Bread & Wine

I heard my favorite author, Shauna Niequist, speak live for the second time last fall at my church’s women’s retreat. In person, she was just like her books:witty, wise, authentic, charming. She was utterly approachable, to the point that I actually considered approaching her to tell her I enjoy her writing and what an inspiration she is to me and could I please, please be her new best friend? Instead, I wisely kept my distance, limiting my interaction with her to uncomfortably long stares during breaks and an accidental near-collision while entering the ladies’ room.

At that retreat Shauna read excerpts from her two books, Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet, as well as from her upcoming April release Bread & Wine.  I’ve been looking forward to reading Bread & Wine ever since, simply because it is by Shauna Niequist. I love her writing style–the way her stories weave humor and honesty, pinpointing the holy amid the humdrum. As much as I love Shauna Niequist, though, I was a little nervous about reading Bread & Wine. Subtitled “A love letter to life around the table, with recipes,” I had a sinking suspicion that Bread & Wine would only serve to confirm the surprising truth that I had come to learn about myself in recent years: I can’t cook.

I say this is a surprising truth, because I really used to think I could cook. I knew how to mix ingredients into a Pyrex dish to make all manner of cream soup-based casseroles. And I knew how to bake, which I didn’t really comprehend as being any different from cooking. It wasn’t until I met my friend Christian about 9 years ago that I began to get a sneaking suspicion that I was fooling myself in the cooking department. I learned that Christian routinely made things that didn’t require cream soup, and instead of cooking them in the oven in a Pyrex dish she made them in sauté pans on her stovetop, and she didn’t strictly adhere to a recipe—in fact, she preferred not to. I began to try to branch out a little beyond my casseroles, and discovered that I was terrible at it. Cooking something as basic as chicken breast became a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and heaped on top of my failure was the guilt that so many innocent yard birds had given their lives to end up as the dessicated, puck-like filets on our dinner table.

Around this same season of desperately searching YouTube for chicken-cooking tutorial videos, I came to another sad realization—I don’t know how to entertain. This one was not such a huge surprise, because I had always felt awkward and ill equipped when having friends over for dinner. Growing up in a heavily sheltered and weirdly religious environment, the traditional dinner party was a completely foreign concept to me, as was the consumption of alcohol. My cheeks flush red as I think back to a time early in our marriage when some sweet friends brought a bottle of wine to dinner at our home. Lacking both a corkscrew and a basic understanding of social niceties, I murmured thanks, set it aside, served iced tea with our casserole, and then handed the unopened bottle back to them as they left. I’m not even kidding. I imagine at that moment even Jesus was covering his eyes and shaking his head in dismay.

So now you have a slightly clearer understanding of why I was a little unsure how I’d enjoy Bread & Wine. I opened the book with the same mindset I might adopt if I were to read a travel guide of the moon’s surface; curiosity tempered with the understanding that I would never—could never—actually go there. But what I found in Bread & Wine is a book about so much more than cooking and entertaining. Through her stories, Shauna inspires the reader to live a life of brave, everyday adventure. Want to learn to cook? Take a week-long culinary boot camp. Want to experience life in another country? Buy a plane ticket. Want to run a marathon? Sign up, and then lace up. Want to experience deep friendship? Open your door and invite people in, no matter how imperfect your home or your entertaining skills.

This is where the beauty of Bread & Wine speaks loudest to me, as Shauna describes scenes from her own life around the table of community–imperfect, in process, chaotic and messy at times, but lived boldly and intentionally and honestly, and therefore, courageously. “The heart of hospitality,” she notes, “is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.” You mean it’s not about Martha Stewart perfection? No, she says, “. . . it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life—the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love—if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door.”

And while I have long used the excuse that I just don’t have the gift of hospitality, I must now admit that just as the shame of my social ineptitude and the many imperfections of my surroundings have long kept me from inviting people into my home, it is the shame of my deeply-buried childhood weirdness and the many imperfections of my self which have long kept me from inviting people into my life. It is therefore pure grace that I have a little village of women who have invited themselves in and who have miraculously stuck around, even though at times I know it seems I am trying my level best to starve them out.

So much more than a book about entertaining, Bread & Wine connects the dots of cooking and community, inviting even the most timid and the least qualified into the kitchen with Shauna. Favorite recipes are shared with a breezy, “just try it out and make it your own” tone that, while slightly terrifying to this non-chef, is also so encouraging that I can’t help but believe that with a little practice even I could pull off something like “Steak au Poivre with Cognac Pan Sauce.” Through Bread & Wine, Shauna invites all of us to discover the joy of gathering the people we love around the table and providing nourishment for them, knowing in the process it is far more than our bellies that will be filled.

