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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valen Times Day

I have a longstanding distaste for Valen Times Day, as our Maria calls it, because it demands a completely arbitrary celebration of love.  It goes against everything in me to do something just because the calendar says so.  It's not like Christmas which marks a very significant historical birth.  Or a wedding anniversary, which is an obvious time to reflect on love within a marriage.

But still, I find myself compelled, not by the 14 in the box on the calendar, but by my heart's desire, to put to paper some thoughts about my man.  The man who has stood beside me and called me his girl, even through our storms, which still do their share of storming...

I did not know, as none of us can, who I was commiting to share life with when I walked the long aisle toward Tim 15 years ago.  I thought I knew close to everything about him, but as it turns out, I knew very little.  And even what I knew is not relevant now, as he has changed so deeply and wonderfully since that day.

In a word, he is now much more self-aware.  He is eager to know who he was, who he is, and who God wants him to be.  And he wants me to join him in that journey.  I gladly join because he is soft and strong, not harsh and aloof.

Two weeks ago, we had an apartment full of throwing up children and a mommy who was herself sick and wearing very thin.  I stood in my closet, which has clothes strewn in all manner of disorganization, and within five minutes, I scratched down a long list of things for which to thank Tim...

So Tim, I know you like lists!  Here's one for you.  Remember the big kids first day of school? Tuesday, January 31?  I want to thank you for:

     Doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen.
     Making children's lunches.
     Staying home from doing your things to help with sick kids and baby.
     Putting sunscreen on kids.
     Telling me to take my time walking kids back from school, to stop and get a treat with them on the first day of school, even though you were home with sick girls and crying baby.
     Admitting I was right about your poor exchange with Wesley.
     Playing handball in the hall with Brock.
     Snuggling with sick Maria in her bed.
     Cleaning up Maria's throw-up in her bed during the night.
     Taking Wesley to the toilet every night.
     Drawing a picture with Rachel.
     Not pushing me toward you, but gently inviting me and waiting.
     Suggesting burrito-wrapping baby Anne at night.

Simply the quick list from that one day.  The list grows longer every day.

Most of all, though, I want you to know how thankful to you I am for this grand adventure we are on.  This Australian adventure.  Thank you for slowing down.  Thank you for doing the risky, hard work of looking at yourself.  Thank you for listening to me, seeing me, knowing me.  Thank you for taking me, our family on this beautiful journey.  I'm glad to travel with you.  Happy Valen Times, my man...

Sunday, February 5, 2012


You know that story about Gideon preparing to go to battle against his enemies, and God tells him to go down to the river and have his soldiers drink out of the river.  Based on the way in which each man drinks the water, God tells Gideon to eliminate a large portion of his army, to the point where the Israelites are sorely outnumbered by their foe. A victory under these circumstances is impossible.  Then by a miracle, God wins the battle for Israel.  The point: the victory is God's alone. 

That's what it felt like for me on Monday, Rachel and Maria's first day of school.  Felt like the only way I was a gentle mommy who did all that was required of me was because, in fact, God did it.

Last week, the whole family travelled via train across the harbor to North Sydney where we met Maria's preschool teacher, Ms. Alex, and familiarized her with the facilities at St. Thomas' Preschool.  She was all smiles as she found the sandbox, her cubbie, the toilets, and her name on the birthday list.

Then, the following Monday, January 30, the girls started school, which was one day before their brothers started, so we had a special morning celebrating Rachel's first day of "Kindy" and Maria's first ever day of school.  Rachel was a bit apprehensive about a new school, and even shed a few tears.  But Maria was nothing but eager to get to join the ranks of the big siblings in her life who attend school...

Upon arrival at the school building, Rachel tootled right on in, in search of her one new friend, Johanna.  With Rachel's successful start to her first day at St. Andrew's complete, the remainder of the family escorted Maria to the Town Hall subway station just outside Rachel's school, and onto the northbound train departing from platform 3.  The 10-minute train ride is lovely, and the view out the train window from atop the Harbor Bridge is reason enough to make the trip.

