Trophies and a Noose (Parenting Together)

There is a horrifying video clip from my first Christmas as a mother, one I hope you never see. I’m at my in-laws house in eastern Washington. The room is a cozy scene lit by twinkly tree lights and candles. The whole family is laying on the floor staring at my baby, our first born and also the first born grandchild. Everyone is talking to her and kissing her with the kind of adoration saved for childless aunts and uncles. And then…

Then.

My 4-month old baby screeches, a voice trick she had learned that December, and on the video I am heard telling the room that we’re trying to curb that by pressing our finger to her mouth when she does it. Because we don’t want it to become a bad habit.

Even as I type this seven years later, I feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment. What was I thinking? She was an infant, folks. A baby learning to interact with the world around her. But the screeching was loud, she was the first baby anyone had brought around at the holidays, and I felt an enormous sense of pressure as I “parented” in front of our family. I was the first mother amongst my husband’s siblings and spouses, and every decision felt monumental, observed, questioned. And by the way, my husband’s family are my dear friends. But I still felt like I was on a reality show called “Horney Parenting” (would watch) with a live audience, score cards, and tense music in the background.

Clara’s first Christmas

Then there’s my side of the family, where I’m one of seven kids, with 20 grandkids and counting for my parents, which means even more opinions about who’s doing right or wrong with their kids. By now there are also 9 grandchildren on the Horney side (that’s 23 first cousins for my kids, if anyone is counting). Add in the fact that most of our friends are also deep into the raising young children game, and we are now constantly parenting beside other people, constantly in huge groups of kids, and constantly questioning ourselves and comparing how kids are turning out. Whose kids fight too much? Whose kids whine a lot? Which kids get away with everything and which kids make the most trouble? Which kids seem to be great but it must be an accident because their parents actually kind of suck at this? Which parents seem to have it all together and also HOW. Even as we aim for the solidarity of foxhole partners and friends, we so fear any undercurrents of judgement that it’s easy to get swept away in our defense of each decision or mistake, constantly restructuring our “philosophies” in ways that make us seem intentional, wise, effective- even as we question ourselves at every turn.

…constantly restructuring our “philosophies” in ways that make us seem intentional, wise, effective- even as we question ourselves at every turn.

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Sammy really nailing the nativity this year.

The fishbowl vulnerability of parenting is never more evident than when we’re sharing a home for the holidays or vacation, spending extended amounts of time with small groups of people. There’s no hiding our kids’ behaviors after a few hours together, much less after the honeymoon ends and no one wants to share or play nice anymore. There’s no way I can go a whole weekend without showing irritation, without my kids showing disrespect, without our family unit looking like a pile of garbage people at one point or another.

So as we approach the holidays and prepare ourselves for long weekends stuck inside with all the children and all the expectations, how can we be generous as we parent shoulder to shoulder? How can we be helpful? What can we do for each other, with each other, that benefits our families and our friendships?

My wise friend Heather once told me that in order to maintain mental health as a mother, she holds tight to this truth: Her kids’ success cannot be her trophies, nor their failures her noose.

Think about that- their success cannot be our trophy, nor their failures our noose. This is at once a welcome release and a painful surrender, right?

Because I want to brag about how smart he is, how responsible she is, repeat the jokes they tell, announce the joy they bring. And I either want to downplay their deficiencies or I want to blame them for their own behavior in a way that excuses me from the equation- because I am afraid of being a failure, hung by my own deficiencies in parenting.

But what if I didn’t feel the need to swing either direction? What if the joy of my children was a neutral fact in my life, a truth that I trusted enough to make itself evident without conversational cajoling? What if the complicated souls of my children were allowed to exist without simplified parental diagnosis, without my eye-rolling dismissal of poor behavior or difficult personality traits? What if I remembered that my kids are beautiful, bewildering human beings…and that yours are too?

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This season, under twinkly lights, around the dessert plates, during card games or Home Alone marathons or snowy days at the cabin, remember this: Parenting is hard. So be kind to each other. Rock the baby to sleep for your tired sister in law. Take the wild little cousins for a walk. Read some Calvin and Hobbes with the big kids. Be honest about how hard fathering and mothering really is, and be generous with your praise and your time.

These kids are with us for but a moment- a blur of footy pajamas and sticky hot cocoa faces, preteen chatter and stolen moments of teenage connection- and for but a moment do we get to raise them together. Side by side in the crowded, warm living rooms of these precious years of parenting, we are in this together. Merry Christmas, dear friends. You’re doing great- I know it.

To what do I owe thee, O Smart Phone Notification?

