Loss and Its Silver Threaded Lining

123rf stock photo

123rf stock photo

A fews days ago I heard the unfortunate news that someone from town had passed away. Moments after hearing the shocking news, I picked up my phone to call my mom.

As quickly as I picked up the phone, I put it down. I sat there even a bit surprised at myself.

I can’t call my mom. She died in December. I am surprised that sometimes I still forget.

After months of her valiantly suffering, a long hospital stint, a wake, a funeral, sorting through her things, discussing her estate, and talking with my widowed dad every single day, I still sometimes forget.

Maybe it is because she was my Go-To Person. When I have an incredibly good day at work, when I have some exciting news about my writing, or when I have something funny to share about my daughters, I still pick up the phone.

31373191_sPerhaps it is because we often think of loss as a date on a calendar. We think of death and the loss we experience as a moment in time on a certain day at a specific hour at a precise minute when a loved one left this world.

Loss really isn’t a thumbtack pricked through a calendar date. Loss is more of a thread that is stitched through our lives, sharply shredding through the fabric of our lives at a certain point in our existence then slipping below the surface and re-entering again.

The truth is that we don’t lose our loved ones on a set date. We lose them again each time we awake from a dream. We lose them every time we celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, or a milestone that we had believed they would be a physical presence at. We lose them while strolling down the sidewalk at 3pm on that random weekday afternoon when a sudden bittersweet memory rushes to mind. We lose them each time we begin to place a call that cannot be answered in the way we had become accustomed to.

11038897_sLoss and all of the sorrow it carries with it have a way of entering our worlds and tipping the axis of our reality on its side. And maybe this is a good thing.

Maybe the realignment is much needed. Perhaps we need to pause and look at the still shot of life and ask what is part of the real picture and what is the negative.

The opportunity to look at what is real and what is an illusion is valuable. The chance to question what matters and what is backdrop is there for our taking. I suspect the things we often prize as priorities matter less, and as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry suggested, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

flickr.com/photos/sarahbaker/425992892

flickr.com/photos/sarahbaker/425992892

Perhaps each death is actually a beam of light. Perhaps death and the sobering moments it carries with it are actually beams of light cracking through a stormy, charcoal clouded sky to let us know there really is a blue sky above. We just cannot see it.

It is peculiar how words and messages can work like beams too. They seem to have an energy. They have a idiosyncratic force behind them. They have a way of finding us through the thick storm clouds.

In the midst of my own storm this past week, I found myself sorting through a box full of mementos. I found a card that my mom had sent me several years ago. She had mailed it to me right after my first miscarriage after the birth of my second daughter. My mom was no stranger to miscarriage as well. We spoke little about it but I knew that she understood.

flickr.com/photos/ambroo/8150931225

flickr.com/photos/ambroo/8150931225

At the time, I don’t remember thinking much about the card. Perhaps I was too sorrowful. Perhaps life with two toddlers, three dogs, and work was just too busy.

Years later, like a thread stitching its way across the years, this note has re-entered the fabric of my life at the most peculiar of times. Its message resonates deeper now. It speaks on a unique level to her mortal life and my loss.

It gracefully answers the questions that I have thrown up to the heavens in the darkness of the night. It quells insecure thoughts. It softly hushes doubt. It brings with it a peace that inspires and persists.

Here is the card and her message below. May it speak to you too.

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Front of card: “When you come to the edge of all the light you have known & are about to step into the darkness, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen…there will be something to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”

Inside card, ” Dear Ann Marie,   Been there, done that…and I can guarantee what this is saying on this card is true. God’s plan for us somehow eventually reveals itself. What would we do without faith? My heart, love and prayers are with you.    As ever,  Mom”

I love you Mom. I miss your voice even though you continue to speak to me, as ever.

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Patricia Ann Jones O’Rourke

1941-2014

 

 

 

Anti-Resolutions for the New Year: Adjusting To Life’s Varying Water Pressure

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In the wee hours of a cold, winter night well over a decade ago, in an encroached, wood-paneled living room in a Bayonne, New Jersey apartment, a wager was made.

After several bottles of wine, bits of laughter, the sparring of intellect, and a fiercely competitive round of Trivial Pursuit, two couples decided that the winning team would plan a trip where they all must travel to.

Following a fortunate guess about an American president, victory was ours. Tickets and lodging from New York to Shannon, Ireland were secured at dubiously low prices for the second week in February.

flickr.com/photos/zunami/3160084151

flickr.com/photos/zunami/3160084151

At the time, I was living alone in a humble apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey on the salary of a social worker employed by the county. Those modestly priced tickets nearly broke the bank. Somehow on a meager diet of Ramen noodles and tap water among a few other sacrifices, I made it happen.

For some curious reason, I recently have been thinking of that trip. Perhaps because they were some of the sweetest days.

I find myself returning to the same question: Why were they some of the best days?

While we planned our trip, the universe planned an epic snowstorm. We spent the first thirty-eight hours of our vacation sleeping atop of our luggage under the departure boards at John F. Kennedy International airport. After some pleading, conjuring, and self-determined ruckus at the counter combined with a miracle of sorts, we boarded the next plane over to Ireland.

We could have let the storm break our spirits but it didn’t. We were simply grateful to board the plane.

We landed in Dublin. Arriving in the city of our planned departure, our painstakingly planned itinerary was null. We decided to wing it. We secured two of the smallest rental cars in history. Long before international cellphones, we communicated via walkie-talkies as we drove on the wrong side of the road up and down the countryside stopping in villages and at Bed & Breakfasts.

It is true that many of the B&Bs had lumpy beds and showers with the water pressure of a leaky garden hose. It is also fair to say that what many of the pubs were lacking in cuisine, they made up for four-fold in live music, whiskey, beer, and authentic congeniality of a kind and strong people.

flickr.com/photos/82955120@N05/10325152716

flickr.com/photos/82955120@N05/10325152716

It is perhaps most essential to note that some of the most breathtaking hillsides, enchanted forests, ruins of castles, and herds of painted sheep were just there in the vast, open, blessed world waiting to be seen.

