The Ordinary Day

This day should feel special.  There should be an of aura of importance marking our every action.  But, there isn't.  It's just turning out to be an average day, a typical day, an everyday, even though it happens to be Reese's last day of summer before she goes to kindergarten.  We've had a typical breakfast, a typical snack, and we're currently having a typical afternoon.

It's probably better this way.

Even though Reese knows that something different is on the imminent horizon of her little life, she really can't grasp all that it entails.  Starting school gets the ball rolling.  Tomorrow she'll ride the bus for the first time, and then we'll blink and she'll be learning fractions, memorizing state capitals, writing essays, attending middle school dances, asking for the car keys, taking calculus, and turning her tassel from the right to the left before she tosses her cap in that arms-wide-open-to-all-that-life-has-to-offer manner that eighteen-year-olds embody.

Then I'll open the first college tuition bill, and maybe, just maybe, I'll remember that there once was a very ordinary day when I got my first packet of information from Reese's elementary school, a packet that that outlined new processes like buying school lunches and writing excuses for absences, a packet that she doodled on with a freshly-sharpened pencil as she sat entirely unselfconsciously in my lap, slipping her little hand into my own.

So even if today remains entirely ordinary in every other regard, I'm always going to try to remember it.

Timely Words

Recently I was pulled aside by an older gentleman as I was leaving a restaurant.  e commented on how well-behaved the girls were and how nice it was to be seated near our table. It was the perfect compliment at the perfect time. Earlier in the afternoon I had suspected that they actually were feral little creatures -- really cute ones, of course -- but I didn't admit this to the man. I just thanked him with a wide, goofy grin on my face and walked with a lilt in my step back to our van.

Sometimes the smallest encouragement at precisely the right time can make a large difference in someone's day.

This man's well-timed compliment reminded me of the concept of kairos, something that I teach in one of my rhetoric classes. In simplest form, kairos is a way of looking at time -- not chronologically, but rather in terms of opportunity. Kairos is an opportune time, an advantageous time, a critical time when acting or speaking out acting can make a difference.

Sometimes it's easier to understand kairos by looking at its absence rather than its fulfillment. We've all had moments when we can't think of what to say, only to come up with the perfect words moments later as we're walking away from the situation. But by then we're too late. The words are no longer timely, no longer appropriate. The window of opportunity has shut. We've missed kairos.

Last week I recorded an essay that I had written for our local radio station's This I Believe program. When I finally listened to the recording, I cringed a little. I'm unaccustomed to the sound of my own voice. Although the producer assured me that a slow speaking rate is best for listeners, in my estimation, my pacing was too slow at the onset -- the verbal equivalent of taking a walk with my two-year-old up our street when she gets sidetracked by pebbles and individual blades of grass, a pace where I'm glad to be holding onto the stroller for stability since it's easy to lose balance when it takes that long to put my left foot in front of my right.

Yes, that slow.

I thought about it throughout the day, not entirely satisfied with my performance.

That night I took the girls at the park again. A lovely older woman stopped to let my girls pet her dog, and we began to talk. At the tail end of our conversation, she sideswiped me with this comment:

"I was listening to you speak with you girls before I stopped. You have a very gentle way of talking with them, a very kind voice."

Right then and there, I was amazed. Exactly when I had been harping on a perceived deficiency, this stranger suggested that it was a strength.

A kind voice. I'll take that. 

What a timely word.

But It's a Musical

Five years ago when I stared, awestruck, into the newborn face of my first daughter Reese, I wondered with loving, new-mother curiosity what her voice would sound like.  

Earlier this evening as I drove the girls to a local park, I only wondered what silence would sound like.

Kerrington cried her little baby cries, ones that sound more like the bleating of a goat than the wails of an infant.  Brooke sang the alphabet, repeating "h-i-j-k-l-m-n-o-p" (which, by far, is her favorite segment of that song) for minutes, alternating with humming and asking "What's that?"  Reese, now relegated to the back of the minivan, shouted questions at me above the noise, questions that demanded lengthy answers that also needed to be shouted back. 

This is the stuff of Advil commercials.

