A Summer Tornado

downloadThe end of summer feels a bit like wandering through the aftermath of a natural disaster.  I mentally move from room to room, assessing all the damage that has been done after several months at home with five kids, mainly my autistic son.  A broken window in the basement…door jamb plates that have been sneakily unscrewed at some point to avoid “room time…” a broken lamp and glass candlestick in the storage that I’ve known about, but somehow, just can’t conjure up the energy to clean…broken glass tabletops from angry, slamming spoons as well as from the time he was “pretending” to throw a chair and slipped…broken doors and doorknobs (oh Lord, so many broken doors)…a garage door that won’t shut, a front door that won’t open…railings that have been ripped out of place…the list goes on and on…

And then there’s the internal inventory…everything I set out to do this summer, everything I hoped to be and do and just ran out of steam. Everywhere I look seems to be a reminder of my failures and shortcomings.  And it feels a bit overwhelming…a lot overwhelming, actually.  I basically want to pack it all up (or just leave it all behind) and move to Montana (or anywhere).

And tomorrow, he starts middle school.  My stomach hasn’t stopped churning since I realized how close the start of school was (a combination of sheer dread and simultaneous elation)!  I remember leaving him at preschool…I guess it was more like peeling him off of me and sprinting out the door…and this kind of feels like that.  I am always afraid of him feeling afraid, of him feeling lonely, of someone being unkind, of me not being there for him.

But in the daily midst of struggling to just breathe and not suffocate, a bright thought sneaks into my darkness.  My 16 year old son, who was standing on a teetering precipice, spent the summer fishing instead of partying, all day every day.  He came home happy at night and actually talked to us and laughed with us!  My daughter spent 5 weeks in Florida helping family take care of a household with 4 small children.  Last night, I sat up until midnight with my 13 year old son and 3 of his precious, giggling, hilarious friends as they tried to learn how to use chopsticks (and or course broke more glass in the process)!  My youngest daughter is still asleep with a friend in a fort they worked until midnight…and not a single electronic device was involved!!

I woke up this morning reminded (yet again) of the messiness and complexity of life.  I constantly feel like my life is either on the brink of a tragic catastrophe or sheer paradise.  They are both true, I think.  Every breath holds within it the potential for suffering and misfortune, as well as peace and prosperity.  But sometimes it is not so obvious which is which. Most days, I am incapable of discerning what events will lead to my downfall or my salvation. It all blends together in one chaotic, jumbled mess.  Perhaps it is all one in the same.  At times, I can’t see through my tears.  But on any given day, they might be tears of heartache or tears of laughter.  Life seems to be one huge contradiction.  It is concurrently chaotic and monotonous, sorrowful and joyful, dreadful and wonderful.

It’s pretty hard to hide and yet at the same time, hard to admit…I’m a mess, my kids are a mess, my home is a mess.  But I guess it’s the mess that makes us human, that makes us vulnerable and that humbles and refines us.  I can’t say that I always appreciate it, that I don’t at times try to close my eyes and make it all disappear.  But on better days, I can at least accept this beautiful mess called life…

 

 

 

 

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Unless a Grain of Wheat…

“My dad told me this once.  For a wheat seed to come fully into its own, it must become wholly undone.  The shell must break open, its insides must come out, and everything must change.  If you didn’t understand what life looks like, you might mistake it for complete destruction.”

-The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp-

 

I haven’t written lately because I haven’t had much to say.  And because some thoughts take longer to gestate than others.  Sometimes life has a way of washing over you like the ocean wave you didn’t see coming and suddenly,  you’re not thinking in words, you’re just trying to figure out which way is up and how to find your breath again.  Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the older I get, the more I have to fight to hang on to hope and not give in to cynicism.  I have to work harder to see the glass half full instead of half empty.  I worry more than I ever have.  With the way the world is and a house full of present and upcoming teenagers, I recognize how much I stand to lose and how little control I possess.  And I just don’t have enough…enough patience, enough energy, enough love.  Many days feel like a battle, a monotonous drudgery at best.  And I become frustrated with myself that I can’t be more upbeat, less of a Debbie Downer, more like someone else, anyone else…

However, what I am being reminded of, is that there is no one who escapes life without struggle.  It is a part of the cycle of life.  Even if we lived in a utopian world, we would war within ourselves. But like a forgotten memory I am starting to recall a time when I knew better…a time when I was able to hold suffering in greater esteem.  Like birth pain, the struggle is more intense when you fight it, when you try to eradicate it.  I have forgotten that the best way to deal with pain is to breathe and lean into it, remembering that pain can give birth to breathtaking beauty.

