Small Things, Great Love

balloon-girl

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Life Unfinished

 

 

If I were organized, I’d be a killer list person.

Alas. If I manage to find a pen in my house (the child security locks on the office cupboard have long been hacked) and write out a few daily tasks, more often than not, I find myself staring at them at the end of the day, in all their bullet point glory, whole and uncrossed.

Let me tell you something. It’s tough to never, ever finish things.

The work ethic in my family is strong. My mom still wakes up at 5:00 am most days to exercise, shower, make breakfast, and tackle what needs to be done. My dad will run the combine at harvest time long into the cool fall nights. My husband will stick with a project for hours until it’s done, or he’s reached a finishing point.

Me, on the other hand? I move around my home in never-ending circles. Load more dishes in the dishwasher. Pick up the deflated socks that seem to be everywhere. Comb someone’s hair. Change the baby. Check the dryer.

Kitchen. Laundry room. Bathroom. Circle. Circle. Circle.

It’s work of the most frustrating kind. Things never, ever stay finished. As soon as the holy grail bottom of the laundry basket appears, someone throws another wrench in my Indiana Jones-like quest for clean clothes. Dishes get dirtied. Something spills and the floor has to be swept. The circle starts all over again.

I know it’s a phase, and that these days of my children being little are like the sunlight hours after daylight savings time: so very short. So I’ve been trying, trying to sit down in the middle of the chaos and be present. To be silly. To take *awesome* family pictures so I can remember life in this season. I’m learning to leave dishes in the sink. I don’t pick up toys every night. I can’t tell you the last time I deep cleaned anything

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But somehow, it’s still not working. I still find myself a little on edge most days, wanting to recount just what it is I’m doing besides endlessly picking up gently browning apple cores left out from morning snack, and supervising cleanup of whatever catastrophe happened while I was nursing the baby last.

Last night at a family birthday party, my sister in law recounted the wonderful stuff she’s been up to lately. Then the tables turned on me. My mind went blank. What have I been doing? Um. *Scramble scramble scramble* I’m…reading a manuscript for a friend! Painting a bedroom! Teaching Ellis not to use an entire bottle of shampoo in one sitting! Making a small attempt at national novel writing month (#nanowrimo y’all!) with the goal of two chapters!

See my exclamation points? Isn’t that big? And exciting? Have I convinced myself I’m worth something because I made a list? Yes? Yes? Yes?

Sigh.

As much as I’ve always wanted to be the serenely-listening Mary in the new testament story when Jesus visits two sisters, deep down, I’ve always know I’m the Martha clanking away in the kitchen, furiously working the dishrag, trying to do all the things.

The things that could have waited.

Because they were just that. Things.

Jesus didn’t care about a clean counter or a swept-up floor. He wanted to be with his friends, Mary and Martha. Likewise, when my daughters come tromping down the stairs in the morning, they aren’t looking around going, Wow. I sure feel safe and secure at home because the house is picked up. Not a chance.

They’re looking for me.

Which means maybe I need to figure out a new approach. Maybe I need to stop measuring the value of my work by the things I’ve accomplished, and starting looking for more places to be available.

Maybe I need to listen to more Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, because if home is wherever I’m with you, then the best things I can offer my family are my empty, waiting hands.

And maybe one of those creepy automatic vacuum robots.

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Woman in the Bathroom

bathroom-signDear friend,

Can I presume to call you that? I hope so. Because that’s how I felt when we met eyes for a second in the women’s bathroom today.

I walked in with a baby in a car seat on one arm, a purse slung across my tired shoulder, and three little girls pushing to get around me. The girls were chattering excitedly, for a minute, I saw them as a stranger might.

I saw the black and white striped pants with the over-sized pink dress that Gabby loves to wear. I saw Ellis’s stained white tank top with the pink sparkly flamingo, and her black stretch pants that have somehow gotten a little too short over the summer. I saw Lucy and her curtain of self-cut bangs, trimmed up by her auntie but still managing to look like a short haired version of Farrah Fawcett. Gabby turned and I noticed I’d forgotten to comb out the bird’s nest in the back of her hair, the one she manages to recreate every night with great skill.

Then the baby started crying, and I whipped back in to the present, racing into the stall so we could get out before he started a full-blown beller of discontent.

