Humbled by the Holiday

That vacation Kicked. My. Butt.

We had a wonderful Christmas – 4 days filled with family get togethers and presents and laughter. It was all way more than I could have imagined or hoped for as we dove into the challenge of creating New Family holiday traditions. I’m so grateful.

But the vacation part? Exhausting. Eleven days of unstructured time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Asking “So what’s your plan for today?” and realizing that there is no plan, that it was my job to create a plan, that I’m now in charge of casting vision for four people’s 12-15 waking hours (and then synchronizing them) instead of just my own, and that I’m not great at this and thus started out each day WAY behind. Managing the 1500 times fear crashed into hope. Trying to direct everyone’s attention – particularly mine – back towards God, back towards this possibility of Good News, back towards the idea that Christmas break is about more than the schools saving a bit on the heating bill.

By Tuesday, I would have paid the heat bill for the entire District for my kids to have somewhere to go and something structured to do.

I’m praying that I’ll develop capacity for this. Capacity to plan, to enjoy. Capacity to deal with ALL THE WORDS, ALL DAY LONG. Seriously, I was fielding questions about everything from why green beans aren’t protein to why THIS DOG occasionally makes inappropriate gestures towards the furniture when she’s stressed. (But why is she stressed? they asked, to which it took every ounce of self-control I had not to say, “Because you’re bouncing and shouting and laughing and there’s a giant lit-up TREE in the living room and people have been in and out of the house all week and she’s HALF HOUND and hasn’t had a nap in six days!”)  The ups and downs of Cherubic questions and emotions and hopes and concerns came in 2 minute intervals.

Lesson learned: you cannot just Take things as they come on vacation with two kids. Because ALL THE THINGS COME, and they squeeze out the few good plans you had.

Please pray for Steve & me to become better planners. We are SO VERY Take things as they come. And we’re pretty happy not doing a lot of the things other people find exciting. This is not good with Cherubs.

We didn’t see Star Wars. We didn’t go to the paint-your-own-plate place to make a birthday present for Steve. We didn’t play any of the board games I got. Somehow, it just wasn’t possible. We had a GREAT Christmas filled with love. But the random days were just beyond us. Most of the time I was so far back on defense trying to respond to the happy/sad/glad/mad pop-ups, there was almost no time to get on offense, to direct the course of our day toward tangible things.

For example, I had a series of blog posts planned. I figured it would be easy to get some writing done because Steve was home all week, too.  But by 10am each morning, I’d used up all my words. I spent the greater part of each day in a word deficit, pulling sentences like, “Macaroni not lunch,” and “Table dirty sneakers yuck” out of the deep recesses of my soul. Even what I’m writing here are the leftover words from the things I couldn’t/shouldn’t/thank-God-didn’t say all week long.

Is this normal? Does anyone else feel this way?

Thank God we have close family and friends who ARE good at making plans. They rescued us this week. But still: I have two brothers I NEVER EVEN CALLED to say Merry Christmas. (Merry Christmas Chris & Eric! I love you!) I failed to acknowledge my parents’ wedding anniversary (Mom & Dad, you are astonishing. Congratulations!) It was all just beyond me.

Next year I’ll know. I’ll plan differently. (I’ll plan at all). It won’t be the first, so we’ll all have a bit more of a handle on how we do this week-off/holiday anticipation/Yeah it’s nice that it’s Jesus’ birthday and all but what I’m really thinking about is presents, thing.

Next year we will go on a trip somewhere. Because while the prospect of driving fourteen hours to swim in a random hotel pool somewhere near Toledo, spending the night, eating at Waffle House, and then driving fourteen hours home, sounds terrible in early October, on December 28th it sounds like a plan with a structure and A WAY TO FILL THREE DAYS.

Which is whys now, as I sip my first uninterrupted cup of coffee in eleven days, I’m staring down the barrel of February vacation (WHY? WHY?) and thinking, “Toledo, here we come!”

(“What did you do for your winter vacation, Kids?” “We saw seven states from the highway! Twice!”)

I know this isn’t unique to adoption. Some parents are adept at creating fun and structure from thin air. I am not. But in adoption, there’s an added layer of not quite knowing what fun looks like for your new family. Things you’re sure will be hits aren’t, while things that seem small to you are what the kids talk about over and over again. You can’t possibly anticipate how much of each day will be spent in basic emotional maintenance.

So if at this time next year YOU are a new parent to a child you’re adopting? Let me say HOORAY FOR YOU THAT IS AWESOME AND I’M SO PROUD OF YOU YOU ROCK!!! And then, “Cancel all your expectations for productivity during your first at-home vacation. Make a plan for every day and stick to it. And assume you’ll devote all your time and energy to helping your children navigate each two minute increment of time.”

It’s a costly investment. It’s totally worth it. I just wish I’d known in advance!

