20 reminders every parent needs

Cindi and I still marvel that the good folks at Lincoln General let us walk—not once but twice—right out their front door with eight plus pounds of squirming human being.

No OB nurse administered a parenting exam. We didn’t have to put our hands on a Bible and swear anything. We were never required to appear before a review board of pediatricians, social workers, and clergy. I’m telling you…renting a steam cleaner at True Value is harder.

We brought those babies home and what followed was a blur of poopy diapers and amoxycillin prescriptions, birthday parties and homework. Ten thousand trips to Super 1 later, before anyone could say “adolescence,” we were filling out the FAFSA for the final time and moving sofa sleepers to Nashville.

Our sons are grown. Our nest is empty. I suppose we got to this place the same two ways people go bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. Now days our house stays extremely tidy. Usually it’s so still I could hear a pin drop (except there’s no one around to drop a pin). I read once, “Children make so much noise you can hardly stand it—then depart, leaving the house so quiet you think you’ll go mad.” I get it. God knows I get it.

Because of things I did during the peak parenting years—and lots of things I didn’t—I know this: I was not an All-Star Dad. Among other regrets, I was a workaholic. So, for example, the year my boys were 8 and 4, I was too busy helping write a parenting book to actually be an engaged parent. (You can’t make such stuff up.)

I learned some painful parenting lessons through personal failure. And to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I also “observed a lot just by watching” others. Ironically, if I were beginning the parenting adventure today, I like to think I’d be a much better dad. (I want to ask God about that one day—why is it that right about the time we start to figure out some things, it turns out our time is nearly up?) Anyway, here are some parenting truths I’ve become convinced of….

  • “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone (And all the parents said, “Amen!”)
  • When your kids are small, be oh-so-careful…you can’t get those years back.
  • That famous Bible verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” is a proverb (an observation about how life usually works). It is not a promise. Taking your child to church, sending him/her to Christian camp, etc. are good things. But they don’t guarantee anything. Every parent wants to find the sure-fire “secret” for raising perfect kids. There’s not one. If God had given us a formula, why would we need faith?
  • Our natural tendency is to try to mold our kids into what we think they should be. Our supernatural calling is to help our kids become what God wants them to be.
  • We often fall into the trap of thinking our child’s external behavior is the point. It’s not. The real issue is what’s going on in their hearts. Put your focus there.
  • Woe to the parent who says, “My child would NEVER…”
  • Childlike faith is a very real thing. So is the childlike desire to say and do things that will please mommy and daddy. Take care that your spiritual concern doesn’t morph into a subtle form of spiritual coercion or manipulation.
  • We are powerless to change our kids or save our kids or see to it they embrace the right values and beliefs. Only God can do such things. Our job description is to love, pray, serve, model, listen, be attentive and available, and slowly let go.
  • There are “AWOL parents” who are self-absorbed and checked out. There are “helicopter parents” who hover, smother, and control. Trust me, the offspring of both varieties have a rough go later in life.
  • Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. And it’s more art than science. Pray for creativity and adaptability and humility in rearing your children.
  • And speaking of rears and children…disciplining kids for the wrong reasons or in the wrong spirit is as bad as not disciplining them at all.
  • You will screw up. You will also, to some degree, screw up your kids. Do not despair. God is bigger than your mess-ups. Do what a friend told me years ago: Throw a few dollars in a jar each week. When your kids are grown, tell them you tried your best, and that you’re sorry for all your failures. Give them the cash and encourage them to go work through their baggage with a good counselor. My friend—a great parent by the way—was mostly joking. I’m being totally serious.
  • When you mess up, fess up. Admit your failures. Ask forgiveness. Grace flows where humility lives.
  • You need others in your corner. There is some wisdom in the old saying that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Form alliances and support groups with others in the parenting trenches. Lean on grandparents, teachers, and youth leaders. Pick the brains of more knowledgeable and experienced parents.
  • Realize that each child born is unique in the history of the world. No other kid has (or has ever had) your baby’s DNA, temperament, and mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Meaning, even if you already have four children, you’re a rookie when it comes to parenting the fifth. Give yourself lots of grace.
  • The“experts” who write all those wise parenting books have some good things to say. Your know-it-all-friend (with the easy kid) might have some wisdom too. But they also never had to raise your particular child.
  • Don’t forget that God uses our kids to help us parents finish growing up. When your child does something that triggers something in you, that’s a prompt: Be humble enough to search your own heart.
  • Beware of the temptation to turn your children into your personal trophies. Your kids exist for God’s glory, not yours.
  • Your children—ultimately—are not “your” children. They’re on loan from God. (This is so easy to spout and so hard to live out.)
  • God made your children. He understands them far better and loves them far more deeply than you ever will.

A postscript…Cindi and I have plans to meet our sons in the mountains this summer. Everyone is pumped about being together. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about anybody’s parenting, but it says an awful lot about God’s grace and goodness.

In my book, those two theological facts are the greatest parenting reminders of all.

