Beauty in the Valley

Our pastor ran a sermon series in December called God With Us.  The promo video that ran each week began with a reminder that God is always with us:  “On the mountain…in the valley….”

Ah, yes, the valley.  The first sermon was all about the valley, which is where our family spent most of 2016 and a fair portion of 2017.  The valley is supposed to be a dark, desperate place–“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” from Psalm 23, right?–but here’s what hit me as I watched the video intro:

Valleys are beautiful.

Honestly, on our trips to Colorado, valleys are my favorite places to be.  Mountains are majestic, of course, but the countless houses tucked into the deeply wooded valleys? That’s where I’d want to live.  There’s beauty there; it’s not hard to see.

There’s beauty in the valleys of our lives, too.

A perfect example came to me a few Fridays ago, when I went to bed early (like before-dinner early) with what seemed to be a stomach bug.  My husband had plans that night, so my twelve-year-old daughter put my four-year-old to bed.  While I lay curled up under the covers, miserable and barely awake, the sound of my older daughter’s voice floated down the hall, reading bedtime stories to her little sister. Snuggles, giggles, a chapter of Betsy-Tacy; A Birthday for Frances….

When did she get to be such a beautifully fluent reader?

Beauty in the valley.

Watching your oldest pull back and withdraw, more and more often, until you fear that depression might actually really win–that’s a valley.  No doubt.

Watching your son buy his younger sisters stuffed animal souvenirs on the zoo trip he chose to go on with the family, smack in the middle of the ugliness….spending his own money to put a smile on their faces….there’s beauty in the valley.

Holding your son while he sobs and begs….begs you to buy him a gun, so he can end it all and just be done with it for good…that’s the deepest, lowest valley I’ve come to yet.

A doctor who returns your calls while on vacation to ensure he gets medication started: beauty in the valley.

Any trouble with friends tripping a switch that still seems to be set to “despair” is even now a very real part of our valley.

Watching the same child–barely 24 hours later–bringing the folding card table up from the basement, setting it up on the back deck, and cooking and serving dinner to his entire family under the light of the near-full moon….that is a step beyond beauty.  That is unbelievable.

Watching my middle child lose her older-brother-best-friend to the gaping maw of depression has been one of the most ongoing, difficult valleys.

Signing off on her “homework” for church and realizing that under “list three ways you know God cares for you” she included, “He gave me a baby sister….”  That is beauty so vivid it brought me to tears.

It’s beauty, too, when the big kids do reconnect and find out they are still friends, even after everything they’ve been through.

I know that God has been with us in every one of these situations.  He was sitting on the bed with us, brokenhearted, while my son sobbed into my shoulder.  He was pulling up a seat with us, outside on the deck, rejoicing in His gorgeous night and healing child.  I know his hand is on my family as we walk this rocky road, full of switchbacks, that winds through the valley.  But I’m also realizing the valley can be an amazing place, full of beauty, if I can just pay attention.  I don’t know how much longer our valley is.  I do have faith there will continue to be beauty along the way.

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I am sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with my four-year-old.  The rest of the house is quiet; the older two still asleep, husband at work in the basement.  She is quiet, too, as she digs into her warm bowl of oatmeal.  She-who-will-not-be-hurried is deeply focused.

She pulls up a spoonful and holds it over her bowl, watching.

Finally….finally….she looks at me and explains, “I’m watching the steam.  Steam is beautiful.

Steam is beautiful.

There you are, friends.  Your mindful moment for the day, brought to you by a preschooler.  Steam is beautiful.

Go out and find something else beautiful in your day.

 

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”–Psalm 19:1-2

I decided weeks ago that my word for this year would be “intentional.”

It might be ridiculously overused; almost a buzz-word at this point, but it sums up exactly what I was needing–and aware I was needing–by the end of December.

My life was slowly veering into the “keeping up with the daily” that is so much of mom-ness, with lots of floating around in the in-between times; or, on other days, the pin-balling of incessant reacting.  The day would end and I would realize that while things “got done,” nothing worthy was really accomplished.

