I’ve hemmed and hawed about what I wanted to include in this update because part of me wants to focus on the miracles that are happening in our house with these children—the everyday reminders that we can do hard things. The other part of me wants to rant and rave about the injustices that they face as foster kids. I guess I don’t have to choose.
Some might describe the fostering experience as a rollercoaster, but I think it’s more like a baby learning to walk. Rollercoasters have long windy parts that are just plain fun and slow inclines that build suspense before a fall. That’s not what this feels like. This feels like the herky jerky unsure steps of a one-year-old followed by repeated hard falls. And like a baby, we just keep getting back up again because there’s a shiny, colorful toy on the other end of the room.
I should probably start with the good parts because I need the good parts most.
E is almost nine months old. Our expectations for her developmentally are about a month behind because she was premature and drug-exposed at birth and spent the first three months of her life neglected and exposed to environments that included smoke, violence, and drug abuse by her caretakers.
I realize I started with some bad stuff, but here’s the good stuff. Despite the many obstacles she has already had to overcome in her very short life—she is thriving. In every way, she is meeting developmental milestones—she’s babbling, eating baby food, and psyching us out regularly by pretending she’s going to crawl. I think she knows exactly what she’s doing when all the adults in the room gather around with their cameras ready to catch her first crawl. Ridiculous. She’s also figured out that sister’s toys are WAY more interesting than hers and is showing the first real signs of temper tantrums, which by child #4 is more humorous than frustrating.
F is almost 22 months old. She’s showing more signs of attachment with our family, which is a really, really, really good thing. When she first came to us, she had no sense of place or security and would go to any adult who showed her interest. For obvious reasons, this isn’t the best case scenario for any toddler, but aside from the appropriate need for some level of “stranger danger” that any toddler needs developmentally, it’s especially important for kids who have been through trauma to create attachments.
Child psychologists will say again and again that kids are resilient—they can survive neglect and abuse in miraculous ways, but attachment disorders can cause a lifetime of trouble. Kids who cannot establish healthy attachments with caregivers are more likely to experience ongoing issues including: developmental delays (physical and learning), eating disorders or malnutrition, depression, anxiety, anger issues, addiction issues, inappropriate sexual behaviors, and homicidal and/or suicidal thoughts. (Man, this post is so uplifting.)
F is a baby, and I’m not saying that we’re dealing with any of those major issues right now, but what I am saying is that these are the things about which we must be hyper aware as she gets older. Knowledge really is power. I have all the confidence in the world that she has the potential to be a healthy, happy person as she gets older as long as we have the proper supports in place. She spent 18 months with people who did not have her best interest in mind. It’s somewhat haunting to not know what she experienced in that amount of time, but we can’t control that. We have to control what happens from here on out, and I believe we’re doing the best we can.
What the hell? I just read that back, and I said I was going to talk about the good stuff.
F is obsessed with animals right now. Her favorite foods are blueberries, yogurt, and cashews. She has started figuring out what letters and numbers mean and counts “two, four, five” regularly before jumping off whatever she’s climbed. She sleeps a solid 11-12 hours at night with a good nap when her visitation schedule allows it. There is no amount of sadness that cannot be cured by Elmo.
E has two teeth and is currently trying to cut a couple more. She sleeps well for about 7-8 hours at a time and then has to be convinced to stay asleep a little longer in my or Scott’s arms. (She sleeps a solid 10-11 hours when she’s not teething.) She naps when she can because her three older siblings’ schedules are no joke. She’s eating about 40 oz. of formula and two containers of baby food a day and holding fast at about the 90th percentile for her weight, which makes all of us insanely happy.
If all of that sounds mundane, that’s because it is. The point is that the miracles that are happening all look a lot like living life with “normal” toddlers and babies. They’re hitting milestones. They’re happy. They’re healthy.
On the logistics front—we’ve had E with us for a full six months now, and we’ve had F for four months. At the end of this month, we have a case review. In July we have a court date. Based on what we’ve been told, we don’t expect any big news of any kind at either of those events. More than likely, nothing will change regarding permanency until December, when a judge may or may not decide reunification or termination is possible. It’s a waiting game, and I have to look back at the last six months instead of looking forward at the next six months to stay sane.
Six months down.
My foster care posts thus far have ranged from emotional to informational. Throughout them all, I’ve tried to keep a positive tone, and that hasn’t been disingenuous. For the most part, I’m able to keep a positive outlook about the girls’ situation, but the last couple of weeks have been rough.
When we started this process, Scott and I both envisioned fostering many children over the years for whom we would care until they could be reunified with their parents. As with all things, expectations can be terrible traveling companions when journeying through foster care.
Our case is officially considered a concurrently planned case at this point. What that means is that Plan A is to reunify these girls if their parents can complete their service plans. Plan B is that we would adopt them if parental rights are severed or terminated.
The purpose of concurrent planning is to avoid having children floating around the system without a sense of place. The state of IL is actually last in the nation for permanency timing—our state takes the longest to get kids settled through reunification or adoption. By agreeing to adopt them given the chance, we have ensured that everyone involved (the case workers, the judge, the biological parents) knows that if reunification doesn’t happen, we have a back up plan for the girls. Unfortunately, many cases in foster care “end” with surrender or termination without people willing to adopt. This is why we talk about so many kids living in group homes and/or “aging out” of the system, which creates a whole new set of psychological and sociological challenges for foster kids.
So, that’s where our case is right now. We’ll have a case review in June and a court date in July. Our goal is to have some sort of decision reached by December when the girls will have been in care for a full year. We have no control over what happens—that is left up to the case worker and the judge.
Until about six weeks ago, I would have characterized the girls’ parental involvement as limping toward success, and then everything started heading downhill. We continue to have an immense amount of empathy for the girls’ mom, as she is first a young girl who is a product of her environment. It’s easy to judge her for the choices she’s making if we don’t take into account the fact that no one has ever shown her what real love looks like. No one has protected her. No one has taught her right from wrong. In fact, all the people in her life who should have taught her how to be human have actively worked against her for her entire life.
It’s heartbreaking and infuriating.
I want more than anything to believe that she can do what she needs to do, but whatever success she has enjoyed has been trampled by the people in her life who want to see her fail. There may be a day when I can tell more of the story publicly in a respectful way, but for now, I’ll just say this: about a month into this process, she asked the case assistant if we could adopt her. As in, could we adopt a twenty-year-old mother of four?
People often say things to me along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it” and “That’s so hard—I could never do it.” Yeah, it is, but not in the ways you think.
I’ve heard sermons in which people have compared our lives to beautiful tapestries. The thing about weaving tapestries is that a weaver creates from the back, so the image she sees for a long time looks like a jumbled mess. I almost pride myself on being someone who can see the beauty in the ordinary most of the time, but this journey feels much messier than anything else I’ve tried to create with my life.
The other night when I should have been sleeping, I watched a YouTube video about weaving tapestries because I couldn’t get this notion out of my head, and I learned something pretty stunning.
Tapestries are woven horizontally across a loom of taut vertical lines. In a massive undertaking called “warping,” the loom is created by looping yarn over and over again. Once the bundle is large enough, the weaver starts warping another long thread. That’s what each week feels like right now. We all feel a little warped as we loop around and around and around the same drama, same concerns, same feelings. And then we feel weary when we have to start again.
Each warp loop is then braided and stretched across the metal beams, meticulously and evenly spread. It’s a process that requires attention to detail and time, much like the amount of effort and time I spend every day keeping track of paperwork and making phone calls and trying to ensure that we always have our ducks in a row.
Once the warp is on the beams, the next step is to apply tension through stretching. OOF. Yeah.
Only after the warping and stretching can the weaver begin creating her artwork. Here’s the part I found most fascinating—as the weaver moves the yarn through the vertical lines, she gazes through to a mirror. The mirror reflects her artwork in reverse. The challenge of fostering is like this—I’m constantly looking in the mirror trying to figure out if I’m doing it right, and I can see what I’m doing, but it often feels backwards.
Nothing about this feels natural.
I am mothering someone else’s children. I love someone else’s children. It’s a sea of emotions difficult to navigate. If I keep my head down like the weaver, all I can see is a jumble of threads, but if I look in the reflection in the mirror, I see some semblance of beauty even if it isn’t the exact version of beauty I’m aiming for.
Five months down.
We’ve been fostering Baby E for four months, and Sister F has officially been with us for almost two months. People often ask how the boys are handling the transition. I’d say we’re settling in well as a family of six. Here’s proof:
I have always said eighteen months is one of my favorite ages. With both of my boys, something clicked as they edged closer to two than one. Their vocabularies exploded. They were far more aware of their world, and they no longer seemed like babies. What a fantastic time to start getting to know F.
Yes, we’ve had to help her unlearn some behaviors, and yes, we all feel like we should earn medals on the way to her 6:30 bedtime some days, but each day brings less frustration and more fun as she finds her place in our family. Here are some of my favorite moments from the last month with F:
I thought I’d talk a bit about numbers in this update. People have asked how much we get paid to be foster parents. It’s a fair question, and one that can be answered by googling. Here’s what it looks like in IL:
We also receive WIC for their groceries (which is a whole fun adventure) which amounts to about $300 a month. We’ve been so fortunate to have the extra money to cover all the expenses we’ve incurred by adding two extra people to the house, and we’ve started savings accounts for the girls because it’s the right thing to do.
