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Re-Entry

On September 21st, I went to Africa with a team of 6 other women, through Africa New Life Ministries, a non-profit organization. Africa New Life is an organization created by Rwandans to help the Rwandan people empower themselves through education and employment.

An overview of ANLM taken from their website:

“Since 2001, Africa New Life has shared the Gospel using two hands: the hand of compassion and the hand of evangelism. Our goal is to see lives transformed through meeting basic needs, to give hope for the future for those living in poverty in Rwanda, and to share the freedom and hope found in Christ. At the heart of our model for breaking cycles of poverty is educational sponsorship. With a high school education, or a vocational equivalent, children in Rwanda have hope for the future.”

AFNLM believes in caring for the “whole child”. While educational sponsorship is at the core of their work, they believe children need other key factors to succeed such as a growing faith, community development, and a healthy body.

Their mission statement, powerful and simple, drew me in immediately:

Africa New Life exists to transform lives and communities through preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and acts of compassion.”

Our days in Kigali were filled with activity. Being a team of women, ANLM asked if we would consider focusing our trip around spending time in relationship with women and children, offering encouragement and support. We were thrilled to have that opportunity, so on our trip we completed 15 home visits. Eleven of these visits included meeting children that are sponsored through monthly donations by various team members. The sponsorship program provides education and medical assistance. Sponsored children also attend a monthly Christian day camp and a four-day bible camp each fall. We were able to touch the sweet faces of children that we had only known on paper previously. A powerful experience that I will write about another day. The other four home visits were to women enrolled in a sewing program through ANLM’s Women’s Vocational Center. In between visits, our days were packed with a full on Rwanda experience. We attended a Christian women’s conference. We lived a day in the life of a local woman, right down to cultivating land and gathering water. We gave presentations on business skills, and health and wellness to women in sewing and cosmetology programs. We walked through a genocide memorial museum. And we spent even more time connecting with our sponsored children outside of their homes.

There is so much I want to express about my time in Africa. It will forever be one of the most important and joyful times of my life. I cannot wait to share my thoughts on education, local culture, short-term mission trips, the genocide, post genocide healing and reconciliation, worship, values, and sponsorship.  

But for today, I want to discuss re-entry. Sunday we returned from Rwanda, and we are elated to be home. But coming home brings a big bag of mixed emotions. And as someone who has always been a deep feeler, re-entering the life I left less than 2 weeks ago has been plain hard. Previous service experiences and mission trips have left me well versed on the internal struggle that occurs when you leave a life changing experience, so during the trip I began bracing myself for impact. Processing the emotions involved in re-entry is important and is an essential and necessary step for personal growth, but it is hard work.

Africa New Life Ministries scheduled a debriefing session with Pastor Fred, their executive director, for the day we left. During it, he addressed re-emersion. Looking straight at us, laughing knowingly, he said gently, “Now, when you go home…PLEASE…do not sit around your home feeling bad about what you have. Enjoy your life! Just don’t forget about us. Don’t forget what you learned. Go home and be an ambassador for Africa New Life.” This was a gift. By addressing the internal struggle he knew was imminent he normalized our feelings in advance. It made me tear up. Pastor Fred genuinely hoped we would heed his advice.

I have had a hard time heeding.

I feel disoriented. It is as if someone put a mask over my eyes, spun me around, then took the mask off and told me to walk.

Last Tuesday, while getting ready to start my day and chaperone a field trip, I noticed I was still washing off the red stain of the soil we walked on while visiting homes in Kigali. A few days ago I was delivering food to starving families and talking to people with HIV. Now I was preparing to shepherd first graders through a fire station to learn about safety. This felt bewildering. I went to the field trip in a fog.

I want to be able to share meaningful things when asked about Rwanda, but I am overwhelmed by trying to find words that properly capture joy, sadness, hope and despair all at once. Instead, out come words like “good” and “amazing”, which feel lame and weak.  

I want to accurately express to my husband how my heart broke at the exact same time that my soul was lifted. But words fall short, so I find myself staying silent…nothing depicts the whole picture, so I just don’t.

I want to hide in my house, as if I am experiencing some sort of grief, instead of rejoining the world.

When I open my stocked pantry, I feel shame and guilt. Every family we visited received a bag of maize flour, sugar, rice, beans, peanuts and salt. Enough food for a month, and they will likely attempt to stretch it much further. We have a full pantry and will probably still run to the store this week.

I want to be a different, better person. And I find myself thinking about it while staring blankly in a Starbucks line, the irony hitting me like a ton of bricks.

I wish that my children could grasp the sweet hand they were dealt.

Then I think about how my children are just like me. I slept on a bed in a mosquito net, while the families I visited that day slept on dirt.

Before we left, I wrote this on our team Facebook page:

“God has always been at work in Rwanda, and the Rwandan people are making incredible things happen for themselves, as it should be…Pray we remain humble, remembering that God has been at work in Rwanda for a very long time, using Rwandans…We will get to see His work and participate in their journey, but they have got this.”

Why is maintaining this perspective so difficult?

Why do I put this burden on myself when they have God?

I believe that God’s plan involved equipping me to help. So I will straighten myself out and mobilize. Rather than wringing my hands, I will listen to Pastor Fred’s advice and here is what I will do:

I will not focus on what I cannot fix, instead I will encourage and support the ongoing efforts of Rwanda and Africa New Life Ministries. 

Instead of standing at the sink obsessing over why I get to have water, I will smile thinking back to the day we waited for our turn at the water pump. The time spent waiting for water provided women a rare pause from constant manual labor and multitasking. If it has not rained the spout only trickles, so people wait. We witnessed how this small pause made space for community. The ladies chatted and laughed. No doubt they laughed about us… I hope they did. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip. Lamenting that we have easily accessible water while they do not is useless. So, I will put my resources and time towards providing accessible clean water for others. (Pssst…Living Water International)

Instead of hiding, I will rejoin my community. Rwandans value community. Rwanda’s emphasis on relational living has no doubt played a large role in their ability to move forward post genocide. My team and I will honor that by returning to our own communities. These are people who supported our dream to travel to Africa, made it possible, and then cared for our families while we were gone. These same people will be there to help us process our experience and to encourage us to apply what we have learned here.

