Saturday, May 9, 2015

When You Want to Skip Mother's Day

2011.

Mother's Day was coming, and I was dreading it. My first holiday as a single mom, my birthday, had been excruciating, but I dreaded this day even more. Mothers and fathers are a pair, but I wasn't part of a pair anymore. I was newly alone, very single, and still trying to figure out which way was up. My children were too young to think of or buy gifts, so I feared that the day would go unrecognized and I would be miserable. I knew it would be hard. Hard had become a way of life, and holidays were a type of hard I had never experienced before. Holidays were supposed to bring joy, but all they brought were real reminders of a reality I wished weren't mine.

Mother's Day.

I wanted to skip it.

When the day came, though, it wasn't as bad as I imagined it might be, and the only reason it wasn't was my own mom. She made it better than it had to be. That's what moms do, isn't it? They make it better, whatever it is.

My mom had taken my kids a few days before, giving me some very needed relief. Unbeknownst to me, she was also making Mother's Day happen for me, her own baby. She knew just what agony I was feeling, and she knew I needed just a little relief. So she put her Mimi skills to work and helped my children make things for me. First, she posed their little arms into the letters of LOVE, framing their sweet faces for me. These pictures still hang in my kitchen.


She also had them create sweet vases of flowers that wouldn't die, their thumbprints forever captured in paint. They sit in my classroom where I see them every day.

Mother's Day is supposed to be a day when we celebrate and honor our own mothers, but for me, in 2011, Mother's Day was a day that solidified the reality of what mothers do. They forget about themselves and do whatever it takes to help their babies. Even if their babies are 31 with babies of their own. Even if they can't take the pain completely away, they do everything in their power to soothe it. Mothers work behind the scenes every day on their children's behalf, and sometimes, a mother's love is the only thing that helps.

2011? It was just what I needed.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Wish I Had Known They Were Lasts

I can't remember the final time I bathed either of my children.


For years, I scrubbed their tiny bodies with Johnson's, my knees screaming for mercy as I kneeled beside the tub. Night after night, I wrapped their sweet-smelling pink flesh in hooded towels and wrestled their slippery selves as I forced their toes into feety-pajamas. I slathered chunky thighs with pink lotion, combed wisps of baby-fine hair, stacked bath toys in their usual spots, and mopped up rivers of bath water cascading through the bathroom. Every night, we had our routine.

And now it's done.
My big kids bathe themselves now, and although I used to long for this day to arrive, it's bittersweet. Sure, it's nice to say, "Go take your shower" and sit on the couch while it happens, but some nights I'd give anything to watch them marvel at splashing again or to shampoo their hair myself. Sometimes, I'd love to see baby toys sitting where big-kid shampoo and loofahs now do. What I wouldn't do to wrap their warm bodies in hooded towels and snuggle them against me one more time.

Lasts are hard, but sometimes only after the fact. They're hard because we don't know that they're lasts. There was no big ceremony for the last bath I gave. There was just a gradual releasing of that task to finally-able hands. I didn't know the last diaper-change would be just that, because in the moment I seriously doubted that potty-training would ever catch on.

I had no idea as I brushed teeth for the last time that I'd never do it again, and I couldn't have imagined as I man-handled toddlers into car seats that one day they'd just buckle themselves.



Motherhood makes your soul scream, doesn't it? When the pregnancy test shows positive, you scream with excitement and wonder that you and the man you love have created a life who will walk in this world. When the hormones rage, you scream for the nausea to stop and for chocolate in any form. When the first contraction hits and you feel like you're splitting in two, your body screams for that child to just get out while your soul screams, "I don't think I'm ready yet!"

When your squishy-faced miracle breathes on his own for the first time and is cut free from your life-giving body, your soul screams in praise to the Creator of all life and your heart changes forever.


Each day after your name becomes "mom" is a soul-scream of pleasure and pain. Sleep-deprivation and feelings of inadequacy make you howl that you're just messing up, but 30 minutes later he coos as you sing and you know that you're doing it right. Every day, without fail, your mom-life is a dance of horror and wonder, and your soul screams at the amazement of both.

I know there are more lasts headed my way. The last day of elementary school is weeks away for my son, and both children put away their own laundry as it is. I rarely make lunches anymore, and they can pick out their own clothes (with relative success). Lasts are a part of this life as a mom, and my goal for today is to remember the sadness that previous lasts have wrought and treasure the moments I know will end. School dropoff lines are a pain in this moment, but I'm sure they don't compare to the pain of watching a teenager drive himself to high school. Entertaining nine-year-old boys might not be the most relaxing way to spend a Saturday, but playdates will come to an end and those boys will move away.

