A Homeschool Mom's Thoughts On Back To School, Or The Struggle Is Real

First of all, let’s clear some myths up. Yes, people call us homeschoolers “weird.” We prefer “uniquely amazing educational travelers,” but let’s not argue semantics. Unless we can count that as a debate class credit.

 

The next most commonly-expressed concern is probably how unsocialized our kids might be. Yeah, well, that’s why 1. We blessed them with siblings and 2. We moms have to work 18 side hustles in order to pay for the 84 extracurricular clubs and activities we put them in. And then the entire family unit whines that we don’t spend enough time at home. The struggle is real, and we’ll assign a writing assignment about it to make it *actually* real.

 

We get the misconceptions, the myths, the muttered comments by cashiers when we are shopping with obviously school-aged humans during obviously school-related hours. We get that some people think we flutter around to parks and zoos and Starbucks, taking advantage of off-peak hours. Ok, that part’s true. But here’s the thing nobody talks about: Homeschoolers miss out on a lot of typical “school” milestones. Our kids don’t get an awards program, unless you count them standing in the living room with a piece of printer paper that Mom crayoned a gold star onto and being applauded by grandparents who are Skyping in. They don’t get homecoming or prom (no, those homeschool dances with the dress code that requires girls to not show .000018th of a square centimeter of flesh do not count, people) or state championship games or detention. Wait. Let’s institute that last one, STAT. But the biggest thing our kids miss out on, the golden snitch (everybody knows homeschoolers are not allowed to read Harry Potter, so they’ll have to override Safe-Search on that one), the Coveted Social Media Moment of the season is the Back To School Day. We homeschool parents scroll through our Facebook feeds marveling at the cuteness of plaid skirt uniforms and freshly-cut hair and ginormous backpacks and Instagram-worthy lunchbox feasts. We sigh. We may imagine we identify more with the parents who mourn when the kids return to school or the moms who break out the bubbly and sob with deep delight, but we don’t know either feeling, really.

 

Because when we send our kids back to school, there’s just one little correction: There’s no “to.” Unless it’s TO our dining room table. Or a blanket fort. Or a bike ride when Mom/Teacher/Principal/School Nurse/Guidance Counselor Has. Had. It.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve been lucky enough to homeschool my kiddos all the way through, with a generous dose of online classes, co-ops, and friend groups. I know it’s a gift, and I love it. I wept openly when I realized that my oldest had successfully made it into college despite all my mistakes, imagined or not. But I also don’t want to teach anyone to read for awhile. Like, ever. Or have them repeat the times tables back to me. Or help them line up their decimal points. It’s not harder or easier than traditional schooling. It’s just a different kind of harder and easier.

 

So, if you send your kids off to school, I wish you a perfect Back To School moment and a wonderful year. And if you send your kids to their rooms to school, I wish you the same. Come October, the latter of you will be glad you don’t have to help the kids load up those ginormous backpacks and pack up those blasted bento boxes. Whatever your educational journey, we’re all in it together, and we’re all just trying to get these kids to retain 9/5 of what we teach them. Which is why I don’t teach math. Stupid fractions.

 

Happy Back to School. May your year be more full of lightbulb times than meltdown moments, but two things are for certain: It will contain both, and you will make it. Maybe with less hair and more pizza nights, but you’ll get there. We all will.

(Pro Tip: We decided to take the whole "back to school" thing and flip it on its head, so each year we take our own homeschool version. Here are some recent examples....)

 

 Entitled, "When Big Brother Flies the Coop"

Entitled, "When Big Brother Flies the Coop"

 Homeschool Myths: The Struggle Is Real

Homeschool Myths: The Struggle Is Real

The Summer Missions Trip

It was before the days of essentially being strip-searched before your flight. It was even before the days of the climate-controlled, enclosed ramp to the airplane. We braved the hot, windswept tarmac and climbed the questionably-secure metal steps to board the flight which would carry us to our life-changing adventure.

 

The year was 1986, and I was an eighth-grade student in a group of church friends headed to a small island country in the Caribbean. Armed with modest, floor-length skirts, a flannelgraph or three, and polish-free toe nails (the only cultural knowledge I had about our destination was that toe nail polish signaled you were a woman of the night, and though I didn’t even fully understand what that meant, I knew it was nothing a good Christian girl should be), we spent a week taking in fantastically beautiful beach views, bleaching our drinking water, and teaching local kids about Jesus.

 

I came home with a new appreciation for paved roads and ice cubes and promptly entered my ninth grade year thinking about cheerleading tryouts, making the honor roll, and not at all about my life-changing experience.

 

Years later, my husband and I moved our family to the country of Guatemala to lead missions teams.

 

Most people who came on teams were sincere-hearted, wonderful folks who wanted to help the world.

 

Most people who came on teams were kind and good and hard workers.

 

Most people who came on teams brought our family gifts and loved us well.

 

But during our four years there and after hearing the stories of missionaries who had spent decades welcoming U.S. Christians in, summer after summer, some common and worrisome themes began to arise. So if you or yours are considering a summer missions trip, I’d like to offer some boots-on-the-ground truths.

 

First, let’s be honest. Many of us send our church teens on a summer missions trip hoping that it will rock their worlds or at least get them to look up from Snapchat. Don’t waste your time. Your teen will come home with photos (and Snapchats) of precious children, with stories of how terrible the poverty is there, with cheap souvenirs which will end up buried in a closet somewhere, and then….he or she will go back to life, mostly unchanged. It doesn’t mean your kid has failed or you have failed or the $3,000 you spent on the trip was a complete waste. Just mostly a waste. But seriously. It means that your child is a teenager, and one week in another country is not enough to change a lifetime of culture and family and habits. My own children spent four of their most formative years living in a developing country, and while that length of time and breadth of experience did shape them profoundly, they are still normal teens with normal struggles. Although, they don’t use Snapchat, so I might be able to give Guatemala some credit for that small victory.

 

If you’re going on a trip hoping it will change your OWN life, don’t.  It is an insult to the beautiful people who live in that country and work there and have real-life relationships. The indigenous people you are serving are not stupid. They know how it works. They know that North Americans show up for five days, throw money and “superior” skills at the problem, get a good feeling and, for the most part, walk away. These people you are helping are just trying, like most of us, to get through the day, to have enough food, to raise their kids, and so of course they will take your help and say what you want them to say. But they are not fooled. They know exactly how it works.

 

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are friends who come, year after year, to foreign countries. Who build actual relationships and keep in touch when they leave. Who give money and real support to the missionaries and aid workers on the ground. Who provide respite and care for them. Who invest in the country and its people...without trying to take over, as we Americans are so wont to do. But the reason they are the exception is that they are the listeners: They talk less and listen more. They come in with open hearts and no agenda, except to find out what the real problems are, not the imagined ones. They come in with open hands and no opinions on issues that they have zero knowledge of. They listen to the missionaries, the local business people, the aid workers. They are not there for themselves, but for the people they came to serve.

 

And really, when you think about it, that is something we all can do, right now, in any country or city where we work. We don’t know the intricacies of a problem unless we are the legitimate experts in that field. We all have more to learn and less to say. And while we’re learning and listening, we can humble ourselves to work under the instructions of those who know what they’re doing, those who have put in the time and tears.

 

In the meantime, send your kid on that missions trip if you want. Or consider giving that same money to a missionary, NGO, or local church in that same country. I guarantee your $3,000 will be multiplied and used over and over again in wiser ways than we, here in our comfy American homes, can conceive of. And you won’t even get a crappy souvenir you have to pretend to like, so it’s a total win. Just make sure if you or your teen DO go on a trip, it is with a posture of willingness: Being willing to work in a way that is less about the feel-good for us and more about how it truly helps those on the receiving end.

 

Let’s do better. We can and we have to. This breaking world needs us to be loving, but love and wisdom can walk together.  

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Top Ten Reasons We Know The (Home)School Year Is Almost Over Already

 

10. Our once organized-by-subject bookshelves bear no resemblance to their former selves. Our new filing system is much more technical. We like to call it, “Let’s Hope We Can Find The Spelling Book Today.”
9. We do not dare plumb the dark, murky depths of our backpacks. And let the record show that, as homeschoolers, we only use them once a week, so we have less than zero excuses. But hey, in a pinch, we could conduct a science experiment out of them.
8. Having clean socks every day is overrated. I’m not naming names.
7. September looks like this: Everyone is up, dressed, teeth brushed and chores finished by 8:30. May looks like this: Everyone is up. Clothing? Eh. Let’s call it “Pajama Day.” And hey. It’s 8:30. Ish.
6. There are no longer any functioning pencils in the house. Let’s just look at it as a math problem: 1 pencil with lead plus 1 pencil with an eraser equals 1 complete pencil. Algebra complete.
5. Freshly baked, Paleo, warm-out-of-the-oven muffins? Those are soooo last fall. I hear “Choose Your Own Breakfast Adventure” is what all the kids are doing these days.
4. “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.” Someone once said those were the only subjects that really matter. Please tell me that “someone” was right. Please???
3. We have calculated all of the snow days that we haven’t taken as homeschoolers, and using a very specific, very technical formula, we have come to the conclusion that our school year should be finished about…..NOW.
2. Observing your own paper cut under the microscope counts as a science lab.
1. We’re laughing a lot more than we did in September. And we’re more relaxed. And that’s a good thing. And somehow….we still might finish that science book, and that math book, and that grammar book. And we’re still going to love each other at the end of it. So I’d call School Year 2017-2018 a success in my book. If only I could find it.

