Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In This Moment

There was a gaggle of boys at the pool yesterday. Ten years old, maybe eleven. Jumping all over each other, laughing, dunking heads beneath water.

I found myself watching from my chair, laughing when they laughed even though I had no idea what was so funny.

I turned toward my own son struggling his way down the length of the pool, his instructor at his side, voicing words of encouragement every few strokes. He hates the front crawl. His strongest is the elementary backstroke. He could float on his back for days. I could tell from where I sat that my boy did not want to be doing that front crawl.

The boys pulled themselves out of the water. Skin and bones dripping as they pushed and pulled each other toward the locker room.

"I wonder what Brody will be like if he gets to be that age," I thought.

I snapped aware: what do you mean if he gets to be that age? I chastised myself. What kind of mother thinks like that?

But there's a truth in that. A hard, scary truth that mothers who have lost children know without ever wanting to. There is no guarantee.

Now, before you go all thinking how morbid and awful that is and judging me thinking I haven't figured out how to effectively grieve the loss of my daughter, I invite you to look at things from a different perspective....

I have no preconceived notion of what my child is supposed to be like. Because I know that time on earth is not guaranteed, I can simply enjoy him. Every second of every day he is here amazes me.

I don't care if he plays sports or chess -- as long as I get to see him smile.

I don't care if he considered cute by the girls or a gawky dork -- as long as I get to hear him laugh.

I don't care if he excels at Math or changing carburetors -- as long as I get to listen to him tell me what he has learned.

I don't care who he asks to prom -- as long as his heart skips a beat when she enters the room.

There is a beautiful gift given to parents who have lost children.... an ability to see life for what it is: a moment to be treasured and enjoyed and poured into. Whether we get one more moment or a thousand more - each and every one is a sacred gift. We don't squander them.

Yes, I wonder what my son will be like if he gets to be ten. I do so pray the Lord grants me that. But in the event He doesn't, I'm not going to waste my time wishing my child was someone he isn't.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Way this was Supposed to Be

This school year was supposed to be the one that officially began Brody's elementary education while ending Avery's. They were supposed to be at school all day, together. Sibling bookends - one in Kindergarten and the other in 8th grade.

This was the year I was supposed to be able to join the car pool lane. No more parking and walking my child into the preschool rooms. This year I was supposed to pull up and wish my kids a good day and watch while the older sister made sure the younger brother stood in his class line.

This was the year my kids would finally eat in the same cafeteria during the same lunch hour. Their daily schedule lining up just so.

This year, Avery was supposed to fill me in on what her brother acted like on the playground and in the hallways. She was supposed to be my spy.

This year Avery was supposed to be at the top of the student food chain. The treasured final year, filled with class fundraisers and a class trip where the students slept in hotel rooms in Minneapolis or Cleveland or St. Louis - the location something they were supposed to pick together.

This year Avery was supposed to take her graduation photo which would hang forever in the halls of the school. In the same hall that held the graduation picture her grandmother is standing in.


Brody entered Kindergarten alone. His title of Younger Brother crossed off and Only Child penciled in above it.

Instead of watching Avery walk into school as an 8th grader, I marveled at how big the Tulip Tree planted in her memory at the front of the school property has grown in just a couple years.

Instead of meeting with her teachers during Back to School Night, I held back tears.

In Brody's classroom, parents sat on too tiny chairs, our knees up past our ears, as we watched our squirming children on their carpet squares. Each child introduced their parents, we described our families.

"Our oldest daughter is actually relocating to Australia and is traveling there as we speak," I began. "And we sponsor a 16-year old boy in Haiti, so we have a son there, too." Before I could say anything else, Brody piped up, "And my sister, Avery, died and is in heaven."

I thought about the many children I have.... how they are scattered like the wind; across the world and in heaven. I thought about the ones I have given birth to and the ones I haven't. I thought about the baby that never made it to the point we knew if we would have had a son or a daughter. I thought about the boy born and named by a woman who would later drop him off at an orphanage, praying for a better life for him. I thought about my oldest, whose bravery and courage surpasses anyone I have ever known; oh, how she deserves a happiness that blows her mind!

God has blessed me with many children... but He has placed them where I can not easily reach out to touch them.

There's a new music teacher at our school. She sent out a request to borrow any available acoustic guitars so she can teach students.