Iggy on the Shelf

I reached Elf on the Shelf consciousness last Christmas, thanks to Pinterest. As pins flooded my feed with creatively adorable depictions of mischievous elves caught in various acts of hooliganism, my first thought was, “Aww! So cute!” immediately followed by “Holy cow, I’m glad my kids are too old for that.” I’m living on the ragged edge of household chores as it is. The thought of cleaning up after a visiting toy elf on a month-long rampage of flour snow angels and TP’ing the living room and gift-wrapping the toilet fills me with several emotions, none resembling Christmas cheer.

Fast-forward to this Christmas, which, as always, is moving very much in fast-forward. I managed to get my decorations out of the attic the first weekend in December, get our tree and decorations put up the second weekend in December, and get the final boxes back upstairs last weekend (they’re not in the attic yet, but at this point, well . . . what’s the point?).

Unpacking the little box filled with my kids’ carefully preserved, handmade ornaments is usually one of my favorite things, but this year as I pulled out paper plate angels and pipe cleaner chain garland it occurred to me that, after this year, our oldest has only one more Christmas as a full-time resident of our household. When she was a baby, I remember often being told to “enjoy every moment, because they grow up so fast.” This is both terrible and wonderful advice, of course. Terrible because parenting a small child often feels like living with a tiny, incontinent Kim Jong-il, if he perhaps had an ongoing sleep disorder and a penchant for flushing your valuables down the toilet. But the advice is also wonderful, because it is true. I see now that time is like a massive flywheel, moving almost imperceptibly during the long, sleepless nights of infancy, the willful battles of toddlerhood and the drudgery of potty training. But somewhere between the blur of preschool and high school, the flywheel gains a crushing momentum. She’s driving and waiting on her SAT scores. And how can it already be Christmastime again?

Confession: I’m not the fun parent. My mind immediately calculates the mess behind every potential project and the expense behind every proposed activity. But this year, with less than 10 days until Christmas, and with kids well outside the target demographic, I decided to give Elf on the Shelf a shot. Another confession: I just couldn’t bring myself to shell out $30 for the real Elf on the Shelf kit. Unable to find a suitable substitute elf, I found a completely non-poseable reindeer for $3 at Kroger that is shaped like a stuffed ball with miniature antlers. With what I’ve cobbled together of the basic Elf on the Shelf story, I wrote a letter to the kids and planted both items on the mantle. The letter read:

Greetings Children!

I have been sent by Santa himself on a special mission to your house. It seems that although you are all precious and adorable children, there have been some reports of general naughtiness over the past few weeks, such as bickering between siblings and playing very obnoxious music much, much too loud (I’m looking at you, Hayden).

There are only nine days until Christmas, and Santa doesn’t want to see any of you left with nothing but a lump of coal in your stocking. That’s where I come in. I’m going to hang around over then next few days and keep my eye on you all. When you’re not around each day, I’ll report back to Santa. I only move and talk when you’re asleep or gone (I don’t have to explain how this works–you’ve seen Toy Story, right?).

I guess now is probably as good a time as any to warn you that I have a few behavior problems myself. (If you hear of an incident involving a flaming bag of reindeer poo discovered on Santa’s doorstep, keep in mind that elves exaggerate. A lot.) I’ll try to keep that kind of stuff under control and be a good example for you all while I’m here, but if you wake up in the morning and find me in a compromising position, keep in mind that it’s probably the dog’s fault (why won’t he look anybody in the eye?? I’d check his record if I was you).

So that’s the deal. Be awesome and we’ll all get along just fine. Oh, and one last detail. I don’t have a name. Well, I do, but it’s in my native Reindeer tongue. Rather than schooling you on the intricacies of speaking Reindeer, I figure you all need to give me a name you can pronounce. Think of this as your first opportunity to compromise and come to mutual agreement on something (I’m still looking at you, Hayden). JK. I’m hilarious!!

Ta ta for now,

????????????????????? (I don’t have a name, remember?)

Their reactions ranged from excitement to bemused indifference, which is a slam-dunk when dealing with the 8-to-17-year-old crowd. They named him Iggy.

As much as I’d like to throw a monkey wrench in the flywheel, I don’t think that’s possible. I think the best I can hope for are moments that pull us out of its path and allow us to laugh and create memories and connect in ways that transcend practicality and calendars. At least, that’s what I told myself last night as I placed Iggy impishly atop our freshly gift-wrapped toilet. And I only thought about the wasted paper once.

The Hard Way

Apparently I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

I recently got pulled over for rolling through a stop sign in a school zone during the morning carpool hour (humiliations galore). Despite the fact that my refusal to come to a complete stop was compounded by an out-of-date insurance card and an expired inspection sticker, the officer issued only a warning. It was gale-force grace, inspiring a nice little spiritual insight that I shared here a few weeks ago. Yay for neatly tied packages!

Fast-forward a week, and I am frantic. My 6th grader needs to get to school early for a tutorial, one of my high schoolers has a before-school meeting, and we are running late. Both girls are overwrought and I absorb their anxiety like a dry sponge. By the time we peel out of the driveway I am a hot mess, marinating in the juice of our collective stress. Moments later I roll through a fairly new (and, in my opinion, highly unnecessary) stop sign in our neighborhood. Of course, in my distracted state I notice the motorcycle cop in my rearview mirror only after he has flipped on his lights to pull me over. Awesome.

