My favorite teens

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a mom, partly because I always enjoyed being around younger kids. I transitioned from playing with baby dolls to babysitting to working at an after-school care program to working as a certified teacher. The natural next step was becoming a mom.

 

When your kids are little, well-meaning people will say things like, “Just wait until she’s a teenager,” as if those early, harrowing years of keeping a newborn alive or surviving toddler tantrums weren’t bad enough. This kind of mentality—the dreading of parenting teens—would seep into my thoughts as I anxiously awaited the day that my precious babies would morph into hideous creatures bent on my destruction. I gravitated toward preschoolers, not high schoolers. Then my daughters reached that pinnacle age that made them teenagers.

 

I’m not going to say it’s been easy. Hell hath no fury like a 7th grade girl who’s having a bad day. Their moods were erratic. They suffered through the highest highs and the lowest lows. But we’ve survived middle school and nearly half of high school, so now I can say that I truly love teens. And not just mine.

 

This weekend I was a chaperone of 55 or so teen girls on a church retreat. We drove up the side of a mountain and made our beds in cobwebby cabins full of Asian beetles tapping at the windows. It wasn’t luxurious or especially comfortable, but that’s not why we went up the mountain. The five other “chaper-moms” (and two sweet college girls) and I were there for those girls. We cooked for them and prayed with them. We helped them find misplaced sweatshirts and enthusiastically played card games with them. We laughed with them and shared with them. A deep sisterhood developed.

 

The chaperones told the girls stories about dating our husbands and giving birth to our kids. We frankly answered questions and explained how we didn’t always get everything right. Hopefully, we showed these already loved girls that there are other women who care about them, too, casting that net of safety and protection just a little bit wider.

 

But the beauty of weekends like these go beyond just a few days. When you reach the heart of someone who is at such a midway place like those teen years, you can see the effects and after-effects for years to come. I’ve already seen it in my daughters. They were once those younger teens, watching and following the lead of the older girls. Now they, along with their friends, are being watched and studied. They are setting the bar for how to treat others.

 

And I know they are watching us moms, too. They are seeing how we laugh together and cry together and share our icky stuff without judgment or an ultimate need to fix everything.

 

So when I came home and sorted through the mail, setting aside a pile of graduation invitations, I knew without a doubt that I no longer consider teens “hideous creatures bent on my destruction.”

These sisters are my people.

No Fair!

This morning my 6-year old Ezra woke up on the grumpy side of the bottom bunk. In his defense, it was a dark, rainy Monday, and none of us were really thrilled about the 6:30 am wake-up call. But as the morning progressed, there was a definite theme to his dialogue.

 

When I grabbed a pair of socks to give to his older brother Knox (Knox has a broken ankle, otherwise he’d be getting his own socks), Ezra said, “No fair! Knox has undies and socks in the same drawer! Why can’t my socks and undies be together?”

 

I mostly ignored this question due to its absurdity and hustled Ezra to the kitchen. I saw my husband eating what I assumed was a bowl of cereal, and I said, “I thought I used up all the milk last night,” and my husband answered, “This is yogurt.” Then Ezra said, “No fair! Me want milk!” To which I replied, “But you don’t like milk.” Ezra stomped back to his room in a huff.

 

After he eventually returned to the kitchen, Ezra overheard me talking to Knox (you know, the favorite child whose undies and socks get to hang out together in the same drawer) asking him if he wanted to bring leftovers in his lunch and warm them up in the cafeteria microwave. “No fair!” Ezra cried, “Why Knox get to use the microwave? Why me no have microwave at my school?!”

 

And so forth and so on went the morning.

 

It’s comical to think of his lamenting over such trivial stuff because he’s six and most likely forgot the whole exchange by the time he stepped into his classroom. I wish I could say that 6-year olds were the only ones who flew the “Unfair” banner so carelessly.

 

As adults, we may not whine over the same topics as children do, but the whining does happen. Claiming “No Fair” often occurs after we unnecessarily compare ourselves to others. “Why does she have that ___________ (insert house, car, weight, clothes, marriage, etc.) and I don’t?! It’s not fair!” Talk about feeling as gloomy as a rainy Monday morning–that line of questioning will ruin anyone’s day.

 

Other than the negativity these comparisons create, the other travesty is that there really is rampant unfairness in the world. And the people who cry “No Fair” aren’t usually the ones with the most valid reason to say it.

 

So instead of concentrating on the inconsequential issues that threaten to spoil what could turn out to be the most blessed day you’ll spend on this planet, take advice from the Book of Isaiah and look for ways to help those whose lives truly are unfair.

