Friday, November 21, 2014

Songs of My Story



I love getting truth in books or in sermons, but there is something especially meaningful to me about getting truth in songs.  I believe our response to God should involve our whole being—not just our mind understanding and affirming, but our emotions participating.  Nothing helps me with that more powerfully than songs.

Somehow a song is a way of bringing truth into life, of saying, “This is not only true, but I believe it, right here and now, even in this.”  With a book or a sermon, I can be passive, listening, holding something at arm’s length, accepting or rejecting, but with songs, I’m invited to join in and sing along and really make the truth my own.

Songs become especially meaningful when they become a part of my story—when in some season of life, a particular song becomes the cry of my heart, and whenever I hear it afterward, it reminds me of how I struggled and of how God was faithful at a particular point in time.  I love hearing from others how songs have become part of their stories as well.

Casting Crown’s “Praise You In This Storm” became my heart cry when for three months I waited for the resolution of a difficult situation I could not control.  On difficult days, my mind would get stuck on repeat just on the first few lines:

“I was sure by now
God You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day….”

I could hardly move past those lines because each day, I was sure that God would have come through for me by that time, but He hadn’t, and I was still waiting and crying without answers.  That song gave me words of lament and helped strengthen my faith.

During the same season, I really liked Chris Tomlin’s “I Lift My Hands.”  The line “I lift my hands to believe again” became my way of confessing, “My faith has faltered.  In moments of difficulty I didn’t really believe this.  Now I’m affirming again that I do.”

At a time when I felt falsely accused, one of my favorite songs was also by Chris Tomlin, “Whom Shall I Fear.”

“I know who goes before me
I know who stands behind
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side….”

Maybe I like songs so much because I can play them while I wash dishes, clean the house, drive in the car.  They can become a part of my life all week long, during the moments when I am fighting to believe.  When I have woken up on dark mornings and stand in front of the kitchen sink wondering how to go on, songs can bring me hope.

Sidewalk Prophets became another recent favorite of mine.  Their song “You Can Have Me” seemed like it was written just for me as we were loving and losing our foster baby.

“If You're all You claim to be
Then I'm not losing anything
So I will crawl upon my knees
Just to know the joy of suffering

I will love You enough to let go
Lord, I give you my life
I give you my life….


“When did love become unmoving?
When did love become unconsuming?
Forgetting what the world has told me
Father of love, You can have me
You can have me.”

The world was telling me I was crazy to foster and get attached and lose—who would sign up for that pain?  It wouldn’t have hurt so much if love could have been unmoving or unconsuming in my life.  But if Jesus was all He claimed to be, my loss was going to become gain.  I listened to that song over and over and over again. 

During that dark season another one of my favorites was Jeremy Camp’s “There Will Be a Day.”  I really started to hope in heaven more, especially as it became clear that my perfectly happy ending was not going to happen here on earth.

Recently when we felt at a crossroads trying to make a decision, I listened a lot to Sidewalk Prophets “Would You Help Me Find It.”  It perfectly captured my heart question: should we wait and be still, or should we walk forward, and if so, which road?

“If there’s a road I should walk
Help me find it
If I need to be still
Give me peace for the moment
Whatever Your will
Whatever Your will
Can you help me find it?”

Right now my favorite song is Big Daddy Weave’s “Overwhelmed.”  I hope it’s not annoying my family that I literally listen to it every single day.  I love that when I type “overwhelmed” into my google search, that music video is what comes up.  I have been feeling so overwhelmed lately—overwhelmed by my circumstances and relationships, overwhelmed by my weakness and inadequacy.  This song reminds me to be overwhelmed mostly by the Lord.  I find my mind getting stuck again and singing on repeat, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed:

“I delight myself in You
In the Glory of Your Presence
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You.

“God, I run into Your arms
Unashamed because of mercy
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You.”

I love hearing from friends about songs that have become part of their story.  One friend of mine shared that she listened to Josh Wilson’s “Before the Morning” on her way home from the funeral of her baby son.

“So hold on, you got to wait for the light
Press on, just fight the good fight
Because the pain that you've been feeling,
It's just the dark before the morning.

“My friend, you know how this all ends
And you know where you're going,
You just don't know how you get there
So say a prayer.
And hold on, cause there's good for those who love God,
Life is not a snapshot, it might take a little time,
But you'll see the bigger picture.”

Wow.  Can you imagine singing along with that as you mourn the death of a loved one?  Now I think of my friend and her faith whenever I hear that song play.

Another friend shared with me that Hillsong’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” became a meaningful song to her while her son battled brain cancer.

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand.

“And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves….”

Can you imagine singing that as your son fights for his life?  I was so encouraged by my friend’s faith and how she believed in God and proclaimed Him even during such a crisis.  Hearing this song always makes me think of her and her family.

This is what I love about songs—they help us incarnate truth, making it more than just an abstract idea, but something we are actually singing and believing in the middle of trials.  I think this is our most powerful testimony to the world—not arguments and propositions, but lives lived well that affirm the truth and cling to it even in deep grief, or confusion, or just the crazy overwhelmed mundane feelings of life.

