Weighing That New Year’s Resolution

I’ve probably written about six posts since Thanksgiving. You didn’t see them? It’s because I wrote them in my head while driving or grocery shopping or exercising. I’ve mentally composed a few thoughts in the shower because warm water and soap inspire me.

It’s like that with most things. You have ideas. Intentions. Things you hope will happen. But ideas and intentions fall apart in the actual doing of something.

January begins, and by the end of the month (today), researchers say three-quarters of the people who created New Year’s resolutions have abandoned them. One month, and we’re paving the highway to hell, to mix my metaphors.

I was rather prosaic with my New Year’s resolution for 2013. It was as if I was on the set of Family Feud, and Richard Dawson was standing in front of me saying, “Name the top New Year’s resolutions Americans make each year.” I’m clapping my hands and shouting, “Lose weight” because I know it’s the #1 answer.

I’m challenging myself to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31, although I’m more interested in reaching that goal in a very doable 25 weeks.

It’s not a bad goal. It’s admirable to commit to better health, improve your diet, and increase your exercise. But it strikes me as a little boring. Sometimes I weigh things (yeah, pun intended) in terms of how my kids might look back and remember their growing up years. Will they remember when Mom lost 20 pounds. Maybe. Will it matter? Possibly, if it modeled for them the importance of good health.

It’s also possible that it’s a bit more about vanity and fitting into my size 2 clothes again…and that’s not a great message for my kids.

This evening, I read a story about Sarah, a woman who decided to host 500 people around her table in 2012. Meal by meal, she gathered friends and neighbors and people she didn’t know to join together at her table. Over the year, she hosted 27 parties, so that by Thanksgiving, she reached her goal of serving a meal to her 500th guest. No vague talk about “building community,” Sarah chose a concrete way to actually go out there and do it!

It’s such an incredible and amazing story. How much more fun to remember the year we invited 500 old and new friends into our home than to recall the year Mom dropped 20 pounds!

And so I’m counting up my plates along with my calories…planning some lean cuisine for the masses. Happy New Year!

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I’m supposed to be working on a final paper for one of my master’s classes today; an overall analysis of what’s worked and hasn’t worked on this blog. I have a cool table of the stories I’ve posted on here overlaid with traffic patterns and metrics of likes and shares.

Instead, my mind is on an email I received from my friend John’s wife today:

This morning at 6:32 a.m., John died in my arms. A few days ago, our hospice nurse (affectionately known as “Rachel the nurse”) told us that he would not last much longer. So his last days were spent with our whole family, lots of loving visitors, gorgeous notes, tearful Facebook messages, and precious time laying on our bed together. Last night, we sang hymns and prayed for John and ALL OF US in our bedroom, surrounded by dimly lit candles, tons of Kleenex, close friends, hope-filled hearts, and the peaceful presence of God.

It happened just today but it seems like so long ago. As for me, I am doing alright. In fact, John said last night that I have been “a trooper.” As I woke Jake up this morning with the news about his dad, he said “I’m sorry, Mom. You know we are gonna be OK, right?” Rachel knew why I was waking her up a bit early, but she smiled and said, “He is not suffering anymore, so I am very happy.”

I hate that this has happened to our family. I want God to bring good out of this, and I have asked Him for that. By some of your notes to me, I think He is doing that. Please know how sad we are, but how hopeful we are that we will meet again, and that God is working this out for all of our good. I’m not exactly sure how or what, but I am trusting in His Word that this horrible chapter in our story has not escaped His notice. He’s not going to leave us hanging. Never has.

John is having his Thanksgiving Feast a day early….and it will last for all eternity. He probably ate a hamburger first! Having not really eaten ANYTHING for about 6 weeks, that man—that gorgeous, funny, admirable and courageous man—is enjoying so much….feasting on the beauty of heaven, the beauty of our Savior, the non-caloric food, and the fellowship of those who have gone before us. Let’s be thankful today for John’s journey home. Thankful that he is no longer suffering. We know we are going to be OK—it is just going to hurt for a really long time. I already miss him so much. And I forgot how he taught me to transfer funds from one account to the other…John????! How do I …..? There will be a LOT of those “missing John moments” in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving, faithful friends. Enjoy your family and feast. Remember John and pray for our broken hearts.

