The Journal

Hypothetical question of the day: Suppose your house was on fire and you had time to save only one thing. What would it be? (Assume your family and other assorted pets are already safe and secure outside the raging inferno.) For some reason, I’ve thought about this many times. And I know exactly what I would risk life and limb to retrieve: an irreplaceable journal in which I’ve written the funniest, most adorable things my children have said and done since they could, well, say and do things.

If you’re in the season of parenting young children, I urge you to write everything down. Make time for it. It takes just a few minutes now and then. You will forget all the things you swore you’d remember, because there’s too much to remember and your brain-on-small-children is operating—just barely—on things like drool, stains that will never come out in the wash, and sleep deprivation that could pass for torture.

Your journal doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty. Mine is page after page of scribbling, crossed-out words, and commentary added after the fact. It’s literally coming apart at the seams and has stray bits of paper falling out at the corners. I tell myself that someday I’m going to type all of those handwritten notes into a tidy Word document. Yup. Someday.

I’m so grateful that I have this precious journal. Every so often, I reread the entire thing. The best part is that my poor, fried brain still recalls the details of each situation: the sparkle in my boys’ eyes when they smiled, the sound of their tiny voices, the look of surprise when they encountered something new and fascinating.

When your children are no longer babies or toddlers, and you’re feeling overwhelmed by bigger kids with bigger problems, you’ll thank your younger-mom self for recording the slices of sweet memories that still have the power to make you feel blessed to be someone’s mom.

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Irma and God

People around the world waited and watched to see what Hurricane Irma would do last weekend to those of us in Florida. I’ll give you the short version of what happened on the west coast of the state: much less than what we feared, expected, and prepared for. And I want to give credit where credit is due. Almost everyone I know prayed that God would spare us widespread death, destruction, and devastation. And He did.

God is good.

Every Floridian knows that a hurricane draws its power from the water that surrounds our peninsula: the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, even the Everglades, which is a basically a “river of grass,” as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas called it. Once a hurricane hits land, it quickly loses power. Irma could have ripped up Florida’s east coast and then gone on to cause catastrophic damage to the entire eastern seaboard. She could have veered up the state’s west coast, gaining fuel over the gulf. But she hit land at Fort Myers and forged a path directly through the center of the state, away from both coasts, losing steam all along the way.

God is good.

I abandoned my little rental house because I believed that a Category 5 (or 4 or 3 or even 2) hurricane would rip it to shreds. Because Irma sputtered over land to a Category 1 storm before she reached the Tampa Bay area, I returned to find my house exactly as I’d left it, inside and out (minus a few roof shingles).

God is good.

Most people heeded the evacuation orders for coastal and low-lying areas. Most shelters allowed evacuees to bring their dogs and cats so desperate people didn’t have to choose between saving themselves and saving their beloved pets, as often happened in the past. Some shelters also catered to children and adults with special needs so every family had a safe, welcoming place to go.

God is good.

My family and friends in New England called and texted before the storm to send their best wishes and prayers for my family’s safety and well-being. After the storm, they again checked in to make sure my children and I were OK. Even though she’s 1500 miles away in Massachusetts, my wonderful friend Brenda even offered her home to me if my home became unlivable.

God is good.

Neighbors helped neighbors prepare for the storm, covering windows with hurricane shutters and plywood, sharing extra food and supplies, and promising to check in afterwards. Although stores were crowded and shelves barren of essentials, shoppers were by and large respectful. Motorists patiently waited in line to get gas.

God is good.

After the storm had passed and residents surveyed the damage, neighbors again went to work for one another, cutting felled trees and hauling away the chunks, cleaning up leaves and other debris, and removing all those shutters and all that plywood.

God is good.