Maybe this is why the Bible talks so much about singing to the Lord a new song.  I’d love to hear from others what songs have been meaningful to you and when and why.  And if you don’t have any meaningful songs yet, start singing!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Parenting: Does It Have to Be THAT Hard?



Parenting is hard.  It is certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It means being on call 24/7 for 18+ years.  It means your body changing into some very strange sizes.  It means your patience being stretched like you never thought it would be.  It means risking the grief of losing a child, or mourning a child’s bad choice.  It means your clothes stained with sour milk, pee, diarrhea, vomit, and boogers.  From a Christian perspective, it means dying to yourself every single day.


Anyone who says parenting is easy and everything will turn out fine if you just follow this simple formula is deluded.

But sometimes when I talk with an overwhelmed mom, or read an article online like this recent one, emphasizing the all-consuming craziness of parenting—“10 Reasons You Don’t Want to Be My Friend Now That I Have Kids”—I can’t help but wonder if we’re making parenting harder than it needs to be.  Of course we find these somewhat tongue-in-cheek articles humorous because they remind us of our own overwhelming moments. 

But is that what the normal parenting experience should really be like?  Is it any wonder if someone reads an article like that and shudders at the idea of ever having children?  Does parenting really have to be THAT hard?

My hardest parenting season was when I had three kids, ages 4, 1, and a baby, and I knew I was soon to lose the baby.  That season challenged me more than any other, and also taught me some important survival skills about how to make a very hard job a little easier.  So when I read an article about the craziness of parenting, or hear a quote like, “Now that I have kids I hardly have time to shower!”  I think, “Yes, sometimes it’s crazy, but it doesn’t have to be THAT crazy.  There’s things you can do to make it easier.”

So I made a list of things that make my parenting life easier:

Sleep

Make good sleep a top priority for you and your kids.  Obviously with a newborn baby it takes awhile to get there.  I’m not advocating unrealistic sleep expectations and especially not harsh sleep training.  I am advocating making it a top priority to work toward you and your children having healthy sleep hours.

Have a bedtime, a wake time, and a nap time (for your kids and for you!).  When your children outgrow naps, train them to have a quiet time, when they can watch a movie, listen to an audio book, or play quietly with toys.  This gives you a breather every day when you can take your own power nap, enjoy your quiet, and regain your sanity.

Don’t stay up too late after your kids go to bed.  Try to get close to eight hours of sleep, even if that sleep is in pieces.  Wake up before them if possible so that when they wake up, you’re ready.  Or give your early riser kids a quiet time so you can have your own before the day begins.

Routine and Rules

Strict schedules may be impossible with small children, but having a routine and a rhythm to your life is healthy.  Children want to know what to expect.  Have an order to your morning, an order to your entire day if you can, a naptime and bedtime ritual, and a rhythm to your week of how often you go out and when.  (And with small children, don’t go out too much.  Staying home is easier.  Is it really necessary to attempt the grocery store with all the little ones in tow, or can that wait till the weekend?)

Rules are closely related to routine—let your child know what to expect.  One of our rules is “whatever you have a tantrum about, you lose.”  If you tantrum because you want ice cream, you have definitely lost the privilege of ice cream.  This doesn’t eliminate tantrums of course, but it does give clear consequences and boundaries that minimize problems and help things run more smoothly.

Adjust your routine and your rules as you need to in seasons of change, but throw it out altogether and chances are your kids will be screaming and you’ll feel like joining them.

 Health

Prioritize eating healthy for both you and your kids, not out of guilt or legalism that you need to do everything a certain way, but simply a desire to make your life and your kids’ lives easier and better.  The time you spend cooking healthy, or researching vitamins, essential oils, etc., will be worth it for the difference it makes.

Of course a lot is out of our control.  Everyone has bouts of coughing, fevers, vomiting, and some far worse health crises no matter how careful we may be to avoid them. 

But there is a lot we can do as parents to minimize sickness in our kids.  The constipated child is grouchy.  The feverish one may keep you up all night and then refuse to nap.  Work to minimize the sickness, and you can minimize some of the most stressful moments of parenting.

Independence

Train your kids for independence.  If they are physically capable of something, teach them to do it by themselves.  This helps them develop as people, and means one less thing you need to do.

This is a example conversation with my 5YO as I’m making dinner in the kitchen:
Him: “I’m thirsty.”
Me: “Help yourself to some water.”
Him: “What?!”
Me: “There are cups on the shelf.”
Him: “But I can’t reach the faucet.”
Me: “Get a stool.”

I would rather spend time showing my son I care by doing quality 1-on-1 activities, like reading a book or playing a game, than by scurrying around acting like I’m the slave and he’s the prince.

Take the time to teach your children to buckle their own seat belts, clear their own plates, put on their own shoes.  Teach them to solve some of their own problems instead of expecting you to.

Emotions

When my firstborn was colicky, I felt like panicking.  “What am I doing wrong?  Why isn’t he happy?  I wish he could tell me!  I wish I could help him!  Why won’t he just SHUT UP so I can sleep?  Wait, was I just angry at my baby?  Where did that come from?  I can’t believe I was angry!  I’m such a horrible mother!” etc.

