Talking to God with Excel

This really cool thing happened today. It starts out like the most boring story ever, but then it gets awesome I promise.

At the office where I (used to) work, we use an Excel spreadsheet as our timesheet. This particular spreadsheet only gives you a certain number of rows, and as the weeks go by, eventually you use them all up and you have to add more (this is the really dull part I warned you about).

Several months ago – the last time I added more rows to my timesheet – I was holding theOption key and hitting the down arrow, and they row count got to 100. And I thought, with only a minimum amount of gumption: That’s got to be enough. I won’t be working here anymore after that.

This was long before I had any real ideas about what or where I might move on to, but had only the feeling that I had probably better be moving on soon. Nevertheless I set my intention in this vague and halfhearted way, and didn’t think of it again until today.

And then, on my second-to-last-day in this office, I opened up my timesheet and guess what line I used? That’s right: line 99. That means that Friday, on my last day in the office, I’ll fill in line 100.

My first thought is Oh my God they listened. I asked the universe to show me a different path, and I gave a deadline, and it happened. This appeared at first glance like glaring proof of the most elementary understanding of what prayer is: We ask, and we are given. God as problem-solver.

I know that the cynics among us will be writing this off as a coincidence, and I must admit that amidst all the optimism I’m also remembering the times I have gotten down on my knees and begged and no one has seen fit to answer. I have walked miles in the night with no path but my one step in front of the last and not a star in the sky by which to find my way. I will not be an easy one to convince that prayer is a reliable problem-solving tool.

I do not presume to understand the workings of the universe we inhabit, but I do know that we get to choose how we interpret the facts, and I’m the kind of person who chooses to see meaning where others see nothing at all. I’m the sort that’s going to chalk this all up to divine intervention; to the perfect order of this interconnected web we call existence.

It doesn’t really matter whether there’s any objective truth in this, only that it works for me. Choosing to see meaning is what allows me to feel hope, to believe in love, to see beauty in a broken world. So I remain willing to see the signs when they come through in a language that’s clear enough to reach me, foggy and sleep distracted as I am, though I must say that Microsoft Excel is not my preferred medium through which to communicate with the Gods. Sometimes you gotta just take what you can get.

Like riding a bicycle over a mountain

Two times I have ridden my bicycle from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee through the mountains to Asheville, North Carolina. Both times the ride took us most of three days, though I often hear of people doing it in two and occasionally in one. There’s a novel’s worth of stories tied up in those bike trips, but lately I have been thinking about the few miles of Highway 25 on the far side of Hot Springs, North Carolina.

Hot Springs is a tiny mountain town that is mostly campground with the Appalachian Trail and the French Broad River running right through the middle. The ride into Hot Springs is stunning. Highway 25 mostly follows the French Broad through the sparsely populated and fertile river valley. We spent our time pedaling easily side by side, telling stories and laughing and dreaming big dreams. We ate our lunch on a boat ramp by the river, and slept peacefully amongst the trees.

Both times I did this ride we coasted triumphantly in Hot Springs, flying down from the ridgeline into the valley and leaning our bikes against the wall at a place aptly named “The Restaurant,” where we devoured veritable mountains of potatoes and eggs and slices of pie feeling bold and courageous and overall quite pleased with ourselves. We set up our tents by the river and slept deep.

And in the morning, we loaded our bikes with our tent and sleeping bags and food and water for the day, pointed them towards Asheville with sleep still in our eyes, and pushed off onto the pavement. Almost immediately we began to climb, and all day as the sun inched its way across the sky, the road just kept winding up the mountain, and we kept on climbing.

Lots of you reading this will know exactly what this feels like. Lots of you have ridden your bike up this very same stretch of road. But if you have never been on a bike tour, or ridden your bike up a hill so big you couldn’t see the top and didn’t know when it would end, here’s what it’s like:

In the beginning you feel tough and courageous, you drop down into your lowest gear and you set your teeth for the long haul. “I got this;” you think, “How bad can it be?” Between each bend in the road, you are hanging on to the thin hope that around the next bend you will see the top of the mountain, but around each bend you are crushed by the discovery of only more pavement climbing interminably upward. You spin your pedals wearily, but you are all too aware that really a toddler could walk faster than you are moving right now. The cars speed past you on the highway, and their drivers turn to look at you with some mixture of pity and concern and horror, like clearly no sane person would intentionally do what you are doing right now. You try to remember whose idea this was anyway, and in your mind you lash out at everyone who played a part in convincing you to go on such a stupid trip, including yourself. You think about stopping, taking just a little break, before you keep going. And maybe you try that once, but you feel even more exhausted after resting than you did before you stopped. So there’s nothing to do but to keep on trudging.

I have been thinking about this few miles of highway because this is what my life has felt like lately. Like I have been hauling ass, working as hard as I can just to get someplace, but the terrain is unrelenting and no matter what I do I cannot move faster than an inching crawl. Every time I come around a bend, instead of seeing the top of the mountain I just see more climbing, and another bend, and another bend. You start to wonder how much longer you can stay on the bike.

