July has been a big birthday month in our house.
I turned xx. In the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. And discovered the ideal spot to finish writing my book. (See that cabin back there? Donald Miller would approve.)
This little darling turned 3. At the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. Where even the sharks seemed to grin their birthday greeting.
And the This Odd House blog turned 1. With little fanfare. Or even acknowledgement. Other than this pink, fluffy hat.
All that to say, this month we’ve had so much to celebrate! And so many reasons to eat cake.
This month also marks the end of my sabbatical year. In just a few short weeks, I’ll revise my syllabi, dust off my lesson plans, and saunter back into the classroom. Returning to the same job I have had and loved for sixteen years.
But I will be a little bit different. This year has marked me in many ways.
It seems fitting, then—at this birthday time and before the month escapes me—to reflect for a few minutes. To look back on this year of focused writing and reading and birthing a blog. And consider just what has been learned.
I had no idea what to expect when I hit “publish” for the first time last July. No idea if anyone would read or resonate. No idea if I would like blogging. Or not. No idea where the writing would take me or what exactly I needed to say.
But I believed God had called me to it. That He had done so much healing in my own heart, performed so many miracles in our lives, that I had to share. I had to shout over the WiFi waves and give Him the glory that is due. I believed that blogging for me was an act of obedience. And worship. I believed it could be an instrument of further growth in my own life. And hopefully in the lives of a few others as well.
And so it has been a year of finding my blogging feet. Of baby steps. And missteps. And more than a few leaps into the deep end where the water is way over my head. If you’re reading this, you are— and possibly have long been—a part of the journey. So thank you. Every word of encouragement, every story you’ve shared in response, every “I know what you mean” has been a much needed nudge to keep going.
That being said, here are a few of the lessons I have learned.
• I have learned that a blog is a perfect place to hone your writing Voice. Writers talk often about this illusive matter of voice. What it is. What it isn’t. How to find your own. As a teacher, every semester I encourage my students to find theirs. But when they ask me what I mean or how to do it—step-by-step—I am less certain what to say. One definition I like is this: “Your voice is how you choose to break the rules.” It’s the shape of your writing. The structure. The poetry. The rhythm. The metaphor. It’s the images you paint on the page. The words you choose. The way you line them up. It’s the length of your sentences. The punctuation you put in. Or don’t. It’s all of these things and more. It’s what makes your writing “you.” And since there is no editor peering over your shoulder, a blog is a fun place to play. So I have learned to do just that. I have learned that I like fragments. A lot. And I use them freely. I have learned that alliteration flows from me like a fountain. I don’t know why. But—believe it or not—I try to tone that down. I have learned the power of placing two stories side-by-side. Or three. Or four. Because they talk to each other. And the richest meaning often comes from their conversations.
• I have learned to live more like a Writer. To put something on paper almost every single day. I have learned to see. To pay better attention. To my own life. My own heart. To the world around me—big and small. And to what God seems to be doing therein. I have been reminded that good writing requires good thinking. And good thinking requires time. And I have learned to create the space I need to ponder. I have learned to sit and stare. Or to simply walk around the block. I have learned to better invite Peter into the process. Without pretense or defense. I have learned to read more widely. To find the funny. To take more notes. I have learned to hide in the corner at the coffee shop. To turn off the WiFi until I meet my daily goal. And I have learned that I am more fully who God created me to be when I am regularly writing. I have learned that I need this like I need air.
• I have learned just how important Platform is to publishers. While I have been encouraged by the interest of editors in my book proposal and writing, so far each one has ultimately passed. Because the numbers just aren’t there yet, they say. But I have learned that I can’t get caught up in them. I can’t control them. And contrary to what it seems at times, they aren’t actually the point. I have learned that—if I really want to grow my platform—I ought to be blogging at least three times each week. And I have learned that—at this point in my life—three posts a week is impossible. I have learned that I am a slow writer. Very slow. And I have learned to accept my own limitations. I have learned that it’s okay for me right now to focus on quality, not quantity. I have learned the importance of setting a sustainable expectation. I have learned to not make blogging promises that I can’t keep. And I have learned to trust the publishing outcome to the only one who always knows what He’s doing.
• I have learned the value of being Vulnerable. I have learned to shunt the shame. And the pride. And the fear. I have learned to take risks. Repeatedly. And write what I believe is real. I have learned that readers generally don’t ridicule you when you reveal your faults and doubts. Rather, they respond with relief. And their own revelation. I have learned that only honesty begets honesty. That perhaps the best way to encourage other people to examine their lives in the light of truth is to say, “Here, I’ll go first.”
• I have learned to create Community. To be intentional about satisfying that cardinal craving. Writing is such a solitary endeavor. So many hours spent staring at a screen, rather than a face. So many days spent running around in my own head. I have learned how much I need to find friends. And I have learned that they can come in many forms. I have learned to look for them on my own blog and on theirs. At conferences. On social media. In the Kindergarten pick-up line. Or in the sanctuary at church. I have learned to reach out. To comment. To connect. To be the first to say, “We should talk.” I have even learned to pass chapters of my precious manuscript to a friend and beg, “Please, be brutal.” One of my favorite things that God has done this year is to draw together a Writers’ Group. One-by-one He brought them across my path. At this point almost twenty like-minded women. Writers and speakers. Who now come to my living room one Saturday morning every month. And they sharpen one another. And they bless me beyond measure.
• Finally, I have learned to better trust the writing Process. Or more accurately, the Giver of words. I have seen just how unhelpful it is to fret over self-imposed deadlines or a loss of inspiration or writing time “wasted” washing windows. So rather than succumbing to worry, I am more likely—instead—to escape to my strange sanctuary. The furnace room in our basement. Where the treadmill lives. And where God meets me in a special way. I have learned that writing is, first and foremost, listening. So rather than beating my head against a blank screen, I am more likely to open my heart. And my ears. And His Word. I have learned to wait patiently for Him to speak.
I pray to you, O LORD, my rock. Do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you are silent, I might as well give up and die.
You’ve probably heard the song by the same title.
