Changes

In the quiet of the morning, on the week before things begin, there’s time for one more cup of coffee. It’s an unusually cool day, and though summer hasn’t breathed it’s last, hot breath yet, I am taking today as a sign of things to come.

I haven’t written very much here this summer. I almost felt like it was time to allow my voice to rest.  My mind.  My body.  I hope you don’t mind.  I let myself off the hook this summer and just, well, breathed.  And learned something fairly significant about this hook thing, and how I dangle from too many of them, lines running from fingers and toes in different directions.

I read a few books, and some of them were meant to be helpful, and others were pieces of fiction that were just as important.  I heard it said that if you want children to be smarter, to read them fairy tales.  I read my share of them this summer and I may attest to this truth.  There’s beauty in the redemptive love and conflict of a fairy tale- not unlike real life.  Just, beauty is always the focus in tales, and we seem to forget about carrying that over into our every day.

This will be the first school year that I will not be commuting very much (if at all) to NYC.  I will miss my maple latte from Grounded, the leaves, the twinkle lights in Tea and Sympathy’s fall decor.  I will miss the village where I found my footing as a Mama and as a professional- where I learned that I could do both with confidence.  I spent two whole years wandering Perry and 4th waiting for my sessions to begin, haunting Tartine’s windows, dodging foreign Sex and the City fans with selfie sticks.  As a teenager I swore to make that little neighborhood my own- what a beautiful thing that it was where I continued to find pieces of myself throughout my adulthood.  New York grows with you in the bravest, most endearingly prickly way.  I will miss it dearly.

And in the same way, I am ever so thankful for the shift.  That I will be New Jersey side with families I’ve grown to love, in a district part time that’s always been a part of me.   It will mean hours off of a commute, which means I get the dinner and bedtime hour with my family back in spades.  The part time means no hours of grading and planning and prepping at home- just the focus on the children; who they are, what they need, and how to help them.

Though I’ve not been writing here, oh, I have been writing.  There are a few projects I am honored to be a part of this coming year- projects filled with beauty and truth where I get to lend my pen and my voice, my research and my gifting.

I’ve learned how to get off the hook gently, carefully, without harm to myself or jerking anyone’s line and keeping myself on the things that bring me life, thusly, bringing life to others.

This coming year is already full of changes, some more to come.  I don’t have the answers to any of them, or the blueprints.  I don’t even have the universal healthcare paperwork filled out for Ellie’s school yet.  Yikes.  What I do know, is that today there is cool air, a pot of coffee and some time.  There is good in today.  Can’t you find it, too?

Home

I knew this one was different.

I’ve seen viruses and fevers before.  Only a few months ago, in fact.  But this one.  This one took over my little one’s body and racked her with cramps and chills; with a forehead and a back burning like fire.  With red eyes and slow responses she barely had the strength to tell me when she was about to vomit.  Again.   I watched her curl into herself, shivering with fever and aching and I knew we had to go.

They were kind, there.  They cleaned her up after she got sick again in the car and talked to her softly so as not to hurt her head.  They let us hold her while they checked her vitals and administered a medication that would stop the retching- the back arching spasms that were painful and tiresome.

We brought her back home and snuggled her close and prayed with a fire of our own to quell the sickness.  If there was something we could have bought- even if it would have brought right back into the debt we are climbing out of- damn if we wouldn’t do it.  There is nothing like sickness in a child to birth their hearts all over again inside of your own.  There is nothing you wouldn’t do to bring them to wellness- to bring them to wholeness- to bring them, well, home.   But you know the fever has to pass and before it does, it often gets worse before it gets better.

She looked up from the couch and whispered, “Make it stop, Mama.”

And part of me swelled with purpose- she thinks I have power to reign in illness. She looks to me for hope. And part of me broke, knowing there was nothing I could do to ease the pain. In order to get to the other side- in order to be whole, to be home- she needed to endure this trial.

And as my heart broke for her, with her, I heard someone else’s heart break.

The one who knows every hair on my head.  Every thought before I think it.  The one who reads the desires on my heart.  The one who holds me fiercely, who loves me beyond anything I could ever hope or dream.

And for just one brief second, I could accept it.  I may never understand it completely- why people have to say goodbye to their babies before them.  Why there are some sicknesses called cancer.  But I felt in that moment that I locked eyes with my own grieving, sick child, the One who is also grieving, locking eyes on the ones He loves. He will stop at nothing to bring comfort, peace.  He is crying, quaking with sadness and is waiting for the worst to pass so that they can be whole- so He could take them home.  He loves like a Father, because He is one.  Mine and Yours.

