Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Drive Time

When my kids were little, I often felt stuck in the house with them. With three kids under the age of five, it was too much work to actually go anywhere.

Now, they are all teenagers (except for bonus child #4), and we are never home; all we seem to do is drive. Drive to soccer. Drive to church (choir). Drive to work (until oldest gets his license). Drive to church (middle school youth group). Drive to Scouts. Drive to pottery. Drive to church (high school youth group). Drive to archery. Drive to dance. Drive to church (altar server party). Drive to a meeting (any given week, there is at least one).

Drive, drive, drive.

While driving in DFW traffic is not my favorite thing to do, I have come to see this constant taxiing back and forth as a blessing - one of the biggest blessings I have had in their teenage years.

The car has become our couch, our confessional, our psychiatrist's bench, our counseling office. For whatever given time we have - five minutes, 30 minutes, an hour - all distractions are removed (well, outside the kamikaze cell phone drivers). No tv, no computer, no board games, no Mom-teaching, no cooking dinner, no folding laundry - NO distractions. I am all theirs, and they are mine.

Many of our trips are one-on-one. It is my chance to check in with them outside the hearing of other brothers. It is safe between those plastic and steel walls. 

Sometimes it is small things - changing the radio and learning what songs they do or don't like. Commenting on what they see out the window. Random thoughts - car rides tend to bring out the random in my kids. You really should be a fly on the ceiling when we pass a field of llamas (or is it alpacas?)  near our neighborhood. I can't explain it - my kids have this weird, funny voice they use, and they talk about the llamas/alpacas in that voice, and it just cracks me up - every time.

Sometimes it is more serious - our time to talk about dating, about life plans, about friends. We do this at home, too; again, there is something so "safe" in than minivan of mine. Our Car Confessionals are different from any other conversations we have.

I was reminded of this today as I got in the van to drive boy #3 to church (surprise!) for a party for those kids celebrating their one year of serving at church. My knee hurt from a bad fall I took last week. I didn't want to drive. Schools were just letting out, and I was trying not to hit a) neighbor kids (Hi, Garrett!) and b) all the cars lining the surrounding streets waiting to pick up kids. I didn't have to go anywhere else until tonight, and I really did not want to be out this afternoon. I was gripey in my heart.

I enjoyed that short car drive with him. Nothing major was said, just happy chatter. And as he left me, slamming the van door, yelling good-bye over his shoulder with a kiss and a wave, it hit me - this window of blessing. For six minutes, I had him all to myself. I was reminded of his happy, sunny nature. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for his sweetness and generous heart.

And it all came flooding in - these precious moments every week I get to spend with each of them. "Our" time - the Young Adult and I get to drive to dance; Boy #2 and I drive to fencing; boy #3 and I have had pottery class; #4 goes out with me a lot still. Each one gets special Mom Drive Time.

I still hate driving - but I love the ride.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Life of the Mind

I have an entire bookshelf devoted to my non-fiction books, most of which I gathered during college and graduate school. Which basically means they have been gathering dust for years.

Dusty relics of an earlier time
Last year when I cleaned my room, I found a few old papers and tests from graduate school days. I sat on my floor and flipped through them. I recognized my handwriting on the tests, identified my name on the papers, but could not for the life of me remember ever being able to pen such thoughts, to string together such complex ideas, to write in such sophistication. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience.

In those old days I studied, and received, a Masters degree in Theology. Pretty heady stuff. I lived a Life of the Mind. During those days, my work consisted of reading, meditating, writing, participating in heady discussions with my peers, contemplation, and prayer. 3/4ths of my time was spent in the Life of the Mind.

When I got married and started having children, I knew the Life of the Mind could no longer be my sole work. In fact, I knew it must be put off for a season or two. I determined to continue intellectual and spiritual reading, even for just 10 minutes a day.

10 minutes a day becomes a token 10 minutes when you have three children under 5 years old. There are multiple diapers to change, minds to grow, games to play, tantrums to quell, and life to live. When they are older, I thought.

