Rebuilding

I like the fall. I like the mountains with their red, orange and yellow colors. I like how the days get cold and force you to wear sweaters. I even like those lingering gray days that last until spring when you see mostly branches, and it feels almost lonely as it begs you to stay inside.  But that’s not why we started to have a Halloween party. Four years ago when I looked excessively pregnant and was truly about to deliver we held our fall party on the end unit town house on the last edge of Old Town. I think we realized it was likely the last time our home would be clean and definitely the last time we’d enjoy socializing.

Every year we go through this process of will we or won’t we hold something. One year we skipped it, twice I was pregnant, and on the third I was sure it would be fun. This year we debated. I’m learning with kids how fast the scenery changes from play dates to preschool and even who is around in this transient town. This year we wondered who would come. We changed our perspective a little as we debated the will we or won’t we make it a tradition and began referring to it as our service. We’d laugh as we said it because even from the beginning we knew no one got more from it than us. Still it’s nice to feel like you can do something. It’s easier to take on the hard work when the hard serves more than just you.

So we invited everyone the way my husband does: the neighbors, the old play group, someone who just had their second child and could probably use some warm food, new school friends and someone we saw at church after a long time. I worried the way I do: the floor could be cleaner, the decorations were never unpacked, I botched the caramel apples, I should have made more food.

We bought this house not long after that first party and since then we’ve been rebuilding. We’ve taken out all of the floors, the dining room and kitchen walls and a corner of the basement along with most of the front yard. We have replaced every window and door. We still need a new stove, backsplash in the kitchen, an accent wall in the living room and a functioning master bath. All of these are good reasons to buckle down, work harder, and not welcome in anyone.

Every year I wonder if there’s enough room, but we make the best of our space. We’ve squeeze into corners. We’ve gathered blankets to make space for entertainment outdoors. Somehow we make it work in whatever state the house is in because it isn’t about that. There is something about Halloween. It’s never been my favorite. It’s about death and pretending to be someone you aren’t. That’s not really my thing. I’ve always thought it was a bit creepy. But in this neighborhood it’s this fun evening when everyone is walking around. So in our second year we caught on to the vibe. Sure we put out the candy and we walk around, but we also open the door.

Whether it’s warm or cold, the lights are on and the door is open. There is some soup on the stove. There’s a place to go for people who need one; the ones who find it convenient, the ones who come for us. Every year since we started Halloween has become a reminder of what hard work is for. We aren’t in it alone. We welcome new preschool classmates; old friends from play groups; the neighbor who comes when I call and say, “toddler tells me his chest hurts”, the same ones who once delivered Christmas dinner; the neighbor who has fixed the HVAC and replaced our water heater, the ones who are funny and caring and a whole bunch we want to know more. These people are amazing.  I love this quirky modern, old-fashioned town.

It’s December, two weeks till Christmas, and yet here I am thinking about Halloween. Because I know this next year is a time for rebuilding. It’s going to be immensely hard. This was a week of sickness in our house: a root canal, another ear infection and someone just puked (three times). It’s easy to get overwhelmed. There will be less cookie trays this year. I will be less thoughtful about presents. But we will focus on the right things. This was also the week where the stories from Aleppo threatened to break us. It has been a week or so since the Standing Rock pipeline stalled, not yet answering the question of whether people are worth more in America than oil. The tally is still running in the surge in hate crimes which just inched passed 1,000 in the month since the election.

I’m not an expert in construction, but I’ve been in places like this before. It will hurt; this finding common goals. The tasks will feel endless. There will always be more work to do. When we walk this Earth we must remember to treat every place as our home.  We have the power to rebuild it and we are called to especially when it feels scary or broken.  Details will matter like who we let in the front door, if we leave it open, put something on the stove, find space for all the people, try and ready even the darkest corner. It will matter.  This year amid all the coming deconstruction and all the pain that it can bring, I’ll be thinking about Halloween and the hope that can find us in unexpected places.

Because hope is still the most powerful thing.

