Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

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With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

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In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

Doing

14358915_618953765392_1589227780450859615_nMaggie will turn four in November. I watched her sleeping tonight (since I couldn’t seem to fall asleep myself). She was wrapped up in my fluffy gray throw blanket, her golden auburn hair almost glowing against the darkness.

I wanted to keep her this way forever—peaceful, still, and breathtakingly beautiful. And tiny.

But of course I can’t. Maggie is moving, growing, learning, and thriving—and I’m grateful. She fluctuates between telling me she wants a big girl cup and asking for milk in a baby bottle at bedtime. Even though she’s been potty-trained for almost one year, she still requests a “Celly-grelly diaper” (that’s Cinderella pull-ups) when she wants to pretend she’s still a baby. She knows all her numbers and loves practicing counting, and she loves reading even though she resists learning about letters.

I could go on and on. I’m in love.

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Maggie, August 2013

When I was pregnant with Maggie, I quit working as an academic advisor due to pregnancy complications. I didn’t return to work until Maggie was about 14 months old, and then I only worked part-time as an adjunct English instructor for one year before accepting a full-time faculty position.

During my stay-at-home mom days, I will be honest—I struggled. It was the hardest job I’d ever done; the work never ended, and the client was often unsatisfied with my performance even though I did my darndest to please her. I felt insecure about my lack of financial contribution to our household even though my husband gently reassured me that staying home with Maggie was much more significant and helpful than any salary I’d ever earned.

It was tough to be where my hands were. I’m all about productivity; I like to make things happen. Being a mama is not about making things happen; it’s about letting things happen. Sigh.

Sometimes I found myself daydreaming about more enjoyable things to do while changing diapers or nursing Maggie. Even though I often wished for Calgon to take me away, I felt fulfilled knowing I was with the most important people doing the most important things on my to-do list every single day. When I had the opportunity to teach full-time, though, and to put my degree to use, I couldn’t resist.

The day I drove away from my house to teach full-time for the first time, I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

“You’re going to regret this someday.”

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One of the rare afternoons we spent together during my first semester of teaching full-time

That inner voice was partly correct. Although I thrive in the classroom and felt I’d found my niche teaching English to college students whom I still adore, I have many regrets about that time during our lives. My first semester of teaching full-time was like running the gauntlet. I taught too many courses—my fault for agreeing to do so—and too many writing courses which required countless hours of grading (not my fault since I didn’t select my own courses that semester). In the fall of 2014, I rarely arrived home in time to spend more than 15 minutes with Maggie and James before the sun set. I don’t recall cooking dinner once, but I’m sure I did… didn’t I? During the peak of my daughter’s cuteness, I slaved away to prove myself in academia.

But I found this to be true: if I’m excelling at work, I’m probably sucking at home, or at best, barely holding the pieces together while gritting my teeth and smiling, pretending to have it all figured out.

At the time, my remedy to missing Maggie’s life was to spend more money on her. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maggie, Mama will bring you something cool today, okay?” She loved getting a fun gift—maybe a new rubber duck or a balloon—but sometimes she had tears in her eyes when I left for work.

I regret that.

I can’t change the past—not even God can change the past.

If anything has proven true in my life, it’s that God always gives me second chances and redeems the worst decisions I’ve made. He redeems outcomes.

I left teaching in December 2015 to accept a position as content manager of a small business I’d admired for over a decade. Two months later, I felt incomplete even though I was certainly making things happen and doing a great job. I missed my students; I missed teaching and applied for my old job. But I didn’t get the job, and even though my student evaluations as an instructor demonstrated 99% positive feedback, and my faculty evaluations boasted almost all 5’s, I wasn’t even granted the opportunity to interview for the position. Just a few months before, when leaving the college, I’d received an email from my boss stating that, “People talk about the ‘five percenters,’ but that category is not fitting for you – you are a ‘one percenter.’”

This 1%’er felt baffled, disappointed, and hurt.

I got over it.

