Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Plead the Fifth

Introducing our fifth little boy, Liam Quentin:

He arrived on Friday night, November 26, his great-grandfather's birthday, and was a very healthy eight pounds, fifteen ounces and twenty-two inches long.

Meeting his brothers for the first time:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Glorious Status Quo

I do not have cancer.

Normally, that wouldn't even be worth mentioning, but in this month of Thanksgiving, it's one bit of news that I'm very grateful for. Every so often something comes up that makes me realize how blessed I am to be enjoying just another uneventful day of "the same old thing."

Lately, "the same old thing" involves feeling about 13 months pregnant and consequently more than a bit sorry for my achy, tired, fat, slow self. And I'm not even having twins. In fact, as far as pregnancies go, mine are uncommonly easy—no morning sickness, no preexisting conditions, no miscarriages, no C-sections, no Strep B, no gestational diabetes. Nothing. "You are," a doctor once told me, "an obstetricians dream."

Nevertheless, when people ask me how I'm doing these days, I sometimes forget all that good news and want to respond with bitter sarcasm. You really want to know how I feel? Then try these ten easy steps to allow you to share in the third-trimester experience:
  1. Place a 25-pound watermelon in a backpack or duffel bag, and strap it to your belly as tightly as you can so that it digs uncomfortably into your waist.
  2. Adjust the straps so that the weight rests primarily on your lower back and hips. Just make sure that the melon sticks out at least a full 10 inches in front.
  3. Put on ankle weights and four pairs of socks before cramming your feet into your now too-tight shoes.
  4. Attempt to do routine household tasks such as getting out of bed, picking small items off the carpet, and hauling an overflowing laundry basket up and down the stairs several times a day.
  5. Shortly before bedtime, consume a family-size jar of salsa, and wash it down with two or three quarts of soda. This will allow you to fully appreciate the heartburn and squashed bladder that pregnant women come to expect as they strive for a little shuteye.
  6. Chew enough antacid tablets to let you sleep for an hour or so.
  7. After no more than an hour of fitful slumber, attempt to roll over onto your other side.
  8. Give up the attempt.
  9. After another hour, have somebody elbow you repeatedly in the ribs to simulate the midnight acrobatics of your baby. You will then be wide awake enough to realize that you have to go to the bathroom. Again.
  10. Repeat daily for three months.

Of course, if all goes well, when this new baby boy is finally placed in my arms, I'll again discover that it really was all worth it. I'll understand afresh what a privilege it was to carry another healthy child—something that countless heartbroken women in history have hopelessly longed to do. But right now, if I'm being honest, I'm usually looking forward less to meeting my son than to simply not being pregnant anymore.

But if I struggle with selfish resentment and impatience on account of a blessing like pregnancy, how would I cope with a true evil like cancer?

"Good timing" is, I suppose, a phrase that does not apply to a deadly disease. Serious illness is never welcome. But with four young kids and a husband dependent on my good health—not to mention a fifth baby who's roughly two weeks away from making his grand entrance—I can't help but think that this would be a truly terrible time of life to be diagnosed with cancer—far worse than, say, 30 or 40 years from now when our kids are grown and our nest is empty. So, as you can imagine, finding a mysterious lump in a place where it did not belong was not a pleasant discovery.

My first thought was, "Oh great." No fear. No anger. Just annoyance. I figured that it was, in all likelihood, simply another obnoxious pregnancy-induced growth. After all, everything else about me has been growing like mad. I feel like I am that scene in The Magician's Nephew during the creation of Narnia, when the whole of that new world is so full of life and growth that a broken bar of iron takes root and matures into a fully formed lamppost. Everything growing. Everything expanding. If I accidentally swallowed a watermelon seed right now, my grandfather's terrifying tale would become a reality; a vine would spring up and start producing juicy watermelons right inside my already crowded belly. So of course one more growth was entirely understandable, even if it was in an unusual place, right?

I figured my doctor would agree. However, at my next appointment, she didn't seem nearly as certain as I was that this was no cause for concern. When she told me to schedule an ultrasound exam, I felt my blood pressure rise just a little. And yet, I remained fairly confident that the ultrasound would confirm beyond doubt that this was totally normal. I prayed about it, but I didn't worry much.

Then, after the ultrasound, the radiologist came in and explained that, given my good health, my relatively young age, and the fact that I'm pregnant, this was most likely nothing serious, but he could not be entirely sure. This particular lump wasn't something he could diagnose merely by looking. The only way to know if it was cancerous was to perform a biopsy.

I don't know how it strikes others, but to me, "biopsy" is a rather scary word. It now brought the idea of cancer into the realm of real possibility. And, because I had been expecting an "all clear" from the ultrasound exam, it struck me as both scary and disappointing. I wanted this to be over. However, with my due date looming ever closer, I scheduled the dreaded biopsy appointment for the earliest available day.

I was nervous about the procedure, but as it turned out, an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy wasn't such a horrible experience—not something I'd like to do on a regular basis, but not a whole lot worse than having a few of cavities filled. 

I still didn't really think I had cancer, but waiting to find out was more of a test of my own trust in God's plans than I would have expected. I happen to be reading through the book of Job this month, and as I read chapter 13, I had to pause at verse 15: "Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face."  Would I, if I were faced with this deadly disease, still be able with Job to hope in God? Could I argue my ways to his face?

Mercifully, the pathology report came back in just a couple of days. Those two days, however, gave me cause to meditate more than ever before on how everything I have, including my health, has been a gift, and that my life is not and never has been merely my own. You can imagine with what gratitude I heard the lovely word "benign" read to me at my next appointment. After facing the prospect—however remote—of a serious trial like cancer, the expectation of maintaining the status quo comes as the best kind of news. It comes like gospel.

So now I face two more weeks (give or take) of third trimester pregnancy. I am still achy. I am still tired. I am still fat and slow and prone to heartburn. I still get kicked in the ribs in the middle of the night. I am even coming down with a cold. But I also still get to enjoy another glorious day of the "same old thing."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October Fruit

They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing...
— Psalm 92:14

Another year of my life has drawn to a close, and with it, another growing season. The tomato plants, once pregnant with summer's bounty, now sag dejectedly in the muddy ground, heavy with green fruit that will never mature. The icy night air has faded their once-bright flowers into a pale yellow translucency—an annual picture of the fruitful might-have-been. October has again caught them unawares.

* * * * * * * *

Three weeks ago, when my 91-year-old grandmother fell and ended up in the hospital, none of us anticipated a prolonged recovery. She had hit her head, and she was weakened by the injury, but the bruise would heal, and she would be well again soon. She has always gotten well again. Hers has been a long life.