We stayed in Maria's classroom long enough to hear her introduce herself in front of the group with loud confidence.  As she happily participated in class conversation, we rest of us headed out... Tim and the boys to Shelly Beach, for one last hurrah before the start of school.  And Baby Anne Michelle and I took the scenic route home, enjoying our quiet bus ride home, then strolling through Queen Victoria Building, an ornate, airy shopping gallery.  We finished it off with a walk through Woolworth's looking for nothing in particular...

The boys' day at the beach proved to be a splendid, breezy, wave-crashing adventure.  They jumped off large rocks into the ocean and climbed into rocky caves along the shore.  Just the stuff boys love to do with daddy.

Soon after Anne and I arrived back at the apartment, around midday, Tim and I spoke and agreed it would be best if I retrieved both girls from their schools, in order to avoid the necessity of the guys having to cut their trip short.  It had taken longer than expected to get to Shelly Beach.

No problem.  I relished the idea of making my way to Maria's school and back to Rachel's without any assistance from Tim.  It felt like an adventure.  Little did I know what the remainder of the day would hold... It would be an adventure, indeed!

I spent about half an hour studying the various routes to St. Thomas' Preschool, on the corner of Church and Miller Streets in North Sydney. I could take the train, then hop on a bus, or just take one 25-minute bus ride from a stop near home to one very near Maria's school.  

As the clock ticked past 2:00, then 2:15, I realized I had better select the quickest option if I had any chance of making to Maria in time to get back to Rachel by 3:15.  And that meant there would be running involved.  A lot of it.  Uphill.  Carrying a baby. And pushing a stroller.

So I took a deep breath, picked up the sleeping baby and hurried off, hoping to make the 2:40 train to North Sydney.  I dodged through pedestrians who were definitely not in the hurry I was.  Then I realized I could save myself a little effort by pushing baby in the empty stroller, which would eventually carry Maria. Easier to run pushing a stroller with two hands, than to run pushing a stroller with one hand and wearing baby in wrap supported by the other hand.

I'm at the top of the subway stairs. I check my clock.  2:39.  Less than one minute to get stroller holding sleeping baby down stairs and down another set of stairs to platform.  Right.  I arrive at platform at 2:41.  Thankfully the train is a little late.  Four minutes until next train to North Sydney.

The train ride is a welcome rest.  But here comes the hard part.  I exit the train, ride the elevator up to ground level, get my bearings, and start moving.  Running.  Uphill, like I said, for about half a mile, pushing the sleeping baby.  Might not sound like much for some, but for this mommy whose only workout in recent history has been chasing young children around the house, it was quite a daunting challenge.

While running, I get a call from Tim who informs me that we have missed several calls from Maria's teacher throughout the afternoon.  Maria has vomited twice at school.  Could we please come pick her up? On my way!

 I arrive at the top of the hill, literally dripping with sweat, and make my way to the school, where other parents are also arriving to collect their children.  There is pitiful little schoolgirl Maria, being held by the teacher.  I apologize for being unreachable, as we are just learning how to use our new Australian cell phones...  I don't even know my own phone number!  I lift Anne out of the stroller and Maria climbs in, explaining that she threw up today at school and she rested on the cot in Ms. Alex's office.

Thankfully, I have a new friend whose children also go to St. Andrew's with our big kids.  I called her, now knowing that I would not reach Rachel by 3:15, to see if she could wait with Rachel until my arrival. She agreed. Also thankfully, the walk back to the train station is obviously downhill, so I strapped baby in my wonderful Moby wrap, and guided the stroller down the hill.

We boarded a particularly and unusually hot and stinky-like-urine train bound for Town Hall station.  Maria stayed in her stroller for the ride and baby continued to sleep. About two minutes before our third and final stop, Maria said her tummy wasn't feeling so good and she might need to throw up again. Mmmm.  What to do? 

I push the stroller to the doors. The train stops.  Maria chucks.  The doors open.  Maria is still chucking.  A poor, kind gentleman offers to assist me across the gap to the platform and reaches out, grabbing the very spot on the stroller footrest where Maria's vomit had landed.  I hear myself saying, "I'm so sorry.  I'm so sorry.  Thank you.  Thank you."  I can't bear to look at his face!

