Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why, Sometimes, You Have to Fall Apart

Long about this time last week, I totally and completely lost it.

I'll spare you the details, but there was a lot of slamming and shaking and yelling.

My kids are in that transition time where we figure out how to come home from school and not eat everything in sight, pick one another into submission, and talk to mom like I'm Cinderella before the fancy gown.

Things got ugly.

But hear me when I say all that is normal and motherhood and the burden of four kids clamoring for my attention.

What set me off was my lack of control.

We live in this world that tricks us into believing we've got everything in perfect order. Endless calendar alarms and oven timers and chore charts trick me into thinking that just because I haven't missed an appointment or burned dinner and my kids rotate unloading the dishwasher--

I've got this under control.

I've got nothing.

For weeks, I have agonized over a school decision for my kindergartener. Thanks be to God, I can't make a bad decision. Any one of my options would be great for her, though some are decidedly easier for me. But I haven't been able to settle and I realized yesterday it's because every single one of my decisions brings me peace.

I have no control over my life, over the big picture, the storms that whip us into a frenzy--

but I do have the final say over this tiny, insignificant moment. Because Lord knows, sometimes, we just need to make a decision and live with it and trust that His plan works despite our need for control.

So after I fell apart last week, I came back inside and put dinner on the table and read goodnight stories and went to bed early. And the next evening, when my husband was gone and I was tired, I looked at my kids and simply asked them to cut me some slack.

And they did. Because they've seen what happens when I try too hard to make everything go my way. When I stress too much over decisions that are flexible, when I run myself ragged pleasing everyone else.

Sometimes it's good to fall apart, to remember that the small decisions might be all us, but the really big ones?

Those are out of our hands for good reason.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

One Year Ago...

One year ago, he still had a paci. The "ba" he called it.

One year ago, we had never heard the term "Clinically Isolated Syndrome" or "oligoclonal banding" and I wasn't on a first name basis with nurses at a neurology office.

One year ago, my oldest wasn't nearly as tall as me.

One year ago, my second born didn't talk to strangers.

One year ago, I had no idea writing a book would be so hard.

One year ago, I sold my first short story.

One year ago, we had less money but more stuff.

One year ago, I thought the school decision would be out of my hands because that For Sale sign would get a Sold sticker.

One year ago, I wrote more blogs, but had less publishing contacts.

One year ago, he barely spoke. The other day his sister asked why we ever taught him to talk.

One year ago, I didn't know the testing of faith develops perseverance and sometimes, honestly, I wish I still didn't know. Because one year ago, I lived in a safe bubble that my children were healthy and untouchable and that was a blessing and I should be grateful and care for others. Instead, what I really need to do, is first care for the blessings God has given me.

One year ago, I backed down when pushed and holed up and cried. Now I push back, with doctors and schools and all those who ignored me when I first raised my concerns. Now I know--

a mother knows her child. She is the first line of defense.

One year ago, I filled myself up on the beach and hiking and books and writing. Preparation for the year to come that I could never have anticipated or expected.

This year I know--store up all the good and all the love and all the happiness. There will come a day you will need to recall the one year ago.

Monday, August 3, 2015

That July We Got Flooded in Louisville, Forgot Our Anniversary, and I Wrote a Book

Seems no matter how many times I preach to myself about margin and leaving empty space, those little calendar blocks fill faster than the inflatable swimming pool leaks. We're staring down the end of summer vacation--school starts FRIDAY here and I have no idea where our kindergartner is going--and July just whirled past in a blur of heat stroke and humidity.

Just one of those summers. One of those seasons where everyone we know is either getting married or having a baby (my kids wanted to know if I was jumping on that bandwagon, NO!) so there's been lots and lots to go and see and do. But not nearly enough down time.

Oh, and there was that weekend of the flood, and the day I forgot was our anniversary, and the moment when I realized I had finished that 85000 word book.

