Me and Lucia and Bella with Sister Karla (and yummy chocolates behind me.)
First, to get it out of the way up front: I’m not pregnant. Not pregnant and not planning on being pregnant any time soon.
But recently I spent about a week certain I was. Let’s just say the charts were confusing and so were the signs. So a week at the beginning of Advent was spent rearranging my mental space, trying to prepare for an unexpected newcomer. (And then being very relieved when it turned out to be a false alarm.)
Benedictine sisters demonstrating pysanky and chatting with the kids.
Not Really a Crisis?
In that time I had a couple of anxiety dreams.
In one of them Dom and I were doing something or other in a lab and some kind of mistake was made and some chemicals were mixed that were probably going to explode. And so he was protectively rushing me out of the building while trying to figure out who to call. I was insistent that we call 911, but he said since nothing had actually happened yet, it wasn’t really an emergency and we needed to find the non-emergency number to call.
And then we needed to find Anthony and get him to shelter too (no idea where the other kids were, in the dream I was just focused on Anthony). And when I’d found him he refused to stay under cover of the concrete bunker or underpass or whatever it was we were hiding in. He sat there complacently eating his sandwich. I finally got him down just in time. Everything exploded and we were almost burned but just barely survived.
In the other dream I was driving down the road near my parents’ house in Austin and suddenly terrible weather was heading my way. A black curtain of poison rain came over the overflow ditches and threatened to blind me, overwhelm me. And then a host of tornadoes, at least half a dozen were swarming round me.
Anxiety dreams. Pregnancy dreams? I thought so at the time. I started mentally writing a blog post incorporating the “pregnancy dreams” into an announcement of the impending arrival.
But they can be traced back to other sources. Much of the imagery was lifted from Superman Man of Steel, which I sort of watched over Dom’s shoulder the other night. (Mostly messing about on the computer, sort of getting sucked into the movie at times.) And then there was the conversation I had with Dom that began with me declaring something about “when I’m no longer in crisis mode and look back on this time” and him adamantly repudiating the term “crisis” to describe our life. Followed by me feeling crushed because he just didn’t understand how overwhelmed I really do feel much of the time. (This was triggered by realizing how much tidier our kitchen, dining room, and living room were after his mom had been over for dinner. An extra set of hands made it possible to get them up to what I’d consider standard levels of tidy rather than the “good enough” or “too tired tonight” that are our current standard.) Finally we came back to the topic later and he acknowledged what I meant by crisis and explained why he had thought the words was off. But the point was I was feeling overwhelmed and was feeling that my experience was unacknowledged.
And if I was in crisis mode without a new baby, how was I going to survive a pregnancy?
In Nomine Exhaustion
Survival mode. Crisis mode. I suppose it doesn’t matter what you call it. What I mean is I feel like I’m constantly on the edge of red, never in the green. Things are never really clean or tidy. I get one room sort of done and the rest of the house looks like a war zone. What I mean is I rarely have time to step back to look at the big picture. Day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, I”m just getting from one bit of time to the next, trying to put out fires, prevent diaper leaks, get food on the table, and not fail too miserably at everything else. Not enough time to scrub the bathroom, to write a thoughtful blog post, to potty train a stubborn boy child, to get rid of junk we don’t need. No time to sew, no time to sit and read or write or think for more than what feels like a snatch.
Recently Sophie– and the boys– have been quoting a line (I think from Cars) that seems all too apt: in nomine exhaustion. Sophie repeats it over and over with a sigh on the exhaustion that feels so right. These days I do seem to be doing most everything in the name of exhaustion.
I’m in the crucible and all sorts of selfishness is being burned away, I’m sure. But it hurts. It’s hard. And yes, I’m more than a little relieved that I’m not going to spend the next three months exhausted and queasy all the time.
I kept thinking of Simcha’s piece on being pregnant in Advent, Making Room, which was included in her The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning (which by the way is an awesome book that everyone should read even if I’m having the devil of a time getting around to writing my review of it.) Writing about expecting a new baby during Advent, Simcha writes:
I responded the same way I do every time I face this particular dilemma: I cried. I couldn’t help it. So much of managing a big family is making order out of chaos—not even making things clean, but just making cleaning possible. And despite the relative sanity of our lives these days, facts are facts: There is just no room.
So, there was room. There was room after all. It’s not wonderful, but it works, and it gets the job done. There was a real problem, and I solved it, more or less, without even dying.
That’s my plan for Advent this year: making room where there is no room. I have a whole other person who needs space in our house, in our routine, in our lives. What to do? A fresh, breezy room full of spacious shelves and empty closets is not going to attach itself to our house overnight; and I will not become a flawless, holy, worthy receptacle for my savior, the Christ Child, when He comes. I can barely get through a Hail Mary without driving off the road from the sheer distraction, so what can I do to make some room?
Simcha’s talking about making room for the baby who is about to be born, but I was thinking about just making room for a pregnancy. Finding a way to accommodate the disruption and increased chaos. Simcha is right, I thought, it’s all about making room. It’s so perfect that this is happening at the beginning of Advent.
Even the Hour When Wings Are Frozen
I stood in the kitchen doing the dishes and singing along to one of my favorite Advent songs, People Look East:
1. People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
2. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.
4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.
And I started to cry a bit. Pregnancy is just that: welcoming a guest for whom there is no room, giving up your own strength to nourish a new life, trying to create a warm spot even when things feel impossibly cold.
