The beauty of imperfect realities

We take portraits by Grandma's rhododendron every spring. It blooms for only a week, and I always try to wait for the perfect light, but it never seems to happen. The blooms and the light are on different schedules.

My girls are at that awkward, toothy, gangly stage. They're also at the fake smile stage. All of this adds up to some pretty hilarious portrait session outtakes. Those are the ones I love the most - when their real personalities shine through the perfect smile.

Such a picture of my own life these days. I wear remission like a new-toothed smile full of gaps. But it's my real smile, this awkward one - days bubbling over with more hilarity, more joy, not the perfection of a practiced gesture, but the explosion of gangly, long-limbed cartwheels across the carpet of life.

It may not be very beautiful to look at, this life. But it's a joy to live in it's skin. Every day the kids and I laugh together over depression waning and cancer fading into memory. Some little sign of my continued healing is noticed each and every morning...yesterday, the walk we all took together through the windy afternoon. Today, the moments stolen laughing and cuddling in bed.

I remember my mama telling me I'd someday settle down in my den with these four cubs. I thought her wildly crazy, and kept gallivanting around to friends for play dates and long, lazy afternoons laughing at our children and their antics. But those friends went up in a cloud of smoke, and I found myself alone in the den with my children.

I feel guilty sometimes. As if I should make more of an effort to get out of this house and make some friends. It's hard on my kids sometimes, too. But we've grown together in ways we hadn't before, spending all this time together.

The truth is, my tribe is my community, in the truest sense of the words. We'll be together through thick and thin, and every ounce of energy poured into these family relationships will be worth it in the end. There's always time to make new friends...but my children will soon be grown out of the gangly, toothy stage and I'll have moved on past cancer, and we'll never get another chance to be together today.

Linked to Lisa-Jo for the prompt, "Community"

To everything there is a season

Caleb wearing one of the gowns he wore as a baby
Last night, all four of my children took baths and showers. I didn't start the water. I didn't wash their hair. And I didn't have to dry anyone off, or find them pajamas. I only clipped thirty fingernails because my eldest clips her own now. This morning, I woke to the pleasant sounds of happy children getting their own breakfast. Later, they will make their own beds, brush their own teeth and hair, and get into clothes they picked from their drawers. I won't have to help them with their shoes or shoelaces, and I won't have to buckle them in to their carseats.

When I was drowning in diapers and nursing someone every hour, I never dreamed of this day. I had no idea that it would only take four years to come. It's an everyday miracle, the growing of children, the way they surprise you each day with something new. Yesterday, my Amelia had to show me that she can finally reach the tap in the kitchen sink. And take all her pills with minimal supervision.

I want to encourage you, younger mothers. The season you are in is so short! A few years, and you will be amazed at how much easier life is. The backbreaking season of hauling babies and toddlers and doing everything for them will soon be over. You might even wake up in your bed alone in the morning and actually long for the touch of little hands around your neck! As impossible as it may seem, you will look back on the work of today with fondness as one of the most beautiful seasons of your life.
I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3:10-13)

Relief: Emotions on Tuesdays

So many things to be grateful for these days! I picked "succeed" as my word for the year for 2012, and so far, it's living up to it's name. Dissertation approved, graduation just weeks away, cancer in remission...

A couple of mundane things have been the subject of many prayers around here. Amelia continues to battle an infection of unknown origin, and we are keeping a close eye on her as the doctors who've seen her think it could be a mild case of meningitis (again). She seems to be responding well to the newest round of medications, but if you could keep her health in your prayers, we'd appreciate it.

Our family vehicle hit the skids a few weeks ago, and we are searching for a suitable replacement. This means our first car loan in our 10 years of marriage, and it is a difficult step to take. Unfortunately, with all the expenses related to the end of my schooling, we simply don't have the cash to buy anything reliable. We've found a beautiful 2002 Suburban at one of the Eau Claire car dealers. The best thing about this vehicle is that it seats 9 people! This means it will work even after we adopt, and that there is plenty of space for cousins, friends, or grandparents. We're praying that God will clearly direct as we take this scary step.

