Sunday, September 24, 2017

Death Has Changed Me

I can remember so many details about September 24, 2016.

Dan and I decided to take the kids with us to a Mizzou game in Columbia, instead of having an adults-only day. We drove our friend Hayden too, because his parents were already there while his sister Bryn was in the hospital for surgery.

I didn't know it until many hours later, but around this time my friend Sean took his last breath.

The rest of my afternoon was really good. Going back to my college campus, sharing old memories with my college sweetheart and our kids, and making new memories of our own.

We drove home that evening, and I felt like it was a satisfying and full day. We got the kids to bed a little late, then exhaled on the couch together around 10pm.

My phone rang, and it was my friend Beth. She doesn't call often and never so late, so my first thought was alarm because I knew her husband was a firefighter. I don't think I even greeted her when I answered the call and started with, "Is everything okay?"

No. Okay disappeared with the words, "Sean died."

I won't try to describe the sounds that came out of my mouth as I tried to unhear what Beth had said. Sean had taken his own life during a shift at the firehouse that day.

You can imagine what the next hours, days, weeks, and months brought. Thankfully, I was already back in counseling so I had a professional helping me through this new wave of grief but it was still overwhelming. I just couldn't make sense of Sean's death. This was a man who loved deeply and laughed often and every single person he met became his friend. How could I have been so blind? How did I not know he was in such deep despair that he didn't want to live any longer?

I can't answer those questions, so the enemy of my soul tries to feed me lies in place of answers. He tells me I obviously wasn't a good friend if someone I love took his own life. He tells me I didn't fight for my friend Sean. He tells me I could've changed things if I had just paid attention.

I know all of that is a lie. I know Sean's death was way bigger than anything involving me. But that's how the enemy likes to spread despair around: trick us into thinking we are bigger than God and could have changed the outcome. He wants us to think we are in control so when something bad happens, we'll shoulder the blame.

Don't get me wrong: I have plenty of regret, especially when I think about the last time I saw Sean. But I'm learning to match every drop of regret with a helping of grace. I know I am doing the best I can at living my life, making the best decisions I know of with the resources I currently have. I still wrestle with my regrets, of course.

And yet I'm choosing to honor my friend by letting his death change my life.

September 24, 2016 changed me and brought a different Elizabeth to September 24, 2017. I've spent the last year channeling the love and grief I have for Sean into the people who I love.

I've spent the last year making shelter for other people's hearts. I've reached out to friends I know are struggling, instead of "giving them space" like I would have done before. I've asked people I love if they have intentions of harming themselves. Sean's death expanded my vocabulary on mental health issues, and it opened my eyes to see so many hurts I was oblivious to before.

Like I mentioned already, I had started therapy again just before Sean died. His death changed my treatment and I went deeper into my struggles much faster than I expected. Sean's death taught me not to be embarrassed to ask for help. My brain is an organ, just like my heart and my lungs and all the other systems in my body. If I had pain or weakness in my heart, I'd get help. Why wouldn't I do that for my brain? Sean's death helped me shake off shame. This last year, I became braver about getting help for an obsessive-compulsive disorder I've lived with for 30 years. It isn't gone by any means, but I'm bringing it out of the dark and shining some Light on it.

I've also spent the last year intentionally seeking out the theme of forgiveness: how to cultivate forgiveness and how to offer it without being so stingy.

I've gone out of my way to build bridges with people I might have said, "Live and let live" to prior to Sean's death.

I've prayed daily for first responders and those living with PTSD. I've checked in with my police, firefighter, and military friends a little more often. I've read the articles Beth has shared about the signs of PTSD, depression, and suicidal behavior. I'm educating myself. There's still so much to learn!

I've been trying to seek out delight this past year, keeping my eyes open for blessings - even in really hard times. I've even tried intentionally creating good memories as a way of "banking" joy to nourish myself when future despair hits. I'm trying to remind myself that hard times don't last and hope wins. I've visited cemeteries a lot more than I'd like, but that's also part of looking for joy. Sitting at Sean's grave makes me immensely sad, but it also convicts me to live a deeper, more vulnerable life.

I'd give anything to go back to September 24, 2016 and change the outcome of that day. And besides that day, there are a few other dates in my personal history I'd like to rewrite. While that's impossible, I can allow those dates to change the person I'm becoming. Doing so turns the ache into a revision.

I miss you, Sean. I am so sorry your pain was so unbearable. There aren't enough "I wishs," "I shoulds," and "If onlys" to make sense of things. You left behind your world of hurt, but created a brand new one in your absence.

You were - and still are - very loved.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Happy 14th Birthday, Katie! (Give or Take 48 Days)

Katie,

You've been 14 years old for 48 days now, and I'm just now getting around to writing your birthday letter. Yes, I am definitely in the running for 2017's Worst Mom of the Year Award. Yippee!

