November’s Gifts

The leaves changed and fell and I hardly noticed. The most virulent, obnoxious election ever flooded the airwaves and feeds, and as of the second week of October, it all seemed very inconsequential, like so much noise. Perhaps that latter ignorance was a gift.

I remember this closing in, the wide world suddenly becoming very small – the size of a rocking chair. Activities narrowing to only a few that matter.

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When my two kids were born, I was leaning close to 30. I’m now just a couple skips from 40 and I have 10 years of mothering experience in my pocket. Ten years of nights that show a clear upward slope of sleeping hours for mama and child. This gives me perspective and hope, because right now, with a 7-week baby in our home, sleep is the topic my brain can’t stop thinking about (dreaming about?).

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The fact that sleep is my biggest challenge right now is a gift. In the world of foster care, that’s a pretty mild complaint.

The election came and went. I was up anyway and watched the inconceivable become reality. The explosion in our little world tempered my response to the political upheaval. Big and small kindnesses of relatives and friends for our family-of-five inspired me and reminded me of the bigger, more important impact of millions of kindnesses over who is in office.

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We suddenly became part of a beautiful community I only barely knew before – foster parents. A circumstance of our case led me to a gracious, wise, seasoned foster mom who has wrapped me under her wing and has spent hours with me on the phone (texting and real conversations) and meets me in person. She encourages, gives helpful advice, lets me question and process, and provides incalculable perspective.

We ran into (ok, walked by) Ellie’s new basketball coach and his family at the annual Thanksgiving Run for the Hungry in our town. Guess who welcomed in children and adopted through foster care for years? Yep. Them.

Other gifts stack up like so many packages, each one unwrapped with gratitude. We landed a compassionate, competent primary care provider, a fantastic foster family immediately responded to my plea for respite care while we are out of town right before Christmas, and our baby boy started daycare without a hitch. My SLP friend Nicole covered my absence from work, making possible the unexpected gift of staying home with baby boy for his first six weeks.

Just as if I had actually given birth, many dear ones sent meals, clothes, baby gear, messages, gifts, and encouraging words and prayers.

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For months we prayed, along with our closest family and friends, that our first foster placement would be the right fit for our family and we would be the right family for that child. I wasn’t picturing a newborn, but he was our first call and it seemed right.

Which is surprising. My friend Annie once half-jokingly introduced me to someone at church as a mom who only started enjoying motherhood when my children learned to read. I shrugged, agreeing with her analysis.

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So we fit our family around this tiny bundle who upends everything as babies do. It’s hard, smelly, tiring, and emotionally weird. But I’ve also pulled out a nice stack of old favorite board books, we’re smiling and laughing more, and widening our little circle of family.

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He is a gift.

For as many days as we have him, we are altogether his, love pouring in to all of us in ever increasing measure.

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Thankful Thoughts 2015

You know it’s getting close to Thanksgiving break when you start talking smack to a 5th grader about how your stuffing tastes better than his mom’s stuffing, instead of giving constructive feedback about his production of /s/ in the word “stuffing”.

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It’s Wednesday morning, and the kids and I are lounging around in our PJs. Ellie is snuggled up on the couch with Calvin and Hobbes, Jack is listening to a Christmas station on Pandora and playing with Snap Circuits. John’s working a half-day from home. I am sipping some eggnog coffee and having some Thankful Thoughts before the potato peeling begins.

Here is what comes to mind:

  • 15 years of marriage to a guy who gets better every year, who says and does hard things because they are right and good, and who adores me with a steadfast love that is more than I deserve. He is strong, smart, funny, thoughtful, trustworthy, and kind. Love him.

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  • Thousands of hugs and conversations and poignant and mundane moments with Ellie and Jack. These two color my days, shape me, delight me, and send me running to my compassionate Father.

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  • Our four parents who have learned the art of parenting adult children well. They give generously, encourage without criticism, love unconditionally, and are transitioning to a new stage of life with humility and grace.

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  • Our neighborhood elementary school. Five mornings a week I drop off my kids at its front door knowing that they are being received by a caring and competent staff. I am thankful that they welcome me in, too. Spending a few hours cutting and copying paper, stapling and removing staples, helping 2nd graders read and practice math facts, and sitting on uncomfortable cafeteria benches unexpectedly delights me every week. Ellie and Jack get their brains and their hearts filled up in this building – what more could I ask for?

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  • Andy, Heidi, Elias, and Johnny, who moved to Washougal! We love having our family close enough to pop back and forth for bonfires, Saturday breakfast, tool swapping, kid swapping, and Angry Orchard brother counseling sessions.

