To My Sweet 16 Baby Girl

In some ways, I can’t believe this day has arrived. In other ways, it has been a long time coming. You have been growing and changing and forming and challenging and pushing and loving and doing all sorts of other -ings as you are becoming the grownup you are meant to be. And I’ve loved nearly every minute of it. Well, at least a solid 80% of it. 🙂

A few years after having your brother, I remember thinking how much I wanted my second child to be a girl. I am not suggesting that your brother was a disappointment though I know that is how you would like to interpret it. I always figured I would have two kids and I unapologetically wanted one boy and one girl. Since my boy was already present and accounted for, I longed for a girl. With a 50/50 chance of that happening, I decided to wait until I was ready for whatever gender the baby turned out to be. That took about two additional years.

Finally the time arrived where I felt ready for child number two, any child. I was feeling pretty nonchalant even about getting pregnant. “If it happens, it happens” I remember thinking, and actually meaning it. Consequently, thanks to the flu and a few other factors, I didn’t realize I was pregnant until 11 weeks along.  What a gift to learn of your presence just as the fun part of the pregnancy was beginning. No longer was I suffering from morning sickness or fatigue, which I had mistaken for ongoing flu symptoms. I was carrying my second child.

I felt pretty relaxed about the pregnancy. I was also keenly aware of each milestone. I had taken those milestones for granted when I was pregnant with your brother. Six years later and having witnessed the loss others had experienced, I was more aware of what could go wrong. This didn’t make me nervous. It made me grateful. Each milestone felt like a gift. At the ultrasound appointment, the tech checked off her list. Everything about you was looking good, healthy and on track. I was thrilled. She then looked at me and asked, “Do you want to know the baby’s gender?” “Yes” I said as I held my breath. I knew that I really would be happy with whatever your gender was because I had learned you were healthy and well. “It’s a girl” she said. And I began to cry. “Are you sure?” I asked in disbelief. “Yes” she said.

When you arrived, on your due date no less, the doctor announced, “It’s a girl.” “Are you sure?” I asked, with tears filling my eyes. “Yes” she said. You were cleaned, wrapped, and placed in my arms. I know I loved you from the moment I learned of you. But that love was sealed the moment I saw you. My sweet little girl had arrived.

And now here we are 16 years later.

Liv & me

We’re both older and maybe a bit wiser. And I can’t imagine life without you. I’m not sure why my longing for a daughter was so strong. Maybe it wasn’t  just for a baby girl, but it was for YOU my heart longed. I have treasured the time I have had with you. I look forward to your transition into adulthood, needing me less as a parent and hopefully enjoying me more as a companion. You make me laugh and cry. You have turned some of my hair grey. But they provide some nice highlights in my darkening blonde hair so I don’t mind. Thank you for being you. And happy sweet 16!

Love,

Mom

Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,

Jen

Battling Time and Losing

My oldest child recently graduated from college. While collecting my thoughts on paper to share at the celebratory dinner, I thought a lot about time. Part of my toast included these words:

I somehow understood at a young age that there was something deeply profound about this thing we call time. Time marches on, whether we like it or not. It does not slow down and it does not speed up, but rather keeps a steady beat that can often feel monotonous. We are lulled into passivity until suddenly jolted awake when we realize that time has not been our friend. As a parent, this lesson is all the more profound. While I see this adult before me making decisions about career, love, and future, I wonder where my little boy went. I picture my towheaded companion who made me laugh often, impressed me with his questions, and trusted deeply. Memories flood my mind making it hard to breathe. Tears come easily. I feel as if I am trying to hold something so precious, essentially your childhood, and yet it slips through my fingers but doesn’t disappear. Is this a game and I am simply its pawn? Or is what I am trying to hold too sacred to be contained?

Time has stayed on my mind. In addition to looking back, I have looked ahead at some changes coming my way. Time will soon become significantly more structured. I will lose much of my flexibility and free time. Time is becoming an enemy as I anticipate the battle to get everything done while somehow managing to not lose myself in the process.

I love time when it merely marks the hour of the day, letting me know when I should wake or when to have a glass of wine. But I hate time when it acts as a stopwatch, forcing me into a race. Even as I type, my heart rate speeds up anticipating the effort it will take to defeat time. And I know I will lose. Time always wins. Always. Yet my mind keeps trying to come up with a new battle plan.