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Election 2016

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I don’t want to write this. I never wanted to write this. I remember being a child and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember thinking happy. I remember being a literature major and being asked if I wanted to be a writer and thinking, “I do not.” How many happy writers do you know? I don’t remember studying many. Writers that we remember may be talented, but often live at a trying time in history or survive trying circumstances. I never wanted any of that. I wanted happy. I wanted predictable. I wanted safe. Even then I knew those weren’t guaranteed. In my twenties when life got both comfortable and difficult, I remember discussing what I might enjoy as a career, in what profession I might succeed. My husband and I discussed writing. I said I liked it, but it was too risky, didn’t pay well enough and I understood that the truth I would speak might hurt others. I understood that if I embraced and demonstrated my whole self it might limit my professional offerings. I was afraid of more limits. I was afraid to cause pain. I was silent.

When I began to write this it was November 9, 2016, a day I believe will go down in history, a day I believe America will be remembered for going down on the wrong side of history. I’ll be honest; I cried. I cried when I read the headline. I cried when I kept searching to see if it was correct. I cried when my kids weren’t looking. I cried when I looked at them. I cried when everyone in the gym and the carpool line were looking. I cried when I thought about the people who feared being left out. I cried for women- for all that this meant to them. I cried for the LGBT for all that could be taken from them. I cried for Muslims who wondered what would be left for them. I cried for the concept of race. I cried for the pervasiveness of hate. I cried about the future. I cried about how expensive education and health care will be. I cried for the people who would have to pay it. I cried for the people who wouldn’t be able to. I cried for what the world would think. I cried for what it might mean for the world. I cried in the way that I usually reserve for outbursts years after personal tragedy-not my usual tears for Hallmark movies, those old Folgers commercials and anything Gilmore.

At our house when the election results were reported I was pretending to sleep. My son woke sometime before 3 looking for comfort. My daughter repeatedly woke unable to find restful sleep. It was almost comically foreshadowing bad. Even the writing of this essay came in the wee hours of the night and the stolen hours of this morning between birthday preparations for my son and a seriously exhausting session of attempting to contain my crib-escaping daughter. It couldn’t come fast enough. It was often interrupted because something was leaking, someone missed the toilet, someone was hangry, and someone couldn’t sleep. I have found that life changing events come in unexpected places. They feel large and time feels small.  They happen when we don’t have time to think, when we feel vulnerable, when we have other battles, when there is no cavalry coming to save us, when we can feel ourselves giving in to the idea that we don’t have time for this, we can’t deal with this.

Make time to think about this election. I think we can all agree when in her concession speech Hilary Clinton said, “This is painful, and it will be for a long time.” She was right. We might just not agree on what is painful, but agreeing is a start. Many Trump supporters have felt left out for years. Many have felt forgotten, under- and un-represented, many have felt they were not comfortable with the “progress” being made.  For many Hilary Clinton supporters the election results signal that they are about to be excluded again.

It is not lost on me that I am writing this on my son’s fourth birthday. It is not lost on me that in his birth, in all of the light and hope that new life gives, I started writing. I started owning my stories. I started understanding that my silence to prevent someone else’s pain did not give rise to growth. It did not allow me to move on. It did not allow them to grow up. But most importantly it did not create a world where everyone was comfortable. For me it was the beginning of sitting in the uncomfortable, of setting boundaries, of making steps toward a joyful life.

In these post-election days I am struggling to find hope. I don’t see it in ousting politicians from politics or in retaining politicians who do not compromise. I do not see it in Donald Trump either. I do not see it in today’s headlines or in his career of hateful rhetoric, but I have seen some good people choose Trump. I couldn’t stop reading headlines or Facebook in these last few months. Many headlines and several people’s posts made my heart sink. I was aware he could win. Maybe for some a pro-life stance was enough. Maybe for some Clinton seemed corrupt. Maybe for some more manufacturing jobs were right. Still, I thought there was too much to overlook. In a post I read by a long ago friend, a mother of two, I saw her support touting Trump. Twenty-something years ago I watched her stand up to someone who had done wrong and for another when no one else would help. She looked out for others when they were alone and told the truth when it hurt her. I admired her. I have hope in the person she might be, and if things get hard in the choices she might make.

