You Will Think Your Life Is Over . . .

Milk DudOne blazing September day last year, Laura and I traveled between tobacco fields and down dirt roads in Nowhere, Kentucky, to adopt a green-eyed chocolate pup we’d seen only in pictures: Gordon Dudley. At home on our counter we had left behind our list of pros and cons for adopting a dachshund puppy. On that scribbled list, we had noted all we knew, the good and bad, about owning a dog. Turns out we should have listed all we didn’t know.

For instance, I didn’t know that a dog would refuse to eat except out of your hand. I didn’t know that a puppy wouldn’t sleep unless curled up between your legs. Didn’t know that he would attach himself to two people (dachshunds are prone to be devoted to one person) and show anxiety when one of those people is not in the room.

I didn’t know that a puppy shivered and ached for a whole day like an infant after getting his shots. I didn’t know a puppy experienced teething symptoms—the sickness, irritability, pain—like human children. I didn’t know a puppy threw tantrums, held grudges, sought revenge on rugs and couch cushions. And most bewilderingly, I didn’t know that a puppy did not merely add himself to your life—he became your world.

Now, after almost a year with Dudley, I can tell you this much—

When a dog comes into your life, you will think your life is over. But it’s not. Not yet.

The shower was my favorite place to cry in those early months. Sleep deprived and discouraged, I spent all my time after work training him or calming Laura from her frustration with training him all day in my absence. In the shower I could sob into a wash cloth and contemplate what we had done. I rehearsed my call to the breeder: No refund necessary—just take him back.

Seeing my puffy eyes later, Laura begged me not to say it. Ignoring her, I’d burst out,Dudleyblog3 “What were we thinking? Why did we get him?”

“Pal, we’ll give him until Christmas,” she promised. “If he’s not better by then, we’ll tie a bow around his neck and give him to someone we don’t like.”

It seemed that everyone we met had a story about a dachshund who lived an impressively long life. We were once waylaid in the park by an elderly couple who patted Dudley’s head and fondly recounted the recent passing of their own dachshund—at 18 years old.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Eighteen years sounded like a sentence of some kind. I’d be 48, about to enter menopause and not far from collecting social security, still trying to tie together the ends of my life that this dog had unraveled.

I’m hesitant to call those moments regret. They more closely resembled grief, bereavement for a life no longer wholly mine. My heart hadn’t expanded yet like a balloon, ready to be filled with love. I had to learn to let my life go, to call it over, before it could really begin.

You will think your life is over—but it has only just begun.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” the memes say. And there’s a lot of uncomfortable truth to that. Adopting a puppy broadened my life with understanding of a creature other than myself, and in that new understanding, it feels like my life is just beginning. Here are a few things Dudley has taught me.

1. Hard Things Will Become Easier with Time

It was hard for me to imagine a day when Dudley would play on his own withoutDuds sleeping needing a constant companion; when he would eat his food from his dish; when he wouldn’t need continual supervision to make sure he went potty outside.

Dachshunds are notoriously hard to housebreak. Those first months were torture, taking him outside every 20 minutes even in the dark and rain. Once he went a whole week without an accident in the house. We felt pleased at our training—until Laura found a turd graveyard beneath her bed. I’ve never felt so angry and betrayed. We yelled. We spanked him. We put him in his crate. I grieved again.

Eventually, of course, Dudley stopped peeing and pooping inside, learned to entertain himself, and is finally eating his food. Now I wonder, What did we love before Duds? What did we talk about? Where did we derive the joy of watching him root through each grocery bag to find a treat or toy? This very hard thing—one of the hardest things that  had ever done—got much easier. And gives me strength to think of doing other hard things.

2. Work Through Distraction. Duds misbehaved when he didn’t get enough sleep, so onDuds lyingweekends Laura and I put him in his crate, covered it with a blanket, and left the house so he would nap. During those times, we went to a cafe’ to write, and I finally started keeping up with my blog. With my determination to post a blog once a week, I soon discovered that I needed to be writing each evening. But Dudley didn’t make that easy. He wanted to play constantly, and needed to be supervised.

For a while, I resented the distraction, wanted to delay my creation until I found the perfect conditions. E. B. White, a man who knew a bit about the dachshund life, said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” He was right.

It took practice, but eventually I learned to write a sentence at a time while throwing a stuffed toy or petting a velvety head or balancing a computer on top of a puppy on my lap. And I learned to be grateful for the distraction. Without Dudley, I might not have started writing again. Sometimes only a great disruption can give us the discipline and structure to get things done.

3. Let Go of Things. Dudley added so much to our lives—joy, laughter, purpose, an object for our love. But for each thing he brought, he also took something. Sleep went first to his Duds and LAmbiepuppy bladder calling at 4:30 a.m., then to a full-grown dog—the longest dog you’ll ever meet—stretching horizontally in my bed and kicking my kidneys.

I’ve said goodbye to a clean apartment and hello to bites of unwanted kibble by the food dish, half-chewed antlers on the couch, and cotton entrails of mutilated stuffed toys strewn across the room like a crime scene. I lost the freedom to leave for day excursions without worrying about Dudley and feeling guilty for leaving him alone.

I’ve lost money on food he refused to eat, toys he demolished, and a computer cord that suffered the brunt of his boredom. I lost grocery store receipts, a brand new decorative blanket, and to-do lists on chewed up sticky notes. But I also lost the need for order and perfection. Life, in large part, is just figuring out what is worth holding onto and what is worth letting go.

4. Look for Cause and Effect. When we walked up to the breeder’s kennel, Dudley refused to come forward. He was trapped behind the gate, and though happily wagging his tail, he refused to push his way out to see us. The breeder reached behind the gate to gather the handful of wiggling pup. A few weeks later, after discovering Dudley’s fear of going under things, we understood his refusal to crawl beneath the gate.

We’ve also learned that when he needs to poop, he runs around frantically. When he starts tearing at the rug, he’s upset that we haven’t DudleyBlogplayed with him; when he’s digging at the couch, there’s a toy underneath; when we praise him, he behaves much better than when we punish him. I’ve learned the beautiful symmetry of cause and effect and now try to look for it without hasty, simplistic judgment.

