Steph Lenox

Everyday Resilience In Christ

The irony wasn’t lost on me.

After waiting forever for the tri-tip steak to cook over the coals (as we always do), I sliced up the garlic bread, and tossed the salad.  Calling the kids in out of the pool, we passed around paper plates, and settled in to feast.  Summer was made for times such as these.

We invited them over for a BBQ, our friends: a family that goes to our church, with kids the same age as ours.

The kids finished up, hopped down, and dug into the toybox.  One by one, we called them back, made sure they took their last few bites of salad, wiped messy mouths clean, and let them go.  With a sigh, we leaned back in our seats.  Having caught up on the bits of life that we missed over the past few months, the conversation turned back to the fires.  We are now in fire season again, reminding all of us vividly of the North Bay wildfires last October.  In a sense, it felt right to bring those times up again amid a group of us, like we could face the trauma better together, just as we did when smoke sat heavy in the air, banded together, almost a year ago.

Anniversaries do something to a person.

They’re an inevitable checkpoint, whether we like it or not.

Our region has changed dramatically in many ways.

The October wildfires incinerated over 5,000 home in our area, and everything within them.  Can you even imagine that number?

Some people are rebuilding on their original home plot, amid the scraped empty lots that used to be neighborhoods.  Some people took the insurance money and bought another home in the area, so they can still reach their same jobs and schools.  Some have left for a fresh start in another state.  Rent has skyrocketed county-wide, and many cannot afford to pay anymore.  Some people have been kicked out of their rental homes altogether because the owners lost their homes in the fires, and needed a place to live.

The real estate market is insane.  I just saw a 2 bd. 3 ba. home on almost three acres listed for $1.3 million on Zillow.  Seven years ago it was listed as worth $675k.  Our utility bills are increasing.  People are surmising PG&E is dispersing the cost of rebuilding their burned infrastructure, and the ongoing lawsuits, among those left standing.

This is all secondary and tertiary fallout from the fires, only now coming into view.

We are still here.  Our neighborhood wasn’t burned.  But the we have new neighbors up and down our street:  people who lost everything in the fires, and who were displaced into rental homes in our neighborhood.

We are a region working to piece itself back together.  It feels like none of us have all the parts for the puzzle.

I think that was one reason it felt good to reconnect with friends over the whole thing.  It was a confirmation: “Yeah, that really happened.  We were so scared for weeks on end, while still caring for the kids.  We drove around with our valuables packed into our cars like impromtu armored vehicles.  We skipped town to protect the children while our husbands kept going to work in the smoke, like some weird alter-universe.”

The support of friends is necessary.  Anniversaries of trauma can be surprisingly hard, but not impossible, to deal with.  It’s good to pay attention to it ahead of time, so that we won’t be as surprised by the emotions when they come up.  When they do, we will have the support system necessary to allow them, and weather them, together.

 

I should be sleeping right now.  But I’m typing.

Because, here’s the thing:  I love to write.  I always have.  It’s been my dream from childhood.  Real life dreams can rob us of our sleep at times.  But they feel worth it, don’t they?

Along with writing, I had other dreams.  To my great luck, they have come true.  I dreamed of getting married.  Then I did.  I dreamed of becoming a mom.  Then I did: three times over.  Throughout it all, I dreamed of becoming a serious (or at least, frequent) writer.  To that end, four years ago, I started a blog, and began this new chapter.

What follows are a few pointers I’ve learned along the way – tips from my time balancing the constant demands of a young family, with the solitary pursuit of writing:

  1. Voice text yourself notes.  During the school year, I have a routine.  On the drive home, with the baby in tow, I voice text notes to myself into my phone.  My eyes are on the road.  The baby is looking out the window, or at least not yelling (usually).  I do this to trick my brain.  I talk, and words magically appear in digital print.  This way, when I sit down to write a post, I have a “rough draft” already in place to work with.  I completely skirt the terror of staring at a blank page!  Haha!  Take that, writer’s block!
  2. Don’t take time from your husband.  He works like a dog to provide well for you and the kids.  If he likes talking and connecting in the evening, guard that time.  Manuscripts will never kiss you and tell you it’s going to be alright.  Nurture your marriage.  Whether you wallow in obscurity and rejection letters, or hit the big time, you’ll want your man there beside you.  Don’t neglect him just to double down on your work.  Collaborate with him about when would be a reasonable time for you to write, that doesn’t steal from your first dream-come-true.  If something’s gotta give, just make sure it’s not his place in your heart.  He needs you.  He chose you, just as you chose him.  In my experience, there actually IS enough time in life for him, and for you.  Just keep in communication.
  3. Guard your children’s privacy.  It’s easy to see these funny/mesmerizing/exasperating little people as endless fodder for your writing.  Because they ARE.  But I try to remember that they didn’t choose to have their potty-training escapades and their full given names released into the public domain.  It’s my first job to protect and care for them.  They will grow up into insecure teenagers, and eventually, professional adults.  They have a whole future that I must consider.  In my writing, I try to remember to keep the focus on my own processes and discoveries in motherhood.  When they are mature enough, they can choose for themselves what they want to disclose to the world.  Now is a time for me to protect their privacy, even as I write of my own journey in these rich, intense little years.
  4. Guard nap time.  Yes, everything else needs to be done.  But in our home, when the baby goes down for his nap, the mama flips open her computer.  In the summer, the older kids are home, and play quietly or watch a show.  Just to be clear: every time I sit down to write, it’s a struggle.  I am interrupted often.  I become irritated often.  I have enough practice to know that my edits won’t mind if I neglect them for a time.  However a little heart that I often snap at will scar over with childhood issues.  I have to be a parent, even as I’m a writer.  At the same time, a 6-year-old is big enough to respect mommy’s writing time, and to find her own snacks, and play quietly while baby is napping.  It’s a balance.
  5. Collaborate.  Which is just a word that means: connect with other mommy friends who write.  One of my best friends is a mom and also a YA fantasy fiction author.  Now, I write zero fantasy fiction.  I’m in the non-fiction, christian living category.  But we jive easily about writing, story-boarding, fleshing-out concepts, and all those delicious ideas. Writing is a lonely sport.  When the vast majority of people in your life don’t understand this obsession, it’s a warm campfire to have kindred spirits that do.
  6. Maybe don’t do it right now.  I mean it.  As a friend says, “If it’s right now, it will be right later.”  If you cannot spare even five minutes, then don’t.  These little years are INTENSE.  Mental health is at the forefront with PPD, hormones, sleeplessness, and the great re-definition of life as you know it with tiny people entirely dependent on you.  Something as vulnerable as writing and publishing takes tremendous courage and mental fortitude.  It’s entirely normal to choose to be a private citizen within this cocoon of these little years.  Then, as they get a little older, when you feel like you are surfacing, reasses the situation.  The older you become, I suspect the more weight your words carry.  I look forward to becoming a wrinkly, captivating, prolific old bird.

But as I have to remind myself:  don’t give up on your first dream in order to chase another dream.  Your children and husband need you right now.  They are your dreams-come-true.  As such, they take time, and cold-hard work.  Welcome to getting what you want!  If anything, living with your eyes open to this reality will prepare you for the future.  When you jump from dreaming, to becoming a writer, to writing, then publishing, you will see that a dream-come-true is cold-hard work.  They only difference between a dream, and just a job, is that it satisfies your heart.  But look around you: the kids will not be this young forever.  You will not be building a life with your husband in this stage of life ever again, I suspect.  So if you need to put down your pen and jump into the mix of life with them, please do so.  Writing will always be there when you need it.  This is the advice every old woman and every older writer has ever given me in this stage of life.  So I’m kindly passing it on to you.

I flexed my foot to stretch my calf while we were stopped.  I bent down and fished my water bottle out of the stroller.  My friend’s stroller was parked just ahead of mine.  Our toddler boys reclined in their man-carts, happily stuffing themselves with snacks.   I hadn’t been on our usual trail in a while: the air blew fresh scents of new growth up over the lake dam where we stopped for a moment.  Our run/walk felt good to my legs, but the pressure in my own swirling thoughts was becoming great.  We had been chatting, catching up for a while on the trail.  Now that we had stopped, I looked at my friend.  She was pulling a toy out of the bottom of her stroller for her son.  I decided to risk the question to her:

“Hey, so can I ask you a random question?”  I started.

“Sure, go ahead.”  She replied.

“Well, in your experience, how have you made your major life decisions?”