I sat there on the toilet, counting the pairs of feet running past my door, and I thought of you, the stranger standing at the counter, watching all of us with a smile on your face and not a hint of judgement in your eyes while you washed your hands.

Friend, I’m so grateful for your kindness. I know most of the time, we are all a hot mess trying to get out the door. Someone’s shoes don’t fit, someone’s pants are dirty, and I’m desperately hoping that the blush I managed to swipe on my cheeks will make me look at least a little bit like I tried.

Heaven knows, I try. I wake up with Ellis at 6:45 most mornings, and haul the baby downstairs with us even though he’s not totally awake yet so that if he cries, he won’t wake up his twin sisters. I attempt semi-health conscious breakfasts and a load of laundry each day so that we have clean clothes. I remind myself to slam a glass of water after my two cups of coffee so I don’t get totally dehydrated and give the baby too much caffeine.

The day keeps going like that – full of tries that sometimes work, sometimes fail, but generally keep the wheels on the bus, and right now, that’s the best I can do.

So us out of the house this morning, dressed, fed, and generally in good moods, is a pretty good accomplishment. We’re definitely not the most stylish, but we’ve managed to get into the world and interact, and that makes life better.

And you, with your warm smile and kind heart? Well, I want to be more like you. I want to smile at people more. I want to not think twice about snarly hair or mismatched clothes, or even looks in general. I want to heap grace upon grace on everyone I come in contact with, knowing that being comfortable in another person’s presence is one of the greatest feelings ever.

Thanks friend-that-I-don’t-know. I needed that.

Maybe we all need a little more of that.

 

 

 

When “Some” Becomes “Enough”

A couple of weekends back, my brother and sister in law’s family of six came rumbling up our sun-dappled driveway, camper in tow. Almost as soon as the diesel truck engine killed, three eager bodies bounded out of the back seat, excited to join their cousins in play. Hugs were given, backs were slapped, baby cheeks kissed. And with the first slam of the screen door, the weekend began.

There were giggles and arguments. There were summer suntanned legs jumping circles around the trampoline. There were endless pushes on the swings underneath the maple tree, bodies sailing through the humid August air. There were acts of generosity scattered about like the water cups we left everywhere.

The adults rested best we knew how – simple meals, paper plates, life unscheduled. A beach day. A farm day. A meal out. Ice cream so blue it matched Ellis’s eyes. Late at night after the children were in bed, we sunk into the cushions of my worn-in sectional and had uninterrupted conversation, and it felt like luxury.IMG_20160813_173743967 (1280x720)

I love gatherings. I love the connection that flows through the compilation of people and shared experience. Somehow the hours that pass in the presence of others are like in-season blueberries – they taste sweeter, fuller than than the hours alone.

I also want to be honest. Planning, hosting, or attending gatherings with my four children is work. Capital W. O. R. K. work. Our house is in a constant state of flux. Entering it means the likely chance of sitting on rogue My Little Ponies or stepping on hidden legos that blend in with my rug. The sink is usually full of dishes, the fridge is half empty, and the bathroom never has toilet paper.

On the other hand, leaving home requires half a day’s packing and the Spanish Armada to carry all the bags, clothes, and supplies each child needs (or thinks they need) at this stage of life. Case in point: Sunday, we brought no less than two stuffed horses, one stuffed pig, four My Little Ponies, three miniature backpacks, two packages of kinetic sand, one ziplock bag of wikistix, one car seat carrying one infant, a diaper bag, a purse, and a jumbo pack of gum to a one hour church service.

You see what I’m saying.

Gathering with people in any fashion is suddenly like doing the limbo; it requires lots of “just do it” attitude and a fair amount of back-bending in order to get to the cheering on the other side.

That bugs me. I’m already paranoid that people won’t want to hang out with us because big families of small children are overwhelming. I wonder if my constantly distracted (hey stop eating that) demeanor is making me a bad friend. I worry that even when I try to connect with people, my imperfect efforts are not enough.

The other day, we were driving in the van and listening to an audio book of bible stories. Most of the time, I move all the sound to the back of the van (brilliant feature, Toyota) when the kids are watching a movie or listening to audio books, because let’s be honest. Even if it’s not silence, it’s at least a little bit more quiet, or a chance to catch up on a few phone calls, and every parent needs more of that.

