Six weeks ago, I was packing a small, carry-on suitcase more sparsely than any suitcase I've packed in four years. I included only two sets of clothes--comfortable, me, layered (in case the disparity between the air-conditioned university classroom and the often humid Iowa air was too great)--a small bag of only the most essential toiletries, and the items representing the limitless opportunity before me: a laptop, a spiral notebook and pen, and a couple of books. Normally I hate packing, but this time I did it carefully, contentedly, almost tenderly as I thought about and hoped for the hours that were coming.
When Josh got home from work, we played and ate dinner together the way we usually do in the evenings, but just before it was time to put the kids down for bed, I tucked my small, black carry-on neatly into the otherwise empty trunk, set my red book bag--which ordinarily overflows with diapers and pajamas and stuffed animals--on the empty seat next to me, and cheerfully waved goodbye to the most beloved treasures I have on this earth.
Then I took a deep, exhilarating breath, turned the music up to a volume reminiscent of my high school days, and commenced the hour drive to the airport.
The journey itself was every bit as significant as the destination for its unencumbered ease and independence: the drive by myself; the easy bus ride from the remote parking lot to the terminal without the shuttling and hefting of small children and large bags; the additional three hours of reading time before my 9:30 p.m. flight left at its delayed time shortly after midnight during which, despite my exhaustion, I basked in the knowledge that I had no one else to entertain, to persuade to sleep, or to corral; the 3 a.m. taxi ride with the most educated and articulate cab driver I've ever encountered who shared every detail of the Iowa flood and its wreckage while she made our way to the hotel.
And then to wake up less than four hours later to make my way to the orientation for the Summer Writing Festival in this distinguished, historical building standing proudly in the middle of the University of Iowa campus, the academic energy humming in my light, expectant spirit--it was nothing short of magical.
The workshop itself was, unfortunately, an anomaly in the otherwise excellent array of summer courses. Everyone in the small classroom who'd ever attended these workshops, whether the week before or every summer for years before, said so. It didn't matter. It was still sacred time for me.
During our first break, I met a woman who wanted to know more about the blog I hoped to create, who wanted to know more about me. It was a gift from Someone bigger than either of us, her simple question asked curiously but sincerely: "What do you mean by 'spiritual things'?" I had included "spiritual things" in the short list of writing topics I had shared with the class when we were all posed with the question of what we hoped to blog about. Then she told me of her hopes and desires for her own blog. And they share a common soul, I think. Our chance encounter confirmed the stirrings I felt within and gave me the courage to actually begin, this.
Less than forty-eight hours after I left the house, I rolled my little black carry-on through the Iowa airport and flew home again--my mind renewed with the knowledge of myself apart from my blessed but exhausting title of "Mommy," my spirit refreshed by this and other divinely orchestrated introductions within our small band of learners, my heart profoundly grateful to my husband for allowing me this luxurious freedom.
I realized tonight that I've become a drugaphobe--not in the recreational sense (though I'm certainly phobic of those) but in the pharmaceutical sense. I am leery of anything stronger than Ibuprofen or Tylenol or, if absolutely necessary, an occasional antibiotic. Even these I take far less frequently than I used to: only when the throbbing headache or incapacitating sinus infection renders me useless to the world and I'm left no option but to pop a few pills.
I never used to be this way. I used to happily ingest medication, prescription and over-the-counter alike, without a second thought. No concerns about side effects. No worries about how they might be affecting my organs. No care about the drug's process in my finely-tuned body.
This new facet of my personality developed, I realized, when I learned that my body was actually capable of conceiving, growing, and delivering a breathing, thinking, feeling, fully-functioning person. It changed the way I perceive my body--for the better, mostly. But it has also made me starkly aware of the way medicine interacts with the systems. And while I'm 99.99999999999999 percent confident that I am not currently incubating a tiny human, the very, very, very small chance that it's within the realm of possibility is enough to make me eschew all things pharmacological.
Unfortunately, I'm supposed to be taking three medications right now because there's a good chance I have H. Pylori, a bacterial infection of the stomach that may be the cause of some of the weird but intense abdominal pain I've been having off and on lately. This, or I have a hiatal hernia, which was in all likelihood induced by pregnancy (lovely: more ailments, fear of drugs, all thanks to the wonders of maternity). So my doctor prescribed this strong course of treatment that comes in bottles with warning labels that say things like, "DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT GOING OUTSIDE IN THE SUN WHILE TAKING THIS MEDICATION" or "A GLASS OF WINE MAY KILL YOU WHILE ON THIS MEDICATION" or "DO NOT EVEN TOUCH THIS BOTTLE IF YOU ARE PREGNANT, MAY BECOME PREGNANT, OR ARE NURSING."
Okay, the warnings aren't quite that strong, but they are in all capital letters with little drawings for the folks who can't read the giant doomsday text. And I'm thinking, why do I want to put these things in my body if we don't know for sure what's going on? Oh, that's right: because if I do have the infection, my chances of getting stomach cancer increase, and that's a disease that, sadly, runs in the family.
So I took my three pills tonight, lamenting and kvetching the whole time. My husband laughed at me and my irrational attitude toward controlled substances prescribed by a highly-educated, duly-informed professional who's taken an oath to "First, do no harm." And he's right. This doctor knows way more than I do, no matter how proficient my googling skills are. I need to relax, trust the guy with the medical degree, and hope that this treatment relieves me of these awful pains.
But I'd like to state for the record that I'm not happy about it. I will gladly resume my medicine-free existence in ten days. Hopefully, I will also resume a pain-free existence in ten days--the jury's still out on that one. In the meantime, I will be carefully scheduling my three-times-a-day doses to be sure I don't take them less than an hour before eating (especially dairy) or less than two hours after eating or within a half hour of lying down (you can thank the medicine for this post for that very reason).
