Four is parading to the curb in a rainstorm with a red pillow perched atop your head as a makeshift umbrella. It’s catching salamanders at the lake and picking your nose first thing each and every morning. It’s rocking on the front porch without a stitch of clothing and laughing about poops and toots and burps at every opportunity granted.
Four is a nasally “whhhhy?” expelled after nearly every statement made.
Go put some clothes on. Whhhhhyy?
We don’t pee off the front porch. Whhhhhy?
Dinner is ready. Whhhhhhy?
Help put all the dinosaurs away. Whhhhhy? Whhhhy? Whhhhhy?
Four is cheeks that turn fiery red on summer days. It’s sweat soaked blonde hair and the musk of earth in your clothes. It’s long, lean legs racing down the sidewalk trying to keep up with big brother on a scooter. It’s playing so hard you fall asleep at 4:30 in the afternoon and don’t wake up until the next day.
Four is an absence of the the letter “l.” It’s “wook at me” and “I wove you.” It’s cleaning the storm door while wearing a pair of swim goggles, and looking pretty darn cute as you go about your work. So what if most of the glass is still smudged. You gave it a hearty effort.
Four is loving peanut butter sandwiches, applesauce, and ketchup. It’s sneaking into kitchen cabinets for cinnamon and baking soda so that you can do your own science “spearmint.” It’s spending time each day in a whirlwind of adventure, mischief and curiosity.
Four years ago, our eyes fell upon Parker James for the the very first time. It was just after one in the morning when his tiny frame was wrapped snugly into a blanket burrito and placed into my tired arms. He was soft and fresh and miraculous. Four years later, he is still quite soft, not nearly so fresh, but every bit as miraculous.
In the last few months we’ve made some progress around the house as I’ve gone full tilt into nesting mode. We’ve purged a great deal of random stuff, organized cabinets and closets throughout the house, cleaned out the fridge for the first time since moving, and prepared a small room for our little one.
But despite all this effort, it seems that every morning I awaken to a minefield of mess. It’s scattered across the floor and glaring at me from cups and dishes that haven’t yet made it to the dishwasher. I try to remember that yes, we do LIVE in this house, which means our house will look lived in. However, there’s a part of me that craves order and functional space.
Presently, exhaustion is my biggest enemy. I don’t recall this level of tiredness with either of my other pregnancies, though I was much younger and generally, a bit more pleasant back then. It’s a bone tired. A vacuuming-the-living-room-has-left-me-spent kind of tired. An I could fall asleep at a red light sort of exhaustion. A tired that makes taking a shower feel as difficult as running a marathon.
So today, I needed to shower AND I needed the house cleaned up – a double whammy. I dragged myself off the sofa and explained to the boys that after I took my shower, we would all be cleaning up the downstairs. Then I had an epiphany. If they were good helpers, I’d let them spend a little bit of time playing some games on my iPad.
I felt like a rockstar as I trudged upstairs. This is how amazing moms function at 37 weeks pregnant, I told myself. I got this. Bribery has some very real benefits and I planned to make use of them all during these final weeks.
I showered and dried my hair and not surprisingly, felt unwell after such an undertaking. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the energy required to move 35 extra pounds everywhere I go, but it leaves me quite miserable. I came downstairs completely out of breath.
As I rounded the corner I heard feet stomping out of the kitchen and two voices whispering, “Here she comes! Here she comes!”
This usually means a disaster has occurred. I braced myself for the mess that usually accompanies one of their science “spearmints” gone bad. Cinnamon and baking soda would be scattered across the countertops. Or maybe instead, a weeks worth of applesauce pouches were consumed in thirty minutes. I walked into the living room and saw rug fibers unobscured by Mario figures, game cards and pieces picked up, blocks put away and two little boys smiling sheepishly.
I collapsed on the sofa in joy. “Ohhhhh! You cleaned up! Thank you, boys.” I pulled them close and gave them each a bear hug.
The room was certainly not Pinterest worthy. But it was good enough for today. And like life, the best of it isn’t often nestled in being perfect, but in being present. And presently, my three and five year old had given their exhausted, pregnant mother a room she could easily walk through, and they’d done it without requiring a hint of nagging on my part. Hallelujah!
“Can we get on the iPad now, Mama?”
“Yes, yes you can, boys.” I spent the next twenty minutes plopped uncomfortably in a chair, still waiting for my breathing to return to normal. The boys took turns playing Subway Surfers, trading every 7 minutes, and as I watched them sitting hip to hip on the sofa, I knew I had much to be thankful for.
