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Changing Gears

4782CC7D-1188-403E-BF36-8534E7567692.jpgGrowing up, I graduated from training wheels and took myself to swimming lessons on my light blue and white banana-seat bike. I cruised around Eastwood Park on my banana like a boss.

Then one summer when I was 12 or so, it was time to trade in my banana for my very first mountain bike: a hot pink Schwinn with 11 gears and hand brakes.

As I began my maiden ride, I knew I was supposed to keep pedaling as I changed the gears, but the chain would grind and click and make unfamiliar noises as the pedals shifted beneath my feet. Not only that, there were wayyyy too many things I was supposed to be doing with my hands. Left hand, front break. Right hand, rear. How am I supposed to be able to remember which is which, let alone brake and change gears and not constantly be staring down at the handle bars?

It was as if I traded in my confidence along with my banana back at the bike shop and it all felt….clunky.

I wanted my banana back. I wanted to ride again with no hands and I knew just how fast I had to be going on that bike in order to stand on the cross bar. So far, I had nothing less than a death grip on this new bike and I was desperate for comfort…or at least a little less clunkiness.

This past week, I started a new job, which also meant new commute, new people, new culture, new ideas, new clunks.

On Monday, I walked in circles outside the Madison Street Union Station Entrance three times completely confused about where I was supposed to buy a ticket later that day in the midst of the evening rush to get home. I eventually gave up and headed down the street, double and triple checking I was going the right direction, not wanting to be late on my first day.

By Tuesday, I’d figured out that, as with most things in life, there is an app for that, and I had access to all the Metra tickets my little heart desired right there on my phone. #progress.

I was finding my stride by mid-week. Wednesday, I had my new laptop, a badge that gave me access to everywhere I needed to go and enough confidence in the office dress code to wear a new jumpsuit with a blazer. Compliments do an amazing number on confidence, so I was feeling pretty good after the third or fourth one before 10am.

As I was headed to a meeting, I decided to make a quick stop at the bathroom along the way. I hung my blazer on the back of the stall door, wiggled my way out of my outfit and sat down. Jumpsuits make all bathroom activity a little more complicated.

When I stood up to wiggle my way back into my outfit and get on with my day, I was horrified to look down and see the back of my jumpsuit dangling in the toilet water. Yep, you read that right, my friend. Humility also does an amazing number on confidence.

A rookie at both this new job and jumpsuits, I had to think quick. I’ll spare you some of the details here, but safe to say those paper toilet seat covers have great absorbency and can do more than just protect your hiney from toilet seat germs. And yes, you better believe I washed my hands twice before heading to my meeting, now with a little less swagger in my step.

By Thursday, I had a whole week of comical clunkiness under my belt. I tried to swipe my badge in the wrong place, had gotten turned around on Dearborn Avenue, and second-guessed myself every time I boarded the train home, sure I was wrong the line.

It all felt very new and yet in some ways, not new at all. I’ve come to expect the clunks now. Because while I might not be able to anticipate the form they’ll take specifically, I can usually count on them make me laugh, drive me crazy, gross me out and cause me to doubt myself – somehow in the end, they leaving me knowing myself and all that I’m capable of, just a little bit more.

It took some time, but I came to love my new bike. I eventually learned when and how to use the higher and lower gears to my advantage. Just when I was sure the chain was going to fall off and the wheels were going to be next, everything would click into place if I just kept pedaling along.

In the clunkiness, I learned the ins and outs of that hot pink bike, and before I knew it, I was riding again with no hands.

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Of Pavement and Paper

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I woke up this morning fuming at my neighbors downstairs for some kind of stupid machine I presumed they were running with a motor that was revving and then fading loud enough to wake me up. Turns out, when I turned off the fan app on my phone, the noise went away. I knew I was hearing things besides the hum of the fan when I turned that damn thing on.

I’ve been awake for nearly two hours and the clock has just struck 4:57. Enough light is breaking through for me to make my way through the house to get my laptop without stepping on a misplaced toy.

I really should go for a run this morning. When my mind is going fast, the thought of going for a run makes me feel tired. I’d rather take a yoga class. But summer mornings don’t last long, so I’ll convince myself to hit the trail for just a mile or so, and then once I’m there, I’ll look around at the dew on the grass and the sun fighting its way through the trees and all the lovely little things that make summer mornings sacred, and then I will decide that I’ve got two or maybe three in me today.