We stumbled upon remote shore villages, roadside farm stands and family-owned shops. We visited pubs full of genial, local gentlemen with a knack for the age-old art of storytelling, and stopped at centuries-old cemeteries that told different stories with their silence and peace.

But first, I’d like to return to the issue of the shower.

flickr.com/photos/glenbledsoe

flickr.com/photos/glenbledsoe

I imagine what it might be like now in my life if the water pressure was poor while on holiday. There would be phone calls downstairs to correct the problem, the scolding of staff, and discussions about “what we paid for” and “what was expected” not to mention what was “unacceptable”. There would be adamant requests to change rooms and then we would probably spend the next hour and a half at dinner discussing the poor water pressure and how it was adversely affecting our trip.

It is probably safe to say that I would have even missed those breathtaking hillsides and brilliant moments while complaining. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy the local fiddler at the pub because of my fixation on the bothersome shower trickle. He might just be background noise to a sob story of my own conception. I suspect those enchanted forests would have seemed a bit less extraordinary because of my dim perspective. I may have wholly missed the forest for the trees in my ranting.

In recent years, I have undoubtedly been on many more fanciful trips with five star accommodations and four diamond dining than my jaunt across the Emerald Isle. I’ve dined at establishments with fine, plush stools to place your purse atop of and ordered entrees with ingredients I couldn’t identify (and sometimes shamefully could not pronounce). There have been en-suite bathrooms I could have parked the entire contents of my Bayonne apartment in, with soaking tub jets that had the water pressure of a NYC fire hydrant.

flickr.com/photos/ktylerconk/2400630645

flickr.com/photos/ktylerconk/2400630645

My experience of Ireland had no fancy bathrooms, no purse stools, no tongue-twisting appetizers, and no attentive wait staff at my beck and call. Our concierge was often a widowed B&B keeper with the grit, wit and wisdom of a convivial, world-traveled sailor. Our accommodations were simply the authentic, unfettered results of a brave woman’s entrepreneurship in an uncertain global economy.

I realize why it was a great trip. It was a grand adventure simply because the water pressure did not matter. Life was not about what I expected and when I graciously accepted that, I was able to appreciate that life was even better.

Somewhere at some point since my Ireland trip, I lost sight of the most essential amenity of all: a liberating perspective.

flickr.com/photos/tir_na_nog/6124858280

flickr.com/photos/tir_na_nog/6124858280

It is peculiar how the modes of comfort we surround ourselves with – the amenities, the plans, and the fancy technology we possess, were intended to make life simpler yet often make it more complicated and bothersome. The more things we acquire to make our lives simpler and freer, the more they can begin to burden us. We build our own house of cards. The piles and piles of stuff we own starts to own us. The heaping bits of expectations that we build up begin to weigh us down.

The solution is simple yet so drastic it seems radical. I knew I needed to cut the ties of expectation and entitlement. Life doesn’t promise us fair weather, comfy accommodations, and steady water pressure. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that we all will have our share of trickles and amendments to the plan. It is a given.

Maybe life isn’t about the best laid plans but about letting go. I had to let go and let grace in.

flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/14190081844

flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/14190081844

I found that the moment I accepted the truth that I’m not owed anything by anyone in this life, things transformed. For me, this spiritual, swift kick in the ass, had had a sobering and instantly enlivening effect.

A return to a grateful and humble perspective transformed the world around me into a brighter place full of hope. Life certainly did not become perfect but who would really want it to be. It became wildly astonishing in the most humbling of ways.

In God’s unpretentious, dark sense of humor, we are repeatedly reminded that the spark of liveliness in spontaneity outshines our doleful, scheduled plans. In the universe’s thundering ironic undertone, we receive the same frequent lesson, that there are far better plans in store for us than those we could dream up. All we must do is resign ourselves to possibility.

flickr.com/photos/anarey/8749713315

flickr.com/photos/anarey/8749713315

A life resigned to possibility may look a bit scattered or messy from the outside but those inside that life know a secret: there is space and calm for the unscheduled and spontaneous to occur. There is room for mystery, magic, and evolving faith. The unplanned occurs whether we like it or not, friends get sick, new opportunities arise, loved ones pass on, and life constantly changes outside our control. The more we make peace with it, the more contentment we can find.

On that fateful trip overseas, my best friend and her boyfriend became engaged. Three days after the trip ended so did my relationship with the guy I had been dating. Not much of a loss, it was the worst type of relationship – those born out of convenience. Nonetheless, my best friend and I promised, no matter what or who may come and go, that this would be the first of many similar trips.

flickr.com/photos/lennox_mcdough/8989558967

flickr.com/photos/lennox_mcdough/8989558967

As tends to happen, something happened to our promise. A dozen years later, two husbands, five children, and three dogs between us, the trip never occurred. There have been many adventures yet no trip. Perhaps it was the demands of life, evolving careers, different social circles, raising children, or mere geography. Perhaps these are excuses on both our parts. Perhaps all of the above is true.

Although I am wise enough to know that these moments cannot be recreated, I know that so much of what we experience is within our control. We can tell a story of sub-par accommodations or we can tell a story of a stunning countryside with congenial, unforgettable people.

I also am certain that there are new moments waiting to be seen, heard, tasted, and felt. Life is springing with new, blessed possibilities all around us, underneath us, and beside us, if we are just willing to look past the water pressure.

And with all of this in mind, I plan to be more unplanned in 2015. May your New Year surpass your own expectations.

 

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A sign in Dublin. flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/14270291262

flickr.com/photos/bigiof/15267879695

flickr.com/photos/bigiof/15267879695

Forgiveness: An Essential Practice For Your Soul’s Sake

photo 1-3After dropping off our two oldest daughters at camp, my husband and I packed up our cooler and our two-year-old daughter and walked past the dunes out to the beach. That is what people do on vacation. They make an effort to relax.

