Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Sweet It Is to Not Be In Middle School Anymore

"Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all." Katherine Mansfield

I found myself reading through some of my old journals this afternoon as I tended to the last little bit of organizational work related to moving our office out of our bedroom and into the basement.

I began journaling in seventh grade, and my little yellow journal--complete with a combination-protected lock--was full of middle school drama, boy angst, and terrible, terrible poetry.

As I matured, the content remained largely the same: social events and nuance, lots of rambling about boys and more boys, but thankfully, no more poetry! The perspective changed, though, as I grew older and experienced more of the world. My observations were less literal and more analytical, my expectations were more guarded and less gushing, my devotion to the opposite gender evolved greater selectivity (thank goodness), and my questions and fears and frustrations in life were more likely to revolve around career paths and major life decisions rather than with whom I'd be attending the next dance or youth group event. Though I suppose those were major life decisions at the time--everything seems to be a matter of life or death at the uncertain age of thirteen.

I found this entry from the summer of '97, between my freshman and sophomore year of college, one year before I would meet Josh:

"God is sovereign...I believe that. Why do I worry about BOYS?!!? or my future. God knows what's in store for me. If I have a husband...who it is...if I'll date before I meet him...where I'll meet him...when..."

At the time, I could not possibly have conceived of the events that would transpire over the next year to bring my life together with Josh's. I returned to school in Boston that fall and then endured a grueling semester that wore me down on a number of levels; I ended up withdrawing from classes early in the second semester to really evaluate whether medical school and Boston and the path I was following were actually right for me; because I was out of school, I was able to extend the one week trip I was to take to Bolivia over spring break to work alongside a doctor and a team of volunteers with street children in La Paz to a three week trip, during which I ultimately decided to return to BU, pursue medical school, and date the doctor; strangely enough, the doctor is the one who connected me to the Wilson House where I lived when I returned to Boston, which happens to be the same house Josh was living in.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So it's funny to look back at those words now, knowing the outcome. It's strange to think back to the time when I didn't know what my life would look like. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Little did I know that I was less than a year away from meeting my life-long companion.

Well, when Josh called this afternoon, I told him I was looking through my journals to figure out which ones had stories about us so I could save those and trash, or better yet, burn the rest. To my surprise, he vehemently opposed this idea, suggesting instead that I at least throw them into a box in our storage room so that maybe one day the kids could read them. I can hardly imagine anything more horrifying than Ben or Abby reading my awful sludge about boys I don't even remember now, about friendships that ended in the cruel twists of adolescence, or about all the spiritual striving I used to expend so much self-centered energy on.

However, I decided they might be useful to keep so that I can reassure myself when Ben or Abby comes home asking permission to go here or hang out with these people or attend this party or generally set out in the world away from my protective care with only the opposite gender on the brain. They may give me some much needed perspective. So perhaps I'll throw them in a box intended for my eyes only, and then once they graduate from college, I can host a ceremonial bonfire to officially obliterate all written evidence of my youth-induced mania.

Whatever the case, I am so supremely grateful to be a grown-up without all the peer-induced drama. And I suppose I'm also grateful for a record, twaddle or not, of where I was so that I can truly appreciate where I am.

Abby calls, so I think I'll begin by appreciating this windy, autumn afternoon with her.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Never Say Never (Unless It's Like This)

We continued our annual family tradition of driving Squaw Pass this morning. It was a glorious day: sunny with just a hint of crispness in the air and, of course, mountains of aspen in myriad stages of colorful surrender to the shorter, colder days of fall.

Ben suggested classical music when I asked what kind of peaceful music we should listen to as we drove, so we enjoyed timeless masterpieces while the kids identified the sounds of violins and pianos and other instruments.

We drove, commenting on the cyclists we passed, noting the most stunning shades of gold and orange, and pointing out the place where we took our earliest family pictures, first when Ben was about eight weeks old and later when Abby was just a week old.

At one point, Ben said from the back seat, "Mommy, I'm never, never, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to stop loving you."

My heart burst into flame with the warmth and sincerity of his affection.

After Ben said this, Abby began to echo the same sentiment to her Daddy. Josh looked at me, and we smiled in recognition of this perfect moment in this little family we've miraculously created together and get to call our own.

Ben offered me this beautiful emblem of hope as I reflected on the last four years we've shared as a family, because in order to say this, he must have heard it--and internalized it--from us. And if Ben and Abby leave our family with only one thing, I pray that it is the knowledge that we will never, never, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever stop loving them.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Last night, I realized how easily amused I am by commercials. I must have laughed out loud a half dozen times while Josh and I watched t.v., and Josh looked at me with something like amusement every time.

I don't remember most of them now, but the one that does stand out is a new (to me) Mastercard commercial. It shows a little girl maybe four or five years of age eating a bowl of cereal with painstaking effort. As she very carefully works to get every last Cheerio onto her spoon, the narrator calculates, "Books so she can learn to read so she can go to college and grow up to be a famous writer: $14." The camera then shows the girl slowly picking up her bowl to drink the last bit of milk, which--in the most endearing fashion--misses her mouth entirely and spills down her shirt. The narrator concludes, "Taking it one step at a time: priceless."

