Messy Beginnings

Yesterday was Jackie’s first day going to school ever.  She planned on reinventing herself as “Jacqueline” in her third grade class, and had already memorized the names of all the other girls in her class.  She was prepared to make a great first impression.

Then she entered her classroom and promptly puked all over herself, her backpack, and her brand new suede Tie Buck shoes.

I got the call from the office while I was already downtown, dropping Jim off at work.  “Sweet Jackie’s nerves got to be a bit too much for her—would you be able to bring her a change of uniform?”  At first I thought she’d peed her pants.  Wow.  That would have been worse.

So I sped home as fast as I could, knowing that each minute I wasn’t there was another minute she was not spending in her classroom learning new procedures, figuring out how things were to be done, getting to know her classmates and teacher.

When I arrived, she was sitting red-eyed in a director’s chair in the office, drinking a cup of water.  While I helped her clean up in the restroom, she poured out the story.  She’d been nervous as she went to line up with her class to go into the building, and then she’d seen a girl in her line with whom she’d had a tough relationship at her summer theater camp.  This girl had bossed her and made her feel dumb and left out, and she hadn’t fully gotten over it yet.  Seeing her right there in her line, in her class, and realizing that she was going to spend all year with her had pushed her over the edge.  Hence the up-chucking.  She wanted to go home.

I was able to talk with her, explaining that the worst was over, and that if she didn’t go back for the rest of the day, tomorrow would be a much higher hurdle.  There are other kids in your class, I told her, and you can be friends with them.  Maybe this girl will be different in this setting.  I was proud of her—she decided to be brave and go back.  And the happy ending is that she had a phenomenal rest of her day, absolutely loving her teacher and the other kids (and no problems with Miss Bossy Pants).  She even has a Chinese girl in her class, and they had giggled together that they could talk “in code.”

Not the beginning we’d hoped for, but she survived, and even thrived.  I’ve been pondering this since yesterday, thinking about my own launch into what’s next for me now that I’m not homeschooling anymore.  Rather than spending the last few weeks of summer vacation having crazy fun adventures with my kids and spending all kinds of time shopping for school supplies and uniforms, I’ve been laid up with a bad virus-turned-pneumonia.  Recovery has meant doing the bare minimum to make sure they walk into school on Day 1 with what they need, but it also means that I haven’t been able to plan much beyond that.

Because of factors outside of our control, I’m still unsure about whether I’m going to need to work part-time or whether I’ll be able to devote my full time to my writing career.  We had hoped to have some key questions answered by now.  It’s a weird, messy start to this new phase of life.  Not the beginning I’d hoped for.

And that’s the way this life rolls, doesn’t it?  Rarely do things launch cleanly, totally according to plan.  Our grand ideas often bumble along in the dirt before they catch any air beneath their wings.  I read a prayer that says, “I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the contemplation of a more perfect blessedness” (John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer).  That’s what it means to search for grace in the brokenness of this world.  Too often I dwell on what went wrong and miss how brightly grace was shining through the flecks of mud.

This morning after I dropped the kids off, I went home and had a short-lived drill-sergeant talk with myself in my head about how productively I should use this morning (half day for the kids).  Then I stopped.  I listened to what my body and spirit were saying.  I am still coughing frequently and my cracked rib really hurts.  I’m winded going up a short flight of stairs.  I haven’t spent a quiet hour talking to my God and reading His life-giving words in a few days.  I don’t have my immediate future all figured out, and today might not be the day to begin trying to do that.

I listened, and I spent a blissful hour of peace on my front porch.  Then I drove over here to The Red Canoe coffee shop/bookstore and am taking time to write.  I’m keeping my hands upturned and open, giving this messy beginning to God and awaiting the gifts and answers He’ll drop into them at just the right time.

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“Com-passionate”

This morning I sat in safety on my front porch.  The air was cool and an Eastern gray squirrel kept me company, scampering frenetically up and down the pine’s trunk.  I wasn’t tensely waiting for the sound of an incoming shell.  I didn’t feel the need to hide the Bible on my lap for fear that I would be dragged down the street and beheaded for my faith.  My kids had just woken up from an unbroken sleep in their own beds and were reading books before breakfast.  I knew exactly how I was going to provide nourishment for them today—our cupboards were full.

