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

have mercy: a little girl, her future family, and how we create more happy endings

I went to fetch the laundry basket but the closet door wouldn’t open. I pushed harder against the resistance, just enough to stick my head in, and saw boxes and gift bags and wrapping paper, oh my – a packaging supply avalanche. Usually we keep that stuff stacked behind the door. The culprit was curled up in one of the boxes, purring.

have mercy: a little girl, her future family, and how we create more happy endings

While I restacked everything I found an old gift bag with the tag still on it: “To Master Finnegan, with love from Amanda.” It was from his baby shower eighteen months ago, from my dear friend who moved away in August. I cried a little, and sort of felt like a weenie for doing so.

Then we watched Little Women with the kids – which is a stupid move if you are already berating yourself for being weepy. We got to the part where Beth is sick again – you know – and Jo comes home to see her before it’s too late. She runs into their sister Meg outside the house and she sees her pregnant belly – and I cried again, thinking of my other close friend who moved away two years ago and just had a baby a thousand miles away from us. I’m not usually a crier, but some days grief lances our hurts wide open.

And then, have mercy – Jo goes inside and sees Marmee, and Beth is on the bed, deathly pale. A smart person just leaves the room at this point. But, no. I stayed there and took it.

Chamberlain sat next to me and asked why Marmee was crying. I tried three times to answer her but couldn’t get any words out. “Ask Daddy,” I finally gasped, and fled to the kitchen because doing the dishes for a family of nine is less traumatic than watching Little Women.

I don’t know what Vince told her. I stacked plates in the cabinet and watched from a safe distance. But a minute later he joined me in the kitchen, blowing his nose on a paper towel and mumbling something about the more kids we have, the wimpier he gets. I’m not really sure; I couldn’t hear him because I was blowing my nose, too.

Terrible, awful, painful story.

Is it, though? I know it has a happy ending. I was just crabby at how it stirs up pain I’d rather not deal with. Stupid feelings, making me feel stuff. Some days I hate that.

And yet…we’re going to deal with some painful stuff right now.

I had a conversation last weekend with a new friend. I know her only through the internet, only because we have adopted children from the same place, only because of God.  Her name is Karrie.

She is adopting a little girl from the same town one of our own kids is from. She and her husband have ten kids already – his, hers, and theirs, some already grown and out of the house. They were done. They were moving on to the next phase of parenthood.

Enter Ella.

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Ella is two years old. She lives in an orphanage. Ella has a terrible, awful, painful disease called epidermolysis bullosa, or EB. It occurs in only 20 per million births. But three of Karrie’s children have it.

I want you to be willing to fight the resistance and look in here for a minute. This is hard stuff and we need to feel something about it.

EB causes the skin and mucus membranes to blister from slight friction or pressure. Normal skin has a collagen that “glues” its layers, which keeps them from rubbing against each other independently. But without that collagen, a touch becomes a terrible wound. EB can also create internal blisters in the esophagus and bowels.

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These are hard to look at. Chamberlain looked at them with me and asked if Ella was laughing in the photo with her mouth open. I told her, No, she’s probably not laughing.

ella-1Have mercy. If I could flee from the pain in these photos, I would. But I can’t, so I’ll sit here and take it, and I hope you’ll take it with me.

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There’s no cure yet.

But Karrie and her husband know how to care for EB; they were prepared for such a time as this. They know how to watch for infection and adapt meals for someone with EB. Their daily routine already involves lancing blisters, bathing a child covered in sores, and the tedious wrapping of wounds – which takes two to four hours per bandaging session, three or four times a week.

They are familiar with painful realities: You can’t hug too tightly. Certain clothing seams cause blistering. Blisters on feet eventually damage nerves so severely that children can’t walk. Fingers and toes web and fuse together, and fingernails and toenails are lost completely. Bandages alone can cost $1000 per month.

People with EB live in constant pain.

They also know that EB affects life expectancy. Even under the best care, open sores pose a constant risk of infection and people with EB tend to die from skin cancer or internal issues, such as bowel obstruction.