Now they are older (not to mention #4 came along). And now my days are consumed with educating them, driving them, cooking for them, cleaning, and all the other million mundane things that make up the life of a wife and mother (add in the  usually part-time job to work and volunteer stuff to do). I know all about the "Domestic Monastery", and it is beautiful; but it is a stern taskmaster.

Earlier this year, I realized I was withering away in my mind. I never - never - had more than 10 or 15 minutes to spend reading something meaty or thinking or contemplating or praying. And this has been my way of life for 16 years.

Not that I am complaining - I willingly and freely chose my life. I love being a mother - it is the absolute best part of me. But for someone who enjoys thinking and learning and studying, it is hard to be separated from those things for so long.

I did some writing several years back. I published some magazine articles, one booklet, and many web articles. But, like everything else concerned with the Life of the Mind, I had to make the decision to put that aside, as well. It was taking up so much of my time. I had boys to teach and a house to run.

Earlier this year, I had a mini-epiphany - I need the Life of the Mind again. For me, this is important. It may only be a small part of my day, but it needs to become part of my day again. With no time to really think about things, to read and meditate, to learn and contemplate, I have been like a car with its engine revving for years. My mind is going 24/7, but with small things.

Right now I am working on lesson plans for my new Tolkien/Lord of the Rings class. This subject is one of my favorites. It is the third time I am teaching it. This time, I have several repeat students, so I am doing new lesson plans - a part two, if you will. In order to prepare for this, I do a lot of reading. I currently have ten books, 2 binders with supplemental papers, two spiral notebooks with notes, and a computer on my table - all of which I am using. I have spent several weeks just reading. Reading and thinking. And taking notes.

All Tolkien; All the time.

No - it will not all go to my class. This is the way I educate myself; the way I continue learning, so I can teach, so I can share, so I can have something to give.

Yesterday, I spent the entire day on one handout. It took that long to read, to fact-check, to organize my thoughts, to finish. Writing takes time. Even this blog has taken up a great deal of my morning. Of course, I stop to answer the phone, to take care of email business, to talk to the middle boys about robots, and to readjust the Ninja's face mask. All in a day's work.

How can I mind stopping for this????

And I love it all. I love my mundane life - I love taking care of my family (at least, in theory!), I love teaching, I love my little jobs outside the house, I love the business of family life. But, I also used to love the Life of the Mind. And I am ready to fall in love with it all over again.

Oh, the irony.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Legacy of Grief

This past Saturday, I attended the memorial service for a man who lost his battle with cancer. I did not know him personally, but, as with any funeral I attend, I learned a lot about him during the service. I loved what I heard, and sat there wishing I had known him.

I do know his wife. My sweet friend, Sherryl, walked this long, painful, bitter walk with her husband. She has shared her ups and downs, announced updates, and requested prayers on facebook, allowing her friends to walk this with her, even in a small way. I know she and her family have been in my daily prayers for a while now.

Sherryl is not grieving alone. In addition to all her family and friends, she has two young sons.

Losing a parent is almost always hard. Losing a parent while you are still a child yourself is unbearably difficult. And it never, ever leaves you.

The biggest gift a parent can give their child in a time a mourning is to show them how to grieve and, even more importantly, how to hope. Grief is terrifying for children. It is overwhelming and scary and loud and noisy and all-consuming. But worse is when grief begins to lose its stronghold. Then, life seems terrifying. Are you supposed to laugh? Is it okay to smile? Are you a monster if you make a joke? Do something fun? Will you lose your beloved if you stop concentrating on grief for a moment? What about when your memory of their face becomes blurred? The earth seems to shake when you can no longer recall their voice in your mind.

A child who loses their parent during childhood will only ever have a child's memory of that parent.

As I watched Sherryl on Saturday, she cried; she hugged; she smiled; she looked like she would die herself; she looked strong; she looked weak. Most of all, the love for her two sons shone through. Her younger son gave a moving testimony to his father. When he was finished, he returned to a loving embrace from his tearful mother.

