Doing the Difficult Things

shin guards toddler doodle.pngWe thought our four-year-old twin daughters would love soccer. On family walks, they are always running, jumping, or dancing down the road, and we thought soccer might give them the opportunity to do more of that. So, we enrolled them in a local summer recreational league, borrowed and bought a few pieces of gear and socks, and cleared our schedule on Monday nights for the next six weeks.

As it turns out, we were wrong. So, so wrong.

Imagine with me: a steamy summer six o’clock night, and four children waiting by the side of the van while mom grabs the diaper bag, water bottles, purse, and baby carrier. The baby immediately starts kicking as soon as he gets in the carrier, and the six-year-old whines that she’s tired. The twins insist on holding my hands, legs, or shirt as we walk across the dusty gravel parking lot to the field.

We are early, so we pick a spot of grass and try to talk through how fun! this is going to be. The girls are unconvinced. Meanwhile, I surreptitiously look at the other kids who have arrived early and realize that I, never having been in soccer, have outfitted both my girls with the shin guards on the outside of the socks, instead of under them. I peel the baby off my back and get to work rearranging the sock/shin guard/shoe combo on my daughters.

After this exercise in sweaty sock wrangling, I ply the kids with snacks and water and glance at my phone. My husband should be here soon. Good. We turn our attention back to the field where a few kids are starting to kick soccer balls around. More parents and kids arrive. They seem better equipped – lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, wagons. I start to sweat just thinking about standing back up and putting on the baby carrier and baby again.

Then the real fun begins. The first night is drill night, which involves stations and coaches and lots of movement. I look at my pile of stuff on the sidelines and sigh. Meanwhile, the girls aren’t jazzed about kicking the ball between orange cones. As in really, not jazzed. More like the opposite of jazz, like Phyrigian wailing. They are pulling at their jerseys, crying because they’re hottttttt, and I’m doing my best to mimic David Beckham crossed with a Vikings cheerleader (jean shorts and a baby carrier notwithstanding) as I clumsily maneuver the ball and cheer for them to do the same.

The first session continues on like this, except that my husband arrives to take over the baby so I can focus on helping the girls do drills, which equates to me jumping in and out of hula hoops with the rest of the four-year-olds while my daughters refuse, cry, or walk mopily through the exercise.

By the time the hour is finished, we are all red-faced, sweating, and ultra-cranky-town. To top it off, the girls want to get ice-cream because they heard other parents promising it to their little future soccer stars for their good efforts. I wait to tell my children their behavior warrants otherwise until we are safely in the van with all windows shut. The screaming lasts for sixteen minutes straight.

Needless to say, I was secretly glad we were on vacation and missed soccer the next week. But the week after, we were back again. This time, it was a scrimmage on the field, and the girls were having none of it. I found myself back in the middle of the preschool action, holding hands, cajoling, wiping tears, and basically doing anything I could think of to get them to play.

Nothing worked. At one point, I took a deep breath and tried to call up some of the wisdom from last year’s MOPS (mothers of preschoolers) mentors. Try to imagine how your child is feeling. How can you help them through that? So I got down on my knees, gently pushed my daughter’s bangs out of her caramel brown eyes, and asked why she didn’t want to play. It’s scary, she sniffed. I’m afraid those kids will kick me.

I couldn’t figure out how to explain to her that getting kicked is a strong possibility, but that the game was still fun. So I squeezed her tight, told her she was brave, and asked her to try a little bit longer.

Honestly, I had no idea what else to do. I wanted to quit. I wanted to tell her it was okay, we were all hot, and tired, and not really having as much fun as we hoped. I wanted to tell her I was terrible at sports as a kid, and that we could just try another activity. Preferably one with air conditioning. I wanted to be the nice mom, the one who went through the Dairy Queen drive-thru anyway because I hated seeing how upset my daughters were.

But another side of me whispered that even though this was a hard hour each week, it was worth pushing through. We’ve tried really hard to encourage our kids not to quit, whether it’s picking up toys, finishing a project, or helping us out around the house. Letting them quit soccer after two weeks seemed backward of everything we’d been teaching them.

