Ron Mueck at the Modern

Years ago, while going through the permanent collection at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I came across a miniature of an elderly woman. Her hands were clasped, her back hunched as she sat, weariness marking the lines around her eyes which were tinted a dark pink at the edges. She took my breath away. Had she been rationally sized, I would have mistaken her for a real woman, so lifelike was everything about her, from the complexion of her skin, to the wrinkles, the grey hair, the expression of her face. I loved her, and had I been able to place my hand over hers, I would have done so, and whispered hope into her ear, for despondency was chiseled in all her features.

BN-XT456_MUECK0_1000V_20180306173549Untitled (Seated Woman), 1999

On February 16, the Modern opened its second exhibit by the fantastic Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are realistic in every way except in scale. Born in Australia, but residing in London, Mueck’s career began as a puppeteer for children’s television shows, such as Sesame Street. By the mid 90’s he was transitioning to fine art. He is incredible, not only for his realistic detail, but for his ability to convey emotion and thought in subtle ways. Take, for instance, this larger-than-life couple at the beach:

Ron-Mueck-Fondation-Cartier-photo-Thomas-Salva-yatzer-12Couple Under An Umbrella, 2013

So much is expressed by the way he held her arm- in an affectionate, familiar, and leisurely way- as if after all the years, it was his nature to reach for her, rest on her. And yet, this resting he does on her points to another of the subtleties of this exhibit, which includes six sculptures completed over the last ten years. Five of the six consist of human subjects: two male, two female, and this couple. I couldn’t help but notice the antithetical activities between the sexes: work/leisure; struggle/enjoyment.

Notice the disparity between these two figures:

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Woman with Shopping, 2013

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Drift, 2009

One feels the weight she carries between bags and baby, while he floats, buoyant on the water. Her hands are full while his, adorned and empty, rest at his side. Even the weather surrounding them seems a signal to the radical differences in their environments. She is dressed against the cold, bundled and pale. He is slick and tan and enjoys a cloudless sun.

The next figures also pair together in my mind, possibly because they are both nude and holding sticks:

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main_1200Woman with Sticks, 2009

Ron Mueck 07Poke, 2017

While she is carrying a load, burdened by the back-breaking work, he holds a singular pole, fashioned himself, for an unknown purpose. However, looking at the title, one can assume it is for a laugh, for pure enjoyment.

All of this is speculation; Mueck is silent, allowing his art to speak for him. After seeing the marvelous woman bent backwards, I wanted to know the title. What more could Mueck tell me about this woman? Why did he make her? What is he trying to say through her? I found the placard and it simply stated the obvious: Woman with Sticks. The next figure was the same: Woman with Shopping. He says nothing more, but the women themselves disclose enough. After viewing the man in the pool, I expected to find the title similar, perhaps “Man with Float.” Instead, Mueck wrote something entirely different- Drift– and leaves the interpretation up to us. He does the same with the other man. Rather than “Man with Pole,” we see the title Poke.

In addition to the six statues, (of which four are miniature and two on a grand scale) there is a video of Ron Mueck at work. Like his figures, it is silent for the most part, and yet it proclaims persistent toil as he gives all of himself over to these masterpieces, most of which take over a year to complete. He is fully concentrated, deep in thought, in a world all his own as he forms these characters he knows in the profound way only a creator does. I left in awe, grateful for Mueck’s ten years of dedication to his craft, invigorated by the myriad of ways to communicate and the intrinsic value of art for its ability to touch the soul of a person and make them better for it.

This exhibit is on display until May 6, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it before it’s gone. P.S. Sundays are free, so bring the whole family! (Note: exhibit does contain nudity. Use your best judgment.)

The Civic Society

I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; maintain a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:

When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.

I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.

What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.

For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)

The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.

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The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.

The Art that Pours In

Everyone gets asked the question: What is your favorite album of all time? And we always want to set some parameters- am I stranded on a desert island? Is it all I can listen to for the rest of my life? Because even the best can get old.

