Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Soup is Being Stirred

My mom has no good cooking tools. Open her utensil drawer and find nary a wooden spoon. No ladle. No big forked spoon for spaghetti. Just an old-school carrot peeler, a waiter's-style wine opener, a scorched spatula, and a couple of metal skewers. ( I may be exaggerating slightly).

The lack of sufficient stirring implements drives me batty, for a number of reasons that I shan't share on the Internet and would only make sense to me, but they are generally related to wishing she would take good care of herself. I have hounded her about it mercilessly for years.

Last year, I was helping with our traditional split pea soup dinner for Christmas Eve, and razzing her about the fact that I was scraping the bottom of her huge stockpot with a metal soup spoon (for eating with!) instead of a sturdy wooden spoon (for cooking with!), when my youngest brother observed, "It appears that the soup is being stirred."

Where does my baby brother get the nerve, being wiser and kinder and more grace-extending than me?

His comment was delivered without a trace of sarcasm or nastiness, and therefore, it penetrated to my soul. Was not the soup being stirred, though it was not being stirred my way?

We have all kinds of little things that irk us about our relatives, don't we, especially those they've done for years or even decades? The way Grandma always shows up 15 minutes early or Papa twiddles the fringe on the rug with his bare feet. Things that in a stranger, or even a good friend, wouldn't bother us in the least.

I think part of the reason these habits or mannerisms bother us so much is we think we see through all their habits down to their motives, and then all the way down to some kind of systemic dysfunction. A daughter looks in her mother's utensil drawer and reads it like tea leaves. But I'm willing to believe that I could even be reading it wrong, to say nothing of the fact that it isn't my job or right to be "reading" it in the first place.

In our ability to see through those close to us, there is a danger of looking right past them, to cease to see them as a whole, to overemphasize small foibles that don't matter and miss the big picture of the love and sense of belonging they extend to us. It's possible, then, for a friend or a stranger to see them even clearer than we do, with fresh eyes. That is unspeakably sad.

As I've been formulating this entry in my head over the past few days, it began as a piece on how I would be giving my relatives the gift of grace this Christmas, shutting my mouth about the silly little stuff I could nag them about. But friends, it's my soup that's been stirred. And what rose to the surface is a revelation of my own pride. Grace is something we extend to people who don't deserve it, and my family deserves a lot -- a lot more than I often give them.

The gift I'd rather give them is gratitude: for all the support, generosity, togetherness, laughter, and affirmation they've given me. For the great example set for me by my immediate family: not just my parents, but my brothers as well, especially my youngest who gave me some truth that took me a year to ponder.

My dear ones could look into some of my drawers (especially my vegetable crisper or makeup drawer) and draw all kinds of conclusions of the flawed way that I live. But I hope they won't. I hope this Christmas they'll look at me and see the best, the way God did at Christmas, as the angels declared to the shepherds, "Peace on earth and good will to men, in whom He is well pleased!" I'll take the gift of grace from them and count it among the best I've ever received.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Meeting Needs and Taking Names

For Christmas, my husband is getting a t-shirt I designed on On the front, it says, "Livin' life" and on the back, "Keepin' it real."

(Don't worry, Hubby doesn't read my blog unless I tell him to.)

One of the challenges of family life Jeff and I have found, is that we often don't agree on how to live it. I'm not talking big things (faith, where to send the kids to school, which is the best of Jim Carrey's films). I'm talking just how to get through a weekend day from morning to night. Our priorities are different.

For example, my priority on a Saturday is to take a shower and get dressed by myself while the kids stay downstairs (out of earshot) with their father. I'd like to get the house in relative order order and neatness, and all the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. Then I'd like some kind of fun family outing, and then possibly an afternoon nap.

Jeff, on the other hand, likes to disappear into the outdoor storage unit to make repairs on obscure household items -- usually right after I get into the shower. Then he likes to make himself an elaborate bachelor lunch -- often involving sausages, hot sauce, cheese, nachos or all of the above -- while the rest of us eat a pb&j and get on with our lives. On these occasions, when I find him engaged in something that looks bizarre or pointless, I'll ask him, "What the heck are you doing?"

His response is usually, "I'm livin' life, baby. I'm just livin' life." The runner up response is "I'm keepin' it real."

He says this too me so often -- and almost as often it shocks me out of my female-versus-male exasperation -- that I told him I was going to order him a t-shirt inscribed with the saying. I don't think he knows I'm serious, but he'll find out Christmas morning.

This led to discussion over a number of weeks about what my hypothetical t-shirt would say. One night, we landed on it. I was delivering a neck rub (Hubby had a headache) and I said, "I'm just meetin' needs." We immediately knew we'd struck gold. Unfortunately, Jeff decided the back of my shirt would say, "Crankin' out."

Now, I don't ever use my blog to man-bash, but I would like to take this moment to point out a general and fundamental difference between the Woman of the House and the Man of the House.

Woman is constantly aware of the needs, whereabouts and mood of her offspring and probably also her spouse; we may not always respond graciously or wisely, but we are always thinking of others. I don't prepare myself a meal without thinking about what other people will eat. Heck, I don't even get in the shower when my husband -- an equally capable parental figure -- is home without ensuring my kids' safety and verbally passing the torch of responsibility to him.

Man, however, is a bit more absorbed in his own agenda and not so interested in taking the emotional temperature of his household before choosing his next activity. I have talked to many other young mothers about this. Their husbands are just as likely to walk in from work and go straight to check their e-mail whether their kids are crying or not. I observe that if their children's needs -- not wants -- are met, fathers will turn the TV volume up over the sound of their crying child, whereas a mom couldn't enjoy her program; crying must be ceased first. I have also observed that both my dad and my dad-in-law are likely to disappear into the garage right before Thanksgiving/Easter/Christmas dinner are served. Because though their wives have been cooking since dawn, they are still not aware of what time we will be eating and what will be "crunch time" to get everything and everyone to the table.

So, is it any wonder, that a mom, who's primary job is Meeting Needs of others would sometimes have "Cranking Out" embroidered on the back of her metaphorical t-shirt? But that doesn't necessarily mean we are wiser, my women friends! We go beyond need meeting to want-meeting. To make-the-kids-happy-at-all-costs-cause-I-can't-take-the-whining. This is not good parenting or unselfishness. It's martyrdom.

If we are trying to make everyone happy all the time, we will never succeed. And everyone else's needs met at the cost of our own health is no good either. I know women who eat their kids' crusts everyday for lunch, and nothing else. I know women who have to pee for hours but won't take the time to do it because the kids keep asking for things.

So, I'd like to take a page out of my husband's book a little more often, just try "living life" instead of trying to meet every little desire like I'm some kind of emotionally-fulfilling geenie/Super Mom. I'd also like to get my own needs met more regularly by communicating directly, succintly, and when I'm sure my husband is actually paying attention. "Honey, I am taking a shower now. Do not let the children out of your sight until you see me downstairs and dressed!"