I got over it because God gave me a new dream—to launch my own career coaching business and to harness my passions for career development, serving others, and mentoring. And thanks to my long-time mentor, my spiritual mentor, and professional friends and colleagues, I received ample encouragement and reassurance that I was more than qualified to help job seekers find their dream jobs. When I questioned whether I had enough experience to be considered an expert, and wondered if I should wait another five years before launching my business, my friend Dr. Steve Lindner said, “No, you’re ready now.”

I got over it because I found that since I have always believed in the power of networking, I’d made great alliances with various friends connected to other colleges and universities; these connections came through for me, and I was able to secure the chance to teach college part-time while growing my career coaching business.

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Maggie, spring 2016

And I got over it because while working as a content manager, I fell more deeply in love with my daughter. Each time our babysitter sent me photos of Maggie finger painting, hunting for armadillos in the woods behind our house, or eating Cheerios, I longed to be the one taking the pictures. I missed her.

And so I made right my wrong. I leaned out.

While listening to Natalie Merchant’s “Giving Up Everything” one day while driving home from work (in the dark, of course), I exhaled and made the decision to do just that.

I came home.

Today, I don’t earn enough money to spend extravagantly. I certainly don’t earn enough to buy myself an extensive fun wardrobe (complete with fabulous dresses with pockets) or trendy nail polish each season. Maggie rarely hears me say, “Mama will bring you something home.”

I’m already home, and I wouldn’t exchange time with my one precious girl for anything right now.

Instead of buying Maggie gifts, I’m giving myself to her.

When she wakes up in a few hours, I’ll say to her, “Mama has something fun for us to do today.”

Today we’re doing. We’re not buying.

And I’m feeling rich.

Walk and chalk

“Walk. Chalk.”

Each morning, as the hands on the clock tick and tock their way toward the number nine, Maggie’s tiny voice chimes in with these two words. I can literally tell time by them. Her soft, chubby fingers stretch out and grab hold of mine and pull me to the door. I reach for miniature socks before heading down the hall.

IMG_2635Armed with ice water, my trusty camera, tennis shoes, ball caps, and bug spray, we turn the knob and open the back door, beginning Maggie’s favorite part of every morning—walk and chalk.

After strapping Maggie into the sturdy stroller, we make our way through the wet grass, still glistening with dew. First we check on our pups, who are always elated to see the stroller lumbering through the yard. As we fill their bowl with food, they scratch along the fence, and Maggie pants and mimics their whimpers, egging them on. We say “bye bye” to the pups and hit the chip sealed pavement. The sun greets our faces, and Maggie blinks in response but refuses to wear her baseball cap or sunglasses.

IMG_2836Each morning, in the humid, Ozark woodlands, I attempt to keep moving at a fairly rapid pace in an effort to avoid both of us being drenched in perspiration by the time we return to the house. However, it never fails that after taking just a few steps forward, something gorgeous catches my eye on one side of the road or the other. This is the Ozark woodlands, after all—a lush, green, jungle-like wonderland.

I didn’t always see it this way. When I moved to the Ozarks at the age of 10 and lived a mere 25 miles from my current location, I both loathed and liked the place.

I liked my small school and having the opportunity to make new friends, and I loved our tiny church and the delicious potluck dishes prepared on a frequent basis by the elderly ladies. I liked the rickety house we rented in the country on an old dirt road, the rain pinging off the tin roof. I even liked the fact that my breath created puffy bursts in my own frigid bedroom as I gazed at the clear, star-filled sky during winter; sure, the house lacked any real heat source aside from a gigantic fireplace, but I felt like a real live Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I thought that was pretty darn cool. I liked running down the road to my friend Leslie’s house and eating hot popcorn and drinking cold sweet tea in her kitchen and pestering her brother John while he played basketball and imitating her cool older sister Sheryl who danced to Debbie Gibson songs.