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  • A new baby in the family! I’m so excited about the new niece or nephew growing in my sister.
  • My friend Tanya, who nagged me every Tuesday at work for four months before I finally agreed to exercise and hold her accountable to exercise three times a week. I hadn’t exercised regularly in almost 20 years, and while I was perfectly satisfied with the size of my jeans, the flesh underneath was rather wimpy and squishy. We started last April, and thanks to Jillian Michaels being “totally committed to making me stronger” and imploring me to “show up for my own life”, I have miraculously kept up with at least a twice weekly 20-minute exercise routine (stunning, I know). I still hate it Every Single Time, but I like that my abs and thighs can theoretically pass the “quarter test”. Thank you, Tanya, and thank you, Jillian.

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  • Speaking of friends, this hard core introvert is bowed-down thankful for the many relationships that enrich my life – too many to describe here. I think of my friend who lives five minutes away and, according to the children at our kids’ school, is my twin. Sometimes my house is a wreck, my face is without makeup, and my attitude is stinky, but I am just glad she’s coming over. She gives me “parenting fail” high-fives, and we laugh and intellectualize and agonize over the same things. Our husbands and kids are kindreds too, and every last conversation we have inevitably turns toward Jesus.
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After nagging me for three years, John and the Kellars finally got me backpacking. Thankful for friends who wear you down for your own good.

  • These two families who fill up their vans and drive over to our house two Sundays a month. The six of us adults and our 10 kids eat dinner together, clean up together, pray together, disciple each other, drink tea together, and laugh together.

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  • I have brothers and sisters scattered across the globe who have richly colored my heart. Pablo, Sarah, Johny, Rosadite, Liz, Mercy, Lorna, Janet, Bassam – you are my heroes and sometimes I can’t even believe the grace that has allowed me to share a bit of my life with yours. jenae and mercy

A friend said something like this to me this week: “wouldn’t it be nice if we could just know that everything will turn out ok?” I have been painfully reminded this year, this week even, that the future we imagine for ourselves is uncertain, and each day is a gift. I am thankful for the hope I have in Christ, and that God has given me eyes to see his good gifts and people to share them with. I am thankful for the heroes out there who live life well, no matter how many days or dollars or healthy cells they have.

Finally, I’m thankful for Ree. Because of her, my stuffing is going to be awesome tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Water, Earth, Fire, and Books

Despite being an educator and loving pumpkin spice coffee, I just can’t get into fall. I have friends who get positively giddy over freshly sharpened Ticonderogas, a new box of crayons, chai tea concentrate, and scarves, sweaters, and boots. (You know I love you guys and I forgive you for blasting my social media feeds with these unpleasant images when I’m just trying to savor August.) Don’t they know what those items mean?! The end of summer!

I think I’m missing the organizational/schedule-loving/fall-fashion gene that these friends have. My personal preference is the summer routine of: optional breakfast, eat lunch whenever, warm skin=happy heart, library=good-enough-education.

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But back-to-school activities commenced, I willingly participated in 18 hours of teacher inservices, and so many cute first-day-of-school pictures popped up on Facebook, so I succumbed.

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I will step into fall (even though it’s not fall for 21 more days) and look for the good and lovely. But not before I give thanks for summer.

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This summer was just the best. I already told you about Kenya. The best. 

This summer had so many books. The four of us together read 90 books. So many adventures, new places, belly laughs, and interesting ideas.

Here were our favorites:

Jack: Capital Mysteries: Trapped on the DC Train by Ron Roy; Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar; The Golden Statue Plot by Geronimo Stilton; Marvin Redpost: A Magic Crystal? by Louis Sachar

Wayside School is Falling Down

Ellie: Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren; Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; Mattimeo by Brian Jacques

Ronia the Robber's Daughter

Jenae: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; For the Love by Jen Hatmaker; Clay, Water, Brick by Jessica Jackley; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (ESV)

For the Love

John: Selections from the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian; Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Master and Commander

Favorite Read Aloud: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks

This summer was hot for the Pacific Northwest, and we enjoyed so much cool, lovely water.

We visited Mason Lake, where my grandparents live. We swam, paddled, dipped toes, and let the sun warm and tan our skin. We ate big dinners with my family, and tried to distract the kids from my grandpa’s Fox News reports about ISIS and Hillary’s emails. My mom’s cousins took us out on their boat and John got to wakeboard for the first time in 15 years, and Ellie got a personalized lesson from an expert.

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We read books.

Clay Water Brick

We hiked down the trail to the Washougal River countless times, with friends, family, and by ourselves. We searched for agates, petrified wood, crawdads, and minnows. The kids swam a lot, I swam a little. I mostly read books.

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Chike and the River

We took a day trip to the beach on a deliciously warm day with little wind. We picnicked, dug in sand, and John and the kids splashed and jumped over waves. I read a book.

