Awhile ago I wrote about some of the reasons I stopped blogging at the wide tent. In part, I felt like my writing created a false sense of who I am; that in trying to write with craft and wisdom, I worried that I lacked humility, and I was creating an on-line persona that was not quite honest, because it did not share all of my messy, complicated, needy self. I don’t know if my on-line writer persona here at my goodly heritage matches my real-life persona very well at all, but it’s something that I care about and strive for. If I have any wisdom at all to share, and any beauty, I suspect it is more true and more accessible if it’s coming from a real live human being, warts and all.
What I really want to write about today is gratitude, and not just gratitude in general, but a very specific gratitude for which there should be a word, though I’m not sure what it is. But before I can even get there, I have to let you in on a bit of my messy self, which in the past couple of days, has been feeling kind of blue and needy.
But maybe before I get to my blue and needy self, I should back up even further, in the interests of full disclosure and truth-in-advertising, and let you know that I have in my life suffered from pretty serious depression and anxiety. Not completely debilitating – I’ve never experienced a real breakdown, though in the past couple of years I came pretty close, twice. You’ll get more of that in my “Welfare of the City” series, which, come to think of it, is probably why that series is progressing so slowly…. But now I offer up my experience of depression only to assure you that “blue and needy” is not that, and I will most certainly be fine.
But still, blue and needy is, well…. blue and needy, you know? Yesterday in particular, by the end of the day, all I really wanted was a good cry. But by the time the chores and errands were finished, the dropping off at swimming and the picking up done, the stories read and the snack fixed and the teeth brushed … well, I was too tired to even indulge myself in a good cry, so I just went to bed. And the thing is, every Thursday night I’m on my own, because Julie has choir practice. Julie has had choir practice every Thursday night since before we had kids, so I’ve never known any other sort of Thursday night parenting. It’s no big deal … it just is. But last night it just felt like too much.
Who knows why? There are little things … the days are getting shorter, it’s finally gotten bitter cold, peri-menopause sometimes feels like it’s kicking my butt. Then there’s the way bigger stuff … a friend of mine, a young mother, was in surgery yesterday for a recurrence of cancer; another young mother I know is undergoing chemotherapy; one of my oldest friend’s younger brother died; Julie is struggling with stupid school stress and sad family stuff. In the midst of all that, my own desire to be present and kind and helpful sometimes leaves me instead feeling inadequate and petty and, worst of all for me, needy and vulnerable.
But that’s really all just backdrop to what I want to write about, which is not the blues, but rather gratitude. And not just the sort of gratitude such moments certainly call for, the I’m-grateful-for-my-health-and-my-family-and-the-roof-over-my-head sort of gratitude, though I certainly am grateful for all of that. But what I’m thinking about is more fortuitous? Providential? Neither of those words is exactly it, either, but it’s as close as I’ve gotten for that out-of-the-blue kindness, which is usually small, and often unaware of the context that makes it so needed, but precisely in its smallness, and in its lack of intention, it is just the thing. Breathtaking. Grace maybe. I’m feeling grateful for instances of grace, and the friends and strangers through whom God has visited them upon me.
Like the time I went to a family wedding in New York when Micah was just a baby. I had been nursing him since he came home with us at 15 days old, and though I never produced a full supply of milk, I had amassed a huge stash in the freezer of my own milk, from months and months of pumping before we ever even knew about Micah. By the time this wedding rolled around, though, I had pretty much worked my way through my stash, and was almost through the donations from Rachel and Cate who had, with the most exquisite generosity, pumped and donated their milk to the cause of teeny-tiny Micah-boo.
So I went off for about six hours to this wedding – the longest I had ever been away from Micah -- and Julie went off with Micah and visited Ansley, who lived near-by. It was a lovely, lovely wedding, full of people I adore, but for some reason I’m not sure I can adequately explain, I just felt so out of step. My breasts ached and I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and try to hand express milk so I wouldn’t leak all over my borrowed party dress. Because I had been ambivalent about leaving Micah, I had been late in RSVP’ing, and so was seated with folks I didn’t know at all – a middle-aged single man, a widowed neighbor of the bride’s parents, a couple of family friends and business associates, none of whom really know each other. From this vantage point, somehow, all the young, beautiful, normal people – the young friends of the bride and groom who were so effortlessly and unselfconsciously themselves at this most hetero-normative of all celebrations – it was just overwhelming. I felt like a freak, and all the ways that I have had to invent my life suddenly were just too, too much.
