My eighteen-year-old son is a math whiz. He’s the kind of kid who learns Calculus 2 from some website, then lands a perfect score on the AP test without ever taking the class. Meanwhile, I’m still struggling with five times seven.
Was it really fifteen years ago when I bought a gallon bucket of plastic counting bears to teach him addition? Now he’s dragging me to the kitchen table at midnight and patiently drawing out diagrams on paper napkins, unpacking the glories of the numerical universe one step at a time.
He’s a born teacher, massaging higher math into the vernacular until my fog lifts, waiting for that moment when I gasp because I finally understand. All at once I see what he means and why it matters (Hallelujah!). I see why this concept is beautiful, why he wanted me to see it; then just as fast all the light passes away, and I’m back in the dark.
Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting on a picnic table under an open shelter at the local state park. I’m up on a hill that looks down on the lake, watching a bunch of people messing around in the water. Maybe fifteen preschoolers are held afloat by inflatable arm rings, and they are bobbing in orbit around their parents like Jupiter’s moons gone wild. The older kids are playing shark, sitting on each other’s shoulders, and dunking one another under the dirty green water.
If I were their mothers, I would be terrified about somebody drowning or getting a brain amoeba; but these are women who wear big sunglasses and tank tops while smoking cigarettes; they throw their heads back and laugh so easily. Some folks are able to live fully in the present, and they are probably healthier than I am because of it.
Under a tree shade a little way out from the water, a couple is sitting on a blanket, putting suntan lotion on each other. They’ve been going over the same spots six or seven times, kissing every few seconds, hugging and fondling. All these people are sitting around them, and they don’t seem to mind the audience a bit. The guy is wearing a doo rag and the girl has dry blonde hair grown out a couple inches from dark roots. They’ve got to be all sweaty in this heat. He’s too pink, she is too burnt, and they are both too soft to win any beauty competitions, but they are each the whole world to the other this afternoon, and I’m glad those little kids in the water aren’t paying too much attention to what’s happening on the land.
It’s a Johnson Century reel, model number 100B, made in the U.S.A. It used to be my Dad’s—the reel I used when I went fishing as a kid.
There’s a white release button with a smooth indent where your thumb fits, and it makes a delicious click when you push it down. Even sitting on a 5-gallon bucket in the garage, I can’t hear that click without hearing also what comes next, the whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr of a line making hope’s arc to heaven, rising like the angel Gabriel leaving the Virgin Mary, then suddenly recognizing that he’d forgotten something. At its peak, that line is carried by gravity down to the earth, down into the dark, wet, green, down near the thick, red mud where the soul of a fish gets itself wooed.
“I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to those leathered few who already knew by trade how hard it was to fish for fish. Fish are fickle as women, and women are fickle as men, and I don’t know how to sink down into the shadows where I am called to go forth and woo, and to preach, and to mother, down in this cold, blind darkness.
The line wasn’t rolled up right the last time this reel was used, and somehow it’s got wound all around the rod handle. A big mess is hanging down in an irreverent tangle, looking like a pretty little blonde baby whose momma didn’t fix her hair before they went out to the I.G.A. to pick up a carton of cigarettes and a sack of light bread.
My parents often bought a particular mix of Christmas gifts for my brother and me. There would be:
1. Something fun that we wanted
2. Some clothes that we needed
3. A few supplies for creating new things
4. A resource to nourish our spirituality
5. Stuff for outdoor adventures
6. A book or toy that encouraged us to check out an unfamiliar realm
7. Something scientific
8. A couple of books for hours of solitude
While working up my summer reading list today, I realized that I was automatically finding books that fall into those categories. (My list is pretty nerdy, but I’ll share it with you anyway.)
If you were to choose a book to read in each of these categories, what would you select? What would your kids pick? If your family members decided to spend one week reading on each theme, then invite dinner conversations that revolve around what you are learning, what would you discover together over the next eight weeks?
‘Just an idea. I’d love to read your lists, if you want to post them below.
1. Something fun that I want to read: Tremendous Trifles, by Chesterton
2. Something I need to read: a book on the German romantic philosophers (Still deciding on which one, maybe German Idealism by Beiser.)
