Animals Among Us…

Many times in my life, I have been called an animal, or worse, treated as one. This started early, as most things worth forgetting do. It hasn’t stopped, even though I am now 35 years old. There are still the people who seem to get a thrill by putting down others. People who will see you on a beach with your children and proclaim that they didn’t realize they would be whale watching that day, as they look at you with mirth, meanness spilling from their eyes. There are 16 year olds testing out their freedom and first driver’s licenses in their mother’s cars, who yell swear words into your minivan, laced with childish insults and comparisons to farm animals.

There have been so many, that I have lost count. Or maybe, I let go, and chose to fill my hands with something other than petty hurts. If I should keep count, let it be of the things that build and bring hope. How many times my children say they love me in a day, how many hugs can fit in 24 hours, how many smiles you can give to strangers who look like they need one.

Still, I remember some. Like little thorns on an old vine. There isn’t a lot of life left in them, but they are pointed enough to cut if you land on them just right.

There was the boy in fourth grade who stood behind me as I took a drink of water from the hallway fountain, and proclaimed loudly that he didn’t know that whales drink water. It was stupid, but stung all the same. Or the boy that called me a hungry, hungry hippo at lunch in the cafeteria, that same year. I beat him up. Someday I might regret it. Maybe. And maybe not.

But, there is something special about your first, isn’t there? So here it is, the first time I was compared to an animal, at least that I remember.

In first grade I was in love with Joel Johnson. He was shorter than I was, but I knew that our love could weather the trivial storms of height. After all, a difference in height is no match for the magical combination of blue eyes, blond hair, and the denim tuxedo that Joel wore so frequently. That’s right. Joel could pull off wearing a sandy blue jeans button up with sandy blue jeans pants, all anchored with a real leather belt, complete with a large silver belt buckle.

I knew that we were meant to be. I also knew that love requires sacrifice. Which is why I allowed him to flip up my skirt on Friday flip up day, every Friday. It is also why I ate the ants that he offered to all of the girls, and agreed with him that they did, in fact, taste like mint. They didn’t. But I wanted to believe it so badly, that I almost had even myself completely convinced.

I would have done anything to win the love of Joel Johnson. Which is precisely how almost every other girl felt in our small 1st-2nd grade combination class. We thought that this was our chance, the day that Joel invited us all to play with him at recess. Like little pig-tailed lemmings, we followed him to the side of our brick private school, all the way to the very edge of the chain link fence. The air buzzed with excitement. There is nothing more anticipatory than a gaggle of girls during their first groupie experience. We held our breath, and waited for Joel to announce the game.

I leaned against the fence, my too big for my body hand, brushing against the cool metal diamonds of the empty chain link. Which is what I was doing when Joel took off his belt and proclaimed that the game we would be playing was farmer. He was the farmer and we were the cows. He promptly began whipping us all with his belt. Thwack! Thwack!

I looked incredulously around at the other girls, as they took it. They did not run away. They stayed, eyes on Joel, and forced nervous giggles from their innocent mouths. “No!” I yelled, in a voice that even I did not recognize. It stunned Joel long enough that I could wrangle his stupid leather belt out of his mean little fist, after he had only landed two blows on my body with it.

My hand raised and lowered with speed and indignation, Crack! That belt hit little Joel so hard that I heard the sting. He cried and cried, telling the staff at recess all about how he had been mistreated. But in the end, it turned out that no adult had seen my transgression, and Joel was the one sent to the Principal’s office. The principal, who winked at me later and told me that no boy that would hurt a girl is worth liking. I agreed.

I forgot that for a while in high school, but I have since remembered. They say that elephants never forget. I wouldn’t know about that, as I am not one. No matter how many hurting people have told me so. I am not the animal they said I am.


How It Went

Yesterday was my birthday. And, while I am slowly snowballing years until I get old, it still excites me. I don’t mean in a cool way, like, yeah, it’s my day. I mean like a five year old the night before Christmas, I can’t sleep, oh my gosh, it’s coming! Yep, exactly that nerdy. But still, it’s true.