 

Why Grover’s Corners is the best day trip for the New Year

Chris Drumm, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2isFlCB

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

Stage Manager, Our Town

Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, opens in the year 1901. His three-act story follows the daily, mundane events of a few families in Grover’s Corners…events which, when all strung together, encapsulate the beauty and mystery of life…mostly unappreciated until it’s over.

Not much has changed in a hundred or so years. Most of us spend our days sleep-walking through the daily-ness of our existence, taking for granted the gifts of health, family, employment, hot water, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We stare through people and rush through moments to get to “the next thing.”

But what if it’s true, as someone has said, that “The divine moment is the present moment”? If divine is to be “of, from, or like God…or excellent; delightful” then each moment holds incredible power. Shouldn’t our perspective change when we remember that each moment offers us an opportunity to influence the human heart—our own and other’s—for good or ill?

To make things interesting, add Simone Weil’s words about beauty and affliction being the only things to pierce the human heart. And let’s be honest, it’s usually affliction which causes us to appreciate the beauty.

In early December I had what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill infection. However, my visit to the doctor turned into some unexpected tests and waiting! For most people this scenario would be a nuisance at best and a bit troublesome at worst. But for a woman with a PhD in hypochondria, this was the beginning of my end.

Len says I’m a walking medical miracle. In our early years of marriage, I was routinely cured of cancers, heart attacks, and a variety of other life-threatening illnesses. It was common for me to say as we drifted off to sleep, “If you wake up and I’m dead, I have a headache…so it was probably an aneurism.”

After a couple of weeks of waiting for results and a referral to a specialist, I had worked myself up to the real possibility that this could be my last Christmas. What if it was?

As residents of the universal Grover’s Corners, we all know death is a reality. And yet every time we hear of someone passing, our jaws drop as if a Cosmic Congress voted at midnight to slip a mortality amendment into the constitution of life.

I have friends who have received actual diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses. I always feel bad for them and pray for them. (Only to be encouraged by their positive outlook in spite of their fuzzy immediate future) But with my recent health scare I was forced to embrace the truth that we’re all terminal. Most of us just don’t know what we’re dying of yet.

For those of us who claim to believe in the stage manager’s “eternal,” the reality of death shouldn’t hold so much power. We might be healed in a temporal sense along the road of life and live to a ripe old age. But if not, we can find solace in the promise of “ultimate healing” in heaven where there is “no more sorrow, no more tears”…no more fear of terminal illnesses. (revised Cindi version)

But I’m greedy. Even though I have had an embarrassment of riches with the life I’ve already lived, I want more! The truth is, often the world my eyes can see brings more comfort than the hope of the one I can’t…even if it’s to be better. Many days my faith is on the life-support verse of Mark 9:24b, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Practicing faith at my house involves not looking up dire scenarios on the Johns Hopkins website.

With my renewed zeal for the precious commodity of time, I realize I have squandered millions of moments. A reflection by the deceased Simon Stimson, from Our Town, sums it up best:

…That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.

Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, this earthly gig will end for us all. So what if I get “the call?” What if you do? How do we want to be living in light of dying?

In the third act of Our Town, one of the main characters, Emily, dies and takes her place among the rest of the cemetery residents and they matter-of-factly discuss how the living “don’t get it.” Emily wants to go back and witness one day of her life, thinking it will be a great joy. Against the counsel of her grave-mates, she chooses her twelfth birthday. After only a few minutes into the flashback, she realizes how the living, really do “miss it”…miss life as it’s happening.

Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks at the stage manager and asks abruptly through tears) Do any humans beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Walter and Jack arrived home on the 23rd. I spent hours in the kitchen stirring love into soups, cookies, and coffee cakes. Our little family watched movies and ate popcorn dripping with butter. We worked puzzles, played scrabble and laughed. We talked about the previous years accomplishments and hopes for 2017. I leaned into the Christmas tree and breathed deep the smell of sweet pine. I stared at Len and the boys when they weren’t looking and thanked God for these three gifts. We were in the present together. It was exactly how I would want to spend my last Christmas.

I have some exciting professional opportunities in 2017. Chances are good I will be around to see what (if anything) happens, but you never know. And I’m getting okay with that. Why waste the blessings right in front of me worrying about a reality I can’t change?

We have a grapevine wreath wrapped with little white lights that hangs above the French doors leading into our den. I love those lights but usually stop myself from using them with the thought, “If you use them now they might burn out when you really want them for a special occasion.”

My mortality reality check and a day trip to Grover’s Corners have shown me that today is the special occasion—this very moment a gift.

Life’s too short to not use twinkle lights.

Working the night shift at the Bethlehem Motel

Jeremy Brooks, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2imaaNe
Jeremy Brooks, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2imaaNe

The night manager of the Bethlehem Motel tossed the cup of old, cold coffee into the trash can and gave a quick, end-of-shift report.

By dusk, every last room had been snatched up. But when he flicked the switch so the sign out by the highway could announce to travelers, “NO Vacancy,” nothing happened. The repairman had obviously not come as promised. The night manager said he marched straight over to the computer and fired off a strongly-worded email to the City of David Sign Company.

