Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Meets Monster Bots

I live in a boy-centered household.  Sure, my daughter and I bring a good level of estrogen into the mix, but with two boys, we girls often find ourselves drawing pictures of monsters, playing imaginary games centered around dragons (and monsters), and designing monsters or (surprise!) monster traps.

How a fluffy pink and purple cat named Moon Star Kitty can transform into a monster in the hands of the boys is definitely a masculine leap of the imagination.  But, both Amelia and I have learned to enter into their world while sprinkling it with some feminine princess sparkles and plots about becoming a sous chef or veterinarian.

When it comes to finding reading material for these imaginative six and eight year-olds, I find myself working overtime to find books that appeal to both genders.  Thankfully, I have achieved success thus far with the Magic Tree House, Berenstain Bears, and A to Z Mysteries book series, all of which have both male and female main characters. 

However, as my oldest son edges ever closer to a middle school reading level, I am conscious of how many books are not age appropriate when it comes to their content.
Ron Bates' newest How to Survive Middle School & Monster Bots--a sequel to book one in the series entitled How to Make Friends & Monsters--is fun for the tween set without being crude, inappropriate, or espousing values like laziness, deceitfulness, and selfishness as does the ever-popular and hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

The book series' premise is that Howard Boward is a super-smart middle school boy who is constantly picked on by mischievous-spirited bullies.  The books do a good job demonstrating  typical middle school environment with first crushes, first dances, wedgies, snowballs, and alienation from the in-crowd.

Bates' second novel focuses on Howard realizing that his academic rival is part of a science club sponsored by his favorite teacher at school.  Unbeknownst to him, for months, the club members have been building robots, and when Howard finds out, he thinks he can just put one together overnight in his garage's secret lab. 

When things don't work out as expected, Howard decides to use monster goo, which got him in trouble in the first book of the series.  A robot literally pops out overnight, and Howard decides to enter it into the contest, which is the equivalent of cheating.  Along the way, he struggles to understand how the other club members can want to help each other, even when they are competing.  He also learns that a quiet guy in his class actually is hearing impaired (not a super spy or an alien) and quite a good friend.

Of course, Howard's robot is comically uncontrollable and begins stealing parts from around town as it replicates itself to build a robot army.  The result is part mystery, part comedy, part real-life drama.

Overall, the novel does a good job of teaching--but not preaching--about the value of hard work, of helping others, of not judging based on appearances, of trying new things, and of not getting even with your bully enemies even if you have the robot-power to do so.

My only critique is that it takes over half of the book for Howard to start learning these lessons so that the conclusion feels rushed.  Still, my boys love anything with Monsters, and this definitely fits the bill to make them and mom happy.

Friday, October 31, 2014

When A Beloved Soldier Comes Home

It's been almost a year since my mother, sister-in-love, and I found three identical boxes under the Christmas tree.  Each contained a multi-corded bracelet made out of caramel and walnut leather ending in a simple, silver anchor.

Ten months ago when my brother, Johnathan, left home, we three put them on as a reminder to pray throughout each day for a son, husband, and brother deployed halfway around the world with a thousand other men and women on the U.S.S. Bataan. 

I faithfully wrapped the bracelet around my wrist every morning after dressing, set it on the bedside table with my wedding band every night.

And in between, I prayed.

When I pushed the circle higher up my forearm to keep it out of the greasy pots-and-pans dishwater after every meal, I prayed.

When I picked flakes of dried mud from the leather after weeding another runaway flower bed, I prayed.

When the silver anchor twirled round my wrist to hang invisible by my pulse for the umpteenth time, I swirled it back to the top again...and I prayed.   

When the hard metal continuously beat time on my wrist as I trained for my half marathon in January, I prayed.

When my husband unconsciously rotated the bracelet with his rough fingers during worship service, I prayed.

When I closed the lid to the washing machine, when I sat to read a book on the kindle, when I watched television with my adopted daughter, when I sat waiting for the school bus, when I reached to help my three young ones with their homework--it didn't matter what I was doing.  I Prayed.  

Whether or not I found time that day to make a post office run, to make the children write a story, or to shoot an email across the seas, my bracelet was a physical reminder to make sure I never went more than a few hours without thinking of my brother and sending up a prayer to the Lord for his safety, health, and peace.

By the end of last week, we received word that this past Sunday was the day we had been longing for with anticipation.  By noon, Johnathan would return home to his wife, Liza, in North Carolina.  She put it best when she said the anticipation felt like Christmas and her wedding day all rolled into one.

That morning, I told husband I couldn't bring my cell phone into church because I was sure I would be repeatedly checking it just for word that Johnathan's shoes had touched down on American soil again. Less than half an hour after we finished worship, there he and Liza were, smiling back at me from the phone.

Although I couldn't be there to see him come back to us, I still feel like I was.  And it did feel like Christmas. still does.  I can't suppress a silly grin of face-glowing happiness as I write this and feel my chest warm and swell just from looking at this photo of two of my favorite people.

That was Sunday.  On Tuesday, although it felt strange, I took off the bracelet and set it in the top drawer of my jewelry chest.  It had served its purpose. 

Today is Friday, and the bracelet is back on my wrist. 

While my brother is no longer in the Middle East where he needs to be surrounded by prayer so intensely, the past few weeks have brought me an increase in prayer needs like I haven't seen in years. 

My Grandma in Michigan fell and broke her collar bone.  My Aunt broke seven ribs when she was slammed into by another vehicle. My pastor's father is in the last stages of cancer, and the family has called in hospice.  My husband's cousin just down the road from us has also called in hospice for his mother with Alzheimer's. 

A seemingly healthy friend has been overnight diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.  Another dear friend is broken over a wayward daughter who is suffering depression as she reaps the consequences of sin.  My adopted daughter is struggling with her internship and her own set of personal prayer needs. Another dear friend is having surgery in a couple weeks to remove scar tissue.

The needs are so many.  They are so serious.  They are so personal, burdening my heart not simply for the afflicted but for their families as well.

I find I cannot simply pray in my limited quiet time or with our family at night and then go do my own thing throughout the rest of the day.  It just doesn't seem sufficient. 

I will think of my brother each time I look at this bracelet.  Yes.  But more than that, now when I feel the cool metal of the silver anchor or when I rotate its rough interwoven cords around my wrist, I am reminded to be that anchor of prayer for others. 

I want to be that prayer warrior--the one who doesn't forget, the one whose life is affected throughout the day by true concern.  I want my daily life to be interrupted by these needs instead of compartmentalizing them in what feels more like a token prayer during my quiet time.

It is my desire to be just such a warrior...even if I do need a constant reminder on my wrist to make it happen.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

If You Don't Have Much To Offer

With no traffic and no children to chew up the clock, I arrive at the nursing home too early.  Stacks of cafeteria-style plastic breakfast dishes still clutter all the tables in the main dining room, and up front, a row of residents is in the middle of exercising from their wheel chairs.

I quietly slip in the back door, hoping to not interrupt the lifting of arms and legs, but several faces light up in recognition as they turn my way.  It's indescribable how welcomed and loved I feel in this moment.

