Friday, January 31, 2014
Lots of desserts could philosophically be called "a problem", but lots of desserts don't taste *quite* this good & gooey and lots of desserts involve complicated measuring and blending and multiple bowls and spatulas and careful monitoring and the mortal fear of "over-mixing", whatever the heck that is.
Graham crackers, butter, chocolate chips, coconut, pecans, cinnamon, sweetened condensed milk.
9x13, spoon, oven.
The ingredient list may seem on the long side for all this yammering, but that's because you don't know the really good news yet.
There's no measuring.
Also, no extra bowls that have to be hand washed because they take up too much space in the dishwasher and who needs that?
Pour the crumbs (1.5-2 cups) into your baking dish and stir in one stick of melted butter. Press into the pan.
Cover the top with a layer of chocolate chips (about half a bag, but who's to say you won't want more?)
Add the pecans (I tossed my pecan halves into the same ziploc and broke them up with my hands then pounded them a bit, but I wanted some pretty large pieces so I still have a bit of snow-rage cooped up inside my frozen heart.)
Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon. This will give it that zippy Mexican Hot Chocolate flavor, delighting your people and especially yourself.
Toss around most of a bag of flaked, sweetened coconut (about 1.5 cups total)
Drizzle one can of sweetened condensed milk over everything.
Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until everything is golden and the house is filled with the kind of scent that renders your children manic.
Cool. Slice. Eat.
All of the measurements are subject to tweaking, the possibilities for extra ingredients or modifications are endless, and it could pretty easily be made gluten-free, by replacing the graham crackers with a different base layer (crushed Chex cereal!)
Listen, I don't know everything about these bars, but I do know they make an oddly decadent, adult-approved dessert. They're a great chaser to pasta and chopped salad. They've proven to be the perfect ending to staying up until 2 a.m. with a soul-mate. And they'll convince you in your weakened state of exhaustion that even breakfast deserves a dessert course.
Happy weekending, Pals!
Thursday, January 30, 2014
I really love Valentine's Day.
There's no rhyme or reason.
My history with V-Day hasn't even been particularly note-worthy or positive.
My foil-wrapped cassette recorder Valentine box in 3rd grade wasn't honored as the true piece of art it was.
Rob Bendenbaugh gave me a plastic ring when I was in 4th grade and I ran off the bus and straight to the barn, where I threw it to the bottom of the garbage can, so sure I would be in trouble if my parents found out.
I never had secret admirers sending me carnations during the dreaded sale the cheerleaders ran every year in high school.
When we were in between engagements, Cory gave me a V-day card covered in neon smiley faces and took great pains to not use the word "love" in his salutation.
If I'm being honest, I probably just like an excuse to string paper garlands up everywhere. (Though it does beg the question, Which came first? The obsession or the heart-shaped paper punch?)
Despite Robert telling me he thinks it's "stupid" to celebrate holidays, I went ahead and draped every upright surface with strands of magazine hearts and melted crayon wax.
Obviously, I'm not showing you this stuff because we're so top-notch and fancy around here, or even because I've stumbled upon some kind of great craft wizardry.
I made some of this stuff years ago and all I needed was to string it up with a few pieces of tape, begged and borrowed from Silas Park, THE KEEPER OF THE TAPE.
I didn't pay a red cent for my "Valentine's Decorations". I just did what I do best and scrounged around a little. It's not rocket science. I'm sure it's not even close to the look most people want. And yes, sometimes I feel like I'm one short breath away from becoming the old lady who strings plastic toys from her fruit trees.
But this stuff has cheered me up over 8 snow days in January alone and that's not nothing.
But if you do, work it, Sisters.
spending all his time in jail and he'll grow a ridiculous beard but now I'm just projecting.
Happy one? Hilarious ones? Neon Smiley Face ones?
Lay it on us.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
green snow-day fleece.
Monday we burned it up in an energized flurry of painting, baking, game-playing and general getting-alongness. Tuesday, quite another story.
What I'm finding is that I'm a snow day Jekyll & Hyde. Every blue ribbon day is followed by one that we survive by way of 17 hours of cartoons and scrounged up left-overs.
It's just so cold out. I have not stepped beyond the front door since Sunday at 3pm.
Bah. Enough of this stupid weather talk! Who have I become? Why do you guys stick around??
So, did any of you watch Sean & Catherine Lowe get hitched Sunday night? Being ABC-less, I did not. I tried last night but ABC's website hates me because I don't have a satellite TV provider, and all I can say to that is, IF I HAD SATELLITE TV I WOULDN'T BE IN THIS POSITION IN THE FIRST PLACE!
But nevermind my yelling. (I'm a little cooped up.)
The thing about the Lowes is that I just love them. It's nothing new for me to have unbridled, irrational hope in a reality TV couple, but this is different. I'm going to put it out there: I read their tweets from the day of their wedding and I'm sold. This is a guy who knows who he is and what he's about. And aside from the unusual way we came to know their names, they are actual people. He has a favorite meal and she has raggedy sweatpants that we'll never, ever see. They get their feelings hurt and speak in anger and forgive. They navigate their faith just like normal people do, imperfectly, and with the scary addition of a spotlight.
I'm rooting for them. I'm grateful for their courage. And geez, I just love a sappy love story.
Three nights back Cory and I were up until after 2 a.m. with our oldest, talking about funny things and inconsequential things and eventually, really important things. The kid asks hard questions and this lady right here was fumbling for answers, praying so hard for the right words that I don't even remember what they were.
He wondered what we mean when we talk about God leading us in some way, or speaking to us. How do we know? Do we actually hear it? Because he never has. He had his moment when everything fell away and he sat at rock bottom with nothing but the truth that there was something much larger than himself, a God who created and loved him, and that he needed him.
But now what? What does it mean when all those feelings drift out to sea and life busts you in the face? Was something lost? Was that feeling never really his to hold?