I chuckled at the sweetness of her efforts but even more at the obviously misguided efforts of the parent in projecting and plotting and planning so far into the future when there is so much to appreciate and experience and teach and learn right in this moment. I chuckled most, though, because I recognize this future-thinking quality in myself.

I have this unfortunate tendency to extrapolate every little thing, good or bad, into its extremest form years and years down the road. Ben recognizes the sound of a violin or a tambourine in a song on the radio and I'm convinced he will be the next Beethoven. Or he says something to me or to Abby out of anger or frustration and I panic about how this will manifest in his adult years.

It's actually a quality I'm beginning to really despise for a number of reasons. For one, I know that when I'm parenting out of this place of expectation, be it concern that I nurture their strengths appropriately so that they don't miss out on opportunity or, more commonly, when I'm parenting out of fear, worried that if I don't "fix" this behavioral or emotional issue now, it may grow into a monstrosity later, what I'm really doing is trying to control everything. I'm believing this lie that somehow I will make or break my kids, that I have the power to mold them into responsible citizens or to ruin them, that I have to do something to ensure they will be okay. It is a very dark and scary place when I get wrapped up in my own performance as a parent as measured by my toddler and preschooler's daily behavior. It's suffocating for me and unfair to them.

It's true that my actions will influence them, probably significantly. It's true that my children will grow to view the world in a way that's greatly shaped by my love and fear and compassion and anger, for better or for worse. It's true that some parents buoy their children's spirits while others shred them.

But when I get so wrapped up in this thought that somehow I have to do everything right in every moment or else, I think I'm actually more inclined to screw it up. When I react to the kids out of fear rather than love, my response and my discipline look quite different than when I engage them in the confidence that "He who began a good work in them will be faithful to complete it." And the "He" there is not me. I neither started the good work nor can I complete it.

When I let go of the result and instead focus on our relationship, I find myself interacting with kindness and gentleness and patience and self-control. I can come along for the journey that I am privileged to be a part of, holding their hands and hugging them tight, listening with compassion and speaking with grace, confessing my mistakes and forgiving theirs, all the while praying like crazy for their hearts and minds and bodies and souls as they walk through a world of hurt. I think I can actually love them with some semblance of real love. And I'm counting on the fact that love covers a multitude of sins.

I'm learning that God does, indeed, make all things new: me, them, us.

No doubt, I am a significant part of my children's story. Someday, they will have to work through things I've said or done that have wounded them, perhaps deeply. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if parents are the very first taste of imperfection in this world, if they provide our first longing for truly perfect Love, no matter how well parents parent. Because parents are our first encounter with people who are human and who have strengths and weaknesses and insights and blind spots which they are able to wield with blind authority for many years. Some do this better than others, but to date, I haven't heard of any who've done it perfectly.

So I'm learning to surrender this failure, trusting that God will ultimately redeem my messes in them and for them. Then I can rest. And enjoy. Without stressing out about who they will or will not become in twenty years. Without pressuring them with the burden of my expectations or disappointments.

Anyway, I chuckled at the commercial last night, knowing how much I long to provide the very best possible experiences and opportunities so that Ben and Abby have the very best possible chance of enjoying their fleeting stay here on earth. But I also smiled inside, a small, quiet smile, because I recognize that I am learning--slowly and, at times, falteringly--how to let go, and how to truly live, in love, by grace.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I mentioned in my previous post that Abby injured her head while we were in Mexico. It happened while Josh and I were out of sight: we had just returned to our room from breakfast to change into swimsuits, and I had gone into the bathroom to clean Abby's bib, and Josh had followed me in to talk logistics. We heard the kids talking and laughing before we heard Abby's cries. Josh went out to check on the situation, and that's when he found her bleeding quite profusely.

Of course, a whirlwind of activity ensued as we applied pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding and got ourselves down to the resort doctor as quickly as the elevator allowed. Ben had told us that they were playing and Abby fell against the marble corner of the ledge near where they were (supposed to be) removing their shoes.

We had her examined, and the wound itself, while deep, was pretty small (the beauty of a corner, I suppose). The medic cleaned it out, applied a bandage similar to a butterfly strip used in lieu of stitches, and advised us to stay out of the sun and water for the day (more easily said than done in Mexico). So once we returned to our room, we decided Josh would take Ben to the pool and I would occupy Abby in the room (also easier said than done).

Throughout the morning, though, Ben made comments to Josh that made it clear he felt some responsibility for the incident. We assured him that it was an accident, but we could see it was nagging at him, whatever had happened.

After his long nap, Josh, Abby, and I went in to greet him before he had even slid himself out of bed. In his sleepiness, he snuggled into my arms and asked if Abby's head was okay, if it was still bleeding. I assured him again that she was fine and that it just needed a little time to heal. Feeling like maybe he needed an opportunity to get something off his chest, I said softly, "It's hard to see someone you love get hurt, isn't it?"

He nodded his head and then said, "After she fell, I gave her a hug to try to make her feel better. That's how I got blood on my shirt." And he did have blood right in the middle of it, probably where her head had been pressed to his chest.

