The Worst New Years Resolution Ever

On New Years Eve I read a chapter in my Mitford novel and fell asleep by 10:30 pm. I know, with all these kids I really should be more responsible.

But then the whole house began shaking at midnight and I woke up very confused. I thought the Surry Power Plant had exploded and I couldn’t remember where I put the calendar that tells us what to do. There was a child in the bed crying and the house was lit up in all sorts of colors before I finally remembered, but not with enough cognition to form sentences:

New Years Eve. Fireworks. Zable Stadium. People cheering.  Father Tim?

Welcome 2016. In like a Nuclear Power Plant.

Last week, I swept up the tree needles and packed away the inflatable and the ornaments, of which now 65% are broken or mangled. Sweet pictures of preschool faces and handprints and Elsa and Anna missing limbs are the themes that dominate our tree. I packed with more care for the few whole ornaments left and  I got excited for a New Year.

I don’t usually make a lot of goals. But this year felt different. There are some milestones this year. I’ll be 35 which is a fake milestone that I’m so ready to  get angsty about. I’ll have a ten year old by the end of this year. TEN. I’d be angsty about that if the joy of seeing  her become weren’t so wondrous. But its been ten years since we landed back in Williamsburg. Ten years since I began this journey of parenting. I’m officially done being pregnant and one day soon plan on sleeping like it. I was all in for 2016 to be BIG. By January 2nd, I already planned out three books I was going to write, two organizations to join, and a public position to run for.

Then I heard the VOICE: Stay the course.

I didn’t think the VOICE was talking to me at first because I don’t speak nautical. But then I heard it again: Stay the course.

This is the Worst New Years Resolution Ever. Admit it,  no one wants this goal.

I want  to do something new. I want to start something. New things are just…shinier. As if they won’t requite the heavy lifting of these burdensome familiar tasks. Maybe I’ll get more credit, be less annoyed? Maybe it won’t be hard?

I’m in the fourth year of my Masters degree at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Each step has been affirming. But in a 5 year program, year 4 is hard. I’m far enough from the start that I’ve lost my beginners momentum but lack the adrenaline of the final push. Stay the course. As much as I would love join a new group, I’m already part of a church, neighborhood, and three school communities that would benefit from my presence more than those who have yet not met me. Stay the course. Those people I’ve committed myself to love and care for? They’re still here. Stay the course. The Christmas Cards I took a break from three days before Christmas that still need to be sent? I’m going to finish! You will get yours soon. Or in time for next year.

A lot of you are called to big changes this year. Go for it. Say the Big Yes. Take the leap. Shake things up. Do what you have been waiting to do, what you know it’s time for, or past time for.

But does anyone else need to join me in the Worst Resolution Ever? Are you already in school? Finish. Do you have a job? Get better at it. Are you married? Stay married. Keep parenting. Keep being a neighbor to your old neighbors and being a friend to your old friends.  Love the people you already love deeper. Keep showing up at those places that expect you and contribute more. Trade out new projects for new habits – new habits to enable you to keep on keeping on. Stay the course. 

Monday morning the kids went back to school, our street was lined with Christmas trees to be picked up by the city, and my brother and sister in law were in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia spending their first night with their new son. Only my brother would have timed the adopting of his child precisely with the United States premiere of the final season of Downton Abbey the night before. Selfish! He knows it’s that show and Mitford for me and we don’t have Apple TV. PBS in real time- it’s all I’ve got. And in five years they never learned to speak louder on that show. You have to concentrate. But I couldn’t. I was thinking about them meeting Ben face to face, after a year of growing to love him through pictures and paperwork.

They had flown to Beijjing and then to Hohhot and then upon meeting Ben, received the news of a required 5 hour drive deeper into Inner Mongolia to Bayan Nur to get his passport then a flight to Guangzhou and then Hong Kong before flying home. (I just act like I know where these places are, I’m clueless. Travis and I had a lengthy debate over the term “Inner Mongolia.” Yes that’s the full official name of the region. No, not like Northern Virginia. )

If you have ever witnessed or participated in adoption, you’ve seen and felt the  tremendous fighting love necessary – the kind that breaks down walls and barriers and can out-wait any waiting. But there’s a severe commitment required- in vans deep in China, and for the long haul of integrating someone into your family. You can almost hear the community of followers inhaling and exhaling with each post of detour and victory, and do you know what we’re all whispering across the miles and time zones?  Stay the course. Bring him home.

