About Shannon

Alaskan homeschooling mama of seven sweet kids. Loves Jesus, writing, coffee, Dickens, and snapping a kitchen towel at my husband when he's not looking.

building character: a story problem about how we get where we’re going

It’s a story problem: Nine people plus four cats, divided into a three bedroom house, multiplied by enough special needs to fill a docudrama miniseries. We are so many pieces of flint bumping into each other, sparks flying everywhere.

(Or, nine plus four divided by three multiplied by X. I checked the order of operations, and there should be parentheses in there somewhere around the addition. Not that that’s any help.)

building character: a story problem about how we get where we're going

Our family’s bedroom situation is like the river crossing puzzle, when a farmer has to carry a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans across the water in a boat that can hold only two passengers, but leaving certain combinations together results in the loss of at least one party. Some kids need their own space, certain kids can share, and other kids need to be separated. Fun, right? Yep, just like a root canal.

So we need to divide and conquer the bedroom situation like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve thought so far out of the box that if I told you some of the ideas, you’d think I was crazy or desperate. And you’d be right.

Every night I am the woman beating down God’s door, praying in earnest for an answer that feels so slow in coming.

Tell Me what you want, He said.

You know what I want, I said. You told us what to look for. There’s nothing out there that fits it, and I feel too picky, materialistic, and shallow for not having found it yet. People all over the world are homeless or living in a house the size of my bedroom, and we can’t find a house on the market that fits our family. Ridiculous.

No. Tell Me what you want, like I was your builder.

Fine. I told Him all over again about our bedroom situation. I rehashed wants versus needs, and what would be ideal versus what we would settle for. And I begged Him to not move us somewhere with propane heat, ridiculous covenants, or hideous custom tile from the 1980’s.

What about layout? He asks. What about landscaping? What about the neighborhood? This is where things get overwhelming. I have some vague ideas, but I don’t trust myself to decide all those details. I don’t want to create something from scratch — I just want to see it, and I’ll know whether it’s right or not.

The details don’t have to match my Pinterest fantasies (though I dearly love my boards here, here, and oh yes, swoon, right here). I don’t mind some dings and scratches. I just don’t want a sterile, cookie cutter house…I want character. Some old beams, a weird window. A place where we can have chickens. A little more room to stretch out in. A vessel that carries all of our passengers.

I want Him to design it, though. He knows how to make the details work. If I put together everything, I’d feel regret over mistakes I found later – the laundry room should’ve been on the ground floor, not the basement; the square footage we added to one room should’ve been shifted to another. I’d blame myself for it not being perfect. Stupid, maybe, but I know me, and that’s how it would go down. That’s my order of operations.

But if it’s His design, I can foot the nitty gritty to Him and trust Him to make it all for a good purpose. He knows the quirks our family can handle.

I told Him all of this. While seven kids were asleep, some in bedrooms and some not, the shower ran hard and the water beat down and I told Him every bit of this.

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And then He started talking, too.

So, Love…the kid issues, the bedroom hassles, the cramped quarters. I know it doesn’t feel perfect.

I know how the tight schedule affects the amount of time you’ve spent working toward a goal without seeing progress, and the delayed gratification that you’ve been waiting so long for. I know this river’s taking a long time to cross.

But what if you realized I designed this season for you? What if I knew those were imperfections you could handle, according to My design?

You said you just want character. What if this is how you got it?

And that’s Jesus, with the mic drop.

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the second day: when we don’t know what’s ahead

We walked the woods and I wandered to the spot where we buried someone precious a few years ago.

the second day

The piece of bark was just laying there, right over the grave. This skin torn off of a living thing, leaving it exposed, vulnerable, and in pain.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

I think often about this “second day” space: this time between heartbreak and victory, between the bloody cross and the empty grave, when we don’t know what’s ahead.

We hoped for something huge and desperately longed-for, but it was thrown in our face and spat on. We didn’t know what was coming.

We tried to build a fire for warmth and light, but we’re still freezing, the smoke is getting in our eyes and we can’t see anything else.

We thought those contractions meant we were close to delivery, but found out we were only dilated to one and a half centimeters.

