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."