Category Archives: Life

Leftovers

I hate it when I give the worst version of myself to the people who matter the most.

Pulling into the driveway on a Friday afternoon, I turn my car off and for a few moments, leave my hands on the wheel. Like most teachers at the end of the week, I’m fried. I can feel it to my core. Truth be told, I could go all slow motion, fall face forward onto the bed, and not get back up until Sunday afternoon. But through that door, responsibility awaits. Not the kind of responsibility that is informed by a salary. The kind that have arms and legs, the kind that have stomachs that need to be filled, the kind who desire you to engage with them, play with them, listen to them, and encourage them. Inside that door are rooms piled with the tornadic debris of an activity-filled week. Mounds of laundry. Uncleaned dishes. Mail . . . I mean, bills . . . piled up eye level, challenging you to look the other way. The water heater breaks. Your dryer lurches across the floor to no avail; it’s been working a “mostly damp” cycle for at least three months. You can’t remember the last time you opened the refrigerator and the light turned on.  Life, man.

You take a deep breath, get out of the car and open the door on that life you chose. The life you love. The only problem is there is very little of you living it. You drag your irritable, exhausted, mentally spent corpse into the house and attempt to weakly connect with the people on this planet, who by their very existence, make your life worth living. They get your seconds, your left-overs, your “maybe tomorrow, baby, I’m just so tired.” They get your zoned out stare, your pent up exasperation, your “I’m sorry, I’ve brought work home tonight.” They get the sick you, the worried you, the angry you, the frustrated you. And you know what?  They don’t deserve it.  Not even a tiny bit.

I’m not sure when we got things all turned around. When we decided to raise the value of our ambitions and diminish the vitality of our humanity. We haven’t always been this way. But we do it all the time. We bow at the altar of our busyness and call it success while sacrificing the only tangible evidence that we ever existed at all, our relationships.  So dumb.

So, here’s to dialing it down in the places that feed our egos and raising the volume in the places that feed our souls. Here’s to looking people in the eye and honest conversation. Here’s to lingering over a meal and hanging out on the back porch. Here’s to throwing the football or reading that favorite story. Here’s to uninterrupted interpersonal connection. Work to live, but don’t live to work.  Let’s be done with our self-righteous excuses.  If you take a quick look around the landscape of your life, you will find any number of reasons to give your very best to the people who love you when you don’t deserve it.  And believe me, they will always be worth it.

Disappointment

Disappointment makes a lousy companion.  He nibbles on your leftovers and drinks your last soda.  He never asks if it’s okay to visit.  He just shows up, unannounced, and lounges in your most comfortable pair of pajama pants that he donned while you weren’t looking.  He even grabs the remote and changes the channel in the middle of your favorite show.

Disappointment likes to whisper into your ear.  His lips too close for comfort, he knows how to give deception a sickening melody.  At first, the notes please you, resonating in your soul, reminding you how unworthy you are.  The strain binds you to other moments in your past when you have felt the same way.  You review them, revealing an obvious pattern:  failure.  He stops his loathsome anthem just long enough to remind you.  “You have had a lot of practice at failing,” he whispers.  “Inevitability looks good on you,” he chides.  You put it all back on like an old coat.  It fits just like you remember it.  In fact, shame might just be your best color.

He resumes his tune, but as he hits the chorus, the notes turn sour.  Bitterness washes the back of your throat as your anger erupts at this intrepid house guest.  You determine to fight back.  You have other friends too, you tell him.  Well-meaning supporters who sing you a different song.  Belonging, Kindness, Sincerity, and Grace come for regular visits when invited.  You show him the door.  Oh, he has worn out his welcome alright,  but he will not be silenced, nor will he be moved.  Not just yet.  He’s just getting started.  He puts his hands behind his head, and while resting his feet on your ottoman, he waits for your righteous indignation to wane.  Disappointment is a noble adversary.  He knows how to withstand your displeasure.  In that space and time, the voices of all of your other friends fall silent.  Your courage vanishes.  All you can hear is his excruciating voice begin his song anew.  In fact,  this ditty reaches its final crescendo.  His tone intensifies, soaring and strong.  It drowns out all reason leaving you vulnerable to his most fatal attack.