Then when he was three and going through a stage of almost daily tantrums, I felt myself in a similar meltdown of frustration with him and myself.  I’ve needed to learn not to let my kids control my emotions.  It’s a learned and practiced skill to be able to remain calm when your circumstances are crazy.  When you can be calm yourself, you have a lot better chance of calming your kids.

Am I going to be angry when my daughter spills water, or am I going to hand her a towel and instruct her how to clean it up?  Am I going to be frustrated when my son starts a tantrum, or am I going to give him a time-out and talk reasonably with him when he’s ready?  Am I going to stress when the baby has a blow-out, or am I going to get the wipes and do the obvious?

Just because my kids may be crazy doesn’t mean I need to be crazy.

Remember “This Too Shall Pass”

The season of having small children, when compared to the rest of your life, is a short season.  Even if you want a large family, the years you will spend with small children are still only one season among several in your life.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with first trimester morning sickness, newborn diapers, the 4-month-old who stopped sleeping, the 2-year-old potty-training, the 3-year-old tantruming—and we forget we are in a short season.  The challenge that filled our perspective one month may be gone the next.

We need to zoom out as parents and remember: “This Too Shall Pass.”  Newborn weeks are hard, but they are a matter of weeks.  They pass so quickly.  In those weeks, as in all parenting stages, there is so much to treasure and be grateful for before it’s gone.

You Are More than Mom

Being a mom is a wonderful job.  What it lacks in pay it more than makes up for in meaning.  I really am grateful to be a mom, despite how hard it can be.  But I am not just a mom.  I can’t find my identity in my kids.  If I do, I’ll be sunk when I’m an empty-nester, and I’ll probably be frustrated a long time before that, when my kids who are my life aren’t exactly fulfilling me how I expected they would.

Being a mom is one of my callings.  I am also a wife.  I am a friend.  I am a daughter and sister.  I am a teacher.  I am a foster parent.  I am a writer.  Primarily I believe I am a disciple of Christ—that’s where my identity comes from even if I would lose all else.

No matter how hard parenting is at any particular season, I don’t want to let it consume my soul.  Maybe that means when it’s really crazy, I need to ask my husband or a baby-sitter or friend to watch the kids for a couple hours so I can get out.  I have always been grateful to have a part-time job, so though I’m essentially a SAHM, there are three hours a week when I do something else.  And I like to get together with a friend for coffee and not bring the kids along and talk about something other than kids.  I need that perspective.

So parenting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be THAT hard.  There are moments and sometimes even weeks or months of crazy, but it’s not always crazy, and even when it is, I can be calm.  I may wear sweat pants sporting cereal crumbs on both knees, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change into something else when I go out.  I may think about breast pumps and sippy cups and potty training, but I think about a lot of other things, too.  I may not be able to answer the phone when you call, but I can get together with you next week.  I’m doing the hardest job of my life, but it doesn’t completely define me.  It’s hard, but it’s not that hard.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September



This is the first week that finally feels like fall.  The mornings are cool and crisp and I take a blanket out with me when I have my quiet time on the patio in the morning.  My potted mum from Costco blooms on the deck right beside my Chaco sandals, covered with wet grass from when I went out earlier with the kids to blow bubbles and stomp rockets and pull up a few random weeds.

I can’t shake the feeling of someone standing up after a bad fall, gingerly touching their bruises, and then looking around perplexed at where they are and how they got there.  On the surface I felt content, settling into a happy and comfortable fall rhythm, but beneath flows an undercurrent of feeling hurt and displaced.

When our foster baby left in early July, it came as no surprise.  I had grieved and feared his leaving for months, and when he did leave, it was such a gradual shift that in some ways it wasn’t as horrible as I had expected.  It was so anticlimactic it would have made a terrible movie.  I packed up the clothes in his dresser and sent those away one day.  Another day I boxed his toys.  Eventually I emptied our kitchen cupboards of baby food jars and Similac cans.  I did all those things and I kept breathing and we kept seeing him for visits.  Only last week we put his car seat and high chair in storage—easily accessible, but not always visible.

But when he left in early July, I feel like I entered some kind of free fall.  The weeks after he left were filled, rather incongruously, with fun.  Late July and early August were the most fun part of our year.  We went boating with my family on Lake Anna, twice, lazy days of wading on the shore, relaxing in the shade, yelling “faster!” as the inflatable raft skimmed along behind the boat.

 
We went camping, also with my family, and we played mini golf and Laser tag, and went swimming every day twice a day, then down the water slide, on the hay ride, to the flag raising and the craft times, and then at night around the campfire to roast hot dogs and marshmallows and fall asleep in our primitive cabin.

In the little time we were home, the kids had daily swim lessons beside one of the best playgrounds in the area, so every morning we would meet our friends there, first enjoy the swings and slides before it got too hot, then swim and eat our lunch on the way home, rest, and wake up the next morning to do it all again.


