True Beauty

This week was our last meeting for the summer Bible study in the book of Esther. I think this is the first Bible study with a group of women that I have actually finished. I did a cover to cover Bible class with Village Schools of the Bible when my friend Pastor Max Frazier taught it in the city where I live. That wasn’t a study, though. That was a school format–Max was teacher and we were students learning from his wisdom and years of his own Bible study. I’ve attempted other Bible studies with women, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t work out for me. This one, though, I am already sad that it is over.  One theme discussed in the book of Esther was beauty. Beauty in Biblical times was quite opposite of what modern day America considers beauty.

Beauty, in Esther’s day, was something you did, not something you possessed. When the king gathered all the girls of the kingdom in order to find a new queen, each girl was given a year of beauty treatments. They were also given choice food because a woman who was thin was not considered beautiful. That is a huge contrast to how beauty is portrayed in our days. As someone who is probably one of the most insecure people on the face of the earth, much of what was contained in this study struck a painful nerve. More times than I can count I was told I was ugly, that I didn’t measure up to someone’s standards, and that I would probably never find someone who would marry me. Words spoken, especially at impressionable ages, sink deep into the heart of a person and shape their ideas about themselves. The old cliché, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a lie.

Where is all this going?

Upon finishing the last video from Beth Moore, the five women present began to discuss some of what was said. Our conversation went in the direction of beauty and how it is focused on in today’s world. All of us have daughters and we discussed what our daughters’ views of beauty might be. In the early years, if you ask a child who he or she thinks is beautiful, most will say mommy or grandma or someone else that they feel close to. At some point in the beginning of the teenage years, that answer would most likely change. Why? Girls are under so much pressure to look a certain way. It seems the age of wearing makeup has gotten much earlier than when I was a young girl. Girls as young as eleven or twelve are coloring their hair, perhaps because someone made a comment about their hair and in desperation a girl feels the need to change what someone else perceived as a flaw. For many, these ideas don’t seem to go away after high school. Commercials tell us that we deserve to be happy and we won’t be happy unless we weigh a certain amount or cover the grey in our hair or get rid of the wrinkles on our face.  We see celebrities on television who spend enormous amounts of money in order to keep from looking old. We desperately try to cover up the fact that we are getting old. It is inevitable of course–everyone ages.

Here’s the interesting thing, though.

One woman in our group said when she thinks of beauty, she thinks of a very old lady from her hometown. She is ninety-five years old and legally blind. She has lost a husband and a son, yet, when she talks to you, she radiates beauty and joy. Her faith is solid and her joy shows in everything she does and says. It does seem as we get older, for many, our idea of beauty changes. No longer do we feel the most beautiful person on earth is someone famous who has spent the money needed to keep her age from showing. For many, instead, we see beauty as something much more than outward appearance. God tells us that man looks at the outward appearance but He looks at the heart. God doesn’t care if a person has the perfect hair and a wrinkle free face and fits into the same size jeans as their teenage daughter. God cares about what is on the inside. The ninety-five year old lady, one that many would look on and dismiss as not needed, is someone beautiful to my friend and to God. Her beauty comes from what is inside. Time has taken her smooth complexion, her perfectly colored hair and her youthful figure, but time cannot take away her joy, her love for others and her faith.

On the drive home that day, I thought hard about the conversation that took place. I’ve never considered myself beautiful. The mirror has never been my best friend. Makeup didn’t really change much and there is grey in my hair now even though on the inside I don’t always feel like I should be this old. It seems like just last week I was running up and down a soccer field. Now, because of age and a sometimes debilitating disease, my days of running with a soccer ball are done. I can’t get back my youth no matter how hard I try. I can color my hair to hide the grey and, if I had tons of money, I could get plastic surgery and injections to improve the way I look. But in the end, God doesn’t look at those things. God looks at my heart. And, I know my heart is not any more beautiful than my outside appearance. How I long to be a person who has the faith to encourage others. How I long to be a person of joy. I so want to be remembered by others as a beautiful woman because of the presence of God in her life. I know I am not anywhere near close to that right now.

God promised, though, to complete the work that He began. I am a work in progress. It may be a slower process than most, but it is a process God promised not to abandon.

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Rich in Self

This summer I have had the opportunity to gather with a few other ladies at the home of a mutual friend one day a week. We gather for the purpose of studying the Bible–specifically the book of Esther. I admit that I have not always been faithful at getting the weekly homework done. I kind of amazes me, when I think about it, how I always have time for earning points on a favorite Facebook game. I always seem to have time to watch my favorite television shows on Food Network and Lifetime TV. But getting my Bible study homework done? Strange how some times that is left to the day before we meet. Still, even though I often get upset with myself over this, I have learned so much from the weeks spent listening to discussion and watching the videos. You know how sometimes, even though you have read or seen a thing several times before, on a certain day at a certain point in life, that same concept will leap off its source and hit you between the eyes? That was my experience this morning. Good thing I didn’t have my glasses on–it was a pretty hard hit.

The book of Esther is a short book in the Old Testament. It follows the book of Nehemiah even though the events of Esther happened before Nehemiah’s recorded events. Esther is a unique book in the Bible for it never mentions the name of God. It is obvious that God’s hand is all over the events of the book, but His name is never mentioned. Esther was put in a difficult situation, being a Jewish young woman who was made queen by a self absorbed and out of touch king. The author of the study referred to him as King Headache. It fit. The book records the attempt of one man, who happened to be the king’s right hand man, to annihilate the Jews. The Jews are God’s chosen people. It should not surprise us that satan wants them destroyed. Most people think of Hitler and his Holocaust when they think of Jewish annihilation, and while that is certainly a piece of history that most are familiar with, the attempted destruction of the Jews go back much farther than the events of the 1940’s. As a side note–if you don’t know much about God’s feelings toward the Jewish people, I’ll let you in on something that He makes quite clear. Nothing will EVER eradicate the Jews from existence. Nothing. God has promised to protect that people even though they, as a whole, rejected His Son. Enough said there or this post will get completely off topic.

