The Baby Birds That Died

When we moved into our new house, there was a nest on the ledge above our door. When the previous owners were showing us around, they mentioned that the nest had been there for years and that their kids loved it when the birds had babies. All thoughts of knocking it down left me. These two lovebirds had made their home on our house long before it was ours, and they were there to stay.

There were two and they shared a nest; the Mama Bird sitting in the nest, warming the eggs as we would later discover, and Papa Bird standing at attention on the edge of the nest, ready to swoop around anyone who came near. Their presence made leaving our house at night tricky for our guests. We would tell our friends to hunch down low as they walked out of the front door so as not to appear threatening to the birds, which worked most of the time. One time our guests forgot, so Papa Bird swooped into our living room and after much yelling and door opening and broom waving, he exited, having made his point.

Many people rolled their eyes that we kept the nest. My grandpa told us to knock it down because there was a collection of bird poop accumulating to the right of our doormat, but I could not be persuaded. These lovebirds were residents here before us, and we had no right to destroy their home and shoo them away. I felt the same way about the bunny in our backyard that Lucy chased unsuccessfully (mercifully) each morning.

One morning, I heard lots of squeaks outside the door, and when I went outside, I saw little heads poking just above the nest, crying for Mama. I saw these baby birds a few weeks after finding out I was pregnant this past summer, and I was breathless. I remember seeing baby birds in a neighbor’s tree for the first time when I was 10, and I felt like a child again, full of wonder, seeing them poke their beaks in the air, searching for Mama to give them food. The miracle of life right outside my door. How ordinary and miraculous.

After I saw them, I greeted the Mama Bird when I came home from work each night: “Hey Mama, you’re doing great. Those babies are getting so strong.” I lowered my head and hunched down to show Papa Bird that I had no intention of harming his family. As my own tiny hope grew each week this summer, my attachment to those birds grew. “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul,” Emily Dickinson wrote, and it was embodied in Mama Bird. I took those baby birds to be a sign of hope.

Mid-July, I was fighting hope and fear regarding my own pregnancy. Everything looked good, and I could not help that thing with feathers from perching on my soul. The winds of change were blowing in from different directions—my own calling to ministry pulling me forward, my past grief swirling about me waiting to land once again, my fear threatening to blow me over. And one night, winds came in and blew down our actual fence.

JD did the best he could to repair it enough so that Lucy would not be able to enjoy an expansion pack to our backyard, and I checked on the birds—they were safe. But it was time to get a new fence. After a few phone calls and visits from contractors, we knew we would be getting a fence with a new roof and gutters thrown in.

I spent most of my time at the hospital working, and our fence was completed quickly. They began on our roof, and painted our trim, and gave our house a facelift. Change was certainly blowing in.

Then one evening, I pulled into our driveway, stomach grumbling, and went to the front door. I looked up above the door, and they were gone.

The ledge above the door was completely clean: no nest, no birds, nothing. And as tears filled my eyes, I exclaimed, “What kind of heartless bastards knock down a nest of baby birds?!” I mean, really, what kind of animals take out a family of birds, with no regard for its home or the other tenants of the house?

I sent JD a text with instructions to really lay into our contractors for removing the nest to God knows where and didn’t they have any regard for our wishes for the living beings on our property and what kind of monster takes out a nest of baby birds? My beloved husband did talk to the contractors (but he didn’t use words like bastard or monster), who told us the birds were swallows, which were territorial and known for attacking humans by pecking their heads.

Whatever, you heartless beast. Those birds were heavenly beings, and now a curse is probably on your business for knocking their home down.

I was pretty upset for a few days. Sure, I was sad about the baby birds probably dying. I had found it romantic that these birds preceded us at the house, and now they were gone. It was like an erasure of the short history of the house. But most significantly, I wondered what the disappearance of the birds meant for me. I had taken those baby birds and the faithful Mama Bird and protective Papa Bird as signs of hope for my own fledgling pregnancy. They greeted me each day (okay, sure, with a wary eye and a threat to swoop at any moment) with a reminder of new life and growing families.

What kind of sign is the vanishing of the nest? The probable doom of the baby birds? I am not one who takes to signs. But these birds. And Emily Dickinson. How could I not?

