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.] 

 

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?

Triskaidekaphobia (For Megan, on her 13th birthday)

Sometimes we are too slow to properly perceive the pairing of joy with pain.

Too giddy with anticipation.

Too awed by the gift of life.

I steadied myself with the forewarning that you would be squishy.

Cone-headed.

More troll than doll.

But long labor helps the eyes see beauty and perfection.

Pain births a love more pure.

Sleepless reality set in with your built-in altimeter requiring us to stand and walk.

Walk and rock.

Motion moved us through the years;

schlepping past slurping fingers and satin blankies.

You sat and crawled and then one day walked past a dead bird on the road.

Why does God, who watches over sparrows, allow birds to die in the street?

you wanted to know.

How to explain freedom and its inherent cost in a sin-cursed world?

How to convey the ways our joys are now acquainted with sorrow?

Some fear the 13th floor. The 13th step. The 13th Friday.

Too slow am I to perceive the rocky road ahead.

I think “rocky road” and imagine us eating ice cream with nuts and marshmallows.

Nuts to being scared of the teen years!

We’ll step on the sidewalk cracks when we cross them.

We’ll taste the salty tears that spill onto our table.

We’ll walk under ladders.

More often we’ll try out the rungs as we step up

and view the world

from a different vantage point.

[I love you, Megan.  Always, Mom]

Everyone’s Fighting a Mighty Battle

It started with my dog, Whistler. Most of my troubles can be traced to him. When my son, Ryan, left the breakfast table to use the restroom, Whistler snagged Ryan’s bagel and gulped it down…didn’t even bother to spread some cream cheese on it first. His sister Paige stood by and watched.

It was negligence on the scale of passive observation to the holocaust. Ryan was ready to haul his twin to the Hague and have her tried in front of an international tribunal.

I was brokering peace accords and grabbing jackets and blocking the refrigerator with a chair (battery’s dead on Whistler’s invisible fence collar, so he’s back to opening the fridge for snacks). I climbed into the car, started the engine, and realized Katie wasn’t in her car seat.

So I’m back in the house on a frantic search mission only to find her huddled in the corner of her closet wearing just her panties and crying. She had “nothing to wear.” Hard to believe that the There’s-nothing-in-my-closet gene on that second X chromosome had switched on already. She’s six!

I offered up five shirts and two pairs of jeans before Katie agreed to get dressed for school. By then we were running late, and Ryan’s wrath had transferred from one sister to the other.

We pulled up to the school. As Ryan exited the car, he slugged Katie’s arm for making everyone late. Katie snarled and took off after her brother, slinging her lunch box at him for hitting her.

It was a fine start to a beautiful autumn day in Washington. The leaves were turning red and falling off the trees. My kids were seeing red and falling out of bed. Megan was at home with a cold. Not the full-on symptoms of swine flu, but piglet flu, perhaps?

Thank goodness I’d spend the day in meetings with mature and professional adults.

I work on a virtual team producing a weekly program for public radio. Reporter assignments are made from Chapel Hill to journalists around the world. Scripts are edited in Boston; the show is tracked by our host in Dallas or Chicago; the program is mixed in Seattle and posted to ftp sites for public radio stations across the country to download.

It’s invigorating to work with a group of amazingly intelligent colleagues, but distance has its difficulties. We try to have in-person meetings at least twice a year to plan our shows and work through production and editorial issues. This time, we were meeting in Seattle.

I was planning to start the meetings with a Powerpoint presentation on our program–financials, web analytics, web marketing results–but my computer caught a virus and was in the intensive care ward of our IS department.

Hotel shuttles delayed team members at the airport the night before. The hotel had placed someone in a first floor handicapped room which wasn’t acceptable to her. They were served fake eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet. WiFi wasn’t working at the hotel or in the office for them.

By the afternoon, I was beginning to feel overlooked by the Nobel committee; bitter that Obama had received the honor.

But no time for self-pity. My phone indicated my nanny was trying to reach me. The kids had set off the car alarm while she had taken one child to the bathroom.