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On Concerts. And Facebook Posts.

If, like me, you grew up in the church culture of the 80s and 90s, it’s likely that you experienced the phenomenon of a CCM Concert. For those of us who grew up in the great state of Florida, the sparkling diamond in the Christian Concert Crown was the much-hyped “Night of Joy,” held each year at Walt Disney World. It was ostensibly an evening where youth groups from all over the state would ride questionably-safe school buses in and would enjoy any number of popular Christian bands who were performing all throughout the amusement park that night. But let’s be real: The true reason my friends and I were there was 1. To see what cute guys were in attendance, and bonus! Their presence must mean they were Christians, so that automatically meant they were dating material, and 2. To ride a few Disney rides and, pretending we were scared, scream until we lost our voices, which in reality was just a ploy to 3. See what cute guys were in attendance, and bonus! They’d notice us by our adorable screams.

 

We had, of course, carefully chosen just the right pair of acid-washed, high-waisted shorts to pair with our oversized, tucked-in-and-tightly-belted tees and perfectly coordinated with our scrunchie. Now, everyone knew you wore the scrunchie around your wrist so as not to mess up your highly-hairsprayed spiral permed hairdo, at least until the Florida humidity of approximately 8,000 % melted said hairspray, and then the scrunchie was ready to perform its God-intended purpose. But not until the cute guys had seen your hair in all its crunchy, Aussie-scented glory.

 

I have fond memories of those sweaty, Diet-Coke-fueled concerts. They were innocent and fun and we all rode the sticky bus seats home with tired feet and worship-depleted vocal chords. But I recently read a Facebook post about this Night of Joy event and found out that Disney World was cancelling the event after 34 years. The facts (which were not fully explained on Facebook….gasp!) are that a nearby amusement park has its own very popular, competitive worship night, and that Disney World, which has expanded exponentially in the past three decades, still hosts Christian groups for concerts in its other venues and in other ways. These details were lost on the Facebook post commenters, however, who emphatically stated that the cancellation of Night of Joy meant, and I am not joking, that Christians were being persecuted.

 

Since we Christians love to invoke the scripture about “speaking the truth in love,” I am going to lovingly lay down some truth:

 

We have no idea what persecution means.

 

We could ask the families of the men ISIS lined up on the beach; the men who, simply because they were Christians, had their heads sliced off of their bodies as the seas behind them turned bloody.

 

We could ask Abraham Ben Moses, who has been imprisoned in Indonesia for talking about his faith to a taxi driver. And whose wife left him for this action of his.

 

We could ask Twen Theodros, imprisoned since 2004. She took beatings on behalf of a fellow prisoner who was too weak to survive them, and she has spent these 14 years in prison simply because she attended church and worshiped her God.

 

We could ask the men who, instead of looking under every headline for imagined persecution, night after night, walk into the grittiest, nastiest clubs in the darkest parts of town. Who risk their lives posing as men who want to buy young girls for sex. Who offer to do despicable things to those girls and then, risking their own safety, rescue those girls, quite literally saving lives. Who undertake these dangers over and over again because they believe in the holy words that teach us that we are all equal, that there is no slave nor free, no male nor female.

 

If we use the word “Christian” to describe ourselves, then we need to use other words just as intentionally. The word “persecution” is one we cannot toss about. We can humbly and carefully educate ourselves on what it means, and then do something to help those who know exactly what it means.

 

In the meantime, if you live in Florida, I’m sorry you won’t get to experience the fun that is Night of Joy. I’d humbly suggest that you take the money you would have spent on that night and donate it to a family whose father or sister or mother or daughter or brother has been arrested. Someone who is experiencing persecution. Someone who knows.

 

If Night of Joy were still a thing, I’d probably take my kids. Or better yet, send them without me. In the wisdom that comes with old age, I’ve learned the important things in life: That rollercoasters and over-40 equilibrium don’t line up. That the ozone doesn’t appreciate my former hairspray addiction. And that those cute boys are all grown up and having knee replacement surgeries. But thanks for the memories, Night of Joy. At least the ones I still can remember.

 

(For more information on these stories and more, see the websites for Voice of the Martyrs and The Exodus Road).

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The Longest Game

It’s hard being The Good Kid in the family.

 

My oldest brother was the firstborn but, let’s be honest, I acted more like the textbook first-born kid. He had (and still does) charm in an unfair abundance, the knack of knowing exactly how to lighten the mood with a dry joke, and the good looks that made it all supremely impossible to compete with him. Except when it came to not getting in trouble. I gold-medaled in that category for all of our childhood, even when my youngest brother came along and tried to dethrone me. I’d give him a solid silver for effort, though.

 

Part of being the good kid meant calling my older brother (let’s call him Travis. Since it’s his name and all.) on his slip-ups. I was so annoying that I annoyed myself. However, there were random off days when I’d let things slide. One of my favorite memories of this was when we’d wait at the bus stop each morning and all of the other kids would be talking about the previous night’s episode of “The Cosby Show” (this was in the innocent days when we never knew what was really happening with Dr. Huxtable, so be gentle, people). Travis would “hmmm” and “oh yeah” along and nod and laugh with his friends’ comments, recalling the favorite moments of the sitcom, and inserting his opinions here and there. Then the bus would arrive, and we’d all swarm on in the mad race for the back seats.

 

There was only one problem: We didn’t own a TV.

 

I wasn’t about to call my brother on his bus stop performance because 1. I was impressed with his dramatic abilities even then and 2. I did not want the other kids to know how very, very deprived we were. I mean, no TV?!?! It was the 80s! Who would abuse their kids in such a way!

 

It wasn’t until my baby brother began walking and talking and asking questions that none of us knew the answers to (the kid was a certifiable genius) that my parents finally broke and bought a TV at a neighborhood garage sale. Finally, we could adjust the rabbit ear antenna and, if we squinted just right, could make out the shadows of the sitcom on the snowy, grainy screen. It was Utopia.

 

In the ridiculously long time it usually takes for these things to happen, it wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I appreciated my parents depriving us all those years. It forced us to be BORED, a word no one knows anymore. It forced us to read, all the time, so much so that my mom would make me put my book down and “just stop reading” for awhile. It forced us to conscript neighborhood kids into watching us put on elaborate dramatic backyard productions with props and sets and not really a working plot, and pyrotechnics (those lasted approximately .0003 seconds, until my dad put a stop to them). It forced us to think. To be still. To not have constant digital input. It was probably the best parenting decision they ever made.

 

For all of the times we (by we, I mean Travis, of course) argued with them about letting us have a TV LIKE EVERYONE ELSE DID, for all of the times we felt unlucky and peered through imaginary windows into other living rooms where other, cooler families gathered closely around glowing screens WITH COLOR IMAGES, my parents did not budge. It was like they could see something we couldn’t, something called an end game, and what it has taught me is this:

 

Parenting is the longest game.

 

We make choices for our kids sometimes based upon research and reflection and sometimes based solely upon our gut instincts. Trust those choices.

 

We sacrifice the good feeling of our kids liking us all the time. We sacrifice an hour of their fuming or being disappointed for the hope that their characters will eventually be the better for it. Trust those sacrifices.

 

We stand up to their sass and we stand up FOR their protection. We stand with them when they’re hurt and we stand up and draw a hard line when it needs to be drawn. Trust those stands.

 

We give our hearts, we give our advice, we give Yeses and we give Nos. Trust what you give.

 

We do all of these things never knowing how it will turn out. Will they eventually leave home and never look back? Will we have prepared them enough? Will they ever understand how much we love them and why we made those choices? We don’t know, and we may have to wait decades for those answers.

 

If you’re in the midst of the Longest Game today, and your heart is breaking for a kid who struggles with depression, a kid whose choices completely baffle and worry you, a kid whose words pierce your tender feelings over and over again, or a toddler who just plain wears you out, don’t quit. Find others, those ahead in the journey and those behind, those without kids, and talk to them. Ask them questions. Tell them what’s really going on with your kids, not the overly-filtered Instagram story you want them to see. You’ll probably discover that it’s true for them, too. Even if none of you have the answers, you have each other. Don’t sit alone in your hurt, because loneliness multiplies pain.

 

I’m lucky enough to still have my parents around. If you are, too, call them and thank them for being so mean to you when you were a kid. Thank them for never quitting on The Longest Game, even when they wanted to, even when they put up with all of our mistakes: The silly, immature ones, and the big, painful ones that cost them hours of sleep and gave them more pain than we ever understood until now.

