Monday, June 29, 2015

On Writing And Waiting

I wrote a letter this morning, the old-fashioned way. Pen to paper, the pressure of my fingers curved
around an instrument that does not harbor an instantaneous 'delete' button.

(I know this, because I swear, when I misspelled a world, the ring finger on my right hand automatically moved toward the top right of the paper...)

The writing of the letter was interesting enough, but the fascinating part (to me) was that in the three hours since I wrote that letter (and mailed it), I have been anxiously awaiting a reply.


I have had to stop, and think, and then pointedly tell myself that all the things I told her, she doesn't yet know.

I've been chewing on that for a bit. Certainly I'm aware of the studies that show how our brains and our attention spans are evolving, morphing into this digital age of information overload. I know full well that too much online influx makes my brain less able to process, to create, to think clearly. But I've never really considered how the instantaneous sharing of information creates this powerful expectation of response. 

I have certainly been thinking about it today, as I realize - with some concern - how hard-wired I am for an instant reply to the letter I wrote today, which is still probably three days away from its recipient. What does that mean? Does that change what I wrote? Without the imperative demand of an immediate response - the kind that we expect with a text, or a Facebook post, or even an email - is the information I sent diluted? If we're not in instantaneous dialogue, what is the context of the words, scrawled on a page, three days prior?

These are questions that were ridiculous just a few years ago; but today, I'm shocked by how different the process of written communication can be - not the new form, but the old-fashioned kind.

Sarah and Max received a beautiful, hand-crafted wedding gift from a thoughtful and very creative friend. The address label and the card inside were made with a tool that I instantly recognized - but was surprised to see. Sarah told me that this craftsman - their friend - uses a typewriter to write - no word-processor or computer print-outs, just an old school typewriter. I was, in turn, shocked, amused and then intrigued. I thought of carbon paper, and white-out, and the IBM Selectric that came with the automatic 'erase' key. I remember those machines.

I remember pounding out long letters, stringing together sentences for my uncle Dave, for my old babysitter Bev - my missives sent gently to those I trusted the most, as my fingers aimed for the magic of the written word that so captivated and called to me. I worked in an office for a few years in my late teens, and any spare moment that had no work to do found me either reading or writing. I loved both.

Just a little over a week ago (has it been only that long? It seems years...), Sarah handed me her vows, hand-written on two over-sized sheets of her sister's drawing paper. She had passionately poured out her promise, her deepest feelings about marrying this man she loved. She asked me to edit, and I volunteered to type them for her on something more manageable to hold at such an intimate moment in their ceremony. I've always been the editor of my kids' writing, and this particular creative outpouring was especially precious. But whereas I freely added punctuation and altered sentence structure in applications and essays and research papers, in this case her work stood as it was. And I recall, in that moment when I heard the words she had written come out of her mouth (and her heart) as she pledged her life to Max - I remember how clearly I saw her, and how grace pointed out to me the unique "other-ness" of my child, standing on her own, joining hands and jumping into that wild ride that is the challenge and chaos and utter joy of marriage. In the context of her written words becoming a vow, the moment she spoke them was weighted with purpose and infused with hope. My edits would have altered what was; they would have been rude and presumptuous and wrong. Her words were hers, and they were ripe with truth as she delivered them, in the moment they were needed.

We write words, and sometimes the context is one like a simmering stock, in which the marrow ebbs and mingles with the sweet and charred bits and pieces. Eventually, it cools, and your tongue tastes the smallest offering off the wooden spoon, and you see that it is good. It just took some time.

And that's like writing a letter these days, I suppose.

Photo courtesy of Meagan Abell Photography

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Perspective: A Wedding Post (With Pictures)

It was a subtle refrain, stuck in the niche of my brain.

Ohhhhh, the rains fell down and the floods came up
The rains fell down and the floods came up
The rains fell down and the floods came up...

The rains fell, and we had a flood of mud and muck, and yes - a huge tree branch fell, and someone received minor injuries, and the winds were incredible and it turned out we were experiencing the remnants of a tropical storm.

But first, they got married.

My daughter, Sarah, married her best friend, Max. And oh, what a day it was!