And I thought - she has no idea what she is doing. She has no idea the gift she is giving her sons.

As Sherryl walks this long, difficult road of picking up her life again, she is leading her children. She is testifying to them how to be in pain, yet hope. How to cry, yet live. How to move on yet never forget. How to doubt, yet cling to faith.

I am sure Sherryl does not know this. I am sure she feels like she is stumbling through this whole survival thing, blindly. I am sure she feels she is making mistake after mistake. But, she isn't. She is being a gift to her children. One they will remember for the rest of their lives.

It is August - the month I always remember my father's passing, one week before my 11th birthday. It never leaves you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Less Than Perfect

We are a driven people who live in a driven age. We reach for the stars. We shoot for the moon. We strive for greatness. But what happens if we shoot for the moon, yet barely get our feet off of terra firma?

Success, or the experience? Which is better? I have read several articles and blogs on this topic lately, especially as it concerns children. And while the consensus seems to say that letting our children discover, explore, and savor the experience is the good thing, real life still seems to favor winners.

My son dances. Well, two of my sons dance, but one is only six, and he is just beginning and may not continue, and even bad six-year-old dancers are adorable.

The Young Adult began dancing at the age of 10. (Actually, I have the videos to prove he started dancing as a toddler, but I am not allow to show these under pain of death.) He and his best friend decided to take a class at our homeschool coop on Highland Dance. They liked it enough and learned a few things.  When the Young Adult turned 11, we required him to take some kind of sport or PE class. He is not what you would call a "traditional athlete", and - long story short - he chose to enroll in Highland Dance as a real student this time.

First of all, if you know nothing about Highland dance (and let's face it - not many people do), it is a very athletic sport which combines dance, grace, coordination, precision, and sheer power, all set to bagpipe music. If that doesn't blow your kilt, I don't know what will! Dancing a 6 Step Fling is equivalent to sprinting one mile. Read it again. Sprinting a MILE! Now, sprint a mile gracefully, and you have Highland dance.

When the Young Adult officially began Highland dance, we did not let him compete for one year. Poor kid was 11, and had just hit a massive growth spurt. He was basically a human Labrador puppy - all long legs and big paws, and almost no coordination. And if you have done any kind of dance, you will know coordination is kind of important in dance. When his first year was up, he began to compete, but not very well. He just lacked, well, coordination. He took what we call the "long route" in Highland dance. He did not shoot up the ranks or blow through the levels. He struggled and fought his way up.

Some dancers spend one year or less in the beginner category. The Young Adult spent three years as a beginner. Three long years. He watched while others moved ahead, seemingly with ease.

Always, always, always, dance has been HIS decision. In the low points, when it felt like he would never move ahead, it was his decision to stay. When he realized that in order to succeed, he would have to give up his natural tendency to laziness, it was his decision to work at home on his skills.

I won't say Art Guy and I did nothing. We urged him to practice. Sometimes we demanded it. We told him that if we were going to spend this kind of money on an activity, then he owed us to work at it.But, the decision to continue in this activity, to be a dancer, has always been his.

And I will say this - at 16 1/2, the benefits of Highland Dance are apparent. Physically, his physique is rock hard (he could probably break cement with his calf muscles. You can tell a Highland dancer by their calf muscles.). Mentally, he has learned to focus and push himself, but not over think. Emotionally, he has learned to expect great things, but acknowledge defeat. He had learned to stand on a stage and receive one last place ribbon, after months of hard work. He has sat in the stands, hearing everyone's number but his called for awards. Dance will tear you up and spit you out if you do not learn how to deal with these things. He has learned that his greatest enemy is himself - if he tells himself he will fail (and he does this a lot), then he will. Spiritually, he has learned to accept instruction, take correction,  to be humble, to be proud, to be a graceful winner and a graceful loser.

USIR, Sugarland, 2014. The longest, biggest stage I have ever seen.

 This past weekend we were able to attend the big national competition for Highland Dance - the USIRs - the United States Inter-Regional Championships. The divisions are too much to explain, so to sum up - Premiere is the highest level, and all the other sub-levels are called Pre-Premiere.
Yes, I wish every Highland dance competition was in a plushy ballroom with temp control.

