Friday, April 29, 2016

The World Doesn't Decide Who I Am

When I was ten, my best friend was a girl from church named Tracie. She was two years older, infinitely more street-wise. We made potions, dressed up in her mom’s ’60’s garb, and daydreamed business ventures that never left the ground. We were small-town girls with skinned shins, daughters of a faith that tried to swallow us whole. We couldn’t make sense of our church or the people who kept failing us, so we leaned into each other, laughed until we cried, and on one fateful winter night, ate homemade snow ice cream and pickles until I puked in her carpeted bathroom with its shelves upon shelves of breakable elephant figurines.

Over a slow arc of years and then decades, she drifted south and I north.

We lost touch with each other in that unique way most childhood friendships eventually fizzle. But somewhere in a cardboard box is a tiny, plastic pickle pin, the kind meant to be attached to your bag or shirt in some strange showing of loyalty. We were young. We loved pickles and being weird together. What else was there to say?

Three summers ago, I was adapting to life in our new community. I was busy learning the flow of my neighborhood, learning names at our little church down the street, corralling a preschooler who was still trying to relax into our family, and making trips to the county jail. I was a writer, but I’d have only said so in a whisper. There was no book deal, not even close. I didn’t have an agent, my blog kept breaking, and I was sure I was alienating everyone with my incessant virtual lip-biting over all the change heaving my way.

I frittered over my dwindling comments. I obsessed over my traffic. I waffled between a keen understanding of exactly who I was, and the low-pulsing ache of wishing I were different. All around me, online friends launched further, faster, and my soul tinged green with envy.

And then I made a batch of pickles.

{click here to continue reading over at (in)courage...} 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Face of Freedom

Most Mondays I end up at Kroger. You could say I'm a regular there. Situated just across the railroad tracks, not half a mile away, it's easy to fall victim to the convenience of popping in several times a week for a can of green chilies, a gallon of milk, a bag of Cara Cara oranges because Ruby likes them cut into wedges. Besides, my friend is almost always working. We greet each other by name now. He asks about what I'm writing, his kindness disarming me each time. He's become an unlikely source of wisdom and goodness. A neighbor. A friend. I try not to notice the sadness behind his eyes.

Earlier this week I pushed my cart of privilege toward the van, spring air and sun on my face. The city thrummed, wide awake. It's funny the way nothing at all can spark a memory, its heat burning you back to a different time. It wasn't so much that I remembered who I had been, no. I became me, then. I walked the parking lot in my baseball cap, almost forty years old now, no longer referring to my neighborhood or this community as "new". Yet for a moment, inside this slightly looser skin was the woman from four years back, live as a wire about all I didn't know...

It had been my second visit to the dingy courtroom, hid underground like a shameful thing, its carpet worn, its lighting buzzing and dim. I'd driven her there, and she filled the air between us, preferring chatter over silence, talking like a mama to Silas who was tucked into his car seat with Charles in his lap. The worst was over. Everything was going to be alright. We plotted a fast-food scheme for afterward and I knew for sure, she was my friend. Two people can crash together in unlikely ways and exit the flames fused, somehow. That was us. I loved her. I loved the light in her eyes and wanted so desperately for it to burn into mine.

We sat for an hour or so, did what we were told. Stand. Sit. Keep your mouths shut.
We exhaled when it was over, our thoughts already turning to carbonation and salty grease.  And then they approached her. You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you...

The atmosphere slowed honey thick and she didn't say a word. She looked at Silas, then at me. I prayed there wouldn't be a scene, worrying for the hundredth time that it was true after all, we were inflicting pain on our children, slow and insidious. Without a single word, she handed me the set of keys she was holding for a friend along with her phone. Her free hand swept up to her long brown hair and it tumbled down around her shoulders. She handed me her scrunchie, the kind we used in the 90's, fuchsia faded down to a dusty rose. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why she wasn't reacting. I pictured myself in her shoes, frantic, sobbing. I imagined the screeching halt of my life and the lives of those closest to me if I were snapped into steel handcuffs for any reason, ever.

Four years later, having arrived at a place where jail is as much a part of our day as good books and dinner around the table, it's the scrunchie that levels me, that long, sweeping handing-off of oneself to another. No words spoken, because there weren't any that mattered. The light had extinguished, her eyes gone cold.

