About a Sheep Farm and Psalm 23

We loaded up Lily‘s Subaru with heated seats and drove to Wisconsin together. Find Friends says we went 120 miles from home but that’s only if you swim it. Our destination? A sheep farm. Put Lily in a pen with animals and she animates like a wind up toy. Sometimes she wonders if she missed her calling and should’ve been a farmer. I say, she can be both/and instead of either/or if she wants to.

We parked in front of an idyllic white farmhouse owned by Josh and Kelli. Four years ago, they bought the property and gave it a name: Velvet Sheep Farms. They didn’t actually know how to be sheep farmers at the time, but they wanted to be, and so they jumped in feet first, landed solidly and got to work. Since then, they’ve been crafting a life for their family that stewards their little corner of God’s world with care and kindness. And sharing it with others too.

For two days, we mostly pet their animals. Not every minute but often. And from our second story bedroom window, we could look down onto the rams’ pasture. One morning I watched them all eat breakfast at the trough and reflected on Psalm 23 where God describes himself as a Shepherd and calls us his sheep. I thought about what Josh told me about shepherding and this re-write emerged.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.

He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.

Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.

You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
forever.

Good Shepherd, every morning you feed me. You’re out in the elements early, putting high quality hay in my trough so I’m not hungry. You sow grass in my field so I have a nourishing snack to munch on all day long. You care for me with reliable rhythms so I don’t feel abandoned.

You build fences around my pastures as a boundary line because without them, I would wander adrift, following the next blade of grass. I’d meander away from your protection and provision, askew from your kindness and care. I’d be vulnerable to cars and predators and other risks I can’t even comprehend. Still sometimes, I find myself in places I don’t belong. When that happens, you find me and corral me with your sheepdog, rattling me out of my aimless rambling, back to the lushest turf.

You have placed me  in a flock. I share my life with my herd, feeding from the same manger, drinking from the same bucket, rambling through the same fields. Sometimes we fight. One of us powers up and heads butt. Other times we rest contentedly together under the shade of the tree you planted in our enclosure.

There is a time for everything and my Shepherd calculates the seasons.
All winter long he leaves me to sport my “hippe-do” so I’m warmed by the insulation of a thick coat. And on the cusp of summer, he shears me down to my “pixie-do”. I don’t understand why he manhandles me onto my back. It’s not comfortable and I resist, but he shaves me anyway so I’ll stay cool in the summer heat.

The Sheepshearer, Vincent Van Gogh

New lambs are always born in the spring. Some years, I birth ewes. My shepherd provides what I need so I can give them what they need. My babies tether themselves close, grabbing incessant snacks from my swollen teats. For awhile, I am their polestar and we are inseparable. We romp the field together as I introduce them to grazing and lead them out to the borders. As they mature, they wander more, gone longer between nibbles. And when they no longer need my nourishment, they forge their own paths around the pasture, head down, eyes on the grass right in front of their noses.

You chose shepherding and you are committed to my wholistic care and my ultimate good. 
You see me. 
You know that my long, soiled coat gets itchy so you provide scratching posts as a way for me to deal with my irritation. 
You watch for signs of distress. When I am limping, you trim my hooves so I can walk comfortably again. When I am sick, you call the vet, who comes right to my field in a mobile truck loaded with tools to diagnose  and treat my infirmity. Then, you pay the tab for my care because you are so benevolent. And if you hear me bleating in the witching hour, you jump out of bed in a heartbeat to come to me. If you find a predator attacking, you declare war on my behalf.

My shepherd, he envisions potential in my raw, filthy, tangled wool. He gathers the yield of my haircut and cleans and dries and picks and cards it, knowing that someday, after it is dyed and spun, it will become exquisite yarn in every color of the rainbow. He knows that my coat repurposed, can provide warmth and protection that extends far beyond the borders of my little farm and I can unequivocally trust my shepherd to steward my contribution of wool to the big, wide world.

Shepherd, your life is so much more sophisticated than mine. You know things I don’t fully understand about what I need to live my best life. Still, you don’t humiliate me for my simplicity, nor do you expect me to be more than I am. You mininstrate me with magnanimous goodwill even though I can’t repay you.

And so I rest in the field you have sowed for me, under the shade of the tree you planted with the herd you gave me as companions. The sun shines, the breeze blows, the rain falls and the snow alights atop my winter coat season after season, and I remain here in the company and care of my Good Shepherd who chose me and delights in me because I am His and He is mine.

A Lent Reflection

It’s Lent. Those 40ish days leading toward the Christian comemoration of a busted up, brutalized Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha, iron stakes driven clear through his feet and hands right before he dies. It’s the saddest season in the church calendar, where all roads point to suffering. At least, that’s the First Act.

Driving away from my cardiologists office after a thorough assessment for heart palpitations, I’m reminded that I too, will be swallowed up by death eventually.

There’s a cemetery just around the corner, the one where my baby boy is buried. An early March meltdown a few weeks back eliminated all but the dirty snow mounds at the end of parking lots. Now that the landscaped morphed from white to green, I knew that if I pulled into the circular drive, I’d be able to find his grave and say hello to my son.

