Long Days and Short Years

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


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Saying I Love You in Late February is Not Easy

First, some background:

Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps.  These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known.  I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.

It was camp.  It was life to the full, and then fuller.

Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week).  There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line.  And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week.  Affirmations.

Affirmations took place during the final worship service.  During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel.  There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…”  We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer.  It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.

The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more.  We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity.  We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak.  Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.

And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest.  It was a weekly miracle.  Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.

Its been twenty years, and I still remember.

****

Now.  Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:

I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day.  My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves.  Affirmation, in real life.  Ready, set, go.

But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum.  On the same day that the car tire burst.  A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced.  At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen.   Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat.  And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.

Ugh.

Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones?  How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today?  How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction?  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Here’s the reality friends:  February is hard.  This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal.  And I refuse to give you one more thing to do.  Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth.  Can you hear the crickets and the guitars?  Good.  Now let me tell you something:

You are doing a great job.  Really.  You, the exhausted one.  You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine.  You fall down and keep trying.  You make mistakes and apologize.  Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love.  And you’ve come so far already.  It hasn’t been easy.  Today won’t be easy.  But you’re doing it, friend.  You’re doing it.

You are amazing.  Even in February.  And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well…  just wait until spring.

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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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Love in an Age of Cat Litter

Our first three encounters were as follows: an anti-Valentine’s Day party, a Habitat for Humanity roof, and a church vestibule–closely followed by an apple tree in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  It was 2004.

I had gone to the party in February looking for him, a friend having baited me, “You’ve got to meet this guy.”  I wasn’t impressed, neither was he (he doesn’t even remember meeting me), and we went on with our Valentine’s Day disdain.  This might have been the end of the story, except…

That summer, Habitat was building three houses in a nearby neighborhood, and I was volunteering.  I wasn’t thrilled about heights, but it was time to put on the shingles.  Nail gun please.  He walked by on the sidewalk below.  “Who is that?” he asked, head foggy from a summer cold.  I waved and tried not to fall to my death.  “I need to meet her,” he resolved, and he would–but not until October.

October 15th, 2004.  An organization named Sojourners had organized a bus tour about faith, poverty and politics in the lead-up to that year’s presidential election.  There was an evening church service and I didn’t want to go.  “I’m too tired,” I whined to my friend, “I’ve had a long day.”

She wasn’t deterred.  “C’mon, I don’t want to go by myself.  We can leave early.  C’mon… please?”

It’s a good thing that I said yes.

I saw him as soon as we entered the church.  He was sitting in the vestibule, waiting for someone.  He smiled (I caught my breath) and we walked up to him.  When his friend came, we all went in together.  I don’t remember much about that service, but I do remember what his hands looked like holding the bulletin.

Afterwards I offered to drive everyone home, and he suggested a stop in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  “There’s this really great apple tree” he said.  He climbed it, ripping his coat in the process, and handed us apples that were indeed amazing.  Now my friend (bless her) was the one who was “tired” and insisted that we drop her off first.   I drove him up the hill to the house he had been renovating for three years, and his black cat came out to meet us.  There was a long pause.  “Would you like to come in and meet my roommates?”

Yes.

****

That was then, and this is now.

And now, the cat litter stinks.

Admittedly, it is my fault that the litterbox is in our bedroom.  Our most recent housemates came with a lovely dog who charmed everyone except for the cats.  Our third-floor bedroom was the one place in the house off-limits to the dog, and so this is where the cats took up residence.  In the summer, we left the window open and they used the tree for access, the world for their litterbox.  But winter was coming.

I began to imagine piles and stains in every corner of our room.  My mom had this problem with her cats, and I worried that it was some kind of family curse.  What to do?

I brought the litterbox upstairs.  The felines were grateful, but my husband (he would be the apple-picking guy from the first paragraph) was concerned.  What if we forgot to change the litter?  This was our bedroom after all.  Wasn’t there another way?

Oh no, honey.  This is the only solution.  It will be fine.  I will change it regularly.

(You can see what I’m doing instead.  Cat litter or blog post… cat litter or blog post?  Where is that laptop?)

After eight years of marriage, there is a lot of cat litter in our lives.  School loans to pay, uncapped markers all over the floor, and piles of faintly mildewed laundry that will need to be washed again.  We finally finished the porch, and now the two-by-fours that support the structure of our house are rotting off.  The dishwasher broke again (that was the best warranty we ever bought), and the lawn needs to be mowed before we lose one of our children in it.  Somebody needs to call the internet company and figure out why the auto-billpay stopped.  Somebody needs to put the girls to bed and figure out how to get them to stay there.    

Once upon a time, Cinderella married her prince, and then they were very, very tired for a decade.