The results of this election for Trump fans and Hilary haters was exactly the miracle they were praying for; and for Hillary fans and Trump haters exactly the nightmare they thought couldn’t happen. Significant moments in our lives do not come in the way that we think they will.  God is funny and he is wise.  Few of us will ever stand in a board room with prepared remarks and have that Michelle Obama New Hampshire moment where we embody what so many in the world are thinking. Few of us will ever have a platform where it seems like everyone is listening.

Chances are our personal significant moments to make sense of this election will likely not be our own New Hampshire moments. They might be in the simple act of reflection. They could be in the act of staying here, providing someone else a safe place, or standing up for what’s right. A significant moment could easily happen when we need to address a passing comment in the bathroom at a restaurant, during the 5 minutes before the business meeting starts; it could be a change in the way we teach our kids to talk; or in who we invite to our parties. It’s not whether or not you think you’re more likely to have significant life changing moments under Trump. It’s that an awful lot of people are worried they will have bad ones. I am asking you all to notice them-scratch that- I am counting on you to act kindly in them. I’m asking you to do what’s hard, what you might have hoped wouldn’t need to be your legacy.

In people collectively, I still have faith. I still believe we can be better than hate. It’s about being the people that we want to be for our children even when no one is looking. If I could give my children any gift it would have be that no matter their choices they have the possibility for happiness, safety and security. Every mother wants to offer that.

Honestly I don’t know how to end this. Normally when I write I like to weave and tuck and carefully place words, but this ending isn’t neat. So I’ll just say: whatever side you landed on in this election, I hope today you’ll be kind. The only way to ease pain is to walk through it. I hope we keep walking toward a joyful life. I hope we keep talking because I don’t believe any good comes from silence.

*There are many resources available if you are having trouble finding your words or processing your feelings. If you’re in Northern Virginia and are looking for assistance you can check out the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia. (http://pastoralcounseling.com/)

 

Smothered

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I am smothered with children.  I slide down the stairs with one who has koala wrapped herself to my chest the other has hooked his arm around my knee and slides beside me. This is my compromise. I call it our train. My three year old cried for a ride. Every once in a while he feels like he has been replaced in mommy’s arms and takes a stand for a ride down the stairs. My one year old cries because now she knows in my arms wasn’t always her place. Sometimes she will even be put down.

It’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend and husband is off for a golf weekend. Before the hate mail starts he has never taken a weekend away from us before. For my birthday he offered me the same, to take a weekend away and enjoy some of my favorite things, to revisit a sense of self without people hanging on me. It has been 16 months since my youngest was born. Though my husband often spends time on Saturday mornings with the kids I have been a nonstop source of food and comfort for 16 months.  Yes, you might guess that I am tired, periodically cranky and sometimes unkept.  Someday maybe I will take that trip, but today I find some satisfaction in my growth.  I don’t begrudge him his adventure because my choices keep me here.

Some days it’s ridiculously hard to see the positive of being needed all day. Some days one year old cries more than giggles, nurses more than she needs to eat, demands all of my attention. Somedays three year old gets divided attention, tests me more than listens, gets my impatient correction rather than skill building inspiration. Some nights she gets up three times and he sneaks in my bed at 5AM.  Some days I struggle to accept the life in which I am living. I get stuck in frustration that comes with my expectations. Like the notion that toddlers will get in the car or stay in the cart. I know better. Don’t expect that. Of course they want to explore. They are curious, learning creatures. In theory that’s beautiful. In 90 degree Virginia when one has to poop and the other has to nap- you guessed it: frustrating!

But, today I reframe because life is about perspective. I lean into the happy times not the hard tasks of being here. I focus on living the life that I’m in, not wishing away discomfort.

