Thursday, December 31, 2009
In celebration of resolutions and all things new at the first of the year:
Pregnancy for me was serious business. When I found out a baby was on the way I read the books, consulted the oracle on the world wide web, sifting through the advice and stopped standing in front of the microwave while waiting for frozen burritos. No army of scientists was going to sway my position that standing with your belly facing a box of radiation was a bad idea. The realization that I was subjecting another life to the substance of my everyday was sobering, with the glaring exception made for Hostess Ding-Dongs, their tidy foil-wrappers and consistent chocolate plasticity assuaged some unknown fear.
Hauling another person through every conversation and routine event gave me pause. And it made me realize that I wanted to be a person who laughs. Often. Genuinely. And so I resolved to be a person of light-heart. Resolution eventually gave way to habit as I looked for the places and moments where I was free to giggle. And the more I giggled, the more people expected me to, stopping by my cubicle for the permission to see the world new. And there was momentum. And a steadier pulse. And more sunshine.
I was reminded of this on Saturday as I was squeezed into Row 19 with my three children en route to Grandma’s. Getting everyone out the door with toothbrushes and underpants had left me with a stern face and what appeared to be an irrevocably creased brow. Without any context, that same baby, now wise with her four-and-a-half years turned to me and said, “When I laugh a lot it tickles me heart.”
I turned and looked at her. Really looked. And a small crack in the mean mommy plaster on my face began to zig and zag towards my ear. “I think she means it literally.” I thought. And why not. Hadn’t that been what I was hoping for while she incubated, tagging along for the better part of a year- fingers, toes and neural pathways forming in that protected place? Hadn’t I intended to tickle her newly beating heart with fresh blood and peaceful vibes? Hadn’t I purposed to establish laughter as a familiar and faithful companion?
I closed my eyes a moment and asked for the grace to wiggle out from under the weight of the non-essentials I had heaped into my pack. I poked her playfully in the side, two ribs below her armpit. She threw her head back as a loud laugh rushed out, calling one from my soul as companion. These are the gifts we give each other. Drawn from a deep well. Over lunch. In the car. Behind the curtain of blankets that transform the dining room table into a secret hide-out. Little giggles. Bits of snow loosened from the mountain top, spilling, gaining speed and sound, hoping for an avalanche where all are swept away.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
My mom would say that I was born with an insatiable desire for authority. It is indeed plausible that I came from the womb giving out instructions, which were falsely interpreted as the sweet sounds of a mad baby. And, in retrospect, I can see now that Sarah committed herself to the same course before she took her first breath. The night before she was born I had a dream that the baby was a girl (we had chosen to be surprised) and that as we sat around the hospital room, debating names, the ‘baby’ walked in. Although I was confused as to how she was already an adolescent and we hadn’t even been discharged, I gathered my bearing and told her that we had chosen her name. She replied, “I already have a name. Can I have the keys?” What I have now come to interpret as a prophetic vision was dismissed as a funny dream resulting from a cocktail of pregnancy hormones and the magical combination of trans fats and sugar made with love by the folks from Hostess. It seemed silly. Then we got to know our child.
Recently she was bossing her brother up and down the hall and I felt the need to intervene. “Sarah, why are you talking to your brother that way?” I asked, bent nose-to-nose, proximity accentuating my point. She leaned in, and unflinchingly answered without pause.
“Because I want to be the mom. I want to drive and I want to be the boss.”
She is a woman obsessed, her eyes fixed with razor sharp focus on adulthood and all the marvelous powers it appears to hold. Not a day goes by where she doesn’t inform me of something she plans to do when she is a ‘grown up’. And this obsession cannot be credited to a passing developmental stage. She was barely two when she looked up from her dinner one night to inform us that when she was sixteen she planned to move to Seattle, live with uncle Peter, and “never come back.” My mom loves this aspect of Sarah’s personality, reveling in the sweet path of fate that bent its course the day I informed her that I would not be missing my family or sending any letters from fifth grade camp.
To further prove the point, there was a long stretch of time where Sarah was convinced she would grow into a mermaid. She would practice her siren’s song, ankles pressed together and imaginary tail fin flicking the air. On more that one occasion, other mothers asked Miss Patti, our childcare provider, if ‘that little girl convulsing in the shade’ needed help. Even the mermaid dream culminated in her departure from us. “When I grow up, and I am a mermaid, will you carry me to the sea?” We promised we would. And so from her birth she has been leaving us.
