Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Something Worth Celebrating

This past October I spent a lot of time on the internet trying to track down good songs from the early 1950's. My granny, a self-professed lover of Madame Butterfly and Frank Sinatra, was about to be surprised along with my gramps with a surprise 60th anniversary bash. Cousins flying in from around the country, lots of good food and a slideshow to commemorate it all. A slideshow that needed songs they'd actually recognize.

So, with songs like "Too Marvelous", "Harbor Lights" and "When You're Smiling" ringing through my head, my family made the 12 hour drive through the boondocks of southeastern America to get to St. Petersburg, FL.  Once there, we spent hours upon hours at the beach and pool, reminiscing about old family trips to the Cape, our favorite memories of growing up with Granny and Gramps and begging them to tell us stories maybe we used to be too young to know. As it stands now, the youngest cousin is in grad school, so I think we all pretty much count ourselves as adults, at least on our good days.  We deserve the messy stories now.

I can safely say it was the first time I've ever even come close to hearing my grandparents reference any kind of sex life or even admitting that having 3 kids under 4 years-old might've been a tad insane. My granny spoke about the time that my gramps was off to war and she was raising a child alone, unsure of whether he'd even meet that child(my mom).  They talked of good times too, of remembering when each of us was born and the things we did in our teens that were so incredibly foreign to their own experiences. (These stories mostly related to any and all music we'd play around them, not the least of which was my brother's foray into angry German rock. My gramps had a LOT to say about that at the time, as I recall.)

My family isn't perfect. We have a lot of craziness that goes on, as much dysfunction as the next family. But my grandparents have stuck together for 60 years. Sixty unperfect but committed years. I couldn't help but compare my meager 7 1/2 to that number and hope that in about 53 years, my own grandkids will have something to celebrate, some crazy chance to hear insane stories about what dating was like in the early 2000's (which to them will likely sound like the stone age) and the fact that I didn't even own a cell phone and had to use calling cards to talk to my fiance when we were engaged long distance. The movies we watched and the songs we danced to will be long forgotten classics to them. But I imagine, just like it was for my grandparents in October, that those memories will not be as distant for us. That our wedding song will be just as special, that we'll easily remember the birth of our son and every detail of any subsequent births of our (hopefully) grandkids.  That, though we won't have led a perfect life without suffering or had a flawless marriage (who could?) that we'll have stuck it out and learned more about God, each other and ourselves than we ever would have had we never made the commitment to each other in the first place.  

G and G on their wedding day- December 22, 1950
60 years is no joke. As that slideshow played through pictures of their dating and wedding day, he handsome in his uniform, she gorgeous in a late 40's style dress...as Frank sang about the world smiling and pictures of my aunt and uncle and mother flashed across the screen on family vacations, I was so deeply thankful. Thankful that I was a part of this family, that I could be a part of something so worth celebrating.  That I could see before me not a perfect couple, but a couple who has yelled at each other, been frustrated and laughed more times than they could count...a couple who has suffered, who parented well and parented poorly, who have lost many friends and family to disease and old age and who have done all this and more together for more than 60 years. Who I'm sure have been tempted to give up more than once. I am so deeply thankful that they didn't.
G & G on the night of their anniversary party, October 2010

The joy of my grandparents at this celebration was infectious, their clear love for each other and us was overwhelming- it felt like it must've been obvious to everyone around us.  It may sound trite, but I think at least in this one instance, Frank was right. 

"When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chocolate Calendars and Being Enlarged

Growing up, my only real understanding of the word Advent was undeniably linked to chocolate. Each year, around Thanksgiving, we'd get one of those little cardboard calendars with all the windows in it. And then, each morning from then until Christmas, we'd get to open up one little window and start the day with a piece of, to be quite honest, pretty terrible tasting chocolate. Even though this was not a gourmet experience, I looked forward to it each year. When would we start the advent calendar? When would my door be adorned with a hanging festival of treats destined to rot my teeth and create nervous sugary energy for my first class of the day?



One of the great things about going away to college and getting involved in faith communities of people with varying backgrounds is that you begin to learn about other traditions.  Meeting and living life with so many people of various backgrounds in the past 14 years has shown me that there's so much more to Advent, even beyond all  the quirky family traditions out there.  My church didn't talk much about this current season- sure, we did it up for Christmas Eve, singing all the carols and rejoicing in the Christmas story, but I had no real idea that the season before that glorious night had any real purpose to it.

As a perk to my job I receive a box of books every other month. These are usually new releases from InterVarsity Press- I think the ideas is that as campus ministers we're the best way of getting the word out on a hot new book. So, I'm supposed to read these and then pass them along.  Admittedly, I rarely open these books. Maybe I'll read the back cover and possibly glance at the introduction. To be honest, I already have so many books on my shelves crying out to be read that these books usually find a place beside those, to be read at some distant time.  Last year, however, I remember opening up that box and seeing this book called Living the Christian Year. At the time, I was on sabbatical and navigating church hunting and trying to be open to a more liturgical and traditional way of understanding the Christian life. So, after reading the back and glancing through the intro I decided to commit to it. Ironically, though, as the chaos of pre-Christmas life took over, the book ended up back on my shelf.

This year, however, as the beginning of Advent coincided with some deep disappointments and setbacks, I ran back to that shelf and vowed that I would, finally, figure out what this Advent thing is all about. No poor-tasting chocolate substitutes, but the real thing. And I have been so met in the searching.  Kathleen Norris, who is quoted in the book, says "I've learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny."  And as I've read through this book and sat in the scriptures that are meant to frame this season, I have felt a deep mystery about it for the very first time. A deep longing and expectation, not that God will answer my own selfish prayers, but just that I would know the Christ child. That I would expect God's movement in our world. That I would desire more than what my own eyes can see and my own dreams can hope for.

The main idea that the author sits in for the season of Advent is the idea that we are enlarged by waiting. That through restraint, quiet, retreat, fasting and rich tradition, our own souls become so filled with longing for God that they are literally grown during this time. He asks some great questions. "How can we experience Christ coming anew into our already full lives? How can we be absorbed in hope when we are so harried? How can our lives be enlarged in so brief a time?"

Ultimately, he answers these questions with the following quote from Lucy Shaw.

During the waiting times God is vibrantly at work within us.And if through the Spirit of God we have been united with the Father in dynamic relationship, if God has sown his gospel seed in us, then Jesus is being formed within us, little by little, day by day. But we have to wait if the Word is to become flesh in us.  And that kind of waiting feels like work." 

If you're like me, waiting feels totally counterproductive. Who am I to sit back on my heels and wait for something to happen when there are roughly 2 trillion things to be thinking about and accomplishing at any given moment. Shouldn't I be able to DO something here? Can't someone write a book about advent with three neat little steps to help me accomplish this enlarging work of my soul?

But that's just it- the ringing answer is no. Probably someone has actually written a book that will tell me exactly what to do, but I'm pretty sure I shouldn't read it.  I'm pretty sure that really the only thing I'm supposed to do is step back and wait. Trust that the living and active God is deeply at work in my soul, stretching it and filling it with deep expectation for only Him.

This is not easy or passive work but surely this is better work than the enlarging that a chocolate calendar would likely accomplish at this point in my life!  My prayer is that, rather than consume a piece of bland chocolate each morning, God would slow me down before the day even starts. That the racing mind that I awake to each day would be stilled in the early morning light so that my day might not reflect our cultural obsession with busyness and consumerism this time of year, but that it would undeniably point to the Christ that I am waiting for.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Silver Linings and the Devil's Teeth

It's funny. When you're waiting for one specific thing to happen in your life, sometimes you lose all rational awareness of why that one thing may actually not be best for you in the right now. Let's take, for instance, the fact that I'm back on campus with InterVarsity and that one of the events I look forward to most each year in my staff life is leading the worship leaders track at chapter camp. It ended the middle of last May and after our forced week off I was already assessing, evaluating and planning for next May. I love these two weeks, the chance to work so closely with gifted students from all over the region, to help lead the rest of the students there into the presence of God at the end of each day. Each year I gear up for it and each year it doesn't disappoint. God shows up.

So, as I've been navigating the chaos of balancing my schedule and figuring out how to be at 20 hours and still actually spend time with everyone who needs it, I often find myself looking forward to those two weeks in May, as hectic as they are.  I've even gone so far as to say that one of the things that has kept me on staff so long is my love for this track  Even at the end of a long week when I think I've failed abominably yet again to get the balance right, I can't wait for camp to roll around. I often have trouble focusing on the now because of the excitement for the future in this area.

Yet, as I've navigated the world of infertility, I have the opposite problem.  I get so bogged down each month in how much I desire for the baby thing to happen right now.  I get so self-focused and irrational, so intensely disappointed each time this desire remains out of my grasp.

So when I found myself disappointed yet again this fall, I had a few of those sad moments and then suddenly perked up. Well, I thought. Now that I don't get to have a baby next May or June, I guess that means I get to go to Rockbridge. It had never occurred to me that I'd even miss camp, that most favorite of staff life events, if I had gotten pregnant. I still held unswervingly to my need to be pregnant NOW. Irrational. Finding silver linings is not always easy, but I'm thankful for that one. I'm also thankful for the silver lining of how much volleyball is currently in my life. Co-ed league with good friends and several nights of good play with staff friends coming up at regionals is no silver lining to sneeze at either.


