Saturday, April 22, 2017

Painless Changes You Can Make to Tread More Lightly on the Earth

Happy Earth Day, fellow Earthlings!

Isn't spring just the BEST? Everywhere you look, you'll see blossoming trees, bright flowers, birds chirping, and green finally taking back the turf. It's the perfect time of year for Earth Day, dontcha think?

I'm setting some new goals to use even less plastic, waste less food, and shop smarter this year. Maybe you're inspired to make some personal changes to benefit the environment, and wondering where to start. Let Earth Day inspire you to make simple, lasting changes! I keep chipping away at wasteful habits and made some changes over the past year. These are all things that I actually do regularly (I would never pretend "always" or "perfectly") so I can attest to their simplicity and painlessness.

Bring your own bottle of water. Everywhere. I have a couple of glass bottles that fit easily into my work bag and my everyday bag. If you don't carry a bag, at least have a reusable bottle at work and in your car. Repeat after me: "I don't need a plastic water bottle, and I will avoid them at all costs."

2. Swap your paper towels for cloth
A sampling of our kitchen cloths

A week's worth of kitchen cloths.

Granted, the basket of used cloths is not the prettiest, but this is the full week's worth of kitchen towels and washcloths, ready to go down to the laundry room. If I could be less forgetful, I could keep the dirty towels tucked out of sight, but we tried that and I consistently forgot to throw them in with the load of bath towels each week. If you're wondering whether adding washable cloths to your laundry routine will just require more water and nix the green effects of ditching paper towels, I'll say that our kitchen towels will never make or break our load of hot-water laundry. I only wash towels and linens on hot water, and switching to cloth in the kitchen has never once required its own load. I still keep a roll of paper towels, because, let's be honest, with a kid and a dog there are rare instances of needing to dispose of your cleaning tool immediately, but we've had the same roll of paper towels for more than 2 months now.

3. Refuse plastic bags, even if you forgot to bring your own
Raise your hand if you have a plethora of reusable shopping bags, but manage to forget them 82% of the time. I even have a couple that roll up into a tiny bundle to fit into my purse, and I STILL manage to be caught empty handed once in a while. Guess what? You can still say "no" to a plastic bag. If your items will fit in your hands, just carry them on out to your car, or shove a few of them into your backpack/baby bag/purse at the checkout. Or, and I promise you I actually have done this, just tell the cashier you forgot your bags and push your whole cart of Target loot out to the parking lot and put it into your car (GASP!) without bags. Get your bags at home (or boxes, or whatever - I find IKEA blue bags ideal for this!) and haul everything into the house. No extra plastic bags have entered your home. You might feel like a weirdo the first time you do this, but it gets easier.

4. Experiment with your shower routine
After a lifetime of struggling to find the right products to "manage" my coarse, thick, oil-prone hair, I feel like I have finally found my dream hair-washing routine. I have experimented with various phthalate/sulfate/paraben/petroleum/animal product/animal testing - free shampoos and conditioners for years, and I was stuck in the same cycle: Wash hair, hair feels dry and crunchy, condition hair, hair feels grimey and full of build up. Put up with grimey/dry hair until next shower. Repeat. I tiptoed towards "No Poo" (when you stop washing your hair all together and just rinse with apple cider vinegar once in a while), but couldn't do it. Then, I discovered this stuff.

A shampoo bar! Paper packaging! And the ingredients are all familiar and pronounceable! And best of all, it's so gentle, I don't need to use conditioner at all. Ever. I can actually get away with washing my hair every other day, and it is shiny without being oily, and clean without feeling dry. I've found one other ultra-gentle shampoo that is a liquid that comes in a plastic bottle that Les also likes, so I alternate between the two. Consider experimenting with your products to see if you can find your sweet spot and ditch something you thought you needed. It's thrilling to realize you can pare down and prefer the results to the multi-product, questionable chemical routine you thought you had to keep.

Oh, and we use package-free bar soap now, too, and love it.
Our current pile of soaps and my bin of shower wash cloths. No plastic "loofahs" ever again.

5. Carry a handkerchief

I was grossed out, too, when I contemplated it. But the fact is, most of my tissue-using in the spring is from allergy-inspired drippage. Just obnoxious little drips that drive me insane but do not require a whole tissue to address. One of my friends made me a sweet little set of reusable cloth "anything wipes" for Pia's baby shower, and now I keep one in every coat pocket, and in my purse and in Pia's baby stuff backpack. And they can go right into that load of towel washables after they've been used. They're softer than paper tissues, too! Your nose will thank you. If you don't have a thoughtful and talented friend to make some for you, you can buy washable baby wipes just about anywhere and use those. Or find some pretty vintage handkerchiefs and feel fancy AND green.

This Earth Day, I'm promising myself that this is the year I reform some of my plastic-dependencies and commit to finding non-plastic alternatives for things I regularly discard. There are blogs and books devoted to "plastic free life" now, so time to dig in and see what I can find.

My other Earth Day Resolutions are:

* Make sure all the closet-purged clothing that is too worn to be donated finds its way to a textile recycling option rather than ending up in the garbage bin. Read more about why here, or google "textile waste" and heave a big sigh.