My church organized volunteers to collect and distribute water, food, and other necessities to those in need. My son and I, along with about fifteen others, traveled to a nearby Easter Seals facility to clear the property of tree limbs and to lay fresh mulch on the playground and flower beds. This is a place where children and adults with physical and emotional disabilities spend their days, receiving essential therapy and engaging in activities that expand their otherwise limited world. Although it’s located less than a mile from Sarasota Bay—the street dead-ends at it—the campus sustained only minor water damage and a loss of electricity. Three greenhouses on the property supply organic vegetables and herbs to local restaurants as a source of income for the facility. Constructed of only wood frames and plastic shells, they withstood the storm intact.

God is good.

Disasters have a way of bringing out the best in human beings, causing us to empathize and sympathize. People are circling the wagons, stepping up, and doing whatever they are called to do. They’re donating money and delivering supplies, hope, and reassurance in both Florida and Texas. To date, more than $300 million has been donated toward relief from both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

God is good.

God is never the author of our trials, suffering, and literal and figurative storms. But He promises to bring something good out of every bad thing that happens to us. He proved again, in the form of a hurricane named Irma, that He keeps His promises.

Teen Speak

Most teenagers spend an alarming amount of time on social media. And most parents of teenagers know that the sly little devils have a language all their own, which consists mostly of acronyms used to camouflage the true meaning of their conversations should a wary parent stumble across something no parent is meant to see. Case in point: “PIR” means “parent in room,” and “MPTIABIROWMBRN” translates to “My parents think I’m asleep but I’m really out with my boyfriend right now.” (Not really. I made that one up.)

Even when your teens are speaking directly to you—meaning you can see their lips moving and you hear what could be described as actual words emerging from those lips—they’re still using code. Let me help you, hapless parents, decode this insidious foreign language so you’ll be only eight steps behind them instead of the usual eight bazillion.

Uttered: “I’m going to bed. Good night.”

Translation: “Even though it’s only 7:30 p.m. and it’s still light outside, I’m going into my room to lie in my warm, cozy bed to Skype, Facetime, IM, text, tweet, and/or maybe even actually talk on my phone to all of the friends I just spent all day with at school and will see as soon as I get there tomorrow morning.”

Uttered: “Is it OK if I’m home by 10 p.m.?

Translation: “At 9:45, I’ll text you and ask if I can be home by 10:15. Then I’ll text again at 10:00 and ask if you’ll extend my curfew to 10:30. At precisely 10:43 p.m., I’ll careen into the driveway on two tires and waltz through the front door as if I’ve arrived home at exactly the time I said I would. When you mention that I’m actually late and should have called or texted, I’ll remind you that I’m not supposed to talk on the phone or text while I’m driving (your rule). When you say I should have called or texted before I left wherever I was to let you know I was on my way, I’ll say something completely inane such as, ‘But I knew I’d be home in, like, five minutes.’ Then—and only then—will I acknowledge that I was indeed late and mutter several words that sound remotely like an apology.”

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Uttered: “I have something going on after school today.”

Translation: “Although I’m making it sound like I have something incredibly important to do this afternoon—saving someone’s life or contributing in some small way to world peace perhaps—what I’ll actually be doing is meeting my friends at Starbucks to imbibe large quantities of caffeinated beverages, take photos of one another to share instantly on Snapchat, and poke fun at old people, which is pretty much everyone except us.”

Uttered: “I’d like four pieces of bacon, six eggs, and five pieces of toast for breakfast, please.”

Translation: “Even though I look very hungry and you honestly believe I’m going to eat all of the food I’ve asked you to prepare for me, here’s what’s really going to happen. First, I’m going to eat the bacon because, well, it’s bacon. Then I’ll inhale the eggs as if I haven’t eaten in seven years instead of the seven hours while I slept last night. About one-fifth of my way through the toast, I’ll sit back in my chair, feeling very full and distressed from eating too much too fast, and declare that I can’t even look at any more food (at least until lunchtime). I will note that your face sports a decidedly disdainful look as you flush untouched toast down the garbage disposal.”

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Uttered: “I’ll tell you about that later.”