The man who was born with several holes in his heart raises his arms to wave me towards him.  I call him by name and grab the trembling hand he holds out to me.  Unless I focus really hard on reading lips, I never know what he's trying to communicate, but it doesn't matter.  All he wants is someone to reach out to him, to enter his lonely world, even if it's just for a few short minutes.

Today, we "talk" about the gold LSU hat he is sporting, the frozen coke in his hands, the cooler autumn weather outside.

When I glance across the room, another lady tries to catch my eye.  She doesn't call me over, but it's obvious from her tight smile and intense gaze that she is hoping I will lavish a little attention on her, too.

She's been here for several years.  I know her face but not her name.  Still, I notice that her countenance is so changed from the closed-off woman I saw last month.  I offer a hug, kiss her cheek, and ask how she's doing today.

"A lot better than the last time you were here," she responds.

We talk of my twins who are in kindergarten, and I realize this is only the second trip I've ever made without my children.  Before, I felt I could at least offer my children up as a gift to these residents.  Now, I have only myself.

To my left, another lady holds out her hand to me.  Hers is the color of deep, burnished bronze, mine of caramel creamer.  Today, though, she holds on to me like a newborn babe, her grip tight and firm.

 "Oh Jesus..." she murmurs.  "Oh Father..."

It's obvious she's in pain.  When I ask her name, I learn it is Ms. Buela, and my heart feels a sadness, remembering the Ms. Buela who used to talk with me about her crocheting projects  each month.  I always looked forward to her loud-printed muumuus and soft, grandmotherly roundness.  Without her, the room seems that much more drained of color, of life.

This Ms. Buela before me is thin like the willow tree, walnut-hard angles where the other had milky, flowing curves.  Yet, there is strength in her wiry frame.  She will not let me go, and I wonder if just the touch of another person is enough to help stem the pain she feels, even if just for a few minutes.

Still tight in her grasp, I bend down and speak aloud a prayer over her.  

It is all I have to offer.

The faces in this dining hall are the same but are always changing, too.  Each month, I come to them with not much to give--I can't heal them; I can't take away their pain or restore their youth; I can't offer them a better place to spend their last days.

I can only give a bit of myself--a touch of affection, a friendly smile, a greeting full of love and kindness.

No, it's not enough.  It's not world changing.  But it is a gift freely given out of love and compassion, something our world needs so much more of.

And in return, in their own way, they give what they can, too--a smile, a handshake, a word of greeting.

When I leave for the day, I am the one who feels loved. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Who Needs A Change of Scenery?

The dusty patches near the edge of the drive are stamped with overlapping hexagons, proof that I have literally been wearing a path between my house and my in laws' end of the farm.

Each week since late July, I've been slowly increasing my distance, on my way to 13.1 miles for the half marathon in January 2015.

After seriously twisting my ankle and spending the spring recuperating, I began at the beginning--a single mile march five days a week with my three children.  By the time my little trio bounced aboard their first school bus of the year, I had moved up to two miles, three times a week.

That was almost three months ago.  By Monday, I will be up to 10-mile treks, but don't be fooled--I am no athlete--not by a long shot.  I am slow, ever afraid of failing in this task, and hyper-conscious of how other super athletes will look down on me on race day as weak so much so that weeks ago, I enlisted the help of a prayer "accountability" partner.

But in the midst of all these fears, the pain of losing a toenail, and mornings with over 90% humidity, I have come to enjoy these two hour breaks from the noise of life. More importantly, I have come to enjoy this time when it's just me, my praise music, and my God.

Even on the hottest of days, I have discovered that I can meet with God out here in the midst of His creation more easily than inside my well-air conditioned prayer closet. 

Perhaps it's just the sheer length of time without any interruptions that draws me into conversations with Him.  There is no distinctive tinkle of new text messages, no telemarketers, no email, no Internet, no pile of laundry to be folded--in short, no distractions.

Somehow, though, I think I find God more outdoors because of  my surroundings.  Just being in the midst of His creation makes God seem that much more awesome and incomprehensible while at the same time that much closer and approachable.

When I look up, the wind drifts a kaleidoscope of autumn hues through the airy void before me.  They dance and hover to invisible heavenly melodies, occasionally brushing against my shoulders as their Creator draws them to the earth.  With each step, I hear the distinctive crunch of death and am reminded that each breath I take is a gift.

I rapidly plant one foot in front of the other, suddenly noticing mere inches from death a snail who carries his nearly transparent yellow home across the gravel.  His pace is so slow compared to mine that he seems to not even move as I blow past.  Yet, when I come back to the same spot seven minutes later, I am surprised to find no trace of him and am instantly humbled by the thought that my perspective of time cannot be applied to other parts of God's creation.  God's time is fast enough to accomplish His purposes.

Another day, a furred red ant weaves a seemingly chaotic trail before me; yet, I am aware that even in the perceived aimlessness of his God-designed decisions, there is purpose, no matter whether I can see it or not.

Ever present are the brash young red cardinals of spring who have now matured into more careful adults.  One flees from my presence as I round the end of the barn, even when that flight means forsaking a breakfast of grasshopper.  The insect panics at being trapped between me and the bird, leaving behind the gray camouflage of the limestone path and taking flight high into the rising sun.

This mistake born of fear instantly illuminates its presence to the young hawk and blue jay hunting above in the towering pines.  They swoop down together, the small jay quickly breaking off in the pursuit when he sees he is out-winged.  In the time it takes for me to make four steps, the hawk catches the insect midair and flies back to his invisible blind to wait for another, leaving the air empty as it was moments before.

Inside my home, I can become too easily convinced that I am god of my domain.  I control the temperature; create and destroy; change the colors of the season; give life and death within these walls.  Everything does as I command it to do.  In there, it is too easy to not need God because I have it all under control.  Or at least, that it how it seems.

But out here in God's wonderland, I am reminded of how truly small I am, how little I actually control, how dependent I am upon His grace for all things--even for a single breeze to give a moment's mercy from the humid heat  Out here, I am keenly aware of how life and death are separated by a single strand of spider's silk that can snap with the slightest breeze. I see the danger of making rash decisions born out of fear.

A stagnant prayer life suddenly sees flesh form on dry bones by simply moving outdoors, by changing scenery from one place where I feel in complete control to one where I instantly am confronted with the truth that I am anything but.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reduced Price Globe Trotting

Liza & Amelia mix up a batch of Holland jodenkoeken cookies
Let's face it--chances are most of us will never be able to send our children around the globe to see the seven wonders of the world found in history books.  One or two countries?  Maybe...hopefully.  A whole European vacation?  Not unless they become nomadic gypsies in their twenties.

The good news is our precious darlings will never become monument-destroying vacationers like the Grizwold family in the epic National Lampoon sagas.  The problem, however, is that an all-American-all-the-time life tends to make our families myopic to the point where we can't see beyond our front doorstep. 

Our family's dilemma with a purely American-centric lifestyle was two-fold, one educational and one spiritual.  First, how can you stretch your children's imaginations when they don't have a framework for imagining different--I mean really different, as in something you've never been introduced to before and could never dream upon your own, not different like "The kid sitting next to me in class is weird."  Secondly, how can you pray for those people in anything more than generic terms if you know nothing about them?

With these goals in mind, five months ago,our family began a tour of the globe, all without the expense of five passports.  The only thing it cost this mother is time.

