November 11, 2017

A Hallowed Heart

It was raining without clouds.  It seemed fitting somehow to drive through blue skies on the way to the cemetery, rain still managing to find us.  Gray road stretched out before me, I kept wondering how tragedies and heartaches that happened over a lifetime ago could feel this new.  I have lived with loss and know the darkness of death, but grief still takes me by surprise.

My boys were in the back seat in ties and black Sunday shoes.  This was their first time time to go to a cemetery and they wanted to dress nice.  When my Uncle died two years ago, they went to the funeral, but the family chose to wait until now to bury his ashes.  He was going to be laid to rest next to my mom and brother.  My feelings were so overwhelming I could feel them aching in my throat and surging through my legs that made me want to run.  It felt like something was trying to come out of my body and I quickly recognized the trauma tied to those physical sensations.  I closed my eyes and took breath after breath, long and deep, until I felt my core settle inside of me.

We arrived at the place.  Sacred earth housing the bones of loved ones and memories never made, I got out of the truck, holding my son's hand in my own.  Feelings began to swirl inside of me.  My brother's ten year life, how betrayal and alcohol destroyed my mother, stealing her spark and light and heartbeat.  I was feeling forgotten and missed, much like my mother's headstone in that sticker burred country cemetery.  I showed my boys where they were buried.  I could feel bellowing sobs forming in my gut as I saw Tommy touch my brother's grave, his eight year old fingers tracing the letters "The Greatest Blessing," that was etched into gray granite.  I put my hand on my mother's stone. "Child of God, Beloved Mother of AJ," it read.  I didn't remember that was what it said and the words sat heavy with me.  She was my mother too, yet those words felt true.  She was more his mother than mine and the ambivalence I feel about her was as tangible as the crunchy dead grass beneath my feet.

We laughed and cried and prayed together as my Uncle's ashes were put into the ground.  I think we all felt the finality of something, ever aware of a unique hole his absence has created inside of each one of us.  His wasn't the only hole inside of me.  I thought about AJ and my mom, Aaron - my first love, the death of dreams and the unmet longings I carry on the outside and inside of me.  It looks like a double-chin and a large belly, and feels like a watercolor mess of tragedy and indescribable joy, splattered and swirled together with darkness and light.

My face was wet with tears as we walked back through the cemetery, the living among the dead.  You can't walk on hallowed ground and not feel the gravity of death and how it has changed you.  My heart like a headstone, chiseled and marked with all of the pain, all the joy and the broken, beautiful pieces of my story that make up who I am.

The clouds were gray and pregnant with rain.  Eyes and sky both crying as my husband reached for my hand.

November 4, 2017

Going Green and Halloween

Watching the excitement in my boys build up the closer it gets to Halloween, is one of the moments in parenthood that I enjoy the most.  Early in October, costumes were selected and planned for and every day all month long, I was asked the same question: "How many days until Halloween?  I want it to be Halloween now!"  While some of that was looking forward to a bucket of Skittles and chocolate bars, they were just as excited to dress up.  Since they were babies, that has been my favorite part - watching their personalities embrace their favorite superheroes and movie characters.

This year, we had a very cool Spiderman (with web wings - and you should know that is the most important part of the costume according to Jacob).

And a Tony Stark! 
Ya'll.  I pitched the idea to Tommy months ago about being Tony Stark for Halloween and to my utter glee, he was totally down for it.  I made a light up arc reactor out of a tap on LED light, drawn with the symbol and covered in some light blue fabric to give it a bit of a blue color.  I found the really real glasses online that he wore in Civil War because I couldn't help myself.  The day they came in the mail, Tommy was with me when I went to check the mailbox, and he let out crazy happy screams.  Watching his joy and excitement about them was the best thing ever.  I darkened his hair and drew on Tony's facial hair which was his favorite part. His costume literally made my night.

And did I dress up as?  Well, I had originally planned on being Disgust from the movie Inside Out.  Unfortunately, the green dress I ordered didn't come in until the day after Halloween so I had to improvise.  
 I'm Hulk's girly twin sister.  Obviously.