****

It is true that I love my husband more now than I did eight years ago.  There are things-beautiful things-that I couldn’t have known about him during the giddy season of our relationship.

I couldn’t have known how he would support me during the lowest points of postpartum depression when I alternated between vacant stares and out-of-control sobbing for months.

I couldn’t have known what he would be like with our daughters–silly and patient, enthusiastic and firm– or how he would teach them to soak dried beans, make blueberry pancakes from scratch, and identify every edible plant in the urban landscape.

I couldn’t have known that he could design and build a tool shed, wood shed, porch and chicken coop on the weekends; or how proud I would be of his weekday work with neighborhood groups and vacant property.

I may have suspected all this eight years ago, but now I know it.  As I know him better, I love him more.

However.

This love, while wider and deeper, is no longer the felt experience of our daily lives, at least not in the way it was in 2004.  There is a lot of cat litter to contend with, and cat litter (bills, chores, screaming children, etc.) isn’t a great medium for romance.  We spend a lot less time staring into one another’s eyes, and a lot more time scheduling the family car.  And while I know that it would be impossible, perhaps even undesirable, to feel giddy for a decade; I mourn the loss of our fascination with one another.  I regret that I often take him for granted.

I forget that this all might not have been.

More than anything, this is what we have lost in eight years, and this is what I want to reclaim.  In 2004, I knew that our relationship was a miracle, that the amazing convergence of two people willing to say, “yes, as long as I live” to one another is not something that everyone gets to experience.  I might have skipped the anti-Valentine’s Day party, refused to go out on the Habitat roof, told my friend, “no, I’m sorry, I just can’t make it tonight.”  Would we have met anyway?  I don’t know, but if we had, it still would have taken a succession of blessed encounters to bring us together.

My husband is not a given, he is a gift; and I want to tattoo it on my hand:  This all might not have been.  But the past tense serves the present because the miracle has not yet ceased, indeed today together is also a gift.  Even if today is hard, even if we feel like we’re just surviving, even if we forget to say “wow” and “thank you.”  It is all a gift, not a given.  Every Single Day.

And so, to my husband, on this anniversary, I say:  I just changed the litterbox.  For you, babe.  For you.


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A Poem for a Pause

Space.

A word with room inside

to pause

and sit-your-weary-brain-down

for just a moment

or two.

*

Space.

A word with the ability

to watch rain fill the sky,

feel your body settle into a chair,

or be carried along by some music,

so Full

you forget yourself.

*

Space.

A word that amplifies true things

spoken softly

like you are loved

blessed

and a blessing to many.

Things that are certainly true.

*

Space.

A moment to remember what it is

you’ve been given,

which would be

everything you need.


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Bringing the Helicopter Mom in for a Landing

From the beginning, I just wanted to do everything right.  Is that too much to ask?

It’s been six years since I hit the ground running.  Two babies in two years, and oh so many things to try and do right.  Natural childbirth.  Organic homemade baby food.  Attachment parenting.  Cloth diapers.   I read books, skimmed websites and listened to family and friends.  Tummy time.  Self-soothing.  Sleep training.  I filtered it all through my own intuition, consulted with my husband, and kept on parenting, one day after the next.

One stage after the next.  Just keep running.

Soon we were out of diapers and into new waters.  Preschool and other childcare options.  Time outs.  How to encourage independence for a child who still might run out into the street at any moment.  How to teach a child to say sorry without that parroting tone.  Playing together and playing alone.  More sleep issues (do they ever end?).  Age-appropriate chores and toys.  Kindergarten.

Just typing this list makes me tired.

Don’t get the wrong idea–I am not a perfectionist.  If you need proof, just look in my car.  But I have labored at parenting.  I have agonized over many small and big decisions.  I have run hard.  And six years into it all, I have one thing to report:

I have often had this gut-level sense that I am blowing it.  Blowing it big time.

Now, most of you are very kind people, and right now you are thinking, “Oh, I’m sure that she’s a very good mother.  She’s probably just being too hard on herself.”  You’re right of course, but this isn’t really the point.  The point is that I’ve got these unspoken standards of ‘doing it right’ that I can’t live up to.  And sometimes they eat away at me.

Wonder if I’m the only one.

****

I am able to write this post because my children are at summer camp.  They are at summer camp from 9-4, for five days a week, for four weeks.  We have never done anything like this before.

It began on a bit of a whim.  Wide-open summers can be daunting when you have small children, and I had been trying to find more time to write.  When I saw “9-4” on the brochure, I may have drooled a bit.  Then I signed up on the spot.  Four weeks!  Four glorious weeks to write and work and learn and run and read and draw and… “Honey?”  My husband interrupted my reverie.  “What’s the camp like?  What will the girls do there?  How is it organized?”  He must have been shocked at my uncharacteristic response:

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’m sure it will be fine.”

