Friday, January 28, 2011

The Gradual Ascent

When I wake this morning, I can hear the birds beginning their daily shift. What seems like endless drudgery to me, the call to rise before the sun every morning and sing their hearts out, greeting the day before it exists, setting the mood before I throw covers off and stand in the cold air, is joy to them. It is their art, their love, the purpose they rise to, the clock they live by, the structure and harmony that unify their every heartbeat. There in the feathered dark, they sing, calling things that are not as though they are. Trilling the very soul of hope into my darkened room and eyes and sometimes, heart.

I sit up quickly in bed, out of alarm and startled from the solitude of sleep. Morning has come and I feel no friendship between her and me. We are so different. Me, slow to warm, slightly suspicious of everything that moves, naturally in a lazy state, wishing for more darkness at times, longing to live in dreams, keeping the bright part of myself back until all the doors are locked and it is perfectly safe to emerge. But not her.

Morning rises like a dancer, slowly, with grace and tempered light. She picks her wardrobe, explores blues, grays and whites with enthusiastic advancement, and usually settles exuberantly on gold. She is lithe and bright, with blooming flowers all done up in her hair. She sings sporadically at first, in the lilting soprano that sends the crickets to their beds, but then, she builds her birdsong, weaving a harmony, adding a player here and there, swelling the symphony at perfect pitch and tempo, but differently every morning, to eventually match that of the sun's arrival over the horizon.

I sit in bed drinking my coffee and striving to become one with the hope that is morning. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning, great is Your faithfulness. (Lam 3:22-23)
Every single morning. My mind stretches her arms out blindly to grasp a truth that seems a lie. I sip quietly, and the children start to rise and Rosey begins preparing breakfast for all of us and I stumble through the house, putting articles of clothing into tiny, splendid, waiting hands, saying good morning in my frog-grumpy voice, hating speech, hating light, wishing for gray rain and soft quilts and quiet. Wishing for all of the things that would take this miracle of family mornings away. I climb back into bed and continue drinking my coffee.

The light outside my windows is changing. The birds have worked themselves into the height of song that tells me that any minute now, over the distant hilltop that I can see from my backyard in winter when the leaves are gone, the sun will begin to break forth, first in simple greeting that grows and burgeons into ecstatic, shouting light with the birds as accompaniment. All of the night-darkened melancholy world will begin to feel that daily lift, the aligning of ourselves to the light of a new day.

Is this the physical manifestation of those new mercies? I puzzle it over while I finish my coffee, still sitting in bed while my family continues in their morning cycle around me. "Mommy, can you put a braid in the front of my hair today, or two on either side?" 

"Mommy, did you see the dinosaur I made for you? I named it Jillian, since that's your name. That's your name Mommy! Your name is Jillian."

"Mommy, I can't find my other shoe and the laces on this one are too short."

"Jillian, do you want me to make you a smoothie or a fried egg with toast?"

The questions are my final signals that it's time to engage, my catalyst for immersing myself in the daily routine, usually with all the excitement that most people have for jumping into frigid water. I stand and rub my eyes, drain what's left of my coffee, and shudder involuntarily at the thought of being up before the sun, waiting for the promised new mercies to kick in. Where are they? Doesn't He know how badly I need them? 

Everyone is dressed and eating breakfast while I begin to pack lunches.
"Mommy, can I have two cookies today instead of one?"

"Mommy, I showed Mrs. Schwenk my carrots yesterday and she said I was lucky that my mom gave me healthy food."

"Mommy, will you put my necklace on?"

"Jillian, can I take you out for lunch on my break today?"

Amazingly enough, I answer the wonderful we-need-you questions in a voice like a zombie, still striving to awaken to their needs, their hopes, their beauty, their love. I am in slow motion, moving through these early minutes like someone wallowing in thigh-deep mud.

I can still hear the birds as I start the car, letting it warm up for awhile before we all pile in, now that the sun has fully risen they are more subdued, maybe in awe of the golden light, or in awe of how the old, sad world looks fresh and young once again. Perhaps they are just being reverent. How I wish to be like a bird, preparing joyfully for the rising sun, singing lustily with all of those in my home, swirling in an instrumental symphony of enthusiasm and grace, that crescendos and climaxes into a towering sound of life and reverent gratitude as I become increasingly aware of the sun and the light. My Sun and Light. From Heaven.

