Endings, Or What You Learn That Can’t Be Measured. 

It’s the end of school year. That anticipation builds, the excitement hardly contained, the noise levels rise, and then, suddenly it is over. Everyone is gone and the ghosts of laughter and happy shrieks and frustrations are silent. There’s an odd sensation after school ends when everyone scatters. The emptiness and the noise that recently existed float against the walls, and trail out the doorways. The surging energy calms to an abrupt cessation. 
The sudden ending always seem strange to me. I’ve been a student, a teacher, and now a parent of a student and the endings still have that same feeling, mixed with excitement so strong its hard to stand, relief and long breaths, and then the odd empty feel when the action halts. This is my first year as a kindergarten parent. The end of kindergarten was different than I expected, but I shouldn’t have been surprised by it. 


We are prepared for the beginning of kindergarten, when our babies materialize into academic scholars, proficient in letter sounds and telling time; expert in the subjects of chick hatching and butterfly transformation. We work ahead to send them off to kindergarten. We’ve officially started them on this career that ends in thousands of dollars of debt and ownership of a black cap and gown in 16 or so years. We read all the articles to make sure they are ready for school. We’ve collected the tips on how to be the best kindergarten mom and how to stay strong when you wave goodbye on day one. We buy supplies, we get them excited, we make their lunch and write them the little note to put with the lunch. The first day comes, the tear gets brushed away, the pictures are proudly posted. Then we settle into our school year routines of drop offs and pick ups and lunches with notes. 
Then kindergarten ends. And I had failed to fully prepare for the end and the sadness, for the sudden anticlimacticness that seemed oddly similar to the day after I graduated from college. I distinctly remember thinking “now what do I do with my life?” Of course the answers (um, find a job) were there for me, lurking, and obviously she will go to first grade, not find a job. But the similar feeling lingers -everything we’ve been pouring our life into and looking forward to has ended.   

Kindergarten is pivotal. This is the time when small childhood ends. They walk into school alone. They have friends. They form bonds with people other than their parents – they have a teacher they will probably remember, at least vaguely. 

The night she graduated from kindergarten, in a mixture of emotion and exhaustion, she cried herself to sleep. She was heartbroken that she wouldn’t see her friends and teacher anymore. I realized in the days leading up to the end of school that small children have it harder than older children or adults when endings come. In kindergarten it’s harder to control your sense of loss. Kindergarten graduates, unlike high school and college graduates lack the ability to pick up a phone or send a text any time they wish. They (hopefully) do not have social media to connect with their friends. They are left dependent on their parents’ level of intro or extroversion. 
As she cried, I wanted to assure her that kindergarten is a drop in the bucket. I wanted to help her know that this is an easily surmountable sadness cured by a few good days at the beach. But instead, I told her about my own deep ache for the friends I’ve made and had to leave behind in various stages of my life. I told her about my wedding rehearsal dinner when I walked into a room with most of my dearest friends collected together and how I realized I would not see them after the following evening at my wedding. I realized I had chosen a new life that didn’t keep them in a ten minute radius. My heart crumpled as I entered the room. I fled the scene and sobbed in a bathroom for what seemed an eternity to my confused fiance. I told my sweet baby girl that we make amazing friends through our lives and then we say good bye to them too frequently,  but that they become a part of who we are forever. 


The part of kindergarten we can’t test and measure and quantify and see and understand is the truest and deepest part of us. Sure, we grow in academic and developmental understanding,  but we grow as people. We separate from our families and build relationships and learn independence. We have the joy of innocently blissful friendships, quick and easy forgiveness, and happy goodwill to our neighbors. We suffer thru good byes and changes. We live a microcosm of life in one fast year and suddenly we are ready for the rest of our lives. 
I haven’t seen many articles for parents about handling a sensitive child at the end of kindergarten. Most mothers I talk to tell me about their own tears at the end of kindergarten. But what about the child’s tears? What do we do to help them grapple with the quieted laughter and lack of “life purpose”?


