On the Road: Traveling Tales

Traveling would be easier if you could send your house ahead of you and meet up with it when you arrived at your destination. The reunion would be sweet. All your stuff would remain how you always keep it, just in a new location. Crammed minivans, wrinkled clothes, and forgotten toothbrushes would be a thing of the past.

As a lover of all things neat and organized and structured, I'd enjoy this. Still, something valuable would be lost.

When we loaded up our van Saturday morning, even our two-year-old discerned that something was different, that we weren't just taking a quick trip to the grocery store. She climbed into her car seat while we were still packing, kicked her feet, and announced, "Brooke go. Brooke go 'cation." She knew that excitement lay ahead, and she wanted to be a part of it.

Two-and-a-half hours later when we stopped (for the first time), the mood in the van had deteriorated. Legs needed to be stretched. Tummies needed to be fed. Diapers needed to be changed. Joel took the older two girls into the rest stop while I nursed Kerrington in the van.

Within a few minutes another van pulled into the parking spot beside ours. The doors opened and a travel-weary family emerged. I only had a few moments to observe them, but they could have been our family -- any traveling family, really. The toddler in the backseat with a leg slung over the side of the car seat, arm clutching a beloved stuffed puppy, head nestled sideways, and eyes blinking heavily to shake off the ill-timed, disrupted sleep that likely provided just enough rest to ruin any chances of a legitimate nap during the remainder of the trip. The child who could only find one shoe. The mother who dropped her purse while searching for her wallet, scattering its contents onto the already messy van floor. The father who'd been hoping that they would have been another thirty miles down the road before needing to stop.

One family's minivan served as the microcosm of all traveling families: the whining, the bustle, the map and GPS. How many families in America were currently en route to vacation, simultaneously full of anticipation and steeped in the disorder that's inherent in a road trip? How many children had asked if they were "there" yet? How many parents had threatened to turn around right now if the arguing didn't stop? How many siblings had drawn invisible lines in the back seat to stop the other from encroaching into their rightful territory?

No matter the travel destinations, these elements are universal. Forgotten toothbrushes and all.


The Big Pieces

The other night we rearranged our living room furniture. When I say "we," I really mean that Joel rearranged the furniture while I sat on the couch, nursed the baby, and offered suggestions. (He's a very good husband.) Normally I would have tackled a project like this myself, asking for assistance only to shimmy the cumbersome entertainment system or slide the full-sized couch, but this time I simply observed the process.

I'm not good at visualizing. When we built our house a few years ago and walked through the open expanse before studs were hammered and drywall was hung, I relied on Joel's verbal descriptions to bring the blueprints to life. This opening will be the hall closet, and now we're entering the kitchen, he'd say. I'd walk beside him, nodding as he spoke, but until the rooms and walls and carpets became tangible, I never had an accurate sense of how the layout would actually look. He always did.

The same went for rearranging the furniture yesterday. When I suggested positioning the loveseat in front of the window, he intrinsically knew that it would obstruct the flow of the room. I needed to see it before I could make the same judgment. So Joel slid the loveseat there and back again, patiently letting me come to the conclusions he had already drawn.

Despite my inability to visualize, there is one thing we both understand: the big pieces need to be moved first. We knew to situate the couch, angle the loveseat, and plant the entertainment center before locating the right spots for the end table and the floor lamp. We knew in advance to carry away the bins of toys and pick up the miscellaneous sippy cups, books, and balled up socks that had littered the floor. Simply put, we knew to remove the clutter.

This is a lot like life. Knowing what the "big pieces" are helps you to situate your priorities and align your actions accordingly. When I pinpoint my big pieces -- my husband, my children, my friends, my faith -- I more easily understand how my life should be arranged. With this perspective a minor concern becomes like the placement of an end table. It's not worthy of taking up valuable space in my heart, just like an end table doesn't deserve the prime spot in a room.

Had we positioned the small pieces first or attempted the rearrangement while tiptoeing around the clutter, we likely would have run out of space for those pieces that were actually important.

In terms of furniture, this would be frustrating. In terms of life, tragic. I'm determined to identify and focus on the big pieces and let the small ones be as they ought: nice accents, good additions, or pleasant distractions -- not focal points.

