Life happens in the lines

Sometimes life feels like one of those connect-the-dots books.

Like I’m just jumping from check box to check box, dot to dot, hurrying to the next to-do, the next super-important-thing. DOT, line, DOT, line, DOT, line.

Lately, I really like the lines.

The places that don’t pop out at me when I’m looking at the dry erase calendar next to the mudroom, but rather, the footsteps between them. The moments of surprise and the movements of the Spirit. The hilarious conversations with my 5-year-old at bathtime about her imaginary life as a mermaid. My 3-year-old singing Eidelweiss with all the emotion of Captain von Trapp. Sitting on the back patio when Fall decides to visit — bringing with it a rain shower of gold, apricot and crimson leaves.

I too often stress about trying to pick the perfect homeschool curriculum, planning the most creative projects to inspire my children, finding the perfect complements to whatever we’re studying, doing, becoming.

And then I lay with my 8-year-old in his bed at night in the glow of a lamp light. And we talk about the moon. And magnets. And taxidermy. (All sorts of subjects come up before bedtime.) And I make real eye contact and really listen and really answer and I am reminded that life’s greatest lessons are not hard to find if we are still for a moment.

They are the daily routine, the sometimes seeming drudgery, the chores and bores and the lines between the dots. They are the dusty corners of the day and the lazy moments of the evening when we are slower, more present, more able to hear and be heard.

They are the moments of exhale — the places that not many other people see, but that everyone remembers.

I don’t remember many details of my school projects growing up, but I remember my mother brushing my hair.

I remember her reading me Anne of Green Gables before bed at night. I remember my father’s favorite evening snack and the board games we’d play together. And I stood there last night behind my blonde kindergartener (sometimes mermaid) and I brushed her wet hair after bathtime and we both looked at each other in the mirror and grinned. These are the sweet lines of life that become the smile lines on our faces.

And I don’t know about you, but there was a time I wanted to do big things. Now I realize that the biggest things in life often happen with the smallest audience. The butterfly kisses and first steps and the shared afternoon coffees and the slow dances with my husband by the kitchen island.

Between all the important stuff is where life happens.

“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.”

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I want to know her

“This is Kate. She’s almost seven!” I said to the room of 50 young girls looking attentively back at me.

“She loves to sing and dance. She loves cheese pizza — and playing with her brothers and sisters. She gets her long blonde hair from me — and her blue eyes from her Daddy.”

A sweet friend of Kate’s waved to her from the second row. Kate smiled back, but stayed snuggled into my shoulder — a bit shy from all the attention (but also loving it).

“Kate also has something called Down syndrome,” I continued. “It’s not something contagious, or something that someone can catch like a cold. In fact, it’s something she’s had since she was a little tiny baby inside my belly. It’s a condition that has to do with her chromosomes. Chromosomes carry our genes — does anyone know what genes are?”

A hand shot up in the front row from a well-read 9-year-old. “Oh, I know!” she said, looking quite put-together in her American Heritage Girls uniform. Kate and I were speaking at one of the first troop meetings of the year (Kate and her sisters are new to the group.)

“You do?” I asked, impressed.

“Oh yes,” the clever young lady replied, while showing me her thumb. “I’ve read about it in my microbiology book. You see how I can do this?” she asked, popping her thumb back and forth like a cool party trick, “Well, my grandmother can do that, too. I have her genes.”

“That’s awesome!” I said, “Your genes are perfectly unique to you — and they affect how your body looks and works.”

“I can also do this,” the little girl added, showing me a great double tongue curl. “But I’m the only one in my family who can do that.” We all giggled.

“Most people are born with 46 chromosomes,” I shared, “but Kate has 47. So she has one little extra chromosome, but that affects the way she learns.  So while many things come easy to Kate — like playing a great princess, or drawing a fluffy cat, or being a loyal friend and wonderful sister — other things can take longer for Kate to learn than typically-developing kids.”

I paused for a moment and looked at Kate who was now fully engaged with the group, smiling. I held her close, knowing the next point I was about to make was an important one.

“For instance, Kate is still working on her speech,” I explained. “She understands almost everything I say (unless it’s about cleaning her room!), but she’s still learning what words to use to express the fullness of how she feels. Kate loves to talk — and would love for any of you to talk and play with her — but you may have to be extra patient at times. Right, Kate?” Kate nodded with a grin.

