Consider the Purpose: Review of Memory Eternal

First, let me say I was eager to read Sarah Byrne-Martelli’s Memory Eternal, Living with Grief as Orthodox Christians for very personal reasons. Nearly five years ago one of my six siblings died of cancer. I was looking for a new way to think about one of the stickiest griefs of my life. It was hard because I thought I knew how to grieve as an Orthodox Christian.

On the night my sister died, I planned to keep vigil. Instead of taking a turn as an overnight caregiver in the last week of her life, I chose to preserve my sleep. I figured I’d be the only person reading the psalter next to her body – my husband and I are the only Orthodox Christians in the family- and I knew I’d be exhausted. My husband was handling the funeral, and I was N’s burial director if you can call it that. I’d helped with the establishment of a traditional Orthodox burial society in our parish, and I’d supported my husband through the loss of our friend Billy, a 51-year-old husband and father in our parish just nine months earlier. I assured N that I could bury her body green, that it would be affordable for her husband because five years of cancer had broken their finances. 

No doubt I knew how to handle her body, but I worried about navigating Maryland’s burial regulations. Hospice helped navigate that. With her husband’s full support and the tense, seemingly reluctant support of my parents with whom N’s family had lived for the last two years of her life, I worked through the checklist. I commissioned a wooden coffin from a woodworker in our congregation. I packed a tote of burial preparation materials and lugged it to Maryland. I went with my brother-in-law to the only cemeteries willing to inter an unembalmed body.

On the night my sister died, I did not keep vigil, and for five years, I’ve grieved my failure. I’ve shamed myself calling it spiritual weakness, but a major conflict on the day my sister died gave me the sense that doing a “weird Orthodox” thing would only make the grief worse for all of us.

I hoped Memory Eternal would help me grapple with the experience, but it’s not a self-help, therapeutic book. It reads like a primer for priests, parishes, and grief group leaders in the first seven chapters. Its best features begin in chapters eight to eleven, which included real stories. From the early days of grieving to liturgical experiences, spiritual experiences, and finally nurturing connections, the real stories grounded a book that reads more like a doctoral dissertation. The author doesn’t dig into their whole stories of loss, just the way in which they processed grief through the lens and experience of the Orthodox Faith. Some candidates lost infants prematurely or children by suicide. Others lost parents, relatives, and friends to other causes. 

We grieve every life uniquely. In our funeral liturgy, the prayers for the departed, the psalter, and the traditions of the Church we find an anchor for the whiplash of emotions that accompany loss. When I planned to keep vigil the night of my sister’s death, it was because I’d read the psalter for the forty days after our beloved Archbishop JOB+ died outside his hotel on a snowy night in 2009. My husband was a first-year priest and was still in seminary when we got the call. We were sleepless with shock. He’d been a mentor, a true spiritual father, and I hated that he died after having borne many hardships in the Church. Praying out all the Psalms’ anger, retributive attitudes, love, worship, and lamentations helped process the range of emotions that come with grief.

It bears repeating that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s notorious “stages of grief” were written about the dying, not the surviving and that these are not strict stages. They are recursive tides, rolling over us in ebb and flow. Grief exacts all sorts of tolls, reshuffling relationships, affecting sleep and diet, and tossing wild questions and ideas into our heads.

Just when some of us sink into its solitude, we need community, which the appendices of Memory Eternal provide via a framework for an eight-week grief group. The author’s map could be very helpful, though eight wee’s seems too short a time for the work that grief often takes. I’d be curious to see how it compares to Griefshare, an evangelical program that several friends of mine have used in recent years. One lost his twenty-one-year-old to an unexplained death. Another lost her brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew in a horrific murder-suicide. Both the surviving and deceased siblings were high school friends, and walking into a church with four caskets at the front made me tremble at the power of evil that might wreak havoc on the souls of the surviving family members.  

Grief keeps finding me, as it does everyone. It’s raw as the fifth anniversary of my sister’s death approaches and my 64-year-old brother-in-law has entered palliative care for stomach cancer. I crave deep healing, a community that will share grief, the Orthodox traditions, as well as their spiritual-emotional “why” to help make sense of all that has cycled through me. Memory Eternal may not have been a solo processing book, but it could provide parish members with resources that could help a person in my situation.