In the center of “the baby section” stands a cluster of mature arborvitaes with a large marble gravestone front and center. The monument has a metal cast 3D image of Jesus with a gaggle of children crowding in close. When Angela was a munchkin, she’d run excitedly up to the headstone calling, “There’s Jesus!” and plant a big unrestrained kiss smack on His cheek.

Today, I stood over Seth’s tiny marker, square with a heart in the center. It’s slowly getting swallowed up by the surrounding settling earth. I thought about Jesus carrying my baby in His arms close to his heart. I looked toward the cast metal Jesus just out front of the arborvitaes but sometime this winter, those trees lost a  battle with the wind. Large branches lay snapped, split on their sides. Dead. Obscured by the debris, I couldn’t see Jesus. From the vantage point of my son’s grave, there was just rubble, so I walked closer, peered over the fallen limbs and brush and there He was, just as I remembered Him, totally intact, reaching invitationally to all His children. Even me.

With a Few Good Friends

Meandering through my mental memory book, I see us both in our cute little pleated skorts and a team sweater.  Mine was blue and gold, hers, blue and white. We met on the b-ball court, each cheering for opposing junior high teams. Our chant went like this.
“My name is Erin and I’d like to get to know you!”
“My name is Dolly and I’d like to get to know you!”
The words concurred with grand gestures in formation, jumping, pointing and clapping.
That was my exclusive foray into cheerleading. Trust me, it was best that way. Her bouncing blonde ponytail, wide smile  and frenetic energy, however, continued to rev up courtside fans all through high school.

Basketball season wasn’t in the spring but that introduction was the harbinger of a blossoming friendship. Both of our feeder schools melded into the same high school, where our paths crossed again in 10th grade. In some ways we were polar opposites. She was gregarious, confident, a quick and ready response always on the tip of her tongue, and funny too. She did anything and everything—choir, band, drama, tennis, cheerleading and debate—a Jill of all trades. I, on the other hand, was little Much Afraid—limping along with my own brand of a crooked foot, afraid of my shadow, tomorrow, the chemistry test next week and mostly the big bad wolf. 

But just under the frost line a bleeding heart and a daisy don’t look that different and we discovered a kindred-spiritness from the inside out. We talked alot about mutual interests—ice cream and boys. She worked at a shop called Temptations that perpetually smelled like fresh waffle cones and we consumed copious amounts of dairy back in the day. Calcium for our growing bones. One lick after another, we’d fantasize about real and  imagined prince charmings who overwhelmed by their affection, would sweep us off our feet, mount us on their horses and with a backward glance and a wave, we’d gallop away into happily ever after. Everybody needs a friend like that to dream with and Erin was mine.

We were teeny boppers who’d just earned our wings. Sometimes, we’d cruise around in her yellow Maverick— before she didn’t notice the yield sign and it was no more. Sometimes it was feet to the pedals of her tandem bicycle sailing down the steep, winding hill on the street leading away from her beachfront home.

It was around the long wooden rectangular table that now resides in her Colorado dining room that I was first introduced to homemade ham balls on rice. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 girls, plus me, and  a set of parents, floor to ceiling windows high on a bluff overlooking the Lake. Anything served for dinner with that view tasted like a delicacy. I still pull out their recipe and prepare it for my family every Christmas as tradition and I learned to love it sitting around Erin’s family table. 

Her mom, a no-nonsense, Dutchwoman marked family singing rehearsals in permanent black ink on the calendar, often right after dinner. ”Be There!” Period. For friends like me, it became a spectator sport, watching them practice at home before taking to the road like  the Von Trapp family singers. Five daughters in 4 part vocal harmony, a mom at the piano and a proud papa in the front row seat.

To get to their private, sandy beach, we climbed down a bunch of creaky wooden steps. At the bottom, there it was. The finest fresh water great Lake of all, waves lapping against the shore. Feet crunching in the soft sand, we walked due north, my favorite direction, toward the breakwater, a weathered wooden vertical construct jettying out toward the water, perfect for sitting on and imagining our bright futures once we squeaked our way through Algebra 2. It was there that we wondered together how our itty-bitty selves would find a place to match and a person to match up with in this great, big, beautiful world. Back then, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

We wandered our way through our twenties living and learning, sometimes excruciatingly painful lessons that we hadn’t imagined on the beach. We each found our own oasis in the desert and  started to write our adult stories, pursue our unique educational pathways and marry our partners. 

My name became Mama first. But one summer, both our bellies bulged and we birthed baby girls just a few September days apart.

We’ve never lived in the same state since those days on the breakwater but every second week of June my phone rings or dings with this message,  
“I’m coming home in a few weeks, can we get together?” 
There are 4 of us in on that gig—myself, Erin and two other beautiful souls we call friends from way back when.  Mostly, the four of us live our separate everyday lives connected by December Christmas cards and our June dinner meet-up.

Last summer, we sat around a table telling each other hard stories of transition, eroding confidence and insecurity. Even though we’re mature now, old enough to be members of AARP,  we still don’t know what we don’t know and our uncertainty takes us back to the days on the breakwater.

June morphed into December in the blink of an eye. On a whim, I texted Erin one day in lieu of sending a Christmas card. 
“Hey, want to get together this winter and do a retreat?” 
“I love it. Let’s talk after the holidays,” she replied.

