Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Heart... Out Loud!

Thanks to the Listen to Your Mother family for sharing so transparently and for making a space for my story.

What a humbling and amazing experience.
Follow this link to watch my 7 minute essay.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I watched this TED talk on a friend’s recommendation the other day, and I felt an almost irresistible desire to check myself into a psychiatric care ward (almost).  Her description of intimate, unguarded camaraderie among small groups of women, working together to untangle and rework the complicated threads of identity, wisdom, and human connectedness warmed me clear through!  Immediately, I sifted through the grains of my compulsion, searching for some special explanation, some kernel of clarity about what makes a self-help collective so attractive.  After all, don’t I have friends?  Good friends, even?  Dear, close, intimate, best friends who share hurt and hope in a regular rhythm?  I do!  And yet…..  

On my way to visit one of those friends, which followed hard on the heels of Glennon’s inspiring intrusion into my day, the acreage between pee-your-pants-laughter-and-tears transparency and real, nitty-gritty mental ward transparency sprouted words, and a little bud of an idea began to uncurl.  In case you haven’t yet watched the video (and you really should!), let me sum up the section that gripped me with this brief description:  Glennon drug herself and her sadness and her multi-valanced addictions to the admission desk of a psychiatric hospital and asked for help (asking for help – already a courageous step well to the west of my tight, bumbling, self-sufficient comfort zone).  The help arrived in circles, close circles of women sharing themselves (and not just their stories) with jarring unguardedness, a shedding of what Glennon describes as layers upon layers of Superhero capes – veiled and misnamed addictions meant to shield us from slamming headlong into other hearts.  Glennon’s friends were all broken people clinging to other broken people.  That’s all.

How can I get there?  Did you know (and, of course, you didn’t) that my daughter has recently started to ask me why my face contorts in a rapid succession of unrelated expressions after we walk away from “bumping into” a friend?  I never realized, until I fumbled through my explanation to Olivia, that I silently recap conversations with other people in their entirety (gestures and expressions included), looking for moments when I may have hurt or offended another person….or, sometimes, just trying to get an aerial view of the impression I may have left, the trajectory change that bumping into me may have caused.  Because we do, always, change one another’s trajectories.  I’d like to point to some noble impetus here, like a longing to touch lives for eternity.  More accurately, though, I just think I want to be famous.  I want to be known about (but not necessarily known).  I want to be thought of in a particular way.  “She makes my days better with her (insert one of the following here: wisdom, humor, perspective on child-raising, honest approach to faith, love).”  Yuck!  My cape, my filthy Linus blanket of a self-swaddling shield, is tattooed all over with my impression of other people’s impressions of me!  I am addicted to the illusion of approval!

On the evening of my second miscarriage, I became the last person in the United States of America to sign up for an account on Facebook.  It turns out, I am Mark Zuckerberg’s target demographic!  People can virtually “friend” and “like” me, and I can regularly check in to find out whether or not they do!  It’s like a whole new monogram on my raggedy cape!  (P.S. Zuckerberg may or may not be related to the person who named shiny little jewels of chocolate KISSES, playing right into my conflation of food with affection!  Marketing genius.) 

And in the interest of full disclosure (which seems to be the theme here), after penning that paragraph, I slipped quietly over to see if anyone had commented on a pathetic little apology post I made in one of my half-dozen facebook groups.  One person did.  I “like”d her. 

Let me shift (all the way!) back to my little revelation.  It turns out the fundamental quality that distinguishes Glennon’s therapy groups from my own roundtable friendships may well hinge on the incisive, permeating power of the sign hanging above the front door of the institution.  See, if everyone in the room knows that everyone else knows that everyone’s already broken, then why bother with an impression?  If I know that you know that I do secret and shameful things to my body or my heart or my mind…that I have not only bought into lies, but have carefully crafted them to appeal to and exacerbate my own fear, pain, and self-loathing, then we start at a very different place than Starbuck’s cool….we start at naked and unashamed (like the garden before the fall?).  See, I’m already here.  I’ve already “admitted” myself.  I know that the word “crazy” comes loaded with all kinds of pejorative pain (and I want to hurt exactly no one), but since pain is the tenor of this post (and because I just issued a prophylactic apology anyway), and since a single phrase changed my whole way of thinking about conversation, I’m going to change it’s inflection here by changing its context:  The only thing that could free people to speak together naked as they came is the disarming, unspoken acknowledgement that “after all, we’re all crazy here.”  All of us.