Part of my problem is that no matter how many silver linings I can find, I also find myself utterly susceptible to that great tempter. I find myself angry and frustrated and self-focused.   For two years now, we have been trying and waiting and pleading with the Lord. Two long years.  And some days I get so fed up with the fact that I still am tempted to despair and lose hope that I wish I could physically kick the devil in the teeth. I know he wants nothing more than for this struggle to separate me from the love of God.

As I head into Advent, this season of church seasons that reminds us to wait and to long for a Savior, I have been reading a lot about silence.  I’ve spent two years being the opposite of silent, two years pleading and hoping and railing about my own unmet desires. And I know the devil would like nothing more than for me to be so focused on my own hope for a baby that I forget to focus on that ultimate of babies who was sent so long ago.  To long so deeply for my own child, that I stop longing for the Christ child. 

So here’s my plan. Rather than complain and plead, I choose silence this Christmas season.  May God grant me the strength to rely on Him to keep my eyes focused on that star that will lead me to the manger.  May he keep my mouth closed when I’d be tempted to choose anger over peace, action over waiting, complaining over hope, myself over Christ. 


So, devil, step back.  I'm taking aim.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I Want to Write Love

As I was driving my son to school on Wednesday, we got into a conversation about what he'd like to be when he grows up. The conversation went as follows:

Me: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Josh: (with an unsaid "duh" in his voice that I particularly appreciate coming from a four-year old) "A man."  Right. Rephrase.
Me: "When you're a man, what would you like to do with your spare time?"
Josh: "I'd like to write. I'd like to write love all by myself."

It took me a minute to catch up with him but I got there. At first glance it sounds like this incredibly spiritual and deep answer that reflects his desire to explore the concept of love. The truth is that I'm always making him sign cards to people and he's got the whole writing of his name thing down.  Lately, though, he's been wanting to write the whole phrase, "Love, Josh" all by himself and he's having trouble. It seems that his current life's ambition is rooted in his most pressing frustration.  See problem, make life's destiny solving that problem. Very practical and I can respect him for that.  I definitely wish all of life's problems could be dealt with by having a clear goal in mind and just putting your whole self into it.

However, the bigger lesson I took from the whole exchange was not his problem solving skills. It was his answer to that first poorly phrased question that we ask of people of a young age all the time. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Not a question about what you'd like to do (although that's what we mean by the asking), but a question that ends up revolving around identity. I was so glad he responded the way he did. He told me exactly what he'd be- a man. Now, hopefully there will be some wonderful adjectives that precede that identity that are rooted in his relationship with God, but at the core, his identity will not be wrapped up in what he does.  It will be in who he is.

I will be 32 years old in about one week and I still feel like I ask this question of myself all the time. What do I want to be when I grow up? And I think my screwed up self still attempts to attach my identity to some sort of career, some job. When I took this job with InterVarsity at the ripe old age of 23, I did not foresee doing it for this long. I'm not sure what I thought I'd do after it, but I sure as heck did not envision raising my own salary for 9 years and still walking around college campuses every day of my life, wondering how it's possible that 80's fashions have made a comeback or why people are running around with water guns and headbands in the middle of midterms.  And while I'm glad to be on campus this year, I've felt a certain restlessness, a certain desire to reevaluate that question of what I want to be. Of  whether or not this is still my calling. I was certain of it at 23. Now, I'm not so sure.

Don't get me wrong. I love my students. I still think I have one of the most interesting and challenging jobs in the world. It invigorates and exhausts me all at the same time. But I'm finding my mind wandering more than it used to. The fear of what it would be like to stay home with my son full time was conquered last year during sabbatical.  My very real sense of his leaving for kindergarten in less than two years has created this urgency in me to make sure I enjoy every minute, particularly as I can't be sure he won't be my only child and I really don't want to miss a moment of his growing up. Do I regret having worked these last four years? No way. But I am at a place of wanting to be sure that if I continue to work it's for the right reasons, that God is continuing to call me to minister in this way, rather than staying out of comfort, momentum or fear of change.

That leaves me in an interesting place. I had hoped a job decision could easily be made by a pregnancy but have learned, yet again, that waiting for that to decide anything is a procrastinatory copout and could really prolong any decision, well, for forever. There's no real way of knowing if or when that will ever be a deciding factor.

Sabbatical last fall was an intense time of exploring who I've become and growing in who I understand my God to be.  It was a phenomenal journey that set me free in so many ways to embrace who God has made me to be as woman, wife, mother, friend, secure in the love of God.

For the first time in a long time, I'm asking some hard questions about my calling and desires, trying to dig deep and figure out if there are new steps to take or whether the path I'm on is still the right one. This new season is a whole different type of dreaming and praying that I never really did last year.  What do I really want to do? It may lead me right back to what I'm already doing or it may not. 

Either way, I thankful that I'm not looking to answer the question of who I want to be and hopeful that I won't confuse the two questions as easily as I have in the past.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ice Cold Soy Milk, Omnipresence and Growing Up

Lately my child has taken to making really specific requests of us. Whereas in the past, I could count on him to ask for a "drink" or a "snack", now I most often hear things like. "Mom, I could really use some ice cold soy milk and thinly sliced apples." Um, ok. Glad you specified since I was planning on giving you warm, spoiled milk. Sometimes it feels like he is three going on 15. Throw in the mood swings of late, rooted in his desire to abruptly and adamantly refuse to nap anymore, and it does feel like I'm living with a teenager.  Last week he even started a sentence with the word "apparently" (used correctly, by the way) and went on to tell us a delightfully narrated story about a friend of his from school.

It's funny to watch a whole person develop. To go from drooling, high-maintenance, non-sleeping, refusal-to-eating, crying machine to physically miniature version of your husband who has specific desires, interests and quirks, someone who can generally hold a reasonable and rational conversation and asks to go to bed when he's "too tired to keep my head up."  And I think to myself, as I'm interacting with this tiny human, "how in the world did he become who he is?" The answer to some of those questions are easy. Where did he get that funny way he quirks his mouth after he asks a question? Well, Reed does that exact thing. Why is he a perfectionist? Both parents, bingo.  Why does he need to know the meaning to every word ever spoken in his presence? I'll take credit for that, thank you very much.

But the bigger things. What causes him to absolutely shiver with joy at the passing of any kind of construction site? Why is he completely fascinated by his esophagus and trachea and can tell you at any given moment what part of his body his food is now working its way through?  Why does he hang back at social events for at least 15 minutes before he engages anyone besides us?  Why does he always, always wake up at 7 am on the dot, always follow the exact routine(bathroom, get dressed, play with matchbox cars for roughly 2.3 minutes) and then come smashing into my room and wake me up with the words, "Mom, are you ready to play?" And why does he always ask me questions that are way beyond what I think he should be worrying about. "Mom, if God is with me, is he also able to be with someone on the other side of the world?" Hmm. Omnipresence definitely sounds like a topic for a 3-year old. Don't even ask me how I tried to answer that one.

One of my favorite songs when I was younger was "I Won't Grow Up" from Peter Pan.  Some of you might know it- my favorite line is "If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, not me!" I sing this song a bunch and then like to tell Josh that I don't want him to ever grow up, that I like him just the way he is. He'll usually say something ridiculous like, "Nooo, Mom, I'm GOING to grow up and be big and strong just like you and Daddy. You can't stop me!"  But there are days I wish I could just freeze him. Stop time at this sweet phase of unabashed curiosity, where the world is this huge, mysterious place to be explored and conquered, and where his new pajamas with rockets on them bring him more joy than just about anything else I could think to give him.

This whole parenting thing takes a lot of trust.  It's hard for me to think of sending him off on a school bus to kindergarten in less than two years and not knowing what is really going to be said to him by other kids or if he's going to be bullied on the playground.  I have no control over some of the words he will hear in his young life or what mature concepts might get introduced to well before I'm ready to explain them. I can't predict who he'll meet and what kinds of teachers he'll have and who our neighbors will be when we move, most likely, for Reed's post-doc in a few years. All I can do is play with him a ton now, answer his crazy questions to the best of my ability, help him understand who God is and pray like crazy that he'll himself trust God enough to help him through the challenges to come.  That's hard, friends. That's so hard when I want to be in control of everything that happens to him!

But, as I step back and watch him in this growing up thing I'm struck anew by how crazy God is. By how beautiful it is that he's told us to have faith like a little child because when I hear the questions my son asks about God, when I hear his trust that God is with him and answers his prayers and will give him courage for the things he's afraid of, I'm reminded that sometimes I just make things too complicated. I worry too much about so many little questions, about ridiculous things like whether my son will lock himself in his room when he's a teenager, that I can just miss the bigger picture, miss the ways that God is changing me and growing me as I watch my own son grow.

So, I'm trying to step back a little from all those little ways I could panic. Let myself chuckle when the soy milk requests come and help him know that no matter how he changes or how quickly it seems he grows up, God and I are right beside him all the way.

And that we'll never, never be too old to climb a tree!  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grief, Sapphires and Shooting Up

Last week I found myself sneaking up the stairs to the second floor bathroom of the building in which our large group meeting with InterVarsity takes place each week. In my hand I held a small, zippered pouched filled with, I am not kidding, drugs and needles. Worried that an overzealous student or security guard might decide to answer the call of nature while I was in the middle of administering said drugs, I figured the second floor was safer than the first. The last thing I need is to be written up in the paper the next day by a media that dearly loves catching us religious folks in all kinds of tom-foolery. "Campus Minister Discovered With Needle and Drugs: Investigation into Campus Activities to Follow, Dean Says."

