Summer Solstice and Fireflies

The shortest night of the year. The summer solstice. Out on my prayer walk, I watched the sky go from salmony blue through various shades of gray until it turned black. Right around the tree line, it looked like Christmas, the twinkling white lights playing peek a boo in the branches. I remember our peanut butter container with a red cap and air holes on top. Every single night, my littlest girl and her daddy would chase the fireflies and see how many they could catch in their jar. Catch, count and release. Some nights it was a little like  the dudes who couldn’t catch any fish at first and then Jesus decided to give them so many their nets broke. I bet they giggled as delightedly as my baby did when her jar was full.

I tend to camp on those kinds of memories. I spent a few solitary hours scrolling through kid pictures of one of my princesses on her last birthday. My girls have varying levels of disinterest in childhood photos, but for sure, you’d never find them choosing to spend a riveting evening watching a slideshow of old iPhotos. Me? I’m always ruminating about the past, reflecting on the present and projecting about the future. Trying to assemble it like a puzzle until I recognize the picture. I started with the edge peices. Those formed the structure that contains the image. I like knowing there’s a frame and that I put it together, but the center can feel overwhelming and mysterious. I’m not sure how to fit the pieces together or even what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. Sometimes I want to just give up, put it away unfinished. Other times, I’m determined to see it complete. Most of the time, I find my reading glasses, sit down and fish around until a few stray pieces snug up to each other and then I set it aside for another day. I truly am trying to love the future, to harness the momentum of the past to live into it fully but, honestly, what I really want is a better do-over of what I’ve already had.

It’s not like that for my little women though. One of them told me that when she looks back on pictures of her childhood, she never feels the desire to backdate the time machine. She loves her life and her autonomy. The tough lessons she’s learned in the school of hard knocks, she has no interest in repeating.

Truth be told, I resonate with that. It’s not all the way back to my childhood that I want to go either. Being a kid is both so easy and so incredibly hard. On the one hand there are no bills to pay, no job to work, no image to present, no adult responsibility to shoulder. But children still carry their own heavy burdens on weak, tiny shoulders. They’re born into varying configurations of families. Their primary caregivers range the gamut of reasonably normal to entirely unfit. They come into the world utterly helpless needing to be seen, safe, soothed and secure—not 100% of the time because that’s impossible, but more often than not. That’s how they build healthy attachment patterns and when they aren’t, their inner world becomes a conflicted place of false narratives they weave together unwittingly. Because they aren’t abstract thinkers yet, they end up blaming complex problems on themselves and trying to fix multi-faceted dilemmas that are out of their control. Sometimes they’re abused and neglected. They’re often bullied and rejected and the uncharitable judgments children speak over each other stick. They want to be good, try to be good, feel pressured to excel, succeed and attain perfection but fail and lose instead. On top of their own disappointment, they are quick to recognize the look of dissatisfaction in their parents, teachers and coaches eyes and wounded when they receive berating comments. Children are often taxed beyond their physical and emotional resources. They don’t have the vocabulary for or the maturity to recognize their feelings and control their impulses. And the stakes only get higher as they move into puberty. Teenagers are unrelentingly exposed to confusing messages about gender and sexuality, porn and sex, drugs and alcohol. With undeveloped frontal lobes and insecure identities, they often make impulsive decisions that result in toxic addictions, STD’s, pregnancy and other long term health complications. Generally, kids are doing their best but their best doesn’t feel good enough. Some nights, they lie in bed feeling overwhelmed and scared, with no idea how to navigate through their raging storm.

When I look back at my kids’ pictures, I hear happy little voices creating, playing, exploring, giggling, singing and talking. But I also acknowledge that being a kid is way more complicated than it looks and I hope that in those images of the little people that they were, and even in the more archival photos of who I was, we can all see ourselves and feel delight, kindness, compassion and gratitude for our younger “me’s”. That we can frame our moments within God’s faithful companionship and trace His ongoing mercies in our stories. Fresh and new each morning. Always, always, always enough.

