For the Bitter and the Sweet

Coffee on the veranda

I pick up my scorched oven mitts off the damp, October ground, leaving flakes of charred material and black soot on the earth to mark the spot. There since midnight, they are a testament to the previous night’s disaster. Bright red cloth contrasting with charcoal black. Stationary, since I threw them out the door, onto the step and then again onto the grass where I proceeded to hose them down until the flames subsided—all after they had caught on fire from the heat emitted from my oven burner. And this: because I had brushed the knob of the burner (ever so gently) as I reached into the cupboard for a bowl. Having sat back down at my computer to type, I was oblivious to the smolder, until smoke began to curl around the cupboard, up toward the ceiling: alerting me to the calamity.

If I had only:
Not wanted a cookie.
Not reached for the bowl.
Not brushed the knob.
Not left the oven mitts on the burner.

If I had only.

Life is wrought with “if onlys”.

This week has been a series of unfortunate events, a series of “if onlys”…or so it seems. There is always something to complicate the day. Be that arriving late for appointments, forgetting appointments, or scheduling too many appointments. Be that day-to-day complications like not enough sleep, sickness and low energy. Be that bigger-than-everyday complications like additional work meetings, late night projects, lost luggage, health concerns, and worries that go deeper than surface level. Add to the list, if you will: parenting issues, relationship issues, marriage issues. Life.

There is just always something.

How can we say thanks when life is just not what we want it to be? How can we say thanks when things are just not how we wish they were? How can we say thanks when we don’t FEEL particularly thankful for everything we’ve been given? Giving thanks for both the little things on our ever filling plate…along with the bigger things that make our lives chaotic and stressful?

Is it even possible?

I wake up in the morning to the smell of the charred remains of the previous day. Add to this, the cheesecake boiled over in the oven last night so I now realize that I have the pleasure of a pre-breakfast, ‘make-work’ project. I can now officially confirm that I will be late for church. And on the very day that I have to lead the singing.

I can feel the resentment rising within. Give thanks for this?

How easily I forget that gratitude is a state of the heart. A choice of the soul embracing life in its fullness, both the bitter and the sweet. Joel Osteen: “One of the main reasons that we lose our enthusiasm in life is because we become ungrateful..we let what was once a miracle become common to us. We get so accustomed to his goodness it becomes a routine..”

Life is hard. Of a truth: it is not easy. But it is always a miracle, a gift to have the opportunity to live.

The air in our lungs.
The roof over our head.
The clothes that cover.
The shoes that fit.
The water we drink.
The food we intake.
For the everyday, commonplace miracles of life.  For both the bitter and the sweet.
We are eternally grateful.

This thanksgiving I offer gratitude for the miracles. Everyday and otherwise. They are what cause me to remember how much I have.

And impress on me how much I must be grateful.

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Notice Me

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Come look at me, they cry out. Little voices calling, tiny hands reaching for my own much larger one. Watch me on the money bars, the slide, the firepole. Watch me! Notice Me! See me!

A little one comes up to me, (I know not who she is), but she has a sweet innocent face and the clearest eyes—it is almost that I can see right through to her soul. And she is calling out to me.

Watch me, she says.

I watch.

I follow her little body as it rounds the Jungle Gym, makes its way up the stairs and ends up at the tippy-top of the Fire Pole. She glances over at me to make sure that my eyes are fixed on her. They are indeed. When she is sure that I will not waver in my gaze, she grasps the pole and wraps her little legs around securely. Woosh. She is down in a second and off and running to a new adventure.

To teach is to examine humanity at its rawest, most unadulterated form. Children are a study in innocence and purity. They are authentic and genuine. And what they want more than anything is for us to notice. They want for us to notice them, notice their antics, their comings and goings. To be attentive. To watch and consider their ways. To be mindful. To be aware of what it is they care about.

Children want us to see them.

We all want this, if we were truthful. We want to be seen. We crave recognition. My own child comes home from school today and says in passing that it is easy to get lost in the sea of bodies.