But there I was, belly bared, alcohol swab at-the-ready and needle glistening in the likely unhygienic glare of the flourescent lightbulbs. And I laughed.  I couldn't help myself. And I thought to myself, "Now, how did I ever get to this point in life? What the heck? I'm hiding out in a dirty bathroom, injecting myself with drugs and in near hysterical laughter over the whole thing." No doubt I was very lucky that no one did walk in.

So, how did I get here, actually? Well, I chalk it all up to the process of grief. A few months ago I got fed up with my sadness. Fed up with feeling like I wasn't over my miscarriage, that I hadn't moved on. After all, it was over a year and a half ago. I should be healed, I should be well, I shouldn't think about it all the time. Last fall, my sabbatical director had suggested I think about some counseling to help. I had shrugged it off. While I was more than happy to tell other people I thought counseling was great, the thought of getting some myself was just terrifying. However, after many more months of frustratio and sadness and after getting a little flyer in the mail in June that offered free counseling at our church, I signed up. Couldn't hurt, right?

So, here I am about 6 weeks after it started. The first thing I learned is that I'm not "over it" because I never actually grieved. Turns out it's not a passive process. You'd think I know this- I've said it enough times to others. I've told people to take their time, to grieve well, to let themselves feel something and talk about it. And after being asked how I felt about the whole thing multiple times, I've come away with the very strong realization  that I don't know how to express my feelings about any of it (Enter two helpful handouts with words like sad, frustrated and numb to help me choose). Seriously, I have had to look at a piece of paper to figure out how to express an actual emotion.

Now I'm showing up every week and trying to use feeling words and not thinking words, which is no small feat for me. I'm trying to talk to people outside of that time who can walk with me through it. I'm trying not to feel annoyed at myself that I'm not over it, to give myself the room to grieve that I never gave myself two winters ago.  And you know what? It's not as terrifying as I thought. I'm not dissolving into uncontrollable sobs that prevent me from functioning as a human for the rest of the day. The risks I've taken in sharing have turned out well. And my newest risk, buying a (very tiny!) sapphire necklace to commemorate the baby I'll never meet, who would've been born in September '09? Well, I find myself reaching for it a few times a day and rather than it reminding me of my sadness, I have been infused with comfort and hope, that it's okay to move on, that it's okay to hope for a new baby not to heal myself and replace that other child, but just for the sake of getting to know that new little person for who he or she will be.

In the midst of all this, my doctor suggested going on a drug regimen for my infertility that included multiple days of injections that had to take place between 6 and 8 pm. Hence, the lugging of earlier stated materials to campus.  At first, I panicked. I thought, "this costs money, there's nothing wrong with me, we'll just keep waiting." And as I began to think through all the reasons why I haven't grieved well, not the least of which is that I hate getting help from anyone, I realized here was yet another opportunity to move forward. To admit that for some reason my body won't do this on its own right now and that it's alright to get a little help from the medical profession. That it's perfectly acceptable and, indeed, beneficial to need other people. 

Well, friends, it looks like I'm on my grief journey. Finally. Not that the last 20 months haven't been part of it. In fact, I think God was doing a lot in my heart through those months of denial to prepare me for this point. I needed to come to a place where it was a good thing to ask for help and where asking for help is leading to hope.

So, I'm taking each day one step at a time, letting myself talk about the grief with actual people, occasionally reaching up to touch my unborn child's birthstone and hoping against hope that I don't get caught shooting up on campus. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Navigating Mom World (and why sometimes I'd rather do it sans other moms)

A friend of mine recently posted an innocent status to her facebook profile asking people who knew her to pray that her newborn son would eat and sleep a little better.  By the time I even read the status, there were so many replies it took me 10 minutes just to read them. All but one of them included unsolicited advice about breastfeeding. Join a La Leche league group, call a lactation consultant and, of course, that oh-so-Churchillian adage to "nevah, nevah, nevah give up."  As someone who thought that nursing was just about the most difficult thing I've ever done and whose child wanted nothing to do with it, I myself received a lot of unsolicited and, frankly, demoralizing advice. The last thing you want, when you already feel like a failure, is for about a hundred people to help you understand even more deeply how much of a failure you actually are.

Why do women do this to each other? Why do we, upon reading a simple status, a simple plea to listen and hear, immediately unload our entire experience and opinion on the unsuspecting shoulders of a sister? Why is it so hard to just listen, to just pray in response, to just love people without feeling the need to hear our own selves talk, to contribute our own personal feelings on any and all subjects?  I know I have this tendency myself and am praying hard that God would keep my mouth closed, unless I'm specifically asked to weigh in.

I've been a mom for almost four years now. Some of those days, in fact many of those days, have been among the most delightful of my life. There were some, though, that have been among the most challenging. Kids don't come with instruction books. Parenting takes a lot of trust, involves a lot of mistakes and, mostly, calls for a lot of hope that God is doing more work in my child than I could ever do and that love will cover over a multitude of my own parenting sins.  When I've kept my eyes on Him, I've experienced more peace in parenting than I could ever hope for, even when I'm still not sure about the answer to a specific problem.

A lot of my own glitches with parenting self-confidence, however, have mostly arisen after conversations with other moms. What could be a helpful community of people messily trying to raise their kids and love each other well in the midst of it often turns into insipid competition and overly-opinionated advice giving. "My three year old is reading, isn't yours?" "I think it should be a law for all women to have to breast-feed for the first six months, don't you?" "My 2 year old is 4 feet tall, isn't yours a little shrimpy?"   Ok, ok, I've never heard that last one, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did.  I wonder what parenting would be like without the internet, without pediatric percentiles to make us virulently aware of every little pound and 1/2 inch on our childs bodies and without so much of our need to play the comparison game.

I for one am hoping that the Lord will continually make me a better listener, both to Him and to the women and men around me who are just trying to love their kids well and trust God in the process.  Maybe one result will be that I myself won't fall into that comparison game- both for myself as a parent and for my child's sake! What freedom that would be.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tarheels, Spiders and Culture Shock

The last time in my life that I really experienced culture shock was when I studied abroad.  I distinctly remember ordering a pizza and having the person on the other side of the counter ask me, "And would you like sweet corn or tuna on that?" Huh?! I learned quickly in the midst of that to avoid most British food establishments, to answer the question "Are you alright?" with the words fine or good because the actual American translation of said question was actually "What's up?" and that it was apparently perfectly normal for me to have to walk through a pub to get to the student gym.

However, culture shock is once again in full swing for me. I spent 13 years of my life as a Spider, first as a student, then as a volunteer and staff with InterVarsity.  Richmond is a cozy little University settled on a fairly relaxed-feeling campus with relatively abundant parking, a chaplain's office that actually supports campus ministries and the ability to see a lot of the same faces as you walk across campus each day.  In InterVarsity-land, our group was about 100 students, give or take a few over the years, with a leadership team that hovered between 20 and 30 students and one staff, me, to make decisions.

Last Thursday I kicked off my life as a Tarheel. My new leadership team? 100 people. The university? Not a cozy little place where you see the same people all the time.  We've met more people at Carolina in our new student events than actually show up as freshmen on Richmond's campus. Happy and informative little organization fair? No, picture the most crowded concert you've ever been to, add lots of free food, about a billion organization tables advertising their wares, multiple inappropriate tshirts that could probably get you kicked off Richmond's campus and then set the whole thing in a sauna.  They call this Fall Fest. Oh, excuse me, "we" call this Fall Fest.

You see, I'm having trouble changing my prepositions. For 13 years I've been a Spider. Any other mascot has always been "they."  And at Richmond, while we were loyal, we weren't exactly a bastion of school spirit. In fact, the most school spirit I saw each year there was usually displayed at the volleyball tournament at our annual InterVarsity camp when competing for the spirit award. 

Yet three nights ago I found myself with my sweaty arms around several people I didn't know, swaying to the Carolina Alma Mater in a Krispy Kreme parking lot. I wondered to myself if the freshmen who were there were as shell-shocked as I was, but began to realize that maybe they chose Carolina because they already knew about this culture, the, well, "hugeness" of everything I've been encountering. 

So, classes started yesterday. My husband is hard at work on year two of his Ph.D. Large group, the weekly meeting of our whole InterVarsity community, is tomorrow night and I am working hard on wiping my brain of all prior large group experiences and expectations. We have 20 people on our welcome team alone. We're using a room that can hold more than 500 students in the full hope that we'll fill it. My staff team, (yes, being a part of an actual team is a part of this), has been hard at work trying to make sure we've thought of everything that needs thinking about as we maneuver this all-important first week back while figuring out how the heck to care for each other in the midst of physical fatigue and campus transitions.

I will always be a Spider. No question. I graduated from there, saw my own faith grow exponentially because of the community there and will, likely, continue to be badgered semi-annually to give to the University's next big building project. But right now I'm trying to figure out how to identify with being a Tarheel, how to think the words "me", "mine"and "we" when I hear the alma mater and fight song. How to fully own and enjoy this huge group of students who have been entrusted to this team I'm on and to trust the Lord in the middle of a culture-shocked transition.