But a life, to be called "long," must have an end; eternity is not a span that can be measured. And so it seems that this long life of hers will, after all, have an end as well. She is home again and has regained some of her strength, but I can see that her October has come. In spite of this brief Indian summer, the first frost has already taken its toll. She complains of the chill in the air, and her limbs are more frail, her hands less steady.

* * * * * * * *

Last Friday, I spent the lunch hour with my sons at school. We passed the potato chips among the five of us and talked amid the din of a hundred children laughing and joking and shifting fidgety legs; of a hundred children crunching apples and unwrapping sandwiches and rummaging in brown paper bags. My own little boys bounced and squirmed in their seats, talking over one another, giggling at trifles, filled with a surplus of energy that could not be contained within their small, robust frames.

That entire lunch room was a fresh battery, charged with electricity waiting to be released. If I were to spend a full day in the company of so much youth, I imagine I would gather an electrical charge of my own. I felt as though the room might burst—that those walls, like my own bulging body, were pregnant with life about to break from its confines. And at noon, the room did, in fact, give birth to a hundred electrified children rushing outdoors to play. The clock's hands converged at the number twelve with a clap like thunder.

I have seen these children zipping down plastic playground slide, their hair standing on end. At the bottom, I stretch out my cold hands to catch my sons and pull them up, and as we touch, their lightning fingers burn my own; at that startling moment, that point of contact where we two distemporaries collide, something ignites.

On a dark October night, we could have seen the spark.

* * * * * * * *

As my two youngest sons and I entered the nursing home after lunch, my gait was slow and plodding, heavy with my long-awaited child. I felt that I, too, could make good use of the abandoned walker sitting just outside the front door. Passing through the hallways, my children ran their dimpled fingers along the handrail, hanging and swinging and skipping from it, using that would-be crutch as the bar of a jungle gym. They leapt past each open doorway, never noticing the frost-bitten forms lying on inclined beds just inside those rooms; never seeing the hundred color-drained faces bowed over half-eaten meals in the quiet cafeteria.

We turned a corner, and boldly centered at the end of the long hall sat an old man, directly facing us from his wheelchair.  His unflinching gaze was fixed upon us as we worked our way toward him. His crooked, unclipped fingers grasped the arms of his wheelchair, while the oxygen tubes in his nostrils made a rhythmic pop and hiss. He breathed with a sound like Darth Vader. I made eye contact and then looked away, pretending to instruct my kids on how they should behave when they saw my grandmother, although I had given them the same reminder only moments earlier. And when I looked up again uneasily, those aged eyes had not wavered from their point of focus.

As we drew nearer to him, my sons, too, became aware of his unnerving presence, and they fell back, hiding behind my legs. He stared us down. Would he let us pass? I tried to slip casually by him with nothing more than a quick hello. But as I turning my eyes again to my sons, his gnarled hand rose from its resting place and, with a suddenness inconsistent with his shriveled state, he jabbed a pointed finger at the center of my protruding belly, his ridged fingernail pressing into my flesh as if testing the ripeness of a large fruit.

Did that moment of contact leave him with a sensation of warmth? Of an electrical charge shocking his chilled limbs into life? Perhaps some sort of strength did flow out of me, but even the vigor of nascent life does not have the power to raise the dead.

Life and death were colliding, and my burning skin was caught in between.

"What's this?" he demanded like a gatekeeper demanding a password. I laughed nervously and stammered something about having another baby in there, but the man had already shifted his attention downward. "Hellooo," he crooned. "You are our favorite kind of visitors." I smiled feebly and told the boys to say hi—something I had hardly wanted to do myself. And I did not rebuke my son when one of them ignored my instructions and merely gaped.

I felt tempted to gape myself.

We moved on down the hall to meet with my grandmother. I could still feel the sting on my belly where that withered hand had touched me.

* * * * * * * *

Another birthday has arrived, and I have much to be thankful for in remembering the year that is gone. Every October brings reasons to celebrate, but it also brings reasons to consider my own mortality. This northern growing season is painfully short, and those sun-loving tomato plants never do reach their full potential before fall arrives. They could have done so much more—born so much more fruit—if the cold had not set in just yet. Not just yet.

But while I survey the frost-stricken garden and look back on the harvest that was, I must remember how much this growing season has given to me. And I can see that even now, among all those withered plants, not a branch is barren. Their fiery red fruit is gathered up, their feeble limbs now limp and unable to rise. They are weighed down. But with what?

At the end of my own growing season, at the end of my own painfully short life, is this the sight I want my time-worn self to see reflected from the mirror? Will I recall with joy the fruitfulness that was mine? In that final October, when I reach out my hands to touch the young, and I again feel the startling heat of that spark, may I  see In the light of that momentary fire that, although my weakening limbs are weighed down—they are weighed down with still-forming fruit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

I have had little time to write these days, due, at least in part, to the daily mountains of laundry rising in impressive peaks and ranges across my bathroom floor. And as I near the end of this pregnancy, mountaineering has become an increasingly daunting task. My four—soon to be five—boys have a unique genius for staining multiple sets of clothing each day.

Although laundry occupies a significant part of every mother's week, it is nevertheless a subject given little dignity by the literary world. There is no shortage of (mostly sappy) poetry praising motherhood in the abstract, but not much is said about what mothers must actually do to keep the household running. Potty training must certainly have the potential to inspire earthy metaphors, and doing the dishes is a topic ripe for poetic analysis. Clearly, more mothers of toddlers should become poets. 

G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." True enough. But they have also been mysteriously silent on the subject of laundry. In light of this sad omission, I thought I would share one of my favorite poems, by one of America's best-known poets. It is the only poem I know of on the topic of washing clothes, and it elevates that mundane task to something almost holy. Read it twice.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

by Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

News Flash

To make up to you for the length of my previous post, today I am only going to publish a brief announcement: Something I wrote is actually going to be in print. (And there was great rejoicing.) One of my blog posts, written about this time last year after a longish blogging hiatus, was just accepted for publication in Relief. And yes, I am pretty excited. I do enjoy writing here, but this news makes me think that the existence of this blog is somehow officially justified. Don't worry, though. I don't plan on quitting my day job.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Have Mercy on the Morons: A Plea on Behalf of the Misinformed

How do you know what you know?

That may seem like a pretty basic question, but it's a question that few of us are ever pushed to ask, let alone answer. It is a question, however, that has begun to bother me more than a little in recent years.

Of course, there are certain basic and unprovable assumptions that I must hold by faith as a Christian. Or even as a human being. Not every statement is up for debate. Whether we believe that God, or reason, or science, or Bono, or our own gut feeling is our ultimate standard for truth, we all have a place where the buck stops. All of our reasoning becomes circular when we get down to our most foundational beliefs.