I got home that night and stood at the kitchen sink later, rehashing the ridiculousness to my husband. I went on and on, overanalyzing and complaining. The baby. The heat. The dinner hour. The whining. In my head, my list continued until I realized something. It wasn’t really the kids who wanted to quit soccer. In fact, neither of them had mentioned quitting at all.

It was me.

I didn’t want to do the difficult work of guiding them through this hard experience. I didn’t want to be the mom on the sidelines cheerily shouting at my kids to follow the ball or get in the game. I wanted soccer to come naturally to them, without them having to work for it.

Life’s not really like that though. Everything worth doing turns out to be at least partially work, regardless of natural talent or ability. Taking them out before they had the chance to get over their fears wasn’t going to do them, or me – in the long run – any favors.

So on Monday night, we went back to soccer. We worked through the whining of putting on the socks and combing the hair into ponytails. We set our things down on the sidelines, got out a ball, and kicked it around. And when the time came for the game to start and my daughters to go in, they got up without whining. They stood on the field and walked after the ball. One of them even took the initiative to throw the ball inbounds a few times.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was VAST improvement. They were no tears, no fits, and more importantly, little glimmers of compliance. Sure, they didn’t quite go after the ball or kick it yet, but they were there with better attitudes, and so was I.

Baby steps.

 

Embracing Risk

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The door to the plane rolls up, and a blast of air hits my face. Everyone comes to life, securing safety googles, straightening harnessing, checking straps. Twelve thousand some odd feet below and sixty miles away, my family is going about their Sunday afternoon routine without me, because I’m sitting on a bench, rattling my teeth in the smallest airplane I’ve ever set foot in, strapped to a stranger I’m about to trust with my life.

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My tandem jump guide straightens up. The four pairs of jumpers ahead of us scoot their way down the bench to the front and launch themselves out of the plane. My friend Katie and I high-five each other like amped up high school football players, and I take a deep breath. Katie’s videographer, (all photos courtesy of Katie Folkestad and Sky Dive Twin Cities, Baldwin WI) Katie, and her tandem guide slide to the front, barely pausing before disappearing into the patchwork green landscape below.

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Katie’s jump

Somehow, it’s my turn. My guide and I awkwardly move off the bench and crouch in front of the open door. This is the part I assume everyone pictures in their mind – eyes frantically searching the unfamiliar horizon, hands clutching the overhead bar, calculating the risk, making that final decision whether or not to jump – except it doesn’t go that way. We face the open door for all of two seconds. I can’t tell you if my guide said ready, set, go, or if he counted 1…2…3… because somehow we just lean forward and tip ourselves out in the open air.

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Katie’s free fall. Phenomenal.

When Chris, my friend and youth pastor at church messaged me with the question, “Ready to jump?”, I didn’t know how to respond. He was putting together a sermon illustration and promotional material for taking faith-filled risks in the month of July, and wanted to know if I’d be interesting in skydiving with my friend, his wife Katie. I was standing in my kitchen, surrounded by dirty dishes and the chatter of my children finishing their breakfast. The idea of jumping out of an airplane seemed alien, so different and strange in the context of my normal life.

Jason and I had talked about it briefly over a cup of coffee before he took off for work, but with no real decisions or clarity.

Was I ready to jump?

Are we ever ready to hold hands with that kind of risk?

It seems to me that risk is something I try to steer clear of at this stage of life. I carry the weight of responsibility for my children, who are all still in various stages of physical and cognitive development, and it’s up to my husband and I to know what our kids are capable of – when to protect, when to push, when to maintain status quo. Risks are taken in a calculated, padded sort of way.

But this wasn’t about my children. This was about me and my faith. (Well, I mean, if I died it would be about my children and my husband, *laugh/cry*, but the likelihood of that happening was 0.0007%, much less than the risk of dying while driving a car, which I do every day.)