I affirmed his attempt to comfort his sister, acknowledging his love for her, and said something about how it can be messy to take care of someone who gets hurt, and that it's okay. Knowing how fastidious our son is about cleanliness and order and germs, I recognized how uncomfortable it probably was for him to get bloody. He immediately replied, "Yeah. We always get blood on us when we're loving someone who's hurt."

There was something about his words that struck me as being so very profound. He's right: when we love someone, especially someone who is hurting, we risk sharing the blood, the mess, the ugliness of hurt and pain. Love, true love, does not watch suffering from a safe and sanitary distance but rather enters in, disregarding the risk to oneself. My heart melted for this little boy who grabbed his sister and held her close, hoping to make it okay. If you'd seen her, you'd know how frightening this would have been: when I came out after Josh called, "Shaundra, I need you!" her face was covered in red, there were pools of it on the floor, it was dripping off her as Josh tried to figure out where the gash was located.

When Ben made that statement, I could only think of Christ, who not only is willing to enter into and assume our hurts but to shed his own blood, to make a mess of himself in order to heal our pains. Every theological mystery and debate and disagreement is somehow resolved in that truth: "We always get blood on us when we're loving someone who's hurt."

Well, we left the conversation at that and went into the bathroom to find his swim trunks so we could head to the pool. While he was changing, I remembered the time when my littlest sister, only one at the time, cracked her head open on the edge of a doorway while we were running through the house together and how worried I had been, how responsible I had felt. I was seven at the time. I shared this story with Ben, hoping it would give him the freedom to lay down his mental burden.

And it did. He asked a few questions to make sure I was actually involved in the process of her getting hurt and not just a witness; I assured him that while it was an accident, I was definitely part of the reason she got hurt. And then with great focus and concentration and big hand gestures so I would know exactly how it happened, he told me the story, at times stumbling over his words as his mouth tried to keep up with his mental and emotional outpouring.

It turns out they were "playing a little rough," in his words, hugging each other while spinning in circles, which is a favorite game of theirs here at home. At some point, they let go of each other, but Ben lost his balance, and as he tried to catch himself, he knocked Abby into the ledge. It was completely innocent, an accident in the truest sense of the word. But he was involved, and it was eating at him, as the incident with the jaguar ate at me.

I could visibly see his spirit lighten as he told the story. After thanking him for telling me and assuring him again that we know it was an accident, I hugged him, and he bounded off to finish getting his swim gear on.

Josh told me later that when he was putting Ben to bed that evening, Ben asked, "Daddy, do you want to know what happened?" and relayed the whole story again. I think he was so relieved to share the truth of it, to get it out in the open and know there was nothing between us. He very bravely walked into the light of honesty, and found that through confession, he was healed.

So much amazed me: how my vulnerability provided a safe context for Ben to be vulnerable; how hiding things--out of fear or shame or guilt--only makes us feel worse; how often times, we need to share the darkest places of our heart so that someone else can tell us we're okay, we're not bad, we're not in trouble. And even if there had been some culpability in his actions, I hope our reaction would not have been anger or judgment but instead would have been to acknowledge the trespass but then call him into and remind him of the greater truth of who he is, by grace.

Ben still asks how Abby's head is each day. When Abby realizes the band-aid is there, she says, "I hurh mah heah." There may be a small scar, but it won't be noticeable. And in some ways, it is a scar of love. If they didn't adore each other so much, didn't delight in being together the way they do, there never would have been an opportunity for the accident.

So if their friendship continues as they grow, which I pray it will, somehow I think Abby won't mind the scar.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Home is Where the Rainbows Live

On Friday, Ben said to Josh, "I don't like tomorrow." This is because he knew we'd be leaving Mexico on Saturday.

I think we all empathized.

In spite of the wildcat drama (and an unfortunate meeting of Abby's forehead with a marble corner the following morning, resulting in a disconcerting amount of blood but, fortunately, no stitches), we had an amazing trip as our little family of four--it exceeded every expectation Josh and I had when we embarked on this adventure. By the end of the week, Ben was "swimming" in his floaties to the middle of the pool and back all by himself, Abby was greeting every staff person with an enthusiastic "hola," and Josh and I were marveling at the incredible lives we have created together.

It was with reluctance that we packed up our swimsuits and beach toys, bidding a fond farewell to our friendly waiters and hostesses and taking one last look at the stunning ocean cove we called home for seven days. Then it was back to reality as we squeezed into a tiny taxi and commenced our journey home.

Fortunately, our "reality" is pretty good. Ben looked out the airplane window as we were getting ready to land and said, "Mommy, we must be in Colorado because there are mountains over there." It's nice to leave one paradise knowing you're returning to another.

We drove home at sunset, watching the miles of gray clouds--amassed in dramatic displays of grandeur--turn varying intensities of orange and pink over the continental divide. As relaxing as it was to sit on our balcony in Puerto Vallarta and watch the waves below rise and fall in their endless worship of the shore, there is something intensely grounding about the rows and rows of pines, the rise of peak after peak of mountain top as far as the eye can see. It is home to my soul.