Feeling God’s comfort,

Kristin, for John, Rachel and Jake

I’m sitting at my computer with three screens open: Final paper, blog metrics, and Kristin’s note. I read Kristin’s note and had to stop writing to find a box of kleenex to blot all the tears streaming down my face.

I’m not sure why this blog is so filled with references to death, with notes about attending funerals and tributes to friends who’ve passed away. I set out to write about my children and life and so much of the laughter that punctuates our days.

Maybe it’s because the specter of death makes the moments of this life all the more precious. I believe there’s another world, one without sorrow and tears. A world of health and healing and reunions of more perfect souls than we’ve known here.

But the partings from this life just make me want to chuck the paper and go and see a movie with my kids. I want to hike a mountain. Listen to some beautiful music. Swim in the ocean at sunset. Get lost in a novel while I bask in some sunshine. Eat a really great meal with people I love. I sort of want to crawl between cool, clean sheets with a hot guy, but that’s not my life right now. It’s a reaction to death that makes me want to seize life.

The paper just needs to be written. Then I need to buy cat food, join the throngs of folks at the grocery store, and pack clothes for the kids for our trip to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. I’ll pray throughout the day for Kristin and Rachel and Jake. And I’ll remember John who worked with my magazine team for years.

John jotted down all special occasions and took the time to note each one. I’d call his office in Charlottesville, VA to ask about a production issue and John would say, “Isn’t today Megan’s birthday?”

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner together at a conference in Nashville. I excused myself to renew a parking meter for my rental car, and John and his colleague Greg insisted on leaving their dinners to walk me to my car. A gentleman, always.

I know a little too well what lies ahead for Kristin, feeling her way through the next weeks and months of some aching loneliness. Seven years later, and I’ve never learned how to sleep in the center of my bed. I still have a side.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. And I’ll celebrate the day with gratitude for the small normalcy of our days. You have no idea how good it is to buy cat food and make small talk with Larry, the nicest, friendliest cashier at QFC, until normal is gone.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with both the lovely mundane as well as the moments that take your breath away. May you be grateful for both in your life.

John Baltes
March 26, 1976 – November 21, 2012

The Stranger in My Bed: Who You Married Isn’t Who You’re Married To

Note from Shelly: From time-to-time, I’m sharing some of the best thoughts from writers/friends that I’ve come across on the web. This guest post is from my friend Amber Johnson, who writes Weddedness, a marriage blog with her husband, Cliff. I regularly follow Amber’s blog because she and her husband have some wise perspectives on marriage after the “I do” part…and well, they’re just funny writers to boot. Read this, and then visit her blog as well.

Who are you again?

Ten  years ago, when Cliff and I got married, he had hair and I had thighs that would have fit into skinny jeans, had they been stylish then. I was shy in groups and reticent to ever express a strong opinion; Cliff was more brash. He was headed for a career in social work. I wanted to be a writer.

Cliff was thinking about converting to Catholicism. I thought women shouldn’t be pastors. We weren’t positive we wanted kids. Everything we cared about could fit in the trunk of our car.

Now, Cliff has moved past Catholicism: our pastor’s name is Laura. I’ve learned to share my opinion, and occasionally cross the line to brash; Cliff has softened his voice. He’s left social work behind and is now in non-profit management. I’m on the same career path. We own a house full of stuff, though the things we care about mostly still fit in the back of our car: safely buckled in two car seats. And the hair and thighs, well, time changes things.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: who I married on September 8, 2001, isn’t quite the same person in my bed tonight. The change has been gradual, but the differences are stark. In fact, our son recently looked at a picture from our wedding day, and asked, “Where are you guys?” Good question.

