grace in the traffic circle?

traffic jam
The world is a grace-less place. I know that to be true, but I don’t like it much. Perhaps that is what makes comprehending and trusting the love of God so difficult for me. And why I sometimes question my sanity for doing so. Unfortunately (and somewhat ironically), one of the most grace-less places I have encountered is the traffic circle at my kid’s school.

As a new, doe-eyed kinder parent the traffic circle at my child’s elementary school was alarming to say the least. Through the years I have discovered that, as baffled as I was on our first day, our pick up and drop off system is quite a bit better than most other schools.

It did not take me long to figure out that people got pretty worked up in that traffic circle. As if trying to move almost 400 students and their mode of transportation through the one entrance of the school in less than 30 minutes was not a hard enough task, try throwing some parental attitude to the mix.

Sure, there is the cutting off of one another while in the cars, but then there are also the snarky judgments we all make and share about all those people who don’t seem to know how to park right. Seems to me the vast majority of adults have trouble waiting their turn in a line no matter if that line is at the grocery store, Disneyland, or yes, even their child’s school traffic circle.

One day, when my third and unexpected child was a newborn, I turned right at a light just before the school. I had checked to see if there was any oncoming traffic and it is true that I might have missed something due to the business of the intersection or the bleariness of my sleep deprived brain. Either way, before I knew it, there was a white minivan hot on my heels blasting her horn at me.

I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I remember thinking. I just had a baby and I’m so groggy and I just didn’t see you there. Of course she turned into the school parking lot right after me and proceeded to shoot dirty looks at me through the cars. Wow. Really? This is not the mall at Christmas, this is your kid’s school I wanted to shout. But because it was my kid’s school too I kept my mouth shut and tried to let it go. I might still be slightly bitter.

And then my oldest got to middle school. If I thought elementary school drop off was bad….wow.  What’s funny is that even though the drop off is way more chaotic with kids being let off every which way and crossing outside the cross walks right in front of cars and parents making u turns all over the place, I find the drivers to be more patient and understanding of one another. Go figure. Everyone seems to have decided to embrace the bedlam instead of fight about it.

I even accidentally ran a red light the other day. It is the last light I go through to get to the middle school and ever since the time change I get a glare from the sun on my windshield when I get to the light which makes seeing awfully difficult. Between the glare and my morning peace keeping duties and having my three year old want to pass things back and forth to me, I missed the fact that although the car in front of me might have made it through while the light was still green, I should have stayed back and waited until the next go around.

I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I thought, grateful there was no horn blasting behind me. I figured the woman driving the grey minivan was shooting me dirty looks so I avoided her eyes in my rear view mirror. After dropping off my son, I waited my turn to pull back out into the flow of cars, acutely aware that the woman behind me was the same person who saw I ran the red.

My jaw dropped. She let me in. She didn’t even do it in the snotty-just-barely-let-you-in kind of way. I risked looking in my rear view mirror. She wasn’t shooting me dirty looks after all.

And that is when I realized I live my life expecting un-grace. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, either. This world is an ungracious place. This woman and her ability to let my bad-driving roll off her back impressed me. If grace exists in the traffic circle of all places, maybe I’m not crazy for believing that God loves me. Thank you, Middle School Mom.

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better late than never

I have a confession to make. Much of Thanksgiving Day I was not very thankful.

My boys had been at each other for two days straight and they did not let up just to find the appropriate gratitude for the holiday. My husband and I both had preparations to do to get ready for the people coming over that afternoon. We love having people over and we love preparing the meal and the house, but it meant that we were otherwise occupied and less available for helping children get along. And of course the boys had extra energy because they get excited to have people over, too.

Under normal circumstances I can handle sibling rivalry, but after two days of non-stop whining and condescending and provoking tones of voices, I had had it. I let them know that their choices were to figure out a way to get along with one another or they would be spending quite a bit of time in their rooms. We managed to get them out for a scooter ride to run some energy but unfortunately it didn’t help much and they spent more time in their rooms than any of us would have liked.

So all morning I spent frustrated and trying to be thankful but all I could see was children who could not get along with one another and my trying was not getting me very far. All I could muster was taking the above picture of my three year old’s collection of nature items found on our scooter ride. I was acknowledging beauty. That was as close as I could get to gratitude.

Eventually our friends came over and the boys were distracted from their bickering and we all had a great time and I was thankful for a home filled with wonderful people and lots of love.

Then today started. Part of the boys’ consequence for their inability to live at peace with one another was no screens for the day today. Fortunately, there was plenty of distraction from that big bummer because it is Koo family tradition to get our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving.

