Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Noah turned four this past Saturday, and I think I officially have to say that my "baby" is no longer a baby.  

I realized for the first time this year that Noah was born on the feast of the Annunciation.  What a lovely day to be born into the world, the day where we celebrate the joy of a "yes" that changed human history.  In the BIG scheme of things, Mary said yes to the invitation of an angel and the world has never been the same.  In our little world, Noah entered as the fourth brother and our family changed forever. What joy, what light, what love he brings to our hearts.  Is he perfect?  No.  None of us are. But he's perfectly Noah.  Phil may be even more polite and more inquisitive, Daniel even more sweet and good-humored, Josh even more independent and gentle of spirit.  But Noah brings something that is 100% Noah to the scene: an enthusiasm, a generosity, a spunk and a friendliness all his own.  And upon his entrance to our family as the "last baby", he also brought with him an invitation.  An invitation to slow down.  An invitation to say yes.  An invitation to not take ourselves too seriously. An invitation to joy.

To be fair, all of my children came with that invitation, but I'm a slow learner.  It took me until #4 to realize that the invitation to live life to the fullest was in fact addressed to ME.  The first few times I think that the invitation got buried in the pile of diapers and the to-do list and the tiny laundry and sleepless nights and my closet full of ill-fitting clothing in four sizes and the endless cracker crumbs everywhere.  Was it under there, like a leaking sippy cup long lost under the couch?  I certainly didn't see it.  I had the misguided notion that just because things were hard, it must mean I was doing them wrong, and if my children weren't "perfect", or I fell short of my own self-imposed vision of what a mother should be, I was failing.  I thought I needed to change myself.  I felt like a million voices were shouting at me- be better, do better, do more, get it right, you only have one chance.  But then, deep within, a still small voice. . ."God made you.  He loves you just the way you are, and that love is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever."  Maybe I don't need to be different, I just need to be me, only more free?  Could it be?  These past four years have been an adventure into that invitation to freedom.

Of course my Facebook memories on Saturday were full of treasured moments- the day Noah was born, meeting his brothers for the first time, his first birthday where we dressed him like Corduroy, his second birthday where he sang "Happy Birthday" to himself with such enthusiasm I'm sure the neighbors heard. . .

When I clicked on that "see your memories" link, I expected myself to be sad, to feel the tug of wishing I could go back, just for one moment, to live Noah's babyhood again.  But for some reason, this super sentimental gal who cries on a daily basis about anything from a soap commercial to a picture of a senior citizen and a puppy to a song on the radio. . .didn't shed a tear?  Whoa.  I needed to unpack this lack of emotion just to make sure my feelers were still operational.  After some reflection, I realized that, just like Glennon says, as much as I love having parented, the actual parenting itself is pretty hard work. I wouldn't trade the hard earned wisdom gained through my mistakes along the way.   Did I do it perfectly?  No.  Nothing is perfect this side of heaven.  Did I "enjoy every moment because they are just growing so fast?"  No.  There were some moments where I really wished that life was a VHS and I could hit that fast forward button right through the hard parts, or a DVD and I could just go to the next scene, or maybe some Netflix and I could just fall asleep on the couch and wake up when it's over.  But more often than not in the last four years, I have been taking the invitation to the joy right in front of me. It's much easier to say "yes" when you know it is your last time on the merry-go-round.  And in taking Noah's invitation, I began to see so many others as well.

I can't go back and re-parent Joshy and Phil and Daniel when they were three-going-on-four.  If I could, I'd take myself less seriously.  I'd hug more and lecture less, I'd laugh more and worry less. I'd have more reasonable expectations for Phil:  Just because he is three and the oldest of three brothers doesn't mean he isn't still THREE.  I'd appreciate Daniel more:  Just because he's so well behaved and sweet doesn't mean I can just ignore him until he needs me.  I'd get less frustrated with Joshy:  His mischief is the other side of his coin of independence.   While, by nature of him being my "last chance", I was able to see Noah's interruptions as invitations to connect, I saw most of my older children's interruptions as, well, annoyances.  What did I miss?  I'll never know. I can only see those things now in hindsight.  I was talking to a wise friend about these regrets and she said something about our kids that I will never forget:

We still have them right now.

Now that's some truth.  I think we all have regrets, but we can't dwell in Regret Town.  It's a sad, dusty place to live.  Regrets only find their value in the way we use them to inform our actions moving forward.  I can't go back, I can't even go ahead, all I have is this moment.  These boys, 9 and 8 and 6 and 4.  I was there for them all these years, I'll be there for them tomorrow, but the only moment that I'm guaranteed is this one.  I can't go back and fix my perceived mistakes, I can't look forward to know everything that will happen and plan how to handle it.  I can just take the invitation to live and love. . .today. 

And they still need me now, in ways that are different and specific and unique yet no less important than the ways they needed me before.  The other day we were cleaning up the LEGO area in the basement.  This is an activity that I try to stay far, far away from, as the only thing more painful than stepping on LEGO is trying to get your kids to clean it up.  But Daniel invited me down to help them clean and there I was, sitting with a bowl on the floor, sorting while they chatted my ear off and peppered me with questions about this, that and the other. 
Daniel grinned at me at one point and said, "Thanks for helping, Mommy!  This is just what we needed."
"No problem, Daniel.  I'm just trying to be the mom you need today."
He pondered that for a moment.
"You're always the mom we need, Mommy." 
He put his arm around me, and in that moment, in the midst of the mess, I felt a spark of the divine.

God interrupted our messy world when he showed up at the Annunciation with an invitation in a big way, but he's there with smaller invitations every moment of our own messy day, interruptions that bring us invitations to growth and freedom and joy.  In a tiny, outstretched hand.  In an unexpected hug. In naptime.  In a couch full of pillows waiting to be cuddled into.  Even in the burnt dinner and the broken toilet and the school project and the unexpected sick day and the mountain of laundry untouched for a week.  The invitation is there to laugh at ourselves, to ask for and receive grace, to not take ourselves too seriously, to say YES.  I tell myself if Mary could say "yes" to becoming the unwed virgin mother of God, I could probably say "yes" to, say, a blanket fort, y'all.  If she could have a baby in a barn, I could probably, like, clean the toilet in the boys' bathroom.  And if Jesus could die on the cross for us, I could PROBABLY find the strength to wash the dishes or read another bedtime story. 
Baby steps. 
I'm learning. 

