The Spaces that Hold Our Gardens and Barbs

This post is part of the #wholemama summer series started by blogger Esther Emery. Last week’s theme was SPACE. Even though I didn’t write in time to add it to the Tuesday link-up, there are posts focusing on “space” from 20 amazing women on Esther’s website.

IN MEMORY OF SOMEONE WE LOVED

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

There was a small space in between the moment I knelt beside my weedy garden and I grabbed the stinging nettle…in between the startling pain, like four bee stings to palm and fingers, and my excitement over the discovery of the medicinal plant growing wild.

There was a space in between my contemplations about how life does this to us, startles us into a heightened awareness, and my mother’s phone call.

Five minutes before the phone rang, I was sitting on the patio nursing my wounded hand and talking to my daughter about my cousins not being able to make it to my son’s wedding in September. Five minutes later I was sobbing, because my mother was telling me that my cousin’s wife had drowned and had not yet been found.

There was a space in between the time B jumped off the pontoon into the cool-for-July Wisconsin lake and the frantic search when she didn’t come up again…in between the sun glittering on the surface and the deep brown water with its soft bed of silt.

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It is in a million small spaces we live so much of our lives, always on the cusp of some decision or occurrence.

Maybe a word that leaves the tongue with an arrow’s twang. Maybe a step off a peak that alters the next 10 years. Maybe a happening unnoticed, quiet as a mouse fleeing unseen from cupboard to hole. Or maybe an act as simple as pulling clover and grasping instead a handful of barbs.

I drove my mom and dad the six hours north for the wake and funeral. We have traveled this route many times since I was two years old. Mom and dad spent their honeymoon with this side of the family when my mom was 18; and last year, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary here. This has been our space for family vacations and reunions and river trips and weddings, and sometimes a funeral of a life well and long-lived. 

As we have often done over these many years, we stayed at the home of the eldest of my eight cousins. He surrounds each house he lives in with gardens.

In those spaces we wake up with the tiger lilies to early morning rain and dark coffee, and we chat over dinner against a backdrop of tall Blazing Stars and the feathery, purple clumps that serve as thrones and tables to Monarchs.

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The morning of the funeral, I wander about the yard with my grief–mine like dusk over the yellow Black-Eyed Susans and B’s family’s like the oppressive noonday sun. She loved flowers, so this is a good place to think of her, as the early daylight reveals the veins of the leaves and the fragile strands of spider webs, as carefully and intricately spun as our anticipated futures.

In a garden, I always sense a respite, instead of my toes curled over the edge of something, whether a happy springboard or rocky ledge. Surrounded by growing things that “give no thought to what they will wear,” time lingers, mesmerized by scent and silk.

Here God makes room for me to take a deep breath, even though the entire earth is milliseconds away from a rotation that will turn this yellow softness to white hot.

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At the church, my eldest cousin gives the eulogy. It’s lovely like his gardens, and we even laugh before we give way to weeping. He reads a poem that B had hanging on her wall for many years called The Dash by Linda Ellis. It recounts the words a man speaks at the funeral of a friend. Referring to the date of birth and date of death, the man says that all that matters is how his friend lived out “the dash between those years.”

We primarily measure our weeks and months and years by events–the hair appointment, the electric bill, the wedding–noting all the black and white “words” that make up our stories; but not paying as much attention to the spaces that help make those words understandable.

I have been trying to pay as much attention to the spaces–both in place and in time–as I am to the words, because the spaces are so integral to the story…

…the green pastures and hills unrolling before us as we cross the Illinois border into the north

…the expanse of front porch where five cousins huddle around a small table to eat blueberries and listen to the rain

…the thin line between another cousin’s hand in mine as we stand at the gravesite and defy the distance that once existed between girl from the Chicago suburbs and girl from the dairy farm

…the ever-widening gap between my children and my cousin’s children due to the miles and generations

…the months that will pass like a blink between the goodbye kiss my eldest cousin plants on my forehead and the embrace he’ll greet me with next summer when we stand in that same space beside the flowers 

…the gap in the back porch steps where a tiny white flower springs like hope in the darkness IMG_3870

Whole Mama
Graphic: Caris Adel

How to Pray Like a Refugee

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

From out of the desert of Africa, my daughter brings home the custom of praying with your eyes open and your hands held out, palms up, as if you are just that expectant, that trusting, that bold.