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Conscience and Courage

We hiked longer distances and more treacherous trails than we ever have before as a family of four (and unabashedly bribed the children with Skittles).

hiking 2During some bits, I made John walk between Jack and me so I wouldn’t have to watch my seven-year-old blithely stumble along narrow, rocky paths hugging cliff-like drop-offs (John is used to me transferring all anxiety producing encounters onto his plate of responsibility). We listened to a book on the long drive home.

The Surgeon's Mate

All that dry, hot weather had consequences, unfortunately. August ended, as all of us in Washington and Oregon know, with record-breakingly huge wildfires. John works for the Forest Service and is trained to set-up and maintain radio and communications equipment for fire teams, so he was out on an Oregon fire for the last half of August. We missed him, but felt so proud of our man who worked 17-hour days, slept in tents, and ate…(I’m not sure what he ate, other than it was in large quantities), working hard to protect homes, buildings, and wild land.

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John became known as The Guy With Books In His Truck, and gladly loaned out his Patrick O’Brians and Wendell Berrys.

Our Only World

We are now obliged to bid farewell to summer routines, but water, earth, fire, and books (air for the soul, if I may) will linger into fall. Wildfires are still raging, not really caring that school has started and fire-fighting dads need to be around for after-school pickup two days a week. We’ll sneak in a back-packing trip with some friends over Labor Day weekend, hammering pegs into the earth and snaking along trails. September always gives us a few sunny, warm days sure to find us at the river. And teachers tend to be fans of books, so fall bodes well in the reading department.

Tiger Boy

I’ll buck up and start making lunches, writing IEPs, and monitoring homework again. I won’t mourn my fading tan. Just please don’t tell me you want to be cold and wet so you can use your wood stove and wear boots and sweaters again. You’ll have October, November, December, January, February, March, and April for all of that nonsense. Let me ease into fall in my September flip-flops and fair fahrenheits. Then, I’ll be ready to join you in celebrating pumpkin spice coffee, a cozy fire, and of course, a good book.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Dryden Family Hawaii Vacation

One afternoon at my parents’ house, I was sharing some observations and concerns about one of my children. We had a nice long talk, the length and level of detail only moms and sisters can understand, and many helpful and caring comments were shared. There was also this: “Well, [your child] is a Dryden, you know.” As if that explained a great deal. We laughed. But, it actually does.

Drydens are special, as a certain Dryden uncle is fond of reminding us on an almost weekly basis during Wednesday Night Dryden Family Dinner.

As of this week, I have been a Dryden for exactly 15 years. And for the record, they have been 15 wonderful years and I wouldn’t ever wish for a different family-by-marriage. A couple weeks ago, I got on a plane with nine other Drydens for our first ever family vacation to the Hawaiian islands.

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It is quite a marvel that we went to Hawaii at all. Drydens typically vacation close to home in one of many beautiful Northwest locales. One Dryden doesn’t particularly like being in water or being too hot. Drydens are frugal, or at least very deliberative about vacation spending. Hawaii was an unanticipated and much-celebrated vacation pick.

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Deliberative being a key word, we are terrible decision-makers, often getting bogged down in details and pros and cons, and we are exceedingly concerned with each family member’s needs and desires. We worry and consider unforeseen (by more carefree types), unlikely, negative outcomes. Fortunately one of the Drydens eventually cut through the circuitous deliberations and made a decision. And booked flights that same night.

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Once we were past the point of no return, the matriarch sprung into action. Careful planning is her forte. Vacation rentals were perused and analyzed, emails flew back and forth across the Pacific, and sleeping arrangements were discussed. A meal planning chart was distributed and lists were made. Photo opportunities were planned. I simply surfed the wave of Dryden preparedness, confident my landing in Oahu would be comfortable.

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And comfortable it was. We landed in a small town on the northeast shore of Oahu, in a large house with the sandy beach and warm waves in the backyard, and a huge grassy expanse in the front, exceeding our expectations in every way. The Drydens settled in and did their thing.

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First things first. The Dryden men scanned the rental house for structural integrity:

“Do you think this is a load-bearing wall?”

“Check out this beam.”

“They must have different earthquake regulations here.”

The children found and tested each and every fan, light switch, and mattress. The women surveyed cupboards for staples such as flour, sugar, oil, and soy sauce. Once that was settled, swimsuits came out of suitcases and untroubled island enjoyment commenced.

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Drydens are eloquent. They don’t just see cool fish. They see stunning, multi-colored aquatic life. They don’t admire palm trees and green mountains. They delight in the varied vegetation and topography. For some Drydens, to feel something is to put it to words: “I am glad I am a thrill-seeker. It is so worth it” (Ellie Dryden, age 8). The youngest Dryden announced each sighting of water, birds, and lights, repeating himself with increasing loudness until another family member acknowledged his observation with adequate excitement.