Review: The Prayer of a Broken Heart

Rev. Paul Abernathy recounted three stories in The Prayer of a Broken Heart which underscore why I am sitting here trying to figure out how to get more people to read it.

For the Orthodox Christian, Abernathy’s message and style should make it a viral read. For some, it will be a recommendation. But I want to convince others who might dismiss it because its subtitle is An Orthodox Christian Reflection on African American Spirituality. 

 Why read it? It will deepen faith and an appreciation for Black American experience in the US. Abernathy weaves the characteristics of Orthodox spirituality with the Christianity of African Americans, demonstrating how people trapped by the “peculiar institution” cultivated a profound, simple faith in Christ even as they were denied the right to read and write. When they were forbidden to gather in prayer or for church- lest they pray for freedom- they risked their lives for their faith.

I had one of those “how come nobody ever told me?” moments when I read that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of a unit of African Americans in the Union, said his recruits sang only “quaint religious songs” which seemed to be “a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven.” I grew up in a home where adults had very specific notions about the “right” kind of Christian, which were tiered based on certain pieties and theologies. It wasn’t hard to infer that at the back of those tiers were Black Christians. Depending on who was talking, I learned the shifting, conflicting prejudices that insinuated Black Christians were too sensual (and liberal/progressive) to be “good” Christians. In our family, we weren’t supposed to listen to “secular” music or dance. They did both of those. So the history in Broken Heart gobsmacked me. I like being gobsmacked. There’s a lot I don’t know and when I learn new things, it’s a reminder to stay curious and humble.

Later in the book, Abernathy recounts a revival in 1823, where a Black preacher offered up a dramatic performance using a chair as a cross and delivered an impassioned sermon  that elicited “different reactions from his racially mixed audience.” Whites were laughing openly at the preacher’s style which was the “sport of all around.” Meanwhile, his Black listeners wept, praised God, and shouted, “Glory! Glory!” In this story is the seed of why I’ve already seen comments such as “would they be ok with ‘Anglo American spirituality?” on posts about The Prayer of a Broken Heart. Some people respond with faith and some make sport of it. The question is who is making sport? Why? What advantage does it give them? 

Abernathy started the Neighborhood Resilience Project in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and opened the book with a story of simple faith, of a woman who lost a child suddenly due to a health condition. This woman came ready to grieve, which many good-hearted people want to fix with coping skills. “This woman had no desire to cope with her pain. She needed to transcend it.” Prayers and songs offered from a humble faith have been the constant for Black Americans who have been “essentially separated… from their own histories.” Abernathy wrote that these allowed for spiritual remembrance connecting them to God’s story. 

I think the book should be a joyful “eye-popper” about the concurrence between African American faith and Orthodoxy. There are “entry points” into Orthodoxy that will resonate for African Americans, like those he and parishes around the country minister to. Abernathy writes of those seeking spiritual discipline (some of whom turn to Islam) and those who want to connect to tradition and cling to simple faith. I think of the dapper young men selling roses in my state’s capital- members of the Nation of Islam, young converts seeking order and rigor in their world. It’s an invitation to both Orthodox and non to consider what African American spirituality can bring to Orthodoxy in America and the Orthodox Church can bring African Americans seeking transcendence. 

One final thought and disclosure. I know Fr. Paul from seminary days. When he began the Hill district ministry, I often referred students and families to him. Our youth camp invited him to speak and he preached until their hair stood straight up. His ability to preach straight, to speak hard truth anchored to the Gospel, to the Eucharist, and to Christ shines through in the second half of the book. Abernathy speaks to the injustices of the present and shifts into homily mode. It’s a very readable sermon weaving accounts from the people in Pittsburgh with the Church Fathers and calling us all back to the power of the Eucharist and Christ to transcend the sorrows of this life. His feint is the call for those in the Church to be “a unifying ministry both in time and in space.” (Zizioulas Being As Communion qtd by Abernathy). 

Recommending: They’re Not Coming Back -CfC Podcast S4E4

This article. It’s hard to admit truths like this. It leads to a lot of hard questions. I heard Rob Dyer talk on the Center for Congregations podcast. He challenged those of us in church to be honest that people are not coming back. Some never had a relationship with God or a reason before. They came out of habit, to be plugged into a community, or to please someone else. Some are leaving for other hard reasons we Christians need to contend with.