He spent the rest of the night, he said, glaring at that “lying sign” and turning away an endless parade of people. All night long, they kept tromping into his lobby, tracking up the place, asking for non-existent rooms, then asking could they at least use the restroom. He rubbed his eyes. “Government-mandated travel might be great for motel owners…it sucks for motel workers.”

By 9 he was out of clean towels. By 9:30 he was getting a steady stream of complaints about there being no hot water. At 10, he had to call Room 106—twice—to tell them to hold it down. Then, around midnight, once everyone was finally settling in, he could have sworn he heard a baby crying. “From somewhere out back,” he motioned over his shoulder with his thumb.

Around 1, the squalling kicked up again. Maybe it’s a cat? he thought. The night manager walked over to the housekeeping closet and grabbed a mop handle. He locked the office and slipped out the rear entrance to do a walk-around, have a smoke.

That’s when he saw them. They were running toward the motel, from over by the old self-storage place. Four or five high school boys, maybe frat guys from the college—it was hard to tell in the darkness. They stopped when they got to the vending machines by the pool.

He yelled an empty threat—about calling the cops. They busted out laughing and hollered back—all at once, the heavyset one saying something about angels, it sounded like, the others jabbering on about other things that made even less sense. They were drunk, or high—anyone could see that. One of them suddenly looked up at the moon, howled like a wolf and took off. The others whooped and jostled each other as they followed him around the side of the building.

“So…just another night at the office, I guess — a full house, a cat that wouldn’t shut up, and some crazy college kids doing God only knows what….I don’t know when I’ve been this tired.”

As he moved toward the door, he looked over his shoulder at the day manager. “See if you can get ahold of those sign people. Tell ’em we want that thing fixed today.”

A whole heart in a broken body

mom-the-nurseThe first time Len introduced me to his mom was in January of 1987. I was nervous and awkward…she was poised and gracious. Four months later when Len and I married, mom and I began our journey as in-laws.

Mom and I were very different. She had a place for everything while I had everything out of place. She was a gifted seamstress while I duct taped the hems on my boys pants. She was a meticulous cleaner while I nurtured dust bunnies under every appliance. But she never made me feel bad. Instead, she loved me “as-is” and we bonded over the thing we had in common— our love of family.

For Len and I, some of our fondest memories were when we would jump in the car with Walter and Jack and head to Mamma and Ghee’s house. In five short hours we could be sitting at the long counter at 101 Matthews Drive stuffing our faces with mom’s shrimp po-boys and frosty Barqs root beers. We laughed, lounged, and played games. If the whole family was gathered, inevitably someone would say, “remember the time…?” The siblings would laugh and embellish and argue about details until mom reminded them of the facts. Mom also had a deadpan way of telling stories that made them even funnier than they were.

There was something about being in her home that made you feel like you could go off duty. (Guess that’s because mom had been on duty preparing for two weeks prior to our arrival.) We descended on them like the proverbial plague and left them, as mom liked to say, “ruined” by the end of our visit.

How someone who liked things “just so” endured the chaos we dragged into her house is a testament to mom’s love. We were loud and messy. And while the three-ring family circus swirled in her living room, she was quietly observing…taking the emotional temperature of those around her to make sure all her babies, actual and grown, were all doing well. We might have been a unruly brood, but she had a mother’s intentional heart—saying or doing just the right things to encourage us individually.

We were fortunate to have so many good years with mom. We’re blessed with memories of celebrating birthdays, holidays and countless significant life events. And we could write volumes about the times mom and Jack rode in like the cavalry (if the cavalry pulled Airstream trailers) to help us out with a home repair, a new baby, or a crisis.

The years flew by as we raised kids and tried to make ends meet. We slept a few times and all got older. It’s just that the same number of years added to mom and Jack’s stack of time shifted them into a stage requiring more help.

The decisions families are forced to make in the face of aging and declining health are brutal. There are no great options. For mom this meant moving to Ruston in 2014 to be near Len and I. It was a move from a city she had called home for 50 years, from a husband of 37 years, and from a whole community of her people. She was understandably upset and confused.

The three of us spent the first months trying to learn our new normal—Len and I adjusting to caring for someone who used to care for us and mom out of her element and out of control. She was lonely…but refused to leave her room for activities or meals. She obsessed about “going home” to the point of packing her walker to make an escape.

photoBut eventually we found a rhythm. She would always be surprised and thrilled when I walked in the door. My first order of business was to fetch her a “good cup of coffee.” We would visit, running through the same talking points everyday. She was happy to sit in her favorite Lazy-boy recliner and watch the nursing home world parade by her open door. In true Southern style she would kindly speak to the people when they reached her doorway, and then, speak about the people after they passed.

It took a while for me to change my perspective from the sadness of mom’s condition to recognizing the beauty of this stripped down version of a person. There was no pretense or distraction. No yesterday or tomorrow. Only the moment we were sharing. I couldn’t change her situation, but I could ride it out with her.

For all of the downsides of dementia, these past two and a half years I’ve had the privilege of watching the cream rise to the top of mom’s life. The qualities she spent a lifetime cultivating couldn’t be squelched by her mental foe. They might not have presented in a way we recognized at first, but there they were: loving, helpful, orderly, purposeful, thankful, and a lover of God.