Your eyes turn heavenward.  Your wily companion tilts your chin.  New voices rise from despair.  God must not have heard you.  He never really cared.  He doesn’t even listen.  He must not be there.  Disappointment weighs in with one crowning refrain, “It was really just you all along.  Just you.  Only you.”   Abandonment rings the doorbell, Disappointment’s evil accomplice.  They sit next to you on the couch, one on either side.  No need to sing any more songs.  The tapes play on their own now.  They will always play.  Disappointment’s most insidious gift is unadulterated deception.  It pours from his lips into the porches of our ears.  And worse still, his voice eventually turns into our own, the most cruel trick of all.

 

Beauty

I’ve never considered myself beautiful. Not once. I don’t feel sad about it. It’s just not an adjective I would ever use to describe myself. Really,  it’s okay. I kill cute. It’s my lane, and I like driving in it.

Having said that, I love when I catch beauty peeking out from behind the curtains of our lives. She isn’t altogether shy; she just bides her time . . . waiting for those moments we are most unaware of all the things we have done to try to be beautiful. It’s really kind of silly. All the dressing up and the painting up. All the add-ons and enhancements. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently evil in a perfectly styled hairdo, a flawless complexion or that one in a million fashion find. No, not at all. However, beauty doesn’t live there.  Gratefully, she isn’t applied. She’s on her best behavior when discovered.

I see her in the brilliance of the orbed sun at dusk; lighting the heavens on fire, she hangs heavy in the evening sky. She screams in the explosion of uncontrollable laughter; the kind that tilts our heads, breaking our necks into unconscious angles. Suspended in time, we succumb to the forces of amusement, and merriment becomes our master. And when laugh lines expose those deep rivers of pure joy, we greet her. Yes, beauty lives right there. She bows her knee to two heads joined in unrelenting waves of grief. She is aware that sharing the pain dulls sharp edges. The ashes cool faster that way. She knows this so well because beauty is forged in that fire. Eternally. She also erupts from outrageous compassion. When one hand touches another in need, beauty gratefully and perpetually hits her mark.

No, beauty isn’t made. She isn’t even born. And most certainly, artists don’t create beauty. They are simply here to record it. No, she exists beyond time and space, altogether separate from the human experience. And even though she communes with us, her form and substance were inspired by the Creator. How else can we explain culture’s pursuit of her, as if she could ever be captured. Beauty is a force burning us from the inside out, cauterizing our weaknesses. Reminding us of what was once lost and is now found, forevermore.

Licking My Wounds

This week kicked my butt.  It was short and should have felt like a Sunday afternoon walk.  Instead, it felt like a beleaguered hike in the scorching desert . . . without a canteen.

It was a sick-fest.  A work piling up, late nights, 5th grade homework, dishes in the sink, laundry piles unattended, chores neglected kind of butt kicking.  And I am still not completely recovered.

I don’t know why some seasons of life feel different from others.  Or why at certain times our inadequacies take center stage with a spotlight and a microphone.  But they do.  Our circumstances overshadow us.  And they sing their own high-pitched squeaky melodies, the kind of song that puts our nerves on edge and sends the audience toward the exits.    Nobody wants to see the epic meltdowns these moments can produce.  Nothing but all kinds of scorched earth.

As I was licking my wounds this morning and prepping for my big return to the stage next week sans illness and insecurities, I came across a video on social media of the ocean bed surrounding Long Island, Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.  I say ocean bed because the water is . . . well, it’s gone.  Shoreline?  Check.  Sandy dunes?  Check.  Long pier into the middle of nothingness?  Check.  Wait, what?  Yes, the ocean waters have been completely sucked away leaving the ocean floor utterly exposed.

I’ve never seen anything like it, except maybe that moment in the children’s book entitled  The Five Chinese Brothers, when the first brother swallows the sea.  It’s stunning.  And it’s extremely rare, but entirely possible.  In some cases, it’s a sign of a tsunami, but in this case, it’s something altogether different.  Hurricane Irma is so powerful, it is upending the ocean . . . literally consuming the water.  Moses and the Red Sea kind of showmanship.

