How God Talks to Me When God Talks to Me About Grief

We call off the adoption.

I am fine. And then I am not fine.

In the shower I cry and cry. I cry at work, in the car, on the stair.

Reading children’s profiles, my heart was a dog, bounding away from me in a radial star toward this child, that child, finally the child, who I thought would be our child. Now I call my dog heart home.

With my dog heart home, I become all dog. Different dog. Slower, stupider dog. Crying dog. Dog in need of care.

I take my dog for long walks on the levee.

Walking it occurs to me that I could pray. Pray for what? I don’t want to be comforted—fed under the table and petted.

Pray praise? Pray thanksgiving? I walk a mile past the yard waste compost facility. I walk on past the water treatment plant. The levee trail is paved concrete. On either side, stalks of shepherd’s purse bob above clutches of clover and sedge. On the path before me pearl-sized snails brave the crossing.

The prayer that comes is an old one: “Teach me.”

I continue along the levee, cut right at the pump house, and follow the service road down the hill toward the river. This spring the river flooded. The water is still high, curling around the tree trunks, lapping the banks of the road. I peer into the forest-turned-bayou. Dark water. Webs of algae. Drifts of stiff foam catch on submerged brush and low branches. Gatorade bottles, a McDonalds cup, cap, and straw. Two wood ducks, one male, one female skate through the dreck. An egret. I stop. It’s close. It’s still. It must see me. I take it in. Stark white against the black water and trees, head cocked slightly. A glimmer of praise, of thanksgiving. I take a slow step forward, watch for it to move with my movement. It doesn’t move. It remains poised, bill lowered at an angle. I take another step, a less furtive one. It is fixed. Stuck? Sick? Dead? I peer. It is a white plastic bag, the kind with a red draw tab used to line trash bins. It is caught on a branch, snagged and strung out.

It had been very beautiful. Before, when it was an egret.

And now? It’s the same shape I’m seeing. The same white against the same black. But made ugly by my dashed vision.

A hard lesson. I turn. Back up the hill with my expectations chastened. I bring the yardstick by which reality falls short. I am the cause of my own suffering. Fine.

I walk on along the levee, past the washed out soy field to my right and the preserved huddle of trailers to my left. I pass the service station, the gravel yard.  I cross under the highway. I am nearing the park. Here the path is lined with red oaks, huge trees commanding wide circles of the canopy. Straight up, open sky. A scream. Then another. Wing beats. Two birds. Red tails. They circle one another, rising, graze wings, lock talons, break apart, descend. One lands on a high limb, female. The other climbs the sky screaming, then dives, male. She spreads her wings to rise. He races toward her, then tumbles. She rises still. They are courting. Somewhere in the canopy there will be a nest. And eventually eggs.

A concession from on high. This thing I want cuts very deep, through the mammalian, reptilian, and fishy parts of me. It is echinodermal, protostomian, fungal, floral, eukaryotic, bacterial . . . basic.

The stretching, the longing. The hope. Cause of my suffering, stuff of hawks dancing. Fine. Fine. Fine. I am sad. And I assent.

Trip, Trap

On the brink of motherhood, I acquire a troll.

The timing strikes me.

As what?

Cruel. Poignant. Potentially instructive.

Cruel: I would have liked to write every step of this bridge-crossing, hooves clattering on the boards. But my troll scares me. I back away, trot upstream, find a protected place to wade across quietly.

Poignant: My troll imagines that I have been raped. That I have conceived and had an abortion. That I am protecting my rapist. That I am weak. That I am stupid. That I am a seductress. That I am boring. That I lie to my husband. That I am hung up on the past. That I crave an education.

“I” who? My troll does not know me. The general female ‘I’ then: The same ‘I’ that the demented man at church teases, “Better get yourself to the salon. Hair so long.” (He takes my hair in his hand. I take my hair my back gently. Noli me tangere. “I like my hair.” I, the un-general female, like my—mine—hair.)

My troll gets under my un-general skin.

I am reminded of an encounter with my God-brother (son of my Godparents). His family was happy while mine was not, and I imagined he was well in a way that I was not. Both of us recently graduated from high school we met for coffee. I was doing a fair job, I thought, being pleasant and interesting. I was in the midst of summarizing the early movements of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity when my God-brother leaned over the table, “I look at you, Catlin, look at your eyes, and I see you screaming inside.” My soul fell into a crouch, naked in public, cowering nightmare. I stammered, wiped angry tears away, tried to speak again of C.S. Lewis. My God-brother did not love me, had no intention of clothing me. He got up to leave.