Back to my study of Esther and what hit me so hard this morning.

Once the plot to kill the Jews was exposed and the offending parties put to death, including the king’s right hand man, the man put in charge under the king was a man named Mordecai. He was Esther’s uncle and had raised her from a young child. He made a declaration that said all Jews should celebrate the days that the slaughter of their enemies took place. Modern day Jews still observe this holiday called Purim. In his decree, he wrote to them to “observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22) As the author of the study began to unpack this verse, she related a personal story of a time when she and her husband had traveled to a village in Africa where they had helped set up an organization that fed the poor. As it turned out, that organization needed some help to reach more of the village residents. Their visit was successful in that they were able to bring the resources necessary to help more of the poor. Before their departure, the village residents gave them a gift. This gift was a wooden bowl full of eggs–eggs that the villagers desperately needed, yet they were so excited to bless those who had come to help. They blessed out of their poverty. The author states the following in the study guide: “I knew I was poor in my giving. Poor in my sacrificing. Poor in my daily expression of God’s giving heart and woefully rich in all things self…There before my eyes, the rich became poor and the poor became rich.” (Beth Moore, Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman; p.212)

As my brain processed those words, I began to think about my own life.

  • I have never gone hungry. In fact, more than once I have overindulged on food and even thrown food away.
  • I have never slept on the street.
  • I have always had warm clothes in winter.
  • I have always had a hot shower every morning.
  • I have always had a bed with clean sheets and fluffy pillows to sleep in. (Ok, there was a period of several months where we did not have a bed. We slept on the floor until a friend took pity on us since I was pregnant and gave us the mattress off of their sleeper sofa. Still, the floor was in an apartment where I at least had shelter.)

I could go on and on with all the things I have had that I take for granted. I have often referred to our family as poor. In reality, I don’t think I really know what poor looks like. When I say we are poor, it means that we aren’t able to have things other people we know have–a nice house with a yard and a swimming pool, a cabin to escape to on the weekends, a boat, money to buy the finer foods in the grocery store, clothes from the nicer stores in the mall instead of Kohls, the means to buy our kids cars like so many of those we know have done, etc… As I allow myself to wallow in these American middle class “necessities” that we don’t have, right now in many countries around the world and right here in my own country and state, there are children who do not know if they will eat today. As I look at my closet trying to figure out what to wear today, there are children who do not have that choice. They have one shirt and while it may desperately need laundering, there is no money for laundry soap and no mom around to wash it because she is out working three jobs to try to provide. While I grab the vacuum cleaner and grumble because “I just vacuumed yesterday and the pet hair is still everywhere”, there are families who are wondering if they will have a safe place to sleep tonight. I could go on as I’m sure you could as well.

I am poor, but not in the way most people think of when they hear the term. I am not poor materially even though society tries to tell me I am. I am poor, though, by God’s standards.

I am poor in giving.

I am poor in sacrificing.

I am poor in loving the least of these.

Proverbs tells us, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.” (Proverbs 19:17)

I am rich in self. I have bought into the lie that I need to have what others have in order to be happy. I have bought into the lie that just one more pair of shoes then I will have all I need. I have bought into the lie that I deserve to have things to make me happy. I have bought into the lie that there are actually things on earth that can make me happy. All of these are lies. Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)

Where are my treasures? I’m going to put some ice on the bruise between my eyes and ponder that question.

 

 

 

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Have to OR Get to?

If you know me well, you know that my opinion of public schools is not very high. (This could be, and probably will be at some point, another blog post) You probably know that I homeschooled my kids for many years. Yes, one of my kids did go to public high school full time. I tried to be flexible knowing that each child is different and has different needs.

If you are a parent of kids still at home and your kids will soon be going off to school, perhaps you are very excited that school supplies are out in the stores and open houses are fast approaching. Perhaps it has been a long summer of refereeing kids and trying to come up with activities that will keep them busy. Perhaps you have just given up and have allowed unlimited television or video game time just so you can have some peace. Or maybe you aren’t a parent who is looking forward to school starting. Maybe you enjoy having your kids home every day and not having to worry about waking them up in the morning or missing the bus or driving them to school or spending every evening fighting the homework battle. (If the last sentence describes you, you should REALLY consider homeschooling! The quality time spent with your kids is something you will never look back and regret investing in. I’m still amazed at how quickly those years went by and I am so thankful for the days that we all spent together learning)

Regardless of which camp above you fit into, there is one thing I’m sure every parent in America agrees on…education is important. No parent hopes their child becomes a 40 year old adult who still lives with mom and dad because he/she is unable to make it on their own. Please understand that I am not talking about a college education here. That is something entirely different. I’m talking about a basic education: reading, basic math, spelling, writing, and interacting with others in a productive manner. (I think of the book I had to read in college titled, “Everything I needed to know I learned in Kindergarten”. A good read.) For most parents, the battle to get homework done is one worth fighting because the parent knows that completing the assignments is ultimately for the good of the child. (In most cases at least. The topic of homework could be another entire post!) Just as parents see the importance of healthy meals and do not allow candy for breakfast, parents see the value of learning and are committed to helping their children be successful in school.

So where is this all going?