I know my faith and the practice of it weekly are part of what gives me quiet, space, reflection, a God to whom I turn when my burden is too heavy and I sense that I “exist too much” for most humans. I need God, and I need the practices of the church, even when I resist and rebel against giving up wine and olive for Lent. – It’s almost all I have left that is prescribed for fasting since I’m pretty much vegan, but I digress- I need the quietitude of prayer and meditation. I need to know a personal, real, and living God is listening and loves me because I’m a soul sucking abyss on the inside. I would take people out if I let myself be known as I am in all my hot mess to anyone, BUT GOD. God alone has love enough for me though I really resist accepting this love. I need fasting to correct my passions. They control me. I need to give because it sets me free. But enough about me.

Christians should be known by their love.

I am shy to tell others, especially those exceptionally jaded by Christian failures that God and the Church are worth it. I am not here to argue, cajole, guilt, shame, nitpick anyone who doesn’t believe as I do. Why? Because I think I have to show up as love. Lordy, that scares me. I am cranky, negative, vain, self-indulgent, anxious and afraid. I’m pretty far from being “safe” – a person who just effuses love, peace, and temperance. The best I can say is, “Well, God loves me. I’m going to love you (badly and for that I’m sorry) but God love you more, I mean if God puts up with me, well, then God likely finds you easy to love.”

For those of us in the Church, in faith, who have had and continue to have that real experience of God, those of us who want our loved ones and friends to move from point A, wherever that is, to point B, having a real relationship with God, Dyer says we have to go to point A to meet them.

It’s why I’m pretty willing to show up for friends who other Christians condemn for being LGBTQIA. It’s why I want to be friends with people of other faiths and traditions, ethnicities, and races. I’m not really capable of doing the moving to Point B. I’m just at Point A to listen, and be an icon of Christ. The rest is between them and God. But if there’s no one willing to show up for God in other places because Christians have isolated themselves, then I’m not sure we are emulating Christ.

A final point. We need to listen more. Just listen. And trust God. Here’s another valuable CfC Podcast episode with three questions to prompt listening for young people and one on listening for racial reconciliation.

We might learn a lot if we listen to those people leaving because we have no grace for LGBTQ people or because we haven’t headed Dr. King’s rebuke about Sunday mornings being the most segregated of the week.

The Brink of Clarity

In having kids, I learned lessons I missed while being a kid. One is that reading a piece should never be a wham-bam-one-time,-ma’am thing. 

NOTE: I grew up because I had kids. I’m still learning to adult, credit to them. For instance, my daughter called me out for nagging and harping at her and my son every Sunday morning. We don’t enjoy church, she told me. 

Poems are like great songs, I tell my students. You have to listen to a song many times to let it sink in. 

Great essays, too. Writing that resonates deserves to be on heavy rotation, quoted, hummed.

Tonight, I finally read Mark Doty’s essay Return to Sender, a month after Aimee Christian recommended it. I know it hit all the chords when I kept grabbing for a pen to underline, annotate, and mark up. Thank you, Mark Doty, for addressing all my worst fears about my memoir. It’s in revision again, and this time, going further towards the truth. 

Here are some delightful quotes to hum to you. Imagine me crooning these to you:

  • The lives of other people are unknowable. Period.
  • This particular form of distortion—the inevitable rewriting of those we love we do in the mere act of describing them—is the betrayal built into memoir, into the telling of memories. But the alternative, of course, is worse: are we willing to lose the past, to allow it to be erased, because it can only be partially known? 
  • I grew up with the sense that to name a problem was to invite mighty trouble. 
  • …every memoirist’s nightmare; that we will lose people in our lives by writing about them. I have replaced an inauthentic relationship—the conversation we had before, with its many elisions—with an authentic silence. 
  • Memoir is a way of reclaiming, at least temporarily, the sense of shapeliness in a life.
  • If the reader hears guilt in this attempt at self-justification, she’s right. After all, I have wounded an old man, who plans to die without forgiving me; I have made a rupture; I’ve shown light into dark places, and thus brought shame upon my family; I have told the truth, which may indeed set you free, but not without the price of betrayal. You cannot sing your ancestors’ songs as they intended them to be sung, as they would have phrased them themselves. If you choose to sing them at all, you will betray your forebears, because you will never understand them as they’d wish to be understood.
  • …art cannot be counted to mend the rifts within or without. Its work is to take us to the brink of clarity. Joy Williams writes, “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.” Clarity, 

God. Doesn’t. Math. Damnation.

