Friday, August 19, 2016

Sixteen



It was December 1998. We were 23 years old, both of us. We attended each other's work Christmas parties as friends. That's why we were at the Baltimore Harbor in December. It was really warm, unseasonably so. We walked a long time. We came to the Maryland Science Center there at the Harbor and stood gawking at a ridiculously life-sized looking dinosaur. It had qualities of the Brontosaurus. It was enormous. Somewhere between the minutes of looking at that dinosaur, making small talk about something prehistoric, we realized that we didn't want to leave.
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I was trying to figure out my budget and having a hard time understanding why all the dollars didn't add up. We were only dating. You asked me my salary and I hesitated. I didn't want you to know. I didn't want you to know how little I made. But I trusted you and I told you. You didn't hesitate. You scratched out a budget for me on paper, never being cruel or condescending, always hopeful. From that moment, I trusted you.
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You told me about how you lost your toe. The lawn mower, the scary hospital visit, the whole story. I still couldn't bring myself to look at it, afraid it might still look raw. We were talking in my parents' kitchen and the family labrador sauntered in and began licking your toe. The one toe. That stupid toe that I didn't want to look at. But I did. It wasn't that bad. Just the toenail was gone, really. You laughed.
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We were going to visit your family in Iowa. You told me about your sister and your mom and your dad. We flew out before the Fourth of July. Before we landed you showed me your family picture and I laughed. "You never told me your sister was adopted," I said, looking at a woman who was clearly asian. "I didn't? Hmmm. Well, she's my sister so I didn't think of it." I loved you even more.
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The winter we were unemployed was the roughest one ever. The winter seemed twice as long and twice as cold. There was no relief. We were tired. But I watched you with such grace and strength and perseverance. I have never respected you more. Such a man.
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I told you we were expecting and you froze. We didn't plan for this. You looked sheet white. You were installing new light switch covers in our 75 year old house. You looked up at me and said, "Well I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing." At least you knew what you were doing with those lightswitches.

I gave birth in the wee hours of an October morning. I had written you off as being an involved father. You were not involved in the pregnancy at all. You seemed scared and appalled. When Morgan was born, something clicked in you. You were instantly protective. Your voice cracked. You were elated. I was relieved. We would be a family.
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We were on our way to the fertility clinic, so weary. My heart was too heavy to pray so my prayer was this: "Spoil me, God." The procedure worked and we were expecting. I was barfing all over the place, in neighbors' lawns and in our house. Everywhere. So sick from the pregnancy. Happy, but sick. 

We had two children. One conceived in unplanning and one conceived in a petri dish. What a story. But it doesn't matter now because they are here.
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You are silvering and I am graying. Every year that passes sprouts more hairs that are light and springy. You are silvering. I am graying.
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It was December 1999. You were nervous. I was cold. We were at the Baltimore Harbor again, walking in the frigid wind. You were scanning the Harbor, looking for the dinosaur. It was bigger than a semi-truck. How could it move? The dinosaur was not there. The place where we fell in love. You looked around frantically with the ring in your pocket and seeing how cold I was, you just went with the moment. You said "Will you?" and I wept. The dinosaur was a no-show, but we found love anyway. Two friends, starting a life together.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An Umbrella and A Girl


We have an umbrella shortage in our house. Umbrellas come for a while and then succumb to the Chicago wind or a hole in the ozone and disappear. The ones that stay seem to have lost their life, tilting on one side or refusing to open at all.

The doorbell rang this morning. It was my daughter Eve letting me know that the umbrella with which I sent her to school wouldn't open. It was hardly raining, but Eve is seven and if an umbrella is in hand, it must be opened and twirled, if only for effect.

Sadly for Eve, I had already crossed "Get Eve to School" off my list. Her return was not welcome because I was tired. "You don't even NEED an umbrella," I said loudly. Okay, I lied. I actually yelled. I took it in my hand, and pulled the handle firmly, releasing the entire telescoping arm into my hand in two pieces. It was broken. Now I was mad. "Just go to school, Eve." I threw the hood on her coat and shuffled her out, both of us crying on the either side of the door.

I think the hardest part about parenting is that children reveal our impoverished places.

When Eve needed an umbrella, I was angry with her not because of her need. I was angry because I saw my poverty.
I saw that I wasn't prepared. (I hate being disorganized.)
I saw that I had to go shopping. (Don't like shopping.)
She already has an umbrella which she broke. (Gosh, I hate waste.)
My husband usually wakes at 4am and Eve goes to school at almost 9am. My morning has already been 5 hours long by the time she goes to school. I was tired and the day had barely begun. (Come to me, coffee.)

