The Way of All Things

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It’s been an intense fall. An intense year, really, but particularly an intense fall in my world.

We had no rain to speak for a couple months this summer, and so I didn’t expect much in the way of fall color, but it got crazy cold all at once. The one and only benefit of having no fall—just summer and then winter—was that the temperature shock overcame the lack of water. There’s a magic to fall color that never fails to move me, and as I was outside trying, as I do every year, to capture it, I was also thinking of my grandmother, who was dying and not dying and dying again through all of this.

I thought of the hasty trip to St. Louis with my sister, to see Grandma in the hospital, and the four hours of unexpected conversation we got out of that.

I thought of my 30+ cousins rushing into town to see her—she had 10 kids, in case you’re wondering—and chuckling because when another of my sisters called the hotel in Grandma’s small suburban community, they were completely befuddled because their entire hotel was booked full, and they could not, for the life of them, explain why. My sister laughed and said, “It’s all my family.”

I thought of the last time I saw my grandmother, propped up in a recliner with a bipap strapped around her head, and how Julianna was too scared to come give her a hug and say goodbye, so Grandma said, “I certainly understand,” and had my aunt remove the mask so Julianna could see her face one last time.

I thought of our week in Washington DC, visiting museums and eating out of food trucks and hanging out with my oldest friend—another cousin—and how everything seemed so raw and real and vibrant, and half my heart was an airplane ride behind me, with my parents and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts, and most of all my grandmother—and realizing I couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.

I thought of how flying home to find central Missouri in a blaze of peak color glory.

And I thought, “Death can really be a beautiful thing.”

I intended to blog on this topic a month ago, but then there were fires in California and mass shootings (in the plural) and I thought perhaps waxing poetic about the beauty of death might be not only insensitive, but downright myopic.

Peak is long past now. The trees are all asleep for the winter, and my grandmother sleeps a different kind of sleep, one that wakes only into eternity. I sang the psalm at her funeral, and last week our Thanksgiving table was adorned with a pitcher that used to sit atop her hutch.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my parents finished harvest. Harvest has always been my favorite time of year on the farm, poignant and beautiful and bittersweet. But more so this year than ever, because this was the last. My parents are retiring.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family attended a play in a small community two or three towns beyond my hometown. It was weird enough to bypass the exit for my parents’ farm on the way there. But coming back, in the dark—and it’s so dark out there in rural Missouri—it was hard not to tear up, watching one familiar gravel road and another pass by, organizing the black grids between them into fields with particular memories. Thinking of the time the car broke down on that road and we had to walk home, or the time during the 93 flood, when I got the tractor stuck up to its axles in the field just beyond that field, or the way we once walked across the back fields to the house that lies just down that road and swam in their pond, or the way I stopped in this field just a year ago to ride the combine with Dad on the way home from a rehearsal.

All those memories, and realizing there aren’t any more to be made in those fields. They’ll be farmed by someone else now. I won’t have a reason to drive those dusty roads and navigate the uneven surface of a newly-harvested field. I won’t have a reason to smell that cool, semisweet smell that only comes at harvest time with the pouring of grain and the chewing up of plants in the threshing machine.

It’s disorienting, and very emotional. I got to thinking that I could name probably half a dozen pivotal elements of my identity: things that for my entire life have defined how I see myself in relation to the world. In less than a month, two of them have gone the way all things go.

It’s all beautiful, and I am eternally grateful for the richness of my memory. But it’s sad, too.

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Parenthood is all about “Pantsing”

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pexels-photo-434446.jpegOnce, I was talking to a favorite uncle about life and all deep things. Because that’s what we do. (He’s a great uncle.) I said, “You know, when I was a kid, and something was bothering me, I’d think it through and make up my mind what to do about it, and that was it. I never questioned it again. Now, I never stop questioning things, no matter how many times I make up my mind.”

My uncle laughed. “Welcome to adulthood,” he said.

I was thinking about this last night as I listened to one of my children baring his soul about an experience that had hurt him deeply. It wasn’t a situation with a simple solution. He wasn’t at fault, but he was letting it get to him far more than was necessary or healthy. I told him what he had experienced was always going to be irritating—like mosquitoes you can’t escape—but he has a choice whether he opens up his heart and lets it hurt him down deep. Even though it doesn’t feel like he has a choice. That he feels things more deeply than other people do, and the first thing is to know that about himself.

A deep, heavy sigh. “Mom, I thought you’d be able to help me. Give me some advice or something that would help.”

Oohf. Speaking of opening up one’s heart and letting things hurt you down deep. This is not how a mom wants to be viewed by her child: as impotent. This is not how a mom wants to BE to her child.

Writers tend to split themselves into two camps: plotters and pantsers. (Those seem self-explanatory to me, but just in case: Plotters have a global plan in place before they embark on a novel; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.) I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone reading this post that I’m a confirmed plotter. Without a plan I would have no idea which way to go. I would write 5,000 words and then hit a huge wall, because I wouldn’t know where to go. It’s too big a task.