Eight-hundred miles from home on a vast, vacant shore, we scooped up shells, built lopsided sandcastles, returned living sand dollars back into the sea, and swam with our daughter.

We floated in the calm seas under the balmy sun taking in the wild air. We were in paradise.

We were in paradise yet I was somewhere else. To the untrained observer, I was a mom peacefully floating along the Atlantic Ocean at low tide. Inside of myself though, there was a looming tempest swirling about.

I wasn’t floating in the calm, warm sea. I was re-living a week ago in my mind.

My husband and I recently had the experience of being deceived by someone we trusted – a person we trusted with our household, our rescue dogs, and our children. The feeling was awful.

I was angry. I do anger well. The letting go of anger part – not so well.

I was angry at being lied to. I was angry at being played for a fool. I was angry at myself for not trusting my gut and not confronting the lies earlier out of convenience or comfort. My head was bursting with shoulda-coulda-woulda’s. I replayed conversations in my mind and second-guessed events in my head. I was torturing myself.

Once the deceit was revealed, I had tried to take the high road. I just didn’t expect the high road to feel so low. I just couldn’t seem to let go of the anger and the hurt.

I then realized this: It is not about my response or the expected emotional outcomes of high and low roads. It is about forgiveness.

The thing about forgiveness is that it is noble in theory yet difficult in practice. In conceptualizing forgiveness and truly grasping what forgiveness is, it is perhaps best to acknowledge what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not a free-pass. It does not mean we return to the same circumstances. Forgiveness does not mean we will trustimage that person again. We can learn from a moment and not return to it. We can forgive but not forget and that is acceptable. Forgiveness must not always accompany forgetfulness. Forgiveness, however, most always tends to precede forgetfulness. The memory, nonetheless, does not dissipate. We just must not wear our hurt around our necks, on our sleeves, and on our skin. We must acknowledge it and then tuck it away.

Forgiveness is not an eraser. It doesn’t wipe away the hurt. The practice of forgiveness doesn’t minimize what has happened.

Forgiveness is not a do-over. It doesn’t change the facts or alter the past but it does change every moment forward. It alters our future.

Forgiveness even alters our present. Forgiveness forces us to be present in the moment. Forgiveness releases us from reliving the past. It removes us from the future and our forethought into getting even or setting the matter straight. It returns us to the present which is the greatest and the only gift we have.quotes-forgiveness-tony-robbins-600x411

Forgiveness is not a one-time action. It is an attitude, a continual practice. Forgiveness is a state-of-mind. When you truly contemplate it, most all of our journeys in this life are adventures in forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t exclusively offered for those who are sorry. We must forgive others even when they aren’t remorseful – especially when they are not remorseful. Forgiveness isn’t about the other person’s True-forgiveness-is-when-you-can-sayacknowledgement of guilt or wrongdoing but about our ability to accept apologies we will never get and to move forward. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “True forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.”

Perhaps experience is at the root of forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. Forgiving oneself may be the hardest type. Although guilt is one of the most purposeless emotions, it remains one of the most paralyzing. Yet in the midst of our own tempest of regret, we must look to the anchor of experience. Experience sheds meaning. Although we are powerless over the past, we are not powerless over our perspective.

Failures can be our greatest teachers. Our missteps can be some of the most important steps on our life journey. If we allow the anger of others to teach us forgiveness, the apathy of others to spark compassion, the cruelty of others to give way to kindness, the deception of others to ignite flames of truth, and the violence of others to birth peace, a greater transformation has occurred only on the other side of a struggle whose summit was marked by unbridled forgiveness.

imageForgiveness is not for the weak-minded. It is so easy for most anyone to uphold a grudge and to hold on to anger. Anger ulcerates the soul. Holding onto anger is corrosive. Holding onto the hurt is paralyzing.

Anger is a sneaky thief – robbing us of present joy and stealing our precious time.  Anger slams the door to hope. Anger constricts the senses cutting off our ability to perceive, to connect, and ultimately, to thrive.

Forgiveness is indeed an attribute of the brave. It is releasing yourself from the chains of hurt and allowing all that the universe has to offer you at the present in.

Forgiveness is abandonment of a past that could not be any different. It is the act of ceasing to re-read a chapter that will not read any differently no matter how hard we try. Forgiveness is about moving onto the next, new, unwritten chapter Unknownilluminated by hope, by potential, and by an unburdened perspective to allow the opportunities of the present into your soul.

In the calm seas of that August morning, I floated along with my arms outstretched and earnestly prayed to a forgiving God and an all-knowing universe to release the burden of failing to forgive and witness me in offering up my forgiveness fully.

In that moment of transformation, there was no parting of the sea, no tidal wave, no dark storm clouds, no lightening bolt from the sky, or burning bush in the dunes but I had magnanimously returned to the humble sea. No longer was I living in the past but I was right there in the water. I could taste the salt air. I could see the pelican overhead flying underneath a brilliant, open sky. I could feel the coarse sand of photo 3the ocean floor beneath my feet. I could hear the laughter of my husband and daughter’s chuckles flutter through the air. I could see paradise for what it was – not necessarily an external place but a state of peace within.

I had returned to the present where I hoped to stay. I knew though that it would require more than hope alone. It would require hope coupled with practice.
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Building Trust

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For all my friends who read The Newark Star Ledger, my article on building trust will be in the paper tomorrow, Tuesday July 1, 2014. For the link to the digital version, please click here. Thanks as always for taking the time to read what I have to share. 

For a full link to over 50 of my nj.com/parenting articles, please click here

(above photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jfdervin)

 

Clam Shells, Bicycles, and the Ride of My Life: Seizing the Present and Changing Course

shell`I play the clam shell game. I am sure you have heard of it. It is that age-old carnival game where there’s a coin under one of three or four shells. The player guesses which shell it is under. By the time the shell is lifted, the dealer has slyly moved the coin. It is about illusion and confusion. It is chaos and excitement and the probability of being right all shell-game-flashspun into one.

