How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.

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Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…

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What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.

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*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. 

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!)

Psalm Sung Blues

Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, Wash.

Last night, my friends Kari and Tom invited me to a Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian church in Tacoma. Those were two words I’d never heard together before: Blues Vespers.

Vespers, for the uninitiated, traditionally refers to evening worship marked by music and prayer. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church where these services were often held on Friday evenings, the beginning of our Sabbath.

At our University church, vespers often consisted of Christian musicians or string orchestras performing the works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Dvorak.

My grandparents lived near the church, so if my sister and I happened to be visiting their home on a Friday evening, we would hear the church bells chime at sundown.

We either attended the church’s vespers program, or my grandmother would find my grandfather (who always seemed to be stepping out of the shower at sundown), round-up whichever grandkids happened to be at her home, and we’d have family worship in their front room. Grandma played hymns on their upright piano. Grandpa read a short devotional piece or a story from the “Kids’ Corner” of the church’s magazine, The Adventist Review. And we would pray.

Every denomination has its specific sub-culture. Adventists are no exception. Yes, we believe in blood transfusions, and we celebrate holidays (you’re mixing us up with Jehovah’s Witnesses). No, we’re not all vegetarians, although Adventists are strong proponents of healthy living.

Sabbath observance from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is particularly central to  Adventists who believe that the fourth of the ten commandments is frequently disregarded among Christians.

When I look back on my childhood, Sabbath-keeping was both terribly legalistic and amazingly beneficial to me.

In the Adventist community where I grew up, these were the things one generally didn’t do on the Sabbath, unless your family was…what do the Mormons say, Jack Mormons? Unless you were a Jack Adventist, I guess, this is a bit of what Sabbath observance looked like:

  • Parents didn’t work. Children didn’t study.
  • Adventists didn’t purchase things on the Sabbath: groceries, clothing, gas. You organized your week to take care of those things before Friday night. In fact, Adventist schools and business often closed at noon on Fridays to allow families to have time to “prepare for the Sabbath.” (In high school, my friends and I got out of school at noon and “prepared for the Sabbath” by sailing the afternoon away at nearby Lake Perris.)
  • Families didn’t do household chores: laundry, cleaning, yard work, car washing, etc.
  • Media remained off for the day. Television sets were turned off. Radios went silent unless they were tuned to Christian stations or classical music. You didn’t go to the movies. (Then again, you didn’t go to the movies pretty much any other day of the week, either, if you were a more conservative Adventist.)
  • You didn’t compete in organized sports on Saturday because it was a day of rest and worship. A casual game of frisbee in the park? Yes. An organized soccer match or baseball tournament? No.

Families differed on what recreation was permissible on Sabbath. Generally hikes and nature walks and bicycle rides were good things that helped you appreciate God’s creation. Water skiing or downhill skiing were likely on the “no” list.

A friend in high school jokingly explained that if it required any kind of motor, it was taboo. Cross-country skiing: yes. Downhill skiing: no, because of the ski lifts. I suppose it would have been permissible if you were willing to forego the ski lift and sidestep your way up the mountain for a downhill run…

In many ways, Adventists would have made legalistic Jews of old proud, the Jews who crucified Christ and then hurried home to observe the Sabbath. Form and outward behavior sometimes eclipsed the real values of a day of rest and worship.

Looking back on my childhood, I grimace at some of the legalism surrounding the Sabbath, but then I’m also grateful for the boundaries and structure it provided.

My workaholic father wouldn’t consider breaking the Sabbath by taking business calls or meetings with clients, and my mother wasn’t consumed by managing our household. For at least one day a week, my parents were utterly available for walks and board games, bike rides and trips to the mountains or beach.

My family went out to lunch almost every Sabbath after church (my parents were liberal Sabbath observers that way!), and we’d linger over our meal, in no hurry to get to sport practices, run errands, or home to do chores.