No one can really notice you for all the people, says the Child.

It takes practice to notice people. I have written the following and I stand by these words today:

“We are not taught to notice, we are taught to do. Told to get out our pencil and pens. Get out our paper, and write. Read. Discuss. Speak. Told to turn to page five and then fashion a paragraph. Told to answer six questions on page 32.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to act. Told to cut and shape. Mold and make. Told to fashion that school bus craft just as we’re told. Told to fold the paper along the crease. Told to colour in the lines.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to perform. Told to sit right, listen up, shut up, straighten up, fly right. Told to mind our manners, watch our tongue, keep it down, watch out.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to produce. To achieve, churn out, give up, construct and generate.
But we are not taught to notice.
Have we ever stopped to consider that noticing precedes doing? And yet, we are not taught that this act in itself is essential. We are encouraged rather to act. To get things done. To carry out both our will as well as that of those in authority over us.”

We must take time to notice. Our children are pleading for us to do them this one humanitarian service. We must notice them with our whole being, eyes and ears wide open. Watching them not with a gaze of half-hearted interest, but with a whole-hearted, complete understanding of the incredible gift of attentiveness and genuine care with which we’ve been vested.

Noticing takes time and practice. It demands our attention. We must be deliberate and intentional in our practice. But the pay off for our children in investing this service is mind-boggling.

Who can even imagine (can conjure up the images) the gifts that even one child could offer to the world someday…and all because we took the seconds, minutes, hours…took the time:

To really notice.

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Be a Noticer

“The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” — Augustus Waters, in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

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We are almost there.
It’s almost that time of year again, Students. And while you’re probably not even thinking about sitting in class behind a desk, not anxious yet to trade in summer for fall: I am already there in my mind. It’s already happening.
I am already planning and thinking and wondering and hoping. I am already imagining you.
I wonder who you are, what makes you tick, what you like, where you live. Are you a morning person or a late-night owl; are you funny, are you loud? Do you have any fears of your own? Are you ready for this next chapter of your life to open wide and be written?
Who are you?
And while we might have never met, I do have one thing I want to offer you right now, before everything begins again and we are caught up in the surge of emotion that accompanies each given school year.
My biggest hope for you—what I want for you even before I have met you and come to know your unique personality and particular way of knowing, is that you be a ‘noticer’. A ‘see’-er of life.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to do. Told to get out our pencil and pens. Get out our paper, and write. Read. Discuss. Speak. Told to turn to page 5 and then fashion a paragraph. Told to answer six questions on page 32.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to act. Told to cut and shape. Mold and make. Told to fashion that school bus craft just as we’re told. Told to fold the paper along the crease. Told to colour in the lines.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to perform. Told to sit right, listen up, shut up, straighten up, fly right. Told to mind our manners, watch our tongue, keep it down, watch out.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to produce. To achieve, churn out, give up, construct and generate.
But we are not taught to notice.
Have we ever stopped to consider that noticing precedes doing? And yet, we are not taught that this act in itself is essential. We are encouraged rather to act. To get things done. To carry out both our will as well as that of those in authority over us.
Students, if I can ask of you just this: learn to notice the world around you. Learn to watch more carefully, listen more closely, feel more deeply, understand more fully.
Watch with both your eyes and ears. Use all the senses that have been gifted you.
Listen with both your ears and your heart.
Feel others pain and joy with compassion and care.
Understand that this life is not just about you—it is about a world around you full of people and living things that beg for you to notice them.
We have not been shown well, not really been taught how to notice the people and world around us. You can change this pattern, Student. You can be the one to do things differently.
One smart decision at a time.

