Hey Universe, I’m currently single.

I have been having this recurring dream.

It’s the day of my wedding, and all the people that love me are arriving from all over. Joseph is there. The aisle and the altar are set. I am in the bridal chamber, surrounded by my bridesmaids and my mother. There is the energetic, optimistic hustle in the air, the happy busy-ness that characterizes the hours before any big celebration.

In the dream I am buttoning the last little pearl on my tiny white satin shoe, bent over my knees pushing yards of tulle and satin out of the way, when suddenly I realize: I have no one to marry. 

This realization strikes me in much the same way as would the realization that you forgot to order the wedding cake, to pick up your aunt from the airport, to book a photographer. Shit, I totally forgot. Except of course, you can still get married without a cake, your aunt, or the photographer. You can’t get married without a partner.

Last weekend I had a conversation with my shockingly gregarious and exuberant friend & member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Jeff, that went like this:

Jeff: Lauren, is this your new husband?!

Me: No, this is my friend Bryan. Actually, I’ve never been married.

Jeff: What?! I thought you had lots of husbands!

Me: Nope, no husbands.

 Just to be clear: I’ve never had anything close to a husband. And until recently, I wasn’t all too sure that marriage was really something to aim for. But now I keep having this dream.

I am someone who pays attention to dreams. I have been rewarded time and time again as they show me things that I cannot see with my waking eyes. But this dream I didn’t want to pay attention to.

The first time it visited me I woke up thinking God, that was pathetic. How depressing. I shook my shoulders like a horse trying to shake a fly, dragged myself from bed, got myself and Joseph dressed for the day.

The second time I thought That dream again? I don’t have time for this.

The third and fourth times I woke up reconciled to the now familiar and growing stone in my stomach, a gift for the day left by this dream.

And then I dreamed it again. Alright alright alright already! I hear you! Like a ghost haunting her old home, this dream is going to keep hanging around until I look it in the eyes and listen to what it needs.

So I let the dream in, I let it do it’s work for a day or two. We had a couple of really good conversations in the car while I drove to work, in the late afternoon as the sunlight scattered across Third Creek Greenway and Joseph dozed in his second-hand stroller. In the end the dream persuaded me, so here goes:

I am ready for a life partner.

There, I said it.

For the last year and a half I have put all I’ve got into healing my heart from the destruction of an abusive relationship, into building a stable and healthy and happy life for me and Joseph, into drawing my chosen family close around us, into aligning my work with my values, into making the preparations.

And I/we are as ready as I/we’ll ever be. I have retrained my heart to no longer seek out men who are constitutionally unable to be the stable loving partner that I seek. We are surrounded at every turn by a strong and loving and supportive community made up of some of the most exceptional human beings I could hope to know. I am working a job that connects me to the work of making our world a more loving place. I am buttoning the last pearl on my tiny white slipper, but I remain terrified to ask for partnership.

I am ready for a life partner.

There, I said it again! (Are you listening, dream? Are you listening, Universe?)

I must admit that I am standing on shoulders as I write this. Back in the spring, my sensitive, talented, wonderful friend Elias Attea (who is also an astonishing writer, artist, musician, grower, teacher, whose thoughts you can read here) posted this message on Facebook:

What I don’t understand is how it’s socially accepted to hide in the depths of some server, advertising yourself as single, interested, or looking for hook ups, but it’s not so socially comfortable to be so forward as to wear a sign around your head saying, “Hello, I’m single looking for (name your preference). Or it to be the first thing to bring up in conversation after introducing your name.”

Well, facebook, it’s not quite the same, but it seems that these channels are also rare of postings for intimacy.

In which case, I’ll be comfortable in sharing, “hello, I’m currently single. Would you like to go on a walk sometime? I do hold the intent of forming relations platonic, romantic, or intimate. I am a person to both push and find refuge with others. Phone me, message me.’

It’s out there universe.

It is a terribly vulnerable thing to say out loud, and we all know the terror of vulnerability. My particular fear is bolstered by the destruction I was subject to last time I opened up my heart. But speaking our intention is the first step, and I believe in the old saying that we get what we’re asking for.

So, I’ll take my cues from Elias and say it again:

Hey Universe, I’m currently single. Would you like to drink a cup of coffee together? Would you like to go for a walk sometime? I am open to a relationship of companionship, romance, intimacy, and partnership.  

(Are you listening, dream? Are you listening, Universe?)

A Troll Under the Bridge

I owe just about everyone I know an apology: I’m sorry, because I have been a real curmudgeon lately.

I don’t know what it is (I have a conjecture or two that I’ll get to in a minute) but I just have this bad attitude that I can’t seem to shake.

