Long Days and Short Years

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


4 Comments

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.


1 Comment

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.


15 Comments

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.  


2 Comments

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.


2 Comments

Questions from the Air

On Monday I was annoyed, but on Saturday; heartbroken.

On Monday, our flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh was delayed, canceled, and rescheduled for the next morning. The airline cited ‘weather’ as the reason, but frustrated passengers muttered ‘sequester’ and ‘furloughed air traffic controllers’ as we found places to stay for an extra night.  My husband and I crashed on our (angelic) friends’ air mattress and returned the next day.

All last week travelers endured similar delays.  Why?  When my daughter asked me why we had returned a day late, I explained, “There just weren’t enough people working who could watch our plane in the sky.”  “Why, mama?”  “There isn’t the money to pay them honey.”  “Why, mama?”  “Uh… umm… the grown-ups are still trying to figure that out.”

By Friday, the grown-ups figured it out.  Our collective airport frustrations reached the ears of legislators who, through an almost unimaginable act of bipartisanship, fixed the problem swiftly.

Now you ask, why is that heartbreaking?

****

I first heard the news over the radio.  Saturday morning, coffee in hand.  No more excessive airport delays.  Great.  I won’t be flying anytime soon, but I do not wish extra annoyance on business travelers, parents traveling with small children, or anyone else.

However.

As a part of the report, a question came over the airwaves, right to me and my coffee cup.  But what about the cuts to programs like Headstart and Meals on Wheels?  Why has the loudest cry come from the airport lounges?  

Now, before I continue, I would like to say that, yes I know that airline delays have financial consequences.  Yes, I know that ‘entitlement programs’ carry more baggage than you could check under a plane.  Yes I know, it’s all very complicated.

Here’s something else I know:  I cared much more about my delayed flight than I do about cuts to Meals on Wheels.

It is difficult to care passionately about things that don’t affect me personally.

And given the legislative events of the past week, I don’t think that I’m the only one.


2 Comments

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.


5 Comments

Why Winter is Worth It

I have been around my Los Angeles-born husband long enough to know how the conversation will go.

*****

Person (meeting my husband for the first time):  Where are you from?

Husband:  Well, I’m originally from Los Angeles, but I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for ten years now.

Person (inevitably shocked):  Wow.  Why in the world did you move here?

*****

As the conversation continues my husband will explain what brought him here (a professional fellowship) and why he decided to stay (a variety of reasons related to work, church, cost of living, and a really attractive wife).  But I never get the sense that he convinces them, especially if the conversation happens to take place, say, in early March.  “But… but… but…” they protest, always with different phrases, but 90% of their arguments boil down to the same two grievances.

Winter.  And clouds.

“Why would you move here from there?” (said in the same tone that you would use to ask someone why they decided to rent a U-haul in Heaven in order to descend to Hades) really means “Why would you move from warm to cold?  Why would you move from sunny to cloudy?  Why would you choose to endure winter if you didn’t have to?”

There are so many answers to these questions.  My husband and I (believe it or not) love living in Pittsburgh.  The low cost of living has allowed us freedoms unheard of in other urban areas, we are surrounded by people who inspire us, and my husband can wear his favorite flannel shirts much more often.  But there are two other reasons worth noting.

Winter.   And clouds.

There seems to be a rumor that happiness is composed of warmth and sunshine.  You can take this literally or metaphorically–given a choice wouldn’t most of us choose an easy, problem-free existence?  Who wouldn’t want to just lie around on a warm beach, and hire someone else to deal with our finances, responsibilities and hardships?  Who wouldn’t want (and this is a caricature of LA) 80 degrees and sunny, 350 days a year?

Me.  I wouldn’t want it.  And here is why. Pittsburghers are really, really happy in April.  Go to a park on the first warm weekend and watch the people walking their dogs.  Look at the weary parents smile as their children climb the playgrounds.  Heck, go downtown at lunchtime and watch people in suits fight (very politely) for the sunny park benches.  There is a lightness around here in the spring, a sense of we-survived-another-one.  There is a savoring, a satisfaction, even some pride.  And there is annual amazement (and not just from the children) as the crocuses peek through the snow and the trees begin to show the faintest hint of green buds.

Look at that.  The trees weren’t dead after all.  Spring has come again.

*****

I’m becoming more and more convinced that seasons, real or metaphorical, bring substance and depth to our lives.  The ability to appreciate the sunshine or be grateful for rest are gifts in themselves.  People in seasonal climates certainly don’t have a corner on this (and really, there are seasons everywhere, even in Southern California), but every year we have the tangible reminder that winter can be worth it.

Worth it.  Absolutely.  Because every single winter is followed by a brand-new spring.