The first evening she is back at our house church after five months of perspective altering, body jarring, spirit stretching missions training and service, she asks if she can pray for our small church family…

…and would we all do what the refugees in the desert do?

Open your eyes and hold out your hands like this

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Following her example, the 10 of us extend our hands toward the center of our haphazard circle. I cup my hands the way my kids used to when they were catching raindrops or accepting a quarter for a gum ball.

But I feel exposed. Even intrusive as the silent requests of my neighbors get caught in my periphery. I am more keenly aware that what I ask for may drop into my tender palms.

PRAYER is the theme of this week’s #wholemama gathering of bloggers, but how do you talk about something so intimate…those moments I whisper into my pillow what is already on my heart before I even roll out of bed?

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Lately, I’ve been praying about a major career change. I ask for clarity, for signs.

The confirmations ‘tink’ like coins into my cup. Where are the ones and fives and tens? I hear pennies instead of gold. Maybe because I approach like a beggar instead of God’s child.

So after 40+ years, this is my prayer life: One minute I’m tangled in early morning meditations like a lover, the next I’m slumped against the foot of a city high-rise waiting for God to pass by on the way to his 9-5.

I think again about the refugees. They depend on humanitarian aid, tanker trucks full of water because there is none in the desert. They depend on the good will of a country they can’t call home. And every day they open their eyes and face their palms upward.

I’m going to try praying like that. I’ll keep my eyes open (and probably see answers all around me). I’ll hold my hands the way my daughter showed us…the way we did on our last hike in the woods near our home.

My daughters and I took a narrow path we hadn’t seen before and discovered a shallow part of the creek.

The path ended at the pebbly bank, and we waded into the place where the sun glittered on the surface and the water overflowed our cupped hands.

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This post is my contribution to Esther Emery’s #wholemama movement.

Whole Mama

Read more from this series:

Quiet Riot

When You’re Power Ain’t So Super, Woman

The Weird Transition from Mommy to Mother

Quiet Riot

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By Amanda Cleary Eastep

1. Nearly every day for 15 years I have heard my son’s voice until the judge decides my son will live with his father while his two sisters and I will move out of the house, but I leave most of the children’s books because it upsets him to see me pack these. But I take the ones most precious, The Giving Tree and Where the Wild Things Are, so I can keep them safe even though I couldn’t save all of us. And days and days pass between the painful visits and our quiet riots.

Today there are moments when I  embrace him, and he is so tall I can put my head on his chest, and his grizzled chin touches my forehead when he says he loves me and lets me hold him, longer than I should because he is a man now, but he lets me anyway. And that quiet heals.

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2. When the anesthesia doesn’t take right, and I am lying frozen, there is only sharp pain in my belly and words like thought bubbles in my mouth that I try to speak but can’t hear. Voices fade and my eyes won’t stay open, and I fight the world lying flat on top of me. I fight because I have a little boy at home and a baby the doctors are trying to free from my wrong-half paralyzed body, and I hope the muffled voices are fighting that quiet riot, too.

Five years after moving from our home, five years holding in an I love you, my born-butt-first daughter walks into the kitchen, puts her head on my shoulder and cries and cries and says, I love you, I’m sorry, I love you, and I am strangely calm and sorry that she says sorry, but I let her let it out. The relief is like deep water around us, and the quiet is freeing.

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3. The daily struggle of skin and spine and heart issues is not evident to the many people my youngest daughter pours kindness on. But sometimes, when her body is covered in flaring red, she cries and feels hopeless and asks me why God gave her this when he also gave her a heart to travel the world. I tell her that is a good question and just hold her because sometimes there is no answer in the quiet riot.

Soon after she turns 18, she flies to N. Africa with her new backpack, her camera, and her inhaler. There is a peace that prevails because she and I only have trust that this is Your call God. But during the dark, early morning hours the walkie-talkie app shrilly signals a voice message and wakes me from my now normal half sleep. I rush with my phone to the silent living room, and I hear her say, I’m safe and I love these people in the desert. And the quiet is an empty room full of peace.

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4. We’re having another one of THOSE conversations. I’m asking him what’s next, and he’s not answering, or at least not in the booming, split the red sea, shake the heavens kind of voice I apparently still need after all these years. Restless, uncertain, and with a teenager’s assurance that my Father might just not “have this,” I sit in my solitary cubicle each morning while my heart quietly riots.

