Monday, January 26, 2015

On Writing (for Real)

Nearly two and a half years ago, I entered a new phase of life—one in which I gave myself permission to write with a purpose. I’d been blogging to stay sane (like so many other mamas of littles), but I found myself looking at five hours a week with both of my children in school, and I was ready to be a real writer.

Well, as life would have it, I did do some writing, but not nearly as much as I wanted, and then everything went topsy turvy when I found myself homeschooling and running a non-profit project, which took all of my waking brainpower hours.

Then, this past summer, almost two years after vowing I was going to be a real writer, I was in a completely new phase of life—with both children in school all day every day, living in a new state where I had very few true commitments or friends who required face time.

For those of you who have been following my tiny saga on social media, let me just say THANK YOU for all of your kind words and virtual fist bumps as I updated you on my progress. I’m not vain enough to think that you’re all lying awake at night wondering how soon my book will be finished, but I do know that my village has carried me up the mountain with texts and phone calls and snail mail, as well as the barrage of ‘likes’ every time I update my word count.

I realized somewhere along the way that I was posting word count updates, but I wasn’t really filling anyone in on content. So, for anyone who is interested in what this process has looked like for me thus far, here you go.



I committed to plopping my butt down for two hours five days a week. I wrote it on my to-do list every single day—8:30-10:30 WRITE. From mid-August to mid-November, I sat. There were a few days sprinkled in there when the piles of laundry won, and of course, there were a couple of days when life said, “Oops! You have a sick kid!" or "This appointment can only be scheduled in the morning.” But really—and this is HUGE—my butt was on the couch (or bed or chair) for about 91.5% of that scheduled time. A solid A-.

Just about every book on writing gives this as the first piece of advice—you have to have a schedule. Many of them also say viewing writing as an actual job and not a hobby is crucial to success. This is hard for me. Every job I have ever had has been paid by the hour or at the very least by tips. The idea that I could put hours and hours and hours of work into a project and never be compensated in any way gives me the tummy rumbles.

I mean, yes—writing is an art, a craft, a hobby, an outlet. And there is intrinsic worth and satisfaction, not to mention therapeutic benefits in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). SURE. But when Scott and I came to the decision that I would take a gap year of sorts while both of our children are in school full-time before pursuing full-time employment (the kind with a guaranteed cash money check that comes every other Friday), it wasn’t so I could find myself.

I am not lost. I do not need to be found. I want to be a writer who sells books.

So.

I began by writing essays about ALL THE THINGS. My goal was to write a memoir-ish book in the same vein as what I’d been blogging for several years. Creative non-fiction for adults has been my jam since grad school when I wrote a book about my time on the Mercy Ship off the coast of West Africa. It comes easily, and it’s one of my true loves.


My first true love, though, has always been writing for children. I wrote my first legitimate picture book in high school—a story about a little girl named Penelope who hates getting up for school in the morning (I can neither confirm nor deny the possibility of autobiographical content in this story). I have written bits of other picture books along the way.

So, when my adult non-fiction started feeling forced and unlovable, I fell into the loving arms of children’s lit and wrote a picture book called My Name is Elikem, based on one of our dear friends in Ghana. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group to help me figure out if the book worked at all. The overwhelming response was, “THIS IS NOT THE WHOLE BOOK.”

The problem with that response is that picture books can only be so long, and the story people were asking me to tell was a longer one than would fit in 32 pages.  Someone—I don’t remember who, but I’m going to say it was my friend, Katie, because I love her—suggested I try to morph it into a middle grade novel.

Huh.

This had never occurred to me, so I went home and stared at the screen for a few days trying to picture what that would look like. Over the next few weeks, an idea for a middle grade novel based on our travels to West Africa emerged like a group of old timey baseball players in a corn field. I started building, and it came.

I leave on February 5th for NYC, where I will present the first 500 words (gulp…) to a round table critique group including important-ish agent/publisher types. I’ll spend the rest of the weekend hobnobbing and trying not to stutter or draw too much attention to my nervous pit stains. This conference will be the first of its kind for me, and best case scenario, I’ll make some connections with people who can be guiding lights for me to figure out the best path for turning this book into a published book.