I guess the last few months have left me feeling a bit like a wheat seed…like my outer layer has been has been smashed open, my insides spewed carelessly about.  And it kind of feels like complete destruction.  But perhaps, if I can learn to accept all of life with grace, humility and gratitude, this “destruction” can be the springboard into new life.  The Orthodox church has a saying, “Out of death springs life.”  They serve boiled wheat at funerals and memorial services to physically remind people that death is not the end.  It is a good reminder that sometimes we need to be “undone” before we can become “done.”  And like the smallest sprout, I feel hope start to grow again.  Although pain is not something I feel the need to seek out, I also can feel the frantic need to escape it seeping away.  As wind and water can erode granite, so can pain shape and wear away my rough edges.  Sometimes it feels like life cracks us wide open to pain.  But perhaps, it is cracking us open to healing, breaking us so that we can live life fully.  I hope and pray that my soul will settle in, lean in, and learn to graciously accept all that comes to me with peace of soul and the firm conviction that all is sent to me for my benefit.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies…”

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Photo credit to my youngest daughter, Reagan

Nothing New About This Year

I’m sitting by the fire in my pajamas at 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.  Everyone is sleeping or gone.  The smallest tinge of wistful sadness has settled in with the quieting of the house as I look back over the course of this year.  There is a sense of finality with the passing of 2016…another year gone, completely unretrievable.  My oldest will soon be driving on his own, we have no more babies in our home, and I am quickly approaching 40.  Time seems to pass like a hurricane through my raking fingers and I am left gasping and grasping after something that refuses to be caught.

But my sadness is not over the passing of time, nor over the approach of teenagers or mid-life (as I am enjoying both).  Rather it is a sadness over the ways that I have failed to encapsulate and cherish every moment of the last year.  I grieve all of the times that irritability presided over gratitude.  I regret every moment that I rushed through and missed, moments that will never be recovered.  I especially and deeply mourn every unkind and impatient word I’ve wasted on my children (and there are many).  In my mind, I so badly want to suck the marrow out of life and slowly savor every last bit but I so often fail to live this way.

160121_slatest_blizzard-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2I recognize the irony.  With this being New Year’s Eve, it would be the perfect time to resolve to do things differently next year.  But the fact of the matter is, I know that I won’t.  I will make the same mistakes.  I will fail…and succeed…and fail again.  However, lest I be mistaken for a brooding pessimist, allow for a clarifcation.  This cycle, in my humble opinion, is in fact the very essence of life and I believe it to be exceedingly beautiful.  Life is a compilation of moments: heartaches and joys, peaks and valleys, tragedies and triumphs.  Yet, when standing nose to nose with life, it is not always readily apparent which are the successes and which are the failures.  It is foolish to bask in the glory of freshly fallen sparkling snow, and then curse the very same when it turns to sludge.  So often, our darkest moments become our greatest success stories.

This is why I do not resolve to do anything differently in 2017.  Rather, I resolve to do the same thing day-in and day-out, year after year.  I resolve to accept defeat and success with gratitude, knowing that both are changing and shaping me.  I resolve to put my best foot forward every morning, recognizing that my best may look different one day to the next.  I resolve to accept the snow and the sludge, the sun and the sunburn, the rain and the flood (although I know I will not always accept them gracefully).   Ultimately, I resolve to always struggle…to fall down and get back up and fall and get back up.  It might take me a while to find my feet again, but I will get there…eventually.  For it is in the struggle that we are strengthened and made whole.  I wish you all good strength and a great journey…Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ugly” Beauty

When my daughter was young we visited a women’s monastery.  There was a young nun tending to the chickens.  By all cultural standards, she was not pretty.  Her face was broken out and scarred, she had thick glasses and braces.  Her dark eyebrows formed a solid line, giving the appearance of a heavy, furrowed brow.  However, she warmly invited my daughter to help feed the chickens.  They chatted and laughed like old friends and when they were finished, my daughter casually remarked to me, “I hope I can be as pretty as she is some day.”  Her statement stopped me dead in my tracks and pointed out my embarrassing and blaring inability to see true beauty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty lately: not the Victoria’s Secret/Hollywood kind of beauty, or even the glowing sun setting over the mountains kind of beauty.  I’ve been mulling over the idea of true beauty…soul beauty.  This kind of beauty might outwardly appear revolting or undesirable at the very least.  But for those that have the eyes to see, it is the purest form of beauty, ignorant of age, race, gender or religion.