I will appreciate my families access to education and medical care. If I mope and spin my wheels about why I get to have those things, it takes from the energy I could use to make those things accessible through sponsorship and sharing the mission of ANLM.

But all of that is a work in progress.

My heart is still grieving the imbalance in this world.  And my soul is also filled with gratitude over experiencing a beautiful new culture and country. But I know I will find a new normal. And that knowledge is in part why I am holding on tight to the tension of feeling shaken and hopeful. I want the part of me that broke to stay broken, but I know that it will heal.

I’m praying for a solid scar.

Target Part One: My Bad Check

 

 

 

Like any sane person, I love Target.

Throughout all life’s chapters, Target has provided. Target equipped us with shelving systems and shower baskets for college. In our 20s it is where we created nonsensical wedding registries, believing marriage would require a horseshoe game and 17 candle holders. After the wedding Target was where we returned with gift cards and purchased the laundry baskets we truly needed. Perhaps most importantly, after we had babies Target provided a safe space to be with other adult humans while clutching our infants, our coffee, and the last bits of our sanity. And when those sweet babies pooped up their backs straight to their necks, we conveniently bought Kleenex for our postpartum tears and wipes for the baby’s butt.

Sadly, when it comes to Target I struggle with the dark underbelly of self-sabotage. Twice now, I have nearly ruined Target for myself entirely. Today I will share the first humiliating story.

One morning in my early 20s, I woke up to the phone ringing.  It was Target. Target was a male using an accusatory tone with me.

—————————————————

Is this Amanda?  

Yes

We need you to come down to Target as soon as possible.

Okay, why?

There is a problem with the check you wrote.

——————————————————

Now, while it was true that I had a terrifying social worker’s salary, I did not bounce checks.

I was able to head to the store immediately because instead of changing and looking like a person that did not bounce checks, I opted to wear my pajama pants.  With my stomach churning, I drove to the store, obsessing over what might have happened.

After arriving, I offered up proof that I am a trustworthy rule follower with a rock solid checking account by promptly reporting to the customer service area as instructed over the phone. The customer service employee’s face perked up at my name, revealing that everyone had been talking about me. Confident this was their error, I grew irritated. I gathered my pride and glared back at them. 

Then, I felt my pride melt away when they showed me how I had signed my check.

Which looked like this:

 

 

I so enjoy that I included my middle initial. Because I don’t always rip off major retail stores, but when I do I like to be an elegant lady.

My mind reeled back to the moment I wrote the check. I recalled being heavily distracted by unabashedly judging a mother whose young children were throwing fits (several years later I had my children, who not only threw tantrums in checkout lines, they also did things like announcing the color of my underwear to cashiers). In my distraction, I signed my last name “Target.” Which Target described as being “criminal” and “uncashable.”

I looked from my check back to the satisfied eye of the Target employee and whispered, “Yes. Well. That is certainly not correct.” And then it was unanimously agreed upon that I would pay with cash before leaving the store.

You could argue the employee who accepted my check should have noticed, and that’s fine. I am the type of person who signs personal checks Amanda A. Target, so I do not get to comment on the actions of others.

My next Target debacle involves an extremely questionable accidental theft that occurred during the last year. And I can not be entirely sure about the statute of limitations, so we will just let that tale simmer a bit longer. Because you can’t live this kind of suburban mom thug life and not fear the po po.

Decluttering: A Post to Make You Feel Better About Your Home

This summer I will both turn 40 and celebrate a 15 year wedding anniversary. And I am finding this phase of life to be a pretty beautiful spot, although sometimes the minivan still smarts a bit. And with what is clearly a midlife crisis slapping me straight across the face these milestones hitting, I now feel a strong inclination to shed excess physical and mental clutter from my family’s life. And I have learned the mental and physical do overlap in numerous ways. During this next stretch in life, I want to place more focus on what’s valuable and essential, and less on any literal or mental junk standing in the way of achieving that goal. The mental clutter, let’s just say I am working on it. But today I will talk about the physical decluttering.  

As with most things, I considered easier alternatives. I stood in the doorway of cluttered rooms and prayed for the rapture. But I feared God might facepalm after glimpsing at this abundance of crap and say “OMG, Amanda.” As it turns out, decluttering is like any area of life in which you seek transformation. You have to do the work. It’s annoying.

Starting the process felt much less overwhelming after I began following the work of The Minimalists, who believe decluttering improves life on every level. I have tried, on a beginner’s level, to adopt a minimalistic approach for decluttering our home. In case you are wondering, minimalistic approach is fancy suburban lingo for “tossing junk out.” It challenges people to keep only what is needed and life-giving.  And additionally, minimalism encourages putting more thought into purchases with the goal of buying fewer, better things. Our parents just called this process “getting rid of stuff.” But we like All Of The Meaning.

Let me walk you through some of what I’ve experienced thus far. It will be fun. You can screenshot my pictures and send them to friends along with the screaming emoji in place of text because it will say everything that needs to be said. I like helping you with your friendships.

 

First of all, you learn interesting facts about yourself when you declutter. For instance, apparently, the part of my brain meant for organizing was being used to obsess over cinnamon.

I think we can now picture the trailer for my Hoarders episode…

The camera pans around a room littered with ground cinnamon spice bottles stacked straight up to the rafters (I don’t really know what rafters are). Finally, the camera comes to rest on me, sitting on a couch clutching cinnamon sticks. Then it will cut to a therapist reminding me that spices will never bring me love, but his words will be drowned out by the meows of all my cats named Cinnamon.

 

Tupperware has proven to be an integral part of my personal non-minimalistic hell. Nevertheless, I conquered my Goliath with grace and dignity. My husband, inspired by my “can do” attitude, captured this moment.

#ShutUpTupperwareIHateYouSoHard  

PS: I did not know we had a wok. That’s kind of fun

 

And here is the Regas family sock basket. It is the actual worst.

Fix it, Jesus.