My daughter needed something I couldn't give her and that registered to me as inadequacy and weakness.

I tossed out the idea that I could be a perfect parent long ago. My goal in parenting is not perfection. My goal is not that I will be everything to my daughters. I don't have the capacity for that. In fact, I don't necessarily want my daughters to utter, "She was always there for me." A few years back I called my mother on the phone and she said, "Honey, I'd love to talk but I have to go on a hike with some friends." I was thrilled. "Mom, go. Enjoy your hike."

My game plan is this: To show my children that life is beautiful and worth observing. That life is also hard and worth fighting for. I want them to know that they will make mistakes but that they don't have to be defined by them. In fact, the one day on the calendar which we circle as their birthday is not entirely true. They will be reborn many times. Statistically, that would be every seven years, but some life events cause those changes to come more quickly. I want my children to know that the purpose of life is not to find all the answers and be an expert in something. The purpose in life is discovery and joy. And if that joy is rightly placed, they'll find God right there in their midst, satisfying their hunger and cheering them on.

So here's how the umbrella story ended. First, I cried big donkey tears. Then I wiped my face and went on amazon.com to order Eve a new umbrella. When she got home from school, she instantly remembered my angry state before she left and so it was no trouble to launch into an apology. Then we had cookies and laughter and moved on.

I mentally re-offered God all my poverty, all my regrets and re-aligned my day with the reality before me. Life is beautiful and worth observing. Life is hard but worth the fight.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016



It's March the sixth in the suburbs of Chicago. Today promises to be fifty-three degrees which is when Chicagoans begin wearing shorts. I tell the family, "We are going to go on a hike." There is much exultation.

I lie. They hate my plan. They don't want me to be their mother anymore.

We go to Meijer and spend thirty-five dollars on food which will be our picnic. There were a lot of chips, some gluten-free oreo-esque cookies, lunch meat and dill pickles. This is the only way I will get my youngest to go hiking. I promise a picnic.

The state park is an hour away. We have travelled by car to places fourteen hours away, but this mere hour feels like a week. They are very interested in complaining. My family is winter tired.

We arrive at Starved Rock and they immediately want to picnic. They drink Sprite and eat fake oreos and nosh on their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I pump them full of sugar for our hike.

We begin our hike with a 75-step staircase. It could have been more. All I know is that our hike has started badly, with more complaining. I am not happy at their attitude, but I can hardly breathe, so I just focus on my oxygen levels. I might die. But I must finish this hike first.

My children begin to fight. This is one of their greatest skills: finding out the irritations of one another and maximizing the other person's pain while trying to look innocent. I know this because I grew up in a family of five children and we did the same thing. It's human nature. They fight over who gets to touch a rock first or who picks up a stick. They fight over mud puddles. There are a lot of mud puddles. I power on. "This way," I say, pretending they are not fighting.

Immediately we are met with many, many mud puddles. Not just slightly damp earth. We are talking squelchy, squishy, squirty mud. The children are still miserable and I decide that mud puddles are definitely better than turning back. We continue on the path.

Many people warn us of the mud ahead. They tell us that it gets worse. I think how can it get worse but lo, it does. The puddles become mini ponds of water. Eve declares that she is in a "slippery situation." Morgan adds that she is in a "brown situation." They begin to laugh because they are thinking of poop. I don't even care because they are laughing at the same thing and it is not each other.

Our journey is supposed to be 1.3 miles one way. I figure a two-and-a-half mile hike sounds like a decent way to spend Sunday afternoon. I figure it will take an hour. I was never good at math. When one adds the mud puddles, the hilly terrain, the incessant complaining and the off-trail paths we forge, it takes longer. As in two-and-a-half hours.

After a while we begin to see magnificent sights. There is a waterfall with a 70-foot drop. There are slices of limestone rock which jut out, softened by time and water. It feels symbolic. Maybe I will soften after this hike.

There are other people on the hike. And a lot of dogs. The people are warning us of the mud. Some turn around. We don't. I have something to prove. I have two strong willed daughters who are going to use their energy with their feet. The rugged dogs have brown legs, stained by mud. The froo-froo dogs with recently shampooed hair are on the paved paths. They look perfect. They are fake hikers.

After more sludge, we arrive at an overlook. There are not many people here. Only the true hikers or the truly desperate or those trying to prove something. Like me. My children begin to say things like "Wow" and "Whoa." This is good. This is very good.

We descend into the lower trail. We are offered ninety-seven wood steps to help us reach it. The people walking up the stairs say nothing. They are breathing. They are only breathing. They don't even smile. The people descending the stairs are light-hearted. They have the breaths of someone who is recently retired, whose 401K tripled in one week. Everything feels easy. They walk lightly. They take many pictures and smile at the people who are ascending. Their smiles are not returned.