Avery's guitar has stood silent since she died.

I dusted it off and brought it to the school. Our family's last name written on a piece of masking tape on its back. Ready to be picked up again. Eager to make music.

This is the year my oldest has moved to Australia, my youngest has entered Kindergarten, and the son I share waits in Haiti. This is the year Avery makes music through the halls of the school she loved so very much.

And this is the way it's exactly supposed to be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On Living Life to the Fullest

Today is my 42nd birthday.

Oh, to be 27 again!

But only in body. Because in mind I was a complete mess. You don't realize it at the time. At 27 you think you've actually got it all together. It isn't until perspective aging provides that you realize you were about as stable as a kaleidoscope.

Sure, 27 was full of fun times. Less responsibilities, more recklessness. A whole lot of gotta live life to the fullest!

But there's something about maturing. Something about tackling another decade - or almost two - something about surviving friendship shifts and parent-teacher conferences and grief and incredible joy that allows you to finally realize that life isn't as simple as just whooping it up to live life to the fullest.

It's more about living life fully with others.

It's more about learning life fully through others.

And it's all about loving life fully through all its tragic moments. 

Living life to the fullest used to mean drinking on the boat every day of the summer because you might die tomorrow and you don't want to waste a second missing out on the fun.

Living life to the fullest now means reaching out with compassion to those that need it because you now understand you contain the capacity to be a change maker in our world and doing anything less is short changing your own life.

Living life to the fullest used to mean trying to get that cute guy you've always had a crush on to go home with you - never mind he's already in a relationship; for some unknown reason you have something to prove.

Living life to the fullest now means realizing you were placed in this particular place and in this particular time to build others up, not tear people down. It isn't a competition; we're all on the same team - and behaving toward others as anything less than respectful is short changing who you were called to be.

Living life to the fullest used to mean concerts every chance you got, spring break follies (even though you graduated college years ago) and going to work hung over because you refuse to start acting like an old fuddy-duddy.

Living life to the fullest now means seeing if you're a bone marrow match and donating blood because it isn't fair that a little girl gets cancer. It's gathering your friends to repaint an elderly widow's house on the nicest weekend of the summer and not even minding that you missed out on that concert because you realize there will always be another concert - but the opportunity to impact someone's life positively is fleeting.

Living life to the fullest used to mean who the hell cares! Life is short!

Living life to the fullest now means finally understanding that what is truly fleeting are the moments we have to spread joy to others. And we choose to spend our time making the world a better place for others, not trampling on others while we race to please ourselves.

Oh, 42. There will always be doubts. There will always be questions. And there will, unfortunately, always be mistakes. But you keep living life to the fullest the right way, and 42 will be a fine, fine year.

And for all you young ones out there - don't worry if you don't understand what I'm saying. Life has a way of teaching you exactly what you need to know when you need it. One way or another. Trust me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Awkwardness of Idle Chit Chat

A couple weeks ago I was at church sitting by myself in the middle of the pew minding  my own business because I prefer to mind my own business. But mostly because when I'm out in public it's kind of way too overwhelming for me when there are lots of human beings that I do not know surrounding me who run the risk of attempting to communicate with me. I call these people 'strangers' because I feel strange when people I don't know try to talk to me.

I don't know why it's easier for me to stand in front of a thousand people baring my soul than it is to spend twenty six painful seconds commenting about the height of corn to someone I've never seen before, it just is. It's how I'm wired. (And for sake of context I live in Wisconsin. Corn is a very important topic to us here.)

Anyway, I'm sitting peacefully by myself - in the middle - away from all other human contact - when I become aware that a stranger has sat at the end of the pew. Immediately I thought crap. Because now I was going to have to shake hands when it came time for that ridiculous meet and great portion of the service. 

Here were the thoughts going on in my head at that moment:

What if my hands are sweaty?

What if my hands are cold?

What if she says Good Morning and then when it's my turn to say Good Morning back to her I accidentally spit on her?

What if she assumes I'm new here? Do I tell her how long I've been coming here? I can't do that; it'll make her feel awkward and then I'll feel awkward and then we'll just sit and stare at each other wondering who makes the next move.