In her focused gaze I see The Garden and feel the pain of God looking at his children, smacking their lips with the desire of power and greener grass. I understand the parental perspective to ‘Go slow’ and ‘Choose wisely’. But since Sarah and I share a prideful appetite for control with all of the fallen creation I also understand the fire in her eyes. It’s the fire I myself stoke with the combustible oxygen of tasks and people that ‘need me’. Our place in community is indeed oxygen. God did make us for communal life. But first he made us for himself- for a rich and righteous relationship with our Heavenly Father. A relationship where we crawl onto his lap, call him Abba and rest, with no concern for all of the things we vainly strain to control.
Today at lunch Moses turned to me unprovoked and said, “Mom, you’re not the boss.” I told him indeed I was. And it was a lie. Whether or not I remember in any given moment, it is still a lie. And the corresponding truth is one I should commit to live by and teach my children to covet: that we are not in control. And have no need to be. For we rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Psalm 91:1
Monday, December 7, 2009
We all want to know where we stand. It is an ancient human need. Our souls are bound to our bodies and the spiritual realities are wrapped up in the temporal, physical ones. We feel both the hints of eternity and the ache of death in our bones. And so we are driven to anchor ourselves to something solid. We have names. Our first name describes us. Our last name links us to our family and the generations that lead the way like a long afternoon shadow, the setting sun at our back. We have an address where correspondence can find us in cities or towns with postal codes. The concentric circles of county, state, nation and continent build from the center where we eat and sleep and grow. A social security number verifies that we exist in the system. A phone number, uniquely ours, allows others to find us and give us information. There is a certificate of birth, placing our arrival specifically (day, hour, and minute) in the continuum of time- that significant day each year celebrated, giving numerical value to the breaths we take. We want to know where we are.
My son was born in Ethiopia on an unknown day about three years ago. His adoption precipitated the printing of a birth certificate. A birthday was assigned based on his height and weight and the number of teeth he had. If he was going to become American, his birth, significant already in the eyes of God and his family, would need the augmentation of date and time.
The power of place and our hunger for it was reaffirmed the other day when Moses brought me the globe. I had been riding the stationary bike in the playroom while he contentedly exercised his imagination building a train track. He spotted the globe, tipped on its side behind a chair, forsaken in the haste of a different day. He brought it to me. “Show my ‘opia,’” he asked.
“O.k. First we have to find the continent of Africa,” I said in my teacher voice, looking to assess his level of interest. “Africa is a continent made up of all these countries here. Can you see the shape it makes? Once you find Africa, you can look for Ethiopia on this side. See how it is right inside Somalia’s sharp elbow over here? Ethiopia is pink on this globe, so you can find Africa, look for the pointy elbow and the pink one.”
He was captivated, tenderly hugging the globe to his side, keeping a finger on Ethiopia as he found a spot on the carpet to sit and inspect. He sat there a long time, spinning the globe and letting his finger drag across its latitude. In the process he misplaced Ethiopia and asked again. From across the room I coached him back to the place he was looking for. Once again satisfied, he returned his attention to mapping.
And I returned to riding the bike, the prayer I had been praying abandoned for a prayer of place. I asked God to give my son deep roots, here and there. Asked that he would feel his home deeply in his heart and carry the contentedness of place within his chest. I asked also that my son would himself know God and the rich reality of a heavenly home, the promise of which would anchor him in moments when he, like all men, feels alien on this soil.
“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8
Thursday, December 3, 2009
In the bewitching space between afternoon nap and dinner, when all is tears and whining, we turn to Michael Franti. His catchy little ditty, Say Hey, is JoJo’s favorite song. At the sound of the intro, she will immediately stop crying, pull the two fingers she sucks on from their pitiful perch between her lips and start waving her arms as if to fly away. And it works every time. In fact, it works so well, that I think is has instigated a communal Pavlovian response. We all stop what we are doing and shake it.
Happy baby noises instigate a venerable avalanche of giggly fun. And the endorphins fly. That song is our family’s reset button. And with three little kids and a grouchy mom, by four o’clock the family dynamic inevitably requires a “control-alt-delete” intervention.
This daily ritual has made me appreciate the power of music, and renewed my admiration for the place of Psalms in the Bible. Psalms takes up a big chuck of the biblical real estate, and for good reason. It is good for us to sing. Songs of praise. Sad songs. Songs that remind us of our shared history. And songs that make us jump up and down and start the day over.
“Again! Again!” The big kids shout.
