Olympics Withdrawal

I’m suffering from Olympics Withdrawal. For those two precious weeks, my family sat around the TV like it was the 1950’s. We marveled at the swimmers and the gymnasts. We asked lots of questions, like is trampoline jumping really a sport (answer: yes) and where is the nation of Grenada (answer: the Caribbean) and what is “dressage” anyway (answer: horse dancing, I think)?

I teared up during medal ceremonies and full-out cried when they showed the back stories of some of the athletes who beat the odds just to make it to the games. The addition of the Refugee Team was a heartbreaking reminder of how so much of the world suffers in order to survive and find a home. For instance, Yusra Mardini, the Syrian athlete who, along with her sister, swam/pushed a boat for 3 hours towards land saving the 18 people onboard who were escaping from Syria. She showed strength enough to win a hundred gold medals in my book.

 

There were extraordinary moments of kindness during the games, too. When U.S. runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin collided during the women’s 5000m race, they stopped and helped each other to the finish line. Selflessness replaced competitiveness. The drive to help won over the drive to win.

Now that the medals have been awarded and all the athletes have gone home, I’ll look to other athletes (like my kids’ teams) to find more examples of good sportsmanship:

One of my favorite things about school swim meets is watching swimmers from competing teams cheer each other on. I love the notion that the swimmers who have finished should stay in their lanes, remaining in the water until everyone is done. Such a simple yet profound act of courtesy. And even if the last swimmer has been lapped by his opponents three times over, when he finally reaches the wall the swimmers and the crowd cheer as if he had won.

There is so much to learn from team sports and soccer is a favorite in my family. One phrase that pops up a lot, especially with younger soccer players is: “Same team!” When players stop talking to each other on the field—letting each other know they’re available or in need of assistance—and start thinking only in terms of themselves they forget to act like a team. Then everything falls apart. They inadvertently take the ball from a teammate or attempt a shot even if they could pass the ball to someone in a better position for scoring. That’s when you start to hear the parents and coaches remind the players, “Same team!”

Even though the Olympics creates a country versus country situation, I like that it also gives us a “Same team!” vibe. People from all over the globe who might not share a lot of common experiences find a place to compete. We find that though we may be different, in the end—as when the athletes file into the closing ceremonies, waving and smiling and joining the large throng of people—we’re all on the same team.

Birdsong

We sit on the front porch—my son and I—as we quietly wait. Our lunches sit atop two T.V. trays. We slap our arms when we feel a bug come to rest on our skin. The mosquitos are in full force after the early morning rain but we don’t complain. We only wait.

The sharp smell of bug spray mingles with the more pleasing aroma of hot dogs, our not-so-nutritious lunch that happens to be his favorite.

A book sits on my lap. It’s the book I read him twice yesterday. It tells the story of a little girl who explores her backyard. In the book she discovers friendly ladybugs and a caterpillar in a cocoon. She finds spiders spinning webs. She sees a baby bird that has fallen from a tree and the little girl’s mother replaces it in the nest, safe and sound.

The little girl describes different ways to feed birds which is why we were in the kitchen just half an hour or so ago slathering pine cones with peanut butter and rolling them in birdseed. And just half an hour or so before that we were at the store buying birdseed and a new birdfeeder.

I dragged a stepladder from the garage and set it up under a tree on uneven ground. As I wobbled slightly on the top step hanging the birdfeeder and tying the pinecones with green yarn to the branches, my son said, “Careful, Mama. Careful.”

So now we sit and there is no bird in sight. The swelling and then fading sound of cicadas vibrates all around us, possibly mocking our efforts that may have been in vain.

I look at my son. His plate is empty and he stares towards the trees expectantly. He’s rarely this still and quiet. I silently pray. “Just one bird. Please. Just one.”

Our yard is normally full of birds but it’s a hot, muggy afternoon and they stay away. In my head, I know they will come back. Big blackbirds will scare away the smaller songbirds and squirrels will eat more than their intended share. This has always been the way, but right now I want him to see the birds. I want to protect him from disappointment. In my heart, I know that he will be sad and I begin to regret setting him up for this defeat.

Most of us are wired to protect those who are younger and more vulnerable than ourselves. This is a good trait. This is humanity being humane. But there are times when we mothers go a little overboard. We scoot every obstacle out of the path and make sure there is only smooth sailing ahead. We forget how good it feels to find our own way out of a sticky situation—problem solving and conflict resolution in action—so we don’t let our children do the same.

I want to tell him all of this while also apologizing for the disappointing nature experiment. Instead, I step inside and bring out a shoebox of toys for my son to play with while we keep our front porch vigil. He shakes his head and climbs in my lap.

We watch a bee dive into a flower and two snails crawling slowly along the brick steps. A small twig falls from a bush onto a web, bouncing the spider resting in the center.

I give my son a ten-minute warning before naptime in case he wants to play. I study his face for signs of sorrow but I see none. He seems satisfied in spite of the outcome. This is encouraging. I know that there are bound to be disappointing days ahead, just as I know there will be lovely and magical moments, too.