I have since wondered who would not feel exposed by such a pronouncement: “I look at you, and I see you screaming inside.” And now I wonder what woman would not feel implicated in the portrait drawn by my troll (rape-victim, abortionist, betrayer of husbands).

What would the male analog be, I wonder. That you have murdered your brother, stolen his wife and donned his coat? That you have wet yourself in battle, deserted your fellows, left your father’s body unburied? That what you have wanted from women they have not wanted to give you? That you have taken to taking it?

I don’t like this game.

Poignant and cruel: Our social worker puts boys’ files before us. These are older boys: eleven, ten, fourteen, twelve. “We’re open,” we’ve said. Older boys are the hardest to place. We are curious about the twelve-year-old. We ask for more information, eventually meeting his worker and foster father. We like what we hear. We feel good about this possibility. We ask for some time—a week—to think it over. During that week we get a call from a case worker across the state. She found our home study by accident and wants us to consider an eight-year-old-girl. We lie in bed. My husband says, “Imagine a twelve-year-old boy in that bed” he gestures through the wall to the adjacent room. “Now imagine an eight-year-old girl. Quick: What does your gut say.” I shrug and roll toward him, “The boy is real to me in a way the girl isn’t. I care about the boy.” “Yeah, but . . . ” I know what he wants me to say. He can say it. “You?” “My gut says that the girl is . . . safe.” I tsk my tongue against my teeth, “Girls are hard. I told my mother I hated her, screamed in her face, slammed doors.” He offers the rejoinder, “Yeah, but boys . . . ” I finish it for him, “Kill people, I know.”

I imagine my troll reading this blog post. I imagine him comprehending in sum or in part. He could kill me, I think. Don’t write that, I think. Don’t put ideas in his head. Like: When held at gun point don’t say, ‘Don’t shoot.’ The word ‘shoot’ inspires the trigger finger to twitch. But surely if he kills me it won’t be my fault.

His case worker assures us of what we already know: He shows no signs of reactive attachment disorder, has no history of fire-setting, does not have problems urinating or defecating appropriately, has never perpetrated against a child. She switches from the negative to the positive mode: He is very attached to his current foster family, is protective of the other children in the home, loves animals, one cat in particular, makes eye contact during conversation, expresses empathy consistent with his age . . .

At the end of the week we decide not to adopt him. We will not be adopting the eight-year-old girl either. In the space of a few days my husband has been offered two tenure-track positions, one in Tennessee, the other in Indiana. We will be moving this summer to one place or another, quitting our jobs, breaking our lease, buying a house. There are other things we have to do too: I’m running a week-long literacy camp, managing a community garden, running a group of kids out to the east coast for a ministry project; S is attending a three-week residency; together we’re hosting a workshop on the farm, but before that we have to dig a water line to the cabin and put in an HVAC system. There are logs that need milling. We have yet to do our taxes. We have our calendars out before us. “I think it’s too much, babe,” he whispers. I nod. I am heartbroken. We are heartbroken. At our long kitchen table, in our big empty house, we weep.

Out of the water then, back to the same side of the river I started on, mid-sized billy goat eyeing the brush on yonder hill. Hungry.

We’ll try again in the fall.

Paschal Dream

I dreamt of the desert and a house named Easter. The house was pink adobe. Its wooden front steps were high, as was the first and only floor of the house. Walking through the sun-lit front room, I came to the back door and the back steps. These led down to a partially enclosed space, a low open-air kitchen-cave made of the same pink adobe but tiled in high-gloss pink squares. The floor of this kitchen was soft pink sand, and in a shadow in the sand was a large red-knobbed, stainless steel oven and range, like the Wolf stove in the kitchen of the first house I ever knew.

I wondered if I should rent this house. The Martha Graham Dance Company held daily classes in the front room. Right now they were practicing something called “the Sun Cycle.” Each dancer held her arms in a circle around her head, then stepped and turned and stepped again, spilling the circle and reconstituting it. They danced in unison. I wondered if I could comfortably share the house with the dancers. Where would I go while they danced? The kitchen-cave. But what would that be like? Anchorite in the shadow of my own—rented—house?

The desert was vast and there were no other houses for rent.


The Inside Out

Every night I dream of our children.