We started early; Sarah threw together some delicious things in the kitchen for something that resembled breakfast. Most of the females left the house, headed for hair appointments; two of the bridesmaids who were also responsible for the incredibly beautiful floral arrangements and decor stayed behind to work out their creative juices.

Everything ran late, of course. We were scrambling at the last minute to get the photographer in place, to get the pictures she wanted, to get the right undergarments....

Meanwhile, the guests were arriving. It was hot, but there was no rain in sight - and we were grateful.

When she was ready, I left my mother-in-law's house and walked to our backyard. I grabbed a bottle of water and got in line, with the rest of the family, for our processional. Someone stage-whispered, "Beth! BETH! Where are the flowers? For the flower girl?"

I didn't know, but I figured I could find something. I scrambled up the back deck stairs into the kitchen; I found two bags of beautiful rose petals. Somebody said, "Use this!" - and we crammed the petals into a gold-plated thing with a handle and I ran back out the door.

I left my phone behind, so I took no pictures. I focused on being present, being in the moment; and it was exquisite.

We walked in, the extraneous parts of this new family formation. On the arm of my son, I walked towards the front and sat down. The men came in, and the pastor - my brother - stood beside his soon-to-be brother-in-law. I smiled to myself as I looked at Max, looking slightly nervous - which was more nervous than I'd ever seen him. He counted the people; I watched as his eyes roamed over the crowd, his lips moving - and smiling from time to time. I supposed he saw people he loved in the crowd and hoped that it made him happy.

The bridesmaids came in, one by one; they represented such a powerful thing in Sarah's life, these women who knew her from different seasons. Girls from Savannah; former roommates and friends who'd shared important parts of these last few years. Christine and Kristen, the other two thirds of a trio of love and affection that winds from Ohio to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Indiana; girls who have partnered in life with Sarah for almost 15 years.

And then the maid and matron of honor, the sisters of the bride. They were both trembling with anticipation - what I recognized as the prelude to some serious tears.

The song began - a guitar and the voice of a friend and groomsmen - and we waited. I watched my brother, who knew to give me the look, that thing we know how to do as worship leaders when it's time for the pastor to make his move. It's subtle; a slight nod, a downward shift of the eyes...and it made me smile.

Eric gave me the look, and I performed that one motion of leadership that the Mother of the Bride gets to do; I stood and turned, so our friends and family would do the same, and I saw my daughter, on the arm of her father. She stopped as she reached the back row, and my father joined his first-born grandchild to escort her down the final part of her journey as a single girl.

He was crying.

They reached the front row, and Dad kissed her through his tears, and I took his hand as he turned to take his seat with Mom. Sarah and Lonnie moved up the small hill to Eric, and Max, and everybody was beaming.

There was a prayer, and a worship song, and the giving away - but the moment that opened the door to the incredible emotional connections present in this sacred ceremony was when my brother, the pastor, looked at his niece, the bride,  and said,
"Sarah, I held you in my arms on the day you were born."

I lost it right there, and Eric was choked up, and I heard sniffles all around. In that moment, the power of love and family and presence rose up in a tangible wave of purpose, like God himself saying This is what you are called to, when I call you to be my people. The long line of love, of connection, of truly knowing someone in a way you can only embrace when you've been part of a life for its entire length.

When Eric turned to Max, he said, "Max, I did NOT hold you on the day you were born", and we all laughed, and then he continued to remark upon what he knew about this man my daughter loves.

And it was all good.

Another Erik, their pastor from City Church in Savannah, read scripture and shared encouraging words. Three men played music - best friends, brother-in-law, brothers in Christ.

They read their vows and they were raw and true and deeply personal and real. Their promises were to stay grounded in Christ. Max held her hand and looked in her eyes and made his promise, and when he finished he kept gazing at her and he leaned in to kiss her, because it was obvious - we all saw it - it was the right thing to do, but Eric jumped in and said, "No, no - not yet!" and we all laughed again.