I may be Spider-born and Spider-bred but for right now I am Tarheel-immersed.  Someone better teach me the right cheer to follow that up with! (Particularly one that doesn't involve damning all of Duke to hell, please.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Soulmates, Seven Years and Wedding Season

The life of a campus minister tends to include a lot of weddings. I consider this a perk because (a) I love to dance and (b) it's great for my own marriage.  This summer I've gotten to be involved in a few of those weddings, reading scripture and singing.  One of those weddings was of two of my former students to each other. I watched them start dating, saw them wade through the chaos of senior year decisions, stand tall through tough family adversity, celebrate their engagement and, through it all, learn how to trust that God was guiding them together towards Him. They aren't getting married because of fireworks or passion, because of feelings or circumstances. They've taken a slow meander through the last few years of life together and learned how to do it together with God's lead.

Being a campus minister means that for a lot of the day I end up talking about relationships. Listening as people talk through crushes, dating, breakups, engagements...and all the while hearing a lot of theology inadvertently woven into their expectations. I've heard a lot of people throw around the word "soulmates" or the phrase "the one." A few times I've actually been asked what I think about those, probably because of the look on my face when a student slowed down long enough to notice. I'm not sure my answer is particularly popular among Christians who seem to, more than others, hold a kind of storybook, Hollywood view of courtship and dating.

The bottom line is that I don't believe in soulmates or "the one." Some may call me unromantic but what's so romantic about finding someone who is supposedly perfect for you who through a series of cosmic orchestrations has been thrust into your path? There's no work in that, there's no doubt in that, there's no real risk-taking and commitment, no trust in God. What I find romantic is the idea that God has given us the opportunity to walk alongside Him as we choose someone to love. To wake up each morning, as the pastor who married my husband and I said, and "decide to put that person ahead of our own needs" each and every day. To know going into it that life was made for trouble and marriage won't be easy. That the point of the commitment is to make it, stick to it and choose to out-bless that other person each day in a way that honors God above all, even when and perhaps especially when our feelings don't match our choice. This view takes out a lot of the what-if's I've heard. "What if I've already met "the one" and I didn't know it?" "What if I never find my soulmate?" Is God some capricious God who withholds good from us unless we know the specific 5-step way to place ourselves in the exact right situation to meet someone? I say "no".

My husband and I just celebrated our seventh anniversary. Neither one of us, when we met the other person, ever thought we'd hit this point. He wasn't my type, I wasn't his. Our first meeting was atrociously awkward(and could potentially take up a whole blog post of its own). No fireworks. No weird niggling feeling in the back of my mind that this could be "the one." He took a chance and asked me to coffee and my roommates made me say yes. I tripped up the stairs on our first date and he barely spoke. It did not end with a romantic and unawkward perfect meeting of our lips on my doorstep. Just like Hollywood, right?

If I were looking at signs or what I expected when meeting the man who eventually was to be my husband, I would never have said yes to Date Number 2. Or even Dates 3 and 4. But at some point in that early courtship, God made it clear to me that this kind of thing takes a risk. Mostly it's risking that God might think I need someone very different from who I think I want. And knowing that that's a risk worth taking. Even looking back on over nine years of knowing my husband and seeing how very different we are and knowing that each excruciating moment of discovering just how wide that gulf sometimes is is ultimately worth it because, more often than not, those differences and the working through of them bring us closer to God and one another.

Going to all these weddings reminds me of this. That marriage is a gift from God, one not to be entered into lightly. That the commitment is unkeepable on my own and that I need God's strength and perspective to wake up each day and fulfill those vows.  Sitting in the pews when these former students have said their vows over these last few months has been an amazing reminder of what we said to each other more than seven years ago.  I'll take a good wedding over a chick flick any day.  Hollywood's got nothing on the real thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Biggest Gainer

I'm finally there. 8 months, roughly a billion glasses of whole chocolate milk, 10 pounds and two points on the BMI scale later and I have achieved my goal.  The interesting thing about this journey has been how difficult it has been to ignore what society shouts at me. I've always known that body image is one of the most marketed issues out there but until now, I mostly was in line with what it was preaching. I was trying to be thin, trying to be athletic and look good and avoid high fat foods.  I passed billboards encouraging the consumption of skim milk and would think, "Of course, who would drink anything else?" 

So, when I was told by a doctor to pack on some pounds for a reason I really wanted to believe in, I went for it.  I weighed myself regularly in the hopes that I'd see the pounds increase. I did the calculations to figure out that BMI and was glad when it went up one and then two points into my target range. I ate second and third helpings at most meals. I enjoyed the psychology of watching men and women react differently to my doctor's orders. Some women would either sort of stay quiet and look like they were trying to be sympathetic and others might joke that they've never had that problem. Some reacted by giving me wonderful recipes to fatten me up.  Most men would state longingly that they would like to make an appointment with my doctor and then humorously point me towards some ridiculous food that would surely do the trick but that would also, likely, give me an instant heart attack.  Needless to say, it's not the kind of doctor-ordered regimen that most people have experienced and can empathize with.

Last Sunday, I woke up to an unusual 70 degree temp in steamy Durham. Wanting to take advantage of the first opportunity to wear pants since April, I excitedly pulled out my favorite dress pants. No go. Well, maybe my 2nd favorite pair. Nope. May as well try some jeans on while I'm at it. And...no.  I settled for a pair of pants I used to wear a lot the spring after Josh was born. Part of me was really excited - knowing that I'd really hit that target I'd, ahem, "worked" for.  But the part of me that was conditioned for 31 years to freak out if my clothes were getting too tight was not pleased. It ended up being a tough Sunday. These two sides battled with each other- the healthy side that knows what I'm doing is to help reach that goal of having another child and that I'm actually at quite a healthy weight and the side that still finds some self worth in how I look, the skinnier the better.

You see, there's no show out there called "The Biggest Gainer". Everything around me, from facebook ads to reality tv to billboards is screaming at me to want to be as skinny as I can possibly manage. The crazy thing is that I had to work to even notice how prevalent it was until these last 8 months when every decision I was making was going against the so-called standard of beauty. 

Well, I'm tired of what's preached. At some point, I hope, I will be in a position when I'm not trying to put on weight. There may even come a time, God willing, that I've had another baby and do need to lose some weight to be healthy. Will those ads still seem so sinister? Will I be able to resist falling back into those lies and be happy with being a healthy weight, even if it's not the standard of beauty, the skinniest of skinnies?   I truly hope so.  It helps that I have a husband who has pretty routinely told me through this whole gaining escapade that I look healthy and full of life.  He's great at reminding me of my inner beauty, that I am beautiful because of who I've been created to be.  (And I will freely admit that I don't mind that he does occasionally throw the word "hot" into the equation - after all, it feels good to be attractive to your spouse!) 

So, the next time I put on some clothes that fit a year ago and won't quite zip up, I'm hoping that the side that trusts my husband and my God will win out over the side of me that is still tempted to listen to what society preaches.   As each year of my life passes, I realize more and more that there's pretty much nothing worth listening to in those sermons anyway.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

For the Love of Colleagues

This past week I spent four days at a beautiful lake house with 10 of my staff colleagues. One particularly neat thing about this meeting is that it is the first time this particular group of people are working together on a team. We get to be a part of developing a new team culture and part of what we did all week was just spend hours getting to know each other. We did crazy things like "speed dating" and vulnerable things like sharing our stories and lots of hours of Settlers and Smash Brothers. And you know what? It was just plain fun. Just good, relaxing, enjoyable fun.

One of the things I love about staff is how much I laugh when I'm around them. They are a group of witty, honest, vulnerable people who are passionate about what they do and humble enough to come together in order to try to do it better. And in that doing, in that learning, there is a lot of opportunity for laughter. To enjoy one another and to be ourselves. I think I've realized in the last few years that I can be myself around staff like in no other place in my life. Not that there aren't places I can relax and people I enjoy being around, but there's this expectation in the staff world that you will just come as you are and that the people around you will love you well, accept you and help point you towards God in a way that'll help you work out the stuff that, well, still needs working out. And I went into this week really needing to work some things out, needing to be reminded of the Lord's deep love and pursuit of me as well as his ability to redeem all things, especially some of my more recent personal failures.

So today, after four days with this new team I come home deeply grateful for the colleagues that I have, who were a part of turning some of my tears to joy in ways they didn't even realize this week. If ever there is a time that I am called away from this ministry I will certainly and rightfully mourn the loss of being a part of such a movement, of being a part of a team that loves well, laughs often, works diligently and plays hard, all in the name of the Lord. Thanks, Central Carolinas. And thank you, Lord, for bringing us together.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Five Little Words

"How far along were you?" You get this question a lot when you have a miscarriage. It's usually the first thing someone will ask and I don't think it's asked with any hurtful intentions. But last January, when I was going through a long and drawn out miscarriage, with ups and downs, positive days where hope prevailed interspersed with blood tests and ultrasounds, mood swings and private pain that ultimately ended in the death of our unborn child, those five little words ended up changing the course of my life. You see, for some reason, I interpreted that question to mean that if I wasn't "far enough along" in someone's eyes, then my pain shouldn't be as real. That the shorter the pregnancy, the less I should have felt its loss. In the grand scheme of how long a pregnancy is, we weren't very far along. We hadn't really told anyone. But here was this little life inside me, with a potential birthday looming and all the preparations and joys of expecting and waiting for him or her were already very prevalent in my mind. And that life was cut short. I never got to meet my second child. And for some reason, I felt like I wasn't allowed to dwell on it, that I needed to just put my chin up and keep going. So that's what I tried to do.