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

The Kingdom is on the cusp of something amazing and huge. He is waking up His people in a way we haven’t seen in our generation, and maybe in a way He hasn’t done in many generations. This is a great time to be His people, but we have to endure the hard work of waiting.

We walk a tense line between faith and not moving ahead of God to push fruit, forcing something to work on our own. We don’t want to miss His move of certainty by stepping without Him, tired of waiting for the prophets and giving the sacrifice on our own. We don’t want to build the golden calf in our impatience for God’s answer, as the Israelites did when they squandered their loot from Egypt in making a work of their own hands to worship.

For weeks now, God has been reminding me that He restores, redeems, and refines us in our encounters with Him. And we often encounter Him in our need, in the quiet, dark place of the second day where we hurt and have no answers and are brought face to face with our need for His light, His answers, and His comfort.

In this second day space He is putting things back together for His people, as though He was working in the dark soil of our very foundation and identity, and making things right in ways they have never been before.

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

– John 16:20-22, ESV

The second day is a day of smoldering ashes. Our woodstove is the grave of that tree. We lay on more kindling and push things around a little closer to the coals.

We shut the door. We watch.

The smoke starts spinning in there, the coals start glowing and flickering. It’s only a matter of time before you hear it – the deep whoof, the sound of ebullition — all is bright and burning.

It is the second day. We’ve been waiting for a long time and the momentum is increasing, and God is about to ignite something ferocious, contagious, and powerful for the Kingdom.

“Does bark always come off in the shape of a heart?” Cham asked.

No, I told her. Only God does that.

an introvert thinks too much, maybe

It is morning and the kids are still quiet in their rooms. Coffee is next to me, steaming. Finn is asleep in my bed, old Gusser is asleep near his feet, and just in case you think the scene is too picturesque, Knightley is asleep in the base of the avocado plant. True story.

I washed my face but my hair is a mess. Ever since I cut it, I wake up looking like Dr. Suess was my overnight stylist.

This is found time. Usually we hit the floor running – chores flying, kids everywhere, breakfast chaos, Vince getting ready for work. But today he had an early shift and left hours ago, the kids are sleeping in, Finn slept eight whole hours, and I am up for the day before the late winter sunrise, which never happens. Even in, um, winter.

an introvert thinks too much, maybe

I answered a few emails. Ignored one that’s been sitting there for a few days. Stalled by checking Facebook and Instagram, considered clipping my nails or cleaning the bathroom to justify avoiding it some more, and resorted to coming here to write about my woes instead.

We call this “processing,” which is a handy word that means working through our issues until we’re ready to do something about them. If you insist on procrastinating, it’s the healthiest, most productive way to do it.

The email I’m dragging my feet over is from a super nice lady who coordinates book signings at the largest bookstore in Alaska. She says I’m qualified, my book meets all the requirements. And I think, Really? Shoot, there goes that excuse.

I need to do it. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? You sit at a table in public and talk to strangers about something you were passionate enough about to spend years working on. Easy. I’m good with sitting at a table, and I can talk your ears off about the need for more support of adoptive families. It’s the in public and talk to strangers part that makes me wonder if I own enough residual extrovert in my back pocket to pull it off.

We’re still reading The Wind in the Willows, and in chapter three, there’s this:

The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger…But whenever the Mole mentioned his wish to the Water Rat he always found himself put off. “It’s all right,” the Rat would say. “Badger’ll turn up some day or other – he’s always turning up – and then I’ll introduce you. The best of fellows! But you must not only take him as you find him, but when you find him.”

Badger lives in the Wild Wood. And he loves his friends deeply, but he is the introvertiest of introverts.

I like him. He might have stewed over required book signings and called it processing, too.

“Couldn’t you ask him here – dinner or something?” said the Mole.

“He wouldn’t come,” replied the Rat simply. “Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.”

“Well, then, supposing we go and call on him?” suggested the Mole.

“Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t like that at all,” said the Rat, quite alarmed.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

He’s not as standoffish as he sounds. Introverts can be so misunderstood, even to each other.

