Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Days of Our Lives. . .

Yesterday's sunset. :)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No matter what happens."

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Blessed and Broken.

The Sea of Galilee (photo by Sara Simmons)

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

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

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

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

Oh, how these words soothed my soul.

How often do I feel like I am not enough? 

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

Thank God I know the Source of those.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 19, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Bar.

St. Patrick's Day is a special day for my family.  My Irish grandma, Darlin, loved St. Pat's and we always celebrated with green carnations to pin on our shirts, yummy food, stickers, cards and all things sweet and Irish.  Paul loves it, too, and from before we were even married and up until I was pregnant with the third Zink boy, we hosted an annual bash at our basement bar.  So many fun times were had, and I have two rubbermaid tubs full of St. Patrick's Day paraphernalia in my garage (and lots of incriminating photos of our friends tucked away for when we are old and gray) to prove it.

After we moved into our new home, one of our first goals was to build a bar just like we had at our Irvington bungalow.  We optimistically brought the 4 barstools with us, boxes of glassware, beer signs, kitschy decorations, the whole deal so we could recreate the experience.  Then we realized that we have a lot of kids, and we're doing good most days just feeding them and giving them baths and keeping them in clean clothes and let's face it. . .alive.  So, we had to set the bar for our bar a little lower.  After four years of sitting in our basement just waiting for a bar to be built, we finally had the realism and common sense to move the barstools to our garage so our kids had more room to play Lego.   Someday, those barstools will party again.  Maybe not with us. . .maybe at a frat house at Purdue or something. . .but someday.  For now, they hold our car mats and we use them to climb up and get high stuff.  Whatever.

Even with the demise of the Zink bar, we still loved St. Patrick's Day.  One year on March 16, as I geared up to get out all of the decor (still in the boxes) and Lucky Charms and green outfits after the kiddos went to bed, I had some disturbing things happen.

First, Phil came home from preschool COMPLETELY JAZZED and asked if a leprechaun was going to come to our house like the leprechaun that came to visit them at school.  Um, what??  That's a thing??  My world of what I thought St. Patrick's Day was (drinking delicious beer and wearing green shirts) was shattered by the fact that in some parts of our culture, the celebration of this holiday involves imaginary visitors that I need to fabricate and then incorporate into my web of lies.

"Um, guys, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" I said, totally floored by this new information.
"Mommy, all we have to do is leave him a note!  He'll come to our house and mess stuff up and leave us treats!"

I looked around my house.  It already looked like multiple leprechauns lived there, along with perhaps a treeful of Keebler elves.  The last think I needed was some damn leprechaun coming in and jacking up my already beautiful mess.  There was flour all over my kitchen counter, the floors were filthy, breakfast and baking dishes piled in the sink, sticky bowls and spoons on the counter, the bathroom was trashed, the rug was littered with toys, and I still had snack, another meal and baths left to go before closing time.

In order to process this information, I did what all good moms do, which is turn on PBS kids and go in the other room to figure things out ALONE.  With my phone.  And some caffeine.  Sometimes when I am just mentally lost, I zone out and get on Facebook.  You guys, this is the most horrible of horrible ideas.  When am I going to learn?  Guaranteed if you are feeling confused or down on yourself and you get on Facebook, the first thing you are going to see is people living beautiful sparkly lives who share none of your struggles and being flat out awesome in your face.  I have a generally healthy self concept, so I can normally handle people's highlight reels without any personal toll but this was not a good day for scrolling.

Of course, the first thing I saw when I got on Facebook was the beautiful and precious St. Paddy's crafts that my friend had prepared, and pictures of the green toilet water and funny things their leprechaun had done to them (like put flour all over the kitchen!) while the kids were napping.  I looked around my house again. . .hey, my leprechaun spread flour all over the counter, too!  And is yellow toilet water kind of like green toilet water?  Kind of like a pot of gold??  I started to laugh.  There is no need to compare myself to that awesome mom.  I've got my own beautiful kind of St. Patrick's Day right here.  I quickly came up with a plan B before Super Why was over, excited to put it into action before the morning.

We made it through the rest of the day, making mess upon mess, and the boys left Shaun the Leprechaun a little note before Paul and I tucked their sparkly clean and p.j.'ed up little bodies into bed and kissed those squishy cheeks.

"Jen," Paul said as we entered the kitchen.  "The house is trashed."
"I KNOW!" I said.  "I have a plan.  Trust me."

Now, I'm not sure if after all of the years Paul has been the sidekick to my plans if he REALLY trusts me or not, but he went along with it anyways.  Good husband.