So much for warnings and grace. It would appear there’s a lesson here that I insist on learning the hard way, certainly including but not limited to a clearer understanding of how to come to a complete stop, for crying out loud. Spiritually speaking, I have heard Beth Moore say that when it comes to growth it’s far better to read the book than to take the field trip. Be that as it may, I too often find myself climbing aboard one more smelly old school bus, bracing myself for another bumpy ride. I believe “hard-headed” is the phrase my mother used when I was young. The older I get, though, I am sobered by the realization that my hard-headedness, left unchecked, inevitably migrates south and morphs into hard-heartedness.

The irony, of course, is that God’s preferred method of breaking a hard heart is kindness, leading to repentence. Admittedly, it’s hard to hear his still, small voice when I’ve become completely unhinged by stress. This, I think, is one of the deeper lessons my recent ticket is helping me learn the hard way. Jesus didn’t “do” frantic. Faced at times with the overwhelming need of a crushing throng, the thickheaded incomprehension of his own disciples and the sly cunning of the Pharisees, somehow Jesus never wigged out. And while it is true that he was never faced with the ordeal of a slow-moving Internet connection or navigating the morass of his insurance company’s phone tree or finding himself at CVS when there is inexplicably only one checkout line open and four people with full baskets and binders of coupons ahead of him in line, I am confident that he would have managed to keep his cool.

One of my favorite authors recently blogged about “The Deception of Urgency,” asking, “Is being frantic really the best way to be productive?” While it isn’t, getting worked up allows me to feel like I’m in control (which is, of course, the exact opposite of what I am in that moment—freaked out, berserk, completely zonkers). So today, as I web surf defensive driving class options and the hamster wheel that is surely powering my Internet connection laboriously creaks to a halt, I strain to hear the still, small Voice of sanity and peace. And I pray for the mind of Christ to overtake my hopelessly sinful, Abby Normal brain.

Mother’s Day Musings

Having four kids within a span of eight years means not only was I pregnant for the better part of a decade, but I have several scrapbooks full of pictures to prove it. Flipping through our family’s vacation photos from 1995-2005 is like perusing a bad travelogue illustrated with ill-fitting, elastic-panel shorts, voluminous floral muumuus and one particularly unfortunate maternity swimsuit. On the upside, though, being pregnant for a decade also means that I enjoyed a good run of about 13 years when I always had at least one small child to snuggle.

I have to confess, I didn’t come to fully appreciate that blessing nearly as soon as I should have. The weeks following the birth of my first child were a blear of weepy sleeplessness coupled with the panicked realization that I had been lulled into a completely false sense of preparedness by the pastel-hued, dog-eared book on my nightstand. There’s a reason it’s not titled What to Expect After the Baby Arrives. That book would have to focus on the effects of sleep deprivation, emotional stress, extreme psychological fatigue and being splattered with human waste. It would be like reading through the articles of the Geneva Convention.

OK, maybe I’m being a smidge over-dramatic. Obviously, I wasn’t so traumatized by first-time parenthood that I let it stop me from doing it again. And again. And again. With each successive birth, I reaped the incalculable benefits of experience, perspective and maturity. When I had my first baby, I was so consumed with doing it right that I flat-out missed some really important stuff. For example, during my first pregnancy I read a book that stressed (overstressed, really) the importance of teaching your baby to self-soothe and go to sleep on her own. So I never rocked Hannah to sleep. Never. Not once. I placed her in her crib each night with a perfunctory kiss goodnight and a self-congratulatory smile, confident that I was not only helping both of us achieve a good night of sleep, but I was also laying the groundwork for future parenting success. I mean, if I can successfully regulate her sleep schedule when she’s an infant, what’s to stop me from successfully regulating her school work when she’s seven and her friendships when she’s 12 and her dating life when she’s 18? Yay, me!!

By the time fourth child Landon arrived on the scene, I had endured eight and a half years of reality checks and had learned to better appreciate the fleeting years of cuddly babyhood. And now that my baby is approaching his eighth birthday, I am willing to admit that I’m having a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that he is moving beyond the snuggling years. I am unspeakably grateful that God created him with both a chill personality and an innate affinity for cuddling, because the child has endured more physical affection than the Velveteen Rabbit. Unfortunately, like the fabled Rabbit’s well-worn fur, Landon’s patience with my advances has begun to wear a bit thin. Case in point: last week, I plopped down on the couch as he was intently watching an episode of SpongeBob and gave him a big hug. “You are adorable!” I gushed. Still staring at the screen, his response was an almost imperceptible sigh. “Yeah. I get that a lot.”