So it finally arrived yesterday, filled with promise. The sun was shining, which for a Pacific Northwest day in February, was almost miraculous. It was beautiful. The sky was a poetic shade of blue. Something I have never seen on my birthday in all my past 34 years.

I started the day with lots of hugs and cuddles from the five sweet little (to me) babies that call me Mommy. Is there really a better way? My sister bought me breakfast and a coffee that I couldn’t make if I tried. Then I spent the next few hours cleaning my house. That part was a little trickier, and took lots of reminding myself that I am grateful for both our home and the little and big mess-makers with whom I share it.

I set the table formally, with all things breakable, and the new set of cloth napkins that I had purchased last weekend. See, I know how to party. Ahem. Anyway, my spirits were buoyed by the fresh flowers that I had placed all around the dining an living rooms. I love fresh flowers, they are one of my very favorite of things. I feel like they bring life and Spring into a home. If you have a table with a nice tablecloth and fresh flowers, I feel like it proves that life is beautiful and good, and that you are blessed enough to have someone to enjoy it with you, probably.

By then it was time to go pick up my oldest 3 kids. My mother had joined me, so off we went. Then it was errands, which were blissfully filled with interrupting phone calls from some of the people I most love, singing off key, just because they love me. It’s a sound I wouldn’t trade for the world’s best symphony.

But somewhere between Costco and the bank, my children lost their minds. Suddenly the back two rows of my minivan, where like the last day of Burning Man. It was all tantrums and yelling, with lots of I Want Juice! There was licking each other on the cheek, and pleas for personal space. Then came the hitting. I was a nanny and a preschool teacher before the last decade of working with foster children. If there is one thing my children know, it’s that hands are not for hurting. (And also that I love them. I sincerely hope.)

Still we pressed on, towards a purchased cheesecake and The Good Dinosaur BluRay. Then home where I made a feast of a dinner. To say that it didn’t go exactly as I planned from there, well that is definitely an understatement. But still, we are a hearty people, and now the party had grown to my best friend and her three kids, by the time my husband was home. We soldiered on. Which, in hindsight, is not being dramatic. An eight child war was raged against my clean house, as Mother Nature made a visit to ensure my emotions were an equally large mess.

By the time that I turned off the kids movie, and not so subtly let everyone know that it was time to leave, my shaking voice had already let them know that the party was, indeed, over. After an hour plus of setting things to rights, I went to bed angry, refusing to voice my frustration and hurt.

It wasn’t what I wanted, and certainly not what I had planned. But mostly because I quit being grateful during the riot in my minivan. I was Veruca Salt, at 35, and let me tell you, she hasn’t aged well. I was so focused on soldiering on that I forgot that so much of my strength is in my softness as a mom. A birthday is not something that we have to get done. It is something to celebrate with the people you love.

I see that now, from my one day wiser vantage. And I see all the little things that went better than I thought. How my friend brought over flowers and an amazing, keep it till you die because of what it says, card. How she left them like a treasure for me to find. How even today another friend stopped by. Dropping off gifts, and showing how well she knows me. I am surrounded by the finest humans I can imagine. I have friends and acquaintances that generously welcome me. All of me, not just the nice bits, or the parts of me I want them to see. I am shown everyday another example of how to love properly, and reminded that people are worth loving.

And while I someday might win the lottery, buy a different house, and hire a fulltime housekeeper, that’s just not my reality. Also, I don’t play, which makes winning more unlikely. But for now, this is it. My lot in life. And I have to say, it looks pretty good, in this light.


By The Time That You Read This…

Dear Family and Friends, and hey, even Strangers,

By the time that you read this, it will be too late. I will have already turned 35 years old. Some things that I had carried with me to this point, will not have made it another day with me. They will have been unloaded, like a too heavy semi at a weighing point, the parts of the cargo deemed unimportant, and ultimately left behind.

