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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.

What Day Is It?

What Day Is It?

The last words you said to my brother were “What day is it?”

You were asking because your fight was over and you knew you were going Home.

It was July 17th

The last day anyone would see your warm smile, or look into your kind, brown eyes.

It was the last day that Mom would hold your hand and laugh with you over a joke between the two of you.

It was the day for which we’ve been preparing for several years, but that caught us all completely by surprise.

It was the day that I saw more strength in my mother than I knew one woman could have.

It was the day she held up the rest of us as we grieved.

It was the day I held your hand one last time.

It was the day you shed the earthly body that had held you back from what you love for so long.

It was the day we looked through 73 years of your full life, laughing, crying and marveling at the man you were.

Today is July 23rd.

It is the day that everyone who loved you so deeply will celebrate who you were, even while our hearts break.

It’s the last day we’ll look on your sweet face.

It’s the day we will put your earthly body in the ground in the cemetery that has so much meaning, and even more so now.

It’s the day we will cherish each kind word, each sympathetic tear and each memory of the most wonderful man we knew.

It’s the day we’ll remember, for the 1000th time, that you are in Heaven this very minute, and our hearts will strengthen at the thought of it.

It’s the day we will say goodbye, if we’re ready to or not.  We’re not.  We never will be.

It leaves every piece of my heart asking “Lord, what day is it? What day will you call us Home to be with Dad and the others who went before him?”  As much as my heart longs to see my earthly father again, it pales in comparison to the thought of seeing my Heavenly Father.  He, after all, is the One who made a way for us to see those we’ve lost and to spend eternity with them–and Him.  All because He loves us so.  He grieves with us as we grieve, but is in Heaven rejoicing at the arrival of my Dad, His good and faithful servant.  When I think of how Jesus must have felt, knowing the fight my Dad fought on this earth, when he walked into Heaven in a perfect body—I can’t help but smile through my tears.

Dad, we all wanted so badly to make you proud of us in this life.  It’s my turn to tell you how proud I am of you.  You fought well and you were dearly loved.  Your life was authentic and touched everyone who had the honor of meeting you.  I will miss you fiercely until I ask one more time “Lord, what day is it?” and the answer is “Today.”

But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by triumphant Life! Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

I  Corinthians 15:52-55 (The Message)

Dad

My Father’s Daughter

My Father’s Daughter

“You are your father’s daughter.”

I’ve heard that phrase more times than I can count.  I never tire of it.  As a child, I would nearly burst from pride when someone would notice my dimple, or my brown eyes, or the way I walk, and say “You are your father’s daughter.”  I would look at his face when he smiled his gentle smile at me and then touch the dimple in my own cheek, to make sure it was still there—so proud to bear a physical resemblance to a man I loved so dearly.  Over time, I’ve even come to terms with having my father’s horrific feet.  Recently, as I tried to ease his compression socks onto his legs without hurting him, he said “You know, these feet are your destiny” with a wide smile, and we would laugh conspiratorially at our shared misfortune.

There is a gaping hole in my heart right now that feels impossibly deep, but the love of our friends and family, and especially our Savior, is carrying us through.  I profess to be a writer, but the words to convey the lovely person my father was escape me. I couldn’t do it justice with all the words and all the time in the world.  I loved him so, and he loved me. So much of who I am is because of who he was.

While my thumb is a much paler shade of green than his, I’ve grown to love watching seeds that I planted sprout up from the earth.  Never mind that they have about a 50% chance of survival–at most. The last several visits we had together, he would say “now tell me again what you’ve planted and where you’ve planted it” while I took him on a virtual tour of my yard and garden and he assured me I’d done everything right—whether I really did or not.

I love gardening because of him.

Some of my earliest memories (before they raised those pesky height requirements!) are of him tightly buckling me in beside him in a rollercoaster car, putting his arm around me and giving me that raised-eyebrow grin of his, as we took off up the steep grade, only to plummet back down again, me giggling, and him clutching his Ohio State hat in one hand and my tiny arm in the other.

I love rollercoasters because of him.