When I finished my costume, I came out of my room to show the boys and they squealed with excitement.  Jacob lit up and said, "Oh mama!"  He ran to me and hugged me and said "I love you so much!"  He stared at me in wonder and asked how I made myself green and laughed when I put on his Hulk hands.  In that moment, I could see in his eyes how much he loved seeing me dress up with him, entering his world of play and pretend and imagination.  He beamed with pride at me all night, "Look at my mom!" he would say to everyone.

We made a few stops to see all of the Grandparent's.  The boys filled their buckets with all of the candy and knocked on a few doors.  Each time, Jacob would show the person at the door his web wings and Tommy held his Ironman glove out.  I tucked away another year's worth of silly and fun memories in my heart, praying I would always remember the fun we had together.  Of Jacob's running and posing as he would use his web shooters. And of Tommy's swagger in the way he walked and carried himself all night long.
I'm not certain how it's November already. 2017 feels like the year that went by in a blur.  Time seems to be going my faster, my boys growing tall and confident right in front of my eyes.  I find myself in that place in motherhood wanting time to slow down a little bit.  The years I have with them like this are going just as fast as every other mom told me it would.  Tommy will be a grown man in ten years.  Jacob starts Kindergarten next fall.  A couple of gray strands here and there show up on my head of hair reminding me that I'm growing and aging right along with them.  It can't be stopped but it can certainly be lived fully. 
Tommy and Jacob, how I love you so.  You are my deepest joy and my greatest pride and being your mama is the best thing I've ever done.  I will cherish these memories, this childhood you got to live with me, forever and always.

November 1, 2017

Golden Girl

My love affair with clothes and jewelry began as a little girl.  As soon as I was tall enough to reach my mother’s jewelry box on her bathroom counter, I would put all of her rings on my tiny fingers and pretend I was some luxuriously rich woman dripping with gold and diamonds who called everyone “Dahling.”  I would parade around in her fancy high heels and use the foyer of our house as my personal runway, loving the clip-clop sound the heels made on the tile floor. 

As I got older, I developed my own sense of style.  There were certainly the necessary faux pas that came with being a middle-school girl, as I believed black lip liner was a good idea and knee high socks with every outfit was a trendy choice.  To my mother's dismay, my favorite pair of earrings in the 6th grade were these lime green parrots I found at a mall jewelry store that specialized in gaudy plastic accessories.  With my backpack purse, fluffed-up bangs and parrots dangling from my ears, I was quite something to behold in 1993.  

Can we all just go back and give our 12 year-old selves a hug?  Bless our hearts.   

Over time, my love for both colorful and classic looks evolved as did my collection of shoes and scarves and my own jewelry box full of accessories.  Admittedly, I am somewhat of a jewelry-addict, which is a trait I obviously inherited from my mother.  Though if I’m honest, my jewelry box is not only a box, but a large frame to house my 60+ pairs of earrings and all of the necklaces I own. Accessories are like the sprinkles on top of a perfectly frosted cupcake; they complete and pull together every outfit.  Living in south Texas, one has to be creative in dressing for fall as the cool weather comes and goes and our afternoons get quite warm.  I have found that layering, finding lightweight cardigans and scarves, and things like ankle pants with flats or sandals are both functional and stylish for the season here.

Fall is such a sweet time for family traditions. When a big cold front makes it to our neck of the woods, I pull together my coziest pieces.  Dark jeans, and a plaid blanket scarf to match a flowing sweater vest.  It's the perfect outfit when I take my boys down to the pumpkin patch and end the day around our fire pit eating s'mores and making hand puppets on the fence in our backyard.

Since it's one of the best times of the year to be outside, I often meet my girlfriends for coffee or a soup and sandwich lunch together.  On the pleasant fall days that get a little warmer, I might wear a dress with a cardigan, a draped scarf and boots. Mustard is one of my favorite fall colors and I love to pair this cardigan with navy or plum colored tops too.