In the meantime, Jeff and I have decided to change my metaphorical t-shirt. We were driving home from Disneyland, on a day in which every one of our kids needs and 99% of their wants had been met. And yet they were the ones crankin' out. In my best boundary-enforcing voice I turned around and put a stop to all the nonsense in the back seat (I shan't reveal my trade secrets here).

"That's my baby," Hubby said. "Meetin' needs and takin' names." Well, that's more like it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Full House

"This house is so full of people it makes me sick. When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone! Do you hear me? I'm living alone!"
--"Kevin," Home Alone

It's December 19 at 6:40 p.m. and I am alone in my house. Hubby is at Target picking out rayon-derived-from-bamboo socks for me that will be "from Livie," and returning the last thing we forgot to return the last time we were in Target (yesterday). The Christmas lights are on. The only sound is the dishwasher's soothing hum. Bliss.

This moment is the utter opposite of the way I spent my day: in one of America's largest shopping malls, paying for my kids to ride the Santa train and the reindeer carousel. We had lunch at a diner with four other moms and a total of eight kids under the age of eight years. Then we herded them around like manic cats, receiving compliments on their beauty and then alternatively, dirty looks as they had fits over who got to push the elevator button. Chaos. But fun. Really, truly, fun. Still, the solitude is welcome.

Solitude, to a mother, is in fact, something to be fantasized about. In the [stupid] movie Date Night, Tina Fey's character says that she dreams of being alone in a room with a diet 7-up (maybe it's a Sprite). That's about right. Except in my dream, it's a Diet Coke, and there's a sewing machine. To be alone with one's thoughts, with one's hobby, with one's book, on one's toilet. Oh the joy that would be.

And yet, before children, what I dreamed of was a full house. In fact, when Jeff and I were dating, I told him I wanted four kids. He said that's because I was picturing Thanksgivings with lots of grandchildren, but the reality would be him coming home from work to four naked kids and jelly on the walls. And he was right. We have two kids, and there is jelly on the walls, and the kids are often in a state of undress or unrest or both when he comes home.

But the point is, I wanted this: noise, mess, giggling, wrestling, toys, blankies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stockings on the mantel, footy pajamas in the drawers.

It's not always fun though. Duh. The other day, we were driving home from somewhere (it was probably church) and the children were interrupting each other and us, complaining about being hungry/tired/bored/something mundane, and I had their junk just piled around me in the shotgun seat of my Toyota. I turned to Jeff and said, "When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone."

Jeff laughed. He recognized the quotation from Home Alone, where the eight year old is getting dumped on by his huge extended family as they all scramble to get ready for a trip to Paris at Christmastime. Sophia caught the inconsistency right away, but missed the intended irony: "Mom, if you get married, you don't live alone!" Eye roll.

How true that is, dearest. And what a good reminder when I'm up to my eyeballs in dishes and timeouts and whooping and whining that I have received my dearest wish. I have a house full of people. Kevin got his wish in the movie too, but realized in a few short days that life without family wasn't all he imagined it to be, even though he did get his very own cheese pizza and got to watch scary movies. And how empty I would feel without having these precious ones to wash and dress, love and comfort, cook for and read to. It's sacred, what I do. It's a blessed life.

So if you want to be alone when you grow up, don't get married or have children, because solitude in a family will not come cheap. But it will be blissful in those rare moments. So now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go count my blessings, remember that my full house is a winning hand, and take these last few quiet moments to listen to my dishwasher hum.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Let Your Heart Be Light

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight...

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
-Jesus, John 16:33

As a perfectionist, I had issues with Christmas. Foundational to perfectionism is "all or nothing" thinking: a situation, person, day is either all good or all bad. For something to be mostly good, but flawed, is uncomfortable and therefore impossible to the perfectionist. So we don't deal well with reality. And the trouble with Christmas is that underneath all the twinkle lights reality is still lurking.

Even as an Imperfectionist, my recovered term for myself -- the self that celebrates flawed reality as a growth adventure -- I still have issues with Christmas.

In some ways, it's my favorite time: when beauty, family, cooking, crafting, friends, parties, music, new clothes, and Jesus -- all my favorite things -- combine.

In other ways, I hate it. I'm tired, overworked, underwhelmed, and emotionally incapable of the 24-7 joy that the Christmas movies and Christmas carols suggest I ought to feel. All or nothing, right? Wrong.

This year, I've had a beautiful, complex, Imperfectionist Christmas.

The second week of December, Jeff and I were waiting at the airport to fly to Las Vegas; a house he had helped design had just been finished, and we were going to the client's holiday housewarming. A weekend alone to celebrate with my husband! And then my mom called: her father had passed away in the night at the age of 96. Definitely not a moment for a light heart. But she told us to go, and we went, and it was the right thing to do. It was a time to rejoice as well as mourn, and I had to figure out how to do both.

This year, my pastor's wife just lost her mother, my mom just lost her father, a friend lost her grandmother, and another friend is living through her first Christmas without her husband, who passed away this year from cancer. I have friends without jobs and friends with cancer. Our hearts are not light.

But the attempt at happiness or light hearts at Christmas -- especially trying to achieve them with presents and lights and gingerbread (all good things) -- miss the point of Christmas. Christmas is largely not joy for present circumstances; it is joy that enduring through circumstance, with help from a God who draws close to us, will produce character, completeness and hope. So many of my most precious times with God have not been lighthearted, but heavy, weeping, on my knees, where He has met me in love and tenderness.

Christmas is also hope for the future. It is hope for eternity. But that''s scary because hope, by definition, is believing in something you don't yet have and cannot yet see.

And this has always been the way of God's people. Since ancient times we have forgotten to believe God for the future and instead looked for present rescue. Many people in Israel missed the first Christmas -- and consequently the first Easter too -- because they were watching for an earthly king to overthrow Rome and restore their kingdom.

But Christmas wasn't a happy ending. It was a happy beginning. The cross wasn't the end either, nor the resurrection. Jesus' followers hoped thought their troubles would be out of sight. Just after he rose again they asked him: "Lord, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

The answer was no. God's people are still in exile, living in a messed up world that God has not yet fully repaired. This is why my favorite carol this year is this:

Oh come, oh come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.

Rejoice! He is Emmanuel, living with us among the detritus and pain, helping us to endure and experience peace that transcends our circumstances. We are not spiritual orphans. And rejoice! He's coming again, to make right all that is wrong, "to wipe every tear from their eyes."

In the meantime, I'm being called to live in this imperfect world, taking the joy with the sorrow and responding to them both, even if they are happening at the same time. This Christmas season I have:

...celebrated one child getting an award at her school for being respectful, and cried over my other child who refuses to respect her parents

...given gifts to foster children in our community and prayed for the oppressed and orphaned children of this world with tears. And then I've turned around and whooped with glee on a roller coaster with my own children who are deeply loved.