Just before we step inside to prepare for his nap, we see a tiny, gray chickadee flying high up in the branches. We stop and sit on the step, watching to see if it will find our offerings. It flies up to the feeder, nibbles, and flies away. Then it returns to the feeder and chirps. A few more chickadees arrive, darting back and forth tentatively.

Soon, two cardinals join them and the chickadees flutter away. My son smiles up at me with bright white teeth too big for his little face and lays his head on my arm. I fight the urge to weep, partly because he will hush me for being too loud and scaring away the birds.

Eventually we go inside and he lays down for a rest. I find the record of bird calls his grandpa gave us and play it for him on his sister’s record player while he naps. I like the idea of him drifting off to sleep with birdsong echoing in his ears.

 

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5 Month Update

Ever since our Congolese-born son came home to America almost 5 months ago, we frequently hear the same question from friends and family: “How is Ezra doing?” Depending on the situation, sometimes our answers are brief and sometimes we have time to go into more detail. The following is me going into more detail:

He wakes up every day around 6:15 and tiptoes into our room. (At first our mornings were punctuated with the sound of him throwing doors open and slamming doors shut. Fortunately, we’ve communicated the importance of a quiet house when most of its occupants are still asleep.) If my husband and I are both already up, then he goes with us to the kitchen to start his breakfast. If one of us is still in bed, he’ll snuggle in for a few minutes.

For breakfast, it’s not unusual for him to eat a bowl of cereal (Alphabet cereal is his favorite. He calls it “A-B-C-D”), a couple of ham rolls, and a fried egg. Often he’ll wash it all down with a cup of hot tea. This kid can put the food away! It always makes me think of a page in the Richard Scarry book Best Word Book Ever. There’s a bear who eats a whole page full of breakfast foods: waffles, pancakes, toast, cereal, etc. That’s our boy.

He’s not necessarily a picky eater but he doesn’t like everything I make for him to eat, especially my attempts at cooking Congolese cuisine. If I offer him something he likes he’ll say, “Mama, I love-ee dis!” and if he doesn’t like it he’ll frown and say, “Mama, I no love-ee dis.”

After the big brother and big sisters are off to school and Daddy (which, by the way, is what he’s now calling Brent instead of Papa and it’s possibly the sweetest thing ever) is off to work, then Ezra and I are ready for some Mommy-Ezra time.

I’m pretty sure I never played with my older three kids as much as I play with him. Partly it’s because the others were close enough in age that they always had each other as playmates. And partly it’s because I feel a lot of guilt saying no to that face when he says, “Mama play ball-ee?” We usually spend a good half an hour or so playing some kind of ball in the basement: soccer, football (mainly an excuse to say “hike” and to tackle each other), basketball (with laundry baskets on opposite walls). He gets frustrated with me because I don’t play the same way as Knox and Brent so I can eventually steer him toward some other activity. Am I throwing the games to get out of playing ball? No! How dare you insinuate that!

My particular favorite activities involve drawing roads on the driveway with sidewalk chalk for his Matchbox cars and making houses out of cardboard boxes and other things we find in the recycling bin for his grab-bag shoebox full of Little People, plastic animals, and Lego characters. He has an extraordinary imagination. He can take any object and make it come alive in his hands. One day he spent more than an hour making two refrigerator magnets—one of Mickey Mouse and one of Winnie-the-Pooh—have some sort of epic battle on the kitchen table. I had no idea how much animosity existed between those two characters!

After he’s had a big lunch and played a little bit longer, we start the process of the afternoon nap. It involves some mandatory bathroom time, no less than three picture books, and an acoustic guitar CD I used to play for my kindergarten class when I was a teacher.

After naptime, the rest of the day is a blur of activity. There’s pickup lines and supper preparation and team practice drop-off. When he hears the screech of the garage door opening signaling Brent’s imminent arrival, Ezra hides behind the kitchen island or just inside the door so that he can jump out and scare him. Like any sweet daddy, Brent pretends to be scared by this daily phenomenon.

He goes to sleep quickly after a shower, three more books, “The Lord’s Army” song, and some prayers. Our social worker told us that bedtime is especially important for kids like our son who, though happy, healthy, and connecting with his new family, need a release from the stress of trying to figure out what’s going on around him—What’s she saying? What’s that smell? What is expected of me? Am I doing this right?

Ezra seems to understand a lot of what we tell him. He’s always asking for me to explain pictures in a book, or the storyline in a movie, or the conversations of his siblings. But other than food-related words, he doesn’t say a lot of English words to communicate what he needs. Still, his limited English vocabulary is increasing slow but sure.

We’re already to the point where life with Ezra is routine. It’s not a life without its challenges but it doesn’t surprise me to see his face every morning peeking around the corner or hear his voice in my head before I go to bed. This person who we tried for almost four years to bring into our family is here. It’s like finally meeting your favorite celebrity and then going grocery shopping together. No big deal. Whatever. This is totally normal.