We set up with another family to meet at the best tree picking spot in the world: Home Depot. We had some time between waking up and our rendezvous time and since screens were off we hauled out the Christmas boxes from the garage and set to work. Fortunately for me, our boys love helping decorate for Christmas and now they are old enough to have that help be actually helpful.

All the boys carried boxes to and from the garage. Joshua volunteered to set up the big nativity set, Colby hung the stockings and put out the miniature village, and Zachary got to help me pull out the Christmas quilt to hang on the couch. The quilt was the first thing that caused me to pause. My mom made that quilt for us a few years ago.

Pulling it out reminded me that last year, it stayed put away. I experienced a trauma at the end of last summer that ripped open the scars on repeated old emotional wounds. I have a place on my knee that I have cut a handful of times in my life and every time I bust that scar it hurts worse than before. I had been seeing a counselor a few months prior, but after the event my counselor and I decided it was time to bring in the big guns and graduate me specifically to a trauma therapist.

I spent that fall depressed. If you have ever experienced depression, you know it’s no fun. I guess that’s why they don’t call it happiness. By December I was trying to convince myself I was getting better because I was sick of depression and really hoping it would lift in January and shouldn’t I be starting to see some signs of that now? Fortunately for me, the depression did lift in January and not only that, but the special therapy techniques used to help the brain process trauma worked for me and now I feel like a new person. So much so that I think I had forgotten how dark the last year really was.

In order to heal, I requested some space from my parents. I needed to just be me, which may sound a little funny but it’s why the quilt stayed put away last year.

But by this year – just one year later – I hardly gave the quilt a second thought. And in the world of someone who has been seeing a therapist for over a year, when something is no big deal, that’s a big deal. When we got almost all of the decorations up, it was time to pull out the Christmas books. The one at the top of the stack is the Christmas memories book that is home to our annual picture and letter. I think the real reason I write a letter each year is to keep one for myself in this book.

I looked at last year’s pages. The letter was brief and only alluded to my struggles. I have a hard time faking things, so I was as honest as I could be without being a total downer. Then I looked at the picture. It was nothing new to me; I have this same picture up in two different places in my home. But seeing it in the book triggered memories.

My friend Peggy offered to take our family pictures last year. She is a friend from my kid’s school and a talented photographer. She knew I was having a hard time and thought that having some nice family pictures on the walls might help bring some cheer my depressed heart was having trouble locating. She was right; I do love pictures.

But seeing it in the book a year later I appreciated it even more. I don’t know that I would have gotten a picture out last year if it weren’t for Peggy. As it was, I was only able to muster about a third of the normal list of friends to send them to. I was so struck by the reminder that in the midst of such darkness, a friend reached out to me and loved me. And it reminded me that there was so many friends who reached out to me and loved me last year when I was too broken give them anything in return. And that is what love is. I was filled with gratitude. Gratitude to be loved and gratitude to be healed. Maybe it didn’t come on Thanksgiving Day, but better late than never, right?

What is your story about someone reaching to you when you couldn’t give back?

gym guy

Every once in a while, during my life as a wife and a mom and a very normal person, I am reminded that life is seldom one thing or the other but instead it is a great mixture of the both and the and. Splendor mysteriously mixes with the ordinary in very unexpected moments.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are my gym days. I get up at an unreasonable time to get some alone time and a physical outlet. I have learned that if I don’t get there before the kids wake up, it won’t happen. That and the fact that my body likes morning more than evening contribute to some decent consistency on my part.

My family lives very close to San Diego State University (where this picture was taken), and a few years ago they put in a pretty nice gym. We get a better rate than the students because my husband is the king of good deals, so we have kept our membership even though I didn’t even go near the gym for years after our first two boys were born. But ever since I got priced out of my friend’s gym a couple of years ago, I have been at the Aztec Rec Center on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Since the gym is so close (and parking costs money), I walk. On my way home, I frequently see certain people who are crazy enough to be up at the same time as me. One of them is a sweet, smallish older gentleman with grey hair who walks on the other side of the street coming to the gym as I am going. We pass each other at the same point regularly. We wave. If I pass him closer to my house than the gym, he teases me that I am early. If I pass him closer to the gym than my house, I tease him that I am late.

I have decided that there are some people in this world who wear their spirit on their sleeve. You can see their spirit as they walk by you, even if no one says a word. Gym guy is one of those people. And, luckily for me, this is a man with a very sweet and wonderful spirit. My own spirit lifts when I see him. Even in the dark days of depression that passed last year.

Today we passed early, and the last few times I have seen him he has been in the gym before I even left. He has been running early. Quite early. So today I inquired as I stopped to chat.

