This Time, Last Year

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On Friday, I’m leaving town. It’s not the best time for me to be gone because we run a retail shop and it’s almost Christmas.

And yet, it’s the best time for me to be gone because it’s almost Christmas. Dad died one year ago today, so I’m going to Colorado. It was Dad’s favorite place in the world and I’m hoping I can hold myself together until we get there.

For several weeks leading up to this day, I’ve been a falling apart and recovering in equal measure. On certain days, I wake up with dread and sit in a chair reassessing my entire life, and other days I’m peaceful and resigned. I’ve labeled it burnout, but I think it’s grief in disguise. Mostly, I’ve just been working hard to put one foot in front of the other with the hope that when this year anniversary has passed, I will be well. It’s true, I’m a bit raw.

So on a morning when I was feeling more sane than usual, I realized my need to be in a place that feels as close to Dad as possible. He loved the Rocky Mountains. During my childhood, we were all over the place: Aspen, Estes Park, Ouray, Ponderosa, Purgatory, and finally, Pagosa Springs. We settled in this small southwestern town and never left. For two weeks of each year, it’s our summer escape and haven. At one point in his life, when Dad was far from retirement and the reality of how Mom’s diabetes would make her dependent on living near a dialysis unit, he and my Uncle Bill bought a piece of land in Pagosa. They were going to build a big house so our families could spend more time in the mountains. It was on Antelope Drive, near a lake with a straight-shot view of the mountains. That’s what he loved – the view. He was particular about what condo we stayed in each summer, and when he finally found one that allowed him to sit on the patio with that view of the mountain, that’s the one we booked every year. Peregrine 7877

Mom started dialysis when she was 60, and the dream of spending the entire summer in Pagosa slowly faded away. Her life was different now – she had to be strapped to the dialysis machine three days a week in order to live. And Pagosa didn’t have a unit. So they sold the piece of land on Antelope Drive and waved it away with the realization that the dreams we have early in life don’t always intertwine with the way our life unfolds in the latter years. They found a dialysis unit in Cortez, Colorado and were content to give up the dream of being in the Rocky Mountains all summer. Instead, they drove three days a week over the mountains during our two-week stay in Pagosa. My parents were steady people, and they bounced back from adversity together. For ten years, dialysis was a part of our Colorado vacation, and they never grumbled, complained, or quit going.

Dad would start talking about Colorado in January, wondering what it looked like under a blanket of snow, proclaiming the obvious, “If we think it’s cold here, imagine what it feels like in Pagose.” (He had taken to dropping the a, thus giving it a little nickname). Around April, when the weather started to turn warm, he would let us know that it would only be a few months and we’d be in Pagose. And then, about a month before our late July departure he would talk about it every time we saw him, literally counting down the days and inventorying the food and cookware he and Mom were gathering to take – pancake mix, cereals, pasta, soda, griddle, skillet. He hated the cheap cookware in the condo.

When Mom’s neuropathy took her legs from her in early March of 2007, he shopped for and purchased a van with a lift and all the necessary handicap features, then proclaimed, “This will be perfect for Colorado.” She died in April and he sold the van. And then we went to Colorado that summer without her.

For seven summers he came to Colorado with us – or maybe we went with him. It always seemed like Colorado belonged to Dad. He continued to carry all the food and his cookware until the last couple of years when he only brought Diet Coke and pancake mix. He meant to  bring the griddle, but he kept forgetting it. He spent more time alone, staring at those mountains and doing more reminiscing about past trips. And then, last December 7, before he even started talking about the next Colorado trip, he died. It’s hard for me to add anything to what I say about his death. He just died. Suddenly. After rolling the neighbor’s trash cans to the side of their house and bringing in his newspaper. He fell over in his chair and died.

Colorado belongs to us now. We took our annual trip to Pagosa last July without Dad. It was heartbreaking, but also wonderful because for the first time I understood what tied him to these mountains and this place. All those summer weeks, the memories, the people and the traditions. And that air. Our trip this past summer came in the middle of a busy, stressful time for us and I needed that fresh, crisp, mountain air. I needed to breathe. I needed to see the absolute majesty and mystery of mountains and be reminded that I should be humbled by creation, and calmed by my insignificance. I need that again now.

We will return to Tulsa on December 13, and one month from that day we will move from our comfortable house in Shadow Mountain to the Rosedale house in northwest Tulsa. After twenty years in my childhood neighborhood, eleven years in this house, and countless memories of living within a half mile from parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, we’ll pick up and move to the other side of the city. We’ve made choices – lifestyle and financial – that necessitate us giving up our home. Many of those choices were solidified last summer in Colorado. So I’m going back to say goodbye to Dad one last time, and to prepare for another farewell. As Kyle reminds me, we’re not moving across the country, just to the other side of town.

When one thing ends something new is beginning. Although I know this, endings and goodbyes always knock me to the ground. So I’m going to Colorado to breathe in the air, look at the mountains, and be reminded that there is something bigger than my small world. I’m going to allow myself to grieve again, and then I‘m going to stand back up and come home and pack our life in boxes for another ending, and a new beginning.

Taking the Royal into 2016

I remember the sound of typewriter keys on Saturday mornings. Dad would finish his Sunday school lesson by typing his notes on the old Royal, circa 1940-something. It’s a gray, metal machine that weighs about as much as a full box of encyclopedias. Every week he was teaching – which was most weeks – he hauled it back and forth from the kitchen to the spare bedroom. By the time I was in high school, he had moved up to an electric typewriter and retired the Royal to a quiet existence in the linen closet.

Years ago, I laid claim to this old typewriter and promptly placed it on a shelf in an upstairs closet that held the things we couldn’t give away, but never touched. I couldn’t imagine myself typing on it. It was too slow, too heavy, and the font was one size only. Besides, it was outdated technology that held no promise of productivity. Worthless except for its antique value. For a decade I didn’t give the Royal another thought until Dad died last month. The day after his memorial service I went straight to the closet, lifted the heavy as heck typewriter and carried it downstairs to the den bar. We ordered a universal ribbon cartridge that fits most old typewriters and I loaded paper in and began to type quotes. It was clearly a grief project (I highly recommend these), and one that gave me a surprising amount of comfort and connection. Decades ago, my mother typed recipes on index cards on the Royal, and so there were times when the click of the keys were from her fingers. In elementary school I typed my first (very short) stories on it. I was hearing memories.

Because I am an only child, there has been no exercise of divvying up the items that belonged to my parents. Everything that was special to them now belongs to me, and I do not take this lightly. So the typewriter is being put to use to communicate messages of gratitude, encouragement and love, with a contrastingly jarring clack as I type. Any font my computer can spit out pales against the quirky lettering of the Royal, and when I place them side by side, the smudgy, uneven typewritten words prevail. But it comes at a cost. The keys must be pressed with about 10 times more force than my laptop keys, and if you hit the wrong key you don’t get to backspace with a handy delete key. You take the paper out and start over again, even if you were three words from finishing. The keyboard on the typewriter is a QWERTY, cleverly named because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY. Most computers have this layout, but with very different spacing between the keys. My third and pinky finger are weaklings and can’t push the typewriter keys down, so I type with only forefingers. It’s slow going, but far more precise.

So the old Royal and I are stepping into 2016 together. I am beginning to believe that there is nothing that doesn’t come back around in some form or another. There is an Adinkra symbol in Ghanaian culture called Sankofa. It’s in the shape of a swan that has turned its long neck to look backward. Sankofa symbolizes how much we can learn from the past, and that often looking back is one way we move forward. This is true whether we are learning from mistakes or rediscovering the value of what we thought was left behind. The typewriter is comforting, but also teaches me the beauty of the imperfect – smudged letters, uneven spacing, one font size. I’m typing those quotes and listening to the memories of weekly Sunday school lessons, handed-down recipes and a child’s short stories. I thought these things were gone forever, and maybe that meant they didn’t matter anymore. But now I know they are still with me – comforting and familiar like the typewriter that brought them all back.

 

Feet on the Ground

I always promise myself that the week after I return from Ghana there will be at least five days when I will not be fidgety. I will take time to reflect, write, ponder, pray, and rejuvenate. I will slow down, take deep breaths, enjoy leisurely walks, and relive the moments of the trip while being still and quiet.

This absolutely never, ever, happens.

After every trip, as soon as the plane lands, my feet hit the ground and they start running. This is probably not good, but I can’t seem to stay still after my return. I’ve been preparing the Ankaase Bags for sale, organizing photos and videos, brainstorming, problem-solving, and turning in circles trying to decide which important task should rise to the top of the list each hour. There is so much to do, which is why I decided it was time to write a blog post. As I’ve shared before, writing calms my restlessness and settles me down. I’m so grateful God has given me a prescription for what so often ails me. It’s cheap therapy.

This evening, I am remembering images of the week we spent in Ankaase. Here are a few:

Esther with her hand-broom, bending low to sweep the porch of the Mission House several times a day in a futile attempt to keep the dust and bugs away from the doorway. And while she swept, she sang hymns. In fact, she sang hymns while she prepared our meals from scratch, scrubbed the laundry by hand and cleaned the house every day. But every now and then, in the evening, Esther would stop her busyness and come out to belt out a verse of something completely random (“Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”). And one evening she came out to model her new dress and headwrap – the official outfit of the Church of Pentecost Women’s Ministry. Everyone who meets Esther loves her, including our team. We miss her.