You see, I have been carrying a load for as long as I can remember, that was never entirely mine to carry. My posture has suffered, and so has my spirit, from dragging things like fear and shame around with me. Those things might be free, but they have cost me plenty. I have worn the disapproval of strangers like it was the name stitched on the back of my lifetimes letterman jacket, no matter what I actually tried to letter in.

I know it sounds sudden, but it’s been building in me, for years, if not decades. Weren’t we all born to be free? Didn’t I take my first big, gasping breath out in the open, before being placed on my mother’s chest?  Isn’t the song of birthing ultimately a song of rejoicing?

I know that I was tested, and compared to a standard, within the first few hours that I inhaled air on this earth. But there was more, wasn’t there? I mean, I was more. Not more than anyone else, just more than all the paperwork my parents signed actually said. I was somebody’s daughter, and a younger sister. The newest grandchild, at least for a while. A great granddaughter to someone entirely wonderful.

Doesn’t every new birth cause a little earthquake? Don’t we all take our turn making this planet shake, just a little?

We are all connected. You and I. We are connected by heart, if not by the color of our skin or eyes. We are all a part of something so much bigger than we know, something that needs us to have the courage to keep going. I knew that once. And then I forgot. But then, I had all of these children, who are helping me remember. I may be losing my mind most days, but I’m actually finding  what is really important. And true. And good.

No man is born to be  a slave. It is no one’s destiny to end up in chains. We aren’t meant to live in cages, or behind a chain link fence. I knew that, but still let hurt people tell me who I am. Even doctors diagnose illnesses not people. But I took so many words to heart, that were only meant to wound and undo me. And they kind of did. But I still let them come with me.

The thing about getting older is, that life gives you a metaphorical sewing machine, and you can stitch yourself back together again. You can rip out the seams that don’t suit you right now, and take in the ones that never did. You can add pockets big enough to warm your hands, or decide on a new set of buttons, or zippers. Because nothing sounds like closure better than a new zipper.

My dress form is bigger than I want it to be, that’s pretty obvious, but I’m still me. Except, I might be half done already. My family is not big on walking around this planet for much more than 68-70 years. And I’m okay with that, as long as I make my few decades really matter.

But letting others opinions dictate my actions, yeah, I’m done with that. I no longer have time to sit and stew, I am not a tomato, I am a human. I don’t have days to waste being angry at you, or my husband, or your mom’s elderly neighbor. I don’t have time to fall at politicians feet, or hair long enough to wash them with, not to mention I’ve never owned perfume expensive enough to be kept in alabaster boxes. While I’m sure that the housewives of every county are indeed entertaining, I have something else to do with the time that I have been given. I don’t have time to worry that you will reject me for being myself, or that you are being too nice, and don’t mean the sweet things that you say. I can’t give up time with my babies to focus on how badly other people drive around me. Or waste the sweet, sacred air of their one, brief childhood, festering on how I wish others would do things. I can’t, and I won’t.

Not anymore. I did, but that was before. See, I was younger then, and didn’t know, or remember, what I realized today. So. Regrets, you’ll forgive me, but you are a little too late. The cutoff for embarrassment was yesterday.

By the time anyone reads this, I’ll be 35. I’ll be living in the present, and finally allowing myself to enjoy my life.


A Song Worth Singing…

It is Saturday, which feels like a decadent thing to say, but it’s true. It is Saturday. Which means that my husband is still sleeping, three of my daughters are downstairs cuddled up together under a blanket, watching cartoons, my son is whispering too loudly as he plays by himself in his room, and my two year old has not yet woken. It is bliss, this quiet before the storm. It feels like surely there must be peace on earth. And there is, at least in my little corner.

A bird is singing a tentative song, from the tree just north of my bedroom window. The sky is hazy, a pastel water colored painting, silently waiting for hands more skilled than my own to make happen. It is the kind of morning that promises things. For the first time in weeks, I feel likely to believe them.