* Make the sun work for me more often, whether it be drying clothes or "bleaching" stains, or disinfecting hard-to-wash kid stuff.

* Minimize disposables in every area of my consumer life.

* Fewer and fewer animal products. I'm not in the "full vegan" life stage right now, but I could do with less dairy and fewer eggs. Only second-hand leather and silk from now on.

What are some changes you want to make? Let's encourage each other to simpler, gentler, greener living.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Blue Christmas

These were the notes for the talk I gave at the "Blue Christmas" service at Redeemer Fellowship of St. Charles on Dec. 11, 2015.
The little birds. We didn't put up a tree this year, because of Pia The Destroyer.

My dad died in 2001 after a long illness. I was 23. In 2007, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and she joined my dad in heaven in 2009 when I was 31 years old. Last year, I miscarried twins in the first trimester of my first pregnancy. I am not an expert on grief. I’m not a pastor or a counselor. I am a fellow griever. A miss-er. A person who knows better than to ever say “I know how you feel”. I don’t know how you feel. I can only speak from my own experience with loss and the perspective of a few years out from the constant throbbing of fresh pain.

My dad was a Jesus freak, as they say. He loved cheesy jokes, camping, vacations to national parks, being an elder at our church, and he loved my mom. He had had Type 1 Diabetes since he was 5 years old, and the disease began to advance rapidly when I was in high school. He deteriorated slowly but surely . When my father died, I felt relief. He had been so sick for so long, and he was eager to “Go Home” to heaven. We had stopped praying for healing for him, and instead prayed for comfort, peace, and for ourselves. We had had plenty of time to say what we needed and wanted to say. We had stopped hoping for more time, and longed, instead, for his time to come to meet the Jesus he loved so dearly. When he did finally die, my grief was primarily for my mother. They had had a love-filled, purposeful, self-sacrificial marriage. Imperfect, of course, but exemplary. She had cared for him with superhuman patience and grace for the last years of his life. Now her partner was gone, and her loss was gaping. I remember those first few years being more about comforting her than processing my own grief. My dad had been ill for so long, I struggled to feel sad. I felt sad for my mom, but I felt relieved and happy for him. I imagined him in heaven, thanking God in person for making Yosemite so beautiful, and telling cringe-worthy dad jokes to any who would listen.

When my mother got sick a few years later, I felt rage. I was so angry, God and I weren’t on speaking terms for a while. My mom was the most faithful, joyful, patient person in my world, and God had stricken her. Kicked her while she was down. After the rage, I felt lost. In the final weeks and months of her life, I could not pray. I begged others to lift her up, to lift us up. All I could do was cry and sing “Kyrie Eleison” as I lay in bed with tears streaming down my cheeks. I could not bring myself to say “Lord, have mercy” in English. The words burned my tongue. When she died, I slumped into a heavy grief. Even though her death was a relief of her suffering, I felt unmoored without my mom. Her death left me an orphan. I don’t want to use that word too cavalierly, but I was parentless at 31, and I felt suddenly homeless and empty as well.

After my mother died, I slogged through those first Thanksgivings and Christmases with a heavy heart. Everything everywhere reminded me of my mom, and the fact that she would never make her spritz cookies again, I would never hear her sing Christmas carols again, and I would never again get to come home to her cider-scented house and pilfer some of her favorite mint M&Ms from the candy dish on the sofa table. And every time I see a huge Christmas tree, I think of the year my dad bought the biggest Christmas tree he could find, and it was so enormous, he had to cut it apart with a chainsaw in our living room to get it out of the house. My mother had this beautiful, simple, sonorous alto voice. If I close my eyes and sit quietly for a minute, I can hear her actual voice singing her Christmas Eve solo of “Oh Holy Night”, or her favorite song, “Angels We Have Heard on High”. Listen to the harmony line next time. It’s incredible. She loved it so much, we sang it at her memorial service even though she died in May.
This year marks six Christmases without my mom, and fourteen without my dad. This is the second year we’ll hang two little bird ornaments on our totally normal-sized Christmas tree to remember our twin stars. The stories keep their memories bright and alive to me, and they also shred me a little bit. They still shred me a little bit. Sometimes the weight of missing my mom, my dad, and the tiny twin babies who did not get to meet us here on Earth still seems too heavy to bear.

…...The Thrill of Hope, a Weary World Rejoices.