Here are some other numbers that might interest you:
the number of children who come into foster care daily in the United States
the number of children currently in foster care in the state of IL
the number of children currently in foster care in St. Clair County
days until our next court date
One highlight from this month was our trip to Utah, a reunion trip of old friends. Six adults and nine kids for a week of skiing and eating and playing and eating and watching movies and eating. We had planned the trip before we had two extra kids, so it was all a fun experiment. The agency gave us permission for travel, and the girls were fantastic travelers.
Experiences like our Utah trip make it hard for us to not picture what this would look like if it became a permanent situation. It's an odd feeling--living in constant limbo. While reunification is still the ultimate goal, I find myself thinking more and more about their future and whether our family is a part of it. I've given up trying to push those feelings aside. Basically, what I'm saying is that I'm planning two weddings.
FOUR MONTHS DOWN.
I have been asked to write something that won’t make people cry, so I’m going to try my best. If you cry while reading this post, I’m not taking responsibility.
Okay, so big changes since we last talked—we welcomed Sister F, Baby E’s half-sister into our home. We had had some contact with F because the girls attend visitation with their mom together, so we saw her regularly in the car with the case assistant when E got picked up.
She’s beautiful and funny and full of energy. She’s almost 19 months old, so while she seems old and big compared to her almost 6-month-old sister, she’s still very much a baby.
Here’s the short story of how she came into our care. Like I mentioned, we saw her regularly, so we knew a little bit about her story. She was removed from the home the same day as E, but she was placed with an adult half-sister. This is fairly common as kinship placements are almost always plan A. E was placed with us because no one on either side of her family could pass a background check. Because F has a different dad, his adult daughter was the first choice.
We knew that there were some problems with the placement—that the case worker and assistant had some concerns. F’s 21-year-old foster mom (and half-sister) was caring for four children under the age of five, a difficult task for anyone. The case worker decided it was in the best interest of everyone (overwhelmed foster mom AND baby) to move F. That decision was made easier because we expressed to the case worker that we would always be open to taking E’s siblings if that was ever needed.
Additionally, E and F’s mom said she wanted F to live with us. We feel really encouraged that the girls’ mom trusts us enough to believe our home is the best place for both of her girls. (Interesting note: Mom also has two boys who are not in state custody. I hope there isn’t a need for them to enter the system.)
So on February 10th, the Johnson Quartet turned Quintet became the Johnson Sextet—but we prefer to call it the Johnson Ensemble at this point.
I’d say our time with F so far has been better than we expected. She came to us with a double ear infection and a mean diaper rash. We found out quickly that under the mess of tangled hair were the prettiest curls you ever did see. One of my favorite things is giving her a bath and brushing out her hair which falls below her shoulders and then watching it twist and bounce itself into curls as it dries.
The challenges so far have been mostly about breaking bad habits—throwing food, screaming, tantrums, hitting and kicking—all of which happen when she’s tired and/or frustrated. She had one word when she came to us—hi! And she used it all the time for everything. Within a few days of being with us, her vocabulary exploded (and continues to grow). We’ve had to teach her how to communicate using words instead of the various bad habits she’d picked up along the way. We’ve nipped a lot of it—she signs “finished” instead of throwing her cup and plate when she’s done eating; She says “bite” or “please” when she wants to try something on our plates; she says “help” when she needs us for something out of reach. It’s a process, and some days are tiring, but like I said—her progress has been rapid and somewhat miraculous.
We met with a developmental and speech therapist who had been enlisted before we were F’s foster parents because of her delays. They weren’t able to come to our house until about three weeks after she came to us. After spending an hour working with her and observing her behavior, they had no major concerns and encouraged us to continue doing what we’re doing because it’s working.
Our biggest struggle continues to be trying to establish routines and boundaries for children who need them desperately (as all children do), while working within a system that works against their routines and boundaries. When I start to get frustrated, I remember that F is in our care 93% of her life (she sees her mom twelve hours a week), and E is in our care 88% of her life (she sees her mom twelve hours a week and her dad eight hours a week). Factoring in missed visits or visits that are cut short, those percentages are even higher. On days when I’m frustrated or angry, I have to believe that the progress we make in that majority share of time can withstand any losses during the time that they aren’t with us.
If that sounds like I’m dealing with this rationally and calmly, please know that I still hate it every single time they leave our house, but I meditate on the serenity prayer often.
The boys continue to be a big help. F follows Ben around like a little sheep in the mornings. Often when she wakes up from a nap while they are at school, she stands at the bottom of the stairs and shouts their names thinking they might be up there ready to play with her.
And let me talk just a teensy bit about what it’s like watching Scott be a daddy to girls. Mmmmmmmmmm…I said I wouldn’t write anything that might make you cry, so I’ll just say this: that “wrapped around her finger” thing that people talk about? It’s real, and it’s happening in our house times two.
Three months down.
When E came to us, she barely made noises. She never cried, and she slept most of the day and night.
The baby we’ve grown to love is not the same baby who was dropped off at our house two months ago. She’s engaged in her world—bright eyed and loud. She lets us know when her diaper is wet or she’s hungry. In fact, she lets the whole neighborhood know. But when she is dry and fed, she is the happiest baby in the omniverse.
To say that we are collectively in love with her is a colossal understatement. Will changed his rubber bands at his last orthodontist appointment to pink because he thought E would like it. Ben ordered a book from Scholastic because it came with a tiny stuffed pink owl.
Almost without exception, when I run into people, they automatically ask how life with an infant is, and I have to honestly reply that it’s not that hard. At the risk of rubbing salt in the wounds of some of my friends living life as newborn parent zombies, the adjustment has been really smooth. It helps that she sleeps through the night.
Believe me—I know what it’s like to not sleep. Will didn’t sleep through the night a single time until he was 2 1/2 years old. NOT ONE NIGHT. Ben was much better, but he wasn’t truly sleeping through the night until eight months.
So, to have an almost three month old show up sleeping twelve hours feels a little otherworldly. At first we thought it was a fluke, but she has continued to be a champion sleeper, which automatically makes me feel like I hit a home run in mothering when I wake up in the morning.
Here is what has been hard: E’s visitation schedule. E sees her mom a certain number of hours a week and sees her dad separately a certain number of hours a week. What that means is that for a segment of every week day, a case assistant picks her up for these supervised visits.
Pro: theoretically, I have 2-3 hours a day to take care of the rest of my life—fulfilling my obligations to Somebody’s Mama/ONE/cub scouts/the boys’ school/whatever else I’ve committed to that week, cleaning my house, and running errands.
Con: sometimes E’s parents cancel these visits for a variety of reasons, so my best laid plans go by the wayside as I don’t actually get those hours I’m counting on.
SUPER Con: when E does leave for those visits, I think about her the whole time she’s gone. I vacillate between being sad and frustrated. For one thing, I miss her (sad). And these visits are not based on what’s best for her—they are based on what is convenient for her parents, so that means her days go wonky (frustrated). She doesn’t get a nap she needs. She spends her day in a strange place that isn't comfortable and/or is overstimulating. And then the case assistant drops her back off at our house, and I am the one responsible for recalibrating an overtired, fussy, confused, and (sometimes) dirty baby.
That is what is actually hard about this.
I continue to count caring for her as one of the greatest joys of my life. I frequently look down at her while she’s sleeping and weep. I don’t cry. I weep as in “Jesus wept” because she is such a gift, and even though the piles of laundry are ever present, and we’ve had frozen pasta for dinner more times than I can count, there is literally nothing in the world more important than those moments when she’s in my arms and knows that she is safe and loved. Nothing.
In other news, on January 22, we got a call from our licensing agency asking if we could take a seven-year-old boy. My dad was in India. My mom was in the middle of a long-term sub job thus working every day, and Scott was leaving for a four-day trip the next day. It was 6:00 on a Sunday night, and I scrolled through the week in my head. The only reason I can stay sane (in reference to fostering and in life in general) is because of this tremendous support system, and none of them were going to be able to back me up if we agreed to bring this boy into our care. A small part of me wanted to say yes for all the obvious reasons, but I knew that it wasn’t the right timing. Scott agreed, so we said no.
There are two constant battles going on in my mind: first, I want to do the most good for the greatest number of people, and second, I want to be the best me.
I’ve found that I have to create boundaries to protect myself from doing too much, and in this instance, caring for another child was going to be too much. The call prompted a great conversation between me and Scott about how we want to approach the next time they call. We agreed that with both phone calls—the one for E and the one for the boy, we had an innate sense of what the answer should be.
Two days later we got a call about two sisters, aged 4 years and 11 months, and before I could even get ahold of Scott, they were placed with another family. As far as we know, our phone is going to continue ringing, and we have to be ready with an answer. A large part of being a successful foster family is trusting your gut and hoping for the best.
Two months down.