With how much our girls sing, I occasionally feel as if Joel and I have been flung into a living musical -- one that runs constantly in our household like White Christmas runs on AMC from Thanksgiving until New Years.  Reese converts perfectly normal sentences -- sentences like "What are we having for dinner?" and "You do know that I really, really, really like pizza, right?" -- into a musical reprise, a practice that makes all daily activities fodder for lyrics.  Going to the bathroom before leaving the house?  She'll sing about it.  Unable to find her shoes?  She'll burst into song.

Not that any five-year-old is a streamlined storyteller, but it now takes forever for her to complete a story.  She breaks her narratives into stanzas and intersperses them with repeated choruses.  Very little makes sense.  One of her most recent numbers merged the themes of Australia, cucumbers, playing in the dirt, and the woes of having to share.  The occasional guttural cry of I'm a rock star, yeah yeah, I'm a rock star punctuated it all.

I'm sure in her mind, this is all perfectly normal.  I mean, why talk when you can sing?

Come to think of it, this is yet another reason why Kerrington, as the third child, can sleep through nearly anything, whereas Reese, who spent her infancy in a house where her parents did not routinely burst into spontaneous songs rivaling the decibel output of a jackhammer or an Aerosmith concert, could be woken by the faintest sound, say, a cotton ball dropping onto a piece of felt.

Things I Can't Do

I had a small meltdown the other night.  As I was getting ready for bed I thought about Reese’s first day of kindergarten.  I visualized her climbing the steps to the school bus, her small face peering out at me from her window and disappearing from view as the bus pulled away.  Couple this with the fact that I had just packed away Kerrington’s newborn clothes, many of which Reese had worn five years prior.   Each fold of a tiny onesie had hammered the realization that these little girls weren’t getting any smaller.

And then I cried.

It’s just kindergarten, I reasoned.  It’s not like she’s heading to the far reaches of Mongolia with the Peace Corps for a three year stint. They’re just onesies, I reminded myself. It’s not like the baby is all that mature now that she’s a three-month-old.

But I still cried.  (In case you were wondering, crying while brushing your teeth is much harder than you might think. Messier, too. I don’t recommend it.)

We’ve been talking about school a lot in our casual conversations to help prepare Reese for what’s coming.  She and I sat on our front porch and discussed the upcoming fall, the image of her stepping onto the bus still fresh in my mind.

Reese looked thoughtful. “You know, I can do a lot of things now, but there are still some things I can’t do.”

“Like what?” I questioned.

“Well, I can’t juggle.  Or do back flips.  At least not yet.” She scratched her knee.  “And I don’t know how to balance a cat up on a stick. I think I might have to be seven or eight for that.”

Of course.

The conversation meandered onto something else entirely, as conversations do, proving that it is impossible to be overly sentimental and wistful while conversing with a five-year-old.

She’s ready for kindergarten.  All that's left is for me to be.

Enough for Today

The start of a school year is marked by a distinct scent. Detected best in the mornings, it’s a mixture of dew saturating the ground and the cling of earthy, still-humid summer air.  One sniff suggests that fall is approaching.  Even if the calendar didn’t reveal that the semester is nearly upon us, I’d know just by the smell of things.

It’s official. Tomorrow I start back to work.

During these past three months at home with the girls, I almost forgot that I have professional side. (I teach public speaking and some writing to college students.)

As I’ve reviewed my rosters and set up my course webpages, I’ve thought about the semester ahead. I’ve imagined walking into my classroom on the first day, all eyes on me, and the silence as I pull out the stack of syllabi before I begin to speak. I’ve envisioned the mounds of grading and the inbox full of student emails awaiting response. I’ve prepped myself for the daily swap of the girls. (My husband watches them in the mornings while I teach, and I watch them during the afternoons and evenings while he works.) I’ve braced myself for the inevitable – that if we add one more thing into any given week: an extra meeting, an unexpected appointment – our tightly-run routine could crumple around us like a house built out of cards.

It all makes me feel a bit tense. I’ve been teaching for a decade (a decade!), yet for some reason, I’m nervous this year. There’s a pit in my stomach as I type.

This is why I’m choosing to think about manna. Manna, in the Old Testament, signified God’s perfect provision – just enough, right on time, every single day. When the Israelites had no food, God rained down manna, bread that they had never seen before. They couldn’t provide it on their own. They couldn’t save any for the next day; it would rot.