One of our goals with this blog is to provide our daughters with something they can read in the future that will normalize their feelings since few people voice their personal truths due to their desire to appear perfect. So, eventually, they will read every word we write.  

I tell you this not to be deep, but so you understand why I can’t use all the freaking four letter words to talk about this sock basket and the pain it brings me. But just know in your heart, the swears I’ve invented because of these socks would make grown men flee from locker rooms. %&*$!

 

Children add unique challenges to organizing. And little girls seem particularly drawn towards collections of toys where each one is the size of a pinky nail.

Shopkins creator, you SOB. Whoops, forgot about our daughters already.

 

Remember Monica’s secret closet on Friends? Hi, this is mine.

Apparently, glue is hot on cinnamon’s tail in a race to my Hoarder’s episode.

 

My question is not just why did I hold onto these things…but how? I can not keep track of my children’s birth certificates. I lost my engagement ring. I know I had gerbils as a kid, but I am nervous because I don’t remember them dying. 

In all seriousness, having less stuff and more order has already brought an increased sense of peace and calm to my life. When I fix the clutter, it has such an impact on my mental state. This impact is a huge deal because inside my brain lives a pinball machine. Stuff shoots around and sets off other stuff that shoots around, and there are lots of flashing lights and music. Decluttering cuts the noise.

The process of purging has proven to be cathartic as letting go can be profound. We need to hold onto our past, but probably loosen the grip a little. Some of the physical stuff can go. Going through this process is certainly more intense than paring down your drinkware. But it helps you work through things, which is a gift.

My house remains full of junk that must go. Becoming Aminimalanda will always be a work in progress. My most recent efforts have included participating in the Black Shutters White House 40 Bags in 40 days declutter challenge. I was a little uncertain we would have enough stuff to fill bags for 40 days because I have been working on decluttering for a while. But I think as we reflect on the few pictures I have shared, you won’t be surprised to know I have found plenty more to purge.

So, check out the 40 Day Challenge, it’s a good place to start. I have not done it perfectly. I had to fill five bags today to make up for lost time. No one died. Maybe the gerbils if they were in there. And take a look at  Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things by The Minimalists.

And also, please watch this video by JP Sears. And then all of his others. We need to avoid taking ourselves too seriously.

Being a Minimalist – Ultra Spiritual Life episode 55

 

40 Bags in 40 Days

Over the next 40 days, our families will be participating in a decluttering project designed by our friends over at White House Black Shutters. The challenge begins March 1 and extends through April 15.  It coincides with the 40 days of Lent, which makes it extra meaningful for any Christian participants looking for a spiritual exercise to practice this Lenten season.

According to upperroom.org, the season of Lent is a time to return to God and refocus our lives to be more like Jesus.  It is 40 days where we can change our lifestyle and allow God to do a work in our heart as we prepare for Easter. We want to pare down excess and free our minds to focus on life as God intended. For these reasons, this Lent our families will be participating in the 40 Bags in 40 Days DeCluttering Challenge.

The idea is to declutter an area in your house by filling up one bag per day. However, you can change that to meet individual family needs and goals. The website provides links to printables, ideas for decluttering both stuff and “non-stuff,” a Facebook page for support and a daily email course.

Click here for all the information and here to join the official group Facebook page.

We would love if you joined us in this challenge, whether you participate in Lent or not. Please let us know if you decide to partake. We will update the blog as we go. We expect there will be ups and downs. And by “ups and downs” we mean we are going to start out strong and then probably there will be some crying.

-Amanda and Katie

Millie and Phoebe

When we work on the blog together, we tend to become distracted.  This is probably shocking news to no one.  And this could also be the reason our blog finally came together once Katie moved 5 hours away. During one particular “business meeting,”  when we were probably discussing the basics of computer application programming interface, we somehow found ourselves looking up Goldendoodle puppies. We decided Amanda needed a Goldendoodle named Wrigley to pay homage to G.R.’s long time love of the Chicago Cubs (that might have been a ploy to get him to go along with puppy). And over time, we’ve joked about that cute imaginary puppy that would likely never actually exist.  Until…..

A few weeks ago, one of our dear friends discovered some puppies were born. And the puppies were going to be ready for their new homes around Christmas. And there were only two girl puppies left. And if we wanted them, quick decisions were necessary because we weren’t the only people that thought these puppies were cute.  And our friend started dropping texts to Trey and then SOMEHOW those got passed along to G.R….NATURALLY.  And next thing we knew…..all of us adults completely lost our minds and said yes to getting SISTER PUPPIES!

And then we all met up, picked up our puppies and we’ve lived in complete bliss ever since.  JUST KIDDING!

In actuality, the day after Christmas the Smith and Regas families met up in Ranger, Texas to pick up our new Goldendoodle puppies, Millie and Phoebe. Or as we sometimes refer to them, Chaos and Homewrecker. Actually, both girls are super sweet and affectionate.  And both immediately requested a picture together with their new fathers.

Trey and G.R. are thrilled to be adding more girls to their homes! They hope these girls will have strong personalities and lots of feelings.
The fool in this picture smugly believed she just scored the world’s most mellow dog. That’s cute.

Wanting to set appropriate expectations about their new lives right away we took them directly to a Dairy Queen by a gas station and ate on the ground next to a garbage can while clutching them. We should mention, this was after we got kicked out of the DQ for bringing in dogs. The DQ owners apparently don’t understand we have a blog with upwards of 20 followers.

Moments later things went bananas when bees swarmed our children and Amanda learned she was sitting on gum.

We’ve now had the pups in our homes for a week and a half or so.  Personalities have emerged.  The dogs have some quirks. Which, of course they do. Because why would we have normal animals?  We compared puppy notes recently

According to Amanda:

Phoebe enjoys savoring the bitter spray purchased to make her stop chewing on all of the things ever. She longs to eat anything doused with this and now opens her mouth so it can be sprayed directly into her mouth. Now I can only hope the salt from my tears will act as a future chewing repellant after she eats our baseboards.

Phoebe also prefers to sleep in ways that seem horrible and assure the need for an expensive spinal surgery within three years.