My cousin, who is from South Carolina but lives in New York, married a fellow New Yorker who is from Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, hence wedding on a hot July night. They were gorgeous and everything was so fun and uniquely them. Almost made me want to get married all over again.

Then this happened.

Joshua and I (no kids weekend) had stayed at a VRBO with my cousin's family--these are some of my favorite people in the world--but when the rain came in early Sunday morning we thought we were going to be together a bit longer than planned. That's why we drank a lot of coffee and made a batch of biscuits and cheese grits. Southern cooks don't mess around when there's a possibility of being stranded.

The tiny tributary of the Ohio River that was hidden behind the tree line of this neighborhood rose seven feet in less than an hour. My aunt and uncle's SUV was its only victim, though. We just couldn't get to it fast enough because who imagines seeing flood waters when they open the front door? (Other than my friend Avily from Splickety who wrote this short story that made me laugh because almost been there.)

Then, like magic, those waters all receded once the sun came out and the rain stopped. Craziness. And life. Because you always think you're going to drown in the storm and then the sun comes out and you find your footing again.

So then we came home and forgot our own anniversary.

Well, thirteen years'll do that to you. Or four kids. I'm not sure which. I thought about writing something deep about how much I cherish my husband, but I already wrote about Denver and Mardi Gras, and I regularly embarrass him in my newspaper column. So instead, I just made meatloaf and mashed potatoes and biscuits for dinner that night.

Again, southern cooks know biscuits cover a multitude of sins.

Then there's the matter of the book. I finished it in June, actually. Wrote a scene and then sat back and said to myself, "Huh? I think that was the end."

I knew how it ended, I may not outline, but I did know my story, but I hadn't actually intended that moment to be it, but suddenly I realized that adding would detract rather than enhance. So I was done.

Then I edited myself. Which took longer than the process of actually writing sometimes. Now I've got a few close friends who are writers and readers and editors in their own rights looking over it. I'm in that resting phase necessary after giving birth. You know, when you eat a lot because you have to nourish another life and don't sleep because What if, what if, what if?

The story goes to an editor for hopeful acquisition soon and in the meantime I'm in that scary place of selling myself to an agent via a 40-word pitch in the cover letter of my book proposal. Prayers are always appreciated, and while it's not a secret what the book's about, I'm just keeping it under wraps until I know where it's going.

I'll tell you this--it is NOT what you read on this blog. It's a novel, southern fiction, and yes, like all debut stories, I've loosely based it on some real life events. Very loosely. Like, the setting is real and I've borrowed some character traits from people dear to me. But then it deviates into a story about forgiveness and belonging that I hope will be enjoyed and shared.

Because it'd be nice to make a little money doing what I love :)

In the meantime, I'm going to finish the blog overhaul--look for big changes coming in September--and get back into a routine of posting here. Thoughts swirl around in my head all day and sometimes make it onto a list.

If I can make it through without crying, I'll post about back to school this week. Maybe.

Or maybe I'll just wait for the flood waters of emotion to recede. But at least I marked "Back to School" on the calendar so I won't forget.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Savoring Friday Night Pizza

In our house, almost every Friday night is Pizza Night.  It's a tradition I stole from my aunt who moved up to Boston and got all Yankee-fied on us but who still makes amazing pizza when she's back in God's country for a visit.  I loved the idea of using dinner to make memories for my kids, and pizza is definitely easier than frying chicken with a toddler on your hip.

One of the best parts of Friday Night Pizza is we make it all from scratch.  The dough...the sauce....I even grate my own cheese.  There's something about forcing ourselves to slow down and enjoy the process that makes these nights unique.  Sometimes I do it all, no doubt because I've had enough trials on my patience already that day.  But often, I let my girls help.  

