Monday, October 15, 2018


Summer 2018

Paul and I were out on the patio having some beverages as the summer days faded into Fall, chatting about our memories through the years.  We were laughing about how carefree we were in our college days and young married-before-kids days, yet we didn't even realize how carefree we were!  

"I wish I could go back and tell myself the things I was missing!" we both agreed. 

So young and carefree!

I enjoyed our twenties immensely, but in hindsight I could have enjoyed it even more with all the benefits of the perspective I gained in my thirties!  The same goes for our days of littles - we agreed that when the boys were small we often missed out on how cute they were when we were feeling tired and worrying about all of the "have-to's" of parenting. . .baths and feeding and developmental milestones and potty training and sibling squabbles.  Now that I have the privilege of teaching preschool and I am so enamored with the cuties in my classroom, I realize that when my little guys were that age they were just as cute but I might have missed out on truly appreciating it while cleaning up the couch stuffing.  

Aren't we cute? ;)

I don't look back with regret, but I do look back with wisdom gained the hard way.  So, that had me wondering. . .

"OK, Paul. . ." I said.  "What am I missing RIGHT now?  RIGHT NOW- at 11, 10, 8 and 5. What am I going to look back in five years and say, I wish I would have known I was missing. . ."

Paul said, without skipping a beat, "Jen, you're missing how much they need you right now."

(insert imaginary mic drop and super long pause for this life-changing information)

Well, wouldn't you know it.  Paul was right.  That's exactly what I have been missing.  I mean, I knew that.  But I wasn't APPRECIATING it. I've been feeling burdened by how much they need me.  I will admit, I have even complained that as they have gotten older I feel they need me MORE.  They want to tell me everything.  They want my advice on everything.  They want to give me a recap of everything they played at recess, ate at lunch, talked about on the bus, built in Minecraft, read in their books.  They all want me to read to them, listen to their story, say a prayer with them, sit next to them, take them on a special outing, be the first one they see in the morning when they wake up, comb their hair for them because I do it better, fix their covers in the night, make them scrambled eggs in the morning or a bowl of ice cream after school.  And I, in my self-centered view, was only seeing how that was a little taxing on my mental space and personal time since there are FOUR of them.  As my friend Alyssa always helps me remember, it's not their fault there are four of them!  They didn't choose to have three brothers, they were born into this family.  It's my vocation to see each of them as individuals, while helping them live and thrive in a family.  It's my calling to be mindful and present to them NOW, so that in 5 years, or 10 years, or 20 years, everything we've laid in their hearts in our home will be with them as they go out into the world and create homes of their own.  And, so that in 5 years, or 10 years, or 20 years, I'll be looking back knowing I left it all out here on the field and I didn't hold anything back.

I'm reading a book called The Four Agreements, and in the book it teaches about how our words (or the words of others) can become our perception of reality.  I think enough people had told me  "You have your hands full" or "Wow, that's a lot of boys" or "Just wait until they're teenagers" or  "It must be crazy at your house" that I had really internalized those words.  They became my reality- that what I was doing right now was hard.  I was allowing my truth to be "I have four boys and my life is hectic and crazy."

In fact, it's just the other side of the same coin. I need to flip my words so I can flip that coin.

All of the little struggles (messes, fights, tears, endless dishes, people touching everything all the time and going every direction in every store. . ) are the other side of the coin of blessings I hold in my hand. . . four beautiful, healthy, sweet, ENERGETIC boys. Both sides are there, but I have to make the constant choice to look at the shiny side and not the messy one that makes me want to curl up in a ball. 

The sentence, "All of my children are here with me" can be read in two tones of voice. Not everyone has the privilege of saying it at all, so I'm trying to choose the grateful one. There is so much good to be uncovered when I choose to be grateful.  At the top of the trail of whining, there's a beautiful overlook.  ;)  And then, a downhill run!  It takes all of it to make a life.

"Mountaintop" moment!

Every day, I fall short of my own expectation of what I think the best mom would do.  But, every day that failure leaves room for growth and leaves room for grace.  Not I, but the grace of God in me.  If I made it look too easy, how would my children learn to handle their own struggles?  If I try to do it all perfectly and do it all myself, how will I learn and show my children how to accept our role as limited humans walking on this earth who are most definitely not God but need God a whole lot?

God, you are good.
You are You, and I am not.
But I am here.
Just trying to do the best I can
To love you
And serve you
By loving and serving your people
(Starting with the ones in my four walls- I'm going to admit, God, sometimes that's a little harder.)
May the love we share here
spill out into the world.
May I teach my children by example
To be fully human
Accepting your grace
Trying our best to do your will
And walking each other home.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Daddy and his boys.

My dear and faithful husband orders us pizza every. single. Friday and picks it up on his way home from work.  You could set your watch by this good man.  When he gets home at 6:15, he's greeted by four excited little boys in jammies who have picked a movie and are eagerly waiting to eat that pizza on their Angry Birds blanket in front of the basement TV.  It's our little Friday tradition, and the kids love it.

On a whim, I volunteered to pick the pizza up for the first time about a year ago.

"I'm warning you, Jen, they might not know what to do when you walk in there," Paul said with a wink.  "They've usually got my pizza out by the time I've come through the door."

Sure enough, I walked into Marco's and asked for our pizza and the two kind folks behind the counter raised their eyebrows at me.

