Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Chop

Am I still me when I get, as Rachel puts it, a "boy haircut"?  "Are you my mom?" asks Wesley, "because you don't look like her with your hair like that..."

For the first time in the whole of my 37 years, I have cut off my hair.  And I find myself wondering if I'm still me. I don't look like me anymore.  While it is wonderfully easy to have very short hair, my head feels odd, like I'm wearing a hat.  It seems that those who know me are looking at me funny.  And they must be thinking how much worse I look with short hair!

Then I talk to myself.  Why the chop? Because I wanted to! I wanted to know how it would look, how it would feel, and how much easier it would be to be free from all the frizzy strings hanging around my face as I make dinner, change diapers, give baths, hold a six-month-old sticky-fingered little girl.

But what I am learning is that my hair does not define me. Yes.  I am still me with this short hair.  My roles, wife, mother, daughter, do not define me.  My setting does not define me, whether Orlando or Sydney. God designed me to live and love in my very own Michelle way.

If I had never cut my hair off, I would never know whether I prefer my hair long or short.  Now that it is short, I know that I like the way I look with long hair, but I like the ease of life with short hair.  Now I know more about me.

If I am afraid of doing that thing which I've never done before... Or if I am paralyzed by what others will think of me as I make decisions in life, then I cannot know me.  I can never be the woman God made me to be, full of passion and life, if I am unwilling to step outside the lines, whether lines drawn by myself, my story, or others.

So here's to not being who I am "supposed" to be, but by dreaming, by risking, beginning to see who I truly am.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The child, the whisper

Last week, without prompting, our just-turned-four-years-old girl, Maria, recounted the Bible story she learned at preschool that day.  As she has maybe only once before shared with me a story from school, I was a bit surprised that she shared so easily on our bus ride home that day.

Then I realized her little girl voice was Jesus reminding me to be like Mary, not "Marker."  You see, she said, when Jesus came to Mary and Marker's house, Marker was busy cooking and cleaning.  But Mary, well, she was not busy, but was listening to Jesus.

Jesus does not need my doing.  No, He wants my face to be turned toward His. To be quiet and listen.

Again, I heard the Spirit whisper to me as I sat on the floor in front of the mirror with baby Anne.  She locked eyes with her reflection before her.  She reached out to touch her face.  She smiled and giggled.  She was learning who she is.

Become like a child, came the reminder.  Like Anne, look into my soul.  See myself.  Stop and gaze at the reflection without shying away from the person I see.  Smile at me, the one who reflects my Creator.  Find the beauty.

I cannot give myself away if I am ashamed of me, embarrassed at my reflection, afraid to be seen, even by my own eyes.

The voice, the face of a child.  What can I expect when I have five little souls constantly by my side?  Jesus is finding me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What's so great about a shepherd?

Forced to leave Australia by visa requirements, we spent our two-week Easter holiday on the north island of New Zealand, first in a mountainous region, then on to the southernmost coast of the island.  I loved both regions of New Zealand... equal in splendor and majesty, but quite different one from the other.

Wharekauhau, the very isolated, somehow mysterious coast, captivated my spirit.  The power of the waves crashing on the black sand of the desolate beach littered with sun-bleached drift wood.  The heavy cloud of mist cloaking the majesty of the mountains beyond the ocean.  The jagged peaks of the south island rising up through the hazy pastels of the setting sun.  Thousands of brown fur seals flipping about in the cold ocean, lounging in the sun on the craggy seashore.  The black silhouette of rocky mountains against the gray sky at dusk.  The gentle, crisp stream as it gathers speed in its eager journey over gray and white stones to be gathered into the ocean. That small feeling standing at the base of a sheer cliff of rock and dirt.  The quietness.  The wind. The stars in the black night sky.  The glory of creation on display.

Then there were the sheep. In a country of four million people, there are 40 million sheep... We stayed on a working sheep farm which manages about 10,000 sheep, used both for meat and for wool.  For the first time in my life, I experienced sheep and shepherds first hand. What are the implications of  Christians being likened to sheep?

Sheep depend on each other for survival.  Because one sheep has no means of defense in and of itself, it requires the herd for safety.  One sheep needs all the rest.  Strength in numbers.  Hmmm.  Doesn't sound much like me in my comfortable, closed-in, self-sufficient life.

Unless mommy sheep is cold, she will not protect her lamb from the winter cold.  Despite the whipping wind and freezing temperatures, the shepherd shears the ewes just before they give birth.  Why? If the mother does not experience the sting of winter, she will not find protection from it.  As her newborn lamb will not leave her side, it will freeze to death.  Hmmm.  A shepherd who designs discomfort for the good of his sheep? Bet that ewe thinks her shepherd is unfair, even cruel.

What else about sheep?  Sheep die without a shepherd.  Die.  Sheep are sheared roughly twice a year.  Unlike most animals who shed their winter coat in spring, sheep never shed their wool, nor does it ever stop growing.  So without their bi-annual shearing, their wool, especially when wet, becomes so heavy that the sheep cannot stand up under its weight.  He lays down to sleep, but cannot stand to move to food, starving to death.  Sheep cannot live without a shepherd, cannot live in the wild.

The good thing is that it is not up to the sheep to find his way back to the herd.  That's the shepherd's job. Our kids watched the shepherd, with the help of his dogs, try to catch a wandering sheep.  Not easy.  Sheep are quick and tricky, scared of people, often escaping from the corner in which he's been trapped. But when it is finally caught, he ties its legs together and puts it over his shoulders, the carrying a much easier task than the capturing.

And that's where I rest. I know I die without a Shepherd.  I cannot find my way back to Him.  But he will chase me.  Corner me. Find me. And carry me home.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Settling In

You know it's starting to feel like home when:

You hear your children humming the Australian national anthem in the shower...