But Ella lives in an orphanage and is not receiving the most ideal, individualized care. She needs a family to come home to before it’s too late. Our family is praying that they can expedite the process.

If you’d like to help Karrie bring Ella home, they have a YouCaring page here. Ella’s adoption costs – including the homestudy, the paperwork, the processing, the fees, the apostilles, the airfare, the notarizations, the fingerprinting, yada yada – are expected to be around $25,000.

They need donations and publicity.

We can provide that.

We can give and we can share Ella’s story.

We want people to know about Ella, about EB, and about children living a terrible, awful, painful story who need a family before it’s too late. We can’t keep these children and our hard feelings stacked behind a door anymore, out of the way, not bothering anyone. We need to be bothered so we can help create more happy endings. Ella’s story isn’t over yet.

up, down, up: taking time to heal and grow

I type this with one hand while the other is pinned under a snoozing baby and starting to go a little numb. It is a slow, quiet day. Finnegan had surgery a few hours ago and is sleeping it off, and I don’t want him anywhere else.

We were up with him in the wee hours when he woke an hour after the cut-off for eating, drinking, and nursing. It was what I had dreaded and prayed against. Vince and I took turns holding him while he cried and screamed; we prayed and patted him while pacing the living room, lit only by the speaker’s LED screen while slow songs by Crowder played on the lowest setting. Finn finally fell asleep an hour before the alarm was supposed to go off.

up, down, up: taking time to heal and grow

Vin took him in and I prayer-dozed while waiting, anxious for updates. It went fast. It was fine. Which means, of course, it was not fine but we all made it through, and they were home again in the late morning.

With only two hours of sleep under our belts, we spent the day on the couch reading to the kids, poking around the internet, and watching movies. And we held him. He dozed through that day and the next as the anesthesia took a little longer to wear off that it should’ve.

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The first day we expected him to be slow, but the second day surprised us when he still couldn’t sit up on his own or even crawl; he had a fever; he still slept most of the day away well past the 24-hour mark when he should’ve been back to normal. We talked to nurses and hospital staff. I tried not to worry when our healthy 15-month-old acted like a five-month-old who couldn’t crawl yet, or even sit up without being propped.

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But the next morning he was back his normal self, getting into things and keeping us on our toes. We put the baby gate back up. We hid all the pens again. He was all over everything again and it was marvelous.

We slipped back into our normal routine of school and chores and the day was brought to us by the letter N. All week, actually, was brought to us by the letter N; Reagan was having a hard time with school again and we can’t always tell if it’s hard on purpose or on accident. She couldn’t (or wouldn’t) write the letter N, and for days it looked like it was the hill she was going to die on. The line goes up, down, up. She would get the first “up” and then stall, though she knows this – she’s done it many times before, but for some reason that week was a struggle.

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Across the table, Andrey continued his own struggle, but he is easier to figure out – we know he can write all of the letters perfectly, but every day he chooses to do a few of them wrong on purpose. Success is scary. Success means freedom, and freedom means trust, and trust means not being in control of everything. So here at the table, doing most of the letters beautifully but some of them wrong on purpose is safe, though not very fun. He’s watched Chamberlain pass him up in reading and math, and we can see the wheels turning as he processes what that means. What he will do about it remains to be seen.

The day was also brought to us by a kitchen full of dishes, a package of diapers on the floor, various things from the pantry that Finn scattered everywhere, and the cat licking a pan on the stove. He is old and shameless, refuses to be civilized, and has to be locked in the bathroom almost every time we eat because, well, he’s kind of a jerk during meals.

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But Finn was better and up to new tricks – he followed the cat to the kitchen counter via the dining room chairs. I would lure him back to the floor with something fascinating like measuring spoons, which kept him busy for about twelve seconds. Then he was back up there again, repeating the cycle of climbing up and down the chair.

Reagan had the hardest time just getting off the chairs when she first moved here. That was four years ago; she was almost seven. Finn is 16 months. He is cautious, but she was terrified — probably because she knew more about pain than comfort, and knew less about climbing than falling. He has fallen, too, but learns faster, fears less, and has always been loved and protected.

