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Guard Your Gates

Photography by Brian A. Petersen at www.brianapetersen.com

We have a few good phrases we say in our house a lot, little catchphrases or sentences that carry a lot of meaning in just a few words. They are the phrases that distill a lot of conversation into one sentence. For instance, we say “calm your heart” and “we use our words to love each other.”  This is another one: Guard your gates.

It was Halloween and we were at my parents’ house helping to hand out candy. We aren’t really into Halloween and so we hadn’t made a big deal out of it. At the time, Anne was barely two and Joe was only a month old so the idea of trick-or-treating was more daunting than delightful. So we stayed inside and handed out candy with my parents. Anne was off and about, playing here and there but she happened to wander past the front door right at the moment that I opened up the door to a gaggle of teenagers decked out as zombies and witches. We can talk about whether or not teenagers with beards should be trick-or-treating another time perhaps but I’ll tell you this: Anne was terrified of them. She didn’t even scream and cry, she just froze in absolute fear, her eyes swallowing her face as the colour drained.

My mother saw her reaction and quickly scooped her up and away from the door. After I finished with the teens and shut the door, Anne was perched on my mother’s lap. I was privileged to overhear my mother helping my daughter learn how to deal with fear. As best I can remember it – it’s been six years and more babies since then – this is what she said:

“Annie, that was scary, wasn’t it?” Anne nodded, her mouth quivering. “Well, you know what? You don’t have to let that fear into your mind and into your heart, sweetheart. Just because there are scary things, it doesn’t mean you need to invite them. Let’s pretend your heart and your mind have a gate, okay? And we can either open the gate to scary things or things that make us bad or do bad things. Or we can shut that gate. Sometimes we still see things over a gate, right? But we don’t have to open the door and invite them to come in and set up forever. If scary things come into your mind and heart, it’s hard to get rid of them. Your eyes and your ears are your gates, Annie. So if you ever see something that makes you feel really scared or makes you want to do bad things, you just shut your ears and your eyes to it. You need to guard your gates, baby. If you guard your gates, then nothing will come into your mind and heart that you don’t want in there.

You want to open your gate up to the good things, sweetheart. You open your heart and your mind up to the things that make you laugh or make you good or make you think.

Annie got it. Since then, all of the tinies have gotten it. In her childlike trust, she believed my mother and the thing is, I did, too. Tinies are so sensitive, so easily influenced, so perceptive. Of course I wanted to guard her gates and teach her how to do the same thing. We are careful about what we allow the tinies to watch and experience and listen to – we know that it can become part of their very selves.

In a way, it’s become a bit of a family joke. If we’re watching Hockey Night in Canada and a commercial for a horror film comes on (seriously, HNIC, why do you do this? you know kids are watching), someone – often one of the tinies themselves – will holler “GUARD YOUR GATES” and then the tinies clap their hands over their ears and screw their eyes shut. They know that if they see that terrified girl or that blood dripping down an arm, it will become part of their mind and their heart, haunting their dreams.

I’m sure that when the tinies are all grown up, they’ll laugh themselves silly over how we used to holler “guard your gates!” during the commercial breaks of Chopped on the Food Network because an ad for a primetime show came on. Whatever. What’s parenting for if not to give them a few ways to laugh at you later on?

Confession time though: I still guard my gates. I’ve admitted at long last that I’m not immune either. I’ve learned to guard what I watch or listen to even in movies and television and music. Not because I have some weird legalistic thing about it, but because I’ve finally admitted what most everyone who loves me has known for a lot longer: I’m very sensitive. The tinies come by their sensitivities quite honestly. I take these things into my mind and heart and they latch on. I’d rather not open the doors of my heart wide to fear or lust or violence, for instance. If I believe those things are antithetical to life in Christ, then why am I flinging wide my own gates to them?

It’s funny how much I’ve tried to pretend that I’m beyond being influenced. Like I’m supposed to be so past it, so over it, that it doesn’t bother me or impact me. Like what I listen to or watch doesn’t affect what I think and how I speak and how I move through my life, how I view humanity and violence, sex and God.