I could call it a lot of different things: anger, resentment, jealousy, exhaustion, mourning, and I feel all those things at different times, but I want to explore the idea that what this boils down to is bitterness. By bitterness I mean that resolved rejection of the idea that goodness exists in people or in the world at large, a refusal to acknowledge that healing is possible, a choice to remain frozen in all the ways that the world has broken our heart.

A few days ago I went to the library and pulled out a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. I’ll admit with some embarrassment that this is the firs9780374504649t of her work that I’ve read, and the first story was like a slap in the face. These people are horrible! I thought. I don’t know if I can keep reading this.

But I did, and each story is the same: full of scheming people being awful to one another until the end of the story where they all wind up dying or killing the person they most love. These stories are bitterness in the flesh and talking back. They are viscerally disgusting, they illicit a response similar to that you might feel passing a possum in the road that’s been dead about three days in the middle of August in the south. Revulsion mixed with sorrow that such a thing could be so knowable, so commonplace in our world.

I’m not a literary critic, and I’m happy to have permanently left book reports behind me in grade school. But I am somebody who regularly escapes into literature, and I am also somebody who does not believe in coincidence. Thus I found myself asking Why did I pick this book off the shelf? What am I supposed to be learning here?

At first it felt like the lesson being taught me was that people are awful, that we are incapable of love, motivated only by self-interest, and that our lives can end only in senseless tragedy. If this is the truth, then I don’t want to know it, I found myself thinking, just about ready to put the book down for good.

Then it hit me: these stories are warnings. That slap in the face? That was me seeing myself in these people, in their unwillingness to recognize goodness, in their rejection of love, in their insistence on disconnection and resentment. That’s me all over the place, the realization knocked me down and dragged me under, like the wave that pulls you under and tumbles you across the sandy sea floor before it spits you out on the beach, nose full of seawater and perhaps without your shorts. Humility is rarely brought about gently.

It is so easy to fall in to the trap that bitterness opens. This false belief that no one understands or cares about your struggles, that we’re alone in it all, that love isn’t real. Being one of the first of my friends to have a baby, resentment and misunderstanding come easily. Motherhood and caring for Joseph require modes of functioning and levels of responsibility that I would not choose were it not for his existence, and that my friends have of course not chosen, nor do they have the need to do so. There are many things that were central to my identity and happiness before his birth that I can no longer participate in: think bicycle-as-primary-transportation, dumpster-as-food-source, live music after 7 pm, and so on.

When I am always the first person to say goodbye, to turn towards home while everyone else turns towards adventure, it is easy to retreat into my shell of bitterness. If I do not allow myself to feel love and connection in the first place, then this temporary exclusion is more bearable. I go home and feel sorry for myself, reflect on how nobody understands what it’s like to be a single mother or gives a shit whether I’m included, and resolve how my life is full of gaping holes left by Things I Used To Be Able To Do.

Repeat this process a few days in a row and pretty soon I’ve turned into the troll under the bridge, hiding in the darkness waiting for someone to come along so I can play a mean trick and gobble them up.

So this morning I set a timer for ten minutes and I sat down to write a list of Reasons My Life Is Amazing. Someday I’ll give myself three hours for this exercise, and I’m sure that I’ll never run out of reasons. But this morning ten minutes was enough to transform me from troll back into human being, my big squishy heart full to bursting sitting in the sunshine on the wood planks of the bridge, open wide to whatever joy or pain might come our way.

Reasons My Life Is Amazing #13:

I have some of the most amazing friends a person could ask for. People who are willing to stick with me even when I am grumpy and awful for weeks at a time. Even when all I can manage to do is complain and push them away, they’re still there waiting with understanding when I eventually come around. Friendship is hard! But I know some of the most incredible people who have come down to walk around on this earth. I mean that as a fact.

Here is my apology, though it won’t reach every one who is deserving of it. I am resolved to stay up here in the sunshine, though I know I’ll end up as a troll under the bridge one day. All I can hope is that when that day comes, I’ll remember to go for a walk in the woods, or write a list of reasons my life is amazing, or go to the library and check out Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge.

 

 

 

Not Sleeping

We step through the front door way and my bare foot lands on the slick painted surface of the wide front porch. It is raining and thank God because Joseph has been crying for two hours now and I have been pacing back and forth in our stuffy attic bedroom clutching this screaming baby to my chest the whole time, and the two of us together had just about used up all the oxygen up there. The rock salt lamp casts a warm glow over our bed and the little grey sound machine is supposed to duplicate the soothing underwater sounds of life inside the womb, but right now the warm glow is looking a little bit too much like the pits of hell and the roar of the sound machine is filling up my head with steel wool.