January was rough with all those navy blue days. When it was almost time to flip the calendar my soul needed some sunshine, so I texted again. 
“What do you think about me coming to your house for a few days next month and we figure out solutions to the worlds problems… or maybe just try to machete a path forward with ours?”
“Let’s do it. Come!” 
And so I did. Cashed in some Southwest points and boarded a plane with nothing more than yoga pants and sweatshirts except for the last minute addition of a swimsuit for her hot tub.
We spent the next couple of days walking, talking, tubbing, laughing, crying, deep breathing, painting Ethiopian angels, listening to podcasts, practicing psychological exercises and celebrating our half birthdays with the most decadent flourless chocolate cake imaginable.

We’ve taken some significant personal, parental and professional hits these past few years. They’ve left us feeling like we’re in free fall. Like we boarded a plane to take a trip to a pre-planned terminus and found ourselves on a skydiving exploit instead. We lost control of our destination and got booted out of the plane against our will. Puking our way down in mid-air, which is a real thing, according to my son-in-law’s report, we’re wondering how in the world we’ll ever find the parachute pull cord and land safely, let alone gracefully.

We feel alone but we’re actually harnessed to a Pro and if we crash down with a splat, so is He, and that just won’t happen. He’s prepared to pull the ripcord if we can’t and together we’ll float down to where the wind carries us. And it’ll be right where we belong.

Through the rear view mirror we’ll likely reflect back on our airborne adventure with awe and wonder.
After all, we’ll have survived. 
We’ll have coped.
We’ll have learned. 
We’ll have grown.
We’ll be more than we were because we experienced this crazy encounter.
And we’ll have a story to tell.
And that story will inform other new stories we have yet to write in this epic called life.
And those stories will connect to an even bigger story of faith, family, community and humanity.

I keep writing forward the number next to my age, and with every passing year, life seems more unfixably broken than I could have perceived and more beautifully redeemed than I can comprehend. Simultaneously. I’m left with the conundrum of holy and not-so-holy indignation merged with deep gratitude and astounding wonder. Life isn’t as monochromatic as I used to think. Black and white values mixed together with pigments create more than shades of grey. Maybe maturity is marked, at least in part, by blessing the messy process by which the Master Artiste creates a Great Work using the entire color palette.

Seems like the more I learn, the less I know, but here’s one thing I’m bona fide certain about. While my life has been, oh, so ordinary, the friends who’ve travelled with me on this pilgrimage, they’ve been, oh, so extraordinary. And for the privilege of journeying together, I just feel genuinely, tremendously grateful!

Ash Wednesday: Making Peace with my Body

Dear Body,
This thank you note is long overdue.
I want you to know that I see you taking care of me with Herculean effort 24-7 and I appreciate it.
Your work ethic is exemplary.
You’re strong, reliable and oh so resilient.

I owe you many apologies. 
I haven’t treated you very well. 
I’ve despised you. 
Punished you. 
Misused you. 
Neglected you. 
I’ve been critical of you and trash talked you when I look in the mirror.
I’ve made demands of you that are unfair, unkind and unrealistic.
I haven’t nourished you with proper fuel.
I haven’t hydrated you with enough water.
I haven’t offered you routine rituals of rest.
I’ve lobbed comparison and performance grenades at you unwittingly one after another as if we were enemies.

I’ve been afraid of you too.
Afraid of your vulnerability.
Afraid of exploitation.
Afraid of the future when you succumb to injury, disease, old age.

My expectations of you have been too high and my appreciation too low.
So here I am, on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, posturing myself for a few moments of curious wonder and delight in honor of you.

Oh, the places we’ve gone together….
From the two mile walk home from Kindergarten holding my mama’s hand, 
To hoofing it behind a double stroller with giggly girls and a dog on a leash, stopping to explore stones and leaves and ants and tree bark and other miracles in plain sight, 
To jogging a handful of kilometers up and down the hills of my neighborhood, 
And hiking to the peak of Ben A’an in beloved Scotland. 
Those hips and legs and knees and feet, that heart that pumps and lungs that breathe, they’ve all worked together to gift me memories that I cherish.

That little girl with long, brown, wavy hair and a skinned up knee, that was you before you grew into a tall, slender teenager, bronzed from hours of sun worshipping. Your pretty hazel eyes gazed deeply, attentively at the people around you and you smiled affirmations of their worth and value. Later on, someone besides your mom and dad looked at you and loved you, attracted to your beauty.

I’m recalling how the two of you created unique people inside your body. Five times. Your egg dropped out of your ovary by design, travelled through your fallopian tube, met up with a sperm and a brand new life started growing inside your uterus. Your pelvic muscles supported ten pound baby girls one after another in your protective incubator until it was time for the door between the worlds  to stretch and tear and bleed and birth and then heal. You nourished your babies with milk that miraculously squirted out tiny ducts in your breasts stimulated by bonding hormones as your babies sucked skin to skin.

I wonder at the integration and separateness of your brain and body, the way your brain unconsciously regulates digestion, heart beats, inhalation then exhalation and the elimination of toxins. The gray matter protected inside the bony cage of the skull sends messages to receptors and organs, who respond like a domino train. The left hemisphere holds thoughts and knowledge for ready recall while the right intuits and carries secrets incognito.  That brain innately communicates strategies for you to response with when I experience little joys and itty-bitty stressors to major magical moments and traumas that have rocked my world.  It tells you, body,  when to run, when to fight, and when to freeze, and you do exactly what’s needed to take care of me.