All at once, I wanted to weep.  I sat in silence and quiet tears, thinking about the mothers in Gaza whose children are shell-shocked because there are no safe shelters from the bombs.  There are no warnings, no places to hide, no way to protect them from the terror all around them.  Whole families are being obliterated in a moment.  There is no quiet morning, no comforting coolness in the air, no children sleeping well at night.

I wanted to weep, thinking about the mad rampage that ISIS has been on in Iraq and Syria.  They seem like modern-day Huns—nobody seems to be able to stand before their ferocity, barbarity and cunning.  I talk to people, everyone shakes his or her head—Where did they come from?  How did they do it?  And we ask each other, Who will stop them?

Anger rose in me as I turned my eyes to the pages open on my lap.  Psalms.  I needed some teeth-breaking gravel right then, some throwing of hands to heaven, some chest-heaving.   I wanted to scream the words, but instead I whispered them with ferocious pleading on behalf of my Iraqi and Syrian brothers and sisters in faith, on behalf of the innocent victims in Gaza.

1 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off ? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? 2 In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.….9 He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. 10 His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. 11 He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.” 12 Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. 13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”? 14 But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. 15 Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.   (Psalm 10, excerpts)

The word compassion literally means “to passion with.”  To come alongside another in his moment of passion, grief, suffering, and to weep with him, suffer with him, walk with him, until it is over.  Contrary to how emasculated the word has become, it originally meant demonstration of a fierce love and friendship, a willingness to consider another as precious, or more, as oneself—so much so that we place ourselves in harm’s way.  Compassion.  Today the word is confused with empathy, which is a feeling.  Compassion is not a feeling.  It is action.  It’s the love that lays down one’s life for a friend, or a stranger.

This morning as I sat on my porch thinking and praying, I felt empathy.  I tried to put myself in the shoes of those suffering in the Middle East.  I wept for them.  I prayed fervently for them.  But the day is almost over now, and the idea of “com-passionating” is chewing on me.  I’m asking what I can do to share in the passion of those suffering unspeakable atrocities and the grind of war.   As a person of faith, specifically of a faith that says, “Rescue those being led away to slaughter,” but that also says, “Love your enemy,” what is a truly compassionate response?

As a writer, I’ve found myself coming back again and again to writing poetry about victims of disaster, natural and man-made.  I often write in the voices of those with whom I long to “com-passionate”—my way of trying to understand their suffering, trying to feel a way through the immediate wasteland of trauma when the landscape is so blasted and foreign.  My desire to listen to people’s stories of trauma—to witness and give dignity to them—seems like such a small thing.  And maybe it is.  I want to do more.

I would love to hear from those of you who think about such things.  Specifically, what are your ideas for demonstrating compassion for those victims and oppressed people making headlines (or those who should be) lately?  What action steps have you given yourself that you can share with the rest of us?  Also, if you have loved ones wrapped up in any of these messes, and you need to tell their story (or your own), I would be honored to hear it and bear witness.  Please share.

*Note: Some of you will notice that I mentioned the suffering in Gaza but not in Israel.  While I mourn the loss of life on both sides, I believe Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza with high civilian casualties is unacceptable.  I pray for those peacemakers from both sides who are doing all they can to promote a viable two-state solution and to end the injustices that perpetuate the conflict.

Pasta Life

My mom bought matching maxi skirts for herself and me today at T.J. Maxx.  She made her special lemony hummus in my kitchen while I ran an errand.   We tried on dresses in my bedroom, taking turns in front of the skinny mirror and giving each other advice about which one to wear to my cousin’s wedding.  We also took turns scolding each other about not seeking medical attention for some chronic health issues we each have.