We move into one day after another day as best we know how. We do well to remember our own pains and heartbreaks as well as our own joys and friendships. And we celebrate the tiny humans our children have become, knowing that there are many parts of growth that are unmeasurable. Learning to deal with the pendulum that swings between joy and pain is one of those unmeasurable growths. We won’t find a true grade of that sort on a report card, because that is a life long lesson that continues on year after year, making us deeper and stronger. 

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The Peony’s Soul

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Slowly, they bud, as the lilacs fade, as the days grow warm and long

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One by one, they pop open, bursting bright raspberry shades across the lawns

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They open wider, flinging ruffles and ripples across our paths

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They are generous benefactors, stacking pillows of pink and magenta in front of our eyes

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The slanting sun shimmers in the distance as the bowers of bright pink smile and bounce in the spring breeze

And if you look deeper, inside – as often happens in life – you find that more than the surface color and shine exists. Farther in, tucked away, only slightly hinted at, there lives a completely different color and texture, hidden from first view, but ever so beautiful and surprising as you peer beneath the garish surface of a peony.

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Hearing Voices in the Spring

Spring is the same year after year.  Flowers shoot up through the ground and bloom. Trees carry buds which flower and morph into yellow umbrellas and then into green canopies, lighting up against the gray, wet skies.  But the fabulous part of this whole Spring production is that while each Spring carries the same template, no two Springs are the same. No two daffodils are identical. Each year, the shining canopies of fresh leaves are unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing in my voice. By this I mean, whose voice I am really using as I write. Is it me, is it who I want to be, is it who I think someone else wants me to be? Or have I been avoiding who I really am, so that others can think I am someone that I really not.  Sometimes we work so hard to avoid being ourselves that we end up forgetting who and what really composes our true self. There’s a tight balance between the control required to produce quality work (in writing, in art, and in music,) and between being a voice or an expression that truly mirrors the soul within us.  Creativity is more control than it is wild expression. It takes time, maybe even years to stop writing or producing for someone else, to truly be oneself, but to meld the learning from others and the self awareness inside into a quality performance.

Take a child.  Children copy.  And then they make connections between what they copy here and what they learn there and what they think inside their own brains. And they often “think for themselves.”  At some point in life, what they (we) produce is a compendium of mirrored thought and original thought.  I used to think that every piece of productive, creative work had to be entirely original. Then slowly, I realized that artists everywhere form their identities, at some point,  by depending on others.  Some stay close to modeled templates, maybe improving or changing slightly. Some release themselves like birds from a cage and go off to build their own fantastic nests.

I’ve come to think there is nothing inherently right or wrong with either path, as everyone’s capacity for creativity is different. The important thing is to find, within one’s creative template, a voice so unique, so individual, that no one could be that voice but the owner, and then to keep that voice alive and heard.

Don’t stop your voice because it might sound like someone else’s voice.  Don’t chop off your tree branches because your neighbor has the same tree.  Don’t be afraid to produce and create and plant a new flower that no one has ever seen, in case they compare it to ones they have seen.  Just walk out into the fresh, flowery scented air, and breath and let your voice carry over the breezes.  Eventually it will find the perfect landing spot and erupt into a canopy that is the exact fit  for your universe.

What I Hate About Motherhood

There is a part of motherhood that I love and a part that I still struggle to accept. And sometimes those parts make a Venn diagram in my head. (Yes, I just used a term from a math book, call the news hotline) I try to make sense of these blended areas of existence, mainly  to stay sane and positive.

I love my children as human beings, naturally. They are cute (usually) and funny (mostly) and they add color and happiness to my life, like herbs I didn’t know were missing from soup. I also love the part of motherhood that has made me run to God and hold on tightly to everything I know about His goodness and love from the first instant of motherhood that blinked on a screen as a line to my now normal everyday life full of amazement that I actually have children, frustrations, decisions, questions and answers, and my own fears for their future.

I hate the collective mommyness of motherhood. I dread the automatic categorization of “moms” who are obviously only interested in things like diapers and the color of spit up and preschool crafts and transforming our housework into kingdom work by swallowing a spoonful of sugar and singing bippity boppity boo. There is a homogony to mothers that is both comforting and repulsive.

