Friday, May 6, 2016

Brave Love


The sun is streaming through my smudgy front windows, the tree is in hot pink bloom beyond them, and later today we'll drive the roads I know by heart, down to Ohio, to my mom.

Mother's Day is one of those special days that feels near-tangible to me. There are no required decorations, no boundless expectations. But usually, Spring is smiling hard on us. Usually the red-bud is blooming and the peonies are tight fists of what's to come.

There's the simple fact that my mom always makes things better, somehow. There's the fact that I'm a mother myself. I have caught the tears and folded the laundry and negotiated bedtimes, Kindle time, and consequences. I know who eats what and which one would eat peanut butter and honey for every meal until the end of time. I know I'm a mother because my twenty-two year old called me from work at 10:30 last night and when I answered he screamed, "Mommyyyyy!" into the phone, something I found both entirely ridiculous and completely endearing.

Then there's the other side of it all, four birth moms who created the reasons I am a mom. Two of them I have only imagined in my mind. We know basic details, written somewhere on a page, rendered into an image that is surely off target. We make assumptions, black hair, brown eyes. If I scan every Asian face I meet, wondering, "Does she look like that?" my sons do the same, or will one day.

I've seen a grainy, digitized photo of Robert's birth mom, and I see traces of him. He doesn't like to talk about her much, and I remain curious.

A few weeks ago, we sat around our table with Ruby's birth mom, her sweet, growing family, and her parents. Our relationship over the past nine years has been a tender thing, a flash of green poking through soil. We've tread carefully around it, risking inevitable awkwardness for the chance to make good on our shared solidarity - we did this together, and we'll see it through. Over frozen pizzas and hummus, I wished for the thousandth time that they lived close, rather than across the continent. There wasn't a shred of tension or doubt. It was easy. We'd found our groove, and no, nine years wasn't too long.

Later that night, after the paper plates had all been trashed and bedtime loomed, one of my sons wept. "It's not fair."

I couldn't argue.



There will be pans of chicken enchiladas this weekend, and pancakes in the morning. There will be garden talks and wooded walks and with any luck, a little time in the hammock. I'll honor my mom and be honored myself, hopefully with something handmade and wonky.

But at least half of my heart will be quietly honoring the four of them, who I will only ever know as stunning. Motherhood is a strong and fragile thing. Sometimes, it asks impossible things of us. Sometimes, we have the guts to say yes.

The Brave Love campaign created a video honoring birth mamas, and it pulled every string inside me. It's heartfelt and beautiful. It might make you cry. But can't we say that about many of the loveliest things? I hope you'll watch. I hope you'll share it.

I hope, this Sunday, you'll say a prayer for the mamas whose day might pulse with sadness, loss, longing, or even regret. So many among us carry burdens we cannot imagine. If you know a mother whose story might be complicated or hard, let's do what we can to lighten her load. We're sisters. We were made for this.

Happy Mother's Day, to each of you.


BraveLove is a movement dedicated to changing the perception of adoption through honest, informative, and hopeful communication that conveys the heroism and bravery a birth mother displays when she places her child with a loving family through adoption. (un)Wanted is their new campaign that addresses how adoption is a loving decision in which birth parents want the best for their child. BraveLove seeks to change the conversation surrounding adoption and provide a safe place for people to explore adoption.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

How to Give


When I was nine, or maybe ten, a family from our church swooped in on Christmas eve, inviting us to their house where they showered us with second-hand gifts. All I remember thirty years later is the towels, practically new. They ranged from brown to tan to dusty orange, some striped, stacked on our laps as she pulled one more out of the bag at her feet. "It's Christmas at our house!" she crooned in a feverish, sing-song.

I glowed. I was stunned by their kindness, wrapped up in it. I was loved. We were loved.

I wonder now how the day felt to my mom and dad, whether they remember it at all. I wonder why I only remember the towels.