The problem is no one ever wins.

I am the mom of three daughters, three rescue dogs, wife of one, and work full-time. I work at our own family-operated company so that we can afford a life for our family. Working with a spouse can be challenging at best, rewarding every so often, and maddening most of the time. Despite the uphill climb, there are wonderful freedoms. The liberty of staying home with my child when she is sick, the ability to attend a school function mid-day, and the pleasure of working with a small group of committed, inspiring people. These are liberties I do not take for granted.

I also work as a writer. This is the job that I work at all hours of the day and night. I plod forward constantly and steadily working towards the moment that I will be able to write always all the time. This is who I am in the pit of my soul. I write at 3am, accept all sorts of interviews and assignments.

I do this knowing that each opportunity is a preparation for the future. I do this knowing that you never know exactly where an opportunity will take you. I do this knowing that opportunity only comes to those that sign up and show up.

My best job is being a parent. Being a mom of three girls makes me a better, more thoughtful, deliberate person. Knowing I am their roadmap for a parent and for a person makes me want to accomplish more, love more deeply, and be more enlightened. The rate at which my children grow serves as a bittersweet reminder that time moves so rapidly and there are no do-overs. It reminds me to be present in the moment.

But back to the clam shell game.shell5

I have a problem. I keep moving the coin under each shell. It gets tricky but don’t be fooled. When my kitchen is clean and all coats are hung up and toys put away, I may look like I’ve got it together. You might say, “well Ann is getting organized.” What you don’t know is I have two massive piles of work, eleven voicemails to respond to, and eighty-four new emails in my inbox.

When dinner is cooked, dishes are washed, teeth are brushed, stories are read, and we lie on the floor together looking up at the stars on the ceiling from their projector, you mights say “Ann is really taking this parenting thing to heart. She’s got it together.” What you do not know is that I have about four loads of laundry to do, haven’t blogged in four days, and have two letters for work to send out.

When I work until 8:30pm and the sitter has put them to bed, my voicemail is back to empty and all issues are resolved for today yet I haven’t spoken to my mom in three days, you might say “Ann is balancing work and home quite well”. What you are unaware of is that the playroom is a minefield of legos and every room in my home lucille-balllooks like a playroom. I feel like Lucy on the assembly line with the chocolates and I forgot to go the gym again for the last two weeks. I am up another six pounds on the scale.

When I post a picture to Facebook of myself down eleven pounds on the scale, you might think “Ann has really gotten healthy”. What you don’t know is that I went to the gym for the last hour and a half and fed my kids processed chicken nuggets, skipped baths, bypassed story time, and put them in bed. And my weight loss formula? Anxiety.

This is the truth. So many of us play the clam shell game. No one has ever had a perfect score. And sadly, the game is not what it is about. Playing the game merely makes us fools wasting time at life’s carnival.

All of those voices remarking on “Ann” aren’t really everyone’s ideas on what they observe. They are the voices in my own head that I have assigned to others. They are the voices of insecurity that if I do more, I am more worthy. If I do more I am better. If things look better, they are better. This is all part of the illusion and the missing coin.

We need to stop the games and start thriving. We need to stop tricking ourselves. We need to be kind to other moms and to ourselves. The reason I most often don’t take issue with my spouse, friends, or others isn’t because they are perfect. It is not because I can’t find a problem or a weak spot. It is that it doesn’t matter. We need to be more forgiving especially to ourselves.

The problem with the shell game is that there are no winners. There never will be. We need to quit being the player and the dealer. We need to walk away from the carnival. A win is possible but not in this way.

We need to redefine what winning is. Winning is not a matter of ‘busy’ or intensity but a matter of moments. Winning is not in appearances. Winning is not in other clam3people’s opinions of us or our own opinion of ourselves as reflected back in their eyes.

Winning is about seizing moments. Winning is sometimes about losing and taking the lesson. Winning is sometimes about losing with dignity. We need to taste sour to know the sweet. We need darkness to see the stars.

Winning is about cracking open the hard shell of failure and extrapolating that lesson of truth from within and ingesting it. It is about taking a dose of brave and standing up for what you want. Winning involves championing your priorities.

Winning is about building resistance and strength from falling down. Winning is always about getting back up. Winning is about treading through the fear not walking around it.

Winning is about assessment. We need to recognize the amount of life we are exchanging for things and deciding if its really worth it.

Winning comes in silencing the naysayers not because they have ceased to be loud and incessant but because you have found the silence and calm within and that calm drowns out all of the other noise.

clam1Winning is about mindfulness. We need to be present at each precise moment or we lose. If we are washing dishes and dreaming of a meeting in two weeks, we have lost that moment. If we talk to our spouse before bed and are on our IPad answering emails, we are not really in that conversation with our loved-one. That moment is lost for eternity. These moments will eventually add up to a lifetime of loss.

With that in mind, winners sometimes quit. I am not quitting the work, the family, or what I work for. I quit the game. I have decided to leave the carnival and ride a bike.

clam4I have decided to go through life’s journey and all of its beaten paths, downhill coasts, and uphill climbs on a bicycle. I am riding a bike to keep moving and keep balance. I am riding a bike to enjoy the scenery.

I may get there slower but with a more meaningful ride. It is the closest I will get to flying. It is celebration in motion. It is movement without excess or waste of anything. It is movement of the being and stillness of the soul in unison. There is progress is each revolution of the wheel.

clam2I have decided to quit the games, cut my loses, and enjoy the ride. As Rumi points out, “life is a balance of holding on and letting go”. I choose balance over madness, movement over judgment, and to enjoy the ride of life.

In advance I ask you to pardon the state of my home and my appearance. I have pardoned myself and that is perhaps all that matters. Sometime things need to fall apart to be put back together correctly. Sometimes, we need to seize the day, the sunshine, and the wind. We need to remember that life is not a sprint. It is not a marathon either. It is a series of small races. Sometimes we fall and pick ourselves up. Sometimes we pick up a fallen friend, drape their arm over our shoulder, and finish the race together.

clam7 My ride begins in faith that I am where I need to be. Nature is a testimony to this. As Tzu taught, “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Slow down but keep moving. You will never enjoy the ride if you’re still at the carnival.

