I Saw Your Son Yesterday

I saw your son yesterday.  Standing on the corner for a brief moment before he jaywalked in front of my car  – blue jeans, t-shirt, flip flops stride wide cross the downtown Seattle thorofare, tall frame and wide shoulders, black hair, the curls all wild. 

Beauty – I caught a glimpse of beauty beneath the emaciated form – the body torn down by a substance that owns him.  Leads him  – ring in nose – under the bridge to where he feels OK.  To an army of ‘ease the pain’ worshipers who sacrifice themselves for a fix. 

I saw your son yesterday, and yelled at God.  “What does it take for you to touch a body and make it whole again?  What if he’s too far gone to reach for You?  Can’t you just take the voices in his head and hush them still so that the fix is not his only relief?”

I saw your son yesterday, as light turned green, I passed him by.  Behind me, he and hundreds of other mother’s sons there to just make it through…

Another crave. 

Another fix. 

Another sleep it off. 

Only to wake up needing more. 

I saw your son yesterday, and asked God to be ‘The More’ for him, and all the mother’s sons with him. 

The Quiet Voice low. 

“…saw her son?  

He’s my Son, too.”

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Priorities by Mary Walter-Feltner

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This is written by a dear friend of mine.  

I think it beautifully captures some of the tension we experience as women,

trying to make the very best decisions about our lives.  

Thank you Mary for allowing me to share this.  

While the weak December sun rose outside, pink hues brushed the clouds in flowing waves.  As I looked through my east-facing window in Cincinnati General Hospital’s maternity ward, I was conscious of the thousands of patients, employees, and medical students or residents like my husband Rols.  Invisibly, they swarmed around me in the huge building complex.  Steam from the hospital’s heating plant rose in thin columns; light sparkled on the heavy frost covering every building and piece of equipment.  Industrial noise provided a constant background symphony.  But somehow, the dawn light took me out of all that.  For a few moments, I felt suspended between “the real world” around me and an otherworldly dimension.

Nathaniel, only 12 hours old, lay in my arms.  Our first-born child.  His skin was softer than rose petals.  He radiated a magical, newborn baby smell.  He was, as countless babies have been throughout history, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  His swaddling was a standard issue, thin General Hospital blanket, greyish-white, lined with faded blue and red stripes. 

There I lay, a 29-year-old professional who had previously questioned how children could possibly fit into all my ambitions.  Up to Nathaniel’s birth, I had wanted to use my law degree and masters in community planning to end homelessness and poverty.  My husband had wanted to cure all physical ills.  After all, we were children of the 1960’s; President Kennedy had told us: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  And as eager, young Christians, we felt the call to serve the poor as a religious calling.

Our personal histories also called us to something more. I’d spent a lot of my youth nurturing my younger brothers, and Rols had spent a lot of his youth supporting all his older brothers and sisters. We didn’t want our adult lives to be squished by care-taking.  Yes, we’d have our family, but we would not limit ourselves to just taking care of our own.  Changing the world would come first.

Our personal histories had also been touched by judgments that we wouldn’t or couldn’t achieve anything, and we wanted to prove those judgments wrong. We’d spent countless, late-night hours regaling each other with our dreams of all we wanted to achieve.

Now, in the early morning light, our “do-gooder” ambitions felt like ancient history.  As I held my baby, I felt that all I’d been or ever would be was wrapped into mothering this child.  Everything else had fallen away.  I was A Mother, and nothing else.

Priorities had radically changed for me, overnight.

A plastic, infant bassinet sat next to my hospital bed.  Nathaniel had either lain in my arms or in that little bassinet most of the night.  I had dozed, bone-tired after the labor, on and off.  Occasionally a nurse came to take the baby to the nursery for some reason.  When that happened, I fell more deeply asleep, but woke startled, aware of my empty arms. 

Now, as the sun rose, I became aware of the date – December 24th, 1984.  Christmas Eve.  The date we Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the first-born son of Mary. 