My hips hurt. The left one more than the right, a dull ache in both today. They remind me I’m not as young as I once was, and that I have a lot on my mind. I hold things in my hips. Fear, anxiety, excitement. They also remind me to be kind to my body, and grateful for the way it allows me to exist in this world. Grateful for the way it holds me.

I hear my daughter tossing and turning. Don’t wake up now, little one. I’m not ready to find Band Aids for the boo boos and toast your bagel for breakfast quite yet. I have words that have been bouncing around in my head, ideas – as Elizabeth Gilbert says – that are looking for a human counterpart, and momma just needs a minute to let them all out.

I was in the line at the grocery store yesterday watching my little seven year old explain to the cashier that she’d found Midnight, the store’s mascot cow, which in turn earns her a sticker, and a sucker on lucky days. Finding Midnight is her only “job,” when we go to the store. Meanwhile, I’m there with the menu in mind (on a good week) while also considering the next week’s schedule, the budget, and if the veggies in the cart will be tolerated by the tiny human. She’ll never turn down a carrot, but she draws the line at brussel sprouts.

And yet, in the midst of the regular, keep all the things running for one more day routine, there is a writer in me and a runner in me that both keep fighting for a place in this world.

Truth be told, I’m not really sure I’d call myself a runner. In my head runners run, well, races. Most of the time, my 10-some-days-11-minute per mile pace feels more embarrassing than inspirational, and it’s just easier to keep it all to myself – or stay in bed – or both.

But something happens on the trail that keeps drawing me back. My thoughts clear a bit there. Perspective really is a marvelous thing, and the trail kicks my hiney most of the time. Usually just after the first mile where I feel like I can run like the wind and wonder why I don’t sign up for all the marathons, I hit the infamous wall, and remember exactly why a good 5k rhythm works nicely for me.

Me, a runner? Barely. Me, a writer. No flipping way.

Writers write, well, books. But yet the words keep coming and they bang on the walls of my brain like hostages desperate for fresh air and sunshine. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I can choose to not call myself a runner or not call myself a writer for as long as I want, but just like the trail, these little guys will have their way and I am better for it.

So today, or any day, I don’t have to decide if I’m a runner or a writer. I can still go ahead and put my feet to pavement and words to paper.

SEVEN

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It’s early. The dark has just given way to the first light of day. It’s peaceful and quiet and the hum of the noise machine in Adellyn’s room fills the whole house.

It’s her seventh birthday today.

The balloons are hanging by streamers on her door, presents are on the turquoise table ready to be opened, and waffles with melted chocolate chips are on the menu for breakfast.

Over the weekend, she wanted to know when she could get a phone, and last night she was asking how old she had to be to drive a car.

While she’s grappling with the idea that she has quite a few years to wait for both, I still can’t believe the baby I swear I was just rocking to sleep is growing up into a her own little dream-filled, wonder-filled, complete with her own quirks, tiny human.

Seven years ago, this very moment, 4:56am, I was holding a two-hour old little girl named Adellyn Grace. “You don’t have to bounce her while she’s eating,” the midwife told me. “She’ll get an upset stomach.”

“Oh,” I said, realizing I hadn’t a single clue about what this gig called motherhood was going to take.

I remember how the exhaustion took over when she was three days old, and for a brief moment, I wanted to give her back.

How she peed in the aisle at Home Depot when she was learning to use the potty the week before she turned two, and how she threw up in the grocery store on Mother’s Day when she was five.

She loved bananas and avocado when she was six months old, to be replaced with macaroni and cheese with tomato soup by the time she turned six.

I still smell brand new baby girl on her in the morning sometimes.

When she was really little, I remember folding her tiny jammies and wondering if the laundry would ever be done and if the bottles would ever be washed and if the nights would ever again mean more than four hours of sleep.

While I’ve been teaching her how to brush her teeth and tie her shoes, and answering questions like when can we get a dog and where do babies come from for the past seven years, she’s been teaching me about the width and depths of love.

So today, with the car and the cell phone still on her list, as six becomes seven and our adventure continues, she’ll get what every good adventurer needs: a new pair of adventure shoes and a new dress with a matching outfit for her doll.

Happy Birthday, little peanut. I couldn’t love you more.