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He’s had a safe place to fall, but she didn’t until she moved here – and by then, she didn’t believe safe places existed. I think we’re slowly convincing her. It’s taken longer than we hoped to meet milestones; trauma from early childhood isn’t fixed surgically and won’t wear off like so much anesthesia.

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I grieve for what could’ve been and where she should be by now. Yep, I know God has good plans, you don’t have to preach to me – but she’ll be eleven next week and Finnegan will pass her in milestone after milestone over the next several years.  Just like Chamberlain has passed Andrey. Just like, sort of.

Choices are unsparing things; they keep us from being a victim of anyone but ourselves. Reagan’s and Andrey’s delays are different – they both stem from early childhood trauma, but at this point her delays are mostly biological and his are mostly by choice.

A few weeks ago we were in church singing, I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God. The kid who stood next to me has walked in fear for almost eleven years now. He tried to catch the eye of strangers around us throughout the service, and we know it’s for the wrong reasons when he won’t look us in the face.

Fear and anxiety radiate from him. It used to seep into the rest of us, but now for the most part we rebuff it, beating it back with calm and peace. I don’t mean to sound new age-y – I mean it’s a palpable, almost-visible fight to maintain our ground, to keep our home as the sanctuary, to give His Presence primacy regardless of what anyone is doing or feeling or thinking.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

– 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, ESV

That song was singing, though, and He said, Put your hand on his back, Love. Be My conduit, and reach up for him. He still tells me this all the time.

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When we met Reagan and Andrey five years ago, we realized their challenges were significantly more than their paperwork admitted. It was what we had dreaded and prayed against. We knew at least one of them would probably never leave our home. We prayed. We told ourselves we were ready for this. We lied, but it was on accident.

That first year, Vince and I took turns holding them while they cried and screamed. We had no idea how much dross would burn off us as we walked through the fire of adoption, special needs, and attachment.

But another thing He always tells me is, Do not feed the fears. And in the car on the way home a couple nights ago, He said, When you see wounded, I see mended. It was from another song, and He’s still singing it to me.

It is slow going, slow growing – up, down, and up again. Not one of us passes unscathed through the process of sanctification because the unhealthy and corrupt has to die off of us before we can live free. It is the only way we go from glory to glory.

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Related: Where do we want to be in five years? What do we do with the curves in life? Sign up here for the November newsletter, coming at the end of the month.

how much more: what we gain from loss and change

I’m not sure how we are ever going to sell this house – get it show-ready, keep it clean with seven kids, and make sure no one’s dirty socks are peeking out of the couch cushions. Friends, I can’t even keep the cat from licking muffin batter while the oven preheats.

how much more: what we gain from loss and change - Copperlight Wood

Our home is feeling simultaneously fuller and emptier. We’ve been nesting and purging and cleaning and packing, but still the house feels a little like your favorite old sweater whose sleeves have shrunk; regardless of how comfy the material is, it doesn’t fit right anymore.

We have known a change was coming for a while. We need it, not just physically, not just for space and breathing room, but we need a fresh start and new memories. We love these walls and woods, but the kids have worn bare patches in the grass and trails through the trees. We’ve walked through some paths that have changed us.

Two years ago we were in the middle of a period of awful loss for our family, and it spiked when some of our dearest friends moved away the same week our cat died. We were still reeling from a season that felt like it was dishing out far more than we could take, and we didn’t know how much more was coming.

P1030662A few months later,  in spite of all of our plans, fears, and biology, we were pregnant with a baby we didn’t expect. God moved mountains and brought that small person here…and we were grateful, but for the first time in six pregnancies my gratitude was outweighed by fear. I didn’t know how much more I could handle.

The morning after our positive pregnancy test, this note was on the bathroom counter waiting for me:

Well, well, well. What have we here? I’m trying hard to think of what to say. How do I encourage you and make you smile on this most emotionally turbulent morning. Fear, which should have no place at Copperlight Wood, mixed with expectation of joy, which we have been lacking of late, seem to be at an impasse. What to do? All I can think of is to quote Master Samwise:

“But you haven’t put yourself forward; you’ve been put forward. And as for not being the right and proper person, why, Mr. Frodo wasn’t, as you might say, nor Bilbo. They didn’t choose themselves.”

