Infinite Combinations

Is there no limit to the instruction you could give your children?  If I vocalized every potential "don't do," I'd use my lifetime quota of words before mid-afternoon.

Don't pour hand sanitizer on your head.

Don't drag your mattress off your box springs and attempt to wedge it in the closet.

Don't use your hairbrush as a fork.

Like trying to guess what series of numbers would open a ten-digit combination lock, the possibilities are endless.  I can't possibly envision what they might do and preclude it with a warning.  They're too crafty -- changing directions and dreaming up never-seen-before schemes.

I resort to blanket statements: "Don't do anything that would hurt anyone, create excessive work for me, or otherwise get you in trouble."

You'd think that would cover it.  In a logical world, that all-inclusive statement would prevent one child from stamping the baby's head with a Hello Kitty stamper, or stop a toddler in her tracks when she's about to pull all the clothes from her closet and decorate her room with hangers, or echo in the collective consciousness of the collaborating duo at the bathroom sink who are testing how many bubbles they can make by emptying a new container of hand soap, one pump at a time.

The "kid" variable negates logic.  Every time.

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On Slow Play

Those pork chops look delicious.

I don't typically wake up to those words.  Then again, I don't typically fall asleep on the couch for an hour while the little ones are taking their afternoon naps.  Being that Reese is a six-year-old who recognizes an opportunity when she sees one, she capitalized on my comatose state by flipping channels and immersing herself in a cooking show on TV.

Hence the commentary on pork chops that roused me from my slumber.

Then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.  She is the child who I discovered at 6:30 in the morning sitting on the downstairs couch wearing only her underwear, eating chocolate pudding, and watching Sports Center a few years back.

She has eclectic viewing tastes.

Most afternoons while her sisters nap, though, she's not learning how to pan fry pork.  You'll most often find us playing games: Go Fish, Crazy Eights, Memory, Chutes and Ladders, Sequence for Kids.  You name it, we play it.

The problem is that Reese, who normally operates as a high-speed kind of a girl, morphs into a person whose decision-making skills flow more slowly than molasses.

To put it in perspective, if I walked at the pace in which Reese plays a board game, I would lose balance due to the unnaturally long lapse between when my left foot treads in front of my right.  It's painful to witness.  Please, please, would you just pick up a card and lay down a chip already?

Sometimes I consider gnawing off my arm.  Clearly, God is refining my gift of patience.

Slow play can be funny, though, as shown by Ben Crane, a guy who seems right at home wearing a wetsuit.  And a helmet.  Okay, you've just got to watch him for yourself:

He's the reason why my children go around the house singing the Golf Boys song.  The oh, oh, oh lodges itself in your head, but then again, I do need something to sing to myself as I'm waiting for Reese to make her next move.

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We Do Things Differently

Yesterday evening we had a couple over for dinner.  The young man has been involved with the campus ministry that Joel leads for a few years, and his girlfriend was visiting from out of town.  He wanted us to meet her.  They seem serious.

Before they arrived, I prepped the girls to be on their best behavior.  This instruction mostly goes out the window, and par for the course, as soon as they crossed the threshold Reese launched into a demonstration of how loudly she can blow the whistle she received as a birthday party favor (side note: never do this to other parents), and Brooke crisscrossed the hallway and kitchen on her trike.

Chaos, as usual.

This morning as we ran errands, Reese had some questions.  "So, are they boyfriend and girlfriend?"

I nodded.

She tilted her head to the side.  "How old do you need to be to have a boyfriend?  A lot older, like twelve?"

Before responding, I reminded myself that the age of twelve would seem a lot older to Reese.  It's two years past the elusive leap into double-digits.  It's doubling her life span.  It's the equivalent of me turning 66.

"Even older than twelve, honey."

"Okay."  She looked out the window, content with my answer, but something in me wasn't ready to let the conversation drop.  Not yet.

"You know, Reese, there are going to be some girls who have boyfriends when they're twelve, probably even earlier.  You aren't going to, though.  Our family does things differently than some families, and that's okay."

She's heard me say it before.  We do things differently.  We do things differently with the type of music we listen to, with the type of television we watch, and with the type of clothes that will be appropriate.  I'm teaching them now that these are protective measures, not restrictive ones.

I want the girls to realize this from a young age.  We play by different rules than some people they'll meet.  As followers of Christ, we might say no to certain requests that other parents say yes to.

Christianity is an upside-down faith.  The first will be last, and the last will be first.  It's better to give than to receive.  Humble yourself, and you will be lifted up.  Whoever loses his life will find it.  These are paradoxes that may baffle the mind, but they resound in the spirit.