“And if you don’t understand what she’s saying sometimes — don’t be embarrassed! You can always ask her to repeat herself — or you can simply tell her gently, ‘I’m sorry, Kate, I don’t understand.’ Or you can just guess and keep playing! If you’re patient with her, Kate will be very patient with you. After all, that’s what friends and families do — we help each other and are patient along the way. And having Down syndrome certainly doesn’t mean that Kate won’t ever learn how to speak very well — it just means it will take a little longer. That’s why we work on how to pronounce words and practice speaking a lot at home.”

Another one of Kate’s friends waved at her from the audience as I finished:

“So remember, people with Down syndrome are just like anybody else in the sense that we all love having friends, playing games, having hobbies, eating good food, going fun places and helping others. We’re all really good at some things and find other things more challenging. And we’re all different! Not one of us is exactly alike, and not all people with Down syndrome are exactly alike. And if you have any questions about Down syndrome or about Kate, please never feel too shy to ask us. We love talking about what we consider to be a very special gift from God for our family.”

The girls clapped eagerly as we finished our talk and Kate wiggled away from my side to go meet her friends who were now crowding around her. “Give me a hug, Kate!” one of them said. Kate leapt into her arms with a smile as wide as the sunset.

The troop coordinator had asked me to talk for the girls’ sake, but I found, in the end, the gift was all ours. What a joy it is to share this message: Do not be afraid of those who are different than you, rather, reach out to them, take a chance to meet them where they are — and you’ll often find a deep well of great connection and joy.

When Kate was just a baby, I read an article in the New York Times that stuck with me. In the article, John Franklin Stephens, a man with Down syndrome who serves as a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics, was quoted. He said:

The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness. We are aware when all the rest of you stop and just look at us. We are aware when you look at us and just say, ‘uh huh,’ and then move on, talking to each other. You mean no harm, but you have no idea how alone we feel even when we are with you.

I never want Kate to feel that way — or any of my children for that matter. I want them to all feel seen, loved, and known. And I carry that with me as a personal challenge — even when meeting those who may not have any sort of disability at all, but who may simply be shy, or new or just different. How good to say: I see you. How great to say: I want to know you.

The day after the talk, one of the mothers in the troop emailed me to say her young daughter couldn’t stop talking about Kate when she got home — “I want to play with her, Mama, I want to know her!” she said.

My heart was full. For what a beautiful girl to know.

The deepest desire of our hearts is to love and be loved. – Fr. Jacques Philipe

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I can see her there

I can see her there, stirring that pot of something bubbly, just like me, on this summer afternoon. I can see her in her old, worn apron, wrapped tightly around the front of her waist. She is chopping cabbage in the steam of cooking stew with a restless blonde toddler winding around her left calf.

I can feel her gentle hand on mine as I plop spongey bread dough into a ceramic pan. She sings with me softly as I rock my plump baby, his hair sweaty from my hot chest. I can feel her next to me as I dig my hands into the earth, unveiling potatoes as golden as sunshine, wiping dirt from their skin and my brow.

I can hear her whisper as I walk down the road in the evening with five children in tow, the small one on my hip, the oldest running ahead. The dog panting to the rhythm of our footsteps against the gravel.

She was a mother to my mother and her mother’s mother and the one before her.

She is the woman, who hundreds of years ago, still woke to the cry of her baby and put him to her breast. Fell asleep with her hand in the palm of her lover’s. Answered the whine of her young ones, “When is it time to eat?” Cleaned dirt from the floor and the cheeks of her children with her spit and her thumbs and the purpose of her heart. Giggled with her girlfriends as they cleaned up after mealtime. Begged God to protect these precious souls in her home.

I can feel her beside me, pulling me up, cheering me on.

For in all that has changed, nothing has at all.

The vow of stability

Originally written in 2015, reprinted in honor of Mother’s Day

Over red wine and herb chicken and a gaggle of loud children, a girlfriend recently shared insights from a marriage retreat she and her husband had attended.

One anecdote from a talk she heard stuck out to me in particular: that Benedictine monks take a distinctive vow when joining the religious order. Along with obedience and conversion of life, they also take the unique vow of “stability.”

I found that so intriguing — like a vow to not be moody? Well, yes, I suppose that could be part of it — but it refers to stability in a much larger sense.

One Benedictine community describes the vow this way:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, and forgiving.

Now, I’m no monk nor do I live in a monastery, but I found the vow incredibly apt in the context of family life.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day — a beautiful day that threatened rain in the weather forecast, but that instead flooded our newly planted Viburnums with golden beams of warm sunshine until nightfall. Three generations of family — grandparents from both sides — sat around our heavy, homemade farmhouse table and shared stories, stabbed salads and scooped vanilla icecream drizzled with warm caramel sauce.