3. If I read this it might help me create new things: Lyrics by Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, early American bluegrass lyrics
4. Nourishment for the spiritual realm: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson
5. This will help me learn about the outdoors: Standing by Words, by Wendell Berry
6. Something that will expose me to an unfamiliar field: A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Peterson Field Guides
7. Something scientific: Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, Michio Kaku
8. For times of solitude: Library of Congress: Slave Narratives (These are so moving. Check them out if you’ve never read them before.)
Yesterday I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. After the movie began, I sat in the dark theater measuring my expectations, waiting for the old, familiar fairytale to be deconstructed. I’ve seen enough modern adaptations of classic stories to worry about a director pulling the rug out from under me. Just a few minutes into a plot, there’s often a cynical jolt, and my innocence becomes the butt of someone else’s joke. Out of nowhere comes the sarcasm, the crude humor, or the cheap political slam, and I feel my face flush with shame that I had once again hoped that a world—even an imaginary one—could be honest and beautiful.
Indeed, the first few scenes of Cinderella are idyllic. The film opens to a lovely meadow adorned with flowers and a blue sky full of puffy clouds. Ella’s family members are tender with one another. Their home looks like it was built from a vintage storybook drawing, so unabashedly sweet that I heard little girls and their mothers coo with delight as we walked through the rooms.
In fact, it was all so perfect that I couldn’t relax. I felt like the high school geek about to walk in on a locker room prank, so I steeled myself, preparing for that awful moment when the director would lift his leg and mark an old fairy tale as his newest territory.
Last night I sat down with a C.S. Lewis essay titled “Miracles.” Lewis is my favorite author, but I wasn’t expecting much from this topic.
It’s not that I’m not interested in the mystical, it’s just that miracles aren’t very effective. People who don’t want supernatural evidence for God will grit their teeth and explain away a cosmic whamboozie, even if one smacks them upside the head. Miracles aren’t a problem for science, reason, or intellect. They aren’t some kind of cognitive hurdle to overcome. They are revelatory. They reveal what observers have already decided about God, based on old wounds and old battles.
That’s why I wasn’t all that eager to engage. The topic didn’t seem very practical.
However, Lewis takes an angle I wasn’t expecting. He writes that miracles tend to be condensed versions of divine engagements that happen to us every day. For example, 5000 people are fed from five barley loaves. “That couldn’t have happened!” we shout.
My youngest son lived in an orphanage overseas until he was three years old. From what I understand, his first year of life was pretty rough. Missionaries who served in his facility were forbidden to touch the infants because officials didn’t want the babies getting used to snuggling. Babies who know what it’s like to be held cry to be held more, so human contact was kept to a minimum to nip that need in the bud.
Before our adoption I had never given too much thought to the importance of holding a baby. When my birth children came into the world, I held them because they were cute, warm, and cuddly. I “oohed” and “aahed” over their perfect little feet, I breathed in the vanilla tops of their heads, I tickled their fat poochy bellies, I kissed them eight million thousand times in the sweet rolls of their necks, and I rocked them to sleep. I did those things (as most mothers do) because love for them came natural to me, not realizing that connections were being grown in my babies as a result of physical contact with me. I have learned since that when a parent touches her infant, she is helping him realize how his body connects to his mind.
Because our youngest son wasn’t held much in his first year, that mind/body connection was damaged. When he first came to us, it was common for him to spin around and around in circles, to jump off of high places so he could feel the crash of the floor, and to wiggle continually. Even in his sleep, he was in motion; too many nights I would hear a thump indicating that he had found a new way to fall around the bed rails. When I took him to an occupational therapist for advice, she explained that the orphanage had left sensory processing issues. The banging, the crashing, the wiggling were my son’s attempts to compensate for touch he never received. Because nobody held him, he had lost his body during those early years. Now his subconscious was trying to figure out where he was in the world.
Before my oldest son was born, I had a miscarriage at twelve weeks gestation. It was a messy, terrifying experience; and for years after it was over, I struggled with fear that the loss had been my fault.