Maybe you saw the moving performance on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.
Or the subsequent rendition on NBC’s The Voice.
Since it soared in the charts last November, I can’t sit for any amount of time in my favorite coffee shop without hearing the clear piano chords. The piercing voice of A Great Big World’s Ian Axel. The sweet harmony of Christina Aguilera. And those simple lyrics. That keep tugging at hearts. And calling up a universal desire.
For a second chance.
For something—anything—to be spoken.
Three days before my eleventh birthday, it was oppressively hot in Minneapolis and in our little post-war tract house. Our two electric fans only shifted the steamy air from one side of the room to the other. So to escape the extended heat wave, my parents decided that we should take a little vacation up north. Our destination was the historic and picturesque Naniboujou Lodge, which stands right on the shore of Lake Superior, just fifteen minutes shy of the Canadian border.
Our plan was to travel on Sunday. But as we shoved shorts and sweatshirts into suitcases that Saturday afternoon and anticipated another sleepless, sweaty night, my mom made an uncharacteristically spontaneous suggestion. “Let’s leave now.”
She called the Holiday Inn in Duluth—the halfway point—and booked a room. My little brother and I helped her load the car. Filled the backseat with books and toys. Then climbed in—damp legs sticking to vinyl. And we headed north.
Dad rode shotgun, per normal, holding the atlas on his lap and the little slip of paper on which Mom had written our hotel reservation number. To pass the time, Dad decided that I should commit this number to memory.
Dad loved numbers. And he knew a lot of them by heart. He could tell you the population of Minneapolis in 1955 and the batting averages of most of the Minnesota Twins.
So as we drove those three hours to Duluth, all of the car windows down, enjoying the temperature drop, Dad called out that reservation number. Then asked me to shout it back to him. Over and over and over again. Hooting with appreciation each time I got it right.
I didn’t love numbers. At least, not as much as he did. So I rolled my eyes. Emitted exaggerated sighs. Feigned frustration at the whole pointless exercise.
But it stuck with me. In my poor, dim memory, something about this event shimmers.
I even still remember the number in question. 245O7X7XOO6.
Maybe it was his attention. Or his intention. The opportunity to be the object of his focus for a period of time. Maybe it was his pleasure. His laughter. The fact that it became a long-standing, inside joke. Maybe it was his persistence. His passion for the goal. His very unique version of leadership and power. His desire to impart knowledge. To shape in some small way my heart and mind. Maybe it was all of this. And more. Which—taken together—evoked in me the rare feeling of being fathered.
Father hunger is a fierce but fragile thing.
While we instinctively look to our mothers for nurture and affection and a calming touch, dads are designed to provide something different. Equally important. And irreplaceable.
From our fathers, we seek strength and stability. We look for excitement and exploration and adventure. We want our fathers to teach us how to take initiative, to compete, to stand firm.
Of course, many of us have survived without a dad. Whether he was taken by death or divorce or—as in my case—disability. By abuse or addiction or even adoption. By an all-consuming career or his own callousness. We have survived. With varying degrees of burn.
I know I am not qualified to address the more searing of these. (Though my dad was distant, he was always present and always kind.) But I think I can safely say this. Our survival doesn’t negate our need. Though the wound may be sutured, it is not necessarily healed. And no matter the source or the severity, father loss must be faced.
In her book Longing for Dad, Beth M. Erickson, Ph.D., describes “father hunger” as a “gaping hole in the soul” (19). Then she lists several ways that we might seek to fill it up. Alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, sexual promiscuity, violence, serial relationships, and overwork. Monique Robinson describes another set of common remedies. “Many fatherless children grow into pleasers,” she says, “who fail to set boundaries for fear of abandonment and rejection. Others become perfectionists; they keep everything in order externally to shield their internal, emotional chaos. Many women overcompensate for their lack of self-esteem and become overachievers to prove to others (and themselves) that they are somebody” (Longing for Daddy 1).
But all of us, Robinson says, wrestle hard with the sovereignty of God. We are reluctant to rest in His control because either we hold too tightly to the reins ourselves or we have become accustomed to running wild.
Father hunger takes different forms throughout our lifetime. As young children, we simply don’t know any differently. Our experience of “father” is what “father” is. We may be aware of wanting a connection with a man we call “dad.” And we may feel a measure of pain when that desire goes unmet. But young children instinctively figure out how to cope. Self-preservation at its best. We build defenses. And elaborate strategies. To either meet those needs or bury them.
As we get older, though, we may come to understand more of what we missed. How deep the hole goes. Old, unmet needs may surface under stress. Our coping methods may begin to crack. And if the loss is not addressed, if we do not walk through the grief, if we do not tear down the defense, if we do not seek true healing for the hurt, our father hunger can manifest itself in other ways. It can masquerade as fear or control or worry. Depression or anger or distrust. To name a few.
At various times, my father hunger looked like each of those.
And for all my life, I coped in exactly the ways that Robinson describes. The pleaser. The perfectionist. The overachiever. These strategies “worked” for me. Oh, sometime in my 20s I had an inkling about what was going on. I learned to identify it. Acknowledge it. Talk about it a bit. And then set it aside. Send it back underground.
Mom and Dad moved into This Old McHenry House in August of 2005. And I kept bumping into my father loss. On a daily basis. When every time I turned around. My dad was there. But really he wasn’t.
In the fall of 2007 my dad fell next to his bed. And broke his hip. The surgeons said that—because of his cerebral palsy—he wasn’t a good candidate for a replacement. They did a Girdlestone instead. Removed the ball of the hip and sewed him up. They said, “Since he isn’t walking anyhow, I don’t think it will change the quality of his life.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
It drastically changed his life. And ours.
Since Dad could no longer transfer himself, since home healthcare was not practical or affordable, since I couldn’t safely lift him on my own—after weeks of research—we finally resigned ourselves to the reality that Dad was never going to return home. The most agonizing decision I have thus far had to make.