At the risk of sounding pathetic, I’ll admit I’m having a hard time accepting that he’s just not that into me. I miss my baby. I miss the soft, round, Johnson & Johnson-scented pudginess of toddlerhood. I miss tiny arms that are just barely long enough to lock possessively around my neck. I miss snuggling with a child who’s not all bony elbows and atrocious morning breath and cool detachment. I don’t know exactly how to cope, beyond taking comfort in the likelihood that with four kids I will surely have at least one grandchild upon which I may one day lavish my unbridled affection.

For now, bedtime is what keeps me going. On the nights when Landon stays up a bit too late, especially, he is clingy and docile and he lets me gather him up and stagger upstairs, gasping under the load, to tuck him in. Too tired to object, he lets me kiss his freckled cheeks and murmur endearments until he is half asleep. It’s heaven. As I quietly close his bedroom door, I walk past Hannah’s room and pause. At 16, she has long since reached the age of self-regulated bedtime, and lights are on, with no clear indication that she’s headed in that direction anytime soon. So much for regulating her sleep schedule. Chemistry homework and clothes litter the floor, as her life’s current soundtrack plays quietly through laptop speakers. “I love you,” she says, and plants a hasty kiss on my cheek. I smile. I’ll take what I can get.

 

Battle Buddies

I knew my last attempt at a workout program was going to crash and burn about 10 minutes in, when I was informed that I would be assigned a “Battle Buddy,” and that his name was Jose. While I can appreciate the benefits of having a workout partner in a high-level, conceptual kind of way, I can also appreciate the fact that there is not much in life that is more awkward than having one’s feet wedged securely under the rump of a strange and profusely sweaty man while one struggles to crank out 100 respectable sit-ups.

Don’t get me wrong—Jose was a very nice guy. And I don’t think he was super excited about having his feet clamped under my sweaty bum, either. But ours was a relationship doomed to failure. Call me crazy, but I want to keep my funky, early-morning workout smells and sweatiness within a reasonable buffer zone that involves minimal-to-no physical contact with other people. I am not my best self when I am running wind sprints at 5:30 a.m., and keeping a wide berth of others seems like the considerate thing to do. Nobody gets puked on, and nobody else has to encounter my gross self.

Beyond the realm of working out, though, I have to admit that this tends to be my default position in life. Maintain the buffer zone, avoid close contact and nobody gets puked on (including me). But here’s the deal: while working out so closely with Jose may have made me uncomfortable on about ten different levels, he provided the resistance and support that was necessary to exercise certain muscles. His ample booty gave the ballast needed to keep my sit-ups honest (albeit highly uncomfortable—again, on about ten different levels).

I’m increasingly aware that God has placed some real-life “Battle Buddles” in the periphery of my life—challenging people who are meant to exercise spiritual muscles like longsuffering (which I think is a mixture of love and patience, but really needs a new name because it just sounds like a total downer). Of course, to keep these people at arm’s length is to completely negate the role that God intends for us to play in each other’s spiritual growth.

I am not a highly motivated individual when it comes to physical fitness. Partly due to the whole “Battle Buddy” situation, I only lasted for about two weeks of the four-week boot camp that I had signed up for. That was two months ago, and although I told myself that I would continue to work out on my own, I didn’t. I now realize that had I stuck with the boot camp, as awkward as my relationship with Jose was, I would have reaped benefits that are now non-existent. I’m no genius, but I think the same could be said about my real-life Battle Buddies as well.

Discomfort Zone

In my world of Christian friends & acquaintances, there seems to always be one book that everybody is reading. In the past few years, that list has included The Shack, Crazy Love, One Thousand Gifts (although that one seemed to have mostly chick appeal), and Heaven is for Real, just to name a few. I (sometimes) get around to (mostly) reading whatever title is stirring up buzz at the moment, but whatever it is, I can rely on the fact that it will be conveniently sitting on my bookshelf thanks to my husband, a voracious reader who loves to buy books and is confident enough in his manhood to spend many a daily lunch hour browsing around Mardel.

The book that seems to be the hot topic right now is 7 by Jen Hatmaker. Subtitled An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, it’s a subversive little tome that has been sitting on my shelf for the past month. I have read the introduction and the first chapter—enough to know that reading this book is going to require some introspection and possibly action on my part (which is one reason I haven’t made it past the first chapter). The premise of the book is that over a seven-month period, Hatmaker fasts from seven areas of her typically affluent, middle-class American life: clothes, shopping, waste, stress, media, possessions and food. While I am fully on board with the idea of fasting from stress and waste, the other five are things that I am rather attached to (which, I suppose, is precisely why I should consider fasting from them).

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were invited to spend a Friday night with three other couples who are reading the book and considering action steps. I didn’t know quite what to expect out of the gathering—my husband had fielded the invitation, so details were scant. We had never met our hosts, one couple I barely knew and the other I have known for a few years as acquaintances. As we stood on an unfamiliar front porch and my husband rang the doorbell, I began to perspire. Meeting new people and walking into unknown situations are not in my comfort zone.

