Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 3): A COVID-19 Easter

This Easter weekend was one of the strangest I can remember. Holy Week didn’t feel quite like Holy Week. Easter didn’t feel quite like Easter.

As rather “older” members and sometimes leaders of our last church, we generally hosted large Easter gatherings in our home – the kind of open invitation gathering where everyone brings a dish to share and food and people overflow everywhere. The week leading up to Easter would be full of not only contemplation of Christ and His gift of Himself for us, but also the planning of the main meal and the coordinating of logistics as we tried to work out how to cook and serve a meal for a large group of people in between a church service and toddler naptimes.

This year was different. I’d gotten Easter candy for our kiddos ahead of time (though I forgot to get an Easter egg decorating kit – oops). Matt wanted to make turkey and mashed potatoes, so he took responsibility for that, and I only needed to throw together some simple sides for just our family. We knew we’d be going nowhere, nor would we have any obligations, so we could take a pretty laid back approach to the entire day.

Sarah Bessey’s Holy Week meditations were my saving grace in the days leading up to Easter, the one thing that made me feel like we were, in fact, approaching Easter at all. Having left our church recently, we have been attending another church that we really like, but we’re not exactly plugged in yet, so we’re not even really connected to church people virtually. We did watch the livestream of that church’s Easter Sunday morning service, though, which was sweet.

The most notable thing about Holy Week for me this year was Saturday. Every other year, it has felt simply like the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a day to use for cleaning the house and preparing for Easter. And this year it felt almost like the main event – because we are in a Holy Saturday kind of world right now.

I found myself frustrated by the memes that loudly proclaim, “It’s Friday – but Sunday’s coming!”

Yes. That is true. It is so very true.

But the disciples didn’t know that. Jesus’s mother didn’t know that. We can’t just skip over the devastation, the suffering, the agony, the questions, the fear, the anxiety. They were so real. They mattered. That in-between day mattered.

Jesus’s people thought He was the One. They thought He was going to usher in a new era – in which He would rescue them from their Roman conquerors and set them free. They didn’t understand that He came to offer a different sort of rescue and a different sort of freedom. We can look back now at their foolishness, at their failure to understand, and scoff condescendingly. We can dismiss their Saturday, that in-between time in which they had to live with their brokenness, sitting in the reality that they had just witnessed their world fall apart.

Or we can look around us at this Holy Saturday world in which we live right now. There is so much uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know. Schools are shut down, businesses closed. We stay at home. I have not driven my car anywhere in over a month. We all have so many questions.

As of the evening of Thursday, April 14, Johns Hopkins is reporting 2,158,250 cases worldwide with 144,243 deaths. Within the United States, there are 662,045 cases with 28,998 deaths. Of those, 5,560 cases (with 170 deaths) are in Missouri. Unemployment is ravaging the country, with more than 20 million people filing claims in 4 weeks.

And no one knows what to do to fix it. We wait for doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine. We wonder if there might be treatments for the virus, medications to mitigate its effects, to decrease the probability of its fatality. Politicians debate when we should reopen the economy and get people back to work, uncertain of how best to care for millions of suffering people – or perhaps uncertain of how people will weigh the loss of others’ lives against the loss of their own financial security as they decide how to vote this fall, wondering if perhaps a loss of a couple million lives would give them a more appealing result than the continuing job losses of millions more. Our governor today extended Missouri’s stay-at-home order from April 24 to May 3. That is only a little over two weeks away, but so much can change in two weeks. We’ll see what happens. For now – we stay home, and we wait. It’s a dark, Holy Saturday kind of time.

And yet…we can also enjoy the glimmers of Easter hope. We can see some moments of flickering beauty –

Kiddos watching a dancer worship with her talent as part of the Easter church service we watched.

Snuggles with my little kids.

Andrea Bocelli singing Amazing Grace to the empty plaza in Milan – giving of what he has to sing out hope to a hurting world.

And Easter dinners with family.

May there someday be a fulfillment of that Easter morning hope after our time of Holy Saturday darkness.

And in the meantime, may Sarah Bessey’s Easter benediction be true for us all –

May you be given the gift of believing today.

May you know God in the dark.

May you abide in the country of grace even while you are in exile.

May you know and experience God With Us.

May God wipe away every tear from your eye, may there be no more death or mourning or pain – someday.

May everything be made right, may the old order of things pass away.

Even if you are beginning the resurrection from the dark, may the light break through.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life,

and so may it be well with your soul.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.

This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

Book Thoughts: Teaching from Rest

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will already be aware that the first book I chose to work toward my 2018 goal of reading more non-fiction is Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie.

Every time a question comes up in the homeschool mom groups on Facebook asking for book recommendations for moms themselves, this book is suggested over and over again. I couldn’t figure out what could possibly make it that popular. Surely it couldn’t be that good, right? Wrong. It is that good.

Even the foreword of my copy is covered in hand-written notes!

Early in Part One of the book, the author shares a quote from C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own,” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

She follows that with some practical application for homeschooling moms: “Surrender your idea of what the ideal homeschool day is supposed to look like and take on, with both hands, the day that is. Rest begins with acceptance, with surrender. Can we accept what He is sending today?”

