Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Practical Living: How to Cultivate Adult Friendships

Friends are relatively easy to come by when you're a child, a teenager strapped side by side to the plow of a school routine. There is designated time for spending together--recess, lunch, on the bus, before and after school. There are commonalities of shared experiences that hold hearts tight in tandem.

Place two people together with the added variables of copious time + commonalities, and the equation should yield fast friendships, the kind that survive time, distance, differences, age.

Although I couldn't have known it when I was younger, friendship is so much easier for the young.

Then the widening gyre starts circling, your life spreading outward in a lopsided amoeba-like path so you just might fall apart from the exposed, asymmetrical span. In that moment when the center of where you have always been threatens to snap, catapult you into an entirely different place, those friendships can get lost mid flight.

With the equation of time and commonalities ruptured, it's easier to just let go than to grip tight with both bloodied hands to something you can't really hold onto anyway.

Once you resign, just let go, there's no going back, no recapturing. Not even if you try. And I have.

The only thing to do is try again to cultivate new friendships. But what does an adult friendship look like? And how does it work, when children, a job, a spouse, aging parents, and relationship with God and church already hold clear title to the time that would once have been devoted to friends?

How do grown men and women make friends?

This is something I've struggled with since I married my husband. Loneliness.

A friend used to be someone I would call and talk nothingness with at the end of each day; someone I could count on to accompany me to a late night movie showing, even when I only gave a half hour's notice; someone whom I could make a Sonic run with share an order of fried cheese sticks.

That was friendship.

But now? Now that most people in my inner circle are raising young children? working full time jobs? Or both? Impulsive doesn't work well. Daily contact isn't always feasible either.

There are things, though, that I'm learning we can do to encourage those relationships, things that we often dismiss.

1. Welcome Friends into our Homes. This is huge, something I've shied away from my entire adult life. It's ok to invite friends over even when there's more cat fur under the furniture than is still on the cat. Even when I could write my name in the dust on the television screen, when the kitchen sink is overflowing and the counter tops are invisible, when the to-be-folded laundry baskets look like a snapshot of the Alps. And along with that, I'm having to learn it's ok to say "Sure, come over" even if I don't have on makeup, even if haven't brushed my hair today, even if my blue jeans are holey (and not in the fashionable sense).

2. Pick Up the Phone. With caller ID, it's easy to just reject that phone call, pretend we're not available. But if a friend calls to talk, it's important to talk if we really can. If not, we call back later. There is no substitute for our time. No matter how many household chores are waiting, no matter if we would prefer to decompress with a favorite television show, no matter if we'll end up staying up an extra half hour--we must offer up what little we can of ourselves, even if it's just an ear a hundred miles away.

3. Write It Down. This past January, a relatively new friend sent me a birthday card. Honestly, I didn't know our friendship had progressed to the "I need to remember your birthday" phase. It was unexpected and in that, my heart was warmed. Email is good. A text that just says "I'm praying for you" is amazing. But in an uber-electronic era of instant thought, the simplicity, the slowness of picking out a paper card and putting ball-point pen to paper is all that more special.

4. Keep our Mouths Shut. We're the Jerry Springer, the Oprah, the reality TV generation where everything is for pubic consumption...only it's not. I'll repeat: it's not. Unless we have permission to tell a confidence, unless we're honestly concerned for someone's safety (and not in the gossipy "Did you hear about so and so? We need to pray for her" way), we keep our mouths shut. No blogging. No tweeting. No FaceBook updates. Just. Shut. Up.

Research shows that people with friends live longer. It makes sense. We were created for relationships--with God and with others.

It's high time we stop selling our relationships short.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trading in Your Life

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like. To trade in my life for another one.

If I gave up the house, the two-car garage, the pots and pans, the bank account...everything but whatever clothes would fit in the rolling suitcase.

Long before my children's lungs gasped their first taste of oxygen, husband and I did just that, left everything behind to live with less than what fit in the trunk of my green Buick.

We didn't leave on an extended mission trip or cushy vacation in the tropics. Instead, our experiment in living with less began when our apartment complex decided to re-roof our unit on the single rainy day in a dry thirty.

After the roofers ripped off the old asphalt and tar, God literally sent a flood. The flat roof with its four-sided rim acted as a funnel that impregnated the walls and ceiling until its increasing bulge gave birth to rivers of destruction.