At the base there are caverns and rock formations which are very beautiful. They feel especially beautiful because we walked the goopy trail of mud and now we are on a paved path. A family stops us to ask us what is ahead. We tell them that the lower trail is beautiful and the upper trail is mud. They look fresh. They look like they have not hiked for long. I feel superior to them.

At our last ascent, we climb stairs which are framed by wood four-by-fours filled with sand. Eve rallies ahead of us and writes her name on every single step with a stick. She is marking her territory. We laugh. I am grateful for the laughter. Exhaustion quiets fighting and makes us slap happy. I feel like a genius for demanding this hike. A very tired genius.

As we round the corner for our last descent of stairs, lovers have written their names in Sharpie marker on the wood railings. People have written words like "You matter." Something in this set of stairs has caused many people to want to make their mark. Eve's sand words will erase with a storm, or, more likely, hikers with mud on their feet. But the Sharpie marker names appear to stay permanently.

Our hike is finished. At once my body tells me, "Listen, I'm quite tired." We are all declining rapidly. We want to rest.

We drive home the hour it took and no one complains. Dan begins to tell jokes which make no sense. We are drunk on outside air and wobbily legs. We arrive home easily.

We will hike again, I tell myself. Yes we will.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Get in the Pool




For all my life I have admired swimmers.

I love the young fearless way that little children slap the water, dunking their heads and re-emerging with large smiles. I love watching young swimmers torpedo through the pool. But my favorite swimmers to watch are the almost-elderly. How people in their eighties who can hardly walk on land, can snap a swim cap on their brow, position their goggles snugly on their face and begin to ease across the water baffles me. Inspires me. Urges me. They push off from the low end of the pool and rhythmically bob up and down from one end to the other. It's poetry. On land they are slow and burdened, but in the water they are suspended and free and weightless.

I told myself, "One day." I said this many, many years. Too many years to count.

To feel proactive, I decided to research an adult-swim class. I figured that I should know what classes are available to me in the future. Years from now, I thought. I called my local YMCA and they directed me to another YMCA which had classes starting soon. I spoke to a nice lady who said, "We do have classes. They start tonight. They're $120." There was no time to think about it.

This is the part of the story where I said yes.

There are many fears I addressed before going to my first class.
1. You are an adult. Many adults already know how to swim laps. 
To this fear I sighed, "True. Who cares?"

2. You might want to wear your swim skirt.
You know... because you like cookies.

To this thought I said, "The swim skirts weighs me down. I'm there to swim."

3. It's winter. It's too cold to go outside after swimming.
To this excuse I responded, "There are hair dryers and towels."

My instructor came to the class late. A small surge of fear came to me when I surveyed the pool and realized that I was the oldest person in it by two decades. I wondered how rude the instructor would be.

My instructor was 20 years old, a pre-med student on break from school teaching swim. His name was Evan, which felt serendipitous because my daughter Eve was going to be named the same if she was a boy. His upper torso was built in the familiar "V" shape of an avid swimmer. He was kind and courteous and not the least bit condescending.

I jumped in the pool and quickly realized that there were only two adults in the pool for the adult-swim class. The other three classmates were perfecting their already-seemingly perfect strokes.

I plunged under the water and began to show my swim instructor what I already knew. In truth, I knew how to swim. I wanted to learn breathing techniques and better form for swimming laps. I had hoped that my first class would be a cinch. The first 30-minutes found me desperately searching for air. I tried to play it off. "It's fine, it's cool," I told myself, picturing my lips turning blue from poor oxygen levels. It occurred to me that my pride might kill me.

I had to slow down, that was immediately evident. This was going to be harder than I thought.

By the second lesson, I had watched a few YouTube videos on proper form and air intake. To my surprise, the videos were really helpful. The small adjustments of the angle of my head in addition to exhaling-through-nose, inhaling-through-mouth were immediately met with fuller lungs. I was swimming in the water. I was not dying. My lungs were not on fire. This was good. I swam twice as much as the first time and found that, at times, I wasn't breathing properly because I was smiling. It's a little harder to breathe when you're smiling, but it can't be helped when you're happy.

Occasionally the melodramatic side of my mind tossed in a surge of panic. "You are a human. You are not a fish. Why are you doing this? Go home and be a good mother." The panic would throw the pace of breathing off. So I slowed myself the way I do with my children when they are upset. I told myself it was okay and that I was doing a good job. I slowed my pace and my breathing. Then I re-surrendered my body to the pool directing my gaze to the blue pool water, the lines of black tiles in my lane and the embryonic sounds of water beating in my ears.

