on this side of the fence

The grass at our house isn’t very pretty.  Our front yard consists mostly of crabgrass and clover punctuated by various weeds that change with the seasons - tall, spiky windmills and straight, spindly spires and lots and lots of dandelions (and puffs!).  We are slowly replacing it all with small garden beds and I have a dream and a 5 year plan to turn the whole thing into a food-producing Eden.  But for now, it’s weedy.
Out back our grass is patchy.  Multiple trees stretch their branches over our fences and across our yard and I truly appreciate the shade they create for us throughout the heat of summer.  But so much shade results in bald spots and large swaths of moss and weak little clumps of grass stuck here and there amidst more clover, and the trees drop thousands of little twigs and branches on the ground.
To be honest, I don’t often think about our grass until I find myself in the yard of a friend who has a really nice lawn.  There, I can kick off my flip flops and walk barefoot in the softness, letting the tips of the grass tickle my toes.  I can plop right down with my girls and not worry about getting poked by sticks or bruised by rocks.  I can lie back on that pretty, pretty grass and close my eyes.  I think, This is nice.

* * *

Last summer my kids created the most amazing miniature village in our backyard.  They cleared a large piece of ground under a hackberry tree.  They hunted for sticks that were just the right diameter, broke them and poked them into the ground to make walls, then covered their tiny structures with beautiful roofs of moss.  They found jagged rocks and small pebbles, a piece of a broken terra cotta pot and dried berries and feathers.  They were, they declared, creating a home for the bugs, and they christened it Bugville. (The fact that the entire outside world already is a home for the bugs seemed lost on them.)  They worked painstakingly for days, tracking dirt in and out of the house as they fetched cups of water for the ground and for themselves to aid in their labor.  Even months after summer’s heat waned they continued to check on it, clearing away dead leaves and searching for signs of habitation.  For them, that weedy, patchy, twiggy backyard was just what they needed.

* * *

It is so dang hard to quit the comparison game.  My mind knows better but my heart seems prone to wandering from my own well-known mess into the blissful ignorance of someone else’s and then wondering about it.  The struggle can be superficial - material possessions and appearances and beauty.  But it also goes deeper, to those essential questions of worth and purpose. Someone’s doing it differently and doing it well and so what does that mean about me?  Someone else is (I assume) a better wife or mother or human being than I am, someone else speaks so eloquently while I have nothing to say, someone else does more than me or better than me or both.  When I do this, I always lose.
I compare and I lose my confidence in myself and in my choices.  
I compare and I lose my sense of who I am.  
I compare and I lose my peace.
I compare and my joy slips away.  
It’s only when I keep my eyes open to the gifts I have in front of me - rather than wandering and wondering, constantly looking, looking all around to see what everyone else is doing or saying or (here’s the real kicker) posting - that my joy increases exponentially as my heart remembers to say, “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.”  

It’s sometimes said that the grass actually isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.  I think that’s true, although it would be fair to say, too, that it’s most likely a whole lot softer and maybe even prettier over there.  But here, inside the beautiful confines of our own fence, we have sticks and rocks and berries.  We have moss and clover flowers and small hands bringing to life the imagined fancies of fascinating little minds.  Over here, we have Bugville.


for Emmie, who puts everything in her mouth

Things I’m Learning from my 1 year old

Focus on what you want and single-mindedly pursue it.  When you have it in hand, work like crazy to protect it.

Don’t worry about falling – on your butt or your face – during the pursuit, and definitely don’t worry about whether anyone else sees how ridiculous you look.  Focus.

If you lose what you were pursuing, it’s okay to cry about it. 

But then get on with it.  Find something that makes you giggle, or locate a new passion.  Be flexible with your dreams, and don’t feel too bad about abandoning one for another.

Or, just single-mindedly pursue the old dream.  Some things are worth an infinite amount of effort.