There are two reasons I haven't written your annual letter until now:

1. We have been BUSY this summer. (Lame excuse, I know.)

2. I've been staring at you for 48 days now, waiting for this current acceleration to slow down for one cotton-picking minute so I can recover from the whiplash and collect my thoughts. But that hasn't happened yet... and tomorrow is your first (gulp!) unofficial day of high school.* It's Transition Day for 9th graders, also known as The End of Denial for all the freshman mommies.

*Cue all the "oh-my-gosh-where-did-the-time-go" comments, except I know exactly where the time has gone. This link will tell you!

Yes, we are in a turbo growth period this summer. If you don't believe me, let's look at a side-by-side comparison of you on May 28 and July 27.

At first glance, the hair has obviously changed. But look again. Do you see the slight change in the shape of your face? And what's even more apparent to me is the confidence slowly solidifying in your character. Maybe you can't see that in this photo, but I can. And I've witnessed it for the last two months.

It started the first week in June when we were at youth camp together. I got to share an especially holy moment with you and Jesus, and I won't forget it as long as I live. (In fact, this moment will ring into eternity, so I'll be reliving it for a loooong time!)

Your June birthday was also a milestone moment. That night for the first time, we turned on the new patio lights that Daddy installed. We opened your gifts, then had private time with you when Jackson went to bed. We gave you a special ring, talked about your future, then Daddy invited you to dance with him to the song "Perfect" by Ed Sheeran. (I tried not to think of the foreshadowing of this moment, but it was hard to keep my mind from wandering and wondering what your wedding day will be like. That night was the first time I could actually picture it happening one day.)

We went fishing on Father's Day, and I watched you through my camera lens as you sat with your grandfather. The look of contentment on your face spoke to your new ability to sit quietly at peace without forcing yourself into a situation. Does that even make sense? What I mean is: just a few years ago, a fishing trip like this would have meant constant busy-ness and intensity as you moved around and about, wanting another worm or a hook or skipping to a new spot to catch fish. This time, you relaxed and waited for the world to come to you - instead of running out to chase it.

The rest of June involved your first high school class (online freshman health), some new babysitting gigs (what maturity!), your first visit to Six Flags with friends and without an adult (what growth!), and your very last softball game (what an athlete!).

Daddy left for a week-long fishing trip to Canada in July, so you and Jackson and I went on a few adventures and you had a "sleepover" in my bed every night. The second week of July, we drove to South Carolina with your friend Ashleigh so we could spend a few days with Aunt Mimi at the beach.

You earned new freedom at the beach: you and Ash walked the dog by yourselves, stayed up late, watched more "mature" movies we wouldn't have seen a few years ago, and you got yourself up early enough to watch the sunrise over the ocean. Heck, I even let you drink lots of Coke! Say what?! One morning, you made a special plan to watch the sunrise with me. Man, this moment was priceless!

Then you started marching band camp.

And all of a sudden, the accelerated changes went into hyper drive. I can hardly describe it! When you were a preschooler, I knew you were changing regularly but couldn't quite see it until hindsight gave me clarity. But the last two weeks of July, I saw growth every single day. It was as if your soul was thickening right in front of my eyes, like the concrete foundation of your childhood was now strong enough to support a substantial structure. I gasped the day you came home from band camp and spontaneously decided to get a hair cut. I about fell over at the hair salon when you decided to cut off 10 inches so you could donate it to Locks of Love. Flabbergasted.

You've been painting your nails. Sporting jewelry. Wearing your hair down! I mean, I can't even...

I don't want to gloss over the growth and changes that gradually appeared in the year before June - before you turned 14 - but I can hardly remember the person you were before this lovely, vibrant, 14-year-old young lady emerged. Now do you understand what I meant when I spoke of whiplash at the start of this letter?

I am having the time of my life, exploring you and watching your personality unfold. I know the relationship I have with you is special. You tell me often that your friends don't talk to their moms like we talk. (You know this because your friends tell you this!) I wonder if I should be waiting for the other shoe to drop when you'll become a surly, eye-rolling, harumph-ing teenager. Maybe that phase is on its way, and maybe it isn't. At this point, I'm enjoying myself too much in the present moment to be distracted by any possible angst on the way.

You delight me, Katie. I can't believe I get to be your mom! What a fun ride we're having.

I love you,
Mommy

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My Favorite (iPhone) Photos

Remember this post from a few days ago? I wrote about my new camera and how we've been "getting to know each other" recently. The post is a part of Light.co's #VantagePoint photography project, where photographers are invited to share their favorite photos and why they love them.

For that post I limited myself to photos I've taken with the new Panasonic Lumix, but also came across two other favorites I want to share separately. These were taken with my iPhone and my favorite camera gadget: an Easy Macro lens. (Trust me, people: it's the best $10 you'll ever spend and works on ANY phone, even with a phone case in the way!)