As if on cue, the sun has just made its way, all shoulders and excuse me’s through the crowd that had gathered, until finally finding its way to the front. My gauzy white curtains glow the lightest shade of yellow, diffusing the light, just a little, until every gray shadow of my room has turned to butter.

The  indecisive sky outside has seemed to finally make up its mind, turning from blueish gray/grayish blue to blue. I am thinking of my little baby, now two, but definitely still my baby. This child who cannot fall asleep until you have given her your voice in song. How many times have I stood by her crib, and sang to her as she battled against sleep, before finally succumbing to its victory? Footie pajamas are not adequate armor, after all.

She calls out requests, no that’s not true, she calls out demands, of what the next song will be. And we stand there, taking turns, but mostly me, singing like a human jukebox on a small town Friday night. Row Your Boat is still her favorite. She surely loves that song more than anyone has loved that song in years, maybe ever. It was the first thing that she ever sang, and she’s been filling our house with it ever since. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, ba-boat…, me, me, me, hmmm, mmm, meme!”  She yells from the confines of her cherry wood sleigh shaped bed, “Whoa boat!” she says, again and again.

Then, when we are ready to walk away, she pleads in a pitiful voice for “Sushight.” And I begin. Sunshine is more than just her middle name, it feels also like it is her birthright. This child who surprised me, when I was sure that I was done. This child who continues to teach me about what it means to love. You make me happy, when skies turn gray…. and then the part that just kills me, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you…. Because, won’t she?

Won’t she someday look down at the baby sleeping in her own arms, and be broken completely by how much a human can love? Won’t she watch her finest things be shattered, family heirlooms lying in pieces on a hardwood floor, and look up, thinking only of protecting the heart of the child that disobeyed and broke them? Before that, won’t she one day try to untangle the mass of teenage emotions, and still see her true reflection in my eyes? Will she ever know how much she matters, both in this life, and to her Mommy?

I have eighteen years, now less than sixteen, to prepare her to leave me. That doesn’t seem like enough time to show someone that they are both loved and lovely. Not when there is so much trying to get in the way, all the dinners to cook, and a house that seems to unravel by the hour. When there are groceries and school supplies, and so much clothes, always needing me to buy them. But it has to be.

There has to be kindness, and sacrifices on my part. There has to be singing, and teaching, and praising. There has to be grace, and patience beyond reason. Communication, understanding, and so much holding. There has to be listening, and discipline, and cooking. The hard things must be done to the best of my ability. When it’s easier to leave, there must be staying.  There has to be an abundance of love.

Now, freshly waking, she calls to me. “Hi Mama,” she says, dimples flashing. And, while it doesn’t change the color of my curtains, her smile changes everything. “Hi, baby,” I say, thankful that I don’t have to go anywhere else today. My only plans are to love my family, because, today is Saturday.

This Thing That We’re Building…

“It is the flag,” she says, “of love. And peace.” She wants us to hang it in our room. I can’t help but notice that the background is white, which is not an anomaly, the flag is made from paper towels. But still, white, the color of surrender.

It breaks me, but not just me, him, too. Though we had already poured our wounded selves back into the community pool. Our broken bits, bobbing along our marriage’s otherwise pristine surface. Some things coming up again and again, not that we mean them to, they just do. These small jagged glass hurts, have the tenacity of pool noodles. Or Cheerios, those things stay at the surface forever. One minute we’re laughing, or kissing even, then sarcasm spills out, just a drop. It strikes us both, pressure points on our chests, and we are fumbling, a little, once again.

It is anxious making, this crossroad of hurt. Do we need to unpack everything we’ve been carrying around? Even though we’ve both apologized and asked for forgiveness? Do we have to talk it all out, and could we?

We stand at the base of what feels like a mountain, daring ourselves to be the first to start climbing. We need each other, that much is certain. Our strengths are different, and our weaknesses, too.  There are things that I didn’t know to bring, things that act as our crampons, and help us not slip, where he naturally knows exactly what to do. He, of course, needs my supplies, too. It takes a team, doesn’t it, to climb anything this big? Marriage, like Everest, is not for those without courage.