...danced with strangers on the stone floor of my husband's clients house, and knelt on the stone altar with a friend who was weeping over her broken marriage.

My perfectionist self could not have celebrated the lightness in this season with so much surrounding heaviness. I would have felt guilty. Or I would have rejected the light moments as too small to overcome the dark. Now I think failing to thank God and enjoy happy circumstances is morally wrong. Who am I to reject the gift of lightness because it comes to me in a dark world. I'll take both, whatever God sends me. Take heart, He has overcome the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Baby Jesus Down the Drain

On Monday, due to weather conditions, I suddenly became hostess to a party of 20 women on our MOPS leadership team, our planned location being semi-out-of-doors. I found this out around 9 a.m. on Monday morning, and of course this sent me into a house cleaning tizzy. My home is about 11oo square feet, and has enough Christmas decorations in it for a house twice that size, so it's beautiful, brightly lit, and very crowded. Therefore, all children clutter and dirt must be removed before party people arrive.

I turned the TV on for Livie and sprung into action. As I spun around the kitchen like the Tasmanian Devil, bangs pressed back in a sweatband, apron tied tight around my waist, I whisked a plastic kids' cup off the butcher block and dumped it down the sink without looking at the contents.

A peculiar rattle came from the sink (definitely not the sound milk makes), so I stuck my hand down the garbage disposal (not turned on) to see what it was.

It was baby Jesus.

Livie has an old, mismatched plastic nativity in her room that she's allowed to play with, and here in her breakfast cup was the infant Savior -- blond, naked, curled up in ball, with bits of dried hot glue and Spanish moss stuck to his bottom. And I had dumped him down the drain.

Do any of us really need to read (or write) another piece about how Jesus can get lost in the bustle of the Christmas season? Well, apparently I do, as I take the literal disposing of Jesus down the sink as a sign. Just a few thoughts on the subject:

* I can't even say "Baby Jesus" without hearing it in Will Ferrel's fake southern accent from Taladega Nights. "Dear eight-pound, five-ounce baby Jesus in his gold diaper..." "Baby Jesus" sounds in my head, bubbling out of a Nascar driver's mouth as he asks the non-intimidating baby God to keep the money coming. Baby Jesus becomes a caricature, even in my own head, and I am a follower of Christ!

*At Christmas its too easy to make Jesus a Precious Moment figurine, a plastic Little People toy. In all his accessability (Livie plays with him like he's a My Little Pony), I can forget that he is a sign of God's radical love and the world's need for salvation. The baby Jesus shows that God wants to be accessible to us; he came vulnerable, naked, cute. But he grew up to be a lot more than that. I don't want to worship just a cute Jesus at Christmas.

* I have sent out 100 Christmas cards, watched Elf twice (dude, what is it with me and Will Ferrel today?), wrapped lots of gifts, embroidered six tea towels, and spent a week decorating, but other than the Bible verse from Luke I read with the kids in our advent calendar each morning, I haven't read Scripture or sat down to pray for at least a week. And at the party for these women I serve with at church, I didn't even say a prayer over our dinner! I know His Spirit was still evoked as we gathered, but I wish I had made time show Him more reverence amidst our merry making.

Livie's little plastic Jesus is back in his manger where He belongs. And as for me, this blog is my way of putting Jesus where He belongs for me: in my heart. I'll work at keeping him there for the rest of the season.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Age of Miracles

The age of miracles is not yet over, and that you may tie to.
--Susan, Anne of Ingleside

Having a baby is like falling in love. While you're waiting for both to happen to you, it seems everyone around you already has what you so desperately want. To those struggling with infertility, to lose "unlucky" in love: both feel like a right is being denied them.

But then when you fall in love, or you become a mother, you discover that both are a privilege you could never actually deserve. (Neither is actually as romantic as you imagine, either, but that's the subject of another blog.)

Before I "tried" to have a baby, I didn't think much about what it took to get pregnant, in terms of the inner biology, that is. The mysterious union of cells, all the ways that the right things have to happen at the right time? No, mainly, conception seemed like something that could happen at any moment and needed to be prevented. But then once I was ready to be a mom, I thought of little else. My first pregnancy happened fast. My second, well, it took about a year, one of the longest, most frustrating, face-up-to-all-my-control-issues years of my life.

Almost eight years into motherhood, and surrounded by women in their childbearing years, I now appreciate the miracle that each pregnancy and each birth is. And though we know a lot, scientifically, about fertility and biology, in my personal experience, babies often come without seeming to play by any of these rules.

Just a few examples from my inner circle:

*A mom who sought medical help to get pregnant the second time and was told that biologically, she shouldn't have even been able to have her first. The mom's reaction? Appreciate the first as a miracle.

*A mom who spent her life savings on IVF treatments, and through it had one son and then fraternal twins. And then got pregnant with Baby #4 by accident one year later. The mom's reaction? After the initial panic, she thanked God for the miracle.

*A mom who was "done" having children and using preventative measures, and got pregnant with Baby #3 anyway. Again, initial panic, followed by thanking God for the miracle and asking Him to now provide what she needed as a mother.

*A mom who spent years in fertility treatments, had given up, and then suddenly had her first. And then five more, in a span of six years. (That one is my grandmother.)

*A woman whose cycle was so out of whack that she decided there was no hope of getting pregnant without intervention. And then got pregnant without it that very month. (That one is me.) My reaction? To praise God for the miracle, Olivia Faith, named for the peace I found on my journey to have her, and the faith that got stronger for having walked that road with God.

On my personal journey, what I've decided is that if God thinks its the right time for you to have a baby, He gives you a baby, no matter what science or medicine says. I was thinking about this in church on Sunday, hearing the story of the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she was going to have a baby that would defy science -- even simple first century science -- altogether. And when she asks, well, how is that going to happen, I don't even have a man here, the angel tells Mary that even her "old and barren" relative Elizabeth is pregnant too, "For nothing is impossible with God."

It suddenly occurred to me that in bringing about the Messiah, the Savior, he performed several fertility miracles. It started with Abraham and Sarah, father of Isaac, who would become father of all Israel, the line from who Jesus would come. God told Abraham that his descendants would be as great in number as the stars, even though his wife was barren and was now in her "old age." When Abraham told Sarah, she laughed with incredulity. And God struck her mute for a while as punishment. "Don't believe I can do it, huh Sarah? Why don't you just be quiet and think for a little bit about who I Am?" God delivered on that promise, and then Sarah laughed for another reason: joy.

Then, thousands of years later, God blessed another "old" and barren woman with a baby, Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist, who Jesus called the greatest man to have lived. When God told Elizabeth's husband, he laughed incredulously too, and he too was struck mute for a while. "You know the scriptures, Zachariah, and you're still laughing? Now you go sit quietly and think for a while, too."