I was watching the news the other night. I actually hate watching the news–it is depressing and I don’t need anything adding to the depression battle I fight. My husband had it on, though, and I was half listening to it. The news anchor, a mom on one of the area’s largest local TV news shows, said something that kind of ticked me off. It was not only that she said it, but also HOW she said it that bothered me. She was conversing with the meteorologist, who had just given the forecast, and said, “A few last days of nice summer weather before the kids have to go back to school.” It is difficult to write in words the expression on her face. It was one of disdain, maybe even disgust, as she emphasized the word “have“. Now, I realize that many children, please know that not all children, feel this way. Many dread the thought of being confined to a classroom again, losing the freedom of summer days, or maybe even going to school knowing they will be made fun of or harassed in some way. I believe society has taught children in America to hate the thought of school starting. It is words spoken like those of the popular news anchor that has helped contribute to that line of thought. As soon as I heard her, though, I thought of the little boy and girl we sponsor through Compassion International.

These two children live in Rwanda, a country greatly affected by AIDS. The little girl we sponsor has no mom or dad. She lives with her grandma. She is only able to attend school because of her being sponsored through Compassion. Most children in Rwanda, and many other countries, do not have the privilege of going to school. Yes, I said privilege. In some countries, boys are allowed to go to school but not girls. Right now, as many American children are whining about having to go back to school and parents may be complaining about the cost of new clothes and supplies, there are countless children in other countries who would give almost anything to be able to go to school and learn. I imagine there are parents and grandparents who wish the same thing for these kids. One thing that most parents have in common, regardless of race or ethnicity, is they want success for their children.

I encourage you, if you are a parent of a school age child, regardless of which method you choose to ensure your children get an education, to not reinforce society’s cry that school and learning is an imposition or something to be disdained–something you HAVE to do. Instead, encourage your kids by being enthusiastic about the fact that they not only GET to go to school, if you choose public school, they GET to go for free for 13 years! Teach them to be thankful for the blessing of learning and the abilities they have to do so. This is, in all honesty, a blessing that is not enjoyed by all children in the world.

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Holding a Grudge

My father taught me many things. I was the youngest of four. By the time I was born, my parents had been married a while and were pretty well established. I don’t remember living anywhere but in the middle class suburban neighborhood where I grew up. Before I was born and up until I was two years old, my family lived in the outskirts of the city of Buffalo in New York state. There was one family car at that time and my dad worked long hours as an auto mechanic. The long hours didn’t change when they moved to what I call my hometown, but most everything else had. We had two cars, I had my own bedroom in a well built house with a large fenced yard, and on birthdays and Christmas there were piles of presents.

But I digress.

My dad taught me how to hammer a nail so it would go straight into a piece of wood. He taught me how to mix cement and use that cement to build brick walls. He taught me how to throw a curve ball. He taught me how to check oil, pump gas, put air in tires, and patch a tube. (Back then many tires had inner tubes) I learned how to fix a broken bike chain and also how to keep it oiled. I knew how to tighten screws and how to read what size screwdriver I would need to do the job. I learned how to paint  a shingled house, the right way to climb up and down a ladder, and how to pull shingles off a roof and put new ones on. I don’t ever remember a repairman coming to our house; my dad knew how to do everything–even difficult and dangerous jobs involving gas lines and electrical lines.

As I have grown older, I have seen more and more of my dad in me. My dad had very few friends and didn’t believe he needed anymore. Oh, he could carry on a conversation if my very outgoing mom invited folks over, but he never looked forward to those types of things. He wasn’t socially awkward–he just felt if he wasn’t working at his business or on a home project then he should be able to relax and be left alone. I remember one time some people from the church came by as they were out Christmas caroling. My dad didn’t want to open the door. I may or may not have done something like this in my adulthood… I watched my dad do life alone for the most part and since by nature I was very much an introvert, I resisted my mom’s attempts to socialize me with all the other kids at church. I didn’t fit in anyway and I was fine being alone or with one friend.

Another area I have noticed teaching from my dad is in the area of forgiveness. My dad could hold a grudge like no one else. My mom would get so angry when he refused to go to something they were invited to because at some point in the past, someone there had ticked my dad off and he never forgot it. There could have been years that had passed since the time of the offense, but my dad could remember every detail of what happened and would use the incident to his advantage. I, too, am really, REALLY good at holding grudges.

This morning, for example, I woke up in a pretty bad mood. Of course it is a Sunday and although we had originally planned to skip church, we went because we had arranged to drop something off with someone there. I wasn’t even out of Buffalo when some driver got in front of me doing ten miles an hour UNDER the speed limit. Seriously? Then, since this was only our third Sunday in attendance at church since May AND the church has been meeting in a new place all summer, I turned at the wrong spot. I could see the parking lot where I wanted to be, but nothing connected to it. Cutting through a parking lot, I hit a speed bump a little too fast causing my husband to border on being quite upset with me for nearly killing the car. By the time I got to church, I didn’t want to see anyone let alone talk to anyone. As I sat there waiting for the service to start, my mind’s attention was diverted to a few issues I have been having with church and some people. I pulled out my phone, signed onto Facebook and promptly updated a status about being extremely crabby and wishing I had stayed in bed. All this while worship music, designed to focus my attention on God, was playing in the auditorium.