What if the people I love, all of them, have secret shame and untidy hearts and sullied minds and broken souls?  And what if I don’t need to leave an impression….just make a little space in the world, in my world, for other people to seep out around the seams of their own capes?  And what if I walk in believing that other people arrive expecting to do the same?  What if we begin with the assumption that, after all, “we’re all crazy here,” and proceed from there?  (And, then when people screw up and say or do scandalous, hurtful, thoughtless things….well, that’s because they’re crazy.  Since I am, too, I have plenty of room under my cape for such things and such people.  After all…..).

On that afternoon, after Glennon metaphysically stripped me bare, I made an experiment of her insight.  In a socially cumbersome moment, I went ahead and made myself all the way apparent with an open heart for whatever my friends (old and new) brought to our little round table.  Over and over, in my head (disassociated facial expressions notwithstanding) I repeated, “After all, we’re all crazy here,” each time loosening the thin ribbons of a hundred capes cinched tight around my throat.  I think, for ineffable moments of lung-filling conversation, we were, together, naked and unashamed – capeless, messy women blundering through life and motherhood….pulled over together at a rest stop on the curb of this superhighway for superheroes.  It was a delicious little respite, before I unfortunately veered almost immediately back between the white lines of illusion and approval.

As my awkward little Facebook apology moment signals, I have been mostly careening down the fast lane of acceptance for the last couple of intervening days….and I (of course) managed to blunder (again)….leaving an impression that I’d like to change….an impression from a conversation evidenced by a follow-up replay of a ten or fifteen facial expressions and gestures indicating what I said and what I might otherwise have said and what I would like to have said, etc.  I’m a sorry little superhero. 

I forgot to remember the sign hanging above the entrance door.  I forgot that, after all, we’re all crazy here. 

And I know that God’s grace covers my crazy better than any cape of my own invention, covers it by washing the word well away.  And I’m beginning to believe in a deeper way that He has given me these circles of friends to share this journey and not merely bump into one another along the path. 

In my home, I don’t think I’ve yet created a space where my kids and husband feel fully comfortable capeless.  It’s fits and starts of hopeful shamelessness, and then I set about “parenting” everyone.  Tomorrow, I want to carve grace above every door frame, making every room in this house completely safe for a handful of crazy kids to grow up and out a little more alongside their openly crazy mama.  I want to give love room to breathe, unstrangled by the “Well-behaved” capes they tie on to serve impressions that I expect them to leave…on my behalf.  I want to lay it out like a mat beside my front door…under a rack of hooks where people can hang their capes when they walk in.  I long for messy grace to come in and disrupt this death march of perfection, where we stomp to a cadence of lies decked out in stories to shield our souls.  I want “home,” for my kids (and for everyone welcome here), to be a garden where they can romp naked and unashamed.  I’m ready to give it a try.  After all….we’re all crazy here. All of us. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Learning the Mother Tongue

(This is the essay I shared at the Listen to Your Mother event last week. It feels even more vulnerable to post it here, without the podium to mediate! That said...)

Having nursed my two oldest children until they were practically able to write about the experience themselves, I was completely unprepared for the gauntlet of bottle-and-formula paraphernalia that adopting infant triplets would prompt me to run. In fact, when I first encountered a stiff-bristled nipple brush at Target, I involuntarily clutched my own breasts and gasped, “what woman would do that to herself!?” In time, I learned it was designed to scrub latex. This epiphany heralded the first in a long line of lessons that adoption would re-teach me about the language of motherhood.

When my first two cried out in colicky rage, I cried too, wondering why, at 3 a.m., they hated sleep so fiercely. At the same hour, six years later, I juggled three four-month-olds to silence a symphony of screams. This time, though, I half-smiled, awed by having been chosen to mother these miracles, grace deepened by my awareness that only tragedy and poverty could mobilize a love so deep, so radical, that I might be entrusted with these precious 3 a.m. tears.

