Wednesday, August 14, 2019

How Do You Make Things a Memory


It's been over two months now since Jess's birthday, yet the day won't quite leave me alone. It keeps coming back to me in memories and details that will scroll through my mind in the most unlikely places. It's almost as if the details are asking to be recorded, begging to be recorded, as if details could do such a thing.

So, I suppose I'll sit here and type for a while.

I was going to let June 11th go by with little more than a head nod this year. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was more the absence of a decision. A non-decision that was created by subconsciously choosing in the weeks and days leading up to His Day to push the rising thoughts of him to 'later'. Again and again the thoughts would surface, they'd knock at my consciousness and ask for my attention, getting more and more frequent the closer the calendar crept towards June 11, and again and again I would push them away to later until I woke on the morning of his birthday to realize...

...there were no more laters.

But, before my body even turned in my bed, the thought of 'no more laters' brought feelings of overwhelm and discomfort, so I opened my eyes and told myself that, really, there were still hours of laters left in the day, which gave me the room to, once again, push the thoughts of Jess away.

That might sound cold. I know. It's just that, thinking about him can sometimes feel so deep and intense and overwhelming that I don't always have the courage for it. And this year felt particularly difficult because I didn't know exactly what I should do to honor and remember him.

In the past, I hadn't needed to make that decision because it was already set in tradition. But our tradition to take the kids to the temple grounds on the evening of the 11th had been broken two years previously when Jess's 12th birthday turned out to be unexpectedly grueling for my emotions. I had run away from church in tears that day and wasn't able to stop them long enough to come out of my bedroom for the rest of the day, let alone to take the entire family on an outing. And then Brian was out of town the following year for Jess's 13th birthday and I didn't feel strong enough to face it by myself... so again, we didn't go. Which meant that this year, on his 14th, the inertia was decidedly moving in the direction of not going, and changing that direction by myself felt hard.

Also, our family felt all weird... Carson was in Utah with my parents and Mckenzie was on trek, and our beautiful Colombian daughter, Daniela, was visiting for the month. It didn't seem right to carry on the tradition without McKenzie and Carson, and I wasn't sure how I felt about letting Dani into this most tender and vulnerable piece of me; it has so much to do with my beliefs in temple ordinances and the plan of salvation, after all, and even though Dani has always been utterly respectful and lovely when it comes to my religion, she is Catholic and doesn't have all the same beliefs that I do. I didn't want things to be awkward sitting on the temple grounds - for her or for me.

So, all that to say, I didn't really know what to do. Which is why I suppose it just felt easier to push the decision away until 'later'.

And since I still had hours of laters left in the day, I didn't have to think about it right then, and decided I might as well get up and get dressed instead.

So I got ready for the day, helped the kids with breakfast and chores, threw in a few loads of laundry, put a shopping list together and headed out to pick up some groceries.

And all the while there was a nagging voice inside telling me that I wasn't really fooling myself with all the rushing around. Sure, I'd have a long list at the end of the day to make myself feel justified and, sure I'd be able to say, I was just so busy, I didn't have time. But I mostly knew that that would hardly compensate at the end of the day for the feelings of sadness and guilt that would come from realizing I'd pushed the day away from me and let it pass in a colorless, dull blur. I knew it, but my will to protect myself from any short term negative emotions was strong, and I pushed it all away again.

Keep yourself busy, I told myself instead. Keep yourself distracted.

It's safer that way.

So I stopped by my dear friend Melissa's house to help her paint, unpack, and clean for an hour or so. She just moved her family into a new place over the mountain into Henderson (breaking my heart in the process, but that's another story) and had all the things to do that come along with a story like that, so she could use an extra set of hands. Plus, I hadn't seen her in a couple of weeks and I missed her.

The chaos in her home felt wonderful to me when I walked inside - distraction at its finest.

"Show me your house!" I said. We both laughed because we could hardly see through the mounds and mounds of half-emptied moving boxes, let alone make it through a walking tour. But we lost ourselves in conversation and companionship while she shared her visions of tearing down walls and putting up shelves, and painting kitchen cabinets. And somewhere in the middle of it all, she picked up a vase full of beautiful flowers that had been sitting out-of-place among all the wet paintbrushes, used paper towels, rags, drills, half-emptied moving boxes, paint cans, and hundreds of other odds and ends. "Hey," she said, "these are for you."