On the bus, Maria casually asks, "How many stops 'til we get off?"

The kids are collecting awards at school for excellence in effort and character...

The school headmaster's motto sounds familiar... Socks up, shirts tucked, jacket immaculate.

The tooth fairy comes for a visit.

Friends check in with your kids to be sure no one's been messing with them... 

The boys have nicknames and call others by theirs.  Wesley is "Little Brock" and Brock is "Big Wesley" because they apparently look so much alike. 

Halfway through our stay in Australia, and it seems like we've just arrived.  Still it feels like home in so many ways.  We are all growing up, learning much about life, about ourselves, trying new things, and taking a good look at who we want to be.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Celebrating the Gift

Her life demands a conclusion.  All circumstances of life fall into one of two categories: Gifts from the hand of the loving Father OR accidents of random, even tragic origin.
 This fifth child, the one we did not anticipate, the one of whom we did not dream, at first felt like an accident.
When I learned we would have another baby in the family, I mourned the loss of many nights of sleep to come.
Then we embarked on this grand journey far from home... A tiny girl nestled against me.
Though she was utterly beautiful, still I caught myself imagining the simplicity of life with only four fairly independent big kids.  No baby to slow us down.
Do I trust God's goodness? Is this little girl a good gift to me?  Is life better with her? Wouldn't it be nice to be rested? Not to have an aching neck from toting her? To have more than three hours to myself before needing to feed?
I look into her bright blue eyes. I hear her sweet giggle. I hold her tiny hand in mine. I whisper her name, Anne Michelle, and wonder how she could be mine.
I give up my illusion of control. My life is not my own. I must rest in Tim's strength, in God's strength to care for these five children.
This little girl, now three months old, is not what I expected.  But I want her. I am overwhelmed with love for her.  
She is a splendid gift from a loving Father, who knew what I needed, what our marriage needed, what our family needed far better than I would have planned.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

Australians have an idiom: Cut down the tall poppies.  It means to criticize, attack, or resent people whose genuine merit or talent elevates them above their peers.  This is a deeply imbedded social phenomenon which powerfully influences Australian culture, as I see it, both for good and ill.
I spoke with a high school teacher this weekend, who described with disgust the lack of academic excellence which he has encountered over his many years of teaching.  It is part of school culture, he informed me, for a student to avoid distinguishing himself by his intellectual strength, lest he be labeled uncool.  The headmaster of the school where our children attend recently wrote an article lamenting the lack of opportunities for academically exceptional students within the Australian educational system.

The obvious problem with the tall poppy syndrome is the resulting drift toward mediocrity in all arenas of society.

But let's talk about the power of  cutting down the tall poppy for good... One of the first differences I noticed on arrival in Sydney was that taxi passengers ride in the front seat with the taxi driver, and they typically engage in conversation throughout the trip.  Why?

Because when no one stands out from the crowd as more talented or more powerful, we are equals.  Not just as stated in political theory, but in practice. Embedded within Australian culture is humility and respect for neighbor.  

We as Americans are known for our "beautiful abundance..."  The eloquently Aussie way of saying, Americans seem always eager for more, for overindulgence.  For this American girl who has bought the national notion that bigger is better, that striving for excellence is a virtue, I am now beginning to see the impact that has had on me.

I have never felt good enough.  There are other factors which have contributed to that feeling, but certainly a major contributor is society's claim that individual achievement is virtuous.  We have classrooms full of perfectionists who feel worthless unless the star achiever. Girls starving themselves to achieve the perfect body.  Hordes of people lining up to become the next American Idol, a superstar.  A culture that makes us believe we must be excellent in order to have value.

So here's to being just good enough.

Just good enough in my marriage.  I will never be the perfect wife which I have spent years imagining I should be.  Perfect is not real. Any effort toward perfection will end poorly, laced with resentment and delusion along the way.  I will never be the perfect mother.  If they are honest, my children will acknowledge both my love and my failings.  Never the perfect Christian.  Kind of defeats the whole purpose of the gospel.  Never achieve that longed-for feeling of contentment, toward which I expend such energy.

This side of eternity, I will only ever be good enough.  And that's good.  Because that's real. Wow. That feels good.  What a relief.  Rest from the striving.  

Just good enough.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Being carried forward

What is the point of our months away from everything familiar in Orlando? I ponder the question often. As I look back over the past few years, I realize my core is being dismantled to make way for a truer version of myself.  My true self was for many years buried beneath a moral, robotic shell of a person, and has only recently begun to be exposed.

Marguerite lives on Green Dolphin Street, also the title of the book which I am devouring. She comes to a similar place in her life... "By whatever devious and humiliating steps she had come to this place, she had nevertheless come to the right place... She was at home.  A surge of joy went through her.  If the wind was tearing the golden fruit off the trim little trees in their tidy pots, it was, with perpetual sweep of its wings, burnishing the stars."

The course of my life is not as I had expected.   In my naiveté, I thought marriage would easy and blissful.  I thought I would mother four lovely, but uncomplicated children. I though I would live in monochromatic suburban America.  I thought happy homemaking would be the sum total of my existence.  My tidy pots are having their perfect little fruits torn off.

But like Marguerite, I will not find myself, find God by my own means.  "Even in sleep, even through the night, the vessel had been carried forward by no virtue of her own;  and God had been within it all the time."

South Head, Sydney Harbor
So why are we here in Australia? Why city life? Why the unfamiliar? So that our vessels can be carried forward, not on the paths we imagined, not in our own power, not to the destination we pictured.  My prayer is that God will reveal Himself to me through his mysterious power experienced in ways I've never known before, whether in the waves crashing on rocky cliffs, the smile of a child I did not expect, the slow curving of the calligraphy pen, or in a fresh reading of the Ultimate Story.