~

Tuesday, my neighborhood snapped awake. We'd been restless for a while, walking a bit bleary-eyed through the occasional warmer days, grinning sleep-drunk, then slinking back into hibernation. Maybe it was the puffy clouds or the fact that a warm day in May is measured on a weighted scale, but everyone seemed to be out.

Driving back from dropping Calvin off at Tae Kwon Do, I spotted them, my heart surging in that familiar blip of relief. When one of my adult neighbor-friends steps back into the picture after time away, it's often under bleak circumstances. The kids are different.

They chased behind my van, braids whipping, mouths wide. They filled me in on all I'd missed when we were frozen and quiet - moves, trouble at school, a broken arm. "She broke it last week and the next day she got popular!" she gestured toward her friend's blue cast, covered in ink and already dingy-looking.

We talked about summer, whether their moms would let them go to the city pool with us, or if they'd even be around, since there was buzz about exotic months spent in Chicago, maybe a trip to Six Flags or to the beach up in Michigan.

"Yeah, right." They laughed.

They told me they found a "big needle" at the other park earlier in the week. "It was filled with meth," she said, her wide eyes framed by grown-out bangs, a dull, purplish-brown.

"Did you touch it? Never touch it. Promise me." I thought about the hour I spent at the same park a week ago, how it rattled with a quiet despair.

No. They didn't touch it. They know better, these fourth graders of a different kind of life, where breaking your arm without crying means flash popularity and you already know about syringes filled with meth.

~

After fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, my mind drifted to the pot of stock simmering on my stove-top. It was 5:15 and I had a meeting at 6. I attempted a polite exit, but they just followed me inside, no invitation necessary. (Sometimes I offer hospitality as worship, more often it's wrenched from my hands by a God who wants me near and knows I need help.)

The dinners I cook are a long-standing joke, not just with the two of them, but with almost everyone from my neighborhood who has taken a seat at my island. Honestly, it's giving me a complex and growing me up. It's training me to plan more spaghetti and ground beef taco nights, just in case. It's causing me to buy bags of Takis when they're on sale.

But last night, the soup I stirred was extra-weird. I wasn't even sure how to pronounce it, and they were highly intrigued.

We chattered about this and that, the two of them giggling and light. Without thinking a thing about it, I opened the fridge. And they both lost their minds.

~

I've seen the show Hoarders before, though not on purpose. It doesn't strike me as dignified, more like using the poor/the lonely/the sick as entertainment. Like so many of the ways we position ourselves as better or more right, this is just another way to normalize our own failures. "I'm not that bad."

It makes my stomach hurt.
Guess what else makes it hurt? Watching two young girls gasp over how much food I have in my fridge.

I found myself making excuses that only made matters worse. "I got groceries two days in a row! We needed everything! People eat a lot of food!"

I got groceries.
Two days in a row.
We needed everything.
People eat a lot of food.

Meanwhile, they were still telling very short stories about what they usually had in their refrigerators, and how they had never even seen a fridge that full. Not once. "Maybe they're that full at a restaurant, but I don't know..." one of them trailed off.

~

When I was in second grade, my aunt bought all of my school supplies, hand-delivering them with a smile. For a second I was sad that I didn't get to choose my own backpack, but one whiff of that intoxicating cardboard-and-wax aroma and it didn't matter. I had pencils rattling around in a red plastic box. I was loved. The end.

There were bags of hand-me-downs from the "rich" girl at church.
There were DIY haircuts and canned frosting spread thin on Saltines.

There was the time I found my mom hiding on the floor by her bed, Elmer's-gluing lace around the perimeter of a needlepoint hoop for my handmade birthday gift, quietly crying that they couldn't do more that year.
There was the time a few years later when I found a brand new ten-speed bike in my room, light violet and gleaming, and I knew that it had cost them.

And I knew I was loved.

~

Community is a pinball machine, grace and goodness rocketing up and pinging around. Give and take. Learn to receive or don't bother offering. Feed another quarter into the slot and start again.

There's no science to loving, only art.

