A Tale of Two Strangers

The other day I went to the post office, an errand that always reminds me of a day about four years ago.

Sonny and Ace, then 3 and 1, and I were in line to mail a package. As waited, a woman on her way out of the building glanced down at my sons and then at me and announced in a voice leaking scorn, “I sure don’t miss those days.” And on her way she went.

What? Sonny and Ace were just standing there quietly. They weren’t throwing fits, begging for snacks, running, or kicking the nice man in front of us. They were not having any sort of bathroom issue. They were in no way channeling Caillou. They were not robbing the stamp machine. They were not doing anything that could be construed as annoying, even to that demographic who tend to conveniently forget that they, too, were once children, and imperfect ones at that. They were just standing there. Quietly.

I did not understand what had motivated this drive-by show of contempt. But I refrained from asking Ms. Grouchy Pants what had crawled into her Cheerios and died that morning and simply ignored her—outwardly, that is. Inwardly I was rather miffed.

It doesn’t take much to diminish someone.

A few minutes later, our business completed, we headed back to the car. On the path we met another woman. Her wrinkles had settled in all the right places, mapping out decades of smiles. She looked down at my sons with fondness and then looked at me.

“Well,” she said. “Well. Aren’t you lucky!”

Yes! Yes, I was. My irritation vanished.

The woman smiled at each boy and at me, nodded in emphasis, and went on her way.

It doesn’t take much to encourage someone.

Thank you, Woman Number Two.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” –Seneca

Ten Things I Learned from My Dad

Have you ever shopped for a Father’s Day card? Too many of them rely heavily on bathroom humor or remote-control jokes. Or incompetently executed home repairs. Or the assumption that dads are the biggest doofuses ever.

None of these work well for my dad—or more dads, I suspect. (Can someone please clue in the greeting card companies?) I’ve learned many things from my dad, none of them related to bathroom humor or swearing on the golf course. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Just because other people have one doesn’t mean you need one. For several years our house was devoid of a television set. Any suggestion to rectify this situation was met with “And why would we need one of those?” In high school, my sisters and I didn’t have our own car. (Because, why would we need one of those?) And so on. We must have survived these deprivations, because here we are.

2. Whatever you own owns you. Why gather stuff when you’ll just end up catering to it? Temptations to accumulate things notwithstanding, this is the bare truth. With this in mind, sometimes I envy the Ingalls family despite their having to haul their own water, contend with Nellie Oleson, and keep one eye out for panthers and wolves at all times. Everything they owned fit inside a covered wagon. Freedom!

3. One secret to happiness is recognizing what is and what is not your problem. I could expect this advice when fretting about a situation that didn’t concern me. The mean girl mocking me? My problem. My sister’s chores? Not my problem. I still check in with this truth occasionally. Turns out a lot of things are not my problem, and I am happier when I keep this in mind.

4. Don’t noise up the place for no good reason. My dad would often each over to turn off the radio (despite having probably selected the station himself), saying, “This music is not an improvement on silence.” Nothing wrong with stillness; no need for mediocre background noise. Just appreciate the quiet already.

5. Work and play. My bedroom window overlooked the back patio; I remember waking up on snowy mornings and looking out the window to check for his footprints to determine whether he’d been called to the hospital before dawn, for he worked at all hours of the day and night. Other childhood memories include him chopping wood, gathering maple sap, shoveling snow, picking corn with my mom (and gleefully piling it in front of the designated huskers, aka his daughters). They also include him attending concerts with my mom, enjoying afternoons the beach, building snowmen, playing chess, driving the family on road trips, walking in the woods, cross-country skiing, picking up our friends to take us all out for ice cream, hanging out at a cottage for a week. He works, he plays—he has found the balance.

6. People aren’t watching you as closely as you think. My dad once told me this once when I was in the throes of adolescent angst about . . . well, something. I’ve long forgotten the (probably trivial) situation, but I just knew everyone was jeering at me. Turns out, he implied, that probably nobody had noticed, and those who had probably weren’t even thinking about it. This was a gentle way of telling me to get over myself, a crucial step in overcoming self-consciousness—especially the misplaced variety.

7. Be there for your family. He does this and always has, in many different ways. He and my mom once came home from vacation a day early in order to see me in my school play. When I was sick and J was traveling out of state, he drove over 70 miles to hold newborn Sonny for a couple hours so I could take a nap. When his parents were in declining health he traveled regularly across three states to check in. Later he moved his nonagenarian father to across those three states to a residence a few miles away so that he could care for him. You get the idea. So did I, early on.

