Friday, December 6, 2013

Snow Day

There is no snow on the ground, but we have a snow day today. We are expecting a winter storm to blow through this afternoon, dropping freezing rain on us and leaving 3-7 inches of snow. Cincinnati only gets snowfall like that once or twice a winter, so the schools usually close for a day.

I love snow days. The light is different. Everything is quieter. Even with four children in the house, currently arguing over the precise placement of the figures in the nativity scene, the day seems hushed. We know our job today: it is to stay inside and stay warm. Nothing would please us more.

An old friend told us a story from the seminary she attended. One of the international students was from the tropics, and had never seen snow before. His first winter at this northern US seminary, the first snowfall had come silent and swift in the night while he was sleeping. He woke in the morning and looked out the window at a world completely transformed. Everything was blanketed in white. The sight was so stunning, the student was convinced something apocalyptic had happened. It was a seminary, after all, and he leapt to one conclusion. He ran down the halls of his dorm shouting, "Jesus has come back! Jesus has come back!"

I love that story, even though I wasn't there. Maybe it isn't even true. But I can see myself in it. That's how snowfall feels, even after four decades of living with it. Snow is so ordinary, and so shocking. The sky opens up and stuff falls out and covers the land. If I had not acquired this adult veneer of propriety, I could run through the streets like Chicken Little, announcing every flake. But I am a respectable grown-up, trained to refrain from embarrassing others, so I sit quietly with my ankles crossed and my hands folded, and only my children know my eyes are open as wide as theirs.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why I'm Reformed: Original Sin

(This title makes me giggle. See? Calvinists laugh.)

Original sin is the Christian doctrine that people are prone to sin and cannot, by their own effort, be perfectly good. We are stained from our origins, from the very beginning of humanity. This is described in the story of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. The picture drawn in scripture is that their sin - the "original sin" - became a corruption that is passed down in the nature of every person. Some Christians read this metaphorically, and some read it literally, but every Christian church teaches that sinfulness is part of our nature before we are even able to make choices.

The Reformed church is not unique in teaching original sin, but it has insisted that original sin is a force alive in us, rather than something canceled at baptism. Our sin is forgiven in Christ, but it remains a force we must resist in this life. The Reformed church insists with a devout skepticism that we cannot, in this life, achieve perfection. We will not get better and better until we do everything right.  Hard work will not make everything good.

Instead, the Congregationalist novelist Marilynne Robinson calls original sin "our inability to refrain from doing harm." The Anglican author Francis Spufford, whose book Unapologetic I highly recommend, abbreviates it as "the human propensity to fuck things up (HPtFTU)". Harm is entangled in our best actions. We do not and can not invent a sure method for separating out our admirable actions from our selfish ones. The flaw is alive in everyone.

So why on earth does this speak to my soul? Original sin (and the consequent "total depravity" - more on that later) is one of the most ridiculed of Reformed beliefs, often portrayed as a kind of theological meanness, a neurosis of the soul. This caricature seems to depend on the notion that sinfulness = worthlessness. When the Reformed church calls people sinful, the accusers claim, we are calling them worthless.

My father always taught me that the only fair way to criticize a belief system was in response to its best adherents. If you want to intellectually engage Hinduism, for example, you look at Gandhi, not a murderous mob in Orissa. The stereotype of the harsh, disapproving Calvinist who despises his fellow man might exist somewhere in reality, human nature being what it is (see what I did there?), but villains of that sort do not inspire Reformation. When we look at the best of the Reformed church, expressed in its historic confessions, we find that the doctrine of original sin seeks to confirm Christians three things: humility, mercy and giving glory to God.

The doctrine of original sin demands that I be humble about my achievements. I have not filtered out all the bad in my soul. It is still there, sneakily influencing me, and claiming otherwise is pretense. I am dependent upon rescue by a loving savior at every stage of life. In practical terms, I should be open to the correction of wise and holy people who see things I don't. The possibility that I am wrong or doing wrong should be lively in my mind. Until the world-to-come, I do not reach a point of settled perfection. I still screw up.

Knowing this - not merely my harm, but the inevitability of some harm - also demands that I show mercy to others who harm me. Cherishing slights and offenses is forbidden. I cannot demand of others a level of perfection that I know I do not possess myself. This is invaluable in congregational life. The bumps and bruises of life together can abound, and like a kindergarten teacher, this doctrine prods us all to forbear and forgive. The ordinary bumbling hurts of life tempt us to a shocked cry of "How could you?!" Original sin suggests instead a gentle, disappointed laugh, and an "Oh crap. Here we are again." This does not mean that evil goes unresisted, but it does mean that we frankly recognize perfection will not happen in this world.