Things I would like my 1 year old to Learn from Me

We don’t eat sidewalk chalk.  Gross.


where our story lives

Last week I cleaned out our Important Documents Box.  Lest you get the wrong impression and start to think that I am, in fact, a responsible adult with a metal filing cabinet, a lockbox, or anything resembling a system, let me clarify.  Our Important Documents Box is a Huggies cardboard box that once held diapers for my infant twins and now contains our marriage and birth certificates, teaching credentials and employment contracts, medical bills and financial statements.  It has faithfully held up as we have schlepped it from Santa Barbara to our rental in Nashville, then into our home, later onto my grandparents’ house in Franklin, and back here once again.  It is very humble and just a bit tattered and, well, it’s a diaper box full of our family’s most important papers.  If you are my dad or any of our financial planner friends, I’m sorry I’ve let you down.
Once every year or so I pull it out and weed through it, putting into place the many papers I have inevitably tossed into the top at random when I am in a hurry or have a baby in my arms.  I pull out things we no longer need to hang onto and then feel very superior as I carry my Huggies box back to its spot in the laundry room, neat and clean as any old filing cabinet with a system.  I cross “Important Docs” off my to-do list, decide what needs to be shredded, and don’t think much about it for another 12 months.
This year, though, as I was combing through everything, I actually stopped and noticed several folders that I usually leave untouched.
Santa Barbara Radiology.
California Children’s Services.
Santa Barbara Neonatal Medical.
I picked them up, opened them, and there it all was.  The chest x-rays and the brain C/Ts, each individual day spent in the NICU, everything itemized and lined up in neat rows.  And then my own notes scribbled across the tops and bottoms of each page, this amount paid this date, that amount paid that date, arrows and question marks and dated notations after phone conversations with insurance companies and hospital billing offices and county services.
I remembered those initial days of terror after the twins’ birth, the eventual rhythm of the NICU that we fell into, the almost-as-scary first days of having the girls home with us. I remembered the incessant beeping of the monitors, the unique smell of the NICU soap, the dull scratching of the sponge I’d use to scrub away any invisible threats to my children’s health that might be lurking on my arms and under my fingernails.  I remembered the way Elijah looked reading a bedtime story to his babies as they lay inside their incubators, eyes screwed shut and tiny bodies red and wrinkly, the way Sophie looked with an IV sticking out of the top of her head.  I remembered the way the nurses taught me to never set anything on the floor of a hospital and the way I begged God with every breath to send my babies home.
 I remembered my joy and fear and gratitude and utter exhaustion as I looked at those scribbled notes, and I felt so much love and compassion for us as we were then, a Mama and a Daddy in way over our heads.  We were confused and we were so, so tired and we were overjoyed.  We would look at each other and say, “Can you believe we have TWO babies?!”  We were practically babies ourselves.
These statements, mostly medical bills, were all 8 and 9 years old.  Technically, it was well past time to off-load them.  I had the girls’ medical records tucked safely into different folders.  I grabbed the bills to toss them into the shred pile, and then I hesitated.  It felt strange, almost sacreligious, to banish this history of our early life as a family to the recycling center.  Because what would we be - where would we be - without it?
Trauma of any kind is so formative and aggresively shapes us.  The entrance of our children into the world completely rewrites everything we previously knew and believed about our lives.  Trauma involving the entrance of our children into the world?  That is some intense stuff.  It has the power to inform - even dictate - every thought, action, and response that we have about and toward our kids.  Sophie and Aida’s time in the NICU was a clear and physical manifestation of my fears, and what I imagine are the universal fears of parents all over the world - will my child be okay?  What will happen if she’s not?  What will happen if she is hurt, maligned, wayward, unhappy, dissatisfied, injured?  What will happen if my child dies?
            After some significant internal back-and-forth, I tossed them.  I’m focusing this year on shedding things, on clearing space in our home and in my mind, on letting go of things I thought I needed but really don’t.  Material possessions, certain beliefs about myself and those I love, old and lingering fears – I am out of patience and out of strength to carry things that only weigh me down.
            Here’s what really matters – we lived those days.  They changed us.  My body bears scars and my heart does, too. The joy, the exhaustion, the tears, the laughter – they have been woven into the fabric of our family’s history, an embroidery of sorts that is constantly being added to, amended, new colors and designs taking form on every side.  And the fear?  We looked it square in the eye.  We lived with the suffocating discomfort.  We walked through it.  We came out on the other side.  We developed a little bit of grit and a few calluses and these things have served us well as we’ve again faced heartache and the fear that it can bring.
           I don’t need a stack of papers with scribbled notes to remind me of all of that.  I can see it in the 5 pairs of blue eyes that look into mine each night around the dinner table.  Here is where our history exists. Here is where our story lives.


