Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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What if They Were Really Ours?: Praying for the Kidnapped Nigerian Girls at 6 Months

Imagine it for just a moment: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A college prep school for girls.

It’s the end of the spring semester, and teenage girls from all over Western Pennsylvania gather for final exams. The exams are taken over the course of several days, so the girls stay in dormitories, giggling and cramming late into the night. Tomorrow is the physics exam, and so there is more cramming than giggling. Eventually the girls sleep, sort of, restless and anxious.

But then, early, before the sun rises, they are awoken by the shouts of men. Pittsburgh police officers? Firefighters? What is happening? Some assume that they are having a nightmare and try to wake up. But they are already awake. Get into the trucks! Now! The girls begin to realize that these men are not there to protect them. They are there because the protectors have failed.

The drivers, whoever they are, know the back roads, and the trucks bounce over potholes. They cross a river. The girls cling to one another and confer desperately: Are we in the Mon Valley? No, we’re somewhere near route 28. My grandma lives near here. Where are they taking us? Should we jump? No, don’t do it, they’ll shoot! Fifty-seven risk everything and jump, some breaking legs in the process, but the kidnappers do not pursue. The rest disappear. Taken. Gone. Two hundred and nineteen girls.

The media erupts. Where did the trucks go? Did they head toward Ohio? Are they hiding in the Allegheny Forest? No, they went south, toward West Virginia. Are you sure? There are conflicting reports. Someone near Butler saw a line of trucks. No. Someone Morgantown calls channel 11. The girls are just over the state line. Maybe.

Parents gather outside the city-county building, demanding information. Demanding action.

But then, inexplicably, local officials begin to question the story. Was there even a kidnapping? The Post-Gazette interviews a congressman who says it’s all a hoax. Those aren’t even the parents of the girls. They’re actors, hired by a super-PAC to make the governor look bad. Don’t you know that an election is coming up?

But those who know the girls know there is no time to waste. Groups of parents with hunting rifles begin to follow leads. Someone in Tionesta says that he saw them, but he has a warning: the kidnappers are well-armed. If the rush into the camp, the girls may be massacred. The parents turn back. They return to the government offices.

Bring back our girls. Two hundred and nineteen families plead for action.

They receive lip service. ‘We are doing what we can’, ‘It is a complicated situation.’ ‘You don’t want the girls to be hurt, do you?’ ‘Trust us. We know what we are doing.’

The families take their plea to the world. Hashtags and celebrities take up the cause. They pressure leaders, governments, and militaries to do more. And for a moment, they do.

But then the voices die down. Other stories fill the headlines. Local shootings. International terrorists. There is so much tragedy, so much violence, and from the girls and their kidnappers, only silence. Meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh hires a PR firm to increase public trust. This tragedy has ruined its reputation.

Six months go by. One girl is discovered. It seems that she was abandoned in the forest because she was pregnant.

There is more silence.

Now the hashtag is a voice in the wilderness: #Bringbackourgirls

Our girls. Imagine. What if they were two hundred and eighteen of our own?

****

Today marks the six-month anniversary of the Chibok School kidnapping in Northern Nigeria. My local imagined version of this story parallels real events on the other side of the world. For example, fifty-seven girls did escape in the first few days by jumping from the back of trucks or grabbing low-hanging branches. The government of Nigeria did initially challenge reports that so many girls had been kidnapped, does accuse protesters of being politically motivated, and did hire a PR firm to improve its reputation.

Why do I care? I ask myself this question quite a bit. I do not know these girls or their families. I will probably never meet them in this life, even if they are rescued. I do not have a particular interest or connection to Nigeria. Why these 219 in a world of 7 billion, with so many tragedies close and far away?

I do not have a complete answer to these questions. When I became aware of this tragedy in May, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It had something to do with my two daughters, but it wasn’t just about them.

My sense was that life couldn’t just go on as before, that the world needed to stop and re-orient itself until these girls were returned to their families. Do we really live in a world where hundreds of girls disappear and no one does anything about it? The answer of course is mostly yes, but my answer at that moment (and in the months since) is no.

