When Newness brings Peace

“And the peace of God which transcends all understanding….” (Phil 4:7)

There certainly was very little Peace and Quiet over this Christmas break despite the typical expectation of such. This year we moved to a house after living in a cramped, tiny townhome for the past 3 years. The older two had their own bedrooms, but the youngest slept in my bedroom. The TV was on one side of the “living” room space and the couch on the opposite side so the great joy in annoying the eldest was to cross in front of the TV multiple times…or just pretend to forget and stand there. The kitchen was tiny and I couldn’t stand to have a kid in there with me whenever I tried to cook anything on the non-existent counter-space. There was no garage, no basement, no storage area.

But there was an outside. There was an open green space with playground equipment that hardly anyone used if they were over five. And there was a glorious double-bump hillside that made perfect sledding conditions (perfect because the boys could thump over in their boots and I could stay in my warm abode!). And there were kids. Kids who also liked to play outside. Kids who knocked on the door at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Kids who knocked at 8:00 pm on a school night. Kids that thrived on my boys’ energy and creativity. Kids who were great friends.

So the Saturday before Christmas, I moved over as many boxes as I could pack in the car with supplies to host our first “Cookie Day.” Many friends came out and we baked for hours (despite a nasty cold), creating 56 dozen cookies as the one oven browned sheet after sheet of dough. Sunday and Monday we packed and carted boxes. We cleaned some parts of the new house and some of the old. My sister tore up carpet and sanded two hardwood floors. And Christmas day after the excitement of gifts and a quick meal, we put polyurethane on the floors and opened all the windows. And when the moving trucks pulled out, my wonderful brother drove in from Ohio with two of his older daughters to finish up moving all the odds and ends.

It’s been anything but restful. Anything but quiet. But there has been a remarkable peace that has descended on the family. Christmas Eve I sent the boys down to the basement (“game room,” “man cave,” “den”…we haven’t settled on a name yet!) and I set up their rooms with beds and new blankets and put some select pieces of their school artwork (which I just framed the week before Christmas) on the floor as I didn’t have the tools or the energy to work on hanging them. I had name signs for each room. And The Little Guy jump around in his room with such joy and excitement to have his own space for the first time in his life.

Space. There’s now space for the boys to get away from each other to rest. There’s space in the kitchen (bless my mom and a couple great friends who helped clean and set it up) for me to experience joy and peace in preparing meals for the boys (I got tired of pizza and take-out pretty quickly!). There’s space to put the new hoverboards and electric scooters in the shed and the hand-me-down dirt bike that Mr. Ornery managed to fiddle with enough to get it working. There’s space to breathe and breathing feels very good.

And after three years, there’s a sense of settling and permanency. My brain is no longer searching and searching for the right house, the right location, the right school. It’s not perfect. I really intended to get a MUCH bigger yard for the boys, but it’s got great indoor space and a quiet flat road in front for their craziness.

I am so grateful for everyone who helped physically and emotionally with encouraging texts and messages and Facebook comments. There’s still much to do. I haven’t finished cleaning up the new place yet and there’s boxes upon boxes in “storage” at my sister’s and parents’ houses that need to move over.  But, a longtime friend said to me recently, “It’s so great to see how much you are enjoying that beautiful new home of yours.” And he’s right.

I’ve actually caught Super Tall Guy with smiles on his face!

Managing This “Season’s” Stress

The theme of this month seems to be figuring out how much stress my brain can manage before it entirely implodes.

I think I’m pretty close to that, although I seem to just yell a bit more at the boys and that releases some from the pop-off valve.

Given that it’s mid-December, there’s a great deal of excitement about the upcoming favorite day of the year. There’s been quite a bit of excitement about the daily Elf and his location search (for the younger two) and about the daily “Advent Bags” (which were lovingly packed by their grandmother) that reveal goodies. And there’s a great deal of excitement about moving to a new house. For the boys, these past few weeks have been filled with constant expectation and a lot of joy. (Not complete joy because their mother hasn’t been giving in to their every whim and desire for “stuff, but there’s been plenty of joy!) 

