Monday, April 22, 2013

A Phrase You NEVER Hear at the Playground

Once again, we are on the road. The trip this time will only last about 10 days, but we are covering a fair amount of mileage in that time: Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Kansas City, MO and back, to be exact). But after our 4-month road trip on the big blue bus, I feel like a veteran at all this “living out of a suitcase, eating the umpteenth continental breakfast at the umpteenth hotel, 6-people co-existing in one bedroom” business. And one thing I learned early on was that when weather permits, find the nearest playground and let the little creatures run loose.

That’s what we did this morning. The forecast said rain would arrive around noon so I hurried the children into jackets and shoes and shooed them out to the car in pursuit of slides and swings and monkey bars. A mile from our hotel, we struck gold.

About halfway through our stay at the playground, a fellow mother came over to round up her children in order to leave. She came striding across the mulch-covered ground, sweetly calling, “Beautiful children! Beautiful children! It’s time for us to go!”

Her chosen address for her kids really struck me. I have often made “final announcements” to my children on the playground with any number of phrases:
“Smucker kids! Let’s go!”
“Alright, you crazy kids! Time to leave!”
“Times up! Everyone in the car!”
“Mom’s tapping out; it’s Dad’s turn now! We’re outta here!” (Okay, not really, but I’ve wanted to.)
But never have I thought to say, “Beautiful children!”

I’m not sure what that says about me as a parent and I may later on question why I posted this, but upon hearing that mother, I immediately decided that I want to incorporate that phrase more often in the way address my children from here on out. I say that for this reason alone:

There are enough things my children will be called in their lifetime that will speak directly against the beauty and purpose with which God created them, and I do not want for one second to be associated with those voices.

Lately, I’ve been struggling a lot with the “voices” that have told me things throughout my life, sometimes coming from the lips of others and all to often coming from my own. And I’m seeing what a liability the wrong kind of voices can be. They hold us back from stepping out, from dreaming bigger, from loving better, from living lives filled with hope and purpose and power.

When Shawn and I were in the thick of financial difficulty and still living in his parents’ basement last fall, I had a difficult conversation with a very sweet and well-meaning friend. At that point, after much (and I mean crazy amounts like I have never done before in my life) prayer and soul-searching, Shawn and I felt he needed to continue to pursue his dream of being a full-time writer. From the outside, the decision looked totally irresponsible at best, and my dear friend told me so.

After listing her concerns about our decision to me, I took a deep breath and responded. I said: “I absolutely hear what you are saying and please let me reassure you that none of your concerns are new to me. I have that list running through my head every single minute of every single day. In fact, I have so many voices in my head telling me that this will never work and we are complete fools for trying, that it’s a miracle that I’m not right now curled up in the fetal position in my bed whimpering like a lost puppy. But we feel called to this; in fact, I KNOW we are called to this so we’re going to do it. And what I could REALLY use right now are some positive words, voices telling me “It’s gonna be okay”, “You guys can do it”, “Keep hangin’ in there”. That’s what I could really use right now because God knows I don’t have enough of them.”

I hope my response was gracious when I said it; honestly, I can’t remember the tone at all. But I remember my friend saying she could do that; and she did.

What are the voices telling you right now? What voice are you being in the lives of those you love? I’m not proud of what I’ve always said in the past, but I think from here on out I will make “Beautiful Children” a regular phrase upon my lips. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Miscarriage: A Lonely Grief

I wrote this post a couple of months ago after we had our most recent miscarriage.  It was so deeply personal when I wrote it that I felt I couldn't share it, at least not yet.  Then I heard this week that a very dear friend of mine is miscarrying, and the heartbreaking email she sent me prompted me that now was the time to post.  

“It’s such a lonely grief, isn’t it?” Shawn said as I sat across from him at the kitchen table, wiping tears from my cheeks with shaking hands, salt bitter on my lips.

I nodded.  I felt so distant from him, from everyone, really.  I’d had this same feeling before.  Five and a half years ago, we’d gotten the same diagnosis from an apologetic ultrasound technician: no heartbeat. Back then I remember feeling angry at Shawn for not crying himself to sleep the way I did, for not walking around the house in a stupor of grief like me.  I wanted him to feel the pain I did.  But he didn’t; he couldn’t.

And this time around I understood that and didn’t hold it against him.  This was my grief.  Not solely, but definitely primarily. And the anger didn’t show up this time for one major reason: I wasn’t looking for validation.  With my first miscarriage, I wanted it to be okay for me to be sad.  Everyone said it was, but I didn’t believe it in my heart. I thought that because I didn’t have a flesh and blood baby to put in the grave, my tears were sensational, an emotional indulgence.