I'm going to give myself an ulcer just thinking about it.
I'm a little giddy in my soul from this morning, high from the rush of love and exuberance I shared with Ben during our end-of-summer celebration. These moments when I get him all to myself are so rare, so precious. I can listen fully, watch completely, absorb every detail of his person and world without distraction--no eyes darting to make sure his sister isn't about to careen headfirst into something hard or sharp, no interruptions, no refereeing.
Just being. Together.
We squeezed every second of fun out of our morning together at the near-empty, carnival-esque park. We bounded from ride to ride with utter abandon. We didn't have to bother with lines, with long boring speeches about keeping our hands and legs inside the vehicles, with the disappointment that a ride was coming to an end. If Ben wanted to ride again, we rode again, smiling and laughing until our cheeks ached. I think we tried every ride a four year old is permitted to enjoy. It was two hours of unhurried, unfettered, unabashed delight.
Now he is sleeping soundly in his room, his body worn from the sensory rush. And I am savoring the moments in my mind, sipping the warmth of them slowly, deliberately. He heads back to school Wednesday, off to master more of his world in the insatiable way he has when it comes to learning. Our days will fall back into the comforting routines of fall, and Abby and I will fill our mornings with our own adventures. It is all good.
But the time shared today will remain seared in my heart as a reminder of all that is wondrous about the relationship with a child, about the new eyes we receive when we enter into the world with them, through them. I need to open them more, these eyes, from places other than the kitchen or car or store. The world is a thrilling place when I look, when I break the grown-up inertia of to-do's to share the view with my darlings.
Abby has begun to understand the nuance of language: idioms, exclamations, intonation. My favorite right now is "Holy Moly!" As in:
"Ho-wee Mo-wee! Iss haht ouh-sighd!" or
"Ho-wee Mo-wee! I'm uh mehss."
This morning, Josh asked her what she wanted for breakfast, and she stood there in her pajamas in the kitchen, reflecting on the options and saying thoughtfully, "Ahmmmm..." before declaring with certainty in her signature volume, "Tohst!"
It's hysterical to watch the evolution. I mean, she's always had a voice. Even as an infant she had something to coo about everything, but now she's wielding it with authority, with panache, with gusto.
So this morning, when she returned empty-handed from her trip upstairs which she took expressly for the purpose of retrieving her water cup, naturally we asked her where her cup was. She stood there looking at us with one foot cocked out to the side and replied simply, matter-of-factly, with all the confidence and poise of Barack Obama, "Up-tairs!"
Causing Josh and I to fall into uncontrollable giggles.
I found this poem last night and felt it captures perfectly the tenuous balance I try to strike with the kids: teaching them about the world, little by little, knowing with every explanation or definition, there is a universe of thought and meaning that cannot yet be spoken. But it will be someday.
I found this poem as I was searching for poems that could be read at a funeral. Big Abby's mommy passed away Monday. "Big Abby" is our babysitter, and Ben coined that title to distinguish her from our own little Abby. I met her in my life before children when I taught English at a local high school. She was in one of my freshman classes, and I grew to know her more through her involvement with student Senate and through her roles in the theater department. Last year, I wrote her a letter of recommendation for the well-respected theater program at her university, and she is to begin this new endeavor next week. She called me yesterday to ask if I had any recommendations of poems she could read at the funeral. "How do you find a poem for a funeral?" she asked. "Google funeral poems? That seems morbid." So I spent the evening looking for poems in my anthologies from college.
Her mother had fought cancer for 15 years, but her death was unexpected, related to a fall she took on their family vacation a few weeks ago (which I'm sure was related to the cancer). I imagine there must be some confusion to lose someone who seemed always on the brink of leaving to something other than the constant, epic battle. Whatever the case, this beautiful, 19 year old girl will now walk out into the world without a mother to bring her flowers on opening night, to meet the man who will be her husband, to hold her children as they grow. My sadness for the totality of her loss is indescribable.
I see little Abby's hand in the picture--so concrete, so sure, learning the world through all that is tangible and literal. Now, she sees a yellow flower, feels its soft, delicate existence, hears the bumblebees flitting nearby. Someday, she will see more: beauty? hope? the love of her mother who captured the moment? It is a strangely, beautifully, tragically complicated life we live.
by Margaret Atwood
You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.
This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.
Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
A few nights ago, I joined my sister at a seminar conducted by Dr. Timothy Vollmer, a leading neurologist at the forefront of MS (multiple sclerosis) research. He spoke about how new science and research are reframing the discussion about the disease's course in individuals as researchers better understand when and where the actual damage occurs in the brain and when and how symptoms show up as a result.
Whereas scientists used to believe there were three distinct phases of the disease that occurred throughout a patient's life, each marked by respectively more and more disease activity in the nervous system leading to greater and greater symptoms or disability, they're now learning that the disease really does most of its damage early on. What's interesting is that early on, when the disease damages nerve fibers, the brain is able to "rewire" itself through different neural pathways, thereby compensating for the loss of damaged nerves (a phenomenon known as "cortical remodeling" or "cortical remapping"). So it's actually possible, or likely, for the disease to be at work in someone before there are noticeable symptoms because the symptoms are masked by these compensatory activities of the brain. Eventually, however, the brain loses its ability to reroute its signals as easily and therefore can no longer compensate for the damage; this is when new or permanent symptoms arise.
It's actually very much like the process that occurs during aging. From birth, we all lose brain cells and neural pathways to the extent that we don't use them (which is why we're encouraged to expose babies and children to other languages, to music, etc., so that these neural pathways remain intact). At some point through the years, our brains lose their plasticity, their nimbleness, their ability to form new pathways, and this is when we begin to see deterioration in eyesight, hearing, mobility, memory function, etc. The brain literally shrinks with the loss of neural pathways as we age, or in the case of MS, with the nerve damage caused by the body's inflammatory immune response. In fact, the size of the brain of a patient in the first stage of MS (the relapsing-remitting phase) is akin to that of a healthy sixty year old.