Lastly, original sin acknowledges our inability to save ourselves. God has responded to this helplessness with the gift of Jesus, whose death and resurrection offer forgiveness for sin to all who receive it with faith. Our goodness is a gift from God, and shows his loving character. "Giving glory to God" is not an unpleasant duty, but an expression of joy. It means rejoicing in a continual relationship with God, receiving him, and participating in the wonder of his infinite goodness. We are welcomed into it, and we never have to leave.

The doctrine of original sin is a way to acknowledge the flaw ingrained in humanity, without becoming numb to its significance. It is a method for functioning within the dysfunctional human family. Without it, every sin becomes a Fall of Man, catastrophic and devastatingly unique. With it, we are invited to make forgiveness a habit of life, a regularly shining light in a darkness.

Friday, November 15, 2013

7 Quick Takes

1. This is the year my kids' educational experience imploded. I could write the details, I suppose, but living through them was enough. After one suspension, many, many meetings, some disappointing report cards, and several visits to doctors and psychologists, we seem to have leveled out at a manageable chaos, at least for the present. In the process we have acquired ADHD diagnoses for two kids (with another in the works), one dyslexia diagnosis, and I have learned more about the bureaucracy of learning disabilities in the public school system than I ever wanted to know.

2. Besides the school troubles, our church has been facing some difficult decisions. Our congregation votes on Sunday whether to stay in our denomination. The process of coming to this decision has taken more than a year. I serve as an elder in our congregation, so I have had many, many meetings and emails and conversations, often at the expense of spending time with my kids on their difficult schooling.

It's been a rough year.

3. I have been marathon-watching the Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis series on Netflix while I'm doing housework. I am utterly taken in by its lugubrious charm. And if you didn't know lugubrious and charm could go together, you haven't watched Inspector Morse.

4. Speaking of marathons, my husband and I signed up to walk the Flying Pig half-marathon in May.  Walkers are welcomed in all the races. My husband turns fifty soon, and this is how he wants to celebrate. So we take a five-mile walk along the river twice a week, and we'll try longer distances in the new year. It's been nice to spend the time together. If you ever want to spend a pleasant morning in Cincinnati, try the riverwalk in the fall. It's lovely.

5. My children have decided they like salmon. Given the price of salmon, I'm not sure this helps us all that much. But when you have skinny, picky kids, any food you can add to the "Will Eat" column counts as a win. We buy a package of frozen salmon fillets, throw a couple (still frozen) on top of some mixed frozen vegetables and olive oil, bake it at 450 for 25-30 minutes. Serve it with rice. Easy dinner. Not cheap, really, but not that terrible either. Serve it with tortillas as tacos and it goes further.

6. I found my dyslexic child reading a book for fun this week. This has never happened. I tiptoed by and pretended not to notice. It was a comic book, but she was reading the words out loud. I'm not sure what she was saying. It was hard to hear over the sound of angels singing.

7. Have you read Francis Spufford's Unapologetic yet? It's wonderful. My favorite read of the year.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I Am Reformed: Overview

Months ago, I promised to do a series of posts on why I belong to the section of Christianity that calls itself Reformed. And then I slipped into the world of fevered children and adult root-canals (there's a post on that coming soon), and this blog became a no-man's land.

I kept meaning to post. As an added nudge, I've been asked to teach a Sunday school class this fall on Reformed theology. Then this week I read another post about an abusive church that called itself Reformed and I decided I shouldn't put this off any more.

So where to begin? As I worked on this post, I realized I was trying to write a one-paragraph description of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation. If you've never tried that, don't. The experience made me nostalgic for those root canals.  I could tell you the Reformed church is the branch of the Reformation that clustered around theologians like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger and Ulrich Zwingli. Or I could talk about the different historic emphases between Calvin and Luther, or Calvin and the radical Reformers like Menno Simons. But I don't want to write that post, and you don't want to read it.

So I'll go for too simple, rather than too complicated. Reformed theology is an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes the omnipotence of a merciful, holy God. God's power over all things - often called his "sovereignty" - is systematically affirmed in whatever theological issue is under discussion. All goodness is seen as the result of God's action, not human effort. Even the good things we do are ultimately caused by a sovereign God.

In Reformed theology, God is the one who acts. I receive the grace and mercy of God. I don't achieve it or earn it. Even the part of me that acts to receive it, is in fact God moving in me to allow me to receive. Reformed theology is an expression of Christianity organized around the persistent reminder that things ain't up to me.