I have a lifelong friend who is a cancer survivor.  After she lost her hair and struggled and fought her way through chemo and radiation, her hair began to grow back.  Naturally, she was self-conscious, but as she was bathing one night, her little girl petted her head and offhandedly commented how much she loved her mom’s cute, tiny baby hairs.  Those little stubbles of hair growing out of a bald head were beautiful.  My dear friend in a weakened state of vulnerability was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

I have another friend who while walking toward an elevator got stuck behind a slow moving mother and her child with special needs.  The child walked abnormally, shuffle-shuffle-clap, shuffle-shuffle-clap.  The mother was trying to move her child along to allow people through and apologetically glanced back at my friend.  Before the mother had time to offer an apology, my friend enthusiastically exclaimed, “Look at your beautiful child! He’s clapping to the rhythm of his steps perfectly!”  The shocked mother admitted that this was indeed what he was doing.  A child finding his own rhythm was beautiful.  A mother trying to be sensitive not only to her child, but to those around her was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

In each of these cases, our well-intentioned society might try to “fix” that which is “ugly”…make-up and a wax job for the sweet nun, a wig for my friend with cancer, therapy for the child walking irregularly…thus allegedly beautifying each scenario.  But in doing so, we dictate what we think beauty SHOULD look like and lose sight of what true beauty actually is.  True beauty functions like a magnet.  Those who are unable to perceive it will be repelled and perhaps even repulsed.  But for those that have eyes to see, true beauty will attract, draw in, and connect people on a soul level.

I realize that I severely lack the eyes to see.  I feel sorrowful when I recognize how much of my own soul is uncultivated, wild, ugly even.  But in order to avoid hypocrisy, I must practice seeing the beauty in my own soul.  I must nourish what is good within me instead of dwelling on that which is lacking.  And like a novice photographer sharpening his eye for what will make a good photograph, perhaps my vision will become clearer, less muddled by the confines of society, more free to see what is true and pure, more grounded in that which is real.  May we all have the clarity of soul to see the true beauty that is found in the “ugly”.

 

The New Man in My Life

There is a strange new man living in my house.  He is tall, dark and handsome.  Apparently, he is also extremely smart.  He’s always brandishing this alleged intelligence and for some odd reason, constantly feels the need to remind me of his self-proclaimed autonomy.  But it’s ironic…although he can drive a car, he can’t make a sandwich.  And even though he’s able to decode insane chemistry equations, he looks at me like I’m speaking in Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice if I ask him to clean his room.  This same “man,” who I am barely allowed to touch, also crawls into my room at 4 a.m. asking me if I have any medicine for his “tummy-ache.”

This paradoxical way of living is making me a little insane.  If I relied on his feedback at all, I might be a bit schizophrenic and (only) slightly insulted.  I have been told I’m a dictator, a crazy woman, completely irrational, and even a crack-addict!  The unfortunate thing is, I’m not even sure that I completely disagree.  Sometimes I feel like the wicked queen, wanting to wave my wand and banish him from my kingdom forever.  Other days I feel psychotic, like I could literally strangle the life out of him that I imparted 16 years ago.  At times, I cry, mourning the loss of childhood and sweet innocence.  And on rare occasions, my sanity returns to me (if only briefly) and I am able to look into his eyes and see my child.  I see his fears and struggles, his pain and insecurities, his dreams and failures.  In an instant, he becomes a mirror to me and I am laid bare before my fears and struggles, my pain and insecurities, my dreams and failures.  I am amazed and humbled as I realize that even though it seems that he is fighting against me, in reality, we are fighting together…fighting for his personhood, his character, his soul.

This stage of his life can only be likened to a second birth.  Many days, I feel as though it is one big, fat, long contraction…sweating and toiling, but painful and very seemingly unproductive. But this time, I am not laboring to bring forth a child, I am laboring with my whole heart and soul to bring forth a fully grown man: a man who is loving and appreciative, respectful and kind, hard working and moral. This is not an easy task in today’s world.  So to get through the labor pains, I keep before me the hopeful glimpses into his heart…images of him on the river, hunting with his dad and brother, the amazing photographs he takes, his hidden self-reflective side…and I find my hope that one day, the hard work will be over and standing before me will be an exceptional human being.  Lord willing, we will be able to look back and laugh together at these days and what he has put us through.

43810047-young-woman-eating-popcorn-while-watching-tv-isolated-on-white-backgroundAnd then…when time has passed and he’s grown and married and fathers my first sweet grand-baby, I will pull up my chair and popcorn and eagerly await for the arrival of my dear friend Karma!

 

Autism, Judgment, and Love

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“Levitating” with a shovel implanted in the ground

I am the mother of an 11-year-old boy with a diagnosis of autism and a love for magic, levitating, yo-yo’s and recreating things he’s seen on YouTube.  He makes me laugh and cry harder than any of my other children.  Over the years I have grown pretty thick skin.  I rarely notice the stares if he loses it in public.  I am mostly used to the judgment.  I have been told by a stranger at Costco that I should have left him at home when he pushed his sister.  He has been nudged by the boot of an unknown man and told to “mind his mother” when he was pitching a fit on the floor.  When I locked him out of my car in the parking lot of a mall because he was hitting me, the woman in the car facing mine took off her sunglasses to glare and shake her head at me (I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear).  To be certain, I am not impervious to these occurrences, but they have become a part of life to some degree; my new normal if you will.

