Saturday, December 29, 2012

Please don't let me screw them up.

I overthink nearly every aspect of my life--mostly my mothering. It's overwhelming and scary to have the ability to screw up three wonderful people God has placed in my really incapable hands. People have commented favorably on mine and Chloe's relationship. And that both humbles and amazes me. I can't take credit for our relationship; it is "but for the grace of God." I mean, my whole life is, but Chloe who transitioned from my treasured baby to my very best friend; well, she is just a brilliant shining example of God's grace in my life.

So brilliant that if I could hang up my mothering hat when she went to college, Brad Bell and I could exchange high fives and begin redecorating our empty nest. Alas, there are these other two children whose lives I can still potentially ruin.

I will readily admit, that I think I'm a better girl mom. I like to shop and do makeup and girly stuff. I don't dislike sports, but I will pick Cosmo over Sports Illustrated any day, and unless the Buckeyes are playing, I'm probably reading rather than watching the game. But, I love my son very much. So much so that in this awkward tween phase where he doesn't cuddle as much or share as many secrets or kiss me on the face anymore, sometimes I sneak into his room a few minutes before he has to get up just so I can snuggle with him and kiss his head. I guess that's kind of a creepy stalker move, but I do it anyway. 

It's just that we don't enjoy a lot of the same things. I treasure our shared interests and am always trying to cultivate more. I love watching him play every sport, but if he had to choose someone to hang with, it would be Daddy. And that's okay. Brad is a really good dad, and in many ways, he gets to be the kind of dad to P that he always wanted. Plus, sometimes they are each other's only refuge in this house full of hormones and hairspray.

Then there's Lily. If I'm gonna screw up any of them, it will be her. She is so much like me it is simultaneously amazing and infuriating. I cannot point out one of her flaws without reprimanding myself in the same breath. I mean, I do, but to be fair and honest, I have to put myself in check at the same time because she learned each bad behavior somewhere, and Brad rarely screams and I don't know if I've ever seen him throw a tantrum.

Still, there she is, the baby that I didn't want (we planned for two kids: one boy and one girl) and never expected--the child who pushes me to the edge of sanity on a daily basis. She has taught me more about myself in six short years than I learned in nearly 40 on my own.

So as I ponder 2012's blessings and trials, I think about what each of these children taught me. Chloe taught me unconditional love. You know, the kind of love you don't even realize you are capable of feeling until your whole heart has been pulled from your body and is curled up on your chest. She inspires me not only to be a better mother, but also to be a better person, as I pray to live up to the image she has of me. P taught me joy, and he delights me on a daily basis with his sweet spirit and caring compassionate heart. I pray we raise him into a great man, husband, and father. Lily has taught me to let go of my plans and give in to God's will. She is full of fire and passion, and I pray I can guide her to use her powers for good rather than evil.

I pray every day to be the mom each of them needs. I pray that God helps me guide them in the direction He has planned for their lives. I pray that I don't saddle them with any of my own insecurities and flaws and shortcomings. I pray that I don't screw them up.

Monday, December 17, 2012

It could have been my baby

I’ve carefully avoided news coverage and discussions of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Tragedies of this magnitude are completely debilitating to me. Unfortunately, there’s really no avoiding it. Talking with a friend, she mentioned how sad she was when she looked in her closet and saw her kids gifts piled up, and her daughter’s little velvet Christmas dress. That made me think of how many little velvet Christmas dresses won’t get worn, or worse yet, will get worn in a casket. 

Nearly everyone is affected by this in one way or another, but those of us who have 6-year-olds may feel slightly more empathy and nausea. I imagine my teeny-tiny girl in her classroom with her friends and her teacher, laughing, smiling, learning…I can’t imagine what a bullet from a hunting rifle would do to her itty bitty body. I can’t imagine hearing on the news that a massacre occurred at her school. I can’t imagine trying to pick up my life and go on, and my heart breaks at the sadness, the helplessness that these families must feel.

I read the status updates, people calling for stricter gun legislation. People want to “fix” this. I listened to the message from our superintendent saying that we shouldn’t be afraid to send our kids to school on Monday because they had a plan in place to keep them safe. I’m guessing Sandy Hook had a plan too. But I doubt these events happen in the way schools practice and plan for them to occur. How do you plan for that kind of madness? “Lockdowns’ don’t stop bullets.

And what about the shooter? People are horrified at the thought of him and the heinous acts he’s committed. But really, what happened to him? I read he had some form of autism? He killed his mother. How messed up must your mind be if you kill your mother and then a bunch of babies? Maybe he’s in hell. Maybe he was all ready in hell. 

I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I have puffy eyes, a fatigued brain, and a horrible brain-numbing headache. My children and husband question why our God would let this happen. If it happened to these children in Connecticut, who’s to say it won’t happen to them? I can’t answer them. I try to offer reassurance, but right now, I need more than I have to give.

I don’t know what to pray for anymore. That some sort of good might come from so much heartbreak seems far-fetched. I pray that God heals these broken parents and fractured families. And I pray for the safety of my own children. I don’t ask why pray for understanding because I don’t want to understand why these things keep happening. I just pray that they stop happening.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What's in Your Coffee?

Every once in awhile, something really amazing happens. Last week, that amazing thing happened to me. SheSpeaks sent me two bottles of Torani flavored syrups, asked me to try them and blog about them. A-MA-ZING. Come up with a recipe, they said. I say: Go ahead and send me an advance because I have got a whole book. Umm, @DouglasGarasic, can I get a title?

Seriously, for the past week, I have been living out my dream of being a Starbucks barista in my own kitchen. "You know what would be good in that hot chocolate? Some Torani Salted Caramel Syrup!" "Coffee? Oh, wait, how about some Torani Peppermint Syrup? Mmmm, we'll make it a peppermint latte!" My kids, who are equally easily amused, are enjoying their fabulous coffee house cocoas, but my black coffee husband is missing out.

I have to admit that as much as I wanted to love it, I've been disappointed with every Salted Caramel concoction I've tried. Until now. I cannot get enough of the Torani Salted Caramel Syrup. I mixed it with apple cider and whipped cream rum for a delightful adult concoction. I've added it to coffee and hot chocolate, and if I'm being perfectly honest, yes, I have also licked it off the spoon. It is THAT GOOD.

If peppermint and salted caramel are not for you, don't despair, they have a TON of flavors! Pumpkin spice, caramel, chicken and waffles--I'm serious, raspberry...what are you waiting for? Go! God Speed!

You might have gathered that this post is sponsored by SheSpeaks and Torani, but that in no way minimizes my love of these syrups.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I'm a Mess.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
Again today, I felt our pastor spoke directly to me. It's a gift he has--I realize, after discussing with other people at our church who have also felt singled out. It's kind of creepy. Anyway, today's topic was the condition of our hearts. How God doesn't care if you are carrying a Louis Vuitton bag or a garbage bag, or if you have $100 shoes or holes in your soles. He isn't impressed by the airs people put on. He cares about our hearts. So, if we feed the starving, shelter the homeless, and clothe the poor, but don't do it with love, we might as well stay home and watch tv, because we missed the point. Well, I guess the poor, homeless, and hungry people benefit regardless of our motives, but you get the point, right?

So when your patience is thin, when your kids are arguing for the 65th time, when your husband has forgotten to take the garbage out for the fourth week in a row, how you react then shows the true condition of your heart. Not when everything is rosy. Not your Sunday morning shined up for church look but how you act when no one is looking. Well, I will be the first to admit: I am a mess, and I am ashamed of some of the ugly things that are in my heart.

I came home from church today thinking, "Why do you even try?" Because I do try. I try really hard to follow Jesus, to love God above all else and to love others, but I fully admit that when Lily calls my name for the seventh time in 10 seconds while I'm trying to read an email or send a text or whatever ridiculously important thing I'm doing, my response is not, "Yes, my love, what can I do for you?" Nope, it's more like, "WHAT DO YOU WANT? CAN'T YOU SEE I AM IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING?" Ugly.

I will fully admit, when I get in the car to take Peyton to school tomorrow morning if the garbage cans are not at the end of the driveway, I am going to say ugly things about my husband. Maybe just in my head, maybe under my breath, and maybe fully aloud so that the skunks, oppossums, and whatever else might be wandering around in our yard in the early morning hours can hear. And they will undoubtedly think, "That's ugly talk, Mary Bell." But even if I don't say anything out loud, God will see the ugliness in my heart.

So, before I beat myself up any further, I decided to spend a few minutes mindlessly reading what people were grateful for today on Facebook. Unfortunately, that backfired. WOW! Add bitterness, and resentment to the ugliness in my heart. Good grief, so I took to the safety of my bed to pray, write, and sort things out.

On our message map today, it said, "Examine the condition of my heart." My heart is a wreck. But as I sit in my bed typing this a sweet little curly-headed girl crawls quietly in and snuggles up against me. Her presence pulls me out of the self-depracating depths and back into reality. And as I take a moment to feel her soft little cheek against my arm, I hear the still small voice of my God whisper, "Yes, you are a mess, but I love you anyway." And so I'll get up and try to do better.