Fortunately, as with aging, the best defense against MS is a good offense: use the brain as much as possible, both cognitively and physically, in order to maintain its optimal ability to rewire.
Now, all of this is fascinating in and of itself, but as I was spinning this morning on the patio of the rec center, looking at the endless rows of mountains, listening to the entire American Idiot album by Green Day (the instructor was in a Green Day mood), soaking up every ray of sunshine, I had this thought: what if our "hearts" actually function like our brains?
I mean, I've grown more and more convinced lately that people act out of their pain. People are hurt, wounded by someone else in their life, sometimes horribly and deeply, sometimes less obviously, and so they lose a little of themselves. They harden this part of their heart and then rewire their behavior to compensate for this loss. They learn to protect themselves through meanness or performance or humor or victimization or perfectionism or abrasiveness or avoidance. And so they become, in some ways, defined by their hurt.
Recently, I was talking with a friend in the throws of making a significant life decision, and all she could think about was how it would affect her parents; the whole discussion was framed not by whether the decision was right for her life and her goals and her values but by whether it would anger her parents too much. The irony was, the decision she wanted to make was actually the one her parents would want her to make, but she couldn't even evaluate her own thoughts because the voice of her parents was so strong in her head.
I think this is why I struggle so much with the idea of a bad guy, because I know that every villain has walked his own painful journey through life, and who knows the experiences that may have shaped an innocent child once upon a time? This is also the source of so much of my anxiety about my children: worry that they will run into one of these deeply wounded people one day; worry that they will be inadvertently wounded by me or someone else and compensate in destructive ways.
But I also think that this is where the power of forgiveness comes in.
I try to apologize to Ben when I have treated him impatiently or unfairly because of my own tiredness or stress or worry, and when I do, I ask him to forgive me. And he always asks, "How do we forgive?" That's a difficult question to answer--one I haven't understood very well to this point--but as I've thought about it more these last few months, I'm beginning to think that forgiveness involves letting go of the hurt that we've endured so that it doesn't damage our heart, so that we don't lose or close off that part of ourselves, so that we don't nurture a trespass and wake up one day to find we've become a different person to compensate for the loss.
As I watch Ben interact with his world, I find myself holding my breath when he encounters meanness or selfishness or aggression or manipulation, praying that he will not let those encounters or experiences change him. I understand now that what I'm really hoping for is his ability to forgive those people--to let go of that pain--so that it doesn't take root in his heart and shape who he becomes.
I also think that this may be what God was able to accomplish through Christ: to take on every hurt, every shame, every trespass, every cruel or ugly or false thing that people do to themselves and others and yet forgive it all, let it all go, so that He is not defined by fear nor by anger nor by pain--except that now He understands our struggle for he's walked much more than the proverbial mile in our shoes.
Instead of hardening His heart or seeking revenge or exacting penance, He offers peace with God and gives us the grace to forgive those around us so that we will no longer be defined by our hurts, so that we will no longer act out of our pain, so that we can be free from the way others have defined us and instead stand in the truth of who He has created us to be. The places where our heart was once hardened become the places where God's mercy and grace are most brilliantly displayed to the hurting world around us.
So I sat there pedaling, listening to Green Day, marveling at the power of forgiveness to prevent our hearts from dying little by little and having to rewire themselves like our brains. Then I realized, as with aging and MS, the best defense is probably a good offense: to exercise our hearts as much as possible.
"There are lives I can imagine without children but none of them have the same laughter and noise."--Brian Andreas
I found this quote when I was looking at greeting cards in one of our local gift stores this weekend, and I loved it so much, I bought the card to hang on the wall near my desk.
It's true: there are lives I could imagine without children, and these imaginings usually arise when I'm feeling especially tired or frustrated or tied down, when I'm wishing Josh and I could run away for a weekend or, let's be honest, just an evening without having to handle the logistics of sitters and kids' schedules and the very weighty responsibility that comes with children. Or when my list of to-do's grows longer and longer by the day, but the impossibility of tackling any of the items while the kids are awake stares back at me every time I look at it. So I stare at it during nap time or when the kids have gone to bed for the night, but by that time, I barely have the energy to stare at the walls, let alone clean out my files.
And then there's the noise--oh, the noise! Lately, Abby has become the one-volume wonder: loud. Whether she's happy or frustrated, excited or heartbroken, she communicates every thought and emotion at the top of her lungs. While it's adorable when we're petting a basset hound on the street and she says, "I wahn uh peh duh dah-ee agaihn, peeeeez!" it is less charming when we're finishing lunch at a restaurant and she says, "I wahn ouh, peez!" over and over so that every patron in the establishment knows her high-chair escaping agenda; most of the time, she barely pauses long enough to hear us say, "Abby, we'll get out as soon as we've paid!" And it's downright exhausting when we're at home and she announces without ceasing, "I wahn mihl, peez," the entire time we're getting her cup and pouring her milk and screwing the lid on for her. Somehow, early on, she grew to associate waiting patiently with using her manners, so even when I say, "Abby, I'm getting your milk right now. Can you please wait patiently?" she simply responds at a decibel level audible to our neighbors, "Peeeeeeeez!" (At least she does use her manners consistently--you can hardly chastise a not-yet-two-year-old for being too loud when she's clearly attempting to be polite). I think volume control is a concept that just simply does not exist for her yet.