To many he seemed prickly, intractable, and often he was, but as his friend Jonathan Sewall would write, Adams had “a heart formed for friendship, and susceptible to the finest feelings.” He needed friends, prized old friendships.

– David McCullough, John Adams

I’m guilty of joking about not liking people (here, here, and here, for starters). But the truth is, as long as I get plenty of time alone I like other people just fine. The tricky thing is that with seven kids I need more alone time than ever, but it takes a small miracle just to go to the bathroom by myself.

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Aloooooone, say it with me in three syllables: the space and time to untangle thoughts, to think, and often overthink. When it’s quiet enough to notice the furnace humming or the cat snoring, and thoughts can be sorted among themselves without the extra layers of questions, conversations, and importunate requests to share chocolate.

The hush and simplicity force the demands of the day to stop flying around long enough for me to see what I’m really dealing with, like so much debris settling after someone has stopped a wild current of air. Stillness allows my static to finally clear into an image.

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Balanced with this, I also need a strong dose of my people to give and receive from. These are the kindred ones we spill our thoughts, feelings, and ideas to with confidence, knowing they will sift them gently. They bring balance to my overthinking, salt my perspective with their own wisdom, and keep me out of trouble (read: make me practice social skills).

There was little he enjoyed more than an evening of spontaneous “chatter,” of stories by candlelight in congenial surroundings, of political and philosophic discourse, “intimate, unreserved conversations,” as he put it.

– David McCullough, John Adams

But beyond that shelter, out in the Wild Wood of animals, predators, and other extroverts (kidding, kidding…sheesh) after a while I get overwhelmed. My brain feels like an autopilot in beta mode.  I need to get back home with my own walls, books, papers, and cats, making food for my people, lounging in the living room with the woodstove blazing and another round of coffee brewing.

In the embracing light and warmth, warm and dry at last, with weary legs propped up in front of them, and a suggestive clink of plates being arranged on the table behind, it seemed to the storm-driven animals, now in safe anchorage, that the cold and trackless Wild Wood just left outside was miles and miles away, and all that they had suffered in it a half-forgotten dream.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people about my book. I do. The message of Upside Down is crucial today, and marriages and families are at stake.

But I’m so passionate about it that even when I talk to my closest friends about it, afterward I wonder if I talked too loud or interrupted too much when I got all excited. Maybe I repeated myself too much. Maybe I forgot to say the one central message clearly enough. Maybe they didn’t realize I was being sarcastic when I said that one thing, or they didn’t realize I was joking when I made that liquor reference.

Because I think too much.

Or, I think that I think too much.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’ll overthink it some more and get back to you.

___

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anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

There’s an unfinished newsletter sitting in this word document above the words I’m typing, due in two days.

There’s another post just below them. And besides these, there’s another unopened document full of unused notes and unfinished scraps of thought, and two books that shift so often from the back burner to the front burner and back again that the contents of both are muddled and I’m not sure which is which.

This is my life. I’m not sure if it’s the seven kids – it’s easy to blame distraction on them – or just me. Probably, it’s just me.

When we go for a drive I don’t just bring one ball of yarn, or one knitting project. Oh, no. Because we might get stuck in traffic, or the next world war might start, or an undiscovered underwater volcano might erupt and take out the only bridge between Anchorage and the MatSu Valley, and a girl needs some yarn on hand for delays. Friends, I take a work in progress, two sets of needles, a notebook, travel scissors, and enough yarn in eight colors to make hats for every toddler in southcentral Alaska.

anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

These are called live stitches. They’re what happen when one of those toddlers finds a mitten-in-progress and pulls the needles out.

And live stitches, as knitters know, are really just dying stitches if they’re not secured to something. Off the needle, they are without anchor and vulnerable to the slightest tug rendering them nonexistent.

That’s us, too. I grew up in a city called Anchorage and was well into my teens before I got past the familiarity of its name and realized it wasn’t just my hometown, it was a real word that meant something.

Mooring. Refuge, dock, port, harbor.

It’s not a place to stay, of course. I don’t mean the city (though that was the case for us), but the safe place. We are meant for the wide ocean, but sometimes we take on too much water.