Once I gave a pizza dough making demonstration for my MOPS group.  One of my ladies asked me how in the world I manage to do this with an (almost) toddler underfoot and three others causing various sorts of mischief the moment my back is turned.  Honestly, I'm not really sure.  Some nights are easier than others.  Often we lock the baby in his booster and feed him renegade olives and cheerios.  My husband helps.  You just have to find the rhythm that works for you.  How do you cook dinner on any other night?  It's the same, really.

step one:: the dough
You've got to have really awesome crust.  Now, you can take what appears to be the simpler way out and buy Pillsbury, or you can trust me and make your own.  Nowadays, whipping up a batch of pizza dough takes me as much time as opening the can of store bought.   I won't judge you if you go that route, but give this a try just once in your life to say you have, promise?

This recipe will make two large pizza crusts.

1.  Pour 1 1/2 cups of warm water into a bowl.  Sprinkle a teaspoon of active dry yeast over the water.

2.  In an electric mixer, combine 4 cups all-purpose flour (or substitute 2 cups with whole wheat if you want to feel healthy) with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.  Kosher tastes better, believe me.

3.  Turn mixer on to lowest setting and drizzle in 1/3 cup olive oil. By the way, I use my paddle because my dough hook died.  It works fine.  You can also do all this by hand, but don't try a hand mixer.  That won't work.  Just trust me.

4.  Stir the yeast/water mixture until dissolved.  Now, slowly drizzle it into the flour while the mixer is mixing. It will come together and make a sticky mass of dough.  If dough seems too wet (isn't sticking together) sprinkle in some more flour until it bonds.

5.  Drizzle a couple tablespoons of olive oil in another large bowl.  Remove the dough from your mixing bowl and form a dough ball with your hands.  Work it out slightly from the center to the edges.  Now, toss it in the large bowl and turn it to coat.

6.  If I'm making dough for that night, I place a warm, damp dish towel over the bowl and let it rise in my microwave for the next 1-2 hours.  Don't turn the microwave on!  If I'm making it for later in the week (which would require forethought, not my best feature) I'd cover it in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge.

Need more help? Don't worry The Pioneer Woman has all this in incredible detail with gorgeous photos.  Now is when I credit her with this recipe.

My dough just mixed...

...and now two hours later...

puffy and ready to roll.

step two:: the toppings
Assemble your ingredients.  Now, here's the beauty of pizza night.  It's your kitchen so you can put whatever you want on your pizza, and trust me, anything's good.  Once I made Summer Pizza with leftover squash, zucchini, and carrots. Last week I made this incredible concoction using cabbage.  My husband's favorite is when I have leftover ham from a big family dinner.  Here's what one Friday night looked like:

Mushrooms, green peppers, black olives (my weird kids love 'em), italian sausage and pepperoni. My cheese is a block of mozzerella I grated myself. I used to let my seven year old grate the cheese until the time she grated her knuckles.  You get more if you grate it yourself, just in case you didn't know.

step three:: the sauce
Just like toppings, pizza sauce comes in a variety of options.  When my garden tomatoes aren't drowning, I make an amazing homemade sauce from Simply in Season; you can read about it here.  Most of the time, though, I heat a large can of crushed tomatoes and season to taste with oregano, basil, garlic, salt, and pepper.  Simple, easy, and frugal.  

step four:: the heat
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.  That's right, it goes that high.  If you have a pizza stone, put it in the oven to preheat also.  If you don't, go to Walmart and buy one.  Or call your Pampered Chef representative. You won't regret it.

step five:: the ready
Clear your space.  I use my kitchen table because I'm too lazy to move things off my counter and it's a better height for my girls to help.  Then get out a cookie sheet or pizza board.  My mom got me one for Christmas, and it was seriously my favorite gift.  You'll want to build your pizza on this to make the pizza to stone transfer easy.  If you use a cookie sheet and don't have a stone, you can just put that pan straight in the oven.

step six:: the crust
  Sprinkle a generous amount of cornmeal over your work area.  This will keep the dough from sticking.  One dough recipe will make two large pizzas, so divide it in half to begin.  I then take one half and divide it into thirds for my girls to make their own.  They're regular little chefs.

Now, place the dough in the center of your work area and begin flattening it.

