For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of house fires. I can recall my mother telling me as a small child to be careful, to not do this or that, because it could start a fire.

I was 9 years old, when I first decided what I would save if our home should suddenly fill with flames. I chose carefully. These were, after all, the only items I could count on having were I to lose almost everything else. My favorite skirt, my New Kids On The Block trading cards, my cards and letters from my grandfather, and my little Casio keyboard all went into a cardboard box. I added sensible clothing as padding to protect the treasures, as my plan was to drop the box from my second story bedroom window.

There, I could finally breathe. I thought about it often and updated the specifics as I saw necessary. The box remained in it’s perch, under the window sill, until the summer I was 10 and my family moved to Arizona. Arizona is a daunting distance from where your kind-eyed grandfather lives in Kennewick, WA, especially when you are 10. I somewhat melodramatically resigned myself to the fact that what I would save was no longer close, and nothing I could put in a box really mattered. I did, however, place all of my cards, letters and pictures in a “memory box” like a junior hoarder in training, and secretly planned that this was what I would grab through the smoke if needed.

Through the years, I have thought many times what I would save, if I could. What would I risk the few precious moments left of breathing in my home, to rescue.

Now that I am a Mommy, there is no question where my priorities rest. Only which child goes in which set of adult arms, as we race down the stairs and into the front yard. Still, old habits are hard to kill, and I sometimes find myself thinking about what else, hypothetically, I would reach for. And for the record, other people think about this too, I submit the movie Leap Year as evidence #1.

Would I grab my cards and letters still? Or pictures, paintings, and the notebooks I have written all my poems and secrets on the lined pages of? No. I mean, I would like to have those, very much. But when I think of my family being reduced to such circumstances in an instant, I can only stomach the thought of grasping for things that will bring my babies comfort. Favorite stuffed animals and blankets. But even these would have to wait until all five of my children were completely safe, and I probably would not have it in me to leave them to go back for any thing.

We are all refugees, at our most basic components, aren’t we? All moving from place to place, looking for safety, and Home. I see it with the foster children I work with. So many come in with only the clothes on their back, sometimes with even less. They have less than I can think to throw in a box, and have lived through more in their few years than most people will in a lifetime. But they don’t give up. They keep going.

I am always, always, amazed by the resilience of foster children. They are strong, and brave, and full of hope. They cry for the Mothers that beat them, so sure that their parent will change because they love them. They take a stand against eating their vegetables, and over what clothes they wear. They say again and again, this is who I am. They laugh, and joke, and dance to horribly catchy Justin Bieber songs. Foster children know a secret. When you have lost everything, you haven’t.

So, instead of wasting any more of my life planning for fires that will hopefully never exist, I am reminded of what is actually irreplaceable. I don’t need mementos or any sort of souvenirs to cling to. What I have been so generously given will not sit under a window sill, they will barely sit in a time-out. While I will not, I hope that all the intangible things I try to give my children will live forever. That no matter what blazes they encounter in this life, that they will always have what matters, and know it. Because at the end of the day, love is the only thing that is truly fireproof.


The Safety of Strangers

I heard her before I saw her. Well, not her, actually. I heard the dull scraping of the bin she pulled, tethered to her slight waist by a thick black strap. She carried  worn, faded bags over each arm and a purple backpack so full that the top zipper gaped open like the mouth of a toddler around too much of a favored food. She leaned forward as she walked, pressing into the wind, like someone still a long way from their destination on an exhausting journey.

So I smiled. Not because that’s at all how I was feeling. But because a homeless man once told my husband that what he misses most is being seen. That what he longs for more than a home, or his job back, or a warm bath, is for people to look him in the eyes and maybe smile instead of avoiding his gaze. So, I sat there, in my minivan, wishing I could give her a ride, or lessen her burden, or let her know that she’s not maybe as all alone as she might feel. But my daughter was with me, so my desire to alter my course for the afternoon was at a tug-of-war with my social services trainings, reminding me of how often mental illness holds the hand of homelessness. And  I am too careful a Mommy to risk anything happening to my sweet girl.

