Tag Archives: relationships

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.

Surprise!

This morning I was on a treadmill.  I looked down to see how far I had run and I was certain there was a mistake.  My legs felt like they had sprinted to Canada and at least halfway back.  The treadmill read “2 miles.”  This means one thing.  Next time I run, I’m picking a different treadmill because that one obviously cannot count correctly.  Anyway, right about the time I checked my mileage, I got a text from my middle schooler.  She was not feeling well and this meant my plans for the day were about to take a detour. Surprise for me!

As I gladly ended my non-marathon workout early, I headed off to the school to grab my girl.  Once under the loving care of her mother, I did what all modern-day Florence Nightingale caretakers would do.  I told her we had to run a few errands before I could get her home and medicated.  Nothing like buckling in for a ride around town when your head is pounding!  Off we went to wait in line at the drive thru pharmacy.

Side note:  Why is it that I will wait 45 minutes behind three cars in a pharmacy drive thru line?  I could just as easily park my car, walk into the store, head to the front of the line (because as I’m waiting all the minutes in the car, I can see there is no line inside), get what I need and be out of there in 3 minutes.  But no, there is some mystical power that tells me to stay in the most inefficient car line ever.  However, if you do go inside, you miss the opportunity to use the magical time capsule launcher.  It exists in the far drive up lane and is your ticket to exchanging items with the store employee.  You push that button and it makes a noise like the capsule is going into space, but lands in the pharmacists hands in 3 seconds.  I swear the Flintstones would have loved that thing.

So while we were waiting, my daughter decided to pull out her lunch so she could refuel during our car wait-a-thon.  And then we started a brief conversation:

Hailey:  Mom, have I told you about the lunchtime game my friends and I play called “What’s For Lunch?”

Me:  Noooo.  Fill me in!

Hailey:  Ok, so everyday, we sit down and I say, “hey guys, who wants to guess what’s in my lunch??!!!!!”  And then we all try to guess.

Me:  Do they normally get it right?

Hailey:  Sometimes.  Some of us bring the same thing every day.  Some of us mix it up.  We always laugh about it.  I love opening up my lunch to try to guess what’s in it.

Me:  Wait.  You get excited about your lunch?  

Hailey:  OH YES!  Like on the days when you pack it, I try not to ask or look at what you put in there because then I have a SURPRISE to look forward to halfway through the day!!!  Like yesterday, I opened up the thermos container and it was ravioli and I was all “RAVIOLIIIII!!!  YESSSSSSS!!!!”

And there you have it.  My firstborn has made it to her 8th year of schooling before I learned this little nugget of information about her.  Does the unveiling of her lunch make or break her day?  No. Is her day ruined on the days where she packs her own food?  Nope.  

However, it was nice to learn a small and tangible way I can provide a lift to her day.  And it got me to thinking about other people in my life.  Are there more doses of happy I could be throwing out to my friends and family? Maybe a few simple ways I could help add a “YESSSS” to their day too? I bet so and I’m on a mission to uncover them.  As for Hailey, she’s got more secret lunch surprises coming her way.

Grace House

She has taught me so much in the past few months and I hope I have helped her some too.

She is trustworthy, kind, humble, and gentle in spirit.  The first day I met her, she felt the need to tell me all about herself and did not keep any secrets.  At times she talked quite fast due to her nerves and the pain attached to exposing her past, but she forced herself to trust me.  She divulged past regrets, but rested in the fact that her past had allowed her to land in a safe place.  She inquired about my life, always looking me in the eye when I spoke to show she was engaged.  She sought out my advice on handling conflict with peers because it felt uncomfortable yet unavoidable at times.  She still smiles often even though parts of her future are uncertain.  And she has asked me if I will still want to be her friend in the upcoming months.  I have assured her that I do.

About 7 months ago, I met her.  I had been feeling a tug at my heart to get involved in something outside of my “bubble” so I sent an email to an organization I had heard of through our church.  Our bubbles are funny, aren’t they?  Most of us work towards creating an environment with our families that provide safety and security.  We yearn for stability.  A place where memories are made and children have freedom without parents fearing their every move.  I wonder if, as humans, we are wired to seek these things?  I’m not sure I’ve ever run into someone who has said “hey, I’m looking for a home where I could put my family at risk.  You seen one?”

My friend that I described above?  Well, about 9 months ago, she was sitting in prison.  And she was thinking prison was going to be her home for quite some time for personal choices made which did not agree with the law.  In addition to legal violations, she was also struggling to overcome addiction.  On paper, she was not the type of person I would have ever put myself around, nor my children, because she was living a life that was so different from mine.