We went to a pony farm, and the kids rode ponies and fed the animals and played with friends.  We went to Chick-Fil-A Cow Appreciation Day, which is basically like a summer holiday for the kids, to dress up like cows and enjoy free food and play in the play area about as long as they like.  We went to the county fair and admired the crafts and saw the animals.  The kids each selected one ride, then David watched a little of the tractor pull, and on our way out we found a building just for kids with balloons and crafts and toys.


We drove to South Carolina to visit Ben’s family and managed to have a wonderful week despite Elanor getting rotavirus.  We visited the zoo and the kids ran around looking at the animals, especially the pink flamingos and the elephants spraying themselves with mud.  We read stories and watched movies and ate delicious food.  We went to the lake and waded and swam and had a picnic in the shelter.  We went to a museum with a delightful dinosaur exhibit that the kids wanted to walk through twice.


Our summer was just like Shauna Niequist’s description in her book Bittersweet:

“The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.

“Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy....

“This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all along….”

Our summer was bittersweet.  Sometimes I wondered if it was even healthy to be doing so many fun things right after we lost our baby.  But I really think it was.  We needed to celebrate the family we still had.  We needed something to cushion those weeks.  Was I trying to escape the grief?  I hope not.  Our vacations naturally fell at that point in time, and our kids really needed to do something fun.  Grief went with us wherever we went, but so did joy—it was bittersweet.

I felt like I was in free fall until August when we were through with our adventures and I landed.  I was home, with two kids, and even though it was mid August, it was the beginning of fall because school was starting and every week one more thing fell into place to fill our new rhythm.

I realized I had no idea how to mother just two kids at home.  I could do school with David well enough, but Elanor walked around the house simply lost, looking for a playmate and someone to mother and scold and love.  The floors stayed remarkably clean.  Mealtimes only took half as long and were half as noisy.  I would sort laundry into baskets and think, “That’s all there is?”  Everywhere, in everything, we felt the absence of noise, of mess, of happiness, of chaos, and now just the quiet routine of what was left.

On the surface we looked once again like the ideal family size—one boy, one girl, well spaced—but that didn’t account for what felt like a gaping emptiness we took with us wherever we went.  At Costco Elanor used to ride with him in the cart, and she didn’t want to be alone, so now her dolly Jenna flopped beside her, which needless to say was not the same.  The normal question, “How many kids do you have?” became hard to answer.  Sometimes I say two and sometimes I say three.  Foster care makes life so complicated.  Legally I have two.  I birthed two.  I love three.  I cared for three.  I pray for three and hold three in my heart.  I totally know how to do three.  Two feels weird.

David got an “About Me” worksheet to complete, and the family space asked for the number of his brothers and sisters.  I held my breath a little, giving him no prompting and wondering what he would do.  He said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll put zero in the brothers space because I don’t have any brothers!  I have one sister, though!”

I walked over to the kitchen sink and remembered in the spring when one of his teachers first met our foster baby and asked, “Is this your brother?” and I said, “Kind of, he’s our foster baby” and David surprised everybody by shouting, “Yes!  He is my brother!  And when he leaves, I’m leaving, too!”

And I think about that zero on that worksheet and I think, he is healing, and this is good.  Elanor is healing, too.  She asks about him several times a day, but she asks happily like he is a good friend who will soon come to visit.

Last week when he was here, crawling crazily around looking for what he could destroy in the dining room, I was sitting at the table, and it hit me—we did have a choice with him.  We never had the option of adopting him, and if we had, we would have in a heartbeat, but he did come with a choice.  We could have said no, or we could have said yes for a year.  And I am so, so glad we said yes for a year.  Investing in his life is one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done.

Now we are ready and waiting for another baby.  Two calls have turned out to be false alarms.  In the meantime I am busy—busy as two kids, a part-time job, and a church community can make you, meaning I am busy but not as much as I was last year this time.  I feel that emptiness, and I’m wanting to meet the Lord in it, and to wait for whatever, whoever, comes next.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

You Can’t Argue with Experience: Talking past Each Other on Facebook



I love how Facebook helps me connect with people, share ideas and questions, and read interesting posts online.  But I’m increasingly hating all the Facebook drama.  I just don’t think Facebook is the best place to have a truly meaningful conversation.  And I’m tired of complete strangers arguing with surprising bitterness through comment threads—not just on Facebook of course, but blogs, too.  Even Robin Williams’s recent suicide has become the context for people tearing into each other online.

What is wrong with us?  Why are we talking past each other so much?  So many times we’re not really listening or understanding, just taking a sentence from someone we hardly know, if at all, and jumping all over it.

I think one of the reasons is that we are unknowingly trying to argue with someone’s experience—with beliefs they hold not just in their mind, but way deep down in their gut because of what they have been through.  No argument is going to sway them, but it will call forth a maybe surprisingly emotional reaction.

For instance, in my teen years I was exposed to the patriarchal fringe of the Christian home school movement, and if you don’t know what patriarchy is, I’m so happy for you.  Because of that exposure, and the frustrations and resentments I felt as a teenager, I’m opposed to patriarchy not just in my mind but deep down in my gut.  Whenever I see a post about it, or comment about it, what I’m thinking is flowing from my memories.  You are never going to argue me into thinking something else.