But I recently listened to an album the other day- my answer to the question- and realized that unlike most music I was obsessed with in my teenage years, this one has lasted through decades. I think, in fact, that if I had come across this music at any point in my life, I would have loved it, because it touches somewhere deep inside. This one doesn’t just connect me to one time in my life: it transcends people, place, and circumstance to continue to speak to me where I am. It spoke to me then; it speaks more to me now. The words are poetry. I learn something new every time I sing, and when it’s over, I’ve been seen and felt and understood. I have experienced connection, the foundational goal of art.

As a writer, I believe beauty has to be discovered before it can be created. We are not God. We don’t create something out of nothing. We discover something, and create something else. We require inspiration. This is why writers are readers. This album, along with countless others, but this album in particular, inspires me to create. I fill in the gaps of each song with a story, and then another, and another, because they give me the freedom to. The lyrics paint pictures enticing me to paint more:

When I think of heaven
deliver me in a black-winged bird
I think of dying
Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
Render up my body into the burning heart of God
in the belly of a black-winged bird

And this particular album is a two-disc live album in which the songs that are repeated vary significantly from one disc to the other. Our art is always shifting, and I am reminded when I hear these double versions, that my writing is never dead. I have watched, this semester in particular, the evolution of my work, and taken joy in its different facets. Revision can be a burden, but it is also freeing to know that there is no final destination in which the words cease to grow. We are, my words and me, never arriving. That is a humble and good place to be.

This album encourages the artist in me and the humanity. It sings me Beauty….enjoy.

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(Click the album to hear it for free on Spotify.)

A New Endeavor

In my last post, I wrote about how I have started writing again. No one was more surprised than myself to find poetry coming out. It was utterly unexpected, and brought with it joy unprecedented. I don’t always have the time to devote to a long piece of writing. Poetry has offered me a chance to work on a piece and actually finish it; to hold in my hands a completion- an accomplishment of a kind, no matter how small.

Writing can be such a lonely endeavor, but in the sharing of it, it becomes less so. I have found such encouragement from friends; those in my physical life, and those of you who have followed this blog. Thank you! I hope you have been able to connect to something in the poems I share.

My family and I celebrated this weekend the publication of two of my poems: Grandpa George, written about my favorite farmer, a man so connected in my mind to the earth and its fruits, that every time I see open fields he is found in them. And a different version of There’s No Hiding In a Closet, though I like the version here on the blog better- proof that I am learning the process of revision. All my thanks to Sleeping Panther Press for publishing these pieces in the 2017 Panther City Review.

I am learning as I go and trying to get better. For that reason, I have taken down some of my poems due to submission guidelines. In the future, I won’t be posting any poetry until it has reached publication or been sufficiently rejected. Either way, I can’t wait to share with you more. I am still writing, sometimes more slowly than I would like, but there is still joy in the process and rest in the room it creates inside. Thank you for being in it with me.

 

 

The Silent Years

I have always needed and loved to write. The process of a tiny thought ruminating, growing, and then hungering for expression. Taking up space in me until the floodgate opens and words gush like water. And then I had a baby. Some of the thoughts changed but they still underwent the process. And then I had another….and another. Over the course of five years, I stopped writing despite my best efforts. Whether the thoughts stopped or I no longer had the ability to process them, or I lacked the time to express them- likely some combination of the three- I’m not sure why it happened. But those years, my time of silence, was a season. And just as I had stopped writing despite my effort to keep at it, I also started writing again despite an effort to suppress.

We knew Eloise would be our last baby. She turned two, and I reflected that if our schedule had continued, I would be preparing to bring home another one- but I wasn’t. I was done. I had three beautiful girls. My oldest had just entered Kindergarten and my youngest was growing in independence- two going on 20. Third children…they grow up so much faster. My life began to ease, and I found myself with some time. Enough anyway to read- something, anything!- other than children’s books on repeat.

You readers, you know. You begin to read, your mind is being filled and yet there is always more space for response. And the better you read, the better the thoughts are that fill the space created. Once that happened, the thoughts did what they do: they grew, they hungered, they demanded to be released. Against every effort, against my defiance, they persisted. In December I succumbed. The need to write overpowered the need to rest, in fact it became a kind of rest. I created this blog, needing to break away in format and content from my old one. I needed it to be a place where I was a person- a whole person- and not just a mom. Where thought could exist outside my home.