Happy New Year Friends. May we all welcome with joy whatever meets us on the road of 2016, be it glorious adventure or beautiful steady routine…


One Thanksgiving Question

We get in deep on Thanksgiving over here.  Leila has a drum she beats and a headdress she wears and a macaroni necklace people keep stepping on and shattering until I suggested putting the remnants inside the drum to create an Indian drum maraca effect. This did not make her stop crying.

Olivia gives me every historical detail on the pilgrims as only a 1st grade learning sponge can  and Sophia’s 3rd class walked to the post office to mail letters of gratitude.

Ruthie says “thank you.” It’s her third expression after DONE! and uh-oh. Talk about whole language. If I had to choose three expressions to get by with for the rest of my life, I think those three could make it happen. She uses “thank you,”actually as “please” because she’s confused or really maybe because she’s smarter than all of us. “Thank you” actually works as “please”.  A passionate “thank you” entices me to give her what she wants much more than a begging “please. ” I might try this strategy myself. Thank you join me.

Anyways, tonight we were reading a fine piece of literature entitled “Thanksgiving Mice.” The mice are putting on a play in which they are pilgrims and Indians. By the way, this is why children are brilliant. Mice are now anthropomorphizing into pilgrims but only as characters in the play they are producing for the other woodland creatures who arrive wearing scarves. And everyone is buying in.

The story reminded me, though, of what exactly the Pilgrims were grateful for (well, according to the mice, and a quick follow up on wikipedia.)

1. Fruit from the first harvest.

2. Plenty of it.

3. Survival.

I’d always thought of the second two but tonight the Mice struck me with the poignancy of the first. What they worked to put in the ground in the spring bore fruit in the autumn. Their labor paid off. Their work was worth it. 

I love to list things I’m thankful for – people, stuff, experiences, intangibles. But the Pilgrims, as far as we know, were not listing. They were pretty specific. I’ve said before spiritual practice for me is about getting specific. So this Thanksgiving as you are grateful for your people and the six sticks of butter in the Pioneer Woman Mashed Potatoes I am endeavoring to make, join me in pondering this Ye Old Plymouth Rock Inspired Question:

What fruit from your labor are you thankful to see? What seeds have you put into the ground with just enough hope and recently seen blossom? What really hard stuff has proven its worth recently?

Colonial Williamsburg sent me this picture in a Thanksgiving message that thrilled me. It tactfully hides all the Christmas decorations that have already been hung. When I look at this picture for exactly one more moment I’m still in autumn, surrounded by pumpkins and the joy of a harvest that only follows long hard work.

Have a wonderful holiday, friends. Rest, reflect, and beat your macaroni necklace maraca drums with thanks.


But What Do We Tell the Kids?

Two weeks ago I spent six days driving to Richmond for an Old Testament 2 Class. The “2” is key here – after  Creation, and Exodus, and David and Goliath. We focused on the Prophets. Yes. Amos, people, Micah. The stuff liturgies work to avoid. The stuff I work to avoid. It was a great class. Our professor confronted really difficult material and brought it to life. We wrestled with texts and current issues and our own biases towards Scripture. But inevitably, after studying challenging passages, topics we were being trained to teach,  someone would ask “But what do we tell the kids?” In other words, how do we make this make sense to our children, when it does not fully make sense to us?

We were out of town at a wedding on Friday. News of the Paris attacks reached our group during the rehearsal dinner. We traveled back yesterday and only in starting a new week of school and watching more news did  the question from class echo in my mind, “But what do we tell the kids?”

I’m scared. I don’t want my kids to be scared.  I’m sad and I think if I’m honest, I treat my kids like my first and favorite consumers: I’m selling them on this life  and this world as I know it, or often, as I want to know it.

I’m also trying to sell them on faith as I want to know it. I want it all to add up, no holes, and no hurts,  you know, so that they too will believe.

Except the most steady believers I know do not come from lives in which things have added up.