I liked things about Arkansas. But I loathed other things. One of the things I loathed was the weather. Having been accustomed to a drier climate in Kansas, I simply hated the Arkansas summers for years. I referred to Arkansas as the armpit of America (in terms of weather, and perhaps in terms of other things, too). I detested the way the atmosphere caused me to sweat profusely from every single pore. I hated having to purchase new white shirts every single season, whether I’d stained the front of them or not, simply due to the sweaty armpit stains. I could go on and on. I just plain hated Arkansas summers.

But something changed. After living in a rural subdivision for five years, commuting for about an hour one way every day, I’d had my fill of “all that.” I’d worked downtown, worn plenty of flashy high heels and jewelry, made enough money to make me feel that I’d arrived, and secured enough jobs to prove to myself that if I made up my mind to do something, I could do it. I was done with that kind of life.

I wanted to go home.

One of my favorite creatures I ever captured in a picture on our front porch, October 2011

One of my favorite creatures I ever captured in a picture on our front porch, October 2011

I began praying about that very idea, and God worked out the details—a lot of details—and I headed home in December of 2010. In January of 2011, my future husband and I purchased our home—nestled in the woods in the foothills of the Ozarks. And I fell head over heels in love with the Ozark woodlands. I took pictures constantly and carried my camera with me everywhere I went, snapping photographs of the endless varieties of species of flora and fauna surrounding me. With a forester and wildlife biologist by my side, I had my own handsome nature Google by my side, too.

IMG_2603This morning, after Maggie and I finished the walking portion of our “walk and chalk” time, I pushed her gently in the swing on the back porch. A quiet hum filled the air. The hum slowly transitioned into a noisy, vibrating whine. I stopped pushing Maggie in her swing for a moment and stepped off the porch, glancing around the corner of the house.

I gulped when I saw a small green tractor in the distance with a mower attachment, driving along the roadside. Tears filled my eyes quickly before I had a chance to form thoughts.

My husband stepped outside to see what the commotion was about.

“Oh, they’re mowing the sides of the road. Good,” he said blankly before noticing my tears.

“I know,” I replied in a weepy voice.

He stopped in surprise and stared at me.

“But they’re taking away all of my pretty things that I take pictures of every day and all of the things that we see on our walk and chalk every day.” And then tears actually fell.

“It’s okay, babe. They will grow back.”

I didn’t wipe away my tears. I’m a shameless flower-loving, picture-taking, Ozark-woodland-obsessed, nature freak.

Us, May 2014

Us, May 2014

I wasn’t actually crying over flowers. I was crying because I realized something important—that I was grateful for every single second I’d taken to pause and thank God for what He’d created, for the seconds I’d taken to notice those beautiful things, for the seconds I’d spent teaching my daughter to praise God for all things bright and small.

Because just seconds after we’d seen those beautiful things that very morning, they were gone.

I was crying because I am thankful that this morning, I have no regrets about how I spent my seconds.

Dirty dancing’s not THAT bad

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

The class of 97, on the White River, April 26, 2014

Last weekend, I said a fond farewell to a former high school classmate whose life was recently cut short. His sister hosted a “Celebration of Life” service at a local restaurant; the White River rolled and roared along beside us as we recalled living memories of our friend driving recklessly while listening to rock-n-roll music, or sending $100 to someone desperately in need of gas money for a trip home, or talking about his love for fashion and his desire to design clothing someday.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect–clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds here and there, a warm breeze, the bright sun blinding us as we took a picture together, with just one of us missing.

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party :)

Some of the original Dirty Dancing crew a few years after the watch party 🙂

As I chatted with my classmates after giving my spiel about my friend, one of them reminded me about her birthday party in sixth grade, a fabulously naughty slumber party, complete with ghost stories and the movie my mom had banned me from watching, Dirty Dancing. I laughed as I remembered blaming the entire incident on my friend at the time; of course, I was THRILLED to have the opportunity to watch Patrick Swayze sway and kiss–all shirtless, of course. I might have had no idea about sex yet, but I had some idea about kissing, having kissed my New Kids On The Block poster of Jordan Knight every single night for about 367 days in a row.

