“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.

 

All the days of my life

In our first week of dating, attending an inaugural ball for President Clinton’s second inauguration. January 1997.

The first 7,304

It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice.  Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath.  I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again.  Breathing that is.  But you get the point.

We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done.  I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.”  It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.

I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel.  But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before.  It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life.  I recall thinking calmly to myself,

“So this is her. The love of my life.  I knew she’d be smart.  Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”

And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.

Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences.  To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment.  The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come.  Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.

The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy.  I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach.  Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.

I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards.  I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later.  After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.

When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened.  It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.

And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.

May 23, 1998.

An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate.  That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.

That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups.  These include:

  1. No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns.  No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
  2. No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy.  We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
  3. Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other.  Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
  4. No quinoa. Ever.  I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit.  Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.

Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals.  Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws.  I still bring me into every situation.

That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together.  We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to.  For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert.  Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy.  On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.

Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple.  Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times.   But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.

When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road.  I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.

The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles.  Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about.  Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.

I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life.  Gretchen is my greatest blessing.

When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead.  And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.

If It’s Going to Be, Is It Up to Me?

If It’s Going to Be, Is It Up to Me?
Photo by Jerome Prax. Unsplash.com.
Photo by Jerome Prax. Unsplash.com.

So it’s the last day of my Month of Good News 2016, and I have not fully completed the challenge. Including this post, I’ve done 22 in 31 days. Not bad by most standards. But not up to my expectations. I had wanted to post every single day during October.

Yet have you noticed – that oftentimes our expectations are unrealistic?

It’s fairly easy to see that our expectations of others cannot be fulfilled. When was the last time you asked a family member to complete a task and they did it exactly and precisely the way you wanted? The timing might have been off, or something else wasn’t up to snuff. They bought the ‘wrong’ brand of orange juice, missed a few spots while cleaning the bathroom, or didn’t arrange the towels, dishes, magazines, shirts etc. the way you would. The truth is, no single person can meet our expectations unless we decide to relinquish those expectations.

Now, consider yourself. Are you always faithful to your resolutions? Do you eat healthfully, get enough sleep, exercise, return all phone calls and emails, remember and check off each item on your to-do list, speak kindly to every person you encounter, and thank God for your life and all of its blessings (both seen and unseen) – every single day? Every 6 hours?

I am not. I fall short.

In my Bible Study group a week and a half go, I once again came to the realization that if I am to ‘treat my neighbor as myself,’ I need to think about the impact of my attitude and actions. Not only is it important to display the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love to the neighbors – especially the 4 living in my home – but it’s also imperative that I show myself the same consideration.

And – I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty hard on myself. If I don’t meet my own expectations, I’m likely to come unglued. As my best laid plans are derailed, I become cranky, resentful, and angry. But instead of dropping my lofty, ‘perfect’ plans, I tend to unleash my emotions on the people I love most. Or I get a migraine – in which case, I’ve turned the fury on myself.

So, a week and a half ago, I asked the women in my Bible Study group to pray that I would slow down and be more fully present to both my neighbors and to myself.

Those faithful friends of mine prayed. And my eyes were opened.

It’s one thing to say we need to be “good to ourselves,” and yet it’s another to do it, largely because we are flawed and limited in our ability to help ourselves.

When I was in 6th grade, my teacher Mrs. Walker had a motto on the ceiling of her English classroom. It said, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”

Such a truism can be inspiring to a degree, but as we earnestly meet the challenges of daily life for years, we eventually realize the limitations of mantras like this one, which are premised on the idea that I alone can do whatever it is that needs to be done.

I hit a wall in the last ten days, and clearly saw that I can be a writer, but I can’t generate material that I don’t have. I simply didn’t have enough things I wanted to say, much less time to research and write them, here at the end of October. The schedule is just too full of practices, awards ceremonies, family visits, birthdays, and costume sewing (as well as meals, exercise, and homework). Yes, I could have started writing back in August and then posted everything I’d accumulated in October. But I don’t work that way.

I want to have fresh things to say, as the Lord prompts me to say them.

And whoa – right there in that statement came my moment of reckoning when I understood the real Truth.

My limitations are the exact points where God wants to step in and give me the strength, creativity, and time that I am so desperately craving.

The question is not, “What can I get done?” but instead, “What does God want to equip me to do?”

As I evaluate my tasks for the day, I need to ask,

  • Does this activity have eternal value?
  • Is it something God would want me to focus on?
  • Will He be upset with me if my expectations are not met?

Failing to meet our own expectations is actually a blessing. It’s a correction to our human tendency to make ourselves a higher priority than God.

In my case, it was also the answer to a prayer.

He came alongside me and in His gentle way said, “I will help you write, but it won’t be on your schedule. It will happen on mine. And I will help you to be the good mom and wife you want to be. Let Me fill you. Let Me be your peace.”