 

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A Year of Gratitude and The Endless Thank You Note (Courtesy of Rumi)

ann4444bIt was a year ago this week that I told a friend a secret. I told her that had been writing and I had written a novel. Looking back on it, it is seemingly strange to keep such a secret. At the same time, it is challenging to put ourselves out there. It requires grit and vulnerability to be transparent and real.

My friend and fellow author suggested I join the writing team at nj.com. She went to bat for me. Out of her suggestion a beautiful springboard appeared. It was a tremendous gift. A year later, I have authored fifty nj.com articles, started this site with another dozen posts, had a couple of articles published in The Star Ledger newspaper, and am a part of some extraordinary projects that will come to completion this year.

On all fronts it has been an amazing year not necessarily because of any accomplishment but rather because this journey has been transformative for my soul.

In pure writer’s irony, I am at a loss for words  so I thought I would offer one big explanation and thank you in the words of famed poet Rumi:

I felt that there was something else calling me regarding my calling in life…

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With three small children, three rescue dogs, a busy home, and a business to tend to, starting a new project did not make much sense on the outside. On the inside, not only did it make perfect sense, it resonated with who I am.

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The most frightening part about setting forth on the journey is that failure suddenly became an option or so I reasoned.

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I foolishly never realized that failure was the only option had I not stepped forward on this path.

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With fortuitous opportunity presenting itself, it seemed like I owed it to the integrity of my soul to pursue what seemed to be calling me.

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It seemed like what I had prayed for and secretly hoped for had found a way into my life.

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It was now up to me to do the work.

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I am eternally grateful for all of those who opened my wings a bit more…

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I am thankful for my fellow writer and friend, Jamie Utitus, who offered me the chance to join nj.com and conspire in illuminating our dreams.

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I am grateful for my mom who has always emphasized the simple yet extraordinary fact that words change things. She has been a lifeboat, ladder, lamp, and shepherd.

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I am blessed to have my sister, Mary, help me with hours upon hours of proof-reading.  I recognize that the act of  proof-reading is akin to withstanding the blistering heat of the netherworld. Mary, your work is not forgotten.

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I am grateful for new inspirations and collaborations. Denise Constantino you are a  talented soul and a gentle spirit. I have had such meaningful conversations and interactions with so many individuals, Senator Cory Booker, Maria Cuomo Cole, Stephen Powell, Paul Giampavolo, Mary Williams, and many others. These conversations have been so valuable in shaping perspective and affecting change.

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I am thankful to my husband, Joe, a thousand times over that he supports my dreams which are not his dreams. Our individuality has brought greater appreciation for one another, our separateness has brought us closer together, and our gratefulness more appreciation for life.

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I am grateful for my readers: new friends, old friends reconnected, cousins, relatives, coworkers, people in our community, and individuals seeking awareness and a brighter, more meaningful future. To my cousins, Noreen and Patrick, you never disappoint with your comments. To my extended family, Lisa, Cathy, Tricia, Diana, and Jay, you have always supported my writings and I am thankful for your positive vibes. To my friends, Dean, Marisa, Cathy, Fran, Judy, Heather, Joel, and Bob, I appreciate every time you share your thoughts and perspective. You inspire me to be a better writer.

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The writing is not about being recognized but about being connected. In so many of our stories there is that common thread of bravery, of vulnerability, and respect. With this commonality, comes a flood of compassion, meaning, and action.

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As an introvert, my writing has connected me to others in conversations I would never had had any other way. I am thankful for these exchanges, connections, and more meaningful relationships. In people knowing who I really am and what I think, it brings new connections closer and those who do not share any likemindedness to move on quicker without wasting time.

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Whatever your own unique gift is, using our gifts  shed light on darkness.

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Using our talents empower us in a profound way.

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It offers a deeper dimension of meaning and understanding to each moment.

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It rids us of conventional nonsense that cluttered the way.

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It forces us to put on our big girl pants, be brave, and act with grit.

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It forces us to believe in ourselves and what we are saying while taking a risk immersed in faith.

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It raises our expectations to higher, more extraordinary levels.

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It excludes the unimportant.

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It brings what is essential into focus.

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And while we are not paying attention, it answers our questions.

It also reminds me that being a great writer is about listening long before it is about expression.

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It is about observation before expression.

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It is about understanding with humility and reverence both the temporal and timeless nature that exist within yourself and being able to feel both of those seemingly conflicting natures existing in harmonious unison.

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I know the upcoming year holds mystery, challenge, and I hope to use those gifts to enlighten my journey and that of others. Thanks for the gift of attention and time and encouragement to get off of the ground. Best wishes to everyone who believes in the beauty of their dreams and has the courage to follow them.

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Knowing A Blessing From A Curse: And Why It Really Doesn’t Matter

farmer1An old Chinese parable tells the story of a farmer and his horse:

An old farmer was working in his field with his only horse. Somehow, the horse broke free and ran away from the farm. The farmer could not find the horse anywhere.

In hearing of what happened, neighbors from the village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.  What bad luck. How will you live, work, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see”.

Less than a week later, the farmer’s horse returned. He returned to the farm with a pack of eight other wild horses.  The farmer and his son corralled the horses.

The news traveled throughout the village. The neighbors came to visit the farmer. “You are fortunate!” they proclaimed. “What good luck.”  Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

The next morning the farmer’s only son set awoke to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. He quickly became sick with fever and pains. One by one villagers arrived to visit the sick son. “Oh, what a tragedy. What bad luck. You must be very sad”.  they said.  The farmer calmly answered, “Who knows? We shall see”

5226587_sAcross the country, a war began. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg and poor health.  “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You have good luck.” “Who knows? We shall see!”, replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you”!  But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

The war ended but the other young village boys had died in battle.  The old farmer’s son was the only young man to have lived. The neighbors said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy”, to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” 

In my own life, there are those days where everything seems to fall apart. Although I am aware that I leave little marginal room for error or adjustment in a tightly-packed schedule fully, the slightest shift in planning can ripple throughout the day.