8. You can’t have too much garlic. Although my mom has always been the family cook, whenever the menu featured spaghetti or lasagna my dad would prepare the garlic toast. Heaps of it, heaped with buttery garlic. He’d smuggle garlic into the scrambled eggs and once, I suspected, over the popcorn. Whenever anyone would object, he’d simply reply, “You can’t have too much garlic.” He loves garlic.

Not being quite the garlic fan that he is, I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating on this idea: “If you enjoy it and it’s not harmful, indulge to your heart’s content.” Dark chocolate, for example. You can’t have too much of that.

(Turns out that garlic has been declared a superfood. So has dark chocolate. I guess we were both on to something.)

9. Be a jokester once in a while. One April Fool’s Day I woke up in my sister’s room and she in mine, having been the victims of a midnight switcheroo. Occasionally—rarely enough to catch me off-guard, but occasionally—I’d find myself sprayed with the hose while minding my own business in the yard. And only a couple years ago I was baffled by an egg that refused to crack. Turns out he’d smuggled a ceramic egg into my egg carton while visiting one day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be on-site to witness my confusion when I’d try to break it open. Want to hear him laugh? Ask him about the egg.

10. It’s okay to be the minority in one’s own house. “Oh, your poor dad,” some folks would say with various degrees of jest upon learning that he had three daughters but no sons. And he would occasionally lament about being outnumbered—usually when my sisters and I were hosting sleepovers, or when his favorite reading chair was occupied by Barbie paraphernalia, or when the kitchen reeked of three Ogilvie home perms. But what I remember most clearly is the time he told my sisters and me that he was glad to just have daughters.

As the mother of sons, I have been offered sympathy and encouraged to have another child to give myself a chance of having a daughter. But you know what? I’m thrilled with having sons, content with being outnumbered. And just so Sonny and Ace are clear on this, I follow my dad’s example and tell them that I am glad that God gave me boys.

And, I am glad that God gave me the parents that he did.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Wisdom from Wooliam: My Messy Beautiful

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” – Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Ace marched proudly from the preschool classroom, clutching the telltale yellow fabric bag. “I got Wooliam,” he announced, triumphantly displaying the bag and its occupant. “It’s my turn again!”

Wooliam is a stuffed lamb whom Ace and his classmates take turns hosting. This endearing little creature participates in the family’s activities and chronicles them in a journal entry. Naturally, the chosen four-year-old is thrilled over the opportunity to oversee him.

I must admit, though, that “thrilled” is not an apt description of my own reaction. While I applaud the spirit of this tradition and appreciate Wooliam’s importance to Ace, hosting duties can be . . . well, a wee bit burdensome. Not because Wooliam is a troublemaker (he’s not, although he has managed to get lost and throw us into a panic every single time he visits our house, starting with his first visit to Sonny over two years ago), but because of the journal. The journal is not only read to the preschool class but accompanies Wooliam on each visit for the host families to enjoy. Not to overthink things, but the temptation to manipulate an activity or two in order to make our family seem well-adjusted and not too tedious (or neglectful of Wooliam) is real. Turn off the TV and let’s play Battleship, everyone, and then let’s go to the park!

Which brings us to this last visit, which happened to land over spring break. Yes. When it dawned on me that Ace would be in charge of Wooliam for eleven whole days, I had two simultaneous thoughts: a) Where can I buy Wooliam’s twin in case we lose him for good this time, and b) How can we possibly come up with eleven days’ worth of journal-worthy activities?

But fast-forward to spring break’s end, and Wooliam’s selective reporting had come through for us yet again. Bless him.

What Wooliam divulged: “We played hide-and-seek!”

What Wooliam concealed: “Sonny and Ace forgot to look for me and nobody missed me for two days. It’s dark under the couch, and I evidently am allergic to dust.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped set the table.”

What Wooliam concealed: “Hot chocolate spilled on me. But it’s okay, because it turns out stuffed sheep are machine-washable. Who knew? The dryer made me dizzy.”

What Wooliam divulged: “Sonny and Ace made me a colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope that stretched across the living room.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got strung up from the colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope by my ears.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped Ace and Sonny make a salad for dinner.”

What Wooliam concealed: “It may be that Ace’s lunch consisted primarily of Cheeze-Its.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I watched Ace dig for dinosaur bones.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got buried in the dirt up to my neck. Ace’s mom rescued me and brought me inside before it started raining. See previous comment regarding machine washing.”