One day will be the last time I wash his sheets, and one night will be the last he spends in his bed at home.


Lasts will come whether we want them to or not, so in light of the sadness of future lasts, let's enjoy the now that still is.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Wrong Notes and Imperfect Pottery

The clay sculptures sit next to my bed where I can see them every morning and night. A dinosaur, an eagle, and a fish are among my most treasured possessions.





Painstakingly shaped and painted by my own children, these pieces may never be on display in a museum, but they are displayed where their creators' mother can see and appreciate them over and over. In a fire, I'd scoop them right up over items worth thousands more.


My children made them for me, and that is what makes them perfect.

But to my children, they aren't. Sometimes when they see them, they laugh at what they made when their hands were smaller, and they see every flaw in their hands' creations. They ask me why I keep them out, why I display them like they're fine art.

So often, in my own creating, I feel like I just mess up everything, too.

In my hands and through my eyes, what I intend to be beautiful is nothing more than broken. What I mean to be a masterpiece turns into a mess.


My meager offerings to the Lord? They disappoint me. They are never enough and never as good as so and so's. When I reflect on what I do, all I see are the imperfections and flaws. The shortcomings and not-good-enoughs shout loudly for my attention, and the blood, sweat, and tears I spent on the creation are forgotten. All I see is all I'm not. All I notice is where I failed. Again.

I convince myself that all I can do is create imperfect pottery, and the imperfections cause me to recoil. They cause me to swear off creating again, and they make me feel like I can never offer anything of worth.

And I know I'm not alone.

My sister-in-law has a beautiful voice. She leads worship in our church, and people are constantly amazed at the talent she displays. But when the songs are over and she hears herself replayed, all she hears are the notes she didn't nail. The imperfections that to us are unnoticed are evidence of failure to her ears.

She is like me, and I am like you. All we notice are our own wrong notes; all we see are our imperfect pottery's flaws.



Through my eyes, yes, I am a failure. My creations, even under the best conditions and with the purest intentions, will never be just right. Regardless of how hard I work and how perfect I desire my creation to be, it will fall short. There will always be an improvement that could be made or a change that would make it better.

But.

My eyes are not seeing all that God's are. My assessment is not the most accurate tally, and my focus on miniscule details causes me to forget that I created it for Him and not myself.

My perfection is not what He desires. He just wants me to give it my all, do it for Him, and let it glorify Him how it will. His Word reminds us, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

All, for the glory of God. All, even the imperfect. All, even what you wish were better.

And more importantly, for the glory of God. Not for the praise of man, not for self-satisfaction, but for glorifying the One who created you. Your creations are to praise the Creator, and when they are done with only Him in mind, they do.

Our imperfect creations are displayed on his shelves, and they are among His treasures. May we create with pure hearts and glorify with those creations, even if imperfect.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tell Me I'm Pretty

"Josh, look at my nails."

Her eight year old fingers stretch out before her stepfather's eyes, showing off the latest manicure on her tiny bitten fingernails.

"Ooh, pretty," he replies. "I like them!"



She doesn't know it, doesn't understand what she's doing, but she's following in the footsteps of every female before her. She is wanting - needing - the affirmation of a father.

As independent and intelligent as she is, my little girl also has a need deep within her heart that is as old as time itself. She needs to feel loved and beautiful. She needs to hear the man in her life tell her she is enough as she is, she is treasured in his eyes, and there is something about her that is of value. She needs to know that she has worth. And, praise God, she hears that from her Josh. He was not in the room when she was born, is not biologically her daddy, but he loves her like she can do no wrong and openly admires her as she twirls in new dresses for him. He tells her what he tells me, that she is so pretty and she is enough.

He tells her, and I pray that she believes.



I pray that she has the confidence her mama lacked (lacks), and that she goes through life with the deep confidence that only a father's words can instill.

I myself have looked for affirmation in a million different places because it wasn't rooted in my heart. I have looked in the numbers on the scale, the sizes in my clothes, the looks in the eyes of others. I have searched in the makeup sections of drugstores, the outfits filling my closet, the pictures of myself I won't post. I have searched and not found, and oh, how I pray that she never has to search.



It's not superficial, this need to be loved. It's not wrong to want to hear you are wonderfully made, and it's not sinful for little girls to play dress up and primp. It's God's design for little girls to look to their fathers for their first feelings of love, and it's His design to use an earthly father's adoration to teach us of His own.

