Monday, October 27, 2014

When there's a wall

On Tuesday morning the kitten threw up on the floor. In four different spots, all of them on the living room carpet. I told the cat that I hated him and the boys begged me not to sell him. Of course I would never sell him; the cat stays. He stays in spite of puke, litter box messes, couch scratching, screen climbing and everything else that one little five pound fuzzball can dish out. But in that moment I felt as though I'd run face first into this brick wall called life and my will wasn't going to carry me one step further.

Cute, but pukey.

It might have been the rushing about to get children ready for school, feeding them breakfast, finding clothes, checking backpacks, hoping that this would be a morning that left me enough time to eat breakfast.

It might have been the looming knowledge of my husband's foot surgery. (Nothing dire, he only broke it. Twice. In one week. I know that it probably violates wife code to mock him in his infirmity, but such is the relationship that we have. When we mock, we mock in love.) I'm staring down at least four weeks of him being underfoot while he recuperates. Four weeks of me shouldering All The Tasks and I am being a bit of whiny baby about it. Although four weeks of just me and my computer sounds a little bit heavenly and so I am jealous.

It might have been the stress of work, suddenly a staff without a pastor, the fear of not knowing if we will be up to the task of carrying on the vision. Of being certain that something will get forgotten, or dropped, or a million things that could go wrong. On day one I already called animal control on the sprinkler guy's dog. Although in my defense, unless it is a special, sprinkler problem sniffing dog, it should not be digging unattended on the corner of our building. And so the dog became a metaphor for all of the things that I SHOULD know about but am now worried that I don't know about.

And yes, it might have been that sometime that morning one of my best friends would be hitting the interstate heading east, and it is entirely possible to be excited for someone's new adventure and heartbroken all at the same time.

And so, on Tuesday morning I knelt on the floor sponging up cat puke with tears running down my face.

I don't know what your cat puke is, but I know that sooner or later all of us feel as if we've run into a wall.


Maybe it's a sick child, a job change, family difficulties, changes in your life that you just didn't sign up for. And so you pull up the chair and you sit down and stare at the wall because quite frankly you don't know what else to do. There doesn't seem to be a way around it, over it, through it or under it.

Pull up a chair next to mine, we'll sit here and stare at our walls awhile together, ok? We've been here before, against the wall, with tearstained cheeks and tired bodies. And do you know what I think? Sometimes a wall isn't so much an obstacle as it is a marker, a resting place. It's the place where we finally have to stop all of our trying and our fixing and our worrying because there's a wall there and we can't do a blessed thing about it right now.

So I'm just going to sit here for a bit, in the midst of everything that is in my way and I'm not going to try to change a thing. I'll place my hands on the wall and trace the cracks, find the stains, the green of moss and the smell of damp earth. I will go toe to toe with this wall and feel how it cools in the dark and warms in the light.

And one day...one day when I have rested long enough I will push back the chair and I will stand to my feet. I will place my hand against the wall and I will trace my way out. Step by step, I will discover where the wall is pointing me. Through darkness, towards light, I can't really say. But I'll be ready to move again, no matter what is waiting at the edge of the wall.
"I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me." Psalm 3:5 (NIV)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Good girls

It was summer and I was sitting at my post behind the circulation desk in the campus library. I can still feel the grain of the wood beneath my hands when he walked up to the desk, with peppermint breath and a mint in his mouth. I can still feel the cringing inside, the trying to shrink back, make myself smaller. I wanted him gone, wanted him to leave me alone for just one day.

"Do you want me to kiss you like this?" His tongue rolled slowly around the mint as he leaned over the desk. And I don't remember what I said, because my mind is still fixed on that mint, fixed on the shock of his words and on the look in his eyes that told me he knew exactly who held the power, and it sure wasn't me.

It was a summer of trying to avoid being near him in the deserted spaces of the library, a summer of tensing up for the comments and the leering glances that would make my skin crawl. A summer of hiding when he came over to our house, of having housemates sneak me down the back stairway and out for errands that would last until he left.

In the fall he abruptly left campus to return home for a family emergency.

And I felt guilty because I wasn't sad for him, I was just relieved to have him gone.

.....

It was, I think, a Saturday at the library. The public one, this time. And I was early and so was he and so I didn't think when he chatted while we waited for the doors to open. It may have felt strange, and at some point the red flags went up and I shut up, but it was too late.

He showed up unannounced at my house one morning. The house that I had said just enough about to help him find. And my housemates sent him on his way with the words that it was NOT ok to be there.

Twice more I saw him, once slipping into the daily chapel (he wasn't a student) and then again months after I left school and had moved into an apartment. Suddenly one night, there he was at the door, too late in the evening for a friendly stop-by, telling me he recognized my car. And twenty-five years later it finally occurs to me that he had to have been paying specific attention from the moment we met to even attach that car to me. A car that wasn't anything unusual on a street that led to nowhere much beyond dead ends. I got angry, he acted hurt, and my roommate and her boyfriend must have sensed something amiss because they emerged from her room. Rocky, bless his weightlifting, motorcycle-riding heart, stood in the doorway and told him to never show his face again.

And I felt guilty. Guilty for being abrupt with him, when maybe it was all my fault that he was there.

.....

Here is the truth of what no one ever told me when I was growing up, when I was told in so many ways that feminism was a dirty word and that good girls looked, dressed and acted a certain way. Sometimes guys just don't listen, even to good girls. And the world is not so simple that it can be divided into two sets of women: Good Girls who wear appropriate clothing and attract Good Guys, and Those Other Girls, who wear mini-skirts, swimsuits with high cut legs, tight jeans, or shirts that show just a little too much cleavage. The world is not even so simple that it can be divided into two types of men, those incapable seeing a woman in yoga pants at the gym without lusting after her, and those who have mortified their flesh through hours on their knees to still their carnal urges. Just as it is possible for a woman to wear yoga pants for the sole reason of comfort and ease of movement, it's also possible for a man to look at a woman and just see a person. Really, it is, and I don't know how many men have to speak up and say that it is before they stop being disbelieved, before the morality mavens stop insisting that they MUST be rare exceptions to the rule.

And the truth is that the girl who attracted unwanted attention was the same girl who sat with guys in those years to talk theology and life and a million other things that had nothing to do with sex or lust or unbridled passions. The same girl, in the same clothes, with the same bumbling immaturities, the same laughter, the same mind.


Sometimes growing up female in the church is hard. With words and with actions we are molded into the ideal good girls, plastic dolls who dress a certain way and talk a certain way and think a certain way. Meek, quiet, unassuming, deferential. Holy vessels forged on an assembly line instead of lovingly crafted by a potter who delights in the unique stamp he gives to each creation. Because Good Christian Girls can't possibly wear miniskirts, and they can't possibly be outspoken, and they certainly don't listen to THAT kind of music or dance unfettered for the joy of moving, or...or...or...

I'd like to think that it's all a hallmark of the evangelical youth movements of the 80's and 90's, that we've grown past the burdens we put on our daughters, but I've seen enough to know that it's not, that there is still that pressure to believe that Good Christian Girls will look, act and think in certain ways. Sarah Bessey wrote a beautiful post about women in bikinis, a post that a commenter called 'shameless'. Another popular Christian blogger and speaker posted some songs she liked to her Facebook page and was chastised for encouraging women to listen to music that did not contain uplifting lyrics (i.e. it wasn't 'Christian' music).