We’ve been lucky: we’ve changed roughly in step with each other. Many of the changes have been for the better (I’ve learned to be more direct; Cliff has learned to listen more). And we’ve developed the thick skin it takes to tolerate the changes that are a bit tougher to stomach.

Not everyone is so lucky: some changes take more adapting. Think of the career woman who decides to be a stay-at-home mom. Or the stay-at-home mom who finds herself yearning for a career. Either occupation is respectable, but a sudden and passionate swing from one to the other can unsettle a relationship, especially for a husband who thought he was married to one and finds himself working out weekly schedules and budgets with the other.

I know of other families where one partner has suddenly become a serious runner, requiring hours of Saturday morning training runs and changed diets for the whole family.

And what if your husband becomes more brash? Your wife more bossy? What if illness or parenthood or unemployment changes something fundamental about your partner’s personality? Even if only temporary, the result can be feeling like you’re in bed with a stranger.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says of his marriage, after 25 years, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of them has been me.”

What do we do about this? The answer isn’t to avoid change. The answer is to somehow respect the changes in each other, change in step when you can, and give your spouse space to be who he or she needs to be when you can’t. I think the answer also lies, somehow, in the promises we make to each other.

Smedes writes that “when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Essentially, you have to rise above who you are and who you see yourself with to be open to who your partner is becoming. Let the promises you made be the through-thread of your relationship, when other things seem less certain. Find unlimited potential in who you could become together. Find excitement in being in bed with someone new.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, quotes Smedes (above) and then offers this wisdom: ”Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.”

Amber Johnson works at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, Cliff, are the proud parents of Sam and Maggie. 

Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Always Attend the Funeral

In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program called, This I Believe, where people from all walks of life took a few minutes to share the guiding principles by which they lived.

The show featured essays from Helen Keller, Harry Truman, Jackie Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They also broadcasted pieces from cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries.

In 2005, National Public Radio resurrected the concept and invited a new batch of contributors, famous and unknown, to share their core values. The series included everything from advice on being kind to the pizza guy to Bill Gates’ thoughts on unleashing the power of creativity.

The next year, a collection of these short essays were published into a book, This I Believe. They’re wonderful essays. Funny. Poignant. Profound. I love the brevity of the pieces because distilling your life philosophy down to 350 – 500 words forces you to get to the heart of things.

Among the many great essays, one by Deirdre Sullivan, a freelance attorney in Brooklyn, has stayed with me over the years: “Always Go to the Funeral.

Sullivan writes about how her father forced her as a teenager to attend the funeral for her fifth-grade math teacher and her awkward expressions of sympathy to the family. Eventually, Sullivan realized that a personal philosophy of “going to funerals” meant more than that:

“I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour…In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing. In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”

I’ve been to a lot of funerals: A high school friend who committed suicide. My high school journalism teacher/mentor. The younger sister of our babysitter. My friends who died along with their children in a private plane crash in Montana. The husband of my friend and colleague who took his own life a few years ago. Parents and spouses of my small group friends from church. My 40-year-old brother-in-law, Richard, who died of a rare brain disease in 2005.

This past week, my sister and brother-in-law would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Up close, I know what it meant to her to have so many people show up at Richard’s funeral 7 years ago. The salesman from a car dealership came to the funeral. Another salesman who sold home theatre systems attended Richard’s service as well. It says something about Richard, who made friends with everyone he encountered, that these folks came. Moreover, it was comforting to my sister that people showed up to grieve with her. Richard’s life mattered, and physical bodies at the funeral spoke to that.

Today, I’m attending a memorial service for a woman who passed away from cancer. I’m attending the service to honor her memory. I’m attending the memorial for her husband. And I’m going for me, because while there are some logistical inconveniences of time and travel and shuffling kids around to attend, I’ve started to realize what a privilege it is to be friends with people; an honor to celebrate births, mark life’s milestones, and be present in their grief.

Always attend the funeral.