The Ravaging of the Sunflowers

Though the fig tree does not bud and no fruit is on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the field produce no food, though the sheep are cut off from the fold and no cattle are in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! Habakkuk 3:17-18

My sunflower crop got ravaged overnight.
Where I least expected it. On my back deck. Right outside my patio door.
This time it wasn’t my garden 50 feet out on my side yard with the more mature plants. It was the most vulnerable. The tiniest new growth, 150, still in their white paper cups.
I stagger the crop based on days to flower. This variety was my over acheivers. Slated to bloom in 50-60 days.

I’ve been watching my big garden daily, reapplying my very expensive repellent and turning on my hose when it doesn’t rain. I lost a half dozen in one corner to a hungry predator one night but sighed with relief that for whatever reason, it satisfied itself with an appetizer.
Never have I lost any plants off my deck where their failure to thrive wasn’t on me.
This morning, I walked outside ready to tend them with care. Lord knows, I needed the hope of their sunshiny future and found them 
Their roots pulled out of the soil, exposed and burnt, their leaves chewed off leaving a still greenish stem. Others had pinprick looking holes left where the entire plant had been consumed. For those yet to shed their seed and become real, the varmint had cracked the shell open, eaten the life and left the carcass behind.
Some were only injured—roots still intact but growth whittled down to the soil line.

For a few minutes I just stood paralyzed. Speechless. Until I couldn’t stand and so I sat down, right in the middle of the war zone and wept. I know they’re just sunflowers and I recognize that the loss I just described is absolutely trivial compared to countless other casualties but they matter to me and their untimely devastation feels like the deathblow on a week where I’ve already been beaten to a pulp. The particulars in my story and the stories of the ones I love are ours alone but everyone has had their own kick in the gut some fateful day, week, month, year, decade, lifetime even…. and for each and every one of us, it just plain hurts. It throbs. It’s a red, frowny, teary face on the pain chart.

So what do we do with our ravaged gardens. The ones we nurtured and loved and had such beautiful hopes for? Here’s the only thing I know to do. Start by sitting in the devastation for as long as you need or at least as long as you can. Look at your uprooted plants. See what has been lost and grieve that the hopes you had for them will not be realized. Cry your tears. They’re legit. Then, assess the damage and start cleaning up. Separate what’s salvageable from what has to be thrown into the compost bin. It’s not a race. Do it at your own pace. Let yourself re-assess the damage as you go and give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Dispose of what has been lost. It cannot be retrieved. Nurse what has been wounded with the tenderest care you are able to give.
Now, take your now seedless cups of soil and plant more sunflower seeds. Yeah, I really did say that. Choose courage to hope that the next effort, the next seed packet can live and thrive and bloom and be gloriously mature.
It’s an incredible risk. There’s a part of me that wants to just rototill my garden, let it grow weeds  and entirely give up. There’s no risk in that. There’s nothing I value that I can lose. But that is the path of despair and at the fork in the road, I will not choose to take it.
Today, I will sow. I will water my pinkish-red strawberries and and the other flowers in my porch pots. They’re alive and in bloom. They can’t take the place of my sunflowers because they aren’t sunflowers but they are a mirror— reflecting back the reality that hope is worth it and some times our good dreams are realized and they’re beautiful.

Here’s what I have to offer up to God today:
God bless my sunflowers.
Bless the tiny ones I just buried in the compost pile. 
May even their decomposition contribute to your plan for the earth and its regeneration.
Bless the injured plants with new growth and energy.
Bless the seeds that I poke into the soil today. May their life be full and may they bloom according to their design.
Bless my garden and all of the plants that are growing toward the sun amidst perils they cannot comprehend. 
Bless me, God, would you honor my courage to persevere as a gardener? 
Would you comfort me in my loss of my crop?
Would you enable me to hope that there will yet be beauty even though I’ve suffered devastation?
God, would you count my sunflowers, each and every one, just as you do my tears and the number of hairs on my head? And, would you tend them with your most gentle and protective care even though I cannot?
I trust the garden I love to you, God. You made the plants and you loaned them to me to steward, to appreciate, to nurture and enjoy.
I have done my part the best I can. With your help, I will continue to be faithful and wait to see what you will do.

School Massacres and Other Tragedies: Part 1

I can see now that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible and gorgeous and tragic. I can’t reconcile the contradiction except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. That life is so beautiful and life is so hard. -Kate Bowler

It’s kind of like 9/11 for me. In a heartbeat, I’m back to that sunshiny, blue sky spring afternoon, the trees on the cusp of budding with new life and possibility, the windows down on our black Chevy Venture. The cool, crisp breeze blows against my cheeks, rumpling my short brown hair. I glance back at my 2 little girls buckled into their car seats, princesses they are. The older one is telling the younger one a story. Always. 