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Drydens are thankful. Following decades of practice, voicing gratitude comes as naturally to the senior Drydens as reading informative articles and making popcorn (which, in case you were wondering, are favored Dryden activities, vacation or otherwise). These two give thanks for every little thing, even when they are the ones who should be thanked in the circumstance:

“Thank you for waiting!” (after she returns the shopping cart)

Thank you for coming with us to Hawaii!” (their generous gift to us)

Their modeling has rubbed off on the next two generations. Little thank-yous were voiced by the 4-, 6-, and 8- year-olds (and probably less frequently by the 30-somethings) for treats, games, story reading, and sand castle assistance.

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Drydens love God and love each other. The vegetation and topography around us were made more beautiful by delighting in the Creator and enjoying it together. As we gathered again on Christmas Eve, back on the continent in the cold Northwest, we perused vacation photos and catalogued the attributes of God made evident in what we experienced on the island. We loved cooking together, reading together, swimming and snorkeling together, eating shaved-ice together, and talking (with big words, of course) together. We gave thanks for our children’s strong, healthy bodies and their enjoyment of new experiences.

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The Dryden Family Hawaii Vacation was a smashing success. It was a week of paradise, made even more lovely by the people who enjoyed it together, who are knit together with all of our idiosyncrasies and strengths by God’s hand. Thank you, Drydens, for this gift.

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7,430 Thankful Thoughts

There is a poster on the wall of a 4th grade classroom at York that caught my attention a couple years ago:

Watch your thoughts; They become words.

Watch your words; They become actions.

Watch your actions; They become habits.

Watch your habits; They become your character.

Watch your character; It becomes your destiny.

The message is both unsettling and hopeful – the idea that thought upon thought, action upon action can build into something as momentous as character and destiny. It makes me wonder, what kind of words and actions are on repeat around here?

The last few years I have been trying to foster the practice of gratitude. Knowing what the Bible, what research, and what wise, joyful people I know have to say about the positive impacts of gratitude gave me plenty of motivation to work on this.

In Ann Voskamp’s blog and her subsequent book, One Thousand Gifts, she described a challenge someone gave her to chronicle one thousand gifts in her life – things she was thankful for. The book is the outcome of that practice. She discovered that giving thanks for the life she already had – from the mundane, to the beautiful, to the hard and ugly – caused joy to invade heart and pointed her to God’s grace.

Four years ago this month, I started keeping my own list of thanks. I had already established the habit of rising every morning at the same time each day, before the rest of my family. Along with my cup of coffee, Bible, and prayers, the numbering of thanks began to repeat, day after day. I would reflect on the previous 24 hours, and as events, people, things, and words flashed by, I’d recognize the goodness they added to my life, and gave thanks to the Giver. I wrote them down, starting with number one.

After a short amount of time, I started noticing the gifts while they were happening instead of just remembering them the next day and realizing they were gifts. I’d hear little words and phrases spoken between my kids and delight in them. I’d see a pile of laundry overflowing and thank God that my family is always amply clothed. I smiled when I realized that we were out of milk because I knew how easy it was to hop in the car and pick up a gallon at the store.

When my life looked and felt like this, I could give thanks:

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This is not an uncommon scene in my kitchen. Why don’t I close cupboard doors? One of life’s mysteries. And in case you’re wondering, that is a bird’s nest in a tin pan in the bottom left corner.

My messy house, my chattering children, my husband, home later from work than I anticipated, were all numbered in my journal, and gratitude and joy slowly pervaded my character.

As of this writing, I have logged 7,430. Four years of counting and thanking, sometimes two or three a day, sometimes long lists, some days skipped entirely. Number 7,430: “John and Ellie exercising in the kitchen.”

Over the years, I have also attempted to cultivate gratitude in my kids, but honestly, it’s hit and miss. We have written things we’re thankful for on cut-out leaves and hung them on a tree, we have written things on cute post-its and stuck them on the window, I have encouraged my insomniac daughter to think of 20 things she is thankful for while trying to fall asleep, and when my son was having some rough days at school I encouraged him to hold up his hand, fingers spread and count five things he is thankful for whenever he felt sad. Extended family members joined the conspiracy and designed a game around the dinner table, seeing how quickly we could list 64 things we are grateful for (five minutes). I still hear a lot more grumbling than thanksgiving from my darlings’ mouths, but hopefully they are hearing the opposite ratio coming from mine.

I love that we have a holiday whose very name forces us to think about gratitude and the giving of thanks. Like New Years, this is a good time to begin or renew a pattern of thoughts, words, and actions that form a habit and cultivate character. Plus it’s just plain good for the soul and the souls of those around you.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18