Baby E has been in our care for a full month today. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to sit down and write something for the world to read, and I’m grateful for a few quiet minutes to tell this part of our story.
My first goal is to answer some of the questions we’ve been asked repeatedly by our friends and family who have had a chance to meet E. Secondly, I want to introduce you, readers, to a “kid in foster care.” I hope that E becomes a face to the statistics (even though I can’t actually show you her face). It’s crucial to preserve privacy and safety when telling someone else’s story (in this case the details involve both E and her parents), so I will not share some things in print. If you have further questions after reading anything I write here, please feel free to send me a message, and I’m happy to answer any and all questions privately!
Let’s pretend we’re having coffee/tea/drinks and catching up, something that has occurred many times over the last month. The conversation is pretty much the same every time:
YOU: Start from the beginning. How did E come into your care?
ME: At 3:15 on a Tuesday, I was on the phone with our licensing worker, Carolyn, scheduling a regular visit, so she could come check on our house. This is something she’s required to do to make sure our house is a safe place for foster kids. At the end of the conversation, she said rather nonchalantly, “We have a 3-month-old in the office right now. Would you be interested in taking her?”
At that point I told her I would need to call Scott, and she said someone would call me back within the hour. Scott and I had a brief conversation, and then I had a brief conversation with the boys about the possibility of a baby coming to live with us. By 4:20, E was at our house. She arrived with an agency-provided car seat, a few clothing items, two cans of formula, and a box of diapers.
I had told Scott during our conversation to go ahead with his regular routine because we didn’t really know what was going to happen, so he was at the gym when E arrived. He came home and took the boys to karate, and I found myself alone in a quiet house for an hour with a newborn baby. I knew her first name and nothing else.
YOU: Why did her parents lose custody of her?
ME: Mom and Dad are not together, and Dad has no custodial rights at this time. Mom was enrolled in a program meant to keep mom and baby together. Mom was not compliant with the requirements of her program, and there was an inciting incident that changed E’s plan to a regular DCFS case (making her a foster child). I can’t say what the incident was, but I can say that E had no signs of abuse when she came to us. She was underweight and had severe cradle cap, but she was otherwise relatively healthy.
YOU: Are you going to adopt her?
ME: Foster care’s primary function is not to funnel kids straight to adoption. If the system works the way it is supposed to work, E’s parents will do the work required of them to regain custody at some point. If they cannot do the work to regain custody or if they choose to relinquish parental rights, she will be available for adoption, and we would absolutely consider adopting her.
Honestly, we can’t think about that right now. Fostering is very much a one day at a time operation. Our job is to care for E the best way we know how and to support her parents as they try to regain custody. Our approach is very much a “same team” approach—we, her parents, the case workers, and the case assistants are all working together to provide the care E needs right now. We cannot move into a place of judgement (that her parents are bad parents or the case workers aren’t doing their jobs or the system is too broken or…), or we will all fail.
And now I want to answer some questions you didn’t know you had—these are the things I really want you to know. The first night she was here, I called my friend, Megan, who has two young boys. She had told me at book club several months earlier that if I got a baby, I should call her, and I took her literally. She showed up with a bouncy seat, a bath tub, a playmat, and a box of other odds and ends that she wanted us to have. She was E’s first visitor (my parents were on vacation, or you know Mimi and Papa would have been over in a hot second), and she brought us some seriously important loot that continues to come in handy. We call Megan’s bouncy seat the “amusement park” because it’s E’s favorite thing.
My friend, Pam, texted me the next day after I made the Facebook announcement. The only question she asked was “Which day is a good day to bring you dinner?” Can we pause for just a moment and talk about the ministry of someone else making you dinner? Because this is God’s work. I didn’t give birth, but the shock of adding a newborn to our family was still very real, and even thinking now about the soup and bread and Christmas cookies that Pam brought to our house a few days later brings tears to my eyes.
Of course, eleventy billion people texted and called in those first few days, and I told her story over and over and over again. Each time our new normal felt more real.
There was a lot of confusion about E’s case for the first week, but on Friday after we got her, I learned her full name and birthday (September 8th—the same day as my Grandpa Leonard’s).
On the Sunday after she came to us, my friend Michele came to our house to take professional pictures of E. Michele refused to take our money because she deserves sainthood (right next to Saint Megan and Saint Pam). It was really important to me to have pictures taken of E, and not just the snapshots on my iPhone. If she was my child, this is what I would do. If my child was living in someone else’s home, I would want to see pictures of her to see how she was growing.
I put together a small book of pictures to give to E’s mom when I met her. E’s biological parents are allowed to come to doctor’s visits, and E had a visit scheduled ten days after she came into our care. I met Mom and Grandma at the visit, and I hoped the small book of pictures would set the tone for our first meeting. I wanted Mom to know that E was safe and happy and healthy—and again, that we were on the same team.
E traveled to MO and OK with us for the holidays. I was actually surprised when they allowed us to take her with us (I did use my assertive teacher voice when I asked). She met both sides of our family and more framily than we can count. Every stop brought another Christmas present and arms that wanted to hold her. E has no idea how much she is loved by dozens of strangers who have chosen to board the crazy train with us.
This is getting long, so let me close with this for now. As I’ve said, it is best practice to not show E’s face to the world while her case is still open-ended. Allow me to paint a picture of our girl.
She has dark hair that is somehow both wispy and thick.
Women pay hundreds of dollars for eyelashes like hers.
She has a pixie nose that she stole from Tinkerbell.
Her lips are like a tiny strawberry ready to pick.
Since she’s been with us (she gained 1 pound and 14 ounces in the first ten days we had her!), she’s formed plump chipmunk cheeks and a belly that would make Santa proud.
When she’s sleeping, she looks just like Will at that age.
When I change her socks, I’m reminded of Ben’s long toes.
She makes the same faces that my cousin Hailey (now in her 20s) used to make when she was a baby.
Her first name is the same as someone on my dad’s side of the family, and her middle name is the same as someone on my mom’s side.
In my very objective answers in the above question and answer format, I left no room to talk about how I feel about all of this because I’m not ready to talk about it. I’m living in a space where I love this tiny human being wholeheartedly without thought to what the future holds for her. Of course, I think about it when I can’t sleep. Of course, I’ve cried about it. Of course, my heart is broken for a million different reasons—some about me, some about our family, most about her—but I can’t stay in that place long, or I will be useless.
This is how I stay above the feelings right now: I start every day with a prayer (help me be the best mother I can be), and I focus on the very objective actions of caring for a newborn. Bottle. Diaper. Doctor’s appointment. Bath. Books. Because it’s a lot of work keeping a tiny person moving in the right direction.
There is time for the feelings to be processed, and we have such an incredible network of support in our friends and family. We don’t know what will happen, and we have no way to control any of it, but I will tell you that this feels like the holiest work I’ve ever done.
One month down.
It's the last day of the year, and like everyone else I know, I spent a few minutes analyzing my book reading spreadsheets. Oh, you didn't? Well, YOU are the weird one.
Total: 127 books
Average number of pages: 299
First book finished: Troublemaker by Leah Remini
Last book finished: Negroland by Margo Jefferson
72% of the books I read were ebook and/or audiobook
64% of the authors I read were female
3 books were re-reads
9 countries were represented (79.5% US authors)
Shortest (adult) book (128 pages): A Beautiful Mess by Danielle Strickland
Longest book (916 pages): Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Oldest book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (published in 1920)
78% of the books were published in 2011 or later
22% of the books were published in 2016
Troublemaker was probably the book that most surprised me because I loved it way more than I thought I would. Negroland was also pretty spectacular, so the year began and ended on high notes. When I looked back over the list, there were several books that gave me pitter patters in my heart when I passed their titles, so I think they're worth mentioning.
Books I Really Loved (in no particular order):
The Knife of Letting Go (Patrick Ness)
Pit Bull (Bronwen Dickey)
The Kingdom on the Waves (MT Anderson)
Lily and the Octopus (Steven Rowley)
This Is the Part Where You Laugh (Peter Brown Hoffmeister)
Furthermore (Tahereh Mafi)
Above Us Only Sky (Michele Young-Stone)
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Anna Quindlen)
Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)
That's it! I'm setting my goal at 100 books again for 2017 and looking forward to getting nerdier with my spreadsheets. What books have you read that I can't miss in the coming year?
I love nothing more than to cheer on my people when they are doing big things, and there are three women in my life who have done some big things lately. Friends, meet Colleen, Joy Beth, and Melanie. These are their precious babies—this is the part where we all stare and ooh and aah and then ask to hold their bundles of joy.
Colleen and I met online first and in real life at the Allume Conference several months later. She and her husband run the St. Francis Emmaus Center at St. Bryce Mission in Costa Rica, a pregnancy hostel for women from the Cabecar reservation. Colleen was featured as a Mama of the Month at Somebody’s Mama, and we partnered with her on a project a few years ago. Colleen wrote Who Does He Say You Are?, a beautiful book that weaves together the stories of women from the Bible with her personal testimony about motherhood, loss, and missions work. I am not Catholic, so it was fascinating to read Colleen’s perspective through the lens of her Catholic faith. While reading, I found myself doing that mmmmmmm noise a lot that means, “Yes, all of this. So much this.” You can purchase her book online and follow everything Colleen writes at Blessed Are the Feet.