What if she's a hand lingerer? You know, those people that shake your hand but then hold on to it for a few uncomfortable seconds longer than is necessary and you're just wondering what the heck is happening and why some stranger won't let go of your flesh which makes your hand sweat even more?

What if she comments on how sweaty my hand is? Or worse - just wipes hers off on the side of her dress the second she dismounts the shake?

I think I'm having a heart attack.

Is it hot in here? 

I should really go.

But that would be even more awkward because it's rude to get up and move the second someone else sits down and I would hate it if someone did that to me.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'd love it if someone did that to me! I'd have the whole row to myself and wouldn't have to shake hands.

Maybe I could just slowly slide down to the floor and roll out under the pew...

And this was all in the first three seconds of the woman sitting down. 

My absolute worst fear was realized when she turned to me and started speaking. 

As if I knew her.

But maybe I did.

I don't know. I suck at remembering who people are.

So, as her mouth is moving I'm sitting there in shock thinking:

Do I know her? I don't know her? Why is she talking to me? Does she think I'm someone else? Oh my goodness. She thinks I'm somebody else. This is going to be painfully embarrassing when she realizes I am not who she thinks I am. But maybe I did meet her? I swear I don't even recognize this person. I would make a horrible witness. The police would ask 'have you ever met this person before' and I'd have to say 'I have no idea; my brain doesn't work the way other brains work.' Why does she keep talking? I don't even understand the words she's saying to me. Is she speaking English? What language is that? 

And by that time her mouth stopped moving and she's looking at me. And I recognized that look. It's the one that says THIS IS THE POINT IN CASUAL CONVERSATION WHERE YOU RESPOND TO WHAT WAS JUST SAID.

Except I can't respond to what was just said because my social anxieties DROWN OUT WHATEVER WAS BEING SAID.

And that starts a whole other round of self-speak:

Oh no. Oh no! Oh no no no no no! It's my turn. She is expecting me to say something. Or react. Or nod. Or what? What?! What do I do? What does she want me to do? Do I have to answer a question? Do I say something about the weather? I know! I'll pretend I'm deaf. That's it. That's what I'll do. I'll shrug my shoulders and shake my head while pointing to my ears.... except.... what if she knows sign language. I bet she knows sign language. And then she'll know I'm not really deaf and then I'll simply die of embarrassment right here in the church. I read a book once where the lady's husband died in church. Right during the sermon. He kind of just leaned over on her and she thought he had fallen asleep so she jerked her shoulder up to wake him except he wasn't sleeping, he was dead, only she didn't know that until after his body fell forward and he hit his head on the back of  the pew in front of them. That would actually be a nice place to die, in church. Except it would really depend on the sermon. Because who wants to die during a sermon on hell and how awful it is. Now that would be awkward. "I don't know, the preacher was talking about the descent into hell and she just went and keeled over." Actually, that's pretty funny. That would make a great Saturday Night Live skit.... "Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at the coming! - CLUNK!" Oh man. Don't laugh. Do not laugh. For one, it is not that funny. Thinking about dying in church during a sermon about going to hell is actually weird and strange and normal people do not think about things like that. And, two, this stranger is still waiting for a response. You cannot respond with something random like dying in church. What is wrong with you?!

By this time the stranger realizes I'm socially inept and will usually turn away. Or I will and pretend I am a statue who doesn't understand English. Because I can acknowledge when it's time to accept defeat. And also when I need a break before I hyperventilate.

I guess the reason I'm telling you all this is because not everyone is blessed with the ease to make idle chit-chat with people they've never met before. For some it's actually excruciatingly painful. And it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how we're wired. And we're painfully aware of that, too. 

So, be gentle. Don't be so quick to pass judgement or write someone off because they're not able to casually converse with you. Don't assume they're stuck up; they might just be stuck.

And if you know someone like me and you still really want to try to talk with them, here's a hint:

Start with, "You don't know me - I just really wanted to say hi to you" and then STOP and WAIT PATIENTLY because our minds need to catch up. Here is someone who wants to talk to me, I still don't understand why, but I now know I do not know them. You'll know we've caught up when we can appropriately respond with an (albeit awkward) "Oh. *nervous chuckle* Okay. Well. Hi?" And then you can move on to the next step.... "My name is Jane Doe.... "

Think of it as someone taking their first steps in physical therapy. We aren't going to take off running with you. First we need to stand up and get steady on our feet. Then we take one step. And then another. It's slow moving. 