How could this not impact our day-to-day lifestyle and decisions?

So, when I steal a few seconds to tell my six-year-old that boyfriends aren't necessary, I'm priming the pump, setting the expectations in advance, and reminding -- as gently as possible -- to get used to it, kiddo.  You'll understand our rationale someday, even if you may not when you turn twelve.

We do things differently, and that's okay.

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Me? Dirty? Never.

Title:  Me?  Dirty?  Never.

Subtitle:  Two small pieces of evidence suggesting that we had a smashing time while playing outside this morning.

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Losing the Directions

When I was nearing middle school, a teacher suggested that I should be tested for the school's gifted program.  I breezed through the language sections.  Then the test proctor pulled out a small box and emptied the contents on the table.

The wooden shapes, he said, would form a car when I put the puzzle together.  He started a timer and I labored over the pieces, turning and twisting them but making little progress.  When the timer buzzed he peered over my creation.

Although it should have been flat on the table, my car had overlapping pieces like an open car hood flapping in the breeze.  The proctor furrowed his brow and asked, "Do you think anyone would drive a car like this?"

In the undiluted candor of youth, I answered, "Well, you haven't seen some of the cars my dad has driven."

I smiled.  He made a note on his clipboard.

I never was admitted into the gifted program.

Whenever something broke with my one of my family's cars, my dad fixed it through whatever means possible.  The interior upholstery on the roof sagged?  He staple-gunned it.  The driver's seat reclined too far?  He propped it with a hand-cut section of a two-by-four.

My parents are the hardest working people I've ever known.  My dad cuts down trees, paints three story house exteriors, and builds retaining walls out of cement blocks.  But if you're looking for someone to fix an engine, he's not your man.  He's never been one to be mechanically inclined with intricate details.

I've taken after him.  I can follow directions, of course.  Over the years, I've hung and spackled drywall and installed shelves and closet organizers.  Still, I have a hard time envisioning what ought to be when I'm looking at what is.  I do much better when I have pictures and directions.

So when I sat on the floor surrounded by the 19 pieces, 4 dial rods, and 45 screws that constituted the new bookshelf that my girls had been given, I chided myself that I had prematurely had thrown away the box.  The box with a photo of the completed bookshelf that I could use as a guide.  The box that contained the directions.

Thankfully, I had three helpers to peer over my creation as I labored over the pieces, turning them this way and that.  Reese told me what I was doing wrong.  Brooke sang to boost my spirits.  Kerrington covertly put the screws in her mouth so I always knew where to find one when I needed it next.

The bookshelf looks great.

All thanks to my three helpers, of course.

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Mauling in the Name of Science

To the various bugs who were injured during my daughter's "nature investigation" this morning, I apologize. They are still learning the meaning of the word gentle.

To the ladybug who was put into a house (a plastic container full of dried out grass and one rock) and was shaken by Brooke, truly, I am sorry. You didn't deserve this.

To the moth who was accidentally stepped on, then prodded, then studied under a magnifying glass, then given a massage by Reese, who noted, "He doesn't look like he's doing too well, and a back massage always makes mommy feel better, so...." I issue an apology to you, too. Yes, back massages may make me feel better, but I don't have flimsy, transparent wings. Sorry.

To the bugs who escaped the nature investigation, I wish you well. If you see my children in the yard, don't hesitate. Just fly or crawl for your lives.


How to Speak More Good

I have a confession that will reveal my pop culture ignorance: I've never read Twilight, I've never watched Twilight, and I have no real desire to do so. Still, this brief spoof struck a chord when I watched it yesterday. Spot on, don't you think?

I'll definitely be using it in my public speaking classes this fall.

Enjoy, and stay cool today!


A Foolproof Way to Remove Tabletop Stains

Let's say that you're a young married couple who furnishes your kitchen with a new black table and chairs.  For a season, the black ensemble looks crisp and modern because as civilized adults neither of you habitually spill drinks or splatter food during meals.

Fast forward several years.  Add three children who turn a simple meal into a full-contact sport, one of whom (exhibit A below) has perfected wearing equal amounts of food as she ingests.

The black table will no longer look as sweet.  Its glossy dark expanse will highlight every milk splatter and sticky-handed smear.  After each meal you'll use a profuse amount of paper towels and spend too many precious minutes wiping the thing down, and eventually you'll sell the table and chairs on craigslist.

At least that's what we did.  In its place is an inexpensive wooden kitchen table (blonde finish) that gets just as dirty but shows the dirt much less.