Yesterday I got to watch the US-Germany World Cup game with my dad, an avid soccer fan, at a local restaurant famous for its crabcakes.  This afternoon he walked over to my friend’s house to collect Jackie, and they enjoyed some sweet conversation on the walk home.  He took out my garbage and is figuring out how to fix some broken railings on our front porch.

This is life, pasta life.  It’s filling, nourishing, and yet so simple, so under-appreciated.  (Please, gluten-haters, just… don’t.)

My parents just finished five years of living in Beijing, China, and are going to be working in Prague, Czech Republic, starting in late July.  We overlapped with them for four years in China, even though we were in different cities.  We’re used to not living in the same city, but we’ve also gotten the hang of doing life together in a simple, natural rhythm when we are together.  There are times when we go to museums, shops or restaurants, and times when we plan bigger outings like hikes or amusement parks.  But mostly we just do pasta life.

I love when I’m chopping something in the kitchen and I hear Dad having a heart-to-heart with Jackie on the couch.  Or when I come downstairs in the morning and the coffee’s already on, and Mom’s journaling out on the front porch with Collin keeping her company, because he loves the early morning too.

I love that Mom is such a good salad maker and how that takes the load off me when I’m cooking other parts of the meal.

I love that Dad spends time watching Collin play Minecraft, asking him about the ins and outs of the fantasy-world game.

I love that I have to (pretend to) scold my parents and my kids at the same time for jokes about flatulence.

It’s just easy, and good.  And it’s all the things I want to be thankful for,  now and always.

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On The Cusp

“It might take me a little time to find my way in this new season,” I whispered to Jim as we lay in bed last night.  As of 11:30 yesterday morning, I am officially retired from seven years as a homeschooling mom.

The unknown future is suddenly now.  The bigness of it is startling.  Even though I was watching it come, it came more abruptly than I anticipated, like goodbyes always do.  One moment I’m working on decimals with my son, the next I’m handing out certificates and reading aloud the letters I’d written each of my kids, wiping away tears.  Image

After the ceremony in our living room, Jim and Collin went to build Legos together and Jackie said she wanted to have a little down time listening to music in her room.  And there I sat, alone in the living room, wondering what do I do next?  So I got on Facebook (yes, I’m admitting this, to my shame) to post about the end.  That done, I sat in my chair and thought.  And I realized that after an end comes a beginning.

Now I begin to apply for part-time jobs.  I begin to research grad schools that have good creative writing programs.  I begin to work on my writing and networking more.  I also begin to prepare the kids for their transition to “regular” school— teaching them about raising hands, working with other students, following a bell schedule, and finding others who share their love of learning.

Over these next months, my role is going to change.  Lying in bed last night, I realized that while I have certain ideas and hopes for what that will look like, there is so much I don’t know.  “Are you scared?” Jim asked me.

“No,” I replied. “Mostly excited.”  And I think that was a truthful response.  There are some butterflies and some little worries that nip at me like mosquitoes, but overall I feel light and charged up and ready.

So here is a poem in celebration of launching out into the glorious unknown.

cusp

 

today the word I’m rolling

around in my mouth, testing the diving

lip of it, is cusp.

 

its smoothness is startling

sweeping over an unseen edge

like it’s the natural next step

 

cusp: both an ending

and a starting point

but without the sharpness of a point

 

instead it curves over:

a waterfall, a joyous dive

 

I imagine the possibilities

 

a deep blue pool, a splash

and then a strenuous, satisfying swim

for new shores

The Gift of Presence

My family and I moved recently to colorful, gritty, spunky and historic Baltimore— “Charm City.” Our earnest desire is to plant ourselves here and not move again for a long, long time—as in decades. As such, we are doing careful research into where we want to buy a house, where we want to send our roots down. It’s a big decision.

Right now we have endless possibilities in front of us. We have the luxury of comparing neighborhoods and streets, surfing Zillow and imagining ourselves in each home, making our mental list of priorities and preferences. But one day soon, we’ll make a decision. As in one. One house, one neighborhood. We will love it, probably, but it won’t have everything. There will be some things we have to let go of in order to choose that one house. And once we move in, if we begin second-guessing and continue to imagine ourselves elsewhere—what if we had chosen that one instead? would we be happier?—we will make ourselves crazy.

