Thursday, August 25, 2016

Do Easy Things

I have the utmost respect for the “Do Hard Things” movement, and have even had the privilege of knowing both Alex and Brett Harris a little bit personally, and I admire them deeply.  I think “Do Hard Things” is a great slogan, and exactly what a lot of people need to hear—get off your ______ and get busy.  Take that risk.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Learn that new skill.  Sign up.  Show up.  Be there for other people.  Put your gifts to work.  Say “yes.”

But in all things there is balance, and for my personality, with my tendencies toward over-achieving and legalism, saying “yes” and doing hard things has never been that much of a struggle.  What has been a struggle is sometimes feeling like I’m on a hamster wheel where I always need to run faster, more and harder is always better, and choosing the easier route is somehow wrong.

Why order pizza if you can make your own?  Why pay for housecleaning if you can scrub your own toilets?  Why use disposable diapers if you can be greener and cheaper with cloth?

From someone who has cloth diapered, scrubbed toilets, and made a lot of homemade pizza, let me tell you—these are all great things to do.  But on days when these things, and many things like them, become an obligation, a burden, when you feel a sense of failure and dread and anxiety for not keeping up and doing enough, it is absolutely okay to order pizza, pay for housecleaning, use disposable diapers, take the easy route.

In fact, it is not just okay, it is better, if taking the easy route means you have more time and energy to do the more important things (what may be the truly hard things!), like build relationships, do what feeds your soul, prioritize your health, and sit on the deck watching the sunset.

This year as I planned home schooling, I got all excited about a “World Cultures” unit I wanted to do with my kids.  We were going to learn about all the countries of the world, snuggling up on the couch reading about different people in different places, and doing hands-on activities like coloring country flags, using a sticker atlas, making international food, and cutting out paper dolls with ethnic clothing.  I’m a cheap home school mom, but I spent upwards of $100 on curriculum for this unit.  I imagined my children growing up with a knowledge of world geography, an appreciation for other cultures, an awareness of their own first world wealth and privilege, and a compassion and respect for others.

In short, I was really enthusiastic about this.  Over the summer, I battled fatigue, depression, and chronic pain from Lyme disease.  At the same time as I started improving in late July/early August, we welcomed a foster daughter into our home.  And I have a one-year-old who seems crazy bent on destruction of himself and his surroundings at all times.

(Just this morning when I was having a good-mommy moment of doing phonics homework with the two girls, my baby silently dismembered a fortunately washable black marker and tried to eat it.  He looked like he befriended a particularly toxic lollipop.  Moments like this are typical.)

Cute, huh?

As I approached the home school year, I felt this growing sense of dread and overwhelm, as if I couldn’t do it and was doomed to failure.  Every time I thought about planning and beginning the school year, I just wanted to crawl in bed and quit.  Finally I recognized the problem—I didn’t see how to make the “World Cultures” unit work with everything else we have going on right now.

So I gave myself permission to postpone that project.  I’m still very excited about it, and I think it will be great for my kids, and all that curriculum is on the shelf waiting, but it will be even more age-appropriate and hopefully much more possible in a year or two than it is now.  In its place, I bought the audio of Story of the World Volume 1.

Because snuggling for an hour of uninterrupted reading followed by an hour of hands-on projects?  Not possible for me right now.  Turning on an audio CD for the older kids while I hold the 1YO with one arm and make lunch with the other?  Now that I can do.

Part of "do easy things" this school year is no complicated breakfasts.  Everything is made the night before, so in the morning all I need to do is put a pan in the oven.  This is the beginning of an egg casserole.

Ultimately “do easy things” shouldn’t be about taking the easy road in life, but instead it should be about having the discernment to know when to make the easy choice that will enable you to do the more important things.  Talking with my husband, I decided that my “big rocks” for this school year were home schooling our kids, fostering a little girl, and teaching part-time.

These are three big goals, and I would like very much to see all three happen successfully.  But in order to prioritize them, I need to make easy choices elsewhere, and to make those choices without guilt.

On Saturday I had great plans to make homemade pizza.  You know how in your mind’s eye you can create this idealized story that closely resembles a television commercial?  There I was, rolling out the pizza dough with the delighted help of two little girls.  Then everybody helped with toppings to make their pieces of pizza exactly as they wanted them.  What a great family bonding experience, culminating in a healthy dinner.