“Well, Mary,” I whispered to the universe, “I guess we’re close to celebrating the same birthday for our first boy child.”  I looked around the room and out the window at the pink clouds.  “The circumstances are a little different.  Your hospital room was a stable, and your bassinet was a manger.  You were perhaps an unwed Jewish teenager.  You lived in an occupied country, threatened by all kinds of dangers.  I’m none of those things.  But I wonder …  Perhaps, when you bore baby Jesus, you felt a little how I’m feeling now.  Sore.  Tired.  Full of awe.  Conscious of the mystery involved in bringing a new life to the world.  Worried for your baby’s future.  Dead certain that your little, red-faced, wrinkly little boy was the most handsome child ever born.”

As the sky brightened a little, I got a little irreverent.

“Being protestant and all, it does feel a little awkward talking to you.  I’m not sure we’re supposed to give you that much credit.  We leave all that to Catholic believers.  But what the heck.  You’re named Mary like me. You’re revered by billions for being the Mother of God, and I’m feeling like I should be raised to a semi-divine status, just for bringing a human being into the world.  Maybe Catholics are right to light candles in your honor.  Maybe people should light candles every time any woman does this amazing thing …

Well, for what it’s worth, and from one Mary to another, I honor your part in the story.  I must hand it to you, you sure were brave to bear and love your baby Jesus if you knew anything about what was destined to happen to Him.  I’m not sure I could have played the part you played in His story.  I couldn’t bear to have anything bad happen to him, ever.”

I grew weepy, looking down at Nathaniel.  “In fact, even though you were the mother of God and all, I don’t think you could have loved your newborn baby Jesus any more than I love this baby.  I really, really want to be a good mother for him, Mary.”

No lightning struck me as I whispered all this to the universe, so perhaps my musings didn’t offend the Heavenly Authorities.  Maybe the heavenly host had a nice chuckle.  Maybe Jesus’ mother smiled.

Soon afterwards, someone came in to help me nurse, Rols arrived for a quick visit, and the phone started ringing.  My surreal, other-worldly experience dissipated.  But my new sense of meaning and purpose remained.

And Then…

John came in 1987, via labor and an emergency C-section, followed by a cross-country move 10 days later.  Alanna was born after a difficult, life-threatening pregnancy and about nine weeks in the hospital, in 1991.  Katherine came in 1994.  Along the way, we did foster care for kids ranging from two to 17 years old.  We ended up adopting Peter and Evie through the state’s foster-adopt program, in 2009.  Rols and I continued to work and do a lot of volunteering. 

Our ambitions to solve world problems were pushed aside by our drive to nurture one-on-one.  Rols and I enjoyed the personal nature of our small practices and our volunteer work.  And — despite or because of – our caring for brothers and sisters when we were growing up, we ended up loving the parenting role.  We became enamored with the idea of having a big family.  Rols liked the idea of having the same number of children his parents had borne – eight.  I like the idea of having 12 children, because that was the number of children in my favorite book as a child, The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Grigsby Doss.

Well, we sort of failed in that area, along with falling short in the Sphere of Great Achievements.  We ended up with “only” six children.

In addition to my 1984 “talk” with Jesus’ mother, over the years I’ve talked with relatives, bosses and friends about priorities and children.  Sometimes those conversations touched on the conflict between work ambitions and the desire to have a big family.  Feedback about our priorities was often very critical.  I agreed with some aspect of every point raised by the critics.

Although I usually enjoyed VIP status with my grandmother “Mama,” she was highly critical of how I gushed over the prospects of having lots of children.  She archly sniffed and urged me to limit child-bearing to two children.

“But Mama,” I protested, “You had three children, and my mother – your daughter – had four children.  What’s so wrong with having more than two children?”

She evaded my question, countering with, “Mary dear, you are not a brood cow.  You need to have time for a social life and time with your husband.  Two is enough.”

My mother didn’t criticize me for having more than two children, but constantly told me how wrong it was for me to work at all.  She shook her head and demanded: “Why have children if you’re not going to be there for them?  They need you.  Full-time.  They’re your primary responsibility.  Stop acting like such a — woman’s libber; nothing is more important than being a good mother.”