When we say yes to one thing, we say no to others. When I said yes to my husband, I said no to the possibility of any others. When we say yes to this house, in this city, we will be saying no to others. That means it’s time to let the other possibilities go. They can’t camp out in a someday-room of my brain, enticing me from time to time with dreams and what-ifs. If I let them stay, they will slowly eat away at my contentment and at the purpose for which God has chosen a place for me.

As a third-culture kid who grew up in six different countries, I’m longing now to put down roots in a flesh-and-blood place with flesh-and-blood people. Within an actual physical boundary. I want to know and be known in this one place. I love, love, love my friends and family and peeps all over the world, but I also want to live life with the people right in front of my face each day. I want to be able to reach out and touch them, to give and receive hugs, to hold a hand in solidarity and sorrow. I want my physical home to be a welcoming place for relationships to grow.

This morning I asked God to begin weaving the threads of my family’s life into the fabric of others’ lives here in this city. I believe place matters to God. It is not inconsequential. He puts us in places, and He does it for a reason. I’ve lived much of my life feeling somewhat guilty for desiring to feel connected and rooted and part of the fabric of a specific place. After all, I say I belong to Someone who had no place to lay His head while He walked the earth. Oh, and heaven is my ultimate home, right? Yes, I believe that, and my longing for it grows each year that I’m alive. But I also believe that God wants me committed to the place in which He has placed me, to be fully present here so that His Emmanuel-nature can live through me in real love, presence, healing and grace. I can’t do that by remaining detached and uncommitted and discontent and transient.

Recently one of the elders at my new church gave a message, simple and bold, on the story of the paralytic’s four friends who broke through the roof to get their friend to Jesus. He asked us, “Are you a friend? Do you have friends?” The hurt and the longing of those words pierced me right through. Am I a friend who is vested so much in others that I will seek them out in their pain and paralysis, push through crowds, carry them and their burden, claw through whatever obstacle is facing me, and bring them to the feet of Jesus? Even now, as I sit here, new to this place and beginning relationships in hope, do I have friends who would do that for me? How I desire that.

So, I’m saying yes to this soil, to this plot of ground in the garden. I’m sending out my tentative little roots, feeling for the nourishment and life-giving water that is all around me. I’ll endeavor to “Emmanuel” myself where I am, choosing contentment of people and place and discovering the One who is active in them, making all things beautiful.

The gift of presence—His and ours—is the best gift.

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“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you….Pray to the Lord for it.” Jeremiah 29:7

A Room of My Own

For just a little while, I had a room of my own.  My writing room.  The walls were brushed with the faintest silvery, smoky lilac.  A charcoal gray love-seat soaked up the afternoon sun coming in the one tall window.  Silver raw silk throw pillows complemented the thick brushed silver frames on the walls— three Chinese folk art pictures, each with shades of winter, coolness.  The raw silk curtains were a deep plum.  My desk was a simple, small writing desk with one drawer and thin, shapely dark brown legs.   There was a narrow corner bookcase holding all my reference materials, books on craft, and favorite novels and poetry collections.  A light gray carpet with modern white swirls warmed the floor, and there was a dark chest of drawers on which sat a scented candle.  Above it hung a square, black iron-framed mirror.

Utter luxury.  Decadence.  A sanctuary.  Each time I stepped into it and shut the door, I almost couldn’t believe it was for me.  In the early mornings I would enter with my coffee, turn on just one lamp, pull the soft fleece of the throw around my lap and spend time in prayer, reading Scripture, and journaling.  Some afternoons I would sneak in there for a half-hour nap curled up on the love-seat in a sunbeam.

Sanctuary

Sanctuary

And I wrote in there.  I composed poems, birthed (that’s what it felt like) chapters of a novel, edited, prepared submissions to literary journals, and read for inspiration and for help with craft.  I kept small squares of dark chocolate in the tiny drawer of my desk and ate one or two each evening I worked in there.  The hours I spent in the soft light working, Springsteen or Van Morrison or Patty Griffin crooning through my earphones, passed as quickly as a breath.  It was always hard to put things away and walk out.

