Doors and windows

Every year or so I get that home renovation itch. Sometimes the itch gets scratched with a couple cans of paint, but there are other times when the projects get a little bit away from me.


For example, take our recent home improvement scheme to replace 7 of our interior doors. The ones we had were 30 years old, hollow and banged up quite a bit. I had painted them once, a few years ago, but even that paint job was showing a lot of wear. It was time to replace them.


My husband and I felt equipped for the project. We bought 7 doors—upgraded a bit to paneled doors—and I painted them a semi-glossy white. We planned to take the hinges and knobs from the old doors and put them on the new ones (never mind the adage about new wine in old wineskins), so we thought it would take a couple of days. Oh, how the exalted will be humbled!


Then YouTube videos revealed the need for carving out the spot in the door where the hinge would snugly fit and the convenience of a router, a power tool we now own. Each door had its own challenges—the type of thing we’ve come to expect from an older home that has expanded after various additions and alterations over the years (something the house and I have in common). It took a week but we finally finished. If you come to our house, I beg you to NOT look closely at our carpentry skills, or the lack thereof.


At about the same time, we had new windows installed by PROFESSIONALS. Our utility bills were whispering conspiracy theories about possible leaks and inefficiency, and a few of the windows were damaged, so we swallowed the price tag and spent our money the boring, adult way.


All in all, both projects have turned out great and, hopefully, improved this home we love. You don’t realize what a difference replacing something mundane like windows and doors can make until you do it. But these components of most every house are actually very important.


A door gives you privacy. A window gives you a view.

A door shuts others out. A window lets sunlight in.


A life with all unlocked doors would be easy but unchallenging.

A life with doors and windows requires a person to decide when to walk away and when to weigh the risks and decide to jump.


Or as Maria says in The Sound of Music, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”

Driving lessons

One of my 15-year old daughters just passed her “knowledge test” (a.k.a. driver’s permit test). Now comes the hard work of teaching her to do the thing I do nearly every day without really considering how I do it.


The first time I took her to a church parking lot to practice driving, she spent the first half of the 30-minute session just coasting. She didn’t use the accelerator much at all. When she did finally give the gas pedal a gentle tap to get the minivan up a slight incline, we reached the minimum speed to make the automatic locks click, giving her a bit of a surprise.


While she was behind the wheel, most everything had the ability to surprise her—a leaf falling from a tree or a low flying bird. All her senses were on high alert. Code orange! There’s a lawnmower! Watch out! Don’t hit that curb that’s coming at you at 5 MPH!


After a few more parking lot only lessons, she took a short drive on a real road. I don’t know who was more nervous, me or her. It consisted of driving from one church parking lot, down a back road, into a different church parking lot, and back the same way to the first place. (Thank goodness for so many church parking lots!)


There are many skills we have to learn slowly, step-by-step: you have to walk before you can run, learn your ABC’s before you can read, tie your shoelaces with “bunny ears” before you can do it the grown-up way.


We often want to skip all of those first steps. We’d like to think we can get where we want to go without learning the lessons along the way. We want to make the perfect pancake from that first pour of batter. Maybe that does work sometimes, but mostly we have to make several ugly, misshapen pancakes before we get a good one. We need someone to teach us which pedal is the brake and which is the gas. We need a teacher to sit next to us and tell us how to use the blinker (and how to turn off the windshield wipers when we move that lever accidentally instead).


Research shows that it can take as little as 2 months and as much as 8 months for a new behavior to become a habit so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while for a new habit to stick. That’s a lot of little steps to complete a journey. That’s a lot of choosing carrot sticks over candy bars. That’s a lot of driving lessons before we hit the interstate. That’s a lot of weird-looking pancakes.

Driver’s Permit

Being a parent can feel like déjà vu sometimes. You get to experience some of the same things again but from a different perspective.


For instance, a few weeks ago I took one of our 15-year old daughters to get her driver’s permit. She had studied the handbook, made flashcards, and took online quizzes. She felt fully prepared the Friday afternoon I drove her to the DMV.


There’s a reason the Department of Motor Vehicles has a certain reputation for being a place where joyfulness dies a miserable, hour-long death. They’ve improved the efficiency of the process with innovations such as automated kiosks to renew your drivers’ license, but there are steps that still require talking to a living, breathing human being, preferably a slightly irritated one, apparently.


We arrived at the DMV at 3:30, later than I had planned. The employee at the entrance told us that they wouldn’t admit the people in line after us. Phew! We showed him the letter from my daughter’s school, her birth certificate, a completed and notarized form, and my drivers’ license. (I know. That’s a lot of stuff, right? Just to be on the safe side, I also brought a utility bill, her passport, and a urine sample. Okay. I actually only brought 2 out of 3 of those items on the EXTRA list.)


We were given a number and told to wait. As the minutes ticked by, my daughter Ella grew increasingly more nervous. She said, “I’ve taken tons of tests before. Why am I so worried?”


A different employee sitting behind a part of the U-shaped community desk called us up to review our paperwork and take her picture, then the woman sent us back to sit down.


After a few more minutes, Ella was told to go and take the test in an adjacent room. I sat in a new seat in the waiting area—one closer to the computer lab where she was taking the test so that she could look at my friendly, smiling face instead of throwing up all over the keyboard from nerves. This new seat just happened to be by a large and sweaty man, but this is the love I have for my child.