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Comfort with her Hello Kitty backpack, filled with school supplies and other goodies. We delivered the gift to her from her sponsor, Sheilah, and it was a joy to see six-year-old Comfort receive the backpack. When Isaac took us to the Methodist School the next day to visit her classroom, there she sat with Hello Kitty strapped to her back as she sat at her desk working. As soon as she saw us in the doorway, there was the smile we had seen the day before when we visited her family. Comfort lives with her five siblings and grandmother in a small, barely furnished two-room dwelling. There is no light in the two rooms, and only one mattress for the entire family. The oldest daughter sleeps on a bed frame (no mattress) while the rest of the children sleep on the floor near the grandmother. No mosquito nets for this family either, and Comfort suffered a bout of malaria this past year. And yet, each one of these children radiated a joy that stunned us. In fact, when we returned to the Mission House, Shannon, Melissa and I sat on our beds (with mattresses) and cried for this family. And then we pooled our resources and arranged for mosquito nets and mattresses to be purchased for them. Four of the children are sponsored (we still need sponsors for two of them), which is a blessing for the grandmother who is raising them. We fell in love with this family and I’ll never see a Hello Kitty product without remembering Comfort’s smile.

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Shannon and Melissa, sitting for hours with small groups of students at SDA School, attempting to teach them English. If this sounds easy, then perhaps you’ve never done it. I watched in amazement as they used songs, photos, and mouth exercises to help pull the students out of their village language (Twi). And it was hot. Forget air-conditioning and the ceiling fans only worked if the power was on. I watched as Shannon and Melissa loved these children with smiles and laughter, despite the sweat rolling down their backs.

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Our ACEF staff and friends around the large dinner table each evening sharing our hearts and learning about culture from one another. I now know about naming ceremonies in Ghana and how and why the ritual takes place eight days after the baby is born. Too many infants die in developing countries. It’s reality, and so you do not name your baby until you are relatively certain that he or she will live past the first week. And then you celebrate and hold that baby high in the air as you announce the name that has been chosen. There is much more to this elaborate ceremony, which made us Westerners wonder if perhaps we had cheated our own kids. After all, my big naming ritual was to send out birth announcements. Around that table, we talked about the differences in our cultures. My friends in Ghana are always gracious with me when I trip over cultural boundaries by saying and doing things that are both confusing and offensive. I’m learning to smile at the myriad ways that I am humbled here. God uses everything.

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The kid who is a picky eater and has always insisted on using eating utensils enjoying Esther’s mashed yams and plantains (formally known as Fufu) with his hands – and with great gusto. And Esther danced for joy. Colin, she says, is now her son.

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There are moments when my feet are on the ground here, but it seems that my heart is still moving around in Ankaase – remembering and reliving, and feeling blessed by it all.

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On Mother’s Day: Two Women Remembered

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There is a quiet debate these days about the politically correct word for mothers who give birth and then place their child for adoption. It’s good to describe these adoption realities with sensitivity, but honestly, I lose track of what’s in and what’s out. As for my youngest daughter’s circumstances: instead of being abandoned, she was “left in a place where she would be found.” And instead of giving a child up for adoption, the birthmother “made an adoption plan.” And so in some circles, a birthmother is now referred to as a “first mother.” Which, in my mind, means that an adoptive mother – regardless of what you say – is a “second mother.” I’m passing on these terms, just so you know.

I have a birth mother. And I have an adoptive mother. And they are both gone, which always makes Mother’s Day a little bittersweet for me. It’s not the hardest day of the year, but it’s not one that I get gushy over either. And yes, I have children, but let’s face it: most of our kids need a little prodding in order to 1) remember Mother’s Day, and 2) do something about it. A friend of mine posted a photo of her Mother’s Day gift wrapped in toilet paper with a sticky note in kid writing that said, “Sorry.” This is so real and so perfect, and it was the only Mother’s Day post on Facebook that made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (As a side note, if Mother’s Day is a little rough for you, skip Facebook on this day.)

I lost Mom five years ago in April. I lost my birthmother hours after I was born. And I think about both of them on Mother’s Day. In fact, on most days, each of them crosses my mind at some point, either during waking hours or in my dreams. My house is filled with things Mom gave me and so I am surrounded by her with gifts and possessions passed down to me. And every time I look in the mirror or wonder why I have that little physical imperfection or notice my short stature (when I’m hanging with tall people), I think about my birthmother who passed these things to me, and then without realizing it, passed some of them on to my biological children. And yes, I miss both of my mothers and feel the empty space their passing has left in my heart.

I celebrated this day with my own children, but it feels odd to be unable to turn around and honor the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me with absolute selflessness. It seems as though I should be saying Happy Mother’s Day to someone. Perhaps this is enough for me. Writing usually quells the restlessness.

To my birthmother: I know it was difficult to hand over your baby and walk away. Thank you for physical life – for taking care of yourself during pregnancy, for not being reckless with your health, and for whatever good thoughts you chose to focus on during those nine months. I have a sense that you were tenacious but calm as you waited to deliver and then give away your child. I’m confident you were strong. And I am proud to be your daughter.

To Mom: I know you wanted to live to see so many things, but you made the most of every moment that we had together. Every day, you chose a life that focused on others. You tormented me with little quotes like “It is better to give than to receive,” but you were speaking absolute truth. It just took me a long time to get it, and an even longer time to begin to learn how to live it. But I have more than adequate footsteps to follow in.

So I honor you both today, in my own way. Happy Mother’s Day my two mothers. You are deeply loved…forever.

This Scarf and These Women

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I made this scarf yesterday. This is quite possibly the ugliest scarf that has ever been stitched anywhere, anytime, any place. Yes, the material is nice – you can’t go wrong with yellow and flowers – however, if you held it in your hands and looked at it closely, you would be very sad for me. It’s my first sewing project, and I think it’s clear that a seamstress I am not.

But these two ladies are on their way to becoming professional seamstresses and yesterday was their first day of apprenticeship at their sewing shop/school in Ankaase, Ghana. And so I stitched that messy scarf in honor of them.

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I decided that if Afia and Doris were going to learn to sew using hand-crank Butterfly sewing machines and sweating their way through days in this un-airconditioned seamstress shop, then I could learn something about sewing as well. I want to be able to have a conversation with them about sewing when I visit Ghana in May, and until about three weeks ago I knew almost nothing about it. My mother tried, bless her. But as young girl, I was more interested in writing and reading and daydreaming than learning a skill that seemed so far beyond my natural abilities. Yesterday I had to fight  the urge to run out of my newly designated sewing room and throw myself back in front of the computer. But instead, I finished that devilish scarf and conquered the evil Singer ZigZag machine, circa 1970.

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Actually, the machine was free and it’s a cabinet model, which means it came with a desk that it folds into when not in use (which might be most of the time – just kidding). I am grateful for my machine because I absolutely love free stuff. I spent the first day with it learning how to thread it, which is no easy task. I’ve also learned how to wind the bobbin, replace the bobbin, and turn the hand wheel toward me ever so slowly to pull up the bobbin thread from under the throat plate below. If all of this means nothing to you, then I’m sorry. I’m just showing off. The truth is, I’ve spent quite a bit of time troubleshooting and pouring over this riveting piece of work:

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I somehow feel at one with the girls in the photo as I read all about flexi-stitch discs. Switch my stitch design with the touch of a button? No ma’am. That’s for the divas with the fancy-schmansy machines purchased within the past two decades. The gals from 1970 and I have discs that must be changed in and out of the machine in four easy steps. The discs are stored in the drawer of my sewing cabinet. I have yet to touch them because after reading that four-step process, I decided to stick with the straight-stitch. For now.

And just to keep things extra nostalgic, I’m using my mother’s sewing basket.

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Here’s a good story: My parents were married in 1955 and for their first Christmas as a married couple, Dad gave Mom this sewing basket. She cried. He thought that he had scored big, but unfortunately she was crying because receiving a sewing basket in 1955 as a gift from your husband was sort of like receiving an iron skillet. It was a necessity and did not send a message of romantic love, but rather a reminder that tomorrow you would be getting busy with the chores. Dad was a good man, and he learned his lesson well. I think he gave her perfume every Christmas from that point forward. But she never upgraded the sewing basket. When I opened it a few weeks ago, it still had all her sewing items in it – scissors, buttons, measuring tape, zippers, fabric scraps, etc. And I smelled the faint scent of my mother’s perfume – the kind Dad gave her every Christmas. I cried a little and left it alone, deciding that there will be a better day go through the basket. I don’t need most of that stuff yet anyway just to make ugly scarves from clearance fabric.

I’m not sure at this point if I’m more excited about the sewing or more charged up to win my victory over the machine. Either way, I’m not giving up. And I’m praying for our seamstress apprentices. For me, sewing is just a whim. I’ll make some scarves, maybe convert some t-shirts into shopping bags (found that easy-to-do project from Martha Stewart, go figure). But for our seamstress apprentices, this is an opportunity for a changed life. They’re stepping into a career, which for a woman in Ghana is like climbing a steep mountain. Fortunately, our apprentices have lots of climbing support from some other seamstresses who live here in the U.S. Thank you Diana and Janet for sponsoring them! I know that by next week, our apprentices will have far surpassed my skill level – in fact, that may have actually happened today. I’m so happy for them and excited for what the future holds.