I haven’t thought about those birds in awhile. These past few months my mind has been filled with the little heartbeat inside me, my growing belly, the million things to do. I wonder where Mama Bird and Papa Bird are right now. I read that swallows mate for life, and they migrate for the winter. I hope they have found somewhere warm. I also read that they like to nest in the exact same spot each year, so maybe they’ll be back. Maybe I’ll be hunched over my own baby’s head to protect it when leaving the house when the new baby birds are born next summer.

Or maybe the swallows will start over somewhere else. Maybe our new trim and gutters will be foreign to them, and it won’t feel like home. Perhaps they’ll find a new home to lay new eggs.

I still don’t understand how one kills baby birds. And I still don’t have an interpretation for their ruthless murder at the hands of a monster whom I refused to see after his heinous act.

But maybe hope has feathers so it can migrate fresh each year. So it can not only fly old, familiar patterns, but so it also can spread its wings over new flight.

So it can create and recreate home as seasons change. So it can peck the head of bastards who seek to destroy its life.

But in all seriousness, maybe hope has feathers so it can perch lightly and freely, ready to jump off into a beautiful fall at any moment. The thing about hope with its feathers is that it is mobile and unattached and free. It seems fragile, but really it’s agile. It may leave for the winter, but it will be back. Maybe it will nest in a different place, but it will return. It will find its way back faithfully, ready to nestle in again.

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Then I Smelled Poppies

I closed the car door
And gazed at the hospital
Then I smelled poppies

I went to the hospital yesterday, where I’ll be working during the summer, to complete some final tasks before my internship starts. I parked on the street, and as I was inserting the quarters into the meter, I smelled it: poppies.

I have only one memory of ever seeing a poppy in real life. We were in Greece, hiking up the hill at Delphi, and I spotted the papery red flower all by itself in the grass. Amidst the mighty ruins of temples and stadiums, here stood this poppy: delicate, defiant.

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As part of our goodbye ritual for our first due date, we burned a wild poppy scented candle while listening to a song about ruins and death. The wild poppy candle from Method is actually pretty hard to find, so I bought a few just in case Method discontinues the scent. I burn the candle every morning when I sit down at my desk, partly as a way to memorialize what would have been, and partly as a flame of inspiration for what I’m sitting down at the desk for. The candle burns as I write this.

Because of the frequent burning, I know the smell well, and so when I exited my car, thinking about where I needed to go once I entered the hospital, I stopped in my tracks at the smell. I knew that smell anywhere. I looked around at the patches of grass next to the street for poppies, but I didn’t see them. I looked up at the trees and wondered if there were such things as poppy trees, and if so, were these it?

I still don’t know where the smell was coming from or if my candle is even remotely accurate to the smell of actual poppy flowers or the scent was just similar to something nearby. But I smelled the poppies even as I looked up at the multi-floor hospital in front of me.

It wasn’t this particular hospital, but it was medical enough to remind me of my hospital visits. I went to the ER for my first miscarriage, panicked at the sight of blood in my underwear—so much blood—unsure of what was happening, confused by the many people who came in and out of my nook of the ER. Blood work, physical examinations—humiliating examinations—all to be told that yes, you are having a miscarriage, I’m so sorry, it’s just tissue at this point, it’s okay to cry.

Two other times I went to the hospital, but not in a traumatic, blood-soaked frenzy, but rather in a stoic, solemn procession. I was far enough along that the doctor gave me the option of going to sleep pregnant and waking up not pregnant—no angry cramping, no unexpected blood stains. I said yes to those options without even thinking because if I had learned anything about pregnancy, it was that I didn’t have any control over what happens. This was a way I could have control.

I didn’t think about the irony of me working in a hospital this summer until yesterday, until the poppies.

I had thought about helping people in grief, sitting with tears, listening to the ramblings of a person in shock, but I didn’t think about the setting.

My first semester at seminary, I kept thinking, “I am at seminary because I didn’t have a baby.” And that’s true. I won’t rewrite history. But I stay at seminary not because I continue to be childless, but because the minister in me has awakened after a long sleep. Her growth has been stunted by such long suppression, and she needs tending to. Maybe I am birthing a new life, a life that has been part of me but I didn’t know until physical birth seemed such an improbability for me.

