Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What to Do When Your Usual is Already Unusual

My oldest son's skip was a little lighter than usual as he ran down the gravel drive and into my arms for the always-loving but ever-brief hug.

"Guess what!!?!!" he asked, what was obviously a rhetorical question since he didn't even pause a breath for me to reply. "We don't have any homework today.  The Principal says so."

I raised my eyebrows at that one, knowing full well he would have a vocabulary and spelling test on Friday.  Special day or not, we'd be spending time with those two "activities."

He pushed the purple and black tiger striped booksack into my hands and headed off to the hen house to collect the day's brown offering.  Instinctively, I glanced down at the orange laces on his tennis shoes.  Since he'd learned to tie them himself, more days than not, he returns to me with the bunny ears drooping long in the dirt.  Today at least, they weren't dragging the ground. 

I followed behind to help unlock the trapdoor that kept the hens in the yard and waited for him to raid their nests.  Even behind the solid wood door, he kept talking.  "The Principal says we're to do something with our family tonight.....so what are we going to do?"

The school had sent home the brochure a week earlier announcing Monday, September 26 was National Family Day, a CASA supported initiative to promote parents being engaged with their children. 

I smiled at this boy whom I suddenly realized didn't have a clue.  He didn't understand the need for a Family Day because he has no idea what life was like for many families who had no time to spend together.  He didn't understand the need for conversation starters or even the need to encourage eating meals together.  These were just integral parts of his everyday life, not something to be taught, added, or even questioned. 

He and I both knew that as the sun began to dip low in the sky, we would hop on our bicycles and take the short trek a quarter mile down the driveway to the other end of the farm where Oma and Opa would be waiting with the usual Monday night family supper.  Oma, Opa, husband, me, and the three children would eat, talk, pray, laugh, and share of ourselves, forgetting how unusual was our usual in this modern world.

Afterwards, he and the twins would beg for a dip in the swimming pool, even if it were only for twenty minutes, and husband would oblige.  Then would come bathtime followed by each child having his turn both having a parent read him a book and also reading a book to husband or me.  Finally would come that precious time at day's end when daddy would pray individually with each child in turn.

This is our usual.  It is the expected.  So, I was to do something less than usual.

After homework (yes, we did it anyway), I gave the children the opportunity to watch a couple episodes of The Berenstain Bears, something we rarely do in our house.  Instead of going off as usual and catching up on my never-ending pile of housework while they were entertained, I chose to simply sit in the recliner with Wyatt, the two of us barely fitting in that cramped space.

Initially, he wiggled and squirmed as if this wasn't a good choice.  Still, I relished in the few comforting minutes of loving on my boy who is quickly becoming a man.  He might not enjoy my presence, but I would enjoy his.  Yet, when I stood up to go move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, Wyatt suddenly looked away from the screen and asked, "You're coming back to sit with me...right?"

Of course.

I snuggled back down next to him, wrapped my arm around his shoulder, and pulled him close.  Without a word, he lifted that hand and moved it to rub his hair and forehead, a silent request for mommy's loving touch.

In a couple years, we'll have to move to the love seat if we want to watch a show together.  As they turn into tweens and teens, I know it will get more difficult to encourage my children to engage with me, more difficult to continue coming up with creative ways to show them that they are special to our family.

That just means no matter how unusual our family's usual is, I'm still in the same boat as every other parent seeking to make a difference in the life of a child. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When Nobody Will Ever Know the Difference

For the second time in a week, I was standing at the checkout counter of the dentist office.  Instead of two children full of pent-up energy, this time, all three were with me.  A deep sigh escaped my chest as I looked at my watch.  It was nearing 5:00 and I wanted nothing more than to drive home before the rush hour traffic hit. 

There I stood with my wallet open, credit card in my hand, waiting on the lady at the counter who seemed to be in no rush.   She punched in all the appropriate codes while I listened to the familiar click of her computer keys and the giggle of joyous play taking place just around the corner.  Behind me, the twins giggled and danced in circles, only stopping when I bent forward my head and shot them "the look."  Even my oldest was jittery and kept bouncing his new goldfish ball from the treasure chest.  Without fail, he would not quite catch the rubber sphere and stumbled into a sea of legs to track it down.

After what seemed like an eternity, the brunette handed me a piece of paper hot off the printer.  "Thank you," she said.  "You don't owe anything today."

The punch to my gut was instant.  Yes, I did.  While the dental discount program we are a part of covers the exam, x-rays, and bite wings, I knew it didn't cover Wyatt's fluoride treatment.  I had just paid for the twins' fluoride paint job the previous Friday.  Today, I should be paying another $25 for my oldest son.