This first photo is one I took in June 2014. The kids and I were on a walk when we came across this ladybug munching on another insect's eggs. I love how much detail you can see in this tiny little creature and its meal.

This second photo is one I took this past March, when beautiful snowflakes fell outside our house. I got the kids on their school buses, then froze my fingers off while chasing flakes around my yard. It's a wonder my neighbors don't call the police on me. But can you blame me for running around trying to capture this kind of masterpiece? It's glorious!

What's the best or most favorite photo you've ever taken?

Monday, May 15, 2017

My New Gear

Last year, I realized my favorite camera (my starter Pentax K200) was starting to fail me. I had stuck pixels and a gummed-up power button. The local repair shop said buying a newer model would be smarter - and likely cheaper - than fixing those issues.

So about four months ago, I made the decision to buy a new camera. I did lots of research first, and kept stumbling upon articles like this one at Improve Photography that recommended switching to a mirrorless camera. I didn't even know what that meant, because I don't personally know any professional photographers who own mirrorless cameras. It seemed risky to go against the industry standard. Then I visited the local camera shop and held mirrorless cameras in my hands, and I swear it's like my heart started beating faster.

It's not that I had stopped loving photography. Not at all! But I was getting into a rut of using my iPhone more often because my two DSLRs were so bulky to carry. Although my iPhone photos can't compare to the images I get with a DSLR, the convenience trumped quality most of the time. (Unless, of course, I had a client photo session.)

When I held a mirrorless camera in my hand, I felt all kinds of jazzed up to get outside again and adventure with a "real" camera. When I looked at the specs and price tag, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. So I took the plunge and went mirrorless, buying a Panasonic Lumix G7.

Here's a photo (ironically, taken with my iPhone) of all my fancy pants cameras. The Lumix is on the far left. My Pentax K200 is in the middle and boat-anchor-heavy Nikon D200 is on the right. All cameras have the zoom lens mounted on them in this photo, but it's obvious that even with the zoom lens the Lumix is way smaller.

When I have a wide angle lens attached to each camera, the Lumix weighs only 1lb 3oz. That's about half the weight of my favorite (the Pentax weighs 2lb 5oz), and a third of the weight of the Nikon (which weighs 3lb 9oz).

But I was comfortable with my old cameras, so trying to figure out the new bells and whistles on the Lumix frustrated me at first. I had to force myself to take the camera with me on made-up outings so I could get used to the feel of it. It wasn't until spring break that I fell in love with the Lumix. That's when Dan and I took the kids to visit Aunt Mimi and Uncle Wally in New York City.

For the first time, I was able to keep up (mostly) with the family instead of my usual pattern of rushing along behind them because I've stopped to take photo after photo. With the Lumix, I still stopped to take photos but the LCD screen meant I didn't have to put the gear to my eye, focus, and snap. I could just whip it up in front of my face (not lining it up with an eye) and touch the screen to take photos. Dude! It was fast and easy and I took terrific shots. Not to mention my back wasn't killing from hauling around a camera bag and extra lens each day.

I loved being able to turn and snap a photo before my kids even knew I was watching. This photo of Jackson on Ellis Island, searching for our family name among the list of immigrants, is one of my favorites from the trip. The way he is reflected on the wall of names feels like he's searching for himself in the history of our country. Which, to be honest, he truly was doing.
APERTURE: 4.8, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/160 sec, ISO: 500

The new camera made me so excited for photos again - real photos, not just the kind I snap with my phone. Now I wanted to seek out new adventures to photograph and push myself with the new gear. At the end of March, I hit the jackpot of photography in my very own back yard.

I noticed a mama bird starting to build a nest in the tree right outside our kitchen window. It was like my own personal National Geographic photography documentary. I went a little nuts, even taking the screen out of the window in the upstairs bathroom so I could hang out of it and shoot down into the nest. The day I found the first two eggs, I lit up like a Christmas tree.
APERTURE: 5.6, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/320 sec, ISO: 8000

I wish y'all could have seen me hanging out the second-story window with my arm stretched out to the right. The Lumix has a rotating LCD screen, which means I can shoot at an angle that's contrary to where my body is. And since I can change my focal point right on the display, I can get a perfectly focused image.

Three weeks after the above image was shot, I captured this one of the hungry babies waiting for their mama to come feed them.
APERTURE: 5.5, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/80 sec, ISO: 1600

Again, the lighter gear and the rotating screen helped me photograph at an angle I probably couldn't have captured (at least not in focus) with my traditional DSLRs. This next photo, shot two days after that one above, gives you an even better understanding of the Lumix. I was able to hold the camera above my head and shoot down into the nest, without having to hang from my bathroom window. (Ha ha.)
APERTURE: 5.3, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/125 sec, ISO: 4000

Y'all. I've always wanted to take a photo like that but never had the chance or the proximity to do so. This photo makes me so happy and fascinates the nature geek inside me. It's a bunch of the best things in life rolled into one image: new life, God's provision, perfect timing, and challenging photography. Happy happy, joy joy!