During the mortal fatigue of one night-turned-morning with the triplets, it hit me how very chosen I had also been the first two times I’d walked this rut into the floorboards, and how very precious had been the tears. SHHH, shhhh, shhh, shhh, shhhh, I’d breathed out the mantra of maternity while I endlessly rocked and walked. Some nights, several minutes after I knew the trusting limpness of a baby asleep against my heart, I’d still softly shhhhh, shhhh, shhhhh. Maybe to quiet myself.

Did you know that every culture around the world makes some approximation of this sound to soothe a crying child? They say it’s an imitation of the sound of the mother’s heart as heard in utero. I love the thought that a mama’s heart is the elusive mother tongue of the world, the language that binds us all together. It was not my heart that first taught its cadence to three of my five babies, but shhhh, shhhh, shhhhh, my heart still lisps every time they get theirs broken. SHHHHH, shhhhh, shhhhh, I breath. There will be other games, other friends, other chances. My mama heart beats to siphon away their pain, to carry what I can, to quiet what I can’t.

When we initiated the process of adopting from Ethiopia, I wrote this unsendable letter to a mother whose love I will spend the rest of my life living up to, the mother whose heart would teach our babies the rhythm of peace.

Dear Mama,
I have been a pregnant woman, have caressed my swelling middle, humming private lullabies to a private baby growing quiet and secret inside of me. I have cherished the fluttery kicks that no one else could feel, and I have scrambled to share the forceful elbow rolls of a baby grown so cramped inside of me that every motion protrudes in tiny, visible waves. It is your face that I see, now, when I dream of my child, your pregnant laughing face. And I wonder. Do you imagine his future? Do you picture her face? Do you picture mine?
Your face beams out from a table of tangled statistics that explode in my heart. 
 Are you the one woman in 14 whose body will break in the final, heroic push to share life? Are you one of the millions whose hunger and pain have set your jaw with the hard hope that your baby (our baby?) must have more? Are you one of the uncountable many whose body will be wracked by malaria or HIV or diphtheria or typhoid or mumps (diseases I dreaded being vaccinated for in gradeschool)?
 Are you going to die? How can I dream of you, with your pregnant, laughing face, and pray for my baby to come home soon? What kind of person am I?

What kind of person are you? I wish I knew. I may not ever know. We are mothers, now, together. I wish I knew if you know that. Do you dream of me? Do you dream of the hope laid out before all of us? Or do you dream of nights watching your baby (our baby?) breathe? You are
my baby's mama. Love hovers just above all of my feelings about you and your pregnant, laughing face.
 My feelings ride lower, closer to the earth. We are mothers together, here on this complicated ground.
 You pay the price; I get the blessing. Is that what adoption is?
 I know that story. I learned it in Sunday school. But I have failed to honor God, again and again. I will not fail our baby. I will mother with all of my heart.

I finished that letter nine months to the day before Ayelech lay down her life loving our kids into this world. Over the past five years, I have sent it again and again, carried forward to heaven in every beat of my heart. Last year, God blessed me with two more babies, two babies that would only know my love as a heartbeat before flying home to heaven. The ache of my empty arms sometimes makes it hard even to hold the five impossibly beautiful children that still press in, close, for love. But in my sadness, I have imagined Ayelech, backlit by eternity, rocking my two little ones while I rock three of hers here, in this world where joy still wears barbs on its back and beauty still drags its rough belly through the mess we’ve made in our clumsy efforts at love. I imagine the day when I fly home to heaven; she and I will clutch each other’s hands and, laughing, share stories of children we both have learned to love. Or maybe, we will just fall into each other’s arms and whisper, in the language we both know best, shhh, shhhh, shhhh. Because, maybe the mother tongue is really the heartbeat of God, and we’re all still waiting to be born.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Disney Vacation Part 1: Making Ready for the Rodent