As I stepped back out onto that front porch a few hours later, it was with a heightened awareness that my comfort zone is in need of a serious remodel. That evening, as I stood in the kitchen munching soft tacos, I listened to the stories of people making radically uncomfortable life decisions—one couple on the journey to becoming foster parents, another couple with two small boys adopting a special-needs child from Africa, another couple actively pursuing a simplified lifestyle as they prepare to do mission work in Uganda for the second time in a year. And this was just the general get-to-know-you chatter before the subject of the book ever came up. It was a much-needed reminder that faith without works is dead, and that while God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life, my comfort is not even almost His goal.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that awareness, exactly. I’m going to read my Bible, and pray, and try to hear God’s voice. I think it will be easier to pay attention to Him if I eliminate a few distractions for a season, even if they’re good things. (Does Netflix count as a good thing? I know Downton Abbey certainly does. Dangit.) It’s merely coincidental that I have come to this awareness at the start of the season of Lent, or maybe serendipitous, or maybe providential, I don’t really know. I’ve never before fasted during Lent, and while I’d like to say that’s a result of living in grace, it would be more accurate to say that its because I’m a big weenie and I don’t like the thought of giving anything up.

I recently read a friend’s Facebook status update that said something like: “If you want to climb out of a pit, the first step is to lay down your shovel.” Ouch. There is a pit in my life that I have been praying for deliverance from, even as I resolutely scoop out another shovelful of dirt. I’m weary of halfhearted prayers and the bloat of complacency. I don’t know what Jen Hatmaker discovers during her seven-month experiment, but I guess I’ll finish reading her book and find out (let’s face it, without Netflix, what else have I got to do?). My hypothesis is that my pit and my comfort zone are more closely related than I would like to believe, and that filling the one will involve tearing down the other. But that’s just a guess at this point. Maybe not.

Pinterest 31

I’m not an early adopter, and I’m not particularly savvy when it comes to social networking. I’m on Facebook, which makes me about as culturally hip as your mom, and I’m trying to get the gist of Twitter without getting cranky about it (#overtweetersannoyme). But there is now a network that beckons to me with a hypnotic power that I find myself unable to resist: the vast and glittering world of Pinterest.

For the uninitiated (in other words, for all you men), Pinterest is “an online pinboard where you can organize and share the things you love”—at least, that’s how the Pinterest homepage describes it. While this description is adequate, I have come to the realization that it is not unlike describing childbirth as “an experience at the end of your pregnancy during which you expel a baby from your uterus”—technically accurate, yet tragically oversimplified.

Epic in scope, breathtaking in simplicity and utterly, hopelessly addictive, Pinterest actually represents a handy, online measuring stick where I can gauge my own effectiveness as a woman, mother and wife against that of other women. And there’s even a mobile app for this, people. I am completely and utterly hooked.

With just a few keystrokes on my laptop or taps on my phone screen, I am drawn into a portal of dizzying creativity and beauty and ingenuity. Within a span of about four minutes I have identified scores of recipes I want to cook, organizational tips that I want to incorporate, crafts that I want to make, skills that I want to learn, outfits that I want to assemble, nail polish colors I want to buy, hairstyles that I want to try and babies that I want to cuddle because OMG look at that baby, it is dressed like an adorable little ________________(fill in the blank with: sock monkey or porcupine or mermaid or owl or cupcake or turtle . . . ). Seriously, I remember when baby pictures like these were found exclusively in coffee table books. Apparently, every young mom in America now sidelines as a professional children’s photographer.

I’m sure for some women out there the Pinterest experience begins and ends as a fun and helpful diversion. These women are those well-balanced individuals whom I respect and admire, and with whom I have little in common. For me, Pinterest browsing easily makes the almost imperceptible shift from wide-eyed inspiration into troubled comparison. Suddenly, I realize that every other woman in the virtual room is more stylish, more clever, more organized and certainly more able to construct a coffee table out of a shipping pallet, make all her own liquid soap and laundry detergent, tie a scarf 15 different ways, find 37 different uses for upcycled t-shirts, and crochet whimsical beanies for her infant, who she then poses for the MOST adorable pictures.

During a recent Pinterest browsing session, it occurred to me that the Pinterest woman is this generation’s Proverbs 31 woman, that biblical model of virtuous femininity whose domestic awesomeness has intimidated Christian women through the ages. The parallels are obvious. Like Pinterest woman, Proverbs 31 woman is crafty, savvy, stylish and industrious. I’m fairly confident that had the Internet existed in the sixth century B.C., Proverbs 31 woman would have had both a super-fun blog and a rockin’ Etsy store. And get this, conspiracy theorists—Pinterest offers 31 categories, ranging alphabetically from ‘Architecture’ to ‘Wedding & Events.’ 31! Coincidence? I think not.

Of course, the fact that Proverbs 31 woman was included in the biblical canon leads me to believe that her existence is not meant to embitter my soul, just as the wonderfully creative women who I encounter on Pinterest are not meant to exploit my insecurity. Nevertheless, when I find myself in the company of other women, whether flesh and blood, virtual, or even biblical, I shift reflexively into comparison mode. Subconsciously, the question persists: How do I measure up?