But for their mother, it’s been an endless stream of things to do and things forgotten. For one, until you go through the process, it’s pretty hard to understand the emotional energy and time required in purchasing a house. Inspection. Negotiations. Research on radon abatement (including an hour on the phone with a talkative radon guy when I essentially had just one question – will you get it down below the acceptable safe limit of 4!).  Finding, printing, signing, scanning, emailing financial papers after financial papers to the mortgage lender.

And then there’s the packing; that is, after finding a moving company. The man who came in to provide an estimate might have casually mentioned, “Looks like you need to start packing….” I took his advice and increased from my two-boxes-a-night pace to spending almost this entire weekend packing up the boys’ rooms, the kitchen, the storage area which hasn’t been touched in three years (hello, daddy long-legs!).

And….two boys have succumbed to upper respiratory infections (the fancy name for a cold) and the middle one has succumbed to pre-teen obnoxiousness (the fancy name for being a brat).

If this was the only stress for December, it might be tolerable. But interestingly, there’s also the impending expiration of the 5-year cycle of my “Maintenance of Certification” for my pediatric boards. So I’ve spend 15-20 hours in the evenings working on those requirements. Strangely, my Pennsylvania medical license is also due for renewal by the end of the month so that requires some additional “continuing medical education” credit hours. And then there’s the email from the hospital where I am credentialed that my TDaP vaccine needs to be updated by the end of the month; so now my arm is sore from squeezing that appointment in!  Oh….and  also the oil change because I’ve had the new car for three months now, so I had to pop in and get that done on the way home from work one day.

To top it off, it’s also The Little Guy’s first year in competitive gymnastics and he had his first competition at the beginning of the month. Fortunately it was in town and we didn’t have to travel, but his joy in winning first place for his age group in the Rings event made me realize I better get prepared for his next competition in January. It took awhile to book a hotel room at Splash Lagoon (a water park close to the competition site), but the boys are thrilled.

It’s gotten to the point of being humorous (almost). It’s definitely to the point where I am conscientiously spending my days telling myself to unclench my jaw and relax my shoulders. I’m reminding myself that this is a season of craziness and it will pass.  I’m reminding myself that we don’t have to do everything we usually do this time of year (I say as I compose this from the hard wooden bench at the ice-skating rink…since the boys “had” to get out of the house). I remind myself that things don’t have to be perfect; the boys will have fun no matter what I do, despite my personal pressure to make this move and this Christmas “special.” And I remind myself to get a good 7-8 hours of sleep (at least every third night….as there’s clearly some viruses around to fight off and supposedly good sleep makes moms less grouchy!).

And tonight I have a sneaky suspicion that my neighbor is right….Mr. Ornery has his first band concert tomorrow night. I’ll need to find some dress clothes for him. I don’t think I’ve packed those yet…..

Sigh, so when you see me and you think – “wow, your hair sure has gone gray” – I’m still blaming it on the boys and this time I’ll blame it on not having enough time to keep up with the dyeing!

Countdown to Christmas – yes, this Advent, I am grateful for the greatest gift two thousand-some years ago and the many blessings and gifts bestowed daily this month!

(Ahem…well, I’m off to make my list of things still needed for Cookie Day at the new house. It’s going to be a blast. I hope!)

 

 

Ready for Cookie Day

 I’m not sure how exactly it got started, but in the early 90s, my best friend K and I were new graduates of Edinboro University. We had formed such a strong friendship over the course of schooling and found ourselves suddenly separated by 100 miles. I’m pretty sure it was her idea to invite me up to her mother’s kitchen that first December, and there her best friend from high school, she and I stood in red aprons soon covered with flour dust, rolling out sugar cookies and cooling sheets and sheets of cookies on the dining room table.