I found myself returning again and again to the story of my marriage, the irrational, ridiculous, falling-in-love of his parents, complete with all the bells and whistles and roses and tears.
I told him about the night I stood in the center of the soccer field, a stubborn twenty-year old myself, so sure that this was the man I would love forever, how I begged God to let him be mine and knew that feeling could never blow away.
God did let him be mine, almost 15 years ago.
But that feeling hides sometimes. It gets lost in life and appointments and bills and different kinds of tears.
I wish it wasn't this way.
If I could, I would have gathered up that soccer field feeling and kept it in a tiny bottle by my side, spritzing a little onto my hair everyday, the elixir of perpetual bliss.
Instead, I got the gift of that moment, as clear as the ice tracking my window panes, the certainty that it was real. It was love.
And anything real can last.
And anything love can last.
Some days it feels like the sun on my shoulders or his hand on my own, a tangible thing.
Other days it's a promise, drifting and shadow-hiding, but still known.
We sell our hope for a tired dime when we tie our marriage or our faith to a feeling, cooking the intended complexity of holy communion down to dregs.
Call me an introvert, a thinker, dispassionate, practical.
You're at least half-right.
But I hear that song on the radio on a day that's gray and my heart is beating on the far-away side and it worries me, because this feeling very well could be wrong. And I don't think worship is something we "get on".
Worship, like love, is a certain steadiness. It's staying consistent and present when the days are too long and the nights are lonely. It's all the little things, the small obediences and unacknowledged tasks. Worship is the salt-tracks of grief and quiet reflection. Love is toes touching under the covers when words have been scare or raw.
Faith, like love, is staying up when you're tired. It's walking miles and miles when your feet are sore. It's keeping a thing that can't always been seen, trusting you won't be left alone and knowing you won't be the one to walk away.
I don't know that Robert really understood all we were saying, because all this God stuff is brand new and he's never known the kind of love that keeps on staying.
But that's what I'm wishing for him, and for the Lowes and for you and for me. I'm wishing we keep finding a way to stay IN this. That we ride the flows and all the ebbs and keep our feelings in the corner when they're uncooperative or playing hide-and-seek.
God is so much bigger.
Love is so much greater.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Things are all askew around here.
I'm not saying they're bad.
I'm just saying yesterday Silas and Ruby played, full clothed, for an hour, in a bathtub full of water balloons.With permission.
I'm saying we took our kids to Target in a raging snow-storm when they should have been in bed.
I'm saying we're a little desperate. A tinge over-cooped.
I'm saying they canceled school - again - and I've lost my will to craft. I'm not sure where that leaves us.
Are you tired of me talking about the weather?
Well, I'm tired of living the weather.
Except for the secret fact that...I sorta love it.
I feel positively mountainous. A true survival girl. Like I could strap on some snow-shoes and track an elk, or fire up a smoke signal with nothing but my bare hands and flinty resolve.
Cory and I caught a lucky hour in the coffee shop yesterday, just before it "closed early due to weather". We walked through the city streets for a solid two minutes, entombed on all sides, the air sharp and cold-scented. If I squinted my eyes just a little, I was a pioneer in a red puffy coat. I had muscular calves and wild hair. My lips were the color of cranberries and just as juicy, because dang, those pioneer ladies could rock the bare-faced look.
Don't tell anyone in my city or even the Midwest I said this, but I'm loving the suspense. I'm glued to our faux "weather" channel, where all they do is play elevator music and show a 30-second pre-taped update on a loop. It's bitterly cold out there... Winds will be picking up... Roads will be treacherous... I already know these things, but our local meteorologist is the bell and I'm the dog and I just keep coming back.
Saturday I realized, with only the quickest jab of regret or shame, that I've fully, yet unintentionally, surrendered to this new sort of living where shoes and alarm clocks were born to die and Huckle Cat is practically one of the family. It's happened, and I'm not sure how to unhappen it.
All I know is to keep walking toward the light, which in this case happens to be my down comforter, my favorite hoodie, and waffles. Or stew. Or left-over cake.
Last night, I rediscovered a bowl of Peanut Butter Cheerios, a clementine, and a sucks-you-in hardback as the height of luxury. This morning, I dined on a glazed doughnut in bed.
I've scrubbed every crevice of my lawless kitchen in potent vinegar water and made an entire Olive Garden knock-off meal too late in the day. I've read Skippyjon with all the voices swept the floor one hundred eighty times.
Our rhythms are wonky, the metronome of our existence all buggered up by the "dangerous" wind chill, no doubt.
Hours and minutes have lost their meaning.
We're stretching the limits of our imaginations and our good sense, slipping down that slope of stagnation and frustration and landing in...bliss? Is that what this is?
Maybe the snow will melt and the air will stop kicking us in the face. Maybe.
But not tomorrow and not even Tuesday.
This is the world we live in, folks. And from where I'm sitting, we may be stuck here forever, or at least for days, which in a small house with little kids in January is the same thing as forever.
This is the end.
Might as well go down with a smile, carb-loaded and cozy.
Friday, January 24, 2014
"It happens and I don't know anyone who can explain it. A child walks in the door and that child belongs to you. The odd thing is that it is seldom the kid you would expect it to be....Sometimes it's the kid who is the neediest, the one you have to spend the most time with. And sometimes it's like falling in love. Inexplicable chemistry." - One Small Boat by Kathy Harrison
(He does this sort of thing to make a spectacle in our living room, to get a rise out of us. So we react in kind and shake our heads and laugh. I practice my street talk and he says it's improving and this is just one of the ways we love each other.)
Somewhere around midnight the night before, as timely as ever, I was overcome by the surging truth that the paper plate banners simply had to come out. This will probably be the one and only time he'll be under my room on his birthday, and he needed the full Martin Birthday Experience, which, in this case, ended up being the paper plate banner (the gift that keeps on giving!) and a bunch of balloons strung up by yarn. (He's up and out of the house well before it's light out, and I secretly hoped they would scare the liver out of him.)