I’m watching Hellbound, a Korean horror drama about sinners, demons, damnations, and the call to live righteously.

I can’t help but wonder if modernity and post-modernity are more concerned with damnation than any other era. When I consider more ancient and storied civvies, there is honor, dignity, and relational connection. Where do you see damnations as the urgent, immediate, transcendent language? The story of God and humans is exile and reconciliation, not hell and damnation against heaven and purity.
Why this “sinners in the hands of an angry demon, devil or god?”

What does this say about us a humans?

Listening to Fr. Richard Rohr discussing St. Theresa Avila with Kate Bowler today spoke to the common discussion for eastern, ancient, storied Christians. The “little flower saint” said God doesn’t know math but we do. We count what we did or did not do, adding up sins and blessings. Some count blessings and think God loves them. Some cannot account for their sufferings and find God absent.
God may not work with math. As more than one high school student has asked, what is math? Is it hypothetical or concrete?
It speaks to higher order thinking, to mystery, to meta-problem solving, to symbolism.
Where is God in this? We can respond many ways to hardship, struggle, discomfort, sickness, death, suffering. We can relinquish ourselves to it. All is meaningless. Or we can make meaning, as Viktor Frankl spoke to in Man’s Search for Meaning. In the saints we see those who say, this is a new a deeper way to love Jesus. Each suffering is a necessary struggle towards wholeness and reconciliation.

Not everyone has this take. Other takes? This is the way to despair, disconnection, distraction, and anxiety.

We can connect or not.

Where is God, we ask. Where are we? Do we want to be where God is?

What if the Korean drama “Hellbound” became “Heavenbound?” Do we have the imagination for angels that show up and say, “you are bound for peace and grace in X number of days”? Nope. There’s no drama in zero conflict and violence. We can’t rest that the final violence was the Cross.

We operate on conflict and drama. What contortions of soul would we wrestle with if an angel appeared to say how we’d end this life, enter eternity, and not offer an explanation on why we deserve such mercy and grace?

I suppose I should try to write this drama. The closest I’ve seen is this Wolfman Tom or Karel Capek’s “The Last Judgement.”

The story of God is not balanced. You want balance? That’s Buddhist chi. This isn’t yin/yang. There is no balance with God. Also, there is freewill but no condemnation for those want God. It was always about God calling creation home.

Dear self. It doesn’t feel like it but the world is holy. Really.

Robin Wall Kimmerer – in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: “We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.”

This is making a lot of people uncomfortable with me. I have so many LGBTQIA friends, so I’m likely to be a bit of a momma bear in certain circles where that is almost anathema. I have learned to listen to narratives of those in diverse communities. I am a student when learning about colonization in the present. I am learning. I trust these voices. Why? Because the line between holy and unholy, like good and not, runs right through our hearts. It’s for God to sort those hearts. It’s my job to remain circumspect, open to relationship, and repentant. Mostly to look for the holy, rather than the unholy.

What do we do with holy in the world? The holy in us? The holy in people, even the ones we push away?

This week, I’m once again anguished by the unholy. I’ve been thrown back to the night that Uncle Dave’s murder was slowly pixel by pixel unfurled on our local newspaper’s mainpage. The insinuations in the story were so many more hits to grieving hearts. I’m thrown back to the insinuations against my grandfather, a saint and a pastor, my uncle, another saint and pastor, and the insinuations against teachers like me, nurses like my sister(s-in-law). I can’t seem to catch my breath between dark moments. I don’t know if it’s the brittleness of isolation, the awareness of the fragility of life and civil society due to natural disaster or angry loud voices. But I am whispering a lot of breath prayers for souls these days.

Remember, O God, those who are angry and unreconciled with me, and I with them, and for the friends I just lost.

I spiral and tag the names of others who died unjustly, and other “enemies.”

These prayers are grief prayers. And they are the Spirit moving.Grief. We know about as much on that topic as we can define the Holy Spirit.

Native author Kaitlin Curtice writes: “We aren’t often told that the Holy Spirit and Grief are partners.”
This is worth contemplating.