But if you don’t know me well, you don’t know that.  You just see my two-sentence comment, and then someone else responds, and someone else responds, and we have no idea where people are really coming from, but we fight it out anyway.

Another example: through our recent work in foster care, I care a lot more about substance-exposed infants, homelessness, racism, drug use, child abuse, abortion, poverty, the list goes on.  I hope my thinking on these issues is researched and logical, but beyond that, my response to them is honestly emotional, at times almost visceral.  My beliefs about these things come from way deep down because of a baby I love.

I don’t think it’s weakness for our emotions to get involved with our convictions.  God created us as emotional beings, and that’s a good thing.  We should have logical arguments we’ve carefully researched and worked through, and if we attach a lot of emotion to the conclusion, so be it.  That emotion springs from memories and experiences that make us who we are.

But online, you don’t fully share those memories and experiences.  Sometimes we just lack the space; sometimes those things are confidential or too personal or vulnerable to share online.  Our conversations are necessarily incomplete, and they can turn really nasty.

I remember reading a blog post written by someone who seemed to have a fair bit of animosity toward HSLDA.  I don’t always agree with HSLDA’s positions myself, but I was curious about this person’s background, so I clicked on the “about” line on her blog.  I learned that for her, the label of “home schooling” had meant a childhood of abuse and academic neglect, and that one day while hiding under a table with her sister, she had promised that when she got older she would fight to make sure this didn’t happen to other children.

You can’t argue with that experience.  I’m not saying there’s never any such thing as true and false, because of course there is.  I happen to think home schooling is a good educational option that parents should be free to choose, and right now I’m choosing it.  But, if I’m going to argue with this author online about whether academic neglect is really a problem in home schooling circles, I am never going to change her mind and I shouldn’t try.  She’s experienced it.  She knows it can be a problem.  If we stop arguing, maybe our experiences can enlighten each other.

We are all wounded, and I don’t say that condescendingly, it’s just that we’re all hurt through life.  And we all have our own dreams and desires.  What we say has a backstory.

So maybe before we attack someone online, we should pause and think, “What are this person’s goals and dreams in life?  What were their parents like?  What was their childhood like?  How have they been hurt?  Why is this issue so important to them?”

That’s why I wish sometimes we lived in a time period where if you wanted to have a conversation with someone, it had to be over the dinner table.  As you’re serving the soup and passing the butter for the bread, you could ask someone these questions and find out where they’re coming from and why.  You might disagree, but hopefully you could talk about it without the silverware becoming offensive weapons.


Of course there are people you couldn’t have as dinner guests because it would be a dangerous or at least unhealthy violation of boundaries.  I get that.  But I think having some dinner guests could be mutually beneficial.  Maybe as your lesbian friend is helping clear the table, you might still hold your prior convictions about homosexual activity, but the LGBT movement would now have a face and a name attached to it, and you would have more sympathy and understanding.

Maybe you could actually ask someone in person, “When you made that statement about suicide, did you really mean it like it sounded?  Have you ever experienced mental illness?  Can I tell you my story?”

Maybe you would learn why your friend is so opposed to vaccinations—or so committed to them.

Maybe you would figure out why someone is so cynical about politics or law or journalism—or so excited about it.

Maybe you would find out why your friend loves or hates home schooling or courtship or church attendance or mission work or fill in the blank.

Maybe we wouldn’t even change our minds through the conversation, but we could change our tone and broaden our view.

I know of course having everyone over for dinner is impossible, but at least we can bring that mentality to our online conversations.  This is another human being with hopes and dreams and hurts and backstory.  Let’s be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to wrath.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Foster Care: Broken Pieces, Beautiful Story



In blogging about my grief, I face two challenges.  One, I need to be careful of the confidentiality foster care requires.  And two, I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to my particular sadness.  We all have lost, or will lose, and there is no reason why anybody should be focusing on my specific pain.

I write primarily because it helps me process and it helps me heal, something I desperately need right now.  That means if no one reads this very long and piecemeal post, it will still have accomplished its purpose.

If you do read it, my hope is that it will help you to have greater awareness of what it means to be a foster parent, or really to engage in any ministry where someone suffers loss, so that you can give greater support and sympathy to those you know in the thick of it, and even consider pursuing a similar calling yourself.

* * *

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
~ Psalm 34:18

* * *

I remember last summer when he first entered our home.  It was nearing 10:00 at night.  We had only a couple hours’ notice.  Incredibly tiny, he lay asleep in his carseat.  We signed the papers and the social worker left, and we watched him lying there, still sleeping.

Elanor unfortunately was not sleeping.  At 13 months she was going through a stage of sleep trouble, and she joined Ben for a late-night trip to the grocery store to buy formula and diapers, since he had arrived with very little.  The baby slept on, so after Elanor fell asleep, we went to bed ourselves, only to be wakened in a couple hours to give him our first bottle.

In the morning, David stumbled sleepy out of his room and did a double-take.  Ben sat on the couch bottle-feeding a baby that had appeared out of nowhere, while I was busy preparing breakfast.  Soon after the phone calls and appointments and visits started.  It was our new normal.

