New Uses for Old Armoires

New Use for an Old Armoire

New, flat screen televisions no longer fit in old entertainment armoires so I inserted a shoe organizer into the old television space and am storing camisoles and tank tops in the shoe spaces so I can see them at a glance. Adhesive tab hooks on the inside doors of the armoire keep necklaces from getting tangled and are also easier to find.

Another friend uses her armoire to hold her kids’ backpacks and school jackets…a self-contained “mud room” by the door.

And yet another uses her armoire to store her sewing machine and supplies. How have you used an old entertainment center that no longer houses a television?

The Forest for the Trees

We used to drive to nearby farms for our annual Christmas tree. We’d eat those Royal Dansk Danish Butter cookies that were never very good. We’d sip cider out of Dixie cups and then tromp through artificial rows of forest looking for the tree. When we settled on one, the tree would be sawed down, wrangled into a net and, at home, thrust into a stand so we could encase it with 20,000 Christmas-with-the-Kranks lights.

I wasn’t brave enough to cut down a tree the first year on my own with the kids. Instead, I left Paige and Katie with my parents and headed off to Home Depot with Megan and Ryan who wanted to get a tree with Mommy.

I don’t know what it is with home repair stuff, but each time I’ve tried to work on a home project, everything I say conjures up double entendres. I walk into Home Depot and an employee is quick to my aid, “Can I help you find something?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a screw,” I say.

Mr. Orange Apron flashes a flirtatious smile. I turn red.

“I need screw eyes.” Wait. That didn’t help things.

When I was wrestling with my garbage disposal, aka as an “in-sink erator,” a friend at work was trying to talk me through the plumbing repair job. “You take the male pipe and put it into the female pipe but don’t forget the rubber gasket between them…” I glanced around hoping no one from HR was within earshot of our conversation and thought, Pipes have genders? I had a hard enough time with French-gendered nouns! 

As a result, I’ve learned to be more specific when I walk through the sliding doors of the mega hardware store. I tell the men I’m looking for toilet flappers or rubber foam for stripping to keep things warm at night. It’s still awkward to say I need a replacement “ballcock” but I’m managing. (Please keep your mind out of the gutter and on toilets if you think I’m making this up.)

But I digress. Size does matter, so Megan, Ryan and I settled on an enormous Noble Fir that first year. We watched the tree guys make a clean-cut to the base, net it, and hoist it onto the roof of our car. Only, Home Depot employees aren’t allowed to tie trees down—something about liability issues if the tree falls off the car.

We flung bungee cords and ropes around hoping that we were somehow latching the tree to our roof. I didn’t trust my tie-down efforts, so I had each kid hold onto the rope ends inside the car. When we arrived home, we pushed the tree off my roof only to discover I didn’t have a Christmas tree stand big enough to accommodate the tree’s base.

Last year I resorted to an artificial tree. A Frontgate Flip tree. An amazing, ingenious tree where I step on a pedal, flip the tree over and attach the top. It’s beautiful. Easy.  And pre-lit. But it doesn’t smell of a fresh forest and pine needles.

We wheeled it into our family room on Veteran’s day this year and decorated the whole evening because Christmas can very well start in November. Or even July in my book.

While our tree was up in time to honor our soldiers, Christmas became real last Saturday when my friends Alan and Sylvia showed up at church with a live tree for me. They purchased 8 gorgeous trees for a school fundraiser and gifted them to several families. I was one of the lucky recipients.

I had planned to stop by Bellarmine high school’s parking lot after church with an assortment of bungee cords. Instead, Alan and Sylvia delivered the tree to my car at church. It was raining. Not Seattle’s light mist, but a relentless, drenching downpour. Alan, an orthopedic surgeon, stood in the rain and sutured the tree onto my roof with ropes to ensure that I could cross the Narrows bridge with its high winds without mishaps. And I did.

The tree was secure, but the knots gave way with ease when I needed to get it off the roof. One phone call and my next door neighbor Dave was over to help me carry the tree into the house and set it in its stand. (Krinner Christmas Tree Genie XXL = best stand ever.)

The tree is lovely in my living room. The whole house is filled with its smell. And Alan and Sylvia’s gift not only made me deeply appreciative of good friends, it caused me to reflect on what I’ve learned from Christmas trees past, present and future:

Tall trees require broad bases. We all say to each other, “My, how your kids have grown.” And they have. But my children have grown up with a solid base of support from my parents and cousins, aunts and uncles. They’ve had an extraordinary foundation built of our church community and neighbors, teachers and friends. It’s more than I could have ever offered them on my own, but a good base is required for a tree to stand tall.

