idea of homemade items far more than we like things that are actually homemade. Stores sell chunky cardigans and dishcloths with precisely frayed edges. Jars of jam with quaint labels and precision cut gingham wrappers line market shelves. The goods are perfect even in their imperfections, reminding us of the soft comfort of home.

It’s all an illusion.

Homemade sweaters are lumpy, with a left sleeve slightly longer than the right. Homemade jam is slightly too runny, with a scribbled Sharpie note on the lid: “Raspberry jam and/or pancake syrup.” Machines can make everything I make quicker, bigger, and better. They can even manufacture in a bit of homemade charm.

I’m at the beach again this summer. Dangling from my needles is an impossibly small green sweater. When the kids have gone down for naps, I pick it up. Hours and hours of work to make something that costs $19.95 at Target, and will contain several more mistakes.

But it’s not a gift for the baby.

I don’t know how I am going to hold it all together this time around. I knit the first sweater wondering what I was getting myself into, the next worrying if I could love a second child as much as I loved the first. With each stitch, my fingers prayed. Prayers that were drowned out by the hum of a TV in the background and the rhythm of daily life. It was a gift for me. 

You don’t tie knots when you are knitting. The stitches are made by pushing one loop of yarn through the next, resulting in a creation that can be completely unraveled if tugged in just the right way. Even at the very end, knitters don’t tie a knot, but rather weave the tail end of yarn through and back through their work. All that holds it together is trust.

My sweater won’t be perfect. Perhaps from a distance it will appear lovely and warm, but up close I can show you each snag and every poorly recovered dropped stitch. 

I don’t knit to make something beautiful. That would require a level of skill and discipline I do not possess. I knit to remind myself I am imperfect yet capable. Maybe, when wrapped in soft green wool, a baby can sense the amount of work that when into it’s creation. Maybe it would be just as warm in any old sweater.

I don’t know if I will be able to tie it all together this time around. There will be so many mistakes, and the closer you look the more you will find. A family cannot be purchased off a shelf. It must be built, earned, and assembled by hand. There is no shiny store-bought version. Only those who are somewhat better at hiding their mistakes. 

No knots are allowed. No guarantees can be made. Only trust that it will all hold together. 

Earthquake Children


Last night, I lurched out of bed. The ceiling seemed to shake before my eyes. It took a few seconds before I realized what was happening – never having felt one that lasted more than a second or two at most. 

I ran to my youngest child’s room, still bleary eyed and confused. It wasn’t stopping. He snored soundly, grateful for the gentle rocking. Why wasn’t it stopping, I wondered? Was this the big one, the one that destroyed our town one hundred years ago?

The rocking slowed and then stopped. I returned to my bedroom to find my husband standing in the middle of the room, confused. 

“What was that?” he asked. 

“An earthquake,” I answered. 

“No!” he said. 

“Um, what else did you think it was?”

“I mean I’ve just never felt one that big.”

He was right. It registered as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake – enough to rock and roll a house, but not enough to cause significant damage or injuries. The condiment aisle at the local Walmart fared the worst damage: a picture soon circulated of bottles of ketchup and mustard splattered everywhere. 

We were fine. 

I crawled back in bed, ready to forget about what had just happened when the tremors started again. My oldest started whimpering in his sleep, and I ran to his room. I knelt by his bed as the ground beneath me shook. 

Earthquakes, at the risk of undermining my point by using the analogy which they inspired, are unsettling. The foundation which you take for granted, whose stability  you never notice in its certitude, asserts itself with the threat that your very assumptions about the world can be stripped away. I sat by my son’s bed for another minute as the vibrating continued. It wasn’t the strength of the movement, but rather the subtlety, that disturbed me. It was a quiet reminder that nothing was guaranteed. 

We returned to bed again, only to be awoken by aftershocks for the next hour. A wind storm was blowing through the town that night as well, adding to the creepy and slightly apocalyptic feeling of the night. Every time I heard a howl or a roar and felt the house shift, I wondered if it was the start of another – perhaps larger – quake. 

The next morning I surveyed the damage. A few bottles knocked off shelves, a picture frame fallen from the walls. Nothing broken, nothing cracked. We told our kids the story, which they only half believed. 

An hour later I looked through the living room again. Couch cushions were strewn across the living room. My knitting needles were scattered and yarn trailed down the hallway. Breakfast cereal littered the carpet. 

