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.

knik river

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.

____

This month’s subscriber letter is coming out soon! Sign up here if you need it.

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

P1040570

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.

P1040569

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

#highlights: just the funnies from 2016

We’re starting off the year with a serious dose of silliness. Grab your coffee and enjoy.

hashtag highlights: just the funnies from 2016 at Copperlight Wood

a summary of our 2016 

I’m no real estate expert, but never once in the last two years of avid househunting have I thought, “Wow, this is what we’ve been dreaming of!” by listings that include a reference to “great location for a marijuana business” or a close-up photo of moose nuggets.

Super productive night: Finished edits on Upside Down to send back to the publisher, and moved on to researching Han Solo’s Myers-Briggs personality type. #intjsarenerds #sendhelp

Been sick for a week. It started at the Cannot Operate Heavy Machinery level but rapidly declined to Cannot Operate Paper Clips. Urgent Care has informed me that the fancy name for this is pneumonia.

Turns out that if you’re sick for a month and never leave the house, your garden bed magically transforms into a chia pet.

I just heard a pastor promise his new congregation that he will never make them turn to their neighbor to tell them something. And this, my friends, is how you win elections.  #campaignpromises #hankiewave

Many emails and phone calls back and forth with the publisher today. We established the keywords for the book: adoption, parenting, foster care, special needs, and attachment. Also established the keywords for marketing it: arm & leg, lifeblood, second mortgage, mainstream media, longterm counseling, and prozac. #fixitJesus

cats

kids are brilliant

Cat reproduction according to Chamberlain, age six: “Mama cats never have just one baby. They always have giblets.”

Finn lets loose ten seconds of ear-splitting happy squeals. Afton leans over and murmurs, “Those are the shrieking eels…

fetch me another ninja turtle

 

Cham: I wish I could just SEE him instead of talking about him all the time. I wish we could have him over to our house.

Me: Who, Jesus?

Cham: No! TobyMac.

(This is the same girl who asked if her new dress could be considered an ugly Christmas sweater. She also thinks Wesley wears a manbun in The Princess Bride.)

kids

My son brings me the magnesium supplement and reads the label. “Contains no yeast, dairy, soy, egg, wheat, sugar, fructose, preservatives, starch, or artificial color or flavor. Cruelty-free.” He pauses. “Cruelty-free? What does that mean? That it doesn’t taste bad?”

Two hours after the kids bedtime. Or, as they see it, the perfect time to go to the bathroom, take a shower, ask how babies are made, tell about a bad dream they had last week, show off a drawing they made this afternoon, floss their teeth, ask you to check the spelling in their journal, and share a prophetic word of knowledge.

We saw a sweet hospital photo of a mama and her wee bitty premature babies. Cham yells, “Oh! Did she have giblets?!”

boys

 

#momlife

[insert quiet narrator’s voice, preferably with British accent]
In today’s episode of ridiculous parenting, a child makes a craft project and bursts into sobs immediately following its completion: “It’s SO ugly! And I was going to give it to my FRIEND! But now it’s too ugly and I CAN’T give it to my friend, so I’ll JUST have to give it to YOU!!”
#ohthanks #itslovely

The hero-husband painted an old ugly dresser white for me, then asked if I wanted to distress it. I reminded him that we have seven kids. We decided to just let nature take its course.

Dear Matanuska Electric Association: I’m sorry, but I cannot vote in the upcoming election because I used your ballot to smash a spider into oblivion. Our family truly appreciates this service you have performed for our community.

Afton just caught Finnegan dipping his toast in my 3-shot Americano, eating it, and liking it. Let the mutant superpowers commence. #avengersassemble

Child is disrespectful. Child earns a bazillion extra chores. Child is sent outside to wash all the windows. Child refuses and prefers to sulk instead. After several minutes, child complies and goes outside. It immediately commences to rain buckets, because God loves me.

The kids are practicing Spanish on the computer, and one of them keeps saying “Buenas nachos” instead of “Buenas noches.” Same thing though, right? #soundsgoodtome #muybien

Don’t tell my tomato-haters, but I’m not above chopping up a red bell pepper in front of them while cooking dinner and letting them jump to conclusions about the pasta sauce.

…and speaking of food…

10:32pm: We decide to live on the edge and fry cheese in the waffle iron. What could go wrong? We need to buy a new waffle iron anyway.

10:33pm: Sizzling. So far so good.

10:34pm: I lift the lid to check and behold utter chaos of every dairy nightmare imaginable. Goo everywhere, burning, running over the sides, and Vince has mysteriously disappeared somewhere in the vicinity of the garage. I yell “Pat Sajak!” so the kids who are still awake don’t know I’m swearing and mentally write hatemail to the foodie blogger while scraping cheese off the griddle.

10:36pm: We try it. Not too bad. Recommence frying cheese now that the waffle iron is “properly seasoned.”

10:39pm: Round two is iffy. A little better but still not nearly what the foodie blogger’s perfect photography promised. We try one more time.

10:40pm: Vince decides the cheese slices need to be a little thicker. He slices, breads them, and inserts them into the waffle iron. While my back is turned, HE LEAVES THE ROOM. Quietly.

10:42pm: Round three explodes out the sides of the waffle iron and Vince is nowhere to be found. We assume he is driving to Sears to see if there are any waffle irons on sale that come packaged with Ghiradelli chocolate and flowers.

bingley apron

The recipe for these brownies says, “Cut them into quite small pieces, almost like fudge.” Whatever. I just blew through these like a hobbit with elvish waybread. #chocolatelembas

Daydreaming while chopping mushrooms, garlic, and onions.
Pondering cooking shows while adding chicken thighs to skillet.
Considering taking a photo of dinner-in-progress (in spite of Vin’s disdain of such photos) while adding tomatoes and coconut milk.
Wondering why the chicken is so slow to brown.
Checking the burner to turn up the heat only to realize that the burner is still off.
And this, friends, is why I do not write a foodie blog.