I sat back in my chair and took a breath.  Nature and its intensity splintering my computer screen.  This storm is making its devastating impact known but only for the moment.  The cost may be great, but eventually Irma’s powerful winds will be spent and the water will return again to those deserted shorelines.  These natural boundaries, however, were set long ago by a bigger force than the storms in our lives.  All of the waters of the earth know His voice, and cannot resist His celestial control.  Not even a beast like Irma can rend them entirely from His hands.

So, I will grow still and wait . . . wait for those roiling waters to strike calm.  And they will.  For all storms eventually obey His irresistible dominion.

 

Perspective

Soiled laundry. A son playing outside, cartwheels on concrete, summertime somersaults. A husband’s grass stains from a thousand fields freshly mown. And socks. My lord, the socks. Can you imagine it?  A pair for each day.

Dirty dishes. Family eating together. Or sometimes just near each other. No hunger pangs. No deprivation. The warmth of a full stomach and the energy to march on.

Stacks of papers to grade. Young men and women transferring thoughts to words, playing with the texture of their lives, exercising the volume of their voices. Learning to trust the glorious sound.

Early morning alarms.  An invitation.

Piles of trash. The sheer luxury of having more than we need, and in some cases, unnamed souls willing to dispose of it for us.

Exercise. The ridiculous extravagance of time set apart to burn away the excesses we never deserved in the first place.

Broken hearts. An inevitable product of a life well spent.

Life, in its fullest, will ever be how we think of it.

Blank Fillers

Adoption has been such a beautifully complicated journey for us. Emphasis on the beautiful part. Not everyone adopts out of necessity either.  I love when people add to their brood through this system. Building a family with that sort of intentionality is a slice of heaven on earth. Soul thrilling stuff.
 
I worried when I started this process that I would find myself hurt or offended by little things people said (off-handed and largely unintentional) about children who are adopted. The current American climate is falling all over itself to be inclusive and that bodes well for adopted children, driving most of the reprehensible and ridiculous to the dark corners to hang out and whisper. So what is left behind? Mostly, the insensitive or the ignorant. And like it or not, those two points of observation still have power.
 
I could take a few minutes to catalog some of those comments I have internalized over the years, but I won’t. I tend to look past the insensitivity of the moment to the heart of that person towards me and my family.  A good heart covers a multitude of sins. Give me about fifteen minutes, and I will say something stupid too. That’s just life in an earth suit.
 
However, one of those comments I have found persistently irritating. It’s the “but you know, he’s adopted” revelation. A child can’t sit for more than two minutes in the classroom and teacher says to co-worker, “Yes, it’s frustrating, but you know, he’s adopted.” Teenager sneaks out, takes her mom’s car and spends the night at a drunken party. Mom’s friends discuss the incident amongst themselves the next day, “That girl makes such poor decisions. But you know, she’s adopted.” I especially appreciate it when this declaration is accompanied by a judicious head nod or a discerning smirk. It’s interesting to me that out of the hundreds of times I have heard that phrase uttered, it has never been in reference to anything positive. Anytime I hear it, it drips with either a knowing condescension or a pathetic pity . . . a catch-all explanation for ill-adjusted children and either way, it makes my stomach turn.
 
The truth is, as a teacher, I have seen a thousand and one biological kids make some pretty hare-brained decisions. Head scratchers, if you will. It has never occurred to me to look at a parent and say, “Wow, your child is operating on the shallow end of your gene pool.” Not once. And look, I’m no fool. Adopted kids come with a lot of baggage, some more than others. Learning the dance of attachment can be tricky, and navigating the laundry list of adoptive issues can make your mind spin. However, I’m not sure it is altogether different than negotiating the emotional travails and pitfalls of a child with your own DNA.
 
At the end of the day, kids are kids. They just are. They are maddening and majestic. They are explicitly enigmatic. They will drive you straight to the edge of the cliff and then suddenly save your life.  Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason. And maybe that is why we feel the need to constantly fill in the blanks.

You Are Not My Mother

Closing the door to his closet, I turn slowly as he nonchalantly says, “Mom, I don’t know why I call you mom.  You are not my mother.”  My pulse quickens as I face him, his lean body secured beneath the covers, like a well-wrapped burrito.  He is not angry or mad.  He is matter of fact.  And nothing is out of the ordinary on this evening.  This is our nightly routine.

