Monday, September 19, 2016

The Storm at the Chapel

In 1872, this place we live was established as a Methodist summer camp. In the center of the park, there is an outdoor chapel. It is moon white with metal, olive-green lamps dangling from its cathedral ceilings. The altar is a warm honey color. There is a center aisle and rows of dark blue benches with backs and brass commemorative plaques.

It had been hot and humid: so humid that the ants have returned to the cracks and the corners of our kitchen cabinets and counters; so hot that I was sleeping without blanket or sheet and with the fans humming in the bedroom windows. Last Sunday morning, I dressed baby in her white pants with polka dots and her pink t-shirt with the dog on it. I didn't bother her toes or soles with shoes or socks. I wore a tank top, stretchy exercise pants, sneakers and socks. I strapped her to my back and clicked the dog into her harness, collar and leash. We climbed up and across the trail behind our house, as we do most mornings. Soon, we left the leafy lumpy woods for the hard flat road. We walked for a little while then crossed the cement to enter another trail, but as we were about to reenter the woods, I noticed how dark it had become. The sky looked full of elephants: gray and heavy, blurring the tops of trees. We turned back and began hurrying home. Seconds later, the wind picked up and leaves and bits of branches began to fly and fall. I had no umbrella, not even a hat. The rain began: pattering and then pouring. We were a good distance from the house and so I ran. Baby's body bobbed with every step. Wind burst in and out of the standing trees: here, then over there, then suddenly everywhere all at once! These trees are old, enormous, wide and wise with branches as big as giraffes or sailboat masts and this wind threatened to loosen these limbs and toss them like pencils. I hurried as best I could, watching above me as I went, while also watching below me, dodging puddles in the dips of the dirt road. My skin was wet, but I wasn't cold yet. It was still quite warm.

I have so much more fear now that I am a mother. If I had been alone, I would have run all the way home, watching the sky for falling debris, but with little actual worry. But last Sunday morning, I was wearing baby and so I ran to the chapel for cover. The dog pulled us there then sniffed the legs of benches and the ground. I had never before let her in here for fear she'd piss in this sacred place, but she didn't.

We sat in the front row and waited. This storm would pass quickly. There's been a terrible drought. It would be fleeting like all the others.


But it lasted. Lasted a good while. I sat watching branches bend and fall in the distance as wind swirled bits of flora like living illustrations. I took baby out of her carrier and stood her on the pine floor altar. Her bare feet slapped as she sang songs of sounds and waddled side to side. Her skin didn't feel cold. She was fine. When the storm slowed, we got ready to leave, but then the sky surprised us again, sending down larger drops, drops that hurt a little when they hit. So we retreated to the back of the altar. I sat on the floor, while baby walked and the dog sat and whined and looked about. (She doesn't like loud wild wind. I don't blame her. It's easy to fear things we can't see or understand.) Baby was happy. Her voice echoed a little as she paced. She plopped down on her diapered bottom and stood and plopped down and stood. She walked in circles, opening and closing her mouth, picking up yellow pine needles and pointing at things.

I have been wanting to return to the Unitarian Church in town. I took her there when she was still sleeping most of the time. For two services, she slept, strapped to my belly, while I swayed and sung psalms; while I said hello and good morning to the other churchgoers and listened to the poems and prayers and a speech of stories by the reverend. Then she started sleeping less and less predictably during the day. Then she started napping at the time of the Sunday service. And once I had missed many months, I stopped trying, having convinced myself that I didn't care. Going out can feel like such hard work with a baby, especially going somewhere new where I should really have a couple dollars for a donation and the courage to speak with strangers. (I tend to either say nothing and smile to those I don't know, or say far too much, rambling on like a long cargo train at a street crossing.)

Every Sunday now, during the hour before the service, I worry and wonder:
Should we go?
Are we going?
I need to get her ready if we're going.
We aren't ready.
It's too late now.
I missed it again.
We'll try next Sunday.