We exited the freeway onto the parkway, rounding the bend to turn onto the road that winds through the mountain valley to our neck of the woods. In her sweet voice, Abby questioned us from the backseat, "Whehr ih the wree-baoh?" Uncertain of what she said, we asked her to say it again. "Whehr ih the wree-baoh?" We still didn't understand.

"The green ball?" we guessed, trying to clarify.

But Ben responded with kind authority, "No, Abby, it hasn't rained. It's only there when it rains." Josh and I looked at each other, thoroughly lost, and asked him what Abby had said. "She's asking where the rainbow is," he informed us.

And then it all made sense. Josh explained to me that the three of them had seen a rainbow over the mountains on another gray evening when rounding this same bend. She remembered the moment and must believe this colorful gift exists there always. Her innocent expectation delights me, this thought of a rainbow perpetually around the corner.

Josh acknowledged her memory, then confirmed Ben's explanation that, indeed, rainbows only appear after the rain. We continued our drive home, catching sight of a large buck as our car swayed familiarly through the valley. The magic doesn't end with vacation, I thought with gratitude.

Today, as expected, was full with nursery responsibilities, meetings, grocery shopping, unpacking, laundry, cooking, e-mails, phone calls to contractors, and all the other things we gladly avoided in Mexico. But I'm content--happy, even--to be sitting here on our couch, to be watching Kashmir snooze comfortably on our freshly-folded laundry, and to be writing to you from the land of Rocky Mountain rainbows.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One For the Baby Books

When did I become the one? For years I have casually sailed through life, relying on and trusting others to protect me, to warn me of harm, to ensure I would be safe if I unknowingly ventured into dangerous territory. Growing up, it was my dad. I knew if he said it was okay, I would be fine. There was comfort in this knowledge. In college, I lived in a kind of sheltered independence—making my own decisions, but always under the relatively safe auspices of the university or the student housing in which I lived or the company of my other sensible friends.

And then there was Josh. Walking through city streets at night, sleeping in our mountain home that backs to forest, traveling to exotic cultures and repelling through waterfalls or zip-lining through rainforest canopies, I trust I am safe if we are together, whatever befalls us. His presence and wisdom is reassuring. We can talk through options or scenarios, and I know I am not alone. If I falter in any way, fall into danger for any reason, he will stop at nothing to make sure I am okay. It may sound old-fashioned or like antiquated chivalry, but it is true of us.

Yesterday, however, I realized—with a sharpness of insight that comes only in moments of vulnerability—that I am one of those people for Ben and Abby. Our outing this morning added an exclamation point to the realization. They see both Josh and me as that buttress of strength, that refuge of security, that voice of reason. If we say it’s okay, they proceed with faith in our presence and wisdom. If they get scared, they trust and expect that we will come to their rescue. It is as it should be, but to some degree, it terrifies me. I know, after all, that I am merely human. That I don’t know everything. That I have physical limits, and blind spots.

We went to the beach yesterday after naps, and Josh took Abby out into the surf to cool off. The flag indicating the water conditions was yellow: proceed with caution. If it’s green, all is calm. If red, the sign warns, “Danger.” They bobbed and splashed happily, and it only took a few minutes for Ben to realize the sand, while full of construction possibilities, was too hot. He asked to go out with me.

Walking into the water, he wanted to hold hands at first, but as the water got deeper, he asked to be held. This beach is a little tricky because it has a shelf-like effect, dropping off in short, quick slopes. Knowing this, I took it slow, holding my ground every few feet to ensure my less than towering five-foot-two-inch frame would remain above water as the waves came in. As I reached a spot a comfortable distance from the shore, a wave came in, and while I was plenty high as it moved past us toward the shore, the sand eroded beneath my feet when it receded, leaving me a few inches lower. This proved precarious when the next wave moved in, the currents first pushing us strongly toward the shore. I held my ground with a little effort. But then the current tried to pull us further out, insistently, forcefully, and here I had trouble maintaining my footing as the sand slid out beneath me. It was in this struggle that I recognized my vulnerability—and how essential it was that I keep us upright until the tide came back in and allowed us to walk further into the shore. I took a few steps in the shoulder high water, held Ben tightly, smiled and joked to keep him calm—as I’m sure he recognized I was not steady—and somehow managed to keep us above water level in spite of the strong undertow. Once the water began to fill in again, I carried him quickly back into the beach, telling him the currents were too strong for us to play in the water. He ran off into the sand to plow roads with his bulldozer, unaware of my internal panic. Not five minutes later, they changed the flag to red.

I was starkly aware that I alone was the only variable determining whether this trip into the ocean would create more memories of fun or trauma.

Then this morning, the punctuation. We visited the Puerto Vallarta Zoo, which showcases an impressive variety of animals—from toucans to camels to mountain lions—made all the more remarkable by how little separates us from them. Here, the rules of Darwin reign: none of the giant gulches to separate spectators from predators, no signs advising against leaning over the walls or putting fingers through the fences, no warnings, no precautions, as one would find in the carefully constructed U.S. zoos. Just faith in our common sense. Only a chain link fence, sometimes in two layers, separates us from lions and tigers and bears—oh my. We were sold a bag of carrots, peanuts, and small seeds that we were allowed to feed to the animals at will. They assume we know that handing peanuts through the fence to a hungry bear is a bad idea. High on the freedom and responsibility not generally bestowed upon us in the land of legal liability and lawsuits, all four of us had a blast feeding monkeys, giraffes, zebras, camels, and other wild animals.