Again, thank you to everyone who has encouraged me thus far. Cross your fingers and say a prayer or do whatever else you do that I have the right words at the right time to convince the right people that this is the right book for right now.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why It's Okay That I'm Not in the Top 7

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook are overly aware that I’ve been competing in a competition to win a contest to travel to Rwanda with Noonday Style and International Justice Mission.  The top 7 will move on to the next round, and I ended the competition in 9th place.

Obviously, it’s disappointing.  This trip would have taken me to a country I’ve wanted to visit since I was a child.  I would have been able to network with some really great women about the issues Somebody’s Mama is working to address every day.  And don’t get me started on the feelings I have about the outpouring of obsessive-compulsive voting love that I’ve experienced throughout this process.  My village showed up in a major way, and that alone was worth being in this competition on a personal level.

So, what now?

Well, life.  In the midst of the flurry that was this week, I was still an Air Force wife waiting to hear back about when my husband might come home from deployment.  I was still a mom who got to feed and clothe and teach and snuggle two boys.  I was still half of Somebody’s Mama, working to finish out a maternity unit in Sierra Leone.  I was still a council member planning a spring stewardship fair at my church for this weekend.  I was still the daughter who got to fly in and surprise her mom at her retirement party.  All of those things happened while we were tap-tap-tapping away for votes on anything that would connect to the internet.

I shared this week—when I reached 8th for the first time—my thoughts on what would happen if I never moved up from 8th.


“…Because my heart is brimming, I'm questioning what happens if I never get past 8th place. What does any of this mean if this is as far as I get? So, in your honor, I have responded to every opportunity for kindness that has presented itself, keeping in mind the kindness that you have had for me this week.

TOGETHER, we shared pizza with a man whose sign said "Hungry." Together, we threw change into the fireman's boot for MDA. Together, we bought a Sophia the First DVD for a stranger in the line at Target whose card was declined (he hugged us and cried with us). Yesterday, we took leftover wedding centerpieces to my friend Erika's elderly neighbors. I wish that moment of watching our boys sharing fresh flower love with Carolyn (aged 102) could have been frozen in time. We did every single one of these things TOGETHER because I believe the love we take needs to equal the love we make.

I started counting up the number of people who have liked or shared the link and decided something should be done in your honor. I lost track at some point when the number went over 100, so I'm just going to round up and donate $150 to the Somebody's Mama maternity unit project on behalf of all this social media love. So, this morning, whether I move up or not, we are being love together, and I can love because you loved me first.”

And then, I DID move up from 8th.  In fact, this morning, I was still in 5th place when I woke up.  All day I watched as I fell further and further behind, baffled as person after person shared and voted in a frenzy.  In the end, I’m not going to say something stupid like “everything happens for a reason.”  The reason I didn’t get to 7th place is because other people got more votes than I did.  We tried our damnedest.  We really did.

We even made this awesome video that still makes me teary every time I watch.
I called on my village to rally, and rally you did.  And when the clock struck 11:59 (or 9:59 in the Pacific time zone where I am), people immediately started sending messages of encouragement.  Let me just tell you—I can die a happy woman after the nice things people have said during and after this competition.  I mean that—it was like a week long eulogy for which I didn’t have to die to hear.

So, THANK YOU again for all of it.  I blogged a million years ago about failure, and since then, I’ve been trying more and more things to get used to failing.  Maybe that sounds stupid, but I think it’s an important life skill to hone.  We’ve all heard the stories about how Michael Jordan’s high school coach cut him from the team and how Abraham Lincoln lost a gazillion elections before he became president.  Those guys turned out okay, so I’m pretty sure I will, too.

This whole thing started because they asked for storytellers to apply.  One thing I know about writing is that sometimes the best pieces go from good to great because of editing.  I have removed sentences, paragraphs, sometimes entire chapters to a make a story better, so that's what I think is happening here.  This chapter doesn't fit in my story, and my story will be better for it.

In the meantime, I’m excited to see how the rest of the competition unfolds and to continue following the work of International Justice Mission.  Excuse me while I go finish this maternity ward.




