Summer Unaccomplishments

Things I eagerly ponder and plan in May and June, but by the first week of July I have already abandoned:

  1. Teaching my children how to weed, vacuum, dust, fold, mop, wipe down, scrub the right waySince during the school year I mostly just do it myself or let them make lazy efforts, thinking, “When we’re home together in July I’ll really buckle down on this.”
  2. Handwriting practice for Jack. Need I say more? image
  3. Encouraging my children to read copious quantities of “quality literature” carefully selected from multicultural/award-winning/vocabulary-rich/justice-loving book lists gleaned from a myriad of sources online and from books about books that I have actually purchased that sit hardly cracked on my bedside table. Instead: are they really still checking out Geronimo Stilton at the library? Yes.
  4. Listening to Ellie diligently master “Can You Hear the People Sing” from the also newly purchased “Les Misérables” piano book so we can awe her piano teacher in September. Instead, my family is listening to me diligently pluck out “Stars” until John says something like, “I think I can recognize that song now!”
  5. Touching each and every item in my house to determine if it “sparks joy” a la Marie Kondo, simplifying and purging until my heart and soul are light and free, and so that when the Foster Care Licensor comes to inspect our home, things won’t fall on top of her when she opens cupboards and doors.
  6. Re-reading “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo. Oh, the Foster Care archetypes I now recognize amongst its characters!

Adjusted Summer Goals:

  1. Sacrificially acquiesce to my mother-in-law’s suggestion of having Ellie to come over to her house once a week where she would teach Ellie how to clean her house and pay her for her efforts. Daughter getting paid to learn valuable life skills by a better teacher than myself = Win.
  2. Let 3rd grade teacher deal with Jack’s handwriting. Focus on teaching my nearly EIGHT-YEAR-OLD how to freaking tie his own shoes.
  3. Listen to quality literature via OverDrive and OneClickdigital library apps any time we’re in the car, which will be in copious quantities during our upcoming 3-week road trip. Already finished and highly recommend: “The Key to Extraordinary” by Natalie Lloyd, and “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg.
  4. Remind them to practice an old piano song once a day (or at least 3 times a week), if I remember, and if we aren’t having too much fun with other stuff.
  5. Handle, watching for joyful sparks, every item in my kitchen, closet, and MAYBE my bedroom. Procrastinate as long as possible, since Foster Care home inspection is likely still months weeks away.
  6. Watch “Les Misérables” with Hugh Jackman, taking no foster parenting tips from the Thenardiers. We will love like Valjean, forgive like the bishop, follow the WAC like Javert, and fight for the rights of our children like Marius! Jean Valjean

Already accomplished:

√  Go camping
√  Go to the beach
√  Play at the river at every opportunity
√  Eat dinner outside while listening to multicultural mixes on Spotify unless over 90 degrees or raining
√  Finish the library summer reading program
√  Bonfire with friends and cousins
√  Say “no” to all Sunday School volunteer opportunities

Also this:

√  Educational Opportunity at Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco, in which we discover that Lewis and Clark spent about a week at the mouth of the Washougal River (Cottonwood Beach), exploring up and down, hunting and catching fish. Upon our return home, we looked up their detailed journals from March 31, 1806 and found that yes, indeed, they did paddle up past our very spot of beach on the Washougal (named “Seal River” by the intrepid explorers)! Perhaps they stopped for lunch at our very idyllic pebbly shore! If the waters were low enough, maybe they stood upon our very stately jumping rock and did a little fishing!

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Yep, we’re pretty much killing it at summer.

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I Know You Will

My daughter and I are about to be separated for 16 days, by far the longest time we have spent apart these last nine years.

Ellie leaves first by heading off to Eagle Fern Camp – her first overnight camp experience. A couple days later, I leave for Kenya. One of the most difficult parts of my decision to travel to Africa was this departure from Ellie.

That is not to say that leaving my son Jack will be easy. After all, I will be gone during the last couple weeks of the Year of Little Boy, Six. He is a mama’s boy through and through, and I anticipate some tearful nights during those weeks. jack

But some children are tethered to us with stronger cords, not because we love them more, but because of the way they have made us wrestle – with ourselves, with them, with God. Ellie is such a child.