Rest in that tonight.  I am.

Church

As I’ve grown older and wiser, I’ve recognized that God enjoys redefining things.

As an English teacher obsessed with the definitions of words and their etymology and multitudinous translations, it drives me nuts.  I like definitions to have the final word.  Not so.

God has been teaching me how my definition of poor is different that His.  My definition of forgiveness, different.  Love, vastly different.  God takes what once was concrete, blows it up like confetti, and lets it fall back down around me to both confuse me and leave me in awe.  Church has not been left unscathed.

As a little girl, Church (big C) meant dresses and lace early Sunday morning. It meant sitting quietly in bony pews sucking on Werther’s Originals while a scary man in the pulpit grew a bulging vein down his forehead.  It meant playing tic-tac-toe with my little sister on the back of the “bulletin” right over the section calling for more prayer meeting attendees.  I’ve been to lots of different churches since then, and something miraculous has been growing beneath those experiences- something beautiful and natural and new. This throbbing, breathing realization.

Church is not Sunday.

I had Church on Saturday this past weekend when a woman we’ve grown to love, a woman we took in to live with us, decided to dedicate her life to Jesus and get baptized.  So, our band of believers dunked her in a pool and threw ribs on the BBQ and giggled and cried and celebrated a new journey, a new decision, a new definition. This was Church.

Church was when we lost our third baby on a Tuesday and our people came from far and near with meals and tissues and games for El.  When they gathered to pray for us in the middle of our living room and held our hearts in their hands so they wouldn’t break apart and fall away.

When I’m pouring Sangria by the bucket full on Friday nights and there are chip crumbs all over my counter and there are people I’m not sure I even know walking in and out of my backyard- people who both love Jesus and can’t even speak his name, people who have been hurt by his people and people who have made Jesus their profession- they all come because they know they are welcome to and there is a chair and a good story for them. This, this is Church.

When I stand in the silence of our backyard with my hand softly in my husband’s and he tells me he wouldn’t want any other life than the one we have together- this is Church.

When someone calls on a Wednesday night to say that their babysitter cancelled, would you watch little Johnny for an hour so she and her husband can talk for the first time in weeks without mashed peas down their fronts and you say YES!- this is Church.

Church is not Sunday.  It’s the ins and outs of the every day.  It’s the walking with your people.  The loving them when it’s hard, the listening to them when you’d rather be the one talking.  It’s the gathering to break bread, the cheering on your friend’s kids at their game.  It’s the grieving with the grieved.  It’s being inconvenienced for others because He first loved us.  It’s the nitty-gritty.  It will take everything you have and give it to those who really need it.  It will be life-giving and definition changing and hard and wonderful.  It will be the way you live your life.

On Sunday, I go to someone’s house.  We sing songs that speak life to my heart and we share what God has been doing in our lives and how we see him moving.  It is beautiful and moving and a great time to celebrate how by the Grace of God, we made it another week.  To pray with each other, to edify one another, to spur one another on.

It’s a great place to rest after I’ve had church all week.

Daniel

Daniel has been one of my favorite bible characters since I was a teenager.

Originally, it was because of what a rebel I thought he was.  Defying edicts and officials.  Flipping the bird to the man.

More recently, his story has taken on a different meaning.  Particularly, the lion’s den.

Daniel knew the ordinance cast down from his friend, the King.  He knew the consequences for bowing down to any other God for the next 30 days.  And Daniel went to a place full of windows, got on his knees and worshipped anyway.  Much to the king’s distress- as the king really loved Daniel- he was thrown into a den full of lions to become dinner, if not for the grace of God.  The king fasted and prayed all night to Daniel’s God in hope that his friend would emerge from an impossible situation unharmed.  It would be a miracle.  And it was.

Two things have stood out to me about this story this week.  Firstly, Daniel’s death, by all intents and purposes, was imminent.  He was going to die.  He was tossed into an enclosed area with a bunch of hungry predators.  It was imminent and yet- God trumps the imminent.  There are things I am positive are imminent all the time according to my past history or experience, weighed against all the facts I have- but nothing can change the fact that God laughs at what we think is imminent.  Nothing is outside of his hand.  Daniel knew that.  He knew walking in that by all facts and the laws of the earth, he would die.  But Daniel also knew that his God is not confined to the laws of the earth.  That his God made those laws- and can change them.  Daniel trusted that God meant only good to come to him, and so, he slept comfortably with massive beings that should have massacred him, and walked out unscathed.