 

It’s so much pressure to parent, to “get it right.” We haven’t, and we won’t, not any of us. Let’s trust the love and gut instinct we have for our kids and know that, with others on our team, we can stay in the game, strong and renewed.

 

But I’d highly recommend a TV along the way.

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#Blessed

If you are currently eating something, I’m going to need you to put that down.

 

No, really. Set the peanut butter cup aside. It’ll keep for just one second.

 

When we lived in Guatemala, I bought each week’s fruits and veggies at an open-air market, a place to which said produce had traveled by truck over dirt roads and was now sharing a space with flies, both live and dead iguanas (I jest not), and all manner of flora and fauna.

 

Now. The fruits, especially, were the most delicious things we had ever tasted. In fact, when we moved back to the States and my son ate a banana purchased at the local grocery, he promptly spat it out and declared, “This doesn’t even taste like a banana!” He was not wrong.

 

The only price we had to pay for delicious, perfectly-ripened produce was a little one. Microscopic, in fact. Just a teeny tiny thing called a parasite.

 

We were diligent about bleaching and washing and sanitizing our food and water, but those little boogers were tenacious, so getting sick now and then was simply a part of life we all dealt with. In fact, once a year we had to de-worm our kids with meds, a liquid which I’d naively assumed was reserved for canines. Silly, silly gringa. Whenever we felt the….um….effects of parasites, we would simply drop off a….um….sample at the local laboratory building, get our self-diagnosis confirmed, and then stop off at the pharmacy to choose from an assortment of tinctures and pills. No prescription required. We’d feel better in mere days.

 

The only problem arose when I kept getting re-infected, over and over again, and not getting better. At one point, I even had to fly back to the States for testing, and I still have what will be lifelong health struggles related to that time. But, during the height of my illness and discouragement over it,  I opened my email one morning to find a note in my inbox which basically read this:

 

“Dear Jessica, I am so sorry to hear that you have been sick. I wanted to let you know that, if you had more of the Holy Spirit in your life, this would not be happening. Sincerely, *&!?$”

 

Ahhhh, sooooo...what my intestines were lacking was a filling of the spirit. If only I had known, I could have requested that at the pharmacy.

 

I laugh about that email now, but at the time I was a bit, shall we say, PISSED OFF. And hurt. And bewildered.

 

And the thing is, I feel much the same way today about the conversations happening in our country.  I was recently informed that, because someone’s bank accounts were overflowing this year, it was clear evidence that the blessing of God must be upon the USA.

 

I was additionally informed that we are all #blessed because employment rates are looking pretty good these days. In another conversation, I overheard someone declare that, since they were getting more cash money in their pockets this year, the Lord had favored our land.

 

This is how twisted our thinking has become. If we have the spirit, we won’t have health problems, like I did.  Really? Because I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul was told his thorn in the flesh wasn’t going anywhere. And we all know what a slack-off Christian he was.

 

I’m also no financial planner, but I’m fairly positive Jesus’s 401K was not returning good dividends. And we all know how far from the father he was.

 

I do know every time Jesus mentioned money, it had more to do with ways to share it and how to worry less about it than ways to hoard it and how to obsess over it.

 

The problem is not with saving, investing, being health-conscious. The problem begins when we apply our own lens to what Jesus said, and we all do it. I’m doing it even now. But when we carry our conclusion to its logical end, what does it mean?

 

In my case, it meant that sickness was a result of lacking faith. Does that mean that every sweet mother who died too soon from breast cancer, every tiny baby who never took a breath, every child gunned down by violent hands was any less precious, any less valuable, any more a sinner than anyone else? Who sinned in these cases?

 

In the case of the economy, the argument means that abundance equals blessing. Does that mean that every family toiling in those fields of Guatemala to bring their offerings to market each week is less loved by the divine? That because they struggle and have to feed their babies coffee instead of milk; that because they will never even own a home with running water; that because “saving for college” is a phrase they will never, ever utter...are they less loved, less #blessed? What wrongs did they do that exempted them from prosperity?

 

If one more person utters the phrase “God is good, all the time,” to me after they find a great parking space or get a new shirt, or find a great deal at the store, I will first politely key their car, in Jesus’s name, and then I’ll remember this truth: It’s hard to believe that God is good all the time. I can and must choose to. Every day. Especially on the hard days. I have to believe that the divine does not have a Dark Side. Perhaps you are trying to as well. But God’s goodness has exactly zero to do with prosperity and lack of trouble in this life. In fact, the most faith-abundant people I know generally are the ones with little money and the most struggles. That is where faith shines the greatest, when it comes from those with the least.

 

You can go ahead and pick your snack back up now. And if your 401K is overflowing, great. If your health is stellar, amazing. These are things to be thankful for, to never take for granted, to celebrate, but they are never things by which to measure our faith. That is something I’d rather leave up to Jesus, whose ways of teaching and living flipped the world’s system on its backs.

 

So have a #blessed day. And I may not have enough of the spirit, but I do know one thing: Stay away from those veggies.

 

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The Last Diet You'll Ever Need

It’s late January. Also known as the time by which the New Food Plan, the one that was going to rock our world, cause our skin to glow with an unearthly radiance, and mostly get us into back into those jeans (you know...the ones where we’ve popped that top button back open by 11:42 a.m.) has gone the way of every other diet we’ve ever attempted.

 

It happens every year, after we have relaxed and enjoyed (read: ate) our way through parties and holidays. We resolve that this time, this year, we will get “healthy” (read:skinny).

 

As a former professional dieter, I have decided to save you approximately $840 in cookbooks, $1,125 in special ingredients, and countless hours of frustration, which is valued at infinity dollars. Here are my expert reviews of the top diets:

 

The Low-Fat Diet: This is the one for you if you want your food to taste like….well, nothing. Fat equals flavor, so when you take that out, you are left with chicken that is dry, turkey that is NOT bacon (it’s a sacrilege, is what is is. Truth in love, people), and eggs that are missing the only part of the egg that contains any taste whatsoever. What you get in return is, basically, yogurt. With floaty pieces of things that resemble what once was a fruit. Enjoy this diet for the five days it lasts until you find yourself straight-up gnawing on a stick of real butter, bless your heart.

 

The Low-Carb Diet: I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that all of these diets start out with the word “low.” That’s a clue: It is a reminder of how you will feel once you are a week into them. Anywho. This diet is for you if you’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a case of the gout. Enjoy all of the meat and all of the animal parts. Drink bone broth (maybe it’s just me, but “bone” is not a word that ever gets my taste buds revving). But whatever you do, don’t eat that evil bread. It is the work of Satan put on Earth to destroy you. Of course, all that this restriction means is that you will want bread more than you’ve ever wanted anything in the history of ever. You will dream about it, fantasize about slathering it with all of the butter you cheated on your Low-Fat Diet with, and eventually, you will steal a biscuit right out of the hand of a baby, but only after you’ve successfully alienated your entire family with your grumpy, hangry behavior.

 

The Low-Sugar Diet: Sugar has recently been listed as a huge threat, right above ISIS and just next to nuclear war. It has been credited with causing disease, digestive issues, wrinkles, pimples, and crankiness. Oh yes. And happiness. What would the world be without chocolate and yummy coffee drinks and ice cream? That’s a world I don’t care to know, so I recommend putting this diet right back in the Seventh Circle of Hell where it belongs.

 

The Keto Diet: I recently read an article detailing this particular plan, which is having its moment in the spotlight (better turn down that spotlight, however, because everything you can eat on this diet will melt within moments, since it is comprised entirely of fat). The author  completely lost me when he detailed how he eats an entire stick of butter during the course of his dinner. Unless you are bailing on Diet #1, butter is a condiment, not a main course. Also, I have questions about how, on this plan, vegetables are treated as more of an option: Take them, leave them, wrap them in grease, whatever. So, on second thought, this sounds like the perfect diet for my kids, whose faces register abject terror whenever a veggie sneaks onto their plates. Sign them up. Stat.

 

The Juicing/Liquid Diet: Years ago, I had extensive jaw surgery which meant I had to subsist on liquids for six weeks. Unless you are recovering from a similar thrilling experience, I offer this advice to you: If you have more than five working teeth in your head, use them according to their intended purpose, which is to chew things. Surviving on liquids alone will make you either 1. Feel as if you are on the verge of fainting at any given moment, which is a super-productive way to spend your day, or 2. Ponder the pros and cons of putting lasagna straight-up into your blender.

 

The Low-Calorie Diet: This diet just involves eating less than you expend, which 1,000% of the time evolves into trying to out-exercise your eating. And although math tells us that 2 + 2=4, calorie math after a certain age is basically this: Run an ultra marathon and find that you have burned enough calories to eat one tablespoon of sour cream. Congratulations!