Yesterday, I had a huge deadline and a few hours to accomplish my goal. I arrived at work with three hours to accomplish that work, about five hours of work ahead of me, and anxiety in the pit of my stomach. About forty-five minutes into my work, I get a text and a phone call. My sitter is sick. I have to return home to the kids.

Driving home I felt this sense of defeat. My defeat and negativism was wrapped firmly in a sense that I knew best. My day was crap. I hadn’t accomplished anything and I was feeling sorry for myself.

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I arrived home. The sitter left. I began to wash dishes and reason inside my head that these things happen. About twenty minutes into my time at home, there was a horrendous noise. It sounded like twenty-toilets running at once coupled with a train approaching our house. A pipe had burst and began leaking down through three floors of our home. Water poured from the recessed light fixtures, out the air-conditioing vent, and down the brick fireplace.

I was able to shut off the water in our basement in less than ninety seconds from when the leak started. There was damage but not the catastrophic kind. It could have been worse, much worse.  I had this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that I was home. Had no one been home, the damage to our home and danger to our three dogs could have been significant. Had our sitter been home, she wouldn’t have known where the main water valve was and how to turn it off.

I shouldn’t have been home and yet I was. I couldn’t help but feel that someone or something was looking out for me. What I had foolishly thought was a curse (in having to return home early) was a blessing.

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This blessing in disguise was a much needed kick in the pants to my ego. In this fast-paced, technology savvy world where we believe so much of life is within our control, this is not always the case. And perhaps this is a good thing. The day was a reminder of faith.

Although we can’t foresee what God or the universe has in store for our days ahead, it isn’t our job to be all knowing. In my life, concentrating on what will happen and what it all means robs me of joy in the presence. Having faith allows me to do my best in that moment.

What may seem like a curse may be our greatest  blessings. And the inverse is sometimes true. Sometimes the universe saves us from ourselves and our own choices. Sometimes we walk down the wrong path of romantic partners, career choices, life choices, and the powers that be redeem us. We are spared from short-changing ourselves.

For me, not getting caught in the trap of interpretting that moment-to-moment significance in my own life is about relinquishing control. It is about falling back away into the safety net of faith.

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Within that safety net, there is a plan. It would be maddening to attempt to try and figure out that plan. It would be impossible to understand all of its detailed connections and meanings but having faith that there is purpose in each event, seemingly bad or seemingly good, is key.Faith doesn’t mean we will be spared from suffering. It simply means that suffering is for a purpose and that purpose may be something we do not fully understand.

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Life speaks to us in our blessings. Life shouts to us in our setbacks and tragedies. Sometimes things in our life are multi-faceted. They are both good and bad intertwined and infinitely joined but fully coated in purpose.

I recently listened to Amiira Ruotula-Behrendt speak about faith and the universe. She suggested what if the universe had three answers in store? And those answers to any of our prayers or questions were: 1) yes, 2) yes but not yet  and 3) I have something better in mind for you.

In the year ahead may your sorrows be short lived and your joys be infinite and may you always have a sense of purpose to hold strong to and enjoy the present.

Halloween, Risk, and Conquering Fear: Tales of a Peacekeeper

RWEI have always loved Halloween. It is the holiday with an edge to it. October carries with it that kind of crisp coldness where you start to see your own breath in front of your face. You are reminded of your own electric humanity. You’re alive. Trees shed their leaves. Nature is unveiled and yet there is  a looming sense of mystery. We know we cannot see all that is or all that is about to be.

Halloween is about making statements with confidence, with exaggeration. and with art. Statements are not made with words but with fabric, with expression, with attitude, and concealment.

My love of Halloween could be because I love candy too. Ah, the rush of sugar. There is something to be said for the rush of a good scare too.  I don’t mean the tragic type but rather that adrenaline boost that surges after you exit the roller coaster ramp frazzled and shaking and wanting to do it all over again. These are the things I miss.

This Halloween I will try to remember the value behind trying the things that scare me. Perhaps the days of roller coasters and zip-lining are behind me but there is something to be said for stepping outside of our comfort zone. Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

When I left my work as a clinical social worker to help my husband build his company, I came to his business with what I believed to be a varied skill set. Undoubtedly, that was true yet in so many areas I found myself knee-deep in uncharted territory. As a life-long, gold star people pleaser, I have always dreaded confrontation. I dreaded it even when I knew I was right. For most of my childhood and well into my thirties, I had gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation even when I had a valid point to make. ‘Flight over fight’ made sense to the peacekeeper in me.

In my new work, I found myself in daily confrontation. It was an integral part of my job description. Building a business is about building bridges and relationships but it is just as much about the fight. There is a struggle to build something. It is not easy. Perhaps that it why it so challenging and rewarding. I found myself having to stand my ground and push forth with vendors and professionals, the general public, the media, and unprofessional professionals of the most unscrupulous, calculated sort.

I found that the daily struggle was a boot camp for my sensitivity. These tiring confrontations and uncomfortable arguments often fought with a trembling voice proved to be so valuable. At the days end, I felt spent. My soul would even sometimes feel bruised but over time I became stronger. I became smarter and more accurate. There was something new and brilliant in my wheelhouse. I knew myself better in a new way. I learned how much I didn’t know about myself when I thought I knew almost everything there was to know about me.

I learned that I was often hiding behind the guise of peacekeeping because the fight for what was right seemed too steep and scary to climb. The truth was that I was too scared too act. I was scared of weakness and terrified of failure.

I also learned that I am a better person for pushing myself. I am a better business owner. I am a better boss to those we employ and whose families depend upon our success. I am a better life partner. I am a better mama bear to my children, and I am without question a stronger soul. I am a contender and I am formidable.