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” Psalm 28:7
Sunday, November 29, 2009
This summer I was captivated by a story of reconciliation projects in Rwanda. Fifteen years after the genocide where a million people were killed by their neighbors in a hundred days, a woman rides on the back of a bicycle pedaled by the man who slay her father and brothers. They travel together facilitating forgiveness. They ask both murderer and victim, in the name of Christ, to do the difficult work of letting go, of putting down the burden of what cannot be undone.
My heart was moved as I attempted in vain to understand both the horror of the genocide and the miracle of mercy. I thought, as all mothers think, of my own children. I thought of their precious lives and shuddered at the stories of what these mothers, on the other side of the globe, had lost; what had been forcibly taken from them and what they had witnessed. My heart squeezed tightly in my chest and the tears came.
As an act of solidarity with these other mothers I committed to selling their baskets through the Rwanda Basket Company. Selling their handmade works of art in the States means that these other mothers can earn a fair wage and feed their children. Reconciliation is the work of God, but I could do this small thing. And so the baskets began arriving with the afternoon mail. I sorted and delivered them to those who had placed orders without giving much thought to how, if at all, this little project was affecting my children. Of course they hover when baskets arrive and go with me to drop them off and understand that silence is required when I talk on the phone for business (as opposed to when I talk to Grandma and they are free to pull on my pants with endless requests for cheese).
But yesterday I took Sarah with me to a basket party. I knew a playmate would be there and she gladly agreed to a grown-up event and some car time alone with mom. At these gatherings, I show a short video. It briefly reviews the reality of the genocide with a few difficult photos. I watched Sarah as she watched the video. She nibbled her fourth cookie and judging by the lack of expression on her face I assumed she did not understand what she was looking at or what was being discussed. As soon as we were back in the car she spoke. “I want to travel to every country but Rwanda,” she said. So she had been listening.
“Why don’t you want to go to Rwanda, Sarah?” I asked, praying for the words to assuage fear, engender respect, and explain what had happened in a way that is appropriate for a four year old.
“There are too many bones.” She replied. “I’ll trip.”
Her words stabbed and I whispered a prayer for those brave other mothers, walking towards God and wholeness, crossing a valley full of bones.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
This morning my son headed for the car with his blankie in tow. I am forever having to check pockets and administer lie-detector tests to make sure my little darlings are not taking contraband to preschool under the disguise of “sharing items”.
“Moses, that is your blankie. Your blankie is for naptime, not school.”
“No, Mama, I am bringing it for sharing.”
Hmmm. Heard that one before.
“Ok, buddy, but it stays in your backpack until sharing time. Do you understand?”
“But I will snuggle it in the car.”
Score: Moses, 2. Mom, 0.
In support of the preschool teachers, I try to ask questions about a sharing item’s significance, helping my kiddos clarify why they have chosen a particular item to share. This also functions as a good litmus test for a sharing item’s worth. It has successfully ruled out everything from Barbie to Halloween candy. However, Sarah has become skilled in argumentation and anticipating the rebuttal. “This teeny, tiny scrap of paper is significant to me, Mom, because…” or “It is really important for me to share this necklace you don’t let me wear to school because…”
So as we drove, Moses snuggling with that soft, embossed, powder blue square edged in satin. I asked him what about his special blankie he was planning to share. I reminded him that I brought that blanket to him when we first met in Ethiopia. I told him about how I would spread it across my chest and he would bury his head as I fed him Cheerios and sang quietly in his ear. Those first memories of our time together are bittersweet. He was so scared. He had looked frantic, shoved into my arms as we loaded a bus to travel across town to the Embassy. He did not know me. But he had no choice but to come along. And so he snuggled. And ate. And listened. And eventually slept, his brain overwhelmed by stress. In the retelling today, I only shared that we had snuggled and sang and ate Cheerios.
“Let’s do that again!” He said.
And there is was before me again. God incarnate. Making sweet memory out of pain and loss. Recovering what only He can recover. Mending what only He can mend. Walking my sweet, brave son through the valley while he was sleeping. And bringing significance to the vestiges of our daily life.