Thursday, May 1, 2014

On Being Human

Thursday mornings are my Sabbath.  I don't set an alarm, and I guard these hours from busyness with ferocity.  Most often, I do a little laundry, give the kids cereal, and hunker down with a book and/or internet reading I've been saving throughout the week.

I have to confess that the last two weeks I've been feeling a heaviness—one that comes and goes because I live with the curse/blessing of being unable to disconnect from sorrow—not the inner sorrow of being human but the bigger sorrow of being part of humanity (which I've found is actually the same thing).  

So as I scroll through the news stories about kidnapped schoolgirls and racist businessmen and death penalty debacles and D celebrity heroin overdoses, I have to stop and breathe and live with the tragedy.  It hurts because as much as I'd love to stay above the emotions that bubble to the surface with these headlines, I can't.  I don't have the ability to separate headline life from real life.

BUT.

And that is a big but—I also feel an overwhelming sense of hope in that inexplicable way that happens when life is hard.  Let me just tell you about a few things that happened this week.

One of my kids in Togo posted a picture of a “photo de famille à CEHBED”—a photo of his family at the orphanage.  Did you get that?  HIS FAMILY.  Because our kids—orphans—are being loved and encouraged and brought up to believe they are part of a family—one with a mom and a dad and dozens of aunts and uncles—and the siblings.  So many brothers and sisters.

And the moms and dads with pictures and videos of kids riding their bikes for the first time or singing in the talent show or telling jokes or falling asleep at the dinner table or sleeping next to the dog or throwing toys in the toilet—you know, doing all the things that kids do.  It’s not minor minutia.  These things matter—because these parents are recognizing the joys (and challenges) of parenthood and inviting us to be a part of their story.

And the petitions we can sign to affect change in Washington and around the world, the invitations to write to our congresspeople, those activist friends of mine who take time out of their rat wheel living to say, “Wait just one minute—I won’t let this happen on my watch!”  God bless the activists for waking the rest of us up.

Let’s talk about the devastation from natural disasters, but let’s talk more about the clothing, food, and water drives.  Let’s talk about neighbors helping neighbors—about boyfriends rescuing their girlfriends from falling walls and children found alive in the rubble because rescue workers have gone without sleep for days.  Let’s talk about beauty from ashes, mourning and dancing hand in hand.

And how about the people deciding today is the day to make the big step in the right direction?  The new house in a new city because of a new job.  The writing workshop that marks the start of a new dream.  The first AA meeting—or the first in a long time.  

And can we talk about all the new babies that were born in the last two weeks?  So many—and I cry EVERYSINGLETIME someone posts those gooey, wrinkly pictures with their private parts waving hello to the world because even though they don’t know it yet, these mamas and daddies have just unleashed world-changing potential into the universe in the form of a wiggly, crying bundle of flesh and blood.

And the pictures of all the fighters—the ones with bald heads and puffy faces and equipment in their noses.  My loved ones, your loved ones, our friends’ loved ones—and we’re reading their blogs and raising money for their care by running races and shaving our heads and celebrating small victories in their fight because they’re OURS—they belong to us, and no matter what’s ahead we need the world to know that we’ll be right by their side the whole way.

And allow me a moment to reflect on the work I’m doing right now—my heart is shattered by the statistics about women and babies dying in Sierra Leone.  My friend, Gay, who visited the hospital where we’re trying to build a maternity unit said, “I saw more women and children die in seven days than I did in my more than twenty year career as a nurse.”  It’s enough to make me double over in physical pain, bringing me to my knees in prayer.

BUT.

More than sixty people have said NO.  We won’t let this be their story—OUR story—we can do better. And we’re doing better.  Together.  Because that’s the best way to live.

So, today, on my Sabbath, I’ll be watching my kids ride their bikes through the window as I fold a basket of laundry and build a maternity ward.  In the immortal words of the prophet, Ben Harper, “I’ve felt pleasure, and I have felt pain, and I know now that I can never be the same.”


Namaste, friends.