Thirteen countries later, my children's imaginations have exploded. 

Australia, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Madagascar, Canada, India, Holland, and China.

Each week, I raze our local library, always leaving with a heavy bag full of books (and sometimes a video). The librarians behind the help desk know me by name now, a few of them not even asking before they look to see which books I've requested to be sent over from the other branches.

Some are fictional stories from the particular country we're studying or are written by an author who lives there.  Others are stories all children in that country would know from birth. Then, there are those nonfiction tomes we use as picture books, giving us a glimpse into their cities, houses, and places of worship.  My children like best those fiction stories written about an actual event, always asking, "Is that real?" when I finish the last page.

 Books & old VBS dragon decoration from China week

Through many a glossy page, we have learned about the lemurs of Madagascar and the crazed "tulip mania" in 1600s Holland.  We've read about an Indian Cinderella who looked nothing like the Disney version (and who had a talking cobra as a fairy godmother), a trio of brothers who created the first kite company in China, animals who live on each "floor" of the dense Brazilian rainforests, and migrant workers who come to America on visas from Mexico.

With weekly trips to the library, that great big world out there has grown much smaller.

My kitchen has also changed dramatically over the past five months, especially my spice cabinet.  Trips to the grocery store have proven the most difficult part of this project, as I make loops around the store scouring the rows for ingredients not even the stock boys know where are located.

Usually, only Thursday night is international cooking night, although some weeks, we eat two different meals from a particular country.  The children are responsible for cooking the dessert because honestly, what's more fun than cooking with sugar?
Emerson and Wyatt poke almonds into Chinese almond cakes
Amelia tastes German pretzel

 Wyatt rolls out naan bread from India

As you might expect (especially since my children are ages 6 and 8), some weeks are a success and others are a Great. BIG. Flop.  Except for the tandoori chicken, India is the number one flop so far.  Hong Kong is a close second.  Germany, Canada, and Italy, however, ended with not one uneaten crumb in my fridge.  The one rule of international night is that every family member must taste everything, even if it's just one bite.  Amelia has "fixed" several foods with an unhealthy dose of ketchup and turned her nose up at dozens more.  But overall, the whole family's palate has expanded, and we've even found some new loves.

Sausage and applesauce will forevermore be served together in the Dorhauer household thanks to Germany week.  Madagascar's bonbon voanjo (peanut candy), India's naan bread, Sweden's lingonberry jelly, and Holland's erwtensoep (pea & potato soup) will gladly grace our table again. 

The end result of all this fun is that the children (and their mother) have become more conscious of their place in this world and when they pray, they now have an image in their mind of people from around the world. Plus, they know exactly what to pray for.

Their prayer requests often mention a specific thing we learned such as when Emerson said, "Pray for the people of India to not worship the river and to drink the same water they take a bath in" or when one child asked for us to pray for the people of China to not worship the statue of Buddha.

There have been so many small blessings to show me the impact this project has had on their thinking.  The children's imaginary play now includes traveling to other countries.  Amelia has taken to reading labels to see where things are made.  ("It's made in China!" she happily shrieked of one toy.)  Then, there was the day Amelia came running so excitedly off the school bus to tell me there was a new girl, Eileen, in her class FROM CHINA and that the teacher sat the girl by her so Amelia could help teach her to speak English!!! 

But perhaps the most telling statement came when I made an offhand comment about something being weird.  My oldest, Wyatt, was quick to correct me.  "It's not weird, mommy.  Just different."

I ruffled his hair and knew all the hours I'd put into this project thus far were all worth it.

Yes.  Not weird.  Just different.
Amelia makes Scripture-stuffed fortune cookies 
(yeah, not technically Chinese but a trend started by a 
Chinese or Japanese immigrant to America)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Letting Loose a Blessing

Each afternoon and Saturday mornings, my backyard is alight with more shrieks, screams, and laughter than this farm has ever before seen.  Three generations worth of bottled up happiness has been loosed upon this red clay soil, blessing everyone in its path.

It all started three weeks ago on the morning of August 7.  As my oldest son left on the school bus for his first day of second grade and my twins went for Kindergarten testing, a backhoe sunk its teeth deep in the earth to remove a red mountain. 
Husband and I had only broken the news a few nights before to our three children—in a few short days, they would receive an unexpected early Christmas present from their Oma and Opa—an in-ground pool.

Earlier one summer morning, husband had come home with the secret news.  His eyes danced as I sank down to the mattress, bracing myself for whatever usually not so good surprise he had to tell me.   

Would I be ok with his parents gifting so generously to our family?

I burst into tears.  Just the night before, husband and I had held each other close with hearts heavy.  Counseling our newest “adopted” daughter was requiring both of us to unpack those painful demons and trace the scars of old wounds that hadn’t been mentioned in a decade or more.   

That God was choosing this exact morning to prompt my in-laws’ hearts to share this news was so much an act of redemption of all the struggles we had been through to reach this point in our marriage.  It was as if in that moment, God was showing us the fruits of our commitment to Him and to each other. 

As if He hadn’t already restored so much of what He had stripped away years ago when husband lost his career and when we lost two babies, now God was restoring more of our dreams, those we had boxed up and shoved to the darkest corner of the attic.

Even before we had children, husband and I had built castles in the sky, envisioning our farm to be a safe place in an unsafe world, a haven where our children could bring their friends and where our friends would feel safe bringing their children.  Overnight, that unspoken dream from so long ago was becoming a reality.

Day one ended with the machines digging eight feet into the ground, deep enough to hit water where we didn’t know there was any.  The children were absolutely giddy as they ran up and down the mound of dirt just a few feet away from polymer walls that outlined the future.  
Day two began with men laying concrete around the footings as well as along the bottom of the pool and ended with two hoses pumping 23,000 gallons atop a blue mosaic liner.
By Saturday afternoon, we had a “pool party” where all four proud grandparents gathered ‘round to watch their three grandchildren in a gleeful water ballet.

Three weeks later, my trio of landlubbers has transformed into strong, fearless swimmers who fling themselves with abandon into the deep end, swim its thirty-six foot length, and tread water with ease…all while screaming, shrieking, yelling, and grinning, of course. 
Oma and Opa are the happiest I've ever seen them, driving down most afternoons to sit with me, watch the show of grandchildren, and even this morning taking their first swim together in over thirty-five years.

"I love watching those kids swim," Opa said, grinning like a kid, himself.

I listen to the laughter of two little boys trying to perfect simultaneous jumps into the water.  My daughter’s face remains in a permanent grin as she mermaid-dips beneath the surface and swims with eyes wide open for the ladder. 

This is what blessing feels like.  This is what restoration feels like.

Had my husband not lost his career, we would have been able to install the pool ourselves with our own hard-earned money.  Sure, it would have been a great accomplishment, and we would have enjoyed it immensely, but that pool would have been the product of the work of our own hands, not a product of grace and love, of such unmerited, bountiful blessing.

Since the pool now fixed in my backyard is wholly the product of a blessing from my in-laws, I cannot look at it with pride but with humility and awe, much as Job must have in Scripture when God restored more to him than he lost. 