She was in my same place in life: thirty-something, college-educated, married with a small child, and a mortgage.  I’ve known her long enough to respect her life choices, and trust her decision making skills.  But what were those skills?

I’ve been thinking about this lately: when we’re perplexed about what to do, why do we seek out each others’ stories?  What is this that compels us to ask each other, “Well, how did YOU do it?”

At the time, I was trying to weigh a million factors about some life decisions.  Nothing catastrophic, mind you.  My husband and I were just weighing the wisdom of the right timing for making some decisions in our life.  We both tend to overthink things.  At best, that means our decisions are usually well-planned-for.  At worst, it means our decisions can become endlessly delayed, as we chew over the details like pieces of gristle.

I think it’s a human desire: to try to make the right decisions for all involved in our purview.  These are questions any of us could be chewing on:  Is it time to replace your old car?  It is time to buy that house?  Is it time to take that next step in the relationship?  Is it time to enroll in those new classes?  Is it time to make a career change?  Is it time to move?

Who knows?  There is no cheat sheet for this test.

So we look around us for who else has done this “Life-thing.”  The Bible backs up this wisdom.

Proverbs 15:22-23 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.  A person finds joy in giving an apt reply– and how good is a timely word!”

As she talked, I soaked up her stories.    I didn’t realize how thirsty I was.

I’m not the only one.  When we feel stuck or lonely or overcome by our own confused brains, we need each other’s stories.  We need to hear the answer to, “So, how did YOU do this?”  We need friends and mentors.  We need to risk feeling vulnerable and asking for what actually matters to us.

As I heard her tell her stories of deciding to marry her husband, and deciding to have a child with him, I heard over and over again how God orchestrated the decision with her.  Sometimes He laid out a trail of breadcrumbs for her to follow to the conclusion.  Sometimes He only gave her an inner sense of peace over one choice.  Oftentimes, He gave her the Bible to read, people to talk to, and reminded her that she had a smart brain and the freedom to make her own decisions.

Freedom.

God doesn’t micromanage the details of our lives.  If we earnestly seek his decision on a matter, and He remains silent, it could be that He’s throwing the ball back to us.  Which doesn’t seem fair at all.  But it chases me into other people’s lives to peek in their window and see how they arrange their furniture.

I have never lived this life before.  Neither have you.  We are doing things for the first time, regularly.  It’s a vulnerable and scary thing to engage in this life, to wake up to a new day we have never seen before, each morning.

If we leave our stories un-told, we deprive each other of vital help.  If we leave our questions un-asked, we deprive ourselves of connection and guidance.  The pride of isolation ruins momentum in our lives quite efficiently.

In those moments when we are perplexed and don’t know what to do, we need each others’ stories: to grasp a warm soul in comfort, to marvel at our specific trajectories, and  to share collectively wisdom gleaned in the lonely places of our lives.

 

I remember as a kid we had a crazy dog.  The 4th of July was always disaster with him.  Whatever happened to him before he became ours, I’ll never know.    We lived about 5 miles from the fireworks, at the time.  There were years when we left him in the yard while we drove to find a picnic spot to watch the fireworks.  We would come home to a hole chewed in the fence, and an angry neighbor’s message on the answering machine, claiming he was tearing up their Gladiolus.  The years we left him locked in the house, we would come home to him shivering in the bathtub with a corner of the wall itself chewed out.  This dog had issues.

But he exemplified how the fireworks of the 4th of July could affect a smaller animal – or human – who doesn’t understand what’s going on.  To this end, I give you a few tips for you and your tiny humans this 4th of July.