No, life does not just go on. No. It mustn’t be this way. And so, in my small voice I said small prayers to a big God. I continue to, and many of you pray with me. And though our prayers do not seem to be answered, something is happening. How do I know?

Because the more I pray, the more I sense that these girls are our own. And they woke up today praying that the world hasn’t forgotten them.

We have not.


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Serenity and Other Unnatural Conditions

I’m not sure which is harder:  being me or being married to me.

(We won’t let my husband comment on this one.)

I’m not so bad, really.  In some ways I’m a fantastic person to spend day-in-and-day-out, til-death-do-we-part with.  I communicate, and usually not by screaming.  I have hobbies, talents, helpful habits, etc.  I’m interested in the world around me.  Sometimes I even act like a responsible grown-up, in fact, I do laundry every single time my children run out of clean clothes.

It’s just that.  Well, you know how none of us is perfect?  And have you had times when it seems that all your weaknesses are seeping out of your pores?  Times when you are just a wreck, and then you realize that you were just a wreck last month too?  And January wasn’t so great either?

Remember Christmas?  That was a long time ago.

There are two things that make me hit the wall.  One, not getting enough sleep.  Two, the anticipation of physical pain.  Lately, these two things have gone hand in hand, and this past week was no exception.  My reoccurring cyst–my reoccurring nightmare cyst that doctors insist on sticking needles and knives into–flared up again.  At night, the pain woke me up every time I changed positions, but the agony in my head was much worse.

“No, I can’t,” I sobbed to my husband one morning.  “I just can’t have it lanced again.  I don’t care.  I would rather die than go through all that again.”

My husband, who is very good at fixing many problems, was just listening to me.  This is because he knows (from experience) not to try and fix anything while I’m crying.  Eventually I finished, and a child called from downstairs.   “Honey,” I needed to say just one more thing, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know why everything has to be such a big deal for me.”

My words hung in the air.  What I said was accurate, and we both knew it.   Things are a bigger deal for me than for my husband.  If it was his cyst, he would grit his teeth and get it lanced.

But I’m not sure that my teeth know how to grit.  Whatever in the world that means.

****

The morning that I finally called the doctor’s office I had two dollars and two hours to myself.   It was just enough for a cafe au lait at a quiet coffee shop.  My mind was unsettled.  For a week and a half, I had tried every natural remedy I could google.  I had cornered herbalists in the aisles of health food stores.  I had prayed and asked my whole church to pray.  And here I was, considering the very situation I was desperate to avoid.  I needed distraction.  I looked at the coffee shop’s bookshelves.  There were forensic thrillers, thick romance novels, and Chicken Soup for the Women’s Soul.

Chicken soup it was.  I hide the cover behind my bag so that none of the other coffee shop patrons could see what I was reading, and the book fell open to the Serenity Prayer.  Really?  I almost closed the book, embarrassed by the level of cliche to which I had fallen.  But since I was more desperate than prideful at that moment, I read through the familiar words.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

The prayer pressed down on me like the mass of my cyst.  The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.  Serenity.  What does that look like when I’m so scared?  Am I just supposed to pretend?  But I had already tried to ‘change the things I can.’  I was out of options.  More words came to mind: There are some things that you can’t go over, under or around.  There are some things that you just have to go through.  Oh Lord, I breathed silently, if there is no other way, walk me through it.

And through it we went.

The thing about going through something is that all you really have to do is just keep moving forward.  One step, repeat.  I walked into the doctor’s office.  I told them I was scared.  I told them the story of the traumas I had already endured related to this cyst.  They referred me to a new surgeon, one who would take the time to go slowly.  I called her office.   I took some anti-panic medication.  I walked into the exam room.  I told my story again.  They listened.  They gave me extra numbing medication.  I insisted that my husband stay with me during the procedure.  I squeezed his hand, and the surgeon talked me though it.  One step at a time.  And then it was over.

I have decided that this is as close to serenity that I’m going to get.  And that’s okay.  For some of us, serenity is a hard thing to come by.  My prayer was answered, bit by bit, as I found just enough courage and just enough help to take the next step.  Just enough courage and just enough help to go through, and then, to come out on the other side.