Medium beats well-done.  I tend toward perfection. My kids thrive on adventure and mayhem. I’m often flummoxed by how to manage it all–the schedules, the errands, the repairs, the cost, the sheer orchestration of life. My kids are resilient and forgiving and impervious to near mishaps. Megan and Ryan still laugh about trying to keep our Home Depot tree on our car roof. All of them enjoy hanging the ornaments—many clustered 3 feet from the ground—much more than looking at the tree when it’s finished. Real tree. Artificial tree. No one really cares except that there’s a tree to decorate, and its lights cast a kind glow on the little lives in our home.

Christmas is Receiving. All my life, I’ve heard that it’s more blessed to give than to receive so it’s an odd thing to realize that it’s important to be a gracious receiver as well.

My friends Kari and Tom showed up for dinner the other evening with some gourmet cheese and a cheese knife set, the handles made of beautiful Murano glass. It’s a perfect gift, yet I was mortified that I had been sick all week and hadn’t gotten them a thing in exchange.

Sometimes I am just a receiver, unprepared to reciprocate. I am humbled by all that I don’t know and can’t fix by myself. So I depend on the goodwill of Home Depot men. I accept big, beautiful Christmas trees and the kindness of neighbors and gorgeous glass knives without offering something back.

Christmas is kinda like that. It represents grace of a magnitude that humbles me. Renders me a complete receiver.

I am in awe of the gifts of Christmas: Unmerited grace. The presence and presents of family and friends.

Wishing all of you the gifts of love and joy, peace and astounding grace this season!

Catastasis, a Cat Story

When we got home on Sunday, Kitty Beckett was missing. The kids and I travelled to California for five days. Sometime while we were gone, our cat must have slipped out the dog door in search of us. Or an incredible journey. Or to solve a murder mystery. She was, after all, nicknamed for television’s Kate Beckett on Castle.

We waited to see if Kitty Beckett would show up at the backdoor Sunday night. Two raccoons came by, but no Kitty. Unless she had donned a raccoon mask for Halloween. The kids went to bed praying that she’d be safe and come home soon.

Monday. Still no cat, but Ryan, Paige and Katie continued to pray. I tried to tell them that she might have gotten lost and wandered  into someone’s backyard and another family adopted her. I gently hinted that we had a lot of coyotes and other animals in the woods around the area. Paige wanted to know why I wasn’t praying for our kitty. So I prayed.

But honestly, I struggle with prayer that way. When I was growing up, my grandma would pray to find her misplaced car keys or glasses. I know people who pray for good weather, for sports teams and for the big stuff: healing, restored health and other major miracles.

I pray less for outcomes and circumstances and more for my attitude to handle whatever comes my way. I pray for patience when things or people drive me insane; or wisdom to see things in a different light. But even as I say these prayers, I wonder if I somehow limit God with my skepticism and notions of a God who will not/cannot tamper with free will and the natural laws of the universe.

Big thoughts over a little cat. So the kids went to bed, and I remembered to check my phone message before I went to sleep. I missed a call from my neighbor across the street: Did I have a cat who might have climbed up her tree? 

Their dog had chased a wandering cat up their towering cedar on Friday. They thought it had climbed down, but when they were outside this evening, it was meowing pitifully from the top branches.

Well, Lord, help my unbelief! This morning I announced to the children that our kitty was in the tree of our neighbor’s house. They ran across the street looking for it, but we couldn’t see anything up that high. I sent them to school promising I’d find a way to get the cat down.

The internet is amazing, and with a quick search I found Cat in a Tree Rescue ( Mike-the-tree-climber, promised to be at my neighbor’s house within the hour. For a mere $150, Mike would climb to the very top branches of the tree, lovingly cradle Kitty Beckett into a rope sack, and bring her down to me. Whoever coined the phrase, “No such thing as a free lunch” could add, “No such thing as a free cat” either.

But what do you do? Leave your cat in a tree to die? And what price do you place on having your children’s prayers answered?!

It was much more exhilarating than the Chilean Miners rescue though it didn’t garner the media attention of Fox and CNN. I grabbed my camera for exclusive photos of the cat rescue.

When Mike landed on the ground, he handed me his rope bag, and I crooned to Kitty Beckett. He warned me not to open the bag or, in her panic, she could shoot back up the tree. We carried the rope bag back to my house to welcome her home, but just before we got to the garage, she squirmed and wiggled and forced her head through the opening at the top.