My mom kept a large corner of our upstairs family room devoted to her sewing ambitions. Ceiling-high shelves stacked with fabric, drawers stuffed with patterns and sewing hobby magazines, spools of thread on rows of spindles, scraps of past projects littering the floor; that corner was her private world in the middle of a very exposed life. She sewed out of necessity (when money was tight and seven kids still needed school clothes), she sewed for fun (the doll clothes, diaper bags, and blankets she created are still my own kids’ favorite), and she sewed for therapy, the pleasure of following a plan and producing something useful and lovely often a balm in the disorder of our noisy, chaotic home life. She didn’t sew all the time. We often went months without hearing the whir of the machine or the tapping of her foot on the pedal. But when she did sew, it was almost manic. She stayed up late, she consulted with our grandma and aunts, troubleshooting with her best friends- they’d all be in the same sewing cycle and help each other finish what they began. If she was making something for you, you’d get called to the sewing corner and told to stand still while they all measured you, pinched at your waist and pinned back extra fabric, dismissing your complaints with an eye roll when the pins got your skin. 

My mom was wholly unavailable during these bouts of sewing mania. She was present- tucked into her corner pushing fabric through the machine, or standing at the measuring board with a rotary cutter, or deep into a slightly gossipy two hour phone call while piecing out a pattern- but we weren’t exactly in her orbit. I don’t even know if she could hear us, she’d be so far into her work. But it wasn’t upsetting. It was comforting. She was with us, and she was close, but she didn’t care what we needed or fought about. She had a life that did not include us, and we were fine with that. The occasional autonomy was a thrill in our childhood, a reminder that our mother was human and capable of many talents, not a servant or an admiration society for our own little lives. 

I don’t have a sewing corner. I have a lot going on that does not directly involve my kids, but there is rarely a physical manifestation of those projects and creations. I’m a writer, so what do they see me doing “at work”? Looking at a screen, typing in silence. I manage a lot of relationships and responsibilities, but it’s the age of the smartphone, so where am I doing that work? Not out loud at my kitchen table, the phone cord stretching from the wall and tripping my kids when they walk by asking for a snack. No- I’m looking at a screen, returning a text or reading an email or making a plan via Facebook messaging. It is silent and unseen work. I feel the need to explain what I’m doing when my kids catch me looking at my phone in an attempt to aggrandize the action, like I need them to know that I’m not just scrolling Instagram. 

“Hold on, I’m texting Aunt Becca about coming over later.” 

“Just a second, I need to ask Daddy about our plans tonight.” 

“Wait a minute, guys, I have to read this work email before we leave.” 

“I’m just looking at the pictures we took earlier.”

 

No matter how legitimate the reason, I can’t stand the wall that my phone creates between me and my kids. Hear me on this- they don’t need (or deserve) my full attention at all times. But the virtual reality I step into for work, pleasure or therapy takes me away from them like a silent menace, and all they see is me retreating. They do not hear the whir of my machine. They do not step around the scraps of my ideas. They see me staring at a screen. They approach an empty version of their mother, not invited into the space she occupies, only aware that she is involved somewhere invisible in something they cannot hear, touch, or understand.  

This quote from psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, imbedded in a Wall Street Journal article on the many benefits of reading story books aloud to kids, shook me hard about my parenting.

“Babies are often distressed when they look to their parents for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.” 

I know that face. I feel it even now as I type. Do you know it too? Isn’t it what we see at every restaurant, doctor waiting room, school pick up line and on our own couches every night?

So, what can I do? Buy a home phone and plug into that ancient technology of the wall jack? Scoff if you want, but a curly cord and an answering machine actually sound like freedom. Because what bothers me most about the smartphone isn’t just the addiction it produces in me, it’s the expectation of the damn thing. If you own it, you must answer when it rings. If it dings, you must respond. If someone has a question and texts it, you must give them what they need or want from you. If not right this moment, then within the next few. There are many people in my life who cannot stand the selective way I engage in smartphone capabilities. Lots of people try to punish me for it, in fact; they wait a long time to answer my texts, they ignore my calls, they pour a spoonful of my own medicine and passively hold it up to my nose. What they don’t realize is my utter relief when someone ignores me or responds days later rather than right away. Because if we all do it, then we can’t get mad at each other, right? 

Right? 

This essay might sound like I’m trying (poorly) to convince you that I don’t return your texts and phone calls for altruistic parenting reasons, even though we all know that’s only part of my reasoning. I also just don’t like feeling beholden to a screen full of requests. It is overwhelming to live in the real world and the virtual; how can anyone maintain full relational depth with a foot planted in both realms?

