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The Journey Back, and Forward: My August Confession

And the starlings, they were flying earlier today

Doing their maneuvers, clouds of feathers on display

Makes me want to kneel in prayer, but I’ve forgotten what to say

I’ll just name all the birds in Ohio.

-Over the Rhine, All Over Ohio

August is a month of perseverance. People wait for drawn-out change: for school to start back up, for the heat to break, for one season to wind down and another to begin. In many ways September feels like the start of a new year, more than January.

In early August, we drove across the country. We took a new route, and went slow, stopping at most of the places we wanted to along the way. A freshly vacuumed, wiped and organized van gave way to chaos and crumbs and stickiness. Energetic parents slowly lost their steam. Kids came up with more energy. This is how August goes.

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We crossed Ohio and sang along loud with Over the Rhine, in honor of their home state, with the added goodness of rain on the windshield.

We slipped down into Missouri and spent a few days in St. Louis, gazed at the view from the top of the Gateway Arch, splashed in the fountains at City Park, ate gooey butter cakes from Park Avenue Coffee and chugged gallons of water to keep up with the humidity.

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We played the audio version of Little House in the Big Woods in preparation for a trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Mansfield, Missouri. I stepped through her house, which we learned was built over seventeen years, beginning as a one-room cabin with no windows, and enjoyed all the expressions of beauty throughout. How did people come to know that if you embroider a red bird on your pillowcase, it will add value to your life? Or that a well-placed window can change the course of your day?

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The kids would not have any of my slowness as we toured the property, so I took it all in quickly and tucked it away, and ode to some of the magic of my childhood. The tour guide mentioned that Laura, at least in part, probably had such skill in describing things because she had to be her blind sister’s “eyes and ears” from the time she was a young child onward. I think she also probably learned the value of beauty, which requires paying attention, from her parents. Visiting her home felt like a sweet pilgrimage, and I remembered listening to the words of all of her books in my mother’s voice, all of us propped up on pillows at bedtime. Some books are more than stories; some books shape how you see the world.

After Missouri came the drive across Kansas. I expected it to be long and tedious but it really wasn’t. The rolling grass and repetitive cornfields were comforting and even, beautiful. The sky took up more space than before.

Then, down into Colorado, for a visit with my brother who’s stateside now and starting a new chapter of his life. It is a joy to watch him be an uncle to my children. They have fun, and I just stand back and watch, and it’s good. I can’t imagine a more perfect place than Colorado for him. He introduces me to good beer and talks about his many outdoor adventures, and I am happy to see him this way.

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After our visit, it’s down down down into New Mexico. The forests get scrubby and the terrain gets rough, and we need shoes on our feet now because the weeds fight to protect themselves. Grass is pokey, but it finds a way to survive on very little water. We meet friends for lunch in a park in Albuquerque and talk about all the new things that are happening.  We crawl into the driveway of Ricky’s mother’s house late that night, met with hugs, kisses, beds and cold water. The kids are thrilled about having a pool in the backyard and use it almost every day.

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In the days to come, we have to find a place to live, make final arrangements for schools, and try to adjust to the sun’s brightness (this still hasn’t happened, completely). Nicky begins fourth grade; Silas and Aimee both begin preschool. We wake up early, drive an hour and a half to drop everyone at his and her school, Ricky finds a place with WiFi to work (homes of generous friends, mostly). This is a whole new world, and it includes mornings to myself. It occurs to me that I haven’t had any consistent, predictable time to myself in over eight years. It feels odd but I have no complaints.

Even with errands and the usual moving headaches, I have more time to be still. I start coloring and sketching out mandalas, inspired by a friend’s beautiful work. My freehand mandalas are for my eyes only (mostly they’re bad) but I enjoy seeing how they take form. I buy an instructional drawing book, and start making my way through the lessons. Nicky and I do this together a lot; it becomes a ritual I look forward to. We surprise ourselves with good drawings and with really bad ones, too. I learn about proportion; I am just beginning.

There are a lot of “I’ve always wanted to” ideas floating around right now. There is the fleeting newness and sense of possibility that fades and so must be used while it is there. We find a charming adobe house for rent downtown, walking distance to many things. I go to the gym and stop by friends’ houses for lunch. Ricky signs us up at the food co-op and talks about hiking. I see him riding his bike one day, coffee cup in one hand, and he doesn’t see me. This sight makes me happy, makes this feel right.

