About four years ago, I was struggling. I had two-year-old, three-year-old and 8-month-old baby at home. In the middle of the winter. In INDIANA. I was feeling a bit a bit desperate in general, particularly for any sort of validation that I was worthwhile. The tiny people around me seemed to be crying most of the time, everything I did got undone, and the house, the kids and I looked mostly like a hot mess, soooooooo, yeah. I wasn't getting any cues there. Although the feelings I had certainly weren't ones that I was proud of, I thought maybe by sharing them it could help encourage someone else.
So, one day I pounded this out on my keyboard and sent this to a friend who has a blog and he posted it for me. He called it, "Cold coffee. . .and Mister Rogers." I liked that. I am going to share it again now in case anyone else is out there and needs this message, too. I have always loved our favorite "neighbor", ever since I was a little preschooler, and it's incredible to me how many messages Mister Rogers has for me as a grown-up. I am so far from being perfect, but he always reminds us that people can love us just the way we are and to keep on growing. Sometimes I feel like I have needed his show even more than my boys, and if you read below you'll see one of the many reasons why.
January 5, 2011
I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what my vocation is in life. I mean, I guess I know what it is now. . .if it isn't being a wife and mother I am not sure what it is! I guess Facebook is something that really gets you thinking. . .you see all these people you went to high school and college with and they seem so. . .successful. Wow- they are doctors, lawyers, professors, ministers, politicians, artists. . .these are the people you sat next to in class (or maybe skipped class with to go to a bar. . .not that I would ever do that!), clowned around with, went to parties with. You took the same tests, competed or performed side by side, worked on teams together, and you always felt like equals. But, all of the sudden (or maybe not so sudden. . .it has been a while, right?) you look around and realize that everyone has become their grown-up selves with all sorts of grown up accomplishments. I am pretty confident that I have friends are going to cure diseases, write bestselling books, compose great music, make amazing contributions to the world and be remembered for a long, long time. It's not that I'm jealous, it just makes me wonder what I'm doing for the good of the cause, or what potential I may have inside me. I look down at MY grown-up self. . .a cushy mom/human kleenex wearing a purple sweatshirt and leggings, hair in a ponytail, baby formula all over my collar and smudgy mascara. No awards on my wall or accolades, no advanced degrees, no need for pantyhose or manicures, no time for social activism, never mind time to finish my coffee before it gets cold. As I am sure every mother does, I have puzzled over this a lot. When you stay at home with your children, it is easy to feel like you don't get anything done. There is no satisfaction of a straight A report card, pile of freshly graded papers or a completed project to turn in. The dish mountain in the sink diminishes only to reappear again within hours, the laundry is folded and barely put away before the baskets are full again, meals are prepared and eaten and the refrigerator is bare before you even had time to recover from the last adventure at the grocery store with tiny helpers in tow. A mother's work never ends. No one has been banging down my door to give me awards, and my kids haven't given me a performance evaluation lately, let alone a raise! If it doesn't make you act like a bit of a martyr every once in a while, you are probably a saint.
So, what's a person to do? I'm a big believer in being content with what you have and making the most of every circumstance in life so I wanted to reconcile all of these thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, my good friend Mister Rogers came just in time with the answer my heart needed. My boys and I watch the Neighborhood together as a special ritual almost every day. I try not to do anything else as we watch. . .just be fully present with my children in the moment and enjoy watching them be nurtured and educated by the show I grew up loving. We were watching the Neighborhood Opera "A Star for Kitty" when my answer came from the musical puppets and friends. The Kitty wants to learn to twinkle like the stars in the sky, and tries to twinkle by thinking happy thoughts. You have to be able to suspend reality for a bit to accept a tiger puppet dressed like a star hidden in a toothpaste tube and a trumpet playing half-moon as completely natural. I won't even go into why the cat is in the sky in the first place taking a twinkling class, but she tries in vain to twinkle, until she does a selfless act only to realize she has started sparkling without trying to at all. As I watched, I thought. . .wait. . .that's me! I'm Lady Aberlin dressed like a cat! Nah, not really, but that's how I sparkle! By putting others first. I may not be shining bright, making contributions (or making much money for that matter), being successful, winning awards or changing the world.
But my boys. . .they are my work. They are my legacy. They are my sparkle. If I put their little hearts and feelings first and nurture their spirits, they could grow to be kind loving, people who make the world a better place. Maybe they could grow into someone as great as Fred Rogers! That seems pretty important to me.
In our world of instant gratification, sometimes it is hard to remember the things that are eternal. Leave it to Mister Rogers to still remind me over 25 years after I was one of his little viewers that it is the things on the inside that count after all.