on fear & beauty

I felt it when I woke up this morning, like an old, familiar friend.  Or foe.  It was a feeling of dread as I pulled myself up and crawled out of bed.  It was a small rush of anxiety as I heard Elijah getting ready to head out the door into the still-dark of the morning. It was the mantle of worry that I pulled around my shoulders as I reflected on our night, on how many times the baby woke up and whether or not she has an ear infection, and if she does, whether or not I should subject her body to antibiotics or let it fight on its own, and if I let it fight on its own, how long I should let it go, and then how long will it be until I feel confident that she's ready to sleep through the night again...

It goes on like this, and it's not really about ear infections, at least not entirely.  The deeper, darker questions are the real ones - am I doing the right things?  How will I know how to do the right things? Am I enough?  Will I ever be enough?  How can I keep all the broken parts of this world outside of my home and away from my family?

A door opened, and a daughter slipped from her room into the bathroom.  I turned on the kitchen light, took a long drink of water. I contemplated coffee, or tea, then decided to wait to minimize noise.  I finally thought to pray.  "O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things..."

What is it about my life, this beautiful life, that causes me to worry? And what is it about the night that presses those worries down fast and hard until they feel suffocating?  How do I let go of fear and embrace this life, with all of its uncertainties and heartaches, its ear infections and lice infestations and death that comes too soon and its suffering and hunger?

This early morning feeling of worry is nothing new.  I slip it on like my coziest sweater.  Even before I had children I would sometimes wake with dread about an upcoming test or presentation, worries about my students or my parents or my siblings, fear for this world.  But without question, becoming a mother has intensified it.  The stakes, now, just seem so much higher.  When I love these little people so deeply and powerfully, how can I bear the possibility that one day I may have to let them go? That they will feel pain, or suffer, or be unhappy?  How can I bear the possibility that, at some point, I might be the cause of those things for them? How can I accept that they live in such a broken world and that its brokenness will break their hearts?  

So, in a feeble attempt to control these possible outcomes, I worry about them.  I tell myself that if I think long enough and hard enough about how to do the RIGHT THING, then I can just do it and we can avoid all of the WRONG THINGS.  Easy peasy.  And all around me hearts continue to break and people keep dying too soon and Mamas try to find food for their starving babies.


All around me the world offers up beauty and hope like a gift.  All around me, right before me, are moments of joy and miracles both tiny and large.  All around me there is goodness, kindness, creativity, bravery, redemption.  People speaking out against injustices, people moving toward love and away from hate.  The glory of creation, and a small hand tucked into mine.  Friends who give their lives in the care of the hungry and the desolate, and friends who give their lives in the care of their beloved children.  A voice that whispers, "Be still and know."  Oh, if I only had the eyes to see, the ears to hear!

I don't mean this in a trite or oversimplified way, as if I can erase true suffering with some magical formula of thanksgiving and prayer.  The world and our pain are too deep, too complex for that.  As each day passes, I see this more clearly.  But I mean this in a real, true sense, that as I live in this complicated mix of the terrible and the beautiful, I look for the gifts.  I name them.  I hold them close to me - not because I'm afraid that they'll one day be ripped away (my first inclination), but because, in doing so, I rest in the Light of life rather than dwell in the darkness of fear.

