“Mom, what makes me special?”

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#2 Cherub came home from her first day of 7th grade yesterday and asked, “What makes me special?” I thought this might be a preface to her upcoming birthday, but it was homework, a getting-to-know-you worksheet from one of her teachers.  (The worksheet also required her to calculate how many days she’s been alive. As she scribbled the numbers out on a piece of scrap paper, I resisted the urge to say, “Sweetie, what makes you special is that you’re doing that math by hand right now rather than grabbing a calculator…”)

These sort of worksheets are a minefield for kids with unorthodox histories. For example, another question asked “Are you the oldest, middle, or youngest child in your family?” #2 is the youngest in our household, but has two younger brothers who live elsewhere. Trying to help, I asked, “Which feels more true for you in your daily life – that you’re the youngest or in the middle?” to which she replied with a smile, “I always feel like the oldest, but we won’t go there…”

Hilarious. And true.

Another worksheet asked her to create a timeline of important events in the life of one of her parents (“or someone important in your life”) in the 5 years before her birth. I was like, “Well, I fled from an abusive marriage, worked for a new age guru, and lived under an assumed name…” !?!?!?! Lord have mercy if this little timeline project ever became something she had to stand up and explain to the class.  Ultimately, we used meaningless neutral statements such as, “In 2001, my mom moved back to New England…”

Then she faced the same question about herself – what were the important events in her life? I was like, “Oh honey, you should THROW DOWN on this one. You list the things you’ve been through and YOU WIN this little timeline contest.” I was a bit salty at this point. We’re in the FIRST DAY of school. It’s a little early for this level of parsing to be required.

THIS DOG needed a walk, so I said that I’d think about all these questions as I looped the block. But the answer was clear: the most special thing about my kids is the lives they’ve lived in the midst of their complicated timelines. The amount they’ve overcome is staggering.

I want her teachers to know this about her. That while she has the ability to blend in, and pretend that the most special thing about her is her artistic skill or her beautiful singing voice, undergirding all of that is the truth that this kid is tough as nails.

The Cherubs have the capacity to to appear completely normal. Which is their dream in life right now. Of course, the thing messing up their plan is that when people see Steve & me, the jig is up; it’s apparent that they’re adopted. In this way, Steve & I are a burden to our children, as well as a blessing. That’s hard for them…and for us.

But when I read something like this, from Hope Heals author Katherine Wolf, I wonder if it might all be part of the plan:

“Maybe in our limitations those we love can find a new way to flourish, not in spite of their constraints but because of them. And their imaginations get baptized into a new way of seeing themselves, and the world, and us. And maybe ours can, too. And in the places where there are scars and losses and holes from what used to be, something new and wonderful can start to grow…”

Ultimately, #2 opted for privacy. Her timeline lists things like, “In 2015 I got my first dog!” I don’t blame her. Bergie is a pretty fantastic addition to any timeline she lumbers through. But it’s all another reminder that our story is different, and doesn’t lend itself to easy explanations. Which is hard at any age, but doubly so when you’re a teen.

I appreciate this Modern Love piece by Tova Mirvis. It’s about helping her son navigate her divorce, and the reality that while his father still practices Orthodox Judaism, she no longer does. At one poignant moment, when her son asks her if she’ll love him if he makes different choices than hers down the road, she says, “You don’t have to match the people you love…”

I feel like that’s the banner over our family. We don’t match on the outside. Our timelines aren’t one single line, but four wild zigging zagging scribbles that intersected and began to zig and zag together. But as the weeks and months and years go by, we match more and more on the inside. We’re on a path together. People can’t see it, but it’s there, and I trust it.  And I’m learning to live into the truth that what makes you special isn’t something you can sum up on a seventh grade worksheet.

 

 

Laughing & Crying

I didn’t realize how schizophrenic my weekend was until I sat down to write this post.

First, the funny part:

Have you guys noticed that the way clothes look on Pinterest & style cards isn’t AT ALL how they look on a live body? I think this is a metaphor for EVERYTHING.

