Heavy Things

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Guest Post by Heather Speer

“You will find that it is necessary to let things go simply for the reason that they are heavy.”—C. JoyBell C.

Every time we carry in the groceries, I wait for it: Laura’s lament as she totes in a case of water and three bags on each arm. As we struggle to open the doors leading to our apartment, invariably she growls, “I hate heavy things!”

And every time she says it, I think of this story.

Here at Goose Hill, I like sharing a good story—even if it’s someone else’s. This someone else happens to be my older sister, Heather. She wrote this a few years ago on her Facebook page (January of 2013), and it’s been on my mind lately.

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I’m thankful for the children God has given me. Through them, He teaches me so many lessons about how I respond to Him.

On Thursday of last week, Asa (4), Ava (2), and I went into Old Navy to get a birthday present. The kind cashier offered a balloon to each of the children. (Old Navy’s balloons have plastic sticks on them instead of string. This will be an important detail to remember.)

We had gotten balloons from there before, and the sticks had turned into fighting weapons in the van. But since the stick battle had been a while ago, I thought it would probably be okay for the kids to have them.

When we got outside, I was holding Ava’s hand with Asa right beside me. Traffic stopped in three directions for us to cross. But suddenly, Ava started saying, “My boon, my boon!”

Someone in one of the cars pointed to her balloon that had come off the stick and was blowing away.

Asa got upset, unnerved because Ava’s balloon was bobbing across the parking lot. I quickly picked Ava up and recovered the errant balloon. We crossed the street and got to the van—when Asa’s balloon came loose from his grip. He started screaming a horrible scream and running after it—toward the busy drive-through park of the parking lot.

I was scared to death because I was running after him, but couldn’t reach him. Even though I was calling his name, he would not stop.

Though I was calling his name, he would not stop.

Thankfully the balloon caught on a shrub, and he got it. When I caught up to him seconds later, he was still screaming and saying, “I don’t want the balloon anymore. I don’t like it when balloons blow away!”

Even when we got into the van, he was still upset, saying that he didn’t want to get a balloon anymore because he didn’t want it to get away.

We had a serious conversation, of course, about running across a parking lot and not stopping when I called his name. If the balloon hadn’t stopped, I have no doubt that he would have run right out into the high-traffic area of the parking lot because he was so intent on recovering the balloon.

I thought about the event all day, thinking about how small and insignificant that balloon was and how that, without too much of a stretch, he could have been hit by a car and badly hurt, at best, over that insignificant thing, simply because he didn’t want to let it go. He didn’t want to let go of his control and the safety that he gave the balloon. He didn’t want to have to watch it “go up into the sky.” That’s what he thought was going to happen. He didn’t think it was going to get hit by a car or popped by a stick; he thought the balloon was going to fly away, which it never would have done anyway since it wasn’t filled with helium.

I have replayed and replayed this in my head.

My tunnel vision keeps me from seeing the big picture.

Later that week, I felt God speak to my heart, gently showing me where I fit into this story: I want to hold onto things so tightly. I’m not talking about material things. I’m talking about people, circumstances, problems. I want to try to control the situation, try to hold onto people to keep something bad from happening to them. All the while, my tunnel vision on that thing or person keeps me from seeing the big picture. It keeps me from seeing the danger that I’m putting myself and others in by not simply letting God have it and rest while watching Him take care of it.

I try to justify my want for control by the fact that my “things” are much more significant than a balloon. But when I feel the need to take control, I am communicating that I can do a better job of taking care of it than God can—God who sees the whole big picture and wants the best for me and the others in my life. He wants the situation and circumstances to be worked out for His glory, and if I allow Him to, He will work them out to that end.

IMG_4503You know what happened to the balloon? Later that evening
when Asa was playing with it in my parents’ den, my dad caught it and was holding it when, for no reason, it popped!

God is in control. No matter how we try to shield, protect, and control our situations, He ultimately knows our beginning and our end (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 8:28).

A pretty heavy lesson from a simple balloon, but I expect this lesson will be replaying in my mind and heart for years to come: letting go and giving to God.

 

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Heather Speer is a wife, mother to the A’s (Asa and Ava), and overall busy lady (in addition to being my sister). She teaches piano, works as a

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Finding Dory: A Reminder to Just Stop Swimming

Dory and Hank

Turns out it’s not really the most air-tight plan to take half a day off work to see the opening of the summer’s hottest animated movie at 1:00 on an afternoon. Our effort to avoid a crowd backfired as the sea of children filled the theater. But soon there I sat with an arm wrapped around a tub of popcorn, taking in Pixar’s newest film, the long awaited Finding Dory.

Something happened about five minutes into the movie—I realized that we weren’t watching just a funny sequel about the forgetful blue tang that we’ve loved for years. We were watching a movie about disability. And it made me feel like a jerk for laughing at Dory’s “natural blue” tendencies all this time.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Dory has a long history of memory issues—a sort of mental handicap. “I have short-term remembery loss,” she tells people when introducing herself—a warning, an apology, a label, a plea for patience and help, her identity.

After becoming separated from her parents, Dory searches for a new friend—someone she can depend on. But her search turns up one creature after another unwilling to be her dorsal fin to lean on—that is, until she collides with a frantic Marlin, chasing a boat and looking for his son. Of course this is where Finding Nemo picks up; Finding Dory really begins after Nemo has been found and Dory is living where Nemo and Marlin can look after her.

When an accident almost costs Nemo his life, up-tight Marlin snaps back into his over-protective, over-reactive ways and tells Dory that all she’s good for is forgetting things. Like most good titles, Finding Dory probes deeper, past a mere search for a fish lost in the ocean. Marlin’s accusation sets in motion the details that will launch Dory’s journey toward remembering the past she can’t recall and thereby finding herself.

The theme of overcoming disabilities isn’t entirely original, of course. Finding Nemo broached this topic through Nemo’s “lucky” fin and Gil’s mangled one.