I used to think that if I could just attain a certain level of gratitude and peace I could check it off my to-do list and go on my merry way, floating above the realms of worry and anxiety for the rest of my days.  And there I was, striving and listing and praying and wondering why it kept feeling like such hard work, and like it wasn't working.  But I am learning slowly - so slowly - that there is no single moment, no single decision to reject fear and embrace gratitude that will be a cure-all. I really wish there was, because then it wouldn’t be so dang hard.  Instead, life seems to go more like this - I wake up in the morning and, without even thinking about it, shrug on the worry like it’s my coziest sweater.  Sometimes I’m already buttoning it up before I realize what’s going on.  I make the conscious decision to take it off and to pick up a different garment, one woven from many strands - gratitude, trust, prayer, surrender, eyes purposefully looking for joy and beauty, hands and a heart purposefully unclenching to let go of the need to control.  This one doesn’t fit quite so cozily.  It’s tight and stiff in some places and hangs awkwardly in others.  It’s a bit flimsier; it doesn’t keep much out.

But it lets so much in - all that beauty, all that hope.


today I will consider my blessings

Things I am grateful for today:

Emmie, who loves her paci so.  I always put her down in her crib with one already in her mouth.  She searches around for one of the extras I leave at various spots in her bed, just in case.  She grabs it and clings to it with her left hand, puts her cheek against her sheet, and closes her eyes.  I want to cover her in kisses or devour her but that would wake her up.  I tiptoe out of the room instead.

Windows flung open to a glorious morning.  Coffee with cream and vanilla right next to me.  Red and orange chrysanthemums in an empty baby food jar at my elbow.  Beauty and peace in the smallest of things.

Lucy, who has spent the last 2 months sleeping in our room while we attempt to teach the baby to sleep through the night (this is not going well).  I snuggle up with her in my bed each evening.  We read, pray, sing, get a drink of water, talk about what tomorrow will bring, list 8 things for her to think about while she falls asleep, pinkie promise that I’ll come check on her after I make lunches, pinkie promise that she’ll close her eyes while she waits.  She’s usually out within 3 minutes, long before lunches are packed.  When Elijah and I tiptoe into our room a few hours later we move her onto a pile of blankets and pillows on the floor.  Our bed is warm where her sweet body lay heavy and peaceful and it smells like Lucy.

Tomatoes that insist on growing even though I’ve given up on watering the garden for the year and it hasn’t rained in weeks and we’re a third of the way into November.  Delicious miracles, each tiny yellow globe.

Sophie, who is so tall that I can rest my chin on her head when we stand and pray each night, who loves to pick up Emmie and wears sequined knee socks with her school clothes and works so concientiously that her handwriting is better than mine.  She joyfully plunks out songs on the piano and she folds her legs up under her to read on the couch and she notices beauty.  She is beauty.

A stack of books on the bedside table waiting to be picked up, opened, investigated, learned from.  Insisting that I close social media, put the phone away, quiet all those other voices.  Hear something worth listening to, listen to something worth hearing.

Aida, her body so full of energy, ideas, power that she doesn’t know what to do with - yet.  She chases Lucy through the house, out back and around to the front, her braid swinging behind her.  She pretends she doesn’t need it but she craves physical touch, a hand held, a head stroked.  She sits cross-legged on the floor of her room, plunking out melodies on her guitar.  She kicks soccer balls at the fence and everything she does brims with intensity. She is so interested.  She is so interesting.

A refrigerator full of food.  This is a gift I do not take lightly.

Elijah, who never notices the baby toys on the floor and then surprises us all with candied pecans for our salad when we burst through the front door after guitar lessons and it’s dinner time.  He is creative, and thoughtful, and funny.  His musical tastes are intriguing and he makes waffles on Saturday mornings.  Sometimes when I’m with him, I remember who I used to be.  Sometimes when I’m with him, I think about who I might become.

A deep breath.  And then another.  And then another.


the in between

2 years ago I had my 2nd miscarriage.

My three girls were tucked away, sleeping.  We were living at my grandparents’ house.  I began getting ready for bed, sat down at the toilet, and did what I’ve done every time I’ve gone to the bathroom during a pregnancy since my first miscarriage - closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and steeled myself, all in a heartbeat.  Then I opened my eyes, glanced down, looking for blood, hoping it wasn’t there.  I had made it through my entire pregnancy with Lucy without seeing any.  But this time, there it was.