Comparison is an ugly thing, for a lot of reasons. Namely, it prompts me to make snap judgments about other women based on external factors, without taking into account such intangibles as “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:4) There’s not a Pinterest category for that, BTW. Comparison also shares a bitter root with regret, enticing me to reflect on the ways I have fallen short in everything from properly arranging the frames in my entryway to parenting my children. A steady diet of comparison and regret has the effect of slowly shriveling my soul to the approximate size and consistency of a lump of coal. Buried in dark recesses of the cold, hard ground of bitterness, I brood over all of my perceived shortcomings, sealed off from light and laughter and life-sustaining air.

I haven’t got this whole comparison thing figured out yet. What I do know is that cultivating contentment in my life goes a long way toward choking out the root of comparison. What’s more, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), regardless of whether I ever manage to arrange my mantel as cute as everybody else’s. Another helpful step towards contentment and sanity is actually getting to know other women. It is vastly more difficult for me to see someone as no more than the sum of her perfectly fitting jeans and her great hair and her impeccably dressed toddler when I hear her honestly share her story. Comparison ties me up in knots by distracting me from this basic truth: life is messy and wobbly and very, very fragile and none of us has it all together, no matter how crafty or thrifty or organized we may be. That’s why the abundant life that Jesus offers actually matters. When I let the light of that truth shine down into the narrow mine shaft of my heart, I can suddenly breathe again, and my hard little lump of coal soul begins to soften and expand. When I stop comparing, I discover the freedom to celebrate creativity and beauty without feeling threatened by it. It’s a process that is coming slowly.

My friend Jody, bemused by the Pinterest frenzy that is currently sweeping the nation, declared recently that we all need a “Pintervention.” She’s probably right. My own personal Pintervention involves heavy doses of grace and perspective along with a release from any expectation that I will ever actually attempt any of the projects that I so eagerly pin. It’s very freeing. Although I did take home a discarded shipping pallet from the office last week, so if the urge does strike to craft a homemade coffee table, I’m good to go.

School Lunches

A while back, I was clicking around on Facebook and became captivated by a photo that my friend Nancy had posted to her profile. It was a photo of the lunch that she had prepared for her daughter to take to school the next morning—a PB&J, an Oreo cookie, some cracker mix and fruit. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but what caught my eye was the presentation. It was quite simply the most precious lunch I had ever seen. Each item was neatly nestled in its own section of a plastic container. The sandwich was cut in the shape of a flower, the cookie sat perched in a tiny pink silicone cup, the fruit was adorned with itty bitty colorful plastic picks in the shape of animals and the little bunny-shaped crackers in the cracker mix lent harmony to the overall theme. It was art, and I was utterly enthralled.

As I raptly studied each detail, my mind couldn’t help but conjure the sorry images of what I had been passing off on my own children as school lunch. Baggies of smooshed sandwiches comingling with crushed and slightly stale Cheez-its. A handful of fuzzy pre-cut carrot sticks paired with a hand-me-down thermos full of reheated ravioli.  That slightly overripe tangerine from the fruit bowl that everyone in the family had spent the last week studiously avoiding. As this slide show of shame clicked and whirred in my head, I remembered the words of one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott:

Here is the main thing I know about public school lunches: it only looked like a bunch of kids eating lunch. It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone . . . .The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay.

I pictured my kids unzipping their insides in the cafeteria of Boals Elementary each day next to children whose nutritionally balanced lunches were carefully themed and color-coded. I felt a slight wave of panic. How did I let this slide? Why didn’t somebody tell me that school lunches are supposed to be cute now?! With just a couple of clicks on my keyboard, I discovered entire blogs and websites devoted to the art of adorable kids’ lunches, and intently studied the necessary tools—bento boxes, food markers, silicone baking cups, decorative picks . . . the possibilities to create edible lunchtime art for my spawn were virtually endless. The burden of shame lightened with each item that I added to my virtual shopping cart; a few more clicks and my starter kit had been ordered. I pushed back from my laptop with a flush of self-satisfaction. See? I can be the mom who makes awesome school lunches, too!

The morning after all my goodies arrived, I retreated to the laundry room to secretly assemble my edible masterpieces. This process took a bit longer than I had anticipated, leaving the kids to fend for themselves in getting ready for school. As they grumpily searched for misplaced shoes and squabbled over the last Toaster Strudel, I locked the door behind me and unleashed the magic. Sandwiches were cut in the shape of dolphins and dinosaurs, cheese cubes and turkey rolls were speared on the ends of decorative toothpicks, teddy grahams were artfully arranged in silicone cups and a lone gummy worm was coiled in the remaining vacant nook of each box to add a touch of whimsy. Twenty-five minutes later, with the sounds of all hell breaking loose beyond the laundry room door, I surveyed the work of my hands with a smile and a nod. Yeah. I flipping rock.