And in May, I think I’ll take my sorry little scarf to Ghana so the three of us can have a good laugh.

The Seamstress Apprentices

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I wrote in a previous post that I don’t sew. My mother, however, was a dedicated seamstress for our family and she made quite a few of my clothes until I reached sixth grade and put my foot down: no more homemade attire. The wide-legged brown pants she made me that year garnered no compliments but only snide comments from peers concerning elephant legs. I was an adolescent with stocky thighs and calves (still have ’em) and so these were mortifying moments. I put the pants in the hand-me-down bag as soon as I got home and nicely requested to my mother that she not make me any more clothes. As I made my request, I ignored the thought of her hunched over that old black Singer sewing machine that was on the dining room table during sewing weeks. Of course, now that memory makes me only want to hug every homemade article of clothing my mother stitched – if only I still had even one of them.

I also wrote in a previous post that I was traveling to Ghana in honor of my mother. That first trip I took last May had my mother’s memory wrapped all around it for reasons I could not really explain. Now, I think have an explanation.

I returned to Ghana exactly two months ago and was sitting in the Methodist church in the village waiting for the services to begin. One of the pastors came to speak with me before the service to let me know that she had arranged a meeting of women who were interested in learning a skill: sewing. Word spreads fast in African villages and she had heard that we were interested in helping women begin small businesses that might help bring steady income to their families. “There will be many women here on Friday at 10 a.m. We told them you were looking for women who wanted to sew.”

That was true, but we were hoping to quietly find a couple of women we could match with experienced seamstresses who would help them learn to sew. We didn’t have a program yet, so we didn’t want to promise anything. However, it now seemed that a large group of women would be convening at the church in five days expecting something. I tried to explain our dilemma to the pastor, but she shook her head politely. “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.” Later in the week I tried again to cancel the meeting, but the pastor did not budge. The meeting, she repeated in her very measured and polite voice, “has already been set.”

I prayed, telling God that we had nothing to offer these women and that the meeting should be cancelled, but I could only hear the pastor’s voice again: “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.”

So I gave in and decided that we would move forward because it seemed clear that the meeting had already been set.

On Thursday, the pastor told me that she had been called to another village for a meeting and would not be able to attend the Friday meeting with the hopeful seamstress apprentices. “I can’t speak Twi,” I reminded her, as if she needed me to point that out. “I’ll need a translator.” She promised she would arrange to have one there. In my mind, I threw my hands up in the air even further. This was beginning to feel like a disaster. Eighteen women were going to show up and expect me to offer them some process to start a sewing business. We had nothing to offer. We had made a connection with only one professional seamstress and her apprentice slots were already filled.

There is that moment when you realize that something is completely out of your control. These are hard moments for me, because I mostly have a death grip on control – or at least I think I do.

At 10 a.m., on Friday, eight women were seated in the Methodist church waiting for me. And so was Isaac, the young man that the pastor had called in to translate for me. He was seated at the front of the church at a small desk with a notebook in front of him. He introduced himself and from that moment the ACEF Seamstress Apprentice Program has rolled forward with a strange momentum that I can neither take credit for, or claim to understand. It seems that we did have something to offer these women, and that God has delighted in the idea of this long before I ever knew anything about the village of Ankaase. He was preparing Isaac to take the reigns of this and coordinate the program and He was preparing two women to be our first apprentices. They chose the same seamstress to work under, and so we now have our entire apprentice program under one small roof. And God brought two of my friends to partner with these women as their seamstress apprentice sponsors. One of our sponsors is my mother’s dearest friend, Diana. Yes, it seems the meeting had already  been set.

On January 7, Afia Asantewaa and Doris Boakye will begin their seamstress apprenticeship in the shop of Felicia Lumbor in the village of Ankaase, Ghana. They will be supported by my friends Diana and Janet. And through the sale of our Ankaase bags, Isaac will be able to purchase each of them a chair, scissors, measuring tape, machine oil, and pins, and a black Singer sewing machine just like the one my mother used. She never upgraded her machine, and now I’m thankful. Sometimes the very best gifts don’t come wrapped up in packages and tied with a bow. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them as gifts. They might come in the form of a meeting that “has already been set”, a tiny sewing shop on the red-dirt streets of an African village, and two friends who opened their hearts to two women they might never meet.

If I could sew, I would stitch a pair of brown pants on my mother’s old Singer in honor of the Ankaase Seamstress Apprentice Program. And I would wear those wide-legged pants proudly.

Apprentice Afia Asantewaa
Apprentice Afia Asantewaa
Apprentice Doris Boakye
Apprentice Doris Boakye
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Seamstress Felicia Lumbor

Elves, Shelves, and Bearded Old Men

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Santa has disappeared from our house. By that, I mean that we no longer have children who believe that Santa climbs down the chimney, delivers the gifts, and eats the cookies.

Here’s a secret: I’m a little bit happy about that.

Once the older two kids finally swallowed hard and accepted reality, it was hard to keep playing up Santa for the youngest. We were sloppy about it and slipped up so many times that I’m sure Alison’s been playing along since she was about five. When she was nine, about a month before Christmas, she sat with me in front of the fire and said, “Oh, just so you know, I don’t believe in Santa anymore. You don’t have to keep talking about him.” She never liked Santa. She was terrified of him that very first Christmas after we brought her home, and she has never warmed up to him. Not only did she adamantly refuse to sit in his lap, but she gave him the cold shoulder at parties. She was not interested in his candy, nor his invitations to “tell me what you want.” And then, there he was at the holiday parade the other night, the grand finale, waving to the adoring crowds. “I never cared much for him,” Alison stated. She should have gone ahead and finished her statement with, “I’m glad he’s out of my life.”

I miss the days of sneaking the gifts out and eating the cookies. Kyle always wrote a letter (as Santa). It was tradition.

So I’ve been mildly interested in the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon and wondered if we would have incorporated that tradition into our Santa ruse. It’s been around a few years, I know, but I’m a little slow on the uptake. So I went to the official website to learn about these watchful elves:

The tradition begins when Santa sends his scout elves out to Elf Adoption Centers. Waiting for their families to bring them home, these patient elves hibernate until their family reads The Elf on the Shelf, gives their elf a very special name, and registers their adoption online. Once named, each scout elf will receive its Christmas magic and become a part of the family’s Christmas each and every year.  

Basically, these little adopted elves don’t stay on the shelf. They move around the house, making sure the kiddies are nice, not naughty. They record good deeds and tattle to Santa about the bad deeds…every night. Apparently, when you’re in your home, there is no escaping these elves. And I’m guessing they take their jobs quite seriously. So does Carol Aebersold and her daughters, the co-authors and CFO of the Elf on the Shelf corporation. The women have taken Christmas magic to new heights. “We’re ambassadors for Santa,” daughter Chanda says.

Now, I hesitate to go much further with this because I know many families who have little elves sliding around their house watching the kids and making reports. I haven’t talked with all of these children, but I suspect that this little game is enjoyable or else the Elf on the Shelf corporation would not be doing such a profitable business. (By the way, the Clause Couture Collection 2012 Elf Scout Skirt is sold out, in case you were wondering.) And I’m confident that at some point in our Santa tradition we would have given the elf a whirl at our house. In fact, we could have probably used something like this with unnamed eldest son. What better way to take the pressure off the all-consuming parental responsibility of making sure a child behaves than to shovel some of that off onto an innocent elf? I certainly got tired of being Santa’s eyes and ears. Children are forever asking, “How does Santa know if I’m being good?” And of course we had no other brilliant answer than, “Oh, he knows.” The elf, however, does the dirty work and makes sure that The Big Man knows.

But would the elf have worked with Alison? Not a chance. For a kid who had already written Santa off, an elf on the shelf would have been yet another reason to reject the jolly old man. Not only was Santa creepy, but now he had a mole.

Well, we’ll never be certain if the elf would have been welcomed into our home. Santa has left this building. But if things get ugly around here, I’m dusting a place off the mantle just in case we need to bring in back-up. You never know.

Another Year, Another Sigh.

Well, here we are again. Another birthday for the third and youngest of our children – the now 12-year-old. The clock ticks and she insists on growing a year older every time we turn around. Honestly, weren’t we just here? Didn’t I just do a post about the 11th birthday party and how she was growing up so fast and how time flies? Didn’t Kyle and I just sing the birthday song and then privately lament about how we were hurtling toward being empty-nesters. “No!” we then shouted. “Would someone please stop this train!” So it’s been 12 months? Are we sure about that?

But the train rolls on down the tracks. And she is almost taller than me, which is not saying much but it’s a milestone I will not like.

The big kids are out of the house and for this we give much thanks. They have moved on to college with the understanding that we do not want them back. We love them more than our own lives, but we want them to start their own lives…under another roof. If you have not yet sent your child off to college or out in the world yet, you won’t understand this and I will come off sounding cold and heartless. If you have sent your child off to college or out into the world, you will understand this and nod along in agreement and with amens.

