I want to tell you a story that is a year old, one of which you already know the ending, but not the beginning. But it is the beginning that makes the ending so marvelous.
One year ago, I was late to our annual evening of parent-teacher conferences at school. I was late because the shirt I had planned to wear seemed to form an arrow directing everyone’s attention to my newly ousted belly button, so I spent a good thirty minutes throwing maternity clothes around my room and saying mean things about Eve.
But by the time I left the conferences three hours later, I was in a fantastic mood. All of my students that year were repeats, and I spent most of my time with their parents talking about my forthcoming baby and giving advice on writing college application essays. Every single meeting was pleasant and and full of good wishes. I drove home in my little SUV, constantly checking the rearview mirror to see the new carseat we had just installed. When I pulled to a stop to yield for oncoming traffic before turning right onto the highway, I noticed that some drivers seemed to be coming faster than normal. Then I remembered the horrid leg cramps I had suffered the night before, and stretched my calves, pushing my brake down hard.
And it’s a good thing I did that, because a car slammed into my bumper that very second.
At this point, my behavior stopped making sense. My mind kept saying, “PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW.” Because of this mental clogging, I did some strange things, the first of which was to step out of the vehicle, at nine months pregnant, in the dark, on a busy highway, and proceed to check out the damage on my car. My hope was to confirm that the damage was minimal (or at least not threatening to my ability to operate the vehicle), wave the offending driver on, and drive myself to the ER, where I would allow myself the nervous breakdown that was right on the edge of my tear ducts.
As I was having these thoughts, the other driver emerged from the car and announced that he would not have hit me had he known I was with a child. He continued to yell this kind but bizarre claim at me while I dialed Ben, who was 45 minutes away, then my dear friend Jayne, who was two minutes away. She agreed to come to me, and she is responsible for every logical choice I made for the rest of the evening.
Several Good Samaritans rolled their windows down and offered to call ambulances. I noticed a funny smell, but I didn’t want to interrupt the PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. mantra long enough to place it. The guy who hit me asked if there was damage to my car, then asked if I was going to call the police. More people rolled down their windows, offering cell phones and concern. Jayne arrived and gently guided me back into my car, much to the relief of the drivers in the oncoming traffic, I am sure. A L&D nurse, or a merciful angel, stopped to give me a Capri Sun and talk me out of impending hysteria. I put my head down on the steering wheel and willed the baby to kick, to move, to do anything but the very thing she never did but was trying out then, which was being still.
Ben called, eager to hear me talk until he arrived. I had nothing to say except the words playing over and again in my head: PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. The offending driver tapped my window and offered me a scrap of paper with a phone number. He suggested I proceed to the hospital and get back with him about the damage to my car. Realizing the phone number could be completely false, I took it. If the damage was five cents or five hundred zillion dollars, it didn’t matter because PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. I thanked him.
Ben, who was still on the phone with me, told me to ask the guy to step away, then to roll my window up. I followed through, because the only person I trusted without explanation at this point was my baby’s father. And then Ben said, “Amanda, that guy is wasted. You need to call the police.”
And then my mantra of fragments was interrupted with a complete sentence: I am nine months pregnant, and I am the victim of a drunk driving accident, and my baby hasn’t moved for twenty minutes.
And time seemed to turn on that thought.
I hand the phone to Jayne, who calls 911, and we wait. And I beg God to wake the baby up, to remind her that karate practice always starts at 8:00 pm. Nothing. The policeman taps on my window to see if I’m okay, and I explain that I’m pregnant and just want to go to the hospital to check on my baby.
Mr. Drunk Driver is approaching again. Now that I can identify that smell, it is nauseating. I wave him on, and, to his credit, he keeps walking, albeit at a crooked pace. Another cop arrives, and Jayne, God bless her, jumps out of the car, points to me, and talks. The other cop approaches and takes my info. As I’m returning my license to my wallet, Jayne points to the guy behind us. “That guy is drunk. Are you going to do anything about it?” The cop assures us that he will, and as we pull out, I see the other driver exhaling into a breathalyzer.
We are in the car and moving. I am texting my mom and my friend Hannah. I am begging them to pray, binding them in promises to say my child’s name in front of Jesus.
We are in the hospital. We are lost. I am making jokes about my sense of direction, punching elevator buttons, ignoring the time, ignoring what is happening, hoping that my leveled blood pressure will cue the baby into thinking that things are normal and that she can resume the cartwheeling she had practiced all day. Nothing. Jayne and I find our way. I think of my mom when I approach Labor and Delivery. I remember how calm she always was when she had to handle one of our crises. I say, like my mom would, “Hi. I am registered at this hospital, and I was just in a car accident. I would like to find out if my baby is injured.” I don’t say, “Or worse,” but I think it.
And then, my kid elbows me, just below my belly button, where the imaginary arrow pointed hours before.