A few weeks ago, when my brother called to offer us the timeshare points that his family wouldn't be able to use before the mid-May expiration, Josh and I gratefully fell to examining our options. I'm thankful to my awesome brother and sweet sister-in-law for two reasons -- first, for the generosity of their gift and second, for the deadline. You see, Josh has been championing the idea of a family vacation since last May when, after months of estrangement and exhaustion in our collective pursuit of my Ph.D., four kind and qualified scholars finally signed The Paper. We all needed time away, he said, to reconnect and regroup. I knew that he was right, but somehow a family vacation seemed.....wasteful. Extravagant. Excessive. Love relies, though, on extravagant, excessive acts -- it's always impractical. It was time, he insisted, to wastefully, extravagantly love our kids in the insular environment of away-ness:) And what could be more extravagant and excessive than Disney World? Which is why, after perusing the timeshare list for less than an hour, we honed in on an Orlando resort and began making strides toward our first family vacation in more than a decade. (Last vacation, we drove baby Olivia to the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan for a long weekend of sand, sun, and sleeplessness.) Without the mid-May deadline, I think we would have procrastinated indefinitely; after all, impractical things are difficult to prioritize. But the 11th hour feel of an impending expiration date ushered me into my comfort zone -- my frenetic, relentless, whirlwind of a comfort zone! I swept into the homestretch of this sprint determined to celebrate my kids with a kind of epic specificity that they wouldn't soon forget.

I started my Equipping phase of this adventure armed with a broad net. After all, a LOT of people have taken families to the Magic Kingdom. I didn't want to re-invent the wheel, just grease it up and stick a few playing cards in the spokes. The morning after my brother's phone call, I saw the sunrise through screen-seared eyes in the wake of a night spent surfing the Disney web (which should, by the way, have it's own little suffix -- .dis or something! It's so sprawling!) My list of add-on extravagances began to take shape; I knew by dawn that I wanted us to wear matching shirts, mouse hats, and fanny packs. I am in no way kidding. The matching shirts bore the dual function of kitsch and practicality. If one of our little ones should slip away from us in the inevitable Disney crowd, my face would not necessarily be the one that a helpful stranger or uniformed worker might seek. BUT, if we were all wearing the same distinctively red, mouse-emblazoned top and Taye were to sift (disoriented by exhaustion) between the hundreds of legs entering the Hall of Presidents. And if, say, he wandered onto the Main Street of Disney proper while, back in the lobby of the Hall of Presidents, Josh and I were baptized by that wave of panic and vigilant clarity that wash over the first moments of realizing that neither parent knows where Taye might be, then it would be useful (hypothetically, of course) for the red shirt to act as a kind of signal. First, for the parent, whose frantic eyes can sweep a room for red in fractions of a life-long second and, then, for the preschooler who, bleary-eyed and afraid, can begin to look up and do the same. Finally, if some well-meaning stranger steps in to help, the home-made shirts can leave no doubt about a relationship that will become altogether clear when my Taye finally falls into my arms, sobbing with mingled fear and relief. All is well.

So, I found a site called CheapestTees and ordered our array of sizes (for less than $3 per shirt!) in crimson, green, and pacific blue and had them sent to my wonderful Mother-in-law's house, where Aunt Judy generously (do you see the theme of generosity peppered across this whole experience?) air brushed silhouettes of Mickey, an elephant, and an orca onto the chests. She also personalized five drawstring backpacks that I added to the order (free, after my shipping discount and additional 20% internet coupon!).

I quickly realized that the personalization element of extravagant love could not be extended to the backs of Mouse Ear Hats without hyper-extravagant expenditure. So, I switched gears, not yet ready to sacrifice the iconic souvenir. I found a set of official Disney ear hats on Ebay for around $3 apiece. They had been abandoned in layaway and were therefore new but deeply discounted.....because they already had names embroidered on the backs....other people's names. I bought them. For one entirely too-short week, we answered to the names of Christine, Joey, Sabnna, Evan, Hunter, Kathisson (that's Katherine in pink overstruck with Addison in yellow), and Paolo.

Here's the weird thing about the "Personalized" ear hats. Each kid read the name on the back, put on the hat smiling, and then called himself or herself by that name --- without asking any questions. Isn't that strange? They just rolled with it! Once we loaded into the van and donned our collective iconography, the kids just called themselves by the names on their hats without pursuing the obvious contradiction. No one said, "Why does this hat say Sabnna instead of Olivia? or Why are you calling me Paolo?" I have no explanation for this anomaly.