Publish Then Filter

It’s killing me. It really is. Every week I show up for my class, “Narratives and Networks,” and one of our course instructors, Hanson Hosein, says to us, “Publish then filter.”

By this he means, don’t worry about getting everything perfect. Get it out there. Hit submit. It’s an iterative process, and the nature of web publishing is that you refine as you go. Audiences (not editors) filter what they like and don’t like.

Hanson, who is also the director of the Master of Communications in Digital Media program at the UW, is fond of saying, “It’s all beta” meaning it’s all subject to change, testing and improving as we go. The master’s program? Beta. Our course syllabus? Permanently beta.

This unnerves me. Not the program or the syllabus being flexible. It’s the beta nature of publishing and writing these days that feels like “ready, fire, aim.” By personality and training, I want to polish then publish. (And I like the alliteration of “polish” with “publish” better than “filter” even if it changes the meaning.)

I’m old-school. Journalism courses emphasized copy editing and fact-checking and getting it right. Errors and corrections cost money. Years ago, when I was editor of World Vision’s magazines, we received bluelines, photographic proofs of our magazine pages, before they went to press. If we caught a mistake at that stage of the game, we incurred additional expenses to make a change.

It’s hard to tell myself, We’ll make the necessary changes along the way.  What I need to grasp is that life itself is “permanently beta.” It’s ever-changing and shifting. Down days give way to glorious ones. Sweet teenagers swerve into moody moments. We fall and we fail, and then we get up and keep going.

There’s no use trying to get it perfect. I’ve been tinkering with this website wanting to figure out the photos and links and the design before I open it up to everyone. It’s time to just go live and work it out as I go.

This week I read a piece by Christian author Don Miller. (I have a massive writer’s crush on him. See this. And this.) I read his post, and I could swear he was writing to me. Don wrote, “I’ve heard the desire to control is the root of sin. I know it’s just a saying, but I think there’s truth in it. There’s truth and a lack of faith, too…Afraid of writing a blog? Admit it in the first sentence.”

Well, I didn’t say it in the first sentence, but I’m afraid. I fear what people will think of me if I put my words and thoughts out there. I’m wrapped up in my image and ego. I’m worried there will be typos and awkward sentences and a hundred ways my blog (and I) will look unprofessional.

I hold back from a lot of things, big and small, because I don’t want to risk looking foolish. I sing to myself in the shower because, well the acoustics are pretty good in there, but also because I’m pretty sure I don’t have a great singing voice. I dance in my kitchen with my dog, Whistler, as my only witness.

My friend Devin breaks into song every now and then when we’re hanging out together. It takes me by surprise, and then I think, That’s so cool that he sings when a song comes into his head. It helps that he has a good voice, too.

When my kids were little, they laughed and danced and sang with abandon. Self-consciousness is settling over them now. I look at them and see their growing fears of looking foolish, and I hope I can pass on to them what I’m learning: “Publish then filter.”

I’m hitting “Publish Post” now.

Grace Like Rain

Two years ago, my ex-husband, Eric, and his new wife, Angela, had a baby together. They named her Tessa Faith.

I thought about a lot of things the morning Eric texted our daughter Megan that Angela was in labor. I thought about the births of our four children and wondered if Eric was remembering those days, too. I thought about the baby showers Angela and I threw for each other when we were friends; the day she went into labor with her daughter Julia, and called Eric and me to take her to the hospital because her husband was out-of-town. We were close friends back then, back before I knew about the affair she was having with my husband.

I wondered if Angela was experiencing really awful labor pains this time around. And, because I can be a mean and spiteful person, I hoped her contractions were excruciating. I wondered if God would be okay with me praying for her labor to hurt like hell. Does He answers prayers like that?

When my kids announced the baby was named, “Tessa Faith” I was curious to know if anyone else besides me thought the name sounded like a “Test of Faith.” Was that intentional? Did they see her birth as some test of faith? Or was the sound and meaning of her name merely overlooked, the way my parents might have inadvertently named me, Ida Ngo? [As in, “I dunno.”]

