Children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one's youth. Blessed are they whose quivers are full. They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate. ~Psalm 127:3-5

Monday, December 31, 2012

Hope and Family in the New Year

I really can't believe the end of the year is upon us.  It is New Year's eve and I have been wondering where exactly this year has gone.  It feels like we were just ringing in 2012 but here we are, ready to usher it back out and welcome in 2013.

Some blessings from this year are:

The birth of our son, Jeremiah
The birth of our nephew, James
Angelina turning 8
Buying a minivan to accommodate our growing family
Helping my aunt say goodbye to the farm in Reading
Renovating an area of our house
A much-needed and free! weekend get-away before the baby came

There have been many more blessings and challenges this past year.  There have been many times I've felt like we were barely hanging on, our entire world dangling and fragile on the frayed threads of life.  I try to look at every challenge as a blessing; keeping the faith that God will keep us from letting go, from falling, from those spindly lines releasing us.  And He always does....mostly at the last minute (something I'd really like to take up with Him when I get to heaven!). But He does it in His perfect timing and our faith is strengthened and so is our resolve.

Through all the challenges and blessings, a topic that has been ruminating in my mind and heart this entire year is Family.  Attempts to draw closer to ours have been haphazard at times but I feel like this year a bigger effort was made more than ever.  Sometimes the effort was reciprocated, sometimes not.  I am not sure why but we felt really called to try to do as much as possible on our end and many moments were spent in despair, prayer and thanksgiving for all our efforts, meager, fulfilled or otherwise. It took me this entire year to realize that we can't do more than that. We can't do more than make an effort and pray that God will bless it.  In my times of despair I have forgotten this.  And I have forgotten that sometimes, though family will always be family, it's okay to let go a little and accept that things are the way they are.  "It is what it is" has got to be one of the most irritating mantras ever, but at the same time, it is so fitting for this topic, and something I've prayerfully come to as an answer many times.

Just this past week, I was blessed with a beautiful gift which gave me much hope for the future: eyes open to a part of our family I never really saw before.  Something I wasn't really aware of, something that was shown to me so that I could understand and have more compassion for family members I am often perplexed by.  Joe's mom and two of her three siblings came to our home to celebrate Christmas.  From what I understood, the desire to celebrate as a family was lacking on their end because of various difficulties they've had over the last year, including a distancing of their other sibling from them. But Joe offered to host a gathering here so that we could all be together, despite the difficulties of the past year. We hoped it would work out.

One thing I hadn't expected was the ease of the evening, the relaxed atmosphere, and the genuine care shared by all.  Emotions for some over certain topics were quite raw, but the love that was expressed was boundless.  The gift of seeing these people in their broken states, grasping at a better connection and understanding, sharing laughter and some tears and frustration, was probably the best gift I could've gotten this season.  It helped me to realize that sometimes, I cannot expect things to always be perfect. Sometimes it is what it is.  Sometimes, things are just left to Hope.

I have to admit that I had some reservations about doing anything major this year, including going anywhere but especially hosting anything, because I have been high in anxiety and low in depression for the past 6 months.  But the importance of family trumped my anxiety and reservations and I was pleasantly surprised when our get together turned out the way it did.  Joe's aunt and uncle came with food abounding, saving me from having to run around and cook and bake and do a ton of things- a welcome gift through the gravity of my anxiety.  'No worries' was their motto and as they slipped into action so easily to help as much as possible in that area, I smoothed myself into the folds of a more relaxed and calm aura about me.  It was so nice to be told that they would bring whatever I needed when we told them how difficult things had been for me emotionally and we weren't sure we were up to having anything after all. (Wine was definitely a high priority!) They delivered as they promised, and showed their love in so many ways- from bringing tons of food to shepherding children, helping clean up and spending time just being here; not in a rush to leave, not aware of the hour. 

It really spoke to me, as I was observing the dynamics of this family, their relationships and worries which they spoke of, the emotion behind their brokenness, etc, that they could still come together as much as possible and do for each other, for me, for us, despite all they felt and faced.  It's a theme I try to practice in my own life but often fail; it's a theme that speaks of Family.  For this is what families do.  They pick each other up, they give unconditionally, if they fight, they 'fight til it's done,' they move on.  The fierceness of their giving of love is as deep and hungry as their wanting of it.  Sometimes things aren't perfect. For a long time, I wondered why I just didn't get it, why I felt at odds, why my husband felt neglected.  But seeing them this Christmas, sharing thoughts and feelings - just BEING - changed that for me.  It gave me an understanding I hadn't had before; something I grasped at often, almost there but not quite.  This Christmas, I finally got it.