On several occasions, I've told Josh that my greatest luxury is driving somewhere alone, either listening to my music or catching up on world events courtesy of NPR or, sometimes, enjoying the sweet sound of nothing--free from any responsibility to respond to someone's question, comment, observation, accomplishment, tears, or request.
But then there's the giggles--oh, the heart-warming, perspective-providing, soul-grounding effect of their laughter. It is a balm more effective than any spa treatment or Ibuprofen could aspire to. When Ben and Abby get that look, and one of them starts, and then the other joins, and they spend minutes upon minutes looking at each other and then doing something silly, and then falling over themselves and each other in the pure, unbridled joy of their delight, the sweet sounds of their laughter filling every corner of our home, I am smitten with this idea of family--at once swept up in the levity of their childishness while being drawn into that grown-up place of introspection that recognizes the beautiful, undeserved gift that is being a parent.
So I bought this card to hang over my desk as a reminder of these things.
The challenges are real, and hard. The chaos--even in my carefully orchestrated world of routine--is supreme. The noise, without doubt, threatens my delicate handle on patience, even while it comforts and amuses me in its innocence. There, indeed, are other lives that would be easier, neater, safer--and quieter.
Shortly, after the kids have woken from their naps and the clock approaches four, we'll load the pumpkins into the car and commence our forty minute drive to downtown Denver so we can help in the nursery at church.
What I really long to do--yearn for, even--is drive to church, give the kiddos a kiss, wish them a good time in Sunday school, hand them over to someone else, and then slide into one of the pews in the back of the sanctuary and let the music and the Truth of the evening wash over me as I sit in still, quiet, passive reflection.
For some reason, our summer weekends have been busy, full of travel and events and parties and all manner of good things with an occasional sickness thrown in for good measure, resulting in an inability to attend church with any kind of regularity. In fact, of the handful of times we've been able to go, only once have we been able to simply attend the service. The rest of the time, it has been either our turn in the nursery or it's been a home church Sunday (the last Sunday of the month, our church doesn't meet in a centralized location but rather meets in several homes throughout the Denver metro area). I love meeting as a home church, but thanks to the busyness of other people's summer schedules, our regular childcare for these home church meetings has been sparse, so for the last three months, even at home church I've been helping with the kids and unable to participate in the service.
I miss it. Tremendously.
Not because I think that missing church makes me any less spiritual or committed or devout, and not because I think attending church makes me any more spiritual or committed or devout, and certainly not because I think that loving these precious kiddos is unimportant, but because on a soul level, I hunger for Truth. And while I get tastes and glimpses of it everyday, everywhere--in music I hear, in interactions I see, in conversations I have, in movies and t.v. shows I watch, in books I read, in the grandeur of the mountains I behold daily--when I sit in The Sanctuary and hear Peter recast the Bible stories I grew up with in the Truth of God's mercy and grace, transforming hellfire and brimstone judgement into the consuming fire of God's love, I am set free. I can breathe more deeply. I can see more clearly.
I can walk away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, rejecting the temptation to judge myself and others in my attempt to make myself like God, and instead bow humbly, gratefully, and amazed at the tree where God's judgement is revealed--the cross. Where the only body broken and the only blood shed is His own, in love. Where the only words spoken over humanity are, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
The old, misinformed paradigm from which I used to operate is chipped away little by little so that a little more of the the unique story God is telling through me, and each of us, is revealed. I am reminded of--and transformed by--gospel, good news.
But tonight, though I am tired and longing to hear this story in the sanctuary, I will go to the nursery and allow God to tell me His story in the more subtle ways. Not out of martyrdom, but out of my sense of responsibility to and gratitude for the other people who sacrifice their time other nights to care for my children. And hopefully next week, the stars will align so that we can drop off our children, slip into a pew in the back, and listen to the really good story God is telling through someone else.
Before his nap this afternoon, Ben and I read a sweet story about Joshua, a crippled lamb who feels left out because he cannot run and play with the other lambs. In the end, Joshua's handicap, which forces him to remain behind at the stable while the other sheep journey to a far away field, gives him the opportunity to provide warmth to a special baby born in the stable that night. It's the fruition of the promise his cow friend, Abigail, makes throughout: there is a special place for those who feel left out.
As we read about Joshua's tearful disappointment, Ben said, "It's just like Papa sometimes feels sad when we all eat breakfast and Grandma does, too, and he only can have his shake." My dad was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and has taken on significant dietary restrictions which prevent him from indulging in my mom's famous french toast, a meal served and enthusiastically consumed every time they visit. Generally, my mom adheres to my dad's lifestyle change, but even she can't resist the french toast. While I've never heard my dad complain about having to sacrifice this yummy breakfast, I'm sure Ben--who looks forward to french toast almost as much as he looks forward to playing with Grandma--was projecting how he would feel if he were Papa.
It was fascinating to see him make this connection, to see him empathize with and testify to my dad, who disciplines himself to choose the healthier options when everyone around him is enjoying sugary treats. And it made me wonder if, even in our most isolating experiences, there is someone, somewhere, who sees and acknowledges our struggle--who, even if powerless to change it, gives our situation meaning beyond what we may understand in the moment.
At the Farmer's Market yesterday, we chose to eat lunch at Camp Grounds, the family-run coffee shop situated right in the middle of the Bergen Village marketplace. The Tuesday morning fanfare must do them well, as they were packed when we went in to order. Every table was occupied. So I figured we'd go ahead and eat at a picnic table on the adjacent patio where we could enjoy the sun, the mountain vistas, and the general merriment of the market.