Friday, October 19, 2012

I heard the still small voice

In the past few months, I have really been trying to spend more time with God. To achieve this, I get up an hour earlier in order to read several devotions and a couple chapters in the Bible. I started several months ago reading the Old Testament. Now, my Bible group is studying Ephesians which is extremely uplifting after being bogged down in rules and numbers and tribes and sacrifices for months.

Along with my reading, I've been writing out my prayers and free-writing. Free-writing is really just praying, closing my eyes, leaving my hands on the keyboard and letting whatever is in my head come out through my hands. After 15 minutes or so, I read, or try to read, what I've typed. Sometimes it is pure nonsense. Sometimes though there is a little nugget of something meaning full. The other day I must have had a song stuck in my head because I typed, "By His wounds we are healed." If you think I'm crazy, you might want to stop now. It's about to get crazier.

Like most Christians, I long to hear God's voice, I long to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and for the past several months, I have prayed for that. Mostly I prayed to shut off my own voice and thoughts so I could hear Him. Guess what? I heard Him. I know what you're thinking, but I promise He is much different from the other voices in my head. For one: He whispers and says nice things. Unlike my inner critic who says, "Really, fat a$$? A doughnut?" He says in a soft little voice, "You should bring doughnuts home for the kids too." He didn't really said that, but I imagine that it's the kind of thing He would say.

While the inner judge criticizes people: "Puhleeze don't complain to me that you're broke, when your handbag cost more than my car," the Holy Spirit looks kindly at her and whispers, "Maybe she has a wealthy relative who gave her that bag." Unlike my inner paranoid schizophrenic who worries about everything and warns me about sexual predators and thieves and human trafficking and black market sales of human organs--I just realized that this voice sounds a lot like my mom, who now lives with me, hmmm. Anyway, the Holy Spirit advises, "Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything" (Phillipians 4:6).

Sometimes he speaks in Bible verses but not always. Once, I argued with Him. He kind of threw his hands up in despair and shook His ghostly head. I heard his very soft footsteps as He walked away muttering to Himself. Then my inner critic screamed, "Nice, you even managed to chase the HOLY FREAKING SPIRIT AWAY!!" I don't like her AT all. But I did freak out a little bit thinking that I blew it. God gave me the Holy Spirit, I argued with Him, and now He left.

Fortunately, God knows what a mess I am and loves me anyway, so the Holy Spirit came back. He's comes across like one of those people that your inner critics really want to dislike because they're always positive. But you just can't dislike them because they're so nice and positive? You know the people who wake up happy. Me? I don't even want to make eye contact with anyone until I've finished my second cup of coffee.

The Holy Spirit always has something nice to say. Something positive to suggest. He urges me to do kind things and to encourage others. A friend of mine wrote on Facebook today that the person in line in front of her at Dunkin' Donuts bought her coffee. Isn't that just the nicest thing? Then she in turn bought coffee for the person behind her. It started a chain reaction of kindness. I think the Holy Spirit was probably behind that. Seems like something He would do.

I read the other day that you should end your blogs with a call to action, so here we go: Try to shut off your mind, silence all the other voices in your head--I know I'm not the only one, and see if you can hear what God has to say to you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fabulous at 40...or F$%k you, 40

I haven't really thought a whole lot about turning 40. I have a few more months to overthink the heck out of it anyway. And, while I haven't really stressed much about it, lately, it keeps getting thrown in my face. I've been reading and following a lot more bloggers who share a common link: They are all right about my age: 39. These lovely ladies are smart, witty, uproariously funny, sarcastic, and dealing with many of the same issues as I am. Not only are they the type of woman I aspire to be, but they are also the types of women I'd like to sit around with and drink wine.

So add to that the fact that one of my best friends is celebrating a milestone birthday in a few weeks. We celebrated our last milestone birthday shortly after we became friends. Now, we've been friends for more than 10 years, and are facing yet another one. Seems like 30 and 50 were sexier than 40 and 60, but time marches on. Back when I was younger and sexier, I set out some rules for myself about turning 40. Some hold true, a few seem silly in retrospect, and I'm sure I'll come up with dozens of dumber ones in the next few months.
  1. Have cute short hair cut after turning 40. Well, that is not going to happen. Like an idiot, I cut my hair off when I turned 30 thinking I would look smart, successful, blah blah blah. Who says you can't be or at least look like you are those things with long hair? Anyway, looking at pictures, I realize, I don't look good with short hair. However, since I often take out stress on my hair, I am counting on someone to remind me of this. It won't work, but I'll ask anyway. The last time I cut my hair off, my family literally formed a human chain in front of the door and begged me not to do it. I broke through--I was a champion Red Rover player--chopped off my hair, and cried for the next several days.
  2. No more babies after 40. Since I've all ready got one more than we planned, Brad and I have both taken permanent birth control precautions, and I've got my uterus on every prayer list in the country, God willing, this one should hold.
  3. Be one of those smoking hot, fabulous at 40 women. Well, in order to achieve that one, I will need to stop eating birthday cake for breakfast. And really, I don't care to be someone that men ogle, I really just don't want people to ask my smoking hot husband if I'm his mom. Because I will drop someone if that happens. And I don't want to be on the receiving end of those, "What's HE doing with HER looks?"
  4. Quit smoking. This is on every goal list I've ever made. I'd hoped never to start again after the last few quits, but here I am. That was kind of about number 3 too, unfortunately. Quitting smoking was really more about wrinkles than health. I know that is so superficial and vain, but I'm being honest. I was more afraid of looking old than actually getting a disease that could kill me. But quitting smoking was also about God. If you're addicted to something, that addiction becomes your god. So, my decision to quit had a lot to do with obedience. I didn't really feel I could truly submit myself to God's Will when I was always asking Him to wait until I finished my cigarette.
That's not really a lot of rules, but a few of the ones that have been knocking around in my head. I feel better having gotten them out of my head and into cyberspace. Plus, I've made room for more neurotic musings in my mind.

My girlfriend turns 60 in two weeks. She is fabulous. Even more fabulous now than she was at 50. So, I hope that at the very least I can follow her example and be a little more fabulous this decade than I was last. Since my early 30's were kind of a trainwreck of losing jobs and finding myself, I should be good. But who wants to settle for good?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I am just going to preface this by saying I am in no way looking for sympathy. I love my life, my family, and feel very blessed even though I feel slightly overwhelmed today. In the past month, we moved Chloe to Pittsburgh and sent Lily to kindergarten. After a two-week reprieve, Peyton broke his arm, kicking off an ongoing ordeal of xrays and surgery and more xrays and doctor's appointments. Thankfully, P is good, his arm is healing, and his spirits are high.

Now, in between all our normal activities of work, school, dance, gymnastics, football--Peyton still wants to go to practices and games--and doctor's appointments in Akron, we are moving my mom into our house. This requires packing up my family of origin's home and locking the door on that chapter of life. Thankfully my sister has been vigilantly helping my mom pack because I have been little or no help. To thank her, my mom is giving her a lot of crap and referring to her as the "slave driver."

Normal right, everyone's life is busy and hectic to a degree, but I feel like lately there has been a larger than normal chaos cloud centered over ours. I attribute part of that to my quitting smoking. Again. After writing about how I treated myself to the Birchbox, I thought it was pretty bad to enjoy a reward for something I hadn't done. So I stopped smoking. Like last time, I prayed that God would give me strength to make it through the cravings, that He'd help me not to kill anyone or gain 50 pounds. And He has. Sorta.

But, I should have been prepared. I have been smoking off and mostly on for about 25 years, so I've quit lots of times. Every time, Satan freaking unloads on me. It's as if there's a little group of evil minions whose sole job is to make sure I never successfully quit. "Come on, she quit again! What are we gonna do this time? Her dad's dead...Chloe went to college...Lily's in school...Her mom's all ready moving in...Let's break Peyton!" Really, you bastards?

Additionally, every time I quit, I get sick. Really sick. This time, it was the worst respiratory nonsense I've had since, well, the last time I quit smoking two years ago. I'll admit I am a dreamer, an idealist, and often an idiot. I wholeheartedly believe that each time I quit it will be the last time. I truly trust that I won't gain weight, I will feel like a million dollars, look 10 years younger, and be able to roll around in my bed throwing all the money I save into the air. I don't have unrealistic expectations. Not at all.

I'm Mary. I'm a nicotine addict. Today is my 9th day clean. I have not killed anyone, but I have gained 5 pounds. Yesterday, I opened my Birchbox completely guilt free.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pampered Prince

My husband is a great guy. Top notch. He works hard, puts up with all kinds of crazy, doesn’t yell or even get worked up very much. He mows the lawn occasionally, takes out the garbage most of the time—he really fell short in August, but we’re not counting beans—and sometimes even wipes off the counters when I’m with one of our children at one of their events.

I shouldn’t complain about him. But I do. Occasionally. This is one of those occasions.

I know my in-laws, and I’ve known him since he was a teenager, so I know he was not deprived as a child. However, he has this really annoying habit of using, eating, drinking, slathering on, (insert your favorite action verb here) things that I have specifically bought for myself or the children.