It's win-win.  That is, until your children paint on the table, forget to tell you, and the paint -- which absolutely would have been hidden on the black tabletop -- seeps into the wood.

This leads me to today's tip: how to remove stains from a wooden table.

We tried a Magic Eraser, which is amazing and will remove anything -- including the finish off a table.  (Note to self: the warning to test the product on an inconspicuous area first is a valid one.)  My friend suggested using a toothbrush and toothpaste.  "Toothpaste is just a bit gritty," she stated.

And whaddya know?  Not only was the red paint nicely buffed out, but also the table was minty fresh.  My toothbrush is shot, but that's to be expected.

Here's hoping that your children don't paint on your table, but consider yourself armed with one more tool in the arsenal just in case.

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Short and Sweet: Dream Within a Dream

Today's pondering in 100 or fewer words:

Today was garbage day.  I threw away old trash cans.

Although less poetic, it reminded me of the clip from The Princess Bride extolling marriage as a dream within a dream, or Hamlet's play within a play, or the scene in Seinfeld when Kramer gets lost, calls Jerry, and frantically reports, "I'm at the corner of first and first.  Wait a minute.  How can the same street intersect with itself?  I must be at the center of the universe!"

Trash cans in the trash.  Quite meta.

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When You Accomplish Nothing

I opted not to teach any classes this summer.  I teach college public speaking and writing, and during the fall and spring semesters my husband and I juggle our work hours so one of us always can be home with the girls.  It's ideal, except for the days when our parenting style resembles tag-team wrestling as one of us immediately leaves the ring when the other enters it.

But this summer hasn't been like that.  It's been slow.  It's been leisurely.  It's been as relaxing as things can be when you're constantly in the company of a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a one-year-old, which means that hasn't been very relaxing at all.

Without speeches to evaluate, essays to grade, and work emails to address, I ought to have so much time on my hands.  This is why I'm frustrated that I have nothing to show for it.

I'm not accomplishing anything.

This weekend my in-laws were in town, and I took two hours on Saturday afternoon to clean our front porch.  I scrubbed the grime off the shutters, wiped down the dusty siding, banished the cobwebs in the corners, and washed the windows.  Each time I plunged the rag into the water bucket and rang it out, I surveyed my work.  Progress was being made.  Siding that was once grungy was now clean.

You don't witness these instant results in parenting.  Parenting involves a great deal of repetitive minutia.  Scraping plates, sweeping floors, wiping bottoms, cutting food into bite-sized portions, adhering band-aids, breaking up arguments, folding laundry, stowing toys, and doing it all again the very next hour, the very next day.

It doesn't feel productive, and I thrive on productivity.  I relish crossing items off items off to-do lists and observing progress.

Of course, when I'm up late with a stack of papers in the fall, my selective memory will edit the monotony from these lazy summer days, but right now I'm floundering a bit.

Yesterday afternoon, though, I was driving the girls between errands.  Reese and Brooke both wanted to sing, and they both wanted a captive audience.  Each would launch into her own song -- Reese belting out a mash-up of Dynamite and We Will Rock You peppered with the Wonder Pets theme song, and Brooke repeating Twinkle, Twinkle.  They'd yell at the each other when the singing overlapped.

It's my turn.  You need to listen.

No, I'm singing.  You need to be quiet.

I offered a solution.  One girl would sing for one minute while everyone listened.  Then, the other would sing for a minute.  Then there would be a full minute of silence when I mentally detoxed.

During those minutes of silence, I thought.  As a mother of three young children, perhaps my greatest achievements aren't the ones that I can visibly measure.  Perhaps my greatest achievement each day is handling these everyday moments with patience and grace, treating these little charges of mine with care, and attending to the daily routine with focus and whole-heartedness.

I thought of Dr. King's What Is Your Life's Blueprint speech:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it.  Don’t just set out to do a good job.  Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.  

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera.  Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.  Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

These words make me feel like I can go on, like I have fresh winds in my sail.

If my current lot in life is to referee one-minute increments of singing every time I drive around town, then, Lord, let me do it better than anyone has ever managed.  Let me be so full of grace and patience and attentiveness that I can rest my head on my pillow at night, review the day, and realize: I accomplished something today.

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Summer Legs

Title: Summer Legs

Subtitle: Bruises, scrapes, and scabs, oh my!

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Battle Scars: The Mark of Bravery

Two weekends ago I was at a graduation party eating chips and salsa, watching the girls play with their little friends, and enjoying good company.  Tethered on a cord in the corner of a yard, the family's dog was resting in the shade.  A young boy tossed a ball to the dog.