But that day I forgot, and ended up listening along to the tale where Jesus feeds five thousand people. In the story, a huge crowd met up on a hillside to hear Jesus teach, but apparently no one had brought lunch. Clearly not in the days of McDonalds, and nowhere near their own homes, the people were starting to get hungry. So Jesus asked his friends to go find whatever food they could.

Just then, up walks a little boy. He has five loaves of bread and two fish in his lunch. I’m sure he knew it wasn’t enough to feed everyone. He probably questioned if it would be enough to feed himself for the whole day. Here the CD narrator pauses for a moment, and then the little boy’s voice pipes up.

“I have some.”

I’m still driving, but sudden tears blur the edges of my vision. Somehow I’ve stepped into the little boy’s sandals up on that hillside. I look down into his woven basket, taking in the meager amount. I look behind me and see crowd and their need. And then I lock eyes with Jesus, who reminds me of a simple truth.

Even if it doesn’t seem like enough, I always have some.

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image via pexels.com

Some means under-abundance. Some might require me to offer a messy, lived in home in lieu of a sparkling, well-managed house. Some means I usually leave the house with mismatched clothes and one wet wipe left in the diaper bag. Some means that right now, as mama of four, I work hard to do things most people don’t have to think twice about.

But Jesus says none of that matters. He wants my five small loaves and two stinky fish not because they’re enough, but because I’m willing to trust Him to work with the little I have.

Slowly, I’m relearning the value of offering myself within the context of getting together with people. Circumstances and surroundings don’t matter nearly as much as how I listen to and love the other person.

I’m finding that even though it’s work, or that it might be easier to hunker down alone with my kids, I’m blessed by the grace I find in others.

Imagine what could happen if we all pulled the real, crinkly some out of our back pockets. Imagine our personal offerings becoming a collective sum, with all of us feeling whole.

That’s a gathering I’d do almost anything to be a part of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thing About Weakness

IMG_20160729_191858382_HDR (720x1280)Today my husband went back to work after his time off in July. Like a record needle clicking into place, we found the schedule groove quickly, and without fuss. I packed him a lunch and a thermos of coffee. We traded off baby holding while the eggs were poaching and the smell of toasted bread filled the kitchen. And then he kissed the three of us who were awake before heading out into the cool summer morning.

At Griffin’s first weigh-in, our nurse gave me a side glance and asked a question that’s stuck with me ever since. “So Rach, what are you going to do with four kids?” (Four kids, age five and under.)

Can I be honest?

I don’t know.

I don’t know what our days will look like. I don’t know how I’ll get a cup of milk (no mom, I want the mermaid cup!) for one child and a snack for another while someone else needs help wiping in the bathroom and the baby is hangry and crying in the bouncer.

But today we’ll find out. And I have the feeling it will be a little like this morning’s breakfast – mostly normal, with a few new ingredients to incorporate… and the occasional bio hazard bodily fluid spill to clean up. (Before 10:30 am, I stripped toddler bed sheets, cleaned up one infant pooplosion, and managed an epic three-hurl milk vomit that covered me, the baby, and a two foot splatter radius on the kitchen floor.)

My prayer today sounds a little like this: God, if your strength is made perfect in weakness, I’m all in. I have nothing here but weakness.

But in case you and I are tempted to forget, there’s this thing about weakness. It doesn’t have to be permanent.

Take my stomach muscles. When I’m lying on my back, my stomach is as soft and wobbly as the jello my five year old insists will NEVER set. But then I pull myself to standing. And I do it over and over. I walk. I bend. I lift. And in time, those muscles will knit themselves back together.

Likewise, morning after morning, my family will wake up. And whatever the days starts out with is where we’ll work from. Some days will run smooth as a canoe across an August evening’s lake. Others will chop and blow. Inevitably, there will be outbursts and frustration and noise, noise, noise as we navigate our new normal. That’s okay.

We too are knitting a new, bigger version of our family together. Every day we’ll have to learn to make time for one another, to help one another, to wait for one another. My hope is that each of these moments will build into a practice, one that acknowledges our weakness but aims for strength anyway.

Maybe you’re here too, staring at your weakness in the mirror. Take heart. Start where you are, and ask Grace step in alongside you, task after task, situation after situation.