Picture credit: The incredibly talented @Carly.Smaha

The Lengths that Love Goes

One hazy afternoon in March, four of us Americans, along with two translators, visited the home of a beautiful women from Syria who has been living as a refugee in East Amman for the past four years.

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The view from a sidewalk in East Amman.

As she opened the door, her face beamed with love. Her smile communicated welcome. Her eyes revealed pain, but equally so, determination and resolve. She wore a black floor-length dress with sleeves down to her wrists. Black beads and sequins were embroidered into an intricate pattern down the front of her dress. Her entire outfit was accented by her light pink, grey and black chenille hijab. She welcomed us into her very humble living room with a hug and a kiss on each cheek for the women, and a gentle nod with her hand over her heart for the guy on our team.

We hadn’t exchanged any words, but already I admired her.

We sat in the two small couches and two small chairs placed one right next to the other around the perimeter of the room. One small table sat in the middle of the room. The walls were light cream and two small square paintings in Arabic hung on one wall. The floors were covered with tan heavy-duty carpet. I wondered how this house compared to her home in Syria, what her floors were like there, and if she felt at home here.

She never spoke about a husband as she shared with us how she’s living in Jordan now with her daughter and son, how she was also raising her two nephews, whom she referred to as her sons, back at home in Syria. One day, one of the boys went out to the store and didn’t return, so his brother went look for him. Neither of them came home.

Syria is currently the primary battleground of very confusing war that started in 2012. The aftermath is resulting in buildings, homes and entire cities destroyed into piles of rubble, forcing the separation of families and communities as people are fleeing for their lives. In the midst of this, when boys are captured, they have two options: fight or go to jail. Her sons were both imprisoned.

Soon after, militants took her two year-old daughter, one afternoon.

Listening to her describe that day brought a pit to my stomach and a lump in the back of my throat. I didn’t understand any of the words she was saying as she recalled it all in Arabic, but I could see the terror replaying in her mind as I looked in her eyes before any of her words were translated into English.

We may not share the same language, but we didn’t have to. There are some aspects of motherhood that don’t require words.

Something happens to your mama heart when someone takes from you the very life you brought into this world, and for this beautiful, incredibly compassionate woman, that was the final straw.

Three hours later, her daughter was returned. She has no idea what happened to her during that time. Gripping her then toddler in her arms, she gathered what she could, took both of her children and fled the only home she had ever known for safety in Jordan.

On the afternoon we were with her, some four years after that fateful day, she told us about her current life in Amman, where her children go to a not-so-great school because the only house she can afford is in a not-so-great part of town. Her daughter wanted us to know that the men in the neighborhood are scary when they get drunk. Her young teenage son came out briefly to say hello and shake our hands. He had stayed home sick that day, but he answered a couple of our questions with a smile on his face, all while resting his hand on his mom’s shoulder. His face lit up like a sunny day when the guy in our group tossed him a small bouncy ball to keep.

She had recently learned that one of her sons had been released and fled to the closest safety he could find in Turkey – a place nearly impossible for a person living as a refugee in Jordan to get. Her other son is still in an unknown prison. She doesn’t know if…or when…she’ll ever see them again.

“I don’t have friends or family here,” she said. “Just my children. When I go out, I walk along the wall and hope no one notices me,” she explained, using a saying in Arabic we understood as someone trying to be a wallflower.

“You’re welcome here,” she said to us, extending her arms out wide. “My living room is always your living room. I’m happy today having you in my home.”

I bit my bottom lip.

As we listened, I felt like I had to keep pushing down parts of her story in my heart to make room for more. I couldn’t imagine the moments when she first realized her nephews weren’t coming home, how the three hours without her daughter must have felt like lifetimes, what she felt as she gathered only the most important items to leave her home, not knowing if, or when, she would ever return and how she currently manages to make it through one tough day after another in a country that doesn’t feel like home.

I want to remember how welcomed I was into her home. I want to remember how gracious she was in insisting we have a cup of coffee. I want to remember how vulnerable she was in sharing some of the most painful parts of her story with us, strangers to her. I want to remember how kind she was to her children. I want to remember how brave she is, how patient she is, how vibrant she is.

She holds on to hope that she and all of her children will return home one day. And yet in the midst of so many circumstances outside of her control, through slow conversation made possible by translation, she offered us everything she had.

As we left her house that afternoon, a group of young boys wanted to practice their English. “Hello,” they called down the narrow sidewalk, giggling and proud of themselves.

