Captured

When Nathan started pre-K last fall, he would ask to take a picture before school almost every morning. Over and over, I brushed off his request. We were usually running late, and there are few things that agitate me more than being late. He never argued my answer, but his shoulders would slump forward as he climbed into his carseat. I’d feel a brief stab of guilt over his disappointment, but that always dissipated whenever we managed to pull in the school lot by 8:30 a.m. on the nose.

One evening, I mentioned the every day picture request to Jon. My husband speaks, moves and acts slowly and deliberately. He is my opposite in almost every way, and while occasionally this makes me grind my teeth in frustration, most days I whisper a prayer of thanks that God helped me find this gentle, thoughtful soul. He’s exactly what I need, and this time was no exception.

“Love, take the picture,” he said. “Ten years from now, would you rather know that you were on time to pre-K every day or have a picture of Nathan from every single day?” My cheeks burned; I knew he was right, and I was mad at myself for once more letting my desire for promptness override enjoying the moment.

For eight months, I took pictures of Nathan whenever he requested them before school. It wasn’t every day – some mornings were too rainy or too cold, and some were simply too grouchy. Eventually Ellie picked up on the fun, too – first demanding to be in the pictures, and then being the one to call for taking them as she bounded out the door. We were late to school far more than we were on time, but I realized actually being late didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fear of being late did.

Jon was wrong about one thing, though: it didn’t take 10 years. We are only a month removed from the end of pre-K, and I already tear up when I look at the 60-odd pictures that I took over the course of the school year.

A whole season of childhood, frozen in time.

mosaic

Here’s to learning how to put aside my Type-A, get it done quickly personality once in awhile so that I can see the world through their eyes. Because, truth be told, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.

On Vulnerability & Grace

Earlier this year, I participated in an online writing workshop. It was led by the team of writers over at Coffee + Crumbs, one of my absolute favorite blogs. We were divided into writing groups of five or six, and each group was led by one of the C+C writers.

I was lucky enough to have Ashlee Gadd, the founder of C+C, as my group leader. Ashlee is as kind as they come, and she will be your biggest champion and cheerleader in the writing process. She’s also an excellent writer who makes a tough-as-nails editor. When given permission (again, she’s nice, so she always asks permission to be blunt first), she’ll slice right through your wobbly prose and half-assed ending, prodding you to unearth your best work. It was exactly what I signed up for.

One week, a question popped up on the group message board about how to write with vulnerability. I quickly pecked out a reply and patted myself on the back — I’d been blogging for awhile now and had even been published by other sites, I TOTALLY had vulnerability down. Hopefully I could offer some encouragement to these other timid souls who were afraid to dip their toes into writing for an audience.

Come on in! my ego was shouting. The water feels fine.

Then Ashlee called shenanigans on me. Nicely, of course, and with great grace. She told me my writing was beautiful, but safe. Sweet, but not always relatable, because sometimes it felt like I was sanitizing reality. And suddenly, I felt like a fraud.

She was right, of course. It’s tempting to only write the happy stories. I like the ones where I look like a good mom. Oh sure, sometimes I might dance along the edges of the hard stuff, but only if I can tie it up nicely with a “life lesson” bow. It’s hard to write honestly, and harder still to write with uncertainty. What happens when I admit that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time? If you know me, then you know one of my trademark characteristics is that I appear to be brimming with confidence. The secret lies in that sneaky word: appear. Truthfully, I’m a hot mess over here and it’s scary to be brave with my words, because what if you don’t like them? They’re my words, after all … so doesn’t that mean that you don’t like me?

There it is: the crux of my problem. It’s equal parts pride and insecurity, a paradox of paranoia.

And yet.

That’s not why God made me a writer. He didn’t give me a burning desire to put pen to paper for my own edification or glory. He didn’t do it so that people could read my words, nod and think, Wow, that Jenn has really got it all together. She’s great. When I write, it’s not about me at all. He gifts us all with talents that are to be used for His glory. HIS, not ours.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m under no misconceptions that I’m a terribly talented writer. I am, and always will be, a work in progress, at best. Imperfections aside though, writing is what I love; it makes me come alive and demands to be tended to. That alone makes it my gift; not greatness or ease (because it’s certainly not easy), but sheer need. After 33 years, I’ve finally drawn the conclusion that I was born to write, simply because I can’t imagine my life without it. It completes my trifecta title: Wife. Mom. Writer. The three pieces that make me … me.