In the bed that my father built and painted bright yellow, I wake in the middle of the night. There is a presence that fills the room. Good as Santa but even scarier, so I lie there crying until my grandmother hears me. She sits on the edge of the bed. Did I have a nightmare? Did I get my period for the first time? She is at an even greater loss when I say No, God is calling me. She brushes back my bangs and says, It will be alright. But now I know the power in that quiet whisper.

Previous #wholemama posts:

Half of a Wholemama? The weird transition from Mommy to Mother

When Your Power Ain’t So Super, Woman

This post is part of Esther Emery’s #wholemama blog challenge on “quiet.” Read more from some of the other wonderful women speaking into these weekly themes.

Whole Mama

When Your Power Ain’t So Super, Woman

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

He wants me to wear a cape to the grocery store.

“I don’t have a cape, Sweetie.”

My four year old streaks out of the kitchen, the red cape I sewed flying out behind him.

My next door neighbor regularly ridicules me. How the hell can I let my son run around the yard in a cape and puffy moon boots? Har, har, har! I imagine my son’s heat ray vision melting the neighbor’s eyeballs in his fat head.

My son returns in a flash and holds out one of the bandanas I use as a headband.

I tie two of the corners in front of my neck so the rest of the hankie hangs a short way down my back. Maybe no one will notice.

As I push the cart around our small town grocery, people glance sideways at us, but my son marches proudly alongside me. Superheroes need their Cheerios and maxi-pads just as much as the next guy and his mom, thank you very much.

Donning the cape makes me feel empowered, free even, like maybe I could fly. But I order a pound of thinly sliced ham instead.

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My son is not a little boy any more, and he doesn’t run around the yard in a cape (parenting success!). But I want him to always remember that moment, to believe in me that much again someday. I want him to forget the kryptonite years when I failed miserably as a Christian and as a mother, temporarily tailspinning then clawing my way out of the rubble left by battles with his father and with myself and even with my three children.

Sometimes your kids think you are invincible. Sometimes we think our children are geniuses. But the truth is that we are all humans. We sin and bleed.

We are Clark Kents and only pretend at flying.

We break. We heal slowly beneath our Spiderman bandages.

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“You are Superwoman.”

A friend has said this several times over the years, and I just smile politely. Maybe it looks like that from the outside. Maybe that’s why heroes wear capes and armor and carry cool bat-weapons…to distract everyone from all the fear and pain and scars underneath. And you thought that middle-aged super mom in tights had saddlebags. It’s just where she stores all her failings.

Batman has his Bat-cave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, and the Power Puff Girls have Chemical X.

Moms have a locked bathroom door, and dads have golf. We have Put One Foot In Front of the Other powers. We are Veryhuman.

Some of us have God, too. Not the parting the Red Sea one, but the one who is a Son, the one who calls me Daughter. The God of whiners and weaklings and would-be and washed-up superheroes. I imagine his He-Man voice proclaiming, I HAVE THE POWER!

Good thing, because I have a frayed cape, saddlebags and a pound of lunchmeat. And a love able to leap tall buildings.

Previous #wholemama posts:

Half of a Wholemama? The weird transition from Mommy to Mother

This post is part of Esther Emery’s #wholemama blog challenge on superpowers. Read more from some of the other wonderful women speaking into these weekly themes.

Whole Mama

Half of a #WholeMama? The weird transition from Mommy to Mother

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

My 18-year-old and I lay in the grass taking Instagram selfies (which I liken to showing vacation “slides” to the entire world).

This youngest daughter returned to my arms recently after five months away, two of those in N. Africa. She wanted to show off her armpit hair, which is not nearly as impressive as it was last year when we finally convinced her it would ruin her brother’s wedding.

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“C’mon, Mama, show your pits.”

It was enough for me to be lying prone with no makeup beneath the unforgiving light of the setting sun and wondering how stepping out onto yet another social media platform would benefit my writing career.

“I can’t show my armpits, I’m trying to build a business.”

I posted this photo (sans pits) with the hashtag wholemama, a cool initiative started by one of my favorite writers, Esther Emery.