But what I cannot handle, what absolutely dissolves my resolve and shakes me to the core is when someone shows me kindness.  Heaven help us all if a stranger stops and asks if I’m alright or if I need help, or even worse, tells me I’m doing a wonderful job as a mother.  I might actually drop and shed every last tear in my body.  I can be strong and keep a stiff upper lip.  But look at me with concern on a bad day and ask how I’m doing, and you might literally witness my complete and utter undoing.

There are many things in life that I do not know.  But the one thing I do know is this: impulsive judgment without understanding gives rise to anger and bitterness.  It builds walls and leads to retreat or retaliation.  Love however, can undo and rebuild in one swift movement.  It can pluck you out of your small world and drop you into the foreign land of another’s struggles.  In a world confused by what color lives matter,  who can use what restroom, and which politician will cause the end of the world, if we do not respond with love, we will leave only emotional casualties behind.

Consequently, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of unfair judgment, we are left with a choice. We can wallow in the pain, playing the part of a victim.  Or we can choose to release ourselves, and with gratitude, turn our focus to the goodness surrounding us.  We will see what we choose to see.  Even though I have, at times, been enraged by people’s cruelty, it cannot compare with the love that has humbled me over and over again.  I have seen my son bite his teacher and draw blood, and then watched them walk hand and hand into school.  Friends and family have searched for and then cooked meals that are free of the fifty billion allergens we avoid, just to give me a night off of cooking, or to make sure that my son has a special treat at family dinners.  Teachers at his school have given up their personal time so that my husband and I could get away for our anniversary.  I have received phone calls from school because one of my other children had unbeknownst to me, taken the needs of a physically disabled student upon himself, and was carrying the child’s backpack to class every day.  My dad regularly drives an hour each way to take my son to a movie so that I might enjoy a quiet morning in church alone. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have been on the receiving end of the unconditional love of my son.  No matter how many times I lose it, or become irritable with him, or feel like I’m going insane, he tells me every night at bedtime without fail, “Good night, I love you.  You’re special to me.  I think about you in my heart.  I think about you in my peace.”  I don’t really even know what it means, but it’s beautiful.  Some nights, I brush over it, because I’m just so excited for him to go to bed.  But when I stop and think about it, I can’t really think of anything nicer that anyone has ever said to me.  And once again, I am undone.  Love has overcome the anger and frustration of the day and released me one more time from the snare of judgment (me toward myself this time).  I settle in for the night and fall asleep with the words of Mother Teresa in my heart, “Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.”

 

Mundane Motherhood

I remember I broke down in tears after I gave birth naturally to my first child.  I had worked so hard and had been so strong that the tears of relief literally came rolling down my face.  Today, I look at my boys. We are well into teenage years and even though the hardest years might yet remain, I could almost cry in relief because those early years were just. so. much.  To all of you moms with young kids and babies… now that I’m on the other side and have regained (some) sense of sanity, know that you are amazing. You pick up the same toys day in and day out. You hold the hand of a new walker and let them go up and down the stairs fifty billion times. You listen to the same incessant chatter and even though you feel like you might lose your mind, you smile and encourage the novice talker.  You sit and endlessly keep a drawer from shutting on their little fingers just so they can learn how to open and close.  You have the strength to get through the mundane, the love and loyalty of a mother bear, and the patience of a saint. The bad thing is, you don’t feel like it. You end so many days feeling like a failure, like you did nothing worthwhile, like nothing got accomplished.  All I can say after being a stay at home mom for fifteen years so far, is that everything will one day be worth it. You’ll see a picture of your teenage boys sleeping in a truck after a long hunting weekend and every little mundane task, and every never ending day will be so, so worth it.  Give yourself room to acknowledge that you have a very. hard. job.  Respect yourself enough to take the time you need to regather, and love yourself enough to be kind.  The world can be cruel enough without your own self-condemnation.  I know that everyone says this, but you will blink and they will literally be grown.  But contrary to what others may say, I don’t find it sad or remorseful.  I find it beautiful.  I love seeing my kids grow into their own person.  I love having real, tough conversations with them.  I love seeing their passions and even their pains.  It all reminds me that as a mom, I have been allowed to co-create another life, another real, live, struggling person.  It is humbling beyond belief.  I know that I still have a very long way to go.  But for tonight, I can fall asleep believing in my heart that every seemingly pointless moment was all beyond worth it.

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”