It is not until we are in the car that the Light starts to have its way with me. Driving down the hill toward the front of our neighborhood, on the way to take everyone to work and school, I naturally start to shift. I notice the naked trees, their limbs stretched up in cold surrender to the quickly brightening winter sky. I see the folks out walking their dogs, the steam rising off of cars, the fog lifting from the hollows everywhere. I see the dew, like glimmering jewels, almost wasteful, all over the dead brown grass. I notice where standing pools of water on the roads and sidewalks have frozen into ice, vast mystery enclosed in tiny dirty ruts. My mind begins to worship. Kindness for my family arrives. But it is late for this. Five minutes later, they are all gone, at school and work, and I am left to myself for the day.

It is then, as I drive home in a now silent car, with the beautiful well-made world scurrying all around me in her winter state, that I realize they were there all the time. Did I think new mercies an intangible emotion, or a spiritual state? Did I fancy they would be like that of an abduction of all of my most hostile morning thoughts, a lobotomy of my tendency for early suspicion? No. They were in the open hearts of those I love, the simple acceptance of my human inability to be cheery in this fragile state. They were in the sweet declarations and the hopeful questions of need. They were in His love for me, His placement of all of this around me. All of this! His mercies, new in every way, treating me as the best, while I swam in the knowledge that I was the very worst, humming over me while I trudged and dreaded and stumbled. All of this loving-me-as-I-am forcing me to realize.

All of it. All of it is a mercy. My whole life is a mercy, given newly, given freely, every single day.

Oh teach me. Teach my heart to rise joyfully to each new day, to hold reverently these early moments, to see, really see, the untold riches I am given, the grace that permeates my life. Teach me to see your mercies, to recognize them at the onset of every dawn, to prepare for them even in the darkness.

Teach me to know everything that You are for me, and in every place.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Secret to a Clean House

Rearranging furniture is seriously one of my favorite pastimes. And painting walls. My kids are totally used to it. Sometimes when they go to school their room will be yellow and the bed will be under the window. When they come home, the walls will be green and the bed will be on the door wall. Sometimes the bed will be in someone else's room because that's not their room anymore.

Kidding, kidding. I've never switched rooms on them. But there's an idea...

All of my friends from childhood know this about me. If you have ever been any kind of good friend in my life at any time, then you've probably had your room rearranged by me, and a lot of you have had it painted. I used to go over to friend's houses to spend the night on Friday night and after doing the normal girl sleepover stuff, you know, painting our nails, talking about boys, being mean to little brothers, watching Jonathan Brandis and Leonardo DiCaprio movies, and choreographing a new mime to Margaret Becker songs (What? You don't know who Margaret Becker is!?), usually we'd sit there for awhile, crimping each other's hair for a homemade modeling shoot or telling scandalous secrets until finally, I could bear it no more and would burst out with, "Hey, let's rearrange your room!"

Such fun! I love the possibilities that four walls and a bunch of random, mismatched furniture hold, especially when you use what you already have. I am at my decorating best when utilizing my already existing resources.

When I got married, I think Rosey was shocked the first couple of times he came home and everything was totally different or a lone wall was painted red or yellow. One time, in our first apartment, I even painted words on the wall. "Hope Dies Last" in bright green on a white wall. Kind of morbid. I don't know, back then it seemed so inspiring...

It wasn't like I hadn't rearranged both his college room and bedroom at his parent's house while we were dating, but I don't think he knew it was my permanent mental state.

That's why I think it a very good thing that there's a perk to my constant need for change.

I always clean.

I have a "clean as you rearrange" policy, and it has never failed me so far. Having a new room, so to speak, justifies itself with the need for cleanliness. And I mean clean. I scrub the whole room from top to bottom usually, so it can really shine in every way. And so my house is almost always clean. But nothing is ever in the same place. Well almost never. There are three instances in which something could be in the same place, and that would be:

1. I really really like where it is for a longer than normal amount of time (but this has only happened once, back in 2002, and it only lasted about a year).

2. That particular piece has simply made its circuit around the house to all the other conventional places it could be, and now it is revisiting this place for a little while, while I decide whether or not to sell it, paint it or put it somewhere totally unconventional, like the front porch.

3. It just seems to be in the same place, but it is actually three inches to the right of where it was last time you were here.

