August 26, 2017

Loving Your Neighbors

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He was a French teacher and she has the happiest laugh and the sweetest daughters.  They are from Mozambique and spent 10 years in a refugee camp before coming to America. I learned in a storytelling class that I participated in, that we need to be very careful telling other people's stories.  I honestly can't tell you their story, but I can tell you mine.

I was scared of refugees when I was first asked to pick up a large Muslim family who was arriving from the Middle East. I got the call from my friend, Daryl, who works with Interfaith Works in CNY who works along with Catholic Charities to settle refugees in Syracuse. She called because it was a large family and they needed my 15 passenger van to get them from the airport to their new home.  She mentioned that they usually provided a meal but due to the late notice, they didn't have a meal planned. I was sitting in library story time and withing 5 minutes all of my fellow story time moms had agreed to make part of a meal that I could bring with me later that night.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that being there, at that airport that night, was a transformative moment for me. I was born-again, again. I saw a family walk nervously through the halls of the Syracuse International Airport and stop, unsure how to proceed through the revolving doors that separated us.  Their clothing surprised me because it was very American.  The parents wore colorful, native outfits, but the children were dressed in shirts with NFL team logos or funny American "drink milk" slogans. They wore shoes awkwardly, flip flops really, and were obviously cold but had no jackets. All of their belongings were packed in a few zippered, plastic bags, similar to the recyclable bags you can buy to bring your groceries home in.

It is hard to describe the people, because they had a depth in their eyes that is hard to describe. I saw pain, hope, exhaustion, excitement, fear, love, worry, and gratitude. My soul immediately loved them and I yearned to ease their concern and welcome them to their new land. I have NEVER felt more proud to be an American then I did in that moment.  In that moment, I felt like the statue of liberty, representing America to these people.

Emma Lazarus' poem was etched into my soul with a strength and love that will ever remain.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 
Give ME your tired, your poor, your HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE, THE WRETCHED REFUSE OF YOUR TEEMING SHORE. SEND THESE, THE HOMELESS, TEMPEST-TOST TO ME". (I love this inspired poem.  I love the image of a brass warrior, a Greek giant who guards against intruders who has been by a welcoming MOTHER holding a torch in her hand to guide weary travelers safely to our doors. Yes! Let us welcome. Let us hold our torches high! Not just to welcome kings, but to welcome the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to BREATHE free.  We breathe free my friends. Can we not share this great gift? Isn't there always room for one more at our table?)

I remember the sign-language, charade style introductions.  My husband helping with bags and logistics and me, trying to catch the mother's eye to smile deep into her soul.  Instantly I was drawn to the children. The teenagers had eyes that held secrets no teenager should have to carry, but the young children still twinkled with mischief and joy. As I buckled these sweet children into my van, into my own children's car seats and boosters, I literally felt my heart attach to theirs. I knew then, as I know now, that these families need our help. They are not 'foreigners' or even terrorists.  They are my brothers, my sisters, my sons, my daughters, and not only did my conscience demand that I help them, I knew that my religion meant NOTHING if I did not love and serve His children who were seeking refuge.

And, since that day, I have shared my conversion story with many people.  I have helped to initiate some beautiful efforts to help refugees in our area.  But, there is so much more I wish I could do.

I get overwhelmed when I think of all the world problems.  I frankly get overwhelmed when I try to write a To Do List of all that I have to do for my own family each day.  But, I have learned an eternal and essential lesson.  Our families are BLESSED as we  SERVE with them. Perhaps I should say SERVING others is actually BLESSING your family.

Jesus taught the parable of the loaves and the fishes.  Share all that you have and He will multiply it. He makes 5 loaves and 3 fishes enough to feed 5000.  I believe in miracles because I have SEEN miracles. I have watched me teenagers become holy, kind, loving young adults BECAUSE they serve others.