I was told more than once how warm our home was, how beautiful, how full of love.  Yet I think much of the warmth and love that night was because of the company.  There was joy amidst the occasional sorrow; there was laughter among the tears.  Whatever we do to create a warm, loving atmosphere in our home was illuminated by all of that, by the willingness to try.  And try we did.  It was just so easy.  We were all so relaxed; no expectations, no demands.  Even the "chaos" of the kids seemed easily navigated, and as the hours passed and the night got very late, their boisterous motoring about just became part of the symphony of the ever-closer dynamic.

Joe and I both felt it, felt the connection and love, the relaxing atmosphere, the warmth and closeness. I am so grateful for this gift as it was the perfect ending to such a trying year.  We have often been in despair from living as far as we do from all of our family, from not having the types of relationships we want with everyone, from being left out of things, from not being able to do enough for others.  Yet there was always a desire to try, to obtain understanding, to forgive, to accept and to just LOVE.

I don't know if everyone felt what I felt the other night when they were here. I don't know if they could ever understand how much I have loved them and do love them, how completely grateful I am that they are in my life. Though things are not always perfect, though there are bumps we often hit, misunderstandings to be sorted out, though we all will face hardships within our separate lives, there is always time for Family, there is always room for Love and Hope.  

As we begin another year, Joe and I wish to continue on in this state of mind: to let things be as they are, to accept more and worry less, to always have time for family no matter what.  And as the Christmas season comes to a close and we approach the feast of the Epiphany, we will carry through with us the theme of the Advent and Christmas seasons both: Hope. It was given to us the first Christmas so long ago and it is given to us every year as we commemorate that first coming of Christ. We need to keep it alive not just for this season, but every day, the whole year through.

Aunt Tonia, Lina Belle (My M.I.L.), me and the kids

The ladies.   :-)

Happy New Year, everyone, and may your days be filled with Hope!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Eight Years and Counting

 Eight years.

A wise old couple who has 50 years or more under their belt wouldn’t say that is such a long time.  They might say our life together is young and we still have a long way to go, and much to face and much more (hopefully) to enjoy.

And in a sense, they’d be right.

Eight years isn’t really that long of a time when you’re just looking at the number.  But when you look at the content of our eight years together, it might as well be fifty.  Or a hundred.

In the past 8 years, we’ve been blessed with 7 children, including the 2 we lost and the 1 we had just before we got married.  My husband has changed jobs a few times and lost 2 in one year, resulting in us starting a business which we’ve been growing for the past 4.  We’ve gone through 4 or 5 vehicles, changing to accommodate our growing family or the need for something more reliable and safe.  We’ve moved once.  We have made many changes to our home, trying to make it a comfortable, safe haven for our children to be happy in.  

But for the most part, that’s all just the practical stuff; aspects of a life together that usually come by default.

The nitty gritty of the last eight years is this:

We have welcomed 5 children into our life to change us, challenge us and make us want to be better people.  These little beings have cracked us wide open, our hearts spilling out and growing larger with each moment of their lives, each crevice they fill in with their love.  These children have taught us the true meaning of love in so many different ways.  They’ve delivered the grace of God through their spirited personalities and they’ve taught us that prayer is the best defense against the challenges life presents us with.  We’ve put aside our selfish desires to allow the gift of these children to transform our life together to be what God wants it to be.

We have been through the gauntlet, facing undesirable, ugly and difficult aspects of life.  Not many people face the same sorts of things we have, though every marriage has trials, some far worse than what we’ve been through.  But just as we allowed the kids to weave their way into the deepest parts of our hearts, so too did we allow each other.  There was a while there, when I didn’t want to open my heart up to my husband.  I had been hurt a lot in the past, and in the first years of our marriage, he hurt me so much as well.  It was really difficult for me to trust him with the most vulnerable part of me.  But he was my husband, wasn’t he?  And God put us together for more reasons than to be parents to our oldest daughter.  It took a few years, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of prayer and a heart-wrenching detachment from my fears to give him 100% of my already-tattered heart, and trust that he wouldn’t abuse it more.