I believe in the God of the Bible, and that necessitates that I reject any statements—however compelling—that directly contradict that belief. If someone asserts that theft is actually a good idea when you can get away with it, I can reject that statement without losing a single night's sleep, because it flatly defies the eighth commandment. Easy. But beyond the clear teachings of the Bible is a myriad of assertions that are anything but easy to assess. They require a degree of knowledge and wisdom that most of us will never attain. These are the kinds of questions that make me wonder how we really know what we "know."

A Matter of Trust
It's not that I lie awake at night worrying about this, and I have no plans for taking up the study of epistemology in my spare time. But honestly, every time one of my well intentioned Facebook friends posts another link to some piece of revisionist history, or alternative medicine, or political conspiracy, or any other article claiming to expose "hidden agendas" and "things the corporations don't want you to know," I feel like tearing my hair out.

It's not that I believe all these articles must be wrong. They may be absolutely right. Or mainly right. Or a little bit right about a few things. But therein lies my frustration; with the seemingly infinite number of "untold stories" out there, it's frequently impossible to know which stories to believe.

"Every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). But what about all the times when the witnesses—even the "expert" witnesses—present conflicting evidence? When both the prosecution and the defense can call upon the testimony of two or three persuasive witnesses, how do I decide who makes a more convincing case? Daily life lacks the formality of a courtroom, and there are times when my decision cannot wait. I, of course, pray for wisdom, but often I must render my verdict while knowing full well that I have only part of the story and a few tidbits of sketchy evidence.

If, for example, somebody tells me that my government has lied to me about a particular event in the Middle East, I have to choose whom to believe if I am going to cast a "responsible vote." If there's been a cover-up, it is, well, covered up. There are many things I simply can't know. Do I trust the embittered soldier who was there? The apparently competent general who was also there? The commander in chief who saw the top-secret intelligence reports? The civilians who were affected on the ground? The talk radio host who interpreted the information? The NPR reporter who was embedded with the unit? The news anchor on Al Jazeera? The political blogger who scours the Web for possible leaks and insider stories? How do you know what you know?

I bring this up not because I want to start a discussion on foreign policy. I most certainly don't. And I don't want to sound like a relativist who thinks that all views are equally valid; I believe there's a vast gulf between truth and falsehood. I bring this up because I have found myself increasingly at a loss in sorting through the wildly differing "facts" littering my way as I try to navigate through life—especially through life as a parent.

The Curse of the Over-Informed Parent
In case you hadn't noticed, nearly everything we do for our kids requires careful thought. We need wisdom to sort through the barrage of opinions and studies and information and advice. Studies can be wrong, statistics can be twisted, and people on both sides of an issue can be less than objective in their approach. But the problem is, nobody I know has the time or resources to exhaustively research every possible option presented to us as parents. And because these decisions involve our kids—our future—emotions surrounding these choices tend to run rather high.

A typical mom might be disinterested in politics, apathetic about eschatology, bored by artistic trends. But bring up the topic of, say, childhood vaccines, and boom!  Watch the fireworks begin.

It's so very easy to assume that other parents who have made decisions different from our own have simply failed to understand the issues, or are too lazy to do their research, or have motives that aren't altogether pure. Maybe they've been brainwashed by propaganda. Maybe they haven't seen the shocking episode of 20/20 that we saw. Maybe they haven't talked to the right people. Maybe they're just stupid.

Or maybe, just maybe, they know something that we don't.

We can all agree on certain primary issues—that we should feed, clothe, educate and care for the health of our children. But the secondary details involving how we do those things can vary widely among wise and respectable people. We may all be diligently researching our options and still come to opposing conclusions. And that should hardly come as a surprise. We have studies and statistics bombarding us on every side, but rarely do they form any kind of consensus or any sense of certainty. As tidy as the word "data" may sound, the reality is anything but.

Expert Worship
We may have a pantheon of experts just a URL away, but the Cult of the Expert is a demanding and dizzying religion. First, we all slavishly follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of anybody in a white lab coat and a "Doctor of" diploma framed on the wall. But then some fringe heretic has the gall to stand up and point out that butter actually seems to be better for us than margarine after all and that the AMA and the USDA and the AAP have made some disastrous mistakes. We read the 95 Nutritional Theses nailed to the laboratory door, and our allegiances begin to shift.

Disillusioned by white lab coats, we turn with Reformation zeal to the unshaven nonconformist in Birkenstocks and a broomstick skirt who would expose for us the lies told by the priests of the old order. Down with the establishment! Let's pass out tracts! Let's evangelize the nations with the latest findings, baptizing them in the holistic name of the Protein, the Fat, and the Carbohydrates! Do I hear an "Amen?"

But wait a minute. Now the expert in the broomstick skirt is the establishment, and certain preventable diseases are seeing a global resurgence, to boot. The Holy Writ of the Expert must again be revised. But who will be our prophets and our priests now that nine out of ten nutritionists no longer agree? Which expert's Kool-aid are we going to drink next?

We could spend the rest of our lives chasing after the next "shocking revelation" offered up by the expert-du-jour, only to have each "important new study" undermined by the next.

The fact is, we can't run some kind of in-depth investigation into everything we hear. Not even close. And even if we could, we would still have to make faith-based decisions about what evidence to believe and how to interpret it. "Proof" is only as solid as the assumptions that underlie it. Even if I saw something with my own two eyes, I can still only know it happened if my own two eyes are trustworthy. (And that may be a very big "if.")

So the easiest solution is to turn to the Expert (blessed be he). He will tell us just what to do. No wisdom necessary. And when his advice fails us, we can blame, instead of ourselves, the evil pseudo-expert—the informational heretic—who led us astray.

But the real solution is, I believe, to remember where our true authority comes from and to realize that no earthly expert has a monopoly on knowledge. The data, however good and helpful, must be taken with a grain or two of (unrefined, natural Baltic Sea) salt.  The world is a messy place made up of messy people with messy motives, and while true knowledge about the world is attainable, exhaustive knowledge is not.

The older our kids get, the more I am amazed by the number of decisions we are required to make on their behalf. And the more decisions we have to make, the more I realize how much I just don't know. Socrates was on to something. I may not go so far as to say that I know nothing, but what I don't know definitely outweighs what I do. By a lot. Tons, actually.

This is why I have sometimes found myself wishing that an angel from heaven (a different kind of expert) would simply appear and tell me exactly whom to believe about things I'm told to do (or not to do) for the good of my children. But this is not going to happen, so we must proceed as wisely as we can with what information we can find in the time that we can set aside to find it. And in doing so, we must all—experts included—recognize that we have a whole lot left to learn. Additionally, we who are Christians must not lose sight of where the beginning of knowledge lies—with the fear of the Lord. That's our starting point. Whatever other knowledge we pursue must be built on that foundation.