But also, what do we owe each other in terms of communication? If I pay for a data plan and carry this phone around with me, aren’t I also signing a social contract? If you have my phone number, doesn’t that mean I granted you access to my life and that I ought to respond with equal access to my response? And how can I defend being choosy about who gets my attention inside that phone? Admittedly, aren’t there a select few who will get an immediate reply? Isn’t there a hierarchy to my response time? Is that fair? 

 

Do I care? 

 

The beauty of the sewing corner was the tactile experience of my mother’s inner self. It smelled like her lemon tea; it hummed with conversations and the rhythm of the serger;  the landscape was busy florals, bright 90’s greens, and the plaid of our homemade Christmas pajamas. 

My phone is a cold rectangle of metal, yet carries a whole bustling world within. It is a miracle and a devil, a distraction and a necessity, 7 ounces of shackles on my wrist- and yet also a key to the virtual universe, a connection to the people I know and love. What do I owe my phone- what do I owe you- and what do I owe the people around me, the flesh and bones who notify me with their voices and hands, not their ringtones or notifications? I want a life rich with color and experience. I want the wonders of the physical world; endless summer skies, my kids’ songs, warm bread that I kneaded myself, conversations that change my perspective. But I also want to text my friends to meet me at the park, I want story podcasts for car rides, bread recipes from my favorite blogger, and video calls to family far away. 

In a society bent towards distraction and removal, can I find a way to use my phone for engagement and presence? Is it even possible, or are we just fooling ourselves? How much moderation is enough moderation, and how long can we stare at these screens before we forget to look up at all? 

Text me with your answers. I’ll get back to you in 3-5 business days. 

 

Camp Talk

Camp at Church

June 9, 2019

Hey everyone! I’m jessie, and I’m so glad to be out here with you this morning. A lot of us are usually at a church building on Sunday mornings, so it feels extra special to be in the sunshine together, playing and learning. I love games, I love kids, and I love talking about Jesus, so this is my favorite kind of day.

Well, if you weren’t at camp this week, let’s get a quick refresher on what we talked about each night. Our sports and arts camp is called “Made For This” because we believe that all people are created with a unique and wonderful purpose for their life. So every summer we like to give kids a chance to try lots of different things, like gymnastics and photography and dance and soccer, so they can explore all the amazing things their bodies and minds are capable of learning and doing. And each night at camp before we eat our popsicles, we talk about what else we’re made for- not just to be good at sports or smart in school or to make enough money to survive someday- we know in the deepest part of ourselves that there must be more to life. We don’t want a life of just surviving or getting by, we want a life of goodness, and abundance.

We know that we’re made for more.

Let me ask you a question. What is something really beautiful that you’ve seen or experienced before? Something that took your breath away, or made you so so happy, or maybe even something so beautiful that it made you cry? Can you share your answers with the friends and families around you for a minute? Maybe it was something in nature, or something a friend did for you, or a baby you love, or a song that made you dance, or a dance that made you laugh- something beautiful that made you light up inside.

Ok, now let me ask you another question. Can you think of a time that something happened to you or someone you love, and it made you really sad? Or maybe it made you really mad. Think of something you’ve seen or experienced that didn’t seem right, and made you feel bad inside. You don’t have share this one unless you want to, and let’s be careful with our answers if there are little people sitting around us, ok? Take a minute to think about it, and maybe share with your family if you want to say what you’re remembering.

Here’s my last question:

Can you see or touch those feelings that you just thought about and shared? Can you touch or see the feeling of knowing something is beautiful? Can you hold that in your hand and say, Look! Look at how I feel inside! No, not really, right? And can you somehow show me what you mean when you tell me that something isn’t right or show me how you feel bad inside?

We know when things are good. And we know when things are bad. We know these things because we were created by a Good Father, our God, and inside each of us is the knowledge that there is more to this world than what we can see.

There’s more to life than jobs, school, sports, arts, our homes and our stuff, or even our family and friends; we know that there are big things that matter, even if we can’t actually see them.

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Who can tell me what temporary means?

Yeah, it’s something that won’t last. Most of the things we can see aren’t going to last forever, right? What can you see around you right now that is temporary?

All of these things are going to pass away. Buildings will fall down or be knocked down, grass will grow and get mowed and blow away on the wind. Even our bodies aren’t forever. We get old and we die, right? But what about the other word in that verse, eternal? Who can tell me what eternal means?

Eternal mean boundless, never ending, indestructible, forever and ever and ever. And that verse says that what is unseen is eternal. Can you do something for me right now? Touch your heart. Press your hand to your chest, that part of you that seems to hold those feelings that tell you what is good and lovely and what is wrong and bad. We call that your soul. That’s the part of you that is unseen and eternal, unique and beautiful and worthwhile.