I still didn’t see how it would work:
We’ll need a new car– which comes with a new car payment just when we’d paid off the minivan finally. I’ll need to find a new OB and I don’t think I’m going to have much luck. The big group practice I was at last time was a nightmare, but all there is now at the hospital I want are a few more big group practices that I fear will be more of the same. Oh I really don’t want to deal with my doctor anxiety again already.
I’ll have to give up on the small truce with chaos I’ve made and give in even more as my body spends the strength on growing new life instead of tending to the messy ones I’ve already got. What will give? School? Laundry? Let’s face it, if I’m maxed out, then perhaps I’ll have to call for help. Who can help? I don’t know, but maybe God will send someone. Perhaps that’s what he’s calling me to do. Find room, make a space.
Then I glanced at Lucia in her high chair and she beamed at me, waved both hands, called for more food. When I found out she was coming– right after my sister moved back to Texas– I felt lost and bereft. I knew that once I met her face to face I’d love the irreplaceable amazing person she was. But at that time she just seemed like a burden, a sickness I didn’t want to carry, a mess and an interruption. Sure enough, now that she’s here I’m only grateful. I can’t imagine our family without her beaming smile, happy laughs. She’s perfect for us. She’s perfect.
And this season of Advent, I’m being called to stretch myself. To open up a bit more to God’s mess instead of to my plans. To welcome Love, who is always so very Demanding. To die to self and live only for others.
A small miracle occurred the other night. (Was it that same day or the next one, after I cried over the image of bare furrows nourishing a cold seed?) Dinner was winding up and Sophie finished first and ran to get her nightgown on and I was trying to coax her into starting in on the nightly living room toy tidy by herself while the other kids finished their dinners and got their jammies on. She was resisting as usual. Suddenly from out my mouth I heard words that I’d never thought of. Something like this: “How about we skip the part where I start to get frustrated and yell at you? That never seems to work very well. Let’s see if you can get more clean up done with hug power instead of yell power. Do you think if I give you enough hugs you could maybe pick up some stuff?” And it worked. We got the living room picked up and all the kids helped and I stayed calm and many hugs were given and taken. And when they had finished picking up, I served dessert and while they were eating that I vacuumed the living room.
I wish words could convey how weird it was, how those words totally came out of nowhere. How could such a total change from the (admittedly wrongheaded) way I always do it have happened unless it was an act of grace?
Surrender to God and he will do everything for you.
Let go of fear, let go of plans, let go of habits. Make room. Room for new ways of doing and seeing and being. Room for transformation. Did that moment of grace happen because I’d made a little bit of room in my heart for the Christ Child to enter in? Because I’d said a small, humble fiat?
Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.
Prepare We in Our Hearts a Home Where Such a Mighty Guest May Come
Sophie’s getting it this year. She’s noticing the song lyrics to the hymns I sing as I go about the day and then sing again as I tuck her into bed. She likes to comment on them: how the flowers are love growing in our own hearts. Bella is listening to the prophets, noticing Isaiah, noticing echoes in the Bible. Ben is paying attention to the Bible stories for the first time, asking for them, thinking about them.
And I? I’m trying to pray with intentionality rather than worrying about the frequency and kind of prayer. Make every song a moment of encounter, saying the Angelus with attention, trying harder to ask for the grace to get through each day, to make grace the grit between my teeth when I can’t bear it anymore.
I’m still hoping to put off a new baby for quite a while longer. There are all sorts of reasons why right now it’s more prudent to wait than to embrace a new life, not the least that I have had five c-sections in seven years and that in the last one my placenta gave me quite a scare by being about an inch away from implanting on my scar tissue and causing major complications. But I’m trying to let go of fear and be open to new life in other areas. Trying to listen and hear what exactly God is calling me to be open to today.
Yesterday we visited Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey, where Dom’s friend and former coworker, Karla, is a novice. They were having an open house to celebrate the ribbon cutting on their new solar panel farm. It was a lovely chance to see our now-cloistered friend and to hear about her new life, to meet many of her new sisters, to enjoy the famous Benedictine hospitality, to eat chocolate and sip cider, watch a short film on the various kinds of green energy the sisters are using. The solar is on land they have leased to a third party and the energy it produces goes to the town of Franklin, providing 80% of its power; the wind power and geothermal run their candy factory and gift shop, but the abbey itself is old and gets its power off the grid.
Sister Francesca was demonstrating pysanky, egg decorating, saying she’d learned it from her mother who learned it from her mother. She also had beautiful pressed flowers. Another woman, I think she was a lay Benedictine (an oblate?), was making chocolate roses and when she saw Bella was interested she let her make one and then take it home.
One older sister saw Anthony staring at her and grinned at him, “I guess he’s never seen a sister before?” she quipped. Oh no, I explained, he’s actually seen many sisters; but he is shy around new people and tends to stare.
I’m not sure how it fits, but it seemed fitting to use those pictures for this post, to end thinking of myself as a guest, how much I enjoy other people’s hospitality and how very little it takes to set me at ease. One thing I noticed was how very focused they were. Never hurrying, always paying attention to the person they were talking to. How full of joy, happy to have us there, happy to tell us a little about their life, but also wanting to ask us about our family. How much I want to emulate the happy hospitality of the beautiful nuns in my own home, to welcome others with joy and attention and put them at ease. I think that’s not a bad goal for Advent.
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