Luca’s thoughts about his adoption seem to come out of thin air; random ruminations that don’t logically connect to the conversation we were having just a second prior.  I imagine what he allows to escape his lips is the tip of an iceberg, the bulk of which drifts far beneath the surface, sometimes lost in a silent sea, but other times colliding with something artificial, exposing its rough edges and pushing it to the surface.

He has known his story since he was able to understand English.  Paul and I have been intentional about explaining his providential path.  I sang it to him, in fact, every night.  A homemade lullaby about the power of God’s plan, and two crazy kids who boarded an airplane for a far away, mystical land.  As he aged, we discussed the fact that he did not come from my stomach, but another’s.  A woman who loved him enough to give him a chance at life.  Surface, but truth.  Every time we celebrated this fact, I watched for his reaction.  Mostly silence.  Not dumb silence, either.  Thoughtful, pensive, inward.  No questions.  No anxiety.  Just a resolute contentment.  He was mostly quiet, in fact, until last year.  Last year, he became un-quiet.  And out of nowhere, like stray bullets, his thoughts penetrated the silence.

“You are not my birth mother.  Someone else was.  Did you ever meet her?”

“What does she look like?”

“Does she have a strange face?”

“What if she is not a good person?”

Believe me, I read the book.  Or books . . . yes, all the books.  Adoption books.  I’ve written about them before, in fact.  They are helpful, useful and important.  The problem is that all the books in the world cannot account for each individual journey to this truth.  Every soul has to come to terms with this familial arrangement in its own way.  In its own time.  And every stage of Luca’s life will bring a new revelation of his needs.  Needs I might not know, until he is ready to tell me.  Until that iceberg reveals itself inch by frozen inch.  I’ve just got to have the patience to wait him out and more importantly, the grace to listen.

“Luca, I did not give birth to you.  That is true.  But let me ask you this.  What is the definition of a mother?  What does it mean to be a mother?”

He ponders for a moment, “Someone who takes care of you.  All of you.  All the time.”

“So by that definition?” I ask.

“You are my mother.”

 

I love you, Luca.  Always and forever.  No matter what.    -Mom

 

 

 

Cancer

Somebody I think a lot of is sick.  Somebody I look up to.  And not just a good somebody.  One of the best somebodies.  In my life, they most always are.  Women, men and children living to the fullest.  Strong testimonies of faith.  Kids in the prime of their lives.  Teachers sacrificing for their students.  Good, honest people.  And I’m angry about it.

Cancer is a scourge.  If it had flesh and bone, I could utterly destroy it without conscience.  It cuts to the quick and is a modern day monster in the closet.  It takes people’s breath away.  Punches in the gut.  Strikes in the darkness.  It is evil personified.  A zombie stalking its prey.

And any one of us could be next.  It does not discriminate.

I don’t like the sway it holds over our lives, and the panic, disruption and heartbreak it brings to those who are tapped to face it.  Soldiers of all ages marching into battle, forced at some point in the journey to ask which is worse.  The disease or the treatment.  Unnecessary pain in a life already fraught with hardships.  Insult to injury.

So, what are we to do with the reality of cancer and the pain that it stirs within?  We who are groveling here on earth, somewhere between heaven and hell?  John Milton, a renowned British poet, most famous for his epic Paradise Lost, went completely blind by the age of 43.  In response to a critic who essentially said his blindness was a punishment for an immoral life, he wrote:

“It is not so wretched to be blind as it is not to be capable of enduring blindness.  But why should I endure a misfortune which it behooves everyone to be prepared to endure if it should happen, and which has been known to happen to the most distinguished and virtuous persons in history.”

His response to his affliction?  Why NOT me?  Milton’s attitude humbles me, but it doesn’t quench my anger.  Maybe most notably, it doesn’t quell my fear.  Fear that bubbles up in the darkness.  Fear that cultivates falsehood.  Fear that the grand master of this universe doesn’t exist, doesn’t know, or worse still, doesn’t care.  Cancer can make the idea of a loving, benevolent God an illusion, and in our most vulnerable moments, a vicious lie.