 

The Everything in Moderation Diet: As someone who battled disordered eating for far too many years, I wasted so much time reading and studying every latest and greatest diet. I am convinced that, apart from counseling and therapy, laughter has been my most powerful weapon in this fight for balance. Laughter at the absurdity of it all has helped me calm the ?(*&! down about food. It’s always a journey, a process, but that journey reveals that every diet road will eventually lead us to disappointment and discouragement. The only lasting way to health is to eat all of the food groups, just not all of them in one sitting.

 

So here’s to 2018. May we all be healthy. May we choose strong over skinny, and may we wonder over the flavor and beauty of food more than we worry over it. I’ll raise a stick of butter to that.

 

 

 

 

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There Are Women

 

Last week, my grandmother had heart surgery. It was supposed to be minor, but there is nothing “minor” when 1. It involves one’s heart and 2. The aforementioned heart is 84 years old and the proud owner of a pacemaker whose battery has decided to die. There were a few glitches that made the surgery more difficult than we’d thought, but she is here and she is getting stronger, and she is spending her recuperation time at my home.
She’s an early-morning person (and by early, I mean that she would give the roosters a run for their jobs), and so we have had some sweet (albeit sleepy) conversations over coffee while waiting for the sun to catch up to us overachievers. This time together has reminded me anew that there is a whole breed of women who have overcome betrayal and pain and horrific loss and abuse and have emerged with grace and loveliness. This is not by some crazy chance, but by their vulnerable choices and by open hearts and by the steel-strong love which can say “enough” when it needs to be said.
I am inspired anew. So today, I remember that there are women…
Women whose hands are freckled and bent, wrinkled and worked.
Women whose feet have stood firm on this planet: on the hard ground, cracked with days and months and years of wanting; or on the washed-out waste of too much.
Women who have thrust themselves arm-deep into the learning of living. Of loving. Of losing and giving.
These are the women.
These are the mothers I want for my daughter.
These are the sisters I want for myself.
These are the women whose eyes are full: sparking, tumbling, thick with battle-won wisdom, the kind that only comes from staring strong into the dark sockets of death and despair, of horror and helplessness. The kind that only comes from wading into the waters, not unafraid, but brave in spite of the fear.
These are the women whose tribe I want to join. Not the kind who whisper secrets and stories behind backs. The kind who reach into the fire and pull a sister out.
Some days, I am the woman I want to be. Some days, I am a mess, and I need a sister to be that woman for me. Could we be these mothers and friends and companions? For us and for our daughters…whether they be daughters of our bodies or daughters of our hearts? Could we hold each other’s arms and hearts up? Could we be louder in each other’s ears than the insidious lies wafting all around us and within us?
The truths that we are loved and we are so very needed. The truth that the world would be strangely off-kilter without each one of us taking up our part, or maybe passing it on to another when we are exhausted and it becomes too much.
It’s about realizing that we are all on the human team, that we are braver and better and brighter in our light when we battle together, instead of against each other.
So today, every day, I applaud and salute you, fellow fire-reachers, fellow generation-teachers, fellow strong and tired and overwhelmed and yet-still-giving women. I’m proud to be in your Tribe.

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The Man in the Santa Hat

  It’s a time-honored tradition of parenting: Attending The Christmas Program. Because in December, when our schedules are already booked so full that a glimpse of the long lines at Target is enough to give us a Yuletide panic attack, let’s put another event on the calendar! Let’s all gather together in a stuffy auditorium and watch kids we don’t know warble their way through songs and remember every third line while we prop our eyelids open with coffee stirrers. Because we are so stopping at Starbucks before the show. Mama has her limits.

 

   Last weekend was one such event, where parents and grandparents filed into theatre seats and settled in for a twelve hour performance of Oliver Twist.  Oh, I jest. I’m pretty sure it hovered around the 9 and ½ hour mark: A downright Cliff Notes version of the classic. My daughter had never performed in a drama before and was understandably nervous, so of course I waved like an idiot and signed, “I love you” when we made eye contact and generally over-Mommed like usual. I do want her to have consistency in her life, after all. At some point, I glanced over at my husband, because I enjoy watching people watching things more than I enjoy the actual watching of things (if you understood that sentence at all, kudos to you) and my brain vaguely registered the fact that he was sporting a cheap polyester Santa hat, a cap whose origin was unknown to me.

 

   Sometime after the show (which, to be fair, was performed by students with actual talent and ended up being enjoyable), we were standing around the lobby in the also time-honored tradition of parenting: Waiting around for your kids so that you can taxi them home. My husband off-handedly mentioned that he’d worn that Santa hat so that our daughter would not be anxious in her stage debut. So that she would be able to spot him easily and watch his smiles and encouraging nods to her. And she did. And her bubbly chatter and euphoric smile after the show confirmed that what he had done had worked. There was no fear, no stage fright; just a reassurance that her people were there cheering her on and embarrassing her, of course, since we would not want the time-honored parenting tradition trifecta to be incomplete.

 

   Later that night, when wiping off the kitchen counters for the eleventy-hundredth time of the day, I thought about that man in the Santa hat, realizing what a gift he had given a nervous teenage girl. He did it without a thought for how a silly one-dollar hat made him look in a nice theatre full of church-dressed folks.

 

   I don’t often write about marriage because, when I was in dark times in my own, my heart would shatter when I read pithy essays about how wonderful someone’s husband was or how deliriously in love the two of them were, how they were in complete sync and were the best of friends and had the cute Olan Mills photos to prove it (For you youngsters, we used to take pictures indoors. In actual studios. With nary a chalkboard or Mason-jar candle in sight. They were desperate, hairspray-filled times). I would wonder what was wrong with me. Surely no one else in the history of marriage-dom had ever gone down the painful roads I was travelling. Why did everyone else have it all figured out? Why was my marriage so very hard?

 

   There’s a gift in being in your mid-ish-forties, though. It’s not that you learn how to take better family portraits. It’s an unsexy word called perspective, but it changes everything, because now I realize that the romantic ideals I wanted in my twenties, like a proposal in front of the Eiffel Tower (well, ok, I still wouldn’t turn that down) are not the things I want anymore.

 

Marriage is about being on the same team, even if you have to fight like hell to get there.

 

Marriage is about forgiveness: For the big, painful things and the everyday annoyances.

 

Marriage is about consistency: Knowing that you have a partner to manage life with. Being angry with them when they let you down and forget the errands you asked them to run, and then erasing the score and moving forward, knowing that you will need that same grace shown to you again and again.

 

Marriage is about parenting, for many of us: It’s about late-night conversations with a child who needs to talk, even when you and your spouse are both beyond exhausted, because you desperately want those kids to do it better than you did.

 

Marriage is about acceptance: Life will bring devastating pain. People will get sick. There will be loss and disillusionment. So you accept what the truth really is, and you grieve and you get back up and you take turns being the strong one.

 

Marriage is about getting help when you need it: If you are in the place I once was….if you feel alone in your hurt and sadness, you are not. There is not a relationship on the planet that has ever lived up to its partners’ expectations for more than 5 minutes. There is healing in talking to a trusted friend, a counselor. And don’t stop with just one advisor. I have received the most ridiculous marriage advice from well-intentioned pastors and teachers, and there is no guilt in letting the wind blow that chaff away and going elsewhere to get a second opinion.

 

Marriage is sometimes about staying and sometimes about leaving. No one else can answer that question but you and the still small voice within you. There is no shame in either choice, because you must be able to say, in the end, that it is well with your soul.

 

   Today, for me, marriage is about remembering again why I married that man in the Santa hat: Not for the adventure, although there has been plenty, and not always of the fun variety. Not for the love story, because I would rewrite some of our chapters if I could. Not for the companionship, because no one human can erase the deep loneliness that rises to the surface in each of us. Marriage is for the family and the life we have created, in whatever shape that takes on, in whatever twists I know will be on our travels. It is for the promise that there will be roads ahead. It is for the knowing that there is a man in a Santa hat who will love his kids enough to look like a crazy person in a theater, smiling and waving and reminding them that they are never alone in this scary world. It won’t be perfect, and I have no guarantees that it will even be forever: Life and loss have taught me that hard lesson already. But it’s about finding and holding the small moments...the Santa hat moments….that, one by one, make up a life and a love and a family, on the days that we like each other and the days that we need a little space. It’s no script a movie will ever be made of, but it’s a truer love story than any screen could tell.




 

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My Realistic Christmas Letter

 I’d like to be one of those people who sends out family pictures at the holidays. You know the photos: Every member of the tribe has used actual deodorant, has allowed a hairbrush to float about the general vicinity of his or her scalp, has donned clean-enough clothing and will stand still long enough to smile or at least to crack open his or her lips and show off that grill, also known as braces. Or more accurately known as the reason they’re getting fewer Christmas gifts this year.

