The disquiet that calls you back to the fire

by Amanda Cleary Eastep


My grandmother told me she could see their fires at night, dotting the dark rise of the bluff as her family’s wagon passed along the dirt road after the summer church revival.

She told me you could hear their music, too, the strings weaving their way down the wooded hill. Music like joy, but different from the hymns at church where the elders thumped the heads of sleeping children with a doorknob stuck to the end of a long pole. 

She told me that when she was a girl growing up in Southern Illinois in the 1920s the gypsies would come through town to trade horses with the men who weren’t afraid of the evil eye or their own Pentecostal wives. And no matter how many times she told me this story over the cluttered after-Sunday-dinner table when I was a child, I never tired of it.

The vision of that hill fed my already restless spirit, which longed for something as wild as gypsy fires…

Read on … the gypsy fire is lit over at the Mudroom blog.

Leaping in Faith: A willing suspension of disbelief

By Amanda Cleary Eastep


I’ve always wanted to skydive. To feel my heart about to come out of my mouth, to stop myself from vomiting upward into my own face, to fall and be yanked back in the nick of time.

But leaping didn’t happen that way. I decided it would be way more fun to quit my day job and freelance write full time. Like the guy in The Shining.

I’ve never jumped off anything before. Except the jungle gym on the grade school playground. I remember sitting on the edge of the parallel ladder thingy and looking at the ground far beneath my dangling feet…

Read more about the LEAP at Overflow where I’m honored to be writing the anchor post this week and joining other great bloggers for the continuing #wholemama series.

What Your Purpose Is Not

Purpose. No topic is too big for the #wholemamas. Follow us over at Erika Shirk’s Overflow blog.

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

Every night I take it to bed with me, wake up with it, and feel it breathing down my neck when I’m not giving enough attention to it.

(No, it isn’t an overly affectionate labrador.)

It’s my purpose.


Sometimes purpose manifests itself in many ways throughout our lives and sometimes as one activity that drives us, brings us joy, and is the hardest work we do.

What is it for you?

Maybe parenting or preaching or growing a business…

For me, it  has always been writing, even in the midst of more important work, like raising my children.

Poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca expressed his relentless need to write in a letter to a friend:

This inexorable passion has such a hold upon me that pen, ink, and paper, and work prolonged far into the night, are more to my liking than repose and sleep. In short, I find myself always in a sad and languishing state when I am not writing, and, anomalous though it seems, I labour when I rest, and find my rest in labour.”

Purpose, obsession…whatever.

Even with the exhaustion and pain brought on by writing, Petrarca said his “tireless spirit” seemed to be “reclining upon the softest down.”

That is how I’m feeling right now as I type. Despite the strain on mind and emotion, I sense a soft euphoria.

I recently asked my family and friends about their sense of purpose. The answers ranged from crossing tasks off of a list — to caring for pets — to helping others — to not really knowing at all…

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 7.51.10 AM

Their responses confirmed that purpose is deeply personal and unique to each. But they also revealed what purpose is not.


Purpose is NOT

Our aphrodisiac–My husband, a missionary to India for 20 years, said he and other young Christians became passionate at one point about sharing Jesus with a tribal gypsy group. “Yeah! Let’s spread the Gospel among the Banjaras!” they rallied, their good intentions punching the air like cheering fists. But they never did. Likewise, we may feel called to a task, like writing or evangelism, but we become more enamored with the idea of it. We pour our efforts into dreaming and discerning and planning but never act. 

All about us–The other day I interviewed a college student for her school’s alumni magazine. She compared her college life to a line-up of dominoes. “What I do in the place God has set me will touch the next person and the next and the next.” Ultimately, the work we are purposed to do affects a broader community.  Our responsibility is to carry out our purpose, to work hard, and to trust that it means something to someone someday, like Pertrarca’s words surfacing hundreds of years later and inspiring me in my writing.

About being Moses–Most of us don’t have a “burning bush” moment. No hot minute in our desert when a voice comes out of a flaming shrub and proclaims, “Hey, you, I’m God, and I’m sending you on this mind-blowing mission that will alter the course of humanity!” Even after this supernatural encounter, Moses doubted. I imagine that one more irritating “but Lord” from Moses, and God may have moved on to the next sandaled guy. Which makes me ask myself, Have I answered God’s call with a resounding Yes! or am I squeaking out a response that prompts God to not ask so much of me the next time?