Why did I resist? That thought is still soaking. It’s not ready to be wrung out. No doubt fear lurks in the water. Some thoughts you don’t want to grow; you are afraid to express. Some day, when I’m braver, when I understand it more myself, those thoughts can find their way out. Because after all, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not truth. But when you let them out into the light of day, you can see them for what they are. The truth or the lies they contain become discernible to you- and to everyone else.

In that, I’m learning to let go of needing to be right all the time. There is a journey in discovering what is true. We never start there. We are bent, all of us, to believe lies. And once discovered, Truth is no shallow pool. We wade in, slowly, pushing under, until we’re fathoms below, if we ever get that far. Maria Popova, on my favorite blog wrote this about Amiri Baraka, and it brought me so much freedom to speak- to speak even what I doubt, even what I fear, even what I struggle with:

Any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

While I probably don’t believe this in the same way Maria does, I do believe we are all moving in a direction. We are never stagnant; we are never still. We live in a current. For me to be able to write something not as Truth, but as Thought or Battle or Attempt, gives me the freedom to be wrong, and the courage to be humble.

Irony

Dear God,
Can I wonder with you?
You fashioned my mind,
made it
pulse with curiosity,
made it
question the answers,
and yet
when I wonder I ask
not looking to know
but just wanting to journey with
another curious mind who
doesn’t have the answer.
A mind as limited as mine.
And that’s not you
is it?
Can I wonder with you?
Your answer that unchanging Yes,
but mine is No
because I don’t know how.

A Rusted History

I spent last week at the farm. Each morning began with making my way through town, trading the softball fields for corn fields. Every now and then there would be livestock, but mostly field after field after rolling field of corn, sometimes bean. The farmers were out planting, so though the first day looked like an abandoned mess of dead stalks, by the end of the week each field bore signs of purpose and hope with their uniform rows. When I return in summer, the brown soil landscape will be green and spurting “knee high by Fourth of July” as my grandma says. As I turn from the paved road to the gravel one, I pull over. I can see my destination in the distance, which means they can see me. So I stop, take some deep breaths, before going on.  I drive these familiar roads like they are maps of my heart. I drive with windows down, cool morning breeze blowing my hair, rock pounding underneath, dust billowing up behind me, as if making the declaration, “Here she comes!” I pass lines of evergreen from memory. I pass the cemetery. I crest each hill with the tension of not seeing down the other side. I drive free, the only way you can in a car that isn’t yours but is as old as your license: I drive with no assumptions, and when I arrive in the gravel driveway, I put it in park and turn it off with grateful thanks.

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This place. Its field of dandelions: wishes or weeds? This place is both. As I walk the grounds in morning dew, memories flood me, bringing a confusing concoction of emotions. Every breath takes in youth, wonder, happiness; every exhale anger and betrayal and shame. I feel them all at once. I am a patchwork quilt. So my steps are slow and my breathing regulated, letting things sit in me just as they are. Letting these antitheses exist in me side by side. Letting go of being able to categorize each memory, each person, each part of me. I let them sit and I listen to the birds.

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I reach the top of a neighboring hill and look down. It is an empty shell of a place from long ago. Its fields sold, to be toiled and cultivated by other hands. The animals are gone- the barn housing only a riding lawnmower, old hay, broken glass, a creature in the back corner that was too shy to show himself to me. The hen house has broken windows, the clothes line is bare, the garden, a wasteland. I pass areas unmowed that hold rusted tractor equipment and burn piles, and I feel sorrow over the passing of this place, like the death of my childhood. I mourn as if the land was an appendage of my own body.

How did this place come to mean so much to me?  I did not grow up here. I grew up a thousand miles south where the weather is warmer and “everything is bigger,” even though the trees are not. My parents were born here- my dad growing up in this very house. This is where my family, as I knew it, began. We made trips- once, sometimes twice a year- back to my grandparents’ farm. When I was eight, I started flying here alone, to spend a week or so with them every summer. I adored everything about the farm: the smell of the animals, the reaping of what was sown, the sun shining off tall green stalks, grass blowing in the wind like waves across an ocean. The hymns, the strawberry jam, creaky stairwells, carpet from the 70s. It was the essence of summer, the essence of childhood. Each day was a wide open door: freedom and adventure beckoning me to bound through the threshold.