With this miscarriage, I felt that admonishment creeping up.  “Maile, it was a dream, a thought, not a baby.” But my soul couldn’t consent.  Inside it felt like such a loss that I knew out of respect for myself, I had to acknowledge this event as “major” even if no one else did. So I held tight to that conviction.  I talked openly about my sadness, gave myself permission to cry in front of others, to lose it, to sob uncontrollably in the shower, in bed, in the car, at the table. 

And to my surprise, I found the gracious support of so many surround me. The hugs of fellow women who suffered through miscarriages began to disperse the loneliness in my grief.  The texts, emails and voice messages of friends and family across the country gave such comfort. The whispered conversations I cried through with Shawn late at night as the children snored beside us reminded me why I married this man. And while I grieved hardest, I certainly didn’t grieve alone.  And that’s a gift.

Strangely enough, I think the greatest gift in this whole sad occasion was the actual miscarriage itself.  With my first miscarriage, my body wouldn’t release the baby on its own for some unknown reason so after 2 weeks of waiting to miscarry, I had to have a D & C. This time around I begged God for a different outcome, and He chose to answer my prayer.   

The day after we found out that the baby didn’t have a heartbeat, I miscarried that little life.  It began like a regular delivery: bleeding, contractions, my water breaking; everything occurring with Shawn beside me like the births of all our children. And then the remnants came. It’s strange how grief and healing come in the same gasp, the same groan.

A few days later we made a trip down to the property where we’ll be moving to shortly, a grand expanse of trees and hills and hidden clearings.  Under the almost barren limbs of a sturdy tree, we buried what I had birthed.  We named the baby Ruby, red for the way she entered this world and stained my fingers along with my heart. Shawn quietly dug a hole while the children, my mom and I looked on. In the emptiness we placed Ruby's box with the word HOPE etched on the top. Shawn spoke a solemn prayer over her.Then the children each took a turn helping him shovel dirt over the box.

Afterwards I lingered there beside her little pile of rocks (a monument solemnly built by her brothers and sisters), while Shawn ushered my mom and the kids back down the path. He sensed my need for solitude, and later my mom would tell me how he stood at the mouth of the path leading up to Ruby's grave, guarding my solitude like one of Eden's angels.   

Alone in the stillness, I cried, but not much.  Already peace and healing were blooming inside my heart. In time, I stood up, straightened Ruby's make-shift cross and walked down the path into the clearing.  With damp cheeks, I smiled as our four children laughed and chased each other among the fallen branches and mounded stones.  


Friday, November 16, 2012

Foodie Friday: Maple Pumpkin Gingersnap Pie

 One particularly somber day a couple of weeks ago, when my shoulders felt heavy with invisible burdens and my heart tender to the touch, I put on a movie for the kids down in the basement while I escaped upstairs to the quiet of my mother-in-law’s kitchen and assembled a variety of tools around me: a vegetable peeler, a large knife, a cutting board, two metal pots, and a piece of cheesecloth.  I laid a neck pumpkin with its awkward posture, upon the cutting board and began to peel the smooth milky orange skin from its body in long, thin strips while Christmas music mingled in soothing notes around me. For the first time in weeks I felt light and happy.

I peeled, I chopped, and I simmered. Bending over a steaming sieve nestled in the sink, I squeezed the hot pumpkin flesh wrapped in cheesecloth, till my hands ached, and smiling, I audibly rejoiced with each drop of liquid escaping through the cotton mesh. And soon I discovered that for the past hour, I had managed to deal tangibly with emotions I hadn’t been able to grasp up until that moment.

For the past month I’ve fought with the frustration of my incapability to put words to the hurt and sadness I’ve felt recently. I’m a woman of words; I love crafting them, massaging them, ordering them to do my bidding.  But suddenly I’m without words when I so desperately wish I had them.  They have always been such a comfort to me.  And just as I was beginning to resign myself to comfortlessness, God reminded me that He is a God of comfort.  And He’s a God of generosity. I didn’t need to constrict my healing to the realm of words; I could find it elsewhere if I allowed Him to show me, if I consented to follow where He lead.

And He lead me right into the kitchen.

In case you need to pursue a little “healing” in your own kitchen this Thanksgiving, here’s a wonderfully different take on your traditional pumpkin pie. Enjoy!