We are weary. So weary. Grief and sadness, tragedy, darkness, loss, suffering and pain. The first few Christmases after my mother died, I felt all of the weariness but none of the thrill, none of the hope. It felt more like the world was rejoicing without me. There were plenty of people to rejoice with those who felt like rejoicing. Where were the people to mourn with those who mourn? I found solace in anonymity, and opportunities to sit in the shadows and grieve on the fringes of faith. I went back to the big Chicago church I’d been part of for years before her death and I’d sit and let the hot tears stream down my face while the rejoicers sang their Happy Christmas Songs. I’d wring my hands and strain my ears to “hear” my mom’s alto in the harmonies. Or I’d go to an unfamiliar, big, loud, contemporary church service with a praise band so exuberant, I could literally yell Christmas carols at the top of my lungs, and raise my arms, and cry, and have no one think that any of those things were at all strange. Lots of people around me would be doing the exact same thing, and I could blend right in. Maybe they were moved by a joyful Spirit, maybe they were hurting like I was. But shouting O Come, O Come Emmanuel! and really meaning it was a huge relief to the heaviness of my heart.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Until sharp grief broke into my life, I didn’t understand why people would pray “Come, Lord Jesus”. I didn’t want Jesus to return just yet. I liked the world. There were a lot of things I still wanted to do on earth. I still wanted to get married, travel, adopt a dog, have fun with my friends. The hurting world longed for Jesus to come again, just as Isreal longed for the Messiah, but I was still in the comfortable, insulated world. I was afraid of death, and not particularly eager for the New Heavens and the New Earth. My mother’s death broke through that veneer of comfort, but also the fear, because my greatest fear had actually happened. When my mom came home with hospice care, a dear friend described the anticipation of the death of a follower of Jesus this way: “It’s when our greatest fear and our greatest hope are standing together at the door.” It was true. When she died, the flicker of hope actually returned after the dark two years of her illness. And I didn’t fear death any more. She and my dad had both run towards Jesus when the time arrived, and my longing to see them again, healthy and whole, and my new empathy for the grieving, groaning, sighing world put the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer on my lips.

  • For we do not grieve as those who have no hope...

I was too afraid in those early years to approach the other Mourners - my friends and acquaintances who I knew had lost people that they loved. I was too afraid of my own grief, and of ripping the scabs off everyone else’s carefully tended wounds. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I had any solace to offer anyone else, or that sharing my grief gave others freedom to talk about theirs. As I was trying to organize my thoughts for this talk tonight, I asked my husband what I should say. What, I wondered, do I have to offer anyone? He advised me to share what I would tell a friend who had come to me to ask for help getting through their first Christmas without someone they love.

Here’s what I would say.

God hates death. Hates it. We were not made for death, for the tearing apart of the good gift of earthly love. Death grieves God. Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, and for Mary and Martha’s broken hearts. He raised the widow’s only son from the dead, just because he knew her grief would be too much to bear. If anyone had the absolute right to say “He’s in a better place”, wouldn’t it be Jesus? The Orthodox church remembers the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The icon of that feast day depicts Mary at her burial, with the disciples and others mourning around her, and Jesus above all of them, grieving. I’m new to Orthodoxy, and I have to say the icons have taken some getting used to, but the first time I saw this icon, I was immediately moved and felt, much to my surprise, much much closer to Jesus. Jesus had a mother! And he grieved when she died! Just like I did when my mom died. He felt sorrow over the end of her earthly life. The Bible doesn’t say anything about the death of Mary, but I believe that it’s safe to conclude that Jesus would grieve for his mother if he grieved for Lazarus. Remembering that Jesus grieved has helped me give myself the time and space I need to grieve. The World expects you to pull yourself together and get on with your life within a few weeks of a loss. Most of us haven’t even begun to process our pain in that time. Give yourself extra grace at Christmas time, when memories bubble up and you need time to sit with them a while, and the cultural push to celebrate! buy stuff! nonstop fun! attend all the social social engagements! makes it easier to just swallow hard and keep moving.

Our culture is terrified of death, and so it sanitizes it, ignores it, minimizes it, and does everything possible to avoid it. People may expect you to act like everything is Merry and Bright, even as we acknowledge that the holidays are extra painful for the grieving. But even if we corporately understand that holidays can be tough, grief still makes people uncomfortable, especially at the festive holidays. Find a few people who love you and who you trust and tell them your stories. If you are here tonight to support someone who is grieving, make an effort to ask about the person she is missing. What is your favorite Christmas memory of your dad? Did your sister make any special food at Christmas time? What would you have given your son for Christmas this year? Give space and time to listen. Don’t worry that you’ll remind your grieving friend of the person they lost. I guarantee you, they are thinking of that person constantly, and in my experience, most are eager for a chance and a comfortable space to talk about them. If talking is not a comfort to you, maybe consider writing. I started writing a letter to my parents each year, recapping the highlights reel of what they missed, everything I wish I could have shared with them. It has been cathartic. When I read the past letters every year, I also have a pretty good summary of the things I really cared about over the years, and answered prayers, and God’s hand at work in the arc of my story. I did get married. I did travel, adopt a dog, and in April we welcomed a healthy baby girl. Writing to my mom and dad about the adventures and joys and sorrows has helped me feel closer to them and calmer about everything that they are missing.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Over time, I’ve developed some other comforting traditions to remember my mom and dad, and even our Twin Stars, to help me navigate Christmas time with a little more Joy. Six years ago, I wouldn’t have believed this would be possible. Your grief may still be sharp around the edges. If so, be so gentle with yourself, and I’d encourage you not to feel pressure to come up with any traditions, or to feel any particular way. Eventually you may think of things you’d like to incorporate into your Advent and Christmas. For one thing, I started leaning into Advent. Advent is a season of waiting, longing, and hope. An advent calendar or a devotional may help walk you closer and closer to a day of celebration. The paper advent calendar on my wall right now has a word or phrase for each day, designed to be a minimalist meditation. “Take heart, hope is on the way” is how we start each December 1st. I’ve also really really gotten into Handel’s Messiah. Did you know it was originally composed for Easter? But the songs are just incredible - songs of prophecy, longing, meditation, all building to celebration and joy and Hallelujah. It’s easier than ever to organize Christmas music into Advent music and let “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “He Shall Feed His Flock” pave the way for Joy to the World.