A few seconds passed while I reviewed the statement.  Everything checked out right, but that initial punch was slowly transforming into a nauseous feeling, the kind I always get when I know something is wrong but also know I'm not legally bound to correct someone's mistake.  I know I have a choice to make--do the ethical thing or do the legal thing.

In those times, it's like I have a little devil sitting on my right shoulder.  "No one will ever know," he grins.  "It's their fault, not yours.  It's their mistake. Plus, you could really use the extra cash.  Maybe this is just God's way of giving it to you."

I want to just walk away.  I really do.  But I know myself well enough to know that nauseous feeling won't leave me until I set things right.  I'd experienced the same feeling months earlier when the cashier at Hobby Lobby forgot to type in an extra zero when ringing up a price.  I knew then that I'd never be able to enjoy that furniture if I didn't correct her mistake.  Every time I saw it in my house, I'd remember that I'd cheated the store...even if it was their mistake.

I slid the paper back across the counter to her.  "No," I said.  "I owe you for the fluoride treatment.  I paid for it last week for my twins, so I know I owe you today, too."

Another woman in the background heard me and instantly approached the counter.  Apparently, "I owe you more money than you're charging" isn't a concept she's heard much.  The brunette kept clicking, frowning, and scrolling down her computer screen as the other woman leaned over her shoulder and gave directions that sounded more like code than English. 

Finally, the woman in charge looked up and said, "No. You don't owe us.  In the program, the treatment is included free of charge for children under the age of 14.  We owe you.  Can we put the difference back on your card?"

Minutes later, I left the office $51 richer than when I went in.  More importantly, I felt a soul sweetness of peace that spread through all my limbs and made me feel almost weightless.  I couldn't help but smile as I prayed a quick word of thanks for the Spirit prompting me to do what I knew to be right.

Had I chosen to not correct her "mistake," it would likely have never been uncovered, and I would have missed that financial blessing.  Yet, even if the coding mistake later were uncovered and I were refunded the money, I still would have missed out on the soul blessing.

Doing the right thing is always worth it, but God rarely shows us just how "worth it" our morally upright actions are, at least not in such a literal dollars and sense way.  I am thankful that sometimes, He gives me a glimpse of the war going on invisible around me and the difference my one action can make in my life and in the lives of others.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Different Faces of Love

Two weeks after I said "I do," I learned that I didn't really like my husband.

It was shortly after New Year's and some big football game was on television, so husband had invited my brother over to watch several hours of  grown men throwing around the pigskin.  In preparation for this big game with his new brother-in-law, husband had gone all out with the game-day food and Barq's root beer.

Several hours later, the game was over, and husband began to feel ill, so he marched upstairs and went to bed, leaving our tiny kitchenette a wreck.  The sink was mounded high with dirty dishes; empty bottles and bowls of congealed cheese dip cluttered what little counter space we had; and on the sofa were open bags of chips growing more stale by the second.

The honeymoon was officially over.  

As I cleaned up the mess, I grumbled to myself over how lazy my new spouse was.  I didn't feel my best either, but someone had to clean up his mess.  Within 24 hours, though, I, too, understood why he went to bed without helping.  We both had a bad case of the flu.

Husbands and wives don't always like each other.  And, honestly, why should they?  Even when God mysteriously transforms the two into one being at the start of their marriage, still, they are two individuals, each crafted uniquely by our Creator.

At their best, husband and wife are two halves, one complementing the other as they both struggle through this life.  At their worst, the two halves work against each other or grow frustrated in a failed attempt to make the other half into a mirror image of themselves instead of an equal, but different, counterpart.

In my own marriage, husband and I know each other better than anyone else does.  We routinely see each other at our worst and at our best.  We can finish each other's sentences and even laugh silly at our own private jokes that leave my oldest son grinning in ignorance, begging, "What!?  What's so funny!? Tell me!"

And yet, there are days when we struggle to communicate, when miscommunication or lack of communication is more prevalent than the cozy intimate speech of young lovers.  Sometimes, it's simply hard to be understood.  I would swear we're both speaking English, but it's still not the same language.

Without Jesus and without an understanding that marriage is designed to make us holy versus happy, there's no telling how many miles would separate us by this point.  Yet, that doesn't mean our marriage or any other Christian marriage is easy sailing through untroubled waters.

We suffer from marital stressors caused by lack of sleep, little "down" or "alone" time as a couple, or simply the frustration from an inability to escape a bad job into a more financially secure and less draining place of employment.

In these tough times, what makes the difference in a marriage is the ability to see opportunities for acts of love--to both be open to receive and to give love in return.  And yes, that's even true for those moments when we may not necessarily like each other.

Love is a simple note of apology to a wife (attached to chocolate, of course).

