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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The House that Love Built

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This is the house. This is the house that love built. Love with all its empty Kleenex boxes and sticky door handles. Love with its scratched table and worn chairs and smudgy windows.  Love with half of a gallon of milk left in the refrigerator and no clean sippee cups.

This is the house for a mama and daddy and three small girls, and even if the arrangement of that shifts from time to time, it is still their home. The wooden floors carry the prints of their toes. The banister bears layer after layer of fingerprinting. The house itself is a failed crime scene – DNA everywhere. Everyone is to blame.

Everyone in this house blames love, and then rolls over laughing. There may be shouting one moment, and hugs the next. Love is a messy creature here, a golden retriever wet with rain, shake, shake, shaking, and the rain becomes blessing and falls like holy water over the whole of the works.

Nothing works in this house. The attempts at air-conditioning, for one. Order, for two. The silverware drawer latch for three. Someday it will all come crashing down, hot and humid, forks and spoons and knives everywhere, silver strewn across the black and white patchwork linoleum, and we will curse under our breath for sake of the girls and warn them, sternly, not to yank on the drawers. Again.

Again happens a lot. This is something we’re still getting used to. Parenting. Over. And Over. The same lessons patiently coming out of our mouths, slightly bitter after months of repetition. Be polite. But not just to be polite. Be kind. Respectful. Respectful means to listen with love. Start with listening. Please.

The littlest ones still say please without the p. Eeease. Eeease. Mulk, eeeese. We smile to ourselves, starting the game all over again. It’s important to be polite. Say please. Just. Say. Please. It’s hard to admit it feels rote.

But rote is routine, and routine is the lifeblood of this house. Routine is safe and healthy and puts everyone quietly in their beds by eight o’clock pm. Routine allows us to clean the kitchen one more time for the day, nesting the pans, wiping the counters. Routine is space, precious small though it may be.

Even routine startles at the computer when little feet shuffle down the stairs, blinking in the dark of the house. It holds loose hands with the four-year-old, ushering her to the bathroom, then carrying her back upstairs, a summer blonde head heavy on the collarbone.

All of this could feel heavy. The imperfect house, the rearranged parents, the sleepless child. Some toy hard and sharp underfoot. Something we kick away because it doesn’t belong in our path. Goodnight, nuisance.

Goodnight. Good morning. Move on. Move on because heaviness is something we are accustomed to, and weight is just something else in our arms. All of these hearts to carry. All of this love.

What a Mama Needs Most on Mother’s Day

The internet has literally exploded in the last few days with all things mother. My inbox is a glut of all the different ways one can celebrate moms – Flowers! Brunch! Pastel clothing! Chocolate! Workout gear! Kid-friendly recipes! Family time! Jewelry! Craft Projects! Plants!

I’m starting to agree with Anne Lamott when she says, “No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day.” I can’t go anywhere online without being confronted by tear-jerking, snot-inducing, warm and fuzzy YouTube videos about the sacrifices of moms in bathrobes making school lunches before the sun comes up.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally watch them. I’m a sucker for a good emotion-inducing experience. And if you’re in the mood, definitely check out this one about the one word you’d associate with your mom, and this one where the little blindfolded kids pick their moms out of a crowd, and this one and this one from the Olympics which both make me BAWL.

It’s OK. Go get some Kleenex. You’re welcome.

There’s something that sticks out to me from all these videos and pictures and ads. The ones that really get me sniffling are the ones that show moms in the mess and mundanity of every day. I love watching a mother combing a child’s hair, adjusting a baby’s blanket, wrapping a twisted ankle. Why?

These are the moments that no one usually sees.

Let’s face it. Motherhood is comprised mainly of stuff no one else will ever notice: the late night stumble into a crying child’s bedroom, the scrubbing of stains, the lunch that no one mentions. These things are done every day by a quiet army of women across the world, women who know at least one thing about motherhood that’s always true.

Mothering is lonely work.

Care and love and constant attention are draining on even the most patient of women. And just when we think we have a hold of what motherhood is supposed to mean, or look like, or feel like, it twists and flips and we’re left with nothing but a handful of slime.

Big_4391833_0827Sometimes it’s a day to celebrate. Sometimes it’s a day to feel, to remember, to be overwhelmed. But always, it should be a day where mothers everywhere are SEEN.

Seen for the work they do, (or did.) For the carpets they vacuum. For the meals they put together. For the budgets they balance. For the clothing they wash and the miles they drive and the hours they spend at the table, the piano, the game.

Not that motherhood is all about work, but those things – those boring, every day unseen things – are acts of love. When we shine a flashlight on them, even for just a day, we tell our mothers a very important thing.