Outside he’s still wailing the wild scream of a suffering and now hysterical and now furious baby, but at least I can share the burden of listening helplessly with the rain. The pastoral scene that surrounds this little white farmhouse has long since given way to the night, and what light is left is only enough to smudge the field and forested hillsides with a grey like spilled paint water. With the screen of falling rain what’s left of the landscape might not be there at all. Hell, I could be asleep right now, I can’t even tell anymore.

For a moment the sweet damp smell of earth drinking the rain fills me up and I remember that my son is not punishing me, he is suffering. For a precious moment his cries soften to a pathetic sniffling and he allows me to hold him. My anger swells to sadness and I lower my cheek to rest on top of his head. His fine hair is soaked with sweat from the exertion of emotion. In the darkness you cannot see its reddish tint, the only gift his dad left him, so that in the sunlight it is as the finest copper wire. I praise God for the quiet and sing a few hallelujah’s that never leave my throat, but too soon the miserable shrieks burst forth with renewed vigor. His tiny fists push angrily at my chest. We are equally helpless, hopeless, angry, despairing.

This is the second night of this – this inconsolable screaming for hours and hours – and I reached the limit of what I could stand around minute 17. I picked him up by an arm and a leg and dropped him with less care than I would like to admit on his little mattress sandwiched adorably between mine and the wall, rolled on to my back stretched out to my full length and pressed my fingers as hard as I could into my eye sockets. We just lay there next to each other for a minute, Joseph screaming at this new injustice of abandonment, and me just trying to cry or think of some shatterable object that wouldn’t matter too much if I threw it against the wall.

I had already done everything I know how to do, and I was momentarily paralyzed by the certain realization that I am failing as a mother and I cannot possibly go on even for one more minute. But right alongside this realization was the knowledge that – like pumping blood down to my fingertips and back – this is not something that I get to quit until something with a little more authority than me says so.

So I sat up and hit the bed between my feet with my pillow a couple times and that’s when I noticed that it’s still raining.

That’s how we ended up here, pacing back and forth on the porch, my body feeling like the house we walked past holding hands, the house that looked just a little weather worn until we came around the corner and saw that it was really only the face of a house, balanced on a broken foundation and propped up by skinny two by fours held in place with what couldn’t possibly be enough galvanized three inch nails.

Joseph. I say his name out loud as though I am about to begin reasonable conversation in which I explain that he need only tell me what he needs and I will happily get it for him, that all this crying just really isn’t getting us anywhere.

He is in my arms the left one, ever so much stronger than the right, hooked under his bottom, his frog legs splayed and feet dangling one on either side of my hips. My right arm folds across his back, my too-long knobby fingers serving their newest most common purpose of gently cradling or forcefully restraining Joseph’s sweet little head against my collarbone so he doesn’t go flinging himself backwards in sheer frustration, which he attempts with some regularity.

My body is falling apart. My knees unwillingly produce the baby-bouncing dance that has become about as reflexive as walking or crossing my right leg over my left, but you can all but hear the bones grinding against one another as my framing shakes accommodate each labored bounce-and-step. The muscles running alongside my spine are wire cables ready to snap, and some days when I try to rub the soreness out of them I imagine that I can feel the beginning of a fray.

I wrap us in a damp blanket and lower us into the rope bucket swing. I bump into Ruby’s tricycle and kick it as hard as I can out of the way. It crashes weakly into the pillar holding the roof over our heads. This momentarily relieves my desperation. Then I wonder whether Elizabeth has heard it and whether she’s worried for Joseph’s safety. The swing calms him enough to nurse for a moment, and I bask in the luxury of sitting.

He takes a deep breath and begins again to wail, and I heave us out of the swing and make a few more laps clutching him to my chest, bouncing, swaying, rocking, jostling, stepping, to one end of the porch and back to the other. I imagine lying down on the floorboards and what the neighbors would think when they found us in the morning.

Then, without warning or reason, he stops crying. I don’t dare stop my shuffling jostling swinging dance, but I risk craning my neck around and peeking at his face. His eyes are closed! I make a quick bargain with God and try to restrain myself from thinking the word sleep.

Second after second go by and I begin to entertain the thought that maybe someday I really will sleep again. The wave of relief threatens to knock me down, so I maneuver us to the porch swing and lower myself carefully without altering the angle of Joseph’s head resting on my chest.

I use my toes to push us back and forth in the swing, and feel Joseph’s body grow heavy as finally he gives way to the relentless pull of gravity. Suddenly my heart is torn open, and everything floods in. The impossible miracle of this child on my chest. This child who was first only a light in my darkest ocean, floating in the numinous deep; this child whose life in the world began with a passage through the holy arch of bone, the oracle of my body; this child whose first earthly home was built of my arms and who rests here now but only for a few moments longer; this child who is inextricably and always my child, who yet belongs only to Creation, whose path travels through worlds I will never see.