Still, both of us are here, in the proverbial pool. Swimming only with each other. We have spent the last two days wading, from our shallowest points, to deeper things. Ones that can actually make us more buoyant. We, who are hurting, we, who are trying to be forgiving. We were sitting drinking coffee, suspended by light conversation, and the dizzying freedom of a Saturday with no scheduled obligations.

Then she walked in. Our seven year old daughter, who is so full of light. She makes everything better, she is just so sweet and good. She is kind, nurturing, and bright. She has the saddest eyes, inherited from my great-grandmother and aunt Ellie, both of whom she also shares her name. When she walks, she barely touches the ground, as if she allows gravity to only just touch her. She is filled with love and deep laughter, a sound that constantly pours from her mouth. In a few years, she’ll have braces to fix things that I love. Like the way her smile is lilting, and goes up on one side, something she never noticed until the dentist told her about it. (And yes, I cried.)

She is perfectly lovely, and she stood there, just now. Reminding us both that more than our hearts are on the line. We have loved so much, and in return been given so much more than ourselves to love.

For the most part, we have such a happy home. If walls could speak, sometimes I think ours would break into song. We have music and dancing, chaos and wonder. Stories and surprises, chores and ridiculous amounts of laughter. So much of the time, I think we have it all. Not everything, materially, of which I dream, but more than enough. And certainly more than just things.

We are trying so hard to build something that won’t break. Something lasting and sure, a foundation that will never crack. Our legacy, it seems, is one of redemption. Which means there is joy in the midst of healing,  but also, that we so often are in need of redeeming. Our marriage can be exhausting, but even more so exhilarating. It is so much bigger than just him and I. And I think that the dark times are what make us appreciate the light. Even when we are sitting in our self-made muck, there is growth and changing, and refining that happens. Without these adult growing pains, we would never reach our full height. He knows this, and so do I.

So we try and we try, and we try again. We wipe the mud off our fingers and grab each others hand. We are tender and loving, and scrub at the slate, trying to wipe off it’s markings, and anger, and pain. While our house rings with laughter, it echoes with truth. Marriage is hard, but so worth it, at least, that’s the case for us.

We try to fill in each crack with patience and trust. We paint the walls in our favorite shades of kindness. We decorate with hope, the only shelf sturdy enough to hold all of our stuff. And, yes, we’ll put a flag out on our front porch. One that stands for peace and love. Its white background telling all who pass by, what we’re learning.  That, at this house, our strength is in surrender.

Brittle Bones

For years he has chased me, up the stairs, swatting my backside. “Brittle bones!”, I yell, while laughing. “Brittle bones and scar tissue!” The scar tissue is a reference to my youth full of spankings. Many of which I forced myself to laugh through, and not cry, my own cackling rebellion. It doesn’t hurt, not really, his playful smackings. But still, I yell it, and we collapse with laughter.

Only, sometimes, things don’t feel as funny. Sometimes there is a sting with loving.

I love this man. I have born his five children. I still notice the way that he walks into a room. Confidently, he strides, long legs and arms sure, and claiming. I know what he likes and doesn’t, and I try, don’t laugh, to be accommodating.

But sometimes, life happens and gets in the way. No, that’s not really true. Sometimes, life happens, and I put things in the way. I clutter the spaces between us, like they were my teenaged room. Throwing things from my ammunition closet, over my shoulder, not really even looking at him. They land, they always land, so heavily.

Mismatched messes of my selfish desires lay strewn at his feet. They lie, tangled with my pride, and unforgivenesses that I thought I had long ago put away. Usually, he does the same.

Sometimes one of us can stay totally calm, and love the other enough to be the lighthouse for them. Shining brightly, illuminating their way back home, safely, no matter how choppy the waves of their self-darkened waters. I swear, in those moments, our love is a thing, like the Grinch, its heart swelling too big to fit in just one chest.