If clothing choices were what it took to draw others to Christ, the Amish churches would be bursting at the seams.

If music choices are what we're all about, then we probably need to decide whose music and which culture and what decade and are instruments ok or not because we've had those arguments in the past and from what I can see we either split or caved and never really answered for once and for all the question of what kind of music is most holy. And should it be all instrumental, or can we trust our fallen human words to tap into a faith that is bigger than we believe?

But what if it's just love? What if all I have to offer isn't my goodness, or my meekness, or my record collection (er...sorry, dating myself much?...my Spotify playlist?). What if all I have to offer is just love? Outrageous love that shines on the good girls and the loud girls and the girls in bikinis and the girls with wild music ringing in their head and the girls who are quiet and the girls who run and dance and the girls who cook and knit and craft and the girls who talk theology and the girls who read vampire novels and the girls who are all of the above or none of the above.

What if we taught our girls what outrageous love looks like?

What if we taught them to see through to the heart?

What if we taught them not to be ashamed to speak up?

What if we taught them that they are worthwhile just the way they are?

What if we taught them they are loved, every blessed inch of them?

What if we set aside all of the rules and all of the measuring and just loved?

Here is what I know...those who know they are loved have more love to give.





Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On deep waters and letting go

Photo by Danielle Moir, via Flickr

I have always been afraid of deep water. Afraid to the very core of my being, the kind of fear that made me close my eyes and hold my breath when crossing long bridges (at least until I began driving on my own). Childhood swimming lessons didn't help. It was the week of summer that I dreaded the most, because water and I had an agreement...I would stay out of it and it would not try to drown me. And so I sat on the side of the pool each day like a barnacle refusing to be dislodged. Generally after day one the instructors just let me be with only a few token attempts to coax me from my square foot of safety, and so I passed my childhood never learning how to swim.

Motherhood can change your perspective. It can make you brave in ways you never thought you could be brave, and you will do things for the sake of your children that you were never able to do for yourself. That is why in my mid-30's I signed up for private swimming lessons. I learned that I liked swimming...except for the whole deep water part which still inspired panic and kept me lurking in the lane closest to the side of the pool. But a cross-country move and the unfamiliarity of a new place put a halt to my swimming progress for the next ten years, until this summer when I decided to deal with my fear once and for all by getting back into the water.

One round of adult beginner swim classes at the public pool later and I was ready to hit the pool at the gym. And by ready I mean that I may have posted a specific "I am going to attempt to not drown on this date at this time" status on Facebook because if you tell everyone you're going to do something then the rules of saving face dictate that you must carry through with it and that was the only way I was ever going to get myself into that pool.

Lap swimming in a real pool with a deep end is a lot different than practicing your stroke back and forth across the shallow end of a pool. It's one thing to tread water in pairs of two with the instructor a mere arms length away, it is a different thing entirely to consider heading into the deep end on your own while the person responsible for monitoring the pool sits on the other side of the room. So that first lap session? I grabbed a kickboard and didn't let go the entire time. I still did all of the movements and the breathing and the putting my face in the water, just...as long as my fingertips were touching that kickboard I knew I was ok. I considered the possibility of never getting rid of the kickboard. I was in the water, getting exercise, sort of swimming...it was all good, right?

Except, I was never really going to develop as a swimmer as long as I held on to the prop. I could get most of the movements functionally correct, but toss me in the deep end without my kickboard and fear and panic would still get the best of me. And it was limiting. There are only so many strokes that work while you are still holding on to something, others that just don't work at all.

...........

I love our current pastor. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I have learned more and grown more spiritually under his leadership than I have under any other pastor in the past. That's not to say I haven't had good pastors, most have been gifted to lead in one way or another. Maybe it's because we came to this church at a time when we were desperate for community, having spent several years in the wilderness trying to find our place. Maybe its because it was here that I was finally free to question. I don't know.

What I do know is that I've known for quite some time that this particular season wouldn't last forever. I THOUGHT it would look like our church growing to the point where we planted a second church, and so I pre-emptively wrestled with the thought of being true to where God would call our family to go, even if it meant heading out (or staying put) with a different pastor. As it turns out, that becomes less of an issue when your pastor gets called to Canada.

.........

Sometimes a pastor is a little like a kickboard. We just get used to having that prop to guide us through our spiritual journey. The deep water isn't scary if we can hang on to him (or her) to carry us through all of our doubts and all of our growing, if we can count on him to wrestle with the questions and give us the answers. But if that's where our faith is, we aren't really swimming, are we? Life changes. The average tenure of a pastor at a given church is about four years so chances are good that at more than one point in your life you will experience a pastoral transition in your church. And oh, it can look scary to let go of that kickboard. You've heard tales of people who drowned in such deep waters. Maybe you've been there yourself, seen the struggling and the flailing of a church unable to swim on its own. It's easier to hop out of the pool and go grab another kickboard than it is to swallow a little water but trust in the properties of water and everything you've learned to keep on swimming.

.......

The church is not the pastor. I can't think of any place in the New Testament where church meant anything other than the gathered assembly of believers. It seems that the only time leaders are mentioned it's in the context of divisions being caused by people following one leader or another instead of living out the gospel message of Christ as a community. (Yes, it talks about elders, but always in the role of oversight, not sole responsibility.) So doesn't it stand to reason that we were never meant to hold on to a pastor as if he were our kickboard, our only means of surviving deep waters? Out of all of the grand and beautiful and messy community of believers, the pastor is ONE person, a fellow sojourner who happens to have been given the gift of teaching.

But we've made it out to be something it isn't, haven't we? We've elevated pastors to celebrity status when they are successful, blamed them for the failing churches when they aren't, expected them to be our mentor, our teacher, our compassionate ear, our intercessor, our Bible dictionary and our all-in-one reference book. And while we were elevating them we were neglecting the real church. We were neglecting the people in the seats next to us. The intercessors, the helpers, the teachers, the mentors, the explorers, the questioners, the co-learners. We were neglecting the community that helps us to navigate the deep waters, the ones who swim beside us in the depths, who cheer us on, who extend a hand when we get weary.

Watching a pastor leave can raise intense emotions. It can taste like fear and feel like drowning. Keep swimming. The water is deep, but there's freedom and there's growth to be found in the letting go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Feast

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr

When I was little my mom used to make the most delicious rhubarb custard. Sometimes she made it just as a custard, sometimes she baked it into a pie. At least, that's the way that I remember things. All I really remember is that there came a time after leaving home that I began longing for the taste of rhubarb custard.

One day in town I noticed that a small bakery had a sign advertising 'Rhubarb Pies'. I think I managed to ignore it for a week before I finally broke down, pulled in one day after work and bought myself a rhubarb pie. (And when I say 'myself' I really do mean myself, because I was single at the time so there was no family to steal share my pie. Although given my children's food selectiveness, I am fairly certain I still don't have to worry.)

I returned home, carried my prize inside, got out a plate and opened the box. Only to find that it was NOT the rhubarb custard pie of my dreams, but some sort of rhubarb travesty of the gelatinous goo variety. Now, I do enjoy a good rhubarb crisp or crumble. But at that point in my life, rhubarb belonged in two forms...a crisp, or a CUSTARD pie. It just never occurred to me that someone would create a rhubarb pie that was not a custard. (But then, I'm also of the opinion that most fruit pies should just give up and be crisps instead, as God intended them to be. It's all about the crumbly topping.)

