Simplifying in 2017

Six people in a 1700 square foot house has caused me to re-evaluate “stuff.” We’ve always had clutter but I never saw it as excess, just disorganization. 

I’ve long felt the call to live simply and sufficiently and in many ways I feel like we do. I cook nearly every meal from scratch with many homegrown preserved ingredients. I make our own variety of soaps, detergents, deodorants, and try to live as closely to the earth as possible. We have one TV in the whole house, which is one too many if you ask me. I shop at second hand stores and we wear our clothes completely out. We live and work and play very closely as a family, focusing on building character, relationship, and communication skills and try to avoid excessive digital/electronic time. 

But now, now we’re busting at the seams of this sweet little brown brick ranch and I realize the piles of dirty dishes and clean unfolded laundry are more because of excess than disorganization. It’s not that I’m disorganized, although my husband and brother-in-law would sniff at this comment or rather burst into fits of uncontrolled laughter, but we simply don’t have the room for what we have.

 This sign on the door of my kitchen cabinet aptly sums it up. 

I’m responding to the internal tug to minimize, simplify, reduce, and refocus. I’m pretty sure God and the universe are trying to tell me this, because I’m seeing shared links, blog posts, books, and quotes about simplifying everywhere. 

Besides clearing clutter and excess from our home, I’m also taking a hacksaw to the commitment calendar and it feels oh so good. I’ve had to practice saying “no” in the mirror, but I’m getting the hang of it. My life is of little value to others when my own well is empty and dry. My prayer is that I maximize my opportunities to serve in the capacities to which I am called. 

I will share more with you along the way, but here’s our pretty little cabinet that contains all our dishes now. (And it’s still more than what we need daily.) Imagine, I thought we needed an entire cabinet for cups and glasses and one for plates and bowls and I still didn’t have room for everything before the purge. 

I hope you all have something to look forward to in 2017. I’m looking forward to a slower pace. 

Peace and Love, y’all. 

Life, Love, and an Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Celebration

Saturday the husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Ironically, the weekend of our wedding we had leftover hurricane rain and winds but everything cleared out just in time for a perfectly beautiful Sunday afternoon wedding. This weekend we had the leftover rain and winds from Hurricane Matthew. 

“Rain on your wedding day is auspicious,” my friend told me, but apparently the rain fairies didn’t get the message to the marriage fairies. 

The first ten years we weathered some pretty difficult storms; the death of our firstborn daughter, the death of his father, additional loved ones in declining health, me giving my life to the work of our non-profit, him working six days a week at the business he started, three years of ministry school for me, and the list goes on. 

We’ve also been incredibly blessed with two more biological children and the opportunity to love a foster child for nearly a year now. 

Some of this crazy was our own volition, some was life’s calling. For example, we chose the addition of children and to become foster parents, the husband chose to start his own business, both of us knowing it would be a grueling first couple of years with no guarantees we would make it. (We would make these same choices a thousand times over so no regrets.)

I have been present with mothers delivering stillborn babies, officiated funeral services for deceased children, sat with countless families and individuals grieving the death of their child, grandchild, sibling, texted with moms in the middle of the night because that’s when grief overwhelmed, visited with mothers on the mental health floor because all she could say to the doctors was that she wanted to be with her child that died. I conduct groups meetings and one-on-one support, plan and officiate multiple annual remembrance ceremonies and events, and I do nearly all of this as a volunteer. So… I got another part-time position to help with our household income, but both my work through our organization and my part-time job are life callings. Sure, ultimately it was my choice to say yes or no, but the call was birthed from excruciating pain and purpose and what an honor it is to serve our community in these ways. 

As we planned for our anniversary weekend, we talked about driving a few hours east for an overnight getaway. However, as I looked around our house, I had an epiphany. 

Why not have the kids stay with mom and the husband and I take two days to work on cleaning and organizing our house. (With the exception of dinner and a movie.) Surprisingly the husband agreed! 

I’ve never been a romantic and I’m practical to a fault, so I don’t think this caught my husband off guard. 

September a year ago our basement flooded from heavy rains. (We lost some sentimental items in that flood that gave us only a mere glimpse of what people in Hurricane Matthew’s path have lost. My heart has hurt so much for them this week.) The husband tore out the carpet, but everything has been sitting there waiting to be put back together. He started repainting this summer, but there was still more to be done. 

We have been blessed with cousin hand-me-downs, but they have accumulated without being sorted through, completely overtaking prime real estate in our daughter’s room. With our long days and tag-team schedules, clutter had unfortunately taken over way too much of our already small living quarters. 