Now, if anyone even reads this and is ready to blast me with Bible verses about forgiveness or wants to scold me because this is not how I should treat others, please don’t. You see, I already know those things. I know what Jesus told the disciples about forgiving your enemy “seventy times seven times”. I know what Jesus said about “loving your neighbor”. In short, I know this is a wrong attitude and it is one I really need to let go of. I believe God is wanting me to learn to let go of past hurts, to learn to not hold grudges. After all, if God held a grudge against me every time I did something that didn’t please Him, well, I certainly couldn’t ever believe that he loves me. The problem, of course, is old habits die hard. A bit of a cliché yet so much truth there. I can’t will myself to unlearn what I saw modeled for me for years and what I have practiced since I can remember. If giving up sin was that easy, I think none of us would need the power of God to help us day in and day out. To me, living without grudges seems like a lot of work if not completely impossible. I heard, though, that God works in the impossible.

 I think the bigger issue is do I want to learn to let it go? Will it make a difference in my relationship with others and with God? Jesus asked the man at the pool if he wanted to be well. I believe he is posing that same question to me right now…do I want to learn to let God take care of my hurts and disappointments or do I want to continue to seek revenge for what I have perceived as mistreatment?

I think I have some thinking to do. 

 

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In My Weakness

I am a Christian.

Before I write anymore, let me make some things clear about what being a Christian means to me.

It means I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, left heaven and came to earth. He lived a perfect life yet felt the full range of human emotions and physical feelings. His earthly ministry was short yet powerful. He healed sick, made blind see, made deaf hear, drove out demons and always did what His Father wanted Him to do. He knew his purpose from the beginning–to lay down his life as a perfect sacrifice for any who would believe and receive the gift of salvation.

It does NOT mean that I have to follow a list of rules and regulations to be accepted by Him. It also does not mean that I can do whatever I want because He has already paid the price for my sin. You see, when you love someone, you want to do what please that person. My husband likes coffee. I mean he REALLY likes coffee. He is also a morning person. I am not. Every night, before I go to bed, I grind fresh coffee for him and get it ready so that when he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t have to fuss with it. I do this not because he makes me but because I love him and want to make him happy.

Okay. Hopefully you are understanding where I am coming from. What I’m about to write, even to me, seems to contradict everything I wrote above. That’s why I am writing it. Remember, I write to help sort out my thoughts sometimes. Lately my thoughts have tended toward the fact that I suffer from something that Christians aren’t necessarily supposed to struggle with–weak faith.

My faith is weak. Very weak. And I am ashamed of that and frustrated with it as well. You may wonder why I feel this way. I will try to explain…

The last few weeks–months actually–have been some of the most difficult I have experienced in a long time. My family is changing. Last week my baby, my eighteen year old, moved into her own apartment. A few months ago we moved our son into his own apartment over 600 miles away in another state. A few months before that our other daughter got married. When she posts on Facebook now, our names no longer match. All of these things are good things. They are also very hard things for a mom who has been a stay-at-home-homeschooling-mom for what seems like forever. Add to those things the increasing limitations brought on by a chronic illness, a husband who has been traveling more than he has been home, and several bouts with the beast of depression, and maybe you can see why these have been difficult months.

There is one other factor, though, that plays into the reality of my weak faith.

This world is cruel.

A few months ago, a family from my home state lost their five year old boy, who was an identical twin, to brain cancer. His mom writes a blog that is simply amazing. She is hurting and sad, yet she stands strong in her faith. Another family from that area lost a wife and mom–her kids ranged in age from 18 down to 6. They are hurting and sad but they too are holding onto God. This past week I learned of the death of a family member of someone who I was once close to. She died of the same chronic illness I live with, albeit hers was a much more aggressive form. She also left behind 3 young kids and a husband. Another family I know recently brought their little boy home on hospice–there is nothing else they can do for him. They have been told to enjoy the time they have left. My heart hurts for all of these families.

I began to wonder what my reaction would be if I were in any of these situations. Would my faith be strong? I was ashamed to realize that the answer to that has to be “No.” I say that because, in times when depression hits hard, I lose faith. I wonder where God is, does He care, and if so, why do I have to keep fighting the same battle over and over again? I have even questioned if God exists at all during some of the darkest moments.

Over the last few days, a question has been ruminating in my mind. If faith can be strong or weak, and we know that is the case because Jesus once told his disciples they were of “little faith”,  then there must be a way to build it up. If my arm muscles are weak, I can go to the gym and work them so that they get stronger. Perhaps faith can be thought of like that. Is there a way to increase my faith so that when tough times come, and we all know they will, I don’t lose hope in God? I increase my muscle strength by using them more and with increasing resistance. But how does one exercise something intangible like faith? I used to have someone I could go to with questions like this. I miss that person’s wisdom and counsel. I’m not sure anymore who is even interested in helping me figure some of this out.

Obviously, I have not come up with an answer yet. I wouldn’t be writing this if I had–I’d be working on building my faith instead of always feeling so weak. I’m not sure many people read what I write in my little corner of the world wide web, but if you find yourself reading this, and you think you have an answer to that question, I would surely welcome your thoughts. I’m tired of feeling like a failure in the faith department. I’m tired of feeling weak of faith.

 

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Some are Different

connie

This is a picture of two of my kids (years ago obviously) with someone who was very special to them, to me, and to our entire family. This is my son Zach and my daughter Anna with our next door neighbor, Connie and her adorable, little black dog, Trixie.

Connie was not your normal next door neighbor. When we first moved into that house, I’m sure we were the last family she wanted to see living next door. We had four young and very noisy kids. Anna wasn’t even school age yet. Connie, on the other hand, had no kids at home–her daughter Jodi was grown and living on her own. She had Ron–her best friend and, according to her, soul mate. Ron had just retired and even though Connie wasn’t quite fifty years old yet, she was planning on retiring as well. They had plans to travel and do all sorts of fun things together. They didn’t seem interested in getting to know their new neighbors and, being the introvert I am, I didn’t make any attempt to do so either.

