Last week, my second son arrived at my house with a movie crew. He did this the morning after a three day dance competition in Baltimore, which was a couple days after Patrick had surgery, which was a couple days after another dance competition. And there was soccer thrown in. And funerals. And crazy ridiculous professional challenges. But back to that movie crew. They arrived just as I was leaving to take Katie to the ER. And in the six hours I was gone, they transformed my house.
I think there were about 18 kids. They arrived early in the morning of our first 90 degree Virginia day. Christian wrote a screenplay that begins and ends with a little girl going to bed–he wrote it with his 8-year-old sister in mind. So, the movie crew needed her bedroom. Except that her bedroom didn’t work for lighting. So they needed to turn Stephen’s bedroom into her bedroom. And then they needed another room up there for a Green Room. And another for costuming. The dining room was for feeding hungry college kids all night long. (Oh, did I mention that this shoot required darkness outside? Yep, it did.) And the living room was for spreading equipment all over the place. One scene was shot in the family room. The kitchen was a command center for laptops and video playback and whatever else.
And by the way, we discovered the air conditioning upstairs wasn’t working. In the heat, under the lights, all night long, they went after the right shot, the right tone, the right nuance to make the vision come to life.
It was a kind of a crazy night. Crazy wonderful.
Karoline worked with the crew beautifully. Stephen and Nick helped with whatever they could. Kristin scooped up Katie (she’s fine) and Sarah for a sleepover. Mary Beth made a quick exit for a friend’s house. And Christian--my boy who spent his childhood creating sets out of cardboard and duct tape and watching each movie more critically than the next—was the director he’s always known he was born to be.
I waved off the last of the crew around 4:30 AM. I rose at 6:30 to claim my bit of quiet time.
All things considered, they’d done a wonderful job cleaning up. Still, there were little remnants of creativity everywhere I turned. Intermingled with Christian’s movie things were the creative pursuits of the littlest girls. And in every corner, reminders that we never really finished unpacking and putting away after the dance shows.
My sewing machine still sat on a center island, paying homage to frantic, last minute sewing before leaving for dance and a little midnight adjustment of a flannel nightgown on a summer-hot night under movie lights.
I have educated all these children at home, all these years. Four of them are high school graduates. One is a college graduate. Two more are on the brink of graduating university. And one is 3 credits shy of finishing her first year of college (before her peers finish their senior year of high school). We wedged senior prom in with semester finals. That alone took considerable creativity.
It occurs to me that this home education thing doesn’t really look much like the ones so carefully outlined in the classical education books I devoured when these big kids were little and I was super idealistic. It doesn’t look much like those well-organized plans I loved to make. It’s always looked more or less like a bit of a mess. The education is real and it's purposeful and it's always been more about their passions than my plans.
This is who we are. We are a sunroom store to sell “Quotes and Cliches,” embellished in glitter glue. We are cardboard sets and YouTube videos. We are painting a favorite saint. We are writing a screenplay. We are creating websites. We are Bibles and paper everywhere. We are dancing, choreographing dance, teaching dance, and costuming dances.
Some of us write.
We are creative.
As an aside, we are also very serious about soccer –which actually requires a hefty dose of creativity if one is to succeed on the field. There is an NCAA Championship trophy beneath the Emmy. But that’s likely an essay for another day.
After they left us, the movie crew went to shoot in an old church. My father and stepmother showed up on set to deliver boxes of donuts to sleepy, hungry, still enthusiastic moviemakers. The creative support system runs deep in this family. From there, they went to film in a cave. They ran into some trouble logistically and Friday found me more than a little worried about the success of the project.
Kristin was over with Lucy. She had a pattern in her hands and some thoughts about baby dresses and hats and as I fell apart a little worrying about the Director, I took out fabric and made suggestions and envisioned sweet baby outfits. Kristin set to work at the dining room table and I –in the midst of so many more pressing things to do—pulled out every bit of fabric I owned and refolded and stacked. And prayed.
By the time those shelves were back in order and I’d promised myself to attend to some of my own creative impulses very soon, Christian texted to tell me he’d solved his problem.
