It’s Not You. It’s Me.

Charming and I broke up on Saturday.  It was his doing this time, a gracious offer to cease our courtship, vacating the position of the one standing between me and my dreams of a family.  When he escorted me to my students’ junior prom the night before, I wasn’t expecting the adventure to end in less than twenty-four hours.  But it did, inside the house now quiet behind me.

It wasn’t quiet then.  Charming wanted to talk about my most recent blog post, the subtle evidence of an ebbing, depressing cloud.  I’d concluded only that something needed to change.  While I looked inward, so had he, and it pained him to see me struggling and feel, in some part, responsible for my pain.  The decibel level rose in accordance with the level of sensitivity in revelations. When Charming admitted he still could not guarantee a shared future with me, I capped out.

After shouting something over my shoulder, I left.  I drove off.  I sat in a church parking lot because that seems to be what I do when I break up with Charming.  I amaze myself sometimes with how badly I cry.  I’m talking about that puffy cheeked, red-eyed, snot-logged kind of cry pierced by intermittent bouts of guttural emissions originating from the pit of my stomach where the knot is, the one that forms when your world gets turned upside down.

Breaking up with Charming wasn’t part of the self-improvement strategy I’d been concocting since my writing therapy days before.  It seemed somehow fitting that he would find the one variable beyond my control and seize it.  Military training aside, his instinct is to be the hero.  A selfless hero would put me out of my misery; he’d free me from bondage with men who are never ready for the next step, eliminating himself as a candidate, passing me off to the next available bachelor.

No.  I don’t want a tragic hero because I don’t want my life to be a tragedy.  I don’t want Charming to sacrifice our potential for future happiness to spare me the emotional turmoil of my current mid-life crisis.  I’ll be thirty-four this week.  I think I’m officially middle aged.  And I also think I’m entitled to my own little crisis.  I can be disappointed at where my life finds me now.   I can grieve the absence of the dream of a husband and children to share my love with in all the empty minutes.  I can lament my persistent belly fat.  I can wish things were different.

This is my story, my fairy tale.  I’m not Walt Disney.  I’m not a princess.  I’m not a damsel in distress.  I don’t need to be saved or spared or freed.  I need to be exactly where I am.  In this chapter, Charming isn’t the hero.  I feel lonely and withdrawn because I’ve isolated myself.  I’ve isolated myself in an act of protection against the potential uprooting that would come if I ended up with Charming.

The break-up lasted an hour or so.  I returned home after unsuccessfully trying to clear my head, and we talked. On the kitchen floor.  Because it was cold and my head was pounding from crying so hard.  He explained he hadn’t planned on breaking up with me, that if it were his choice, he would still want more time.  I’ll give it to him.

So do I.  I want all the time. To be honest, the rest of time.  With Charming.  I’m all in.  I’ve been all in for a long time.  I believe he’s the one.  That doesn’t make him the one.  In that heartbroken hour, I had to surrender that hope and faith and belief that I’ve been clinging to for the past year and a half.  Optimism stripped away, alone in that church parking lot, I saw only a woman who displeased me.  His part of my story may end in heartbreak, and I will have been wrong, yes.  I’ve been wrong before.  I’ll be wrong again.  I just like the woman in the rear-view mirror better when she’s brimming with hope for a future where her dreams do come true.

Charming’s pace is not the problem, though it presents a problem.  The problem is me, or an absence of me and dreams I can choose to pursue now.  In the years since my divorce, I’ve reclaimed pieces of myself.  The daughter was restored, then the teacher, then the writer.  There are whole parts of me still latent.  Dry bones come alive.

On Sunday morning, relationship concerns resolved to a comfortable level of uncertainty, we headed to church.  Like usual, Charming asked me to pick one of the three we float between on my weekends.  I picked Liberty Baptist.  I love the worship and the choir, and the eleven o’clock service finds me contented with a little extra sleep.  The pastor is friends with my parents’ pastor in New York.  I know a handful of people who attend there, but with thousands at each service, I don’t bump into them.