Taking risks is about unwrapping all of those God-given presents that you didn’t even know were given to you. For some, they may be about unwrapping the ability to own their own thoughts and words and about gifts of confidence. Other may be discovering the gifts of forgiveness, humility, humor, or kindness. For all of us, there are so many different gifts to be revealed and developed. There are limits to be overcome. There are always walls to be pushed out, and ceiling to be broken through. As MLK suggested, sometimes we just need to see the first stair of the grand staircase to take the initial step. We get one life to do it right for ourselves, to honor the memory of those who have gone before us, and for our children who will go beyond us.

In recent years, the trembling voice has faded but I find there is always a new risk to be taken and uncharted territory to be covered in most all directions. And there ALWAYS will be.

Happy Halloween, Happy All Saints Day, and Happy All Souls Day!

Easter Gratitude: Putting My Blessings In One Basket

eggsAs a young girl, every Easter I was sick. I would eat too much chocolate or catch the flu or suffer from a combination of both ailments. Easter was more about pastel marshmallow treats and my love-hate relationship with them. As I grew older, Easter presented an opportunity to visit with my West-Coast cousins in Seattle. I traveled cross-country on a plane with my maternal grandparents to celebrate family tradition, to embrace the true sense of holiness, and to celebrate our blessings. I soon learned that a rainy Easter spent with family out West was better than most anything. I learned to make sticky-buns and even more importantly, we made memories that will shine in my heart forever.

As I now prepare for this season of rebirth, I think about sacrifice and I think about my many blessings. It’s a powerful and important thing to reflect upon after a week full of such ups and downs.

As I feel the impulse to complain about what is trivial, I more fervently feel compelled to be thankful. I am blessed that my husband’s business is busy enough that he works from 7 am until 8 or 9pm each night. I am blessed that I have three daughters who turn my house upside down in a matter of moments. I am glad that have each other to be in cahoots with, and I’m grateful that we have a home. I try to earnestly appreciate the sour with the sweet, to find the lesson in what is difficult, and to take each obstacle as a lesson for what lies ahead. Sometimes it is easier said than done. Sometimes I am able to focus on the journey better than the destination.

I am thankful for family, even when we are fighting and when we agree to disagree. I am thankful that they are there and for their love that remains unconditional.

I am thankful for the half-dozen pills that we have to give to our twelve-year old dog, Sweetie. I am glad that she made it through a medical scare this week. In Easter irony, she ate a rabbit (not a chocolate one, rather a furry one) and didn’t fare well after the fact. My heart is full of gratitude that she is there to squeeze between my husband and I in our bed tonight, and evil-eye us when we invade her space. We have been granted the gift of time with her for now. Dogs have a way of reminding us of all that is good and wonderful in this world without saying a word. Just their presence can sum up joy, lightheartedness, and loyalty all at once. Sweetie and our two other rescue pups suffered abuse before they came into our lives. Sweetie, Finn, and Jake, continue to teach us so much about life through their daily example of simplicity. Their ability to forgive, reconcile, trust, and care for one another and us is amazing in itself.

I am thankful for my husband and the many differences we have between us. They are reminders of why we got together to begin with, of why we get along, of what we have to offer each other, and of how far we have come. There are truths in our disagreements, these small little bits of honesty filled with light, that seem to rise up to the surface. Sometimes things need to be said in order to move forward.

I am thankful for humor. It is a saving grace and God-sent. When I stand in our kitchen and watch our eight-month-old daughter laugh hysterically at the funny sounds and faces her two sisters make at her, I am instantly reminded that God is present in her laughter. It serves as such a poignant reminder of the importance of keeping a sense of humor and perspective in this whirlwind life. My children remind both my husband and I of how necessary it is to take life seriously and not to take life too seriously all at the same time.

I am thankful for friends. People travel in and out of your existence. Life always seems to surprise me though. It is such a beautiful, startling shock to have someone in your life gift you with the most generous gift of time, the most enthusiastic present of their presence in your life, and the reward of their honest feedback. These are the sweetest gifts and I am thankful for true friends. You are the many reflections of the face of God in my life.

I feel those who are no longer with us, who have departed this earth still walking beside us. I feel them with us on the other side, guiding us and rooting us on. Every now and then they whisper into our hearts. I miss them and hope as this new spiritual year commences to make them proud.

Blessings to you and your loved ones this Easter!

Please Pardon The Mess

momsWelcome to our home. Enter. I know what you are wondering. The ottoman is tipped over on its side. The area rug is askew. Drawers pulled open, contents sticking out. Cheerios and crayons on the floor. One of our dogs is chewing on a Slinkie. There’s a bra on a bike helmet and a pop tart on the bookshelf. Have we been burglarized? No, but thanks for your concern. It isn’t an outlandish assumption. This is what our home looks like most every Thursday at 2pm.

I can explain. Things weren’t always this way. Rewind four and a half years. My husband and I purchased our first home together and immediately began to furnish it. Not long after we signed on the dotted line and removed the realtor sign off of the front lawn, I learned that I was pregnant with our first child. We painted each room, put up crown molding and picked out each item for our humble abode. Actually, that isn’t exactly true. Let me reword. We are not that handy. We don’t know how to do everything but we know how to pay people that do everything. We hired painters and people to put up crown molding and they did an excellent job but I did coordinate paint swatches to pillows and select all our furniture until my vision was complete. Our house was beginning to feel like a home. Sort-of.

I remember having one of my best friends over to show her the final product. With her seventeen-month old son wrapped around her leg, she remarked that everything was beautiful, “just gorgeous”, yet added on her way out the freshly painted front door that a year or so from now she imagines I will regret some of these purchases. I was puzzled and my hormonally-charged feelings were hurt. I felt fully committed to my damask wallpaper and felt her words were some sort of slight at my old whimsical self from my twenties. It turns out that it wasn’t. She was referring to my marble and mahogany living room furniture. She was speaking of my all glass curio and my large Phantom of the Opera-esque candelabras, as well as my bar-height kitchen table with tapestry stools.