If I were to sum up why I am Reformed in something short enough to fit on a t-shirt, it would say, "I'm here for the Sabbaths." I mean that figuratively (though literal Sabbaths are pretty great too). The Sabbath is the day of rest. In the Sabbath we acknowledge that our labor, whatever we may tell ourselves, is not necessary to the running of the world. In the Sabbath we submit and receive rest, even when a thousand insistent impulses are screaming out to us that our work is essential. I make my home in a Reformed church (see that little c in church? That's important. I'll write about that another day) to worship the Lord of the Sabbath, who gives my soul rest. I stay here because of the freedom and joy I have found in knowing it doesn't depend on me.

Next post in Why I Am Reformed: Original Sin! Why a phrase that makes you feel doom and puritanical gloom comforts and encourages me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

If I wrote this in hieroglyphics, she'd be interested

I am writing this with a nine-year-old in my lap. Nine-year-olds do not easily fit into a lap, and rarely want to. However, I have been trying to spend more time writing, and this nine year old is feeling a little neglected. So here she is, insisting that I write around her. I am reading this aloud as I do, and she is giggling helplessly. In fact, she's laughing so hard, she is sliding out of my lap.

This may be the most effective way to remove her.

She came into the study to show me what she has been making. My girl is fascinated by ancient Egypt, and has drawn and cut from cardboard the funerary amulets used in the mummification process. She tells me the names of them (scarab, wedjet eye, ankh, djed pillar, Nephthes, Isis, and the four sons of Horus: Imseti, Duamuteph, Hapi, Qebesenuef). I have a graduate degree in ancient near eastern history, but she already knows more about ancient Egyptian burial customs than I do.

My mother asked her the other day if she was still interested in ancient Egypt. "Aren't you over that stuff yet?" I don't know if this was teasing or not, but my girl insisted there was nothing wrong with loving ancient Egypt, so she was unfazed by Grandma's prodding. Maybe this will be a lifelong love for her; maybe not. But I love the joy she brings to it, the way new books and new facts and new photos light up her eye.

(It sure beats her other love: Star Wars. She's never even seen the movie. I know. Nine-year-olds.)

Last spring, she took cardboard and popsicle sticks and made a senet game, the ancient board game we know from paintings and texts. She and her sister still play it. I have not played once.

"Grown-ups do not understand children whatsoever," she tells me, "Even though they're both human beings." Because what endeavor does she see me devote myself to? What interest does she see me cadge moments for? Only writing. And here she is, in my study, insisting I write around her.

Children don't understand grown-ups at all.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My Creative Parenting Solution and How It Failed

My girls do not like to clean their room. Shocking, I know. But last week, when I sent them to their room to clean it, they were even worse than usual. After two hours of whining and "cleaning," their room still looked like this:

I particularly like the snow boots lying around in July. 

I had been warning them all summer that if they did not clean up when I asked them to, I was going to take away their stuff. This was the day I would follow through.

My sister had told me about a friend of hers who devised a creative punishment for her daughter's disrespectful behavior. She took away all the clothing from her fashion-loving girl except for a t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants. Her daughter could earn back her clothes piece by piece, with good behavior. It worked. 

The secret parenting grapevine has given me many good ideas. I thought this could be another one.

So I calmly (well, mostly calmly) informed the girls that refusing to clean their room yet again had triggered these draconian measures. I would pack up all their clothes and toys. They would be allowed one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, and one toy for two weeks. (No restrictions on underpants. I am not crazy.)

This is the point where I should have heard ominous background music.

First of all, my kids have a lot of stuff. Four kids, even after I keep their clothes pared down to only the things they like to wear, still have piles of clothes. I knew it would take me days to pack it all away. But it was worse: to pack it all away, I would first have to make space in my storage areas.  So now I was into a task that would take days.

It would be worth it if it worked, and they learned to clean their room. The kids have actually improved this summer at keeping the common areas of the house clean.  We started a weekly Bible study at our house this summer, and are keeping things more orderly for it. Because cleaning the living room and dining room is a less difficult task, the kids have been cheerful and useful when it needs to be done. I wanted to see them master this for their bedroom too.

When the four-year-old saw her empty closet, she cried. She loves her pretty dresses, and sobbed because she believed I was giving them all away, like I do with the clothes she outgrows. I explained to her that she would get her dresses back when she shows me she can keep her room clean. At that, she stopped crying and stopped caring.

The other girls were a little upset at first, but quickly found the bright side. "We'll be just like cartoons!" exclaimed the six-year-old. "They wear the same outfit every day too!"

Uh-oh. This was not really working out as a punishment.

But the worst was the toys. I thought allowing them only one toy for two weeks would be the part they hated most. Instead, they spent a blissful hour as a group, discussing the finer points of their toys, and which one qualified as their one, true, best-beloved. They luxuriated in this. The kids seems to believe that the conditions I had set had finally allowed them to give their favorite toy the accolades it deserved. At last, their favorite would understand how much they really loved it. And it was all thanks to Mommy's great idea.