I am always in the mood for new jewelry. As if by magic, there somehow seems to be room in my jewelry box for more, just as it was with my mother.  I live by the motto that one can never have too many shoes or accessories!  My friends over at AUrate, have some beautiful gold pieces that would be the perfect accents to my fall wardrobe.  AUrate has pieces that are both modern and timeless, classic and fresh, with a stunning simplicity in design.  Their unique style and handmade pieces, such as their gorgeous earrings, can dress up an outfit as well as accent casual looks just like mine.

Not only do they have the loveliest designs, but they are a wonderful company that cares about quality, care and giving back.  It is so inspiring to read about women who are changing the way business is run by emphasizing the things that matter the most.

There is still a little girl inside of me who loves all things golden and sparkly.  It's been a while since I've put a ring on every finger and the lime green parrot earrings were retired by the end of middle school.  My grown up self continues to love the sound of my fancy high heels on a tile floor.  And every time I pull together an outfit with the perfect accessories, I'm reminded of my mother and how I hoped to emulate her beauty.

With its golden trees and amber sunlight, autumn always takes me back to memories of my mother.  No matter the season, wearing a pair of dangling earrings or clutching my dainty gold chains, is like having a piece of her with me all the time. 

October 25, 2017

Setting Timers and Leaning In

Her text message came when I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor's office.  The phones were ringing and the floor was cold and I was was wondering why I had to fill out my personal information for the eighteenth time.  My body was writhing with anxiety and dread and I thought a time or three about walking out the door and not going through with this appointment.  All of those feelings and emotions were mounting when I saw the tiny envelope on my phone with her name on it.

I ran into so-and-so and found out we were all mutual friends and thought I'd check in say hello.  How is your new job? How are you?

My heart began to ache and I pushed back tears that were begging to be cried.  Wanting to be both honest and vague, I replied that I was in a hard season in many different places and that I was currently at the doctor and hopeful about getting some care.  Her reply was kind and gracious, because she had always been those things.  I know it seems like a lifetime since we've been close friends, but if you ever need anything I'm here.

"Jennifer?"  The nurse called my name and my phone went back into my purse.  It was time to get on the scale and take my blood pressure and I could feel shame enveloping me about the current state of my body and overall health.  In the midst of my appointment, my thoughts went back to my friend and her words.  Memories of our closeness and sweet friendship and how she had been such a steady  place of encouragement and truth for me flooded my mind.  The sorrowful memories of our church split, our disagreement and conflict, and our precious friendship that fell apart and faded away, was a tangible place of pain.  What felt like a lifetime to her, somehow felt like only yesterday to me.

Instead of deleting the messages, I saved them on my phone knowing I needed to sit with sadness and allow for more tears in this place that is still a source of deep loss and grief for me.  One quiet Sunday morning while I sipped coffee out of my favorite mug, hands holding on to comfort, I set a timer on my phone for ten minutes and opened up our text messages from that day.  Tears came easily and they weren't the quiet kind that softly roll down your cheeks.  They were wet and messy, accompanied by snot and sobs and a small pile of tissues.  It's been over two years and I wondered if it would ever stop hurting this badly. Would I ever stop missing her?  Would I ever stop regretting all of the words I wish I would have said back then about how much she had meant to me?

My phone timer went off and I breathed deeply.  I wiped my eyes and blew my nose again and deleted the text messages. 

Lately, I've purposed to make space to lean in to painful places and to give myself actual time to feel and cry.  Setting a timer is helpful because not only is there an ending to sitting with pain and sadness, but my body is learning that it can make it through those hard feelings without the need to self-harm or emotionally check out to life.  It might seem like a bizarre practice, but it is a necessary kindness for my heart.

How do you lean in to pain?

October 22, 2017

Fall : A South Texas How To

It's nearing the end of October and autumn is showing off in full splendor and glory.  Fire colored trees and fuschia sunsets and pumpkin spice lattes and baggy sweaters and scarves - what's not to love about this time of year? 