“But Mom,” I countered.  “You and Dad pushed me to achieve in high school.  You scrimped and saved so I could go to a good college.  You said you were proud of me for going to graduate school.  What was the point of all that education if I don’t actually use it?”

Mom’s response was that my educational achievements enabled me to be an awesome mother, and gave me skills to rely on if something happened to Rols.  And, she concluded, “If I’d known how — irresponsible you’d be about motherhood, I would never have supported all that education.  I assumed you’d know how to assess your priorities.  I can’t believe how — self-centered you are!”

Mom’s position was like those of friends from our church in eastern Washington in the early 1980’s.  Most of them found it difficult to imagine a mother working outside the home with small children, unless the husband died.  Sometimes I was given a little heart-to-heart talk, a Bible verse, or an article about the benefits of full-time mothering.

On the other hand, my close friend Sandy, an environmental activist, supported my idea of working, but lambasted the idea of having a large family on ethical grounds.  “If rampant procreation was ever acceptable, today it’s downright sinful to have more than one or two children.”  She and her husband had chosen not to have any children.  She gave me a package of condoms after Nathaniel was born. 

The senior partner in my practice in Okanogan scoffed at trying to practice law and have children.  He would angrily snuff out his 50th cigarette of the day, lean back in his old swivel chair, and present me with Life Lecture #67: “With kids, you’ll just end up playing at the practice of law. You probably won’t be a good mother, either.  You’ll end up doing a half-ass job at everything.  Look at my daughter.  Laura was going to be an architect.  Now she works part-time as a nurse’s aide and the grandkids run around our place, half-wild.”

“Am I doing a half-ass job here?” I asked.

He’d light a cigarette as his bushy, gray eyebrows scowled at me.

“No.  You’re doing fine.  But having to take care of the kids like you do, you’re sure as hell not going to end up at the top of the legal ladder.”

I remember nodding at him.  He was probably right.

Then again, was it that important to climb to the top of the legal ladder?  The cost, in terms of time, would be very high.  Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to forget the ladder, and just try to contribute some value along the way?

My old friend Rachel from the joint graduate program went the farthest of all the critics.  Back before we had any children, she lectured me: “I just don’t see how you can do any good in the world if you’re tied down by relationships.  You’ve got to be free to give 120%.  You made your first mistake when you got married.  Now you’re talking about kids.  Your life, Mary, is going to devolve into bourgeois mediocrity. You won’t be able to accomplish anything of any worth in your life the way you’re going.”

Along with all the other critics, Rachel had a point.

Thirty years later, many things have changed.  My grandmother is gone now; my mother, presented with three daughters-in-law who also work, has toned down her rhetoric.  While my activist friends gave up on me, other friends share my angst about balancing work, mothering, and contributing to the universe. 

Song Writer

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I’ve been writing songs since I was fairly young.  I remember stretching my 14 year old back over the bathtub.  Cleaning, scrubbing, singing a little chorus I had thought up, humming, singing it over and over ….

“I was walk’n down life’s road,

trying to push through a crowd.

I was tryin and tryin,

but I couldn’t do it by myself.

And then Christ did it for me,

that’s why He died on Calvary…..”

By Lisa J. Boyl

On and on I’d work the song while I worked the scum off the tub walls. A simple ditty for a 14 year old girl who was trying to push through the croud of life, needing God to do it for me.  Other songs I wrote.  I had them all sketched onto the Bible I packed around. My odd brown song file, dilapidated covers taped together for preservation, I’d write another, and another. Sometimes scrawling sideways up the margins to make room for one more song. The summer I worked at Camp Berkshire upstate New York, my Bible went it’s way, never to be seen again, and gone were all my songs. Most I can’t recall.  Lost, my heart in words and rhyme.