But the youngest is different. Perhaps we will do a little dance when she moves out, but it will represent the end of an era that will make us a bit morose. We see that now with everything that she gives up. No more trick-or-treating next year? Well, that’s the end of the dressing-up-for-candy era. No more Santa Claus? (happened several years ago) That’s the last of the sneaking-the-gifts-out-after-midnight-and-eating-the-cookies-off-the hearth-era. And we’ve lost the toy aisle and most Pixar movies and little-kid clothes from L.L. Bean.

And yet, we celebrate.

But not without a blog post (you can count on it every year) that includes a little nostalgia. I love my life, but I sometimes feel wistful about the days when it was noisy and cluttered and chaotic.

And yet, we celebrate.

We celebrate because those kids who were once under our roof have turned out to be people we would choose to make friends with and immediately invite over for dinner. They are all creative and funny and complete originals. Every birthday represents their stepping forward into becoming more of who God created each of them to be.

So we’ll present a cake to the youngest, push the numbered candles down into the icing, and sing our hearts out again. And we’ll sigh a little bit when it’s all over because we know that when we turn back around, another year will have rushed by and she’ll be 13. And I’ll write this blog post all over again.

But for now, Happy Birthday Alison.

Making My Own Father’s Day Card

I’m a cynic about the card holidays: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. I blame it on the fact that I am cheap, but the truth is that I always forget the card until the last minute and then have to pick through the leftover dregs. And in the midst of that, I grumble about the fact that these particular holidays seem to benefit Hallmark and American Greetings more than my father, mother, and husband. We’re not a creative family, so we celebrate these holidays by eating a meal. Which is something most of us do three times a day. The card, then, becomes super important, and this leaves me panicked and crabby as I pick through the dregs.

So I took the girls card shopping yesterday afternoon, which was a full 60 hours before panic mode would have set in. I felt proud, organized, and on top of things, but unfortunately we came out empty-handed.

“These are making me sick,” Erin proclaimed after pulling out and opening dozens of cards. “This is stuff I would never say, at least not like this.”

I read the selection of cards, and she was right. They were separated by relational circumstances: Stepfather, Close Relationship, Across the Miles, Daughter, Son, From Both of Us, Daughter-in-law, Son-in-law, From All of Us, Wife (excuse me Hallmark, but why should I buy my husband a Father’s Day card?), and of course, From the Dog. Please. The cards were a mixture of mushy sentimentality – which rarely plays well in our family – and crude humor. Crude humor, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes plays well in our family since our nuclear and extended tribe includes lots of boys that think gas is hilarious. Oh, and one girl. She’s totally corrupted and while we were in the store she brought me a box of fart jokes that she insisted would be a perfect Father’s Day gift. Ixnay. A few cards were simple, short, and sweet, but my thought was that I could whip up a card on the computer and save the $3.49

Now, lest you think that this post reflects nothing more than a ruptured relationship with my father, I should state that Dad and I get along just fine. He has shaped my life in more ways than I can count. He’s been faithful, committed, godly, and a source of laughter and humor in our home. He can also tell a story better than anyone I know, so he gets partial credit for my desire to write.

See? We’re good, Dad and I. And yes, I bought him a card, but it doesn’t say what I would really like for it to say. I rarely find a card that says what’s in my heart so I’m posting my own Father’s Day card, without the gag factor, but with a wee bit of mushy sentimentality. Here goes:

Cover:

Inside:

Dad,

I’m grateful for the social worker who matched my brown eyes to yours, but we were destined to be together long before that. Because God sets the lonely in families, He placed me with you and Mom before there was ever a concept of time. We go way back, you and me. Back to long before you borrowed the car with the air-conditioning so you and Mom could pick me up from Deaconness Hospital in the heat of Summer, 1965.

Before you put together the swing set for my fifth birthday and the bicycle for my sixth birthday.

Before you introduced me to the mountains of Colorado.

Before you pushed me hard to study, and then gave me grace when I didn’t.

Before I wrecked or damaged or every single one of the cars you allowed me to drive.

Before you beamed with pride when I graduated college and then proudly announced I got a (low-paying) job as a newspaper reporter.

Before you stood in the sanctuary, let go of my hand, and placed it in Kyle’s.

Before, with tears streaming down your face, you held my son, your grandson, then my daughter, your granddaughter.  And before you held the baby from China, my daughter, your granddaughter.

Before you faithfully and gently cared for my mother until her death.

Before you were alone and I grieved for you, and then you told me that you would be “fine.”

And you are. You are the finest father I could ask for. And God knew you would be. Long before we both got wrinkles around those matching brown eyes.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

I love you.

Let’s Grow Old Together

I almost fainted during my wedding portraits. Not because I was nervous, but because I bought a wedding dress that had not one inch to spare and I hadn’t eaten for almost 24 hours. Which begs the question: if you aren’t any smarter than that, are you really ready to take lifetime commitment wedding vows? Probably not, but we did anyway. It was June 3, 1989, which, if you’re counting, was 23 years ago today. And yes, we’re counting.

Earlier in our marriage, I used to make Kyle watch the wedding video every anniversary. But eventually, the quality of the video made everything look a little orange, and besides, we had lost enough people we cherished that it was tough to get through. We haven’t seen it for years, and this year was no exception. Tonight, instead, we talked about what makes a marriage last, but honestly, we have no idea. If someone asked us to give marriage advice, we would only tell them that we now know that God has a sense of humor and He is infinitely filled with grace. And if we were smarter, we would have put those two things – humor and grace –  in the center of our marriage long before now. God’s sense of humor? We had to get a babysitter for our first anniversary (surprise!). God’s infinite grace? He’s brought us to a place in our marriage that is better now than we could ever have imagined, despite our selfishness, stupidity, and the really ugly hoop skirt dresses that I made my bridesmaids wear. We don’t deserve the blessings, no doubt about it.

So, here is what I would like to say to Kyle in these last few hours of our anniversary day: I want to grow really, really old with you. I want to be one of those wrinkled couples who take their walk early in the morning. I want to have so many memories that we sit up late in the evening (say, 9:30?) and relive the crazy, scary, beautiful moments of our lives together. I want us to babysit our great-grandchildren and go through about four more dogs. I don’t care where we live, or what we wear (unless you decide to do the tube socks with white tennis shoes bit), or what we drive (no Buick, though).

And maybe, on one of those anniversaries when we’ve gone completely gray and have lots of hitches in our steps, we’ll pull out the wedding video and watch those two young kids take the vows again. We’ll laugh, knowing that they had no idea what they were getting into, and then we’ll say thanks to God, because He brought them through it all.

Time Flies When You’re in a Rut

Summer is coming, and if it’s like every other summer of my adulthood it will last about three minutes. It seems like I’m buying beach towels one week and school uniforms the next. What has happened to the endless summer? These years, every season seems to be over before I’ve unloaded all my clothes and shoes from the under-the-bed storage. My cousin and I saw each other at a play last week and both realized the last real conversation we had was at Christmas. “That long?” we both said, since neither of us have any earthly idea where the past three months have gone.

I used to think that life moved so swiftly because I am such a busy person, so I chided myself internally for not taking life slower. Thankfully, busyness is not the culprit. Scientists have actually studied why, as people get older, they have a sense that time is actually moving faster than it is. One theory?

Ruts.

Surely you know what those are. I do, because I’m knee-deep in them. I head into my office every morning at 7:40 a.m. with my second cup of coffee in hand. I return emails first, do postings next, eat a banana about an hour later, exercise during the lunch hour ( I walk and run the exact same route every day), return more emails after lunch, take a break at 3 p.m. when my daughter comes in from school…I won’t go on. This is the story most days, with a few variations here and there. I love my job, my hobbies, and my life, but all of it tends to waltz along with a familiar 1-2-3 step. It’s a pleasant rhythm, but at the end of the day, the repetition makes the dance a bit of a blur.

So, based on this theory, what do scientists offer as a way to slow down the days, months, years? I love the answer: Experience more “firsts.”

As children, we were constantly experiencing new things for the first time. The younger we were, the more “firsts” we had.

First day of school. First bicycle. First big snow. First time off the high dive. First double-digit birthday. First pet. First time to walk to school alone. First kiss.

When we experience things for the first time, there are so many details to remember that the list of encoded memories is dense, and reading them back gives us a feeling that those experiences must have taken forever. I remember that first time off the high dive with slow-motion precision: the long walk around the pool deck to the diving board; looking up at the stairs with my hands gripping the rails; the feel of the ridges in the aluminum ladder as I climbed endlessly up; crouching for a moment at the top (I hate heights); the rough board under my feet as I walked to the edge; focusing my eyes on the water below and ignoring the people waiting their turn at the bottom of the stairs; turning around and walking back toward the ladder (I hate heights, did I mention?); turning away from the ladder and walking back to the edge of the board (because I hate being fearful worse than I hate heights); sticking one foot out and bouncing off the board and into the air; falling, splashing, and then sputtering up for air because I had plunged so deeply into the cold, chlorinated water. Yeah, and I can remember about five things from the last two months.

I’m not old, but I’m also not ready for my list of encoded memories to fade away into shallow nothingness. Time is relative, I know, but I’d like to savor my memories…if I can call them to mind at all. So what’s a girl like me doing in a rut like this? And what, if anything, should I do about it?

