What A Wonderful World

The worship service took place in the shade, facing the lazy river and the multi-colored rock cliff behind it. The light breeze made the Texas evening heat bearable. So did the beautiful surroundings, both geographical and human.

We sat on the third of four rows. People we are very fond of but see only once a year filled the other seats. A group of them had just stood before us and delivered an energetic and moving reading of a portion of Genesis. They ranged from young children to the middle-aged to those long retired. We mix seamlessly here. It’s always magical.

To conclude the time together, the worship leader played a song to emphasize her message. As soon as the song began, the teens behind us began stirring.

“That’s from Shrek!” one said excitedly.

“No, it’s from Toy Story.”

“Madagascar.”

“No, I’m telling you – it’s Shrek.”

“Remember? It was playing while they floated in the boxes in the ocean.”

Their voices tumbled over each other, everyone talking at once but still hearing each other too. Jane and I looked at each other and smiled as the song continued on.

My husband turned his head to the side and stage whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “It’s from Louie Armstrong!” The kids all laughed and then settled down to listen. I closed my eyes to take it all in.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The teens behind me were giggling. Just ever so softly. Not irreverently or disrespectfully, but they were obviously enjoying something. I opened my eyes to see what they were seeing. I didn’t see it right away but when the view collided with the words of the song, it didn’t matter. The images around me were so much better than those in my head.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you

And that’s when I saw him. One of the youngest members of the conference – a boy not quite school aged. A boy we had watched grow a little bigger over the last several years. He was running in giant, lazy, looping circles in the grassy space between us and the river. As he looped closer to the front row where his parents sat, he’d lift his arms out to his sides and dip toward them like a plane banking on a turn.

And then he’d be off again. Not in a hurry, not making a scene, just moving to the music. And it was beautiful.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

As the last notes faded away and the boy fell into his dad’s open arms, my husband summed up what had just happened.

“That was the most beautiful liturgical dance I’ve ever seen.”

And so it was.

The readers had practiced their lines several times and they did an outstanding job. But it was the carefree expression of the music delivered by a child that carried the day. Truly, you just need to leave room for the wonderful to happen and it will. The question is, will your eyes be open to see it?

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What Happens While He Is Away

Things happen while spouses are away. I think this is a variation of Murphy’s Law. It’s true. You can handle almost anything while two of you are at the helm; but as soon as one of you jumps ship, the other is treading water.

Last year, we went through a series of weekends where my husband was gone and a different kid got injured each time. These weren’t minor injuries – they were “should I go ahead and take her to the emergency room?” kinds of injuries. By the third weekend he was gone, I was worried sick about the yet-to-be-injured child. He fortunately escaped the weekend unscathed.

When I joined a Boy Scouts Venture Crew on their 2 week hike at Philmont Scout Ranch back in 2005 when Jane and Daryl were almost 5 and almost 2, I called my husband from base camp before we hit the trail. He was flustered and sounded almost angry at me. Why? Because Jane had rolled out of bed in the middle of the night, cutting her back on the corner of the nightstand, resulting in a deep cut whose scar is still visible today.

Last weekend (9 days ago – not yesterday), my husband left with some colleagues to attend a conference several states away. Since he’s the stay-at-home parent who takes and picks up our children to and from school, this was a significant burden to me. I lined up a friend to pick them up from school some days but it still didn’t seem likely that I would escape the week without spending some vacation hours.

We played games at some friends’ house the night before he left and were out late. When we got home close to 11:00 pm, I noticed water on the floor around the toilet in the kids’ bathroom. We thought maybe it came from Jane’s shower and dried it up. Then I used the bathroom, flushed, and… surprise! Water on the floor.

We dried it up and, out of curiosity, my husband flushed our toilet on the other side of the wall. Surprise! Water on the floor, oozing out from under the wall.

“Do you want to deal with this on your own tomorrow or do you want to investigate now?” He asked.

Some crowbar pulls later, he had torn the bottom edge of the paneling behind the toilet loose to reveal rotted drywall and green pipes. We repeated the flushing experiments and watched the water ooze out. Actually, with the wall gone, we could now see that the water was gushing out… and running down the wall behind the vanity. The ooze we could see previously was just the overflow. The drain was backing up each time we flushed. Obviously, we had waited too long to get our septic tanks pumped and the heavy rain that day had done us in.