The kids are back in school today. Order has replaced chaos, Hallelujah! Life was good during this vacation – we are blessed. But as I mentioned last year, I like Ordinary Time, when it’s not a holiday or special occasion, the very best of all the seasons. That’s when I can see the extraordinary way God works. It feels good to be back to ordinary :)

If you want it, go after it

Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the first time Steve asked me out. This year is first time since then that I’ve remembered that particular date. I think it popped up because I’ve been thinking about this blog series on adopting from foster care, and what it takes to want and go after big things.

Perhaps the best thing about the way Steve asked me out and our “courtship” (I’m reclaiming that word from the Duggars) was that from the beginning, Steve was very clear with his intentions.

I’d prayed for this. I’d spent a year or so caught up in a swirl of not-quite-dating situations, and watched the same thing happen to others. It was like all the stakes felt so high and scary, no one was brave enough to admit that we wanted to find a wife or husband, and that the first step to that is to say, “Would you like to go out sometime?” in a way that makes it clear that this is a romantic overture, not just a chance to work at lowering your score at mini-golf.

It takes courage to take a clear first step, because it shows the world (or what feels like the world; usually it’s only a couple of people) that you want something.  As I prayed for a husband, I prayed that God would lead that guy to be really clear in his intentions toward me, and for our dating, engagement, and marriage to be free from equivocation and confusion.

And I prayed for what I really wanted: that the guy would pursue me – that he would do the asking out and the initiating. I knew that in days to come, when perhaps I might not feel all that lovely, it would help to know that my husband chose me voluntarily, rather than being caught in an awkward situation that somehow spiraled into a wedding just because I’m good at taking risks. I prayed for a husband who’d be braver and bolder than me. (This felt like one of the 995 ways God prompted me to narrow the pool of viable candidates into the equivalent of a bird-bath, even AFTER He moved me from the Bible Belt to New England and THEN said, “Pray for a husband who’s a Christian.” It was all just ridiculous. )

My experience of MAPP class felt like this same kind of risk: to show up on that first day was, in essence, a declaration: that we wanted to be parents, and we needed CFCS to help us find the right child/children. It was, in a way, like working with a matchmaker.

At some level, we could have “faux-dated” this process – when asked, we could have waxed poetic about the spiritual imperative we see in the Bible to care for orphans, and talked about how called we feel to help children in need. We could have tried to make it seem like we were noble and heroic, rather than wanting something and taking a risk to get it.

But that would have been a lie; an attempt to hide our vulnerability by approaching this as SAVIORS OF CHILDREN!!! rather than just everyday people who needed help creating a family.

That’s kind of the human way, trying to be saviors instead of people with wants we need help fulfilling. We lie because it is flat-out terrifying to admit that we want something big, even if that big thing is good. (A corollary to this is our tendency to talk endlessly about what we want but never take the steps to go after it because we’re so afraid it won’t work out.)

It’s also hard to go after big things. But we were made for hard. We’re good at it. The Bible isn’t a collection of stories of men and women basking in nirvana. A man and a woman screwed up nirvana after about 14 minutes, and now our story is of navigating a life filled with hard challenges. As we take on these challenges, though, we find ourselves closer to nirvana – God’s heavenly Kingdom, here on earth. It’s complicated. There are some serious ups and downs on that ride. But it’s worth it, and ultimately so much more satisfying than living without things that feel essential while pretending to be fine with the status quo.

I saw this expressed in a quote somewhere online last week, something about how the happiness we crave is found through self-sacrifice, not self-expression. I just stared at the screen wishing I could underline or highlight, thinking, “It’s is so TRUE!”

Twelve years ago, it might not have worked out between Steve & me. His asking me out was only a first step. I could have said no. Or we might not have been compatible, and wow, that would have been crushing. But we’d be better off for trying. There’s a lot to be said for knowing you tried. In the same way,  MAPP class might not have worked out for us. That would have been disappointing. But we’d be better off for having gone for it than being left wondering.

There’s an expression you hear a lot in sports, about leaving it all out on the field. It means going after every play like it’s the most important one, not holding anything back. I think it’s a moderately helpful metaphor for life, because unlike a game that has a defined timeframe, life goes on until we die and we don’t usually know when that will happen; we need times of going for it and times of rest. But I do think that the idea of recognizing what we want and then REALLY going for it – through prayer, preparation, and clear steps forward/showing up ready to play – is so valuable. Over the course of my life, I want to leave it all out on the field.

This week, if you see a door open for something you know you want, step through it. If you don’t yet see a door, pray for one to open, and for God to light it up such that you can’t help but recognize the invitation.

The Kingdom of God is at hand

Let me interrupt our adoption narrative for a check-in with present reality. When reading stories about justice, redemption, people helping people and good things coming out of bad, it’s easy to get romantic about it and imagine that things are PERFECT.

