• collecting stories,  the mothering arts

    One foot in front of the other…

    onefootIt’s hard to parse the difference between giving one’s best and trying to be good, but it’s a conversation I have with my kids often. With two children that face significant learning challenges, giving their best is going to look significantly like failure to the outside world. As one lamented to me, “I’ll never be a good student according to ____’s definition!” It doesn’t surprise me that after having deep discussions with these two, I’ve learned some deep lessons myself.

    Perfectionism seems to me an adult affliction. Few young children I meet seem to have a concept of such- if they do, it’s usually abundantly clear to me after spending a few moments with their parents that it is parentally driven. Most of the time. I’m not saying it never happens, but I do believe it is rare. Children do have a concept of measuring up, but it isn’t the unhealthy, paralyzing version that so many adults are addicted to.

    I very much mixed up giving my best with trying to be good. A good mama. A good wife. A good friend. A good daughter. A good employee. A good artist. A good writer. A good homeschooling mother. Some of these definitions were inside of my head. Some of these definitions were societal pressure bearing down on me which I did not realize I had the ability and strength to set aside. These definitions formed links in the shackles that nearly drowned me, and very nearly shattered my family beyond recognition.

    Let the little children come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

    My Z has some tremendous delays due to his Sensory Processing Disorder, which is on the autism spectrum. While he does not have the significant challenges or clearly identified behaviors of high functioning autism or Aspergers, he struggles mightily every day to integrate an overload of sensory information. The older he gets, the easier this integrating becomes for him, to the point that, were you to meet him on a given day, you probably wouldn’t recognize any signs of the disorder.

    If you taught him, however, you’d see a different story. His handwriting resembles a young primary student’s. Every time he sits in a chair, in a desk, with a pencil or pen, he’s having to process vastly more amounts of information about where his body is in space, where his hand is in space, where his muscles are, how to move them, and the room is too bright, the kid two seats over is thumping his leg against the table making a swishing and thumping sound–information that we all process without thought day in and day out– and he has to process as fresh and new every time it happens. On top of this, he has to process in his brain what it is he wants the pencil to do, what he wants to say, how to spell it, what the sentence is, and on and on. It combines into what they call global processing delay which, in layman’s terms, is like a computer with too many tabs open and not enough active memory, which slows to a crawl while it performs a task. If you had to deal with all that, your handwriting would be pretty messy too, and writing would be pretty difficult for you.

    His best looks like: working diligently and as carefully as he can. Being aware of how he can mitigate some of the sensory input to make it easier for himself (like gun-muffs to blunt the sound, trifold posters around his working space to block visual imput, “sticky” pens and pencils that help him feel the utensil in space, and more.) Not worrying about spelling. To some extents, not even worrying about handwriting, as long as it’s readable, so that it can be transcribed. Often, he can only physically write about one to two paragraphs at a time, and that is pushing it, so it takes him much longer over a period of days to complete a large assignment.

    This shouldn’t be confused with actual writing skill, because he is an excellent story teller. He has all the concepts of grammar, punctuation, and substance in his head and fully understands them. When he can speak a story aloud and have it transcribed by someone else (i.e. not having to deal with all that extra processing that clutters up the ‘active memory’), the writing is far superior, and he can tell someone what to edit and also edits it himself. He also finds typing a lot easier than physically writing something.

    A “good” sixth grade student would: be able to write a five paragraph paper with ease. Have clearly defined arguments or main ideas, and good structure. Little to no spelling errors (and/or the ability to edit them). Be able to complete a short assignment in twenty minutes or less. Be able to read and synthesize a response in a short period of time. To quote the common core standards, “demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.”

    If he was assigned typical grades, he’d be flat out failing.

    But he’s not.

    He’s doing the best he can, with the skills he has, for the tasks set before him.

    He is succeeding on his own terms as long as he is committing to his best, and following the guidelines we’ve worked together to define.

    Is this starting to sound familiar?

    I remember having a discussion with him on a day he was being exceptionally hard on himself, and suddenly saw my own younger mama self sitting there, and I burst into tears. (A highly unusual act for me, particularly in front of my sensory sensitive son.) He, awkward pre-teen who really struggles with touching and being touched, reaches up and pats my face gently till I get control of myself. I scoop him into my arms and I said over and over to him and to myself- “you are so loved, you are so loved, you are so loved. Your best is always good enough.”