I met Joy Beth at the Allume Conference, where she was womanning the One Million Thumbprints table. She would tell me later that she thought I was little scary (who, little ol’ me?). Five months later, we were standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro together. This woman is as sugary as South Carolina sweet tea but as fierce and brave as just about any other person I’ve ever met. Recently, she wrote an article called “Fat. Single. Christian.” at Boundless, where she works as editor. The article got picked up by the Washington Post and received a lot of feedback online, prompting her to start a podcast about her ongoing struggles with weight, dating, and faith. My husband and I have been listening, and we’ve learned so much. If you’re a podcasty person, check out Stop, No, Weight. You can also follow Joy Beth’s work for Christian singles at Boundless.
I followed Melanie Dale online for awhile and then met her in real life at the Allume Conference, as well. We shared an awkward hug and an awkward conversation about her book Women Are Scary, and then I spent the rest of the conference wondering if she thought I was weird. Kidding. Kind of. But then, she came out with her new book It’s Not Fair: Learning to Love the Life You Didn't Choose, and YOU GUYS, I read it in like five minutes—partially because Melanie put in a lot of fun drawrings (said in my best Simon voice), but also because the truth in this book will set you free. I have walked a similar theme (different plot points) when it comes to catching life’s curveballs, and exactly one day after finishing the book, I delivered chicken noodle soup, a fuzzy blanket, a card, popsicles, and my already worn out copy of It’s Not Fair directly to the porch of one of my favorite friends who is having a terrible time of it right now. I’m going to order a few more copies for several other people who need this book and to keep on hand for any other friends who are doing hard things. You can also follow all of Melanie's musings at Unexpected.
Okay, I just realized that I met all of these women in real life for the first time at the Allume Conference. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure that out. I talked about how (not) excited I was about Allume in my e-book, Lectio, (still available for download for any donation to Somebody’s Mama). You guys, I did not want to go to this pretty conference with precious women, but I ended up connecting with all three of these bright lights, so I stand corrected. I hope you’ll check out what these women are doing with their art—we can learn so much from listening to other people’s stories!
Last night was one without sleep—mainly because of a pulsing migraine that just wouldn’t stop no matter what I tried but also because every time I woke up, my brain couldn’t shut off either.
One of the first things I saw on Facebook yesterday was a post from the sister of a girl who graduated high school with me. The post announced that Sarah lost her seven-year fight with brain cancer. At 35, Sarah was by all accounts the life of the party, a fiercely loyal friend, sister and daughter, and an inspiration to all who knew her. The outpouring of public support I’ve seen on Facebook for Sarah’s sister and parents has been a beautiful communal mourning experience.
Later in the day, I attended a funeral for the father of one of my dearest friends. In contrast to Sarah’s passing, Barry died suddenly last Wednesday. At eighty-one years old, Barry was a beloved husband, father, and grandfather, deeply involved in the daily lives of his family members. A Marine and police officer, he’d lived a life of service to his country and local community.
I spent the entirety of the graveside service walking through the grave markers with Barry’s grandson, William. At five, Will had very little desire to sit down. At one point, when I encouraged him to start walking back toward the group gathered under a canopy, he told me, “No, it’s too sad over there. Let’s walk this way.” So we did. We walked among hundreds of stones with people’s names on them. Will paused every few stones and asked me to read the names to him. He was frustrated that none of them had his last name.
He sat down on one headstone and crossed his arms before saying thoughtfully, “Leia, do you know these are all for dead bodies?” I told him I did, and he asked, “Are they all down there in the mud and worms?” I told him that the bodies were in containers called caskets. He ran down the row, letting the word “casket…casket…casket” roll across his tongue. He stopped and turned, digging the toe of his loafer into the ground and said, “My grandpa was a good grandpa.”
I kept looking over my shoulder to see what was happening with the service, and I urged Will to walk closer when I saw the Marines standing at attention. We stood about fifty feet away listening to one of them playing “Taps” before they folded the flag. Will asked me what the man in the gloves was doing, and I told him it was a song they play at military funerals. He asked me if I could sing it. I couldn't find the words—for the song or to describe what a gift it was to spend those minutes watching the world through a five year old’s eyes.
Before the end of the day, I received a text from one friend who is suffering from depression and anxiety over a strained relationship with her daughter. Next, a text about another friend’s dad being admitted into the hospital. Then, the last post I read on Facebook before attempting to go to bed was from one of my oldest friends saying her father has a mass on his vocal cords that is suspected to be stage 3 cancer.
Yesterday was a hard day.
I woke up this morning at 7:03—I’d been too distracted by the pain to set an alarm. I took the dog out, packed the boys’ snacks and water bottles, and went upstairs to shower. Before stepping into the bathroom, I told my son, Will, that we would drop Ben off at school and then head to his orthodontist appointment. He looked up with wide eyes and said, “What? I didn’t know anything about this.”
Will has always been a kid who thrives when he has all the information, and I guess I’d forgotten to mention his appointment. He started into the list of things that he needed to do if he was going to miss the first hour of school. He ran downstairs and then yelled back up to me, “I can’t find the cereal bowls. WHERE ARE THE CEREAL BOWLS?” With a dizzying amount of words for that early in the morning, he finished with “I need to do my memory today. Where is your phone? I need to look up my memory verse right now.”
The heaviness of the previous day was still on my shoulders; the lack of sleep and lingering pain in my head stood between me and a kid who was starting his day with a panicky spiral. On another day, I might have gotten short with him, but I was tired. I stepped across the room and pulled him into my chest for a hug. He stopped his chattery freak out and hugged me back. I looked into his eyes and said, “This morning is going to be good. Today is going to be good. Do you believe me?”
We walked Ben into school, and I told Will to go downstairs and find his teacher to say his memory verse while I took some things I’d promised to another teacher. We met back up and drove to his appointment.
At the orthodontist’s office, parents and kids lined the waiting room. Will and I played tic tac toe and then read the jokes out of the Reader’s Digest. Two older boys came in by themselves—one in a baseball shirt from his high school and the other in a football shirt that read #riseandgrind on the back. Indeed.
I’m just going to believe that I’m not the only mom who stifles tears in public at the sight of teenage boys. Will’s 11th birthday is on the horizon, and I know he is going to be driving himself to appointments in about five minutes.
In the car on the way back to school, Will asked me if I knew how to talk like Donald Duck. I do not. He said, “Garrett is really good at talking like Donald Duck. I’m better at talking like Stitch.” Then he proceeded to sing “Oh, Danny Boy” in Stitch’s voice which was a weird, weird way to end our morning together. Before he got out of the car, I asked, “Why did you choose green rubber bands this time?”
He shouted over his shoulder, “Because I’m feeling lucky!”
My head and heart feel tender, but life is calling. My answer today will be gentle and kind because it’s one of those weeks when we all need to be careful with one another.
It’s a week for saying things out loud like “I’m sad” and “I love you.”
It’s a week for smothering anger and frustration and fatigue with hugs.
It’s a week for singing songs without words.
It’s a week for looking for ways to make our own luck.
I started this series because I’ve had so many conversations with people who are trying desperately to find ways to simplify their lives. We are not the first humans to feel “stuffocated” as one famous minimalist says.
Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
Plato said, “Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.”
Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Lao Tzu said, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
Henry David Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, esteemed author and wife of Charles Lindbergh, said, “What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. Look at us. We run a tightrope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now! This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of.”
I include these words to point out that this idea of making a life that focuses on less rather than more is not new, and I would argue that within each of us is an innate yearning to live more simply.
In exploring what that means for me personally, I learned that the word “simple” comes from the Latin “simplus” which made its way into Old French and then Middle English. The first meaning of the word referred to medicine, especially the kind rendered from one plant. That strikes me as important to this conversation because in walking the road to a better life, I’ve found that having fewer things has actually been a process of healing from the inside out.
When I walk around my house these days, I’m tidying less and enjoying more. I’m less frustrated with the clutter that accumulates with daily living and more thankful for the literal and mental space I’m not devoting to things. Instead, I am free to live an intentional life—I’m spending more time with my family; I’m writing without the distraction of all the things I “should” be doing; I’m more focused on my work at Somebody’s Mama; and perhaps most importantly, our family is turning a dream into reality.
One of our biggest motivations for minimizing our physical space is our long-time desire to become foster parents. For several years we have talked, prayed, weighed the pros and cons, and worked to discern the best timing to bring more children into our home. Minimalism is directly tied to our ability to do this because we have created a better, welcoming, loving space for kids who need a soft place to land.
On Thursday, we have our final meeting with our case worker. Our paperwork is finished. The beds are in place. The electrical outlets are covered. And we have a stack of diapers in every size.
Preparing to foster has been an interesting exercise to say the least—we want to have the necessities, but it’s hard to know what that means. We’ve specified that we’ll take children ages four and under, with the caveat of six and under if it will keep a sibling group together.