By PERFECT, I mean that as you read, you are quite certain that none of these rescued, redeemed, living-the-miracle people ever drop a rejected dinner casserole into the trash uneaten, or iron a dirty shirt because they forgot to do laundry, or look at the ring of grossness around the drain in the bathroom sink and think, I can’t even imagine when that’s going to get cleaned…

I haven’t done these particular things THIS week (although wow our bathroom sink is gross). But a scenario unfolded this morning that might be a necessary corrective to the idea that we just sit around with the Cherubs endlessly thanking each other for our sacrificial wonderfulness. We are four real people, living a real life. And today, real = smelly.

I was in #1 Cherub’s room to get the dog and I noticed an ODOR coming from his dresser. It wasn’t a blast of smell, like when you pass a skunk. It was more of a slow, growing pungency that made me wonder, Is he keeping a rodent in there? I opened the top drawer slowly, but the only fur I saw is the fluff shed by THIS DOG. There was a lot of it there because it was stuck to ALL THE WORN, DIRTY SOCKS IN THE WORLD.  I opened the second drawer, where I discovered every outfit he wore in the month of October, mashed into wads. The next drawer appeared to be September’s wardrobe, clothes I’d forgotten he owned.

Sure, I guess I’ve noticed that he’s been wearing the same few things for about two weeks now, but I thought this was preference, not necessity. UGH was I wrong. (THANK YOU JESUS, I issued a 7 days/7 pairs rule a few months back for how much underwear I expect to see each week in the wash. But WHY has it never occurred to me to issue a similar edict for all the other clothes???)

FullSizeRenderI pulled out every dirty item. The pile is literally up to my knees. #1 is small for his age, still pre-growth spurt, and so these are not big clothes. There are just A LOT of them. And they ALL SMELL LIKE RODENT.

I can’t stop laughing. I have no idea why. This just strikes me as hilarious. I want to shellac this pile of abandoned clothes & dog fur and call it “Teen Boy: A Tribute.” I’ve been to the Institute of Contemporary Art (or as The Cherubs call it, “the place with porn books in the gift shop”) An installation like this could send a cherub to college! Or at least provide a fun conversation starter the first time he brings home a special girl :)

In my better moments (and today seems to be one of them) my lens on life is a comment Jesus made to his friends: The Kingdom of God is at hand. God’s Kingdom = heaven, and Jesus told us to pray for things here on earth to be like they are up there. When we do good things that are hard – when we love people, when we’re generous, when we choose peace instead of fighting, or praise instead of cynicism, when we’re doing Kingdom work and all we see is hell on earth (or smell on earth, as the case may be…) we’re still moving the line for God’s Kingdom. We trust what we know more than what we see, and in doing so, somehow we see more of what we know.

I’m doing this now, as I find myself laughing rather than trying to dream up a strategy that will make me the first Mom in history to get her teen boy to care about clean clothes. As they say in all the adoption/raising teens books: Pick your battles carefully. Win the ones you pick. 

The Kingdom of God is that I have THIS wonderful, smart, funny, loving, smelly boy living in my house. The evidence of God’s love for me is that I am the parent, which means when he gets home from school I can pick a winnable battle: He will pick up all that smelly grossness and transport it to the laundry room, or nothing good will ever happen again in life. (Which in teen boy terms means, no Wii).  The fruit of all of this will be, I think, that both he and his sister will see that they can screw up, be held accountable, and yet still through it all be totally loved.

The Kingdom of God is at hand. It’s a Holy mess. But I’ll take it.

Life After a Big Fail

Cherub #2 looks a lot like Serena Williams. I suspect it will be a viable Halloween costume  for her for years to come. For that and a whole bunch of other reasons (the primary one being that Serena’s tennis is awesome), both Cherubs cheer for her now that they’ve discovered that I’m  obsessed with the four Grand Slam events and that we watch A LOT of tennis when they’re on.

Last month, as we watched the U.S. Open, they didn’t entirely understand the magnitude of Serena’s quest to win all four majors in a single season. They just knew that she almost always finds a way to win, even when things look really unlikely, and so during each of her matches, they’re going to hear at least one infomercial from me about the cool qualities of resilience and not giving up.  (They take these in stride and mostly manage not to roll their eyes).

They were surprised, along with the rest of us, when Serena unexpectedly lost her bid for glory in a match where the odds were something like 280/1 in her favor.

I thought they’d be devastated, but they weren’t. They were sad for her for approximately 15 seconds. Then they asked, “So when’s the next big tournament?”  “January,” I replied. “Oh good,” they said. “She’ll have a chance to rest before she gets back to winning.”

I. LOVED. THIS.  Infomercials PAYING OFF!!!

(Okay, truthfully, I can’t take credit for this; most of their resilience came factory-installed.)

Now, here’s my dilemma: I know that there’s a great lesson here about the importance of how we manage ourselves in the weeks and months BETWEEN epic loss and getting back to winning. I’m writing this to try and figure out what that is.