The second thing is how the king stood watch, all night, fasting and praying.  I know that when I am in something that feels imminent, there is nothing like knowing that people are outside of my cave praying and fasting on my behalf.  I bet Daniel knew his friend was sweating tears and throwing up prayers all night long when his face dwindled in the face of very large teeth.

1.  God trumps what we think is imminent

2.  It is necessary to our survival to gather those who pray outside of our cave.

I want to be as bold as Daniel, as steadfast as King Darius.

Who We Are

This post is going to be short, because otherwise, it would negate it’s own point.

I’ve been ruminating on James 1:19 for several days now.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why.  If you are like me and cannot recall the exact verse according to it’s reference, I will spell it out:

“Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; ”

I will tell you that what struck me deeply about it is this:  This verse is about having a conversation, within the context of relationship.

You cannot be quick to listen if there is no one who trusts you enough to do the talking- a conversation within the context of relationship. You cannot be quick to listen if you haven’t laid the groundwork for a relationship in which honestly and vulnerability play a part in your conversation.  You cannot be slow to speak if you haven’t already listened- if you have no one who is willing to listen to you, or you have already pushed them away in your relationship.  You cannot be angry, the root of the definition of angry, if you do not understand the fullness of the situation through conversation, through relationship.

We are called to relationship, to conversation- “with every person”.  We are called to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  To be in relationship with someone, in conversation with someone, requires a great deal of effort.  Of face time.  It’s a lot of coffee dates and dinner dates- a lot of firefly catching in backyards, tearful struggles on couches in living rooms.  We must do this.  We must. We must start talking with people and not AT them. We must learn to do it because if we can’t have a conversation without getting angry, if we can’t enter relationship, and then conversation with people who are different than us, if we can’t be willing to meet them at Starbucks and hold their hand as they cry instead of blasting them on some social media site, we surely can’t learn to love them.

And then we’ve really lost sight of who we are.

A Good Story

For the past four years that I’ve grown my garden, I’ve had to deal with Newman.

Our sub-urban neighborhood isn’t well known for it’s woodland creatures.  I had expected to contend with a few remarkably human raccoons, an occasional opossum and perhaps (gasp) a rat or two, but it wasn’t likely I’d find Bambi romping around my fish tank sized backyard, nibbling at the raspberry bushes.  So, that first year we decided to forgo the chicken wire and leave our plants unprotected.  (Well, that and we didn’t even have the extra cash for chicken wire.)

That’s when I saw Newman.  Newman is a ground hog.  He is old.  I have no idea how old, as I’m not sure the aging process of such animals, but he has had a bit of gray around his nose for as long as I’ve known him.  I’d say that makes him fairly old, no matter in what years you are counting.  He is also extremely, well, fat.  There’s no way around it.  Poor guy’s been eating the stale bagel crumbs from behind Krausers for years.  He can’t get his belly up off the curb in front without pumping his short little legs, running in place for a while before something catches and he can propel his large belly forward.  Lastly, he is incredibly slow.  I am unsure if it is because his weight slows him down, or that he just actually doesn’t care enough to hurry.  I’ve stood, looming over him as he sat contentedly munching leaves in my garden, brandishing a large broom and yelling only to have him blink his little black eyes at me, finish chewing, and meander away.

My eggplants are his favorite.  He nibbles all the leaves in a circular pattern, and he nips the flowers off of the string bean vines. The little devil has preferences.  It drives me insane.  He will not be kept out.  Cinnamon doesn’t bother him.  I think he actually enjoys the smell of toothpaste.  Every summer I have a new trick, a new barrier, a new plan for Newman’s removal, and every year that damn, fat ground hog outsmarts me- shiny purple, baby eggplants raised high in his clawed fist.

This year, I have been watching, garden hose in hand, for the appearance of Newman.  We have a big, luscious garden this year due to all the rain and I knew it would be too tempting for him to pass up.  I waited and waited.  But Newman never came.

I was oddly heart sick.  Did he die? Was he ill? Did he eat something poisonous, finally? Did the ASPCA find him and take him out to the country so he could be eaten by bobcats? As a writer, a teacher and an avid reader, all of a sudden I realized that every good story needs a conflict.  Remove the conflict, there is no story.  No hope of redemption.  No hope at all.  Newman was my conflict man.  Now he was gone, and my story was greatly affected.

The past few weeks have been pretty hard.  Illness and financial hardship, car trouble, broken appliances and leaks that seem to have no origins.  A wrestling with what parenthood looks like for us, and what it might always be. A brokenness in my spirit, a deep feeling of inadequacy and a wondering if I’ll ever really be healed from the anxiety that seems to get worse with my age.