Well, if you happen to live in South Texas near My Neck of the Woods, USA, fall is a little different here.  Now, I'm a proud Texan and I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.  I mean, we have the best shaped state, and no other place knows how to properly make queso.  I've also heard that breakfast tacos aren't even a thing in other parts of the country and I don't know how this can be.  But, even this Texas girl gets a little blue this time of year because I would love just a little bit of cool weather and autumn beauty.

I put together a short list of how we do fall here for those of you who might be new to the area, like my Michigan friend Melissa who finds our South Texas autumns offensive.

1) Decorate
My house transforms this time of year into an autumn wonderland.  Silk fall leaves and pumpkins galore take the place of my everyday decorations.  Our living room becomes this warm and cozy space that wraps you up like a flannel blanket and gives you all the fall feels.  And if there any fall feels to be had, it's probably only going to happen inside of your house because outside still thinks it's swimming and barbecue season.  It's important to buy beautiful fall leaves at the store and take them to your house, because it's the ONLY place you will see them all season long. 


2) Go Shopping for new sweaters and scarves
 It's always nice to grab a few new pieces for the fall/winter wardrobe like cozy, jewel-toned sweaters and scarves in all the plaid patterns. So go shopping and then put them in your closet and then leave them there until January.  If you're lucky, January might be chilly enough for the sweater-scarf combo.  *Fashion tip* - if you must wear a scarf, find something lightweight and wear it with a sleeveless top, capri pants and sandals.  Also, shorts and flip flops with a lightweight long-sleeved top works too.

3) Visit the pumpkin patch
Oh yes, go.  Go pumpkin patching.  Let your kids get on a pony and go for a hayride and make homemade scarecrows and take all the cute pictures.  But, bring plenty of water and don't forget your sunscreen.


4)  Enjoy the cooler weather
Instructions:
Set alarm for 5:00am.
Go outside.  Take a light blanket.
Turn on the porch fan so the cool air has a chance to circulate.
Sit until 7:00am or until you no longer need the blanket.
The End.

5) Make chili and cornbread
This is the meal fall is made for, am I right?  When you get the first cool snap where the high for the day is 78 and you can open your windows and feel a slight breeze, you bust out that warm comfort food so fast and don't even think twice about it. (*Note - you also might sweat a little when eating it, but don't be alarmed.  We all do.)

6) Start a thankful list
'Tis the season for gratitude and it doesn't have to be November to remember what you're thankful for.  Start a journal.  Write the words on a pumpkin.  Fill a jar of sentiments.  For those of us who live here?  Things that always make the thankful list include things like - air conditioning, weekend swims at the neighborhood pool, iced versions of our favorite fall coffees at Starbucks and not encountering any rattlesnakes on a morning walk.



7)  Snuggle under blankets
This can be done two ways:
  • Option A:  See #4 and follow instructions with your snuggle partner
  • Option B:  Turn the AC down to 70, turn on all the fans and get your snuggle on from the comfort of your living room sofa

8)  Go apple picking
Drive to the store.  Make your apple selections.  And done.

9)  Bake all the yummy desserts
It doesn't feel like fall unless you've made pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, or pumpkin snickerdoodle cookies.  Bake a pumpkin something and it will certainly feel like autumn in your mouth! 



10) Take in some beautiful fall foliage
Open Pinterest.  Search "fall foliage" or "autumn landscapes."  And enjoy.  You're welcome.

October 14, 2017

Grammy

My Grammy’s house always smells like Nivea cream and sugar cookies.  No matter which house my grandparents have called home over the years, their home is calm and bright, like a Christmas carol all year long.  Even now, the inviting aroma of her home takes me back to my childhood where she would teach me the arts of pie-crust curling and gift-wrapping and convincing me I needed to learn how to sew.  “You’ll have a husband someday and what are you going to do if he needs a button sewn on to his shirt?” she would ask me.  “I would buy him a new shirt,” I would reply.  I was quite resistant to sewing lessons.  Much to her dismay, I never did learn how to sew and she’s gasped a time or two realizing I’ve put my children’s Halloween costumes together with hot glue.
 