"Where's Mr. Paul?"
I laughed,  "I was told that you might not give me the pizza."
They grinned and we introduced ourselves.  They told me about how much they enjoy seeing Paul every week and they count on his visits.  We chatted for a while (and they did agree to give me the pizza.)
"It was nice to finally meet you! Tell Paul we say Hi!" they called as I walked out the door.
"You, too! I sure will!"

It got me grinning, and it got me thinking.  
1.  I love being Mrs. Paul (Zink)  
2. Then I got that song Bob sang on Sesame Street when we were little, "Ooooh, these are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day. . ." 
3.  Living an an ordinary, everyday life sure is a precious gift.

Our culture celebrates the mountaintop, but as our wise pastor Fr. Dan says, most of life is lived down here in the valley of the everyday.  

We can Instragram a moment. . .crop and filter and caption and share. . .but a moment is only as good as the life that surrounds it.   We may get to the mountaintop a few times, and that sure is sweet- but what about the rest? It seems the things that matter most may not get us "likes" or look like much on our resume or add anything to our bank account or even be very much fun, but that sure doesn't make those ordinary things any less important.

If you are a mom, you probably feel me here.  I have washed the same little IKEA cups and bowls and forks and spoons and plates over and over again every day for the better part of a decade.  There are apparently no awards for empty sinks (I've been waiting!) and no one notices a clean dish (although, they sure will notice a dirty one!). But I'm learning when we wipe the crumbs on the counter and wash the colorful little dishes piled up in our sink. . . even on the days we don't feel like it. . . even on the days we feel like that's all we did, we're being faithful in the small things.  I love what Mother Teresa said, "God hasn't called me to be successful, he has called me to be faithful."  Feeling a call to "success" can be a slippery slope in a long-term game like parenthood, and that simple call to faithfulness seems even more important in the perspective of the eternal.

I think about my husband, Paul, and his beautiful heart.  He is so faithful in the small things.  He has read to the kids every single night of their lives. He makes sure they brush their teeth and gives all the baths and unloads the dishwasher every night before bed.  He goes to mass and mows the lawn every week and scoops the litterbox and votes in every election and returns his library books on time and irons his no-iron shirts and uses his turn signal and fills his car up with gas every Thursday and says his grace at every meal.  He is an excellent adult, I really enjoy riding on his adulting coat tails. On top of that, he is totally the type of guy who scoops up a bug to put it outside and smiles at babies and shakes hands with strangers and listens patiently to others.

These things can't be measured and a snapshot couldn't really capture them.  But at the end of Paul's life, which I hope is a very long one, how good it will be to have been faithful.  To have been kind.  To have meant a lot to a few special people.  In this digital age, it can be tempting to try to mean a lot in the eyes of the big, wide world.  Tweet for a day and you can see that shiny prize out there to mean a little bit to a whole lot of people.  But the glory and the beauty and the lasting joy aren't in "hearts" or "likes", they are right there in our everyday interactions, all wrapped up in real hearts. . .in meaning a lot to a little.

Its the movie nights and the pew you sit in at church and the cashier that knows you by name and the postman that always gives you a wave.  It's the folks you see on your walk and the friends in your class at the gym and the place you always go for lunch on Friday and the neighbor who always looks out for you and the custodian that cleans your office that you stop and chat with and the preschool mom you always smile at during dropoff even though you don't know each other's names.  You bring joy and human connection to one another's world.

And then, there's your "people".  Your circle- your close friends, your siblings, your parents, your significant other, your kids, your fam. The whole world may never know you, but you are whole world in the eyes of someone special. Every day, day in and day out, you're faithful to that commitment to love your people well.  There's no major award for that on earth, but we can be sure in heaven the treasure is being stored.  And when we move over to the other side of the veil, those are the folks who will miss us the most.

My friend Charlie and I ate lunch together nearly every day of my teaching career.  Every day (unless it was fried chicken day in the cafeteria), he had a brown paper sack lunch with a bologna sandwich and a container of homemade Jell-O, packed by his loving wife.  When his wife passed away, I called Paul to tell him the sad news. All I could squeak out was, "Who will make his bologna sandwich?"

Those little everyday things you do for the people who love you?  They sure do matter.  A sandwich made every single day or a pizza ordered every Friday or a lawn mowed every Saturday or a basket of laundry folded every week or a story read every night might not look like a major accomplishment on paper, but I'd like to think it's the best kind of accomplishment we can have.

This past Friday, I went to pick up the pizza again.  This time they knew me when I walked in the door.
I was greeted with, "It's MRS. PAUL!" and they handed me the pizza with a smile so I could turn around and deliver it to four happy boys.

Here's to your everyday.
Keep on keepin' on.
What you do matters.
Keep being you.

"The connections we make in a lifetime- maybe that's what heaven is." - Fred Rogers

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Forever tries.

Daniel is my bright little ray of sunshine.  He is the first to offer a hug, a positive spin on things or a kind word.  He gets out of bed every day ready to greet the sun and face the world with a smile.  He gets dressed in a favorite shirt- his "Oh Snap" lobster or his hip rhinoceros shirt are always  go-to options, leaves the hanger on his bed from said shirt, heads off to the bathroom to brush his teeth for something approximately close to 2 minutes but way closer to one, and then galumphs off to start his day.  