I’m revisiting cycles of the seasons one year after the next, and seeing your hands. There’s almost always dirt under the fingernails from weeding and planting, sowing and reaping. You’ve never worn gloves because you need to feel connected to the earth in all of its tactile splendor as you nurture beauty.

I marvel at those hands. They’re evidence of maturity and durability. Where the skin hugs the veins, I can follow the vessels and find my story. 
It’s a history of sprains and breaks,
Bumps and bruises,
Aches and pains,
Acute and chronic,
Viruses, inflammation and disease.

It’s an archive of vigor and vitality,
Healing and recovery,
Beauty and pleasure,
Taste, touch, smell, sound and sight.

In this chapter of my eternal autobiography, you and I, we’ve been paired together as a team. You provide a temporary home for the immortal part of me, but your role, it’s time limited. From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.
For now, I receive you as God’s temporal gift, for however long He gives it.
Today, I hold your glory and your ephemerality in tandem. Simultaneously. And bless them both.

With Love and Gratitude, Hope

From January Blues to February Oranges

I turned the page on my calendar relieved. Hopeful. Ready to write about something lighter and happier than my January navy-blues.
So, let’s talk about orange. I know, tis the season for red, strawberry and chocolate but my heart belongs to orange.
It’s not the color that I love, it’s the flavor. Truth be told, I’m kind of citrus-snobby—Juicy clementines, yes please. Navel oranges, no thank you. My best affection goes to the cheap imitation—orange in all of its deliciously artificially sweetened varieties.

If I were watching a movie of my life right this very moment, I’d be lying on a couch in a therapist’s office reliving my childhood.
“It all started with baby aspirin,” I’d divulge sheepishly. “I’d tell my mom I was sick just so I could eat some chewables. Once medicated according to the directions, I’d sneak extras from the non-child safe bottle.”
Then I’d recount how my aunt kept a stash of jelly-like orange candy, shaped like fruit sections and covered with sugar crystals. They were tucked away in the corner of her cupboard and when she took them out for my visits, I’d eat the whole bag.
After a pause, I’d affectionately recall our family tradition of Friday night grocery shopping and my mom’s “yes” when I added a big bottle of Faygo orange pop or a box of orange Creamsicles on a stick to the cart.
“Later, I discovered orange rolls in the refrigerated aisle, the kind you bake and frost,” I’d muse dreamily, then sadly add how I miss them since they vanished off the shelves after the pandemic.  
And, I’m a huge fan of orange Skittles, Starburst, Trolli gummy worms and now, thanks to my son-in-law, Sour Patch Kids. “I eat all the orange ones and give the rest of the bag to him because I’m so generous!” I’d confide, grinning like a naughty kid.

I’m taking a class this semester about Play Therapy because one way or the other, almost everything circles back to our childhood stories and the stories before our stories. That’s called epigenetics and it’s full of intrigue about the mysterious transmissions of gene expressions between generations.  Maybe even related to food preferences? 
I wonder if my mom loved orange too… I wish I could ask her. I wish I’d been more curious about her ordinary stories—the everyday experiences that made her life sweeter.

My professor says, “If you’re going to be a counselor, you can’t take anyone further on their healing journey than you’ve gone yourself.” So, we do a bunch of exercises to get acquainted with our own inner kingdoms, our mental narrators and the language our bodies speak. We use the palette of our senses– what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, together in symbiotic relationship, to ground us in the present and illuminate the past. By God’s grand design, our olfactory nerve is direct wired to our brain and viscerally connects scents with associated memories.
And right now, I smell orange.

What’s the point of this meandering rumination? There’s something worthwhile in wondering about your story, in non-judgmental observation of what you’ve loved. There’s something life giving in being curious about who you were and how it impacts who you are now. Orange and I, we go way back. We’re pals. And as my Instagram friend Kate Bowler would say, that’s a “Good Enough” thought to inaugurate this new month with.

Surviving January

Here’s the first thing I wrote in January.

The other day was a dumpster fire.
Only my darkest realities were able to be accessed. 
The most nagging daily grinds. 
The deepest disappointments. 
The most profound fears. 
The greatest unmet longings and desires.
The most significant relational losses.
The most painful forms of rejection.
The most glaring personal inadequacies.
The saddest aspects of the loneliness I experience magnified.


I prayed.
I jogged. 
I breathed.
I cried. 
I verbally bubbled over at my kid.
I yelled profanities in the privacy of my own car, only God listening.
And, still, I could not see any light filtering down into the pit I fell into.
I was not able to experience relief from my suffering.

It wasn’t triggered by something monumental.
More like a death by a thousand cuts and the most recent abrasion, though relatively small, hit a main artery.

The best decision I made that day, though later than ideal, was to go to bed without an alarm and sleep it off. Maybe like a bad hangover. I wouldn’t know….

I woke up to sunshine peeking around the edges of my pleated shades and I recognized it as a fresh mercy. That was a good sign. Without crawling out from under my warm blankets, I selected my favorite Scripture meditation app, determined to forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead.