5. Get Past Just. I can’t bring myself to say, “He’s just a dog.” If ever you hear someone say that a dog doesn’t have feelings, don’t believe him. Duds is a dog, for sure; but he’s more than just a dog—he’s a creature who deserves my respect.

When I take the time to look into his eyes, to see him cock his head and try so hard to understand my words, I know that just is often an excuse for my bad behavior. It reminds me of other just phrases: She’s just a teenager. He’s just a boy. She’s just got a temper. I’m just a no name. You’re just a loser. Just is often the start of abuse, disrespect, or dismissive behavior—toward creatures and humans.

You thought your life was over—but then it is.

No puppy website adequately warned me that my life would be filled not only with warm hand licks and soft bellies, but also bags of poop, impacted anal glands, putrid teething breath, maddening hours waiting for him to find the right squat spot, and Duds and Flowerthe knowledge that all this—his life and my life as I’ve known it—will end.

To hold a dog is to embrace a life of concentrated joy yet inevitably swift sadness. Their lives are only a fraction of ours, forcing us to make the most of each day. The current fullness of my heart informs my future depth of emptiness. How long would the carpet take to smooth out from the imprint of his crate. How long would it take me to gather his toys from where he last left them?

Whenever the end comes, it will come too soon. So for now I stroke that soft spot on the side of his neck, kiss between his eyes, breathe in the sweetness of his fur, and love him.

The heart is a great alchemist, over time turning inconvenience into pleasure, frustration into joy, resistance into love. Time, if we’re listening, teaches us to be better humans. I didn’t know much when Dudley entered my life, but my time with him has taught me what Roger Caras knew: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

me and dudley

 

 

 

Drive Reckless: 8 Lessons for Becoming the World’s Worst Dad

This weekend, millions of children will celebrate the men who, in some way or another, shaped their lives. In glowing Hallmark prose set to the backdrop of tools, golf clubs, grill aprons, footballs, and fishing poles, the nation celebrates the admirable attributes of the men we call “Dad.”

Dads, I know you aspire to earn those cards that name you “World’s Best Dad.” But let’s face it—how many of you actually reach that level of perfection?

If you’re set on getting an award this Father’s Day, maybe instead you should be reaching for a more attainable achievement—something like Okayest Father Certificate or Worst Dad of the Year Award. To get you started on your award-winning journey, here are eight lessons you could learn from my own father about how to be the world’s worst dad.

  1. Take yourself too seriously. When your daughter is taking a road trip and you tell her to drive safe, and she says, “No, duh,” be sure to get offended and lecture her. Whatever you do, from that point on, don’t tell her to “Drive reckless” each time she takes a trip. And when a woman strikes up a conversation about cube steaks in the grocery store meat department and your daughter asks, “Why in the world did she ask you about cube steaks?” don’t shrug and say, “I must look like a guy who’s eaten a cube steak.” Be sure to get offended easily and grouse about how you “don’t get no respect.”
  2. Don’t bother to learn new things. Don’t stand alone in every museum, zoo, or aquarium after your family has moved on, poring over signs, reading every line of information. Don’t have something to say about nearly every topic, offering facts you gleaned from your addiction to NPR. When you’re watching I Love Lucy, don’t say, “You know, John Wayne once said she was the prettiest woman in Hollywood.” And when you’re playing Scrabble, don’t eye the board with a poker face, then end the game with a word (stakeout) worth 152 points. It’s important to maintain the “stupid dad” role.
  3. Don’t teach your kids to appreciate nature. Don’t bring home garter snakes or praying mantises or snapping turtles. Don’t point out spider egg sacs—like Charlotte’s magnum opus—or the giant red velvet ants in the yard or luna moths on the screen at night. Don’t raise a squirrel kit, name it Earl, let it ride around in your shirt pocket, and, when the time comes, let it go back to nature. Don’t encourage your son to collect snakes and lizards. Don’t keep a baby crocodile named George. And especially don’t bring home an injured red-tailed hawk (no seriously—don’t do it. It’s illegal!), don’t build a cage, nurse it back to health, or set it free. Don’t fondly call your family’s crusty tom cat “Old Man” and invite him to sit on your chest because you’re the only human being that he prefers—and you kind of like that exclusivity.
  4. Don’t take advantage of teachable moments. When your daughter shows you the cross-stitch she just finished, don’t praise her and then turn it over to point to the chaotic back and explain how life is sometimes like that—messy in order to make something beautiful. And when she crashes through yet another piano recital, her nervous hands shaking off the keys, but finishes on the right note, don’t go to her room later and tell her that it’s not how she starts but how she finishes that counts.
  5. Avoid trying new things and taking adventures. Don’t go to Big Lots or the dent and discount store up the road just to see what funky foods you can try, like the newest cereal flop or offbeat snack flavor that didn’t even make it to the store shelves. And don’t take a drive with your daughter to find a cottage in the woods where you took her years ago on a workday and where she fell in love with it while you built cabinets in the kitchen. And when you can’t remember where the house is, don’t drive down every back road and driveway trying to jostle your memory, and in the end never find it but make good memories anyway.  And when business takes you about an hour away from where she lives in Florida, don’t ask her to come see you, and when she forgets her suitcase, don’t walk her through every Walmart and Goodwill in the tiny town, picking up tacky outfits that you genuinely admire and she genuinely abhors. Always be sure to play it safe and don’t take risks—just stay in front of the television, maybe.
  6. Freak out during emergencies. Don’t stay calm when the tire falls off your family’s van going 75 mph down an interstate and then pilot the careening vehicle across four lanes of traffic to safety. And when your wife cuts her hand on a broken dish in the kitchen, don’t raise your voice a little to make her calm down. When a kid is running through J.C. Penney and runs smack into a metal rack, don’t stay with the mother until paramedics come to sew up the kid’s bleeding gash.
  7. Don’t teach your children to be comfortable talking to people. Don’t embarrass your kids by asking hotel clerks for discounts, the pizza guy for “no shows,” or perfect strangers for information. Don’t strike up a conversation with anyone wearing a T-shirt or sporting a bumper sticker on their car that might give you something to talk about. Don’t serve in small churches for your children’s whole lives, taking them along to pick up bus kids and handicapped church members. And when your state congressman inexplicably walks into the diner where you take your daughter for her birthday lunch, don’t stop the man on his way to the restroom to thank him for his service and ask his opinion about Washington politics.  Teach your kids not to talk to strangers and to be suspicious of everyone.
  8. Don’t be vulnerable or open. If you remember nothing else, get this in your head: don’t show your children that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Don’t tell the story from your childhood of the dusk when you killed dozens of fireflies with a paper plate, swatting them mid-glow, and later went inside racked with guilt. (If you tell your daughter that story, she might tell you that she once cried because she killed a wasp, watching it suffer and writhe on the windowsill, doused in Windex.) Don’t tear up at Frank Capra movies or choke with emotion when you read one of your daughter’s stories. Hold it together—grown men don’t cry. Don’t make it awkward.