Poor husband called to break the news with the ominous words, "It's not that bad." Thirty minutes later, I learned he and I had quite different definitions of "bad." Husband and I would be homeless for forty days.

After I yelled in anger, stomped my feet, and bawled (repeatedly) like a toddler, we two packed a suitcase along with a few pots and pans and moved to a hotel.

When our forty days were up (and yes, it was a literal Noah-esque forty), I was happy to return to my home. But I also missed living with almost nothing. I had actually come to enjoy the simplicity of our life there.

Without a closet full of clothes to choose from, my wardrobe decisions were streamlined. With only two pots and a handful of seasonings that weren't waterlogged, even dinner options were limited and, therefore, easier.

A half dozen years and three children later, life has gotten only that much more cluttered. It's when I step on one too many Legos or stack up the same pile of library books six times in a single day or see a sink piled high with dirty dishes--it's then that I want to give it all away, leave this life behind, strap a backpack on and start down that seven mile road to Emmaus.

For a few hours each week, I've been doing just that--leaving the comfortable to walk in His sandals, be His hands and feet.

What I'm finding is that the further I go with Him, the further I want to keep going, the more of myself I want to give.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What's in Your Prayer Box?

I squiggle thin lines of glue up and down one side of an empty cardboard Kleenex box before sitting it down in front of a fluffy pile of tissue paper squares. With sticky fingers, the children try to separate the pieces that cling both together and to them. It's easier said than done.

What may seem a mere silly craft to keep preschoolers busy while the adults pray and study Scripture in the worship area is really fine art to this age group, art worthy of their best effort.

As I make my way around the table with the Elmer's, they clench jaws tight, furrow brows in concentration while covering each visible dot of glue with dozens of red, teal, yellow, and orange squares. Four times they begin anew before sitting back to appreciate the finished product.

This night, I'm leading half a dozen children in making a prayer box. It's nothing magical, no attempt to turn God into a jukebox where we insert 25 cent prayers and hear an instant answer. No.

In the end, it's just an empty Kleenex box re-purposed for a higher purpose. It's merely one way of teaching them about the conversation with God that we call prayer.

I give each child two slips of white paper, kneel down with Sharpie to write names on the top and listen to their individual prayer requests.

"Emerson's Prayers," I write on my son's box top.

"What do you want to pray for?" I ask, expecting a parroted response from one of the older children. Instead, my head recoils a bit.

"For Amelia not die."

I diligently write out his prayer of the heart, not willing to tell him that's not the prayer I wanted, to choose something different.

Although I didn't realize Amelia heard him, when I circle around to ask her prayer request, she parrots her twin brother: "For Emerson not die."

We've seen a lot of death over the past year. First there was the much-loved kitten who didn't make it, then a half dozen extended family and friends' wakes that I attended, most with my three ducklings filing down the aisle behind me toward the open casket. Then came Maw Maw's death shortly before Christmas.

As you might expect, where we go when we die has been a key topic of inquisitive discussion, one repeatedly introduced by them, not by me. The twins have determined they don't want to die, even if Jesus is waiting on the other side. What's more, they already understand that anybody can die, even them. And at three years old, they've already lost enough to death to fear losing each other.

In a way, it makes me sad, this loss of innocence, this understanding (already) that the world is full of loss and pain.

My children aren't even in kindergarten yet, and already, I find it difficult to navigate the hard topics--to comfort without lying, to teach without instilling fear.

I guess this is just the Father continuing to show me how ill-equipped I am so that I'll keep seeking after Him for much-needed guidance.

Image: Introducing Mischief, Fussy, and Sassy: the annual mom-taken Valentines Day photo that (as always) almost wasn't.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dismantling The Path

There's a mile of wooden train track stretched across my bedroom floor, another mile running across the foyer past the grainery, the dairy, and the chocolate factory on to the hospital and station.

To walk amidst this massive construction project is not for the faint at heart. Even if I can maneuver through the obstacle course of downed trees and power poles or the yet to be erected traffic signs, I must still contend with the three ever-moving construction workers, each with his and her own mental blueprint of how the final rail line will look.

A tunnel through solid rock is blown clear in seconds, a bridge dropped in place even quicker. Only Wyatt, my five-year-old, has figured out how to make the most of his materials, criss-crossing another line of track under an elevated portion and wrapping it around to join with the other pieces. When the twins reach an obstacle, they simply stop laying track, resulting in dangerous dead-ends around every bend. At three, they are also clumsier. Wyatt screams their names out loud each time they accidentally kick over a bridge or snitch a piece from his line's middle to complete their own new line forming over by the bathroom.