A Toast to Ignorance
Even before they are born, I'm given conflicting information on all kinds of topics. Here's one bit of advice that's been printed everywhere from public bathrooms to health manuals: "Alcohol and pregnancy do not mix." The "experts" have a litany of scary statistics implying that an unintentional sip of grape juice gone bad could leave your unborn baby mentally impaired. So pregnant women nervously chew their nails wondering if they've ruined their child's life by drinking an entire cocktail before knowing they were expecting. But (as always seems to be the case) that's only one side of the story.

There are also scientific studies and statistics (mostly British) that have "proven" just the opposite—that children of women who drank "moderately" during pregnancy actually had brighter, better adapted children than those of women who had completely abstained. And some of these studies allege that it's fear of litigation that has (understandably) led most American obstetricians to advocate the total-abstinence policy, fearing that women will interpret permission to have a drink as permission to go on a month-long vodka binge.

So what to do? Better safe than sorry? Or better lighten up than stress out? Whom to believe? British doctors or American doctors? OBs or midwives? Your mom or that lady from the church potluck? I've tried to read a fair bit about this one, and the more I've read, the more I feel like reciting "eeny-meeny-miney-mo" is probably the best means of deciding the issue.

Sheesh. Please pass the shiraz.

Love and Let Live
I have more to learn than is humanly possible if I am going to make what might be called an "informed decision" about almost anything you can name. And so, I am guessing, do most of us. That is why I am writing this—not as a rant but as a plea for mercy. Share what you've learned for the good of your neighbor, and wisdom can be the result. Beat your neighbor over the head with the cold, hard facts, and somebody is going to get hurt. And it just might be the "facts" themselves that suffer.

In this messy world, charity is the necessary antidote to the idolatrous worship of expertise. Let us hear with gratitude—let us even seek out—what the knowledgeable have to say, but let us not bow down and kiss their feet.

If you see me nibbling on a Chicken McNugget; if you see me, with my pregnant belly, sipping on a mojito; if you see me taking my children for a vaccination; if you see me voting for the wrong candidate (shame on you for peeking); if you see me buying goods from the wrong store; if you see me doing anything else you would never, never do, I beg you to withhold your scorn and instead show a little mercy. I promise to do the same for you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

School Breeze

July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight.
August, die she must,
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I´ll remember...

Simon & Garfunkel

August nearly managed to live up to its venerable name this year, filled as it was with bold heat waves and solemn convocations. But August has also, in typical fashion, come and gone with undignified speed, bringing with it the abrupt transition from lighthearted leisure to respectable routine. The school year always arrives sooner than I expect.

Every summer, those July days seem to stretch themselves out in lazy rows across the calendar, a succession of blank squares, open to whatever we choose to fit inside them. And then the page flips to August, and I discover with a start that we are left with a brief two weeks into which we must cram every "sometime this summer" activity that has yet to be realized before the khaki-trousered school schedule begins: one last trip to the pool, one last picnic in the park, one last bicycle ride around the neighborhood, one last hurrah. As July gives way to August, I am reluctant to see the empty grid fill up with hastily scribbled registration deadlines and carpool commitments, uniform fittings and snack duties. I look at all those full days ahead and wonder, once again, how summer could be coming to such an untimely demise.

But sometime during that first week of August, a breeze will rise, winding through the dry lawns and harvested fields and overgrown vacant lots, carrying with it a scent that tells me that the time has indeed come for the slow and easy days of summer to end.

The roses may still be in full bloom, the sun may still be blazing, and the brown-shouldered high school girls may continue to parade down my sidewalk in their halter tops and flip-flops, but that distinct scent in the wind announces, even before the school supply list arrives in the mail, that it's time to begin stocking up on crayons and non-marking tennis shoes.

I can smell back-to-school.

Some researchers have noted that smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers known to man. And I believe them. A quick browse of the Web reveals that medical and psychiatric journals are constantly publishing new data on this topic, mapping out "hippocampal brain activity" and the way neurons connect to the olfactory bulb. Neuroscientists can minutely describe the neural pathways where smell and memory collide.

But no PhD is required to experience that sensation that has struck us all at one time or another—when a place long forgotten or a person long dead is momentarily restored to life through an agency no more miraculous than the human nose. 

I know next to nothing of the neurological events taking place inside my brain when this happens. What I do know is that I have been casually walking along behind my orange stroller, thinking of meal plans or shopping lists, when an unexpected change of wind will lift me entirely out of the present and blow me to some distinct moment in the past. A rare perfume of wet leaves, cheap cigarettes, and car exhaust will send me sailing back in time to a Warsaw tram platform beside a chilly November marketplace where thick-ankled Russian women sell sauerkraut and pickles from plastic-lined barrels. A momentary whiff of shoe polish and gravied pot roast and Old Spice drifting from an open window will float me into my grandmother's Sunday afternoon kitchen, where I sit at the table shelling freshly picked peas into a white glass bowl. I step through the doors of a nursing home, and as the overpowering, antiseptic odors of Lysol and Pine Sol and menthol (and other substances ending in "ol") reach my nose, I am six years old again and terrified—terrified of meeting, just around the corner, the hollow-eyed, toothless man in the plaid shirt and overalls who once followed me down the fluorescent-lit hallway with loud, low grunting noises and drool pooling on his protruding chin. I do not need to see him. I smell him, and that is enough.

And it is enough, too, for me to catch that unmistakable, peppery-rhubarby smell in the August wind. By that alone, I know that school is coming just when it should. I smell that yellow-flowered weed whose name I do not know, and I am transported back into my navy nubuck Mary Janes and white cableknit tights, back to my first day of school in the basement of the Paradise Hills Church of God, perched on a hill above a freshly harvested wheat field where the wind would blow the spicy fragrance through the open windows and across the playground. It's the unmistakable smell of school.

That smell is in the air at this moment. July may have flown without warning, and August may be about to die what had seemed a premature death, but through some strange working of scent and memory, I know that school ought to be underway. I am about to turn that page to September once again, and all I have to do is inhale to know that this is just as it should be.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cinnamon Rolls and Bacon: The Title Track

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.
—Psalm 63:5

Now that this blog has been around for a while, I suppose it is high time I explained why I chose Cinnamon Rolls and Bacon as the title. As you may have discovered, if you're looking for breakfast recipes, this is not the site you need (although I will try to make up for that at the end of this post). No, it's more than just the morning meal that I'm concerned with here. Cinnamon rolls and bacon have become our traditional Sunday morning fare, and, by extension, a metaphor for Sabbath living; we commence the week with joyful table fellowship, gratitude for God's kindness, and a very tangible celebration of the resurrection—all of which should spill over into the rest of our daily lives.