I turned around and pulled out the three remaining bouncy balls I had in my pocket.

“Hello,” I replied, bouncing the balls to them as fast as they could scramble to catch them.

 

 

 

 

 

Help People

It was a Monday afternoon. My phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number. I glanced at it long enough to realize that it was sent to me in error, so I closed the message and went about my day, racing home from yoga for a quick shower, before getting A from school and beginning the Monday afternoon marathon: homework, snack, ice skating, dinner, bath, book, bed.

Later that night, marathon complete and another week underway, I was lying in bed preparing both my mind and my phone for the next day. One last scroll through Instagram and Facebook, one last look at email, one last glance through my texts.

I stumbled back across the message from an unknown number:

“This kiki Ms Michelle this my other number my other fone don’t get service in here but this one does we are at salvation army but Wednesday morning is the last day for white flag cause over Nite side is pack Wat do we do now. I’m try to see if we can go back to the mission for the 14 days plan they have I’m patiently waiting and praying”

A few months ago, Adellyn and I were at a stoplight where a homeless man was holding a cardboard sign asking for food and money. “Mom, why is that man holding that sign? Can we give him some money?” A asked from the back seat. I found myself stumbling over my words, trying to explain why he was there and why, that day, we couldn’t give him money.

She’s brought up that conversation multiple times since then, to the point that when she was writing her 2017 list, she added help people so we would remember to do something to help the people we sometimes see at the stoplights.

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I stared at the text, an actual text from a woman, likely a mom, who goes by the name Kiki, desperate for a place to sleep.

I put my phone on my nightstand, turned out the light and stared into the darkness for a long time that night. Part of me wanted to delete the text. It wasn’t meant for me anyway, I wanted to convince myself. I could hit delete, pretend it never happened. I must admit, I was all ready to make up little gift bags with hand warmers, bottled water and granola bars to keep in the car for A to hand out to people at stoplights who needed them. At the time, it sounded like a good idea.

But if someone has a need and I can help, isn’t that the core what loving people is actually about?

The next day, I replied.

Hi Kiki. My name is Kelli and I think you accidentally texted me in error yesterday. I was so saddened to get your text and wondered if you’d be willing to share any more of your situation? Do you have children? Do they have winter coats? What are your most pressing needs?

And with that text, a friendship was born. Kiki’s real name is Takeisha. She has a beautiful 8 year-old daughter and a gorgeous 2 year-old son. She’s endured a life that has been one continuous uphill climb. She is a warrior. The latest challenges have left her on the street since November and out of nights to stay at shelters.

I asked a few more questions. And what happened next was exactly what Frederick Buechner was referring to when he said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

Takeisha had recently applied for a program with Passage Home, an organization working to end homelessness. Her acceptance into the program would mean financial counseling and assistance, help with child-care and job leads as well as housing assistance. That same week, the organization had received a phone call from her pastor, Ms Michelle, who Takeisha was trying to text when she accidentally typed in my number. By the time they heard from me, asking what could be done to help, they had already put a rush on her application.

In the meantime, the intake specialists and her case manager were able to find her a safe, warm hotel that provided breakfast. I made a few phone calls and told a few friends. These women were like ninjas and we pulled together enough money to pay for her hotel, ensuring she would have a place to sleep for two and a half weeks while the paperwork, appointments, inspections and funding was processed. Instead of spending her days scrambling to find a place to stay and worrying about where her children would sleep each night, Takeisha was able to focus on completing what she needed to do to meet the program requirements, all the while telling me that her dream was to be able to help other families in similar situations one day.

This past weekend, Takeisha received the keys to her very own apartment.

Early on, there were moments when I wondered if I was crazy for responding to her text and days when I wondered if we were doing “the right thing.” There were moments in the middle when we didn’t know how long it would take for the organization to secure housing for her and how long was too long to help.

So much of my story includes times that I’ve needed help, too. Help that I couldn’t repay. Help that I couldn’t earn. Help that came with no strings attached. And because my story would be strinkingly different without the support of the people in my world, Takeisha’s text was for me, an invitation to pay that forward in my own small way.

With continued help from my ninja friends, we were able to buy Takeisha a shopping package at another amazing organization, the Green Chair, where she was able to go shopping with her case manager for gently used furniture and everything she needs to set up her new home.