As camp drew nearer, my confidence wavered.  What had I done?  I had no idea what the student to teacher ratio was, no sense of their daily schedule, and no clue if this just wasn’t the biggest mistake of our parenting lives.  On the first day I still wasn’t sure what to think.  It seemed organized, but there were kids everywhere and my goodness it was loud.  The counselors seemed eager, but oh my were they young.  “Welcome to CAMP!” one of them screamed as we arrived.

What could I do?  I dropped off my kids and walked away.

Just.  Walked.  Away.

Seven hours later I grilled them in the car.  What was it like?  What did you do?  Tell me everything.

“Well, Mama.  Once I got lost, but then a tonsilor found me,” my oldest began, not realizing that they are called ‘counselors’ or that her mother had stopped breathing.  “We were going to the girl’s room and I had my eyes closed cause I was making up a dinosaur story in my head and when I opened them my group was gone!”  I sucked in air.  “Oh… really… honey… and what happened then?”  “Oh, a tonsilor found me and walked me upstairs, oh and guess what Mama, we had brownies for snack!”

Brownies are not a very nutritious snack.

****

There in the car, when I began breathing normally again, I noticed something.  My daughters were buoyant.  Beaming.  Gushing even.    The tale of the missing tonsilors wasn’t the forlorn story of an abandoned child, or even a frightening memory;  it was an adventure tale.  It was as exciting to my daughter as a dinosaur story, and oh-guess-what-Mama, there were even brownies for snack.

The two little girls in my car had had a fabulous day.

With this revelation came, oddly, a sense of freedom.  For the mother who just wanted to do everything right, this day had been a disaster.  I had left them for seven hours with screaming counselors who had lost one of my children and then fed them sugar for snack.  All this, and not only had my precious, fragile children survived–they were thriving.

I had blown it, blown it big time (or so I thought), and my children were thriving.  Amazing.

And surprisingly… freeing.

It’s been two weeks now since that afternoon in the car, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see that things were not nearly as out of control as I supposed.  It seems that my daughter was separated from her group for approximately 2.3 seconds on that first day, and nothing like it has happened since.  The girls love their caring, energetic ‘tonsilors’ and the ‘welcome to CAMP!’ young man is a particular favorite.  There are healthy snacks too, the directors maintain an incredible 8:10 ratio (that’s 8 adults for every 10 kids) in the pool, and the consistent routine has stabilized our summer.

It’s been two weeks, and it hasn’t been perfect, but it has been good.  Good for the girls.  Good for their Mama.

I didn’t expect this, but the best part of camp for me hasn’t been the extra time.  The best part of camp has been a new stage of letting go, a new realization that Just Walking Away is sometimes the best thing you can do.

I’m not talking about apathy here.  We still have our daily grilling in the car, and I still talk with the counselors when I have a concern.  I still prefer smaller groups and more experienced teachers (say, for kindergarten), but this is camp and they are having fun.  They are having so very much fun.

After all, the opposite of apathy isn’t caring for your kids.  The opposite of apathy is agonizing.  And this is where my tendency lies.

Camp, with its accompanying brownies, has been an important corrective.


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Time to Heal

Do you know anyone who is limping right now?

I do.   A handful of friends, first-time marathoners who charged or chugged up Pittsburgh’s hillsides just three days ago.  We watched the runners between miles 20 and 21 and yelled encouragement.

“You’re awesome!”  “You’re doing it!”  “Almost there!”

As the river of people passed, the pain on their faces increased.  By the time some of the stragglers reached us, they had been running for FIVE HOURS.  Running.  For five hours.  I find driving for five hours exhausting.  And they still had five miles to go.

We kept yelling.

****

Three days later, some of those who limped to the finish line are still limping.  But I am not worried about them.  They will take it slow, take a break, ice this and heat that, and some will even get a massage.  They will take care of themselves, and they will heal.  Healing happens one step at a time, just like training for a marathon.  And they will do it.

“After all”, they will believe, “I deserve a break now.  I just ran a marathon.”

****

My concern is elsewhere, with friends who have not run physical marathons, but who have recently endured relational, emotional, psychological, and spiritual seasons of strain.  It was a long winter, a long year, for many people I know.  They have run marathons too. Some are still running.  And some are limping.

Will they allow themselves to heal?

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is easier for us to recognize and respond to our physical injuries.  They are (generally) clear-cut, able to be diagnosed, and often respond to cause-and-effect treatment.  Also, they are rarely our fault, and therefore don’t carry the extra baggage of shame.