Many of the families in our church community have come up with lovely and creative ways to make the Lord's day the high point of the week, and one tradition that our own family has adopted and grown to love is a copious Sunday breakfast. What better way to begin a day of rest, worship, and feasting than by weighing down the table with buttery homemade cinnamon rolls and oven-fried bacon?

But lest you think we are slowly killing ourselves with cholesterol, remember that Sunday comes but once a week. So, while some may argue that such luxuries are bad for the arteries, when taken in weekly moderation they are unquestionably good for the heart.

We want our children to grow up loving the Sabbath, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good from the moment the day begins. Before they can understand the goodness of God in almost any other way, kids can understand the rich combination of butter and sugar upon their tongues, and ours have learned to love it and look forward to it week after week.

There was a time when I was not confident enough in my baking skills to attempt making a pan of cinnamon rolls from scratch on a weekly basis, so we usually opted for the cardboard can variety instead. Those (or a box of doughnuts) will still suffice in a pinch, but now that I've found a reliable recipe, it's awfully hard to settle for anything less than homemade. I bake them the night before and pop them back into the oven on Sunday morning until they're warmed through and ready to be frosted by one of four eager volunteers who will, of course, get spatula-licking privileges when the job is done.

And then there is the bacon. I always check the little "sample slice" windows they provide on the backs of those packages at the grocery store, and if there's not a fat-to-meat ratio of at least three-to-one, I pass it by. The fat is honestly the part we want. Those little pink stripes of meat are simply there for looks—garnish in the form of pork.

But lest you think that bacon is nothing more than a greasy indulgence, let me explain its deeper significance. (No, really!) Bacon is also an edible reminder of one of the things that we, as Christians, believe—that Christ, in His death and resurrection, has fulfilled the Old Testament ceremonial laws, including the prohibition against eating unclean animals (i.e. pigs). Those animals represented the gentiles (i.e. us) who are now granted full membership with the New Covenant people of God. Ergo, bacon is, for us, a very tasty (and greasy) way to celebrate the gift of the gospel to the gentiles.

Granted, when we started our Sunday morning tradition, we simply liked the occasional rasher of bacon and hadn't considered of any of those theological points. It's not as though we set out to plumb the great metaphorical depths of all our breakfast choices. But still, having noticed some of the religious implications of bacon, we did think it seemed that much more fitting for a Sabbath meal.

To complete the morning feast, in addition to the cinnamon rolls and bacon, our kids are also treated to their weekly glass of chocolate milk, and we each have an egg or two fried in (what else?) a bit of bacon grease. We also grace the table with a bowl piled with whatever fruit may be at its seasonal peak. Right now it's peaches and nectarines that leave sweet juice dripping down our chins and forearms with the first bite.

The Sunday table is no place for fasting. Nor is it a place for half-hearted feasting weighed down by guilt. If it helps, leave off the first syllable when you say, "Cinnamon Rolls," for there is no sin in them at all. They are instead a reason for joy and gratitude, and one small way that we set this day apart from the rest—this day that points us toward the great wedding feast at the consummation of all things. Therefore, as Nehemiah exhorted God's people long ago, "go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  (Nehemiah 8:10)


Sabbatarian Cinnamon Rolls

1 packet of yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1 1/2 c. warm water (I normally use half milk, half water.)
1/3 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp. table salt)
1 egg
1/3 c. unsalted butter, softened (Crisco works in a pinch.)
1/2 tsp. vanilla (real, if you have it)
3 1/2-4 c. white bread flour (All purpose flour works fine)

In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast, sugar and salt in water. Wait about five minutes until foamy. Stir in remaining ingredients. Knead in flour when stirring becomes too difficult. (I use the flat beater on my KitchenAid for everything and skip the kneading hook altogether.) This dough will be nice and squashy, not stiff. Resist the temptation to add more than 4 cups of flour to the dough.

Let rise until double in a greased bowl covered with oiled plastic wrap. At this point you can punch it down and refrigerate it until Saturday night. (I find the dough easier to work with when cold.) Otherwise, dump the dough out on to a very generously floured board. Roll (or pat with well-floured hands) into a rectangle about 16" x 20".

1 stick (1/2 c.) butter (Absolutely no substitutions!)
1 c. brown sugar (or up to half white sugar)
2 T. (yes, tablespoons) cinnamon

Melt the butter and spread evenly over the rectangle of dough. Mix together sugar and cinnamon and spread evenly over the butter. Roll it all up, pulling the dough toward you to stretch it a bit as you roll. (This results in lots of nice, thin layers to unroll as you eat and keeps the butter and sugar from melting out and forming a caramelly ooze on the bottom of your pan. If you like the caramelly ooze, then, by all means, roll these more loosely.) Slice into 20 even slices. (Again, this is easier to do if the dough is chilled.) Arrange rolls in a 4 x 5 pattern in a well buttered 9 x 13 pan. (I have always had best results with glass.) Let rise until almost doubled, and bake at 375° for 25 minutes. (Longer if the dough is cold to start with, a bit less if it's been a hot day in the kitchen. See note below.) Cool.

This recipe is up to you. Some people like cream cheese or buttercream frosting, and I can't argue. But my normal recipe is simply:
1-2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp real vanilla
Enough heavy cream to reach desired consistency—spreadable or drizzlable, depending on what you like.

Mix sugar, cream and vanilla thoroughly. Frost cinnamon rolls. (If you baked them the night before, save this step for after you have rewarmed them in the oven for 5-10 minutes. Otherwise the icing may scorch or melt away into sticky nothingness.)

Additional Notes:
  1. Sometimes these have a tendency to rise skyward into little cinnamon roll mountain peaks. Check them half way through baking, and if they are forming something of a topographic map of the Rockies, then take a flat spatula and gently press them back down into a surface more reminiscent of the Iowa landscape.
  2. You can double the dough recipe and, after letting it rise the first time, freeze half of the dough in an oiled gallon sized Ziploc bag for next week's cinnamon rolls.
  3. If there are too many rolls for your family, share the joy, or else bake the rolls in two 9" round cake pans. Carefully wrap (foil inside a plastic bag) one of the two pans after they are baked and cooled, and freeze until next week. They keep surprisingly well. Then just thaw overnight, and warm in the oven before frosting.
  4. Bonus: If you leave the vanilla out of the dough recipe and omit the cinnamon and sugar from the filling, this recipe makes fabulous crescent rolls suitable for Thanksgiving dinner. Just roll the dough into two dinner plate-sized circles instead of one big rectangle, and butter each circle with half a stick.  Slice each circle like a pizza into 12 or 16 equal wedges and roll up starting with the wider end, firmly adhering the pointed end to keep from unrolling. Let rise on two greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets, and bake at 375° for 15-20 minutes, until golden.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Way back in the distant past, when I worked as a full-time designer, our magazine staff would hold a weekly meeting to discuss projects and coordinate our schedules. At one of these meetings, I mentioned that I would be taking some time off for a family reunion, to which my coworker responded by offering me her condolences. "I'm so sorry!" she said, "Family reunions can be such an annoying waste of vacation time."