By five ‘o clock, I rushed home to placate my frazzled nanny, hand off the kids to their dad, and then back out the door for dinner with my staff. At the restaurant, our server took copious notes of food orders and special needs. Shell-fish allergies. Mushroom allergies. (Just some types of mushrooms. Fine with the hallucinogenic variety.) Gluten-free meals. Vegan diets. Preferences for free-range poultry and locally grown organic ingredients.

I silently wondered if our server would deliver our dishes with napkin-wrapped EpiPens. I imagined our group in a third world feeding center and wondered if I could get them to eat Unimix. Maybe plumpy nut would be a better choice for this team…

In the course of our conversations, I listened as team members told me about a parent fighting cancer; dealing with the aftermath of a spouse’s death; worries over mothers/sons/daughters/spouses; and their own health issues.

That was Day 1 of our week’s meetings. After dinner, I picked up my kids from their dad’s and headed home to read stories, make lunches, run a load of laundry and clean the cat litter. Whistler met us with the cat litter box door stuck around his head like an Elizabethan collar.

I started to pack lunches, only to discover that Whistler had pushed aside the chair in front of the fridge and helped himself to the roast beef for the kids’ sandwiches.

The Shirelles sang, “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, Mama said…”

But Plato said it better: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

ImageA mighty battle, indeed.

Children of Privilege

Every time I travel with my kids, there’s a moment that gives me pause. It’s not the moment when I’m stepping onto a plane for five hours with four kids. That’s when I’m eyeing the emergency exit and wondering if I can make a hasty escape if the kiddos get too rowdy at cruising altitudes.

Nor is it that earlier moment when we’re standing in line at airport security, and I recall Garrison Keillor’s rant about the shoe bomber. Thanks to Richard Reid’s foiled attempt, all of us must now bare our feet to walk through metal detectors. What would have happened, Keillor wonders, if the guy had made an underwear bomb? Would we all have to remove our underwear to walk through security?

No, no we wouldn’t. Because new millimeter-wave scans have replaced metal detectors at six U.S. airports, essentially giving TSA personnel Superman’s X-ray vision to see through your clothes. These scanners, soon to be rolled out across the nation, may make TSA positions the most sought-after jobs in Homeland Security. Especially if they’re hiring teenage boys.

My reverie is abruptly interrupted by the fact that I’m holding up the line. I snatch a couple of rubber bins, and my children begin to empty their electronics into them: DVD players. MacBooks. Nintendo DS games. They aren’t required to fully empty their backpacks of the DVD case that houses the millions of movies intended to keep them occupied on the flight. Or their nanos and iPods.

This is what gives me pause. (Mental pause. I don’t dare hold up the line again as there are enough people looking reproachfully at the distracted woman with too many children.)

I’m pushing my shoeless (and perhaps underwear-less…forgot to check ‘em on the way out of the house!) kids through the metal detectors and shepherding their belongings through the security machines, but I’m seeing all their STUFF. And I hear Madonna singing We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl in my head. It’s a bad sign when you hear Madonna singing to you in the airport.

It’s not just that my kids have so much, and they are boarding yet another plane to a magic kingdom or a balmy beach. It’s that my children, and most others living in American suburbs, are privileged and blessed, and we rarely acknowledge that fact. Our kids are largely sheltered from malnutrition, war, hard child labor and emotional abuse. (Ryan might take issue with the last two assertions since he considers making his bed an unfair labor practice and contends that growing up with three sisters constitutes emotional abuse.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not raising a Paris Hilton or Suri Cruise. I try to have my kids work for the things they want in life. And I work to teach them that life is not about things. I hope to inculcate them with the notion that they can and should give back joyfully and generously.