All those feelings, helplessness at a crossroad, while she was actually entering the crosswalk, to literally cross the road. So I gave her what seemed like a corny, inept, intelligible offering. I arranged my face into my best I-see-you expression, looked her in the eyes, and smiled. The woman held my gaze before smiling back at me. Then she nodded her head towards me, like we were in agreement, or in on something, together. Something in her expression opened, and kept opening, until her whole face was in on the smile.

I am not foolish or optimistic enough to actually believe that my crooked smile or our 30-second encounter was enough. But it was what I had in that moment, and she graciously accepted it and reciprocated it.

My daughter, sitting on the seat behind me, noticed. It led to a great conversation as we continued our errands. It just can’t stop there. Words are too often buckets so full of holes they no longer hold any water.

The truth is, we are all in this together. Even if we ignore the other passengers on this elevator called life- they are there. And we need each other. Someone once said that life is so hard that none of us make it out alive. What if we use the little bit of time we have here to actually live, together?

We all are, at least I am, carrying more than we can bear on our own. Our bags look different and what fill them varies- but they scrape the same. They tether us to the past and make us slower in our pursuit of the future. I didn’t actually do anything to help her load be lighter. But maybe she didn’t feel alone as she walked to wherever she was going.

People have done that for me. People have probably done that for you. I hope that I am raising children who will come alongside others and help them, wherever they are at. Heck, I hope I am becoming that kind of person. I know that we can become a people who see each other and are truly seen by each other. Maybe, just maybe, that starts by refusing to look the other way.

Rearranging The Sun

I read a story by Anne Lamott this morning about a woman who was dying of cancer and yet spent one of her last days arranging and rearranging the bed in the guest room where her sister would be staying so that the sun would fall on her just right. And I think, I have been this blessed. I have people in my life who have dared to move as much of earth as possible to give me moments that feel like heaven.

Against all odds, I find that there is nothing in my life that is lacking. I grew up very poor, at least by American standards. By poor I do not mean that our electronics were the last years model, or that we only vacationed inside of the United States, instead of internationally. I mean, I actually remember standing in line waiting for the big block of government cheese and that until I was old enough to babysit, back to school clothes came from vouchers that were given to us at places like St. Vincent De Paul and The Salvation Army.

I began babysitting at the age of 11, becoming a nanny at the age of 13. I continued working to pay for what I needed, or thought I needed, through high school. In college, I worked two part time jobs and did work study so that I could live on my own. I still struggle to be compassionate towards people whose parents or government have paid for their education and who are not grateful. I find myself wanting to shout that they don’t even know what they have, and wishing that sometimes I could play God and give it to someone more appreciative.

The thing is, as much as I have fought and worked for what I have, I have been given so much more than I deserve.

Yes, I have worked for 2/3 of my life, but what I have to show for it cannot be purchased by the cumulative amount of all my paystubs. Grace has staged quiet interventions on my part, more times than I can count. Woven through my life experiences, I can see the golden glow cast by threads of grace, where the fabric was worn thin. It zigs and zags back and forth, reinforcing and strengthening the whole.

As far back as I can remember there have been people in my life who were unrelated by blood, but that showed me the definition of family. Parents of friends who gave me their time, or ear, or the chance to share in family memories. A friend’s grandmother who taught me to make real lasagna, and paid for me to go roller-skating dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Families who came alongside my family and said, come to the beach with us, no need for money; in whose vans I heard for the first time about the day the music died, and horses with no name. There were people at church that hugged me and believed in me, no matter what I did. People who stepped in to show me that I was worth loving and that life is worth living. People who called me “Sweet Girl”, when I was anything but, with such love and conviction that it made me rise to the challenge, and put some of the hard bitterness I wore around my shoulders down.

Looking back, I see clearly that I have always, in some way or another, had what I needed. And usually, more.