Only qualifying Premiere dancers competed in the USIRs. We watched those. And man! Were they amazing! The Young Adult was, at first, intimidated watching them, then inspired. By the end of the big national competition, he was dying to dance, to put into practice what he had witnessed, what he sat taking notes on.

Ready to dance - oh, the possibilities!

He did dance at the Pre-Premiere competitions, held at the same place on different days. His group is the next highest level, and they are very good. There were 9 this past weekend in his category. Nine dancers danced a total of seven dances. He only placed in two. He received a sixth place medal on Friday and a fourth place medal on Sunday, for the same dance.

Much happier with his fourth place finish.

On Friday, after receiving his sixth place medal, I watched his try to control his anger and his tears. He does not usually melt down like that, but I think after all the work he had been doing for the past few months (3 hours of class a week, and practice every day at home), he was so angry at himself, at his lack of "skill", at what he perceived to be his failure. I sat with my arm around him, talking to him, shoring up the breaking dam of his heart. Although I looked calm, my heart broke watching him.

No, he is not a natural at his sport. No, it does not come easy. No, even hours of practice a week is not enough to make up for the natural grace and ability others have - even some of his own dance friends. And yes, even after hours and hours of practice, sometimes the best you can do is last place.

He came away excited, ready to recommit himself to compete at the highest level, which he will move to in 2015. He is determined to go to the Southwest Regionals for the first time next year, and do something to make himself proud, to prove to himself that hard work and ambition can pay off.

And my heart quivers within me. Do I think he can do it? Well, his goal is not really to win, but to place well. And yes, I think he can do it. I think it will take more time and effort then even he realizes, and a dedication he has not quite reached (but he is so close to). So, yes; yes, I think he can. I believe in him. But, I also know what it is to work and work and work and long and desire and work some more, and never reach the top - that seems to be my life story, so maybe he inherited it from me.

I just want him to know that it IS worth it. The experience. The lessons learned. They ARE the journey. The medals and trophies and accolades - those are the icing on the cake, not the cake or even the flour and eggs and milk. Everything he is learning, all the people he is meeting, all the friends he is making - that is what matters. Someday when he is old, he will be able to say, "I was a Highland Dancer" and he will look at video of his younger self leaping into the air and he will be amazed and shocked and wish he had know. KNOWN. Known that THAT was what mattered.

In the end, the journey is what takes you places. Have a great trip, my son.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Transition Time

This morning I find myself in an odd position - I have time on my hands and I am not sure what to do.

I am not a person who thrives on being busy. I do not love to brag about my full schedule. Yet, my schedule is full. Lately, it has been overflowing. Between the four kids and all their activities, homeschooling, and a spate of singing jobs (for which I am very grateful), I have been running at break-neck speed for a few months now. Well, probably since August, when school began.

Yet, here, in the middle of May, the end is in sight. Already youth group (all three older boys) and soccer (Romeo) have ended. Just one more pottery class for Romeo. Dance and Scouts continue, but that is almost nothing compared to the full-blown schedule of three active teens (Romeo is just 12, but he is bigger than me, so I lump him in there with his brothers). School is limping along. Romeo has a few things to finish up, CookieBoy is almost completely done, and The Young Adult will be mostly done by Memorial Day. The Monkey and I work together most mornings, but it is still pretty brief.

Going from 100 mph to 10 mph (well, maybe 40 mph) feels like a jolt. As much as I long for the lazy days of summer, there is always an adjustment period.

The guilt of not being busy is intense. How much do I need to say, "I hardly had time to breathe today" in order to feel productive? As much as I hate being busy, busy-ness becomes so addicting. In my mind, it becomes warped to:

 busy-ness =  worth.

It is a love-hate thing.

My mind knows the reality. The busier I am, the less time I have to think, contemplate, read, meditate, absorb - just be. These things are important. But when I look up from my reading or thinking and see the dirty kitchen floor or the laundry sitting in the washer that is starting to smell, I feel guilt.