Even so, there’s a scene from the movie Schindler’s List that haunts me. Near the end of the movie, there is a line of Polish Jews (saved from concentration camps by Schindler) waiting to have their gold fillings removed from their teeth. The gold fillings are melted down and made into a ring for Oskar Schindler that reads: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

The gift breaks Schindler. He weeps and wonders how many more lives he could have saved. Would his watch have saved a few more people? What could he have given up that would have been insignificant in his life, but would have meant life itself for another?

The scene has stayed with me over the years, oft resurrected by the reality of working in an international children’s charity. I hesitate to write about this stuff for a variety of reasons: I’m involved with this all day long at work. It’s guilt-inducing. It’s hypocritical given the chasm between how I live and how I know I could give.

Maybe it’s important to exist in the dichotomy. One week, I’m singing Zippity Do Dah with my kids on Main Street, Disney, and the next, I’m listening to stories of little girls who are sold on the main streets of too many of the world’s cities.

My colleague, Richenda, recently sat me down to answer some questions about motherhood for a video blog she’s creating for Mother’s day. “Has working at World Vision had any impact on my experience as a mother?” she asked?

I’m not a great interviewee on camera, so I have no idea what I said in response. What I know is that World Vision has been a reality check to my whole life for the past 16 years. Convicting, but not always comfortable.

I was four months into my first pregnancy, when I headed off to Romania to work on stories for the magazine. Eric planned to paint the nursery and put up the border we had selected while I was traveling and away from the paint fumes. Friends were talking about baby showers for us and so I had stopped by Target to complete a baby registry before my trip. Baby bottle options spanned 4 shelves and overwhelmed me. There were diaper genies. Wet wipe warmers. And bathtub water thermometers to ensure that you wouldn’t scald your baby. (Can’t you test the water with your hand?)

It was 1996. Six years since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and television news crews exposed the world to the horrific conditions of Romania’s orphanages. Even with great improvements, the orphanage I visited in Bucharest still housed 100 babies, their metal cribs lined up in rows across the single room. No Pottery Barn baby bedding there.

When Ryan and Paige were born in 2001, I thought of the mother of twins I met in a village in Tanzania years earlier. She had lost three babies before World Vision drilled a well in her area for clean water and built a health clinic for the community. When I met her, she had healthy twins: A girl named Emma; a boy named Emmanuel because “God is with us now,” she told me. We had given her two booklets to record the dates of immunizations for each child. She led me to her hut and showed me that she kept the booklets in the flyleaf of her Bible.

God gains pleasure from watching children thrive and play. I know this because after years of exuberant excitement awaiting Easter baskets and egg hunts and Christmas mornings, I’m on the other side of the events now, hiding the eggs and wrapping the presents. If anything, there’s perhaps even more appreciation in the act of planning for someone’s pleasure and watching the unmasked joy of tearing open a gift.

The goal is not to live in deprivation and beat our selves up for being born privileged. It’s more the recognition that no matter how tight the economy, how middle-class we feel, how dire our circumstances seem at times, we have so, so much more than most of the world around us. And we have the ability to make such a huge difference in even the small things we choose to do with the resources given to us (time, talents, treasure).

I’m kind of hoping that in my family at least, I’ll be able to make tweaks and adjustments to my consumerism so that I can walk through airport security without Madonna singing songs in my head.

I’d prefer to make the journey to whatever gate thinking about the other Madonna. And her Son.

And the fact that His life, I guess, makes us all children of privilege.

 

One Day In Austin

Don and I met at a coffee house today. I suspect we’ll be announcing wedding plans in a few days…we just want to take things slow, ‘ya know, don’t rush things…really get to know each other well.

I should back up for my friends who are new to this conversation. My small group from church read Don Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz this past year. It was a really good book. (This is why I don’t write book reviews. War and Peace? Well, that was a very long book. Gladwell’s Outliers? That was a very interesting book.) I digress, so back to Don.

I like the way his brain works. He’s got some synapses that seem to be firing in the right patterns, and I’d say he’s capable of stringing together a sentence or two. (A million or more sold copies of his book might attest to the fact that someone out there agrees with me about his writing skills. Or, more likely, his amazingly beautiful and honest thoughts about faith.)