Humans love commonality and community and yet we value our personal uniqueness. In being a part of the masses, I am learning to admire God’s skill in making a pattern of image bearers so like one another, all in need of a Savior, and completely different from even their closest human friends.

The other frustrating part of motherhood for me, (or of domesticness in general,) is repetitive nature of trying to maintain dominion over a constantly falling apart domain. Now, I do not mean to say that things like dishes and cleaning and laundry are not meaningful. Of course they have a purpose and without them our world would hygienically struggle a bit. Here is an example of what I mean. I cleaned for six hours one day last week. I scrubbed floors and organized toys and dusted in between making meals and snacks and changing diapers and answering questions and playing evil queens and pirates, and taking a toddler off my Swiffer mop and dismantling her from the top of the piano and so on. It was slow progress and hard to see results. But during naptime, I felt satisfied, despite my lack of a shower that day.

Then naptime ended. Within two hours, there was a scene of destruction in my house that would rival a natural disaster. And everything I had done was undone. The floor was still clean, but it wasn’t noticeable. Wait, floor, what floor? The floor was a carpet of books. The carefully removed dust was floating back again. And new meals had to be made, messing up the shining granite countertops. Crumbs went jumping onto the freshly scrubbed floor. Bedtime meant that I could relive my day all over again, doing the same activities, still without a shower, because clearly I had enjoyed the day so much.

I repeat my work over and over and over.  A little at a time, slowly working toward an elusive goal that is never really met. I fix and disintegration appears. I create and natural causes (humans) destroy or consume. And I find it frustrating not to see progress and results.

But, there are a few ways to look at this.

Isn’t God’s work repetitive? I know it only took Him seven days to create the world, but His work did not end there. Is He not constantly making a fallen world, continually falling apart, stay together? By Him and through Him, we consist. And are we who believe not being saved, daily? Redemption happened once, but is constantly upheld by continual mercy. Forgiveness does not end, but repeats over and over, for all time.

Everyone is labeled in categories and everyone encounters repetition. You need not be a mother to feel the tension. A pastor, a laborer, a teacher, a business executive understands the same ideas.

My work is done. My work is demolished. My world is neatly tied up in brown paper packages. My world is unraveled with a snip of string. And at the same time, I am undone and I am made whole. I am one of many image bearers and I am a unique image bearer. I participate in the groan of creation and yet I will be made new and see the reward of redemption.

Repetition can seem endlessly futile. Or it can be the foundation on which all meaning and originality is built. We find our individuality in God, our Creator, our Heart’s true desire, rather than in our repetitive work. We reflect the constant nature of God through our repetition. In this dance of perfect and imperfect, of blessed yet needy, we pave paths toward the shining light of creativity, reflecting God, unchanging and eternal in the dawn of each fresh day.

Cosmic Sledgehammer or Eternal Redeemer

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I used to think of God as a kind of harsh teacher who would send one lesson after another, periodically spaced, into my life. In this picture, I envisioned that I would head through a hard event and if I could learn the corresponding lesson quickly, the event would end, I would get everything right and then God could be happy and love me. I would then be free to scamper along merrily, until it was time to learn a new lesson. Then He could hammer in another scenario and I would repeat the scene of learning and pleasing Him. These events would repeat one after the other, Him smashing down the hammer of learning, and me responding appropriately and with complete surrender to make sure He was satisfied.

We do not want hard lives. We do not want to suffer. We do not want to be afraid. There are various levels of suffering in our world. There are places in the world that know of more intense suffering than I can handle mentally. Then there are troubles with money, sad relationships, divorce, infertility, monetary struggles, loss, and general fear. I don’t really feel like I have suffered in great measure. Life has been easy, and almost too pleasant. My cynical side says, “you have it too good, something has to correct itself.” After life goes along smoothly for a time, I begin to wonder what might happen next… But, then, everyone’s life is different and what is hard for one person does not come to another’s door. When the potential for hardship looms, it leads me into a place where I am forced to remember that God is loving. That even in the hardest circumstances, God is my help, my salvation. He is the resurrection and life.