We’ve spent the last few weekends putting together and moving furniture. My mom has been secretly buying clothes for months (imagine my shock when I was at her house a couple of weeks ago, and she started pulling out tiny leggings and dresses…she’s a teensy bit excited).
I asked my Facebook friends if anyone had a crib mattress they’d want to part with, and not only did someone give us one, but another friend ordered one on Amazon and had it delivered. She noted—if you end up getting one for free, send it back and use the credit for something else you need. I can’t even talk about this kind of generosity without losing it.
For those living closest to us, this is no surprise, as we’ve been actively engaged in pursuing foster care for over a year, but some of you may be going…wait, what? How did I miss this? That’s understandable seeing as how I share pretty much ALL THE THINGS on social media.
I’ve held back in sharing about this for a couple of reasons. First, privacy and anonymity are crucial in certain foster care cases, so I’ve been practicing not being an oversharer (y’all, this is HARD). Secondly, I can’t handle this reaction: I could never do that. And unfortunately, that’s the one that I get the most when I share about our decision.
It’s not unlike the I don’t know how you do it reaction I used to get when my husband was deployed all the time. I didn’t know what to say. It was uncomfortable because like…this is my life—that’s how I do it. And to this new foster-related reaction, I kind of want to say, “Yeah, you could, but you don’t want to.” AND THAT’S FINE. It’s not something everyone needs to do."
We, however, want to—feel called to even—and it’s not something that we look at as a huge difficult thing that only special people with superhero strength can do. It is, for us, a vocation which Frederick Buechner defines as “the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s great need.”
Look—I’m a really good mom. Scott is a really good dad. Will and Ben are really good brothers. Our family’s deep gladness is in each other, and we’re ready to share that gladness with kids who need joy in their lives. It’s that simple.
Clearly, this won’t be the last time I write about foster care. There will be many, many, many words. For now, I’d ask all of you to join us in prayer and meditation as we move toward expanding our home. We need all the support our village can give.
In the meantime, take some time to ponder what dream is waiting for you on the other side of your stuff. Now, go get it.
I’ve talked about some of the epiphanies I had along the way that brought me to exploring a minimalist life, and I’ve talked about some of the challenges to getting started. Today, I want to talk about action. At Somebody’s Mama, the third part of our mission statement is that we "turn ideas into action.” Not only is this a core value at my non-profit, but it’s a phrase that comes up over and over in my daily life.
I’m a dreamer. I am. The visionary side of my brain runs things most of the time, whether it’s thinking about a new story I want to write, planning our next vacation, or organizing projects for Somebody’s Mama. My mental life is constantly churning out ideas about the next big thing, and frankly, living in the ongoing idea cycle can be exhausting. Can you imagine if all the words stayed in my head and I never wrote them down as books or blog posts? Can you imagine if I spent all my time mapping out the best summer road trip but never booked the hotels? Can you imagine if I never emailed the right people to establish partnerships for the Somebody’s Mama community? To put it simply, all that energy would be pointless.
We can talk and think and brainstorm and ideate all day long, but if we don’t actually take the steps to DO something, we end up feeling even more frustrated than when we started.
I’ve compiled a short list of blogs and books that I’ve found helpful along the way. If you are feeling compelled but overwhelmed, learning about other people’s experiences will allow you to pick and choose the action steps that apply to your style of living. What I’ve learned is that minimalism will look different to everyone. My single friends with no kids will have different challenges than me. Someone who lives in the suburbs will have different space constraints than someone living in a big city.
Specific considerations to our different scenarios aside, these resources have all been helpful as I’ve tried to move from “I really wish our life was simpler” to “Look what we’ve done!”
THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo
I have to start here because this is the book that swept the nation a couple of summers ago. It’s certainly not my favorite of these books as some of the content was hard to envision in my house. However, the root of the message found its way into my everyday living and was the impetus for me to change the way I looked at things in general. Kondo’s main idea is that we should only keep things that “spark joy.” When I started using this as my measure, I was able to let go of things that I’d stared at with apathy and even disdain. You can ask my people—it’s not unusual to see me walk through a room, pick something up and say out loud “You don’t spark joy” before adding it to the current “to go” box.
THE MORE OF LESS by Joshua Becker
Of all the books, this is the one that lit a fire hot enough for me to get moving. Becker’s writing style is very approachable. In addition to the book, I joined a 12-week course he designed to help structure my efforts. I needed this—I thrive when there’s a plan of action—and the Uncluttered Course gave me assignments every week to keep me on track and not leave me feeling debilitated by looking at the big picture. The course also provided a Facebook group of people who were completing the course at the same time. Some people took the course as a first step and posted pictures of crammed pantries and overflowing closets. Others took the course as a check-up and posted pictures of pristine kitchens (by my standards) with very little work to be done. Having a cohort of sorts helped me define what minimalism looked like for our family.
THE JOY OF LESS by Francine Jay
I scoured articles on Francine Jay’s blog for a long time before finally picking up her book, which provides a comprehensive approach to minimalism. The thing I love about Jay’s work is the idea of “decluttering your fantasy self.” This became another mantra in my journey to get out from under my stuff. My fantasy self was holding onto a bunch of serving trays and baking dishes, when in real life I don’t cook that often and honestly don’t enjoy hosting meals in my home. I’m not saying I got rid of everything in my kitchen—I just got rid of the things that I had because of “one day…” My fantasy self also does arts and crafts a lot more than my real self, so paring down those supplies became an act of freedom from that nagging question of “What if I need to use this someday?” Again, I didn’t throw out every marker, glue stick, and pair of scissors in the house, but I did let go of the idea that we needed ALL of it. Sometimes the fantasy self is based in the future (I’m going to have time to do this later), and sometimes it’s based in the past (I was a homeschool mom, so there was a time that all of those supplies really did get put to use). Decluttering the fantasy self allows me to live in the present and enjoy the person I am RIGHT NOW. The last third of this book walks the reader “room by room” with a plan, and I’m currently working through her method as a follow up to what I started with Joshua Becker’s course.
ESSENTIALISM by Greg McKeown
This book was recommended to me after I started posting about minimalism by my dear friend, Belinda Bauman, who was the reason I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last March. Her family is in the middle of a big transition—new jobs, big move across the country—and she told me it has been life changing as they move to a new town, a new life really. I picked it up and read it in one sitting. McKeown streamlines the philosophy behind living essentially. While the other books I’m suggesting focus on the practicalities of getting rid of literal stuff, I found this book so inspiring when it comes to using my time and energy efficiently. If you are someone who wishes you had more time in your day or feels tired at the end of every day, START HERE. If you aren’t willing to confront the bad choices you are making when it comes to your schedule and day to day priorities, taking a few bags to Goodwill is not going to bring you peace.
I’ve used all my words for this post, so I guess that means I’ll have to write another one! In my last post, I’ll talk about some of the rewards of pursuing minimalism that I’ve already enjoyed. Until then, happy reading!
I said in my last post that I was going to start talking about resources that got me moving, but I think I need to write first about some of the reasons it took me so long to get on board with minimalism. If you go back to the first post, you’ll notice that I had my epiphanies about FIVE YEARS AGO. I think that’s important to note if you are new to the idea of minimizing/downsizing. This isn't going to happen over night. This process was emotional and spiritual before it ever became physical for me, and anything that comes from that deep place is going to take time.
As I dipped my toe into these waters, I found myself surrounded by like-minded people. It helped that we were living in hippy dippy Olympia at the time where reduce, reuse, recycle might as well be tattooed on the foreheads of every resident. I grew up in the middle of the country in a community that did not embrace minimalism. To be frank, I was surrounded by wealth and plenty, and while those things are not inherently bad, they certainly did not breed the same atmosphere I experienced in Olympia.
For the first time, I had more friends than not who lived in smaller houses, drove older cars, and thought “Walmart” was a dirty word. It was culture shock in the truest sense. The more I talked with these friends I learned that many of their lifestyles were motivated from different places—respect for the environment, a desire to live free from the tether of things, and their faith.
Even in the middle of a culture that nurtured my minimalist interest, I struggled to “get started.” In building a community (in real life and online) of like-minded people, I’ve learned that many of us face the same challenges in turning ideas into action.
CHALLENGE #1: Competing Priorities
When I started down this road, I was homeschooling, and that took a front and center place in our life. Our days were filled with books and craft supplies and science projects. We were always in the middle of something fun and exciting…and messy. We had a designated room for school, but our learning often spilled into the kitchen and dining room, and I always felt like bringing some semblance of order was a pipe dream.
Here’s the deal—we all have priorities, and in the beginning, my kids’ education was more important than having a clean and tidy house. I wanted both, but homeschool came first. For others, a full-time job means the only chunks of time they have is at night or on weekends, and they want to fill that time with cooking healthy meals or family activities outside the home. My advice would be to give yourself permission to only handle what is most important and know that seasons change, and there will be a time minimalism can move up the priority ladder.
CHALLENGE #2: Feeling Alone
I am part of an online support group (for lack of a better term), and I can’t tell you how many comments are posted that start with “I’m doing great, but my husband keeps sabotaging me…” or “Things were looking better, but then Grandma came for a visit…” It’s really easy to feel defeated when you are the only one in the house on board with living with less. HOWEVER, it is really, really, really, REALLY, reallyreallyreallyreally important that you don’t use other people’s choices as an excuse to not move forward.