We learn, even in the first movie, that Dory has found ways to cope with her disability; for instance, she chants what she’s supposed to remember: “42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney” or “Two lefts and a right; two lefts and a right” (a method I use for my own bouts of short term memory loss).

But Dory thrives especially when she’s surrounded by helpful creatures: parents who never gave up on her and worked patiently to help strengthen her memory (in some ways the opposite of Marlin who shielded Nemo rather than enabled him), and Nemo who watches out for Dory and believes in her. When Dory is captured by workers at an aquarium, she meets new friends—Bailey, a Beluga whale with echolocation anxiety, and Destiny the whale shark with near sightedness who both offer their unique skills to aid in Dory’s quest.

Then there’s Hank, the septopus with a sketchy backstory (that I’m hoping will be fleshed out in his own movie or at least a short.) We don’t know why he’s missing a tentacle, but he’s not happy about it. All this misanthropic mollusk wants is to board a truck bound for Cleveland, to live out his days in the solitude of an aquarium (probably tucked under a rock like every octopus I’ve ever encountered). Hank is quite the contrast to Dory who just wants to find her family and get back to the sea.

Seeing an ideal opportunity, Hank strikes a deal with Dory—he’ll take her to the Open Ocean exhibit, where she believes her parents are, in exchange for the tag that the aquarium placed on Dory’s fin, which Hank recognizes as his ticket to Cleveland. Together, with Hank’s angst and Dory’s chatty optimism, they maneuver through the aquarium and into a friendship.

Like Gil’s tough love attitude helped Nemo overcome his self-doubt, Hank’s (albeit begrudging) assistance gives Dory the boost she needs to finish her journey. Even his somewhat disparaging comments seem to bolster Dory’s tenacity.

No doubt Dory is the titular character, but she’s not the only one who learns and grows. Through her shortcomings and perseverance, her friends slowly discover their own role in helping Dory and letting Dory help herself. In return, Dory encourages others to take risks and believe in themselves. And in the end, she even challenges the selfish cephalopod Hank to embrace the world (presumably with all remaining seven arms).

Finding Dory is a good reminder for us to be patient and willing to support others who might have limitations or even those who just need a little guidance and care. But maybe more importantly, Dory’s tale reveals the influence we all have on one another, even, or maybe especially, those with disabilities.

At the end of the story, Marlin apologizes for his short temper and misgivings of Dory—he apologizes for not being a better friend. After seeing what Dory is capable of, he’s ashamed of himself for ever doubting her. Maybe he’s ashamed of how much stronger Dory is than he is. But the nice thing is that no one bashed Marlin, no one guilted him into apologizing or started picketing for Dory’s rights as a disabled person or quibbled with him about terminology and equality. Dory was, herself, the impetus that made Marlin realize his error. Her courage and tenacity humbled him, her actions speaking louder than angry, entitled words.  (This was also a good reminder, by the way, that we don’t always overcome our flaws overnight. Like Marlin apologizing for his short temper with Dory, a trait carried over from Finding Nemo, becoming a better person is a constant practice of making good choices, apologizing when we don’t, and trying again.)

There’s a lot to take away from Finding Dory,* new lessons and challenging themes along with some familiar mantras such as “just keep swimming.” But the larger message isn’t so much to just keep swimming, but to stop swimming and help or cheer on someone who needs what we have to offer—and to be open to what they have to offer us in return.

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*There’s a lot to take away and people certainly have. Check out the many articles that are circulating on this topic of Dory and disabilities. Here are just three that I found compelling.

Author’s Note: Remember, Dory and Marlin are beautiful creatures, but they belong in their natural habitats. Encourage others to view clown fish and blue tangs in the ocean or in a professional aquarium.  For more info, read this article on the topic.

An Elephant Never Forgets

 

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A photo of Joy, taken on one of my childhood visits to the zoo.

If an elephant never forgets, I wonder if, when I went back to visit her two summers ago, Joy the elephant remembered me as the little girl wearing bushy pigtails, a striped t-shirt, and scuffed Velcro sneakers? (1)

Though other animal exhibits came and went, Joy served as a Greenville (SC) Zoo icon since 1977—eight years before I was born. She stood, decades on end, flapping leathery ears, dusting herself with red dirt, and blinking her long lashes at visitors as if searching for recognition.

In June of 2014, I stood with my niece and nephew in front of the familiar enclosure. “She’s packing up her trunk,” three-year-old Ava echoed my mom who had just read the sign announcing Joy’s move to the Colorado Cheyenne Zoo. Joy’s move complied with the revised Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) guidelines for housing elephants, which required the zoo to have three elephants and to devote more land to their exhibit than the Greenville Zoo could provide.

“Say goodbye to Joy,” I told Ava who ignored me and ran ahead to look at the howling primates.

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My nephew and niece with Joy in 2014, days before her death.

A few days later, June 14, 2014, Joy’s transport was somewhere between Amarillo, Texas, and Colorado Springs when her caretakers checked on her as they had done intermittently along the way. But this time, they found Joy on the floor of the trailer, dead.

Though the necropsy offered no real cause of death, online speculations abounded about negligence. I too had my questions. If the zoo hadn’t moved Joy, would she have lived longer? Had they really taken every precaution to keep her safe? But at the bottom was the question I face with each visit to a zoo: should Joy have been in captivity in the first place?

As much as I enjoy zoos, something about them makes me queasy—seeing huge birds of prey confined to a perch, polar bears panting in southern heat, and elephants swaying on concrete slabs. (According to Jeff Kinzley, elephant manager at California Oakland Zoo, leg trouble is the leading cause of death in captive elephants.)

Recently, I watched a Capuchin monkey swinging from vine to vine in a zoo cage smaller than my bedroom. After listening to my zoo concerns, Laura said, “Just think of it this way: his freedom is a small price to pay for safety from predators. He doesn’t even have to find his own food. He’s comfortable here.”

She was right—while the monkey didn’t have as much room to roam, he was well cared for. Still, for a while, I resented her rationale. Freedom is never a small price, I thought, not for people, not for primates, not for any sentient thing. No matter how comfortable or convenient captivity may be, surely it’s no substitute for unfettered freedom. Surely nothing could be better than that.

