Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.

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Photo by Mitchell Gaiser on Unsplash

Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.

I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.

The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.

Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.

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Photo by Christian Stahl on Unsplash

The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.

I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’s  salary with generous outstanding student loans.

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Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trusted  said people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?

“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.

I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.

Obviously, I had to do my part.

I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.

The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?

That day, I didn’t.

Another Couch

Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.

We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.

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I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.

I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.

I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.

But not to me.

All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.

I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.

Until I didn’t.

Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.

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Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.

The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.

They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.

Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.

I still don’t see much Jesus.

Because They Promised

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This woman. She’s been my mom for over thirty years. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.

But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.

Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.

She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.

I am undone by this.

It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.

I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.

I do want to.

I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.

Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.

And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.

I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.

Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.

I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.

Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to. 

If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.

How to Help Your Kids Overcome Jealousy and Insecurity

P1050504(Sibling rivalry does not have to come to this.)

“Mommy, is she going to be better at everything than me?”

I hugged my dripping wet tiny seven-year-old. At the end of our girls’ first swimming lessons, what I had dreaded the whole six week session happened.

The younger got promoted to the next level and her big sister didn’t.

Bigger and more athletic than her older sister, she simply had better motor skills, a higher attention span, and more courage at that young age. Big Sister struggled with a mix of hurt and jealousy.

“Am I always going to be not as good?”

I struggled, too.

I mean, given their genetics, none of our children were ever going to be athletically coordinated, let alone gifted. As the larger and stronger child, though, her little sister did have an edge. What to say to this little wet waif, certain that she would always be at the end of every performance test?

I’m checking in at A Fine Parent today with this article on children, jealousy, and how to find abundant praise for everyone, no child left behind!

Read the whole post here.

Back to School Tips from a Finished Mom

First day of school  Middle child. A while ago.
For the first time in approximately 3700 years, I realized last fall that I did not have to care about when school started. Or ended. Or did basically anything at any time, except as it pertained to driving through school zones. I was done. Three kids more-or-less-successfully shepherded through school. With a complicated combo of public, home, and private schooling. But we did it.

And then we launched the baby into college, and I predictably lost it, but all is good, because I got to blog about it here in one of my favorite posts that still makes me cry.

Those years were crazy. Partly because I made them so with all the expectations I put on myself to be Awesome Mom. I do not wear that title well. The tiara slips. But I wanted to.

I did the Pinterest lunch ideas, before Pinterest existed. Ask my kids about the eggs. They still remember those eggs. I’m not positive they always ate them, but they remember them. 

I created elaborate birthday parties at home. I chaperoned field trips, at least until I lost a couple kids at the Field Museum. It was totally not my fault they were not as fascinated by the minerals display as the rest of us. I even chaperoned a high school trip to Orlando, and that is hard core, people.

And now it’s done. And I’m writing a post on five back-to-school tips when I am not going back to school. (Actually, I am. Me, myself. But that’s another story.)

But I’m not here at the take-out end of sending kids back to school to give you great tips for kale salads that look like ostriches playing kickball (and that your kids will actually eat). I’m not going to tell you how to color-code your school supplies with brads and die cuts and washi tape. This is not something I am an expert in. I am an expert in knowing all those school supplies will be lost/torn/traded/eaten (it happens) within the fist two weeks of their life. And you do not want to be responsible for any kids eating brads and hot glue.

I’m here with five tips for life in all its beautiful feelings when you say goodbye to those kids, whether it be to kindergarten or, like me now, the second year of college. For a larger perspective at the end. Whether those kids are going on a bus, driving themselves to high school or headed right back into your living room to go to school.

#1–Feel however you feel. 

Elated? Terrified? Sorrowful? Like turning cartwheels and drinking wine right there in the middle of the morning? Whatever, guys. All of those feelings might be cycled through in one hour. It’s OK. Feel them. Don’t feel like you’re “supposed” to feel. We all react differently, and it is no measure of our love for our offspring. No comparisons, no condemnation.

#2–Treasure the firsts and lasts. 


There’s this . . . 
And then there’s this. And I swear to you,
they were only about three hours apart.
Don’t wait until senior year of high school to realize you will never have another first day of school, another last packed lunch (hallelujah!), or another Christmas concert. Treasure them all as they happen. I know—at times you will want to eat your own toenails more than you will want to attend another two-hour concert sitting on bleachers. But trust me, treasure it. It will be over. Enjoy the firsts and lasts, big and small, as they happen. Just don’t believe you have to create a Pinterest/Facebook moment out of all of them.

#3–Be your child’s best advocate but not her biggest excuse. 

She will need you to be in her corner. Especially if she has special needs teachers, parents, and others do not understand and don’t care to. Stand firmly in that corner and don’t back down. But—don’t become his fall back for not making the effort to stand on his own. You won’t always be there. Walk the tightrope of defending when needed and letting him take his consequences when needed. It’s an art, not a perfect science. You will make mistakes here. When you do, reference tip #4.

#4–Nothing is a permanent mistake. 

