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It Takes a Light Touch: Neighborly Advice for My Fellow Control Freaks

It Takes a Light Touch: Neighborly Advice for My Fellow Control Freaks

A few years ago, my parents bought a new lawnmower.  It isn’t just any mower.  Oh, no.  This bad boy is a zero-turn, superspeed, grass-chomping terror mobile.

It has a seatbelt.

It needs a seatbelt.

It’s one of those mowers with the handles that move in opposing directions to steer it. My mechanically-inclined brother swears it’s very easy to steer.  I beg to differ.  You can’t convince me that those handles aren’t arbitrary doomsticks, producing random results with each push and pull.  It’s like a slot machine on wheels, only with sharp blades and tons of horsepower.

Side note: I am a pianist.  I’m quite used to my right and left hands doing different things at once, while my feet do something entirely different.  But this mower.  THIS MOWER.  I am telling you– it’s sentient. It scoffs at my ambidexterity.

While I was visiting my mom this week, I offered to mow her lawn. Now, when I say “lawn,” you should be picturing several acres, dotted by trees, flowers and other beautiful obstacles, just waiting to be crushed by 1,000 pounds of steel. It’s the penultimate Mario Kart track.  I’ve never driven this mower (let’s call it “Megatron”) for longer than a few terrifying seconds on my parents’ driveway. After considerable effort and a number of lucky guesses, Mom and I successfully get Megatron to start, and I buckle up and ease out of the garage, hand trembling on the throttle. Megatron bucks and roars and veers every way except the way in which I wish it to go.

I avoid approximately 4,000 trees on my way to the open field that Mom suggested as a good “starter patch.”

So far, so good.  I’m sweating a little, but I haven’t hit anything. Oh, wait…I just hit something.  Did Mom notice?  No?  Onward.

I make it to the field, feeling very much like Bambi stepping out into the meadow.

I make it one lap around the field.

Surveying my work, it looks like a badly failed field sobriety test. Another trickle of sweat drips down my back. Just as I start to ease the doomsticks back into some sort of forward motion, I see the neighbor approach the fence.  I gingerly climb off Megatron, careful never to turn my back on it or break eye contact with it as it roars at me and inches nearly imperceptibly down the hill. The neighbor looks at Megatron, then back at me, then at the bead of sweat running down my face.

“First time?”

“Is it that obvious?”

He gazes over my shoulder at my mowing progress, which looks a bit like the gameboard from “Chutes and Ladders” and then back at me.

I say, “I hope that if God lets people peek down from Heaven on loved ones, that Dad isn’t peeking at this mess right now. He was an expert on this thing.  Made it look so easy.”

The neighbor smiles at me and says, “You’ll be fine.  Here’s what you need to remember: You can’t white knuckle it– makes it even harder to control. Use a light touch. Secondly, when you’re in the straightaway, use that time to prepare for what’s next.”

Light touch. Prepare for what’s next. Got it.

Climbing aboard Megatron once more, I baaaaaarely touch the doomsticks in the direction I want to go, and miracle of miracles– it works.  As I breeze down the straightaway of the field, I think about the sharp turn ahead and mentally calculate what I need to do next.

I am ready for it. And I make it.

I mowed that whole field (only hit one pole just a little), another open area and the whole front yard with its smorgasbord of traps (hit a power line guidewire just a smidge. It’s fine. We’re all fine).  Megatron was placed back in the garage, appropriately humbled to have been broken by a mere mortal like me, and I went triumphantly into the house to pat myself on the back (Literally. Had to check myself for ticks).

I love a good analogy, so here it comes.

I’m a (slowly) recovering control freak. I white-knuckle my way through most things. And the more I latch on with my death grip, the more out of control things seem.

This isn’t all up to me. Life is a machine made up of many different parts– all working to make the whole thing go. It’s not all doomsticks and death grips. There are other mechanisms to help us steer.

When I pray, I let go a little.  When I read my Bible, I let go a little.  When I talk through my feelings with my family, I let go a little.  And it all feels more manageable when I do.

And that advice about using the straightaways to prepare for the curvy parts? That’s genius.

Our kids are entering new and unknown seasons of life in different ways.  I’m entering a challenging, but exciting season in my career.  Life is changing at breakneck speed.

Now is the time to prepare for what’s next.  The twists and turns that we can see, but also the ones we can’t yet.  Be present, but be prepared.  Life is anything but predictable, but we can still handle it with a light touch.  It takes practice and patience. I am not there yet, but I’m easing my way out of the garage, anyway.

Get out there and show your Megatrons who’s boss, friends.

Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

I’ve been gone from this blog for a while–a year and a half, to be exact. While I’ve been writing nearly every day, it’s limited to freelance projects and marketing content. And while I’ve felt the pull to come back to my blog, it was met with a feeling of melancholy and fatigue. And later, with guilt for neglecting something that I consider a gift– the capacity and desire to write.