    God so loved the world that He gave His best. His one and only Son.

    You are so loved. 

    This is the vast ocean of difference between the shackles of lies of good enough and the light burden of Christ. He has taken that all on, so that we may give our best back to Him. All that was ever asked of us was to do the best we can, with the skills He breathed in us, for the task He set before us.

    A large percentage of the time, our best is going to look an awful lot like failure in the eyes of the world. It’s even going to look like failure in the communities we’d least expect it from- like the homeschooling co-op or the mom’s night out or our tight-knit group of friends.

    I’m not saying this is a carte blance check to be lazy or not do what’s right, but I am saying that because we are loved we no longer have to keep running in a mad dash towards an unattainable goal that God never gave us.

    Are we supposed to run? Yes. But where we are running to is clearly defined. We are to run towards God:

    Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-3

    One foot in front of the other, weak, wobbly, scared legs, straightening into each new step, in faith, at whatever speed we’re capable of. So what if the world is passing us by. We weren’t headed that direction in the first place.

    One foot in front of the other.

    This is the fourth in a series. Begin the journey here.

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  • collecting stories,  the mothering arts

    Wind sprints…

    windsprint(This is the third in a series. Start here.)

    Paul says that all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful (1 Cor. 6:12a). This is so very true when I consider all the roles I took on during that time. None of them were inherently wrong, and some people I know and love do all of these jobs (as one person) on a daily basis. I am not criticizing the roles we take on at all or the people that choose to take them on. The problem was that to do all those things at the time was beyond unhelpful for me in a very destructive way. I am honing in on the fact that some times we take on good, wonderful things for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes we are running so fast that we can’t even stop to consider our reasons for doing so in the first place.

    The next thing we know, we’re brought low by terrible stitches in our side, charley horses in our legs, unbelievable exhaustion, and more often than not, serious injury.

    The question is why.

    Why are we running? Why did our walk turn to a run? Are we running towards something? Or away? What messages are thudding in our ears, drowning out our heart’s call?

    The number one reason I was running crazy wind sprints from homeschooling my kids to working full time from home to coordinating and teaching a homeschool co-op plus being a wife and mother and back again? I thought I had to. There are a myriad reasons why I thought it was so and I’ll begun unpacking that, but I want to say this first and foremost. Anytime something locks you up like that? I have to do this. If I don’t do this I am ______. The whole world is at stake if I don’t ________. My kids will _______ if I don’t do ______. I will be a failure if ______. I am not a good person/Christian/mama/wife/employee if I do________. These thoughts that keep you up at night? Give you panic attacks? That make you pick up those shoes and flat out run?

    LIES. All lies. And they originate in the father of lies who wants to slap shackles on your heart, mind, and soul, keeping you running mad and crazy so you can’t stop, and you can’t listen, to the soft heartbeat of love and grace that God whispers to us in every moment.

    I have to ______ is pride talking. It assumes that you have to do this thing, accomplish this mission, because you are in control of whatever situation is at hand. When I hear this phrase, I question my focus. Am I trusting that God is control? Or am I putting myself in a position I shouldn’t be in?

    The whole world (or my world as I know it) is at stake if I don’t________________. (And yes, I realize this is hyperbole, but I know if I’ve said it in my head in fit of pique, wellll…) Either we trust in God’s mercy to see us through and that God indeed works all things together for good, or we give into the awful lie of pride that our way is absolutely the best way for things to happen. Now, does this mean that a choice, transition, or change won’t perhaps hurt like hell and feel like the world is ending? Not by any means. We will suffer, and things won’t be easy. Whether that is to God’s glory or as a natural consequence of a sin or bad choice is not for us to say. Either way, we’ve got to lean hard into Christ’s goodness and mercy.

    The last three are bit harder to unpack. In my own life, I know that one of the main reasons I took on this slavish, death-bringing wind sprint was because I thought it was what a good _______ didBrene Brown calls this hustling for our worthiness. We can’t make ourselves worthy of anybody, least of all God. The loved ones in our lives become so because they are drawn in by our worthiness to them, whatever it may be. It isn’t ever something we can force. Love is never forced. It is grace and mercy and hope and a thousand other things wrapped into a constant that even scientists can’t define. The minute we try to hustle, make ourselves ‘good’, check the box, we’ve missed the boat.

