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.