I don't feel sorry for refugees. God holds them in his hand and His light shines in their eyes.
The reason I believe in a loving God even when I see tragedy around me is two fold.

First, I believe trials refine and purify our souls. I believe suffering is temporary and holy.  One of our main purposes in coming to Earth (indeed even one of our Savior's main purposes in coming to Earth) is to descend below all things. As we ache, we are able to feel comforted. As we yearn, we recognize answers. As we want, we feel true gratitude. As we are filled with sorrow, we have room for a fullness of joy.  Suffering highlights all that is real and true in life.

Second, I believe in a God of Compensatory blessings. He compensates when times are hard by sending angels round about us. He blesses us with gifts and understanding, compassion, empathy, eternal perspective, community, and peace. In the midst of great suffering, He sends true healing.

Perhaps this is why I love refugees so much. I feel within them a refined soul. I feel their nearness to God. I feel their humility and their pure gratitude.  Having watched naturalization ceremonies where refugees have become American citizens, and having sat with them as these new Americans talk about what they love about our country, I have felt renewed in my love for democracy, and citizenship in this land that strives for freedom and justice for all.

I am not bragging about the service that I have done. In all honesty, I have done VERY little. My heart is bigger than my capacity to serve at times.

I'm sharing with you my deep, heartfelt conviction that we can and should love our neighbors more.
We should start with a desire and try to do something, even if it is a small thing.

We should invite people into our homes who are different religions, different colors, different nationalities. We should love their children and share the gifts God has blessed us with. As we do this, our families will be blessed.  Not just blessed by God because they are doing some noble service.  Blessed by the people we THINK we are serving because really, it is an honor to serve people who are refined.

Matthew 25
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a "Mormon," I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.

—Joseph Smith, 1843
Hebrews 13:2 Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Do you want to help refugees in your area? Click here to read 40 Ways To Help Refugees in Your Community.

40 Ways to Help Refugees in Your Community.


The Labor of Graduation: A Second Birthing Story

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I felt my first graduation Braxton Hicks contraction sitting in a band concert at the end of my oldest child’s Junior year.  My neighbor was watching her only two children, twins, perform for the very last time before they headed off for college and I felt a pain I remember only distantly from child birth.  This odd pain that started in my stomach and increased in pressure through my very core until it nearly took my breath away.  My eyes filled with tears and I looked around at the other mothers in the room wondering how on earth women from all generations of time just seemed to naturally transition into the empty nest stage of life with grace when I was beginning to panic and scream for an epidural one year before my child was even out of my house.
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Those Braxton Hicks lasted all through my son’s Senior year. They would hit me hard in moments that I least expected them. I would be cleaning up my kitchen after sending my kids off to school in the morning and notice three varsity soccer jackets or hoodies draped over the chairs in my kitchen. I would be upset and think, “For 18 years I have been telling this kid to hang his coats in the closet or take them to his bedroom.  Will he EVER learn?” And then, my eyes would cloud over with tears and that pang would start in my stomach and tighten up to my heart and I would know, this time next year, his coats will not be draped over my kitchen chairs.  And, oh how I would miss them.
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It’s as if that whole year, every event was foreshadowed with the knowledge that “this is the last” first day of school, the last football game, the last Halloween, the last Christmas morning, birthday at home, family trip, Easter basket, Highschool Soccer game, track meet, band concert, award ceremony, prom. The last time I would pack a lunch for him or bring cinnamon rolls up to the school for a bake sale. Even as I enjoyed every moment, there was this pain that I did not expect and could not escape.
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Jakob was my first of eight pregnancies. I had great plans for a natural childbirth. I remember when my first real contractions pulsed through my body, taking my breath away and opening my eyes to the reality of the event I had spent 22 years and 9 months anticipating. I remember telling my husband that “this is really stupid.” I couldn’t imagine that every single woman throughout history had experienced this and survived. My nurse said, “Why do you think there are bars on the window honey?” She really told me that.  What a horrible thing to tell a first-time mom in labor. I took Lamaze classes and I spent eight hours breathing deeply and envisioning my flower opening before my doctor announced that this baby was ready to come but I wasn’t dilating.  He said we either needed a c-section or I needed to try an epidural.  30 minutes after an epidural helped me to relax, I had dilated from a 4 to a 10, and I was looking into the eyes of the most beautiful baby boy I had ever seen.  I was tired and scared, but this little baby in my arms stared into my eyes with the confidence and wisdom of the ages.  I knew we would be okay together. 
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Pregnancy is 9 months long, because a mother really needs to feel done before she is ready to push that baby out.  I think it takes 9 months to prepare for your first birth and 18 years to prepare for your second. 18 years of watching your child learn and grow and prepare for life outside of your home. 18 years before your home, like your womb, begins to feel restrictive instead of nurturing.
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You see the ultrasounds of college acceptances, future plans and dreams, and you know that on the other side of this major transition is a human being that will bless humanity. You are so excited and anxious to see the next stage of your child’s life. And yet, it hurts. The thought of letting go and saying goodbye literally rips you apart sometimes. A casual good night hug extends as you just hold him a little too long trying to squeeze that little boy who you will forever see inside this man-boy’s eyes.
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Maybe it’s good that we really don’t comprehend how painful it is to say goodbye to half of your heart.  No matter how many children you have, saying goodbye to one of them is a labor of love.
It is confusing to be so excited for the future and so sad to say goodbye to the past, all at the same time. Every mother WANTS her child to graduate, to move upward and outward.  We want our little boys to become men even as we mourn the loss of life as we know it.