* * *

“If You’re all You claim to be,
Then I’m not losing anything.
So I will crawl upon my knees,
Just to know the joy of suffering.
I will love You enough to let go.
Lord, I give you my life;
I give you my life.

“When did love become unmoving?
When did love become unconsuming?
Forgetting what the world has told me,
Father of love, You can have me.
You can have me.”

~ Sidewalk Prophets

* * *

I remember learning that I would probably lose him.  It was early December in the late afternoon, an unusually warm day, so I was at the playground with my children.  I was standing in the playground parking lot when I found out.

I kept breathing in and out while my children played.  We walked home.  I told Ben.  He was about to leave for a church event and the kids needed dinner and we couldn’t process it right then.  We talked about it more later and fell asleep feeling numb.

Was it the next morning or a few mornings later that it snowed?  I looked out at the falling snow already drifting on the ground.  I had woken up in tears and it kept snowing and I kept crying.

* * *

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

* * *

I’m going to call him Little Mister now, because he’s not really our foster baby anymore.  He’s hardly a baby anymore.  And I want to make space for another foster baby to come into our family.  Little Mister is one of our nicknames for him.  As is Buster Boo, but that one really makes no sense.

To be honest, it drives me crazy that I can’t write his name online or post pictures.  I totally get why that is not allowed in foster care.  My mind gets it.  The writer in my heart wants to write his name because it is one of my favorite names now.  It is so beautiful that I wish you knew it.  And I won’t even get into what you are missing not seeing his picture.  He only has one of the best smiles in the world.

* * *

I only miss you when I'm breathing
~ Jason DeRulo, Breathing

I don’t like the lyrics of the rest of the song since I think it represents an ultimately unhealthy response to grief.  But those haunting lines I love.  Yes, that is true.  I only miss him when I am breathing.  I only feel that absence, that hole dug out of my heart, all. the. time.

* * *

I remember weaning David at 12 months, and Elanor, at 20 months.  Each time I felt like it should be an important event, but it wasn’t really.  It just slipped by.

When they were born, I was breastfeeding around the clock, probably for a total of eight hours a day or more.  It defined my life, those hours in the rocking chair where I could finish a book in a day and bond more deeply with my baby than I had thought imaginable.  Most times I loved it; occasionally I didn’t.  I wish I had known how truly short-term it would be.

Because life changed.  Soon it was taking me a week to get through a book, since they were nursing faster and less frequently.  Then they were eating solid foods.  They were crawling.  We nursed twice a day.  Once a day.  Every other day.  Hardly at all.  One day we stopped and though I felt it, they hardly noticed.

It was like that, losing Little Mister.  I wanted a gradual transition, and that was what I got, thankfully, though at times I felt it was killing me.  The transition took a few months, all spring and into summer.

At first he was gone for 24 hours.  I packed his bags.  I worried all day before he left.  I felt achingly empty with him gone.  But any mother can handle 24 hours away from her baby, and I got used to it.

And then a weekend.  Then a long weekend.  Suddenly I am his daycare, all day, Monday through Friday.  We are all getting used to this, and the gradualness is healthy for him and for David and Elanor.  We start talking about him like he is a friend who sometimes comes for a visit.  How nice that we get to see him tomorrow!  Like a frog in water that is gradually heating up, they hardly notice what is happening.  That he is about to leave.

* * *

 “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”
~ Psalm 42:5

* * *

I remember the day he left.  In a way it was such a normal day.  I had Bible study that night, and the next day we were going on a boat trip.  David and Elanor were all excited about the boat trip.

I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we saw him, that we would have a visit again next week.

I also knew as the afternoon wore on, I felt physically ill.  I was busy.  Taking care of three little ones is always busy, and I was trying to pack up his toys to send with him, and I couldn’t find one of the pieces to his boat.  I still can’t find it, and it bothers me.

David trailed him down the stairs to the door as he left.  “Do you know he can say a few words now?  He can say my name!  Goodbye, Little Mister!”

* * *

“There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears.
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more;
We’ll see Jesus face to face.”
~ Jeremy Camp

* * *

I knew David would have a hard time with his leaving, but I wasn’t counting on Elanor’s response.  For a year she had been the middle child, with a real-life doll to bottle-feed and play with and otherwise mother.  Now she is the baby again.

She keeps crawling around the house.  She found a bottle the other day and started sucking on it.  She even tried to get into the stuff beneath my desk, like he always did. 

She talks about him several times a day.  The other night she was crying in bed, “Little Mister leaved!”

“I know,” I say.  “But we’ll see him in a few days.”  We are counting down those days.

* * *

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”
~ Psalm 40:2-3

* * *

I remember picking him up for a visit the first time, a week after he left our home.  We found the place, parked the van, and all went inside.  David and Elanor were curious and ecstatic.  What is this place like?  Where is he?

He was sitting in a highchair, eating banana.  When he saw me, he started to cry.  I know his cry, and it was an angry cry.  I don’t know why he was angry.  Was it that they took away his banana to pack him up?  Was it that he hadn’t seen me in a week?  It was like his cry was yelling, “Where have you been?!”