I wish I could say that terrible, awful, no good, very bad day was an anomaly— a fluke, far afield from the norm, but that wouldn’t entirely be the truth. While my emotional pain level definitely ranked an orange frowny face then, the better part of the first 23 days of January a nagging, lingering, gray, gloom waxes and wanes across my horizon like a winter companion, even with a daily regimen of Vitamin D.

It seems like a sunnier January than normal up here in the frozen tundra. And, there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be, other than on a 2 week vacation in the Gulf coast of Florida. But still, there’s a winter hardiness required to meet the times that feels too cold. Too slippery. Too hard this year.

And here’s the scariest part. 
What if it doesn’t get better when winter is over?
What if it’s not just winter navy-blues?
What if the pandemic doesn’t go away? And COVID patients keep dying and being transported down to the morgue on gurneys? And what if one of those patients is someone I love? And how many more times can I listen to “code blue” on the hospital intercom?
And who else in my world might make an early and unpredictable exit in 2022?

And what if in 2022 my body gets weaker—more fragile than it already is? And my weight goes up instead of down? What if I actually need to start taking blood thinners to pre-empt a stroke or a pacemaker to synchronize my irregular heartbeat?
What if my sense of purpose remains clear as mud? And I continue to take costly graduate level classes without the confidence to pursue a distinct professional path? And what if my insecurities aren’t ever tempered? 

What if relationships I value most continue to struggle or altogether implode?
What if my kids are victims of trauma? Violence? What if they suffer gross injustice? Or get their hearts broken? What if they become disillusioned with God because His ways are mystery? And what if they only remember the broken aspects of our relationship and forget the ways it’s also been beautiful?
What if our family hiking trip to Scotland this summer gets cancelled? And even if it doesn’t, what if people are tired, and cranky, and unkind to each other?

I, literally, cannot predict the grenades yet to be lobbed in 11+ months of 2022, though as an Enneagram Six, I’ve obviously invested some significant time and energy musing over the possibilities. And I’ll be honest, even the potential direct hits to my little world, make me feel afraid.

When I come up for air, even after I practice my box breathing, there’s not much relief. I mock myself for moaning and groaning about how difficult life is in a pandemic. I hear myself ungraciously dialoguing with me, saying things like, “You’re so soft, so spoiled, so pathetic. You worry about literally nothing! You don’t have the first idea what real suffering is like. You’ve never lived in a third world location, bathing in the same dirty river you get a drink from. You’ve never been truly hungry, let alone starving. You’ve never experienced war in your back yard. No genocide here. And you’re white for goodness sake. Your life is pretty cushe. Pull yourself together.”
I would never say things like that to another image bearer, but I tend to be downright mean to myself. 

I’ve been learning about self-compassion in grad school and the education is timely.  I’m starting to practice it in my own story, though I admit, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Here are some of the resources, tools and mercies that have made my January a little brighter and a tad bit kinder.

1) Pray As You Go app

2) Watching Season 2 of PBS’s All Creatures Great and Small

3) REI’s YouTube tutorial on Basics of cross-country Skiing—a great resource for learning my newest recreational winter sport.

4) Christine Caine’s Instagram quote

5) The Mindfulness reminder on my new apple watch.

6) Bethany Barnard’s album All My Questions

7) Artwork by Charlie Mackesy

8) Greg Johnson’s new book, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn From The Church’s Failed Attempt To Cure Homosexuality. This book is so important, so comprehensive and so refreshingly kind.

9) Long, cold walks and dinner table talks with good friends.

10) Watching my amaryllis grow.

11) simply.scotland Instagram feed I’m coming. Hopefully!

12) Stefans Gretzinger’s new album Faith of My Father

13) Planet Fitness’s hydromassage beds

14) And, last but totally not least, Kate Bowler, my favorite new-ish instagram friend and tutor in self-compassion.

And so,here is my very own benediction for the first month of this new year.
God bless January 2022 and all of us who walk brave on the ice of our own stories, trying to keep our balance in the harshness of the elements, feeling the biting wind on our pink cheeks while catching snowflakes on our tongues, evidence that we are embracing the now and the not yet, trusting that God will companion us through both. Amen.

What’s so great about Kindermusik?

At the dawn of the new year, I’m reflecting back and hoping forward. January is an invitation to rehearse the past and I find myself musing about the experiences that I’d repeat if I got a do-over and the ones I’d drive by and wave at second time around. It also invites me to imagine the potential of an even more generative future.

I’ve hit the bullseye of my fifties now and in the seasons of a life story, the chlorophyll is breaking down and I’m starting to blush. Some call the fifties a decade of depth because you’ve lived enough of your story to see a plot line, to recognize what you love and how you tick, to know what makes you feel most alive. The last quarter century of my story has been primarily invested in answering to “Mama”, with all of its rights, privileges and responsibilities, but another title I’ve cherished is “Miss Hope”. That’s the name all of my Kindermusik families call me.

I first connected with Kindermusik  about 25 years back. I sat in a circle with my baby girl on my lap. We shook our bells together way up high, then way down low, really, really fast and then oh, so slow. I was a first time mom, and in love. Determined to do my best for my own little Angel. Kindermusik reeled me in from the first 45 minute class— the music, the instruments, the rituals, the cuddles, the vocal and imaginary play- the whole shared experience was absolutely delightful!