So there you have it: some tips from my dad on how to be the world’s worst father. Of course Dad never quite got it right—in fact he ended up doing the opposite of everything you’d want to do if you’ve got a low goal in mind. It would have been really easy for Dad to earn that “worst dad” status, but somehow he ended up raising five highly functional, fairly likeable, mostly OK-looking kids who love him and think he’s all right.

So happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the dads out there who go against these rules. You most definitely would not win a Worst Father of the Year Award.

What a bunch of losers.

Better luck next year.

 

 

 

 

The White Elephant in the Room: (Un)advice for Surviving Singleness

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“I just don’t get it,” my 11-year-old neighbor Zahara said, her eyebrows wrinkled with confusion. “Lots of ugly people are married, and you’re so pretty.”

A group of us were taking our customary walk around the neighborhood one evening a couple summers ago. Me—the 25-year-old single American girl—and them, preteen immigrant girls whose mothers were not much older than I was.

I had recently arrived home from grad school and once again was inundated by well-meaning friends, church family, and acquaintances with questions about my relationship status.

I always came back with plenty of stories—the boy I met at a missions summit, who was headed overseas and eager to make us official a week after meeting. Or the Asian guy who could barely speak English but starting cooking his native dishes for me after he found out I had a voracious appetite. Then there was the upperclassman who ordered me off the menu at the restaurant where I worked, and barely looked at me again after that night.

I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth.

I had read the books and taken pages of mental notes from my married and single friends. I didn’t want to end up alone, so I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth: what to look for, where to look, and sometimes not to look at all.

“As soon as you stop wanting a husband, that’s when God will bring you someone,” several people informed me.

“You find what you are looking for,” others claimed. “Keep your eyes open.”

So which was it?

“Christian college is the best place to find someone,” a pastor told me. “That’s where most people find their spouse.”

Not me, it appeared.

“Put yourself out there—you have to show a certain amount of interest, or guys won’t notice you.” But also, “Don’t show too much interest until he pursues. You can’t come on too strong.”

Still I finished college completely unattached, feeling like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party. Was something wrong with me? How had others found someone special so easily?

I felt like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party.

It’s easy to ask why. We want the answers so we can find a solution to the problem. Blaming something or someone seems to be the easiest solution, with God often bearing the brunt of our frustration. That way it’s out of our control, and He is responsible for our inability to find happiness through marriage. Outside of blaming another person, the other option is to blame myself. If it’s my fault, I have the power to fix it. I can try harder, go to the right places, say the right things. But sometimes in life, instead of finding the answers, we have to let go of the questions. We may never know why. And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to.

So what should we do as we try to let go of the questions and live fully? Ignore every piece of advice? Lash out at well-meaning friends and family for their questions? Bury every desire so deep inside that not even an FBI agent could find it? Here are a few things I try to remember.

  1. Trust God—above all. He is bigger than the statistics, the hurts, and the seemingly missed opportunities. Pay attention when He is closing a door or opening a new one. Go to Him with your desires—He’s got this.
  2. Take advice—with a grain of salt. Everyone has a story, and listening can encourage you. But realize that what worked for them might not necessarily work for you. Your life, your story is just that—yours. So don’t feel like you have to do things exactly like someone else.
  3. Take chances—every chance you get. Go beyond your comfort zone to serve and play. Be open to trying new things and going new places. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Build strong relationships with the people that God has placed in your life. Be raw, be real. And you just might be surprised by who joins you on the journey.

I didn’t have an answer for Zahara that night. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” I said. “God willing one day I will, but for now, I get to be with all of you.”

That answer seemed to satisfy the girls who nodded in agreement and echoed my sentiment into the gathering dusk. “God willing.”

The Secret of the Track

Track
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

I’m gonna tell you the secret of the track. You know—the track that everyone gets off and back on (1). But first I have a confession.

In my February blog post “Unintentionally Living Intentionally,” I talked about getting serious with a plan to use my time and my life most wisely. For almost a month, things went really great.  But then Laura got sick. Vet appointments and daylong babysitting gigs happened. I got pneumonia. My parents came to visit, and we spent two weeks in Maryland caring for Laura’s mother who had a recent surgery.  April was the cruelest month.

Every day we talked longingly about those three weeks of keeping a schedule—working out, getting up early, eating well, consistently writing. But we had jumped the well-laid track, it seemed, and derailed our plans, like the iconic crash in The Fugitive, the cars diving from the rails in a halo of sparks, grinding and scraping, jackknifing and furrowing to a halt. We were lethargic and discouraged. “We’ll get back on track, Pal,” Laura promised.

But the longer we waited, the more clearly I understood the secret of the track:

We hadn’t gotten off track at all. We simply stopped our train.

I feel like this idiom of getting back on track is simply a way to blame the train and track for the engineer’s failure. If some part of life (unexpected responsibilities, emergencies, needs of other people, the general swift passing of time) makes our schedule “go off the rails,” we are victims of the distractions and duties of life (2). And when we think of ourselves as victims, we’re frozen in our own self-pity, never moving forward while thinking something else is holding us back.