Yesterday, Serena announced that she’s pulling out of the rest of the season. I totally get this.  I’m 100% for taking a chunk of time to regroup after a big life disappointment.  I don’t even think you need to have some grand plan for your comeback while you’re mourning. Because you’re mourning, which by definition means you’re a terrible planner. But it’s helpful to assume that at some point, you will come back; that a day will come when you’ll be ready to face the world again, even if right now you can’t imagine how you’ll get there.

I’ve lived this again and again, and it surprises me every time.

– It happened when I failed at my first marriage. Even though I insisted outwardly that I’d never get married again, I knew in my heart that I wanted a second chance.

– It happened with my writing, when I abandoned the manuscript I’d lovingly worked on for years because I was pretty sure that following Jesus and being a New Age author were mutually exclusive options.  I still hoped I’d publish a book someday.

– It happened with rescuing kids from foster care. We gave it everything we had with Princess Peach, to no avail. But eventually (after months of mourning and healing) we circled back when we felt like God nudged us. There’s a set of siblings out there, He said. Go love them. So we did.

The successes don’t negate the pain of the failures. But noting this pattern – one only visible over a long time – has helped keep me in the present instead of the past. It’s given me a reason to be curious about the future (even if it’s only a sarcastic, cynical sort of curiosity in which I’m certain that my primary role on the planet is as an example to others of how badly things can go. At least I can succeed at that! I say. Note: you have to be really careful during these seasons if you have an Irish sense of humor).

It’s horrible to fail. We try to downplay this as a culture, tossing around sayings like “Fail fast, recover fast, learn fast, fail again fast…” (I’m mangling that motto, but it’s something like that), as if our failures are just part of the process, no big deal. Which is true if you’re a robot, or a computer, or deeply emotionally deficient. But if you’re not a machine or a sociopath, you’re going to need time to recover. As a former mentor of mine used to say, “The worst feeling in the world isn’t saying, ‘Wow, I blew it.’ It’s saying ‘Wow, I blew it AGAIN.'”

I guess this is what I want to tell the Cherubs: I haven’t orchestrated any of my second chances. Neither have you, nor will Serena.  There’s a limit to how much we control what comes our way in life. But the one thing we can control is to refuse to let our failure define what we’ll try in the future. We may have long nights of wailing and railing at God for letting so much heartbreak happen. But even as we wail and rail, we can hope for some new chance to try. And when we try again, sometimes we’ll fail. Again. But we’ll fail differently. And each new failure will, God willing, be bolstered by an assortment of wonderful wins. Over a lifetime, I think it balances out.

On Being Gangster

“I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

It seems like life this week is all about me being busted. Yesterday it was The Cherubs & my lack of grammar knowledge. This morning it’s the 101 ways I’ve forgotten to be (in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) gangster.

It’s not so much a fear of not being taken seriously as an artist that gets me, because I’ve never  felt like an artist to begin with. I’m too…straightforward, perhaps. I file my taxes and show up places on time, and I have (in the words of Hermione Granger) the emotional range of a teaspoon. So the title “artist” has never fit.

But two other fears police my gangsterness, wrecking my ability to enjoy work: Fear of not being taken seriously as an author, and fear of not making life with Jesus look as…well, gangster as it is. Those run deep. They’ve grown an extravagant root system down into my psyche, keeping me numb & paralyzed.

The author fear insists that I have to at least pretend to be slaving away at some work in progress at all times. Even if it’s not going well. Even if I hate every word I write, even if my paragraphs don’t make sense. (Not in an overly self-critical way, but in an honest, “Wow, this is absolute nonsense” way that we artists like to pretend isn’t possible but totally is.)  This fear insists that if I don’t finish my long-suffering novel, or my stagnant book on praying for a husband, EVERYONE WILL HATE ME, AND I WILL HAVE FAILED AT LIFE. (Really, it says this. As if anyone will even care, let alone work up the energy to be pissed off about it.) And because I believe this fear time and time again, about once every other week I dutifully open those pitiful documents, toss in a few more words, then I give up and close my laptop, feeling like even more of a failure.

It’s awesome.

The fear of not being a good Public Christian is more insidious, because it has me coming and going. It suggests that I must produce multitudinous amounts of prose on living the excellent,  abundant (sometimes excruciating, but let’s not dwell too long on that whole “death before new life” thing) Jesus-ey existence, while distancing myself from the entirety of American Christian Culture and the multitudinous amounts of prose it produces that make people want to gag. The Bible says to “be in them not of them,” and too often for me this means striving to be among Christians (I mean, they’re my people) but really not at all like them. Nope. Way cooler, more laid back, not one little bit judgmental or frustrating, not wearing homemade dresses. (At least this last part is easy.)

All of this inner turmoil has been my normal for so long now, I can’t remember ever not feeling this way.