I spent a lot of time with my Grammy as a little girl.  She would read and color with me.  She let me try on my great-grandmother’s vintage jewelry that was kept in a wooden box with a silver latch and silk lining inside.  There were colorful gems arranged in gorgeously gaudy necklaces, beaded bracelets and sparkling broaches that made me feel like royalty.  On the best of days, she would take out her old book full of paperdolls from the 30’s and 40’s and let me play with them.  She would instruct me how to handle the old paper and to turn each page of the book she kept them in with care and gentleness. 
 
Making pies with her was my favorite.   We worked the shortening into the flour, getting it to the right consistency so it would roll out just right.  “Gold medal flour and ice-cold water are the keys to a perfect pie crust.”  She explained this every time.  I would watch mesmerized as she would crimp the edges ever so perfectly, so it curled all the way around.  She showed me dozens of times how to do it, but my fingers never seemed to get whatever magic she possessed in her own fingertips.  Store bought pie crusts were never acceptable, so I learned early on that if I were going to be like my Grammy, I would someday, have to master the art of her perfect pie crust.  I am proud to say that in my 30’s, I have finally arrived in the pie department.  Not only can I make a tasty and flaky homemade crust, but a beautifully curled one as well. 
 
Recently, I sat across from a friend who asked me a question I had never been asked before. 
 
“Jenn, where did you feel loved as a child?  Who loved you?  What did that feel like?”
 
I was taken aback.  Her question was kind and invited me to reminisce and remember pieces of my childhood where it was lovely to be a little girl.  Memories quickly bubbled to the surface of my dad and how he read me a Bible story every night and how I would dance on his feet in the kitchen.  Of my mom braiding my hair and making my favorite cake for my birthday.  My Uncle Goolie and I bouncing on old bean bag chairs together and giving me a ride on his shoulders while I would pull his hair directing him where to go.  And Grammy…..she was my very first best friend.
There have been few moments where I’ve reflected on what was good and delightful about my childhood.  Over the years it has felt like I was mostly invited to re-enter scenes of trauma and sort through pieces of my past in efforts to find some kind of healing.  My friend’s question led me to ponder something new and different about my heart and about Jesus.
 
She explained to me that, if there is any goodness at all in our childhood – that if we experience any enjoyment or delight or love, that it was Jesus loving us through those people.  Jesus uses our wounded and broken mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins alike to be little gifts of His grace, kindness, gentleness and love.  My family was no exception.  Embracing this has brought a kind of healing to my heart and story that I’ve long hoped for.  My childhood, while still full of some trauma and wounds that forever pierced my heart, was suddenly rich with sparkling and beautiful moments where I was tenderly and dearly loved by those that God hand-picked to be a part of my family.  
 
I could suddenly see my younger self dancing on the nail pierced feet of Jesus and standing over me as I attempted to crimp the edges of a pie.  I saw how He let me ride on His shoulders and laughing with me as we jumped on bean bag chairs together.  He was there in my Grammy and my Dad, my Uncle Goolie and my Auntie Laura.  My mom and cousins and all of the precious faces that make up my family.  Oh how He made His love known to me as a little girl.
 
If I asked you the same questions:  Where did you feel loved as a child?  Who loved you and what did that feel like? I’m almost certain you would share a story about a special someone, and it would sound an awful lot like Jesus.
 
I like to imagine that Jesus is much like my Grammy and her home.  Calm and bright like a Christmas carol all year long.  And smelling of Nivea cream and sugar cookies.

October 8, 2017

Watercolors and Worship

Colorful threads and the wooden wheel holding the white cross-stitching fabric still laid there on the floor.  A partially stitched outline of what was supposed to be a glass mason jar holding pastel flowers, tiny scissors and a case to hold my threading needles all reminded me of my effort to care for my heart and soul.  I remember cross-stitching when I was young.  It felt easy then and I remember my mom doing several of these growing up.  I thought it could maybe be my thing.  I needed something to do with my hands that wasn't eating chips and something for my mind to stay present as I had spent most of my free time in a comatose state watching Netflix.  After walking the crafting aisles, I made my selection at Hobby Lobby for the project and decided this was going to pull me out of whatever thing I seemed to be stuck in.

