A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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This book captured me. The rich prose and good ol’ fashioned storytelling are all evidence as to why this novel is a classic. It reminded me (both thematically and stylistically) of another book that captivated my attention and which was, at least until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my favourite work of fiction – The Grapes of Wrath. While I am astounded it took me this long to stumble across this gem, I’m confident it will become a perennial favourite (I’m a staunch advocate of re-reading).

I have a little quirk (one of many, actually) – I cannot resist a good quote. I have a series of little notebooks where I record favourite lines – everything from Bible verses to classic literature to little diddy’s I come across in toddler reading material (lots of the latter lately). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn supplied overwhelming fodder for my quotes collection. The vivid description of characters and simplistic elegance of the narrative made every page “quote” worthy. Here are a few favourites, though, that I’ve isolated from the pages. Perhaps it will whet the appetite to go explore this classic…

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains – a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue…a book to read when you’re alone – just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

*****

“The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? ‘To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

*****

“In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

*****

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way,” said Katie.

Aw, somebody ought to cut that tree down, the homely thing,” said the midwife.

If there was only one tree like that in the whole world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie.

*****

“It’s come at last,” she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. When there wasn’t enough food in the house you pretended that you weren’t hungry so they could have more. In the cold of a winter’s night you got up and put your blanket on their bed so they wouldn’t be cold. You’d kill anyone who tried to harm them…then one sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spare them from.”

*****

“And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Preserving Little Moments

I read this book a while back (I’ve mentioned if a few times now) called The Happiness Project. I also happened to read the stand-alone sequel Happier at Home, too. While I make no claim that either book revolutionized my life, some of the tangible examples continue to resonate with me. One common theme is the idea of preserving little moments, the ones that too frequently get swept away with the tide of hectic living. The author talks more specifically about the cathartic nature of recalling mundane intricacies of life. She laments not snapping pictures of the university laundry rooms where she passed so many hours, or the library nook that became a perennial favourite for late-night cram sessions.

We tend to take pictures of the extraordinary or, at the very least, something beyond ‘ordinary’. We focus on pictures that seem picture ‘worthy’. We wait for the right light, the right clothes, the right pose, the right ______ – unfortunately, those “right” moments are pretty few and far between (at least in my reality).

Then there is that oft-quoted Huffington Post piece that encourages mothers everywhere to put down the camera for goodness sake and just get. in. the. picture.

I’ll admit, picture-taking has been pretty patchy lately. I prefer to enjoy the moment instead of spending that time with my head glued to a hunk of plastic. But I’m equally conscious that phases, especially as they relate to toddlers, pass in a heartbeat. I can’t take any more videos of tentative first steps. I can hardly get a picture that isn’t blurry these days as she runs from room to room. Our video-taking has been scaled back too, but sometimes, we manage to catch a little gem – like the ones below.

Or this one, complete with hair askew, that highlights her absolute obsession with re-watching videos from our summer vacation at the lake (“picture Abby canoe” – she would watch these videos of riding in the boat on repeat all day if we obliged).

And then I can’t help but remember this one. Pure joy – this is what it sounds like.

 

What Words Can’t Describe

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It’s all been said before I suppose; hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of mothers have put pen to paper – or more currently, finger to key – in some desperate, yet wholly inadequate, attempt to summarize motherhood. To grasp for a tangible explanation, searching for sentences among the unending diaper changes and middle-of-the-night feedings, and all those events that transpire between first haircuts and first dates. So we piece together the wonder and frustration, the sacrifice and the reward – the overwhelming juxtaposition that defines motherhood. But I, like those before, must ultimately raise hands in defeat.

It sounds trite to say, but I know it now as truth, that there are no words, nor collection of words, that can completely describe what it is to mother. The act of mothering a verb – is an action and thus in its truest sense can only be lived first hand. These concepts are admittedly abstract in a world that demands the concrete – action plans and step-by-step guidelines complete with glossy pictures. So we acquiesce and strain for words. We write books and blogs and journal entries. We weave stories about being stretched – sometimes wrenched – beyond comfort zones; we compose love sonnets about dewy skin and dimpled elbows; we describe tales of skinned knees and spelling bees and reading stories under the covers at midnight. And they’re true, every story told. And inspiring and insightful. But they always fall short – because no one conception or articulation can come close to summarizing the experience that, intuitively enough, must be experienced.