The highlight came when we were offered the opportunity to play with the baby tigers and jaguars. Seriously. About halfway through the zoo, this teenage kid says, “If you want to come down here, you can pet the baby tigers and jaguars and then come back out and finish your trip through the zoo.” We looked at each other and smiled and followed him down to an eating area with a large set of cages at the far end.

Another couple, probably honeymooners, went in first, so we were able to watch how they interacted. The young woman played with a tiger, four months old but probably weighing a good thirty to thirty-five pounds—smaller than Ben in stature but about his weight. The man held and petted the nine month old jaguar (which we would call a black panther) that was leashed in the larger cage into which the younger tiger was brought for his play time. He was at least as big as Ben. They were beautiful. We saw that they were playful but relatively harmless, occasionally nipping at the couple as kittens might but never dangerously or painfully. The trainer was with them the whole time, admonishing the youngsters if they got too playful.

Then it was our turn. We had decided that Josh would go in first with Ben, so I could take pictures. Then I would take Abby in after. Josh and Ben played with the tiger, which mostly amounted to Josh holding and petting it and keeping it still so Ben could cautiously venture over when he felt comfortable. I took pictures over the fence, but the trainer invited me in to get better shots. Since Abby was playing happily in the restaurant area, closed in on all sides without another person in sight, I joined them to get some less limited shots. Then the trainer suggested that Abby come in, too, so I could take pictures of all three together.

This is where our logic broke down.

Sure, we thought. Abby walked in and over to Josh, and Ben hung back toward the door. At some point, the trainer encouraged them to come further out in the caged area where there was more space. Josh sat on the floor holding the tiger in his lap (I can’t believe I just wrote that) and Ben tentatively walked over to pet it. Then Abby walked up near its face, so we quickly cautioned her to move away, which she did, but in her easily excitable way, she pranced over to the other side of the cage, shrieking with delight, which happened to be where the baby jaguar was leashed and lying in the corner.

We saw what was coming, but before any of us could get there, the jaguar—seeing a playmate—jumped excitedly on Abby, knocking her over, and then grabbed her leg with her mouth.

Please pause with me for a moment, here, and feel the rush of adrenaline and panic that immediately invaded my body.

We are in the Puerto Vallarta Zoo petting wild animals—a feat unthinkable in most other countries—and my not yet two-year-old-daughter is in the grip of a black panther. Visions of puncture wounds and blood and infection and visits to the hospital and the very unbelievable story I would have to tell our pediatrician, not to mention our friends and family, washed over my mind in a flood of shock and regret.

I was at her side in seconds, the trainer right behind me, who simply shooed the jaguar into letting go of his toy. Truly, the jaguar had no mal-intent. She saw another creature her size and pounced benignly as kittens do, though it was horrifying to me.

I carried Abby out of the cage, settled her down, cleaned off her leg with a baby wipe, and silently berated myself for our carelessness. I was shaking from the adrenaline—and on the brink of tears. Fortunately, Abby’s skin was barely broken in one place, though there were a few red marks, akin to those left by our kitties Jasmine and Kashmir when they nip, left on her leg. She was fine, and seemingly un-phased as she gladly passed peanuts to the monkeys through another chain link fence less than ten minutes later. I, however, did not regain my wits until the kids were tucked safely in bed for their naps about an hour and a half later.

In those short, eternal seconds of uncertainty, the veil of “protection” we supposedly provide between the kids and the world proved remarkably thin. I should have known Abby would get excited. I should have known she needed to be holding one of our hands, at the very least. I should have known the trainer wasn’t thinking about the volatile nature of kids’ behavior when he suggested we get a picture all together. We should have stuck with our original plan. And we didn’t. And it could have been very costly.

Could have. Should have. Would have. This is what is so excruciatingly painful about parenthood. Our kids suffer our mistakes. The stakes are so very high.

Thankfully, this trip ended well. Abby is just fine. Josh insists she was never in danger. I try to believe it. We did indeed pet baby tigers and jaguars. We returned to the resort, ate lunch, and took naps, just as we do every other day. And now, Abby will be able to say she was bit by a jaguar when she was almost two. That’s a serious game winner when it comes time to play “two truths and a lie” in high school ice breakers. This near-tragedy ends as pseudo-dark comedy instead. Another memory for the dinner table. Another photo for the baby album.

Oh my God. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I can’t think of any single vignette to encompass our vacation thus far. Rather, several images come to mind as I try to frame our time together over the last few days:

Tiny beads of sweat that congregate on Abby’s nose and lip as soon as we spend more than a few minutes out in the glorious Mexico sun.