Scientists say that even small changes in the routine can help time move at a slower pace. Suggestions? Drive a new route to work. This won’t happen for me since I work from home, but the next time I drive to the office where I volunteer, I’m going a totally different way. Will this make all the difference for my encoded memories? I have no idea, but for goodness sakes, there isn’t anything wrong with shaking up the routine. And I’m ready for some significant “firsts” again. Just a few. But unlike in childhood, adulthood “firsts” don’t come without some effort. Most of us who waltz in endless routine circles must be intentional about experiencing new things. We prefer our tried and true experiences because they are predictable and don’t require a lot of effort or thought. It crossed my mind to take a different route on my walk/run yesterday, but it was easier to stick with the old route. See? Even when I’m exerting energy I’m finding ways to exert less energy.

Another suggestion for slowing life down: Go to a place you’ve never been. So, in the spirit of experiencing a “first,” I’m traveling to Ghana on May 13. It’s my first time to that country. My first time to Africa. My first time to travel across the ocean without a group (it’s just Erin and me). So there you go. I’m shaking up the routine in a big way and hoping to make a list of dense encoded memories – just to slow things down a bit. Of course, time is relative and it will fly by in Ghana just as quickly as it does when I’m living in the midst of my ruts, but I’m hoping this “first” will allow the memories to play back in slow motion and with great detail. But just in case…I’m taking two cameras.

Road Trips, Starbursts, and Ram: A Technology Crisis

At the risk of redundancy, I’m writing again about technology. My last post (too many days ago) was about my father’s typewriter, which he believed was great technology. This post is about my own devices, the greatness of which I’m beginning to doubt.

Five days ago, my laptop had an accident that resulted in a busted screen. This produced an interesting right angle starburst effect that made me want to weep. The laptop is awaiting repair but unusable until the part comes in, which the Apple guy said would be “Friday-ish.” It’s Sunday, so he knew what he was talking about. The day before this tragedy I lost my cell phone for a day, then found it. It was rough. Now, the good folks at Apple tell me that I can’t upgrade the operating system on my desktop computer (which is my backup computer) because it doesn’t have enough mojo. I can’t afford more ram, however, because I have to pay for the busted screen on the laptop. Woe is me. I’m writing this on my IPad, which has so far escaped the week of technology disasters. But the Pad is jittery, sensing that perhaps its number is coming up.

Only last week, I confessed to a group of friends that perhaps my dependency on my devices was becoming a bit obsessive. This is a tired, familiar story. Everyone seems to be lamenting their phones, and pads, and laptop love. And we’re remembering (fondly?) the days when we communicated by letters and phones with cords. But our laments are insincere. No one wants to go back to those days, including me.

But I do want some balance. Some moderation. Perspective, perhaps?

Last night, as I was telling my oldest daughter to be sure and text me from her camping trip,  I was mentally reminding myself to charge my son with the same task. I want him to text me from the road trip he is going on, and then from the beach once he gets there. Really? Is that necessary? I think so. And they won’t mind because it’s easy. Just a quick text to say, “We’re all awake in the van,” or “We made it here safely.”

In 1987, I drove to Virginia to begin graduate school. I was on my own in a strange city for the first time, which was both exhilarating and frightening. The latter emotion won out when someone tried to enter my apartment four days after I moved in. I was home, listening to the doorknob jiggle and hearing the would-be intruder call me by name. He made a few threats as he continued his attempt to open my apartment door. I put a dining room chair under the doorknob and began to pack. A series of unfortunate events had culminated in this, and so I heard the clear message that I had chosen the wrong school. In a panic, I loaded up my car and headed to Athens, Georgia to enroll in school choice #2, only to find that they had no space until the spring semester. Crushed, I decided to take the long way home.

It took me two full days to drive from Athens to Tulsa. I took backroads, not because I was especially adventurous, but because I was lost. I passed through small town Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and then north to Arkansas. Yes, there were shorter routes, but I didn’t care. I was meandering in a state of sorrow. I stayed in a cheap motel one night – racing into my room in a thunderstorm and then listening to the crackle and explosions all night with a chair under the doorknob – again. I called my parents from a pay phone the next morning because it was the only way I knew to make a collect call. (Remember those?)

Last night, as I was thinking about my college kids on the camping and beach trips, I forced myself to imagine what my parents must have been going through during those two days I was making my way through the southern states. Only one phone call before I left, and then one after the thunderstorm. I admitted to them I was lost. I dismissed my father’s directives on how to get back to the interstate. I told them I didn’t know how long it would take me to get home. When I finally pulled into the driveway, my mother had every justification for unrolling herself from the fetal position she should have been in so she could grab both my shoulders and shake me silly. But instead, she hugged me and cried sloppily, which I now realize is because she had spent about 16 hours since the last phone call wondering if I was dead or alive.

When our older children travel, we can call them at any moment to ask, “Are you alive?” It’s a wonderful feeling of control in a world that gives us little. My cell phone provides me with this illusive feeling, and so do my computers and my IPad. The world is at my fingertips. I can learn, communicate, make plans, create, set alarms, plan meetings, organize my life in photos, make new friends and keep the old. Whatever would I do without all this? Now I know: I would fidget. Which is what I have done for exactly six days. I’m not sure what my mother would say about this. She never touched a computer and at the end of her life she did use a cell phone, but she was one of those people who didn’t understand that you need not yell into it. I am certain, however, that her faith was strengthened every time I walked out her door. She put me in God’s hands, knowing that there was no real line of communication. If I wanted to contact her, it was up to me. There was no pesky texts or annoying phone calls from her asking, “Where are you?”

I wouldn’t trade her life for mine. But I do wish I could release the control button a bit and stop thinking that the chair under the doorknob is going to protect me and mine from all the chaos in the world. My efforts to keep my children within my reach won’t keep them from harm. The technology that I think keeps me sane is probably rewiring my brain cells in frightening ways. So I’ve decided that when my laptop is finally returned to me, my software is upgraded, and all is well with my devices, I shall put them down for a spell here and there. Perhaps I’ll read a novel, take a walk in the sunshine, stand in line at the check-out while resisting the urge to check my email…just to see if I can do it. And then, of course, I will blog about these things, post them on Facebook, and send a tweet to let everyone know I’m resisting technology.

The Loyal Royal

“My life was easy and I loved it.”

These eight words are the opening to the heart-wrenching novella Angel Mountain. And it only gets better.

“The glory of the country life is what I looked forward to every day. Perhaps that is why I am the oddball of my family.”

Sentences like these continue for 15 pages, all lovingly crafted in single-space by punching the sticky keys of my father’s 1949 Royal typewriter. I was nine years old. The year was 1974. Now, almost four decades later, reading Angel Mountain is like wading through rivers of swirling sap. See? Even a casual read of it causes me to revert to hyperbolic metaphor. Ugh. But alas, the point of this post is not to bash my nine-year-old writer self, but to extol the glories of the loyal Royal typewriter. Specifically, my father’s Royal.

In a world decades before electronics were even a gleam in the eye of an average family, the old gray typewriter made things look official, uniform, and easy on the eyes. At the time, it seemed to make sense. Instead of sitting down to write out a recipe card, my mother would trek back to the closet of our spare bedroom, pull the typewriter from the shelf, and with both arms wrapped around it (it weighs in at 12 lbs.) carry it to the kitchen table. One by one, she would tuck index cards behind the carriage and slowly roll them until the top of the card appeared. Then, she would carefully and methodically strike the keys. Mom was an excellent typist, which was an important skill for a woman of her era. But she also had beautiful handwriting, and so I wondered, wouldn’t using the pen be quicker? And prettier? It’s interesting how the recipes I cherish are the ones that are written in her handwriting. Later in life, she ditched the old typewriter and went back to writing her recipes by hand. She probably tired of carrying the silly thing to and from the kitchen table.

On Saturday mornings, the old typewriter would make another appearance from the closet for the weekly Sunday school lesson my father prepared. I would hear the keys start clicking sometime in the afternoon when he had fully read, studied, and digested all the scripture passages and commentary from the “quarterly.” Because double-spacing on the old typewriter involved returning the carriage twice, most everything we typed was single-spaced. The finished product was one full page of notes that he would fold and tuck into his Bible for the following morning. (Dad still types his lessons on Saturdays, but now uses an electric typewriter circa 1980-something that is still stored in a closet. That computer we bought him is just too much of a hassle.)

I have a storage bin of writing that came from that old typewriter and the 1980s typewriter that eventually replaced it. But my favorite stories are the ones produced on that loyal Royal. It’s not that they are better. They aren’t. But those stories are intentional. These days I can sit down at my computer and start spewing out anything (which often occurs on this blog) with little thought or worry that I might be wasting paper and ribbon. Even handwriting affords me a certain luxury that allows for thoughts to flow freely as I write. But on the old typewriter, each letter is an act of determination as the sticky keys are pushed down one by one. There is no backspace or delete button, no way to italicize (something is made bold simply by going back over the word again), no spell check, and no option to single, space-and-a-half, or double-space sentences. There is little second chance for a first impression on the loyal Royal. So, in order to avoid too many strikethroughs or paper ripped from the carriage, wadded, and tossed into the trash (despite the dramatic flair), my stories were handwritten first. Then typed. And as I read through my old novellas, I find this shocking. I wrote these poorly constructed sentences and drippy metaphors twice?