We settled in at our table, waiting for our food, and talked about the electric violin at a nearby stand. We chatted empathetically with an older woman who had lost her cell phone and thought perhaps she had left it at the table where she'd eaten lunch. Ben asked if she had looked under the tables and then proceeded to check under ours for her, to no avail. She smiled warmly at him, remarking at his helpfulness. A minute later, having given the situation some thought, he suggested sincerely, "Did you check down between the seats in your car?" This location must have been fresh on his mind since I had accidentally dropped my keys between my seat and the console when we arrived earlier. Again, she looked at him warmly, surprised but charmed by his participation in her crisis. I offered her my cell phone so she could call her phone and listen for the ring, but it sent her straight to voicemail. Eventually, she gave up on the lunch tables and wandered off to retrace her route again, chiding herself for her atypical carelessness.
Our food arrived, and the kids ate sparingly, full from the fruit smoothies we had bought as a treat from another stand. Ben commented that he was thirsty, so I suggested he go into the coffee shop and ask for a cup of water.
I should note that this kind of task is very familiar to him. He loves being the one in restaurants to walk to the counter to ask for a take-out box, an extra cup, a lid, or whatever else we may discover we need in the course of a meal. He's happy to walk into the library by himself to drop the books in the slot or to pick up something we've requested from another branch or to renew the books that he's still interested in, clutching his own little library card responsibly, proudly. I generally station myself in close proximity or eyesight so that I can help if necessary (though I've been unnecessary thus far), but I happily allow him this independence and the subsequent sense of accomplishment he clearly feels--emerging from every situation with a grin and a confirmation that, yes, he used his manners. These little successes, I trust, are building a foundation of confidence, self-reliance, and poise as he learns how to wait his turn or wait for a pause in the exchanges at the counter before politely saying, "Excuse me," and then making his request.
In this instance, he was concerned about getting the heavy door open, but I assured him that there were plenty of people walking in and out who would be happy to help him if needed. And if he did have trouble, he could just wave to me, since I had full sight of the door and the interior from our table.
He walked over to the door and did struggle to pull it in a David vs. Goliath sort of way, his hands gripping the handle, his body leaned back to offer the full force of his weight in his efforts. He pulled with all his might for less than five seconds when a different older woman, who must have seen my son's futile attempts from her place in line, opened the door for him. I started to wave a thank you when I noticed her slightly scowling and perturbed face. For a moment, I thought she didn't realize that he was with me or that I was fully aware of his whereabouts, so I gestured that I knew he was there, flashed her a thumbs up, and smiled reassuringly. She kept looking at Ben and talking and then looking at me questioningly, perhaps even disapprovingly, so I even tried to say over the din of the market, "He's just going in to get a cup of water." Her demeanor didn't improve but they went inside, and I hoped she didn't feel obliged to help him.
A minute later, Ben walked out empty-handed. As he got closer, I could see he looked confused and a little sad. "She wasn't nice," he told me, a bit teary. I sympathized and rubbed his back and asked what had happened. "She said I couldn't get a drink there," he relayed. "Why did she say that?" he asked, searching my face for an explanation, wondering, I'm sure, if I had been wrong.
I told him I didn't know but suggested that perhaps she was confused: "Maybe she didn't understand we had bought lunch there and you were just going to ask for some water." I waited to see if that explanation matched his experience.
"She said I needed money and couldn't get a drink here," he expanded.
"Oh, it sounds like she thought you wanted a special drink. I think she didn't understand what you were doing," I offered, hoping to relieve her of her mean girl status in his eyes and also hoping to salvage his confidence in my judgement. "Why don't I walk over to the door with you, and you can go ask for water. Since we ate lunch here, it is perfectly okay for you to ask that."
So we walked over together and Ben went in to ask the man behind the counter for some water. This time, he returned to the table with the problem of his thirst solved.
The problem, I realized, is that this woman's expectations of a little boy (and his mother!) were so low. At no point in the exchange did she seem to consider the possibility that he actually knew what he was doing, that he may have had my endorsement of his endeavor, or that he had every ability--and right--to walk into this shop and take care of himself, save his need for a little help with the door. And what if he had been going in to buy something? Ben has his own dog wallet with his own allowance money which he most frequently chooses to spend on "special milk." "A kid's milk with one pump of raspberry syrup" is what he orders at coffee shops and then proceeds to pour out the change from his dog to find the requisite number of quarters, dimes, etc. for his purchase. When asked, he chooses to accept a receipt, this finishing touch adding authenticity to his experience.
Inside, I was furious with her discouragement. Most people are pleasantly suprised, or at least amused by this little guy asserting himself so willingly. But she was certain he could not possibly know what he was doing.
I realize we are raising Ben and Abby a bit differently, perhaps, than some children are raised. We have given him the freedom--nay, the encouragement--to speak up, to set boundaries for himself, to communicate his desires, frustrations, or requests to the people around him, whether they're younger like Abby or peers or grown-ups. Our fundamental belief is that children are people--little people--but real people nonetheless. This does not mean that they are licensed to have or do or say whatever they want, but this is where the normal learning curve of childhood comes in: learning to communicate these things respectfully, learning how to consider the needs or desires of the group in addition to their own, learning to live with disappointment when the answer is no.
This, of course, is a work in progress. The other night, Ben was sitting on the couch with our dear friend when he began drumming with his drum sticks and making quite a racket. She asked him nicely if he would please stop since it was loud, which he didn't like as he's usually permitted to drum. Immediately, and not too nicely, he asked, "Why?", his standard response to almost anything. She explained that she had a headache and that the drumming hurt her head, and this satisfied him so he moved on to a less noisy activity. A bit later, Ben said to her politely, "You can go in the other room."
Her first reaction was to be shocked and appalled at his disrespect, but she soon realized his intention was innocent: he was merely parroting language he's heard us use with him on a daily basis: "Feel free to _____ (yell, bang, pick your nose, speak that way, play with that noisy toy, etc.) in the other room." In fact, my dad still chuckles over the memory of Ben walking to another room when he was two to loudly shout "No" in every intonation imaginable; it had nothing to do with defiance and everything to do with experiment. So Ben gets the concept of communicating an acceptable alternative, but we're still working on the execution. As with any childhood (or adult) skill--drawing, playing an instrument, writing a story, carrying a conversation--it's a process.