“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.” Psalm 130: 7
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The city that I grew up in had an undisputedly amazing toy store. It might as well have been a hundred stories high and just as wide. To walk in the front door was to be transported. Kites hung from the ceiling. Color and the smell of imagination and plastic overwhelmed. And in the back there was a glass room filled with dolls which held captive the hopes and dreams of elementary school girls across town. As days ticked slowly towards my birthday, my mom took me to look at the dolls. We both knew why we were there, although I don’t think either of us spoke of it. I poured over the frilly-dressed choices, tasting the excitement I expected on the big day. I would open the signature shiny red box to find the doll of my dreams. I chose carefully, as if all of life hung on this one moment, which of course it did. All I remember of the doll I chose was that she had soft skin and I eagerly anticipated snuggling her close in my bed and whispering all my secrets.
My birthday did bring the shiny red box. But inside there was a different doll. Her head, arms and legs were made of hard plastic. She didn’t seem very squeezable or interested in secrets. I was heart-broken and I think I said so. Now as a parent I wonder at the details of story. Had I chosen a very expensive doll? Was it out-of-stock? Maybe. Or maybe when my mom and dad returned to make the purchase they decided on one that was better. My parents have a history of giving amazing gifts, half of which don’t really seem that cool in the moment. Growing up most of the things they chose weren’t highlighted in Saturday morning commercials. They weren’t on the Christmas lists of my friends. They didn’t come with batteries.
I named the doll Sarah and took her out to the playhouse so we could get acquainted. Turned out she could keep a secret and was just the right size for wearing my own baby clothes. She was a faithful friend in childhood, waited out my adolescence and took seriously her job as night sentry in the doll-sized rocker my parents hauled up to celebrate the birth of our firstborn. Just the other day I saw my second daughter chewing happily on baby doll Sarah’s plastic face, and I smiled. It is good that I don’t always get what I want. It is good that my heavenly father knows what I need.
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You parents- if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a snake? Or course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” Matthew 7:7-11
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The Day You Were Born
In the earthen quiet of the tokule
God looked down in anticipation
His beautiful creation
Every hair known
Every day ordained
The quiet broken
By the sound of effort
And then a cry
As air filled your lungs
For the first time
And heaven cheered
Trumpets and dancing
Thanks and praises
Dignified chin raised to the sky
Beautiful son of Sidama
Then furrows His brow
Knowing you will journey so young
Knowing He made you ready
Gave you the gifts you would need
And set a guard over your life
First father sees your spirit
Names you Asregidew
A quiet gasp of love
Snuggles you close
To sleep your first sleep
The day you were born
Across the stars
A tugging in my heart
For a child
A spiritual seed
A course set
Towards each other
Through the brokenness of this world
To a birth of love
A second chance
A fusing of hearts
An introduction of souls
A grafting of the tree
By the master gardener
The healing touch
Of the great physician
Thanks and praises
For a son.
Monday, November 9, 2009
You are special to me.
You are special to me.
I can’t even tell you how much I love you.
You are special to me.
You are special to me.
I am so glad you are my kid.
When Moses was first adopted, we would spend long stretches of time in the rocking chair. I would sing and he would snuggle against my chest, tugging at the collar on my shirt until enough skin was exposed for him to rest his face. I would sing my favorites: The Lord is My Shepard; Amazing Grace; Just a Closer Walk With Thee; Children of the Heavenly Father; and the little tune we had learned from Patti. It was a deeply important time for both of us. He was internally processing deep loss and learning to trust. I was holding him close, by the grace of God filling the empty space carved by adoption in both of our souls, with love. We rocked before nap. We rocked before bed. We rocked whenever we needed to.
After awhile Moses allowed Jason to rock him as well and they developed their own repertoire of songs. Many nights I would go in after an hour to find father and son asleep in the chair. Warmth and time and song afforded sacred space for bonding.
The big kids and I like to tell secrets. We take turns whispering in each other’s ear. Sarah has lately been whispering silly things to her brother like, “I am made out of buttons.” They both start laughing, as if the joke were actually new, and then it is my turn. Moses will lean in and tell me in his sweet voice, “I’m special to you. I’m special to you.” Those aren’t the words to the song, but I don’t correct him.
His choice of words is a glimpse, for me, into the relationship with my Heavenly Father for which I was made. He found me. Rocked me. Sang to me of his love while my souls healed. And, like any good parent, doesn’t mind when the song of my heart is a testimony of His love. The most important thing is not that I love him. What is important is that he first loved me.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent this Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10
Friday, November 6, 2009
There may not have ever been a soul more fiercely loyal to his family than the one that lives in the body of my young son. As I stuttered and sputtered trying to get my family out the door and to the emergency room where Sarah would become the lucky winner of six stitches Moses stood frozen in his underpants, keeping watch over his big sis. She was lying on the floor in the kitchen holding ice to her chin and forceful directives to, “Go and find some pants, Young Man” could not move him from her side. Finally I got the pants myself and had to carry him, kicking, to the van.