The biggest blessing, though, is just how many more people have been blessed in the process than ever would have been had there been no need for a blessing—Opa and Oma have been blessed in their giving to my children, our two adopted college girls in their witnessing and enjoying such overwhelming love, my parents in their knowing how much has been both lost and restored, and even my brother overseas in his being able to experience all the children’s joy each week through Skype and email.

The thing about a blessing is how wide it spreads, how deep it reaches.  

Even now, I can still hear the music of young and old laughter in my ears.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Miracle That Is Skype

"Here, mother.  Sit here," my father said, pointing to a wooden chair he had placed a few feet from the extra large television screen.  Grandmother lowered herself onto its wicker seat.  This close, even her ninety-one-year old eyes could see my brother, Johnathan, half a world away in the Middle East.

She drew out the syllables of his name in sing-song familiarity.  "Hi, John-a-than."  Her smile broadened to see his almost life-sized visage in desert fatigues. 

"I don't know how to do this," she chuckled nervously.

"You just talk," my mother said in the background.  "He can see you."

Grandmother has never been one to keep up with modern technology.  She doesn't have an email account, a cell phone, or a GPS; I don't think she even knows how to run a DVD player.  Long after I was married, she still had a beige rotary dial phone by her bed (and probably still would, had the telephone company not made her swap to a more modern device).

But technologically savvy or not, there she sat in the stiff upright chair, proper as ever, Skyping with my brother.  While the rest of our family sat around the room and quietly chatted, Grandmother sat perfectly focused, a loving intimacy in their conversation.  She would ask a question and Johnathan would answer.   Back and forth they talked as if there were no miles separating them, as if he were back home just sitting on the sofa in her living room with a cup of coffee.

Unlike the two weeks prior when we had Skyped him, this time, Johnathan's eyes were bright with happiness, his smile not dampened by exhaustion, illness, or stress from the nearly intolerable heat.  It was obvious how heart-filling it was for him to see her, too.

"How are you liking the ship?" she asked.

My mother spoke up. "He's not on the ship, mother.  He's in a tent."

Grandmother leaned in close and squinted at the screen, trying to look behind Johnathan to get a better view of this white, mega tent he was calling home for a short time.

Daddy turned the volume up louder.  Still, I'm not sure how much she actually heard.  It didn't matter, though.  What was important was for her to see her grandson's face, to at least hear his voice and know he was safe...somewhere she had never been nor would ever go in this lifetime.

At the end of their conversation, Grandmother spoke her love over him.  "I've been praying for you.....It's good to see you, but it's just not the same," she laughed aloud, hands stretching out silly in front of her towards the screen.  "I just want to reach out and grab you."

This isn't the first time our family has felt those same words.  Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, my brother went on his first tour of Iraq.  Back then, he sent home a few handwritten letters and called a handful of times, but the majority of his deployment, my family and I were left with only the silence of wondering how he was doing that day, week, or month. And even when he did call, the conversations were always exceedingly short and mostly one-sided.

When Johnathan deployed this second time aboard the U.S.S. Bataan for destinations unknown in the Middle East, I dreaded the same silence, especially since this time, he had a wife waiting for him back home. 

I forgot how far we have come where technology is concerned--just in a single decade. I forgot the blessing that technology can be.

His wife has been able to text him daily; I can send an email at bedtime and have a response from him by the time I wake up.  But, best of all, my parents and I have been able to Skype with Johnathan throughout the month of August .  Each time, we have drunk the sight of him in as a healing elixir to our hearts.  Even across an ocean, we heard how congested and sick he was that first Sunday, then a little better the next.  When he reached up to play with the kids through the screen, we zeroed in on the thick callouses at the base of each finger, wondering what tales we would hear once he was back home.

Our family is in the final stretch of this nine-month deployment, and I'm starting to get itchy for him to plant two feet on American soil again.  Even so, I am grateful for the technology I take for granted on a daily basis.

The world isn't quite so big anymore.  A grandmother and a grandson having a Sunday afternoon chat--no matter how many oceans are between them, love can always reach that far.

Friday, August 8, 2014

When Generosity is Contagious

Mid summer found my 7 1/2 year old son going through his toys and choosing those he didn't really play with anymore.  Perhaps it was a desire to make room for toys coming this Christmas and his birthday four days later.  Or maybe he finally absorbed those conversations about giving to those who are in need.

Whatever the reason, Wyatt was adamant that the people at the nursing home were sad because they didn't have any toys to play with.  He was going to remedy that problem while off for summer vacation.

I raised more than one skeptical eyebrow, unconvinced a sweet grandma or grandpa would want a plastic Skylander toy from McDonald's.  He would not be swayed, though, pestering me for days with increasing urgency until he finally took a plastic grocery bag and began the process without me.  Younger brother and sister tattled (of course), so I abandoned the kitchen clean-up and climbed the stairs.

There I sat atop a plush universe of stars and planets, watching this unprompted spring cleaning with amusement...and making sure he didn't chunk something precious to this mother.  He prattled on the entire time, picking up each precious item in turn, scrunching his face in concentration as he examined it, then explaining aloud why it should go or stay.  Each time, he glanced over at me for confirmation.

Sure, the Sock Monkey could go.  It had hung from his bed for many years and he loved it, but yes, he didn't play with it.  Why not.  Into the bags followed a glitter ball, numerous plastic kids meal toys, a bracelet, and several cupcake rings.  I shook my head 'no' when he tried to include the yellow dragonfly with its crinkly wings, the one that sang to him in the crib before nap time.

My son then began to count the days till our church's scheduled monthly turn to conduct a worship service at our local nursing home.  By mid July, Wyatt wasn't the only one who had decided to give of his possessions to the residents.   Siblings Emerson and Amelia went through their prized items as well, Emerson choosing a prized puppy that walked when he flipped a switch on its belly and Amelia offering up a small orange bear with the bow ribbon in its hair. 

Giving, it seemed, was contagious.

I have always demonstrated generosity and explained the "why" to my children, but this was the first time I was able to see them give generously of their own possessions without ever having to be told to do so.

On July 15, all three children excitedly chose who would receive their gift.  I watched from my seat on the piano bench as Emerson shyly gave his puppy to a man.  The woman who had received the sock monkey held it tightly in her arms the entire time our pastor preached.  But the biggest blessing was listening to the excitement in one woman's voice when she realized the new stuffed bear matched her own outfit.  All the while, big brother stood by and proudly watched his little sister receive a hug and a kiss.

As we loaded up the van to go back home, Wyatt skipped across the parking lot, his hand finding mine. 

"Do you know how I feel?" he asked, a huge grin lighting up his eyes.  "I feel all warm in my heart."

I had a van full of joy returning back to the farm that day.

A few days later, I learned just how contagious this joy and generosity truly were when a lady from my church said she was touched by how excited the residents were to receive the stuffed animals and had decided to donate her own beanie baby collection.  Would my children be willing to hand them all out to the men and women there?

Last week, we did just that, all of us going down the long halls with two garbage bags full of stuffed sunshine. "This one is so soft," Amelia cooed, rubbing it against her cheek before offering it with a smile to a lady.

We met the man whose room was filled with cat posters, the woman whose ceiling had dozens of wind chimes hanging overhead, the bright-eyed woman with no legs.  In one room, Wyatt carefully lay a bear by a sleeping man so as not to wake him.  In another, we chatted with two women watching The Price is Right.   One woman's speech was slow and labored by a stroke, but her slurred words still ring in my ears.  "Thank you.  I love it."