Empathy fueled my frustration for the caged creatures because I understood the feeling of comfortable captivity—I understood it well. As a teacher at a conservative Christian college, I was paid adequately, enjoyed affordable housing, appreciated generous healthcare benefits. But I also put up with the limited freedom of rigid lifestyle guidelines, a strict dress code even outside of work, and a ridiculous workload. Even with the conveniences and comfort, sometimes my position seemed like a tiny cage compared to the life I would have rather been living outside those expectations. I wanted to be free to see a movie on Friday night, to wear jeans in the winter, to spend my weekends how I liked.

Many people daily deny the chance to take to the wind

Still, I stayed for seven years because I worried who would teach my students if I left, because my department chair was relying on me to fulfill my duties, because I didn’t want to snub a stable job. I stayed out of duty because I knew that someone else was depending on my performance.

Thousands of people the world over also stay, from the single mother of three who works all hours to keep her family fed, to the caregivers of disabled loved ones, to the president of the United States who submits his freedom to the austere duties of his office. Many people daily deny the chance to take to the wind because they acknowledge that a greater cause than themselves exists—a chance to affect someone else’s life.

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After Joy died, I began researching her life and her death. The zoo website called Joy an “animal ambassador—” not just an exhibit but an ambassador to us. Joy was working as a representative for all other elephants on the African plains. She died a dignitary being transported from one platform to another on which to represent every endangered African elephant.

Of course humans imposed that title of ambassador on Joy. She didn’t make the choice to stay in captivity. But during her time at the zoo, who knows how many middle school reports she inspired, how many questions parents and teachers answered about her and her home in Africa. After seeing Joy, who knows how many people became aware of monstrous poaching practices or of carcasses swelling in the sun, their bones picked clean by predators and their faces hacked off by poachers greedy for profits from the ivory tusks (2).

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It’s been a year since I resigned from teaching at the college. For a while right after I left, I wasn’t sure how to feel: guilty, relieved, angry, afraid. Rather than the explosive freedom I imagine a dog feels when he’s broken off his chain, it left me looking back at the gates, remembering all the people who came to watch me teach them for seven years. There I sat in the wide open yonder, missing the purpose the cage gave me and the ironic freedom of others relying on me.

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Not all elephants live as ambassadors in zoos, of course. Most live in the wild. But it doesn’t mean they’re carefree. Caring for the herd, performing day-in-and-out rituals for survival, risking their lives to poachers—these are cages too.

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I’m free to do what I want now, and I’ve found purpose in new things. But there are still worries about the future, bills to be paid, school loans looming over me, frustrations in my new career.

There are dangers, duties, and destinies for us all. But I’ve come to believe that freedom, at least for humans, is determined largely upon our attitude, the purpose we discover, and the good we can do wherever we may be. There are prices to pay in both freedom and captivity.

Sometimes freedom is negotiable

Though she didn’t choose to, Joy sacrificed her freedom to teach us what, without her, we only could have learned second hand on Animal Planet and in National Geographic. Her captivity and death prompted some of us to rethink the issue of animal rights. In this way, her captivity was certainly not in vain.

It makes me think about my own life and the things that make me feel trapped, the responsibilities and duties that tie me down. I wonder if sometimes a measure of freedom is negotiable if it means someone else might enjoy the freedom of knowledge, direction, stability. I wonder if, through submitting myself to these restraints, I too can find purpose.

Animal captivity is not simplistic (and this post certainly isn’t meant to address all the implications of that issue or to arrive at a conclusion), but it’s true that Joy’s life was no less purposeful because she was in captivity (3).

I’m thankful that, through Joy’s service at the Greenville Zoo, she taught us about her species—and maybe even a little bit about ourselves.

An elephant never forgets—and neither should we.

 

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1. Elephant memory is aphoristic for the strongest possible recall—and for good reason. aAn elephant can remember the way back to a particular watering hole year after year and can identify familiar elephants and people even after decades of separation.

2. On May 1, 2016, Ringling Brothers performed their last elephant show, ending a 146 year tradition. Who can say if the elephants were truly mistreated, and it’s hard to find a moral conclusion to the question of keeping an animal in captivity purely for entertainment purposes. But I’m thankful the elephants will receive good care in a Florida conservation center and will be able to lead lives similar to the lives they would lead in their natural habitat.  Also, in other news, it’s nice to see Kenya supposedly taking measures against the horrific practice of poaching, by burning 105 million dollars worth of ivory!

3. Though I’m continually discouraged by the lack of knowledge or concern about animal rights, especially in Christendom, I was thankful to find an article and podcast in Christianity Today addressing this issue. It doesn’t necessarily give answers—but it offers a lot to think about. I can live with that.

9 Ways to Tell Your Heart to Beat Again

“Tell your heart to beat again. Close your eyes and breathe it in. Let the shadows fall away. Step into the light of grace.”–Randy Phillips

The world is full of dark things—things that make you wake up in the middle of the night just to make sure morning has come yet. As Tracy Letts said, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”

Terrorism, political scandal, wars and rumors of wars, social tensions—and that’s just on a national level. Who knows what variety of personal burdens wears us down. Ailing parents, errant children, dwindling finances, shriveled dreams.

Some of us feel as if we’re just one phone call away from shattering, imploding, jumping the merry-go-round—we want off. Well, at least some days are like that, maybe more or fewer for some of us.

I’m a realist-melancholy myself. My life motto fluctuates between “What a world! What a world!” and “It is what it is” and “Life is good.” It’s a conscious effort to keep myself from rocking in a corner after a bad day at work or after daring to glance at a newspaper (and I’m almost inconsolable after watching the evening news).