Yes, I did. Which is why I can’t throw them away. They stay in the bins, pulled out every decade or so and read with a giant cringe. But I read them knowing that the writing of these stories did not come easy for the nine-year-old me. Or the girl who continued to write this way until college, when she finally was introduced to the computer. I would like to say that it changed my writing life, but only when I was pulled aside on my first internship with the Tulsa World newspaper did my writing life truly change. My editor looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you writing your stories by hand and then typing them into the computer?”

Yes, I was.

“Stop it,” she ordered. “You’ll never be a writer if you waste that much time.”

Since that moment, I don’t think I’ve composed anything of substance longhand. The bunion on my right middle finger is gone. The loyal Royal is forever stored in my own closet. And I type with fury, hurrying my words along so that I can get to the next task. Some days I miss the old typewriter and the little nine-year-old girl who with naive confidence penned the first words of her first novella: “My life was easy and I loved it.” And she wrote it…twice. Although she didn’t know how to hook the reader, she did know how to serve the work of writing. I could learn from that kid.

My Slow-Sewing Movement

Alison wants to learn to sew. This is one of the many times when I miss my mother. When she used to spend the night with my parents, Mom would roll Alison’s hair in spongies after her shower at night. For a little girl with stick straight hair, this was the ultimate treat. In the morning, Alison’s black locks would be curled and bouncing around her shoulders and she would shake her head and nod excessively to get the curls dancing. I never once rolled her hair in sponge rollers because this was a treat for mother and granddaughter. But Mom died before she and Alison could share time together with the needle and thread, so it falls to me to teach my daughter to sew. Me, the girl who had to be rushed to the doctor in the middle of sixth grade home economics class because of a scissor stab. Yes, this is true.

I was making a flannel nightgown, and instead of smartly folding the fabric to snip the buttonhole, I attempted to push the tip of the scissors through the heavy fabric. Except that the scissor tip didn’t go through. So I jabbed, then stabbed. It finally busted through the flannel and into the index finger of my other hand. Blood appeared. The teacher panicked. And my mother was called.

My mother the seamstress.

She was appalled that I didn’t fold the fabric and we spent the next few weeks making buttonholes, my bandaged finger notwithstanding. I’ve made some progress since sixth grade home economics, but I still wish my mother was here to do the sewing lessons for Alison. It’s like Algebra. I can only go so far and then I have to throw up my hands and cry “uncle!” Despite this, I bought Alison a beginner sewing kit, a beginner book, and some fabric samples. This will be my own variation of the slow-sewing movement. We’ll get as far as we can until I hand it over to the JoAnn Fabric sewing lesson classes.

When I look around at the women my age, most who are not yet grandmothers, I wonder what we’ll pass down. We’re busy women who, in our young days of motherhood, spent most of our time shuffling our kids from one activity to the next. We arranged our children’s agendas as if we were corporate executive assistants. Even moments of relaxation were scheduled and for most of us the thought of stopping long enough to pass along a timeless tradition like sewing, gardening, cooking real food (not thrown together casseroles), or crafting was out of the question. We had to be somewhere, for goodness sakes. Now our children are in middle school, high school, and college, and the window of opportunity for long, leisurely hours of handing down a skill or craft is closing. And what, I begin to ask myself, will I be able to pass along to my grandchildren? More importantly, what will my children pass down to my grandchildren? It won’t be sewing. Or canning. Possibly gardening if I actually do it and stop simply talking about it. Cooking is a possibility. That’s a good thing. But, then again, cooking is so…necessary. There should be something else. Something more.

I have many friends who are young wives and mothers, most about 15 -20 years younger than me. Some have babies, some are expecting, and some are waiting to be expecting. I sense in these women something different than the restlessness my generation of mothers seemed to have. They are more comfortable with down time; more likely to ditch the schedule, leave the van in the garage, and be content with their children learning things like how to knit, build birdhouses and chicken coops, play creatively, make a meal from scratch…and sew. Many in my generation of mothers would have scoffed, and they do. I’ve heard them. But I think we might have something to learn from these mothers who have intentionally rejected the voices in our culture that demand busyness not only of parents, but children as well. It’s not really the passing down of the skill that’s the challenge. It’s the time it takes. Teaching a child how to garden, sew, or do any kind of craft really can’t be scheduled or stuffed into a full agenda. I know this because the sewing kit, the sewing book, and the fabric are still sitting in Alison’s room three days after we purchased them. I’m trying find a block of time on my calendar to sit down and teach Sewing 101.

It occurs to me that perhaps I missed an important lesson from my mother and grandmother, neither of whom bought into the child-rearing race of the rats. Slow down. Sit down. Teach your children well, and teach them something besides how to hurry life along. Perhaps I need to learn this lesson now…so that I have something to teach my grandchildren.

Voices, Memories, Recipe Cards


Here is what I really wanted needed today: to go over to Mom and Dad’s house, sit down at the dining table, and have Mom set a steaming casserole of chicken and rice in front of me. Not because I’m hungry. I just miss my mother. She died almost four years ago and Dad sold the house, which is a good thing because sometimes memories shout too loudly in familiar places. We still have Dad, and he still has the dining table, but it’s not the same. It’s all good. Just not the same. And that’s the way life is. We absorb the losses, cherish the memories, move forward. But sometimes, I want nothing more than to step back in time and smell my mother’s cooking. I want to be enveloped in the safety of home and feel like a little girl who is being taken care of again. I have very few days like that, but today was one of them.

So, I pulled out the recipe cards.

They reside in four old index card boxes, each stuffed full and completely unorganized. Mom loved the idea of being organized; she just never quite figured out how to do it. Her efforts were hampered by the fact that she hated to throw anything away, so the recipe boxes are a jumble of hand-written cards, typed sheets of paper, recipes cut from newspapers, passed along from friends, or torn from the pages of magazines. She has the boxes labeled by alphabet letters (A-F, G-L, etc.), but darned if I can see that the recipes are categorized in any form, much less alphabetized. She memorized the recipes for the dishes she made often, a feat I have yet to accomplish. I never even knew she had a recipe card for chicken and rice casserole and I certainly never saw her use it. But when I went rifling through the recipe card box today, there it was. I read the ingredients and I could picture her taking it out of the oven with her old yellow and white oven mitts and placing it on the table. As steam drifted up from the dish, I could hear her mutter: “I hope that rice isn’t crunchy, but I don’t know…” It never was. I could see her dipping a much-too-generous serving on my plate and then waiting until I had served myself the jell-o, the carrots, and the rolls. “What’s the matter?” she would ask. And then I would tell her my troubles. It didn’t always go that way, but this is what I needed today, so that’s the way the memory went. I spilled my frustrations and fears, my analyzations of the issue at hand, more spilling, and a little chiding of myself for being overly dramatic. Then I looked at her and said, “So what do you think?”

“I think,” she said as I took my first bite of chicken and rice casserole (perfect rice, delicious chicken), “you worry too much.”

My mother had much to worry about herself. As a diabetic, her health was always in danger. Now that I’m approaching middle age (am I there yet?), I realize that her body’s betrayal was a way of life for Mom. She accepted that some things just don’t get better with time.

“This, too, shall pass,” She would often say over a meal of something delicious, the ingredients and directions scribbled on those recipe cards.

The thing itself might not pass – her diabetes certainly didn’t – but she forced the fears, frustrations, worries, and dark feelings of loss to pass because she refused to wallow in them.

So there she was today, filling up my mind and heart as I read through the recipes: Snickerdoodles, Posh Squash, Baked Grits, Fruit Salad Dressing, Gum Drop Cookies. I could hear her voice reminding me, “Count blessings, not worries.” And I felt at home, enveloped, safe…and hungry.

Mom’s Chicken and Rice Casserole

1 fryer, cut up

1 cup regular rice, uncooked, or 1 pkg. Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice

1 Can Cream of Chicken OR Cream of Mushroom soup

2/3 cup water

6 strips bacon

In 9×11 pan, place strips of bacon on bottom and sides. Spread rice (uncooked) evenly over bottom. Place chicken on top of rice then season with the following: salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano, paprika, dry parsley (if you use wild rice, use herb contents in package). Mix soup and water and pour over chicken. Cover tightly with lid or foil and bake in 300 degree oven for 2 hours.

An Only Child’s Siblings: Cousins

I love this picture for so many reasons. It was December 29 when it was taken and the girls are in short sleeves and barefoot (gasp!). How many Oklahoma Decembers can our kids frolic in the backyard for hours in warm, sunny weather? Not many, and the key word in that last sentence is: in the backyard. No need for the moms to have a slate of indoor crafts, movies, and board games on the agenda because kids can always come up with their own brand of fun in the backyard. Do we know exactly what they are doing? No. Do we really care? No. So when I look out and see them on the trampoline and they are all wearing beach towels on their heads, I’m thinking it’s all good.

I also love this picture because the Inkwell setting on my IPhone’s Instagram app makes me look like a hipster photographer, which I am not. I just like free, highly-rated apps and this one takes the prize…which it actually did. Best App of the Year.