The movie met my every expectation. The best part was the soundtrack. I still have yet to find a better soundtrack to a movie. Maybe it’s just the nostalgic junior high kid in me, but every time I hear the songs from Dirty Dancing, I can’t help but smile and sing along.

This morning, like a real grown-up woman, I helped my husband get my baby ready for the day, fried up turkey bacon and eggs for my family, spent time alone with God, and settled down at the computer to grade research papers. I glanced up at the calendar hanging on the bulletin board above my desk and noticed a date, seven days from today, with a big “35” jotted in red ink.

Oh yeah, I remembered. My birthday is a week from today.

And I’m not sure why, but suddenly the thoughts of saying goodbye to my friend washed over my mind–not with sadness, just with a sense of contemplation. And then for some reason, I caught myself humming the tune to one of those great songs on the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing.

Now I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
Yes I swear. It’s the truth
And I owe it all to You . . . 

If someone ended my life and murdered me today, God forbid, or if my life ended for some other random reason today, I think this might be the song–or at least the stanza–that would capture how I feel about my life today–how I feel about God today.

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

Introducing Maggie to my alma mater, May 2014

This is the miracle–that if you’d asked me five years ago, or 10 years ago, to summarize my life with one song, I probably would have selected either some depressing hardcore rock song or an equally depressing gospel hymn disguised as a hopeful look toward heaven. Either way, I might have kept up the appearance of someone peppy and happy and carefree, but I carried around debts and burdens and pain nonetheless.

And then I started taking some steps, 12 of them, actually, that have helped me to just lay those burdens down one by one, piece by piece, and to give God what is God’s and to “not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.”

What a life, and what a God.

So maybe watching Dirty Dancing wasn’t THAT bad.

And turning 35 isn’t bad at all. It’s a blessing.

 

–Quote from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, page 83

Choosing not to

When my friend Bruce invited me to his concert next weekend, I was stoked—and then immediately felt totally bummed. His band, Living Sacrifice, has impacted me spiritually for a decade and a half. I’d love nothing more than to watch them perform again on their home turf.

IMG_8757But I can’t. Not this time. My daughter, Maggie, is barely a year old and has not mastered bottles or cups yet. She still relies on me for some of her sustenance, and with a baby latched onto me (literally), I’m limited to what I can do and when. She has yet to fall asleep without first nursing and listening to me sing God songs to her, enveloped in my warm arms.

So I just can’t.

I can’t.

For the past year, those are the words I’ve chosen to use each time I’ve declined an invitation to a show, a party, a conference, or a big to-do. It wasn’t until I responded to the invitation to attend Bruce’s concert that I realized that those words weren’t completely honest.

Me at 26, with my friend's baby girl

Me at 26, with my friend’s baby girl

At age 21, I was an independent, strong-willed, adventurous young woman who proclaimed that she had no desire to have children. At 26, I seriously contemplated sealing the deal medically and making it impossible for me to conceive—that’s how sure I was that having a baby wasn’t the right life choice for me.

Then I met my husband. And everything changed. I began envisioning the beauty of creating life together and the joy of taking our child along with us while climbing mountains, watching sunrises, devouring Waffle House hash browns while traveling down Route 66, praying and reading classics aloud before bed, and catching trout on the White River. I began to imagine sharing our lives.

With my husband, 2010

With my husband, 2010

I changed my mind.

We began making choices to put our family in the position of being able to spend as much time as possible together in the future before we even knew that Maggie was on the way. I made different choices about jobs and turned down opportunities to interview for positions requiring me to spend lots of time away from home. I went back to school and earned my Master’s degree with the sole intention of teaching at our local community college—something I’ve always wanted to do. We found a great church. We bought a home and renovated it, even though we underestimated how much space we’d need when two became three.

We got ready.

Good thing, because before all our plans were cemented, Maggie came along and blew my expectations for what life could be like out of the water. I love being her mom more than anything. I didn’t have to stop working, but I wanted to. I didn’t have to nurse her, but I wanted to. I didn’t have to stay so close to home last winter in the midst of cold and flu season, but I wanted to. As I reflect on the past year, I feel at rest knowing I have tried to make the best choices.