Almost every day we would visit him at the nursing home. On the weekends, Peter and I would bring Mom. And we would all spend the afternoon on the patio, chasing the sun. During the week, though, either Peter or I visited each night after dinner. Often, Dad was already in bed. Watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. And I would sit in the pink vinyl wingback chair. By his side. He might tell me that he got his toe nails cut. Or that he saw the Feldco commercial. He liked the jingle. Or that a fellow resident Dawn tried to feed him again and got yelled at by the staff. He might try to solve the Wheel of Fortune puzzle or answer a Jeopardy question. He might ask me—with wide and terrified eyes—when he could come home. And I might have to explain again that it didn’t look as if he would.
But for most of the time, we would sit in silence. While inside I would scream. At him. At myself. “Say something!”
Something honest. Something significant. Something to bind your soul to mine.
Too, during that time—for months on end—I would wake up most every night at 3:15 a.m. My mind awhirl with worry. About Mom. About Dad. About infertility and adoption. About the fact that we just might lose TOMH in the face of nursing home bills. And I would slip down to the sofa lest I wake Peter. And I would toss and turn and pray. Begging God for answers. For connection. For a second chance. For something—anything—to be spoken. But hearing no word that I could recognize as such.
And what had for so long been a fierce anger at God for His cruelty slowly morphed into a sad resignation in the face of His seeming silence.
If father loss has been a part of your journey, I would love to hear how you have processed it.
And how it may have affected your spiritual walk.
Here or in a private message.
Thank you for reading.
This summer Peter is spending much of his time playing full-time Dad.
Since he’s not teaching and I have lots of writing to do, some days it’s all him on the home front. He makes breakfast. Reads his Bible in front of the kids while they eat. Then reads theirs to them. He takes them to the forest preserve for bike rides and runs. Carts them to soccer camp and swim. Holds picnic lunches on the patio. Helps Daryl practice piano and writing while Amelia naps. And in the evening he lights candles in the fireplace and reads Narnia. With voices.
He is that kind of Dad.
Ok, so sometimes the breakfast dishes are still in the sink at day’s end. Sometimes the kids eat beans on toast (it’s a British thing) for multiple meals each day. Sometimes he forgets to blow out the candles and makes me crazy. And don’t even get me started on the state of the back seat of the car.
No. He’s not a perfect parent. But he is an awfully good Dad.
I had a Dad of a different sort.
Not bad, just different. Not the hands-on Dad that Peter is. He was limited, my Dad. Through no fault of his own. By disability. When I was Daryl and Amelia’s age, I couldn’t be left alone in his care. He couldn’t fix me breakfast. Change my diaper. Take me for a bike ride. Drive me to piano lessons. Or even pick me up and spin me around.
That wasn’t the worst of it though. Even more difficult was the fact that he never said much at all. His thick speech made him difficult to understand. And I think he gave up trying long before I came along. So he remained—to a great extent—locked inside of himself. Mostly silent. Distant. Just out of reach.
But he was present. He got up extra early every morning because it took him a while to bathe and dress. And he went to work. Paid every bill on time. Kept us all fed and clothed. Even sent us to a private school. He came to my softball games and my piano recitals and beamed with pride at every one. And two or three or even four times each week, he was the first one to the car when it was time to go to church.
My dad was embarrassingly encouraging, amusingly positive at times, and generous to a fault.
For everything he gave me, I am grateful.
And for what he couldn’t give, I’ve had to grieve.
I’ve also come to understand that he probably grieved those things too.
I don’t know what kind of Dad you had. What he gave you. And what he didn’t.
But I do know this…he wasn’t a perfect parent.
Even if your dad made you breakfast and did the dishes. Even if he took you to church and to the forest preserve to ride your bike. Even if he attended your softball games and your spelling bees and your piano recitals with equal measures of enthusiasm and pride. Even if he roughhoused and cuddled and looked you in the eye while you poured out your heart and then shared his heart with you. Even if he taught you everything he could about art and algebra, about right and wrong, about friendship and family. Even if he was both fearless and faithful. Even if. He was human.
And he could only meet your longing for security…your need to be adored…your desire for knowledge and connection and purpose in part. Because all of those desires are really, ultimately, desires for God. That only He can fully fill.
Oh, He often enlists the help of others, of course. He’s restored little parts of me under the care of family and friends and colleagues and books and pastors and Peter. When my boss and another colleague spent sacrificial hours building the play set that I had concocted in my head. When a pastor friend handed me a copy of Changes That Heal and said, “You should read this.” When an elderly neighbor with a snow blower took it upon himself to dig us out—snow storm after snow storm—our first winter in This Old McHenry House. When an uncle drove to the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota to put his arm around me at my parents’ grave and give me a squeeze. When Peter patiently probes my heart. And finds the pieces that are still red raw. The needs that have gone unmet. And he holds them. Coddles them. Prays over them. And sits with them while they heal. Then I see the Father and I know a bit more of His love.
So Happy Father’s Day to all of the different kinds of Dads. And to all of the men who have in some way fathered me.
Last week our family took a quick trip to Texas. Down and back in six days flat. For the wedding of some dear friends and former students.
When it comes to road trips, though, the Worralls are slow to actually get on the road. First of all, we pack at the last minute, and I want to bring everything I can think of that we just might need. So, although we were only gone for five nights, I stuffed the back of our Land Rover with a ridiculous number of suitcases and bags and miscellaneous objects.
Then, once the car is loaded, we potter around town. Last Tuesday we stopped for a haircut, an oil change, gas, new sunglasses, two potty breaks, lunch, coffee, a diaper change, and the always essential inflatable turtle. So here we are…
We left home three hours ago, but we only have about 50 miles under our belt. But see how okay I am with that? Because proper preparation is imperative.
Once we got on the road, the trip went swimmingly. (Amelia’s two extended Pterodactyl impressions, one near collision, and a hotel horror story aside.) The kids watched movies, sang songs, snacked, decorated the backseat with all manner of things, and finally slept. The LOML and I read to each other. And talked. Really talked.