I spent most of the day in the kitchen, making a recipe he messaged me via Facebook, back when he still had hope in the intersecting of our culinary worlds.
Loaded Chicken and Potatoes.
People - so good.
It was a homemade cheesecake stuffed inside a homemade red velvet cake, frosted with homemade cream cheese frosting.
Hey, kid? I love you.
(Don't tell him I just called him a kid because he's especially sensitive about this sort of thing now that he's twenty, but I'm saying anyone who still sneaks up and tickles their dad falls under the category of "kid". And I'm sticking to it.)
I wanted recognition for the effort I put into loving him, for spending my day in that blasted kitchen when I could have had my nose in a book.
They say love is full of grace, but apparently not mine, because I keep seeing the way I want to secretly lord mine over my people, making them feel small next to my sacrifice. It's gross and I hate it, but there it still is, never going away.
Instead of oohs and aaahs and thank yous, he was grumpy, texting his life away at the table when he knows that's the one time we ask him not to. He didn't make eye contact, didn't have a word to say about anything, huffed and puffed when Cory told him to put his phone away.
Happy birthday, this is a disaster.
I wanted it all to be bigger than that.
I wanted myself to be better.
I wanted the fairytale that doesn't actually exist, but I wanted it more than ever that night, because birthdays are a bigger deal than he's ever been shown, and I wanted him to feel that for once.
What we all got instead was ordinary. Imperfect.
We got real life, which is what we've gotten every day for the past six months with this guy.
And I have to believe that's the way it was always supposed to be.
I thought about what we were doing exactly one year ago, and about how much had changed since then. In some ways, our hearts feel somehow further apart, but boil that down, and it's obvious that now we're more fully together. We're a truer version of family, warts, fights, gripes and all.
(He's done the same for me a hundred times, and he hasn't even known me that long.)
I feel like he decided to let some things go, too.
A family is a safe place to do that.
We don't have to debrief every swinging mood.
Then he said he's not much for being the center of attention, "so can we skip the singing?" And we belly-laughed because his intention and purpose in every moment of time is to ensure his position on center-stage. Oh my word, I don't even.
His reward for that kind of nonsense was a double-round of Happy Birthday, round two sung in Spanish.
Our tallest homeboy will be moving out in just over a week.
I can't talk about it.
I can't talk about it, for real.
I'm terrified and ready and mostly, I'm deeply, passionately terrified.
And sad, I'm sad, too.
I'm interested in getting reacquainted with a little evening-peace-and-quiet, but I already know it'll be too quiet and too boring and I'll miss him yelling "MOM! MOM! MOMMMM!" through the house and I'll be overcome with nosiness about all the details in his life I'm no longer privy to and I'll still want to meddle in his relationships and finances and WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF?
Be prepared for a hearty dose of over-processing in the days to come. Consider yourselves warned.
I don't necessarily love saying I have a twenty-year-old son, because nineteen seemed old enough, but he's reminding me every chance he gets that it's now mandatory that I make all necessary adjustments.
So, fine. My oldest son is twenty.
He's becoming more of a man every day and he's still all kid.
He's affectionate like a child and tall enough to pick his Dad up and toss him around without warning.
He's sensitive and loyal.
He loves his boys and takes parenting them seriously.
He's teachable. A good listener.
He's generous with his heart.
He's a hard worker.
He's the class clown.
He's just the son and brother we needed.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Without question, the emotion that most consistently brings me to the very fringes of myself is not frustration, not anger, but garden-variety loneliness. For me, this is the root of all the others, the father of lesser evils that hacks my confidence off at its knees and assaults my joy.
The belief that I'm alone in the world, that no one has my back, has the power to crank my emotional equilibrium left of center. My rationality swerves for the ditch. When the dust settles, my confidence is measured in shards.
Coming from a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I'd be inclined to think I might be immune to loneliness. Give me a free day and I'll probably scoop it up and steal away alone. But there's a big difference in being alone and feeling forgotten or unseen.
In recent years, I've faced this struggle more than ever before. It's fleeting, but it always remembers my name. It hits in waves and leaves me gulping, flailing. I don't understand why God allows it. Shouldn't my faith be all the protection I need against this peril?
Just two days ago, I finally recognized the power Satan has over me in this area. Though a jerk, he's no fool. I hand him this weapon and he's found it quite effective. If he can convince me I'm alone in the world, at any given moment, I willingly fork over a portion of my holiness, no questions asked. He reacts as expected, fueling my pain as I lash out or become withdrawn or paranoid. He greases the rails of vindictiveness and I ride. He double-binds me to myself - the guaranteed recipe for disaster.
This web widens, my fragility dangling more precariously in the balance with each silky loop. I circle-back, telling myself I'm all I've got, better buck up. Better get used to it. Who needs them, anyway?
Friends, I wish I could tell you loneliness is a lie, the economy of the enemy, dealing empty hands with dead eyes.
But I keep watching the way God scoops me out of these valleys and I can't find away around it. It's certain beauty, and I'm not so sure anymore that these are even ashes.
Aren't we promised that following Christ means some of our relationships will be chipped up, or even fractured? Are we not signing up for a measure of rejection? Doesn't this count as suffering?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, "It is Christ's will that [man] should be thus isolated, and that he should fix his eyes solely on Him."
That is where my pitiful humanity wrecks this gift of loneliness. Over and over, rather than fixing my eyes on the One who loves me best, I frantically scan the horizon-line for a jeans-and-sneaks person to save me. I run to my husband, or my mom. Affirmation is only a text message away. From the security of the school pick up line, from the comfort of my kitchen, I can yell for help and someone will throw me a float.
And yes, this is community. Yes, God loves His people through His people.