 

“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (NLT) Isaiah 1:17

I Pledge

One of the first lengthy English paragraphs that our African-born son (sort of) memorized was the Pledge of Allegiance. All last schoolyear, his preschool teacher (me) recited it with the class each time we met.

 

Ezra’s rendition gets a little garbled in places. “And to the public, witches stand…” You get the idea. If you listen to the literal telling of it, a room full of 4-year olds may unintentionally pledge their allegiances to any number of things so don’t hold them to it.

 

Saying the Pledge is one of those activities that’s easy to do without a lot of meaning behind it. I can guarantee that Ezra couldn’t define many of the 31 words but he somehow understands the gravity of them. Before he and his brother and his dad start a basement soccer game, Ezra pauses and—in lieu of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—he puts his hand on his heart and says, “I peg legions to the flag…” before they start the soccer match.

 

This week Ezra took his Pledge skills to the next level. He was asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the school board meeting. Since Ezra became an official U.S. citizen this summer, this was an especially poignant moment for us. As the day progressed, he grew more nervous about his role in the evening meeting. I told him that if he would just get it started by saying, “I pledge…” then everyone there would join in and he could say just about anything for the remaining 29 words.

 

Ezra completed his assigned task, and we drove home to dive into an authentically American supper of Sloppy Joe sandwiches.

 

Our participation in the event brought up a lot of questions for Ezra: What’s a school board? (Um, they make decisions for our schools.) Why are their meetings on TV? (So people can watch it at home and see what they decide.) Why did you draw a star on my hand? (So you would remember which was your right hand when it was time to cover your heart.) And so on.

 

I’m guessing that when it comes to educating the kids in our city, there’s often more questions than answers: How do we improve the scores? How do we afford these programs? What’s best for these kids?

 

I am so grateful there are people willing to meet on a Tuesday night to make plans for our schools. I’m also grateful that Ezra receives this education freely offered to him. He has loving teachers and administrators who make school a wonderful place to be. Most of all, with this education he has opportunities and endless possibilities. Education helps society live up to the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Sad

There are times when this thought runs through my mind: “I am killing it at this Mom Thing.” I make healthy meals. I sign up for PTO requests. I remember to move wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. I give wise, poignant, balanced lectures to my children about exhibiting sibling love and showing respectfulness to their parents, and my children respond by saying, “You’re right, mom. I’m sorry.” (Okay, just kidding about that last one.)

 

Then there are times when this thought runs through my mind: “This Mom Thing is killing me.” No one likes what I make for supper. I forget to send in money or snacks or permission slips for school. I sit on the laundry room floor against the closed door and play Candy Crush on my phone, hoping the whirring and thudding of the washer/dryer will drown out the sound of my crying. (I wish I was kidding about that last one.)

 

At those moments, I can’t necessarily point to one particular thing that pushes me over the edge and directly into the Pit of Despair. It’s usually a final sass at the end of a string of smart mouth remarks.

 

Maybe I’m especially tired or maybe I’m ridiculously hormonal or maybe there’s been some fresh, new atrocity against human nature about which the world is talking. Maybe this is the collateral damage for someone who feels all the feels. Maybe I’m overwhelmed that on the same day that I start teaching my daughter to drive I buy my first adult incontinence product and it’s just too much. Or maybe it’s just Tuesday, and I can’t explain why, but I’m sad.

 

I tell myself that I have no right—NO RIGHT!—to be this down. Look at all the things you’ve got, you big baby! What’s the matter with you? But that kind of guilt trip self-talk doesn’t help. At least for me, it actually makes it worse.

 

There should be a Bat Signal for this kind of feeling. Some kind of call-to-action that tells people to come around but be careful and don’t really ask what’s going on unless you want to get your head bit off. Just keep moving and act normal and not like your mom has suddenly turned into a werewolf.

 

Once the sad feeling has passed, there’s a residual “blah” that remains. And I notice that my family is tiptoeing around and suddenly concerned about my feelings, so I’m not in a big hurry to start a dance party in the living room. The sulking feels good, in a weird way, until it doesn’t. I try to move on, eventually sleeping it off like a grouchy hangover. In the morning I’m usually back to normal.

 

I say this as a sort of confession and an attempt at transparency. I think we’re all capable of getting to that yucky, dismal place and not just moms. If you have relationships with other humans, you are susceptible to feeling sad. If you want more relationships with other humans, you are susceptible to feeling sad. I think that covers everyone.

 

There are people who need medical care to overcome these moments, and there are people who need time and a few people who care to overcome these moments. Either way, going it all alone shouldn’t be an option.

 

In lieu of sending out a Bat Signal, find a way to let someone know if you’re in a place where you need attention. And while we’re at it, find a way to be someone who can give others attention when they need it. Let’s help each other.