On more than one occasion during this difficult transition, mom would suddenly close her eyes, bow her head and pray. While I was busy fretting or raging against some new obstacle, her default mode was to go to the source of all comfort and hope. Even in her confused state, her faith put me to shame.

Before mom lost her ability to communicate, she would often protest fretfully that I was doing so much for her and she couldn’t do anything for me. I would remind her that she had already done so much for all of us through the years and now it was our turn to help her. She would give me a puzzled look and say, “I did?”

I would run through an abbreviated list of the countless, selfless ways she had loved our family. I would tell her of our visits to her home in Slidell and how she would roll out shrimp, “mamma chicken” and ice cream pie. She listened like a child hearing about Santa Claus for the first time —with pure wonder.

We tell stories with our lives—with our words and actions—and pass them down to the next generation. And then when we can no longer remember our own stories, our children tell them back to us.

One of the last coherent things mom said to me was, “You’re a good carer.” It was tender and precious. But it was really the story she taught me with her life. It was an honor to remind mom of her story for the past two and a half years.

She lived a great story.

The day reality got real

Last Friday as I was leaving the nursing home, the parking lot was full of residents holding American flags as they hobbled and rolled to the curb. They were waiting for the Blue Angels to fly over in honor of Veterans Day.

 

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I drove past the group and waved. With minds held captive by dementia, many stared blankly back at me and waved their red, white and blue on the cue of their caretakers. To keep from driving off the road in despair, I had to focus on positives: 1. These residents were once vital contributors to society—mothers and fathers, teachers, businessmen, pastors, nurses, engineers and veterans. 2. It’s an honor to care for such trailblazers.

But a bigger part of me wanted to punch the accelerator to speed away from this preview of all our futures. I tried to fill my mind with all the urgent tasks I needed to accomplish. But something within me knew I had to turn around and share this important moment with my unlikely adopted community. And so I did.

I turned around. I parked. I walked from my car and joined the huddled geriatric masses slumped in their wheelchairs. Out of the 15 facility residents who are veterans, only one made it out for the festivities. The activities director moved him to the front row. I kneeled down and thanked him for his service. He gave me a nod. I’m not sure he could hear or understand me. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. We were all just united…Americans celebrating the freedom we enjoy.

To have this experience on the heels of the bloodiest (political) battle since Antietam is not lost on me. Last Tuesday we all watched—some with excitement, some with horror, and all in disbelief—as Donald Trump was elected our next President.

I’m not gonna lie…I spent the better part of the Fall burying my head in the sands of entertainment. My biggest nail-biter, while eating Skittles and watching back-to-back episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, was hoping Pnina Tornai could come through for the picky bride and her overbearing mother.

But even with my news fast, stories about the two candidates seeped into our house like black mold. Hillary left me with huge trust issues and Trump just made me sick. No amount of mental gymnastics would allow me to pull the lever for either one. So armed with my conscience and a handful of sugar high, I voted third party.

Whether the former Celebrity Apprentice star really meant to win or not, November 8th is the day reality got real for us all. The negative fallout was immediate. I was extremely proud and encouraged when Hillary Clinton and President Obama urged our country to come together and give the new President-elect a chance to lead. But unless acceptance looks like riots and #notmypresident, a lot of people are still pretty worked up.

Here’s the deal…Contrary to the inflammatory rhetoric on both sides, I think people just voted for whomever they felt could better help them survive their daily lives. And on lots of days for lots of people, just surviving is a bitch.

My biggest take away from this election cycle is that we have become a nation that has lost the ability to communicate. Screaming obscenities over police lines or firing verbal bombs from social media bunkers doesn’t count. I’m talking about face-to-face conversations…asking questions and actually listening to each other’s answers. It’s a lot harder to demonize someone when you’re looking him/her in the eye.

It’s normal for us to filter everything through the grid of our own realities. For us it’s self-employment and trying to squeeze life-blood from our bank account turnip while holding a health insurance letter saying our premiums will just about double in 2017. But guess what? Our needs are only two out of 318.9 million.

I recently learned that we have a poverty rate pushing 40% (according to census.gov) in our little town of Ruston…40 percent!!! What? (Randy has never mentioned that on Say Yes to the Dress.) Aside from our inherited involvement with eldercare, a few years volunteering at an elementary school, and annual holiday drive-by good deeds, I’ve been oblivious to the needs of others.

So while I’m watching and praying that President-elect Trump will have an attack of humility, I’m going to focus on my own need for change and engagement. No politician can fix all our nation’s ills. We each have a responsibility to be a part of the solution.

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Back in the parking lot, it was all a blur. “I see them!” someone yelled. “Wave your flags!” Old hands held up Old Glorys as the Blue Angels screamed by and dipped their wings. Set against the backdrop of a brutal election, this was a freakin’ Hallmark commercial—these aerial symbols of freedom zooming past our living heirlooms. The only thing that could have added more emotion to the mix was if the Angels had air-dropped a box full of cute babies and puppies.