When I started going through things, I started with me. I didn’t start with my kids’ toys or my husband’s closet. I started with my things, and that kept me busy for a good long time. I didn’t hound my husband or kids to get to work. You can read any number of leadership and parenting books, and they will all tell you that the best way to get the results you want is to lead by example, and I applied that to our house. It didn’t take long for everyone else to see what was happening.
One note about gifts from other people: you are not under any obligation to keep things you don’t want. Really. If you have gift givers in your life, accept the gifts with love. Keep them if they are of use or value, and let them go if they aren’t. If you have someone who incessantly fills your house with unnecessary clutter, invite them to be a part of your minimalism journey. Talk openly with them about changes you’re making without judgement, and set boundaries. I realize this is easier said than done, and I could write an entire book about this, but honestly, if this is your biggest challenge, it’s not about minimalism.
CHALLENGE #3: Feeling Overwhelmed
I remember early on that I would walk into the kids’ playroom and feel my heart race—I actually had a physical response to the mess—and then I’d walk right back out. Another area that made me crazy was our bedroom. For whatever reason, that was the place in our house where things multiplied at night like gremlins—stacks of books from the library, piles of laundry, half-unpacked bags and suitcases from trips. Until last week (remember I’m five years into this thing), my dresser was COVERED in crap that needed to be taken somewhere else in the house.
Creighton Abrams was a United States Army general who was first credited as saying, “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” If the war on stuff feels like it will end in defeat, rethink your strategy.
One thing that has really kept me on track in this process was an idea I got from Joshua Becker. At the beginning of the course I’m currently taking through his Becoming Minimalist website, he challenged us to define our WHY, and this was a major turning point for me.
Answer this question: WHY do you want to get rid of stuff? That’s where you might want to start. I literally wrote it out on a post-it and stuck it above my computer as a reminder. I go back to that post-it every time I stall.
We have one more reason that I want to write about at length, so I’ll save that for the next post. I’m working on compiling a list of the resources I’ve used in creating a successful strategy, so that will be in the next post, too. I hope providing a background for some of my challenges helps you feel like you’re not the only one struggling.
I’ve been sharing a little on social media about my minimalism journey, and enough people have asked questions that I decided to write some posts about what that has looked like so far for us. So I’ll start at the beginning (which is a very good place to start) with three specific epiphanies I had early on that spurred us to begin down this path.
EPIPHANY #1: WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF
About five years ago, I was living in Charleston, SC with my husband and two preschoolers and preparing for a move to Olympia, WA. As military luck would have it, Scott was gone for training for the six months before our move, so it was up to me to get our household goods in order for showing our house. As I prepared for the move, I stored some of our belongings and left. I figured it would be easier to sell the house if we and a lot of our things weren’t in it. The kids and I packed some bags and went to my parents’ house in OK. At their house, the three of us shared a bedroom and a bathroom for four months. We had enough clothes for two weeks and a few toys and books from home.
I was happier in those four months than I’d been in a couple of years. I realized how suffocated by our stuff I’d been feeling. It wasn’t something that happened over night. It was gradual. We gained more and more baby “necessities” with each child along with enough toys to outfit a daycare. Most of them came from other people—gifts and hand me downs—and the vast majority of it rarely got played with.
I specifically remember a conversation I had with my friend, Leigh, about her daughter’s fourth birthday present. She said Celia had asked for a stuffed bear from Costco that cost $20, so that’s what they were getting her. I asked her, “But what are you getting her for her BIG present?” Leigh answered, “Just the bear. That’s all she wants.”
I realize now how stupid my question must have sounded to her in that moment, but I was operating under the assumption that birthdays require something BIG, and BIG meant something expensive or flashy—something that would elicit “oohs and aahs” and photo-worthy clapping and tears from the little consumers I was creating. What a novel idea to honor a child with what she actually wanted even if that thing didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me.
Before I start to sound like I’m blaming the mess on my kids, I should say that Scott and I both acquired more and more of our own “toys.” I had art and homeschooling supplies and kitchen gadgets and books and clothes and trinkets. He had tools and Air Force issued gear and awards and souvenirs from trips and piles of who-knows-what that I shoved into drawers, so it wouldn’t be in my face. I knew the first thing I was going to have to do to tackle this problem was stop bringing more stuff into the house.
EPIPHANY #2: WE HAVE TOO MUCH SPACE FOR OUR STUFF
We moved to WA in 2011, and I was bound and determined to get rid of things, and we did. Kind of. We gave away a lot of things, but we also lived in a 2,200 square foot house with a 2,200 square foot garage (yes, you read that right), and that allowed us to create an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to our stuff. Instead of dealing with it, we just put all the stuff we weren’t using in the garage.
Aside from the black hole garage, every room in the house had some level of clutter—from decorative items to stacks of papers to bags of junk I’d whisked off the kitchen counters to the bedroom when company was on its way.
It was at that time that I noticed a habit of mine. If there was a drawer, I filled it. If there was a cabinet, I organized the bejesus out of it. Seriously. I had so many Rubbermaid bins and storage solution shelving units and “systems” for storing all our stuff. Our closets and drawers were so stuffed with clothes that I dreaded putting the clothes away after doing laundry and instead chose to leave the pile of clean clothes on the chair in our bedroom that was supposed to be the place I used for snuggling/reading/drinking tea.
It occurred to me that 1) I would like to explore the idea of living with less space because that would force us to get rid of stuff, and 2) just because the drawer exists doesn’t mean it has to have something in it.
Maybe this is something that everyone else already knows, so bear with me as I expose my ridiculous self.
EPIPHANY #3: WE ARE SPENDING TOO MUCH TIME ON OUR STUFF
Even though we weren’t spending a ton of money relatively speaking, we were drowning in things. And I spent the majority of my waking hours “cleaning.” What I was actually doing was moving crap from room to room, organizing all the things into drawers and cabinets and bins, and feeling tired all the time. With two kids, a dog, a husband who made frequent “touch-and-go” trips leaving piles in his wake, and my own pile issues, our house felt chaotic all the time.
Because of Scott’s schedule, when he was in town, we would often leave to spend time as a family. Part of this was because the only way to escape the office was to be unreachable, but a more troubling piece I realize now is that I couldn’t relax in our home. We couldn’t have “quality time” together at home because at least mentally, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t relax reading books with the kids because the piles of crap were staring at me. I couldn’t sit on the couch watching football with Scott because I was constantly thinking about projects that needed to be done around the house.
When we did have a Saturday at home, it was often spent organizing the garage or the closet or some other crammed space in an effort to get ahead of it all. Instead of spending time with my kids or reading or writing, I was organizing our life to death.
In writing this, I realized pretty quickly that I was going to need to write at least two different posts, so I’ll stop there for now and work on the next post when I get a quiet minute to write again. Next up: resources that got me moving!
It’s summer, which means vacations and seeing family and lazy mornings for my kids. After traveling for 19 days straight this month, the boys and I have logged some serious hours this week wearing our pajamas all day and reading for hours on end, breaking only to eat or go swimming.
One of the books we’re reading together is Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee. I picked up a signed copy at a writer’s conference I attended recently and thought it would be the perfect summer bedtime book for my animal-loving seven-year-old. (If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of McGhee’s picture book Someday. I dare you to read it without getting cloudy with a chance of eye rain.)
A couple of days ago, we snuggled into a giant pallet of pillows and blankets in the playroom and started reading. I was only about six pages into the story when Will interrupted and said, “I bet there are hundreds of stories like this in the world.”
Confused by his seemingly critical comment, I said, “What do you mean?”
The story opens with a description of one of the main characters, Firefly, who is part of Firefly nation (we meet Cricket and Vole later in the book, both part of their respective nations). In the firefly nation, young fireflies go to school and learn to recite the three Fundamental Rules of Giants: 1) Giant are to be feared, 2) Giants are the enemy of firefly nation, and 3) Giants are to be avoided at all costs.
After a short pause, Will said, “This is one of those stories about how people are afraid of something, so they spend all their time being afraid, and in the end we’re going to find out that it was dumb for them to be afraid.”
Ben added, “Except in this book, it’s fireflies instead of people.”
“Right.” I took a moment to think about my response. “Why do you think so many authors write stories like this?”
Without skipping a beat, Will answered, “I think it’s easier to use fiction and fantasy to talk about the world’s messed up problems. About how everyone is just walking around afraid of stuff because people are different or because we don’t know each other.”
Ben said, “But in these stories, there’s always one firefly or person or whatever who isn’t afraid.”
Look, here’s the deal—I spend a lot of time telling funny stories about my kids in real life and on social media. Sometimes I wish I could have a video running to capture these moments to replay later because I need them. Badly.
