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.

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Braving the Ordinary

We sat side by side in patio chairs on the lawn, my friend and I, not minding the vacation-length grass rubbing against our ankles. Our sweet kiddos ran back and forth across the yard, checking in occasionally. Warm sun filtered through the leaves, fruity sangria sparkled red in mason jars. Summer spread wide arms around the whole yard.

We talked life and babies-gone-toddlers-gone-school-age, and here and there, we talked words. She had just finished her second book, and I was lamenting my own lack of story. Lack of time. Lack of anything I felt was interesting enough to say.

Because sometimes it feels that way. I am happily caught here, in the American Midwest, a stay at home mom raising my babies and trying to pull zucchini from the garden without getting too many barbs in my hands. Every day is some version of routine. Eggs or cereal or toast for breakfast. Play. Easy lunch. Naps. Making through the long haul of the afternoon. Supper. Baths. Bedtime. Cleanup. Reset. Press start on the dishwasher.

It feels as familiar as summer sun imprinting warmth on my skin. I love it. And yet. Normalcy makes a boring story.

Or does it?

My friend disagreed, saying that the sacred thrives in everyday moments. The ones I often think are too normal, too boring to write about. But the more I thought about it, later folding miniature clothes and setting them in a half moon around me, I had to admit it. She was right.

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Perhaps there’s bravery in living our every day, scheduled out, routine moments. Bravery in holding hands, or pressing our foreheads together, making room for love in the middle of doing the dishes. Bravery in being willing to see double vision – ordinary and extraordinary – when tomatoes turn from flowers into fruit, or the baby who is no longer a baby says eeeeeeeessse as her chubby hands reach for the ice cubes in my water glass.

Miracles in the guise of routine. Seasons. Growth. I could brush them off so easily. After all, tomatoes grow every year. Babies learn to say words. Life is science, all reason and conclusion wrapped into sound bites that embed themselves in our brains.

But bravery says there is also meaning to be made of routine and habit and things that happen both inside and outside of our control.

Bravery says life may be simple and calm, but it is no less worth recording if that’s what it takes to make us hold it up to the light and see the pinpricks of Grace.

We simply have to be willing.

#MyWritingProcess and why it works (for me)

When I first was asked to take part in the #MyWritingProcess blog hop, I laughed. Unlike other writers, I don’t have much of a formal process. I sit at a desk. I write. I get up and separate children and toys. I drink more coffee. I change a diaper. I write some more.

That’s not very inspiring. It’s definitely not a cabin in the woods, or a quiet coffee shop. But maybe that’s the thing. Writing for me isn’t about the perfect setting and the best computer and the quiet and the trendy music playing in the background. Writing is about clearing a space in the mess of normal living for something that’s important.

quoteStephanie from Uptownerupnorth knows all too well what that means. She and her husband and baby are on a 4th generation family farm – a real, functioning, machinery-filled farm – in Northern Minnesota. Farms take time. Farms take everything. But in the middle of all that, they give you the most amazing things to notice, and through her blog posts, I see Stephanie taking advantage of that. Stephanie, thanks for inviting me to take part in the hop, and for the words you too are making time to put down.

So. What am I working on?

I think this is supposed to be a “my next big project” sort of question, but who am I kidding. I have twins and a toddler. I’m working on making sure we have enough diapers to cover tiny butts and enough apples in the fridge to satisfy my daughter’s new three a day habit.

In the odd times I find myself at the computer, I hammer out a blog post, scramble to keep up with emails, and scour Craigslist for things like “medium-sized outdoor dogs that don’t eat chickens.”

Someday I’ll save enough cash to go back and finish my MFA in Creative Writing. In the meantime, I go back and edit my poems, save them in yellow electronic folders marked “done” or “in progress” or “what the.” Once in a while, I do this scary thing called submitting.

And every so often, when the warm little bodies of my girls are heavy and horizontal for the night, I find my way to the keyboard. I’m slowly circling around ideas of food and memory and fellowship, and of this strange word called hospitality. I don’t know where it’s going, and that’s ok. Sometimes it’s better that way.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Is this a trick question? My work is simply my own – my musings, my questions. If you wanted to put me in a bucket, I’d tell you I try to write in Midwestern plain speak. That I need my descriptions to be like mirrors. That I have a voice just as you have a voice. That we all deserve to hear one another in whatever medium we choose to speak through.

Why do I write what I do?

There is no escaping the routine of my daily life, but through writing, I make myself take the time to see my routines as rituals, and this makes me want to live differently.