I stumbled back to my car and ugly-cried for a few minutes. But then, I felt hopeful. When you get right down to it, we all want the same things—safety, respect, and a little compassion. Surely we can work at making that a reality for everyone?

What to do when you can’t fix what’s broken

 

elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr
elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr

Everywhere I look I see things in need of fixing.

I don’t mean the ceiling fan in my bedroom or those potholes in the parking lot at my health club.

I mean friends who are sick and may not recover. I mean parents who are heart sick over wayward children. (God knows if a father’s sighing and a mother’s weeping could “fix” rebelliousness, every long-lost prodigal would be back home by now. Alas, such things can’t; consequently those kids aren’t.)

I see moms and dads who are wallowing in so much personal dysfunction, they don’t notice the kid in the bedroom down the hall who is in major trouble. I see job seekers who have diligently beaten the bushes and the streets and their heads against the wall. And what do they have to show for all that hustle? Unemployed hearts that are beaten down and beat up all at once.

When I was little and bumped up against a broken edge of life, my mom would sometimes say, “If I had a magic wand, I’d fix it.”

Later I became jealous of Jeannie the genie. Remember that sitcom? Remember the cute blonde in the bottle who could blink her eyes while giving a quick nod…and instantly rectify any problem?

This week while watching cable news I had this thought: I’d like to be a Presidential candidate if for no other reason than I would be able to fix ANYTHING.

Gun violence, discrimination, terrorism, joblessness, Wall Street’s woes, the national debt, illegal immigration, melting glaciers—apparently there’s no problem on earth these aspirants for the Oval Office can’t fix.

I’ve noticed that though they aren’t long on specifics, they are strong in tone of voice. To hear them tell it (i.e., yell it), help is just ahead. Sounds like no matter who wins, we’re only months away from having an omni-competent commander-in-chief who is equal parts MacGyver, Einstein, Mary Poppins, and Dear Abby.

Political exasperation aside, I see behind our fixation with fixing things, underneath our attraction to self-proclaimed “fixers,” an uncomfortable reality: Our fix-it powers are minimal.

Ceiling fans and potholes are one thing. But healing a culture, curing an addiction, rescuing a marriage?

Here’s the brutal truth: You and I can’t fix our own messed-up hearts, much less mend the brokenness all around us. We can’t make the world problem-free and pain-proof, not even for those we love most fiercely. But we try, don’t we? Our quixotic forays into a cancer-filled world, armed with our little boxes of band-aids.

In all my years of life, I still haven’t met anyone with a magic wand. (I suspect because God never meant for us to be in charge of outcomes.)

However, I am discovering this:  Even if we don’t have it within us to fix big things, we can at least facilitate the fixing of those things. We can do the little things God assigns us to do—then step aside and wait for Him to do the big stuff only He can do.

We can pray, for example. So I do. My rambling conversations with the Almighty…daily making a case for those I love…trying to remember that God’s heart is good and His ways are higher than mine…struggling to trust that He is working even when I don’t see how.

With the broken, I can do other small things. I can check in with them, sit with them in their pain, listen, nod a lot, be a friend, encourage (hopefully without offering up warmed-over platitudes).

Those are pitiful little band-aids, I know. But ask any kid. Band-aids have a strange power. Even though they don’t actually “fix” anything, they can make a bad thing a tad more tolerable.

The other day, a guy fixed my badly cracked Camry windshield in 40 minutes flat. “You’re fast!” I marveled. “Piece of cake,” he mumbled.

Now if I could just find out which candidate has a plan to fix the problem of flying gravel on our nation’s highways.

How to enjoy the beach 35 years of cellulite later

IMG_2205Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a middle-aged woman like these two words: Swimsuit Season!

So tell me: Would you rather have your 20 year-old body,  or the current broken down version you drag out of bed each morning? What fool wouldn’t choose the younger, more energetic model? Until my recent trip to the beach, I would have knocked you over to get to the front of that trade-in line.

The last time I took a substantial beach vacation was about 35 years ago. Patty, Renny, Kathy, Gaynelle and I hopped into Patty’s Ford Mustang with our bikinis, hairspray and our bank rolls of money saved from donating plasma. (There’s every parents dream for their kid!) The Knack blared on the stereo while we banged our hairbrushes in time on the dashboard.

I wish I could tell you our trip goal was to appreciate God’s beautiful creation…looking over the waters to marvel at dolphins diving in and out of the surf. Nope. We drove 972 miles to Daytona Beach to do exactly what we did everyday in the spring back home in Indiana—lie out in the sun, listen to music, and drink. But in Florida, we could drink legally while acquiring second-degree burns. So unless a dolphin cruised up shoreside with a tray of Tom Collins on its back, we had bigger fish to fry.

Renny was always the first to crisp up. Wanting to get her money’s worth of sun, she would dip herself in a vat of baby oil and fall asleep on the beach the first day. She spent the remainder of the trip lying on a lounge chair looking like the invisible man in sweats and sunglasses to protect her blistered skin.