I love the smell of a campfire, and the way a hot dog tastes when it’s straight from the roasting stick, charred from the open flames. And there is nothing sweeter than a marshmallow, roasted on a fire that my Daddy built with his trusty National Guard shovel and a few rolled up Bryan Times newspapers.

I love campfires because of him.

He loved being our dad.  Both of my parents valued experience over possessions and I thank God that they did.  We traveled, went camping, ziplined, tubed down rivers, took road trips and climbed sand dunes.  We were professional adventurers. Even when we weren’t exactly looking for adventure, it somehow found us. 🙂

I love adventure because of him.

More than anything, my father taught me what it means to be a Christian.  When I imagine what Jesus must be like, I imagine him to have many of the same characteristics of my Dad.  A soft-spoken strength, and a love for his children that feels safe and strong.  In the middle of the hypocrisy and cruelty of this world, my parents showed us what genuine faith looks like.  The last time I saw Dad, we were talking about my husband and I said “He reminds me a lot of you, Dad.”  He smiled and said “You sure got a good one and so did he.”  He called me his “sweet daughter” when I left, and my heart caught in my throat.  I mentally held onto those two words, desperate to remember that moment, knowing my moments with him were growing few. In the three days since he left this earth, Jesus has whispered that comfort to me over and over. I am his “sweet daughter” and my beloved Daddy is with him this very minute. I don’t know how any of us could do this without that knowledge, and if one person’s faith is made stronger by the legacy my Dad is leaving, I can’t think of anything that would make him happier.  I’m so thankful for an earthly father who quietly demonstrated the love of Jesus.

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I am my father’s daughter, and I am my Father’s daughter because of him.

Thank you, Dad.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. II Tim. 4:7

Open Heart Surgery

Open Heart Surgery

My seven year-old daughter wears her heart on her sleeve.  Unfortunately, wearing your heart in such a vulnerable place leaves it open for getting damaged, broken, or lost.  In most pockets of my life, I keep my heart safely tucked away, where no one can find it and hurt it.  Not my girl.  She puts it right out there, showing it to and sharing it with anyone who needs it.

She’s the girl who cries when cartoon animals are mistreated.

She cries at the thought of squirrels being cold in the winter.

She cries at funerals for people she doesn’t know.

She cries when she hears an ambulance, for fear that a stranger is terribly hurt.

She cries when she thinks of Jesus’ love for her.

But, with all of those tears, and all of those feelings, she is not deterred.

This past weekend, we celebrated my youngest stepson’s birthday. My daughter is crazy about birthdays.  She plans and obsesses over them, wanting each detail to be perfect for the birthday boy or girl.

She labored over which decorations to buy, and which gift he wanted most. She spent her money on two very thoughtful gifts and wrapped them with love and the great delight of one who loves to give more than receive.

She meticulously hung streamers and filled balloons, all the while, chiding him like a mother hen to “not come out until it’s ready.” She asked me a dozen times “do you think he’ll like it, Mommy?” with her eyes shining at the thought of making his day special.

When it was perfect, and she was ready to reveal her hard work, she led him by the hand, begging him to keep his eyes closed tightly until she told him to open them.  When he did, she exclaimed “Happy birthday!”

He looked up, surveyed her work and said: “Can we go play now?” Now, you have to understand—he is seven, and he is a little boy.  He wasn’t trying to be rude or hurt her feelings.  He was just in the middle of something and was annoyed at being pulled away from it.  Not an unnatural response—and not a response I haven’t had myself, more than once.

I gasped a little and looked at my daughter, expecting the tears to come. Instead, she hopped from foot to foot, grinning widely and said “I knew you would love it!  We wanted it to be perfect!” The gift of her heart and her love for her brother didn’t leave any room for hurt feelings, or bitterness or feeling unappreciated.

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When he unwrapped his gifts later, she could hardly wait for him to unwrap hers. He thanked her, and it was as if he had handed her the keys to a brand new car.  Here I am, sitting there wondering why he isn’t more aware of how much thought she put into his birthday, feeling offended on her behalf, and there she is—fearlessly putting her heart out there.