Brian and I tried to watch a show recently that everyone was raving about. We made it through two episodes before we realised we were both sitting there with a cringe-y look on our faces. “It’s just not us to watch this stuff, is it?” he said. “It makes my soul feel sad,” I admitted. So we turned it off. Maybe we can’t keep up with 99% of pop culture references but I’m okay with that. Lesson learned. And yet I watch my fair share of crap, too – I can’t figure it out either. Somethings just make me a worse version of myself. I can admit that now.

But as the tinies grow up, the simplicity of that instruction has shifted. As we deal with friends and challenges and new influences, we’ve had more conversations about what it means to guard your gates beyond just slapping your hands over your ears.

Guard your gates now means that we get to decide who influences us – how we think, how we feel, what we do.

As in most things to do with parenting, I find I’m learning right along with the tinies.

One of the tinies recently asked to listen to some quiet reinterpretations of old hymns after our bedtime prayers. “It feels like someone is still praying over me as I go to sleep, it keeps the gate open to good things,” they said. Another time, we had to have long talks about the influences of certain friends and how these friendships had opened up the gates to some unacceptable behaviours and habits. It was time to practice guarding the gates against those influences while still being kind and friendly.

When we have the agency or choice (which we don’t always have), we want to be careful about who and what takes up residence in our minds and our hearts.

I think this is the hard thing about parenting – okay, who am I kidding? one of many hard things –  this whole “finding a way to help lead and teach and model nuance and wisdom” thing. When the tinies were toddlers, it was as simple as “shut your eyes and shut your ears” to scary things. Done and done.

But now that they are getting older, guarding one’s gates has to become an act of Holy Spirit lead discernment. 

Because there are times in our lives when we damn well better open our minds and our hearts to things that make us uncomfortable. In fact, I think sometimes that a lot of good Christians take the toddler approach to “guard your gates” – they just don’t listen to or hear anything that might be difficult or complex or heart-breaking. They go through life with their fingers in their ears and their eyes screwed up tight against anything that might challenge them.

Indeed, I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of listening to the stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our peace. Just because something is terrible to learn, it doesn’t mean that I need to guard my gates against it. As Christians, I think it’s our responsibility to carry each other’s burdens and be a part of restoring justice for one another. Sometimes that means being able to carry truly terrible truths without letting it bury us whole. We grow in these places of challenge and hardship. Guarding my gates doesn’t mean shutting out the cries of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes the most holy work we can do is listen to each other’s stories and take their suffering into our hearts, carrying each other’s burdens and wounds to Christ.

So, no, I don’t guard my gates against simply terrible or scary things anymore. Instead, I want to guard my gates against what diminishes wholeness and holiness in me.

I guard against the influences that make me the worst version of myself, the influences that feed my natural tendencies towards sin and bitterness, rage and cynicism, seeing the worst of people and being quick to offence.

This is a hard thing to write about without sounding like this is an exercise in boundary-marking and legalism. I’m not really into policing anyone else’s standards. I tend to trust the Holy Spirit in you. But it’s also a good bit of common sense to me now.

Sometimes it is this simple: is this influence – whether it’s a book or a movie or a friendship or a Facebook page – bringing life and wholeness and the fruit of the Spirit to me and others? Is it challenging me to be fully alive, to be more compassionate and human, to be more wise and loving?

It doesn’t have to be pleasant, oh, no sometimes the things that bring compassion and wisdom and wholeness into our lives are the very things that break our hearts or make us angry or challenge us.

Even in the face of terrible and terrifying things, I want to open my gates to the influences that will help make me whole and holy. I want to grieve and lament, push back against evil and darkness, challenge injustice while still, as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8-9,”filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

And I want to open wide the gates of my heart and my mind to the influences that bring life and light, goodness and holiness to me.

I want to fill my heart with those things because then when I encounter the terrible and the terrifying, my true life will brim over into true words and deeds that bring life (Luke 6:44).

I have no idea if this makes any sense.

 

 

Continue Reading · faith, family, parenting · 61

173 beats a minute: On one surprising little baby and the possibility of tiny miracles

FiveFamilyPlusOne

It was an early summer morning when I realized that we might need a pregnancy test. This was hilarious to me.  I mentioned it to my husband and we laughed about it – of course, it wouldn’t be positive, of course.