As incomplete as our renderings may be, each story of motherhood is so unique and beautiful that they deserve to be told. Honestly. And as I sit here now, watching my own little girl sitting askew under her rudimentary fort, set up haphazardly along the outskirts of our living room, I can’t help but notice she’s already mothering. She sits, concentrating hard, tending faithfully to her menagerie of penguins and monkeys and lambs. And some day, Lord willing, she’ll experience this mothering gig first hand. And I’ll sit down, wrinkled and grey and still as much in love with her as I am now, and grab a steaming cup of tea and listen to her story. Because she’ll have a good one to tell – one all her own.

*****

I guess that brings me to my own story. I always loved that portion of Luke (2:19) that describes how Mary, after the pain and the birth and the exhaustion and the triumph and the glorious announcements by angels and bowed knees of shepherds – after all of that – “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Other translations say she “remembered them often.” I’ve been doing a lot of pondering lately, mulling over my treasures, and absorbing the lessons learned and the distance come. Memories of two years past – two years that have brought the most dramatic change in my life. Motherhood.

The preface to this story was the swollen belly where life was nourished for nine months. This awe-filled, Divinely-orchestrated, mind-boggling span of growth. Dizzying mitosis takes us from two celled blob to an eye-lashed infant with opposable thumbs. Some mothers sit in rapt wonder at the process. I was too busy studying the inside of the nearest toilet. As the prenatal term drew to a close, I felt…unprepared. Not physically or logistically – I was surprisingly calm about the birthing process, and had read the requisite books (mostly to conform to some culturally-implemented ideal that new mothers must consume a certain ration of public opinion and advice before birthing can commence; also a cultural construct…that any of this reading will be worth a nickel once the screaming child is in arms). I washed the onesies and folded them neatly in the drawer, but I felt emotionally stunted. My detachment, neutrality even, was maddening. I enlisted the help of my sister – a veteran mom with three kids and another on the way. I sought encouragement and she delivered. Why, I asked, was there no flurry of excitement. No welling of anxiety. No wild love and unhindered connection to the life inside. “I’ve felt the same way” she assured me, “but trust me, once your little one is placed in your arms, you’ll feel it.”

So I waited. Pregnancy passed like one surreal dream. Suddenly the dream – and the quiet – was punctuated by loud, hearty cries. She was here, and just like that we were parents. And I waited some more. For that feeling. That magical feeling you read about in books and watch on TLC shows. That feeling that deep down I know I was dreaming about all along. Expecting while I was expecting. But it didn’t come. Those first days, weeks, and even months I felt like I was caring for a stranger – nourishing, bathing, changing, rocking what seemed, at best, a distant relative. Flesh-and-blood instincts failed me, and I felt betrayed, and worse, guilty. I felt as though I had been denied that love-at-first sight experience that any good mother would surely feel. I willed myself to feel. To experience uninhibited love. Why is this so hard I lamented, shamefully at first?

I know now. God orchestrated all those emotions and experiences to demonstrate just how complete my love could become. And with less than two weeks to go until the birthday descends on our abode, I can’t find the words to say how much I love her. To the moon and back sounds like a good start (thanks Sam McBratney). Motherhood is all those things you’d expect. All the things the books tell you. Exhausting and terrifying and hilarious and wonderful. But it’s more. More in ways that I can’t describe and could never have imagined. I love her so much I ache. I love her so much I just want to squeeze her little body so close to me that we morph into one. I want to bottle her toddler smell to spritz in years to come when she smells like hairspray and nailpolish. I want my skin to forever imprint the feel of her soft hair under my lips each night as I whisper lullabies. All this still fails to describe my love. It is unspeakable. And ultimately, it gives us a glimpse into the spiritual realm where we grapple to comprehend “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:18)

And so, just like Mary, I treasure and ponder and hold all these things close to my heart.

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