It didn’t take me long to figure out, of course, that the person I was most trying to impress was myself. Also, possibly any other moms who might just happen to be volunteering in the cafeteria and would take note as my children opened the lid on their super-cool lunches. But really, mostly me. Because I’m not the mom who is volunteering in the cafeteria, and I’m not the mom who buys organic, and I’m not the mom who schmoozes with the other elementary-school moms at the playground after school every day. I’m not the mom who goes on every single field trip and I’m not the mom who knows the teachers on a first-name basis and I’m not the mom who has ever been, or ever will be, the room mother or the president of the PTA. That mom intimidates the crap out of me. And on some subconscious level, that makes me seriously doubt whether I am Okay.

The whole fancy lunch enterprise didn’t last more than a week in our house, for several reasons: namely, the realization that I was really just trying to salve my own damaged sense of self through fancy finger sandwiches. And while my kids thought the new lunches were super fun, I noted that they weren’t the life-changing, paradigm-shifting, confidence-boosting catalyst that I had anticipated. Frankly, they weren’t worth the time and effort. In short order we were back to our plain old, baggie-enclosed PB&Js, crusts and all.

The next time I saw my friend Nancy, whose Facebook post started the whole thing, I asked her about the cute lunches. “Oh, I don’t do them all the time,” she said with a laugh (being the grounded and emotionally well adjusted woman that she is). “It’s just something fun for every now and then.” Ah—balance. Now there’s a novel idea. I have been thinking about dipping into my box of fancy lunch supplies lately. I barely even used the food markers, after all. But this time it will be just for fun, every now and then.

Multi-tasking

Not to brag, but I’m a fairly accomplished multi-tasker, which is great when it comes to pretty much anything but kids. This seems to be especially true as they get older, a discovery that has less to do with my increased self-awareness and more to do with the fact that my kids are simply better able to call me on it when my juggling act goes terribly awry. Take as one example a phone call I recently fielded from my middle-school-aged son while feverishly working on my laptop:

“So are you coming to get me?”

I glance at the clock in the corner of my screen. School was over almost 30 minutes ago. Crap. “I’m on my way,” I assure him.

“Are you in-the-car-on-your-way or on-your-computer-on-your-way?” he asked warily.

Crap. Busted.

My kids are definitely on to me. They have identified the inverse relationship between the precision of my hearing and the position of my laptop. It’s one of the challenges of being a working mom (can I get a witness?). I am blessed with employment that allows me the flexibility to work from home, yet I am too often cursed with the unwillingness to clock out. That happens for a lot of reasons, like the fact that relationships are yielding while deadlines are hard, and also the reality that nobody in my family is going to be sitting me down for an annual review this year. This is a really good thing–I shudder to think of the 360-degree feedback I would receive from the people who actually put up with me 24/7.

Another inverse relationship that I’m cluing in to is the one between hurry and intentionality. The one kills the other, at least in my world, leaving my family too often in flying-by-the-seat-of-our pants mode. One very small area where I’m moving toward intentionality is bedtime, which I must confess has generally been driven by my singular desire to get everyone in bed with lights out (funny how my drive to punch out on the “mom clock” isn’t hampered by my hurry).

My friends Hilary and Phoebe, who are sisters and each have a sweet preschool boy, are super-intentional moms whose kids are likely going to be the next Chris Tomlin/ Louis Giglio duo, thanks to the Godly influence and intentionality of their mothers. From these friends I learned of The Jesus Storybook Bible, a wonderful little book that casts the whole Bible through the lens of God’s “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” Jesus is God’s Great Rescue Plan, which, when you think about it, is really just about the best way to try to explain the incarnation to a kid (or anyone, for that matter). I read “The Jesus Storybook Bible” with my ten- and seven-year-old over the past few months at bedtime, often with a catch in my throat at this beautifully simple, profound retelling of the Bible story. No matter how crazy our day had been, it was sweet, meaningful, focused time to wind down with my kiddos. Yay me. I’m hoping the mustard seed of intentionality in those moments will take root and grow beyond bedtime.

When we finished the Storybook Bible last month, I decided to get The Action Bible, which is basically the NIV recast as a 744-page Marvel comic book. I figured this would be a good way to drive home a lot of the details of the Bible narrative that The Jesus Storybook Bible doesn’t mention, and while that has been true, it has also proved more challenging in terms of explanation (we’re still in the first part of the Old Testament, and God gets angry a lot). As my son closed The Action Bible last night after reading me the story of Hagar & Sarah (BTW, try explaining the nuances of that relationship to your seven-year-old) he remarked, “Jesus is really strong.”

“Yeah, buddy,” I agreed absently.

“He’s got a six pack,” he said, a note of reverential awe in his voice as he examined the illustrations on the back cover. Sure enough, the crucified Lord of The Action Bible is ripped like a P90X devotee, which is quite a departure from the sweet drawings of The Jesus Storybook Bible. This opens a whole new can of worms, but I guess the two volumes work as a nice complement to each other when you consider that they are each attempting to capture the most complex human who ever lived.