Last week I didn’t get a job. It was a job that I really wanted, a job that I had really settled in my mind as being my way out. It was my top of the mountain, my golden ticket: I was gonna get that job, and then Joseph and I were gonna be just fine. We’d have enough money to buy a house, even. To afford our own groceries. To go out to dinner and not always buy the cheapest thing possible.

But I didn’t get the job. I was crushed. Now what are we gonna do? I thought frantically. It was like I had just enough hope and courage to get myself around the last bend, and I was just sure that I was gonna see blue sky at the top, but instead I just saw another mile of twisting pavement, and someone had tied a ten pound bag of rocks to my already loaded down bike, and then it started to rain.

That sounds a bit melodramatic, but things are much more likely to feel like a disaster when now that I am the sole person responsible for an infant.

Many times during that climb out of Hot Springs and during the weeks afterwards when we traveled the length of Georgia and back, I’d be feeling tired or achy and we would pass a lovely old oak tree casting a wide cool shadow on the grass, and I’d want nothing more than to get off my bike and lie down and maybe-probably-not ever get back on a bicycle ever again. Or just rest for a few minutes and eat about a pound of trail mix, whatever I could talk the rest of the crew into.

But never once did the courage I needed to keep going come from stopping and lying down on the side of the road. It came from way deep down inside somewhere, from the part of me that knows myself to be powerful and courageous and capable, that knew I could climb the last mountain and somehow knows that I’ll be able to climb this one too.

Last week I protected myself from despair by attacking the job search with a renewed fury. And, in the charmed way that the fates so often present themselves, a few days later I was accepting a different and in many ways much better suited job — one that’s going to let me do the work I love and support myself and Joseph and not have to be away from him eight hours a day every day, one that’s going to leave me free to keep writing and educating myself and making art and teaching children and building community.

And it’s very slowly settling in: I see the top of the mountain. Pretty soon I’m goanna stand at the crest of the ridge and let the wind dry my sweat. There’s gonna be more mountains to climb, there’s gonna be rolling foothills and headwinds and days where you ride all day in a cold rain and sleep in a wet sleeping bag. But every time you get to the top of a climb, you know a little bit better what you are capable of.

It’s like Anne Lamott says in her book Operating Instructions, a journal of the first year of her son’s life: “…it turns out you’ve already gone ahead and done it before you realize you couldn’t possibly do it, not in a million years.”

My first (and 25th) Mother’s Day

This is my first Mother’s Day as mother to a child who is born of my body, but it is also my 25th Mother’s Day as a daughter.

In beginning to write about Mother’s Day, about this enormous whole that is motherhood, I find myself stumbling the old familiar way I have always stumbled around Mother’s Day. Even as a kid, long before I could understand what it meant to be a mother, or to be mymother, I couldn’t help but feel like even my most genuine effort at appreciation and gratitude didn’t even scratch the surface of what was owed to my mother. This one day of the year, even with all it’s brunches and flower arrangements and chocolates and heart-shaped-pancakes, it just can’t be enough, right?

Right. The sacrifices of mothers for their children cannot be numbered. My own transition into motherhood has meant giving up “sleeping through the night” (a phrase that at this point feels just as grounded in reality as “peace on earth”), the luxury of ever taking a shower alone, my evening-hours social life, and my ability to begin and complete a task in one go to name a few, not to mention the loss of the woman that I was before I was Joseph’s mother and the real-if temporary-sacrifice of my body as I lent it to Joseph as his first home. The work and the struggle that our mothers engage and endure to raise us becomes more real to me every day as I walk through it myself. But my new perspective as a freshly-wrought mother has me thinking that I’ve had Mother’s Day wrong this whole time.

A phrase I hear all the time goes like this: Motherhood is the most challenging and most rewarding job you’ll ever have. At the first ring, it sounds true enough. But if that were true, then there would be some eventual possibility of being compensated fairly for it, to be paid something like a living wage for Mothering. The laughability of such a proposition is telling. The idea that a child might even try to repay some little bit of the care and love given by their mother undermines what it means To Be A Mother.

The story of Joseph’s birth is for another day, but what happened as he breathed his first breaths lying there all slimy and soft on my chest was nothing short of magic. In the same mysterious and impossible way the alchemist transforms straw into gold, I was transformed at once and forever into this child’s mother.

I do not want to romanticize or simplify. It was beautiful and I am grateful beyond belief, yes. Becoming Joseph’s mother also meant undergoing the brutal loss of the woman I was before, and I am still mourning her. I also recognize that actively mothering my child is choice that not everyone makes.

All that being said, to me a mother is something like the rain, and we should no more seek to repay her for her work as the oak should seek to repay the rain for nourishing her roots and nursing her acorns to life.