I stood in front of the hospital yesterday with nothing in my belly except fire. There was no unforeseen blood, but there was the smell of poppies. I wasn’t filled with dread and sorrow, but rather hope and expectancy. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe I don’t know my scents like I thought I did. But I prefer to think with a little magic. My life has been filled with too much of the destruction of imagination these past two years that I am wary when hope springs up like a lone flower in the midst of ruins, but here it is: delicate, defiant hope.

Part of me wants to jump to conclusions and determine what the smell of poppies means as I entered the hospital to begin a new phase of my life. Another part of me wants to leave it be. Let the poppies and the hospitals coexist without having to mean anything to each other.

I have talked a lot about being hesitant to make any sort of claim on miscarriages and the good that has pushed its way out of the anguish, and I still hold fast to this hesitation. But I am comfortable saying one thing. When I got out of my car yesterday and smelled the poppies, I did not feel sad. I did not feel like I was making a mistake or betraying the memory of the babies-that-would-have-been (a feeling that I have had often). Instead, I felt warm and hopeful and light. I don’t know what that means or if it means anything. But I will take feeling warm and hopeful and light. It has been so long since I felt that.

The flame flickers soft
Scents of wild poppy rise
Fire: Burns and births

Am I Thankful I Was Pregnant?

Awhile back at church, we sang a song that had the line, “The cross is the way to joy.”

The first verse talks about Mary, and asks whether she was thankful for being pregnant with Jesus even though she knew she would have to lose him to death. This got me thinking for the days that followed: Am I grateful I was pregnant even though they ended in loss? Would it have been better if I had not been pregnant?

I have hesitated to ask anything resembling this question because I did not want to enter the terrible theology that comes with responses to loss like “It was God’s will” (then God’s will sucks) or “Blessing in disguise” (wtf) or “God had other plans” (I prefer the first plan—I thought God was pro-life) or “God wanted to bring me closer” (surely God is smarter than thinking that killing the thing I love will make me want to hang out with God) or “God needed another angel” (God is God—make an angel out of something else) or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (what doesn’t kill you immediately can still kill you slowly, daily, with each new pregnancy announcement, negative pregnancy test, and fruitless trip to the doctor) or any of that other garbage. I say this lovingly. Theology that points to dead babies and says “God is in control!” as a first response is not good theology. I cannot stress this enough. But I am getting away from my question.

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Am I thankful that I was pregnant even though the pregnancies ended in death?

Am I a masochist if I say yes? Am I faithless if I say no?

Well, I am grateful for the sojourn that has resulted from the fruitless pregnancies.

I am grateful for the depth that has come from grief’s deep cut.

I am grateful for the strength that has come from weakness and despair.

I am grateful for experiencing the mystery and wonder that comes from a sonogram and morning sickness and two pink lines. It’s like a part of the universe has just been illuminated and opened up, and though I don’t get to walk in that part right now, I have seen it.

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I am grateful for the way that pregnancy and subsequent loss have made me think about the transcendent.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy and subsequent loss shuffled things into different perspectives, though the shuffle was bloody and painful and not the dance I envisioned.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy made me desire both motherhood and a career. I am grateful for the way loss has expanded my view of both of those desires.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy has made me think about God’s womb, God as a mother, too, and God as a grieving parent. I read a piece of theology this semester that described the suffering of the cross as not just the suffering of Jesus, but also the suffering of God, a parent who lost a child.

I am grateful for the way loss has made me ask questions about providence, doubt, faith, and the meaning of life. The change and loss of an existence tends to prompt existential questions.

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I can’t imagine pregnancy without loss at this point. I simply do not know it. That experience has not been opened to me, so it is hard for me to say simply, “I am grateful that I was pregnant.” And I still cannot say, “I am grateful for my miscarriages,” and I’m not sure I need to.

But I do think that I can be grateful that beauty has come out the dark, formless void. When I was in Europe last spring, the phrase “watery grave” kept coming to my mind in regards to my womb. I held not only death inside me, but also a tomb, a deathbed, a haunted place.

As God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth, so, too, God hovers over the empty, lifeless waters of my womb, my life, and is creating, is teaching me to create. Perhaps we are creating something different than I had always planned. I read somewhere that creating is “making something beautiful out of shit.” Maybe that’s what we’re doing.

God, having lost a child, comes beside me, and says, “This is how we do this, reckoning with loss.”

I am grateful for a suffering God, a mothering God, a God for those who leave and those left behind.