Mid-week, we strutted along the beach with our toned, tanned bodies like seaside CEOs, sniggering at the older people ruining our youthful view. Middle-aged women hid their bulges under skirted swimsuits while their husbands sported bermuda shorts, black socks and sandals.

I cringe a little when I think about those trips. But mostly, I smile. We were in a stage of life…a self-centered, irresponsible, potentially dangerous, necessary stage of life. Most of us are not “born older“ like George Bailey, so we do time wasting time, talent and resources.

A couple of weeks ago I climbed into another Ford and headed to the beach. This time it was in a practical, family-friendly Edge owned by my friend, Julie who graciously invited Tisdale and I to join her on a trip to Orange Beach. Since I prefer the mountains to the beach and since I have developed a raging case of “hermit“ these past few years, it took some serious persuading to get me on board.

If they didn’t question the wisdom of my inclusion when I texted the night before our departure to inform them that I didn’t even own a beach towel, they certainly did when we made our first trek out to the water.

They walked out of their rooms looking like page 42 of the Land’s End summer catalog—cute beach bags, classy coverups and straw hats. I walked out of a Kurt Cobain music video with my gym shorts, a baggy, gray tank, and a previous vacation’s souvenir-equivalent of a reusable grocery bag.

IMG_3118I think Julie tried to set up her chair a distance from mine making it plausible for passersby to think we weren’t together. I inched my chair closer to hers. Soon, the great equalizer of our post-child bearing bodies and minds made the experience of lying half-naked in the world a lot more comfortable than it was all those years ago when we actually had the goods to flaunt.

Our conversations drifted toward our children and our hopes and dreams for them as they make their way in the world. We talked about politics, healthcare, bills, and our failing memories. With bladders that hang by a thread, we even stood in the waves and warmed the ocean. It was that or spend the week doing stair laps up to the condo bathroom.

One day nasty weather pushed us off the beach and to the Outlets. Julie and Tisdale force-fed my dressing room with skirts, pants, and dresses. (Guess my beach attire had them worried about what I might wear out to dinner?) The public mirror of three angles of bad was the worst. Is this too short? Too tight? Too young?! Nothing says you’ve aged out of fashion like feeling out-of-place at a chain clothing store. I even caught a mannequin rolling her eyes at me.

Back in the safety of our condo and my boxers, I crawled into a stem of chardonnay and realized how thankful I am to not be the 20 year-old on the beach. I don’t mind my saggy, wrinkled body. I’ve earned it along with the wisdom that comes from every trial, success, and humbling experience of my life.

They all add up to that blob on the beach who can watch the new young thing stroll by like she owns the place, and feel nothing but gratitude.

I’m thrilled to be past her stage of life. I’m sure she looks at me with the same pity I felt for the old couple back in the 80’s. But for one moment when our eyes met, I caught a glimpse of the insecurity and fear that bely the confident beachcomber. Who knew the exposing of our skin was only a cover up?

My college friends, current partners in crime and I are all older now. The exhausting business of keeping up a youthful facade is behind us. It won’t be long before we’re asking, “Can you see my Depends through this suit?”

I’m just happy I can still adjust my cellulite to fit on the lounge chair.

Watching Trump and Hillary play kickball at recess

I don’t know how it was at your grade school, but in Slidell, Louisiana, in the late 1960s, we had certain playground customs.

Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K
Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K

So, for example, if you decided to choose up teams for kick ball (or play a game that required someone to be “it”), nobody—at least at Florida Ave Elementary—began with, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” That was, well, so fifties.

We had far cooler “selection rhymes.” My friend Craig usually went with:

“Engine, Engine #9, going down Chicago Line…if the train should jump the track, do you want your money back?”

“Yes.”

“Y-E-S spells yes, and…(pause for Craig to do word math in his head, trying to figure out how to manipulate the outcome and subtly stop on the kid he either wanted on his team or wanted to be “it”) you are definitely…going to…be…the one…who is IT!”

I preferred a rhyme I learned from my friend, Cheese:

“My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother smacked your mother right smack in the nose. What color was the blood?”

“Green.”

“G-R-E-E-N spells green and you are…not on my team…this game…but YOU are!”

After the game got underway, that kid nobody liked would run up and ask which side he could join. If we didn’t resort to lying — “Sorry, but the principal said we can’t have more players than this” — someone (or several someones) would yell emphatically, “Tick tock, the game is locked!”

Inclusiveness was not our strong suit. The girls, jumping rope on the far side of the schoolyard usually went with the far more literary, but equally exclusionary: “Criss cross, applesauce, no one else can play with us.”

In races, if you got to be the “starter,” you would abuse your power by saying things like: “On your MARK…get SET (dramatic pause for tension while kids leaned forward until they were almost parallel to the ground)…SMOKE A CIGARETTE!” This resulted in making everyone look foolish—false starts, bodies collapsing in a heap. Such tricks were almost always met with a punch or two in the arm, and it was still totally worth it.

If, during dodgeball, let’s say, you declared a kid “hit” and told him to get out of the ring, he might threaten, “Why don’t you make me!?” To which you were expected to say in a snarky voice, “I don’t make trash, I burn it!” or sometimes, “You’re already made and too dumb to know it.” (Bam! Ten-year-old tough talk at its finest!)