I don’t recall how long we had been living there before we realized we hadn’t seen Ron in a while. Also, there suddenly appeared this adorable little black poodle-looking dog at the fence. We wondered what had happened but still did not make any effort to ask. That changed one day during the summer. Maybe I was in a good mood that day or maybe I had lost my mind. Whichever the case, I did something I seldom do. I saw her van come down the alley and I walked over to her driveway. I really wanted to meet the puppy. We did not have pets at the time and I love dogs. (As long as they are someone else’s dog) As she got out holding the puppy, I simply said Hi and asked what the puppy’s name was. Expecting an I’ll-tell-you-but-I-really-want-you-to-go-away answer, I was surprised when Connie not only told me the dog’s name but invited me inside to see her new carpet. I had not seen the old one! Politely I followed her in, trailed by my two girls, both who were already in love with the dog. Connie asked them if they would like to take the dog, named Trixie, for a walk. They readily said yes. As she put a leash on Trixie and sent them out the front door, she offered me some pop and asked me to sit down for a while. In that conversation I learned that her brother bought her the dog because her beloved Ron had passed away.

That day began a friendship that was such a blessing in my life. My youngest, who was often left out by her older siblings, quickly made Connie her best friend. Connie nicknamed her “Muffin” and everyday, it was in Connie’s living room that I would find Anna. Whether playing with the dog, watching TV, or simply talking Connie’s ear off, there was a special bond between the two of them. If I ever wanted to find Anna, I knew the first place to look was Connie’s. I, too, found myself over there quite often. She was a friend who didn’t mind you knocking on her door at 9:00AM even though she was still in her robe eating breakfast. When Anna needed her first eye surgery at age four, it was Connie who took her shopping for a special teddy bear and pajamas that didn’t pull over her head (as the doctor recommended). It was Connie who one time bought us groceries because we didn’t have money to do so. (Four year olds sometimes say things you wish they wouldn’t) We soon met the rest of her family–her daughter Jodi, her brother Leon (and his dog Alex), her brother Butch, her mom Louise, and many others. Connie and Leon had a special brother/sister relationship that I was somewhat jealous of. They truly loved each other and looked out for each other.

To be clear–this wasn’t a take-what-you-can-get relationship. I would do anything for Connie. We balanced things out that way. We became the only non-family members trusted with Trixie’s care. She spent a lot of time at our house–along with Alex–since Connie and her family did so many things together. We would make sure her grass was cut if she was gone. One time, Connie and her mom came home to find one of my kids and myself out shoveling her driveway and my husband inside changing a shower head she needed to have replaced. Her mom couldn’t stop thanking us for all we did for Connie. The thing is, Connie did so much more for us–for me especially–than I could have ever done for her.

You see, Connie was a friend who didn’t care that her house wasn’t perfectly clean. It didn’t bother her to have visitors before she was even dressed for the day. She didn’t mind that I needed someone to talk to at dinner time. She didn’t mind that a five year old bugged her every day. When my husband and I separated and he took our only vehicle, without any hesitation, she let me use her beautiful conversion van to get groceries or take the kids somewhere they needed to be. I didn’t have to call or set up a time to get together with her–if she was home, she welcomed me in. No disrespect to any one reading this, but I haven’t found another friend like her. True, she didn’t have kids to care for or run to and from activities. Still, there was something about her that isn’t found much anymore. I can’t think of anyone in my life right now who I would feel comfortable just dropping by without calling first.

When we left Hopkins to move to Buffalo, Connie decided it was time for her to move as well. She went back to the small town where she grew up so she could live with her mom as her mom’s health was failing. None of us knew then that her mom would actually out-live her. Connie was a cancer survivor, but not long after returning to that small town, the cancer returned with a vengeance. She knew she would not survive. Her brother put together a “going away” get together so people could love on her before she passed away. When we walked into that room, Leon was shocked that we made the three hour drive. There was never a doubt in our minds that we were going. We knew it would be the last time any of us would see her alive. It wasn’t too long after that, while I was with my two middle kids in Colorado on a marching band trip, that my husband called my cell phone. It was July 2, 2007 and my dear friend and the best neighbor anyone could ask for had passed away. I held back the tears until that night. I didn’t tell the kids–I didn’t want to ruin their trip. Instead, I went to one of the other chaperone’s rooms–a friend of mine–and sat and cried. I would miss her so much.

Countless times since those years I have longed for just one more time to go to Connie’s living room and sit and talk. Or to go sit on her deck in the summer and have some of my homemade apple pie that she and Leon loved so much. I have many wonderful memories of times we spent together.

Sometimes memories are bittersweet–sweet because I was fortunate enough to know such a wonderful lady but bitter because I wish so much that she was still a part of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever find someone like her again.

I miss you, Connie, and I will always love you and be forever grateful that you showed such kindness to a young mom going through some tough times…and that you loved my kids as though they were your own grandchildren. All of our lives are better because of you.

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Memory Lane

Tonight, as I was walking the dog, my senses picked up two things that instantly sent my mind into memory recall. Have you ever had that happen? A smell, a sound, a sight, a taste–something teases one of the human senses and you are instantly transported to a time associated with that something. Sometimes these trips down memory lane are not very much fun. Other times, like tonight, they prove to be a calming effect on the soul and mind.

It was a combination of a sound and a smell that triggered this jog down memory lane for me. On the side of a house we walked past was a small inflatable pool. In it were three kids splashing and having a good time, making the most of a warm summer evening. From that same house came the unmistakable smell of burgers cooking on a grill. The light breeze drove the tantalizing smell my way and instantly I was taken back to my own childhood summer days.