I probably ate it anyway, sharing the taste and my disappointment with my roommate. Later she gave me her mother's recipe for a rhubarb custard pie, and there were two of them cooling on my counter as I wrote this, over twenty years after that day.

Life hands us disappointments like that sometimes. We think we're getting one thing but we open the box to find out that it's not exactly what we anticipated. The base ingredient is the same, but the sweet taste of custard gives way to something with more tartness, less sugared. Maybe its a family life that isn't quite as you pictured it to be. The children are more rambunctious, more opinionated than you ever expected. The spouse leaves dirty socks laying on the floor and wears t-shirts with holes in them. (Any resemblance to specific spouses and children is purely coincidental and not to be construed as a portrait of an actual person.) The pretty new house has plumbing problems or noisy neighbors or an odd way of settling with creaks and groans at night. You take a job as administrative assistant at your church and then the pastor moves (true story). Friends who you thought would be around for years move a world away (also true story). (OK, Canada, they move to Canada. It feels like a world away.)

We get something other than what we wanted. But there, waiting on the sidelines are the friends who sit down with us and share in the feast anyway. And they listen to us talk about what we wish had been and they help us to find what we need to make something new.

I can't promise that disappointment will always lead to something sweet. You may need to eat a lot of gelatinous goo. Maybe you'll learn to like gelatinous goo, or at least appreciate it for what it is without expecting it to be custard. Sit down anyway. Sit down with your friends and your neighbors with your disappointments and their disappointments and dig in. Share in the tart and the sweet and the bitter. Eat with them the taste of tears and longings unfulfilled. And then go to the kitchen together. Pull out the flour and the sugar, the spices and the eggs. Set yourselves to baking something new, something that may turn out and maybe not. But bake anyway. Mix your hopes and your dreams, your longings and your prayers.

And feast together again and again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Little white lies

I'm hesitant to jump on the whole 'let's blog about depression and suicide' bandwagon that's happening this week in the wake of the loss of a major celebrity. But I think there is a pull for many of us to tell our stories, to put a human face to depression and other mental illnesses when we see the words that hurt instead of healing, when we see people speaking opinions and declaring them Truth. Truth is, depression is complicated, depression is different for everyone, and (as The Bloggess says) depression lies. It lies to us and through us. It muddles our thoughts, our actions and our relationships. I originally wrote this post in 2009, it seemed somehow appropriate to edit and repost it for today.

Photo by David via Flickr
Yesterday I had both boys with me when I stopped in at the endocrinologist's office for a quick blood draw. I should have gone on the previous day when I could have gone alone, but I can't be the only one who spends the day thinking that there was Something you were supposed to do but you can't remember what. And then it's 5:00 and you finally remember, only it's too late. It was one of those days. It should have been simple, a brave face for a few seconds and then we'd be out of there.

I was doing great, smiling calmly at the boys (ok, Kyle was oblivious, Jordan was hovering with curiosity and a little trepidation); and then, the nurse couldn't find the vein. Couldn't...find...the...vein. There I sat, with a manic smile pasted on my face as I silently screamed, "OK, this hurts, this hurts, this hurts!" And Jordan asked the question that all children want to know when confronted with a needle, "Does it hurt?" "Well, a little bit," I responded. (Oh, please, please, PLEASE find that vein quickly and get this over with!) He hovered, I smiled, teeth gritted behind the upward curve of my lips, until the nurse finally found the vein. As we left Jordan said "I don't think I ever want someone to take my blood." He'd seen right through the lie of my smile and knew perfectly well that despite my attempt to mask it this was something that hurt more than just a little bit.

I do that a lot, you know. Most of us do. Little white lies to hide the pain we're in. "How are you doing?" "Fine, how about you?" Only we aren't, but we don't mention the fact that we've thrown out our back, or that the baby has been up all night teething and we just want some SLEEP, is that too much to ask? Or that our world seems to be falling down around us or we've got a child who has brought us to our breaking point in any of a thousand ways. We don't talk about loss or grief or the sadness of dreams that take too long in coming. We don't talk about how the joy we've prayed for hasn't shown up in the anticipated ways. We don't talk about how sometimes joy and tears can exist together or how hard it is to hold on to the joy through the tears. We don't talk about how "try harder" can kill our souls.

It's no big deal, it's not like it's a lie that HURTS anyone. So we paste our smiles on our face and we pretend we aren't in pain and 'fine' becomes that word that we always, always say even when all the needles are jabbing and we just want a moment of comfort and relief.

Let me tell you a secret...telling everyone we are fine when inside we are screaming "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!" doesn't help us. Sometimes there's a time and a place, and not every person is a good person to tell. But...and THIS is what I want you to hear today...that little lie of "I'm fine" does something. It robs those around us of the chance to express the heart of Christ to us. It robs them of the chance to bring comfort to the hurting, robs them of the chance to bind up wounds, walk beside, speak life and hope and peace and yes, joy, into our lives when we can't find the words ourselves. Left long enough, it will turn a church into a shell of a building filled with the shells of people all walking around with smiles on our faces saying "I'm fine." And a world full of people who are NOT fine will never enter our doors if all that we have to offer them is the message that the 'joy of the Lord' is an everlasting upper, instead of sometimes the only rock we are clinging to with bloodied hands as the waves of pain wash over us.

And to be sure, there is a balance to be had between complaining about our every ache and being honest about when we are hurting. And there is a time for knowing who to share your hurts with and who may not have the maturity to handle it. But in a world that is broken it's time for the church to come alive to its mission, ministering the love of Jesus to the physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally broken people both inside and outside of its walls. No more little white lies.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'd like to thank my English teachers

Photo by Pimthida via Flickr
Words have always held a certain allure for me. Reading them, writing them, noticing them. Every year as soon as I got the chance I'd grab my older brother's English textbook and read through all of the stories. It was ever so much more interesting than wading through "See Jane run. Run Jane, run." When I first started school Dick and Jane were still running and Spot was chasing balls. Exciting stuff, right there. Thank goodness for older brothers and libraries and being able to read before I entered kindergarten because I'm fairly certain if Dick, Jane, Spot and all of their friends had been my first exposure to reading I would not have been nearly as enamored with the whole idea.

I can't say that I had the same affinity for studying grammar. Diagramming sentences seemed like a deathly dull task when there were stories to be read, and I'm fairly certain that I slept through most of my Grammars of English class in college. (I checked out some time after the section on the history of the English language and couldn't tell you much more about it than that the English language is a beautiful and complicated thing precisely because we drew from so many origins.) I am completely aware that sometimes in my writing I use less than stellar grammar, and it took me until my second year in college to understand what comma splices were. I'm probably still very guilty of using them.

Still, the basic structure behind crafting a literate sentence stuck with me, and although I had to resort to Google to remind myself of what a participle is and why it shouldn't dangle, I know how to use them correctly because my English teachers drilled it into us over and over again with all of those irritating sentence diagrams. (Participle - irritating. Subject - sentence diagrams.)