Monday, February 24, 2014

To Go to Togo 2014

In 2003, when I was but a wee lass, I hopped a ship to West Africa and found pieces of my heart I didn’t know were missing.  I was young, unmarried, without children, and idealistic as anyone.  Eleven years later, I’m humbled to think of the person I’ve become because of the relationships I’ve built with my Togolese friends.  Since my initial trip with Mercy Ships, I have returned twice: once to introduce my dad to Togo and then six years later to introduce my husband and firstborn.  When I started telling people that we are returning to West Africa in March, I was met with a myriad of responses.  

From friends who have known us a long time, things like:

Wow, that’s exciting!  
What are you doing this time?
How can we help?

From people who haven’t known us as long:

Wait—what?
You’re taking your children WHERE?
Where’s Togo?

The whole story is a long one (hey…wait…maybe someone should write a book about it…), but I’m going to do my best to sum it all up in less than a thousand words.

When I returned to the United States after my stint with Mercy Ships in 2003, I had a plan to help a pastor who was caring for 77 orphans who lived in his front yard—a monumental task to begin.  Within months, we’d procured funding to cover the costs of food, education, clothing, and basic medical care.  

Along the way, we’ve partnered with Pastor Celestine and the children of CEHBED (an acronym for something really long and French) to create a safer, more sustainable living environment for the children.  (You can see the building we helped build in this video shot in 2011 by members of a partner church in Bristol.)  Many of our kids have gone on to attend technical schools to learn how to be mechanics and seamstresses.  The twelve-year plan has included building the new building, continuing to provide for basic needs, and helping them start small enterprise businesses to provide a sustainable income for the orphanage.

Aside from our work with CEHBED, we have partnered with two other pastors: Tomety, in the remote village of Badoughbe, and James, the leader of a fishing community in Lome.  Both pastors run sustainable businesses that employ members of their communities and have facilitated micro-loan programs for widows and single mothers.  


In rural Badoughbe, we partnered to build the first school in the community and to start a poultry farm that will make the school self-sustaining.  In the fishing village, we helped Pastor James build a church, which serves as a true community center for many things, where they had been meeting in an open air hut that was vulnerable to the elements.

You may have noticed that I used some form of the word “sustain” several times, and that wasn’t on accident.  When we talk about “changing lives” or “changing the world,” our organization believes in empowering people to do the hard work of changing their communities.  4HIM has a history of giving a hand up, rather than a hand out to our neighbors and friends, and we have learned that when we approach giving in this light, everyone learns, everyone feels loved, and everyone wins.


My family of four has committed $8,750 to our trip this time around.  We’ve saved a good portion of that ourselves and asked some of our family members to consider giving us the gift of this experience as a family for Christmas this year instead of giving actual gifts.  On the outside, that might sound like a sacrifice, but we consider spending this money an investment in pure joy.

In the past, when I or other friends have traveled to Togo, we have experienced situations that were so simple to solve.  For example, we met a woman whose mode of transportation was two buckets.  She was missing legs, and her system was to sit on one bucket, drag her second bucket in front of her, and then hoist herself to the second bucket with her arms.  She did this repeatedly to get anywhere she needed to go.  For $35, her life was changed when some team members purchased a wheel chair for her.

At other times, we’ve shown up to find that the children of the orphanage needed new mattresses because of a bed bug infestation or new shoes for school, but Pastor Celestine did not want to ask for help, and we are able to meet these needs with a few hundred dollars.  When we do these things, we use money from our own pockets and from the general fund at 4HIM.  It’s the kind of giving that has immediate, tangible results.  Again, this is the kind of giving that equates with pure joy.


So, for those of our friends who have asked how you can help because you’ve been around long enough to know what great successes we’ve had, this is how you can help.  Please donate to 4HIM’s general fund by clicking on the link below.  


In the special requests section, type “Johnson Togo Trip” and every dollar will go toward these sorts of amazing, immediate needs we see along the way.  We have a couple of things in mind already—things that we believe will be a blessing to our friends in Togo.  
Modeling some gifts from our friends during our 2011 trip!

1. Our friend, Jamie (pictured third in line above) shared her desire that the CEHBED orphanage have a library.  She sent three popular picture books in French for me to pack in my suitcase.  My desire is that we can add to this library while we are there at a bookstore in Lome (buy local!).

2. While we visit Pastor James in the fishing village, we hope to visit as many neighbors as we can to give each family some rice and beans.  The village is made up primarily of widows and children, and we want to do something simple to make their day better.