Moving back was a hard decision, one I’ve second-guessed many times in the month of August. The desert is so much brighter than I remember. I borrow very dark sunglasses from my mother in law, and that helps my headaches. We are tired on many levels, but we lie down under fans in darkened rooms, and that helps. Ricky and I sneak out for ice cream after the kids are asleep, and the night air helps too. The daily beauty of mountain and sky and greened-up desert helps, and the feeling that we’re all in this together helps, and dreaming about what we will do here helps.

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And, naming helps. All the trees in my backyard, all the people that I love, all the mountain ranges I see, all the shades of blue in the sky.

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Expansion: My May Confession

Possibility is oh-so-surprising, isn’t it? The thing you silently swore to yourself you wouldn’t do is now the thing you consider with caution, then reserve, then openness, a smile slowly forming on your lips. You think about your family as a whole, about having a big wide open space to invite others into. You remember the sky, the softness of the dirt sifting up around your ankles, the warmth of the rocks, the mountains rising up at the end of the horizon. And the place is beautiful again.

Of course, it always was.

It holds pain. Home always does. You get just about as far away as you can, and you breathe for awhile. You take in some new things; join your tributary with others and wind into the larger body. It’s easier to see, from a distance, how we’re all really the same. We all want, we all disappoint, we all find ways to get back up, we all hope.

So you align your hope with an old place that may become new. Maybe.

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You’re getting better at considering. Consider the potential of Sundays outside of the world you knew. Consider parenting differently. Consider–imagine–a world for yourself that looks different, better.

Life is for creating.

Pause, heal, reflect, consider,

create.

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When you were dating, there was a book that suggested adventures were for men, and women supported those adventures. A good number of people raved about it, thought it profound. It sent shivers down your spine and thankfully, down his spine too. You threw it on the proverbial fire and said nope. We will both have our adventures. We will be support beams for each other. We will be open to dreams.

You didn’t know then, but more and more and more things would make you uneasy. You would them on the fire too, sighing with relief. You didn’t think you’d ever want to go back to the space that held all of that, associating the two so closely.

But now, you see that there is more.

In this new life, there always seems to be more. It makes you swell like a cloud about to burst in July, puffing out into the azure width of sky, unapologetically dramatic against cliff against spine against rushing water, defying the dry. There is so much more.

You let go, and it all gets bigger.

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accepting help with open hands

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to fear.

Because of our daughter Aimee’s history, she has some developmental delays–enough to qualify for Early Intervention services. We’re grateful, of course, that these services are available (not only that, but licensed, caring professionals come to our home, at times we choose, and we don’t pay a dime.) But I’ve noticed something about my daughter’s therapy appointments: I tend to be tired and sad afterward.

I’ve struggled with how much of this to share, because Aimee’s story is her own to tell. My hope is to tell the truth about my experience, while protecting hers.

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Over and over, my husband and I have been reminded that Aimee is on her own schedule and she’ll reach milestones when she’s ready and so we try to keep faith that things will happen when the time is right. From the time she came to our home, tiny and fragile at six weeks old, to now, we’ve navigated a tricky balance between gently pushing her forward and pausing when her cues prompt us to.  When she took her first steps and pointed to the dog magnet and found her nose, we cheered a little louder and clapped a little longer than with our other children, because she had to work harder, and longer, to get there.

Still,  fear casts a shadow over whatever milestone is supposed to come next.

Fear provokes a helpless, anxious response to the big questions: Can I accept any outcome, while continuing to work for the best possible outcome? How will my daughter be treated in life? What will school be like? Will her heart be broken by careless words?

Will those careless words be mine?

photo (2)September 2012

Since we recently moved to a new state, we’ve been establishing care with a new agency, and that means meetings, assessments, and interviews. Last week we did what’s called a Routines Based Interview– a tool used to outline the activities of a typical day and find any areas of concern or potential for improvement. This sort of thing stresses me out, to be honest. It feels invasive and intimate (because it is) but at the same time I know it’s for my daughter’s good. It’s a first step for the therapists, to direct their focus.