We laid our tools across the toilet lid to signal to the children not to use the toilet and I headed to bed shortly after midnight. There’s a third toilet at the other end, on a separate tank, so all is good… right?

His alarm went off at 5 am Sunday morning and he quickly moved to the other end of the house to keep from disturbing me. At one point he came back and whispered in my ear, “Sweetheart? The other toilet won’t flush either. Do you want to stay at the Hampton?”

Hmm. Stay in a hotel room with three kids. Go to bed when they do unless I get a suite. Return home at least twice a day to take care of the dog. Or board the dog too? This conference is getting expensive, indeed.

I returned to sleep for a brief time where I had a vividly stressful dream that involved showing up to church and being responsible for everything from breakfast to bell ringing to reading the liturgy. And nothing was going well.  It was foreshadowing for my week.

I struggled out of bed a short time later and rustled the children, who had fortunately all showered the afternoon before. I told Jane to use the far toilet and not flush. I told the boys to pee outside. I took on the uncomfortable task of waiting until we got to church to relieve myself.

We hurried out the door and as I locked it, I heard commotion over at the truck. Apparently, the boys had been playing in the truck the day before and Hal had left the back window wide open. Right before the major thunderstorm. The seats were soaked.

I was fairly sure I was going to break under the pressure. We arrived at church and Jane setup for breakfast while I prepared my Sunday School lesson and took care of my other responsibilities. The bell choir director asked me to play a chime part in the choral response. One of the other bell ringers asked me to play her part in the final hymn. Was it my nightmare coming to life?

Actually, no. The morning ended up being everything you wish that worship would be for you every single Sunday. I had to slip into the choir loft while they sang the anthem so I’d be there for the choral response. I sat on a step out-of-sight and leaned against their pews and listened to them sing The Old Rugged Cross. I sank down into a deep happy, peaceful place.

I entered the church building that morning feeling broken and defeated and dreading the week. I left with all the same problems but feeling capable of taking them on. It wasn’t easy, but I knew I could do it.

Which turned out to be a good thing, because…

I tried to do a load of laundry Sunday afternoon and learned that it, too, feeds into a septic tank. I had fun quickly pulling everything off the shelves next to the washing machine so I could try to soak up all the water rushing down the wall with only 10 and 5 year old boys as my assistants.

On Monday, I called the septic clean-out company the organist had recommended and was lucky to get a same-day appointment. Better yet, I could pay over the phone and didn’t have to be present.

Then I got a call that afternoon. The man was out at my house and had a problem. There are three tanks. One at one end and two chained together at the other end. He couldn’t find the one at one end (servicing a toilet and the washing machine). He could only reach the second one on the other end (the other two toilets and the showers) because the lid on the first one was collapsed and filled with mud. He didn’t think there would be a point to draining the second one if he couldn’t reach the first one. We’d need someone with a backhoe to clean it out and then repair it.  And I’d need to find the cleanout for the other one if I wanted the man to pump it for me.

Since we had to go to Middle School Open House and Destination Imagination practice and run to Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, it was dark by the time we got home. I had cleared the waiting-to-go-to-the-dump debris stacked where I suspected the cleanout to be in the short time I was home between work and the evening activities, but then had to shovel by flashlight after the boys went to bed in order to find the cleanout, which had gotten buried by the foundation repair people a year or so ago (I’m guessing). Jane just loved helping me out by holding the flashlight. While texting. The septic guy was booked on Tuesday so it’d be Wednesday. Another evening of the boys peeing outside and the girls not flushing.

Oh, and while at Lowe’s, I discovered that I had lost my Visa card. Somewhere. And while shoveling outside, I discovered at least one place where the mice have easy access into the house when I watched one run away from the flashlight and in through the dryer vent. Jane liked witnessing that too.

The next day, I verified with the septic guy that he needed not just the cleanout clear but the space above the actual septic tank as well.  The tank whose exact location was unknown.  That evening was filled with volleyball practice and the elementary school open house so again, that work had to wait until after dark.  But at least I discovered before dark that my credit card was lying near one of the septic tanks, having slipped out of my pocket the previous day.