As a parent, I worry about what I am teaching my kids. Am I teaching them to grow in their faith? To learn the value of hard work? To be kind?  In my worrying, I completely miss what they teach me.  I’m envious of my daughter’s heart.  While I work so hard to protect it for her, she just opens it more and more.  It scares me to know how deeply she could be hurt with such a tender heart.  How quickly I forget that Jesus is watching over her and blessing her sweet love for others.  When her heart does get broken, He gently picks it up, as only He can, and makes it new again.

I want a heart like that. Covered in the scars of loving people.  No room for feeling unappreciated or rejected or misunderstood.  Consumed by love for others, no matter how much it hurts.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26

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Walk Softly and Carry an Empty Purse

Walk Softly and Carry an Empty Purse

I was in New York City this week to meet with customers.  I love NYC—especially this time of year.  The storefronts on 5th Ave are brimming with Christmas cheer, and there’s a crispness in the air that signals the subtle change from fall to winter.

macysAs much as I love the city, I always empty my purse of all but the necessities, just in case.  Hey—I don’t want to replace my prescriptions, my Costco card, and every single discount card I own in the event of a mugging.  Nope!  Ain’t nobody got time for that. I carry my ID, my corporate card and the earbuds that I always have in place (but with nothing playing through them so that the solicitors leave me alone.  Oh, yeah.  Midwesterner street smarts, you guys.  I got ‘em.). Go ahead and steal my purse full of zero things, muggers.  Joke’s on you.

purseThis visit came on the heels of the terrorist attacks on Paris. I talked to my children about what had happened.  They were fearful that terrorists could come to our city.  I agreed that it’s possible.  Wide-eyed, they asked what we can do about it.  I told them that all we can do is just live our lives and refuse to let fear take hold.  We know who holds our future, and He wants nothing but the best for us.  Even it is something we can’t possibly understand in this lifetime, we don’t need to understand it.  We aren’t meant to.

While I was in New York, I had meetings in Times Square. I met a friend at a restaurant packed with people.  I walked around Manhattan enjoying the sights and sounds and peculiarities only found in New York.  Even in the midst of uncertainty, life goes on if you allow it.

One of my customers is in an office across the street from where the World Trade Center once stood.  When I visit them, I sit there, looking out the window and wondering how they ever got the courage to come back to work–to that building, across from two charred, empty holes in the ground.  I am not sure I could have been so brave so soon.

I had one moment of panic when I walked from my hotel to grab a slice of pizza in Hell’s Kitchen.  I was walking through one of those dimly lit, graffiti-addled construction labyrinths when I came around the corner, and someone grabbed my ankle.  I screamed, but no one came running. I was all alone in the dark—I thought.  I looked down, and a homeless gentleman (clearly as panicked as I was) stared up at me in surprise.  I woke him up with my loud footsteps, and he was afraid I would step on him in the dark.  We didn’t exchange a word.  He let go of me, and I kept walking.  He has no idea how close he came to getting kicked in the face.  (B and I are avid Walking Dead fans, and I was channeling Rick Grimes for just a split second. You go for the brain stem when someone grabs you.  It’s just what you do.)

I took the long way back to my hotel, and my heart pounded for what felt like hours.

When terror is thousands of miles away, it’s easy to tell your kids that even in the worst case, if tragedy finds its way to our doorstep, we will awake in the presence of God.  It’s another thing if it actually finds your family.  Would I be able to hand my children over to God without resenting Him for taking them?  I thought a lot this week about what I tell my kids about our confidence in the future and the contradiction that is often in my heart.

never-give-in-to-fear1My last night in New York, I decided not to take the long way around the construction walkway.  I walked right through it, with the intention of finding that man, not stepping on him, and apologizing for scaring him half to death.  More for me than for him, honestly. He wasn’t there, but it didn’t seem quite so terrifying when I walked into the darkness with intention instead of trepidation.

I want to be smart in this life, but I want to be brave. I want to trust Jesus so completely that no matter what comes, I walk through it with intention, compassion and confidence in His plan for my life.