And the report from Katie…

Millie, well she holds the title as the first dog or first anything for that matter, that has inspired me to pick up a new morning habit of coffee.  That’s right, I never felt the need to drink it in college, or while teaching, or while raising three small children, or caring for multiple other pets.  But Millie, she didn’t place a high level of importance on the day/night cycle for a bit.  And no matter how close or far away we put her at night, she used that gifted voice to let us know she wasn’t happy about the attempted force of sleep.  Of course, with her stellar puppy-like ability to fall into a peaceful dead-to-the-world slumber during the day, she did not lack for beauty rest.  Just look at her….

In the past week and a half, I “may” have held a family vote one night at dinner to see if any Smiths thought we had made the world’s biggest mistake. Luckily it was a unanimous no. And I’ve possibly thanked my husband for telling me that our family was complete after three children because being up at night for just one week brought back repressed memories of what it was like to have newborn babies in the house and feeling like I’d never run on a schedule or sleep again.  

Thankfully, Smith family life has finally clicked with this sweet little lady, and she’s fallen right in line.  Except when she has the puppy crazies and her head looks like it might spin off her body from the twisting to chew anything on her puppy teeth.  She is quite enamored with her VERY big brother, Tucker.  And Charlie the cat is completely obsessed with her.  Or thinks she’s prey….TBD.

Hey puppy, you see my paw? Watch how it whacks you over and over again!
“Hey Tucker, I love you.” -Millie

Just look at Mosby telling Amanda his initial thoughts on the new family addition.

Stop trying to shame me, Mosby.

And so, it’s entirely possible that The Adventures of Phoebe and Millie will be making quite a few appearances on Sprained Funny Bone. I mean, who doesn’t love cute puppy pics? And we know these puppies are going to be trouble. And what frustrates us with these teensy monsters will be your ticket to mock us. So join us at @sprainedfunnyboneoninsta on Insta, because you are not going to want to miss this hot mess.

 

PUPPIES!!!

The Stocking

This Monday marked the beginning of the last week of school before Christmas break.  This means there are still Advent calendars to follow, shelfy elfs to move, business parties to attend, school parties to brave, Christmas cards to send out, sugary things to bake, wintry decor to put up (it was 65 degrees outside today so inside we pretend that this season occurs during non-sweaty temps) and gifts to gather for family, friends, teachers, co-workers, pet fish, and bus drivers.  And since Amazon came out with Prime, we should ALL be doing something for the poor souls that deliver all the cardboard boxes in all the world.  Without a doubt, we are smack dab in the midst of the holiday season.  It brings an energy that is palpable in my family and I do not take it for granted that these are precious years we will not see again.  

I love this time of year.  My kids love it too because their most favorite family tradition happens during the Christmas season.  On the day following Thanksgiving, they start begging to go to the store for their annual ornament.  A long time ago, we started a tradition where they pick an ornament representing something they love.  It could be something as simple as a TV show or movie they enjoyed that year, a sport they played, or just a piece they think is extra pretty.  Then we label the box with their name, year and age and add it to their collection.  So when it comes time to put the tree up each year, they literally jump up and down (ok, my little two do, the middle schooler likes doing it but definitely stays calm, cool and collected at all times) when their stack of ornaments comes out and they get to relive each one they have chosen since they were around 2 years old.  

We look forward to digging out ornaments like this….

Because everyone knows that cowgirl M&M’s holding guns help to make the season bright.

I remember when our tree was full of blank spaces, filler stuff, and reindeer ornaments made from glued wooden sticks adorned with twisted pipe cleaners and red pom-pom noses.  I still have all of those items.  But as this family ages, the tree has become a representation of a life of three little girls growing up into older little ladies.  Sure, I have seen trees prettier than ours because there are two kinds of people in this world. Those that take a regular tree full of sticks and pokey needles, and transform it into a sea of garland and ribbon and ornaments in complementary colors. And then there are people like me. The kind that buy a fake tree pre-wrapped in lights that still work when you bust a few bulbs putting it up.  And my version of fancy means we sprung for the $5 switch thingie that allows you to turn the lights with a tap of your foot. We slap up ornaments that have family pictures on them along with ones that document our travels.  And of course M&M’s holding guns.  Side note:  My mom use to let us put tinsel on the tree growing up and I LOVED IT.  I’d throw that stuff up there by the handful.  I also remember watching her take down all the tinsel after the holidays as I would be darting out the door to play.   And then when I’d be exhausted and come inside for a break, she’d STILL be pulling the silvery strands off the tree.  Therefore, my mother was a saint.  I will never ever be that mom.  To all you mothers who allow their children to do this, I salute you.

And as much as I love this time of year, I also struggle.  When I look at things logically, my brain tells me I should not feel anything but energy, smiles, and the sugar coursing through me from all the whipped cream cheese frosting inside pumpkin rolls and on top of ooey gooey cookies. Plus, we are celebrating the birth of Christ, which is a celebration of hope and joy arriving to our world.  And for many, many years, I only felt the joy of the season.  But starting about 8 years ago, my life went through a major transformation.  I lost my mom to cancer two days after Christmas.  And it was a brutal disease that took my vibrant and devoted mother and left her gasping for air at times.  Watching her physical body deteriorate while her mental spirit stayed strong and wanted to desperately stay on this earth permanently scarred me.  It broke a piece of my heart for my dad, my daughters who lost their grandma way too early, for myself and for the multitude of other friends and family members that loved her too.  And though I truly do love the Christmas season, there’s a darker range of emotions I also experience that go from life feeling heavy, to a sadness in my soul, to an exhaustion that isn’t from a lack of sleep.  Do I feel this every second of every day?  Nope.  Do these emotions control my mental state?  Nope.  But I do recognize that they creep up on me around this time of year and rather than deny that they exist, I’ve learned to live with them.

Once I experienced the death of my mom, my eyes were opened to another level of life.  I know I am not alone in my grief.  I have friends that have lost spouses, parents, friends and even their own precious children.  And at some point, if you are continuing to live and breathe, you will also experience loss and grief.  