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Most of the women who gather beneath the #wholemama tent for Twitter parties and Fuze meetings are young moms. With three grown kids and five stepkids, I’m about 20+ jumps to the right of these women on the number line.

But there I am, finding community online. Not quite like the days of sitting in the backyard with my best friend watching our little girls argue and admonishing them to “use their words” to “figure it out.”

My elder daughter assures me she will always have her divot in the couch cushion, while my psychologist son diagnoses me with empty nest syndrome and something that ends in “ism” or “obia.”

Maybe so. Maybe as a mother you don’t feel quite as whole any more when your favorite appendages decide to do crazy things like travel to Africa or go to college or get married. Whatever.

And maybe you feel exposed, too.

I recently noticed the back of my arms in a dressing room mirror while trying on my mother-of-the-groom gown and promptly scurried home to start curling bulk-sized cans of baked beans. All that gray hair they say you “earned”? I would rather have earned a tighter butt.

You’re left wondering who you are now in this final transition from Mommy to Mother. Less like a beautiful butterfly emerging from a cocoon and more like a vulnerable cicada leaving its mirror-image hard shell clinging to some brick in the wall.

But those things have wings, too. They unfurl and extend them just like a butterfly, testing their strength and the breeze before taking off in a new direction.

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Next post in the series: When Your Power Ain’t So Super, Woman

This post is part of Esther Emery’s #wholemama blog challenge on “wholeness” and “shalom.” Read more from some of the other wonderful women speaking into these themes.

Whole Mama

Because Your Good Friends Will Follow You Out the Window

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

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One after the other, the six of us crawl out my friend’s apartment bedroom window and onto the flat, tar paper roof of Wilma’s Cafe where the farmers gather on Saturday mornings to drink coffee and eat Western omelets after milking or plowing or planting, depending on the season.

To me that roof is a wonderland. Forbidden territory.

Only rain and sun touches it. And maybe once in a while a man with a bucket of fresh tar.

Now our tender, bare feet run amok.

What I wouldn’t give for a roof to crawl onto out of my bedroom window. I would lie on a blanket under the stars and write secrets in my diary about my love for the boy with the crooked nose.

We are all still in our pajamas, having hardly slept, because sleepovers are contradictions. And roofs are not meant to be beneath feet as we soon find out when the sound of the furious cafe owner reaches us from the sidewalk below.

We all try to fit back through the window at once. Giggling and guilty.

The mom of our slumber party host will take the brunt of the owner’s anger, but she can handle him. She is a waitress at the Ramada Inn, lets us eat raw cookie dough and call her by her first name, and knows words my father only says when he hits his thumb with a hammer.

Three of us have stayed friends since those days 38 years ago.

Last night, we met for Chicago-style pizza with three other friends, because the girl who left for college in Florida, fell in love and stayed there came for a visit craving the food she misses most.

We gorged ourselves on the all-American comfort food, warmth and nostalgia. A family size cheese and sausage forced us into a circle where we shared news of our children’s challenges and accomplishments and into which we brought many experiences unspoken and others exposed like gushing wounds.

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Why do people get together after so many years have passed and so many miles separate and so many experiences have transformed them?

I guess because we are each others’ youth, and children’s friendships should never be underestimated. At our most vulnerable age, we form bonds and little fierce tribes who war on playgrounds, defending each other against bullies and rallying after boys break our tiny hearts and grandparents die.

You can simply pick up and yank on the cord woven early of shared experience and secured with one of those bowline knots farmers use on their animals. That kind of knot is easy to untie if you want to but doesn’t slip even under extreme tension.

Last night, within that circle–like the one you make when you play truth or dare at slumber parties–we reminisced a lot, too. About high school road parties and family campouts. About our small town upbringing and how some things, like Friday night fish frys have not changed. Deep fried, perch, bread slices plastered together with butter, and slices of lemon meringue pie.

A beige diet, kind of like our childhood town.

But life is never really beige. We were just naive then. And now we aren’t.

We understand that raising daughters alone on a waitress’s salary is impossible without the safety net of loving grandparents.

We see that swinging a hammer for years wreaks havoc on shoulders that have carried the weight of family responsibilities.

That communities can strive against change but can’t stop the kind of people who will run barefoot right over your head.

That young love fades, but true friendships don’t.

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Moving into Your Discomfort: When you are asking What’s Next?