If he resisted—bowing up or resorting to name-calling—one of your cohorts would step forward and speak of the cheater in third-person, “He thinks he’s hot snot on a golden platter. But he’s really cold boogers on a paper plate.” (A disgusting image, I know, but you have to admit: As put-downs go, that’s Hall of Fame-type material.)

Most times, the chastened kid would then turn to the “Old Faithful” of childhood comebacks, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!”

Then, if he still refused to leave the circle, someone might threaten, “C’mon, get out of the circle… or I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll kill your whole family!” Possible replies included “You and what army?” or “Better bring your lunch, ‘cuz it’s gonna take you all day.”

When everyone got bored with all this dumb bickering, we would call a temporary peace, lock arms and begin steamrolling across the playground like a row of German Panzer tanks, disrupting other games, tromping over any innocents in our way. Our chant? “We won’t stop! We won’t stop! We won’t stop for a lollipop!”

Then, smelling like a flock of goats and snickering proudly at all the carnage we’d inflicted, the bell would ring. Our teacher would appear, we’d line up by the door, and some kid, the class knucklehead usually, would blurt out some crass, off-color joke.

Maybe something like, “What’s brown and lies by the fence? (pause for maximum comedic effect, then the punchline) Gomer’s Pyle!” All the girls would scream,“Gross!” All the boys would hoot with laughter. The teacher would glare at us and shush us into the building.

DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac
DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac

I don’t remember what made me think of all this. But I think it may have been the result of watching the evening news about the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Feel free to draw your own parallels and conclusions.

Why it’s okay to be an indecipherable mess

If I have the stuff inside me to make cocoons—maybe the stuff of butterflies is there too.

Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

Photo by Alyson Hinkie
Photo by Alyson Hinkie

Some people enjoy a butterfly life.

Colorful and carefree, they flit unpredictably about the world eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs.”

What a sweet life! Flying from one beautiful place to the next, sampling exotic foods, always looking good and turning heads.

When butterfly people land in your life (or on your Facebook or Instagram or blog feed), they are something to behold. But you have to look quickly. Blink and these winged flowers are gone, off to the next thing.

Other people are like caterpillars. Grounded rather than gorgeous, you won’t find them trending on Twitter or winning gold medals. No, while the butterfly people are enjoying the view way up where the flowers brush against the sky, the caterpillar folks are down below, engaged in a lot of tenacious clinging and relentless climbing.

At first glance caterpillars never “wow” you. Only when you pay close attention do you realize how fascinating they are. How do they do it? How do they keep all the wiggly parts of their lives together, inching toward the goal?

Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a
Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a

There’s a third group of people that neither soar on the wind nor scuffle about the earth.

They’re hard to spot. This is because Life has decreed they enter a kind of “time-out with the lights off” in order to undergo big change. During this strange season, their sole job description is not to be pretty or to be busy. It is to be come.

Every fourth-grader knows about metamorphosis. A caterpillar hangs from a branch and spins a cocoon around itself. What happens next, inside that temporary place, is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s the marriage of chemistry and mystery. Bidding farewell to its former existence, the cooped-up caterpillar releases enzymes that actually cause it to dissolve into a kind of chunky “worm soup.”

The chunks are called “imaginal discs.” These clusters of cells are the embryonic parts of the creature’s glorious future. (They’ve been there all along, we just couldn’t see them.) It’s these elements that will come together to produce a butterfly.

What powers this remarkable transformation? The protein-rich “goo” that, quite literally, was the creature’s life as a caterpillar. In other words, the past is the fuel for the future.

As metaphors go, an ugly caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly is hard to beat. (Which explains why writers and motivational speakers use it more often than Geico airs insurance commercials.) But few focus on that mysterious in-between time. And what a shame that is, because it’s in the transition that all the magic happens.

Think about some of the big transitions we have to undergo in life:

  • From toddler to little kid — “You want me to use a toilet? What’s wrong with these handy things called diapers?! …Go to school? But I love my life the way it is!”
  • Adolescence — You’re no longer a little kid, but you’re also a long way from being an adult—even if you’re through puberty and shaving by age 12. (Personal testimony: No group—as a whole—feels more like a “chunky soup of goo” than acne-plagued, hormone-filled junior high & high school students.)
  • From college to the workplace — Who knew… that monster.com would replace YouTube as your new favorite website? … that a 15 hour class load is like a beach vacation compared to a full-time work schedule? … that so much “life” happens before noon?
  • From one career to another — More and more people are switching careers late in life, and often not by their own choice. They’re watching old jobs dissolve. They’re having to reinvent themselves and acquire new skills that can help them compete in the new economy.
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK

Scientists can’t tell us what the experience of metamorphosis “feels” like for an ex-caterpillar/butterfly-in-the-making.