After I wrote that, I felt better. The thought that my life's work could not be to do something measurable, but just to love people, was pretty mind-blowing to four-years-ago-Jen. It's something I have worked on every day since, moving from the uncomfortable feeling in my heart to the peaceful internal knowing that my value is not to be measured by external factors. I can use all of my gifts. . . my humor, my mind, my compassion. . .right here with my little circle of people. I may never even see the fruit of my work in my lifetime, but someone will. . .someday. . .I'm sure of it. And, yes, no one ever is going to knock on my door with a major award. (But one time the TV repairman said I was a good mom, so that's, like, pretty close!) As one of my favorite authors, Glennon Melton, says, "Most people who have a deep desire for lives of meaning and purpose and love are the kind of people who already have lives of meaning and purpose and love." It's all right here.
So, I will keep washing the dishes and doing the laundry and waiting at the bus stop and kissing the boo-boo's and singing the lullabies and listening to highly detailed accounts of imaginary things. I'll do the hundredth tuck-in and pick up the thousandth toy and wipe the millionth tear.
I can say I do it more gently now, and more purposefully than I did four years ago, because now I know that THAT is the work.
Not the thing that needs to be done before I can go off and do some more important world-changing work, but that is the work I am supposed to be doing. Hugs and lullabies and stories and diapers and cleaning the pee ring around the toilet is "the work." Everyone's vocation is different, but I am sure that this is mine, all wrapped up in these four little boys. It's nothing to be ashamed of or to brag about or anything in-between, because we are all called to do different things. . .and we need those friends of mine who are doctors and lawyers and surgeons and nurses and teachers and athletes and clerks and tellers and musicians and activists and all of those other important people doing their thing to make people's lives better.
But this little calling is just mine, and it fits me now.
Just like your calling is yours.
It's kind of a radical thought, to imagine that you are just who you are supposed to be, and you are just WHERE you are supposed to be, when it seems that the world is always telling you to be more and do more be better and do it, like, NOW. Nope. Not accepting that any more. "You're just the way you're supposed to be," says Mister Rogers, "you're growing just right."
From Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers
Thank you, television neighbor. That's just what I needed. :)
Yesterday at 7:15 a.m. on my 35th birthday, my four excited, exuberant, hyper little boys were bouncing balloons around the kitchen. It was all giggles and elbows and static crazy hair when Phil stopped and said, "Mommy, I still need to make you a birthday present!"
I said, "Kids, you know what would be the beeeeeeest birthday present? Can you be perfect little angels all day?"
I was half-kidding (but also half-TOTALLY SERIOUS) They sort of laughed, and went back to balloon bouncing trying to be like "perfect angels" bouncing the balloons. It didn't take long before someone was knocked over, something got spilled, someone was in tears, and the balloons had to take a little break in the garage for everyone's sanity (mostly mine). I was like, "Hey, guys, perfect little angels, right??" and they giggled and came in the kitchen to help me get ready for breakfast. Again, it wasn't long before someone forgot they were setting the table and wandered off, looked at someone funny and made them cry, spilled something, had to run from the table to use the restroom. . .you get the picture.
The rest of the day progressed like that- kiddos trying to be "perfect little angels" and mostly just being typical little kids. . .falling, squabbling, whining, needed noses wiped, etc. In the late afternoon, in the spirit of Birthday we decided to ditch the rest of homework and head to the park and meet some friends.
Along our walk, the air was crisp and the sun was slanting behind us in that perfect evening glow. It was a mix of "perfect angel kiddos" holding my hands bringing me special leaves as birthday presents and asking me super cute science questions and telling me stories and singing songs. Also, about 50% tripping, falling, crying to get out of the stroller, lagging behind, etc.
Then we get to the park and rising behind us were two hot air balloons.
So, of course, I get all giddy.
"HOT AIR BALLOONS!!! I LOVE HOT AIR BALLOONS!! It's a BIRTHDAY MIRACLE!"
The boys flip out, too. . .
"Mommy, LOOK! Hot air balloons are your favorite!"
"Mommy, they came to wish you a Happy Birthday!"
"Mommy, I will take your picture with the Birthday Hot Air Balloons!!!"
Phil took my picture.
And as the balloons rose over us and started to fly over the park, my heart was pretty full. I realized in that moment that they ARE ALWAYS and ARE ALREADY "perfect little angels." Maybe in their minds and in their bodies they are clumsy and growing and learning and perpetually "messing up", but mistakes are how we perpetually learn and grow, right!?
On the outside, they may look less than perfect. Their hair might be messed, pockets may be pulled inside out and boogers might be crusted on their noses. They might make excessive poop jokes, be too wiggly in church, whine about their homework, or even punch a bro in the nose in a heated moment.