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I am grateful for a nuanced understanding of loss and grief and God’s (lack of?) role in it. I am grateful for the dissatisfaction that came with answers I previously thought were sufficient.

I am grateful for the cross of pregnancy and loss, for liminal space, for waiting room vibes.

So I suppose I am grateful I was pregnant.*

I wrote the following a few months ago as I was sitting in a church that was not my own, listening to a sermon about this passage in Philippians, a verse so often appropriated by sports teams and people who do not know what “all things” means, and I was grateful for the perspective that Christ is not so much an empowerer but a companion. Christ does not tell us to “Man up” or “rub some dirt on it” but rather gets underneath the cross we carry and helps us carry it and sits alongside us in the dirt when we get tired.

“I know what it’s like to be pregnant, and I know what it’s like to be not pregnant anymore. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it is to desire pregnancy; I know what it is to fear it. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to see the heartbeat on an ultrasound, and I know what it’s like to hear the words, ‘There is no heartbeat.’ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to feel joy when a friend announces her pregnancy, and I know what it’s like to feel envy, resentment, and sorrow. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to barely get through the day because I have the ultimate secret, and I know what it’s like to barely get through the day because I carry the ultimate grief. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Philippians 4:12-13, my application

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*This is my own personal experience and reflection. I do not believe that one woman’s experience with reproductive loss is prescriptive for all women. If a woman has a different response to miscarriage, that is completely okay, healthy, and welcomed. We are all just trying to navigate life with empty wombs. There is no one right way to do so.

Change of Plans

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A few months ago, I wrote a post about marking the loss of a miscarriage and commented (naively) that it was probably the last post I would write about miscarriage.  But this semester, I have spent all of my theology reading thinking about miscarriages.  I made the comment in class one day that miscarriage is where I do my theology, and so I wrote both of my big papers about miscarriage.

I listened to a podcast recently about grief, and the person being interviewed, who had lost a spouse, said that we are never done with grief–that we are always working it and reworking it.  I have found this to be true.  In each miscarriage I have, the grief is familiar, but it is also new.  Sometimes I think about miscarriage as one big general blob, and other times, I think of each individual loss.  The memories I have of each loss are vivid, but then they are also like the collective darkness that comes with dementors (I read Harry Potter recently–lots of good metaphors of grief in that series).

So…I take it back.  I will be blogging more about loss and grief and miscarriage because these experiences have completely changed my life.  I am not a teacher anymore, but rather a seminary student.  I am rethinking a lot of theology that I grew up with because it seems insufficient to me in the face of perpetual loss.  Last week, I had a meeting about becoming ordained, and I laughed at the end of the meeting and said, “My life looks nothing like it did two years ago, and nothing like I thought it would. But I am hopeful for the first time in two years.”

My work in seminary is always working through the miscarriage filter whether I like it or not, just as I know my classmates are also working their theology through their own filters, and because of that, I feel like the only meaningful things I have to say are about miscarriage.  I have wanted to post more regularly on the blog this semester, but everything good I have had to say has been met with the thought, “Well, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it anymore.”  To not talk about grief is actually kind of stupid and unhealthy.  I am learning this.

I feel, after many months of processing, that I can talk about miscarriage and about theology without having to make them mean anything to each other. And in talking about them this way, they do end up meaning something profound to each other. Just not in the way I expected (or feared).

So I just wanted to check in and let you know that my next few posts (who knows? maybe I will blog about this until I die) will be about miscarriage.  I never thought growing up that I would say the word miscarriage so much, or say it so often in a blog post (13 times), but like I said, my life is completely different now.  I am changed.  Miscarriage.*

*14 times.

 

 

What I Learned This Seminary Semester

I like to do What I’ve Learned posts periodically, especially during chunks of my life where so much is happening all the time. My life has been like that this semester since we recently moved to a new place, started at a new church, JD has a new job, I started seminary, we are looking for our first house, and now we are getting a new car.

When I imagined moving here, I thought about how uneventful our life would be for a few months because we wouldn’t have many friends or routines, but I was so wrong. I feel like every weekend has been packed with events: traveling, house-sitting, so many dinner dates, house-hunting, concerts, the State Fair, seminars, family get-togethers, etc.