The gleam in Ben’s eye as he masters yet another feat of daring in the pool—jumping to me from the side without grasping my fingers tightly the whole time, relying on his floaties without holding onto me or Josh, realizing he can close his eyes and hold his breath in order to put his face in the water, braving the water slide while settled securely on Josh’s lap.

Abby lying still on my chest after first waking in the morning, her limbs falling to both sides of me, her body slack in relaxation.

Ben responding without prompting or coaching, “Si,” when asked if he would like ice cream after dinner--and then trying to mask his pride.

Abby laughing with delight, insisting on going “high in duh sky, agaihn” as I bounce her up and down in the pool.

Ben grinning confidently as we bob in the ocean, not even slightly concerned at the waves pulling and pushing us from and to the shore, the surf occasionally breaking around us and splashing sun-warmed water in our faces.

Josh and Abby playing happily in the ocean, content to hang out—arms around each other—indefinitely, as the pelicans fly and dive around them, the waves rocking them gently back and forth, together.

Ben digging and scooping and pouring and piling and endlessly fabricating small villages and big stories in the warm, course sand.

And smiles. Theirs. Ours. And those of the folks they leave in their wake as they walk confidently and eagerly through the resort in their swimsuits, their little bodies entirely unselfconscious, their sun-kissed cheeks reflecting their anticipation. They elicit response from everyone they pass, our little blonde-headed darlings who carry responsibly their treasure of beach balls and shovels and toys in front of their towel and camera-laden parents.

The gift of vacation, I realize, is not so much in the beauty of our location, though it is breathtaking: the ocean is met on three sides by lush, tropical mountains. To the south of our hotel is a small, local village with villas built into the hillside and plenty of local families enjoying the beach and the abundant fishing and the Mexican music that serenades our time together on the balcony well into each night—loud enough to provide vacation-worthy ambiance without drowning out the constant tumble of salt water six floors below us.

Nor is it in the immaculately kept grounds and rooms of our resort, which provide a lovely, luxurious home away from home.

Neither is it in the flawless hospitality of the servers and wait-staff here, some of whom have already learned our children’s names and greet them warmly at meal times.

The vacation is not about the place at all, really, though Josh’s hours of research and preparation have made this get-away exceptional.

And with two small children in tow, it’s not really about the rest. We’re still “on” ‘round the clock, responsible for keeping these two little people fed, bathed, dressed, rested, and otherwise occupied from morning ‘til bedtime, just as at home. We get a bit of downtime to hang out on the balcony overlooking the ocean during naps and in the evenings, but with kids in tow, even a vacation is still work.

No, what is most glorious about vacation, I’ve realized, is the break from the tension between responsibility to our daily duties and the desire to simply be together as a family. Here, what is most luxuriant and indulgent and wonderful is the ability to enjoy each other all day, every day, without distraction or obligation or rush. We move at the speed of the kids. There is very little “C'mon, let’s go, we need to hurry” here in the land of manana. As long as everyone is wearing something, we can eat, play, and rest at our own pace. No food to prepare. No dishes to clean. No errands to run. No phone calls to return. Just the four of us delighting in each other’s presence from the start of the day to the end. That, above all else, is vacation.

Abby will turn two just a few days after we return home, so I’m pretty certain she won’t remember this trip apart from the photos she sees as she grows up. But I do think she’ll remember in her soul—the way infants know whether they’re loved and can count on being cared for in this world—the warmth and sincerity of our time together. She won’t have visual memories of our times in the pool or at the beach or reading books all together before bed, but I believe she will be permanently imprinted with the time we spent simply sharing the joy of each other.

This trip is really a gift of ourselves—of our time and energy in a life that tends to hurry by with other obligations. So I am soaking up every second of uninterrupted, undistracted fun; taking full advantage of our freedom to live in the moment; devoting every physical, mental, and emotional energy toward these most precious doses of perspective we call Ben and Abby. It is an extraordinary opportunity, this time, and we are making the most of it while it lasts.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Beautiful Mind

As I watched on the monitor during nap time a few days ago, I saw Ben rolling up and down his bed, practicing donkey kicks, and trying all manner of four-year-old gymnastics. Since he had seemed pretty sleepy before he went to bed, I decided to check on him, hoping a little encouragement from me and getting tucked in once more might help.

"Hey, Bug," I said, "It seemed like you were pretty tired earlier. Do you think you could try to fall asleep? Do you remember how? Lay still, stay quiet, and close your eyes?"

"But Mommy," he said, "There's too much talking and music in my head. I keep hearing music!" He was emphatic about the music point.

"Oh. Yeah, that happens to me sometimes," I empathized. "Can you try turning the music off?"

He didn't hesitate: "But Mom, when I turn the music off, it goes to commercials!"

What does one say to that, exactly?

So I chuckled to myself, wished him luck, and left--not doubting for a second the constant hum of activity in his mind, grateful for the music in his soul.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reality Sniffles

Abby's nose is running. It must be fall.

After three glorious, kleenex-free months of health and wellness, the germs have once again taken residence in our home. So the tissue box has resumed its position on the end table, the Infant Tylenol has made its way to the front of the medicine box, and my ears are tuned in, once again, to the subtle sounds of her lungs, sensitive to any hint of wheezing or rattling or spasmodic coughing that would indicate it's time to pull the nebulizer out of its summer hibernation.