Mai’s Maple Pumpkin Gingersnap Pie

40 gingersnaps
½ c. pecan pieces
5 tbsp. butter, melted
¼ tsp. salt

2 eggs
2 c. pumpkin (I use fresh but you can certainly substitute with canned pumpkin here.  Just make sure it’s 100% pure pumpkin.)
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. maple syrup (Sorry, folks, no substituting with Aunt Jemima’s here.  You need the real deal. I know it’s pricey, but it is oh-so-worth-it.)
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (I don’t put as much spice in this pie as a regular pumpkin pie because you have so many spices coming through with the crust. You don’t want to overpower your palate.  Besides, any more spice in this pie and you are practically begging for heartburn.)
½ tsp. kosher salt

For the crust, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Place the gingersnaps and pecans in a food processor, pulsing the contents till them reach a crumbly consistency.  Add the melted butter and salt, pulse a couple times till the crumbs begin to stick together, and then dump the mixture into a 9-inch deep dish pie pan (I’ve used a regular 9-inch pan before and it worked fine; you’ll just have some crumb mixture and filling mixture left over, which isn’t all bad because crushed gingersnaps mixed with pecans and butter are really best enjoyed with a big ole’ spoon).  Press crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Set aside.

For the filling, bump the heat on the oven up to 350 degrees. After that, simply mix all the filling ingredients together in a large bowl.  You can get out your mixer if you feel so inclined, but if you don’t mind a little arm workout, a whisk and some elbow grease will work just fine, as long as everything gets mixed together well. Pour the mixture into the prepared crust. At this point, I like to make a little “crust shield” out of aluminum foil to protect the crust from getting too brown.  You can actually buy these things at those fun gadgety kitchen stores, but I take the cheap route and just cover the edge of the pan with folded and bent pieces of foil. Place the pie in the oven and bake for 60 minutes, or until filling is set.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Foodie Friday: Curried Butternut Squash Soup

I’ve always enjoyed the thought of cooking with butternut squash.  The few times I ate it when others prepared it for me, I loved it. But something about that strange little vegetable intimidated me.  This fall, however, as I saw its bulbous shape popping up at all the market stands on the country roads of Lancaster county, I decided to stare it down and conquer it once and for all.

Actually it all began with a recipe.  I like to keep a little accordion folder with recipes that look interesting or irresistible, and then leaf through them every once in a while when I need to spice up our family’s menu a little bit. (What I really mean is: I pull out the accordion folder when I’m sick and tired of eating chicken noodle soup, chili, and tacos.  My children would gladly eat all three on a constant rotation for the rest of their lives. Me? Not so much.)

So one day as I leafed through my collection, I stumbled upon a recipe for curried butternut squash soup. Let me tell you right up front: I’d eat about anything if it’s curried.  I love curry. I think my adoration probably hearkens back to my childhood when my dad would regularly whip up a big pot of the most amazing curry stew. Curry means “home” in my book.

Knowing that I had a slight fear of the butternut squash, I seized this recipe as the perfect opportunity to overcome it. I loaded the kids in the car, drove down to my favorite little market stand nestled by an orchard on a windy country road, and I bought me a very modest looking squash.  Just the buying it made me feel good, like I’d really accomplished something.  I took it home and sat it on the kitchen counter.

And there it sat.

For three weeks.

I had no idea how long that sucker would even last before it rotted right before my eyes. It looked durable enough.  So I lingered over the idea of cutting it up, thinking about it in the shower, developing my game plan as I lay in bed at night.  I gave myself pep talks. I reminded myself, “it’s okay to fail”. I gathered the ingredients for recipe around the squash, hoping that would spur me on, bolster my confidence somehow.

And then, on Tuesday afternoon, when I tired of looking at the cloudy skies and windy downpour of Hurricane Sandy, out of sheer boredom, I drew my butcher’s knife from the drawer and went to work.

Truthfully, it wasn’t that big of a deal, as usual. I tend to do this in life. I really build a task up in my mind to be the Titanic when if I’d buckle down and just do it, I’d realize I’m dealing with a rowboat here.  I peeled that bad boy, chopped it up, and added it to a boiling pot of broth, curry, potatoes, parsnips and onions, and 30 minutes later I had the most velvety smooth, deliciously healthy meal with which to drown the cold that Sandy blew in.

Really, try this recipe. It’s almost insulting how easy it is, especially when you get such a sophisticated tasting dish at the end.  And it's perfect if you're having those "cool cats" over who are all gluten-free and vegan and all that jazz; it's gets a check in every category. Lastly, if you’re a butternut squash virgin, don’t sweat it. You got this.

Mai's Curried Butternut Squash Soup

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. sweet onion, chopped
1 c. parsnip, peeled and chopped (If you don't know what a parsnip is, well, look for the albino carrots at your grocery store; that's a parsnip. I first started cooking with them when we lived in England and instantly fell in love.  They're a perfect cross between a carrot and a potato; weird, but good.) 
2 tsp. curry powder
1/2 of a 4 lb. butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped (Okay, so the original recipe called for 1 1/2 pounds of butternut squash.  All I knew is that I had a squash that was around 4 lbs. but I had no scale to accurately measure whether 1/2 of that squash peeled and deseeded was what the recipe called for.  So I proceeded to try and measure the weight of the squash by balancing a box of spaghetti in one hand and the halved, peeled squash in the other. It really should have been on video.)
1 1/2 c. chopped potatoes
1 (32 oz.) carton of vegetable broth
1 (14.5 oz.) can vegetable broth
2 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add onion, parsnip and curry powder and saute for about 5-7 minutes, or until everything is softening and starting to turn golden brown.  Add squash, potato, and broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook everything for about 25 minutes, or until veggies are nice and soft.  Add the salt and pepper.