There are a few things that I have learned to lean towards for comfort during this season.  First off is my faith.  And I love what Paul has to say in 2 Corinthians:  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)  First off, we aren’t alone.  Ever.  God is where compassion and comfort come from and He is there during our struggles.  He knows what you are going through.  He isn’t surprised.  Secondly, He uses our pain.  He comforts us and then allows us to help others.  He forms us into people who can take our own trials and provide hope to others when they go through it.  Even though our lives here on earth will never be problem free, we can provide love and comfort, show compassion and give hope to each other.  For me, this is living out the meaning of Christmas.

The other thing that helps me during this season is being able to look back on the traditions my mom established during my childhood.  On Christmas Eve each year, she would gather all of us in the family room, pour glasses of eggnog, bring out a variety of homemade Christmas cookies on a platter, turn off all the bright overhead lights and TV and we would sit as a family with Christmas music in the background with the tree lit.  She would then start a conversation and ask us purposeful questions .  What was your favorite part of the past year?  What is something you are looking forward to next year?  I counted on having that 30 minutes every year.  It felt peaceful.  And let’s be honest, I loved cookies and eggnog too.  My own family does not continue that same tradition, but it did show me the importance of setting aside time to just BE together.  And I loved the sense of stability it gave me as a child to know that I could count on my family doing the same thing together every single year.

Along with the childhood traditions my mom established, she also left me a lasting Christmas gift.  I did not even realize how precious it would be to me when she began making them.  When I got married, she decided to needlepoint us our own Christmas stocking.  For years, I watched her pull out her bag of yarn and work on them slowly but surely.  I am certain this is where Hailey gets her love of sewing because it did NOT come from her mother.  With every new grand baby, she would select a new stocking to begin so we could add it to our mantle for the following Christmas.  

My sweet Landry was born about 6 weeks after my mom died.  And my mom was sick my entire pregnancy with her.  My mom selected her stocking and started it, but was not able to finish it on her own.  Completing this piece was important to her.  And so she received some earthly help.  Various friends of my mom took the stocking and completed different sections of it until it was done.  When I was given the stocking by my mom’s friend after my mom had died, I became overwhelmed.  Landry received a stocking that was not only made for her with the hands of her grandmother that would never be able to hold her, but also with the loving supportive hands of her grandmother’s friends.  These women lifted her grandmother up and comforted her when she needed it most.  And that is not only a lasting gift my girls have but an ultimate lesson in friendship, compassion and loyalty.

I am not sure how the Christmas season feels to you.  Oftentimes society, social media and commercials put weighty expectations solely on happiness.  It is as if anything less than pure joy means failure.  And I hope the season is a time of joy and celebration.  But please remember the Christmas story itself was full of mixed emotions. The time leading up to the birth of Jesus being born in a manger was complicated. So much that happens in life is out of our control.  I encourage you to take advantage of the abilities God has given you.  Start a new tradition for your family or your friends or for others in need that blesses them.  If you are suffering this season, allow others to come in and comfort you.  For me,  I’ll spend some time looking at all the stockings hanging on my mantel.  And there’s one in particular I’ll look at a little longer.  The one that represents a story of love, joy, comfort, hope, compassion and above all else, grace.  And those are all the emotions I will embrace this Christmas.

I Can Do That. But Just That.

In the past, I worked as an Admissions director for a Catholic high school. Going into the job I was terrified to work with teenagers because have you met one? But I hold such great memories from that job, and I loved those kids. Throughout the years I kept up with a handful of them via social media and have enjoyed watching them grow up. Albeit, their post high school shenanigans in my news feed have more than once morphed me into a fretting grandmother, with all of the wringing of my hands and clutching of my pearls.

But I fought the urge to write comments like, “Let’s leave some room between you two for the Holy Ghost.” And it paid off because I saw their graduations, watched as they maneuvered first real jobs, engagements, and marriages. Some now live in the early phase of marriage and family that I was in when they met me. Which is a little rude given that it points out how much I have aged. But I need to rise above because I am their elder (as they have so rudely pointed out). And I got the favorable end of the deal. In exchange for following me, these kids watched my timeline evolve from “my skin looks like Snow White’s, even though I never wash my face,” to “we will need to borrow against the 401k to keep me in wrinkle cream. And please fetch my wrap as there is a chill.”

One of my students was named Garrett. I remember when Garrett was processing the idea of pursuing a religious vocation after high school, carefully considering what it would mean for his life. He went on to study Theology at Marquette and Social Work at Loyola, and now works as the campus minister for a Catholic high school in South Dakota as part of his formation to become a Jesuit priest.  Garrett’s humble manner and perspective are grounding. He provides peace, humor, insight and clarity in his writing. Post-election when I felt paralyzed by tension and anger surrounding me, he wrote a reflection that centered me. It’s a unique honor to watch someone you knew as an adolescent become an adult with such wisdom.

Recently Garrett posted this article: What I Do Have to Give. When I read it the first time, I thought Garrett was conveying the intentional limitations he puts on himself as an act of self-care. I identified with his words because I try to adopt the same focus during the holiday season. But then I thought about the title, What I Do Have to Give, and realized he was expressing something more meaningful. He asked himself “what DO I have to give?” instead of “what can I not do?” A significant difference lies between those two mindsets. Rather than seeing himself as limited in what he can do, he highlights what he can do well and then gives those acts and beliefs his time and attention. It is an empowering mindset that truly magnifies self-care.

He talked about the extent of his mental exhaustion as this semester winds down before the break. He addressed the situation by making a list of goals for the next two weeks and breaking them down into tasks that fall under three essential categories in his role as the campus minister. And after each category, he wrote “I can do that. But just that.

This time of year explodes with lists and expectations. Gifts to buy, people to see, relationships to balance, finances to blow to hell, things to cook, elves to move (or as I want to do, hurl). And some of those things bring meaning and memories and are well worth the effort. But it will not end well if we do ALL of it.

As we approach Christmas, we would do well to use the same technique. First, identify where we want to put our focus. Family time? Experiences? Continuing particular traditions? Then take those categories and assign actions that will help us do those things well. And do that. But just that.