2Tim1v7

(I’ll still empty my purse when I need to, though.  That limited-edition MAC lipstick isn’t going to replace itself.)

Just Play Along

Just Play Along

I’ve played the piano since I was 4. It started as a way to make my older brother look bad. He also played, and hated practicing. I, too, hated practicing, but you’d never know in those early days. I’d grit my teeth and exclaim “Mommy, can I play some more? I loooooove to practice!” while my brother would roll his eyes and pantomime threats in my direction.

As I got older, I realized that I genuinely did love to play the piano, and I stuck with it. It was my talent during my years of participation in the Miss America program, I’ve been the pianist for both churches I’ve attended in my adult life, and it’s still the most liberating, cathartic outlet for the blues that I have ever found.

I’m often asked to accompany singers and other musicians for various things. I’ll labor over the music, keenly aware that one wrong note could throw off the whole thing. I want to do a good job for the person who asked me to accompany them, so I worry, and I fret and I practice my fingers to the bone. Even with 30 years of experience as a pianist, and with the love I have of music in general, I still worry that my accompaniment won’t be good enough, and I’ll somehow disappoint the person who is depending on me to perform to the best of my ability.

As is the case with most accompanists, I make it through the performance fine, pleased with the way it turned out, and proud to have been part of it. This moment is when I have to remember consciously that despite my hours of practice and worry, and despite the investment I may have in the music—right down to my soul, that I am just a player in the background. My job is to accompany the person who needs me, step back, and applaud along with the audience when it’s over.

I can choose to feel like chopped liver, or I can choose to cheer for the people who need me.

As a stepmom (and as a parent in general), it’s so tempting to feel slighted when you’re working so hard for the good of your family, and it seems to go unrecognized and unappreciated. When you plan and fund an activity you know will create lifelong memories for someone, and they don’t even want to you to be there to enjoy it with them, it hurts. When you plan meals you know someone will like, and you are met only with sharp, nitpicky criticism, it hurts.

At those moments, I can either choose to be resentful or relentless. As a musician, I will never stop striving to be the best accompanist I can be for the person who needs me. As a mom and stepmom, I will count it a privilege to have people who truly depend on me—even when I might want to shake them a little bit. I don’t need the applause. I need my kids to have the confidence that they are loved, cared for and worth working hard for. At the end of it, when they are grown and making their own way through life, I’ll be standing in the background, applauding for them more loudly than anyone.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13:4-7

Piano

Sometimes the accompaniment is the most important part. You are doing good work, parents.

Owner of a Lonely Heart

Owner of a Lonely Heart

4th grade is a whole new world for us. Not that Kindergarten through 3rd grade was a cakewalk for W or anything. The teachers at his school don’t mess around. They run a tight ship, and they are excellent at what they do. I can’t imagine a better learning environment for my kids. We’ve just noticed that 4th grade suddenly feels very…grown up. He’s spelling words like “omniscient” and “camouflage” and doing research projects online. It feels like we’ve turned an academic corner to the uphill climb from here to graduation. Bittersweet for this mama. 12th grade will be here all too soon.

Currently, we’re working on his “Bug Collection” project. Can I just take a moment to say how much I hate bugs? Hate. Them. He is tasked with collecting at least ten different insects or spiders or centipedes, etc. He is supposed to study what they are doing in their natural environment, write down where and when he found them, draw a picture of them and then brutally murder them. Okay, okay. The instructions don’t include the word “murder” but…let’s just say they are supposed to take a trip to the freezer, after which they’ll never be the same. After they are…no more, he is supposed to put them in a plastic tackle box (formerly one of my earring organizers–not anymore. I intend to burn it and its contents on Friday at 4 pm sharp).

tackle box

So, here’s the problem. My tenderhearted boy does not kill things. He is a vegetarian. A staunch defender of all creatures, no matter how disgusting. For this reason, we are only collecting dead bugs for this project. Less murdery, but more challenging to find bug corpses in good enough condition that they’ll work for the project. So far his diary looks like this:

Name: Common Wasp

Where did you find it? In an old birdhouse. My mom killed it with Raid. I didn’t kill it. She did.