It wasn’t long until I trained to be a licensed instructor and that’s when I began to fully appreciate the method behind the masterfully written curriculums. Kindermusik uses a Montessori play based developmental educational model that supports maximum freedom in a prepared environment. Music is the medium by which young children learn to flex their brain muscles, building auditory processing skills, promoting memory, strengthening the executive function of the brain and increasing neural connections. Every Kindermusik class features a fun theme that integrates developmentally appropriate musical skills, fine and whole body movement, sensory awareness activities as well as language and literacy components. It sounds like work but it feels like magic!

As a mom and as an instructor, I’ve taken countless spectacular imaginary adventures inside the walls of a Kindermusik studio to exciting destinations like the park, the sea and the farm. We’ve travelled in pretend boats, cars, airplanes and taken leisurely walks splashing in mud puddles only to come back home for our make-believe bath. And it all happens while we sing and play with simple rhythm instruments and props. We practice in class what families can take-home and integrate it into their daily routines.

These days, I’m in a new classroom, working toward an advanced degree in psychology. I’m learning that the most compelling research on relational flourishing unequivocally points the direction of the formative experiences in the the earliest months and years of child’s story, even before they possess explicit memory or verbal language capabilities. Attunement from primary caregivers to their babies and toddlers lays the foundation for healthy attachment patterns over a lifetime. 

Attunement occurs when we parents are emotionally available to our children and responsive to their needs, not perfectly but reliably. When we learn to read and understand their cues, to react with engagement to their expressions, to repair relational ruptures when they occur and to touch them affectionately. Then,  they feel safe, seen and soothed, which wires their brains to recognize emotionally healthy bonds.

And that’s what I love best about Kindermusik. By design, the entire class focuses on attunement between young children and the ones they love best. Big and little people drop their coats, purses, shoes and most importantly phones at the door.  We sit in a circle and sing hello to every single friend in the room. Then, mommies looking lovingly into their babies eyes, massage their arms and bicycle their legs. Tiny kiddos giggle as their daddies give them a playful tickle. Nannies imitate their little buddies playing sticks or bells or egg shakers. Grandmas find the most comforting way to rock or cuddle as their grandchild snuggles in close. Grandpas make silly sounds in a mirror as their grandkids look on with fascination. Favoritest big people clap, rub, pat, hug, bounce, jump and run playfully with their toddlers. And sometimes babies cry, so mommies soothe them or toddlers get upset because it’s time to put instruments away and daddies distract them. During class, there are moments of holding our children close and times designated to let go. Just like life, kids go exploring but they need to know you’re there to run back to for a hug, an ear, a smile or a secure place to land.

In a world where feeling safe, soothed and seen mostly seems out of reach, Kindermusik connects people. Regardless of our age or stage, in Kindermusik we look at each other affectionately, we touch one another gently, and in those moments, we know we are safe together.

The sparkly, white, swollen snowflakes are dancing around outside my Michigan window reminding me that the new year is bursting with possibilities yet to be discovered, but I have a good history too, years and decades of partnering with hundreds of families like mine, who live a better, more bonded story because of Kindermusik. And for that privilege, I just feel really, really grateful.

Past posts I’ve written about music, brain development and bonding:

Sending a shout out to the fantastic Maestro Kindermusik programs I’ve been privileged to be a part: Kindermusik of Rockford with Carol Hillman, Miss Lisa’s Music with Lisa Muratore and Kindermusik by Purple Nest with Molly Pieroni. 

Because Gratitude is never Belated

I almost hit a guy tonight driving my silver Chevy Trax. It would have been a  collision of flesh and bone against metal and motor. His outfit matched a starless night, at least I think it did, but it all happened so fast…. Suddenly, there he was, walking into oncoming traffic straddling the white line on the passenger side of my lane. Another car travelled parallel to me so I couldn’t move over—much….

100 yards later, my body started trembling, responding to what my brain already knew. My close enoucnter almost turned deadly.  How might this very moment have been different had body and car collided? When the police officer came on the scene, who would have been determined to be at fault? Me or him? And how much would it matter if the guy’d ended up absolutely broken?

There’s been mostly a hush on my blog this year, the majority of my words spent on academic papers and a hefty reading list—31 books complete on Goodreads 2021. For everything there is a season and this year, listening rather than talking and reading more than writing have been my daily bread. I’m re-considering familiar frameworks, assimilating novel ideas, inputting new data and assembling it all like puzzle pieces linking together to create a more complete 3D picture of who I am and how I fit in my world. Ironically, the image keeps getting fuzzier—but maybe that’s because I buy my reading glasses at the dollar store. Or maybe it’s that the more I learn, the less I know about anything. Everything.  Questions trump answers and some of them are my own, while others are the Mindbenders my kids ask, like the ones we bantered around over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Is male headship in marriage an expression of post-fall brokenness or of God’s design for gender?

What are the most productive days, times and locations for dumpster diving?

I wonder how God decided what Jesus was going to look like…

What can be learned from The Squid Games about depravity and desperation?

Can a relationship ever be healthy if there’s a power differential where the disempowered party isn’t free to walk away?

Which version of Taylor Swift’s Red is best?

What do you think about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict?

What are the most effective strategies for growing your retirement account? 