The course was one hilly beast. Jamie talked about this excessively in the weeks before the Salem Half Marathon, and boy, was he right. A wave of hills in the beginning, two trips over the Colorado Street Bridge, and one massive hill at mile 12 made for a race course with 615 feet of elevation gain. My race strategy stood in grave contrast to Pam’s, from “The Office.” She planned to run fast at the beginning, fast in the middle, and fast at the end. My plan was to start out slow, maybe speed up a little on the flat parts, and then make it to the finish line.
Finish, I did. There is nothing like it. When you start training, you have trouble thinking you will ever run five miles, much less 13.1. As the weeks pass, you add a mile here and there and before you know it, you’ve run 7 miles. It wasn’t pretty, but you did it. A month later, you get up to 11 miles and you know that on race day, you’ll be mostly ready. This is perhaps, the best part of running. One step a time, one run at a time, you are slowly building stamina and strength. It’s baby steps. You run a little bit farther each week, and eventually can run a distance that at first seemed unimaginable. Tiny steps in the right direction add up over time. They turn into something big.
The people you run with also matter, quite a lot. These people watch you suffer on some long, hot miles. They pull you along. They slow down to walk with you. They distract you from your aches with their conversation. Sometimes, when you are crumbling, they show up with exactly what you are needing.
My sister Amy drove in from North Carolina to run the Salem Half. Once Jamie, Amy, and I were across the finish line, we discussed the crazy hills and then set off on important business: find some beer. I always get a little excited about a cold beer and that afternoon was no exception. Smiling, we carried our amber cups and sat down on the pavement to celebrate 13.1 long miles, middle-aged stiff muscles, and great company.
The beer went down easy. It was cold, refreshing and nothing short of amazing. But pretty soon I realized I was not feeling well. I had two slices of buttered toast an hour before the race started. Now, it was nearly 1 o’clock and I was starting to fade fast. The beer probably wasn’t helping.
“I’m not feeling so good, guys. I think I really need to eat something.” I explained.
There was a little problem. We’d bought a lot of beer tickets. Nearly full cups sat before us and several tickets were yet to be used.
We devised a plan. Drink up, then we’ll head to a restaurant and gorge ourselves on anything and everything on the menu. I sat on the pavement hoping the feeling would pass.
“Maybe I can find some food to buy,” Amy suggested. “I’ll wander around a little and see what they have.”
I waited. The emptiness was growing. I felt ill. I reminded myself that next time, food shall come before the beer.
And that’s when she walked back carrying the most glorious hot dog I have ever laid eyes on. “Thank you! Thank you! You are the best!” I cheered as she passed it into my hands. She really is the best.
“You want chili on it?” she asked. “I’ll go back and get some chili.”
“No, no. This is good. This is perfect.”
I inhaled it because chewing is overrated when you are starving. The hollowness in my stomach was giving way to substance. Immediately, I started to feel better.
My sister saved the day with that hot dog, reminding me that most often, the best parts of life are our people. They love us, they help us, they celebrate our victories and stand with us in hardship, they notice when we are in dire need of a hot dog and then they go and procure one.
Thanks, dear sister. You are a rock star. I’m so thankful you are one of my people.
At least a hundred times a day, I utter the word “no.”
Can I have more goldfish?
Can I jump from this step?
Can I watch a movie?
Can we go to Kmart?
No. No. No. No. No.
Most days I feel like the No Monster. Of course it’s necessary. Kids need to hear no; they need to know boundaries and respect them; they need to experience big and little “no’s.” But sometimes, a little “yes” can go a long, long way.
A few nights ago, we went out for a family walk. The boys climbed in the double stroller and we set off wandering down the sidewalk around our house. We were soon headed in the direction of Roanoke College’s Elizabeth Campus. There’s a nice stone pathway with a quiet loop that doesn’t require too much uphill effort, and near our house flat terrain is hard to find. As we crossed the street, Jackson asked, “Can we walk when get to the pathway?”
“No” was sitting right on the tip on my tongue. I glanced down to see four barefeet resting on the floor of the stroller. This observation seemed to support my initial inclination. Parker had already bathed and the bottoms of his feet would be dirty again for sure. Who knows what sharp objects were waiting to be stepped on! In their excitement they’d probably take off running, only to stumble and fall, leaving tearful sobs and bloody knees as our company for the long ride home. “No” was definitely the most sensible answer, but it wasn’t the one that they would hear.
Before my “no” even had a chance, Jamie replied, “Yeah, go for it. But stay on the walkway. When we get back to the road you have to climb in the stroller again.”
“But what about Parker?” I countered. “He’s already bathed.”
“It doesn’t matter. It will be fine.”