They don’t need to. We know how our own life transitions feel. It’s unsettling to find yourself in the dark. And most transitions seem like a colossal waste of time: How long is this going to take…because I have a LOT to do! Experiencing the dissolution of your old life is unnerving—and painful. You don’t know who or what you are anymore. If you feel like a mess, it’s because you are one. But that’s okay. Becoming is always messy business.

The message here to beautiful butterfly people and to dutiful caterpillar people is, “Carry on. You’re doing great.”

The message today to all the amorphous “cocoon people” is, “Hang in there (heh, heh)…you’re doing great too.” Life’s in-between times aren’t fun, but they are the necessary crucibles that make us into the people we were created to be.

Today, if you feel like you’re disintegrating and that the life you once knew is disappearing forever, resist the urge to resist the process. Submit. In fact, embrace it.

How else will you get your wings?

Love in the human lost and found

Once upon a time, before I came, you cried and cried and watched TV all day, until you were a zombie. But then I zoomed down from heaven, through skylight, into Room. Whoosh-pshew! And I was kicking you from the inside. Boom, boom! And then I shot out onto Rug with my eyes wide open, and you cutt-ed the cord and said, ‘Hello, Jack!’

Room

The movie Room is the story of Jack and Ma. When Ma (Joy) was seventeen, she was abducted and locked in a garden shed. Jack, was born out of the horrendous actions of her captor, Old Nick. The film opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, seven years after the kidnapping.

In order to protect him from the ugly truth of their plight, Ma allows Jack to believe the only real world is their tiny room and its contents. Jack narrates his understanding of the world:

There’s Room, then Outer Space, then Heaven. Plant is real but not trees. Spiders are real and one time the mosquito that was sucking my blood. But squirrels and dogs are just TV, except Lucky my dog that might be some day. Mountains are too big to be real and the sea.

As outsiders with the benefit of understanding there is a larger reality, it’s shocking to see Jack’s relative peace with his existence. But his stability lies in his mother’s love, not in his surroundings.

None of us have a vote about the family into which we’re born. Many families muddle through, managing to grow their broods to adulthood relatively unscathed. But far too many children find themselves in homes that are tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst.

In the fall, I sat in a tiny courtroom with two little boys, their biological parents, and my friend who was their foster mom. I watched as the birth parents relinquished their parental rights. Products themselves of poverty, abuse, poor role models, and addiction—compounded by their own unfortunate choices—led them to this decision. The situation was not sustainable.

In Room, Old Nick’s threats force Ma to confront their own unsustainable life. Jack is their only hope to pull off a plan of escape, but she can’t send him out into a world he doesn’t believe exists. She comes clean about the truth of their life in the shed. He responds to the news with confusion and anger.

Jack: “I want a different story!”

Ma: “No, this is the story that you get!”

After many tears and much discussion…

Ma: “You’re going to love it.”

Jack: “What?”

Ma: “The world.”

The plan is successful and the two are finally free. Even though their rescue is the best possible outcome, the new reality for Ma and Jack is overwhelming. Their simple, co-dependent world built for two is now stretched to accommodate life outside of the room. Jack’s observes:

The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. 

On April 19, 2016, I entered the same court that sanctioned the demise of a family in the fall. But this time I got to witness the legal rescue of the same little boys. A judge signed adoption papers making my friend their new forever mom. Whoosh-pshew! A new family was born. Love in the human lost and found.

The three year-old was playful and smiling. The five year-old wore uncertainty like the Halloween mask he wore on the fall day that set this arrangement into motion.

He loves his adoptive mother and his new life with her and his brother. But like Jack, his rescue from a simple, but broken life with his biological family leaves him with a confusing mix of emotions.

His forever mommy is willing to lean into the tension of a life that includes the birth parents so the boys will know they were loved on all fronts. But still he is left in an emotional wrestling match of one—trying to sort out where his allegiances should lie.

Jack’s Ma gets pinned by her formidable re-entry opponent and tries to tap out with a handful of pills. While she is recovering in a hospital, Jack continues his acclimation with the care of his grandmother, Nancy. As he becomes stronger, he wants to offer some of his strength to his mother.

In true Samson fashion, he decides to cut his five year-old mane and send the locks of bravery to his mom.

Jack: “Do you think this will work? Can my strong be her strong too?”

Nancy:  “Oh. Of course it can. We all help each other stay strong. No one is strong alone.”

AdoptionMy friend, the new forever mom, has spent most of her life wondering why she has experienced so much pain, disappointment, and disillusionment. Wondering what God could possibly be thinking? I have sat with her, cried with her, and listened. “Doesn’t He care? Doesn’t he see my pain? If only it had a purpose.”

It did. And He saw. He sat with her through it and then looked past it to two little boys who would need her to understand their pain. All the struggle and counseling and wrestling with a life that did not go as planned uniquely qualified her to welcome two tiny souls now battling the same questions. Her trials prepared her “for such a time as this.”

If we could choose our stories, I would guess these brothers would not have picked this scenario. But this is their story. The beautiful thing is, while there are wounds to be healed and hardships to overcome, there is hope.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Two little boys burst into the room of my friend. It was unplanned and messy. The truth was ugly and sad. But after the truth comes love. Lots of love. Together, they saved each other.