    Emily P. Freeman writes about this extensively in Grace for the Good Girl, so I’m not going to delve very deep here, but I think the question that has to come when faced with phrases like the last three is how am I defining good?  What is in my head that is saying to me, a good mama does x, y, z? A good employee would never ____? These answers have to be held up to the light of day and examined in prayer, held against Holy Scripture, and where possible, discussed with a spiritual mentor or Father Confessor if you are Orthodox or Catholic. I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t comfortable discussions. But they are necessary, good, life-giving discussions.

    One of the answers you’ll find there is that we are afraid to be a failure, or to be seen as a failure. Whether or not it is factually true that we failed, we don’t even want the appearance of having failed. Shame is a powerful, heart-rending motivator, but it always brings death.

    “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

    We build up failure in our head so much that it ceases to be what it is: a tool for learning. Every mistake teaches us about ourselves and what we can do differently next time. Sometimes, the world is going to tell us we are failing, try to shame us into a position we don’t belong in. So what! We have to answer for ourselves, not them. Oh, how I know this is easier said than done. I fail at letting that go, too. Each day is a process, a turning, a beginning again.

    The difference I find between then, when I was running so fast, and now has to do my internal heart stance. Back then, I made a lot of choices out of shame and a sense of obligation, taking on far more than was healthy for me in that time of my life.

    Contrast that with the time that ran from January to June of this year- a stretch of time that looked awfully familiar in the uncertainty, exhaustion, and complete loss of steady pace due to Josiah’s frequent hospitalizations. Outwardly they may share some similarities, but my heart is in a very different place. I said no to a lot of good in that time span. I prayed a lot. Often it was the only thing I could do. I said no to continuing to-do lists that just could not be accomplished in the crazy. Our house dropped to bare minimum chores, the paper plates came out, the crockpot hardly turned off. I rested as often as I felt the need, knowing that preemptive self care would go miles farther than trying to recover from exhaustion and illness, if it could be helped. (Our bodies are not able to sustain constant stress and we will suffer if pushed too hard, too long. It’s not an if. It’s a when.)

    If you were to look in on my life during those six months without knowing the background story of a child constantly in the hospital and scary medical issues and surgery of my own, you’d definitely have labeled me a failure on a lot of levels. You’d assume I was anti-social. I’ve learned to pull in boundaries and protect my heart in times of extreme stress, leaning only on my trusted inner circle. My house was a near-constant mess, laundry always waiting to be processed, paper plates and crunchy, sticky floors. There was a lot of meals that weren’t necessarily healthy, but fast and yummy. You’d assume I was lazy, especially when you’d catch me taking a nap in the afternoon, right there in the middle of the mess. You’d look at my mismatched clothes and my messy hair and the fourth cup of coffee in my hand and you’d assume I didn’t steward myself well. I know what people assume because they’d say as much to me at times! I know what I would think if I didn’t know the whole story. In the world’s eyes, I was failing, miserably. But dear reader, you and I know the fuller picture, don’t we? I was failing to meet people’s expectations, yes, but I was not failing myself or my family. I was dwelling in my life, doing what was wisest for the needs of the moment. (Ok, so maybe the fourth cup of coffee wasn’t so wise, but give a girl some leeway.) I feel at complete peace with how this last half year turned out. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Did I hurt people at times? Yes. Will I do things a bit better, a bit differently, if I have to endure another such period? Yes.

    I am at peace that I did the best I could with what was given to me. That’s all I can ever ask of myself. I don’t feel the same sense of peace when I think back to then. I feel immense sorrow when I think of then. I wasn’t giving my best. I was giving what I thought was good, trying to move outside of myself and my abilities, and that is a big difference.

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  • collecting stories,  the mothering arts

    Run for your life…

    hammockI’m sitting in the quiet of a Sunday afternoon. Ben and Josiah are curled on the floor, playing chess. Lorelei and Ellianna are over at the kitchen table playing with some lavender scented sea salt and cork alphabet letters. Isaiah’s curled up on the couch reading The Goblet of Fire. David is narrating the chess game, sportscaster’s style, to the laughter of various siblings. My Beloved has been in and out, puttering in the yard and the garage. Dinner is bubbling away in the crockpot. It’s about as close to an idyllic afternoon as one could hope for.

