Category Archives: Life

Christmas Eternal

Bright lights and warm tones. I travel across time as my fingers wrap around the tightly woven, illuminated green strands. Inspecting each ornament hanging lightly from artificial branches, I savor the moment. Stopping to re-visit the past, I carefully step into my memories. I don’t linger here often. It’s rarely quiet enough to conjure it all. I am so far removed from that life now. Some of it was removed from me. Nevertheless, my recollections are always warm, carefree and happy. These days, I only remember snatches of Christmas past. Short sequences like the frames of old reel to reel movies. My mother’s love. Warm blankets. Shiny tinsel. Christmas dresses. My father’s guitar. My grandfather picking up wrapping paper and bows before they settle on the floor. Smiles and giggles. Sour cream pound cakes and five cup salad. It’s funny how gratitude sits, always on the edges of my memories, like a lamp post guiding me home. What a wonderful life this was . . . is.

No matter how joyfully you receive those reminiscent moments, Christmas is tinged by melancholy. Even the strains of its music can evoke sadness. Its life blood is infused by both memories and dreams. We grapple with the reminders of those long lost loved ones and confront those dreams silently buried in the fallow fields of our lives. Some of those unrealized aspirations may even still haunt us. Trying to push that grief aside is as futile as attempting to sweep the tide from the shore. No, that pain is real, visceral and necessary.

However, always nearby, sometimes too far in the periphery, is the manger. A silent tableau of memory. Mary and Joseph lean in, welcoming their infant son, the one who was born to shoulder death and defeat it. Jesus, the dream that never dies. The sadness of the season is simply our souls yearning for that permanence. Expectantly, we hope for that instant when our lives are no longer framed by goodbyes. When our poets find no compulsion to compose the sums of all we have lost. Persistently, our hearts pine for those sweet, endless days ahead, and for lives forever freed from the tyranny of time. Christmas come eternally.

Platform

Years ago, I was a part of a small group of teachers and administrators charged with the task of creating the school’s first policy regarding social media usage and guidelines for students.  I remember the process feeling something akin to identifying a new species of animal.  Studying characteristics, navigating the construct of this new medium, and predicting its impact both on teenagers and faculty were just a few of the challenges of interpreting this most modern form of engagement.  It was the beginning of a new century, the Osbournes on MTV were America’s favorite family, and everyone above the age of 30 was completely mystified.

Although I know it didn’t happen this quickly, it felt as if students awoke one day to discover that they could now literally shout their opinions to the world.  Platform.  It was more than intoxicating.  So, they abandoned their passed notes, all neatly bound in tidy little triangles, gazed into the face of the ghoulish blue light of their computer screens, and frankly, never looked up.  The first social media users that our school encountered were more than green.  They believed, wholeheartedly, in the privacy of their personal pages.  They fought valiantly for their constitutional rights.  Anybody looking in on their thoughts and posts were considered the equivalent of nosey parents snooping under the mattress for a private diary.  Their entries were raw, untreated, and often brutal.  All of those conversations and emotional outbursts that each one of us experienced in a school setting growing up were now broadcast for a remote audience to access.  They created fake faculty pages, spilled their guts about teachers and students they hated, and generally left it all out there for their friends to see and comment on.

The second point of navigation was the connectedness this platform provided.  In lightning speed and real-time, users could “meet” other users.  Their small, exclusive friend groups swelled with numbers as they interacted on-line with new personalities.  Everyone and everything taken at face value, there was no reason to suspect that anyone they encountered was anything but genuine.  They were mini pioneers . . . crossing the threshold into a brave, new world, while every adult in their lives were pulling on the reins and clicking their tongues at this new-fangled jump in the technological revolution.  With a massive eye roll, teenagers took a giant, fearless leap, and the social media age began.

It is astounding to me to note the changes in this internet based construct from those early days.  We all sensed we were on the brink of something spectacular, strangely alluring, perhaps because the dark underbelly of this platform was only beginning to unfold.  Soon this world we entered on a daily basis became its own distinct address.  Another country on the map, with seemingly endless street addresses and exotic locales to explore.  With every picture, status update and check in, our online personalities began to shift as well.  We adapted our personas in this virtual space, just as we often do in real-time, and the masks we adopted for our online selves were even easier to create.  Hiding behind a screen, we could become whatever we hoped or desired.  Utter transformation.  The students of today are products of an entire life lived in the glare of the camera lens.  They are much more polished and sophisticated, posting only the most flattering of filtered photographs, crafting online stories of their days complete with well-timed humor, wit and frivolity.  They know exactly when to smile.  Every once in a while, one of them will get out of line, revealing too much or posting with emotional intensity.  These unlucky few are quickly pulled back into rank and file, most surprisingly, by their peers.  Lest we forget, some still taunt and bully.  They are just better at it.  For the most part, their lanky, awkward adolescence has been processed and enhanced into a glittering existence, filled with the best of their everyday lives.  Even still, when they tire of their crafted, online personas, they create fake accounts to explore other sides of their fractured personalities.  Life in a fishbowl.

One thing has remained consistent in this grand social experiment, surfing the edges of the information highway all of these years now.  People really want to be known.  And when they discover that who they are on the inside might not be wholly accepted or their experiences not completely embraced, they recast their lives to meet social expectations.  This is neither new behavior, nor a consequence of the computer age.  It is just basic human psychology.  We need to be known.  We need to be loved.  We need to know that we, at our worst moments, are redeemable.  Period.  Despite the current climate we find ourselves in, my hope for the new year is that we re-discover our humanity both online and off.  That we embrace the power of forgiveness and the sheer beauty of redemption.  That we give each other some room to be the flawed creatures that we are.  That we find a little bit of ourselves in every one we meet.  Most importantly, that we treat others with the same dignity we demand.

 

 

 

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.