At bedtime the first night, the kids took off their one outfit and handed it to me in exchange for a nightgown. I had had the foresight to make sure their outfits could all be sorted in a single load of laundry. But this still meant I had to wash, dry and fold them each night before I went to bed. And this was on top of the big new task I had given myself of packing away everything else. More work for me, when I rarely keep up with all my regular work.

The next day went on much as the first. Their closets were cleaned out, but I still had a mound of dirty clothes I'd picked off their floor, and nowhere to put them once they were washed. At bedtime the second night, the kids cheerfully handed me their clothes. "I like this!" said the eight-year-old. "It's so much easier."


By day three, my commitment to this project was lagging. To make it work, I really needed to be supervising a brief cleaning of the bedroom each day, but I was too swamped. We planned to go swimming this day with grandma too, so now I had to find the swimsuits in the clothes I had folded. I was pulling out the swimsuits when the worst happened.

A stomach virus hit.

I will spare you the horrifying details. I will just say that with only one pair of pants, and all the others packed away, my children began to... uh... desperately need to change their clothes. The trip to the bathroom stretched to twenty-six miles long, and my girls were running that marathon several times an hour. Sometimes unsuccessfully. I dragged the top-bunk mattresses onto the bedroom floor (at least there was room now) so that precious seconds were not wasted climbing down the ladder on the way to the Room of Necessity.

My most loathed household task is unnecessary laundry. Washing clothes the children leave on the floor for days without ever having worn it makes me howl in frustration. Now I was in the world of frantically necessary laundry.  Those single favorite toys now needed the washing machine too ("he's going to the spa!").

Now here we are, one week into our experiment, and I think we can all pronounce it a failure. The little kids are running around in their underwear, and the big girls are fending for themselves with whatever they can find from the dryer. The virus appears to be done with us, but not all the children have had it, so I am nervous about taking them out of the house. There was very little warning last time it struck.

So my plan has not worked. They have not learned to keep order in their room. But I think they have learned that they don't need as much stuff as they thought they did. When I look at how they clean the common areas, I realize that they work more diligently at that because they have hope they can finish it. The task is accomplishable. Their room has so much junk, cleaning it feels overwhelming.

So when I throw in the towel this week and put all their stuff back, I am not putting it all back. They don't need as many clothes as they have. I am simplifying even more to something they can manage.

But until I find the time to do that, the only orderly kids' bedroom I have will be on Pinterest.
No one lives in this room.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

You know what I hate? When someone promises you a blog series and then disappears for over a month. I hate that.

The children have been sick for weeks. Make that months. One disease would pass through the family, and as soon as they were over it, there would be another. They've had the flu, ear infections, eye infections, scarlet fever (we think - doc wasn't sure), ringworm, and until yesterday, an unidentified, explosive gastro-intestinal virus. I did not know we could be sick so much. The doctor started ending our visits with, "Hope I don't see you next week!"

Today two of them have colds, but that feels like nothing.

So here I am, slowly digging out from under the pile of laundry (OH THE LAUNDRY) and poking my head up to say hello. Now that life feels less like struggling through waist-deep mud (or even less appealing substances), I hope to be back and writing soon.

See you then.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why I Am Reformed

The other day Sherri Edman called me the nicest Calvinist she knows. I smiled at that, because I've known Sherri and Peter long enough by now to hear a little subtext to that description. It's one of those statements that is not entirely a compliment.

It's not unusual. When people talk about "Calvinists" or "the Reformed," there is often a tinge of suspicion. My non-Presbyterian friends direct certain expressions of bafflement my way. It's somewhere between "Gosh, you're smarter than I expected for a Nascar fan" and "I never expected anyone as pleasant as you to torture small animals for sport."

 One of the lovelier consequences of Reformed theology is that you don't have to be concerned with changing people's minds. Very freeing. But since I am trying to get back into the swing of blogging regularly and I am casting about for subjects, it occurred to me that a series of posts about why I 'm Reformed might shed some light on a subject that you've wondered about.

So if everything you know about Reformed theology comes from your high-school reading of The Scarlet Letter and you're wondering how high our congregation's pillory is, or if the word "predestination" sends fatalistic chills up your spine and you can't reconcile that with the way I'm always jabbering on about love, stop on by for the next week or two. I'll try to put a friendly face above that Geneva collar.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More than being right

Pick one: 

A. God is good.

B. Look at those people over there who don't believe that God is good. We must resist them before they ruin everything.

I spent some time reading arguments in the blogosphere this week. This is the junk food of Christian theology. Chest-thumping, testosterone-fueled debates in which clever people try to convince you that those people over there are threatening everything. They will be the downfall of the church! I almost stopped being a Christian because of them! Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party!

