I started out parenting with the notion that somehow the goal of my parenting should be teaching my kids how to become functioning adults. That task seems a little daunting since I barely consider myself adept at "adulting". Changing your oil, balancing your checkbook, remembering to renew your license plates, buying life insurance, scheduling your dental visit. . .adulting is so boring. Who wants to prepare for that?
And then there are my kids. Hardly anything is boring to them. A bug! A funny cloud! A red bird! A piece of candy! Going to the Library!! Little Caesars Pizza! Watching The Lego Movie for the millionth time! Pancakes! Minecraft! The joy meter is high for whatever. Paul and I took them to downtown Indy a few years ago to see the lights and they were literally RUNNING down the street- "LOOK! A parking meter! LOOK!!! A man playing a saxophone!!" All of the things that our adult eyes gloss over were the most wondrous things ever, we hardly even needed lights to make it magic. They were making such a spectacle Paul and I agreed that perhaps we should get out more. (Is the grocery store "getting out"? If so, I'm nailing it.)
A lady stopped me in Meijer yesterday and pulled it all into focus for me. Meijer is full of blessings these days. I used to kind of dread going to Meijer before I had kids. . .it's huge, so many choices, pushing around a big heavy cart, trying to remember everything on my list. . .meh. Add tiny kids to that mix. . .eeeek! One time. . .true story. . .I actually almost blacked out in the frozen food section with a Baby Bjorn full of Daniel on my chest. The combination of trying to grocery shop for my family and some majorly messed up postpartum thyroid levels left me crumpled on the floor next to the chicken nuggets at east side Meijer. People sort of side stepped past me like I was just another crazy person. And maybe I was. (Seven years ago was a hard time.) But now that I have Noah, Meijer is an outing that I truly look forward to. I tell him we are going to Meijer and he squeals with glee. He skip-runs into Meijer, his feet light with joy. We stop and greet the greeter and catch up on his life. Noah thinks his name is Penny because he always gives him a coin to ride Sandy, and he always walks away shouting, "Bye, Penny!! See you later!!" We then visit the lobsters, the fish, the toys, swing through the home goods and hit up the seasonal decorations. We stop and make friends with employees and customers and take our sweet time, since mostly I'm just stocking up on beer, whiskey and random things like molasses and tahini you just can't find at Aldi. Yesterday, as Noah was gleefully looking at the fish and shouting out all kinds of exciting things about the ones in each tank, this friendly customer rolled up and stopped by us. She smiled as she watched Noah running back and forth in front of the fish tank.
"Wow, we should all be like that, shouldn't we?"
"I know," I said. "Don't you just love the excitement?"
"Yes. If we were all a little more like that the world would be a better place," she paused for another moment before pushing her cart down the dog food aisle, leaving me behind with a smile and new eyes for Noah.
She is so right! What a wonderful world it would be. And what a privilege it is to be a parent, to be in the presence of these tiny teachers. Because of them, it's possible to get excited about trains and fire trucks and inflatable Christmas decorations and maybe even Little Caesars pizza. Through children, we get to experience the magic and the wonder of childhood again, and isn't it just what we needed? The world today seems so. . .overwhelming. Crime and assault rifles and hateful rhetoric and abuse and corruption and war and refugees in crisis fill the news. Despair tempts every time we click an article in our facebook feed or turn on the TV. Yet as Henri Nouwen says, "When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence - the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends - I will always remain tempted to despair."
God's presence is all around us if we only have eyes to see.
There's the despairing and weary world.
And then there is Hope.
It's no coincidence that Hope arrived as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, and is born to us again each day in the spirits of children.
Daniel, my seven year old, is teetering on that that transition from little kid to big kid. Things that didn't embarrass him before now make him blush, he loves Pokemon and Star Wars and anything potty humor, and friends are now cooler than Mommy. I'll do anything I can to capture his little kid moments one more time, as I feel his babyhood slipping through my fingers with more than a tinge of regret. On our way home from choir practice this week, I heard his sweet little raspy voice from the backseat.
"Mommy, I know you are probably going to say no, but can we please, please, please go see the Christmas lights tonight?"
I sighed a little bit thinking about how it was going to be out of my way and I was going to have to make a left turn in crazy traffic to get to the light display at the local farm equipment dealer, and I would also have to figure out how to turn off my headlights which I had never even attempted, and we'd be getting home later. . .man I sounded like an adult in my head. Adult-y Jen started to say "Maybe another time."
Then I caught a glimpse of his face in the rear view mirror. Those chubby cheeks get thinner with each passing year, but behind the little boy gap-toothed grin I saw his baby face looking back at me, all hopeful, pleading eyes and sweetness.