A second earthquake had struck. My children. They managed to wreck more havoc in the amount of time it took me to unload the dishwasher than a 5.8 earthquake could bring. 

Children are like earthquakes. No matter how prepared we believe we are in the face of a life-changing event, they rattle us to the core. They remind us we have no control, and our assumption of stability is a lie we tell ourselves to function day to day in an ever-shifting world. Children change everything we know to be true, rocking our basic assumptions and letting us down stronger but slightly changed. 

The world feels more delicate today. I walk gingerly across the floor of our home waiting to feel the next tremor. They haven’t stopped completely yet. I am humbled by the power the earth can bring, just as I was humbled by the magnitude of a tiny body laid on my chest. 

I suspect my children will jump off the couch several times today, rattling picture frames on the wall. They can break and be broken so easily, and I have less control than I wish to believe over which side of that equation they will land on. 

Although, the child currently climbing out of the first floor window I do have some control over. Must go bring him back inside, and pretend it’s safe. 

Ladders

Treehouse_access_and_roundwalk

I could hear my son crying from across the playground. I ignored it.

It wasn’t a cry of imminent danger or searing pain, rather the wail of someone who wakes up at 5:30 every morning and is over-tired by noon. I wasn’t too concerned. Nevertheless, at a certain point you must go investigate before the well-meaning grandmothers at the park start coming around to say, “Does anyone know whose little boy that is, crying at the top of the World War II tank?”

Yes, this park has a World War II tank as part of the playground. No, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The kids think it’s awesome though.

I walked over to the tank. My son was standing at the top, wailing. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked.

He pointed at the little boy behind him, and then down at the ladder he climbed to get into the tank.

“He calls this an ‘adder! But it’s not an ‘adder! It’s a wadder!” he cried.

I stifled my laughter. “I think he’s trying to say ladder, honey. It’s just a hard word to say. You’re both saying it a little differently.”

This was not a sufficient answer. I eventually conceded that he was right, this was definitely a wadder that he was at the top of.

On the way home, I called my husband to share the anecdote. In the backseat, I heard my son practicing the word. “Wadder! It’s a wadder! A l-l-l-wadder!”

My son turns free, not three, in a few weeks. He is the wittle brother, and he doesn’t like it when it is waining outside. He’s typically firsty after naps and cries for his water bottle. He loves tigers and wions. And I love the way he talks.

“LLLlllladder!” he shouts.

My heart broke a little when I heard him spit out the word correctly. I knew he was proud of himself, and that it was probably my duty as a mother to teach him how pronounce words correctly.

But it’s just so dang cute.

I’m not an overly sentimental mother. I love that every member of my family can walk, and that I only have to put diapers on them before bedtime. The boys are louder and more troublesome than ever before, but they are equally as fun. I don’t miss their babyhood, and I look forward to seeing who they will become.

The problem is, I don’t know those people at all.

Right now, my son is sweet, boisterous, an early riser, and tells me he wuvs me. This is the little boy I love. In ten years, he will be a different child. Perhaps I will call him kind, handsome, a late sleeper, and a talented singer. Or curious, thoughtful, a night owl, and a budding athlete. But he won’t be the little boy I know now.

Every time they slip away from the child they have been into someone new, I have to get to know them again. It seems an impossibility to be so fully in love with a person who then morphs into a new being month after month, year after year and to remain enamored. I am lucky to have known a sleepy newborn, a chubby-kneed crawler, a singing toddler, a budding mischief maker, and a continual charmer.

I love my little boy who says “wadder,” and I know that I will love the one after him who does not. But I’m not in any rush to hurry him onto the next rung. This is a perfectly fine place to pause.

 

Fly fishing


It’s a odd sport if you think about it.

Throw a line into the water. Hit just the right spot, if you can. That one over there – where the rocks make the water ripple and bubbles are forming. It looks like fish would want to spend their morning there, don’t you think? 

Maybe I’m wrong.

Try again. And again, lazily thinking about nothing other than the rhythm of the flick, of ten and two, of Norman MacClean and the exact shape that the water takes while flowing over that rock.

You could think about the rock and the water for the next hour, even though you have no words to describe it.

Swish, flick. Try that spot again, the one that fish probably like.

Be a little surprised when the line actually tugs. 