I know my house won’t always be full of the ideas of my children. But I have a hunch that this will be a haven for artists for years to come—whether to bounce a script idea, or find a willing editor, or raid the fabric stash and then let little aunties teach the toddler to pirouette while someone sews on my machine, the heart of my home nourishes the heart of the artist. It’s likely I will spend many more years picking up the pieces left behind by children who know they were created in the image of the Creator.
And I’m glad.
In case you haven't noticed, I've been struggling to find my voice here lately outside of #morningrun. I'm not sure why, though I do have some hunches. I love my blog, so I'm tying to push through and find my voice again, or perhaps, to find a new voice. Emily, at Chatting at the Sky, has invited readers to share what they learned in February.
That seems like a great way to begin chatting again.
1. I learned that I am happier when I begin my day outdoors. (Apparently this is a lesson I need to learn over and over again.) I really, really miss my summer walks and runs. I've tried to be good about getting to the gym, but it's a lot more complicated than rolling out of bed and hitting the trails right outside my door. It's trickier when I need to figure in transit time and traffic and such and it's also not nearly as motivating to run on a treadmill. I love the outdoors and I thought that I could walk or run outside as much as I had in the summer. But ice. And subzero wind chills. So, no. When I do get out there, I've been listening to The Fringe Hours. It's good to be given permission for self-care and this book definitely does that! I hope to chat with you more about it when the needle & thREAD feature makes its return.
2. Mike has been traveling a lot lately. We sat down Sunday afternoon, as the ice did its thing outside and we mapped out the spring. I learned it looks daunting. I think I heard him hyperventilating. We have lots of kids at an active stage of life and he is highly sought after in Connecticut and DC and Florida. Much juggling of the calendar and some frequent flier miles to bank. Ours was a long distance relationship when we were in college. Little did I know that some of those relationship skills would be refined over the course of our lifetime. I'm still learning.
3. I have a real life friend who will sit with my girls while they throw up. That is one "for real" friend! Her presence in my very messy house with my very messy girls early on a Sunday was necessitated by the fact that I also have a friend who will scoop my son off a soccer field (which he has made a bloody mess) and hurry him to the ER so that a plastic surgeon can stitch his cheek back together. Thirty-seven stitches later, we learned that Stephen's soccer team is made of people who don't flinch and don't turn the other way; they gather and support. That was a hard, hard week. Mike was gone. All the girls were extremely sick. Stephen was a bit of a mess. I also learned that...
4. My orthodontist and pediatrician are pretty much the best. My orthodontist saw pictures of Stephen on social media and texted me immediately to tell me he wanted to see him. Upon close (and very gentle) inspection, we learned that the permanent retainer cemented to the back of his teeth saved his teeth. It's definitely taken a good knock but it held and though the teeth were knocked around, they were braced. So, yay! My pediatrician also wanted to see Stephen right away. He hung with us closely through the weeks of concussion evaluation, alternating between concern for Stephen and concern for Mary Beth, who has caught one nasty infection after another. Lesson there: the first year of teaching in an early childhood setting will yield all kinds of germ exposure, especially if you've never gone to school. Poor girl. When I'm flying solo, and everyone seems to be super needy at the same time, it's good to know that the people we've chosen for health care are invested in us. (<--absolutely NOT a paid promotion.)
5. One skill that Mike and I have gotten much better at in the last couple years is making time for focused attention with each other. We really, really benefit from one-on-one, totally uninterrupted time. And we are learning to look for the small pocket of time, call in our resources, and seize the opportunity. We launched February by practicing this strategy really well. Through some ridiculous logistical gymnastics, Mike and I were able to get away for about 24 hours. We went to Charlottesville to see the soccer team honored for their NCAA championship at a UVa basketball game. We stopped at JMU to pick up Christian on our way, so that he could hang out with Paddy. The game was so much fun--crazy electric atmosphere of ESPN Game Day in a place filled with students fired up about an unbeaten season.