About a week into April, I traveled to Hawaii for a very sad occasion. That's a whole separate story that I'll tell one day, but not yet. Suffice it to say Hawaii is a literal paradise on earth. While I would give anything to change the reason I was there, I was able to take in the beauty of God's creation and also gift my extended family with some special photos of our time together. Most of them are private photos we'll share only within our family, but here are a few of my favorite photos from my visit there.
APERTURE: 9, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/1000 sec, ISO: 400

I'm showing these photos because, again, my Lumix gear was light enough to carry all over Hawaii with me - even to the ocean's edge at the Banzai Pipeline.
APERTURE: 6.3, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/1000 sec, ISO: 200

On my last day in Hawaii, I was returning to our rental house after my last walk on the beach when I I spied these blossoms at the top of a Plumeria tree. It seemed they were reaching to heaven, and it is the photo I most love from my time there: beautiful, heavenly flowers.
APERTURE: 6, SHUTTER SPEED: 1/400 sec, ISO: 200

I'm still getting to know the Lumix gear, but I'm finally comfortable enough to use it in client sessions. Just last week, I had a pre-Prom shoot with my friend Grace, and I captured this photo of her standing in the wind with her eyes closed and her hair blowing.

The only thing that would make my new camera even more appealing is if I could put it in my pocket. But that's unrealistic, right? Well... not quite.

There's actually a new camera that has the quality of a DSLR but it's tiny in comparison. It's called the L16 and it's manufactured by a company named Light. (You should really click on that link to see what makes this camera so amazing. Or click here to see a quick video describing the SIXTEEN lenses embedded in its slim body. It's all kinds of bionic and futuristic!) It's currently sold out and I'm pretty sure when it becomes available again it will be out of my price range. But a girl can dream, right?!

For now, I'll keep challenging myself to grow with my trusty old new Lumix. We have lots of adventures ahead of us!

This post is part of Light.co's #VantagePoint photography project. It got me thinking about my favorite photos, which led me to two other favorites I'll show you in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Happy 10th Birthday, Jackson!

Jackson,

Ten years ago, I started worrying about you and I don't think I ever stopped.

Ten years ago tonight, my worry was whether to send you to the hospital nursery so I could get a good night's sleep or whether I should just bite the bullet and plunge into endless nights of sleeplessness. (For the record, I am NOT crazy and decided to hoard every bit of sleep I could; you went to the nursery until a nurse wheeled you back in the wee hours for a feeding.)

But these days, my worries have taken on more shape, weight, and baggage.

I worry whether you are happy, which makes me wonder if my parents ever worried about my happiness. Not that they didn't care, but I think my generation had a few less helicopter parents than yours does. There was more of the "you get what you get and you don't throw a fit" mentality than I see these days. Even though I know this, I still worry whether you are satisfied and will have good, happy memories of childhood when you are an adult.

I worry whether you're eating enough. You're skinny and smaller than your classmates, and I'm always playing the Italian-grandmother-role by trying to ply you with extra calories - but only the nutritional, substantial kind because you get enough junk already. I want you to grow big and strong, and not be the small kid who gets ridiculed. (Tonight, you saw Army helicopters fly by and we talked about you becoming a pilot one day. Maybe being compact would be an advantage?)

I worry about you being a good friend. When you have a friend over to play, I hear you poke at each other and whine during Nerf gun fights. Will your friend get annoyed at this and lose patience - and loyalty - in your friendship?

I worry about your character. I've told you so many times that I'm not as concerned about the grades on your report card as I am concerned about the citizenship, respectfulness, and cooperation marks you get. I already know you're smart; I want you to be known for your heart as much as - if not more so - than your brain. Are Daddy and I instilling good character?

I worry about so much more: are you brushing your teeth well? (Boo for cavities.) Are you spending too much time on a screen? (And what exactly is this Roblox thing anyway?) Are you reading too many graphic novels and shrinking your intelligence when you could be diving into a classic? Do you get away with too much because you're the baby of the family? Should we crack the whip more?

Aren't parents supposed to worry more about the first child? I thought the first one was supposed to be the "guinea pig" with the parenting mistakes, and parents are supposed to have it figured out by the time any siblings roll around. I don't think that's the case with you: Katie seems to roll right along, while I worry more about how I could be messing you up.

It's so easy for me to get caught up in hand-wringing and "what if." Yes, it's true there is concern even though there's not so much cause for concern. I own it: the concern is my own making and part of the problem is my desire to be a "good" parent (whatever that means).

The truth is what you and I discussed with your pediatrician today at your 10-year checkup: you are a good kid.