I’m not an overly sentimental soul. My kids have had to rescue their artwork from the trash in my unrelenting desire to purge the house of stuff. No heroic dry-cleaning efforts to preserve and mummify my wedding dress in boxed splendor. I donated the dress to Goodwill years ago.

But Tessa’s birth made me ache. For me, a baby is such a tangible reminder of an intimate relationship. Eric and I dated for 6 years and were married for 14, so after 20 years of life with someone, it’s difficult to be reminded of his intimate relations with another person. I know. I have romantic notions of what babies symbolize. In reality, they’re actually sophisticated sleep deprivation units.

The morning Tessa was born, I unloaded the dishwasher and wiped my eyes and blew my nose and felt miserable for crying over Eric’s new baby. I was jealous of his celebration with a new wife. I felt a sense of betrayal all over again. I can’t explain how much it hurt, except that it was the worst possible deep and throbbing pain.

The next day, Eric came over to the house to get our kids to introduce them to their new half-sister. I sat by myself at home and thought, What fresh hell is this?

It’s been two years now since Tessa was born. Slowly and somehow, something has shifted. The pain has dissipated. Sometimes there’s the smallest twinge, the way my ankle might occasionally shoot me a reminder of the time I twisted it last November. Yeah, I’m still snarky at times. I think my children are immensely cuter than Tessa, but that’s a factual statement rather than mean-spiritedness. Over time, goodwill has replaced grief.

I wonder a bit at how this happened because if I could map the path of forgiveness, I might be able to take other offenses down that road. Except I can’t trace the path. I have no idea how I traveled from the initial agony, to finding myself offering to help Megan purchase and wrap a Christmas present for Tessa. Or taking my little girls, Paige and Katie, to buy a pillow pet for Tessa’s birthday this past March. My children return from their Dad’s house with tales of what Tessa said or did, and I find myself smiling at how cute toddlers are.

In July, Eric and Angela took a road trip with their seven (yes, seven: yours, mine, and ours) kids to California to visit Disneyland. Megan called to talk with me one evening and told me about how my 8-year-old, Katie, took Tessa on a kiddie ride at Disneyland. The ride scared Tessa, and Katie wasn’t sure what to do, so she wrapped her arms around Tessa and hugged her throughout the ride. When Megan shared this, all I could think about was how proud I was that Katie has such a kind and tender heart. A kinder, gentler heart than mine at times.

This is what I’ve come to believe: There is a God who is at work within us; a God who heals the unfathomable hurts in our lives…in my life. He lets me sit for a while with things I don’t want to forgive; with my own stuff that I don’t even want to be forgiven of, and then, in time, He pries open my hands. I’m unaware that I’ve been clutching sharp blades, and forgiveness is about taking the knives away.

Refusing to forgive, the saying goes, is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.

Yet some things in us have to die in order for us to experience rebirth: Our anger and resentments; Our stubborn sense that life needs to happen on our terms, in our way. In some odd irony, Tessa Faith, has tested and grown my faith that God can work through circumstances I hate, and yet all will be well in the end.

If my faith has grown, so has my sense of grace. I love that we gave Katie the middle name, Grace. Katherine Grace. I love the sound and the meaning and the beauty of Grace. I have an image in my mind of Katie wrapping her arms around Tessa through the scary parts of the ride, and I glimpse God holding me close whispering, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

Swimming Lessons

Zeta, Dad and my Katie
Zeta, Dad and my Katie

Growing up, I loved the long days of summer; the evenings when my father would get home from work and join my sister and me in our swimming pool. Before I learned to swim, I’d climb onto my dad’s back, wrap my arms around his neck, and pretend I was riding a whale in the ocean.

“Swim fast,” I’d tell him. “But don’t dive down, Daddy. I don’t want to go under the water.”

The summer before I turned 5, my parents hired an instructor, Molly Stern, to come to our house to teach me to swim. In my mind, she lived up to her name. She was stern and insistent that I had to put my face in the water. In fact, she expected me to put my whole head under the water.