Since our move to Goose Hill, I’ve noticed myself taking more deliberate steps toward happiness.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely, miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

—Agatha Christie

For all the darkness, God gave us abundant light. I’m grateful for the words He left us, their promises and comfort. He takes our burdens and cares about our needs.* But even beyond the pages of scripture, He’s poured out goodness to help us overcome the gloom. I’m talking about those things which remind you to “tell your heart to beat again.”**

Though it’s nothing earth shattering (thank goodness), here’s a list of things that help me to stay grounded. Maybe they’ll also help you to remember that life will keep going even after your bad day or week or season or year.

  • Tend a garden. It’s Laura’s dream to have a vegetable garden (and my dream to throw watermelon rinds and tomato slices out my back door into the compost pile). But for now, we settle for a patio herb garden. It’s comforting to look out and see the cilantro and lavender, chives and rosemary inching their way toward the sun. Sure, it’s been a learning experience—we lost a crop of basil to a late frost and a batch of green onions to root worms (yet haunting Laura’s nightmares). But to watch something grow, to nurture it, and then enjoy the harvest is rewarding beyond measure. It helps me remember that to everything there’s a season.
  • Keep plants in every room of your house. Last week, Laura and I made a table arrangement of succulents—hearty IMG_3811little plants that will be hard to kill. But plants like ivy, bamboo, lilies, and philodendron not only cleanse the air of toxins, but also increase oxygen levels (which helps with a great many endeavors). In the dining room corner, we keep a peace lily, one of the many potted plants that my family received when my niece Paislee passed away in February. It provides the perfect reminder that life goes on, even beyond our grief.
  • Give nature a visit. We slam the door on restoration when we isolate ourselves from the great outdoors. Get outside at least once a week. A few months ago, Laura sent me an article about the health benefits of walking in the grass in your bare feet. Of course if I tried it here, I’d end up with toes full of goose poop and E. coli. If you live in a goose-free area, go ahead and sink in your toes. We weren’t created in a laboratory or an indoor habitat: God plopped us right in the middle of nature and gave us the command to get our hands dirty. If nature for you means taking a walk down an asphalt path among the dogwoods and erratic squirrels—well, take it.
  • Keep wildlife close by. For sure, the animal kingdom has a lot to teach us about ourselves—and it’s scads of fun to observe. Buy a bird feeder and watch the show. Don’t step on the ant for once in your life. Make your peace with spiders and other insects—you need them, and besides you’re out numbered.*** If you want an extreme encounter, buy a microscope and go check out a drop of pond water. Watching wildlife do its thing can be absolutely horrifying but equally as gratifying. In some strange and wonderful way it makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and helps put our problems in perspective.
  • Find a quiet place. This is the hardest tip for me to take.IMG_3852 I’m a busy person—with my hands and my mind. I’m a bit afraid of stillness. But I’m blessed to work close to beautiful botanical gardens. During my lunch breaks, I frequently walk through the paths to add a little silence to my life, to listen for what I don’t usually hear—the birds, my own heart, the rhythm of my body, warning messages my spirit has been sending. For you, a quiet place might mean sitting in the stairwell for a few minutes at your office or turning the car radio off on the way home. Demand quiet time and guard it. The world is a noisy distraction that largely doesn’t want you to think for yourself. But corner your thoughts and figure them out. Put a name to your frustration, a face to your worries, and then deal with them accordingly rather than stuffing them farther down.****
  • Surround yourself with light and color. My bedroom looks a bit as if it is sponsored by a cotton candy company—all pink, blue, and white. And I love it because the colors reflect the light. I’m also blessed to have our apartment facing west, so we get all the light from the day—all those last, warm drops at sunset. But even if you live in a windowless apartment, make sure you buy an extra lamp or two to keep it bright, and find at least one picture that makes you happy and brightens your space. (Like the eight-dollar, long and winding country road picture I bought at Hobby Lobby. It’s my favorite wall hanging to gaze at when I need to think about getting away.)
  • Enjoy beautiful things. Read poetry (sign up for The Writer’s Almanac emails to receive a poem each day). Read literature (the hard stuff—you know, the books that you have to think about while you read them. Stretch your mind beyond its comfort zone). Listen to instrumental music. Take up a hobby even if it’s just smearing paint on paper or stringing beads to make a necklace. Keep a journal and see what you have to say. Think. Learn. Create. Imagine. Share. Force out the darkness by replacing it with lovely things.
  • Find work to do. At the Oscars a year ago, Marianne Moore said, “A happy person is a person with work and love.” Whether she ripped that from someone else or made it up herself, it’s pretty good philosophy (though not air tight). My pastor once said, “We should be living for Monday instead of living for Friday, because Monday is where we find our purpose” And it’s true. Work isn’t a curse; it allows us to be fully committed to something greater than ourselves (even if it’s only delivering pizza to make someone’s Friday night a whole lot better) and to discover our potential and purpose. And at the very least, work gives us permission to think about something other than the things we can’t control.
  • Ambush yourself with things to laugh about. I believe Far sidein keeping Far Side comic books on the toilet. I believe in searching out comical animal memes. I believe in keeping a comedy in the Netflix queue (currently Last Man Standing). I believe in turning to the funny pages first in the newspaper. And most of all, I believe in hanging around people who appreciate my snarky brand of humor—and who will laugh with me and make me laugh in return. (That’s why I have Laura.) Laughing decreases stress, raises endorphins, and promotes healing and a healthy immune system. It’s one of the most enjoyable things you can do for yourself—and the quickest way out of a dark place.

It doesn’t mean I never have down days. Doesn’t mean that all burdens are an easy fix. It just means that these are my ways of coping with the bad news. Find your own practices and activities to keep yourself in the land of the living.

In fact, I ended on the uneven, very-perturbing-to-my-OCD-heart number 9. So maybe you could give me a good number 10! I’d love to hear about what keeps you happy in the comment below.

 

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* George Herbert discusses the theme of rest in his poem “The Pulley.” He said, “Yet let him keep the rest,/But keep them with repining restlessness;/Let him be rich and weary, that at least,/If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/May toss him to my breast.” God uses stress, weariness, or even despair to send us seeking the rest only found in a relationship with Him. But He also bestows good gifts (like those in my list) to remind us of the rest we have in Him.