I remember being taken aback by that comment. It had honestly never occurred to me that family reunions are, for many people, a real drag—an endless week of sidestepping touchy subjects, of reviving ancient grudges, of navigating through a web of gossipy whispers and hurt feelings and bitter misunderstandings. Blood may be thicker than water, but after a week like that, I can understand why water would sound a lot more refreshing—and why condolences would be the proper response.

"No, no! It's not like that," I answered, "I actually like these people!"

We recently returned from our annual Kvale family reunion in western Washington, and I would like to take this opportunity to amend my response; I don't just like these people. I love them. This reunion is not an obligation. It's a privilege.

For twenty-five years now, my mom and her eight brothers and sisters and their families have spent three days vacationing together, a tradition begun by my grandparents when I was young and continued for these many years since they've been gone. And now that I have kids of my own, it makes me happy just to see how my boys can hardly contain their excitement as they anticipate the days spent with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins by the lake—and how they can hardly contain their disappointment as we drive back home, leaving all of that fun and camaraderie behind.

Like most families, we're a quirky, varied bunch of people, and the memories I have are quirky and varied, too. I remember the time my uncle fell asleep on the lawn, and the brothers-in-law surrounded him with empty beer bottles pulled from the recycling bin. I remember the time my cousin organized all of us kids into a grand performance of a Belinda Carlisle pop ballad, using ping-pong paddles as "guitars." I remember the time my grandmother woke up early (as usual) and decided that 5:30 a.m. would be a great time to empty the dishwasher—with all the clinking and clanging and banging echoing throughout the lodge. I remember singing cheesy Sunday School songs by the campfire—in full, four-part harmony heavily weighted toward the alto section. I remember knock-down, drag-out games of Scrabble in the wee hours of the morning.

We've done hiking, and swimming, and line dancing, and foosball, and softball, and golf. And I'm sure that for every memory I have, there are hundreds more that stand out in the minds of my relatives.  But one activity has remained constant despite the changing venues and the growing numbers; each of the three days of our reunion is brought to a close by a time of singing and prayer. There are 70 of us (give or take) in one room, thanking God together for His faithfulness to our family, and asking Him to meet one another's needs. The older I get, the more I see how remarkable it is to have these opportunities every evening. And if my coworker's comment is any indication, we enjoy a peace between us that, it seems, is extremely rare.

I'm not saying that our family relationships are never painful—even heartbreaking—at times. Like every extended family, we're part of Adam's fallen race. But unlike many extended families, we are also part of the Second Adam's race. A spirit of patience and forgiveness pervades our interactions, and in spite of our differences we share a unity that cannot be explained by family ties alone. Blood may be thicker than water. But what flows between us is thicker still.

Who could ask for a better inheritance? My grandparents didn't leave us all with yachts and Caribbean condos and stacks of cash. Sure, none of us would mind boating around the Bahamas with an unlimited budget. But we'd never take it in exchange for the kind of family we have been given. Each summer, we have a living, breathing reminder of what kind of long-term equity we are working to build. Raising nine children on the kind of money my grandfather made by milking cows, felling trees, and pumping gas might, by many, have been deemed fiscally irresponsible, but who, looking around at one of our reunions, could argue with his rate of return or the generational worth of his assets? We are rich beyond all calculation, regardless of what our mutual funds say.

From my grandparents, I inherited a red cast iron gum ball machine. In terms of material possessions, that's all I got. But the true inheritance that they passed on to me—and to my children—is a crowd of cousins, countless happy memories, a delightful summer tradition, and a confident hope in the reunion that will include not only my grandmother and grandfather, but all the faithful who have gone before them. No condolences necessary.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Staying Afloat

On Monday morning at 9:00, we began our second session of swimming lessons for the summer. I've been pleased to see how the boys have cheerfully braved the cold mornings (48° and drizzle on the first day) and pushed themselves to do what, just two weeks ago, seemed impossible. Watching them, I can feel butterflies in my own stomach as I remember what it was like to take that first frightening plunge into the deep end, and to make that first nerve-wracking trip down the big slide through blind curves and slippery darkness. We all know what it's like to be pushed in over heads.

As the instructors carry the Pre-Tadpole students, who cling fiercely to their necks, to the "deep" end of the kiddie pool, one child's panicked shrieks suddenly fly across the bright surface of the water: "Don't let go! Don't let go! It's too deep! I! Caaan't! Swiiiiim!" From our deck chairs we parents watch these frequent displays of childish terror with mild amusement. We know they'll be safe, but they, out there where their feet dangle uselessly above the bottom of the pool, are far from convinced.

The swim teacher repeats what has become a mantra during the last ten days: "I've got you. You'll be all right. You're not gonna sink."  But the wildly kicking legs, the rapid gasps for air and the expression of wide-eyed dread prove that this kid is momentarily deaf to all attempts at persuasion. Until his feet can touch the bottom, he will trust no one and nothing but his gut instincts—which are clearly telling him that he is going to die out here in this 4-foot-deep chlorinated abyss. And while I may chuckle at his frantic behavior, this terrified child is certainly not the only one overcome at times by panic and a sensation of drowning.

Water is a scary substance. It's no wonder that so many of the great stories of deliverance involve escape through and from water: Noah waiting to rise above the deluge; Jonah plunging to certain death and being saved in the nick of time; Moses holding out his staff to allow the children of Israel to pass through the water to safety; the disciples frantically waking Jesus to rescue them from drowning at sea; and, of course, Peter growing afraid and beginning to sink, calling out, "Lord, save me!" (Who of us, if called, would have stepped out of that boat in the first place?)

Water is a blessing that can kill. Is it any wonder that being "in over your head" and being "overwhelmed" are now clichés for that feeling of bewilderment—of being required to do the impossible?