Then along comes nagging mom- "Daniel, was that really two minutes?  Daniel, is that your hanger laying on your bed AGAIN? Like, every DAY?  Daniel, you need to redo your homework, you got this problem WRONG.  I can't stand it when you don't take your time on your homework. Shouldn't you have taken your time last night?  What did you do with your lunch money from last week?  Did you even MAKE your bed?"  

Who is this lady?  Is she ME?  When did I become such a drag?  I wish that I was making this dialogue up, but these are sadly the typical things that come out of my mouth before he even spills any milk on the table or we find the forgotten lunch money crumpled up in the bottom of his backpack.

Usually my Sunny D apologizes profusely or jokes right back, "But, mom, the hanger is my friend!  I love sleeping with it!," and "Hey, I've never had a cavity!" and I give him a hug and shake my head and we move on.

But one morning, I looked at him at the breakfast table (after we fixed the homework, found the lunch money and wiped up some spilled milk) and he had tears clouding his eyes, and more streaming quietly down his face.  

It hurt me to see him so hurt- and I was the one to blame.

You know, sometimes my kids push it too far, and sometimes I push it too far.  I had pushed it too far, and I started to really not like how I felt or how I was behaving in that moment. It was time for me to pick up the mirror instead of the magnifying glass and look within.

If my voice is going to become their inner voice, how can I make it one of love and encouragement and gentleness?  If these kids are going to be the ones taking care of me when I'm old, how will I want them to treat me when I am forgetful or can no longer do things quite the right way, or do them quickly, or do them by myself?   What would it hurt right now if I let a few more little things go?   Would it mess them up forever to be more gracious with their faults? 

The fact is, they are not intentionally doing anything wrong most of the times that I am annoyed.  I am becoming aware that when I lose my patience, it is usually because their feelings and their needs are getting in the way of my agenda.  Ouch.  Isn't part of my job as their mama to help teach them to be fully human. . .with feelings and needs that can be expressed in healthy ways?  Is my to-do list or my comfort or my convenience the god that I serve? Often when I find myself being the kind of mom that I don't really want to be around, it is more about having my needs served- my need for order, or organization, for peace and quiet, or for well-behaved children, than it is about serving their needs with a kind heart in this season of life.  I've made an idol out of those things at some time or another, and it is time to smash it.

This season, and it is just that, only a season, is in fact loud and messy and full of, shall we say, "growth opportunities"  for them, AND for me. So, after a conversation with my bestie, Kris, a few weeks ago when we sorted through this, I'm asking myself: "What would it look like, for a whole (insert period of time here), to love my people exactly as they are?"  

Not who I want them to be, or who I think they should be, or how they could be if they just did this one little thing right that they are doing wrong right now, but exactly as they are. Right now.  Generously and appreciatively and joyfully, the way God sees them. 

In this, the only moment that we are guaranteed.

I'm starting with some increments of time to focus on seeing my people through the eyes of love and love and only love.  Starting with this moment, right now, and stretching that for even longer periods.  Can I stretch that gentleness out for like, a whole meal?  Or a whole morning?  A whole homework session?  If today was our last day together on earth, would the fact they use their sleeve as a Kleenex be the most important thing I want to talk to them about?  Is spilled milk worth our tears?  Can they forget to carry the one or put "i before e except after c" and still make it to heaven?  

Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No. Yes.

"The world has enough critics," I tell my kids, "be an appreciator." 
I need to heed those words myself.  

"Treat other people the way you want to be treated," I tell my kids.
I need to show them that with my actions.

"Is it more important to be right or to be kind?" I ask my children.
I need to ask myself the same question.

Because I know in my heart the answer- kindness matters most.  Now, there is a time for everything under the sun and there is a time to correct to be sure, but do I need to correct behavior at the expense of hearts?  Probably not.  There's a win-win out there somewhere, and I am praying for the wisdom to seek it and to live it, and praying for the grace to be gentle with myself so I can be gentle with them.  I'll never get it perfectly, but I know I can do it better.

The sun rises each day and shines on us all with new mercy.

Here's to greeting the sun like D.
Forever tries.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Over again.

"Can't we go back to page one and do it all over again?"  - Winnie the Pooh

I don't know why, but for some reason Halloween gives me all the feels!  Maybe it's because every year I realize these kiddos are a little bigger, can go a few more houses, try more adventurous costumes, and have more zeal for candy.  Not to mention the memories of all of the Halloween's past that appear, all the pictures of chubby faces squished into fuzzy costumes on our Facebook feeds.  It seems like a silly day to feel so sentimental about, but it is what it is!

This Halloween day I dragged out the costume box for Noah.  We were getting ready to go visit our friends at the nursing home and I wanted to make sure he had something cute to wear (as if he even needed a costume to score candy, he gets that every week costume-free) but kids in costumes just make people smile.  We dug through the box and I pulled out a treasure I had been looking for- the old Winnie the Pooh costume.  The one Daniel wore for Halloween when Phil was his Christopher Robin, the one Noah wore basically every day for an entire summer despite the heat, when he was just learning to talk and walked around proudly, saying, "NOOK!  I POOP!  I POOP!" sending his brothers into fits of laughter.

I have so many precious memories of Winnie The "Poop" that I was hopeful that he would put it on one more time.  The tag inside said 3T-4T.  Would it fit?