Except this week.  I heard someone calling, “Ms. Palma!” and saw one of my young bloggers in the back row of the section where I like to sit.  After seeing us exchange greetings, the elderly couple beside her exited the row and told Charming and I to join her.  I thanked them for their kindness.  I was glowing.  I’d forgotten what it was like to attend a church where you actually hugged people!  As we exited the sanctuary, I was preparing to tell Charming I had decided to make Liberty my church home when the lady sitting in front of us touched my arm.

“We felt like we had a concert behind us today.  I enjoyed your worship.  It was a blessing.  You have a gift.”

One voice in a sea.  That’s the only singing I do these days.    Charming doesn’t know me as a singer-songwriter or a worship leader as so many others who are close to me.  He’s never seen me perform on stage, not for a recital or concert or musical.  Night after night, I’ve looked at my piano, thinking about playing it for months.  This weekend, I played it.  A melody came.  No words.  Yet.

I do have a gift, and I should be using it.  There’s room for another dream there.

A church family.  The thought is encouraging.  My student saved me a seat at a special worship service on Sunday night after Charming went back to DC.  It was a bit surreal, her voice and mine intermingling in harmony singing worship choruses where we both knew the words.  A girl named Melody gave her testimony, and she said the best advice she’d gotten was to position yourself to hear God’s voice, see His face, and experience His grace.  That’s what I was doing at this worship service.

As I sat beside my young blogger listening to Melody string together scripture after scripture, I could picture myself writing in the storms of my youth, doing the same thing.  I served as a youth pastor for a couple of years in Nashville.  I prepared and delivered sermons every week.  Charming has never met that version of me either.  That’s another part of myself I need to reclaim.  I used to be a leader in the church.  Picking a church is the first step in rediscovering myself in so many ways.

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Dry bones come alive.  Charming’s not the hero in this story.  He’s my best friend and a faithful companion, but he isn’t responsible for my joy.  He’s not my pain-taker or my chain-breaker.

If it takes a season of lack luster existence to usher in the flood of life I’ve yet to even dream for myself, then let it rain.  Give me this storm.  Let me be broken and humbled.  Dry bones come alive.  And if we break up again, they’ll be more than an empty church parking lot to comfort my crying bones.

I Don’t Want to Be 34

I haven’t been smiling much lately.  There are moments, like with my niece Katarina’s loud facial expressions tonight, where I can’t help but laugh out loud.  Or when I finally caught the elusive Lapras in Pokémon Go this weekend at Gloucester Point and I giggled with glee.  Or when three of my students fell asleep on stage after their semester exam, and I gave in to letting their classmates snap silly pictures.

There are moments when joy is genuine.  It’s been that way with Katarina Joy and her twin Theresa since I held them in my arms when they were just a week old.  They were wrapped in the afghans I had crocheted for them.  I don’t think I just imagined that Kat resembled me as a baby, and I was drawn to her in an uncanny way.  Knowing how I longed to be a mother, my sister-in-law was generous.  She let me “co-mother”, as she coined it, including me as a vested stakeholder with the girls.

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I relished the chance to learn how to be a mother of an infant first-hand from someone I have come to respect as one of the strongest and most resilient women I know.  Gabrielle is fervent in faith, friends, and family.  She truly loves and passionately serves her elementary students at school.  For the first year and a half in Hampton, it was three nights a week, like clockwork.  I’d come help with dinner, cleanup, and bedtime routines, then scoot off to prepare for school or writing or my ex-boyfriend’s visits from out of town.

We used to see each other only every other weekend when he’d drive down from New York.  I’d picked him up in what I’m sure we both intended to be a rebound relationship after my divorce during my pit stop to Syracuse while I figured out my next step.  When the twins were in utero, that next step became Hampton.  I started over with one foot firmly planted approximately 540 miles behind me.

I thought that straddling two worlds was easy with him.  We’d planned to give it six months or so, and if he didn’t make the move, we’d part ways.  It wasn’t easy for him.  He’d have to give up his friends, figure out custody arrangements for his daughter, find a new career.  It was easy for me.  This was my new life, and someday, he would either join me in it or I would carry on without him.  I lived my life accordingly, fully, without regret.  I made friends, had Thursday night dates with Angel, and developed relationships with people here during the week and on the weekends.