I often live afraid of suffering. I’m more afraid of being afraid of suffering than I am afraid when actually going through something hard and trusting God in the process. But ironically, in some respects, it is easier to be in a place where I have no choice but to trust because the circumstances are so far beyond my control that I have no illusion of having options. I like to think I can control my life and minimize risk. That too is faulty logic. I admire people who say that they want to be closer to God and they know they will suffer in the process. I would never pray to bring suffering on myself. I am too weak. And yet, I know there will be hardness and pain in life, regardless whether I pray for it or pray to avoid it.

The hard part of living in this broken world is to understand why, if God is good, there is suffering. Really, the suffering is not because God is good or bad, but because there is systemic evil haunting us since the Garden of Eden. The fall and the resulting need of redemption is the root of suffering’s stem. The truth behind all of the brokenness is that God is there, always present, helping His beloved children along THROUGH the suffering that the fall has cursed them with, not sending hammers down on their heads to make them stronger or more valuable to Him. His children are of value, otherwise, why the need for a redemption plan? He is the one who said, “don’t”, in the beginning. But we did. So, now He holds us close as we suffer under the effects of that original disobedience.

I once thought God was the sledgehammer. I thought He dangled it over the heads of His children, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to judge us for our missteps, to teach us valuable lessons, to make us more incredibly and mindlessly obedient.

And then I became a parent. And I am by far not a perfect parent, as He is. But in no imaginable scenario would I ever tauntingly discipline my children “just because”. (I have read some sadistic discipline advice that does advocate creating teachable moments for children, to test their obedience, but that is wholly unbiblical or extra biblical, whichever word you like.)  No, rather, when the child falls down because they were told not to walk on the ice, or the second child gets hurt because the first child created a harmful situation, or, fill in the blank…., that is when we remind them of how they could have avoided the situation, remind them that obedience matters, remind them that we all are in desperate need of Christ’s help, and comfort them and help them with every shred of breath we have. Of course there is natural frustration at times, because we are not perfect. No normal and healthy parent wants to see their own child suffer. But we know they will, at times. And so we prepare them and help them and comfort them and encourage them as much as we can through these hard times. And that is how God cares for us, but with infinitesimal perfection.  The effect of the fall wasn’t God’s revenge on His creation. Instead, He took the evil of Fall and created good from it – the incredible path back to His arms through Christ on the cross.

There is no possible way in which a cosmic sledgehammer would create the plan to redeem His children when they had enraged his wrath by disobeying His command. A loving Father, however, would look at His children’s disobedience and find a way to rescue them from the tangles in which they were trapped. A cosmic sledgehammer would stand by and watch suffering of His creation with snark and cynicism. A loving Father sacrificed His son to rescue the poor souls who distrusted and still distrust Him. When children fail to trust, we reach out again and again, assuring them of our care and love. Most religions have a God or god like figure who exacts some sort of penalizing retribution upon disobedience. But our God is one who looks in pity with grace and says, forgive them, they do not know what they do. He looks at suffering children and says, come and rest, give me your burdens, cast your cares on me, I am the resurrection and the life. The perfect Father, the perfect Savior, is the one to whom we trust our lives and our souls, as little children who need to be held.

Rudolph, Isaiah, and the Best Years of Our Lives

We stumbled and bounced into the post office, three of us at one time, bundled into hard to move winter coats, with a large pile of crisp white Christmas card envelopes in tow. When we enter small spaces, it can sometimes feel like quite the dramatic entrance. I never know who might trip, if someone will stop and stand still because something “scary” looms ahead inside the doorway, or if the smallest child will suddenly decide she doesn’t want to be held and simultaneously doesn’t want to stand on her own two feet. I negotiate how doors will be opened with a child in my arms, with a four year old who either believes she can handle the world on her own and needs to open even the heaviest doors alone or gets distracted by her imaginary friends, and with the kind attempts – or lack thereof – from strangers to politely help up with said doors. Sometimes the opening of doors and falling into rooms can be one of the trickiest parts of going places with children.