3. When we visit Badoughbe, we will be helping with some of the planting and work around the poultry farm, and we are hoping to help them purchase some needed supplies and tools.


These are things we know we already want to do, and I know that we will come across more problems to solve along the way.  We would be honored if any of you would partner with us!  Thanks for reading our story, and thanks in advance for your support and prayers for traveling mercies.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Friendsday #10

My kids are eight and five.  Our days are generally filled with video games, laugh track TV shows, and chapter books.  We’re all routine-y, so the dynamic of mom and kid interaction is pretty predictable and lovely.  We have what I like to call the occasional full moon fall out when one of them loses his mind over something completely inane (or more often I reach some sort of mental limit and have to apologize later), but really, truly, honestly most of our days are awesome.  Breakfast, lunch, school, after school activities, dinner, bedtime.  With so very little drama that I feel like I’m cheating at parenting somehow.

A good number of my friends are still in the under five stage of motherhood, and it seems strange to say, but that stage of motherhood feels like a lifetime ago.  I am so far removed from nursing, sleep schedules, napping, potty training, and sleep deprivation that sometimes my mind plays tricks on me.  I think to myself—was it really as bad as *these people* make it out to be?  “These people” are all of my friends who post things on Facebook on the regular like “Bedtime has been moved to 6:00 this evening so no one dies” or “I haven’t slept longer than one hour straight in four nights…teething is from the devil!”

I read those words, and I’m tempted to do what older women did to me when I was bemoaning the fact that my husband was gone AGAIN during an emergency room visit or that someone had just peed all over the shower curtain.  I’m tempted to give advice or say something like “Cherish your littles because they grow so fast!”  But I don’t.  1) Because I would never actually say something that cheesy, and 2) because I remember wanting to punch people in the face when they said those sorts of things to me.  (If someone ASKS for my advice, I’ll give it, but I’ve made a general rule to let other people parent their children because they’re not mine to parent.)

The reality is that those early years were challenging.  Will didn’t sleep through the night and rarely napped longer than 23 minutes (seriously, you could have used him as a cookie timer) until he was 2 1/2.  You read that right.  TWO YEARS AND SIX MONTHS of waking up multiple times a night.  I didn’t give him away because he was freakishly happy during the day even with no sleep.  Ben, on the other hand, slept like he wrote the book on sleeping but screamed like someone was giving him a lobotomy for the first nine months of his life every time we got in the car.  Will had a four-month period during his third year where he would screamcry until he threw up if I told him to take a nap.  Of course, this was right around the time that Ben began to HATE clothes—all clothes, including his diaper.  So, sometimes they would scream in tandem, chasing me around the house like two little naked, sleepy banshees.

The reality of what those days were actually like lies somewhere between my nostalgia of a quiet nursing baby and the disaster I described above.  In fact, it’s all of that, nostalgia and disaster rolled into a moment of motherhood that shaped me in ways that no other relationship with human beings has.

That might be the longest introduction I’ve ever written for a Friendsday post, but I say all of that to say this: the reason we all made it through that stage in tact had a lot to do with my friend, Jenna.  

Jenna, I chose this picture because 1) I love your hair like this,
and 2) almost all of the pictures of just you are of a pregnant you.  Ha!
Jenna’s husband and my husband were both pilots at Charleston AFB when we met, and I’d known of Jenna through friends for a long time before I ever met her.  Our friendship started at Rolly Pollies, one of those places with lots of wide open squishy space for your children to bounce around and run.  Our oldest kids, Will and Samantha, were enrolled in the Beetles class, where they were learning basic gymnastics and other energy-using skills.  For us, two women with three-year-olds and newborns, it was forty-five minutes of someone else engaging with our children a couple of times a week.  Jenna and I would sit on the benches watching Will and Sam balance on the beam or flip on the trampoline while we nursed our babies and talked about The Bachelor.  The conversation was not deep, but it was also not about Little Bill or goldfish crackers.