Every year I went back and every year the tradition grew. From her mother’s kitchen to her first kitchen after marriage. From a trio of friends to an open invitation for all friends and relatives who wanted to join us. One year her traditional red apron was imprinted with a recipe that included the phrase “bake for 9 months.” We hugged. The following December, a little 7-month-old joined our Annual Cookie Day! Soon, I was transporting my own seven-month-old son to his first Cookie Day weekend. 

On a specific Saturday in December, my friend would spread out folding tables and lay out eggs and butter, flour and sugar, cookie sheets and cooling racks. She would set up her Kitchen-Aid mixer, bring over her mother’s and I would bring mine with me. Flour dust would fill the air. Egg shells would fill the paper bags set under the tables for trash. Sprinkles would fill the cracks in the hard-wood floors. And endless chatter and laughter would fill the night. We’d bake and eat until our feet couldn’t keep us going anymore.

The kids would build snow forts, sled down her hill or engage in “epic” Nerf gun battles. When their fingers and noses were too cold, they’d settle down in front of the TV for the classic “Grinch who Stole Christmas” or “Polar Express” showing. We’d order pizza or K would cook up pasta with her homemade sauce and there’d be a break in the baking to have a meal.

My friend’s job was to manage the chaos. Find the almond extract. Refill the pretzel bowl. Welcome in the next guest. She has an amazing gift of hospitality! Each guest would pick a recipe and get started on making the dough and loading the cookie sheets. My job was the baking. K’s husband would bring in an extra oven and I would have 2 or 3 different (one year four) ovens going at the same time. Each oven had its own timer and my classic mantra was “Not really caring what directions you give me – it’s going to bake at 350 degrees until done!”

My most important job, however, was Undisputed, Don’t-Mess-With-Me Cookie Counter. All participants in this most precious of baking days were under one rule – Thou shalt not taste or eat a cookie until it has been counted by the master cookie counter! (Me!). I counted each and every cookie as it came off the cookie sheet onto the cooling rack. I recorded the type of cookie and tallied the totals as they cooled. At the end of the night, whenever we were ready to collapse, I added up all the batches of cookies and proclaimed loudly the total cookie count and the equivalent number of dozens!

My cookie count was so sacred, that one year, K’s husband doubted that we could have made over two hundred “Russian Tea Cake” cookies. He methodically recounted each and every powdery one of them. His number matched my original count exactly – and he never doubted me again (sort of). From then on, no one was to question the count!

The other golden rule was to double all recipes (except the Nieman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe since we learned the hard way one year that it was already essentially a double recipe) and to form the cookie balls on the smaller size. After all, it was all about the count and the smaller the cookie, the more individual cookies there were.

Actually, it was all about the fun and the joy of giving as each guest wrapped up boxes and boxes of beautiful cookies at the end of the night to share with family and friends and co-workers. There were so many memories wrapped up in those twenty-plus years of cookie making, that it was hard for me, yet completely understandable, when my friend announced she couldn’t keep up the tradition. So for the past three years, we’ve had much smaller versions of “Cookie Day” at a friend’s and at my sister’s house (as my townhome is way too small to welcome in guests). Having the event locally has drawn a different group of friends and my boys have adjusted. The rules have stayed the same, but the grand size of the day hasn’t been recreated yet.

As I contemplate the season of Advent and the preparation for Christmas, “Cookie Day” remains one of my great loves and one of my boys’ favorite days of the year. So in the spirit of thriving on chaos, I mentioned to my mother that the current plan to close on my new house on a Friday…. naturally meant….I could….potentially…..host my first Cookie Day the next day!

Yes, it’s going to be crazy, but I figure as long as I have the utilities on, have cable and wi-fi connected to entertain the boys in case of bad weather, carry over boxes of baking supplies and get the kitchen area cleaned up at least….I could be ready!  After all, one of the key criteria in my house-search over the past two years was: Can the kitchen host Cookie Day?

I think I found the kitchen.

I’ve started my list of supplies.

Now I’m ready to make magic again. Care to join us?