I’m not much of a swearer (I had a brief “dirty word” phase in 7th grade but got over that quickly, thankyouverymuch) but in that moment I said every bad word I could think of, sitting there on that toilet.  I wish I could say I had been more eloquent in the face of another heartbreak. I wasn’t.

This was different from my first miscarriage.  The first time it was an ectopic pregnancy that burst and then bled into my body while I walked around for another 2 days (denial is a powerful force).  By the time I allowed myself to admit that something was very wrong and that we needed to see the doctor, we were off to the ER and I was admitted for emergency surgery and I woke up to hospital food and 3 tiny scars across my belly and instructions not to lift anything for 14 days.  I had two 2-year-olds at home who still needed to be lifted out of their cribs and it hurt to move and the pain I carried inside myself was clearly manifested in my body.  Our amazing community rallied and I had more meals in my freezer than could really fit.  My sister came into town and swept my floor and lifted my babies into my lap.  My mom sent an atrocious number of fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls (so bad, but so good) and I ate them all myself. Friends came and sat with me while I folded laundry and cried.  I grieved inwardly, and I grieved openly, and as I marked the healing in my body, I could see it in my heart as well.

But the 2nd time things were calmer, quieter, internal.  I waited until the next morning, when my OB had an opening in her schedule.  I drove myself to her office and everything was very straight forward - exam, blood test, we’ll call you.  Those 2 year olds had grown and were now in first grade, and Lu, who went to play at Grandmom’s house while I saw the doctor, was 3.  We lived with my grandparents, both suffering from Alzheimers, although my Mimi’s dementia was worse than Granddaddy’s.

Elijah and I decided to keep it quiet.  It was mostly my decision - I just couldn’t fathom how I could explain to my grandmother what had happened and then have to explain over and over and over again.  I felt that my role in their home was to care for them, and I wasn’t able to imagine a scenario in which I could be that vulnerable and still do what needed doing.  I knew their hearts would break for me and I didn’t think I could handle their heartbreak on top of my own.  So we didn’t say anything to them, or to our kids.  Just quick phone calls and emails to our closest family and friends.  I picked up Aida and Sophie from school.  I cooked dinner for our multi-generational family.  I cleaned the kitchen floor and took Lucy on walks and cried at night.

We purchased a little gravestone in memory of this baby we had lost, and also the one before.  A few months passed and we tried to explain to our children what had happened.  We walked with them and our priest up the hill to our church’s cemetery and we placed the stone on the ground.  We prayed and then I watched my 3 girls run back down the hill, chasing the wind, very much full of life.

* * * * *

Easter came in April, a few days before that baby would have been due.  I felt our private loss keenly as we began Holy Week, leaving the church each night in the dark to walk home and tuck our tired children into bed and then fall into our own.  I did what every Mama who has lost her baby does when its projected due date arrives - imagined what I might have looked like, belly swollen and cheeks pink in anticipation, if things had ended differently.

We arrived at Great and Holy Saturday, the day in between Crucifixion and Resurrection.  The great paradox of the church year.  The seats in the church, usually set up so the congregation faces the altar at the front of the building, had been turned so that both sides were facing the middle aisle and the funeral bier of Christ set in the center of the nave.  We took our seats and began my favorite liturgy, meditating repeatedly on the mystery of the “in between” - of Christ dead and in the grave, simultaneously descended into Hades and defeating death.  Not yet resurrection, but the prerequisite.

The chanters began to sing, “Arise, O God” and the Holy Week-weary, world-weary members of our church (and their enthusiastic children) clutched sticks and banged them against chairs, on the floor, against another stick, raucously signifying the noise that filled Hades as Christ ripped its door from the hinges and invaded that place of death with His Life.  The church filled with the noise of it all, the banging and clanging.  I looked straight ahead and saw, through a window on the side of the building, brilliant blue sky, a few scattered clouds, a church cemetery.  It was beautiful. Tears pricked my eyes and I took a deep breath.