I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so I hid from the call to write.

For 18 months.

Champion hider, I am.

When my Dad passed away two years ago (today, in fact), I poured out my heart and soul and the immensity of my grief in a blog that I read at his funeral.  I wrote one more blog on the day we buried him, and another to mark our first Christmas without him. After I managed to get all of those hard feelings and acutely personal words on paper, I felt empty of any desire to write another word.

The genesis of this blog was the rosy, doe-eyed hope that I had something profound to share with other blended families. (I just giggled writing that sentence, you guys!) I don’t.

I. Do. Not.

Five years post-blend, I have absolutely NO idea what I’m doing.  None.  2016 marked our third year as a blended family and it was the hardest year of our life together so far. One of those “Murphy’s Law” sort of years.  By the time we lost Dad, and my mom made it through a hard battle with her own health (two weighty things among a steady stream of other wallops), I was just tired. Tired of being Pollyanna about everything. Tired of trying so hard to create an image of a fully-functioning, “look at us go!” blended family when most days it is JUST SO HARD. Don’t get me wrong– if I could go back, I wouldn’t change it. I would still marry my wonderful husband and I would still welcome my three stepsons into this house and this family with an open heart (not open arms, because we aren’t huggers and that would be super awkward for everyone, but…heart, yes). But if I could go back five or six years and talk to my shiny, naive, “go-getter” pre-blended self, I would sit her down and tell her a few things.

You will never be blended and it will never be smooth— it just won’t.  The blending never stops, because the ingredients just keep coming.  Once you have the elementary and pre-teen years figured out, here come teenage problems and a whole new set of things to navigate (graduation parties with exes, family events with exes, new drivers, knowing when to show up to events and when to be invisible).  None of it is particularly intuitive, because it all involves other humans and their very human emotions, as well as your own very human (sometimes even irrational, if you can believe it) emotions. You just have to do your best and pick your battles.  Bit by bit.

Don’t wait for the finish line, my sweet, naive stepmom-to-be.  It never comes.  And once you realize that, it’s so much easier to cope with the twists and turns.

Sometimes it’s okay to disengage– Gracious, this one is hard.  And it took me a long, long time to figure out. I tend to put myself out there when I take something on. I am a bit of a workaholic and super-competitive–driven to do my best in everything. It gets me in trouble sometimes.  Not because my intentions are flawed– but because I’m flawed.  I don’t take failure well.  When I put my heart on my sleeve as a stepparent and it’s met with ambivalence at best and animosity at worst, I literally shut down like a giant, angry baby. One day (and my husband likely remembers this day), I decided that I was done with this perpetual “whole heart, both feet” effort to stomp the funky grapes of our complicated family dynamic into a fine wine.

Most days, it’s more like clearance Boone’s Farm up in here, and I’ve completely come to terms with that.

By backing off from the panicky drive to make everything perfect, things have actually improved. I am far less stressed and resentful because my expectations are realistic. Is our family a failure?  Good heavens, no! Our kids are great.  Smart, athletic, Jesus-loving, (mostly) respectful…great kids. Every one of them. But I no longer feel personally responsible for making sure of it. There are three other parents in this baffling equation and it isn’t all up to me and my crazy, self-imposed expectations for how this should go.

Fact: (and don’t you dare judge me…I have no regrets) After a particularly tough weekend with one of the kids, I decided to just pretend said kid was invisible for a little bit.  Like a few days. And you know what?  It helped.  I wasn’t rude or hurtful.  I was just absent from the tremendous weight of caring so gosh-darned much for a few days while my husband took over all things related to said kid. I don’t even know if said kid noticed I pulled back, but the difference it made in my own mind was immeasurable and good for both of us. Pull back before you splat into an emotional mountainside. It’s fine. Blame me when everyone thinks you’ve gone off the rails.

You HAVE TO protect your “little family”–  Your “little family” is the family you dragged into this circus with you on the day you said, “I do.” For me, it’s my son and daughter. For my husband, it’s his three boys. While we are a family of seven, and I refer to all five kids as “our kids,” I’ve learned that our O.G. families need the security of our targeted time and attention. It might be popular opinion to say that you have to keep everything even and do everything with everybody every time, but I’m going to just tell you that’s all complete crap.

Kids have love languages. Kids have individual needs. And your kids didn’t ask for any of their needs to be sacrificed for the sake of “keeping it even” when no one but you is keeping score. The least I can do is acknowledge and delight in the fact that they still crave time with just me. It will come in different forms as they get older, but I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it has been to the well-being, self-confidence and comfort of my biological children that I make time for the three of us to remember and celebrate that we are a strong “little family” inside a crazy, wonderful “big family.”  And while we do lots of vacations and activities and dinners and movies with the “big family,” I will always make time to celebrate the three of us, and it makes a difference. So by all means– show love evenly in your family, but don’t be afraid to do it in varying equations and in creative ways. No one has a tally sheet, making sure it’s all in perfect balance.