Relational, emotional, psychological and spiritual burdens seem far more complicated.  Messier.  And they build under the surface for a long time while we say things like, “Oh, life is just stressful.”  But sometimes this is what I wish we would say:

“I deserve a break now.  I just ran a marathon.”

****

I am sitting in a coffee shop as I type, and the May sunshine in streaming in.  It is a good season for healing.  And as I type, I wonder what that could look like for you and for me.   Perhaps we could call a friend, or a therapist.  Perhaps we could remember the silly artistic or athletic things that we like to do, and allow ourselves to play.  Perhaps we could walk in the woods, or get tickets for a concert, or buy a box of colored pencils, or sign up for a class, or clean our bedroom, or write a story or…

Whatever it is for you, may I make a suggestion?

Plan to heal.  When it happens, as it happens, it will be a gift, but it will not happen accidentally.  It will not happen quickly.  No one expects a twisted knee to be better in a week.  Expect your own rehabilitation to take some work, and some time.

And remember:  It’s worth it because you are worth it, and all the people who love you would agree.


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Waiting, the Most Annoying Way to Build Character

“You have to learn to wait.”

How many times have I said this to my children?  Life, after all, is full of waiting.  Waiting in line, waiting for your turn, waiting for something to be over, waiting for something to begin.  Life is full of waiting, and so we include it in the kid-life-curriculum.  Be patient, honey.  You have to learn to wait.

But… umm… grown-ups?  Have you got this lesson down?

*****

Part One:  Highland Ave.

The bridge is under construction.  The bridge, the main bridge, the one that connects the area of My House to the area of Places I Need to Go.  Last week, on Friday afternoon, I attempted to come home.  With tired children in the backseat, I tried the alternate route.  It was gridlocked for miles.  I had been out all afternoon.  So I tried the alternative to the alternate.  There was traffic on streets where traffic has never been before.

And there was nothing to do but sit in it.  And inch forward.  And wait.

So I waited.  “Mama, she hit me!”  “No I didn’t!”  “Yes, she did!”  “Arghargheeeee!”  I kept inching.

And waiting.

I was one mile from my house and it took me a half hour to get home.

And I did.  But…

Anyone who considers themselves a patient person should try out this situation.  Let me know how it goes for you.

*****

Part Two: Advanced Waiting

Several of my friends are in the final weeks of pregnancy.  As I think about and pray for them, I remember what it was like to have nothing to do but wait.  Well, nothing to do and everything to do.  There are preparations  of course, seemingly endless preparations.  But there is no direct correlation between the work of preparing and the timing of the baby’s arrival.

Fix up the nursery?  Don’t fix up the nursery?  Doesn’t matter–the baby won’t come one day earlier or one day later.  You just have to wait.  Take a long walk?  Well, it’s worth a try, but there are no guarantees.  Keep waiting.  Make plans to go away for the weekend before the baby’s due date?  Well, the average for first-time birth is a week and a day after the due date, but that’s just an average.  Better be ready.  Or not.

The life-changing event is coming, but no one knows when.

If you have to learn to wait,  the last weeks of pregnancy are like getting a doctorate.

*****

Part Three:  Waiting Well

Of course, traffic and pregnancy aren’t the only, um, opportunities to practice the skill of waiting.  We wait for the potential employer to set up the interview, and then we wait for the call.  We wait for the test results.  We wait for the house to close, for the right car to show up on Craig’s List, for the acceptance-or-rejection letter.  We wait to see how our careers will unfold or how our children will turn out.  We do what we can, but then…

The question is not ‘will we wait?’ but ‘how will we wait?’

And the problem with waiting is that it implies we are not completely in control.  Many of us do not like this one bit, and we equate waiting with being passive, and being passive with something like laziness or lack of ambition.  “I just need to work harder” we tell ourselves, “I can fix this.”  And if we can’t, like being stuck in $#@^&% traffic, our frustration with ourselves, with the situation, or with somebody-who-is-to-blame just grows and grows.

It can make us not very nice to be around.  Just ask my children.

There is a great freedom to be found in learning to wait well.  If waiting implies not being in control, then waiting well implies trust.  Like a frustrated child who looks into the eyes of a loving parent and thinks, “Okay, if she says that it’s almost my turn, it must be.  I’ll wait.”  Of course, this implies that the one running the universe is on our side, and even some of us who say we believe this get a little nervous sometimes.  The evidence, after all, is mixed.  Really beautiful and really bad things happen to us on a semi-regular basis.

If I wait, if I attempt to trust, how do I know that it will be okay?  I have no easy answer to this question.  However, I do have a good answer to this one:  If I work and worry myself into the ground, will it be okay?

Nope.