We got to Texas late on Wednesday and stayed just outside of Dallas with some very gracious friends. For the next two days, when we weren’t at the wedding events, we swam in their pool with Teddy the Turtle. Enjoyed the sun. And reconnected with our hosts.
The wedding itself was lovely. A casual country affair at Cross Creek Ranch. The bride was beautiful. The groom, beaming. Peter performed the ceremony and did a fine job.
But this wedding was particularly meaningful to me because I know all of the hard work this young couple has done. Throughout the past year, they have faithfully come to our home every few weeks. Sometimes they arrived, giddy and gushing. Other times they arrived with boxing gloves on. But they came. Ready to talk it out. Ready to be honest. Ready to listen. Ready to apologize and forgive. Ready to grow and change and learn how to love. I’m so proud of them. And it gives me so much confidence in their marriage. The fact that they have properly prepared.
On the two-day road trip home, Daryl and Amelia were all worn out. Thankfully, this time that meant they were more mellow. More content to just sit and watch a movie. And Peter and I were able to talk even more. The most extended and intimate conversations we’ve had in a long time.
We revisited some hard topics. For each of us. Some old and very deep hurts. But, lo and behold, this time we didn’t don our gloves. And neither of us resorted to an extended Pterodactyl impression. Instead, we acted as allies. Fighting for the same cause. Our marriage and family. We were honest and we listened. We apologized and forgave. And truthfully, I was proud of us too. How—almost fifteen years in—we’ve continued to grow. And change. And learn even more of what it means to love.
Because as important as the proper preparation is, the real work begins on that day we say, “I do.”
Daryl’s favorite thing about the wedding.
Last September 11, I wrote here about safety and danger and 9/11, etc. Then a little while later I went upstairs to tuck Daryl into bed.
“I love you, Mama,” he said. “Can I have a cuddle?” He still asks this every night. And my answer is typically the same. “Of course you can.” I’ll take these cuddles as long as I can.
As I lay down next to him, though, it became obvious that he didn’t only want a cuddle that night. He also wanted an audience. No sooner had I put my head on the pillow next to his than he sat straight up.
“Can I tell you the next chapter in the Rescue Story?” he asked.
He had been composing this Rescue Story for weeks. In each episode one of the adorable girls he knows was in terrible trouble. And Daryl swooped in to save her. That night I heard three “chapters” actually. I didn’t have the heart to stop him. So he told me The Forest Story, The Crane Story, and The Pirate Ship Story. All equally intriguing.
In The Forest Story, Holly from his drama class—who is so beautiful—was sitting on a log in the dark forest when a bear came up to her. Poor Holly didn’t have anything to fight a bear. She only had two dimes and a bag of M&Ms. And you know, Momma, you can’t fight a bear with just two dimes and a bag of M&Ms.
Then. (Insert musical fanfare.) Daryl came walking along.
And he was, like, there’s a bear getting Holly. And actually, Daryl had a sword. And it was this (insert enormous gesturing) big. So he went (insert swooshing sound effect)! And cut the bear’s fur. And the bear was, like, all distracted and everything. And Holly ran and ran away. Then. Daryl poked the bear’s eyes. And sliced off his nose.
(Insert applause from Momma and big dimpled smiles from Dar.)
Later I relayed the Rescue Stories to Daddy. And we marveled at our little bear sword fighter. How he imagined himself as a hero—strong and brave. How he could already tell a pretty great story.
That was September.
This is now.
Now he is composing the Daryl & Rachel trilogy. Apparently, Daryl & Rachel I and II are already available on DVD and Blue-ray. And these are full-blown musicals. Daryl not only narrates the story, but he also sings his own lyrics to some of his favorite tunes.
In Daryl & Rachel I, the main characters are racecar drivers. (Not surprising if you know the screenwriter/composer.) And the movie opens with a big race. Daryl’s own version of Sheryl Crow’s “Real Gone” from the Cars movie provides the soundtrack. It’s still a song about cars and driving, but with a special Daryl spin.
In Daryl & Rachel II, Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” from the movie A Turtle’s Tale has become a ballad on proper communication skills. Daryl sings about the importance of listening carefully and using good words. Then he launches into the chorus: “I’ll be by your side, to help you hide, your nonsense.” I love that line. Probably because I could use a friend to help me hide my nonsense.
Anyhow. You get the idea.
But my favorite has to be his Daryl & Rachel II adaptation of “Let It Go!” from Frozen. Which he has turned into a sort of worship song. Rachel sings it to Daryl when he has lost his cat Brownie and is very upset. In the song, Rachel reminds Daryl that God loves him with a “raging love.” The “let it go!” refrain has become “He is King! He is King!” Then Daryl sings: “Here I stand, In His hand, Let the storms rage on, God’s taking care of me anyway.” And I love that line too.
I love his whole storytelling thing. For so many reasons.
I love that it gives me a glimpse into his heart and mind. Into his fears and concerns. His values and ideals. What he’s processing. Who he’s becoming. And who he wants to be. I love hearing what truth is sticking and what isn’t quite. But most of all I love that, in this recent Daryl & Rachel project, he’s bringing God to bear. That now God is becoming the real hero, even more than him.
One parenting book that Peter and I like is Michelle Anthony’s Spiritual Parenting. The approach she advocates is less about controlling our children’s behavior. And more about “creating an environment that God can use to beckon [our] children to Him.” She breaks it down into ten environments actually.
The first is the Environment of Storytelling.
This involves sharing the whole God story with our kids. Adam and Eve. Noah and his ark. Abraham and Isaac. Jacob and Esau. Joseph. Moses. Saul. David. Solomon. The judges. The prophets. And all of it. On through to Jesus and beyond. A compelling and dramatic and precious narrative. But in our telling, it is most important that God—not the Bible characters—be the hero. That it be His story above all else. (Anthony has also written The Big God Story, which does just that.)
The Environment of Storytelling, though, also involves sharing our own God story with our children. Telling them regularly what He has done in and through us. Daily pointing out His fingerprints wherever they can be seen. Daily reminding them that our lives, too, are His and not our own. Daily bringing God to bear.