But God had another plan for her life.  She was told she would be given the opportunity to go to a rehab type facility, but there was no guarantee she was done serving time.  Soon after she learned this, the founders of an organization called Grace House happened to be visiting the prison and handed her an application.  

The mission of Grace House “is to give women at risk the opportunity to overcome destructive life-styles of addiction, incarceration and poverty.  We provide a protected environment, both physically and spiritually, so that women may grow and mature in their faith and be transformed by the power of God.”  The women adhere to strict routines and participate in daily bible studies.  In addition, they enhance their learning through classes and listening to speakers.  The nine month program covers a variety of topics such as addiction recovery, money management, parenting skills, healthy relationships, nutrition instruction, productive lifestyle skills, music and art, and physical fitness.  In addition, the women also volunteer and serve others in the community.  And, they are assigned a personal mentor.

This is where God intersected my story with my new friend.  I would love to tell you that going into this experience, I was confident in my ability to serve at Grace House.  When I first met with the director, I was really hoping she would recommend that I either tutor some of the women with their school work or that I would teach a class.  I preferred this because it would allow me to “help” but would also keep me somewhat distant and in my comfort zone.  She didn’t.  She asked me to be a mentor and had my specific friend in mind.  She then asked me if I had any questions or concerns.  I did.  Some I voiced and some I kept to myself.  One of my thoughts went like this, “Well, I haven’t quite been in prison before, nor struggled with addiction.  Wait that’s not true….I am a 39-year-old nail biter who probably loves Diet Coke a little too much, but I haven’t struggled with addictions that could land me in jail!  Is she even going to like me?  Will she relate to me?  Will she honestly want advice from someone who has not walked the type of path she has?”  But I decided to trust the director, and with that, I ended up busting right out of my safe little bubble.

Shortly after meeting, we discovered that she and I connect easily.  We both enjoy going to the movies together.  We also like to explore the city and visit historical sites.  We speak the language of motherhood and have found that a mother’s love transcends all divides.  I know her kids’ names and can describe their personalities and she can do the same with mine.  We are both drawn to exercise, because without this healthy outlet we both find ourselves struggling.  Also, she has learned to tolerate my weekly driving debacles due to my nonexistent sense of direction mixed with my inability to accurately follow all the GPS instructions.  Not only has it been easier than expected to spend time with her, I have thoroughly ENJOYED it.  I look forward to our weekly adventures and conversations.  I love that before we eat, she reaches out for my hand, grasps it, and prays with a genuine heart.

And so, I am rewiring my thinking about my bubble.  Yes, I want safety and security and stability.  But as a Christian, it is not my job to try to create that environment for myself nor my family.  In fact, it is impossible to have that type of control in this life because suffering and human uncertainty will always exist.  But we can be assured, that as believers, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. Paul tells us, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35; 37-39, New International Version).

So if you have possibly wanted to bust out of your bubble but struggle with the “I’m not sure I will relate” or “it freaks me out” or “will I have enough time” or “what if I hate it”, I would like to encourage you.  I GET IT.  Oh, and also….DO IT.  Take your feelings of doubt and insecurity and slap them down.  Step out.  Be bold.  Be uncomfortable and courageous.  Spread the Good News of the security given to us through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  He provides us with the best bubble in which to live.

In one short month, she will graduate from Grace House.  And she will not be returning to prison.  Her parole officer informed her that he was impressed by the changes within her.  He recommended to the court that she not be incarcerated and the courts agreed!  I am so incredibly proud of her and I’m also in awe of the strength she has.  She recently told me that she never knew that there was a light in this world because she had always felt a darkness covering her.  But now that she’s tasted and seen the sweetness that Jesus is, she cannot wait to go home and raise her kids. She wants them to grow up knowing what it is to have hope.  Her goals are to be with her children as much as she can, go to work, read her bible, exercise and attend weekly Celebrate Recovery meetings.  Her plan is simple and focused.  Personally, I cannot wait to meet up with my new friend in the community we both belong to because she is a blessing and inspiration to me.

If you would like to learn more about or donate to Grace House, please visit http://gracehousesa.org  

My Bible

Several years ago I attended a weekend Pine Cove camp with good friends. While there, it came out that I did not own a personal Bible. Days after we left the camp they presented me with an engraved study Bible. Inside, each friend had written a personal note and highlighted their favorite verse.