That’s what makes you, you.

And those feelings are what make me wonder what my life means, what I’m made to do or be. Because I don’t want to bring more bad stuff or hurt feelings or sin into the world around me. I want to bring beauty, and I want to make things good. I want to make good things. So I have to ask myself, how can I know what to do, or how to grow? Who can show me what is good and what I am made for when I’m confused about why I can’t change and I feel a little lost?

And the answer is, I need to ask the one who made me. I believe that there is a good creator who made all of this incredible world around us, who made kids and games and mountains and dolphins and dogs and strawberries and the ocean. And I believe that there is evil, bad stuff, in this good world that God made, and that the things I know aren’t right- they aren’t from a good God. They aren’t part of the life that was meant for us. I’m going to read you something that Jesus said, talking about the kind of friend he is to us and the kind of life he dreams of for you, ok?

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay my life down for the sheep.”

Did you catch this part? “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” What does abundantly mean?

Yeah, it means generous, huge, overflowing goodness for you and for me and for our lives.

Does your life feel this way? Does it feel like it’s overflowing with the goodness of a loving shepherd who loves you so much that he laid down his life for you? Or does it feel mostly confusing, or painful, or boring, or useless?

We are made for more. We are made for a beautiful, abundant life with Jesus as our guide, showing us a better way to be a human and loving us in a way that changes us, and changes how we treat each other. There is so much inside me that brings pain and destruction to the people around me. I lie, I’m selfish, I don’t do what I say that I’ll do, I speak without thinking, I act without considering the consequences. But how can I ever change? Remember we talked at camp about how, no matter how many times I wake up in the morning and say, I’m gonna do better today, I’m going to be a patient, nice mom who doesn’t yell at her kids, and I’m going to keep my promises, and I’m going to put others first, and I’m not going to eat so many cookies- no matter how bad I want that, I can’t change myself. Not for long, anyways. I have tried, so many times and in so many ways.

But God wants to help me change. God sees me as whole, and lovely, and worthwhile. He sees me as the Jessie I was always meant to be. He wants me to help make this world right, make it good. And so each day I spend some time learning about Jesus. I read my Bible and see what he said, how he treated people. I pray and ask God to help me do what is right. I ask what my life should look like, and what God needs to change my mind about so that I can be transformed.

I have seen lots of beauty, and I have known lots of pain. And in all my wanderings and wonderings, I have only ever known Jesus to change me and give me a life worth living- an abundant life- a life made for more. More beauty, more fun, more friendships and connections and pain, yes- there will always be pain on this planet- but it is a pain that doesn’t destroy me, because I know what’s eternal, and I know what will pass away.

We are so, so glad that you guys got to come to camp this week, or even just today, and look at me, ok? Look at my face. I don’t even know you, and I love you. I love you more than you’ll ever know. That’s God’s love in me, making me love you. Now imagine God’s love for you. Imagine his face when he looks at you and your heart, and how he feels when you’re living the life that you’re made for and being the best version of you, the one you want so badly to be. You were made for so much more! And I can’t wait to see who you are becoming. 
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If you lie we can’t be friends.

There are two kinds of people in this world: The ones who think parenting is difficult, and the ones who lie about it. And under these categories are all kinds of sub-categories, like parents who complain about their kids but never read parenting books or ask for help, or parents who don’t even realize their kids are out of control, or parents who have naturally compliant children and attribute it to their own good parenting skills (please), or parents of small children who give advice like they’ve been raising kids for more than 5 minutes (wait, is that me? She wonders as she writes a parenting article). But the worst sub-category of all, gentle readers, are the parents who rewrite history even as it is being written.

I call this “momnesia,” the disease that erodes reality and gives way to statements like “My kids were great at restaurants,” and “My babies always slept through the night, have you ever tried swaddling?” and “My teenagers loved listening to me talk. Loved it.”

I used to roll my eyes at these moms and dads who appeared to live in a universe parallel to me and my actual human children. But here’s the bad news: I think I’ve contracted the disease.

My youngest child is 3 years old and I swear to you, I have no idea when she started talking in full sentences. I don’t know how my son started staying in his own bed after we took him out of the crib. I have no idea if my oldest daughter always cleaned up the toys so well or if I taught her at some point (and apparently forgot to teach her brother). Literally- no idea.

The problem is not in the forgetting, though. This is to be expected. Our brains cannot possibly hold all of these details. The problem is in the retelling, the way that we tend to shame each other by rewriting details to make ourselves more capable and intentional via our version of the past.