**Lyrics from one of my favorite songs. The author (Randy Phillips, from the Christian music group Phillips, Craig, and Dean) tells the supposed story behind the song: “Finally the surgeon knelt down beside his patient and he took off his surgeon mask and said ‘Mrs. Johnson, this is your surgeon. The operation went perfectly, your heart has been repaired now tell your heart to beat again.’ When he said that the heart began to beat. When I heard this story I thought I’ve got to write this song because there’s so many people who have experienced so much brokenness to their heart. And even though God the great surgeon has saved us and repaired us, covered us with his grace, sometimes it takes you and me to tell our own heart ‘beat again, love again, hope again.’”

***Smithsonian states that there are 900 thousand kinds of known insects—they make up 80% of the world’s species. “At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.” Yeah, you’re surrounded.

****There’s a reason scripture tells us to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), to meditate (Psalm 119:15-16), and to think on positive things (Philippians 4:8). The Psalmist promotes early morning rising, and Jesus promotes restful getaways. Quiet time is probably a good idea, you think?

The Sacrifice of Strangers

It’s funny how the great injustices of our childhood convert into gratitude as we age. For instance, when I was a young teen, I was sure my great-grandfathers were the only two old men who didn’t actually fight in World War II—and I wasn’t happy about it.

During my teen years, I devoured books about World War II, watched any black and white movie I could get my hands on at the library, collected special edition WWII magazines, listened to big band music non-stop, and longed for the day when I could see Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan (when I got a little older). I even wrote a novel, titled This Side of Forever, about a family with four sons, each of whom served in a different branch of the military.

Even as an amateur researcher, I knew that first-hand resources were the best. So I wanted to actually talk to someone who was on the battlefield. On one of our visits to Maryland to spend time with family, I decided to ask my great-grandfathers about their experience in the war.

But they just chuckled at their luck. No, they hadn’t seen combat, they said with relief. Just drafted but never sent overseas. And from there, the stories pretty much trickled off.  Pap Gaylor trained in the navy even though he couldn’t swim. Pap Shank’s story was so unremarkable, I can’t even recall it.

I deserved better material to work with.

For a while, I resented the idea that my heritage was so bereft of harrowing, bomb-and-bullet-ridden war stories. I, the writer, deserved better material to work with.

Through the years, I have met veterans who did fight in the war, such as Mr. Smith, the man who lives across the street from my parents. He’s short—as if, when he lied to join the army at 17, he stopped growing, like a clock stopping to mark the death of his youth. I go over to visit when I can, hoping to hear a little more of his story about the war that left him with a shattered shoulder and a glass case of metals. Each time, I hug him goodbye because I don’t know how to say “thank you”—but I know I have to try. His story, after all, affects mine—his courage of yesterday ensured my present day freedom.

I thought of Mr. Smith on Monday when I went to a Memorial Day ceremony at the park down the street. As the volunteer choir and orchestra (which, as Laura pointed out, sounded like a volunteer choir and orchestra) played a montage of military branch themes, dozens of veterans hobbled or strutted forward to claim a small flag as a token of thanks. I considered all of them, the strangers who also have stories that somehow relate to me as an American.
veterans

But it was the monument in the middle of the park—a marble marker with the words, “MIA POW You are not forgotten”— that brought me the longest pause.* It’s not the soldiers I know or the veterans whose hands I can shake that draw from me the most thanks, but rather these, the ones who died, the ones who, though silent, deserve my most fervent gratitude. It is them in particular that we commemorate on Memorial Day.

And despite all the teenage angst over my patriarchs’ lack of action, now it means almost more to know that my freedom was secured not by the efforts of my grandfathers, but by the sacrifice of strangers—both the living and dead. And this Memorial Day leaves me remembering and honoring so many people whom I’ve never even met.

Oh, you should also know that I’ve long since forgiven my great-grandfathers of their nondescript stories. The older I get, the more grateful I am for those who “also serve who only stand and wait.”**

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*At the Memorial Day ceremony, our mayor shared the story of a local woman who was finally able to find peace after her brother’s remains were found 70 years after his plane went down during the Battle of the Bulge.  Similarly, my absolutely favorite Memorial Day story involves an entire town of Les Ventes, France, during WWII, and a soldier named Billie Harris whose plane was shot down at the edge of the town. Sixty years later, after decades of searching for her husband’s whereabouts, Harris’ wife was shocked to find that the town had honored her husband with a parade every year since he died. I hope you’ll read the story.

**This is taken, of course, from Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent.”

The World in Your Wallet

FullSizeRender (3)“I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.”—Laura Bush

It’s been a while since I had a library card. As a marker of books and dog earer of pages, my habits hardly classify me as an ideal library patron. Not to mention the last time I visited a library five years ago in Pensacola, a particularly nasty librarian accused me of losing a book that I know I returned (and was further assured of when I never found it during my subsequent three moves.) It was the young adult book The Summer of My German Soldier; I was researching to write about American concentration camps.

Another reason I’ve steered clear of libraries is that I’m a germaphobe when it comes to holding something that unknown persons or number of persons have held in unknown locations and in unknown hygienic conditions. And, let’s face it, if there’s one thing you learn early in life, it’s that libraries—really any place with books—attract weird people who seem too preoccupied with either learning or pursuing their fandom to practice basic hygiene regimens. (A bit off the topic, but perhaps not by much: Laura was reading a second-hand book the other night [Tinkers by Paul Harding, if you must know] when she turned the page only to be sprinkled with what appeared to be dried cupcake batter—either that or powdered sugar from the top of a funnel cake. One can never quite tell with these things, and Laura refused to taste it to find out.)

Another reason I’ve steered clear of libraries is that I’m a germaphobe.

Still, two weeks ago, Laura and I decided to go to the local library just to look around. Like the bums we are, we stopped first at the DVD section and filled our arms with movies starring Meryl Streep and Elvis—like the discriminating movie watchers that we are.