Earthly father, tell your little girl as often as you can that she is beautiful and amazing in your eyes. Treasure the papers she colors for you, and make it a point to take her out for special dates. Kiss her mother in front of her, and let her see you love her mommy well. Buy her the ice cream flavor she likes best just to let her know that you know. Buy her some new pajamas and tell her that you thought of her when you saw them. Love her, earthly father, in deeds and not just words. Treasure her and teach her that she herself is the treasure. Instill in her while she's still a child that she can be confident in a father's love, and when she is older there will be a fighting chance that she won't search for it in the wrong places. Love her, father, (stepfather, man in her life), with the love of the Father. Teach her that He's good. You will mean more in her life than you can possibly imagine.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Inchworm

“The grand design of God in all the afflictions that befall his people is to bring them nearer and closer to himself.” 
Thomas Brooks

***

Of all the posts I have ever written, this is one of the most personal and one of my favorites. This weekend, I saw my first inchworm of this spring, and I felt the need to share this post again. I wrote it about one of the most difficult seasons of my life and how God showed that He hears every cry His children make, even when we're not sure He does.

***

It’s as if there are two brains operating simultaneously inside my skull. One is the brain with a brain, thinking about the logistics of my new life – finances, schedules, grocery lists, the reality of living as a single mom. 

The other is the brain with the heart, thinking about the pain of being alone.

These two brains war against each other, the winning brain at any moment anyone’s guess. My thoughts shift moment by moment, like a radio dial that jumps between frequencies. This is an unanticipated difficulty – never knowing which brain will take control, and feeling powerless when the wrong one is in charge. Thoughts are the most powerful force I face, and they are as inconsistent and fickle as my four year old.

The brain with a brain is also the one that houses the truth of my faith. It knows that God is good, that He provides for the birds and will provide for me, that He will never leave me or forsake me. It knows that Creator could simply speak and light would illuminate this darkness. It trusts that Satan has already been defeated and though it feels as if he is winning, his fate has been sealed. 

The brain knows, but the heart – oh, the heart.

The heart questions. The heart grieves, mourns, wails. 

Doesn't trust. Has difficulty believing. Becomes like Job, cursing day of birth and demanding answers. The heart overpowers the brain and convinces self that it will be alone forever, unable to trust again.

Faith-brain and heart-brain take turns at the helm, moving me abruptly, my spirit like a bumper car. I want to be like Job, believing God for good, but Job’s friends take up residence in my head, demanding I search self for fault. 

Clarity, Jesus. I need clarity, truth, peace. Give me a respite from the dueling brains. Both head and heart ache.

I determine from day one that I want – no, need – to remain present in this trial. There are lessons to be learned, God-whispers directed to my ear that I will miss if I hide. “The testing of your faith produces endurance . . .” (James 1:3). The building of endurance requires the cooperation of the tested. I can suffer through this, merely surviving it, or I can be built stronger – choose to see faith grow.

God honors this desire. He speaks.

One of the first days back at preschool, Son becomes attached to a green inchworm on the playground. Upset by teacher’s news that Wormy must live outside, Son insists that we search for him after school. We do, but to no avail. Because his emotions are so close to the surface, Son bursts into tears and cries all the way home. 

I know the inchworm is not the real issue.

And because the inchworm is not the real issue, I am angry. I lash out at God – “Why, Lord, do even the small things in our lives have to upset so greatly right now? You who number hair on heads and sand on shores, who know thoughts from afar, why would you not let us find a simple inchworm at a time like this? Do you not care?”

I vent my anger over the insignificant, but I know that this, too, is not really about the insignificant. 

Nothing is coming easily, and I am weary.

I park minivan, unbuckle car seats, unload children, unzip jackets . . . and freeze. 

There, crawling on Daughter’s purple jacket is a tiny green inchworm.



The tears flow freely. They flow freely as I laugh and cry and cradle Wormy #2 and praise God in my garage for caring – for speaking His love through inchworms, for reminding me that He is sovereign over every detail. “For God does speak – now one way, now another – though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14).

The inchworm reminds me, once again and in spite of my spiritual amnesia, that my God is personal. 

He hears, He listens, He knows. 

He will reveal Himself if I will only ask.

Isaiah told the Israelites then and tells me now that "the Lord longs to be gracious to you..." (30:18). 

This trial is not my desire, yet in the midst of the terrible, my God longs to grace my life with him. Oh, that I would see it and take with outstretched hands. "Shall we take good from the Lord and not trouble?" (2:10). 