I don’t know just how Mr. Drunk Driver will play into the good tapestry of my life, as Jesus promised all things, including drunk drivers, would. I have some ideas, but I am sure that God’s goodness will overwhelm my pathetic attempts to turn it all to holiness and joy. I do know a few things, though: Every night, when I thank God for my baby and all of the funny and wonderful things she does, I remember that night. Sometimes I wonder why God let that man drink so much and get behind the wheel of a car and scare my sanity into fragility and weakness. But mostly, I don’t think of him. More often, I think of dear Jayne, and remember how she parked her car in the only available space and then ran a mile down the shoulder of the highway to make sure that I was okay. I remember the thumping of the baby’s heartbeat once we got her to be still enough for the monitor, and how the nurse laughed and said, “That wreck wasn’t even a blip on her radar,” before she offered me some ice. I remember thinking that the folks in Kentucky were so kind to roll their windows down and check on a lady in distress on the side of the highway, then laughing when I realized that they were probably worried that I would have the baby right there in the glare of their headlights. I remember that Ben, smelling like sawdust and varnish because he had been working on the baby’s furniture, helped me pull my hair up, which is hard to do when you are hooked up to machines. I remember Hannah texting me that she and James had stopped what they were doing to pray. I remember my mom being my mom, checking in with me once every few minutes, reassuring me. I remember that the next morning, at the baby shower with my co-workers, we thanked God for life, both the creation and preservation.
I remember kindness. I remember love. I remember good things. Good things! In the middle of some of the most hellish, infernal moments of my life, I remember the kindness of friends and strangers. And those are moments redeemed. People, this is what the gospel means. It is true and good and vivid and happening. In the worst moments, God reaches down and makes things funny and beautiful and true and new and full of grace.
May we all look for ways to be agents of such a gospel. May we live looking for someone desperate, someone helpless, someone wrecked. May we move them to safety, remind them to breathe, and help them start toward home.
Minutes ago, I finished this book. I realize I am about five years late to this party, but it is still raging hard.
Friends, foes, strangers, humans: It undid me. It is heartbreaking and ruthless and agonizing and gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. It is a masterpiece. I immediately drove to my local book store and bought them out of every copy so I could send it to as many friends as possible.
When I consider how much I envy Nate Wilson for writing such a thing, I become so overcome with jealousy that my mouth hangs open, as my brain is too busy to tell it to close.
I am not going to waste any more time with this worthless chatter. I am telling you to go. Run. Get to your nearest local bookstore. (And yes, make it local. Don’t be lame. Those who work in local bookstores are the salt of the earth. If you live near me, I can recommend a really good one.) If they’re closed, wait. Camp out. Be their first customer. Say good morning, because nothing trumps good manners, and then tell them you have come for Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World by Nate Wilson. Try to be patient; they probably keep it in a shrine somewhere. As the employee walks away, ask everyone in the store to raise their hands if they haven’t read this book. Count the hands. Buy that number of copies plus one. Treat these people to one of the finest literary experiences they’ll ever have.
I am on a rampage. I would threaten not to speak to you again until you’ve read it if I thought you valued my friendship highly enough to listen. So instead of threatening, I beg. Read it. It is going to ravage your soul so magnificently, so carefully, so beautifully.
Listen to Nate:
Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag.
So let it be written. So let it be done.
Edit to add: I waited until the local bookstore got more copies of this in before actually posting this, so the opening line is a bit misleading, although it was truthful at the time it was written.
I feel an unrequited kinship with many of my favorite authors, including Ms. O’Connor, whom I quote in the title of this post. Flannery O’Connor is famous for writing weird, unsettling, mysterious short stories. I think I am drawn to her because I find myself the happy, if bewildered, regular recipient of bizarre circumstances. If God orchestrates our lives to His delight, and if our lives are, at least at times, weird, then God must delight in the strange. I like to think this is God mercifully reminding us of His presence, even in the tiniest things. If God has gestures or facial expressions, this is when He winks.
Long Dog Doppelganger
The first time I ever begged Ben for anything was when I lost my heart to a long-haired dachshund. I was in PetSmart with my mom and saw the most darling dog in a crate waiting to be adopted. I wilted, talked nonstop about the dog for 24 hours, convinced Ben to go with me to visit him and then acted as though we had already decided to get the dog in hopes that he would go along with it. Mission accomplished. We went to the rescue house to “just to see the dog” and left with our first pet. I remember exclaiming that very phrase all of the way home.
Unlike naming our offspring, naming our dog wasn’t a problem. Our first dog’s name had been decided on long before we got married. (I am only just now realizing how odd it is to choose your dog’s name but not your child’s. We are strange folk.) Anyway, we had already planned to buy a dog, name it Chester, and teach it to wear a monocle and top hat so it could pass for a kind of butler. Classy, right? These were the dreams of our childless selves. Even though the dog came to us already named Ronnie Brown, we decided to stick to the plan and call him Chester. He responded beautifully.
And then, weird things happened.