Yes, I clean my house like normal people, when it is dirty. But that reason is usually too boring to motivate proper scrubbing action. My favorite way to clean is by rearranging and decorating.

I like a clean house. It's inspiring, refreshing, reassuring, safe, fun, bright, new. A clean palette. A fresh canvas. An excuse to invite people over. Conducive to a good night's sleep. Something to be proud of. A wonderful symbol of order and peace, my home, as an island in the midst of a sea of chaos, the crazy world out there.

Whenever I get a new piece of furniture, which usually comes from the trash, a garage sale or thrift store, since I am not filthy rich and I'd rather spend good money on travel (and paint), and I like to be free to paint or saw or hammer the pieces I find, I feel quite rich. With placement possibilities. And encouraged that my house will keep on staying really clean because I will keep on being inspired about it.

What about you?
What forces you to clean your house? 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where I Attempt to Fortify You (and Me)

So this is what you have to do. First you have to know that you are meant to do this thing that some would call work, but you will always call art. Maybe it is dancing. Or singing. Writing, teaching, mothering, ministry, what you love to do. You know it requires work, but the feeling you have after putting your whole self into it is more than work. It is joy. It is freedom. It is song. It is calling and purpose. You know this is what you are good at, but you also know you need all the help you can get. There is a mixed pride and humility, a confidence in all that God is doing through what He has gifted you for. It is immeasurably fulfilling. You must keep this assurance close to you, wear it like clothing, ingest it like medicine, digest it like nutrient-rich sustenance, for it will carry you through those nights where you lay awake, full of God-doubt and self-doubt and art-doubt. You must tattoo on your soul that we are not given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.

Power. The ability to create, to transcend, to inspire, to speak straight to the heart of something. To heal, to mend and bind, to change.

Love. For your audience. For your judges. For your enemies. The ability to see the person, to love the person, to know the beauty this person is undoubtedly endowed with and will hopefully and ideally master someday.

A sound mind. Confidence. Creativity. Trust. The ability to walk surely and securely through previously uninhabited territories of your own soul, the hope that all Truth will come true in your life, responding with assurance to those who would lead you astray. Discernment.

Then you must be brave. You must fully realize that if God is for you, then who can be against you? You must understand that not all people will love your art, that some will hate it, and some will think it mediocre or not even care at all. That's okay. You must not allow people to validate you, Artist. You have to strengthen yourself with the certainty that this is the path you were born to walk, that you will make a ton of mistakes, and that anyone who chooses to circle you like prey and kick at you with steel-toed shoes, and jeer and laugh is not your friend. You must shake them off. Shake these poisonous relationships off, forgive them, and walk on.

Find your people. God will provide them. Your people consist of anyone who is willing to be on your cheering squad, anyone who will pray for you, hear your heart, root you on, encourage you, and speak the truth in love to you. It is your human support system. These people will be well-equipped to speak into your life in many different ways. Some of them will take action. Understand that no one person will be equipped to provide everything you need. That can only come from One, and that can only come from faith. It is a crucial ingredient to understand that in some ways you will feel alone, alienated, cursed to walk a quiet path. It isn't true. People aren't meant to fill you, Artist. Only God can. And He will never leave you, never forsake you, never give up on you. No one else can do this for you.

Set your sights. Aim high, there is no other way to aim. Aim true. And straight. Let your art take its natural shape and swirl determinedly around your most profound Center. Let all the different angles, all the lovely lightings and timings and voices come through. Represent the vast and unknowable mysteries of God by creating. Shine forth the simplicity of Love with all your happy layers. Open yourself, spread wide every pore of you to the rivers of living water that exist only to cascade from your life and into those around you. Defy cynicism, that proud and blind boaster of knowledge. Become like a child in your observations and really see. Place high priority on wisdom. Flee legalism. Guard your mind from pointing its fingers. Guard your heart from regurgitated philosophies of this world. Let His mercy, beauty, grace float bouyantly to the surface, a bubbling hope bursting forth, a ready shout eclipsing all gray waters. Hone your art. Prune it. Plant it. Achieve excellence. Train yourself. Stretch. Grow. Change it up. Tell the truth. Watch others carefully. Listen even more carefully. Work hard.