Jane absolutely had to do a load of laundry so I pulled the hose out of the drain and stuck it out the window, attached to a garden hose so the water wouldn’t drain too close to the house.  Then I moved all that debris a second time to make sure it wasn’t over where the septic tank was likely to be.  I just knew, looking around, that the tank was under the riding lawn mower.  The mower with two flat tires.  Between Jane, me, and the truck and tow-straps, we got it moved.  And I learned the next day that that was, indeed, exactly where the tank was.

That night also involved a difficult conversation with Jane about choices she was making concerning her friends and how she was treating them.  The next day, we had a working septic system again – yay! – but her attempt to reconcile with her friend had gone poorly.  So more heart-to-heart.  The teenage drama continued the next night when volleyball practice did not go well and her stressful worrying about the estranged friend continued.

I must say, though, that even though I was on a raw emotional edge by Thursday evening, it was still easier to deal with my teen’s problems when I wasn’t also worrying about where people would poop.  I also decided, at my husband’s urging, to go ahead and require the dog to sleep in her crate instead of our bedroom so I could get a good night’s sleep (her snoring and sudden decisions to explore cause me problems).

And it worked.  I was getting a great night’s sleep Thursday night when I was awakened by someone pounding on the front door.  I knew that they must have been banging for awhile because it dragged me out of a very deep sleep.  I flew out of bed and grabbed my phone off the charger: 2:00 am.  I stumbled to my bedroom door and as I prepared to open it, the heater kicked off.  All the noise confusion stopped and I stood there, trying to figure out why I was up.  Whoever it was had stopped banging on the door.  But, wait.  Wouldn’t the dog be going nuts if someone was really at the door?  Yes, no one was at the door.  I suspect now that the knocking was the heater.  Something else to investigate.  And so much for a good night’s sleep.

The weekend brought a volleyball tournament a little over an hour from home and – lucky us! – we had to be there at 7:30 in the morning both Saturday and Sunday.  I love waking my children at 5:30 in the morning on weekends.  And because of the earlier-than-expected start on Sunday, we got to spend several hours at the church Saturday afternoon so Jane could get her National Junior Honor Society volunteer hours, no longer being able to fix breakfast for the church as planned.

Still, by Sunday afternoon, we were able to play a couple of games together and we had a nice home-cooked meal at the table, so I guess we finished strong.  But I was too beat by the time my husband got home around 11 pm to do anything more than raise my head from my pillow and say, “Glad you are home.  Good night.”

I really am glad he’s home.  And not just because I’m happy to return to team parenting.  I kinda like the guy.

The Best Christmas Ever

Our Christmas tree is still up and decorated. In fact, Hal just turned the lights back on today. The first week after Christmas was spent out-of-state, visiting family. The next, out-of-town to celebrate our anniversary. The most recent was full, first with a funeral and then with resuming school and work. I am telling you this so that you understand it is still Christmas at this house, and thus not inappropriate at all for me to finally get around to blogging about the best Christmas ever. I was too busy enjoying it to write about it at the time.

Christmas 2012 did not get off to a particularly auspicious start. The 11:00pm Christmas Eve service was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. We all attended in our pajamas, including my husband in his footed smiley-face PJ’s that I had just given him. That drew a few looks.

No, the service that heralded the arrival of Christmas Day was nice and the drive home was uneventful. I was worried about what such a late bedtime would do to the day, but not too much. The problems started when we got home. Hal did not want to use the bathroom before retiring to his bed and a tantrum ensued.

Once all the children were settled, I needed to wrap just two or three presents and stuff the stockings. That took well over an hour. I finally went to bed around 1:30 or 2:00 and wondered how late the children would let me sleep.

Not long, as it turned out. A serious thunderstorm moved in by about 2:30, waking Hal. I stumbled into his room to comfort him. I struggled for a long time before I got back to sleep. The wind picked up and a loud metallic thwacking sound woke me around 5:00. I asked my husband if that was the new roof coming undone.

“Probably.”

“Do we need to do anything about it?”

“Like what? I’m not going out there in this.”

He had a point. Besides, the old shingled roof was still under the metal of the new one. No way I was getting back to sleep, however. I lay there listening until the sound changed to something bounding down from the roof. And then silence.

“There,” my pragmatic husband said, “It blew off. Happy?”

Before I responded, the next strip of the crown began to rattle. Sleep was a distant memory by this point.