Eventually, the conversation shifted to sharing our mothering experiences, our faith, and our life as military spouses.  We started attending “open gym” sessions together, when we could let our growing babies crawl around on the giant blocks while the bigs jumped in the foam pit.  Quickly, we added a new dimension to our routine—grabbing dinner at an Asian fusion place in the same area as Rolly Pollies.  We’d bundle everyone into the car and drive over to Red Leaf, where the waitresses (thankfully) fell in love with our brood.

Will and Sam would play “school” under the table (which I realize seems wildly inappropriate in most eating establishments), each of them taking turns “teaching” each other how to spell new words.  We’d drink tea and eat pad thai and gyoza, checking on our table trolls occasionally and nursing the littles.
Jenna and her super duper family
Before Jenna and her family moved, we had added one more dynamic to our ritual that sometimes included our in town husbands.  After our earlyish dinner, our counterparts would be getting off work, so they’d join us and our worn out babes at Rita’s, an Italian ice place that served snocones and custard.  On several occasions, our kids, now all old enough to at least toddle around a bit, would run the length of the building in the drainage ditch that separated parking lots, while our husbands timed them to see how fast they were.  And we would sit on the red benches, spooning the last our our snocones into our mouths as the sun set.

I think part of the reason I have a hard time remembering how difficult that stage of life was is because most of my memories are like this—laughing and eating and watching my kids make friends.  When our family took a road trip to CA two summers ago, Jenna packed up her three kids (she’d added one since we’d seen them last) and drove to Downtown Disney from a couple of hours away to have dinner with us.  We stay connected through social media—with conversations about homeschool and The Bachelor (some things don’t change), and I’m continually entertained and encouraged by the way she opens herself up to the people around her through her “Friday confessions,” in which she relays some story about something stupid she’s done in her life.  

One of my friends, who is in the thick of this stage of motherhood right now posted on Facebook, “If it takes a village, where’s mine?”  And I responded, “Ha!  You have to build it!”  I know why she posted that exasperated status—she’s got a three-year-old who wants to do everything by himself and a five-month-old who can’t do anything for herself, and that can feel really isolating—especially in this life where our husbands are gone so much and our families don’t live near.  

Jenna was a huge part of my village in a time when I often felt like the idiot.  Village-building can be challenging and exhausting (and not natural for those of us who would rather hide away in our Hobbit holes), but it is also life-affirming and life-saving at times.


Thank you, Jenna, for being a person who showed me the value of raising the roof of friendship over pillars of shared laughter and tears and on a foundation of vulnerability and love.  Keep up the good work—you are one of the best village people I know.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Friendsday #9

In 2003, I spent a semester at sea, working with Mercy Ships.  I’d dreamed of going to Africa for years, and volunteering in the hospitality department on the M/V Anastasis, a traveling hospital ship off the coast of West Africa, was my ticket.  I had just graduated from college and was engaged to be married, and I was every bit idealistic and passionate and ambitious as anyone should be at twenty-two.

In the five-month period that would become the basis for the story of my masters thesis in grad school, I met three girls—Sarah, Jessica, and Maro—who became my family away from family as we navigated the cathartic joy and bumbling pain of international travel.  
I know a picture exists of all four of us leaning over the reception desk on the ship,
but this is the only picture I could find that I had saved digitally--
Sarah and I at a dance party/lunch in Sierra Leone.
One of the best days of my entire life.
In the past eleven years, we’ve seen each other in spurts.  This one was able to go to that one’s wedding.  These three gathered because the timing was right.  When our family found out we’d be stationed in WA, we were overjoyed because it would mean being within an hour and a half of both Jessica’s and Sarah’s families.  Maro was still waaaaaaay over in FL (which was nice when we lived in Charleston, SC), but the other three of us could gather semi-regularly.

Sarah and her husband, Kris, took assignments doing international relief work in Kenya and then South Sudan for a good portion of our time in WA, but we saw them on their trips home and happily stored all their belongings in our garage.  Last month, when Kris and Sarah were officially home for good, we got a message from Maro's husband, Rich, that their family was thinking about trekking out west for a vacation.

Within two days, Jessica, and her husband, Andrew, had organized a long weekend in Leavenworth, WA—a Bavarian “Christmastown” known for its charming downtown and snow-related activities.  The plan was to pitch in food and go where the wind took us.