I continue to be amazed by the simple power of one to make an impact on the least of these.  One small boy's gift turned into three small children's gifts, which snowballed with another lady's gifts.

On those days when I feel insignificant or when I feel I just don't have enough money to make a big enough impact to counter the massive needs and hurting in this world, I need to take a step back and remember how the simple things can sometimes give the most joy to others.

We must learn from a little child just how important it is for us to keep giving of ourselves.  We never know when our solitary actions may lead to someone else coming alongside us, expanding the impact until it reaches so many more than we could have ever reached on our own.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

When Mothers Embrace the Silence

I rocked my baby today.  Pulled him gently onto my lap and cradled his head into the crook of my arm, just like I used to do when I could easily carry him from room to room.

My eight-year-old rarely needs love like this much anymore.  Then again, most days don't find him exhausted from an early morning's wake-up call as we strive to turn back the clock for school's start next week.  That combined with a small body worn from last weekend's bout with strep was enough to tip the scales towards a teary meltdown when he crashed heads with his brother.

When I held out my arms, he snuggled into me without hesitation, a broken little boy swallowed up inside mommy's big Mr. Bingle blanket with the ice cream cone "hat."  Long legs bent to curl around me, but unlike the last time he needed my lap, they stuck out well beyond the confines of the La-z-boy to kick the books atop the sofa's end table.

Still, I held him as if he fit perfectly (which he did), stroked the softness of his still-little-boy face, noticed the distinct outline of his lips, the blue green flecks in his brown eyes that focused intently on my face while I spoke words of comfort.  

"Just close your eyes and rest for a few minutes," I whispered.  "I'll sing you a song from when you were little."

Long lashes flickered then fell.

"Love. Love. Love, love.  Little Wyatt needs some love.  Needs some lovin' from his mommy.  Love, love. Love."

A slight smile tipped the edges of his mouth at the mention of his name, but he did not stir.  The minutes passed.  I rocked slowly and held him close, humming the soothing tune in an effort to slow down time against the rush of to-do lists and noise of twins almost finished eating lunch in the kitchen. 

In the stillness, I listened to his breathing, grasping this moment for all it was worth, unsure of when it would come again.

He finally opened his eyes again, tearing welling up as he finally gave voice to unspoken concerns of leaving the farm and not having anymore one on one time with his Opa once school started next week.

I understand.

He's already learning a bittersweet lesson from life, how this fallen world leaves us with our hearts divided among many people, many places.  How the fullness of loving someone is also accompanied by absence when separated.

Lately, I have been learning the power of silence, of just sitting and listening to the empty air, of waiting in the pregnant pauses without counting the minutes in patience or seeking to fill it with mere noise.  The creak of an unoiled spring, the repetitive thrum of a ceiling fan, the rush of water in the sink...

if I just allow myself only these sounds in the silence and not seek to fill it with thoughts of my own, that's when my children reveal themselves to me, when their thoughts unfurl like a sun-warmed rose into the emptiness and give me the chance to be the mother I so long to be.

Image: Oldest son wrapped in another blanket during Mexico week at our house this summer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hiding in My Shadow

As the sun rises higher above the treetops, I awaken still sleepy children and hustle them through the morning routine of dressing, brushing of teeth and hair, and consuming a quick breakfast of milk and cheerios.  The rush seems ridiculous on what will soon be just another lazy summer day, but no one complains.  The past few weeks have taught even the little ones of this necessity.

In south Louisiana, the ninety plus degree heat coupled with nearly 100% humidity makes for a perfect sauna but a rather difficult environment to play and work in after about 11 am.  The longer it takes to get outside, the higher the sun.  The higher the sun, the more sweaty and irritable everyone will be.

This morning, though, the air is unusually brisk for mid July, a surprise gift left behind after a late night shower that swept quietly through our farm while the world slept.   Still, I know it won't last. 

Before the stifling Louisiana heat can reclaim its summer throne, we four tumble out the door for our morning mile--two journeys up and down the gravel drive.  We walk from sun to shade to sun again.  Our feet move swiftly as the sun presses down hard on our heads, then unconsciously we slow within the shadow of the trees and hay barns.

The morning run/walk may be for exercise, but for my children, it is an exciting excursion.  This week alone, the children have spotted a fuzzy wuzzy caterpillar climbing a dewy blade of grass, a freshly squashed toad with its "heart" displayed outside its body (or so says my eldest), and piles of red and yellow leaves, a promise of the autumn to come.

Today finds all three underfoot, as usual.  Difficult for a mother trying to increase speed and heart rates. 

"We're hiding in your shadow!" says one.  The other two quickly join in the game.

Three tones of happy laughter join the songbirds' morning hymn.  I can't help but smile at this song of childhood which is contagious as the three skip and leap, jockeying for position, all trying valiantly to find my always-moving shadow and rest within its shade. 

Daughter's shadow disappears within mine for a split second before reappearing behind, her long legs stepping high to catch up again.  Both sons try but fail to completely vanish beside me.

"I'd need to be a lot wider to hide either of you anymore," I laugh. "You've gotten too big."

Logic is irrelevant, and they repeatedly keep trying to seek shelter within the thin strip of protective darkness I cast.  Soon, we turn a bend in the road, the sun's angle shifting to where our shadows now walk before rather than beside us.

All three finally concede the impossibility of what they've been attempting and race ahead.

The moment of needing mommy has passed, and all scatter to make their own way.  Daughter lags behind in pursuit of something in nature that catches her eye.  Oldest son runs far ahead, ever desiring to be first to beat his younger brother who stoops before me to examine a rock.
I can't help but think of Jesus' words as he entered Jerusalem before his death: "'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!'" (Lk. 13:34).

The verse hearkens back to the Psalmist who wrote, "How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings." (Ps. 36:7).

Even in their shadow play, my children remind me of both my desire and my inability to protect them.  I long to be that mama hen who gathers her brood to hide them in the shadow of my wings, but I am insufficient for the task.  I'm simply not "big enough"  

My God, though, is "big enough."  No matter the sun's angle, my brood can fully rest within His shadow, completely protected. 

With summer's end just a few short weeks away and my twins starting school for the first time, I rest in this thought, knowing His shadow is large enough when all three of my independent little chicks leave my side.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Following the Hurricane (Whether I Want to or Not)

I am not a fan of inclement weather.  My children will readily tell you the first thing this mother prays aloud for each time she sees an Elijah-sized thundercloud headed my direction is, "Please, Lord, don't let the electricity go out."

There was a time when storms were exciting--cancelled school, strong winds to play outside in, eating hot dogs and baked beans on a Bunsen burner, and the homey smell of oil lamps burning.  Then came the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and suddenly, the romance of hurricane days was no more.

Mental images still flash through my mind as clear as any glossy photo in my hand--images of around-the-block lines at the gas stations for weeks after the storm, of bread and milk rationing at the grocery store, of the hum of generators instead of the hum of crickets and the fear that I couldn't pull start the machine again if it ran out of gas during the night. And that was all while living north of Interstate 12, away from the worst ravaging in New Orleans and along the Louisiana coast.