18 months have gone by since that final blood test that confirmed that everything was finished. Every day I think about those words that different people spoke to me, I know, out of care for me, just wanting to know my story. But even now, I still feel angry with myself when I experience pain over this. Even now, I still don't feel like I ever let myself grieve, like I never had the right to really be upset about it. I'm still waiting to experience a whole day where thoughts about that child don't enter my mind. And each month that goes by where there's not that promise of another child is just one more painful reminder of that loss and the fact that I never really dealt with it.

I've never been the most open person, never particularly great at letting people love me. This blog has been one big lesson for me in openness, in taking risks relationally, albeit through the written word. Since the first day I started blogging, I've wondered if I'd ever feel freed up enough to post a blog on this topic. It's felt way too risky, felt like something I wasn't allowed to share, something I should be "over." But the bottom line is, I'm not. I didn't grieve well when I should have and so all these months later, I'm still unsure how I feel about the whole thing. I still don't have closure. I barely even shared the experience with people I knew loved me and probably would've let me cry had I let them love me.

The bigger question that I've been pondering, though, is why I interpreted that one question so destructively. Why I took gentle questioning for accusatory denial. "Get over this quick, you weren't far along! It's not a big deal!" No one actually said those things to me and yet that was what my mind heard. It heard not love and care for me but scarcity, disdain and impatience. Maybe that's what I feel for myself when I experience something I'd put in the category of "drama." I've always been vastly impatient with the dramatic, which is one reason I can't watch even 30 seconds of reality tv before becoming either overwhelmingly angry or having the almost irresistible urge to live somewhere where television doesn't exist. I disdain it, I get frustrated with it, I revere rationality and even-headedness. I don't want to get worked up about much, to dwell on pain or anger, to really feel much of anything if you really get down to it.

So what do I do? Where do you go when you were supposed to talk through something almost two years ago but that still feels like fresh pain? And how do you do it when the last thing you want to do is actually do it? When you still feel like you shouldn't be feeling what you're feeling.

I have no answers tonight, just questions. Five little words that have left me with gaping holes in how I understand healing. One question that has come back to me each and every day for months on end. The only thing that has been sure as I've continually returned to this is that I am not alone. There were times in this last year where I wondered where God really was, why things like this happen and why I was so unprepared to deal with it. The only answer I've really gotten in the midst of it all is that He is with me. No deeply theological and profoundly comforting statements on suffering, no answers to the why. Just a very gentle reminder that I am loved deeply by Him.

For now, I will have to let that be enough.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Fight

I've finally had some time this spring to sit down and enjoy watching "The Pacific" with my neighbors. For those who know me and have read my first blog and understand my blog's name, you know that I am almost obsessed with World War II history. I've read lots of books, watched a ton of movies, been to many museums, monuments and historically significant sites. I love talking about strategy, the European theatre, the homefront, the Holocaust. However, my knowledge has always been lacking on the Pacific theatre. Perhaps this is because my own grandpa fought at Normandy and I lost relatives in the holocaust so I've just been drawn more to that arena. Whatever the reason, I was really excited when my good friend Joe sent news that HBO was putting out another WWII era miniseries.

The thing that has been most striking to me about what I've learned is the relentless nature of the war in the Pacific. If you watch the series, you see night raids, men losing their minds from the constant pressure, malarial and starvation conditions and an enemy who fought to the death and never considered surrender. You don't hear a lot of grandiose boasting about how quickly and powerfully the Americans will win the war. You mostly see a lot of desperation, pervasive fear and a terror that follows you long after the ending credits roll. It's a long, slow fight against an ever-present and completely mysterious enemy.

I've been thinking lately about the fight for joy and its similarities to war. The idea that there are times in every person's life that he or she will hit that low point. Whether through a set of tragic circumstances, a crisis of faith, a personal failure, there's that moment when most of us will really have to face what it is we believe, what we've let define us and from where we get our strength. I've been on the upswing of one of these low points for the last few months. There are still days when I wake and feel just weighted with sadness. Most of the time I cannot identify the root cause, but I know it's something I have to fight. Satan would like nothing better than for me to mire in self-pity, to embrace my sad face and to treat others cruelly and selfishly as a result of my own despair.

On those days when joy feels elusive, I have to be reminded of the bigger picture, that the war has already been won, even if my present battle feels relentless. That's the difference between fighting for joy and the wars we see on earth. The outcome is already known- we've already been given that greatest victory in what Christ has done and who he has redeemed us to be and so when faced with the enemies of despair, disappointment, sin and self-focus we have to fix our eyes on the Victor.

John Piper says this: "Despair of finding any answer in yourself. I pray that you will cease from all efforts to look inside yourself for the rescue you need. I pray that you will do what only desperate people can do, namely, cast yourself on Christ. He has promised not to turn you away." This past year I couldn't rescue myself. My own crisis of faith precipitated by a personal loss created a situation of desperation and I spent many months just trying to survive, trying to plan or organize myself out of my own chaos and sadness. Couldn't be done.

Today, in the midst of that slow but steady upswing, I am thankful for God who alone can rescue. Who has won the battle against despair and offered joy that we can claim, even on those days when our feelings don't match it and whatever we're hoping for and dreaming of remains elusive. I am also thankful for those people in my life who have jumped into my foxhole with me, unabashedly loving me and pointing me towards that truth when I've had trouble reminding myself, those comrades-in-arms who have loved Christ enough not to give up on me, to ask the hard questions and unwaveringly point me towards the Author and Perfector of my faith.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Midnight Perspectives on Fatherhood

About a month ago, my husband and I hosted some young men in our home for about a week. Until they arrived on our doorstep we had never met nor spoken to these men. Through a convoluted set of "he knows her, she knows him, etc." these two guys drove all the way from Chicago to attend a week long conference at Duke and our bonus room and guest room played happy host to their tired bodies.

The first night they arrived, at about 10:00, we spent a few minutes just getting to know them and I made the colossal mistake of uttering the following words. "Our son never wakes up at night, so you should be able to get a great night's sleep before your crazy week starts!" You would think that after 3 1/2 years of parenting I would not tempt the sleep-radar in my son's head by uttering such a silly sentence. Of course, barely two hours after that, we awoke to a screaming child, feverish and complaining of pain in his ears. Great. Much comfort (and lots of shushing "because the guys are asleep in the next room") and a good dose of motrin later, he was back to sleep. A few hours later, same scenario all over again.

Of course, I woke up the next morning feeling sheepish and apologetic but our guests had already headed out for the day so my apologies had to wait. I spent the whole day feeling terrible that they had gotten a poor night's sleep on our watch and wondering how they were holding up at their marathon conference.

So, I was greatly humbled and flat-out floored by the following conversation that happened just minutes after their arrival home at the end of that long day.

Me:"Hey guys, I'm really sorry Josh was such a wreck last night. What a way to start your week."
Guy #1: "Actually, I didn't hear too much and, really, it's totally fine. Is he ok?"
Me: "Ear infection. And he's on drugs now so you should be fine tonight to sleep!"
Guy #2: "Actually, I was going to tell you it was really helpful to me. I was praying before bed and was pretty upset with God and then just a few hours later I heard your son upset and you patiently comforting him and I was like, wow, God, thanks for that beautiful picture of how you care for me! It really just blew me away!"
Me: "Huh?"

Seriously, I have never heard someone, particularly not someone who was sleep deprived and is not a parent, describe a sleepless and chaotic moment in the middle of the night with a child as a glimpse into the loving and fatherly character of God. Talk about a humbling moment. All day I had worried and felt guilty about putting those guys through a long day on little rest and the whole day one of them was thanking God for my son's sleeplessness and for how it had reminded him in a moment of frustration just how deeply his heavenly father cares for him.

I'm trying to learn from that guy. To see each parental moment, whether frustrating or joyful, as a chance to understand better the way that this earthly parent-child relationship can reflect and point to a far more effective, patient and loving Parent and how much I am loved and cared for by Him.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why I Want to Believe Mickey

Last week my family and I spent two days at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. We're not particularly Disney crazy around here. My son knows who some of the characters are, but that's about it. However, when presented with two free days worth of tickets, parking and stroller rentals, how could we turn it down? So, covered in sunblock, backpacks full of water, we ventured into the insane and stagnant heat of Orlando in June.

The first thing we were faced with, besides massive crowds of people and a thrilling monorail ride which, I think, would've fulfilled my son's every dream had we only stayed on that all day, was the huge Disney castle and the Disney characters performing a show that I can only assume was called "Dreams Really Do Come True" based on the sheer number of times that phrase was repeated throughout its duration. Mickey and the gang, along with Peter Pan and a myriad of princesses (who had all the little girls in the crowd practically freaking out with glee) talked and sang about, basically, the American Dream. How we can have anything we want, how we should reach for the stars and dream big and that all our dreams do come true. Now,it seems that Disney has capitalized on this theme to draw millions of people to its parks every year with the promise that our dreams actually will come true while at the amusement park. Bravo, marketing department.

The thing was, as I listened to Cinderella sing about her dreams and watched everyone rag on Donald for being the pessimist in the group, I wanted to believe every word. I wanted to buy into this idea that utter happiness can be achieved by getting exactly what I want. That my dreams are "just the beginning" and if I can "reach down into my heart" I will achieve anything.