On top of our social life, I started graduate school—a long-time dream of mine, especially seminary, and I’ve gone from being the teacher to being the student again. In a seminary that is very different from the school I taught at for the past 3 years, and very different from my undergraduate experience, my life this semester has been bursting full of challenging ideas and joy and existential crises—all the things you’d expect from seminary.

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I began the semester with a post about the permission slips I gave myself as I entered into graduate school, and I have referred back to those slips from time to time over the past few months, mostly when I’ve been feeling defeated or discouraged. I will end the semester with a post about what I have learned in my first semester of graduate school—but it won’t really be about the content I’ve learned because that would be 10,000 words long and you would stop reading soon after this paragraph. But it will be all the other lessons that accompany actual classroom learning.

1. Just because you entertain an idea does not mean you are married to it for life. One of my students last year wrote an essay about a group she was in where they discussed ideas from different religions and philosophies, and she wrote about how enriching that was for her because it gave her a safe place to think about things she had never dared to consider. And she didn’t feel pressured to think one or the other, but she was simply encouraged to think. I thought about that essay a lot this semester, especially during my existential crises.

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It gave me permission to allow myself to read controversial theologians without anxiety because no one was going to zap me for reading it; global warming wasn’t going to speed up just because I had considered an idea vastly different than what I thought I believed. Because if I’m going to invest time and money into graduate school, if I’m going to do seminary, then what is the point in being there if I’m not going to go into it fully open?

For my very first essay in theology, I talked with my professor about what I was wanting to write about it, but I was full of anxiety because I wasn’t exactly sure where I landed on the topic, and I didn’t want to say something heretical or untrue of what I believed. He told me that I may not agree with what I wrote two years from now, and that’s okay. I may not agree with it two weeks from now, and that’s okay. This essay was to work out my own theology, and it was just a step in the process, not the end result. That was so freeing to me because it allowed me to take risks without feeling like my house would come crumbling down.

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2. Physical activity is a safe place. Going for a walk, working out at the rec center, doing yoga in the living room, taking Lucy to the park—all of these things that require my body to move have been ways to let my mind recharge.

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I read for hours every day and think about crazy things (2nd century heresies, process theologians talking plurisingularity, the construction of the Hebrew Bible, and ecofeminism and its connection to theology, to name a few), and when my brain is full, I need to move my body.

I started going to work out right after my classes in order to clear my head, and that has been the best idea I’ve had with how to spend my time. This semester I had a 6 hour stretch between two of my classes, so working out before tackling homework was a good fit. I’m not sure how next semester will bode with time allocation, but I know doing some kind of physical activity will be a part of my schedule.

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3. We learn from people not like us, and find out that perhaps we are more alike than we thought. I knew this on an intellectual level going in, but I am surrounded by people who have had very different faith experiences than me (some very similar—shoutout to the all the former Southern Baptists) and who think about God in very different ways. Interacting and taking part in discussion with my peers has made my rate of learning in the classroom exponentially higher.

I learn so much from the discussions with my classmates. 10 years ago Ashley would have been frightened to discuss theology with people who believe so differently, but now it’s like checking out books from the library without reading the back cover and being pleasantly surprised every time.

In these discussions, it’s been beautiful to see how much common ground we have. We may have different worldviews, but our worldviews intersect a lot at places like a desire for peace, a desire for justice, a nerdy fascination with Christianity’s relationship with power in history, compassion for others, mutual love for rockstars like Anne Lamott, and so on.

4. Existential crises are normal, so just breathe and go for a walk. There have been quite a few moments, especially in my first month, in which I walked out of class feeling like I didn’t know which way was up or down. I would lay in bed wondering if everything I knew was a lie and was I even real?

My mind would flash back to a poet I read in 20th century Spanish Literature in college who talked about life as one long dream of God—which meant God was asleep and not paying attention. What was his name again? If you know the poet, let me know.

I cried because it was as though I was floating like a plastic bag through the air (I had always thought that simile was stupid, but I was wrong, Katy Perry. It’s actually quite apt). I cried because I missed my friends and my church and my favorite taco place. I cried in anxiety, in grief, in stress, in exhaustion.

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But do you know what was most helpful to me in sliding me along those existential train tracks? Ordinary things like taking Lucy for a walk. Or chopping vegetables. Or folding laundry. Or spending the day outside. In the midst of my plastic bag experience, what brought me back to earth was doing ordinary life things.