I'll confess to having nurtured a naive hope that this season would be different. It's not like we were totally sequestered from other kids this summer: they played happily with other germ-ridden tots at the rec center's Play School, at church, and at the park. I'd even given up my strict policy of squirting their hands with sanitizer every time they got back in the car from some sort of group play, and they hardly sneezed all summer--and certainly didn't come down with anything even modestly resembling a cold.

In fact, when I took Ben into the doctor for his four-year-old check-up, the first thing the doctor mentioned was how great it was that I hadn't had to bring Abby in to be seen in months. Having been regulars in her sick rooms throughout the winter and spring--Abby's asthma causing her lungs to constrict and inflame with every illness, no matter how minor--we were all thrilled to (not) share months of medicine-free living. She was healthy. She was breathing clearly. She was seemingly immune.

So naturally, having survived what seemed like dozens of illnesses through the course of Ben's first year in school, I had allowed myself to indulge in sun-induced fantasies that her little body had already developed all the antibodies necessary to fight off whatever crossed her path this year. Alas. Some virus has managed to infiltrate her well-excercised immune system.

Today she walked around saying, "Mah nohs ih ruh-nnih, Mama," before wiping it fervently herself when offered a tissue.

So far, her lungs are taking this one in stride. She woke up coughing from her nap today, but it resolved once she spent a few minutes upright and talking. Her breathing is a bit more labored when she runs around, but I'm not hearing the signature wheezing of previous episodes. We'll see what happens as the cold runs its course.

In the meantime, I'm letting go of my ridiculously unrealistic expecations that she might sail through the school year unscathed, trading those pipe dreams for the more modest hope that her "reactive airways" will be at least a little less reactive than before, that the nebulizer won't have to live on our kitchen counter for eight months. Maybe we'll even reach a point when Abby doesn't automatically lift her shirt for the doctor to check the severity of the retractions below her ribs when she walks into the room.

Nevertheless, I've restocked my car's supply of hand sanitizer. It's an exercise in chasing windmills, perhaps, but what else is a mother to do in the face of a germ-infested world. Squirt their hands, wipe their noses, and listen close for any sign of distress. Love, love, crazy love.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's the (Al)Most Wonderful Time of the Year

There has grown a kind of comfort in retiring to the family room on a Saturday afternoon to watch a little college football with Josh and the kids. It's not a ritual that existed in my pre-married life, and I can't say I considered it a gift for the first few seasons of our marriage. But now that I've seen my husband's enthusiasm, watched him wager sushi or drinks when Cal plays the teams his friends follow fanatically, heard him make numerous two minute phone calls to comment on this play or that injury or throw an occasional dig at the opponent, I kind of love it.

It doesn't hurt that, since Benjamin's birth, my father has kept him outfitted in all manner of Buckeye gear: sweats, jerseys, hats. When he was old enough to speak, we taught him how to say, "Go Bucks, beat the _____!" or "Go Bears!" depending on which team was playing. When Ben realized football was on T.V. this afternoon, he raced up to his room to grab his jersey. A bit later, he decided Abby needed a jersey and ran back up to get one he'd outgrown. So there they both were in their football gear: Ben snuggled next to Daddy in the overstuffed red chair, Abby swimming in her jersey and spinning round and round and round, smiling and laughing and saying, "Go Bucks!"

I sat on the couch observing the scene and feeling quiet contentment. It's a sign of the fall, the start of college football. It's a nostalgia thing, too--bringing me back to those exhilarating first days of a new school year, walking through campus in Boston, looking for my classes, wondering what my professors would be like, dreaming about where life would lead. College days--like college football--are magical.

The beginning of the season is full of possibility. Perhaps Cal will finally win their conference. Maybe Ohio State will actually win the Championship game in addition to earning a place there. The year is fresh and unmarred by stats and losses. Rankings are viewed as badges of honor or challenges to be overcome. Everyone is expectant.

It's a new addition to the list of things I look forward to in the fall, I'm a bit surprised to confess: stunning foliage, crisp air, warmer clothes, fires in the fireplace, new activities, and college football. I never expected to feel such an affection, but I like it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Life is Pain, Princess"

This afternoon, not two minutes after I left Ben's room from tucking him snuggly into bed for his nap, I heard a panic-stricken cry that called to mind all kinds of "the sky is falling" visuals. I raced back upstairs from the kitchen expecting to find blood or fire or an errant light left on.

Instead, I was met by Ben standing in the middle of his room holding Teddy and sobbing. "Teddy has a hole," he told me between great heaving breaths and tears. "Right here," and he showed me the broken seam along his floppy leg. "Why does he have a hole?" he asked as he wiped the great crocodile tears from his face with the back of his hand.

I surveyed the scene, understanding the gravity of the situation. Teddy is the stuffed animal, the one he grabs to comfort himself or settle himself down or snuggle to sleep. The one we faithfully pack into our bags for any trip. The loss of Teddy would be a significant tragedy in Ben's life. It would be his first loss, really. Images of the Velveteen Rabbit--made real by a small boy's love--sprang to mind.