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
– Alexander Pope
image retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

The ants are in my dahlias and they are killing my beautiful flowers. I bought the two small pots earlier in the summer on a whim— something to brighten my doorstep. I didn’t even know what colour they would turn out to be but was quite delighted when their copper tones began to peek from out of the foliage.  Now, these beautiful plants are being overrun with tiny little killers which crawl in and out of broken stems as if on a mission, while wilted blossoms droop in support of their fragile stems. I am no gardener, I am afraid. I love to have beautiful things surround me, but my green thumb is non-existent. I water and shade and protect from the elements, but when it comes to predators, I feel helpless to defend. I want to do something, but what?

A quick search on Google suggest pesticides, but there are also downsides to using these as well. What to do?

In spite of it all— despite the abuse and the odds racked against them: my poor little plants continue to suffer on, even boasting a few little bulbs that might withstand the dangers. These flowers refuse to bend and break in light of the certain outcome to befall them, if present conditions remain. They carry on. They endure. How lovely to be a flower and not know, not realize what’s coming next.

To not have to prepare for what lies just around the corner.

I talk to her and we circle around the same issues once again. The same heaviness clouding our conversations.  There is little to say sometimes when darkness overshadows. Life and all its accompanying struggles aim to kill joy, diminish our already dwindling supply of hope in the face of certain desolation. Fear, anger, rage, discouragement and despair try to crawl inside even while we fight for courage to persevere. We feel the presence as some kind of malevolence: as if it is a wave that will overtake us. Sometimes we believe that we are being destroyed from the inside out with little recourse other than passive acceptance.

We all need courage. But how is courage acquired?

We all need hope and expectation. But from where is that summoned?

We all need to know there is something worth fighting for. We need to believe that life is worth living. That there is purpose and meaning in our actions and thought. That there is something more.

But from where do we draw this resolve to believe?

I take it all in, the beauty of this late summer day. Wind blowing through the trees, clouds gently floating by. It all seems so idyllic until I turn by gaze back to my doorstep and these pitiful dahlias.

But nature has a way of replenishing itself. When grass dies, there is always new growth. When trees lose their leaves in autumn, new buds emerge in spring. When flowers die, new blossoms eventually appear. Renewal and revival are part of the process of life. In the very same ways, the soul needs to believe in hope just as the natural world aches for rebirth and new beginnings.

Some inspiration for today taken from David’s psalms.

Psalm 121 (NIV)

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?

 

2 My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber;

 

4 indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

 

5 The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

 

6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

 

7 The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life;

 

8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

And more comfort still…

Psalm 91 (NIV)

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

 

2 I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

 

3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

 

4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

 

5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

 

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

 

7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

 

8 You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.

 

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge–

 

10 then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.

 

11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;

12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

 

13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

 

14 “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

 

15 He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.

 

16 With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Like the wind and the waves in nature, I will carry on. Like the flower in spring, hope will always emerge from the blackness of the earth.

Courage is ours for the taking. Quitting is not an option.

Take heart, dear one.

Hold On

“When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on”
― Theodore Roosevelt

retrieved from woman.thenest.com

I am sitting at the back of the Bayliner, watching the waves gently rock us to and fro as we idle in the water. Husband is at the helm, and I am flanked by three of our four children. The Other is awkwardly sitting in the river with water-skis attached to her feet. She bobs like a buoy as she awaits the pull of the boat. The call comes for her to ready herself and I can almost feel her nerves—taut and anxious as she grasps on the two-way handle-bar. There is a split-second, a moment where we all are unsure. Will she gain the momentum necessary? Will she hold on? Will she right herself in time? Will she let go?

We pull ahead with a forceful thrust and she dives into the water, side-long or head first. I cannot recall. This, an unplanned entry either the route. The same procedure begins again. The boat pulling around in a circle while the tow rope slowly makes its way towards her through the water. Her arms reaching and then grabbing onto the tow line, holding on as if for dear life. The tense moment of waiting and then the lunge forward.

The boat pulls as if hauling a butterfly. But she again is unable to manage the propulsion. She slips and topples back into the water. (Thankful for a patient teacher in her Dad.)