Translation: “I’m close to 100 percent certain that with all of the forces fighting against your memory—your rapidly advancing age, innumerable job responsibilities, and extensive grocery shopping lists, not to mention all of the inconsequential minutiae I expect you to remember for me on any given day—you will forget within the next three seconds what you just asked me to explain to you and I’ll never have to ‘tell you about that later.’”

Paula and the Horses

Paula and I have been friends for 34 years. Although we attended the same university, our paths never once crossed there: She was in the engineering school; I, liberal arts. We met at Ann & Hope—or, as we called it, Ann & Hopeless!—the department store at which we both worked during college.

Paula lives in the town next door to the one where she grew up in Massachusetts. I grew up a few towns over. I have spent the last 20 years living in Florida and rarely get the chance to venture north anymore, so my best friend invited me to visit this summer. She arranged my flights, put me up in her home, and treated me to meals at our favorite eateries. She didn’t do any of this so people would gush over her and think she’s the nicest person on the planet. She was just being Paula.

Horses are Paula’s favorite things. An accomplished equestrian, she spends every Sunday morning at a local stable, where she leads horses from their stalls in the barn to outdoor paddocks; mucks out their stalls; brushes their coats and cleans their shoes; and rides her favorite mare, Rosie, around the indoor arena.

 

 

The day I accompanied Paula to the barn was cool, sunny, cloudless—truly spectacular. But Paula shows up when it’s pouring rain, when it’s 90 humid degrees in the waning days of Indian summer, and when it’s 12 degrees below zero (not counting the wind chill). It’s her refuge, her escape, the thing she looks forward to all week.

Horse people are a breed apart, so to speak. They live, dream, and breathe horses. They toss around words like forelock, withers, hands, mare, stallion, gelding, pony, quarter horse, and Friesian. They treat their animals’ ailments with acupuncture and chiropractic along with the usual prescribed medications. They spare no expense for their four-hoofed companions. And owning a horse is by no means cheap when you factor in boarding fees, hay and feed, veterinarians’ bills, and saddles, bits, blankets, and other accoutrements.

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Paula feeds an eager Cajun his allergy medication. Like humans, horses can acquire allergies, which usually manifest as welts on their hides rather than as respiratory symptoms.

The first bit of advice I received on this particular day was “Don’t ever stand behind a horse,” because, in my haste to get out of everyone’s way, I had positioned myself directly behind a horse. Unless you’re used to being around these massive, imposing animals—they can weigh up to two tons—or you’ve already been kicked by one, it may not occur to you that there’s a safe place to stand . . . and a not-so-safe place. Check.

Horses, like all animals, have distinct personalities. Some like to nuzzle; others will bite; still others like to squeeze and push their hapless caretakers into the nearest wall. (You can almost hear them snickering when they get to do this.) Some are wary of strangers; others run to welcome humans with unfamiliar faces. Some kick their stall doors and literally champ at the bit in their haste to leave their stalls; others quietly watch all of the goings-on of their equine neighbors and wait patiently to be released from their square confines into fresh air, fresh grass, and freedom.

Wherever there are horses, you’ll find a dog or two. No exception here. Jane is a Jack Russell terrier. Did you make the connection? Her name is . . . Jane Russell. (Now there’s a dog owner with a sense of humor.) Jane is allowed to wander wherever she likes. Ginger, however, is not. Still a goofy puppy compared to the older, more seasoned Jane, Ginger tends to get underfoot, not a good thing around very large, powerful prey animals that are easily spooked and tripped. So Ginger is banned from the arena, where novice riders learn how to read and control their horses with the slightest twist of a shoulder or gentle cluck-cluck of the tongue.

Taking care of horses is a lot of work. But when you love, admire, and respect these superbly formed running machines with their huge eyes and soft muzzles, no amount of work or dedication is too much.

Paula thinks so.

Charming New England

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. Although I’ve lived in Florida for the past 20 years, New England is imprinted on my DNA, and I’ll always love it.