"Noah, will you try this on for Mommy?"
"Mommy, dat was from when I was a baby. I am FOUR and a HALF,"  he declared with a raised eyebrow.  (note: the HALF is very important.)
"Pleeeeaassseeee?"  I looked at him pleadingly, he looked right back at me with almost an exasperated face, as if he could not be bothered with this childish activity.  But after I promised him a piece of candy, he grudgingly approved the costume try-on.
We slipped it on and it zipped up, but, as he pointed out, "Mommy, dat's tight."
Kind of like my jeans, kid.  I get it.  Only I have less excuses.
I laughed at my own ridiculousness.  Of course it was tight!  It was from when he was 2!  The built-in Pooh belly, once so comfortable and squishy, looked more like a bowling ball, and his ankles were hanging out from below the cute little Pooh paws that used to pool around his feet.  
"Can I take it off now, Mommy?"
"Yes, but can I PLEASE take your picture first?  PLEASE?" I begged.
"OK, but don't share it with anyone."   He gave me an I-mean-business look.
"I promise."

And I kept that promise- do you see the picture here?  Nope, but it's on my phone as a reminder for me, that my little man is growing up and has needs and opinions and an interior life of his own that is worthy of respect.  And the pic squeezing into Pooh this Halloween was not nearly as cute as the pictures of him when he was a baby in it anyways.

I unzipped the "Poop" costume and helped take it off a Zink boy for the last time.  Noah saw my wistful face and felt the need to encourage me, "Mommy, I will wear something else, but I will still be cute, OK?" 

And he did, and he was, and it was all good.  He was a brave knight, slaying loneliness like any old dragon, stealing hearts and candy from all the fair damsels.  I watched him interact with everyone and marveled at how he is growing up.

After we left the room of one of our friends, he said, "Mommy, Lillian asked my name so many times!"
"I know, buddy.  That's just her question that she likes to ask.  She knows you, it's OK."
"Yeah, I know.  My feelings weren't hurt." he said, matter-of-factly.

He totally gets it, I thought.  I marveled at his compassion for others, the way he is processing the world and the way he articulates it to me.  I gave him a hug.

"My baby is growing up!" I said, in the standard "Awwwwwww" tone of voice I always use when I tell my kids that.  And then Noah screwed up his little face and said something that made me pause.

"Mommy, do you just like babies?"

He looked at me with concern.  It was a sincere question from his four-year-old mind, worthy of the most sincere of responses. 

"Oh honey," I melted into a puddle and held him close,  "I loved you when you are a baby and I love you now.  I love you all the time.  I love babies but I love big boys, too.  You are so special, and I love the way you are growing."

He looked encouraged and quickly moved on with his life, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.  What message am I sending my "baby" when I am constantly articulating my tug between having a baby and big boy, the same tug that he's struggling with inside?   Obviously a strong enough message to make him wonder if having a cute baby was all I was into.  I need to be careful with my words and through my own give him the words he needs to share his interior life in the ways he sees fit.  So much to hold in my heart, and we were only halfway through Halloween.  See what I mean? ALL THE HALLOWEEN FEELS.

The big bros got off the bus and we had a blast.  An exhausting blast, as there is nothing quite like feeding four kids dinner and getting them costumed up on Halloween.  And JUST as I am finally getting used to the flow if it, the little years are almost over.  Isn't that life?  We went for our last theme this year, our final in a 9-year streak of themes because we thought perhaps next year would be the year the big boys wanted to go out with their friends, which I totally respect.  It was time to do it up right and savor one last trick or treat as a family of six.  I left the bowl of candy on the porch in our skeleton's lap because as much as I love greeting my trick-or-treaters in my witch costume there was no way I was going to miss my own kids out as The Beatles.

Oh, how much fun they had.  They were a hit at every house and Noah's joy spread down the street like beams of sunshine.  Our kids scored so much extra candy for their costumes that I had to quickly shuffle about four bags of it away while they were sleeping that night.  I couldn't tell if my face hurt from smiling or from the cold, but I think it was mostly the smiling.  I soaked it up- their joy, their good humor, their cuteness and the pure fun of making people laugh and smile and clap and sing.  They were so in character and they had ladies squeal over them and even had some people take their picture, which they thought was sooo cool.

After we warmed up from the cold, took off the costumes, sorted the candy, washed out the colored hairspray from Ringo and Paul's hair, got on jammies, brushed teeth and read stories, a tired-but-happy mommy and daddy were finally tucking the tired-but-happy boys into bed.

"Mommy, I'm never going to forget that," said Phil. 
"Me neither, buddy," I said, and I walked over to tuck in Daniel.
"Mommy, I'm sorry.  Today was really fun for us but I think it probably was a lot of work for you."
"Daniel," my heart ached at how sensitive he is and I felt ashamed that I had not pretended to be less tired at this point, "I'm sorry, bud, Mommy should probably do a better job of not looking tired.  Yes, I am tired.  But my heart is full from seeing you have fun. It was so worth it."

He smiled.
And it was. So. Worth. It.

It's easier now to be OK with the tired when I know that the days of being "hands-on" are slipping past, it was even easier after spending time at the nursing home earlier that day, where hands are no longer busy and rooms are quiet except for the sounds of the television and the beeps and purring of machinery.