It wasn’t Kitty. I mean, it was a kitty, but she wasn’t my kitty. She was white and short-haired, and she didn’t look like the kind of feline who would appreciate Nathan Fillion. My kitty is gray and long-haired and loves murder comedies.

I had just written a check for $150 to rescue someone else’s cat. And my kids would be crushed. And I now had a cat in a rope bag–what would I do with it? Mike said, “This has never happened to me before.”

I wanted to tell him that I routinely hire men to rescue neighborhood cats from trees, but I was late–late for staff devotions and prayer at work. We had a quick conversation about a “lost cat” flyer on the mailboxes, and Mike offered to call the telephone number for me. A neighbor was at my house in 10 minutes to claim her cat. She was overjoyed, and she kindly replaced my check for Mike-the-tree-climber.

Someone’s prayers were answered, but not my kids’ prayers this time. At least, not with the answer they sought, but they’ll be okay. They are talking about keeping a kitten from Megan’s pregnant cat at her Dad’s house. They’re also hoping that maybe Kitty Beckett will still return. Their resilience amazes me. So does their faith. Also their unending enthusiasm for adding pets to our home.

I want to shield them from praying for specific outcomes that might end up disappointing them. They pray with all kinds of petitions and expectations…and remain undaunted when their requests go unfulfilled. I envy their expectant optimism and acknowledge that so much of the power of prayer is a great big mystery to me.

The good news is, I love a good mystery.

ca-tas-ta-sis: [noun]. the third part of an ancient drama in which the action is heightened for the catastrophe.


Neighborhood Sleepovers

It began with a tragedy. A couple, both physicians, were raising two young children in a nice suburb in Rochester, New York. And then one night, the husband shot and killed his wife before killing himself. Their 11-year old and 12-year-old ran screaming into the street.

Journalist Peter Lovenheim lived 8 or 9 houses away but hardly knew the family. What haunted him was that no one else in the neighborhood seemed to know them well either.

Lovenheim began to look into the story. On the day of the murder/suicide, the mother, fearing for their safety had tried repeatedly to call a close friend to see if she and her kids could spend the night. Her friend was out-of-town for the day. After school, the woman took her kids to the public library to do their homework to stay out of their house, but by 9 p.m., with nowhere else to go, she took them home and put them to bed.

Her husband had cancelled her cell phone service earlier that day and then disabled her car when she returned home. At that point, her best option would have been to seek out a safe haven with a neighbor, but despite the fact that the family had lived in their home for 7 years, she apparently didn’t know anyone on her street well enough to show up on someone’s doorstep. An hour later, her husband killed her and then himself.

Their children moved away to live with grandparents, and the house was put up for sale. Yet the neighborhood seemed unaffected. “Why is it,” Lovenheim wrote, “in an age of discount airlines, unlimited cell phone minutes and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?”

After thinking about what it takes to build a community for a while, Lovenheim came upon an odd idea: What if he had a one-night sleepover with each neighbor on his street? He started talking to his neighbors and politely inviting himself over to their homes. It was a way to really get to know people beyond what they did for a living and how many children they had. More than half of the neighbors he approached with the idea agreed to have him sleepover and then write about their lives in his book released in April, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.

Lovenheim’s daughter watched her Dad pack his overnight bag and head over to various neighbors’ homes for sleepovers and declared him nuts. My daughter Megan, would die of mortification if I attempted neighborhood sleepovers, but I happen to think Lovenheim’s onto something.

It’s hard work to know people well; to reach outside our reserve and reticence and get to know each other’s stories. Worse yet, knowledge might require us to get involved. In the course of Lovenheim’s sleepovers, he met a woman three doors away who was struggling with breast cancer and in need of assistance. He began to think of ways the neighbors might be able to offer her their collective support.

I’ve been fortunate to live in two neighborhoods where people intentionally reached out to one another. When my kids left on one of their first vacations with their Dad and his girlfriend, I was saying a teary goodbye in the driveway. My then next-door neighbor Allison came over to ask if I wanted to join her family for dinner. I was so relieved not to have to walk back into my silent and empty house.

Other neighbors down the street in my old neighborhood have a summer tradition of setting up an outdoor movie screen in their cul-de-sac and inviting the neighbors to come by with lawn chairs and snacks to watch family movies. Before they started the film, they helped us break-the-ice with neighbors we might not know as well by passing out “worksheets.” Find a neighbor who has the same number of kids as you do and have them sign this paper. Find someone who is traveling out of the United States this summer. And so on. It might be anathema for the introverts among us, but it always takes some effort to begin an acquaintance that could lead to comfortable, lasting friendships.

