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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I Want to Be a Really Useful Engine

I said that to my husband today. Why? It's a combination of feeling creatively impotent, earning very little money (since I quit my full-time job over a year ago), and watching excessive amounts of Thomas & Friends episodes and movies with my train-obsessed toddler.

Sure, I feed and clothe and clean up after my two little guys (and myself, too, if I'm lucky). But if that's all I get done at the end of the day, I tend to feel a little deflated. Discouraged. I feel inefficient. Unproductive. And often, unmotivated to do anything to improve.

I hate that feeling. Type A person that I am, I need to feel like I'm getting stuff done. And I don't just mean, it makes me feel good when I accomplish things. (It does.) But I seriously NEED that feeling of accomplishment. It's a drug. Checking off those boxes on the to-do list. Getting that "productivity high." It's euphoric. A rush of relief. A validation of my worth. Demonstrable evidence that I'm not totally useless. In fact, when I get stuff done - really plow through my schedule, bang bang bang, like a sniper picking off targets - I can almost feel the pat on my back, almost hear the reassuring voice of approval... and lately it sounds a lot like a certain rotund top-hat-wearing gentleman.

As Sir Topham Hatt would say, "You're a really useful engine."

But then sometimes... okay, a lot of the time... I don't get stuff done. Sometimes it's because I literally have one or more children hanging off me, making even a 45-second solo bathroom break feel like a vacation. Other times I'm emotionally spent and have nothing left to give when I finally do have the free time available to actually accomplish something outside of the feed/bathe/clothe cycle of child-rearing chores.

And in those times, when I've gotten nothing done, when I can no longer feel the pat on my back, can no longer hear even a whisper of approval... that's when the Devil creeps into the void. And he glides his reptilian hand around my shoulder, comforting me with a false sense of entitlement and pride. And he drizzles my empty ears with all-too-logical lies... about how I've failed at last... about how my true self has been revealed... about how I'm really worthless after all, no good at anything, probably never was.

I know enough to recognize these as lies. I can even summon up the bright, clean words of Scripture to contradict them. But I'm shocked at how appealing it remains to believe the lie (even when I know it's totally untrue!) and wallow in the resulting despondency.

That happened today. And frankly, it made me feel like crap.

Tomorrow... here's my plan to do better.

  1. Hear a lie? Speak the truth! Don't just remember the verse haphazardly in the back of my head. Go open my Bible, find it, read it out loud, and for good measure, write it down! It's a lot harder to believe the lie when you're seeing, hearing, and writing the truth.
  2. One and done. Skip the to-do list. Instead, just pick one thing to get done - one and only one. I read somewhere that the ideal number of items for a to-do list is 3-4. More than that, and it becomes so discouraging/overwhelming that you give up halfway through. So rather than tempt fate, make it easy. Do just one thing. As a bonus, this should make it easier to do that one thing thoroughly and well, rather than racing through it on the way to the rest of the list.
  3. Be purposefully unproductive. By this I mean, be intentional about relaxing or "being lazy." If you plan it, rather than fall into it, you feel more in control... and less guilty about slacking off. That's the theory at least.
So, that's my plan to be a really useful engine. One that Sir Topham Hatt would be proud of. And hopefully one that can be proud of myself too.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

4th of July in Higginsville: The Tradition Continues

(Alternate title: 1 Minivan, 500 Miles, and 2 Kids Under 2... What Could Go Wrong?)

Tomorrow we embark on our first family road trip in the new minivan. We are driving 500 miles (one way) to visit my family in Missouri. It normally takes 8 hours. With two kids? We'll be lucky to make it in 10 or 11. I'm already dreading/yearning for the journey.

For this is not just any road trip. This is the annual 4th of July family reunion and fireworks extravaganza! This seminal event is older than I am. And I desperately hope it outlives me too.

This is my pilgrimage, and Higginsville is my Mecca.

Numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the tradition remains. Food, family, and fireworks. What could be better?

My boys are 7 months and 22 months old. C experienced it all for the first time last July, while little brother V will soon have his turn.

What am I most excited about? (Aside from the fact that this is the first summer since 2012 that I haven't been pregnant over 4th of July?)

There are fireworks, of course. The city ones and (arguably better) the ones we set off in my uncle's backyard. Don't worry; nobody's lost any fingers (yet). Prickly sparklers that you can use to write your name in the sultry summer air. Colorful smoke bombs that warm your heart (and burn your eyes). Black "snakes" that curl and hiss on the pavement. Parachutes that the kids chase and fight over. Towering fountains of color. Patriotic explosions of gunpowder and rainbow-colored streaks of sparkling light.