I teach my students to find the “or” in an argumentative writing prompt.  It’s a signal that there are two sides.  Two possible claims.  Two columns.  For example, is a curfew a good idea or a bad idea?  Find the “or”.  Head one column with “Good idea” and another with “Bad idea”.  List the support you have for each, and choose the side with the stronger argument.  When they ask if they can argue for a compromise between the two sides (for example: there should be a curfew, but it should only be enforced on weeknights), I caution them strongly against it.  Why?

Because the idea may seem easy, but straddling two sides is risky.  You have to avoid paradoxes and contradictions to develop a sound argument that doesn’t seem wishy-washy.  You have to find the commonalities in the two sides of the argument, and begin with the common ground.  While I advise my kids to pick a side, looking back, I realize the overwhelming amount of subconscious planning that must have been involved in balancing that long-term relationship straddling act.

He would either move to Hampton or I would carry on without him.  It would be him or me. In either column, my location was the same.  For what turned into nine months, I lived, quite fulfilled and contentedly, in a state of uncertainty.  I couldn’t count on him resolving his affairs and making the move for me, so I racked up support for my column as long as it didn’t contradict support for his.  Finding a church home, making friends, connecting at work, and spending lots of time with my brother’s family fit quite naturally into the flow of our every other weekend relationship.

He didn’t move to Hampton, and I had a wonderful life here to cushion me.  Angel got me out of the house with friends on countless occasions, such that I remember the heartbreak as dim in light of a summer of beach days and rollercoasters and water parks and live bands and red wine.

Why should this matter now, a year and a half later?  I didn’t want to live a paradox, so I balanced my argument carefully back then.  It was one that favored me.  It was hard to execute but easy to maintain.  I wasn’t certain about him, but I was certain about everything else.  There was only one variable, so I lived the compromise I so adamantly oppose to my students.

This matters because, as I realize that I must have done it then, I have to realize that I am, also, doing it now.  Again.  With Charming.  Only this time, if we work out, I will be the one to pack up and start over.

If we work out.  What are the two sides?  It was clear with my ex-boyfriend.  He moved or he didn’t move.  The uncertainty of my current existence is made manifold by countless variables, all contingent upon a decision that is not mine to make.  If Charming decides that I am meant to be his, then I will have to leave Hampton.  If he decides I am not, then I will stay.

I have no power to affect that decision, and yet, I jointly realize that something has to change.  Because I have structured my life around the column that I believed most benefited me: the column where he chooses me, and I give up this life for one we’ll share together in a different place with a different job and different people that I don’t really know yet.

Looking back at the last few months, I see more character development in TV shows than I do in my own life.  Gradually, I’ve withdrawn, and maybe I’m only just now becoming aware of the damage my current straddling act has been doing.  It’s futile, wondering what divine intervention might sway Charming toward forever and always with me.  But my children are in that forever and always.  My family.

In two weeks’ time I’ll be thirty-four.  Call it a situational depression that’s kept me home at nights, unwilling or unable to commit to social engagements.  Charming comes here one weekend.  We work during the week.  I go there the next weekend.  Rinse and repeat for nearly seventeen months.  That’s two different sets of routines, places, family, friends, and churches.

And in one column, the one where Charming chooses me, I’ll transition smoothly into his world.  I’m not afraid of starting over again, especially with him.  What I fear is what’s in the second column, the one where he doesn’t choose me.  I get it.  I see it in the way I’ve pulled away from colleagues and friends and the fact that I just can’t pick a church home.  The more invested I am here, the more painful it will be to leave.  I know.  I’ve done it twice in four years.  It wears on you.

And I see it when I hold Katarina Joy.  And even when I decline a chance to see her and her siblings because on that particular day, the heartbreaking, aching, empty longing to have a family is too vast.  That seeing her and holding her would land me surely in a pit of self pity comforted only by Netflix and a frozen pizza.

So, I see two things tonight.  I see in the unbalanced columns that something has to change, and since I can’t count on an impending marriage proposal in the near future, that change will have to start with me.  I don’t have a plan yet.  This occurred to me only in the last hour, after all.  It’s enough for now that I see the need to build some support for the column where he doesn’t choose me.