Finally, I submitted a job application for my dream teaching job at the University my father teaches at. I'm praying hard that I will get a job offer there, as it would be a dream come true to teach alongside my dad. It will also save us about $15,000 in medical costs alone. If you could keep my job situation in your prayers it would be appreciated!

I hope you are having a blessing-filled spring as well! Leave a comment and let me know how I can specifically pray for you. My prayer list is kind of empty these days, and I'd love to add your requests to it.

This is our Emotions on Tuesdays link up. Link up to a post, old or new, about your emotions. Have you written about relief lately? Tuck the graphic at the bottom of your post, and come back to share your story with all of us!

Letters to Aaron: When I Am Sinking

We didn't know we were dancing onto the minefield. At the beginning, it feels like the completion of so many promises now kept; how could we ever be sad again, when joy suddenly rides unbridled in our hearts for the first time?

We've lost so much. Innocence. Sometimes romance. A church and friends. Babies. You face it resolutely, gripping my hand in your warm, strong one.

But I fear the very clumps of our broken life you cradle carefully in your hands are the very ones I'm trying to break with my pickax of anger and despair. You are shoveling earth into the crater, but I'm shoveling it out just as fast. I didn't mean to be this way, depressed, lonely, frustrated. Just like you never meant to yell at me for it. I worry sometimes that I am the foolish woman in Proverbs, tearing down her house with her own hands. Without you, this life would have been in shambles long before now.

I cry as you lift away the dross of life. You tenderly held the clippers as hunk after hunk of hair drifted down to the tile floor. You lifted me up with love in your dark chocolate eyes when I couldn't face the mirror. You coat my ugliness in the beauty of grace.

I knew loss was inevitable. I tried to stave it off with optimism and hope. If you hadn't been there to catch me, the destruction of both my positive outlook and my tenacious dreams would have destroyed me, too. But you wouldn't let me drift into the abyss. Although I was drowning in the unfathomable depths of my own coal black soul, you never let go of my hand. I could always see your reflection dancing above me as I looked up through the water and tried to wave goodbye. The hands you held wouldn't wave, and you pulled me toward the surface.

I love that you fight off loss with both fists. You never let yourself drift down in the murky water. You're always treading, surviving, growling at fate with your deep bass, and, even though I'm underwater, your grit is what propels me back to breathe in air.

We went dancing in the minefields
We went sailing in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed
But I believe that's what the promise is for

I do are the two most famous last words
The beginning of the end
But to lose your life for another I've heard
is a good place to begin
Cause the only way to find your life
is to lay your own life down
And I believe it's an easy price
for the life that we have found

So when I lose my way, find me
When I loose love's chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith
to the end of all my days
when I forget my name, remind me

Cause we bear the light of the son of man
So there's nothing left to fear
So I'll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
Cause he promised not to leave us
And his promises are true
So in the face of all this chaos baby
I can dance with you
~Dancing in the Minefields, Andrew Peterson~

Linked with Amber, Seth, Scott, and Joy for the Marriage Letters prompt, "Enduring Loss Together".

A new doctor in the house!

The moment of truth...listening to my chair deliver the news I passed my final dissertation defense. Sweet words..."Congratulations, Doctor Thul!"

Everything went very well, and thank you so much for your prayers!

Hugs from Dr. Kelechi, my research mentor
With my dear Mama, the original teacher!
2012 is shaping up to be true to my word for the year!

On the home front, Amelia's been getting progressively more ill while I've been gone...she has neck pain, severe headache, light sensitivity, even her teeth hurt. So far she hasn't needed to go to the hospital, but we are heading home on an earlier flight. Please pray her condition stays stable while I am flying today - Grandma Nel is manning the home front on her own with all 4 children, so an ER run would be quite difficult for her.

Letters to Aaron: The horizon to my wanderings

I wake up in the pre-dawn, the furniture just becoming visible in our dark bedroom. This home in the country is as quiet in these early hours as you are, my silent and stoic, my granite shore, my unmoving one. Ever since we first met, I sensed the solidity of you, the way you stayed when all else on the landscape shifted. We talked about faith, and your love of the Catholic Church you grew up in burned fierce. You were a man to stay, and to change from within, not one to scatter and scurry away like so many others when they find that their beliefs don't align with the world they live in.