And thank you, God, for the other side.


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When Christmas Hurts

I began this poem in the margins of my church bulletin last Sunday.  Our prayer request time had been (not unusually) raw and real, with brave people daring to admit that they weren’t doing “fine, thank you.”  It’s amazing how this honesty spreads across the sanctuary.  After we cried together, prayed together, and stood together to sing; something changed.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the closest I can come is to say that Joy seeped in through our cracked walls.

*

As words came, so did tears.

Tears like rivers, slowly cutting through bedrock.

Rivers carving out channels where there weren’t channels before.

And

we were swept downstream

together.

*

There in a jumbled heap

we looked at one another again, no,

we looked for the first time that morning

and saw the eyes of grown-ups

who were barely hanging on.

*

What do you do,

we whispered to someone listening,

when you are counting for Christmas to be over?

What if the missing is just too much

and each twinkling light stings?

What do you do if this was not the plan?

*

Tissue boxes arrived,

we passed them around,

but still we sat, breathing together.

Now we were waiting,

hands resting on the backs of our neighbors,

we were waiting for hope to come.

*

Hope does not come with happiness.

We knew it.  Happiness is too thin.

Hope needs friction, not fa la la la la.

Tensile strength, not tinsel.

We needed a Christmas strong enough

to bear this sorrow.

*

And it was given.

It was given the moment we stopped grasping, and

with hands on backs and true words spoken aloud,

we received it.

We were surprised.

The hope came through joy.

*

We stood to sing.

Joy to the world.

Joy to the messed up real world.

Joy, which is not candy,

but medicine.

*

*

I am indebted to the author and anti-sex-trafficking advocate Christine Caine for this metaphor: “Joy is not ‘imitation happiness’.  If happiness is like candy, then Joy is medicine.”  I have been thinking about this phrase since I read it in her painful and hopeful book, Undaunted, and I am grateful for her hard-won wisdom.


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How Having Children Ruined my Life {Now a Series}

Once upon a time (okay, it was 10 months ago) I wrote a post called How Having Children Ruined my Life.  What I didn’t know then is that a lot of people were thinking this very thing.

The blog-hosting site I use has a ‘stats’ page that shows how many visitors land in my particular corner of the internet and what they read while they are here.  I mostly avoid this information like the plague, as it brings out every junior high insecurity that I thought I shed (ahem) two decades ago.

But there are two stats that I check regularly.  The first is a map of the world showing the number of readers per country.  It is (you may hear my junior high voice here if you like) just so freakin cool to have readers from Australia, Tanzania and Qatar.  The reach of the internet astounds me sometimes.

Number two helpful stat has to do with search engine terms.  Simply put, I can see how people got to my blog, and if they came via a search engine, I can see what it was they googled.  It’s fascinating, though, in the case of my blog, a little depressing.  The vast majority of the search terms say something like “having kids ruined my life”, “my baby ruined my body”, or “my children ruined my marriage.”

You get the theme.  Something very precious to me (life, marriage, body) is now ruined, and I think it began about the time that baby showed up.

Oh, how I get this.

****

For me, the lowest point came early.  She was only five months old, and it was Mother’s Day.  We were staying with friends on the other side of the state.  She was sick, and all she wanted to do was nurse, nurse, nurse.  I was also sick, and wanted sleep more than anything I have ever wanted in my life.  But no.  In five months, she had never slept for more than three hours at a time.

She wasn’t about to start now.

And I felt trapped.  Cornered.  The feeling had been building for months.  Raw memories of her traumatic birth, my failure at birthing,  still gnawed on me.  I couldn’t walk across a room without searing pain.  Every night came with dread and panic.  I was drowning, and the waves went on forever.

Sometimes I fantasized about being so sick that I would be sent to the hospital, just so I could sleep for one night.  But no.  Here I was, sick as a dog, and she was still demanding.  Still screaming.  There was no way out.  It would never end.

The dam burst.