“Sarah’s hurt. Sarah’s hurt.”
“I know, buddy. We are trying to take her to the doctor and you need to get on my team. Seriously, buckle your belt. I will be right back.”
In the waiting room he kept watch, letting me know every time an ice cube fell to the floor. And when Jason came to retrieve Moses and the baby with dried noodles hanging from her hair, Moses wouldn’t move.
“I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go, Dad. I stay with Sarah.” He pleaded, the full weight of his thirty pounds pulling against Jason’s grip.
“Moses, she is going to be fine. It isn’t a big deal. Sarah is o.k.” We promised in unison.
Jason finally had to pick him up and we could hear him crying as he moved down the hall.
I often wonder at the making of this sensitive soul. Is his genuine empathy and tender comfort born of his deep understanding of loss? Was he gifted from birth to carry in his heart the burdens of other’s weight? He can’t answer that at three-years old, but regardless of how he came to this place, what he shows us of his spirit is beautiful. It is a strong cord wrapped tightly around the perimeter of our family that reminds us of what, and more importantly who, matters.
Later in the evening, I was discussing with Jason that it was time for Sarah to ice her chin. Moses was listening to us.
“Can I snuggle Sarah? She’s hurt.” He said.
And so he brought her tattered blankie and they each took half of the recliner. She set her chin upon a bag of frozen blueberries.
“I will read to you, Sarah.” He said.
He still struggles to pull apart the slick pages of books, so I watched as Sarah helped him turn the pages and he ‘read’ with her filling in the gaps where her memorization exceeds his. They sat there for an hour. And I found them in the same spot this evening.
Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.” 1 Peter 3:8
This time she screamed. I immediately pulled her close and lifted her face. Huge drips of bright red blood formed a bizarre Halloween goatee. She was Edvard Munch in hues of panicked pink. I scrambled for some ice, got Moses some pants to cover his Buzz Lightyear buns, and scooped the baby (covered in her lunch) into the van. The false sense of calm I was attempting to exude as we drove was punctuated by Sarah’s terrified refrain, “I don’t want stitches. I don’t want stitches.” My sing-song reply of “Let’s just see. We’ll just check it out” did little to change her mind.
After a wait in the lobby and a tag-team hand-off of Moses and JoJo to Dad, Sarah and I were left in a surgical room to wait. We played ‘I spy’, sang songs, told the three knock-knock jokes we know a hundred times, but sooner or later it came back to, “I really don’t want stitches.” I assured her that stitches really are great- that skin can’t come together by itself and needs stitches to hold it together while it heals. I prudently and calmly explained the benefits without describing the scarred mess that would be the alternative to treatment. There wasn’t any point having a talk with a frightened four-year-old about scar tissue or the importance her face will come to hold, or its power she will learn of, as she gets older.
At one point the nurse brought in a covered tray that I assumed had the sterile tools that would be used to pull my daughter’s face back together. I am sure the tray was covered to keep the tools clean, but served the dual purpose of keeping from sight the sharp and shiny instruments of help. Eventually the doctor came in. I held Sarah’s hand and choked out a weak rendition of ‘Five Green and Speckled Frogs’ while she screamed and he inserted a monstrous needle full of numbing agent right into the wound.
It seemed like he was good at his job. But more importantly, he knew ‘Baby Beluga’ and asked Sarah to join him as he stitched and led the chorus. Her trembling, gaping chin poked out of the hole in the sterile cloth and together they sang. He would wait for a pause to run the next loop through and there were just enough verses to get the job done. I watched and let the tears come since she couldn’t see me. I was witness to the work of the Great Physician, who met my worried child in her time of need with skill and song.
As I carried her out to the car, we reviewed the event.
“That wasn’t so bad was it?” I said, drawing from the tattered text of motherly one-liners.
“No. The stitches didn’t hurt at all,” she replied. “The shot felt like an airplane crashing into my chin. I didn’t like that. But the stitches weren’t bad.”
But they would have hurt if that airplane hadn’t have crashed right into your wound, I thought. And so I resolved to remember. From where I usually stand there is no explanation for most of what happens here. But from the sidelines I saw, momentarily, the workings of a good and gracious doctor, both to unflinchingly deliver what would become a salve and to sing and reassure while stitching.
“He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” Psalm 147:3