What is this mechanism in play which glosses our memories and removes the grit and dig of raising small children? It’s not that I don’t remember it being exhausting, it’s that I couldn’t possibly recall the particulars of the hundreds of daily decisions and difficulties of keeping babies alive and well. Our life together becomes a conglomerate of small memories held together as a broader narrative, one in which people are defined by generalizations (She never slept, he was so stubborn) and small moments are magnified to explain why we felt a certain way during a certain period of time (infamous injuries, successes, arguments, intense likes and dislikes). Why do we do this? Why can’t I remember Audrey’s first tooth, despite the all-encompassing nature of the experience? I see pictures of my darling son when he was a toddler, with his tan skin and dark brown eyes and think, “I used to get mad at that perfect person every single day. How? Why? What kind of a monster can’t stand being around a beautiful, wonderful child?”

But I refuse to dismiss that version of myself (monster or no) for the sake of shinier memories. I love that girl, the one who thought a two year old was trying to ruin her life. She had not yet seen the other side of the road, not yet sensed the fleeting nature of infancy and toddlerhood, how those years would run through her hands like fresh water that she would never taste again. But also, the water was cold and at times felt like a drowning.

I’m not saying all this to defend myself and make excuses for what I will inevitably forget about parenting small children; I’m saying it to remind myself not to dismiss the experience of other parents and people I encounter. I say it to remind myself how it feels when people tell me that my kids get sick all the time and theirs never did (lies. I knew their kids and their snotty noses). I say it to remind myself how it feels when other parents shrug their shoulders about tantrums and can’t remember their kids ever throwing fits “like that”. I refuse to buy into the convenience of a white-washed memory palace in which I am the magnified hero and problems were the dragon I slayed. If I want to be a safe place for the world around me then I need to allow room for my past and present failings and struggles, not as a mark of my martyrdom or heroics, but as an honest representation of myself. Because without honesty, without humility, who are we but shadows of ourselves?

I want to be kind with how I keep my memories: Kind to myself, to my children, and to anyone who asks to share life with me. Like a tour around my house, I don’t have to open every closet and drawer, but I won’t be so disingenuous as to only show them the front room where I just vacuumed. I don’t want to use shined up memories as a shield or a weapon. So if that means you get to hear about the time I forgot to buckle the infant’s seatbelt straps, or you find out what my marriage actually looks like when there are three crying kids at bedtime, or maybe I tell you how I feel after I yell at my kids and then cry for the shame of it; I will be kind to us both. I will offer honesty with humility, but also forgiveness to myself and grace to you, so you can give yourself the same. If, someday, you ask me what it was like when I was raising small children, I won’t lie. I’ll say, it was one million small and difficult decisions that I will never remember for three human beings whose story never belonged to me in the first place. But, and, it was one million acts of love that told a story we’ll never forget.

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Does Christmas Even Matter?

Does Christmas even matter? Would the world be worse without it? Why doesn’t it seem to make things better, this holiday framed by giving and generosity? Why isn’t this month when we aim goodness towards each other, enough to change our minds about each other?

Christmas doesn’t matter. Not without Advent.

Christmas without Advent is a carnival of the senses, a blind attempt to understand what is wrong on Earth and then fix it with traditions and sincere endeavors of kindness. The trouble is, it doesn’t work. Christmas doesn’t fix anything. But we keep at it year after year, knowing that there is something important in those holy days. Like children trying to count the stars, we aim our sights at the lofty goal of “peace on earth” and believe for a few weeks, with enough good-will and twinkly lights, that it really might be possible.

Quite opposite from the festivities of Christmas and yet inextricably tied together, Advent asks us to consider the story of Jesus of Nazareth and reflect on why that story matters 2,000 years later. Christmas is a burst of wild flame that quickly disappears; Advent is a slow and quiet campfire that says, “Listen. Remember. Wait.” And what are we waiting for?

To be restored. To be saved from the horrors we create.

The problem with the trappings of our modern life, with our heated homes and cozy furniture, our bowls full of Christmas oranges and the clean water in our taps, is that the beauty and convenience by which we are surrounded allows us to imagine ourselves progressed beyond the need to be saved from anything at all, much less ourselves. Our accessibility to ease and our addiction to comfort (and the addictions our comfort produces) convince us that we, in and of ourselves, are worthy of the wealth we’ve inherited.

