I am in the “letting go” years of motherhood. I know Alzheimer’s disease is considered the long-goodbye, but having teenagers feels as much so. Except instead of forgetting precious memories, I am flooded with them: story times at the library, field trips to the zoo, class parties, countless baseball games, first dances, and ordinary moments that have aged into extraordinary memories.
It is often said of parenting that the days are long but the years are short. I would only add that the years get successively faster like a racing heart sprinting toward the finish line. The teenage years are propelled with a momentum that has little to do with parenting but is filled with our children’s pursuits. We no longer set the pace of their days. Instead, we race to keep up or merely watch their projection as they shoot off like a ball in a pinball machine: hither and yonder, to and fro, until they finally land in their beds at night. Still. Safe. Ours.
But the truth is they were never ours to keep. They were trusted to us by an ever-generous God for what suddenly feels like too little time. Somehow, he put us together knowing that we will each learn from the other. We are shown we could love more than seemed physically possible and that we can stretch beyond what we once considered strong to a surprisingly soft place of resilience. I can’t think of anything else that compares to the ways it has broken me, built me anew, and taught lessons that only love could teach.
Most of us overcomplicate things. I like to think I am better at this than most people but I know it is not nice to brag. It’s one thing to overthink where you want to go for dinner (I have heard some people do this). It becomes ever more complicated when we fixate on something as weighty as life’s purpose.
By middle age, if not as early as middle school, we realize life doesn’t always go as planned. Yet we live in a world where the plan is all important – we have books about it, calendars, and self-imposed criteria for how it’s all going to go down like we are detectives Sonny and Rico on the 1980s television series Miami Vice. If we just plan life with enough precision, our boat won’t crash, drug traffickers will meet their demise, and life will be as sunny as a sweat-less day at the beach wearing pastel T-shirts and a white suit. That’s the script we are asked to write from ourselves from as early as preschool when a sing-song voice inquires about what we want to be when we grow up. As if it’s merely a matter of picking what color space ship we want to fly during our mission to Mars.
I don’t mean to sound cynical because it can be fun to make plans, motivating to set a course, and rewarding to achieve goals, but you know what they say – “life is what happens when you are busy making plans.” A friend of mine, who could be anyone really because to some degree I think all of us have gone through this – is questioning her life’s purpose. Again, I don’t mean to brag but I have excelled in exploring the same question. “What am I doing with my life?” “What color is my parachute?” “What is God’s plan for me?” “Seriously, God, is that the plan?” I could go on because like I already said, I am really good at over-complicating things. My friend puts it more succinctly and asks: “what are they going to write on my tombstone, ‘a good friend to all?’” While that is better than “she was hit by a bus,” I certainly appreciate her perspective. Read more
I know songs have been written about the ease of Sunday morning, but I wish someone would write one about the angst of a Sunday evening. That’s the twitchiest night of the week for me as I transition from the charms of the weekend to the schisms of the work week. I feel like the amiable comic book character, Pig Pen, created by Charles Shultz, traveling in my own dust storm with all the to-do’s swirling around me making a filthy mess of what was once a peaceful mind. The more I do, the more I realize how far behind I really am and the dirt cakes on — further muddying my panic.
I sort through emails. I make piles. I do laundry. I boss children — an echo of repetition. I try to remember what I needed to talk to my husband about. I usually can’t. I make lists. I pick up abandoned glasses and clip close half-eaten bags of chips laying carelessly on the counter. In all my busying, I only seem to find more to do. Each task leads to another – a maze in the making. I scatter about in the dusty swirl of tedium past bedtime – past reason. My son asks me to review his cover letter for an internship he is applying for and I stop. In that instant, where I was given one more thing to do– when I was already so done, I would have envisioned being buried under the muck of a mudslide. Instead, I felt the clarity of grace. I felt its calm and its cleanse, as I realized I belong in the middle of the mess. It’s there that my independent, almost adult child asked for my input. It’s there that the mess suddenly stopped choking me and I breathed into the precious moment of mothering.
Our to-do’s will never be done and life will always be messy no matter how much tidying we do. Serving others in the midst of it is the grace that makes life meaningful. It gives order to chaos. It realigns priorities and it reinvigorates efforts. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16).