A few small moments each Christmas help give some structure to our remembrances. A friend sent us two handmade bird ornaments when we miscarried. We keep them on our bookshelf all year, but when we decorate our Christmas tree, we add them together, near the top, and look forward to the day we will meet our babies in person. I bake orange cinnamon rolls to enjoy warm from the oven on Christmas morning as an homage to the ones my mom would buy from the bakery each year for Christmas. We make a donation to a charity close to my dad’s heart in his honor. And I make a Christmas List of gifts I would give my mom and dad that year, as I see things I know that they would like while I do my other gift-giving prep. Let these ideas take shape for you as they come, if they come.

Maybe Christmas is just going to be dimly lit for you for a long time. That’s OK. The Bible is full of stories of people who waited for a very long time for God’s promise to be fulfilled. But if God promised it, you can wait in Hope. Here are some things that God has promised to we who mourn:

Psalm 34:18  “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Matthew 11:28  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Revelation 21:4  “ ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

The rest of that passage from Revelation holds my personal favorite promise in all of Scripture:

Behold! I am making all things new.

ALL things. Even my broken heart and crushed spirit. Even my mom and dad, and our twins. Even the whole world. Even you and your heart.

Emmanuel - God with us.

Jesus wasn’t just born. He lived on Earth, he died, he rose again, and he returned to the Father, he sent his Spirit. God is not just close to us, he is in us! God didn’t have to be born a baby. Presumably, he could have come up with a different way to save us and draw us to him. But he was born, and grew, and became an adult and lived WITH us, here on earth. He had a mom, and a step dad. He celebrated and grieved. He still celebrates, still grieves. At Christmas, we remember that God Came Near. And he came to bind up the brokenhearted. And to wipe every tear from their eyes. He is with us, and because he is with us, we can sing, even if our voice shakes.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Motherhood: Year One

This has been the fastest, longest year of my life. There are 525,600 minutes in a year, and this is how I have spent the minutes that made up the last twelve months:
  • 500,000 minutes attempting to convince Pia to eat or sleep
  • 600 minutes sleeping
  • 25,000 minutes oscillating among the following emotional states - Amazement, Joy, Boredom, Anxiety, Despair, and Pride. With a nice melty layer of Love & Bone Crushing Exhaustion covering over everything. Nothing else. There hasn't been any room or energy for anything but these feelings and thoughts related to these feelings. 
Political soapboxes, spiritual epiphanies, intellectual pursuits, creative endeavors? Nope. Not really. I have to rally enough brain cells to go to work five days a week, but emotionally, I'm still in one or more of those 6 states all work day. 

We have survived this year of sub-human sleeplessness. That has been the hardest part, hands down. A lot of Baby Life has been really incredible. How fast a little helpless nugget starts to dazzle you with her growing brain and body. She is quickly morphing into an opinionated, mobile, verbal, amazing little person. Thank God! And Oh Crap!

And I sit tonight in wonder at all that God has done in our family this year, and all the ways my life has changed profoundly and permanently. This first year of motherhood has sharpened the edges of my shortcomings and dredged them up to the surface. Les and I are supposed to be models of God's love to Pia and show her examples of two adults who model their own words and actions after Jesus. Whoa. We've got some work to do. Not only do we have new motivation to get our personal, spiritual house in order, all of a sudden, we have to actually start to "parent" intentionally. She's watching and listening and sponging it all up. There's nothing like a wee girl beginning to mimic everything you do and chirp the tune of everything you say to inspire you to make some changes. We talked about this stuff before we had Pia, but we haven't (still haven't!) really put our money where our mouths are. Probably because we still feel like we are still in Survival Mode, what with the no sleeping and all. 

But I'm making it sound worse than this year has actually felt.

There is NOTHING like feeling your beaming baby fling herself into your open arms as she toddles a few eager steps towards you. And baby giggles? I'm already sad that her laugh sounds so much more grown up now. But I am thrilled that Pia is moving on from the infant stage to the toddler stage. I love being able to interact with her in so many new ways. Watching her learn something new will never get old. The look on her face the first time she clutched the wooden knob and slid the chunky puzzle piece into the puzzle and realized that it fit? Incredible. And though Auggie is less excited about her winning combination of mobility and determination, so far I find her precociousness completely endearing.  

Before Les and I decided we wanted to add a kiddo to our family, I was hung up on my fear that I was just not "a baby person". Never one to lunge eagerly towards other people's babies, or swoon with delight in a baby boutique, or smile at the amusing yarns of poop and barf and screaming and impossibly long nights, I figured it may be best to leave the mothering of infants to the more enthusiastic baby mommas. 

I remember telling my mom when I was in college that I probably should never have a baby, because I had no deep internal drive to mother an infant like so many of my friends expressed. And she, in her wisdom, reminded me that babies are only babies for a little while, and some people who are just so excited to have A Baby forget that babies very quickly grow into Kids and then Teenagers and then Adults. Those words gave me comfort then, and now, as I see Pia standing up to toddle out of the baby stage.