I had a room of my own.  But just after designating it as such, and setting it up to my taste, we took in an eight-month-old Chinese foster baby named Lei Lei.  It quickly became apparent that his sleep schedule and our 8-year-old son’s were incompatible, so we had to move him from my son’s room to my writing room for naps and nighttime sleep.  I was okay with that.  Sometimes when I needed to use the room at night, we would put him to sleep in our bedroom, moving him back into the small room when I was finished.  We said goodbye to Lei Lei just over one year after taking him in, handing him off to his forever family.  The year with him flew by.

Sweet Lei Lei

Sweet Lei Lei

I could use my room now.  But now, with the pleasure of it, there was a small emptiness, too.  His little arms hugged my neck tightly each night before I used to lay him down to sleep in there.  My time was much more my own, and while I relished aspects of that, I also missed kissing the indent just above his flat little nose.  I missed opening the door to that room in the morning and seeing his happy little face, his eyes disappearing into apostrophes when he saw me and reached for me.

I used that room as my writing sanctuary for eight more months.  Each time I felt the significance of the gift that it was.  I thought I would have it for many more years, but then we were surprised by one of life’s curveballs and we found ourselves packing up our lives in China to return to the U.S.  As the one “non-essential” room in the apartment, it was the first to be dismantled and used as a storage room for our shipment boxes and suitcases.  I sold off each piece of furniture in it, feeling the sharpest pang inside when my desk was sold and carried out.

When would I have another room of my own?  Would it be possible, in our new home, to carve out even a little writing “nook?”  That question is still unanswered.  We lived with my in-laws for six months and have since been living for five months in a rented house.  Our house-hunt is about to begin for a place we can settle into and call home for a long, long time (we hope).  I don’t know if it will have a space for me to make room for my writing.  I’m hoping, but trying not to hang onto that dream too tightly.   The luxury of a room of my own is something I feel needs to happen without heavy striving on my part.  I need to feel like I am receiving it as a gift; it isn’t something that I can demand.  I’m praying for a heart that is content with simplicity, a heart that is astonished at the blessings bestowed on it by the Giver of all good gifts.  In this day and culture, we—women especially—are encouraged to go out and grab what we want from life.  We’re told that we deserve it and shouldn’t let anything stand in our way.  But for those of us who follow the footsteps that led to a cross on a hill, we’re learning to trust in the goodness of the pierced hands that give and take away, that understand the seasons of life better than we do.

I loved my silver and purple room.  I hope I get another one.  But I trust that when it’s time it will be obvious, a gift given into my lap.  Until I have a room for my writing again, my job is to make room in my life to keep writing.  So here I am at Panera on a Saturday night, with cold toes and just-ok coffee, my computer, notebook and a couple of writing resources spread out on the booth table, trying to figure out how to make a trip to the restroom without having my stuff stolen.  Right now this is as good as it gets, and I’m writing on.

Poem-A-Day Challenge

I’ve taken on Robert Lee Brewer’s Poem-A-Day Challenge this month (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides).  It’s a fantastic way to crank out the words and get new ideas flowing.  Some poems will probably be duds, but the fun is finding the firecrackers along the way!  Feel free to join in!  Check out Writer’s Digest’s Poetic Asides blog daily in April for each new prompt, and add your poems to the comments section at the bottom.

Today’s prompt was “Since (fill in the blank).”  Here is my go at it:

Since I’m a Girl

and this is the deadliest country

on earth in which to be one

 

and since I somehow survived

the unhallowed womb

and the horror on the faces

I saw as I popped out

 

and since nobody’s namaste-ing me

because what aspect of the divine is there

in me to salute

 

and since I’m an unwanted loan

to this man and woman until

dowry-day and bogey-woman

 

mother-in-law, fire in her eyes and hands

to scorch me for being me (and her)

 

since all this

is true (listen!)

 

I’ll try not to make

a noise