And the second thing I realized is that I can still smile.  She’s not my daughter, but Katarina Joy is certainly my baby.  There’s something reflected back in her expression that’s like a promise I can’t explain.  It gives me hope, and it makes me smile in spite of everything else.

The Common Thread

The highlight of my D.C. weekend was a Washington Wizard’s game Saturday night.  Charming learned that his sister’s foster daughter liked basketball, so he gifted her tickets for Christmas.  It was a throwback 80’s theme, taking the team back to its days as the Bullets.  A refugee from Africa in June, this eighteen-year-old had learned enough English for this experience to count.

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She was wide-eyed.  I imagine the Verizon Center was a rare vision for her.  This country is still new.  She lost nearly everything back home.   She has foster parents she’s legally entrusted to until she’s twenty-one.  Then, she’ll be on her own: an American citizen, free from the shackles of her homeland, but really only knee-deep in a new existence that will take some getting used to for her.

And for her foster parents.  Charming’s sister and her husband have opened their home to several foster children over the past year.  Despite uncertainties in their own career futures, they felt certain this was their next step.  I’ve watched them open their hearts, not just their doors.  Taking in a teenage girl who’s likely had to look out for herself for some time and working with her to adapt to dependence and trust has not been without challenge.

I’ll call the girl Anne, because she reminds me of Anne Shirley when she first arrives at Green Gables at the Cuthburts’ house.  Our Anne took in the basketball stadium in much the same way as Shirley did a sea of blossoming trees.  There was awe and wonder with an undertone of confusion.  Charming and I used circumlocution in a teaching style highly reminiscent of the game Taboo, where I’d talk around what I was trying to explain until a vocabulary word landed the right way.  Anne’s just moved to level two in her English language learner’s courses.  The idea that a hockey rink of ice was below the court was tricky to communicate without first Googling images that showed Anne what hockey, ice, and a court were.

The night was incredible, and not just because the Wizards sandbagged the Seventy-Sixer’s.  When we passed the DC Mall on the way in, we pointed out where we’d seen a concert together over the summer.  Anne shared then that she remembered the dress I was wearing and how I looked up words in her native tongue on a translator on my phone to get to know her.  I hadn’t realized I’d made that much of an impression, but she saw me as a good teacher.

The night went so well, and Anne was so sweet and impressionable, that I had to reconcile the girl we’d shared an evening with to the teenager who’s been rebelling at home.  In fact, when Charming and I talked about my feelings regarding adoption, I had cited this exact scenario.  I was a rebellious teen once.  I am certain that at some point, I told my mother that I hated her or that I wished she weren’t my mother.  I can’t remember an exact incident, but that’s probably because Mom took it in stride.

I am certain, too, that those words hurt her, but they were insignificant when cast against a backdrop of our entire lives together.  She loved me always and forever, and she and I both knew, deep down, that nothing could change that.  Anne Shirley was bounced around in foster homes with some terrible circumstances before she found a loving home with the Cuthburts, such that she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  This kind of peace, structure, and image of love couldn’t last.

Anne Shirley didn’t know, deep down, from a lifetime together, that she couldn’t lose the Cuthburts’ love.  I told Charming I didn’t think I could handle opening my home to a child in need and then having that generosity and love repaid with lashing out.  It happened in Nashville with some girls I’d cared for, and when the eldest spat over the phone that she hated me and wished we’d never met, after years bringing her to church and practice and buying school clothes… I was devastated.  I stopped investing.

Charming’s sister cannot and won’t stop.  She has a commitment to her foster daughter Anne, one I suspect will last for a lifetime.  I don’t believe she and her husband see a deadline on their care for her.  Little Anne Shirley was rebellious too, and given the history of abandonment, death, and painful separations in her young past, I imagine Charming’s niece is yet unable to see her foster parents as her own family, potentially for the long haul.

What occurred to me this weekend was that I’m rather uniquely prepared to parent a teenager.  They’ve been my immediate world for a decade, while my sister-in-law has only been training me with her little twins for just two and half years.  I could foster.  I could adopt.  I think, in fact, that I’d be good at it.  I hear what’s underneath, “I hate you.”  I see the fear that drives one to act out.  Moreover, I was a rebellious teen.  I can expect, as I’m sure my mother did, that one day my sweet little angel will tell me that she wishes she weren’t my mother, the equivalent to an adoptive or foster child’s, “You’re not my real mom!”