It is our unequivocal duty to love the lonely. We should be linking arms with the outcast, remembering that sometimes the outcast wears $200 jeans and drives and Audi. Sometimes the lonely sits in a nursing home, but she also sits next to us on the bleachers at gymnastics practice.
There are times when He moves and heals through us, but he doesn't really have to. He's fully enough, and I wonder how long it will take me to really believe that.
I'd like to begin living this part of life differently. I'd like to allow God's work to be completed by Him, rather than throwing the keys to my sworn enemy, the one who despises my life and plots my ruin. I feel like my relationships and my sanity might be protected if I learned to lean into His presence rather than fumbling for the sick comfort of anger and self-pity.
I know God allows me to occasionally feel the burn of loneliness not only because He wants to rescue me, but because He's called me into community, where others are lonely. Sometimes we need to feel pain to recognize pain.
I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you. (Hosea 14:8)
So, if you're lonely tonight, let me remind you that you're not alone. Alone doesn't exist within the bounds of God's love for you.
Refuse to wrest this gift from the giver, passing it off to the author of pain. Hold it as an opportunity to be cared for by the only One who really can. Let Him heal you. Then bear your scars as holy tattoos, connecting you to the rest of His kingdom, marking you as The Healed.
The truth about loneliness is that it brings us to the edge of ourselves, which is actually the goal.
We can choose to nose-dive, but I'd really rather ascend.
Monday, January 20, 2014
My Asians are obsessed with Korean food.
We go to our favorite Korean restaurant when we can, but it's almost an hour away and it's a little pricey.
I cook "Asian cuisine" often and everyone here loves it, but for reasons I cannot articulate, I've never tried making a full Korean meal.
The one Korean phrase they both know best is, "Oma, behgopah." (I'm hungry, Mom.)
Silas called me Sunny (the owner of our fave restaurant) all afternoon. Calvin kept circling the island like a herring on a hunt.
These perpetually at-each-others-throats brothers even bonded over an appetizer bowl of Shrimp Snacks (think shrimpy cheetos. yuck. and just, blech. but they love them.)
All the skins will love it.
Just ask the two of us.
We were having company for dinner, but I managed to grab a few tight shots before we attacked....
#1 : Cucumber Kimchi
I don't know if this is a typical Korean food??? But Sunny makes it and Silas adores it, as do Cory, Ruby, and I. (Calvin is a spice wimp so far, but he's working on it.)
This won't help you at all, but Sunny actually makes a kimchi packet and sells it through a local grocery store chain. (Martins, for all you locals!) So all I did here was peel, seed, and chop the cucumbers, Asian pear, and scallions, and mix it with the packet and a few other basic ingredients then let it sit.
It is De Lish.
This is a popular Korean dish made of sweet potato noodles. I bought these at a local Asian market for less than $2. You could also use rice noodles, but these are the authentic chop chae noodles. They don't really taste sweet-potatoey. They have a bit of a more springy texture and they really soak up all the flavor of the sauce.
I'm not gonna lie, I sort of cheater-cheatered this dish, using Dubsie's recipe as the base. I still think it counts as Chop Chae though, on account of the very authentic sweet potato noodles, yes?
I also sauteed chopped Asian cabbage and shredded carrots for a few minutes and stirred them in, along with the scallions. Chop Chae always includes some veggies.
All my people adore chop chae. Even Robert.
My fellow mama-of-a-Korean, Rachel, graciously sent me her recipe.
1 lb. flank steak thinly sliced (or beef tenderloin, sirloin, etc.) (put beef in the freezer for an hour or so to make slicing easier - thanks for that tip, Rach!)
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped scallions
2-2 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger (optional, but I used it)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
white sticky rice
To make marinade, combine soy sauce, scallions, sugar, sesame oil, ginger, pepper and sesame seeds. Pour over beef in a baking dish/ziplock and let sit for at least 30 minutes. (I've let this sit overnight, too) Heat some oil in a large skillet and saute garlic. Remove beef from baking dish and grill in skillet until brown around edges, about 30 seconds or so per side.
Serve and enjoy with white sticky rice and/or romaine wraps.
This bulgogi was off the chain.
I've gotta say, it was strangely empowering or gratifying or something to pull this off. The boys were so thankful, Cory was thrilled, Ruby got seconds of everything, and our company asked for the recipe.
I'll be making this meal again and again.
I'm just so grateful that my life turned out this way. I know everyone loves their own situation and thinks it's the best, but I have to say, I just can't imagine my life without these little lovey friends who came to us and love us and give us the gift of their culture and their general awesomeness, every single day.
As I chopped and stirred on Friday afternoon, I just kept feeling so lucky to be right here, with these humans who teach me things and make me laugh every single day.
Of course my life has been made infinitely better because of each of them, but our mash-up of cultures and characteristics is the salsa on the chip, man.
Friday, January 17, 2014
This isn't so much a DIY post as it is a Life is Grand and the World is Full of Inspiration So Go Grab it By the Ears and Do Something Just Because It Makes You Smile From the Inside Out. Preferably For Free.
You know how as soon as Christmas is over we all start wigging out and changing our hair and angsting about our shirts? We buy the grainy bread and do squats while the shower heats up? We decide, once and for all, that we probably don't need all those expired coupons in the junk drawer?
We become rabid self-improvement weirdos.
Our fix is a good project.
We need order in the court and the house.
(This photo is circa 2009, but sadly, things only deteriorated from here...)
December 26th came and, without warning, I suddenly knew the top of my dresser was a soulful, poetic, picture of my entire life.
The poem wasn't exactly pretty, either.
It was a little bit ee cummings, a little bit Sammy Kershaw.
Disorganized. Scattered. A howl-at-the-moon lamentation with bloodshot eyes.
I'm just saying, it was a mess. It stressed me out.
I needed a system.
I figured Cory could rig something up with a rake or knobs or you know.
So, I took to Pinterest searching "Jewelry Organizer".