"Get down the decorations, honey.  We've got a new kind of leprechaun up in here."

For the next two hours, I cleaned the house while Paul vacuumed and decorated with all of the fun accessories from our party days.  The flour spills were erased, counters were buffed to a sparkly shine, toilet cleaned, floors mopped and even some dusting with ACTUAL PLEDGE might have occurred.   I wrote the kids a note from Shaun the Leprechaun, explaining to them what just went down.

Hi, Philip, Daniel, and Josh,

I got your letter! Thanks for helping cleaning up your house before I arrived tonight. I wanted to answer your question, Daniel. . .yes, I can act like a stinker sometimes. A real stinkpot, as you say. All of us leprechauns do. But to be sure, the very same leprechauns who are bad sometimes are the very same leprechauns who are good sometimes. So, tonight, I took an idea from my cousins the elves. Do you know the ones? The little guys who helped the shoemaker and his wife? Well, I know your Mommy and Daddy work really hard. And that your mommy has been busy playing with you in the sunshine all week. . .so that means she didn't have a lot of time to clean up all of the sand and dirt and messes! So, tonight while you were sleeping, I cleaned it all up for you and your mommy and daddy. . .right down to the toilet! I even put up some decorations. I hope you like them! I also hope you like the pot of gold that I left for you. Enjoy and be good boys. . . and just remember even us stinkers have good deep down inside!

With love,
Your friend Shaun the Leprechaun.

They woke up in the morning elated.  TREATS!!  They were a little confused as to why their Leprechaun cleaned instead of made mischief, but all I am saying is you need to set your own bar.

You hear that?
I don't like to toss out advice but this is one thing I am pretty sure of.
Set your OWN BAR.
So, this St. Patrick's Day, wear green or don't.
Drink Beer.  Or don't.
Do fun crafts.  Or don't.
Have a leprechaun that comes.  Or don't.

But whatever you do, do you!!  Only you can be yourself!  Have fun!

Happy St. Pat's from the O'Zinks!

Memories of St. Patrick's Days past. . .

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Before you know it.

Winter 2011

A few years ago, in the midst of my gray-skied, messy-haired, smudgy mascara, exhausted hot mess of a winter with three kids three and under, I found myself reading a powerful little book called Loving the Little Years.  I recall turning on two consecutive episodes of Sesame Street to finish it as I sat on our couch (which was devoid of cushions) and kids squirmed all over me and bounced on the bare springs.  I couldn't put it down.  There were so many gems of wisdom, but one that stopped me in my tracks was a moment where she said something to the effect of, "If things get crazy, just look at the clock and in ten minutes it will be over.  Just put your head down and power through."

I thought to myself, "Oh, hell, no.  That can't be true.  That's too good to be true.  There's no way."  But, since she had like five little kids under the age of five I figured she might know what she's talking about.  So, the next time things got crazy (Example:  5:45 PM: Phil had just thrown up on the floor, Josh was crying for a bottle, Daniel had just gleefully dumped out an entire basket of toys in the middle of the kitchen and dinner was not even close to in the oven.) I decided to give it a try.  I looked at the clock.  Instead of wallowing in self pity and despair and wishing Calgon would just come and take me away already, I put my head down and got to work.  By the time 5:55 had rolled around, everyone had stopped crying, the vomit was off the floor, kids were playing with the dumped out toys and the frozen pizza was in the oven.  And I was in awe.  It worked??  It WORKED????  IT WORKED!!!!!!  And it continued to work, over and over again.  I have had ample opportunities over the past 5 years since reading that book to put it into practice.  At LEAST once a day all of my kids are crying at the same time or the couch is unstuffed or there is marker all over someone and someone else has to poop and someone can't find their shoes and someone isn't wearing pants and mommy forgot to do the laundry and we have to leave the house in five minutes.  But as long as I power through instead of locking myself in the bathroom, it's over before I know it.

Just yesterday, I was teaching a class at the boys' school.  As a former high school science teacher and general lover of kiddos and science and all things kiddos and science, I was having a blast teaching my little after school enrichment class about flight as we designed and redesigned our own paper airplanes.  But Daniel was super disappointed because his design didn't live up to his expectations.  He started to cry mid-class and by the time we reached the car he was in epic tantrum kicking the seat meltdown mode because he felt Mommy didn't help him.  I was exhausted from a full day of parenting followed by teaching and the fact that I had hauled Josh and Noah along with me for this little adventure.  I knew when we got home I would have to not only unpack everything, but get all of these kids on some sort of task WHILE MAKING DINNER because it was already 5:30.  And then homework?  And baths?  And stories?  And bedtime??  Oh, no.  Honestly, I wanted to scream at Daniel because he would not stop crying and kicking and Josh and Noah WERE screaming at Daniel to be quiet.  But as we rolled closer to home, I looked at the clock.  "It will be over before you know it, Jen," I said to myself.  "Just do the next thing." With that perspective, I took a deep breath.