The last five minutes of my class, a searing cramp crept down my calf and curled my toes into a pathetic fetal position. I was literally lame in the water. My pride could no longer keep me from asking, "So, what happens when you have a cramp?" I asked Evan, trying to not show the full pain on my face. "How much water did you drink today?" he asked. "I was hoping to drink the pool water," I joked, realizing that I was probably quite dehydrated. "Drink 40 ounces before class next time," he offered cooly. I limped out of the pool and seriously considered calling my husband to pick me up.

In the car on the ride home, I felt a sensation inside me which I had forgotten. My heart was beating strong in my chest, thankful for the exercise, but that wasn't what I was feeling. It was pride. Honest, hard-earned, no-nonsense pride. I can only see good from here.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

For My Eldest Daughter



You wake up at the same time as me. You're twelve. You have many opinions laced with sarcasm and beauty and fear and joy. It's six o'clock in the morning and you want to tell me your opinions.

About football.
About coffee.
And a few stories about boys who keep stealing your science papers.

In between the lines of the stories are more questions. You are searching, muddling out your own new thoughts which are forming at a rapid rate.

It's six a.m. I wasn't made for loud mornings. I was made for gently crescendoing ones starting with hot coffee, two splashes of soy creamer, thank you.

I give you a morning hug. Your head doesn't fit under my chin anymore. You almost look me in the eye. You are tall, that is evident. But you are also lovely and I wasn't prepared for that. You don't know that you're pretty yet. When you look in the mirror you see a girl who is fun and goofy. But I see a pre-woman and I don't quite know what to do with the information.

We're both navigating the kitchen at the same time in the morning. Our bodies are colliding. "Sorry." "Pardon." "Can I squeeze by?" You are in my way a lot and I laugh at the reason. You are adopting my schedule and my habits. You even take the other vintage jadeite mug in the morning, filling it halfway with hot, black coffee and two splooshes of cream. Just like me. You hardly drink any, but there it is, matching my equally brown coffee.

Some of my clothing is missing. Some shoes. My winter boots. And also some gloves and a green coat. They appear to have found their way to your feet and shoulders and hands. You are thinner than me, but almost as tall. By the size of your feet you will grow at least two inches taller than me in a few scant years. This both delights and terrifies me.

Earlier this week you were spending all your time in your room. I was barking at you a lot. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be to bark less and to woo more. I try, I do. I fail a lot. Anyway, I was calling for you and you were annoyed because you were creating two dozen little stuffed objects out of felt. I never want you to lose the magic of creativity, taking something which is base and simple and ingredient-like and giving it form.

There are other goals I have for you.
Never stop asking questions. But ask them in a spirit of curiosity.
Be kind. Also be true and firm.
Like yourself. Love yourself. Be yourself.
Ask God many, many questions. He will answer you.
Laughter is learned. It's worth the work.
You are loved deeply. By your dad. By me.

Life may seem wobbily right now. You are changing at a rate which is faster than any other time in your life, suspended between childhood and adulthood, testing boundaries. By God's grace, I'll show you the footpath that I know. It's not perfect, but I'll do my best. Meanwhile: Run, grow, love.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Merry Christ-mess



It's a tremendously important time of year, Christmas.

I need Christmas more than ever.

I need the story of Mary's shame. And then her song.

I need the story to have a smelly donkey.

I need the inconvenience of all the circumstances. The rushed marriage. The disappointment of Joseph. The hurried journey for the census. The volatile government. The angry king. I need all the feelings to be messy.

I need the simplicity of the sleeping arrangements and the variety of visitors at the stable.

I need God to be flesh. To be poor. To be tired. To start with nothing. To be needy. To be inconvenienced and to be very small.

And then I need my soul to meet him there.

I need to enter the fear of Mary and Joseph as they wondered how they would start their life so impoverished and misunderstood.

I need to be still when people who I don't understand are called to be in my life. People like the shepherds. Or people like the kings, chasing stars, leaving symbolic but very odd gifts for a child. Perhaps they sold the frankincense for bread. Who brings perfume for a child?

I need the weariness of the Israelites, the tired watchers, looking for signs, longing for hope.

And then I need God to be born in me. To prepare a simple, earthy place in my heart where He resides and grows and spreads.

Everything which represents death to me, I need Him to be there. The rush of the season, the credit card bills, the misplaced expectations, the shame of being found wanting. I need God there in the murkiness of it all.

I need him to hold my schedule like the reins of a donkey and gentle guide me through all the busy places to the quietness where He is.

I need Him to feed and clothe me simply with forgiveness.