Layer on layer, we learn and we lean. But most days, I don't want to paint.
I'd rather not step back and survey the landscape, finding my unique place within it. I want to cram for this invisible test textbook-style and call it a day.

There's so much room for error here, in the land of the living. In so many ways, I wish I could make it different. More for you, less for me. I'd even the playing field if I could, rather than being accountable for my tendencies to believe I'm the one who still needs more.

I want the formula to balance. I want prescribed answers I can memorize and trot out when needed. I want to guarantee I'll never inflict harm. I don't like being reminded of the work I still have to do, or the fact that I bought more food than we can eat before it rots.

~

That decades-past Christmas still rings in my ears. I haven't seen the woman in a lifetime, but I can hear the precise pitch of her song, and all of the magic. It's proof that maybe it's not so much about what or how much or exactly when, but how. And why.

We all have something someone else needs.
We all need something someone else has.
It will require all of our courage and all of our humility and we will still muddy up the canvas, now and then.

But we'll move toward each other because we want to, wielding our brushes lightly. We'll bleed together and make something new.

With any luck, we'll all walk away under the weight of knowing we're loved.



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Friday, April 29, 2016

The World Doesn't Decide Who I Am


When I was ten, my best friend was a girl from church named Tracie. She was two years older, infinitely more street-wise. We made potions, dressed up in her mom’s ’60’s garb, and daydreamed business ventures that never left the ground. We were small-town girls with skinned shins, daughters of a faith that tried to swallow us whole. We couldn’t make sense of our church or the people who kept failing us, so we leaned into each other, laughed until we cried, and on one fateful winter night, ate homemade snow ice cream and pickles until I puked in her carpeted bathroom with its shelves upon shelves of breakable elephant figurines.

Over a slow arc of years and then decades, she drifted south and I north.

We lost touch with each other in that unique way most childhood friendships eventually fizzle. But somewhere in a cardboard box is a tiny, plastic pickle pin, the kind meant to be attached to your bag or shirt in some strange showing of loyalty. We were young. We loved pickles and being weird together. What else was there to say?

Three summers ago, I was adapting to life in our new community. I was busy learning the flow of my neighborhood, learning names at our little church down the street, corralling a preschooler who was still trying to relax into our family, and making trips to the county jail. I was a writer, but I’d have only said so in a whisper. There was no book deal, not even close. I didn’t have an agent, my blog kept breaking, and I was sure I was alienating everyone with my incessant virtual lip-biting over all the change heaving my way.

I frittered over my dwindling comments. I obsessed over my traffic. I waffled between a keen understanding of exactly who I was, and the low-pulsing ache of wishing I were different. All around me, online friends launched further, faster, and my soul tinged green with envy.

And then I made a batch of pickles.

{click here to continue reading over at (in)courage...} 


Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Face of Freedom


Most Mondays I end up at Kroger. You could say I'm a regular there. Situated just across the railroad tracks, not half a mile away, it's easy to fall victim to the convenience of popping in several times a week for a can of green chilies, a gallon of milk, a bag of Cara Cara oranges because Ruby likes them cut into wedges. Besides, my friend is almost always working. We greet each other by name now. He asks about what I'm writing, his kindness disarming me each time. He's become an unlikely source of wisdom and goodness. A neighbor. A friend. I try not to notice the sadness behind his eyes.

Earlier this week I pushed my cart of privilege toward the van, spring air and sun on my face. The city thrummed, wide awake. It's funny the way nothing at all can spark a memory, its heat burning you back to a different time. It wasn't so much that I remembered who I had been, no. I became me, then. I walked the parking lot in my baseball cap, almost forty years old now, no longer referring to my neighborhood or this community as "new". Yet for a moment, inside this slightly looser skin was the woman from four years back, live as a wire about all I didn't know...