I grew up in a small town called Dartmouth, right next door to New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Herman Melville stayed for a spell before he embarked on an 18-month sea odyssey that inspired his greatest work, Moby-Dick. Although whaling around these parts is, mercifully, a thing of the past, many people still make their living fishing in the cold Atlantic waters for shellfish and fish such as lobster, crab, quahogs, cod, pollock, haddock, tuna, and mackerel.

Sidenote: Frederick Douglass and his wife lived in New Bedford from 1838 to 1841, choosing the city partly because of its reputation as an abolitionist stronghold and partly because of its fishing industry. (Douglass was a ship’s caulker by trade.)

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This part of Massachusetts, the southeast coast, lines up along Buzzards Bay. A stone’s throw to the east is the Cape Cod peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The sea salt–imbued air is intoxicating. You never grow tired of it.

Flora and Fauna

I visited at the invitation of my best friend, Paula, and her husband, Joe. I sat contentedly for hours in their sunroom, watching stunning but skittish cardinals and goldfinches, chickadees, sparrows, and hummingbirds flit to and from the feeders just outside the back door. Shiny blackbirds and fat mourning doves, too big to fit on the feeders, pecked at the ground for the seeds Joe scattered specifically for them. Bushy-tailed squirrels vied for the leftovers.

 

 

 

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A female cardinal appeared regularly. Her vibrant mate, however, proved to be frustratingly elusive.

An endless variety of trees have their roots firmly planted in New England: maple, pine, fir, birch, spruce, cedar, poplar, elm, hemlock, and oak, just to name a few. The grass is verdant and soft and lush. Hydrangeas in shades of pink and blue provide splashes of color. All things green contribute to the clean, crisp smell of the air.

 

 

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Old Gravestones

To some people, cemeteries are morbid places. I find them utterly peaceful. The permanent residents are quiet; visitors, respectful; birds, busy and cheerful.

Old gravestones—in particular, ones that mark the passing of nineteenth-century citizens—are especially fascinating. I like to imagine what these people looked like, where they lived, what they did. Were their lives filled with happiness or hardship? Did they enjoy blissful marriages and have healthy children? What did they hope for, fear, believe? Each stone tells its own story, even if that story is lost to the ages.

Stone Walls

Stone walls in New England have a 400-year history. They were constructed without mortar or cement or any other kind of sticky stuff to hold them in place. They are works of art in granite, unearthed stone by stone by the first European settlers in the Northeast as they cleared the land to farm. People study these unique walls, write books about them, and strive to preserve them and the stories they tell. (For a bit of background, see  https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/history-science-and-poetry-new-englands-stone-walls)

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

An excerpt from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

Weather

If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.

—Mark Twain

Twain nailed it. The weather was capricious, as all New Englanders expect. Even though it was the last week in July, the air was unseasonably cool. A couple of days were highlighted by a chilly rain, and a couple more dawned with temperatures hovering around 57 degrees, a more-than-welcome respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity of Florida, to which I’ve become reluctantly accustomed.

t-shirts-new-england-weather-t-shirt-2_1200x (2)If you’ve never been to New England, make it a destination someday. It is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I think God saved this little corner of the universe for last so He could pour more majesty into it.

 

Better Late Than, You Know, Never

By some standards, I arrived at the motherhood party rather late. My first son was born when I was 35; my second, exactly 2 years and 18 days later. I’m now 52. Most women my age have grown children and an empty nest. I have teenagers.

There’s a reason God didn’t bless me with children in my 20s. Back then, I didn’t know who I was, but I do know what I was: selfish, impatient, and angry. With age comes wisdom, maturity, enlightenment, grace, and forgiveness—all things you need a lot of when you’re raising little people to become responsible, caring adults in a broken world.

It’s never too late to be what you might have been. —George Eliot

Come to think of it, my entire life has been a series of dreams delayed. After wasting the first decade after my college graduation at dead-end jobs—as a technical editor at a couple of government contractors—I landed my dream job as an editorial assistant at a book publisher when I was 32. This was the job that tapped into everything I loved to do: edit, proofread, and organize. I even went to the office on weekends to organize and label files! And the best part was that no two days were alike. I never got bored.