I was sad to leave my neighbors when I moved homes a year and a half ago. But Day Two in my new home, while I was messing around with the plumbing of a faulty toilet, the doorbell rang. My new next door neighbors had come over to introduce themselves and brought a dozen cupcakes as they had noticed my brood of children. If only I had unpacked my towels and had one in the bathroom! (“Hi! Let me shake your hand with my wet one. No worries, I’ve just been messing around with the toilet!” I’m sure I made a great first impression with them!)

My new neighbors host small dinner parties at each other’s homes, and I was soon invited into the fold. Three dinners at different homes so far and when we were all snowed in during an unusual Seattle snow storm last winter, most of my new neighbors in the cul-de-sac walked over to my house for a Christmas party.

Getting to know our neighbors doesn’t require slumber parties or even dinner-party efforts. Last summer, spur-of-the moment, I stopped by Trader Joe’s for desserts on my way home from work and then called the neighbors to stop by my house for dessert and coffee after dinner.

I heard about a neighborhood in Columbus, OH where, for 7 years, they have hosted “Wednesdays on the Porch.” To date, 85 neighbors have invited neighbors to visit and munch on their front porches (doesn’t even require a clean house).

In San Diego, one neighborhood hosts a parade on New Year’s Day. No one watches because everyone has to be IN the parade.

I’m curious to read about Lovenheim’s sleepover adventures. I guess I can’t help but wonder about a guy who would invite himself over to his neighbors for a sleepover and what his perspective is the morning after. Maybe after I finish the book, I’ll pull out my sleeping bag and think about which neighbors I want to know better!

You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy

It was the oddest thing. A few weeks ago, I walked into the restroom on the top floor of Pacific Place in downtown Seattle and was surprised at the remodeling they had done in there. Same nice tiles and all, but for whatever reason, they had added urinals against the walls of the women’s restroom.

I was trying to figure out why the urinals were in there, and how I’d possibly use them, when I realized that a number of guys were standing facing those urinals.

So annoying. First management changes things around. Then these guys decide to use the ladies’ room. I stood there ready to ask them all to leave when it started to dawn on me that perhaps I had walked through the wrong door…

You’d be surprised at how slowly my brain registers things at times. Or not. It might be a reflection of my incredible hubris that I automatically assume that half a dozen guys made the mistake of entering the wrong restroom instead of thinking that the error was, perhaps, mine?

You’d think that I would turn silently on my heels and hightail it out of there, but instead I quite audibly gasped, “Oooops!” The guys turned. I turned…red…and then managed to leave as quickly as I could. I glanced at the door on my way out still hoping I might be right and the rest of the world wrong. ‘Twas indeed my error…

It made me wonder how many other times I walk into situations quite sure that I have it right; that my perception is reality.

A couple of years ago, I attended Harvard’s Program on Negotiation as a continuing education course for managers. You’d think it would be a course on “negotiate to win” or how to out-maneuver your opponent. I was relieved to find them emphasizing empathy. How do you check your assumptions to figure out where you might be overlooking facts and data? How can you figure out what is truly important to someone else so you can reach mutually beneficial agreements?

They showed us some classic films of a basketball game and asked half of us to count how many times the black-shirted team passed the ball to teammates while the other half of our class counted how many times the white-shirted team passed the ball. Half way through the film, a man dressed in a gorilla costume ambled onto the court and began to play. Astoundingly, at least half of the class, engrossed in counting passes, never even noticed a costumed gorilla playing on the court.

Later, they projected a poem up on the wall and asked us to count the number of times a specific letter appeared in the verses. They gave us as much time as we needed to figure out this simple, objective answer. But when they asked for a show of hands to report our counts, we were all over the map.

At first, I thought there was some trick to the exercise, but no, it was a straight-forward example of the fact that even with all the facts in front of you and a true right answer, people could still get a simple thing wrong.

All that to say that old age is starting to slow me down. I’m trying to walk toward my conclusions instead of leaping to them. I’m attempting to listen more carefully with a mind that stays as open as my ears. And I think I’m getting a bit better about putting myself in someone else’s place to see what the world must look like from his or her vantage point…but I could be wrong about that too.

You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for…

Billy Joel

Shepherds Quake

It’s a challenge to meet everyone’s expectations for a Christmas note. Some want a traditional travel log chronicling the highways we crossed in our Winnebago as we camped and visited relatives in the summer. Problem is, we don’t own a Winnebago. And we don’t really camp. And I’m a bit doubtful my relatives would fling open the doors if I pulled up with my four munchkins looking for room in the Inn.