This semester, my shortage won’t be of food. I won’t need actual manna for sustenance. But the commodities I will need are time and energy – the time to play with my little ones and to grade assignments, the energy to parent wholeheartedly while at home and to teach wholeheartedly while on campus – without growing drained or frustrated that I feel pulled in several directions.

If I visualize the busyness and work that will characterize these next 16 weeks, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. This is precisely why we don’t live 16 weeks all at once. We live it one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one moment at a time. And that is how God’s provision unfolds – daily, right on time, more than enough.

There will always be enough for today.

Chaperoning Middle School Dances

I once chaperoned a middle school dance.  If middle school is the most awkward point in life (which I strongly argue is the case), then a middle school dance is the pinnacle, the zenith, the apex of awkwardness. When you cram a large number of dressed up, perfumed, hormonal, immature adolescents into a dimly lit cafeteria, everything that follows is bound to be painful to watch.

At this particular dance the awkwardness was so encompassing that it spread onto me, the young, unassuming chaperone. As I made my rounds around the dance floor, I listened as one of the deejays (two men going by the unpromising aliases Chew Dog and Hammie) cued “I Had the Time of My Life” and snagged the microphone to ask someone in the crowd to dance. The entire seventh and eighth grade population pivoted their heads toward the would-be dance partner. Toward me. I looked over my shoulder, thinking he was singling out some other poor soul, but no. In case I still doubted, someone shined a light on me.

The students, who were distracted from thinking about their adolescent selves for this one brief moment, suddenly wanted nothing more than for me to dance with Chew Dog. Or Hammie. Whoever he was.

I quickly realized that there’s no graceful way to decline this type of public invitation. So I did it quite clumsily – shaking my head and blushing, waving my hands no thanks, and finally holding up my left hand and pointing toward my wedding band. And then I did what every girl does when faced with an awkward situation during a middle school dance.

I retreated to the girls’ bathroom.

In one stall there was a girl crying. (Since the dawn of middle school dances, there has yet to be a dance without at least one girl crying in the bathroom.)

I never did learn what caused her tears. Perhaps she didn’t get to dance with the boy she liked. Perhaps her best friend did. But the one thing I do remember was her answer when I asked if she was okay.

“I’m going to be fine,” she said in between sobs.

Clearly, she was not fine. Her mascara was running, her cheeks were tear stained, and her hands clutched balled-up paper towels that she was using as Kleenex. Yet, in her own words, she was going to be fine.

There was something about her declaration that stood out to me then and still stands out now, seven years later. She seemed to know that words have power. (Just see Proverbs 18:21.)

Words have so much power that we often start our morning by making a bold proclamation. We have the girls repeat it with us, reciting in unison this simple sentence: “Today is going to be a good day.”

I’ve declared this sentence when I’ve had pounding headaches, when the girls are fighting, and when a child is screaming from time out. I’ve made this declaration on days when I’m absolutely miserable – days when I’d much rather remain miserable, why thank you – since these are the days when I need it the most.

I’m determined to call good days into existence, to teach my children and remind myself that we often can control how a day will go simply by controlling how we react to it.

One morning weeks ago I was nearly in tears as the girls misbehaved, quite positive that I had done nothing right in my five years of motherhood. More out of threatening than out of faith, I stated, “There will be a day in this household when everyone, I mean everyone, is nice to each other!”

Reese looked at me in earnest. “But does it have to be today?”

That kid.

I’ll admit, her honesty caused me to crack a smile, but that morning also made me question if anything is sticking.  With a heavy heart, I wondered whether my children are internalizing the values and lessons that we’ve been teaching, demonstrating, and praying for.

How amazing, then, when Brooke was fussing at the breakfast table the other day and I overheard Reese tell her, “Brooke, repeat after me. ‘Today is going to be a good day.’ Come on, Brookey, say it. It’s going to be a good day.”

Oh yes, I’ll second that. It’s going to be a good day.

Leaping After Looking

I only saw the aftermath: my five-year-old, flattened and crying, on the ground next to the trampoline, my husband lifting her from the ground.  In slow motion, I dropped the plate that I had been holding and ran to her. 