And then finally, God does his greatest fertility miracle yet: he makes a virgin a Mom. This is a stumbling block for a lot of people. This is too hard to believe. To some it doesn't even seem necessary to believe in the virgin conception; Jesus can be who he says he is even if he had a biological earthly father. But me, I think it is literally true, and falls right in line with what God was doing all along. "You think I can't do what I've promised? I brought the earth out of nothingness. Now, watch this."

I have walked the infertility road with a lot of women who love God, and this thread through Scripture of God blessing women in barrenness, conception, and motherhood touches my heart. I love that He chose to bring Jesus to us through women, through moms. I think he really loved those women, and he really has a heart for women today, whether they are mothers, or want to be mothers, or are mothers of spiritual -- if not biological -- children.

I love my mighty God, even though believing He can do anything -- absolutely anything -- challenges me because it means I have to still trust Him even when he chooses not to. I watched one dear friend face up to this just this year, a clear word from God that he was not going to give her any more children. She accepted this with faith, and came out the other end of her long struggle with a sense of satisfaction and a clearer picture of who her Father is than she ever had before. Another miracle.

I'm grateful for the miracles of my daughters, for the privilege, the unearned gift of being their Mommy. I'm grateful that the age of miracles is not yet over. Because though they have been conceived, carried and issued forth -- a process that challenged my sense of control at every turn -- I'm even more in need of God's miracles now that my kids are out. A lot of things seem impossible. How can I keep them safe? How can I teach them what they need to know to live in this world? How can I prepare their hearts for eternity? How in the world will I pay for college? I can't really do any of these things. But I'm waiting on God, because I know he's already said to me, "Oh yeah? Seems impossible? Just watch what I can do."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lost and Found

I haven't seen my four year old daughter for several days.

In her place (her room, her car seat, her chair at the breakfast table) however, I have had the pleasure of spending time with a lost bunny, a lost dog, a lost princess, R2-D2, C-3PO, Santa Clause, and a little boy named Garret (complete with backwards baseball cap, shown at left) who has just moved into the neighborhood.

Any time I have tried to call the little blond person who looks just like my daughter Livie, "Livie," I have been corrected.

"Mom, did you forget? I'm R2-D2, remember?"

With the exception of Santa Clause, all of these characters have been displaced persons of some kind. Each of them has been looking for room and board, and perhaps even adoption. All need lots of love and attention. All would like to hear stories about our family. And all enjoy being a person of novelty in our household. A big part of the role I'm playing is being very, very excited to have found this person/animal/droid.

What is it with children and being found? My friend Josie, a deep thinker and broad reader (can you guess why we're friends) told me the other day about a parenting book she read that said from very early days of play, children want to be sought and found. Even peak-a-boo is about this. Hide and seek, too, of course.

Children's literature is full of orphans and lost children. Anne of Green Gables, Annie, Oliver Twist, Simba, Mogley from the Jungle Book, Sarah Crew in The Little Princess, Cinderella. Need I go on? Our hearts break for their loss, their ache. And we cheer when someone finds them and decides to love them.

Why aren't there more stories of children just being loved by two parents from start to finish? Well, they just aren't as compelling; they lack drama. Which is why, I believe, that Livie is acting out being lost and found over and over again. From Mom and Dad love is automatic; it's our duty to love her. But if she's a lost rabbit, a stray dog, or an exiled princess and we choose to love her? Well, that's exciting.
That really makes her special.

Josie and I think all this attraction to the lost and found is a primal, spiritual need of humans born into a broken world to be sought, found, chosen, adopted, and loved. It is the story of the Bible start to finish. The Old Testament is exile and redemption over and over again. Jesus' parables were often about the lost: a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost (prodigal) son. The common denominator was always the persistent seeker who rejoices when he/she can finally shout, "Found!"

I'm so glad that God found me and adopted me. I'm grateful his love wasn't rote or automatic, but that He sought me out even though He didn't have to, even though it cost Him dearly, and then He rejoiced when I agreed to get found. And I like these games of Livie's, this opportunity to show her that I love her, not because I have to, but because I choose to. And I will seek, find, and adopt her -- whatever name she takes -- over and over again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wanting What You Have

The gratitude season is the precursor to the ingratitude season. While we count blessings in November, which feels like the shortest holiday season of the year, by December, people, particularly kids, get focused on what they don't have. Livie, age four, has just reached the stage where I really don't want to walk her through the toy aisle at Target. Suddenly everything she never knew existed is a must-have.

So today, I was very excited when she was made extremely happy by a very simple thing. We were having lunch in Carls Jr., for which she was already extremely grateful, having told me that it is her very favorite restaurant (This is hilarious to me, because I can remember her eating there maybe four times, and of all the wonderful places I've taken her to? Really? Carls? But I digress.) Even though we didn't get a kid's meal, the manager gave us the kid's meal toy, a truly hideous red, shiny, hollow plastic thing that looks vaguely like a baby triceratops breaking out of an egg.

We were going to pretend to go to the dentist when we got home, because like all younger siblings, Liv wants to emulate her big sister, who has chronic toothaches at the moment (a subject for another blog).

"When I'm at the dentist and they give me a toy," Liv said with a twinkle in her big blue eyes, "I really hope its a baby triceratops in an egg shell. And that it's red. And shiny."

Ah, the joy of something new. Wouldn't it be great, I thought as I listened to her, if she could walk around her room, look at all her toys, and be excited about them? Instead of wanting the new Barbie set complete with brown horse and plastic carrots that she saw in Khol's and now desperately wants, what if she went into her room and decided to want the 12 Barbies she already has, complete with pink horse and plastic apples?

Livie was only playing a game in Carls, pretending that what she wanted most in the world was the object already in her hand. But it hit me that she was expressing gratitude exactly how our pastor has been extolling our church to for a decade, as he gives the same sermon every Thanksgiving weekend. He says, "Grateful people want what they have, and don't want anymore." He encourages us to look at the things God has already given us and say, "I love my house (car/spouse/body/job)! It couldn't be any better!"

I'm no different than Liv. My wanting knows no bounds. Just today I almost bought a cardigan sweater that looks almost exactly like one I already have; its the brown horse versus the pink horse all over again. The only difference is I don't throw temper tantrums in Target when I see something I can't (or won't let myself) have. I said as much to her last time she was flipping out in the main aisle of the store, and another mom overheard me. We made eye contact and shared a moment as we passed one another.

I don't think showing Livie all her toys just before Christmas will necessarily make her a more grateful child now, but it is something we are working towards with both kids. As for myself, looking at all my stuff does help me want less. Jeff and I recently took a booth at the MOPS boutique, selling our vintage Christmas stuff, and when I saw all the vintage goodies we'd amassed to sell, I thought, "Well, no more flea marketing for me. I'll just shop in my own attic."