It was a bit of a shock when I went back to school for my accounting degree and discovered that the new crop of students didn't really understand how to write a decent research paper. I spent the next two and a half years telling group members, "No, really, let me take this and I'll just edit (completely rewrite) it a bit." In all fairness, probably most of them were business students precisely because they didn't get excited at the thought of writing a twenty page research paper. But I assumed that somewhere journalism classes still flourished, and teachers still taught eager would-be writers how to write for comprehension.

I'm going to choose to believe that the incidences which spurred this blog post are not the fault of any English teachers. I'm going to assume that they are still out there, diagramming away, correcting faulty use of language and doing their best to encourage clarity of thought in their students' writing. I'm going to assume that some students just aren't listening. Because I don't know how else to explain a headline like this, "Illegal Shotgun Owner Used in Killing Sentenced." (Was the shotgun owner used in the killing? Was the shotgun sentenced?) Or a news article that says this, "The people of Wessington Springs are getting some of their first glimpses of the devastation left by a tornado in full sunlight Thursday morning." (I'm sorry, Wessington Springs, my heart really does go out to all who lost homes and property in the tornado that happened on WEDNESDAY night in what we can presume was not full sunlight. I am glad that there appear to have been no serious injuries beyond the slaughtering of basic sentence structure. If you want to help, you can donate through the Red Cross website, simply designate your donation for Wessington Springs.)

I'd like to assume that the web content was written by some high school intern and was swiftly corrected by the journalism majors who run the show. But in the first case the headline is still there in all of its ungrammatical glory so clearly someone either doesn't care or is sleeping on the job. Maybe it's just the difference between print and television journalism. Maybe in the quest to get news out at an ever increasing pace the idea of proofreading for clarity has become old-fashioned.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to thank my English teachers.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me how to write sentences that make sense, even when it meant sentence diagrams that filled the entire chalkboard.

I'd like to thank them for teaching us that quality matters more than quantity. And for exposing us to authors who threw all of the established rules out the window and made it work.

I'd like to thank them for drilling into us the idea that we must proofread everything. (I'd also like to thank the world for not inventing computers that check spelling and grammar until after I'd learned to proofread my own work.) If I could offer one teeny-tiny suggestion it would be that they could have improved upon it by making us proofread papers while having classmates intermittently walk up to us saying "Mom! Mom! Hey mom, watch this! Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, guess what? Mom, look at how I can squeeze the top off of my string cheese! Mom, watch me juggle my clothes!" (In short, I'm blaming any proofreading misses on my children.)

I'd like to thank them for all of the hours they put into reading and correcting term papers. I'd especially like to thank my senior English teacher for not saying "Really? Twenty pages on the history of the conflict in Ireland? Do I look like I have time to read that?"

I'd like to thank them for all of the assigned reading that I loved, and even for the books that I hated. I'll admit that I read a lot of fluff these days, but thanks to them I can pretty well tell the difference between fluff and writing that will stand the test of time.

I'd like to thank them for making us do poetry journals, both the finding of poems that we liked and the writing of original work. Those were some of my favorite things ever except for the part where we had to illustrate them. I thank them for not marking down for the use of stick figures.

I'd like to thank my high school English teacher for agreeing when I summarized Of Human Bondage as basically being a book about a guy who lives. He taught me that great literature still contains an element of personal taste. And that perhaps some books are best understood after a little more life experience, although I haven't tested that theory by going back and re-reading it because once was quite enough for me.

I'd like to thank all of the elementary teachers who taught me English as part of their daily schedule. I'd like to thank them for all of the kite tails and caterpillars that we got to add to with every book we finished, because I was a competitive little person and that was pretty much the only thing I was going to excel at.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me to use both a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most of all I'd just like to thank them for teaching me that language is vibrant and beautiful and ever changing. For teaching me to cherish words and to choose them wisely. For teaching me that the written and spoken word is both a powerful tool and a breath-taking story.

Thank you, English teachers. Some of us listened.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The rubber stamp


Photo by Sudhamshu Hebbar via Creative Commons license at Flickr

When he was little and still home with me by himself during the days, sometimes Kyle liked to 'help' me in my office. One of  his favorite ways of helping involved the use of (to him) the Holy Grail of office equipment...the rubber stamp. Position it over the line on the check (with my help), press down hard and 'ka-thunk' a perfect signature comes out. Every single time. John X. John X. John X. It isn't my signature, I'm not responsible for this check, John X is. I don't even have to think about it.

There have been many times in my life when I let someone else become my rubber stamp. I didn't have to think about anything, bear any responsibility for my own choices or thoughts because I just grabbed what that person said and 'ka-thunk' a perfect replica of their thoughts became my own. The problem with that is that sometimes deep inside I'd think "well, that doesn't feel quite right". But these were spiritual leaders, trusted friends, 'very smart people'. Surely they had to be right, and I, with all my uncertainties, fears and questions, had to be wrong.

And then, gradually, I began to change. I wasn't quite so quick to use that rubber stamp of approval for everything.  I began to question. Sometimes I even began to speak up when I felt I was right. I soon found that there were two types of people in my life; those who resented any questioning that implied disagreement, and those that welcomed the stretching and growth that questioning is supposed to bring. Sometimes my failure to rubber stamp those in authority ruffled feathers, sometimes it got me in trouble. Many times it showed me when it was time to walk away from a person or a situation.

Questioning can be a frightening thing. If you're wrong, you can't blame it on anyone else. It can lead you to see where change is necessary, and sometimes (ok, often) change is hard. But this is where the real growth happens. Looking at the thoughts and attitudes you've stamped over your life and deciding for yourself; does this fit me? Does it mesh with my ideals? What does God really have to say about the matter? It takes a lot of digging. It takes digging into Scripture with the desire to hear from God. It takes digging into history, digging into the news, expanding your knowledge. It takes a willingness to be wrong but to keep on digging down until you get it right.

I've learned that we don't always have to be in agreement with every single thing that someone says. We can disagree about politics, we can disagree about economics, we can disagree about what color to paint the walls. We can wrestle with the Bible and all of its many interpretations. And maybe the important part isn't so much the getting to the right answers, but the journey we take to get there, the willingness to soak ourselves in the questions, to ASK the questions.

Today, don't be afraid to tackle the big questions. It really is ok to ask yourself WHY you believe what you do. Put down the rubber stamp that someone else handed you. You are not a copy of anyone else, find your own voice and your own thoughts. Look to those around you for help, for inspiration, for the wisdom that they've gleaned through their own wrestling, but don't just let their answers become yours.

What questions are you wrestling with today? What rubber stamps do you need to give up?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lethe

Photo by dan_alive via Creative Commons license at Flickr

I have lost you to the sea,
Watching over the years
As bit by bit its waters advanced
Crumbling away at the ground of you
Until you were consumed.
All the words and memories,
Every grain of you
Swept out to into depths
Where I cannot follow.
I circle this unknown
Searching for any sign of you
Calling
Sending out the familiar signals
That would always bring you running
But your eyes are an ocean
With depths I can no longer plumb
And I wonder if you are there at all
Hiding in the deep
Calling out to be found.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'That' woman

Photo by Elaine via Flickr
Yeah, you know her. You secretly cringe when you hear her mentioned. In your mind you count the number of ways you just don't measure up to her. She's got great clothes and you're knocking about in your sweats. She's an entrepreneur, a real estate investor, and a philanthropist; her husband is highly respected in the community. She's got it all. She's also got servants. Yep, I'm talking about HER; the Proverbs 31 woman.