What I didn't understand then is that, for good and for ill, freedom can be found in the most unlikely places. Our friendship wasn't headed for a quiet death, but for the depth and truth born in loss.

Tuesday evening was the annual Elkhart County Jail Ministry Banquet, a party complete with redemption stories and ample slices of pie, thrown by my husband in honor of his friends. It's one of my favorite nights of the year. Just like last year, I teared up often. I hugged our friends who bravely bared their souls before strangers. As I was leaving, three sleepy kids in tow, a man grabbed me into a bear hug and asked about my book. "I was just telling my wife about it on the way over here." His eyes brimmed with tears. "I still cannot believe anyone cared enough about me to put my story in a book."

Our friend Tom, one of the assistant chaplains for the ministry, emailed me later, "it  had an air of  victory. it was intoxicating to breathe it in collectively for one night. and it was refreshing to see calvin, silas, and ruby adding to it with their presence. now that we have seen them growing up through your posts, they seemed to be a natural fit to the evening as it was all about family in theme. i'm glad to be a part of this family."

We tend to share the best stories. We want people to see the hope that was born in a manger to save our broken hearts. But don't misunderstand, our definition of "best" has taken a turn.

Sometimes success means avoiding the needle on off-days. It's a start, so we celebrate it.
Sometimes success means reconciling. Sometimes it means telling the truth. Sometimes it means getting locked up again, seeing it as a gift, and receiving it.

We went to bed feeling light, honored to be living this exact life.
I woke at 6 a.m. to a terrifying dream, unreasonably violent, piercingly personal, the kind that drew me to Cory, sound asleep beside me. I gasped for air, pinched my own flesh. This is real. That was not. "It's spiritual warfare", said a friend. I'm already a little nervous about tonight.

If you find yourself wondering at times whether I'm okay, the answer is yes, I am always okay for most of the day.

I'm also usually sad at some point.

There's no way around pain when we're forever dodging the shrapnel of addiction and bone-deep longing. We are bound to be struck.

But did you notice the way the cracks in the sidewalk fan out like the veins of a maple leaf? Did you see the neighbor kid wearing brand new shoes? Did you hear my child thank me for being his? Did you feel the weight of his shape in the chill of morning?

I sure did.

"Yet I am confident I will see the Lord's goodness while I am here in the land of the living." - Psalm 27:13

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why the World Needs More Recess

It’s safe to say my family survived spring break this year, though if you’d asked me at the time, I wasn’t so sure.

It wasn’t the fact that we didn’t jet off to a tropical location – we never do. It wasn’t because we had a houseful of kids – that’s pretty typical. You’re my neighbor, so you already know what the trouble was this year. It was the weather. Snow and biting temps kept us cooped up while outside, birds chirped their lament and daffodils begged for redemption.

We tried all the tricks – the library, Netflix, board games, special snacks. In the end, the only thing that worked was the discovery that nylon bean bags could be ridden down the basement stairs, rodeo-style.

A pattern emerged. The kids would enjoy twenty minutes or so of this revolutionary enchantment then emerge ready to focus on something a bit less eardrum-rattling. Though I didn’t necessarily understand the appeal and grew weary of tending to the results of underdeveloped navigational skills, I saw value in letting them get loud and rowdy at regular intervals. When all was said and done, imagination and play is what saved us...

I wrote a piece for my local newspaper about why recess matters. Click here to continue reading. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Hi this is Calvin, age 11 now. I regret to tell you that there was an Earthquake in Ecuador just a few days ago. I am very worried about the people and the Compassion centers that are thriving there. I hope that everyone is safe but it caused hundreds of people to lose their lives. I can only imagine the pain that families are going through, having them lose so many things during this tragedy. But as they say "good things come when you least suspect it".

Visiting Ecuador was a life changing trip and I really enjoyed it. Well today, about 2 months after we got back, I was called into my moms bedroom (i had no clue what i was about to hear her say) so she tells me that there was an Earthquake in the country I cherish. My response is "whaaaaaat!!" then we go and pull up this map of the area and sure enough there it is.

When you look at a map you think of a piece of paper with big pictures on it. Well, that must be a normal map. This was a horror map. All over the the screen "500 deaths" another one "we know that right now children and families who live in desperate poverty are in serious need of aid." I mean come on people what else could happen. Then I think of all the Compassion centers, the people and families that are being torn apart. I know that Ecuador has poverty but think about it, there are so many people that weren't in poverty and are now. We need to pray for them.