But my favorite thing about this photo is the reminder – again – that Alison is growing up with little girl cousins left and right. She has these two girls on Kyle’s side of the family, and two other little girls on my side of the family, and so this almost-only-child of mine is surrounded by other little girl cousins. Why is this so important to me? You guessed it. Because I was surrounded by boy cousins. On both sides of my family. Now, don’t misunderstand. I loved it. My boy cousins were funny, creative, great sports, and we never got into cat-fights, pouting, three’s a crowd, whispering, and all the other complicated games that little girls bring into their relationships. I learned to collect hot wheels, watched endless episodes of Star Trek and played it out with correct use of a phaser (yeah, there is a right and wrong way to use this weapon), learned how to watch football and dress the part (I was enamored with helmets and shoulder pads), knew how to accessorize a G.I. Joe (ammo), and, most importantly, learned that when a boy gets frustrated and angry with you, he tells you immediately…in your face…loudly. And then, five seconds later, it’s all okay. I did love my boy cousins. But I was snubbed the few times I brought my Barbies to hang out with G.I. Joe, and the boys definitely did NOT put up with tears. If I got my feelings hurt and worked up some weepiness, they shrugged their shoulders and moved on. They knew I’d get over it. And I did. It was either that or play with my Barbies alone, which for an only child in a house full of cousins would have been sheer torture. I was willing to leave my little-girl self at the door and fully embrace the boy world. Some images from this time are a little disturbing:

Yes, this is me wearing a football helmet and holding what appears to be the most oversized football in the world. I was tiny, but determined to be tough. I doubt the boys next to me are buying it.

I’m hugging my Christmas baby doll. However, this was not the gift I asked for. I asked for the doll sitting between my cousin and I – the Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. He was my favorite and I spent a LOT of hours with him trying to be his Edgar Bergen. My best guess is that someone insisted I hold the baby doll because clutching Charlie MCarthy with the love and warmth I felt for him would have looked downright weird. But oh, how I loved him, eyepiece and all. Notice the expression on my cousin’s face. He looks weary. He was an only child also, and he got stuck with me for a cousin. I followed him around like a puppy dog, probably begging him to watch my ventriloquist schtick with Charlie.


Boys do NOT like to smile in photos. They like to look tough. I learned how to roll with it.

I did have a little girl cousin eventually, but I was old enough to be jaded by the boys and wasn’t nearly as nice to her as I should have been. She was pretty, petite, and very much a girl, but I had been mostly ruined by G.I. Joe and my obsession with hot wheels, ventriloquism, and football helmets.

So now my almost-an-only child girl (her siblings are 9 and ten years older) has been blessed with four little girl cousins, and they are in heaven together. But it’s not exactly what I would have envisioned. These little girls don’t play dolls and rarely play dress-up with one another. No Barbies and only some occasional nail-painting. They prefer to engage in small businesses start-ups with low overhead. Last month they set up a coffee shop and we had to pay with monopoly money to get tea, lattes, and homemade muffins. This month they sold salt dough crafts for pesos, complete with free string for hanging the ornaments. In addition to their entrepreneurial endeavors, they’ve painted on canvas, had picnics in the playhouse, walked the dogs, had a limbo contest that resulted in a nasty knot on the middle child’s head, and the towel-wearing on the trampoline? They were superheroes. On most days, they came in from outside smelling like rusty tin cans, their hair wild and knotted and their cheeks a combination of rosy red skin and paint smears. I would like to think that times have changed, and that girls are unafraid to take advantage of a wider repertoire of available play options beyond Barbies and baby dolls. Maybe. But I did leave out one detail. Alison’s little girl cousins came along a little later in her life. For most of her young years, here is the cousin who taught her the ropes:

Ahhh…balance. Best of both worlds. She’s in touch with her feminine side, but isn’t afraid to leave it behind when it seems more fun to wear a towel on her head and be the superhero. Here’s to the cousins. Girls AND boys.

Advent Week One: The Manger Scene

When Alison was in her first Christmas pageant she was chosen to portray the mute and blessed Mary. I was so proud my daughter had landed such a plum role. Mary!  I helped her practice her serene gaze of love and told her to smile at Joseph every now and then. “Walk in slowly,” I instructed her. “And don’t worry about the audience…you know, all the mommies and daddies out there. Just pretend you’re Mary.”

I went to the pageant with a loaded camera, ready to document the beauty of it all so that we could look back on it in years to come and remember what a plum role Alison had landed. Mary! The nativity actors walked in wearing miniature Bible-era costumes and a few bathrobes. Alison was wearing a pink bathrobe, which bothered me a little. I don’t think Mary wore anything that resembled a pink bathrobe, but I shrugged it off and poised my camera. The children were waving at the mommies and the daddies, but Alison was following my instruction not to worry about the audience. Her eyes were fixed on the manger. I wanted to get a good picture of her with Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all kneeling before baby Jesus. What a great image for a homemade Christmas card! Friends and family could see what a plum role Alison had landed.

The children shuffled around to the back of the manger and looked down at the plastic doll wrapped in a white baby blanket – all except Alison and Joseph. They weren’t budging. They stood with their back to the audience – and my camera – the entire pageant. The preschool teachers kept making subtle arm gestures for them to circle around to the other side of the manger, but it did no good. Finally, when they were taking a bow, Joseph turned around and gave Alison an elbow in the ribs to join him, but the moment had passed.

I was going to say something to Alison after the pageant because I thought if she ever wanted to land a plum role like this again, she better get straight what it is that Mary is supposed to do. But I decided against it. Alison had played the part exactly as it should be: Mary staring at the Son of God – her baby boy – and ignoring the audience.

The Nativity that we set on top of our piano during the Christmas season has become such a part of the holiday décor that no one seems to notice it anymore. This year  I’m considering turning Mary around to face the baby in the manger, and if anyone says anything I will tell them that I am trying to remind myself what I am supposed to be doing during Advent.

The arrival of something – or someone –  wonderful makes our heart pound a little faster and our breath shorten a little. We feel exhilarated, fresh and filled with new hope. I have a difficult time getting to that place during the holiday season. My anticipation mostly revolves around taking the Christmas card picture, entertaining houseguests, shopping, buying, wrapping, and watching the kids on Christmas morning. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I forget that the One we are waiting for is the Savior who opened the door to heaven the moment he emerged from the earthly womb. It seems to be a large truth lost in the small reality of seasonal rituals. I keep looking at the audience and forgetting to turn around and focus on the manger.

“So hallowed and so gracious is the time,” says Shakespeare of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Turning around to face the manger seems the very least I could do during this Advent season as I wait and anticipate the arrival of God clothed in human skin.

My Very Own Parenting Book

A few days ago I read a post from a friend that went like this: “10 years ago I was an arrogant mom who thought parenting was easy. The next day, God sent me Chloe.”

Amen, sister.

God didn’t send me Chloe, but He sent me Erin.

I’m convinced that every parent who struts around thinking that they’ve mastered the art of parenting gets it back in their face at some point. It might be that second infant, or that fifth teenager. For me, it was that second infant: the girl who screamed in anger from the moment she was born until she reached the age of five months. Colin, the infant who slept through the night at one-week old and rarely cried, was a set-up. Sometimes, God sends the proud people like me something (or someone) that catapults us to the top so that we can get a good crash to the bottom – just in time to save us from ourselves. My mother used to smirk when I left her detailed instructions on how to care for the newborn Colin.

“Did it ever cross your mind,” she said one evening with a smile and clenched teeth, “that I just might know how to do this?”

No. That didn’t occur to me. I had been the pregnant woman who saturated herself in parenting books. I studied up on the subject. I absorbed and put into practice everything in those books. I continued to to read them after the baby was born, and the result was – voila! – a successful outcome. Baby was happy, content, predictable, low-maintenance, and hitting all developmental milestones on target. I continued to write out detailed instructions for my mother when she kept him, despite the fact that she worked in a preschool program with infants and toddlers for over a decade.

We were flying so high with this task of parenting that we were absolutely eager to do it again. In fact, when Colin was 10 months old we were surprised, but yet delighted to be pregnant. Another angel was on the way. I brushed up on the parenting books and even bought some new ones. More information! More ways to succeed!

On November 24, 1991, I had a baby girl. Not just any baby girl, but the angriest baby girl within screaming distance. My first moments of gazing into her newborn face involved trying to discern what she actually looked like without the purple skin, wide open mouth and tightly closed eyes. I saw this face quite a bit for the first five months. And for five months I heard the screams. (Most notably every hour and a half throughout the night). And for five months I walked her around the house to quiet those screams. (She hated to be rocked…of course.) Her older brother delivered his opinion about the new baby by dropping a stack of his Tales of Peter Rabbit books on her head one morning. “Go, baby,” he proclaimed.

At the worst moments of our first months with our daughter, we felt the same way. Could someone else take her? Anyone? And why was this child so angry? Didn’t she know we were self-taught, highly-educated parenting experts? Apparently, she didn’t know this. And for five months she taught us that we had been completely and sadly mistaken about our brilliance. She made sure we understood that the first child was not a product of our parental achievements. He was just Colin. And she was Erin. And we better get that straight and start our descent down into the muck of real-world parenting.

So we toppled down off our high horse a bit.

And, thank you God, we’ve continued that descent with every stage of parenting.