And every night our children appear as the kids from Stranger Things.

Mike, Will, Lucas, Duncan, and El in various configurations: buckled up in the back seat of the car we’re buying later this week (an ancient, boat-like Lexus), tethered into their life-jackets and snuggling in the bottom of the row boat we keep at the farm, tucked into their beds while my husband and I listen to music in the adjacent room. The music we listen to is live. A full band in our living room. Playing a made-up dream song that goes, “Where you learn to play that Zydeco? Hey Mami, hey Mami! Where you learn that Zydeco?” In my dream my husband and I clap and sing along. We sing and clap quietly, raising our shoulders at one another, conspiring. It’s a game: singing and clapping without waking the kids.

Why Zydeco? Perhaps because it’s Creole and scrappy—a mix of what’s at hand. And because there was a Zydeco band that sometimes appeared on Sesame Street to my child-self’s wonder and delight. Hey Mami: A ‘come on’ as in the Sylvan Esso song. But also, “Mommy.” I look it up. Google translate offers “Midwife” in Albanian. All of these. And what to make of the question, “Where you learn that”? Perhaps because this is the omnipresent question of adoption: Where do we learn to make music with what we find at hand (to create order out of the mess, to reap joy where seeds of sorrow were scattered)? Where do we as parents learn that trick? (What wells do we tap? How deep do they run?) And what hope do we dare have that our children will be able to tap their own wells, past experience, to that coursing goodness with its established forms . . . That they’ll be able to play along?

“My mom was in foster care. Her whole childhood. She aged out of it, was never adopted.” This from my friend Linna whose mother I know to be an extraordinary woman—happily wed for forty-odd years, with three beautiful children, rich in friendships, traveling Mongolia by train, painting the ocean in her spare hours. I am shocked. “I know. I always forget that about my mom. She’s such a good mom. I forget that she never had a good mom herself. Strange isn’t it? Like somehow she knew exactly what to do.”

I love the story of Linna’s mom. I am collecting stories like this.

Stories like this confirm my budding evolutionary Platonism: Good mothers, bad mothers, and sundry other characters burbling up archetypal from the genetic soup.

Budding evolutionary Platonism, a new way of thinking about the Kingdom of God poking through. One wishes it were just the Kingdom of God. But Hell pokes through too.

Why the Stranger Things kids? Perhaps because they are acquainted with the Upside Down, burdened by experiences that can’t be easily communicated. And because they are clad in the trappings of my own early childhood: turtlenecks and bowl cuts, envying the big kids with their perms. I see the kids strung out in a sequence from most-hurt to least: El, Will, Mike, Duncan, and Lucas. I love El. We all love El. El repeating the words ‘friend’ and ‘home’ and ‘compromise.’ El squinting at whomever, saying the words back slowly. El learning the words. (Meanwhile her mother looks at no one, learns nothing new by the words she repeats. Hell poking through.) El as a limit test. (I refuse to entertain El’s mother as a limit test.) Her rage, her self-righteousness, her risk-taking, her willing submersions into a dark puddled place no parent could follow. But we love her . . .

And Will. I turn to my husband, curl around his back. “You know how hearing is the first faculty? Like how fetuses respond to their mothers’ voices? Like how pregnant women talk and sing to their unborn babies? I feel like I’m trying to talk across this boundary, like I’m trying to call out to them, but they’re too far out, and I don’t know what’s happening to them, and I don’t know if they’re okay. I feel like Will’s mom stapling Christmas lights to the wall, trying to make this Ouija board that can reach them, out of paperwork and prayers . . . ”

“Babe?” He reaches around to pat my leg. I snap to and smile. “Not so much with hysterical Winona Ryder first thing in the morning?” “Mmhm.” “Sorry, babe.” We lie curled together. “You know what I should have told you?” “Hm?” “Just that the dreams themselves are so good.”

In Answer and More

You observe that I have left the academy. (True.) You ask, “Any plans to become a public writer?”

Can one plan to become a public writer?

Plans to write.

(Plans to submit?) Plans to learn how to finish things first. Plans to pick up my pieces. And then: perhaps: plans to try.

My husband has a garland made of paper and string hanging above his desk. It reads -T-R-Y-. A hand-made gift from the woman he drove across the country with the summer before he met me. Her: tattooed all over, with an asymmetrical haircut, in an open relationship with a German girl based somewhere out west. Her: sly and unexpected, laughing with her mouth open, a black ferret with a velvet ribbon and bell around her neck. Her: a performance artist, working with women in prisons, staging protests in Oakland, sending serial-art mailers, making love to my husband, encouraging him to -T-R-Y-. Her: fighting the man.