This was about my willingness to take a risk for something beyond myself.

The whole idea of taking risks is complicated. To be perfectly honest, it’s not often I see the need.  I enjoy wrapping myself in comfort – a solid family, close friends, good food, a snug home surrounded by nature. I like soft clothes and strong coffee and books with hundreds of pages. I revel in hot showers, clean sheets, and the smell of my favorite Aveda lotion.

But life isn’t about comfort. In fact, because I’ve decided to be a follower of Jesus, building a static, easy life built on maintaining my own comfort should be the least of my concerns.

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”               John 12:24-25

But was I really, ready to jump?

***

Katie said I should scream, and she was right, because the cold crush of wind roaring in my ears and tangling my hair rips my breath away, and the best way to fight it is to roar a raw mix of fear and exhilaration into the wideness of the sky.

I know I’m falling, but strangely, it doesn’t feel like falling. The ground is so far away that the free fall loses any sense of urgency and instead, I find myself able to believe I’m flying, arms wide spread, screams turning into shouts of astonishment and adrenaline. After sixty seconds, my guide taps my shoulders, alerting me to the parachute that’s just opened above us.

We shift to an upright position as the parachute pulls up on our harnesses, and suddenly me and the stranger on my back are masters of the sky. I can’t help but kick my feet out wide like a baby does when his legs are submerged in water for the first time, excitement coursing through every inch of my limbs. We continue to descend, the air growing warmer around us. The guide asks if I’d like to do some maneuvering, which involves leaning and swirling one direction, then the other. This isn’t my favorite, and I’m thankful when the pressure of the turning subsides.

 

The drop zone is now in sight, and even though I shout that I could stay up here all day, my guide laughs and tells me I better just come back and jump again. We glide through the air, turn gently, and position ourselves to land on the drop zone of green grass at Sky Dive Twin Cities in Baldwin, WI. I lift my feet forward so that they’re parallel with the ground, which is steadily getting closer and closer. I try to savor the last few seconds as we come into land, my guide touching down and leaning back, pulling us down into a controlled slide on our rears.

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The whole process took less than five minutes, and as I shake my arm and legs loose in the harness, I can’t quite believe it’s over. I am flooded with adrenaline, so loose and light in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Katie and I hug and high five again, and I find myself repeating the words amazing and awesome over and over again to anyone who will listen. And then, somehow, I climb back into the 4-runner and drive off down the road, back into normalcy and, in a split minute decision, the Dairy Queen drive-thru.

***

A week later, I’m under no delusion that I did something earth-shattering for my faith. Yes, I took a controlled risk. I conquered my uneasiness and got to jump out of an airplane, which was an incredible life experience gifted to me by my church. Did I change the world? No.

But what if, by practicing taking a non-essential risk, I was preparing myself for something bigger later? What if saying yes this time meant I’d have more faith, and be more ready to say yes to whatever came next?

What if being willing to jump gave me the opportunity to build my trust in One who’s never failed me yet?

That, my friends, is a risk I’d take all over again.

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These unexpected gifts

The summer morning air is cool and heavy. I instantly feel it resting on my forehead and arms as I cross the yard to let the chickens out. My yellow farm clogs leave dark footprints in the grass, proof of life in the quiet, early hours. I open the coop and watch the chickens pour out in a flurry of feathers and straw, then turn to the bigger coop housing the ducks and meat chickens. Something green hanging on the barn catches my eye.

Every so often in the summer, and usually after a rain, the farm becomes home to some amazing moths. We’ve found various Polyphemus types resting in the grass, but this moth was new to me. Her wings were a perfect creamy green, with four small, yellow markings, and her antennae were like an intricate ivory lattice that twitched gently.

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I finished chores and came back to check on her, and, knowing how excited the girls would be, decided to bring her inside. I gently reached my hand under her wings and waited until the delicate legs grasped my finger, and then slowly carried her into the house. The girls were thrilled, and no matter how many times I reminded them to move slowly and quietly, they shrieked and jumped with excitement.