Somewhere about 3 rows down, I saw something that sparked something and the rest is history.
It's one of those thing I've moved with me from house to house. I couldn't bear to part with it, yet I also couldn't find a home for it.
It's been living in the basement, with so much other stuff. (You can't even imagine the trouble I have letting go of quirky junk.)
I hauled it upstairs, and 10 minutes later, I had this.
It's imperfect and there's not enough room on my dresser-top for all my stuff, but life isn't about everything lining up cleanly at the edges.
It speaks to me.
It says, "Hey Girl, you've got a lot of necklaces."
(I don't think I have to tell you who voices my jewelry organizer.)
Push pins, circa back when I had a job and office supplies.
The Universe smiled on me in the form of rotting wood, all thanks to years spent alone in the basement, and the pins were like buttah.
People get all wacky about Pinterest and blogs and every dang thing. They say it makes us ungrateful and unsatisfied. It lowers our self-esteem.
I say it does the complete opposite.
This is my proof, and I'm sticking to it.
Some of my favorite jewelry sources ::
Lisa Leonard Designs
Garage sales/thrift stores
(LLD link is an affiliate link)
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Before we moved to this neighborhood, we were part of a robust public school system, one that prompted more than one homeschooling mom to say, "I wouldn't be homeschooling if I were in that school system." It ranks as a favorite in this area, and our experience there was positive if not perfect.
Back then, I didn't give this topic much thought, mostly because I didn't need to. I lived where the living was easy. My involvement never went beyond taking birthday treats to Calvin's classroom and showing up for programs. I never considered joining the PTO and I actually saw parent-involvement in the classroom as unnecessary and even a bit overbearing. After all, parents were never in my classrooms when I was a kid.
Of course most of this was unfounded. I was lulled into apathy, when I'm sure our previous school system could have used much of the same support I'm quick to offer now.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that flipped the switch. It was probably a combination of things. For one, I was curious about what exactly went on inside that old, brick building. I wanted to nose in and sniff around. Basically, volunteering provided a good cover for my latent helicoptering.
Once I was in, it was impossible not to notice the level of excellence among the teachers and administration. I saw the lack of parent volunteers and quickly realized I had something to offer.
Even more than that, I became consumed with the swarms of little people. I was probably compelled to them even more, knowing the vast majority of them were low-income, marginalized, struggling in ways that were foreign to me (but ways I was becoming more aware of with every passing week.) There is something about seeing a child's innocence and having a hunch about the path in front of them. For me, it inspired action and it galvanized my belief that all children deserve equal opportunity and all children have the same capacity for success.
The majority of students at our neighborhood school are locked into generational poverty. Their parents might be less involved in their education for a number of reasons, most likely not because they don't care, but because they are working (often multiple, low-paying jobs) or because a language barrier keeps them removed. Our school responds to these unique needs with great sensitivity and creativity. Every paper that comes home from the school is bi-lingual, and they cater to the schedule of a working families who may not have access to transportation. Both breakfast and lunch are provided free for all students. From Kindergarten, there's an emphasis placed on the potential of the students, with the eventual goal of attending college. Right now different roads are being paved for these kids. These early years carry the weighty responsibility of teaching them to love and value learning. I suppose I want to be a small part of that. It feels important.
I understand the United States educational system is broken in many ways. We are lucky to have landed in a Title I school where the administration has not simply thrown up their hands. By and large, they work tirelessly, and with passion. I don't know what I would be writing right now if our school was resistant to parental involvement, or if I got the sense that the teachers didn't give a rip. I don't know if my resolve would be worn down if the classrooms were constantly chaotic, or if it were obvious that my kids weren't being taught to their potential.
Maybe you read the lively riot of comments in yesterday's post, so it may be redundant, but this is what my family was called to. (And just as your callings and your reasons do not threaten ours, I hope ours don't threaten yours.) We were called out of several layers of fear, into a crumbling neighborhood with an "under-performing" school two blocks down our street. It wouldn't have made sense for our family to move here, wanting to live among our neighbors, then decide the education of their children is unfit or inadequate for ours. By educating our kiddos with the rest of the kids in this neighborhood, we have greater incentive to see that a quality education is being offered, and that benefits the entire community.
We are privileged to live in a country that allows the freedom of choice, and this is how we exercise our choice. We choose what is seen and even described by many as less-than, and we find so much more than we could have imagined. We had no guarantee that this would be the outcome, but we're so thankful it is. In making this choice, we're choosing stubborn optimism and hard work. We're choosing to see the opportunity to care about our entire neighborhood while caring for our kids at the very same time.
It's a reality that low-income students do not perform (on average) as well as other demographics. As such, low-income schools typically do not perform as well, at least on paper. The roots of this under-performance issue are tangled. I'm not knowledgeable enough about our educational system to solve that larger problem in one blog post.
What I can do is offer some suggestions on getting involved and being a presence in the local public school system, particularly in the under-privileged schools where resources (money, time, etc..) are non-existent and many of the students are more worried about not having adequate heat in the winter or enough food in the house than they are acing their spelling test or mastering the elusive cursive Z.
Many of these ideas may sound small, but I can attest to their impact.
- Volunteer your time in the classroom Even one hour a week can make a big difference to a teacher who is past capacity. There's a good possibility you're the only volunteer he or she has, and her appreciation will probably be obvious. Even if she's not the overly-appreciative type, by taking some of the busy work off her hands, you're essentially handing her the gift of more time to provide quality education to your child - and all the kids. Win!
- Join the PTO The PTO gave me a quick segue-way into the culture of our school by offering many outlets of involvement and connecting me with other moms who care about our school. These were some of my first friends in our new community, our shared concern for the students bonding us quickly. These opportunities also gave me a chance to start getting to know the kids, and as many of you mentioned in the comments, it's pretty awesome to offer a little piece of your heart to these brave little people whose lives probably aren't as simple as they should be.