Others expect a litany of my children’s accomplishments. All I can say is that if there are awards given for Most Roles of Toilet Paper in the Toilet or Fastest Rappeler Down the Laundry Chute I might need to think about adding a trophy room to the house.

There was also a hue and cry for failing to dish the details of my dating life in last year’s note. Such curiosity. To which I say, “Get a life, folks!” Surely you all have better things to do than wonder who I’m out with and what I’m doing. Leave it to my father who thinks about this enough for everyone.

I entered my house one evening to the incessant ring of my telephone.

“Oh good, you’re home,” Dad said when I answered.

“Aren’t you out of the country, Dad?”

“Yes, we’re in Tokyo right now. But Mom said you were out on a date, and when I calculated the time, I thought you should be home by now.”

“Well, the beauty of technology, Dad, is that I can forward my home phone anywhere…”

Can’t help but give dear ol’ Dad a hard time. He recently suggested that when someone asks for my phone number, I should give the guy his number instead. Sure, Dad. Let me just go upstairs to my room and don my Burka while you pre-screen my dates.

If you must know, I had a very memorable Valentine’s eve this year. I got home from work and decided I was too tired to cook. I changed into a comfortable pair of old sweats and ordered pizza.

The kids and I started decorating Valentine’s day boxes: Princess Barbie stickers for Paige and Katie’s boxes; Darth Vader and the Death Star to hold Ryan’s love letters. Romance was in the air.

When the doorbell rang, I grabbed my purse, opened the door, and was rummaging to find my wallet when I heard Pizza Guy say, “Wow! You’re an absolute beauty.”

Hmmm I thought. I’m going to have to wear these sweats more often.

Before I could look up to lock gazes with the man/boy of my dreams, I heard him say, “You’re the best looking labrador I’ve ever seen.”

There stood Whistler, sniffing wistfully at the pizza box with his tail wagging. My ego took a dive, as did Pizza Guy’s tip for the evening.

So there you have it. The rest of the stories, well, I just don’t think it’d be polite to talk about the men I’ve dated this year. Not until I publish the book, at least.

My married friends shake their heads and say they’re so glad they don’t have to date again. Perhaps. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that life is all about perspective. Consider my chagrin that Whistler continues to drink out of our toilets; Whistler, however, wonders why his inconsiderate family keeps peeing in his water bowl.

Dating is an interesting pastime on breaks from work and motherhood. I’ve rather liked discovering new music, books, food, and favorite haunts through the guys I’ve met. And for their part, they’ve been consummate gentlemen and excellent company at restaurants, movies, hikes, charity events, the theatre.

As for the strange guys? Writing fodder.

Life is so different than I envisioned in my early 20s—before I had children and while I still knew what parents were doing wrong in restaurants and grocery stores, and especially at Target. I knew back then, that I would one day hold my children on my lap and read E.B. White to them. (For my Adventists friends, just assume I meant E.G. White.)

We would bake and decorate sugar cookies together (my kids, not Ellen White). I think my children were sepia-toned and wore Florence Eiseman shifts over their cherubic wings.

Fast forward 15 years. I no longer know how to parent now that I am one. In the early sleep-deprived days, I’d show up at the office with burp rags on my shoulder. I’d head out for an afternoon outing without a diaper bag and end up begging for Huggies. And, “Could I please borrow, like, three wipes from you?”

(Come to think of it, maybe there’s some Freudian reason that Ryan feels the need to use an entire roll of toilet paper…something to do with feeling deprived or insufficiently cleansed as an infant?)

The more prepared ladies in the women’s lounge usually refused to consider my request for a loaner.

“Keep it,” they’d say, with withering looks. Maybe they sensed I wasn’t really planning to use and return their offered items.

Whereas I used to work tirelessly to coordinate the twins and match the girls down to hair accessories, shoe clips, and tights, I’m more inclined these days to let Paige and Katie wear whatever their hearts’ desire: Usually their Princess Halloween costumes. To the supermarket. In April.

Sure, I read to my kids, but I tend to read them the riot act more often than the “Trumpet of the Swan.” How else do you respond when Ryan unscrews every last sprinkler head to create gushing geysers in the backyard? Or when Ryan uses up the Costco multi-pack of Edge gel to have shaving cream wars against his sisters in my shower? Or when Ryan floods the bathroom filling water balloons for battle until it seeps and leaks through the laundry room ceiling?