And, what about real estate investing?

What does the biblical text in its original languages have to say about the role of women in church leadership? And what place do historic records and traditions play in determining God’s intent?

Which Little Women movie is the best and why?

How do enneagram-type combinations impact relationships?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Young’s The Shack and it’s portrayal of God the Father as a Mother? And what to do about gender pronouns to describe God?

Who’s lying about being an operative when they’re really a spy in the board game The Resistance?

And, of all the Frasier fir Christmas trees on this farm, which one would be perfect for our living room?

None of our questions have quick and easy answers—at least for us. Ours is a tribe that could rival an old-fashioned podium pounding hell and brimstone preacher for the love of his or her conviction and it was into one of those kinds of moments that our mediator intervened with a lesson in Communication 101 she learned from a TED talk. “When people aren’t really listening but rather preparing their defensive responses, the conversation is zero on the productivity scale. Just saying.” And it’s not just us who needs that reminder. From the most public platforms to everyday hum-drum interactions, fault finding, finger pointing, moralizing monologues disguised as dialogue are now cliche. We’re so high on blaming the government, the economy, the liberals, the conservatives, the vaxers, the anti-vaxers, the CDC, BLM,  the police officers, the feminists, secular culture, LGTBQ+ people, church leaders and christian nationalists, our sobriety to concentrate on human suffering has been compromised. Meanwhile, at the hospital we work at, the death toll keeps rising, one image bearing creation of God at a time, and relationships are arresting without resuscitation due to metastasized dogmatism.

This is what communal duress has exposed about us and it’s not pretty. But it’s also not all that we are. 

We are also nurses and doctors who don our PPE methodically every time we enter a patient’s room. We treat sick human beings regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, religion or vaccination status. We do our best 24-7 day after week after month and now years. That’s plural. And when the virus wins, we walk our patients corpses down to the morgue on a gurney and then don our PPE again. 

And we are morticians who care for the shell that remains when the spirit has departed. We administrate the rituals of closure and burial, providing needed services and care to grieving families in their darkest hours of raw grief.

And we are teachers, managing multiple educational platforms and adapting to ever changing expectations for the benefit of our students, to create learning environments that offer as much normalcy and stability as is possible.

And we are chaplains, pastors, counselors and social workers providing  safe, secure, soothing support to anxious, fearful, grieving, despairing individuals and groups amidst skyrocketing suicide and divorce rates, each their own form of demise.

And we are supply chain producers who are tirelessly working against the domino effect to keep goods and services available to society in spite of complex barriers to production.

And we are more than what we do. 

We simply are.

We are the objects of the affection of a supremely loving God who looks at all He has made with tenderness and incredible kindness. He actually knows who’s right, what’s right and how to do it right but He chooses instead to focus His gaze on our universal misery with unmerited compassion.

And that makes me grateful—which brings me back to Thanksgiving and our yearly recalibration of gratitude. This year, in addition to all the oldies, new voices, fresh perspectives and more maleness made our crowd better and more fun. I wait all year long for that morning where we walk and talk about the goodness of God in our stories. Our pictures mark time indelibly and remind us that we were together and it was good. The music, the puzzles, the games, the movie, the time around the table with 3 extra leaves, and an abundance of food and drink to share.  Shoulder to shoulder, we thanked God that we are healthy and supplicated for the ones who aren’t. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to answer all of my questions. Or theirs. And some days that feels pretty paralyzing but not on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we recount that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. And we tell each other what that’s been like in each of our stories. And on that day, I just feel grateful.

Starla Rose

September 24—17 years ago today- looked pretty much like this one. Clear blue sky and lots of sunshine.  The opening day of the Texas State Fair. 87 degrees at 3:18 central time in Dallas. Accompanied by her dad and Dr. Payne (yup, that’s really his name), who very assertively instructed me to “Push, push, push!”, she metamorphosed out of her cozy cocoon and found her voice—loudly. In that moment, with her little arms and legs flailing uncoordinatedly, she made her way through the starting gate and her race began.

My kids birthdays are my favorite days of the year. All day long, I reminisce about the life we’ve shared….

This one, she’s answered to lots of names over the years, in-house derivatives of the one on her birth certificate—Woozy, Rosie, Roni, Roan- all terms of endearment for the babiest of all the girls in the family.

“‘Kin-a-‘kin” were her favorite words as a toddler. She’d speak them like a declaration as she pulled my shirt up, oblivious to public decorum. She wanted us to be touching belly to belly all close and warm.

Falasadie, Rushidi and Adona, the little, plastic orphan girls were the main characters in all of her dollhouse pretend stories with Robyn. As time went on, those stories became epics as they added chapters from their cozy twin beds drifting off to sleep at night. Sometimes, I can still hear their little girl voices giggling in my head.

There were teepee adventures in the yard and plenty of princess dress up too.

She started cooking on her Chico kitchen set and created the most marvelous concoctions made out of rubber beef and other such delicacies. Then, she starred in the homegrown screenplay, Once Upon 3 Cooks, as the exemplary sister who shopped and ate healthy. Later, we watched every episode of The Great British Baking Company together and nowadays she bakes, stir-fries and cooks “clean” with eclectic creativity and flair.