Sometimes helping people means donating resources to organizations, sometimes it means being peaceful advocates for causes we believe in. Sometimes it means rolling down the window and providing a snack bag at a stoplight. And then sometimes it means getting in the trenches, without any idea for how long and at what cost, because a neighbor, a mom, a fellow human being with a name and a story sends you a text and asks for help. And somehow in the midst of it all, you come out on the other side feeling like you’re the one who is honored to call her, friend, inspired by her resilience, and grateful for the way your lives have crossed paths.

I heard from Takeisha the day after she moved in.

GM Ms Kelli we sleepy wonderful lastnite.

A Little Car Trouble Goes A Long Way

The other day, we were about 3 hours into our 4.5 hour journey to St. Louis so Adellyn could spend some time with her dad and grandparents for Christmas.

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Over Thanksgiving weekend, I was side-swiped as a car changed lanes without looking, and this was the first time I had driven on the highway since getting my car back after the accident. It was a cold and blustery winter day, but to that point, the drive had been fairly uneventful.

Adellyn was soaking up How the Grinch Stole Christmas, holding her elf, Twink, who had miraculously bottled herself into a mason jar so she could make the trek (a Pinterest idea that actually worked!) in the backseat, while I was catching up on podcasts.

As we were driving down the highway, a wind gust pushed the car a little, when I noticed the hood of my car begin to flap. Not exactly what you want to see when you find yourself in the middle of Nowhere, Illinois.

“Mom, I have to go potty,” A said.

I pulled off at the next exit. Standing outside the gas station, I could fit my whole hand underneath the hood of the car while it was supposed to be down and latched. I lifted the hood a few inches and let it go, hoping it would latch. It bounced.

“That hood of yours doesn’t look good,” a gas station employee said from behind me. He must have been watching my naive tinkering. “Why don’t you take it over there to Wilkerson’s and have them look at. Take a left out of here, and it’s two doors down on the left.”

I thanked God for the friendly advice of a stranger, and that “by chance,” an auto body shop happened to be two doors down from the random exit I chose. I loaded up the kiddo and Twink, who was still traveling via mason jar, and head to Wilkerson’s.

My blood pressure and pulse were slightly elevated. I was in both panic and problem solving mode as I walked in the door. I could hear my voice start to crack as I explained to the guy behind the counter that I thought something was wrong with the latch for the hood of my car.

As a single mom, I can handle most of the things most of the time. There are a few things, however, that are guaranteed to tip me over the edge – car issues being one of them.

“Don’t you worry, ma’am,” he said. “Take a seat and we’ll take a look at it.” I think he knew I was about to lose it.

He walked outside, tinkered with the latch, went to get another guy and they tinkered with it. He came back in the door. “Your hood latch is broken,” he said. “You’re definitely going to need it to be replaced.”

“Is it safe to drive? Is there anything you can do to fix it temporarily so I can get my daughter to St. Louis and get home again tonight?” I asked, still fighting to keep control of my voice and alllllll of the feels of the moment.

Fifteen minutes later, my hood was wire-tied to a piece of metal in the front of my car, and I was back on the road. While they assured me it would be secure enough to make the trip, I didn’t take a full breath until I pulled into my driveway 8 hours later.

While I was on the road, I called the collision shop that had worked on my car to let them know about the problem. While the hood wasn’t involved in the accident, they agreed that the broken latch was suspicious, and told me to bring it in first thing the next day so they could take a look.

At 7:42, I arrived at the shop with my coffee in hand, prepared to be there for a few minutes as they determined what was broken, if it was a result of the accident and who was going to pay for it.

Nearly an hour later, the customer service manager walked out.

“I wanted to give you an update, Ms. Clark,” he said, sitting down in an open seat near me. “I know you’ve been waiting for a little while, and as suspected, the hood latch is broken. We’ve taken a look at it, and can’t find any reason that it would have been damaged in the accident, so I can’t charge it to the insurance company. Although it is an odd coincidence that it broke within a week of you getting your car back, an insurance company wouldn’t accept a charge for something like that.”

I was preparing to begin the loop de loop conversation about how, although I’ve never had any previous problems with it, and how they were the last ones to have touched it, I’m going to be responsible for paying for it to get fixed.

