not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

While much of the lower 48 is recovering from a blizzard, we are oddly snowless in our part of Alaska. It’s brown and ugly, but makes for easy driving with seven kids in the Stagecoach going hither and yon for errands.

not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

The other day we drove home from Cham’s therapy appointment behind a sedan with a slow leak on both of its left tires, wobbling slightly lop-sided down the Parks Highway at 48 miles an hour until it finally turned off near a service station. We don’t always notice when we have a leak; the roads are rutted from studded winter tires, and a little wobble doesn’t necessarily mean any more than that. But hopefully the driver noticed and stopped for a quick refill — air’s still free, you know.

We had snow a few weeks ago before it melted, and some moose came to visit. This mama just stared at us through the window, her ear flickering at sudden noises, on guard nonstop. Her baby was nearby eating a willow. We stared at her, staring at us, as she sized us up through the window. And I know how she felt, this mama on high alert.

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A little on edge. Constantly watching for danger, trying to keep our kids safe and in sight; trying to keep the air from leaking out of our tires.

Most moms really struggle with this. And most adoptive moms I know are driving on at least one steel rim. Some of our tires are just fine, but others are about to go flat without some serious maintenance. And soon.

Someone asked me a while ago what our family really needs, and how the church can support us. It’s a loaded question, so I gave the easy, predictable answer: Pray for us. Then the Spirit pricked me towards transparency, and I also mentioned we need a bigger house. And it’s true, we need both of those things.

But I wish I would’ve said childcare. Or a meal once a week. Or just, invite me to things even if you think I probably can’t come. And you’ll probably be right, but it’s nicer than being written off.

The church is starting to recognize that special needs adoption is a frontline ministry unlike most others – the mission field is brought into the home, and it often (especially in the first years) becomes a war zone. There’s no clocking out; there’s no furlough, there’s no sabbatical. There’s no leaving triage after a 12 hour shift.

Several times a week I hear from grieving moms who are walking wounded, marriages struggling, everyone suffering some level of trauma from the chaos. And for the most part, I don’t mean families who just recently adopted. I mean families – moms, dads, and siblings – who have been in this for years and have little left after so many miles of driving on rims.

What can we do? A meal once a week would free up 30-60 minutes for the adoptive parents to spend much-needed time doing any number of other things that need caught up on: errands, paperwork, phone calls, one-on-one time with a child, or (gasp!) even alone time to decompress. For reals.

Marriages might be saved if someone invested in an adoptive family in such a way that they could provide appropriate childcare for the special needs involved. A mid-week calibration might do wonders for a family on the edge and in need of intervention, because frontline ministries require reinforcements.

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Ready for a science break? A few days ago I was reading to Afton about silkworms and metamorphosis. Here:

“Once enclosed in its cocoon, the caterpillar withers and shrivels up, as if dying.”

Cheerful, isn’t it? Hang with me. Many mamas are right here, in the middle of the mess, shriveling in darkness. And we need to hear this.

“It is an intermediate state between the caterpillar and the butterfly. There can be seen certain projections which already indicate the shape of the future insect….Both the chrysalis and the nymph are insects in process of formation – insects closely wrapped in swaddling clothes, under which is finished the mysterious operation that will change their first structure from top to bottom.”

And did you know that swaddling clothes are death wrappings? The same cloths wrapped around Jesus at birth were meant for wrapping around a dead body. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. But the same death that was meant to be the end of everything was actually the beginning that conquered death forever.

It is an intermediate state, this darkness.

“It must get out of the cocoon. But how? The caterpillar has made the cocoon so solid and the butterfly is so weak! …It would not be worth the trouble of going through so much to stifle miserably in the close cell, just as the end is attained!”

“Could it not tear the cocoon open with its teeth?” asked Emile.

“But, my innocent child, it has none, nor anything like them. It has only a proboscis, incapable of the slightest effort.”

“With its claws then?” suggested Jules.

“Yes, if it had any strong enough. The trouble is, it is not provided with any.”

“But it must be able to get out,” persisted Jules.