College gave me other opportunities to continue writing songs. The best came to me when I was covered in dirt and sweat.  Working grounds, digging holes in packed soil to plant the colorful petunias, lines would come to me, and then the tune.  I’d sing it to myself and loud, out there alone on the arid college grounds of the eastern Washington.  Alone, most of the time.  If I remembered, I’d keep a short pencil and scrap of paper in my shorts pocket for when an inspiration would hit. Sometimes I’d hurry across the lawn to the ladies room, pull down a paper towel, tear off a corner and scribble out the line I’d been singing to myself, hoping to not forget. I have never learned to write a score, and can play piano only in the key of C, so after work, I’d hurry with my after work routine and rush over to a vacant chapel on campus where I’d play out the song, reading the lyrics off the wadded up paper, over and over I’d play it until I found the chords I had heard in my head, and until I had the song down.  There were friends who could make sense of the songs I’d written, and would put them to music, able to play them in the key that made the most sense for a singer.

There were week of prayer theme song contests.  Both years I decided to participate,  they choose my song.  That felt great.  Hearing my whole college sing my song for a week straight I found rather unnerving and special at the same time.  I loved it and also wanted to hide.  But I did love the challenge of being given a theme and writing a song that worked with the topic.   Both theme songs chosen belonged most of all to the planting of the petunias.

Some might say that being like you is too much to ask….

…You are the power inside me…

That’s the only way to be all I can be.

By Lisa J. Boyl

Another summer of groundworks, and another song.

Is the Jesus that you know

a kindly Man from long ago

A picture in a splintered frame

slanted on the wall

Has the Jesus that you know 

been forced into a plastic mold

A God who only loves the good 

the children and the old

If you knew the Jesus who turned my life around

And answered questions of my searching soul

You’d throw away the plaster And the statues made of Him

And come to love the Jesus that I know

The Jesus that I know.

By Lisa J. Boyl

One autumn day I met a boy who took to walking around with my heart, leaving me in quite a state.  I’d known the pain of love before, and one afternoon alongside a busy college street, waiting for the next bus, saw an old station wagon pull up and wait for the light, and from the interactions in that car I wrote

Wrinkled and baggy, frowning at each other

‘Stickin it out’, but only for the kids

On family occasions they fake some warm affection

And back at home they only show contempt

Does time always mangle a love once true?

Does it twist and tear a promise once forever?

And what about friendship, does that die too, in time?

Can I share this heart of mine?

By Lisa J. Boyl

 

That was the final song – before love rushed in, and marriage, college, babies, bills, career, house building, cancer.  Not enough stillness and digging alone deep into packed hard soil for finding songs.  For 30 years.  Then one morning, wedged between arm of overstuffed chair and a giant pile of clean laundry waiting to be processed, there I found a bit of unexpected stillness.   Reading the book of Acts, overcome with all the goodness of God and what His Spirit manages through us, His voice in heart elbowed me.

“Pick up a pencil”, said the nudge.

“What?”, I snapped.

Not audible but as clear as if the words had been spoken, He said to me.

“Pick up a pencil, I want you to write a song.”

The pencil just picked up shook in my hand. Tears slipped down unto Act 2. Slammed pencil down onto my Bible and tears.  Cried a long time. God had taken away my songs. Not once (by the flight of the little brown Bible) but twice (years of no space to sing my songs).  I’d not written anything since college, and now almost 50, past the age that anything I’d write could ever be relevant, God asked for a song.  Mad and sad, I was, and still I picked up pencil.  In five minutes, Holy Wind was etched.  Next day, Frozen Worship the same.  Both songs on God’s Spirit.

Music can bring out a territorial jealousy and disgust.  A kind of fire hydrant/dog ownership of ‘I’m the star, out of my way!’.  And so when the music pastor of my church was interested in listening to the songs, and interested in the idea of church members contributing to the music of the church, the tears, they came again. Car full of family heading home from service.  Wrong time.  No matter.  Tears dripping across the songless days that has passed.  Dripping off my chin for the nights of being awakened, hungry, no starving for music. Tears for songs long withheld for the harder tasks of life.

Although floundering some, I’m adjusting to writing songs again.  A new song rushes at me like a cartwheel.  I don’t go to it, it comes to me and flings me round until I’m upright again. A cartwheel arrives with a wide space of green grass.  Songs need their space, too. Relevance has been reserved for the young.  My songs are relevant to a life that has simple rhyme, hard times and beauty all mixed together.  I don’t quite understand God’s timing, but how foolish to push away what I’ve wanted for so long because it’s taken so long to arrive. Song writer. Starting over, like the awkward 14 year old.  Heart in rhythm and rhyme has begun to beat again.  And I like it.