I wonder what the days would be like if I thought of time as a musical beat. I wonder what would happen to my stress if instead of seeing time as an enemy, I instead saw time as something with which to keep in step. I’ve learned this lesson regarding the seasons. While the end of winters can be difficult, I know to give the earth time to complete the cycle of death, dormancy, and cold so that spring might be all the more filled with new life. Equally the end of summers can be long. That last stretch of heat and humidity in late September is tedious after having tasted fall and its cool, crisp days. While I still might complain, I have learned that soon enough I will miss the heat and the strength of the sun in the winter days, just as I miss the cold and freshly fallen snow in the summer days.

Days will be long and things I want to do will not all get done. Yet time will bring another day. Maybe the question isn’t, “Did I get everything done?” but rather “Did I stay present and focused throughout my day?” If I can remain calm and breathe deeply, I have the ability to prioritize and decide. I have practiced this already as a mom. I was dedicated to being present and enjoying my kids. That is not to say they did not drive me crazy (they did) but I learned how to take care of myself so that I could also take care of them. I learned how to step back when I needed a break and when to step in so as to not miss something important. I need to not feel the compulsion to be superhuman but rather to be a good human. Time is not my judge and jury. My compulsion will still be to battle time. But I think it is time to stop fighting and simply to dance with it.

Do I Want You To Succeed?

 

This is an interesting question, if you give it some thought. Often I think the knee-jerk reaction is to say “Of course!” But when we stop and consider other factors, maybe deep down that’s not actually true. Think of someone who has hurt you. Or someone who you are a little jealous of. You appreciate his/her talents, but maybe he/she is just a bit more talented than you. So while you cheer them on publicly, quietly you are hoping for a little bit of a stumble that causes a dose of humility. There is the person who is seemingly smarter, more attractive, more successful, thinner, or has better stuff. There is the person who appears to have the perfect life, the best vacations, the largest 401k, or tremendous luck. You might enjoy that person and want to spend time with that person, but there is also just a hint of resentment too. And then there is the person who you keep helping, but seems to give very little in return. And you wonder if the relationship will ever feel equitable.

I was recently thinking about a person whom I like but have struggled with. I was questioning how much I would continue to invest in the relationship. And while in the midst of answering this very logical question of my time and energy, an entirely new question popped into my head like a poorly thrown bowling ball onto the lane. “Do I want you to succeed?” The answer, I knew almost intuitively, was “I don’t know.” Because the perceived right consequence is really what it is all about, isn’t it? Have you suffered enough? Have you paid the cost for your past behavior? Should you really be let off the hook and allowed to move forward?

Upon reflection I began to see how I would have the opportunity through our interactions to either help this person succeed, or through skeptical eyes wait for this person to fail. While I might not directly contribute to the person’s failure, I most certainly would not be contributing to the opportunity for success. I strongly advocate for the need of healthy boundaries so I am in no way suggesting we be doormats. But I realize that even with my boundaries in place, there is the opportunity to be kind and loving. Ultimately each of us is responsible for our own behavior. But there are people in our lives who help us to be our best selves, and there are people in our lives who make that more difficult. I want to be the former, and not the latter.

For our Ash Wednesday service at church, we read a buddhist meditation that has four parts. It is read in first person. Then it is reread thinking of a loved one. It is read a third time while thinking of those you encounter but don’t really know. Finally it is read while considering someone who has caused you suffering. Here are the words, using a second person pronoun:

May you be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

May you be safe and free from injury.

May you be free from anger, afflictions, fear and anxiety.

 

May you learn to look at yourself with the eyes of understanding and love.

May you be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in yourself.

May you learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in yourself.

 

May you know how to nourish the seeds of joy in yourself every day.

May you be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May you be free from attachment and aversion, but not indifferent.

The words are quite powerful as you go through them and consider the various people in your life. Sure, the words inspire as you ponder your self-image. And the sentiments are wonderful as you think of those you love. But what about the person behind the cash register who seems to take forever? What about the co-worker who relishes the opportunity to prove you wrong? And what about the person who has hurt you? Are you able to read and mean these words? I am not called to fix or even be in the life of that person. But the meditation calls me to wish for the person to succeed, and by that I mean to love and be loved, to find contentment and purpose and good mental health.

I will read these words and imagine those (yes, unfortunately there is more than one) I have some resentment towards. I will read them at first, probably not meaning a damn word. But as I have learned in the past, change occurs as a practice leads me away from one way of being and towards a better way of being. I will be more aware of how I might be impeding success for one, and how I might help success for another. And in doing so, regardless of the outcome, I hope to be a better person for doing so.