He kept looking at me and crying while they wiped him up, and cried until they handed him to me.  I was briefly in tears, and David and Elanor were smothering him with hugs.  The people there watched, obviously a bit surprised by the show.

“How long did you have him?  Since a newborn?  I could never do foster care, it would be so hard!  At least you can visit him!”

We planned to take him swimming, but he did not want to splash in the water.  He would rather keep his arms around my neck.  I didn’t mind a bit.

* * *

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….”
~ Isaiah 53:4

* * *

Stepping into the foster care world introduced me to a new level of hurt.

I’ve learned that though my specific situation may be unusual, my loss is in no way unique.  Maybe this sounds weird, but I feel at times like I have joined a community of everyone who has grieved.  It’s a really big community, that will eventually include everyone.

Grief is normal.  Even losing a child is normal.  In 21st century America we’re somewhat insulated from the number of tragedies that have struck throughout history and even now around the world.  But still we all, at some point, lose.

When someone says to me, “I could never do foster care.  I could never lose the baby,” I understand that response, but I also feel a bit bewildered.  Of course you could.  You’re human.  That’s what we do.  We all suffer.  We don’t want to sign up for it, but when it hits, we somehow make it through.

* * *

“Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed.
~ Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

* * *

Was it worth it?  I sat in kind of an ironic place to think about pain—beside a swimming pool in a beautiful spot in the Baja Peninsula, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean, hearing the waves sweep the shore while the sea breeze blew my face.  Was it worth it?

All I could think was, yes, yes, of course it was.  I’m a somewhat contemplative person (surprise!) and at the end of a school year or calendar year I often think back and process what just happened in my life.

This is the first time I have ever been able to look back at a year and think, “We saved a life this year.”  When I think of Little Mister and how he was when he arrived at our home, and contrast that “before” picture with how he was when he left, our work is so starkly, obviously, worth it.  So much so that I feel privileged, grateful.

I got to save a life this year.  I got to make a forever difference for someone, laying a physical and emotional and spiritual foundation for his entire future.  Of course it cost something, but what could be more worth it?

* * *

“Love alone is worth the fight.”
~ Switchfoot

* * *

Foster care can seem so random.  If you miss the call because your phone is left in the car, you may miss a placement that would have changed your life and family forever.  You may get a baby one day and lose that baby the next week or month or year.  Your friend may get a baby the next day and keep that baby forever.  Some of it is decided by people, but a lot of it is just what some would call random chance.  In the end, no human being can predict exactly what is going to happen, and no one is in control.

It can seem so hopelessly random that my only way through is by trusting in a Sovereign Lord.

I don’t wish we had gotten someone else, even someone “adoptable.”  I am glad we got Little Mister.  And at some level I can even be glad we lost him because I see good in that for him.  It is good to be wanted and loved by your birth family.  And it is good to be loved and missed by the foster family you leave behind.

* * *

“Grief changes us.
The pain sculpts us
into someone who
understands more deeply,
hurts more often,
appreciates more quickly,
cries more easily,
hopes more desperately,
loves more openly.
~ Tanya Lord

* * *

I have read that loss grows the soul, that loss brings with it on its flip side a gain.  This doesn’t negate the loss itself, since that will always be there, but it does bring with it joy and comfort.

I have felt this in ways that are difficult to describe.

In grieving, I am learning to treasure my children and all relationships more deeply.

I am learning to carve out time to rest and heal, because I am realizing that if I maintain a frenetic pace (which used to be my norm and in some ways still is), I endanger my health (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual), and no one is served by that.

I am learning to make time to enjoy what I do have.  If we had not been losing Little Mister, I don’t know that we would have gone to see the Natural Bridge in May, gone to the Baja just me and Ben in June, or gone boating with my parents in July.  It wasn’t that we weren’t grieving, or that we were trying to drown out our grief in fun.  It was that while remembering and praying for Little Mister, we wanted to rest and heal and treasure the relationships we do have.

* * *

 “It is natural that people feel cautious about loving again because they are afraid of losing again.  Who in his or her right mind would ever want to feel such pain more than once?  Is love worth it if it is that risky? …

“The problem of choosing to love again is that the choice to love means living under the constant threat of further loss.  But the problem of choosing not to love is that the choice to turn from love means imperiling the life of the soul, for the soul thrives in an environment of love.  Soul-full people love; soul-less people do not.  If people want their souls to grow through loss, whatever the loss is, they must eventually decide to love even more deeply than they did before.  They must respond to the loss by embracing love with renewed energy and commitment….

“Still, … there is an ominous dimension to love, especially after loss.  If loss increases our capacity for love, then an increased capacity for love will only make us feel greater sorrow when suffering strikes again.  There is no simple solution to this dilemma.  Choosing to withdraw from people and to protect the self diminishes the soul; choosing to love even more deeply than before ensures that we will suffer again, for the choice to love requires the courage to grieve.”
~ Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

* * *

We want to foster again.  Our home and our hearts have space for another child.  And I know here in our town there is a desperate need for families willing to welcome babies who have no one else.  I cannot think of a better way for us to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” or to love “the least of these.”