I also believe that the path of my life should lead others to seeing a need for God’s grace. And I’ve realized that an inauthentic story doesn’t do that. I have to include the shadows, and not just the light. In our glossy, veneered, Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat world, that’s more than daunting. I won’t post a picture where my arms look fat; why in the world would I let my real flaws hang out for all to see?

But the world doesn’t need my perfection. It needs my vulnerability. With everything I write, my prayer is that somewhere, someone is nodding and thinking “me too.” If I can step out on the ledge and talk about the way things really are, maybe someone will join me there, and we’ll both feel less alone.

Maybe the purpose of vulnerability — the holes in my story and the chinks in my armor — is to allow a place for His grace to shine through.

Twenty Years

Jon and I met twenty years ago. 20. I think that makes us old.

I was 13, he was 14. I don’t remember the exact circumstances; it was probably summer, and he was probably one of a whole passel of boys hanging out at my house with my big brother that day. I do remember his brown eyes, and how my stomach gave a little flip whenever they met my green ones.

I was shy and awkward then. I suppose most 13 year olds are in one way or another, but I was what my mother would graciously call a “late bloomer.” I wore pleated shorts and had stringy hair that was perpetually in a ponytail. Boys confounded me completely … especially boys like Jon. I said nothing during those early teenage years as other girls – prettier, more outgoing girls – vied for his attention. He was charming and friendly, and there were always two or three who would try to catch his eye.

Oh, we exchanged a few words here and there over the years, as our mutual group of friends brought us together. I even thought he may have been flirting with me once or twice (he was, he tells me now), but I was too clueless to know what to do about it.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was about to move 500 miles away for a boy. Another boy — the wrong boy, as it would turn out. Days before I was set to leave, my brother had a bunch of people over to swim. Jon was there.

“You can’t move to Michigan for this guy!” he told me emphatically as we stood next to each other, filling our plates with food. I looked up at him, and my sharp retort was lost.

Flip flop.

Give me a reason to stay, I thought. But he didn’t, and I went … for six months, anyway. The weather turned bitterly cold, and it nudged me to admit what I’d known for 5 1/2 months. I’d made a mistake. I was going home. Alone.

Weeks after I moved back, my brother got married. I was the maid of honor; Jon was a groomsman. Wedding festivities brought us together, and there seemed to be more flirtation than ever (there was), but I still tried not to read too much into it.

The night after the wedding, the phone rang at my parents’ house. “It’s for you,” my mom said. I took the phone in surprise — who would call me here? It was Jon, inviting me over to watch a movie with some friends. I stayed until 2 a.m., talking and listening to music.

He was nervous. I was the little sister of his good friend. He wasn’t ready for anything serious, and didn’t see how dating me could be anything but. He kept it casual – always hanging out with other people around. No real dates. Until the night, seven years after we met and three months after that phone call, when he kissed me.

Flip flop.

After that, it was Zapp and Roger’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” playing in the background while he asked me to be his girlfriend. Five years later, it was waves crashing in the background when he asked me to be his wife.

wedding

We’ve been married for seven years now. We’ve lived in three homes, had two kids and slowly morphed from the couple who closed down the bars at 2 a.m. to the couple who unwinds with an episode of West Wing on Netflix at 9 p.m. He knows that just because the cap is on the toothpaste doesn’t mean the cap is really on the toothpaste. I know that the pile of dress shirts that accumulates on the back of the couch over the course of a workweek doesn’t need to be washed.

20 years. Those brown eyes still make my stomach flip, you know. Oh, not every time. Sometimes when our eyes meet, all I feel is relief — my 5:30 p.m. savior has arrived. Sometimes it’s annoyance or even anger. You can’t build a life with someone else without getting a little pissed off every now and then.

When the butterflies come though, they almost always catch me by surprise now. He’s hot, sweaty and tired from working out in the yard, and his gaze briefly meets mine as he steps into the coolness of the air-conditioned house. I watch with a smile on my lips from the doorway as he focuses intently on putting a tiny bow in our daughter’s hair, until he feels my eyes on him and looks up.

Flip flop.