You excel academically.

You have a normal social life.

You eat pretty well.

You are very active.

You encounter emotional difficulties sometimes, like most 9- and 10-year-old boys do.

You love Minecraft, graphic novels, Nerf gun battles, library visits, cuddling, hiding (then jumping out to scare people), movies, screen time, Nutella, Katie, Pokemon, and the New York Yankees.

You are always on the move but you still let me hold you like a baby every now and then.

You can write and spell unlike any 4th grader I know.

You love intensely and to a fault, and friends are your fuel.

Your faith is matter-of-fact and you show me what it looks like to be secure in God's love: you simply don't question it.

You are passionate, loving, funny, smart, and - best of all - MINE. Life with you isn't *quite* worry free, but it is happy.

I'm glad you're my son and that I've been gifted ten years of life with you.

I love you!
Mommy

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I'm Sure It's Nothing

I felt the tiny lump late at night when I was reading in bed. I wasn't alarmed, thinking it was so small that I was probably imagining it. I was so unworried that I didn't remember it until the next afternoon when I was preparing to shower. I had to lay on the bed to find it again.

After my shower, I called the doctor but the office was closed. I told my sister about the tiny lump that night, repeatedly saying, "I'm sure it's nothing." I chuckled when she responded, "Are you trying to convince me or you?!"

First thing the next morning, I called the doctor and made an appointment for two days later. Two days isn't very long, right?. And, truly, I wasn't feeling any fear or anxiety about this. The only reason I told three of my close friends is because we had a lunch date that had to be cancelled because the doctor appointment was at the same time. I didn't tell them because I was worried; I told them because I'm practical.

Later that day, I told Dan about it during a phone call. Again, no fear. No anxiety. That night, I asked him to feel the lump. Every time I've gone to feel the lump, I keep expecting it be gone as if it were a fluke and I made a silly mistake.

With Dan's words, "I feel it," the small dyke holding back Anxiety was breached and the sludge of fear began trickling out.

Today is the between day. It's the day between the "I feel it" confirmation from Dan and the day before my doctor's visit. I hope tomorrow is a "Nope, you're good. There's nothing to worry about" kind of day.

But what if it isn't?

What If is a hope stealer, a thief of monumental proportions (mostly because I give him monumental access). What If is the red carpet invitation for doubts to parade into my mind and stick out their tongue at my faith.

I combat What If by silently repeating, "I'm sure it's nothing" inside my head. It's on repeat: "I'm sure it's nothing. I'm sure it's nothing. I'm sure it's nothing. I'm sure it's nothing." Until What If's quiet whisper pricks my ears:

"What if it's something?"

Am I in the best health of my life, able to fight at a moment's notice? No. You don't get a training calendar to prepare for cancers. When a diagnosis comes, you realize your training calendar was all the non-training days leading up to That Day... and no one told you That Day would become race day. So am I ready, if it is something? No. Hell, no.

And could it really be something? What are the chances? Aaah, that's when What If scores a major victory! My brother and father both died from cancer. My mom's death was a result of multiple complications, and doctors suspected breast and/or ovarian cancer. Her mom had breast cancer, too.

Can you hear the high-pitched whine in my head at this very moment? What If has turned up the heat and Anxiety is now squealing like a stove top tea kettle. Eeeeeeeeeeeee...

I forcefully (metaphorically) place my hands on Anxiety's shoulders and shake her back to reality. While she stands there stunned, I punch What If in the face and shout for him to get the hell out of my head.

I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie Big Fish, when the main character says, "That's not how I die."

I deliberately and intentionally choose to turn my face from the wreckage Anxiety created when she paid so much attention to What If (poor, sweet Anxiety - bless her heart!), and fix my gaze on the One - the only One - who has beaten the tar out of What If and lived to tell about it.

The One stands in defense of me, in defiance of loss and death and disease and endings. This One is the one who makes all things new, and turns endings into beginnings. He's the One who tells me I have hope instead of despair, and I'm not crazy to look for light in the darkness.

The One takes What If and transforms him into EVEN IF. The One is my Savior, my Redeemer, my Jesus Christ.

Only He can take the despair What If is so good at making and turn it into a faith-building, hope-festering, strength-infusing moment of delight and joy. What If loses his power, his might, and his manipulating bullying in the face of Jesus's EVEN IF.

Nothing can withstand EVEN IF.

"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But EVEN IF HE DOES NOT, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up." (Daniel 3:17-18 NASB, emphasis mine)

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FOLLOW UP: I wrote this post on Thursday, February 9. I saw the doctor on Friday, February 10. I praise God for a calm, kind, and compassionate doctor who gave me good news that the lump seems to be a normal nodule and there are no worries.