But then we went to a flea market (Jeff made me go!) this weekend and I bought another vintage ceramic tree, bringing our grand total up to 26. It was only four dollars, but still. I guess Livie and I both have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Good I Ought to Do, Part 2

The headline at the top of the page says: Good Things. And there beneath it, photographs of delectable holiday goodies and crafts. Paper snowflake garlands. Monogrammed woolen hats. Chocolate covered apricots dipped in dark chocolate and wrapped in gold paper. Lollipops made from gumdrops in the shape of snowmen and Christmas trees. Year after year, I survey these pages of the Martha Stewart Living December issue and find that they are, indeed, good.

For the woman (me) who wants to do all the good there is to do, rather than the good I ought to do (see part one from November 13), the holiday season is filled with one temptation after another. I'm not particularly prone to buying too much, but I'm very likely to try and make too much. I'm a pretty competent crafter. So if I can, I will, sometimes even when I know I shouldn't.

I'm especially am prone to making things in too great a volume. The set of four quilted coasters is a manageable 30 minute-project hostess gift. Until the year I decided every female related to me should get a set. The graham cracker gingerbread houses were lots of fun, until I decided to host a decorating party and made a dozen; I was up past midnight. Likewise the felt holly corsage ("They're easy enough for a child to make but sophisticated enough for her mom to wear."). They were indeed fun and easy. Until I made them for the entire MOPS leadership team (I think there were 28 of them).

It isn't just at Christmas though. This fall I threw a friend a baby shower, and the day before decided that her ocean-themed nursery really needed a chenille pillow in the shape of an angel fish. When hubby came home that night I told him, "I did something that was outside Jesus's will for me today."

"Uh-oh." Worried expression on Hubby's face. "What was it?"

"I made a chenille fish."

"What does that have to do with Jesus?"

Well, if I'm swearing while sewing it, and my body is aching and I'm super cranky when I pick the kids up from school because of it, then it's not God's will for me to be making it. At least not on such a tight deadline.

Is anyone with me here? You don't have to be a crafter to be tempted to do too much Christmas. The holiday season is filled with good things: parties, sing-alongs, Christmas plays, amusement parks visits, cookie exchanges, even church services. They are all good. Some of them are great. But they will not all fit comfortably into twenty-five days. In the same way that I have to resist committing to all the good ways I could serve my church, my community, my friends and my family, I also have to choose between all the wonderful fun things there are to do and see and make.

I'm not a perfectionist about Christmas; I truly have let the "perfect" picture go. But I still want to make as much magic for my family (and myself!) as I possibly can. But magic doesn't happen at one a.m. behind a sewing machine or swearing over paper cuts at midnight as I fold the 100th Christmas letter.

So here is my three-pronged approach to making Christmas good, in both Martha Stewart's and the spiritual sense.

1. Start pondering these issues in November (which I'm doing now), and start crafting early too. I have already selected my festive gift project for the year (I can't tell you what it is, because you might get one), bought the supplies for it, and started stitching.

2. Limit the volume. Both in projects (this year, half a dozen of my "good thing" of choice is the cut off), and in social commitments. I have already said no to one major Christmas event to make sure I've left a margin of "hanging out" time with my husband and kids.

3. Pray. Ask God's will for the season. Even as I plan all kinds of magical outings and events for my friends and family, I'm asking for His help to cling to these loosely, as any of them could be hindered by illness or other unforeseen circumstances. (My days are only a breath, I don't even know what will happen tomorrow. Again, see Part 1.) And finally, I'm asking Him to give me eyes for the miracles He has in store for me. I don't want all my "good things" to distract me from seeing His great things.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Good I Ought to Do, Part I

When I was a kid, growing up in Sunday school, I thought that living a godly or righteous life was mainly about choosing between right and wrong. I found knowing the difference between right and wrong to be pretty easy (don't gossip about your friends behind their backs, obey your parents). The challenge was having the will power to abstain from the bad.

Then, as a teenager and young adult, I began to realize that living a godly life meant not only abtaining from "bad" things, but also actively doing good things: befriending the friendless, giving money to the poor, even choosing a meaningful career path as opposed to one that was simply about earning money. I got pretty hung up on this concept, maybe even paranoid, worrying an awful lot about doing enough good. (I wasn't concerned about whether or not God loved me; I knew His love to be unconditional, but I was concerned about what it would take to please Him.) At the root of this worry was a single line of Scripture, James 14:17: "Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it also sins."

Yikes. It seemed to me, in my young adulthood, that there was a lot of good out there to do, and I couldn't possibly do all of it, so I was therefor sinning all the time. A very crippling concept.

Like most times when scripture brings us worry rather than peace, I was reading this verse wrong. It doesn't say anyone who neglects the good there is to do sins, but the one who neglects the good he or she ought to do. It's an individualistic command. In context, I see that James was talking about making plans for our lives without regard to what God's plan is for it.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then ,who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

James 4:13-17

Now in my thirties, I think less about leading a godly life and more about living a life alongside the God who loves me. It's relational rather than performance based focus. And yet, there are a lot of tasks that God would like to see me perform; I believe he has a calling for me, as it says in Ephesians, "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." I have my family, my neighbors, my children's school, and a particular sphere in which I move; the good I ought to do is usually right in front of me.

The more I listen to God, the more clearly I can discern where my priorities ought to be. Sometimes it's a conviction to call a friend I know is hurting; sometimes its to put down the kitchen sponge and read my child a book. Sometimes it's to put money in the box for the homeless outside the grocery store, or to agree to sponsor a child in Africa. It's very freeing, because the more I listen, the more I hear him tell me that some of the good things I'm trying to do really aren't on his list for me.

Our pastor recently spoke about doing good for the poor and oppressed in our world, the number of which is staggering. He made us repeat this declaration over and over again until we memorized it (or at least I did): "I refuse to be overwhelmed, and I will do for one what I wish I could do for everyone!" It was during this sermon that I suddenly realized my specific error in reading James 4:17. Too many people, overwhelmed by the fact that they cannot do all the good there is to do, end up doing none at all. I thought of people I know like my cousin Anne, who works with at-risk youth in Seattle; what if because she couldn't help every kid she helped none at all? Yet that would be the ultimate result of a do-it-all-or-I’m-sinning attitude toward do-gooding.

So: The good I ought to do. What is it today in my family? What is it in my formal ministry, which right now supporting and encouraging Mothers of Preschoolers at my church? What is it in my neighborhood? I don't always know. But I do know that God is already working in all of those places, and I will do a lot better if I ask Him where I can join in, rather than forge ahead myself. And what a relief it is to know that in my desire to find what that good is, even if I don't do it perfectly, He is already pleased with me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sushi Lemonade

For those of you who are used to my occasionally self-deprecating or borderline sardonic tone -- and like it -- you may want to skip this installment of Scraps of Soul. Because today I am going to be blatantly optimistic in a bumper-sticker worthy, when-life-gives-you-lemons kind of way.