I can’t express how proud, thankful, and impressed I am by you. You’re amazing and strong and I love you so very much. Love the Lord, embrace your kids, and let the Holy Spirit lead the way. The enemy fears you. It’s not the other way around.

– Vince

It turns out that moving mountains isn’t hard for Him, though it always seems like such a big deal to us. It’s more the movement of our hearts that is the big deal, the real mountain to be overcome. We think we are ready (or not) for change based on our feelings or circumstances, and He says that those things have very little to do with it at all – we’re ready for something not because we feel like it, but because He has a strategic plan and has prepared us.

And here, some things are restoring – not as they were before exactly, because you can never go back, but pretty close. Or at least close enough, because we can see it happening. We see glimpses of the joy that used to be, and it’s the same but different – kids learning to read, but now it’s Chamberlain instead of Afton; a cat sleeping in the windowseat, but now it’s Knightley instead of Sophie. And some things are brand-new, just beautiful gifts of His grace that we never would’ve imagined – new ministry opportunities, and this blue-eyed, blond-haired, dimply eleven-month-old crawling everywhere.

sophie and knightley

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He is doing it again. He is making all things new. The in-between stage can make us want to shrink up and die, afraid to take a leap ever again, but amazing things are on the other side if we press through.

Remember your faith from when you were radical, Love – and remember the victories that came from it. When you have Me for your defense, you need no other.

God has delivered you before, and He will do it again.

So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.

– Matthew 7:11, NLT

There is no “filling of shoes” for the old loves. A new pet never really replaces an old one, new relationships don’t replace broken ones, and new friends can’t replace the ones who’ve helped you bury the body.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

– Mark 10:29-30, ESV

There are new loves. There are new friends, and new pets, and new perspectives, and we find that somehow our hearts that felt shrunken by their absence in loss has somehow expanded with love for both the new and the old in ways we never would have expected.

Grief catches us somewhere between the loss and the victory, like the day between the Crucifixion and Easter. The goodbyes, the hard choices, the letting go of the way we thought things were supposed to be — we feel like our labor lasts well past the due date. We know birth is coming; we just don’t know how much more pain we’ll have to take before it happens.

The feeling of fullness, of swelling and discomfort and impatience – these are all signs of imminent delivery: life, joy, the much-longed-for beginning.

But in the pain of labor we rail against God and give Him a piece of our minds: This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, this is terrible timing, are You blind to everything we’re already dealing with? Don’t You know how much this hurts? 

Even Death and Destruction hold no secrets from the Lord.
How much more does He know the human heart.

– Proverbs 15:11

And He is so gentle. No lightning strikes, no chasm opening in the ground, no instantaneous heart attack.

He says, I know, Love.

I know what it is to not get what you think you want. I know what it is to wrestle with the Father’s will. You will never know how much more pain I went through.

But I also know what it is to surrender to it and trust Him. I know the gain on the other side of this labor. It’s how I got you.

mea culpa: how we break a cycle that’s getting us nowhere

Well, I’m not proud of it, but it’s done. Finished. Time to move on and get our life back.

Mea culpa: how we break a cycle that’s getting us nowhere

That’s right, folks – I’m talking about how we spent the last three weeks binge-watching seasons four, five, and six of Downton Abbey, months after everyone else wept and waxed eloquent over the series finale.

Now we can weep and wax eloquent, too.

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Now our evenings are normal again. Now we are responsible again. Now we will do things again, like spring cleaning. Like getting ready to sell the house. Like laundry.

Actually, the laundry isn’t really Downton Abbey’s fault. Our dryer stopped working – it would run an unending cycle, but without heat – and when Vince finally had a chance to figure out what was wrong with it (between episodes, of course) we discovered that dryers go on strike once they have accumulated a certain amount of legos, screws, and bobby pins in their bowels. This is hauntingly similar to our discovery that ice-cube makers don’t digest glitter.