We were done having babies. We had made the decision to move into a new season of life more than two years ago – after a lot of prayer and conversation and waiting. The reasons for our decision were our own but we knew we had made the right decision. We were a “five-family,” as the tinies called us, and I was content. I was even learning to make peace with The Ache. I loved the baby season of our life and I will always miss it. But I loved our new season of life, too, and we had begun to orient our life to school-age kids. I began to “lean in” to my own vocation as a writer and even an occasional preacher with joy.

So when I picked up that early-result test really it was just to put my mind at ease. I couldn’t be pregnant, no way.

***

One early Saturday morning in June, Brian sat on our bed waiting for me to emerge with the expected news. Instead, I walked out of that washroom and simply looked him dead in the eye. “No way,” he said, “no. way.”

And we began to laugh – a little hysterically, I admit.

We laughed every time we looked at each other for the next three weeks.

***

We told the tinies that very day. We made the tactical error of taking them out to dinner at a non-kid-friendly establishment. Evelynn had not had a nap that day and she was ferocious in her exhaustion. I ended up spending most of the meal walking her out of the restaurant for her behaviour. When Brian finally blurted into a brief quiet moment that we were having a new baby, I was feeling frazzled and exhausted, Evelynn was still on the brink of a melt-down, the other two tinies were starving, and we looked like a three-ring circus to everyone else within range.

The serving girl looked overwhelmed for us when we told her why we were there “to celebrate! a new baby!” And then the tinies cheered and I cried because I was nonsensically happy with my circus. And then Evelynn and Joe got into a yelling match about whether the baby would be a boy or a girl and I decided to pull the plug on the dinner. For pity’s sake, let’s just go home, I like all of you people better when we’re at home and properly rested.

A new baby, of course, Lord, because life isn’t crazy enough already.

***

We told our families and closest friends that day, too. I think we needed the moral support. I think we needed someone to say, “it’s okay, you’re going to do great, you can totally do this.”

Because in those early days, all I could think about was how my life was being completely reoriented and I hadn’t planned for this and my life was going to have to run to catch up to this news.

I felt scared and overwhelmed, grateful and disoriented.

And yet I was so happy.

***

We told the tinies not to tell anyone. We made a great show on the Sunday morning about keeping secrets. But the very first thing that the tinies did when they walked in to church was to inform everyone: “Mummy’s having a BABY!”

PSA: Tinies are crap at keeping secrets. We only managed to keep this pregnancy a secret from Facebook. Everyone in our real life found out within 2 minutes of running into the tinies.

***

But it didn’t take long for the fear to set in. This is my eighth pregnancy even though I only have three children. We seem to be able to get pregnant easily – it’s holding onto the babies that is the trouble. And now I am considered “an older mother” – my risk factors in early pregnancy are high.

And so my primary job in early pregnancy seems to be fighting the fear and the anxiety, trying to choose hope and faith on a near daily basis.

With every baby I have lost, I have had zero pregnancy “symptoms” – no morning sickness, nothing. But with my three tinies that we have earthside, I was sick as a dog and grateful for it. Perhaps the only women who rejoice over morning sickness are those of us who have experienced the pain of miscarriage and early/mid pregnancy loss. Every bout of sickness, every day of exhaustion, every ache, it all testifies that someone is still there, still growing. It’s when your body goes quietly “back to normal” that you start to fear.

But with this pregnancy, I have not been sick. I have not been overly tired, nothing.

I go through my days and there isn’t a single indicator that I’m pregnant. And that has terrified me.

***

Finally I went to have the initial checks. And it only seemed to confirm my worst fears: there was no heartbeat.

I drove home from my doctor, numb. I pulled over on the side of the road to call people. I called Brian, I called my mum, I called my sister, I called my dad. And I called a couple of friend who I know are prayer warriors.

I wasn’t ready go give up. Not yet. I was still hopeful. For that day, anyway.

***

We went to our regular midwife a few days later. This was the one that was supposed to find out the truth once and for all.

Again, no heartbeat.

And I think that was the point when I gave up. Brian still continued to hope and pray, he agreed with our midwife that there could be any number of reasons why the heartbeat wasn’t showing up. I wasn’t there anymore.

Hope was too hard for me. 

My family and my friends decided that since I could not hope that they would hope for me, they would have faith for me.