There's all manner of unhealthy and undeniably delicious food. Watermelon and chocolate pie. Fried chicken and corn/tomato/onion salad with vinegar so tart it makes your tongue tingle. Freshly grilled burgers and fat, sizzling brats. Coolers full of slick ice water, frosty cans of Pepsi, and glass bottles of cream soda.

There are cousins galore - first, second, third, twice removed... we got 'em all. People who share the same great-grandparents. And that's enough.

There are pallet nights. Bodies of uncles and cousins and brothers all stretched out on the floor side by side. A mound of blankets and pillows, popcorn and chocolate bars, ghost stories and family legends.

There are late-night walks around town, down side streets and through the city cemetery, or down to the local Sonic for curly fries and half-price milkshakes.

There are walks on the railroad tracks in the midday heat, the summer sunshine blanketing you in tangerine heat, the metal rails burning through your rubber shoe soles, the heat sapping your energy, making you dizzy and giddy and beautifully weak.

There are trips to the small blue house with the white porch on 23rd Street, where my great-grandparents and their nine kids lived the bulk of their lives. The house where eleven people once lived, sharing three bedrooms and one bathroom. The house, now in sad disrepair, where my grandmother was born, along with all but the youngest of her eight siblings. The house my mom would park her pickup truck in front of in the blackness of 2 a.m., after driving all night to get there, with my tiny girl self asleep in the back. The house that, despite the passage of time, still feels like "Grandma's house." Still feels like home.

There are drives out in the country, the gravel roads crunching and spitting and smoking with white dust, just as they did when my great-grandfather drove them and honked to the imaginary men out there picking corn (in the river), or fishing (in a cornfield), or to the cows who somehow "managed to get a square meal out of a round bale of hay."

What am I most excited about? The passing of the torch. The glory of tradition. The fable of the past. The whisper of the future. The names of my loved ones etched in cemetery stones. The laughter of my sons trickling over the green grass.

Happy 4th of July.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

An Ode to Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Netflix

What can I say? I have become a Netflix junkie.

I'm not alone, as something like 30% of all US bandwidth between the hours of 8pm and 3am is devoted to Netflix streaming. Unlimited movies and TV shows, all commercial free, all instantly available on either your phone, computer, or good ole fashioned television. And best of all? They start the next episode automatically... making it a passive act to keep watching and requiring an active decision to stop watching. (They call it binge-watching, but really isn't it more like chain-smoking?)

In the last six months or so, I've watch two entire series: Parks and Recreation (completed in February) and 30 Rock (completed tonight).

What have I learned from binge-watching these two amazingly funny shows? Well, for one thing, there is great value in detoxing from your day by sittin on your fanny and watching something that makes you laugh. Don't let anyone ever tell you it's a waste of time to laugh. And if watching a certain show or movie makes you laugh, don't think of it as "slacking off." Consider it therapy.

"But exercise! And reading! And crafts! And social events! And family function! And laundry!" etc. etc. etc. All true, and all worthy endeavors. But I truly believe that God (Creator of all good things, including the Sabbath, aka "day of rest") would not begrudge anyone the chance to kick back and indulge in an episode (or four) of his favorite show, at the end of a long, hard day.

So I guess what I'm saying is...

Treat yo self.

Anything is a toy if you play with it.

Live every week like it's Shark Week.

I want to go to there.

I have no idea what I'm doing, but I know I'm doing it really really well.

Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

Please and thank you.

You had me at "meat tornado."

There are no bad ideas. Only good ideas that go horribly wrong.

Now if they would just create a new show in which Andy Dwyer, Ron Swanson, Jack Donaghy, and Tracy Jordan are all shipwrecked together on a desert island. Is that too much to ask?

And that is literally the end of this blog post.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

28 Reasons I Hate the Month of February

February, you are a terrible month and I hate you. Here's why:

  1. It's the farthest away from both Christmas and spring - like wintertime no man's land.
  2. It has no good holidays. Groundhog Day is a way better movie than the actual day. Valentine's Day is, let's face it, a glorified Hallmark holiday designed to get people to spend money on roses, chocolates, and sappy cards... or to feel bad about themselves if they are single.
  3. It always feels colder than January.
  4. People argue about whether to pronounce it "Feb-rew-ary" or "Feb-you-ary." Who cares! Both sound stupid.
  5. It eats the last slice of pie and doesn't even say sorry.
  6. It's the shortest month of the year, yet it feels the longest.
  7. It contains the birthday of someone I hate. You know who you are.
  8. The only cool thing about it - Leap Day, aka February 29 - happens only once every four years. Like the Olympics, except nobody looks forward to it.
  9. It's horribly dark because the days are so short, yet there's no relief from Daylight Savings Time "spring ahead" until March.
  10. There's no good sports on TV. March Madness for basketball is in, you guessed it, March. Baseball's opening day isn't until April. Football's Super Bowl is of course awesome, but it's just a one-day thing. (No, hockey doesn't count as a good sport to watch on TV. Sorry.)
  11. By February you're sick of wearing winter clothes, and it's still 10 degrees outside, but the stores are selling swimsuits. Why?!
  12. Tax season begins. Boo.
  13. Fewer Fridays in the month = fewer paychecks = sadness.
  14. It spits when it talks.
  15. Everyone has cabin fever from being stuck inside all winter with nowhere to go.
  16. It's too cold for garage sales. 
  17. Lent begins, which isn't bad, but lots of idiots use it as an excuse to "give up" something random, like a second chance at their New Year's resolutions.
  18. It claims to be the month of love, but it's actually the month of hate. Because I hate it. A lot.
  19. It sounds too much like January (another month I have little use for). I might like February more if we called it Febtember or Febril - which I think means "fever" in Spanish. As in cabin fever!
  20. It's Black History Month. Ok fine, but where is my English-German-Scots Irish mutt history month?!
  21. It has Chinese New Year - way less fun than regular New Year. And no fireworks or alcohol.
  22. It's the THIRD month of winter (in a row!), so by now you're definitely sick and tired of the cold and snow! Bogus, man.
  23. It's a jerk. Seriously, it keyed my friend's car last year. Such a jerk!
  24. It's the literal midpoint of the school year, but it's a month past Christmas break and a month before spring break. So all the kids (and teachers) are burnt out and depressed from overwork (and seasonal affective disorder, due to lack of sunshine).
  25. Yoko Ono was born in February. Think about it. If February didn't exist, she'd never have been born and the Beatles would never have broken up.
  26. It takes candy from babies and pushes down old ladies (with ice).
  27. It's March's annoying little brother, whom you have to hang out with if you wanna see March, but it always breaks your toys and gets you in trouble.
  28. It comes EVERY year. Seriously, wouldn't once a decade be enough?
Today is March 1. Thank goodness! FINALLY spring is in sight!

Goodbye, February, and good riddance! 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Sanctification of Mommy

I seriously feel like this could be an entire book (and quite possibly, someone has already written it), but allow me to just discuss my own personal experience.

In the 18 months since I first became a mother, and especially the last two months since adding our second little one to the family, I have rapidly been forced to shed ANY illusions of my own virtue. It's been equal parts humbling and horrifying. Yet ironically, that stark image of my undeniable brokenness has a bright side: It has made me more open to God's plan, more willing to trust Him, because I know how much I need it. I can finally see just how bad off I am. And I know how much I need Him to soften my hard heart and sanctify my tainted spirit.

Motherhood has not broken me. It has just revealed how broken I was all along. How I had no hope of changing myself or controlling my selfish impulses. Without the mercy of God and the help of His Holy Spirit, I'd have murdered someone by now... probably for something as trivial as spilling milk or not taking out the trash. That might sound like a joke, but it's not. No sarcasm. No sense in pulling my punches, so I'll just say it: I am capable of the greatest atrocities ever committed by one human against another. But those impulses have been held back, mostly by modern conveniences and a strong support network. Underneath all that, though, the reality remains: I'm a danger, to myself and others. Just because you can see with glasses, it doesn't mean you're not near-sighted. Sure, when life's easy, I can be a nice person. But when life gets hard, the true colors fly.

Yup, once you have kids, there's no denying it. You're a jerk. Deep down, you're not a good person. Your motives are as corrupt as your behavior. This quickly becomes indisputable when you see how you react under the pressure of parenting. You might call it "the crucible of children."

I used to think I was patient. Not after cleaning those Cheerios off the floor for the eighth time today. I used to think I was gentle. Not after yanking my toddler back from the stairs so hard I worried I might have tweaked his shoulder out of its socket. I used to think I was organized. Not when my toddler is determined to undo all my work in record time. I used to think I had a servant's heart. Not when my children's needs feel more like chores I resent than beautiful chances to love and serve my family. I used to think I was compassionate and self-sacrificing, that I put others' needs ahead of my own. Ha! Not when I'm running on 3 hours of sleep and see a way to leave my exhausted hubby with the kids while I go take a break/nap.

You get the picture. As a wise friend once told me, "Parenting is not for the faint of heart." Amen.

Unfortunately we are all fainthearted. We are all fickle. We are all out for ourselves. 

