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The Place Where Love Flows Freely

Sunday, June 20, 2021

By Heather Lanier

On Pandemic Day number we’ve-lost-count, I found my husband and daughter looking at an e-version of her math workbook. She hadn’t touched the physical pages in weeks, nor had she seen her first-grade teacher. The teacher was now her dad. He was explaining analog time.

“This doesn’t make sense!” she declared. In her digital workbook, the big hand was on the twelve, and the small hand was on the six, and yet the time wasn’t 6:12.

But what did make sense? It was the spring of 2020. Her school building was a memory, and she hadn’t seen a friend off-screen in months.

He removed his watch, pulled out the pin, and turned it. “See how, as the hour hand moves, so does the minute hand?” I marveled at his composure. I’d hastily tried this same lesson the day before and failed. He gave her the watch and let her move the dial so the stick hands tracked around the circle.

I saw in this gesture what a casual onlooker would never know: a few years as a monk has made my husband an excellent dad. During his time as both a Zen monk and a Trappist monk, he meditated for hours upon hours every day. He figured out what a monk is supposed to: “pray without ceasing.” Pray while sweeping. Pray while eating.

He became an Episcopal priest in the same week that he became a father. He prostrated at his ordination, forehead kissing the floor, while sleep-deprived by a newborn who wouldn’t nurse. Those first weeks of parenting, he later told me, actually reminded him of his Zen monastic practice. The fiery-red eyes that cry for sleep, the constant deferment of your needs in order to attend to something beyond yourself. Being a monk and being a new parent was strangely similar.

Our first daughter Fiona, now nine, was born with a rare chromosomal syndrome that threw everything about her life into question. Would she ever talk, walk, chew? During that first year, my husband received the news with stunning tenderness and vulnerability. He didn’t care a lick whether she’d “achieve” anything, whether he could count the milestones.

“I’m just going to love her the best I can. Every day,” he said. Such is the practice of the former monk: commit yourself, each day, to what the present asks of you.

The fiery-red eyes that cry for sleep, the constant deferment of your needs in order to attend to something beyond yourself. Being a monk and being a new parent was strangely similar.

In a photo taken the day after Fiona’s birth, he’s sitting in the lotus position on a bed with a large pillow across his lap and an alarmingly tiny baby on it. His torso is perfectly straight, as though his body is an antenna honing some divine ether. Around his bare chest is a devotional scapular, a necklace modeled after the much larger scapulars of Trappist monks’ robes. If it weren’t for the baby, you’d think he was meditating. But he’s got an eye-dropper in his right hand. He’s attempting to feed his new, tiny daughter drop by drop. He has prepared for decades to confront a situation this delicate and precarious.

In the middle of the night, he’d stay at her side through seizures, readying the rescue medicine. On weekday afternoons, he bopped her up and down to Lee “Scratch” Perry’s reggae until she was transfixed. He also held down the full-time job, so I carried the bulk of the early intervention therapy, turning rudimentary motor exercises into rigorous to-dos. But when he came home from work, he propped our very small daughter on his chest and coaxed her through tummy time by making hilarious faces. He brought joy into the present and stayed present with the pain.

Now, I have a full-time job and he’s the primary parent. Years of meditating and releasing the ego’s agenda have enabled him to relinquish silly gender roles. He’s never been one to keep score. Who did the dishes last night? He has no idea. He has taught me again and again: love doesn’t keep score.

But I’m imperfect. I keep score. I know exactly who did the dishes last night: he did. Lately, he’s cooking all the dinners, cleaning up after many of them, and spending hours with the kids during a pandemic as I work.

“Okay, Fiona,” he said to our oldest, who’s still working on the very basics. “Your turn for math.” Together, they counted from one to five. He stopped at five, but her high-pitched voice kept going. “Six, seven, eight.” “No,” he said. “There’s just five. Five bears.” She was reciting by heart rather than actually counting. They tried again. The same thing happened. I heard the frustration in his voice. Parenting in a pandemic is easy for no one, including the former monk.

Above our digital clock, which the six-year-old says is even harder to read than the analog, my husband has hung a crucifix. He tells me that every clock in the Trappist monastery had a crucifix so that every time the monks checked the time, they were reminded of reality beyond time. An existence beyond counting. Heaven, I think they’d call it: a place where love flows without measure. But sometimes we’re lucky to glimpse it here on earth.


Heather Lanier is a poet, essayist, teacher, speaker, and thrift-store shopper. An assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University, she is the author of the memoir, Raising a Rare Girl (Penguin Press, July 2020), along with two award-winning poetry chapbooks, The Story You Tell Yourself, and Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima. She is the recipient of a Vermont Creation Grant and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.

Her essays and poems have been published in The Atlantic, The Sun, Salon, Brevity, Vela Magazine, and elsewhere. Her TED talk, “‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Are Incomplete Stories We Tell Ourselves,” has been viewed over two million times. With an MA in Teaching from Johns Hopkins and an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State, she has taught Shakespeare to ninth graders in Baltimore, conversational English to housewives, ship workers, and executives in Japan, and composition and creative writing to undergraduates at places such as UC Berkeley, Miami University, and Southern Vermont College. After seven years in the Green Mountain State, she is learning to live — and drive — in New Jersey. If you follow her on Twitter or Instagram, she vows never to post a post-workout selfie… although if you do, she’ll cheer you on!