Last night I went to bed in a funk. My four year old spiked a fever Monday morning (again) and despite the pediatric nurses' optimistic assessment that she was just having a reaction to her recent immunizations, at 10 p.m. last night she was undeniably in the throws of another virus. Cancel Tuesday's play date and Liv's Tuesday night sleepover at Grammy's. Cancel sushi dinner out on Tuesday night with Sophia. Cancel Liv's trip with Grammy to Disneyland for Wednesday and subsequently cancel Mommy's grown up play date with Best Friend. Cue my Mommy violins.

But this morning I woke up determined. I will not go quietly into kids-are-sick-again depression! I will make the most of this day! (This attitude, however, was achieved after 20 minutes of kvetching to my mom.) So, we watched good TV together. We read lots and lots of books. We met Grammy for a cup of coffee. We picked up Chik-fil-A for lunch. We went to a fabric store (we didn't let Livie touch anything or breath on anybody) and I planned a new project. We went to Trader Joe's and bought sushi, plus the makings for Thai chicken pizza. And I greeted my husband with a 1950s-era housewife smile without the aid of a martini.

Sophia, who had been really bummed over her loss of two-on-one time with Mom and Dad, as well as the loss of the Yard House's giant California roll, was almost completely consoled by the packaged California rolls (complete with Krab) and quite moved at my gesture. Hubby was pretty excited about the Thai chicken pizza (his Yard House order) What do you know? When life gave me lemons, I made sushi lemonade. And it actually made us all feel better.

There are times when my kids suffer disappointments and I don't swoop in and make it all better. But today was not one of those days. It felt really good to treat them to fast food, TV, and packaged dinner. It felt good to make them feel better. I may even do it again tomorrow.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Don't Know What I'm Doing

I have just returned from Barnes and Noble where I purchased two books on parenting, at full price. Hubby will likely saw that I should have ordered them on and saved money. Frankly, I didn't feel I could wait the 7 to 14 days for shipping.

I've been in a funk since September that I couldn't quite define until today. Here's what it is: I don't know what I'm doing. As a mother, I mean.

I have never before raised a seven year old daughter (second grade, PTA, classroom volunteering, homework, friend issues, chores, allowance) and a four year old daughter (preschool, separation anxiety, sibling rivalry) at the same time before. Sophia was four at one time, but Olivia is not Sophia, not even remotely like her in fact. So. I don't know how to mother them. I don't know how to manage two children at completely different life stages with completely different personalities.

I also don't know how to change the oil in my car, or cook duck a la orange, or change the security settings on my facebook page, or build a model airplane. Why? Because I've never been taught how. Though all of those things are infinitely easier than raising a child, I don't expect to automatically know how to do them. And yet, this is what I expect from myself as a mom.

My meager solution to this sudden realization that there is a serious whole in my knowledge and ability was to go to Barnes and Noble. I realize it's just a start. I bought Your Four Year Old-- Wild and Wonderful because I found Your Three Year Old -- Friend or Enemy extremely informative. And I bought How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, because a marriage and family therapist I revere recommended it, and also, because I keep saying "No one is listening to me!" and it's true. They aren't.

I opened the latter book at a red light on the way home (did I mention that I'm feeling a sense of urgency here?), and here's what the first few lines say:

I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.
Living with real children can be humbling.

Well, sing it, sister. I think I've chosen the right book.

On the subject of what we think before we had children? While still in the book store, on the floor next to me were two young women perusing the pregnancy and birth section (only one was pregnant). I shamelessly eavesdropped as they cooed over pregnancy journals in which you can voice record special memories and cringed at medically accurate drawings of a vaginal birth. I considered handing telling the mom-to-be what books she should be reading (If they had Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child on the shelf I would have just handed it to her), but then I remembered I am a total stranger whose kids are running wild through the picture books and therefore not a particularly credible source.

Still, the eavesdropping cheered me up. I do know how to do something! I've got the baby thing wired. Unfortunately I no longer have babies. Ah, there's the rub in parenting. Just as soon as you feel competent with one stage you're on to the next. It's a freeing realization really.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Be Present, Mama!

Tuesday at Disneyland, while whooping it up in the last row of Thunder Mountain with my two daughters (I can do an excellent coyote impression), I couldn't help but notice the mom sitting in front of me. Next to her was her six year old, and in her hand was a phone. Throughout the ride -- uphills, downhills, sharp turns, creepy caverns -- she was playing with her phone! Not once did she look up.

It's not my usual policy to intervene in the parenting of strangers, but I was high on adrenaline. So when we rounded the final turn, I poked my head into her personal space and asked, "Are you texting?!?"

"Uh, yes," she said with a sheepish laugh.

"Be present, Mama!" I replied. "You're at Disneyland!"

More sheepish laughter. "I've been here before, you know. I'm getting too old for this."

"I'm older than you!" I declared. And then we disembarked, and I will never see that mommy again. But did I imagine her daughter giving us a wistful look as we giggled and ran away? Her mom had still not looked up from the phone.

I try not use my blog to judge other moms or analyze other people's faults. I find there are plenty of my own foibles and mistakes to analyze. But this encounter really stuck in my craw.

I like my children (duh) and love to do fun things with them. I feel the struggle to be present/be in the present with them is caused by external factors: the to-do lists, the messes, the laundry, the meal preparation. I purposefully get out of the house when I want to give my daughters long chunks of my undivided attention, as well as making time for them at home. We spent the exorbitant amount of money on our annual passes this fall because Disneyland is the place it is easiest to be most focused on our kids; there we feel like kids ourselves. Even on rides Jeff and I have been on dozens of times, we're still pointing out and enjoying every detail. The last thing we want to do during a roller coaster is surf the Internet or send a text message.

And yet, here I sit on a Saturday morning, looking at the computer screen instead of hanging out with the family. So maybe the factors that distract me aren't all external. So I'll sign off and say to myself, "Be present, Mama!"


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lions at the Door

Yesterday I made a seven year old girl cry. And she wasn't even my seven year old.

Both my girls have become adrenaline junkies (this is new for Livie, formerly The Delicate Chicken). At amusement parks, we run from roller coast to roller coaster screaming our heads off. But as we learned yesterday, this style does not suit dear mother-daughter friends of ours, with whom we went to Disneyland yesterday for the first time. They are, in the mother's words, a couple of wusses. Their speed is more Sleeping Beauty's Carousel and the petting zoo.

Sophia was bummed. She had pictured riding the Matterhorn with her "big girl" friend. "Sweetie," I explained, "we can ride roller coasters any time. Today is just about hanging out with our friends. And not everyone is the same. What makes us feel excited and happy makes your friend feel afraid and anxious." So she let the issue drop. And occasionally, we split up to ride a fast ride while they browsed a boutique.