So should I publish this post, if the news turned out to be a non-issue and there wasn't even a blip on the radar? Yes, I'm publishing it anyway. Maybe there's someone else being attacked by What If, and this post will remind you to focus on the EVEN IF God who sees you and never leaves you.

I'm also publishing this in case there comes a day when I need to revisit what I wrote because I've allowed fear to get a leg up on my faith. EVEN IF no one else gets anything out of this post, that's okay. It isn't for you anyway - it's for me and my family, and it's a record of how we've spent the days of our lives pursuing hope instead of fear.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent

If the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child" is true, then I'd like to take it a step further and say it takes a child to raise a parent.

When Dan and I decided it was time to start building a family, I don't think we were quite aware of what we had in store. (Is anyone ever?)

I envisioned a cooing baby, cuddly blankets, and fuzzy ducks. That vision dissolved about four days in to motherhood, when I realized parenting looked a lot more like sleepless nights, a sore body, and more extreme highs and lows than a Six Flags roller coaster.

To say parenting is the hardest thing I've ever done is an understatement. I've never had to be more on my game with less resources (sleep, patience, or elbow grease) for this length of time with this much focus on end results. I've never wanted to quit anything else in my life as often as I've wanted to quit parenting, and I've never questioned my strengths and weaknesses to this extent.

Parenting is a butt kicker!

In the midst of a butt kicking, a moment of clarity often sneaks up on me and I remember parenting is the single most noble responsibility I've ever had in my short/long life. Nothing else has refined me or defined me like parenting has. It is a painful blessing that constantly brings me to the end of myself and drives me into the arms of my Savior.

If I could talk to the pre-pregnancy Elizabeth of 2002, I would tell her to let go of the baby-coo-cuddly-blankie-fuzzy-duck fantasies and cling tightly to her faith, her husband, and her seat belt because parenting is about to up-end her life. I would tell her parenting is:

Digging deep into your reserves and finding a measure of happiness in the morning when you are NOT a morning person and hate being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6am. Positive parenting means dying to your flesh and not biting your kids' heads off even when they are cackling and over their breakfast smoothies and driving you crazy.

Walking your youngest to the bus stop every morning, stealing a quick kiss as the bus arrives, and reminding him to wipe his mouth. Patient parenting means giving the reminder Every. Single. Day! if necessary, and doing it without the exasperation you so badly want to express.

Building a fabulous tree house the kids never use because they dreamed about camping in the backyard but decided bugs aren't worth the overnight. Gracious parenting means not holding it over their heads and being willing to play in the tree house with them anyway.

Standing on the driveway and hearing your oldest cough as she walks to the bus, wondering if she's ready to return to school after a sick day. Confident parenting means trusting the ibuprofen and antibiotics to do their jobs.

Having coffee with the parent of your kid's friend so you can wrestle through worries about your kids' growth and find the balance between faith and fear. Faithful parenting means remembering God loved our babies before we ever could, knowing He has a plan for their lives that we may never see come to fruition (at least not in our lifetimes), and trusting in His plan more than our own dreams.

Trying to stay one half step ahead of the changing landscape in your child's world that includes new technology and ancient math techniques and spelling words and Pokemon characters and sports teams and wavering loyalty to best friends. Strategic parenting means discerning which obstacles in the changing landscape are worth an intervention and which ones are simple distractions that don't ultimately affect the end game.

Moving forward with an appointment you know is crucial for developing your teen's confidence and character, even though she begs you to not make her do this one thing. Steadfast parenting means getting out of the car amidst your child's protest, ringing the doorbell, and standing beside her while an expert teaches techniques to enhance her natural beauty.

Planning donut dates and getting up early with your kid on a Saturday morning, when you'd rather sleep late. Energetic parenting means sharing your newspaper ritual because your child just wants to be close to you and do the things you do.

Cracking jokes and starting tickle fights because SOMEONE needs to lighten the mood in the house. Joyful parenting means seeking out moments of whimsy because memories are made when we're laughing together and finding adventure wherever the wind blows us.

Saying yes, finally, to that dog she's been asking for since her preschool days. Generous parenting means granting wishes every now and then, and making the desires of your child's heart become reality (and it also means loving that dog as much as she loves him, too).

Calling a counselor when you see signs of the very same struggle you had at that very same age, realizing you aren't an expert and there's no shame in asking for professional help. Hopeful parenting means letting go of the guilt you heap on your own shoulders (wondering if you're to blame for your child's struggle) and hopeful parenting sees the wisdom God had in giving that kid to THIS parent because THIS parent is one of the few who would understand the struggle and could share the experience like no one else.

Being needed for the routines of life in a busy household: making the meals, folding the laundry, morning wakings and bedtime snuggles, signing the school papers, going to PTO/Scout/fundraiser meetings, volunteering, and remembering which yogurt is the favorite when you're standing in the grocery aisle (the one without chunks). Sacrificial parenting means the kids won't be able to return the favor and you may never see the investment pay dividends, but you do it anyway simply because it was done for you.