As we inspected for injuries, I asked Joel what had happened.  He looked incredulous.  "I don't know.  She just jumped.  It was the strangest thing."

All the parents at the picnic checked if she was okay.  Someone brought a Ziploc bag full of ice.  The other children, surprisingly quiet for a moment, stared.  I carried her back to the patio, settled her onto my lap, and smoothed her tangled hair.

Now that I'm a mother, I harbor dislike for trampolines.  This is because I have a small part inside of me that still loves them -- that daredevil tendency that landed me in the emergency room on more than one occasion as a child -- and I sense that my kids share that same love, that same disregard for personal safety.  This unnerves me.

Later in the evening the whole story became more apparent.  A young boy had told his mother, a good friend of mine, that he and Reese decided to jump from the trampoline into the tree that was in the backyard.  He had been afraid to try, so in his words, "Reese went first."

Oh, dear, dear daughter mine.

The bellyflop from the trampoline onto the ground now made more sense.  In her mind, she was reaching for a tree branch --  a tree branch that just happened to be 15 feet from the trampoline.  (Obviously, judging distance is not yet one of her strengths.) 

That little girl actually must have thought that she was going to make it. 

At what point in her brief flight, I wonder, did she realize that things weren't going so well -- besides the obvious point when she met the hard earth?

I also wonder when my first gray hair will appear. If she keeps this up, it just might be soon.

A Seed of Concentration

Earlier this morning Reese had been asking -- pleading, really -- to blow bubbles.  In her vernacular, this meant that she wanted me to blow bubbles until I was lightheaded from oxygen deprivation, and she wanted to run through them in the yard.  Brooke, who aspires to do most everything that her older sister does, had pressed her face against our front screen door and stared down the gallon of bubble mix sitting on the porch.  Her thoughts were almost audible: That jug might not last us today.

Spills.  Sticky hands.  Bubble mix in the eyes.  One sibling wrangling the plastic wand from the clenched fist of the other.  Hundreds of iridescent bubbles lazily making their way down our hillside and street. 

It was the typical bubble blowing experience.

And then, by accident, my children's attention turned downward.  One had found a small seed, a cherry pit, perhaps, wedged into a crack in our sidewalk.  Both girls crouched to examine it, their knees bent, their bottoms hovering mere inches above the ground.  I stopped blowing bubbles.

For the next several minutes, my girls worked to excavate that seed from the crack in the sidewalk, first digging their fingers as deeply into the crack as they could, then searching for the perfect twig -- one slender enough to reach, but strong enough to lift -- when they realized that they needed more advanced, delicate tools for the task than their own hands.

Sometimes when I watch Reese flit from one activity to another she reminds me of a hummingbird:   perpetually in motion, yet rarely alighting on one singular purpose for an extended time, rarely zeroing in on one task for focused periods.  This was not the case with the seed.  I scarcely moved in fear that I'd disturb the moment.

Minutes later, Reese approached me and opened her fist to reveal the seed resting in her palm.  "We got it," she said.  She handed it to me then rushed inside to whatever activity was next on her agenda.

Brooke came next and peered at the seed in my own palm.  She gripped it between her finger and her thumb, carried it to the sidewalk, squatted down, and dropped it back into the crack. 

More fun for tomorrow, I presumed, as I watched her race into the house to follow Reese.


It’s counterintuitive that adding one more child into the mix would lessen the workload for a parent, but this seems to be the case when you invite a friend of your child over to play. Sure, there are more kids, but what you lose in the adult-to-child ratio, you gain in free time considering that you are no longer the most desired playmate in the house. Win-win.

Recently we had the pleasure of having one of Reese’s friends visit. She’s one of the sweetest little girls I’ve met. I couldn’t help but listen as the two of them talked with one another, smiling to myself as they discussed what was most important in their lives.

Reese’s friend had learned to snap. She told Reese, “I practiced and practiced in my room. No one knew. It was just my little secret. And then I snapped!” (She doesn’t quite articulate her l’s, so it came out as “yittle secret,” which I simply love. I spoke the exact same way as a child.)

Reese is mesmerized with the snapping – and determined. She spends the next few minutes running her thumb over her fingers as her friend coaches and advises her to keep practicing. Then Reese demonstrates her whistling skills and suggests that they start a band. “I’ll whistle and you’ll snap,” she offers. Her friend agrees.