Let’s just dive into specifics. I have very thick, wavy hair—read that as FRIZZY. So once in a great while I splurge on some ridiculously expensive conditioner or $25.00/ounce Moroccan oil that claims to miraculously remove frizz. It rarely works but my hair feels super special. My husband has roughly 37 hairs. So, when I see him with more than the recommended dime-sized portion of said hair products in his paws, I want to shave those 37 hairs off while he sleeps. We’ve talked about it. I’m sure he still uses them “once in awhile.” Seriously? I am sure the guys at work comment how smooth and shiny his 37 hairs are once in awhile .

If you get the impression that I’m a pampered princess with ridiculously expensive hair crap, I’m soooo not. I only buy fancy hair stuff about once a year--usually in August when my frizz and patience reach capacity. And though I stand firmly behind my non-princess status, I did recently spoil myself by signing up for the Birchbox. It was my gift for quitting smoking, even though I haven’t exactly quit. Yet. Stop judging me. If you haven’t heard of it, for $10/ month, you get a fabulous little box shipped to you each month. It’s filled with delightful samples of products you’d probably never buy for yourself unless you really are a pampered princess, which we just discussed I am not.

Anyway, in my Birchbox this month was a packet of frizzy hair cream (it's like they know me!), decadent body butter, a perfume sample, and a razor. A girly razor. Well, I was just thrilled because I have never owned a fancy schmancy razor and almost couldn’t wait to treat my legs to what I was certain would be an unparalleled shaving experience. I pranced upstairs giddy with anticipation only to walk into the bathroom and find my husband shaving with my new razor! I didn’t cut his throat with it. I did throw a tantrum that would embarrass most two-year-olds. And he said, “Jeez, I didn’t know it was such a big deal; I won’t use your precious razor,” as if I was being unreasonable.

 This brings me to the food. My two youngest children are Junk Food Junkies. Yes, I capitalized that on purpose. Their addiction requires Capital Letters. So, when someone eats more than their fair share of brownies, ice cream sandwiches, pudding cups or other corn-syrup laden processed disasters, wars of epic proportion break out. “LILY ATE THE LAST ICE CREAM SANDWICH!” Lily, who is nearly always guilty of anything and everything except lying, retorts, “I DID NOT!” Guess who did? Sigh...

Most recently, I got some samples of skin-revitalizing tea in the mail. I promptly brewed them up in mason jars and eagerly anticipated how youthful I would look with my fresh, invigorated skin. So you can imagine my surprise when I hear, “BLECK! What is this???” Have you guessed? Of course you have. There he is spitting my cherry-pomegranate take-all-your-wrinkles-away miracle tea into the sink.

This has happened before. Actually, he drinks anything and everything in the refrigerator. The Gatorade in the sports bottles that the kids LOVE. The last Coke. The last Sprite. The last beer. He polishes them off. Oh, unless it’s in a two-liter bottle. Or a giant jug, like grape juice comes in. Then, he’ll leave about a sip and a half in the bottom of the bottle that will stay in the fridge for weeks. Peyton came up with a plan, and we may just give it a whirl. “Mom, we should pee in bottle, put it in the fridge and see if he drinks it.” We haven’t tried it yet. We might. Be wary, my dear. Be very wary.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


This past year, I've spent a lot of time whining and complaining about my oldest child going to college, my youngest child going to kindergarten, and my middle child and only son not letting me snuggle him in public anymore. Admittedly, I've been a downer. I write another blog--No More Bellyaching--that is aptly named for the lack of whining and complaining. But, I get paid to write that one. This one is mainly to empty garbage out of my cluttered mind so I can write the other one.

And with that marvelous introduction, we're off.

Last weekend, my best friend arrived from Florida. We have clandestine meetings a couple times a year, when she comes into town, to visit her family. She doesn't tell her grandparents--who live very close and expect her entire visit to be devoted to them--when she's arriving and then hides out with me for a few days. We spend these days doing mostly nothing, laughing, and spoiling my children. She has no children and refers to herself as my kids' "favorite fake aunt," which gives her license to buy them all sorts of nonsense they don't need but really want. They share a lot of conspiratorial whispers and giggles and make me really squirmy and uncomfortable at the amount of money being spent on glitter, video games, and coffee. Respectively. Remember my kids are 6, 12, and 18.

This weekend was a lot of that. But thrown in with it, we had some really deep conversations. She is the very first friend I made when I went back to public school after a 5-year homeschooling stint. She was and is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. Although we were only friends for three years before her parents moved her to the Sunshine state, we packed a lot into those years. Enough that we are still best friends 26 years later.

We've had fights and gaps in our friendship. It's hard to stay in touch when you can't hang out together all the time like most best friends do. Once we didn't talk for nearly ten years. Although as we discussed this the other day, it was a lot of, "No...10 years? Couldn't have been!" But it really was. In those ten years, we both went through some dramatic life changes. I had another baby. She lost the only baby she'd ever carry.

Sometimes we get caught up in the missed time. Feeling guilty that we weren't there for the other one during difficult times. It's easy to slide down that slippery slope, but we catch ourselves. We catch each other. That's what we have always done and what we will always do. The past is gone; we'll never get it back. But we will also never take our friendship for granted again.

Last year for my birthday she sent me a card with two old ladies lying on the beach all wrinkled fabulosity in their bikinis. It said: Another year older, another year closer to the inevitable: Moving to Florida. Someday. This morning, when I was counting my blessings and cleaning pink glitter off every surface in my bathroom, I counted that girl twice.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Slipping Through My Fingers

Everything makes me cry these days: pictures of my friend's new baby, my friends' kids' senior pictures, pictures of the homecoming dresses we won't be shopping for, back-to-school shopping, the list of things Chloe needs to bring next week to her dorm room. Everything. I cried all the way around Target last week picking out sheets and towels and laundry soap. It was a little bit embarrassing. I hope it gets better next week, but this week: I'm a mess.

It's funny how people who don't even really know me are hesitant to ask me how I'm doing because even they know I'm gonna cry. Seriously. I signed Lily up for dance, and the teacher, who had been Chloe's teacher as well, said very sympathetically, " ya doing with the big day looming?" I've nearly perfected this really pathetic smiling-amidst-a-choked-back-sob response of, "I can't really talk about it."

Brad says I need to feel my feelings. I feel them, all right. He's trying to keep me sane. The little ones are trying in their own way too, by misbehaving and fighting to the point that perhaps I'll be so distracted with them and their nonsense that I will stop crying about their sister leaving. That's not really working. Lately, my life is a dysfunctional cycle of crying, screaming, apologizing, asking forgiveness, crying, screaming, working, praying, and sleeping.

Even things that should distract me make me cry, like going to Peyton's scrimmage last night, which reminded me that Chloe won't be on the sidelines cheering this year. On a side note, watching your child cheer is a different and less nervewracking dynamic than watching your child play football. If someone could hear my thoughts at a football game, it would sound something like: "Please protect him, Lord. Please don't let him get hurt. Why is he guarding that big guy? Is that guy gonna tackle him? Oh no, please, God, no! Lord, wrap Your arms around him. Run faster, buddy! Get up. Get UP. LORD, PLEASE LET HIM GET UP!!!! Thank you."

It's fantastic. Brad said one time that he'd like to spend an hour in my head. No. No, you wouldn't. It's a bizarre and frightening place.

I feel a lot like one of my favorite Abba songs from Mamma Mia:

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well-known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while
The feeling that I'm losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I'm glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl

Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Do I really see what's in her mind
Each time I think I'm close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time

Sleep in our eyes, her and me at the breakfast table
Barely awake, I let precious time go by
Then when she's gone there's that odd melancholy feeling
And a sense of guilt I can't deny
What happened to the wonderful adventures
The places I had planned for us to go
Well, some of that we did but most we didn't
And why I just don't know

Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time
Slipping through my fingers...

And now, I'm crying, and Lily and Peyton are fighting again, and it must be time for a cocktail.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pretty is as pretty does

Sometimes kindness is just selfishness in a pretty dress. My dad used to say, "Pretty is as pretty does," which besides being a Peachism (my father's words of wisdom, usually borrowed from a tv show or movie, such as one of his favorites, "Take care of you," from Pretty Woman) didn't make much sense to me when I was young. Now, I see examples of that quite a bit. Beautiful people doing ugly things. Good people doing bad things. Friends and family gossiping about each other. Christians taking the Bible out of context to spread hate.

A friend of mine told me recently that the Catholic church had done an investigation into nuns and found many of them unfit. Apparently, they were putting too much energy into such trivial tasks as caring for the poor and spreading love and peace rather than following their calling by the Catholic church--to stand up against abortion and gay marriage. The pastor at our non-Catholic church advises that we should strive to be remembered for what we love, not for what we hate.

Despite my efforts to do good, to serve, to follow Jesus, in the last two weeks, two people defriended me. Not just in the facebook sense, but in a real, "It's been nice knowing you," sense. These were people I know and love and who know me better than most everyone in my life. Granted, I've tried very hard over the past year to put my faith in God and not be unhinged by people who don't like me, but that makes a person wonder, "What am I doing wrong?"