Good old Wooliam. Ever the gracious guest, he manages to make us look competent. He is grateful and uncomplaining. He looks and listens for the wholesome beauty and turns a blind eye to the rest.

20140414_081224I could take a lesson and look and listen for the beauty, too, and spend less time dwelling on the messy—not in order to appear more competent, but in order to be more grateful. Not to deny or veneer the messy realities that need acknowledgement or resolution, but to welcome the everyday gifts concealed in messy wrapping.

Last fall, for example, I was felled by a nefarious strain of the stomach flu and spent a miserable day flat on my back. But Sonny wrote me a note: “I love you, Mommy!” I awoke at one point to Ace’s favorite dinosaur book propped on my nightstand; he’d brought me the best thing he could think of to make me feel better. Both boys crept in periodically to rub my arm and ask in whispers if I felt better yet or if I needed more water. They proudly announced that they’d cleaned the house without even being asked.

The discomfort of this nasty virus? Messy. My sons’ blossoming compassion and empathy? Beautiful.

My kitchen is in an almost permanent state of disorder: smears of sunbutter and crumbs of play-dough, sticky spots, ubiquitous papers and crayons. I can’t take two steps without stepping on someone who just wants to help. But it’s the space where my family gathers to play and create and cook. It’s where Sonny and Ace learn to pitch in. It’s our favorite landing spot when we want to connect.

My kitchen is messy. My kitchen is beautiful.

I spend hours in the minivan, sometimes frustrating, teeth-gritting hours. With the minivan we pick our way over slippery roads in the winter and creep through traffic jams in the summer. Inside the minivan imprisoned hangry kids hone their whining credentials during long errand runs. Here snack crumbs and wrappers fall and crumpled papers overstay their welcome until I get around to cleaning the interior. But in the minivan Sonny and Ace and their carpool friends play their own version of “Name That Tune” and tell knock-knock jokes that never grow old. It’s where Sonny talked Ace down from his nervousness about starting preschool. It’s where the four of us sing Christmas carols as we cross the several states to Grammy’s house in December. It’s where Ace encouraged Sonny that he was “the best soccer player on the field, and also the best brother.”

Is the minivan a messy place? Yes. Is it a beautiful place? Yes.

Beauty does not eradicate messiness. The stomach flu is still miserable and always will be; my kitchen is still in disarray; I sometimes consider changing my official primary address to “minivan—the messy one.” And some heartaches and struggles are too large to be glossed over by a surface check for the positive. But at other times, if we look and listen for the beauty, we will see it.

Thanks, Wooliam, for the reminder of what to look for. You’re always welcome at our house, and next time I promise to hide the pipe cleaners.

 

This essay is part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, click here. To learn about the New York Times bestselling memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here.

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Should It Stay or Should It Go?

My dad has two sayings related to possessions.

The first: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” This one is nice in theory, but I’ve never been able to achieve anything loftier than “A place for most things, and most things in their place a lot of the time.” (I should probably mention that in order to cast a more favorable light on my habits, I’m conveniently including items such as the couch and refrigerator, which obligingly remain in their places at all times, in the tally of “most things”.)

The second saying: “Whatever you own owns you.” Dad would offer up this one up whenever we suggested getting a horse, for example, or buying our own camper instead of renting one. Or installing a pool. It seemed that horses, campers, and pools all demand a lot of work and time. If we acquired these things, they would own us. We’d labor on their behalf; we would be their slave. Their slave!

This second piece of wisdom works better for me. Its truth looms large whenever we’re faced with a home repair or car problem. And recently I spent several hours in the basement, rearranging the storage area and trying to determine which items were worth saving after a water leak had dampened them. “Whatever you own owns you,” a voice in my head mentioned. Yes, it was true. I was sweating over stuff we seldom or never used. This stuff owned me—or at least it had retained me for the afternoon.

In that moment, new motivation dawned for spring cleaning. Humming “You Don’t Own Me,” I surveyed the house and pondered which possessions were worth even moments of my service to them.

Old magazines? No.

This tower of rags? A few, yes; the rest, no.

The paint left behind by the previous homeowners? No.

The pipe-cleaner and bead necklace that Ace made for me? Yes.

The bundt pan? No.

The springform pan? Yes. Cheesecake, you know.

This shrieky little toy from a long-ago kids’ meal? Obviously a rhetorical question.

The note that Sonny wrote me in church last week? Yes.