Then this weekend, Elizabeth Gilbert skipped through my world with her new book. I picked it up because I like her writing (I mean, she held my attention through a 600 page novel about a  COLLECTING MOSS. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is). Most writing/creativity books say the same things – work every day, don’t judge your early drafts, persevere. I didn’t expect much new substance, just a pleasant delivery.

I was surprised.

First, let me say that her spiritual perspective is flat-out BANANAGRAMS. She believes that ideas are sentient beings waiting to be embodied, and that they fly around between us, searching for a home. (In my faith we call those things demons, but whatever.) I skimmed those pages.

What blew me out of the water was her her insistence that writing is fun. It’s this awesome thing we GET to do, and so we should do it all the time, with great delight. There should be GLEE. She insists that it’s totally worth it to sacrifice our serious reputations to regain some joy in putting words on the page and creating new worlds. We should write all sorts of silly things: novels and songs and blog posts and essays – whatever floats our boat. Find some other way to pay the bills, she says. I felt like a 10,000 lb. weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was invited back into the life I lived before I became a Professional Christian Author (and stopped writing books because of the ridiculousness of trying to wrestle myself into such an ill-fitting garment.)

Throughout BIG MAGIC, I kept thinking, Here is a woman who spent YEARS with an imaginary character whose primary passion was collecting moss, just because it was fun. What must it feel like to feel that excited about a project everyone else thinks is insane? (Because I’ll admit, when the advance press about that novel came out, I was sure she’d gone well and truly round the bend.)

But the truth is, I know what that’s like. It’s how I wrote my first book.  And now, all these years later, Elizabeth Gilbert has challenged me to find that gangster place again.

Shalom Shattered

Last night I was going through documents on my computer, trying to bring order to the chaos.  I found notes from a talk I gave a couple of years ago at a women’s retreat in Maryland, called “Shalom Shattered.” It stuck with me, especially after reading Sarah Bessey’s blog yesterday about how reluctant we are to admit (let alone deal with) trauma.

***

The retreat coordinator had asked me to talk about my experiences with faith & friendship. in the first session, I’d shared about the first time I’d tiptoed, terrified but intrigued, into a CHRISTIAN church (I thought of that word in all caps back then, so strange was it to me) after years of running my life via astrology, feng shui, and whatever new spiritual ideas I found in the New Age aisle at Barnes & Noble. I told them about the friends I made at that church, and how well they’d loved me even when I was a complete pain in the ass, and how they’d stuck around during the extensive, messy process of Jesus sorting me out. I love telling that story, because it illustrates so clearly how God puts people up around us like protective bumpers to keep life from crushing us as we’re being transformed.

But to keep things honest, I knew I ALSO had to tell these young, eager, tattooed hipster Jesus-loving girls the rest of the story. How, like any writer knows, the key point in any plot outline is Shalom Shattered, the moment when your perfect world is blown to smithereens.

That was talk #2.

In an effort to keep things light, I illustrated my story by asking for volunteers to come up front and be passengers in an imaginary boat. I lined them up with signs that designated different leaders from that same church that had been so central in my life, and then described the ways they’d fallen (or jumped, or sometimes pushed others) out of the boat. I described how the rest of us, flabbergasted by this turn of events, had turned on each other with accusations, how thick layers of mistrust settled in.  I described the sadness of watching that beloved boat sink, and the frustration of knowing we couldn’t ever go back there, because there was no there to go back to.

Thankfully, by this time I had a couple of years between me and these events, so I had some hope to share. Because one of the things I learned during that season was this: Just because we look around and think, All hope is lost, doesn’t mean that God agrees.

Around that time, I read this Proverb I’d never noticed before that says, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desires will be granted.” (Proverbs 10:24)

It prompted me to ask: How much of my thought life was now devoted to dread? (A lot.) What did I desire? (I had no idea.) It felt like I’d witnessed a huge collision between good and evil, and I had a choice to make about what I’d look at and for.

-If I chose to look at blank spot on the water where the boat used to be, it was easy to believe that the disappointment, pain and heartbreak would keep accumulating; that loss was our new normal. This was so easy to imagine.

-But if I chose to look at God, He hinted that something better was possible.

I wanted to focus on God. But it was hard.  I was so clear on my dread, and it was so easy to replay all the things that had been said about me (or even right to me) as these friendships blew up: That I was uppity, too full of myself, bossy, flighty, lazy, too big for my britches, rebellious, attention grabbing, too guarded, and even dishonest.  I was terrified that those angry, hurt, scared former friends might be right. What if I was all those terrible things, and I just didn’t see it?

And yet bumping up against this litany of accusation was the voice of one wise new friend (who’d been through something similar about a decade earlier). He’d asked me, “How can you ever prove that you’re NOT something? All we can do is show who we ARE.”

He was so right.

This left me with a new struggle: who was I without my church, without my friends? Who did God want me to be? At a basic level, If I wanted to exchange my dread for desire, that meant I had to desire something.