But of course it is a big deal. I love-ee dis.

Believe me

I watched a bit of the Republican and Democratic conventions a few weeks ago. I couldn’t watch the whole thing—just soundbites from speeches and nuggets of interviews from protesters and political pundits—but it was enough to get the general feel for the events.

There weren’t a lot of surprises. Mostly you hear the same message from both parties with nuances according to the preferences of their respective groups: “I’ll cut taxes…” or “I’ll fund programs…” or whatever they think will get the most whoops and hollers from the audience.

One thing that continued to surprise me was the passion of many of the delegates and supporters. As the camera would pan across the front row of attendees, one could see people wearing campaign buttons, wild-looking Uncle Sam hats, and expressions of complete worship and devotion. They were definitely invested in their candidates. It made me ask myself if I could ever be that excited about politics. Could I ever believe in a candidate that fervently?

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older or maybe because I was born just a few years after the scandal and resignation of President Nixon. Maybe it’s because nearly everything about nearly everyone is out there and available for public consumption. I couldn’t say for sure, but I can often sense cynicism creeping up on me, seeping into my thoughts and feelings and actions.

So instead of concentrating on all the things I’m suspicious or doubtful of, I’ll think about what I do know and believe in.

After almost 19 years of marriage, I believe in my husband. His thoughtfulness and kindness are as consistent as the rotation of the Earth.

I believe in people. Most people want good for others. Most parents love their children. Most brothers love their sisters. Most of us are willing to put others ahead of ourselves and take turns. Just visit a 4-way stop to test this theory.

I believe in the benefits of fresh air and good food. I believe in smiles and the power of the phrase “Can I help?” I believe in the simplicity of children playing. I believe in teamwork.

I believe in God and His Son. I believe there is more to this world than what can be seen with human eyes. I believe that Love and Goodness and Mercy will ultimately win against Hate.

I believe in these things because of my personal experiences. But my belief also involves faith—believing without cold, hard proof—and that’s the tricky part. Doubt is readily available for those looking for it.

Contrary to what I feel now amidst the madness of the current political landscape and in our bustling modern lives, these feelings of doubt aren’t really new. More than 1,600 years ago, Saint Augustine—former playboy turned priest—wrote these words: “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” He had lived the first 30 years of his life seeking to satisfy his desires but something was missing. A voice told him to open the Scriptures and read. Augustine found something to believe in.

I may not be able to get behind any political candidates, but I will fight these feelings of distrust. To combat this cynicism and at the risk of looking foolish, I will continue to believe—in people, in God, and in what seems impossible.

Movement

When I was a little girl, my family would make the trip from our home in Nashville to our grandparents’ house in Danville, Illinois, several times a year. My grandmother was older when she had my mom (nearly 40…so old!) so by the time she became our grandmother she was practically ancient. It was a mercy she didn’t use “thee” and “thou” in her regular, everyday speaking. There were times when we just didn’t understand each other.

For instance, every time I left the bathroom, my grandmother would be waiting for me just outside the bathroom door to ask me the same question: “Did your bowels move, honey?” This was not a phrase we used in our house. I had no idea what my bowels were and why they might be moving, but seeing as I was a middle child with a pathological need to please people, I interpreted from her tone that bowel movement was a good thing so I always said yes. I can’t imagine what she thought about my obviously overworking digestive system.

If we had found a word we both understood for the process in question, I could’ve given her the real answer and her data (I can only assume she was creating a Granddaughter B.M. chart) would’ve been more accurate.

In most situations where there is conflict, the majority of the issues could be resolved if only those in conflict could find common ground and understanding from the perspective of others. There are few things in the world that can impart peace to a troubled heart better than someone who can empathize with your sorrow.

Recently we were blessed by the presence of three families in our home. These families had one very important thing in common with us. Each of us had waited years to bring home an adopted son from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We connected mostly through Facebook and found that we all lived within 1.5 hours of each other.

The boys and their siblings played at our house that evening while the parents compared notes. “How often did your son wake up during the night when he first came home? What foods does your son like the best? What non-English words does your son still use on a daily basis?” and on and on. We laughed and hugged. My husband said a prayer of thanksgiving for what had at times seemed impossible. The level of loving, non-judgmental understanding was remarkable.

These families just happen to be made up of people who most anyone could get along with. These aren’t difficult people who cultivate conflict, so our evening would’ve been fine even if we had been introduced in another way—through church or school. We could’ve become friends even if we didn’t have Congolese sons.

But there are times when it’s challenging to find harmony with those around us. We vote differently, worship differently, parent differently, literally speak different languages. Despite these differences, and with hard work and a little imagination, I believe we can find a place where we can work towards peace and understanding with most people. We can find a common interest, passion, or experience. Because sometimes that’s where everything can change.

If you can meet someone—toe to toe—where they are, and you can see the world from where they stand, you can begin to say, “Now I see why you feel this way!” You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s harder to hate someone close up and personal, and if there was ever a time to stop hating people, it’s now. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”