And as much as I would love to hold one of my babies in my arms again, I can't go back to page one and live all the sweet moments (and only the sweet ones, right?) over again.  But we can try to live today the best we can, knowing that the other side of the coin of being happy is being tired, and vice versa, and that's just the way it is going to be for the season we're in.  As they say, you can have it all, you just can't have it all at the same time!

Paul and I went out for a rare date night last night to grab a drink and we talked about growing older.  We'd only go back and do it over again if we knew what we knew now, we agreed. We wouldn't trade the lessons we've learned (most of them the hard way) for a hundred yesterdays with less gray hair and firmer skin, no matter how sweet those yesterdays were in our 20's and early 30's.

As much as I miss the little Pooh and Christopher Robin of Halloween past, there is so much joy to be grasped today. 

I mean, seriously.  How much do I love them?  

I turned 38 today.  Time marches forward.  Will they still need me when I'm 64? I hope they do. My prayer is that I can make the most of the time I have with my children, whatever time I am given.  Thank you, God, for another year on this earth, another day to try over again to love my people the best that I can. 

"Any day with you is my favorite day, so today is my new favorite day."  - Winnie the Pooh

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hold On.

"Letting our children go is a lifelong process for parents, one that we wrestle with again and again.  Each parent has to wrestle with it in his or her own way." -Fred Rogers

"I'm going. I have to go.  I'm tall enough!  PLEEEEEEEEEEASE????" Philip begged.

"Oh, honey," I cringed and looked over at the Round Up, "I don't know."

I had made up my mind the first time I saw this ride seven years prior that the people who ride it must be absolutely CRAZY.  With a capital C and a capital-all-the-other-letters CRAZY.  The scientist in me understands the forces at work that keep you firm and secure, but the wimp in me says, "No, thank you. I'll be over here on the carousel."

Having watched considerably more episodes of NOVA than I have, Phil's eyes were gleaming with excitement for all of the g's he was going to experience on the Round Up.  My most responsible boy is also my biggest amusement park thrill-seeker.  Who could have a trace of fear when the laws of physics are so consistently enforced? 

I stood there stalling with my ten-year-old tugging on my arm as my mind spun around,  "What happened to the rides in kiddie land?  But you were terrified the first time he rode those, too, Jen. Remember?  You can't hold on to him forever.  You need to let him go.  He wants to, he's tall enough."

But there was no way I could watch him up there alone.  I gulped.

"OK, buddy, but I'm coming with you."

Phil grinned and ran ahead of me.  Instant regret filled me the moment those words came out of my mouth. Why did I say that? Now I must be the one who is absolutely crazy!  I looked up at the ride- it was half full of kids, none of them over the age of 12, and it was spinning vertically as they screamed.  I followed along behind Phil halfheartedly and plopped my hat and purse into the box next to the attendant.  I took my place on the ride and gripped firmly to the peeling metal bars on either side of me, suspiciously eyeing the small chain in front of me, whose purpose I could hardly grasp, and wondering how old this ride actually was.  Definitely old enough my parents could have ridden it as kids, which I later confirmed on wikipedia.  Through my fear narrative, I took a moment to notice that the kids on either side of me were elated, most especially my Philip who couldn't stop chattering about the ride to come. 

The college-aged ride attendant came over to this grown lady with white knuckles sandwiched between the tweens and gave me an encouraging smile. 
"I'm 37 and I have to admit I'm a little nervous," I told him.
"You'll be just fine!" he said, as he walked around casually, balancing the ride and making sure everyone was secure.

The clank of the "on" lever, the whir of the motor, and we were off.  I gripped the ride in terror, but when I glanced over the look on Phil's face was priceless.  I screamed the entire time, mostly, "HOLD ON!!!" although the laws of physics were, again, consistently being enforced and the act of holding was not truly necessary.  And I had to admit the view of the park from the top was pretty incredible.  It was over before I knew it.

That may have been my first time on the Round Up, but it wasn't my last.  After that first ride,  Phil ran off and got right back on again, taking my Dad along with him.  We ended up riding it a half dozen or so more times, and even brought some brothers along. And each time, I was befriended by the kids around me waiting for the ride to begin.

"I'm 8!  We're here for my birthday!"
"I'm here with my aunt and uncle, they bring me here for special occasions!"
"I've been on this ride 27 times!"
"I'm a Steelers fan, but I don't even live here! Do you like the Steelers?"

You know, for a seemingly terrifying ride, it was actually pretty friendly.  I made lots of new pint-sized friends.  I also learned after the first time that if you just focused on the center of the ride, it was way less dizzying.  And Phil's joy and pride in this new milestone made it all worthwhile.

As we stepped off the ride for the last time and prepared to leave the park, I couldn't help but reflect on the metaphor the whole experience on the Round Up had for my life as a parent.

Daunting.  At times terrifying.  The overwhelming urge to hold on. White knuckles. Intermittent screaming.  Nausea.  The conflicting feeling that things are over too fast and not over fast enough. 


Fun.  Full of pint-sized friends.  Thrilling. Lots of laughter.  New views and perspectives.  Worth doing multiple times.  Different than I expected, yet way better in surprising ways- especially if one can stay focused on the Center.

I've been reflecting on this more during my boys' fourth grade year.  Philip and Daniel are crossing that bridge from "little boys" to "young men." and I am watching it unfold before my eyes.  I have the overwhelming urge to hold on some days, while at the same time knowing that the whole point of parenting is letting go.  My head knows that I can't cling to them forever, but my heart aches in the letting go.  How could so many of those little days when they were one and two, or two and three, or three and four, have gone so painfully sloooooowwwwwwww, while those little YEARS simply flew?