5. There should be a day, if possible, when you do not touch your schoolwork. Sometimes, that’s impossible (take Thanksgiving week—so many words to write), but if you can work your schedule out, set aside a day where you can lay in your bed in your pajamas watching Netflix without a shred of guilt. Or you can spend hours with your family and friends because you don’t have to get back to Augustine. Better yet, stay offline so you don’t get worked up about politics or see a Gilmore Girls spoiler.

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6. Read something completely disconnected to seminary (which I suppose seminarians could argue that all things are theological, but let’s tune us out for a moment). I’ve read a few novels that never mention God or theology or homework, and they have been good for me. Some things I’ve read: Lila (okay, so this one mentions God) by Marilynne Robinson, The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Paper Towns by John Green, and Rosie by Anne Lamott.

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Next semester, I plan to read through the Harry Potter series. When I start stressing about theories of justice or Pauline arguments, I will retreat to Hogwarts. Nothing bad ever happens there, right?

7. Often it is better to listen, especially when you are new to a conversation. It has been a tough year for all of us. And the last 4 months have been especially disorienting, heartbreaking, challenging, frustrating, etc. With the continued police shootings of unarmed black men and the Trump presidency and all that it means for my friends, I have been able to participate in conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, privilege, economic and social justice, and oppression. If my mind wasn’t blown by plurisingularities before, it was in these conversations.

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The most significant thing I’ve learned is that when I am new to the conversation, it is better to listen. It is better to hear from people who know about these things first hand. It is better to listen to what is said and what is not said.

I have bought a stack of books recommended from these conversations and read articles and blogs that my friends post because I want to know more. I have the privilege to stay ignorant, but I don’t want to.

I have also been a part of many conversations about faith, God, tradition, and scripture in which the views being discussed are new to me. Sometimes I want to say, “But I know the right answer!”

But more often, I want to remember that perhaps there is more than one right answer. Perhaps being right is not what matters. Perhaps there is no right answer. Perhaps I don’t understand what right means. Perhaps I don’t get to decide what is right. Perhaps I don’t understand the conversation if I care about being right. Perhaps this conversation is not a problem or a question that requires an answer. So I listen.

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There were many things I learned this semester, but I will end at 7 because it’s a holy number, and I make lots of nerdy theological jokes like that now.

Closing a Chapter

JD and I moved away recently from our people in Austin, away from our church, away from the place that we twirled around in joy over babies that we subsequently lost. I struggled with how I was supposed to leave a place that felt connected to the short lives I had held, how I was supposed to “move on”, whatever that means.

As a culture, we are not very good with ritual. We don’t mourn well. We are often uncomfortable with grief, shifting from side to side, waiting for tears to stop and sniffles to cease. Because of this, there’s not really a way to mourn the loss of a baby in utero. Part of this is because there’s debate over when life begins. Part of it is because women experience the loss differently. Part of it is because we are a culture that is shiny and perfect, and things like miscarriage mess with that image. It doesn’t fit into the cultural narrative that dictates much of our life.

But that doesn’t stop us from desiring meaning in our losses, for needing a way to mark a loss. It just means we’re not good at it.

I wanted to share what I’ve done to mark the losses because I know (personally and based on statistics) that many women experience miscarriages. As I’ve shared about mine on the blog, I’ve been astounded by the amount of people who have said, “Me, too.” For some reason, I feel compelled to write about my miscarriages on a public blog, but not everyone shares it with their Facebook world, so to get this response is humbling, heartbreaking, and unifying. These little lives have changed our lives, whether we talk about them or not. I have chosen to talk about them, and I wanted to share the ways I’ve marked their presence in my life.

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The first memorializing thing I did was a write a letter to my babies. I did it one Saturday morning before JD woke up, and it took me ten minutes to write the word goodbye. I sobbed about as hard as that first night that I lost them. In the letter, I shared memories of telling JD I was pregnant. I told them that we had planned to raise them American-Hungarian, so they would have been weirdos in both countries. I told them how much I missed them, how much I loved them.

For a few days after I finished, I didn’t feel much better. I thought it was going to be some magical spell that made me feel ready to move on with my life, but that’s not what happened. I just felt like I had a hangover.

But it was an important marker because I had acknowledged in writing, in something I could hold onto, that they existed and mattered to me. That they still matter. That they are a part of our family story, and I will not forget them.