Only when my vision is cleared by the humbling work of reflection and repentance (a worrisome  and churchy word, but really just means to change my mind and turn another direction) can I find any reason that Christmas matters at all. If I am the ruler of my life then who cares if Christ came, because I don’t need a King anyways. Who needs a king when our tiny kingdoms of self will suffice? And how can we hear the crumbling mortar of the castle walls when the world is eager to remind us that we are doing great and that you are all you need? How can I assume a posture of Advent, of expectant waiting and joyful giving, when I sit so comfortably in the warmth of my convenient life?

And yet, we know. The seed of dissatisfaction blooms full and tangled as we age and cannot escape who we have become, are becoming. Something is wrong, we know it, so we invent worries and inflate problems. We drown in a 2-inch puddle of neurosis, and every day is another reason for unhappiness. We avoid the truth of our selves and what we lack by choosing to look outward and blame, rather than gaze inward and repent.

The longing and waiting of Advent cannot penetrate those of us who cannot remember or bear to consider what it is we need saved from, what it is we wait upon- which is the depravity of our own hearts, and the arrival of a King who shines with a piercing kind of light. We cannot generate this light on our own and we cannot heal our own broken hearts, and this disconnect between what the world says about us and what we secretly know about ourselves is uncomfortable. So we cover it up with hard work, nice things, and the magnification of petty concerns.

Here’s the goodness that we miss in the crowded rooms of our comfortable lives, the actual truth we think we are afraid to encounter: Not that we are unworthy of love or beyond repair, but that the darkness within, those false selves we parade around as protection from the pain and betrayal of life on this planet- the good news is that those shadow selves can be healed. We fear the depth of our darkness and so we avoid admissions of guilt, but then we stomp right past the relief of the light and the rest comes in the waiting. 

When we step in the glowing love of the Light of the World, we are made into our true selves. But because it seems impossible to hold two seemingly opposite truths in my frail human hands, that I am not enough and yet I am absolutely loved, I spin my own story instead, where I am the center, I am the hero, I am not perfect but at least I’m not those other people. Advent doesn’t matter because I’m not waiting for anything, because I’m already here, and I can make things better on my own.

It is not the walls of my house or the confines of my neighborhood, the food in my fridge or the stream of information on my screens which keep me from Christ and the ache of Advent; it is the walls of my imagination, the confines of my narrow perspective, the appetites and ambitions which convince me that the ache is for something else, something I can produce, something someone else can give me, something I just haven’t found yet. My easy access to resources momentarily shelters me from the reason for Christmas, which is that without Jesus, I cannot find the peace I so desperately seek. Surely after all these thousands of years in which we regularly wish for peace on earth and joy for all, we can see that nothing will change when left to our own ideas and machinations. It takes a revolution of the human heart, a fire lit by an outside source and left to burn in our blood and bones, to ignite change that matters, change that lasts.

Advent is the invitation to light a candle and altar the darkness. It is a call to the King who came as a baby and lived as a man, beside us, with us, ever for us, forever triumphant over the wrong within and outside us. Advent is on the lips of the martyrs, in the arms of mothers and fathers, it is sung by the choirs and chanted by the oppressed, it is full in the hearts of the bereaved and yes, still, it is in my home, in the tree trimmings and gifts, in the candles we light every day as we join in the groaning chorus of all creation,

Come, King Jesus. Make it right. Make it right in me, that I might work with you to make it right around me. I light these candles to remember you, and to say thank you for remembering me. 

Merry Christmas, friends. And a blessed Advent as we wait and work in hope.

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At Christmas We Remember Each Other.

My husband’s family is full of wonderful, generous, beautiful, insane people who open their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve and digging into stocking gifts is delightful, kind of like tiptoeing towards the magic of Christmas morning, but it’s not what I grew up doing. And I didn’t mind the new tradition at all until we had kids. Then I looked at my own little family and the idea of my kids opening their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of crawling into bed to dream of morning was, in a word, ludicrous. And besides this 12 hours too-early stocking theory, my husband also thinks Christmas trees should be fake. Less mess, he (rightly) claims. It’s like Christmas tyranny. Might as well throw out the cocoa and drink kombucha, clean up the garland and do some yard work instead of snuggling on the couch and crying when Kevin McCallister finally sees his mom again.

I had no idea that we needed to make all of these decisions as our family grew. I thought that families came with holiday traditions instantly established, Thanksgiving dinner menus chiseled on stone tablets, the children all smiling participants in each ritual as years pass by. What really happened to Christmas was this: We got married, made a family, and had no idea what to do next. Fake tree or real? Hang lights on the house or avoid a huge power bill? Do we believe in Santa? Do we believe in traveling in December? Do we give lots of gifts, or are we minimalists? Is eggnog actually a thing and do we drink it?