I enlisted the fanny packs to solve the two-pronged problem of an unwieldy backpack, annoyingly banging other (already irritable) people in crowded lines, invariably forgotten while stashed in the pick-up bin of a ride that doesn't accommodate luggage. I figured that a fanny pack on every hip, equipped with snacks and a clip-on, BPA-free, collapsible water bottle would solve all manner of problems. It did....some....and it created others. My fanny pack, which ROCKED, (can I just tell you how much I already love this sentence? :) came from the 50 cent bin at my favorite thrift store. I bought some fanny pack attachments on the same rack, but ended up sticking to the basics. First of all, my fanny pack is awesome because it has numerous compartments, some of them secret. Secret compartments are one of my two favorite attributes of anything. (Transformability is the other....but one cannot expect too much from a single fanny pack). My kids' fanny packs, on the other hand, came from the dollar spot at Target (as did a number of the Disney themed car activities that filled their personalized drawstring backpacks). While I am a huge proponent of dollar spots, I also realize that some items often sacrifice quality for the sake of profit margin. Two of the five fanny packs had to be ditched on day 1 of the Disney adventure due to faulty zippers. The others were just a bit too big in the waist for the little ones (although we solved that problem fairly quickly by making them into shoulder strap bags). The snack distribution was very helpful. When the kids would begin to complain of being hungry, I just answered with the glorious sing-song refrain, "Look in your fanny pack!" I did, actually, compose a little song, which I taught to my kids, and we all sang (some of them, I'll acknowledge, participated under duress) -- with choreography. It's more of a chant than a song, really. In case you ever have occasion to don matching family fanny packs, I'll share my lyrics. It goes "Get." (Extend right hand, palm facing forward) "Back!" (Left hand joins right, palm facing forward) "Back up off my fanny pack!" (Hands swivel inward, palms down, to frame fanny pack. Then, to the beat, add a rhythmic hip thrust in the direction of said fanny pack while pumping arms up and down). How in the world could anyone object to such a cool song and dance!? Here's Tari proudly displaying her pack!

A little note on the water bottles: Clip on collapsible water bottles seem like a great idea. And they are....for adults wearing backpacks. Little ones have no great place to clip them, and they spill more than they drink. The combined problem of water bottle size and loose fanny packs make for some untoward....ummm....exposure. On day three, we abandoned most of the kid fanny packs (although I still worked mine) in favor of a snack backpack, clipping a water bottle to the front of the pack. That worked beautifully! (Except, as expected, it did bang into a lot of unhappy people -- who may or may not have been unhappy before being clobbered by our backpack -- and it did get left at the stash bin of the carousel at Sea World, though it was easily retrieved before the final Shamu show.)

During the first days of preparation, I found a Craigslist post that promised a large bin of Disney paraphernalia for $25. I had hoped to pre-purchase souvenirs to pack in the kids drawstring car packs and hand out after each day of fun, but even online prices seemed prohibitive. I love a large mystery bin almost as much as I love secret compartments and transformability, so I responded to the Craigslist post. Crickets. For two weeks, a silence punctuated by imaginary cricket sounds. Then, a week to the day before our trip, the poster responded and said the bin was still available, which I jumped all over. We wound up with plush characters and plastic toys galore for all of the kids, and I still have a half-full bin of breakable or batteries-not-included Disney gear headed to our local thrift store!

So the car activity packs looked like this: Four or five Disney themed books (purchased for 50 cents each at the profusely acknowledged thrift store), a few Disney themed work books from the Dollar Tree, a gallon sized ziplock bag packed with snacks and a smaller ziplock bag marked "Trash" to collect wrappers from the snack bag. (This second bag idea seems good, but it didn't work at all. Ultimately, it just CREATED one more piece of trash to be thrown into the giant collective trash back parked between the two front seats -- which DID work). A pencil bag full of Disney themed art supplies and some Disney antibacterial wipes (also courtesy of Dollar Tree). A plush toy and several smaller plastic character toys from the $25 mystery bin. A journal. I did not include a water bottle because, quite frankly, I didn't want them to drink more than was absolutely necessary for survival. The trip was already going to take more than 14 hours. Bathroom stops have stretched 3 hour trips to nearly out the math and you'll find that water bottles might have made Disney utterly impossible. I kept some juice boxes and water bottles in the front seat with me, hoping that the inconvenience would slow them down. It basically worked. We made the trip each way in fairly good time and no one suffered (severe) dehydration in the process. All told, just the FACT of personalized drawstring car activity bags worked like a charm at making each of the kids feel extravagantly loved.