So here’s what I do when it comes to telling the kids. This is not expert advice. You all know that.  I made almost half my children cry this morning.

But I’m a learner, and I’m muddling through over here like so many of you and this process is important for our children, for our parenting selves, and for our faithful selves as we together journey through fear, lament, and hope.

1.) Pay attention. The more I’m available I’ve noticed the more they bring stuff up – what was said at lunch, what they heard at recess. Classroom Experts begin to emerge, and it’s always important to identify the Classroom Experts. Also, my children go to school with Professor’s kids, so do not think for a moment that existentialism has not been discussed at the first grade lunch table.

2.) Sometimes get ahead and sometimes wait. Getting ahead: You may hear about this at school. Let me tell you what I think…” Having information can empower and comfort our older kids. But sometimes I wait and take a Maria Montessori child-led approach when I think getting ahead will produce extra anxiety. But again, every situation, and child is different, and requires constant adherence to Step 1.

3.) Listen to their questions. This may seem obvious, but often we are triggered into panic as soon as we sense the subject that scares us emerging. Then we don’t even hear the question which may have a simple answer. Which leads us to point 4….

4.) Answer the question. Just the question. This is harder than you may think. Especially for me. We can’t let answering our kids become our own self-soothing. We also don’t have to cover everything they could possibly wonder in this answer. I have found if  I follow steps 1-4 consistently they will keep asking questions. Unless I kill it every time with too many words and an inability to move on.  Travis and I, we have some words between us. Even Leila, at barely three has learned to say quite directly, “I  don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

5.) Be honest about your fear and sadness. Expressing our own emotions normalizes theirs. And we know they know when we’re faking. It’s more alarming to see an adult try and hide an emotion than to hear an adult admit they feel just like children do.

6.) Confess your faith.

I was a sophomore in college in September 2001. I lived at the other end of the street where I am sitting now. For those first couple of days we hung American flags and ate communal meals with neighbors and leaned on each other and grew up a bit more than had been forecasted for that semester. But I’ll never forget showing up at a Young Life Leaders Meeting and our Area Director saying simply, “We know Who wins.” He wasn’t talking politically. He said, “We’ve been given a glimpse of how the story ends and We know Who wins.” He did not try and explain the massive horrors of that day theologically, or project meaning into the pain of so many people. He did not defend the faith we all ascribed to. He confessed, in the Presbyterian definition of stating and identifying with belief.

Deep down we were all so scared and trying not to show it. His confession, non-contrived and culturally dissonant, was a balm. Remember, always remember, the witness of faithful people is what forms us and will form our children –  not arguments, systems, and constant answers.

That same evening my friend Amanda read from Psalm 46. I offer it as a prayer now. I also must add this, the Ancient Hebrew people who wrote the Psalms were terrified of water. Will you remember that as you read? Remember that it represented the unknown and all they felt powerless against – swarming chaos and fear and darkness. Feel familiar?

Praying for you friends as you process and share hope with your people, big and small.

Psalm 46:1-3,7

God is our refuge and strength, 

an ever-present help in trouble. 

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way, 

and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam 

and the mountains quake with their surging. 

The Lord Almighty is with us; The God of Jacob is our fortress. 



Ruthie Turns One

We celebrated Ruthie’s first birthday with hurricane rains and pumpkins.

Life in the storm.

She’s a full toddler now. Running and laughing and hitting.  Her passions are her sisters and the animal crackers that come in the plastic bear- shaped container from Wal-Mart. She’s consumed far more french fries than the average 12 month old and sounds like a guinea pig. She squeaks and grunts even as I insist on teaching her English. Her only word is “Done.” (Meaning “done” with my fruit, give me some fries.)

There’s so much of the past 18 months that is a blur. But I do remember my first visit to the doctor to confirm the pregnancy.  This not being my first rodeo, so to speak, I wrangled my way into an early ultrasound appointment. I didn’t believe the test. I wanted to see the light on the screen. The flash of the heart beat that comes up before the heartbeat can even be heard.

Except after I waited in the first waiting room, then the second waiting room, called to have a second babysitter relieve the first, and waited some more, staring at the heavily wallpapered walls of the Williamsburg OBGYN, decorated to replicate all of our town’s fine Bed and Breakfasts, the ultra sound surprised me.