This weekend, Steve & I both had boxes arrive from Stitch Fix. I am incredibly in love with this service, ever since they sent me a pair of jeans that fit right out of the box. My round #2 came at the same time Steve got round #1. The results were…mixed.

Here is Steve’s face when he opened his box:

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I laughed so hard I hiccuped. You can’t really tell from the picture, but that plaid shirt looked like it had been made from men’s swim trunks as part of a Project Runway challenge. The look is best described as metrosexual surfer. It even had those loop things on the sleeve with the button!

If you have met Steve, you know that there is no way he would ever wear something like that. The man is a hockey goalie. He buys his clothes at Timberland, NorthFace & L.L. Bean. Next he pulled some grey Sperry-type boat sneakers from the bag and I had to gasp to get enough air.  He tried it all on under protest. The Cherubs were speechless.

We looked at the little style card they sent with the packages and realized something: There is a GARGANTUAN GAP between how things look in 2D, set out flat on a style card with coordinating pieces, and how they look in 3D, on a living person.
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(I’m sad to report that Steve would not let me take a picture of him wearing these items. This shows once again that he is wiser than me.)

Here’s the thing: If you’d shown me this card in advance, I’d have said, “That looks great – he’ll love it!” (Provided I didn’t notice the little sleeve loops). But there’s this collision that happens when we try to transition things from 2D to 3D. Not everything survives the trip.

Honestly, I cannot stop drawing deep metaphors from this experience.

***

Yesterday, I gave a Palm Sunday sermon inspired in part by this Stitch Fix experience. I talked about how disappointing it is when something you hope might be the answer to your prayers comes within reach…and then turns out to be not at all what you expected.

At least 5 people in our congregation have asked us recently some version of the questions, “How do you deal with disappointment? How do you stay faithful to believing God’s promises when you’re in pain?” As silly as it sounds, Stitch Fix gave me a starting point. It was a low emotion example that helped me think this through, and share it in a way that we could all laugh at. Because we’ve all had the experience of seeing something in a picture and thinking, “That would be great!” only to have it collapse when exposed to the challenges of real, 3D life.

So I told them about how, in order to face getting dressed in the morning, most of us have to die to the idea that we’ll look like a supermodel, or a flat style card. We all laughed.

That was the easy part.

Then came the harder part, because some things are a big, pain-filled mystery and we just don’t know where God is in it all, or what He’s doing.

I talked about the pain of losing Princess Peach four years ago – the devastation Steve & I felt then, the hurt look I still see in her eyes when we see her, how she tries really hard not to ask why we let her go. (Two years ago we gave her a doll for Christmas and her first eager question was, “Does it smell like you?”) I’m still looking to God to make this right when it looks so very wrong.

I know it’s obnoxious to compare this loss to an unfortunate Stitch Fix delivery. But I need both examples.

Steve has already forgotten that that plaid shirt ever happened. (He’ll be quite surprised to see another box arrive in June, with selections from a updated style profile and a Pinterest board I made from pictures of clothes hockey players might wear.) This low-bar example gives me space to think through how I deal with disappointment: in most cases, I trust that there is a something better is possible, and that it’s coming.

The challenge is applying this to bigger things; to real hurts where the emotions are  too live for me to figure out what response my faith suggests, because I’m simply surviving. There are so many swirling questions when we’re in pain. How do I trust that this is God’s best for Princess Peach? For us? What do we DO? How do we move forward? Of course, learning about adoption from foster care led us to The Cherubs, which is amazing. But I don’t think God leaves one little girl out in the cold so that two other kids can have a Mom & Dad. I have to believe that the story is not over.