“Doubtless it will get out. Has not every creature resources in the difficult moments of life!….But you would never guess the singular tool that it will use.”

Tell me. Tell me how we stop the leak, refill, keep our kids safe, and protect our own oxygen level all at once. Tell me how we get from the new normal that feels like death and darkness to a new normal that feels like flying.

Ready?

“Insects’ eyes are covered with a cap of transparent horn, hard and cut in facets. A magnifying glass is needed in order to distinguish these facets, they are so fine; but, fine as they are, they have sharp bones which all together can, in time of need, be used as a grater…One by one the threads of silk succumb to the rasping. The hole is made, the butterfly comes out. What do you think about it? …Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye?”

– Jean Henri Fabre, The Story Book of Science

And He says, Look at Me, Love.

Your oxygen is right here. That’s why this is the year of deep and wide. There’s not much that prayer, education, and worship won’t round out again.

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We are so busy looking at the darkness – not only the demands of the day, but sometimes we have traumatized kids or abusive people puncturing our tires and slashing their own. And the darkness tries to command our attention, but we are not at the mercy of darkness because how we aim our vision is how we let the light break through.

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.

– Luke 11:34

We’re meant to thrive and grow, not just barely make it before our rims start wearing against the pavement. Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye? Only the Creator who made a way for each of us to escape the darkness.

Look at Me, Love.

It’s hard, yes. Diagnoses are real and pain is real, and changing our focus doesn’t change the past, it doesn’t change Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it doesn’t change the amount of your paycheck or the dysfunction of someone else.

But it’s not the end. The prison turns into a place of new birth, oxygen changes our structure from top to bottom, and where we were earth-bound and vulnerable, we become strong and beautiful. It starts with looking at the One who fills us. The air’s still free, you know.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She woke up with one question.

“You say, ‘Happy bootday, Reagan?’”

After 364 days of talking about what she wants to do on her birthday – to the point we had to reign in and discipline it lest she drive herself and the rest of us crazy – we finally we got to say, Yes. Happy bootday, Reagan. Today is your day.

“Do you know how old you are?”

She grins and flutters her hands. “Yes!”

“How old are you?”

“Five!! I five, mama!”

Yep. Still working on that.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She was born ten years ago. Andrey’s biological mom was seven months pregnant with him, I was six months pregnant with Afton. During their first five years, we didn’t know Andrey or Reagan existed. During the last five years, we spent two trying to bring them home, and the last three post-adoption years helping them know they are home. For good, forever.

She opens the first gift and before I know it, I hear myself say, “Do you like it?” Suddenly it’s three years ago and I’m asking the same thing in my best awkward Bulgarian. “Haresva li ti?” Please say yes. Please mean it.

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And she does like them. Vin took a risk and bought size eight pants. They will fit nicely in the top of her closet while we wait for her to grow into them.

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What she really loved, though, came next. “Oh! Oh! Hoo-ey, ahhhsome! Yay, hoo-ey!” I have never seen anyone so excited over hooey before.

She loves hoodies and glasses. She likes cars and coloring. What really makes her light up, though, is music. And food, of course.

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Vin was home for the day, there were eight inches of fresh snow over everything and it was still coming down on our cusp of the valley. We had a snowball fight before lunch – all of us except Reagan, who wasn’t interested. She made tracks, ate snow, and watched from a safe distance. Cham also wasn’t interested, so she made herself a snow throne and sat like a queen in the middle of the action, occasionally granting boons of huge snowballs to us, and just as often getting hit in the crossfire with her own artillery.

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But Andrey joined us, and for you to understand how significant it is to have him do so – and have fun – in this particular activity, I would have to remind you that he cried fat tears the first time Vince gave him a high five, thinking he was getting hit. And other times more recently, there have been big crocodile tears over the slightest jostle, trying to get siblings in trouble. The boundaries are so paper thin and fragile sometimes, us learning to trust him and him learning to trust us. We want him to know that we can carry him upside down and not drop him.

Vince and I were captains and we chose sides – I took Mattie and Andrey, Vince took Iree and Afton. Afton captured Andrey and took him to the snowbank, and Mattie and I had to Stage A Rescue.