Because it turns out I was kind of right. I'm probably not what you would call "a baby person". I am, however, an ardent and enthusiastic Pia Person.

The moment she was born, she looked right at me with her huge brown eyes and shook her tiny clenched fists, and I knew her name would be Olympia. The frilly, soft, more feminine names we were considering would not do. And now that she's showing us more and more of her personality, I can see her Grandpa Scott's mischievous smirk and her daddy's ability to learn something so quickly, you dare not blink. It's terrific and terrifying.

This has been a hard year, physically and emotionally. Thankfully, we have not been muddling through alone. We have the most amazing Tribe of friends and family, and God has been alongside us. Bono was once asked in an interview "What drives you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?" and he replied "Bourbon. Just kidding! The Holy Spirit. That's really all there is." That's what this year has felt like. "Jill, how do you get out of bed every morning when you've been up 6 times with a sleepless baby?"... "Half Caff Coffee, and the Holy Spirit. That's really all there is."

Happiest of birthdays, little Miss. We love you more than we could have imagined. We cannot wait to see what the next years hold. (Hopefully, more sleep!)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sweet Dreams

I wake up every morning to the gentle stirring of a not-so-little-anymore baby nestled next to me in bed. After a moment, her face peers up at me and she rubs the sleep out of her eyes and she either grabs at my top for breakfast or pulls herself up onto the metal bars of our headboard and starts squawking and bouncing. Les sleeps in the guestroom. Auggie burrows into the bed next to me. Calm. Rest. The best we have at the moment.

We've been in Survival Mode with a sleep-challenged baby girl for 11 months now, and bed sharing has been the first dramatic improvement in my quality of life since we brought her home from the hospital. She sleeps. I sleep. We all sleep. She sleeps in 3-4 hour chunks and usually only gets up to eat, which is a gasp of fresh air after so many months of waking every 1-2 hours. 

I read the sleep books and I did All The Things. I asked friends for advice. I prayed and cried and slogged through every day with bricks of exhaustion tied to my hands and feet and heart. And then I suggested to Les that we just shove our master bed against the wall and bring her into it. Oh, but the ramifications! We'll be stuck sleeping with her until she's 5 years old! She'll never learn to self soothe! Bad habits! Bad for our marriage! Bad! Doom dressed in cute little sheep pajamas. 

But you know what? It is fantastic.

And you know what else? Les and I learned when I was pregnant and needed space that we both sleep better in separate beds, so no biggie there. Better sleep goes a long way towards happier marital partners.

And you know what else? It has helped, somehow, to soothe a deep, indescribable piece of the sadness of missing my mother in this season of Mothering.

When the sleep was really bad - I mean REALLY bad - a few months ago, we decided to try Cry it Out out of desperation. After 22 minutes of hearing my baby shriek from her bedroom, I wiped the tears from my own eyes and marched in and picked her up and decided that was not going to work.

I had been crying out for my mom at night, too. But the difference is, I could go to Pia.

Curling up into her warm little body at night has been a balm for me. I sometimes imagine all the mommas around the world, who, for millenia have snuggled up with their babies to sleep at night. I hear her breathe calmly and feel her chest rise and fall. I feel connected to my mom in this primal act of mothering.

I dreamed of my mom almost every night throughout the last few months of my pregnancy. The dreams were vivid, true-to-life-type dreams, the terrible kind that leave you disoriented for a few moments upon waking, wondering if you really did go over to your mom's house that day, and whether she really did make you a huge plate of Salami on White Bread sandwiches before flopping on the couch with you to watch Gilmore Girls and then "Romancing the Stone". In one particularly strange Mom dream, I received a box in the mail that contained a letter she had written on lettuce and spinach leaves, fastened together with a big binder clip. I called her for help deciphering the message, as the ink had bled during transit and the leaves were largely unreadable. Send me your interpretations of that one, if you have any suggestions!

Most of the dreams were jumbles of memories mixed with run of the mill dashed hopes and scenes of losses I already grieved: mom helping me decorate the nursery, mom talking through my baby questions with me, mom giving suggestions for 3rd trimester pregnancy coping skills, mom coming to the hospital to meet the baby. Mom singing to the baby while rocking her to sleep.

My mom's warm, smooth, unfussy, beautiful voice started to keep me up at night. I would lie awake staring at the ceiling, tears puddling in my ears as I strained to hear her sing the songs she used to sing to us when we were small. I needed to remember every warble, every verse. In those sleepless nights, I made a list of the Unsingable Songs. The songs I knew I could not sing to Baby Girl without crying. Ugly crying. Who wants to Ugly Cry lullabies to their baby? I made a second list: Songs I Know Mom Never Sang to Us. These have become my lullaby standards. Pia drifts off to sleep to the sounds of Lyle Lovett, Indigo Girls, a few odd show tunes, select U2 choruses, and some hymns that have no particular Mom Memories associated with them.