But it's a process I'm committed to because one day, ten to fifteen years from now, I hope he'll have the confidence, self-reliance, and poise to say, "Feel free to _____ (open that beer, smoke that cigarette, experiment with those drugs, make that choice) at your house." And I pray that, unlike the disapproving woman at the coffee shop, those around him have the patience to respect the process and the wisdom to come alongside him in grace to help him refine those skills along the way.
I stumbled into a moment of sweetness tonight so pure, so tender, it took my breath away.
It was made all the more remarkable by the contrast of the minutes before. I was on my own with the kids tonight, and as I herded my clan upstairs for bedtime, they both managed to earn time outs in the loud, irritating, let's-take-our-frustration-with-the-day-out-on-mommy kind of way. Once I had them both placed in their rooms for a little cool-down time, I hopped on the computer to check my email, wondering just how long the next twenty minutes would be.
Fortunately, the few minutes of alone time seemed to settle us all down, and the pajama and toothbrushing routine carried on uneventfully. My agreement with Ben anytime I'm in charge of putting them both down by myself is that we'll have time to read books if he's ready for bed by the time I'm done putting Abby down. This time, he was ready before I even started reading books with Abby, so he grabbed his Teddy and blankie and joined us in the oversized green rocking chair in Abby's room. Thus began a few moments of parental bliss.
We read "Kih-ess," as Abby pronounces Kisses, both kids finishing the sentences before I could read them. Abby was sandwiched between me and Ben, and the air was filled with alternating giggles, exclamations, and small gestures of affection. Then we read Cow in the Cabbage Patch, with Abby repeating all the animal sounds throughout and Ben imitating all of Abby's animal imitations. When we finished the books, I turned off the light and asked who wanted to pray and sing.
Ben said he did, and so he prayed, beginning with our customary "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" prayer as inherited from Uncle Sean and Aunt Lisa and then leading into "Dear Jesus...". He thanked God for all of our family, immediate and extended, for our yummy dinner earlier, for Abby again, and then prayed that Abby could have a big bunk bed, too. This must be the penultimate request for a four year old who adores his own bunk bed, and I was moved by his generosity toward his sister.
Then he began to sing, and the room grew quiet except for his strong, confident voice which, though lacking pitch, did not lack soul. We rocked in that green chair, the three of us content to share those precious, snuggly, end-of-the-day moments together, listening first to "A Simple Song" followed by "You Are My Sunshine" and ending with "Jesus Loves Me." At one point, Abby crawled onto my lap and laid her head down on my shoulder, perfectly stilled by Ben's music. My eyes grew moist with gratitude.
When he finished singing, they exchanged precious "night night"s in their little voices and snuggled a minute together in the chair, Abby's head next to Ben, arms wrapped gently around each other--neither looking particularly comfortable but both happy to stay there indefinitely. They adore each other--they really do. In each other's eyes, they are the sun, moon, and stars. I let them snuggle for longer than I normally would, reveling in their love for each other.
When I finally lifted Abby into my arms to carry her to her crib and Ben walked to the door, they both started singing "You Are My Sunshine" again, independent of each other. Ben continued singing into his room; Abby sang in the endearing way only a baby on the brink of girlhood can--in round, soft words, rising and falling with the melody of the song, some syllables indistinguishable from the next. I kissed her, laid her down, and quietly closed the door behind me.
Few things fill my heart like their genuine affection for each other. When I see them in those moments of pure love, I get a glimpse of what I think God must feel, and desire, for His children. There's a reason that all of His commandments--all of Scripture, really--can be summed up by the simple yet profound command to "Love your neighbor." When I see Ben and Abby enjoying each other so completely, loving each other so unselfishly, with no regard for themselves, my joy is unspeakable. Everything is as it should be. It is the fulfillment of every hope I would have for them.
It is what God the Father must long for from us: to put away our agendas, our religion, our politics, and our fear of losing our toys to actually see, know, and love each other. To pray that we'll all have bunk beds, not in spite of our differences, but because through our differences, we can actually know Him more fully, more completely.
I stumbled into a holy night tonight. And it was very good.
This morning, Abby fell in the mud--not just a brief tumble into a little patch of wet dirt but a full bodied face-plant into a sopping wet puddle of brown, sticky sludge. So absolute was her plunge that she could not pick herself up; she merely wailed, in shock and in panic, as she realized the extent of her tragedy. She was covered in ooze, from her chin to her pink baby Converse: her shirt, her shorts, her diaper, her knees, her shins, her elbows, even her cheek managed to participate.
To complicate matters, our unpreparedness was absolute: we were at a newly-opened park on a bike trail we've ridden a few times, several miles from our car with nothing to clean her up or change her into. Before our bike ride, we had dutifully checked our tires, packed extra tubes, tucked toys into various pockets of the kids' trailers, applied sunscreen, and ensured an adequate supply of water and snacks. But somehow, we had neglected to bring a diaper and wipes, a staple we generally don't leave home without.
This left us in quite a pickle, as we attempted to comfort our sobbing daughter and figure out how on earth to get her back to the car in relative comfort. Fortunately, patches of her shirt were dry, so we stripped her down and used those sections of her shirt to remove the biggest splotches of mud. We were quite a sight: Josh and I in our bike shorts and helmets, Abby standing in the grass nearly naked, Ben sporting his helmet and sunglasses and asking when he could buckle into the Weehoo again. Our large audience looked on in mild amusement and relief that it wasn't their own child while we scrambled to redeem our otherwise delightful ride.