When I read -T-R-Y- I think of the tried-for child.

Do you know the story of Tamar?

Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. But Er is wicked and cut down by God. Tamar is widowed then, and still childless. In accordance with duty, Er’s brother Onan takes Tamar to wife. He has sex with her, but famously deprives her his seed. For this God cuts Onan down. Judah has a third son, Shelah, who is as of yet a child. Judah advises Tamar to live as a widow until Shelah is grown. Back Tamar goes to her father’s tent. But when Shelah is grown Judah fails to send for her. So Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sets herself in Judah’s path. Judah’s wife has died and his period of mourning is over. Not recognizing his daughter-in-law, he offers a lamb in exchange for sex. Tamar accepts, but demands his bracelets and signet and staff as securities. Judah obliges. She takes him into her, takes his seed and securities. (Leaves his servant to wander around afterwards with the lamb.) Three months later word gets out that Tamar has prostituted herself and is pregnant. Judah calls her to tribunal that she may be burned. Tamar is defiant. She sends him his bracelets, signet, and staff. And Judah rescinds his accusations saying, “She has been more righteous than I.”

The story of Tamar is the story of Tamar trying.

It is one of the stories I think of when I think of my generation of women. The men who ought to be ours take a long time to grow up. And when they are grown they are disinclined to marry. They are willing to have sex with us, but not to give us our children. (Modern girls cooing over how thoughtful he was to bring a condom, pick up the prescription, sit in the waiting room during the procedure.)  So our children, if won, are not the fruit of their abandon, but the spoils of our own stratagems, conceived by attrition or guile.

[I say ‘one of the stories.’ It is not the only story. But how is one to say anything if one doesn’t sometimes try to say something? One reason for leaving the academy: the sense that I had to be right before writing. Endless preemptive hedging, like taking leave of the King on a flat earth. His form forever visible on the horizon. Infinite hunched retreat.]

Striking, isn’t it, that Tamar doesn’t try to seduce the grown son, Shelah. She goes after the widower-father-in-law, Judah, instead. The sons’ father is at fault for not enforcing the rule. But deeper than that: The grown son will be busy making a name for himself, and should he want sex, he’ll have his own beauty to trade. The father’s beauty is past, which makes him susceptible to her beauty; his age is a debt. Nearing his second infancy, he sinks into pleasure, forgets himself in her, gives his seed and securities. In her arms, he turns child. And the child can be tricked, tricked into becoming a father. Meanwhile the grown son stalks about oblivious, finally walks off the page.

Plans to write. Plans to -T-R-Y-.

Plans to become a mother. One way or another.

My husband and I are trying to adopt through the state. A good thing to do. Though the goodness of the thing is obscured somewhat by the grinding bureaucracy of the state, and the sobering records of damage, and the rending grief that surrounds. Fragile hopes, small smiles. My husband and I pinching each other in the evening. “You ready?” “Are you?”

Our social worker writes, “Hey I need you guys to call your character references and have them email or fax me ASAP. Situation coming up. I NEED your file done.” She is not the midwife I would have chosen. Midlife midwife, plucking half-grown children from one shore and ferrying them to another.

My husband and I call asking for clarification. What does ‘situation’ mean? “9 year old boy, 5 year old girl. Can’t tell you any more than that. But I’ve got a good feeling. A really good feeling. I’m pushing for you guys.” Not the midwife I would have chosen, but as ferry captain will have to do. “We could be in court as soon as December, just need those references.” We look at one another. Pinch, pinch. We call our friends.

Why not write of Pharoah’s daughter raising the boy she found in the reeds? (Or Naomi, or Mordecai, or Joseph.) Why write of Tamar?

I suppose because I have been thinking about the shape of my life in the context of culture. It’s something like:

-Perhaps for women, culture is a step removed: A father-in-law rather than a father.

-Certainly I have loved the sons of my culture. And loving them, I have put myself under my culture’s protection. And [a conjunction that may or may not indicate causation]: I am childless.

-Perhaps there is something about adopting through the state that feels like playing a trick on my culture.