Sometimes we live in the in between.  Sometimes we haven’t yet arrived at Resurrection. But the mystery, the paradox - it can be beautiful.


it's only a phase

I sat in the rocking chair tucked into a corner of Lucy and Emmie’s room as the day drew itself to a close.  Emmie nursed and I let my head fall back against the seat, closing my eyes for a brief moment of rest before moving on to conquer bedtimes # 2, 3, and 4.  The soft light of dusk peeked through the edges of the blinds closed against the approaching dark.  And I heard it - the incessant buzzing of a fly trapped between the glass and the blinds, a sound that quickly took me back to one of Lu’s (many) phases.
It was just last year, I think, probably in the dog days of summer - like now - when we always have 3 or 4 flies sneak their way into the house and then refuse to leave.  One night Lucy lay alone in her bed after prayers had been prayed and lullabies had been sung and she listened to that buzzing.  It was “creepy.” She yelled for Mommy and would not relax until the offending fly had been located, smushed, and removed from the premises.  For nights afterward - weeks, months, even - she would not let me leave her room after tucking her in without walking to the window and checking the blinds for flies.  A mere glance in that general direction would not do.  I was required to wade through the messes of Lucy’s imagined worlds that had been crafted earlier in the day and manually lift the blinds, taking care to sound extremely convincing as I said, “No flies here tonight!” It became a part of the nightly routine so quickly and was adhered to so strictly that it seemed like it would always happen.
Except that now, it doesn’t.  As I sat in the chair with Emmie I pondered when and how we had dropped that from our evening’s choreography. And I remembered how, a few years earlier, we had sung “On Top of Spaghetti” - all SIX verses - every night without fail while putting Aida and Sophie to bed.  I remembered how I grew to despise that song and how just sometimes I wished they would choose to sing something different and how I was convinced that I would be singing that song every night for the rest of my life.
And then I wasn’t.
It is equal parts comforting, heartbreaking, and terrifying to be far enough into the parenthood journey to recognize that everything - everything - is a phase.  The patter of 4 little feet down the hall and then 2 warm, chubby bodies scrambling into bed with me to usher in each new day.  Those same little feet crawling out of bed so many times after lights out that I wanted to scream and punch the wall.  The days of library Storytime and playgrounds and looking around the house, wondering how to fill the afternoon.  The 6:30 bedtime (bliss) and the 5:30 wake up (not so much).  The tears before Sunday School, and then the tears before School School.  That time they were afraid of Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street.  That time we had 3 small children and we moved in with my grandparents. The baby grunting all night long.  The funny little 3-toothed smile.  This life is made up of many seasons and Autumn’s glorious arrival always announces the end of Summer’s carefree days.  Each new beginning, be it wonderful or brutal, requires that there also be an ending.
So as I work to parent two beautiful, senstive, strong-willed girls who are just beginning to hear the rumblings of adolescence’s independence, and walk along the path of new-school days with my fierce, fiery, glorious 5-year-old, and dwell in the days of delight and exhaustion as our infant insists on racing toward toddlerhood, I am working - in the midst of the change and the constant flow of phases new and old - to hold it all lightly, knowing how soon things will change, and to recognize the constants.
Gratitude.  Fear.  Humility.  An overwhelming, deeply-abiding Love for these people who share my life and my home, far greater - and so much different - than I ever imagined it would be.  Joy.  Anxiety.  These have been my constant companions over much of the past decade, and while there are a few I’d like to kick to the curb, I am realizing that while my children have been growing up and changing, these constants have been growing and changing me, too.  There is a stirring in my heart as I embrace this time in my life, knowing that before I can blink twice we will all have grown up a bit more and moved onto something new.  It scares me.  It excites me.  It makes me want to be SO PRESENT in this moment, in this phase.
Which happens to be the Pokemon, tears in the morning, snuggles at night, shoes on the living room floor, heads on my shoulders as I read, baby hands on my face, homework hating, friend loving, remembering who I am phase.  

I’ll take it.