Here are three ways that I’m beginning to change my perspective so I can reclaim order to my life and chug on toward my goals.

1. I’m the Engineer—I am not the weeping, hapless passenger in the back of the parlor car. No, I am the engineer in the cab. I get to decide when to pull the brake and when to add coal. Unlike a train’s rigid departure schedule, my best-laid plans and routines are idealic things, often upset by the unexpected or the necessary or my indiscipline.

  • I wanted to start getting up early, but I stayed up too late reading or writing.
  • I wanted to exercise in the evening, but after work I had unexpected errands and events.
  • I meant to eat healthy, but there was Chick-fil-a frosted coffee and a moment of weakness. . . okay, several moments of weakness.
  • I meant to write and handletter consistently, but I just didn’t feel inspired (oh, brother).

After a week or two of not following the schedule, I pulled the emergency brake and ground to a complete halt, thinking I was a failure and life was working against me. But since realizing I’m in charge, it’s been easier to leave excuses at the station, take the blame for standing still, and start out again tomorrow.

2. Don’t Stop for Pennies—Since trains have been around, people have laid coins on the tracks, sadistically testing the myth that a penny can derail a train. A penny weighs only a few grams while a train weighs several hundred tons. As you might imagine, that penny is consistently flattened or even pressed right into the track or wheel. It seems ludicrous to think of something as small as a penny upsetting a train. But then again it’s usually little things that make me screech to a stop. So I’m learning to identify the things that waylay me—social media, sleeping in, apathy, sugar, priorities, discouragement—and either anticipate them, avoid them, or roll right over them.

3. Watch the ETA and Destination—I keep a notebook full of ideas for my blog, advice on SEO, a list of guest bloggers and artists I want to highlight, encouraging quotes, a monthly schedule for posts, my fears—and my goals. It helps me focus on what I’m doing each day and each month. I’m still not exactly sure of my final destination, and there’s not exactly an ETA— but I’ve got to keep moving and recalculate for the days when I stop (for pennies). I’ve got a freight load of goals, dreams, and purpose to haul, and only I can make sure they arrive on time.

Casey Jones
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

4. Ignore the schedule. Rather than trying so hard to stick to the schedule, sometimes it’s better to just ignore it entirely. Perfectionism is often the enemy of progress. I’ve got to stop obsessing over the ideal outcome and just focus on making as many good choices as I can. Even if I drink a frosted coffee, I can still go to bed early that night. If I get up late, I can still spend some time working out later. I decide where my train is headed, and sometimes that means forgiving myself for making choices that went against the plan and making a better choice the next time.

So if you’re feeling like your Little Engine That Could is in the ditch, remember—it’s only stopped at the bottom of the hill. Change your perspective, give it some steam, and start to climb.

I know you can. I know you can. I know you can.

the little engine
Image from The Little Engine That Could

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1. You can probably apply it to a walking track, but I prefer a train metaphor.

2. Of course I am not talking about the tragic and time-consuming unavoidable, such as moving cross country for a new job, becoming seriously ill, or recovering from the death of a loved one.

6 Messages You Should Be Writing in Your Mother’s Day Card

towels

Around this time every year, I stand at the rows of pink and floral and paisley cards, pulling them out, reading the message, stopping at the first line, rarely looking inside. Finally I collect a few and ask Laura, “Which one?”

But the real challenge starts when it comes time to write the personal note. This woman gave me life, raised me to adulthood, continues to be my support, yet I often stare at the vast open space of the card, drawing a complete blank.

I know I’m not alone. We love our mothers, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spell it out in strokes. Our first response is to write, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and be done with it. But this year, why not try one or two of these meaningful messages?

1. Thank You—  We grow into our gratitude like too big shoes. First it’s clunky and uncomfortable, with our parents hounding us to remember the words at every gift or favor. But eventually we make the words our own. And in more time still, we mean it. It’s a great unfairness that the years a mother spends doing the most are the years a child is most ungrateful. When we start doing the things our mother once did for us—cleaning, cooking, mending, keeping a general balance to life—we’re at once overwhelmed yet, perhaps for the first time, deeply grateful. There will never be a way to thank your mother for everything she’s done for you (though it might not be a bad exercise to try).

“Thanks for keeping the towels clean.”

So instead, find one small thing that your mother did well or faithfully, and make it stand for something greater. For example, I’ve been to houses with towel closets that are empty or in sloppy piles (which works for some people.) But I was accustomed to towers of fluffy linens. And it’s one of the things that I still associate with my mother’s meticulous care. In her Mother’s Day cards, I sometimes write, “Thanks for keeping the towels clean.” And I hope she knows it stands for all the thank yous I don’t have space to write.

2. I’m Sorry— Though I doubt good parents live for the days that their children return penitent for tantrums and tracked mud and mealtime calamity, it does a child good to recognize her trespasses. I sometimes tell my mom “I’m sorry,” but I never feel like I say it enough. Our own memory is kind to us, so I’m not sure I fully grasp what a handful I was. “Was I a bad child?” I’ve asked her. She just smiles and says, “No.” But there’s probably more to the story, and I’m hoping that, by being an upstanding adult and saying “I’m sorry” every so often, I can make some measure of restitution for whatever havoc I wreaked on her life. You might try saying it as well—chances are you’ve got plenty to apologize for.

“Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

3. You Are. . . —I realized a few years ago that I thanked my mother for what she did for me. But I never addressed who she is. She’s a great interior decorator, a masterful baker, a sender of thoughtful packages, a washer of towels, a problem solver. But those things indicate something about who she is. She’s creative, skilled, thoughtful, organized, and indomitable. Make a list of the things your mom does, and beside it identify her corresponding quality. It might even be enough to say, “Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

4. I’m Proud of You— Let’s face it. Mothers are usually the ones doling out this encouragement. But how often do they get it back? It might have been since just after high school graduation, before she got married and had you, since she last heard it. So turn the tables on her. How can you recognize her not just as your mother (which, granted, is probably her proudest accomplishment) but as a person who still has her own life and abilities? (Perhaps call on your list from number 3).