A month later, Hurricane Rita followed with more power outages, and a few short years later, another hurricane barreled through.  That time, I rode out the storm with a two year old and infant twins, the winds blowing hard enough to bring the impossibly tall pine in the front yard level with the earth, all while I huddled indoors concerned about my babies sleeping without their window AC unit.

Tonight as I write this, another hurricane blows sheets of rain sideways against the house windows again, only the house is not mine.

Months ago, my parents and I began planning a trip to visit my sister in love, Liza, while my brother, Johnathan, was deployed overseas on the U.S.S. Bataan.  We only thought we were leaving Louisiana for a fourth of July party and good family fun with my children loving all over their Aunt Liza.  Never did we consider God had us coming at this particular time for a very different reason.

Even when we left home and started driving north, we thought surely the storm would head out to sea, but it has persistently hugged the coast, inching westward just enough to bring the storm to her home and to me and my children once again.  

Hurricane Arthur is only a Category Two storm, with 100 mph winds, nothing like Katrina, and it's expected to make landfall just east of Liza's home later this evening, putting us on the "good" side of the storm as it glances off the coast and continues northward to New England and beyond.  Still,the winds whip hard, strange whistling noises spooking the cat who grows big-eyed at my feet and scurries for cover in some dark corner.

I don't understand the Sovereignty of God.  I don't understand how both God's Sovereignty and man's free will coexist simultaneously.  Yet, by faith, I believe they do.   I have to.  To believe in coincidence and random acts with no meaning or purpose is chaos and doesn't line up with too much of what Scripture tells me.

In that faith, I know God sent my family here to be with Liza to "ride out the storm" with her, not because she needs us to really do anything much.  But because I know it gives her and my brother half a world away both a good measure of comfort knowing we're here.

To me, our presence in this hurricane with Liza is like God saying to both Johnathan and Liza, "Do not fear, for I am with you.  I'm still here. I'm still in control.  I'm taking care of you both even though you may not see me and things may not be easy."

These are the moments when I feel God the most near, when I see the impossible line up to the possible, when I see how God uses me to bless another even when I wasn't aware I was doing anything that could be used for His glory.

Friday, June 20, 2014

When Strangers Become Family

It was August 2009 when I finally gathered enough courage to begin taking my trio of terror to the library.  The twins were a few months shy of one year old, which meant the trip involved the limousine stroller, complete with its bulldozer-type handling.

I distinctly remember keeping the babies firmly strapped in their seats--completely against their will, of course.  I also remember being hyper conscious of every sound they made and madly buying their silence with a golden bribe known to mothers everywhere--Cheerios.

Lots of them. Doled out one at a time and shoved--along with an entire fist--into little bird mouths. 

Big brother Wyatt fell instantly in love with this book haven, and just like that, we started a weekly routine of visiting the children's section.  Every Tuesday morning, I would stroll through the electronic front doors of our local branch to check out 15 books--no more simply because no more would squeeze in the cloth bag with the quaint sunbonnet dolls printed on it. And no less because if more could fit, then my then two-year-old would make them fit.

At some point during those first few months, one of the librarians at the front desk told me I had just missed Storytime, which just so happened to be held every Tuesday morning.  The next week, we made it on time. 

The library became our sanctuary.  It was the first place I felt my children were expected to be children....were accepted as children, were celebrated as children.  Tables, chairs, and crayons beckoned them to come in and stay awhile, no matter their occasional lack of inside voices. There before an entire wall of glass, we put together countless puzzles and read even more books together.

It wasn't long before we were on a first name basis with most of the librarians, and while members of our precious librarian family have come and gone over the years, there has been one constant since our first visit--Mrs. Annie.

To say my children love Mrs. Annie is to minimize how integral a part of our family she has become. 

She has read to my children almost every week at Storytime for the past five years.  She's sung ridiculously silly songs, created amazingly cool kid crafts that have lived on my fridge, and has been patient when my trio wanted to "help" restack the carpet squares before we were finished using them.

When Wyatt started Kindergarten two years ago, his greatest regret was not leaving his mother at home but rather missing Storytime.  Since then, during summer break and holidays, he has always been excited to rejoin his siblings and Mrs. Annie for this hour of fun, no matter that he's now taller than most of the other children and is surrounded by many noisy babies and toddlers.
Time with our favorite librarian didn't end with Storytime, though.  The first "Mrs. Annie" event was pumpkin decorating when Wyatt wasn't quite three.   Since then, virtually every month has found us calendaring some excitement with Mrs. Annie.    In years past, she's guided my children through Egypt and helped them become Master Librarians from The Magic Tree House series.  The past twelve months alone have seen my children playing Valentine BINGO with Mrs. Annie as well as attending Dinosaur, Dr. Seuss, Turtle Power, and Elephant & Piggie parties with Mrs. Annie.

For three summers, our friend has been the one to gently encourage my children to fully participate in the Summer Reading Program (even when this mother wasn't sure she was up to the challenge) so that now, it's not a question of if we'll read the fifty books to earn all our raffle tickets for a bike but when we'll read them.

Two weeks ago, we learned Mrs. Annie was leaving for a new job.  My heart felt the loss so much that I didn't tell the children for several days, and when I did, they met the news with an equally long pause of perfect silence.  It's not often I can leave my children speechless. 

Every day, my trio asks if today is her last day.  The second question is "Will we ever see Mrs. Annie again?"  I assure them that we will, even if just on Facebook (where I'm sure they'll stalk her photos for awhile).

In the Fall, the twins start Kindergarten, leaving Storytime behind, so in a way, it seems a fitting end to this season of life, to know that as our family is passing on to new things, the face of the library will change as well.

We will continue to make new friends and adopted "family" at our local library, all while knowing that the changing seasons of this life are made special by the people who inhabit them.  I thank God above that for this five year season, He blessed us with a Mrs. Annie whom we could love and who would love us back.

One day when my little ones are turning grey, themselves, I know we will sit around with the photo albums and share fond memories of the librarian who was the first to cultivate in them a love of books.

We love you, Mrs. Annie.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Worm Guts and Mosquito Bites

The children have begged me to take them fishing for two years now.  Begged.   As in the hands and knees kind of persistent groveling.

It's not that big of a stretch to understand why--we live on a farm with a pond full of whatever fish God has seen fit to rain in it.  My children have grown up seeing it almost every day, completely unaware of the gut-sucking panic this mother has experienced every time they have gone near its watery depths for fear of them falling in and drowning or finding a poisonous moccasin hiding in the reeds.

All they saw, though, was an opportunity for fun.

Pond = fishing.  Right?

I am many things, but a fisher-woman is not one of them.  At any given moment, I could easily rattle off a hundred or so reasons why my children + fishing  was a bad idea.  I understand the thrill of the catch.  My daddy and I used to fish at my great-grandma's old farm place, so like most people, I have my own story of the big one that got away.  I distinctly remember the day he flashed his tail fin into the air as if to brag that we'd never catch him (and we didn't).

I also remember daddy doing all the work--threading the bait on the hooks, taking the fish off the hooks, and letting them splash hard through his glove-covered hands and back into the depths.   He was the one who cast our lines far enough out to give us a chance at catching that big one.  He was also the one with the hook stuck in his skin when my brother or I failed to hit the target.