My children are not permitted to say,”No fair!”. We say instead, “I am happy for you.” Whether in that moment it is true, or not, I want them to arrange their hearts for joy. To make so much room for happiness in good things happening, even to other people, that bitterness and jealousy are forced from their clear path onto the rocky places. We talk about this often as a family. That no, baby, life is not fair, and that’s a good thing. Because we almost always come out ahead. I tell them to look at the sun, shining in the sky even though we have done nothing to place it there. We can walk outside and feel it’s warmth, eat the food that it helps to grow, or even ignore it. And still, it shines. Of course, some days, we can’t see it. Some days good people get hurt and bad things happen, and that’s not fair. But mostly, mostly there is grace.

While we cannot force the sun to move or halt in its turning, we can move the bed for each other to make the most of the light. I am so thankful to have lived a life where peopled have rearranged the rooms. So grateful that what remains is warm and bright, where there could only have been shadows.

Lost and Found

Yesterday I could not find my husband. I looked from room to room all around our house, everything was in place. There were signs of him all over, but not him. Finally I headed downstairs, where I noticed the kitchen door was slightly ajar. Walking through it, I found him, sitting in the grass, playing roll the football with our one year old daughter. He was clapping and saying, again and again, “You did it!” To which she responded with her very own brand of dimpled glee and rapid clapping. Her hands, still un-calloused and so small, now come together more often than they miss, with her little clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. She does this. She applauds herself, her victories, with a personal ovation. She catches the ball, or pushes five notes on the piano, or climbs onto the couch without assistance, and applauds. She grins as her hands turn into hummingbird wings, moving so quickly they blur, and she is found. She looks around the room, and does not stop her own clapping until enough of us have joined her. She is not sated until we are all basking in her accomplishment with her. It is not enough to have noticed, we must meet her there, and enjoy what she has done.

She is so fresh to the earth. So new a miracle, that she makes the mundane seem miraculous. It is as if she shares the newness of her eyes with the rest of us, and we are able, just for a minute, to take off our jaded goggles, smudged with ordinary lives and dreams that never came true, and really see again. We are swept away into the tide of her joy. And we clap, with all we have, as if Tinkerbell’s life really did depend upon it. We believe. We do believe. We believe, again.

Standing on the back porch, I am transfixed. I see them, and try as hard as I can to take it all in. Remember this moment, because someday it will be gone. Babies grow up, and husbands grow old. Life has a way of invading with such force that you forget how green the grass is in your own back yard. So I stand there, a human sponge, soaking all I can. They turn and see me, and their eyes light up even more. The dimples deepen, smiles widen, and I swear to you, that if someone could faint from bliss, I would.

I am happy. Truly happy. Not just because my husband is being the father I dreamed he could be, not just because my children are thriving, not just because my marriage is doing better than it ever has. Of course, those things contribute. But I am really happy. On the Candy Land board of life, I am definitely on a plum square. It’s as if every moment of my life has led up to this sweet spot. Yes, I still have five children between 20 months and 10 years. Yes, I still have to clean a ridiculous amount of messes in the same rooms fifty times a day. I have yet to win the lottery, which may be in part because I do not play. I am still overweight, and under paid. And I’m not completely who I set out to be. But I’m happy.

My husband and I laugh together throughout our days. In the mornings, on the phone, in the evenings, and while lying in bed. We laugh. Right now, life feels like an inside joke that we are sharing with each other. Instead of wounding each other with our words, we fire off witty commentary that makes the other clutch their stomach with giggles. The butterflies have returned. I cannot wait to see him. I can feel every part of his skin on mine when we hold hands, again. We are stronger together than we are apart. And we know it.

The sun is shining. It is the first week of March, and it feels like Spring. This winter has been a reprieve from the kind of cold I am use to experiencing. The grass is growing, and my tulips are finding their way, early, through the thawed ground. I hear my children’s voices, I truly see this man who is my husband, my heart swells, and I realize that what I was looking for has finally been found.