So, into the little post office we bounced. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer stamp posters were decorating the wall, to the delight of my daughter. “Rudolph!” she squealed. An older man attaching stamps to envelopes turned around and gave the girls a big smile. The two girls entertained themselves as I bought some (Rudolph) stamps. The man was the friendly sort, chatty but not overbearing, obviously happy at the sight of two little girls. I started placing stamps on envelopes, with a break in the action for both girls to send envelopes down the letter shoot before they darted under the counter where the man and I were working. He was still talking to them and then he looked up at me with a smile and said to me words I often suspect and don’t dare to voice. “These are the best days of your life, you know.” He said it cheerfully, with no regret, but only enthusiasm.   He told me he had three children, eleven grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. He told me raising his children was the most fun he had in his life. Everyone says time goes fast, but this statement was specific, pointed.

My birthday was this week. For some reason, there are certain years that stump us. The years that are in between the milestones make me pause more than the milestones. These sorts of years remind me that while things like birthdays and Christmastime return annually, but the years never recur again. There has been a bit of pause for me in the last few months. Watching my baby turn into a little girl in four short years and my second baby valiantly fight to keep up with her older sister is an everyday reminder of the overexposed speed that life travels. Suddenly, another birthday is here, one baby face is growing older, and another baby is running and talking. Someday I will be able to type with two hands because there will not be two girls wriggling on and over and around my lap as I write. Perhaps I am odd, but I can get caught up in what my childhood expectations of my life were and in anxiety about what the future may bring. Instead, I am better off realizing that NOW is the life that I am living. The past has left and the future will be in God’s hands. I cannot live with regret about the past, frustration about the present, or anxiety about the future. I can learn from past mistakes, live fully now, and realize God will care for the future.

I’m trying to finish up some books I started awhile ago. In The Luggage of Life, Frank Boreham touches on Isaiah,

It is the intermediate stage that tests the mettle of the man. It is the long, fatiguing trudge out of sight of both starting-point and destination that puts the heaviest strain on heart and brain. That is precisely what Isaiah meant in the best known and most quoted of all his prophecies. He promises that, on the return from Babylon to Jerusalem, ‘they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint/ Israel is to be released at last from her long captivity. Imagine the departure from Babylon—its fond anticipations, its rapturous ecstasies, its delirious transports! Those first steps of the journey were not trying; they were more like flying. The delighted people walked with winged feet. And the last steps—with Jerusalem actually in sight, the pilgrims actually climbing the mountains that surrounded the holy and beautiful city—what rush of noble and tender emotions would expel and banish all thought of weariness! But Isaiah is thinking of the long, long tramp between —the drag across the desert, and the march all void of music. It is with this terrible test in mind that he utters his heartening promise: ‘They shall walk and not faint.’ They would fly, as on wings of eagles, out of Babylon at the beginning; they would run, forgetful of fatigue, into Jerusalem at the end; but they should walk and not faint. That is life’s crowning comfort. The very climax of divine grace is the grace that nerves us for the least romantic stage of the journey. Farewells and welcomes, departures and arrivals, have adjusting compensations peculiar to themselves; but it is the glory of the gospel that it has something to say to the lonely traveller on the dusty tract. Religion draws nearer when romance deserts. Grace holds on when the gilt wears off.

 (pp.72)

I always skimmed over the walking part of that verse. It seemed like that action had to be included to make the analogies complete, but was otherwise superfluous. But a good part of our life includes the walking, perhaps sometimes impatiently, perhaps sometimes wearily. The days spent doing whatever it is we do without seeing grandiose or world altering results are walking days. The phases when accomplishment seems elusive, but work is in process are walking days. We repeat many days over and over without feeling like they are different. We remember time in clusters of days, sometimes with outstanding moments glimmering like stars.