Picturing a sticky preschooler foot as an untimely cause of demise, I scooped up the moth, which I later looked up and discovered was called a Luna, and set her back outside. After a wobbly start on the grass, the moth suddenly started shivering (a precursor to flight), and then caught the breeze and fluttered into the sky, looking for all the world like a delicate leaf suddenly come to life.

I stood back up, brushing my hands on my knees, and watched the grays and blues of the clouds marble the sky. And in that moment, I decided it would be a slow day for me and the children. A day for margin, for space. A day for looking for the extraordinary in the framework of our normal lives.

***

We spent the morning sprawled on the rug, playing games, clapping for the baby who practiced his squats and stands with the dogged determination of an Olympic athlete. His strong legs pushed him up and down, and I marveled at how tall he’d grown, and how much work it must be to learn the art of balance and motion.

We moved outside to the swings, the bikes, the trampoline. The baby joined me in the garden and learned the sheer joy of smearing, squashing, and raking his way through the dirt. I staked peas, pulled weeds, spent time staring at the intricacies of the flowers in bloom. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, I slowed down. Took notice. Enjoyed.

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The rest of the day flowed steady, easy, like water from the garden hose. Please don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. The girls fought over stuffed animals. The baby cried and messed an extraordinary amount of diapers and clothes. I still did dishes and laundry and sweeping and the lego-to-heel dance of pain.

But somehow, those things were okay too. It seemed that having margin for both joy and error was equally important. After all, life doesn’t favor one or the other. Could it be that joy and error were necessary partners in the everyday?

***

Later, we piled into the van and headed for the library, where we ran into our neighbors and miraculously both had time to chat. A surprise text landed us next to my best friend for supper at the local Drive In, where our kids ran circles around the fountain pond and chowed down on hamburgers.

Out of nowhere, someone anonymously paid for our family’s meals. I looked up from wiping food off the baby’s face, and stared incredulously at the waitress when she told us. I couldn’t have been more surprised, or more grateful. We hopped back in the van and left the radio off, making time instead to talk about the about the gifts of thoughtfulness, of generosity, of blessing.

Later that night, I kept thinking, “I could have missed this entire day.” And in a sense, it was true. Yes, I would have lived and breathed for the same 24-hour period. But it would have been easy enough to hurry my way through chores before diving into house tasks, and miss the experience of the Luna moth delicately spiraling into the sky.

I could have skipped playtime to fold and put away laundry. I could have thrown together something quick for lunch instead of making my daughter’s favorite meal. I could have said no to the library, which would have then been easier to decline meeting up with my best friend, and not afforded me the chance for sharing an unexpected object lesson on generous living with my kids.

I could have missed it all.

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When I create space to say yes, to be awake, stay present, and actively appreciate the good things in my life, I rarely feel as though my minutes pass me by, or that they’ve gone too fast. Savoring my days ensures that even if I look back and yearn for a certain time period again (newborn stage, anyone?), I can know I lived those moments to the fullest, leaving no space for regret. Conversely, time moves slowest when I put the blinders on, doggedly pushing forward, bound by my own perception of duty in lieu of enjoyment.

And some days, that might be reality. Some days are meant for doing, moving, accomplishing. Some days run beautifully on a schedule. But when we’re given the opportunity and reminder to slow down, to watch, and to feel grateful, there’s endless surprise and delight waiting in life’s simple, unexpected gifts.

Amateur Farm Hour: Family Picture Day

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I will never forget the first time I drove up the driveway and onto our farm yard. I was blown away that one place could possibly have everything we were looking for: small acreage, apple trees, gardens – and lo and behold – a barn.

The barn was an enormous presence stretching across the west end of the yard. It had a wide open center, easy for drive-in storage, and two flanking sides that housed random leftovers from it’s previous lives, including an old cook stove, fence posts, and a giant stack of lumber. It wasn’t in the best of repair, but that didn’t matter. It was a barn. I was smitten.