"Daniel," I said.  "I love you even when you are really mad at me.  I love you all the time."
His wails subsided a bit.
"I am sorry that you are mad at me but I want you to know that I love you."
A little ray of light broke through, even though he was still protesting that it was "the worst day ever."
We got in the house and I shuffled Phil to the basement, turned on a Mr. Rogers for Noah and Josh and started to make dinner.  Daniel stomped into the living room with a book.  After a few minutes I went in.
"Hey, buddy.  You want to come make some muffins with me?"
This is his FAVORITE THING that we used to do all of the time when he was little, and he is always sad that he doesn't get to make muffins with me anymore now that he is in school all day.  I figured it was worth switching up my dinner menu from to have a moment with my boy.
"REALLY??!!!" he said.  "YES!!"
He bounded in the kitchen where I had some orange juice and popcorn waiting for him, and after he fortified himself he started to push his chair over to the counter where my muffin-making mess was in progress.
"Um, Daniel, do you think you might be a little tall to stand on the chair?"
"Oh, yeah," he giggled.  "Maybe, Mommy." and he grabbed a stool from the bathroom so that we could stand shoulder to shoulder.  To be honest, he barely even needed that.  
Wow, those days were over fast.
We mixed the muffins and I looked at the clock.  A little more than ten minutes, but still pretty true after all these years.  The mess had subsided.  It was over before I knew it, and it was peaceful in my house. . .at least for that moment.  I'll take 'em when I can get 'em.  I patted myself on the back for mastering that art of putting my head down and powering through the difficult moments, but God wasn't quite done with my heart yet.

Later that night I was reading another book that has been challenging and encouraging me, Hands Free Mama.  I love her message and one of those messages is that it will all be over soon, so don't miss it.  I like to think that I am not a distracted mom, but in many ways I am so guilty of living in my head. This book gently calls me to accountability.  I read a passage in here that stopped me in my tracks just as Loving the Little Years did years ago.  Rachel was talking about how she used to dread when her kids brought their folders home from school and she hated unloading them.  Just one more thing to worry about or sign or look at or throw away, just one more input in her already busy and distracted life.  Ouch, I could relate.  I kind of dread all the folders, too.  And the WORST part is, Josh is so, so excited to show me his papers every day yet I am so worn out by 2pm when we slosh in the door from preschool pickup that often I barely even look at them, or promise he can show me later.  Then, as if she hadn't gotten me enough, at the end of the chapter Rachel asked if there were times in your child's day, such as bedtime, homework, meal preparation or carpool that you currently view as an inconvenience that you could instead use as a time to connect.  Crap, I thought.  Am I supposed to just pick ONE of those???  Because I pretty much wish those parts of the day away EVERY SINGLE DAY.  The past few weeks especially, I have not been able to get the kids showered and in bed FAST enough, have been totally guilty of turning off the music and asking for silence on the way to and from school and cringed and grumbled about homework more than my second graders do.  But Rachel's book was a kind reminder that these times, the busy and challenging and mundane and boring and tedious and all hyper kids and repeating yourself a million times and big messes and buckles and snaps and zippers and brushing teeth and combing hair are the IMPORTANT times.  In fact, most of my life appears to be made up of these times so it does not seem in my best interest to wish them away.  How often do I just try to power through: get those kids on the bus, get them buckled in the van, get them tucked into bed and will them to fall asleep so I can just have a hot second to relax.  Yet these are the times I am going to miss.  They will be over before I know it.  How easily I forget.

So, there's the delicate balance, friends.  The two sides of the coin once again.

Power through, it will be over before you know it.
Savor it, it will be over before you know it.

Today as we came home from preschool, I cranked the music that Noah had selected and told Josh I couldn't wait to see his papers.  He was so excited.  He couldn't make it to the big blue couch fast enough and we went through all three papers in his folder in excruciating yet glorious detail.  It took LESS than ten minutes, even with the full play-by-play, and the look on his sweet little face was so worth savoring.

There's a time to power through and a time to savor, a time for every purpose under heaven, right?
God, help me discern when I need to power through.  When I need to savor.  
It will be over before I know it.