Under heavy fire from Vince and Iree, Mattie threw Afton into the snow bank on their side and I threw – okay, gently shoved – Andrey toward the safety of the snowbank on our side. And he loved it. And then the snow was everywhere – in our eyes, stuck in our hair and melting down our faces, sailing in arcs to land on hats and backs and behinds.

(There was some hand to hand combat and it got a little messy. If you ask Vin, he might tell you some nonsense about me playing dirty and shoving a ton of snow down the front of his shirt. But that’s ridiculous; I would never have done that because he had Finnegan in the front pack under his jacket. I shoved the snow down the back of his shirt. Just so we’re clear.)

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There was soup and bread inside for lunch; a movie and a nap. A normal day. A relatively easy day. The next day was harder; behavioral fallout from excitement and change still happens. Sometimes it’s over just a routine appointment, and sometimes it takes us back to behaviors we haven’t seen since those first weeks together in a hotel in Bulgaria.

Every day is a study. Will they cooperate with school – or speech – today? Will they have fun? Will Reagan join us during meals and playtime, or will she piddle the day away in the bathroom, trying to isolate herself from all of us? Will Andrey obey routines, or will he sabotage every opportunity for freedom and joy? Will Reagan remember how to count past ten today? Will Andrey pretend that he doesn’t know what the number fifteen is?

Will they know that we will do what we can to rescue them from attack, but that we won’t rescue them from the consequences of their own actions?

We are still here, a little over three years later. And the pendulum still swings, but now it usually has a more tempered, predictable rhythm.

As they get older, I hope we’ll see the right answers to all these questions. I hope they will forgive us for being imperfect parents. I hope they’ll forgive their birth parents and orphanage workers for anything they may harbor against them, heart-wise. I hope they will forgive and love themselves. I hope when it comes time to choose sides, they will choose life.

I hope they will see Jesus through their entire story, protecting, loving, correcting, and renewing. I hope they will know He is for them. I hope they wake up every morning and hear Him say, Hey, Love. Today is your day.

_____

related: a love that grows: a letter to Reagan on her eighth birthday

blue sky, black clouds (+ book giveaway)

About a week and a half ago I had a routine appointment with our midwife. No worries, no big concerns, no problems. Some back pain, some heartburn, just normal pregnancy woes. I drove home and the sky over me was blue, but a wall of black clouds loomed toward our house.

blue sky, black clouds: storms we drive into (plus book giveaway)

Cresting the top of the hill on the highway, I saw hail filtered through sunlight falling on the intersection below. Stopped at the bottom of the hill a minute later, the sun was still on me but tiny balls of snow were falling everywhere. The light turned green and cars started to move again, and every fifth vehicle coming toward me was covered in fresh snow – a clear warning of the weather we were driving into.

There was sunlight, and then darkness – sudden and startling. Hail, rain, and snow, right next to miles of sunlight. It was temperamental Alaska in all her glory.

It was like adoption, like life: Sometimes we have warning, and other times we have no clue what we’re driving into. Four days later I had emergency surgery at 27 weeks pregnant.

And I’m fine. And our baby, praise God, is fine. But the recovery has been wild, and I’m not talking about the incisions or anything like that – I’m talking about two of our kiddos who have a hard time handling uproar that isn’t caused by their own behavior, and we’ve had a roller coaster of a week. Chiaroscuro, light and dark, sunshine and hail.

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The next day he gave us the virtual middle finger, right and left, at every opportunity. That love thing is terrifying, don’t you know – let’s not have too much of that.

Reagan’s had a rough week, too. One thing after another, there’s been disobedience and sneaky misbehavior. Outright defiance over silly things, like putting away clothes.

Iree came downstairs this afternoon, and said, “Mom, Reagan’s up there saying, ‘Mommy hit me’ and ‘Mommy flick me.’ And she’s hitting and flicking herself…and her laundry is still all over the floor.”

And, oh, it made me angry. The part of me that was raised, Stop your crying or I’ll give you something to cry about wanted to lash out at her for this.