Wow.

As a mom of 4 kids ages 7 and under, my day is full of “interruptions.” I never accomplish all that I write down on my “to do list.” Never.

And yet this is the life God has given me. I need to slow down and accept, moment by moment, that this child, the child in front of me right now, the one who is melting down because she didn’t get her way or the one who is celebrating the pee art dinosaurs he has just made on the couch (true story – see below), needs my attention and my affection and my loving teaching. And that is exactly what God would have me prioritize (as opposed to the next item on my list or, worse, the next post I could scroll to see on Facebook), and when I accept that, my attitude will be much more peaceful and in line with where God would have me focus my attention and energies.

pee art – “two dinosaurs”

I also appreciated the reminder of what I’m truly called to do. The author writes, “Most of my own frustration comes for forgetting what my real task is in the first place. He’s called me to be faithful, yet I’m determined to be successful.”

Yes. Obviously I need to have goals for my children – but especially as they grow older, I cannot force them to accomplish any given objective. In truth, my job is to be a faithful teacher. I need to pray. I need to meet each child exactly where he or she needs me to meet them. I need to teach, to present materials and ideas and concepts, and to encourage thoughtfulness. Each child will do something different, something unique and very much their own, with what I present to them, and my job cannot be to force those results, but to be faithful in what I teach.

I also so appreciated her writing about what curriculum is. She says, “Curriculum isn’t something we buy. It’s something we teach. Something we embody. Something we love. It is the form and content of our children’s learning experiences.” And a few pages later she writes, “Remember, how far we progress in a book does not matter nearly as much as what happens in the mind and heart of our student, and for that matter, in ourselves.”

I am so guilty of thinking that the curriculum I use in teaching my children lies solely in the materials I purchase. And then I become bound to those purchased materials, obligated to complete them in their entirety within a less-than-12-month time period. And that’s just not reality.

It is my job to educate my children. The materials I purchase are the tools at my disposal for pursuing that objective. If this year’s poetry selection in our purchased curriculum just isn’t doing anything for us, but I’ve heard about another book that is stellar, a substitution may be a great idea. If we take breaks from our purchased curriculum to study emotional self-regulation or visit a museum and learn about dinosaurs or listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches or to go to the fire station or to do a unit study on the Olympics and that enriches my children’s education, that’s just fine.

It is my job to nurture my own children, connect with them, prioritize my relationships with them. No one else’s homeschool will look exactly like ours, and that’s the way it should be. In working to serve God and my own family, I have freedom to teach what and how my kids need, in a way that works for our family.

I was encouraged by this book to grow myself, to be a person who slows down and reads and contemplates ideas. I want to live a life that I’d be happy to have my children imitate. I want to slow down, seek God for our family’s homeschooling journey, and really focus on relationships with each of my children. I want to take each moment as it comes, whatever it brings, and teach my kids throughout the day. I finish the book encouraged and refreshed in this long winter stretch of homeschooling, excited to live out these ideas of teaching from rest.

preparing for adoption

Matt and I have had the honor of doing pre-marital counseling for a number of couples at our church. One of the things we try to communicate to couples is that they’re guaranteed to be spending a lot of time preparing for the wedding – but they also need to make sure they’re spending good time preparing for their marriage. The wedding itself will be beautiful and wonderful, and it’s an important celebration – but its beauty is merely a reflection of the beauty of the deeper reality of the lifelong bond of marriage.

Adoption is similar in a way. There is so much to the process – the collection of documents, the gathering of funds, the planning of travel – that it’s easy to get wrapped up the preparations for the adoption day. But the true beauty is in the life lived thereafter, the knitting together of hearts that were once strangers but are now family, the healing and the growing and the loving together.

And this past weekend, I filled out immigration paperwork, but I also read about trauma and fear and their manifestations in tiny hearts and bodies and lives. I reminisced about our early days and weeks with Madeleine CaiQun, who truly settled into family life very easily, all things considered – but who definitely carries scars from the trauma her early days contained. Thinking of the moments in which we’ve most clearly seen the effects of those scars always brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

And I wonder…how will our baby #4 react to her adoption? We believe her adoption is for her good (or we’d be monsters to pursue it) – but we also know that it is going to be yet another hard-beyond-hard event in the life of this little girl, who has already endured much more than any two-year-old (or adult) should be asked to endure.

I’m gearing up. I’m preparing myself both for rejection and for a velcro baby. I’m preparing for fits of anger, unending tears, a little one who shuts down completely and/or who wants nothing more than to leave the hotel room in which she’s stuck with us. I’m reminding myself that as much as I’d love to explore the beautiful areas of China in which we’ll be spending our time, the adoption trip is all about survival (and as much of the beginnings of attachment as we can muster). I’m remembering our favorite relationship-building activities – food sharing and stickers on noses and lollipops and parallel play. And though I pray frequently that this scenario does not arise (please pray for this with me!), I’m preparing myself for the possibility that she could fracture in China, and I might have to splint a broken bone while there.

The adoption process itself is an odd mix of both drudgery and excitement. But it is once babies are in their mamas’ arms that the true work of adoption parenting begins. We’re getting close, and I’m getting ready!