Closing out the sermon, I shared one special memory that helps me:

It was our last day with Princess Peach. We were in the car, driving her to where the social workers were meeting us to take her away. They were over an hour late, so we had a lot of time to fill. Steve prayed a Father’s blessing over Princess Peach, speaking love and a vision for her life. Then we drove around Cambridge, all three of us numb with disbelief. Princess Peach starred out the window and stroked the soft fur of the stuffed puppies we’d bought to take with her to keep her safe. We had the iPod on shuffle to fill the silence. Then a song came on and Princess Peach lit up. “Play THAT ONE again, please!” she said.

It was a song by CeCe Winans, called “It Ain’t Over.” It’s one of those songs where you stand up in church and stomp your feet and clap. It’s a BATTLE song. Princess Peach kept saying “Play it again?” So we did.

So you gave it all you had

And you still came up short

You’ve been faithful through it all

And you answered the call.

Keep your eye on the prize

Don’t give up the faith

God has a plan for you

That’s why we say…

It ain’t over.

It felt like God was right there with is in that awful moment, challenging us to believe.

And so we do. It’s been four years. I still cry every time I hear that song. We’ve seen Princess Peach 3 times in those years. I don’t know what God is doing, but I know this for sure: It ain’t over.

We pray for her every day.

We move forward with life, trusting that God will reconnect our dots someday.

And we take joy in small things, because they add up and make a difference.

One of the hardest things for me after we said goodbye to her was figuring out how to LIVE. To laugh at something funny, or enjoy a good meal, or be excited about cute jeans that fit…it seemed like such a betrayal of her. We lived in a suspended state for months after that, certain she’d be back.

We were surprised when Easter came, so to speak. How Jesus showed up and reassembled us, giving us new life where we were dead inside. It’s been miraculous. The pain hasn’t disappeared. But we’ve grown into the ability to carry it and live on. And in that, I trust that He is doing something similar in Princess Peach, because she loves him and so is covered under the promise of Romans 8:28 (“For we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.“) I hang onto this verse like a lifeline. And then I entrust this sweet girl to Jesus, and get on with everyday life.

***

My Stitch Fix box turned out better than Steve’s.

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There was another pair of jeans that fit, which makes me want to hug my stylist “Katelyn,” whether she’s a person or an algorithm. I kept a top that was not at all something I would have picked for myself after Steve walked in and said, “Wow, that looks great on you!”

The other three things – a blazer like one I already own, a top I loved thats didn’t quite fit, and a wool scarf – went back (and made me realize I need to take the cold weather outfit pictures off of my Pinterest style board). I didn’t get the 25% discount you get if you keep all 5 items. But even at full price, it was worth it. I spent five minutes placing an order, rather than three hours at the mall, and came out with a new outfit. I don’t look like the perfection on the style card. But I’m a nicely updated 3D version of me :)

I’m taking every bit of joy I can out of that small, silly win.

To sum it all up…

Listen to this song. Pray for Princess Peach, and for the big questions you still have about what God is doing in your life. It’s okay to clap and have some fun with it. I think part of heaven coming to earth is that it brings a lot more joy than we expect, even in the midst of pain:

And if you need some clothes, or feel like you’re style is hopeless and you can’t face the mall? Try Stitch Fix. If you order for the first time through the link, I get a $20 referral credit, which makes jeans more affordable.

This life is both/and, you guys. It really is.

Impromptu Bedroom Overhaul

In an attempt to avoid the parts of life that aren’t going as planned, we’re redoing our bedroom. (See, You’ll Need To Escape, circa just last week). This is less the product of a grand design and more because #2 Cherub fell down the stairs last week. The stairs are covered in a gross, slippery carpet (carpet shouldn’t be slippery, right?) and this was the third or forth fall we’ve had. So Steve pulled up the shaggy gray/brown slip & slide to uncover the original oak treads underneath.

That’s when we discovered that not every home renovation gives you a Nicole Curtis “look at these beautiful floors!” moment.