Saying this feels hypocritical since I will, without a doubt, lose this perspective more than once. But if we aim high and fall short, we are still doing pretty well. Plus, Christmas is not complete without at least one family member having a spectacular Clark Griswold style meltdown.

So this year, I will sit down with my husband, and we can define what we have to give. And do that. But just that.

Pinterest Amnesia

I cannot craft. Everything about crafting trips me up. I bought a glue gun a few years ago and nearly lost an eye, and that doesn’t even make sense. Here is what I have to offer craft wise: I will make a batch of margaritas for your crafting party.

Even after eleventeen thousand disastrous crafting ventures, I keep trying. It reminds me of the phenomenon referred to as labor amnesia where one “forgets” the pain of labor. People believe this occurs so we can muster up enough courage to procreate again. I find this idea alarming. If we can forget that we have expelled an entire human out of our body, we probably don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping track of them afterward. However, I do believe in Pinterest amnesia. Pinterest amnesia is a very real (it’s not real) coping mechanism. One that allows us to bury the trauma associated with past Pinterest fails. The shame and regret experienced when Mod Podge ruins our projects and our lives are swallowed up, erased from memory. Allowing us to continue looking at our Pinterest boards with hope. 

Pinterest amnesia is how my  friend Lori can make something like this and still soldier on to pin another day:

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Her goal was to teach her children the symbolism behind candy canes. And yes, maybe she missed the mark. But if anyone ever needs to know what a tapeworm strangling some licorice looks like, Lori has provided a visual. Thank you, Lori.

Because I have The Pinterest Amnesia, I attempted these three crafts/recipes. Which, by the way, most of you could nail, and I highly recommend. Even though things went wrong during the process, they still ended up kind of cute. Except for that middle one. The way I flubbed that one was to completely forget about it until my 6-year old daughter asked where it was on Thanksgiving. She then teared up after I gave her the news. I gave her a dollar for her therapy jar and sent her on her way.

Edible Thanksgiving Turkey Place Card or Centerpiece from firstyearblog.com
Edible Thanksgiving Turkey Place Card or Centerpiece from firstyearblog.com
Turkey Fruit Platter from The First Year Blog
Turkey Fruit Platter from The First Year Blog
Pilgrim Hat Cookies from Sippycupmom.com
Pilgrim Hat Cookies from Sippycupmom.com

We started with the turkey place card holder made with pears. We hit our first glitch straightaway during the first step. I struggled to get the first pear to submit to me and stand up after being halved. After consulting the directions, it came to light that I had not yet read any of the directions. I was not supposed to cut the pear in half because a halved pear cannot balance. I sacrificed the pear for no reason. So we brought in a green apple to act as runner-up to the pear, who was unable to fulfill his role. But there is always a silver lining. We got to watch G.R. confront his texture issues whilst trying to eat a grainy pear.

Then, we faced a grim reality. None of the pears were capable of balancing. The author of the craft had warned of this dilemma and encouraged checking the pears balance potential before purchase, which tells me Walmart grocery pick up is not yet available in her area. I tend to live on the wild side of suburban life, so I let the grocery pick up associate choose my pears. And you know what? I am not even going to call Walmart to complain about the instability of the pears they sell because it is the holiday season. I choose grace. We are over-comers in this house, so we stoically jammed toothpicks up the pears hindquarters to prop them up.

Things went further south because I had gone rogue, deciding against purchasing candy eyes. We already had google eyes in our craft bin, so I decided to practice frugality and save the 98 cents. That left wiggle room to afford the $4,683 worth of fruit the crafts required. Unfortunately, I had failed to factor in the humongous size of the google eyes we owned.

Our turkeys look like they attended a riot just after being tested for glaucoma.

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Or maybe they are still reeling from taking a toothpick up the badonk. That seems fair.

But you know what? Making them was fun. We laughed. We spent time together. The kids tried the dried fruit and liked it, allowing me to give a moving soliloquy on the merits of just freaking trying things because you might freaking like them. Yes, my daughters bounced between 14 different emotions during the process, but that’s how everyone acts during the holidays, so I just found them to be festive. And I think crafts are nice during the holidays because they bring me to my knees, a convenient position in which to pray, and that keeps my focus on the actual reason for the season. It’s all beautifully connected.

Someday I will say to our girls, “Remember all the fun we had making those turkey pears? Let’s do that with your kids!” And hopefully, my daughters will look back on the experience fondly and agree wholeheartedly, only recalling when it is too late to turn back how our fingers transformed into bloody stumps from sliding dried fruit on sharp toothpicks. But it will be okay. Because they will be in charge and I am going to laugh at them.

The holidays can feel strikingly similar to navigating a Pinterest craft. A lot of emotional highs and lows. Continually jumping back and forth between having perspective and losing sight of it. Attempting perfection and then being humbled when it is not achieved. One day you might step outside and note that all your neighbor’s homes are lit up like a magical winter wonderland, and then turn and look at the Halloween pumpkins that still adorn your porch. That happened to my friend (me). Hopefully, in the end, we will carry the positive snippets away and forget the rest. We can call that holiday amnesia.

Stay tuned for Christmas crafts. I will make stuff like this fancy replica of a Christmas poke cake. Try to guess which one is mine.

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Happy holidays!

 

Charlie. Steps in Glue Traps. The End.

You know how you tell someone a story, and in the moment it is not funny and you don’t know why you are telling them?  Except that you are going nutty inside so you share to get it out? But in spite of your own feelings, that person’s reaction begins to reveal that it might be a bit funny? That is how our first blog post came to light.

Amanda and I had trudged through the mucky process of sorting out blogolicious words like platform, web hosting and domain. Then, WordPress maliciously pushed us harder and demanded we create a sample post. Amanda, being a good friend, naturally thought it would be hysterical to reference a day of Smith chaos.  It was, indeed, an insane one, chock-full of my children’s shenanigans.  Trey was out-of-town and I was busy preparing for house guests when our teeny new kitten stepped in a large glue trap I had left under a bed to catch scorpions. Oh, hey, DID I MENTION WE HAD SCORPIONS WHEN WE MOVED HERE? Also, do you know what it’s like when a kitten is covered in a glue trap?