I write about faith because Jesus is constantly shaping me. I write about grace because being shaped hurts. I write about parenting because it is the event that has changed me the most. I write about food because I love to eat. I write about the ideas and words that tail me through my days, hanging out in my rear-view mirror.

I write because I live in a world that deserves examination. Sometimes that’s in poetry, sometimes it’s in a blog post, sometimes it’s creative non-fiction. Sometimes it’s an email, a caption, a hash tag. But all of these things make me pay attention, and that’s what I need.

How does your writing process work?

People are posting great pictures of scrawly notebook pages and favorite places to write, but for me, it’s about efficiency. I don’t have a lot of time to write, so when I do get a moment, it’s serious business. Here are my unofficial rules:

  • Get something to drink. Anything. (Ok not anything. I never drink milk while I write.) Usually it’s either coffee or water. Call me a purist. Or call me cheap. That’s just usually what I have on hand.
  • Sit up straight. I have to pay attention to my words. I don’t write well if I’m slouched over, sprawled on the couch, or even leaning back in my chair. I always sit on the edge of my seat, like some sort of over-eager school girl.
  • Skip any music that has words. I need my mental playing field not to have any opponents. And yes, I did play sixth grade volleyball. How did you know? (My sports metaphors rock.)
  • Know when to break. You can only push so hard on an idea that’s not fully developed. If I’m not getting somewhere with a thought, I leave it and come back.
  • Come back. Preferably with another beverage. Make yourself come back even if you don’t want to. What happens can be amazing. Or it can stink, and then you just save it away as fodder for another idea later on. Either way, come back. Always come back.

The next three writers in the blog hop are crazy different, and crazy talented. Allow me to introduce them, and to encourage you to go visit them next Tuesday for their own thoughts on writing and process.

Kasey Jackson is a fellow twin mama I met in a Facebook group focused on twins born in 2013. Somehow when I was whining about diapers and mopping, she finished a book. I know. Overachiever. She’s also hilarious. There may or may not be a series of Instagram videos entitled “Kasey vs.” that make me snort laugh whenever they show up in my feed. Her blog is focused mainly on her book, Blue, so you should definitely head over and see what it’s about. You can even download a free preview of the first chapter, which means you’ve got something to read on the bus ride/couch/coffee shop chair tonight.

Anna Palmquist is one of the magical people in my life I wish I got to hang out with more. Luckily, she’s a part of my writing group, and sometimes, when she busts out an idea so full of wisdom and humor and reality, I’m floored I get to say I know her. Anna recently started grad school and is focusing on writing Young Adult Fiction, which is totally hip. She also recently started blogging at Writing Young Adult Fiction , which is exactly as is sounds. For those of you that love process and prose and the YA world, this is your new landing pad.

Courtney Fitzgerald possesses a wisdom that comes hard-earned. She writes poignantly real prose in her blog Our Small Moments and her work appears in the collection I Just Want to Be Alone (I Just Want to Pee Alone). She’s a fantastic photographer and busy mama of two, and may or may not have time to take part in the hop but either way, go read her stories, marvel at her pictures and be reminded about the importance of living in appreciation for the ones you love. Oh, and one more brag. She’s family. 🙂

Easter is over – now what?

IMG_5142I always imagine the day after all of Jesus’ friends discovered that he was alive to be a little, well, weird.

I mean really, what do you do with that?

One of your best friends, a person you’ve admired and followed and tried really hard to be like, dies a horrible death. You’re shocked. Numb. Scared something similar might happen to you, given the political climate.

And then, a few days later, he’s standing in front of you.

Your mouth goes dry, agape. You hug, but you still don’t know how to believe the truth of what you’re holding. And then you’re sitting down on a mountainside, having supper and saying things like, hey Jesus, will you pass the cheese?

***

Lent is over. Easter is finished. I’ve been reminded. I’ve remembered. I’ve worked really hard at giving up my anger to be more like Jesus. And meanwhile, my candy jar is full of leftover jelly beans and I need to stain treat and wash the little white dresses all my girls wore on Sunday.

I spent yesterday unpacking from our trip home to South Dakota. (By unpacking, I mean I managed to put the suitcases and bags in the rooms they were supposed to go, and then took the girls outside.) We played on the hill in our front yard, my daughter running up and down, laughing and singing her bright voice into the sun-drenched morning.

But I had this nagging thought. I couldn’t remember what actually happened next in Jesus’ story. Death. Resurrection. But then what?