In high school and college, Saturday was a complete break from studying and homework. It forced me to manage my time better knowing that I wouldn’t have that day to get things done. And it taught me how much I needed a break; a day to stop so that when I resumed whatever I was working on, I’d be starting up relaxed and refreshed.

The Sabbath reminded me that God was sovereign and didn’t need me to keep everything going for him. The earth continued to rotate on its axis while we took a day off. Observing the Sabbath also helped me put consumerism and entertainment in their proper places. For one day, you unplugged and said ‘no’ to purchasing more things.

A weekly Sabbath reminded me to stop and worship and reflect on God’s grace in my life.

As a parent, I have to determine anew what Sabbath looks like for my family. (Legalism isn’t great, but at least you can save yourself some thinking if you just adopt a set of rules!)

Instead, I’m forced to think about whether or not I take my children to the theater to see “Wicked” on a Friday night. Are sermons in a church any more “spiritual” than moral stories on a stage? I discuss with my kids which school activities we participate in and don’t participate in when they fall on a Saturday. I’ve come to dismiss the notion that only classical and Christian music genres are “religious.”

I smiled when the Rev. Brown of Immanuel Presbyterian got up last night at the Blues Vespers to read sensual poetry laced with images of “intermingling” and “intertwining” because this stuff belongs in the church, he said. Then the “Blues Buskers” resumed their music set for vespers.

With apologies to Neil Diamond, I thought of them as Psalm sung blues.

“Blues music expresses in its words and music human joy, longing, passion and pain. This evening’s music reminds us that God is there for us in all of life, often in the places where we are most human. Blues, like many other forms of music, can help express what we experience in life. At times, music can be a prayer.” -Immanuel Presbyterian program

Going Solo

Earlier this week, I was trading text messages with my friend Tim, a widower raising three sons and a daughter on his own. We were commiserating over parenting issues (I have the inverse of his family, with three daughters and a son) when Tim mentioned that he knew a thing or two about raising daughters…and had the toe nails to prove it. Hmmm…toe nails?

Tim’s 8-year-old daughter, Mary, wanted to gain some experience with nail polish and decided to practice on her Daddy’s toes. Bright pink polish. (You need to know that Tim is 6’ 3” to fully appreciate the image of him with flamingo-colored toe nails.) Mary finished his left foot and decided to stop. One foot was all she wanted to do.

Tim’s been walking around for a few days with his pretty, pink toe nails. I guess he’s enjoying them too much to find or purchase some nail polish remover.

That’s life when you’re both Dad and Mom to your kids. Parenting is full of some of the sweetest moments of unrehearsed whimsy, but single parenting can also be a bit like having fewer hands than you need, and two left feet, minus the pretty polish.

Sure, my children have their Dad in their lives, an evening a week and every other weekend, but it’s not the same as living in a household with both Mom and Dad.

I have no argument over the value of two-parent families. I believe two parents are optimal for children, wherever possible. But it’s frustrating to have single parents, particularly single mothers, held up as the causal factor of various societal ills such as gun violence.

Like it or not, single-parent households are a reality in the United States where 13.6 million parents are raising 21.2 million kids on their own, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That number represents just over a quarter of the children under the age of 21 in the U.S today.

Those single parent households statistics include families like Tim’s, who’ve lost a spouse and parent through death. And those single parent household numbers include my family, through divorce.

I wince over the label “single mom.” I’m afraid it conjures up negative images and (shall I say it?) binders full of women: Unemployed women. Women on welfare. Undereducated women. Promiscuous teens.

The term elicits disparagement or pity from people, and I cringe over the thought of being the recipient of either sentiment. But it’s my reality; the label that technically fits, even if the stereotypes don’t.

I don’t intend to delve into measures and programs and policies that might help to lower the number of single parent households in America. Interesting topic, but not one for me to take on right now. Instead, it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned about being a single parent.