 

 

 

 

Now when I stumble upon the highlighted verses, I am reminded how important community is and how often I fight against it. My pride tells me that shouldering it alone means I am strong. And that is when things tend to go very poorly for me, because it is not about strong versus weak. God created us to be in community with one another.

 

 

 

 

A spiritual community, when authentic, provides a place to share joy, hold space, and carry each other’s burdens. It is where we can quietly learn or stand up and teach. It is a safe spot for imperfect people to mess up, regroup, and try again. It should be full of messy, unconditional love.

 

 

 

 

This Bible and every other Bible serves as a powerful reminder that we can experience God’s grace and message through others and that through community we have the opportunity to experience a bit of Kingdom living right here on earth.

 

 

Brakes? You Mean the Coward Petal

Recently the Regas family took up the gauntlet and forged their way down I-35 to the Texas Hill Country where we live.  And to kick off the weekend, we adults went out to dinner to relax and catch up.  Once seated and settled in, our conversations started drifting into memories and stories.  And Amanda and my’s trip to Colorado last summer came up.  Have you ever told a funny story about someone and then it backfired?  And not backfire like “oh you didn’t hear the punchline” but backfire like “hey I was telling this story and now why are all of you acting like I’m the weird one?”  If so, I feel your pain.

Before we arrived in the mountains last summer, we informally created a mental to-do list of activities that varied from our daily routine.  And one of the items on my list was MOUNTAIN BIKING!  Who doesn’t love a bike, right?  And who wouldn’t want to put a bike on a slanted slab of earth?  This just made sense to me and had adventure written all over it.  I feel like all our faithful readers are currently on my side while reading along right now too.  Amanda was game too until we started hiking the first day.

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Amanda:  Hey Katie, remember how you said you want to go mountain biking?

Me:  YES!!!!!!  It is going to be so FUN!!!

Amanda:  Well, I’m just not sure I can do that.  In fact, I’m quite sure I’m not going to be able to do that.

Me:  WHAT?  Why?

Amanda:  Katie. You see the path we are on right now?  These bike paths are not meant for bikes. A human cannot keep two tires on this path. I have been myself my entire life. I can tell you with complete certainty what is going to happen. I am going to go off the path, tip over and roll.

Me:  NOOOO YOU WON’T.  You’ll be fine!  You’ll see!!!

Amanda:  Um, no.  Really.  And also, if I fall, I’m quite sure I’m not going to stop rolling until I get to the bottom of the mountain.

Me:  NOOOO YOU WON’T.

Amanda:  I’m just telling you, NOT HAPPENING.

Me:  That’s CRAZY.  You’ll be fine!!

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We never did ride those bikes.  I still laugh at the thought of her honestly thinking that if she fell she would roll all the way down to the base of a mountain.  And so I told this story at dinner, fully expecting both husbands to laugh along with me at silly Amanda.  Except they did not.  And one person in particular abandoned the Team Katie ship.…..my husband.  

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Trey:  OH MY GOSH.  Katie is unbelievable, right?  I swear she does this every trip. Did she ever tell you about when she made ME go mountain biking?

Amanda:  NOOOOOOO!!!  WHAT??  KATIE YOU DID NOT TELL ME THIS.

Katie: *eyes start darting around, feel shift in convo coming*  Huh?

Trey:  OH YEAH!  On our 10th anniversary when we were in Colorado, she made me mountain bike.  And she had gotten way far ahead of me as we were riding down the mountain.  She finally decided to stop and wait on me.  And when I got there, she’s all, “What took you so long?  Why do you have grass stuck in your helmet?  Are your shorts ripped?  IS YOUR SHIRT RIPPED?  LET’S GO!”  And I told her, “Woman, I TRIED TO TELL YOU THAT MY BACK BRAKES FELT LIKE THEY WERE OFF.  WELL THEY ARE.  THEY DO NOT WORK, I JUST FLIPPED OVER THE HANDLEBARS!  I AM DONE RIDING BIKES!”

Katie:  *honestly, how necessary are back brakes while riding down a mountain?  Internal eye roll for Mr. Drama.*

Trey:  AND THEN, we got to the bottom of the mountain.  I tried to find a bus to take us back to the bike rental place to return that dang bike.  And Katie says, “NO WAY!  LET’S RIDE OUR BIKES BACK TO THE RENTAL PLACE!  IT ISN’T THAT FAR!”