After dropping the kids of with my mom Saturday morning, he went to work in the basement and I began methodically working my way through the bedrooms. All said, I hauled twenty-one garbage bags out the door. Only two were trash though, the rest were clothes stored for future use or donated. I also washed, folded, and put away twelve loads of laundry! (I don’t remember the last time all our beds had clean linens at he same time and being completely caught up on laundry!) He got the basement painted and ready for carpet.

We went to Union Station Restaurant and Bar for dinner, a historic building that housed Wetsel Seed Company for many years that has now been brilliantly transformed into a quaint restaurant. I had blackened tuna and steamed broccoli, he had country carbonara. The food was fabulous, but we hardly knew how to act without the three munchkins. I was reminded why I fell in love with this man. He is caring, a mama’s boy, has a shameless dry humor, and is a delightful conversationalist. 


We went to Lowe’s afterward to look at ideas for basement flooring. I’ve had a movie theater gift card for two years that we thought we might use, but we didn’t see anything that captured our attention. We came home and watched “Fireproof,” a movie about a couple on the verge of divorce but found a way, ultimately found God, and worked their marriage out to be better and stronger than ever. 

This morning I made three loaves of bread and ministrone then continued cleaning. This afternoon I made peanut butter bars. Mom brought the kiddos home after church and the husband enjoyed the Washington Redskins football win. 

The children were so excited about their clean organized rooms that they just wanted to hang out there. They promised to help keep them that way. We had our traditional Sunday evening routine; a big bowl of popcorn and America’s Funniest Videos.  

Our tenth wedding anniversary celebration was nothing like how we originally envisioned it, it was so much better. Next to my faith, there is nothing in the world as dear to me as my husband and children. Spending this weekend with and for them was the greatest joy of all. 

To many more years…

The tension of grief and joy

“Making the decision to have a child — it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I have found this quote from Elizabeth Stone to be true wherever your child might be walking. 


On golden streets…


Or grassy yard..

Yesterday our first born would have been 9 years old. Instead of an elaborate birthday party, we went to her now moss-covered grave and read a story about the Invisible String (by Patrice Karst) that keeps us connected no matter where we are. 

There were tears. There was laughter. There was a particular gift in sharing the day with a young child living their own grief. Sometimes spoken, sometimes without a word, we danced the sacred rhythm of grief and joy and were reminded that the depth of our grief is a testament to the depth of our love. 

Together we found there was much to celebrate about the ones we were missing. And we gave thanks for the invisible string of love that connects us all. 

“Mothering is to teach the art of living to children.” — Elaine Heffner

It is this mother’s joy and challenge to teach the art of living in the tension of present and hereafter, to live with purpose, intention, and to instill eternal values. To model (so clumsily most of the time) the calisthenics of a full life balancing sorrow and hope, grief and joy. 

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” –Anne Lamott

Dear June

I wrote this letter to June in 2012. An updated response is churning. Look for it soon!

Dear June,

I never gave you much thought. As a child, you were the month that started my care-free summers. By the time I was a teenager, you were just another page on the calendar. But now you haunt me. I am never prepared for the wave of conflicting emotions that wash over me every time you come around. It feels like June 2007 every year you visit. 

Sadie Rose

Your sweet fragrance of summer brings with it the smell of hospitals and funeral homes. The delightful sound of children enjoying your sunshine also rings with the sounds of hospital carts squeaking down the hall, doctors and nurses talking in hushed tones, and hearts breaking. Your beautiful green mountains and bountiful gardens remind me of the greenness of the cemetery grass, the tiniest white baby casket surrounded by flowers, family gathered to remember. Your fresh corn on the cob leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth as I remember feed-sacks-full being shucked to feed our family that had gathered in shock and disbelief after the death of our baby girl.

Sadie in sand

So much I want to remember, so much I long to forget.

June, my dear June, I don’t hate you, I just don’t know what to do with you. One minute I welcome your presence and the next I am overcome with another wave of sadness and memories. You seem like a dream. Are you real or just a ghost to remind me of what we had and lost? What do you want from me? Do I have to give up Sadie again every time you come around? Will you hurt me forever?

Sadie's stone

This carousel, this annual visitation, reopens the wounds of my already aching heart. I want to be friends, but I don’t know how. If you find me distant, if your sweet summer breezes cannot penetrate the barriers of my heart, please know that I am just now learning how to accept you. I am trying to understand how our relationship has changed, how I have changed. Walk with me sweet June, and we will eventually come to a new understanding, a fresh hope. And in the meantime, just continue being that steadfast annual presence. 

Sweet Sadie, sweet memories, sweet month of June. 

Sadie Rose Harlow, born, lived, and died, June 20, 2007. 

The discipline of silence with a singing soul

I was born singing. It’s what I do. Here’s a little rhyme I just made up about it. 
I sing when I’m happy, I sing when I’m sad. 