I laughed out of confusion. "What the...?! Why are you giving me flowers?"

She looked at me gently and said, "Isn't today Jess's birthday?"

Silence.

How did she know?

Silence.

The world inside of me seemed to suck itself into a tiny pinpoint deep within my chest, leaving a silence and darkness in every square inch of me. And then a whisper of a rumble came from that deep space as, far away, a dam crumbled. I couldn't speak. I couldn't think. There is nothing in a vacuum. I stared at the flowers for long seconds before I slowly reached my hand out to accept them. And when my fingers touched the cold glass, the wave of emotions that had been held behind the dam hit hard, roaring through that pinpoint, filling the vacuum with all of the thoughts and feelings I'd been trying to hide from myself for weeks.

"How...?" I started, finding some words and fighting through the roaring emotions. "How did you know?"

"You mentioned it once," she said with a shrug. She waited until I looked her in the eyes before continuing, "I know how hard it can be to feel like you're the only one carrying the memories, the only one carrying love for a child who didn't get the chance to make any other connections. But I want you to know that love Jess, too. Even though I never knew him, I love him and am so grateful for him because he has helped make you into the person you are - and I know you. And you have blessed my life so much."

Well, that did it. It was the ugly cry. The uuuuuuuuugly cry.

See, in order to understand how deeply her comment cut, you have to understand something else. But it's hard to understand and even harder to explain. One of the most interesting things regarding how this all works for me is that, when my mind fills with thoughts or when my body fills with feelings about Jess, they never seem to have any origin point. Meaning, there's rarely something that happens externally that will trigger a thought or a feeling of him. That, alone, makes some sense to me because I don't have any 'normal' memories of Jess, so not much of what happens in 'normal' life reminds me of him. Therefore, when I try to trace my thought train back to find the station from which it left, I can never find the station. It's as if the thoughts and the feelings just appear out of thin air. And, what's craziest about them is that, they often have a mood. Sometimes they feel gentle and sweet, and sometimes they feel pushy, like they don't intend to leave until I've given them some attention. Sometimes it'll be a long time between feelings, and sometimes they're so frequent I can't keep up with them. But whether they're calm or intense, frequent or sparse, when they do come they always feel alive.

Nothing else in my life feels this way. And lately, I've started to wonder if it's him...  Of course, I don't know how the spirits of our loved ones on the other side interact with us while we're here on this Earth, but I've always believed that they probably play a much bigger role in our lives than we realize. So, to me, it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that those unique and special thoughts and feelings I have of Jess could be coming as a result of him reaching out to me.

But I hadn't been thinking about any of this in the weeks leading up to his birthday. Instead, I'd been pushing the thoughts into the background, suppressing the feelings, hitting them all down with a mallet like I was playing wack-a-mole. But when Melissa expressed her love for Jess, she reminded me with softness and clarity that he is there, capable and deserving of love and still playing an active role in my life. Though not her intention, her comment showed me how shallow I'd been acting, and breathed the life back into Jess for me. And in that moment I realized and believed with a crushing guilt that he, my son, had been trying to connect with me. And that I had turned my shoulder and put up a wall in response.

Melissa stood there in compassion and gave me a safe place to cry those ugly tears. She looked at me with such tenderness in her eyes, tears rolling down her own face while I talked, and I knew in that moment that Heavenly Father and Jess had not given up when I wouldn't let them through my walls. They had found a way around me, right there in Melissa. I felt so intensely grateful for her that she had followed the promptings in her heart that had nudged her to put down her paintbrushes and get a vase of flowers for a friend in need.

"Thank you," I said to her when there was nothing left to say. "Thank you for breaking this all open and forcing me to think about it today."


There are so many invaluable lessons I have learned though my life that have Jess and his story at their roots. Lessons about faith and God and trust and love. Lessons that have made me into who I am. Lessons that keep coming and that I have felt prompted and guided again, and again, to record. And one of the most important lessons I've learned is how essential it is to remember, and how quickly I forget.