It's going to be elastic-y and stretchy and will bounce back.  That's good, you did it right!  Just keep working it.  When it's about six inches across, I get out the rolling pin and work from the center out. 

Thin pizza is lower in carbs, but won't hold as many toppings, so use your judgement.  It will puff up some in the cooking process.  And those fingerprints? They help hold on the toppings.

step seven:: the pizza
Build it up.  Spread the sauce to your desired taste, usually about a half cup worth.  Then top with whatever makes you happy.  

Here's Annabelle putting on lots of cheese...  

and here's daddy's pizza with everything under but the pepperoni.  They get a little crisp when on top and I love that.  I also pinched the edges of my dough up to create a thicker crust and hold in all that goodness.

step eight:: the transfer
  Don't be scared.  The secret is lots of cornmeal under the pizza dough and sprinkled onto the stone.  Slide a spatula underneath and gently work the pizza from the cookie sheet or board and onto the stone.  Once you get it going it should slide right off.

step nine:: the cooking
Cook in the center of the rack for approximately seven minutes or until cheese is melted and crust is golden.

step ten:: the end

Enjoy!  and post lots of pictures!


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Art of Capturing the Moment...Without a Camera

We had a few moments yesterday sandwiched in between Vacation Bible School and meltdowns on the way to Chic-Fil-A and wrangling goats for a friend.

Just enough moments that I thought maybe everyday, every moment, every element of our busy well-worn life doesn't have to be worth remembrance.

As long as there's a moment or two I can hold onto in the chaos of raising four kids in this world where everything I do feels subject to scrutiny, that will be enough.

We emptied the pool yesterday. Plastic and slimy and simultaneously leaking air and holding water in its inflatable sides, that yellow concoction on my back deck is a lifesaver. I cleaned and they helped and then when it was full of six inches of hose water and old sand buckets, I stretched out in a lawn chair and they miraculously played together.

All four. In six inches of hose water.

Nothing that easy lasts very long.

But the camaraderie lasted just long enough for Madelynne to take the half a pirate ship that had been capsized by Hurricane Gus and toss water into the air.

Clear sheets of sparkling incandescence erupted out of that little ship, caught in the air for just a half-second and showered back down into the pool.

"Hey! Watch this! Look at the water!" She called out to her siblings and tossed another boatful.

Cast into the air, the water seemed almost solid, a shape that could be held and touched.

An art of childhood long forgotten by this wearied mama.

The image fell with a splash and then they were fighting over the boat and the bucket and I looked down at the now damp page of my paperback--

"No minute is quite like the one before it...Watch carefully, and keep watching...then you'll be able to capture it."**


**Quote taken from Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart. Read the whole story in a day and a half while Gus poured that hose water all over my feet and legs. Read voraciously partly because my soul starves for good stories, partly because I'm reading lots of 'comparative works' for my own novel as I write a book proposal, partly because if you've ever spent a summer on Edisto Island, you know sometimes, you just want to come home to the low country.

Photo of my beautiful growing-up girl by my friend Sarabeth. Who owns the aforementioned goats we spend our evenings with right now.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Coming Back to Life

I think I've just run out of steam.

Somehow we survived the last three months of Joshua's work overload that included a college course in entrepreneurship for small businesses, two trips to Boston, and twice a week evening webinars.

Somehow we survived twice a week rehearsals followed by track practice followed by crockpot meals and pleas to just go to bed already because Mommy can't be nice past 9 p.m.

Somehow we survived him chairing the Stewardship Committee at church the year a proposal is brought to spend 2.6 million dollars on building. Which meant on the nights he wasn't online learning, he was Baptist committee discussing.

Somehow we survived nine straight days of four hour plus tech and dress rehearsals that culminated in four performances that had me crawling into bed well past my bedtime. Nights that prompted him to say, "I think I get why you've been so frustrated lately about me being gone."

Those words? All I needed for Mother's Day.