I see you.

I see your love tucked in Tupperware and folded in clean jeans. I see your heart in your offers to help, to paint, to take my little ones for an overnight. I see your attentiveness in your phone calls, your emails, your vigilance, your prayers.

I see you even when you’re gone. I look at pictures of you, and see the laundry basket in the background, the pot simmering on the stove. I see clean clothes and combed hair. I see the way you held me as a baby, like I was the most precious treasure you’d ever found.

I see you.

Which can also lead to other great phrases like, I love you. I appreciate you.

You know. Gooey stuff. Good stuff. Heart stuff. It’s Mother’s Day after all.

See her, and let her know she’s seen.

What 50 Shades of Grey Teaches my Daughters About Love

Dear friends,

Yesterday, I spent the day scrolling through my social media feeds, overwhelmed with the amount of things being shared about 50 Shades of Grey. There is constant buzz about the movie, and it seems the world is both intrigued and unsettled by its existence.

EllisI hesitate to add my voice for a few reasons. One, I don’t want you to think I’m judging you if you’ve read the book or plan to see the movie. Why? Because, friend, I care about you. You’re here in this community of people, and your thoughts, feelings, and opinions matter to me. Which leads me to number two. I care about you. I care about me. I care about my daughters, and the world outside our door that I must raise them in.

But any time we care about something, it becomes infinitely hard to talk objectively, and talk well about it.

If you’re looking for a review on the details of the movie, or specific examples from the book, I’m sorry. I’ve got nothing. I haven’t read the book. I don’t plan to see the movie. That means this post will be short, and to the point.

There is one thing that concerns me most with the widespread popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, and it’s this: mainstream sexual violence is now acceptable.

You can sit on the bus, in the break room, or on the exercise bike and read about a man whipping a woman for his own pleasure without thinking twice. You can grab dinner with the girls, and then head to the movies to watch sexually explicit acts next to someone’s daughter, or someone else’s son.

It’s acceptable because it’s popular.

But if this type of sexual violence is popular now, what will be left by the time my daughters become women and start looking for a man to build a life with? Should I teach them that it’ll be okay for their future husbands to throw them against the headboard on their wedding night? That it’s normal to submit to being beaten with an object during intimacy?

Moving the societal norm in this direction is frightening. Popularizing sexual violence in mass media means that this generation of watchers will come away with a new idea of what might be okay in the bedroom. If Hollywood sets the standard of what’s desirable, and X million viewers walk away thinking that Christian Grey is a pretty great guy, I firmly believe that our children are in danger of losing sight of what love actually looks, feels, and acts like.

For the record, here’s a really great list of things that love IS:

Love is patient. (No masking tape necessary.)

Love is kind. (Whips – no thanks.)

It does not envy (or leave bruises), it does not boast (or bite), it is not proud (domination has no place.)

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (It’s the opposite of Christian Grey.)

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. (No locked pleasure rooms necessary.)

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

This is the kind of love I want my daughters to find. This is the kind of love I want you and me, in our relationships, to be wrapped up and around with.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s day. I’m not going to tell you what to do, or how to do it. I’m simply going to ask you to compare what love looks like in 50 Shades of Grey with what love looks like from the list above (taken from 1 Corinthians 13), and decide which type you’d rather celebrate.

When creativity goes missing

IMG_7177Forgive me for being quiet lately.

My creative process packed a rucksack and went whistling away down December’s open road.

It hasn’t yet come wandering back. And now I’m on a mission to find it.

This is easier said than done. With three small girls at home with me during the day, the needs are endless. Someone is hungry. There are booster trays to wash, and sink traps clogged with tiny trees of broccoli. There are miniature fights to break up. Frowns to tickle out. Books to be read.

Every day, creative ideas form and cluster like soap bubbles. And then I look at the clock. And my to-do list. And back to the clock.

Someone <skips a nap><cuts a molar><scribbles on the computer screen with permanent marker>. The soap bubble idea pops.

Everything falls in a swirl down the drain.

***

One of the authors I studied in grad school was a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ($5 if you can pronounce that) who says, “Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they are unanimous: They all love what they do.”

I fell into a slump after Christmas. The house felt claustrophobic and close – newly gifted items didn’t fit into my already less-than-perfect organization scheme. Suitcases from coming and going needed to be unpacked. Everything needed attention.

Finally, I gave in and spent two weeks using my free time (a precious commodity) doing things I didn’t necessarily love. I organized. I laundered. I folded. I scrubbed. I purged. I went to bed strangely stressed, and woke up tired even after eight hours of solid sleep.