I had not remembered, and I felt chastised all the way home. It was a bitterness I'd never felt before, and more than once I pulled my car to the side of the road because I couldn't see well enough through my tears. God was reminding me that Jess coming into my life in the way that he did was not an accident, he came here to teach me. And that I have a responsibility to nurture that knowledge and to pass it on as much as I can to my own children. The pain was both intense and motivating, and suddenly the discomforts that had been holding me back before in getting my family to the temple that night seemed insignificant.


I explained my heart to the children as we sat around the temple that night. And all of the concerns I had about McKenzie and Carson being gone, and about Daniela joining us turned out to be empty.


It was a beautiful night.


The children were all reverent and attentive and full of the most beautiful questions. 

And at the end of the night, while Timothy and I were walking hand-in-hand to the car, he turned to me and asked, "Mom? How do you make things a memory?"
"What do you mean, love?"
"Just... how do you make things a memory?"
"Well, I suppose you just take the time to notice the details around you while it's happening, and then you keep thinking about it as much as you can once it's gone... Does that answer your question?"
He shrugged his little shoulders. "It's just that, you told me that we came here before, but I don't remember it... I just really don't want to forget this time."

Remember.
Remember. 
Remember. 

I squeezed his hand a little tighter and tried to breathe around the lump in my throat. "I completely understand, buddy." 

Just then, I noticed a small, smooth rock next to our feet. "Do you see that rock?" I said. "Why don't you pick it up and take it home with you. You can put it on the shelf above your bed and then every time you look at it, you can remember."


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Coming to Peace with Rotting Strawberries


There are strawberries going bad in my refrigerator right now. I know, it might not seem like a big thing - lots of people have strawberries going bad in their refrigerators. But, there are strawberries going bad in my refrigerator right now, and that signifies changes around here. Every Monday for as long as I can remember* I have cleared out my refrigerator and taken stock of what's inside before I make my grocery list and meal plans for the week. If there are strawberries on the verge of death we'll cut them up to put over pancakes or I'll pull them out into the open when the kids get home from school and that usually takes care of them. We don't often have food go bad in our refrigerator unless it's leftovers from a meal that no one wants to revisit.

Or grapes.

For some reason grapes always go bad before we eat them, and I can't figure it out. We like grapes, the neighborhood kids like grapes, it's one of those rather inexplicable things.

But anyway - I'm not here to talk about the grapes. I'm here about the strawberries.

They're going bad in two different places. On the middle shelf, all the berries are washed and ready to eat, but somehow their lid got bumped to the side one day and they have now been left uncovered for long enough that they are shriveled and dry. In the fruit crisper drawer, you'll find more strawberries, growing fuzzy and beginning to turn into liquid.

I noticed them when I put a new carton of strawberries right into the same fridge, just after I packed some of them up for our dinner, and just before we headed out to the lake.

*Let's be real, this statement is probably only about 80% true in application.


The weather was amazing. The air was warm and the sky was blanketed with puffy clouds, the water was calm and cool, and there was hardly another boat out on the entire lake.

Eliza tried her hand at tubing and was quite the natural.


We've been out on the boat a couple of times this year now and Eliza is sold. She loves everything about it! Except for when we plug in the pump to pump up the tube. She has a pretty intense fear of anything that makes a loud noise, so that part calls for a bit of bravery from her, but otherwise, she is in love and agrees with the rest of the family that being out on the lake is a pretty fantastic way to spend an evening.


I held Eliza for most of our time out there. I kissed her soft cheeks over and over and basked in her giggles, and I laughed, again and again, at the kids flying behind the boat on the tube. We eventually cut the engine and pulled out our picnic dinner. And the fresh strawberries on my plate reminded me of all the rotting ones in my fridge and I had to quiet all the voices in my head that wanted me to believe that I was somehow failing in my role as a human because of it.

Simplicity. I reminded those voices. And cleaning out my fridge every single Monday feels not-so-simple. I'll get to the strawberries. And as I turned my ear away from those voices and listened to the water instead, my whole soul filled with calm. Gentle slaps and splashes. Water hugging the boat, hugging the children, hugging my heart.

I love the lake.