Waiting for a Home

It wears upon the soul to live in “transition,”  to be in a time of waiting. I have been doing that for so much of my life. You spend your school years just wanting so badly to grow up and have the “privileges” of being an adult. Then there’s the “step” of college to get to your career and your “life.” For me that was an extended prolonged journey of graduate school followed by medical school and a longer than usual residency program.

Finally, I thought. I have arrived. But at the same time, the kids started to arrive as well. And each one of them brought multiple “transitions” and waiting periods. Waiting for quarterly court hearings. Waiting for goal changes. Waiting for adoption. And just when it settles down, the boys are starting into preschool and kindergarten transitions. And a year and a half into what I thought would be their first stable school, we were asked to leave as the private school decided they didn’t have the “resources” needed to teach my eldest.

So, we bounced into a townhouse to move into a school district that welcomed the boys. Half of my packed belongings went to my parents’ house and half went to my sister’s garage (that’s where the Christmas tree and decorations, the bikes, the winter gear, etc sits waiting). Waiting. For the past 3 years we have been living in transition, waiting to find a house to call our own.

My boys have naturally made the best of their waiting. There’s a great community of friends here in the neighborhood. There’s a great diversity of cultures in this neighborhood. There’s good support. But they were so ready to move last year when we were a week away from closing on a house. It was a huge disappointment to lose the house, but that house also brought the stress of changing schools and new transitions.

Now, however, they are giddy with anticipation as we are now less than five weeks from closing on a house!! And this time, I have settled into keeping the boys in the same school system and the same elementary and middle school. It’s been rough for me mentally as I keep trying to find the “best” school for them. I find pros and cons to all the choices. Finally, I’ve decided to put the priority on stability, acknowledge that I won’t find perfection, but that it is time to settle down for the sake of the boys and myself.

And so, in this Advent season, as we expectantly “wait” to celebrate the birth of Christ, my family is also expectantly waiting and preparing for a new beginning.

 

 

Love will Stay Stronger than Hate

The other week I took the boys to see a movie with my neighbor and her two children. The back of the minivan shook with glee. The popcorn flowed over laps and floors. The moms constantly “shushed” the giddy kids as the movie began. But eventually, the story compelled them to quiet down, punctuated every once in awhile with a great contagious giggle.

There once was a group of Yeti’s who so feared continuing death and slaughter at the hands of man that they moved high up into the top of the mountains and created a layer of fog to hide the humans in the land below.

There once was a group of humans who believed that Yeti’s were so violent and dangerous that if they ever saw a Yeti, they would shoot to kill.

But, there also was once a Yeti named Migo who was so fascinated by the possibility of a “Small Foot” that he risked leaving his home to go see if these creatures really existed.

And, there once was a man named Percy who was so desperate for fame that he searched for the Yeti as a tool for popularity. But when his fellow men came out with guns and armor and shields to fight against the Yeti, Perry took a step forward in faith and solidarity. Standing together, Yeti and humans learned that they are more similar than they are different. They discovered that to dispel fear, they needed to begin to understand one another and to respect each other. They discovered that they did not need to live in fear, but could live in community.

Our world is filled with fear. We are so focused on how we are different from others, that we have become scared of those differences. We want to build up walls around us. We want to stick with “our own.” Instead of becoming more unified, the pressure is to become more polarized. More extreme. More scared.

And that fear leads to anger and anger leads to violence. Violence against those who are different. Violence against school children. Violence against anyone considered an “other.” Violence against the innocent. And this past week, that violence touched the lives of a peaceful community of people gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Synagogue in my former neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. In that moment, the lives of a Holocaust survivor, a physician, a couple, a grandfather, a dentist, a set of brothers, and other beloved family members were ended in a sea of blood. A sea of anger. A sea of fear.

As the days have crept on, as the funerals have taken place, as the songs have been sung at the vigils, as the community has marched and as the families have mourned, all of us have felt a deep, deep aching sadness that has called to our spirits. A deep despair that has tried to blacken our soul and nibble away at our hope. And each of us has had to reach out to our community of friends, family, neighbors and even strangers gathered around us to rekindle our flames.