Miss Molly was unmoved by my long explanations of how I couldn’t hold my breath, and how water got into my nose, and, “My God, Woman! You are going to make me go under the water, and I am going to DIE!” (Okay, my pre-kindergarten self didn’t use language like, “My God, Woman…,” but you get the picture.)

Miss Molly persisted. I cried. My mother stood by the side of the pool and cried with me. Miss Molly asked my mother to please go inside the house.

Begrudgingly, I learned to swim. I learned to dive into the pool and tread water. I mastered the breaststroke, the butterfly, and the crawl. At our final lesson, Molly had me practice an emergency rescue, in case anyone ever needed life-saving measures from a 4-year-old.

I jumped into the pool with my regular clothes on, removed my immediately waterlogged tennis shoes and socks and excess clothing, and “rescued” Miss Molly by swimming to the pool steps with one arm in a choke-hold around my drowning instructor’s neck. We must have reached some level of friendship by then, because in the initial days of my swimming lessons, I would have readily left Miss Molly to her watery grave at the deep end of our pool.

I still have that swimming certificate from August 1975, the summer I was convinced I would drown and, instead, learned how to swim.

Life is like that sometimes. I pray for everything to go swimmingly in my life. No waves. No circumstances where I’ll be pulled under the water. It’s too uncomfortable. Too scary. It feels like certain death. But I have to learn to swim.

To me, grief feels like a huge wave of water that overtakes you and threatens to keep you roiling in its undertow. It takes time, but eventually, you begin to realize that life events might knock you off your feet for a while, and then you surface again. You might get pulled under, but you’ll find your footing. You learn to ride the waves.

These days, it’s my children and their cousins who swim with my father during family vacations. They clamber onto Grandpa’s back and order him to take them for a ride.

“I don’t want to go under the water, Grandpa!” Katie will say to him, reminiscent of my childhood requests. And Dad does his best to keep Katie afloat.

It seems to be my Dad’s goal—to keep us all afloat in whatever ways he can. He checks the tire pressure of my cars when he visits. He stocks the freezer full of ridiculous amounts of ice cream, or fills my email box with long notes of financial advice.

My brother-in-law passed away when his daughter Lauren was 4. When my niece Lauren started kindergarten, my father took it upon himself to call her every afternoon after school to ask for her teacher’s question of the day. I was in the car once, listening to them on speaker phone:

“What is the fastest cat in the world, Grandpa?” Lauren asked.

“A Cheetah,” my Dad told her.

“Wow! How did you know that, Grandpa?” Lauren asked incredulously.

I listened and smiled because sometimes we just need to feel like there is a Father who’s got the whole world in His hands. We want someone to be able to tell us about the world’s fastest cat, or assure us that we can swim, holding onto someone’s back for a while, before we learn to dive under the water.

[Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for making sure I learned how to swim. And for always being in the waves with me.] 

 

Plumbing Problems: My Life Down the Drain

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Conrad. We were talking about writing books, among other topics. Conrad is working on his second novel for young adults. If I was thinking about writing a book, he advised me, I should look for an overarching theme that ties my narrative together.

Well, tonight the theme came to me: Plumbing. Plumbing connects my narrative. I could write an anthology of short stories about plumbing and me.

I’d skip over the mundane events such as the time Ryan and Katie decided it wasn’t terribly fun to merely run through the sprinklers. Instead, they unscrewed all the sprinkler heads in the backyard to create gushing geysers of water.

Another day, water droplets started raining down from the laundry room ceiling. This time, Ryan was filling water balloons in the bathroom and didn’t notice the water spilling over the counter, onto the bathroom floor, which eventually seeped down through the ceiling. But, oh well. Kids will be kids.

My plumbing book could begin the day one of my little darlings flushed something down the toilet that utterly clogged the commode. I have no idea what was flushed, but no amount of effort with the toilet plunger could clear the pipes. (We lost our cat around the same time. Not that I think the two items are related...)