He speaks with an accent, which I wish I could place or reproduce, but I can say it is strong and Slavic sounding. It makes him all the more endearing. So after I asked the reason for his change of schedule, he told me:

My wife, she is in the hospital for one year and a half. She fell and cracked her head open, and she cannot feed herself. I come early so I can go to hospital and feed her.

As I am clearly touched, he goes on:

When I see her, the smile on her face makes it all worth it.

What a wonderful husband you are, I tell him. No, no, he says. She is the one who is wonderful. She is fighting the good fight.

I choke the tears away. Blessed by this man and his love for his wife and his wife’s love for him, I walk away even more lifted. A year and a half … that’s about as long as I have been seeing him on this walk. I never would have known he was carrying such a heavy thing.

My son’s karate instructor has him memorizing a quote from Charles Swindoll about attitude. Seeing this man and hearing his story this morning brings it all home. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% what I do with it.

I am sure this man has his days. I am sure he was not happy to have his wife go to into the hospital a year and a half ago. I am sure he is not happy to have her still there. And yet, I am so inspired. I want to love like that. Sure, I want to be loved like that too, but even more, I want to love like that.

So here I was, going about my ordinary day walking home from the gym, and I am inspired. I am inspired by an ordinary man performing an ordinary act of feeding his wife, and yet in the process it all becomes so beautifully extraordinary. I am encouraged that my ordinary life is mixed with splendor as well, and hopefully it is this kind of splendor that isn’t a life interrupting moment when ordinary is suspended and extraordinary takes over, but where ordinary and splendor are together, commingled, intertwined, and making each all the more beautiful.

Where have you found unexpected inspiration lately?

thin skin and haircuts

Sometimes a haircut is not just a haircut.

As a mom, taking time out for me is not one of my strengths. Like everyone else, I look at other moms and think they have the balance between taking care of children and taking care of themselves all figured out. They seem to not have any trouble or guilt when they take time away for themselves. I see how much better they are for it. And yet, I often don’t realize I need a moment away until I am beyond the point of no return and in a puddle of tears on the phone to my husband. Yesterday was one of those days.

The night before, my husband and I had to work out a conflict between us and although it showed great growth in our relationship, conflict tends to take a lot out of me. Then I got some attitude from my pre-adolescent son which was really not that big of a deal but came directly on the heals of the husband conflict-resolution business and my skin was thinner than usual. I mentioned my lack of appreciation for my son’s attitude to him with a little attitude of my own, afterwards internally chiding myself as I had him. Now my skin was even thinner.

The next day I woke up to discover another reason for my thin skin. Monthly hormonal surge. With my thin skin and raging hormones I had a normal day getting the kids out the door to school. Sometimes I secretly think everyone in my family lives to frustrate me.

My youngest son had a “feast” at his preschool and not having actually read the email that came from the school, in my head I had assumed it would be around snack time, leaving me plenty of time to get to my haircut appointment I got because someone else had canceled which was groovy for me since I had not had my hair cut in over six months and I was going crazy. But when I got to preschool I soon learned that the feast and the hair appointment were scheduled to happen simultaneously. Fantastic.

As I drove away to purchase a new garbage can that we were now responsible for replacing even though it was the claws from the city’s garbage truck that had obliterated the old one, half of me told me I was a selfish beast and the other half reminded me of a truth. The truth is that just when I am feeling as I was at that moment – like everyone needs more of me than I have to give and I am going to suffocate if I don’t get a moment away and do something for myself and yet I feel like the worst mom in the world for missing something like my son’s preschool feast even though my friend was happy to stand-in as his surrogate mom that day – that is usually when I need the moment away the most. Unfortunately, the two halves of me continued to wage war leaving me as collateral damage. Eventually my tortured soul and I arrived at my hair appointment.

Afterwards, I felt like I could breathe. My friend who cuts my hair reminded me that my three year old son was not going to remember that I was not at his feast a week from now. That was actually quite helpful to hear.

As I drove back to the preschool with my shorter hair and lungs that felt like they could actually take in air, I realized that sometimes a haircut is not just a haircut. It is a small victory in the battle of loving my family and loving me at the same time. I don’t know why those two activities seem mutually exclusive, but in my life they seem to only co-exist in the most delicate of tensions. It was a reminder that I am not God and I do not have to be God for my children, as much as I occasionally convince myself otherwise. I can be human. I can need. I can get a haircut. And the world does not fall apart. And I might just come back with normal skin again.

what is the smell of love?