 

    I’ve been a mom for 19 years now and I’ve recently used a complicated mathematical formula by which I add 56, divide by good intentions, carry the pets, cross multiply by exhaustion and end up with the sum of my average: Over those 19 years I’ve sent out exactly one Christmas letter. Yay underachieving!  I’ve accepted the fact that I’m just not ever going to be a family Christmas card person. But recently I’ve wondered, if I did break my impressive non-communicatory streak, what would my Realistic Christmas Letter look like? One that wasn’t perfect and polished? One that told the actual story of a year? Now, don’t get me wrong…I love reading people’s years in review. It brings me holiday cheer and goodwill toward all to know that they are doing well. But I think my letter would look a little more like this:

 

Dear Friends and Family,

 

    Let’s be honest. I’m never going to mail this out because just driving by the Post Office is enough to make me ponder the pros and cons of working Valium into my life. I’m leaning in heavily toward Yes about now. I mean, I keep meaning to go to the pre-paid postage website and sign up for the Magical Never Go To The Post Office Again subscription I’ve heard tales of, but I’ve been a little busy.

 

    Busy doing what, you ask? Well, settle in and I’ll tell you. Maybe, in fact, your year looked just a little bit like mine…..

 

    The topper to my list this year would be Momming. I have achieved the Eagle Scout-level patch of “You are raising and feeding three teenagers” this year. At some point along the childrearing journey,  I had read in a parenting book, oh blessed work of fiction that it was, that parenting big kids would be less tiring than parenting toddlers. To that author, I have my own well-thought-out, calmly-composed literary criticism to offer and it is thus: Liar, liar, your pants had better be on fire or I will at least set your book ablaze in an alternative yule log ceremony of my own. Moms. If you got nothing done this year but make it through with your sanity more or less intact and with one or maybe 3/4 of your kids’ names remembered, and with those kids still mostly loving you? On every third Thursday? That’s a win, friends. Write it down. Raise yourself a glass of whatever. You hero, you!

 

    This year brought a new challenge to my parenting plans, as I worked full-time outside of the home for the first time in awhile. Necessity is the mother of getting a job, or whatever it is that they say. Working mamas. Seriously. I have questions. How have you done it? WHY do your people still expect crazy generous things like dinner each night? When do you sleep? Is coffee offered in a portable IV bag? Are washed and folded and put away clothes really a “thing” that people do? I’d like to salute you, but I’m fearful that I’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome from the work hours I’ve spent on my computer and the googling of “is there a silent monastery retreat available in my area?”  Or any area? I’m totally saluting you in spirit, though.

 

    This year I’ve stared down the tunnel of a new journey I didn’t want to take: That of watching people I love grow older and step into the health challenges that this stage of life brings. For those of you who are caretakers to parents and grandparents and other loved ones: May your new year bring new moments of respite and rest and may your heart know the tricky balance of acceptance and grieving. It’s harder than they told us it would be, isn’t it?

 

    There’s not time or caffeine enough to list in detail all of the other events that comprise a year: Celebrations. Loss. New friendships. Broken hearts. Work stress, for ourselves and for our extended family. Trying to do right by others in time and resources. Household maintenance. Animal maintenance. Political breakdowns. Nights full of worry instead of sleep. Daylight Saving Time.

 

    But throughout the 365-give-or-take-one-weirdly-tacked-on-day time span, there’s a thread that pulls through, that ties us to each other, that holds us all as one: Love. Whether our year has been measured more with Love’s loss than gain this time around or whether our year has overflowed with the joy of connection, Love’s presence is always the constant soundtrack humming underneath our lives.

 

    No matter what did or didn’t occur this year, what dreams were put to bed for good, what granted wishes surprised us with their appearance, what hearts opened or closed to us, we can still hold to that thread of Love, whether it feels wispy and inconsequential in its weight or heavy and thick with substance.

 

    Here’s to your year. As you close the door on the passing months, may you open your heart to the possibilities waiting in the moments to come.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand

Six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand

Moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand

Six hundred minutes

How do you measure – measure a year?

In daylights – in sunsets

In midnights – in cups of coffee

In inches – in miles

In laughter – in strife

In – five hundred twenty-five thousand

Six hundred minutes

How do you measure

A year in the life

How about love?

How about love?

How about love?

Measure in love.” (“Seasons of Love,” Jonathan Martin, “Rent,” 2005)

 

 

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It's Beginning To Sound A Lot Like Terrible Christmas Songs

I have a sibling who is quite a bit younger than I am. There’s enough age difference that, upon my parents’ announcement of his existence, all of their friends gave them the wink-wink-elbow-poke-to-the-ribs remarks of, “Ohhhh hey, a little surprise there, huh?” and then my parents had to sigh and politely explain that no, this was not the case and hey thanks for wanting to explain how these babies happen and let us also politely clothesline you on your way out the door. Anyway. After the explaining and the looking for new friends, we settled into life with a baby. My older brother Travis and I were thrilled. Let’s be honest. I was more thrilled than he was since I’d maintained my status as only girl, thereby securing for all eternity, or at least for all childhood, my rights to my own bedroom, leaving big brother with a new roomie, one who cried at regular late-night intervals and stunk up the space with his lack of potty training skills. I still don’t feel a bit bad about my glee.

 

Somewhere along the road, however, Travis and I realized that this younger brother journey had a few potholes. We navigated the new adventures like being called upon to babysit, teaching the kid everything he needed to know, giving him our wise guidance, and, oh yes: Watching our parents turn into unrecognizable creatures who suddenly threw things like rules and standards and discipline out the window. Travis and I were raised by a mother who gave us HEALTH FOOD STORE purchases in our Easter baskets. I didn’t know what a real M&M looked like until adulthood, people. And now? Now that the baby of the family was here and the shop was closed for good? Mountain Dew for breakfast! Christmas stockings overflowing with a strange new substance called...I think...candy. We had just begun to adjust to this traumatic new life when the greatest challenge of all occurred. Justin, the blessed baby child, was in elementary school and was faced with the time-honored tradition of having to choose which musical instrument he would pursue in the esteemed required class known as grade school band. He had mentioned, in passing, that he’d always been interested in the drums, a comment which caused Travis and me to roll around on the Lego-covered floor (Justin’s Legos, of course. No MegaBlox for this kid) and cackle. Ha. Mom and Dad would never allow the drums! When Travis had asked for this musical option years before, they’d informed him, with great gravity, that drums were not a REAL instrument.

 

I think you know how this story goes. Justin got the drums.

 

I share this tragic tale as more than just the world’s longest introduction to my actual point. I believe this childhood trauma reveals why I’ve always disliked the song Little Drummer Boy. Or perhaps it reveals that I need therapy. That’s more likely. But in reviewing my distaste for the above-mentioned song, I realized that there are several strange Christmas tunes we all listen to each year, and perhaps you have found them odd as well. In no particular order, here are my top offenders:

 

  1. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas: I first heard this ditty when Judy Garland warbled it out a window in the classic movie, Meet Me In St. Louis, and all I could think was: This is anything but merry, Judy. The dreary, dragging tune sounds like you are sarcastically eye-rolling your way through all that talk of holiday cheer. Also, would you kindly pick up the pace a bit?  This song runs on for the length of an extensive root canal and is about as much fun, and the line telling us our troubles will be far away next year is what we all told ourselves at the end of 2016. Such innocent times those were.

  2. All I Want for Christmas Is You: When Mariah first blasted into our boomboxes with this classic, it became an instant hit. But I think the truth is, it describes our Instagram selves more than our real-life feelings. It’s who we say we want to be, but it’s nobody I want to be friends with. The lyric which states that we don’t need a present under the tree and we only need you? Whoever this mysterious you person is? That is what’s known in psychology terms as bull crappery. We all want presents, and if I sing that song to you, for the love of Amazon.com, don’t actually believe me, or Christmas morning will not go well with you, which is to say: It will not be a scene your Instagram self will want to post. Amen.

  3. We Three Kings: Oh, who am I kidding. We only sing this one so we can work in the verse you won’t find in your hymnals: the one about them puffing on a rubber cigar. You haven’t found the true meaning of Christmas in your heart until you’ve sung that one.

  4. Mary, Did You Know? Actually, no, she didn’t. Other than that whole Angel Gabriel monologue, which was a little sketchy with the details, and it also seems he didn’t stick around for a Q&A, that sweet teenage girl had no clue what she was getting into. So we could sing the first line of this song and promptly reply with, “Negative” and save ourselves 3.5 minutes of our lives.

  5. The Little Drummer Boy: I have to round out my list with this beauty, since it is the cause of my aforementioned angst. This song is problematic from the get-go. I’ve been a mother of a newborn. I’ve been around many mothers of newborns. And what I’ve never heard them say is, “You know what I wish someone would bring us right now? A little kid playing a drum solo.” No. Just no. What Mary was obviously too kind to declare was that she had just spent 124 minutes feeding and rocking and shushing her newborn baby while trying to keep barnyard animals from chewing on his toes and he had finally gotten to sleep and you’re going to come in here with a DRUM? Would it have killed you to bring something useful like, oh...it’s hard to know what they needed, and this could be a reach, but….a CRIB? The other, just as irritating part of this song is that you have to suffer through 18 verses for the big finish which, spoiler alert, is this: He smiled at the kid. I hate to be a Scrooge but a newborn smiling? Any parent worth his salt can tell you it’s gas, little drummer boy.