I have skills. Really. Near the top of my executive summary on my resume, I could/should list that I’m extremely proficient with a toilet plunger. But despite my best efforts, that toilet wouldn’t clear. I’d plunge and then flush, and the water would rise. The waters rose for 40 days and 40 nights. Oh wait, that might be another story. I finally had to turn off the water to the toilet and call a plumber who couldn’t make it out to my home for another two days.

The next day, my housecleaner, Ludya, arrived. She’s Russian, and although we can’t really communicate, we speak the universal language of love: Lysol disinfectant spray. She cleans, and I clean beside her because I can’t help myself. I like cleaning. We wipe and spray and smile and nod. Luyda and I have grown pretty tight this way.

That particular day, I tried to explain to her that I needed to keep the toilet water turned off or the water would slowly rise and keep rising. She nodded in comprehension. I showered, changed, and left for a date.

Dinner. A walk. And a few hours later I returned home with the date who invited himself in for coffee which I didn’t know how to brew. He told me I could make him tea instead. I told him his dog pooped in my family room, but that’s another story. I told him I was tired. We should probably call it an evening…as soon as he picked up after his dog. He told me there was water dripping from the ceiling in my study room.

Apparently something about keeping the toilet water key turned off got lost in translation, and Luyda turned the water back on. The toilet had flooded my upstairs bathroom and was leaking through the recessed lights in my study.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, but I wanted to share the epiphany of my evening: plumbing weaves together the significant events of my life. I should conclude by tying up a few loose ends:

My date gallantly offered to help me with my plumbing issues. I declined. He asked me if I was ever going to write about our date. I said I wouldn’t think of it.

The plumber did indeed show up the next day. Whistler, who has a need to meet and greet people with gifts in his mouth, rummaged through a pile of laundry when the doorbell rang. He came to the door to meet the plumber with a pair of my underwear in his mouth. And so it goes…

No Assembly Required

When I stop writing and turn off my computer tonight, I will crawl into bed and sleep for 7, maybe even 8 hours. Blissful, uninterrupted sleep. But crazy as it might be to say this, I’m also going to bed a little envious of some friends for their disrupted sleep tonight.

My high school classmate Brent is in the labor room with his wife, Lasa, as I type, anticipating the birth of their second daughter, Joon.

Another high school classmate Brad, and his wife, Michelle, welcomed beautiful Marleigh Sue into their family this past Monday.

Both babies are enormously blessed to be entering some really good families, and I’m flooded with happiness for my two friends this evening. I look at the precious photos of Marleigh and I think, “God is good.”

Then I think of Megan, born 15 years ago this next week. She was ruddy and cone-headed when she arrived after hours and hours of labor. All I thought was, Oh my gosh, she is the most perfectly, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Then I thought, Oh, look at that! She has all her fingers and toes!

I was so grateful that I didn’t have to assemble her. I was so busy during my pregnancy that if it were up to me to put together all the pieces throughout the nine months, she would have come out missing an ear or a liver or something that just slipped my mind. Besides, whenever I assemble something, I finish and then discover some extra parts and pieces…no idea where they were supposed to go!

I’ve had some amazing adventures: watched an exorcism in a thatched hut in Tanzania; been stranded in the volcano regions of Guatemala without a boat to cross the lake to grab  a cab to catch a plane home; rode mopeds, weaving through Bangkok’s infamous traffic; met movie stars, rock stars, and rubbed elbows with numerous politicians. (Elbows were the only things I rubbed as an intern, lest anyone is thinking of Monica Lewinsky.)

Those adventures pale in comparison to the mundane, but nevertheless magical moments of my children’s lives. My kids are crazy, infuriating, whimsical little wind-up toys that spin around and sputter and make a lot of noise. I had no idea how much I would love, and could love, another human being until I had them.

Since I’m 15 years ahead of some of my fellow class of ‘89ers on the whole parenting thing, I thought I’d share some random thoughts. Three, because all speeches or essays seem to mandate the rule of threes.

Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go

Rebecca, my first editor at work had the most beautiful explanation of this Biblical admonition from Proverbs. She told me the verse is often misconstrued as an instruction for parents to dictate the course for their children. Sometimes parents see children as further extensions of themselves; little beings to fashion in their own image. So they map out their lives. Dictate career paths.

The meaning of the verse, Rebecca told me, was an analogy of a tender reed, growing toward the light.

A young shoot develops with a certain bent but needs support in the early stages to thrive. The verse calls for parents to diligently study and learn about their children; Look for God-given talents and leanings and then cultivate those gifts so “when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I have always thought that was a beautiful but big charge for parents. I live off of to-do lists. I’m distracted by texts on my phone or Facebook postings. My mind wanders when my kids talk to me. It’s constant work to stay in the moment and listen to them. Watch them. Be a student of my children’s natures so I’ll know when they need to be curbed or when gifts need to be cultivated. Training up a child requires an attentiveness that eludes me so much of the time. When I do listen, I am often incredulous over what I hear. My kids are sometimes wise; often witty and wonderful. I want to listen more.

Glass and Rubber Balls

My colleague and friend Peggy and I used to talk extensively about the juggle of working full-time and parenting. Peggy, who worked as a news anchor for ABC news with Peter Jennings when her children were young, had this advice for me: When you’re juggling all those balls in the air, Shelly, remember that not all the balls are the same. Some of those balls are made of rubber. If you drop them, they’ll bounce away. Some of them are glass balls. If you drop them, they’ll break.

I’ll try to remember that when I head back to work, start graduate school studies, and manage my household and kids. I’m still a novice juggler.

Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

Okay, I’ve shared some of the wisdom of my village. What would I personally add? I guess I’m learning that there is no such thing as perfect. My kids are privy to all of me, the highs and lows.

They enjoy the fun of backward dinner nights on Thursdays and Groupon days where we try out activities and restaurants based on what Groupon/Living Social/Bloomspot offers I’ve purchased

From left: Ryan, Paige, Megan, and Katie

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Ryan can tell you about Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha; Katie has been reciting entire stanzas from Les Misérables since she was 5. Let’s just say, if there was a jeopardy category for Broadway song lyrics and plays, my kids would totally dominate the board. (They’ll likely disavow any knowledge of this when they’re teens and realize what geeks I’ve made them!)

They are also pros at packing suitcases and stepping through the paces of airport security as we travel on our vacations (shoes off and in the bins; electronics out of our carry-ons; 3 ounce toiletries in zip-locks). Megan calls our family, a “Party of Five.”

Then there are the times when they’ve quietly murmured to each other that they may not get home because Mom is lost. They will announce (as Paige wrote this week) that Mom is always late. (Megan will spend the rest of her life being half an hour early to things in reaction to the embarrassment she feels over being late so many times in her life.)

My kids have stared wordlessly at me, with tears streaming down their faces when I’ve utterly lost it and yelled at them. They witness me being tired and irritable; disorganized and distracted. And they call me on it regularly.

Paige and Katie were listening to me talk to someone on the phone. “You are so nice when you’re talking to other people,” Paige told me. “You’re grumpy and mean when you’re talking to us.”

So I’ve learned to say “I’m sorry” a million times. I wonder if I will wear the words out. Somehow, when I say “I’m sorry,” it makes my children cry again. They hug me. They pat my cheek or back and tell me it’s okay. And the episode is lost from their minds in much the same way that a sense of direction is lost on me.

My high school friends Brent and Brad, likely already know all of this. They are wise and smart so they’ve likely figured out the whole parenting thing even before having kids, while I’m still a novice parent. Pay attention. Juggle without dropping the glass balls. Say, “I’m sorry.”

I’m terribly relieved I didn’t have to assemble the parts and pieces of my children. I wouldn’t have known how to put so much love and laughter and forgiveness and joy inside them.