  • Babies  Lower your expectations way, way down.  Then adjust them a few more clicks.  There were years when I didn’t even see fireworks.  I only heard faint booms from my nursing chair in the baby’s room.  For me, sleep and nursing schedules trumped explosions in the sky, hands down.  In those little years, a well-timed nap was more precious than diamonds.
  • Toddlers – Emphasize to your little person that they are safe.  Formerly rambunctious toddlers will huddle deep into Mama’s neck when they think that they are under fire.  I’ve never met a tiny person who wasn’t inherently gun-shy.  Wrap them in a blanket, and hold them close.
  • Toddlers – Do not shame them about feeling afraid of the whole ordeal.  Their feelings are their own, and are perfectly valid.  Shaming a child by telling them how they “shouldn’t be afraid,” or that they are just being “silly” because fireworks can’t hurt them, doesn’t work.  It does nothing to bolster their spirits, and everything to separate and distance yourself from them emotionally.  Who wants to snuggle into someone who is berating them?
  • Toddlers/Kids – Lead them into excitement about the sights and sounds of fireworks by showing your own excitement.  Let them see the big smile on your face and follow your pointing finger to the colorful lights in the sky.  It really is quite beautiful.
  • Kids – If your child is old enough to play with bang snaps and sparklers, loosen up and let him.  Have the garden hose nearby, keep a watchful eye on things, but let him play.  He will feel proud of himself for overcoming his fears, and thrilled at the experience.  Playing with fireworks produces more of a well-rounded human who can handle loud, bright, explosive things without panicking.  If you let him partake in this fun, he will go from being markedly distrustful and afraid, to a braver and more resilient person.

I hope you enjoy your fireworks this 4th of July with your kiddos, in whatever season of motherhood it finds you.

What do you do, as a blogger, when you feel dry for content?

I was asking myself this question.  A little while ago, I began a weekly posting schedule for myself on my blog.  I had a great first few weeks.  I posted on Thursdays, as per scheduled.  I uploaded multiple pics on Instagram.  I attached numerous hashtags.

And that’s when the quitter in me pushes to the front of the line, calling out, “Alright, that’s enough!  We’ve done quite enough now.  We deserve a rest.  We are tired.  It’s time to relax.  We have drummed up plenty of interest from the blogging community.  We can hang out and enjoy our popularity.”

I must confess: it felt so good to entertain these thoughts.  I got to stroke my ego, and slack on my chores.  I marveled at the magnificent house I built – when it was only just framed out – and pushed a couch into the open-air living room to take a nap.

But this blogging business is about building something: something great and connected and enduring.  This is about being a presence in the community of voices that offer help and hope and connection – through stories.  This is about showing up around the campfire for all of you.

Which means, this is not about me.

Which also means, I have work to do.  You do too.  We are in this for each other.  I need you words to pull me out with your words and remind me of Christ’s redemption for my pitiful, quitting self.

So, what do I do when I feel dry for content?  My own brain factory only churns out a set number of ideas a day.  So, instead of beating up the machinery within the factory, I turned around.  I looked out the door.  And I began to notice things.  I began to gather content for my craft, the raw material, the clay from which to sculpt masterpieces or play-doh spaghetti.  It all takes gathering.  Which for our craft of writing, is the practice of noticing.

Okay.

*re-adjusted spectacles*

I’ve head that good noticing makes great writing.

When my brain is dry, it’s time to feed it nourishment.  It’s time to serve up appetizers of details, entrees of perspective, and aperitifs of other peoples’ unique observations.  It’s time to stock the pond.  It’s time to gather wild herbs.  it’s time to pour that second cup of coffee so that my eyes can draw open from their squints.  It’s time to fill so that I can pour.  There is enough fodder around us to feed good material to whatever blogging niche we are in.  We simply must notice.  I’ll make it personal, to convince myself that I am right:  there is enough fodder around me to feed good material to me about hope, help, and God’s good grace, for Mom.  There, I said it.  It doesn’t have to be a fantastically developed idea yet, or ever, just things around me that are noteworthy.  Now let’s notice…


 

My noticing kick, thus far:

The wind tosses the tender tips of my jasmine vine, like my daughter’s hair from the open car window.

Everywhere I look from my perch on the front porch bench, shows signs of a family dwelling here:  faded blue chalk lines on the cement in the walkway.  Wine-colored rain boots drying atop a rack of wire shelving.  Our moving dolly and a rectangular frame on casters propped against the railing.  Two (why do we have two?) vacuum cleaners standing guard at either end of the porch.  A turquoise child’s lawn chair scooted backwards against the side railing, presumably for little feet to stand tall enough for little hand to grasp the top railing.  A potted rose bush beside the steps, doubling in size from the spring sun.  An orange 5-gallon bucket for firewood.  A galvanized aluminum ash bucket.  A faded yellow ladder leaning against the house, with a “Made in the USA” sticker peeling off the second-highest rung.  A sparkly pink pair of sunglasses with the lenses popped out, lying upside-down.