Take the fish out of the water. Consider the length, the color. 

That’s all. Throw it back.

We all know what lies beneath the rivers that flow around us. Rocks, moss, broken beer bottles, and brook trout. And yet curiosity compels us to look, to dip behind the silver veil trickling down and spy on another life.

I am pregnant with our third child, and the anxiety that is as much a pregnancy symptom as nausea and swollen ankles has begun to creep in.

How will we balance three children, when two seems like more than enough? Will the baby be okay, healthy, happy?  How will this work? How will we manage? The time, the money, the love.

When the first two were born, we didn’t take them fly fishing. We hiked for miles past rivers, but left the rods at home. I know several families who hoisted baby into carrier, and lulled them to sleep with the swish and flick of the ten and two. My husband has a hook firmly lodged into the back of his fishing vest. No amount of tugging and pulling has freed it over the past several years. I forbade him from fishing with children near by.

Now, they are old enough to hold their own poles. They stand along the banks, one with a toy fishing pole, the other with his child sized pole sporting a bobber and real hook. Their fun is not diminished by their lack of fish.

I haven’t laid my hands on a fishing rod since my oldest was born. I miss the silence, the thinking about nothing other than the way the water curves over a rock. But I never truly learned how to fish. My husband tied my lures and untangled my lines and freed my fish for me. I only contributed the swish and flick. He told my I was good at it. 

I think he just wanted to go fishing more.

Now, with a third on the way, I assume it will be years more until I go fishing again. 

But still, the urge is there. To take a peek at what is under the water. To see a different life. 

I suppose it is that same illogical, irrepressible urge that compelled a third child into our lives. A desire to see what another life would be like, a life with one more person to love.

Knee deep in water. Staring at that one rock, and the way the water flows over it. It’s riveting, though you can’t say why.

No words to describe it.

A Mother’s Day


I didn’t accomplish anything today. 

I didn’t do the dishes. You can tell, because the sink is full of dirty plates. 

I didn’t make any muffins to feed little hungry bellies. I know this, because the muffin pan sits empty in that pile of dishes and my kids are still asking me for food. 

I didn’t do any laundry. Just look at the baskets still sitting beside the washer. 

Noses haven’t been wiped. They are just as runny as they were this morning, but now with dirt and Cheerios caked on top. 

We must not have gone outside to run around in the backyard, or had friends over for a play date. Judging by the way they are simultaneously claiming boredom and running around with energy to spare, we have not done anything today. 

I didn’t read stories, log miles in the rocking chair, or tuck toes under blankets. They are awake now, as you can see. 

I didn’t make it to the grocery store. I know this, because each member of my family keeps informing me we have nothing good to eat. 

I haven’t wiped away any tears. They keep falling every time one brother hits the other, or a knee lands on a sharp rock. 

I didn’t explain why the sky is blue, why dinosaurs died, or why it rains some days and not others. At least not to a preschooler’s satisfaction. 

I must have forgotten to pack snacks  for our trip to the park. Why else would the bag be empty now and everyone crying?

I haven’t bought any clothes for the kids either. This is why nothing they own fits. 

I didn’t get any work done today. My draft folder is still full, to-do list long and my inbox teeming with emails unanswered. 

Of course I didn’t manage any yard work today. The only flowers I haven’t  killed are the dandelions proliferating on the front lawn. 

I haven’t swept, or vacuumed, or mopped. That crunching sound under your feet is evidence. 

I haven’t written any articles or stories that resonated with people today. They are all still scrolling, looking for something good to read. And I haven’t made any money, either. That’s why my bank account hovers stubbornly at the same number. 

I must not have cooked dinner. Why else would the table is full of empty plates and little boys are begging me for something – anything else – to eat? Preferably cookies. 

That dirty dish pile, however, somehow expanded.

I’m not sure what I did manage today. I know I did each of these things, but none of them are done. I am living in a fairy tale – one where the clock strikes midnight and anything I have built over the course of the day crumbles back to how it was before. 

This is a mother’s day. The work we do is dismantled each sunrise, taunting us with another chance to beat the clock. A day, a week, a year from now – my list of accomplishments won’t be any longer. 

And yet, at the end of the day, my children sit on my knee and holler, “Again! Again! Again!”

Nothing I do is permanent. Nothing I build will last. 

It is, perhaps, only the attempt that matters.