Because when fear tries to sow hate and hate tries to capture our hope, we stand together to say “Absolutely not.” We raise our voices to say, “Love is and always shall be stronger than hate.”

When we take a step towards each other. When we learn about others and discover that they too are humans just like us. When we are willing to look into another’s eyes and see their fears and their hurts and their hope which is just the same as ours, then….then, we will learn to love others.

As I cleaned up around the house this morning, I heard The Little Guy upstairs reading to his brother, “Do not worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything.” When the current world wants us to worry about everything and everyone, we are reminded that God is bigger than that and loves us all.

So, together we kindle the hope.

Together, we maintain the love.

Together, we treat others as God’s Holy creation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reckless Love

(Verse 1)
Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
(Chorus)
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
(Verse 2)
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
(Bridge)
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
(Reckless Love: Written by Cory Asbury, Caleb Culver, and Ran Jackson)

 

We sang this song at church this morning. It is currently my favorite praise song. And it is one I really needed after dealing with Super Tall Guy’s latest “rage” fit yesterday in which quite a bit of anything that was not nailed down went flying. We even hit a new level – the next door neighbor who absolutely never talks, came out of her house and grumbled, “What in the world is going on?” Sigh….

But as we sang this morning, I realized that while this song was written about God’s incredible love of His children, it could so easily describe in a very imperfect way my relationship with my boys.

When they were infants – before they spoke a word – I would sing over them as I rocked them to sleep. (While I did not carry them in my body, their birth mother breathed life into them before they ever took a breath.)

When Super Tall Guy is in a rage and we are squared off foe to foe….my love fights for him. Fights to have him calm down. Fights for him to know that I love him despite the ugliness. Fights for him to know that I will be there with open arms when this hurricane ends. When he weeps in sadness and feels unworthy, I wrap around him in love. I pay such a price in providing for the boys, not just in material things, but in time and worry and stress and endless energy.

And should anything ever happen to my boys, I will always come after them. I will light up the world for them to see more clearly through the darkness that might threaten to overwhelm them. I will climb any mountain for them if they wander away. I will tear down any wall to free them. There’s no lie that the world could tell them about their brown skin or their worthiness or that they might tell themselves in self-doubt that I wouldn’t tear down.

And despite all their grumblings about how mean I am or how other families are so much better, I truly am trying to be good to them and kind to them. I would leave the ninety-nine, I would leave anything I had to for my children.

I am a failure every single day at this parenting gig. I want to do so much better. I get down on myself. But then I am reminded of the intense love I have for these three incredible boys. The absolutely overwhelming love. The never-ending love. The reckless love. Unconditional love. No matter what they are doing. No matter how many times they have ignored me or disobeyed. No matter how many mistakes they have made. No matter what, it is an overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love that tears up my heart and drains tears down my cheeks as I stand there singing.  And in those moments, I know that if I feel this passion for my boys….how much more does a Perfect God love each and every one of us. How much more does He breathe into us and come after us when we wander? How much more does He ache when we disobey, but has already paid the ransom? How much more overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love does He give?

Click on the album cover below and listen to reckless love….

 

An Introvert Collecting Stories in Croatia

The boat bobbled along the coast of one of Croatia’s thousand islands. We passed small villages along the coasts that are accessible only by boat and pondered what sustains them. “They finally had to put in some roads,” mentioned Marin, the ship’s captain. “Three years ago there was a fire that burned for three days because no firetrucks could reach it and the weather was too bad for fire-fighting planes.” It is an “old” village mainly of people who have lived there all their lives. We were on our way back from Bol, a touristy beach town on the island of Brac with a blend of the centuries old ruins and the draw of the young touristy crowd. Marin grew up on the boat life learning from his father. His six-year-old son is following in his footsteps and sat on a cushion behind his captain’s wheel. “He only gets one hour a day,” Marin responded when I joked about whether the boy was playing a game or watching a video on the electronic device he held cradled between his knees. The boy has just started kindergarten but on nice days he still heads out to sea with his parents. His older sisters, though, stay in school in Split under the watch of grandma. While the family lives on one of the smaller islands, they maintain an apartment in Split so that the kids have good schools. The choices parents face is universal. How do you get them a good education? How do you balance the world around them and the world of digital media? How do you instill your passions and what you’ve learned over generations? How do you maintain your culture, especially in a country recovering from war and experiencing the influx of tourism as its greatest economic asset?