But in their hearts, where it really matters, they are just so, so good.
So, I will pause.
Look at the boys on the floor wrestling on the unstuffed couch cushions.
Look beyond my need for external, unattainable "perfection".
And see those sweet little hearts. . .lighter and brighter than hot air balloons in the November sky.
I received a phone call from my principal a few days before I was supposed to head back to the classroom from my first maternity leave. On my schedule were 6 sections of Integrated Chemistry-Physics, my favorite class to teach and not to mention, ONE class to prepare for. . .the ideal schedule for a first-time mom who also happened to be about to become a second-time mom. I had my first two weeks of lesson plans done, copies run, when my principal said, "Jen, we have a section of Biology we need you to take." Now, in addition to the fact that this was going to be adding a prep to my schedule, this biology class was what we like to call "repeater biology". . .or, all of the kiddos who failed biology at the freshman center and needed to take it again in order to graduate (with a few transfers and kids going for a higher grade thrown in the mix).
I was not super excited for this opportunity, but determined to make the best of it. I walked into my block 4 classroom, a ragtag bunch of sophomores, juniors and seniors, smiled and told them that they were absolutely, under no circumstances allowed to fail Biology I. "I am NOT going to let you fail." I said. "I know exactly why you failed last time. You didn't show up, and you didn't complete assignments. In order to pass this class, you need to show up. I am going to make sure you complete all of your assignments. I am not going to let you fail."
BAM. That's right. Don't mess with Mrs. Zink. And I stuck to my word. I mean, if 80% of success is showing up, that's like a B minus! Not too shabby! ;) I didn't stand for a single zero in my gradebook that semester, which meant hours after school with kiddos in "detention" (which was really just sitting in my room and doing the work they should have done the first time so they could get a grade, and didn't feel too much like punishment at all I am pretty sure, since no one ever complained and sometimes they even brought friends.)
And I didn't let them fail. I lost a few through the year, but every kid who showed up received every single bit of my attention I could give them so that they could pass.
We showed up. At first, I didn't feel like teaching them and they most certainly didn't want to be there. But, with the right attitude it turned out to be one of my favorite classes I have ever taught and I could tell as the semester went on that they sure didn't mind being in my room, either. We built a little community, my assorted bunch of friends and I. Just by showing up for each other each day, and not giving up.
Really, that seems to me to be more and more the key to life- it is often undervalued and it shouldn't be. Just. show. up. Some (grumpy) people scoff at awards like "Perfect Attendance." "Why give an award for just showing up?" say the grumpy people. But think about how hard it really is to show up every day. I mean every. day. The days you feel crappy. The days you don't want to. The days you would much rather be anywhere. else. than. here.
But you do it anyways. Certainly there are days when you would much rather not. But the reward of showing up is great. Michael Phelps showing up at the pool. Yo Yo Ma showing up in the practice room. Often the reward of showing up is excellence. But far and above all other rewards, and attainable by all regardless of skill, the greatest reward of showing up is relationship.
My mother-in-law has 10 kids. Ten great kids who are all married and 25 grandkids and counting. Last year we made her a book for her 75th birthday, and you couldn't read a few pages of the letters written to her by her family without wanting to cry. You don't get letters like that from casual acquaintances. You get letters like that from people you have shown up for, time and time again. She didn't just wake up one day to find that she had ten great adult fully grown kids with college degrees who loved and respected each other and loved her and were all contributing members of society. Wouldn't that be nice? But that's not how life works. She showed up, every day, day in and day out, for decades. Through puberty and blizzards and mountains of laundry and garage bands and diapers upon diapers and potty training and driver's ed times ten. Showing up with the meatloaf on the table or the full size van in the pickup line. At the football stadium or basketball court or art show or graduation. In the middle of the night when someone was sick, or when a daughter has her first baby or when someone just needs mom to come pick them up from the slumber party early. That's a whole lotta showing up.
Moms are amazing and pretty much the best about showing up. My mom always seems to show up at just the right time with exactly what I need. How does she do that? I DON'T KNOW!! She's magic. All I know is, I want to do the same for my kids. And for everyone else for that matter.
Looking back on the last 35 years I admit I can think of a lot of things I regret that I missed.
But I can't think of many times that I ever regretted showing up.
So, as I enter year 36 I am going to keep my life goal simple.
Just keep showing up.
For my kids,
for my friends,
for my family,
for my church.
I am going to show up before I'm ready.
Even if I don't 100% feel like it.
Arms full or maybe even empty handed.
On foot or in my Chevy Venture.
I might even show up (EEEK!) without mascara on.
But I'll wear my sunglasses to cover that up.
Cuz if you need me, I'm showing up.
So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.