They cut.  Words hurled like sticks and stones have the same effect.  Still, I wonder, if you’re prepared for them, if you expect that one day they will come, that it’s likely to occur in adolescence, then I imagine you can brace for them, like my mother did when I was a teen, and not be tempted to doubt or despair in your appointed role investing in that life.

The morning after the game, we attended Restoration Anglican in Arlington… my favorite church.  My favorite pastor gave the message from Acts.  A gifted story-teller, she recounts three encounters Paul and Silas have in the early days of the church.  Nearing her conclusion, she identified the common thread that resulted in three amazing outcomes: they started with prayer.

My mother prays fervently for her children and her husband.   At varied junctures in her life, she’ll be the first to tell you how, when she desperately hoped for something she was powerless to affect, she accessed power in prayer.  She hit her knees, and God worked in ways she couldn’t have planned.  Anne has faith, and hopefully one day, she will find comfort in the One who will never leave her, and I anticipate Charming’s sister and her husband will be integral in Anne’s ability to trust and hope.  Perhaps prayer will also be where these foster parents find the will to continue loving unconditionally.

My struggles with prayer are born out of an inability to disassociate my desires from God’s plans.  That perspective has found my own prayers stunted and ineffective, an internal dialogue humbly requesting but deferring to His will.  My mother prays for her husband and her children because, in her war room, she knows God will see His name glorified, however that power manifests itself.

I don’t have a husband, and I don’t have children.  When a miracle happens, prayer precedes it.  That’s how we see it for what it is when it happens.  Mom’s always modeled that for me, as I’m sure Charming’s mother did for him.  I don’t see any harm in praying for my someday husband and children, alone on the front porch of my little rented house with the red door.

There’s power in that common thread.

Snow Days

It’s my imagination that gets me into trouble.  It always has.  Like when I told Mom I was going to Kim’s after school, got off at her bus stop with a boy named Eric, and walked to the football game at the high school.  I was in sixth grade, already a hopeless romantic in search of magic carpet ride experiences.  And really, my parents have only books to blame.

Young adult literature satisfied neither my vocabulary prowess nor my literary pride.  I read those on my older brothers’ assigned reading lists, before I would register the associated undertones or encounter any of their universal themes in my own life.  Before my pre-teen taste buds had fully developed, I’d tasted the rich delicacies of American literature.  My appreciation was premature, immature.  My still-forming psyche was negotiating with J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in the afternoon and attending my first school dance with Eric that night, seven months after the football fiasco that got me grounded until that romantic outing.

I’d begged and pleaded to go.   My brother P.J. would chaperone, of course.  How could I miss my first school dance?  This was a twelve-year old’s rite of passage.  I’d written in my diary about what I imagined the night would be like.  I had picked out the perfect dress.  Davey had asked me, but I held out for Eric who caved a few days before the dance.  I had the perfect date.  He was on the lacrosse team with P.J., splitting our ages in the seventh grade.  An older guy.  We would laugh and glide in the Electric Slide, then a slow song would come on, and he’d take my hand.

Perhaps my vision of a school dance was first influence not by literature, but by movies my mother and I would watch together on snow days.  Anne of Green Gables.  We’d watch the whole VHS series, cuddled up together with snacks, cozy  blankets, and each other.  I imagined a first dance to be like Anne Shirley’s, wearing a beautiful dress and choosing suitors from a dance card, selectively employing a bit of coy flirting that might culminate in a stolen kiss, brief yet full of sentiment.

Have I mentioned I was twelve?  Or that Eric was on the lacrosse team?  The night itself was perfect, warm with the sun just setting when my parents dropped us off and we met Eric at the entrance.  P.J. was laughing, I’m sure, but this was not what I had planned.  It turns out, the younger players on the team were forced get mohawks.  Eric’s red hair was now shaven above the ears and spiked up in the middle like the plume of a knight’s helmet, yet nothing in its complement to khaki’s or a nice shirt resembled shining armor.