We left at halftime. It wasn't that we don't both love college basketball. It was more about the fact that we hadn't seen each other in over a week and we were staying at my folks' house and they weren't home. The thought of an entire evening with no interruptions and no obligations other than each other? Opportunity seized. Such a great night and so nice to wake early on Sunday, go to Mass alone together, and gather the boys so that we could prop them up and feed them breakfast. (They'd clearly enjoyed their Saturday night, too.)
6. I learned that Liberty University offers an excellent online education. Mary Beth is fully enrolled this semester. It's been a challenge for both of us as she learns to navigate the demands of college and the nuances of online education (and a couple of jobs). What she is being offered is so much better than the dual enrollment experiences the boys had at community college for their senior years in high school that I'm peaceful about the higher price tag.
7. My teen boys have pretty good taste in music. I let them man the radio buttons to and from soccer and I've added to my repertoire lately. Upon their recommendation, I've become a fan of Ed Sheeran and Andy Grammer. It's a little disconcerting when my six-year-old belts out "Honey, I'm Good" on endless repeat, but I've learned that the the culture infiltrates the childhoods of kids #7, #8, and #9 and we kind of have to roll with that. The video is pretty darn cute, by the way.
8. Soccer can and will be played year 'round, regardless of the weather. I have now witnessed soccer when the real temperature is 7 degrees and the wind chill is hovering around zero. I've watched how the artificial turf reacts to an inch or so of sleet and how 14-year-old boys think playing in that is about the most fun you can have in February. And I've seriously considered one of these. And a space heater.
I've talked about some of these things and some more significant life lessons over at Mercy Found Me. Jacque Watkins is such a good listener! And her blog is just so great--indulge in a little reading over there if you have a few moments.
What have you learned lately?
There has been a palpable shift in my household in the last year. Three boys have gone off into the world, leaving a girl as the eldest at home. Then there are two more boys, then three more girls.
We have a mostly girl house now.
And yet, I find myself thinking even more about boys--because, well, as girls grow they start thinking about boys. Suddenly, I am aware that other people’s boys are going to figure heavily into my days for the foreseeable future. My big boys text me from afar, checking in, sharing their days, telling tales, confiding secrets. All their information passes through a new filter—these are the boys in the lives of someone else’s daughter. It’s not that I never considered that before. I’ve prayed for the women who will one day marry by sons. (Sometimes, I’ve even apologized in advance.) I’ve prayed for the parents of those one-day wives as well.
But this is different somehow. As my daughter sits on the edge of my bed late into the night and we talk about those qualities that make a man a good husband, I want to call my big boys back. I want to be certain that they know. I want to ensure that they are the heroes in another girl’s story. Because it’s increasingly obvious that heroes are in short supply. I want those boys to know that a young woman, lovely in the evening light, has a precious heart. I want them to love well.
This is a harsh culture in which to become a man. Our vision of godly manhood has been distorted in the glare of screens. Conversations are hurried and stilted, limited by the 6 seconds and the 30 characters on a Snapchat screen. Those short snippets of communication make 140 character tweets look like a luxury. Did I remember to tell the boys to pull off the online highway frequently? Do they know that true friendships deepen and grow when you hear a voice, or better still, look into someone else’s eyes? The heroes? They aren’t likely to be captured inside an iPhone. They are larger than life. The heroes show up for real.
The story of the true life hero isn’t a fairytale at all. It’s a God story. A genuine hero knows that harmony and wholeness doesn’t come at the wave of a magic wand. It begins when he walks hand in hand with Jesus and then invites a girl to come along. Could she be the one to introduce him to Jesus? Sure. But sooner than later, he needs to walk the walk for himself. That path is where he learns that to be mighty means to kneel low, to serve, to give until it hurts. The boys who are real men, heroic men, want to change the culture by loving the least of these. They seek the sacrifice of the altar instead of the sound of applause.
As we talk late, the light catches her hair and is cast over the fine chisel of her cheekbones and I’m startled. Where did the round baby face go? The girl who swung from trees and kind of scoffed at the princesses in fairy tales, the one who was wedged in the middle of all those boys—she’s a young woman now. The education of a sister in the middle of all the boys has served her well. She doesn’t miss a trick. She knows a hero when she sees one.