So, if you sponsor a child you could just make their lives so much better. And the $38 dollars you spend could give the child food, education, and hope. This is Calvin Martin and I want you to sponsor a child!

Editor's Note:
Compassion is a natural response to kinship. When the tragic earthquake hit Ecuador this week, I knew Calvin would care deeply. Walking a few miles with someone and beginning to relate with them makes ignoring their pain impossible. Calvin's immediate capacity to care humbled me.

We scoured the maps, paying close attention to Quito, where our sponsored child and his family live, and Manta, where we'd spent one unforgettable, sweaty day. Manta, a coastal city was hit particularly hard, and it's impossible not to think of the homes we visited, made mostly of sticks. We don't know for sure if any of our friends were affected. After visiting the Compassion website, searching for updates, I wondered out loud if I should blog about this. Without hesitation, Calvin broke in, "No. I want to write it."

He did just that while I played at the park with Silas and Ruby. Tonight, along with many of you who sponsored children during our trip in February, we are moved to pray for the country we love and her people. This is precisely why our support matters. Compassion has set up a special donation page if you'd like to offer additional help.

And if these recent events move you to sponsor a child, it's never too late. There's plenty of room for you in this tribe.

Much love,

EDIT: I just realized my teammate Ashley wrote a beautiful piece on the earthquake as well. Find it here. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Hold On

A month or so ago, I had an epiphany.

It must have been a Tuesday night, because Cory was at a meeting late. I'm sure the kitchen was a mess, the house was loud, and I was gearing up for that awkward hour that falls between dinner and the bedtime wind-down. "Everyone needs to go take their shower," I said.

And they did.

They scattered, grabbed their pajamas, adjusted the water temp, scrubbed their bods, washed their hair. I didn't help with a single step of the routine. They returned to the living room in cozy pants with wet heads and a distinct truth landed in my heart - I have arrived.

I've entered my second decade of parenting, barely, but still. It's strange to even type those words. It's difficult to imagine that my forties are closing in (two months away!) and even now, as I sit on my couch and type with the morning sun streaming into my *silent* house, I find it impossible to retrace the trajectory from then until now. 

I remember waking up to a houseful of pre-schoolers and toddlers. Nowhere to go, and honestly, why bother? The first stretch was always the easiest, those hours where yesterday's games felt new again, before the afternoon monotony and the fighting and the dinnertime-prep hour of doom.

I remember stirring something at the counter (what was I stirring? soup? salad dressing? powdered cheese into macaroni?) with a screaming baby at my feet. I'd hand down plastic measuring cups or a wooden spoon, "Look at this, buddy!", feigning brightness when all I really wanted was take-out and a nap. I wanted bedtime to fall softly on our good earth. I wanted to not be needed every second.

If I sound like a granny right about now, it's probably because I am one. Or, it could be because I took Calvin to his middle school orientation last night and I'm not sure when I'll recover.

Ruby does her own hair, most mornings.
They're allowed to go to the park with out me.
Just yesterday, Silas removed his own splinter without us even knowing it was there.

I could hum about time marching on, and I know you'd hum along. This retrograde longing is nothing new. But when it comes down to it, I wouldn't go back. Scratch that. I would, but only for a day or two. I wouldn't mind feeling the weight of my two-year old in my arms for a while and I would fight lions to hear Ruby's lisp again. I miss rocking Silas before bed each night during that first year, promising we would never leave him and that no one else could ever have him.

But if being a mom has only taught me one thing, it's this: wherever we are is the sweet spot.

Ruby has taken to accents. She sings like she knows things, and lately, she's not even worried if we hear her. She's beginning to understand the complexities of her beginnings. She's tired of all our fuss over Asian food. "When can we eat like my people?" she asked, though food from Malawi is more ordinary than she hoped and she can't stand fish. She's obsessed with MLK, though she simply calls him "Martin". Her best friend is Dante, and he said he's moving away.

Silas wore his "tuxedo" for Spring picture day. In case you wondered, it's black athletic pants with a red stripe down the side and his navy blue suit coat with a white t-shirt underneath. He's working on all kinds of things, like not saying "bad" words just because he knows them, and figuring out what to feed all his animals on Mine Craft. He'd like to learn Excel and how to type. He discovered the remote control for his moon also operates his flashing light. Two days ago, he had to walk laps at recess and think about his behavior. Yesterday, he tried "even though it was so, so hard" and had one of his best days in months.