P1000427

#wecandohardthings

God calls us to do things we’re not naturally qualified for. This is why we have to do things like change diapers, which is an aerobic activity akin to chasing down a baby kangaroo after it’s had an espresso.

Feeling super Alaskan today; sharpened my eyeliner with a pocketknife. #geterdone

You think it’s hopeless, it can’t be done – but then you do it. I’m not talking about life goals or big dreams; I’m talking about nine people and three cats going the whole day with less than two rolls of toilet paper. Oh, yes we did.

 

delivery: what comes after a season of weakness and waiting

It began innocently enough. I was eating a quesadilla and getting some work done, the baby was sitting in my lap while tearing up a paper towel; we were both happy. And then I dipped my quesadilla in sour cream and typed a few sentences, not realizing until the next paragraph that little Finn had dipped his paper towel in the sour cream, too, and was painting the couch with it.

delivery: what comes after a season of weakness and waiting

Shortly after this Vince spent an evening steam cleaning the couches. The next day, while the cushions were propped against a wall to dry, Finn and I sat on a slightly damp and cushionless couch sharing a late lunch — and I’m sorry to admit it, but I was hungry and exhausted and had already been sick for weeks…and I fed him small pieces of chicken that he routinely dropped on the freshly cleaned couch. His greasy little fingers were all over the place and I did what any mama would do who’s been out of commission for weeks: I erased the evidence with a baby wipe and let my husband read the confession while proofreading this blog post.

It was – and still is, sort of – a harder, slower season with different priorities. Two days after the last post, I got sick and found out later that I had pneumonia. The last seven weeks have been a long haul of getting well again and every few days is a new phase of pain or relief. I don’t know why it took us five babies to figure this out, but a pregnant, nursing, or special needs mama takes longer to recharge and recover than normal because her battery is always on and running even when she’s asleep, plugged in and charging.

P1030838

This week, the current phase is bruised ribs on one side and a cracked rib on the other. Reaching for things is difficult and moving hurts, and I slept til noon on Vin’s day off and was still exhausted five hours later and completely wiped by bedtime. Our routines are totally off. Homeschooling? I haven’t read aloud to the kids in almost two months. Housework? There’s a load of laundry in the washer from yesterday that wasn’t flipped and probably just needs to be washed again. Writing? I’m squeaking everything in under the wire and barely touching the projects without deadlines that I really want to work on. And gardening…let’s just forget about that.

I wasn’t feeling too sorry for myself until the week I was finally starting to feel better and then caught a cold. My lungs were finally clearing but suddenly I had a stuffy nose, full sinuses, sore throat, the works. Whiskey tango foxtr—I mean, what the heck?!

I cried. I probably said bad things. And I wondered when life would be normal again – when I would have energy to do things, when I could start reading that book to the kids that’s been on the shelf for two months now, when we would find the house that fits the list of priorities we’ve been praying for.

P1030770

It feels like it’s been a long season of waiting (but aren’t we always waiting for something?) and I dunno if you’re like me, but I don’t like to wait – I like to figure things out and check them off.  Everything is a riddle made to be answered. Puzzles should be put together, mysteries should be solved; and this is probably why I love Dickens so much because I love them, all of them, except when they describe the season of life you’re in. What are we doing, where are we going, how are we going to do any of it? No idea. Not a clue. Maybe a few vague ideas, but we are waiting for clarity, healing, and answers.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

– 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, ESV

P1030934

The season of weakness and waiting reminds me of those early months in pregnancy: not cooking, sleeping whenever possible, living in a grace-saturated survival mode until sometime during the second trimester, when you can see the world in color again. But that, at least, holds the promise of great gain in the birth ahead. And there’s no birth and delivery to look forward to in this labor.

That’s what you think, He says.

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:5, ESV

But I don’t like waiting, don’t like surprises. Just tell me, or let me figure it out. Or at least tell me if I’m getting hot or cold. Give me some pieces that fit together. Tell me what to do.

So last Tuesday morning shook me up a little. The day after the rib cracked, the first day of a long school week with nothing exciting in the works — until I was in the middle of typical morning chaos, in the middle of an unexpected phone call with a dear friend who moved out of state two years ago, and the kids start yelling that someone’s at the door, and it’s my husband and that dear friend who had plotted with him for months to surprise me. And, holy moly: screaming, hollering, crying, the works. And I might’ve said a bad thing or two while throwing my phone on the table, but I don’t remember and you can’t hear it on the video Vince took so I think we’re okay.

Our expectations tend to keep our hand in the monkey trap, holding onto what’s holding us back. But maybe there’s something ahead we never saw coming. Something we never would’ve expected. And what if it’s…good? As in, really, really good?

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:16, ESV

Breakthroughs don’t begin with fanfare and fair warnings. I think — I hope, at least, from what we are experiencing now and have seen in the past — that they start with waiting and weakness. Our need beckons the breakthrough.

And we know He often brings answers to His people from His people. But lately He’s been telling us repeatedly, Don’t look to so-and-so for your solution. Don’t depend on such-and-such for your victory. When I bring your breakthrough, you won’t see it coming because you’ll be looking the other way. This will be a special delivery.

I want to surprise you, Love. Let Me.