But finally, they exchanged rings - a beautiful silver band for Sarah that Max bought at Hearne's Jewelry Store in New Bern, which was founded by my grandfather and is, in fact, the source of Sarah's middle name - and a band hand-crafted of wood by a North Carolinian craftsman for Max, which is what he wanted. Then they did kiss, and Jesús sang the song that made me cry every time I heard it, the song that seals their promise and lays open the truth of how hard it will be:

Hold on, darling - this body is yours
This body is yours and mine
Hold on, my darling - 
This mess was yours
Now your mess is mine

How hard it will be, but how well worth it.

They walked down the aisle with joy, nearly floating, beaming. We finished the recessional stuff and took the pictures and moved into the reception time. I walked around, my heart bursting to see so many people who are so important to our lives.

My cousin Garth and Denise, who opened up the world to Sarah when she spent two summers with them as a nanny for their kids, who are now moving into adolescence themselves.

My cousin Drew and Victoria, with their miracle baby Elliot.

Max's brothers and sister, his parents and his nieces and nephews - who have all expressed love and affection for Sarah that reassures and comforts me, as her family widens.

My brother-in-law - some might say 'ex', but I still claim him - Donnie and his son Brendan and daughter Abby, who drove clear from Texas to celebrate with us.

Debbie and Meredith, who worked alongside Sarah at Lands' End and helped her grow in myriad ways.

Travis's mom and dad, who'd spent a hot summer night in the back yard last year as we celebrated Shannon's wedding to their son.

Sammy and Angie, whose influence on our entire family is immeasurable.

Leslie, who offers support in a way that only she and I understand when it comes to our kids.

Brian and Susan, whose friendship and partnership is stronger than I could have ever hoped for.

Lonnie, who smiled all night long.

Tony, who did whatever it took to make it all happen.

We ate - the Boka Tako truck came, and if you haven't had their shrimp and grits tako, you haven't lived. The Gelati Celesti truck came and the dessert was heavenly.

And the rains came, as I mentioned at the beginning of this long post. The rains came down and nothing went as planned from that point on. The toasts were interrupted; the sound system quit working. Torrential rains blew in sideways. A huge branch sheared off the tree that stood between the tent and our house; it clipped a friend on the foot and left a serious bruise. The ice cream truck got stuck in the mud.

But eventually the rains passed, and we plugged in somebody's phone and turned the music back on, and they danced. The mud was deep around the dance floor, but they danced and danced and Sarah and Max smiled and laughed and enjoyed every minute.

They left, in a car that had been decorated and then washed clean by the storm. We waved goodbye as our sparklers faded out.

The rest of that song came back to me as well - not just the part about the rain. It says, "The wise man built his house upon the rock...and the house on the rock stood firm."

That is EXACTLY what I believe we witnessed, in the unexpected events of June 20. It was a crazy night, and much of it didn't go as planned; but Max and Sarah are on solid ground. Messy ground, sure - but solid. And theirs.

We'll never forget it.

At Ahead of Hair - the hoody worn by Christine, Kristen, and now the third and final bride.

Shannon gets her Boka on.

Miracle baby Elliot and my cousin, Drew.

A beautiful photo of my mom, Victoria and Elliot!

They served each other tacos.

My cousin, Garth, with his Uncle Clyde - my dad.

Beautiful - am I right? 

He's fit right in with the family since the beginning. 

That's a pouty duo. 
Favorite pastors.

Shannon, getting her WATERMELON on.

Eric and Levi, considering their tacos.

Love these guys - but check that photo bomb by the best wedding coordinator EVER!

Everyone in this photo is named Eric(k).
I'm not kidding.
Four of them were in the ceremony.
Is there such a thing as too many Eric(k)s?

I just love taking pictures of this happy couple.

The bride and the photographer - friends from way back.

Travis playing a little John Mayer for the daddy/daughter dance. She changed into a reception dress made by my mom,
barefooted with bangles made by Susan Lloyd.

Second cousins.

He cleans up well!

Best man, maid and matron of honor - right before things fell apart.

Sweetheart table, with the sweethearts.

I think this was right about the time he had to reassure her that everything was going to be okay.
Even though trees were falling and rain was blowing sideways...

Eli got some serious dancing in! 

Eli, again - with Katie!

Sisters, dancing.