Remember all those warnings that whatever horrible deeds you did in school would end up in your permanent record? Yeah, exactly true, except not. No misplaced homework paper, no unfinished art project, not even that one time your kid repeated the word your husband said when he missed the final minutes of the Superbowl are going to matter At All when your kid tries to get a job on Wall Street.

Yes, we care about teaching our kids to be responsible. We care about helping them to use the minds God gave them to their fullest capacity. We care about making sure they do not live in our basements forever but do get into college and get jobs. But we also care about giving grace. Offering second chances. Not acting like the end of the world hovers over our heads if they color the grass purple and the sun blue. Kids make mistakes. They are not forever. Dispense grace. Liberally.

Nothing is a permanent mistake for you, either. Not the time you forgot to pack the birthday cupcake. Not the time you sent him to school with a 102 fever because you were sure he was faking it. Not even the time you missed the first grade mother’s day program because you couldn’t get out of Home Depot on time. (I have no personal experience in that last one. None. Except that I still have not forgiven myself for that. And the kid is almost 25.) You, mom or dad, will make mistakes. Reference #3. Dispense grace. To yourself. It is not forever. It will not be on your permanent record unless you put it there. Don’t.

Remember the big picture. 

China. Better than school.
Life is not about perfect papers or team sports or science fair projects that get your kid in the newspaper. It’s about doing what God has for you to do and being what God has for you to be. For both you and your kid. Step back. Breathe. Drop activities that make you crazy. Your kid isn’t going to the big leagues or the Olympics. Take the time to enjoy one another now and grow in God. Don’t sacrifice those things for the things that will not matter in the end. Make the time to put them first.

We took our kids on a mission trip during school. The world did not end, and they did not fail first/fifth/sixth grade. I took my daughter out of school for a zoo trip on her birthday. No one turned us in to DFS. (Sh did, however, get food poisoning from the zoo cafeteria. Karma?) Sometimes, the big picture memories are far more important than the daily urgent. Remember the big picture. Step back. Breathe. Trust me on this one. Earth will remain in orbit.

So there you are. Your five back-to-school tips from one who is finished going back to school. What are your tips?

Happy fall!
And remember–you’re egg-straordinary!

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Pumpkin Pie (To Be Grateful)


This year, we are staying home for Thanksgiving. The past few years, we have traveled, and we will miss seeing family. But this is the first year that child #3 is away at college, and she would have to drive five hours home and then six hours farther and do it all over again a few days later. It’s too much. 

Plus, there are things moms recognize about that first year away. She would need “normal.” She already feels she’s missed so much. To miss The Great Christmas Tree Cut Down, the decorating, the “home” feeling down in your heart that says it’s all still there and all OK—that would be too much. Sometimes, you have to recognize that the intangibles are the most real things in existence.
I remember the feeling. My first Thanksgiving in college, I, too, came home. But it was not the home I had known for eighteen Thanskgivings. It was a home without the mother who always cooked the turkey dinner. (Although really, I think dad did quite a lot of it. He was the better cook. Just like in our family.) Without her sisters and their busy families, because it was without the glue that had held those extended family units together. Take out the mother, and you take out a network.
So I did what I suspect my daughter would do. I cooked dinner. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, lemon merengue pie, pumpkin pie, cranberry relish. I don’t even like pumpkin pie. But the offerings hadn’t changed in eighteen years, and they must not now. I set all the good dishes out. I did everything to maintain the illusion that this was normal. This was dinner as always. Though the universe might turn sideways, this would not alter.
I had no idea what I was doing.
I mean, literally, I had no idea how to cook. Mom hadn’t taught me, although I’d gained basic knowledge by watching. But as mentioned, she was not the better cook of the duo that was my parents. 

Beyond that, though, I had no idea that illusions failed. We hung on to the traditions, my dad and I, but we weren’t fooling one another. This was not the same, it never would be, and we had no idea how to navigate it into something else. I can’t say that we ever really learned.
This year is the first Thanksgiving with child #3 away at college, and it’s the last Thanksgiving with child #1 unmarried. Next year, she’ll have her own family with her own relationships and traditions to navigate, and we’ll have to learn a new dance. But—and here’s the big but—we will. (Yes, I did just say big but. I know you laughed. You can’t pretend.)
We will. I’ve learned some things since the fall I was barely eighteen.
Particular faces and specific dates alter with time and circumstances. Just like I no longer feel compelled to bake pumpkin pie because, in fact, we dislike it, some details no longer apply. As with the year we ate Thanksgiving burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe in the alternate universe called Orlando, or the Christmas dinner in Costa Rica involving coconut, pineapple, and spaghetti, traditions sometimes bow to present realities. And that’s OK. (Because, hey, we remember those two holiday dinners.)
The tangibles change. The intangibles remain the real things. That the things we do together happen, in some form, matters. When they happen or precisely how, not so much. That the feeling of home remains “it’s

all still there, and it’s all OK” matters. What the menu or makeup is, not really. That we recognize the fleetingness of “same” and express gratitude for the times we have matter. Whether there seems to be little or much to be grateful for does not.