That was the afternoon of April 20,1999. Up front, I was listening to talk radio loudly, the volume competing with the open window. A news bulletin interrupted the show. Two gunmen had opened fire at a high school in the sleepy suburbs of Denver, CO mowing down students and teachers alike. 15 shot dead in cold blood. 16 more injured. There was chaos and screaming and crying as the reporter interviewed people who lived to tell the tale. In the moment, my brain couldn’t connect the dots. How do you complete a picture where a mama packs a sack lunch for her kid one morning, counting down the days until summer vacation. She calls out a quick goodbye as the child rushes out the door to catch a school bus. Late again. She notices that the hug got missed. Moms always do. But told herself she’d be ready at the door tomorrow. She’d hug her baby tomorrow. And now, tomorrow will never come. There won’t be any more tomorrows with her beloved. No lunches. No hugs. No summer vacation. No anything.

 I had no hooks for that horror story. Columbine slapped my parental naivety in the face.That’s when I knew. I decided right then and there behind the wheel of my minivan that I would homeschool my kids. I know, you can’t protect your kids from every risk or potential danger. Believe me, I know. But you can move heaven and earth to protect them from the things you know could hurt them and when you hear a story like Columbine, you know school could hurt them and you can’t unknow once you know.

My husband had been advocating for home education for at least a year. The next fall our firstborn would be headed to Kindergarten. I was a certified special education teacher. He thought it was a no-brainer. A college professor, he admired the academic prowess of his homeschool students. “They’re better thinkers,” he claimed. “They don’t just learn for the test.” That impressed him. Meanwhile, having never been an out of the box thinker myself, I considered it to be overrated and not evidence enough for home schooling. I, on the other hand, am one who assesses decisions largely through a relational grid. I’d been an only child for my first eleven years and the loneliness of that part of my story painted a background on my life canvas. I’d always sleuthed out a few good friends. The best, actually. And I wanted our girls to be able to connect and find relationships too. I didn’t want them to be the social misfits homeschoolers were stigmatized as back in the day. I had been thinking traditional school. Christian school, of course. I didn’t want my little sweethearts to be indoctrinated by secular atheists and influenced by unwholesome family values. How to afford it? That was a formidable obstacle. But my parents managed on a school custodian single income salary with some savvy resourcefulness and humility enough to ask for scholarships. Until that day, that had been my plan. But that day, I threw my playbook into the Grand River on our family walk later that evening and signed on to homeschooling. We all have defining moments that change everything. Columbine shaped our family story forever.

I went to Littleton this winter. Almost 23 years after the tragedy. All but one of my kiddos are now grown up and none of them have yet been a victim of school shootings. Thanks be to God! I went to visit a friend, unaware she’d moved less than a mile from the infamous school. I took a walk one afternoon along the trails that wound through her neighborhood and wondered if I passed either of the shooters childhood homes. I pondered if any of the people who lived in the houses I walked past still live with PTSD and other injuries from the events of that day. 

I wondered about those boys mamas. Who are they? And what must  it be like to hold a baby to your breast and sing him lullabies one day and the next he becomes a  mass murderer before he can legally smoke a cigarette. In my psychology classes, we are taught that the cardinal rule for setting a human up for relational health is early nurturing by a primary caregiver. A baby needs to know that there is someone in the world that they are secure with, who will soothe, see and keep them safe. This builds a foundation for healthy attachment and has the power to shape a life. I questioned, as I meandered through that Colorado neighborhood, did those parents royally screw up? When I got back from my walk, I just had to google search where they lived. What’s their family story? I came across an article written by Dylan’s mom years afterward called A Mother’s Reckoning and I watched her speak on a TED talk. She wasn’t an absentee parent and their family had been intact. She appeared to have loved deeply and tried her best. Honestly, she sounded alot like me. She told about her cauldron of grief mixed with intense shame and isolation following that fateful day. “No matter how hard you try, you might not know your child and they might not let you,” she said. 
Ouch! I’ve been that kind of child and I’ve had children like that.