Amanda responded with a comforting HAHAHAHA. And, soon afterward, when I went to read our first official post, I saw this and started to HAHAHAHA myself.

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This whole debacle started years ago when our children started asking us if they could have a cat. This was an easy answer for us. N-to-the-O. Trey and I are N-to-the-OT cat people. We are d-to-the-og people. Side note:  I have learned that there are varying degrees of dog people and Trey and I represent both ends of the spectrum. Trey thinks our golden retriever, Tucker, is a happy, loyal canine and he enjoys petting him as he walks in the door from work. I tend to be the type of dog person that smushes my face into Tuckie Wuckie’s grill multiple times a day while using a sickeningly sweet saccharine voice to ask him questions about his day. And sometimes I pretend as if he has answered me and I continue conversing with him about his pretend answers. That’s not weird…at all. Look, even Mark Twain said, “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” And so, long ago, it was established that Trey and I were officially dog people. The end.

And then we had children.  And the children would see little kittens when we were out and about.  And the children’s eyes would become googly and they would ask if we could have one.  This did not fall in line with what Trey and I had decided for our family.  We are DOG people.  So our answer was firm.  We had it down.  It went like this, “you can get a cat when you’re 30….the same year you can start to think about dating.  We don’t like cats.  We are not getting one.”  I mean, have you ever noticed that they have CLAWS?

But the children persisted.  So we told them our lines over and over and added words like “absolutely not” and “never.”  You know, the serious words that drive the point home and help you stand firm in your beliefs.  I mean, have you ever seen how UNPREDICTABLE cats are?  In fact, they are so bad that they have a bacterial infection with a fever named after them.  

In time we got the children to stop asking about the kitties.  We came to understand that they were wanting a pet they could be responsible for and call their own.  Let’s be honest, Tucker sleeps with me every single night.  He has no desire to pretend as if he’s their best friend.  That boy knows who feeds him, who lets him ride shotgun in the car, and who gets him this sweet hairdo worthy of landing him the coveted January spot in Golden Retrievers of San Antonio calendar.

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Hubba-hubba…

So, we solved the cat controversy by giving the kids….FISH!!!!  First came Lloyd, then came Berry.  Two itty bitty beta fish that were cute, colorful, AND smart.  My trio still insists they have taught them tricks.  Of course, these sweet things are in separate tanks because they are actually Siamese fighting fish named after an ancient clan of warriors.  And if you put them together they’ll peck at each other until one murders the other….but that’s neither here nor there, WE SOLVED THE CAT PROBLEM!  I mean, cats have litter boxes….who has time to clean up a box filled with littered cat thingies?!  Not this family.  We only have time for fish full of such venom and hatred that they must live out their lives in solitary confinement.

And then last summer happened.  Our oldest was turning twelve and entering middle school.  She has a heart of gold and is incredibly responsible.  Her love language is not “stuff,” but she has always treasured meaningful gifts.  She’s our less-is-more gal.  And at the top of her birthday list was….a cat.  She came to me and said, “Mom, is there really no way that we can ever have a cat?  The neighbors all have them live outside during the day and in their garage at night.  They keep all the snakes and critters away.  Do you think that if maybe I put together a Powerpoint presentation for you and daddy about why cats are a good thing, then maybe you would think about it?”  And it happened, my heart started to crack.  I mean, cats are terrible, but are they THAT terrible?  

And honestly, as someone who has personally pledged to help my kids live life to the fullest, I’m pretty sure basing our decisions on the rationale of “because that’s the way we have always been” and “we don’t feel like it, so no,” isn’t the wisest. And so, after talking with multiple friends who we trust and who have all loved having a cat at one time or another, we revamped our thinking. Hailey woke up on her birthday in August and received a letter stating that she was going to get to pick out a kitty to rescue. She’s typically our most reserved child, but on this day there was no doubt from her reaction that we had hit one out of the park for her.

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A few days later we hit the local shelters.  All the girls got to pick out the kitten, but Hailey had final say.  She found a 1 pound ball of love that had been abandoned in a storm drain, but socialized well with humans.  She looked at me, said, “this is the one, Mom!!!  I want her.”  She named her Charlie and we brought our newest girl home.  I had no earthly idea what to do with her and her claws and the engine like noise that she made when someone held her, but my girls naturally began loving the heck out of her.

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You would think this could be the end of this lovely story.  But nope.  Approximately two weeks after having her home, I heard desperate pleas and screams coming from upstairs and for me to come quick because there was an EMERGENCY!!!  I dropped everything in a panic and ran and heard all kinds of wails coming from Hailey’s room.  Two of my kids had their heads buried under covers yelling, “WE CAN’T WATCH!!! HELLLLLLLP!!!”  Hailey was jumping up and down saying, “MOM!!!  MOM!!!!  GET HER!!!  OH NOOOO!!!!” on repeat.  And Charlie, well, Charlie was a hot mess.  She had gone exploring in Hailey’s room, made it under her bed, and had found the long forgotten glue trap.  She wasn’t so happy that she had touched this piece of plastic and it didn’t let go of her.  To remove the trap, she instinctively put her other paw in it, followed by a third, followed by her nose, and she rounded out the misery by twisting her back flat onto the sticky plate.  My girls were not the only ones shrieking either.  I received my introduction to the cat scream.  And the cat scream is deep, serious, and totally freaky scary coming out of a 1 pound body.

In the end, she survived, but I am sure she still has kitty nightmares.  Not only did I quickly learn how to hold her, I realized I truly loved that furry little thing.  We scrubbed vegetable oil over her entire body while pulling long strings of glue out of her fur over and over and over again.  She stopped fighting us and just became this little pathetic, sad, sticky kitty.  We shampooed her and she smelled so yummy.  We toweled her off and she just wanted to cuddle and I’ll be darned if I didn’t assign her a new ridiculous voice that I use only when I am holding her.  I mean, cats are so appreciative of being rescued, who wouldn’t love a cat?