Surrender. There is only one way to do this and that is by opening your hands. By jumping off. Let it all become nothing to you. Lose your sense of importance. Find yourself under the wings of an Almighty God. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? You are not an artist because of you, you are an artist because the Artist could not help but create you to create. In the beginning, God created...It was the first thing He did. And His love for you was such that He gave you this life, this ability to feel a part of who He is, to place your calloused fingers upon the heartbeat of Heaven, upon the pulse of history, upon the skin of Eternity. Believe that this is not of you. Be willing to give it away, be more willing to walk away from it. Begin to hear His voice. Do you think your art is a luxury, a selfish indulgence that you hide from His eyes because He would never allow you this freedom? That is a lie. He made your art as He made you, fearfully and wonderfully, and for it to come fully alive, for it to fill out and color deeply and begin to sing you must give it back to Him.

Do you think that all of this was done, that trees were made and flowers born, that every color of the rainbow resides in frogs, that seasons faithfully arrive throughout the year, for a bunch of rules? You are mistaken. All of it, every beautiful thing, Life, Music, Creation, Eyeballs, Brain cells, Redemption, Art, it was created for Love and with Love and by Love. Everything is built on Love. It started with love and continues with love. You could give all you had to the poor, you could have a faith that moved mountains, but if you didn't have love, it meant nothing. You must let Him be the inspiration that never runs out. Let His love be your main weapon, your most broken in tool, your frayed paintbrush, your tooth-gnawed pen, your ever present help in time of trouble. You must tap into the complex star-sung melody that weaves itself in and out of every good thing.  You must believe that there is no other thing for you than to be an Artist and surrender.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What I want to be When I Grow Up

"Mommy, what do you want to be when you grow up?", My 7 year old daughter asks me one Tuesday afternoon as we lounge on my bed reading books. The boys are sleeping and I have invited her to read with me in my room until their nap is over. She is reading The Secret Garden. I am reading The Hunger Games.

"A mommy. And an artist. And a writer. And a missionary."

"What did you want to be when you were a little girl?"

As I sit there, looking into her sweet inquisitive heart-shaped face that is so perfectly framed with blonde tresses and set with blue eyes and a tiny nose sprinkled with just the right amount of freckles, the question takes me back.

I didn't want to be a mom.

When I was a little girl, I used to tell anyone who would listen that I wanted to be an artist. 

In college I seriously considered joining the Peace Corps for awhile. And before that I wanted to do a year long missionary internship but my parents couldn't afford to send me. I went to Guatemala on a missions trip with my youth group when I was 16,  and I remember not wanting to come home. I just felt like I could have stayed there indefinitely, turning the blisters on my hands from tying wire around rebar for the foundation of a church building into something more permanent, callouses. I loved the cold nights and scorching days, the way we had to drink Coke out of a bag with a straw because they wouldn't give you the valuable glass bottles at the roadside stands. I loved the open markets, the hand woven fabrics, the winding mountain roads, and most of all, the generous, open-handed people. The thought of spending my time and life in aid and practical care to families and villages in the mountains of that overlooked Central American country appealed to me like nothing else.

Even now I entertain fantasies of wild adventures in the vein of humanitarian aid somewhere in desolate, jungly third world countries where they speak Latin-based languages. I've felt the intense pull to be a foreign missionary since I was 15. The kind who would totally immerse myself in a culture and figure out the way to translate God's love and story across the language barriers, while supplying blankets, clothing, shoes, medicine and clean water. This has truly been my largest and seemingly most unattainable dream in life. To just go, with no strings attached. In fact, I told Derek I didn't think I could marry him unless he had the same calling.

So you can understand why I was a tiny bit confused when I ended up in a middle American life, and in all appearances seemed to be chasing after the American Dream, something that had never been important to me. It still isn't. Yeah, I get that we need to pay the bills, and provide the necessities for our families, but all this acquiring of stuff and chasing down of the latest and greatest and watching of hours and hours of television and caring what everyone thinks about everything has always been a bit exhausting for me. I try to stay away from those particular stumbling blocks, since I think they rot your brain and waste your time (sorry, just saying...) but you still get sucked in, somehow, to a little bit of it. Especially if you want your voice to have any relevance with those you hope to reach.

And I do want to have a voice.