In our next case I hope to adopt, and I know in some cases there is probability, but in foster care there is no certainty.  I think, I hope, I’m okay with that.

* * *

“They didn’t tell us that at the beginning: The moment you let love into your heart, your heart starts breaking. The only way to stop your heart from breaking is to stop your heart from loving. You always get to choose: either a hard heart or a broken heart. A broken heart is always the abundant heart — all those many beautiful pieces only evidence of an abundant life.”
~ Ann Voskamp

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Messy House



Friends are coming to visit today—thankfully a frequent occurrence in our home.  But it also means I have new eyes to see the mess, and I’m inwardly cringing—also, unfortunately, a frequent occurrence.

The house is sanitary—I cleaned the bathrooms two days ago, Ben vacuumed over the weekend, and other than the spot in the fridge where the spinach bag is leaking, the kitchen is mostly clean.

But the house is far from magazine-cover-worthy.  Baby toys litter the floor, with the loudest ones somehow positioned right at the entrance.

A princess teacup set is scattered over the library books on the coffee table, and a diaper bag hangs over the banister just beside the dish towel.

Some of the couch pillows are awkwardly arranged; the rest are piled on the floor as the remains of yesterday’s fort, along with favorite blankets and a few books.

Half the dining room table is consumed with David’s art project.  The rest of the dining room shows signs of being Ben’s storage area as he refinishes our deck, as well as our greenhouse as it’s the best place to put plants indoors and still get sunlight, and our schoolroom with all David’s current workbooks and craft supplies.

The waffle maker is out in the kitchen from this morning’s breakfast.  Jars of homemade pickles are on the counter, beside the Similac container and the rack of drying baby bottles.  Two highchairs crowd between the counter and the island.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  There are moments, like right now preparing for guests, when I look around at all this and despair.  I am, believe it or not, a neat freak.  I’m not skilled at interior decorating, but I do like a place for everything, and everything in its place.  If I lived alone, my home would look very different.

If I lived alone.  Do I want to?  Okay, sometimes I’ll admit, but really?

Each member of my family brings their own mess to the table (literally).  Ben works from home—his office is one room I just try not to worry about!—and he loves to do projects inside and out.

David is an avid reader.  We’re home schooling him, and in addition to his bookwork, he loves to do arts and crafts, build pillow forts, and play with legos, transformers, and trains—sometimes all at once.

Elanor loves to set things up even more than she likes to play with them, I think—the tea set, the little people, the kitchen toy, sometimes all intermingled, and her favorite place to play is often on the floor right in front of the kitchen sink.

Our foster baby is crawling and loves to scatter toys far and wide, open cabinets, and leave disaster in his wake.  He’s also responsible for all the baby food jars and bottles in our kitchen, and he’s the reason you’ll find odd placements like the bathroom trash can safely stowed on top of the toilet instead of on the floor.

Sharing home with these people has made me rethink what our home is all about.

It is not about me being in control.  It’s about me loving other people.

It is not about creating a space that is perfect.  It’s about creating a space where other people can thrive.

It is not about impressing other women.  It’s about me prioritizing my husband and children, and welcoming our guests.

It is not about displaying wealth.  It’s about me opening my door to the needy.  (Though I may not feel wealthy when I look at our budget each month, compared to the rest of the world I know I am rich!)

In my home I need to push back the chaos—but I also need to foster creativity.

I need to clean up the mess—but I also need to keep my joy when the mess is made again.

I need to be okay with toys underfoot, because that means toys are being played with.  They’re never being played with when they are put away in the basket.

I need to be okay with library books on the couch, because those are the books that are being read.  They’re never being read when they’re on the shelf.

I need to be okay with the math book and markers on the kitchen island, and the dinosaur flashcards beside the paints on the dining room table, because David is learning and making art.  He’s never going to randomly pick up and learn from something that’s in storage.  (On a side note, I originally envisioned our school room being in the basement away from our main living area, and though I still hope to do that someday, it doesn’t work for this season in our lives.  David needs to be doing school right where the rest of us are living.  It’s working great for his education and not so great for our interior design, but I need to choose my priorities.)

I need to be okay with the waffle iron on the counter and the dishwasher being full again, because that means we had an amazing breakfast.

I need to be okay with pickle jars on the counter and tools on a shelf in the dining room, because that means my husband has space to do his projects and feels like this is his home, too.

I need to be okay when a friend comes over and sees my mess, because that means I’m more concerned about being authentic than being impressive.  Maybe it means I spent more time praying and planning for our conversation than I spent cleaning up.  Ultimately I want a welcoming heart more than I want a spotless home, and sometimes (often?) I need to choose between the two.

I still have those cringing moments, like today, when I’m preparing for guests and realizing how far my home is from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.  But I am learning more to replace that cringing with confidence.  My home is a place where children thrive.  My home is a place where life and learning happens.  That life and learning makes a mess, but I want it to be a happy mess I’m willing to share with others.