In fact, I think the whole vacation worked to that end! Hopefully, I'll have a chance to write a little about how that played out across our adventure, but, for the moment, suffice it to say that we all piled out of our messy van, splashing Disney excess and laundry across the front room of our house and collapsing into bed with smiles on our faces. All of us. Even Paolo.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Listen to ME!

The Listen to Your Mother show directors asked me a few questions about motherhood to provide a little context for the approaching show. Here are a few of my answers along with the headshot that my husband took. He is the only person alive who can find and record my natural smile. I'll explain why that's Oprah's fault in another post. Why did you audition for Listen To Your Mother? My best friend sent a link to the audition that came through a school announcement, urging me to submit something. That’s the reason I applied in pragmatic terms; I love my friend, and I thought it sounded doable. More to the point, though, I think I applied because my failures are so glaringly visible (messy home, short tempers, fighting kids, etc.) and the parts of my life that shine never get noticed (wound dressing, couch cuddling, the dramatic interpretation of children’s classics, etc.). I wanted to shine. What does your day-to-day life look like? I’m trying to think of the elements of every day that are consistent, since our schedule at home whiplashes from frantic to freewheeling. Here are some constants. My youngest always wakes me with a whispered request to play the iPad for an hour before everyone else gets up. I send him off to a quiet room, while I drag myself to the coffee maker and start pulling together breakfast. What follows is either a mad dash to find enough reasonably matched shoes to cover all of our mismatched socks so that we can make it to a homeschool co-op on time OR an hour of reading to my four-year-olds while the big kids grudgingly tackle math. Then, the little guys watch Bill Nye (or something), while I sneak in a shower, and we head out for an afternoon adventure or hunker down with projects and a family book. The above elements are either peppered with music and laughter or crying and screaming, variables that color everything in between. What is the best mothering advice you’ve ever received? “Nobody’s walking around high school with her umbilical cord still attached.” That was my pediatrician’s response to my concern over three-week-old Olivia’s scabby stump, a response that eventually morphed into my mothering mantra. It turns out my diligent efforts to care for her first ever wound by bathing it daily in alcohol had actually prolonged its adhesion. I had pickled it. When our doctor announced her prognosis, I gained a perspective that I’ve resurrected again and again, reminding myself to step back, worry less, and stop interfering. When potty training hit, and poop was predictably everywhere it shouldn’t be and never where it should, I muttered, “Nobody walks around high school pooping her pants.” And when my two-year-old seemed light years away from spontaneously weaning, I chanted, “Nobody walks around high school sucking on her mama’s…” You get the idea. Stuff usually works out, and meddling just makes it take longer. What is the best mothering advice you’ve ever given? Play to your strengths. Too many of us beat ourselves up for not being someone else. I collapse under the weight of dishes and laundry precisely BECAUSE other mothers keep house so painlessly and organically. Crafts make me want to puke. I can’t stand watching my kids work a puzzle; it stresses me out! As long as I keep my eyes firmly focused on the gifts I lack, I run around failing at those things that make me great. And I am great! Great at reading aloud to my kids. Great at telling stories. Great at imagining and embarking on adventures. Great at laughing with my kids. Great at dining room dancing. I could go on and on! And so could every mother on the planet. Every mother is singularly magnificent, and so is every child. I believe that God chose me for my children (on purpose!) BECAUSE of who I am, not IN SPITE of who I am. When I try to become my friends, I fail at being exactly the mother that I was created to be. What is the greatest impact motherhood has had on your life so far? Nothing humbles like motherhood. Not even middle school. My strongest weaknesses peer back at me through the magnifying mirror of my kids’ faces. My deepest fears coalesce around their vulnerabilities. My heart, a fickle little organ I spent so many years training to be tough, stretches and snaps almost every time I stop hurrying long enough to stare at them. I am sunk! I’ve lived a few epic adventures, but only motherhood has taught me to cling, white-knuckled, to God’s grace, and only my kids have made me perfectly certain that nothing’s more powerful than LOVE. What songs are on your favorite Netflix cue? My Netflix queue looks like a theme-based unit study. It’s very homeschool-cool, situated around subject-specific biographies and documentaries. My kids will gripe to their therapists about Mama’s version of “movie night.” We do, at least, serve popcorn! Be sure to purchase tickets soon, if you're planning to attend. I'm told they're going fast!