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

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.