Find out what matters to your kids and do that.

To that end, I took a quick camping and horseback riding trip with my son (just the two of us) while my daughter was at church camp, and it was so refreshing and encouraging, that it spurred me to find my words again (no pun intended). I may not have any of this figured out, but I no longer feel like a giant fraud because of it. I’m happy to have learned a few things, and whether the rules change again tomorrow or in ten years, I know that through God’s grace, it is (and I am) enough.

Feels good to be back in the saddle. At least for today.

 

When the Holidays Hurt

When the Holidays Hurt

I love this time of year.  As soon as I toss the last smooshy jack-o-lantern into the garden, I’m ready for Christmas.  Now, before you judge—I don’t put up a single twinkle light until the day after Thanksgiving, but believe you me—after Thanksgiving, I am full-blown Buddy the Elf.  Let’s pause for a moment, though, to give Thanksgiving the respect that it’s due.  I’ve never been a huge fan of turkey, and between you and me, I am all-out TERRIFIED that I am responsible for making said turkey this year (No one should ever have to do something that requires them to salt the inside of a body cavity.  It’s just not okay.). However, I can’t wait to be surrounded by family and friends, marveling at all for which I have to be thankful.  There’s just something about the sacredness of a day of remembrance and reflection on all of the good things in your life that makes you feel warm and makes you forget that you just pulled something’s neck out of its butt.  So, yes.  Thanksgiving is great.  BUT—Christmas.  Christmas is my jam.

I have been known to take an entire day off, just to Clark Griswold my house, inside and out, while I listen to Christmas music and watch Christmas movies (in a very specific sequential order that only makes sense to me). I buy wrapping paper that matches my Christmas tree; I dress my dogs in little Christmas sweaters–I will even drink disgusting, digestively-dangerous eggnog one time per holiday season (I think it’s written in the Constitution that you have to, right?). I love it.  All of it.

This year, though, something is different.  I’m still as excited for the traditions, the lights, the gift-giving…but it’s all tempered by some feelings I would rather not feel. Four months ago, our family lost the greatest, kindest man I’ve ever known.  Thanksgiving will be our first holiday without him.  My cruel subconscious forgets for a split second now and then that Dad is gone. I’ll see something that would make the perfect gift for him and have a moment of excitement before I remember and my heart feels the familiar twinge of grief.  I’ve started to text or pick up the phone to tell him something about a hundred times since he has been gone, and then I remember, and the sadness makes me catch my breath.

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The holidays can hurt.

I hurt for my mother, who has spent every holiday for nearly 50 years with my dad.  I hurt, knowing that if I have 36 years of memories that are equal parts treasure and torture, then how much more must it grieve her?

So many of my friends and family have lost someone they love this year.  Whether it be a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a friend, or a baby they hadn’t yet met, but fiercely loved, the loss is real.  It was abundant this year.  More than I can ever remember.  Other friends are coping with painful divorces, crushing disappointments and broken dreams.  Loss takes many forms, but they all hurt.

For those of you who are like me, trying to balance the happiness of the season with the hurt in your heart, I want to encourage you that it’s okay to belt out Christmas carols one minute and melt into tears the next.  Even though I wish I could turn my heartache off like a faucet, I’m grateful for it.  Grief, as cruel as it is, reminds us that we had something worth grieving for.  It softens us and proves the value of what’s right in front of us.  Let yourselves hurt, friends, but then make new traditions and memories.  Don’t curl up in the past and stay there.

Whether you have lost a loved one or lost a dream, you don’t have to grieve without hope.  I know that I will see my dad again someday, and there is nothing more comforting or priceless than that.  Pain is temporary in this life, and we have a loving God who wants nothing more than to see us through the hard seasons if we’ll only let Him.  If that sounds nice, but like it’s out of reach for you, I promise you it isn’t.  It’s for everyone.  I would love to talk to you about it if you’d like to know more, or if you just need a listening ear.  There is no better time than now to get to know the Healer of Hurts. He has saved me from myself and my despair time and time again, and He’ll do it for you too.

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about those who have died. We don’t want you to be sad like other people—those who have no hope.–I Thessalonians 4:13

I wish you all the happiest of “Oh-My-Word-What-Do-I-Even-Do-With-These-Giblets?” Days.  (Seriously—why do they leave the giblets in?  I know it’s allegedly for gravy, but no.  Just no.  Giblets, you guys.  No.)

I wish you an even merrier Christmas (I am totally throwing snow up in the air in my imagination right now), and a Happy New Year (can I get an “amen” that 2016 is almost over??? Bye, Felicia!)

‘Tis the season to be emotional pogo sticks…and that’s okay.