God, please give me the eyes to see you as you appear.
The wisdom to take the invitation as it arrives.
The grace and peace and strength to be the mom they need today.

Not babies. . .but always my babies. :)

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Our dear Daniel has his First Reconciliation next Saturday, and I'm a little confused because, um, wasn't he just born?  Eight years sure flies. We're preparing for his big day by completing the "Gift of Reconciliation" book our church provides.  Last year, Paul and I took turns completing it with Phil, but this year I selfishly took over this task all on my own for three very important reasons.  (1) While we do the book Paul has to put the other kids to bed.  (2) Did I mention I get to do the book while Paul puts the other kids to bed? and (3) Daniel is the ultimate mini-me, and thanks to the fact that we are so similar he is also the child with whom I need the most reconciling.  Imagine that. Not because of his sinfulness, really, just because of mine.  I can't even imagine what he's going to confess in confession, the little dude is the sweetest.  Wiping his nose on his sleeve?  Taking too many turns on the Wii?  I'd love to be a fly on the wall. But he's so excited for his big day, it doesn't even matter. 

The other night we were working through a chapter together and read the story of the prodigal son.  "Oh, I LOVE this one." he said, and I agreed.  We laughed, remembering how his Religious Ed class last year acted it out and had so much fun taking turns being each character in the story.  Their little play was in a way a metaphor for life:  we might all take turns being each of those roles at some point on our journey, right?  Then we got to a new section:  "Mistakes are not sins."  Daniel started reading out loud and by the time he finished the section I was holding back tears.  He was ready to move on to the next page, but I stopped him.  I was feeling majorly convicted.  I bit my lip.

"Daniel," I said.  "I need to apologize to you."
He looked at me with some concern.
"D," I said, a tear running down my face. "I just realized that sometimes I get angry at you when you make mistakes.  That's not fair.  Mistakes are not sins.  Mistakes are how we learn."
"It's really OK, Mommy."
"No, Daniel, it's not OK," I said, still crying. "That is not good of me.  You need to make mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  I am sorry.  I am so sorry I haven't been a good mommy to you."
I started to sob.
Daniel started to get desperate.
"MOMMY!!!!" he crawled into my lap and put his arms around me.  "You are a good mommy!  Stop crying!  It's OK!  It's OK!  I'm OK!  I love you and I think you are a good mommy."
He cuddled his head under my chin.
"Will you forgive me, Daniel?"
"Yes, Mommy, just PLEASE stop crying."
"OK" I grinned sheepishly and wiped my tears.  He shot me a concerned look as he turned the page, but I pulled myself together and we moved on.

I haven't been able to get that moment out of my mind since.  "Mistakes are not sins."  When he read that I was like, "OHHHHHHHH SNAAAAAAP."  Got me.  Mistakes are not sins. It seems so obvious in print.  So why in real life do I respond to my children like they are something intentional? We all make mistakes, and as much as I personally hate making them, how will you learn and grow without the opportunity to try and fail and do better the next time?  So when Daniel spills his milk or loses his iPad case at school or forgets his lunch bag or misplaces another library book or gets spaghetti all over his face at dinner or shoves his laundry in the drawer the wrong way, I'm not sending him a very good message about his essential humanity if I lose my patience with him.  I need him to develop the loving internal voice to be kind and patient with himself, and in order to do that I need to give him the gift of words that can build his character instead of tear it down.  I can already tell that I have been failing in this by the way he profusely apologizes for his mistakes, "I'm so sorry, Mommy, I'm so sorry.  I forgot to make my bed, I'll go do it, I'm so sorry. I forget all the time" or  "I fell at recess today, I'm so sorry.  I can't believe I did that.  I shouldn't even play soccer at recess. I'm so sorry."  Ouch. If that doesn't tell me that I need to nurture that sweet little heart, I don't know what does.  Our world is in such desperate need of kindness and peace and reconciliation right now.  If I want it out there, I had better get to work up in here.

The psalm last week at church was a favorite of mine, "The Lord is Kind and Merciful."  That one is so encouraging, but humbling as well.  God is so amazingly abundant in His mercy that not only does he overlook our human failings and mistakes, He also forgives all of our on-purpose sins.  He's just pure love, and He adores each of us.  I get to be a beneficiary of the grace and mercy of our loving God every day of my life, and I am so grateful.  But I need to admit that I can always do a better job of passing that grace and mercy on to my children, and being slow to anger and abounding in kindness every day is a goal I am working towards. As they have grown older, I've come to realize even more the abounding kindness I need right here in my home.  The world can be cruel out there, our home needs to be a place where gentleness reigns. I also need to help them become functioning adults, so there is room for correction and discipline and teaching and learning in there, too.  I've got to stay in tune with the balance.  As one of my favorites, Glennon Melton, says, "Don't be so concerned with raising a good kid you forget you already have one." 

God made all four of them just right.
We moved #4 into a big boy bed this past weekend. . .never too early, really.  I even made it before my target date of February 30, two thousand and never and he was totally out of his crib before his fourth birthday next month.  ;)  He has been over the moon excited, which is so cute but also makes it a little hard for his bunkmate, Joshy, to sleep.  The other morning in the kitchen Joshy was crying, "Mommy, Noah NEVER lets me go to sleep!  He is always trying to talk to me and get in my bed!"
I tried to remain serious but started to giggle a little bit.  Oh, the irony.  I was getting ready to point it out but Phil beat me to it.
"Josh, when you were three you used to do the SAME THING to us every night!  You cost me like $1.50 every week!"
"Oh my goodness, Phil, I totally forgot about the sticks!"  We laughed remembering how for a while they had such a problem getting out of bed and being silly that we gave them each 8 popsicle sticks and every time they got out of bed it cost them a popsicle stick, or $.25 of their $2 allowance.  That worked for everyone except Josh, who is totally Captain Silly and could have cared less about money.  You can't put a price on funny. And now the tables have turned and his three-year-old brother drives him crazy.
Daniel chimed in, "Remember when I was three?"
I cringed.
"Oh, Daniel, I couldn't forget.  I'm really sorry about that buddy."
"Yeah, you guys put a CHILD SAFETY KNOB on the inside of my door when I got out of bed too many times so I couldn't get out!  Not cool, Mommy!"
"Daniel, I am so sorry about that.  If I could go back and be your mom again when you were three, I would do things differently.  That was not the kindest parenting on my part."
Daniel laughed, ever the picture of forgiveness.  "It's OK, Mommy.  Look, I'm fine.  I turned out great."
He grinned at me and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "I'm just right."
I grinned right back at him and ruffled his hair.  He put his arms around my waist and looked up at me with his big blue eyes and tousled blond hair.