What was it doing? Nothing. It was just curled up all sad and alone under its nest full of dead offspring where my mom ambushed it and killed it.  She killed them all.

You guys, the struggle is real with this boy. He is one bucket of red paint away from an anti-fur rally. We smuggle meat into our house like drug mules. I’ll distract him with a plate of soy nuggets while the rest of us crouch in the corner, stuffing steak in our mouths, shooing the cats and dogs away while we guiltily savor each cholesterol-laden morsel.

Why don’t I drop the hammer, and force-feed him some meat, you ask? Because he means it. It’s not a show. It’s not an act, or a means for attention. He is truly convicted that eating or killing animals is not something he wants any part of. He has stuck to his guns for nearly three years, despite our cajoling and ploys of tempting him with hot dogs (used to be one of his favorites). He knows that God put animals on the earth for our use, but he chooses to go the veggie route, and that’s okay. He’s extremely healthy, his eyesight is perfect and he’s an honor student.

Go on with your bad vegetarian self, W.

I am confident that his compassionate heart for all of God’s creatures doesn’t go unnoticed by their Creator.

Back to the bug collection. While he was at his grandparents’ lake house this weekend, he and his dad found an obscenely large, incredibly crunchy, disgustingly horrifying grasshopper. It was alive. He couldn’t bear to kill it for the sake of science.

Everyone, meet our new pet grasshopper “Lonely.”

grasshopper 2

I figured it would survive a day or two at the most in captivity. Oh, no. It is thriving under W’s diligent and loving care. Thriving. I swear it’s getting bigger. I threaten it. I show it the tackle box and assure it that it’s “only a matter of time before it joins the others.”

It won’t die.

I emailed W’s teacher today to ask if we might have a stay of execution for our stupid grasshopper so that he can use it as part of his collection but spare its life. If I were her, I would not want to set a precedent of my students (no matter how convicted) bringing live bugs into my classroom. Nope. In her benevolence, however, she has graciously chosen to humor our plight. Lonely is going to 4th grade.

As much as I don’t want a grasshopper in my home, and as much as I would like to eat meat freely in the light of day with the rest of the carnivorous world, I can’t help but admire my son. His compassion is real. It’s honest. As he grows, and that compassion takes root in things besides the sparing of grasshoppers and the avoidance of chicken nuggets, I imagine the difference he could make in the world.

Empathy is in short supply these days. You go ahead and save the planet one bug at a time, my boy. I could learn some things from you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me—it’s time to feed the grasshopper.

The Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polkadot Truth about Growing Up

The Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polkadot Truth about Growing Up

When I was a little girl, my mother, who at the time, I thought was the most unfair, vindictive, Amish mother in the world, made me wear very modest swimsuits. You know the ones. Not just one-piece, but one piece with a skirt. A skirt! Oh, the injustice! Oh, the stifling of my personal expression! While my tiny little friends sashayed around the beach and pool in their adorable bikinis, I was billowing around in my layers of body-covering rayon, so very aware of my too-tall frame among such petite lovelies.

Oh, mom. I am so sorry. Sorry for saving up my money and secretly purchasing those hideously neon bikinis from the clearance rack. Sorry for shoving them deep down in the recesses of my sock drawer, or once you caught on to that, between my fitted sheet and the mattress pad (the only hiding place for anything I might have slipped past you). I am sorry for leaving the house in my rayon swim-burka, only to hastily change into a bikini when I got to the pool. I totally, 100% get it now.

Do I think there is anything inherently wrong with wearing a (respectably cut) bikini? No. It’s a hot topic among Christian women, and I see both sides of the debate, but no. I do not. In fact, throughout my college years, I competed in the Miss America pageant system wearing a modestly cut, body-flattering bikini and was completely at ease doing it. The whole point of the swimsuit competition (the original point, y’all. Not the media-sensationalized point) is fitness. It’s called the “Physical Fitness in Swimsuit” competition. It’s designed to show that a young woman competing for the title of Miss Indiana/Miss America/Miss Whatever is the whole package. The brains to rock an interview chock full of current events, the talent to captivate the audience with a well-done performance, and also the desire and ability to be physically fit and invested in her health. Finding time to go to the gym and eat healthy is not easy, right?