But it would play right into the enemy’s hands, because it’s what she remembers, still, years later. Love is scary, so let’s create anger because anger is safe and familiar. Let’s push away Mommy before she can leave us. She then refused dinner and threw up all over her bed. But we’ve had months of progress since the last time she did that during her last big regression. We know there is more sunlight ahead.

“I’m just going to love him.”

“That’s the hard way,” she said.

“With God’s help, I want to be something like grace to him. I don’t know how the shrink stuff works and I don’t want to pretend to know or try a bunch of fashionable strategies. So, if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, maybe he and I will both learn something in spite of ourselves.”

“You know he’s frightened of attachment, of any real closeness. It’s what he wants most from you, but he’ll keep trying to push you away.”

“I’m not going away.”

– Jan Karon, Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good

There are adoptive, special needs, and foster families out there who are not fine, who feel alone, who are treading water. They need hope, support, and a holy stubbornness to love when loving is hardest. They need to know that loving may look different from what they imagined, but that it still works. They need to know that people are in their lane, driving with them into the same weather – some miles ahead, some miles behind – and we carry flares, extra blankets, and jumper cables. They need to know they are not alone.

How can we encourage adoptive families? Maybe with a forecast, of sorts, from those who’ve weathered the storm.

adoption book bundle giveaway

Mary Ostyn is a mama of ten children (four biological and six adopted) who has walked through the gamut of adoption – domestic and foreign, easy and hard, new baby and older child, siblings and special needs. She writes with compassion and honesty. A few months ago she sent me her new book Forever Mom, and I wish it had been available when we were in the adoption process. In my (only slightly-biased) opinion, the combined information in Forever Mom and Upside Down prepares adoptive families far more than most of the required reading for homestudies and trainings that are compiled by really smart people with letters after their names but no real adoptive or special needs parenting experience.

I’ve been honored to partner with Mary in bundling our books together and giving them away to our readers. She hosted her giveaway a few weeks ago, and I meant to host mine last week…but then decided to not commit to anything while doped up on narcotics. So here we are, a week late, but much more lucid.

Forever Mom & Upside Down bundle giveaway

To enter this giveaway, you can do any or all of the following:

– Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Pinterest, and come back here to comment and let me know. No need to comment separately every time; I will tally carefully. :)

– Tell me about your connection to adoption, foster care, or special needs in the comments below.

I’ll randomly draw a winner on Tuesday, April 28th. Offer limited to US residents who have a healthy appreciation of chocolate, coffee, or ice cream only.

And, if you’d like to know more about that emergency we had last week, subscribe to my free newsletter. The gory details (not really) and what He told me during pain worse than natural childbirth will be in there and headed to your inbox by the end of the month. Also, we have another surgery scheduled at the end of this week, though we’ve been informed that the hospital does not give out punchcards. We would love to have you pray for us through the weather ahead…thanks so much. xoxo

UPDATE AND WINNER! Kelsey Jast – congrats! Contact me with your address and I’ll get these in the mail this week. :) Thanks!

without fear: peace in the unknowing

I’m in the lobby of the dentist’s office during back-to-back cleanings and exams for all six kids, reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while Aerosmith chants “Dream On” from the speaker in the ceiling. Four appointments down, two to go — and Vin brings me coffee from Kaladis and baked goods from Starbucks to help get me through the last hour. I guess he could’ve gotten them both from the same place…but we had a gift card to use, and friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.

So far, we’ve scored one cavity and one referral to an oral surgeon. I’m fighting a little fear over that last point but counting my blessings that we’ve made it over two and a half years without any major medical issues. Most of the families we know who have adopted more than one kiddo from the same place as ours have already dealt with at least one major surgery, and I’d almost think we lucked out if it weren’t for the attachment issues that provided enough heartbreaking material to write a small book out of. We’re not sure what we’re dealing with aside from facial swelling, a biopsy, adult teeth overlapping somewhere near Andrey’s sinuses, and words like possible cyst and extraction…but we’re certain it has something to do with those first years of starving and neglect, when there just weren’t enough nutrients to build bone structure to properly fit future adult teeth.