You’d think this would have been easy, but it wasn’t. My dread felt safe, familiar, and even responsible. It felt like the smart thing to do was to focus on those accusations and somehow remake myself into someone BETTER. (By which I meant someone to whom this awful, painful process could never happen again).

But every single plan I’ve ever had to remake myself has failed. Every. Single. Plan.

I sat there, caught between handing off my dread and having nothing to grab in its place. And as I sat, God quietly planted seeds of desire in me, seeds I knew nothing about until they started popping up like little blades of grass. They were pretty pedestrian, truth be told:

-I wanted to live in a suburb, not in the city.

-I wanted a family.

-I wanted real friends.

-I wanted my life to have purpose. (I kept trying to yank this last seed out of the ground, because wasn’t it PROOF that I was full of myself and attention grabbing? But God kept pushing it down deeper in the dirt, away from my grubby hands.)

I didn’t even water theses seeds. I was sure they’d die. I couldn’t let myself get attached. It was too scary to REALLY want, so I just sort of shoved these wants off in their own corner, like someone else’s groceries being stored in my fridge for a few days.

But despite my neglect (or perhaps because of it) these seeds shot up through the ground. They were surprisingly sturdy. They had buds on them, and signs of sweet fruit. Where there was nothing, God planted new somethings. It was a thing to behold, and I can’t take credit for any of it, because I was just sitting there trying not to be a terrible person.

After sharing all this, I invited the retreat women into an exercise, asking each of them to write down a dread they wanted to trade in.  Then we crumpled up our dread, gave it to Jesus, and asked Him to give us desire, instead.

The results of this talk were mixed, truth be told. At first, there were tears of hope and joy as women filed forward, paper in hand, crumpling up their fears at the foot of the giant cross (placed next to a giant buffalo head) at the front of the room. Throughout that day, so many of those woman took me aside to share desires God had whispered to them, asking me to believe with them that they might be real.

But the next week when I got home, I received a message from the pastor’s wife. She expressed concern for my plight, and suggested I join a church she’d found online that was an hour away, because all believers really should be in a church.

***

Looking back on this retreat experience two years later, I see how most things are like this, actually: The results are mixed, we don’t get to know the full story, and we have to believe way out beyond what we can see, trusting that if God tells us to do something, that means something, and it will amount to something that matters.

I wish we got to see more. I wish the seeds of my current life hadn’t been planted in scorched earth. I wish I could have hopped into my car, driven to that church an hour away, and replaced all those lost friendship with a smile and a prayer.

But that’s not how life (or God) works. Loss leads to new life. But it’s still loss. That’s okay. In heaven, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, of the old order of things will have passed away.  But for now, we’re here. We dry our tears, choose where to look (at what we dread or for God’s desire) and head out into each new day the best we can, looking for signs of heaven here on earth.

I’ve found that it’s worth the effort.

My attempts at Effortful Growth

I’m listening to a series of talks right now on “Effortful Growth.” It’s by my friend Jordan, and he’s arguing (in a nutshell) that we need to put some elbow grease into life if we want to be fruitful. Healthy things grow, as the saying goes, so we should want to do that.

I’m in what you’d call a high-effort, high-growth season. Holy guacamole it’s intense. I spend part of every day dizzy from how fast this new life spins. The thing is, though, the challenges aren’t the things you might expect.

You’d think I’d be growing in, um, SUDDEN PARENTING SKILLS, right?  But nope. To be honest, I run that part of life mostly on instinct. Sure, I read approximately 1,000 parenting/adoption books before The Cherubs arrived. And I have good parents, which helps a lot. (Although sadly, I can’t always rely on “What would Mom & Dad do?” for answers, because there’s just no way to replicate the sheer volume of laughter that would have ensued had I ever asked them to buy me a $300 electronic device that would allow me to communicate 24/7 with the rest of the world while ignoring their request that I clean my room.) But between memory & a few helpful conversations with friends, I’m staying pretty well afloat here.

Instead, my major area of effort and growth (or, more honestly described, WHAT BAFFLES ME EVERY SINGLE DAY) is one thing: FOOD.

The Cherubs want three meals, every single day! Stranger still, they want those meals to include different foods. Those of you who’ve followed my story know that I could live happily forever on baloney sandwiches & cheez-its, and that it took me the first TEN YEARS of married life to remember, on a consistent basis, to thaw some sort of protein in the morning so Steve or I can cook it in the late afternoon. Sure, we might have six nights of chicken followed by one night of steak tips (all served with a seemingly endless side of rice), but I made the effort, we were fed, and thus I got to put a little check on my (imaginary) Personal Growth glitter chart.

The Cherubs are not AT ALL impressed with my newly honed defrosting aptitude. They BALKED at the chicken/chicken/chicken/chicken/chicken/chicken/steak routine. And while they’ve been remarkably open to trying new foods (and gracious in admitting that the taste buds they arrived with craved mostly chemical food products and high fructose corn syrup) they have no idea how rarely the worlds of “New Foods” and “Our New Mom” have intersected.