I was fortunate to grow up with a pool in the backyard. In Western New York, many people have swimming pools. There were five in my little circle of neighborhood friends: ours, my next door neighbor and best friend’s Mike’s, the neighbor next to him and also friends Chris and Danny, the neighbor across the street and also friend Vinny, and his neighbor and friends, Andy and Brian. Most days would find us jumping from pool to pool. On days I was alone, I was content to be in the pool by myself. I conjured up many adventures using an old black inner tube from a tire that my dad had patched and brought home from his mechanic’s shop for me.

On weekends, when my dad didn’t work, my mom would usually plan burgers and hot dogs for dinner. Now, if you didn’t grow up in Western New York, you probably have no idea what a Sahlen’s hot dog is. I’m sorry. You really missed out. (My mom still sends them to me so if you ever want to try one, let me know. Dave will cook one up on the grill for you. I promise, you will never want an Oscar Meyer hot dog again.) As mom or dad grilled dinner, I would be playing and splashing in the pool. I was usually given a five minute warning so I would have some time to dry off before dinner–mom didn’t care for me coming to the dinner table in a swimsuit.

That scene is repeated over and over again throughout my summer days spent as a child. Life was so different then. I did not have gadgets that kept me connected 24/7. My dad did not have a cell phone. When he was home he wasn’t working on work stuff. If the phone rang during dinner, we did not answer it. In my dad’s mind, nothing could be as important as sitting down to dinner. For most of my childhood, we didn’t have an answering machine or caller ID either. My dad said if it was important, they would call back. I never remember missing an emergency because we didn’t answer the phone every time it rang. I did not have an IPod or an Xbox or even a VCR. It’s funny that all those things are supposed to make life easier. The truth is, they really do not. They just make life busier.

There was something special about life in suburban America in the 1970’s and 1980’s. To say things were different is an understatement. To say things were better would be, for me, the truth. My parents didn’t rush me to practice or spend every weeknight sitting on the sidelines while I played an organized sport. There was no such thing–at least for girls. (Boys had baseball and football but it was not nearly as intense as it is now) My sports field was our backyard with first, second, third and home plate being whatever we could find that wouldn’t be dangerous. My team was all the neighborhood kids who wanted to play. You didn’t have to be good–you just needed a glove. The street wore the wheels off my roller skates and skateboard. My bike was used every day. It was safe to walk to Mesmer’s Dairy for ice cream or candy…my mom’s biggest fear was us crossing what she considered to be a very busy road–Love Road. In reality, it wasn’t really all that busy compared to today’s traffic.

It is easy to idealize life in memories. Of course my childhood wasn’t perfect. I have written about some of that in the past. I could write volumes more. Still, there was something different about life back then. It was simpler, more laid back, much less stressful. People weren’t in a hurry to go twenty different directions. Neighbors knew each other and weren’t afraid to discipline each other’s kids. A chat over the fence was a common sight. People looked out for each other instead of just for themselves.

It’s amazing where a simple smell can transport someone. Memory Lane doesn’t always hold great memories, but tonight, well, tonight it was an enjoyable trip.

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A Cry From the (Almost) Empty Nest

So this is it.

This is what it feels like.

For many years I tried to imagine this day.

To be honest, though, what I did imagine did not look anything like what is actual reality right now.

I envisioned time to be alone. When one is a mom to four children under the age of five, there is definitely no alone time to be had. I remember thinking a shower when my husband was home to supervise the kids being a taste of heaven.

Now I have all kinds of alone time.

And I am lonely.

I envisioned time to read books that I enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading to my kids, but a person can only take so much Dr. Seuss or Berenstein Bears before beginning to feel a little crazy.

Now I have all kinds of time to read.

And I can’t focus as long as I used to be able to. Stupid disease.

I envisioned having time to be in my kitchen, doing my favorite activity–baking.

Now I have all kinds of time to bake.

And there is no one here to eat it all before it is stale.

A bird makes a nest for its young. When the little ones fly away, the nest is abandoned–no longer needed. Momma bird is no longer needed.

My nest is, for the most part, empty. The one left works a full time job and has a girlfriend–I seldom see him. And he is looking to move to a place of his own as well. It is time for him to do so and it is natural as well. I know that. I understand that. I just don’t like it.

I have few friends and the few I do have, still have kids at home to keep them busy.

This empty nest thing? This isn’t at all what I thought it would be. If this is all there is for me now, I’m not sure I really want to continue. 

There doesn’t seem to be much left for me here.

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Self Sabotage

A dictionary defines the word sabotage as to “deliberately destroy, damage or obstruct something”. The German government used sabotage during World War I in an attempt to thwart U.S. trade with Europe. They targeted factories and plants that manufactured goods destined to be shipped to help the Allied troops on the battlefields of Europe. They accomplished this by setting explosive devices near the targeted business which, when detonated, would cause massive fires, destroying not only the goods being made, but in many cases, the entire factory. Those who carried out the commands of the German government were actually operating on U.S. soil. Obviously, these agents did not brazenly walk to an area near the factory and start setting up explosive devices. The operation needed to be carried out in secret if it was going to effectively cripple the manufacturing process.

That’s one thing about sabotage: it is unexpected and often unpreventable. It is only in looking back on the event that officials suddenly see how the sabotage was able to be carried out. Going forward, new policies are put into place to try to prevent a reoccurrence. The formation of the Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place is a good example of the attempt to prevent a repeat performance of an undesired action.

The government, private and public businesses, and the military all have to be on guard against sabotage, whether that action would come from secret agents sent to harm or, sometimes, from their own people working against them from the inside.