I look out the window and see the moon dropping like a yellow gem toward the dark horizon, the sun lighting her in apricot hues against the midnight blue sky. I am the moon, running across the sky and always in motion; you the horizon, fixed and permanent.

You tolerate my moveability, we joke about my favorite book, A Moveable Feast. And while you've come to understand why I am this way, you don't join me. You have the same convictions, the same beliefs, the same sureity, the same politics, the same way of romancing. You haven't changed much since we joined hands and hearts 10 years ago. Through my cancer, Amy's illness, my've been an unwavering Point North for our entire family. For all around us who observe our hardships and our family's response. While pain erodes you, it doesn't move you. My entire being shifts under the weight, and I lose my grip on the earth and drift out to sea on pain. But the waves of Truth bring me back to your shores, and I curl roots into your rocks and hang on for dear life.

I trust you because you are trustworthy. You are led by the One who is unmoveable. You hold strong and solid when others cannot. You remind me endlessly of the strength of our Rock, and make yourself like him, a boulder, a cliff, chipped off the great Rock of Ages who rules the tides and the torrents of our everyday.

Sometimes I try to change you. I think that, by growing my mossy roots on your pocked granite surface, maybe you are changed. But you stay the same. You resist my pell-mell ideas and don't let yourself race to chase the rapid beating of the drums in my mind. You stand there, still, waiting for me to return. And when I do, the sweetness of your strong and silent arms, always welcoming, but never chasing, that grounds me and brings me "home". In spirit; in body; in faith.

Linked up to the Marriage Letters of Joy, Scott, Amber and Seth.

Throwing off the garment of guilt

A deadline looms. I pack the children off to the sitters, and stare at the black keys, waiting for my brain to still and words to come. You come home, nudge me gently as you climb in next to me, watching my fingers fly. A friend called you, needs a helping hand to weather a storm. We look deep into each other's eyes, and put off love for another night so you can do what you feel called to. I finish the project at hand, breathe a sigh of relief.

I look around at the house, all in disarray. Call the children home from the sitters, call grandma to come help. You come home again, and beg for a few minutes of my time, the cacophony of children's high voices nearly drowning out your request. I crumble for a moment, torn in three directions, then follow you. We ponder the wilderness, and you are mostly silent, and I wonder if it was worth the trade? To sit silently with you? The last few minutes, and few words have passed, but I feel your arm heavier around my shoulders, as if you've left a burden behind and are weary.

Back to the children. Grandma is finishing the dishes in the sink. My dishes. Cleaned by someone else...again. She whisks through the front room as I cuddle in a dogpile of kids on the couch. We joke about the "kid magnet" hidden somewhere inside me. Those on the outside of the pile clamor for some skin from mama. I wonder if there's enough time in all their childhoods to fill up the places I've left empty, the places where I've been gone, heal the scars cancer left on their little souls.

Bedtime comes, and another debate over who sleeps with whom, and if anyone can steal a last minute cuddle with me in my bed? Your bedroom eyes speak rebuke, and I send them packing, wailing, to their own beds. My last night at home this week, and I've made all the children unhappy. It's as if our couch cuddle never just more emptiness from another tired refusal, "Mama and Papa need time alone."

I wear the guilt like a heavy garment to bed, and all your caresses fall unfelt on that guilt garment. It takes you an hour to awaken my senses to you again. To dig past the mother-guilt that has shrouded me again like so many bedtimes before. The sweetness of our communion has a bitter edge as my mind keeps racing to hear the inevitable soft footfalls of the first sojourner from the children's bedroom to ours. Waiting for an interruption, I miss most of the main event. You roll over, instantly asleep, and I am left in the darkness to ponder the failings of yet another day.

Guilt is ubiquitous in motherhood. Stuck in a revolving door of rotating priorities...home, children, husband, God (and all the family, friends and work that crowd their way in as well)...we're never sure if we're making the right decision. To choose one always feels like demanding sacrifice from the others. Our children are black holes for affection, and can never quite be filled up. Our marriages always leave room for improvement. In even the most orderly house (mine is not. Lately, I feel as though I'm auditioning for "Hoarders".), there is still a chore or two left undone at the end of the day.