Now these ever growing nine-and-ten-year-old little men stand before me, with compassionate hearts and great senses of humor and slightly more self control in using their shirts as Kleenex and their pants as napkins than they had when they were five and six.  Where did those days go?  Did I do right by them?  Have I done enough, invested enough in their hearts? What will their future bring, and what can I do to ensure they are ready for it?

I can take hope and comfort from the Round Up, however.  There, the laws of physics are consistently enforced, beyond my own power or will to influence them.  

Philip and Daniel each have a plan for their lives, beyond my own power or will to make it myself.  They have a reason for being here that is beyond my mind to fully understand but has been destined since even before my time on earth.  My job as their mom is to help them find God's will for their lives- I can't make it up myself, I can't force them onto the path, but I can try to help guide them there.  I can be their lantern to hold, I can be their safe place to rest, but I can't walk it for them, and I can't even walk it next to them clinging with white knuckles to their arm.  Darn it, because I'd really like to.  It's humbling and scary but also the most liberating thought possible.  They aren't "mine."  They aren't even Paul's.  They aren't the world's. They are God's.  And he's the Center of it all- for them, and for me.  He's got us.

As necessary as it seems to hold on, I need to keep telling myself that it's also going to be OK to let go.
The ride may be over fast, but the memories remain.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In between.

Like the last few moments of a sunset, September calls us to an in-between space.  The leaves begin to turn and the morning chill enters the air.  We're on the threshold of Fall, clutching a pumpkin spice latte while still wearing our flip flops, mowing the lawn in shorts while raking the first leaves.  We're in a liminal space.  And in this sacred September, I've become even more acutely aware of that space between.

Maybe you're smarter than me, but I sure had no idea what liminal space meant until reading a beautiful homily for the Epiphany last year written by Deacon James Knipper:  

"The word liminal comes from the Latin word which means threshold – the space between and betwixt. It is the time that “life as usual” doesn’t necessarily feel right any longer – that change is needed – but you are not sure what to replace it with. It is when you are between what was once your comfort zone and that sense of newness in your life. It is a time when we need to pause…to resist the temptation to simply push through or retreat…but to be still and to listen."

His description of that place of threshold sparked a recognition in me, and has kept me open to the possibility of these spaces in my own life. There's a particular beauty of the times in-between, the magic of uncertainty, the embrace of the feeling of being, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would say, "in suspense and incomplete".  Those last few weeks and days before a new baby is born, as you're waiting to see who this little person is who will change your family forever.  The week before your high school graduation.  The search for a new job.  The wait for the test results. The last sunset of a beautiful vacation.  The first few weeks as husband and wife.  The night before the moving van comes. Each of these times calls to mind an expectancy and a sense of the unknown, and a "thin place" where God's presence can be felt if we only put aside the tendency to rush or push and be still and listen.

11 years ago this fall, I found out I was expecting Philip.  "What would being a mother be like?" I wondered for nine whole months.  After he was born, the question was answered in the way my life expanded and changed in ways I could have never anticipated, and time became a snowball rolling down the hill until I was simply carried away by the momentum of it all.  Daniel arrived less than 13 months later, a huge (both literally and figuratively) surprise that not only changed our family, but the trajectory of my entire life.  Although I went back to my career of teaching high school science after Phil was born, the arrival of Daniel brought with it the need to slow down and take on a new role as full-time homemaker.  I was reluctant to leave the identity of my career and considered the stay at home temporary until my return to the classroom, and I found myself there in a liminal space, uncertain in my new role while still knowing the change was necessary.  Over the past 10 years of being carried along by the snowball, I've gone from the familiar to the unknown all the way until the unknown transformed into its own brand of familiar.   Motherhood has gone from feeling as constrictive as a pair of low rise pre-pregnancy jeans to more like the comfort of some high-waisted maternity leggings.  It wasn't so much a shedding of my previous identity, but an incorporating of everything I had been as a teacher and daughter and wife and sister and friend  into the broadened expanse of this vocation.   

Beyond my worryings of if there would be enough love for them all, these four tiny people expanded my heart a million times over.  

Despite my concerns about my lack of training in this job, all of the things I had done seemingly prepared me for this moment.  

Who knew the high school drama club could come in handy with the endless pretend in those little years, where I was required to play everything from factory foreman to museum curator in elaborate little boy make-believes?  My summers as a camp director at the YMCA filled my playbook with all sorts of entertainment and first-aid knowledge, and my career as a teacher sure helped me out when my dining room table became an impromptu classroom for the nature wonderings of littles.   Even my sorority girl days came in handy, spending all that time in frat houses has been good preparation for what life with a husband and four boys was headed towards, and if my kids' bathroom still looks better than the bathroom at Harry's Chocolate Shop, I'm not doing so bad, right?