IMG_2232I take a breath and coerce my body to standing one more time. I open the screen door with a thumb and hold it with a toe to keep it from slamming. I climb the stairs to our attic bedroom, still lit with a warm glow and filled with the rush of white noise. I kneel beside his bed and lower him with my breath held tight in my chest. As carefully as I can muster I pull my hands out from under his heavy body, finally loosed into sleep. His face makes an attempt at protest, eyebrows knit briefly together and mouth pulled up at the sides in the beginning of a cry, but it is only a flash before he slips through the last doorway into sleep.

I lie down on my face in my bed. When I wake it is morning and I have been dreaming about drinking beer for breakfast.

 

On guilt and joy

Wednesday was my first full day at the new job, and it was Joseph’s first full day with his new caregiver Maryl.

I should preface by saying that Maryl watching Joseph is the best possible situation I can dream up for him. She is one of my dearest and most trusted friends. I have known her for nearly a decade and in those years she has been with me through my first heartbreak, my first police encounter, my first day playing hookey (her uncle caught us and made us clean the gutters), and just about every other life event I’ve been through so far. Hers was the first house I went to when I arrived back in Knoxville, freshly pregnant and alone and still coming to terms with exactly how terrified I was. She was the one I called at 4:00 in the morning to take me to the hospital, and she was right there clutching the side rail of the hospital bed screaming right along with everyone else the moment Joseph was born.

For someone to help me raise my child, I can’t think of a better candidate. That being said, the first day I left him there didn’t go very well. Read: it was awful.

Maryl is an in-home nanny to two sisters – a toddler E, and a baby F only three weeks younger than Joseph. Joseph is the most recent addition to the crew. Here’s what I wrote when I got home from that day, (mostly) unedited:

I stayed until naptime, got Joseph down for his nap, and then disappeared. Apparently he only slept for 30 minutes, then woke up screaming, which woke up baby F, and the two of them woke up E. When I came back at 3:45 Maryl was sitting on the back patio, cross-legged on the ground with a baby on each hip and E plunked in the middle wearing nothing but her “Thursday” underwear. She was rocking all three back and forth and singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” with thinly veiled desperation. We both had a good laugh as soon as we saw each other. He had been inconsolable the whole time.

I am pursued by guilt everywhere I go. I feel guilt because Maryl has to deal with my screaming baby, because I raised him in such a way that at nine months he has only ever been away from me for a number of hours, a handful of times, and now it’s my fault that he’s going to scream at Maryl all day while I’m at work. I feel guilt because he has separation anxiety, because I took this job and left the one where he could spend all day every day within arms reach. I feel guilt because I’m not more career-focused and also because I’m not staying home with my child. I feel guilt because what kind of fucked up world is this where we have to leave our babies with someone else so we can go out and raise the money to feed them.

I feel guilt because I haven’t made art in I don’t know how long, because I’m not more focused on my writing, because I can’t figure out how to be a good mother and a motivated capable visionary church leader and a competent adult and a well respected community organizer and an established working artist and a sexy babe and still get the dishes done and diapers washed.

I feel guilt because there’s no way to be certain my choices are good. I chose to leave the doctor’s office and the list of reasons was more than sufficient, but even as I rejoice in moving upward and onward, I look back and wonder whether I might have borne it all for the sake of Joseph’s nearness. But I know that my choice to move toward meaningful work aligned with my life’s mission will benefit myself and also my family, even though it means some long hours of separation and a whole lot of tears in the transition.

I’ve chosen to leave this house and now the breeze through the open window smells so sweet. I watch Joseph almost say Ruby’s name with perfect joy all over his face and I think: Is this the right choice? But my heart knows that an intentionally communal home is what myself and my family needs.

A mentor told me once, while I was still pregnant with Joseph: Everything you do for you is for your baby, always and forever, Okay?

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or what I’m doing, in the intellectual sense. This is the hardest week on record in quite a while, but I trust myself and my heart knows what it knows.

Yesterday I got my own office for the first time in my adult life. They even put a sign with my name on it outside the door. It’s very official.

“Lauren Hulse: Membership and Communications Coordinator”

In the moments between being racked by guilt, I am rejoicing in the simple joy of having useful work to do. Work that uses the best parts of myself, that I am appreciated for, that is challenging and engaging. Work that asks for my whole self and does not require a temporary dissociation during office hours.

I wish I could end this with an A-ha moment. I wish I could tell you all how I’ve absolved myself of all this guilt that follows me around like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe. But at the end of the day its still there: guilt and joy running right along side by side and all mixed up together.

I don’t think I’ll ever know what I’m doing. I’m just muddling along as best I can and trying to make the next good choice. And I suppose that’s about the best I can hope to do.