I spent three days writing down every. single. thing I did during the day, and then sat down to figure out how to make things work better.  I figured out where I had huge windows of time to play with, where things got complicated quickly, and saw clearly that sometimes things just happen:  there really is a limit to any control we attempt.  I wrote down the things I wanted to see in our home (among them more art, more read-alouds, more time outside when feasible) and began to lay out a new plan for our days.

The start of this year has been beginning to put that plan into place.

I started with a little bit of art time immediately after breakfast with my little. Sometimes big sister joins us, sometimes it’s just she and I.  Cutting snowflakes, watercolor painting, play-doh…we’re open.  Today art time looked like her snuggled up under the tablecloth-draped fort of a card table with a new stencil set from Gramma while I took down the Christmas tree, ornaments spread all over her “roof.”

That was an intentional decision, too:  after planning on taking down the tree “on the 6th,” which I’d been stating for weeks, I realized the weather was not my friend in this endeavor.  I want to take down a tree in full sunshine, not lose all our Christmas lights on a gray, rainy day.  So I checked the weather and opted for today.  Our big dog is curled up in a huge patch of sunshine that’s been blocked by the tree for a month and a half, happy as can be.  (For that matter, so am I.)

I thought our read-aloud would be pegged onto our snack time, but it’s looking more like a breakfast thing at this point.  I don’t care–it’s happening.  I want a routine, and I know we’ll get there, but at least right now I can see it happening.

Outside time?  Well….with the temperature here eventually warming up into the low 20’s, that hasn’t exactly been a priority.  I’ve kept the birds (and squirrels…sigh) fed, and the birdbath filled, and that’s probably enough for now.

I guess, this year, I want to be “pursuing enough” of the right things.

Unplugging

It was around Halloween that I realized what I was doing.

Each time I’d see a little uplifting reminder float by on my Facebook feed….

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I’d always finish it with, “….but you could get off your phone and do some of it.”

Because truly, sometimes it’s not an unreasonable to-do list or the busyness of a certain season.  Sometimes, it’s just me being lazy.

I finally decided to do something about it.

The first baby-step was to deleting the two real estate apps off my phone.  We have no intention of moving, and if a house pops up for sale “that I’ve always wondered what it looks like inside,” I can get on the computer.  No more mindlessly scrolling through houses and suddenly realizing an hour has gone by:  check.

The next step was scheduling an email check into my morning routine…on my laptop.  I suddenly had a new goal of not being on my phone in the early morning, at all.  Was that even possible?  All I knew was that I didn’t want my four-year-old to grow up seeing me glued to my phone…..and I wanted to see my four-year-old grow up.

Next up:  not faithfully keeping up with reading blogs.  No more daily check-ins (though occasionally reading is definitely still happening).  It occurred to me recently that I’m not trying to build a brand, launch a product, sell an item or make a name…..so why on earth do I feel a strange sense of obligation to keep up with this?  No more.

The last step was deleting the Facebook app.  I’d already made a decision, after an exceptionally good Halloween, that I wanted to take another break from Facebook; I wanted to enjoy the holiday season we were having instead of constantly being bombarded with other ideas and wondering if we should be doing things differently. This fall and winter have been so different from last year, as my son continues to climb out of depression.  I want to enjoy it!  I want to savor this time, not compare it to someone else’s holiday–or not even be truly present for it in the first place.  Bye-bye, FB.

My mom and I had a conversation not that long ago about how technology has gone from a blessing to a nuisance.  While I don’t want to get rid of the internet, I think the line that got crossed awhile back–that “smartphone” line–has turned something wonderful into something awful.  I can objectively see the benefits of the internet.  Right now, it’s hard for me to see the good in a smartphone.

Rant over.

Minimalism, meet reality

I moved the furniture in my youngest’s room this morning; moved the posters on her walls around.  Got everything rearranged, cleaned out just a bit, and it’s beautiful.  So empty and peaceful.