Soon Ella emerged from the testing room victorious. She gave me two thumbs-up. She had been told by a friend that the 30-question test would end early once you had answered at least 24 questions correctly. (You cannot miss more than 6 questions and still pass.) She had made it through question number 26, so by her calculations she had only missed two before the test stopped. Hooray! She checked in with her DMV buddy from the U-desk who told her to sit back down and wait some more.


She texted the good news to her dad. She asked my opinion about a question from the test involving a deer crossing. We held hands, sighing with relief.


When her number was called again, the DMV employee asked Ella, “Do you have a handbook at home, sweetie?” (I remember the “sweetie” part because it was unusually humanizing.)


Ella: Yes, ma’am.


DMV Woman: Well, that’s good because you need to study some more. You failed the test.


Ella: I failed? But I only missed two questions.


DMV Woman: How do you know you only missed two? (As she said this the woman crossed her arms behind her head and leaned her neck into her interlocked fingers, real nonchalant like from a gangster movie.)


Ella: The test stopped after question number 26.


DMV Woman: Huh? Well, you are going to have to come back and take the test again.


I had my hand on Ella’s back, and I could feel the heat rising off of her like the June sun bouncing off the asphalt parking lot outside. I tried to keep the conversation light while simultaneously considering how Ella was going to cry on the way home. I asked the woman if there could be a mistake. Maybe Ella’s score was mixed up with someone else’s? She had felt so sure she had passed.


The DMV employee kept this line of dialogue going for a good five or ten minutes, then she smiled and said, “Oh, I’m just kidding. You passed.”


Ella and I were in shock and not so sure what we were supposed to do next.


Ha, ha, ha. We forced a few laughs out. “You really had us going,” I told her. “Like you REALLY made us think that she had FAILED her test.”


The woman told us how she often got bored, so she and many of the others who work there like to prank people. One guy even made one girl cry and run out the door when he told her she had failed. Someone had to go to the parking lot and bring her back inside.


What I wanted to say was: “I can see how that would be funny and completely kind, because the best people to prank are highly emotional 15-year old girls. That’s hilarious.” But instead I said, “So we’re good to go?” and we left with Ella’s temporary driver’s permit clutched tightly in her hand.


As parents, we don’t really get to choose which things to live through again with our kids. Dentist appointments, booster shots, friend drama, romantic break-ups, failing tests. It’s no better the second (or third or fourth or fifth) time around—maybe even worse. But I was glad to add that day to the story we’re daily writing called “Ella and Mom.”


And it inspired me to make the magnanimous decision to let my husband take the next kid to the DMV. I’m just nice like that. (Here’s where I cross my arms behind my head and lean my neck into my interlocked fingers, gangster style.)

Strength to Grow

I’m always surprised at what plant life is capable of. After our week-long vacation at the end of June, we returned home to a veritable jungle of vegetation.


The limbs on the Rose of Sharon bushes on either side of the front porch were so long and weighed down by blooms that a person had to hold them aside—like a rainforest explorer armed with a machete—just to walk down the porch steps.


Weeds—purge, crabgrass, woodsorrel—had used our absence to invade our stone walkway and flower beds. Patches of dandelions and clover were brazenly scattered across our yard.


When we came home from our trip, I walked around our yard looking at the ways it had changed in the past 7 days. One of the first things I saw was in a mostly ignored corner flower bed at the edge of our yard.


Realizing this spot was far from the garden hose, we had planted low maintenance rose bushes there. We knew it wouldn’t get much attention. Last summer, I planted two plants just behind the roses. These were given to me for free by a master gardener at the farmers’ market. (How do I know she was a master gardener? I think she had a nametag.)


Seeing that I am not a master gardener, I don’t even know what these plants are. The woman told me that they grow well in full sun and were easy to keep alive. As long as it wasn’t marijuana I was satisfied with her information.


To my untrained eye, I think they look like hostas now, but when I got them they were little dirt balls with a bit of green leaves stuffed in a Kroger bag. I planted them and totally forgot about them.


In spite of my ignorance and negligence, during our vacation they bloomed into a radiant yellow and fire-orange flower. The sight of it took my breath away, like an astonishing magic trick. I nearly expected that the flower appeared in a puff of smoke at the end of a wand.

There is something magical and admirable and astonishing and honorable when something (or someone) beats the odds to succeed. When the expected failure is an unexpected triumph. When a dirt ball grows into a stunning flower. When a tiny seed sprouts to crack a concrete sidewalk.


Growth isn’t always inevitable. It requires a strength that is sometimes hard to find.


When I watch our son Ezra play with his toys, his imagination soaring to heights beyond what he’s ever seen, I consider how this wasn’t inevitable. Born in an impoverished nation. Parentless as an infant. His first five years spent without a family. Ezra has every reason not to bloom. And yet he grows stronger every day. He finds joy in simple activities.


When he plays alone with his toys (or in place of toys, anything else he can find—scraps of paper or sticks or coins), he uses this high-pitched voice that signals to us he’s in a new place. He’s entered his imagination zone where someone needs saving and there are bad guys and it’s more fun if the toys are arranged in a straight line.

He’s our stunning yellow-orange flower, because the most impressive growth is often found in unexpected places.