5. You Taught Me— I’m not a mother, but I have been a college teacher (which is a bit like being a mom.) One of the most encouraging and meaningful things that my students ever told me was what they learned from me. So this might seem counterintuitive on Mother’s Day, but talk about yourself. For instance, I might tell my mom, “I decorated my room with my favorite cards that I’ve been given over the years, just like you do. Thanks for teaching me how to be resourceful with my decorations.” In other words, “I am because you are.”  You might draw from the list of your mom’s actions and qualities from number 3. Think about which ones you emulate.

“I am because you are.”

6. I Love You— I hope the power of this phrase isn’t overshadowed by its obligatory, familiar nature. You’ll never hear a more empty phrase or a more full one than “I love you.” It’s one thing to write the word “Love” as your signature, but it’s another to intentionally write the words, “I love you, Mom.” Don’t hide behind the vestigial sixth-grade “gee-shucks-it’s-just-my-mom” feelings. Spell it out.

This Sunday, don’t let the card writers do all the talking. Make the opportunity count. Say I’m sorry, say I learned from you, say I’m proud of you—don’t just say Happy Mother’s Day.

Expecting Change: 3 Truths About the Unknown

JessJessica Marshall sat in my college writing classes for four years, always eager to learn. But I can take no credit for her raw talent and voice. The most I could do was encourage her to keep writing and keep practicing what she instinctively knew.  Since graduating in 2015 with a degree in professional writing, she has done just that. Between freelance editing and writing, she keeps The Gypsy Life blog. I’m so thankful to call her a fellow writer, friend, . . .  and, today, my guest blogger. 

One chilly spring evening, my four sisters and I watched our bunk beds burn.

Our brothers had simply sawed them in half, ripped them from the walls of our little room, and dumped the remains on a burn pile.

For some of my sisters, the tears flowed freely.

In case you are wondering how my brothers could be so heartless, let me explain.
My three sisters—Sharon, Joanna, Monica—and I did not suddenly find ourselves homeless that spring day. We were the daughters of an evangelist and had grown up traveling all over the country. We lived in a 40-foot bus that contained a living room, a kitchen, a shower with a changing room, a toilet with a sink, and two bedrooms. A long aisle ran from the living room all the way to the door of my parents’ bedroom in the very back of the bus. This aisle divided the couches, the refrigerator from the sink, and the bathroom from the shower room.

The bunks were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.”

This line also divided the bunkhouse where my sisters and I slept. Our minuscule bunkhouse held three bunks on each side of the aisle. The bunks were six feet long and barely wide enough to hold one body. They were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.” Tiny closets were separated into two sections; the top held shirts and blouses, and the bottom held skirts. Underneath the bottom bunks, six little drawers held socks, underwear, and other unmentionables.

This tiny bunkhouse held memories unending. Giggles. Secrets. Tears. Prayers. Hopes. Dreams. And one spring day that ended.

The decision was made to move the four of us sisters into a little motor home we had nicknamed, “The Hippie Mobile.” (My siblings and I nicknamed almost all of our vehicles. Except for the bus. Somehow, its name always remained the “Bus,” as if it had no higher calling.) We had lovingly given the Hippie Mobile its name because it was a 1973 Chevy with felt curtains the color of sunshine and little stick figures around the edges.

Our old bunkhouse in the bus was being renovated into a video editing room, where my dad and brothers would produce short videos and cable programs for TV. Thus, the bunk beds had to go. They were built into the walls of the bunk house, and the only way to remove them was to saw them in half, then take them out piece by piece. Each piece found its way into the burn pile my dad and brothers had built.

And so 12 years of life went up in smoke that day. Even though we had bought material for new curtains in the Hippie Mobile and had laid new carpet and rearranged everything—for it once had been a boys’ domain—we still found it hard to let the past with all of its memories go.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other.

I am not sure why I thought of this event in my life. Perhaps because I have faced this kind of tug-of-war before—this fight within myself of letting go, accepting, relinquishing. And I am facing change again today.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other. To let go means to turn your back on all that lies behind you: the joys, the sorrows, the memories, the regrets. To move on means you face the future: the joys, the sorrows, the mysteries, the dreams. You simply turn around and face forward.

I could have told my 17–year-old self one thing that day: there would be more change to come. The pattern has repeated itself over and over.

Every time I think I have settled in, here comes more change, marching down the path toward me. Whether it was moving out of the bus into a Hippie Mobile, moving out of a broken-down Hippie Mobile to live out of a van one hot summer, moving into a log home in West Virginia, moving to Maryland, moving to college in Florida, or moving to Oklahoma, change was always unsettling. I felt as though the moorings I had lashed myself to ripped away, or the sturdy foundation I had relied upon exploded in a blast of dust and debris.

When I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

Sometimes I wonder why I fear the unknown so much. Is it because I cannot control what lies ahead? Is it because I am fearful, my mind filling with what ifs? No matter the reason, when I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

  1. God already knew the change was coming.
  2. He is preparing a clear path ahead of me.
  3. I can take the next step in front of me without fear.

Any other alternative—weeping, moaning, fearing, or resisting—will only cause me more stress. Pausing a moment to take in these truths helps steady me.

I can always expect change. I can also expect that He will be there, too.

Finding Our Way: 8 Benefits of Cutting Clutter

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”—Albert Einstein

I recently recounted the Great Purge of 2016 in which I rooted every unnecessary trinket, envelope, book, shirt, and mug out of my apartment.

It’s a great thing to clear off a mantel and sort through your collection of souvenir shot glasses. But just below the layers of stuff, there are several other benefits to discover from decluttering.

1. Remembering. In a big pine chest, I had three boxes of birthday, get-well, holiday, and congratulations cards; notes from my family and friends; theater ticket stubs; 3×5 cards with messages I passed to my friends in college classes; and assorted other keepsakes. Sorting through the mound of missives, all the memories of my dear friends came back. As you sort through your things, it might surprise you how many memories you’ll dredge up and how enjoyable your life in review can be.

I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.