Branko is happy for the tourism. Approaching sixty, he doesn’t have any other job possibilities but to drive for Uber. His two boys have just gone off to college so the money coming from driving has been sufficient, but he’s hoping more of the locals will start using Uber in the off-season months. He’s thankful for his health and credits eating good food. While there is ample access to McDonald’s in town and several local “fast food” businesses, he’s grateful that his youngest finally stopped eating all that food that has “bad” things put in it. There is plenty of fresh healthy food available, but you have to know, he says, when you go to the market which local farmers are sneaking and using pesticides and which are clean. You just have to know, he nods wisely.

Tourism is also supporting Ivan. A young man driving for a travel company, he works seven days a week during the busy season. He lives with his parents and grandmother, as most people do, he mentions. You see, he remarks, when people build a house they build one floor for each generation. Sometimes you’ll see that the walls are not yet complete or the next floor is not yet added on. “They are waiting for more money to finish the house,” he remarks. “But it is good for the family to live together,” he adds, “We all help each other.”

Miriam works in one of the shops within the old Diocletian Palace built by the Roman Emperor in the 4th century. Unlike almost 3000 other people, however, she doesn’t live within the palace walls, but instead lives “down by the beach” close to where we stayed at Villa Sea Breeze. Wary at first about my line of questioning, she soon began to smile as she talked about her work. She slipped an extra cloth sack of lavender, famously grown in the area, among my souvenir purchases. The young woman at a store nearby was not as reticent. Another traveler and I asked about the “swimmers” on a t-shirt in the front of the store. “Oh,” she responded, “those men are playing Picigin.” Further questioning led to the fact that it is a game played in shallow water along the beach with a hard ball. “It hit me in the face one time and I couldn’t open my eye for two weeks!” she continued, “It’s a really hard ball.” A quick search of Google while pausing for a glass of wine and some appetizers revealed that Picigin was invented in Split when travelers had tried to introduce water polo. The inside rubber from a tennis ball is swatted back and forth among 4-5 players. In an attempt to keep the ball above the water, players are cheered (and in the “World Championship” games, awarded points) for acrobatic prowess in swatting back the ball. Days later in walking the three miles from our villa into the “Old City” we paused to watch some players. Clearly the men upped their game when they noticed “those foreigners” with cameras clicking! (oh….iPhones don’t click….but my SLR does! 😉.)

“There’s no way you’re an introvert,” remarked one of my new friends on this Croatian trip. “You talk with everyone.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I am a true introvert. It’s just that I am also a story collector. And everyone has a story.”

Each of us on the trip had a story as well about how we had all met Mara. Some of the travelers went to high school with her. Some met her in college or shortly after. Some met her for work and some met her while traveling exotic places. Our stories brought us together in a far-away country to spend time together celebrating her life and celebrating the way that friendship can connect people. Many of us had never met each other before but our one mutual connection led us to a new sisterhood. And connection is really about what matters.

P.S. ….

Mind you, any fellow introvert might have prepared me for  the woes re-entry. But no, I had to crash and burn to figure that out myself! Getting over jet-lag is one thing. Reaclimating to single parenting three active, completely energy-draining young boys is a totally different story. I sure wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the constant demands to be fed (of all things). The unbending march of the schedule of school and afterschool and evening activities. The seemingly endless bedtime routine. By day four, I was texting a very old “sister” and one of my new “sisters” about my struggle. It definitely took some time to realize I needed to settle down, give myself a little more space, get to bed right after the boys and be patient. Traveling is very good. And traveling is very exhausting!