Cancer whispers a refrain as familiar as the memory of a distant Eden.  “Didn’t God say,” the serpent’s sibilant voice speaks, penetrating Eve’s eternal hope with the possibility of an unfamiliar feeling . . . doubt.  “Didn’t he say” . . . you were to be completely safe?  Consistently prosperous?  Persistently happy?  Lavishly loved?  Promises perverted.  “Has God indeed said?” evil asks.

Cancer roars, “Your God is a liar.  A fraud.  A fake.  I am more powerful.  The brightest of your intellects cannot unlock my mysteries.  I will not be undone.”  And as we watch the best of our kind march bravely into harm’s way, heaven’s silence becomes deafening.  Why, God?  Why?  And still no answers.

So, I can take that silence, grow my bitterness like a weed, and walk the road to destruction that cancer paves for us.  I can march with all the dumb sheep to nihilism.  Wrap up in my existential blanket and never find warmth.  I could.  And some do.

Or, I can slash cancer’s power at the root with the name of the One who has already conquered it.  I can shut its mouth with belief.  I can break its jaws with hope.  I can stand with squared shoulders and fight its corrosive energy with faith.  I can drop to my knees in solemn reverence for those I have already lost and pray for those who still endure.  I can prepare for the possibility of a similar fate.  I can shout into the void, “You might eviscerate our bodies, but you cannot have our souls.”

Cancer is a coward.  A malevolent villain stalking our peace.  Raiding our security.  But it is not a victor.  It is not the champion.  It can’t be.  And even if I close my eyes in finality one day and find out this whole thing indeed has been a myth, I will have chosen victory.  And I will have vanquished my enemy, my skilled but mortal adversary.  And I will have known what it is to live triumphantly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hotty Toddy

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” -1 Corinthians 13:12

Two things are true of humankind. We want to know and to be known. Whether you see this world framed by a divinity or not, these two pursuits, in large part, rule our lives from cradle to grave.

I started a brand new teaching job two years ago. Standing in the atrium during an in-service event, I scanned the sea of faces, all new to me. I felt thoroughly lost in that moment. I had moved from a school where I knew the history of every square inch, and the stories of everyone who worked there. I had moved from a school where I was known by a generation of students and their families.  I had moved to a school where I was utterly unknown.  My heart pounded in my chest.

As I was standing among a group of teachers, my head lost in a cloud of uncertainty, a softly hummed tune hit my left ear.  I recognized it instantly . . . a familiar Ole Miss football chant.  “Hotty Toddy” rang from my lips as I looked up at the tall but boyish figure standing beside me.  “Ole Miss fan?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “You?”

“When I was a kid, for sure,” I responded.  “I grew up about 40 minutes from Oxford.  In Tupelo.”

“No way.  Me too,” he answered.

Tupelo is still a relatively small place, but judging by the differences in our ages, I figured we had very few shared friends or acquaintances.

“My maiden name was Whitwell,” I offered, thinking the conversation would drift off quickly with a singular Mississippi hometown connection.

“Not Dr. Earl Whitwell?” he asked, his eyes widening.  Immediately, I assumed he had broken something as a child, and Dad had patched him up.

“He was my father,” I said.  What happened next bordered on the bizarre.

“Wait . . . wait,” he stuttered.  “I live in your house.”  I blinked, staring at him, incredulously.  “No, I mean, my family bought your house.  On Allyson Drive?”

My childhood family home.  It’s located on a hill in a subdivision in north Tupelo.  Sitting atop the highest elevation in town, I used to pretend it was Everest.  My mom and dad built it in 1980.  I moved there at the age of 9.  It holds most of my childhood secrets and informed a lot of my adolescent ambitions.  In my mind, it is still home.  After my parent’s divorce, my dad would sell it a few years later.  He would sell it to Ben’s family.  The Gatlins.  Ben was 12.

Both of us reeling from this ridiculous coincidence, we shouted and fell a few steps backward.  Suddenly, he asked, “What room . . . what room was your bedroom?”

“Top left corner.”

“Mine too.”

I lost it.  Our two childhood selves had shared the same room, in the same house, on the same street, in the same subdivision, in the same town, in the same state.  Two decades apart.