Directions to connect

I’m not sure if I have a superpower, but I’m pretty certain among my superflaws—like Kryptonite to Superman—would be my abysmal lack of direction skills. I think the politically correct term is directionally-challenged.

 

Many a time has a friend given me directions containing the words: north, south, east, or west and received my signature blank stare and perfunctory nod. What do I look like, a compass? I want to say in response. Do I have to go and look at a tree now to find which side is growing moss so I’ll know which way is north? Give me information I can use, for Heaven’s sake! Left? Right? Drive towards the water tower? Anything!!

 

Please tell me this has happened to you before: You use the restroom in a restaurant. After you’ve finished and you’re doing that awkward dance to open the door with a paper towel then wedging your foot in the door while throwing away the paper towel in the trashcan, you then step out the door and walk towards the restaurant kitchen, the opposite direction from your table in the dining area.

 

Or how about this one: When we spend the night away from home, I can never remember which side of the bed is mine and which is my husband Brent’s. I have to pretend I’m back in our bedroom, closing my eyes and attempting to orient myself to the unfamiliar bed that is in a different position. Sad but true.

 

The parietal lobe of the brain, the part that handles spatial reasoning, just seems to take a nap when it’s time for me to drive somewhere out of my daily routine. My husband, a whiz when it comes to directions—Thank the Lord!—thinks of the world around him like a map connected by a variety of routes. He’s all about shortcuts and “Let’s see what’s down this street,” and other nonsense that never crosses my mind.

 

Conversely, I think of the world as a series of snapshots: Point A (my house), Point B (my church). There are numerous ways to get from Point A to Point B but I don’t think about those imaginary dotted lines highlighting possible routes. I start up the engine and drive the same way every time. Don’t confuse me with variety!

 

I so wish my parietal lobe was better at revealing the spatial connections around me but connections go beyond driving skills and not getting lost in restaurants.

 

If we can see the world as a connected space, history as a continual wave of time, and each person as a twig on the giant tree of humanity, we could more quickly make relationships and establish networks. Associations reveal context which creates empathy and discourages isolation and exclusion.

 

If given the chance and a willingness to put in the work necessary to find common ground, we can find a Point A (me) to every Point B (each person on God’s green earth).

Mind Reader

When my sisters and I would come from school in the afternoons, we liked to do what a lot of kids in the 1980’s did: we watched reruns on TV. We mostly watched classic shows from the 1950’s and 1960’s like The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy.

One of my favorites was Gilligan’s Island. Even though it’s been a couple of decades since I watched an episode, I can still conjure up scenes of the Skipper hitting Gilligan with his captain’s hat as easily as if I just saw it yesterday. My sisters and I were lured in by the suspense of the story. We always wondered if the 7 castaways would ever get off the island where they had been shipwrecked after what was supposed to be “a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.” (I know you’re singing the theme song right now.)

We enjoyed the show so much that we used to pretend to watch episodes of Gilligan’s Island on the back of our parents’ seats in the station wagon during long car trips. We’d ask, “How many more Gilligan’s Islands until we’re there?”

One particular episode has been popping up in my mind a lot lately. In the episode called “Seer Gilligan” our man in the red rugby shirt finds a bush growing special seeds. Gilligan eats some of these seeds and he’s able to read the thoughts of everyone around him. He eventually shares the seeds with the other castaways. At first everything is fine and dandy as long as the thoughts they are thinking are kind. Then it gets ugly. They eat the seeds and read each other’s minds and think hurtful things. By the end of the show, Gilligan burns the seeds and the bush to restore peace to the island (at least until the next head hunter invasion or cosmonaut landing).

I find it interesting that the castaways are so surprised by what each other are thinking. How was Ginger so surprised that MaryAnn thought she was lazy? Was Skipper really shocked to learn that they all blamed him for the shipwreck? But sometimes, we can’t explain the thoughts and actions of another person. Having the ability to read another’s thoughts only gives us insight into that moment. We lack context.

Context is what I see lacking lately. My Facebook newsfeed is full of people fuming about something—candidates and elections, marches and interviews, speeches and nominations. People post angry rants and are answered by a string of widely varying comments. Then they seem surprised that there are so many differing opinions.

Sometimes I read these posts and comments and I’m amazed, too. Who are these people who think this way? How could he/she feel like this when he/she has had this advantage/disadvantage or life experience? And why would he/she post that in such a public place?

Context.

Regardless of how you voted in November, speak to others from a place of kindness.

Regardless of how you feel about free speech or gun rights or prayer in schools, pause before you resort to calling names.