He HAS turned out fine, despite all my mom fails.
He's so forgiving, and at the very least all of my failures give us a chance to celebrate the gift of repentance and grace and mercy and reconciliation over and over again.
He's a marvelous creation, and he doesn't need fixing.
He is just right.
(I did fix his hair though.  That one was on me.)

Happy First Reconciliation, D.  God's grace and blessings on you always.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

As advertised.

"Parenting is hard. Even when—ESPECIALLY WHEN—you’re doing it right."- Glennon Melton

One day Daniel stopped me mid-sentence to tell me, "You know what, mommy?  You have a lot of sad stories."
"What do you mean?
"Well, like anything we come up with you have some sort of depressing or scary story for that."
"Listen, kids, I'm a mom, I'm just trying to teach you my LIFE LESSONS."

Like, for example, how when I was about 4 or 5, I begged my parents to buy me Grape Nuts cereal.  I asked for them so persistently every time we went to Marsh that my mom finally just gave up and bought me a box.  It took me one grainy and dry bite to realize that Grape Nuts contained neither grapes nor nuts.  Box of cereal: $4, Lesson: Priceless.  Don't believe everything you see on TV, my darling children, or you might end up with a whole bowl of super gross cereal.

And any time my kids have ever asked for a toy they see in a commercial, I remind them of the sad, sad story of Baby Skates.

Now little Jenny LOVED Roller Skating, and she loved dolls, and she loved watching the Smurfs on Saturday mornings.  So, when Jenny saw a commercial for a rollerskating doll named Baby Skates during her Smurfs, she was obsessed.  I am going to insert the commercial for your review, and you can see why little preschool me HAD TO HAVE THIS DOLL.

I longed for Baby Skates.  Absolutely pined for her.  I mean, just LOOK at her??!!!!  There were many things as a kid that I longed for that my parents never gave me, either because they couldn't or because they knew it wouldn't be a good idea, and for that I am deeply grateful.  But I am also grateful that I did get a Baby Skates, because she was a big old life lesson in one little box.

When I finally received the coveted doll, I couldn't believe that she was mine. I remember sitting on the beige linoleum in our dining nook and removing her carefully from the cardboard and plastic.  She looked a little more flimsy than she did on the commercial, but I was undeterred.  This baby was going to amaze everyone!! I saw it on TV!  I set her up on the floor, fully prepared for the awesome performance I had in my mind.  Baby Skates was a little wobbly, but I finally got her upright and switched her on.  She was vertical for a full 3 seconds before face-planting, her little plastic legs still kicking, tiny yellow wheels of her roller skates flailing in the air.  


This was not as advertised. 

I tried for a while until I realized that there was absolutely no way Baby Skates was going to fly on my linoleum the way she flew on the sidewalk on TV.   Wait- the sidewalk!  Maybe that would work!  So I tried the sidewalk- but that was even worse!  Any little bump and Baby Skates was done.  I went to my mom in tears and she sympathetically tried to help me, but we soon learned that any flying that Baby Skates was going to do would have to be done with my own two hands.  Mattel had sold me a box of LIES. I looked at my mom, crushed.

"You know, Jen," Mom said.  "Not everything you see on T.V. is true.   Can you see now that you can't believe everything you see in a commercial?"
And I did see.  I may have only been about 5 years old, but I sure felt ten years wiser.

Baby Skates was a good lesson for my consumer life, but it is also a good lesson for life in general.  How many times do we feel like life is "not as advertised?"  I think my first true lesson in the not-as-advertised nature of adulting came when we brought our firstborn home from the hospital.  I had longed for a child, I PINED for a child, I felt destined to be a mother.  My mind, shaped by movies and sitcoms and Johnson's Baby Powder commercials, had me convinced that I should be in a perpetual state of joyful maternal bliss, gazing at him in wonder just like the resin Madonna in my nativity scene.  

Instead I discovered that as a new mother I was spent- mentally, physically, emotionally- from birthing my first child.  I was anxious about keeping my son alive, as this seemed like a huge responsibility and I was unsure who qualified me for this.  I was still in pain, even little things like walking up the stairs made me want to cry.  Phil didn't sleep at all, so I was in a new realm of "tired" I had never experienced. And don't even get me started on breastfeeding!  And then layer on top of that the guilt/shame cycle of not feeling like I was ENJOYING EVERY MOMENT with my precious child. . .

My maternal state was not-as-advertised.

It was a Grape Nuts moment, and nothing was as delicious I thought it was going to be. WHERE ARE THE GRAPES?  WHERE ARE THE NUTS HERE?  My first inclination when a feeling like this happens is that I must be doing something wrong. Maybe if I just buy the right thing. . .maybe if I was a different person. . .maybe if I just made myself better. . .it wouldn't be hard.  I'm doing something wrong.  I'm wrong.  Everyone else has it together but me.

Then, same thing happened to me when I was 27 that happened to me when I was 5. . .my mom came and picked me back up.  "No one really tells you how hard being a mom is, Jen." she said.  "It's hard for everyone, though.  Being a mom is just hard. It's OK."

Right when she said it, freedom.  I understood, because those aren't just words for my mom, she's backed it up her whole life with action.  My mom has shown me in her living that not everything is easy, especially the really worthwhile things.  And just because it is hard doesn't mean you are doing it wrong.  Maybe, it's just hard.  But it's worth it.   Keep on keepin' on.