Hmmm. Seems to be a common denominator here…

I had life so figured out at 20-something. Two kids, not four. Golden wedding anniversary not a failed try for ivory. Change the world. Change diapers. Sometimes, it’s important to just throw out the script and wing it so that you obediently stay in bed when your little girls tell you that they’re bringing you breakfast. I wouldn’t have known to plan for a bowl of microwave popcorn. But it was perfect. My best breakfast ever.

Megan’s life is growing increasingly full these days: honor student parties, birthday/slumber parties, outdoor camp, volunteer events, children’s church. Whatever people tell you about adolescents not communicating with you, it’s simply not true. Megan and I have very open, broadband-like lines of communications. She emails me from her bedroom. I open her notes on the kitchen computer. It really is today’s equivalent of sitting down at the kitchen counter to have milk and cookies after school each day.

To be fair, the emails came at my request. Megan had a habit of waiting until bedtime to tell me what she needed from me at, say, 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

(I’m thinking that the mother of a pre-teen wrote the story of Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold throughout the night based on her daughter’s expectations of what could be accomplished by Mom in the wee small hours of the morning.)

After a few lectures about this, Megan has now taken to emailing me lists of what I need to do for her by Monday, by Tuesday and, graciously, “Stuff I need you to do whenever you can get to it.” In organizational-speak, I think it’s called, “managing up.” So while I’m learning to throw out my life’s script, Megan’s taken to scripting some of my life for me.

As we approach this Christmas season, my advice is to enjoy the elaborate pageantry of perfectly orchestrated music and lights and presents and parties, but leave some room for the unexpected wonders of, well, those unscripted moments.

Every year, my church, like most churches, holds a special Christmas service. The program is perfectly planned. A glistening tree finds its place on the platform, and the requisite poinsettias and candles are positioned along the stage and pew aisles.

It wouldn’t be our Christmas service without Wes Hart singing O Holy Night and our congregation closing with Silent Night.

My kids are keenly attuned to the sacredness of this service—a time of peace and sharing with others as we attach our tithe and offering envelopes with paperclips to the tree.

Last Christmas, Katie sat beside me scrawling on a Batman coloring book. (Okay, I confess that I failed to bring superheroes of the Bible or something a bit more appropriate than the winged-vermin in black vinyl.)

Paige was doling out crayons to Katie. Pink for Batman’s cape. Purple for his tights.

I think I was meditating on Long lay the world, in sin and error pining when the scuffle broke out. Katie didn’t want the color Paige was thrusting at her. Another crayon was seized, fought over and snapped in two. Teeth and claws, and I was whispering firmly to Paige when the strains of Silent Night began.

She slipped off the pew onto the floor in a pout. The lights dimmed as the program participants streamed off the stage and carried their candles down the aisles to illuminate our sanctuary in soft candlelight.

Katie’s black velvet shoes hung straight off the pew and swung in tantalizing reach of Paige’s face.

“All is calm, all is bright,” the congregants sang. Paige ripped Katie’s shoes off her feet and hurled them at her. Shoeless Joe Jackson, I mean, shoeless Katie Johnston flew off the pew and threw herself onto Paige.

Shepherds quake at the sight…

I don’t know what was going on by the time we reached the verse about With the dawn of redeeming grace.

That might have been the moment a fistful of paperclips fell out of Ryan’s pockets…paperclips he had collected off of the offering envelopes from the Christmas tree.

Life is so not what you expect at times, but maybe we are inept at setting the right expectations for ourselves anyway. I am beginning to think that the whole beauty and mystery of the Advent season is that a Child was born to unlikely parents, in chaotic circumstances, in a manner that confounded everyone’s expectations. There are human plans and then there is Divine provision.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that joy and peace, redemption and grace come to us in the unanticipated moments of our lives. Gushing geysers of grace as you anticipate Eggs Benedict and find, instead, popcorn on your plate.

Wishing you unexpected joy and laughter this season and unmeasured merriment in the New Year!

It’s Sngo-ing

I told my mother I’m a good all-weather driver. Snow’s no big deal. There are multiple routes back to my house if one road is icy. We headed out in my rear-wheel drive car this afternoon. Hmmm. Maybe I should have thought that one through.

Evening settled in. Snow melted and then re-froze on the road. We tried one road with an incline back to my house and gave up after a few slides back down. A second hill wasn’t any better. I’m so glad for neighbors with AWD vehicles. We abandoned the car on the side of the road (where six other vehicles were stuck), and my neighbor, Dave, came and drove us up to my house. It was nice to be home…except I didn’t have my car to open the garage door. And I didn’t have a house key. And we didn’t put the key back in the key safe. And every friend with a spare key was unavailable/out of the area!