This opened the door for further exploration of marking these losses, so I eventually decided to get a tattoo. I struggled with whether this was impulsive, but after discussing at length with JD and my therapist, I felt like it was what I wanted to do to carry them with me. I realize not everyone is up for ink, but I had already had a tattoo, so this was not much of a stretch for me. I bounced around a couple of ideas, but I finally settled on a wild poppy flower.

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When JD and I were in Greece, we visited a place of ancient magic, Delphi. It was a sports arena, a temple to the gods, a place of freedom for slaves, and a stop for the wanderers with questions People went there to ask oracles their most important questions, and instead of getting an answer or advice or a fortune, they received a riddle. Their answer was open for interpretation and ambiguity, just like poetry. This response to deep, dark questions was what I was seeking, too, more than a pat answer or Bible verse.

We ran our fingers over the stone walls that held contracts assigning slaves over to be slaves to the gods. The idea was that if you freed a slave, people could just enslave them again. But if you gave a slave over to the gods, they could not be enslaved by someone else, and lucky for the slaves, the gods were not known for calling up their slaves for duty. Essentially, these slaves were free women and men.

On our trek up Delphi’s hill, the lush green surrounded us and we gazed up at the fog-obscured mountaintops, trying to envision the gods looking down on us. As we walked, we found a lone, red poppy flower. I snapped pictures of it, I wrote a poem about it, I stared at its black eye, begging for a riddle. It was thin, papery, delicate. This little wildflower was juxtaposed with the mighty ruins of Greece, and with these images, this place burrowed itself into our hearts.

Thus, the poppy tattoo. I put it on my arm, so that when I do finally carry a baby of my own, I will be carrying my other babies, too.

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This was the second marker.

Finally, I knew that a few days before we moved, I had to pass through my first due date. With my first pregnancy, my due date was June 26. With my second, October 11. JD and I brainstormed one evening a few days before the first date what we should do to remember them. What was “us”? What was something that we could find meaningful and intimate in our remembrance of these lost would-be lives?

We settled on lighting a single candle (wild poppy scent) and playing the few songs I had listened to over and over right after the miscarriage. We cried together in the darkness, and mourned what would have been on that day.

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After these three things, I don’t feel like I am suddenly ready to move on with my life. I don’t feel much stronger when I see pregnancy announcements, or big baby bellies, or little, wiggly bodies with their little toes and little fingers.

But I feel like I have marked my babies’ presence in my life. I have said, “You were here. You changed me. I am different because you existed. I will not forget you.” It was important for me to be able to say those things in some form or another.

This is probably the last post I will dedicate to talking about my miscarriages, but I felt like it was an important one on which to end.  Not everyone grieves a miscarriage or a loss like I have, and not everyone will mark theirs in the same way, but this is what I’ve found to be comforting and meaningful. Just like a memorial service marks the passing of a great life, so these small things have marked the passing of these small, yet significant would-be lives.

If you have a lost a baby, what have you done to mark their passing? How have you remembered them?

Permission Slips: Graduate School

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When we moved back to Texas after living in Arkansas for a few years, I needed to change my driver’s license. I had let it expire in Arkansas, and since we were moving to Texas soon anyway, I didn’t do anything about it. Then I dragged my feet in going to the DMV, and so when I finally sat down in front of the DMV clerk to get it changed, my license had been expired for an embarrassing amount of time. I wasn’t too worried because I had let my license expire once in Texas when I was in high school, and nothing happened when I went to renew it except a scolding, so I expected to waltz out with a new license, having not learned my lesson.

However, as I looked around while the clerk entered my information, I was unprepared for what it meant to let my license expire across state lines. Because my license was from another state and it had expired, the clerk informed me that not only would I have to retest for my license, I would also have to attend Drivers Ed. DRIVERS ED. I felt the dread sink from the top of my head down to the pit of my stomach. I taught sophomores, and many of them were learning how to drive, and all I could think of was that I would be classmates with my students. I was a new teacher that year, and I was desperately trying to prove myself. I pleaded with this clerk, who had been transfigured into the one person who could save me from humiliation and hours of boredom: what about my Texas license that existed before the Arkansas license? Isn’t there anything we could do?