Part of the interview was to identify our support network–all the people in our lives who interact with Aimee in some way. The last time we did one of those was in New Mexico, and let’s just say the page was full. Church, friends, neighbors, babysitters, day care, social workers, therapists, grandparents–we don’t have some of those resources here, and it takes time to build up the sort of support network we had before.

One of the interview questions was “when you lie awake at night and worry, what do you worry about?”–ironic because it caused that very thing. That’s what Early Intervention does though: it brings to light things that may not be noticed otherwise, and it’s a good thing because that’s the first step to any sort of change. And this particular exercise helped me to realize that I was carrying the burden of responsibility for making things happen.

Throughout this journey, I’ve had to remind myself that I’m not the one in control. I lay down the burden, but I’m quick to pick it up again.

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I spent some time with my fear: praying, journaling, airing my thoughts out loud with my husband. He has many of the same fears, and shared how he handles them. In stillness, I was able to see myself clenching my fists tightly when it came to Aimee’s care. I realized that I have some discomfort with the “special needs” label. No one wants their child to be labeled, of course, but this had more to do with my own bias. Deep down, I was angry about it.  During the foster-adoption process, there were so many unknowns that I simply started filing them away in the back of my mind. It hurts to bring things to the surface, and so I’ve been in pain, but it’s a pain with a purpose. Like childbirth.

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The next time our therapists came over, Ricky was able to stay home for the morning. He wrangled Silas while I talked to the Early Childhood Educator and Speech Language Pathologist about their findings from the interview. Together we came up with some practical, helpful ideas and a manageable plan to implement them. We all sat on our living room floor and read books, practicing pointing and naming, singing songs and laughing at Silas and Aimee’s antics. I noticed, surprised, that I felt light and hopeful. I had put the burden of Aimee’s well-being down, and opened my eyes to the people around me who are working for her good as well.

The interview served two purposes: helping us to figure out the next steps for Aimee, and helping me to let go of some toxic baggage. The first was the intended purpose, the second I’m taking as a gift. We can’t care for children well without caring for ourselves too.

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The mood’s been different around here since then. My energy to parent creatively has been renewed. We’ve been painting, and playing dress-up, vrooming cars around on the floor, having spontaneous dance parties, building train tracks and reading under blankets–all things I long to do with them, all things I find incredibly difficult when I’m burdened down. I find myself more like the mother I want to be, because I’ve accepted help–externally and internally.

Making myself vulnerable to outside help is a really uncomfortable process. It involves shedding light on my insecurities as a parent, and admitting that I don’t have it all together, that truthfully I’ve been struggling to find balance ever since adding a third child to our family.

It takes bravery to show up for our real, everyday lives.

I want to write on every mirror in the house: ASK FOR HELP. And when the help comes, let it in. Internalize it. Open the fists, see the good that’s all around.

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I’m still unpacking my fears, but I’m determined to remind myself daily that I’m part of a team. It’s not all up to me. This frees me to focus on our precious Aimee–to notice her curiosity, unique personality, progress, setbacks, and downright cuteness– and just be her mother, her advocate, her cheerleader.

So thank you, pain. Thank you, discomfort. There are beautiful things to come.

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minutes and hours

Those stinking January blues descended here in full force last week, and my first response was to regret that I hadn’t done enough to stave them off. After all, I’d given in to my homebody tendencies too many times: weighing the energy it takes to go out with a one and three year old against the ease of just staying in and nearly always choosing the latter. I’d read too many serious books, and indulged in too many cups of coffee and not nearly enough glasses of water. All the usual signs of trying to comfort myself, followed by all the usual reminders that I need more.

The sun shone just a certain way some days and I started to think about Spring. I called my mother to ask if she thought it was too late to plant bulbs. Ricky was gone for six days, and I surprised myself by not turning into a total heap on the floor. I made good use of the Yes prayer during those days, most assuredly.

Still, I started to dread another day indoors, trying to set a cheerful tone and resisting the urge to pull the curtains shut. Tired mornings even after plenty of sleep. I get this way, in Winter. Do you?

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One day, Silas was wiggling around as I changed his Pull-Up, and I asked him to be still. “Just a minute, sweetheart,” he murmured, rolling his train along the side of the table. Something inside me was hibernating, and in that moment it stirred a bit. Sweetheart.