So Happy Monday! And happy storytelling…
When you meet your bear today, may you be armed with more than two dimes and a bag of M&Ms. Alternatively, may you be rescued by a hero as valiant as our little one. May you find a friend who will help you hide your nonsense. May you know God’s raging love. May you sing at the top of your lungs, “He is King!” May you stand firmly in His hand amidst the storms. And may you always remember that He’s taking care of you anyway. Ultimate hero that He is.
Thursday morning was Daryl’s final day of Kindergarten. Thursday night was the Kindergarten graduation ceremony. And in the middle, his Momma had a mini-meltdown.
It didn’t obviously have anything to do with Daryl and the fact that he’s growing up so fast, as they all do. Oh, I’m sure the emotions surrounding the day primed the pump. But the actual episode felt more self-focused than that.
The LOML and I were both home in the afternoon. He has just finished his teaching year, so we are making the wobbly transition into our very different summer routine. Namely, this summer, he’s setting aside his doctoral work to be home more with the kids, so I can finish the This Odd House manuscript. Bless him!
After lunch, while Amelia napped and Daryl played in the sandpit, Peter and I met on the sofa with cups of tea. And he let me read to him.
I started with this piece about writing by Sarah Bessey because it resonates. I hoped it would help him understand why I’ve been struggling these past couple of months. Why I feel as if I’ve hit the wall with This Odd House. Why the words won’t always come in the two-hour window on Wednesdays while the kids are both in school. Why the August end of my sabbatical year looms large. Why the word “platform” still gives me hives. Why it feels as if I’ve been coerced to compete in a cyber-popularity-contest. Why it’s hard to stay motivated and moving forward when the “nos” pile up around you. When “success” seems to come easily to others and I can’t help but compare. When I seem to get close. But then remain so far.
Then I read him this piece about writing by Donald Miller because a part of me—the idealist part—would love to run away to a cabin and knock this thing out. The one pictured on Miller’s website would do me nicely. But then the realist in me knows that my actual problem is not my location, my schedule, my responsibilities, or my life. The real problem is me. My fears. My preoccupations. My wrong thinking. My self-obsessions. And so on. And if I traipsed off to a cabin, these would undoubtedly tag along.
Then I read him the essay I am currently writing. Or trying to write. Or trudging through. Or stuck in the mire of. And I asked him for help. He is my go-to guy for perspective and brainstorming. But yesterday. When he voiced what I already knew to be true. That this piece isn’t working. It isn’t yet clear. Doesn’t yet have my voice. It felt like the proverbial straw. Commence mini-meltdown.
The LOML spoke truth and grace to me. Reminded me of what I had just read by Sarah Bessey. Reminded me of Who God is. What He has already done. The doors He has already opened. What we believe He has gifted me to do. Who I am in Him. And—point of growth for me—I (relatively quickly) pushed open the gates of self-defense and let that truth and grace gush in.
Cue Daryl. Who appeared in the dining room. Eyes wide. Chin quivering. Hands flapping. Shorts covered in Elmer’s glue. Voice rising in crescendo. “I was playing with Daddy’s Daddy’s car (his name for a Mini Cooper model that is actually Peter’s and is fragile and usually off-limits). And it crashed. And the wheel came off. So I got my school glue out of my backpack. And I tried to fix it. But the glue was clogged. So I tried to take off the top. And the glue got EVERYWHERE!”
We tried to calm him down. He was pretty upset. I think he felt the weight of his multiple wrongs. But we told him that it would be okay. That we could work it through. Then, as I rinsed off the gluey shorts, I watched his daddy deal with him. With the same measure of truth and grace he had shown to me minutes before. He was the hero of the hour at our house, for sure.
He asked Daryl to explain what happened. And—point of growth for Daryl—he told the truth. Every bit of it. Without hesitation. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t lie. He didn’t try to pass the blame. Instead, he owned what he had done. He pushed open the gates of self-defense. And, it seemed, he let the truth and grace gush in.
A little while later we were all settled down and all dressed up. Daryl chose Steak and Shake for dinner. Then we drove over to his school to celebrate the end of the Kindergarten year.
Of course, I got all teary when he and his precious classmates paraded down the aisle to Pomp and Circumstance. When they filled the risers and sang with gusto and recited Psalm 23. When his teacher (another hero!) handed him his little diploma.
I couldn’t help but remember picking him up from the first day of Kindergarten back in August.
“How was it?” I had asked, searching his little face as I buckled him in.
I should have known better. He can talk my ear off. But always in his own time. “Momma, can we talk later?” he had asked. Followed by the question he asks almost every time we get into the car. “Can you turn on the music please?”
So I turned it on and listened to him sing. At the top of his lungs. His lovely little voice filling the space. And I waited. Until we were almost home. Then I tried again. An easier question. Yes or no. “Did you like Kindergarten, Dar?”
“Yes!” he said. But then—with a heavy sigh—he offered further explanation. “But, Momma, Kindergarten is work, work, work.”
And wouldn’t you know. His initial assessment was correct. It has been work. This Kindergarten year. For him. His teachers. The LOML. Even Grandma. And for me.
In our combined efforts, we have tried to teach him so many, many things. To read and to write. To add and subtract. To play hard. But also to sit still when necessary. To pay attention. To take his time. To express himself clearly. To ask good questions. To be responsible for his own stuff. To solve his own problems when possible. To wait for his turn. To put others above himself. To tell the truth. To say he’s sorry. To forgive. To receive grace. To love God and others. To pray.
Not that he’s mastered these things. Of course not. We have a long, long road ahead. But by the grace of God, he has grown.
And what strikes me as well is how—as we get older—the lessons don’t actually change a whole lot. How during his Kindergarten year—my sabbatical one—I have been learning (again) so many of the same things. In this new blogging and book writing endeavor, I feel every bit the oversized Kindergartener.