I am someone who is deeply affected by the big picture stuff—headlines about terror attacks, child abuse and neglect, and general inhumanity seem to flood my feed, and I have a really hard time disconnecting in a healthy way. I don’t mean shutting it out to pretend it’s not there—I would never suggest that as a reaction to pain. I mean that I have a hard time keeping these things from affecting me emotionally and psychologically. I don't have whatever coping mechanism is required to separate the pain of other people from my own. And I don’t really think I want to. Because what bothers me almost as much as the violence and hate is the reaction we seem to have every time something tragic happens. We’re stuck in this outrage/apathy cycle. We’re mad and sad, and seconds later we analyze the hell out of the tragedy before we’ve even had time to lament, and the next morning we turn the tragedy into memes.
I want off the ride.
I wholeheartedly believe in the words “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Those lyrics have become a mantra for me every time something horrific happens. Instead of engaging in the useless cycle of keyboard wars, I meditate on those words.
I cannot stop terrorism. I cannot stop mass shootings. I cannot stop rapists. I cannot stop bigotry and xenophobia and sexism. I cannot control the actions of crazy, hateful people. I cannot protect myself or my family from those crazy, hateful people.
But I can focus on my tiny heart and the tiny hearts in my home. I can love and serve and protect my children in ways that keep them from becoming those crazy, hateful people.
We read books. We read fictional books about brave fireflies who aren’t afraid of giants, crickets who long to know what’s beyond their tiny corner of the forest, and voles who are looking for the courage to do new things. (We’ve only read four chapters, but I think I can safely recommend this book to anyone looking for something to read as a family.)
And then I post about the wisdom that flows effortlessly from my children’s mouths. I post the funny things, the insightful things, the shocking and thought-provoking things because I refuse to believe that violence and hate have the last word. To use a hashtaggable phrase, the kids are all right.
It’s summer, my favorite time of year—warm nights, lemonade and popsicles, and the appearance every night of hundreds of fireflies in the yard, each one of them a reminder to
Tomorrow morning, I’ll board a plane in St. Louis bound for Atlanta and Amsterdam and finally Kigali, Rwanda. For four months, I’ve been preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the One Million Thumbprints campaign.
In the last two weeks, I’ve gathered thumbprints, shopped online for necessities, and spoken to crowds about how sixteen dedicated people from around the U. S. are banding together to raise awareness and funds to help women in war zones.
I’ve been wearing my 1MT shirt around town, the back of which reads “Tell the truth, take a risk, make your mark.” Over and over again, people have asked me what this means.
There’s a cliche that I hear sometimes when we talk about these big concepts—genocide and rape as a weapon of war and extreme poverty—people talk of “unspeakable truths,” and that phrase rubs me the wrong way. I’m not satisfied with a life that denies the suffering of others. So, I am determined, compelled even, to speak these truths.
When my husband and I said yes to this venture, it was with the understanding that there are risks involved, and my agreeing to be part of the team guarantees that we will leave a mark and as Jeremy Courtney says, we are attempting to “unmake violence” in tangible, life-altering ways.
A couple of weeks ago, I was pulling into my garage when one of my sweet neighbors was walking by with his dog. He flagged me down and said, “My wife said she saw on Facebook that you’re going to Africa!”
After chatting for a few moments, this man who is about my dad’s age and who has been a fantastic neighbor and friend since we moved to this neighborhood said, “Well, I have to be honest. I’m worried about you. It’s so dangerous over there.”
I answered, “That’s why I’m going.”
I’m going to an area of the world that has been rife with violence for the last few decades. Some of the greatest human rights crises of my lifetime have happened in central and east Africa. Some of our friends in these places have begun to rebuild, and some are still living under daily threats to their bodies. I’m going to visit for two weeks and then return to the comfort of my charmed life, but the women for whom I’m raising money do not have that luxury.
I understand why people are questioning my sanity and worried about my safety. I do. One of our fellow climbers, Ruth Bell Olsson, reminded us of a quote from Ruth Messinger that we cannot “retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.” Yes, I am overwhelmed by the gravity of this undertaking, but I will not retreat.
People have worried, but they have also been kind and gracious and enthusiastic in their support. Right after we have the “why?” conversation, they usually follow it up with “What can I do to help?” Here are some simple ways:
- Give your thumbprint—these thumbprints and names will form a petition that we will take before the UN showing solidarity with the women living through these atrocities. (You can also do this by texting the word THUMBPRINT to 51555.)
- Give your prayers—for our safety, for team unity, for physical and mental strength. (If you’d like to read along in the devotion we’ll be reading on the mountain, you can download it here.)
- Give a little of your time—share our story with your friends and family in person and on social media. Host a Love Club if you feel strongly about standing with us.
- Give your money—Somebody’s Mama has a goal of raising $19,341, a dollar for every foot of mountain I climb, and every penny will go to projects serving the women of South Sudan.
I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days because the adrenaline won’t shut off no matter what I try, but I am not anxious or worried or scared. I am at peace. I am prepared. And I am operating from a place of love where there is no room for fear. I am ready.
Let’s climb a mountain.
The last two weeks have been a flurry of activity—not that that’s all that weird for me given the many hats I wear, but since I announced that I would be climbing Kilimanjaro on behalf of Somebody’s Mama as part of the One Million Thumbprints campaign, the flurry has been…different.
There’s a sense of urgency, an excitement with very little anxiety. My commitment to this project has brought everything else in my life into sharp focus.
I’ve had to structure my days around training “hikes,” which are clearly necessary. My to-do list regarding the logistics of getting the right visas, the right medications, and the right gear is unending. I’ve also been more intense in my spiritual practices of prayer and meditation because I know without a doubt, it doesn’t matter if my body is ready if I can’t get my heart and mind right.
My part in this climb is just one subplot in an epic, compelling story—one that began with a woman named Esperance who gave her thumbprint as a signature, a defining biometric, proving that every person is as human as the next. When my friend and climb leader, Belinda, met Esperance, the course of many lives shifted—the lives of women whose stories we are telling and the lives of every person who hears their stories.
Part of this campaign involves gathering thumbprints—I’ve become not only the crazy lady walking around in hiking boots but also the crazy lady who pulls out a muslin banner and ink pad everywhere she goes. The purpose of gathering the thumbprints is two-fold: we engage people by telling the why of the story, and every thumbprint comes with a name added to a petition that will be considered by policy makers and leaders in the international community.
The first place I gathered thumbprints was at my sons’ cub scouts pinewood derby. I had talked with a few of the other parents about the climb in passing. One parent, Melissa, who happens to be in charge of scheduling our pack hikes seemed excited to see my thumbprint kit—she’d read my posts on social media and was so encouraging. She gave me her thumbprint and started sending other people my way.
At the end of the night, a six-year-old girl approached me as I was putting my things away. She said, “Ma’am, can I give you my thumbprint, too?” I didn’t know her name because her brother is in a different den than my boys, and I hadn’t spent much time with her. When she wrote her name on the paper, I saw that her name is Grace, and she’s Melissa’s daughter.
I had to hold back some tears as I watched her press her thumb on the banner. Granted, I cry easily, but this moment felt magical.
Our story began with a fifty-year-old widow from the Democratic Republic of the Congo named Esperance, a name that means HOPE, and it “ends” with an eight-year-old girl from Mascoutah, IL named GRACE.
The money we raise is not just a fact and figure, not just a handout. The money we raise is HOPE in places where violence has been writing the story. Jeremy Courtney at Preemptive Love Coalition says that we have to “unmake violence with love.” When we love Mamas around the world through our giving and through our blood, sweat, and tears on the mountain, we are telling them that violence doesn’t get the last word.
Grace is a complex word with various meanings, all stemming from the Latin root gratus meaning “thankful.” I pray for grace every day—to have the right words at the right time with the right people, to move without causing injury when I’m training, to stay cool under pressure. In the Christian tradition, grace is defined as God’s unmerited favor and the bestowal of blessings, and I can tell you that I have never felt the love of God (and a God who is Love) alive in my heart more than in accepting the responsibility of telling Esperance’s story. Saying I am thankful is a gross understatement.
So I move forward with LOVE
I’m Somebody’s Mama, and I’m climbing for Esperance, for hope. I’m Somebody’s Mama, and I’m climbing for Grace. Because there are women around the world who need me to give voice to their concerns and because there are young girls watching.
If you’d like to donate to the One Million Thumbprints campaign, click HERE. Every $24 gives someone living in South Sudan a chance to start over. Thanks, friends. I’m coming for your thumbprints!
As you know, I’ve joined a team of 16 (extra)ordinary people who are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in March to bring awareness to women who have experienced violence in the war zones of Syria/Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan. In mapping out my training schedule, I realized this morning that we’re down to 38 days until we leave. I have 38 days to convince my head that my body is up for this challenge.
The reality is that I fluctuate between feeling like Wonder Woman and being just a teensy bit anxious, which generally looks like me lying awake staring at the ceiling, heart pumping and screaming inside my head in my best Norman Bates voice, “LEIA, OH GOD, LEIA!”
Because several people have asked, here are a few details about the trip you might find interesting:
- We will be trekking the Rongai route, which is considered a medium difficulty route. The trip will take a total of five days and will include a total of approximately 29 miles of walking (including 8 miles of descent).