But at the end of the day, we gently encouraged our 7-year-old friend to ride the Symphony Silly Swings, the traditional twirling carnival attraction, without the sadistic carnival operator. I got the big girls buckled up in their tandem seat and they were mugging for the camera just before we took off. But one round on those swings, I looked back, and Sophia's buddy was clinging to chain with the determined face of someone who really wants to cry but is trying their hardest not to. The second we got off she ran to her mom and sobbed into her stomach.

Soph and I felt terrible. It was a good lesson for my daughter: that we should accept our friends as they are and not try to make them more like us. But I need to learn that lesson -- over and over -- just as much. Because the fact is, even if I might tell my daughter not to force the issue with a friend who is anxious about something, underneath, I am sometimes making a judgment about my own friends' differences, especially when they are afraid of situations that to me are no big deal.

Speaking recently with my wise friend Jenni, we were discussing this very subject. The hazards of offering advice to someone in crisis, fear or pain, is that what seems an obvious solution to us is an insurmountable obstacle to them. The way Jenni put it is, "It seems easy to you, but for them, there may be a lion in front of that door."

I have a couple of doors with lions in front of them myself. From simple and bizarre phobias (I faint when my children throw up) to more deep-seeded issues (numbers and money make me extremely anxious and I can be pretty insecure in my female friendships). Both the big and small fears do, in fact, have causes; they may not be rational, but who says emotions are rational? It is perhaps the irrationality of them that makes them so hard to overcome.

I was confessing one of these small fears on the phone to someone recently and her response was, "Get over it." I wanted to put my hand through the phone and flick her on the forehead. I'm sure my face looked a lot like my poor little friend's as she was clinging to the chain of her Silly Swing: Will someone please get me out of here so I can cry with someone who makes me feel safe?

I really don't want to make anyone else's face look like that. Not my daughters' friends. Not my friends, who are like sisters to me. Not my mom. Not the women I serve with at church. Not the moms at my MOPS table. There's a place for tough love. There's a time for encouraging someone to step out of their comfort zone. It's good to have people around us that challenge us to be better, and to help make them better too. But a lot of the time, the better response is to be people that makes each other feel safe.

I want to love the way I want to be loved: issues and all. The best kind of friend in my opinion, the one I hope to be, is the one that says: "Go ahead and cry. That must hurt. I'm sure that does seem scary. I can see why you feel anxious about that." And then if someday they''re ready to tackle that lion, I'd be happy to pull out my sword and help take the lion down. Or, even, ride the Silly Swings with them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Sound Barrier

"You will not cry, or whine, or laugh, or giggle, or sneeze or burp or fart. So no, no, no annoying sounds." --Mr. Gru, Despicable Me

"That's the one thing he hated: the noise, noise, noise, noise!" --Dr. Suess, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

It's not a good sign for a mother when she relates to the villains in children's media. And yet that's the position I find myself in. I was watching Despicable Me with the kids yesterday, heard the despicable Mr. Gru lay out the ground rules for his adopted daughters (see above), and I saw myself in him.

My husband and closest friends know I have an affliction called my "noise issue." Certain sounds set me on edge. They include but are not limited to:

--electronic musical toys and drums
--the sound of chewing in an otherwise quiet room
--rustling of plastic food packaging (particularly intolerable when followed by the sound of chewing)
-- repetitive tapping or clicking sounds
-- slurping of Popsicles directly behind me while I am reading or typing an e-mail or blogging

Although I know, in my most rational moods that I am pretty good mom, my intolerance for these types of noises makes me question if perhaps I'm not cut out for motherhood after all. This is my personal sound barrier: my inability to tolerate auditory stimuli is barring my path toward inner peace and kind mothering (and wife-ing).

As I said in my last blog, after exposure to enough yelling or crying I can get really frustrated, not so much about the fact that I can't control my daughter, but that I can't control the physical unease the sound creates in myself. But happy noises can set me on edge too, like the girls playing their synthesizer piano or singing into their Fisher-Price microphone (thanks to my two childless brothers for those Christmas gifts).

My friend Tris says I have a Noise Issue because I am a creative person, and the auditory chaos interrupts the creative process which is always going on inside my head. My husband just says I'm an intolerant turd (he says it lovingly, though). I am inclined to think it is genetic because my mom has the same problem.

When we were kids, Mom would often turn the radio on in the car at our request, and then shut it off automatically a couple of minutes later without even realizing it. She said the noise of us talking in combination of the radio just "got to her." In high school psychology I learned about the brain's reticular activating system, which filters out stimuli, deciding what to which to focus on and which to sort into the "background noise" category. Mom and I decided that our RASes were slightly dysfunctional; our filtration system gets easily overloaded. I was speaking at church this summer and actually had to ask a mom with a crying baby to leave the room because I kept losing my train of thought. Intolerant turd indeed.

So, what to do about this? Well, for one thing, having more children are out of the question. But I want to be cast less in the Grinch role with my family and everyone getting quieter doesn't seem to be a reasonable solution. The change must come from me.

Perhaps some exposure therapy would help: like, I'll try to read a recipe and cook dinner while Sophia is singing opera (she truly thinks she can), Livie is playing the toy piano and Hubby is eating potato chips right next to me and see how long I can go without freaking out. Oh wait, I have been doing that already, for about four years. Anybody have any other suggestions?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A City Under Siege

I have a plaque hanging in my laundry room that I bought for a quarter at a garage sale years ago. It reads like this:

I will not have a temper tantrum, nor stomp across the floor
I will not pout, scream or shout, or kick against the door
I will not throw my food around, nor pick upon another
I'll always try to be real good, because I am the Mother.

The first time I read this, I laughed out loud. Over the years it has made me laugh lots of other times when I am hiding from my kids in the laundry room. I have cried over it too. The laundry room is my refuge (bizarely) because it is right off the kitchen (easy access) and becomes almost totally sound proof when I turn the overhead fan on. I used to hide in there when we were making Sophia "cry it out" so I couldn't hear her. I still go there when Livie is having an occasional temper tantrum or an irrational crying jag and I need to get the sound of angry child out of my ears and calm down. I take deep breaths and read my plaque and remind myself that I am the adult in this situation and better act like it.

The comfort of my plaque is the fact that some one else has felt like I often do and actually wrote it down. Kids can make me really angry -- well my kids, anyway. Last week at my MOPS group I was encouraged to hear our speaker, a marriage and family therapist and grandmother of 10, say that you never know how angry you can get until you have children. They frustrate our need for predictability, she said, and though they are very small, they are difficult to control. What makes me angry? Loud noises. Yelling and shrieking and crying that lasts a long time makes me, literally, crazy. And it doesn't matter how much I love my daughters; if there was a car alarm going off in the kitchen that would make me angry, too, probably angry enough to put a rock through its window. Obviously this impulse must be controlled when the source of the sound is a child.