This lesson keeps coming up again and again.  When the kids are fighting.  When the bills aren't paid.  When the pile of dishes and mountain of laundry just won't quit.  When the cat gets sick, someone has a fever, the car is in the shop and the furnace breaks.  When we get on social media and we hardly see a single person tackling their mountain of dishes or breaking up a squabble over a toy.  In fact, everyone seems to be smiling and heading on vacation and showing off their hot bods and new outfits and shiny manicures and well-decorated homes.  Is this how my life should be?  What am I doing wrong? Why is my life not-as-advertised?

Our culture sends one message, but there is a deeper truth.  Not every day is picture-perfect, and if I expect them to be I'll be setting myself up miss the imperfect mess of joy right within my grasp.  Nothing is perfect this side of heaven.  But in the midst of our earthly struggles, I'm learning there is room for so much joy. 

I can't claim to be a biblical scholar, but I can say I've never seen a place in the scripture where Jesus promises His people that everything will be easy.  Or where He tells us to buy something to solve our problems. . .or if we just lose weight, or get a better job, or a new car, or have flatter abs it will all be good.  More like he said deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.  Blessed are the peacemakers, go be one. Love your neighbor, wash each other's feet, don't worry about tomorrow, ask God for what you need.  I've got your yoke on my shoulders, you go rest.  He didn't promise us it would always be sunshine and roses, but he sure did promise He would be there, right in the midst of the mess with us, to pick us back up and put us on our feet again.  Commercials and Facebook might deceive us, but I believe there's a loving heart at the center of the universe whose promises are 100% for reals.

So, when I start feeling life is not-as-advertised, I just try to remember that there's a lesson in everything if I look for it, and maybe even some good health at the bottom of that bowl of Grape Nuts.  It may not all be picture perfect, but by God, there will be JOY.  And if you ever start to feel like maybe things are hard because you're doing them wrong, kick that lie to the curb.  You are awesome, just the way you are.  Let's show 'em, Baby Skates.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Just the way you are.

Noah and I were trekking through the Aldi parking lot on Sunday, trying to stay warm and avoid cars while we made our way into the store.  Suddenly, something caught his eye,
"A button, Mommy!  Nook!! Somebody lost their BUTTON!!"
We froze right there in the middle of the freezing parking lot to marvel at a tiny yellow button stuck in some slush.
I had a moment of recognition.
"Noah!" I squealed, perhaps a little too excitedly, "do you think that is CORDUROY'S button???"  I looked at him with a raise of the eyebrow.
He looked at me, his eyes wide for a moment, then he raised his eyebrow right back.
"Silly Mommy, Bears don't live at Aldi." he scolded.
"Yeah, you're right."  We laughed and made our way to the shopping carts.

Corduroy must have been on his mind ever since, because the other day he asked if I could read it to him.  I squealed, again probably a little too excitedly, because Noah NEVER asks me to read to him.  He's so busy, so wiggly, so loud, so funny, so loving, but not necessarily so. . .cuddly.   Until today.  We dug through the shelf to find the beloved red book and he snuggled up in my lap right there on the bedroom floor.  I started to "read", although at this point reading is optional. Corduroy is pure memory. 

"Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store.  Day after day, he waited with all the other animals and dolls for someone to come along and take him home. . ."

I drifted off into auto mode, the way moms and dads do when all of the inflections and the voices and the pauses and ways you turn the page come back as pure muscle memory.  But by halfway through the story, when Corduroy had gone up the escalator and was exploring mattresses for his lost button, my eyes got misty.  By the end of the book, I was choking back tears.

"I like you just the way you are," she said,  "but you'll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened."

"You must be a friend," said Corduroy.  "I've always wanted a friend."

"Me, too!" said Lisa, and gave him a big hug.

Corduroy was Daniel's book first.   Reading to Daniel was my job when Paul and I were in divide-and-conquer mode at bedtime in our crazy days of two-in-cribs and two-in-diapers and two-under-two.   The glider where I rocked him was right by the window, overlooking our tiny postage stamp-sized backyard with the big walnut tree and the old garage that bloomed around it with purple lilacs and lilies in the spring.   I can still feel little Daniel in my arms, his blankie and the Corduroy book in my lap, rocking, rocking, rocking as I gazed out the window, no need to look at the pages anymore.  We read our paperback copy until it fell apart and had to be replaced.  Since then we've bought every other Corduroy book and enjoyed them all.  Josh's favorite stuffed animal was a small keychain we call "little tiny Corduroy" and we even dressed Noah up as Corduroy for his first birthday. 

Yeah, we did that.  No shame in my Corduroy game.   But in my heart, no matter who I am reading it to, Corduroy is always Daniel's story.  And that curious little bear in the green overalls who doesn't even realize he is missing a button, enjoys the little things in life, and just wants a friend?  He is totally my Sunny D.

So, the tears poured out.

I had a hard week with Daniel.  And the hard week has very little to do with Daniel and a whole lot to do with his mom.  I had lost my patience with Daniel enough times since last Thursday that we all started to feel it.  I didn't lose it with any of my other kids.  Just Daniel.   Daniel who has never said a mean thing about anyone in his entire life, who has a heart of gold, who has never excluded anyone from anything, who has never even squashed a bug.  Daniel who has never carried a grudge and is always, always the first to forgive.  My sweet little Sunny D. 

By Sunday, I was feeling like a horrible mother who couldn't get herself together.
Monday, I had to do some soul searching.

Why is it easier some days to be kind to strangers and acquaintances and friends than it is to be kind to my own family?
Why do I treat my kids like projects that I somehow need to complete by the age of eighteen?
Why are there times when I treat my kids as obstacles to my work instead of AS my work?
Why do my heart and my head not always come together and agree on what is important?

Lisa knew what was important.  Corduroy was perfect just the way he was.  Would he be more comfortable with his shoulder strap fastened? Sure.  Would he like a pocket?  Of course.  But he didn't need any of those things to be loved by Lisa.  Lisa gave him the biggest gift we can give and the one we all hope to receive, "I like you just the way you are."