Things improved once I gave up on sleep, though. My husband had once again managed to slip something under my pillow undetected. He hates wrapping, so this has become our new tradition. I already knew I was getting a Kindle Paperwhite, but I still don’t know when he managed to slide it under there.

As I passed through the living room, I saw a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in my stocking that I had not put in there the night before. So he hadn’t forgotten about my stocking either – another nice surprise. I added the toppings to the breakfast strata started the night before and put it in the oven.

Then it was stockings and presents time. Hal passed out the stockings, such a good Santa’s helper. All of them distributed gifts. Just like last year, though, there were no names. Last year were numbers and they’d have to ask me which number was whom. This year, they were letters. Perhaps this will become a new Christmas puzzle. As they heard who was each letter, I asked them what the formula was. I gave them a hint that I couldn’t put the appropriate leter on Daddy’s gifts because it was a duplicate of someone else’s. Daddy figured it out (2nd letter of their middle names). No one else did.

Jane unwrapped four nested boxes, each wrapped individually, before uncovering her mp3 player. Daryl received a used Nintendo DS, given to us by a friend to give to the kids. He immediately declared this the best Christmas ever.

And so it was, but not because of the gifts. When we were done unwrapping, we ate the strata. And then… then we just were. Most Christmases would have seen the hustle and bustle of preparing for a long trip. We would have been packing suitcases and piling into the car to travel the four hours or so to relatives in Oklahoma.

But Oklahoma was forecast to get hit by a blizzard. We had decided the day before that we would delay our trip by 24 hours. We had no idea how life-changing that decision would be.

After breakfast, we just enjoyed ourselves. We set Pandora to play Christmas music. People tried out their new electronics. We played some games and worked some puzzles and read and ate and relaxed. And shouted in excitement when we looked out the window and saw snow! Snow, on Christmas Day, in Texas. No one even changed out of their pajamas, except to go play in the snow.

I looked up at my family at one point and wondered, Is this what Christmas is like for other people? Christmas has never been a relaxing time for me, not even in childhood.

As a child, I remember opening presents at home and then almost immediately leaving the house to go… somewhere. Christmas Day usually included 2 or 3 extended family gatherings. The usual routine was to head over to my maternal grandparents’ house for lunch and Christmas with my mom’s family. At some point, sometimes before lunch and sometimes after, mom would drive us to my paternal grandmother’s house and we’d have Christmas with my dad’s family. Mom would then pick us up and we’d have dinner and Christmas at my step-dad’s parents’ house with his family.

It got even more complicated when I married. My husband brought with him Christmas obligations to his dad’s family, his mom’s family, and his step-dad’s family. Some families adjusted to celebrating Christmas on a day other than the 25th, but we usually still had at least two places to be that day, often more.

Shortly before we had our first child, we decided that we wanted to be able to attend our own church’s Christmas Eve service. That meant attending worship and then hitting the road, arriving at my mom’s house around 2:00 Christmas morning.

When the kids arrived, my husband began to agitate for change. He wanted to celebrate Christmas at our house. I wanted to avoid hurting people’s feelings. The compromise that stood for years was the Christmas Day travel. This allowed us to worship at our home church, open presents at our house, and still make it to Christmas obligations back home. I had been trained to believe that the right thing to do was to cram everyone in, jumping from one place to another, making sure we made an appearance everywhere.

This time, though, we actually found ourselves with no family meeting on Christmas Day. We still planned to travel that day, so suggested to my dad that we celebrate that night. And then we got word of the weather. There was no problem changing plans with dad. No reason we had to travel that day. No place to be until 6pm the day after. Why not stay home? It was such a novel idea for us.

The experience was ground breaking for me. Earth shattering. Tears-down-the-face significant. I sat at the table, watching my family just exist, with no place to go, no obligations to meet, no phone calls or appointments or errands, and I cried. My husband looked at me and smiled.

“Do you need a hug?” he asked. I nodded and he rose from the table.

“I’ve never had this before,” I said into his chest as he hugged me tight. “Not ever, not once in thirty-eight years. I’ve never just stayed home and relaxed on Christmas Day. This is amazing.”

We didn’t have to speak the words then or now, but we know what we are doing next year. The 26th is soon enough to travel for family. The peace of Christmas will descend on our household again. It is the only day that we can truly just be still and be together. I never understood how special that kind of time is. But now that I’ve experienced it, I am not giving it up.