 

So there you have it. Five of the most annoying Christmas songs ever. But they’re part of our soundtrack, so we’ll sing along (or at least mumble the lyrics we can remember) and deck the halls and laugh all the way and long to be home for Christmas.

 

But I really, really mean it. I want presents. Even if I sing that I don’t. I’m serious. Mariah was way off base.

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Thanksgiving

Sometimes Thanksgiving is the loneliest day of the year, and you just want to be part of a family, loud and boisterous and warm.

Sometimes Thanksgiving is the liveliest day of the year, and you just want to be alone, quiet, and still.

Sometimes you have grand plans and even grander menus, and the rolls flop and the casserole is too salty and the dessert is just...blah... and the kids suddenly become vegan.

Sometimes you have expectations for meaningful conversations and fun party games and, instead, everyone is staring deeply into his phone or watching TV.

Sometimes your heart is missing a person you love. Maybe you know you'll see him or her again. Maybe you know you never will. And there's an aching current running underneath all of your laughter and words today.

Sometimes you want to be home with the people and food and traditions you love, and circumstances keep you apart. And no matter what the substitute you choose that day, it's still just that: a substitute for what you desperately long for.

These days can be beautiful. And these days can be so difficult. So these days, whether your heart is overflowing and everything has gone perfectly, or whether your heart hurts with a physical, pulsing pain for someone you love, let us be kind. To others, but also to ourselves. Let us listen to each other's stories, even when the details are not our own. Let us seek a quiet corner alone if we need to, or let us seek out other people even when it feels needy.

If these are the hard days, hold onto the hope that there will be lovely, memory-making, exhilarating days ahead. If these are the good days, hold onto those moments to treasure and cherish when the rough days come.

So, if it's not a Happy Thanksgiving for you, here's to a brighter and better one ahead: next week, or next month, or next year. If it is the Happiest of Thanksgivings, soak it in and celebrate it, and be very gentle with those for whom it may not be. Because we cannot control much in this wildly spinning world, but we can show each other a little more love and kindness today, and that in itself is something to be thankful for.

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It Was A Sunday

It was a Sunday in my town.

It was a time for hugs and handshakes.

It was a table for vats of coffee, for buttery, church-lady baked pastries.

It was a tightening of guitar strings, a warming up of voices, a tempo check and a song change.

It was a sanctuary.



 

It was a Sunday in my town.

It was a moment for quietness and reflection

It was a morning for harmonies melding into song-streams stealing out across the field.

It was a hearing with the heart, an opening of the soul’s doors, a lighting of the spark of the Divine.

It was a sanctuary.


 

It was a Sunday in another town.

It was a laugh and a making of plans with friends who felt like family.

It was a lady rocking other women’s babies so mammas could sit in stillness for a moment.

It was a waiting for the passing of the cup, a rustling of a parchment page, a settling of the spirit.

It was a sanctuary.

 

It would not be just another Sunday in that town.

It would be a shattering of plans and futures.

It would be a silencing of heartbeats and a stillness of breath.

It would be an ending of innocence, a quietness louder than imagined, a stepping through the veil.

It would not be a sanctuary.

 

But there will come another Sunday in each of us.

There will be a rising of hope.

There will be a resurrection of dreams.

There will be a life that outlives the grave.

It will be a sanctuary of hearts and souls like we have never glimpsed.

 

May we make Sunday in our hearts,

May we gather with those we love, and with those we must choose to love.

May we grieve with those who ache, holding their sorrows as our own.

May we begin a crossing over the chasms, over the hatred, over the lies that say we are different.

May we be a sanctuary for another; may we be Sunday, bringing a candle of light to our small corner today.  

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Jesus Wouldn't Sing These Songs Either

     There's a downside to taking piano lessons. At least there is if you're a Church Girl. Once anyone knows you can play the keys with any sort of accuracy in notes and rhythm, you're drafted, dragged up onto stage and plopped in front of a keyboard which you silently and worshipfully pray will contain at least 62 working notes. If you're an introvert, you spend the pre-songtime moments bowing your head and attempting to look like you’re deep in prayer for the missionaries to Outer Patagonia. This technique is also known as Avoiding Eye Contact At All Costs. Maybe this week you won't have to be up in front of the world playing shouted-out requests like some sort of Piano Man. Although a tip jar would have been a nice touch.

     Since this technique rarely works, I've been playing for choirs and worship groups and youth groups and any sort of church group since I turned 11. Back then, I had well-rehearsed hymns with pre-determined grand flourishes and embellishments and YOU HAD BETTER WAIT UNTIL I FINISH THOSE BECAUSE THIS IS HOW WE ARE SINGING THEM, PRAISE JESUS. I was delightful. I've played "Come, Now Is The Time To Worship" so many times that I have a physical reaction to it, and not one of any pleasant variety. I've played in rock-style bands or in uber-conservative churches. I've played alongside electric guitars and next to people who were sure that electric guitars were Satan's tools for evil. I can’t lie. An electric guitar player is a pretty attractive thing. Not that I’ve noticed, since I’ve been busy praying for the Outer Patagonians. Along my worship music sojourns, I have had moments where God's presence felt thick and real and hovered over the crowd like a tangible cloud. I've been moved to tears, as music can do to a person. But I've also cringed with embarrassment. Not because I missed a note or three (and there have been plenty of those, bless my piano teacher's noticing heart), but because I could not relate to the lyrics, although church folks call them “stanzas.” Everybody knows that “lyrics” mean love songs, and love songs mean that at any moment the teenagers in the congregation (never say audience..that implies people are watching you, you prideful sinner) might spontaneously combust into a cloud of lust and pre-marital handholding.

     I digress. Some of these lyrics (rebel that I am) made me squirm with the awkwardness of it all. For instance, one song described me leaning against Jesus’s chest and feeling his heartbeat. First of all, that doesn’t sound like anybody’s idea of a good time. I don’t even want to do that with my dog, and she’d let me if treats were involved.  Second of all, are we sure Jesus has a heartbeat? Because I’m no expert on the whole glorified body theology, but if he is all around us, that’s going to get all Tell-Tale Heart creepy and also if I had already asked him to come into my heart, this whole thing does not sound cardiologist-approved. Besides, we’re giving those aforementioned lust-drenched teens some very mixed messages.

     Another song we sing tells Jesus we want to touch him. Ummm…I have questions. Of course, I won’t ask them because I don’t want to be added to the Wednesday night prayer list. Or how about the myriad of worship tunes detailing being consumed by him and how we can’t get enough of him and how we should run away to our secret place? When the worship leader sings through all 56 repetitive choruses of these and then fills in the empty spaces with ooohs and moans, that, my friends, is why so many worshippers close their eyes during these songs. It has little to do with worship and mostly 112% to do with the fact that making eye contact with anyone else would cause uncontrollable, nervous guffawing. And as Tom Hanks famously said, there’s no laughing in worship time.

     Some folks say we could avoid all of this nonsense if we just went back to the good old hymnals. To them I say, if you believe that a group of fourth graders is going to overlook the fact that eight tenths of the hymns in that book are written by a woman named Fanny, then you are a person of greater faith than the rest of your snickering pew-mates. Also, hymns are not guiltless. Take the one about coming to the garden alone while the roses are all dewy. That sounds like the start of every stalker-murder mystery I’ve ever read, and those never end well for the garden-goers.

     The thing is, fellow Jesus people, we have to laugh at our absurdity. I’d like to honorably mention in this category the fact that worship pastors are wearing skinnier jeans than I am these days. Someone speak a word of truth to these guys and tell them that it’s not a look. Say it in love. Of course. With some skinny-jean scripture to back it up. But if we can’t muster up the courage to do that, at least we can poke a little fun at ourselves. And write some better songs, where Jesus is more of a savior and less of a sex symbol. I mean, that's what the electric guitar players are for.  In the meantime, I’ll be the one behind the keyboard with her eyes closed. Don’t you dare look at me.

 

 

 

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Holding Hands

We ran down the cobblestoned road, my friend and I, music and footsteps falling in rhythm.

It mirrored a thousand other jogs, a thousand other mornings, a thousand other songs played on the loop like a spinning, worn tire.

Until the rusty pickup truck rushed past, and the hand reached out and smacked me hard. Shockingly hard. My steps stopped, and the musical drumbeats were replaced by the harsh cacophony of men’s laughter. My heartbeat began to thump its alarm in my chest , as the stinging began across my backside, a one-two rhythm of a hurt and a handprint where it had no right to be.

Adrenaline turned into anger and then, as another hand, this time the touch of my friend, reached out in gentle comfort, anger turned into a sob.