Deeper than that, though, upon entry into this space I was invited by my children onto a spiritual journey, one that was less the mountaintop moment I had imagined motherhood would be and more journey to the valley- humbling and self-emptying.  Despite my initial efforts to not "lose myself" in motherhood, to resist the messy discomfort of growth and stay my in control Jen-centered self, these kids eventually just broke me down and broke me open.  It might have been the day ants crawled out of my purse at church.  Motherhood allowed me to embrace my need for grace in a way I could have never done under my own power.  You see, before I had kids I thought I COULD and SHOULD do everything under my own power.  Don't get me wrong, I loved Jesus and I adored God and I prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide me with this person and that problem and the other thing, but outside of Mass and prayer group and devotion time, I sure lived the rest of my hours like it all depended on me.  In my mind the success or failure of every little thing was all up to my efforts- how hard I worked, the choices I made, the way I handled things, how hard I prayed.  Get it right, Jen, you only have one chance.  Only after realizing that there was no way that I could ever keep these four kids alive and grow them into competent adults on my own (I think the third child shattered that illusion), I went before Jesus, exhausted and covered in boogers and spit-up, mildly grumpy with my husband and sleep deprived to boot, with a layer of caffeine, concealer and smudgy-mascara over it all.  In this state I offered this whole hot mess up to the One who made her.

He was waiting.  He has, since then, consistently seemed more than happy to help.  It is a daily offering, a laying at His feet of all of the things I want to cling to tightly and control, the simple knowing that all I need to do is keep my eyes and heart open and follow and trust that has made all the difference.  Those things Paul said in the bible have become less flowery words to pin on Pinterest and more like a lifeline, a song, a love letter.  "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."  He is greatest when I am weak?  It's not all about me?  Who knew.  I didn't.  I'm slowly learning.

Now I stand in the space where the most physically rigorous of these years of raising littles have all but closed behind me.  Wiping endless noses and tears and folding minuscule laundry and stumbling out of bed to put pacifiers back in babies' mouths have been replaced by the emotional rigor of shepherding four little souls out into the great big world and the new opportunities for humility that come along with that.  I'm in the space between the toddler and the teen years, at the threshold of the next part of my journey.  Noah starts kindergarten next August when Daniel turns 10- which will round out my decade of being a stay-at-home mom and open me up for the next adventure.  Now, I will always be their mom, and my heart and mind will still be captured by the daily tasks of raising these kids.  But, let's face it, without a baby on my hip or a tiny friend to buckle into a car seat on every errand, my hands will be a little more. . .free.

So, here in the liminal space of this Indiana September, my last as a stay-at-home mom to a preschooler, it seems to me that I need to live it as tenderly as I can.  Could it be over yet?  Every day with Noah seems now a little less like a pill to swallow as it did to me when motherhood was new and a little more like dark chocolate wrapped in shiny paper on my pillow. . .just sweet enough to be savored and a little guiltily a that. . .do I even deserve this sweet boy? Of course not.  And what will the next phase bring, when Noah gets on the bus next year and I cross the threshold with 8 hours to fill?

To answer I need only to look back at another liminal space in my life, the time right before I started my student teaching and prepared to graduate from Purdue.  This September, 16 years ago, I was making $200 a week developing film in the one hour photo lab of Kroger, living with my parents, eating Taco Bell daily and more or less waiting for my life to begin.  Little did I know that in a few weeks I would meet my supervising teacher, who would become a lifelong mentor and friend, that the school I was getting ready to student teach at would be the one where I would build my career, that the brand new RENEW group I had signed up for at church would launch a new phase in my faith journey, that in just a few months I would be at a Purdue football game and meet a handsome guy with sideburns and glasses and a big smile, and he would be my soulmate and we would get married and have four children together?!?!?  WHO COULD HAVE GUESSED I was going to meet the guy who would be carrying me over the threshold??!!!

 I certainly couldn't, leaning on the counter of the Kroger photo lab that September, bored out of my mind as the clocked ticked by.  God knew to be sure, but I was clueless.  

And looking back at how it all played out, I am more than sure He knows now.  What will be next for me, when this decade of quiet adventure is over?  What will I leave behind and what will I gain and how will he use me and how will it all go down?  I'm clueless but the faith side of that coin is living with the confidence that He knows.  He was here then, he's here now, he'll be here tomorrow.   Whatever I've been up to these past 10 years is surely the perfect preparation for the next phase of my life, God doesn't do it any other way.  I couldn't have planned the last few decades myself. . .the way he wove all that together?  Well played, Lord.  You're the champ.

This week, the memory of September 2001 lingers in my mind for other reasons as well, as it does in our collective memory as a nation.  Yesterday as we remembered the lives lost, our thoughts wandered to the fact that it can all change so quickly- on a beautiful September day or any day at that.  Thinking of those who lost their beloveds on September 11 calls us to live this life tenderly and gently when we can no matter what phase of life we are in.  What's next for us, we don't know.  What do we do, those of us living in the space between?  Where are we being called?  What's He preparing you for right now?  What does He have planned for me?  I'm thinking all we can do is pray to live this moment, the only one we are guaranteed, well.  To take the time to listen.  To stand on the threshold and look out to the journey ahead, praying He'll take us where we need to be.

"Lord, take me where You want me to go;
let me meet who You want me to meet;
tell me what You want me to say;
AND. . . keep me out Your way." 

Father Mychal Judge
NYC Fire Department Chaplain 
May 11, 1933-  September 11, 2001

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Forever six.