But then the day happened, and I ended up buying pizza at Costco.

Things like that have happened a lot lately.  When do you make the easy choice and when do you make the hard one?  It’s not always clear, which is why we need to pray every day for wisdom.

Jesus tells us His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  And you know what that means?  If your yoke is hard and your burden is heavy, maybe you need to walk a little closer with Jesus, ask Him how to lay it down at the cross, how to focus on what He wants you to do, and how to let the rest go.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Foster Care: and just like that, I have a fourth child

I’m beside the pool at my friend’s house when I get the call.  Standing there in my swimsuit, counting my kids over and over again to make sure I see happy heads above water, and I’m listening to a social worker vaguely describe a little girl who needs a safe home today, and are we interested?

My husband and I have gone back and forth all year as to whether or not we should be on the foster care call list at all, because of my health.  We’ve previously fostered three newborn boys, one of whom stayed with us until his first birthday and will forever be in my heart.  But all that was awhile back and since then we’ve pondered whether to do it again.

We would love to adopt a little girl at some point, and listening to the caseworker on the phone, I wondered: Is this our opportunity?  Or would this be way too much right now?

Long story short, we decided to give it a try and take it one day at a time, hopeful that it will become increasingly clear whether we should keep going or turn back.

That was only a week ago and we’ve had highs and lows since then.  Fostering a child is very different than fostering a baby.  In some ways this is easier—no containers of Similac.  No middle-of-the-night feedings.  No apnea monitors.  But in some ways, it’s a lot harder, as if we’re trying to build the first story of a house when we realize there is little to no foundation, and we need to somehow try to piece that in at the same time.

There was that moment when I said: “You need to obey,” and she said: “What does obey mean?” and I thought, O Lord, where do I begin?

There was that moment when we were saying family prayer at bedtime.  She had been very excited to contribute her prayer: “God is grace, God is good, thank you for this food amen” and then she decided to embellish it to add some sentences of her own.  She looked around the room: “Where is God?  How can He hear us?”

There have been so many moments when I see her desperate need for parenting, and I wonder if that is a need we can and should try to meet.  Moments when I realize she cannot do the alphabet puzzle, she has never heard of Goodnight Moon, and she is scared if I drop her off somewhere that I will never come back.

I can hope that we could make a forever difference in her life and that we could see redemption and healing.

But there have also been moments when I am so overwhelmed I can’t see to the next minute, and I wonder if this is way too much.  We’ve decided to put in several weeks and see if we can get to a good rhythm where we have a workable routine and can see that this is a healthy situation for everyone.  Beyond that, we don’t know.

I don’t like not knowing where and how this will go, but to me foster care has always been a lesson in uncertainty and vulnerability, in trying to do the best thing today and to leave the tomorrows to God.

Two books I’ve been reading lately have reminded me that love is not always easy.  Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full by Gloria Furman speaks to how love for children can be complicating to the life of a mother.  Love complicates things.  What used to be simple, easy, and straightforward in life is now crazy chaotically complicated.  That’s okay.  It’s part of loving someone.

A Loving Life by Paul Miller described love as sometimes trapping—that when we commit ourselves to love another person, there are times when we genuinely feel trapped.  We’ve given up an element of our freedom and autonomy to bind ourselves to someone else, and sometimes that honestly doesn’t feel good.

In context of their entire message, neither of these books are discouraging love by describing it as complicating and trapping.  They are being realistic.  To me, the honesty is refreshing.  I want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by living a life of love for other people.

But sometimes I envision that as meaning a life filled with warm fuzzies, romantic sunsets, good feelings, and happy sighs.  It’s true that all those are part of love, but the complicated, trapped feelings are, too.  Love is dying to yourself every day.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Chronic Pain Is a Hard Teacher: Six Months of Medical Weirdness

Sometimes I look back and remember January 22nd of this year in a weird “before and after” way.  That was the last day I had no pain.  I walked without thinking about it.  Like everyone in our area, I was fixated on the upcoming snow storm.  I had no idea what was about to hit my life when I would wake up the next morning with inexplicable pain in my foot.

Six months and more than six doctors later, several medical tests and lots of dollars later, I am still feeling my way along this weird journey.

For three months I couldn’t walk without a foot brace.  My pain was very public, and I got a lot of pitying looks and expressions of sympathy.  Something about a mom limping along with three little ones in tow gets a lot of “oh, poor you!” which to be honest was annoying at times and gratifying at others.