It bites through our sleep, hogties intimacy, and lashes us with fiery spurts of uncertainty. Yet,
The Enemy has no authority over us Christians unless we give it to him. We give it to him by putting ourselves in agreement with his assessment of God-by pious grumbling, by hopeless speaking, by repeating to each other our theories of life, rather than the truths of God. We say: "That situation is impossible," "Love in marriage always fades," "Children will rebel when they're adults if they don't when they're little." All lies and self-curses. God is not as good as He makes Himself out to be; He's holding out on you. ~Andrée Seu, April 9, 2011 World Magazine
I fail to lay down the burden heaped upon my shoulders by satan almost daily. The simplicity of cast all your cares upon Him, for He careth for you escapes me...the metaphorical transfer of my baggage to His care is just that - metaphorical. Hard to grasp in real life. Yet He commands that praise be always on my lips, and that I pray without ceasing. In these two twin observances of His wonder, majesty, and Grace, I find freedom that otherwise eludes me. Who can sing praise to the King and forget all His benefits? Who can pray and not feel a little lighter at the end of the soundless murmurings of our deepest problems and greatest desires? Who can fail to trust the King with marriage, children, and home when we cease heaping shame on our own backs and instead lift hands in prayer and praise for all He's already provided?

Letters to Aaron: a rose by any other name...

Those early days of you and I were cold, dark ones. Huddled together, reporting the events of a child's day in terms of intake and output, medication boluses, infection, test results, statistics. A specter in the bed beside us, silent and shivering with the activity of machinery as, one after another, body functions were replaced with mechanized equivalent. We ran together to the snap of the air outdoors: on snowboards, we flew down hills filled with the cacophony of suburban youth. In your hometown, we sat on frosty picnic tables shooting handguns at straw bails. The tracks we left on a sand dune, on our way to say goodbye to one of our patients and a dear family. Pioneers together in a forest of taboo...coworkers falling in love...nurses going to a funeral...somehow we pole vaulted obstacles together. Perhaps that was more of a presage than we knew.

You wrote love letters from Seattle while we were dating.

But, with all the talking, the living together, no letters come now. A few lines penned in cards for important occasions, and I am proud of you for remembering as our lives fill with a litany of responsibilities. 

But I still wish for flowers.

And every spring, my wish comes true. In the front lawn, right along with the grass sprouting it's yellow-green come tulips and crocuses. You planted them just for fun...a visual bouquet that has bloomed every year since 2009.

Pioneers still, we have to push to remember how to be intrepid after a long hibernation in our world of child-raising and home-building. 

"Renaissance man". It's the only thing I've ever called you, other than simply Aaron. Your beard-wearing, sausage-making, hunting, fishing, poetry loving, beauty finding, audiophilic, logophilic, intellectual, mechanical, musical genius amazes me. If there was a manual for Renaissance men, you'd be on the cover. 

You are a still man. A soul of peace, hands steady for their work, intent, focused, unwavering. Silent at times...sometimes maddeningly so to a woman of words.

What you celebrate with action, putting feet in place of words, may go unnoticed if I don't still my soul to your rhythm.  You haven't brought me flowers for almost a year now. But in the quiet afternoon of a warm spring day, you lift me from my work and pull me to our bedroom window: there, on the hill, 100 daffodils blooming in the long grass. You planted them on the sly last fall, and waited patiently to unveil this gift. It is a gift of being known, because who else would remember yellow is my favorite color and I love the way a daffodil's bell swings like a hoop skirt in the breeze? Being together, in quiet stolen moments, surrounded only by our own whispers and our own footfalls, it comes, the visceral memory, we are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matt. 19:6)

I still wish for flowers.

And you still give them, in your unconventional and endearing way - not in a vase, but among the weeds, a lasting gift that comes every year as the earth awakens.

And now you've taught your son, too, that Mama likes wildflowers best. He flies up the front steps with chubby fists full of dandelions every day. He's going to make a great husband.