But there I was, in 2002, with a newborn baby girl, and I felt trapped. I felt the importance of being home as a mother, but I also secretly felt like maybe God had made a mistake and given the wrong life to the wrong girl.  I wasn't sure where the old me, the adventurous, artistic me that I really admired, fit into the mix.  I spent the first six months of motherhood in the house, scared to go anywhere, insecure about my new limitations, unsure of who I was anymore.

I think a lot of stay at home moms feel this way.

It's not just the insecurity from being thrust into a new place where this tiny little person, and the world at large, is expecting us to meet all of their needs, but it's also the dissatisfaction that can sometimes come as a result of this life. Especially if we thought we wanted this. And I do want it, really, we say to ourselves, but it's just so hard! We feel discontent, unhappy with how our days are spent. We even feel bored. Some of us came from really fast-paced jobs, or thrilling social lives. Some of us planned on having a totally different life. A few of us used to have a great body before having babies. Some of us are struggling with depression. Then there are those of us are lucky if we brush our teeth before noon. 

Some of us thought this was all that we wanted, to be a wife and mother, but it turns out that we don't feel full, that something seems missing.

And we can't admit it, because that would show the eager-to-judge-us world just how ungrateful we are for the blessings we have. So we go on, day after day, with a fake smile, in guilt and unhappiness, until we finally realize that it's a choice.

That's right. Being content, finding happiness, seeing the beauty, finding the extraordinary, it's all a choice. But you need help. Supernatural help. You have to surrender, stop fighting, stop acting as though you are living in a wilderness and "Rejoice, and blossom as the rose." (Isaiah 35:1).

And that's what I did. I finally heard God's voice. I stopped pretending He wanted something different for me, and I made a choice. About three years in, with two children and another on the way, I finally learned to embrace my life. I realized that I only have one life. I only have one chance to enjoy my children when they're young, to teach them and form their character, to show them the unconditional love of God, to provide a safe place for them to always come, to be their mother.

I only have one shot at this.

And I was wasting days, months, years even, in the pit of discontentment, wishing I was anywhere but here, certain that the grass was greener elsewhere.

What about you? Are you trying to find your old self in the middle of a new place. Do you feel out of touch with your own life? Do you feel guilty for feeling this way?

Know this.

The grass is never greener somewhere else. That somewhere else is a place full of regret. We were meant to be always being made new. We were meant for a life of  "the old is gone, behold it is the new!" (2 Cor. 5:17) Your old self is gone. It is time for the new you. The grass you're standing on right now, is as green as it's ever going to be, because you're standing on it. Right now. Make sense? So why not throw some fertilizer down, plant some flowers, install an arbor, train roses to climb a trellis? Why not make your grass as beautiful as you can, and trust God to do all the rest?

After my perspective changed and I wised up to the riches I was wasting and decided to bloom where I was planted, my whole life changed. I started making friends, other moms who were in same place in life that I was. I joined some different groups. I started running again, and eating right. I got into gardening and began writing poetry and making cards. I began to flourish. My kids started flourishing even more. My kids wanted me to be happy, because I'm so much more fun, and it started to show in their creativity and security level. But it took that first honest acknowledgement that I was struggling, and then the willingness to open up my heart and let God change it.

It was fully worth it. I love love love being a stay at home mom. You could try to pay me millions of dollars to do something else, and I wouldn't take it. Really. I am happy right where I am and what's more, I am in bloom.

But one day, Derek and I will hit that foreign mission field. I'll pack my bags, say my farewells, and board a plane without a backward glance. I'll run with steady legs toward the certain hard work and adventure that I look forward to being a part of. I'll sleep in hammocks. I'll wash my clothes in the river. I'll bake bread on a rock. But instead of going on my own, I'll have my family with me. And I'll be well trained, ready for any possible situation.

How's that, you ask? When did I have time to attend a missions training seminar?

Why, it was all those years of sleep deprivation, three ingredient meal preparation, budgeting down the last penny, organizing and stocking cupboards, killing insects I was afraid of, letting insects live that I was afraid of, handling massive loads of laundry, breaking up fights, cleaning up poo and vomit, turning a blind eye to mistakes, turning a deaf ear to whining, giving grace, laying down the law, taking time to teach my children how to do every good thing I know how to do, hours of homework instruction, even more hours of lengthy explanations to toddlers who don't get it, bargain shopping, apologizing, and ultimately, being willing to follow God so my children could follow me.

That was my missionary training field.

And it was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.