- Clip box-tops & sign up for grocery store credits* I had no clue how important this could be to a low-income school before we arrived here. This is such a simple thing that so many of us take for granted. I was shocked to learn each Box Top for Education is worth ten cents! Collecting, sorting, and clipping can be a time-sucker, but totally worth it. Start sending them with your child or if you don't have a child in a public school, send them to your local public school anyway. It's essentially free money, and I have to believe any school would be wowed by your caring generosity.
Chamberlain earns thousands of dollars each year and these dollars can be used for things like building a new playground or funding field trips (just to name 2). I was surprised to learn that many of these things have to be community-funded, and when the community is dirt poor, that capacity is seriously limited. Every dollar, and every box top, counts!
- Engage your local church I've talked about this before, but we visited our church for the first time because it's a block-and-a-half away. We stayed because their mission statement is centered around serving the neighborhood and the school. We're constantly blown away by the way they have chosen to bloom where they're planted, honoring the call to love the poor around them, and doing so with much authenticity and heart, never to proselytize, but to be present, supportive, and encouraging in very tangible ways.
For example, our teeny, tiny, white-haired church serves dinner to the teachers and staff on Parent-Teacher Conference day, a day that runs them all ragged. A hot meal they can grab on the fly shows them we value their hard work. Our church also provides tutors to the Boys & Girls Club located next to the school and collects box tops. In December, they staffed the gift-wrap station at the Santa Store (one of the wrappers was a dear friend of mine who happily home-schools her son!), and the following day, Mike showed up as Santa, with our pastor as his Elf. :)
Sundays ago our bulletins were stuffed with these purple slips of paper:
Today, O Lord, I pray for the teachers and staff at Chamberlain Elementary School. Lord, encourage them in their work. Continually lift their spirits in the face of the many challenges they face each day. Let them know that you are with them. Give them the wisdom and knowledge they need to teach and guide the children under their care. Protect them in their work against all evil and harm, and day by day bless the work of their hands. In Jesus name, Amen.When my kids finally went back to school after break, I handed the paper slips to our Principal (knowing she's a Christian) in the drop-off line and she instantly teared up, which made me tear up, causing both of us eyeball freezage and allowing me to notice again that these things matter.
Today, O Lord, I pray for the children of the neighborhood around our church. Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” So let them come to you, Lord. Let them experience the fullness of your salvation. Protect them from all evil and harm. Make them secure in the knowledge of your love. Help them to grow up strong in faith as well as in body and mind, and lead them always in your way, your truth, and your life in Jesus. Amen.
Today, O Lord, I pray for the parents of the children who attend Chamberlain Elementary School. Many of them struggle to make ends meet. Many are single parents trying to balance the demands of home and work. Let the light and love of Christ shine in their lives. Encourage them in faith, hope, and love. Let them know that you are the one who sees all needs and can lift all burdens. And provide us with new opportunities to witness to them so that they might see your love and grace shining through us. In Jesus name. Amen
"Church involvement in schools is often limited to lobbying for prayer in school or protesting the science curriculum. We're very quick to judge what is being done wrong, or what doesn't line up with our theology, meanwhile, these kids are hungry or even homeless, the schools are under-funded, the teachers are over-worked. There aren't enough volunteers. We are missing out." - Educating All God's Children by Nicole Baker Fulgham
- Meet with the School Counselor One of the first things I did when we moved was schedule a meeting with our School Counselor. I probably freaked her out a little with some of my crazier ideas and my unbridled enthusiasm, but a month or so later, she contacted me with a very tangible need: laundry soap. She offered no details and I didn't ask. I just bought a bunch of laundry soap and dropped it off at her office. Being familiar with the Counselor is key, because he/she has a deep understanding of the population and its needs. And, I would imagine, he/she doesn't have people banging on the door to offer help.
That's my list, and I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments.
So happy and honored to be in the trenches with you guys, wherever your trench happens to be. The internet has its detractors, but I see it as such a source of encouragement and support and you inspire me to more compassion all the time.
Thanks for letting me talk even when our feelings differ.
This is community. Let's push ourselves to take it out there, because we all need the same things.
* Many of you have generously sent box tops to our school and everyone is excited about it at Chamberlain. I love getting texts or hearing from the school Secretary that another envelope came in the mail. They can't believe people in different states and even in different countries and continents care about our little place! You guys ROCK!!!
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
I spent my morning at a knee-high table with first-graders decked out in gold chains and rainbow loom ephemera, silver teeth and brand new high tops. I spend most Monday mornings this way, helping them sort laminated picture cards according to letter sound.
Learning the difference between long A and short A is tricky enough on its own merit, but add to the mix the fact that for most of your life, the letter A actually makes the sound of short O. I = long E. Etc... Imagine that you, a first-grader, know more English than anyone else in your home. Now what?
I'm baffled by the way they piece together an entirely new language when they still need help tying their shoes. I don't really understand why a gifted teacher would shoulder this additional challenge when a room-full of kids like my first-grader, steadily learning their letter sounds since forever, would be challenging enough.
Eduardo holds a picture of a skirt, "What is this?" I press him to guess, and he comes up with "dress". So I point to the girl sitting beside him, fortuitously wearing a glittered skirt, and we talk about why it's different than a dress. He totally gets it. Except, "I only know that word in Spanish."
These kids are bright and rascally and shy and determined. They're the full-spectrum of the characteristics of any first-grade class in America.
This is Ruby's first-grade class.
It's making me weepy right now just thinking about it.
Back when my concept of a low-income school was based solely on the fear-laced narrative of the media and others, like me, knowing next to nothing about this sort of thing, the idea of sending my kids to a school where over half their class did not speak English as their first language sank a stone in my stomach.