Then, there is the memory of ever-present mosquitoes who make a bee-line for my particular blood type or the very vivid memory of donating blood to a catfish's barb.  If I could get past those very rational fears, there was still the knowledge that I would be the one sending night crawlers to a watery death, all for catch-and-release entertainment, and that's not to mention the waiting....waiting....waiting (yawn!) for the fish to decide they want to eat said night crawler.

My first excuse was that my children lacked proper equipment, never mind that my brother and I routinely went crawfishing with string, a cane pole, and leftover chicken mama was throwing out. Thanks to a benevolent Aunt Liza and Uncle Johnathan, all three were gifted equipped with their own pint-sized fishing rods, complete with images of various Disney characters all smiling as if to say, "This is going to be great!!!" So much for that excuse.   

Excuse #2 was that the children didn't know how to use a rod and reel.  And so, we spent too many hours practicing our casting in the yard.  Actually, this mother spent too many hours untangling their lines from whatever they'd managed to wrap it around.  The BBQ grill, the oak tree, the cat.  No matter how far apart I placed my three children when they began casting lessons, it never failed that after a few minutes, one child's line would be knotted with another child's line, which would inevitably become knotted with the third child's line when he would come to "help." 

Even after a year of off-and-on practice, just the thought of giving my children a real hook versus the rubber fish used for practice gave me fingers-down-a-chalkboard shivers.  Excuse #2 was alive and kicking.

I tried to pawn the job off onto my husband or my in-laws, gave hints that had to be obvious.  Still, nobody took the bait. Obviously, they, too, thought this was about as fun as a root canal.

Earlier this summer, though, I finally caved in to the pleading and promises of their firstborn children and blind obedience if only I'd take them.  Please?

Instead of an easy date night on the sofa with husband, I was the sweaty, mosquito-bitten, nauseous woman repeatedly pinching thick earthworms into smaller pieces with my fingernails, all while praying aloud for forgiveness as I wove their writhing forms on the hook. I was also the woman ducking for cover as empty hooks floated perilously through the air towards me when the fish stole their bait (again).

That first evening, oldest son, Wyatt, caught three small fish. Bass.  Perch. 

Listening to the screams, you'd have thought they were great whoppers with solid gold scales.  The welcoming committee leaped skyward with child-like excitement, enjoyed the terrified fish for a minute or two, then returned them to their habitat so they could grow into a future meal. 
The twins didn't have their brother's luck, even when they cast in the same location under the branches of the cypress trees.  Amelia caught a bass but failed to land it.   And poor Emerson watched his bobber merely jiggle for over an hour with no results.  Thankfully, they were happy for their big brother and excited for their "next time" fishing, when they did catch their own fish.

As the day's light began to fade, I returned home with worm guts under my fingernails and red spotted appendages from giving blood to a swarm of hungry insects.

I headed straight for the hot water, soap, and hand sanitizer on top of that.

When my children ask what love looks like, I'll point to memories such as this one.  This is the meaning of love.  It is doing for others what you would never do for yourself.  It is self sacrifice for another's happiness.  It is doing what you thought you couldn't or simply didn't want to, all because someone else wanted you to walk with them.

Love is just as the title says--worm guts and mosquito bites.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Summer School" Needn't Be a Bad Word

A two-week hiatus from this blog can mean only one thing—summer has returned to the farm.

The cicadas have marched forth for their every thirteenth-year visit, filling our ears with a constant background hum.  Even from inside my house, it sounds like a slowly circling ceiling fan someone forgot to turn off somewhere deep in the forest. 

All flora that is going to wake up from its long winter’s nap has already done so with great flourish, highlighting how hard this past winter’s ice storm was on the land.  I cut these losses and bury more life within the warm earth, praying for the increase.

Then, there are the longer evenings when the coolness accompanying the descending sun re-energizes both old and young, calling us all to after supper tromps through the briar patch in search of luscious blackberries for cobbler and even later dips in the swimming pool. 

In the end, all this summer means the dinner table is oft left until long after we are mere shadows against the failing light and the mosquitoes come hunting, drawn to our sweat.

And in the midst of it all comes a transformation where oldest son’s days become mine again.  We become a round-the-clock family again—always in each other’s way, for better or worse. 

An empty calendar lays before me.  Two short months.  All in the time in the world is given to me as my children’s mother.  It is mine to use or to waste, to choose what has worth and what does not.  It is this choosing that has occupied my extra hours for well over a month now, determining what mommy’s summer school would look like.

However, it’s not so much a filling in of calendar blocks with activities that has consumed me, but slowly putting into place new habits for us to all begin practicing over the summer, habits that we won’t leave behind come August but that we will carry with us over the next year and into the years to come.

Earlier in 2014, our family instituted the evening thankful journal, teaching us all to change the way we look at life, to daily give gratitude to God and find the good even in the bad circumstances.  Those lists have slowly grown over the months so that even my youngest children have listed over 500 things they have been thankful for this year.  It has made a dramatic difference in our household.

This habit was quickly paired with a second one--family prayer time where no longer would the children simply listen to husband and me pray.  Instead, we began giving them a safe place to learn how to pray aloud every day, a place where it’s ok to whisper, “I don’t know what to pray for” and ok to forget somebody’s name and have to stop your prayer until mommy fills in the missing piece.   

Two weeks ago, our family began summer vacation early, adding a few more habits to our summer calendar.  The first involved memorizing Scripture, something I as a mother have always failed miserably at.  Upon looking into my boys’ RoyalAmbassadors troop activities, there was a goal of 75 verses a year.  Let's just say that number was more than a little intimidating for this mother of three young children.  But when I broke it down, I realized that would mean working with my children to memorize less than two Scripture verses a week.  Two.  Surely that was do-able? 
This week marks our third practicing of this new habit, and I’ve been surprised with my children’s youthful ability to memorize.  Starting Monday morning at the breakfast table, we begin practicing our two verses for our "test" each Friday.  I can see in my children's eyes that it means something that their mother is taking the plunge and learning alongside them.  I correct them when they miss a word and they correct me as well.  Together, we hide those words away in our hearts for the tough days this life will bring.

The second habit added to our summer calendar involves activities to help our children think beyond themselves and their immediate sphere of influence, to become more mission minded.  One way we are doing this is by learning and praying about the countries around the world, a different country each week.  Together, the children and I check out and read several books from our local library, cook at least one authentic recipe from There's a Missionary Loose in the Kitchen, and pray specifically for the country's needs as listed in Operation World.  Last week involved playing with a boomerang and watching The Rescuers Down Under as part of our study of Australia.  This week's Mexico theme found us making maracas and dressing up in a sombrero for a photo op.   
It's fun.  It's exciting.  The goal, though, is to develop little hearts that love the nations as Jesus does.

Add in a daily dose of math and English worksheets, VBS at Grandmama's, summer reading programs at the library, and a trip to see Aunt Liza at the beach, and summer will be here and gone before I know it.