I went to see my OB today. Really he’s my GYN. He dropped his OB years ago, shortly after my second son was born. But I think OB conjures up warm and romantic connotations versus GYN. The person who delivers babies is wonderful and heroic. The one who does your pap smears is just necessary. So I prefer to call him my OB, not because it changes what I think of when I talk about him, but so the people listening to me can associate the same things with him as I do.

My doctor always gives me a hug at the end of my appointment. That may sound awkward or creepy, but I assure you it is anything but. I don’t know what kind of cologne he wears, but after that hug, I can smell him the whole rest of the day. I love it.

This man is one of the most loving, caring souls I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He delivered two of my sons. He even remembered when he came in to deliver son #2 that we had been doing that same thing together exactly three years prior (my first two sons have the same birthday). And for as many babies as this man has delivered, I think it quite impressive that he would remember the date of one of mine.

He is good at what he does, I mean really, exceptionally good. I know nurses who have worked with him and they all love him and respect him at the same time. I am sure he has some patients who don’t realize how great he is, but that is hard for me to imagine.

Every time I see him, he tries to tell me that I am special, and now that I have read The Shack, I think of it in that way….that he is especially fond of me…the quantity of who he loves not taking away from the quality or intensely personal nature of the love he gives. He loves and cares for each patient out of his vast knowledge and seasoning through his many years in his field. Never the less, he accomplishes his task of making me feel loved and special every time I see him, and that is why I love smelling like him the rest of the day.

Today I was reading the grace chapter in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller while I was in the waiting room. Miller talks about how difficult it can be to let God love us, and I can so relate to what he said. Until God met me on my driveway a few years back, I am not sure I had ever received God’s love. Believed in it, yes. Hoped in it, yes. Worked for it, absolutely. But if I was receiving it, I was only doing it on a surface level while maintaining a thousand different activities that helped me to think I was making it easier for God to love me.

But by “helping” God to love me with all the “right” things I was doing, I was cheapening my understanding of that love. God’s love is personal and enormous and all encompassing and for those who have no legs to stand on. So when my legs didn’t work anymore, God met me on the cold concrete of my driveway. It was full and complete and separate from my religion. It did not make my life roses after that, but it is an incredible thing to be loved – really and truly and fully loved – in the reality and mess of who I am. Not a “let’s clean you up and then you might be presentable and I will love you” kind of love but a “I am giving you a hug even though you’re covered in your own vomit” kind of love.

And that is why I love seeing my OB and smelling like him all day afterwards. I don’t know if you realize this, but having a baby is ugly business, which is weird because somehow all that ugliness transforms into one of the most beautiful experiences of your life, but make no mistake – it is ugly. And my doctor has seen my ugly business and loved me through it. And so he reminds me of God…and echo, if you will, of God’s love for me. I love it. I soak it in. How good it is to be loved, and how wonderful to be able to receive it – to really take it in to the depths of my soul – and to smell it for the rest of the day.

So I wonder…what does love smell like to you?

unappologetics

Life can change in an instant. Most of the time it changes gradually, which is why I think we find the instant changes that come up so incredibly jarring. My friend’s mom died yesterday. She was sick, but still……jarring.

I love my friend dearly. There is a group of us that have found one another over the years our kids have gone to school together. They probably don’t know how special they are to me. What they don’t really know is that I spent years of my life only letting people become close to me if I thought we shared the same belief system. So years ago I might not have let myself love them the way I do, which is part of why they are so incredibly precious to me.

We are a pretty motley crew, honestly. All with different backgrounds and belief systems and personalities and preferences. When we spend time together having dessert or bringing our kids to the Wild Animal Park or just saying hello at drop off, I always walk away feeling refreshed and encouraged and cared for…..and fortunate to have such people willing to be my friends.

My friend whose mom died is one of my heroes. When I finally finish the book about my motherhood story and then I write the one about my journey with trauma, I want to write a book about all of my heroes. I am fortunate enough to have had some truly amazing women share enough of their stories with me that they have become heroes in my eyes. And this friend is one of them.

If I could only choose one reason for her to be in my hero club, it would be that she is unapologetically herself. Perhaps I find this heroic because I have spent much of my life apologizing for myself. And even though she is one of my heroes, she is – as all of us are – still human. And today was the first day of a year of firsts stretched out in front of her. It was the first day she woke up without her mom.

My friend has been taking care of her mom for a few years now as her mom has been slowly slipping away into Alzheimer’s. So her mom has been figuratively gone for a while but this is a whole new ball game.

When someone dies, everyone wants to help but no one really knows how. One person’s grieving doesn’t look like another’s. For those we have watched suffer, our grief may be initially mixed with relief that they are now out of pain. Some of us point to Heaven and experience a taste of comfort from the finality of it all. But eventually we are left with a reality that we have to walk the rest of our lives without this person we loved. And thus we grieve.