“I HATE being a Mother,” I sobbed, “I hate it, hate it, hate it.  I just want out.  I just want this all to be over.  I’m done, I’m ruined.  Everything is ruined.”

And oh, how I meant it.

****

Ruin: to spoil or destroy something.  

Ruins: the remains of a building, city, etc., that has been destroyed or that is in disrepair or a state of decay; a fallen, wrecked, or decayed condition: The building fell to ruin.

And this image grows in my mind–a row of dilapidated houses, broken windows, crumbling walls.  Lives destroyed.  Marriages in a state of decay.  Long city streets full of vacant houses, waiting to be demolished.

Ruined is a very strong word.  Ruined implies that any good is now past tense.  After all, once the floorboards have rotted and the roof shows sky, can it provide shelter again?  Once a house has been neglected and deserted, can it ever house a family again?

Once a life has been ruined, can it live again?

And the answer, my friends, is a definite maybe.

****

Renovate:  

1.  to restore to good condition; make new or as if new again; repair.

2.  to reinvigorate; refresh; revive.

I live in the midst of both ruin and renovation.  Pittsburgh is a rust belt city, which basically means that the end of our industrial ‘glory days’ left a lot of vacant houses and factories in its wake.  Most of these buildings were built more than a century ago.  Some neighborhoods have recovered more quickly that others; but, as a city, we still have a long way to go.

Each house is a painstaking process.  A century of wear plus decades of neglect cannot be easily overcome.  It would be much easier to just tear them all down and begin again.  Demolition. Sometimes it is the only reasonable way forward.

But sometimes there is another way.  Renovation.  Sometimes if you scrape and paint, and pull up the cracked linoleum, an old house will begin to reveal its treasures.  Sometimes if you strip away the layers, something begins to emerge that we call character, as in ‘Those houses in the city have so much character.’  There is something rich here, something deep, that cannot be recreated without a century of wear and many long weekends of work.

There is something to this concept of renovation that makes ‘ruined’, in hindsight, an important chapter in a meaningful story.  But renovation is not automatic.  The path of least resistance is always decay; renovation is a purposeful, continual choice.

Eight years ago I married both my husband and his century-old house.  Since then, I have learned more than I knew there was to learn about sill boards, leaking chimneys, and copper plumbing.  Then we had two babies in two years, and the wear and tear on our house (literally and figuratively) increased a hundredfold.

Sometimes I think that it may just fall down.

But there are tools of renovation, and when I use them (or submit to them), there is hope for this weary mother who no longer hates her life.  I will list three tools I know well.  They shape me even as I sit here and type.

One)  Find people who are for you.  As in, not against you, but for you.  On your team.  Cheering you along.  Helping you back up when you fall down.  And here’s the real trick…  some of them must be physically present in your everyday life.  Not on facebook, not across town.  If you can get them to move in up the street, do that.  Because the isolated nuclear family model is absolutely toxic.  You cannot do this on your own.  You need a cheering squad, a pit crew, and someone who owns a pickup truck.  As a minimum.  Call them now and set up coffee.  I’ll wait here.

Two)  Make time and space to do the things you love to do.  Grow in the things that give you life.  You.  Not your kids, not your spouse, not your mother.  You.  The person who is not just a parent but is also an artist, a musician, an athlete, a _________________ .

You’ll have to fight for this one, and perhaps you will find that the biggest battle comes from the inside.  As a good friend of mine used to say, “We love the misery we know more than the mystery we don’t know.”  It’s scary and constant, but do it anyway.  If you don’t find a way to be poured into, you will be a dry well, fulfilling your obligations and enduring each day.  Please don’t do this to yourself and the people around you.  You have things, unique to you, that give you life.  Pursue them, and overflow.

Three)  Pray, and if you don’t know how, ask someone to do it for you.  I am aware that I may lose some of you at this point, but as I reflected on what I had to share, I just couldn’t ignore this.  Praying, real praying, is not pious or polite or carefully constructed.  It’s more like finally getting it out, getting it all out with snot and stuttering to that friend who is listening as you cry.  It’s like screaming at your ceiling, “Are you even listening to me?!?  I can’t take this much longer!” or grinning at the sky, “You really think you’re funny, don’t you?”  It’s like whispering “thank you” or “help, please, help” when you can’t think of anything else to say.