And then, when I finally got back to Julie and Micah, he smelled overwhelmingly of formula.**
On the way home from New York, I just couldn’t stop crying, keening almost. I was completely inarticulate, even to myself. My grief felt profound, yet inexplicable. Somehow the smell of formula on Micah’s breath had become the symbol of all the ways my life lacked normalcy – ways that, for the most part, I cherish, and wouldn’t trade for the world. But in that moment, I just wanted to feel normal in some sort of way that most folks – like the dear ones at that wedding – get to take for granted, but that mostly eludes me.
Certainly at the very least, I wanted to have breasts full of milk and never need a stash in the freezer, but short of that, I most desperately wanted a stash in the freezer. I hated what formula represented, the failure of normalcy that seemed to extend into so much of my life, right down to my ovaries and my breasts. In that moment, I hated formula with a passion, yet that’s what I was going home to: no more of my stash, no more of Cate’s milk or Rachel’s, just a can of baby formula to make up the difference that my breasts couldn’t provide.
When we got home, there was a message on the machine from a total stranger. She had heard, from a mutual friend, that I was looking for breast milk. She had a bunch in her freezer that she was not going to use. Did I want it?
The gratitude I felt in that moment … why isn’t there a word for that? She didn’t know, she couldn’t have known, but her gesture was exactly, exquisitely, profoundly what I needed at that moment. My gratitude to this woman was just as inarticulate as my grief had been just hours before. There ought to be a word for that, for the sort of gratitude you feel when someone totally unwittingly, through just common decency and kindness and generosity, becomes a channel of God’s grace in exactly the way you needed it at exactly that moment.
Which is a very long and round-about way of saying that I feel that sort of gratitude a lot. And believe me, it’s not lost on me how lucky I am.
So this morning, for example, I was feeling better – a good night’s sleep goes along way, not to mention a lot of kindness on my Facebook page yesterday – but still, I was a little punky and blue, feeling needy and vulnerable and inadequate to the task of being present and giving in the face of so much suffering around me these days. I was on my way to yoga with Jen across the street when Pat called. She couldn’t have lunch as we had been hoping, but she just wanted to tell me that my writing lately has given voice to some things – big things – she has been mulling, but has been unable to articulate herself. And she said a lot of other really nice things that I won’t bore you with, but that were just the right thing – making me feel not just needy and vulnerable, but also helpful, present, effective.
I ran across the street, late but with a smile, and then Jen did it all over again: first we could barely get through our practice for all the giggling, and then we fell into a conversation about her experience of pregnancy and impending motherhood that was so open and honest and affirming of my place in her life and her family.
Now I will say that Pat and Jen are probably the two most intuitive people I know, bar none. Both of them have this intense insight, like they see right into your soul and get it right every time. Now that I think of it, I don’t know anyone else quite like them, but they are very much like each other in this way. Which is to say there is no point, ever, in trying to bullshit them. And which is also to say, both of them probably knew that I was feeling a bit punky. But certainly, my gratitude is no less, nor is my awe at not only their kindness, but their willingness to make themselves vulnerable in order to lift me up. What a gift. Am I one lucky girl, or what?
** Please let me here assure you that I do NOT believe formula is evil. I did NOT breastfeed Micah because I think formula is evil, and if you formula-fed your baby, I do NOT think I am better than you, nor do I think Micah will have any sort of advantage over your child. I DO think breastfeeding is a powerful experience, and I’m awfully glad I was able to do it, and if you ever want support I’m your gal. But I think there are LOTS of good reasons to feed formula to a baby, and I’ve said as much while leading a La Leche League meeting. Okay?