Whether you’re sitting around a table with family Thursday or eating alone, swapping adult kids between tribes with the dexterity of David Copperfield or working all night to accommodate early (crazy) shoppers, stop. Find your intangibles. What matters? What doesn’t? When all is stripped away, what remains real? That’s what you have to be grateful for.  

When No One Wants To Build a Snowman


So, I didn’t exactly watch the Academy Awards this year. Didn’t exactly watch

any of the nominated movies either, come to think of it. At least, the Best Picture ones. Still, I am well aware of what won Best Original Song.


Do you wanna build a snow . . . something?
This is not opinion but an assumption–anyone with a young woman/girl in the house under, say, the age of 25, knows the Frozensoundtrack by heart now. That is an assumption I might bet on, if it was not against some promise I probably agreed to when I became a pastor. You know the songs.

One of my daughters has even learned “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” in Spanish. That’s how hooked we are.

I watched a sarcastic take on the movie a while ago, and one of the things the writer had issue with was how the sisters’ relationship remained healthy. Wouldn’t Anna have harbored just a teensy bit of resentment, he wondered? A slight tinge of, “Um, Elsa? Go fall off an iceberg. I’m done.”

He had a point. I wondered the same thing at times. If your sister refuses to let you into her life for years, would you feel like rushing off to her rescue and ultimately sacrificing yourself for her? Dubious, I’m thinking.

Do you wanna build a snowman?

Probably not.

Do Relationships Heal?

The more I think about it, the more I realize how amazing this healed relationship really is. Because you know, I’ve seen it. Up close and personal. In my own house.

For a number of years, I witnessed big sister locked in her “room” of isolation. I saw her unable to relate to her family, unable to let others in to the world she could not escape.

I watched her little sister sitting outside, thinking, “We used to be best buddies. And now we’re not. I wish you would tell me why.” The scene manged to depict something that maybe the writers never intended but that is too common in houses where things are hidden behind locked doors.

Having magical freezing powers was a social stigma in Arendelle. (It has a name. It’s called cryokinesis. How cool is that? Literally. Living with a mental illness has the same effect in our world. It shuts people behind doors. It keeps them from normal relationships. It terrifies them that someone will know. It ends up opening the door to really bad choices that seem good compared to the reality of now.

It tears apart sisters who just want to build snowmen like they used to.

In an animated world, I guess you can go back to the way things were once the storm is over and love has conquered. But in this world, it’s a little more complicated.

It’s hard to call through locked doors and get no answer.

It’s painful to trust and hope and have it squashed. Again. And again.

It’s scary to never know what normal is or how long it lasts.

It’s tough to have your life controlled by things you had no say in.

Sometimes, little sister just walks away. Maybe for good. You can’t blame her. But you wish for the Anna ending. The one with happily ever after. You know how unlikely it is. But you wish.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. October 10thin particular is National Depression Screening Day, National Bipolar Awareness Day, and World Mental Health Day.It’s a week thathelps spread awareness of mental illness so those affected by it can get treatment and move forward with their lives.

I believe with everything in me we are all created in the image of God, and we are all deeply loved and known by him. Whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. Because of that, and yes, because I’ve lived it, I believe in treating those with mental illnesses like the beautiful creations they are. No one can do that if we don’t let the secrets out of the locked room and be real about loving people–no matter what.

People living with mental illness are our neighbors. So are their children, spouses, and siblings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Learn aboutmental illness. Learn about warning signs and what to do. It’s not a lack of faith or effort. It’s so much more complex than that. It’s just a few clicks on the internet to discover (from reputable sources, please) what mental illness is and how it affects you, me, and faith.

But those clicks might open someone’s door.

Family Feud

The third in a series on discipling the family, originally appearing in Light and Life Communications.

In Prodigals and Those Who Love Them, Ruth Bell Graham reminds readers that, “Lord, You have trouble with Your children, too.” A family fractured by the estrangement of a child or parent has unique discipleship needs. Yet it also has unique opportunities to grow beyond what might be experienced in easier circumstances. Having gone through the experience, I’ve discovered the value of those opportunities.
A few verses put into perspective what God can teach during a family feud.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” (John 15.5-6)
Often in loving an estranged family member, we feel thrown away. But when dependent, abidingprayer is all we have, we find out it’s what we most need. We learn the absolute truth of how little we can do without our Vine when we are forced into helplessness. It’s scary–until you discover its deep peace.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12.15). Until we know the pain of a child turning from God, let’s be honest, we tend to be judgmental of other parents.
But when it happens to us—suddenly we re-recognize grace. We discover that everyone has a backstory. We hurt when they hurt. We grasp the depth of God’s mercy and become profoundly grateful. It’s not so easy to criticize—and that leads to relationships you never imagined you’d have with grace you never thought you’d yield. The beauty of that becomes overwhelming.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20).
The father’s heart is broken and his trust shattered. Yet he doesn’t interrogate his son about intentions and sincerity. He doesn’t wait to see how it’s going to work out. He welcomes him completely back into the family. My guess is the only way this father could do that was to practice praying for his son and offering forgiveness daily.
*What can you let go of today in true forgiveness?
*What is the hardest thing for you about trusting a family member who has hurt you? How can God help that?