In marriage, it seems, there is always so much back and forthing. Sometimes I think that my wedding registry should have included Dramamine.

Eventually, the sun makes its way, shining impossibly through all our darkness. We find ourselves bruised, like too-ripe fruit. And still scramble, to reach out, and start, again.

This business of loving can be so hard. Sure, the falling was easy, but sometimes the getting back up is tough. I have so many reasons to stay and not leave. So much more to be grateful than angry for. I know this. I know that the brightness of days in my marriage shine twice as long as even the darkest night. I hear it, I feel it, and believe me, I’ve seen it. It’s just that sometimes, I feel more brittle than strong. Sometimes apologies don’t come. Sometimes anger races on lithe, strong legs, zipping past forgiveness as it staggers along.

But it does come, doesn’t it? Forgiveness, I mean. It knocks at the door, where we have said the meanest of things. It waits, patiently, to be let in. Its hands never nervously wringing, but they aren’t empty either. Forgiveness it seems, always brings their friends. Hope and Grace, always seem to come right on in, silently emptying our scared what-ifs from the halls. Airing out our home, like sacred spring cleaning, until we ourselves are reborn.

So maybe that’s how love really is. Maybe it is newly born on Wednesday, small deaths on Saturday, and resurrection on Tuesday. Maybe love is more shatter proof than I thought all along. Maybe love takes brittle bones  and makes them strong.

Speaking Mandarin

My children are obsessed with mandarin oranges. I buy them by the bagful, five pounds at a time, every week. Sometimes, two bags. The kind, questioning clerks at Trader Joes are always remarking at how much fruit my cart holds. “Do you make a lot of smoothies?”, “Wow, 36 bananas!”, “Somebody loves these little oranges as much as I do..!”, and other well-intentioned commentary. “I, I just have five kids,” I stammer weekly, “I want them to eat things that are healthy.”

She brings me one now, this four year old girl. She has the biggest, Disney princess eyes, and feelings that are so easily hurt. She smiles her sweetest smile, she has more charm in her so far short life, than I will ever accumulate in the entirety of mine. “I’m hungry, Mommy, will you peel my ohyange?” I set my book down, and say of course. She is waiting, trusting, watching me.

I cannot help but think that this time is too brief. This window that opens, will all too soon close. And I will no longer be needed to do little chores.

I am peeling her snack, careful and slow. She likes the peel to come off in one piece. She has always been particular. Her bananas have to be peeled only half way, with three equal strips of peel left hanging.  Oatmeal cannot be made with just water, she needs half and half pooling on the top, in just the right amount, so that she can stir it in. Frozen asparagus will not do, she likes it to be cooked with lemon the same day we buy it at the farmer’s market.

She is four, and lovely, and knows her own mind. And instead of being irritated, I really like it. How beautiful is it to know your place, and to go for what you want for a change?

It would be easier if she was not so specific. Or if her sisters and brother were not either. But this way, I feel like I’m earning it. To be trusted with how people best like there food, for them to look to you to know what they think is good? I can’t think of many things I’d rather do. I mean, cooking 6 nights a week isn’t always my favorite thing, but being the one who is always there, who knows what to do to make sure they know that I care? Yeah, that’s pretty good.

So, I do it, carefully. I unwrap each orange, so many that on Saturdays my fingers are stained like Cheetos puffs, but worn. I hope that they remember, not about all of the fruit, but that I was trustworthy with what they placed in my hands. I hope that when the time comes, that they trust me with their secrets. That when darkness and rebellion seem cooler than their mom, that they come to me with the things that they hold in their hearts. That I will be patient at peeling back the layers, and still kind enough to remember what makes them feel happy, and whole, and safe. That I will still have the energy to bend my parenting to each of my children’s shape. That I will look past the stains that loving them leaves on me, and will do what is best for them every day.

“Here you go, sweetheart.” As I hand her the orange. She thanks me and offers to take the peel to the garbage. That’s okay, I tell her, Mommy will take care of it. And I mean it.