The boys kicked their bare feet over the edge of the stroller and raced into freedom. They didn’t go far before they stopped to examine a pile of sand nestled in the seams between the stones. They talked together as their fingers moved the tiny grains around and around like miniature bulldozers. After they grew weary of this task, they stood up; Jackson turned to Parker and asked, “Wanna hold hands?”
I caught my breath. Would the answer be yes or no?
I watched as Parker took Jackson’s hand in his own and they scampered down the path, talking and laughing side by side, their small hands locked with love. We would have missed a mighty beautiful scene that evening had the word “no” reigned over our actions.
When you are five, you snuggle close to Mama in the top bunk just before bedtime. After stories are told and a few million questions are half-way answered you say, “Oh, that reminds me,” and roll onto your side, pressing your little bum against her leg. A sudden “B-rrrrrr” echoes through the room, followed closely by the high notes of a little boy’s giggle. Mama is surprised and not surprised at all. The laughter of two sings together at your silly, gassy habits and a prayer is whispered that she may survive the rancid business of raising boys.
When you are five, you scale the kitchen counters like a professional mountain climber. You eat rainbow sprinkles straight from the jar and handfuls of chocolate chips that are hidden in the back of the fridge. You leave compelling evidence scattered across the counter tops and in the tracks of chocolate smudged across your cheek.
When you are five, you still fit perfectly in your Mama’s arms. There is just a lot more of you to hold. Instead of the being wrapped in a small blanketed cocoon, there is an abundance of gangly appendages dangling in every direction. There are bony elbows and knobby knees jabbing and wriggling against Mama’s soft flesh. Your shins are covered with bruises and scrapes that mark brave ideas gone awry. And your brow is the most accurate mood ring ever made – revealing all emotion in the height of its arch or the absence of one.
When you are five, you dance in the pouring rain. Your feet love to walk across the smooth stones that line the bottom of a cold river; you sunbathe in your underwear. You jump off furniture, wage transformer battles, and love to climb and conquer the branches of a tree. You play backyard baseball, Old Maid, and race laps through the house. You love to catch fish, to go hiking, and have been known to occasionally wear clothes. You are constantly noticing the world, making sense of what you see and comparing it with all that you know to be true.
Five years ago, I held you in my arms for the very first time. I was thankful and exhausted and filled with love. I am still all of these. It is our greatest joy to watch you grow, to laugh and love, to snuggle and play each day.
Wishing our sweet Jackson, an amazing fifth birthday filled to the brim with all of your favorites. We love you so very much!
My mom sat at her desk one January morning in 1969 while her fingers moved with nimble grace across the keys of her typewriter. Someone rushed past her desk and the girl working beside her leaned over and said, “Hey, he’s cute!” She looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of a young engineer rushing through the office. His plaid sport coat hung across his tall, lean frame. Beneath it he wore a light blue shirt and a skinny tie that had been his father’s. A full head of dark hair was combed neatly and parted on the side. Watching him from across the room, she realized her co-worker’s words could have easily been her own.
Because the Richmond GE did not yet have its own engineering department, a rotating “engineer of the week” worked in the building. My dad arrived that Monday morning and would spend the coming week providing support for the factory as was needed. It turned out that a week would be just enough time to change everything for Sharon and Pete.
Time ticked by in a whirlwind of typing and shorthand, meetings and decisions. Eventually their paths would cross. On Thursday the secretaries sat down together for lunch. They were chatting and laughing when Pete approached their table. His eyes met Sharon’s as he explained rather matter-of-fact, “If you give me your keys, I’ll start your car. You left your lights on and your battery is dead.” Though they’d not spoken before this moment, she reached into her purse, grabbed her keys, and passed them into his hands. He walked out into the pouring rain to jump start her car.
All of the ladies turned to Sharon. “Who is he?” one of the girls whispered as he walked away.
“I don’t know. I think he’s the engineer of the week.” she stammered.
Brows arched upward and eyes glanced at each other in disbelief. “Wait a minute. You just handed him your keys and you don’t know him? We aren’t buying it.”
At the end of the day, she walked out to the parking lot and discovered that her ’69 Cougar started up just fine. She had an appointment on the south side of Richmond to get her hair washed and set. She pulled out of the lot and glancing into the rear view mirror, recognized the driver in the red Barracuda behind her. It was the same guy who had fixed her car that afternoon. Merging onto I-95 South toward Petersburg, she noticed Pete’s car was still trailing her. “That’s strange,” she thought to herself, “I wonder where he’s going?”