I had no idea something was wrong until the night I put the girls to bed, kissed my husband, and went to worship team practice at my church. For the next hour and half, I banged out chords on that big black grand piano. I sang. Slowly, I fell out myself and into Grace.

Leaving the building that night, I felt lighter. It occurred to me that singing was the only thing I’d done in two weeks that was for sheer enjoyment.

Not because I had to. Not because I needed to. Because I wanted to.

Just then, I saw my creative process waving in the distance.

Deep breath. Right.

***

The last couple of weeks have been a study in balance, and slowly but surely, I can see my creativity levels start to build.

I’m baking bread. I’m making up stories for the girls. I’m going to the gym with a regularity that surprises even me. Today I’m sitting down at the computer, wading through the rhythm of putting words the page.

They aren’t perfect. They don’t have to be. I’m happily lost in my craft, and that’s the point. When I’m doing the things I love, I’m a better, kinder, more expansive version of myself.

Friend, if you’ve somehow found yourself in a similar creative slump, please take a deep breath. Ignore the overflowing laundry basket, put in a pizza, and schedule a block of time to get out and do something you love.

Let it overtake you. Change you. Give you new ideas. Your creativity is the truest expression of who you are. Don’t let it get away.

In Plenty and In Want

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Thanksgiving came in a beautiful tide, activities and planning washing in and out of our weekend. There was family, there were friends, there were two gallon ziplock bags of the best leftover smoked turkey ever.

Somewhere in the middle of my celebrating, a family down the road from us faced a tide of their own, one that took their daughter away and wouldn’t give her back.

Gratitude is like a beach full of startled gulls, lifting and swooping in unison. They settle and the beach is thick with their presence. They leave and the emptiness is wide. Deafening.

Peru 124Some days, a house is brimming with life and activity. Others, the afternoon sky turns gray and everything falls to sadness.

The awful truth is that we must somehow live with them both.

The times of feasting and fasting.

The places where gratitude washes over our souls with all the goodness in the world, and the places left when the tide goes out, waterlogged sand crumbling beneath our feet.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

Reality gives us no other choice but to accept it. The table is full. The bed lies empty.

But we have a harder time with the next sentence. The one where Job says, Blessed be the name of the Lord. Because whether it’s in plenty or in want, we get overwhelmed. Finishing the phrase is the last thing on our minds.

Goodness carries us into laughter and revelry, busyness and schedules, making it easy for the heart to forget its praise.

Sadness takes our breath away. We are rocked with confusion, questioning everything, our eyelids burning with salty tears.

In both circumstances, we often find it easier to say nothing.

And then Love steps in.

The party dies down, and friends begin helping with the dishes. Seeing their hands scraping plates draws gratitude back to the table.

A community gathers. Floods a sorrowing threshold with meals and cards. Offers anything. Everything. Slowly, heads are lifted.

Love goes to work, and somehow, our mouths remember the rhythm of the word Blessed.

Because rhythm leads to movement. Movement to awakening.

And Love stretches out its nail-scarred hands, teaching us how to be present to one another wherever we are.

Whole or broken.

Full or empty.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

When kindness makes a difference

downloadBecause the refrigerator shelves were empty.

Because there would be seven extra mouths to feed.

Because there must always be bananas and cheese to make my world go round.

Because there was a new Aldi in Forest Lake.

Because Aldi is like crack for the cheap grocery maven.

Because there are double seated carts.

Because I have two babies and a three year old.

Because the three year old has laughing blue eyes, and is the very definition of mischievous.

Because gum.

Because we needed fruit, and bread, and things to make the guests feel at home.

Because the cart was close to overflowing.

Because the babies started shrieking.

Because big sister had to use the bathroom.

Because twice. In five minutes.

Because tandem screams in tiled hallways are louder.

Because we had to leave before the entire store gave us the evil eye.

Because we unloaded the cart, item by item.

Because I reached for my debit card, only to find it missing.

Because Aldi doesn’t take credit cards. Or checks.

Because I stood still, calculating my losses in terms of time, card, groceries, naps.

Because there were four people in line behind me.

Because one was an angel.

Because she had mercy in her wallet and it paid for my groceries.

Because I wrote her a check with shaky, grateful hands.

Because she asked if I needed any extra help.

Because that question is like chocolate ice cream in August.

Because we loaded up the groceries in canvas bags.

Because I buckled in my girls, then searched the van for my missing card.

Because I wanted a piece of gum.

Because there was my card, tucked behind the spearmint.

Because a mischievous someone proclaimed that it FIT!

Because grace has to laugh instead of cry.

Because Love is always on the lookout for those in need.

Because God, rich in mercy, first loved us.

Just Because.