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I grew up spending hours in a barn, holding kittens, swinging on a bag swing, and watching the snuffing pigs escaping the mid-afternoon heat. I hoped the same for my kids, but soon after we moved in, we realized the barn on our farm was a little too haphazard to safely let our daughter loose in. Sadly, we implemented a “no-play” rule in the barn, and used it mainly as storage for the family fishing boat.

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Unfortunately, the barn is really showing its age. The beams are bending and buckling, the roof is leaking, and this spring, we made the sad decision to take it down. How that’s going to happen is still up in the air (unfortunately there’s been another change in plans,) but nevertheless. Come summer, our landscape will look pretty different. As my oldest daughter says, “at least we’ll get to see sunsets now, right?” That’s right, baby girl. Keep me positive.

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So last weekend, we welcomed the very talented Christine Henne of JoyNoelle Photography to the farm to commemorate our life around the barn. Folks, she’s amazing. She gave us some great ideas, and then just clicked away as we played. I don’t remember how many pictures she said she actually took (and then edited and returned to us with SUPERSPEED!) but if it’s anything like what it takes me to get a simple shot of one baby smiling per month, I’m pretty sure it was enough to crash the average computer. 😉

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I mean, it’s basically next to *impossible* to get six people, four of whom are age five and under, to look in the same direction and smile. But somehow she managed to document not just our faces, but our feelings.

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Friends, I can’t tell you how grateful we are to have these pictures as a reminder of the first few years here with the barn as the backdrop to our lives. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to build something (on a much smaller scale!) to put in it’s place, but until then, bring on the sunsets.

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For the mom who failed yesterday

Untitled design (2)Hey friend.

You too?

Sigh.

Maybe it started off so well. Maybe you put real breakfast on the table for the first time in awhile, and knowing that you and your kids ate something besides sugar covered corn bombs for breakfast felt, somehow, refreshing.

Maybe you picked up the house the night before and awoke to a clean slate, a day of possibility.

Maybe there was the thick aroma of dark coffee.

Maybe your eyes found the sunlight through this morning’s windows and felt the promise of new mercies for the day.

Maybe it was all going along just perfectly…

And then. And then. And then.

Maybe you forgot an appointment and felt like a complete dolt for yet again unsuccessfully straddling your schedule.

Maybe you had to rewash the same pair of pants you just washed yesterday because someone’s diaper leaked. Maybe there was another pair of wet jammies and sheets. And another few loads of tiny clothes that seemed to mushroom in every corner of the house, no matter how many times you picked them up.

Maybe you remembered a relationship that was off kilter, a wound still full of sting.

Maybe your littles managed to make a mess in every room of the house before 9:30 am.

Maybe it felt impossible to say good things because everyone seemed to need correction.

Maybe there wasn’t much food around because last week’s meal plan was for last week, and you didn’t get a chance to go to the grocery store yet. Or maybe there was never a meal plan in the first place, because you can barely keep up with the constant requests for snacks, much less think that far ahead.

Maybe you longed to ward off the loneliness, the kind that makes no sense in the mothering journey when you’re surrounded by children, that crept in as you washed yesterday’s dishes and stacked them up haphazardly to dry on their own.

Maybe your phone dinged, and you picked up it up hoping for a post or message from a friend, only to find that your Flashlight app was done updating.

Maybe there was angst and noise and constant movement and it started to wind you up tighter and tighter as the hours slowly slid down the wall of the afternoon.

Maybe all you wanted was an unsuspicious silence.

And maybe all those things started swirling up and threatened to topple you, head over heels, off the rest of the day, even though there were still plenty of hours left that you had to manage, especially the ones containing bedtime, and it all started to feel impossibly difficult and when, for the love of Pete, were you ever going to just. get. it. right?

Maybe you sat in the rocking chair at bedtime and sang the extra lullaby.

Maybe you dug through the backpack and repacked clean gym clothes.

Maybe you stroked the perfect silk of someone’s hair an extra minute or two because they told you it felt so good.