Somewhere around 1998 I tossed all my parenting books. I had kept them in a box for many years, and had even purchased a few new ones along the way, but I never could get around to really digesting them. I scanned them, but honestly, I didn’t need the guilt that would begin to creep in long about Chapter Two. I began to realize that my children were individuals. God created them and he had given Kyle and I the privilege of raising them. Between all of us, we were working it out day by day. Instead of reaching for another parenting book, I began to fall on my knees and proclaim my inadequacy, then plead with God to fill in the holes, redeem the mistakes, cover for my ignorance, and forgive my subtle arrogance. My children have continued to teach us that we know very little, and along the way it seems that we write our own unique parenting books. There is no how-to book about raising Colin that would translate into a how-to book for raising just any kid. And I can assure the same goes for Erin. And now, we’re learning even more and experiencing fresh doses of humility daily as we raise Alison. My parenting book is simply a journal of mistakes made, lessons learned, and a prayer of thanks for the grace I’m given.

Like most good stories, this one has a surprising twist: the angry little baby grew up into the most amazingly content young woman. And the perfect infant has been determined to become a think-for-himself young man. We beam with pride when we look at all of our children, but we’re careful not to take the credit. We give the credit to God and thank Him for the continued tumble downward. It is only then that we can look upward and take His guiding hand.

A few years before my mother died, she pulled from a box an old instruction note I left her one evening when she was caring for the infant Colin. My handwriting was clear, block letters and the words were written in embarrassingly simplistic details – as if my mother were a young teenage babysitter.

“I kept this note to show to you one day,” she said without the clenched teeth and with a gentle smile. “Just so you could remember.”

My mother, so wise, knew that someday her daughter would grow up and grow out of knowing everything. She knew that God would humble me, because she had been humbled herself. It seems to be the way it goes. And so, we continue to write our own parenting books, crumpling pages, tossing sections, and starting brand new chapters as we stumble along.

Escribe Su Nombre Aqui

It’s been 27 years and the phrase still rolls off my tongue with ease: “Escribe Su Nombre Aqui.”

“Write your name here.”

A few days after I turned 19, I traveled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for a week and it changed my life. I know, you’ve heard that a hundred times, but it’s true. I spent six days in a border town sleeping on a driveway, deeply immersed in a language and culture that I could not understand, lost in a place that caused me to (almost) forget my own life back home. My view of the world was completely altered, never to return to its former state. And this is a very good thing. Very good.

Last weekend I spent time with my dearest childhood friend who also went to Nuevo Laredo that summer. We’re not the same people we were back then: now we have husbands, children, aging parents, careers, households, smile lines, creaky knees, mistakes made and lessons learned. We’ve weathered (and are weathering) storms. We’ve basked in joys and endured seasons that we’d rather forget. So there we were, sitting at my friend’s kitchen table surrounded by all of that everyday life stuff, and we’re talking about what country we each long to visit. No, we’re not world travelers who jet from resort location to tourist city to outdoor adventure trip. We occasionally travel this way, although she prefers the downtime trip (cruise, beach), and I prefer the sightseeing adventure (New York City, but no shopping please). But our hearts long for something more. Something like we experienced in Nuevo Laredo.

There, we met children. We spent five days doing Backyard Bible Clubs with a limited supply of crayons, glue, paper, and scissors. We held the children on our laps, braided the little girls’ hair (they returned the favor), joined in the boys’ soccer game (I think I kicked the ball maybe once), ate beans, beans, and more beans with them, heard their prayers, and joined them in laughing over my futile attempts to speak the language (my friend knew enough Spanish to get by). I’ve never felt so loved. On the day we left, the children came running to the bus to bring us gifts – trinkets pilfered from their homes, not purchased items. These were poor children. They didn’t buy things; they re-gifted from the little they had. I came away with a cassette tape by a south-of-the-border band called Alabanza. It was the kind of music you might hear from a Mariachi band at a Mexican restaurant. After I returned home, I wore that cassette tape out and drove my friends crazy. I would pop it in the cassette player in my Volkswagon Dasher and instantly be transported back to the children. For many months, that was where I wanted to be. And for many years, it was where I thought I should be. In fact, I believed that so strongly that I dedicated myself – in front of friends and family – to serving somewhere with “the least of these.”

Over the years I’ve felt both regret that I didn’t pack up and move somewhere to fulfill that commitment, and resignation that the passions of our youth are naturally tempered by the passing of time. Those passions, some would say, are born out of naivety and idealism and thankfully we grow out of both so we can get on with the living of life. Yes, indeed on the surface it would seem so. But here is what I know: 27 years have passed and the only communication I could really have with those children still rolls off the tongue. “Escribe su nombre aqui”, “Cristo me ama.” Yes, a random combination of practical instruction and life-changing truth. I’ve forgotten a million details in my life, but the feeling that I had when I was with those children wells up in me in one instant when I think about that summer trip. There is no passion lost there. It’s just been crowded out and sometimes it has to push its way back in.

Lately, I’ve been hearing this over and over: God is most present with those who have the most need. If this is true (and I’m thinking that perhaps Scripture just might back this up), then there is a reason why the feelings of that trip remain with me in the strongest way. I’ve felt it when I’ve been sitting on the floor surrounded by children in an Azerbaijani orphanage or giving makeovers to women in a psychiatric hospital. My soul soars when I spend afternoons learning photography with teenagers who live in a protective custody group home. Is God more present in these places? Or is He simply more present in me when I step out of trying to find myself in my world and step into serving those in need in their world? I guess it doesn’t really matter. It’s a proven fact in my life that I feel closest to God when I am immersed in places that take me out of my world. So despite the decades of changes, perhaps my friend and I are still the same people we were during that mission trip summer.

I still have my Alabanza cassette tape in a box of memorabilia, and my friend still keeps a note written in brown crayon from that summer trip. For one week in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, we lived the most beautiful paradox: In another world, we felt like we had come home.

My Own Hands

This is perhaps the worst kind of blog cheating, but I’m posting something I wrote years ago. And a few months ago I committed the worst kind of editorial license cheating when I excerpted some of this for the editor’s column of MiaDon’t leave yet – I have good reason for the reprint. I’m posting it because I’m watching my little girl slide along the edges of becoming a young woman. She vacillates back and forth between the two and I vacillate with her, wondering if I’m prepared. I made it through with the first girl, but times were a little different (okay, now I sound old). Maybe it’s just my perception, but it seems like girls are being encouraged to possess a Jekyll and Hyde mix of “be a sweet princess but be sure you look really hot along the way.” I’m constantly evaluating campy Disney television shows that focus on shallow messages of teenage angst while I scrutinize clothing in the girls department of Kohl’s that looks like something my daughter would wear if she were opening for Miley Cyrus. I feel surrounded by this confusing “girlie-girl” culture, as writer Peggy Orenstein calls it. So there is my lament. I wrote this piece years ago when my first daughter was moving toward adolescence. We survived it then. We’ll survive it again.

My grandmother gave me a ring when I was in high school. It was silver with a tiny diamond in the center of a rectangle onyx stone. I wasn’t much of a jewelry gal, but this ring was elegant and chic – like nothing I had ever seen. My grandmother modeled it for me before she handed it over. It was stunning, and she waved her long graceful fingers in front of me then twisted off the ring and handed it over. “It’s yours now,” she said. I put the ring on and modeled it just as she had done, waving my fingers in front of her. But it was all wrong. My fingers are short and stubby and a little bulky at the knuckles. The long rectangle stone seemed to swallow my hand and it no longer looked elegant and chic – just misplaced. I put it in my jewelry box and took it out every now and then to admire it, but it really only made me wish for different hands.

My mother also had long graceful fingers, and as a child I would sit in church and place our hands together – palm to palm – and think that someday my hands would grow to look like hers. But they haven’t, and they never will.

I never thought much about my hands until I compared them with my mother’s, or tried to wear the same ring that fit my grandmother. It made me feel like I had been given hands that were inadequate for the job. Sometimes, my grandmother and mother made me feel the same way about being a woman because they made things look so easy. My grandmother knew how to can green beans from my grandfather’s garden and make wedding ring quilts and sew buttons on shirts while she was standing up. She tapped her long fingers on the back of the pew in her small country church as the organist played the hymns. She knew them by heart and sang with a joy that made me want to stand on my tiptoes and sing just like her. With dignity and hope, my own mother had braved the loss of an infant and the consequential news that she could never have children. She was unselfish and made meals for people when they were sick and sent cards to them on their birthday. She pressed my father’s shirts – even the polyester ones that didn’t need ironing.

As I watched the women in my life, I wondered if I was adequate for the job. I don’t have much domestic fortitude – I gave up sewing after a failed attempt to make a nightgown in home economics class left me with a nasty scissor scar on one finger, and I’ve never understood the concept of canning. I also buy belated birthday cards by the handful. Now that I have my own daughters, I know they are watching me for cues about what it means to be a woman, but much more than that, they are watching to see what it means to love God and act like Jesus. This is what my grandmother and mother were really teaching me all along. They could have made it more complicated, but they kept it pretty simple. In their long graceful hands, they took mine and now I take my daughters’ hands and do the same. And yes, even though my hands are very different from my mother and grandmother’s (I can promise you I will never iron polyester shirts), these hands are the ones God made for the job.