So, as we made our way through the park, driving racecars, hugging Mickey, letting Josh ride his first roller coaster, eating ice cream, I began to wonder if some of my dreams were coming true. If I would truly be a happier person for having visited this crazy park, where every worker is eternally cheerful and every street is so clean you could eat off of it. My subconscious started to buy into this. I couldn't have identified a single "dream" to speak of, but I found myself hoping, wondering what new and exciting dream would come true in my life. I don't know how much their marketing guys are getting paid, but it appears to be well worth it.

I want to believe in the American dream. I want to feel like if I just achieve my dreams, whatever they are, if I have the house I want, the perfect number of kids, the good marriage, the stable life, that somehow I will have arrived. And wouldn't it just be easier if that were true? Then I could just work towards something, find it and be done.

There are some preachers out there who preach that if we obey God and follow him well, that we'll have the things we want and our life will be free of trouble. I think Disney is preaching the same thing, although packaged in the world of fairies and princesses. It's not any less harmful. It still teaches us to trust in our own ability to make things happen and to measure our worth by what we can achieve. And it still creates massive disappointment when we realize that no matter what we have, disappointment, hurt, pain, and sickness will still inevitably be a part of our lives. There's no real arrivals in life, only the journey. but Mickey would have me believe that I have a set of dreams that need to empirically come true and that once they do, it will mean happily ever after.

I'm thankful that we left that Disney park. We had two great days of fun, there's no denying it. But I'm thankful that my son will not grow up in the shadow of that Castle. I want him to understand that he can have big dreams, that he can desire to become something when he grows up, but that we are never promised perfection or happiness in this life and that our dreams can't define us. We are given this journey to find out who God is, draw closer to Him and, consequently, know ourselves and love others better, hopefully in a way that is characterized by hope and contentedness, not to live happily ever after.

Now, if there are sprinkles of happiness in the midst of it all, then all the better. But happiness is not the goal, it never has been. Knowing God is the only way that I can learn to experience real joy, not fleeting feelings of happiness, a joy that comes from having my identity firmly rooted in who God says I am, unchanging in the face of circumstances. A joy that will remain even when those Disney moments fade, when dreams don't come true, when trouble finds us. And a joy that will enrich those moments when good gifts do come, because I know the Giver all the more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

If you were born in the late 70's or early 80's, chances are you remember the theme song to "Cheers." You may have never even seen the actual show, but if you hear those first few notes you know what's coming and can eagerly sing those sweet words..."you wanna go where everybody knows your name, do do do do do!" It's a song I've thought about a lot, especially over this past year, as I've navigated being in a location where very few people actually know my name and fewer still know what makes up who I actually am.

So, as I found myself hurtling north on 95 this past weekend toward my annual college roommate reunion, I found myself more eager than I think I've ever been before to see these women, and that's saying a lot. Just to be somewhere for one whole weekend with a group of people who essentially grew up with me in college, who know my thoughts, my hopes, my fears, who can make me laugh so hard I think my face is going to fall off...to really be a place where I am truly known. And to know that even as I am truly known in all my good and in all those places of mine still at work, that I am recklessly loved. It felt like coming home.

You see, I've really been blessed in my life. I have amazing friends from growing up, friends who I still see and talk to and who are still in my business on a regular basis. I have incredible friends from college, who when we get together don't just reminisce about the old times but continue to make new, priceless memories together. God, in his infinite and beautiful wisdom, knows how much I need other people. Why? So that I'm not alone when I laugh and so that there's always a shoulder on which to cry. So that when I'm crazy and overwhelmed there are people to talk me down and when I am weary they are there to carry me through. To give me the opportunity to love fiercely and well and to take myself less seriously than I often do.

So, here's to my wonderful hoohah ladies Caitlin, Norah, Samantha and Rachel. To seven amazing hoohah weekends filled with crepes, laughter, wide-brimmed pink hats and consequent bold stares from passersby, long walks, dance parties, road trips, festivals, awesome cities, tears, beautiful green parks and long talks while sitting in them, aging aches and pains, 80's music, homemade oreos, too many pictures to count, spooning, Dr. Caitlin's diagnoses, multiple crazy and sweet babies who've come along for the ride and been officially inducted into the hoohah fray, understanding husbands who know how important this weekend this and, secretly, wish they could be a part of it and, most of all, to many more weekends filled with memories.

I am so thankful to have that place where everybody knows my name. To know and be known is one of the greatest gifts of life. Thanks ladies.

May the hoohah live forever. Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Presh

Several times in my life I've undergone an intervention of sorts. A good friend from home visited me shortly after we graduated from college and was appalled to see that my wardrobe basically consisted of everything she'd seen me wear in high school for four years. Even the tshirts that boldly proclaimed dates like 1991 on them. And yes, this was 2003. She begged me, practically commanded me, to ditch the wardrobe and start over. At the time I couldn't as I was living on $700 a month with a car payment, rent and everything else you need to survive in the budget. Clothes didn't make the cut.

I think my personal delight in fashion peaked in high school. Mid-90's, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., etc. No makeup, huge plaid button down shirts over white tshirts. Baggy jeans and hiking boots. I guess it was sort of a clean grunge. Hands down, it was the most comfortable period of my life. I held on to it through college(which was ok bc at least most of my college career was still technically in the 90's) but was firmly told it had to go in the new millennium. Sigh.

I know I'm not gifted in this area and I'm ok with that. I was recently reminded of this when I wandered into an Ann Taylor Loft store with a gift certificate and, apparently, a clueless look on my face. Don't get me wrong- since Daniela's intervention in 2003(which was later followed by a shopping spree courtesy of multiple gift cards at Christmas and dictated by hers truly) I have attempted to occasionally buy myself new things to wear and I like Ann Taylor Loft. Things fit, I usually don't feel completely out of my element and I can often find a good sale. The thing is, when I shop alone, I ALWAYS buy the same thing. Tshirts and jeans. And maybe they are more stylish tshirts and jeans than I used to wear, but I am a creature of habit.

So, when I found myself in this store, thumbing through a rack of shirts, I was a little nonplussed when a young woman walked up to me, rather overexuberantly in my opinion, asking if she could help me. I barely had time to say, "No thanks, I'm just looking" before the following conversation happened.

Girl: "Wait...I've got the perfect thing for you."
Me: "Um."
Girl: "OK, this looks like your size. (Holds up something in a color and style I'm not sure I even knew existed). What do you think?"
Me:"Um."
Girl: "OK, I'll just start a dressing room. I have a few other things that would be just presh."
Me: "Presh?"
Girl: "Presh."

After this, I proceeded to mutely follow this young woman around the store as she piled a billion things onto her arms, every once in awhile detouring to drop it off in the dressing room. Not once was I able to muster up any sort of intelligible defense, though I knew I could probably afford one or maybe two of the things in her enormous and optimistic pile.

After a while, she put together a bunch of outfits, made me try them on and model them for her. Yes, by the way, I was feeling about 5 years old and incredibly self-conscious at this point and still could not utter anything. Knowing that I'm fashion-challenged often gets me tongue-tied in these types of situations, much like when an overly zealous hairstylist starts talking to me about highlights and sulfates and other stylistic words I've never heard. You throw in the word presh, which it took me several minutes to decipher as slang for precious, and I'm completely befuddled. All my tomboy kicks in and I once again feel like the girl who'd rather wear anything but a dress to school and would prefer to spend her recess running races against the boys.

40 minutes later, I found myself leaving the store with a bag of clothes I would never have picked out for myself. Each item that I've worn since has gotten comments from people I've run into. Usually those comments have a touch of disbelief- "Oh, Carolyn, that's nice. Did YOU buy it?" I just kind of smile and nod. I don't know how to take fashion compliments as these are relatively new in my life.

The funny thing is, every time I walk past this store now, I wonder if this young woman is inside. I wonder if she's cornered some other hapless out-of-date shopper and is busy attempting to transform her wardrobe as well. This girl loved her job and man was she good at it.

So, while I'm eagerly awaiting the time when clean grunge will make it's reappearance (and have resolutely refused to trash ALL my flannel shirts), I appreciate the people in my life out there who are committed to helping me look like I understand that we're in a new millennium. I will also resolutely refuse to ever use the word "presh" in a conversation. But I can't help but think to myself, when I look in the mirror wearing anything that woman picked out, that I do, indeed, look presh. Whatever that means.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What do I say?

A few weeks ago my lovely neighbor gave birth to her third child. Her oldest is my little guy's best buddy in town and, appropriately, he's had questions about the situation over the last few months. A sampler of our conversations is as follows:

Josh: "She's going to have a baby? Why?"
Me: "Um, because she and her husband love each other very much and sometimes when people love each other God gives them a baby."
Josh:"And it's in her belly?"
Me: "Yes. (cringing as I know what the logical next questions will be from my inquisitive 3-year-old)
Josh: "How did it get in there?"


Now, I'm a big proponent of honesty. When he asks me scientific questions, I do my best to answer him honestly and using real language, not dumbed down baby speak. After my son asked me why the air was clear we had a very long and drawn out conversation in which I tried to explain the concept of molecules. Right. Similar in an explanation of why it rains. Try hearing the words "water vapor" out of a preschoolers mouth. But I think he should really know why things happen.