Seconds later, the tables turn and they scream out his name because he is disassembling their contribution of dead-ends and replacing them with pieces that will connect all the seeming randomness together into one fluid line, where there is no beginning and there is no end.

It hasn't always been this way.

In the beginning, when Wyatt wasn't quite two years old, I purchased the already-loved buildings, track, and trains in one huge, inexpensive lot on E-bay, then found a used train table on Craigslist. With my brother's help, I made a layout and hot glued it together to a board.Little Wyatt and then little Emerson and Amelia spent hours with pudgy fingers pushing long rows of train cars up and down the hills, in and out of tunnels, all part of the path I had laid out for them.

But the more sunsets passed, the more my little trio has chosen to play with other toys where they can control what happens, where they create from the nothingness.

This past Tuesday, I spoke with husband about dismantling the track. It was time.

A screwdriver, a little elbow grease, and a few hours is all it took to turn something into nothing than can now be turned into as many somethings as can be imagined.Breaking apart the expected and un-gluing the known...it's bittersweet.

This is just one time of many that they will tire of the paths I have set for them to walk, one time of many that I will set my little ones free to not merely take the road that forks right or left, the road well-worn or the road less traveled by.

Instead, I must guide them while simultaneously setting them free to lay their own paths in their own way. And hopefully, that will make all the difference.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Proving the Invisible

It has never bothered me to serve an invisible God, one whom modern science cannot prove with any computer or test tube. Why should it? I live each day believing in so much else that I can't see--the earth's rotation and position in the universe, the very air my lungs pull in and push out, the electrical currents that run through black snakes overhead to bring man-made sunshine indoors.

With the naked eye, I can see none of this in the natural world; yet, I believe in it all without question because of what I witness firsthand in the cycle of day and night, in my breath on frost, in a downed power line's epileptic dance in fire. I also believe because of what I read and see in photographs secondhand.

To live even a secular life devoid of questions concerning the existence of a Creator, one must walk by a certain degree of faith.

The problem comes when I find myself called upon to prove the invisible. Many times, I can't. I can only offer up my own personal experiences, my knowledge gleaned from wafer thin pages or from the invisible information superhighway running right through my seemingly impenetrable walls.

It is then that the person has a choice--to accept what I say as truth or to question me, my motives, my conclusions...to treat me as wise or a loon, as trustworthy or as one with ulterior motives.

My children are still at the age where they accept mommy's version of truth. Adults? They are usually more hesitant to accept what they cannot see, especially if they have been burned by lies before.

Such has been my case over the past few months.

God has granted me an unrequested front-row seat to learn how poorly people are treated when they have health issues that are completely invisible, especially if the medication used to treat such an invisible malady is often abused.

I tried last fall to get help, went to a small satellite office located about a mile from my house, one used mostly by Medicaid patients. I had insurance and could have driven a half hour to the main office, but this was close and I was saddled with three children, so "why not."

An hour later, I called my husband almost in tears at how I had been treated like a drug addict looking for her next hit. The doctor had brushed off my concerns of increasing headaches, told me the only thing I'd get from a certain pain medication was a short trip to opium addiction. He gave me four pills for migraines. As expected, they didn't work. I didn't return. The only thing I gained was sympathy for those on government health care who must get this sort of treatment all the time.

Since January, the pain has been getting worse--the headaches, the wrist pain all stemming from an invisible shoulder nerve that has ached slowly down my right arm and, at times, shot like bursts of electricity out my fingers. I reached the point where I couldn't lift the milk carton, but still no one besides my husband knew. If a physician who had taken the Hippocratic Oath didn't believe me, who would?

Husband suggested I try another doctor. I did. After two solid weeks of waiting to be granted an appointment, I finally got the call, only to be told I'd need to wait another three weeks. Again--the tone was one of suspicion at the invisible.

The pain only increasing, my ability to sleep diminishing by the day, this time I did cry. Husband gave me another number, asked me to try a third doctor. This time, I wasn't automatically assumed to be a liar.

Last Tuesday, I went to see her. She listened, asked questions, and listened some more, concluding it was likely a pinched nerve and bursitis or arthritis. She didn't give me any pain medication, but she did take me seriously. Two days later, I lay in a tube twenty minutes for an MRI, stood for X-rays, looking for proof.