We were scheduled for a final ultrasound check. I began to make my plans for how to handle this. As in times of great sorrow in my life, I went very deeply within myself. I stopped talking and completely withdrew. My family all knows this about me and they gave me the space I needed, my soul felt like it was in survival, shut down to just the basic functions.

How could we be here again? I felt like I could not bear this loss. We had done this so many times already – this was part of the reason why we decided to stop with our three. I felt like I should be grateful for the little ones we have in our home and that it was too much to expect more. And sure enough, here we were again. I began to make plans, figure out schedules for medical procedures.

My sister had bought the new baby a little white and grey sleeper in soft cotton the day after she heard our news. But on that day, I stood in my bedroom, looking at that hopeful little sleeper hanging in the closet, and I folded it up and put it away mechanically.

On the morning of the final ultrasound check, I went to the coffee shop and I wrote an entire blog post telling the world about how we had lost another baby and how the sorrow was swallowing me whole this time. I scheduled it to post the next morning. Then I drove to the doctor’s office to meet my husband.

***

I lay on the table, numb. And we explained why we were there and so thankfully no one was happy or excited, wounding us further with their blind hope.

Our tech quietly went about her business and the minutes passed, so slowly. Then in a tone of complete shock she said, “173 beats a minute.”

“What?” my entire body woke up. What? What? What? What?

“173 beats a minute!” she crowed. “There’s one little baby here and … it’s alive!”

Brian started to cry and I started to laugh, this is what we do when babies come to us. He broke all the rules and texted from the room: “173 beats a minute! We are having a baby!” over and over and over again. Little arms and legs were moving, a heart was beating, life!

I called my friends and they almost couldn’t believe it. Sometimes we get so used to our prayers feeling unanswered that we don’t know what to do with ourselves when the miracle happens. This baby has a lot of people longing for his or her life now.

Later that night, I went to my blog dashboard and sat looking at that post I had written just a few hours ago. My great act of faith was to not only unschedule it, to not only put it back into Drafts, but to entirely and irrevocably delete it.

***

I still don’t know if that was a miracle or not. It feels like one. It’s entirely possible that the doctor and the midwife simply didn’t get the heartbeat for whatever reason. But all I know is that there was no heartbeat and then there was – 173 beats a minute of a little heart still hanging in there.

There was nothing there and now there is precious life.

***

“This one might be your desire-of-the-heart baby,” Brian told me one day this summer.

He said that because, even though I made my peace with The Ache, even though I was in complete agreement that we were done with our three, even though I was ready for this new season of life without any babies in my arms, there was still that part of me that longed for one more. Perhaps it was the desire of my heart broke through all the expectations and plans somehow.

I don’t know why Tiny #4 came to being – even that part feels like a miracle, to be honest. But I know that Tiny #4 was so longed for, deep in my heart far from articulation.

***

I’d be lying if I said that was the end of my fear, that since then I have walked in total assurance. It has still felt like a roller coaster all summer. I go through days when I feel sure we’re destined for sorrow still.  Even now, I don’t “feel” pregnant which makes it hard to keep the fear at bay.

It is still my daily battle: faith over fear, hope over despair, over and over and over again.

(I certainly look pregnant though – hello, fourth baby, my abdomen muscles have given up any pretence.)

I had another appointment just last week with our midwife and again, trouble finding the heartbeat. Finally on the third check – 160 beats a minute, so faint but unmistakably there. Still there.

Now we have crossed 14 weeks and I have decided to be hopeful anyway. Every day that passes feels like a victory somehow.

I bought a baby name book this week.

Continue Reading · baby, family · 138

Surprise!

Remember how I mentioned that there were a few reasons why I needed to take the summer off from blogging? Well…..I’m just going to go ahead and leave these family pictures here and then walk away whistling with a grin, okay?

Anne

JosephEvelynn

FiveFamilyPlusOne

(I have a story to tell you, believe me. This is might just be our miracle baby.)

Continue Reading · baby, family · 126

Tell them about the love that doesn’t show up in movies and love songs

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You have been travelling a bit more than usual, and I was in the home stretch of another week of solo parenting. My parents had graciously (read: heard the desperation in my voice and taken pity on me) invited us all over for pizza on the last night. On our way home in the minivan, a motorcycle sped past us, and a new line of questioning was introduced by the tinies. They asked if we ever had a motorcycle and, of course, no, because well, we aren’t risk takers, you and me, are we? And maybe because we had just been at Granny and Papa’s house, who knows, but they wanted to know if Papa or Granny ever had a motorcycle.