Within the first days of her life, we noticed that, if awake, Ellie was rarely in repose, but would arch forward  from her swaddled or buckled-in position with eyes wide open, earnestly taking in the world, gathering observations, making judgments, per se. The stimuli around her were like data to be mastered. After the first few weeks of newborn rest were over, daytime sleep was a battle to be conquered, and if she was vanquished (napping), at least she had the victory of not going down easy and staying asleep for only enough time to unload the dishwasher, change the laundry, and take two sips of coffee. ellie 6m

Then there was the feeding battle. Nursing Ellie was never an idyllic, bonding experience. Here’s a fun little rhythm we practiced: she’d cry to be fed, then cry as she waited for letdown (which was likely prolonged due to my stress over my stressed-out baby), then I’d cry, then she’d cry louder at my crying, then she wouldn’t sleep.

The first nine months were pretty much a blur. I remember thinking, how do women do this, all over the world, with so much more daily hardship than I have?

By 10 months, Ellie had gathered enough “data” to start using it to control her world in another way: Speech. Her favorite things were spoken in two syllable, repeating consonant-vowel strings: “Fa-fa” was “fan”. “Cah-Cah” was “clock”, looked for, pointed at, then enunciated with the assumed demand that her grown-ups repeat the word, looking at the favored item with appropriate excitement.

As any self-respecting speech-language pathologist/first-time mom probably does, I counted all my child’s words in preparation for her one-year checkup with the pediatrician. Ellie had 75 words. The count grew so rapidly after that, I stopped keeping track. When she was two and-a-half, during a particularly stressful moment in a parking lot, she astounded me by carefully verbalizing from the back seat, “I feel exhausted when you say those words to me.” Was she miraculously reading the Social Communication IEP goals I write for my students? Who knows.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to win arguments with children who were that clever with language and emotional manipulation at the age of two? ellie2 ellie 2

But here’s the thing: she is the girl I never knew I always wanted. She delights me with her interesting observations and conversations. She sees things so clearly and can discern and describe ideas I never considered. She is smart, brave, strong, and adventurous, #LikeAGirl.andy and ellie 1andy and ellie 2We love each other ferociously, even when we don’t exactly act like it. My relationship with her draws out both beauty and ugliness in me, which I can assign to their rightful places. Mostly, she has drawn me closer to Jesus, because he knows her and loves her in ways I can’t. Sometimes there are no books or google searches that will reveal answers to the questions I have about her, but Jesus leads me gently as I parent her and that is a comfort. ellie

Ellie listens to music as she falls asleep, and I recently bought her a CD by J.J. Heller called I Dream of You. Tears sprang the first time I listened to one of the songs, I Know You Will, because it put words to the kind of feelings and prayers our relationship triggers. It’s a hopeful song when you’re parenting a child who baffles, exhausts, and worries you, but who also carries a glow so bright you know she’s gonna shine like a city on a hill.

I know she will.

 

Little Boy, Six (and a Half)

Recently I spent a delightful evening at my sister’s house, celebrating our cousin, Anna, who was about to be married. Aunties, cousins, grandmas, sisters, and mamas – girls from five to 80-something – gathered and chatted and spoiled the bride-to-be as women do. I loved it. One of my cousins and I were talking with another cousin who has a six-month-old baby girl. This new mama shared some hard things she has discovered about motherhood, but then ended with, “I’m sure I will look back on these days and miss them.” My other cousin (who has two toddlers) and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Maybe.”

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To be completely honest, I don’t miss those days too much. Oh, there are moments when I glimpse tiny pudgy hands or remember rocking my babies to sleep that I feel a twinge of nostalgia. I also miss all those rhyming and lift-the-flap board books. But mostly, I’m loving the stage my kids are in right now.

A couple years ago, I heard the saying, “The days are long, but the years are short,” and wholeheartedly agreed. Now, the days and the years are flying by, and I want them to slow down. I’ve started feeling like I’m missing opportunities every day to speak love and truth into my kids’ hearts, so every night, I try to remember to tell them: You are the girl I always wanted. You are the boy I always wanted. ellie and jack walking

My youngest is six (and a half, if you ask him) and in first grade. He no longer gets rocked to sleep, although we do still read books before bed and he asks me to “lay down for one song” when we tuck in at night.

Last year, when Jack was in half-time kindergarten, he accompanied me on many grocery shopping trips. On one such outing, after Jack cheerfully chatted with me along the aisles, then helped me bag the groceries, then put them in the car, then buckled himself in his booster seat and started reading a book while I walked the grocery cart back, I thought, in a few months, he will be in school every day, all day. Just when he’s finally old enough to be a pleasant, helpful shopping companion, I lose him. And it happened. This year, I do all my grocery shopping on my days off when the kids are in school.