I am not the first or the last or the millionth woman to be grabbed and groped, hurt and handled.

I am not the first woman to close a car door knowing that the person watching her leave was not safe.

I am not the first woman whose clothes have been ripped off by a man’s eyes.

I am not the first woman who felt sickening bile rise up like a tide when a man overstepped the bounds of what should have been friendly conversation and used her for a high, a hit, a buzz.

I am not the first woman who has had to hold her daughter’s small hand or her son’s still baby-fat-dimpled fingers and warn of dangers, all the while wishing that she could wrap them in their innocence like a protective, warm cloud.

I am not the first woman who wondered why wanting to look beautiful meant, in others’ estimations, her body held no more boundaries, that a sexy date-night dress turned her into meat hanging on a hook, waiting to be evaluated and assessed and categorized.

I am not the first woman who steered her ship around the debris, always searching for the fog-hidden dock of at last finding something more, something safer, some lifeline of a hiding place.

But I am also not the first woman or man to say no. To stop the hypocrisy that is spread when our tongues curl around the words which proclaim that all are created equal, while our hands or our minds use and own without another’s consent. To stop laughing at the jokes that turn a human being into a drug for our own pleasure, to open our stuck-shut eyes to the truth that we sometimes bear the guilt of being users and sometimes the shame of being used.

If you have been among those of us who’ve lived too long in the land of allowing someone else’s stamp of acceptance to determine our value…

If you have been among those of us who’ve allowed another the power to decide whether we have been found wanting, whether or not we are too little or too much on the scales of worthiness…

If you have been among us who carry the scars of someone’s selfish acts…Today you and I can decide that there is a new “us” to be among.

We are not the first women or men, but we can be the last…the last generation to pretend we don’t see the deeply-rooted standards whose vines wrap deep around us, choking us, carving cracks in the rock-hard roads as they try to hold us back. We can be the last generation to pretend we can’t cut a new path. We can be the last generation to swallow the fable of The Way It’s Always Been.

We can be the last generation to say that these prejudices and injustices don’t exist: Just as other generations stood up, we stand up. And we hold hands to comfort.

And we hold hands to become human barriers.

And we push hard against other hands that would bruise and harm the innocent ones.

And our held hands become a chain, a new tie that binds us to each other and to freedom.

 

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Stay Soft

It came to me in the car, during one of the 26 hours a day I spend taxiing myself or my people the approximate distance of From Here To Eastern Siberia And Back.

Twelve Times.

Squared.

It likely was fueled by a giant mocha that was predestined to spill all over my lap, but the revelation that made its way across my brain was this: I’ve spent the last 44 years waiting for life to Just. Calm. Down. I’ve put valuable pursuits off while waiting until life settles. Until things stop breaking and people stop being jerks and appliances stop needing repairs and relationships stop needing so much time and attention. Until people stop hurting my feelings and money stops running out and to-dos stop buzzing around my head like pests. What I understand now is that Life Calming Down is nothing more than the fantastic mythical unicorn: It doesn’t exist in the wild, or at least in these parts.

When I walk (or, more accurately, drive) through life waiting for Easy Things, waiting for an end to inconvenience or to downright hurtful moments, I begin a slow burn toward resentment. I begin to become bitter and angry toward the situations and people in my life who just aren’t making it simpler for me. I begin to be prickly and hard and rage-y, and doesn’t that just sound like the person you want to spill a mocha at Starbucks with? But I don’t like hanging out with that version of myself much either so I am learning to remind myself, over and over again, despite the hardness and toughness of life, to Stay Soft.

All around us, we feel the pressure and the pushing to be hard: to have a hard body, to draw a hard line, to conquer a hard challenge, to take a hard stance.

Stay soft.

Life will hand us challenge after challenge. We can try to protect ourselves, hide ourselves away. But hurt will find us.

Stay soft.

We must not let the painful things make us hard, because in that rigidness, we will fracture and crack and splinter.  And we will cause others to break against our unyieldingness.

Stay soft.

We can be the paradox: That softness is strong, that gentleness is greatness, that giving is gaining, that peacemaking is powerful.

Stay soft.

We can stop letting the fire of life’s agonizing pain burn us down to a hard lump of rock. Instead, we can let that hurt become a match, a light to the fire inside of us. The heartbreak and the injustice we have suffered can burn up and become fuel, not for more destruction but for the battle of fighting more injustice and for the comforting of heartbreak all around us. We can let our own fire become a torch with which we light the lamp of the next person, and the next, and the next.

Stay soft.

It means we will get pummeled again, you and I. But the armor of anger offers no protection anyway; it is more a bludgeon than a shield.

Stay soft.

In a world of cynicism and bitterness and rage, we can be Hope-bringers and Peacemakers and yes, Fighters, too. It won’t be by accident. It won’t be simple. It will only come as we walk into the dark cave of pain with others, sitting with them, learning from them. It will only come as we let ourselves wait in the hurt, not passively, but letting Hurt do its work of smoothing our rough parts away. But we can’t stay in the dark cave. We must always look for the light…the fire of our fellow torch-lighters, the faint glow of the sky outside, the light that will always lead us home.

Softly.

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Outside of the Lines

It was just a routine check-up. He was an oral surgeon, and I expected him to examine my teeth, do an X-ray or three, and send me on my way with a $1262 bill for the 10 minutes of his time, so it surprised me when he finished his exam, leaned back with arms crossed and eyes on my face, and asked my age. Never mind the fact that I'd just filled out my birthdate in triplicate on approximately 18 forms during my sojourn in the waiting room. I informed him that I was, indeed, 44.

And that's when he gave me his treatment plan:

"Almost everything I do now is Botox and fillers. So call me and we'll set that up for you."

Pat on hand. End of appointment. Bye bye.

I must have looked as confused as I felt, wandering out to my car. Of course, if I had had the Botox, you'd never be able to tell that I was confused. He had been so cavalier, as if he were reminding me that I needed a mammogram or my next teeth cleaning. I was the right age for All Of The Things, so of course we should get that filler party started.

There's nothing wrong with changing something about yourself. I know what it's like to feel so self-conscious about something that, once you alter it, you free up the head space you used to spend obsessing over it. That can be a very healing choice to make.

But I also know what it's like to leaf through a magazine where one page encourages investment in your inner self and the next advertises the newest cream, infused with the tears of yaks who wander the mountain plateaus of Tibet, a cream which will certainly change your life and, if not that, definitely your forehead.

I know what it's like to see a photo of yourself and wonder when your under-eye area was mysteriously replaced with something resembling discarded tissue paper. Or to look down at your hands and see those of your grandmother instead. I adore that sweet lady, but she should keep her hands to herself.

Yet here's what I'm starting to know even more: Those wrinkles and lines are on my face because they are my proof, my cancelled train ticket, my stamped passport that I lived this life. I cried those tears from the heartaches that shifted and changed and remolded my heart and the skin around the eyes that cried them.

I belly-laughed those beautiful moments where my soul felt it could not contain the great big joy all around and in me, and the stretch marks across that belly are the train tracks of those travels.

Those parentheses framing my mouth are my souvenir from long, soul-precious talks with friends. These wiry new strands on my head show that I am closing the chapter of my life where I carried and nourished three humans, that chapter where I was given the unique joys and hurts of motherhood.

No one else walked my same steps and tasted the same kisses and breathed in the same sunrises and cried the same heartbreaks as my journey held. And no one else has your same scars and souvenirs, either.

What if we started cherishing those marks for what they are instead of desperately chasing an eraser, one that will never actually be found?

What if we stopped trying to cancel out the years we have lived? What if we, instead, were proud to look 44 if, indeed, we are 44?

What if we traced those lines upon our faces and bodies as if they were journeys on the map of our lives?

What if we stopped trying to look like women who hadn't lived any life and embraced the fact that we have stories to share?

Recently, I buzzed around the crowded aisles of a beauty store in Times Square, sampling products and oohing over the gorgeous scents and shades with my niece. We both left with items that we later spread out like glittery gems across our hotel room bed. And we'll do it again the next time we are there. And I'll still be intrigued by the snail-snot-infused serum (Yes. It's an actual thing.) And I'll still slather the oils and lotions on my face. But I won't be disappointed when the lines linger. Because they draw my story, and your lines draw yours, and that story has its own beauty that can't be bottled.

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Love's Side of the Street

There once was a house in which lived a family. Peeking into the window of this house, you would see a perfect little scene: There was no spilled juice on the floor. The refrigerator was always stocked with the perfect blend of nutritious foods and treats. The cars in the garage were paid for and well-maintained. And the people who lived there? The children didn't scream at each other or their parents. They were respectful and well-mannered and knew exactly what was expected of them.

It was perfect. It was awful.

When those tidy little children grew up and moved out, they never came back. It wasn't that they didn't love their parents. It wasn't that they were unhappy people. It was all about that other resident of the house, the one who'd lived there next to them all those years...quietly, silently sliding its way around their home, perching on the roof, always watching. It was a sibling, a parent, a patriarch. It was all of those things, and they never called it by its name: Expectation.