Strength will inevitably follow.

Dodging the details and waiting for change

On the second level of our farm house is an unfinished room, all honey-colored studs and rough edged planks. It smells like wood and quiet air that doesn’t move, and when we first moved in, we spent hours talking about what it could become.

The empty room is the upper level A-frame to a kitchen/bathroom/laundry addition that was put on the original farmhouse years ago, but never quite made it onto anyone’s list of priorities. It’s a big space, relatively speaking, and an uncommon find in a house its age.

After we found out baby number four would be joining our family, we did a few calculations. We currently have three bedrooms, only one of which accommodates our average-sized adult bedroom furniture. The other two are modestly minimal. (That’s a nice way of saying TINY. My eldest’s room won’t even hold a queen size bed and allow the door to shut.)

Bear with me. I know this is a privileged problem, and that numerous configurations of brothers and sisters have shared bedrooms since the beginning of time. But the empty room across the hall seemed like such a simple, obvious solution.

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Decision by decision, things came together. Our architect’s original plan to include a bathroom, play room, and bedroom (a roof bump out would be necessary) was pared down to a bedroom and a walled off space for a bathroom… a few years down the road.

Tradesmen walked across the spongy wooden floor and pulled our their measuring tapes, plotting light fixtures and heaters, support beams and closets. My belly began rounding out, and I started pinning nursery and A-frame bedroom ideas. Financing came through, bids were agreed on, and helpful family members assisted us in carrying the miscellany out of my handy, hoarding-prone space.

But, as with any project, there are variables. Schedules. Quiet times. Dreams that can only flesh themselves out by waiting the way this fourth baby waits, suspended in the strange in-between space of darkness and light, emptiness and existence.

That’s how it goes these days. We dangle our toes off the edge of change, my husband and I, bantering about life with four and how our daughters will adjust. We peek in our empty space and try to imagine what it will look like, what will go where. Meanwhile the baby traces his feet in wild patterns against my stomach, as though he too is tired of running in place below my ribs.

Transition is never easy. Waiting requires a certain release, a letting go of when, and how, and what finished will look like. It demands that I have no answer to the question “how is this going to work” when I think about the next year of our lives and the logistics of preschool and shopping carts  and navigating months of sleeplessness.

Change demands that we adjust what we’ve become comfortable with, gulping faith and air alike in the face of the unknown.

It demands trust in a Father God working for our good. 

It asks for belief that even when we feel hard-pressed on every side, we are not crushed. Confused, but not abandoned. Thrown down, but not broken.

Baby boy is due in 25 days. Both his being and bedroom remain unfinished – each in their own stage of becoming – and it’s hard, some days, to let that truth hang in the air. I want to know when. I want to see how.

I want to plan and prepare and paint. I want to lay on my stomach and say yes to jumping on the trampoline in the sprinkler with my giggling wet tribe. I want to hold a baby with my arms instead of my hips. In true Scandinavian fashion, I want to get on with it.

But today, there’s no getting on with anything. Today there’s a floor covered in toys and laundry that’s been haphazardly stacked on the dryer for days. Today there must be something made for family supper. Dishes. Bedtime. An evening meet-up with a friend. None of which has anything to do with having a baby or finishing a bedroom.

And maybe that’s the answer. Because when change comes, it asks us to simply do what needs to be done, until it no longer feels like anything has changed. Maybe this waiting period, this plodding of one foot in front of the other, provides the momentum we need to keep moving once change arrives.

Maybe there’s grace to be found as we release the details and simply wait for our hands to be filled with what comes next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amateur Farm Hour: Meet the Meat Birds!

Yesterday, I bought an extra-large dog kennel at a garage sale in Stillwater. I could tell the owner was ready to ask me a barrage of dog-lover questions, so I decided to head any awkwardness off at the pass. The conversation sounded a little like this:

Hey! Great day for a sale! Say, I’d like to buy your dog kennel.

No, I don’t have a dog. It’s for my meat chickens. 

Yes, I said MEAT chickens. I’m going to use it to transport them to the butcher.

No, they aren’t ever going to lay eggs.

No, I’m not going to butcher them myself. I’m 33 weeks pregnant.

Yes, we’re going to eat them.

Yes we named them.

Nugget.

Have a great day!