There is something absolutely dear and magical about little boys, six years old. For one thing, they don’t have big teeth yet. jack and diorama

This little guy’s mind is exploding with knowledge about the world, yet he still conjures imaginative possibilities, intertwining reality and fantasy. When Jack was three, his most favorite thing to do was don a black cap and dance around the living room with a broom to the song, “Step in Time”. He was a chimney sweep.

Now he becomes Luke Skywalker, light sabering his way through the Death Star full of storm troopers. Playing with Legos is accompanied by loud sound effects and intense dramas, and dozens of quickly assembled creations that cannot be thrown back into the bin (because they are like, real). Jack Jedi

Taking inspiration from Calvin and Hobbes, he recently found a big cardboard box and drew buttons and knobs and the word, “Duplicator” on the side. He climbed in and closed the lid over his head. When he emerged, he seemed genuinely disappointed that there was still only one of himself.

He still loves to dance. At my cousin’s wedding last weekend, he was a fixture on the dance floor from the time the music started until the bride and groom drove away. At one point, Ellie ran over to me, yelling: “Mom! Look at Jack!” In the middle of a particularly bass-thumping song, there he was, bouncing up and down on a groomsman’s shoulders, surrounded by 20-somethings dancing around them. “THAT WAS AWESOME!!!” he cried when he finally escaped the mob.

I observe six-year-old boy when I’m at his school, and I see him squirming on the carpet, in his chair, and in line. He touches or bumps into whoever is near him. Thankfully the other six-year-old boys understand, and usually it’s not violent enough to catch the teacher’s attention. ninja hands

School equals recess and PE and science experiments, and LOOOONG passages of time in between that involve pencils and much erasing. He still says things like, “I had to do a fousand fings for maff today,” and his friend might say, “We thwew the bock chips at wecess and got in twouble.” His second trimester report card included the telling comment: “Jack is a spirited young man….” When he gets home from school (or I get home from work), we meet with big, crushing hugs and sloppy kisses.

John and I typically get one these answers from Jack in response to “How was your day?” (He is uncannily clever about preemptively striking follow-up questions):

1. My day was awesome. It was so good. Every single part of it was good, so I can’t tell you what was good about it.

Or,

2. I had the worst day in the universe. Well, maybe the worst day on earth. Don’t ask me what part was bad because every single part was bad. I can’t talk about it. 

These responses are characteristic of a boy prone to exaggeration and the use of sweeping generalizations to avoid unwanted outcomes (ie, long conversations about his school day). This tends to put him at odds with Dad and Sister who are diametrically opposed to hyperbole and can dissect an argument with the precision of a defense attorney.

Jack became an avid reader, and I can hardly tear him away from books about volcanoes, Calvin and Hobbes, and the Disaster Strikes series in order to introduce him to the delights of Beverly Cleary (“I know there is a girl on the cover, but I promise you’ll like it!”). Jack reading

He still has to be reminded most of the time, but he sets the table, puts away his laundry, practices piano, and picks up a room without help, and sometimes sings and dances while doing it. He practices ninja moves on the way to the bathroom and forgets what he went there for. He considers the consequences of war and decides that weapon stockpiling and mutually assured destruction are faulty constructs. He loves soldiers, but he can’t handle the thought of guns being used to kill living beings – human or animal.

He has innumerable quirks and habits. In 20 years, I wonder if I will remember his daily requests for “triscuits and cheese slices”, his abhorrence of wearing wet socks, a gross habit of wiping his constantly drippy nose (allergies) with the hem of his t-shirt, and his unshakable fear of entering a dark room alone. He measures people’s ages by whether they were alive during notable volcanic eruptions or earthquakes (so far he has met no one who experienced the destruction of Pompeii). When we come home and enter the house from the garage, he holds the door open for me, and walks up the stairs behind me.

Six-year-old boy daily perfects his role as a nuisance to Big Sister, but also repeatedly tells us how much he loves his family (even Ellie). In fact, love is his favorite word. When he talks about his love for God, me, and the stuffed cat and dog he sleeps with, his face squeezes tight as he flexes his whole body to show the fierceness of his emotion and devotion. jack and ellie walking

Poor Jack is a second born surrounded by assertive (bossy) first borns (Mom, Dad, Sister, little cousin “N” and little cousin “E”) who are used to wielding power and inspiring (commanding) respect. Jack has become a de facto middle child in our family gatherings, and sometimes people are surprised when he says something clever or demonstrates an accomplishment (Oh, yeah – Jack’s here, isn’t he?). cousins pi day

He never fails to make us laugh. Dad and Jack laughing

He really wants to be a volcanologist when he grows up, but also is determined to only go to college for one day, then come back and live with me, so we’ll see how that turns out.