When I was pregnant and unsure about whether to stay home with Maggie and for how long, my friend Vicky, who is a little older and much wiser than I am, said something that’s become a mantra.

“You may regret a lot of things in life, but you will never regret the time you spend with your kids.”

She was right.

I’ve missed out on some pretty wonderful opportunities since becoming pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t walk across the stage to receive my diploma when I graduated with my Master’s degree after working my tail off and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. One of my high school friends got married, and I missed quite possibly the most fun ever had at a wedding, complete with a live band and oodles of cowgirl boots. Right in the middle of Maggie’s worst teething crisis, I had to cancel plans to spend the weekend with one of my closest college friends and missed out on some Damgoode Pie pizza and beer and plenty of quality time. I had lunch with some of my friends from across the United States prior to a women’s conference I hated to miss, but a few short hours with them flew by, and I found myself missing them the rest of the weekend.

I’m sorry I can’t put Maggie first and still participate in every exciting event in life.

IMG_1744But I don’t regret putting my baby first, and although I have missed some special moments in my loved ones’ lives because of catering to my baby’s schedule and putting her health and well-being first, I don’t regret it. I can’t put my child on hold—she’s here, and today’s the only second day of December in her second year of life that I’ll ever get to spend with her.

It’s not that I can’t find a babysitter and check out for a few hours while watching a movie. It’s not that I can’t send Maggie to daycare tomorrow and go back to work full-time. It’s not that I can’t go to my friend Bruce’s awesome show on December 6th.

I just choose not to today.

Merging

I’m pretty sure I’ve never cried so much in my life.

Maggie experiencing spring for the first time

Maggie experiencing spring for the first time

Since having my daughter in November, my perspective has changed. Everything old-hat seems new again. All the colors bloomed into brighter versions of themselves. Frowns and smiles and silly sounds thrill my soul. Seconds count. Life matters more.

This isn’t my first spin on the merry-go-round of emotions that motherhood entails.

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Me with Liz, summer 2011

I was lucky enough to be a stepmom to an amazing little girl for almost six years. And even luckier, she still likes me and wants to spend time with me, even though she is a month from graduating from high school and is practically an adult (who I am incredibly proud of) in every way. She gets embarrassed when I post mushy sentiments on Facebook about her, but she doesn’t delete them. She even suffers through a little cheek pinching now and then. She drives two hours to come stay with me, crawls through caves with me and my husband, licks the bowl after I concoct cookie dough, watches sunsets, kisses fish when she catches them, and opens her heart to me from time to time, too. She keeps me updated on celebrities, catch phrases, and other cool cultural trends. A few months ago, when I gave her a mini dress to wear with leggings, and explained that I was simply too old to pull it off, she responded, “Well, it’s good that you recognize that, Beef.” She makes me laugh and tells the truth and loves me.

My experiences and emotions as a mother obviously multiplied when I had Maggie.

And my love overflowed in the form of messy snot and tears when my two favorite girls met, and my past and my present merged.

It’s hard to explain what it means to watch joy and adoration twinkle in the beautiful eyes of the two babies you love more than any others as they meet for the first time, the grown-up girl scooping up the baby girl into her arms, kissing her chubby cheeks, and holding her close.

Many times, people ask me if I regret decisions I’ve made in my past. Divorces, mega mistakes, traumatic events, financial turning points. Because I’ve spent half a dozen years taken a dozen steps over and over again, I can honestly say no. As the Big Book so aptly puts it, “I do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”

I have no desire to wish away the things that have made me who I am today.

Liz and Maggie, March 2013

Liz and Maggie, March 2013

If I could change the past, I wouldn’t be here right now, tearing up yet again while remembering the most precious introduction I’ve ever had the privilege to initiate.

I would skip over much sorrow. But I would rob myself of even more joy.