Life is a journey of letting go. Few things teach that more kindly than parenthood.  Gone is my yoga body. It’s been replaced by the tummy my toddlers punched out. The tummy they fight over when at 6AM they huddle in my bed deciding whether they want to embrace the day or seek comfort from it.  I’ll take this pudgy tummy that brings life and comforts it.

These silly legs I never did like used to run on trails for miles and miles. Now they have the power to raise both children, travel for blocks, up and over hills. I love that they can go without rest when my kids are about.

The heart that once was strong now often aches for fear and hope about their fate.

War wounds from a life well lived. Though the threats to me are less steep than those a soldier might face, we both know the value of life. We hold onto it and know that beauty often comes from the bandaged; bent but not broken.

I was offered freedom from people hanging on me. But, people do hang on me. I’m not wishing for that solitary adventure just yet. I am leaning into this one: this life changing, body battering motherhood.

Time has passed and husband is home. A summer storm comes roaring through and when it passes we walk through the forest with sun shining through it. It catches on leaves and glistens on branches. The toddlers chase each other up a hill. Two sets of perfect arms and legs just starting their adventure. I, of course, am behind with husband smiling. There is joy in this moment; on the journey we are living. I am ok with joy making its mark.

An open letter to my gay and Muslim friends in light of Orlando:

For once I had a post ready for this week. I even thought I had a photo. Reflecting on Orlando is more important. I want you to know I’m thinking of you and I’m thinking of why I’m thinking about you.

When I was taking one of my writing composition courses in college I remember one of my professors teaching. She said to root your writing in details. In communicating specifics of our own experience we allow others with different experiences to connect with us. I remember thinking for heaven sakes no one cares what type of tea I was drinking, or what color dress I was wearing, or even what year it was when I wrote this. Then I read other people’s work. Time and time again I cared about the details. I still remember stories I thought were of no interest to me. A person so unlike me, a writing style I didn’t particularly care for, a subject I didn’t think I wanted to know about. Time and time again when they showed me their world I always fell in. I started to know them. I started to appreciate what they cared about.  There are days when I don’t remember breakfast, but 13 maybe 15 years later I remember their stories: A boy’s vacation to Barefoot Landing ruined by a fire alarm, a girl’s mathematical learning disorder the college dean dismissed… I carry their stories in me.

I encourage you: tell your stories. Throughout all of time in the human existence that is all that has ever mattered.  When you think about the bones of the story of human life they are always the same: we are born, we grow, we die. That’s it. That’s all there ever is. The rest is just details. The heart of us is details.

I am a broad strokes kind of girl, which I supposed it is why I am thinking of you all. Though it’s your story, the bones of it are like mine. It’s not ok to me that either of you feel unsafe to be gay or to be Muslim. Like many Americans I come from immigrants. They were Germans in America during the world wars, how unfortunate I suppose. There was hate for them too I know.

I admit, I ask myself why there was a shooting in Orlando.  You already know you are not the first to be persecuted in mass shootings or public distrust. Maybe the fact that it happened (s) after all of the suffering humans have already seen makes it feel crueler. I worry about the questions you’re asking yourself.  How could it still happen? Why to you, to someone like you? Do you deserve it?

I don’t know the details of why.  I believe if it could happen to someone like you it could also happen to someone like me.  You don’t deserve it. No one deserves it.

In our time, we focus on the wrong details.  We identify differences and we evaluate the threat they pose us.  We concentrate on how to catch, punish, or shame someone who has done, or might do, something we perceive to be wrong.

You might want to withdraw from this crazy world- let it work itself out- I know I sometimes do. I want to remove myself from the world’s dysfunction. Focus on something small, something beautiful: my kids, a flower, the way the sun sets, a bowl of ice cream. Please don’t. Focus out. Live your story and tell it.

I believe we can shift what’s out of focus. We can change the experiences that created someone with so much hate. Our interactions with others; our choice for kindness; our search to understand, to hear, to honor others, our example is a victory and a protection. It’s the world we can leave even if it isn’t the one we live in.