I sing when I’m angry, and when things go bad. 

The songs and tunes change for each situation. 

But singing is always my soul’s proclamation. 
Since late November, I’ve had a hoarseness to my voice. Overuse makes it worse. Last month, the ear, nose, and throat doctor put a scope through my nose and down my throat and said I have a hemorrhagic nodule on my left vocal chord. (The doctor described it as a callous with a blood blister.) If it worsens, he said, he wants to do a biopsy. He left me with the following orders: “Minimal talking and when talking is necessary, whisper. For at least a month.”

I laughed. 

“I’m serious,” he said, “Totally serious.”

Let’s start with challenge #1: Mothering 7 and 4 year olds and a 7 month old with a whisper is laughable. Impossible, really, but I’m trying. What I have noticed is those rare moments when it does work, it affects us all. Mom uses a softer tone, so do the children. 

Challenge #2: I’m the co-founder of a peer-support organization, all relational, walking with those grieving the death of a child. Surely there are times of silence as we process grief together, but so much of what I do involves conversation. Still, doc says, converse quietly. 

Challenge #3: I’m a minister. I speak, I sing, I lead worship. Nix all of that for now. There’s no way to do any of that quietly. In order to keep from belting out in corporate song during worship, I’ve been making great use of my “coloring Bible.” 


(More on that in an upcoming blog.)

Oddly enough, this very situation is the reason you are reading this blog. This is my voice. As much as I am a singer, I am that much more a writer. It is my catharsis. But mi vida loco takes precedence and my true voice gets lost in the chaos. 

I don’t know the final outcome of this nodule nor what steps will be required for full and complete healing. I know my voice is not any better today than when the doctor first diagnosed me, but it’s also not worse. Praise God. The doctor talked of voice therapy and even the possibility of surgery as a last resort. It feels big. Frustrating. Especially when my soul is bursting with song and there is no release. 

But lessons are emerging from the silence. My soul is growing and deepening, making space to hear and experience God and life in new and amazing ways. While I eagerly await and expect complete healing, I don’t want to miss the lessons in the silence. 

I’m sure you will read about them here. Thanks for spending time with me today.

Waiting

Waiting. I am currently waiting for a haircut appointment. I have someone else waiting on me for an appointment. But sometimes the waiting is more difficult. Sometimes waiting requires being present. Being present requires being still, reflective, looking deep within and acknowledging all that we are and then addressing that which is revealed.

Yesterday I waited for my grief to diminish. Grief that caught me off-guard as I anticipate the 6-year anniversary of our daughter’s birth and death this week. Six years. Haven’t I waited long enough?

I wait in anticipation of my upcoming licensing service this Sunday.

I can fill my waiting time with meaningless clutter or I can sit, be present, feel and acknowledge whatever emotions I am experiencing at that moment and pray that in the waiting I am learning and growing, emptying and filling.

And sometimes, waiting is done best by playing…

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The power of intentional living

It’s true, most of my problems are merely first-world inconveniences. Yes, there are those valid emotional agonies and scarring life experiences that are universal, but all too often my stresses are self-imposed and stem from over scheduling and busyness.

So when our riding lawn mower had an extended stay in the repair shop, I was only slightly daunted by the task of tackling our overgrown yard with a non-self-propelled push mower.

Considering it takes three hours with the riding mower and someone else feeding our little urchins and wiping their noses and bottoms, using the push mower and being solely responsible for the kiddos at the same time made this look like an all-day affair.

Those who really know me know that I not Pollyanna by nature. I am selfish, cynical, critical, ungrateful and extremely impatient. (My husband is a little more gracious in his description of me.) None-the-less, I have to practice an attitude of gratitude. Living my life on purpose is the only way I can be and become the person I want to be rather than who I am. I decided to take this land-mowing opportunity to be intentionally grateful.

As I pushed the mower along, I became aware of the gift of walking. I breathed in the hot sticky air and was thankful for the gift of smell. I was truly aware of what was around, beneath and above me.

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Now I am more of a wildflower gal, so I don’t get who invented this lawn mowing business anyway. Metaphorically, well-manicured and perfectly tended lawns and lives seem a bit boring to me. Give me beauty all-naturale any day. But I consciously gave thanks for the gift of green grass that needed cut according to town ordinances and machine-powered mowers as I walked back and forth in the hot sun.

This evening, Lee and I are celebrating eight years together. While we have much to celebrate, cultivating our marriage has been intentional as well.

Together we have experienced the unimaginable grief of the death of our daughter, we’ve experienced job losses, and typical marital stresses. But by being intentional about caring for each other with mutual respect and commitment, these adversities have only fertilized and watered the lawn of our relationship and turned what could have been dry, dusty, brown and dying into lush beautiful and green.