Lights Out: Sleep Granted

Have you ever noticed that you're the worst version of yourself when you're sleep deprived? I speak words more sharply, make decisions less rationally, feel emotions more tumultously, and to be honest, am less pleasant to be around.

 Mothers of young children direly need the physical, mental, and emotional well-being that sleep provides, and ironically, at this time -- especially during the early infant stage -- we notoriously lack sustained sleep. (When you think that four consecutive hours constitutes a "good night," you know that your perception is off.)

The result? Less patience. More tears. Incoherent sentences. (Just this past weekend while at a picnic with neighbors I inserted the word "chicken" into a story that had nothing to do with poultry. While I had been talking I had glanced at the grill and my language synapses immediately latched onto the barbequed-goodness, causing me to speak about what I was seeing rather than sustaining my original thought.)

This is why I am so encouraged when I read Psalm 127:2, knowing that "God grants sleep to those he loves." Even though I will wake tonight, groggily make my way to the bassinet, and nurse the baby while the rest of my house is hushed and dark, I can still pull up the covers and rest securely in this.

A Fresh Look

Every so often I’m surprised by the fact that I have three kids. While wiping down the kitchen table or adhering a band aid, I’ll occasionally take a good look at one of the girls, suck in my breath, and think, Where did you come from, child? I’ve grown so accustomed to their noises, their messes, and their company that I forget that they once weren’t here. Their absence would be striking, but their presence is so familiar that it’s easy to take for granted.

This is why I like moments of being wholly attuned, moments that astound me with a fresh look at a child, moments that allow me to mutter a genuinely flabbergasted, “Well, I’ll be…”

Such a moment came last week when Reese discovered Silly Bandz. It was love at first awkwardly-contoured, amorphous outline of (what we think is) a leprechaun. For those of you not familiar with Silly Bandz, they are bracelets that, once taken off your wrist, can be shaped into various objects: cars, fruit, letters, pets, farm animals, sea animals, zoo animals, safari animals, or in the case of Reese’s first purchase, princesses.

Reese wore hers to the park that afternoon. I watched as she met another girl (slightly older) with a wristful of bands. They immediately climbed to the top of the play set and carefully laid out their bands for display.

I hung back and listened as the girls huddled. Reese never had traded before, and she clearly lacked the bartering skills that would have been useful when a six-year old is working the system to score a flower, a crown, a magic wand, and a princess shoe in exchange for a measly bear.

Still, minutes later Reese came down the slide beaming, “Mommy, I got a bear! That girl gave me a bear!”

I treasured that moment. Reese, my little girl, was old enough to embrace her first fad – much like I once had been caught up in the whirl of jelly shoes and slap bracelets – yet she was still young enough to be entirely uncalculating. By her next trade she already was savvier, trading at a slightly more promising two-for-one ratio. Now she’s a pro.

Clearly, I don’t want my children to remain na├»ve, but in that moment I could see Reese exactly for who she was: a girl who was growing up, simultaneously young and old enough to make me suck in my breath and question, Truly, where did you come from, child?

Now if only that same clarity could be transferred so I could see this Silly Bandz for what it actually is… (a misshapen pineapple? a sideways and painfully inaccurate map of the United States?)


Saying Thanks Gracefully

Near the end of my last pregnancy, I was at the post office with my girls to pick up a package. The line moved slowly, giving us plenty of time to observe the posters of decorative postage stamps in the otherwise plain white environment. The wait also allowed us to watch other customers, especially the young man directly in front of us. Muscular, tattooed calves beneath army cargo shorts. Black sweatshirt with an ominous mixed martial arts logo. Hood pulled up, then pulled down to reveal his shaved head and tattoos along the back of his neck and scalp.

He was tough. I suspect that he could have run though a chain link fence, uninjured.

In between games of "I Spy" and hoisting Brooke higher up my hip, I waited for Reese to begin questioning: Why did that boy color his legs and head? Why is his so shirt mean looking? Instead, as the line circled closer to the front counter, he turned and smiled at the girls. Brooke immediately whispered a sweet, "Hi." Reese told him that we were picking up a package from her grandma, which he then offered to carry since my arms already were full.