These last several months, my husband and I have both felt ourselves drifting away from the shallow end, nearing the deep water where it looks like we're certain to drown. Each time I feel the water rising, I catch my breath and wonder if I can do this. Can we really stay afloat with so much to weigh us down? Can we keep our heads above water while balancing four kids, a marriage, friendships, work, heaps of little projects, church responsibilities, community responsibilities, a pregnancy, a sick grandmother, and a dissertation? Can't we just stay in the shallow end for a while and let the water splash around our ankles? Half the time I feel like flailing and hyperventilating like that kid in the swim class. Well intentioned people may be telling me, "You'll be all right. You're not gonna sink," but all I know is that the bottom is a long way down, and I am anything but buoyant.

Keeping our heads above water. That's what we're trying to do this summer. And, as my boys and I can attest, it doesn't always seem possible. When all the evidence appears to point to the contrary, it's hard to believe that we all won't go under. After all, our feet can't touch the bottom.

I've heard that youth group leaders and marriage counselors use "trust games" as a method for strengthening relationships between individuals. One person must fall backwards, arms folded, into the waiting arms of another, trusting that those arms will be there to break the fall—strong enough to save and protect from harm. I admit that I've always found the idea of these games pretty ridiculous. I mean, isn't there a less childish and contrived way to build trust?

Well, maybe there is. But watching my kids floundering helplessly in water over their heads has given me a new appreciation for these "trust games." It's easy to laugh at my boys' nervousness—and even at their terror. We know that they have nothing to fear, but they know nothing of the kind. All that stands between them and death is that pair of waiting arms, ready to catch them when they fall, to pull them up when they're sinking.

I know exactly how they feel. While I may, like them, be tempted to doubt and to start pleading, "Don't let go! Don't let go!" there are others—many others—who have already been out here before me and survived. Through the years, they've successfully maintained their marriages, finished their projects, raised their families, completed their dissertations. They are expert swimmers, and I'm sure that they are watching me amusedly from their deck chairs as I learn to swim. They are perfectly certain that I am not going to drown. I, while I was back in the shallows of the kiddie pool, found it easy to believe that, too. It's only now, when I'm being called to venture out into these unfamiliar depths, that I grow afraid and begin to sink.

I'm not walking on water. I'm not even treading water. I'm with Peter, about to go under and crying, "Lord, save me!"

Last week, even with his life jacket firmly secured around his chest and his teacher's arms waiting just below to catch him, Paul was terrified to jump. "Thirteen feet deep. This water is thirteen feet deep," he was thinking. The measurements may have had only vague meaning to his four-year-old mind, but even a four-year-old can see that the water below is a darker, deeper shade of blue than the kiddie pool will allow. All our cheery assurances could not convince him of safe passage through that cobalt expanse, and simply seeing others survive the leap was not proof enough that survival was possible for him. My little Paul could no more save himself from thirteen feet of water than fly, and yet his teacher was calling to him to jump.

Shivering with both fear and chill, Paul could not bring himself to step off the end of the diving board. So with a nod from his dad, the instructor dropped him in. And, wonder of wonders, Paul survived. But even his own escape from a watery grave will not convince him to take that fateful step a second time. This, for him, was a true trust game—and not one that, at this point in the season, he was willing to play again.

We all know that it's more comfortable back in the shallows. It's easier to believe that we're going to survive when we're sitting on the solid planks of the boat. But if we're called to step away from the edge, to walk out where the blue below us is darker, out where the wind is rising, trust becomes a more difficult matter. We may grow fearful. We may begin to sink. But if we have been called to do the impossible, to jump into the deep end, to step out of the boat in the midst of the sea, go we must.

He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  
—Matthew 14:29-31

Thursday, June 10, 2010

'Til Death Do Us Part

Ten years ago today, as I slipped into my new white shoes, I already knew that I was about to take the most important walk of my life. It was not the longest walk. It wasn't the most strenuous. It wasn't even the most scenic. It was, to put it bluntly, a walk into certain death.  Before I took my first nervous step through those double doors, I knew that this short stroll would be the end of me. When it was all over, I would be somebody new. I would have a new name. I would have a new identity, a new title, a new head, a new walking companion. That brief trip from the church foyer to the end of the aisle is the walk that overthrew my existence without even causing me to break a sweat—twelve deceptively easy steps to a total transformation. With the mere exchange of hands, of words, of rings, my life as I had known it was ending. Before God and hundreds of witnesses we made those solemn vows—'til death do us part.

Death? Must we bring up that subject at such a happy occasion? As it turns out, we must. Weak vows bring weak joy. Ours is a bond that only death may sever.

Nevertheless, we had anything but death on our minds as we drove off into the sunset after the reception, and death seemed a lifetime away as we set up house in the afterglow of our honeymoon. But at some point during the weeks and months that followed, "married life" began. In the midst of our newlywed euphoria, it was a shock to wake up one morning and realize how human the two of us still were. While so much changes—truly changes—in the course of a half-hour wedding, a good deal remains unchanged. We are new people now, right? So why do all our old sins and habits and selfish desires keep resurfacing? Although I knew that we were giving up our former lives to begin our new life together, it had not fully sunk in that I would have to die to myself again and again and again in everyday life once the ceremony had ended. Giving up our lives for one another did not end at the altar.

I had never fully considered how much of me was going to carry over into this new life. And nobody told me what a self-centered little pig I had always been. I didn't like letting go of my comfortable little routines. I was irritated that my plans might have to take a back seat to his plans. I wanted to make the decisions about how we spent my paycheck. This marriage business was not as blissfully painless as I had expected, and we weren't even talking about the big decisions yet—changing jobs, having kids, moving across the country. Living with roommates had been a cakewalk compared to this. I didn't make any 'til-death-do-us-part promises to them.

And that's precisely the point. Death alone may part us. But death, paradoxically, is also required to bind us together. It's death that makes all the difference.  

Death. It's a dark little word. But over the past ten years, we've grown to see more clearly how essential to a happy marriage death truly is. Many deaths. Daily death. Death in the little things. As my children have memorized, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Love means a willingness to die. And die, am I thankful to say, we frequently did.

But if I was tempted to think I'd really died quite enough (thank you very much) for the sake of our happy marriage, I had no idea how much more I would be required to die to myself when the kids came along. The first weeks home with a newborn were, to put it mildly, a misery. If somebody had walked into my home and offered to take my firstborn child off my hands for the rest of my life, I would gladly have handed him over (and good riddance.) My busy job with regular hours, regular paychecks, plenty of positive feedback, and a fair dose of almost-instant gratification was hardly the best preparation for the full-time care of a newborn. Everything I'd enjoyed about my previous job was missing from this new one. The hours were wretched, the pay was nil, the feedback came in the form of screaming and disgusting messes, and I felt like I had nothing whatsoever to show for my hours of thankless toil at the end of each lonely day. I cried everyday for two weeks. And almost daily for some time after that. I'd never died like this before, and I couldn't imagine ever willingly doing it again.