This holding on and letting go is taking its toll, is trying her patience; but I can see that she is determined. Even when the drift takes us into murky seaweed. Even when she falls for the eighth time. Even when. She is discouraged but not deterred.

One more try.

She finally makes it upright after her ninth attempt, and we all cheer ecstatically from the sidelines. You can see even from a distance that she is very pleased with this accomplishment. So she should be. She has held on and we are moving forward through clear waters, nothing but sunshine and blue skies overhead.

Holding on is hard work, but it is worth it. It requires grit, stamina, tenacity and determination. We have to have resolve. And when we let go our grasp, it is just as crucial that we reclaim our former position and hold on that much tighter the second, third, fourth time around. Because life is not just about holding on—it’s about getting back up again after we’ve had to let go.

There is much to fight for in this life, much for us to fight for and hold on to:

-Our sense of purpose
-Our independence
-Our freedom
-Justice
-Relationships
-The future
-Our faith in Providence and humanity

Whatever the reason that you are still holding on, take heart and keep on keeping on. Don’t be discouraged in your efforts. Holding on is tedious, strenuous work, but it is worth it. Holding keeps us positioned, enables us to move forward, brings us closer to our goals. Holding is the most difficult thing we might ever have to do, but when we fight for what we believe is worth it, we discover something else in the process: holding on is beneficial for our character, too. In holding, we develop courage. And courage gives us hope.

Whatever you are fighting to find or seeking to reclaim, just hold on.

You’ll make it.

On Beauty in Sadness

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We spend much of our time pursuing happiness, joy, contentment. Peaceful bliss. But what of the experience that sadness brings? When grief descends upon us, enveloping with a haze of memories and emotions, do we try to escape its embrace? Do we turn our hearts from pain? Shelter our feelings from any knowledge of the unpleasant?

The sun blazes down. It is a scorcher of a day- 30 degrees in the city, where we find ourselves looking for one particular church. We are headed for a celebration of fifty years of married life, an occasion designed to praise the commitment two people made to forge a  jointly-lived life complete with its joys and sorrows. Complete with its highs and lows. But for today, of course, perspective is largely focused on the bliss. Attention is given to the delight found in exquisite beauty cultivated from meshing two lives into one.

These are for them the golden years. Just like the song says.

But there is something about the lyrics so sweetly sung by a daughter and her father that make me turn my eyes away. I find tears would come quickly- too easily, but for my attempt to re-focus my attention on the people around me. I scan the room while the duo at the front bring their song to a close. This music- it ignites within memories and feelings that are particularly tender and vulnerable today, a day marking another kind of anniversary. An anniversary within an anniversary.

Two months. Fifty-two years.

It suffices to say: it has been a beautiful day; but it has also been a difficult day.

I hear myself offering a word and the possibility for quenching the dark cloud: “I don’t want you to feel sad” I say to the one I love. But I wonder within the moment if this is truly wise. We must feel the melancholy that searing sadness and pain can bring. For grief is what helps us heal; it is what enables us to feel better. It is what enables us to find joy again. Rejecting those early feelings of seeming despondency so as to only accept the forced happiness we crave is to reject the necessary emotion that enables us to mend our broken hearts. Sadness serves a purpose that joy cannot: it is there to bridge the gap from one joyful moment to the next. Without the sadness, we are often stuck in stagnation. We are immobilized and halted.

We need to let ourselves feel.

Jonathan Safran Foer contends that “You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” If we are to experience a life rich with emotion, we must allow our hearts to burst with joy when the moment decrees, and then break with sadness when we experience loss and pain. This is all part of being and becoming human. Allowing ourselves to be in the moment who we must be and yet enabling ourselves to become who we are meant to authentically be in response to what is happening in our lives.

This poetic Biblical passage says with eloquence what I am feeling tonight:

A Time for Everything

3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes Chapter 3: 1-9, NIV)

Everything is beautiful…in its time. Beauty in sorrow. Beauty in delight.