The sun eventually went behind the mountains, signaling it was time to head back to the dock. Some of the clouds turned a soft pink, and everything felt so beautiful. Inside and out.

I'm realizing that there will always be strawberries that need my attention. And dishes and counters and laundry and clutter and beds to be made. But when I give my attention to those things, there is always something, or someone, on the other side of the coin that is not getting my attention.

And, this is the great balancing act of being a mother. And a human. To decide which things truly, genuinely need our attention the most, to have the courage and strength to leave the other screaming things behind, and then to be willing to live with the consequence of rotting strawberries, unmade beds, sticky counters... There will come times when strawberries are the most important thing, but mostly it will be people.

So, go ahead and get comfortable in there my squishy strawberries. I'll get to you eventually. But for now, I'll be out on the lake with my husband, listening to toddler giggles, cheering for my new skiers, laughing at tube crashes, and talking to my teenager like she's an adult.

There will always be more strawberries.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Vulnerable Trees and Mama Ducks


I left the ward picnic early last night and sat by this tree for a while. It didn't take long to notice that the tree had a big chunk missing, leaving the big vulnerable sky visible through a deep 'V' cutting towards the tree's center... It seemed to me that the pruner must have been a bit too vigorous with his pruning shears and had mistakenly lopped of a branch that was, in fact, important to the poor tree.

I empathized with it while I sat there for a few minutes. I think I know how it feels, because I feel that way too. Like there's a piece of me that has been mistakenly cut out, leaving me extra vulnerable and unsightly... A part of me that was, in fact, important to me. 

The part of me that likes ward picnics in the park. 

I hadn't even talked to anyone at the picnic before the buzzing in my core got so uncomfortable that I knew I couldn't stay. Anxiety, I think they call it. But anxiety over what? People? I guess the people part of me got lopped, I don't know. It's just that things got a little stuffy and tight as I watched people clumping together to chat, and I needed a bit more air to breathe.

The air by the vulnerable tree was perfect.

I sat there for a few more minutes and then the photographer part of my brain started thinking and I knew that if I just changed my perspective, the look of the whole tree would change.

So I started circling and, sure enough, I found a perspective in which the tree looked whole. 


And then, in a moment of magic as I circled the tree a bit more, the whole tree opened right up to show me its heart. 


Can you see the heart there in the middle of the tree? I love it. And I realized that the only way for this perspective to exist, was for the vulnerable perspective to exist, too.

It was a good reminder for me that I need to trust my own Master Pruner who is shaping my branches to His perspective. He is unconcerned about what His cuts might look like from the world's perspective, or even from my perspective. He's working through His perspective because He knows that His is eternal and is the only one that will truly matter in the end.

And, deep down, I believe that, too. So I must trust that he's cutting these seemingly important branches for a reason.

I may not love the ward parties or the crowds of people these days, but this mama duck reminded me that I sure love being a mama, and I am grateful that that branch is still in tact.


She had five little ducklings, just like me. And when she sensed me getting a little too close for a picture, I heard her warn her sleeping children with a short quack. The ducklings responded immediately with raised heads, and when the danger didn't go away, she led them away to safer shores.


Sorry for disturbing your slumber, Mama Duck. But thanks for giving me a beautiful moment to feel connected with another mother.


Sunday, May 26, 2019

A New Direction - Hope and Simplicity


This blog has been a happy and beautiful place for me over the years. And I know it has been for many of you as well. I have spent countless hours with it, building it into the record and testimony it has become for me and my family. I have felt the Lord's hands guiding my own as I have typed some of my most sacred and precious memories here. I have felt the Lord's wisdom filling my own mind as I've been here seeking to understand my own experiences. This blog is full of His words and His wisdom and when I read back over it, I am taught all over again. My children read it, they look at the pictures, remember, and laugh - this place has been a true source of happiness and light.