As it is, I really don't have relationships with my siblings other than the occasional phone call or text. I love them, but I don't really know them that well. Sometimes I wonder if it's because our shared history is so pain-filled that it's easier to remain distant. Whatever the reason, we're not close. I find out things about them on facebook, just like the people I went to high school with and haven't seen for twenty years.

So all of this brings me to selfishness and a book I'm reading that has really opened my eyes. How even the kindest gestures can be motivated by selfishness, if we perform them with the hope or expectation of reward or recognition. Many times, I have done something for someone and felt hurt later when it seemed my efforts went unnoticed or unappreciated. Selfish. Many times, I've helped a stranger and then told somebody. Selfish. Many times I've felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and left out. Selfish. Basically any time our heart is motivated by anything other than bringing glory to God through our actions, we are acting out of selfishness. And it's really easy to tell exactly where your heart is.

When I let a person pull out in front of me and they don't wave a thank you, I think: Rude. When I give my time or energy to a person, and only to find out when I need them, they have no time for me, I think: Self-absorbed. When I clean the house, and the kids promptly make a mess, I think: Ungrateful. What does all of this say? That I surround myself with selfish people? No. It says that all too often my motivation is myself not God. I am not serving others to bring glory to God, I'm serving to fulfill my own needs and desires.

People have said that about my blog. They've called me egotistical and said I post it so that I can revel in the compliments. If that were the case, today, as I'm analyzing my heart's motivation, I would delete it and never share it again. But I can honestly say, I share it because I hope that maybe someone, somewhere will read it and feel understood, feel hope, feel the desire to get closer to God, and pass that on to someone else.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hump of Tears

A couple times a year, I deal with bouts of sadness. Not the type of debilitating depression that requires pharmaceuticals or hospitalization, but a darkness that creeps over my life dissipating in a few weeks when my face is red and puffy, and I am on the verge of seeking pharmaceutical intervention. It's a lot like watching a storm come in. I see the clouds and hear the thunder, and despite my willing it to change directions, it keeps coming. I'm powerless to do anything but cry, pray, and wait.

It happens in February, when my dad and my brother, Chris, died. And in August, when my brother, Brian, died, and this year, when my daughter moves away. Usually it creeps up rather slowly. I feel off for a day or so, and then I look at the calendar or the sky and realize it's coming. This year, I was prepared for it. It started on Monday. I tried to shake it. I read more in the Bible. I got a Dunkin' Donuts coffee, which nearly always lightens my mood. I got some uplifting books from the library. But the rain clouds kept coming.

Yesterday, my girlfriend asked me how I was doing with Chloe's departure just three weeks away, and I literally couldn't speak around the lump in my throat. I finally choked out some sort of answer, hoping that she didn't hear the sob I tried to suppress. I'm sure she did, but she was kind enough not to press me any further and just to offer some mom-to-mom advice. She did this just a few years ago with her own daughter. She knows. I am grateful for her. Because Brad really doesn't want to talk about it, and I know that is his way of avoiding his own storm.

I recently read a memoir by a psychologist about the death of her psychiatrist husband. It was beautiful and sad and haunting and academic all at the same time. In one part, she talks about tears and how the chemical makeup of the tears we cry when we are sad is different than other tears. Evidently, researchers have found these tears contain chemicals of stress that accumulate in our bodies during difficult times. So crying is actually good for us, because it's a biological way to rid ourselves of these bad chemicals. Oh, God, You are something else.

That made me think of my mom and the little hump on her back. She is shrinking from osteoporosis, and often osteoporosis sufferers get that little hump. When my brothers and my dad died, though, my mom hardly cried. Chloe said she thought all the sadness my mom hadn't expressed was in that hump. Yesterday, after reading about crying, we decided that hump may be full of tears. That makes me simultaneously sad and curious. If she started crying and letting go of all the sadness stored in her, would the hump would go away?

I'm in no danger of getting a hump full of tears. I cry all the time. In fact, my fear is often that I won't be able to stop crying. The beginning of August will come and go, and I'll relive the horror of my brother's death, and then that sadness will subside. The third week of August will come, and we will take our big grown up girl to Pittsburgh and leave her. I pray that I won't fall apart. Then the last week of August will come, and we will put our baby girl on the bus to Kindergarten, and another beautiful bittersweet journey will begin.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Meant to Be

As our seventeenth wedding anniversary approaches, I've been thinking a lot about marriage. Thinking about my views on relationships then and now. Thinking about people being "meant to be."

I have always been dreamy and idealistic, and twenty years ago, I probably believed more in that stuff. I'd heard the story hundreds of times of my dad, upon first seeing my mom, telling my uncle that she was the girl he was going to marry. That was my fairy tale, and I dreamed of one day experiencing that.

And I did. Upon meeting Brad, intoxicated by his beautiful lips--and Bud Light--I said that I would marry him someday. I didn't know all those years ago how that statement would impact my life.

Meant to be for us turned into jealousy and anger and unexpected pregnancies. It became sleepless nights and low-paying jobs and years of college. It brought tears and heartbreak and disappointment and disillusionment.

It brought bad decisions, terrible choices, and circumstances beyond our control.

Meant to be. Bleck.

There have been more than a few opportunities to throw in the towel. More than a few times that we could have cut our losses, divided our lives, and pursued different dreams. There have been times when it might have been easier to walk away than to stay and weather the storms that seemed perpetually positioned above our fairy tale.

So when people say we are meant to be, I laugh, because regardless of what was meant to be, we made one decision after another to continue to be. We followed one path when there didn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We loved each other even when we didn't feel like looking at each other. We alternately blamed each other, resented each other, wallowed in self-pity and wondered why we kept getting dealt one crappy hand after another. And we kept playing those crappy hands together.

I wanted the meant to be of fairy tales. The happily ever after that doesn't involve loss or death or hardships. That meant to be doesn't exist.

But if it is true that God meant us to be together, then I'm very grateful that He has kept us from screwing things up too badly. I'm grateful that He gave us just enough happiness to make it through the heartbreak. I'm grateful He gave us just enough love to temper the anger and jealousy and resentment. I'm grateful He gave us the fortitude to keep going when it would have been easier to quit. I'm grateful He gave me one more minute, one more day, and one more year to learn to appreciate, understand, and cherish the love of my life. Because whether or not we were meant to be, I mean to be his for the rest of my life.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dreamy, Flighty, and Stupid

I was reading my posts from a year ago, trying to gauge the differences. Have I made any progress? It's good to have such an accurate measuring tool as your own thoughts. Last year, I was 20 pounds over my goal weight, taking anti-depressants, drinking too much, and waking up too many mornings feeling guilty for things that I often didn't remember. I had a great circle of friends who also drank too much. My husband drank too much. But we were a lot fun. We had a great time.

Today, I am 6 pounds over my goal weight. I still haven't accepted my body though I am a little easier on it. I still love to eat and sometimes eat for the wrong reasons. I drink less and wake up every morning guiltless (well, other than the usual should have, would have, could have stuff) and clear-headed. I don't make alcohol-induced bad choices; although, I am still living with the bad choice of picking up a cigarette and thereby becoming a smoker again. I've learned that I can just drink one beer and enjoy it. I have learned that I am fun even without alcohol, and my husband doesn't give me disapproving looks. I still have great friends, though some have moved on because I guess they don't find me much fun anymore. I miss them but not enough to go back to that life.

I no longer take anti-depressants. In fact, I only took them for a few months before deciding they weren't right for me. I think I needed them for awhile, even if it was just to realize that I didn't need them. My dad's death took a toll on me that has taken a long time to process. Yesterday was his birthday, and I didn't cry or eat 5000 calories or stay in bed all day. I missed him but felt him near me all day. I think that is a big change. I still miss my dad, but he seems closer. And I think that is because he is with God, and God has drawn me nearer to both of them.

There is no reasonable explanation for the changes in my life other than God's grace. I always considered myself to be a Christian, but for most of my life, I certainly wasn't living that way. Since we began regularly attending church, getting involved in The Movement, and actively trying to follow Jesus, my life has changed dramatically. In fact, when I look at our life today, it's daunting how much work God has done.

I've had conversations with people who don't really believe in God and find me flighty or dreamy or even stupid to give Him credit for my life. They feel sorry for me or judge me or talk about me behind my back. In the past, I would have tried to convince them or justify myself. I would have agonized about how to make them like me. Now, I don't care what people think about me. I pray for them to have the same sort of heart awakening that I've had. This is the bottom line: I gave my life to Christ, and He is doing a noticeably better job with it than I did.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Everything to Everyone

Nearly every Sunday, I leave church feeling invigorated, excited, full of hope and optimism, and ready to share that with the world. Not today. Today I left feeling confused and questioning so many things about myself and God's will for me. In today's message, our pastor said many of us try to be "everything to everyone."

While he didn't say, "Mary Bell, you try to be everything to everyone," I felt eyes boring into me and turned to see my family glancing my way, wondering if I got it. Chloe gave me a little head tilt, and I whispered, "That's me, huh?" Smiling sympathetically--she has unwittingly been the subject of a sermon or two--she nodded.