For more on Kaitlin’s thoughts:

But the question

Lydia Davis writes, In translating, you pose yourself a question — or it is posed to you by the text; you have no satisfactory answer, though you put something down on paper, and then years later the answer may turn up. Certainly you never forget the question.

This is try of writing. You pose yourself a question, or it posed by the moment you feel you are entering a conversation; you lack satisfaction answers given before, so you dare to face yourself, try for an answer, take criticism- contemptuous and gracious, alike- and the answer may turn up. But the question niggles.

Davis writes of the joy of translation, which I avoided by going for an MFA and not a MA in Literature. I was not required to demonstrate proficiency in a Latin, German, or Russian language.

There is value to translation and even copying sentences of another writer. I come from a religious confession where “translation” also means bringing a prophetic word. This does not mean predicting or being prescient, but translating ancient metaphors, proverbs, prescriptions, and stories to a present framework that makes it accessible and meaningful for modern people to apply to their present moment. It’s a joy and a vulnerability.

Why? The question. I like niggling questions. I like thinking I’m an old blind man feeling up an elephant, part by part, until I work with other blind old folk to finding meaning. But sometimes the questions I like interfere with other’s goals. The answers I find in one context threaten others.

I also like being one of many blind man. Being cast out of that community alarms me. I’m in my forties now, and feel as cast out as ever. I’m alarmed. I would try to swallow this urge to ask the questions, but it’s like a reflex.

I am afraid I might be estranged from everything but the words on a page.

Are you against DEI- diversity, equity and inclusion?

In an interview about his new book Woke Racism, John McWhorter is correct in asserting that there is not a honest conversation about what we teachers are talking about with our students.

We teachers are explicitly discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion stories and issues in English, math, science, history, social topics, and other courses. The reporters who thump the line “Let’s be clear. CRT is not being taught in K12 classrooms because it is a legal theory originating at Harvard Law School in the 1970s” are not saying that we teachers are intentionally and compassionately trying to introduce the history of math, nations, and literature from the diversity, equity and inclusion lenses.

Nope. It’s not CRT. Yep, we will unapologetically teach from a diversity, equity and inclusion angle because more Americans have identified they are mixed race and are just fine with that. They want all their stories told.

So what if we framed this as it is? Teachers should talk about the diverse groups of people on this continent. We should be honest about equity (access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) is an elusive objective. We should helping students navigate inclusion (yes we all get to be here. I mean if we are going to insist that we won’t give this land back to its original inhabitants).

Who is going demonize or blacken diversity, equity and inclusion? Someone for sure. Lots of someones if they have leverage to gain. So what? Stand up to that illusion, or rather delusion, that it’s patriotic to be against diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is the field on which this civil debate is placed (it is in the neighborhood of CRT as Shenandoah is not so far from Gettysburg). I’ll call it so we can carry on honestly because I will not back down from making sure all my students, my nieces, nephews, cousins, god children, church school kids, and neighbors get to participate as much as I have in the work of being whole and being American. I got to explore my mutt-European genealogy. I wrestled with the discomfort of displacing good indigenous peoples and living in a place named for a general called “mad” by his own men. I’ve had to both be kind to and individuate from family members who used racial epithets, owned businesses that wouldn’t serve non-whites, and who told me never to marry across ethnic boundaries.

So, if I say we are teaching DEI, and you say you are against DEI, then we are in civil conflict. But, Lord, have mercy, that’s not war. We can weather this storm. We may need to see uncomfortably together. Let’s try. At least nobody becomes a murderer or widower.

Why Christian?

In her book Inspired, Rachel Held Evans asked “Why Christian?” especially when miracles seem so hard to accept to modern minds, and with all the oppression and abuse in the name of or done by those who use and abuse the term Christian.

Why Christian? For me it’s because the story not of who God keeps out but because of God’s pursuit of and letting in of people who scandalize the rest of us. Held reminded me that the story of faith is one long, mysterious story of a God who on top of trying time and again to draw people to care for the poor, to abandoned women, children, sick, imprisoned, and outcast, then took flesh as Jesus Christ and identified with the homeless, touched the “unclean,” and insisted on telling confounding stories with multiple meanings. Christ invites us to struggle with the meanings and identify with the outcast, to accept the unaccepted, and to lose our self-delusions to see ourselves as we are truly seen.

