Barren Time

on sequins, cookies, and desert lands

It’s the 20th of December and the first year of my life that I’ve wrapped gifts as they came into my house. I wrap like a six year old, but the gifts are still in a gorgeous tetris under the tree. It looks like Santa’s already visited, and if he did, he probably came for the cookies. Actually, I have to tell you; Santa is me. I ate all the cookies. Last night a dear friend dropped a tin of cookies and some crazy marshmallow chocolate pops at my door. I got to speak at her kids and husband through their truck window, and it wasn’t our usual Christmas party. It wasn’t our clinking glasses, red lips, and a plate of slow, hot food, but it was something. These days, a littlest thing counts for a whole lot, but I still look forward to feasts and sitting in piles as we wait for room to eat dessert. I intend to buy a sequin dress for the New Year one day, too, and I will wear it with flashy gratitude in close-overlapping proximity to my friends, no matter how many of Santa’s early cookies I’ve gobbled down. In fact, I’m not usually the girliest, but please bury me in a sequin dress, ready for a feast.

There are four of us (the four women from our group of four couples) in a text thread, and we are struggling and disconnected. One of us is a solid ten years younger than I am and in a different stage of life, with a kid who doesn’t use words yet, which may be the loneliest time of motherhood before they actually leave the house. These friends, though, are the 2 AM friends, the ones you call when you need to go to the ER in the middle of the night. These are the friends you would spoon in grief. I would give my body parts for their children. After one of my kids had a basketball injury two years ago, one of them drove behind the ambulance that drove us hours away through the middle of the night. We woke up shaped like the butt of hospital chairs together.

I never imagined there would come a time I didn’t see these friends face to face for such long stretches. We actually did spend good time together through the summer. We even drank after each other, but once the cases of COVID exploded after Halloween, the protocols to keep our kids in school tightened. We felt we couldn’t share much indoor space with anyone who didn’t share the same protocols, which seems to have more to do with the needs particular to a stage of life than it does with caution. We also have health concerns that mean something about our real lives even without a pandemic. In a younger season, it would have been caution that sent me all up in my friend’s houses. I would have been cleaning the houses of my friends with covid. 

A thing I didn’t expect about mothering teens is what it means to bear up under and make decisions regarding their mental and emotional health. To keep them in hybrid school and somewhat connected face-to-face with others is pivotal to their long-term development, so we’ve sacrificed some of our own development and connections. It sucks, and I have no silver-lining for it. I just miss my people, and in a sense, I miss myself because they’re the ones who mirror back to me what’s true. When I’m with them, I know how strong, smart, and funny I am because those things are embodied between us. We were not made for this.

It feels like a barren time, so it’s no wonder that in today’s Advent gospel reading (the Annunciation), it wasn’t Gabriel or Mary’s familiar fiat that jabbed me in the gut. It was Elizabeth. 

And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,

has also conceived a son in her old age,

and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;

for nothing will be impossible for God.

Elizabeth, identified as barren, was having a child, and that child was John who was strange and stuck to barren places. He was child of the barren womb. He made a path in the wilderness. His voice cried there, and people came, the ones who felt the barrenness, too. He washed them. He helped them prepare to know a Savior when they saw one, and it couldn’t have been done in any other place but the desert. Finally, his cousin showed up. He in his nasty sandles was the one who washed Jesus. John saw the dove. John heard the voice of a well-pleased father. John of the barren womb.

There are no silver-linings, but there are still things to see. I say no to our pile of friends, and yet a plumber walked in my house because our house broke down this week in multiple ways. Anyway, a plumber walked in without a mask before I had the chance to ask him to wear one. My only choice was to freak out or to stand back from him. I stood back, but in the yard we talked for over an hour. It was so cold, we were shaking, but he needed to tell me some stories, so I listened and listened and listened, witnessed a lot of lonely and barren places, and we shivered there together, strangers laughing. 

I want this season to be over with. I want in the pasture where we belong, not in the desert. But I don’t want to be afraid of barren places, not of my own, my children’s, or my friend’s. This week, as our mother and her selfless husband walk through the desert, we make room to see the Savior more clearly. I’ve been where they were going. I’ve seen the desert rock in Bethlehem under The Church of the Nativity where the holy family labored. It was the quietest place I’ve ever been, though a tower of tongues could have peeled out from us. We were a rainbow of hushed, holy bodies reaching to touch the first arid place where the baby had slept.  A statue of Saint George is poised there over the dragon. St. Jerome cloistered in that very place for us, to translate scripture in common language for the entire world. We are nowhere our God has not been. 

So the things we do in the desert, they matter. I’m making room to see him more clearly, maybe all the clearer for being in a barren place. My word or phrase for this upcoming year is “Make Room,” and I still have a lot to clear out so I can see and act more in accordance with what matters. Last night, that tin of cookies mattered. Yesterday the walk I took with Lindsey, it mattered.

If nothing else comes to mind, I’d like to invite you to share the phrase “make room” with me. What do you need to do to make room or to clear the path? In the New Year, we may still feel cloistered, but we’ll put up Christmas and make room for the starker winter months, which of course is the very thing that gets the ground ready for new birth. This is not silver-lining. This is the truth about how life doesn’t exist without death. Every bit of it matters. 

Peace to you through the bramble, you path-makers and friends. I look forward to seeing all the more with you this next year.



One more thing before I go: last week, I had the BEST conversation with Victoria Russel on Perennials Podcast. She described it like this:

In today's conversation, I ask Amber how she has honored the "wild" parts of her while also growing in maturity and steadiness; how she keeps in touch with her inner rebel and artist while also showing up in marriage, motherhood and church. Amber shares ways that she reconstitutes and nourishes herself when she's feeling used or used up, and we talk about learning to receive love and be more human. 

The framework for this podcast is genius and so needed to me.

Perennials is a podcast for young hearts, old souls and curious minds. Each episode addresses an element of what it really means to grow up, get wise, and try to live a good life. Host Victoria Russell invites special guests to join her for thoughtful, inter-generational conversations about mental and physical health, spirituality and religion, work and education, relationships and more. At its core, Perennials offers a compassionate, contemplative take on the magic and messiness of early adulthood (and beyond). 

I haven’t stopped thinking about it and would love for you to listen and share it with those who may need it.

Perennials: On Being More Human with Amber Haines