It’s no small feat, to make a heart flutter after 20 years. He’s seen me at my worst and champions me always toward my best. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll make many more. But saying “yes” to his “will you?” will always be the best thing I’ve ever done.

fistfuls of clover and measuring worth

white cloverWhen you spend your days with small children, you’re almost always looking for a reason to leave the house. I find that the ability to listen, follow directions and not completely embarrass me in public wanes as the day goes on, so we tend to save our public excursions for the morning hours. Of course, after Ellie’s nap is done and the witching hour approaches, our need to move beyond these four walls looms largest.

To keep the peace, we go for a walk most afternoons when the weather is nice. Or, more accurately, I walk, while Ellie rides in her stroller and Nathan rides his scooter. We don’t go far; just a mile or so down our road, around the track of the elementary school across the street and back. That’s about as far as we can manage before Ellie is chafing at being restrained and Nathan is complaining about being hot and tired. Or cold and thirsty. There’s a lot of complaining, really, but somehow it’s made more endurable by the fresh air and inability to watch a clock refuse to progress forward toward 5:30 p.m.

On the corner  of our street sits a house with two little girls. They are almost always outside playing at the same time we’re walking. At first, we’d just smile-and-wave as we walked past, but that quickly progressed to short conversations. They are always excited to share what they’re up to – searching for snails, digging for worms.

This particular afternoon was an especially nice one. It had been rainy and cool for the better part of the week, but that day it was sunny with just a hint of a breeze. As we rolled past the house on the corner, the younger of the two girls was crouched low in the grass, picking handfuls of white clover. By now I had learned that despite being younger, she was the duo’s leader – bolder and more vocal than her sister. She saw us approaching and waved her arm in greeting.

“I’m pickin’ flowers!” she called. “We’re gonna sell ’em.”

I hid my smile as I glanced down the street at yard after yard littered with the weeds she was so carefully picking. I knew our neighbors would likely pay good money to be rid of the lawn pests, but I didn’t tell her that. I simply nodded.

“It’s a beautiful day for selling flowers,” I said as we started across the street.

“Hey, wait!” she yelled to Nathan. She ran across the yard, one particularly large “flower” clinched in her fist. “I’ll give ya this one for free,” she said, thrusting it into his hand.

I watched as Nathan studied the gift. He thanked her and held it carefully as he pushed his scooter back across the street. It balanced gently between his thumb and forefinger as he gripped the handlebars.

“I gotta be careful, Mom,” he told me. “I don’t want to crush this beautiful flower. Especially when she gave it to me for free. Can you believe that?! Free!”

I didn’t point out that the entire route we would walk that day was littered with white clovers identical to the one he was clutching like a prized possession. Instead, I smiled once more and found myself longing for the days of childhood, where everything has value and nothing is worthless.

****

A few weeks later, we were walking again. It was a hotter day – more summer than spring – and so we were later than usual. We had waited until after dinner, which meant as we rounded the school’s playground it was unused by the after-care program. Instead, a small group of teenagers had taken up residence on the benches. The girls were lying in the last rays of sunlight, their long blonde hair nearly reaching the ground. A couple of boys played a languid game of basketball, casting glances toward those benches every so often to see if they had an audience.

As we ambled past, another boy rounded the corner of the school to retrieve his bike. I watched him walk swiftly, head down, as if trying not attract too much attention. I wondered why for a moment, when suddenly one of the lounging girls sat up straight, her hair whipping around her shoulder. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I heard her tone and the laughter that followed her words. I watched as the boy tucked his chin lower, rolled his shoulders forward protectively and hurried faster. Another derisive comment and another fit of laughter hit his back as he pushed off on his bike. When our paths crossed, our eyes met briefly. I saw a resigned sort of pain there. He was used to this.

My heart lurched for him. I wanted to launch into the “it gets better” speech that grownups love to lob at teenagers. I wanted to tell him that what that girl said didn’t matter; that 10 years from now he’d probably be wildly successful, while she’d be the girl who peaked in high school.

But then I remembered that it did. In that moment, to that boy, it mattered a great deal. I wanted to tell him her words were worthless, but I could see what they were costing him. I winced with the fleeting memory of the insults hurled at me, by a boy with the exact same laugh as that girl,  in a different setting in a different millennia. Yes, I knew well the price he was paying – the cost of not fitting in.

So instead, I said nothing. I nodded to him with a look of solidarity in my eyes, then turned my attention to the children as we headed down the steep hill of the school’s drive. As we turned to follow the sidewalk home, I saw the patchwork of white clover that stretched across the field, and my heart ached with the memory of adolescence, when all the wrong things are valued and the most important are held worthless.