God promises to be with us every step of our lives, but it’s up to us to turn to Him and say, “I trust you. Please equip me with your grace, because I am weak, but You are strong.” (Philippians 4:13)

He will give us grace. Guaranteed.

This is the very best of all Good News. May we carry it with us, and share it with those He places in our paths.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

-2 Corinthians 12:9

Holy Moments – Day 8 – Wedding Prayer

whiteflowerdew

We are attending an outdoor wedding on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay this evening. The forecast looks perfect.

Vows taken before God are always holy moments. I distinctly remember the feeling of God’s presence as my husband and I faced one another and took our vows 17 years ago. But in the time since then, when the weather changed, I know I forgot about the Lord sometimes. But He never forgot about us.

That this couple would keep Him in mind, and gain strength and patience from the knowledge of His constant presence and everlasting love, is my most basic prayer for them as well.

But today – I’d like to share a blessing from the Irish poet John O’Donohue, taken from his book – To Bless the Space Between Us. 

For Marriage

As spring unfolds the dream of the earth,
May you bring each other’s hearts to birth. 
As the ocean finds calm in view of the land, 
May you love the gaze of each other’s mind.
As the wind arises free and wild,
May nothing negative control your lives. 
As kindly as moonlight might search the dark,
So gentle may you be when light grows scarce.
As surprised as the silence that music opens,
May your words for each other be touched with
     reverence.
As warmly as the air draws in the light,
May you welcome each other’s every gift. 
As elegant as dream absorbing the night,
May sleep find you clear of anger and hurt. 
As twilight harvests all the day’s color,
May love bring you home to each other. 

 

Better Than I Found It

We were on vacation last week at a lake. We’d found the perfect VRBO (vacation rental by owner) retreat – a townhouse with all of the modern amenities and a community indoor pool (which the kids loved and which was indispensable on the one day it poured).  We were very excited about  kayaking, boating, and time on the beach at the state park.  So I packed accordingly, making sure to include all of the things I knew we’d need: beach towels, swimsuits, inner tubes, goggles, life jackets, food, a first-aid kit….the list goes on.  Every parent (and the Girl Scout in me) knows – it’s good to be prepared.

I neglected, however, to read the last page of our rental agreement, which listed some items that would not be provided at the townhouse.  And the most basic of these was immediately missed when our family arrived after a 4-hour trip and three of us rushed into the house in search of “the facilities.”  And we knew we’d find them: there were two full bathrooms in the photographs we’d seen online, and a half bath as well.

My youngest ran into the bathroom closest to the front door.  About 30 seconds later I heard that crescendoing voice every mother dreads – the one that spells trouble.

“MOM!!!! There’s no toilet paper in here!!”

“Ok. Hold on. I’m sure there’s some around here somewhere.”

I began a very speedy search. The other bathrooms. Under sinks. The closets. Every cabinet.

There wasn’t a shred. Not a square.  Anywhere.

And the whole time, I was taking note (the way women do) of the fact that this place was immaculate. So clean that the biggest clean freak would have been satisfied.  And I heard in my head that haunting phrase from my Girl Scout days that so often repeats itself to me: “Always leave the place better than you found it.”

Typically, I would have been daunted. The countertops gleamed.  Every plate was perfectly stacked. The games and puzzles provided by the homeowner were organized by size, with the largest boxes on the bottom and smallest on top.  Every appliance (there were two waffle irons!?!) was scrubbed squeaky clean. This place even had new furniture for crying out loud!  Where could I make an improvement?  But after my frenzied search, I knew…it would be easy.

During our stay I tried to make sure we tread lightly, while still relaxing and enjoying ourselves. (And we did have an awesome time). I was so, so, so grateful for the opportunity to get away with my loved ones. And my husband lovingly reminded me that the rental agreement included a cleaning fee, and there was nothing for me to worry about.  So, I put my feet up and let things go.

But I knew that I would need to do my part for the next vacationers, because sometimes all we can leave behind is a tiny sign of Love.  A little thing that lets others know – someone was paying attention. Someone thought of them. Someone cared about what might be needed. At the end of the road.

When we departed on Saturday….Well – you can guess what I left behind.  And I’m pretty sure, someone was blessed by it.

TP

Day 30 – Baby Love

On my husband’s side of the family, we had a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving – our newborn niece – who was exactly 7 weeks old on the holiday itself.  She is a beautiful and tiny little cherub, with long fingers and long legs. It was fun to speculate about what she might do with her life, and to study her face, trying to discern whom she most closely resembles.

The immediate family ate dinner together, and my husband’s large extended family joined us for dessert.  Many had not seen the new princess before.  Something happens to a person when they “meet” a newborn, especially one in their family, for the first time.  Their face noticeably softens, tension drains from their shoulders.  They stop moving and often fall silent for several seconds. Scientists say women’s pupils dilate when they look at a baby’s face.