I asked Daniel for his forgiveness on Monday, and he gave it freely because, well, he's Sunny D.
Being the Lisa to his Corduroy is a daily choice, but I'm going to keep making it. . . because everyone deserves to be loved like that.
And honestly, I could stand to be a little more like Corduroy and Daniel.  If I can find the wonder in an escalator or a washing machine or a pocket? Well, then, joy is within my grasp every day.

So I'm praying for eyes to see my children as God sees them.
For the wisdom to put their behaviors in perspective.
For a heart that loves them as God loves them.
For the grace to accept them and celebrate them just the way they are.
To remember that above all, my child is my neighbor.

And we're all just walking each other home.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Days of Our Lives. . .

Yesterday's sunset. :)

I got my first teaching job fresh out of college as a December '01 Purdue grad. Although I was completely unprepared (when are you ever ready?) I began teaching algebra and physical science at a small, rural school southeast of Indianapolis.  The drive wasn't terribly far, yet the culture felt like a world away and there I was a stranger in a strange land. . .one new face among many veterans, taking over a position that had been vacant for the entire school year.  The students' circumstances were challenging, to say the least.  Many had little structure or discipline, low academic skills, unstable home lives, and/or lived in poverty.  As their dewy-faced and optimistic young science teacher, I was determined to be the very best I could be for them despite the obstacles.  I was met with some skepticism, some resistance, some outright defiance, but ultimately and most importantly with a lot of love.  Kids really just want to be loved and cared for, no matter how little or "big" they are.

One of the most interesting aspects of the school was that it was so small that our high school students had lunch all together, followed by. . .wait for it. . .recess.  Um, recess?  My mind was blown.  I didn't ask too many questions because, hey, that gave the teachers a blessedly peaceful hour of time to eat and prep, which was welcomed in the middle of an often challenging day.  My first day of teaching, I dismissed my students to the cafeteria and clip-clopped down to the teachers' lunch room, all dressed up in my black suit and high heels, the same outfit I wore for my college graduation, dark green grade book in one hand, little black thermal lunch bag in the other.  I sat down at a cramped folding table in the tiny room, which had a slanting ceiling, yellowing walls and looked as though it was perhaps a utility closet that had simply been reclaimed and deemed a lunch room by virtue of the microwave in the corner.  All wide-eyed and innocent, I unwrapped my cucumber and rye bread sandwich while the teachers around me kvetched, gossiped, worried and grumbled.  Hardly anyone said a word to me or asked me a question, which I understand looking back.  Why bother to get to know the new girl when no one thought I would last long? My tummy was a little queasy as I excused myself early and left lunch, and my mind swirling with all of the things I had just heard.  I felt like I was in that scene in Dumbo with all the lady elephants, and maybe I was Mrs. Jumbo.  The thought of that lunch every day for the rest of my career did not appeal to me and definitely wasn't going to nourish me.  

But, oh, there was a better way.  At the end of my first week, a friendly face popped into my room.  It was the biology teacher, our classrooms connected by a door right next to my desk.  She was a young mom several years older than me, petite and practical and smart and determined to make the best of our challenging job.  I liked her from the first moment I met her.  I also noticed that I had NOT seen her in the "teacher's lunch cave" during my gloomy daily visits.

"So, have you been going down to lunch?" she asked.
"Yes.  It's, um, interesting?"
"Yeah.  You won't see me there," she said with a wink.  "I eat lunch down here in my room.  I'm not trying to be antisocial but I've got to stay positive and it gets negative down there.  Do you want to join me?"

Um, DID I?????  Yes.  Yes, I did.  And so began a new lunchtime tradition.  I'd come right through the door that connected our rooms at 11:30 and we'd heat up our lunches in the microwave she kept in our stock room.  Then we'd sit in her dark classroom and enjoy the second half of Days of our Lives. . . because in addition to our kids getting recess they also had classrooms with full regular TV reception.  I know, right?  Sometimes we would chat about the events of Salem during the commercial breaks, and we always laughed that we never really missed anything by not seeing the events of 11-11:30.  We'd shake our heads at the ridiculousness, speculate what Stefano might do next or what would become of Bo and Hope.  And as the closing credits rolled and the sand poured through the hourglass, we'd part ways refreshed to finish getting ready for our afternoon classes.

That safe space she created for me in her room and our daily visits to Salem saved my first year of teaching.  She gave me the freedom to say "no" to something I felt socially obligated to, something that was detrimental to my spirit.  By her example, she taught me that we can know our limits and set boundaries for ourselves.  She knew she was a better teacher and mom if she took that time for herself each day, and she took me along for the ride.

So much sand has gone through the hourglass since then, but I'll never forget the lessons learned in those days.  They've come back to the forefront recently in the current election cycle.  In the last several months, Facebook, the treasured "lunchroom" of my work-at-home-stay-at-home-mom self, has become eerily reminiscent of the dreary closet-cave of my first teaching job.   As an extrovert I count on my social media interactions to supplement my need for connectivity.  Even when isolated and surrounded by tiny kiddos, I could log on and share a laugh or read a thoughtful article or a heartwarming story with my fun adult friends near and far.  But when every time I logged on to my happy place I was bombarded with images and opinions and grumblings and worries and complaints and gossip and attacks on people I loved. . .well, I didn't exactly feel like I was being led by the still waters to refresh my soul.

I took a break from Facebook.  For a whole week.  I know, right?  But it was a big move for me, Ms. Facebook junkie.  I stepped back in tentatively, but I am learning to pay close attention to how I feel.  Only you know your limits, and what you can plant in the garden of your mind.  I've worked hard to find mine, and every time I log off social media, I try to do a gut-check about how that interaction made me feel.  Was it worth the time?  Was it nourishing to my soul?  If the answer is no, I am trying to modify.  I can't pour to my family if I've emptied my pitcher on Facebook.  I'm a work in progress, but aren't we all?

Last week I was with one of my favorite new friends, a lovely woman that Noah and I visit every Thursday at the nursing home down the street.  We never talk about politics, but she shared with me that she was worried about her son.  "He just spends so much time watching the news and thinking about this stuff!!  What with the Hillary and the emails and the what's his name?  Trump?  It's all he talked about when he was here visiting.  What is the point?"
"Oh, I know.  I can't watch the news.  It just isn't good for my mind," I said.
"I am so glad to hear that!!!" she clapped her hands gleefully.  "I can't watch it, either.  You know," she stopped and looked at me seriously, "we have one most precious gift, and that's our time.  How you spend it defines you. It makes you who you are."