What about individual people? What does sabotage look like in my life or in yours? Who is responsible when it takes place? Why does it take place?

While it is true that sometimes people are the object of another’s schemes, I have been noticing lately, at least in my own life, that most of the sabotage taking place is self inflicted. You may wonder, “What? Why would anyone intentionally try to deliberately destroy her own life?” I have asked myself that same question over the last week. I have not come up with an answer, but in all my reflecting, I have begun to see patterns of  when and how this sabotage takes place. I’m sure it is different for different people. Just as there are people who love vegetables (my future daughter-in-law comes to mind), there are others who will not put them in their mouths for any reason (this describes me).  Some people love the heat of summer (I don’t understand these people) while a small minority of us love the cold of winter (me again). How one goes about self-sabotaging varies, and maybe for some this isn’t even an issue, but for me, it has and continues to be a struggle.

One way I self-sabotage is letting my thoughts run free. Don’t get me wrong–there’s nothing wrong with being a free thinker in a general sense. Many people enjoy daydreaming about vacations or a favorite place or a happy memory. They allow their mind to experience the joy those thoughts bring to them and then they go on with the duties of life at hand. Maybe it is just me, but for the most part, I am unable to do this. Instead of thinking about a walk through a quiet wooded area, I began to obsess about why I can’t walk through a quiet wooded area. Instead of dreaming about a life in the country, away from noise and traffic and people, I began to hate the fact that I am constantly around noise and traffic and people. Discontentment sets in, quickly followed by bitterness.

By far, the biggest way I self-sabotage is by comparing myself and my life to those around me. Comparison is a no win game. One person can never attain what all other people around have attained. It doesn’t even make sense to want that, yet that is exactly what I find myself doing. I look at a friend who is in great shape–thin, pretty, youthful–and I began to hate myself for not being those things. I look at someone else who is optimistic and I start to hate the pessimism that permeates my life, which just makes me even more pessimistic. Another has what seems like the perfect family–generations of family together for holidays, birthdays or for no special reason except they enjoy being with each other. My family? Yeah, if we tried that, there may just be jail time involved for several.

How do all these things manifest themselves? This is the crux of my thoughts (and again, I can only speak for myself here): social media. Every day I log into Facebook and am greeted by pictures of people I know enjoying vacation, celebrating with family, moving to a new home, listing an accomplishment, whether it be a personal one such as weight loss or a familial one like the accomplishment of a child. Maybe a picture is posted that has somewhere around 87 “likes” and I think to myself, “I barely have that many Facebook friends!” Whatever the case, for me at least, social media has been and continues to be a very negative thing in my battle against self sabotaging thoughts.

Of course, there are some good sides to social media. A few months ago, after a string of very rough days and nights, and stress over what the outcome of a potentially serious situation might be, I was at the end of my rope. I had tied all the knots I had room to tie and had held on as long as I possibly could. My arms were tired and I just wanted to let go of the rope and be done with it all. I turned to a special community that I had become a part of on Facebook. I had not–nor have I still–met any of these women in person. They were scattered around the country in several states spanning from east to west, yet in one secret Facebook group, we all met and knew it was a safe place to ask for help. If judgment would come, at least I wouldn’t have to look at it face to face. Online anonymity is sometimes the saving grace in tough times. I poured out my heart in that space and was quickly encouraged by women who cared. Some had even been where I was and had experienced some of the exact same issues. Social media has, on more than one occasion, played a positive role in my life.

As I have reflected the last week or so, though, I have sensed a growing problem between me and social media. That problem, as I stated already, is that it feeds the comparison game that goes on in my head. I know there are things I can do to be in better shape. Do I do them? No. Instead, I complain that someone else has the motivation to do them and get results. I know there are things I can do to change my constant pessimism, or at least ease up on it. Do I do that? No. Instead I say, “This is how I’ve always been. It is who I am.” My family? Well, I can’t change that, but I can let go of it. I can give the hurts caused by the situations to God and allow Him to deal with it. I don’t have to let what happened to me define my life. I am reminded of a passage in the Book of Romans where Paul says, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.”

My pattern of self sabotage can only end when I submit completely to what God wants from me. I have sensed for some time now that God is asking me, for a time, to surrender my “addiction” to Facebook. Yes, it is an addiction for me. And, as I wrote in a prior post, any addiction, anything I HAVE to have that isn’t God, is an addiction–an idol. False idols abound in this world. Yesterday I visited a church while traveling with my husband. The person speaking (not the regular pastor) gave four ways to uncover false gods in our lives:

1. What am I most fearful of losing?

2. How do I describe myself? (do I start with “child of God” or “mom of ______ or CEO of ____)

3. Where are my time, talents, and treasure going? (Look at the checkbook. It tells you.)

4. Where do I find my joy? (What is exciting to me? Vacation? Church? Sunday kickoff?)

I left that auditorium with an OUCH feeling. Had it been my own church, I may have, for the first time, gone down and asked for someone to pray with me about these things. It wasn’t though, so I left knowing that I had much to think about. That’s what all these paragraphs are helping me do…sort through all I have to think about and figure out so I can stop self sabotaging my life–my physical life and my spiritual life.

There are some tough decisions to make as well as some changes that need to occur. Change is never easy but is, sometimes, very necessary. And it is always scary.