I could feel my first dance unraveling at that moment, before the night began.   I had dreamed of this night, had encountered Scarlett O’Hara’s passion and intimacy in other snowed-in movie days with my mom, had even pouted my way through a cold Halloween the previous year with Scarlett’s banana curls and a hoop skirt gown.  I’d read about romance.  I’d seen it in movies.  I’d scripted my own night perfectly.  This haircut wasn’t in the script.

It didn’t fit my imagination’s pre-conceived moment, but I wasn’t ready to abandon the magic carpet just yet.  Y.M.C.A loosened things up a bit.  We lost my brother in the Electric Slide, and I was certain the night would be redeemed by something worthy of the teenage romance section in the library at the very least.  The music slowed.   Eric pulled me close, putting one hand around my waist and lifting my right arm up with the other, seemingly in one motion tucking my head between his head and his chest.

I hadn’t imagined his heart beat.  I wasn’t prepared for the scent of adolescent sweat beneath perfume that wafted from the couple to our left.  I pulled back a few inches, and I could see Eric was singing the well-known words.  I laughed, joining him, hoping for a little comic relief.  “I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky…” In my imagination, this had been perfect.  My imagination didn’t account for unknown variables.  No one was sweating at Anne Shirley’s first dance.

Then he kissed me.  It was what I had wanted, right?  My first kiss at my first dance on my first official date with a guy I’d been crushing on all year.  His kiss wasn’t brief or respectable.  Scarlett O’Hara probably would have slapped him.  But my braces and glasses didn’t lend me the same confidence as my Halloween costume had.  I simply hugged him goodnight near the car, appropriate behavior in front of my family.

And I think that’s what disappointed me most about that evening.  It wasn’t just that things hadn’t turned out as I had planned.  It ended up being a night that I couldn’t go home and tell Mom about.  She wouldn’t like the idea of me French-kissing a boy at age twelve.  The truth was, I didn’t like it either.  Perhaps there’s another first to add to that night… when I began keeping things from her that would hurt or disappoint or make her ashamed of me.  I was too young to see the story I was writing, and I certainly hadn’t imagined the gorge between us that would grow seemingly impassible at times.

My imagination gets me into trouble most when what I had imagined beforehand turns out to be far greater and richer and lustrous with what reality offers in return.  With the calendar date ever closer to my next birthday, I consider how different my life looks from what I had imagined.  And if I had put that amount of foresight into my first date, one can begin to surmise the wealth of imagination stored up in dreams started in childhood, carried up through adolescence, and glimpsed and in adulthood.

Snow days always remind me of family, so I was glad Charming was able to make it into Hampton this weekend before a winter storm dumped a foot of snow and kept us mostly homebound.  He had liked my blog last week and was glad to see me acknowledging happiness in my current circumstances.  We spent the weekend trying to beat the old-school Super Mario Bros 3 but were stuck in the boss world when he needed to get back on the road.   We had fun playing.  I cooked.  He shoveled.  We adventured out into the icy side roads because Charming knew I wanted to go hunting for Pokémon, if only to get a picture of one of these virtual creatures spawning in our snow storm.

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Yes, part of me wished there were children to help make a snowman in the front yard like P.J.’s kids were probably doing, but that’s only because my imagination is so strong.  After Charming left, I called my mom.  She wanted to hear all about it.  And that’s what I think is so strikingly different about the era of Charming than any other in my life before it.  I get to speak freely with my mother.  I don’t make choices that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with her.  I’ve glimpsed God’s grace in her own deference toward me, and I richly enjoy now the comforts of an open dialogue.

With the weekend over and my real snow days just beginning, I knew I should be excited to be off from school.  Still, for me, I know that alone time is when I begin thinking about my young imagination’s efforts toward the future I should have but don’t.  I wished my mother was here to watch Anne of Green Gables with me, but I settled for the phone call, then found a show to binge watch in the coming day.  Netflix suggested Reign based on viewing preferences.  It wasn’t until the end of the first episode, when the Queen of France threw her head back and laughed, that I recognized her.