I walked around the back of the house and tried the doors and windows that I normally forget to latch and close. (Thank you, Jeff, for noticing my unlocked windows yesterday and promptly bolting them for me!)

I peered in the backdoor and saw that Whistler had once again opened the refrigerator. The fridge light showed that he was sampling a bit of buche de noel, some spanakopita, and had emptied the remaining tray of caramelized onions puffs with feta. I don’t get it. He usually prefers a diet of Legos, American Girl doll arms and plastic Target bags… sometimes little lead beads from wrist weights that look like buck shot when you x-ray his intestines.

If the dog can open the refrigerator, you’d think he could meander to the front door and unlock it for me. But he just stood there in the light of the fridge and looked blankly at me. Was there a trace of a smirk on Whistler’s face?

Desperate times require one to swallow one’s pride. Mom, after all, was standing at the front door with her purse and her second bag filled with food she had packed in case we got stuck in the snow. (Mom could have been a boy scout, she’s so prepared. Except when it comes to having a spare key.) I called my ex-husband and asked if he could bring Katie to my house. What did I need Katie for? Well, to crawl in through the dog door to let us into the house.

He showed up an hour later with my baby, aka as Chinese acrobat girl. I had to remove her puffy coat and a few more layers to allow her to lithely climb through the dog door. I could hear her cooing inside to Whistler. “I wuv you, Whistlewer. I missed you so much, doggie.”

Oh no. They were going to have a love-fest in the laundry room, and Katie would forget her mission! Stay on target, Katie. Stay on target!

She eventually remembered her cold Mommy and Grandma and opened the front door. I cleaned up the leftover smears and crumbs that Whistler had left in the kitchen and dining room. (He prefers to take his meals in the formal dining room.) I found the string cheese Whistler had buried underneath the cushions in my couch–stored for his midnight snack, I guess. He went out his dog door and returned with another piece of string cheese he had buried out in the snow.

Then mom came downstairs and announced that she was cleaning out her purse. And whadda ‘ya know? She had a spare house key in her purse the whole time…

My Thankful Box

It’s Thanksgiving eve, and the kids are writing entries for their Thankful boxes. “I’m thankful for Whistler.”

“I’m thankful for Grandma and Grandpa.”

If they were a tad more honest, their lists would reveal things like, “I’m thankful Mom never knew who stashed the ice cream sandwiches behind the couch.” Or, “I’m thankful for the invention of permanent markers.”

Recently, I came home to find a child’s etching on the family room wall.

“Who drew a fish on the wall?” I asked.

“That’s not a fish,” said Ryan. “That’s a shark with really big, sharp teeth.” Poor kid doesn’t know a thing about his fifth amendment rights. I lectured him soundly and told him he was never, ever to draw a shark on the wall again.

“Okay, Mommy,” he told me sadly. “Next time I promise I’ll draw a fish for you instead.”

There’s often a direct correlation between the things my children are grateful for and the things that make my life chaotic these days. In fact, it’s been a challenge for the whole family to keep afloat at all sometimes.

My brother-in-law, Richard, died of a rare brain disease in February 2005 leaving behind my sister and her two daughters, then 4 and 10 months. Three months later, Eric moved out of the house and filed for divorce the following January. Some things are unimaginable.

In journalism, you look for natural transitions–one thought that ties a preceding paragraph into the next. In life, there are no smooth transitions from death and divorce. You cry. You rage. You spend sleepless nights worrying about the scars your children will bear. And then you pray for resilience and grace to cover and heal the fractures in everyone’s lives.

My niece Lauren tells people her daddy lives at the cemetery. Katie spent weeks after Eric moved out insisting that Daddy was working outside in the yard when nighttime came, and he wasn’t there to tuck her into bed.

When we pulled out of the garage one day, Katie refused to buckle herself into her car seat. Ryan and Paige pleaded with her to buckle in.

“Mommy’s going to get a ticket, and the police will come and take her to jail,” Paige told Katie.

“Daddy’s gone now,” Ryan continued. “And if Mommy goes to jail, we don’t know how to call Lynn [our nanny] to come and take care of us.” Katie soberly buckled her seatbelt.

I’m not being profane when I use the word hell. Divorce is a living hell, and the wreckage spills over onto children and church families and friends and even onto the far limbs of the family tree. If we’re fortunate enough, the branches of friendships and family can help to break the fall.

If I were writing my own Thankful box, my parents would top the list. In their inimitable way, they have stood by us and kept us all going.