The malfunctioning camera that could possibly be repaired? No.

The Hunger Walk shirt that I haven’t worn in years, even for yard work? No.

Decisions about small things were easy. Those about large things were more challenging. The TV? The extra electronic devices? Stored furniture, even though we like it? Well . . . no.

Meanwhile, what else could I emancipate myself from?

The embryonic grudge from yesterday’s misunderstanding.

Concern about what others think of me.

The avoidance of conflict, even potentially helpful conflict.

Unrealistic expectations of myself and others.

Impatience.

I don’t want these things to own me, either, even briefly. They are not worth my time and effort. Nor do I want them to shape who I am and infect my relationships. So although tossing them out won’t be as easy as dropping that shrieky little toy into the trash can, it’s an effort worth owning—and owning me.

What things own you?

Those Pesky Cats of Kilkenny

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

When in our much younger years my sisters and I would fight/argue/vehemently discuss, my parents took up the habit of reciting this poem to us. It was their defense against hearing about whose right it was to invade someone else’s bedroom, for example, or who hadn’t done her share in cleaning the fish tank, or who poked whom and whether this was done on purpose. Eventually they decided to save some of their breath and began abbreviating their point by simply announcing into the air, “Oh, look, it’s the cats of Kilkenny.”

Cats of Kilkenny

Any success with shushing us with this method was due not to the fact that we internalized their warnings of destroying each other. It was because we didn’t want to listen to cat poetry when we were trying to determine which unlucky sister’s turn it was to sit in the middle seat of the car or exactly what qualified as hogging the bathroom. Meanwhile, I mentally added “say ‘Cats of Kilkenny’ at them” to the list of the hardships I vowed never to deliver to my own children someday, along with “force them to make their beds when they’re just going to sleep in them again anyway” and “refuse to serve sugary cereal for breakfast.”

Fast forward until last week. Sonny and Ace were engaging in constant and noisy disagreement over . . . well, almost anything. Whose turn it was to set the table. Who was hoarding the green marker for no reason. Whether the word pool could be said to rhyme with itself.

And then it happened. As I wandered past a heated discussion about who had neglected to close the door of the couch cushion fort, the immortal words of “Cats of Kilkenny” poured from my mouth as though with a life of their own.

Did they stop fighting? No.
Had I really expected them to? No.
Then why did I do it? I don’t know.

Fighting. It sets my teeth on edge. But sometimes amidst their howling onslaught, Sonny and Ace reach resolution. Sometimes they do eventually listen to each other. So maybe if they keep it up, they will become expert resolvers and listeners, cutting out the middleman that is their fighting.

Or maybe not. But this article  claims that sibling rivalry will eventually pay off with skills related to problem solving, regulating emotions, increased maturity and self-control.

Will this really happen? I don’t know.
If so, how long will it take before these new abilities kick in? I don’t know.

Just in case, though, next time Sonny and Ace fight, I might do something different. Perhaps instead of reciting “Cats of Kilkenny,” I will cheer them on: “Keep on practicing, boys. Try to keep it down, though, okay?”

Or maybe I’ll just claw my ears out. We shall see.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go compel my children to make their beds.

On Finger Flippers and Connect Four

I point Ace’s face toward the sketchy pencil marks on the bathroom wall. “What is that?” I demand. He brightens. “A rhino!”

Sonny’s guitar practice sessions often involve more drama than guitar.

The person who is supposed to provide information for an article is not getting back to me.

It’s officially spring, but this morning’s wind chill was 2° F. This winter season will overlap with next winter; I just know it.

When I cook, I prefer to be unobstructed. This scenario almost never happens.

I’ve been on hold for 26 minutes, being periodically (seven times so far) instructed to stay on the line because my call is very important.

Yesterday, after I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting another car in a parking lot, the driver of the car behind me leaned on the horn and prominently wagged her middle fingers (plural—what was she driving with, anyway; her feet?) at me. (“It’s okay, Mommy!” said Sonny, picking up on a few warning signs. “Just take deep breaths!” “And count backward from ten,” advised Ace. “Shall we do it together?”)

Patience. I need it—badly, sometimes. And when my (frequent) advice on practicing it is handed back to me, it suddenly seems not quite as easy as all that.

But meanwhile . . .

J is neat and organized, but IImage? Not so much. The state of the house usually reflects my habits.

An hour has passed since I told Sonny that I’d play Connect Four with him in a few minutes.