He continued. “After our phone call yesterday, I went ahead and ordered a latch to have on hand today, so it’s being installed right now and should be done within the next 5-10 minutes. While it’s not something the insurance company will cover, from a customer service perspective, it’s not something I feel right charging you for, so just so you know, there will be no charge today.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m a single mom, and while most days, I can handle most things, car stuff just really makes me feel out of my comfort zone, so I appreciate your consideration.”

All of sudden his eyes welled up with tears. “Since you said that, would you mind if I shared a little bit of my story,” he asked?

“Yeah, sure,” I replied.

“I am the son of a single mom, and growing up, I watched my mom get tangled up with a mechanic. She would have car trouble, take her car to the mechanic and not be able to afford the repairs. He would tell her she could make payments, and then just before she would finish making her payments, something else would break and the cycle would start all over again. I just never trusted him and always felt like she was getting scammed.”

“So,” he continued, “I started teaching myself and learning how to fix cars. I just couldn’t bear to stand by and do nothing for my mom. And it all just kind of went from there. That’s how I ended up getting into this whole industry in the first place. I always felt like my mom deserved more.”

“That’s incredible,” I said, fighting back my own tears.

“I had no idea that you were a single mom, but in general, I always try to make sure that we treat our customers in a way that makes them say wow, not wonder if they’re being scammed. Anyway, thanks for letting me share a bit of my story, this has been another reminder for me to continue doing the right thing.”

“Thank you,” I said again. “I really appreciate it.”

There are so, so many terrifying and heartbreaking stories that are our reality both here in the U.S. and around the world. There are days where I find myself at a loss for words and uncertain about how to feel.

But today, an early morning conversation with a collision repair manager reminded me that our greatest sources of pain can be used to be our greatest areas of influence. The pain we feel from our hardest days can produce an empathy that fuels us to meet others who are treading the same path. And when that happens, it literally takes your breath away. It’s the beauty and love and kindness that our world has the potential to behold.

Could it be that possible that perhaps a person or a platform or an office or a title won’t be what changes our world.

Could be as simple as one decision made at a time, over time, every time by you and me?

Us, the people who work at the collision centers and the coffee shops, the grocery stores and gas stations, the bookstores and the bakeries, committed to making people say wow instead of feeling scammed. Committed to ensuring that people know they are seen and not slighted, loved and not left on the margin. Committing to taking the high road, choosing to give the benefit of the doubt, choosing to show up with love and for love of our fellow person time and again.

Five minutes later, he pulled my car around to the front and left it running to stay warm. “Your car is ready, Ms. Clark. My apologies that you had to come back. Take good care.”

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I walked out the door.

As soon as I climbed into my car, the tears fell like rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step Past Cozy

IMG_1096.JPGIt was a good thing I didn’t look outside before I put my running clothes on. While the idea of a run in the rain sounds hardcore in my head, the reality is, rain more often drives me back into my cozy bed than out onto the pavement. It’s just more…comfortable…to stay warm and dry.

So, there I stood. One foot on the sidewalk, one foot still in the house, ready to head out for a quick run before my Saturday really woke up, when the drizzle stopped me in my tracks.

Go. Don’t go. Go. Don’t go. You’re already dressed and standing here, Kelli. Go. The inner dialogue in my head is so bossy sometimes.

I run a quarter-mile loop along the street in front of my house and around my cul-de-sac. It’s not fancy. It’s the same route everyday. The potholes have become like familiar faces. I can tell time by the school bus routes. But it works with the realities of my single-mom-with-school-and-work-to-tend-to-while-raising-a-six-year-old-and-doing-all-the-lifey-things life. On good days, I can squeeze in 8-10 laps before 7:30 and the world gets a much nicer version of me afterward. It’s where I think. Where I pray. Where I wonder and allow myself to be amazed, and where I learn some things. But no matter how much I love it, I still have to talk myself past cozy and into the discomfort of hitting the trail most days.

We humans are funny little creatures of cozy, aren’t we? When given the choice, I lean towards being comfortable without even realizing it. We like 72 degrees with a light breeze. Running in the rain or running in general some days…because let’s be honest…is hard to choose over thirty minutes of sleep. Saying the hard thing in love or just avoiding the conversation all together. Chocolate or chia seeds. Staying in a loveless relationship or staying true to my soul. Doing the practical or daring to dream.

The path, it seems, is holy ground. Sacred territory. And not for the faint of heart. The path past what we can do and into what we are made for is continually paved with discomfort.