When I was in the middle of that horrible first year, I had a hard time praying.  Simply put, I was mad at God and didn’t want to talk to him or her.   So I fell apart at church, and someone prayed for me.  I told people that I was struggling, and they put their hands on my back.  Healing, peace, love, joy… they just kept asking, for me, when I couldn’t get the words out.  And slowly, softly, things began to change inside and outside of me.

Slowly, softly, I was being renovated, and it goes on today.  


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My Prayer for Boston

I googled tentatively, warned by my husband that the photos were graphic.  One keystroke in the search bar, “B”, and the whole mess spilled across the screen.  I covered the pictures and read the words.  It didn’t help.  My imagination went right to work.

I am still a bit stunned, so forgive me if I can’t find the words.  But already I search for them, mostly because I want to pray but don’t know how.  So later, now, while my husband puts the kids to bed, I pull open the computer again, and try to talk to the sky:

*****

Really?  Again, Lord, what the…  Aren’t you a little sick and tired of giving evil so much power?  One person, one hundred people behind this, I don’t know, but limbs flew.  Human limbs blasted off, flew.  You and I have talked about this before.  Can’t you just have a car hit the guy who is about to shoot up an elementary school?  Can’t you just stop the rapists, the demi-god dictators, the soldiers who recruit children?  Can’t you just… Do Something?

Yeah, I’m angry.  But you can take it.  I just get tired of hearing the latest tragedy… the latest incident that my housemates can’t tell me about until the kids are out of earshot.  And then twenty minutes after I find out, I am holding my own daughter–safe, snuggling, beloved limbs intact–on the couch, reading the kid’s version of Little House on the Prairie, all the while trying not to think about it.  But I do.  And I tremble as I hold her.

Do I just beg you to please please please never let such horror come close to me and the ones I love?  This is what I feel: not me, not here, not my own.  Just keep it at arms length, just pretend that I am different, protected, somehow.

But that’s not true.  Because I know that they are like me, those who are suffering as I sit here and blog.  They are like me, those who are afraid that the loved one won’t make it though the night.  They are like me, those who ran a marathon but won’t walk away from the hospital.  They are like me, those who won’t sleep tonight because their minds will reply again and again whatever it was they wish they hadn’t seen.

They are like me, so what do I ask you for us all?  No more bombings, shootings, child abuse, genocides?  This seems futile.  It just doesn’t fit with the only world I know.  We suffer here, and none if us can keep it away.  But you.  I know you too.  You have done something, you are doing something, and you will do more: but you’re not just a fix-it God.

You are here.  Here.  It may just be your main attribute.  Here.  This I know firsthand.  I have never suffered alone.

And so tonight, tonight the request part of my prayer is just two words: Be there.  Be there in hospitals and hotel rooms.  Be there at 2 a.m. and at 4, you who are near to the brokenhearted.  Be there at funerals, be there as we all mourn together.  Be there… do I even need to ask?  Be there.  Please.  Because we’re all so sad and afraid.

Amen.


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Life at 30,000 Feet

I have developed a fear of flying over the past decade or so.  It is quite annoying, and has not always been this way.

When I began flying in college, I was amazed by the miracle that lifted tons of steel into the air.  I would press my nose against the window and marvel at the miniature world below.   I took photographs from the sky, and in the days before digital photography, built up a collection of blurry sunset and cloud pictures that inevitably included the flash’s glare.  One year I rode in a small plane at the Butler Farm Show and was disappointed when I had to sit in the back.  I even briefly considered learning to fly, but was put off by the cost of lessons.

My husband, who has only known me for eight years, is astonished by these recollections.  This is not the Jen he knows.