If my friend who has lived 91 years and is confined to her bed is careful about how she spends HER precious time, WOW. . .shouldn't I be, too??  My soul sister gave me a lot to think about, reinforced by our priest at mass on Sunday.

"When all is said and done," he said.  "We don't belong to Donald.  We don't belong to Hillary.  We belong to God."

BOOM! DROP THE MIC, Fr. Dan!  Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief.  My nine year old laughed and we grinned at each other.
Father went on to share with us that God is the glue that holds everything together.  He's beyond all time.  He doesn't see time the way that we do, He sees eternity in a glance.  He loves us.  He made us.  We are His, and no matter what happens with Donald and Hillary we will always be God's.  It's not about this life, it's about eternal life anyways.
No matter what happens today.  Or tomorrow.  Or the next.  We're loved forever.

"No matter what happens."

Now if that isn't some comfort and grace for the rest of our days, I don't know what is.

Time is your gift to me God.
Help me to spend it wisely,
Loving my people.
Being a friend.
Building your kingdom.
Bearing your light.
All the days of my life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Blessed and Broken.

The Sea of Galilee (photo by Sara Simmons)

Sunday morning, my friend Chrissy and I sat in the prayer circle at Religious Ed with our first graders sharing our favorite Bible stories together.  Prayer Circle with Chrissy and our kiddos is the highlight of my week.  First. Graders.  Are.  Amazing. I was so humbled by how much some of these little ones knew as we talked about the Word.  After we went around the circle and shared some of the awesome things that God has done for His people, I asked them if any one of them had heard MY favorite bible story, the story of the Loaves and the Fishes. 
"Ohhhhh, Ohhhh!!" one enthusiastic little sweetheart declared.  "That's when a little boy gave Jesus a few pieces of bread and some fish and Jesus fed five thousand people with it with big baskets of food leftover!!"  Other little first graders nodded their heads enthusiastically if they had heard the story, others sat there with eyes wide in awe. 
"God can do miracles!"  I said.  "Isn't that awesome!??"  We all agreed that it was, indeed, awesome.  Thank you, God.

I've always been fascinated with the story of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, but it wasn't until last year that it started to take on an even more special meaning to me.  I was reading the phenomenal book, Jesus, a Pilgrimage, by one of my favorite authors and spiritual thinkers, James Martin, SJ.  This book is a travel memoir, a history lesson, a spiritual text and so much more.  It is lighthearted and funny and well-researched and profoundly wise.   It took me nearly a year to read it but it was a year well spent.  So well spent, in fact, that I circled right back and started reading it again.  The narratives shared in this story of Fr. Martin's pilgrimage to the Holy Land broke open the Gospel in a new way to me.  I felt like I was falling in love with Jesus all over again as I reflected on his life with new eyes and new ears.   There were some pages where I had to just close the book and spend a few days pondering some knowledge bomb that Fr. Martin had just dropped, and his reflection on the miracle of the loaves and fishes was one of those times:

"God can take any small offering that we make- a kind word, a brief visit to a hospital, a quick apology, a short thank-you note or e-mail, a smile- and multiply it."

"All we need to do is bring what little we have, generously and unashamedly.  At Tabgha, the disciples seemed embarrassed that there was not enough food for the crowd and were about to send everyone away hungry.  But Jesus knew whatever there is, God can make more of it.  But first we are asked to offer our loaves and fishes, no matter how inadequate they may seem.  Only then can God accomplish the kind of true miracle that occurred at Tabgha."

Oh, how these words soothed my soul.

How often do I feel like I am not enough? 

Well, at least once a day now, usually sometime either right before or right after three of my four little buddies get on or off the bus.  Everyone needs me during those times, individually and specifically and desperately and for completely different reasons.  There's so much to hear and say and do and listen to and sort out about feelings and hunger and sadness over something that happened at recess and pride/worry over graded papers and stress over homework and JUST ONE OF ME for all of it.  And along with the influx of need comes a torrent of backpacks and papers and lunchboxes and shoes and gravel from the playground and Pokemon cards collected from the bus.   Also, activities and dinner and homework and reading and showers and brushing teeth and cleaning up AFTER dinner!  It's so intense that one evening last week I flopped on the bed at about 6:30 PM, only to have Paul prod me and say, "JEN!!  C'MON!  We still have like two hours to go!!  DON'T GIVE UP ON ME NOW!"   I laughed and dragged myself up off of the bed, but this is no joke.  These school days have got me like whoa.  Don't get me wrong, being a parent of littles was also very intense.  However, that intensity happened in small bursts throughout the day- hungry baby needing milk, crying toddler needing a hug, preschooler that needed to poop. . .ALL RIGHT NOW!!  And then they all napped.  Repeat cycle.  But those days that felt like I had lived four separate days in one have given way to days where much of my responsibilities as a mother to these souls has been mostly concentrated into a four-hour period from 4-8 PM.  You know the expression, "You can't pour from an empty cup?"  While my kids are at school, I feel the need for way more than trying to fill my cup- I need to dig a well.  If there is no deep well of peace from which these thirsty little souls to draw it's going to get crazy up in here.  Yet the ability of my boys to draw from the well so much between 4 and 4:15 has me in need of more than just a deeper well. . .I need a miracle.

Thank God I know the Source of those.

The not-enoughness often crashes over me in the times where I am just spread to thin.  Between working and cooking and cleaning and shopping and volunteering and wanting to be a good mom and wife and relative and friend and community member, I'm not always sure if I can meet all of the expectations I have placed upon myself.  Like trying to get the last bit of Smart Balance to make it over four pieces of toast in the morning because I forgot to buy more at the store, I can often feel like there's a little bit for everyone but there's just not enough of me to go around to fool anyone.  When I'm divided four ways and spread out as far as I can go, can I really cover it all?  I feel like I'm always dropping balls.  Actually, I don't feel that, I KNOW that. . .who neglects to change the sheets frequently enough, forgets to bring the church offering envelope, forgets school picture day, forgets to sign the homework sheet, forgets to put the laundry in the dryer, forgets to turn the crock pot on, loses a bill at the bottom of the pile, lets the gas light in the van turn on and forgets to make it to the station until the little mile indicator reads single digits.  Oh, yeah, THAT'S ME!!! I forget all of those things.  The thinner I spread myself the less attention to detail I can provide.  And when I lose the details, I think I'm failing.