I made an intentional effort to continue counting blessings throughout the morning, but as the sun grew hotter, the air stickier and combined with multiple interruptions to care for the babies, I had to become even more intentional. This was not a sprint, but a marathon and the excuses for quitting mounted with each passing swath.

As with anything in life, growing and cultivating takes time, perseverance, and doing and living on purpose.

But when the baby comes to me, clearly taking advantage of my in-attention by eating dirt, and offers me a hand-picked dandelion or our son uses his magic wand to turn the push mower into a rider, all the combined wealth of the world could not afford so rich a moment. The power of intentional living has the power to transform. It only takes a moment of purposeful intentional reflection to be reminded How. Blessed. I. Am.

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Us seven years ago on our 1-year dating anniversary

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Elsie Ray with her dirty face and beautiful dandelion

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Eli using his magic wand to turn my push mower into a rider

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Us this evening

Interruptions

No less than 20 inches of snow have fallen outside our window throughout the past 16 hours and it is still coming down. The winter wonderland is beautiful, but it has interrupted our lives in that my husband’s flight was cancelled and now he is making the treacherous journey home in a rental car. He has already spent one more night away from us than planned because of this storm.

Thankfully, we use a wood stove for heat and have firewood stockpiled next to the stove, we have a nice cozy house and I planned ahead to make sure our refrigerator and cabinets had plenty of food. So while we wish for Lee to come home safely, the interruption could be much worse.

It seems we’ve had our share of interruptions lately. Unemployment, job changes and a chronically sick child have been some of the larger interruptions, and then there are the small, everyday inconveniences of running late, running behind, and everything in between. The death of our daughter five years ago was a most unwelcome interruption that nearly destroyed me.

Interruptions happen. Life happens. Death happens. Most often I can point to these life-altering interruptions and see that is seems like something terrible is always involved, and indeed, in many cases that is so. But how we respond to the interruptions can destroy us or make us stronger. Obviously, some take a lot more time, practice, and working through than others, but they can all be tools that change and shape us into more loving compassionate and empathetic human beings or can harden our hearts with bitterness and anger.

One of my favorite Scriptures says…

“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Isaiah 43:1-3

These words have guided me, comforted me and sometimes were the only thing that carried me through my life’s interruptions. When I passed through the waters and felt I would drown in my tears, I was sustained and comforted by this ancient text written by another who knew about life’s interruptions. Although I can’t always see the other side of the river or I feel the heat of the flames consuming my flesh, I find refuge in the Holy One of Israel and know that if I live I live with God and if I die I die with God; either way, I am with God.

In this, I can know that these interruptions have a greater purpose than what my mind can conceive or understand.

If you are experiencing interruptions today, whether they are mere inconveniences or life-altering, I pray that you too experience the comfort of the Holy One of Israel.

Experiencing the holy in everyday moments

I was excited about participating in a “NuDunkers On Pneumatology” online discussion this morning. Pneumatology is just a fancy word for the theologies of the Holy Spirit. With a 4-year-old and a 17-month-old at home, I prepared ahead of time to make sure I would have the perfect quiet atmosphere for the discussion of this fascinating topic.

Yeah right!

Instead of reflective and educated ruminations about the Holy Spirit, I was saying things, “Elsie, get Eli’s underwear off your head.” “Eli, don’t sit on top of Elsie and stop pulling the dog’s ears.” This, all while listening as best I can to an honest and through-provoking discussion about the Holy Spirit.

But this is the beauty of my life; holy moments wrapped in the humdrum of the everyday. My life has many seemingly insignificant moments and yet when I pause and pay attention, I hear the whispers of God in it all. And in my personal experience, that is my pneumatology of the Holy Spirit.

Why God Made Thistles

Our 3-year-old son walked up to the screen door today and whimpered softly, “Mom, why did God make thistles?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, having often wondered myself why God made nuisances such as thistles, bats, mosquitoes,  mice, and well, you get the picture.

I gathered Eli in my lap. He still upset from planting a bare foot squarely into a sprawling “sticker” in our back yard so I determined to help him find a purpose for the pain. We set out to learn more how thistles affect our environment. What we found was a lot of advertising for “wild thistle honey.”

Aha, there it was. The teachable moment I was looking for. Apparently beekeepers often place hives near patches of uncontrolled thistle plants in the fall of the year and voilà, sweet molasses-like honey abounds.

I explained to Eli how thistles are food for birds and bees and how that helps the bees produce honey. Then, to myself, I thought, “It’s interesting how something that causes a little pain can produce such sweet results. Kind’ve like life it we allow it to be so.”