In the book "Parentless Parents: How the Loss of our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children", author Allison Gilbert notes that in her surveys and interviews with parents who had lost both parents before they had children or while their own children were still young, many parents confirmed that they are hyper aware of their own mortality, and that thoughts of leaving their children mother or fatherless are always simmering in the back of their minds. This often leads parents to either a) keep their kiddos at a bit of an arm's length, emotionally, and begin instilling independence at a very early age or b) glom onto their kids and lean towards over protection and fearful parenting. I'm paraphrasing, of course. The book is excellent. Definitely recommend it to anyone you know who may benefit. But it has made me wonder whether my "accidental" attachment parenting has had less to do with Pia's disposition and more to do with my heartache. I do not want to be a fearful parent. I did not set out to bedshare. We were all set with a crib. I didn't think I would eschew the stroller and just wear Pia in a baby carrier everywhere. It is just so much more convenient and portable! Breastfeeding was always the plan, and, frankly, I'm kinda ready to be done with that. But it has been much better and sweeter and funnier than I could have imagined. If she had weaned early, or if I had switched to formula in a desperate attempt to get her to sleep through the night, I never would have known the silly joy of my sweet baby girl blowing huge, horrific fart sounds all over my boobs in between peals of her own laughter.

If Pia had slept through the night, I never would have brought her into bed with me. I never would have tucked her little body into my armpit. I never would have fallen asleep next to her while humming Simon and Garfunkel, and hearing my mom's voice in my ears.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Freedom of Fewer Choices

How much do I love shopping at Trader Joe's? Sooooo much! There are too many reasons to list. Here are the top 3:

1. Every single time I've been there with Pia, one of the TJs "crew" has offered to help me take my groceries to the car and they've loaded up the trunk and whisked away my shopping cart before I've even gotten my wiggly babe into her car seat.

2. Black bean and cheese tacquitos. Chocolate honey mints. Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole.

3. A break from the Decision Fatigue of every other grocery store in town. When I want to buy, say, cereal, there are roughly a dozen options from which to choose. Pasta sauce? Eight options. Pickles? Spears, slices, or whole. Ketchup? One option: ketchup. I can be in and out of TJs with (usually, almost) everything I need for the week in 30 minutes, AND stick to a list and budget.

Bonus: The store is not jam-packed with displays and aisles. It feels open, navigable, and easy. You could fit the entire store into the Halloween Candy section of Target.

Does Trader Joe's have everything I could ever need for a recipe? No. But by narrowing our ingredient options, we've actually gotten more creative in the kitchen, and we are able to go to Whole Paycheck less frequently, which saves us a whole lot of money. And time. Shopping at TJs is efficient, cost-effective, and delicious.

I am pining for the day that our home will be conscientiously curated to contain only those Useful, Beautiful things that Spark Joy, like the Joy that is sparked by finding Gluten Free Candy Cane Joe Joes.

Like my favorite grocery store, I've found that my house is much tidier, more efficient, and happier to live in when I have fewer options. This is and has been an ongoing process, but every little step I have taken in the direction of Fewer has been rewarding so far.

Exhibit A:

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to apply the now-famous Marie Kondo lessons of Tidying Up to my closet. I haven't actually read her book (who has time to read entire books during baby naps??), but I have read a couple of reviews and articles about her New York Times bestseller, and concluded that I had gleaned enough to take a stab at purging my closet of anything that didn't Spark Joy.

I took every item of clothing out of my closet, laid them all on my bed, then picked each item up and held it in my hands before deciding its fate. I made four piles:

  • Sparks Joy AND it currently fits!
  • Sparks Joy but doesn't fit my new, plush, post-baby body
  • No Joy here, but I've barely worn it, so I'll try to consign it
  • No Joy, but it's in good shape, so I'll donate it
No surprise, most of what Sparked Joy and Fits consisted of cardigans and a couple of forgiving dresses and skirts. I'm still about 15 pounds from my pre-baby weight, so I'm going to remain hopeful that some of those Joy-sparking clothes with buttons and darts and zippers will fit again. I didn't part with them; I put them in a plastic tub in the storage closet. Here's what was left:

Disregard the upper-right piles - they are Les's pants!
I've been operating from this wardrobe of roughly 30 items + basics like tank tops, t-shirts, leggings, etc, for three weeks now, and I love it. When I rush to the closet in the morning to get ready for work, I know that everything in front of me fits, flatters (reasonably well), and makes me happy when I wear it. Soon I will add the winter sweaters that spark joy, but those are still packed away for now.

Gone are the sentimental items, the stash of overly-fussy wedding guest dresses from the season of my life when I attended 10 weddings every summer, and anything that I really wanted to like and wear but never or very rarely did. As I hear Kondo's book suggests, I thanked the items I discarded for their service or for their part in a previous season of my life, and stacked them neatly for re-homing.

Last year, I had a 40-Item Wardrobe for a season, and that was totally painless. Maternity clothes created their own capsule-wardrobe-by-default, and I did just fine for more than 6 months. I know I can live and work and play and go to church with a limited but versatile mix of clothes, but I still want More and New and Better and Different all the time. That's the part I can't quite seem to wrangle. And I do not promise that I will never buy any more clothes. No. But anything new must be versatile enough that I can wear it for at least two out of three main fashion venues: Regular Life, Work, Church. And, thanks to Ms. Kondo, it'll have to Spark Joy as well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

All You Need is Less

The world is shredding my heart these days. I look around at our comfortable life and our comfortable faith in our comfortable part of the world, and I feel really uncomfortable. And I want to feel that way for as long as it takes for us to make real changes and take real action, rather than just cry a few tears and heave a big sigh and then sink right back into our easy chairs with a tub of ice cream for a nice, brain-numbing Netflix binge.