I had the brilliant idea that I would stitch this beautiful design and frame it and give it to my friend Ellen who had encouraged me to spend the same amount of money on myself in the name of self-care as I was for self-harm.  I imagined her crying and opening the lovely gift knowing all of the hours I didn't spend eating or drinking and it would be lovely and good for us both.

But then it took me 20 minutes to get the stupid fabric attached to the wheel the right way.  Another 10 to thread the needle, and then I realized how much math and counting went into cross-stitching.  I stupidly read some of the instructions and tips after I had started an outline of the jar and realized I was supposed to do that last.

"F*ck this!"  I threw it on the floor that night exasperated and feeling foolish.  How could I think something like cross-stitching was ever going to be my thing?  Would anything bring me to life and vibrancy again?  I felt like I was dying a slow and miserable death in the corner of my bedroom each night with a drink and a snack, until I finally felt sleepy enough to go to bed.

 A few weeks later, I found myself at Hobby Lobby again with my boys, perusing the craft aisles waiting for something to speak to me.  I was trying to not buy porcelain pumpkins or Christmas ornaments and found myself in the painting section surrounded my acrylics and oils, pastels and brushes, and blank canvases ready for art and beauty.  Some watercolor pencils drew my attention and I remembered being in the seventh grade, sketching out designs with those pencils and watching it come to life with water and a brush.  I wondered if I might be any good at it.  What did I know about watercolors or painting or art for that matter?

I made my purchases that day of watercolors and watercolor pencils, a thick pad made for that kind of paint, and a few brushes I didn't know much about but that looked important.  Pinterest offered ideas and tips for getting started, different techniques and some basics for beginners and I sat there in awe of others created beauties doubting I could ever create anything that beautiful.  Comparison always there to steal joy and possibility and hope and it was there with me as I sat there with my unopened art supplies. I didn't get started right away.  I was afraid it was going to end in a pile on my bedroom floor like my forsaken cross-stitching project and maybe it was better not to try again.

Two weeks later I sat at the Brave On conference for Red Tent Living and listened to my friend Libby speak about the heart and soul, how poetry has been her outlet for both pain and beauty.  I was captivated at her words and remembering my untouched watercolors at home.  I knew I needed to go home and try again.  Maybe it would be a big mess and I would have no clue what I was doing, and it would like like a seventh grader's art work and I would find yet another place to speak harshly to myself rather than speak of care or kindness.

Finally, the day came when I felt brave enough to set up all my supplies and try my hand at watercolor for the first time in 24 years.  I turned on some light piano music in the background and sat for a moment at the blank paper and colors that surrounded me.  And then I began.  Using some of the pencils and some of the brushes with my palette of water colors I began drawing out trees in the four seasons.  The golds and reds of autumns, the bare branches of winter, the new life of spring and the vibrant green of summer. 

With every stroke of color, I could literally feel something inside of me both settle and come to life at the same time.  I realized how forgiving watercolor is.  The whole point of it is to be a little messy and unfinished.  There are few hard lines and little structure as the water and paints bleed and run into complete loveliness.  I felt like a girl again, creating something beautiful for no reason other than because I could.  As my trees took shape and color, I remembered that I am an artist.  I may be a bookkeeper for a living, and be a little obsessive about meal-planning and scheduling our calendars, but I am an artist.  My days might be full of work and mothering, and tending to a home that never stays tidy or clean, but I am an artist.  I may have dreams that died long ago and part of me that died with them, but I'm still here and I am an artist.


My beauty and brokenness painted all over a page and I didn't want to stop.  I called my piece Sunday Morning Worship because it felt like just that. Offering my heart up to God in both my praise and heartache, of thankfulness and longing.  Remembering how good He is in every season, even if I forget that He is.
My friend Libby said something that stayed with me and makes me smile every time I remember it:

"Take your shame and your pain, and turn it into a freaking work of art."  And I did just that.  I plan to do it again.

How could you turn your shame and pain into a work of art?