She knows that Prince Charming doesn’t come galloping on a white horse. She knows she’s strong and capable and not in need of rescuing. She knows too, that there are real life heroes out there—young men who are bold and unafraid and virtuous and strong in all the right places. Most importantly, she knows that her hero is not perfect. We are all broken. We are all desperately in need of a savior. Even the heroes—maybe especially the heroes—are better and more equipped to answer the call when they are fortified by the encouragement and prayers of the kind and true girl.
We have soccer goals set up in our backyard year ‘round. It’s a big backyard relative to most in our neighborhood and I’ve always imagined a gigantic garden all planted to bear goodness at least three seasons a year. Instead, we have a very small garden shoved up against the side of the house and a great, big soccer field.
I’ve spent hours (maybe cumulatively months or years) on the sidelines at soccer games, watching children of all sizes play the game. Looks simple enough; run and kick the ball. Night after night, when our boys were mostly smaller than me, they’d play “family soccer” outside with Dad. I was grateful for my pregnant and nursing excuses, but still I thought it looked pretty simple.
One day, I tried. The biggest of my boys were teenagers then. I had a girl well old enough to mind the baby and I got out there to run and kick with them. It was hard. It wasn’t even close to easy. I was wheezing in the middle of the backyard before long at all.
I’ve been thinking about that afternoon a lot lately. When all my babies were little, the days were long and sometimes the nights were longer. There were most definitely challenges. But I didn’t really consider it “hard.” I loved the long days and challenging nights and relating to small children came naturally to me. Truth be told, I understood people who hated the baby years about as well as my 12-year-old future National Team player understood my inability to execute a pass to him while being guarded by his brother. There was such joy in wee ones! It’s not hard! It’s a “good tired”—the kind you get after playing hard and scoring the winning goal in overtime at the State Cup.
Then we hit the teenage years. Sometimes I think I’m as suited to being a mother of teenagers as I am to being a forward on the National Team. I still liked being outside, wind on my face and fresh grass under my feet, but I wasn’t all that equipped for the game. Mothering teenagers, for me, takes a good deal more work and persistence and concentrated effort than mothering six children under twelve did. It doesn’t come naturally.
I watch as my children attempt new skills. This one can draw and it seems effortless. That one, six years her sister’s senior, struggles to capture same image, never satisfied with her result. This one has run rings around his competition, always, always confident with a ball at his feet. That one melted into midfield one day when he was six and swore through hot tears that he hated everything about the game. But they each have strengths in their own places.
The thing about motherhood if we are called at all, is that we are all called to be strong in this vocation. We cannot dissolve into a puddle on the soccer field and opt out in favor of a basketball court. We’re in this thing for the duration.
When it becomes difficult, when we are being pushed to grow and change and learn well beyond the curve, we tend to wrap ourselves in self-criticism and guilt. In begins almost imperceptibly. A little voice in our heads, reminds us that we aren’t doing it right and we didn’t do it right. Other mothers seem to manage effortlessly. We stumble around this age or that new stage and seem to do nothing but mess things up.
Take heart! I remind myself every day. Take heart! We cannot put on the mantle of self-criticism and guilt. If we do, our days are cloaked in fear and self-loathing. The reality is that being a good parent doesn’t come naturally to anyone. It’s not effortless. God doesn’t call us because He knows we’re capable. He calls us because He knows that His power is made perfect in our weakness. He speaks into our hearts the words of St. Paul, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Content with weakness. Not to give up and sigh a wistful sigh of regret. Not to berate oneself for being insufficient. But content to know that He comes to us in the weaknesses and it is then that He strengthens us. It’s in the struggles that we grow. And it’s in our weakness that we lean most heavily on Christ.
God is all about making the impossible possible. He’s all about taking the woman who’s been afraid of teenagers since she was a teenager and equipping her to raise up to four at a time for 26 consecutive years. (See? He knew it would take me a long time to get it right.)
God makes the impossible possible. God takes the things that don’t come naturally and infuses them with grace. In the end, whether it’s soccer, or pencil drawings, or raising children, it’s not about us. It’s about Him.