Calvin keeps asking me to teach him how to cook, but is usually too busy reading when five o'clock rolls around. He's smitten with his violin, obsessed with Korean culture, and just in the last month has started caring what his hair looks like before he heads off to school. He's been asking hard questions about church and God. He wishes he could know his birth mom, like Ruby does. He's not the best at sports, but he still loves to play. His glasses are forever smudged and sliding off his nose. He's an early-bird to the end and hopes to join Robotics next year. He's committed to working through some complicated emotions and he's choosing love when it's hard. Pokemon is everything to him.

I love this life.
I thought it was my favorite back when I buckled them all into car seats and drove down the street to the library just to kill an hour, but I was wrong.

This is my favorite, this moment I'm in, where we ride bikes and stay up a little later together. I like this one, where they haul their laundry baskets down and I fold the warm shirts and jeans I would have sworn would never fit them. I choose today, with spring jackets, orchestra practice, and the reading log hanging on the fridge. I'll take the fit Silas will throw sometime around 4pm - now, it's always followed with "I'm sorry" eyes and a heart that can't stop loving me. I can handle the bickering. And if they don't like dinner? Well, they'll eat it anyway. We all know the drill.

This is the good stuff, and I'm passing it on to you, wherever you are.
I'm not saying we have to seize the day, but we get to hold it - like a gift.

So we do.

*Photos courtesy of CMB (Cute Maintenance Boy aka Cory, for those of you who are newish) ;)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Good Mom

I stood in my kitchen, dragging a soapy rag across the counter-top in the stillness of a frosty morning, listening in through the tiny speaker of my phone as two women I've never met gabbed. I nodded along and laughed with them. I learned from them. They made doing the dishes a more companionable endeavor.

"Everyone does motherhood differently. There's no one right way. At the end of the day, my kids are all serving the Lord, so I'm obviously doing something right. That's how I know I'm a good mom."

I rinsed the skillet, drained the sink, and turned her words over and over.
I went about my day, and they went with with me.

I've probably spoken similar things, though not recently. There was a time, earlier in motherhood, when I clung to the cute prayers my toddlers would whisper in the fade of dusk, all their s's filed down with a lisp. I remember "praying the prayer" with a pre-schooler and believing I had fulfilled my life's work.

I penned entire volumes on yellow legal pads to my son sitting in prison and felt closer to the Lord than I'd ever been. And when his responses landed like a song in my mail box, stacked with questions about God, loopy script devoid of punctuation but pulled hard toward possibility, I had never been more certain of His love for me. Robert found God apart from us, and I knew nothing of the jailhouse Jesus. The only Jesus I knew was the one who cannot be outrun. He's the one who sniffs people out in dark corners where they're positioned to listen. I know this from experience.

Yet all around were Christians who found themselves incapable of holding a steady gaze when I glowed about the redemption of my newest son. Their skepticism showed its face in the single arch of an eyebrow and I burned with unholiness. Others dove straight into the deep end of my hallelujah, and I worried I hadn't given them the full story.

The truth is, opinions had no bearing on the gravity of the miracle. Wait, was it a miracle? Or was I just naive? I became vigilant about Robert's spiritual health, constantly taking his pulse, checking his vitals, looking past his pain in search of fire. I was a good mom, after all. My status hinged on it staying lit.

Over time, I quietly grew satisfied with just a few curls of smoke. You know what they say about smoke, that somewhere, something smolders. All it takes is one strong whip of wind...

He moved in, and the roots of our love pulled us equally under, anchoring us as a family.
He moved toward us, and away from God.
He sat in the dark - we sat there with him - and he said he wanted us forever, but not our faith.

The longer I'm a mom, the less I really know. I'm probably not alone in this.

But here are a few things I do know. I know the church has allowed us to believe our job is to raise children of God, or maybe it's soldiers for Christ or Jesus Freaks or some other cliche that feeds our hunger for independence and pride. It's half true at most, and the distinction is important. We are tasked with leading our children well, pointing them to the cross while bearing the unique weight of not owning another's soul. Nothing more.

I know our kids who look us straight in the eye and say they don't want God might be the very people God uses to remind us of His unflagging affection and authority.