My favorite seven-year-old

"The child is within me still.  And sometimes not so still."  - Fred Rogers

November 4, 1986. . .my parents had already tucked me into my yellow canopy bed with my array of stuffed animals, but I lay there in the digital glow of my purple clock radio unable to sleep.   I was anxious.  Distressed.  Agitated.  The next day, I was going to turn seven.  S-E-V-E-N.  I know kids are supposed to be excited about their birthdays but little Jenny most definitely was NOT. I finally couldn't stand it anymore and made the short walk across the hall into my parents' room, where I found my mom reading in her bed. 
She looked up from her book at me in my jammies with my tear-filled eyes.
"I don't want it to be tomorrow," I pleaded,  "I don't WANT to turn seven!!  I want to stay six, Mommy!  Make my birthday not come."
My mom did her best to soothe it away, but I can still remember the ache of that feeling.  I don't even know where it came from, I just knew that I wanted to stay six forever. 
Six was awesome.
Six was jump roping and learning to read.  It was Rainbow Brite and puffy-sleeved dresses and watching the Cosby Show with my parents.  It was stuffed animals and First Communion and Hi-C juice boxes and tag at recess and being friends with everyone.  Being the youngest in my class, I had already witnessed most everyone around me turn seven, I had just decided I didn't want to join them.   (This was a far different emotion than later when I witnessed everyone in my class turn 21. 😉 )

But on that night in 1986, there was no way to stop the clock.  The clock turned, and I along with it.  Seven.  My mom and I still joke about that night, but it turned out that it wasn't the end of the world.  I mean, there was cake, after all!  I turned eight, nine, ten, eleven. . .and now I am checking in at 37 1/2.  This might mean I'm a grown-up, but I still feel like I am doing a lot of growing. Will I ever arrive at being a grown-up?  Sometimes I look around and I am not sure if I even want to. Over the years, as I grew I watched everyone around me "grow up", too. The kids around me got older, wiser, and many of them grew more cynical. More critical. Less enthusiastic.  A little more "exclusive".  Glossed in a veneer of cool and casual totally unfamiliar to our six-year-old selves.   Well, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for me I am not good at being cool.  Or exclusive.  Or cynical. I think there maybe there is still a part on the inside of me that has stayed six, and still wonders- why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we "grow up", especially when growing up can mean hiding those parts of ourselves that can bring us the most connection and love?  

I ponder this today as my little Joshy turns seven.  As much as I love sweet, bright, enthusiastic and loving SIX, I couldn't keep him there any better than I could keep myself.   All I can do is pray that as he grows, he keeps that six-year-old spirit inside.

So, on this day, this is what I have to say to Josh.  Maybe someday he'll go back and read all of the things his mommy wrote, and know just how loved he is.  And maybe you'll read it and know how loved you are, too.

Joshy, I'm so proud of the way you're growing. I love how you fit in my arms just right for a hug, and run off the bus every day and leap right into them.  I love your sense of humor and the insightful questions you ask and the way you make our family just right.  I love your honesty, your genuine smile, and that adorable giggle that wells up from deep inside you until it overflows.  I love how hard you work in school and how you never want to stop learning.  I admire your faith and your reverence.  I love the way you sing. I adore your patience and your pretend with Shopkins and your assortment of stuffed animals and your love of Dr. Seuss books and stickers and the way you cuddle up on the couch and watch Mister Rogers or Elmo with Noah just as easily as you sandwich between your older brothers to watch Star Wars or Pokemon.

Part of me selfishly wishes I could keep you little forever, but since I can't stop the clock, I just want you to know that as you grow, it's O.K. to just be you.  You are enough.  Your genuine self?  It is MORE than enough.  You are just right.

Here's the thing.  Other people around you are going to be testing out the great big world and trying on all different forms of their grown-up selves.  Someday, those people may shame you for getting too interested in things.  For trying too hard. For your enthusiasm.  For trying to please your teachers.  For following the rules.  For laughing at all the funny things.  For including people who are different.  For singing, or wearing your favorite color, or for liking Disney movies or for your shoes or for taking your time or whatever thing that people of your age may have decided that they are currently too "cool" for. But even when that hot feeling of embarrassment burns inside you, don't let shame creep in and steal your joy.  There is no shame in being authentic, and nothing wrong with being you.  You might consider for a moment if you should be tougher, or different, or if you could somehow be just like everyone else.  But even if you feel like you are on your own path, know you certainly are never alone.  Lots of us have felt that, too. I've often wondered if I should stuff down the parts of me that are different.  Could I be less sensitive?  More jaded?  I have even tried.  But here's what I've learned: It's OK to turn the volume down, but please don't mute the parts of you that make you. . .YOU.  You can't experience joy unless you live life wholeheartedly.  God made you for joy, he made you so special, and he wants all of Y-O-U.

Keep growing, my love, but please keep that tender six-year-old heart, the heart that makes you cry when you see something beautiful or when you see someone sad, the heart that helps you be so quick to say both "I love you" and "I'm sorry."
Keep hugging. Your hugs are the best, the world needs them.
Keep praying. Your childlike faith isn't naive, it's a gift from God.
Keep being spiffy. You can never be overdressed, really.  I love your style. 
You like to take your time- keep taking it.  Please don't hurry when the world tries to make you rush. Rushing is overrated . .follow your own little drum.
Keep creating.
Making new friends everywhere you go.
Being YOU.

Grow big.
Grow strong.
But always keep a little bit of that six-year-old self inside.

Happy 7th birthday, Joshy Pooh!  We love you!

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
Matthew 18:3-5

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
Matthew 18:3-5