"Sure, honey. Just promise that we'll go back again with Daddy, OK??"
"OK!!! I will! I promise!!"
And two little boys squealed with glee. I turned the car and took them to the lights. They were glued to the windows of the car as we made our way through the display, oohing and aaahhhing and remembering all of their favorite things.
"Thank you, Mommy," Daniel said. "This is awesome."
I am so glad I didn't get so busy adulting that I missed the lights sparkling in his eyes, the pure, unfiltered joy and wonder.
And as I navigated my van through the winding path, my eyes couldn't help but sparkle, too.
Help me see with new eyes, Lord.
Help me be tender and hopeful like Daniel.
Help me wonder and dream like Philip.
Help me imagine and giggle like Joshua.
Help me love and rejoice like Noah.
Help me see through their eyes, which are so much like Yours.
I just watched an online video training women about safety and I had a flashback to my early twenties when my roommate, Winnie, and I were just out of college and enjoying the freedom of our first "real" apartment.
We had so much fun in our apartment together. I would pick up my grandma and she would come over and cook with us, we'd have friends over to watch the first season of American Idol, Winnie would practice her cheerleading moves in the large mirror in her bathroom and I would spend hours modeling outfits from my huge walk-in closet. We weren't home much because we both worked a lot (she as an engineer/dancer and I as a first-year teacher) and we had boyfriends that we spent a lot of time with, so often we were just home to sleep. But, at least it was a pretty place to sleep!
And this wasn't a dirty college apartment like the one we subleased during summer classes at Purdue, but a beautiful brand-new apartment with tray ceilings and real furniture and a huge, open kitchen. It was located in a central area close to the interstate and shopping and even though it was on a main road, felt very secluded and quiet because it was in the back of the apartment complex. We had selected a first floor apartment because we liked the floor plan and architectural details, and we loved the convenience of no stairs or doors between us and the parking lot. We never gave the "open" model of our apartment complex any thought, we just felt it was easier to not have to buzz people in and open and close and unlock extra doors when unloading groceries.
Then, on an early spring night I was jarred awake shortly after midnight by the sound of my roommate screaming "JENNIFER!!!!!!", accompanied by the loudest banging I had ever heard. I jumped out of bed and ran down the little hall to find Winnie, phone in hand, frantically dialing 911 (while meanwhile screaming "I'm calling 911!" at the top of her lungs) as the door to our apartment shook on its hinges. I didn't think, I just started screaming and threw myself against the door with Winnie to hold it shut as the two men on the other side were gearing up and charging towards it. After the third attempt our door was hanging off of the hinges at the top but still standing by the force of our tiny bodies pushing against it with all of our might. The predators must have determined that the screaming and banging at this point was too loud and ran off. By the time the police arrived, we had piled up furniture against our door to hold it shut, and we were shaking and crying as we huddled on our love seat together, still terrified they would return.
Winnie recounted the story of how the events unfolded, and it was clear how her wise actions saved us from something awful. Close to midnight, someone knocked on the door to our apartment. I was already asleep, but Winnie was still awake working and heard the knocking. She went to the door and peeked through the peephole to see two men standing there in our hallway, wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing. "That's funny," she thought. It was a warm and breezy spring night, and they were wearing winter hats and large, dark coats. At this point, Win thought that maybe they were just at the wrong house, so she ignored it and went back to her room.
Then they knocked again.
She didn't answer.
She stayed still.
Winnie was getting nervous. This seemed more intentional than "wrong apartment" , but she wasn't going to take the bait. She didn't wake me up, but she huddled on her bed awake and alert. Then, she heard a knocking on her window. Now she was really terrified, too terrified to move. In her memory, she feels like this all lasted about 15 minutes as heard the two men going around the outside of our apartment, as she lay there in her bed shaking. They tried her window and the patio door that led into the courtyard before they finally returned to the main door in the hallway. Winnie pressed herself against the door to listen, and heard one say to the other, "If we go at it together, we should be able to get in." That was last thing she heard before the first terrible bang shook our door and I woke up to the sound of her screaming.
We were so, so lucky.
Later that night (a night in which we obviously didn't sleep), long after the police had left and we were still desperately trying to contact the maintenance guy, Zach, to come fix our door, I went into my room and noticed that I had my window open just a crack. It was so pretty that night, I went to sleep with it just like that to enjoy the breeze. What if they had seen that crack of a window behind the bushes in front of it?? I shuddered and slammed it shut. There were so many "what if's". Thank God we were OK.