He further illustrated his point by having a young man stand in front of our congregation while he tossed him water bottles. His arms full of water bottles symbolizing family obligations, work, volunteering, friendships, and more, he was unable to catch the big playground ball symbolizing God's will when it came to him. Oh my...that is me. My arms are always full of water bottles.

"Yes, I can watch your kids." "Yes, I will volunteer for that." "Yes, I can take you there." "Yes, I will proofread that for you." "Yes, I will help you with that." "Yes, I have a minute to listen to you. I have all the minutes you need." "Yes, I will be on that committee." "Yes, I will write that." "Yes, I will go with you." "Yes, I will sit with you." "Yes, I will call that person." Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

On the way home, I said to Brad, "I think I am that person with all the water bottles." He laughed out loud and said, "You don't say!" I was a little surprised by his immediate confirmation of my suspicions. He didn't even try to make me feel better. Brad Bell is not an enabler.

I thought that was God's will for me. I thought by saying yes to nearly everything anyone asked of me, I was serving God. I thought that by being so many people's "person," I was doing what God wanted me to do. Not that I asked. I do always ask Him to put me where He wants me to be. But now I wonder if my arms are so full of water bottles that I am missing the big playground ball. I wonder if God puts me where He wants me to be, but I'm so distracted doing I miss why I'm really there.

Once, our pastor said that as long as we are changing, we will always be outside of our comfort zone. Am I? Sure I take little steps outside of it, but am I living outside of my comfort zone? Am I changing? Or am I just filling my life up with good things while missing out on something great?

Today, I am outside of my comfort zone. Today, I am feeling very uncomfortable. Today, I don't have an answer to any of these questions, and my stomach and mind are in turmoil. Thanks to a good client with a great product, I can quiet my stomach for awhile. My mind, however, will continue to churn.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Father's Day sucks.

After your dad dies, Father's Day sucks. Sucks more for Brad, really, because I mope around and cry and forget to celebrate what a great guy and dad he is because I'm caught up in the fact that my dad is dead. That's not fair. Fortunately, Brad doesn't get mad at me or even mention that I'm acting like a selfish two-year-old.

More than once, in conversations about relationships, women have asked me, "Did you 'marry your dad?'" Lots of people do, I guess, and I have always hoped that my girls "marry their dad." I did not, though. I married the opposite of my dad. He doesn't yell or even get mad. He has never hit me or the kids or even gotten mad enough to make me think that would be a possibility. He is as even and calm as my dad was unpredictable. So, no, I didn't marry my dad.

The funny thing is after I married him, I tried to change him into my dad. I would get mad at him for being indifferent, for not being passionate about things, for not getting excited all the time. Took me nearly 20 years to realize that along with that passion came a dark side. The dark side I was running from when I ran smack into Brad's protective arms.

My dad got excited about everything. That lives on in Beth, in her precious childlike glee over little things. His compassion lives on in Jonny, and his sweet gentle nature. His dark side lives on in me--and Rich. His impatience lives on in me--and Rich. His inability to accept less than the best from his children lives on in me--and Dave, a little bit. His vast vulgur vocabulary lives on in me--and Rich.

When I was one of the few children left at home, my dad would ask me to help him with various tasks. My favorite was sealing the roof. The two of us on the roof, usually in 90 degree heat, painting on some thick black goop. He would scream and yell and swear at me, and I would ultimately tire of it, scream back at him, climb down from the roof and go inside. Once, I asked my mom, "Why does he want me to go up there with him when all he does is yell at me?" She shrugged her shoulders and said, "He needs somebody to yell at."

When I got a little older, I started yelling back. Often, I got smacked in the mouth. It didn't stop me. Rich used to say, "Why don't you ever just shut up??" But I wouldn't. Once, in a heated argument when I was about 16, I told him, "You can hit me all you want, but you're damn well gonna hear what I have to say!" I did. Get hit, that is. But I'm certain that he heard me.

We used to play golf together, and he would scream and yell at me for everything I did wrong. Finally, I told him that I wasn't going to golf with him anymore if he didn't stop yelling at me. He continued to comment, but then he would say, "I'm just telling you that because I do the same thing. So I figure maybe if I tell you, I'll listen." Something about that cryptic statement made sense to me, and from then on, I imagined that all of his tirades were directed inward.

My dad had a hard life. His dad and two of his sons died at their own hands. I was always afraid he would commit suicide. My dad died in my mom's arms, which made his passing somewhat easier to handle. It's hard to reconcile the man who was so violent and abusive with the man who spent hours on the couch, while my tiny Chloe doctored him. It's hard to reconcile the man who criticized my every golf swing with the man who would wrap my little Peyton up in a hug and say, "Papa sure is proud of you, Slugger." I think in some ways my dad tried to make up for his shortcomings with me by doting on my children. I don't know. Maybe they were just more lovable.

I loved my dad in spite of his shortcomings. I love my husband for so many reasons, but one of them is for being all the things my dad wasn't. On Father's Day, while I moped around and cried, he built a deck with our son, telling him all the while what a great job he was doing and how much of a help he was. I didn't tell him how much I adored him while I watched this. I couldn't really say anything without crying that day. I guess someday Father's Day won't be such a downer, but in the meantime, I'm glad Brad puts up with my raining all over his day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Suit Yourself.

One of my mom's go-to phrases is, "Suit yourself." Often, she modifies that to, "Shoot yourself," which is more accurate, because when she uses that phrase she's basically saying, "You're an idiot for [insert stupid decision here.]" I cringe every time she says it. I think if one of your children has, in fact, shot himself, you need to strike that phrase from your vocabulary, but that's really not what this is about.

I cringe a lot because I rarely make the decisions my mom would or thinks I should. My decisions are nearly always met with eye-rolling, shoulder shrugging, sighing, and, yep, "Shoot yourself." I am not the same mother as my mom. I'm not passing judgement on either of us; I'm just saying. In 18 years as a mother, I've tried to make up for all the areas in which my own childhood felt unfulfilled. If I were discussing this on a talk show, this is the point where Dr. Phil would say, "How's that workin' for you?"

Last week, I laughed out loud when I got a notification for a free Kindle book: Not Like My Mother: Becoming a Sane Parent After Growing Up In a Crazy Family. While it might have been a better idea to read this before I became a parent, what the heck, I still have lots of mistakes to make. Before reading it, I envisioned myself feeling totally validated, nodding in agreement and amen-ing a lot. Unfortunately, what I realized not too far in was that I was trying so hard to meet my own childhood needs that perhaps I wasn't meeting my children's needs. Oh crap.

Just the other day, Chloe and I had a conversation, and while the language was different--I never said shoot or suit yourself--Chloe said, "Mom, I feel as if you don't agree with what I'm doing." She was right; I didn't agree. But after closer examination, I realized that I didn't agree with the choice in question for myself, not Chloe. I always think of empathy as one of my finer character traits, but I realized at this point: I was being pathologically empathic. I wasn't just putting myself in Chloe's shoes. I was trying to put her shoes on and walk her path.

Often, my kids have shown me that they need different things than I needed as a child. Of course, that's logical since they didn't have the same childhood, but obviously I didn't really get it. Peyton told me in a very grown-up fashion, "GET OUT," when I walked into the dugout after he was injured on a play. Heartbroken, I sulked back to my chair. If I had gotten injured as a child, I would have wanted one of my parents to comfort me, which rarely happened. When we got hurt, we weren't picked up and loved on, we were usually told which facet of our stupidity had led to the injury. Later, Peyton told me, in a really grown up fashion, "Mom, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, but you can't come in the dugout because that embarrasses me." I got it, Buddy.

Reading this book has opened my eyes in ways I never expected. I realized just how often I'm subconsciously making choices based on what I would have wanted or needed as a child rather than paying attention to what three of the most important people in my life need. At any given drama in my life, one of my best friends will show up asking, "What do you need?" And she really means it. She has no agenda, and I'm certain that no matter what I told her I needed, she'd do her best to accommodate me. I rarely ask my kids what they need. I assume I know. And way too often, I'm wrong.

I'm never sure where to go or what to do after these revelations. My kneejerk reaction would be to feel incredibly guilty for all the ways I've fallen short as a mother over the years, but I've at least learned that is extremely non-productive. Move forward, make changes, maybe have another baby so I can try to get it right from the start?Just kidding, Brad Bell. Juuuuuuuust kidding.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Help. Me.

The past month has flown by in a blur of dances, t-ball and baseball games, graduation, and now yard work and graduation party preparations. I feel like I did before we got married. I wake up every morning wondering what tasks I can accomplish and usually go to bed at night feeling as if I haven't accomplished enough. I had to start keeping a notebook next to my bed for fear of forgetting one of the eight million things that goes through my mind before I go to sleep. My purse is full of little scraps of paper on which I've written vitally important reminders.