We might say (even convince ourselves) that we are kind and good people, loving and patient parents. But like a chemical reaction, the proof is in our boiling points. The times we explode with anger, instead of answering with a sigh and a soft word of reprimand. The times we put what we want (food, sleep, recreation, whatever) ahead of what is best for our children, all while claiming to love them "more than anything." The lowest moments when our true desires unmask themselves and we are confronted with the truth: we are broken. Self-centered, short-tempered, lazy, angry broken people.

This reality has hit me like a brick to the forehead. And it left a mark. I'm not the mother I wish I was. I'm not even the mother I claim to be. You don't judge an artist based solely on his best painting, nor a cook based solely on his best dish. No, you consider the full spectrum of what they make, good and bad, and then give a judgment of averages, as it were. That only makes sense. But somehow we expect a different rule to apply to our behavior, especially in how we treat our children. We attempt to validate our parenting by magnifying our "creme de la creme" days, those rare jewels of crisp and calm behavior, and minimizing our regular "burnt toast" days, chock full of failures.

So what happens when you hit a wall of bad days? When you can't lie to yourself anymore about what a kind, loving parent you are? When you catch more than passing glimpses of your faults? When you are forced to confront the truth of your brokenness? What happens then?

Here's the beauty of seeing your soul in a full-length mirror, gazing on its naked ugliness. You are freed from the dangerous illusion that somehow you are making it, you are doing a fine job as a mom or dad, heck, you're probably in the running for parent of the year. Nope. Not even close. You yelled when you should have spoken gently. You checked Facebook instead of reading to your child. You fed him a cookie instead of a banana, because it was a quick way to get him to shut up and you were too lazy to spend two minutes peeling it for him, or ten minutes making him a nutritious meal. You did all these things and more, not because you were "just tired" or "needed a break." No, you did them because that's who you are on the inside. 

That's me, I realized with a shudder... and then a great sigh of relief. Why? Once you recognize your own depravity, you can lean into it. And once you lean into it, you can let the Lord help you rise above it. Nothing to measure up to anymore. No charades. No being your "best self." Guess what? Your best self is still a terribly flawed person. Don't waste your time trying to prove otherwise. But also don't just accept yourself the way you are. Instead, simply accept how badly broken you are... and then accept the only source of true healing: the mighty hand of Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Smart Phones, Photos, and the Struggle to Live in the Moment

My smart phone (um, my only phone) died very suddenly last weekend, resulting in the loss of quite a few photos and other sundry digital memories. This was especially upsetting because it happened with almost no warning. No chance to save my data. No last second to run back into my burning house (of pixels) and grab my prized possessions, i.e. all the adorable pics of my one-year old and his newborn brother.

Needless to say, I was pissed. At technology, for betraying me like that. At myself, for not creating redundancies and saving my data in multiple locations. At society, for normalizing digital photos to the point that 35mm film is archaic.

Once the dust settled and I wept pathetically over my lost photographic memories, a few epiphanies hit me:

1. It could be worse. Seriously. I lost my phone, not my pinkie toe. Buck up, I told myself, and get over it. There are still starving people in Africa (AND America), so how dare I cry over what is basically a sentimental inconvenience?

2. I must print more photos. Letting them linger, either on my phone or in the cloud, somehow makes them less real... and infinitely more vulnerable to destruction. What can kill a paper photo? Fire, water, theft. That's about it. What can kill a digital photo? Almost anything. Accidental deletion, new online data storage limits, or simply changing technology itself.

Thirty years ago VHS was the pinnacle of modern tech. Fifteen years ago the DVD was unparalleled. Now both are passe, usurped by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. In another ten years, who knows what will be next? Meanwhile, we still hang family portraits on our walls. We still cherish old faded polaroids. Bottom line: Humans are tactile beings. We like to hold things in our hands. Printed photos will never go out of style.

3. Are smart phones murdering our artistic energy? Are they plowing over and polluting the empty fields in our minds where wild beauty would grow, if left alone? If my phone kills the many seeds of boredom before they have a chance to take root and flower into creativity, am I shooting myself in the foot, artistically speaking? How many poems go unwritten, problems go unsolved, questions go unasked, prayers go unspoken--all because we distract ourselves with instant, endless handheld entertainment?

Related: I read an article recently about how some CEOs of major tech companies take smart phone "holidays." A chance, short or long, to literally unplug. Some turn off their phones for an hour before bed each night, some during a dinner out, some for a weekend ski trip, some for days or weeks at a time just because.

I really ought to build in detox time, I thought. Like those screen-free Sabbaths some of my friends observe. Only I'd ideally make it longer (a week if possible). Why? Preservation of what I call the sanctity of the present moment. Try it sometime. For me, it takes at least a day just to stop reaching for my phone every hour, to check email or texts or weather or social media or whatever. Perhaps most alarming, I did even notice I was doing it so often... until I was forced to go two days with no phone at all.