You see, in this perfect house, you were expected to fit into the molds from which you were formed: College-Educated, Middle Class, Church-Attending, Heterosexual. If the mold got stretched or cracked or otherwise bent, you were met with the wrath of Expectation: An anger which sometimes burned so cold that the mold squeezed you tighter, and sometimes bubbled so hot that the frames holding you in scalded you.

But just across the street, there was another house. Looking from the outside in, you'd never choose this house over the first. The yard wasn't quite as tidy. The voices were sometimes raised. There were mistakes made and terrible word bombs that siblings passed around like a dangerous toy.

It was not perfect. It was, however, full of Love.

On Love's side of the street, Expectation did not dare to travel. There was no room in Love's house for silent intruders. Expectation's molds did not work here because Love's fire shattered their restraints into a million pieces. On Love's side of the street, there were hurts, but those were followed by apology. There were erroneous maps studied for family road trips, maps which showed the One Way all good Christian families had to travel. Until the day the family decided that those maps made good kindling for Love's fire.

In recent times, we have been handed lists of what a Christian should look like, who a Christian should love, and those lists have been met with counter-lists and counter-counter-lists. This is nothing new; these lists have been handed down again and again for centuries. But when people's homes are crashing down around them; and children are slicing open their wrists because they don't match up with any of those lists; and teenagers are afraid to talk to their parents, the very people who should hold their children's hearts most tenderly and prayerfully? Lists don't hold up. Lists are of no use when people are bleeding out on battlefields all around us.

As for me, I choose to put down the lists and live on Love's side of the street. If, in the end, I am wrong, then I erred on the side of Love. After all, there once was a carpenter, a crafter of the wood that went into these very houses who spoke often of such Love. And then he proved it. That's the kind of house I want to live and die in.

 

 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

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Just The Facts

If I were to write my autobiography, I'd need to devote at least three chapters to how I spent approximately 18.4 months of this past year (I'm a grammar teacher, not a math whiz, people) starring in the roles of editor and proofreader for my kids' homework papers.

For most of my kids' lives, I have been their only teacher but, the past few years, we have added in online classes for them. This became a necessity just about the time I began teaching higher maths and sciences to my eldest son. Also known as the time when, forced to choose between that pursuit and the option of being repeatedly stabbed in the eyeballs with a toothpick, I would have told you that x and y need to stop playing passive-aggressive games. Do they want to be found? Why, exactly, do they keep hiding? Now pass the toothpick.

Since my kids now have other teachers reading their words, I am brain-deep into the phase of Motherhood Life known as Checking Their Homework. It's as much a joy as it sounds.

While proofreading a recent paper (and please, take a moment of sympathy here for my poor kids who have to deal with a grammar teacher checking their work. It's as much a joy as it sounds), I realized that the kid who was writing an essay about the events of September 11, 2001 had no actual memory of the day. He had, in fact, not even been alive then. So the essay, while factually correct and grammatically intact, did not capture the emotions for me, a person who had experienced that day in all of its panic and horror.

It did not recall the confusion I felt when, that blue-skied morning, I was gathering my two very young kiddos to board a plane for upstate New York. It did not recall the uncomprehending horror I felt as I watched, on live TV, a huge jet slamming into a skyscraper full of everyday people. It did not recall how my flight home that day was immediately canceled and how, instead, my parents and I huddled in front of the news, none of us able to turn away from the unfolding tragedy. It did not recall how, as news reports came in of other explosions, other planes plummeting to the ground, we wondered what was next. We felt the breath squeeze from our bodies as we could not imagine what sort of attack our assumed-to-be-safe country was under.

As I read the facts of the essay, I realized how, over years and decades, other people must have felt the same as I. How they read the factual accounts of those horrific hours on the beaches of Normandy and knew it did not capture their experience on those blood-saturated sands at all. How others read the stories of  innocents slaughtered around them in genocides and death camps and shook their heads at what a tiny glimpse of their own firsthand tales those stories provided. How I, currently situated in my warm American home, continue to take in the story of refugees fleeing their lands, their own babies being torn from their white-hot grasps. Even in my shock and tears over their plight, what a tiny corner of the story's landscape I actually see.

But this limited viewpoint isn't just restricted to the big events, the larger terror of the world around us. It happens even in the daily conversations, the small moments, the short texts and the typed-out Facebook comments. We don't know anyone's full story. All we know is the facts, and sometimes, not even those.

We don't know the broken heart behind the snarky comment.

We don't know the insecurity behind the backhanded compliment.

We don't know the years of suffered abuse hidden behind the eyes that don't smile.

We don't know the desire to self-harm behind the face of someone who appears to have it all together.

Sometimes, over months and through the slow-growing roots of trust, we will learn each other's real stories. We will learn the pieces that make up the whole. Yet even then, the worn cliche of walking in another's shoes can never capture it all: We may try on their shoes for a moment, for an hour, but we don't inhabit their feet, with all of the weariness and weight and miles they have carried.

Let's put down our assumptions and pick up the practice of being safe story-keepers. Let's be the ones who are willing to look behind the social media data, to know the flesh on the factual skeleton of the tale. Let's not be listeners who read between the lines for hurtful intent or for ways we can make the tale about ourselves, but true story-capturers who hear with our eyes, our hearts, and who then allow that story to change us.

Let us never forget how little we really know of another's journey and let us be safe vessels for another's story, fellow travelers who will walk their road with them.

"...grant that I may not so much seek...to be understood as to understand." Prayer of St. Francis

 

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Pencils and Paper

I'd like to raise three cheers to The Things I am Learning As I'm Getting Older. If only I weren't too tired to raise three cheers. Maybe 2.4 will do.

After a night in which my body decided that, "Hey! Sleep is for sissies! Who needs sleep? Not you!" and the rain and dreariness of the day made getting out bed seem like a resurrection of biblical proportions, I gathered my people and we made our way, along with my brother, to the local elementary school building. There, we spent time unloading and assembling bags of school supplies for kids who, without the generosity of nearby groups of churches, would show up for the first day of school without so much as a pencil.

My kids, despite the intrusion upon their Saturday Sleep-In Sanctuary, never complained. They did ask questions, however. Why, for example, were school supplies such a big deal? Were they a positive thing? Didn't getting up on a weekend to receive those seem like a terrible punishment to inflict upon a child?

These were good, albeit annoying to my sleep-deprived state, questions. I jest. Sort of. They were honest. Which I usually encourage. When I have slept. The thing is, my kids have never wondered where their pencils were coming from. They HAVE groaned over the past few days as UPS trucks/FedEx vehicles/USPS jeeps have bounced down our gravel drive to deliver textbook after textbook. They don't know that their mom can just hop online and order what they need, or borrow it, or be gifted it. They have never questioned if the needed supplies will arrive.

As an adult, I know the crazy amount of money it takes to live this elusive American Dream. I don't foresee ever making that amount of money, and I gave up chasing that dream years ago when we moved to Guatemala. When you drag open the iron gate you live behind to see a man, passed out, with a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his hand...When you and your children walk near people lying on the sidewalks every day...When sweet tiny ones you've cuddled and held on your lap die of hunger...When little girls in villages just down the road are shot as they walk home from school...You start to think differently about The Dream. You start to reject it. You start to wonder if those who offer a cup of water to the homeless...a literal cup of water...are more Jesus than anyone you have ever met. You know that his teachings become, as all things do in this country, messy and divisive, but that those who stop TALKING about it and start doing it are the ones you want to hang around with.

I find it ironic that I moved from Guatemala to one of the poorest counties in all of Virginia. I don't think that's something I can ignore. I drive past people, every day, who are living on land bordering other land from which they were swindled because of their race. I shook hands today with people who, not long ago,  weren't allowed to go to the local school simply because of the shade of their skin. I live near people who freeze in the winter and suffer in the summer. I can't look away from that. Not when Americans, including myself, spend more on trash bags than half the world spends on all goods combined. We are spending more on throwing our stuff away than they have to spend on anything they need. I hate it when those facts are in my face, but the truth is, they are. So I have to either do something or just pretend I can't change anything.

Today was nothing. Other people did all of the work. We were just the delivery van. But the fact that my kids asked questions about how much OUR books cost and wondered about it...maybe, just maybe, they thought a little more about how lucky we are. It's a start. It's not enough; yet we can take that start and not file it away under Nice Feelings We Have Sometimes, but take action on it. There are crazy, ridiculous amounts of need all around us, and around us all.

In the meantime, instead of getting frustrated when my 13 year-old breaks his mechanical pencil for the 82nd time in one day, I'll decide to be grateful that we have more pencils and that, thanks to the love and tender care of people all around us, children down the road will, too.

(Poverty statistic: John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002. Quoted by Jen Hatmaker in Interrupted, NavPress, 2014.)

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