Without a thought, I told them the story I knew so well: the one about how my dad used to have a motorcycle when he was a teenager because well, he was that kind of kid. But when he showed up for a date with my mum, she wouldn’t get on the motorcycle because her father had forbidden it. Papa was incredulous – after all, he is the kind of guy who just does what he wants and screw the rules and the rule-makers – but sure enough, she stood her ground and let him ride away.

“That could have been the end of the story, but no,” I said. “Your Papa, well, he was already in love. Your Granny was so beautiful – she had a long sheet of golden brown hair, just the colour of Evelynn’s hair, and she had blue eyes just like you three here with me, and so instead, your Papa sold that old motorcycle and the next time he asked her out, he had a car to drive. She said yes, of course, and then they fell in love and got married. At the end, I said, you see? Your Papa loved your Granny more than any old motorcycle, right from the start. She was worth it.”

Their eyes were big as saucers, you know how they get. But they were silent – for once. And then they asked to hear the story again, and so I told it again, just the way I remembered it anyway, because that is the story I heard all the time as a kid. We arrived home, and I put them to bed after all of the rituals, and then I sat around and watched television by myself. I stayed up too late because you weren’t there to make me go to bed. I changed the countdown on the kitchen cupboard blackboard: 5 4 3 2 1 more sleep until Dad is home!

You came home on Saturday. Later on in the weekend, you were in the car with Annie and from her perch in the backseat, she asked you if you wanted to hear a love story. And of course, you said yes, and then she said, “Well, once upon a time, Papa had a motorcycle….” and then you listened to her re-tell the old story I’ve told you a few (dozen) times, using my exact phrases and expressions.

As she wrapped it up, she said, “Papa loved Granny more than any old motorcycle.”

You were amazed at how they remembered every word, and I thought of another generation growing up in the safety of our family fables.

Darling, let’s remember to tell them our stories, too.

Remind me to tell them about the nights we used to spend laying on the hood of your old car, stretched out with our backs against the windshield, staring at the Oklahoma nights. Remind me to tell them about how we danced to old Garth Brooks songs from an AM radio station on the side roads. Remember to tell them about the first time you saw me walking across the gym in university, knee high black boots and a mini-skirt among everyone in their workout gear.

Let’s spin our own yarns here at home, beloved, among all the books littered on the floor and buried under their pillows. Let’s tell them our homemade fairy tales.

Let’s tell them about our sacred places: the side yard in Texas, perhaps, the parking lot of the Mabee Centre, the little booth in the Earl’s near our Vancouver apartment. Don’t forget that creek we found as we drove through Arizona during the hardest year of our lives: the one we heard before we saw it. And we scrabbled down a red rock embankment covered in dust, just to sit on the stones and soak our swollen hot feet in the clear water. Remember how the sun came through the trees, and we began to feel something like hope, perhaps stirring, fluttering, through the leaves, descending to us again. Maybe we’ll tell them about the night we went camping in the mountains of New Mexico and a blizzard blew up, so we drove down the mountain to stay in a hotel, leaving our kit and tent all set up. We had a shower, ate bacon and eggs, and then went back up the mountain later in the day to finish the trip.

Maybe we’ll tell them about the night you proposed in the moonlight, kneeling in the grass with a mix tape playing Six Pence None the Richer songs on the portable CD player, holding up a ring paid for with the tips from Tulsa oil tycoons at the club where you worked. Maybe we’ll tell them about the guys in San Antonio who play the pan flute at the Riverwalk mall, and the mariachi bands, and the way we lingered over tables with bright umbrellas above us. And the way we used to hold hands as we wandered through Gruene, listening to Americana music through clapboard walls of an old dance hall. Maybe we’ll tell them about Kananaskis but probably not.

Because let’s not kid ourselves: our best – and our worst – stories will always be secrets, just ours, always.

Maybe we’ll tell them something about our wedding, but I’ll have to be honest: if I had to do it again, I’d have married you way sooner, and we could have run away together. That sounds nice to me now.