 But he did.
And I know I hurt his, too.  In the time that I was so consumed with protecting my own heart, I didn’t really think much about how I was handling his.  A common mistake made in a marriage, especially one that didn’t start out exactly perfect.  Without going into a ton of detail, suffice it to say that our relationship was not the poster model for Christ-centered marriages.  We tried.  Some days, more than others.  But there was just so much we hadn’t surrendered.  And I had to learn how to love Joe no matter what happened.

The world would look at our relationship and say that one or the other of us was crazy for sticking it out. Especially through all the horrendous phases we went through, all the craziness and chaos that we created for each other at times early on.  But those people would be wrong.  There’s a great measure of sacrifice you make when you become someone’s wife or husband.  When you allow your whole life to be turned inside out to allow them to make their home in your heart.  Sometimes this means that you will endure things you never would imagine, and wouldn’t have even thought of as a healthy person in a non-marital relationship.  It means opening up your heart, knowing that at times, it will get hurt, but trusting that if you can keep true to your vows, and really live them, you will be ok.  Because love is not just a feeling. It isn’t some cliché.  It isn’t necessarily a fairy tale.  It’s effort.  It’s action.  

It means enduring and sacrificing even for the sole reason of showing that person the unconditional love that no one else in their life ever has.

I look back on the last 8 years and I see so much growth and change.  At one point, it seemed like it was ‘you against me’ instead of ‘us against the world’ and the reality of that wasn’t really all the pretty.   I realize that things could definitely be better still, but we are where we are right now because we agreed to love each other no matter what.  In good times and in bad.  Often we didn’t know how to do that, to love.  We each had to learn what love looked like at each moment, in every scenario.  Over and over again.  And that no matter what, we were called to make that effort to the best of our ability.  Sometimes it was 50/50, others 90/10.  Sometimes it was 100/0. Sometimes it was 0/0 and God had to pull all the weight because neither of us really wanted to. 

But we learned.  And we loved. And we made it to 8 years.  I know it doesn’t sound like very many, and we have much more to learn, more ways to figure out how to love each other, more miles to walk to meet each other in a place that strengthens our relationship and makes it last longer still.  More compassion to find, more passion to exude, more prayers to offer.  But I am grateful for - and humbled by - the last 8 years, the experience we’ve tucked into our arsenal, the moments we’ve been beaten to the ground by life, only to find each other there in that dark place and pick each other back up, realizing that it really is us against the world.  

Happy Anniversary, honey!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Finding Hope at the End of a Difficult Year

It’s such a busy time of year.  The Advent season has begun and as usual, the hustle of this end-of-the- year celebration is upon us.  And as usual, I didn’t plan activities and events that would help us to acknowledge the spirit of the season and prepare to commemorate the coming of Jesus. We’ve hardly done anything at all.  In November of last year, I wrote this post, lamenting the fact that I always have a hard time getting ready to “get ready,” and how difficult it always is for me.  Yet, somehow, this year, it’s been more of a slow start than ever.  It's been a difficult year and I guess the spirit of the season has been lost somewhere in the midst of our trials.

Usually by now our house would be decorated, I would’ve made a couple dozen cookies, some shopping would be done, plans to get together with family would be completely finalized, and the anticipation of celebrating the birth of Christ would hang in the air.  Christmas-themed books would be wrapped and in a pile under the tree for one child to choose from each night to unwrap and have read during family prayer time before bed.  Our Advent calendar would be up, an Advent wreath displayed and crafty activities a regular part of our homeschooling days.  But this year, it’s been slow-going.  We got our tree over a week later than we normally do.  I haven’t baked any cookies.  I haven’t wrapped the books.  Family plans are still not finalized on either side.  I didn’t even put up our calendar until yesterday.  I did hang lights in the house for the kids yesterday afternoon, but we aren’t going to hang lights on the outside this year.  No wreath has been lit. Only a few crafty things have been done, such as decorating a gingerbread house.

I always feel like I don’t do enough and this year has been no different.  Especially because our efforts have been meek and our attitudes not as joyful.  I have been trying really hard to do things, no matter how difficult it is for me to pull myself out of the funk I’ve found myself in over the past few months.  I want our children to have good memories of their childhood, to learn about Jesus and faith and the real meaning of the Advent season through our efforts to celebrate these things appropriately.  I don’t want to be one of those women who run themselves ragged trying to do it all.  But I would like to somehow do more.