This is part of the reality of life I have previously tried to avoid or deny or cover up. I would like to make it easier or make it all go away. I don’t have that power. In less than a year I have had three different friends lose a husband, a father, and now a mother. I think of them all today and the weight of their grief.

I picture carrying a casket. Ridiculously heavy, many hands are needed. I know our motley crew wants to be there to help our friend carry her casket of grief, which doesn’t make it easier for her, it just makes her less alone. So we will give her hugs. We will let her cry. We will tell her we love her. And it seems only meager for the enormity of what she is dealing with, but we offer it to her anyway. Grief is an impossible process.

And admitting this truth is part of me not having all the answers anymore – not always trying to make things small enough that I can understand. I question. I ask God. I sit in the impossibility and let it be. Unapologetically.

bookstores frosting and dirt

Donald Miller spoke at our church yesterday. At the eleven o’clock service I sat right next to him. I am not sure why but I thought Donald Miller would be kind of a jerk, perhaps because another author I met years ago came across to me as rude and abrasive once face to face. I figured he would be annoyed by star-struck fans like myself. I was delightfully surprised, which was especially nice since I was trying to get the courage to give him a note pleading that he read a few samples of my writing and toss some contacts my way if he liked any of it. Probably one of the cheesiest things I have ever done in my life and considering I spent a few summers as a camp counselor, that’s saying something. I hate cheesy. But he is Donald Miller and he was at my church. Some things are worth the risk.

He had one of his books available for purchase that I would have loved to pick up but I was pretty sure my checkbook was not in the black hole of my purse and I had kids to pick up from the children’s program and you know how it goes. But I was inspired and curious. I have read only one of this man’s books, but I loved it. And I did just make a fool of myself to him, so why not read more of his writing to see how thoroughly a fool I made?

So today being Monday – grocery shopping day – I made a detour between Trader Joe’s and Vons and hunted down the only Christian book store I even have a clue to where it might be. At the last light before the driveway, I was stopped behind a car whose license plate said, “CHOSEN”. If that weren’t enough, the license plate holder had some saying about Jesus and there was a small dove in the middle of some word stuck on the hatchback. We must be closer.

As I pulled in, a pit formed in my stomach. I have avoided Christian bookstores for a few years and today I would figure out why. My heart was dragging and screaming at me that it did not want to enter, but my desire to have this book in my hands over-rode. I walked in and the worshipful elevator music played at an appropriate volume in the background. Perfect. I asked the man at the register where I might find the two authors I was looking for. He led the way.

They had two of Miller’s books – one copy each. He has written about five. Neither were the one I was looking for. He had to check the other author on the computer. No luck. Are you kidding me? You don’t have any Anne Lamott in the entire store??? What kind of Christian book store was this?

Unfortunately, it was the normal kind. The kind that is filled with thousands of books that are one version or another of a Christian self-help. “How to Earn Your Way to Being A Better Christian” “10 Steps to a Better Christian You” “Here’s How to Really Be Right”

I am sure those kinds of books are helpful to a very many people. There’s a bookstore filled with them for goodness sake. I am pretty sure I used to love those books. But something has shifted in me and while I still love Jesus, I am not a huge fan of those books.

I left the store feeling like I had a mouthful of wedding cake frosting. And this would be, I figured out, why I have been avoiding Christian bookstores. There is nothing wrong with wedding cake frosting. Many people love wedding cake frosting. I just don’t happen to be a big fan. It is light and airy and sweet and fluffy and leaves me wanting something more. More grit. More sustenance. More honesty.

And this is the turn my faith has taken. Instead of my old sub-conscious compulsion to hide the reality of life…to say that all was peachy because Jesus loves us and praise the Lord! and sweep the dirt under the rug, my faith has been replaced by a more honest version. One that appreciates the meat and potatoes of life and cannot be sustained by wedding cake frosting alone. I find myself coming from the angle that God and reality can co-exist and that God never intended for me to behave like they didn’t. I value the freedom to question more than the appearance of having all the answers. I embrace the grit. I can no longer deny the rocks and sticks and dirt of life – the things not often topping a wedding cake.

So maybe it’s not so much the Christian bookstore that bugs me as it is my own history. Perhaps that’s why I love writers like Donald Miller and Anne Lamott (and Leeana Tankersley) who may be a bit controversial in popular American Christian culture but who leave me with a sense that I don’t have to deny reality in order to love God. They give me freedom to ask questions and have opinions that may seem scandalous to some of my friends but to me is simply life with more than just wedding cake frosting.

So I wonder…who is your favorite author…and why?