And we’d all be together.  For the first time in eleven years.

Maybe you’ve got friends like these—you first met at camp and saw each other every summer for seven summers and then not again for ten years, when you ended up living in the same city.  Or maybe you were roommates during the one year of college you spent away from home, and you meet up every time she’s in town for business.  Maybe you shared a short assignment to a remote Air Force base with very little to do for entertainment and haven't lived in the same place since.

These kinds of friendships are different than the ones you create with your mom’s best friend’s daughter, who was your best friend before you were born or the girl who sat next to you in first grade who still calls you once a week.  Those friendships have had time to simmer slowly and are obviously delicious.  But these other kinds of friends—the kind of people who have lived through intense moments of life together—they make for instantly deep friendships with a level of love and commitment that defies reason.

As I packed our bags for Leavenworth, I thought about the fact that I didn’t really know what to expect from the weekend.  If I travel with the people I hang out with on a regular basis, I know what to expect—who likes to stay up late or be the first one up, who’s messy and who cleans up after everyone.  But this group of people—we don’t share life daily together.  In fact, the last time we did, none of us was even married.  Now, we’d be heading to a house in the mountains with eight adults and eight (and a half) children.  And you know what? I wasn’t worried one bit about any of it.

I know this to be true about humans: good people are good people.  When you’re “picking up where you left off” after eleven years with good people, it just works.
The four of us squished on a love seat
Throughout the weekend, I watched as one mom fixed a plate for all the kids, not just her own, while a dad wiped the face of a kid who didn’t belong to him.  We shared food and mittens, played games and went sledding, stoked the fire and shuffled around a giant house in slippers.  And it felt like we’d been doing it forever.

The night before we all headed back to real life, the kids (who had been getting along freakishly well all weekend) were tucked into bed, and the adults were snacking on all the things we’d hidden from the kids during the day.  We asked questions of each other about all the things that needed “catching up”—how is your brother?  How has your pregnancy been?  What’s this new business venture?  What’s the next step in your career?  How’s the adoption process going?  Big questions with big answers that kept us talking late into the night.
The Fruits of our Labor
And one with Sarah's growing Fruit included
The weekend was peppered with reminiscing about moments on the Mercy Ship—that time when we were young and goofy and just stepping into the skin of adulthood, when we were thrown together for a few months on the other side of the globe.  As I watched each of us handing off an upset child to her spouse or nursing a baby or baking good morning rolls or organizing the mountain of snow boots and coats, I couldn’t help but be supremely happyThere is no greater joy in this kind of friendship than realizing that reality is infinitely more beautiful than the picture you had created through nostalgia.

Jessica still has perfect timing with her smart, quiet jokes, and Sarah’s and Maro’s laughter is still the perfect response.  I like to think we are more comfortable in our adult skin now, but if you peel back the layers of years of living on opposite coasts and navigating marriage and family life without daily interaction, we are still very much the four girls who met on a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone.  We planted the seeds of friendship in the soil of intense adventure and watered each other with our love for justice and mercy and laughter and grace in such a way that our roots have inextricably intertwined.  Our family tree is broad and beautiful and still growing.


Thanks to all three of you for this weekend.  And for everything.
Sixteen and a half people all looking at the camera
at the same time while the camera is on automatic.
Nothing short of miraculous.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Friendsday #8


When I was born, I had 72 living grandparents.  Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but thanks to short generation gaps and good genes, I have vivid memories of time spent with grands and greats.  Grandpa Joe pickled his own cucumbers in gallon jars. Grandma Bea gave me pennies in recycled jelly jars.  Grandpa Claude walked around with a pipe in his mouth that he never smoked.  Grandma Marge (whom I called “Grandma March” because I thought that was her actual name for far too long) kept a step stool conveniently perched next to the cookie jar.  
Grandma March and Grandpa Claude at their 50th wedding anniversary party
Some of my earliest memories are of visits to older members of our church’s congregation with my mom.  We’d drop by, sometimes unannounced, and I’d sit on floral-printed couches while my mom spoke in hushed tones to ladies who seemed older than the Earth to me.  They’d talk about their grandchildren, their children, their husbands who had passed--sometimes decades before, or about their Bible study group or recent trip to the grocery store.  Most often, my mom would not need to ask more than three questions to fill the hour with listening opportunity, and almost always, I would fall asleep in her lap to the squeak of a rocking chair.