It's not as though I spent much time at all contemplating this scenario, and it was always theoretical and hazy, but when it did come to mind, I simply knew my kids deserved more. I believed their potential would be short-changed. I wanted the best for them - the best facilities, the best test scores, the best programming. I wanted them to learn in a classroom with kids who were right on track with them, in every possible way. It seemed only logical that kids trying to learn English while they also learned everything else would be a distraction at best, a handicap at worst. But bless their hearts all the same.
Just so you know, I'm ashamed to admit these things.
I'm a woman with so much cultural love. I've never been close to being prejudiced, or that's what I used to think. I wanted all the kids to get a fair and sturdy education, but my priority was my kids and it seemed their best shot would be at a whole-wheat, Sunday-best, middle-class, front-page, thriving elementary school.
I told myself it wasn't my fault that not everyone had access to what we have. It would be a waste to not take advantage of what was offered. Simply put, I saw absolutely no responsibility to try to fix anything, or even to be involved. In fact, I ran from the problem and pretended it wasn't mine.
The past 18 months have been an invitation to move out of our comfort zone, into a new environment that used to scare me. Way down to the wire, I was second-guessing our decision, digging for an out beneath everything I was finally starting to see. With every arched eyebrow and every slow shaking head around us, I defaulted to retreat. It seemed so much safer to stick with what we knew.
It's stunning and humbling to realize how wrong I was.
The backwardness of my rationale is embarrassing.
In truth, the unique fabric of our public school creates a dynamic that could, at times, pose what some might consider a distraction to a portion of the population. But regardless of the socio-economic or cultural breakdown of any school, there are necessary adjustments and inevitable modifications. No matter how homogeneous a learning environment, kids are not cranked out of a copy machine, pre-stapled and collated.
Not only are my kids receiving a quality education by adults who care for and push them, they're gaining a cultural awareness that I never knew we needed. They're recognizing their place in the world and discovering what they have to contribute. It's a beautiful thing.
Saturday night I watched the now-famous TED Talk, given by an intelligent and engaging 13-year old, Logan LaPlante, who is "hack-schooled" (think home-school with a de-emphasis on "home"). The picture he painted of entire days spent learning to survive in the wild and tweaking, or "hacking" all other facets of his education to suit his interests, was idyllic and inspiring. I went to bed that night feeling a bit blue at the edges, like maybe my kids are missing out on something, something I'm probably even equipped to provide.
The problem is, I'm starting to wonder if we're not missing the boat when we place such high premiums on educational success, or even creativity. I don't doubt for a minute that Calvin would rather be traipsing through the woods, whittling spears and tracking imaginary predators than memorizing math facts. But I know he was created for community and this is it. I know he was made for ministry. We all were. Right now, his ministry includes being picked last on the soccer team but continuing to turn out every day in spite of it. It's struggling through math while his peers whiz past. It's noticing the humor of his friend and thinking nothing of the fact that this friend is repeating 3rd grade. His ministry, today, is being his own little person, offering all that he is to the community around him, adding value to this haphazard body of students by simply being a part of it.
Our end-game is no longer high test scores, and eventual attendance at "top" Universities where they'll funnel into profitable or at least noble professions. Of course I want my brainy kids to realize their potential. I suffered a real sort of agony when Calvin struggled through math last year. I paid for tutors and made it my job in life to help him figure it out. I value the education of my kids and everyone else's, even the ones whose parents show up at a school program in April having no idea who their child's teacher is.
But we need to be careful that we're not elevating something that is only available or attainable for a select few. We need to do our part to advocate for the quality education of all the kids. Sometimes, we may even need to hop into the trenches.
I'm all for instilling a love of learning, but which kind of learning do we value most? Is our child's "happiness" more important than anyone else's? What do we really gain by sectioning ourselves off and closing ranks? More importantly, what stands to be lost?
Our family happens to be on a steep and rocky path of learning to place prime value on different things, things like humanity, community, being compassionate and supportive citizens of the world. These values are simply easier to learn and practice by throwing ourselves into opportunity. We're not trying to out-sacrifice anyone and we're not even close to being martyrs. To our surprise, this shift in the education of the Wee Martins has been a true bright spot, a point of clarity in a year filled with questions. We're learning to love being proven wrong.
As Nicole Baker Fulgham states in her slam-dunk treatise on public education, Educating All God's Children*, "As Christians, we are called to fix broken systems and restore what has been lost or been allowed to decay." We can all agree that there's work to be done and plenty of fixing on deck when it comes to achieving quality education for everyone. Whether we public-school, home-school, or hack-school, no matter our preference or calling, we aren't afforded the opportunity to sit this one out.
Meet me back here tomorrow and we'll talk more about that call to fix and restore, and what we can actually do along the way.
*This is an Amazon link. But seriously, you need to read the book.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Saturday, January 11, 2014
This is what I want for 2014.
I want to walk closer to the edge of myself.
Getting more in shape would be nice. Organizing the dusty corners sounds like a good idea.
I'd like to be more patience and read my Bible more often.
I want to love people more fully.
And hey, cobbling together our first official family vacation sounds like a worthy challenge.
None of that matters if I'm not not following where God leads.
And if I've learned anything at all, it's that walking behind Him means risk and sometimes even a little pain. It's all the things my flesh would rather avoid: tricky, grueling, exhausting, scary, humbling. And people will think you're a weirdo.
But there's a silver lining that casts a shadow on all the rest. Following blindly is exhilarating and life-affirming. It's addictive.
So, it seems the only way through this life is the constant reminder that it doesn't belong to me.
Watch this video and pay close attention to the lyrics on the screen.
This song was made for me, but I think it was made for you, too.
Happy Saturday, Dears.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
The thing about my life is that adoption is woven all the way through, a fine thread of gold. Sometimes it blends, hiding among all the other threads, and sometimes it catches the light while the rest fade away. On a bad day, my eyes are burned a bit. On a good one, I dance it its sunbeam while everything else seeps and grays.
I've been wide awake for all the latest waves on the adoption debate.