So this morning, I found myself wandering around the house after my initial morning chores and work. CookieBoy had already finished school and was getting ready to play a board game with the Monkey. Romeo was reading his literature. The Young Adult's online math class was in session.

What is a girl to do? I need to continue to clean my room (what am I? 13? Apparently!). There is laundry waiting to be done. The kitchen floor needs a good mopping.

These things will happen. Summer will come. In August, I will bemoan the change from relaxed days to carefully orchestrated battle plans.

For today, I will enjoy the time given and this gorgeous Texas spring day.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Year's End

The end of 2013.

I still have to pause and think about what year it is (is it 2012? 2014? 2000?), and it is already over! I do not think I really ever caught on to this year. After a string of very difficult years, 2012 was incredible, a real turning point for my family. While 2013 was not nearly as amazing as 2012, neither was it horrible. It was a year of learning and growing. 

1) Who I Am - I turned 40 in 2013. Still blows my mind. It is so . . , older! Inside, I still feel like a bumbling 18-year-old. My birthday gift to myself was permission to love who I am, not who I feel I should be (and here my husband goes, "DUH! I have been trying to get you to do this for years!" I know, honey - you are a man of wisdom!). It is a daily struggle, but I am learning to tame the negative messages I have been feeding myself since I was a teenager. I am learning to be patient with my body (because I am very unhappy with it) and more patient with my myriads of mistakes. Learning to love yourself is a tricky business.

Putting this picture on our Christmas card collage was a big step for me

2) What I Do - I began a new job, in addition to all the other things I already do. It has its goods and its bads. I am trying to weigh the two to decide how to move forward, and that is one of my big tasks of 2014.

3) What I Love - Singing. I began singing in college. I took a break from singing from the time of grad school through the birth of of my first child.  I have been singing in church again for almost 16 years. It is an odd thing - being a church cantor. You have to have the chutzpah to get up in front of a large group of people and think they won't mind listening to you, but remain humble and never forget you are serving. A real paradox!

One of my workspaces

 Earlier this year, I rededicated myself to this ministry. After a lot of prayer and helpful conversation with two fellow singers (thanks Sharon and Kerry!), I knew I was at a crossroads: I either needed to get out of cantoring altogether or I needed to place myself in the service of God in this ministry. And being in service means that I cannot be egotistical at all about what I do. For me, this means I (try to) accept what I get asked to do and what I do not get asked to do. It means I give it my all, without expectation of reward or recognition.

And believe me, I have LOTS of opinions when it comes to church music! My family gives me special "music-venting" time, when I am musically stressed!

4) Who I Surround Myself With - this was a year of changing friendships. Some relationships change, some fade away, and some bloom.

I have been so incredibly blessed to develop a real friendship with my dear neighbor. It was a
totally unexpected joy this year. It is such a gift to find a new friend, especially one you can really relate to and who urges you to be a better person and walk closer to God. She was literally an answer to prayer, but even better, her whole family has been a blessing to my whole family.
Other times this past year, I have reached out on facebook - in joy or frustration or whatever - and I received such support and love. It feels silly to say, but facebook was a real blessing this year.

2014, a whole new year full of promise. I have big hopes and plans for this coming year!

1) My Marriage - this is one of the things I am MOST excited about for the upcoming year. ArtGuy and I have been married 17 years, and have been parents 16 out of those 17 years. Parenthood has defined our marriage. It is a good thing, yes (one of the very best things of my life), but also trying, as anyone with multiple children will tell you. Some of our children are more "intense" than others, and that can lead to spending a lot of time on parenting - which is a good thing for the kids, but not so great for the marriage.