But I was forgetting the end of the story: death is never the final sum in God's economy. When I lay down my desires, my needs, my hopes, my habits, my life for someone else, resurrection follows. And the resurrected life is, without fail, more glorious than the life that was laid down.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." It's so simple that even my children understand the concept after a season of backyard gardening. And yet, how many times have I buried a seed in the ground only to stand there staring at the lifeless dirt and thinking, "Well, that was a waste!" The first show of green always seems to appear at exactly the moment when I've given up checking for signs of new life.

Those women who hurried to the tomb in the early morning were not marching triumphantly with "Welcome Back" banners. They were quietly bearing spices to anoint the dead.

Resurrection is a simple truth I still don't always easily grasp. But in sacrificing so much that is valuable to me—my time, my sleep, my comfort, my career goals, my belongings—to my husband or my children (or anyone else, for that matter) I will and do receive far more than I have given. Every sacrifice is like a seed planted; in laying each one down, in every little death I die, I am declaring my belief in resurrection. In the Resurrection. And after each burial, while I may be staring blankly at what looks uncannily like mud—like dust and ashes—the eyes of faith can see the trees that will spring from that earth, their branches weighed down by the fruit they will bear. Tending a household is very much like tending a garden.

And now, as I wait for the birth of our fifth child, I am, once again, waiting for resurrection. (Is it merely coincidence that the words tomb and womb are so similar?) In times past, bearing children could literally have meant laying down my earthly life. But even today, there is no escaping the lesser sacrifices involved: health, comfort, sleep, looks, strength are given over for the sake of my children. This is my body broken, this is my blood shed for the life of another. The suffering of childbirth is a small reflection of the cross itself. But, as Christ on the cross, we endure it not for its own sake, but for the joy set before us. In laying down our lives, we take them up again, more blessed than ever before. Greater love has no man than this.

In taking that walk down the aisle ten years ago in my new white shoes, I was approaching the altar to lay down my life. But that life was raised up new and glorified. It was a death and resurrection that would begin a lifetime of deaths and resurrections. All that I gave up "before God and these witnesses" has been replaced by greater and richer gifts. Beauty for ashes. And so it has been with every death that my husband and I have died for each other, and then for our children, throughout the past ten years. And so it will be in the years to come—'til death do us part.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Jackson Pollock, Eat Your Heart Out

Update: We found something to do on a rainy day!

My parents were cleaning out the garage this afternoon, and they sent me home with a big box of cans of tempera paint. But this was not just any tempera paint. This paint belonged to my father when he was a child. I guess that makes it sort of antique. Now, maybe that means I should have doled it out in minute amounts to keep it around for another 50 years. But, as you can see, I didn't.

I have no idea whether powdered Crayola paint from the 1950s is washable, but here's hoping. My boys discovered very quickly that they didn't need to mix the paint with water if they poured it onto pre-moistened sidewalks (courtesy of a week of rain). Ingenious, wouldn't you say? Surely there must be NEA grant money available for projects such as this. All I have to do now if figure out a way to transport these colorful children from the sidewalk to the bathtub without ruining the floors or my own clothes in the process!

Friday, May 28, 2010

School's out for...

"Summer" has officially begun at our house. We ended the school year well, with a sweet kindergarten graduation ceremony and the celebration of terrific report cards for both my big boys. We had a fantastic 9 months, and now summer lies before us—vast, uncharted, and as inviting as a mile of blank sidewalk to a kid with a bucket of colorful chalk. Or at least it seemed that inviting a couple of days ago. School was dismissed on Wednesday morning, and the boys are now spending their time at home. With me. All. Day. Long.

I really do love having all my kids together again, and their brotherly interaction is something I really miss during the rest of the year. But yesterday, on the first glorious day of our summer vacation, unbroken gray skies drained chilly rain onto our muddy yard. All. Day. Long. That's right. Summer's here! Pull out the sweaters and raincoats! As one of our local store's jingles puts it, "We live in North Idaho...and it shows." School's out for summer. Which, if this weather lasts long, just might make it seem like school's out forever.

So what's a mom to do with four busy-busy, high-energy boys who are stuck indoors with nowhere to go and nothing planned? Well, let me tell you about all my great ideas for how we're going to spend those rainy days during the next three months:

And there you have it. I'm at a loss.

O.K. I may not be quite that helpless, but I confess that I am utterly terrible at coming up with rainy day activities. I've checked out a number of books with imaginative titles like Rainy Day Activities, and they are almost entirely filled with girly crafts. I'm sorry, but my kids do not want to make paper beads to string into colorful necklaces. They're not interested in assembling sweet little clothespin dolls. Tissue paper flowers stuck on green, sparkly pipe cleaner "stems" are not their cup of tea. And speaking of tea, tea parties—and all the lacy whatnots that they entail—are out. What we want around here is warcraft. And loud sound effects. And full contact sports. Sitting quietly around the table with markers and glue sticks does keep everyone occupied for a short while, but it often backfires by simply getting my children to hold in their excess energy for just that much longer. They build up pressure like a pack of agitated soda cans, and then when they are released, they explode.

So, I'm trying to get creative here in order to prevent Cat-In-The-Hat-style disaster. Thankfully, my kids are far more inventive than I am, and in the last three days, they have used up nearly an entire ream of scratch paper in the construction of all sorts of paper airplanes (some more air-worthy than others). They have made super hero masks. They have cut out paper money. They have hosted NBA-inspired bedroom-door-basketball games. I have even, in a moment of weakness, resorted to getting out the play dough for them. They have, of course, colored and colored and colored and colored until our crayons are mere shadows of their former selves.  They've built forts. They've played piano. They've read stories. They've sung songs. And yes, they have already watched more than the FDA's, the FBI's, the CIA's, the NSA's, and the Surgeon General's recommended daily allowance of DVD minutes for children ages 2-8. (I seem to remember that I was never going to allow that day to come.) And today's only the second day of vacation. Oh boy. Times four.

I'd be thrilled if Little Orphan Annie showed up on tonight's forecast, singing cheery reassurances that  "the sun'll come out tomorrow...".  But in case she doesn't, I'd be equally thrilled to collect some rainy-day ideas from all y'all. If you have thoughts on fun and profitable ways for my boys (keeping in mind that they are, in fact, boys) to spend their time indoors—as long as the activities are only mildly destructive to body and belongings—I'd love to hear them!

Oh, and since this is my blog, I reserve the right to end this post with a couple of proud mama photos:

Jonah receiving a medal for getting all A's all year

Jude with his Kindergarten diploma. Yea!

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