It was little Anne Shirley from my childhood snow days with mom, now a generation older and playing a much different role.  That is the power of imagination.  The character that played Anne never could have dreamed up her future casting in a series playing the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, progressing from an innocent ballroom with a half-filled dance card to one likely brimming with poisoned wine by her own hand.

We can imagine our lives, we can dream, and we can plan.  We can account for variables.  But I’ve found that the richest of my own real life moments didn’t unfold at all like a fiction piece I’d penned that fulfilled all my wildest imaginings about romance and the major themes of American Literature prematurely glimpsed before their weight could be grasped.

I don’t write fiction on Tuesday nights.  I write about what’s really happened in my life at almost thirty-four years old.  It’s not a fairy tale or romance novel or a story of redemption.  At times, it is a little of one or the other or all three.  I’ll take the unscripted joy of Charming, Super Mario Bros 3, Pokemon Go in a winter snow storm to an imagined story of building snowmen in a corresponding role to life in my thirties that probably wouldn’t have turned out like I planned any way.

So I’m glad, really, that I’m not writing the story of my life.  Charming wouldn’t have fit in that plan to marry fresh out of college and have a couple of rug rats by now.  He’s a reality I couldn’t have known to anticipate, a whole new role, a second chance, like little Anne Shirley now Queen of France on Netflix.

I still dream of snow days with my mom and snow days with my future children, but I’ve got sweet stories about a life that I’m proud of when I call Mom on the phone these days.  And we’ve got Charming to thank for my willingness to reinvent the imagination.

It’s a Good Life

January brings a breeze that rustles my butterfly wind chimes.  The streets are void of snow, and winter rains are finally silent in Hampton.  I unpacked last night from a week and a half of travel, and I finally feel at home on my own front porch nestled into a blanket on my love seat.  Charming will join me on Friday, and I’ve made no promises about whether Christmas will be put away by then.

Life has been anything but normal since I left my driveway and started the punctuated journey north.  An early Christmas with Charming’s family in Maryland, onward to New York for the holiday with my family, then a quiet getaway in the Poconos before ringing in the New Year with Charming’s friends over good food and video arcade games.

Now that I’m home, I can hear what my mother would say, that it’s no wonder I had caught a cold before the weekend even began.  Travel finally behind us, we began Saturday morning, the last day of 2016, watching Friday Night Lights while multiple doses of cold medicine took effect.  I had to save up my energy if I was going to stay up and party ‘til midnight.

There was this moment while we were cuddling on the couch watching the first season finale when, cloaked spoiler alert, a woman says to her husband, “We’re gonna have a baby.”  All he can do is repeat it back with this goofy grin.  She’s glowing; he’s already anticipating the joy to come.  And I could not stop the pitiful tears that came, clumsily batting at my eyes to little avail.

It’s just empathy, right?  Like Charming’s friend Felipe back in Wheaton told us this summer, the impulse to yawn when others yawn is evidence of empathy.  He and Charming don’t catch yawns, but his wife and I do.  A slight moist gathering at the corners of my eyes I could explain away as empathy.  No, this was something else.  It was self pity or fear or sadness.

Or longing.  I long to look into my husband’s expectant face and say those words: We’re gonna have a baby.  I’ll be thirty-four in a month.  I don’t even have a husband.  Surely, I should have started a family by now.  Those words are still years off, yet I await them in an attempt at patience for God’s plan for my life.

His plan is an illustrious anomaly, however good and right and prosperous, particularly when it doesn’t feel good or right, when it’s punctuated by loss and unexpected heartbreak.  Unfaithfulness, divorce, drug addiction, mental illness, financial distress, cancer, and problems with fertility.  My mom suffered the emotional pain of two miscarriages before my older brother was born.  My friend Mulan has battled this for years.  And while she started trying when she was in her twenties, Charming’s friends that recently miscarried while abroad are well into their thirties.  Like me and Charming.

Over a few rounds of Ski Ball, I talked with the wife about our baby drama.  My apprehension pales in comparison to her fresh loss, but the longing for a baby is something we share.  I’ve had the opportunity to get to know her a bit at lunches after church, but this was our first heart to heart.  She’s nothing like me, and I like her immensely.  She’s confident, independent, brave, and resilient.  She’s Aladdin’s Jasmine with serious left-side brain enhancements.