It takes time—and time for yourself—to get it together

You know that speech flight attendants give about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you? It’s relevant to single parenting as well. In the immediate aftermath of death or divorce, there’s so much to handle….everything from legal tasks, to household issues, to your kids’ needs. Unfortunately, there’s no child-pause switch to activate when you’re overwhelmed by it all.

I came down with pneumonia a few years ago and, in desperation, planted my kids in front of the television so I could sleep for a few hours. I awoke to my 4-year-old, Katie, standing by my bed poking me. “Are you done being sick yet? I’m hungry,” she told me.

A friend listened to me share my concerns about my divorce’s effect on my children and my fears about not having enough time and energy for them. Then she said to me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to take the time to be solid and stable yourself.”

She was right. You can’t assist your children with their oxygen masks if you’re passed out on the floor. I had to be sure I was exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest (ha!). I’ve learned to streamline household tasks and decline extra activities that just can’t be maintained in a one-parent household.

Initially, it felt selfish to hire a sitter to go out to eat or to see a movie with friends, but then I remembered that these actions are my way of securing the oxygen mask to my face. Sure, there are extremes: Parents who are constantly out taking care of their own needs while their kids struggle through on their own. It’s a fine balance of making your kids your priority, but taking care of yourself in the process.

It takes a village

More than ever, I’ve needed a village: a community of church members, neighbors and friends who help to fill in the gaps. These are people like my girlfriend Judy, who drove 30 minutes to my house and then 40 minutes over to Gig Harbor to take my daughter Megan to a Halloween party when I was down with pneumonia.There were neighbors who came over to my house to stay with a sick child when I needed to be in the office for a meeting.

I don’t know what the mom/son equivalent is to dads-painting-toe-nails-with-their-daughters, but I do worry about raising a son in a female-dominated household. My son, Ryan, might have been 3 or 4 years old when he came up to me one day and told me he couldn’t find his panties. Yikes.

I wish that was the last of it, but just last year I discovered I didn’t know a thing about boys’/men’s underware. I thought there were boxers and there were briefs, only to find out there was a third category: boxer briefs. How did I not know this? And which ones to buy for Ryan?

I consulted mom friends with sons and husbands who know these things and was advised that Ryan needed boxers or boxer briefs before he gets to the locker room.

I know, crazy example. But it’s the stuff that keeps me up at night!

(By the way, I laughed my way through a recent story on public radio’s The Vinyl Cafe where the mom was utterly perplexed when her son told her she neglected to buy an item on his sport’s uniform checklist: athletic support. She had checked it off assuming she was his athletic supporter!)

Moreover, I need a close community of families where my son and daughters can interact with other fathers; where they can see how husbands and wives relate to one another. Keeping my own circle of friends ensures that I’m not tempted to turn my children into my confidants. I love spending time with my kids. They’re funny and mature, and it’s a blast to talk with them. But end of the day, I’m their parent and they are my children—children who need to be kids without having to be my friend or assume responsibilities for me.

It takes hope 

Finally, I’ve learned my kids can adapt and even thrive despite adverse situations. A relative of mine sighs and murmurs to my Mother every time she sees her over how sad it is that my kids will be “so damaged” because of the divorce. She means well. She’s full of sympathy and pity for us, but it’s hard for her to fathom how much power we have to choose our response to difficult things.

I wish my children got to experience growing up with both of their parents under one roof. I wish my nieces’ father didn’t pass away when they were so very young. I wish Mary could paint Tim’s toe nails…and her mother’s as well.

It makes me long for another home; A different world. But for now, perhaps what my kids gain from the losses is a clearer understanding of what it takes to make a marriage last from their parent’s mistakes. They’ve watched me struggle, but maybe they’ve also learned that it’s not the end of the world when people leave or someone dies. In the hard stuff, maybe they’ve witnessed what it means to have a peace that passes understanding and composure regardless of life’s circumstances. I don’t know, but this gives me hope.

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.

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)