I went from unknown to known in a two-minute conversation.  And it wasn’t just being known that resonated for me.  I felt home, one more time.  Rolling in a pile of leaves in the front yard or swinging high off the tree swing my dad hung one sunny afternoon.  Running barefoot on hard brick toward the smell of my mom’s sumptuous summer suppers.  Rose bushes, honeysuckle, azaleas . . . freedom from responsibility and mostly shielded from pain.  Home.

No matter what else we attempt to achieve on this planet, feeling known will be one of the most important to us.  One of the most cherished.  One of the most valued.  We hold tightly those who know us and still love us.  We long for that feeling to last and when it dissipates like a heavy fog in the sunlight (as it must always do), we begin the chase again in earnest.  Our souls somehow understand there is a “known completely” and a “known forever.”  We just know it.  In this realm; however, we are forced to live in the tension of that unfulfilled desire.  But there is a day coming.  And in one instant and in one glance, our exhausting quest will be put to rest.  And we will all finally be home.

 

 

 

 

Women Need A Reproductive Mentor

Here’s an idea. Every young woman should be assigned an older, reproductive specialist as a mentor. A post menopausal female (or really, anyone who broke up with their ovaries before their ovaries broke up with them) willing to have an honest conversation when the “journey” towards projected procreation begins. A quick side note here. This person cannot be your mother. I repeat. Cannot be your mother. For those of you who think she can fill this role, just remember the talk you had about the birds and the bees. Awkward? Unpleasant? Short on necessary details? Contributed, in part, to that pesky counseling bill you pay each month? Need I say more? I didn’t think so. No, let’s leave the mothers out of this and let them continue to do the two things they do best: ask us how our day went in six different languages and also . . . worry.

No, what we all need is someone who can explain why, in an unforgettable moment in time, we are transformed from carefree little girls with shining faces into pubescent, raging Medusas. She can look us directly in the eyes and tell us that each month for a very long time, our bodies are going to be upset, mainly about all that work for nothing, and they are going to use every tool at their disposal to make us painfully aware of that fact. Shovels, pick-axes, backhoes. You know, whatever is handy. She can tell you that for an extended period (pun intended), your life will revolve around a steady regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs, heating pads, hot baths and a more than healthy investment in the Kleenex empire. It’s going to be a blast.

Then, one fine day (or not), your body will reap the reward of all that consistent struggle (or not) and you will feel that stir of life within your womb (or not) and for just a moment, the skies will clear and you will hear the blessed announcement that you are going to swell in places you didn’t know you had. In fact, that backhoe is going to be necessary in a completely different way during this season. And if your womb indeed activates (or not); either way, you are still going to be on the board of directors for the Kleenex empire. You could also potentially be a paid consultant for the anti-depressant industry. The possibilities are endless.

Then, our mentors could call an intermission before the final act. They really should, as little information exists outside of girlfriend chatter and the infrequent pep talks from our gynecologists. This time, she would need to look directly into our souls and tell us that for a relatively brief period, anywhere from 5 to 15 years (cause who really knows), we are going to be mentally deranged. Yep, that’s right. Lunatics. We are going to feel mostly unhinged . . . on our good days. We are going to wake up in a pool of perspiration at all hours of the night. We are going to be standing in a snowstorm with a thin line of sweat on our upper lip. We are going to keep the healthcare industry in business with all the fake diseases we discover during this time. That’s right, ladies. Everyday you are going to wake up with lupus. We are going to yell at our husbands and our children. And then we are going to cry and beg them to tell us we are not crazy. And inside, our reproductive system is taunting us, taking us for one final ride, the denouement, Thelma and Louise style.

Chin up, ladies. One fine day, we do eventually wake up with clear minds and bright eyes. Granted, we no longer fit into our pants due to expanded waist lines and hips that just won’t quit, but we valiantly grasp our estrogen IV poles and somehow learn to live again. And the reason why some of these strong survivors need to be designated as reproductive specialists for the younger generation? Because by that point, the majority of women look back at all those blissfully ignorant little girls, laugh and say, “Good luck with all that.” Then we book a cruise, call our girlfriends who understand and race out of town . . . indefinitely. And that, my friends, is what it means to be a woman.  Now, I’ve got a plane to catch.  You’re welcome.