Because once we get to know you, you won't get us to shut up.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Mango Tree Church

On my last visit to Haiti, I met a man who loved Jesus. He sat under the shade of a mango tree talking about many miracles and graces this God of the Bible bestowed upon His people. How this precious God still does so today.

Soon, people stopped to listen.

The people of the village were poor. They went without food for their bellies and shoes for their feet. They lived too many in a single dwelling with tired eyes and tired souls.

But they listened. 

The man continued to speak.

He heard God telling him to build a church. Build it here. In this place where God's people had nothing.

So he did.

This is that church:

Held together with twigs and thatch, holding together the hearts of God's people. It stands under the mango tree. A house of truth. A house of hope.

The pastor greets us. It has been a long time, he says, his thick calloused hands reaching out to us, but God has been good to bring us back. We hug tight his heart, his love, feeling every bone, his skin keeps his body together. I wonder when he last ate. 

We have come with supplies for his people. Bags of rice and beans, button down dress shirts and ties for the men, dresses for little girls.

But he doesn't even consider the heavy bags we are hauling on this hot afternoon in July.

He talks about how good God is. He tells us how his neighbors have hope. He tells us that 70 people gather every service. Seventy starving people feeding on God's truth. He tells us they do not have enough to eat and yet God always gives enough at just the right time.

They are eating the manna daily. Not knowing what will come, when or how much - but trusting God will not lose sight of them. God has been so good to them, he says. God has been so good.

They held a worship service on New Year's Eve.

Word spread.

Over 300 people from all over gathered at the tiny thatch church under the mango tree to hear about this God they heard whispered about on the streets in town.

They stayed for hours. They prayed for hours.

A revival under the mango tree.

The pastor praises God! Only the Almighty could bring 300 strangers together.

Inside we look closer. The dirt floor more magnificent than any marble laid, knowing the weathered hands that swept the dust for his Lord must be blessed. 

We look at the church pews. How long they saved to purchase the wood and nails. If you walked into a church and these were its pews, would you stay? 

Wilfrid, the man in the blue shirt, begins to speak. Their greatest need is to fix the roof. The rain comes through, drenching the worshipers as they sing and pray. Rain will not keep them away. But the tarps, the good tarps - the ones that can withstand better the torrential downpours and the whipping winds of the storms - they are expensive. Too much money to spend when your neighbors have no food.

The tarps are $61 US dollars each. They really want four, he says, but they pray for just two. It will take forever.

Sixty one dollars for a tarp to keep the rain out on a tiny thatch church. I spent more than that going to dinner and the movies. I hang my head and press my shoe into the dirt.

We ask what the next greatest need is for the church building. Oh, wood would be good, but, no. He shakes his head. To think about wood is frivolous. I ask, just for fun how much would you need? 10 pieces of wood. But they are $20 US a piece. He could never think of getting $200 to spend on wood for the church. Besides, the people are starving. There is no food.

We walk along and talk some more. We learn that the pastor's son is a smart man. He has one more year of schooling to complete in order to graduate high school. This grown adult man dreams of one day finishing his schooling. Of earning his certificate. But there is tuition (since Haiti has no public school system) and the required uniforms and the books and papers and pencils. $400 US is needed for the school year. How could he dream of earning and incredible amount like four hundred dollars - and then spending it foolishly on school, when all around him people go hungry.

They must be fed. Their bodies and their souls. The priority is the people. They must hear about God so they learn about His love, His hope, His forgiveness, and His mercies and grace.

They do not spend time on what they do not have. They do not dwell on what is without.

We walk through the village. At the first house we come to we meet a woman with the greatest smile. We ask her what her greatest struggle is, what can we pray for? She answers not for prayers for herself but rather prayers for her mother. Her compassion and selflessness overwhelms me.

I have so much to learn from these people.

I think of what I spend on my car. On my groceries. I think about my list of wants: an L-shaped couch comfortable to lounge on, sturdy enough to withstand an active 5-year old; a trip to Nashville with my friends that includes good food and a decent hotel room with a hot shower and plenty of pillows on the bed. I think about what I paid the last time I got my hair colored, cut and styled.

All they want is a tarp.

The good kind.

For $61 US Dollars.