With the next step, you have some options. If your husband just so happened to score really big by getting you an immersion blender for Christmas last year, then whip that baby out, stick it in the pot and blend away.  If you belong to the other category (poor you), then grab your blender or food processor and blend the soup in batches, being sure to let the steam escape while you are processing.

Ladle the soup in bowls, perhaps garnish with a bit of plain yogurt or a sprinkling of chives, and you, my friend, are done. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What Are You Full Of?

I'll be honest.  I didn't even want to publish this post today.  It's humbling when you have to follow up a chirpy "Yeah, God!" post with one that's a little more "God, I'm having second thoughts". But I feel in order to keep things authentic, I have to do it.  This journey doesn't always follow the most direct path, but there's things to see and learn from the scenic route with all its hills and valleys.

Just in case anyone has ever come away from one of my blog posts thinking, “That girl’s right on, she’s just cruising down the straight and narrow, just receiving what God has to offer” (not that anyone has ever thought that, but even if there’s a .001% chance, I have to present this evidence to the exact opposite of that statement) I submit to you an excerpt from my life, yesterday:

Shawn came home and I certainly wasn’t a fount of positive reinforcement or joy.  I was miserable and glum and nitpicky, slumped over a bowl of Butternut Squash Soup (rather tasty, I might add--recipe to come at a later date) and scowling. Not even food could cheer me up. I’d just had too much: too much basement living, too much homeschooling, too much refereeing children arguing, too much enduring temper tantrums (and not my own this time), too much heaviness in my heart, and too much “fog in front of our headlights”. So after I cried and ranted while loading the dishwasher, Shawn suggested I leave the basement and take a little time for myself by holing up in his parents’ loft upstairs.

Talk about a gift. I realized straight away, as soon as I had a few moments of protected quiet (you moms out there know what I’m talking about) that while I had no qualms with believing  that God was good, I did have a sneaking suspicion that He was rather impotent. You know, the sweet guy in all the rom-com’s that comes through with the kleenexes and a good pep-talk just when the heroine’s about to give up.  But he’s not dependable in the big ways because two scenes later she’s saving his life when he chokes on a meatball sub, sauce all over his cheeks and purple-faced. 

That’s the God I was beginning to envision: big and loveable but not a game-changer. Because how else could I explain the things that hurt in my life the most, areas where He could have swooped in and changed everything. He could have and He didn’t. So in order for me to cling to the “God is good” theology, I have to sacrifice His ability to actually do anything about the bad things in my life.

But that verse from Psalm 62 kept coming to mind. It said:
“One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
That you, O God, are STRONG [emphasis obviously mine].
And that you, O Lord, are loving.”

Yep, he’s loving and good, but he’s also strong; he’s powerful. Believe me, it’s not fun following a God who’s a weakling. You feel unprotected, you feel vulnerable, you feel weak yourself, left out in the elements (think Sandy) with no visible protection. Don’t get me wrong; the peace I’ve felt lately wasn’t counterfeit.  It’s still there. I feel it as I’m writing this. And I feel as confident as ever of His love. I have no doubt that heaven will be spectacular and glorious and beyond everything my measly little mind can imagine. But I guess now I’m just questioning His abilities here on earth.

Because living only to experience glory in heaven isn’t buying it right now.  It’s not depositing in my account, and I have some transactions that I need to make IMMEDIATELY-and not just financial ones; emotional ones, ones that are linked to my purpose here on earth, TODAY. And I don’t think I’m out of line in raising the bar here. In fact, Christ himself set the bar there. In John 10:10, Jesus said:

“I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what life to the full looks like.  I know what it isn’t. It’s not life with a full house or life with a full bank account or even life with full booster seats in your minivan.  Those things aren’t bad; they just aren’t the “life to the full” that Christ promised, at least not from my experience. I have or have had all those things in my life. And I wasn’t full the way Christ talks about it. I was full of envy, I was full of worry, I was full of frustration, I was full of fear, and I was full of bitterness.

At the moment, I’m grappling with these two concepts, holding these two puzzle pieces: God’s strength and God’s promise of fullness HERE ON EARTH and trying to figure out how they fit into my relationship with God today.

What are your thoughts about God’s strength and His promise of fullness? Do you think "life to the full" is the same for everyone?