This woman is a dynamo, charging through life running her own business, cooking, gardening, shopping, sewing and who knows what else. I read the list and think "I cannot possibly begin to measure up to this woman!" I forget about everything that I accomplish in my frustration over not being able to be HER.

Let's not forget something in our rush to measure ourselves against her. She's fictional. And really, aren't they all? These women that we measure ourselves against, be they bloggers, friends, neighbors, the woman at the grocery store with an impeccably dressed, clean, and non-fart-joke-telling nine year old boy, aren't they all a bit of fiction created in our minds when we take our little snapshots of them and assemble them into something that we think is the whole picture?

Some days I feel more like a limp noodle than someone who is 'strong to the task'. The list of things that I think I ought to be doing is longer than the list of things that I've done. Sometimes I need to consciously list the things that I accomplished in any given day and make the choice to be grateful for them. They are my accomplishments, no one else's. I did get up this morning. (Anyone who has ever struggled with just wanting to stay in bed with the covers over your head, give yourself a pat on the back for just getting up.) I did manage to feed my children breakfast. Was it a fully balanced, no preservative added, home cooked meal? No, it was Honeycomb cereal. Cereal that I managed to go buy at the store yesterday because I FORGOT to buy cereal last week when I shopped and so I think I get bonus points for throwing in an extra trip to the store just so that my children would be fed. And even though as of 12:43 I have spent the last three hours producing essentially no new writing, I've managed to play with and delete at least three ideas that were going nowhere. Which is still three ideas. OK, three ideas and a poem about Alzheimer's for a writing group prompt.

The next time you're tempted to compare yourself to someone else, whether that person is fictional or living next door, stop. Take a moment to consider what you do. What would be YOUR list of accomplishments for the day? Write them down, no matter how mundane they seem to you. Look at it and realize just how much you really do; realize just how important you are to those who matter in your life and be at peace with yourself.

This post is republished (and slightly rewritten) from my old blog. Because I'm too much of a perfectionist to just hit 'publish' on all of them without editing. Also because they come in handy when I can't come up with anything new.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Backbone

The other week Jordan didn't want to practice his trombone. Because I am a mean mother taking a long range view of things I told him to practice anyway. There was angst and there was drama, but eventually he did practice.

He wasn't happy though, and as his practice time progressed he shared that he was bored with the music, tired of playing the parts that support the rest of the band, tired of the trombone section always being overshadowed by the trumpets and the woodwinds. He was, to put it in his own words, tired of being the backbone of the band. Couldn't the trombones shine, just once?

Photo by jmtimages via Flickr
I remember the day he decided he wanted to play the trombone. Up until that day he'd been adamant that he would play the trumpet. (In the read-through of this for his approval he first asked me what adamant meant, and then told me he was also thinking about percussion. This I don't remember, and I'm pretty certain I would remember a child telling me he wanted to play the drums. Some things stick with a parent.) Then the middle school jazz band came to play at his school and from that day on his heart was sold out to the trombone. I think sometimes he forgets the wonder of that moment as he plugs away at being the backbone. He forgets that there was something there, something not carried in the melody, something that stirred his heart and shaped a passion.

Do you ever feel that way? That thing that you were so excited about turned out to be a lot of plugging away in the background, supporting someone else's melody. You feel bored. You feel like what you are doing doesn't really matter. If you just dropped out it wouldn't make a difference.

Parenting can feel like that sometimes. We pack the lunches and check the folders, sign the permission slips and ferry them to practices and field trips at 6:30 in the morning. We are the backbone of our family and yet it seems as if no one notices. We hope that our children will grow up to shine, adding their own unique melody to the world, but will they remember the backbone that we provided so they could grow straight and tall? Will they notice all the ways in which we support their song?

Work can feel like that too. You get the words like 'reliable, dependable, self-starter.' And then you get passed over for the promotion, passed over for a newer employee, maybe even passed over for someone you trained. And you hear words like 'not leadership material.' It can feel like a slap.

And yes even relationships can be like that, sometimes. Some people just sparkle with life, drawing people into their orbit. Meanwhile you're the introvert on the sideline, watching them sing 'Wind Beneath My Wings' but wishing that you could fly too. (90's reference! Go watch 'Beaches'.) It's not that you aren't content with where you are, it's just that sometimes you wonder what it would be like to be the spark that brings a party to life.

Dear ones, can I tell you a secret? Sometimes we are ALL the trombone, playing our one note in the song while strings and trumpets soar. And sometimes we just need to go back, need to remember what it felt like at the beginning.

What it felt like when we first anticipated that child, the first moments of wonder, of wanting to know who they would become.

What it felt like when you got the job, the joy that you felt in accomplishing something by the end of the day.

Remember the thing that stirred in your soul and brought you to this place. You had a dream, and while that dream may not have looked like being the backbone, this thing that you are right now is a part of that dream. It may not be glamorous. It may be messy and a little bit boring and like a lot of sitting around and waiting.

But just you wait, because somewhere out there is a wide-eyed player of songs just starting their journey and they will look at you, at the notes you play and the ease with which you play them and something will stir in their soul. You, in all your backbone glory, are the inspiration for someone else.

Even if you never know it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Morning dance

Photo by Diana via Flickr
Every morning it's the same dance. Down the steps, turning on the lights, waking sleep-fogged boys. Back up the steps and to the kitchen. Two cereal bowls out, slide to the left, spin the corner cupboard, dip and grab the requested boxes, fill the bowls, tuck the boxes away. A turn and slide to the left, open the refrigerator, out with the milk, pirouette, pour it into bowls and more into a cup for the milk drinker. Cross the kitchen with the bowls, slide them onto the table. Back down the stairs to rouse the younger one yet again.

Back up stairs and an arabesque up for the lunch box on top of the refrigerator. Take out the bagels, spin and pop one in the toaster, spin again and put them away. Slide to the right to grab clean lunch containers, turn and pour milk, pirouette and back to the refrigerator.

Every morning the same steps, the same rhythm, the same dance. The same words to coax them out of bed, through getting dressed and brushing teeth, the same words of love to send them out the door. Socks and shoes, coats and hats, every second a step of careful choreography.

I thrive on my routines and a misplaced step, the fancy footwork of an open schedule, often means looking up from the hard floor and wondering just how I fell. So I don't do it, don't improvise, don't risk, don't try new things. Step by step by step I glide my life across the floor, following the patterns I've worn into the wood.

And sometimes I wonder if there is more. More grand leaps of joy that leave me breathless, more dizzying turns, more ground to tread. Because I can get lost in the ordinary, lost in just following the same steps every day. Breakfast, gym, work, laundry, dinner. Breakfast, gym, work, laundry, dinner. So ordinary that I don't even really see it any more.

I know that I'm not the only one. I see you there with your babies, changing diapers, cleaning spills. I see you in the rush from soccer game to school concert, scrolling on your phone because this, THIS in the between times while you wait for things to start is the only moment you have to breathe, and this is the only way that you know how to catch your breath. I see you with your plans and schedules, trying to Do All The Things and worrying that you might not do them well enough.

This is what I want for you, for me, for us...

I want all of us, all the tired, stressed out, busy, searching lot of us, to open our eyes in every ordinary moment and see the beauty that lives right there, right on the edges of our lives. I want us to see more, to love more, to live in the ordinary moments as if each one were extraordinary, because it is. Every moment a shadow of the kingdom of God yet to come and already every moment ripe with God breathing among us, walking among us, sitting with us.