Good news.
We're not called to be butter. 
We're called to be BREAD.  We're food for the world.  Jesus asked us to be like him and give ourselves to his Father.  If we offer ourselves to God, he's going to make us PLENTY.  He is the God of miracles. He promised, and James Martin said this is true, so, you know, I'm going with that.

So, this has been my goal ever since reading his reflection on the scripture.  Can I offer myself to God fully. . .can I give him all of my loaves and fishes and not hold any back?  The little boy in the story didn't keep anything in his pocket for himself, he handed it all to Jesus.  How tempting it is to give just as much time or energy or effort as I feel like giving to my family and keep some back for my own needs.  But if I trust fully, and keep my heart right with God's, he can take whatever feeble offerings I can give and make them enough to feed the people we both love.  I just have to give it my all.  He'll bless and break it and make it enough with leftover to spare.

Last Monday was "one of those days."  My three older boys got off the bus, just in time to drop backpacks and get in the van for Daniel's piano class.  Except that when they got off the bus, two of them were crying, for completely different reasons, and one was hanging his head for being the source of the tears.  Uh-oh.  I couldn't figure out how to get them all across the street, let alone how to get them in the van in one piece.  How can I unwrap and attend to all of these hearts and get to class on time when there is just one of me?  Josh was sobbing hysterically. (his seat got moved on the bus)  Phil was sulking. (he was unkind to Daniel and a friend called him out) Daniel was crying. (the center of his world, Philip, had hurt his feelings)  Noah was. . .well, just being loud (because, why not??) Before I lost my ever-loving mind, I took a deep breath.  This was a bless-it-and-break-it moment.

"God, I'm giving it to you.  I don't know what I am going to do but make it enough for all of these people.  You're super creative."

And, He is.  We made it to piano (in time!!) and I left a still sobbing Joshy in the car while I ran Daniel up to the door.  Somehow I managed to calm Joshy down on the way home and convince him that the front of the bus was going to be amazing and he was going to make new friends up there. (he already has)  By the time we got home, he was ready to hug it out in the kitchen and ran off with Noah to play Hot Wheels.  Phil had run up to his room, and this was the heart that really needed work.  I breathed deeply as I climbed the stairs.  I unlocked his bedroom door with the handy key located on the door frame and found him in his bed, huddled under the covers, crying.

"I hate my life."
"Well, I find that insulting because I basically, like GAVE you your life, you know."  I teased.
He snuggled down deeper under his pillow to escape me.
I asked a few questions about the bus but he wouldn't talk.  I could tell this was going to be a tough one.  My introverted sweetheart had been trying to be a "cool guy" on the bus at the expense of his little brother.  He knew he had done wrong.  But the chances of getting him to talk about it at this point were low, and I looked at the clock nervously, time was ticking until piano class pickup.  I heard a fight breaking out over some cars in the family room.  There just wasn't enough of me, enough time, the right words.

I closed my eyes. "Bless it and break it, God.  Send your Holy Spirit because I sure do need it."

And somehow, in that next 15 minutes, a transformation occurred.  It was kairos, God-time, as I got Phil to slowly unfold.  We talked about kindness and love and family and brothers being forever and feelings just being for a little while.  He relaxed to the point where I could tell he no longer "hated his life."  So I seized the God-given opportunity to give him a hug.

"Listen, buddy, I am giving you this hug," and I squeezed him SO TIGHT.  "And I want you to save it for 30 years.  Because someday you are going to have a little boy and he's going to get in a fight with his brother on the bus and you are going to need to say these same words I just said to you and give him this big hug and you can tell him it's from both of us."

Phil smiled.  I could tell by the sparkle in his eye that he was imagining himself in thirty years with kids.

"Maybe you'll even name one of them Daniel."  I said with a wink.
"Yeah, there's like a 50% chance I would name one of them Daniel."
"Oh, that's good.  I bet they will love their Uncle Daniel, too.  He's so fun.  And their Uncle Josh.  And silly Uncle Noah."
Phil giggled.
"And you guys can all come over to my house on Sunday and I'll cook you dinner.  All your favorites" (as long as it's still chicken nuggets) ;)
Phil liked this idea. 
"Now, before you go to bed tonight, please find a way to make it right with Daniel, OK?"

It took all the way until bedtime, but Phil looked across the room at D and offered him a sincere apology.  Daniel accepted it in his true Sunny D fashion- he'd already forgiven Phil and was so excited to just move on.  I turned off the big light and left them there reading third grade chapter books in the glow of their small lamp:  their blonde heads peeking out of their matching beds in the semi-darkness. 

Whew.  I couldn't have done that by myself.  I turned and offered a prayer of gratitude.  "Thank you, God.  Thank you."

God, take all that I am
All that I have
Use it for what you need.
Bless it and break it.
Make it enough.
Make it abundant.
It's all yours.

God can do miracles.  Isn't that awesome!??  Thank you, God.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


A few weeks ago, my dear friend Penny and I had the opportunity to see one of our favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, speak.  Glennon is a truth teller and hope spreader, with a delightful wit and a spiritual gift of bringing graceful and peaceful (or simply hilarious) words to any situation.  I started following Glennon several years ago, when her "Don't Carpe Diem" post went viral.   Her words cut straight to my heart and I quickly proceeded to read every word she had written and become a part of the Momastery community. Instantly, I knew I had found my tribe.  The women who follow Momastery are kind, gracious and accepting.  They have a heart for the world. . ."there is no such thing as other people's children"  and "sister on" are the kind of battle cries you find there.  They don't sugar-coat the brutiful nature of life, but they choose to be grateful and embrace laughter over complaint.  And they lift their sisters up both in words and deeds, such as through togetHERrising.  To be in a room full of "Monkees" with my dear sister in Christ, Penny, was an unforgettable experience.  With light slanting in the gorgeous stained glass windows and the laughter and tears of women who just "get it" raising up to the rafters, it was pure Love, Spirit and Grace. Glennon said so many amazing things, but one of her final thoughts that came from an audience question has really stayed with me.