I was casually chatting with my seventh grade students a few days later and mentioned our recent adoption of a long-haired dachshund named Chester. A kid quickly perked up, asking several details about our dog. It turns out around the same time we adopted Chester, this kid’s family adopted a dog too. What kind of dog? A long-haired dachshund. What did they name him? Chester.
You guys, they could be identical twins. I still see Chester of the Other Family on occasion, and the resemblance is uncanny. Someone could switch our dogs and I really don’t think I’d notice, especially since they RESPOND TO THE SAME NAME.
This happened years ago, and I still find it to be convincing evidence that there must be a God who loves to perplex.
When I was a child, a misleading episode of Punky Brewster caused me to conclude that child stars were often discovered in grocery stores, absentmindedly advertising their indomitable talents by singing to themselves and exuding cuteness. I was so inspired by this idea that I began devising a plan to be so discovered. Fortunately or unfortunately, my mother had recently permed my hair, so I had a passable resemblance to Annie. Each week, when we visited the grocery store, I lingered a several feet behind my mother and quietly sang “Tomorrow” toward fellow shoppers, occasionally throwing in a jazz square or winsome smile. I tried not to make eye contact, as the whole charm of this plan was the spontaneous revelation of a rising star, but I was so excited I did sometimes catch the bewildered look of a supermarket customer.
I was never discovered. (Well, I take that back. I was in a Psalty video advertisement once, but it wasn’t a speaking role, so it doesn’t count. But that’s another story.) And my dream of being Annie died with my baby teeth and wilted curls.
Or so I thought. Because I have managed to resurrect my dreams of dancing orphans. Several years ago, I found myself in charge of a group of middle school students who were so desperate to act, they would let me direct them almost anywhere. So I directed them toward Annie. It was the only logical choice. And boy, was that ever fun. I’ve had no musical training whatsoever in my life, but I just kind of made it up as I went along, we we grapevined our way to a phenomenal show. I’m serious. It was self-indulgent AND glorious.
Happy ending, right? Wrong. Because I’m doing it again. New group of middle schoolers. A few old cast members who are now old enough to convincingly play adults. Shorter number of rehearsals, bigger expectations.
We had our first real rehearsal last week. I played one of the songs with the voice track so that the kids could heard the words, then turned off the accompaniment, handed them their music, switched to a soundtrack, and told them go for it. One girl timidly asked, “Um, do you think we could sing it with the words once or twice before we try it without the voice track?” Whoops. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has had this show memorized for the past 23 years.
I am so eager to get into the thick of this production. It really is going to be fantastic. I am also inclined to think that this is a show that will follow me for the rest of my life. After all, I do have a pint-sized redhead that joins me for rehearsals each week.
Speaking of the redhead…
The Syntactic Enactment of Glitter
When I was pregnant, Ben and I had a horrible time choosing a name for the baby. It was my first full-fledged parenting crisis. I didn’t want to choose something cutesy, trendy, common or without significance. And that was a tall order, one that took a long time to fill. In the interim, we dubbed the baby Disco (another long story) until we found out the gender, at which time Disco morphed into the more feminine Glitter. There are still people who call the baby by her sparkly pseudonym, bearing testament to how pervasive such nicknames are.
Anyway, my point is this: For the entire duration of her young life, glitter has been attracted to my child. I cannot explain this. There is no glitter in our home. (Crafts are not my gift.) This spontaneous burst of sparkle made sense during Christmas, as ornaments have a tendency to share their shimmer, but past Christmas? I have no idea how or why. I slide a headband on her round little head and bright flecks of gold gently fall to the ground. It was funny at first, then kind of sweet, and now it’s just uncanny.
The Sehnsucht Paroxysm
I love all things glorious and artful, as I’ve discussed before. I love beautiful poetry. I love magnificent songs. I love books that grab readers and will not let go. I love, I love, I love musicals. And I am liable to respond to moments of artistic splendor by crying and yanking my hair. It is a weird habit.
But it is voluntary.
To review, voluntary responses are ones that a person can control. Raised hands, standing up, and blinking are all voluntary responses. Involuntary responses are not controlled by a person. Heartbeats are involuntary. Circulation is involuntary. Growth is involuntary. It just happens.
So when I encounter great art, I pull my own hair. Voluntarily. But when I encounter really, really good art, the kind that I am sheerly overwhelmed by…
… my foot cramps.
I know, I know-this is weird. And it’s a really specific pain, too. It’s almost always my left foot, and it’s the tendon or ligament that runs right along the arch of my heel. I read Hamlet and I feel it twitching, then I move to Eliot and BAM! I am temporarily unable to walk. I have been reduced to standing like a flamingo during my classes because I am so happy, and so crippled, by what we’ve read.
And these are only a few of the bizarre circumstances in which I find myself. I could talk at length about the complexities of my friendship with my boss, or the rare circumstances under which I met my husband, or the way I once twisted my ankle during a Miss Alabama pageant and had to be carried down several flights of stairs by a man with cigarette breath who called me Daffodil. But enough about me-does God ever wink at you? Explain. Tell me I’m not alone.