Clearly, they’re equally impressed with each other’s talents, and they spend the next few minutes talking about what they’ll achieve. After being in the band, her friend says that she’s going to be a gymnastics champion. And a dance champion. Reese chimes in that she’ll win the Word Cup.

You do that, you yittle girls. You do that.

Spare Tickets

My husband received a phone call yesterday as we were finishing a late dinner.  One of his friends had two extra tickets to the evening's baseball game and wanted to know if he'd like them.  Of course he'd like them.  It was the perfect August evening -- warm air, calm breeze, the promise of a beautiful sunset.  Who wouldn't want to go to a ball game on a night like that?

And you know who my husband took to the game?  Our five-year-old.

I was completely deflated.  Logistically, it was impossible for me to go with him.  Even if we scrambled for a babysitter to watch the two older girls and toted the baby with us, we'd be late to the game by the time the sitter arrived.  If we went as a family and bought extra tickets to supplement the freebies, we'd be seated in different sections, our two-year-old would likely melt down into a puddle of exhaustion before the ninth inning, and I'd be sitting in bleacher seats trying to nurse the baby.  It wouldn't have been pretty.

I knew this.  Mentally, that is.  Emotionally, I wanted nothing more to be the one to be the one to head to the stadium, soak up the ballpark atmosphere, and watch the fireworks illuminate the inky black sky at the night’s end.

I felt trapped.

For whatever reason, I've been thinking about my life before children recently.  I try to remember what I did with my time.  There must have been so much time.  I attempt to rekindle the memory of waking up on own accord on a Saturday morning with a blank slate ahead of me.  Joel and I rack our brains with the question What did we do back then?

Of course, recollections of our lives before children are now glamorized and edited -- remembering the freedoms, but forgetting that we contended with different responsibilities before we had children.  Still, I occasionally wonder why we didn't do more, travel more, eat out more, or live more spontaneously.  If I knew how many times renting a movie would be the only option for a night's entertainment now, would I have boycotted all DVDs then?

I watched Joel and Reese drive away.  Determined to enjoy the night on my own, I packed Brooke and Kerrington into the unwieldy double stroller for a walk up the street.  Kerrington cried.  Brooke attempted elaborate prison breaks, flinging herself from the stroller and taking off as fast as her legs could take her.  Once we returned home, I read the same book to Brooke four times in a row while nursing Kerrington for the sixth time that day.  After tucking the girls into bed for the night, I went back outside and climbed the small hill in our backyard to watch the sunset.

It was perfect. 

From where I sat I could watch the baseball stadium's lights in the distance, and I wondered what sights and sounds Reese and Joel were experiencing.

One day life is going to open up again.  One day there won't be a baby to nurse, a toddler to chase, and a near-kindergartner to entertain.  And when this happens -- and when my house is finally clean and quiet and my time is once again my own -- it will be easy to look back and edit the monotony and the drudgery out of these days that I'm currently experiencing.  It will be easy to look back and recall only the amazing fullness of them.

It's a reminder to enjoy these days exactly as they are now, gritting through the rough spots, accepting the mundane, cherishing the fullness. 

Open days will come again.

Locked Doors and Wobbly Handle Bars

Although my five-year-old rides her bike well on flat stretches, hills intimidate her.  I understand.  Wobbly handle bars and the fear of losing control are good reasons to want to stay safe and flat.

Funny, then, that she automatically looks toward a hill whenever we approach one.  Wherever her gaze goes, there also goes her bike.  In her desire to avoid a hill she fixates on it, and once her vision is set she inevitably steers in that direction.

The other day I hustled beside her as she pedaled.  As we approached a slope, she turned her head its way and began to veer toward it.  I called out, "Look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go."  She realigned her vision straight ahead and adjusted her path.

* * *
I often enter through a particular set of double doors.  One door is always locked; the other is always unlocked.  There's a sign on the locked door -- a large, bold sign -- that reads, "Please us other door."  Each time I walk through this entry, I instinctively reach toward the sign, push the handle of the locked door, and face resistance.  The sign is so large, so bold, that it draws me the wrong way every time.
One day a man walked behind me and witnessed this.  When I corrected myself and reached for the other handle, he smiled and commented, "The sign really should be on the other side.  It needs to be more positive, like, 'Use this door.'"
Good point.