I was afraid that I had traveled too much in the first trimester, or that I had been too stressed about the ministry we were trying to begin. Maybe the electricity from the waterbed my husband and I were sleeping on had caused the baby to die somehow, or maybe I shouldn’t have lifted the flower pots by the front step.
The one thing I knew for sure was that I had been too casual about motherhood. Our pregnancy was unexpected, and my emotions hadn’t had time to catch up. I was supposed to have nine months to adjust to the idea of a baby; I didn’t know life and death could change places overnight.
When I woke up from the D&C, I was groggy. I remember asking the nurse two things: first, if they could tell the child’s gender, and second, if I could somehow bury my child. She told me “no” to the first, and to the second, that the hospital had already “taken care of” the baby’s remains. It was a quiet, empty ride home.
Community was not much comfort. The same Christians who would have been horrified if I had aborted a child smoothed over the loss with platitudes: “You can have an other one,” or, “God doesn’t make mistakes!” or “Sometimes these things happen.” They were trying to help, but I felt a lot of pressure to be okay, even though I wasn’t.
To Him who presses curiosities four-to-a-row
across the dimpled backs of infant hands;
To Him who has made the dust of the hay barn
settle in drowsy glory through a slant line of sun;
Who has birthed three naked, new mice,
just pink, bare thumbs, sucking out blind thirst
in a mother’s tossings and tendings of the grasses of the earth;
Who has swelled the heavy teats of the cow?
Who has made them drip milk in drops,
sweet, white puffs and sighs on the dry brown barn floor?
Who has wetted her brown, round, empathetic eyes?
Who has given her a tail to smack against her meat?
To Him who has made the cool March wind
snap the curtains to applause;
Who hovers (might He even cluck or coo?),
wing thrown round about His beloved,
heady as the hot underside of a hen;
Who opens up the earth like a lap,
belly out, leaned back, arms thrown wide,
feet planted in a father’s welcome,
To Him who permits the storm-torn hickory to cross upon itself,
savage as thrown ink lines,
To Him who grants the turkey vulture a bare red face,
so that she might reach between ribs of the dead
and pick meat off their bones;
the rusted eye of Jupiter, blasting?
(Like a woman in her fury? I cannot tell.)
Even so, glory be.
Nor can I tell if He ordains
or simply allows hail to bruise
the soft bodies of tree frogs;
or why he does not stop the wild dog
from laughing (by my judgment) overloud.
Glory be to Him
who shaped the teeth of the wolf
in their sockets
‘ere any shepherd shaped his staff;
To Him who planted a fruit-bearing tree then spoke,
“You shall not eat,
for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
To Him Who has been from the beginning other,
Who cannot be etherized,
Who grants to life gravity and resistance,
Who is untamed by those who would harness Him,
Who spins the moon round,
round and round again,
from dissonance to resolve
until she flushes white and clean,
shining like Moses fresh down from the mountain;
Western Kentucky is riddled with underground coal mines. When I was five or six, somebody told me that there was a big one dug right under the Dorris’s farm place, and I never could let that go. If I was sprawled out on the rug of Mammaw’s living room, I wouldn’t move around too hard, afraid I might shake us all loose into the underworld where men like my grandfather rode by iron gear into tunnels that made their lungs and fingernails black.
It took us eight hours to drive to Providence from Marysville, Ohio. This was 1977, back when you could throw a foam mattress in the bed of a Ford pickup and let your kids bang around with boxes of puzzles and a stack of books while you made miles. After the sun would go down, I’d lean my head up against the the back of the cab and stare out through the green, concave windows of the LEER truck topper, watching the earth grow wild.
The yellow fields turned silver at night, and natural gas pumps cranked like old men digging holes. Those pumps smelled sour, and if I fell asleep somewhere along the way, I knew we were close because of them, even before I opened my eyes.
[Editor’s note: Rebecca Reynolds is a gifted writer, and is no stranger around here. She’s written a couple of guest posts, is a two-time Hutchmoot speaker, and was Ron Block’s collaborative partner on last year’s “Walking Song.” But for all that, today marks her first post as an official Rabbit Room contributor. Welcome, Rebecca. I’m glad you’re here.]