Do you think that we can learn to slow down, to see the fingerprints of God as he traces them over the world? The softness in our child's hands, the delight of a toddler in a new found skill, the long-legged gawkiness of the growing adolescent, the ability of a teen to coax music out of an instrument, sunrises, sunsets...every single moment that seems so ordinary bumping up against the border of something that is extraordinary, every moment pressing towards the hope of things unseen, an echo of kingdom yet to come.

This is what I want from life...to be open to the possibility of dancing in the most ordinary of moments. Not with careful, measured steps, but with joyful abandon to the God of all things, the God of the ordinary spaces, the God of morning dances.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Love song for the Church

Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr
 I've been writing and praying over this post for weeks. Ever since this year's round of 'why we don't need the church' vs. 'why we DO need the church' hit the internet. And it sat here and sat here, and then last week the church got all ugly and human and messy again with people yelling on all sides of the online world and people with hearts breaking in the flesh and blood world until I want to pull everyone into the room like I do with my boys, sit them down and say "Listen here! You may not agree on everything, and that's part of life. But let me tell you what else is part of life...we are FAMILY, and family does not disrespect each other. Family learns how to get along even when we don't like what the other person is doing, even when it is DRIVING US NUTS!" And then I would bake some cookies and we'd all sit around over cookies and coffee (decaf, because we all need to chill a little) and we'd speak kindly to each other and maybe we'd offer to share our toys, no strings attached.

I did not love the church for a long time. I grew up in it, nurtured on services both Sunday morning and evening, scared into belief and a life-long fear of bear traps at the children's service of a crusade. I lived a small-town life of Vacation Bible School, youth group every Wednesday, Bible quizzing and daily chapel at the Christian school. I ate my fill of church, stuffed and gorged on the Word of God and the fear of the fires of hell if I stepped out of line. Life was black and white, no room for questioning, no room for differing. I was a quiet, introverted misfit with a quietly rebellious heart. I played the good girl well.

I ran from the church as soon as I could. Ran from the requirements, ran from the rules, ran from all of the ways I didn't fit in. Because I didn't love it. God wasn't as simple as I'd been led to believe in those early Sunday School years, and no one told me it was ok to have questions and struggle and not always be certain. No one told me it was ok to disagree with the current stance on Halloween or to like music that wasn't Christian or classical. (I have a woefully underdeveloped knowledge of the music of my generation.) No one told me that good people, Christian people, come in all denominations and shapes and colors and attitudes. The spectrum of people who love God, really deeply love him, is broader and deeper than I ever knew.

But God is the shepherd who looks for the sheep, and in those in-between years when I didn't know where I fit, he found me. And he took me on a journey of slowly building something new. We started with Sunday evening worship every week in that little round building on top of the hill where I learned to gather with the body because I wanted to, not because anyone said that I had to. Slowly, over the course of several years, he brought me back to church through the messiest of circumstances. There's something special about a church that holds you in the midst of your mess, lets you cry on their shoulders, takes you in when you are alone.

It's this church that so many are leaving now, the Evangelical church of culture wars, a comingled politics and religion, the assumption of certainty about so many things. And it is true that it's not a church I would choose to attend again. But they loved, and loved well when I needed it most. And yes, it was messy and imperfect and there came a time when we knew that leaving was the best choice. But my faith was nurtured and grown in that place, and when the word 'Evangelical' leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, I remember the people who loved me there.

I can't always condone this Evangelical church culture that we've built. There are a great many things I don't love about the machine. But the people...the people are my people, my family even when we disagree. Even when we fling hurtful words at each other and kick and stomp to get our own way. Truth is, if we are doing our best to follow Jesus, even if we disagree on what that looks like, we are family. We don't have to agree with each other, but we ARE called to love each other. It's time for us to learn the language of family.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Passing on

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
10,000 years and then forever more.
 -Matt Redman - 10,000 Reasons

It's not a song that's normally sung in our traditional service, but yesterday was Youth Sunday and they were in charge, so the song sets for both services were the same. As I sang the lyrics I looked around at the rest of the congregation. Median age? About 70, give or take a few years. And something about that struck me as a beautiful and profound picture of walking out our lives with faith to the very end. It's a reasonable assumption that most of the congregation I stood with yesterday morning are much closer to finishing the race than I am. They know what it's like to have strength that is failing. They've lost parents, partners, friends and more. They are watching the end draw nearer and they are still singing, still faithful.

I didn't know, in that moment when I looked around and thought about endings and lives well lived, that my own grandmother was passing away that morning.

It's odd, the little things that we remember. For me it's the homemade crackers she sometimes made, all crisp and onion-y. I know she made a lot of wonderful food, but the crackers are what I remember, just like I can remember hoping on the long drive from our home in Ohio to theirs in Indiana that this would be a visit when there would be crackers. The first time I made my own batch of homemade crackers I thought of her. I wish I had asked her for her recipe.

And I remember her sewing room, the place where we usually ended up sleeping on our biannual visits. Not in detail, just vague memories of the scent of cotton and sewing machine oil, the sound of the clock on the wall chiming the hour. My grandmother never pieced her quilts while we were there visiting, but I knew that when we were gone that room was her domain, the place where she spent hours at her machine.

I never realized just what an artist she truly was until several years ago, when a rare trip to Indiana meant a chance to visit her after years of living too far away. Ninety-five years old and she was still piecing together quilt tops and wall hangings. Not just piecing from pattern, but designing. "Oh, I saw that picture on a place-mat at breakfast and brought it back to the room because I liked it so I wanted to see if I could make a wall-hanging from it." And so she did, and it was good. Learn a new fabric folding and applique trick at ninety-five? Yes, please.

Me and the boys with my grandmother in 2007

Most of her quilts and wall-hangings were pieced for charity, 46 years of measuring, snipping and stitching all so that they could be auctioned off to raise funds for Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development arm of the Mennonite Church. She pieced her last quilt in 2013, at the age of 101.

This is a faithfulness that brings me to tears, a combined passion for creating and for giving that poured itself out through every snip of the scissors, every stitch of the machine. It's a faithfulness and passion that refused to waste one single moment of her life, that took the gifts she had been given poured them out in her own language of praise.

My husband and I have both been honored to have grandmothers like this. His own grandmother, who passed away in December, pieced over 5,000 comforters in her retirement that have been sent all over the world as part of MCC's relief efforts. Where my grandmother was art and design his grandmother was practicality and 'these scraps are still good, someone should use them.' But it was still snip of the scissors and hum of the machine.

Mike's grandmother and the boys - 2012 (?)

People are warm today because of his grandmother. People have drinkable water and medical care and access to sustainable farming education because of my grandmother. They took their ordinary lives and the resources they had around them and they gave themselves.

I think we sometimes don't hear the songs of the quieter saints. We listen to the young and the loud, the hip and the relevant. There's just not much relevant about piecing a comforter or a quilt. We talk about being radical but sometimes I wonder if we will still be singing our songs with the same fervency when our strength is failing, when our own end is drawing near. I want to have the passion of our grandmothers, to take this beautiful, ordinary life and not waste one second, one word, one drop of the gifts that I've been given.