In the meantime, I haven't made the picture boards, I haven't rented tables, I haven't finalized a menu, I haven't gotten Chloe a dress. I did mail invitations. Most of them anyway. Part of me wonders if I'm subconsciously avoiding it all so that I don't have to deal with the reality that my baby girl is moving away in two months and 14 days. I guess it isn't subconscious if I'm acknowledging it, but I don't feel as if I'm consciously dragging my feet.

All I have been consistently doing in preparation is praying. Childish, helpless prayers of desperation. "Please God, don't let me have a nervous breakdown." "Please protect my girl." "Please let grass grow in the back yard." "Please help me find homes for these kittens." "Please don't let me have a nervous breakdown." That seems to be a key element in the equation, so I usually pray for that repeatedly. I don't think Brad has been praying as much, but if he is, it's probably something like, "Please, God, don't let Mary have a nervous breakdown."

And I realized that my family history taught me very well to project these emotions onto other less vital things. For example, my mom barely cried when my dad and my brothers died, but when my cat died 6 years ago, she sobbed. Evidently, it's much healthier to focus on a broken dryer than a breaking heart. It's more productive to worry about the fate of eight little fluff balls than one little girl. Yes, I know she's an adult, but when I look at her, I don't see an adult, I see my tiny little girl. It's far less painful to nag said girl about writing thank you notes, than to start packing up her belongings so she can leave for college in two months and 14 days.

I guess I'm pretty aware of my inability to deal with these milestones, but I'm not sure what to do about it. In a group therapy class years ago, the professor/therapist asked me, "What do you think will happen if you let yourself focus on that emotion?" I wasn't too sure, but I'm pretty sure now if I focus on Chloe leaving for college that I'm going to curl up into a fetal position and cry until all that's left of me is an empty shell and a soaking wet pillow. Brad will have to institutionalize me, and I will be of useless to all of my children. Then the little ones will resent Chloe, whose moving away, they will see as the catalyst for my breakdown. The overthinking is endless. I hear that same professor/therapist asking, "Does that seem realistic?" Well, no, but lots of other things in my life happened that weren't very realistic either.

I know that God is bigger than all of this silly human stuff. And time has taught me that even though these things may be very minor in the grand scheme of life, because they're important to me, they're important to Him. So today, I just prayed Anne Lamott style, "Help me, Help me, Help me, Lord." And even if I don't accomplish one other thing, I guess I accomplished one very important thing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

For my mama, on Mother's Day

My mom is 10,000 pounds of strength, opinions, and ferocity packed into a tiny little 90-pound body. She is the most intimidating person I've ever met, even though a strong wind would flatten her. She buried both her parents when she was seven months pregnant with me and still managed to carry on and take care of her seven children. She has subsequently buried two sons and her husband and gets up every morning with a smile on her face, bakes cookies for her grandchildren and the little children of the drug dealers next door, who call to her, "Hi, Ms. Swan!" when she walks out her back door. She is the strongest person I've ever met.

When I was a little girl, I was often embarrased by her unabashed expression of her beliefs. She took me to pro-life marches when I was barely big enough to walk. Though I was pretty freaked out at the time and more than a little traumatized by the graphic depictions of aborted fetuses on other marchers' signs, I now am proud that she stood up for her beliefs.

Also, when I was a little girl, after Vatican II revamped the church she loved so dearly, I hid my face in shame as we arrived at church every week. Why? Because my mother insisted on dressing all in black and sporting a sign on her back that said, "God save the church." When they offered the peace sign, and most other Catholics shook hands and said, "Peace be with you," she offered, "God save the church." I think I had an ulcer by the time I was five. At the time, I didn't understand what a radical was, but now I'm proud of my radical little mom.

She always told me, "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil," and she practiced that theory religiously. She got herself elected to the school board and went to battle against textbooks that she felt were unfit for children. She won. And I spent my public school years with people whispering, "That's Catherine Swan's daughter." It even followed me into college, when one of my professors happened to be a journalist from the local newspaper my mom detested and had done battle repeatedly. Great, I thought. I got an A, but he never made eye contact with me the whole semester.

Once, after getting hauled into the principal's office for drunk and disorderly conduct at a choir concert, my mom went to battle on my behalf with the high school administration. She had done so on many occasions with my brothers to the point that teachers really didn't mess with the Swan kids. Mostly, we were good kids, and on the occasions that we weren't, the hell that rained down on us at home was far worse than any the school could dish out. I never had the heart to tell her that I was 100% guilty on the occasion she took on the administration. She would kill me. Even today, though I tower over her and outweigh her significantly, she still scares the crap out of me.

My mom is not a warm, fuzzy, compassionate person. I've only seen her cry a handful of times. And out of that handful, once was over my sister's goat and once was over our orange cat, Dante. Seems as if animal deaths bring out her soft side though she often can't distinguish a dog from a horse. My kids found that hilarious over the years: "How does Nanny not know what a goat is?" But speaking of my kids, they brought out a side of her that made me love her on a whole new dimension. The way she loves them, encourages them, gets right on their level and plays silly games with them. The way she brags about them to anyone who will listen. I never had grandparents, but she, in my opinion, is exactly what a grandma should be.

When Peyton went through a Spiderman phase at 3, he would only wear his Spiderman costume and we could only refer to him as Spiderman--or Peter Parker. Despite my threats and protests, she would let him wear his Spiderman costume everywhere. "Don't tell Mommy; she will yell at me," she'd warn him. But of course as soon as I picked him up he'd mockingly tell me, "Nanny let me wear my Spiderman suit to the library." She'd roll her eyes, and say, "Pay-Pay...that was supposed to be a secret." I wasn't ever really mad. If anything, I admonished myself for being so insecure.

So as my little mama gets littler (osteoporosis sucks) and older, I think of her with kinder and kinder regard. Losing my brothers and my dad showed me that once they're gone, they're gone: Don't leave anything unsaid. So, I try, in little ways here and there to tell her all the things I've never said. It's not easy. And I hope she sticks around for awhile because I've got a lot left to say. I said some of it in her mother's day card. You know what she said, "You almost made me cry." Almost :)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books, Books and The Book

One of the problems with reading multiple books simultaneously is that when something strikes me, I've forgotten where I read it by the time I actually have a minute (or a pen, paper, something) to process it. I think it was Love Dare, but I apologize, Francis Chan, it could have been you. Anyway, here's what struck me: If you want to know the condition of your heart, think about how you feel when good things or bad things happen to other people. Be perfectly honest with yourself. Do you truly rejoice with them? Do you feel kind of happy for them but wonder, "How come nothing like that ever happens to me?" Do you silently feel vindication through another's misfortune: Karma is a b*$%h? Wow, that hit me right square in my own flawed heart.

Over the past month and with increasing fervor before our baptism, I have prayed for God to bring my own overlooked flaws to light, to help me to deal with them, and to fill me with His Holy Spirit to guide my life. I am learning now that this falls into the be-careful-what-you-pray-for category. Because what He has shown me is ugly. He showed me that like my other nemesis weight loss (you know how hours of working out is ruined by a chocolate chip cookie, or three if we're being totally honest here) following Him can be a one-step-forward-two-step-back proposition.

I can go days without swearing, saying negative things, losing my temper, and so forth. Days might be a stretch. Hours, perhaps, would be more accurate. Then, a girl at Chloe's school tweets something nasty about her, or Lily goes on a whining spree or asks me the same question for the seventh time in an hour, or somebody says something mean to Peyton, or Brad forgets AGAIN to read the daily page in Love Dare, which takes less than one minute. Well, the flood gates open. My church family would surely disown me if they got a glimpse of this crazy person. The venom, the anger, the meanness that comes out of me is frightening.'d been overlooking all of that? Okay, God, duly noted.

So now that all this nastiness is brought to light, what am I supposed to do, I ask God? Aren't you going to help me? I spent some time on Amazon. I googled "raving lunatic mad woman trying to follow jesus." Funny, paste that in the google search bar and click I'm feeling lucky. Guess what comes up? The Bible. I made that up; don't really try it. Anyway, I've read lots of passages in the Bible, but I've never actually set out to read the whole thing.

A few weeks ago, our pastor challenged us to read seven minutes a day for seven days. I did that and usually even read more. Not enough. So, I decided to read it in order starting with the Old Testament. Well, the Great Sabateur wasn't going for that. Day after day, I literally either fall asleep or sit here like Eve questioning everything I read. Okay, that's not literal, I don't even know if Eve read, but that devil creeps into my head raising my hackles: Why is okay for a "godly" man to pay a prostitute for sex? It's in there. Noah? Passed out drunk? The Bible can get dicey.

Additionally, I am not one for uncovering hidden meanings and interpretation and so forth. I have never liked poetry--except my childhood friend's, which is beautiful, rhyming, understandable poetry. It's all the metaphors and allusion and so forth. I usually say what I mean and prefer others do the same. I don't know if that's a flaw, but it's definitely an area for potential growth, so here I am jumping in with both feet.

A few weeks ago, my brother in law prophetically said to me, "I know you have a lot of questions, and I want you to know that you can ask me." John Ramsey, I hope you're ready for me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Global Thoughts

I have never really been a "gym" person. I'd always hear people talking about the gym and think to myself that it was a waste of money when you could exercise at home. A little over a year ago, under intense coercion from my husband and eldest child, I unwillingly became a gym person. And, though it is humbles me to admit after years of silent opposition: I love the gym.