I wish I was a deep thinker.  I wish I could have read systematic theological texts and poured over Spurgeon and Edwards and Lewis and that God grabbed hold of my heart by the strength of their words, the validity of their truth.  But no.  He had to use a stupid, fat gopher to teach me about conflict in a good story.  From the beginning, there was conflict.  There has never been a God story without conflict, in fact.  A good/God story is nothing without conflict- it doesn’t teach a lesson, it doesn’t empathize, it doesn’t carve out a secret place in your heart.  In order to have a good story, a heroic, epic, story, we need the conflict to rise above it.  We need the conflict to see around our circumstances into the truth of who we are.  We need the conflict so that we know we need Jesus. We need the maddening, the turmoil, the angst, the frustration, the sadness, the loneliness, the brokenness.  We need Newman.

I needed Newman.

That pisser showed up right as I was lamenting his profound place in my life.  Walked right passed me to take a bite out of my eggplant.  Before I threw my flip-flop at him in a tumultuous combination of rage and relief, I said a brief prayer of thanks. I am trying to be thankful for the conflict in my life that allows me to see Jesus.

I want my story to be a good one.

Don’t you?

Night Time

My daughter has night terrors.  Screaming every hour, not fully awake, not fully asleep, all night long kind of nightmares.  If I didn’t have them myself, I would have lost my mind by now.  It’s been nearly five years (save a few nights where grandparents have graciously taking a night shift) since I’ve had an uninterrupted night of sleep.

The only thing that I can do for her when these happen, is quickly pull her onto my chest, her ear pressed into my heartbeat.  My heartbeat (or her Papa’s) is the only grounding, comforting thing in times of great distress.  We’ve become used to the crushing weight on top of us, the blond hair tickling our noses as she clings like a starfish to our arms and wait for her heartbeat to slow to ours.  Sometimes it only takes once.  Sometimes it’s all night long, our arms growing weary by daybreak.

Laying there this morning, her head pressed firmly up by my throat, I thought about how much smarter she is than me.  She knows who to go to when she cannot handle what life is throwing at her- she knows to look for her parents, to find our heartbeat, to attune hers to ours.  She knows we will rescue her, protect her, shield her from harm.  She knows we will never turn her away, saying we were finally too tired to accommodate her.  She will return as many times as necessary until she gets what she needs.

I do not pursue my Father God in that way.  Still not fully believing He will rescue me, that He loves me, that He won’t turn me away.  Sometimes, I do little to attune my heart to His and then am surprised when I do not feel comforted.  How can He comfort me when I don’t spend time with Him? Don’t you need to be WITH a person in order to be comforted by them? If I were Ellie, I would have given up by now.  Believed the worst.  That this was how my life will always be, and there is no help for me.

But I do not believe that for her.  Nor does she.

That’s why she still comes with her cries and her sweaty head and her wild eyes.  She still comes and clings.

I need to do the same.

From Seed

We pranced in dulcet tones in and out of the garden covered green

With arms like wings and naked skin pressed lightly into earth

We marveled at the wonderland straining up to reach us

To catch the raindrops and sunbeams filtered through clouds and neighbors houses too close together

“Can you believe we grew this from seed?”

We whispered

Awed by the depth and breadth of the vine

Everything grows from seed.

Every breath of joy

Every twinkle of hope

Every precipice of doubt

grows from seed.

We strutted in our human form as though it was something we had done

Something extraordinary

As though we were the ones who hung our heads low to the ground and coaxed life with our very breath

“We grew this from seed!”

We proclaimed as leaves sheltered our feet and dripped dew laden webs into toes

We.

And the ground hums with life

shivers with the knowing

that everything grows from seed because He made it so.

Enough

Hey, Mama-

The one cowering over the kitchen sink pretending to put the dishes in the dishwasher while you shovel leftover kraft mac and cheese and half eaten dinosaur chicken nuggets in your mouth before your family catches you, because, you already had dinner after all and you tried really hard to only have fruit for dessert but there’s something that burns like hunger in the pit of your stomach and you’re not sure how to quell it so you stuff it down with processed powdered cheese and carbohydrates.

Yeah, you.

I see you.

And I know you’re not going to believe me right now, but I think you should know that you are enough.

You heard me.

While your face flushes as you pack your kids into your Subaru, telling your friends via text that you just need an Iced Vanilla Latte when you really do this every day– because you can go to college and get a freaking MBA while pulling all nighters-at the bar- but trying to get two children under 3 to take a nap without sticking them in the car alludes every skill set you have.