It had been my second visit to the dingy courtroom, hid underground like a shameful thing, its carpet worn, its lighting buzzing and dim. I'd driven her there, and she filled the air between us, preferring chatter over silence, talking like a mama to Silas who was tucked into his car seat with Charles in his lap. The worst was over. Everything was going to be alright. We plotted a fast-food scheme for afterward and I knew for sure, she was my friend. Two people can crash together in unlikely ways and exit the flames fused, somehow. That was us. I loved her. I loved the light in her eyes and wanted so desperately for it to burn into mine.

We sat for an hour or so, did what we were told. Stand. Sit. Keep your mouths shut.
We exhaled when it was over, our thoughts already turning to carbonation and salty grease.  And then they approached her. You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you...

The atmosphere slowed honey thick and she didn't say a word. She looked at Silas, then at me. I prayed there wouldn't be a scene, worrying for the hundredth time that it was true after all, we were inflicting pain on our children, slow and insidious. Without a single word, she handed me the set of keys she was holding for a friend along with her phone. Her free hand swept up to her long brown hair and it tumbled down around her shoulders. She handed me her scrunchie, the kind we used in the 90's, fuchsia faded down to a dusty rose. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why she wasn't reacting. I pictured myself in her shoes, frantic, sobbing. I imagined the screeching halt of my life and the lives of those closest to me if I were snapped into steel handcuffs for any reason, ever.

Four years later, having arrived at a place where jail is as much a part of our day as good books and dinner around the table, it's the scrunchie that levels me, that long, sweeping handing-off of oneself to another. No words spoken, because there weren't any that mattered. The light had extinguished, her eyes gone cold.

What I didn't understand then is that, for good and for ill, freedom can be found in the most unlikely places. Our friendship wasn't headed for a quiet death, but for the depth and truth born in loss.



 
Tuesday evening was the annual Elkhart County Jail Ministry Banquet, a party complete with redemption stories and ample slices of pie, thrown by my husband in honor of his friends. It's one of my favorite nights of the year. Just like last year, I teared up often. I hugged our friends who bravely bared their souls before strangers. As I was leaving, three sleepy kids in tow, a man grabbed me into a bear hug and asked about my book. "I was just telling my wife about it on the way over here." His eyes brimmed with tears. "I still cannot believe anyone cared enough about me to put my story in a book."

Our friend Tom, one of the assistant chaplains for the ministry, emailed me later, "it  had an air of  victory. it was intoxicating to breathe it in collectively for one night. and it was refreshing to see calvin, silas, and ruby adding to it with their presence. now that we have seen them growing up through your posts, they seemed to be a natural fit to the evening as it was all about family in theme. i'm glad to be a part of this family."

We tend to share the best stories. We want people to see the hope that was born in a manger to save our broken hearts. But don't misunderstand, our definition of "best" has taken a turn.

Sometimes success means avoiding the needle on off-days. It's a start, so we celebrate it.
Sometimes success means reconciling. Sometimes it means telling the truth. Sometimes it means getting locked up again, seeing it as a gift, and receiving it.

We went to bed feeling light, honored to be living this exact life.
I woke at 6 a.m. to a terrifying dream, unreasonably violent, piercingly personal, the kind that drew me to Cory, sound asleep beside me. I gasped for air, pinched my own flesh. This is real. That was not. "It's spiritual warfare", said a friend. I'm already a little nervous about tonight.

If you find yourself wondering at times whether I'm okay, the answer is yes, I am always okay for most of the day.

I'm also usually sad at some point.

There's no way around pain when we're forever dodging the shrapnel of addiction and bone-deep longing. We are bound to be struck.

But did you notice the way the cracks in the sidewalk fan out like the veins of a maple leaf? Did you see the neighbor kid wearing brand new shoes? Did you hear my child thank me for being his? Did you feel the weight of his shape in the chill of morning?


I sure did.

"Yet I am confident I will see the Lord's goodness while I am here in the land of the living." - Psalm 27:13

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why the World Needs More Recess


It’s safe to say my family survived spring break this year, though if you’d asked me at the time, I wasn’t so sure.