Love is an insulation-covered husband, sweating in hundred degree heat as he tries to finish an office so he can work more from home, spend less time on the road, and, ultimately, take more time with his family.

Love is taking your son to school every morning while your wife cares for the two little ones.  Love is honoring that commitment, even on those days when you've worked the whole night before on an emergency project, driven back home simply to spend this time with your child...and then driven back in to work for a full day.

This is what love looks like.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Learning to Include Others in Your Labors

The clink of glass bowls in my kitchen has an effect similar to the bell Ivan Pavlov used on his kennel of dogs.  As I quietly slide out the largest of the translucent cobalt vessels from the bottom of the stack, I know it won't be long before the house will ring with the sound of bare feet slapping on wood plank floors.

Emerson is the first to arrive and start investigating all the supplies I've laid upon the counter top.  A quick survey of the clutter makes it obvious I'm about to cook something.  He looks up into my face and asks that oft repeated question.  "Can I help, mommy?"

"Me, too!?" my daughter's shrill voice echoes as she rounds the corner.  She grabs the wooden spoon from her twin brother and moves in on the melted butter and sugar I've started to cream together.  Down the hall, the third child wakes up from his book-induced fog and realizes he's missing out on something exciting.  Moments later, all three children are circled 'round the gathering table, all arguing over who is going to do what to "help" mommy.

Every measurement must pass through a second pair of hands before it's dumped into the bowl.  Child #1 dumps one cup of flour.  Child #2 dumps the second cup of self-rising.  Child #3 pours in the old-fashioned oats.  Then, I start the cycle again, working to give everyone a turn, to not show favoritism, to give deference to their already-keen sense of fairness and equality.

All three get to take a turn pushing the "PULSE" button on the food processor, each face breaking into a grin as the whirling metal disk shreds the carrots into a stringy mound at the bottom of the bowl.  Then, each must have a turn stirring the mixture.

While one stirs, the other two give advice: don't stir too quickly or you'll stir the flour out of the bowl; don't hold the spoon so high up or you won't have good control; don't forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl so everything is mixed thoroughly.  I have to smile as I listen to Wyatt and Amelia giving poor Emerson the same directions I've given them before.

Satisfied that there is nothing more to do but wait for the yummy bars to come out of the oven, all three once again disperse to the four corners of the house--Wyatt back to living in another world found in his books, Amelia to mothering her dolls, and Emerson to laying train track across the upstairs foyer.

Later at the lunch table when Grandmama asks if they helped cook, they each sit up a little taller and puff out their chests with pride as they take credit.  Despite what I've read in magazines, just because they cook it does not mean they're more likely to eat it...but they're always proud of it.

It would be so much easier to just do this by myself. Instead, I continuously let them help me cook, wash, vacuum, clean--not because I need their particular brand of help but rather because I understand that burning desire to be of use...and I want to encourage them to take pride in their labors, to associate hard work with this sense of accomplishment, to continue offering to help others.

Just yesterday, my mother and I worked to insulate and put up the vapor barrier in the front half of husband's outside office while husband and my daddy worked to hang sheetrock in the back half.  It took two women the same amount of time it took one man to do the same task in the back half of the office.

Was it as neat a job?  Not hardly.  Did I have to ask a lot of (stupid) questions?  Sure.  Did I use more staples than I should have?  Uh....yeah.  (The staple gun and I had compatibility issues.)  Was our vapor barrier hung straight?  Well, it looked more like a bunny slope.

In the end, though, my mother and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment that we had helped our men, freeing them up to do another task we couldn't.  Besides, no one would ever see the zillion staples or the crooked vapor barrier.  That didn't matter.  What was important would be the finished product and the knowledge that we helped make his office into what it will become.

Whether we're four years old or forty or even sixty, we all want to feel useful, to feel needed.  Maybe it is easier to just do it all ourselves.  Honestly, most things are.  But many times, when we deny someone the opportunity to help us, we're also denying them the blessing that comes from their giving of themselves, denying them a sense of pride in their labors and a healthy sense of accomplishment.

Think about it.  If someone keeps being rejected each time he offers to help someone else, one day, he's just going to stop asking.  Is that the kind of world we want to live in?  The kind of household we want to live in?

Had my husband done the work all himself versus having us other three help him, only one man could have felt the pride in looking at the work of his hands and saying "well done."  Likewise, had I chosen to cook by myself, I would have been the only one with a sense of fulfillment at what I had accomplished.  In both situations, by allowing others to help, that meant four people went away filled and blessed, knowing they had helped someone else.

Four versus one.  I call that a pretty good return on the few extra minutes it took to bring the three extras on board for the project.