Maybe you caved and read just one more story, even though you’d already read four.

Maybe you remembered the child who had a nagging cough, and managed to find the cough syrup now instead of in the middle of the night when the hacking started.

Maybe the words I love you mama relaxed the wrinkles you didn’t know you were holding in your brow.

Maybe you walked a little slower down the hallway or the stairs, just in case someone called for you one last time.

Maybe motherhood wasn’t as easy as it looked when your mom stood at the counter making dinner, folding clothes, pulling weeds, buying groceries. Maybe it’s because she wore it better.

Or maybe it’s because we were too busy with the stuff of childhood to notice the raw mechanics of life in place all around us.

Maybe that was okay.

Maybe it will still be okay.

Maybe those mercies will be new again today.  Maybe that’s simple, or feels trite, but maybe that’s all the hope we need to start in yet again, the possibility for failure notwithstanding.

 

 

 


 

PS. New Header! Christine over at JoyNoelle Photography captured some perfectly amazing moments with our family last weekend, and this photo was exactly what I have been wanting as a feature image for a long time. Stay tuned for more fun pics from our session and a glimpse into the reality of getting six people to smile for the camera all at once.

 

What I Want my Kids to Remember

IMG_20170404_092229_495Outside my office windows, I’m starting to hear a sound I haven’t heard in months. Birds of all sizes and songs are migrating back north, stopping by our hobby farm in the St. Croix river valley and nestling themselves into the dense green of the arborvitae and the budding branches of the maples. They trill and chatter, and somehow, my soul relaxes, reassured that spring is approaching.

It’s not particularly trendy to love spring. People are not making stylized memes or posts about sloppy shoes and brown grass and endless piles of damp, dirty-kneed laundry the way they do about fall and marshmallows and bonfires.

Maybe that’s because new life doesn’t start clean and dry and wrapped in buffalo plaid. New life is wet, dirty. Babies emerge from their mothers covered in a primordial mixture of blood and water. Seeds break out of their shells and push themselves through dirt and mud in order to find the sun.

Life requires mess.

This past week we had an incredible opportunity to welcome a film crew to our farmhouse for a project. However, in order to prep for filming, there was a lot of cleaning to be done. I mean A LOT. Thankfully I had help, and come go-time, the house was glowing (and basically unrecognizable in it’s oil-soaped, shining-floored glory).

It has now been precisely four days since that clean house, and aside from the layers of fingerprints which haven’t had enough time to accumulate on the windows and cupboards, you’d never guess how pristine it was in here just a few days ago.

There’s dirt all over the entry way rug, and apple cores that made their way to the counter, but not quite the garbage can. The fireplace room is littered with crayons and paper and My Little Ponies, and the ladybugs have reinstated their domain in the window sills.

And even though I want to cringe, I know all of this is inevitable with four small children, a few acres, and the abundance of nature around us.

What matters is where I choose to look.

The dirty floor, or the open window?

The dishes in the sink, or the tangle of sweet girls and coloring books spread across the kitchen floor?

Saturday night, I was about to put the baby to bed when I noticed the rest of the family sitting on the front steps, watching robins and chickadees hop and flutter across the yard.

I was bone-tired, ready to shove the rest of the dishes into the sink, and fall asleep to the whir of the mixers on the Great British Baking Show. (Griff is still not sleeping through the night, and wakes up anywhere from one to five times per night, depending on…well…who knows.)

I was a single track mind, my brain flashing like neon: bedtime, bedtime, bedtime.

I wanted to look at my pillow. My eyelids.

Suddenly, our eldest daughter shrieked and pointed to a giant shape swooping out of the pine stand across the road. It landed on a corner fence post and settled, statue-like, about a football field’s length away from us. I assumed it was a hawk, but as we watched, he turned his head and leveled us with the unmistakable gaze of a barred owl.

Jason quietly went into the house and came back with the binoculars, and we all took turns watching the owl. And I can’t explain it, other than to say that the whole event was a gift.