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But my appliance-fixing hero husband gave the dryer a bowelectomy or something on Monday, and we are back on track. Which is great, because some of us were dangerously low on clean underwear, favorite socks, and, um, bobby pins. Mea culpa.

Now we can focus on getting ready to move. We have a whole list of tasks: some painting, some trimming, some caulking, little things here and there. It helps that it’s spring. ‘Tis the season for doing the dirty work of cleaning vents and corners and window crevices anyway.

And He’s doing it with us, too. We’re ready for a new season, and the big move isn’t just a physical thing. A laundry list of items that need to be dealt with emerges – heart issues, attitudes, habits, and routines. It’s time to clear the clutter, remove what’s taking up too much space, and make way for breakthrough. We need it. Our kids need it.

This may shock you since your children are probably perfect, but our kids are not perfect and a few of them have had a rough go of it lately. I’ve also had a rough go of it lately. I’ve struggled with irreverent thoughts, like, Hundreds of years ago some mother in Mexico was doing the same kinds of impossible, aggravating things. She was teaching her kids, cleaning her home, cooking food for everyone. She probably couldn’t help her six-year-old understand place value in arithmetic, either, and that’s when she invented Tequila.

I’ve been at a loss for how to pray and intervene sometimes. I’ve wondered if a certain kid’s continued disobedience is because he’s just not ready or because we’re doing something wrong. I’ve wondered if I’ve become resigned to it. I’ve wondered if I’m a good enough mother. We torture ourselves with these kinds of thoughts, the debris that churns round and round, shorting our circuits and blowing our fuses.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

– Isaiah 53:4, ESV

I keep praying the same thing over and over, and still see the same choices, the same mistakes, the same hardness, and what I’m praying doesn’t seem to be helping. And I’ve scrubbed the bathroom in desperation and relief, knowing that if I couldn’t make a child speak correctly, couldn’t make him do his business in the toilet every time, couldn’t make him want to be healthy and whole and free, I could at least send him to bed for a while so I could eat breakfast two hours late and clean the bathroom and pray about it.

At least, for crying out loud, I could clean the mirrors.

And that’s all any of us can do. Just take care of what is in the mirror.

And He told me, Look for the same thing in yourself, Love. Find the log in your own eye, even if you only think it’s the tiniest speck. If you don’t think you even have that, ask Me, and I’ll show you what I want you to rout out and redeem. Confess and repent of it to clear the way, and your prayer for this loved one will be powerful and effective.

We tend to accumulate all sorts of emotional clutter and collateral damage. Repentance is our best routine maintenance.

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It’s just a faint reflection of what He did for us – He looked at Himself, stainless, and when there was no log or speck to pluck out, He took the whole tree instead. For us.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

– Isaiah 53:5-6, ESV

Mea culpa. My fault.

There was a really hard day not too long ago, and I needed immediate words for one of our kiddos – words that pursue truth without pushing away, words that don’t let the behavior slide but also don’t miss what’s going on underneath. They needed to be words that helped him see in the mirror clearly instead of further distorting the image. And He gave me the words, but after I said them I realized they were for me, too.

They’re words we all need to hear on days that we’re not proud of. Here they are:

How you’ve acted this morning (this week, this year) is not who you are. I hope you start acting like yourself real soon.

We pray for those who are falling and those who have fallen and those who are walking wounded from their choices – and it’s their choices that we can do nothing about, though we see so clearly the grief they are causing. But we can look in the mirror and find our own frail humanity and need for grace just as much, and then pray more effectively because compassion has swept the debris out of the way.

It’s the same thing I’ve been telling one of my oldest kids over and over, but I didn’t realize it was for me, too: Until we take responsibility for ourselves and how we affect others, we will run around in circles progressing nowhere. And then we feel and recognize His forgiveness – the gentle joy that revels in victory – and the breakthrough from the battle is for us and our kids and all of our loved ones, and we know He is accomplishing it in those we are interceding for, too, because His kindness leads us to repentance. Instead of the grinding downward spiral, it’s a cycle that always leads to our truest self, and more life. And we need to get our life back.