After three months my pain changed—my foot, though still tender, was well enough I put the foot brace away and haven’t worn it since.  At the same time my pain spread to my knee, upper leg, and hip.

These last three months have been particularly hard for me emotionally.  I have never experienced chronic pain before, and it’s hard to put into words.  On a scale of 1 to 10 it hovers around a 1, 2, or 3.  So it’s not agonizing, and I’m okay.  It’s always bearable, but it’s always there—like white noise in the background was how someone aptly described it.  Static on the radio but you can still make out the song.  An alarm beeping “pain, pain, pain” in my brain as the accompaniment to whatever else I am trying to do.  Without the foot brace, you can’t tell from looking at me that anything is wrong, but I feel that wrongness constantly inside me.

Chronic pain is sharpening in both good and bad ways.  I get tired more easily and I get short-tempered and sharp with people and need to go back and apologize.  But I feel as if chronic pain has sharpened my perspective, too—everything is a bit clearer and starker to me.  I don’t have all my former fears and insecurities; I’m not trying to come across like someone who has it all together; I’m not devastated by rejection; I don’t have time and energy for all of it so I’m trying to focus on the essentials.

I feel the loss of the identity I had—qualities I attributed to my personality that were actually just my privilege, qualities like being fit, being energetic, walking fast, working out, feeling great, being healthy.  Those used to define me, and they don’t anymore.  Instead of being my ambitious, bouncy, thirty-something self, I feel as if someone attached a ninety-year-old leg to my body, and I’m thinking things like, “Can we just sit down now?  Whoa, walking down this hill is rough!  Oh, my hip.”  Really? I tell myself.  Really?  This is you?

I am most depressed by the uncertainty—if someone could tell me for sure if and when I would feel better, I could handle that and work toward that goal.  The thought that I might live the rest of my earthly life in pain is wearying to me.  Other people assure me this will not be the case, but after plateauing for three months, I don’t feel that assurance; I just try to believe it.

The weirdness drives me crazy.  If you’ve been reading this blog post and thinking, “What is wrong with her?  What happened?  Did I miss something?”  Believe me, I’ve been asking those same questions, too, and I’ve been learning the hard way that even really good doctors can’t always give definitive answers and don’t have magical fixes. 

Anyone’s best guess is that all of this was caused by Lyme, since the other tests have all come back clear, but no one really knows.  Lyme is weird, and my symptoms are definitely weird.  Each day is different and unexpected—pain in different areas to different degrees at different times, in what appears to have no rational pattern or predictability.  I’m grateful that so many of my symptoms are objectively verifiable by others; otherwise I think I would be going insane.  How I will feel tomorrow is always uncertain.

Going through the credit card bill is never my favorite activity.  But this last month going through the bill I felt so discouraged by how expensive my health care has been.  Prescriptions, supplements, copays—it all adds up to figures I don’t want to be spending on my health; I want to be putting those toward my family and toward fun things.  I would feel better if I knew the things we were spending money on were working.  But I don’t.  We just try our best with the information we have.

So these are the circumstances I’m sitting in right now—and still having a hard time believing this is my life—what happened?  This is the frame I’m trying to put around the picture of Truth, the context I’m reading the Bible in.  I don’t know why God said yes to allowing this in my life, but I do know it is chiseling away at who I am and giving me a harsh reality in which to see and apply truth.

A friend encouraged me to read Romans 5:3-5:

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Then I wrote my own paraphrase:

“I rejoice in my Lyme—the pain, the uncertainty, the weirdness, the expense—because I know this is producing in me the ability to last through difficulty without quitting—I know that this staying power is molding my character—and that character is helping me hope.  I am not going to be ashamed or disappointed.  The Holy Spirit is the pitcher given to me, pouring God’s love into my heart.”

I’m not going to minimize how it feels to push yourself through the motions of caring for your children when your body is screaming “no”—how dark physical depression can be when you stare blankly at a Bible verse about hope and wonder why it’s not registering—when all you can think is “How long, O Lord?  Will You forget me forever?”

If Truth isn’t true in the middle of pain, it is never true.  Sometimes we have to walk through the dark to test what we really believe.  What does it feel like for God’s love to be poured into your heart on the day of unanswered prayers?