But lately that light has turned dark, and for the past couple of years I have been frantically trying to bring that light back into my life. I've used that frantic energy to organize and categorize and edit my pictures, I've put them in drafts, I've slopped up words, working, working, working to catch up, catch up, catch up, always months behind... I've resolved to work harder and longer to catch up, catch up, WHY can't I catch UP? The pace of life is frantic and I have been frantic and my writing has been frantic and my pictures have been frantic because I've been trying, so hard, to record it all. 'Frantic' has turned this space overwhelming and discouraging, it taunts me with blank pages, reminds me that there are thousands of stories left undocumented, thousands of pictures not shared, and I've spent any precious little time I've had here feeding the Frantic, and trying to dodge all of the Should Haves and Didn't Dos and Deadlines and Keep Ups raining in my thoughts like hail.

I see it now. The Frantic. And it's a little embarrassing.

But, the fact that I see it at all is a small something to celebrate. Because through all of this time my mental health has been fragile and warped, and the past year has been especially heavy and foggy and broken. My life feels weird and my emotions are unpredictable and my brain is tired. It's tired of holding All the Things and feeling responsible for All the Things and trying to finish All the Things. I'm paralyzing myself with my own expectations, and I decided today that this has to stop. I have to stop, I have to slow down. Or I can't continue in the work of healing.

Today in sacrament meeting I listened to a wise and genuine man talk about finding joy in simplicity.  As he spoke I felt, deep inside of me, a faint warmth begin to radiate. For a moment I was grateful that the air conditioning had turned off, but the feeling was more still than that, and as my consciousness was brought into the experience I realized that it couldn't be the air conditioning. The warmth was coming from inside. And the buzzing tightness that has been a part of my core for months and months now was calmed. I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. It was so faint - everything about it. So faint that I could have just as easily not noticed it. I stopped breathing for a moment and concentrated all of my energy into this small feeling and recognized it as the Spirit. Apparently a common experience that people who are struggling with depression notice is that it's very difficult to feel the Spirit in their depression, and I share this story. Prayers bounce back from the ceiling, fasts just feel hungry, and temple worship - nothing. And there, in that faint warmth - and, oh, was it faint - I felt like crying. I wasn't sure if it was because I was sad that it was just a whisper of a feeling I once felt so strongly, or if it was because I was grateful to be feeling it again at all.

But regardless, I listened, with everything in me, I listened. And the message I heard was about simplicity. I have a million questions about how a mother of five children lives with genuine simplicity, but I am on a quest to figure it out. I heard the prompting, and I will figure it out.

And I'll use this space to help. I will start, today, by dropping all of the expectations I have of myself regarding this blog and all it has come to symbolize. No more frantic energy. No more catching up. No more keeping up. No more beating myself up when I don't. I will write about whatever fills my mind in the brief moments I find to write.

I will not polish the words, I will not perfect the pictures, but my hope is that I will heal through this. Because I need a place to feel the Lord again, and I believe that that place can be here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

You don't have to learn through wooden blocks


I remember the first time a pediatrician ever asked me, "How many blocks can she stack?" I was holding my 2-year-old McKenzie and I didn't really know how to answer that question. I didn't know I was supposed to even know that information, and I wasn't exactly sure what he meant. The only perspective I had was from a set of ten plastic stacking cups that we owned, each cup getting smaller as the tower grew, and fitting snugly and solidly on top of the cup underneath it. McKenzie was a champion at it and had mastered the art of stacking all ten cups, in order, without help. So, I said to the pediatrician, "Ten." His eyebrows shot straight up into his head and he said, "Really?" His surprise made me second-guess my answer, and it was at this point that I remembered about the little, square wooden blocks with the numbers and the letters... and I realized that he probably meant that kind of block that didn't have decreasing sizes or ridges to lock one on top of the other.

I didn't know.

And after that visit, I promptly went out and bought a set of blocks because, I thought, all good moms must have them and know, at all times, how many their toddler can stack.


Now, of course, I wish I could talk to that 22 year old mom. I'd tell her from the lens of perspective that the wooden blocks she just bought would sit on her toy shelves for more than a decade and would see five children through their toddler years, and that - while she'd be glad she had them - they'd never be a favorite toy, and would only get played with a handful of times.

And you'll never actually know how many blocks any of your toddlers can stack at any given time.


I think of this story every time these blocks come out.

About how important I thought these blocks were going to be in order for me to raise my children. That they, somehow, would hold all the answers to the questions of how successful my children were becoming.