I’m happy to report that she was an angel of mercy that day because even though technically we couldn’t use the Texas license, we did, and all I had to do was get my picture taken to be issued a new license. May the Lord rain down blessings on her for the rest of her life. May my pride and procrastination be cursed to hell.

Of course, this story could be framed as a lesson for not making assumptions, for doing things in a timely manner, for extending people grace, for pride going before a fall, etc. But to me, it’s a moment in which the hierarchy of authority with my students almost became flat before I was ready for it. I was almost a classmate to a group that I was supposed to be in charge of and imparting wisdom upon and bestowing knowledge on, etc. I think back to this moment as I sit here on a Saturday morning, getting ready to begin some pre-homework for class in the coming week.

I begin a graduate program on Monday. Many of my seniors from last year will begin their first year of college on Monday, too. Former students will begin their second and third years of college, and they probably feel like old pros at this point, which makes my 26-year-old self feel a little old.

I’ve been reflecting on this parallel course with some of the best 18-year-olds I know for the past few weeks. As a new student again, I feel small and bright-eyed and timid.

I stare at my campus map looking for the right office and I consider getting new rain boots as I step into another puddle.

I search Amazon for the cheapest book option and I stand alongside 7-year-olds at Target as I choose a pencil bag.

I twiddle my thumbs and try not to stare at my phone compulsively so that I can look welcoming for a new friend.

I wonder about making friends.

About class discussions (I’m used to being the facilitator, not a participant, and I suddenly regret making the quiet chime in over the past few years).

About looking stupid.

My mind reels from the deluge of information and interactions at orientation, and I chatter incessantly to JD about the things I’m excited about and nervous about, and I wonder if I will be able to fall asleep on Sunday night. The hierarchy has finally become flat.

Last Christmas, I read Brene Brown’s newest book, Rising Strong, and in it, she talks about writing herself permission slips for certain seasons of her life. I latched onto this idea the moment I read it, and I wrote permission slips for myself for grieving, for teaching, for moving to a new place.

They have been significant in letting myself feel my feelings instead of saying to myself, “You shouldn’t feel this way! You shouldn’t do that!” It is good to come back to these slips in the midst of stress and noise and deadlines because they hearken me back to the time of hopefulness and perspective and stillness.

Now, I write permission slips for beginning graduate school. I think these apply to undergraduate school, too, and as I type out, “I give myself permission to look stupid,” I think warmly of my students, especially the ones who may be afraid to get a B in a class, or afraid to speak up in a heated class discussion, or afraid to raise their hand and give an answer they are unsure of.

It’s okay to be afraid. You can still be brave if you feel afraid.

So for new students, for those who are beginning something new, for myself, here are my permission slips:

I give myself permission to…

Be really nerdy (color-coded notes? Yes, please. Giddy laughter over readings? For sure).

Get to class early.

Not know the answer.

Feel stupid.

Be wrong.

Change my mind.

Fail big time.

Fail little time.

Be uncertain of my belief.

Look up big, fancy terms that my classmates or professors may use.

Be myself.

Be an introvert.

Find other introverts.

Practice being an extrovert from time to time.

Connect with others instead of compete with them.

Speak up.

Stay quiet (but not forever!).

Remember fear is normal.

Remember being brave means showing up and trying, even if I still feel afraid.

“Remember ego feels pushy and afraid, and calling feels kind and free” (Emily Freeman)

Remember everyone is coming from a million different places and respect that.

Study things that intimidate me.

Cry when I’m stressed out.

Make mistakes, and then apologize.

Set things aside when I need to rest.

Listen to my body for cues.

Take naps.

Take care of myself through exercise, sleep, down time, coffee, chocolate, puppy time, etc.

Binge-watch Netflix when I’m tired.

Try new things, even if I end up not liking them.

Stutter when I get excited.

Ask a million questions.

Verbally process things.

Let ideas stew inside for awhile.

Get a B in a class.

Be frustrated.

Make unlikely friends.

Make likely friends.

Take time making friends.

Freak out, but then calm down.

Be honest.

Be vulnerable with safe people.

Wait for safe people.

Take a moment to accept myself instead of hustling for approval.

Be gentle with myself when I fail, fall, rush, shame, or frustrate myself.
May we give ourselves permission to be human and to experience new things in our own way. May we not lose ourselves in the waves of change, but rather learn how to swim. May we be patient and gracious with ourselves always.