I’ll never forget the way she skipped up to the stage at the annual Awana awards night in her multi-tiered cotton “happy” skirt to receive her trophy for being unanimously selected by leaders as the first grader who best exemplified the spirit of Awana.

For years, she lived and breathed Adventures in Odyssey episodes on CD. From before she crawled out of bed in the morning to when she snuggled up next to Oreo at night, Whit, Connie, Eugene and the whole cast of voices were as familiar to her as ours were. Later, she sat behind the microphone at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado recording an episode in the mock studio and shared a Wad-fam-choc-sod in the soda shop with Robyn— 1 drink, 2 straws.

And those weren’t the only stories that put her CD player to good use. Audiobooks, in and out of order, were the order of the day for many years. How many times has she listened to every book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder The Little House on the Prairie series with the reader who sounds like a hoarse cowgirl or the librivox recording of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

Then there was every single Wildkrats episode she watched on the computer expanding her love of and knowledge about animals which she delighted to expound on.

In the hazy, lazy days of summer, you could find her jumping in the neighborhood pool or building sand castles on the shores of the Great Lake. And at twilight, she’d be catching fireflies in the peanut butter jar with the air holes drilled into the cap.

And she got older, she developed a voracious hunger for reading and writing. Her room became a solace for consuming stories quietly. She created characters and worlds and super powers, attempting to translate thoughts onto paper, exploring the complexity of good and evil. And she started retelling the best and truest story of all to children at church every Sunday morning. Then, standing up in front of a thousand people she told her very own story of being adopted by Jesus and got baptized. 

More recently she’s been driving and working and studying. I admire her work ethic, her commitment and her integrity to the extreme. She’s learning how to take care of herself with kindness— getting acquainted with God’s unique design that is her and learning what it looks like to nurture it. Her soul is a mosaic of colors, every wavelength of light and dark all along the spectrum, creating a beautiful rainbow.

Lately, she’s taken up jogging and every time I watch her pound the pavement, I think about God’s words comparing life to running a race. It’s about focus. And training. And persevering. And I’m one of her witnesses. Cheering her on, I’m hooping and hollering, “You go girl!”  from the sidelines. But Jesus, he’s running right beside her. When her pace slows, so does his. When she gets a second wind, he speeds right along with her.  When she falls, he’s got the first aid kit and attends to her wounds. When she needs a drink, he’s the one carrying her heavy water bottle. When she’s about to give up, he gets behind her, like a wind at her back making her next steps easier and when she just can’t anymore, and she collapses along the side of the trail, he sits with her, patiently, until she’s ready to get up and run some more. Here’s the point: She does not run her race alone and she never will. In this fresh new year, the last one before her emancipation, here’s what I know is true. The steadfast love of the Lord never changes. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22)

She got a new t-shirt this summer that she wears for self-inspiration. It’s black with big white letters saying, “I’ve got this!” And she does. She’s got this.

21 Things I Love About Brennan in Honor of his 21st Birthday

After the adrenalin rush of celebrating Brennan’s birthday eve with dumpster diving and a late night swim at Lily’s pool and hot tub, I’m reflecting today on his story interconnected with ours. He’s one of us now—with all of its good, bad and ugly- and I’m so glad he is! Here’s what I love about Brennan.

1) He’s funny. Literally, other than his wife, none of the rest of us can pull off a timely joke successfully.

2) He’s responsible. From the first conversation about driving Robyn places to his get up everyday work ethic, he does what he needs to do.

3) He’s resourceful. From Goodwill super shopping to dumpster diving and metal detecting, he repurposes things better than anyone else I know.

4) He’s creative. In so many ways—like crafting candles from soy wax and pringles cans and making Robyn’s ring out of gold he found metal detecting.

5) He’s a gentle soul. His voice is soothing. He’s sensitive and his manner makes you feel safe when you’re with him.

6) He’s fun. He just is. If he’s around, everything’s better.

7) He cares about God’s creation. From picking up turtles and helping them cross the street to tending trees he grows from cuttings or seeds, he honors what he’s been assigned to steward.

8) He’s sincere in His faith. In all of its highs and lows and its moments of clarity and confusion, he loves Jesus.

9) He loves going to the beach like I do, which makes him a kindred spirit.

10) He’s teachable. He reads, ask questions, takes classes or watches Youtube videos to learn important stuff he wants to know and understand.

11) He’s versatile and flexible. He enjoys lots of things. He’s good at a wide variety of tasks.

12) He’s cool. His vibe is eclectic but he and Robyn are definitely the coolest people in our family.

13) He’s nice. Everybody likes Brennan. He talks to them and treats them kindly.

14) He repairs relational conflict. Brennan gives and receives forgiveness and moves forward.

15) He is a man of integrity. He tries to live honestly and be trustworthy in his personal choices even when it costs him.

16) He’s financially responsible beyond his years. 

17) He’s totally Robyn’s match. I think I could see it from the very beginning and I love that he loves her so well.

18) He likes good music and shares it with me.

19) He’s adventurous. I appreciate how he embraces my crazy ideas.

20) He wants to hike at as many national parks as he can and so do I.

21) He gets excited about finding a great deal or getting things free.

I always wanted a son and maybe someday, there’ll be 4, but today, I’m really grateful for Brennan. He makes my life sweeter and it’s an honor to be his second mom.