The x-ray showed no arthritis. But the MRI validated my words, showed what my physician believes is the cause of my invisible pinched nerve.

It's not fixable, and there's no telling the cause, but the inflammation causing the pain is treatable, manageable. One week after my first visit to see her, I'm starting physical therapy, something that should have happened months ago, if only a doctor would have seen through his preconceptions and believed in what he couldn't see.

What I'm learning through all this? Is a lesson in mercy.

Yes, I need to use Godly discernment in my interactions with others. Always. But just because the situation isn't neatly printed out in black and white or doesn't reflect my own experience isn't a reason to shut the door in someone's face even if others have been known to take advantage of generosity.

I would much rather err on the side of mercy and be called a fool than to err on the side of judgment and be called unmerciful.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Five Year Old's First Crush

Since the nursery days of cribs, diapers, and shared spit on toys, my oldest has been enthralled with one girl. Their friendship wasn't much of a surprise, what with the two of them being the only constants in their age group at church. Three times a week, they played together, her gender and six month age advantage not making any difference. He submissively followed wherever she went.

But six months is a big difference when you're that young. And in our State, six months meant the difference in her starting kindergarten this year and my son staying in four-year-old preschool. Although I've been homeschooling him with the same kindergarten curriculum she has been learning, in her eyes, he's now a baby, one not worthy of her time.

The problem? Somewhere along the way, Wyatt decided he was in love with her. He wanted to marry her. He was going to marry her.

Husband just shook his head with big grin and chuckled at that revelation, muttering something about "not a chance with an older woman" as he walked away.

Since the fall of last year, their Sunday morning encounters have been painfully predictable to this mother/teacher.

Before class, Wyatt would be engrossed in playing with something--a puzzle, toy animals, the play kitchen. I could always tell when she arrived. Wyatt would instantly spring to his feet, a smile on his face. "Hey, ______! Do you want to come play with me?"


Undeterred, he would keep hammering away. "Do you want to play chef? I'll cook for you"

"I said No."

Cold. But clear...if you're not in love, I guess. When he tried to go play with her or sit by her at the table (even moving a chair when one wasn't available), she would shriek, "Wyatt's by me!" Funny, I didn't realize cooties started in kindergarten.

Sometimes she wouldn't bother to acknowledge his presence. As the mother with not much tongue left to bite off over in the corner, I was almost thankful.

From the back of the van one Sunday, Wyatt finally asked, "Why doesn't ____ like me."

I avoided the "she's a girl and you're a boy" conversation and instead stumbled through what he was doing wrong. "Girls don't like to cook lizards or eat panda bears."

"But Amelia does," he shot back.

Sigh. Yes. She did.

The following week, he did try what I had suggested, but to no avail. This time, we weren't out of the parking lot before the therapy session began.

"___ wouldn't play with me! I did what you said and didn't serve her a tiger or throw a beetle at her, or..... But she still wouldn't play with me!"

He was obviously crushed, and so I made it simple--she does not love you. Why do you love her?

"Because she's beautiful," he replied in a matter-of-fact tone more fit for a teenager.

My eyes rolled heavenward. "Well, you need to find someone to love who is beautiful on the outside and the inside."

No. All he cared about was that she was beautiful on the outside. My sage advice was falling on deaf ears...lovestruck ears

That was a few months ago.

We've had a few impromptu discussions since then about what it means for us to be beautiful on the inside, but that's it. Her dismissive attitude must have worked, because he seems to have lost interest, some Sundays not even acknowledging her presence. She doesn't seem to miss his attention, either. In fact, when no one is there,when no one is watching, sometimes, they will even play together as friends for a few brief minutes.

It's good. They're much too young to even begin understanding what love means. But in a way, it's sad, too, how a first crush can come and go with so little notice.

This capacity to love comes from one source--our God who is love in its pure form.

Love cannot be something that can hold our complete attention for days, months, and years only to float away unnoticed like the feathers of a dandelion puff, near invisible in their airy flight.

If it's going to die, it needs to go out fighting, an asteroid burning a bright tear through the atmosphere before crashing to leave behind an eternal imprint in the desert to mark its death.

Image: Wyatt with a plastic ant from his birthday cake. (Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the live grasshopper he brought in my kitchen last week or the huge bumblebee he "caught" in a peanut butter container on Monday but was too scared to set free "because he'll sting me!")