Now that our youngest, the Monkey, has turned 5 and is no longer a baby (a fact over which I vacillate between cheers and tears), and no one is currently deathly ill or dying (the illness and death of my only sister was very, very difficult) means we have a chance to really connect with each other in a way we have not for a long time.
I heard someone say that when you have been married to someone for 15, 16, 17 years, you can no longer compare them to who they were when you were first married. No one is the same as they were 15 (or more) years ago, so you have to relate to each other as you are now. It is a beautiful thought.
Not that having multiple teens in the house is a breeze, but it is a different ball game than when we had three little boys under the age of 5!
So, ArtGuy and I are on a mission to reconnect, outside of being parents. It is very exciting!

2) My Children - Like I said above, our youngest is now five - or as he proudly proclaims ,"a big boy"! And the Young Adult is 16 (gulp!). Cookie Boy is 14 and Romeo is staring 12 in the face. ArtGuy and I are in a Golden Era of parenting. The boys are all independent (to a degree), self-sufficient (at times), and able to pour their own breakfast cereal (my Golden Standard for childhood independence!). They are all interactive, fun, and easy to cart around. They are all still home. In just a few years, college will loom in our lives and my little nest will be broken up (as it should be. Sniff sniff!). But, for now, they are all here and they are all fun to be around.

Look at those hats! They just scream, "fun and crazy guys"!

We are planning a really big family trip this year, which should be a blast. I have a feeling we will look back on this coming year as a special time in our lives.

3) What To Do - I am excited about a new year and what I want to pursue. Do I want to work on writing again? Painting? Devote myself to cooking (hah hah!)?
I know 2014 will involve gearing up the college prep for the Young Adult, which makes me shake in my boots a little (if you told me 17 years ago I would be homeschooling high schoolers . . .).
 I am going to give myself permission to say "no" or "not now" more often in 2014 (I hope I learned my lesson by my over-involvement in too many things in 2013. But, I do it every once in a while - 10th grade, junior year of college, and apparently, 2013!).

So, goodbye 2013. It has been an interesting year.

And hello, 2014! May you be a year of great joy!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas is Coming

Five days until Christmas. So hard to believe.

Today is my one day with nowhere I HAVE to go (no Lego meetings, no work, no choir practice, no classes to cart kids to, no rehearsals), so I am choosing to be home! A novel concept these days!

So far I have cleaned the kitchen, swept and mopped the floor, and vacuumed downstairs. Well, the vacuuming was a two-step process. First, I ran the vacuum, then noticed it did not work. Second, I sat down and removed enough of my hair that had been wrapped around the roller that is was bigger than my hand - then I actually vacuumed!

Two years ago, I found the most adorable Advent book while I was browsing in Walmart. I bought it, and it has become one of my favorite things to do with the Monkey each Advent. I highly, highly recommend it if you have little ones. It counts down each day until Christmas with a short part of the Nativity story, with a small activity to do. Most of these activities are not a big deal and do not require extra materials - this non-crafty mom appreciates that! Yet, it really helps little ones connect with the preparation for Christmas.

Today's activity asked the Monkey to retell the Christmas story in his own words, while I wrote it down. I did. If you have little ones, get this done today. You will be glad you did. (We used a plush nativity set to help him tell the story.)

And so I bring to you the Christmas Story, in the words of five-year-old Monkey boy:

Joseph and Mary went a long, long way to the stable so that the baby could get out of Mary's tummy. Mary was going to be very excited about her new baby.

The baby got out of Mary's tummy. And Joseph and Mary thought and thought of a name for the baby. Then, they thought of one - Jesus.

Then, they saw a light that was far away, and it came closer and closer.

Then when they realized when it came it was the three Wise Men and the shepherds. The Wise Men's camel came slow.

The shepherd sat down the light so the baby would not be scared.

Then one shepherd gave the baby a little blanket to put on him.

Then two angels appeared. And they said, "Mary and Joseph, protect that baby!"

Then, the angels disappeared into heaven. But before they went, they gave Mary 
some flowers.

The three Wise Men gave Mary a crown and Joseph a hat. And they gave them 
two rings, since they got married.

And then the Wise Men sat down their stuff for Mary to protect the baby with.

Then, the shepherds went home, and the wise men went to their castle where they sat on their big, red chairs.

Merry Christmas!
                                                                       The End