It strikes me how I, too, have been learning to read and to write in new and exciting and terrifying ways. I’ve been learning (again) to add what is good and important and essential and healthy to my life and to subtract what isn’t. I’ve been learning to play hard. With the LOML and my kids—because this is one of the good and important and essential and healthy things. But also to sit still when necessary. With them. With myself. With God. I’ve been learning to pay attention. To the people in my life—little and big. To the world around us and what God is doing therein. Because you can’t write well if you don’t. And you can’t live well either. I’ve been learning to take my time. To trust the process. To be responsible for my stuff. To own my faults and failures as well as my strengths. And to tell the truth about both. I’ve been learning (again) to say I’m sorry, to forgive, to receive grace, to love, and to pray.
And I’ve been learning (again) to wait for my turn. To put others above myself.
In fact, yesterday morning Daryl came into the big bed for a cuddle. We were reflecting on his graduation ceremony. Talking about our favorite parts.
Then his lip curled in a pout. “I liked the video,” he said. “Except the pictures at the Chinese restaurant.”
“You were sick that day,” I reminded him.
“I know,” he said. “But when I saw everyone else sitting there, eating with chop sticks, it made me jealous. It’s not fair that they got to go and I didn’t.”
So we had lesson #643 on how life isn’t always fair. And fair doesn’t mean equal anyhow. How even though God loves us the same, He allows different good and bad things in each of our lives. How the bad things can bring growth and can reveal His glory. And how—though it’s very, very hard sometimes—we can praise Him for both.
And yes, as much as lesson #643 was meant for him, it was also meant for me.
Anybody else learning (again) some of those Kindergarten lessons? If so, which ones?
Tomorrow morning at the college where I teach, the annual graduation ceremony will be held. Dozens of my colleagues—the LOML included—will don their fancy robes and parade down the aisles of the grand old auditorium. Several hundred graduates—all bedecked in caps and gowns—will file in behind them while the organ belts Pomp and Circumstance. The balcony will be teeming with family and friends. Who will look on and snap photos and cheer wildly—despite the Dean’s request to hold all applause until the end. They can’t help themselves. This is a monumental moment.
This spring, though, I am on sabbatical. So for the first time in sixteen years, I will not be joining the march. And, actually, I will miss it. For as much as we faculty joke about hiding snacks in our long, wing-like sleeves and tucking stacks of grading under our flowing robes, I like to be there. It’s important. And a privilege.
And I get choked every time the sea of graduates stands on command and the old wooden seats rumble like a heavenly applause. Every time a student I know crosses the stage with head held high, shakes the president’s hand, takes the blue folder—where a diploma soon will live—and I know just a bit of what that thin binder represents. The sacrifices. The struggles. The triumphs. The failures. The late nights. The long haul. The lessons learned.
So in lieu of my attendance tomorrow, I thought to offer just a few words. Except they aren’t really my own. They are Peter’s. Not Peter the Husband. Who will sit at the ceremony, all robed up and in the third row. Who will come home and give me a full report. Not that Peter.
Rather, Peter the Apostle. Who wrote his own letter to the exiles who had been scattered throughout the land. Because, dear graduates, as you scatter—throughout this land and others far flung—you will realize more and more what you do know and what you don’t. Because it may surprise you, startle you, even shake you to the core that—after receiving such a well-earned and formal degree—you don’t know more. That you don’t always know where you will live or what job you will have or whom you will marry or what the future holds or to what you are called. That you don’t always know what is coming around the bend or how to handle whatever does.
But rest assured. What you do know—what Peter tells you in chapter one of letter one—will serve you well. So dig down deep and pour firm footings right there. And know these things above all else…
Know who you are. You are aliens. Not at home here. Not really. So don’t expect to be too comfy. You are just sojourners. On your way to a better place. You are grass and flowers. Falling and withering and blowing in the wind. Yet also—you are redeemed. Saved from a meaningless life. Born again to a new, eternal one. You are chosen by Him. Hand-picked. A part of His story. And purified. All cleaned up. By the precious blood of Christ.
Know what you can expect. That you will be sanctified along the way. Tested and taught. Torn apart and built back up by the Spirit. And that this is very hard work. That you will experience trials. But these can prove your faith. They can actually bring joy. Maybe not right away. But they will result in His glory and honor as Jesus is revealed. No doubt about that.
Know what you have. Grace and peace. In abundance. That means—more than enough for the journey. There for the taking. And, too, you have a living hope. A glorious and eternal inheritance. Reserved just for you. With your name on it. That will never perish. Will not be defiled. And cannot fade away.
Know what you need to do. Love Him. Fear Him. Believe Him. Even when you cannot see. Prepare your mind. Fix your sights. Rejoice with inexpressible joy. Love one another deeply. And obey.
This, says Peter, is the word that was preached to you. This is what you need to know.
So congratulations, dear graduates, on a job well done. A diploma hard-earned. I and many others are cheering you on. Wildly. From near and far. We can’t help ourselves. We love you deeply. We are on the journey with you. And we can’t wait to see where He’s going to take you next.
OR “Sometimes the Adoption Process Can Feel Like This”
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed” (2 Corinthians 4:8).
I grew up watching the Road Runner cartoons—the two-minute mini-episodes, in which the big-nosed, big-eared Wile E. Coyote obtains ridiculous gadgets from the mail-order company, the Acme Corporation. He uses these devices to try to catch the quick-footed Road Runner, but they invariably backfire. Wile E. always ends up fried to a crisp, squashed completely flat, or stuck with his head through a boulder.
Yet—driven by desire and fortitude—he always rebounds and chooses to come back for more. Creator Chuck Jones has rightly said that Wile E. is a “living, breathing allegory of Want.” As an outside observer, though, his seeming stubbornness always troubled me and garnered little empathy.
That is, until we tried to adopt.
We started the Chinese adoption process in January of 2006 and were told that we would be united with our daughter within a year and a half. But we chased paper longer than most, since Peter was born in England and we were married there. Because my parents were living with us and had to obtain clearance as well. My mom’s chemotherapy erased her fingerprints, which the FBI found suspect. My dad’s cerebral palsy made his fingerprints unreadable by the USCIS computers, so we had to take him into downtown Chicago to prove he didn’t have a secret life of crime.