The experience of adding Charlie to our family has taught me some lessons.   First, we all have certain ideas and thoughts drilled into our heads that we have accepted as our personal truths.  Sometimes, it’s healthy to revisit those and ask ourselves why we believe what we believe.  Why do I think this way?  When did I decide I would never own a cat?  And more importantly, WHY?  This also goes so far beyond adding an animal to a family.  

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We’ve got the holidays quickly approaching my friends.  And the holidays can be full of joy…..and stress.  We can quickly revert into old family roles and patterns. It is easy to fall back into, “I do it this way because that’s how it has always been done.” And this can place stress on our marriages and children.  Meaning, the people who were not around when we originally developed these thought patterns.  If your answer is something like “because I said so and that’s that” or “I don’t even KNOW” or “that’s how we have always lived so we have to keep doing it” then it might be time to reevaluate.  Maybe something new could be in the works for you!  Or maybe you’ll find that the answers to your questions are clear and easy to answer.  Oftentimes when my answers are grounded in my faith and are backed up by Scripture that I hold so dearly for my decision-making, I know that I am choosing what is healthy for me and my family.  Taking time to think about our personal opinions and decisions is time well spent.

And, I will admit. It turns out that all the things I thought I would hate about a cat became my favorite. Charlie is moody, odd and she wigs out unpredictably.  She has the ability to make her fur puff straight out and I swear she jumps straight sideways sometimes.  And don’t even get me started on how INSANE she is when the sun goes down and she starts hunting our toes. She can sweetly purr on my lap one second and then chomp down on something random like my earlobe the next.  Turns out, this is the perfect contrast to our Tucker and to our fighting warrior fish. I love Charlie. But Trey…well…Trey still really likes Tucker.

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Day Dating: A Post Preschool Perk

My husband and I went on a day date today, which is like a night date without the alcohol or babysitters. And when I say “without alcohol,” I mean that I drank a Mexican Mule at lunch, so there was absolutely alcohol. The menu included hand-crafted cocktails and I felt convicted in the moment to start intentionally supporting people pursuing the art of being hand-crafty. Since my lunchtime alcohol consumption was done with intention and conviction there is zero room for judgment, only for commendation. Plus, no food with the word “Mexican” in front of it can ever go wrong. Unless it does, and then the results are straight up catastrophic.

We were on this day date because we realize we have to make changes. Our lives have come to revolve around things like work, work travel, elementary school schedules, our children’s activities, daily chores, and paying $300 for a vet to wrap a plastic cone around our dog’s head. I feel at times like we are checking off a list rather than truly living life. And I know if we continue this pattern it will become hard to remember what we loved about each other in the first place. And also hard to remember what we like about ourselves. And what we like about our expensive, cone-sporting dog. Not really, he’s always my favorite. At any rate, we know this pattern cannot continue.

We have reached a place of transition. Our littlest went off to kindergarten this year and our oldest, while still very much a kid, is pretty self-sufficient. Moving into this new place has been exciting, and to be honest, a bit of a relief. So many things can be enjoyed with ease now because everyone goes to the bathroom on their own, everyone gets in and out of the car on their own, everyone knows to sneak snacks out of the pantry on their own, saving me from the dreaded role of Healthy Snack Patrol Officer. But this transition has revealed some cracks within our relationship and has placed some of the spotlight back on ourselves as individuals.

Resurfacing are all the things we put on the back-burner while we learned to stop sleeping and start juggling babies, then toddlers and then preschoolers. We are both coming out of a fog and remembering we are not just parents. Rather we are people with individual preferences and beliefs. Some alike and some that differ and conflict. We are a bit uncertain about what kind of people we will be in this phase of life, and as we navigate this stuff personally, we absolutely must remember we are partners in it all. And I am so thankful for that. Basically, what I am saying is that this is not complicated at all.

We are making little changes. We are carving out time for each other. We are doing crazy things like asking each other questions that don’t involve carpool or the Disney Channel. It felt so good to laugh and be outside of the heaviness of daily responsibilities. When you are in the mundane of everyday life, sometimes you are unable to realize that you need to step out and take time away to simply have fun.

Someday these kids will be gone and off at college, angelically adhering to all rules of social decorum while wearing loose-fitting frocks that cover all their areas.They will be earnestly working towards locking down medical degrees, so they can star in my humble brag Christmas cards. Obviously, we all know that scenario is a little ridiculous. I will never be able to pull off sending Christmas cards. 

When that time comes it will be awkward for G.R. and I to stand in sports complexes watching the volleyball games of random children, so we need to keep building this relationship now. So that as our kids grow up, our relationship does too. I really like these kids living in this hizzle, but when they venture out into the world, so will we.  

The truth is I need my husband. No one else automatically rolls the car window down after someone sneezes knowing I have a 7th grade science movie graphically depicting a sneeze permanently ingrained into my brain. And he’s the kind of heroic soul that can work a french press in the early morning hours, a time in which I can only lay and weep at the feet of our Keurig and the heavy weight of its demands. Does he whistle in the morning? Yes, and it makes me want to die. But he also brings me the good french pressed coffee in bed. And he’s taught our kids to be whistle-y in the morning too. This will serve them better than what I offer which is a front row seat as I eek through the stages of grief, finally landing at acceptance that it is morning.

I share this because I know these struggles are true for all of us. And things like social media damage our perceptions of what is real in even our closest friends’ lives. I am not posting pictures of my kids hating what I cooked for dinner (again), or me loudly loading the dishwasher to assure my family is aware of my righteous indignation. Nor will I post pictures of G.R. scratching his head in frustration (Side note: G.R.’s hair has been falling out steadily for 16 years now, which is weird because I have been the calming presence that has graced his life for the past 16 years). Plus it would be inappropriate for us to do that anyway. The best we can do is keep in mind that everyone has their crap and that news feeds are full of highlight reels and masked dysfunction. Except for you, yours is perfect and I love it.

I cannot tie this up in a pretty little bow because marriage is a work in progress. Just know that as you live real life today, I am too, and it is not all pictures of my kids being cute as social media may suggest. Sometimes it is just plain messy. And sometimes it is Mosby looking like a plastic cone birthed his head.

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