About two weeks after Mike's grandmother passed away our boys spent a few days down on the farm with his parents. And my nine-year-old decided that he wanted to piece a comforter, so with a little guidance from Mike's mother, he did. Snip of the scissors. Stitch of the machine. Piece by piece. It's finished and waiting to be tied, waiting to be sent on its own journey of relief, to be warmth to someone who needs it.

Kyle's comforter
 There's a legacy that's been passed on, a song of faithfulness that's been sung down through the generations, praise rising up from ordinary lives. Oh, how I want to still be singing it when my day is done.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Me, the Pharisees and Common Core

Photo by Mikeyp2000 via Flickr
It's a scene that's been playing out all year in our house and in other houses scattered all over the nation. Child comes home with math homework. Child gets stuck on math homework. Parent who considers herself reasonably competent at math because the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants declared her to be competent at math-y things sits down to help child. Parent looks at paper, turns pale and begins to mumble "What? What? I don't understand! What are they supposed to be doing? Agh! Just get the answer already!" Parent tries to 'help' child by showing them how we did it in the good old days. Child looks at parent and says "OK, go away, just let me do this by myself."

It turns out that I really don't know math anymore. At least not this math. Everything that I thought I knew is all turned around upside down and backwards and I just want it to be the way that we USED to do it because then it would make sense. I could follow the rules that I know, get the answer and we'd all be happy. A pox on Common Core, I say! (Or at least I'd say if I were in Shakespearean times, I guess.)

In one of those tangents that we sometimes take in our small group Bible Study a member who is a professor of education started talking about Common Core, and how people miss the point of what it's about. When we learned math we learned rules. We learned one way to solve a certain type of problem and we will use that forever and ever amen. But the point of Common Core is to teach the 'why' behind all of that solving, to create people who can think and solve and apply concepts already learned to new concepts so that they actually understand what they're doing instead of just parroting the rules the teacher laid out.

And here's where the Pharisees come in (and why we were talking about Common Core in a Bible Study). Because the Pharisees were kind of like all of us. We've got our rules, our rubrics, our long divisions and our stacked multiplications and they suit us just fine. So did the Pharisees. They had everything down to an exact equation. If we do these things in this order we will achieve righteousness. And they'd gotten really, really good at doing all the things in all the right ways. They had the official stamp of 'People Who Know and Apply All the Rules.'

Then along comes this Jesus guy and he starts saying that the point isn't to follow all the rules right...the point is to understand WHY. He's trying to tell them to go deeper, to solve the problem by understanding how things relate to each other, how God could become flesh and become their redemption and their righteousness. And they're not having it. New-fangled stuff and nonsense. The rules were good enough for our father's fathers, they're good enough for us. We know how to get the answer, get that new way of thinking out of here.

This isn't about Common Core, not really. I'll adjust to it somehow, although it may be by begging my children's teachers to please, please, PLEASE let me sit in the classroom too.

But I'm kind of a Pharisee about a lot of things when it comes to faith. I learned the way to do things from my parents who learned from their parents and so on and so forth and that ought to be good enough. I go to church and I read my Bible and I say my prayers because that's what a good Christian does and I try to fit everything into an equation that equals righteousness. And Jesus is standing to the side trying and trying to tell me that it isn't about following the rules, that the answers come from knowing and understanding who HE is.

It's going to take a lot of work to learn to live faith from understanding, not from rules. I suppose I'll learn it best from sitting at Jesus' feet.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rotten Inspiration

I'm currently getting over a miserable cold that was probably not really all that bad but I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to being sick. I keep telling myself to buck up and practice being a peppy sick person because it's a skill I'd like to have in case I ever develop a serious illness. (I have a fear of being the sort of patient that nurses hate, even more so because my husband works in the hospital and I don't want them to feel sorry for him for having a grouchy wife.) Apparently the good people that make Halls cough drops want to help me in my quest to be a peppier sick person, because they've started adding little motivational sayings to their cough drop wrappers. Unfortunately, motivational sayings don't seem to be quite their thing, so mostly they come across as either weird like "Let us hear your battle cry!" or maybe a little bit like a drill sergeant at boot camp yelling "Buckle down! Chin up! March forth! C'mon, what are you, slackers?"

Photo by Megan Morris via Flickr

But I just unwrapped my latest cough drop and it's telling me to "Inspire envy." And can I just tell you all, I am SO OVER that message? I'm not perfect. There are times I'm going to still struggle with envy. Not just wishful thinking, but that feeling that worms its way into the heart and says "You would be happier if..." (Currently I'm envying people who live within walking distance of the public library, which I will freely admit is probably an odd thing to envy but it is 100% true.)

But I'm over the message that if I am more, it means that someone else is less. (And, of course, the idea that I am less if someone else is more.)

I'm over the message that the things I do should be done with the end goal of making others wish they were me.

I'm over the idea that envy is a good thing. I'm at my least happy when I give in to the temptation to envy someone else. And while we all are responsible for our own reactions, I don't want my goal to be to create that feeling in someone else.

I'm over the idea that we need to march through life with our measuring sticks, always comparing, always placing rankings on ourselves, our families, all those with whom we come in contact. That somehow accumulation of stuff, or looks, or a million blog hits a day makes a person better, someone we should envy. Sure, maybe the people at Halls really mean they want people to envy my sparkling personality, but I'd rather people just enjoyed it. (I'm not sure my personality can be said to sparkle, but if it does, please don't envy it, just call me up for coffee instead because I'd a million times rather get to know you than have you envy me.)

My blog might stay tiny. I might never write a published book, let alone a best seller. But if I do? I don't want to inspire envy. It's the opposite of everything that I want to inspire.

I want to inspire dreams. For every person who's secretly wished they could do something, I want to inspire them to try. To find their own unique voice in the world and sing it out with all their might.

I want to inspire hope. For every person stumbling through the world in darkness, every person who feels alone, I want to say "Me too, but there's a light and I'll walk towards it with you."

I want to inspire action. I'm not an activist of any sort, and I know that there are a million things I could be doing to make the world a better place in some tiny way. I want to learn how to find those ways and I want to inspire others to find them too.

I want to inspire kindness. Because in a world of sharp divides, where we are told we are either the enviable or the one who should envy, we need kindness to wear away the sharp edges, to remind us to live in love towards every person, every day.

I'd be honored to hear that I inspired someone to make a change. But not towards envy. Sorry, cough drop people, but that's one inspiration that would leave me speechless.

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot. Proverbs 14:30 (ESV)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The measure of a mother



Photo by Jasmic via Flickr

He walked home from the bus stop on a day when the wind chill was sliding down into negative numbers. Minus nine, to be exact, which sounds cold until I compare it to that day a month or so ago when we hit minus fifty and school was actually cancelled! There’s a little corner of my brain that whispers guilt into my mind ‘a good mother would go pick him up at the bus stop.’ Never mind that he’s nine years old and the bus stop is just a three minute walk around the corner, or that the car would probably only warm up enough to save him a few degrees of wind chill. There’s still that picture in my mind of what a ‘good mother’ is and what she would do.