2. Giving Thanks. The surplus of clothes, decor, cups, CDs, and books that we sold and donated made me extremely grateful—not for the things themselves but for the realization that these things didn’t make me happy. It reminded me of what’s really important: friendship, love, joy, an organized life—and a tidy house. I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.

3. Learning to let go. When we take a hard look at our stuff, we’re forced to appraise what it’s worth to us. If we keep more than we turn loose, it might mean we’ve formed emotional connections to it. Now if it’s an item that holds a certain emotional value (e.g., your grandmother’s urn, father’s football jersey, first child’s shoes), it’s reasonable to hold onto it. But sometimes our emotional connections boil down to greed, obsession, or fear—the fear that we might one day need something after it’s gone. These are, of course, toxic emotions, and we need to take a clue from Elsa and let it go. The more you put in trash bags and Goodwill bins, the easier it is to relinquish your hold on stuff. It takes practice, faith, and sacrifice, but it’s worth it.

4. Thinking Ahead. When you die, there are a great many things that your loved ones must do, such as making funeral arrangements, pulling together your will, and finalizing other business affairs. And they must do these things while grieving their loss. The last thing they need is to face a crammed attic, a jammed garage, and a stuffed basement. Go through your stuff now before your children have to shovel it into a dumpster.windmill

A will is great for distributing your possessions after you’re gone. But you know what’s better? Giving the items to your loved ones while you’re still alive. Several years ago I received a package from my grandmother. Inside was the windmill music box that I used to play with on every visit to their house. Later she allowed me to take home a bell that I also enjoyed tinkering with when I was little. I think about my grandmother every time I see those items on my dresser, and sometimes they remind me to appreciate her while I still have her.

5. Making Room (and Money) for Other Things. Laura sold her Madame Alexander dolls and American Girl dolls from her childhood this fall, and I sold my extensive Pillsbury Doughboy kitchen collection and a host of other odds and ends from around the house. We put our earnings together and, along with money we received for Christmas, financed a trip to Disney World in January. What could you do with the money from a little time spent posting items on Facebook yard sales or hosting a yard sale of your own?

We also sold all of our travel-themed decor and made room to purchase two new nature-themed pictures.  Along with the decor we repurposed from other rooms in our house, we  changed the theme in our living room without spending much money and by selling rather than storing. With open space in our house, we’re free to allow new things to come in—or just to enjoy the new space.

6. Reconsidering Our Image. What does your stuff say about you? I like looking at the different desks at work. The minimalist desk with no personal touch and nothing out of place. The sloppy desk incomprehensibly filled with dirty bowls; food crumbs; and scraps of paper, stickers, or trash that once-upon-a-time served as an inside joke. The tidily-cluttered desk, like mine, where the desk walls might be filled with photos but in an arranged, purposeful fashion (or at least that’s what I tell myself).

We’re all different—that’s for sure. But it’s important to realize that what we own says something about us. Do we want to be surrounded with pointless accumulation or purposeful items?

Alice7. Making connections. Sometimes I think about that scene on Walt Disney’s animated movie Alice in Wonderland when Alice eats the cookie and grows until she pops out of the White Rabbit’s house. Does your house feel so full of stuff that it might break through the windows and roof? If so, it might mean that other areas of your life are bursting with clutter as well.

Is your mind full of trivial things or insecurity? What about your schedule? Is it so hectic that you don’t have time for a half an hour of silence? Even your body: did you clutter it with too many snacks or too much sugar today? Is your spirit full to the rafters with anger, worry, or fear? In what other ways does clutter manifest itself in your life?

8. Simplifying. Recently, I upgraded to an iPhone 7, mostly because I wanted that tantalizing new photography feature, the portrait mode. Laura got an iPhone 7 plus. When we got home, I discovered that only the Plus has portrait mode. I was frustrated for all of five minutes until I realized what was happening. A thing was upsetting me. With so many other important issues to concern me, the last thing I want to do is salivate at the marketers’ bell. In general I don’t crave things—I crave time, intellect, character, compassion. And sometimes I feel that those non-things come best in the absence of things. (1)

“Don’t just declutter, de-own.—Joshua Becker

In her book Gifts from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh said,

“To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say—is it necessary?—when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life. . . . Simplification of outward life is not enough . . . but the outside can give a clue, can help one to find the inside answer.”

Stuff certainly has a way of taking over our lives. We’re responsible to pay for it, organize it, dust it, maintain it. But it’s also up to us to deny it power over us.

Further Help for Decluttering

Decluttering is more than an exercise—it’s a mindset. When we lay aside the junk that “does so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1), we find our way through our houses, attics, garages, and storage rooms—and we just might find our way.

For more information on overcoming clutter, check out Clutter Free Academy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Also visit A Life in Progress for tips on calming your spirit and simplifying your life.

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Notes

1) I eventually swapped it for an iPhone Plus when I found out how simple it would be to exchange. I’m satisfied to know that I was content to keep the one I had.

Waiting on God . . . and Sylvester Stallone

Rocky Praying

For Laura’s birthday this year, I asked her close friends and family to send cards, hoping to celebrate with a surprise card party on her special day.

I even wrote to Mickey Mouse, her favorite Disney character, asking him to send a postcard. (He supposedly does that, you know.)

While I was at it, I sent an email to Sylvester Stallone. Laura loves Sly, (though she sometimes struggles with separating her adoration for Rocky Balboa from the actor portraying him.)

Truth be told, I felt sillier writing to Sylvester Stallone than to Mickey Mouse. I know he probably receives thousands of emails and fan letters each year, so I doubt his brown eyes even glanced at my little note.

I felt sillier writing to Sylvester Stallone than to Mickey Mouse.

Still, I sent it because what a great surprise it would be for Laura to receive that stack of cards, and among them to be a birthday greeting from the Italian Stallion.

Over the next three weeks, the mailbox presented wads of lovely cards, but nothing from Stallone. What was I even looking for? An envelope with a boxing glove on it? A card that said, “Yo, Laura”? I seriously would have settled for an autographed dirty gym towel.

A week before her birthday, I started praying; a few days later, I asked other people to pray.