Occasionally Ace confesses that it upsets him when I raise my voice, and I promise to try not to do that anymore. But I keep doing it.

The bulletin board that Sonny and Ace are waiting to have hung on their bedroom has been leaning against the wall for about three weeks.

I have put off responding to a certain e-mail.

My resolution to be cheerful and lighthearted early as the boys get ready for school has not yet come to complete fruition. (Do cheerfully worded comments count as cheerful if they are delivered through gritted teeth?)

Patience. I demand it of others. Sometimes acknowledging this is my fastest route to offering patience to others.

“Love is patient,” says 1 Corinthians 13, and of course this is true. Why is it so hard to be patient to people we love?

“Patience is a virtue,” says common wisdom, and of course this is true. Why does proving ourselves to Crazed  Finger-Flipping Parking Lot Driver sometimes seem more appealing than virtue?

“Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod,” says William Shakespeare, via Nym in Henry V. Why is patience so tired? I don’t know. She’s lazy? She’s overworked? She’s underfed?  What matters is that she plods on regardless.

Patience: may she plod on beside you this week, both coming and going.

Don’t Just Ask

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It’s rumored on the Internet that the average four-year-old asks 437 questions per day. I have a four-year-old, and that number seemed low to me, so I decided to count for myself. The other day as we pulled out of the garage, I took note of the time and started counting.

Why do pigs eat slop?

How does coldness turn water into ice?

Can we get an iguana?

Why not?

Does heaven have air?

Do harpoon makers make small harpoons for kids?

What are those red things on top of chickens’ heads and under their chins for?

Why does the word carpet have a car and a pet in it?

Are there bilge ducks, too, or just bilge rats?

Can God see inside and outside buildings at the same time?

How do T. Rex’s tails help them balance?

Thirteen minutes and 27 questions later we had arrived at our destination. I’ll let you do the math on that one, but it’s probably safe to say that at that, yes, he probably asks 437 questions a day.

And he expects an answer—a satisfying one—to each one.  He relentlessly hounds whomever he is questioning until one is delivered. “Well, can you find out? I need to know! Can we ask an expert?”

This little experiment made me wonder: Do adults have as many questions as four-year-olds? For the rest of the day I was keenly aware of my own questions—mostly unvoiced, but questions nonetheless.

Where did I put the field trip permission slip?

Why can I remember the lyrics to the songs from my fourth-grade musical (“It isn’t hot in the furnace, man, that furnace is cool, cool, cool!”) but not where I put the field trip permission slip?

Why don’t Honest Kids drink pouches have a hole for the straw?

Whose turn is it to set the table?

Did the words “Please take your sock off the toilet flusher” really just leave my mouth?

What is a more helpful response to someone’s crisis than “Let me know if I can do anything”?

How can I best help my kids learn gratitude?

Where is the unceasing public outrage for human trafficking?

Why does mercy triumphing over judgment look like? And why does mercy too often unsettle us more than judgment does?

Evidently I have just as many questions as my four-year-old. The difference: he pursues answers even to the trivial ones, and I too seldom pursue answers even to the non-trivial ones. They are transitory, too quickly fading away as I turn my attention to less important matters.

That’s not good.

What important questions do you have?

Let’s go find some answers.

Just a Minute

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“You marked the minutes,” the old man said. “But did you use them wisely? To be still? To be grateful? To lift and be lifted?” —The Timekeeper by Mitch Albom

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Recently my day began at 4:48 in the morning, at which time a four-year-old climbed into my bed with his ant farm, usurped my pillow, and cheerfully sang “Five Little Snowmen Fat. Every verse. I marked the minutes—all 72 of them until it was officially time to get up. I’m sorry, but it was 4:48—4:48 in the morning (or have I mentioned that?)—and that is too early to start the day. (Similarly, “all day” is too long to have “Five Little Snowmen Fat” stuck in one’s head.)

. . . . .

This past weekend my parents offered to host Sonny and Ace overnight. Looking forward to the break, on the designated morning I marked the minutes until J and I dropped them off. And as soon as we did, I marked the minutes until they returned. (Funny how that works, isn’t it?)

. . . . .

We often have trouble getting out the door. It’s time to leave, or it was time to leave seven minutes ago, and there we are, stalled in the mud room. One child can’t find his left shoe. The other can find both of his but wants to see if he can put them on using only one hand. (He can’t, as it turns out.) I mark the minutes, because we are going to be late. And when we finally get into the van, I realize I have forgotten something and must go back inside to get it. More minutes marked.