Instead of the flashing light I’d anticipated, there she was.

“It’s too early to see that much,” I informed the Ultra Sound Tech. Because I’m the expert.

“Sometimes you can see this much,” she said. (Is this a science?)

I drove home. To three little girls, a little house. A tired babysitter.

We were in a storm. It had been a hard two years and there was still a lot of uncertainty. We were also just figuring out how to have three.

Yet, there she was.

But we didn’t know yet that she was a “she.” If she had been a “he,” we would have named him Jonah. It took me four pregnancies to wear Travis down but in the eighth month of this one, he finally conceded. We could name the baby Jonah.

Jonah. Life in the storm.

Well, no.  That’s a metaphor I contrived completely for this post.

I wanted to have a baby boy named Jonah ever since this movie. Obviously.

Remember when Tom Hanks runs across the rooftop of the Empire State Building, screaming “Jonah!! Jonah!!” because his eight year old son has booked himself a flight from Seattle to New York and run away in search of his Dad’s true-love-he’s-never-met Annie? And then they see each other in this scene and Jonah stands there and beams and all they can say his “Hello Sam” and “Hello Annie” and then they walk off hand in hand to the elevator while Jimmy Durante begins singing “You must Remember This?”

You must remember that.

 I decided in 1993 that if I ever had a baby boy, I would name him Jonah.

And in 2014, I decided if it was a girl, our fourth girl, I would name her after my sister.

Then she arrived brown-eyed and dimpled, and it sealed the deal. Ruth Miriam the 3rd. We called her Baby Ruthie from the start, still do much of the time. My sister warned her in an early post-birth blessing that people would continually approach her and say “Ohhh, Ruth! That was my grandmother’s name.” It’s fine, she owns it.

Then, three days into 2015,  my grandmother, a Raquel, not a Ruth, “Baba” died and as I waited to speak at her service I stood with my Aunt Ruthie, not far from my Sister Ruthie, as my daughter Ruthie slept in the church nursery. Life in the storm.

I felt so much that day but the strongest feeling I had I could not name until I was speaking later to a friend. I described the feelings of being with this family that had formed me, as we laughed and cried and carried each other on. There was something so specific I felt.  What was it? What was that feeling?

“It’s belonging,” she said. “That’s how it feels to belong.”

Dear Sweet Ruthie,

Happy Birthday Baby Girl. I’m so glad you love cake this much. It’s an often available dessert option.

With God’s help, may you become yourself, wherever that takes you. The most fun of my life will be watching that enfold. But I pray that every time you hear your name and eventually form the letters, you remember that you belong. In the storms and in the calm. You have from the very very beginning.   Squeak on, Sweet Girl. Squeak on.

Fall is for Bicycles, Birthdays, and Buying into Pumpkin Overkill

I tried some pumpkin tea the other day and it tasted  like I was drinking my pumpkin candle. Actually I think I was drinking my pumpkin candle…they were right next to each other. I initially tried to get into the Pumpkin Madness but had to declare after the tea/candle incident that maybe we are taking it too far. Maybe pumpkin should be left in pies and muffins and mixed in with candy corns in the Brach’s Autumn Blend. Not in tea and definitely not in body lotion. (Bath and Body Works sells a lotion called “Marshmallow Pumpkin Latte.” Is this a real drink? Would I feel like I’m drinking lotion or lathering on a latte?)

But then I tried Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ravioli, and decided to hold out a little longer before making my public pumpkin stance. Oh my. Go buy that now. It’s like $3. 49. Put some parmesan on it and be done. There’s your fall recipe. You’re welcome.

I also hesitate to rush the fall scene because I need all of September to mourn the end of summer. Every time I would pass sunscreen on sale, I had to hold back tears. Remember the last post when I talked about enjoying it to the end? Well our summer sputtered and stalled into 2 weeks of strep throat. Just tonight I was in the garage and happened to see the pool bag, laying where I left it 5 weeks ago, still packed and ready, waiting eagerly, probably filled with old wet, mildewed towels that I can’t face right now, or really ever.

We did make it back to school.

On bikes.