You are enough.

While you try to shuffle papers and pay the car insurance and make doctor’s appointments and kiss boo-boos and buy your kid every single thing in the dollar bins at Target if he would only stop talking to you for just ONE SECOND about what would happen if R2D2 and Wolverine met in real life.

You are enough.

When you run your kid into preschool wearing your pajamas with sleep lines on the left side of your face you couldn’t rub out on the way in the car because you overslept and now she’ll be late for school and you’ll be late for work and you didn’t even brush your teeth when all of the perfect, skinny-looking Lulu Lemon Moms wave to you after already having dropped off their children ON TIME- on their way to their group Barre class that their lawyer husbands pay for so they could look like that in yoga pants.

I see you.  And you are enough.

To the Mama who forgot all about “Show and Share” because it’s only once a week and how the hell are you supposed to remember that it was something that makes noise today and not something soft like it was last week when you are wearing two different shoes and it’s not even preschool yet for crying out loud?

I see you.  I know you feel awkward in this new skin you’re in.  I know you carry something deeper than shame  that you’re still wearing maternity jeans- four years after you last gave birth.  I know it takes you 30 minutes longer than it should to go grocery shopping or clothing shopping because you spend the last ten minutes putting back the things that YOU wanted in order to afford the things you know your family would love.  I know you cradle heads and rock bodies while on conference calls.  I know you haven’t taken a shit without an audience since before Jon Hamm became Don Draper.   I know.

I know you can’t buy so much as a new pair of underwear without thinking of what one of your little ones might need instead.  I know you don’t take baths because they feel indulgent and luxurious and both words seem to have no place in your life right now.  I know.  I know you see the Mamas at the park and read Mommy Blogs and wonder how mothers have the time to apply eyeliner in a straight line and write witty essays from the perspective of a toddler when YOU’RE JUST TRYING TO GET SOME COFFEE AND NOT CRY.

I know you feel a little lost- a little unlike yourself.  So, put down the elbow noodles. Retire the stretchy waist bands.  Wave back to the sea of hot pink bandeau tops.  Know that you’re enough. And that you’re doing a great job.

Ok?

Good talk.

Gifts

I’ve been ruminating on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Romans 12:6 collectively these last few days, while working my way through an entire box of ice pops, fanning myself on the couch while my kid watches How to Train your Dragon, Part Two for the twentieth time.  We’re not huge fans of summer over here at the Shannon house, but while the heat brings a certain lethargy of the body, I’ve found that it does the opposite to the creative side of my brain.

I’ve been thinking over particularly what it means to be a part of a “community”, by which I mean the people we’ve grown to love and want to encourage in our sphere of friends- circle seems too flat a word to describe who they are to us.  What our responsibility is to them and to the world at large, concerning our making up different parts of the body and bringing different gifts to the table.  And as things go, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.

As a creative, my spirit is fed when it is in the “making” process.  That’s when I truly feel connected to Christ.  Whether in word or song or a meal, when I am using those gifts I feel like I’m stepping out into that realm of worship.  I’ve always, then, used this thought to support the idea that I need to be uncompromising in the “truest” representation of myself and my giftings.  This would prevent me from engaging in things that might “compromise” how I viewed myself and my gifting. I’m so self-centered, sometimes.  God has really shown me the last few months what it means to “use my gifts” and how when He told me to use them for His glory, He meant it.  Here are two major things I think He’s shown me the last few months.

1.  He gave me these gifts for OTHERS.  I have an obligation to use my gifts.  I don’t get to choose to overlook a part of my gifting just because I don’t like it or it doesn’t fit in my schedule. I cannot be afraid. I cannot hold back out of fear of failure or embarrassment.  I am part of the body, and just like the foot cannot do what the hand can do, I need to do my part so that it all works together.   This isn’t a choice, it’s a call on my life to rise.

2.  Because these gifts were given to me for His glorification and for others, my gifts have to be TRANSLATABLE.  How can I use my gifts appropriately if no one understands what I’m doing???????? If, as a worship leader I chose only songs that speak to my heart and neglected to include music that I know others value (even though I may not) I am NOT using my gifts appropriately. With gifts come responsibility.  I am responsible for others and how they enter in.  The purpose of my gift is to glorify Him and reach others.  Few will be reached if I don’t use my gifts with them in mind.

Be courageous with your gifts today.  Remind yourself that they weren’t given to you for your connection and enjoyment primarily (although that is not to be excluded).  Seek out new ways to translate your gifts to reach others.   We need each other.  The world needs what you do.