I worked in the basement for five minutes, going through a bin of stuffed animals (the old “out of sight, out of mind” trick).  I pulled five to keep–I’m still a sucker for sentimental stuff–and filled a 13-gallon trash bag with loveys to pass on.

I weeded kids’ books yesterday and kept only the much-loved favorites.  This was met almost immediately with a request to read A Pocket for Corduroy.  Funny how favorite books can be found when you get rid of the junky stuff.

I got in the laundry room closet today…..and it was still a laundry room closet.

But here’s the thing:  the only items in that closet right now that don’t really belong are some picture frames that I want t buy mats for.  Everything else, regardless of how un-minimalist it looks, is something we use.  Not every single day, but easily every month, and absolutely every few months.

I’ve finally come to the realization that every home is going to have a bin of extra light bulbs.

Truly….I think this is something the glossy magazines don’t ever spotlight, and it’s stuff that no one likes to think about.  But I daresay that even the most minimalist home is going to have a stash of bulbs somewhere.  If they don’t, they’re going to be hanging out in the dark at some point, because bulbs don’t burn out when it’s convenient–much like smoke alarm batteries only running out at 3:00 AM.

So that closet full of “stuff” isn’t going anywhere.  It is a testament to the reality of living this life.  We use detergent, and have an iron and ironing pad.  We need a place to keep things like string and screwdrivers and my secret stash of chocolate.  I’ll do my best to keep it organized, and keep it cleaned out, but some “stuff” you just need to keep.

She keeps me young

We made our annual trip to the Cider Mill this past week.  The weather was absolutely perfect for the fall trek, cool and crisp with plenty of sunshine to keep us warm.  We wandered the grounds, ate our doughnuts, and drank our cider, and then (of course) I took pictures like a crazy person.

Hide and seek at the Cider Mill….because, why not?

I started innocently, following the kids around and snapping occasional pics. Then it was goofy poses, to get them willing for the follow-up attempt at nice poses.  The beauty of digital photography is that you can take literally a hundred pictures and know that somewhere in there are two or three keepers.  Pic after pic of my kids on hay bales and rock walls, being crazy, being silly, and finally being “smiley for the camera.”

When I finished and turned them loose, I turned to see an older woman smiling and holding out her phone.  “Would you mind taking a photo of us?” she asked with a smile, gesturing toward two young-adult daughters and her husband.  “We  never manage to get all together like this.”  I agreed–who wouldn’t!?–and snapped a handful of pics of the four of them.  As I handed the phone back, she complimented me on my “beautiful family” and my four-year-old’s darling dress.

I smiled sheepishly.  “That was a hand-me-down from sister,” I admitted.  “We didn’t save hardly anything between my older daughter and the surprise, but we saved that.”

She laughed.  “I wondered about that!  That was me, you know.  I was the surprise.”  She was smiling mischievously.  “My mom always said–she’s ninety-seven now–my mom always said, ‘She keeps me young.'”

I burst out laughing.  “That needs to be my phrase!  I’m always looking at her saying, ‘Oh, baby girl, Mama’s so old….”

“NO!” The woman was beaming.  “She keeps you young!!”

I sincerely hope I can adopt that attitude.  A shift in mindset of that magnitude changes everything.  I wonder what adventures she’ll lead us on; what paths we’re going to walk down because she exists.  I know that the past two years of depression with my oldest would have been incredibly more difficult for me, without this little one’s unrelenting joy and sunshine to wrap myself in.  Snuggling with an inquisitive, cheerful preschooler has been a blessed antidote to many of my days.

Maybe the “keeps you young” has already been happening.  Maybe she, with her sweet spirit and loving nature and concern for others, has been keeping me from being beaten down prematurely as we walk the dark, ugly path of depression with our son.  And how blessed we are now, to have him healing and returning–almost always–to his tenderhearted, sweet self (with that sly sense of humor).  She was, somehow, always thoroughly untainted by her brother’s moods; now that unceasing joy allows us to rejoice more deeply in the healing that is taking place.