I managed to find a kind woman who gave me a diaper just one size too small for Abby, but she didn't have any wipes. Thankfully, she did offer me two small napkins, which I wet in the splash fountain when it finally turned back on. These two napkins managed to clean Abby enough that we could buckle her back into the trailer, where she enjoyed the rest of the ride in the unencumbered glory of her freshly diapered birthday suit.
I tried not to think about what the other cyclists passing us must think of our clothes-less child or the fact that her round, pale belly was unprotected by sunscreen. I tried to push the self-deprecating thoughts of our carelessness and disorganization out of my mind and tried not to have the internal debate of whether it's really necessary to bring a change of clothes on a fifteen mile bike ride. I mean, 99 times out of 100, our kids are going to get back in the car in the same attire in which they exited, right? I was only partially successful.
All the while, I pedaled, announcing the small bumps in the path so she could brace herself, slowing down so we could enjoy the field of prairie dogs darting in and out of their burrows, pointing out the wildflowers still in bloom.
When we reached our car, I got off my bike and turned to get Abby. I found her completely relaxed in the trailer--legs splayed to either side, shoulders slumped, arms resting still on the seat, eyes nearly closed. She was the picture of utter contentment.
As we drove home, she jabbered away in the back. At one point, she pointed to herself and said, "Abby wet." Josh and I laughed and confirmed that yes, she had gotten very wet. Already, the disaster was being transformed into a story, into a common history. Already, the mud was adding layers of meaning--and comedy--to the otherwise easy fun of our morning together. In the end, her misstep did not take away from our outing but added to it, turning our average bike ride into an adventure. Redemption.
On Wednesday as we were driving home from a lovely play date at the park, I realized my gas light was on, so we pulled into the tiny gas station in Morrison to fill up. I rolled the windows down before I turned the car off to prevent my little Flowers in the back seat from wilting in the heat.
While we waited for the tank to fill, the station attendant walked onto the porch a few feet from our car. She was tiny--barely filling her blue jumpsuit--but strong, scrappy. It was difficult to gauge her age: fifties? She could have been older or younger. Her skin had the weathered tone of a smoker, but her hair was lovely: long and blonde, if a bit dry. She looked like a woman who had been beautiful in her youth but who had seen enough of life to know she'd better hold her own because no one else would do it for her. I watched her pull out a cigarette and wondered how she had ended up here.
I also wondered if Ben had noticed her and if he'd have any comment about the cigarette.
A few weeks prior, he had asked me about the "white sticks that blow steam out of your mouth." He must have seen someone smoking somewhere when we were out. I explained that they're called cigarettes, that it's actually smoke that comes out them, and that they're not really good for our bodies. This statement, of course, led to a barrage of "why" questions (his favorite kind), so I gave the preschool explanation of cancer: "Well, when people smoke cigarettes, it actually puts smoke in their lungs, which isn't good for lungs. Sometimes, the smoke causes things to grow there that aren't supposed to, and when enough of these things grow, they can make us very sick. Sometimes, people's lungs get so sick they have trouble working and breathing properly."
I was content to leave it at that, but Ben was not. "What happens if they don't work anymore?" he continued. I figured a direct, honest answer was best. "They can die," I said simply. He has a basic understanding of the concept of death from watching the cycle of life in our yard: the flowers, the bugs, the many animals that entertain us with their presence throughout the day. They appear and disappear, protect and attack, move and lie still. I hoped this answer would satisfy him.
"And they can make Jesus smoky," he added earnestly. Like I mentioned in a previous post, he has this visual of Jesus hanging out in his stomach. He does have a point, though: if our bodies are God's temple, then whatever we do to ourselves (and more importantly, each other), we do to Him. "Yes, they can make Jesus smoky," I validated. The conversation ended here and hadn't come up since.
So we sat in the car in the gas station in Morrison, enjoying the sun and the breeze as we settled down from our morning of play and headed home for naps. I looked back at Ben and noticed he had, indeed, seen the woman and was watching her intently.
Which is when he asked audibly and matter-of-factly, "Mommy, is she gonna die?" He was still watching her; in fact, he hadn't even looked at me when he asked it.
Glancing at the woman, I quickly responded in a low voice that if we want to ask questions about people, it's probably best to do it quietly or after we're not around them so they don't get embarrassed, and then I promised to address his question as soon as we left the gas station. As I finished this instruction, she coughed, as if on cue--a long, low, gasping kind of cough, a smoker's cough.
So as we pulled back onto the street and headed up the Canyon, I addressed as honestly as I could his questions about mortality: "Well, Sweetie, we're all going to die eventually, but if you're asking if she's going to die sooner because she's smoking, I don't know. Did you hear her cough? It sounds like her lungs are pretty sick."
"Am I going to die?" he asked curiously.
"Someday," I responded casually.
"Are you going to die?" he continued, un-phased.
"Yes, but probably not for a long time," I reasoned.
"Why?" he continued.
Always with the why! So we talked about life, and heaven, and Jesus, and how Jesus can be in heaven and in everyone at the same time. Mortality and divine ommipresence in a fifteen minute drive...I need more degrees for this job.
At some point, from the other side of the back seat, I hear Abby's sweet little voice say in complete naivete, "Mommy die?"
I navigate uncertainly through these murky waters, daily: desiring to be as forthcoming as appropriate without alarming them; reassuring them they're safe while teaching them about danger; discussing other people's decisions and consequences candidly, hopefully without judging; giving them the information they need to make their own choices without lecturing or preaching.
Someday he may be offered a cigarette, or something worse, and I want him to think about his lungs and his body and his valuable life and the lady at the gas station, not my voice saying, "You shouldn't smoke."