So this morning I pulled down my Greek comparison Bible, and I paged through to the end of the books where Jesus’ friends recounted what had happened.

“But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”  Matthew 28:16

“And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. And while they still could not believe it for joy and were marveling, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” And they gave Him a piece of broiled fish.”  Luke 24:38-42

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and surely, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

“After the Lord Jesus has spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” Mark 16:19 & 20

Words from my high school confirmation-type class came flooding back. Ascension. Great Commission. Words that probably didn’t mean much to the people left standing on the mountain.

I imagine someone digging a front toe into the dirt. Another brushing off lunch crumbs. All of them wondering what to do next.

Somehow, the ordinary act of living didn’t feel like enough.

Jesus had said to go and make disciples, but Jesus was gone. How was that going to work? I can hear them questioning one another, ears still processing the phrase “teach them to observe all that I commanded you.”

***

Two thousand years later, I’m still processing it too. What do I do when the hype of a religious holiday is over? Has it changed me at all? What do I do next?

For me, it’s continuing on my journey of giving up anger. There is still work to be done. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully uproot my anger, or if it will continue to be a part of my character that needs constant pruning.

I do know that eventually, Jesus’ friends figured out that the best way to do what He asked them to do was to tell His story. And like any memory, it became more real, more full, more brimming with truth and meaning at every telling.

It wasn’t a once a year sermon preached from a pulpit or a stage. It was God and man. A meal shared with friends. The thread of a story piecing together every day’s living.

Love.

 

Take Care, Make Care

Take CareThe gray presses down with two hands on my shoulders. I sing nursery rhymes and dutifully remove grape stems. I lay my girls down for their naps, thankful that they are resting but loathe to let go of their little hands.

Sometimes, parenting is lonely work.

Not because I am alone (I am RARELY alone), but because day-to-day, it’s hard to see anything change. Diapers get dirty at regular intervals. The princess dresses are out of the toy box by 9:45 AM every day. We eat off the same silverware, drink from the same glasses that then need to be washed. And washed. And washed.

Routine is beautiful. Routine is tiring.

My husband leaves for work at the same time every day, carrying the same coffee mug and rugged leather briefcase. My parents have farmed the same dirt since they were married. I have friends who have worked for the same company for over a decade.

And I think we all feel it. The weight of sameness.

The funny thing is this – different is rarely better. But I don’t always believe that. I believe that so and so’s recent trip to a tropical locale makes them happier. I believe I’d feel better if my hair were just a different color. I believe what I see in a picture is an accurate reflection of the whole.

I believe the untruths, get a little cranky, and then stop doing one very important thing. I quit taking care of my present day self.

Do you know what I mean? As in, if I can’t have all the apples, I don’t want any of them.

OK. I don’t stop entirely. I eat. I brush my teeth. I try to start the day in clean clothes. But some days, that’s as far as I go. I don’t devise fun games that make my toddler’s face stretch wide in smile. I read stories without doing the voices. I slap turkey melts on lunch plates for the third day in a row.

I let sameness overwhelm me, body and soul.

It’s easy to forget that in order to make time to care for others, I first have to take time to care for myself. I know, I know. We hear this a lot. You know why? Because it’s true. Marguerite Lamb, in an article for American Baby, said, “While we can’t control our children’s happiness, we are responsible for our own. And because children absorb everything from us, our moods matter… Consequently, one of the best things you can do for your child’s emotional well-being is to attend to yours.”

I think this applies to more than just parents and children though. It’s about the way we all live in relation to one another. Caring for ourselves makes us apt to be kinder to the world around us. Why? Because caring for ourselves makes us feel good. And when we feel good, we act accordingly.

At the risk of you thinking I’m a hedonist, I’m going to share three almost fail-safes that make me feel good, consequently making me a better spouse, mama, friend, co-worker, and fellow passenger on this earth.

Eat Good Food

We all have to eat. Every day, three times a day (if we’re lucky.) But I’ve noticed that what I eat determines how I feel. There’s a whole pile of science behind this that I’m not going to go into here, but straight up, I feel better when I eat yogurt and berries and scrambled eggs for breakfast than when I eat cereal.

I like cereal. Don’t get me wrong. Cereal is easy. But that’s the problem. When we start eating food because it’s easy, we stop caring whether or not it’s actually good. And if it’s not good, well, what’s the point?

Good food doesn’t mean difficult food, and I think that’s what derails most people. It’s just about having the right ingredients. If you want to make an amazing lunch, you have to have more in your kitchen than peanut butter and jelly.