A gift I could have missed if I had been looking elsewhere, like the task at hand.

When I was little, my parents and brother and I used to go over to our grandparent’s farm in the twilight of  summer evenings. My grandpa would have the metal folding lawn chairs ready, the kind with orange, yellow and white woven patterns that would poke your legs where the plastic fabric frayed, all set up in a line facing the north grove.

And then we’d do something unthinkable by today’s standards. We’d all just sit quietly together. No phones, no devices save for my dad’s 35mm Pentax. I’d settle into my grandma’s lap, absentmindedly rubbing the soft, wrinkled skin of her hand, and watch a family of owls emerge from the trees and settle on the clothesline posts, hunting for mice.

Their low, silken hoots echoed from tree to tree as they talked in stereo around us. Darkness would slowly fall on the yard, imperceptible at first until we felt our skin cool and shudder. It was normal for night to arrive without our noticing.

Was it inconvenient for my parents to keep us up past summer twilight, which was probably a good two hours past our regular bedtime? I’m sure. Were my brother and I tired and whiny that night, complaining our way into bed? For certain. Could my mom have stayed behind and had the house to herself to clean, rest, relax on her own? Of course.

But none of those things were as important as making time to watch the owls together.

I don’t know what my little ones will remember from their childhood, but I have the feeling it won’t be how on time they were for bed, or whether or not I picked up the house every night.

Hopefully, they remember owls.

 

 

 

 

Small Things, Great Love

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Yesterday, in a fit of nervous energy, I baked a batch of shortbread cookies.

In my head, all I could hear was, “Tomorrow is Valentines Day! Tomorrow is Valentines Day!, which meant I should: bake cookies, deliver homemade cards, clean up, get pretty, take pictures of the kids, buy fancy groceries, make a special children’s dinner, make a special-er parent’s dinner, light candles, etc. Etc. ETC.

As a mother of four children five and under, the list was enough to give me hives.

Meanwhile, the cookies emerged from the oven in a perfect balance of crisp and soft, studded with a rainbow of doughnut sprinkles. My daughters, entranced by the smell of fresh cookies foolishly baked the hour before dinner, immediately began bargaining. Half the batch was gone in 10 minutes, and the one thing I wanted to cross off my list stubbornly remained.

In years past, I’ve made similar lists for Valentines Day. It didn’t matter if I was single, dating, married, working outside or inside the home. The power of should shadowed me all day long.

What should I give? What should I receive? If ever a day was fraught with expectation, I’d say it was February the 14th. I’d also wager that most of us are left wondering what grand gestures we should do to communicate love beyond what we manage every day. Will they be enough?

Last week, the kids and I took a spur of the moment trip to my childhood home on the farm in South Dakota. My husband had parent teacher conferences and obligations all week, and it felt like a good time for a change of scenery (once I shouldered through the reality of road tripping with four kids).

One afternoon, a framed quote in my parents’ living room caught my eye. Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love. – Mother Teresa

Those words stuck with me all week, and they hit me again this morning.

I am not in a place to do great things today. I’m laying low with a sick baby, cutting out paper hearts with my preschoolers, trying to ignore the glitter glue and scraps that are stuck all over the kitchen table. I need to go to the grocery store with four children in tow later, and also collect all the documents necessary for a tax appointment scheduled for tonight before dinner.

The question is this: can I do those things with great love?

Can I hold the baby a little longer and wait to fold that last load of laundry? Can I settle into a kitchen chair beside my girls, look into their eyes, and help them with their work? Afterwards, can I clean up the table and scratch off the glitter glue with my fingernails without cursing under my breath? Can I dig deep for the gold of patience today as we shop, search, collect, file?

Can I simply let go of the “great” things I think I should do, in favor of the small things I can actually accomplish?

My to-do list above is real life. It’s not about expectation or the list of should-do’s that seem to accompany all holidays. It’s the every day reality that I have the chance to dwell richly in, if only I set the intention and make the time.

Small things, great love.

Today, and every day.

May it be so.