But last Sunday morning, this blessed universe sent me to church. I wasn't dressed in my best, nor was I clean or fed, but that didn't matter. I didn't need my car or diaper bag or checkbook. This pretty little place of prayer invited us in and gave us safety and sweet gracious peace in the middle of a sudden storm.

While I sat, watching baby and listening to the sky holler and weep, I wondered about all the people who have sought refuge in houses of worship throughout human history: in cathedrals and little stone parishes, in mosques and monasteries and nunneries, in all kinds of temples and churches and sanctuaries. In this chapel beside the woods, there are no walls, except around the altar, and so the wind passes through the congregation as insects, birds, love or prayer might.

Today is Sunday again. When I awake, rain begins to wet the windows. I read, sing and yawn through picture books with baby in her bedroom, but the dog is anxious to relieve herself and so we dress. This week, I put baby in her bear hat, long sleeves, pants and sneakers. I wear the same as last Sunday, but with a sweatshirt. With baby strapped to my back; leash around my wrist, and our big umbrella in my hand, we leave the inside for the outside. The rain and wind are gentle. The air is warm. The clouds collect in a thin white canopy, letting in some of the morning light. We are slow today, strolling up and down the single lane roads. When we return, I wake up my husband by blending a banana and yogurt smoothie for baby. He comes down in his underwear, looking for tissues and his daughter's smile. I tell him I want to go to the service this morning, would he watch baby? Of course, he will. We'll all go to town, he suggests. He'll take baby for a walk and get breakfast, while I'm in church.

I am greeted at the great big door by smiling strangers, saying welcome. I write my name on a name tag and stick it to my denim jacket. Then I slide into the last row. I listen and try to sing along to songs I don't know. I close my eyes when the pianist plays and in the moment of meditation. When we are encouraged to introduce ourselves to our neighbors, a woman with short white hair turns around in front of me and says, "Good morning!" We introduce ourselves as we shake hands. "Have you been here before?" She asks.

"Yes, a couple times. I had a baby last August and I brought her when she was a tiny baby, but I haven't been back in months and months........(that cargo train I was telling you about) husband has the day off from work and so he's with her outside now."

"Oh well, welcome." She says. "We've been away for a couple weeks, ourselves. Just got back from the Cape."

I donate $2 to the collection and share the hard cover book of psalms with the woman to my right. I feel a peaceful gladness to be here in this space. After the service, I find my family in the park. Baby has been making friends and chasing birds, I'm told. As we walk to the car, I tell my husband about it. I'll go back and we'll go back together too, but never out of worry, only out of love and longing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Between her Bedtime and Mine

Once she is asleep, I tip toe out of her room, away from her ...and toward myself.

I love these nights, these quiet dark nights. There is only a pocket door between us, but during the hours when she is sleeping, I am resting.  I am inviting solitude and selfishness to seduce me like they used to; to take me away for awhile, away from my motherhood and its obligations and attentions and worry. I wander through the house, drifting from one sitting place to another. I pen letters to my grandmother or write cards or tomorrow's grocery list. I read letters and bills and email. I take breaks from the alphabet, setting my eyes on screens, toward strangers, as they try to trick me into believing the stories they show and tell. Sometimes I take slow showers then stand in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, snacking on peanut butter toast with banana, while my hair drips down my back and my toes press into the floor as if they were kissing the earth to say, "Thank you, I am grateful for your gravity." Most nights, though, I send my mind off on journeys, my thoughts romping up and down pages, while my fingers follow tapping letter after letter after letter...

Tonight, the window behind the desk faces the black woods where the crickets, tree frogs and cicadas trill together like some far off orchestra, tuning for a concert in the trees. The lamp on the desk glows a dim gold, inviting moths to settle and dust the glass with their silky, dirty wings. The dog lies down and sighs. The highway traffic down the hill rumbles and whistles. And as the baby sleeps, I realize that it is here, within these hours between her bedtime and mine, where I feel most like a grown up.