. . . . .

This historic polar vortex has put us under house arrest this winter. Repeatedly, as though we were repeat offenders of . . . something. Not sure what. The shine of snow days has worn off, and we are cold, and we are all marking the minutes until spring. Shoo, winter, shoo.

. . . . .

I signed up for the Festival of Faith and Writing this year. I can hardly wait, and yes, I’m marking the minutes until it’s time. And when it’s finally Festival time, I will mark the minutes carefully to squeeze every possible drop from the schedule.

. . . . .

Marking the minutes: check. No problem.

But using minutes to be still, to be grateful, to lift and be lifted?  Too often a problem, at least for me.

It’s easy to come up with theories on how to do these things. Successfully practicing these theories, though, is a little different. That takes effort and spending minutes.

I could list the things that help me to be still, to be grateful, to lift and be lifted, but your list is probably different than mine. So.

What helps you be still?

For what are you grateful?

Whom can you lift, and how?

How can you allow yourself to be lifted?

Those things are well worth our minutes. Let’s do them.

Clutter and Peace

Clutter. It’s the bane of my desk. And kitchen. And hall. And minivan. And purse.

School papers, receipts, bits of modeling clay, socks (mateless and otherwise), wrappers, notes, crackers, colorful pipe cleaners, jars, oatmeal canisters, coupons. This morning I even found a banana in my purse.

You get the idea.

Occasionally something (such as a banana in my purse) tells me that the clutter is a tad out of control, and in a burst of optimism (or denial; you decide) I determine that it would take but a  little effort to eradicate it. My attempts look something like this:

I carefully sort through the pile of junk mail, keeping a couple flyers and recycling the rest.  Sonny and Ace follow my instructions to transfer any clothes that are lying around to the laundry room.

Next up: recycling. Out go the notes, receipts, most of the junk mail, and oatmeal canister. Out goes the months-old cardstock “armor of God” craft from VBS.

Ahhh, looks better already.

J comes in with the mail. He starts a new pile of flyers.

I schlepp a large shopping bag through the house, filling it with various and sundry items. A broken robot.  Mateless socks. The infernal Superman book that I can’t stand to read even one more time. An outgrown  shirt. The monkey puzzle with a missing piece. I park the bag in the mudroom and, recognizing that anything destined for Goodwill is automatically pronounced a cherished favorite, cleverly conceal it with an old blue pillowcase.

Sonny comes inside and carefully sheds his wet socks, leaving them under the bench in the hall.

I collect a pile of magazines, make a mental note to bring them to the preschool, and stack them by the back door.

“Here comes suuuuuuuuuuuuper dinosaur rescuer guy!” Ace zooms past, sporting a cape fashioned from an old blue pillowcase. Meanwhile, burrowing noises from the mudroom. It’s Sonny: “Hey, this is my favorite shirt! And my favorite robot! And my favorite puzzle! Why is all this stuff in here? Can we read the Superman book?”

I read the Superman book through gritted teeth and follow the trail of puzzle pieces to The Bag, stuffing the rejects back into it.

Ace is dumpster diving. “Mom! You can’t throw away Sonny’s breastplate of righteousness!” (Well, no, not when you put it that way.) “And I can make an invention with this oatmeal box!” He marches into the kitchen, possessively clutching the oatmeal canister, and dumps it in the vicinity of the other craft materials.

Meanwhile, I reconsider getting rid of those magazines. I haven’t even read all of them yet . . .

It’s not tidying up; it’s Whac-a-Mole. Evidently I lose at decluttering.

So it also goes in my head. Last Sunday began the week of Advent that focuses on peace. I determined that it would take but a little effort to shed any mental clutter that obstructs peace.  But then:

I check an acquaintance’s CarePage, and the news is bleak.

The recently-cleaned house is suddenly not clean. At all.

I hear an ambulance stop nearby.

Why is he having stomach aches again?

I am worried about a friend.

Why is the dryer making that noise?

Did I say the wrong thing? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did.

I miss my grandpa.

I can’t sleep lately, so I am tired, so I am crabby.

My Christmas to-list is nagging at me.

And so on.

Some of these are not insignificant matters, but many are. And despite my resolve to shed this mental clutter, I can’t seem to do so. Even when one piece is quelled, another pops up.

Evidently I lose at achieving peace.

J turns on Handel’s Messiah. “And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

I may lose at achieving peace, but that’s okay, because it’s not up to me.

May you find peace this season—clutter and all.