I need Him to meet me as a graphic designer, in my every day work and declare with wildly loud and bright, angelic proclamations that He is not contained by anything. Not by suits or ties or good presentations or perfect type treatments. Not by how we look or smell or how much money we make.

I need Him to remind me that families can have odd beginnings and endings and that the middle isn't perfect either.

I need Him to open my heart to make friends and acquaintances with whoever He sends my way. No matter what stars they chase.

I need Him to accept my gifts, no matter how wildly crazy or simple or inappropriate. I need Him to accept me, with all the ineffective ways I have clothed myself.

And then I need Him to grow in me, stomping on all the death in my life, leaving a trail of beauty where there was heartache and ashes and shame. I need Him to fill me so much that all the heartache in my life is simply a herald for new life to form. All the exhaustion is perfect for new strength, not my own.

When I don't have enough time or money or patience or aura or love or clarity or esteem. When I succumb to really good marketing because I don't have enough time to research something else,  I need Jesus to laugh and say, "Welcome to Christmas. Rest. Be loved."

Friday, December 4, 2015

Happy Happy Soul Soul



Over and over again this year, a line has been running in my head and it goes like this:

I want to live a life observed.

I know where this thought originated. I'm ashamed to admit it.

It came because I was throwing food down my throat without thinking or tasting or knowing. Or I'd skim through books and think I had reached the essence. It came because I told myself "If only I can be a little more efficient in this area of life, then I can truly rest in another area." Only the rest never came.

This thought of living a life observed originated when I put life on auto-pilot and treadmill mode, never going anywhere, just doing life. Keeping up. Filling out forms. Pushing paper. Rearranging schedules. Always planning for life but never really allowing myself to enjoy it.

But when I push the efficiency aside, when I shush my expectations and just let my soul speak up a little, I realize that it won't take too much to live a little differently.

Instead of showing up to work early, I can use 15, maybe 30 minutes to read or pray or draw or walk.

Instead of beleaguering a math problem with my 7-year old, I can stop and play a game. Reset our brains.

Instead of taking a walk by looking at caloric numbers accruing, I can take deep lungs-full of air and look at the sky.

An odd thing happens when I push the pause button on life... Somehow I am more energetic and focused and present. I've connected with a deeper part of myself.

I'm doing the slow work of saying "no" a whole lot to a bunch of beautiful invitations because my family needs breathing space. Adding margin to our schedule.

I'm marveling at people who tell slow, beautiful stories. Our society is so bullet-point oriented. In the past few years, I've altered the way I've spoken to people and not for the better. I tell them how many points I have to make and then I rattle them off. I didn't realize how much I spoke this way until I was in a parent-teacher conference with Eve's teacher and the teacher laughed saying that Eve numbered her points before speaking. I managed a smile, but my heart sank a little.

I have a few red flags which tell me when we're running low on time or time to think:
When I buy a lot of office supplies or organizational knick-knacks, that tells me I'm feeling stressed.
When I nosh on carbs.
When I bark at my children or say negative, brash things.
When I forget if I took my vitamins.
Or when someone lovely, like my daughter Morgan, looks me directly in my eyes and talks to me and I have to catch myself to listen to her.

I don't want to live a big, busy, soul-less life.

So when I make my way to the kitchen in the morning and see the pile of greasy dishes we neglected to clean the night before, I roll up my sleeves. I pour warm water and too-much dish soap in the sink and watch the suds climb up, up, up. I immerse a few dishes to soak. I look out the window and marvel at four fat chickadees and sparrows bouncing around my patio, eating seed that fell from the feeder. I start some coffee. I drink it slowly while sitting. I don't let myself stand until I have had a few minutes to enjoy the morning. The clatter of the morning will start soon enough.

Morgan is at a great age for sharing hilarious, loud and dramatic stories. So at 6:30 in the morning, I try to listen. Dan is laughing and Eve is just getting out of bed, her hair knotted in the back.

I take a dozen papers off my kitchen desk. Note to self: Make desk a happy place. This thing is a pile of responsibilities. Noted.

I push aside thoughts of the desk and push flash cards in the direction of Eve while finishing the last of my coffee. She is bouncing on a chair, waving her hands in the air while she answers correctly. After ten or fifteen minutes, she is beyond done answering what 3 + 8 is. So we play a game, her choice.

She bossily tells me how I must play and how I must act and I obey everything that she says. We laugh and enjoy these few moments before she goes to school.

She has lost her shoes again. And a library book. It seems like this happens every morning. I am tempted to run to my computer for answers to these stressors, but it won't matter, not in these minutes. I help her get out the door.

I write a few thoughts on my blog and start the day.

Not efficient. Not perfect. Just observed.
My soul is happy.