Laura’s tour of the library ended when she discovered adult coloring books and colored pencils at a table, presumably the library’s service to bored chaperones or stressed parents. I set off to peruse the other shelves while she set to coloring an ornate fish. By the time I got back to her half an hour later, she had managed not only to finish coloring the fish, but also to creatively cover a crude word and two anatomically vulgar pictures etched on the pages by either a perverted adult or horny teenage boy.

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Though largely taken for granted, libraries hold an inescapable appeal. Everything is free (providing, of course, you return things on time.*) Can you think of many other experiences quite so rewarding as walking in empty handed and strolling out with a bundle of items, all free. No gimmicks. No membership fees. No two-hour sales pitch. No hidden agendas. No background check. Just free stuff. (I know, I know—taxes, blah, blah.)

But just think of the possibilities presented in a library. There is nothing that cannot be discovered, no topic that cannot be explored at the library. No one laughs at your research of cures for toe nail fungus. Never is heard a discouraging word for those seeking to know the mating habits of porcupines. Not one librarian blinks an eye at a request to be shown to the section on ancient torture techniques.

The old cliches about the library opening new worlds is true.  (It’s also true what one of my favorite authors, Michael Perry, said in response to so much information being available to our generation: “Nowadays, ignorance must be willfully tended, like a stumpy mushroom under a bucket.”) Having a library card is really like stuffing the world in your wallet.

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”Jo Walton

Chances are, you remember your first library card. For most of us, it was the first plastic card that would get us something for nothing (at least for a little while). We tucked it in our pocket or wallet, our proudest possession, a simultaneous responsibility and honor. We had arrived, members of an elite club of knowledge seekers (or of those hoping to score free movies and internet access.)

“When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began.”― Rita Mae Brown

I practically lived in the library as a teenager. It was to me what the mall was to most gHula hoopsirls my age. Though I can’t claim to have been reading classics (except 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which probably led to my fascination with all things oceanic, especially the giant squid), I enjoyed the eclectic—researching for my World War II novel; ordering black and white Humphrey Bogart movies through interlibrary loans; feeding my obsession with Ben Affleck; learning how babies are born; and, my favorite, gaping at each page of the Guinness Book of World Records.

The librarians knew me, if not by name then by face. I remember the tall man with the gold chain around his neck. He looked more like a drug dealer than a librarian. But he always smiled when he saw me coming, and he spoke gently when I laid my stack of books on the counter and often suggested other things for me to read or put on hold other movies that I might enjoy. There were other librarians, too, who acted as tour guides through the world of books, gatekeepers to the cities of knowledge.** And after all these years, I’ve never forgotten them.

I even liked the noises of the library: the beep of the card scanning; the click of plastic as the librarians opened the VHS boxes and closed them; the rustle of pages turning; the creak of the circular, metal DVD towers being rotated; and of course, the national sound of libraries everywhere—sssshhhh.

The smells stay with me still. Closing my eyes, I can imagine the faint odor of wet carpet and scotch tape. The unmistakeable perfumes of old books and the sour aroma of paper. The garlic and sewer fragrance of the homeless guys surfing the web. The plastic smell of book covers and DVD cases.

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Though long estranged from this institution I once inhabited, two weeks ago when the librarian placed the library card in my hand, I felt something familiar.

“It’s amazing how a library card can make you feel grounded, like you belong to something,” Laura said as we toted our mounds of DVDs, CDs, and one lonely book to the car.

And I think that’s what it was: I had found my way back to the place that for me, once upon a time, felt very much like home.

 

“A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”― E.B. White

 

 

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*”The world´s largest fine for an overdue library book is $345.14 (£203.29), the amount owed at two cents a day for the poetry book Days and Deeds checked out of Kewanee Public Library, Illinois, USA in April 1955 by Emily Canellos-Simms. Although the book was due back 19 April 1955, Emily found it in her mother´s house 47 years later and presented the library with a check for overdue fines.”—from The Guinness Book of World Records

**Libraries have been around for a long time and let’s hope they stick around. (Ray Bradbury said, “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”) Check out the restoration going on in one of the world’s oldest libraries.

Anything Can Happen

For a while, the world was obsessed with the eagle web cam documenting the lives of two bald eagles who have nested in a Tulip Poplar tree in Washington, DC, and have proceeded to capture the world with their two eaglets (and their curious menu.*)

Eagles

Mr. President and The First Lady, as they’re called, are the first eagles (that we know of) to nest in the DC area since 1947. In 2015, they raised a first eaglet.

Every so often I turn on the eagle cam and watch them. The breeze rocks the tree and ruffles their feathers as they huddle there in austerity, pecking at flies as if to distract themselves from the interminable boredom of being confined to a nest, the mother to keep her babies warm and the babies to wait for their feathers to fledge.

And not much happens.

My fingers sometimes twitch to find the fast forward button while they sleep, heads tucked beneath their wing. Then I remember—this is real time. Reality knows no rush. Time will not be hastened. The micro-life plot somewhat plods. And, also, bald eagles will sleep as long as they darn well please. (Though once I was rewarded for my patience by seeing an eaglet shoot a projectile stream of poop over the side of the nest.)

Each time I visit the website, perhaps to assuage my boredom, I’m drawn to the disclaimer below the video.

This is a wild eagle nest and anything can happen. While we hope that two healthy juvenile eagles will end up fledging from the nest this summer, things like sibling rivalry, predators, and natural disaster can affect this eagle family and may be difficult to watch.

It gives me chills to think of watching a predator kill the eaglets or the eaglets harm one another or the nest fall from the tree. I’m horrified to think of watching life play out its gruesome tale, with me helpless to intervene.

May be difficult to watch, the disclaimer warns. There’s still time to back out, to close the window and go watch a Disney movie—something you can fast forward through the scary parts to the happy ending.

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Here at Goose Hill, we’re surrounded by goslings and ducklings. Last night Laura and I strolled around the lake at the back of the property. (We also have a lake at the front of our property). The geese had congregated—the families of five, six, seven, and another of five newly hatched goslings. Twenty-three yellow- and gray-downed goslings scurried behind us and in front of us, down the hill, pecking the whole way. Their parents hissed and gave the evil black eye, as if reminding us exactly where the term to be goosed came from.