I used to think that this style of faith-as-conflict was strictly a male phenomenon. God, in his mercy, used the internet to correct my sexism. That tricksy God. Won't even let me keep my smug little prejudices.

There is a particular bent to these arguments, reflected in the choice above. You can say a true thing, or you can portray a war in which you, brave warrior, are marshaling the forces of good against the forces of evil. The particular occasion of the conflict almost doesn't matter. What matters is that people observe you leaping into the fray, being right.

There are people who love the truth, and there are people who love being right. While anyone who has ever been married knows that sometimes we can belong to either group, the nature of internet arguments often encourages one over the other. One makes better theater than the other.

One of the reasons I love Ann Voskamp's blog is how thoroughly she refuses to engage in option B. Her faith is expressed in the small particularities of an incarnate life, not in trouncing designated enemies.  It is lovely, and ultimately does more to create a solid sense of the good than the endless wrangling of the arguers ever accomplished. It has been an example to me more than once.

The argument I read this week was over the Problem of Evil, an irresolvable debate if ever there was one.  How can a good God allow evil to happen? Why do good people suffer unjustly? The attempts to resolve this are no more successful than they've ever been. One group redefines evil to mean good, apparently believing that will let God off the hook. The other redefines God to be something smaller and less responsible, an affable spirit buddy who means well, but can only do so much. Nobody solves the problem in the terms given, because no one can.

But there is no passion like the passion of someone convinced that their inadequate solution is better than your inadequate solution. Grab the popcorn, watch the fireworks. Call him a sociopath and call her a sinner in rebellion. Bronze your humilities and mount them on the wall; point at them to show  you're better than your opponent. Someone must surely win (won't they?) and it's important it be you. Everything depends on it.

Job lost everything, and he cried out to God. His friends argued for days, certain that the rightness of the world was threatened by Job's questions. But their arguments blew away on the wind, and the  answer to Job's cries - the only satisfaction - was the presence of God.

I don't have an answer to the problem of evil. But if Job was answered by the presence of God, then the only thing we can offer is to be the presence of God in someone's life. The quiet, loving friend, the tender mother, the faithful wife. It doesn't solve the insoluble, and it won't make anyone applaud you for being right or winning a war. Nobody becomes president of a seminary or makes the best-seller list by holding the hand of someone in pain.

But it says that God is good. Here, here is goodness: baked and covered in this casserole dish, shining in this stack of clean laundry, ringing in that phone when you're lonely. God is good, my letter says, even if the words aren't printed on it. God is good, I hear in that familiar joke from a much-missed friend, who suddenly stopped by. Not watch me win, but God is good.

That's all I want to say.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


The flu doesn't die easy. I told my feverish five-year-old a few days ago that there was a war going on in her body. She had been invaded, and her white blood cells were inventing weapons that very minute to bash the bad germs. Soon they would be experts at beating those germs, and her sickness would go away.

And it worked. We are all much better. Sniffling and coughing still, but well on our way to wholeness. The doc has cleared the children to return to school, and our naps are getting fewer. A sore throat lingers for me, though, and I asked my husband to make me a hot toddy.

My husband's hot toddies are dangerous. They taste good, they soothe the throat and ease the coughing. But they are deceptively powerful. One means I am in for the night. Two means it will be an early night.

So I am nursing my toddy and watching the fifth season of The West Wing. Unlike the toddy, it is absolutely awful. Hard to believe that show could tank so badly and still go on for two more seasons. Now that I mention it, it's a lot like this virus. Bad television as flu experience. I'm seeing medical schools showing the last three seasons of The West Wing to teach sympathy for infectious disease patients.

We have church tomorrow, but I will probably need to stay home. I'm not quite ready to trust this coughing body to the public. I'm a forty-year-old mother of four and... I don't need to explain, do I? Let's just call it The West Wing Effect.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Thought That Counts

This past December I had an idea on facebook. Instead of sending out holiday cards (which I never do because it makes me crazy), I would give a personalized book recommendation to each of my facebook friends. I have about 150 friends on facebook (I deliberately keep my list small), and I would suggest a different book for each of them, a book I imagined they would like.

It took me over a month, but it was a lot of fun. I kept a list, and I mulled over book ideas for an hour or so every day. I like thinking about books, so this was no hardship. I thought about the tastes and personality and history of the people I knew, I read a few more books to expand my own palate, and I finished my list in early January.

I was surprised at how people reacted to this. It seemed such a small thing to me, and I was a little concerned that my friends would be annoyed by it. But if anyone was, they were kind enough not to say so. Instead, some of my friends were sentimental in their thanks. It was a pleasant surprise. After all, I wasn't actually buying the book.