 

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Disguised Blessings

As a little girl, I dreamed about getting married. I never doubted that I wanted to meet Mr. Right, get married, and have ten kids. I pictured us living in a log cabin surrounded by woods in which to walk and explore. We would have a swimming pool in our yard–something I had growing up that really defined my childhood. We would have a wonderfully loving marriage, always supporting each other. I remember choosing names for my future children, writing the names on pieces of paper and slipping them into a plastic bank that I was unable to get into. I dreamed of the day I would get married and cut open the bank, using the money in there for a honeymoon to Hawaii and revealing the desired names for our future children. I just knew my future husband would love the names as much as I once did.

You know on cartoon shows when the character is dreaming and someone comes along and POPS the dream bubble? Yeah. That’s kind of what life did to me.

The only thing that came to fruition from the dreams above was that I did get married.  We did not have a wonderfully loving marriage. We did not have a log cabin surrounded by woods or a swimming pool. We did not get a honeymoon in Hawaii. We do not have ten children. In fact, I would dare say that much of what has happened has been the direct opposite of my childhood dream. My marriage was rocky from the start. We argued a lot. My husband had an anger problem that seemed to grow larger each year. For a period of time we separated. I dove head first into deep depression on more than one occasion. I turned to alcohol and quickly became addicted. I tried to take my life. A pregnancy ended in the loss of our sweet baby girl. Financially we hit bottom more than once. We lost a house to foreclosure. We lost family to lies. We were blessed, though, with four gifts from God. (And one in heaven) I no longer remember the names I had written down as a little girl, but I’m certain that none of them match the names we gave our children.

When our first child was born, a boy, we thought we knew what we were doing. I had helped my mom countless times as she watched numerous babies over the years. Confidence was high that we would be good parents. The early days were a bit rough. I didn’t realize just how little babies sleep. That saying, “Sleeping like a baby”? Yeah. Whoever coined that one has never been the parent of a newborn human baby. Once settled into a schedule, though, things went smoothly. He was an easy baby–quiet and able to amuse himself. He would sit for hours on the floor with a bucket of things. One by one he would take things out of the bucket, and one by one he would return them to the bucket. My mom, more than once told me that I had better hope the next one was as easy as him. I suspected nothing to be wrong. I assumed, as my mom had said, I had gotten lucky with an easy baby.

Years ago, the word “autism” was not part of my vocabulary. I had never heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. I majored in elementary education and had gone through some special education classes. None of them even brought up those two terms. As the years passed, though, it became more and more apparent that there was something different about this boy. While others in school had friends and interacted, our son sat and did puzzles alone or read a book. His teachers would say things like, “He is well behaved, BUT…” They were stumped as well. At home, it was a different story. The smallest thing would set him off and he would go into fits of rage. These were terrifying for him, for us and for his siblings. He would throw anything near him in the midst of these fits. He refused to do certain things that normal people find no issue with–like wearing jeans. He absolutely refused to wear denim jeans at all. He couldn’t eat certain textures. He couldn’t stand his hands sticky.  It was finally in junior high that a teacher, someone I knew from soccer, encouraged me to get some professional testing done. The waiting list was almost a year. HIs name was added. The date came for him to be evaluated. And I was in disbelief when two professionals sat down with us and gave us the diagnosis. Our son was “labeled” with High Functioning Autism (HFA) with Asperger Syndrome tendencies. I had no idea what that meant and began to find books on the subject to educate myself. As I read, the light bulbs would click over and over. How did I miss the signs? How did I not see that he wasn’t just shy or that the rage that was displayed was not just a normal part of growing up and not always getting your way?

My son is now a young man. Somehow we survived some very trying times. In so many ways I feel as though I have failed him. I didn’t ask God for a son with special needs, yet a son with special needs is who God gave me. And you know what? I wouldn’t trade him for the world. I have watched him struggle to do things that so many others take for granted–learning to drive, getting a job, ordering a pizza even! He has learned to almost be independent. He has a nice, yellow sporty looking car that he makes payments on. He has a full time job. He even applied for a promotion this year. He was turned down the first time. He applied again and was granted the promotion. 

My son is a gift from God. I probably wouldn’t have chosen such a gift if given the choice. After all, don’t we all tend to choose good and perfect things? No one goes into the grocery store and searches the produce for old bananas, yet those are the ones that hold the sweetest taste. Children tend to pass up friendship with those who aren’t just like themselves. It’s a shame because they have no idea the joys and life lessons they are missing out on. Through my son I have learned acceptance, unconditional love, forgiveness, and patience. Okay, I still have a long way to go on the last one, but I can honestly say that I am more patient now than I was twenty-four years ago when a seven pound, eleven ounce baby boy was placed in my arms for the first time.  I thanked God for him then, and I thank God for him now.

Why do I write all of this?

If one does not have experience raising/living with a special needs offspring, there is absolutely NO WAY one can understand the challenges that brings. You will not understand how my heart breaks when I sit in church and see a large group of young adults all sitting together while my son sits with his mom and dad. You cannot understand how our plans always need to consider the impact on our son–even though he is an adult. You cannot understand the angst in wondering if you are doing too much as a parent and stifling independence–or if you aren’t doing enough and stifling independence. In contrast, though, you probably can’t understand the joy it brings to see him accomplish something that may have been very difficult for him to even attempt. You may not understand the pride that comes with seeing him start to take steps to complete independence. They are small steps for sure, but they are steps in the right direction. If you know someone who is the parent of one of these exceptional children, cut them some slack sometimes. Don’t expect that their lives will parallel those of parents whose children all take off and fly when the time expected by society comes for that to happen. Above all, know that each of us is created by a God who proclaims that His creation is good. There are no accidents in God’s plan. His plan unfolds differently for different people. It is what makes us unique. If we were all the same, life would be pretty boring.

I love my son and count him among my greatest blessings…even if that blessing seemed to be disguised for a while.

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