I will take it Lord - I will take it all, if you will only continue to be gracious.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Double Knots

I live a double-knot life, and I'm ready for that to change. You know the old double knot routine from elementary school years. Tennis shoes can't be tied just once when you're doing strenuous activity; they have to be tied in a double knot so there's no risk of them coming untied and tripping you.



Those double knots are the story of my life. I, for 34 years and 11.5 months, have double knotted every aspect of my life. I have been the epitome of safe living. Always afraid of messing up or getting into trouble, I have done exactly what was expected and always what was safe. I'm not talking about just wearing my seat belt or driving below the speed limit; I'm talking about doing what I "should" because it involved no risk. I'm talking about doing what was safe and easy so I could avoid tripping myself.

When I was in school, I was every teacher's dream and my own worst nightmare. I studied nonstop, always did my work, and never questioned what I was being taught. Academics were the priority, even to the point of forfeiting fun. As a high school senior, I chose to attend college in my hometown and live at home because I was afraid of moving away from the familiar. My fear cost me a real college experience, and I've already told my children they will be forced to go away from home after high school. They will not be allowed to live so double-knotted that they miss what life has to offer. I have too much experience in that realm to allow it to become their reality.

I've learned that there's a huge difference between apprehension-induced inactivity and flat out fear-causing paralysis. Paralysis has been where I have lived, and I'm so over it.

Don't expect me to start sky-diving or driving a motorcycle. Those are risks I don't think I'll ever be willing to take - I'm just a scaredy-cat when it comes to those, and I'm ok with that. I do hope that in my 35th year, however, I will loosen the knots that have strangled the life out of me and will step outside of my comfortable boxed-in life. What will this look like? Nothing radical, probably, but it will (hopefully) radically impact my daily life.

First, more writing. I know that I have kept my words to myself for fear of how they'll be received, and it's absolutely ridiculous. God has called me to write, people have responded to my words, and it is what makes me fully alive. My husband literally just moments ago signed me up for a writing conference, and I have to submit my writing by Sunday. Does that make me sweat? Absolutely. But sweat won't kill you. Denying your purpose just might. 

Today I read these words from Anne Lamott about why writing matters: "Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life; they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship."

Yes! That's why I will write - I want to stop being squashed by the absurdity of life, instead singing during the terrible storm. This is why I will write, because this is what we were meant to do.

How else will I loosen the knots? I will be more vocal about what I think and what matters. For far too long, I have allowed my full mind to operate nonstop while keeping my voice silent. In groups, I listen and usually defer to others. No more. If I don't agree, I won't acquiesce. If I have an intelligent word on the topic, I will not be quiet just because I don't have a dominant personality. Dominance is just as much a sign of insecurity as silence, so there's no need for me to assume that people who try to steamroll others have any more insight than I do. They are just louder; they are not more right. 

I also want to stop being so darn afraid of making mistakes. I want to loosen my collar and kick up my feet every once in a while. I want to have more fun and be more carefree, less worried about imperfections being visible. Who cares if I'm not perfect? (Well, I always have, but that needs to change.) I'm one of those people in my Zumba fitness classes who legitimately cares if I mess up a step. Stupid. That's just stupid. The steps don't matter; the sweat does. The fun does. The steps really don't.

I also want to loosen the knots strangling me when it comes to relationships. 'Once burned, twice shy' is the old saying, and it's unfortunately true when it comes to being hurt by those once close to you. I have allowed past pain to prevent new connections, and there is nothing more dangerous to an introverted soul than unnecessary isolation. I'm tired of being scared to be the real me around people. Either they will like me or they won't. If they don't, oh well. It's not the end of the world. Someone else will.

Quite simply, I want to be a person willing to take more risks. Not unnecessary, foolish risks that endanger my life, but wise risks that open up a world to me that I always held at arm's length. I love this quote: "Take a risk. Be spontaneous. The suffering that might come from a mistake is usually less intense and less enduring than the suffering of asking 'what if?'"

You know what's pretty cool? That manuscript I'm sending Sunday is entitled "What If?"! I think it's a risk I'm willing to take!

Am I the only one living a double-knot life? How are you looking to loosen the knots?

Photo coursey of http://walsworthfamilycircus.blogspot.com/2010/04/we-are-getting-soooo-goood-at-tying.html

Thursday, February 26, 2015

For You, Today, If You're Grieving

I recently spent time with a woman in the new hours of her worst tragedy. Her heart is still raw, the tears still flow freely, and the brain cannot yet absorb just what has happened. She asked me, knowing that my heart had once been torn, too, "How did you make it through?"