Our lives were changed dramatically with her arrival.  But as my husband and I were discussing last night, there hasn’t been a single change for the worse.  God knew exactly what we were going to need at this point in our lives.  We can’t imagine life without her.

Yes, she keeps me young.

 

 

 

A little bit different

I think, if you sat our family down on the front steps of our home and took a photo, we would look like the perfect microcosm of average suburban America.  Three kids, two dogs, 2,300-square-foot home….it all screams “average.”

I forget in how many ways we are different, and are living life in a simpler way. We haven’t gotten too off-course from my goal of “enough” (in spite of birthday season), and we really aren’t quite “average.”  The past few days reinforced that idea for me.

In a way, it started Monday night; the last night of a four-week Bible study I was attending.  We usually have very quiet evenings, and me being gone four Mondays in a row was a serious shock to the family system.  (Obviously, they all did fine.)  Bedtime hugs and kisses were doled out at 6:40pm since I wouldn’t see kids until morning…..

…and the next morning we hit the ground running a bit harder than usual.  I dropped my youngest off at her preschool, then stopped by the library on my way to a chiropractor appointment.  I had a bit of time at home (long enough to flip laundry) and then collected my older daughter to tag along as we picked up the youngest from preschool and headed straight to Target for a quick lunch (um…ick) and a shopping trip involving birthday gifts for their brother.  We were having all sorts of fun, wandering and smelling candles, when I literally gasped so loud it scared the girls.

“I’m supposed to get your brother to his appointment at 2:00!” I hastily explained, and once I checked my phone I realized we were fine. There was no more moseying through the aisles, however, and we headed straight for the checkout line.  As I pushed the cart towards the door, my youngest reminded me, “Don’t forget his treat!”

Oh, yeah.  We stopped back by the deli and grabbed an Icee.

Headed for home, unloaded stuff, loaded boy, sat in a waiting room for an hour, and tried to breathe.

Back home I collected the girls and RETURNED to Target WITH the Redcard to get our 5% off all that stuff we just bought earlier.  (Sigh.)  One last gift for brother.  A few clothing items for my older girl, who is rapidly (again) running out of clothes to wear, regardless of how often she does laundry.  Got home and started dinner and ate together--on days like today, I consider the fact that we still managed to eat together a HUGE win.

While my husband and older daughter cleaned up dinner, my son and I jumped back in the car so I could drop him off at a homeschool group event.  I hung out to talk a bit, then headed home to put my youngest to bed while my husband ran to the grocery store.  Once both girls were down, I headed back out to make sure I was there to pick my son up at 9:00; only to check my messages in the parking lot and realize the group was running late and maybe push pick-up back to 9:30?

Well…..guess I’ll gas the car now.

Returned for pick-up and more talking.  Home by ten.  Completely sacked out by 10:45.

I knew going into the week that Tuesday would be the worst, Wednesday would be a bit better, and by Thursday, the end was in sight.  At some point mid-Tuesday, I stopped and looked around and had a sudden, deep awareness that some people live like this all the time.

Mine were a crazy few days, but for many, that is everyday.

That is how countless people are going through their lives:  a bit like pinballs, bouncing from one thing to another in an endless–and sometimes mindless–run.  That is what an average day looks like, for an average person.  And thankfully, SO thankfully, that is one way we’re different.

Today we are home.  Home for an entire day.  The bigs are at the kitchen table with me, coloring while I write.  The four-year-old is camped out in the living room with her My Little Ponies  My laundry for the day is done and my daughter has started hers.  The kitchen is clean and the coffee is fresh.  We have discussed a library run, and put it on the back burner.  All the kids are still in pajamas.  It is the best kind of day–especially after the week we’ve had.  I’m so, so grateful that this is our normal; that we are, actually, a little bit different.