Whether they are the best days of our lives or the worst, they are our lives. I do not know if I am in the best stage of my life. I suspect I may be. There is certainly plenty of happiness and gratefulness surrounding me. I know that years can be hard and life can hold suffering. But the constant is that the God who holds us up when we run, soar, or walk is the God who never changes. He is the God who sent His Son to give us the only comfort and joy in life and death. We look at Advent with anticipation, at Christmas with joy, and through that lens we can see our whole lives. I am not sure that God carries the perspective that there are best days of our lives. We feel that on a human level. But He cares for us completely, at all times. He grants us the years to live, rescues our souls, bears us up as we move through this life. The only way we can run, soar, or walk is by His grace and providence. His is the love that never changes. He is the one that remains the same. And that, through the best years and soaring years, the low years and the walking days, is the great promise in which we find hope.IMG_0248.JPG

M&Ms and the Call of God

I laughed to myself recently when a woman asked me a question that could be classified as “parenting advice.” I was standing in a crowd, chatting with a random stranger from New York City who had a five-month-old baby girl strapped to her, discussing pacifiers, thumb sucking, and sleep patterns. I, who am the Queen of Makeshift Parenting, was doling out parenting tips. Like you should be telling anyone anything, I laughed to myself. I, who forget to change diapers and drag my children to Starbucks with iPads and cake pops while writing academic papers, will most likely not be writing Parenting magazine’s next advice column.

It was an ironically humorous moment that I had with myself. But, on the other hand, I am constantly amazed that being a mother to my children is the one thing that I have never questioned myself on my ability to do. And, by no means do I credit myself with this instinctual epiphany. Only God could give instincts and intuition that I found myself possessed with upon suddenly meeting my oldest daughter. Despite second guessing most of the steps I’ve taken in my life, I have never felt more myself than being these two little people’s mom. I may forget to buy enough ingredients to assemble a fruit and vegetable pirate ship for lunch, but I can read their minds. I may change diapers in the most inordinate places, but I can anticipate their emotions, their imaginings, and their small joys.

Obviously, I make mistakes, like giving my 16-month-old a bite of an M&M, transforming her into an M&M fiend who shrieks and hyperventilates when she sees an M&M bag. I know I will make many mistakes. I know there will be errors in judgment, things I would not do over again, words that I wish I could swallow down into my throat. I know there will be days when I am completely confounded by their actions, words, and attitudes. But when I scan through parenting articles and the scads of comments arguments that follow them, I find it odd how much of what we consider “parenting” does not really matter.

Even though there will be mistakes, my confidence is high and my stress is low, because I know ultimately, it is God who must place His hand on their life. I will do my best to steward this responsibility that He has, for reasons only He knows, believed best to drop into my life. I will model moral living in front of them. I will teach them good habits of life and what having strong character means. I will teach them to work hard. I will teach them to be virtuous, to be kind. I will teach them everything I can and model for them, as much as God gives me grace to do so.

I believe these are things that responsible parents do. However, whether I am a good or bad parent to let them suck their thumbs or eat M&Ms, or whether I live well or stumble and fall in front of them matters not. While I will be the best parent I can be because I want to be responsible, what really matters is that they learn that God loves them, that He is a trustworthy and good Father. What matters is that they learn to trust His word, to know what His will is (from His word). I will teach them to read so that they will be able to read and understand the Bible. I will show them the beauty and truth woven into the world- so they will see Christ around them, even within the darkest examples of need. I will teach them that the Cross is the only thing to which they can cling in a fallen world. I will encourage them to have large souls and love learning, so they understand that God, the author and sustainer of all, is not limited by time or space or geography and that His love and grace are boundless. But ultimately, no matter how hard I work to teach these things, it is only the call of God that will capture their hearts and turn their eyes to see His glory. As St. Augustine, speaking of his mother, writes, “Not of her gifts do I speak but of Your gifts in her.” I will fail miserably as a parent by many standards. I am without ability to mold or change my children. Rather, it is the gift of God when He calls them to Himself.

Someday, it will not matter if my children had a thumb or a pacifier. It will not matter if they had a blanket or co-slept with me, ate adequate servings of organic vegetables, or any other preferences that I might force on them. They may wear braces, they may not learn Mandarin, and they may have to look up a word in order to spell it correctly. While some of these issues are important to quality of earthly life, what I hope most is that they hear and understand the voice of God. Our goodness, baseline moral code, amazing standards of cleanliness, organizational and social skills, and access to a world-class education are not our strengths. Like Samuel in the Old Testament, I pray that they hear the voice of God calling them, that His hand is on their lives, and that His grace is their strength.

 

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