Amanda:  Wait, were you at the part of the mountain BELOW the flags?  BECAUSE THAT IS A STRAIGHT UPHILL RIDE!

Trey:  OH YES WE WERE.

Katie:  *I feel like they might not be supporting me currently and I am not liking their party pooper attitudes.  Begin sipping water and make no eye contact.*

Trey:  IT WAS TERRIBLE. And I PAID to have the experience of flipping over my handlebars, shredding my clothes and then getting to bike straight up a mountain.

Amanda:  OH MY GOSH THAT IS AWWWFUL!!!  Have you ever noticed that she totally forces you into doing things under the premise of “it’s an adventure!!!”

Katie:  Hi G.R.  Aren’t the rolls good here?

Trey:  OH YES SHE DOES.  Last trip we were on…..our entire family was EXHAUSTED by the end of the day.  What does Katie do?  Says, “Hey guys, so if you want to just stay here, that’s fine.  BUT I AM GOING BACK OUT TO WALK AROUND DISNEYLANNNND!!!!!  WHO WANTS TO COME WITH ME????”  The kids looked at her like she was on crack.

Katie:  I did NOT force anyone to come!!!

Trey:  You are correct.  You did not.  But WHO spends an entire day out and about and then decides at 9PM that they want to squeeze in two more hours?  Even if they’re alone?

Amanda: Okay, so let me tell you another story. We went to Austin and she insisted on riding the city bikes. Which would have been fine, there are beautiful parks in Austin…but we rode them in a bike lane on South Congress, during peak bar time. In the dark. And I was in a skirt. And honestly, being in the skirt was the least of my problems. I kept screaming at her and she just kept yelling over her shoulder, “You are fine! Totally safe.”

Katie:  *but it was bikes!  Bikes are fun!  Day or night!  Fold napkin in lap.*

Trey:  OH, she ALWAYS DOES THIS!  I am JUST realizing it!

Trey and Amanda:  *slow head turns towards me*

Katie:  You guys, you’re telling me that you don’t love to do all these things all day on vacation?

Trey:  I believe the key word missing here is “moderation.”

Katie:  I USE MODERATION!!!!

Amanda:  No.  No you don’t.  I mean….it isn’t a BAD thing!  But you are now outed!!

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The conversation was all in good fun and we all were laughing the entire time.  But it also got me thinking and asking questions.  Maybe we are all built with a different natural type of internal decompression mode.  Maybe some people look for new places, new experiences and a go-go-go attitude when away from their daily lives.  Maybe others crave familiarity and traditions as a way to recharge.  Maybe some like to be in control and make lots of plans while others prefer to show up and figure it out.  Maybe some are a mix.  

Do you tend to lean towards one end?  The truth is, I DO love to explore new places and be outdoors and be moving all the time.  Also, come to think of it, maybe the reason I got put in an immobilization boot for 6 weeks last spring wasn’t just my foot’s fault for giving out on me?

In my mind, a day of doing what you can normally do at home on vacation is a day that STINKS!  Vacation is for trying new things and being in new environments!  I love to end a day feeling like I DID something and have a tired body.  And this doesn’t just have to mean riding a bike…although I think it’s becoming obvious that I may have a repressed obsession with bikes.  But I love to be out and about whether on a mountain or in the ocean or at a park or visiting a museum or checking out different cities and cultures.  It feeds my soul.

My husband tends to be a person of familiarity.  But until recently, I never believed that’s what he actually WANTED to be doing.  He has repeatedly told me how he wants to go see the same places over and over again, yet I’ve interpreted it as, “Ok honey, I get it (add in a wink, wink).  You want to be boring, but secretly….I just know you want to do all the things!  And I’m just the person to help you!”  It must be so fun to be married to me.

And could it be that one set of tendencies is not better than another?  In so many areas of life, balance is key.  Exploration is important because it busts us out of our ordinary environments of home.  We get to see what small fish we are in a big world.  But familiarity provides predictability and allows our senses to relax.  The high-alert part of us gets to take a break.  All of these ways of being are critical to living a full life.   And doing a little give-and-take to honor everyone’s tendencies when we are with friends and spouses is a way of showing respect to each other.  And so, I’m going to try be more self-aware of not only my wishes, but others’ also.  And, I’m also going to work on my poker face.  Because after 16 years of marriage, my manipulative biker ways were finally exposed, which means I must figure out new plans to entice him into barreling down a mountain at breakneck speed on a bike with bad brakes. Some people just need a little encouragement. (I’m looking at you Trey and Amanda.)

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.

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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