In the past, I have struggled with the months of June and July.  Summer has always been about do, do, do...along with the accompanying guilt over "what I didn't get to do."  But this year, I am trying to change the purpose of these months.  It's no longer about squeezing in as much as possible as it is about using that more relaxed space of time to develop life-changing habits, habits that we can take forward as a family throughout the rest of the year.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finding Grace In the Sorrow

Death is common to children raised on a farm.

Those tiny baby bird eggs that fell out of the nest in today's wind storm?  Yes, it's probably too late, but yes, it's also okay if Opa helps put them back in the nest "just in case."

The football sized bumblebee barely moving on the carport?  Yes, he's really dying, but yes, it's also okay if you make him a comfortable habitat in an empty milk carton until he dies. 

Those two baby chicks crumpled and still in the corner of their pen?  No, they're not sleeping.  They're already dead. That's why God hatches so many.

Although the lady in the feed store tried to shoo my kids to another aisle once she realized there were dead chicks in the pen, I have never shielded my children from death.  To them, death has been presented as simply a part of life, not at all how God intended life to be but just how it is as a consequence of Adam and Eve's choice to sin in the garden. 

When they were still toddlers, I began taking my three children to wakes and funerals with me, not because I couldn't find a babysitter but because I wanted them to encounter death before someone of monumental importance to them died.  I didn't hold them in the far back of the room either, away from the open casket.  Tiny hands gripped tightly in mine, I would march my brood forward, then give them time to look at the shell of the person I had loved and to ask me questions.  By age two, one of my children would explain to anyone who would listen that the person in the coffin wasn't "in there" anymore.  He had "hatched."

As a result of this matter of fact attitude, I routinely find my children having "funerals" in the backyard.  Heaven only knows how many dead beetles, caterpillars, and lizard heads they've buried with my garden trowel in too-shallow graves.

As much as they understand death, though, that doesn't mean we don't cry.  That doesn't mean we aren't sad and sometimes even angry.  That doesn't mean we don't wish death didn't exist.  It simply means we understand just how much different what should be and what is are.  And it makes us long even more for the day when Jesus returns and death is no more.

Today was one of those days when the sting of death hit our whole family hard.  And yet, even in an afternoon of soul-crushing little girl tears and big boy clingy-ness, the children and I were able to see God's mercy and grace.

That heavenly grace started flowing early in the morning when husband decided to go in late to work in order to mow the lawn before the rains hit, something he never does.

An hour later, my daughter and I found Anya, my oldest son's three year old cat.  Although there were no physical marks on her Russian blue fur, it was obvious she was in bad shape, the result of a brief attack by my in-law's dog.

As I sat on the floor and ran my hand down her back, I knew it was too late.  But because he was at home, husband was able to take her to the vet.  There, the doctors were flummoxed over how no external damage could had resulted in such internal damage. 

Two hours later, they took her back to surgery and discovered the reason--her intestines were eaten up with cancer. Just as happened almost four years ago with our first cat, she simply never woke up.

Even amidst an afternoon of tears and Wyatt's sorrowful questions about "who will sleep on my bed with me?," "who will wake me up every morning?," and "who will eat cheese with me?," I was able to communicate how God had allowed this horrible thing to happen in order to save Anya a lot of pain and suffering since we wouldn't have known about the disease until she had suffered greatly.

It is that knowledge of grace and mercy that makes it a little easier even for this mother when the back of the sofa is empty tonight.  In that knowledge was even thankfulness as Amelia gave thanks that we "found Anya" and that she didn't simply disappear without us ever knowing what happened.

When the lights go down for the evening, I snuggle with my big boy and pull the universe beneath our chins.  He speaks of Hannah waking him up this morning, of her already filling Anya's paws.  Right on cue, her hulking calico form leaps onto the bed and comes to sit Sphinx-style on his chest, begging for love and attention in exchange for her rumbling purr and affection.

In that moment, we both can't help but smile and share a giggle, that gaping hole in our hearts taking its first step towards healing.

Images: Anya looking at the window at the birds & happier days with a mound of freshly harvested catnip.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

An Act of Faith

The children are all tucked away in bed when I finally reach into the mail slot by the back door where husband leaves the day's offerings.  

Usually, it's just bills, insurance confusion, and enough junk mail to make me feel guilty about how many forests have been killed on my account.  But today, there's a card addressed to my three children.

I check the return address and pause.  It takes a few seconds, but the synapses finally fire.  It's a card from Liza and Johnathan, my brother and sister in love.  "How sweet," I think, and put it to the side for the children to open tomorrow morning.

Half an hour later, I glance at the unopened envelope again, my brain jolting with the realization of why it took me so long to reconcile the address with my brother and his wife.  This isn't from Liza.  This isn't her large swirling font that always fills each line to capacity.  What's more, where the stamp should be, the word "FREE" is handwritten in purple, something my unconscious recognized as "wrong" enough to make me pause even though my conscious was kept in the dark. 

The tiny, cramped handwriting belongs to Johnathan, my brother tucked halfway around the world on the U.S.S. Bataan. 

I rip open the card, no matter that it's not really addressed to me.  I drink in every word, searching for something in the nothing he's written but still thankful for the words sent our way, only the second piece of mail from him thus far.

Since Johnathan deployed in February, our family has made more trips to the local post office than normal.  In fact, the last time I was on a first name basis with a postal worker was before Johnathan was married during a tour in Iraq.

Each week, the twins and I make the trek down to the beige building with the flag flapping in the breeze overhead.  We give of our time to send love his way, the only thing we can do other than pray, a second gift of love we offer as a family each night. 

In the envelopes, I include a handwritten letter, a story or drawing the children made, and whatever nonsense and goodies can fit to send across the ocean.

Patriotic twizzlers, 400 tootsie pops with Bible verses attached, jelly beans, and 1000 piece puzzles to help pass the time.  I hand it all across the counter, pay the postage, and trust that my package will reach him.

As Oliver O'Toole says in Hallmark's sappy new television show about the dead letter division of the U.S. Postal Service, "Putting a stamp on a letter and sending it out there into the world is an act of faith."

I'd never thought of it that way before, but the quotation has resonated with me ever since.

An act of faith.

It's not just snail mail, though.  My texts and emails require that faith, too, a faith that my words will reach their destination.  I send them out, assume the recipient has read my words, and move forward.

A week before Easter, though, that faith was being tested daily.  My brother hadn't received any of my packages.  It had been two months with my weekly sending of letters, and still, nothing.  That faith in the U.S. Postal service waned a good bit as the children and I (along with my mother and his mother-in-law) wondered where all our mail was going!?

On Good Friday, Johnathan walked into his cabin to find his bunk covered in boxes--all the missing packages we'd sent so far had all arrived at once.  The next day, all our letters arrived in bulk, too....just in time for Easter.

Talk about perfect timing.

It is an act of faith for me to send a letter forth into the world.  But it's not faith in the postal service.  It's faith in the sovereignty of God.

In God's sovereignty, He knew my brother would be most lonely at Easter, a time when we usually celebrate together as a family.  And so, God allowed the mail to be crazy delayed and all arrive at once, at the perfect time to surround my brother at Easter time with the love of His family.

There's another box on my table waiting for me to send it on its way, hopefully in time for my brother's birthday in June.  But if it doesn't reach him by then, that's ok, too.  My faith is in the One who determines when and if it arrives, not in the one who cancels the stamps on my package.