I want to enjoy the season, though. I don’t want to be rushed to get things done and be so caught up in the frenzy of event and activity planning, gift-giving, cookie baking, that I forget to cherish the moments with my family.  We don’t ever put a huge emphasis on the gifts.  I think it’s a tragedy when people do that.  The focus shouldn’t be the craziness of the season, and I have been guilty of that in the past myself.  Last year, I wrote this post, in which I shared my thoughts about the season and how difficult it was for me to remember the importance of it, which isn’t shopping or baking or gifts.

This year has been a difficult one.  Our business has been a lot slower than last year.  We’ve faced extra bills we didn’t plan on.  There have been some health problems.  I have had some really dark days within myself which were completely unexplainable.  Our relationship has had some ups and downs.   But we’ve also had some good happenings to point out.  We had our fifth child, Jeremiah, in September.  We welcomed a new nephew into the family in November.  We found out we’ll be welcoming yet another niece or nephew sometime next year.  We were able to renovate an area in our house to make extra space for our ever-growing family.   As I take inventory of all the struggles we’ve had, and all the blessings that have come through those struggles or in spite of them, I am reminded of one of the main themes of the Advent season: Hope.

A ladybug visits Angelina at the tree farm - a blessing
Last week, when we went to get our Christmas tree, it was an unseasonable 65 degrees or so.  We didn’t even need light jackets.  Our kids traipsed up and down the hills, through the clusters of Frasier Firs and Colorado Spruces, searching out the perfect tree.  We hid in the trees, played games, ran from imaginary bears, took pictures.  Off in the distance we could hear the faint blast of shot guns, as this is hunting season.  We marched to one side of the tree farm, then to the other.  Finally, at the front of the farm, close to the road, we spotted our tree.  A beautiful Douglas fir alone on the top of the hill.  In my typical indecisiveness, I walked through the rows on the hill below “just to be sure,” and then we realized that that cute little Fir on top of the hill was it.  The one.

We stood in front of it to take a picture as is our tradition.  Then Aidan and his daddy got to work cutting it down.  For the past two years, Aidan (now 6.5) has helped his daddy with this.  It’s something he gets very excited about and those few moments of bonding over that tree is something I know he’ll cherish for the rest of his life, and hopefully will only be one of many amazing childhood memories he will make with his dad; memories he can look back on, find comfort in, feel joy from.
The day we went to get our tree, Joe made a spur-of-the-moment decision to also take us down to Gettysburg and let the kids run around the battlefields because our backyard is so small and it would be time spent together, away from our home – a place which has been the center of more and more stress these days.  We didn’t end up at the battlefields but instead, the 52 acre recreation park near the heart of Gettysburg.  During our time there, I had a sense of urgency to enjoy our time together.  To really allow the slow start to the season sink in.  To find joy in the small stuff.  To be thankful for the struggles we’ve faced throughout the year which caused such a slow beginning.

A homemade Faith ornament adorns our tree
We let the kids play at one of the 3 playgrounds for a little bit and then we took a walk around the path that meanders through the entire park.  The kids made a game out of stopping at each one of the fitness stations along the trail to take a shot at the challenges there.  We stopped at the amphitheater and danced on the stage like lunatics.  We stood on the bridge and threw twigs in the stream, anxiously awaiting their slow float to the other side.   At times, as the three older kids ran ahead of us on the path, squealing and laughing and pushing the smaller two in the stroller, Joe and I found ourselves several paces behind, semi-alone, fingers entwined, taking in their joy, the warm air, the stillness of the moments.  Squirrels danced through the trees along the path, crunching leaves and kicking up twigs, making the children pause long enough to look and wonder at the sounds. Allowing us time to breathe in their innocence and curiosity. Allowing us the luxury to forget our trials of the past year for a time.

Our list of blessings, including homeschool, the birth of Jeremiah, and Mass

As I fight to climb outside of myself and enjoy the season as well as its slow start, I am reminded that in each struggle there is a blessing, if we only look hard enough.  That is where Hope is born.  That is what keeps our Faith alive: the good that comes through- or in spite of- the bad.