Oh, Jack, you are so wonderfully you I almost deleted this whole post because I can’t possibly put into words how marvelous you are at six. Jack - six

Ok, you were pretty marvelous at five, too.

Jack's School Picture

I’m pretty sure you will be marvelous your whole life long, because you are the boy I always wanted. But you already know that.

 

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:

mess

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

The Rest of the Story

Blogging is interesting. The blogger creates a picture of a life through a window that she designs. It is a dangerous business with pitfalls of pride, ignorance, dishonesty, and forgetfulness. She paints a scene of her life for others to see. The scene is revealed so that she can let a life that is normally hidden be exposed by light. But by necessity and by choice, not everything is shown.

A few days ago, John asked me when I was going to write another blog post.

“Hmm…I don’t know. When I have something to say.”

He then said a word that brought up a rush of scenes from the last few weeks. It was something that has dominated our conversations and prayers as a series of mountain and valley experiences have dotted the landscape of this season. I pushed back, arguing that privacy should be protected. But the word, which is actually a person, our child, kept bubbling up to the surface, forcing me to admit that there is more to the stories I have told here. I think I should at least make an attempt to tell more of the story, while at the same time protecting little people who are not given opportunity or choice to speak for themselves.

The period of weeks between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday were intense, calendar-wise and spiritually. We began the season of Lent with a “Rice and Beans Gathering”, chronicled here. We celebrated a year of God’s faithfulness to a refugee family from Iraq and his goodness to us in bringing us into friendship with them. John traveled to Haiti and came back with strengthened relationships and a confirmed sense of urgency for living life differently. The Thursday before Easter, after reading an idea for commemorating the Last Supper, our family washed each other’s feet and broke bread and drank grape juice to remember Jesus’ last night with his disciples before he died.

I don’t attempt to read minds and guess what others may have assumed about our family after reading those posts or hearing about those events. Probably, hopefully, very few assumptions were made. But I’m guessing that you did not imagine the words, demands, and complaints that bombarded us from the lips of our children during this period. You likely did not draw the conclusion that the heart of a child in our home would become harder toward the poor than we had ever seen before. You did not see a child skipping gleefully around the room while another was getting feet washed, shrieking about the joys of getting grape juice so close to bed time. You don’t hear the off-topic interruptions while John and I try to communicate important truths to them. You don’t see a child stuff bread into cheeks and slurp juice before I can even get the words out: “This is his body, broken for you.” You don’t hear the cutting remark while reading a passage out of the Bible: “Yeah, unless it’s all a lie.” After patiently painting a picture for her mind about the life of a little child in Haiti, you wouldn’t have thought that a few days later she would tell us that her greatest dream is to live in a mansion with 50 American Girl dolls and a big screen TV in her bedroom. Then there were the sometimes routine, sometimes intense-came-out-of-nowhere arguments, attitude, aggression, laziness, and selfishness that marred the “between” spaces of our days and weeks.

And that’s just the kids.

My house and my heart have been a mess. Can’t seem to get organized. Broken fasts, broken hearts, laundry piled for days. Hiding in my own house and head instead of entering into another’s. Neglecting to pray. Sharp words. Forgotten promises. Putting things off that really should be done. Working out of my own strength instead of his. Ingratitude. Judgmental attitude.

John and I have misread situations and missed opportunities and messed up. Our kids, like us, are anything but perfect. Those are important things to know about the rest of the story. I also think that part of what we are experiencing this season is a struggle that is not against flesh and blood. Shortly after John returned from Haiti, one of our pastors prayed for us. He prayed for protection and strength if spiritual attacks came, no, when spiritual attacks came. We squeezed each other’s hands, thinking about some of our recent pain and failures that seemed to drag us sharply down from intense highs or intentional obedience. A few hours after that prayer, we received news from Haiti that crushed John’s heart and sent him spiraling with questions and grief that still lingers.

This only captures some of what I can bear putting into words. It also leaves out many moments of laughter, beauty, and growth we have enjoyed this season. I’m not going to end this post with a hopeful summary of how the truth of Easter makes all things new and shines light in the darkness. I believe those things, but that’s not the point of this. I just thought you should know that there is always more to the story.

Don't let their cuteness fool you. I had to threaten to take away their Easter candy if they wouldn't stop shoving each other and squirming around.

Don’t let their cuteness fool you. I had to threaten to take away their Easter candy if they wouldn’t stop shoving each other and squirming around.

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