The next day after work, we went to every apartment in our building to explain to them what had happened. Our neighbors across the hall said, "Oh, yeah. We heard that. We didn't know what was going on." (???!!!!?????!!!!) Our neighbor upstairs whom we had never met, gave us his phone number. "You call me if ANYONE bothers you," he said. "I'll be down in a heartbeat." We felt comforted, but of course not comforted enough to still live there. In the light of what had almost happened all of the mistakes we had made when selecting our apartment were glaring. We broke our lease and left intact with many lessons which I hope someone else can benefit from.
1. Choose apartment location wisely. All of the things we loved about our apartment were also the things that made it easy for predators to target us. That easy interstate access and lots of traffic around it makes it easy for strangers to watch you without raising a single red flag. The location: First floor, secluded at back of the apartment complex, backed up to an office park (the predators didn't even have to drive into our complex to get to our apartment, they likely parked in the office complex adjacent and walked right through the thin line of bushes to get to our building) and having no doors where you need to buzz in visitors. . .all of these things were stacked against us. Even in the same complex, if we had selected a higher level apartment in a more central and prominent area, we would not have been such easy targets.
2. Know your neighbors. Not everyone in an apartment complex is friendly, but pay attention to who lives in your building. We did not really do that, it didn't feel important to get to know them if they didn't want to say more than "hi.". But if the young family across the hall knew us and cared about us, they might have done something when they heard people trying to break down our door. (Again- ???!!!!?????) It never hurts to put yourself out there and say more than "hi" to your neighbors! Lesson learned.
3. Be aware of your surroundings. The police said that it is likely that these men followed one of us home from an event to find out where we lived. Situational awareness helps. We were pretty oblivious most times coming home, just focused on getting in the door with whatever we had brought with us.
4. Listen to your mom. I am pretty sure my mom warned me about ALL of these things and I dismissed it as being overprotective. Moms are smart, they aren't just worrying for no reason. They love you and have imagined every possible scenario to protect you. I know because now I do the same thing!
They never caught those men, which scares me as to which women they might have targeted next. My roommate and I were so, so fortunate. Although there are surely things we could have done differently or better in that situation, we survived by the grace of God. I hope that in sharing the lessons we learned, it can help another woman to be safe and enjoy her freedom and independence.
After a particularly rough time at mass, one that involved Noah PHYSICALLY EXITING the church at one point on his way to the parking lot (would that he had the keys), I came home just a little bit more weathered and worn. I gave Joshy a marshmallow and sent him to his room to enjoy it and looked over at my sweet little Noah (so rotten just a few minutes before). He looked angelic there in the kitchen, and even though the time was already behind us I felt the behavior was at least worth mentioning. So, I tried to put it in my best two-year-old words as I knelt down in front of him.
"Hey, buddy, I'm kind of sad about Noah at church."
He stared at me oh-so-innocently.
"I really need you to stay with mommy, OK?"
He looked at me thoughtfully. Then, he said in a sweet voice and with a tone wayyyyy beyond his two years. . .
"It's OK, Mommy. Don't Worry. It's over."
I had to try hard not to giggle as he toddled off to his toy train. Leave it to Noah to drop the truth. Noah always says, "Don't Worry." any time I look sad. He's my little living, breathing Gospel. And he has a point, why worry? Oh, wait, I'm a mom! That's what I do! I have a gift of finding something to worry about in any situation. Maybe you share that, too. But outside of my little mama worries like if my kids are getting enough sleep and enough protein and what's with that cough and let me go in and make sure that they are still breathing, I wrestle with that nagging worry that I am somehow not the best mom for my kids. Like, if Phil had a different mom maybe she would have found out a solution for his eczema by now, or if Daniel had a different mom maybe he wouldn't have been so overlooked as the perfect toddler and preschooler he was, or if they all had a different mom maybe they would be more athletic, or have better opportunities in life or WHATEVER. The list of my perceived failings loves to knock, and it's a constant battle to keep them all outside my door.
I did hear Father say, however, just before Noah disappeared down the aisle and excused himself to the narthex to play with the angel tree toys, something really profound. God chose Mary to be Jesus' mother before Mary was even CONCEIVED. God wasn't like, "Oh, that teenager Mary looks like a good one. Maybe I'll pick her." He CREATED Mary to be Jesus' mom. And that same level of intention goes for each of us.
Boom. . .drop the mic.
How humbling and how empowering it is to think that God chose Philip, Daniel, Joshua and Noah for me- not just before they were born, but before I was born!? As if my whole life and the whole universe was leading up to this moment?? And yours, too?