It wasn’t the fact that we didn’t jet off to a tropical location – we never do. It wasn’t because we had a houseful of kids – that’s pretty typical. You’re my neighbor, so you already know what the trouble was this year. It was the weather. Snow and biting temps kept us cooped up while outside, birds chirped their lament and daffodils begged for redemption.

We tried all the tricks – the library, Netflix, board games, special snacks. In the end, the only thing that worked was the discovery that nylon bean bags could be ridden down the basement stairs, rodeo-style.

A pattern emerged. The kids would enjoy twenty minutes or so of this revolutionary enchantment then emerge ready to focus on something a bit less eardrum-rattling. Though I didn’t necessarily understand the appeal and grew weary of tending to the results of underdeveloped navigational skills, I saw value in letting them get loud and rowdy at regular intervals. When all was said and done, imagination and play is what saved us...

I wrote a piece for my local newspaper about why recess matters. Click here to continue reading. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Aftershock

Hi this is Calvin, age 11 now. I regret to tell you that there was an Earthquake in Ecuador just a few days ago. I am very worried about the people and the Compassion centers that are thriving there. I hope that everyone is safe but it caused hundreds of people to lose their lives. I can only imagine the pain that families are going through, having them lose so many things during this tragedy. But as they say "good things come when you least suspect it".

Visiting Ecuador was a life changing trip and I really enjoyed it. Well today, about 2 months after we got back, I was called into my moms bedroom (i had no clue what i was about to hear her say) so she tells me that there was an Earthquake in the country I cherish. My response is "whaaaaaat!!" then we go and pull up this map of the area and sure enough there it is.

When you look at a map you think of a piece of paper with big pictures on it. Well, that must be a normal map. This was a horror map. All over the the screen "500 deaths" another one "we know that right now children and families who live in desperate poverty are in serious need of aid." I mean come on people what else could happen. Then I think of all the Compassion centers, the people and families that are being torn apart. I know that Ecuador has poverty but think about it, there are so many people that weren't in poverty and are now. We need to pray for them.


So, if you sponsor a child you could just make their lives so much better. And the $38 dollars you spend could give the child food, education, and hope. This is Calvin Martin and I want you to sponsor a child!


Editor's Note:
Compassion is a natural response to kinship. When the tragic earthquake hit Ecuador this week, I knew Calvin would care deeply. Walking a few miles with someone and beginning to relate with them makes ignoring their pain impossible. Calvin's immediate capacity to care humbled me.

We scoured the maps, paying close attention to Quito, where our sponsored child and his family live, and Manta, where we'd spent one unforgettable, sweaty day. Manta, a coastal city was hit particularly hard, and it's impossible not to think of the homes we visited, made mostly of sticks. We don't know for sure if any of our friends were affected. After visiting the Compassion website, searching for updates, I wondered out loud if I should blog about this. Without hesitation, Calvin broke in, "No. I want to write it."

He did just that while I played at the park with Silas and Ruby. Tonight, along with many of you who sponsored children during our trip in February, we are moved to pray for the country we love and her people. This is precisely why our support matters. Compassion has set up a special donation page if you'd like to offer additional help.

And if these recent events move you to sponsor a child, it's never too late. There's plenty of room for you in this tribe.

Much love,
Shannan

EDIT: I just realized my teammate Ashley wrote a beautiful piece on the earthquake as well. Find it here. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Hold On


A month or so ago, I had an epiphany.

It must have been a Tuesday night, because Cory was at a meeting late. I'm sure the kitchen was a mess, the house was loud, and I was gearing up for that awkward hour that falls between dinner and the bedtime wind-down. "Everyone needs to go take their shower," I said.

And they did.

They scattered, grabbed their pajamas, adjusted the water temp, scrubbed their bods, washed their hair. I didn't help with a single step of the routine. They returned to the living room in cozy pants with wet heads and a distinct truth landed in my heart - I have arrived.