Adoption is good because it gives a child a family!
Adoption is risky because it separates a child from his family!
I struggle to land cleanly on one side.
I've felt defensive on behalf of myself and every adoptive mother I personally know, who loves without asking why and forgets altogether, at times, that some families aren't built this way.
I've felt sucker-punched over the gutting realities of trafficking and blurred or even broken ethics. Due diligence is not an option in this age of fraudulence and preying on easy targets.
Adoption might be slipping in the polls a bit these days. Trends are shifting. But at the end of the day, adoption and orphan prevention are a "both/and" situation. They aren't fair competitors. They're teammates. Anyone committed to tuning their heart to God's heart for the orphan needs to find a way to advocate for both.
My four children came to me for four very different reasons, none of which would have been avoided by offering financial or even emotional assistance to the birth mom. This outcome is complex, in every circumstance. From where you and I sit, it can look like nothing but puddles and mud, particularly in light of the heartbreak these kids were handed.
But I imagine things look different from where God sits. We know he values family. We believe his heart throbs along with every throbbing heart. He invented the language and action of adoption, and we reacted as adopted kiddos often do - so ready to fall weary into our rescue, but curious about what we're missing and suspecting there could be a limit to his love.
This world has been detrimentally compromised by sin, so I understand the argument that God's design did not include fractured families and emotional scars. But we need to tread carefully in this debate, because the healing and emotional prosperity of my four children and millions of others' depends on our unflinching insistence that God is in this. They have got to believe he didn't leave it to a bunch of idiot humans (that would be me and you. sorry.) to make a mess of it all while they stand holding the broom.
This is God's plan for their lives, and though it's not a plan without thick bands of scar tissue, it was intentional and by-design, the most complete picture of redemption I can imagine, an indulgent, showy garden of heirloom roses rising up from the ash-heap.
Every day, children are born with disabilities and illness, in poverty, and into splintered families. God allows the brokenness of our world into our lives in different ways, effectively introducing pain into our stories, yet knowing all along the hurt is often what drives us straight to him.
If we find ourselves teetering on the fault-line of "God intended kids to be raised by their birth parents", let's also consider that God intended a space-finite world without death, which would have born serious implications on the eventual existence of, well, us.
He's the ultimate dumpster-diver - plucking lives out of ruin and breathing holy life back into them; clutching the small, rescuing the wounded, and crafting a future bearing their name in swirly, hand-lettered ink. There are no cross-outs or strike-throughs, no eraser burns or misprints.
We overstep our bounds and exaggerate our power when we believe for a moment that we created this beautiful movement of people rushing out into the world to find their children.
We diminish the holiest view of family when we begin to define things with logic or science. I was always meant for Ruby, and she for me. From the foundations of the earth, my heart was destined to be bound to those of Ruby's entire birth family. I can't imagine my life without them and I would lasso the moon to have the same with my boys' birth families.
And though I would never have the guts to ask a child to give up all that he or she was born with, I also don't have the wisdom to see that beyond the hurting, it all makes perfect sense.
Adoption as God intended is the gift of a lifetime. Period. It requires profound bravery and blind trust. It challenges our assumptions about what we "deserve" and shatters our ideas about what we have to offer. Adoption is the great trampler of death, restoring hope to the hopeless and building family trees with limbs so love-laden, the leaves skim the ground.
I have much more to say on this topic, so meet me back here soon for Part II.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
This is what it looks like out the window into our back yard.
We didn't even go out. Just opened, and clicked.
And we very nearly perished, engulfed by a raging gust of frozen death air.
In lieu of self-inflicted cryogenics, this was simply the best we could do :: picnic table, knee deep.
About the picnic table? I don't know. There's the problem of the over-filled garage. And then there's also problem of our intermittent lack of both planning and general seasonal gusto.
But the real, over-arching problem is, I'm in hour 80ish of not leaving the house.
Let's pause for a moment of silence.
There's been an abundance of reading and crafting.
Building and cleaning.
Singing and griping.
(Love you so much, Kro-Kro!) I may get a bit of credit, too, but don't ask Robert, because he's not "into" food made of actual food.
There's no show here, people.
And if I think on that too long, well, I'll get verklempt.
And he seemed to like it, which means it was his first-ever game.
He thought the surprise candy cards were downright whimsical.
So today, in a courageous attempt to thwart any possibilities of collective, imminent demise, I pulled out all the fun stops.
These so-called "fun stops" included the following: Oatmeal with chocolate chips and peanut butter (set the breakfast bar low, Mamas!), plenty of books and cartoons, a Mexican fiesta in the living room for lunch, complete with Pandora Mariachi music (they weren't impressed. why???) and ice cream sundaes.
It's official :: Art is the ultimate unifier.
They were complimenting each other's work. It was insane.
Sometimes, there were slim stretches of actual silence.
baloney boats for dinner (it had to be done) (another first for Robert!) a new hairdo for Rubes, a few more books for good measure, and the kids' first episode of Diff'rent Strokes. (I daresay they learned more from 30 minutes with the Drummonds than they did from three Little Golden Books.)
See how we rocked this blizzard?!!
Except, they cancelled school again for Wednesday.
I don't understand. I just. I can't.
I'm scheduled to be at the gynecologists office at 10:15 and I'm looking forward to the break.
I keep wondering what it will feel like to breathe unencumbered oxygen for the first time in upwards of 100 hours. I hope I remember how to blow-dry my hair and drive a car.
All I know is, we'll keep trucking.
I hope you're okay with a general lack of depth around here this week. My words have been spent in actual words and my inner introvert is crying out for a little white space to sort important things into tidy mental and emotional piles.
For now, I'll stack towels and brown chicken and wear two pairs of socks simply because it feels like the right thing to do. This gig might not always be easy, but my cooped-up days were ordered, too. And I want to do more than just survive them.
Stay thawed, rad homies.