Regardless of your nationality, gender, race, or religion, practice Jesus’ admonition to His Apostles. He said, “When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.” (The Message)

Jesus didn’t tell them to go to the temple steps and publicly ridicule those who live there. This is a face-to-face interaction. If you aren’t brave enough or skilled enough to lovingly disagree in person, then maybe the comment section of Facebook isn’t the place either. Check your motivation. Do you want to be right for your sake only or for the revelation of God’s glory?

Unless you can not only read the minds of others but also see all the places they’ve been hurt and mistreated in their lives, don’t respond from the lofty heights of righteous indignation. Instead, obey Micah 6: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I’m grateful Gilligan destroyed those seeds because I don’t really want to read anyone’s mind. That’s the easy way out. Let’s do the hard work of restoration and peace-making.

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.

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.”

Bees

Two dwarf Rose of Sharon bushes stand guard on either side of our front porch. Over the past seven years, they have grown at a slant, leaning towards each other as if they’re trying to hold hands like a stooped elderly couple. Once summer gets really good and hot, they put out beautiful, white blossoms with petals as soft as chiffon. It only takes a moment of listening to the buzzing to know I’m not the only one who loves these flowers.

The bees can’t get enough of them. Big, fat bumblebees and smaller, quick honeybees dart in and out of the blossoms all day long. Recently, their busy movements prompted me to sit on the front porch and watch them work. I attempted to see how they harvest nectar and gather pollen but their work was too miniature for my eyes. So I did the next best thing, I googled “honey bees.”

That’s where I learned what these vast armies of tiny insects are capable of. It takes 8-12 worker bees working their whole lives just to make one teaspoon of honey. One-eighth teaspoon of honey (the life’s work for an industrious lady bee) is easily what is left in the curved crevices of the plastic, bear-shaped squeeze bottle before I throw it away.

There are three jobs available for employable honey bees. They can be a queen (a difficult job—she lays around 200,000 eggs every year), a worker (those are the female bees we see flying around), and the drones (the male bees who mostly remain in the hive…where they belong—barefoot and impregnating). Within these three career tracts, there are various sub-specialties. For instance, some chew the honey when it arrives to make it thicker, while others construct the series of waxy containers that make up the honeycomb.

However you look at it, a beehive is a remarkable, natural illustration of teamwork at its best. Every bee has a job and gets the work done. Their most important motivation is the health of the community, and the only way to keep the hive buzzing is for everyone to work together.

I love being a part of a team. I like to collaborate to make a pretty good idea amazing. I like to see what happens when you put a bunch of different people with a variety of skills and experiences together and let them loose. There’s a palpable excitement in the room when a theoretical project starts to materialize into something real.

Whether you’re the boss or a lowly drone, we could all learn a lot from the bees.

D.I.Y.

In my family of origin, we were Do-It-Yourself-ers before D.I.Y. was cool. Long before HGTV inspired envy and Pinterest boards overwhelmed us with promises of what could be, my tribe was made up of people who promoted in-home haircuts and changing their own motor oil. We were aghast at the thought of paying someone else to do something we could easily do ourselves, like decorating a birthday cake or painting our toenails or ripping off the roof and building an additional story on to our house (never mind the fact that the builders were mostly made up of college professors, salesmen, and a geologist).

While I still enjoy making things from scratch, I can also see the beauty in not doing everything myself, even if it goes against my nature to allow it.

Adding a child to your home is a perfect example of a time when you must admit that you need help. Though my initial reaction might be to turn away offers of meals and help with the older siblings, DIY parenting is a big mistake.

Pretending you don’t need the help of others and going on as usual will result in a 24/7 eye twitch—and that’s the best case scenario. Who are we kidding? When friends offer help, especially the “no-strings-attached, exactly-what-you-need” kind of help it should be a no-brainer.

But this isn’t just about the receiver of the help. It’s also about the ones who get to give it. When we deny others the chance to bless us with help and casseroles, we are preventing them from experiencing the joys of servanthood. We are stopping them from doing what they were made to do—acting like Christ, the ultimate servant.

Besides the satisfaction of helping others, the giver also gets to be a part of something outside of himself. When we help people in times of sorrow, we share in their mourning and bring a bit of it inside ourselves so we can practice empathy. When we help people in times of joy, we get to rejoice, too, as we walk back to our car thinking of the meal we just dropped off and the newborn baby we just held. (Ah, that new baby smell!)

If there is one thing I’ve learned about including others in our dreams and failures, it’s that the story is so much sweeter with a larger cast of characters. When we allow people to walk the journey with us, it makes the journey better, bearable.

There may be a one letter difference between “me” and “we” but that one letter can make a life-changing difference. Sometimes it’s just better to Do It Together.