    It doesn’t happen every weekend. In fact, for the last few weekends, things have been more than a little intense due to a wedding (in which I was the main photographer) and a memorial for a friend, and, and, and. We so rarely stack things up on the weekend anymore that the last few weekends really tested our stamina.

    It’s from this quiet vantage point that I look back to a time I was running on empty. Days like today were the type I longed for in the wee smas of the night. I wanted an environment where things ran relatively smoothly in the keeping of the house so that the family could focus on other things- creative endeavors, chess games, puttering, laughing, and rest. I wanted my home to be a place of peace and delight. This is isn’t to be confused with conflict free, because wherever there are humans, and especially human children, there will be spilled oatmeal and broken toys and broken words. I wanted a place of grace- a place to fail well and often without judgement. At the time, I thought it was utterly elusive.

    I don’t think it is so elusive now, but I do think to have such a place of being takes a lot of work. Heart work. Home work. Love work. It is a life’s work. 

    I’ve heard you’ve got your whole life before you a thousand times, first as a high school graduate, then as college co-ed, a young woman getting married. My first child. The thing is, I think I got it all wrong, that phrase.

    You think, you’ve got your whole life before you and that means that you’ve got all the time in the world, all the possibilities in the world, go, do, dream big, travel, scale the ladder, go, go, go. I am in no way knocking the go, at all. But somewhere in my head that switched from go to run. As in, run for your life.  Hustle for your worthiness, as Brene Brown calls it. Go turns into run and then you’re running in circles, a hamster wheel of getting nowhere in the busy.

    At that particular time in my life, I was homeschooling four children from kindergarten to third grade, plus a toddler and a baby. I was working full time for a major homeschooling magazine. I was not just teaching at the homeschool co-op but also coordinating it, and what’s more, I was still taking on freelance work throughout it. I look back now and it just…all I can do is grieve.

    Not only was I doing the jobs of three people, there were major medical issues. When I was in my third trimester with Ellianna, I was hospitalized for two weeks with pneumonia that would not resolve and required high level antibiotics. It was bad enough that they began giving me steroid shots for Ellianna in case they had to deliver her early and she and I were monitored constantly. I worked every single day I was in the hospital. I would rest, return emails, rest again, puzzle over spreadsheets. I distinctly remember half wondering why I was not getting better, why I could not heal. I am horrified now when I look back on that time.

    I just want to wrap that mama in my arms and turn everything off, shut everyone out, and tell her it was okay to stop running.

    I understand my reasons for running. They were many. Even today, those reasons tempt me to run again. But now, the very reasons I ran are now the very reasons I must walk circumspectly and slowly. When I hear you’ve got your whole life before you now, I hear it as both a warning and a reminder. What you need, what you hope for, the things that fill your tank so completely? They are right before you. They have names, and souls, and they are your whole life. Before you. Don’t waste it on running.

    finding home button medium

    This is the second post in this series. Find the first one here: Running on Empty. 

  • collecting stories,  the mothering arts

    Running on empty…

    tiredmama

    This picture was laying on my husband’s desk last night. It caught the corner of my eye as I passed by. The memory of it struck me hard this morning, stirring my coffee and looking out the window, the children’s laughter echoing in the background.

    Oh that day. Ellianna was so inconsolable that day, fussing and sleepy but unable to settle to rest. I spent most of the day and night trying to calm her. I remember how exhausted and overwhelmed I was. The children’s schooling hadn’t been going well. The part-time job I was working from home was becoming frighteningly full-time, far more than I ever expected it to be. The economy had contracted, making our family very much house-bound, unable to afford the gas to go anywhere. Even church visits were curtailed, dropping to once or twice a month- the choice being whether to go to church or to feed our family. I was working so hard on so many fronts and it was barely a drop in the bucket of our need.

    That day I may have had three or four hours of sleep, I’d guess. It was a pattern then. James and I would rise with the children, stumble through the morning. He’d leave for work, I’d dress the children, set them down at the table, start in on schooling. Rock the baby, change a toddler, correct some math, frantically evaluate lunch and dinner options, run the laundry, the dishwasher, the vacuum. Answer work emails sprinkled all through, my phone dinging relentlessly. We’d survive the lunch, the dinner, the witching hour, and into bed they’d go, and then the second half of my day would begin. Hours upon hours of work. Part of my job was fulfillment, meaning that I would have to pull and pack product, label with postage and prepare for mail. It was all stored in my laundry room. Pull, pack, label. Fold and hang a load of laundry while composing emails in my head. I’d eventually get to the end of my duties for that day, often far past midnight. Crawl into bed. Get up and do it all over again.