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On Tuesday it snowed again; magical because of the babies’ excitement. I did a lot of looking out windows and it felt like a metaphor for my life right now. I watched Nicky run in his clunky boots to the neighbor’s house to play with Legos and swords, I watched Silas and Aimee turn their faces up to catch the flakes. Aimee’s lashes were white with them. I watched, and it was all I could seem to do. The minimum things: laundry and dinner, were heavy.

In that heaviness I tried to remember: if I were someone else, I would give me a hug. I was full of questions as I tried to scrape my tenderness together into an evening meal. This song played in the background. Where Grace is found, is where you are. The image of God as a tired-but-trying mother hen, longing to gather chicks under wings, came to mind. I imagined myself being gathered there willingly, gladly. Cared for as I navigated the rhythms we all do: freeze, thaw, sleep, wake. Learn, relearn, teach, relearn. Every hour I need you–no truer words exist for me.

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The weekend came and I did some helpful things: a text message to our lovely babysitter, a dinner out, a long cold walk around a frozen lake. I seem to be better at caring for myself when I remember how deeply cared for I am. As another week begins, I remember this.

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on saying yes

Two weeks ago I had a particularly rough parenting day. Silas is nearly three, and as anyone who has had a three year old knows, the “terrible twos” are a big fat lie. It’s the threes that threaten everyone’s sanity. So this particular day, he broke a tv antenna, hid my insurance card in the couch (causing an overdramatic reaction on my part), tore pages out of Nicky’s book, dumped out an entire box of flashcards onto the floor, and fought hard against all my efforts to correct him. By fighting hard I mean yelling and yelling and running away and yelling. I had no energy to deal well with it.

I read somewhere that there are only two choices: selfish or generous. I like the sentiment, but as a parent of young children the lines between the two can get blurry.

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Rob Bell was on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday recently (full episode here). She asked him to define prayer, and he said that prayer is Yes. That it’s a spiritual openness. It’s looking at your life and talking with God about it, and simply saying Yes to it.

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It wasn’t only a rough day for parenting. Ricky and I are doing some pre-holiday Paleo, which means no sugar, and this was Day Two. Day One was all newness and excitement, but here on Day Two, things were not so pleasant. I had a throbbing tension headache and a foul attitude. Powerful drug, that sugar, and I was in withdrawal. Aimee was playing contentedly, but even the fact that she needed a few meals and diaper changes felt like too much to me. If I was alone, and were it an option, I probably would have spent the day in bed.

Spent.

It wasn’t until the afternoon, as I took a shower while they napped, that I thought to say the Yes prayer.

What is it about showers and spiritual awakening? The stillness, maybe, or the way the water drowns out ambient noise, or the physical warmth running down sore shoulders. You can let loose if you need to, and cry out your frustrations, in the safety of the steam. Pain in my body. Disappointment in myself as a parent, again. A sense of hopelessness about how to make things better, again. Swirling down and around, mixing with warm cleansing water, gone.

Then, a nudge. You can say yes to all of this. I’ll help you. So I said yes, apprehensively, cried out some more toxic things, and then said yes again. It wasn’t easy, and I certainly didn’t want to, but here’s something I’ve learned: when the Divine nudges you to ask for help, you even get help with the asking. It’s that good.

I realize this may sound silly. No matter what, I was going to have to get out of that shower and carry on with my day. But I’ve found that there’s a difference between just getting by and stepping into an available fullness. It’s the difference between carrying an enormous burden on my own shoulders or allowing the Divine, who loves me, to take some of the weight off.

It takes bravery to ask for that kind of help. In my mind, and maybe in yours too, there’s always the terrifying possibility that nothing will happen.

I stepped out of the shower to realize that Silas wasn’t asleep, but downstairs gleefully pulling out paper and crayons. Yes. I brought the little stinker back to bed. My headache wasn’t gone. I took some ibuprofen, brewed some coffee, found a good podcast to listen to while it all kicked in. Yes. He came into the office, obviously not going to nap, not that day, no sir. But he wanted “upsies”, so we sat together there in the office chair, him all sweaty hair and milky skin and deep brown eyes. Almost three, battles of the will to come, but also just this moment. Yes. Peace threw her soft cloak over the room, and we rested. Yes.

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