 

 

To My Officially Middle-Aged, Sometimes Grumpy Husband

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Dear Jeremy,

Last year I finished the year by writing a letter to my dear friend I had lost earlier that year. It was cathartic and painful, reflecting while looking ahead. I have reread that letter several times because the reflection continued beyond the letter’s inception. Because of how valuable I found that process to be and because another year is coming to an end, I thought it would be good to once again close out the year by writing another letter. It didn’t take me long to choose its recipient. (Aren’t you feeling lucky right about now?)

2015 has been quite a year for us. Our oldest child turned 21. Our youngest child finished her first year of high school. We celebrated 25 years of marriage. You turned 50. We said painful goodbyes to four pets. We welcomed two new pets into our home. We sorta planned an anniversary getaway, only to instead send our son to Rome for a trip of a lifetime. Wow, what a year.

While the milestones easily come to mind, it is all the ordinary days of 2015 that probably had a more cumulative impact. It is the way in which we do life together – talk, argue, laugh, cry, love, ignore, listen, scream – that built the foundation upon which our milestones stand. Sometimes we worked together seamlessly. Other times not so much. On occasion you carried me. Other times I carried you. But we kept going. We kept talking. We kept working things through no matter how hard the work got. Well, except for the times we took breaks from working because we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. But we always came back.

What I have learned from 25 years of marriage is that a healthy marriage isn’t about being happy or having great chemistry or partnering well together, although those things are great. A healthy marriage is one that weathers all weather together, storms included. A healthy marriage requires the efforts of both involved. It would be easy for you to enable me, or me to enable you. And I’m sure we do that somewhat. But I love that you call me on my shit. That we can walk away angry and live with the discomfort for awhile. That we have gone to counseling when we needed it. That we still have so much fun together. That our marriage isn’t about a pretty exterior, but a rich, deep, complex, and real interior. Our marriage is as imperfect as we are. Maybe that right there is the point…

Thank you for putting up with my penchant to challenge. Thank you for tolerating my profanity. I don’t want to thank you for all the sports stories you share, but I do want to thank you for wanting to share them with me. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for always loving me. Thank you for liking me on most days. Thank you for being my biggest supporter. You can thank me for putting up with your occasional grumpiness, although now we know it’s a serious disorder. While our differences are often part of the challenge of doing life together, I now celebrate those differences because of the depth and breadth they have have carved out within my sometimes stone heart.

For 2016, I hope to be kinder and gentler towards you. I hope to be more grateful and less critical. I marvel at where we have been and I am excited by where we will go. While a shirtless Hugh Jackman might catch my eye, you, Jeremy, have my heart. Happy New Year!

With love,

me

A Warmongering Faith

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

This is the latest beatitude I have been studying for a series at my church. Peacemaking is the idea of standing in the gap between two sides, recognizing that the separation between the two sets of people isn’t good for any of the people. The peacemaker believes that by standing in the middle, one might have the ability to help build reconciliation.

The cornerstone of peacemaking is grounded in the belief that all people have value. Not to say that all opinions have equal or even any value. But the hope nonetheless is that despite the divided opinion, a connection can still be made through the humanity we all share. However, taking sides is much easier. And when you choose to not take a side, you often piss off both sides. In spite of the challenges and even the alienation, the peacemaker remains committed to reconciliation.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are children of God.

The benefit for those who dedicate themselves to peacemaking is being given a place of belonging. Children of God – is there a better family in which to call your own? Yet in the name of belonging, Christians put the cart before the horse by claiming the belonging without ever doing the work of peacemaking. The latest example is Starbucks’ holiday cup. Some Christians have waged war against the company for removing the sacred symbols of snowflakes. But look back and you will find plenty of other examples where Christians have waged war. Whether a concept, an organization, a corporation, legislation, presidential candidates, political convictions, money, physical appearance – I mean seriously, the list goes on and on. Christians are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

While I am all for living out one’s convictions, where did the notion of waging war become acceptable? What makes us Christians in this country think we are persecuted? You cannot claim persecution while being part of the majority. When did we as Christians lust for conflict? I believe this occurs when a religion and a political infrastructure become deeply intertwined, or in other words a theocracy is revered and pursued. Theocracy is the idea that a system of government is able to rule on behalf of God. Who do you know that could do that? Who would you trust to speak for God while having incredible resources at his or her disposal?

I’m pretty sure God is not American, nor has any interest in joining our team. And evidenced by our lack of peacemaking, I believe we as American Christians are way off track. We cannot claim to be God’s if we are not doing the work of peacemaking. We do not belong to God if we are not working towards reconciliation. That involves the reconciliation of all people. All people. Gay and straight, black and white, Christmas-loving and Christmas-hating, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Muslim and atheist, and all the in-betweens.