    My husband and I never saw each other, two ships passing.

    The day that picture was snapped, it was uploaded to Instagram. I don’t have a record of that day anymore, because I closed down and deleted the account that it was associated with. I imagine though, that it was probably something sweet. Something about rocking babies. Most likely, knowing myself, it was probably something happy. That’s what I’ve always done. My memory of that day is so sharp- how very exhausted I was. I remember rocking her, so very sad, wanting someone to rock me. Someone to come in and fix it all. But instead, I reached for the beautiful in my life, grabbed hold of the moment, clicked and added it to Instagram, and probably didn’t think much about it after that. And now I see that picture and I nearly come undone.

    What I see now is how sick she was. We didn’t know then what she was fighting, but looking back, so much of her babyhood and early toddler years make so much more sense now. Why she was sick all the time with all these nebulous symptoms that acted like other things.

    What I see now is how incredibly unhappy I was. I see the lines of exhaustion in my face. All I can see is the depth of despair I felt at that moment. I was so heart-sick.

    A few months later, it would all come to a head. The lines snapped every which direction and our lives very much shattered. That shattering led to healing.

    It ultimately led us to where we are now, a state away, a different job. The reason we ended up here was unclear to us when we first began the move. Not the fact that we moved, mind you, just where we moved. We laid our fleece in Denver, in Nashville, in Atlanta, and here. Sure, some of my family lives just over the water from us here, but this place wasn’t chosen for the nearness of family so much as it was chosen for the nearness of opportunity and a fresh start. It was all prayerfully laid out in a council of witnesses that were also praying with and for us. Every sign came clear and ringing that we were to come here.

    We had no idea what we would face after we moved here. No idea that storms and battles we were yet to face. I look at the mama and babe in this picture and I just want to reach through time back to her, wrap her up in compassion and love, and give her the grace she was unwilling or unable to give herself at the time.

    I felt that level of exhaustion in the days after Josiah’s last hospitalization. No amount of coffee helps. A nap just gives you a headache. It’s a completely out of gas feeling, one that requires a full-stop reboot, extra sleep, nutritional and vitamin support. So depleted. It was understandable of course, coming of the tail end of a week long hospitalization with Josiah, the surgery, learning new care techniques, caring for the other five children and the house and the continued recovery from my own surgery. But it was temporary. I’ve journaled out here over the last month about how I have stopped the clock, taken a staycation, and rested quite a bit, more so than I normally would, and filled the gas tank back up. I am no longer bone-benumbed exhausted, unable to form sentences, crying at the drop of the hat because everything is so overwhelming.

    What makes me so sad when I look at that picture is how I lived in that state for over two and a half years, almost three. I thought I had to. I really truly thought that it was okay to be in that state of complete depletion and profound stress constantly because it was serving my family. I don’t even know how to unpack all that, but there it is. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last month and a half as we’ve begun the slow recovery from all the medical craziness. In some ways, this last year has been just as intense as those difficult years were. The ongoing medical needs of two chronically ill children are certainly a factor. The person I am today and the way I deal with stress is very different now because of the lessons I learned at the cost of that very exhausted, heart-weary mother in that picture, and I want to continue to unpack that as I have time. It’s so important.

    finding home button medium

    This post is the first in the series.

    2: Run for your life.

    3: Wind Sprints.

    4: One Foot in Front of the Other.

    5: Cadence.

  • beautiful things,  collecting stories

    To a Joyous house…

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    “Anne ended a week that had been full of pleasant days by taking flowers to Matthew’s grave the next morning and in the afternoon she took the train from Carmody home. For a time she thought of all the old loved things behind her and then her thoughts ran ahead of her to the loved things before her. Her heart sang all the way because she was going home to a joyous house…a house where every one who crossed the threshold knew it was a home…a house that was filled all the time with laughter and silver mugs and snapshots and babies…precious things with curls and chubby knees…and rooms that would welcome her…where the chairs waited patiently and the dresses in her closet were expecting her…where little anniversaries were always being celebrated and little secrets were always being whispered.

    Anne of Ingleside, p. 14, Ch. 3.

    When I grow up, I want to mother like Anne.