Let’s fill their little minds with the thousands of ways we’ve convinced ourselves that we were meant to be: let’s tell them about 28 May 1989 and the weird way it connects us because that was the day you decided to become a Christian sitting on the edge your parents’ bed in Omaha and at the exact same moment in a church in Winnipeg, I was descending into a water tank for my baptism into the faith. Maybe we’ll talk about Naples and Riadoso, that one field somewhere in the middle of Kansas where we had a picnic after I met your parents, oh, and the Silverthorne Village Inn on the winter nights of Colorado when we sneaked out of the communal condo and stayed up all night, talking, over terrible coffee.

We’ll talk about the way you drove up to see me in the dead of a Canadian winter, staying the night with my uncle and aunt. You’ll laugh and tell them about how everyone made fun of your old Monte Carlo because you didn’t have a block heater for the cold night ahead, and how my Uncle pulled his own car out of the garage, just to put your old maroon Monte inside, so you could leave first thing for the last leg to Calgary to me, our first Christmas together. And then – you loved this part – he went out on the deck, in minus 30 degree weather, and grilled you a steak at 11 o’clock at night, and you sat at their kitchen table eating meat and talking about nothing for a few more hours. You fell in love with Canada that night, I think.

Maybe we’ll talk about fear and sacrifices, about choosing each other’s best first, about deep sadness and the way we’ve clung to each other through dreams unfulfilled and longings unsatisfied and the still-waiting of right now. Someday maybe I’ll tell them about the babies who aren’t here with us, and about the night you stood in the darkness of their childhood room with another little lost one bundled into a kitchen tea towel and how I stood in doorway and listened as you cried and cried and cried. We’ll tell them about the nights they were born, the way I always burst out in laughter and you always burst into tears after they were safely earthside. Let’s tell them about the mundane beauties of their lives, and how we used to have them tucked in between us in our old bed so we could meet eyes over their downy heads to silently telegraph our disbelief at our luck – look at this! a real little person! –  at each other. We’ll talk about how we lived pay cheque to pay cheque, and it was worth every single tense conversation about the budget. We’ll tell them about the greatest part of parenting – witnessing them become the people they were meant to be all along – and how it made us love each other even more than we thought possible. We’ll talk about the teamwork of parenting, about how you always knew when I was at Noise Capacity and would whisk them outside for a street hockey game.

Let’s tell them about the vast middle part of love, too, this part right now, the part that doesn’t show up in movies and love songs, the part where my hips have widened and your hair is greying, and some of our dreams are languishing at the same time that others are coming true. About how we’ve become better acquainted and more appreciative of the fruit of faithfulness and gentleness as the years go by.

We’re still choosing each other, over and over and over again, this is what we want, this is what I want, this is what we want, you are who I want, still, then, always.

Let’s make them feel like they’re part of a love story, let’s tell them how love looked for us.

Let them catch us slow dancing in our pink kitchen to Patty Griffin songs, let them hear us say it out loud: we used to sit in an empty baseball stadium in the middle of the night and kiss behind home plate. Oh, and how when they were little, we put them to bed early for two reasons – first, it’s best for them and second, it made sure we had a few hours together every night to talk or make out or just watch telly.

Let’s hold hands on the gearshift of the vehicle, the way we do, the way we’ve always done, until we’re old and we will tell them the stories of their grandparents and their great grandparents, about Nebraska and Saskatchewan, Alberta and Oklahoma, Texas and beautiful British Columbia.

Let’s go to preschool graduations and high school graduations and university graduations, and then let’s stand in our empty nest house someday and cry because it went too fast and try to figure out the rest of it, and then laugh because there is still so much life ahead, who are we kidding? Let’s go to Paris and London, India and Cavendish together, all the places we never got to go because of money and tinies and plane fares, then let’s stay home and watch the sun set in the sky we love here, and let’s drink a bit too much and kiss until the stars come down.

We’ve had a regular sort of life perhaps, not too special to the outside eyes, but it’s enough to keep us warm.

Wrap me up in the ways we’ve loved each other, darling, and let’s keep on spinning.

edited and updated from the archives

Continue Reading · brian, family, love, love looks like, marriage · 21