Jasmine and I both want children, and our varied journeys have brought us to the simple intersection of our own absence of guaranteed fulfillment.  Her miscarriage is heartbreaking.  My familial future is road blocked.  I remember settling in on a scripture during a devotional time in Psalms 127 four years ago.  The words rocked me: “Behold children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.”

I was floored.  The fruit of the womb was a reward.  The heritage was from the Lord.  How could I not long for such a Biblical blessing, to be entrusted with a tiny human life to shepherd into fullness of spirit?  This scripture made it clear, though, that having children isn’t the result of my own personal labors, but rather a reward given by God, apparently in His timing.  There’s no criterion there, no minimum or maximum age, no limit on the number of miscarriages one might have before giving birth to a healthy baby.

Sitting in a living room down the hall from a room that should have been a nursery, I considered Jasmine’s journey of disappointment and pain; after the couples had kissed at midnight and toasted the New Year, I could agree that 2016 was not a good year.  We slept soundly, left early for church, and spent the rest of the first day of 2017 streaming our show, slow rolling through Old Town in search of Pokémon, and watching football.  Charming even introduced me to his favorite computer game, Civilization VI, the kind of intense mental long-game that the intelligent enjoy in their “down time”.

It was while he was explaining how to give orders to my Warrior avatar that I realized I couldn’t agree that 2016 was not a good year for us.  Without kids, we have experienced adventure after adventure, packing in the kind of memory making that’s at the core of a quality romance novel, not family fiction.  Our year began in the Bahamas and wrapped up in the Poconos before concluding in DC.  Before I said goodbye to Charming, resting against his shoulder, I looked up at him and said, as if realizing it for the first time, “We have a good life, don’t we?”

The longing for children is a real one, a valid one, but what we focus on the most tends to be magnified, skewing our perspective.  I have an incredible job with amazing students.  My brother’s family is close by.  My mom talks to me on the phone nearly every day.  And I am hopelessly in love with a quality man who continues to steal my heart in surprising ways, even when he’s teaching me to play a video game.

Sitting here on my front porch, adventures behind me, I believe my favorite moment of the last week was horseback riding in a snow-laden forest.  It was bitter cold in the mountains of Pennsylvania with what seemed nearly a foot, freshly fallen.  My Honda could barely navigate the narrow, winding roads, but we wanted an experience, and the dog sled option was out due to ice on their trails.

I typically hate the cold, but I was determined not to let that stop me from making a memory with Charming.  I bundled up with plenty of layers, and I didn’t even feel the cold.  Riding on faithful Dillon behind Charming with the guide up ahead narrating our horseback riding story, it was like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia had materialized.  It was breathtaking and inspiring.  I never knew how much I wanted to go horseback riding in the snow until we were there, in that moment, and in itself that felt like a reward undeserved.

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Had I focused on the desire to be warm, I might have missed that snowy trail.  And how much more will I miss if I continue to focus on the desire to have children?  There’s that reward, yes, but there are other rewards.  I believe God knows the desires of my heart, even the ones I don’t know like our cruise at New Year’s last year and our Poconos trip just last week.  These are treasures, and I see them as such.

My greatest comfort will not reside in the future fulfillment of my dream of having a child.  No, where I need to find comfort is in my now, in my present, in my real life existence in a snowy haven I couldn’t have dreamed into existence, riding horses with a man that looks as comfortable on a saddle in the mountains as he does with a military general at the Capital or playing with my nieces and nephews at Mom’s.

We have a good life, don’t we?  It’s not what I dreamed for myself at this age, and I have to cut myself a little slack for the impenetrable biological clock I keep tampering with unsuccessfully. We’d watched It’s a Wonderful Life with my family, and the comedy of errors teaches the protagonist to see beyond the current struggle that was magnified in his eyes to ultimately realize that his life was filled with people and things worth cherishing.

If it’s not this reward, God will have another.  He always surprises me that way.  With Charming.  And horseback riding.  It’s not what I pictured, but I couldn’t have known how to picture horseback riding through snow covered pine trees until I was living that moment.

We have a good life.  Jasmine has a good life.  And maybe, for now, that’s reward enough.