My favorite boys on the big blue couch, 2013

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Melting Snow.

Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
— Thích Nhat Hanh

Last week was the first snow of the season here and the kids were beyond excited.  It was pretty enough that I think even most of us grown up folks were excited, too. . .there's nothing like that first snow clinging to the trees and making everything sparkle to brighten a dreary winter.  The boys couldn't WAIT to go sledding!  But school days and early darkness meant that the days of the week passed by and we still hadn't loaded everyone up in the car to make it to the big hill.

"Mommy, can you please, please take us sledding after school on Thursday?" Philip and Daniel begged me.  "We are big enough now you don't even have to worry about us.  You can just watch Noah and we'll take care of the rest.  Pleeeaasseee??!!!!"
The thought of taking all four of them sledding by myself was about to give me a panic attack, but one look at their hopeful little faces and I knew I had to say, "Yes."
"Oh, Mommy, YES!!  This is going to be awesome.  Pick us up from school.  We'll be car riders!  Can you come get us early?  How about right after PE.  We don't want to miss PE."
"Nice try, kids, but I don't think they are going to let me take my kids out of school and miss the NWEA test to go sledding.  HOWEVER, Noah and Josh and I will come get you right after school and go straight there, OK??!!"

And for the next day they planned and giggled and decided who was going to be on what sled and what kind of cool tricks they could do and all "Can we take the snowboard?" and "Don't forget to pack my warm gloves!"  I  looked at the weather forecast and it was supposed to warm up on Thursday, but the temperature looked like it was going to at least start cold and steadily increase during the day.  Eternally optimistic, I decided there was enough snow that even if it got warmer and started to melt, there'd still be enough left after school for at least a little bit of sledding.  It would be even warm enough we wouldn't even have to bundle too much!  Although I have a science degree and a little more than the basic awareness about the temperature at which phase changes occur, I'm not so easily constrained by things like reality in my daily living.

So, all day I prepped for our plan.  Noah and I went to Target to buy a 4th sled.  We even went to the sledding hill to test it out.  The snow was melting but there was still enough left on parts of the hill that we had some good runs.  We made snowballs and laughed and enjoyed our wintry fun.  But by the end of our time there we had to shed our coats.   It was getting downright warm, enough to send Frosty the Snowman into panic mode.  I looked at the sun beating down on the hill and listened to the sound of dripping water everywhere, did a little more math as to how much of this was going to melt before 4 pm and thought, "Oh, dear, this might not be good."
But, STILL ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC, I went through all of the motions. . .packed the bags with the snow gear, loaded the four sleds in the back of my van, tossed bananas and fruit snacks into my bag, buckled in the little brothers and headed off to school to pick the boys up.  The sun was smiling (a little cruelly, I might add) upon us as my van sloshed through melted puddles of snow all the way to school.

I found the boys chattering with one of their sweet former teachers.  "We're going sledding!!!!"
She looked at me quizzically.  "Here?" she said, "Or. . .are you driving someplace. . .far away!?!????"  
"Um, here." I said, now a little embarrassed that my lack of connection with reality was on display for all to see.  "We're just going to check it out and see what we can see!"
"Oh, well, have fun!" she smiled at me and gave me a worried look.   I gave her a confident thumbs up and headed out into the lovely 50 degree sunshine-y day to go sledding.
As the boys herded to the van they were still chattering away.  "You know," said Phil.  "The top of the sledding hill is at a higher altitude.  It might even be colder up there so there's more snow!"  
I giggled, enjoying his optimism, too.
"Hey, there's snow between those trees!" Daniel exclaimed, pointing at a hill covered with large trees, snow still filling their tangled roots.  "Although, we probably couldn't sled there.  That'd be kind of painful."
"We could sled on the grass, right, Mommy?  I mean, that would be fun??" said Josh.
"SLEEEDDDIIINNNGGGG!???!!!" Noah squealed as we turned the corner that headed towards the hill, his memories of just a few hours before getting him psyched for the adventure ahead.
"Guys, we're just going to check it out.  We'll give it our best shot, OK?" but at this point I was getting more than a little worried.
I turned into the drive and in front of us was a bare sledding hill.  The gate was closed and locked shut to block the parking lot, I am sure to deter optimistic/crazy folks like us from coming to sled on the soggy remains of snow.

In the back seat, Phil instantly burst into tears.  "We were car riders for THIS!!!?????!"  
Daniel and Josh looked forlorn. Noah, ever cheerful, started pointing out other patches of snow in neighboring yards, "We sled dere?  Nook, dere's some snow!"