I think staring into the eyes of a newborn we are meeting for the first time is awe-inspiring on a deeply subconscious level.  Newborns are people in their purest possible state.  And it just might be the closest we can come to seeing the face of God.

I looked around the room at all of those people and for a few minutes saw babies everywhere. We all were, of course, just like my niece. And someone took care of us, however well or imperfectly. The people who brought us up did their best to love us, and they were babies once too, loved by imperfect people.

Some of us are blessed to be parents to babies now growing.  I am humbled every day by the realization that I make tons of mistakes, and that while I start out with the best of intentions, and I love my kids so much it hurts sometimes, there is One far greater who loves them infinitely more than me, and He proved it by dying for me on a cross. He alone, of all babies who grew up throughout time, did not have the stuff inside that makes me do things that leave me knowing I’m guilty, or ashamed. Thank goodness for Him, because He forgives me for messing up, and can show me how to try again, and how to love myself and my babies better the next time.

And there’s another thing I’ve learned from Him, but also from watching parents here whose babies have gone to heaven heartbreakingly young.  And that is, that a living parent NEVER stops loving their baby.  In fact, love never ends.  I am so thankful for the assurance I have in knowing that. Because I too am a baby.  And my Father is the Living God.

“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”

― Robert Munsch, Love You Forever

 

image
My daughter (9) holds my niece’s hand.                                     She was 7 weeks old on Thanksgiving day.

 

Day 29 – Write it on Your Heart

I got out the hearts today. The wooden hearts. We started writing on these at Thanksgiving a couple years ago, when I hoped it would become an annual tradition. Every person in our home for the holiday writes on one side of the heart what he or she is thankful for this year, and on the other, their name and the date. Over time, we’ll have a record of gratitude that can be arranged in a vase, or tossed in a bowl to be sifted through and remembered.

One of my very best friends gave me this ‘hearts’ idea, and I liked it because it’s similar to writing thank-notes or making gratitude lists.  And I like to write thank-you notes. Seriously. Some people find them tedious but I don’t. In fact, I’ve found that the old adage “you can’t hold a positive and negative thought in your head at the same time” is true, because when I’m feeling a bit down or having an “off” day, the best remedy for me is to write a thank-you note to someone, for any good reason I can think of.  And if I can’t think of anyone, I can always build on my gratitude list to God, starting right where I am.

I read (and re-read) an amazing book this year called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  In it, she takes counting blessings to a whole new level.  How?  First, she unravels the word eucharisteo, the original Greek word used in the Gospel of Luke to describe Jesus giving thanks at the Last Supper. Eucharisteo means thanksgiving, and within it is the Greek word charis, meaning grace, and its derivative chara, meaning joy.  So, there is a correlation between giving thanks to God for the gifts of His grace that we see all around us (even the tiniest things!), and experiencing joy. The miracle is that this works even when we think there is nothing to be thankful for.

This year has been a difficult one for my family.  We’ve lost several family members, and we miss them this Thanksgiving. But when we had to say goodbye to each of them, I began my daily prayers with litanies of thanks for all the things I could think of about each person, and it pulled my focus off my sadness, and onto them, where they are now, in God’s light.

image

 

Day 27 – Beagle in My Lap

So, I’m approaching the end of my first 31 days of blogging, and I wasn’t sure what I’d write about today, but I really wanted to post something. I had a few ideas, but every time I started to write, I was sidetracked…by someone.

It was my youngest child, mostly.  He was hungry.  Then he needed a different show on TV.  Then he’d seen too much TV so we cleaned bathrooms together. Then we ate lunch and went to the store.  We came home and unpacked the groceries.  We picked his siblings up from school.  It was crazy warm for November today (71 degrees!) and the kids wanted to play outside.  I sat out there with them and tried to write.  The neighbor dropped by to say hello.

After the sun went down, I sent all the kids into the basement and plopped on the couch to try one more time. Our beagle climbed up next to me and laid her head on my chest. I kissed her and then she looked up at me with those big brown eyes of hers, and she crawled right on top of my iPad, into my lap. I let out a deep, deep sigh.

Yesterday, I wrote about the need to leave white space – margin – in the calendar. The main reason is because days like this happen to me all the time. I am blessed with a family who needs me, and while it is appropriate that I have time to myself to pursue my interests, the reality is that my life is not my own. It is a gift that has been entrusted to me, and I am just the steward, trying to do my best to take good care of the people, responsibilities, and things I’ve been blessed with.  I ask for His wisdom and guidance to prioritize my days, and to see what I need to see. From that point on, it’s better if I’m not trying to steer.

Today, each cry of “Mom!!!” was a divine appointment. And that’s what I needed to remember.

 

image