As I have reflected on the consequences, a new study came to my attention. It found that children of both Christian and Muslim households are less kind and more punitive than children of non-religious households. Can we just sit with that for a minute? I won’t speak for the Muslim households, but I do feel compelled to comment as a Christian. While we wage war on all that offends us, we are raising offensive children. While we build a legacy that is largely based on what we don’t like, we leave little or no room for what we love. We are Christian warmongers, God help us.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

(Re)Learning Things About Me

I am at the beach with some loved ones. Here are a few things I need to remember about myself.

  1. I look impressively tan in the shower.
  2. I like to Facetime my pets when away from them.
  3. I need to be in a home with more rooms than people. Ideally bathrooms aren’t included in that count.
  4. I can sit on the beach for hours, but can only be in the water for 20 minutes at a time.
  5. I can eat nachos every day.
  6. I am not interested in talking with strangers. Once in awhile I am in that mood, but that is probably less than 10% of the time, and usually only lasts for a few sentences.
  7. Fellow passengers are not always interested in my pointing out wildlife no matter how enthusiastic I am.
  8. I am too old to pull off retro looks.
  9. I HATE mosquitoes and believe in hell because of them.
  10. I am incredibly fortunate to have a place like this to come to regularly.
  11. I am incredibly blessed to have the spouse I do who loves and supports all my idiocies/compulsions/dreams/Facetime-with-pets needs.

Party of One?

I am an introvert. No matter how wonderful you are, you wear me out. We can have a fabulous time together, but I am still going to need a break from you eventually. It took my spouse a long time to learn not to take this personally. Even the most wonderful people (like my husband) and the most enjoyable times (typically involving beer or wine and fabulous food) deplete me, and I need to be alone in order to refuel.

In spite of this, I learned a crucial lesson several years ago: I am a better human being having a network of people that I am close with, vulnerable with, honest with. While it felt counterintuitive at first, I knew it was true. Alone, I am limited to my perspective and prone to self-centeredness. With others, my understanding is broadened and my capacity to love increases.

If you are fortunate to have people around you who are willing to do the hard work of building, strengthening, growing your relationship, then do your best to keep those people in your life. Too often we let go because it gets to be too much work. Granted, there are times that we need to let go. But I wonder how often we let go too fast, only to then later wonder if we let go too soon.

I still need my alone time. I love going to a movie or dinner by myself. But I also need my together time. Party of one? Yes. Party of more? Most definitely.

Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.

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Blowing Up Mother’s Day

I had a wonderfully relaxing Mother’s Day. My oldest came home from college so both kids were there along with an attentive husband who took care of nearly all the day’s details. I relaxed. I received a beautiful gift. We ate. We laughed. We enjoyed being together. Or at least I enjoyed being with them. I didn’t ask if they enjoyed being with me because it was my day to not worry about what they wanted or needed.

While I indulged in being the center of attention, I couldn’t help but think of those I love who no longer have their moms around to hug or call. I found myself wanting to gather them together, to acknowledge their loss and give them the opportunity to say and do what they needed for this Mother’s Day. I wanted to do something fun with them to celebrate their moms. I wanted to laugh and cry and reminisce with them. But I didn’t want to invade their space or take from them what they needed in the day. Admittedly I can overdo something. It doesn’t take an elephant in the room for me to speak up. Even the anticipation of an elephant causes me to want to talk about it.

As I held myself back, I started to think about even the casual friends and acquaintances I know who no longer have a mom around. And I was surprised by how many there are. When did this happen? Why have I not thought of this before? As I processed my revelation, it wasn’t that I didn’t know. But I hadn’t thought what Mother’s Day would feel like for someone else.

What about the women who aren’t mothers but wish they were? The women who are mothers but with major regrets? The people with terrible mothers? The women and men who are mothers by way of their love and nurturing, but without the official title? The seemingly innocuous holiday began to scream out for more than a sweet card and dinner out. I found myself wanting to embrace the motherless, apologize to the abused, hold the unloved, laugh with the lonely, cry with the mourner, and celebrate with all the men and women who are surrogate moms. The mom in me wanted to do this not only for the children young and old, but for the moms who couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

While I am all for being celebrated, Mother’s Day isn’t just about me. It is for my family and extended family. It is for my friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Mother’s Day should be a celebration of love and support. It should be a reminder that family can emerge anywhere. Moms are so much more than biology, legality, or gender. I think it is time to blow up Mother’s Day.

Of course this could all just be in my head. I might be trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The good news is I have a family who loves me in spite of my crazy ideas. If I find myself hosting an open house next Mother’s Day, I’m sure they’ll go along, if only because it is Mother’s Day.