We bike there everyday which is both inspirational and astonishing. I already have more children than anyone at the school and then I make them get on bikes and follow me. Please someone tell Michelle Obama. I think she’d be proud.

Our bike route from home to school only confirms the secret truth that Williamsburg is Stars Hollow. We pedal through the Arts District waving to neighbors and merchants (that’s what I call shop owners for the sake of the vibe) and school buses. It gets better though because on Tuesday and Thursday, we bike through William and Mary’s Old  Campus to Leila’s preschool then cut back through Duke of Gloucester street, past the pastured horses, just before the bell rings for the older girls. Soon I will begin packing their lunches in baskets for the sake of consistency.

By biking I am avoiding two  issues:

1. All of us together in a car

2. Carpool Lines. Which involve all of us together in a car waiting in a line.

When we are together out on the open sidewalks, the major discussion inevitably returns to birthdays. Fall is many things for many scarf loving people but for us it will always be about birthdays. Four girls born over 12 weeks means right now I start mapping out the plan, even the menus.

I believe in birthdays. I find it perfect and utterly necessary that everyone gets a day. In our family, we celebrate on your day. Dreams come true. We get a little crazy. I will personally run myself into the ground whilst holding a bouquet of balloons and a Carvel Ice Cream cake. But just for that one day. Then it’s over and you step back out of the wardrobe for another year until your day comes again.

I had to be reminded of this when I was thinking of glazing over Baby Ruthie’s birthday. It’s her first – let’s just go to Busch Gardens the next day. She’ll never know. We can get away with it. Travis, horrified,  reminded me of my core birthday values and as I began planning some small festivities, I remembered that celebration is a discipline. We gather to remember that we’re not in this alone. We stop to thank God for His goodness. We pause, if even just for the length of an off key song, to take it all in – our sweet baby sister, a family forever changed, an astounding year done.

I’ll write more about Ruthie next week but just know that I’ve been nostalgic as my Finale Baby turns one. In response,  I’m doing what any mother living and biking in Stars Hollow/Colonial Williamsburg  would do for their last baby girl on this important milestone.

I’m giving her a smocked dress and bow that goes with her birthday theme.

The theme? Pumpkins.


August and Everything After

We have a series of these pictures, taken on an oversized adirondack chair, on the lawn in front of the Mayflower building on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach. It was a night last week when we were on vacation, and it was late and we had been in the sun all day, with cousins all evening and then forged on to get some promised ice cream when everyone was already beyond the breaking point. What you don’t see, or maybe you do, is how dirty everyone is in this picture – how sweaty and sandy, and just how brittle hair can be when its shampoo has become sand and pool water.

I love summer. I thought this summer might be the exception to that rule but it hasn’t been. It has not been an easy summer. Besides the dirt in this picture, what you don’t see is the yelling beforehand, “I want a picture by myself!!!!” or “I want a picture with the just me and Ruthie!!!!” Nothing is simple. Everyone has a different opinion. Someone always has a look of consternation on their face, displeased with the scenario.

Is it girls? Is it gluten?

Even when we prayed last night, people were upset over the order of who got to pray. Shouting ensued, tears.

In my better moments, I realize that they are differentiating, testing the bounds of relationships, grappling to find individuality in a group.

In my worse moments, I send them all outside and lock the doors.  YOU WILL LEARN TO LOVE EACH OTHER. Shouting ensues, tears.

I realize I wanted my children to do two things most consistently: eat their crusts and get along.This summer has humbled me in both areas.

But here’s why the sweaty season still has my heart: we’ve got the time. These long, less unstructured days allow for the conflict to resolve, sometimes with much labored, repetitive discussion and sometimes just because children more easily move on.  I will not miss the constancy of the struggles but I will miss the lack of complexity. I will miss that I dragged a child into the car screaming at her sister and when we got out again ten minutes later, the same child is hugging me, having been assured that they belong, are loved, and are heard.

This will be the summer that I learned, again, that what they need, what we all need,  is leaning in: listening and empathy and physical touch. Separation and isolation do not seem to teach the lessons I intend. They provide me minutes to not lose my mind, and figure out if there is a lesson I intend. But my children are  incapable of rethinking relationships while seated on the cement in the corner of the parking lot in 95 degree heat.It’s only when they are brought back in and reconnected, that they are restored.