Taking joy in your child's triumphs and successes, but not taking the credit because you know you're only a stone's throw away from failure and hard life lessons. Wise parenting means praying for protection from pain while simultaneously asking God for a tiny, manageable bit of loss because you know loss is what grows your kids' maturity.

Looking like a complete fool when you're the only one wearing a superhero costume to the school's family fun night, or you plan a family picnic beside a stream that ends up being full of runoff from a nearby sewage treatment plant. Resilient parenting means laughing at yourself, saying "Oops," and - literally - going with the flow.

Nagging them to empty the dishwasher or clean their bedroom until their conscience takes over the task. Responsible parenting means working myself out of my job as I teach my kids to take care of themselves so one day they actually can.

Modeling surrender to God's call on your life so your kids will see how faith's whispers are somehow louder than fear's shouts. Submissive parenting means you're a family leader only because you first learned to be a follower of Jesus, knowing you can't lead well unless you've learned how to follow first.

Putting your hand on your heart and singing the National Anthem when no one else is doing it because you know it's the right thing to do and you want your kids to learn what duty and honor look like. Honorable parenting means showing respect to the people who lead us, those who have sacrificed for us, and pursuing liberty for people who can't fight for themselves.

Modeling vulnerability, admitting your mistakes, and asking forgiveness when you've caused pain to someone else. Humble parenting means apologizing (especially to your kids) when you've been less than your best.

Parenting is being intentional about setting yourself aside for the growth and well-being of another human being. It's the hardest job I've ever had, but I'm grateful for my two trainers named Katie and Jackson.

They are making me better at it every single day.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Letter to President Trump (written by my daughter)

January 23, 2017

President Donald J. Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington D.C. 20003-3228

Dear President Trump,

I hope that you are doing well. My name is Katie. I go to *** Middle School in Missouri, and I am currently in 8th grade. Recently my History teacher, Mrs. Richardson, gave the students an opportunity to write to you about what we want you to accomplish during your term as president. When I first heard about this assignment, I had no idea what to write. But as I started to think about it, I realized there are a number of things I want to address.

I think the people are the most important thing. I want you to reunite people. Right now, our country is tremendously split. People are ready to attack each other without thinking, and that makes me very uncomfortable. I feel like our country does great things when we are working together. I know that is your slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and I think this is agreeable. I hate to see people being left out because they are different, they have a different skin color, or they are a different gender. I fully support gay rights, as multiple friends of mine consider themselves Bisexual or Pansexual. They struggle with figuring out who they are, which people care about them, and if they are ever welcome in this world. I want you to pull them out of this and tell them that it is ok for them to be different. The world wasn’t created for us to all be the same. We all have our quirks, and some people are ok with standing out. Others aren't, and we have to be ok getting pulled out of our comfort zone.

The most meaningful thing out of anything, though, is the people you surround yourself with. I constantly have to make the decision of who I want to spend time with, because sometimes I get stuck in a friendship that is not healthy for me. I think spending time with people I care about and trust is the thing that makes me more successful. Yes, you will make mistakes, and that is what makes you human. My friends are important to me because I can share my struggles with them. Please surround yourself with people who look up to you. Work alongside people who have a good influence on you so that you can make good decisions for America’s future. I want you to be a wise leader who works in agreement with people who have different morals and perspectives.

I dedicate myself to my faith. I don’t know what religion you are, but I live my life for only Jesus. I go to a church that welcomes everyone. There are pastors and associates that care so much about the community. They listen to people when they have a heavy burden, speak about the Bible so passionately, and are there for us all throughout school. I attend my Youth group regularly, and my pastor teaches us new things and digs into the Bible. I’m not saying all these things to influence your religion, but what I do what to do is pray for you. Here is exactly what I’m praying:

God, please help President Trump to become more than just our president. Help him to become someone that people look up to, not someone that people did not wish were president. Help him to accept that people have different opinions, but that different opinions are good. Help President Trump be a discerning leader who is ok with different cultures, races, and genders. I pray he is open to suggestions and respectful around other people. May he show kindness and compassion to people who are suffering, under pressure, or need someone to listen to them. But most of all, I pray for President Trump to be a leader of our country who will earn people’s trust and care for others. Ephesians 6:10 says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you are able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” God, please help President Trump to stand strong through his mistakes. Amen.

Thank you so much for taking time to read this letter. This is really important to me. I hope you will consider my ideas. Thank you again.

Sincerely,
Katie

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Prayer for the Merciful

God, thank You for this spiritual gift that pulls me off the sidelines in the game of life and puts me in the middle of the fight. I am grateful that You allow me to reflect Your light into the hardest moments of another’s life. When the rest of the world runs from a person who is suffering or grieving or recovering or grasping for hope, You gave me the gift of mercy that eases her ache.