The first few weeks were a bit awkward. I felt sort of like the new kid at school--awkward and uncomfortable. But after the initial settling in, I was excited about to go. Embarrassing my friend by asking how machines worked and what parts of the body they targeted, and strolling from machine to machine, trying each one, and enthusiastically voicing my approval or disapproval.  Letting people show me and help me. Apparently you are just supposed to know? Carie, my friend in life and workout partner, remarked, amused, if a little embarrassed, by my behavior, "You are good times."

Now, the gym is my refuge--an escape from the non-stop of life. And I have to admit, one of my favorite activities is people-watching from the safety of a treadmill, headphones safely in place. More than once I've created a whole life story for the person in front of me on the elliptical. Just last week there was a guy with a sweat-drenched QR code on the back of his shirt. It almost killed me not to scan it, nosy as I am, but I was just too unsure of the result. Of course, scanning a QR code while on the treadmill would be completely impossible for a klutz such as myself. Regardless, before I knew it, I'd completed my miles just pondering the possibilities.

By the way, I do not like the ellipticals. They seem like torture devices, and I am not nearly coordinated enough to operate them. Twice I tried. Twice I almost didn't walk away. Something about those handles, I can't quite put my finger on it. Course, I have nearly killed myself on the treadmill too, but it doesn't frighten me nearly as much. Once, while trying to change songs mid-run, I dropped my phone, and it shot off the back, striking an unsuspecting man walking by. That was a fun. My phone, by the way, was playing a praise and worship song, my preferred workout music, so the guy gave me a somewhat bewildered look as he handed it back to me. I just smiled and offered a red-faced apology.

For awhile, Brad and I were going to the gym together in the morning. I don't embarrass him, and he smiles at my quirks. Plus, he knows what all the machines do and how to work them, so it was like having my own personal trainer. It doesn't hurt that he's really easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, Lily decided that she preferred to spend the last few hours of her slumber in my bed, so that was the end of our early morning gym dates.

Lately, I've not been making it there as much as I'd like. The other day at the grocery store, I saw one of the older gentlemen Brad and I used to chat with in the morning. He wrapped me up in a big hug and asked me where I'd been. So cute! The funny relationships you develop at the gym. I've had more than one person think they knew me from somewhere, which has sparked all sorts of interesting conversations, along with headshaking and my husband remarking, "Babe...he was hitting on you." But I don't think that. And, I have changed my tune about the gym entirely.

I used to think the gym was kind of a "club," where the superfit scoffed at the rest of us. Now, I realize that we're all working toward a common goal. Some people have just been doing it longer and more intensely. Instead of judging those of us who are less fit, I like to think the superfit are encouraging us. Like Brad (who is one of the superfit) pushes me, "Come on; you can do it! ONE MORE." I usually respond to Brad's encouragement with dirty looks and profanity, but I'm working on that. And even if people aren't encouraging me, even if they are really thinking, "She needs to be locked up," it doesn't matter because in my mind they're laughing with me not at me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Open your heart

I write a lot about movies. Books and movies impact me significantly. Peyton has wanted to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so last night we watched it. It's about a little boy whose dad is killed in the 9-11 attacks, and he embarks on a journey to find some connection to his dad. It's beautiful and tragic and inspiring and heartbreaking. I'm pretty sure I haven't cried that hard since my own dad died. And I thought about all the quests I undertake: a closer relationship with God, a better understanding of life, self-improvement in all forms. I believe that I try so hard so that I can be better for everyone around me: a better wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend, employee and more.

Usually what I find is that the answers I so desperately seek all ready reside within me, waiting for my mind to quiet down so that in the stillness, they might whisper their wisdom into my heart. My dear friend, who also overthinks her way through life, found a sign exemplifying this sentiment. It read simply:


I keep that quote taped to my kitchen cupboard to remind myself of all the time I spend searching, when God has given me all the tools I need. My job is to let go of thinking that I can do everything--anything, really--on my own, and give over my will to Him. A few weeks ago, a guest pastor at our church said during his sermon that we should pray to follow God and ask Him to take care of all the rest. So I've been trying to do that. He has shown me in HUGE ways that He will do exactly that, if I just move out of the way.

When Chloe was awarded a full scholarship, I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I did nothing but cry and thank God for days. One of my best friends asked, "What were you praying for?" I did pray, but I couldn't ask for something as materialistic as a scholarship, so I simply prayed for God's will to be done. To receive such a resounding answer just blew me away. Things like that don't happen to us. We struggle and get by and scrimp and save, but for our child to get to go to college for free?

Now, Chloe has worked very hard, gotten good grades, excelled in every area of her life, and is an excellent candidate for a scholarship like this. She will appreciate and not squander this gift. She will make Chatham University proud of what a great choice they made when they chose her. That said, I fully believe that she got this scholarship not only because of her amazing abilities, but also because it is God's will for her.

During this Holy Week, I have been overwhelmed many times with emotion at all of His blessings, but especially the greatest gift God gave us: His son. I have spent many hours praying that I might be a good follower. I have prayed that He will teach me to use whatever gifts He has placed in me for His good. But mostly, I have just prayed to get out of His way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What is your testimony?

Earlier this week, I got a raise. We (my friend who is also my boss and I) got a new client. Great work and a lot of it. Although, our family mostly lives within our means, the additional income was going to afford us many opportunities. To pay off debt. To come close to our EFC--for those of you who haven't sent a child to college, that is the ridiculously exhorbitant amount of money the government figures you have stashed under your mattress to contribute to your child's college expenses. But with this additional income, oh the things we would be able to do.

But, I considered this raise a gift from God, so before I started spending it in my mind, I started praying. God was giving us this additional income, so He must have a plan for it. Whatever He put on my heart, that is what I would do with it. Well, after cutting down that tree, and paying off some bills, and a few other things that were top of mind.

Unfortunately, before I got an answer from God or cut down a tree or even got a check, the client chose a different direction, and the raise vanished. I don't consider myself a particularly materialistic or superficial person, but I'm not gonna lie: I was devastated. I cried. And cried. And questioned and reasoned and grieved this money I never had. I prayed that God would take away the disappointment and anger I felt, and I listened to my husband as he reassured me that we were fine without the money, and we would continue to be fine. Grieving money. Crazy, right?

An hour after receiving this news, in that frame of mind, I trotted off to my growth group, anxious to be around people from my church. Positive, encouraging, good Christian people. I wanted to soak up their faith as I sulked in my own disappointment. As it turned out, most were missing, but I was grateful for the small group environment. It was calming, reassuring, and nourishing. Until one member asked me, "What is your testimony, Mary?" I don't know. I wasn't sure how to answer. I have listened to many people talk about the day, the hour, the moment they were saved. I have heard amazing stories of Jesus' entering people's hearts and completely transforming them. I don't have a testimony.

Does that make me not a Christian? I don't really know. I've prayed many prayers. I've read lots of books. I've given my heart and my life to Jesus, and I continue to do so on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis. But I don't have a testimony. I don't have a date or a time. I have never really bought that you could just pray a prayer and ensure yourself eternal life anymore than I bought that you could go to confession on Sunday, treat people poorly the other six days, and spend eternity basking in God's splendor. I don't judge people who believe that; I just cannot wrap my brain around it. I believe that you have to try hard to follow Jesus as well as accepting the gift He gave us. That's what I like so much about our church; I feel people there are really trying to follow Jesus. I feel like a better person after spending time with them. And I want to be a better person to spend time with them.

Plus one of the pastors, my brother in law, is my role model as a Christian. He is one of the best people I know. Literally. Kind, caring, generous, loving, fun, non-judgemental. He knows more about the Bible than anyone I know, but he doesn't Bible-thump people. He's a goof ball and a cut-up, but a good person in every way. So, I have to ask him about this whole testimony thing. I'm feeling really inadequate about not having one. And I'm feeling pretty bad about the fact that money knocked me off my feet the way it did.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dream a Little Dream

It has been a year, more than a year now, since my dad died. The week before the anniversary of his death, I started praying for a dream. To see him, to talk to him, to hug him. A friend of mine posted on facebook that she had dreamt about her dad, who recently passed. I was simutaneously thrilled for her and envious. I wanted a dream.

After each of my brothers and my dear friend died, within a short time, I dreamed about them. The dreams were so real and so clear. They were comforting visits. They answered questions. They told me they were okay and at peace. They hugged me. So of course, I wanted a dream about my dad. I wanted to hug him again. To sit on his lap and tell him about life in the year since he left. He knows, I'm sure. But I wanted to tell him myself.

The anniversary of his death came and went with no dream. Unstoppable tears, binge-eating, curling into the fetal position and shutting out the world, but no dreams. Yesterday, we watched the movie Hugo. Well, Brad and Peyton watched the movie, and Lily and I fell asleep. If you haven't watched the movie, you really should. It's breathtakingly beautiful, both aesthetically and thematically. The whole movie looks like an Instagram photo.