It’s an occupational hazard of my job, working from home on the computer all day, that I have lots of opportunity to browse the internet. And all over the internet there are parents who are Doing It Right. Good mothers who do amazing things with food, with crafts, with learning, with home decorating, with vacation planning, with clothing their children, with discipline, and with teaching valuable life lessons. I want to be those mothers. I want to be each and every one of those mothers, all at the same time. I want to pose my whimsically dressed children artfully by large stacks of wood that they have chopped themselves at our quaint little home in the mountains where we raise heirloom breeds of animals and vegetables which they sell to support orphans in Ghana. (True story, once when I was babysitting a three year old he slipped out onto the screened porch, picked up an axe and chopped holes in the window screens. I should probably never let my children near an axe.)

It’s taken me just about twelve years to realize that I’m never going to be any of those mothers. (I’ve heard subversive rumblings lately that even those mothers are not always Those mothers.) I live in an average home in a cookie-cutter subdivision without a mountain in sight, my children prefer athletic pants and the same two t-shirts over anything that might be termed ‘whimsical’, and the only plants I’ve been able to grow with any sort of reliability are tomatoes so in that fantasy picture apparently we are subsisting on tomato sandwiches.

But I think that I’m finally starting to come to terms with my lack of perfection. I’m learning that instead of listing the ways in which I fail to be a good mother by someone else’s standards, I need to recognize the ways in which I’m a good mother by my standards.

  1. I let my children take the cushions off the couches and build forts with them. Frequently. Even when it means I don’t have a place to sit. There’s a lot of spontaneity in our home and by spontaneity I mean mess and a bit of chaos, and that’s just who we are. No, it’s not all peaceful and quiet with sunlight streaming over polished wood floors, it’s OUR home. And it will be the place that holds my children’s memories forever.
  2. I apologize a lot. True, on my knees by their bed at night, holding their attention with my eyes, honest “I’m sorry” apologies. For yelling, for not listening, for telling them I wasn’t exactly having a bundle of fun being around them either, for eating their favorite candy bar out of their Halloween stash. So many apologies. Each one a chance for all of us to learn how to do better.
  3. I tell them that I love them on a daily basis. Even when they don’t always (ever) say it back.
  4. My parenting grows and changes. I don’t just dismiss everything I read and hear as something I could never do; if it matters enough to me I try adapting it to our family. Sometimes this is successful beyond my expectations, and sometimes it’s not. And I’m learning that if it doesn’t work it isn’t because I’m a failure, it’s because I am myself, parenting my own children with their unique combination of gifts and quirks. So I try, and I learn and I fail and I grow and our family takes on that character that is uniquely us, beautiful in our own way.  
  5. I share my hopes and dreams with my children. When I lost my bookkeeping job a few months ago I decided to finally pursue my dream of being a writer. Truthfully? It felt awkward telling the boys. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to the idea of ‘mom’s not going to be making any money for a long time.’ But the payoff is that I got to see some really amazing reactions from them, not the least of which has been watching the nine year old suddenly start writing book after book of his own in what I have convinced myself is an attempt to be like me because he loves me.
  6. I’ve stuck it out in the rough times. Post-partum OCD. Parenting during tax seasons and 60 hour work weeks (once with a brand new six week old). Adjusting to life in a new state. Depression. I’m showing my children what it means to navigate as a broken person in a broken world. I hope that I’m showing them what it means to let God’s strength show through our weakness.

I made my son hot chocolate while I waited for the bus to come. A year ago I might have told myself that a good mother wouldn’t give him all that dairy and sugar, that she’d have carrot sticks and hummus waiting instead. And then I’d feel guilty that my children don’t eat carrot sticks and hummus (or carrot sticks and anything, for that matter). Today I just smiled as I made it, stirring it slowly as it heated. Because in a messy, cold, imperfect world, sometimes a cup of hot chocolate is what he wants.

Note: For more posts on Parenting and Imperfection, head over to Beth Woolsey's blog "Five Kids is a Lot of Kids".  I'm thrilled to have gotten to take part in her writing contest and look forward to reading more entries. Plus, she's the perfect combination of laugh out loud funny and thoughtful inspiration, so you should read her whole blog.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wild rides and reading glasses


Photo by Jenn Vargas via Flickr
I'm not quite sure how this happened. Oh, I know the science about everything aging and everything tending towards entropy and decay, but really, wasn't I going to stay young forever? It's strange how in your teens, your twenties and even still your thirties it SEEMS as if you will be young forever. Mid-life is that thing you look around and see other people doing, but somehow it is a distant speck on your own horizon, something to be staved off with healthy living and plenty of sleep.

And then one day you wake up and realize "This is it. I am officially on the downhill slide to fifty." You reach for your reading glasses to study the restaurant menu and think about how just a year ago you sat at dinner with your bosses and their wives and how they all pulled out their reading glasses at the same moment and chuckled together while you and your husband smiled at how funny the fifty-year-olds were. But here you are a year later, member of the reading glasses tribe, trying to figure out how to adjust to life with them, certain you are never going to see anything clearly again. (Not that it's a bad thing. You can still pretend you're young if you can't see the grey hairs and wrinkles, right?)

It is sometimes easy to say "Well, this is it. My life is over. I have nothing to offer these young whipper-snappers so hand me my cane and get off my lawn." It's tempting to think that what we've experienced so far is the sum of all we are and all we ever will be. And if you didn't get to do it all yet? The novel unwritten, the poems unpublished, the friendships not grown strong and sweet with wine in the garden on a summer evening or coffee by the fire in the wintertime? All of those trips not taken and the knowledge not learned? It's sad to think that none of that may ever happen.

And yet...

James Michner published his first book when he was 40.

Toni Morrison was 40 and a single mother when she published The Bluest Eye.

Alex Haley published Roots, his first novel, when he was 55.

Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when The Secret Life of Bees was published.

Laura Ingalls Wilder? 65 years old when the first Little House book was published.

Mary Delany began creating the botanical collages for which she is most well known when she was 72, going on to make over 1,000 of them.

Grandma Moses was 76 when she began painting.

Dr. Seuss was in his forties when he began successfully writing children's books.

Julia Child didn't enter cooking school until age 36. (She was a spy before that. Really.)

Morgan Freeman's first major Hollywood role came when he was 52.

Rodney Dangerfield was in his forties when he began his comedy career (after being unsuccessful and quitting in his twenties).

Harland Sanders (that's the Colonel, ya'll) started cooking chicken at age 40 and didn't sell his first franchise until he was 65.

And the list could go on, not only with those who started later, but with those who struggled and tried and failed and tried again, or who didn't begin to reach their full potential until the years spun past forty and on into the later decades.


I think we forget that sometimes when we are surrounded with images of the young, the fresh-faced and successful. We get used to the 'over the hill' jokes and the black balloons at forty and we let the culture subtly tell us that this is it, maybe it's all over until you hit those retirement years and can hang out on your sailboat. But the in-between? It's a slow downhill plod to 65.

But what if it isn't? What if we went over the hill only it wasn't a hill but just the downward swoop of the roller-coaster and it's all just one grand and wild ride that's taking us up and down and sideways and sometimes a little bit shaken up but always, always moving forward? And what if we sat up in our seats, throwing our hands in the air, laughing into the wind rushing by and enjoyed the ride?

Let's don those reading glasses with pride as we open our books and read into the next chapters of our life, learning, growing, doing, and becoming...always, always becoming until our eyes close on that very last day. Because this is what life is, every moment of it; one long ride of becoming, one long learning, one long growing. And those decade markers? They're just the waypoints to mark our journey, never the end of the ride.

Photo by Dave Campbell via Flickr