I pulled out of the lot and out onto the main road.  I didn't really have a Plan B but it was time to come up with one on the fly.  "That's OK, kids, off to our next adventure!" And I steered the van towards a nearby park.  There was no sledding hill (or any large hill there, for that matter) but I remembered from when I used to take the boys there in their toddler days there was some shade and also lots of little hills.  Maybe there would be a scrap of snow left and a little bit of fun to be had.  As I navigated into the muddy parking lot, Phil's cries in the backseat got more desperate, "HERE!!!??  This is NOT what I had planned!!!"  Daniel told him to cut it out, and Phil reached across the seats between them and punched him in the chest.  A knock-down-drag-out-fight was about to take place in the 3rd row.  It was time to get out of the van- AND QUICK!!

"Guys, let's just see what we can see."
Noah was out of the van in a hot second, off to explore the playground with Josh right behind him.  Daniel looked at the (still crying) brother next to him, his two other brothers playing happily on the playground and said, "Hey, Mommy.  I think I'll take those snow pants now."

This left Phil and I in the van alone.  As we watched his brothers play, tears continued to streak down his face.  "Phil?" I asked him gently.  He crossed his arms, turned his head and made a tearful grunting sound.  

I was at a critical crossroads here.  There was a large part of me that wanted to be angry with him and tell him to get over himself, as the tears of an eight-year-old throwing what was by all appearances an epic temper tantrum are not my favorite sound.  But as I felt that agitated and frustrated feeling welling up inside of me, I decided to just pause and take a deep breath.  As I let him cry, I thought about the lesson that this might be trying to teach me.  How often do I cling to my own plans, and grumble and drag my feet when my day or my week (or my life) doesn't go the way I imagined it would?   It's certainly OK to be disappointed.  When things don't meet my expectations, how hard is it for me, even as an adult with YEARS of experience with things not going my way, to shift my mind into forward mode and release the vision I had in exchange for the reality of what is happening the present moment?  I needed to give Phil some grace, as there are many times I so desperately need it myself.

"Honey, have you ever hear of Plan A?"
"That's not even a word.  Have you HEARD OF PLAN A???"
"Again, a yes or no would work."
"OK, yes."
"And if I said, 'Life is all about Plan B, what do you think that would mean?"
"I don't know," Phil said, avoiding my eyes.
"It means, sometimes things don't go the way we planned.  But then we have to try and find a new plan. . .plan B!"
"OK, have you ever heard the phrase, 'Wherever you go there you are?"
"Again, merp is not a word.  So let me enlighten you.  It means you can't change the past, all you have is the present moment.  Where are you right now?"
"The playground"
"Riiiiggghhhhhhtt.  The sledding hill is closed, we're at the playground.  We can't go back and make the snow un-melt.  This is where we are."
"Alright, I've got another one for you.  Have you ever heard, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade?"
"Kind of."
"So, when things don't go your way, you just have to make the bet of it, sweetie.  I know, I'm disappointed, too.  I've been planning for this all day.  This is something I struggle with, too.  We just have to choose our attitude and make the most of it."

Later when I recounted the story to Paul he asked me if I could have possibly worked any more cliches into that conversation.  Maybe, maybe not.  But, I think it worked.  I shut off the van and left the door and trunk open, then I headed over to where Noah was playing.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil sneak out of the van.  He had pulled his boots on and was in the middle of the snow in the adjacent field making a snowball.

It wasn't long before he made his way over to the playground. 
In a few more minutes, he was back to the van for his hat and warm gloves.
And a few minutes later, returning for his snow pants.
And after about 10 minutes, he asked for a sled.
Then another.
And another.
And another.
And before I knew it, all four sleds were out of the van and four little boys were gleefully sledding down the tiniest hill imaginable, having the time of their lives.

In the van on the way home, Josh was overwhelmed with how things turned out.  "Mommy, I didn't think that was going to be fun but that was AWESOME!!"
"I agree, buddy!  
I agree."

I am realizing that there is so much beauty to be found in the "melting snows" of life.  The moments that don't go the way I planned can have a divine loveliness all their own. . .but the only way I am going to have eyes to see that beauty is if I release the vision in my head of what I thought it was going to be.  Once I let that picture go, I am free to live in the present moment.  "It is what it is" my Dad always says.  "Live in the now, man." in my best Garth Algar voice.  "Today is a gift- that's why it's called the present." (I had to work in JUST A FEW more cliches in case Paul reads this.)

It wasn't what we had planned.
But it was fun.
And it was beautiful.
An hour of sweet childhood, savored in the melting snow.