For me, through the hard, scary, there-is-no-way-in-hail that I can do this moments, I’m getting know the most authentic me. She’s not perfect. Oh, she is so far from perfect, and I actually don’t want her to be perfect anymore. I want her to be her, and I want to spend my life getting to know all about her and her Maker. She’s flawed and broken and still beautiful in her own way. I don’t love her super frizzy, has-a-life-it’s-own hair, but it sometimes makes her eyes stand out, and I like that. She prefers food that makes her feel alive and healthy, but she still enjoys the occasional Diet Coke and a good piece of dark chocolate. She is becoming more introverted as she grows but she loves people more deeply, from a braver place now. She’s proud to be from North Dakota and loves to see and travel the world. She loves her daughter, but some days feels overwhelmed by all that’s involved in being a parent. I appreciate her, I admire some things about her and I allow her grace in the areas where she has room to grow.

During the really hard poses, my yoga instructor says, “Five more breaths BECAUSE YOU CAN, because there is always more inside of you.” That’s how I travel one step past cozy, down the road of discomfort. One breath. One mile. One day. One moment at a time. Because I can. Because in the discomfort we become stronger. We become more defined. We become whole.

There really is more inside of me. And there is more inside of you, too. Whaddya say, lace up your sneaks with me and venture on past cozy today to see what awaits?

(Photo credit: The incredibly talented Carly Smaha, who captures most of our best moments.)

The Buddy Bench

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It was 3:31 when I got the phone call. “Hello, Miss Clark, it’s Mrs. Rummel, the school nurse. Adellyn has been in twice today complaining of a stomach ache. She doesn’t have a fever, but it would be a good idea if you pick her up.”

On the way home, I asked about all the usual stomach ache suspects. Did you eat something that didn’t taste right? No. Did you drink enough water today? Yes, except I didn’t realize I had my water bottle, so I drank chocolate milk. Have you pooped today? No. Did anything happen on the playground that hurt your feelings today? Well, something good and bad happened at the same time.

“Sophia H. didn’t want to play with me, so I went to the Buddy Bench,” she explained. “I thought that someone would come and play with me like I did on Tuesday but the only people who came either came to sit down, too, or they came to play with someone else. No one came to play with me.”

My heart sank.

There are some mama things that my heart just cannot handle. The thought of my little girl sitting on a bench looking at a playground of kids, wondering if anyone wants to play with her is one of those things.

While I want to scream from the rooftops about how funny and fantastic and kind she is, and while I want her to be ambushed by people who want to play with her when they see her on the Buddy Bench, sometimes we learn things through the hard things, and my mama heart has to be okay with that, too.

Sometimes we need to go through a little bit of pain to make us able to better understand someone else’s pain. Sometimes we need to be the one wondering if anyone sees to make us better able to see each other more clearly. Sometimes we need to be the one waiting for a friend to play with on the Buddy Bench so we are quicker to invite friends to play with us. Sometimes we have to walk out our own journey so we are able to walk alongside others in theirs.

“So, honey, what do you think you’ll do the next time you see someone else on the Buddy Bench,” I asked, preparing her a spot on the couch to wait out the stomach ache.

“I’ll ask them to play.”

When Love Matters Most

In March 2003, BBC news reported that America was officially at war with Iraq and the international political arena was ablaze. I was working on my Masters degree in Scotland, when a friend and classmate didn’t turn up one day. She was the only Iraqi in the program and I was the only American.

I will never forget the day she sat down at her desk, two weeks later, her jet-black hair now striped with grey down the middle from anxiety and worry and stress. She hadn’t heard from her family since the day the war broke out, she couldn’t get a phone call to go through to every number she knew, and she had no idea where her entire family was, or if they were even alive.

We were the American and the Iraqi in the class, but we were more than that. We were friends.

We grieved the reality of our countries at war. We grieved the loss of her childhood home because of an airstrike and we celebrated that her entire family made it out alive. While the war unfolded on television screens around the world, our classmates watched two girls choosing friendship and love in the midst of war and devastation and division.

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Almost 10 years later, I walked out of a marriage and into a Food Lion in January 2012, wearing what felt like a neon sign on my head flashing “I Am Divorced.” While I was picking up groceries for the week, the pieces of what I’d known as life were falling apart.