So... am I being a technophobe? Am I zooming in on modern smart phones and blowing this whole thing way out of proportion? I don't think so. But perhaps we should ask a more basic question: Is technology evil? No. In many ways it's a wonderful and powerful tool, even life-saving in some cases. But like anything with such potential, it can be abused. It can breed addiction. A cure can be corrupted into a cancer. A miracle drug, in the wrong doses, can eat you alive from the inside out.

Here's hoping technology will never eviscerate our lives, our arts, our experiences. May we always be ready and even eager to detox... to unplug our phones for the sake of renewing our spirits.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Cabin Fever

I will forever remember the last week as definitive proof that I would never have survived as a pioneer woman.

Back in the day of the great plains settlement, everyone knew about prairie fever (and hoped it wouldn't happen to them). Hallucinations. Paranoia. Anxiety. Depression. Madness, in a nutshell, brought on by extreme isolation. Nowhere to go and no one to talk to, for weeks or months on end. And no wifi or Facebook or cable to help them cope! *shudder*

Now back to 2015... We have been stranded indoors, due to extreme cold. I literally did not leave the house for four days. Four days! Whilst stuck inside, I didn't just catch up on Netflix and eat cookies. (Although we are dangerously low on Oreos right now.) No, I had to entertain and care for a 16-month old and a 6-week old, both of whom require shall we say, a considerable amount of work.

At one point I actually begged my husband to let me shovel the driveway, in -5 degree temps and insane windchills, just because I was that desperate to get out of the house!

One night I was about to escape for a 15-minute errand of getting gas for the car, only to discover... the battery was dead. Much like my dreams of going anywhere. It was a low, low point. I nearly broke down sobbing, but I was afraid of what would happen to tears at -5 degrees. I imagined something like icicle mascara lines and decided to bottle up my tears until spring. Or at least February.

Today is the last day of ridiculous cold, with a high of 4 degrees. (At this point anything above zero is somehow counted a win. Wait, why do I live in Chicago again?) So the end is in sight. Tomorrow will be back in the standard-miserable winter temps, and I should be able to venture out with the boys in tow, albeit dressed in half a dozen layers. They'll look like little explorers about to climb Mt. Everest. But at least we will be able to get outside these walls and break the cycle of boredom.

So, lesson learned from this week's frigid lock-in? I would be a terrible pioneer woman. Maybe not terrible, but probably another hapless victim of prairie fever.

Unless... I learned to beat it. How does one beat isolation? It's tricky because you're really fighting yourself. And all the dark thoughts that come when you don't have errands and transportation and the outdoors and other people to distract you from the worst parts of yourself. Where do you hide from your own shadow? What can save you from the sanity-slicing effects of extreme isolation?

God, first of all. Prayer (mainly the SOS variety) saw me through the worst parts of this week. Also, projects. It matters less what you do than that you just do something. Creativity is second to productivity. Think of people who are shipwrecked or in prison. The goal is not so much to make time pass as to make the passing feel deliberate. To create a sense (even an illusion) of purposeful forward movement. As opposed to that sickening sensation of being stuck in one place, which all too easily breeds a twilight-zone sense of claustrophobia... and desperation.

Keep busy, keep sane. Inertia is your friend.

So next time you're marooned on a desert island (or in your own home for an entire week), remember: prayer and projects. The two best ways to fight prairie fever.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Upon Entering the Year 2015

I have let this blog sit idle for many moons, but now seems as good a time as any to fire it up again and see what epiphanies it might spark.

So as we embark on 2015, here are a few thoughts on the year just ended. What happened in 2014?

1. I became a mom, again. Which brings my total number of offspring to two. Just four more to go! Just kidding. Maybe...

2. I quit my job. Because having a newborn and a toddler AND working 40 hours a week is outside my capabilities. And childcare for said kidlets is outside our budget.

3. I slept very, very little. Impossible to overstate this. I averaged maybe 4 hours total (not in a row) per night. More later on the psychoemotional effects of this extreme sleep deprivation. Bottom line: not pretty.

4. I wrote very little. Either poems or essays or ramblings of any consequence. Here's hoping next year sees a big improvement in this area. After all, "A writer writes, always." Presumably even when they are caring for two children under the age of two.

5. I turned 30. Existential baggage to be unpacked later.

Highlights of 2014 concluded. Now on to the new year! May I be more creative, better rested, and less of a basket case in the coming year. Pleased to meet you, 2015. I can tell that we are gonna be friends. (Yeah, White Stripes!) *fistbump*