There are a lot of ways to move from sugarshocked immobility to meaningful action. Give, pray, and get involved with organizations who know the issues well and can connect you with volunteer opportunities. (We've had terrific experiences with World Relief and Exodus, so if you're looking for an endorsement of a refugee-serving organization, check out either of them. Two thumbs way up).

Every time I think the plight of so many in the world, I feel newly convicted to pursue minimalism. And then I see something pretty or fun or on sale in my new, softer size and I buy it anyway. Just like a diet, my minimalism always starts tomorrow.

What does a new pair of jeans have to do with compassion? Let's set aside compassion-related environmental and labor issues that come into play when I buy buy buy anything and everything I want, and think more broadly about how Stuff can clog up our hearts and lives.

Les and I have been talking about how our Stuff and our Love of Stuff gets in the way of living the life we want, and feel convicted about living. Here are some ways:
  • Clutter in our home makes us self-conscious about hosting and hospitality. (Well, clutter, and our Ornery Chihuahua-based home security system). Fewer possessions = less clean up when you want to invite someone into your home. We could just get over our hangups about what our home looks like and what our Fur Baby acts like, and we want to do that, too, but fewer piles would go a long way towards a more hospitable house.
  • Money we spend on Stuff prevents us from being as generous as we say we want to be.
  • Our Things are distractions. We'd rather be comfy in our home, doing our own thing, than out loving our neighbors. We do need time at home to recharge and relax as a family. Balance is important. We're in a slow, "home base" season with a new baby. But eventually, we need to get back out into Community and not just cling to our creature comforts like Pia clings to her lovey.
  • Stuff takes up space. Duh. But seriously. Do we have room to host a Safe Families child, or will our guest room be full of boxes of crap for all eternity? Will we be tempted to upgrade to a bigger house when Pia is older because we don't have room to contain all our family's possessions? Will our cars deteriorate faster because we have to park them outside all winter because our garage is being used as an attached Stuff Storage Unit?
  • Stuff takes up time. What are my plans for the weekend, every weekend, lately? Cleaning out the box-filled guest room, organizing our one small storage space, purging unneeded stuff from the garage... cleaning, organizing, tossing. Not my idea of a particularly fun time. Clutter hangs over us in our free time. And every time I have to rearrange a kitchen cabinet when I unload the dishwasher, I fantasize about donating half of the contents of our cupboards, and having clear, usable counter space. In my fantasy, a clean, spare kitchen makes it easier to cook and clean and entertain. 
  • Stuff Begets Stuff. Did you know there's actually name for the fact that buying a new dress often leads to buying new shoes and a necklace to match? It's called the Diderot Effect, and it played out in frustrating fashion in my life last week. I bought a new (Target clearance section) watch because our office building has NO clocks, and I feel rude checking my phone all the time in meetings. The watch didn't fit, so now I need to buy a little kit with tiny tools to take links out of the band so I can wear it. Grrrr. And the dress + shoes + necklace? Story of my shopping life. Pretty soon, you're over-consuming just to use the one thing you wanted to buy in the first place. Yuck.
There's a famous Bible story in which Jesus tells a wealthy man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. It's a pretty famous story, usually called "The Rich Young Ruler". One could gloss over it and say "I'm not wealthy or powerful. This story has nothing to do with me". I remember several years ago when I read this story in The Message translation for the first time:

Mark 10:17-27 The Message 

To Enter God’s Kingdom

17 As he went out into the street, a man came running up, greeted him with great reverence, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?”
18-19 Jesus said, “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”
20 He said, “Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!”
21 Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
22 The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.

Did you catch that last line there? He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about about to let go. That's me! A punch in the gut.

Do I think we are all supposed to sell everything we own and give the money to the poor? No. But I do think we are called to let go of the things that we're clutching so tightly we can't take hold of Jesus, or stretch out our hands to help someone else. If we're using our hands to hold on tightly to our stuff, we can't very well be Jesus's hands in a hurting world.

There are a lot of reasons I would rather hold onto Stuff than to Jesus. For one thing, my stuff doesn't ask me to do hard things, or make hard choices, or love people. My stuff makes me comfortable. Jesus, if you take him very seriously, does the opposite. I want to project a certain version of myself to the world: a put-together, reasonably fashionable, interesting person who you should like/hire/show kindness to (or pity, depending on how much sleep I've had). My closet and my piles indicate that I think my stuff will present, or maybe even create, that likable, capable person. Somewhere I think I know that my actions and my character speak louder than the trendy necklace I picked up to go with that new shirtdress, but another part really believes that the necklace will help. Fashion is fun, and putting your best foot forward is important. Getting dressed in clothes that fit and make you feel great in the morning can be a sanity-preserving ritual. Some days, though, when I'm sputtering on 4 hours of broken sleep, I am reminded how little the looks matter when the inside is all crusty and gasping. My identity is not my reflection in the mirror. Jesus is enough. He has to be, because I sure am not, no matter how well-curated my outfit is.