Out in the narthex in the shade of the angel tree, I met another mama with a toddler doing the same thing as mine. She was clearly my new soul sista because she was wearing an Evy's Tree hoodie (obsessed!) so we smiled at each other and laughed about toddlers at church and how somehow we thought this was going to be easier than bringing all of our kids after school without our husbands. Is there really ever a convenient time to bring a 2-year-old to mass? Probably not. I laughed and told her that I figured Mary understood. She's our girl. I mean, Mary had a two-year-old once, too! And I am sure that even though Jesus was without sin, he was still T-W-O! Because when you think about it, it's not like Noah is sinning when he is misbehaving in church. He doesn't even know how to sin! He just wants to explore his world and pursue his personal agenda, very little of which involves sitting in a pew, no matter how engaging the music and the sermon. And when you think about it, how lovely that he feels comfortable enough in church to trot right up the aisle and find the angel tree all by himself, and is so familiar with its layout that he can navigate solo to the side exit to the parking lot? Sure, I'll go with that.
And, you know, some people gave me some grumpy looks, I'm not going to lie. I have a standard apologetic look that I give people when my kids are wiggleworms at church, which is met with a face that expresses either:
A. Sympathy (Oh, I'm so glad that's not me!)
B. Empathy (Oh, sweetie, I've been there!)
C. Apathy (Must. avoid. eye. contact.)
D. Antipathy (I will give this mom the grumpiest face I have so that she never wants to sit near me again and she knows what an epic failure she is).
I will say that choice D. keeps me humble. Because, you know what, as much as I would love my kids to behave like angels so I don't look like an idiot, I've been around long enough to know that kids have a mind of their own and I might just end up looking like a fool because of their behavior. It has happened MANY TIMES BEFORE. It will happen again. But I've also emptied myself enough to know how much I need Jesus, so I am going to get myself at His table whatever it takes. I don't need to worry too much about the shifting opinions of the world if I'm right in my heart with Him. And if I just stare at the floor or over people's heads while exiting the sanctuary, it's like I don't even know if the people have chosen A, B, C or D! You kind of feel the D's burning into you, but just walk faster, right???
Plus, I am so confident that our girl Mary understands. Although it was never written down in the records, the evidence of the years of care she gave in raising Jesus show. And despite the crazy today, I am now more aware than ever that our children were chosen for us so long ago and with a Love so big that we can't even wrap our minds around it, the same way Mary was chosen for Jesus. That perspective makes it easier to dismiss those voices of worry when they pop into my head, and compels me to live my life today with more intention. Before I know it, it's going to be over, just like Noah said. I'll be the person in the pew choosing A. B. C. or D. as the younger mama wrestles with a crazy toddler in the pew. For the record, I am planning on giving her "Look B". And if I see her afterwards, I'll be sure to tell her she's doing a great job, too.
Don't worry, mom.
You're doing just right.
And Mary's got your back.
And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me Shine until tomorrow, let it be I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
This morning as I stuck the last yogurt in a lunch and peeled the last banana, I realized that I had once again failed to plan enough food to last until my next trip to Aldi. Silly Jen, trying to buy groceries on Saturday to last until Wednesday!! So, since Noah and I are super European like that, we headed to Aldi after preschool dropoff to pick up some essentials to get us through the day. . .bananas, milk, apples, frozen broccoli, yogurt, and marshmallows. ESSENTIALS.
If you have shopped at Aldi before, you're familiar with the cozy shopping experience. If you see someone while you are getting your shopping carts, it's pretty much guaranteed you will cross paths with them again at least five more times before you leave the store. I never say goodbye to a friend I run into in Aldi until I am pulling out of the parking lot, otherwise it is awkward when you run into them four more times. How many times can one say goodbye, really?? There are just no goodbyes at Aldi!! Today as I was getting my cart, there was a sweet older gentleman right next to me. I would later find out as we stopped to chat next to the jelly that he is turning NINETY next Monday, but we'll get to that in a second. It all started with a smile somewhere around where the potato chips transition to corn chips in Aisle 1. I smiled at him, he smiled at us. Smiles are magic bridges. Noah said "Hi" as our new friend leaned over the cart and asked him if he was excited for Christmas. Since the only thing I had to do was postponed today and we got nothin' but time, I started to tell him about the boys' excitement this morning for December and how they were going to have a hard time waiting 24 more days for Santa. We laughed together thinking about little kids and Christmas.
"I'm still like that a little bit," he said.
"Well, you're going to have to wait 24 more days, too!" I teased him.
"I know." His face got just a little bit sad and I could tell he was thinking. "Well, maybe not as excited as I used to be." He paused for a little bit before he brightened. "But I have grandkids and even great-grandkids now!"