Eventually she took her exit, passed her daddy’s store and turned into the hair salon parking lot. Wouldn’t you know, Pete’s car pulled into the hair salon too. She got out of the car and recognized a co-worker, Larry Van, sitting in the passenger seat of the Barracuda. As she walked by, Pete leaned across his friend and asked, “Would you go to dinner with me?”
She thought for a second before she declined the offer. With a nervous smile she explained that she was hesitant to go out with someone she worked with and knew so little about.
But it wasn’t a complete bust for Pete. He drove off that evening with Sharon’s phone number in hand.
She drove home that evening thinking of all the unusual happenings of the day. Soon she was back home and running up the sidewalk with her stylish short hair teased high. Her mother stepped out the front door just as she approached. “Has anyone called, Mama? she asked.
“Yeah. Who’s Pete from GE?” her mother questioned.
He called back later that evening and they spent two hours on the telephone. He lived in Waynesboro, but the two wrote letters to each other quite often and nearly every weekend he made the trip back to Richmond to visit her.
By June, Sharon was wearing an engagement ring to work. By the end of September, the two were married.
All of this happened forty-seven years ago. In the years that followed, they have lived in three different states, seven different homes, they have raised four daughters and are the proud grandparents to nine grandchildren. Their 47 years of marriage are cause for great celebration. I wonder at all that has happened in the passing of these years. How many cups of coffee have they sipped together? How much laughter have they shared? How many arguments have been waged? How many sorrows lessened? How has their love changed? How has it grown?
I’m so thankful that they found each other, that she noticed him in the office, that he went out in the rain to jumpstart her car, that love won. This will always, always be one of my favorite stories. Happy 47th Anniversary, Mom and Dad!
Many a summer day started with the boys hauling a large bucket down to the lake shore and filling it to the brim with water. They left it behind as they waded into the cold water with me. A great sand storm swirled below the surface as six feet moved with quiet determination in search of salamanders.
“There’s one here!” Jackson shouted. My eyes searched the murky water and spied a salamander at rest down below. Reaching through the water, I cupped my hands around the front and back of his soft body, but he was elusive. With a swift wave of his tail, he darted up and away, just out of reach. I followed close behind and we played this cat and mouse game for several rounds until finally, my hands gently folded around him and carried his wriggling body into the summer air.
“You caught him!” Jackson hollered. “Let me hold him! Let me hold him!”
“In just a second,” I replied. We huddled together and watched him closely in the cradle fashioned from my two hands. His skin shined an earthy green, and black speckles painted his smooth body. Two peppercorn eyes stared back at us as he trudged across the palm of my hand, having shed his graceful motion in the lake below.
We waded back toward the shore, and I dropped him into his private little pool inside the waiting bucket. Jackson doted on him and named him Acorn, but my work wasn’t yet done.
Parker would want one as well. I followed the same strategy until I caught yet another one. The morning passed with endless motion as the boys took care of a bit of life with their wrinkled fingers.
While catching salamanders begins with an action, it is not surprising that catching dragonflies is a completely different undertaking – it is all about stillness. We discovered this one afternoon while I stood with Parker out by the diving boards under sky blue skies. He watched dozens of dragonflies flit through the air around us. He bounced and darted with outstretched arms and expectant fingers hoping for a catch, but always came up empty handed.
He grew frustrated and took a little break. Instead of chasing after them, he watched them zoom along, their wings humming softly as they whirled by. And then, unexpectedly, he caught one. In the stillness, they came closer and closer until one came to rest upon his tiny arm.
“Don’t move! You caught one!” I pointed out. His eyes glanced downward and smiled proudly, having finally procured a dragonfly. The moment lasted little more than an instant and then our dragonfly took flight again, but we were hooked. We became statues that day, with outstretched arms warmed by the sun’s bright rays. In our stillness, the dragonflies came to trust us as a place of refuge where they could rest their delicate wings.
The more I watch the world, the more I notice opposing forces all around me – the push and pull between action and stillness, sorrow and joy, chaos and peace; each one the perfect counterpart to the other half, neither better nor worse, neither right nor wrong. Much like the way the inhale and exhale of our breath partner together to sustain life, these opposing forces are ever present. We oscillate between them over minutes and hours, days and weeks, months and years.
I’m learning that some pursuits require a purposeful action while others are best realized through stillness, or inaction. Knowing which to employ can be difficult to discern. What are we trying to catch, salamanders or dragonflies?
May we be brave enough to take action, to jump all in, to make a change, to do, to act, to catch a salamander. And may we be brave enough to do the exact opposite; to quiet ourselves; to be still with our energy; to rest, to watch, to listen, to catch a dragonfly.
These two opposing forces are shaping our stories every single day. They are our inhale and our exhale. Most certainly, we need both.