I know when we default to boring, blanket statements about whether or not we're getting things "right", it's only because we know there are so many glaring things we're getting wrong. We are all hard-wired to self-soothe. We want so badly to sleep at night. I get it. But we are not fooled by our own words. These platitudes do not strengthen the kingdom.


I am learning to count grace where I find it, often in the most unlikely places. Two nights ago I wrestled for it in the dark. Where was it?

The wrenching truth is, I pray for the salvation of all my children (and you know I use "children" loosely) but I can do nothing to secure it. There are moms who have "heard from the Lord" that their children will all come to serve Christ. I am not her.

I do hear from the Lord. Our talks are unfancy treasure, infusing the air around me. They are my feet on the pavement, my hand on my child's cheek, the water beating down on my shoulders in the morning, the closed fists of blossoms making promises they will keep. He loves me. He adores you. He created R in His image, with intention. I can be sure of this.

Our job is not to lasso our kids' hearts for God then hand Him the rope. We cannot tie our goodness to an outcome that was never ours to to create.We've gotten this all wrong. Our job is to reflect His goodness while we are here in the land of the fumbling, wrecking-ball living.

It's time to reshape this narrative.

When I walk in my limitations, I am a good mom.
When I remember my cupboards are bare of power and sovereignty, I am a good mom.
When I have the courage to look at my screw-ups and past theirs, I am a good mom.
When I am willing to see myself in their thin places, I am a good mom.
When I pull my wanderer into a tight hug and promise there is no end to my love, I am a good mom.
When I speak the truth, pray, and hold up my light with shaking arms because it's all I know to do, I am a good mom.

When I never stop hoping, I am a good mom.

God holds us in his palm. We can only feel the ground under our own two feet.
But it's bright here. It's warm. We radiate the goodness of our safe place.
It's impossible to know who might be moving toward the light on our faces.

Maybe that's the whole point and perhaps it is exactly enough.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


It's tricky when you go on a road trip to Kentucky to stay in a cabin for two days with strangers before Spring Break has even started. What inevitably happens is that you find yourself back home and it's cold and rainy. And your kids are home for the next ten days straight.

It has Howard and I like:

They sure are cute, though.

And I have to say, yesterday was way better than Thursday. We rallied with a long, rainy walk and a trip to the library. Two down, seven to go! (help!)

Today my hopes and dreams are to finish this book for book club and plan my April menu.
But first, I wanted to share some things that have grabbed me lately.

:: The Spiritual Discipline of Touring Your Own Hometown by Emily P. Freeman
"This is the place where God wants to meet you, for better or worse."

:: "When You're Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression" by Chris Boeskool for Huffington Post

:: Serial Podcast - Season One 
We're utterly hooked. I even dreamed about Adnan and Hae once since listening.

:: Have a look at this sweet Gerber baby formula video, starring one of my favorite families, Becca and Adam from The Stanley Clan. I love, love, love that they had the opportunity to share their unconventional life along with their love for their kiddos and their neighborhood.

Here's some of what's keeping me busy these days:

:: Cory and I are speaking at the one-day Rooted Chicago conference on April 23. We'll be taking the stage with Bob Goff and I'll be part of a break-out session in the afternoon. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. Rooted is everything I keep saying conferences need to be. The speaker line-up is dynamic and diverse, it's inexpensive and designed for locals, and there's scholarship funding available because they want it to be accessible to anyone who wants to be there. The cost for the (very full) day is $50, including lunch. If you use the code SHANNAN at registration, you get $10 off! We would love to see you there!

:: I got to chat with Sarah Bragg on her podcast, Surviving Sarah. I'm still in the phase where I go back and listen once it airs, field research and all that jazz. The truth is, I never get tired of talking about the things that make my heart beat. We could have talked for hours, but kept it at just one.

 :: Lastly, some brand new friends (as in, I'd met a couple of them a few times and a couple more of them never) invited me over for a cooking club lunch on a Friday afternoon. I was under deadline. It required planning and effort. I felt a certain urge to make myself look presentable...all things that would have made it easy to say no. But instead, I said yes. We each made a dish from Smitten Kitchen and shared a feast in the middle of the day while their littles played, got muddy, and bickered outside. What??! It was amazing. {I contributed this arugula, potato, and green bean salad.}

Happy weekend, Homies!
~ Shannan