Thank You for weaving mercy into the fabric of my being. You did that slowly, stitch by stitch giving me mercy lessons as You sat beside me in the devastating losses of my life. You comforted me so I could comfort others one day. You gave me a good memory that holds tightly enough to my past pain so it can fuel me for the future comfort of others, yet holds pain loosely enough to allow Your healing to enter my loss. I learned mercy from You, Father. When I saw You bring beauty from my ashes, I was ordained as a mercy minister to follow in the steps of my Teacher.

I am still learning from You, knowing these mercy lessons don’t have a graduation date. The school of mercy is ongoing and everlasting, and the first days of sprinting have given way to a marathon.

God, this is such a hard road to run. The mercy You instilled in me means I cry when others cry. I bleed when loved ones bleed. I am restless when sleep doesn’t come to the mourners around me.

I need Your protection, Lord. Show me how to walk into the pain and share a portion of the load instead of carrying another’s crisis solo. Nudge me when I push my boundaries too far. Slow my steps when I am trying to dance to my own mercy rhythms, instead of letting You lead. Most of all, God, don’t let my prideful self get in the way of the only true Healer: You! I am the echo of Your love, not the source of Love itself.

I love doing Your work, God. You made me for silent sitting and tear wiping and hand holding and heartbreak hugging. You blended encouragement into my mercy gift, enabling me to offer hope and a smile in the darkest nights. Thank You for choosing me to help your Beloveds feel Your presence and see the tangible works of Your hands.

Amen.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The Year of Quitting

It's the last day of 2016. It's been a hard year locally, nationally, and globally. It's also been a hard year for me personally: in parenting, in marriage, in personal struggles, and in painful grief. There were *some* good moments this year, and I'm tenaciously clinging to them so I don't throw out the entire year.

I started this blog post with a plan to rehash all the bad so I could also note the good and attempt to find praise in the pain. But I really don't want to drag myself back to January by way of fall then summer then spring, and I'm sure you don't want to go on that ride either.

I do want to view 2016 from a bird's eye rise-above-it perspective, so I am looking at the year with a focus on progress. More specifically, progress through quitting. In no special order, here are the things I quit in 2016 - some good and some bad.
*I quit saying yes to all proposals to hustle.
*I quit Christmas cards. (I may send Happy New Year cards instead, but I quit deciding that until next year.)
*I quit sending immediate text responses, opting to pause at least a few moments before most replies.
*I quit underselling myself and raised my photo session rates.
*I quit trying to please church leaders.
*I quit big holiday decorations and went with the minimal.
*I quit worrying about the cost of traveling and said yes to being with family when their milestone events called for a visit.
*I quit letting fear dictate and finally launched my website (www.HisEchoes.com) where I'm posting devotions weekly and housing my photography portfolio.
*I quit worrying what people would think if they read my personal blog (www.sixgoldencoins.blogspot.com) and went public with it. [And it hasn't killed me... yet!]
*I quit nursing a cut from an old friend when loss stung deeper than the cut.
*I quit wondering WHAT IF about that tattoo and finally got it!
*I quit sitting in pain and fought for my marriage.
*I quit being a stand off and showed up for people I love even when their beliefs were a contrast to all my regimental Pharisee rules.
*I quit wondering what anyone else but Jesus would say when I spoke at my friends' wedding.
*I quit sitting on the sidelines and said yes to skin in the game.
*I took the bite out of a specific insult and turned it into a compliment, letting my raging mercy flag fly.
*I quit waiting to be invited and decided to do the inviting instead, forming a book study group of women who challenged me to Live Loved.
*I quit making excuses for a small group commitment and said yes to a Two/42 group with friends.
*I quit expecting forgiveness to appear magically and began the hard work of repairing wounds and getting help by starting counseling again.
And tomorrow, the first day of 2017, I am quitting one more thing: Facebook. I can't fully withdraw from it because of business usage, so I'm limiting it to one day a week. As much as I love the connections I make there and the opportunities it's given me (our annual pillow fight day or caroling for a cancer patient or making a friend in the airport), the Facebook negativity isn't worth those connections right now.

As best I can, I'm quitting the negative Republican/Democrat political posts. I'm quitting the hustle of more more MORE from acquaintances who want me to buy/sell/launch/promote in a type of relationship that isn't truly relating. I'm quitting the lie that I need a platform to become a writer, instead opting for a couch where I can become a friend.

I'm ready for the fresh and simple hope and encouragement that 2017 *might* bring. Of course, it might also bring pain and loss and fear again. If so, at least I know I can survive it. I've made it through 1993, 1996, 2004, 2005, 2013, and now - blessedly - 2016.

Happy new year (and happy quitting!) to all of you!
via Glennon Doyle Melton

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