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Each day I walked this land alone, growing more and more at peace in the conglomeration of all it represents. I could close my eyes in the barn and breathe in my grandpa, nearly see him out in the distance working the land. I could stand at the kitchen sink, imagining my grandma bent in the garden looking up and calling, “Kati! Come see this cucumber!” I sit at their headstones and simply say, “I loved you. And I loved this place….except when I hated it. But you are what made it beautiful.” On my last day, before heading to the airport, feeling the suffocation of the city approaching, I took one last turn about the place and said goodbye.

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There is only one man
In the world I would follow
Into a corn field

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We’ve so much to say
That words could never convey
So we speak volumes
(without them)

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I’ll walk this gravel road with you
all the way to
the cemetery

Capturing Words

I tore the boxes open with haste, because I could not wait to see in black and white the six years I have lived with my children. The idea was given to me by a high school friend’s mom. I had run into her at Blockbuster (remember those!) just weeks before we were all leaving for college. She told me she was making finishing touches on a journal she had kept for her son. She wrote him letters, from the time he was a baby until now, as he was being launched upon the world at eighteen. I stored this thought in my mind, and nine years later put it into practice. I had just come home from the doctor’s office, having watched on a flat screen against the wall the little kidney bean that was new life inside me. I watched that little bean intensely, like a seed planted that would break forth in life and beauty, as the sound of rapid heartbeat filled the room like music. I ran by Barnes and Noble on the way home to buy a journal, broke its binding at my desk, took up my pen and began my first letter to my first child.

Now seven years, two more children, and twenty-five letters later, these books arrived at my door. I hadn’t been able to keep up with hand writing all the letters, so I had moved to a digital format. The company I was using to print them is going out of business. I had to order quickly or lose all my work. They arrived, and I read through them and as I read, hundreds of forgotten memories became crisp and clear, almost tangible. I could hear my daughter’s two-year-old voice, reliving some of the most special moments of her youngest years. In that way, the books are gifts to myself as much as they are to my children, maybe even more so.

And this is one of the reasons I love to write. If I work quickly, I can capture a moment in my mind and let it spill out in language that years and years later can transport me back to that place and time. I can hear and see and feel all the things for as long as I’m able to read. I have been studying haiku….not my favorite type of poetry, but every style of writing has it’s advantages, and this one to me is like having a camera at the ready. It reads like a snapshot. I have been teaching myself to play the piano, and it is slow going. Music theory is hard enough, not to mention making my hands do what my mind is learning to read. My kids are completely satisfied with hearing “Lavender’s Blue” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Greensleeves,” but I am not. So for our ten year anniversary, my husband got us tickets to one of the Van Cliburn performances. It was beautiful and exhilarating to hear this master play Bach and Chopin. There is one image from the night that has stuck in my mind, and with a haiku I am able to take a snapshot and relive the music.

Night with Richard Goode

Ten fingers leap like
two spiders dancing ballet
across ivory keys

And Mrs. Rainey, you are a gem. You had no idea in Blockbuster that you were planting seeds in me that would bear fruit for my own children. Thank you.

Need into Want

I had the privilege of hearing from Jill Briscoe at the IF:Gathering this past weekend. As she made her way across the stage, my ears perked up. The only true veteran among the group, this white haired 82 year old woman had my attention before she even opened her mouth. And then the moment she did, I was riveted. Poetic, humble, and wise, she spoke winsomely and with authority. I waited for God to tell me, through her, what I had come to hear. I forget though, he tells me what I need, with no guarantee it will be what I want.

I had been primed with the theme of the weekend, calling us to the small daily acts of faith, rather than the grand large-scale endeavor. Called to the invisible. Can I just confess that that feels like a let down? Don’t we all hunger for the magnificent? And (is this a safe place?) don’t we all crave being seen? I’m not talking about the spotlight.Not everyone craves that. But don’t you long to be recognized in some way for what you do or who you are?