There were no lights...but there were toasts.

We held up our phones to illuminate Syd and Shannon's speeches.

Meanwhile, Tony took care of business....with his chainsaw.

Justin. This guy was amazing.

Max's nieces. Beautiful!

Invite Mathew O'Donnell to any party and he will Tear.Up.The.Dance.Floor

Siblings, dancing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Off And Running - A Wedding Post

There are so many things I want to process about Sarah's wedding; about the day itself, and all the days leading up to the day. About Max, and his family; about their friends and the incredible energy that flowed through them throughout the entire weekend.

I haven't had time yet to sit and think through it all. I want to make time to write, but there are other, more pressing concerns.

But this one thing, I can talk about. It caught me completely off guard.

I knew there would be beautiful moments of togetherness. We just did this last year with Shannon, and though they are VERY different girls who wanted different things for their wedding day, some things would remain. I knew we'd have a few moments of tenderness - some spontaneous, and others planned for the photographer. I knew my heart would swell, and I was certain I'd cry.

But this one thing happened and it floored me, and really prepared me for all that was to come.

With the wedding in our back yard, we were incredibly blessed to have the convenience and hospitality of my mother-in-law's house in what is, essentially, our front yard. It was there that the girls would dress and prepare, where her daddy would pick her up and guide her to aisle that led to Max.

The girls came back to our house from the hairdresser and Sarah was focused, ready to get busy. I'm sure she was nervous, too; but what I saw was determination. She gathered a few things, we noticed the time (we were already off schedule) and then we headed out the door to Louise's house.

Sarah, 90 minutes before her wedding.

She took off. She didn't wait for me - she didn't need to. She walked with purpose and determination, like she knew her destination. She didn't rush or hurry; she just moved efficiently and deliberately.

The girl had places to go and people to see. And she walked, on her own, to get ready.

To be sure, I don't know what she was thinking in that moment. Maybe nothing much at all, other than Holy crap it is so HOT! But here's what I was thinking, as I walked behind her:

There she goes.
There goes my girl.
There's my first-born, my daughter.
That's the little 4 pound 15 ounce, five-weeks-early baby that broke my heart into a million joy-filled pieces.
She knows what she wants. 
She knows what she needs.
She knows how deep, how wide, how vast is the Love that holds and helps her.

She doesn't need me; not in this moment. 
She's walking away, quite literally - and not just into the arms of a man.
This is her life; she has chosen this next step, and she's moving forward into this new season.
The decision has been made, the course has been set.

There she goes.

That's my girl.

My heart cracked again, some 24 years into this motherhood thing; but it was filled with the joy and delight that only a maternal heart knows. She and I are intertwined, as any mother and daughter might be, and perhaps in a few more complicated ways as well. There are tiny fissures in the deep love we have for one another - made from the weight of circumstances and the burdens of others and, sometimes, simply from the stress and strain of the human experience.

I know this: A cracked heart lets in light and shows you what you need to see, the truth that sometimes waits behind the walls we build through time and experience and worry and our default mechanisms for getting through life. Sarah Brawley walked towards her destiny as Sarah Philips, and in the few yards of an open field she pressed on towards what was ahead. She left me behind, but beyond any perceived sorrow is a fierce mix of pride and love and incredible fondness for one of the most incredible women in my life.

Who just happens to be my daughter.

"I've got my eye on the goal...I'm off and running, 
and I'm not turning back." (Philippians 3.14)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When The Light Shines On The Bride And Her Mama

My eldest daughter marries her true love in ten days. There's a lot going on, sure; just the general daily to-do list is huge. And yet, in the midst of it all, there are moments of grace and awareness that catch me off guard, that say to me, "Stop. Look. Listen. Learn"

These are sacred moments, ones I cannot escape. They connect me to myself.

Sometimes it's me, looking through my daughter's eyes.

Or my daughter, looking back at me.

Or old me looking at young me.

Whatever. It's perspective, at the very least, and it's stopped me dead on more than one occasion. Children are their own beings, of course; but what parent doesn't do at least a little bit of projection when you see your genetic markers replicated, taking seminal steps towards their own destiny? I'm watching Sarah and listening to Sarah and talking to Sarah, and in the mix of it all I can't escape how closely aligned all this watching and listening and talking seems to be with history.

