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.

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.

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.

Me and Meg

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.

 

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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Why life between the lines matters more than you think

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

My son once had a dream that he found me dead beneath a pile of dirty clothes.

Today, only a few weeks away from being a licensed counselor, he could probably provide me with an irritatingly accurate analysis of that dream.

He dreamt it years ago during the divorce, and I can’t say I didn’t feel exactly like that, like I might smother and die beneath a mounting pile of secrets and sins and everyday chores and child rearing that suddenly seemed to weigh 10 times its weight in normal.

I still wonder about the details since I never asked him. Did all the t-shirts I refused to turn right side out finally get their revenge? Were the lights separated from the darks? Was I clutching a dryer sheet in one cold hand and a very clean $5 bill in the other?

Photo I took on the streets of Asheville, NC

Photo I took on the streets of Asheville, NC

Sometimes we feel that overwhelmed even when we aren’t going through a traumatic season.

Sometimes we are just buried in the mundane, and the ordinary becomes it’s own burden.

Maybe that’s because most of our life story is lived between the lines. The day job, errands, and dirty laundry–the literal and figurative.

That’s why I recently changed the name of this blog to Living between the Lines.

Because that’s what I’m doing, even though–especially as a writer–I envision my life reading more like a really compelling National Geographic article or the biography of Joan of Arc (without the burning alive part).

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I am a story. Or at least a SparksNotes version of one. 

We hear a lot about STORY in relation to the lives we are living.

What is your story? What story are you writing? What story is God writing?

We use quaint phrases about being co-authors with God. Ugh.

Great stories, the ones people want to read, are in books. But even the very best books collect dust on people’s shelves or get assigned to high school sophomores who just buy the SparksNotes version.

Paul Young, author of The Shack, said, “We don’t just have a story, we are a story.But maybe I’m more like a short story in an anthology…

Years after the “Exhausted Divorced Mother Dies in Laundry Avalanche” dream, my son told me that one of his favorite songs was “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes, mostly because of the lyrics. So I listened closely, hoping to better understand my man son. 

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique.

Yep, I taught him that.

Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. 

Yes, you are a snowflake, Sweetie!

And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be 

Rather be what? What’s wrong with a snowflake?

A functioning cog in some great machinery… 

What the hell? Just functioning, not excelling? Cog, a cog? A big machine? What is this, Orwell’s 1984?

 …serving something beyond me.

Oh. Well, you may have a point.

Isn’t that what the Christian life is supposed to be about? It’s about God and our being part of a greater story, which makes me responsible for developing my character, for moving the whole kit and caboodle forward, and for changing and growing along the way.

Sure, I may be a story, but I am not the story.

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All the things we do in the “meanwhile” have meaning.

Just because most of our life happens between the double spaces and in 8-point font doesn’t make those parts less meaningful.

Why does life between the lines matter so much? 

1. It develops our character and proves itself when the big stuff happens. This wisdom has slapped me in the head over and over again with its raw truth: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…” (Luke 16:10ish)

2. It gives us some space. It isn’t humanly possible to only live big stories. Adventures. Thrillers. Harlequin Romances. No one in those stories ever spends a Saturday morning paying the bills or has to pull over and let their car sick kid puke out the window. Life between the lines creates some cushion between the big happy events we celebrate and provides some respite during the most trying times.

3. It lays the foundation for the rising action, support for the climax, and a gentle slope for the denouement, the gentle descent that follows the peak. No one ever looks at a beautiful home or towering high-rise and says, “Get a load of the foundation on that thing.” The dirt rises and falls beneath the majestic mountains and the green valleys in all our lives.

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Has anyone ever said, “You should write a book about your life”?

If, yes, that’s pretty cool, and you should do it.

If, like me, people have only said something barely similar like, “You should write a quirky sitcom about your life that gets canceled after one year causing a brief uprising of 17 fans and a petition-signing campaign that results in a really bad final Netflix season,” then you might want to skip it.

But then I think of all of the bloggers and authors out there writing about everyday life. About family and illness and marriage and jobs.

We read that stuff because we relate to it. And when we realize there are about a bazillion of us going through the same things, maybe our stories don’t feel so much like the high school sophomore English assignment.

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In college, I wrote a book about my grandmother’s life. I wrote down all of the stories she had told me across the Sunday dinner table full of dirty dishes. Most of those stories would have been pretty ordinary while she was living them. Her family tended their gardens and plowed their fields, buried babies and grandparents, walked miles to school (really!), cooked, prayed, fought and laughed.

And every moment fascinated me.

But my grandmother never asked, “Why do you want to know this stuff? It’s not important…it happened so long ago.”

Nope, she never appeared to doubt the value of those stories. She owned her 70+ years of ordinary, and she had carried it with her all this way.

I am owning my story, too. All of it.

The climactic moments and the Facebook highlights…the sidebars and the backstory…the typos, deletions, and crossed out parts…and every single moment I am living between the lines.

 

 

You wouldn’t believe the stars

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

“You wouldn’t believe the stars.”

My daughter tells me this in one of her voice messages from the refugee camp in north Africa.

She and her friend had dragged their bedding out onto the desert sand, staying up until 2 a.m. as if this was some junior high sleepover, chatting and “wow”ing and awestruck.

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We live 30 minutes south of Chicago, the nightlight of the suburbs. Except instead of providing us comfort, it simply adds to the light pollution that washes out the starry sky.

But in the country on a black night, I have looked up, awestruck, like a child comprehending for the first time that the face of her mother is connected to the hand that is always holding hers.

You wouldn’t believe the stars.

I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head this week.

I keep wondering what really important and beautiful things we aren’t seeing because of the “light pollution” in our lives…because of the worry or busy-ness or overabundance of crap in our closets.

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Last week, my daughter called direct for the first time in weeks. Her host “mother” wanted to talk, as well, and I was glad to put aside my pressing office tasks to hear her piece together English words to ask, “How-is-your-family?”

I piece things together, too, as I try to understand these people and my daughter’s experience based on the snippets of information she reports when she is able to catch a wi-fi signal.

Sand like silken dust

The importance of tea

A small black scorpion

Canned peaches

No running water

112-degree heat

The sandbag school they are building

Hospitable exiles without a home

Beautiful and terrible pinpricks of light.

I imagine this woman is not so far removed from the atrocities that brought her family, and hundreds like hers, to this desert “refuge” a few decades ago. Even the youngest children have probably seen their parents and grandparents weep over painful memories still bright as those of last week’s birthdays and weddings.

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God once made a covenant with a man in the desert.

“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.”

How ridiculous that must have sounded to Abraham as he gazed up that night and laughed. But God still promised kings of peoples would come from Abraham and his wife.

Doubt, like worry, busy-ness, and the rest, can become our light pollution.

These things can even become our nightlights, distracting us from all that God glitter spread over our heads with a wide and generous hand.

We bask comfortably in the glow instead of believing awestruck in the darkness.

You wouldn’t believe the stars.

But do we even see them?