Sometimes we hold onto things because they represent part of our identity, or our idealized identity. I am a writer, I should have a lot of books. People who are serious about their health have lots of workout clothes and cookbooks. I am creative, so I need a whole room full of craft supplies, just in case I ever decide to learn how to block print, silk screen, or use oil pastels. None of those things are wrong to buy and use. Hobbies are great! Supplies are necessary for good, creative work. But I have to ask myself: why am I holding on to *literally* boxes full of unused or once-read things? What pains me about letting go of them? They have become representations of pieces of myself that need shoring up. Maybe especially in this new-mommy stage of life. I DO WORK OUT! I DO COOK! I DO PAINT, SEW, and MAKE STUFF! I do. And honestly, I'll probably keep a lot of those items. But I'm trying to learn how to keep the things that add value, beauty, knowledge, and utility to my life and let go of the things that simply add to the pile of things that I keep as props for the character I'm trying to play for the world (or my ego).

We're making some de-stuffifying plans over here, and I'll try to write about our process as we go. I do not have it all figured out. We both loooooove us some Stuff, but we're trying to be more intentional about what we allow into our lives, and what needs to go.

I Marie Kondo-ed my closet this weekend, so that'll be the first project to share! Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It's Off to Work I Go

Fun Fact!
An extra-long ultra-thin maxi pad, such as the one I keep in my work bag In Case of Emergency, can be wedged into a nursing tank lengthwise to create a uni-boob style nursing pad if you forget to wear your nursing pads one day and you start leaking milk all over your shirt at work.

Not that I would know, personally... ahem...

The notes from my latest meeting with my boss are smeared in inky circles from the drops of milk that dribbled all over them when I set my breast pump hardware on my desk without clearing enough space. One quadrant of the cushion on the little side chair next to my desk is spattered with dark breast milk stains from that time I actually dropped the horn-shaped suction apparatus while pumping. I have a "Please Do Not Disturb" sign with a cartoon cow saying "Moo" taped to my office door. Yes, I am a Working Mother, and have the stains and pump-transport supplies to prove it.

I actually use the electric pump at work...
I've been back at work for two weeks now. I'm so sleep deprived, I have to binge-drink coffee to feel alert enough to see a task from start to finish. If it were acceptable office practice, I'd wear my sunglasses all day to protect my bloodshot eyes from the Sleep Deprivation hangover symptoms of light sensitivity and general fatigue. I drink a lot of water. I read my to-do list over and over while whispering a prayer that some project will leap from the page with a fully-formed idea attached to it. I'm pretty sure I would actually be good at my job and contribute something meaningful if my brain were functioning on all cylinders. I hold onto that hope as I plod through these days.

One of the HR team at my office asked me yesterday how my return to work has been so far. I looked at her with bleary eyes but a sincere smile and said "It would be going pretty well if I were not a half-dead zombie". She patted my arm, smiled warmly at me, and said "It is a lot of work to start a person." She then told me about her three kids, all teens now, and how she stayed home with them for a while before returning to the workforce. "It is hard either way" she said. "But either way, this tiny baby part is just one season. You'll sleep more eventually. Maybe not a full night, and maybe not soon, but more, and eventually".

More, and eventually.

That's what I have to go with today.

I have had a bit of an existential crisis about this return to work. I seriously considered staying home. It was more appealing than I anticipated. But I am fortunate in that my job is 12 minutes from home, and I only work 5 hour days. I'm gone for about 5.5 hours total, Monday - Friday, and for the other 18.5 hours of the day Baby Girl is more or less attached to my body. Even at night, her little co-sleeper bed is less than a foot from me and she's eating every two hours anyway, so we're not very separate even as we snooze. Not that I need to rationalize my decision to go back to work, but it does soothe the sting to remind myself that we're together for the vast majority of the day.

I will be honest. Honest. Those 5.5 hours have been good for my mental health, as exhausted as I am. I would be exhausted anyway, but at work, I get to be exhausted with hot coffee in my hands and program management puzzles to kick my weary brain into a different gear. I have to get up, get dressed, and leave the house every day. And when I come home, those 18.5 hours are sweet and I'm eager to resume them.

As many times as I've chastised people for doing this very thing, I have to admit it: I feel guilty for not feeling more guilty about going back to work.

Maybe my feelings will change as she gets older and I start to feel like I am missing things, or that she is missing me. Or as I get more sleep and have more energy to invest in her and the amazing wonderment that is Watching Your Baby Grow Into Herself. I don't know. I do know that I like my work, I like my colleagues, and I remember being good at it. I don't feel like it would be a huge sacrifice to give it up to stay home with Pia, but for now, it does feel like the right choice to work. I think she and I will both benefit from my time at the office. Our mornings and afternoons together have gotten sweeter, and she eats and naps like a champ for the babysitter - even better than she does for me. I guess she knows she's not getting any boob from the sitter, so she might as well drink up that bottle and go to sleep.

So for now, I'll keep rolling out of bed, getting myself dressed in actual clothes that came off of hangers, chugging coffee, pumping, and working on work stuff at an office. Because for now, being the best non-profit employee I can be is helping me be the best mommy that I can be. If it were not so, I would not be doing all those things.

Gotta go clean the pump supplies. Tomorrow morning will be here way too soon.