***

Some background:

When we moved in to this house four years ago, we did a fair amount of renovation: The kitchen featured peeling, bright green formica countertops, broken 16″x16″ tile that I think was supposed to evoke thoughts of Tuscany, and a charred plastic sink that at one point may have been set on fire. We got a remodeling quote for $25,000 that didn’t include cabinets, flooring, or appliances, after which Steve (in one of my favorite moments of our marriage) decided we’d demo it ourselves. He was like, “Want to save $25,000 tonight?” and out came the crowbar. It was SO. MUCH. FUN.

Six weeks later, when we were living out of a dorm fridge in our dining room and every single surface was covered in a thick haze of drywall dust, I was over it. Even I can only eat so many baloney sandwiches. And, redoing a kitchen is an angsty process. For a brief period of time that I’m not proud of, I was deeply convinced that the drawer pulls I chose were supposed to say something about who I am as a person. It was ridiculous.

We took a breather after the kitchen was done, but soon other things beckoned.

The entire main floor was this brownish yellow color a friend’s son described as “what it must look like inside a hamster,” so we painted.  We redid a back porch/sunroom space Steve is now afraid to furnish because the Cherubs are fast approaching the dating years. (He doesn’t want any of that boys & girls sitting next to each other going on. We may set up some nice stools.)

The house needed a new roof, and then a coat of paint. A squirrel chewed her way into an eve and had babies, and she needed help moving. Over time, we developed a philosophy of home repair that more or less says, “If it doesn’t involve a three story ladder, we’ll try to do parts of it ourselves.”

We never did anything to the upstairs space because we weren’t sure what to do. It’s a bit wonky, with slanted ceilings and storage eves. The slippery shag carpet continues throughout, and was clearly peed upon by several large dogs prior to our arrival. As gross as THAT is, we haven’t had the budget or the motivation to rip it up and figure out new flooring.  We cleaned the carpet as best we could and just left it.

When the Cherubs came, we moved our bedroom stuff up to there and just kind of dumped it. There were so many other things to do to get our house ready for the kids, who cared about our room? Everything looked nice enough so long as you didn’t really look (or fall down the stairs). It was fine.

Except not really.

If not for the bed, this long triangle of a room could easily be mistaken for a yard sale: there are tables & bureaus in three different finishes, a random fan in the corner, a $5 mirror from Target propped up against one wall, and a odd modern leather chair my Dad gave us that he warned us wasn’t very comfortable. There’s a treadmill covered in dust & clothes in front of my closet.  Oh, and we have a humidifier, which I’ve yet to see “incorporated into the look” when I flip through Traditional Home or Architectural Digest. I live in New England and the air is dry all winter, so if I don’t want to look like a lizard, this is a key item in my decor.

Last weekend after #2 fell, Steve ripped the slippery carpet off the stairs to reveal the original hardwood.

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Rather than being a “Look at how beautiful!” moment a la HGTV, this was instead the moment where Chip & Joanna Gaines would call their client to say, “We’ve got a problem. Please get out your checkbook.” The treads are splintered, chipped, dented, and DRY. Did I mention that they squeak??? Our next door neighbors can hear us going up and down the stairs. It’s quite the thing.

We looked into redoing them, which is totally an option so long as only one of the Cherubs wants to go to college. Since that seemed like more than we could decide in a rock/paper/scissors shootout, we decided to paint the stairs. I went after the crazy orange stained sides & risers with some Kilz:

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Steve is buying black paint for the treads tonight after work, along with some sort of kit that promises to deaden the squeak. Then we’ll put a runner down the middle and call it a day.

Because now we have bigger problems:

Ripping up that one strip of rug has stirred up in us a fervent need to get every single fiber of that disgusting dog pee shag OUT OF OUR HOUSE. I can’t believe I’ve been sleeping over it, my kids have been wrestling with THAT DOG on it, that life has been going on as if we’re not living in the midst of a Superfund site.  It’s like we’ve just now realized that our bedroom floor is the carnivorous island from Life of Pi.

(What a blessing that I’ve been too busy for the past four years to be down there doing sit ups!)