Friday, February 3, 2012

Learning to Bite My Tongue

"Hey beautiful," husband says brightly as he answers the phone, his tone instantly communicating how happy he is to see my name on the iPhone screen. Fifteen years later, my face still warms at the greeting, creases in deep parentheses.

Husband almost never uses my real name. Perhaps it's unconscious, a genetic abnormality passed down from his mother who is compelled to nickname every person and pet in the family. Or perhaps it's the intimacy of being able to call me something others can't. I've never asked. It just has always been.

Because of the rarity of which I hear my name, the few times when husband has actually spoken it aloud to introduce me or to ask me a question in a larger group setting--it has always sounded wrong. It does, however, instantly get my attention.

In the never-ending soundtrack where familiar sounds of mommy, honey, and wifey act like mindless elevator music, the off-key syllables of "Jen-ni-fer" clank like a cowbell in a Beethoven lullaby, making my head snap towards the new sound.

"Beautiful" is the name he always comes back to. After fifteen years of responding to it, I could legitimately fill in the Nickname box on all those government forms with that one word. Beautiful.

When we were dating, I would have automatically dipped my head low at this adjective, felt my skin burn all the way to my roots before drawing eyebrows together and growling back, "I'm not beautiful. You're deluded."

It wasn't that I was coyly trying to get him to repeat himself. I simply, rationally knew better. Cellulite here...and there...and there...and.... I had never been the beautiful one. My extraordinarily short dating rap sheet was living proof of that. Plus, I did own a mirror.

I finally told him that if he wanted to love me forever, he might as well accept the truth, too, and not blind himself just to keep from hurting my feelings. I wasn't dumb.

But nothing I said stopped him. If anything, it only made him try harder to convince me, to make me see what he saw.

I never could. Most days, I still can't. But after all this time, he still comes up behind me and whispers those words, unprompted. To the exposed body stretched beyond recognition then scarred by incubating and birthing twins, he says "beautiful." To the crow's feet, wrinkles, and increasing frequency of gray slithering through my brunette locks, he says "beautiful."It has taken several years for me to learn to bite my tongue, to accept this phrase for what it truly is--an offering of love. But accept it I do, turn to kiss the mouth that presents this offering.

As we grow together, I repeatedly pray the same prayer: "Lord, make my desire only be for my husband and for his desire to only be for me."

May we always be this way.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

To Make a Garden

With my daughter, it's all about the flowers. Always has been. Even in the dead of winter.

The boys and I will be planting loblolly pines, scooping great mounds of dirt around anorexic tree trunks and stomping down the air bubbles. We'll be throwing a Frisbee across the field, looking at molded rabbit poop, tracing mud-encased deer tracks with our fingers, kicking over ant hills to find the winged ones within, or taking a nature walk through the Hundred Acre Woods.

And all the while, Amelia will be close by but oblivious in her search for flowers.

There are the little yellow strawberry-like petaled ones that trail across the ground on loose vines. The cream pointed clusters of three that leave my hands smelling of onion. Bundles of delicate purple ones lining lanky stems, limber as they sway in the breeze. White airy balls shooting straight up, stiff amongst lush clumps of green clover.

She finds them all.

Even in the culvert where the boys search for tadpoles, grasshoppers, snails and lizards, yes, even there, she manages to find a blossom or two.

The downside to all this single-mindedness is a difficulty in understanding the difference between "God's flowers" that are ok to pick and "Mommy flowers" that should be enjoyed on the plant.

One Sunday after church, she went behind Grand Mama's house for ten unsupervised minutes before bursting bright-eyed through the door, having picked every last narcissus in my mom's well-manicured flower beds. That glowing face and arm-extended gift to me were too much to chasten very harshly. Even "Mama" graciously accepted that full armload of aromatic wonder with a smile.

This afternoon, Amelia burst through my door again, eyes bright with the same excitement.

"Come look, mommy! I'm planting a garden!"Sure enough, in her daddy's sand pile by the new carport, Amelia had placed a hunk of concrete (a stepping stone, perhaps?), the much coveted plastic rabbit, and a flower pot. At her feet was "planted" a bundle of purple wild flowers "so they will grow."

The thing about creating a garden? To make one, first you must look past the store-bought Latin-named plants enclosed in rock-walled flower beds and see the garden around you.

You must learn to see God's beauty and holy handiwork in mere weeds.