I have a secret file that I keep on my computer. I know that makes me sound a bit like a CIA operative working on top secret missions. (I cannot confirm or deny this). Admittedly, I have a pretty good cover. A married mother of two who writes about Jesus, hangs out with cats, and moonlights for the government while wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt. You can’t make this stuff up. Or, can you?
Anyway, back to reality. I have this file that I keep on my computer labeled “encouragement.” I know you thought it was going to say “delusions of a Christian writer,” but it doesn’t. It simply reads encouragement. If you were to open it, you would find emails I saved from people who took the time to tell me how my writing touched them. I am not sure what compelled me to start it. (Maybe because I was consumed with self-doubt, terrified that the vulnerabilities I shared would humiliate myself and my family, and perhaps, worse of all, that I was leaving a paper trail of evidence supporting an extended stay in a mental health facility. You know, just your small, everyday concerns). When I would get an email of appreciation or encouragement, it made me feel less alone, braver, and best of all, that I was making a difference. I cherish them. Each kindness feels like a gift from God, encouragement made holy through the sacred gift of love in which it was made. Deleting them felt akin to throwing a fresh bouquet of flowers in the trash. I couldn’t do it. So, I started my secret file, a hoarder of happy words. Read more
When I was little, I loved to watch Popeye the Sailor Man. There was something so good about the one-eyed spinach-eating sailor. He was gruff and marbled his raspy words. His body was disproportionate with massive forearms, and legs that bowed out in curvy clumps. He had a tattoo on his arm, a pipe in his twisted mouth, and Olive Oyl, his waif of a love interest, on his arm.
Wearing a white Navy outfit, he embodied the everyday hero. Maybe that was the draw to him. He wasn’t polished and refined like a prince. He wasn’t movie-star handsome. He didn’t speak eloquently. He ate food from a can. He was mostly bald. Occasionally, he even sported a bit of stubble as if he couldn’t bother with the vanity of beard-grooming. After all, he had bullies like Brutus to fight. In every episode, Popeye ensured that good triumphed over evil.
I grew up believing that people were good. Bad guys were just television entertainment to enforce the seemingly universal truth that we all want the same thing – for the good guy to win, order to exist, and happy endings to prevail. We certainly couldn’t accept the havoc brought by bullies such as Brutus. Read more
It’s odd that we wear such fine attire on our wedding day when marriage is so messy. It seems like it would be smarter to wear body armor or at least a sturdy raincoat to better prepare us. Yet, the bride and groom don lace and bow ties, veils and patent leather, pearls and cuff links, willingly pledging themselves until death to the life of the other.
It’s all so genteel, it’s hard to imagine the years that follow are anything other than champagne and roses. But champagne causes headaches, roses come with thorns, and marriage is messy. It makes sense though because we humans are messy. We come with pasts, preferences, and a penchant to think we are right.
Often there is no right, only two people who see things from different viewpoints. It can be ever so complicated. I know marriages are not invincible. I never approached the sacrament with body armor. Like so many others, I began the journey in white lace, a full skirt, and optimism that outshined any intricate beading or sparkling tiara.
We start out thinking marriage is going to be a gentle dance like the carefully choreographed one we perform on our wedding day. Inevitably, in marriage, there are missteps, clumsy moves, and moments when we or our partners let go instead of hold tight. Or sometimes, you just pick the wrong partner and no matter how many times you try to twist, they tango. Read more
My washing machine broke. This had me spinning because it was less than three years old. In fact, that was the problem. The machine would fill, suds, rinse, and then, instead of spinning, it would make a few demonic sounds, stop abruptly, and flash an error signal with an incessant ping that required me to stop whatever I was doing and unplug the machine.
Of course, it wasn’t the only thing that became unplugged because I was left to deal with 50 pounds of soaking wet clothes and piles of unwashed laundry. Worse, was the feeling that I had been betrayed by this costly machine which promised to turn shmuck into shine.
Long story longer, I spent 60 bucks for a repairman to tell me that it was a computer malfunction and I should just buy a new washing machine because none of them work for more than a few years and repairs are too expensive to justify. By this time, I was fantasizing about checking myself into a mental health facility. I figured they could do the laundry and make my meals while I take a long nap. Then maybe if I am up to it, I would play a game of Parcheesi with another guest.