Each time we see the geese families, we count them, relieved to find that all the families are accounted for. No goslings lost. But we know that anything can happen.

Cars. Hawks. Cats. Storm drains. Disease. Snapping turtles. Cruel humans.

I think it keeps us grounded to watch something other than ourselves surviving. It keeps our minds off, yet somehow on, the fact that real life is perilous, for birds and otherwise.

God sees every sparrow—but the sparrow still falls. Though we’re cradled in the Father’s grace, not one creature is immune to the Fall. Life doesn’t have a disclaimer so blatantly stated, still we know it’s there, silently posted above, beneath, through every day: This is life and anything can happen.

In every fragile moment, may heaven find me grateful.

Rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that  is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty. . . . be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world. . . . And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough. –Paul Harding, Tinkers

 

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*Recently, the eagle family made the news when one of the parents brought home a cat for lunch.

**Though not entirely creative or original but certainly appropriate, the eaglets’ names are Freedom and Liberty.

 

 

 

Goldfish Crackers and Four-Course Dinners: Talking Dreams and Motherhood with Diane Tarantini

Diane Face2Diane Tarantini—you can sing her name to the tune of “Gary, Indiana” from The Music Man. And she’s the kind of person who would have a name you could sing to. With her vivacious blue-green eyes, be-ringed fingers, and quirky wardrobe, Diane is excited about life in general, and especially about the two callings that she loves the most—being a mother and a writer.

All of her three children have their own flairs, which Diane readily describes.

“Josephine Joy (Josy), 24, graduated college and married in May 2015. She teaches third grade and plays the flute beautifully. She and her husband plan to go to Nepal this summer for a one-month mission’s trip serving in a house of prayer there.

“Then there’s Cody Brook who will be 21 in May. A junior psychology major at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y., Cody lives with her rat, Hazel Grace, in an apartment. She is currently working two waitressing jobs, tutoring other students, and has a radio gig at the college station.

“And then there’s Tre Antonio—he’s 16. He goes to Young Life (faith-based youth group) two times a week, karate three times a week, pole-vaulting practice four days a week, and is in the marching band. When asked recently what he wanted to do in life, Tre said, ‘I want to make things for NASA.’ Aerospace Engineering it is then.”

Motherhood was an unexpected adventure for Diane.

As much as she loves her children now, motherhood was an unexpected adventure for Diane.

“I never wanted to be a mother. I didn’t play with dolls. I didn’t babysit. My biological clock never ticked or tocked. But I consented to have one for my husband, Tony, who wanted many. And then daughter #2 arrived. And then our son was born. I was 29 when I became a mother, and I remember thinking a few months later, ‘Why did we wait so long to do this?’

“I remember the time when Josy was maybe three, and I looked at her in the car’s rear-view mirror and thought, ‘She’s my best friend. A three-year-old is my best friend. Who would ever have thought that?'”

But it’s not as if being a mother hasn’t required sacrifices of her.

“The first thing you give up is your body. You will probably have various levels of discomfort—morning sickness, migraines, incredible fatigue, indigestion, and swelling of hands and feet. Sleep was a huge loss for me. I remember thinking upon occasion, This is how they torture people—sleep deprivation.

“I never dreamed I would a) have children or b) choose to be a stay-at-home mom. But only two months after Josy was born, I decided there was no way I could allow someone else to . . . spend more time with her a day than I did. So I guess I sacrificed my dream of a high-powered career. [But] I have never regretted my decision.”

Writing came along a little later in Diane’s life. In college, she was a journalism/ advertising major and thought she would move to Manhattan to be an account executive in an ad agency. Instead, she worked in advertising in Washington, D.C., and then as an office manager for an interior design firm in Cincinnati, until her first child was born. Two years later she moved back to West Virginia where she currently lives.

There is SOMETHING I’m supposed to do with my life.

“All along I DID feel conflicted about being a stay-at-home mother. I have ALWAYS felt there is SOMETHING I’m supposed to do with my life.

“When the kids were young, Tony and I participated in a Bible study called The Journey of Desire by John Eldridge. Studying the workbook, I came to realize that the SOMETHING I was supposed to do was somehow related to writing. So, what to do about that?

“I saw in a magazine (Today’s Christian Woman) an ad for The Christian Writers Guild. I researched the two-year program and ended up signing up for it. It was a 2-year correspondence course with assignments due, via email, every two weeks.
Not long after that, I applied for a one-year spot as a ‘food writer’ at our local newspaper. I joined [a writing] group and attended [a writing] conference that summer. I came alive that weekend! These people were like me. They spoke my language.

“I knew the day would come when my children would ‘fly the nest’ and I’d need to be prepared. So after I graduated The Christian Writers Guild, I subscribed to Writers Digest magazine, read craft books, and attended writing conferences. In addition, I entered (even won prizes) in writing contests. And I also formed relationships with other writers.”

Once her children were older, Diane took a big step toward furthering her dream of writing. When a friend posted on Facebook about the fabulous experience she was having in her low-residency Master of Fine Arts program, Diane messaged her with questions. After fully researching her options, she applied and was accepted into the MFA program at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. In June of 2015, Diane graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction writing. Like motherhood, the process of chasing her dream of being a writer had sacrifices and challenges as well.

“I wanted to show my kids that you’re never too old . . . to go after your dreams.”

“As much as I didn’t ever think I wanted to be a mother, once I had children I gave 120% to the task. The hardest part of my low-residency program was the four, 10-day residencies in South Carolina. I was pretty sure the home front would fall apart without me. I prepared and froze meals and printed out detailed 10-page documents for Tony, telling him how to take care of the kids and our many pets.

“It was scary to go back to school in my late 40s. I had to use my brain in a way it hadn’t been used in decades. My critical project during my third semester was the most difficult academic task I have ever done.