However, I was unprepared to try to unpack the idea of sex for my 3 year-old so I confess, I chose the easy way out. "God put the baby there."

The problem with my answer is that it has led to many more questions, the least of which are coming from my son. Like him, I wonder how babies get in there. Yeah, I know the biological ins and outs, but the probability factor when you're doing everything "right", the role God plays, well, these things are a frustrating mystery to me.

For 19 months my son has been waiting in expectation alongside his parents. When we first started trying around his 2nd birthday, I exuberantly asked him if he wanted to be a big brother. He, not knowing what at all that actually meant, looked at me sweetly and said "Yes, Mommmy." Months went by with no result and I stopped being the one who brought it up. Sometimes we'd go weeks without talking about it and then, suddenly, in our prayer time before nap he'd say "Mom, I'd like to pray today for my little brother and sister. Will they be coming soon?" (I should add that despite all my best efforts he is convinced that if he ever does become a big brother, it will be to twins. Lord, help.)

For a number of months, I'd confidently answer that yes, God was going to make him a big brother really soon. Lately, though, I find myself hesitating. Am I lying to this child when I say that? What if it never happens? What if I just set him up for a big disappointment? Maybe he's meant to be an only child.

So, two days ago, after we had seen the new little baby next door, Josh looked up at me innocently and said "Is my baby brother coming soon, too?" And when I had to, finally, use those words I'd avoided and tell him that I didn't know if his baby brother was coming, he looked so crestfallen and confused. "Why, Mom?"

And this is what it comes down to. I've asked myself the same question a hundred, no a thousand times. People like to give you lots of answers for why you're struggling with infertility. "Maybe God is teaching you something. Maybe your body's waiting until the right moment. Maybe you will be used in other people's lives who struggle with this." And on and on. A lot of it feels like white noise. Like most people dealing with disappointment, I don't want potential excuses for why it's happening. I just want answers and, since those are in short supply, I'd just like not to feel so alone so much of the time. But wanting something so badly that you have no power to gain is a very isolating experience. Particularly when it feels the world around you is very fertile ground.

I find a lot of solace in my son. He asks the questions that I feel like I'm not supposed to ask if I have faith and trust that God only has good for me. Maybe I don't want to learn something new or maybe I think it's utter bull that my body isn't "ready" and that I should put on 10 pounds or that I think that God would be better off using somebody else to help other people dealing with infertility. But the bottom line for me is I just don't understand. I'm disappointed and I know that my "why" might never be answered.

So, for now, I'm not sure what I'll say the next time the question arises with little man. His optimism has helped me through many a sad moment, but at what point do I hurt him by letting him believe something will happen if it's not been promised to us? At what point does expectation become painful disappointment? I want to remain optimistic myself. I don't want to give up. I want to wait on the Lord.

But sometimes at night, when both my wonderful husband and sweet son are asleep, I quietly think to myself that maybe I already have my answer. And I know I should be content with what I've been given. But I ache inside for what I still want.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Dating Your Friends

The whole of my growing up years it seems as though potential friendships were practically thrust at me. My parents moved to a neighborhood when I was just 1 year old where my two closest neighbors were two other little girls my age. Later, school started and I met people my age with similiar life goals (learn the alphabet, try not to stab your neighbor with a fork, etc.) that encouraged camaraderie and good will. You grow up and find other things in common, sometimes you make some enemies along the way. You hit college and you get this instant dose of close friends because you're living and eating together, basically becoming adults together. It's like a new form of family.

And then you graduate.

And you have to date to find friends.

Typical post college conversation with new acquaintance:

Me: So, um, you want to maybe grab coffee sometime?
Acquaintance: Sure. Um, when are you free?
Me: Oh, anytime. Um, except for all day long, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights and the next 4 weekends when I'll be out of town. What about you?
Acquintance: Hm. I'm not free on Mondays or Thursdays and when you get back into town I'll be leaving for a month. Maybe I'll call you when I'm back in town and we can set up a time to hangout then?
Me: Sure, sounds great. I'll look forward to it.

And then a year goes by. A year where I've probably not done a ton of hanging out with anyone I'm actually really comfortable with. I've gone on lots of little "dates" with people who are my age(or, as is often the case, 5 years younger) and still don't have a friend like those college and hometown friends. Still no one that you can just call up last minute to just hang out, who really does know you. Because making friends after college really is like dating. It's awkward, you have to plan it out and you spend the whole time wondering if you're clicking enough to even bother trying to hang out again, let alone dreaming of a time when you could just sit around in your pj's laughing together while you attempt to learn the dance to "Seize the Day" from Newsies. (Seriously, not an unlikely scenario for my college friends and I. Not saying we did it. Not saying we didn't.)

It's all compounded if you happen to be an introvert who works a job that requires you to be extremely outgoing and pursue people all day long. You go to hang out with college students all day, have tons of interesting and often pretty deep conversations about life, God and the state of the world and sometimes the last thing you have energy for when you get home at night is calling someone up and pursuing them. Inviting them on a friend date that may or may not actually happen because of the mutual chaos of your schedules.

Since we've moved to NC, I haven't had that crazy long day of pursuing people. I've often just had a day of playing with trains, snacking on goldfish and enduring tickle fights. And I'm not going to say I've become this amazing friend-maker as a result. I think I'm inherently pretty slow at it. I'm not the type of person that's ever going to have a million good friends and, as I've posted previously, I do have major issues with the phone. I just find it hard to take that first step.

But, I've seen progress. I've gone on a few of those friends dates and they've actually resulted in finding what my college roommates and I (as well as Anne of Green Gables) would call 'kindred spirits'. I've met some people I can do life with "last minute." Who are ok, I think, with me being me when we're together. As a result, I'm laughing more and smiling more. I'm reminded of just how powerful a good friendship can really be in our lives. How just being around someone we're comfortable with can really put life back into perspective somehow.

I'm told that after your 20's and early 30's it can get easier to make friends again. I hope that's true. For now, I'm thankful for the ones I already have and so excited about the new ones I'm coming to know. And I'm looking forward to the day when dating really is over with. For good.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mud Therapy

When my husband and I first bought a house 6 years ago we inherited nothing but 4 boxwoods and a big old mud pit. My gardening experience up to that point had been limited to begrudgingly weeding around my mom's shrubs and one paltry attempt at growing a few sad tomatoes. You don't get a lot of gardening opportunities in college and I learned quickly that I'm not an indoor plant kind of person.

So, like any educated but clueless person, I ventured down the street to the library. I should mention here that by library I mean a building that was smaller than my house and probably contained the same number of books as my son's bookcase, but, nonetheless, the sign said Public Library so I showed up eagerly perusing the garden section. You might imagine that a branch libary in the inner city would not have a large garden section and you'd be right. But, a few books was all I needed to at least take a risk and try planting a few things. My mom bought us a rose to plant to mark the new adventure of home-owning and moving to the city and I proudly planted it in our muddy back yard in a sad little corner, with no clue what I was doing.

Well, years passed. I read more books. I learned how to transplant, I learned how to make bulbs bloom again and again, how to plant trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Just this year I built my own plant growing system and grew all my annuals from seed. And what have I learned? Gardening is pretty darn hard work but also one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It takes patience...when you plant a seed in January and have to wait for it to actually flower in May. When you wait for that tiny little shrub to double in size over 5 years and actually start to fill in. When you have to scrub your nails for 10 minutes every night just to try to get the dirt out from under them- I'd rather be wrist deep in dirt than use garden gloves, in case you were wondering. It just feels good, maybe some deep connection with my youth and making mud pies.

But the deeper lesson I've learned here is that mud seems to be deeply therapeutic for me. After a long day at work or a trying day of parenting, sometimes the most relaxing thing I can do is go outside, grab my shovel and dig a big hole. I'm willing to spend 6 hours in the blazing sun edging my flower beds because all the while I'm working, I'm not thinking. I'm not brooding or worrying or rehashing a conversation or planning the next 20 things I need to do. I'm just being and enjoying and I'm doing it in this beautiful creation that God has made and invited me to participate in cultivating. And weeks or months later, when I do sit down with a cup of coffee and just breathe it all in, it's beautiful. Not just because I have worked hard but because the Lord has brought me into his most beautiful visual creations. He has taught me how to care for them, to prune them, to love them...and then gifted me with the simple task of just sitting among it all in rest and joy, without agendas or lists.

A friend recently told me that people of my Myers-Briggs, ISTJ's, are often attracted to gardening because it's this chance to sort of leave all the control and need to be ordered behind and just get dirty. I see that. Being among the flowers and the earth and the worms and all the different scents that you just drink in is, for me, experiencing a kind of purity, a kind of embracing of that part of me that resists some of my more manic tendencies.

So, when I'm finally done with this season's huge task of mulching a billion flower beds, I'll continue to find new ways to cover myself with backyard mud. It seems to me to be nature's sweetest therapy. And probably, in the midst of it, I'll teach my son to make mud pies too.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Upside to Free-Falling

If you don't live next door to me, across the street or on the other side of the bed, chances are you don't hear from me much. I'm one of those people who refused for years to get a cell phone. I finally gave in only to let voicemail do most of the work for me. Most of my best friends and my family are "just a phone call away", which may as well be Venus, for all I'm good at actually reaching out.