A few minutes after our conversation, the car swaying with the twists and turns of the mountain road, the strings announcing Peter's presence as we listened to Peter and the Wolf on the iPod, Ben said, "Mommy, when I grow up, I'm not going to smoke cigarettes." "Okay," I replied neutrally. Inside, I smile slightly and say a quick prayer that he remembers this in ten years. "And I'm going to drive a motorcycle." Well, at least he's a firm believer in helmets.
This is his life. These are his decisions. I won't be able to make them for him, so I pray I equip him with the confidence, the experience, the information, and the love he needs to make these choices wisely. And I pray that we get to share a lot of years of life together before we greet our own mortality, because without doubt, we're all gonna die.
Ten years ago, I was studying furiously for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) while trying, unsuccessfully, to deny that I was falling in love with the man who would soon become my husband. Ten years ago, I was still uncertain of who I was, still trying to prove myself through my accomplishments, still seeking my identity in the approval of those around me. Ten years ago, I needed to be able to say I was pre-med in order to feel like I was somebody, believing I would only enjoy life if I was doing something that other people validated was important, impressive. Even though I think my heart knew all along that my most natural aptitude, my most passionate endeavors had nothing to do with chemistry, physics, calculus, and biology, I pressed on until life circumstances gave me the freedom to be honest with myself--and what a relief that was.
To let go of the pressure. To let go of the nagging questions of whether this was really what I was made to do. To enter fully into the life I knew with certainty I was called to, with Josh.
I took the MCAT and scored a decent score overall: it certainly wouldn't ensure my entrance into medical school, but it wouldn't eliminate me from consideration, either. A closer look at the score, however, spoke volumes. Of the three equally-weighted sections of the test--physical sciences, biological sciences, and verbal reasoning--I scored the maximum points possible on verbal reasoning and squeaked out a barely respectable score on the other two. As a pre-med English major, I was competent in both, but it was clear which one was in my bones, which one I was designed for. And let me tell you, it isn't chemistry.
My husband, however, is a PhD chemical engineer with an education from a world-renowned university, brilliant beyond description in the hard sciences, creative beyond measure when it comes to fixing, rigging, or otherwise MacGyvering his way through a problem (and here he grows terribly embarrassed by my gushing). So my science background isn't for naught. It's nice that I have a basic understanding of the sciences, that I generally know what an oligomer or an isomer is, that he can describe at a semi-technical level the experiments he's conducting at work without totally losing me, and that we can converse in science speak over breakfast, as in, "A bike ride with the kids sounds fun, but I'm not sure I can muster the activation energy to make it happen."
And I'm still wholly fascinated by the body. I've studied a bit of nutrition and exercise physiology over the last year as I've trained for the MS150; my understanding of the nervous system has been useful as I've sought to understand the pathology of multiple sclerosis since my sister's diagnosis four years ago; and I love teaching Ben all about the systems of the body, from the way his digestive system uses the different foods he eats to the reason Auntie NetNet sometimes has trouble walking to the important job our respiratory system has in supplying the oxygen our body needs to live.
Nothing in life is wasted--no experience, no relationship, no knowledge, no belief, past or present, even when it comes from a place of vain, selfish glory.
In late August of 1999, Josh and I drove my parents' little black Honda Prelude from my hometown in California to my home in Boston over four 16-17 hour days in the car. This trip solidified our suspicion that we were meant for each other, and I no longer bothered trying to deny that I was wildly, madly in love with this man. In the fall, I set in on my honors thesis on the role of medicine in Jane Eyre, in June I unreservedly accepted Josh's proposal of marriage, and seven months later, I walked down the aisle with more certainty and conviction than I'd had about anything thus far in my life. I had completed the pre-med curriculum and the MCAT, and that was enough for me: to prove to myself that I could, and then acknowledge with relief and a bit of trepidation that I wouldn't, pursue medical school.
Ten years ago, if you had asked me what I would be doing in ten years, I could not have conceived of the place I am now, neither of the events that have transpired nor of the peace and fulfillment and confidence I have--wholly apart from my accomplishments (or lack thereof). This is a gift of grace, and one I could not give myself.
I imagine I will feel much the same in another ten years.
There is something about the minutes right after bath time that makes my heart ache with contentment. After splashing, scrubbing, pouring, squirting, and giggling with the energy only kids possess, my little cuties stand before me dripping and wrinkled, waiting for me to cocoon their unselfconscious bodies with their towels. Once snugly wrapped, they grow momentarily still, the rush of their water adventures giving way to the calm of their surrender to my gentle drying pats and squeezes. They are clean, fresh, smelling of innocence and purity and baby shampoo.
Then Abby, who normally bounds and careens and prances through life like a puppy, insists that I pick her up. When she's folded securely in my arms, she lays her damp head on my shoulder and snuggles in, content to share this moment of communion before racing off into her next thrill. For these brief, wondrous seconds, I get to hold her and squeeze her and coo sweet nothings in her ear, washing away any residue of hurt or frustration from her day so she can begin again, her spirit refreshed and clean with the reminder of her truest self.
Rinsing away the dirt of the world, the sweat of their labor, and the trace of the messes they've made reminds me poignantly of the more important role I have: to whisper to their souls who they really are when the world sullies their spirits with its judgment, to remind them that needn't strive and work and try so hard to earn my love, and to gently encourage them as they face the hurts they've caused and wrestle with how to make things right.
Baby shampoo and Mama lovin': powerful antidotes to the mud and mire of this life.
Sugar Land/Sienna Plantation, Texas, United States
I'm a mama to Benjamin (8) and Abigail (6) who tries to parent in faith, hope, and love. After 11 magical years in the mountains of Colorado with my husband, Josh, life's unexpected turns landed us in the humid suburbs of Houston. Even so, the wonders never cease...