Whole Mama

Graphic: Caris Adel

Read more from this series:

What He’ll Be When He Grows Up

Dance of the Elders

Why Life Between the Lines Matters More than You Think

The Spaces that Hold Our Gardens and Barbs

How to Pray Like a Refugee

What He’ll Be When He Grows Up

[AUGUST 26, 2015: I’m updating this post from 2011 for this week’s #wholemama link up, which has moved over to Erika Shirk’s blog, Overflow. I love this post and feel it fits so well with this week’s theme, BE.]

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

At 7, my son is in earnest. Gripping the back of the seat as we drive to the grocery store, he asks, “What should I be when I grow up?”

This is not a “why is the sky blue?” kind of question. The almost pleading tone in his voice begs me to answer; not a “well, uh, you see…” kind of answer either. THE answer.

This may be a pivotal moment in my parenting of this being, not really a boy at all, but an Energy in boy form that I must help to channel.

Insurance salesman.



This is the list that began to form in conversations among my family members about this child’s future path. (Three years later my mother bought him the book Super Lawyers for his 10th birthday.)

I’m weighing my answer. It will say something to him about what I think about him. What I believe him to be capable of.

When I’m helping him with math homework, he wonders why I sometimes have to go back a few chapters to review. Don’t I know everything? Now I’m slow to answer again. But it’s not because I don’t have an answer. Some of his gifts are already very evident.

I glance sideways at the small hands gripping the top of the front seat as we drive. I remember those fingers four years earlier curled over the pulpit during my friend’s wedding rehearsal. At 3, my son is hidden behind the wooden lectern. Only his hands are visible, as with a pronounced inflection that makes me wonder if he has been tuning in to the black, Southern preacher early on Sunday mornings, he proclaims “Haaaa—lle—LU—jah!”

“You can be anything you want to be,” I say. This is not an answer.

He offers multiple choice.

Pizza maker.

Toy maker.

Remote control maker.

I decide this is not a hard act to follow but want to acknowledge his selections. “Yes, those are all possibilities,” I assure him. But I’m thinking of his entourage of friends and how we’ve taken to calling him the Pied Piper.

I’m thinking of the way he has of conversing with complete strangers, mostly adults, who look first startled then amused then engaged.

And there are the capes. He has several that he wears around the house and even one for the grocery store. In fact, he has insisted on my wearing one, so I tie a red handkerchief on for our trip to the store.

So if I am the mother of a super hero, I guess that makes him…

A super hero. Will telling him he can be a super hero make him think he can jump off of the roof?

“Use your powers for good,” I tell him. (Not for the last time.)

Over the years, I have been fervent in encouraging the gifts I see in all three of my children. In truth, I thought even then he would be a leader, but I knew that wouldn’t resonate with him at 7.


Fast forward to the age of 22. He is a theology student and a youth group leader.

The previous year he texts me late one night. “What do you think God is calling me to do?”

I text him a long answer but want to simply say, “You are a leader.” Will telling him he is a leader make him think he can jump off the roof and others will follow?

I don’t have THE answer, just like I didn’t before. At least not the definitive one he’s looking for again. I can only review the past few chapters and tell him again what gifts and talents I recognize and that he should use them for the good of others.

Actually, I don’t believe there is a THE answer, except for maybe d. all of the above. There are many things he can do and will do. To steal advice from former Franciscan priest and writer Brennan Manning, I will tell my son to DO THE NEXT THING IN LOVE.

So, Son, this is always my answer:

If you must jump off of a roof—with or without a cape—do so to save a another.

If you lead, you be led by love first.

If you counsel or preach or make pizzas for a living or for a moment when it is needed or for the purpose of answering “yes” when God calls you to a lifelong task, do all of the above in love.

Celebration: A marriage of joining and loosing


By Amanda Cleary Eastep

On September 20th, CELEBRATION…

…will be a banquet hall garden with neat rows of white chairs and flowers and a white runner separating the bride’s and groom’s families until we are joined like the teeth of a zipper as she marches up the aisle…

…will be a bride who will be more beautiful than she ever has until one day when my son looks at her cradling a colicky baby, her hair messy and bags under her eyes, and then he’ll know what beauty really is…

…will be a boy who just 22 short years ago was running around the backyard in a superhero cape and tiny cowboy boots but now stands and waits for his life to change forever because this is the true adventure and you have to be brave and noble if you want to fly…

…will be best friends and siblings standing like the individual bones in the wings of a huge bird spread out behind the soon-to-be-joined body of man and woman.