Part of my problem is that I'd rather speak in person. I'd rather read a person's face as they are sharing or be able to interpret body language to figure out if something is sarcastic or genuine. I rarely feel emotionally connected to someone through a phone call- maybe it's because my son is chattering in my own background or every other word is cutting out and I'm just tired of saying, "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" as if I have some inherent inability to comprehend anything said to me.

My other problem is that I have to make the choice to pick up the phone. I have to, in a moment, decide to let someone in on what is going on in my life intentionally. I can either choose to tell or choose to go on with my day. I usually choose the latter. This stood out to me particularly last week when I sent out a letter to my InterVarsity supporters. Many of the people on that list are my family and many more my friends. Had I picked up the phone to share my big news with them before that letter went out? A career decision made? Nah, let them just find out with the rest of the world. It's safer that way, right? No real questions asked, no one needing to know what else besides that is going on in my life.

One of the biggest issues I faced head-on in my sabbatical is something I still have trouble admitting. I'm desperately fearful of intimacy. In my heart of hearts, I do desire it, I do want to need people and be needed by them. At least I think I do. But it almost never plays out that way. Nine times out of ten, when I'm celebrating something or having a horrible day or need to think something through, I do it alone. I'm not even totally sure why. Oh, I'm very happy to call people up and tell them about things after the fact, though. "Yeah, last week was kinda rough, but it's all good. I'm fine. Things are great, God is good. So, how are you?" The message I think I'm probably sending is "Problem solved, I don't need you, but thanks very much for being a part of my life."

OK, closet admittance here. I watch Gray's Anatomy. And I haven't been able to figure out why I watch Gray's Anatomy until just this past week. I spent the last few years watching these episodes and feeling fascinated by the emotional immaturity and, in particular, the way that two of the main characters really push everyone else away. The ways they fear intimacy, the ways they build walls around themselves, the choices they make not to cry or not to feel. I watched this detachedly until last week when a quote really hit me and I realized I wasn't just watching them. I was identifying with them. In an episode when a lot of stuff was going wrong for almost everyone, the main character Meredith said "If there's an upside to free-falling, it's the chance you give your friends to catch you." Oh.

This past year, there has been a lot of free-falling for me. Lots of transitions, loss, fear, anger, new beginnings. Tons of uncertainty. And I've realized in the midst of it how alone I often choose to be. That I still haven't really realized that upside that Meredith was talking about. I glimpse it sometimes, I try to let people in, but I often, ultimately, choose myself. Choose to assume that people are busy, it's the wrong time to call or just choose not to take a risk and let someone possibly love me well. I keep the phone on silent or vibrate and let my voice mail do my screening. And because of this, I deny my friends the chance to catch me.

I'm not sure where to go from here. Not totally sure how to share my life better. Not even totally sure I'm ready to try. So it seems I find myself yet again at a place where it's clear that my life doesn't match up with what God would like for it and I'll have to learn anew how to trust Him in this area.

Maybe the first step is actually picking up the phone when it rings. Maybe.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Redefining Productivity

Three and a half years ago my life was forever changed. Now, all parents say that the advent of parenthood is an adjustment or something you're never actually ready for. For me, the word adjustment is an understatement. The things I valued most in life seemed to come under direct attack from this tiny little helpless person. Independence, productivity, personal space and comfort. Sleep and regular food consumption, for that matter. I sometimes think of those first few months of my son's life as my own personal dark ages. Don't get me wrong. I love my child and am eternally grateful for him. But in those first few months, when I had a newborn that wouldn't nurse, barely slept and screamed if he was ever put down, night and day, I did not generally respond favorably to those people in my life who would look at my child and say "Isn't he just the sweetest little miracle?" Honestly, I loved him dearly but what I thought when I looked at him was "holy crap, this is a freakin' bucketload of work and if I don't sleep soon I'll probably either drive my car off the road or scream at one of my students who complains of being tired." Oh wait, I did do that last one. Multiple times.

Needless to say, parenthood has been unexpected. I've learned that I'm not really a baby person. I'm ok with this- I guess not all people can naturally be good with babies. I love my 3 year old. I love being able to talk and race and play baseball. I love singing and dancing. I love that he is a human being who can, generally, be reasoned with. The first 6 months of his life were really hard. I felt like all I could do was survive- feed him, keep him clean and dry and not screaming- and then scrape by in the rest of my life. Staff life suffered, personal relationships suffered, and I beat myself up over it.

Something my husband has said over and over to me in the past few years is that there has to be a redefinition of success. I've tried over and over to continue to live my life at the same speed, with the same extracurricular commitments since becoming a mom. Most of that has ended in what feels like either mediocrity or failure. I think this is because I've tried to measure my success with the same parameters of my pre-mom days. So those days when all I have done is lain on the couch with a sick child on my chest, changed diapers and then paced the halls at night have been the hardest. What did I accomplish? What do I have to show for it, right? And, for goodness sake, what about my time with God? Where the heck do "quiet times" fit in when your kid gets up at 5:30 and then demands attention all day long until you hit the point when he's finally asleep and all you literally have energy for is crawling into your bed? Sometimes without your teeth brushed.

So, redefinition is critical. Not just my husband but other wise people have helped me to think through this. Helped me to think through having grace towards myself in a new season of life. To know that it's ok if my prayer life only consists of prayers said while pushing a kid in a stroller or that worship music in the car is my new lifeline for personal devotions. That feeding and clothing and loving a child is beyond productive and it doesn't matter if I've written a darn thing or even washed the family's clothes.

Occasionally, now that my son is three, I do end up with these long stretches of time where he's being unexpectedly independent. I can get things done on the computer, do laundry, even attempt to keep the house clean in my own pathetically un-domestic way. And I think back and wonder what the heck I did with all my free time. Because now when it comes, it's like a frantic race to see how much I can possibly accomplish before I hear the words "Mommy, will you play with me?" again. And I am able to "produce" exponentially more than I think I ever did before in very short snatches of time. In those moments, I have to fight to not redefine my day by what I can show for it. I'm a slow learner when it comes to grace, so I'm thankful that God continues to put people in my path who help remind me that I'm where I should be and doing what I should do.

So, when I wake up each morning, my prayer and hope is not that I accomplish a lot that day, but that whatever I do, I do it as unto the Lord. Potty training, writing talks for large groups, cooking dinner, praying with a friend over the phone. Even cleaning up dog vomit. Because this is the day that the Lord has made and I will choose to rejoice, be glad in it and let God continue to redefine how I measure success.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Big Bellies, Beautiful Babies and My Easter

I woke up this morning in full expectation of a glorious Easter. It's practically summer already in NC, which means I've had my hands deep in rich, dark earth on a daily basis, I'm back to running and we haven't had the heat turned on in weeks. So, this morning, I dressed in a somewhat Eastery dress, packed up the family and headed to church. The first thing I saw upon exiting my car was a very pregnant woman and, much to my chagrin, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. After that, it seemed like every woman who walked down the aisle had a big old pregnant belly right at my eye level and everyone surrounding me had a newborn baby, cute as could be in a ridiculously frilly summer dress and clamoring for attention. Suddenly, I was in the land of envy, longing for something over which I have no control.

The last two months I've been on a fast. Some might have deduced what said fast was about by reading through the lines of posts, but basically I vowed that for two months I would not think, plan or pray about a second child. I handed the praying over to trusted friends and said that anytime the thought, the longing came into my path, I'd divert my prayers and focus elsewhere. Sometimes this worked well and I found myself really engaged in prayer or planning in something else and other times it was just a fight to keep the baby thoughts out of my head. There were moments I was at peace with never having another child and other moments that the desire was so strong I thought I'd stop breathing for how much I wanted one. Bottom line, though, was that I thought I was making progress. I thought God was really teaching me how to not focus on this biggest of desires, how to seek Him in the moments of being overwhelmed and to, somehow, lessen that desire.

So, this morning, when my Easter ended up consumed by jealousy, distracted by big bellies and beautiful babies, I was angry. Angry at what I felt like was a waste of two months of my life. The first day that I'm off this fast and already I end up jealous and discouraged? What were the last two months for? And to not be able to truly engage with the message this morning, with the beautiful music? Easter only comes around once a year and I essentially missed it.

I think I came off this fast thinking I'd be a lot better at denying myself, but this is why fasting is so hard and why I think we often shy away from it or end up discouraged. It doesn't necessarily work an instant miracle- it was a chance for me to experience God in a fresh way for two months, to deny myself thinking about my most wanted desire in favor of other things and to have a chance to enter into some hard areas for me to process and pray that had nothing at all to do with my fertility. It most assuredly worked change in me that I can't even yet see, but it certainly didn't make my will perfect. It's not meant to, but oh how I wish it would! Oh how I wish that when I saw that beautiful woman in the parking lot, my first thought was one of selfless rejoicing for her gift and not of pitiable self-focus on my own lack thereof.

Nonetheless, in a way, I'm almost thankful that I had such a bad morning. It reminded me that I didn't "do" anything these past two months. God did. And He continues to work in me in ways that I cannot feel and cannot know. Yet. I am confident that as He and I continue to work this junk out that there will be times when I can be selfless and rejoice for people who have that one thing that I so long for. I am also confident that in those moments when I fail, when I give into my selfishness, that He will stick by me, forgive me, pick me up out of that sin and keep me moving forward into new life.

Maybe, just maybe, I didn't totally miss out on Easter after all.