That’s how I feel about life, too. I want a plan, a way to organize the things that are Too Big, the things that are Too Much For Me. This is how I deal with anxiety: by planning for contingencies. Even when plans A, B, and C get derailed, merely having thought through everything prepares me for flying by the seat of my pants.

Last night on our oh-so-romantic Valentine’s date at Denny’s, Christian and I were discussing parenthood, and we came to the realization that although we are plotters by nature, parenthood is really a game of pantsing. You’re totally making it up as you go along.

No wonder we all make such a mess of it.

If You’re Not Outraged…

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Photo by Samovaari, via Flickr

We’ve been angry a lot this calendar year. Last calendar year, too, truth be told. The world seems made for making us angry right now.

But it came to a head in the last week, and in one of those convergences that can only be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work, for three days every single thing that happened served to put a neon flashing light on the message: THIS IS NOT OKAY. Even the weekend’s Scriptures.

It’s not that there isn’t reason to be angry. And as many people note, even Jesus got angry, knocking over tables in the Temple when he saw it being misused.

The trouble is, at some point, we start clinging to anger—we start looking for reasons to be angry, to the point that we become unable to accept with grace any thwarting of our own convenience, any deviation from our own vision of how things should be. And let’s be honest: there’s a whole heck of a lot about the world that is Not How It Should Be.

The convergence of messaging challenges me…my whole family, really…to figure out how to confront the Things That Aren’t How They Ought To Be without making anger an idol enshrined in our hearts.

I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the start of a new journey.

When You Feel Like A Punching Bag

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As anniversaries go, it wasn’t our best.

And it should have been, because my parents had given us free babysitting for the night. But the work stress is sky high, and so when the result of an hour’s worth of restaurant research ended with us facing a closed restaurant instead of the upscale dinner we’d been anticipating, it was harder than it should have been to regroup.

We learned long ago that if we don’t go into a date night with a plan, we’ve got a 75% chance of being grumpy about it.

That night, we learned that having to dump a clear plan in response to forces beyond our control, when we’re carrying a lot of other stress, yields a 100% chance of being grumpy about it.

We went to watch Wonder Woman (the last people in the universe to do so, no doubt, but such has been our life in the year 2017), and salvaged the evening, went to bed and regrouped for the next day.

But the next day greeted us with a one-two punch. First was the email that made it clear that the permission slip fight we’d been praying had been averted most definitely had not been. As if we need another thing to deal with, but how can you not? Being caught between witnessing the faith you believe in and compromising for the sake of your child’s disappointment is a crappy position to be in. So we had to break the news to a child that he wasn’t going to get to go on the field trip he was looking forward to. Ten minutes later I went into his room to see how he was doing emotionally, and found him hiding under his bed, sneaking extra screen time.

We had planned to take the entire family to see Cars 3, which was back in theaters for a reprise and which we hadn’t yet seen (see: such has been our life in the year 2017), but clearly, that level of dishonesty can’t be allowed to pass without consequences.

I really do feel kind of like life’s punching bag right now. This whole year has felt this way, in fact. Which is ridiculous because my home isn’t threatened by wildfire or floods, my children are not in the hospital, and we are not facing job loss. All of which have been experienced quite recently by people we know.

But sometimes it’s not the big sucker punch that knocks you down—it’s the barrage of little things piling on you until you’re weighed down like that junk lady in the movie Labyrinth.

After writing that last paragraph, I put this away for a day, thinking I probably wouldn’t post it after all–only to have another occasion of child dishonesty pop up last night, just as I began the descent into a swollen, firey throat-head pressure kind of virus. Which, of course, is the icing on the poison ivy-on-my-scalp-where-I-can’t-get-at-it cake. And the sauce on top was the first rejection letter on my novel.* Fun day, yesterday.

This is the part where I’m supposed to draw some nugget of wisdom, some uplifting pearl, but the truth is, today I just kind of want to acknowledge that sometimes life is pretty crappy, even when it’s minor crap, and pray that I/we can hold on for better times ahead.

*Note: happier news on that front today.

Cross-Bleed

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I’m not sleeping well lately. Bizarre, disturbing dreams. Waking at three a.m. and lying awake for hours. Sometimes giving up and pulling out the laptop to work for an hour and a half before I finally crash again, thirty minutes before the alarm goes off.

After Monday’s post I realized my problem is cross-bleed.

Here’s how my life is supposed to work: kids go to school, and I work. Kids come home, and I stop working to be mom and domestic goddess household coordinator.

But with six late-start days, four sick days, and three school holidays (none of which, I might add, overlapped), the upshot is that the last several weeks I’ve been working and parenting simultaneously, all day, every day.

It’s no wonder I’m feeling this way.

Sometimes I lie down with Michael and twilight-doze….or sometimes really doze….at naptime. It’s a bright spot I really need. Because when I wake up, this is what I see six inches from me.
Michael sleeping