We’ve kept backyard egg layers for the last three years, and it’s been great. According to Hobby Farms, the eggs we get from our little flock contain less cholesterol, less saturated fat, increased vitamins A, E and D, more omega-3 fatty acids, and more beta carotene. As a bonus, we can also thank our ladies for entertaining our girls, keeping down the deer and wood tick population, and for, ahem  *fertilizing* our yard.IMG_20160513_185053750 (764x1280)

A few months back, sprawling in our chairs in front of the fire, Jason suggested we infuse the flock. Our egg laying chickens were coming into their later years of production, and wouldn’t it be nice to have the new birds already laying before the old birds quit? Oh, and by the way, what did I think about meat birds?

He went on to extol the virtues of home-grown birds: hormone-free, yard ranged, fed a good diet, killed humanely by a local butcher, and delivered direct to my freezer. And of course we’d get 25 of them. It should be worth our while, right? I tentatively agreed those were all true and good things, though I wasn’t sure where I was going to put the meat from that many birds in my already-full freezer.

Fast forward to this spring, when I got a call from the post office. Your live animal shipment is here and ready for pick up. I had a peek at them. They’re so cute! And noisy!

Small town living at its finest.

So we made a quick list, piled into the van, and picked up our new farm babies. As I leaned over the same counter I normally weigh ebay boxes on and bent back the cardboard, I couldn’t stop my own gigantic smile. They were indeed adorable, all yellow fluff and tiny beaks. I couldn’t wait to show the girls.IMG_20160426_160713635 (724x1280)

Predictably, Ellis loved them, Gabby said she loved them but immediately threw the one I gave her to hold on the floor, and Lucy regarded the chick I placed in her lap with a mixture of fear and glee and refused to touch it.

We made a quick stop at the feed store for another heat lamp, two bulbs, and a sack of feed I thought for sure would last almost a month, given that the chicks weighed less than a golf ball, and were roughly the same size. We were ready.

The next twenty-four hours were a circus. It was April in Minnesota, and temps were still dipping below 40 degrees at night. We opted to keep the chicks on the front porch in Rubbermaid storage totes lined with wood chips. Each tote had a doll-sized gravity waterer and a small dish of chick crumbles which resembled grape nuts.

We positioned the totes under the heat lamps and prayed the whole setup wouldn’t melt or spontaneously start on fire. There was also the issue of the girls.

After they got familiar with the chicks, there was no end to the requests to go in the entryway and see the babies. Rules, admonitions, and threats about not dropping, squeezing, or throwing them in the air were mostly ineffective.

Oh. There was also the time I almost killed every single one of them by putting them in the bathtub and cleaning off their bellies, which had gotten dirty from being in such tight quarters in the totes. Unfortunately, this also brought the chicks’ body temperature dangerously low and resulted in me on the bathroom floor with a towel, a blow dryer, and a lap full of pitifully noisy wet chicks that looked more alien than animal, but we don’t need to talk about that.IMG_20160520_102057918_HDR (896x1280)

Three weeks later, the meat chicks are more like awkward middle schoolers. They are growing so quickly that their feathers can’t keep up, which results in some weirdly patchy looking birds. They’ve also now gone through TWO fifty pound bags of feed. Apparently they are almost half grown at this point, which means my $10 dog kennel is going to come in handy in about a month.

Very soon, we’ll be letting them out into the fenced in chicken yard to scratch, peck, and eat weeds to their hearts content. The egg layers will lose their comfy quarters for a month, but Jason’s been hard at work building them a portable coop with egg boxes and nesting racks, so really, I think they’re getting the better end of the deal.IMG_20160510_195415244 (1280x765)

And us? Well… we’ll see. I’m keeping track of expenses because we want to make sure this venture is cost effective before we get any more ideas about doing it again, and in the meantime, I’m filling our five gallon chick waterer and gravity food bin every day like a BOSS.

Stay tuned. Or better yet, make dinner plans with us in July and ask for chicken to be on the menu.

***

PS! Recently, two very kind teachers at Taylors Falls unexpectedly gifted Jason and I with this sign. Dear Erin and Laura, we love your work and your generous hearts – thank you!

If you’re in the market, Wood Pallet Treasures creates some fantastic, customized stuff. Definitely check them out!

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