But finally, in the summer of 2006, our paperwork was sent to China.
There to sit.
For almost six years.
As you have likely observed, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote follow the laws of “cartoon physics”—meaning that the regular laws of physics are bent and twisted for comic effect. Sometimes Wile E. will hang in the air until the moment he realizes that he is defying gravity. Then he will plunge to the ground. No amount of frantic airborne running will save him. He might even fall past a rock that he himself has dropped only to be squashed by it. And when Wile E. paints the image of a cave on a sheer rock face, the Road Runner can run right into the cave as if it were real. Wile E. cannot. Wile E. will run full speed into the wall of stone and will be flattened.
The laws of “adoption physics” seem similarly designed.
In May 2007 the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA) tightened its regulations on adoptive parents in an effort to loosen the growing logjam of paperwork in their office. New applicants must have a body-mass index below 40 and a net worth above $80,000. They cannot take medication for anxiety or depression or be over 50 years old. In other words, they must be young, trim, financially secure, and happy. As best I could tell, on a good day and for the time being, we still qualified. But we were hanging on by our fingernails.
Then in November 2007 the CCAA made another policy change. It reversed its longstanding No Concurrent Adoptions Rule to allow families stuck in their logjam to pursue a second adoption while continuing to wait. So in December when our case worker, presented us with the concurrent adoption option, we dove head first.
We chose Ethiopia. Started decorating an Ethiopia nursery. Researching Ethiopia travel. Reading Ethiopia books.
But when our agency was finally ready to help us with the Ethiopia paperwork, it was July 2008, and our case worker dropped a new bomb in our laps. A risk statement for us to sign. Peter and I read in silence the three page list of possible-horrible-things-that-could-happen-if-we-adopted-from-Ethiopia. The main one being that China could throw our paperwork out the window. For race reasons.
“I think this is a deal breaker for me,” I said. Peter agreed.
When the case worker came back, Peter explained, “We still believe we’re meant to adopt from China. And we don’t want to rock that boat.”
“Do we have any less-risky options for a concurrent adoption?” I asked.
“Domestic would be the easiest and most foolproof,” the case worker said.
I had researched domestic adoption as well. I knew that it is neither easy nor foolproof.
But we dove in anyhow. Head first.
In another episode we find Wile E. Coyote buried in the thick text: Karate Self-Taught. Finishing his study, he peeks over the book and his brow furrows in determination. He dons a white karate suit and black belt. Then he bows to his first opponent, a tall cactus, and hops toward it—boing, boing, boing—arms poised to attack. With one swoop he chops it clean in half, amazed at his own power and strength. He turns to the camera with a grin. Ready to try again.
“Beep, beep,” he hears and races to hide behind a rock. His actual target is on its way.
“Beep, beep,” he hears again. And Wile E. leaps from behind the rock and karate chops the front of the Acme truck. The screen is filled with brightly colored stars. Then back to Wile E., hand still stuck in the hood. His face registers all the pain, shock, and horror of a coyote betrayed yet again by his own longing.
And as the truck passes by, we see in its rear the perky, grinning Road Runner who gives a taunting, “Beep, beep.”
One Thursday shortly after my mom died, I checked our voicemail, and our friend Kathy’s animated voice was the first I heard. “I’m sorry to leave a message,” she began. “I know this is a painful topic, but it’s urgent.” I grabbed a pen and started jotting down the particulars—started painting the image of a cave on a sheer rock face—as Kathy explained that a friend of hers took in babies when the mothers are in crisis.
“Last week when I was at her house,” she went on, “she had this adorable baby and the fifteen-year-old mother wanted to place the baby for adoption, so I told my friend that I knew the best possible parents ever—you guys, of course—but she told me that the baby’s father wasn’t sure, but then she asked me about you because she has lots of contact with birthmothers. Then on Tuesday she called and told me that her friends…”
I pressed “9” to save the message and went on to the next.
“Me again; your machine cut me off; anyhow, I was saying that these friends of hers adopted domestically, and the birthmother of their daughter is pregnant again. But the family can’t take the new baby, so the birthmother still needs to find a family. I’ve been praying about it all weekend, and I have a really good feeling about this. Call me!”
“Peter!” I yelled down the stairs.
“Yes?” he called from the kitchen.
“We need to call Kathy!” I yelled. “She thinks she found us a baby.”
At that point, she was our third friend to think so.
Over dinner, Peter was apprehensive. “I’ll call her, but we can’t get our hopes up.”
“I know,” I said.
“It most likely won’t come to anything,” Peter said.
“I know,” I said.
“I’m just afraid that you’re going to…”
Of course, he was concerned that I would trip and fall over the cliff again. That I would be flattened by a rock that I myself had dropped. I had before. Throughout infertility. After three miscarriages. Each time the China delay grew longer. After our dinner with Debbie. After another unsolicited adoption call lead to nowhere.
But I assured him, “I’m fine. Just call.”
We huddled over the speaker phone and listened as Kathy repeated her story with even more enthusiasm and more heavenly assurance that this was the baby for us. She gave us the phone number of her friend, Cheri.
Cheri confirmed Kathy’s story and gave us the number of her friends. “Let me do the talking this time,” I said to Peter. “It might be good if they hear from the potential mother.” He agreed, and I dialed.
When a man answered, I explained, “My name is Kelli Worrall. My husband Peter is here too. We got your number from Cheri Boyd. We are hoping to adopt and Cheri told us about the situation with the birthmother of your daughter…”
“Oh, yes…um…” Long, heavy pause. “…that situation has been rectified,” he said.
I was stunned. Frantic airborne running ensued. Peter gestured at me to say something. But gravity was kicking in.
“I’m sorry,” the man said.
Peter jumped in. “Ok, thank you. Good bye.”
When he hung up, I just kept staring out the window.
“Are you ok?” Peter said.
“‘The situation has been rectified?’ Really? What is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this, Peter,” I said. “I feel as if—over and over—we are the butt of the same…bad…joke.”