We’re ordering a click floor, pulling paint samples, and I’m asking Stitchfix to send me a bedazzled hazmat suit for when we pull up all that shag.

In all of this, I’m trying to remember: changing this room will not change me. No matter how many pictures of traditional bedrooms in serene, neutral colors I pin to my Pinterest board, paint and flooring cannot make me more serene. They just don’t have that power. After the redo is done, this room will still look more or less like this picture I just took this morning:

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There will still be piles of things waiting to be put away, and cords to charge devices, and books that always sort of spill out over the shelves. But now it will all be set against a different color scheme, and without the pee from someone else’s dogs. That’s enough for me.

***

A couple of weeks ago, I read The Magnolia Story, loved it. One scene in particular stood out to me. It’s where Joanna describes how early in their marriage, Chip would  buy run down houses without telling her…and expect her to move into them on short notice, then renovate & flip them. He would literally come home and tell he they were moving. Chip admits this wasn’t his best strategy (he even says that if they ever write a marriage book, Chapter 1 will be called, “She Cried…“)

I’m a little in awe of how Joanna handled this. Yes, she cried. But she shares how she thought through this – how she realized that if she ever wanted to be successful as a designer, this was the only way she could grow, by taking on these new projects. And that she needed to find a way to manage disappointment and the pain of letting go. She talked about how Chip doesn’t get attached to anything that doesn’t have a heartbeat. He holds it all loosely, which gives him a tremendous amount of freedom. She decided to build her capacity to do the same – to enjoy the process of design and decor and how it allows her to grow, and not get attached to the outcome.

I’m not sure exactly how this applies to my life, but it does.

My real challenges aren’t about what my house looks like. That’s just a hobby and a distraction (and a EPA level cleanup project, but whatever…)  But sometimes I try things in other areas that do matter to me – not necessarily because I want to, but because circumstances play out so that it’s what needs to be done. I love her attitude about all of these frustrated tears leading to growth in things that matter, and increased capacity to do important work and make a difference in the world.

I’m off to the paint store to made hard decisions about colors with names like Linen, Air, and Moonbeam.

I’ll post pictures of the carpet pull-up. That will give you something to look forward to :)

The Real “Money” Issue In Our Family

The real stuff about our money conversation since we adopted The Cherubs has nothing to do with budgets. It has to do with the long process of realizing what makes the kids feel safe, and me figuring out how to be the kind of Mom they trust to take care of them. I realized how this all connected AS I wrote this post, so it winds around a bit. Thanks in advance for your patience.

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Let me start by saying, I had no idea that public school was so expensive. I mentioned this in yesterday’s post, as I remembered how alarmed I was to discover that every single after school activity The Cherubs signed up for cost somewhere between $35-$350. We had not planned for that kind of cash outlay, and it really threw us for a loop there in the beginning. Thankfully, every investment has been more than worth it. If I have unexpected expenses for my kids, that means I have kids. The miracle of that isn’t lost on me.

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As I thought more about this, I realized that my frustration about the “cost of school” isn’t really about money. That’s just an easy thing to point to. My true frustration is the amount of time and attention the school wants from me, and the surprising things I’m learning about what makes my kids feel safe.

I have 6.5 hours/5x a week when I’m not responsible for keeping the kids alive or responding to their immediate needs. Anything requiring focus needs to happen during these hours. On good weeks, I have a routine.

I feel like the school conspires to wreck my routine, every. single. week.

I’ll confess, I want to cry each time they email me ANOTHER reminder to log into the special parent portal to read the “virtual backpack” of flyers that used to come home with kids in actual backpacks. If you plan to fly my child to London Tuesday and need me to send her that morning with a check for $1300 & a pair of wellies, PLEASE don’t hide that information behind a password I forgot back in September?

I flat out don’t want to attend the online, audio-only training required to access my kids’ report cards. If I send them in with a piece of paper, will you print me a copy? Even a hand-written scrawl, something like, On track to graduate with his class would be fine.