It is easy to forget how lonely the world is. Or rather, it's easy to believe that the world isn't as lonely for other people as it is for ourselves. Other people must have lives filled with community and fellowship and easy, graceful camaraderie, right? Loneliness must be unique to me. I have been surprised how many people assume that their friendships only exist by fragile accident.

But they don't. Look, I am a mildly grumpy introvert with four small children, easily exhausted by social interaction and having little time to pursue it. If I am in your life, it's because I want to be. If I have a kind word or a friendly welcome for you, it is meant. I'm not flawless, but when I hurt people it's by accident. If I know your name and I smile when I see you, it's because I'm actually glad you're here. Sincere friendships already test my introverted energy; artificial friendships feel like death to me. They are not in my tool set.

My friends are not friends by chance. I can chalk up that first meeting to Providence, but I kept at it because I like you. At the risk of sounding pompous and maudlin, I chose you. And it means the world to me that in some fashion, you chose me back.

I am not a New Year's resolution kinda person. But if I can suggest one thing to keep in mind this year, it's that most people are lonelier than you think. Most of us wonder if we really matter to that other person. Everyone feels on a hard day that they must have been forgotten. The ripples from small kindnesses can be huge.

Even if it's only knowing that someone thought about you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Flu and Gratitude

We are all on the mend, but tired and cranky. Everyone caught the flu in the end, but my youngest daughter's breathing remained clear despite the cough, for which I am grateful. Thank you for your prayers.

I take a nap between each household task. Dose out the medicine; take a nap. Load the dishwasher; take a nap. My husband has been well enough to fix soup and toast for the kids. I have eaten about a dozen crackers over the last two days, which is enough to keep me alive, apparently.

My husband claims that if our marriage is ever in trouble, he will move us all to Iceland. He says I love him more when it's cold. And he says life gets very simple in Iceland: you need to find food and stay warm, and everything else is optional. I'm sure there are many Icelanders with complicated lives who could correct him, but it rings true about a house with the flu. Things have been very simple here this week. Keep the kids' fevers down, keep them hydrated, and rest. Everything else was an extra we could ignore.

Last night we watched The Aristocats, each of the four kids on a chair or the couch, quietly curled under a blanket. The only movement was the taking of turns in my lap. Everyone wants Mama's arms when they are sick. I looked around at my slowly mending family, and I felt so grateful for all the things that let us heal. We are blessed with so many things we could not earn, so many complicated, wonderful things that let us keep our life so simple this week. And because this is my blog and I get to say whatever I want, and because I'm coming off the flu so I know you'll all be extra patient with me, I'll end this post with listing the many things I am grateful for that made surviving the flu a relatively easy thing for this family.

A solid home
A relatively safe country
Running water
Reliable heat
Analgesics and fever-reducers
A fully operational immune system
Children's cartoons
Crackers and soup made by someone else in a factory somewhere
Reliable medical advice
Loving family and friends

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

We have the flu.

3 of us are sick. The other 3 haven't caught it yet. I'd appreciate your prayers. I am especially concerned about my youngest. She has not caught this yet, but she is prone to croup, so any respiratory illness means she has difficulty breathing.

I'll be back in a few days.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Making Myself Sit

Tonight after the homework was done, I sat on the couch with the kids while they watched The Lorax. I didn't sit for the whole movie, but for the first twenty minutes I stayed put, with children sitting on and around me. Their giggles are more intense, I have noticed, when I watch with them.

I hate the Lorax. I would never watch it by choice. And I don't sit down to watch movies much. There is always too much to do. Movies and videos are things I watch while doing housework, something to take the edge off time-consuming tasks that bore me.

My mother is a fiercely energetic woman who rarely sat down in my childhood. She was always active, always doing. The few tv shows that could tempt her to sit on the couch with us became events. I watched Remington Steele curled up next to her on the couch, even though she did not approve of Mr. Steele. "Oh," she would say when asked why she watched it anyway, "this show grows on you." A rerun of the original Start Trek might persuade her to sit for a while ("Oh, that Captain Kirk has such blue eyes"), and I once watched an old Humphrey Bogart movie with my head on her shoulder. I don't remember which one it was, but I remember Bogart made her heart beat faster.

There is always so much to do. It feels like nothing is ever done. But those thirty-year-old memories of my mother are precious to me, even now when she lives a mile away. They will be even dearer when she is gone.

So I sit on the couch and watch The Lorax. I laugh at the giggles, if not at the movie, and I hope some day my girls will remember this moment too.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Love lasts

I love the laziness of Saturdays.

I don't set the alarm. The girls want me to be in bed when they wake. On school days there is no time for snuggles, so Saturday they come running to my room. The spots on either side of me are the enviable ones, so they are claimed first. The youngest and the lightest are allowed to lie on top of me with their heads on my shoulder if they want. Whoever is last tucks herself into the crook of my knees. This is how we spend the first half hour of our weekend.