"Oh!!" I replied. I love it when people tell me they have grandkids, because then you know they are going to have a lot to tell you! Plus, I have the magic question to ask. I say, "Do your grandkids live close by?" I don't know when it popped into my head to start asking this question at the grocery store, but it really feels like the key that unlocks some great conversations with people. I probably ask it at least five times a week and it never fails me.
Today was no exception.
Time froze as we stopped there by the condiments and he started to answer. He told me about his grandkids, and his grandson's wife who has breast cancer. She's only 32. They have a four year old and a one year old. She's fighting it and she's almost done with chemo, but she's got a mastectomy and a hysterectomy coming up. My heart started to break thinking of this mama. "THIRTY TWO??" I asked, with tears forming in my eyes.
"Thirty two," he replied. "With those two little ones at home. I wish I could go see them, but I can't travel anymore. My wife is in a nursing home and I don't want to leave her."
Ouch. My heart started to break a little bit more.
"Ohhhhh." I said, and I must have looked sad because he changed the subject.
"How long have you been married?" he asked.
"Twelve years!" I said proudly. "We just had our anniversary on Sunday! How about you?"
"My wife and I have been married for sixty nine years!"
"SIXTY NINE!! Wow!! That is really special."
"I go see her every day at her nursing home."
"Is it close by?" (I don't know why geography is my favorite question, but whatever.)
"It's in Greenfield. I go see her every day but it makes me so sad because there are people there who never have visitors, they go for months without someone coming to see them. They just sit there. . .all alone."
At this point I'm really starting to tear up, imagining all of the people at that nursing home with no one to come and see them. Meanwhile I am mentally trying to calculate how I could find out who they are and how fast I could get to them and maybe I don't even need groceries if I just run to Greenfield right now???
"Oh, that makes me so sad, too," was all I could say.
We stood there in silence for a moment.
"Loneliness really IS the greatest poverty isn't it?" I said, the words of Mother Teresa spinning in my mind.
"You're telling me. I go home to an empty house after this. It's just. . .lonely."
I felt like there was nothing more and a million things more I could say to that.
We started to walk, not really saying goodbye (Aldi rule) and we shopped our way through the rest of the store. Noah stopped to play with the toys, I talked to a lady about fruitcake, laughed with a couple who were arguing over whether the husband needed Star Wars figurines and got all of our groceries (for today). Eventually my new friend and I ended up past the checkout at the bagging table together.
"I hope you have a Merry Christmas!" he said, as he pushed his cart past me toward the sliding door.
I patted him on the back. "You, too," I said. "Merry Christmas." How much feeling could I put into those words to let him know how sorry I was to hear about the loneliness and his wife and his 32-year-old granddaughter-in-law with cancer? Merry Christmas could barely touch it. As I watched him shuffle his cart outside I wished I had gotten his name.
His name!! Maybe I could still get it. I scanned the parking lot for him as I left, maybe it wasn't too late? Maybe I could still find out who he was?? I thought he would be loading his groceries by me, or I might see him at the cart return, but. . . no. I stood by my van for a moment and watched the vehicles of the other customers we had been shopping with pull out of their respective spaces. Still he was nowhere to be seen. I reluctantly turned away. As I pulled out of the parking lot and headed off on the short drive home, I turned over our conversation with tears in my eyes.
Will Paul and I get to share that many years of marriage?
There's no way to know.
But today it feels even more important to love and appreciate my husband now, even in the midst of our thick and messy days of parenting young kids where it feels like everything- our time and money and patience- can get stretched so very thin.
Will I be alone in a nursing home someday?
There's no way to know.
But right now it feels even more important to hold space in my heart for the lonely people, to go seek them out, to bring a smile and some comfort and human connection wherever they are found.
Could I get cancer like that young mom?
There's no way to know.
But just thinking about it makes it feel even more important to live gently and tenderly in the time I have, appreciating the health I have and holding tight the people I have.
Will I live to be 90?
There's no way to know.
But today it feels even more important to remember that life is long (if we are lucky) and will be full of all sorts of times. Busy times and crazy times and times full of little children on our laps, these times where we spend all day being needed and only dream of going somewhere alone. The days where we can barely buy enough food to feed them all will transition to the days where we are pushing the cart through the grocery store just picking up a little milk, a pack of cookies, a few eggs for just ourselves.
There will be all kinds of times to be sure, and this wild and crazy and full and stretched one isn't forever.
Will I ever see my new friend again?
There's no way to know.
But there is no doubt in my mind that I was meant to run out of milk and bananas, so I could be there this morning, so I could meet this kind and brave man and learn from him.
But maybe I'll start going to Aldi on Tuesdays now. Just in case.