At one point, I squeezed my eyes shut and implored, “Please, oh please, oh PLEASE!!” Maybe if I pray harder, I thought, something might happen. Maybe if I put a little desperation behind it, Sly or God might hear me.

It was more difficult than I had counted on, waiting day after day for an answer I had no control over and could do nothing more to produce. I couldn’t write Stallone again to urge the process along. I couldn’t drive to California to ring his mansion doorbell. And though I wanted to tap on his gym window with a reminder that Laura’s birthday was in just a few days, there was nothing I could do but leave my request to his benevolence (or, more accurately, to the benevolence of those sorting his fan mail.)

Maybe if I put a little desperation behind it, Sly or God might hear me.

In the time between sending my note to Sly and celebrating Laura’s birthday, I started following him on Facebook and Instagram. We also watched the Rocky series, Rambo: First Blood, and Oscar. As we watched, Laura gladly shared her stockpile of Stallone trivia collected through years of being one of his most ardent fans.

His face is partially paralyzed because the doctors misused forceps when he was born.

He once traveled across the country with a dog that wouldn’t poop until they got to their final destination where he crapped a mountain.

His mother is a psychic.

His father rang the bell in Rocky.

Without ever hearing back from the man, I learned his life story and liked him more for it.

On her birthday, I gave Laura a stack of over 50 cards, but not one from Sly (and, in his defense, not one from Mickey Mouse either). Though we talked about how awesome it would have been to have Sly’s card in that stack, we moved on, life as usual.

_____________

All along, my eager waiting for mail from Sylvester Stallone felt familiar—like a metaphor for something deeper. And I finally figured it out.

Waiting for Sylvester Stallone to answer my email felt a lot like waiting for God to answer my prayers.

Do you, along with me, ever struggle with knowing the purpose of prayer? Do you ever wonder, If God already knows what I need and knows how He’ll answer, what’s the use in asking?

I make my request to God, ship it off into the dark abyss of faith.

Just like with Sylvester Stallone, I make my request to God, shipping it off into the dark abyss of faith. But I can’t march up to His door. Can’t tap on His window to let him know I need the answer and soon. I can do no more than what I’ve already done to get a response. Yet the waiting leaves me feeling antsy—like I should be doing something else in the meantime.

And, of course, I should. In fact, most of the time I have missed the point of prayer entirely.

Oswald Chambers said, “The purpose of prayer is that we get ahold of God, not of the answer.” Yet so many times my faith is obsessed with acquiring the answer to my prayer, not with relying on God’s goodness in the meantime—and in spite of whatever the answer might be. I forget that the greatest privilege in life is not receiving answers from God but being able to ask Him in the first place, to address the Creator of the universe and know that He hears.

God promises to withhold no good thing from us, and He’s aware of our needs before we ask for them. How clear it becomes, then, that He knows we need nothing quite so much as to know Him. And in the waiting, we can do just that—just like I got to know Sylvester Stallone better while I was waiting for his response.

Unlike Sly, however, God’s silence doesn’t indicate that my email bounced, that it got lost among the other millions of prayers hurtling toward heaven’s gates. And it certainly doesn’t mean that He’s too busy to respond. His silence is sometimes simply an invitation to trust Him, and, in trusting Him, to know Him more.

Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll open the mailbox to find Laura’s autographed birthday card. There’s still reason to hope. But in the meantime I plan to watch the Expendables, maybe Daylight, and the Rocky movies (again).

I think I’ve learned my lesson about waiting—on God and Sylvester Stallone.

The Privilege to Be Among Them: Guest Post

Curly
Laura Allnutt

Once a month I hope to feature a post by a guest author, giving some of the lovely writers that I know a chance to add their voice to Goose Hill. Today’s post comes from Laura Allnutt, my best friend, apartment-mate, and fellow writer. Laura holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and is currently working on a novel to submit to a contest in October. Read more about her in just about any of my posts. 

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I suffered from insomnia as a child, lying awake for hours after my parents put me to bed and rising much earlier than everyone else. In those dark, lonely hours of sleeplessness, my childhood monsters didn’t hide under the bed or in the closet; they whispered my fears in the silence.

My dad found me one night sobbing into my pillow and asked what was wrong.
“I’m just thinking about you and Mommy dying!” I said.

“Why would you think something ridiculous like that?” he said. “Stop thinking about it and go to sleep.”

But I often thought about it and sometimes still do. I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to avoid loss.

Everything I own has a place—a drawer, a shelf, a closet, a space under the bed—so that I know where it is. If something is not in its place, it frustrates me because things are not supposed to disappear.

If you’re not careful, you’ll want to avoid love altogether.

But you can’t shelve and secure loved ones so that you’ll always know where to find them. The potential of loss makes love both wonderful and dangerous. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, you’ll want to avoid love altogether.

When Sarah started talking about getting a dog, I didn’t want one. If you’ve read any book or seen any movie about dogs, you know the heartbreak of owning a canine. Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, My Dog Skip, Marley and Me, Hachi. We’ve been warned: they will all die.

The average dog lives eight to fifteen years. Those years could be your childhood, college and grad school, the time it took to pay off your car. It sounds long in the moment, but when it’s over, it’s merely a snapshot of life, time quickly spent.

But Sarah was aching for a dachshund, and the puppy pictures online were irresistible, especially the brown-and-tan male. We even came up with a name we both loved. Soon we found ourselves on a two-hour journey to the deep Kentucky South, off the interstate and onto roads that rolled through fields of corn and tobacco.

I was mentally guarded against the cuteness to come.

As we wondered over hill and dale, I told myself, “After we look at the puppies, I’ll tell Sarah it’s a bad idea. We can’t get a dog.” I was firm in my resolution, prepared and mentally guarded against the cuteness to come.

My family had dogs before. I knew what it was like to meet the breeder and watch the litter fumble out of the kennel, rolling and flopping and licking at your feet. You pick the puppy that shows you the most attention, the one who looks up at you with longing in his eyes. It’s an egotistical problem that people the world over have fallen for, but not today.