…will sound like a favorite Bible verse read by a favorite aunt…like vows that should feel as weighty on the tongue as the promises to God that they are…like a best man speech that flows out of 26 years of growing up like brothers because they are cousins born a day apart…like the songs that conjure nostalgia, incite dance moves not possible in the day time, and serve as life’s theme songs…like congratulations offered by guests who wish it was their wedding day or are mourning the loss of a lover or are smiling almost apologetically because they understand the lovely but hard work of marriage.


…will be seated at round tables covered in spotless white cloth, like the sacraments before a congregation of imperfect people hoping “forever” really exists…like 10 guests/per who will get to know each other better after the champagne toast or will avoid estranged family members even though there is no room at the table for bitterness or will relish every second of being with the ones they would love through feast and famine.


…will taste like chicken breast and Asti Spumante and tears mixed with mascara…like the perfume and aftershave of bridesmaids and groomsmen…like the sweetest memory and deepest regret…like the pride you savor like a rare morsel before it all dissolves into a memory.


…will burn in hearts like the newlyweds’ first dance…like the gamut of emotions of mothers and fathers who couldn’t be prouder or sadder or happier and who think to themselves “my kid turned out well thanks to/in spite of me” but knowing Jesus offered strength when we needed it and extended grace when we failed…like the letting go of our own youth and of children we will always cradle in our hearts if not our arms…


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

Whole Mama

Graphic: Caris Adel

Read more from this series:

Dance of the Elders

Why Life Between the Lines Matters More than You Think

The Spaces that Hold Our Gardens and Barbs

How to Pray Like a Refugee

Quiet Riot

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

The Weird Transition from Mommy to Mother

The Dance of the Elders

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

That summer night on the rain-shiny driveway, we danced like crazy people…

Driveway dance

…and we sang, all of us happy remnants of the Sunday afternoon party that celebrated the graduation of my three kids. Their whole lives lay ahead of them as we friends and family honored the big steps of high school, college, and graduate school commencements with grilling and Coronas with lime and Pandora music.

In my parents’ garage–decorated with green and yellow balloons and sagging streamers that worked half-heartedly at distracting the guests from tools and oil stains–we gathered around long folding tables full of humid pretzels and mustard-smeared paper plates.

Like a reunion of veterans, we adults reminisced and relaxed into the coming transitions of our children’s and grandchildren’s “firsts” as grown ups;

into our next tours of duty, of new homes, of empty nests;

and into whatever life decided to throw at us next, be it grenade or parade.

Even with it nearing 10 pm on a Monday Eve, we were hesitant to abandon our retreat or toss out the evidence of good conversation and laughter and the simple crepe paper decorations of milestones.

So instead of closing our folding chairs on the evening, we sang “ah-wee ma weh, ah-wee ma weh, the lion sleeps toniiight,” because we were the elders, and there were rituals to observe. All of the “kids” were in the house, sipping expensive craft beer and playing cool board games in the air conditioning and not hearing the gentle rain that turned the square of summer dark outside the open garage door into a glowing world of possibility.


Then ABBA happened. Since the Christmas when I was 10 and my brother and I opened the stereo with the 8-track AND cassette player and the microphones you could plug into it and sing along to “Fernando,” we have claimed ABBA as our family back-up singers.

Dancing Queen” in the kitchen of the house Dad built…

“Voulez Vous” in the living room a few Thanksgivings ago when Mom rolled up the rug because hardwood floors are better for twirling…

and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” that night in the garage.

It was my parents dancing on the rain-soaked driveway that brought the young celebrants out of the house to mix with the grown-ups nursing tepid beer but dancing like silly teenagers in the glow of moon and porch light.

Meg dance

Silly boys

P and K

Because mom and dad dancing means that all is right with the world at least for one night. It means that fruitless job searches and pending doctors’ reports don’t carry the weight they like to throw around.

The swinging and shimmy-ing meant that, despite past hurts or daily frustrations or fears for the future, two people, after 50 years, still made a choice to join hands and make their bodies move together like a tribute to the best of the 70s & 80s and to all of us keeping in step.

Dad and mom

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

Graphic: Caris Adel

Read more from this series:

Why Life Between the Lines Matters More than You Think

The Spaces that Hold Our Gardens and Barbs

How to Pray Like a Refugee

Quiet Riot

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

The Weird Transition from Mommy to Mother

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.


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.


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.




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.



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