My husband makes coffee for me and cocoa for the girls. Sometimes they turn on a video right away. Today they didn't. They played in their room, all four together, some elaborate pretend-game with all their favorite stuffed animals. I made bacon, eggs and toast, and they came running when they caught the smell.

We are full of breakfast, warm and content. The girls are still playing, and their games weave in and out of each other's, sometimes together, sometimes alone. At this moment, my five-year-old has borrowed her sister's cape and is racing around the house to make it billow behind her. The nine-year-old and seven-year-old are playing senet. The four-year-old, who will not dress unless I tell her to, is cutting paper into snowflakes. In another moment, they will all be somewhere else, doing some other thing with a different sister.

I love the laughter in my home. There are screams too, and whines and shouts and sobs. But right now my home is full up to the rafters with laughter. If you wonder why people have kids, or why people have more than one, or why all the work and grief of parenthood seems worth it to someone, why that beautiful friend of yours whose clothes used to match now wears spit-up stains - the answer is here, in my house, on Saturday morning.

Or maybe it isn't. Not every home gets these moments. Some children never get old enough to laugh, or never have the awareness. If the gamble of parenting is that days like this make it worth the pain, then some people lose that bet.

Almost twenty years ago I sat at a bagel place with some friends for breakfast. They were both new wives; I was newly engaged. They both said they never wanted children; I was open to the idea. When we talked about whether we wanted children and why, I said that I wanted children for the same reason I was getting married: because I had become convinced that loving and living with someone was how most of us become good people. Faithfully loving someone over years rasps off our sharp edges, makes us kinder and more patient. Loving children, I supposed, must change us even more.

One friend's response was immediate. "That's selfish, " she said. "That's just having children for yourself."

I blinked, and gave it up as one of those conversations where we couldn't understand each other. Once you are told that committing to relationships that make you less selfish is selfish, there aren't many places for a conversation to go. (Years later, she did have children, so maybe we'd have a more lively discussion today.)

I've thought of that conversation over the years, and the reasons I gave. I still think that having children because it changes you for the better is a decent reason. But it's not the reason I think of most. Instead, I think more and more of the world to come.

Here's where faith comes in: love lasts. Rejection and death and loss happen, but love lasts. The idea of the Kingdom of God - or at least, one of the many complex ideas in the Kingdom of God - is that God has established his kingdom through Jesus, is building it through us, and will complete it when Jesus returns. My every act of love and service is a brick used to build that kingdom. What I do for my daughters, through the mystery of God, becomes an eternal part of that kingdom. My acts of faithfulness to friends, or kindness to strangers, or forgiveness for someone who hurt me - these are not dead-end acts. They are making something that lasts, even if I don't understand exactly how.

The Jesus who brings wholeness to the world also unites present and future, making our present acts have eternal significance.  Wonderful days like today are not the reason I had children. I am profoundly grateful for this day, but if it never happened, my decision to be a parent would not be less wise. Serving someone else builds a world I haven't seen, but long to.

At the end of the day, the end of this day, the end of the final day - love lasts.

Friday, January 11, 2013

7 Quick Takes

Here are 7 Quick Takes about my week. The meme is hosted over at Conversion Diary.

1.  I did not blog yesterday! I meant to. I took the computer to the living room, turned on an old episode of Poirot, and got comfortable on the couch. The next thing I remember was my husband saying, "Sharon! Sharon, you're asleep. You're about to drop the computer. Go upstairs and go to bed." So I did.

Maybe that shows a lack of commitment to blogging.  I prefer to think of it as a strong commitment to sleep. A friend and companion as dear as sleep deserves commitment.

2. I took my youngest to the grocery store today. I foolishly let her bring her sister's favorite toy inside. She left it at the store. I have already called the store, but they haven't found it yet.

Nine years into parenthood and I am still making rookie mistakes. There will be tears when school is over. Not mine. Well, not at first.

3. In other grocery store adventures, I bought a fancy German candy bar that I thought was milk chocolate with almonds. I took my first bite and discovered it was instead milk chocolate with amaretto-flavored marzipan. If dictionaries defined words by food, this one would be next to the word "anti-climactic." (And, as I said on twitter a few days ago, white chocolate is the taste of disappointment. Obviously.)

The silver lining here is that my calorie count for the day just fell by a couple hundred, because there is no way I am putting that thing in my mouth again. Blechh. Anybody want some chocolate?

4. On the way to the grocery store, my youngest kept singing  "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer," but she rewrote it to include lines about Santa's underwear.

I give up.