This is the practice of noticing.  It may not make it into any meaningful blog post, but it will get my brain into the mode of noticing more and more of the world, the details, and the connections therein.  It’s like after I do sit-ups (that is, WHEN I do sit ups), my belly feels tighter for the rest of that day.  The muscles were in practice.

It’s time to gather tools to help us do our jobs.  And if you’re a blogger like me, the post schedules are helpful, but if we don’t stock our ponds, we will just be filling boring quotas.  Nobody wants to read boring quotas.  If we have fun noticing and writing, people will have fun reading.

 

 

He leaned in and pointed a finger straight at me.  I had been meaning to introduce myself to him for months.  You see, my friend has a grown daughter, whom this young man has been dating for a while.  He may actually become a future member of their family.  So, in our circle of people, this was someone to definitely meet.  I’d seen him around functions and gatherings, but never made the trek over to say hello.  I know, I’m a goofus.  It appeared everyone else were good buddies with him already, so that it was beginning to get awkward that I hadn’t met him yet.  The more time that passed, the more awkward I felt.  But there were always things in the way: kids and diapers and meltdowns and needs and snacks and owies and LIFE.  I could never manage meeting a new person who was not directly in the mommy trenches too.

That afternoon it was a crowded room: an auditorium echoing with our entire church at a BBQ outside the MPR after Sunday morning service.  The church leadership hosted these a few times every summer.  The kids loved stealing giant Costco cookies and bags of chips from the side tables.  I was happy to get a few bites of my hamburger in between chatting with my husband, a few friends, and keeping my children from invading foreign lands or licking mysterious sticky stains on the ground.

I was at the far end of the room, chasing a few children through the crowd, when he made eye contact with me.  He was with his beloved girlfriend, and holding a water bottle.  In a split second he leaned forward, pointed, and said, “I love your jacket.”

He beat me to it.  But I couldn’t think of a better way to meet someone.  A compliment.  A gift.  I thought how it was even biblical:

“A gift opens the way
    and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.”  Proverbs 18:16

I love my jacket too.  I think it’s pretty great.

It has a wide collar with snaps, and an off-center zipper: a biker-babe throw-back in camel-colored faux suede.  Total knock-off.  In truth, on sale at Old Navy.  But I feel capable when I wear it – like I could jump on a Harley and ride for help, should Timmy fall down the well.  Something like that.

But back to compliments: the’re pretty magical.  Giving the gift of a compliment has a special purpose in making introductions.  It conveys more than a posture of submission.  It’s more than a cow-tow to show that you’re not a threat.

It is an invitation into relationship.

When making new friends in college, I called my mom in frustration.  “I’m so lonely!”  I moaned.  She advised that I go up to someone and ask something about themselves.  It’s the tip for first dates, sure, but it’s also the tip for first friends.  It’s marvelous how versatile a compliment can be, and the places it can take you.

But there is a catch: In order to use it well, I have to take my eyes off of myself, and how lonely I am, and put them on someone else.  Loneliness studies it’s own belly button.  Friendliness examines other peoples’ faces, and super cool jackets, and looks for a point of connection.

I even used that this past year, as a school mom helping at a spring fundraiser.  There was this other mom in my kid’s class whom I still hadn’t met all school year.  At one point in the day, we found ourselves both under the same awning outside.  I began, “I see you wearing cute workout clothes at morning drop off, oftentimes.  Are you a workout instructor?”  She laughed and explained they were her “hopeful” clothes.  If she had time in her day, she could get some exercise in.  But that opened the door for us to chat more about our kids and our lives.  Eventually, I even invited her daughter to my daughter’s birthday party.

Compliments and questions are a gift for the moment, and an invitation into the future.

Back at church, when this young man complimented the style choices of this thirty-something-year-old-woman, I knew I liked him.  I liked his pistol-draw compliment, and the sincerity of his eye-contact.  This was one of the good ones.  I also saw a glimmer of wry humor.

So I fired back, “Well, I love your… girlfriend!”  She beamed.  He beamed.  My jacket beamed.  We all beamed.  It was pretty sappy, to tell the truth.  I soaked up the moment like dish sponge fresh from the package.

Now I can say we are all buddies.  I sincerely wish them both the best.

It was a good reminder how I could use this in my box of tools too, if I take my eyes off of myself:  A compliment – a gift – to change awkwardness or loneliness into connection.