And—true story—as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I thought of Wile E.
And I did “keep doing this.” Even when months later a birthmom did choose us. Took our $3000. And disappeared without a trace.
Even when for six weeks we provided a safe home for a precious baby girl, who was “probably going to be adoptable.” Then got the call, days before Christmas, that her fourteen-year-old birthmom, also in foster care, had changed her mind. Wanted her baby back.
Even when we were on our way to the hospital to pick up a newborn. And got a call that this birthmom decided to tell this birthdad about the baby after all. And he was on a plane from Memphis to sort it out. And we turned around and drove home with a still empty car seat in the back.
But why? Why get up and try again?
Because Want that deep drives us to do daring things. Because it is possible, if difficult, to be both desirous and submitted—to hold both longing and contentment in our heart—at the exact same time. Isn’t it? Can we say, “I would like things to be different, but by Your grace I am okay”? Didn’t He say, “Take this cup, Father; yet not my will, but Yours be done”? Because learning to live in that tension is what being human this side of Heaven is about.
And because it isn’t only about obtaining the prize. If it were, we wouldn’t keep watching poor Wile E.
It is also about the pursuit. It is also about the free fall and the karate chop and the boulder to the head. It’s about seeing stars and dissolving into a puff of dust and all of the other lessons we learn along the way.
My mom’s last Mother’s Day was in 2008. But I think I miss her more this year than ever before. In part, because I have been writing about her for these past many months. Her presence felt so powerfully as I paint her on each page. In part, too, because each year I spend as a mom myself I marvel more about how she might have managed—with her limitations and such a heavy load.
Then, in addition to the missing and the marveling, there is that lingering bit of regret.
My mom’s last Mother’s Day. Well…it could have been better.
I bought her flowers and a card, and that was good. We went to church, which was risky. Since it was also my fifth Mother’s Day with achingly empty arms. But I wanted to honor her, of course. Wanted to love her well on that special day. Had a sinking sense that it might be my last chance.
I survived the service, but afterward I just wanted Peter to do something—anything—to make it all okay. Maybe I expected him to take us to lunch. To have some sort of plan. To get us out of the house. So I didn’t have to think. To honor me as a wife even though I wasn’t yet a mom. But he didn’t know this. Couldn’t read my mind. Was afraid to mess up and make it worse. And as he and Mom and I sat in the dining room, trying to figure out what to do, wondering whether to fight the crowds or just eat at home, I lost it.
I wrote on Not-So-Good Friday about sadness and fear and how the mixture reacts—like baking soda and vinegar—and spews out as anger. And how I can spot the concoction quite quickly now. And release the pressure in less damaging ways. I couldn’t so much back then. Nor could Peter, I’m afraid. Not while the external pressure of our lives was also pressing in. With sometimes unbearable force.
So he spewed back. Then he marched out of the house and climbed into the car.
I followed hot on his heels. Begging him to stay. I even stood behind the car to keep him home. But he drove up on the grass, backed the car around, and left me standing there.
(Embarrassingly, our neighbor Sam, who is a bit of a recluse and didn’t know us well at all, had just pulled into his drive and had a front seat for this whole unfortunate scene. I imagine the poor man checked the locks on his doors and peeked warily through his blinds for the next couple of days. Until Peter saw him again. And apologized. And explained that we just weren’t ourselves that day.)
No, we certainly weren’t. Peter watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune at the nursing home with Dad that afternoon. Mom and I each took a nap. We came all together in the evening and apologized and forgave. But it would be nice to do that day again. To have just one more Mother’s Day.
And if we did, here’s what I would do…
I would wake up Mom with a cinnamon glazed bagel or Belgian waffles with strawberries and lots of whipped cream or Grandma Eve’s egg soufflé. I would pour her hot coffee and freshly-squeezed juice. And read her my handwritten card aloud while she ate.
I would fill her room with flowers. Tulips and daffodils, for sure. And other things that made her smile. Books and fuzzy blankets and floral blouses and all manner of kitschy stuffed bears.
I would take her to church and hold her delicate hand and lift my voice with hers in grateful praise. And if the opportunity arose, I would stand up in front of all the people and proudly proclaim, “Look at my mom. She is strong. She is love. She is life. She is brave.”
If we had one more Mother’s Day, I would serve her a lovely lunch on our patio. Then I would pull out old photo albums and pour over the pictures of the much younger versions of us. I would listen to Mom tell all of the stories that only she could tell. And I would write them down. Or even turn on a recorder—audio or video—and capture more of her. For keeps.
If we had one more Mother’s Day, I would pepper Mom with questions. Pick her brain on all manner of things. She wasn’t one to share her wisdom unsolicited or offer much advice. So I would probe: What do you want me to know about life? About marriage? And motherhood? And gardening? And laundry stains? And poetry? And politics? And God? And what do you want me to make sure to tell my children if He ever gives me some?
If we had one more Mother’s Day, I would choose to ignore what often made me cringe. Like squealing hearing aids and ready tears. I would change her colostomy bag with more patience and joy. We would play endless games of Scrabble. Rearrange the living room furniture one more time. Go shopping for nothing in particular.
If we had one more Mother’s Day, I would say the hard but simple things. The thank yous. The I’m sorrys. The I love yous. Over and over again. Because it’s never too much.
I take comfort in the fact that this year my mom’s Mother’s Day will be even better than anything I could dream up. And I don’t know exactly how my day will go. My fifth Mother’s Day as a Mom. But I’m not worried.
Daryl already gave me a wonderful book that he wrote in Kindergarten. “Daryl’s Amazing Mother.” In it he tells me that he likes to cuddle me and play with me. That I help him, and he thinks I’m smart. That’s all I need really.
Amelia’s present to me will probably be big hugs and lots of “I love yous.” Then she will likely create some sort of signature catastrophe—something akin to yesterday’s two jars of fish food and bottle of lotion spread liberally over the closet floor.
And Peter? No pressure this year, LOML. But. Well…okay. Maybe I do sort of hope that you’ve been paying attention. (See above.)