- Our team will be spending several days on the front and back ends of the climb in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are neighboring countries to Tanzania.
- We will journey through 4 climate zones during the climb, taking over 38,000 steps, and climbing 19,341 feet. We WILL have oxygen tanks with us (everyone wants to know this).
I have a personal fundraising goal that I’m facilitating through the work of Somebody’s Mama. I am looking to raise $19,341—a dollar for every foot of mountain I climb. So far, through the generosity of friends and family, we have raised $703.
I’ve had more than a few people tell me they want to climb the mountain, and while there may be spots in the future for another climb, this climb team is definitely at capacity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for you to “join” us.
- DONATE First, you can obviously donate toward Somebody’s Mama’s “Campaign to End Violence Against Women.” This is the easiest way to help. If you have questions about this, fill out the form below, and I’ll answer all your queries.
- TELL THE STORY Secondly, are you a blogger/writer/social media guru? We can use your voice to tell this story! If you are interested in writing about the trip and sharing it with your people, fill out the form below, and I’ll get back to you with a press packet of information. You can also follow and share all things One Million Thumbprints: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- WALK WITH US Next, do you run? Are you part of a walking group? Do you teach Zumba or yoga or Pilates or another fitness class? We would love for you to “walk with us” by running/walking/Zumbaing for the cause! If you’d like to do this as an individual or as a group, join the “Walk With Us” group on Facebook, where you can get all the info you need about partnering with us during the week of March 4-8.
- COLLECT THUMBPRINTS Finally, if you are someone who sees me on a regular basis, don’t be surprised if I ask for your thumbprint. Part of this initiative includes collecting thumbprints that represent all of the people who are supporting our climb and who want to give voice to women who have experienced violence in war zones. Click here for instructions on how to make your own banners, or if you fill out the form below, I’ll mail you a banner.
That’s it for now! Thanks to all of you who have already supported this endeavor financially and through prayers. I’m so happy to be surrounded by people who turn ideas into action. (And speaking of action, I'm off to binge watch Nurse Jackie on my phone and climb stairs while my kids are at karate. Woohoo?)
Please fill this out if you need to communicate with me in any way:
There’s no other way than to just come right out and say it: I’m climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
I’ve been practicing saying it out loud since October to friends and family, and it still doesn’t come out right. Most times, I try to be all nonchalant, like this is something that should be part of every day conversation, but generally, it goes like this:
Me: I’m climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in March.
Person (stunned look as if they heard wrong): What? Wait, what do you mean? Like THE Kilimanjaro?
Me: Yes, the big one in Africa. I’m climbing it. In March.
And then, if there is any other conversation surrounding the topic, I don’t know because I fall into an internal monologue rabbit hole, where all my brain synapses start making pinging noises and the building scream from Pink Floyd’s Speak to Me starts playing on a loop.
In other words, it feels like I’m losing my mind.
Because I am. Sort of.
In fact, more than one person has asked some sort of question along the lines of “Have you lost your mind?” And I have. In the best way.
I’m not offended by this reaction because it seems a good question given that I am a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who spends most days in pajamas behind a computer. My workout routine is best described as fits-and-startsy, and most days I have to bribe myself to workout with cookie dough. I have also tried a plan where I pay myself $1 for every workout that goes into a book fund, so I can reward myself with a new book. I’m basically a preschooler. With way less energy.
Here are the answers you are looking for:
Why? As most of you know, I run a non-profit called Somebody’s Mama. I have been asked to be a part of this climbing team by Belinda Bauman, the founder of One Million Thumbprints (1MT). We are teaming up with women from all walks of life to raise awareness and funds for grassroots peace-building in three of the most dangerous areas in the world: Syria/Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.
I am climbing as a representative of Somebody’s Mama, and we have a fundraising goal of $19,341, a dollar for every foot of mountain I’ll be climbing. (For more details about the trip, read here and here.) Scott and I are covering the costs of the trip (obviously), so every dollar raised will go to the program we have adopted in Ibba, South Sudan. I have officially raised $75 of my goal, so I only have 99.7% to go. If you would like to give to Somebody’s Mama now, you can do so now by clicking on the cute little elephant below.
Are you training? Clearly. I have what a like to call a certain level of “genetic fitness.” I come from strong stock, but strong stock is not going to cut it in this instance. We have one man on the climbing team who is acting as our team trainer, checking in with us to see how well we are doing. I fluctuate between feeling like some kind of Rocky/She-Ra superhuman (on the days I get a few miles of stairs in) and a complete and utter blob (basically all of Christmas break).
It’s really freaking cold out, and I hate gyms, so most of my training has involved climbing the stairs in my house, at the mall, or in a rarely used stairwell at the kids’ school. At this point, I’ve built up to three miles of climbing at a time, and my goal is to increase that to six miles. During our climb, we only have to carry a day pack, but I’ve still been walking with a backpack and increasing the weight incrementally.
At one point, I started to have a mini-panic attack about the fact that I live in the flattest part of the country and have no way of training for the oxygen deprivation, and I considered getting an oxygen deprivation mask. However, I decided against it, as I already get strange enough looks from people at the mall or the occasional middle schooler who decides to walk up the empty stairwell at the school as I’m wearing hiking boots and a backpack and muttering to myself because I’m angry. A bane face might just draw too much attention.
Last Tuesday, I walked the hallways and stairwells of the community center where my kids take karate, and I got in a few miles watching Nurse Jackie on Netflix on my phone. If we could figure out a way to stream Netflix on the mountain, this climb will be a cake walk. Anytime my power starts to wane, I channel my inner Katniss and listen to my mountain playlist.
I’ll be updating occasionally about the road to Kilimanjaro. Let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions. Please keep our team in your thoughts and prayers as I know I’m not the only one who would love your support.
During the Christmas break, I took a sabbatical from my computer to recharge and focus on being truly present with our friends and family. Okay fine, I forgot my cord at home during our trip to OK. Whatever. I’m just going to pretend it was a purposeful wellness exercise after the fact, okay?
I woke up this morning excited to plug back in to my virtual world because I’ve been eagerly anticipating writing this post—a little round up of my reading habits this year for the interest of all my readerly friends. I started keeping track of my books in a spreadsheet several years ago. This year, my spreadsheet grew to include some new categories in the interest of scientific research. I am very science-y.
I’d read several articles from other book nerds about the lack of reading diversity among American readers, and I was truly curious to know how my reading list would stack up. How many female authors was I reading vs. male authors? How many American authors vs. all the others? How many classics vs. new lit? I tried to just read the books I wanted to read without keeping any of these categories in mind because I wanted the list to accurately reflect my reading interests rather than focusing on molding the list to fit a certain balance. I’ve learned a bit about myself in this process.
Here are a few statistics about my list:
- 66% of the books I read were from female authors. One book I read was a husband/wife team with the remainder coming from male authors.
- 82% of the books I read were written by authors from the United States. (I find this statistic the most disappointing.)
- 90% of the books I read were published in 2003 or later.
- 81% of the books I read were fiction. I read two books of poetry, and the rest were non-fiction.
- Only 3.5% of the books I read were re-reads.
- It's hard to classify my book formats because I read them all--hardback, paperback, e-books, audiobooks, and sometimes a combination within the course of reading one book.
- I set a goal to read 70 books and ended up reading 113, totaling 37,956 pages, which means the books averaged 336 pages.
The first book I finished in 2015 was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I am surrounded by people who are passionately passionate about this series, and it took me almost three years to finish its 850 pages. I am told the rest of the series gets better, but I am afraid that I am a short attention span reader, and I didn’t love this book like my friends do (ducks for cover). I’m not saying I hated it. I just don’t have Jamie Fraser posters hanging above my bed or anything. I actually enjoyed the TV series more than the book (ducks for cover again).
The last book I finished in 2015 was Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, made famous after Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper danced their way into our hearts in the movie version. I generally read the book before the movie, but in this case, I saw the movie ages ago before reading the book. I felt the same way about both versions of the story—glimpses of genius in an odd and original story.
I also log all of my books on Goodreads, which has a rating system of 1 to 5 stars. I am a generous star giver, as opposed to some of my friends who are way harsh, Tai. I never give out 1 star, which according to the Goodreads people signifies I “did not like it.” Theoretically, these are books I would never finish reading, and I only keep track of books I finish. I gave 24 5-star ratings, which means “it was amazing” in Goodreads-speak. I do not use the word amazing to describe things because ICK, so I have revised this to mean “it was amazeboobs.” I gave 14 2-star ratings which translates to “it was ok.”
And now some standouts from my year in reading—here are my top fifteen books (that were not re-reads) of 2015 in no particular order:
- Mosquitoland by David Arnold
- Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter
- The Theft of Memory by Jonathon Kozol
- A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
- Yes, Please by Amy Poehler
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley
- Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
- Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey
- For the Love by Jen Hatmaker
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
If you’re on Goodreads, let’s be friends. This is where I get most of my reading recommendations outside of the Lazy Book Club I admin on Facebook (if you want to join us there, just ask). I hope this list gives you some good ideas for future reading. I'd love to hear some of your favorites from 2015 as well. Happy reading, friends!