In the speaker overhead, Queen is singing about this crazy little thing called love…and the irony isn’t lost on me, though I grew up on Dwight Yoakum and prefer his version.

without fear: peace in the unknowing

When we get home, we’ll call the surgeon’s office. Make an appointment for a consultation. Briefly explain attachment issues to a whole new team of professionals in attempt to avoid regression. Brace ourselves for whatever comes next.

But for now, I’m reading about the anxiety of unknowing: When will this end? When will it get better? What happens next? And I notice the irony here, too:

I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? ….how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?

“While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease”: God makes this guarantee very early in Genesis to a people whose fears on this point had perhaps not been completely allayed.

– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

And while the last two kids get their teeth cleaned, I read more about trees and water and fear and assurance, munching on a croissant in the lobby while trying not to make a mess. It’s probably the worst possible thing to attempt this with; the bark of the pastry has flaked all over me, the chair, and the floor. It would be more efficient to just rip the thing wide open and fling crumbs everywhere, since that’s what it looks like I’ve done anyway.

Two pastries and a latte later – because my cleaning isn’t for another few weeks – we’re done, and home, and off the phone. We have an appointment to meet the surgeon next week.

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And we wait, wonder, and pray. It’s what we do when we don’t know. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe it’s nothing after all. Maybe it will be awesome. Maybe God is up to something. And of course, He’s always up to something, but sometimes I cringe because He can be such a troublemaker.

I am beside you to bless and help you. Waver not in your prayers. They shall be heard. All power is Mine. Say that to yourself often and steadily.

Say it until your heart sings with the Joy of the safety and power it means to you.

Say it until the very force of the utterance drives back, and puts to nought, all the evils against you.

God Calling, edited by A.J. Russell

We fight off the what-ifs for the meeting, the doctor, the prognosis, the plan. We pray against fallout and fear, the emotions ripped right open and scattering a mess everywhere.

And a week later we know a little more about what we’re facing. Not much more, but some specifics — like an adult tooth growing way the heck up under Andrey’s eye and another that looks to be encased in a cyst– and putting the medical stuff aside, it’s really the trust issues I’m most concerned with. Can we trust this team to handle our son and our family? Can we trust Andrey’s ability to handle this? Will Andrey learn to trust us more through this?

Can we trust God to know what He’s doing here?

And the answer is yes. Yes, and yes, and yes, and amen.

…that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

– Luke 1:74-75

At home, Andrey is sighing and grunting and stomping over his chore, as though he carries the weight of the whole world on his small shoulders over his responsibility to sweep the living room.

You are not carrying the weight of the world, I want to tell him.

I must carry the weight of the world, his behavior says. This is the default attitude of someone who has learned the world is not to be trusted.

You’re not in charge of all of this. Often, I do tell him this.

But I must be in charge of everything. If I mind everyone else’s business, I won’t have to deal with my own.

We adults have these same conversations with God all the time. Our healing and maturity are indicated by having them less and less often.

…because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

– Luke 1:78-79

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We have a CT scan scheduled next week. After that, the surgeon talked about a procedure with a four-to-five day recovery, and then maybe a surgery to extract up to three adult teeth if they can’t be saved. Long term, he mentioned words like non-cosmetic orthodontics, extensive restructuring, root canal.

But short term, we pray. We’re learning to practice a stubborn trust, because God is always up to something.

grace is the shelter

The wind, this wind. It shakes the house and bows the trees. Ground is blown bare and small snowdrifts press against the edge of the house. The windows creak and the vent above the stove rattles, and the wind whistles between trees and across our chimney tops.

grace is the shelter: where we go when the wind blows

 

We try to be ready for power outages. We keep the laptops charged and the teapot full, and I’ve learned to use the threat of an outage to motivate the kids to clean up better before bedtime because no one wants to trip over toys or skid across books lying on the floor in the dark. In other states, these winds are recognized as hurricane force and mentioned on national news; here, schools are open and it’s business as usual — you just hang on to your car door as you open it to make sure it’s not ripped off the vehicle entirely. And you might want to drive a little slower on the highway, too, so you can get a good look at the semi truck that was blown on its side with its wheels in the air.