5. I have written and deleted a paragraph about my husband's employer three times because it seems unwise to print it, especially now that I blog under my real name. Instead, I'll suggest you read James 5. Scripture has more wisdom than I do anyway.

And that's all I have to say about that.

6. Have you heard my friend Liz Bowater sing? She and some other local musicians got together to make an album of Christmas music to raise money for a local charity, United Ministries of Northern Kentucky. They provide all sorts of aid to families in our area. I especially like "Christmas for Everyone" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

7. We are reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for my book group. It was published in 1997, which means for fifteen years there's been a sci-fi novel about Jesuit missionaries in space and no one told me. Someone dropped the ball. That's all I'm sayin'.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drip, drip, drip

Like everyone and their brother, I am trying to write a novel. That's how I always say it: like everyone and their brother. Like it gets me off the hook. Don't expect too much, it says. I'm only dabbling. But I'm not dabbling. It's work, and I mean it.

I'm also not being strictly truthful when I say I'm writing a novel.  The truth is that I've started three, as well as a book of essays. These were my first efforts at writing a book, and I learned the hard way that starting is much easier than finishing. So there are these four books, scattered in bits and pieces on my computer and in journals, waiting to be worked on and finished.

I don't know where it comes from, this fear. Steven Pressfield, who has written as well about the creative process as anybody out there, says we're afraid of success. I'm not so sure.  It feels more like that shaky feeling you got when you liked a boy but didn't want to show it because he might not like you back. I feel wobbly, like if I show too much enthusiasm you all might point and chant, "Sharon's writing a nooooooovel! Sharon's writing a nooooooovel!" And then someone would push me off the jungle gym.

I'm only mentioning it now because I promised to post every day while Jennifer's sick. I can write about my family or books (my essays are about both), but the other big thing in my life is this project, this stack of journals, this list of files. My brain returns to it all day long. If I plan for it, I can make myself dream about it (This is the one thing missing from the many books on writing that I have read: manipulating your subconscious into resolving plot or character problems in your dreams. Many thanks to Beck for this excellent piece of advice).

I am stuck right now. I need a good solid weekend with a working printer (our kids sat on ours and broke it), an internet connection and a lot of coffee. Life with small children means I am unlikely to get it. I keep telling myself that next year, when all four of the kids will be in school, will be my productive year. That keeps me from getting too frustrated, even if it isn't actually true.

Rabbi Akiva began studying Torah well into adulthood, unlike most of his colleagues. He famously saw a rock which was being hollowed out by years of slowly dripping water. "Am I dumber than a rock?" he asked himself. Bit by bit, he could learn anything, like water shaping a rock, so he began to study.

Bit by bit, I tell myself, I can write anything. For now, I carry a pen and a journal in my purse, and I use any unoccupied moments to jot down sentences. It's not enough, but it's still words. Eventually, I hope, there will be enough of them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cleaning Out the Furnace Room

Jennifer Fulwiler, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Conversion Diary, is pregnant and ill with blood clots in her lungs. She expects to recover, but it will take months. In the meantime, she is reading lots of blogs. If I lived in the same town as Jennifer, I would bring her soup or invite her kids over to my house for an afternoon. I don't live in Jennifer's town, so the next best thing I can do is write frequently on the blog to entertain her. Here we go.

Yesterday I cleaned out the furnace room. We call it the furnace room because it contains the furnace.  We're literalists, that way. We could also call it the room of unidentified junk we step over to get to the furnace if it stops working. That would be more accurate. Or maybe the room of the sneaky condenser leak that ran under the basement carpet along the wall for two months until it molded. That gives it some history. Clearly it's a room of adventure.

But I cleaned it out this week. I threw out two suitcases with holes in them. I threw out parts to a stroller we gave away years ago, and empty boxes from appliances that broke five years ago. I threw out styrofoam and plastic sheeting. My husband loaded two headboards, four bed frames, and an old rug into my dad's truck and I drove them to Goodwill. I don't know how we crammed all that junk into the furnace room. I also don't know why.

Besides all the junk, we keep our tools in the furnace room. Most of them. The ones that aren't left  under the sink or in a tin can on a shelf or deep down between the couch cushions. After I cleaned out the junk, I started sorting the tools. This was challenging, since I didn't know what several of them were. But I got them more or less organized: things that tighten, things that pound, things that are sharp, things that are rough, things I can't identify.

I cleaned and organized and tried to simplify. Still, I could not bring myself to throw away screws and nails. There are pounds and pounds of screws and nails in that basement. Why do I keep them? Am I planning to begin a rash of home carpentry projects? Perhaps using the tools I can't identify! I bet they take extra screws.

Unless the handful of frames I have hanging on my walls inexplicably increase in mass and require an additional 127 nails apiece to hold them up, I am in no danger of running out.