In the split second before the dog took off, I surveyed the scene: a half dozen unsuspecting children about to be clotheslined by a dog leash.  I stepped closer to block them as the cord grew taut, watching the cord slice into the front and side of my shin.

I didn't think the cut looked that terribly bad until I started getting frequent comments over the next week.  What did you do to your leg?  Is that a burn?  Man, you look like you were branded.

Joel told me my calf appeared like a tribal tattoo gone bad.  A friend suggested that it looked as if I had attempted to cut off my lower leg with a hacksaw (a description that paints a lovely word picture, does it not?)

Even though it's past the nasty, seeping wound stage and seems to be healing well, I still get a surprising amount of unsolicited advice about wound care and what lotions minimize scarring when I'm out in public.

I think I'll end up with a scar regardless, so I'm considering taking a Sharpie marker and writing "hero" on my calf above the cut.  Just for now.

Just in case anyone wants to know how I braved personal injury to save a yard full of innocent children from hurtling danger without even dropping my plate of chips and salsa.  I'm that good.

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Garage Sale: What You Learn When You Let Go of Stuff

We scoured the house for outgrown, outdated, and unneeded stuff.  We borrowed spare folding tables from our neighbors.  We hung signs in conspicuous locations.  And since we built it, people came.

When you think about it, a garage sale is comprised of stuff that you can live without, but you hope others can't.

We sale began at 8:00 in the morning.  A few diehards arrived at 7:40.  Since Joel and I had sorted and tagged merchandise the night prior to the sale while repeating the mantra price to sell, price to sell, I wasn't opposed to the occasional bargainer.  Selling stuff, I reminded myself, was superior to packing up stuff at the end of the weekend.

Yet, there were a few moments when I watched a customer inspect an object -- an object that I purposefully had designated for the sale, nonetheless -- and waffled.  As one woman turned over a small outdoor lantern in her hands, I wanted to take it back.  That's a mistake; it's not for sale, flashed in my thoughts, but never out of my mouth.  She handed me a couple dollars.  I watched her walk down the driveway, the lantern in her hand.  Seller's regret.

It's only stuff, I told myself.

Only stuff.

I think about stuff a lot.  Always on a quest to organize, I dislike having too much stuff around.  I've never been one for knicknacks or extraneous decoration.  I war against clutter and excess.  One morning after a holiday meal, I arranged the leftover side dishes in the refrigerator and grew discontent.  Our guests were leaving, which meant that my family alone would tackle the leftovers.  Too much.  We'd never be able to eat that much before it spoiled.

I hated that.  On that day, I realized something about myself.  Having too much stresses me out.

The other week I read a passage, one I had read dozens of times before, yet it stood out to me:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (Philippians 4:12).

As someone who grew up in a middle-class suburban family -- and someone who's raising a family in the same fashion -- I've never known what it is to be hungry, so to speak.  My children certainly don't get everything they want, but we are so blessed to have everything we need.

Given this, we're in the category of living in plenty.  I've always assumed that there's a secret to being content during times of lack, but the verse suggests that there's also a secret to contentment during plenty.  (Think about it.  If contentment was a natural byproduct of plenty, then many more people would be content.)

So, what's the secret?

It's not about stuff.  Give me any advertisement or catalog and I'll suddenly want products that I didn't even know existed a minute before.  (Has this ever happened to you?)  My oldest daughter may have a dozen Zoobles at home, but when she spots a new one in the toy aisle I can read her expression before she even speaks: I want that.

We always can want more.

I've discovered that I'm most content when we live generously.  There have been times when I've regretted being stingy, and there have been times when I've regretted purchases.  But I've never regretted generosity.  Not once.

I think that's part of the secret of living in plenty: realizing how much you have and giving without holding back.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my all-time favorite books, Jem and Scout watched Mrs. Dubose battle her morphine addiction so that she wouldn't be beholden to anyone or anything when she died.  That phrase, "beholden to nothing," flitted across my consciousness when the woman left with my lantern.

I don't need to be beholden to possessions.

After all, it's only stuff, right?

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Paper Trail

Title:  Paper Trail

Subtitle:  A new meaning for this phrase emerges when a baby discovers how to unravel the roll of toilet paper.

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A Nose-Up

I've never been one to ease into things.  I'm more a full-throttle type of gal.  Although it might take me a while to make a decision, once I'm committed, I'm committed.  Period.

You might call it focused.  You might call it strong-willed, or driven, or Type A.

Whatever you call it, I see it in my oldest daughter.  (To borrow a phrase from a friend, when you put the two of us in a room, it's the impenetrable force verses the immovable object.)  The girl's got grit.  This will serve her well in life, I remind myself as we work to mold this attribute for good -- say, productive leadership and resistance to peer pressure; rather than for evil -- namely, becoming a dictator of a small country.