But God help me, I am trying. I’ve made delicious pot roast and disgusting chicken wings. We eat all kinds of things with tomato sauce (which I loathe) and our refrigerator door is filled with all manner of condiments, because to The Cherubs, happiness = flavor.  This has probably been the most difficult part of adoption for me, this making of food I don’t want to eat. But one of the things I’ve learned (or confirmed – I always sort of suspected) is that food isn’t a purveyor of comfort to me. I’m so grateful to be well fed and to be able to feed my family. But baloney or boeuf bourguignon? It really doesn’t matter. So I’m making effort, trusting that for these young lives in which food does sometimes bring comfort, my growth will produce good things for all of us.

I failed to fail (it’s not the easiest thing to do)

images-1I am on a fitness plan. It’s been two weeks. I did not undertake this on my own, you should know. This is my friend Spanish Girl’s fault. Her gym ran a promotional where members bring in a friend and you compete for 21 days as a team against other member/guest pairs. Whoever loses the highest % body weight wins a small tablet named after eyeballs & fruit. (Spanish Girl‘s husband saw my prior post about fat jeans & chickens and suggested I might be up for this sort of project.)

Now I live a life filled with tension.

On the one hand, I am veeeeeery competitive. I want to win that prize.

On the other, I MISS my sedentary lifestyle. I miss wine and carbs and being able to declare “pasta night!” when I forget to thaw a protein. I miss walking THIS DOG an extra block or two and thinking of myself as deeply devoted to health & fitness.

This was exacerbated the other day when I overheard our trainer talking about how her legs hurt after her workout. That’s when it hit me: This isn’t just for three weeks…this is forever. I’m supposed to do this exercise/eat good food thing for the REST OF MY LIFE.

You’d think I’d have enough perspective on this to appreciate that at 45, I’m at least halfway through this onerous task, whereas that poor trainer girl is in her early 20s and has no real end in sight.

You’d be wrong about that perspective thing. I had none.

Instead, I had a bit of an interior tantrum in response to this late-breaking realization.  Yesterday was a blah day of grumpiness brought on by gray weather and reading yucky things online, so I decided that I was TIRED of being healthy and I was going to binge on delicious junk food. I envisioned bags full of Snickers bars, and me chomping them down one after another with unfettered glee. I was ready to rebel, I tell you.

I was so caught up in this fantasy that I went to our cupboard looking for a bag of Snickers. Not only do we not have Snickers bars, we don’t have a single item of chocolate anywhere in our house. We have NOTHING binge worthy, it turns out. It was pitiful.

I enacted my rebellion by stirring some Pollaner All-Fruit into nonfat Greek Yogurt.

Sigh.

In our high school yearbook, one of the most popular quotes we wise students listed under our pictures to define ourselves was this: “We never failed to fail–it was the easiest thing to do.” It’s from this song by Crosby, Stills & Nash (which you should watch and learn and internalize, because it is just so musically and lyrically incredible).  I thought of this yesterday, and it made me laugh. I failed to fail!  Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks :)

I guess I’ll soldier on. I’ve got eyeball fruit to win.

Fat Jeans & Chickens

UnknownToday started out crappy.

I pulled out my cool-weather clothing to greet this lovely September morn, selected an outfit, and learned that my body has…ahem…changed since I put these clothes away back in the Spring.  Let’s just say that all those times I prayed that Prayer of Jabez – Lord, bless me indeed! Expand my territory! – I should have been waaaaay more specific.

So instead of writing the funny, poignant Epilogue for my current book project (it would have been spectacular, I tell you) I spent this morning shopping for pants.

This was not fun.

Here is what I learned: Pants in my current size are not cute. They should never include the word “skinny” regardless of the current trend. The term “flattering” isn’t even in play here. What we’re shooting for is “not disastrous.” It’s just a couple yards of fabric, miles of stitches, and unfortunate pocket placement…and so much that can go wrong.

I laid one pair on the floor of the dressing room and they were almost as wide as they were long. Not exactly the kind of look the kids are “Pin-ing” these days.

This is what my new jeans look like. Am now wondering if they were shipped from Oregon?

This is what my new jeans look like. Am now wondering if they were shipped from Oregon?pair on the floor of the dressing room and they were almost SQUARE – as wide as they were long. Not exactly the kind of look

 

 

Growing up, my sister & I used to tease our Dad about the his jeans–he’s tall, but has short legs, and his jeans were quite square. I thought of Dad today, and how of all of the scenarios I’ve imagined of what I’ll look like as I age, inheriting his figure is not one of them.