And as stories of mothers past and present were shared, I glanced up to the large picture frame hung by the diningroom window. It holds four generations of couples — great grandparents on down. Scanning the faces, I found myself thinking about the unique vow that the Benedictines take.

The vow to stay together. To grow together. To work things out and restore peace. The promise to be like a towering tree where branches grow out and roots grow deep and where the stability of one generation gives strength to another. The vow to endure. And though the environment may be tumultuous at times, to be steadfast. [“Stability” is derived from the Latin word stare, which means “to stand,” “to stand up” or “to be still.”]

And of all the things my mothers and my mothers’ mothers and their mothers alike passed down, it is not just the Blue Danube china hanging on my wall or the old buffet table below it that has transcended generations. Rather, it is their clear vows of love that have sustained future generations.

The family really is a proverbial tree — where the stability of the roots affect the whole big thing. For even the love of a single mother carries forward for generations.

“Everyone knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.” – Katharine Butler Hathaway

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What better way for God to tell me?

It’s the “family reunion feeling.”

It feels like Grandma’s house. And tastes like chocolate cake and sweet tea. It smells like fresh cut farm grass in the summer. It sounds like a house full of conversation, Yahtzee dice on a wooden kitchen table, Christmas music.

It’s the feeling of being present.

Of going two days and realizing you haven’t charged your phone. Of thinking of nothing or no-one but what is right there, right now. And it is bliss.

I think about this sometimes when my 8-year-old says, Mo-om. You’re not listening. Did you hear what I just said?

I didn’t, I reply honestly. Because I was — well, where I am too often —

Lost in a world of pre-occupation. Of to-do lists. Of what’s for dinner and did I respond to that text? And this house is a mess. And then suddenly, I miss the lizard that has captivated my first-born. It has scampered away, along with the opportunity to share a moment of magic with my boy.

So I have been trying to be more mindful. More intentional. More present.

But for me, it’s not totally a matter of the will. More-so, it is the recognition of the environment that makes being present most possible. Both the external and internal environment. The state of my home and the state of my mind.

The first case in which I find being present more possible is when I close all the windows. By that, I don’t mean the literal windows — I mean, the “screens” that feel like windows into an outside world that my mind so easily leaps to. When I am in the middle of text conversations all day, I find that my mind can be stuck there. When I am checking the internet too much — or blogs (hello!) — or news (never a great idea) — I find that a piece of me stays there. But when I shut them off, when I power off, I feel a very literal quiet come over me. An instant focus. For a piece of me that was there is now here. Scheduling time for screens of all kinds helps me be present the rest of the time.

I also find that unloading some thoughts onto a piece of paper with the scribble of an inky pen helps. It keeps me from having that “I need to do that” feeling on loop. It lets me take the thoughts of what I need to do and what I haven’t done and place them in a box for safe keeping. I can come back to that later. For now, I focus on now.

Other thoughts that can keep me from being present are needless human worries, the what if’s and what might’s of life. I love the advice of one of my favorite spiritual writers, Father Jacques Phillipe, who says:

“Things seldom happen as we expect. Most of our fears and apprehensions turn out to be completely imaginary. Difficulties we anticipated become very simple in reality; and the real difficulties are things that didn’t occur to us. It’s better to accept things as they come, one after another, trusting that we will have the grace to deal with them at the right time, than to invent a host of scenarios about what may happen — scenarios that normally turn out to be wrong. The best way to prepare for the future is to put our hearts into the present.”

And in throwing my heart into the present, I am trying to accept the interruptions of life. To see them, as perhaps, not interruptions — but interventions. Most of my plans are not urgent. Whether I wash the laundry now or later isn’t of great monumentality (though it is good to make sure everyone has clean undergarments). Whether I finish weeding all the garden beds this weekend or next, or mop the floor before company, and so on — really, who cares. What people care about is how they feel when I am with them. Fr. Phillipe continues,

“In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we’re one hundred percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. Good manners, yes, but also real, heartfelt availability… A heart preoccupied by concerns and worries isn’t available to other people. Parents should remember this: children can get along happily without constantly demanding their parents’ attention, provided there are regular times when Dad or Mom have no concern except being with them.”

I am always asking God what his will is for me today — and then, when I am interrupted from what I am wanting to do, I am put off. Well, what better way for God to tell me what he wants me to do than to have my child ask me? Or my neighbor? Or my friend?

And so today, I take time for stillness. For observation. I give myself a moment (or many) to soak up this life like a cat does the sunshine.

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