The wind keeps on for days and nights, and it’s 75 miles an hour outside with flying debris and a wind chill of about minus fifteen. But inside, everything is still. Six kids, all asleep. Half as many cats, also asleep. The computer hums, the teapot ticks as it’s heating, and between gusts there’s a perfect calm.

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In the morning we check for fallen trees and there aren’t any, though branches are everywhere like so much littered confetti. A couple of plastic grocery bags have flown in and attached themselves like windsocks to our trees, and across the street it looks like our neighbor has gained a shiny new trash can from probably three houses over.

We’re getting together with friends in the evening, and if they weren’t close friends — you know, the kind who are allowed to look for stuff in your fridge even though you didn’t even clean it before they came over — I might squirm a little and apologize for the mess outside. Not that the weather is my fault, but it just looks so ugly out there. Even though I have no control over it, and their yard has seen the same wind and is probably in the same shape, it’s not the first impression I’d want to make to anyone who’s never been here before.

But I don’t need to apologize, and they wouldn’t expect it. We have seen each other’s messes before. Marriage, special needs, dirty laundry, parenting kids unborn through adolescent. These are friends who are family, and we can let go of insecurities about the messes we can’t control outside, and just focus on the messes we can control inside — vacuuming, cleaning toilets, washing the dishes. Well, the dishes, I dunno…that might be asking too much.

There’s a turkey in the oven and stuffing on the counter, a green bean casserole in progress and pie crust to be made. It’s Thanksgiving at the end of winter; it’s February and we’re still thankful.

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Whipped cream is melting into late morning coffee and sweet potatoes are peeled and ready to boil. We send one kid to throw out compost and send another kid to timeout for throwing a temper tantrum. I make a note to ask my friend about different therapists and pick her brain about various issues we’re both facing. Because sometimes we can’t control the messes inside the house, either.

I’ve ruined gravy the last four times I’ve made it — too thin, boiled too long, not enough cornstarch in the world to redeem it — and our friends arrive right at that crucial juncture of constant stirring and watching for the first bubbles. I pass the task to a child with explicit instructions to only let it boil for one minute and then turn off the heat, and then run to greet friends at the door. I get halfway there and realize that child is right behind me — I stop, turn both of us around, and remind him of his task. For the love of gravy, watch this, stir it, and don’t let it boil for more than a minute. I’ll be right back andyouneedtostayhere. Double-back again to run to the door, hug, welcome, make a pile of jackets in the corner, laugh, go back to the kitchen.

And that kid has pawned off the gravy (sans instructions) to Vince, who is stirring away at what has obviously been boiling hard for a little less than three minutes and is destined to remain the consistency of half-and-half. So help me.

The house is full and a dozen kids will crowd around our table, but before we even got that far our friends asked me about the book I saved for them — that little book that is supposed to be about adoption and boundaries but is actually mostly about grace and shelter; the little book that was birthed here and grew through its childhood and adolescence and is now a big kid, not quite grown up yet but still launching off into the world of Amazon and reviews and grown-up real-bookishness (but yes, still a free PDF download here for you readers).

And these friends whom we’ve shared messes with, who have been in the trenches far longer than we have, who showed us grace when we didn’t even know we needed it — these friends, we saved the first copy for them. And if I had been thinking correctly during the formatting stage (but wasn’t, because, oh, the morning sickness), there would have been a dedication page, and it would have said what I scribbled to them on the inside cover:

To Cody and Sara: You have long been our heroes.

And I would have added: And to Larry and Sharon, who were wise and crazy enough to introduce such humble troublemakers to us.

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And now it is days later. The wind has subsided and the leftovers are pretty much gone. We have a new box of books that are shipping out all over the country in the next week. The ground outside is still a mess, and there are still messes inside, too, and I’m not just talking about the dishes…but it makes all the difference to know we are not alone. These kids, those issues, that grief, the big decision. The house shakes and the ground is blown bare, and we can still throw the door wide open. In all those storms, you are not alone. We shelter each other with grace.