I’ve not been up to the task of asking, let alone trying to answer that hard question “Why Christian?” for a while. It’s an exercise for me because I love Christ but often struggle with my faith. I get myself into trouble for being too pious in one season not “moral” or pious enough at others. I do essay experiments in identifying with the homeless, try to feed my neighborhood, befriend those that other Christians treat as the Biblical language would call it “outcasts,” and I’m never being comfortable, so I write or say things that make others uncomfortable.

For instance, I recently posted on the socials that I realized my family might have been “homeless” by definition under 1987’s McKinney-Vento act. Of course, we weren’t “homeless” by 1987. By then we lived in the unfinished home that my parents, my grandparents, and so many family and friends helped to make a reality for us. But part of the process was to live in small camper for months on end. Full disclosure we lived on our own land, and for part of that time parents still owned a mobile home. We bathed on Saturdays in an inch of cold water, used an outhouse unless it was the middle of the night, were total renegades playing in a toxic creek of farm runoff, and cooked on a fire, a grill, or a campstove. We thought it was awesome until those February nights when the heater pilot blew out and we froze until our father came back from his second shift and gave up sleep to fix it.

Our parents took a calculated risk because they were working to better our lives. That camper might have been our “transitional” housing, something like the hotels in which my students who qualify for McKinney Vento live because their home burned down, was flooded or destroyed by a tornado. The adults in our lives had a plan and they always took care of us. In the same way, my husband and I always cared for our children growing up, though we had moments behind our closed bedroom door when groceries, bills, and non-existent funds worried my husband and me.

I find it a wholly Christian exercise to think of those moments on the precipice as a way to relate to, understand, and even rethink my worry about ending up penny pinching again. After all, through the lens of faith, I realize it’s relinquishing my control and accepting that someday again in my life, I might need miracles and a whopping sense of gratitude to get by. I will need to constantly shrug off the creep myth that my family or I pulled ourselves into middle class comfort by our bootstraps.

I go through this kind of thought experiment whenever I get too comfortable or at ease. I think it’s a symptom of spiritual ennui. It starts when I get a creeping sense that something is not right in my world. Two pre-conditions of this sickness are when I think “I got this” and “what is a miracle anyway.” What follows is listlessness. I am getting sick in my soul, and that I might need my faith in God restored. I need a miracle or two, even as I doubt them. To see one though seems to require me, as Shane Claiborne writes, “to live in a way that necessitates one.” 

Post Script: By the way, I’m only now reading Rachel Held Evans because one ethos of my life has been to be skeptical of “cults of personality.” She died a couple of years ago, and now as I dig into her work, I find it’s a balm to my skeptical soul.

Not the mothering-type

I’m researching childcare for this week’s column. When I write, I tend to invite old demons to torment me.

Old fundamentalist, complementarian demons are divebombing me this week about childcare. During the shutdown, a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian I know was giddy that women were divesting themselves of careers because they belonged at home. My mom stayed home. I tried to stay home. For the first four years of mothering I spend scads of what felt like my husband’s money trying to assuage my ennui. I made candles for gifts using hundreds of dollars of Hobby Lobby finds (I shudder now at what I spent at a place I no longer support). I spent hours cleaning up the wax. I made jewelry. I created pies as gifts. I bought out the seasonal produce and put up several dozen pints of goods like spiced cherry jam that lingered on our shelves, in expensive mason jars, mocking my investment of time and money. I grew the veritable $84 dollar tomato. All of this because I was bored. I needed to earn money and contribute, so I tried to offer childcare but I resented the parents who went home, napped, then picked up their kids at the latest minute when I was trapped in my home with three weeping toddlers clinging to my arms.

I had to admit I am not a nurturing type. While I love kids’ imaginations and development, and find activities and songs with them fun, I have a timer on my “love” for doing this. I cooked with them, made art, read stories, cuddled sick kids, fed them treats and gave them “airplane” rides. I did this in explosions of energy, a hour to three at a time. Then, I let them play and explore until they’d dug up my house plants and colored on the walls and I screeched in surprise. Their behavior didn’t surprise me. My disinterest that allowed them to do whatever until it tipped my scales, that is what appalled me. I had to accept that I am not a child care provider.