“But I had another reason, beyond my own education, for getting an MFA. I wanted to show my kids that you’re never too old . . . to go after your dreams.”

Diane Wedding2

Motherhood and writing intersect for Diane in many ways.

“I was at a reading one night, chatting with a group of local writers when an older man who works at the university commented, ‘Diane, she just writes “family stories.”’ He said it with such scorn, I was furious. Not even hurt, just mad. He said it like family stories don’t matter, but I know otherwise.

“I blogged faithfully for more than three years. I would say a good 50% of the posts were about our family. So for me, being a mother has provided a lot of material for stories.”

As Diane’s children grow up and move on, she increasingly has more time to pursue her writing—and to expand her vision.

“I used to think all I wanted was to be the author of a published book. I’ve tweaked that vision lately though. I want to be a ‘communicator.’ I believe that will involve writing, blogging, and speaking.”

Today Diane strives to build her platform and find a literary agent interested in representing her various works-in-progress. A new blog is also in the works. But for now, check out a few of her published pieces.

“The Woman in Red” took third place in the Writer’s Digest competition several years ago in the inspirational category.

“Killing Her Softly” won second place in a nonfiction competition (my state’s, but still).

“Black Lungs” is a very popular story of mine. A more edited version of it went on to place very well in two contests: The Appalachian category in the West Virginia Writer’s competition and also second place in the West Virginia Fiction Competition.

“Playing Favorites” is one of my “family stories,” published by Pithead Chapel, an online literary journal.

I’ve recently been asked to write for the website Grace and Such.

You have to feed that vision, even if it’s goldfish crackers, not four-course dinners,

For women currently juggling their dreams and motherhood, Diane has sound advice.

IMG_3600“To create life along with the Creator is a great privilege and a fantastic adventure. [But] you need to identify your gifts, talents, abilities, and even as you mother, begin to nurture your dreams. And if you can’t pursue them 100% right now, identify small ways to stay connected to your dream.

“The Bible says, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ I believe it. I think you have to feed that vision, even if it’s goldfish crackers, not four-course dinners, so that you stay ‘fed.'”

 

 

Author’s Note: This interview was first published on Do blog.

Putting the Next Season on Hold: A Grammy’s Perspective on Helping to Raising Her Granddaughter

Paula

When her unmarried youngest daughter announced her pregnancy, Paula Allnutt took the news hard. But after recovering from the initial shock, she determined that there was only one thing to do: accept the baby with as much love as she had accepted her own three daughters. This turned out to be much easier than she could have ever expected when Shira Catherine was born. The two were almost inseparable from that day on.

I’ve been with her since the day she was born, helping her mother care for her.  Other than breastfeeding her, I’ve done everything for her that I did for my own children. I feel like she is one of my children.

I enjoy every minute of being with her. I enjoy feeding, bathing, playing, and talking to her. She has a sense of humor and a big imagination, and she hates to think that she has hurt anyone’s feelings.

The most important thing as a grandmother that I want to instill in her is how much God loves her. After that I want her know that her Grammy and Papa love her unconditionally, and she can never change that no matter what she does. And that as much as we love her, God loves her more. . . . Her value is in Christ and what He did for her.

Paula’s dreams and goals have always had to do with her kids.
I’ve loved being a wife [since I was 18] and mother since I was 19, and enjoyed having my children around me. I dreaded the day that they would all be gone. For 30 years I’ve enjoyed the role of being a mom. That’s what my identity has been for so long that it’s hard for me to change gears and transition into the next “season of life.”

Two of Paula’s daughters live in different states, and just over a month ago, her youngest daughter (Shira’s mother) got married and moved out. Though most women would be enjoying post-child retirement, that next “season of life” is on hold for Paula since she babysits Shira four days a week and often on the weekend while her daughter works. Though she’d love to find more time for gardening and spending time with her husband, Paula is rarely alone—and she’s fine with that.
Am I tired at the end of the day after caring for a toddler all day? YES! Do I dream about a quiet evening with my husband when I can kick back and relax? YES! But when I actually get one of those rare evenings, I feel so sad and worried about Shira that I can’t fully savor the quietness that I’ve longed for.  When I don’t have Shira, I tend to fill my day with as many things as I can so that I won’t have as much to do when I do have Shira.

On this round-two of child rearing, her techniques have changed a bit from when she raised her three daughters.
Being a new mother you tend to worry about everything, from germ exposure, to too much TV, to keeping them on a rigid schedule for eating and sleeping, and trying to make sure they eat the healthiest of foods, and making every moment a teachable moment, and the list could go on. I try to be more relaxed and enjoy the moment we’re in instead of thinking about what’s next and what needs to be done.

In part, Paula’s drive to be a good mother and grandmother came from her own mother who died from cancer a week before Paula’s seventeenth birthday.
I [loved] my mother dearly, but to be frank, she made some stupid choices that affected our family greatly. I know by the choices that she made that I do not want to make the same mistakes she made. . . . I can try my hardest not to repeat them. . . . Looking back over her life, I’m sure she has regrets just like we all have because we are not perfect. But God will wipe away all tears from her eyes, as well as ours, and we will live perfectly in eternity in a home better than we could ever imagine.

For other grandmothers helping to raise their grandchildren, Paula’s encouragement is simple.
Just love them! Love them with all you have in you to love! Pray for them, and enjoy them. Don’t be eager to get rid of them. They know when they’re loved and wanted. Love them like it’s the last day you’ll ever spend with them. You never know what a day will bring.

Mommy Blog

I write for a website called Do blog. A month ago, the administrator asked me to write a Mother’s Day blog post about mothers in different stages of life.

I interviewed several mothers, but in the end found that I could only squeeze one story into the word count. So in the coming days, I’ll post the blog that I published on Do, and another that I wrote just because. (Ok, because she’s Laura’s mom—and she’s kind of my “other” mom too.)

So don’t be alarmed at the coming posts: I’m not turning Goose Hill into a mommy blog. I’m just going to share the stories of a few special moms.