Dudleyblog4When we finally found the breeders’ home, their granddaughter led us around back to the long row of kennels. The puppies were in the one on the far left, a black-and-tan female, a piebald male, and the brown-and-tan male we came for. The rest had already been sold. The female and piebald pushed to the front, fighting to be the first out of the pen, while our brown-and-tan waited from behind, wanting out but afraid of the kennel door. He got trapped behind it when the granddaughter pushed it open and sat there, sad and dejected as if he’d lost another chance to have a home.

The granddaughter pulled him out and handed him to Sarah. He pushed himself as far up under her neck as he could and nestled in, whimpering and moaning. She rocked him a moment and then handed him to me, where he also pushed up to nuzzle his nose into my neck. Only this time, he stopped crying.

It was dramatic and pathetic, and I almost fell for it, but I was still ready to hand him back.

“Come on inside,” the granddaughter said.

Dudleyblog3We followed, pup in hand, to the kitchen where the breeder was filling out the paperwork. He talked about feedings and vaccines, but I thought about Skip and Hachi. I tried to put the puppy down, but he cried again, so I settled him on my lap and lifted his long nose to look into his small green eyes. But with his breath on my hand, I thought of a scene from The Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Ultron tells Vision that humans are doomed.

“Yes,” Vision says, “but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.”

“You got a name picked out?” the breeder asked.

Sarah and I shared a glance, and I rubbed the puppy’s chin. “We do,” I said. “It’s Dudley.”

I still don’t like the idea of loss, but I’m learning to enjoy those I love while I’m able. After all, it is a privilege to be among them.

Dudleyblog2

Cleaning House: 7 Tips for De-Cluttering Your Life

“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”—Wendell Berry

yard saleLast fall, the living room started closing in on me. The knickknacks leered from the book shelf, coffee table, mantel, and TV stand. I shuddered to think of my storage closet where  junk lurked in the obscene darkness, breeding like vicious rabbits.

Not long after, we started getting rid of everything.

Four months later, after combing every inch of our house for things to trash, sell, or otherwise evict, and after spending hours of meeting people to buy our stuff from Facebook Yardsale pages (some as far away as South Carolina!), we’re fairly satisfied with our trimmed-down apartment—everything in its place and with a purpose.

Through the months of purging, I collected some principles for cleaning house. See if they’ll inspire you to do some de-cluttering of your own.

  • Look at your stuff suspiciously.

    When Laura and I started this process, we eyed every item in our house like Joe McCarthy looking for a communist. Pick things up, appraise their value, and if they aren’t worth keeping, then don’t. Surround yourself with meaningful things. Look at your house like someone else would look at your house, room by room. What does your stuff say about you?

  • When you get something new, get rid of something old.

    Don’t stick it in the storage closet—be purposeful about recycling it. Recently, we bought a new kitchen utensil holder at IKEA. So I put my old crock on Facebook Marketplace and sold it two days later for $5. This rotation rule is a great way to get rid of unnecessary items—and make some cash.

  • Think ahead—but not for every scenario.

    Some people are noble pack rats: they’re resourceful and prudent because somewhere in their past they got rid of something that they ended up needing the next week. But there comes a time when you have to ask yourself if needing the item in a possible futuristic scenario outweighs the need to de-clutter now.

  • If it hasn’t been used/thought of in the past year, don’t feel guilty for letting it go.

    This applies to gifts. Laura hoards mugs like Smaug hoards gold—or at least she used to. Through the years I’ve talked her out of keeping mugs simply because they had been given to her by family or friends. I encouraged her when she got a new mug to get rid of an old one. (If ever you wanted to buy her a present, please, whatever you do, no mugs!) At the risk of impalement, I also want to point out that this applies to books. I often hear people gasp at the idea of getting rid of books, as if it says something of our intellect or the purity of our souls. But books can become clutter just like anything else—especially if you don’t intend to read them. We were blessed to find a Half-Price Books up the street from our house. They pay for used books, games, or DVDs. And let me tell you, I dread my next move less now that I’ve thinned out about half of my book collection.

  • Don’t keep stuff just because, but don’t get rid of stuff just because.

    Find that happy balance between prudence and pack-rattery. It’s one thing to keep something truly special because of an emotional connection, but another thing to become emotionally connected to stuff just because it’s yours.

  • Avoid shifting your clutter to other pack rats.

    I’m guilty of this by heredity. I come from a family of junk swappers. I think it helps us feel better to keep our junk close by—so we can go visit it. I’m slowly getting better about giving my stuff to strangers rather than to my mom or sister, unless it’s something I know they need.

  • Find creative ways to de-clutter.

    • Regift. Our de-cluttering process didn’t end with our own storage closet—we pulled our junk from our parents’ attics and garages as well. Almost all of the gifts that Laura gave this Christmas (at least to her nieces and nephew) were stuffed animals and books that she found among her childhood hoard. If it’s in good condition, why not save it to give to a friend or loved one? A regift of something that you once loved might mean more than a new item.
    • Set goals. Last year, my sister set a goal to get rid of 100 things in a month. Anything was fair game—toys and clothes, furniture and decorations. It seemed like a goal I could get behind, and although I didn’t keep count, I’m pretty sure I hit that mark. Maybe set a goal of 10 things per room. Or 50 things from the basement and 50 from the attic.
    • Use Amazon. In the grand history of ways to get rid of stuff, this is one of the yard sale stuffscoolest. If for some reason you don’t have a Goodwill nearby, Amazon will take your items and ship them to Goodwill for free! All you have to do is fill a box—any box—with clothes and other items that you no longer need, print a shipping label from Give Back Box website, and take it to a post office! Not only are you getting your unwanted stuff out of your hair, you’re also donating to an organization that this year alone opened over 70,000 positions for people who otherwise might not have had employment opportunities. It’s a total win!
    • Host a joint yard sale. Of course this isn’t terribly creative, but it is an awful lot of fun. Laura and I don’t have a yard at our apartment complex, so we borrowed a friend’s driveway. An added bonus is spending time lounging around with friends and perfect strangers.

These are some decluttering principles I learned during our great purge this year. But how about you? What are some tips that you have found to keep your inner pack rat at bay? Let me know in the comments.