He has made both joy and sadness beautiful in their time.

Precious times, these years…

The other day, I left Alberton with four belligerent children and three others (people who were, incidentally, astonished by the commotion going on in our van). I departed the area absolutely stunned by the severity with which we battle it out over here in the Gard Household: it matters not where we find ourselves. Mill River, Florida, Dominican Republic- you name it. We fought there. Actually, we no sooner hover a toe over the threshold of the van and it is like a switch is turned on inside our brains that releases our inner warrior/dark side. Darth Vader has nothing on this family. We fight about seat positions. Fight about farting. Fight about burping. Fight about whether or not the sun sets in the west and rises in the east (maybe it does/maybe it doesn’t). Fight about music, about books, about universities that ten year olds wish to attend when they are 20.

We fight- and we do so incessantly. And because of this marvelous fun family fact, I can attest to our permanent membership in the infamous FightClub as members in good standing, with our family having the most experience tearing one another’s heads off/emotional collateral.

When I arrived home that particular day of which I write, I literally fell out if the van, a dazed expression on my face and asked my Husband, above the cacophony of noise, if he had missed us all that morning. His reply:

“Like the plague.”

He was not joking. Not even a little bit.

As I was a Kid Vid Cinema leader at DVBS all week, I had the extreme pleasure of waking my children up at what appeared to be twelve hours before daylight (hard to tell as we had no sun at all this week), coaxing them out of their warm, cozy beds (where in sleeping, they could not make any sound of retaliation/noise) and then driving my children plus three to programming at eight (or whenever) every morning- programming which I must admit that I personally enjoyed almost more than the children as I was able to exercise/hone my dance skills each and every day (to the absolute horror/disgust of my two oldest).

The best part of this experience was that this four hour stretch was a glorious time of no fighting. For four hours, my four children were not clawing each other’s eyes out, were not tearing one another apart. And even better, for most of that time, they were someone elses’ responsibility (so even if they did happen to fight, I could feign ignorance and complete unawareness of what was happening). You cannot even imagine what this opportunity meant to a mother like me who has permanent damage in her ear drums from shrill, ear-splitting screams.

DVBS, while similar to real school, is a wonderful opportunity for mothers such as myself to release their precious offspring into the wild, I mean world, for a few brief and precious hours; handing off the responsibility of breaking up their fights, following them around like a hawk, rescuing them from imminent danger, feeding them snacks, protecting them from injury and in general, basking in their presence. They also get to learn, discover and grow spiritually while there. Bonus! And in doing such (that is, releasing them/freeing yourself), they come to find themselves in the extremely competent and capable hands of other adults who do this kind of stuff for free. For any mother, it is a no-brainer.

Next summer, if our numbers haven’t quadrupled by word-of-mouth advertising I will personally sign on for therapy due to stress incurred from shock and surprise.

The fighting unfortunately does resume once the troops have landed back on home soil. I am sorry to say. We have taken to playing a particular hymn called “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” at meal time. Thankfully there are different versions of the song because for quite a while (until we found an electronic version), Brian just sang it himself. He also has been working on “You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me Lucille” for those days when even the hymn won’t work.

He is learning extra lines of that one.

Interestingly, at bedtime- at the very last possible moment before the kiddos lay their heads on their pillows, there is a brief interlude of peace in which my mind goes blank and I forget any and all bad things that might have happened during the previous fourteen hours. This glorious experience is known as parental amnesia and it is vital to the proper functioning of any mother/father wishing to hang tight for twenty-five or so years of steady parenting and live to talk about it. (Relax: this extended time frame only applies if you have as many kids as me!) Parental amnesia has saved my sanity. It is the reason I poke my head into their rooms each night and say to myself:

“It really wasn’t all that bad of a day”…

…before waking up again the next morning to the precious sounds of kids yelling for their brother/sister to “get out of the bathroom- you’re taking too long!!!!”

Precious times, these years