We haven’t yet gotten to the stories of Jesus in The Action Bible, but I’m hoping that the comic strip version attempts to capture one of the features of his character that I find most heroic in this season of my life: his willingness to be interrupted. Jesus was driven, but never harried. He actually paid attention to the people in his life. He lived according to God’s timetable. And here’s what I’m realizing: it matters little whether my kids read about Jesus as God’s Rescue Plan or as an action hero with rock-hard abs, because the Jesus that they are most impacted by is the Jesus they see in me–the me that is susceptible to freak-outs over misplaced keys or a sink full of dirty dishes or drivers who don’t respond quickly enough when the traffic light turns green. So I’m trying not to listen to the voice that would wake me up in the middle of the night with the unfortunate news that I have irreversibly screwed my kids up. And I continue to sow my little mustard seed moments of intention, and pray for rich soil and favorable conditions. I’m also trying to close the laptop a little more frequently. Baby steps.

Wisdom Teeth

My oldest had her wisdom teeth extracted yesterday morning–a much preferable way of describing the process by which she now has four oozing holes in her jawbone.

As she has never had to undergo a surgery before (for which I am unspeakably grateful), she was a little nervous about the whole prospect. I wasn’t too worried about it (of course, I’m not the one left with the oozing holes). I realized, however, that we might be in for a long weekend when the nurse sat down next to me in the waiting room after the surgery was complete.

“It went great,” she assured me confidently, handing me a small plastic bag containing post-op instructions, a baggie of gauze pads, a can of chicken noodle soup and a snack pack of chocolate pudding. “She’s got gauze in her mouth right now, but you’ll want to change that out when you get home. Moisten the gauze a little before she puts it in. And don’t let her use a straw or drink anything carbonated,” she warned. “Dry socket is worse than natural childbirth.” I chuckled at the joke, but quickly wiped the smile off my face as I realized she wasn’t kidding. “I should know,” she solemnly assured me. “I’ve experienced both.” Holy cow. I clutched my oral surgery goody bag a little tighter and made for the exit.

Per the nurse’s instructions, I drove to the entrance and waited for them to wheel out my girl. The nurse had mentioned that girls tend to respond to the surgery with more emotion than boys, so I braced myself for potential weepiness and prayerfully rebuked full-on emotional meltdown, at least until we had reached the safe confines of home. Moments later my baby emerged, slumped in a wheelchair with an expression of bleary-eyed consternation. Stumps of gauze protruded from both corners of her mouth, giving her the appearance of a sedated walrus.

With the delicate transfer from wheelchair to minivan accomplished, we headed home. I cautiously watched out of the corner of my eye as she patted carefully at the gauze, then her bottom lip. “Mmff mfff mf mmmfffff?”

“What, sweetie?” I rubbed her leg nervously and tried to push the phrase “dry socket” out of my mind.

“Mmff mfff mf mmmfffff?” She poked more insistently at her numb bottom lip. Ahhhh—a lightbulb.

“Yes, babe,” I said reassuringly. “That’s your lip.”

Unappeased and dopey from the anesthetic, she swiped at tears and delicately fingered the stumps of gauze in her mouth. I mulled over the plethora of unpleasant words I had seen on the post-op info page: “oozing,” “blood clot,” “wound area.” Cripes. As we pulled up to the house, she issued another unintelligible phrase, impatiently adjusted the gauze and managed to utter, “My breath smells like poop.” She giggled miserably and swiped at another tear. OK—sense of humor intact. We’ll survive.

There’s not much that most of us are less prepared for than motherhood. It’s as true today, as I Google “Tips to avoid dry socket,” as it was16 years ago when that first pink bundle was laid in my arms. I knew it instantly: all those carefully underlined paragraphs in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” would be woefully inadequate preparation for my crash landing onto the shore of Motherhood—an uncultivated new world of sleep deprivation, physical discomfort and emotional exhaustion. Fast-forward 16 years and three more bundles, and I am happy to report that I have established an amicable relationship with the inhabitants of this land, who have accepted me as their leader and generally only foment rebellion when asked to scrub toilets or when dinner involves more than one vegetable side dish.

Because I’m a little further along on the road of motherhood than some of my friends, and because all of my kids are potty trained and none of their names have shown up on the Frisco police blotter (yet), I am sometimes consulted for mothering wisdom. This is dicey. If motherhood has taught me anything after 16 years it is that I don’t know much (OK, I have mastered the French braid. And I make a mean snickerdoodle). In mothering, however, as in pretty much every area of life, I think that wisdom is best displayed through a posture of humility. The reality is that yesterday’s Miley Cyrus can quickly become today’s . . .  well, Miley Cyrus. As far as parenting goes, we are wise to remember that we’re all just a salvia bong and a few YouTube videos away from becoming Billy Ray.