A lot can change in a decade.  And it has.  Something has happened inside me in the years since college, since 9-11, and since children.  The fear crept in slowly, beginning with slight trepidation, fed by terrorist tales and endlessly retold crash sequences (yes, even Lost episodes), strengthened by new concerns related to flying with children, growing with every spot of turbulence and bumpy descent, and culminating in a panic attack in the New Orleans airport.

Now, if flying were an optional part of my life, the story might end there.  But when your husband’s entire family lives on the opposite coast of the Continental United States of America, it’s hard to avoid the airport.

Hard, but not impossible… for a time.  I did manage to avoid it for almost two years.  My husband’s family came to us, and we tried to pretend that the charms of Los Angeles (like the beach along Highway 1, the smell of flowers in the winter, and good Salvadorian food) didn’t exist.  It worked until two weeks before Christmas this past year.

For two years we fooled ourselves, but then the stars aligned and I was sunk.

My husband’s brother, whom we love, bought a spacious house but did not yet have housemates.  On the other coast, we had a full house and could no longer host his parents for their January visit.   They offered to pay for our flights instead.  I checked the computer, and (darn it) found reasonable fares.  We booked the tickets, and pulled the suitcases out from under the bed.

I tried to breathe.

I busied myself with packing and presents.  I went to the gym, and ran my nervousness into the ground.  I talked to friends.  I dug out a lonely bottle of anti-panic pills (prescribed by the world’s best psychiatrist a year earlier) and tucked them away just in case.  I ran and talked and packed some more.  And then, just before we left, I enlisted the prayers of every praying person that I knew.  And they did pray.  I know this because of the way things turned out.

Things turned out, as they often do when people pray, in a very hard-but-beautiful way.

I began by passing out.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I began by finding us a ride to the airport, and intentionally asked someone I was very comfortable with.  Someone friendly, funny, encouraging; someone who you would actually want to spend time with at 4:30 in the morning when you feel like you want to throw up.  He said yes to the 4:30 drive, and this was a miracle.

And so we were on our way.

Now, I am a bit stubborn about taking medicine for my mental health.  I think of it as a last resort, but never quite get to the point when I see myself as that desperate… well, until I am practically past the point of desperation.  On this particular morning, I put off taking the little blue pill until we were about 1 minute from the airport.  This was unwise.

Panic attacks are no joke, and I have found them to be somewhat different from anxiety.  Generally, anxiety is something that you cooperate or do not cooperate with.  It is usually possible to change the way you are thinking, change your environment, or distract yourself.  There are some choices along the way.  But when anxiety grows to the point of panic, your own control diminishes.  Here’s how it was for me as soon as we pulled off the highway to the airport… BAM.   I had been talking to our friend, I was doing okay… BAM.  Heat rushed through my body, dizziness spun me around and I passed out.  BAM.  It was like the green airport sign tackled me.

That part was quick, perhaps only a few seconds.  When I stumbled out of the van my husband didn’t even know that I had fainted.  I sat on the suitcases, gasping for breath.  “Are you okay?”  “No.”  “Honey?” “I don’t think I can do this.”  But then… but then… the blessed medicine kicked in.  I was still aware of everything, still a bit shaken up, but all of a sudden the panicking part of my brain dis-attached itself.  “Alright,” I stood up, “let’s do this.”

And we did.  The next part of the story is mercifully boring.  Tickets, security, waiting, boarding.  No panic, no problem.  We settled into the plane and smiled noncommittally to our seatmates.  The woman in our row returned my smile warmly.  After takeoff I commented on her book, and we began talking.  We discovered that we were both young mothers and committed Christians.  Somewhere over Illinois I mentioned that I had experienced some trepidation in regard to aviation (speaking in code because I didn’t want my daughter to understand… the last thing I want her to know is that someone could be afraid of flying), and she smiled even more broadly.

It turns out that my seatmate was a mental health counselor, currently studying anxiety and panic.  She was also from a family of pilots.

I am not making this up.

We talked in code for the rest of the flight.  She listened to my concerns, gave me some tips on calming down (some of which I used with success on our extremely bumpy return flight two weeks later), and shared some stories of flying in small planes with her family.  “Really,” she said with convincing sincerity, “I know that you’ve heard horror stories, but you have no idea how safe flying is.”