Just this week, I’ll miss two different things, one at each of the kids schools: I couldn’t attend last night’s mandatory meeting to tell me that if I sign my kid up for a sport, he’s supposed to come to practice. And I can’t make tonight’s event where parents will learn about the curriculum. But since I’m neither qualified nor inclined to homeschool, my absence is probably a win for both of us, because what would be my option if I didn’t like it?

(On a total side note…Telling the kids we might try homeschooling turned out to be a MIRACLE CURE for lackadaisical academic effort! I mentioned this once as a joke, describing my unique educational program of memoir writing & baton twirling. Both kids BUCKLED RIGHT DOWN and got to work. It was incredible.)

And the only thing that has ever made me wonder if I might be a horrible parent is my knee-jerk reaction to the weekly PTO emails. I don’t want to sell wrapping paper, calendars, candles, half-full buckets of cookie dough, or candy bars. It all feels a bit like multi-level marketing, but without the teamwork, parties, or profit. I think a dance would be a disaster for my child at this stage of her development, so you probably don’t want me planning one. And since I’m just learning to feed my family, you don’t want me baking special treats for the teachers.

Digging down, I see that my frustration isn’t even about time. It’s about feeling caught in this wave of demands and finding it hard to get my feet planted back on the ground. I use up so many no’s each day with the kids (they are BOLD askers…either one of them could have a brilliant career in sales), it’s hard to have to spend so many more on the school, when I’m really so grateful for all they do.

And here’s the other thing I don’t know how to explain to the school: Not only do I want to be doing work that isn’t just about housekeeping, school & parenting, it’s a key part of earning my kids’ trust.

For my kids, a stay-at-home mom isn’t a wonderful gift of love. It’s a woman with too much time on her hands, time they can’t account for. They don’t trust me if I can’t say what I did all day, because they’ve had experiences where grown-ups get into trouble when the kids aren’t around to keep an eye on them. #2 Cherub in particular was angry that first summer when she learned I wasn’t churning out a steady stream of books to be published. “But you said you’re an author!” she demanded. “Why aren’t you author-ing?” To her, author-ing isn’t just writing a bit every day. It’s generating tangible, revenue-producing products. It’s getting paid for your work. And you know what? She has a point.

One day I received a check for $98 for copies of my book that sold. I made a small joke about bringing home the big bucks, but then I looked up and saw pure relief on my kids’ faces. So you CAN earn money, their expressions said. Later, one of them said faux-casually, If something happened to Dad, you could make more money with your books, right? And then I realized what their real question is: Can you REALLY take care of us, or will we be on our own again? 

What I thought I was doing so sacrificially was making my kids feel incredibly unsafe.

A lot of what I do is unpaid work (see: church planting), and it’s a gift to have that option. But because of the Cherubs’ obvious concern, now I’m doubling down on writing, too. I’m not sure I can generate books at QUITE the pace #2 expects. But I can pick up production. And I can do smaller things, too. For example, now my links here on the blog (for books & other stuff) are Amazon affiliate links. Which means if you click through and order – either what I posted or something else –  I get a tiny bit of credit. It doesn’t cost you anything. But over time, I hope it lets me say to the kids, “Hey, my blog earned enough today to get the special hair styling goop you asked for!”

For all the talk you hear about parenting & self-sacrifice, I think self-definition is equally important. There are simply too many options vying for our time to not have some sort of internal guidelines that automate some of the decision making process. I’ve felt especially awkward about the whole “I’m not someone who does PTO” thing, because I have friends and family members who contribute huge amounts of time & energy to their kids’ schools through these committees.  But then I step back and realize, they’re making choices, too. When they say yes to the PTO, it means they’re saying no to something else, just like I am. Maybe what their kids need is a mom who is in the school, who knows what’s going on. We’re all making choices based on different circumstances, most of which aren’t observable from the outside. This has helped me more than I can describe. It’s one of those rare areas of life where pretty much whichever you choose (so long as it’s not illegal)? That’s okay.

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.