These months of sibling strife have felt extreme but have also offered a collection of unexpected sweet moments, strikingly close to the tears and apologies, when we discuss our favorite form of Cheetos and what we think God looks like. They’ve taught me with a wisdom only children can offer adults, that it feels like we are doing this conflict and restoration thing constantly, because we are –  conflict, and its response,  are part of the rhythm – not a failure, or “that issue we dealt with in July.”

Our kids start school September 8. SEPTEMBER 8! I went back to school in August every day of my life. So August always felt tainted. Not this crew. We have all of August before us to glory in late nights and mosquito bites. We have a month more to cram it all in, perfecting the backstroke and green pool hair. We have August and everything after to revel, not in problem solving, but in rhythm-living: to read and play and help and refuse and yell at each other and apologize and begin again.



Pierced Ears and Yellow Stars

We’re charting for piercings over here.

Explanation: We’ve been doing behavior/chore charts. Stars add up to tickets. Tickets add up to…Ear Piercing!!!!!

I run from behavior modification systems.  I resist the structure. I feel confined and suffocated and have only about 3 days of routine in me. After that it’s “Yellow Stars for Everyone! Let’s go get ice cream!”

I  have also always operated under the assumption that we should all do what we are supposed to do. Just do it. If you don’t know what you are supposed to do, ask me, and I will gladly tell you. Outside motivation not necessary. There’s just stuff you should be doing anyways. 

But as Sophia will grudgingly inform  you, “In a family of four kids it’s not just about me.” The system that works for me (assumed understanding and adherence to familial and societal expectations of behavior) does not work for everyone.

The charts have not been without  frustrations (and hazards as I daily scoop yellow stars out of the baby’s mouth) but the benefits have been undeniable.

“They need to know you see them. They need to hear you see them.” These were the words of My Sister the Therapist. We were walking across the campus of James Madison University after seeing our brother graduate. I was trying to figure out what to do with the scene in my house, and baffled by these purple-cloaked graduates who at some point learned to navigate life’s challenges without screaming, stomping and tears. That morning they had picked out their own clothes and gotten dressed. How in the world do you get a child from here to there?

But Ruthie’s words struck me. Some of us need research, or statistics, or peer influence – I need a strong literary metaphor. The idea of seeing weaves through the most indelible scenes in my favorite faith stories:. Les Miserables: To love another person is to see the face of God. Blind Bartimeaus: Rabbi, I want to see. And my favorite name of God still is the one given him by the outcast and abused servant girl, Hagar: “El Roi. The God who sees.” When I feel broken and alone, I pray to The God who Sees.

I needed a way to see my kids. When charts stopped being about rewards and about seeing, I was in. Still not great at it but all in.

We now line up morning and night and go down the chart. Stars are slapped on for making beds, and not whining, and not yelling and encouraging each other. They count stars and then they count tickets and I’m no longer concerned that its modeling a false system for actions that should be character driven. Our charts are about noticing each other.

What has surprised me the most though has been how the charts provide a grid through which to run my own behavioral patterns. When things go south, chances are that I did what I do best: I was inconsistent. I threw out a first time expectation and was rigid about it. I rushed them or yelled. I assumed everyone was following a set of rules that I forgot to post. I did not slow down to see.

I’m beginning to think the chart isn’t even about progressing, as we triumphantly drive over to that Purveyor of FIne Jeweled Goods, The Icing, some time next week to participate in a ritual the Puerto Ricans do at birth. (My mom got newborn earrings for each of my babies. I think they might actually  pierce in utero in the Homeland. ) “We  need to come up with a new goal now,” they say and I start my chart-anxiety-sweating  all over again. “No, no this is stuff you are supposed to be doing anyways” sneaks out of my mouth, once more. I stop.

We do need a new goal, because I need yellow stars a little bit longer to remind me to see and celebrate them, You know, what I should be doing anyways. 

This is the chart we are using. It’s not cheap so if you’re crafty or happen to own construction paper and stickers go for it. This one is high quality and reusable and comes with tons of options and blank magnets as well.  It’s store bought fanciness made it exciting for the girls. What can I say? We’ll chart about being into store bought fanciness next month…