Pieced together with words from 2009 and some new ones as I reflect on marriage today. I've thought about it time and again, and finally I'm doing it: joining Seth and Amber Haines and my friends Joy and Scott Bennett as they write letters to their spouses each week. The prompt this week was "names I call you".

When you can't take any of the credit

I was awake for 44 hours. My eyes burned, my body ached, and my spirit wilted. I had submitted my dissertation, and it failed. I had one last chance to edit the 100+ pages to suitable quality. I didn't have the strength for it. I was horribly exhausted, haunted by stress-related chest pain, my fingers tremulous from the long hours typing. 

And then God gave me the strength to stay awake for 44 hours and finish my work.

He took me to the absolute end of my physical, intellectual, and emotional limits.

He took me there so that I would know, beyond a doubt, that the result was totally in His hands. That it wasn't my smarts or my tenacity. That it was a gift.

And so I can say, with utter humility,


And God gets all the credit.

The promise of grace 
And You lead us into freedom 
We're bound in Your love 
And all sin has been forgotten 
At the foot of the cross 
Where our ransom has been given 

If God is for us who can be against us 
Who can be against our God 

You give life to us all 
And you breathe on us Your spirit 
You go before us, 
Father, you protect us 
Father, you provide for us all 

Your Word is a shelter strong within 
My portion and my deliverance

*the portion of the dissertation I just successfully completed was the written portion. There is an oral exam portion as well, next Tuesday at 11 a.m. (CST). If you would pray for my continued strength as I prepare for this, and for God's will and power to be on display next Tuesday?

The lantern in the trees

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 
Man never Is, but always To be blest: 
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, 
Rests and expatiates in a life to come. 
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1734)

The forest floor is blanketed verdant, a carpet of spring dreams. Like the first thaw in Narnia, when Aslan is on the move, the drab of winter melts into the vibrance of spring. How poignant, hope springs eternal, in the first days of the new equinox. The trees bud in scarlet, umber, yellow, apricot. As colorful as the dying leaves of autumn, that last flame of life that burns bright as it goes quietly into the night of winter, the forest in spring is alive with light. Alive with new hope. Alive with the ascendancy of that great King to the great Throne.

It is a sign of the empty tomb.

A celebration in all of nature of victory over death.
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
"By the Lion's Mane, a strange device," said King Peter, "to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!"

When we just want to be DONE

We always wish for the easy road. Pray against trials. When the trial comes, we plunge into despair, as if when God says "wait", it really means "no". Hardships and difficulties ring with finality in our all-too-human ears.

It's a useless waste of time to look for people to blame, letting anger surge at those who seem to be holding us back. It only blinds us to the fact that the trial was forged in the Maker's furnace for our benefit.

We forget that a setback can be framed as "opportunity". We look down at our dirty feet, feel the exhaustion in our bones, and say we can't backtrack down the road of hard labor and do it all again. We are too blinded by our anger and disappointment to see the little bite sized pieces we have to do over. We forget that the hardest part of a hard road is the unfamiliarity with the terrain. Armed with our cognitive road map of each boulder and crevice to be traversed, the second time down the path will be much easier.

If our character is to expand to a Christ-sized dimension...if our self is to grow smaller to make room for His priorities, we must see trials as opportunities for growth rather than hearing the hollow sound of a door slammed shut forever. In the bleakness of the dark night that follows, we must see the starlight and moon, the little glimpses of hope that lead us through the darkness of the trial to the sunlight of the morning.

So grab your road map. Lift that heavy pick ax up onto your tired shoulder. Put your shoes back on those dirty feet. Follow Christ back down the bumpy road to the place where you have to start over. Let go of the fear lacing each step. He's with you on this road. You have a trustworthy guide. If you try to walk on instead of going back and getting it right, you'll come across this seemingly impossible section of the trail again and again. You might as well let yourself be led back to the starting point and walk it with Jesus today.
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer. So, my very dear friends, don't get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures. (from James 1, The Message)

*thoughts after my dissertation was rejected for defense yesterday, as I start back down the path of revision today

Life: Unmasked
Joining Joy in some truth-telling today