The crowds clear.  Maria has one more bit of vomit there on the platform.  Poor girl.  At this point, she doesn't really have much left in her stomach, which minimizes the mess, at least.  Can't find the elevator, so Maria walks barefoot up the steps (guess the shoes got messy during the first vomiting episode at school), while I carry the stroller (and baby who is still peaceful in wrap).

We find Rachel, playing with Johanna, and her mother, waiting for us outside of the school.  Rachel had a fun first day, though she's not sure of her teacher's name, and she's ready to go home.  So off we go, making the two block, 10-minute (at Rachel's pace) walk to the apartment.  As we arrive at World Tower, baby begins to cry, but we have one last excruciating errand: pick up Wesley's school jacket from the alterations shop in the bottom of the tower.

That task done, we finally make the 76-floor elevator ride and arrive to the cool and quiet of our home, my shirt and baby's clothing completely soaked with my sweat.  Phew.  I am shaking with exhaustion.

"Mommy, I just poo-pooed in my pants."  Oh, yes.  Maria's sick tummy provides expulsion out both ends. Let the good times roll.  Holding a now quite irritated baby who is waiting for her snack, I help Maria remove very soiled clothing.  I nurse Anne while Maria visits the toilet.  Then, Maria and I manage to both get showers after our dirty day, and all four girls plop in front of Australian tv for kids, channel 22.  Phew.

Only way I managed this day, only way a baby peacefully sleeps through two hours of a running, sweating, helping-a-sick-sister mommy, only way I don't blow my top through the tremendous circumstances of Monday, January 30... God's strength did it.   No chance I could claim that my own hand has saved me today.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Joy in the Journey

There is a joy in the journey.  A light we can love on the way.  There is a wildness and wonder in life.  

I have had a different spirit about me as we have travelled far from our home in Orlando to Sydney, Australia.  Past journeys have been marked by my attitude of "just get there."  Survival.

We began our travel on Wednesday, January 11, at 1:00pm from Orlando International Airport.  And we had a destination... First, Los Angeles, on a 5-hour flight.

We spent our seven hour layover at Santa Monica Beach, taking in a hot pink, soul-reviving sunset which sent us off on our 15-hour flight to Sydney, our final destination.

It departed at 10pm, which for our east coast-oriented bodies was 1am, arriving to Sydney time on Friday morning at 8am, challenging us to a full day of living before laying our weary heads on unfamiliar pillows for a fitful night of disoriented sleep for children and parents alike.

So we had a destination, but it was a journey like no other I have ever been on before.  The destination is lovely.  The arrival time is our preference.  The preparations have been made for the purpose of a smooth, timely trip.

But really none of that is important.  There is no negative impact if all plans fail.  
No worries if our flight is delayed or cancelled.  We'll just wait for the next one. 
No problem if children do not adjust to new time zone.  
We do not have to be sharp for work tomorrow morning.  We have time to work through the fatigue.

What's the point of the trip if not the destination?  
The journey is about the people.  
The children, five of them, including a newborn who often requires much more of me than I care to give.  It's about the man God gave me to do life with. 
To journey with. 

This journey is about the journey.  
It is about being right where I am.  
Doing just what I'm doing.  
Being with the ones God gave me.

 We read a John Steinbeck quote in the newspaper on the long flight to Australia:  
A journey is like marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

Tim and I are on a journey in our marriage. 
 A journey with our children. 
A journey in learning who God designed us to be, in learning how to love.  
And we are learning not to be in control, but to rest.

Because the destination is not important. 
 Knowing that changes everything.  
All of a sudden, the only thing that matters is now.  
Being where I am.  Loving the ones I'm with. 
This moment is no less important than the next.  
So live in it.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Adventure Begins

At 6:48 am on Monday, December 12, the seventh member of our family arrives... Anne Michelle.  She weighs in at 8 pounds 4 ounces, and four bright little morning faces are delighted to celebrate her arrival.