When we moved to Olympia, WA, we attended a hip-ish church for a few months and never felt “at home” for lots of reasons.  When we signed Ben up for preschool at a Lutheran church, we decided to attend a service.  Our second Sunday, Scott was gone, so I attended a Sunday school class by myself, and I was the youngest person in the class by thirty years.  Most of the members of the class had me by forty, fifty, even sixty years.

One lady came up to me after class and bear-hugged me.  When she let go, she grabbed my wrists and squeezed, not letting me go.  She introduced herself as “Lucille” and quickly told me that her husband had been in the military--I knew she was my people when she ribbed me a little about the difference between Army wives and Air Force wives.  Before we left, she took down my name and phone number and stuck it in her purse before shuffling off toward the sanctuary.

Over the next few weeks, our church attendance was a little spotty because of summer activities, and I got a note in the mail from Lucille saying how nice it was to meet me and my little family.  One day, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.  When I said hello, she launched into a conversation. 

“Leia?  This is Lucille from church.  We met at Sunday school.”
“Yes, I--”
“I was wondering how you are.  I haven’t seen you the last few weeks.”
“Yes, we’ve been really busy--out of town a couple of weekends--”
“Well, I hope you’ll come back.  I want to see you.”
“I’m definitely planning on it!”
“Okay, see you.  Bye.”

You are right to assume I was right back in Sunday school the next Sunday.  Over the last couple of years, Lucille has remained a ray of sunshine in the Washington rain.  I see her occasionally in the middle of the week at church because my women’s Bible study meets at the same time as her senior exercise group.  Twice, I’ve run into her around town running errands, and she pays no attention to the people waiting behind her in line when she stops to tell me glad she is to see me and to ask how things are going, always brightly dressed and smiling.

Today, Will and I ran to our favorite farm stand to grab some produce before we had to pick up Ben from school.  I saw Lucille standing by the potatoes and onions.  I scooted past her buggy and hugged her.  Immediately, she started talking about how much she loves me.  Right there in the store.  She grabbed my arms, my face, my hands, and said, “I’m just so happy to see you.  I love you so much!”

When I said, “I know!  I love you, too!” she stopped me, grabbed my hands again and said very seriously, “Those are important words--I love you.”
Will was standing behind me, playing his 3DS, which has a camera.  He said, “Mom, let me take a picture of you guys!”  We posed with a random guy who was looking at potatoes.  The two of them started chatting about how kids are so smart about technology.  Lucille said to this stranger, “Do you know that I’m going to be 95 this year?”  And his response struck me.  “Well, good on you!  I’m almost 70, and anyone who would get out in this weather is either healthy or stupid.”  They laughed and laughed, and I said a tiny prayer of thanks, like I do, for this little miracle of a moment in my day.

Then I grabbed my phone and taught Lucille about selfies.


Much is said about how older generations get frustrated with “kids these days” and younger generations complain about how out of touch their parents and grandparents are.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been old since I was born, but I have always had a healthy appreciation of the people who made me, the people who have lived more life than I have.  More often than not, I prefer to learn from other people’s experiences when possible--good and bad.  When it comes to all the things that really matter--the way I explore my faith, the way I love my husband, the way I mother my children, or the way I cultivate friendships, I take cues from people who have lived well.

When Lucille was leaving, she walked up to Will and cupped his face in her hands in a moment that was too beautiful to interrupt with a picture.  She said, “I need you to come to my house and teach me about my iPad!”

I love Lucille.  I love her for the number of years she’s lived--almost three times mine.  I love her for her cold hands and bright yellow rain jacket.  I love that she’s 94 and still gets out to buy onions.  I love her because she’s who I want to be when I grow up--someone who writes notes and makes phone calls, someone who recognizes the importance of finding common bonds with people who seem very different by appearances, someone who knows the value of saying I love you.

Today is for Lucille.  We’ll be paying her a visit next week to make sure she knows how to read this on her iPad.