When Richard died, Dad flew to Portland to help Charlene with all the details surrounding his death. Richard served in the U.S. Air Force to pay back four years of medical school, so Char wanted a 21-gun salute at his memorial service. Dad was sent in to make the arrangements. Ever careful about expenditures, Dad was appalled to hear how much a 21-gun salute would cost.

“Do they have a better rate if we just had a 7-gun salute?” he asked.

During his visits to Seattle this year, Dad cooked roasts as he did on the weekends I returned home from college. He helped me service my cars, carried out my trash, and made runs to Costco to stuff the freezer with food for the kids.

On car rides, the children like to play “Who am I?” where they mimic people. Recently I listened to Paige play-acting in the car, “Who wants to eat? Who’s hungry?”

“You’re Papa!” Ryan correctly shouted.

Dad nourishes our bodies. Mom attempts to sustain our souls. She’s so accustomed to receiving tearful phone calls, she sometimes confuses the grief and the daughter she’s trying to console.

One morning on the phone, Mom spent several minutes empathizing: I just don’t understand this. I don’t know why he chose this route for his life. Maybe one day he’ll wake up, but for now, he can’t be enjoying any peace.” Then Mom realized she was talking to my widowed sister, not me.

That possibly explains why she walks around sighing to herself in Chinese these days. It’s safer to express yourself in another language: Mah say lock day han. Or maybe it was Rah, rah. Sis boom bah…

“What are you muttering about?” I once asked her.

“When the horse dies, you get up and walk,” she told me. I thought that was pretty good, so I asked her for another one.

“If man had a conscience, a dog wouldn’t eat his s–t,” she said.

I’ve never seen those on any fortune cookies I’ve ever opened, but I’m thinking I ought to start my own line of Chinese greeting cards. Maybe I’ll send those out next year, but then you’d miss the photo cards I usually send with the faces of my little ones for whom I’m also deeply thankful.

At 9, Megan is beautiful both inside and out. She’s sweet and thoughtful and sensitive to the plight of others. At the dog park this summer, it was Megan who shed embarrassed tears for our Whistler when he squatted to expel a plastic Target bag he had eaten the day before. Unfortunately for him, (and certainly for all of us trying to make a good impression with the canine crowd standing around) only the first four inches of the bag made it out on his first purge attempt. Unperturbed, Whistler gave up and ran around for the next 20 minutes with the plastic bag hanging partially out of his rear.

It’s hard to know what to do in those situations. Yank and hope not to hurt anything? Shrug and figure it’ll all come out okay in the end… literally? Wonder aloud to everyone around about whose dog that is? (Hint: On multiple choice exams, I always opted for ‘C’ when I wasn’t sure of the answer.)

If most of the genes for sweet and sensitive went to Megan, then feisty and fiery went to Paige and Katie. The 5-year-old twins were fighting ferociously one day when I heard Ryan plead, “Please, please stop arguing with me, Paige. Don’t talk to me anymore!”

“Okay,” Paige replied. There was silence for a moment and then she added, “But I’m very, very right, Ryan.”

Katie, 3, is also not to be crossed. I’m not sure if she’s been exposed to too many Revelation seminars put on at church, but she’s convinced that she wants to be a dragon when she grows up. “God will turn me into a dragon,” she tells everyone. “He will give me two heads so I can breathe more fire!”

Spare us all. She creates enough heat with the one head she’s got.

So amid the fire and days that feel like a living hell, there are also numerous ways to be grateful and glad. I believe God has provided in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen nor would have planned.

After years of being a stay-at-home dad, Eric got an engineering job in Redmond seven months after he moved out of our home. World Vision’s senior management and fellow colleagues were incredibly supportive to me throughout all of the transitions.

In January, I took on a new position as general manager over the radio program, the World Vision Report. I work with a fabulous, top-notch team of journalists across the country, and some of the best stringers from around the world file for the show. The half-hour weekly program is on a couple hundred Christian stations and is just starting to gain carriage on public radio. Incredibly, I also have the flexibility of working from home two days a week which is ideal for the kids and me right now.

I’m so grateful to those of you who have walked me through the awful times and dealt with all the poop from this year. You may think I’m being figurative, but I’m remembering a 5-mile hike around Point Defiance where my friend Kari, offered to carry Whistler’s waste bag until we came to the next trash can. If that isn’t the mark of true friendship, I don’t know what is!

I’d love to list you all–Kris, Peggy, Char and Heidi; the multiple Johns and Jons; my extended family and church friends…you’re in my box of people I’m thankful for. And I’m pretty certain you’re there in permanent ink.