-Because my culture is one in which the child is a choice distinct from the choice to have sex. Which means my culture is one in which every child is implicitly asked, “By what right did the act that made you lead to your being here?” (“By what right are you here?”) Because the old answer, “By the will of God working through my parents’ desire,” will no longer do. Which means our culture indulges a fantasy of the world populated by children who could answer that question in some other terms: a world populated by the wanted, well-adjusted, sure-to-contribute, genetically sound.

-Perhaps I see my ache for a child—”In the body,” I try to explain to my husband, “like being afraid, like being aroused; a child cries in the crowd and I’m animal”—as an excluded remnant, and so a site of resistance.

-In no other way does my life resist culture. I am camped on the border. [Wondering if 9 year old boy likes books and the outdoors. Wondering if 5 year old girl will want to be held. Wondering what forms of affection 9 year old boy might allow. Wondering if I will know how to fix 5 year old girl’s hair. Asking, will I be able to hold steady for them? Will I skirt fatigue? Will I skirt resentment? Will addressing myself to the goodness of their being here help me to answer my own question, “By what right am I here?”]

-A trick: It doesn’t quite make sense (it’s not a perfect fit), but it’s as though I want to say to my culture: “See, together you and I have made this. (Here are my compromises to prove it.) And I claim them. They’re mine.”

Go Team (Pt. 1 of 2)

So what I hear you saying is that there’s this sharp binary: Team Red or Team Blue. And you feel like you don’t fit into either of those, or like you want to be able to move back and forth freely between them. You resent it when people assume you’re Team Blue because of the way you talk and dress, and you don’t like it when people assume you’re Team Red just ’cause you’re married and go to church. You wish there was some third team, or there were no teams; you don’t understand why we need teams in the first place.

This is a good joke. I like this joke. I smile.

I have been trying to explain why it drives me crazy that Jill Soloway wants to be referred to as “they.” In the process I have outed myself as perhaps not the straightforwardly progressive liberal democrat, social justice warrior, ally, and advocate my husband married.

Babe, you think I don’t know that?

Okay, but you’re party-line on this stuff. Go Team Blue.

I don’t know where I’m at on this stuff. Yeah, I think people should be able to do what they want so long as they’re not hurting anyone. Beyond that it’s a case-by-case thing for me. I don’t feel the need to make general pronouncements or stake a claim. I don’t need to know where I stand.

For this he gets googley eyes from me. Googley eyes mean: We are so different.

Babe, I think if Jill Soloway showed up for dinner you would make an effort to pass “them” the nutritional yeast. Actually I know you would.

He’s right. I would. Just like I would serve up a gluten-free meal made of organic plant-based foods with a generous dash of chia seeds. Lipstick, long hair, dress, and heels. Sign the petition. Play the part.

Well I don’t know if I would want Jill Soloway over for dinner. What she has to say about her work isn’t as smart as the work itself. In the interviews I’ve seen she’s so dogmatic, so flat. I like her work for the wrinkles.

That’s not the point.

You’re right. But the wrinkles are kind of the point. So these kids are suffering—really suffering—because their sex and gender are misaligned (or because they’re only supposed to have one partner and they feel like they need to have two). And we’re suggesting that the solution is for them to go through hormone therapy, surgery even, have sex with whomever and get a ‘plus 2’ at work functions and weddings. But what is that supposed to solve? And are we even sure we’ve got the problem right? I mean ‘gender,’ what is that? You’re born with a body—pick a body, any kind of body—and you’re in the world.

And you’re suffering.

Well, yeah, life is suffering. And I’m not saying we should go heaping it on. Like if some kid wants to wear a dress, whatever. Isn’t the standard moral code strong enough to prohibit name-calling and throwing punches?

And torturing. And raping. And stringing up on fences.

Yes, of course. My God.

But it doesn’t.

No, it doesn’t work that way. Immoral behavior doesn’t falsify morality. If anything it confirms it. That’s why it’s immoral. What I don’t understand is why we need this new political morality buttressed by a theoretical architecture in which sex-at-birth, sexual identity, gender identity,  and sexual preference vary independently while sexual practice is a free-for-all so long as people disclose their STD status. Who does that serve? The kid in the dress? The three-person partnership? The kid being parented by three people. Really? I don’t know.

I don’t know either, babe. But I think it’s interesting that you get so worked up about this stuff. Like you’re the one reading your way through the lesbian canon. And didn’t you watch Transparent in a single weekend? Why do think that is? What’s it about for you?

Good question. But he’s got to go back to work . . .