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

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What’ next? My daughter, who just graduated college, is asking this. (But she looks pretty darn confident.)

What’s next?

It’s a year of transition for my family. High school and college graduations, a wedding, and a potential job change.

And, for me, a sense of an impending–I hesitate to use the word–molting. (Ew, I know.)

I’m shedding the skin of the first half of my life…kids grown, resume a solid two pages, and the door to opportunity thrown wide open.

That’s what’s causing this itch. My familiar is loosening around me, and uncertainty can cause a lot of discomfort.

I figure at this stage of life, a person has two choices.

1. Keep trying to live and function in what you know, even if it doesn’t fit anymore.

2. Move into your discomfort.

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I have been trying to move into impending change gradually…starting a side business that would eventually allow me to work remotely, talking with family members about a future move out of state, and helping my kids build a solid jumping off place for their futures.

Yet at some point, you have to make hard and fast decisions.

And for someone with a practical mind (the left side, anyway) and a restless spirit, this is both terrifying and exciting.

Myselves are constantly in debates that go kind of like this…

Topic: “What’s next” isn’t on Google maps. Go!

Practical Left-brained Girl: “I would really prefer to enter the directions: from Current Location to Home Office with a Mountain View. I’m all for an occasional detour while on vacation. But we could get lost or run out of gas (especially since you don’t fill the tank until it’s almost on empty) as we try to anticipate the twists and turns ahead and arrive safely in our futures.”

Restless Gypsy Spirit Girl: “Sure, but remember that awesome trip to Wisconsin when we were trying to follow our cousin’s directions to the family reunion? ‘Turn left where the road splits at the curve’ and ‘Turn right after the spotted cow sign.’ When we finally found the place, we tried to pinpoint our location on the GPS, and there was just a big red question mark on the map. It was hilarious. Even a satellite couldn’t locate us. But we knew exactly where we were. We were in our joy.”

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Topic: “What’s next” can scare the crap out of you. Go!

Practical Left-brained Girl: “If Change, even for the better, is unsettling, then Uncertainty is the monster under our childhood bed who grew up and is still an ass. Remember how he used to tease me in high school by saying he wasn’t sure whether or not my breasts were ever going to grow? I still hate him. That’s why we do whatever we can to ward him off by maxing out our 401(k) and staying in jobs that suck our souls out through our nostrils.”

Restless Gypsy Spirit Girl: “Maybe think of Uncertainty as being more like our 7th grade Halloween party. All of us kids were blindfolded before entering the ‘haunted house,’ i.e. janitor’s closet. Then room moms stuck our hands in pails of eyeballs (peeled grapes), brains (cold spaghetti noodles), and livers (livers). It really wasn’t that scary, but sometimes we just feel as if we’re walking into small spaces blindfolded and at the mercy of well-meaning but misguided middle-aged women.

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Topic: “What’s next” sometimes can’t be attained until we step into the river. Go!

Practical Left-brained Girl: “In that recent blog post by the insightful blogger Emily P. Freeman, What Happened After My Husband Quit His Job, she explains how she and her husband didn’t have clarity at the time he quit his job. HE QUIT HIS JOB before *gasp, choke, ack* he had another one lined up. I understand that later she could look back and identify the ‘arrows’ that actually pointed them in the direction of their current life situation, and I was inspired, but I still broke out in a cold sweat reading about it.”

Restless Gypsy Spirit Girl: “Funny, it reminded me of the story of Joshua as he led the people of Israel across the Jordan River. Not until the priests carrying the ark of the covenant walked into the water did the water stop flowing from upstream and heap up so that the whole nation crossed on dry ground. That’s because God told him in this really cool Charlton Heston voice:

See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you!!!

Practical Left-brained Girl: “I understand that. Heck, I would like to hear a booming voice and–

Restless Gypsy Spirit Girl: “Oh! and did you know that the Israelites were coming out of a place called Shittim? Now that’s hilarious. And pretty symbolic when you think about it.”

So, that’s where I’m at right now…

…standing at the edge of potential life changes with my swim goggles and water wings on. I touch my toe to the uncertainty, then pull back when it laps at my feet, daring me to step into the deeper stuff.

The only certainty, really ever, is that if God is among us, we never step into the river alone.

He is in there already, wading around in our discomfort as we move into it, trust him, and watch him part the waters.

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