Shortly after I finished Blue Like Jazz, my friend Kris (who has a massive crush on Don but only in a very holy and spiritual way of course, because she’s married) sent me a link to Don’s blog where he had posted a video of Lucy, his new chocolate Lab. It was total puppy love. It might also have been a classic case of transference.

Lucy was careening around Don’s home chewing up everything in sight. My black lab, Whistler, chewed my rugs. Whistler destroyed my shoes. I was waiting for video footage of Lucy chewing Don’s walls down to the studs, and while I waited, I thought about how committed I was to my crazy beast. I love Whistler. I love Labs, which meant that I loved Lucy, and while I was at it, I probably loved Don, too.

As fate would have it, Kris pointed out that in addition to Lucy, Don had an iMac. That clinched it. Same breed of dog. Same brand of computer. I mean, forget the fact that Labradors are like the most popular breed of dogs in the U.S. I’m taking it as a cosmic sign that we have the whole world in common with each other. Soul mates.

So fast-forward to the Q conference here in Austin, Texas. We’re listening to a series of 18-minute presentations from some pretty interesting folks: Gregory Berns, Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University on how the brain of an iconoclast works; Author Shane Hipps on the impact of technology on our souls; Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on the post-atomic world. Ten presentations on Day 1; nine more on Day 2 and then a panel discussion and breakout sessions.

I know that I’m a complete nerd, but I feel like a fly in a meat house at these conferences. I scribble notes. I soak in the speakers and the discussions. At our breaks for lunch and dinner, I like to talk with other conference attendees—particularly this one because of the shared passion for social ventures—and collect their business cards for possible interviews/features for the World Vision Report, where I work.

This afternoon, conference organizers sent us off to various sites across Austin to meet with small groups to discuss what we’ve heard over the past day and a half. I was in Don Miller’s group. (Confession is good for the soul, so I need to state that I wasn’t actually assigned to his group, but I might have misread the group number on my lanyard so as to end up at the coffee house where Don was group leader. Fate needs a helping hand at times.) I entered the coffee shop and noticed that our small group was rather large. A lot of young women were there. Pretty, single, young women who apparently were also having a hard time discerning their proper group assignments.

Don entered and surveyed the scene. We did not lock gazes across the room, so I casually walked over and introduced myself. I’m certain Don was instantly smitten. True love was looking him in the eye. All time stood still. [Fill in your own cliché.] He tried to play it cool, but he was shaking. My hand, that is. We shook hands. I told him we shared some mutual friends. (Larry Wilson who worked on World Vision magazine with me was now married to Susan Isaacs, a friend of Don’s…) I wanted to tell him all the other commonalities we shared. Dogs. Computers. Both of us reside in the Pacific Northwest. Both of us are citizens of planet earth. I needed a few more minutes to figure out what other ties bind us together…but Don was heading off to the barista to order something so he could start the session.

Our group talked about how dumb we felt to have our smart phones confiscated from us during the presentation on technology. We discussed the session with Ted and Gayle Haggard and the response of churches to leaders when they fall.

Don observed how easy it was for people who merely buy products connected to good causes to feel like they have done their part as humanitarians but they resist really getting involved. He talked about his foundation for fatherless boys and how difficult it’s been to recruit mentors to commit to befriending 7- to 12-year-old boys.

I told him that World Vision had an opposite version of this problem. Everyone wanted a hands-on, experiential involvement beyond financial contributions—take a trip somewhere, volunteer with us. But these were short-term involvements, so perhaps Don’s correct that there is a lack of response when it comes to messy, life-altering and life-involving, long-term commitments.

I wanted to say, “Don, I believe in long-term, life-altering commitments,” but another lovely lady was asking him to please come over to their table to tell them about The Story: “You’re the only one who can really talk to us about writing the arc of a story,” she said with batty eyelashes.

Don declined. He had another appointment to keep. I like to think he was just letting her down gently because today, he met me…and if nothing else, well, we’ll always have Austin!