When I was younger, I’d have been more comfortable to make sweeping judgements against Eric and Dylan’s mamas and whatever mistakes they may have made. To console myself as a Christian with Biblical promises I pulled from Scripture regardless of their context but that effectively nurtured a prosperity gospel teaching that if I do my part, God will bless.  I worked sincerely, perseveringly hard to follow what I thought was Scripture’s recipe for correctly training up my children in the way they should go and claimed what I believed to be a promise that when they are old, they won’t depart from it.

Christians have a tendency to throw around Bible verses like they’re a money back guarantee. Why do we do that? When God, who identifies Himself as Father created His original children, formed in His image, it didn’t even take a single generation of flawless parenting for His kids to rebel, to lie and to demand autonomy completely naive of their own ignorance. That went so well for them that by the time God had grandchildren, the siblings were killing each other. Truth is, I can’t guarantee that my kid won’t be a mass murderer or that she won’t be the victim of one.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table as I write. There’s a Mama Robin flitting back and forth between my maple tree and the hanging fern on my front porch. She crafted her nest carefully and laid 3 blue eggs in the center a few weeks back. There’s another nest tucked right under the back deck in the cross beam of the supports. Mama Robin #2 is tending that nest. Thanks to both of their maternal instincts, their two broods of babies are both brilliantly protected. Perched in the nearest trees, the mamas supervise with vigilance, leaving only to secure snacks and meals for their little ones. Any action around the nests result in a dramatic lecture to the humans who encroach. As far as it’s up to those mamas, the babies are likely to grow and thrive. Thing is, there are so many other dangers and perils within and without and the depressingly low statistics say that likely not more than 1 out of the 6 birdies will live to see their first birthday.
That is the sad, undeniable truth of life under the sun. There are no guarantees for birds or humans except for this one.

The steadfast love of the Lord never changes, His mercies, they never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22-23)

And to all of us who are living our own stories of dashed hopes and dreams, losses and disappointments, illnesses and disease, but especially to the dear ones in Uvalde Texas, I cling to this promise—the one that actually is a promise- that somehow God’s love, mercy and faithfulness will be enough for today and new again tomorrow.

The Blessing of the Sunflowers

They were tucked into the garden yesterday morning. Tiny shoots. 600 of them. I started them out a few weeks back in little paper cups with holes in the bottom. One after another, I filled each container with potting soil and poked the seeds under the surface. I watered and watched them take root and grow their first tender leaves. Then, I transplanted them into the plot to the side of the house. That’s where, according to their season, they’ll grow taller than me. 

Those evil, microscopic, late-spring insects that attack anything that exhales carbon dioxide made a meal out of me in the process. No sacred space on my body was spared and now I look like someone with a case of itchy chicken pox. Still, I’m satisfied to see my plants, so young and possessing so much potential, planted in neat rows. I rummaged around the garage for a water hose and oscillating sprinkler then set it up right in the center of the garden. To thrive, those babies will need vigilant nourishment at the start. Afterwards, I sprinkled pellets that smell like rotten eggs along the periphery, an olfactory fence to deter unwanted guests. 

The next part of the process is a conglomeration of working, waiting, hoping and praying recognizing that there are no guarantees. 
So much of life is like that…..

I sighed contentedly as I scanned my yard, the peonies all pink and white and red, the lilacs in fragrant bloom, the petite Siberian yellow and purple iris standing straight and tall bordering the driveway. I peered across my garden and prayed for my sunflowers because if God cares about sparrows and lilies and hairs on my head, He cares about sunflowers too.

God bless my sunflower garden.
Let it bring me joy as I tend to its care.
May the soil be balanced with just enough sand to invite the roots to spread deep and wide.
Give rain and sunshine in abundance to nourish my baby plants.
May the flowers growth outpace the weeds.

God bless the deer and lead them to virgin paths away from my garden.
God bless the rabbits and provide for them more desirable hors d’oeuvres than my plants.

As I steward my little plot of land, may I delight in the Creator and Sustainer of all that is beautiful.
Help me to wait patiently for my flowers to mature.
Let the good, good gift of blooms multiply exponentially into a field of plenty so I can share generously from the bounty.
Someone is going to need their happy sunshine about August.
And so am I.

God bless my sunflower garden.

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

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.