A young woman a few pews away from us stood up and took the microphone.  She asked Glennon how we should approach social media.  There are so many good things (like Momastery!) and so many negative things, especially in this very political year.  How do we use it the right way?

"Wow!" I turned to Penny.  "That was a great question."  We all hung expectantly waiting for Glennon's answer.  In typical G fashion it was brilliant and helped give us clarity.  She discussed how social media is a real world for us, we live our lives there. . .people fall in love, make friends, laugh, cry and all of the things we do face-to-face.  But we have to be smart about how we use it, as social media shapes our reality.  I wrote down these words of wisdom she shared at the end.

"Choose who you follow on social media intentionally.  That is who you give power to."
"You form your thoughts by who you follow. Who do you want to be? Arrange your social media news feed to reflect that."  
"We will always be what we consume, be intentional and choose wisely."

How beautifully she articulates and confirms the things we have all suspected to be true.  My reality is very much shaped by the media I consume.  When the kids were very little when someone asked me if I had heard about (insert globally significant current event here), I would ask, "Um, was that on Sesame Street?"  because if it wasn't, I was pretty sure I hadn't seen it or heard it.  I lived in a bubble of DVR'ed episodes of Mister Rogers, Word World, Ellen and Sesame Street.  This was before I had a Facebook account, and now I am a little embarrassed to admit I really do get most of my news from Facebook.  (I'm pretty sure I am not the only one, though!)

Since social media is my reality, I have to be careful about how I spend my time there.  As my television friend Mister Rogers says, "Do you ever grow ideas in the garden of your mind?"  My head is a precious place, and I have to be careful about what I plant there, right?  The internet is full of weeds (COMMENTS SECTIONS, anyone???), and also full of seemingly delightful things that can take over if we let them. I remember my neighbor Jo Ann telling me over the fence when I was quite new to gardening to plant my mint in a separate pot or it would take over everything else in my garden.  I think the same kind of principle can be true of our internet lives.  Even things that seem good and entertaining can choke out the other good things growing there if we let them.  FOR EXAMPLE. . .following the local news SEEMED like a good idea.  Until I ended up so heavy with the weight of the sadness in our city that I would end up angry and depressed with the articles popping up in my feed every three stories.  I decided to unfollow the local news and instead just follow trusted friends who follow the local news, so they could alert me to the important stuff.  Only you know your mind and what you can plant there!

It was delightful one day when a friend introduced me to the "unfollow" button.  I had no idea that this existed, and it is incredibly useful for the people who try to plant weeds in your mind, but you still love them and don't want to unfriend them.  Unfollowing is like, "We're still cool if I saw you face to face, but I can't let you in my head every single time I get on the interwebs.  Not happening."  If you tend to carry the weight of other's problems like I do, unfollow can be a powerful tool for helping manage the load.  If there is someone I haven't seen since 1994 and they enjoy using social media to vent about everything under the sun, you had better believe we are moving our friendship to unfollow status.  Other people may be able to brush it off easily, but I am too susceptible to letting other people's problems take up precious head space.

The other thing Glennon urged us to consider is who we DO follow, as in following the people who live lives that we admire, who call us to be our best, who reflect our hearts. I am fortunate to have a lot of those friends.  I love encouragers, and we all need more of them both virtually and in our real life.  Don't you just love those people who just make you smile every time you get on facebook??  And it is helpful to follow people with views different from our own. . .they expand our perspectives!  So I don't instantly unfollow anyone who votes differently than I do or eats differently or spends differently or lives differently or whatever.  I look, I watch, I listen, I learn.  That's what being human is all about!!  But if someone constantly uses an attacking, negative, hurtful, or complaining tone, I need to make the same kind of decision about them that I make about people in my real life- If I know someone like that, we're not going out for coffee or sitting at the same lunch table, OK!?  We're just going to be on, "I'll say hi to you when I run into you in the grocery store" status, and maybe I'm not even stopping.  We can't let those toxic peeps in our personal space on social media, either.  

Since I'm seeing more how media shapes our reality and Glennon's words are so fresh in my mind, I am going to take a few days off of Facebook to really contemplate them.  I've been really upset recently about some things that have been going around in our community and in our nation.  Since Facebook is shaping my perspective of the humans around me, I feel like the world is angry at each other- everyone from my friends to our local and national leaders and POLITICS- UGH!!! - and my heart hurts.  It just hurts.  And then my mind just starts spinning and I'm sad.  I was worrying over this in my kitchen last night when Paul came home.  

"What's wrong, Jen?" he asked, as I forlornly dropped sun dried tomatoes on some pizza.
The kids were arguing in the basement and my mind was spinning with something angry someone had just written to a friend of mine on social media and I was just so. . . SAD.  I wanted to fix it all and I couldn't.
"Honey, I just want peace on earth.  I want peace in my home and in our town and in our world.   How do I get that???  I'm just so heartbroken."
"Jen," he said.  "Start here."
And he yelled down the basement stairs, "HEY YOU GUYS!!!  BE KIND TO EACH OTHER!!!"
And we laughed.  
He's right.

 I need to start here.  Peace starts here.  Just like Mother Teresa said. . .it begins at home.  I need to immerse myself in my surroundings to get a more real perspective, and do some serious reflecting on who I follow and read on social media. . .who do I give power to?  Who do I let live in my head?  I hope after I do this, I am able to come back with a  more fresh and healthy perspective of the good in the world.  I know Facebook will go on without me for a few days, as much as I like to imagine that everyone NEEDS me to like all of their pictures. . .their pictures are super cute and lots of other people will like them in my absence.   LIFE WILL GO ON WITHOUT YOU, Jen.  Step back.  Plant your mint in a separate pot before it takes over.

I've gotta protect my heart and my head.  
I've got too many people right here to love.