And about how wrong I was.


The truth is that they do provide entertainment from time to time... They'll spark a smile, or a bit of laughter... They'll help refine a fine motor skill...


But, the lesson I've learned most frequently throughout the years is that there are handfuls of ways to learn the same lesson in life. God has put opportunities into every step, every circumstance, every thought, to help us learn and grow. And if we don't learn how to control our fine motor skills with building blocks, it doesn't matter. Because there will be another mode of teaching right around the corner to teach us that same lesson.

For me, this thought takes the sting of discouragement away when I don't seem to be learning a lesson as fast as I'd like.


On another note, Eliza is obviously developing into quite the successful adult judging from how many blocks she can stack...

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Day Camping


It started with just our family and an idea. It was a free Saturday and we were in the mood for a camp out. But we didn't have enough time for a full camp out, so we went on a day camp out instead. No tents, no sleeping bags, no lanterns. Just wood and hot dogs, good shoes and a taste for adventure.

At the last minute, we decided to invite the Yeates family to come along with us. They have 8 great kids and a giant 12 seater van. When they moved in last year, we became fast friends, and many of their children line up with ours. Here's Max and Eliza walking through the mountains:


Six of the eight Yeates kids took us up on the offer to come along and they joined us along with their dad, upping our numbers to 11 children and 3 adults.

I then thought of my good friend Christine who is currently going through rounds of chemo for breast cancer while still striving to parent her five young kids at home. Knowing she needed some quiet time, I extended the invitation to any and all of her children who wanted to tag along, and the three youngest joined in the fun.


Vans almost full, we began to pull out of our driveway to head into the mountains when the youngest Shamo kid came running up our sidewalk. Brian and I gave each other a silent glance before we both nodded our heads and Brian rolled down his window, "Hey, Crue! You guys want to come day camping with us?! We're leaving right now - go ask your dad and see if Chandler and Kendall want to come along!"

Crue hopped three feet in the air with excitement and turned as fast as a snake to spread the word and soon we pulled out with a grand total of 17 kids, 3 adults, and zero seatbelts to spare.



We tried hard to keep our adult eyes on all of them, but mostly the big kids disappeared and reappeared according to the food availability. There are five of them playing on this rock below:


Eliza was the keeper of the waterbottles. It's because she thinks they're all hers.


Also, I'm pretty sure that apple rolled around on the ground seventeen times before she finally ate it all.


Carson has landed in such a great group of friends who are all far too cool to smile for a picture, but who are also not too cool to be great examples to each other about how to be kind and to stand up for what they believe.


Their favorite past time (besides the hot dogs) was the BB gun.




The fresh air felt great and we all brought a small mountain of red dirt home in our shoes. Successful Saturday.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Snow Day



School was canceled. They say it's because of snow... they're even calling it a Snow Day. We did see snowflakes the night before, and they were big and beautiful, so, there you go. Apparently that's enough to call the whole thing off.

I remember being amused at the snow days in North Carolina when you could still see the grass poking through the snow. But this? This was even better because you can't even see any snow. Unless you squint and look hard at the tops of the little mountains.


Don't get me wrong... we aren't complaining. We're cheering. Only, also a bit confused.


We made the most of it... threw the bikes and the boys in the back of the mini-van (side note: mini-vans are so amazing) and drove five minutes up the mountain to unleash them all.


The older boys were so good to Timothy. This is the first time we've taken him up there since he could ride a two-wheeler, and he had a few, what he would call, epic falls. You can see Miles cheering Timothy on in the foreground of this next picture.


Miles and Timothy have a rather tumultuous relationship, so I'm hanging onto this picture for dear life to prove that they weren't always at each other's throats.

Carson was fun to watch. That kid is growing up - he looked like a teenager out there attacking the jumps and using his strength to catch as much air as possible.


And, once we returned home, this also happened.


I'm really not sure you'd see too many kids jumping into pools during snow days. And, honestly, this kid didn't really want to. But he had wanted to see if he could launch something all the way over the pool (he couldn't) and promised that if it didn't make it, he'd jump in to get it out (he did). It was cold, though, and he didn't stay in for more than three seconds.

Happy snow day!