The rain, like our mothers, gives us gifts beyond measure, but there is not a feeling of indebtedness. It is easy to recognize that the rain is merely playing her part in the complex and perfect pattern of existence.

Do I thank the rain? Yes. I stand at my window and see her falling gently on the vulnerable new sprouts setting their roots in our garden beds, and aloud I say thank you. I walk in the morning and see the woods shining with the brightness of the night’s rain, and I say thank you. I lay down with my baby in our attic bedroom and I am lulled to sleep by her singing on the roof, and I say thank you.

But so much better does the earth thank the rain. Our sprouts thank her with their growth, by becoming strong and tall and bearing fruit, the forest thanks her with it’s shining vitality, by lifting its’ leaves towards the sun. Thus we might aspire to thank our own mothers. With professions of appreciation and gratitude, certainly, but also with our own thriving. Go forth, be an amazing human being, become your best self.

Because at the end of the day, after I’ve stuffed myself full to bursting of chocolate chip pancakes and I’ve hung my cards up on my desk and the flowers are adorning the kitchen table, what brings my heart the most joy is to see Joseph taking his first unsteady yet determined crawl, or finally warming to the arms of a new friend, or devouring a whole hard boiled egg, or laughing hysterically at the slapstick stylings of my roommate’s three year old. Then I know for sure that I am appreciated, and that I am doing a damn fine job.

Midnight Hole and the yellow butterfly magic

Midnight Hole is exactly as I remember it as a child, not any smaller or any less mysterious. The water of Big Creek roars off a ledge at one end in a thick white foam that eventually settles into a pool that is darker and deeper seems possible for a humble mountain stream.

Opposite the waterfall, the pool comes gently up to a bank of small stones only knee deep underwater, and on the hottest days of summer this bank is lined with people, knees knocking together and feet slowly surrendering to numbness as they wait for the courage to dive in.

I made my first such dive as a child of seven or eight and I thought I must certainly have died. My lungs refused to draw breath and my limbs would not heed my frantic pleas: Do something, anything! After a desperate and ungainly scramble I found myself at the other side, and when I looked back at the shivering row of bathers, it was as though I was looking back with brand-new eyes.

This bright morning in April, baby Joseph and I arrived at Midnight Hole to find it empty of such swimmers. The sun had just risen over the ridge and poured into the clearing, lighting up the leaves and branches still hanging heavy-jeweled with the night’s rain.

On the dark sandy soil of the bank, there was a flock of yellow striped butterflies, basking their wings in the sunlight and drinking dampness from the ground with long dark curved tongues. I set Joseph down on to watch, and in surprise or perhaps delight, the butterflies lifted into flight, circling him in their erratic and weightless silence, yellow wings flashing in the sunlight.

As they flew around him for what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, he sat, completely absorbed in the wonder of this spectacle, his baby hands paused mid-gesture and little pink mouth hanging open, and as I knelt in the dark sand watching him I thought This moment redeems all the other moments in which I have failed.  If I have done nothing else good as his mother, I have at least given him this one gift, this one experience of real magic and beauty of life.

There have been a thousand-and-one failures. The failures that we do not like to talk about – the times I was not patient, when my arms lost their gentleness as I paced up and down and up and down the driveway rocking Joseph to sleep, or when I was not close enough to catch him when he fell. A thousand-and-one times when I did not have my sh-t together, when I forgot to pack us lunch, when I let the dishes pile and pile and pile or the laundry sat clean and unfolded in a heap on the bedroom floor for a week.

The whole chain of events that led us to Midnight Hole was one such failure: we were supposed to fly to Canada to visit Joseph’s Aunt Lizzie. We got up before dawn and Rose drove us to the airport in the dark and as I stood there in the fluorescent light in front of the ticket counter, my sleepless nerves jangling loosely inside my skin, the grey-haired woman in her drab airline uniform shook her head as though at a child who had asked an adorably ignorant question: You can’t fly into Canada without a passport for the baby, ma’am. You might be able to walk across the border, but you just cain’t fly.

My self-loathing was deep but short-lived. My: What kind of idiot doesn’t think to ask if the baby needs a passport? Quickly gave way to: Well, now I have the next 5 days free, what are we going to do?

A brief stop at home resulted in my tent, sleeping bag, and some hastily packed food provisions thrown in the trunk, and a vague plan forming in the haze of my mind. A few hours later after one long detour across the North Carolina border, a helpful conversation and a free map from some sweet ladies at the North Carolina Welcome Center, we found ourselves finally in the gravel parking lot of Big Creek Campground, and the next day we stumbled upon this perfect wonder of Midnight Hole and the Yellow Butterfly Magic.

To be certain, I will continue to make mistakes. I will fail and fail and fail again. The best I can ask for is resiliency in the face of failures, the ability to forgive myself for what I did not know until I knew it, and faith that somewhere along the way, no where close to where I thought it would be, I might find a little magic, or a deep green swimming hole, or a few yellow butterflies.