But what Jill had to say to me was an affront to those wants. Speaking about her own conversion in a hospital bed at Cambridge, she said:

From now on, the orbit of your life, the place between your own two feet at any time, is your mission field….And what we’ve got to do is go where we’re sent, stay where we’re put. Unpack; as if you’re never going to leave. And give what you’ve got. And he might move you on and you say it again. Maybe circumstances will move you on. But until you’re moved on to whatever, you give everything you have, between your own two feet….What is the Calling? Matthew 28, Go into all the world and make disciples and teach them to make disciples and teach them to make disciples. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Between our own two feet. Now. Don’t worry about Judea and Samaria, guys. Where are you now?

And if that wasn’t hint enough, I got in small group with discussion questions crying out the theme, like the beating of a drum:

What holds you back from believing God wants to use you right where you are?
How might God be wanting to use you right where you are?
What is the risk in letting God use you right where you are?

Yes, God. I hear you. Right where I am. Be right where I am. Stay right where I am. Unpack.

Of course, I wasn’t physically going anywhere. But in my mind, I have voyaged elsewhere….taking with me all my desire. Can I confess that as a stay-at-home-mom I have struggled with the joy in it? That as a person who loves mental stimulation, art/beauty, and adventure, that reading board books on repeat, playing “I Spy” on repeat, finger painting on repeat, “adventuring” to the grocery store on repeat have left me feeling deficient? When I still have so many things I want to do and the opportunity seems gone already?

But as I work this out with God, as Jill put it, “sitting on the steps of my soul in the deep place where nobody goes” I have come to see that what I want is not to NOT be a stay at home mom. I want to not be a disciple-maker. I want my time, my gifts, my adventures to end on me. To serve my purposes. My life. Me. My. Mine. Because I can’t agree there isn’t glorious purpose in it. Just a purpose, God help me, I have a hard time desiring. One of being invisibly poured out.

And Jill keeps going:

It’s not a glamour trip. Well you know that because he said, “Take your cross with you.” You’re going to need it. You’re going to have to die to yourself, you’re going to have to die to your choices, whether I get married or I don’t. You’re going to have to die to your prejudiced little mind. You’re going to have to die to what you’d like to do.

I heard myself saying in discussion, “It’s so hard to say, ‘I’ll do that later. It can wait.’ But the truth is that I can do that later. The opportunities before me now have an expiration date. They won’t ever be mine again.”

I am reading through Ecclesiastes. Solomon is explaining the futility of toil for everything under the sun:

All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.

But let’s rise up above the sun. Enter the upside down Kingdom of God and the opposite is true. You pour yourself out and stay filled. You lose your life to keep it.

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.

And there is God on the steps of my soul again. You need to make disciples. Not that you can. But it’s what you really need. It’s the adventure and beauty your soul thirsts for. The reason you feel deficient and unsatisfied is that you haven’t been making disciples. You’ve been reduced to a stay-at-home-mom under the sun. That’s not what I’ve called you to. Rise up.

A letter to J.S.

I prayed for you today. We’ve never met. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Books could be filled with all the details of your story that I don’t know. What is your name? How did this happen? What do you dream? What is it like to be you? Are you happy? I try to fill in a haiku for what I know…what little I know. But there’s not enough there to make 17 syllables, when all I have are 5.

J.S.
pregnant
scared

You think I can’t understand, and maybe you’re right. I don’t know what it feels like to read the stick with two lines and feel the panic rise into my throat threatening to choke the life from me. Thinking this new life will end mine. I’ve read the stick with two lines three times now. I’ve felt differently each time, but….you’re right. I haven’t walked in your shoes.

But I do know what it feels like to be scared. To know that I don’t have what it takes to get through it. I do know what it feels like to be trapped. To know there is no escape that won’t cost me more than I have. I do know what it feels like to regret.

And if you walk down the path you’re headed, I know what it feels like to be ashamed.

You came in alone. Filled out paperwork and were brought to a room, and on the other side of the wall, I sat, with three beside me and we prayed for you. And though I don’t have enough words to fill a haiku for what I know about you, I have these that formed my prayer. My hope for you, J.S.

Two heartbeats ring out
One fast and one slow
Give each a chance

Lay down your life to give him one
Yes love, it costs much
To be Mother

I don’t plead for baby alone
You both go on
Far longer than you know