I want to write books, create art, help people. I am a renaissance woman. I am a teacher. I didn’t know it then. I only knew I was deeply bored at home. I failed to be a child care provider so I went to work to pay off loans to Taylor University, then on to more loans from Purdue University to complete my degree. Beforehand, I recall a long through town with my father, a kindly, wise, but traditional man, who ventured that couples now -in the nineties he meant- may need both incomes to survive.

I interrogated myself as I slumped with relief at his words. I knew I could be thriftier to support our three person household. I could even have more babies and use that to try to salve my ennui, but I also knew listless creativity, my vision, and my impatience. While I wanted to honor my mother’s years at home, those old time values, I worried that my restlessness would result in a kind of resentment, anger and cold frustration at limited circumstances. I decided to take my father’s words as a blessing, even if offered not in line with my literal circumstances. Thus I set myself from free from guilt and let another care for my child en loco parentis, in place of parents.

The fundamentalist view of the world condemns this. I learned growing up, It was worse so when using public resources, so I tried to hold the tension. I asked my husband to choose a private ministerial childcare provider, then a private Christian school would show that I was not “allowing” the state to “nanny” my children. These are the frets that tense the fundamentalist. Though I would go on to teach in public schools, and often queried as an outsider who’d been home educated, I didn’t let the system have my kids until they were both in high school. I was trying to thread a needle that would sew my children to a moral and cultural cloth of my choosing. If only that is the appropriate analogy and metaphor for raising humans. Alas, what a fallacious approach to the human condition.

My point is this. We paid too much for our daughter’s church-based childcare, and endured some hyper-silly procedures in the name of moralism, and we paid what we could afford for our son, once no family could provide affordable childcare any longer. In both cases, the childcare was costly, imperfect, and something we thought we could dictate improvements upon, inasmuch as we had economic power. Except we were economically disadvantaged.

What silliness. Had I kept the kids home, I might have been as morally, spiritually, and socially as silly as the church-based ministry. I would have been an enormous linguistic improvement to the non-ministry and more affordable daycare for my son, though he would have taken months more to potty-train. I would have read stories, been a strict disciplinarian, impatient on matters of messiness, kindly on matters of fun learning, and been familiar with my kids’ personalities. I would have remained restless, which might have led me to teach my kids how to bake bread, preserve fruits and veggies, to do art and sing, but I would have also ignored them when my brain was overwhelmed with all that I knew I was called to do, but not for or with them.

They would have also experienced the same deep economic stressors that almost imperceptibly affect spirits and bodies when there is never enough money for food, bills, housing and transportation. They experienced this acutely while my husband was in seminary and was wildly underpaid in a small parish in his first years of ministry, when at times our shelves were bare and we juggled bills. Sometimes the electricity and water were shut off for a few hours or day. Nothing awful, but always a reminder that we survived on a thin red line.

Choosing to work made it possible for my husband to go to seminary, to be a priest, to let those ascetical years of almost nothing teach us to care for those in similar situations. We’ve learned to identify with the “other” over and again, though our situation has improved.

Looking back, I don’t regret putting my kids in childcare. I cringe at the fundamentalism that haunted me and made me question the spiritual and moral validity of becoming a teacher and letting others contribute to my children’s moral, spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual development.

I’ve come to a conclusion that the fundamentalism dictating that a nuclear family unit is the superior mode of raising children, a unit where mother is nurturer in the home, lacks the historical evidence as the right way for raising children. In Biblical times, there is scant evidence of a nuclear unit being the primary or only social unit for human development. Across all religions, including my own faith confession’s historical tradition, there are far too many modes from polygomous marriages, to villages, to multi-generational and non-traditional methods of child-rearing, including dropping a kid off at the temple. I was held captive a dogma that has no justification for being dogma.

And that truth set me at ease.

Because kids grow up in an ecosystem and any agrarian knows there is only so much a person can control in the environment. Soil, rain, pests, heat, sun, coldness will all effect what grows and what doesn’t that year. Most of that is out of human control. Ours is to do our best to cultivate soil, water, weed, love and prune. That is all.

I’m not the mothering type, not a nurturer, as is nebulously defined by fundamentalist religious people. I’m a gardener, I suppose. Yes. I am a gardener, willing to acknowledge what I cannot control and accept the wildness of things.