Why could he not bring order to his life? Why could he not clear his table of its clutter of books and papers and concentrate on just one book, one subject? Why did imagination so often intervene…?

“Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze.”

– David McCullough, John Adams

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I like that word, ballast. It means equilibrium, balance, counterweight, stability, support. It’s what you get in anchorage – the word, not the city. Well, maybe the city, but don’t count on it.

And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

– Mark 6:51, ESV

Jesus didn’t chide his disciples for their boat being too small, or for going out into the storm. He didn’t say, “Wow, you’ve got a full plate,” and lecture them about taking on more than they could chew.

He didn’t preach to them about how irresponsible it was to be far out from shore, away from the safety of anchorage.

He was the anchorage. He brought the ballast with Him.

I need that, because we have bigger issues here than knitting addictions and unfinished chapters. I’m writing some more on this Jesus-in-the-storm ballast for that newsletter, and you can subscribe here to get it in your inbox. It’ll go out in a couple of days, barring volcanic eruptions, velociraptor sightings, or the zombie apocalypse…in which case I’ll be knitting, probably.

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the year of deeper and wider

I first encountered one of my favorite books in sixth grade. I was pulled out of class for a gifted program, walked down the hall to an unfamiliar, sterile classroom, and listened to a teacher whom I did not know read The Wind in the Willows to us.

I hated it. If this was being “gifted,” I wanted no part of it.

the year of deeper and wider

Several years ago it showed up in Mattie’s curriculum. I approached it with doubt and suspicion, unsure about subjecting my kid to the same misery I’d experienced twenty years earlier.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home.

We dove in, and within the first pages I was in love. Surely it was the same book from before – but this time it was beautiful and alive and magical, so it must be that I wasn’t the same person reading it. I’d grown deeper and wider. I’ve read it all the way through three times now, not counting that first go-round that almost inoculated me from it entirely. I’m so glad it didn’t.

The kids ate lunch while I stood in the living room and read the first chapter to them. This is the first time Cham, Andrey, and Reagan have heard it and I want their memories of it to be warm and filling, sticking with them.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously…

This is Mole, who has lived below in seclusion, discovering the world above for the first time. It’s also me, and probably you. I know what the spirit of divine discontent feels like. I, too, have flung work to the floor while yelling mostly printable expletives.

I came to this passage and stopped to look for a pencil. None were within reach, so I tore the cushion off the couch to check my stash and found five pens, a set of nail clippers, a broken animal cracker and, hallelujah, one mechanical pencil. I started marking sentences.

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.

The story is fitting for all seasons – summer and winter, and especially those spiritual ones when you long for a river that runs deeper and wider than what you’ve been splashing in, and when you find yourself free of old barriers and able to test new waters that were out of reach not too long ago.

Testing new waters is impossible when you’re drowning in the deep end. We’ve spent a ton of time flailing and splashing there, but I’m thrilled to say that for the first time in four and a half years, it’s not where we are anymore.

Or, more accurately, it’s not that we’re no longer in the deep end, but that we’re no longer drowning in it – we come up for air sometimes, and can finally venture out into other waters a little.

Four and a half years.

By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

A big part of it is that one of our kids who needed his world (and therefore, our world) to be as small as possible is starting to experience victory like never before. I mentioned here a few months ago that choices are unsparing things. Sometimes we need the spirit of divine discontent to propel change, and over recent weeks his choices have been markedly and consistently different, by the grace of God.

He is experiencing the joy of a river that is deeper and wider. It’s a marvelous miracle. Most days (not all, I won’t lie) are warm and filling, and we hope it sticks.

The Kingdom is always of increase; our deep and wide is an insatiable sea.

This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind sent whispering so constantly among them.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Physically it is winter around us, but we are approaching a spiritual summer like a fast-moving train. There is running water, a full-bodied river; we are learning and growing and anticipating fullness that overflows the banks and spills into thirsty places everywhere.

I wish I could read the whole book to you, but there’s a terrific version of it on Librivox here instead. You’ll hear more about it soon, though. We’re only on chapter three.

Wind in the Willows, and Bingley