Oh, how I wish there were an easy formula, a 12 step plan for the life class of Grief 101. 'I didn't make it through', I wanted to tell her. 'I'm still trying. There is no finish line.'

Grief is not a stage of life that you go through and get over. The emotional suffering you experience through loss will never fully disappear, though in its midst, that's what you desire more than anything. You want the hurt to stop, but it won't. It  will never go away, although with time it will lessen in intensity.

Experts say there are stages to grief, a logical and almost scientific explanation for what you will experience. Different models vary slightly, but the basics are the same. You begin with a disbelief and denial that the event, whatever it is, can really be happening. You think and sometimes verbalize, "This can't be my life. This cannot be happening." Eventually, experts say, you will find yourself in the acceptance stage. This is where you learn that life goes on and you will, too.

For anyone who is grieving today, regardless of the reason, I want to give you my own advice. I want to tell you what the experts might not, and I want you to know that you will make it.

First:

Stop trying to be so strong. What you experienced was horrific, and you don't need to pretend otherwise. If you don't allow yourself to fully express your pain now, it will come out later. (And even if you do deal with it now, it will still resurface in the future. This is normal, and although you will hate it, it is necessary for full healing. Feel it, allow it, and face it. Running from it will mean running from healing.) Allow yourself to cry, and when people ask how you are, be honest. Say you're struggling, say you're not sleeping, say you can't eat. Your honesty will give them permission to step in and help. Isolating yourself by denying the pain will begin a cycle of self-destruction that you never intended and cannot handle alone.

Next, and this is a hard one:

Stop expecting and wishing for life to be what it once was. It never will be again. Everything will look different forever, and there is nothing you can do to recreate the old. It will seem as if you are viewing life through a new pair of glasses, and at first, those lenses will be uncomfortable. You will want to throw them as far away as possible and hunt for your old, broken-in, comfortable pair. Friend, they are irreparably broken and irretrievable. You must wear the new. I promise that over time, they too will be wearable. Perhaps they will never be as comfortable or familiar as your originals, but they will eventually be a part of your life so normal that you forget they are there. The new lenses you see through will be different, of course, but they will also give you sight in areas you were blinded to before. This new sight will transform you in ways that your old lenses never would have allowed.

More (and I am writing this for myself, truthfully):

Do not, under any circumstances, compare your life to anyone else's. I know, I know. It's impossible not to do, especially in pain. You naturally look at others who are oblivious to the hurt that is your constant, and you begin the comparisons. You want their life, and you resent yours. Believe me when I tell you that the famous saying "Comparison is the thief of joy" is 100% true. Whatever joy is intended for you will disappear like morning fog when you compare your story to others'. It will be impossible to experience any contentment or happiness if you are looking around. Avoid this temptation.

A hard truth?

Anger is normal, anger is natural, and anger will engulf you in ways that shock you. It may come out of nowhere, and it may sneak up on you in the most unexpected ways. It may also be highly irrational. I remember one day, in the immediacy of my own grief, becoming irate that the trash bag would not come easily out of the trash can. I wrestled with it, became furious, and collapsed, crying, in a heap on the kitchen floor. Obviously, feelings of anger had been building, and in that moment they overflowed. The same may happen to you, and you may express yours to the environment around you, people who have not hurt you, or even the person who died and left you alone. Again, this is normal. Look for the root of the anger and find healthy ways of expressing the very physical side of your rage. Go for a run, beat a punching bag, yell into an empty house. Write out your feelings, vent to someone you can trust. Feel the feelings - don't suppress them.

Expect repetition:

Once you make your way through a stage, don't expect to be finished with it. You will cycle back through many of the stages over and over, and in many ways, this is healthy and makes sense. If you really loved someone or were emotionally attached to whatever you lost, you should grieve it. You should need time to come to terms with the loss, and you should not be able to easily forge through.

Believe this:

Life can be good again. No, life will never be the same; that expectation is unrealistic. However, in time, you will begin to enjoy activities and people again. You will feel permission to smile, and you will go through longer and longer stretches of time where your grief isn't in the forefront of your mind. You will learn how to exist in your new world, and you will discover how to go through your days purposefully. You will be happy again, I promise. You will love, and you will change. Your grief will change you for the good, if you allow it, and your life will be good again. It will. You have to believe it.