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working through two Greek tragedies with my students. The first is Oedipus Rex, a devastating story about a man who unknowingly murders his own father before accidentally marrying his mother. The second tragedy is Antigone, which describes the pathetic death of a daughter conceived in the incestuous marriage of Oedipus.
[Editor’s note: On Friday we released a new song by Ron Block, Jeff Taylor, and Rebecca Reynolds (also featuring Julie Lee). Rebecca, the co-writer of the song, also wrote this companion piece. It’s well worth your time.]
I wish I could tell you that I never have any doubts about God, but trust seems to run strongest in the very young and the very old in faith, and I am neither. When I say that I doubt, I don’t mean that I doubt everything. For instance, I rarely doubt that God exists. Walking in the decay of a December wood, reading through a journal of this year’s medical discoveries, listening to a Bach aria, scrolling through Hubble updates, I can tell that God lives.
The stuff of earth doesn’t provide a complete theology. In fact, it often leaves me with as many questions as answers, because the Almighty will not be pinned to a card like a giant stag beetle. However, the beauties and wonders of the universe do tend to point me toward a Creator. They whisper that He lives within and beyond the dimensions in which my brain operates.
What I doubt most often is that God loves me, and usually that doubt rises from pain. It can be hard for me to understand why Someone with the power to stop hurt wouldn’t do it.
I remember what it was like to want a baby.
I remember how it felt to walk through the grocery store
watching others dispose so recklessly
of everything I ached to be.
I remember mothers
(or so-called mothers)
snapping off ugly words
to curly-haired toddlers.
I remember mothers
(or so-called mothers)
sighing in exasperation,
ignoring bundles of angel on earth,
telling them to hush.
I remember seeing from a distance
the wonder of ten little curved fingers,
wrapped sweetly around a shopping cart handle.
I remember small voices saying,
and wondering what unforgivable thing
I had done
to become unworthy of that name.
It has been sixteen years,
but I will never forget Mother’s Day empty-armed,
trying to smile politely,
running to the church bathroom,
weeping the long, hard, labor of grief
behind a locked door.
Because of this, I define motherhood
a little differently than most.
I define motherhood
as the womb of creativity
and breasts of recreativity
Motherhood is an idea fluttering and kicking,
compassion fluttering and kicking,
social healing held upright on wobble knees until it walks,
wounds of the heart and body dressed and bandaged.
Motherhood is entrance into dark rooms
where fright cries out from sleep,
and motherhood is chasing away the monsters.
Motherhood is the renaming of the rejected,
it is the embrace of the lonely,
it is a Saturday picnic packed for the hungry,
it is the rocking of the forgotten
in the lap of an old, sweet song.
Motherhood is the soft, feminine hand of love
on the cheek of the world’s need.
For children are born and tended
in a million different sorts of ways.
The earth cries out,
and here you are to answer.
You are maternity,
and you are beautiful.
I peeled the sticker off my lunch pear, then ran it under the faucet, frustrated. It wasn’t a real piece of fruit. It was only a shadow of those knotty old fragrant pears Mom gathers every summer from Mrs. Janson’s hundred-year-old tree.
I shook it dry, scratched the skin with my thumbnail, and inhaled. The smell was faintly sweet, but a supermarket pear can’t fill a room with perfume. I could expect a watery crunch, not that honey-dripping mess of food you’ve just pulled out of the sun.
Later that night I prepared our beef for dinner. I had to cut away a sheet of plastic wrap before I could even touch it. I never saw the animal of origin. I didn’t know its farmer or its butcher. I didn’t know the state (or even the country) in which that life or its taking took place. Meat nowadays is stripped of all meaning. It has become an ingredient.
Anyone who has removed the head from a chicken will understand the difference between taking in a tray of meat and taking away a life. I remember being eight or nine and holding the body of a hen still as I could while Mom swung the axe. It was too much for me. At the last second I looked away and fell on my rear end in the Kentucky dust, overcome by the nerve force of death. The hen’s opened neck flung blood on my shirt, and I was too shocked to catch the body to stop it flopping.