In the midst of it all, Madelynne was in a play at school. I drove Amelia to Physical Therapy once a week and down to Atlanta for the oncologist and over to the pediatrician for a well-child (ironic, huh?). Oh, and every Saturday we drove 50 miles or more to a track meet that lasted all flipping day.

Gus turned three and started wearing underwear and watering the flower beds. In the front yard. My neighbors just love me, I know. But since they have a Statue of Liberty in their front yard, I don't think they have room to complain.

Yes, Lady Liberty can be viewed from my front porch. Small town Georgia never had so much class.

Then, in the midst of it all, I took an assistant editor position with the Splickety Publishing Group and a month later, the editor I worked under got promoted, so guess what I got?

Assistant removed from my title and an inbox that scared me so much I had to close the computer and walk away and eat a lot of chocolate.

So, we've been a little busy. A little overwhelmed. A lot tired.

But I held hands with starry-eyed teenagers last week who were readying for the last show of their spring musical and I told them thank you.

Thank you to Footloose and Splickety and Babson College and rec league track and Building Committees and birthday parties and the beginning of CSA season at Red Dust Ranch.

Because for the past three months, we haven't just been those parents who have a child with a scary, unknown diagnosis.

We've just been parents with deadlines and schedules and lives.

I think we were "winter killed"--buried beneath the weight of frost and fear.

But spring brings revival. It's hard work pushing back up and taking root and stretching for the sun.

I think we're going to survive after all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

We Want Unique Kids, But We Teach Them Standard

This post originally appeared in The Northeast Georgian on April 24, 2015.

It’s spring. Farmers turn soil into bounty. Thunderstorms rush us inside. Fresh cut grass permeates the air. Teachers find their brave face.
Because it’s test week. This week The Georgia Milestones replaced the CRCT as the public school’s assessment and accountability tool for students and teachers. Those who conceived it say it’s a better test, more aligned with the new standards, more user friendly, more likely to give an accurate indicator of where a student and school stands against the other public schools in the state.
As a former educator, I was elated to lose the CRCT and its pass/fail requirement for certain grades. I was thrilled to hear this new test might actually assess students the way they are being taught. Until I realized that meant teachers are working with standards that lack creativity and are simultaneously above and below common grade-level expectations. For instance, students read excerpts of informational texts but rarely an entire book. The standards fit the test all right, and when followed should produce a nice standard score. But where’s the joy of learning in that?
When it comes to intellect, we are not one size fits all.
I know teachers have mixed emotions about the test. I’ve talked with them and seen the fear in their eyes when I ask how the computer administration is working. On one hand, we’re raising a technology-driven society. On the other, we’re still limited by server capabilities and physical equipment. My daughter retook a section of the test this week because her computer logged her out on question nine. She wasn’t stressed, but that night she prayed for her teachers, because she knows that incident worried them.
Teachers have put on their game face. They’re doing what must be done to keep funding in our schools, to keep schools run by local boards instead of state know-it-alls, and they know through it all, their own jobs ride on the scores those tests produce.
It’s a terrifying thought. What if doctors were assessed yearly by whether or not they had the same outcome for all their patients? Everyone who has a tonsillectomy should recover in three days with no complications. Oh, your patient now has neurological difficulties? Well, then, you fail.
My daughter’s surgeon would be out of a job due to circumstances he couldn’t control or have foreseen. 
That’s what we’re telling teachers. Regardless of a student’s domestic or socio-economic background, after a certain number of days in your classroom, all students should be able to perform the same. Including students with learning disabilities. After all, the computer will ensure a standard administration. No worries about cheating.
Except no one wants to discuss the pressure that drives an educator (like the ones convicted in Atlanta) to believe cheating is actually helping. They were misguided, sure, but ask any teacher and they’ll tell you a standardized test should be nothing more than a tool. One piece of the puzzle to  helping a student succeed.
The same breath that reads aloud the standard rules of test administration is the one that has encouraged our students. Don’t be like everyone else. Be yourself. Be unique.

Except of course on the test. Then, just be standard.