I've entered my second decade of parenting, barely, but still. It's strange to even type those words. It's difficult to imagine that my forties are closing in (two months away!) and even now, as I sit on my couch and type with the morning sun streaming into my *silent* house, I find it impossible to retrace the trajectory from then until now. 

I remember waking up to a houseful of pre-schoolers and toddlers. Nowhere to go, and honestly, why bother? The first stretch was always the easiest, those hours where yesterday's games felt new again, before the afternoon monotony and the fighting and the dinnertime-prep hour of doom.

I remember stirring something at the counter (what was I stirring? soup? salad dressing? powdered cheese into macaroni?) with a screaming baby at my feet. I'd hand down plastic measuring cups or a wooden spoon, "Look at this, buddy!", feigning brightness when all I really wanted was take-out and a nap. I wanted bedtime to fall softly on our good earth. I wanted to not be needed every second.

If I sound like a granny right about now, it's probably because I am one. Or, it could be because I took Calvin to his middle school orientation last night and I'm not sure when I'll recover.

Ruby does her own hair, most mornings.
They're allowed to go to the park with out me.
Just yesterday, Silas removed his own splinter without us even knowing it was there.

I could hum about time marching on, and I know you'd hum along. This retrograde longing is nothing new. But when it comes down to it, I wouldn't go back. Scratch that. I would, but only for a day or two. I wouldn't mind feeling the weight of my two-year old in my arms for a while and I would fight lions to hear Ruby's lisp again. I miss rocking Silas before bed each night during that first year, promising we would never leave him and that no one else could ever have him.

But if being a mom has only taught me one thing, it's this: wherever we are is the sweet spot.





Ruby has taken to accents. She sings like she knows things, and lately, she's not even worried if we hear her. She's beginning to understand the complexities of her beginnings. She's tired of all our fuss over Asian food. "When can we eat like my people?" she asked, though food from Malawi is more ordinary than she hoped and she can't stand fish. She's obsessed with MLK, though she simply calls him "Martin". Her best friend is Dante, and he said he's moving away.





 
Silas wore his "tuxedo" for Spring picture day. In case you wondered, it's black athletic pants with a red stripe down the side and his navy blue suit coat with a white t-shirt underneath. He's working on all kinds of things, like not saying "bad" words just because he knows them, and figuring out what to feed all his animals on Mine Craft. He'd like to learn Excel and how to type. He discovered the remote control for his moon also operates his flashing light. Two days ago, he had to walk laps at recess and think about his behavior. Yesterday, he tried "even though it was so, so hard" and had one of his best days in months.




Calvin keeps asking me to teach him how to cook, but is usually too busy reading when five o'clock rolls around. He's smitten with his violin, obsessed with Korean culture, and just in the last month has started caring what his hair looks like before he heads off to school. He's been asking hard questions about church and God. He wishes he could know his birth mom, like Ruby does. He's not the best at sports, but he still loves to play. His glasses are forever smudged and sliding off his nose. He's an early-bird to the end and hopes to join Robotics next year. He's committed to working through some complicated emotions and he's choosing love when it's hard. Pokemon is everything to him.


I love this life.
I thought it was my favorite back when I buckled them all into car seats and drove down the street to the library just to kill an hour, but I was wrong.


This is my favorite, this moment I'm in, where we ride bikes and stay up a little later together. I like this one, where they haul their laundry baskets down and I fold the warm shirts and jeans I would have sworn would never fit them. I choose today, with spring jackets, orchestra practice, and the reading log hanging on the fridge. I'll take the fit Silas will throw sometime around 4pm - now, it's always followed with "I'm sorry" eyes and a heart that can't stop loving me. I can handle the bickering. And if they don't like dinner? Well, they'll eat it anyway. We all know the drill.

This is the good stuff, and I'm passing it on to you, wherever you are.
I'm not saying we have to seize the day, but we get to hold it - like a gift.

So we do.


*Photos courtesy of CMB (Cute Maintenance Boy aka Cory, for those of you who are newish) ;)

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