This week I went to a healing prayer night at our church where women could come to be prayed over who needed emotional, physical or relational healing. I was supposed to be one of the prayers, not prayees, and open us in worship. Just before it started, I was flipping through my Bible and stopped on Psalm 31, which David wrote in distress, asking God to come to his rescue. It seemed perfect for the women who had gathered so I read it out loud. When I got to verse 21, though I almost started to giggle:

Praise be to the LORD,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
In my alarm I said, "I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

I suddenly had a vision of myself, holed up in my laundry room fortress, my city under siege, with children banging on the door. How alone I feel in those moments! How outnumbered! Who sees me in this moment? Well, God does. And when I stop to listen, I hear him whisper that he still loves me even when I feel like I am failing at being the woman of the house.

I've been home for seven days in a row with a sick child. Livie was docile and loving the first few days, too sick to put up any kind of a fight and grateful for her loving mommy who let her watch DVDs in bed and made her banana sandwiches. But by yesterday, she was cranky and impossible to please. This morning she was downright hysterical. I, exhausted, bummed out at missing my MOPS this morning, lost my temper and yelled like a mental patient in the car on the way to drop Sophia off at school.

Then I looked over on the front seat and saw my plaque, which I had put in the car to read to my MOPS group this morning, to encourage them, if I had somehow been able to attend. "I'll always try to be real good, because I am the Mother." I got out of the car and apologized to my daughters, one who graciously forgave me and one who is too young to understand.

And as soon as I got home, I spent a little time in the back yard with my Father, who doesn't have to try to be real good. He is already. He graciously forgave me too, and directed me to the last verse of Psalm 31: "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord." Maybe I should hang that in my laundry room too.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lessons from the Campground

As promised in yesterday's post, today I'm finally writing out the small revelations that came to me on a week-long camping trip in Pfieffer Big Sur. With no cell phone and no laptop, I had nothing to do but think, float down the river, eat, and -- as you'll read below -- wash my children's underwear. All turned out to be worthwhile experiences that are resonating with me six weeks later.

Lesson One: Beauty belongs to everyone.
This is in stark contrast to the lesson of the luxury resort, which is that beauty can be mine only for a high cost. Once I have paid that high cost, the staff will treat me well, perhaps even call me a VIP. Nature at the resort is packaged with my tiny lanai situated to maximize the ocean view, the forest view, etc. The sheets are softer. The tub is cleaner. The shampoo smells better. But this is a life I have rented. It is not mine for the long run, and it whispers the whole time, "The life you are going back to is not quite good enough."

When I am tent camping for $45 per night, beauty is all around me. It includes river rocks, pine cones, and the scent of the redwoods. It may also include squirrels, blue jays, and raccoons (who might eat all the tortillas and grapes out of my cooler...but that's another story). This exposure to beauty trains me to tune into nature, not just on vacation, but all the time. I spent a lot more nights outside in my backyard than usual when I first got home. And because my tent is not as comfortable or clean as my condo, even while I'm on vacation I think fondly of my home and feel grateful to return to it.

Lesson Two: I have too much stuff.
Particularly in my kitchen, which I justify because the stuff all has a specific purpose. See, I need six spatulas because they are all used with different kinds of pans to turn different types of foods. Imagine my chagrin when I realized we had not a single spatula of any kind in our kitchen box on the camping trip. I went into three different "general stores" in the Big Sur area looking for a pancake turner that cost less than $10 (since, you know, I have six at home). Finally, on our last day, I made ham and cheese stuffed crepes using nothing but a Tupperware cereal bowl, a 7-inch fry pan from Ikea, and a thrift store fork. So take those silicone tipped tongs (great for frying scallops!) off my wish list for Christmas. I'll make due without them.

Lesson Three: All that work I do to keep my kids clean has an actual benefit.
My daughter Livie, who I will heretofore refer to as Pig Pen, is fond of dirt. Camping is, truly, hog heaven to her and she digs down into her play tent with a family of Barbies and gets compeletely covered in dust. Occassionally, she looks down at her hands and sees that they are brown, and licks them clean. Licks them! I'm pretty sure she also drank from the river. So, by the afternoon of Day Two, I was abruptly jumping from the inner tube as we floated down the river to find a cluster of trees for Pig Pen to poop in. Only to have her, five minutes later, say, "I pooped in my pants again." It was at this point, washing loose stool from my daughter's cargo shorts in a utility sink, that I asked Hubby if this was a vacation or an endurance test.

And yet, validation! It's not true that God made dirt so dirt don't hurt. If you play in the dirt, eat dirt, lick dirt, you get diarrhea. so all my house cleaning is not for naught. (Alternative lesson: stop cleaning so much so Pig Pen's stomach can build up immunities to a wider variety of microbes.)

Lesson Four: Television is a poor substitute for a camp fire.
I've decided that slumping in front of the television the second the kids go to bed is just a substitute for our primal need to gather around a source of light and warmth. TV also satisfies our culture's need to feel we are doing something, specifically something with a start and a finish: I will now be entertained from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. after which I will go to bed.

At night, when I am bone tired, the temptation to veg out in front of the tube is one I succumb to almost every single night. This practice had a threefold negative effect:
1. Conversations with Spouse are limited to commercial breaks.
2. What I watch is basically crap and often either violent, carnal or stress-provoking, and almost always shows people who are impossibly thin and living an unrealistic lifestyle. With these skewed images still swirling in my subconscious, I go to sleep.
3. I don't listen to my body. I don't go to sleep when I'm tired but when a show has wrapped up ("Yay, they caught the serial killer, now I can go to bed.") And I eat sugary foods without really thinking about it.

The campfire is a much more healthy centerpiece. I can relax and sort through thoughts from the day instead of having thoughts planted by NBC. My husband and I talk whenever we want to. My evening embroidery takes on a much more "in the moment" quality. And then, when we either get too cold or too sleepy to sit outside anymore, we go to bed. I've tried to implement some other kind of evening activity since we got home, but six weeks later, I'm becoming one with my leather sofa during prime time again. The desire for something better still smolders in me, however, and perhaps I will find a way to stoke the flames until I actually change the habit (Too much campfire metaphor? Yeah, you're right).

Lesson Five: My days are a breath; I'm a small part of a much bigger picture.
Here's a bizarre thought that struck me in the middle of the night: the river never stops running. I go to sleep, and it doesn't shut off like the fountains at the mall. Well, duh. But I get so locked into a small reality, driving down the street in my air conditioned SUV, that I forget how tiny I am in a great big natural world. And being on the bank of a river that never stops opens my heart to the idea of a huge universe that keeps spinning regardless of the small crises in my life. My brother wrote a brilliant song with a lyric: "the sun don't disappear every time that you blink." The even bigger reality behind my smallness: the Creator of all this vastest "who never sleeps, nor does he slumber" graciously cares about the small things of my life anyway. That revelation is worth seven days in the dirt.