"I think he's been loved well," I replied as soothingly as I could, wiping another tear off Ben's cheek. "I'm sure we can fix him tonight, though. Do you want to sleep with him until we fix him, or would you rather pick another animal?"

"I want to pick another animal," he concluded as he gently set Teddy on his ottoman. Then he climbed back in bed with his dog and asked, "Why can't we get another Teddy?"

I'll confess to being a bit taken aback by his fickle nature. How could anything replace his beloved Teddy? But I realized, as I thought about it, that he probably assumes we could get another teddy identical to Teddy. I imagine he thinks we could walk into a store and find another bear as readily as we could find another copy of a well-loved book. He doesn't realize that another bear could never be Teddy, no matter how similar they look.

So I explained that Teddy was a gift, so I don't know where he came from and that I was pretty certain we wouldn't be able to find another bear exactly like Teddy, but then I assured him his furry friend would be just fine once we could attend to his injuries. This seemed to sastisfy him. I left, and he was asleep within minutes.

When I returned to the kitchen to check my e-mail, I found a difficult message from a friend: her close friend had taken her own life, leaving a two year old and a two and a half week old baby without a mother, leaving a man without a wife. She had been battling depression throughout pregnancy and then lost the battle in a bout of postpartum psychosis. The story has haunted my thoughts all day.

Writing about it is hard, and I don't even know her. It is absolute tragedy. Senseless. I am struck by how troublesome our minds are, how unreliable. The hormones and neurotransmitters and innumerable biochemical processes that trick us into faulty perceptions of the world and false beliefs about ourselves. I cannot help but wonder how that father is going to get out of his empty bed tonight to feed his tiny child who will walk into life with this legacy of pain.

"Life is pain, Princess, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling something." The wisdom of The Princess Bride. I let it churn through my thoughts, trying to decide how I feel about it.

I don't know.

To some degree, we are set up for pain, for loss. I mean, from the moment we arrive, we step ever closer to the end. We build attachments to people and things, relying on them under the false assumption that they will always be there. At the age of four, Ben already stands to lose so much, Teddy the least of these. The mere thought of something happening to Josh is enough to make my eyes sting and well. I cannot consider it. My heart aches just thinking about it.

Well, tonight, Josh and I sat on the couch in our family room quietly stitching Teddy back together. I held the nubby fabric while Josh deftly pushed the needle down and up until the hole was closed. The stitches aren't beautiful, but they've mended the wound and preserved his imaginary life for a little while longer, at least. I took Teddy up to Ben's room and nestled him in his arms, telling Ben his surgery was over and that he'd probably need a little extra rest and lovin' while he recovers.

And tonight, a father will begin putting his life and the life of his daughters back together, though I can't imagine how. Day by day, stitch by stitch, perhaps not gracefully or beautifully but hopefully enough to preserve their livelihood a bit longer.

I can't make any more sense of it than this. Life is pain, yes. So we mend our hearts as best we can and move forward in faith that it's worth it to love and, occasionally, lose.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"No, I"

Lately Abby, who is just on the cusp of the ripe old age of two, has taken to proclaiming this phrase whenever someone tries to help her with anything she feels capable of doing herself: "No, I!" It doesn't matter whether she's actually capable of doing it herself or not, her immediate response is "No, I," with emphasis on the "I."

What's interesting to me is the complete lack of a verb in this statement. She does not say, "No, I do it," with a focus on whatever it is she wishes to do (usually it's putting her shoes on by herself or climbing in or out of the car or getting down off the changing table). It's as if she herself is both the subject and the verb, her being the very substance of doing--her existence the proof of her ability and capacity and sufficiency.

Even while it frustrates me terribly when we're trying to hurry here or there, I LOVE this statement for all it represents:

The limitless potential of a child.

A spirit as yet unencumbered by the world's nay-saying.

The wondrous confidence of a girl who would never think she is not capable.

This assertion of self speaks, I think, to that which is most precious in a new life: value and worth and treasure wholly apart from usefulness. She is loved because she is. She is capable because she is. She is because she is.

And when I hear her say "No, I," I can't help but think of the words of Someone else who responds, "I AM that I AM" when asked who He is. He does not define himself by a list of accomplishments (Maker of the Universe, Sustainer of All Creation, Divine Redeemer of All Men) nor does He identify himself by his limitless abilities (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient). He simply is. And that, somehow, is sufficient. His value lies not in what He's doing for us, with us, or in us but rather lies in Him, and Him crucified.

So I do my best to affirm this independence in Abby whenever time allows (and, occasionally, even when time doesn't allow), because I recognize that in some ways, this statement is a true acknowledgment of her as a reflection of the image of Him, even though she may not recognize it as such.

Or maybe she does. Perhaps all children are born into the world with this understanding but grow to disown it as those around them attempt to conform them to the world's image through the knowledge of good and evil. I don't know, and those are realms bigger than I can comprehend. But I do know that my spirit leaps a bit when I hear her say it, my heart resonating with the freedom of its simple truth.

"No, I." Amen.

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