I came home with my new square pants, choosing to believe their claim that they will draw the eye away from the entire lower half of my body. That’s asking a lot of pants, but why not believe? I guess I’m hoping that if I wear bright lipstick, I’ll just float apparition-like through the world with no one even noticing how sturdy I’ve become.

I was exhausted by this, and annoyed with myself for letting it bother me so much. I mean, WHO CARES?

519Uf0MHuaL._SL500__SR290,237__My day was rescued by my friend Gretchen. She sent me a link to a craft project (I think it’s called a sampler?) where you cross stitch a whole bunch of chickens, complete with lyrics to a chicken song.  I think she meant it as a joke. I laughed, then read the lyrics. Then I ABSOLUTELY WANTED this poultry-themed cross stitch project, even though I’m afraid of birds and I’ve never stitched a cross. You see, the chicken song was one my mom used to sing to us when we were babies. It’s something about telling the chicken, Oh I haven’t had an egg since Easter, and now it’s half-past three! Nonsense lyrics. I can hear my mom singing this over and over to us, and to every baby cousin who has ever landed in her lap. It’s a great song.

Gretchen found me the link to order it and everything. She was just so sweet. And I was reminded that life is both/and. It’s both square pants AND the chicken song. Both the realization that I’m chubby AND that I’m blessed with friends with a great sense of humor (and who claim to like me even upon learning that I’d want the chicken cross-stitch kit they thought was a joke).

I opened Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow, and realized today encompassed all three of these prayers.

That’s a pretty good day.

A Book Reviewer’s Manifesto

I cannot post another crappy book review about another crappy Christian book! I simply. Can. Not.  I hit the wall last night as I read the first six chapters of a book I’d agreed to look at. It’s about decisions. I thought it would be a faith-based take on this fantastic book by Chip and Dan Heath.  It’s not. It’s the sad neglected stepchild of this fantastic book by Chip and Dan Heath. Here at the covers:

photo copy 2

Inside it gets worse. Chip and Dan Heath did extensive research on the different decision making styles and how they’ve played out in case studies around the world. This other author had some chats with his wife and a few of his twenty-something friends and decided to share his thoughts with the rest of us. AGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH.

I hate giving negative reviews. When I started recommending books on the blog, I just didn’t mention the books I didn’t like. There were one or two cases where I longed to post a snarky take down of some book that bugged me, but I resisted the urge in favor of my overriding policy that when I don’t have something nice to say about someone else’s book, I say nothing at all.  (And yes, this is largely because I realize that many gracious readers have extended this same courtesy to me.)

Then came this blog program run by one certain publisher.  They offered advance reader copies of forthcoming books in imagesexchange for reviews on blogs & bookseller sites. I’d enjoyed a few of their books in the past even though much of their list was not up my alley, so I signed up. It was all great, until I realized the corner I’d painted myself into: If I accepted one of their books, I HAD to post a review. Even if it was scathing. Even if the book made me want to scream. Even if I was tempted to call the author and say, “Were you offered editorial assistance on this project? If so, WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE IT?”  I tried to work around this problem by being more selective about the books I’d ask to review, only to discover if I didn’t do a certain number of reviews per quarter, they deactivated my account. But because I was afraid of missing out on a really great book, I kept requesting mediocre ones. The result has been a slew of short blurby blog posts about books I hated.

I am sorry. I failed you. Please forgive me.  Fear of missing out is a stupid reason to engage in bad behavior.

There is something inside me that gets SO excited at the prospect of reading a book before it’s available to the rest of the world. It’s like Christmas to me.  One of my favorite games as a child was “Library,” where my sister and I would set up books all over our room, complete with little check-out cards in the back. We’d spend hours setting this up, and then invite our mom in to browse and make some selections.  Circulation was low, but we were enthusiastic! I think this reviewing thing has tapped into that part of me. I love reading books, talking about them, recommending them to friends. I am that person publishers are looking for who want to connect books to new readers.  But I can’t be that person if my blog is clogged with half-hearted passive-agressive reviews of books that could have been great if they’d had another year or so to develop and be edited.

Here’s my new pledge to you:

I’m signing out of this “mandatory review” blogger program.

I’ll continue to review books I get from other venues (there are some good ones out there that trust bloggers to use their discretion and direct their energies to promoting books they really love), as well as my town library and the bookstore.  If I wouldn’t hand you a copy in person, I won’t bother you with a review online.

On a LIGHTER NOTE, I’ve been looking over the books I got at last year’s NEIBA conference. Some of my favorite books that led to some great reviews and recommendations.  This year’s event is next month, and each year I try to evaluate which books I didn’t read to try and avoid picking up similar ones this year.  As I looked at these three untouched titles, I see a theme:

photo copy 3

Can you say, Year of No Motivation???  it makes me laugh, just looking at them. In this case, I want to call the authors and say, “It’s not you…it’s me…”  I’ve promised myself that this year, no more motivational titles until I’ve read these three and am focused, moving and sleeping, and winning from within :)