She takes this drive to everything she does.  She's conquered the monkey bars both forward and backward, and now she's out to master chin-ups.  When she saw these pictures, she commented, "I'm only at a nose-up, not a chin-up yet.  You've got to take me to the park so I can practice some more."

I don't think anything is going to stop this little girl.

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The Gentle Leading

I'm sapped of strength tonight.  Although nothing unusual occurred, the day depleted my reserves of energy.  Perhaps the heat deserves the blame.  Perhaps it's simply the toll of keeping the children up later for fireworks the other night.

Perhaps it's just the children.  They're so constant.

It was a typical day -- preparing snacks, wrestling clothes on and off wiggly bodies, changing diapers, mediating fights, answering questions, giving corrections: "no dumping sand on the porch," "stop grating your cheese stick on the screen door," "put your sister down," "eat your cereal with your spoon, not with your hands."

I'm spent. 

In this time of depletion, I'm reminded of a beautiful passage in Isaiah (chapter 40).  It's worth a read.

[The Lord] gives strength to the weary 
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, 

and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary, 

they will walk and not be faint.

Oh, I love these promises. But what I enjoy even more from this chapter is a verse that comes earlier -- a little gem.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young

Think about this: God gently leads those who have young.  Not dragging us kicking and screaming, as some of us might have done today with our own little ones when they refused to move.  Not prodding us along.  But gently leading us.

I imagine God taking my weary hand, encouraging me to stand, and offering encouragement.  "Come on, Robin, you can keep going.  I'm right here with you.  I gave you these children.  I'll give you the strength to care for them.  You're not alone in this."

Neither are you.  We're carried close to God's heart.  We're gently led.

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When Is Your Baby No Longer a Baby?

When is your baby no longer a baby?  I recently asked this question to my husband.  His answer mirrored my own suspicions: "I'm not exactly sure, but I think Kerrington is approaching it."

Will she stop qualifying as a baby when I no longer can hoist her easily onto my hip?  When another tooth emerges from her swollen gums?  When her hands, still plump and dimpled near the knuckles, thin out?  When her wispy hair thickens?

It's difficult to know.

Right now, when a new adult appears, Kerrington toddles to me, clutches my legs, and buries her face in my knees.  Like a young buck rubbing antlers against a tree to mark his territory, Kerrington rubs her face side to side into my legs, designating me as her own.

I've noticed how often I do the same to her.  When she sits in my lap, I often nestle my face into the top of her head or the crook of her neck and breathe in her smell -- sweetly sweaty, reminiscent of Cheerios and strawberries.  Lost in thought, I turn my face side to side, nuzzling her, marking her as mine.  She never resists.

She has no words to ask me to stop.  She hasn't learned to extend "mom" into multiple syllables and reveal annoyance at my unbridled affection.  Rather, she permits me to revel in her, just like I let her cling to me, never wanting to rush this time when she'd have nowhere else she'd rather be than right with me.

After all, she is my baby.


Celebrating Independence

I love the Fourth of July.  Many years ago, my parents picked up American flag glasses at a gas station, earning one each time they filled up the tank.  My mom has since passed the glasses to me.  I love pulling them out, even if just for one day of the year.

It's the day when I listen to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," a song which, I'll admit, always moves me.  It's a day when I make a cherry pie, a labor of love -- not of precision.  I dress the girls in whatever red, white, and blue we can find in their closets, toss snap pops in the driveway, enjoy a backyard barbeque, and stay up late for fireworks.

I'm grateful for our country where we can freely vote, worship, express ourselves, and live.  Pray for our leaders and our nation today.  God bless the USA. 

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Blowing in the Wind

I had one thing to remember yesterday afternoon.  One thing.  I needed to toss the load of laundry from the washer into the dryer before Reese needed her neon green tee shirt for her final night of dance camp.

Instead, I remembered the laundry seven minutes before we were scheduled to leave the house, right when I already was warily glancing at the clock and urging the kids to focus-and-eat-faster-so-we-won't-be-late.  I left my place at the table, dashed upstairs, tossed the shirt into the dryer, cranked the settings to high, and hoped that a few minutes would be enough.

They weren't.  The shirt was still significantly damp when I directed the girls to the minivan.

That is, the shirt was damp until a stroke of genius bought me ten extra minutes of all-natural air circulation during the drive.

I'm still patting myself on the back.  That shirt was perfectly dry when we arrived.  Well played, Robin.

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