How often do we look toward those things that we want and need to avoid?  Like my daughter staring down a hill, we fixate on our concerns and then head straight toward them mentally and emotionally.  Like me repeatedly reaching toward the wrong door, we let negative signs in our lives lead us in the wrong direction simply because they're prominent in our line of vision.
it's easy to let the wrong things direct our course once we've fixed our eyes on them.
I do this more often than I'd like to admit.  When I repeatedly play worries over in my mind, it's the worst type of mediation.  When I set my eyes on my concerns, there goes my heart, my thought patterns, and eventually, my life.
I'm working to retrain my eyes: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. 
I'm looking where I want to go, not where I don't.



Title: Stretch

Subtitle:  Dreaming of growth spurts before next summer.

The Best Nine Years

Last summer I was driving with a couple who was about to get married.  As we spoke about their upcoming wedding plans, I sensed their excitement.  At one point the conversation turned to children, and they discussed the prospect of shifting from a couple into a family someday.  I shared that I like to think of a married couple as a family already -- a whole unit, a complete one -- even before children are added. 

It's a subtle shift of thinking, but it's been worthwhile for me to remember that Joel and I make up a family.  Our three children have been amazing, welcome additions into our existing family, but they're not what caused us to become one.

It was nine years ago today that I started my family by marrying my best friend.  He's still my best friend. 

He's seen me through grad school, through surgery, through pregnancies and labor.  He's been by my side when I changed jobs.  He's had the vision and know-how to buy our first house, fix it up, sell it, and then build another.  He's changed countless diapers, he's cleaned up after sick children, and he's taken the girls out on afternoons when I've needed down time. 

He's made me laugh -- oh, how he's made me laugh!  He's loved me when I've been moody.  He's said I'm beautiful when I've had really bad hair days.  He's been stable when I'm tumultuous.  He's refreshingly simple when I'm prone to overanalysis.  He's listened when I've repeated the same stories too many times, and he's encouraged me when I've been unable to encourage myself.

He makes me a better me. 

After all, he's my family.

Everything about Everything

My two-year-old, Brooke, has entered the phase of wanting to know everything about everything, which results in a great deal of pointing and asking "What's that?"

This is especially noticeable when confined to small, inescapable spaces, like when I made a recent trip by myself with her and Kerrington. Between my house and our destination, she asked What's that? twice every quarter mile, for a grand total of 1,198 What's that's? over a three-and-a-half hour time span.

In terms of annoyance on the Annoying Things While Traveling with Children scale, with 10 being a child kicking the back of your seat from Pennsylvania to Illinois, 7 being a child squeezing the fruit juice drink box that you repeatedly warned her against squeezing before passing it back to her and still having her squeeze it, spray herself, and cry about her soaked, sticky shirt, and 5 being your five-year-old yelling "duck!" every time you drive under an overpass, Brooke's repetitive, rapid fire What's that? reached a 6.5. It would have been higher if she weren't so darn cute.

Besides, it's hard to answer this question accurately while driving since you can't always discern where your child is pointing. When I think she's looking at the billboard, she just might be pointing toward the van's cup holder. It's possible that she'll forever think that a telephone pole is actually called a silo based on our weekend travels.

Brooke processes the new information and expands her vocabulary by repeating the words back to me, with her little voice rising in inflection on the final syllable so that she's always speaking in question form. She can go hours without uttering a declarative sentence.

Brooke: "What's that? What's that?"  (She likes to speak in duplicates.)
Me: "That's a flagpole."
Brooke: "A flagpole?" (Three second pause.) "What's that?"
Me: "That's a construction vehicle."
Brooke: "A construction vehicle?" (No pause this time.) "What's that?"
Me: "That's roadkill."
Brooke: "Roadkill?"

Reese says that Brooke asks so many questions because she's learning a lot. It's true. And it's true that this phase will be over soon enough and replaced by a new one. How do I know? Because on the trip home Brooke saw an overpass and took after her big sister by yelling "Duck!"

But not before she questioned, "What's that?"
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