How a Busy Working Mom Finds Time to Write.

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Yesterday I thought I might try to publish some of my work.  And I say so.  Out loud.  As would have it, yesterday left not a minute for writing.  A weekend day filled to the brim with everything but.  Worried husband at the very mention of the thing has visions of our lives falling into shredded bits.  The kids suddenly are very needy.  As are numerous unmentioned others.  There is dinner to make, a friend I’ve promised to call.  The dirty house, the eternally corrupted place of living, reaching to me, wanting more and still more.  Hurriedly, I do what I can, hoping.  Kids, finally kissed goodnight, I rush through my own bedtime busyness, still in hopes of quiet space for writing.  And alas, it’s bedtime – Adored husband reminds me of this fact as I move toward overstuffed writing chair.  In bed, I lay still.  Very much awake, mind spinning with the things paper and I might say.  I behave myself.  I don’t slide out of bed the way I want to, to a lonely laptop.  Adored Husband might stir, and even if he doesn’t, tomorrow is full.  I need sleep. 

Today I wake to the early dawn alarm. The daily race, it rushes me.  Leaving College Girl and Butterfly sleeping, I ready myself for an hour at the pool where our son swims for a team, and where I swim with Mom.  Out of pool, showered and ready for the day, together we hurry toward home, Mom and Son and I.  Gulp down a breakfast, hugs and kisses to Butterfly, still sleepy she has meandered down the stairs – all decked out in a tinkerbell tutu. 

Goodbyes said, I make my way back to the track where I walk with my clients.  Walk and talk, that’s what we do.  Step and then another and another.  7.5 miles my dusty shoe tread takes me round the track.  I listen to the happenings of the week, shame and fear, days past, strengths gained, tears, rage, numb and steps we take together.  Hour after hour we move across the earth, warm and bright today.  The last hour, is overcast, with sputters of rain, and still we walk.  All hours filled with life raw for healing. 

Last client seen, I make my way toward the thrift store for sharing 5 bags of books, clothes and toys that hoard space in the backseat of my kid-mobile.  Home again, Butterfly and Grandma have made peanut butter cookies.  All Mr. Business is listening to an old Spike Jones song – and loud.  Laughing, he plays it one more time for me.  I laugh.  Write.  How am I to write?  A few minutes for hearing the happenings of the day, knock on door, neighbor-kiddo’s face peeks through door glass – the stampede and they’re off to play.

Oh, my chance.  A minute to steal.  Here I sit, stolen moment, and all is blank.  Of all the inner tuggings to write, it’s gone. Nothing.  Too tired to be angry or hopeless, just numb.  Blob on couch with screen and keys.  The only thought that comes to me is a question.  How clean, I wonder, is a writer’s house?  House of working Mom who writes?  And I remember the grand writing projects that form when I’m in motion.

washing dishes

pulling weeds

piling them high in wheelbarrow for hauling away

painting a chair

                                   sorting

                                                                             throwing away

The best of both worlds.  Dig into the ever-reaching house until I’m inspired, and like a hot potato, drop it all to write without ceasing until the beauty unearthed by some grand cleaning frenzy has taken shape on paper.  Then back to daily tasks again for the next gathering of rich and lovely heart things to tell about. 

The family, they will survive.  They will become accustom to the rhythm of the exchange.  With hopes high, I spring off Seat of Nothingness – rush to the pantry to grab a paper bag and two for filling.  Piling high.  Higher.  Tap shoes, plaid shirts, engineering books, games, tupperware lids without a use.  Haul step by heavy step down the stairs, out into the car where they will be rushed off for sharing. 

That’s it!  Scouring and scrubbing, purging the shelves, chopping for soup pot, folding mounds of wearing things, no longer in the way of writing at all.  These tasks are a petri dish of the best of discoveries.  A greenhouse where the bud of good writing blossoms.  Routine motion in exchange for deep and profound thought. 

Our agreement. Writing, Mother Tasks and I.