My husband suggested a simpler (although less satisfying) solution and off we went to buy another washing machine. When I told the appliance salesperson about my trauma — figuring he was the next best thing to a trained mental health professional — he shrugged and said, “we live in a disposable society.” Read more
Oh the craze of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She has the country folding their clothes like origami and looking for sparks of joy in the mess of a categorical closet clean-out. Her method, known as KonMari, has followers purging closets and piling clothes. If the big, fat mess you make doesn’t give you a panic attack, then you proceed to touch each article of clothing. If the sparks don’t fly, the item does, but not until you thank it for its service (and people think I am weird for talking to my cats).
I was looking at my closet and thinking how insane it would be to pull everything out. I mean, I hung it up already. It’s already clean and ironed. It seems kind of sadistic to pile it like a heap of dead leaves. After all, how much joy am I going to have from wrinkling perfectly ironed clothes and then rehanging them? Then, I worried I wouldn’t find any sparks in my pile. I would be like a homely girl that doesn’t get a Valentine. No spark for you. How sad would that be? (It’s very sad. I’ve been that girl). I could be inspired to donate my entire closet, and end up joyless with no origami in my dresser.
Pondering her method, I wondered what it would be like to take a mental inventory of our lives and discover what sparked joy? Would we start a fire? Saint Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” But that wasn’t about deciphering joy, it was about discerning who God created you to be. Sometimes that seems even harder than cleaning out closets and organizing tchotchkes. Whenever I examine my life, trying to answer the weighty question of purpose, I feel a spark of panic, not joy. Maybe Kondo would have me thank that question for its dubious service, and send it on its way. Perhaps that works with the material, but when it comes to setting the world on fire for God, we don’t want to dismiss the unique purpose he created for us. “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28). Read more
From the time the alarm clock pierces the softness of sleep, we are bombarded with noise. The daily clamor comes not only from people in our lives, but the technology that pings incessantly and indiscriminately. Add our inner barking voice, reminding us to do this, be there, and stop that, and it can feel like a cacophony of crazy.
In the racket of the babbling noise that cocoons the day in blasphemous sound, have we become deaf to the voice of God? “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) So often, we ask God for help, intercession, and mercy, but we never pause long enough in the grace of silence to let him fill the void. It’s impossible to know his will if we can’t distinguish his voice from the commotion that commands our attention.
Jesus doesn’t strike me as a big yeller either. He is the essence of love and love doesn’t compete in the shrill of striving. His message is pretty succinct. “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mathew 22:37-39). Our ability to give and receive love is challenged by the surmounting noise that often has little to do with our souls.
Our souls crave the quiet that is God. Often, when it comes to problem solving and big decisions, we rely on intellect. Reasons, facts, and logic become the trinity we turn to. The noise in our head sputters off a list of pros and cons. We ask friends for advice. We read books to guide us. We troubleshoot and play out different scenarios, alternating the variables, and exposing flaws like a crime-scene detective. Inadvertently, we create more noise for ourselves — obscuring the voice of God with the chatter of our reasoning. The head talks, talks, and talks. It means nothing if the heart is pulled toward something different. Our hearts hold the voice of God. Without quiet, we will never hear the whisper of his wisdom, the lull of his compassion, or peace of an answered prayer.
I always felt unremarkable, which I think I could have been okay with if the world didn’t always send messages that made me feel as if ordinary was an outrage. When I was a kid, the word average meant you were like everyone else. It meant you were okay. You were enough. You fell into the middle and you weren’t worried about being out-twirled at baton practice or made fun of when the metal bar fell on your head.
Those were happy days. If, somewhat unremarkable.
But at some point, and maybe it was when I started paying attention, everything changed. Being average meant you were like the less-than sign used in math – pointing in the wrong direction, open to the mundanity of mediocracy. A losing symbol in a world that equates greatness with worthiness.
Whatever happened to good enough?
I suppose that is why I am so fond of God. While he asks me to be good, he has always believed I am good enough. Of course, I didn’t always know that because I was too distracted with headlines on glossy magazines, books on bettering, and tried and true tips that felt like a tongue twister of tortured suggestions. Read more