Maybe.  I don’t know.  It is hard to let go of fear that you have nurtured for so long, and the horror stories are rather, well,  horrible.  I don’t know what will happen during future flights.  Then again, I don’t know what will happen during future moments when I have my feet firmly planted on the ground.  Life at 30,000 feet is a risk.  Life at zero feet is a risk.  Ultimately, it’s not under my control.  I’m not a big fan of being out of control, and I probably never will be.

However…

Here is something that comforts me:  Though I do not have control, I have help.  Help from a darn good psychiatrist, help from friends who will get up at 4:30 a.m., help from friends who pray, and help from Somone who responded to these prayers by sending me a kind-Christian-young-mother-mental-health-professional-from-a-family-of-pilots.

Really.  We were flying on Southwest.  I could have sat anywhere.


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Little Ones

Let’s begin with a little background, shall we?

There’s this book called “Three Stories You Can Read to Your Cat.”  Clever title, very cute book, my oldest loves it and tries to “read” it to our cats.  This is amusing to everyone except, of course, the cats.

The third story in the book is entitled “A Good Day” and details the (mis)adventures of a cat who is left alone by his person-friend with the instructions, “Be good while I’m gone, kitty.”  Let’s just say that kitty has a much different idea of goodness than his person-friend.  Kitty tears up the curtains (“It is good to climb”), rips through the garbage (“It is good to find a chicken bone”) and ruins the rug (“It is good to clean my claws”), all the while congratulating himself on having such a good day.

My children also have good days.

One day last week when this particular book had been returned to the library and completely forgotten (by me), our children and our housemate-children were outside.  The boys were playing loudly, but the girls were quiet.  This fact should have set off alarms in my brain, but I was mostly and thoughtlessly pleased that they weren’t screaming.

By the time I checked on them, the neighbor’s poor kitten had already received her bath.  My youngest was holding her while my oldest was drenching her with cupfuls of water.  It was late in the day, and the poor, matted thing was shivering.

I did not react well.  Ignoring their startled expressions and explanations (“But Mama, she was dirty!”), I yelled something, grabbed the kitten and ran for a towel.  My husband looked up from the dishes and saw fire in my eyes–“You,” I sputtered, “The girls.  Did this.  You.  You deal with them.”

I was one angry cave-woman.

About an hour later the kitten was dry, consequences were experienced and the kids were all playing quietly upstairs.  It was getting toward bedtime, and I went up to give the 5 minute warning.  It took a minute for my brain to register what was all over their bedroom floor.

Mulch.  A bucketful of mulch with its accompanying dirt.  Mulch and dirt ground into the carpet, mixed in with the toys.  Mulch and dirt, and it was almost bedtime.  “Mama!” my oldest’s eye were glowing, “We have a surprise for you!”

Yep.  Surprise, Mama.

“These are presents for you!’  she waved a sticker-laden stick of mulch in front of me, “We colored them and decorated them!  The wood is beautiful now!”

I reacted much better this time.  No yelling, no grabbing, no sputtering, but inside I wanted to scream.  I called in the reserves–the rest of the grown-ups–and together we cleaned.  I was glad, very glad, to turn them over to daddy-bedtime.  Good. Night. Girls.

Sometime later after my husband had already gone to bed, I walked past the girls’ room and heard crying.  “Honey, what’s wrong?”  “Mama…” she could barely get the words out, “Daddy forgot…  to hold my hand…  to say my prayer… to sing Jesus loves me.”

“Can I do it?”  Yes, of course.  I held her hand and prayed something like, ‘Dear Jesus, thank you for this day.  Please forgive us for the ways we’ve been mean to each other (I was thinking of my own behavior here), and please help us to be better tomorrow.  Amen.”

I started to sing, but before I could get to the “little ones to him belong”, she interrupted me.  “Mama?”  “Yes?” “Do you remember that book about the cat, the one we read to Pepe?”  “Uh, yes.”  “Do you remember when the cat has a good day?  Can you finish the song?”

Yes, honey, I can finish the song.