So sit down. Make a list of foods you like to eat, foods that make you feel energized, foods that are colorful and bright and exploding with flavor. Then hit up the market. It’s a first class luxury to have a place that sells mangoes, peppers, chard and Gouda just miles from our homes. Take advantage of it.

Crank the Tunes

When we get bored during the afternoons, my living room turns into a disco. We can stream Pandora through our TV, which means that on any given day you’ll find us rocking to Raffi, bebopping with Billie, or pretending we have club moves like the Black Eyed Peas.

Sound crazy? It probably is. But music with a beat can immediately perk me up. It’s like a mental knuckle-crack and shoulder roll. Suddenly I’m out of my own head. I’m being silly with my daughters, swinging and twirling, boogieing and laughing.

I used to do this at work too (not the dancing part – Lord help us). I’d bring an ear-bud and plug it into my phone, and then delve into my next project with renewed gusto. Music is like a mental reset button, and it’s as easy as pushing play.

Love what you Use

I’m no minimalist, but I do like keeping my possessions pretty basic. I buy what I love, and then I use the heck out of it. At this stage of life, I’ve learned that “stuff” doesn’t make me happy, but quality and usefulness do.

So use what you love, and love what you use. If something in your cupboard or drawer annoys you, start a thrift store or garage sale box and pass it on. IMG_20140403_111741_015~2Buy what you know you need, and then take pleasure in using it day after day.

I recently found a really great website called Raise.com that lets me sell old gift cards and buy new ones at a discount. Someone could probably film an episode of Hoarders on the way I collect gift cards, so I was stoked to find a way to sell unused cards and make some cash, or replace them with cards that got me closer to a new item I needed. Check it out sometime. It’s a great way to get use out something that otherwise just sits.

Trust me when I say that I know life is busy. No one really has time for extras. But taking the time to do something that brightens your day usually means you make someone else’s day brighter as well, simply by virtue of your own happiness.

And isn’t that how we’re meant to live with one another? With kindness, with patience, and above all, with care?

 

Redeeming this common life

Our wood burning ceramic stove stopped working last week. 24/7 constant burning since November caused a good buildup in the chimney, and one morning, after building a fire, I found my eyes burning with back-drafted smoke.

We have an alternate heat source, so it’s not like we’re walking around in parkas. But it’s been cooler in our normally semi-tropic home. I tell myself this is good for my anger – that cool air has long been a refuge for finding calm, like a smoker retreating to the deck while a family argument overheats the house.

But really, the broken stove is just life. Like so many things overused or late, tired or worn, eventually we all have a moment where we choke.

Confession: I have been angry this week.

I have muttered under my breath about my daughter’s unwillingness to potty train. I bit my lip twice in one meal, ala Jim in The Office Season 9, and allowed it to strangle my morning. I have stomped, yelled, sighed in frustration. Snow has yet again covered our hopes for life outside, and it all feels so sloppy.

Heavy.

I have pray/begged for help, only halfheartedly remembering to think about Jesus carrying the weight of my wrongs up Golgotha.

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Yesterday, Ellis decided it would be a good day to snap all my chalk sticks in half during art time. So I made it a chance to update my chalkboard, two inch chalk sticks notwithstanding.

IMG_20140320_165351_511It wasn’t hard to pick something – this quote had been cornering me all week.

“By honoring this common life, nurturing it, carrying it steadily in mind, we might renew our households and neighborhoods and cities, and in so doing, might redeem ourselves from the bleakness of private lives spent in frenzied pursuit of sensation and wealth.”

It’s a beautiful quote by Scott Russell Sanders, but strangely enough, what struck me most was how common can mean different things.

I know what Sanders was getting at was common, as in what we share. But I couldn’t help thinking about it the other way. Common as in ordinary.

Life at home with little ones is fraught with ordinary. It’s about repetition and routine. It’s cheerios for breakfast twice a week, and copious amounts of yogurt.

This Lent season, it’s me praying while I nurse in the blue black dawn of the morning. It’s pushing down anger with something heavy enough to sit in its place. But I’m still having a hard time finding an elephant big enough for every job.

My anger is common. But I want to take it out of the ordinary equation.

I want to carry its battle steadily in mind in order to find spiritual renewal. Renewal for those within my house, and those outside of it.  Renewal for my actions, renewal for my mind.

Attacking my common, ordinary anger will redeem my ability to live a common, shared life. And suddenly, it’s clear. This too is a version of the cross – dying to self, living in community with a great cloud of witnesses.

This is Jesus making a way.