I still didn’t understand what she really meant until our daughter, Sonoma, was born and started to walk. Suddenly the living room didn’t seem so elegant but more like a mine field of what to avoid. Don’t jump near the glass cabinet. Watch your head near that table. Our living room became an obstacle course of glass, marble, and mahogany claw-feet.

Our second daughter was born seventeen months later. In came the new baby. Out came the glass curio. Boxed away in our crawl space went the a lot of the Lladro and the Lenox. We slapped those big, black  sticky foam corner protectors onto every granite surface, edge of fireplace, and sharp corner we could find.

It wasn’t all about safety. Safety was just at the top of the slippery slope. With every month that passed, order within our home diminished. Three daughters and three dogs later, there were little fingerprints and dog paw prints across our glass window panes. If I missed a day of vaccuming, dog fur would blow like tumbleweeds across our family room. There were oat puffs on the chairs, Fisher Price Little People littered across our floors, and a cardboard party hat strapped to our Buddha statue as our daughters affectionately included him in their play birthday parties.

Please don’t misunderstand. I have well-behaved children. They aren’t rude or obnoxious. They barely whine and only act like little Gremlins twenty-percent of the time. They are children though. They are creative and fun and unpredictable. My daughter Sienna drew on her entire leg with marker the other day because it was fun. She played mummy with our beagle-basset hound and the toilet paper. Sonoma painted Sienna from head to toe with Desitin a few months back playing a competitive game of “sunblock.”

Contrary to what it may seem, I am not a slob. I’m not a hoarder or “a messpot”. In fact, I am a Virgo thru and thru. I’m just a Virgo elbow deep in juice boxes, stuffed animals, and piles of paperwork. I’m a mother of three children three years old and under and I may have forgotten to mention that we have three adorable rescue dogs. I cook. I clean. I work from home and I do organize throughout the day. I even dusted with our little feather duster until one of our three rescue dogs ripped it apart and ate it.

The problem as I see it is two-fold. First, we are too hard on each other. I know there are people who have children and keep their homes impeccable, and good for them. Perhaps this gives them a sense of peace. Just don’t judge me. Child-rearing and organization are not parallel. A neat home doesn’t necessarily make a happy home. It may just make a museum.

My husband and I went to another couple’s home for a get together a few weeks ago. Their home is impeccable and wherever I go, so many friends and even some family have made the case that this woman is the ideal wife and perfect mom. In fact, she is very cultured, classy and hospitable. She and her husband are hospitable to a fault. Upon arriving at their home, her apron matched the drapes. With her decor and appetizers and calm demeanor, she made the Stepford Wives look flustered and disorganized. Into the evening, our gracious host advised me that the bathroom was upstairs, the third door on the left. I ascended the stairs with our infant daughter in tow, as it was my intention to nurse her in the bathroom, and somehow I miscounted and opened the wrong door. Inside was a strange sight. Before my eyes was a guest room filled with piles of boxes. Boxes filled with toys and clothes. There were items strewn all over. It was a mess. This just wasn’t a mess but this was a crack in the case. This was hard, cold evidence that they were human. Perhaps they could be as human and momentarily overwhelmed at times as I was. I knew though that this line of reasoning was disturbed. Why was I rejoicing over their scattered laundry?How sick is it that I felt relieved to the point of being enthused at the sign of their humanity? Was it possible that they too had bouts of messiness? Could “perfect” be a myth like the Lochness Monster or Sasquatch?

This brings me to my second point: we are too hard on ourselves. I knew in the cluttered, dusty recesses of my own spirit that this was more about my own insecurities then it was about keeping up with the Joneses. There would always be someone else neater and more organized. Why did I feel though that a messy home was a reflection of my failings as a parent, a wife, and a mother? Couldn’t I still be a great mom and an okay organizer. Couldn’t a messy home be seen as a sign of a happy home?

The true measure of a friend is directly proportionate to how much straightening-up I must do before the friend arrives: the less straightening and fussing, the closer the friend. If we are really best buds, I may not even put on eyeliner and change out of my owl pajama pants. Lucky them.

I had a heated disagreement with someone recently who seems to view this issue quite differently than I do. I came away from the argument feeling empty and confused. Am I inadequate because my home isn’t always neat and orderly? I sat with my feelings of inadequacy and did all I knew to do. I offered my frustration up to God and I prayed. I prayed for a sign.

Sometimes God has a better sense of humor about things than I would expect. Ask and you shall receive. Less than a week later, my cousin, who knew nothing about my struggles with domestic order, gave me a belated birthday gift. It was a sign. Literally. In big black block print it read, “Good moms have sticky floors, dirty ovens, and happy kids.”

For me, it isn’t a matter of organization but perspective. My home will be cleaner then a few hours later it will become messier. As sure as the tides change, it will always be in a constant fluctuating state of order and this is not relevant to my worth as a mom. It will never be “perfect” or showroom quality. Our home is lived in and within it there is love. It is the love and the laughter that makes a home perfect, not perfectly aligned statues on shelves. Our house feels like a home thru and thru each disheveled square foot.

I now embrace the chaos. It’s a part of our life. It is what separates our home from a house. I am glad my children won’t think it’s the end of the world if they spill something on our couch. And, if I have twenty extra minutes in the afternoon, I’d rather play with my kids so I do. Don’t get me wrong, I still fold laundry. It’s just that my linen closet doesn’t need to look like a page from Architectural Digest for me to feel adequate. Actually no matter what mountain of available time I ever have in my life at any future point, I doubt I will ever devote it to fastidiously folding and piling wash cloths. I hope I will always find something more interesting to do in life than fret over folding. Anyway, I doubt anyone on her deathbed ever uttered that she wished she had a neater laundry room.

It is my hope though that one day we can live in a world where we won’t be judged by one another about the order of our homes or the mess in our linen closets but by the content of our character, the kindness in our hearts, the joy in our lives, and the laughter in our homes.