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I got to work with talented, professional authors, artists, photographers, designers, and fellow editors, some of whom have remained friends and colleagues throughout the years. For me, it wasn’t about collecting connections that could forward my career in the future. It was about forging connections on a deeper level with people who invested their time and best work to make the dream of a book a reality. The sense of accomplishment and pride I felt from transforming a rough manuscript into a beautiful, bound finished product was priceless.

Fast-forward to age 46. After suffering through an acrimonious divorce and the pain and loneliness of being separated from my children, I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend her church. Until then, I had been a lifelong Catholic and never imagined I’d be anything else. But I stepped out in faith, and it changed everything. I was truly born again and began the exhilarating transformation that draws me closer to God day by precious day. Like the apostle Paul, I’m a true convert. I used to think born-again Christians were the loopiest people on the planet. Now I know what the hubbub is about.

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Fast-forward again to right now. I thought my best skill was polishing other people’s words. But I’m being called to write. Among the countless gifts God has given me, He has endowed me with ideas, creativity, a deep love for the English language, and a voice. I don’t know where my calling will lead me, but I’m looking forward to the journey.

It doesn’t matter if you arrive at a party long after the other guests have left. Your own timing for your life is often irrelevant. If you’re paying attention, you’ll find that, more often than not, you’re in the right place at the right time, and everything falls into place. Call it serendipity. Call it fate. Call it the gracious hand of God. (I do.) We usually find exactly what we’re looking for when we stop looking.

Better late than never. —Mom

Doing More

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

My friend Jill is a dynamo in the Lord’s kingdom on earth. A physician’s assistant, she is the clinic director at a local resource center that provides not only medical and dental care but hot meals and hot showers, temporary and long-term housing, and job training and referrals to homeless and indigent people in our community. She further serves the Lord by traveling to the Dominican Republic at least once a year to administer sorely needed medical treatments and to teach people there about basic health care and hygiene. When she’s not busy working full-time or going on mission trips, she mentors other women, leads prayer groups, and serves in several capacities at her church. Her plate is full, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

What if Mother Teresa had taken one look at the poverty, disease, suffering, and utter chaos surrounding her in Calcutta and thought, Well, this is certainly overwhelming. I don’t see how I can make much of a difference here. Think I’ll catch the first rickshaw back to Macedonia? She didn’t see it that way, and neither does God.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

—Mother Teresa

Not all of us are called to be a Mother Teresa or even a Jill. Each of us was imbued before birth with a unique calling and purpose set forth by God. God may even have different plans for you at different stages of your life. He may call you as a teen or young adult to invite your friends to church so they can learn about God’s grace and the gift of salvation. If you’re in the season when you’re raising young children, He may simply call you to be the best parent you can be by making Jesus your role model. If you’re struggling with the loneliness of a divorce or an empty nest, He may be calling you to set aside your hurt and serve others, the surest way to put your own problems in perspective and view them as temporary yet vital opportunities to draw closer to God.

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

—Edmund Burke

You may sometimes think that your contribution is minuscule and doesn’t make a difference. But you serve a God of unlimited power and resources. He can multiply every penny you give to a homeless ministry or your church, every word of encouragement you speak, every act of kindness and selflessness you perform in His name. Its effects will ripple indefinitely. You may never know the difference you’ve made in someone’s life, and that’s OK. God keeps His promises even when we’re not privy to the results.

Not all of us are destined to do great things—heal broken bodies and spirits, lead nations, raise orphans, become preachers and teachers, fight on the front lines against abuse, poverty, and injustice. Most of us serve, day in and day out, in much smaller ways without fanfare, recognition, or extrinsic reward, just as God expects. As Mother Teresa reminded us, we can all do small things with great love.

We are born to encourage, help, and love one another as brothers and sisters of one Father. When you serve others in any way, you are serving the Lord Himself.

Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.

—Mother Teresa