I didn’t know so many things about the road ahead or where it would lead. I knew I didn’t want to be divorced or be a single-mom, but I also knew that in the truest part of me that exists, I couldn’t live one more day pretending I was happy when I wasn’t, pretending that everything was okay when it wasn’t.

And in that moment and the days and weeks and months and years that I have followed, what I’ve needed and what I’ve found were people willing to see me, to hear my story, to accept my journey – and me – just as I am: beautifully broken and desperately in need of God’s abundant, amazing grace.

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And whether life forces us, or we finally muster up enough courage, we lay down our masks and we put aside our pretenses, and like we did when we were making new friends in kindergarten, we say, “Hello, World, this is the truest me that I know and here’s what’s true about the truest me that I know. And here’s where I’m hurting. And here’s what is scary. And here’s what I don’t know. And here’s what makes me feel alive. And now that you know all of those things about me, do you still think I’m okay, do you want to be my friend?”

And in those moments, those holy, sacred, defining moments, there is only one response that will suffice. Only one response that represents what God intended for this world all along: Love.

Dear God,

Let me be a see-er of your people..all of them. Let me be a lover of their souls. Let me see Your goodness in this world through the stories that you are writing with each of our beautiful, original, unmistakable, beautifully broken, here on Earth for such a time as this, lives.

Amen.

The A-Venture Continues

Like many things, in some ways, it feels like a lifetime ago and in others, it feels as if it was just yesterday. This very weekend two years ago, I was putting the final touches on décor and furniture placement preparing to put my house on the market as the holiday weekend would come to a close.

In addition to preparing my house, I spent the previous weeks preparing the mind of my four year-old while I prepared my own heart, in the only and best ways I knew how.

“So, it’s like we’re going on a “A-venture,” the little said. “Like Dora does.”

She was strikingly accurate, and it only seemed appropriate to let her make her contribution, so the name stuck.

“Yep, honey, it’s our A-venture,” I replied, forcing a confident smile, without a clue where we were going, and yet, all the confidence that we would be okay.

If you’d like, you can read the story of how it all began when the For Sale sign was pounded into the yard here.

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Two years later, the A-venture continues for us, unfolding in unexpected, sacred, beautiful ways, just as it did when it first started. We are self-proclaimed Chicago locals now. And Dorothy wasn’t kidding when she said there is no place like home. Being back in the Midwest with all of the seasons, the snow, the summer thunderstorms and people who drink “pop” has done my heart so much good.

I’ve learned a TON in the last 24 months about myself, about my kiddo, and this game called Life.

It took me a few years and an equal amount of mistakes to learn that I can try to have all the control I want, but things can still fall apart. But even in the falling apart, God is there, has been there all along and sometimes what feels like life falling apart was actually life falling into place.

I’ve learned that my kid will survive if she isn’t bathed every day, eats the occasional popsicle for breakfast or doesn’t always go to bed on time (although I will fight for 8 o’clock lights out as often as I can, mainly because Mommy needs to not be Mommy for a few minutes everyday). But she thrives because of the love, care and investment of people who love her in all her five year-oldness and in so many ways that I can’t even begin to do.

I’ve learned that my five year old can pick out better outfits for her (and me) than I can, and that by the time we can share clothes, I’m going to finally have a sense of fashion.

We’ve been blessed beyond measure on our A-venture, the five year-old and I, by people, our Village, as I call them, who have chosen to love us not because they had to, not because of anything we did, but rather simply because they wanted to. There just aren’t words to explain the depth of gratitude and love we have for you, our friends, our “Framily,” near and far, who have been one part or another of the life we call our A-venture.

But if there is one thing that has stuck out to me the most over the past two years, it’s this overwhelming sense that my whole life hinges on and is being held in the mighty, holy, powerful grip of God’s amazing grace. The more I come to know myself and my humanness the more awe-struck I am at His unending, never giving up, there all along in all the moments I never even knew it, love.

I have a feeling I will spend my whole life trying to sort this one out and will still fall short of a full understanding. And so, with a grateful heart, I look back on all of it – the highs, lows, mistakes and mountaintops. And with a hopeful, expectant heart, I look forward offering praise and thanks to the One who continues to prove that He writes a more incredible, perfect, and awe-inspiring story than I ever could.

I still don’t need to know the plan, Lord. I’ll wait right here until You tell me the next step, and I trust that You’ll give me the courage to take it.

Photo credit: The incredibly talented, Carly Smaha.