Anyway, today, I finished watching it--Lily fell asleep again--and I realized something. While I was waiting for a dream, I have dismissed many other signs from my dad. Right after he died, whenever we found a coin, I would tell the kids that they were from Papa. I, however, shrugged it off. Whenever we saw a rainbow, I would tell Lily that Papa sent it to us. Again, I shrugged it off. Once at Christmas time, I missed him so much, that I drove down the road sobbing and begging for him to send me some kind of sign that everything would be okay. I turned on the radio to hear Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas Canon--my absolute favorite Christmas song. At the time, I felt relieved and comforted, but that was short-lived. It wasn't a dream. The tomatoes lasted me for a good while, but summer ended, and they died too.

Today, on my way to church, I drove past the largest hawk I have ever seen. That is significant because all my life, my dad told me that when he saw a hawk, he believed it was his own dad saying hello from beyond. I never met his dad, so I didn't have much emotional attachment to hawks, only that I always noticed them, and pointed them out to my dad. Today, when I drove past that hawk, I almost scoffed thinking, "Great. Hello, Grandpa Swan. Where the hell's your son?" But I looked at him, and it seemed as if he turned his head and watched us pass. Then, on the way back, on the other side of the road, the same giant hawk stared at us as we passed.

Could it be? Could that be my dad? He admired his own father so much, it would make sense that he would take the same form, if he could. And I'm sure he knows that I would remember his telling me about the hawks. So, it wasn't a dream. It wasn't the sign I was looking for, but perhaps it was a sign. And I guess for today, that can be enough.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The sweetest boy in the world...

This morning, when I dropped Peyton off at school, he leaped out of the car with a, "See ya!" As the door shut, I sadly mused, "He must be getting too big to kiss me goodbye." Chloe, always ready to cheer me up, grumbled, "Well, yeah, he's like 20!" Chloe has issues with the whole mother/son relationship after having dated someone who had an awkwardly close relationship with his mom. Lily, actually trying to cheer me up, suggested, "Maybe he just forgot, Mama?"

He didn't forget. It's been coming for awhile. First, he stopped climbing into bed with us every night. At first, I was a little relieved, since it was getting crowded in there with Brad, me, occasionally Lily, and often P. But Lily quickly decided that bed-sharing wasn't for her, and then I missed my little nocturnal visitor, who would quietly climb in and snuggle up in the curve my body created. The curve that was just the right size for him.

Then, there were the head kisses. Each time I went to kiss him, instead of kissing me back, he would lean his head in toward me, beckoning me to kiss the top of his head. For awhile, I simply cupped his cheeks and tipped his head up to kiss his face. But then, I started to think maybe that was an invasion of his personal space. I was kissing his face because I wanted to when he really just wanted me to kiss his head. So, begrudgingly, I have started kissing the top of his head.

He has always been my little boy. He would go shopping with me, we shared an enjoyment of trashy reality shows, which we would snuggle up and watch together. Anytime I asked him to go somewhere, he always wanted to go. But lately that has transitioned to, "No thanks; I'm just gonna stay home." Lately, he has more in common with his dad. And I absolutely love that they have a great relationship. I love that they bond over sports on tv, on the field, in the back yard, and so forth. I love that he would now rather go shoot stuff in the back yard with his dad than go shopping with me. But I miss my little boy.

Chloe chastises me, "Ew. Don't be that mom." But she doesn't understand. Chloe, though loved and cherished beyond anything she could fathom, came into our life by surprise. Lily, also came by surprise. Peyton, however, was planned, dreamed about, prayed for, and hoped for. Obviously, I don't love him more than my girls. But I think while you feel the same amount of love for each of your children, they each hold special parts of your heart. From the moment I got pregnant with him, he fulfilled some need deep in me. From the moment he was born, his sweet face, his blond curls, his precious dimple...he was just, as my mom always says, "the sweetest boy in the world."

When he was a toddler, he used to rub my ear to fall asleep. He would say, "Mama, take your eawwings out." He always wanted me to sleep in his bed, once advising me, "You fit good in my bed!" Even as he's gotten bigger, he always snuggles in the chair with me in the evenings. He always wants to wait up for me, if I happen to be out past his bedtime. He always looks at me when he makes a good play in whatever sport he's playing, so that I can smile at him, give him a thumbs up, and watch his face break into that sweet dimpled smile. He's such a good boy. He's going to make some lucky girl a great husband some day.

I knew he was gonna grow up. I guess I just wasn't prepared for him to grow up today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Honey badger and others who don't give a...

You know those people who don't discipline their kids? The ones who think everything their kids do is cute? The ones who smile when their child walks up to your table at a restaurant and throws your plate of food on the floor simultaneously grinning mischievously at you? The ones who watch that, giggle, and say things like, "Oh, he's a rascal." You know them? The ones who make people who don't have children say, "I'm never having kids." The ones who make people who have children who behave most of the time kiss those children and say, "Thank God for you." You know them? They make me crazy. Their kids Make. Me. Crazy.

There was a shift about 30 years ago in how people raised children. A shift that caused parents to believe that boosting a child's self-esteem was more important than teaching them to be kind, caring, honest, compassionate individuals, who did what was right not just what they wanted to do. I don't throw stones out of my glass house. I do, however, wonder what the world is gonna look like when these self-important, entitled jerks are leading the country. Good grief.

My kids are going to school with them and playing on playgrounds and sports teams with them right now. There are about five of them to every one child whose parents make him or her behave. What in the world?? My kids say to me all the time, "That's not fair." No, life isn't "fair." "Why do I have to sit in the dugout when everyone else runs around?" Because the rule is that you sit in the dugout. "How come I can't throw rocks when all the other kids are?" Because it's wrong, and someone could get hurt. "Sally's parents let her do that?" What did my dad used to say? Oh, yeah, "Well, then go live with Sally's parents. They're idiots." I try not to say that, but ashamedly admit I may have busted it out a time or two in desperation.

A few years ago at Walmart, Lily threw a screaming fit because I wouldn't buy her a piece of candy. I advised her at the beginning of the trip that if she walked alongside the cart and held my hand she could have said candy. If she didn't, she would have to sit in the cart and there would be no candy. Before we even made it down the first aisle, she had broken this agreement and into the cart she went. "Can I have my candy?" No. Screams, tears, full-blown fit. The whole way around Walmart. It's a pretty big store. People stared at us. People judged me. People judged Lily. People mumbled under their breath about us. I did not get everything on my list, because I felt guilty subjecting all the other shoppers to this lesson. When we got to the car, she calmed down, and I explained to her again why she didn't get the candy. She got it. She has never thrown a fit in a store again. And, she learned that bad behavior is not rewarded. That was so worth that screaming trip around Walmart. Well, for us. I still feel bad about the other shoppers.

Lily is a handful. She is the first of my three children that drove me to devour parenting books. She is strong-willed and strong-minded and stubborn and mischievous. I have to be on my toes every minute with her. She can have something broken into five pieces before my brain registers that she has picked it up and triggers the words, "Don't touch that." She is also kind and compassionate and honest. She cares about people and exhibits more empathy than most grown people I know. She is not a tattle-tale and doesn't want to get other people in trouble. Except Peyton. She likes to get him in trouble. She says please and thank you, often without even being reminded. She knows what's right and what's wrong, and she knows there are consequences for wrongdoing.

She has been so much work, but after five years of trying many of the wrong techniques, I found the right one. It wasn't sending her to her room. We tried that for awhile. Too long. She spent lots of time in her room. That didn't work. What worked? Love. Lots and lots and lots of love. That doesn't mean I let her get away with things or give into her. I don't. But I make a concentrated effort to show her every day just how much I love her. I sit down and talk to her and explain things to her and hug her and kiss her and spend real quality time with her. I try not to yell. I rarely succeed. But the extra love has made a world of difference in her behavior. Oh, and I stopped caring what other people think about her and started embracing the wonderful little soul that she is.

There are a handful of people, who have always loved her. They saw past her often bad behavior to her little golden heart. I can count them on one hand, and I absolutely love them. Because, Lily isn't one of those "suck-up kids." She doesn't bat her eyelashes at strangers, perform tricks on demand (come on, we all know those people: "Susie, say your ABC's for Aunt so and so,") or crawl up into any available lap. If people try to "quiz" her, she knows what's up, and she will intentionally give them the wrong answer. I had to explain to her that when the teachers asked her questions, it was to evaluate her progress in school, and she needed to give them the right answer. "Ohhhh," she said.

She doesn't need to prove herself to anyone. She is who she is. She, much like the honey badger, doesn't give a shit. I absolutely love that about her. However, many people don't know how to deal with that. People like the suck-up kids. People are blindly charmed by the Eddie Haskells of life. My kids don't need people in their lives who don't see their worth, and neither do I. I spent probably three of my nearly four decades trying to make people like me and convince people I am a good person. Now, I've got these great, confident kids who are good people, who do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not to make people like them. For years I have asked God for guidance, advice, and clarity. Funny that the best teachers He sent me came right from my very own body. God is so cool.