What’s strange about this side of the holidays, the grown up side, is the newness of our family culture versus the established expectations of our parents and the people around us. In our effort to set the tone for how we celebrate any holiday, Christmas or otherwise, we must contend with ingrained notions of normal while wrestling with the fact that our children will someday go their own way and make their own decisions, which may or may not hearken back to their childhood with us and our fake (Real? Still haven’t decided) Christmas trees. What if they follow my sister into Messianic Judaism and ask for Hanukkah gifts? What if they marry someone who always spends the holidays in Florida? Or worst, and most annoying of all, what if someday they announce they are gluten-free and won’t even eat my Christmas morning waffles?

But really, buried beneath the self-imposed stress or imagined urgency of all the decisions, the question I suppose I’m really asking is this: Does any of it matter? 

I know, I know. “Why can’t this girl just be a normal person and not question every single detail of life? It’s just a stocking, for goodness sakes. Her poor husband must be exhausted.” To which I reply, yes, he is. But also, I think these things are worth asking.  Because traditions, like loyalty, occupy a slippery slope. If we follow rules, ideas or people without asking what good they produce, we run the risk of either missing their goodness altogether, or worse, passively allowing toxic patterns to develop in our lives.

So I have to ask myself: how can I spend so much on these last weeks of the year -so much time, energy, emotional currency, actual currency- when it seems the world is in a constant state of crisis? How can I buy a tree for my living room when over 25 million men, women and children don’t even have a country to call their own, much less a home with a living room? How can I blissfully hold my children by the fire while my dear friends enter their first Christmas season without their little boy? Where is the line between frivolity and celebration, ignorance and peace? Can I find space in my heart to hold both? Can I know the weight of suffering while also choosing to participate in the building of something good, one tiny detail at a time?

I think that, really, what we do on a holiday is merely an attempt to hold beauty in our hands a moment longer than usual. I wake up on Christmas morning and kiss Audrey’s soft round cheeks,  creased from her pillow. I touch Clara’s curls resting on the collar of her Christmas nightgown. I catch Sammy in my arms as he leaps down the stairs. I kiss my husband as he pours our coffee. I slide bacon into the oven, wipe maple syrup off little fingers, talk over the rumbling furnace as the vents wake up, pour waffle batter sizzling into the press, and smile as our kids open their gifts. I form these traditions, the waffles and the singing and the prayers and the matching pajamas, knowing that while the details are incidental, those details are also scaffolding in the history we build. It’s like squinting at a house trimmed with white lights, softening your focus until all you see is a glow. Each light matters, but the wonder is what they display all together.

The traditions are why we keep coming home, even when it’s hard. The stability of home, the aggregate of family stories and inside jokes, the shared pain of loss and grief, exists in the house we build out of memories. And as mother, I am the memory keeper. I am the magic maker. That’s the pressure I feel with my young family, I suppose- the pressure of what we will say to each other about these days in years to come, the dream of a future where my family loves each other and continues to gather under the covering of what we built.

In a world of dark shadows and cold hearts, on a planet full of one sorrow after another, personal and global pain barking like an angry dog at the boundaries of our lives; in this hard place, I believe that mothers and fathers are co-creators with God, the source of Love, creating goodness with traditions that are clothed in generosity. Like a heartbeat thrumming in the background of our lives, the way we celebrate sets a rhythm for how we remember. Because in the end, that is what we do at Christmas. We remember each other. We remember the God who remembered us in Bethlehem, all those cold nights ago. We remember those who have been forgotten. We remember what we’ve done, we remember what we’ve lost, and we find ways to stand shoulder to shoulder and face the same direction. We make dinner rolls from tattered recipe cards. We sing songs we can’t remember learning. We hold each other up to the light and whisper, in the tender tones of forgiveness and invitation that seem to come a little easier as the year slows and ends, “I see you. You matter to me. Today and all the days.”

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and from my heart to yours: Truly, dear one, you matter. Today and all the days. Let us be generous, and build something good to cover the ones we love.

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The teeth are dying.

My oldest child keeps losing her teeth, one tiny white chiclet after another twisting out and leaving gaping holes behind. She lost one of her top front teeth this week, and I held it in my hand for a long time afterwards, turning it over and examining each angle, remembering the nights it kept us both awake. She was 7 months old and I was 26, finally finishing my bachelor degree despite the exhausted wide-eyed wonder of new motherhood. My husband worked out of town most of each month, so it was just me and the baby, our love story an expanding plot line in my life. I wrote so much about her that first year, each university writing class another avenue to explore the intensity of mothering and the raw vulnerability which follows. I remember strange details from those times, magnified by novelty and loneliness. I remember the smell of her milk soaked pajamas. I remember her smooth cheek against mine as we slow danced back to sleep. I remember the low light in her nursery, the way shadows held us up like prayers as we learned each other’s heartbeat in those bleary, wakeful nights.