Bikinis weren’t required in the swimsuit competition. I could have worn a one-piece. Truthfully, I wore a bikini simply because my abs were sick, you guys. Two babies later, I can say that without any ego, because my abs are no longer sick (in that sense, anyway). I look at those photos from the glory days of my mid-section, and it’s like looking at a younger, hotter long-lost cousin. I have mixed feelings of admiration and hate for the girl in that picture. I totally underappreciated the tummy of my youth–my goose that laid the golden egg of scholarship money.

RIP, old friend.

Oh, stop. I can hear you gasping in horror.

Anyway, back to life now. So my daughter, a fashionista at the tender age of 6, desperately wants me to let her wear a bikini, and I will not do it. I will not. We’re at the stage where she won’t wear the tutu one-pieces anymore, so I have acquiesced to the tankini. It covers everything a one piece covers but comes in two pieces. Easier to pee. What’s not to love?

My little girl, however, still so young by the measurement of years, but so mature in appearance and intellect, thinks I’m terribly unjust for refusing to let her wear anything less covering than her tankinis.

“Why can’t I wear a bikini? They even make them for two-year-olds, Mommy.”

“I know, but I wouldn’t let my two-year-old wear one either.”

“You wear one sometimes.”

“I know, but I’m a grownup. I don’t want creepy people looking at your body.”

“Do you want creepy people looking at your body?”

Well…shoot. Swift shut down from a 2nd grader.

My sweet little girl is growing up so fast. Her physical development is one step ahead of her emotional development. I experienced the same tug-of-war at her age. Navigating a body that changes so quickly, you hardly recognize it day to day, while your brain bounces between wanting to watch cartoons and wanting to catch up to your body. I remember knowing I wanted to wear a bikini and makeup and high heels and perfume, but not knowing why I wanted to. It’s an odd instinctual pull, the desire to embrace the idea of womanhood while you’re still only a child. I grieve a bit for the little-girl-me and the fight she had to navigate those strange emotions. People look at you differently and make comments about you that seem vaguely uncomfortable to your young brain, but you’re not exactly sure where the discomfort lies or why.big shoes

Yes, knowing Jesus helps–but at that age, there’s something a little weird about being like “Hey, Lord? Why are my hips wider than all my friends’? Also, I held hands with a boy while I was roller skating, and I didn’t hate it. What’s going on? Boys are gross, Lord. You made them. You know this. What’s happening to me?” We are free to come to Him with anything and He deeply cares about all of it, but still– I can’t help but imagine Him fielding some of my more angsty prayers back then with His hands over His ears going “Lalalalalalala! I can’t heeeeeeear yoooooou!”

I am holding on to my daughter’s innocence with white knuckles. I am not going to let go. I will protect her for as long as I can from the sideways glances, the comments that are callously made within her earshot, and most of all from a society that wants her to desire bikinis and boyfriends long before her tender heart is equipped for any of it. In hindsight, I am grateful for the struggles I had as an “early bloomer” and the perspective it gives me on how to pray for and talk to my precious daughter. I can still feel the same awkwardness of growing up as if 1987 were just yesterday.

We’ve got this, my sweet girl.

I stand by my statement that bikinis don’t ooze sinfulness just because the hem of the top piece doesn’t meet the hem of the bottom piece. I will stand just as firmly, however on the fact that my tall, curvy, lovely daughter doesn’t need the masses at the pool to be privy to this vulnerable time of growing up while she’s trying to figure it all out. That’s just where we are.

She might be six, going on 16, but she’s my baby. Please treat her as such, World, or I will cut you.

Suffice it to say, my collection of bikinis has since been boxed up. Tankinis, here I come. I draw the line at anything with a skirt, though.

A girl has her limits.

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