Not only the brief number of years I have lived on earth; but  larger history - the lifetime cycle of birth and growth, of receiving and giving away, of leaving and cleaving. We humans have danced this dance since the beginning of time.

The ancient Celts called certain spans of time "thin times"; when the arc of space between this world and the next was just that: Thin. Supple. Transparent. I've found a growing awareness of this, a sense that it is, indeed, true and real, most especially as I've mourned the loss of loved ones even as I felt their presence as powerfully and tangibly as if they were with me, here, still.

(Somehow, I believe they are.)

Richard Rohr says that there are occasions when we are invited to be aware of "deep time - that is, past, present, and future time gathered into one especially holy moment." The notion of the "communion of saints" as referenced in the Lord's Prayer - there is a connectedness within such moments.

For me, this wedding preparation has created an undulating atmosphere of such liminal space; where, as Rohr says, "past, present, and future time come together in a full moment of readiness." On a spiritual level, it's more about a connectedness with God, with our human experience and the unseen eternal life. What was and what will be, on a grand scale.

But the microcosm of that experience is what I'm seeing these days, as I am shaped by the past, present, and future of my own human life span - even as I watch my daughter prepare for her wedding.

I consider my own history.

I see me.

Beth, the girl that felt so out of place and out of pocket, most of the time.

Beth, who fought so hard for to be accepted, all the while expending tremendous energy pretending she didn't need to be accepted.

Beth, who was smart but homely; creative but disorganized. Beth, whose head was always in some book, missing the scenery as it flew by.

/ / /

Recently, my friend Matthew posted this meme on Facebook:

It's all caps; it looks authoritative and self-possessed. Like now that we're adults, we've figured it out, and NOW YOU SIT DOWN AND LISTEN TO ME.

I loved seeing the responses. I even responded, specific to what I remember about being 17.

But honestly, I don't want to yell at myself. I don't want to grasp some imagined authority that comes with age and hindsight and shout instructions.

I want to take the hand of that little girl who wished she was a boy, like her cousins, because baseball and football and running and yelling seemed to matter so much more, on some primal level.

I want to sit with that pre-teen who wondered at the mystery of hormones and female development, and secretly felt completely, utterly left out.

I want to walk beside the 15-year old and tell her that the impossible, improbable, unbearable feelings she had for that blue-eyed senior was a crush - and that he would be flattered, and that neither the crush nor the flattery would ever be what she wanted.

I want to tell the 17-year old Beth that women are more than their sex, and that everything in her head mattered, and that so much would change in the arc of time.

I want to tell her that she is not writing her story for anyone else but herself.

I want to whisper in her ear that her deepest longings were put there by her Creator, and that all the wandering would lead her right back to Him.

I want to gently tell her that nobody really cares that much about what her hair looks like.

I want to tell her to love her body, to marvel at its ability to move and dance and run and lift and twirl, because it has a limited time to do so freely.

I want to tell her to shine; to know that the days and weeks and months and years pass honest-to-God in the blink of an eye, like the grown-ups always say; so go and fill them with joy and experiments and risks and wild abandon.

/ / /

And here's what I think I've learned; that we look at our daughters and sons and long to tell them how to navigate what lies ahead. Our hearts crack open, and out of the deep, yawning chasm spill all the ways we want to protect them, to guide them, to warn them.

To tell them how to live, because it's hard sometimes.

But what really happens is that our own experiences spill out of that crack in our heart; the history and the mistakes and the glory and the shame, and as we look at our children with love and the slight knowledge of what lies ahead of them, we realize that we stand in a holy moment. An awareness of the intertwined lives we lead, of past, present, and future wrapped in a sacred communion.

And we finally see ourselves with the compassion that the Creator has woven into every single second of our existence.

It is something new, this perspective. The ever-shifting paradigm of awareness opens to let still another beam of radiant light shine, on the innocent beauty of a 24-year old woman about to marry her true love.

And on her mama, too.

Graced, indeed.

I am thankful.