And those brand new teeth. I remember the pain of those particular tears. She’d wake up crying 4, 5, maybe 8 times in one night, pain bleating from her throat. Each tooth was another triumph, a sharp and solid reminder that she was growing up, becoming more and more human, less celestial. Less angel in my arms.

These hard-won teeth now fall into my waiting hands and I stare at the little girl standing in front of me, her eyes shining proud with tears, blood dribbling from her mouth. I stare at the teeth and wonder, Aren’t these mine? 

She loses them with no thought to the getting of them, because she does not remember those long nights. The pain flitted away with the rest of her babyhood memories, which are now just pictures of an infant she does not know, stories as disconnected as the lone tooth in my hand.

So I hold the teeth, and the girl runs off with her fresh dollar, which she will assuredly squirrel away like all her other money because at 6 years old she is already more responsible than most adults I know. For her 6th birthday she begged for a luggage set, not only for the fun of traveling in style, but for the deeply satisfying task of packing and repacking her own clothes, with no family members rifling through her neatly folded outfits. She starts school tomorrow as perhaps the most mature kindergarten student of all time, better prepared for the ruckus of school than most kids, and still I cannot stand the thought of letting her go.

I want to hang a sign from her neck that says, “This is my darling girl and she is a gift. Please act accordingly.” I want the world to know what a treasure walks in their midst. I want them to adore her and give her all the room she needs to grow. I want them to understand how hard I worked the last six years to raise her. I want to collect my shout of joy when the doctor lifted her into my waiting arms, and surround her with it like a song. I want the world to learn the harmony. I want them to sing it with me.

Her teeth are falling out because she does not need them anymore. They are too small. Insufficient for the task at hand. Her body lengthens, stretches towards the light like the sunflowers in my backyard, those impressive ladies who bow their crowned heads each night and raise them each morning, queens awakened by summer, just like my August-born  daughter. My little queen, regal and filial, blood of my blood, heart of my heart, is blooming like a six year old ought to bloom; her curls fall across her shoulder as she writes me love letters, her cheeks flush with pleasure when she runs after a soccer ball, her thin legs bruised with adventure and bravery.

Baby teeth fall out because the roots die. The roots which held the teeth in place disintegrate and so what choice do the teeth have but to break ties and be ransomed for pocket change? After all, they did not come easy. This makes their barbaric end, wrenched from the tiny mouths where they taught a child to chew, swallow, and talk, all the more disturbing. Does no one respect the price paid for their entrance, the work they have done ever since? I nursed those teeth into existence. I held my baby to my chest and nursed her aching jaw, the milk between us a silent exchange of comfort and apology. The world hurts, I whispered to my baby. You didn’t know yet. You had no idea. I’m so sorry to tell you, but the world is not always good. Even our own bodies hurt us. I kissed her hand and sang my prayers, startled at how badly I wanted to absorb the pain for her.

Childhood is a field of wildflowers you only pretend to own. It is a dreamland, an incohesive collection of agony and bliss, tremendous moments of goodness and misery positioned like mountains among the endless stretches of the mundane, days we will never return to, will mostly forget. And if childhood is a dream, mothers guard the slumber. When suffering comes, we do not stand idly by. We kneel. For when we cannot fight, we learn to pray. For the crying baby when new teeth break through. And for ourselves when the roots are gone.

The teeth are mine. But they’re useless, relics of a time that exists only in my memory. No one can account for the hours I spend with my small children. Even them. I alone hold these days, turning them over in my hands like pearls, tiny and smoothed over with time. These years are mine, a gift of pure strength and grit, a dream I am slowly waking from as they get older. I am not done yet; I ache for the depth of our oneness when I held them so close, so often. But they have bigger jobs to do now. Their worlds expand with each breath they take, and what can I want for them except a life teeming with the most sincere joy? And how can I expect joy without suffering? Theirs, and mine.

The teeth are falling out, but new teeth are growing in their place. God teaches us to see the emptiness not as absence, but as an open way, necessary for new life. Today, oldest daughter, I try to remember the same. Pain does not just mean an ending- it also signals beginning. The blood and the twinge, an introduction to a fresh start. I won’t begrudge your grown-up incisors or 6-year molars. I’ll trade you for a dollar and kiss your curly ponytail, watching wistfully as you skip away.