Minutes later, the four of us walked to my car. He was graduating in two months (mechanical engineering), teaching karate classes, and job searching. He carefully shut the trunk after lowering our package and kindly closed the door after I had buckled Brooke into her car seat. "Good luck with your pregnancy. You have two really sweet girls," he said.

I thanked him, and then for some unknown reason, tagged on, "They do have their moments, but they're really great girls." As I drove away, I replayed the conversation in my head. Why, upon receiving such an authentic compliment, did I add a disclaimer to my acceptance of it? It's not the only time I have done this.

I'm not the only one who does it, either. Many women hesitate to accept compliments with the same simplicity in which they're given.

I like your shirt. Oh, thank you. I picked it up at the thrift store.

You look like you've lost weight. Yeah, I still have some more pounds to go, though.

Nice hair cut! Thanks, it's not bad today, but you should see it when it's humid out.

Dismissing or discrediting a compliment robs pleasure from the person who offered it. In my case, it also stole the opportunity for my girls to be genuinely praised for good behavior while waiting in line. I've determined that it's important to learn the art of accepting compliments for what they are, to gracefully say thanks -- and then to say nothing more. No explanations, no false modesty, no utterances of real doubt. To just accept.

As we drove away from the post office, we passed the young man on the street. Reese, Brooke, and I each waved. "He was a really nice boy, wasn't he, Mommy?" Reese asked.

Yes, yes he was. Period.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Mother

Last month I had a baby, our third girl. Last week the adrenaline wore off.

Adrenaline always surges when a new baby arrives. Those initial days are filled with phone calls and visitors, extensive picture-taking and meals delivered from kind neighbors, gift bags and thank you notes. You comment on impossibly tiny diapers. You marvel at the pink (or blue) fuzz in your dryer lint trap.

Everything about bringing a child into the world suspends normal life -- the anxious drive to the hospital, the glorious moment when you first clutch your wrinkled, squirming newborn in your exhausted arms, and the day-or-two-long hospital stay that's punctuated by shifts in nursing staff rather than the natural ebb and flow of a nondescript day at home.

Despite being sore and sleep-deprived, the experience is new and fresh -- even when it's your third child.  It's tiring, but atypical.  It's exciting and distinctive.

Still, it doesn't entirely feel real.

There comes a point when life with a newborn does feel real, the point when you realize that the baby is a permanent fixture in your home. The sheer repetition of nursing every two-and-a-half to three hours day and night depletes your energy. The disjointed schedule prohibits extended activity and sustained thought.  he newborn diapers are no longer cute when you've changed ten of them that day.  The lint in the dryer no longer makes you pause when you're tossing yet another load into the dryer.

Each day is fragmented into cycles and mirrors the previous day. If you have older children, you find yourself rolling Play-Doh with one hand while soothing the crying baby with the other, or climbing the stairs to investigate the thud and scream from your toddler's bedroom while the baby is still nursing, a feat in and of itself.

This is what's real.

And sometimes you simply need a break from reality.

This was the case for me last week. It had been an exhausting day with all three girls, and by evening I needed to step away. My husband suggested that I go for a drive.   backed out of our driveway, pulled onto the road, weakly held up my hand to greet my neighbor, and then, once I was positive that I was out of sight, I rolled down the windows and let myself cry. Hard.

When I returned home, my neighbor -- a man who owns his own excavating business and who, to my knowledge, has never been seen in any apparel besides a red tee shirt, jeans, and work boots -- still lingered in his yard.

I wiped my eyes. I was in no frame of mind to talk with anyone. As I stepped out of the car, he looked my way and offered, "You just needed to get out for a moment, huh?"

I nodded, my throat suddenly tight, as he continued, "I've seen that look before. It's going to be okay."

I hadn't known how much I needed that simple encouragement until I stumbled upon it. Sometimes you don't know what you need, and occasionally you'll only realize it after it comes from an unlikely source.

Perhaps you've stumbled upon this blog and you're feeling uncertain, weary, or discouraged. In many ways I feel as if I've stumbled upon this blog -- this very first post -- as a way to sort through life and motherhood and all that it entails, as a way to remind myself of those very words.

It's all going to be okay. I'll take that to heart.
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