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I took Jakob to his last physical at the pediatrician’s office he had visited since he was a child.  They were kicking him out even as he was preparing to leave for a two year LDS Mission. Because Jakob was 18, I sat out in the waiting room during his exam, right next to a new mom who was bouncing her 2 week old little boy. Oh, how I have loved being a mother.  Every stage is equally challenging and rewarding. I saw that new mother’s worry and her pride as she smiled at her sweet baby and fumbled with her over-sized diaper bag and awkward car seat. I knew that she would soon experience teething and rolling and walking and talking. I wanted to tell her to take pictures and laugh when things are hard, to hold him tight when he is naughty, and to not give up when he complains about piano practicing.  I wanted to warn her that teaching your child to drive is scarier than she might imagine it to be. And promise her that he won’t always sneak into her bed at night, or tease his little sister (actually, that’s not true, he will always tease his little sister and she will love it). I wanted to tell this new mom that she doesn’t need to be afraid of the teenage years, because teenage years are SO great.  Watching your kids grow into funny, frustrating, and inspiring young humans with friends that you love is one of the best stages of motherhood.  
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I wanted to just pick up that little boy and hug him and smell him, and rock him in the middle of the night ONE LAST TIME.  Instead, I just sat there watching this cute mom with her baby, with tears running down my cheeks.  I smiled and I told her to enjoy every moment because it goes so fast.  Right there, in that pediatrician’s office, I BECAME that old woman in the grocery store that tried to warn me so many times as I muddled through motherhood.  Enjoy this moment, it goes quickly.
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I said goodbye to Jakob at 4:30 am on 8/8/17. He was 138 lbs, 6’2”, and wore a size 10.5 shoe. There was a moment when all my Lamaze training up to this point was failing me and although I was breathing and trying to envision my flower opening, I was panicking and couldn’t breathe.  I held on so tightly to this kid and really didn’t know if I could let him go.  And then, he pulled away. He was dressed in man clothes with his suitcases meticulously packed.  He was the most beautiful 18-year-old missionary I had ever seen. I was tired and scared, but this little man in my arms stared into my eyes with the confidence and wisdom of the ages.  I knew he would be okay.  I would be okay.
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Sometimes, in the grocery store, I run into veteran mothers who understand what it is like to deliver a child into the world. You can see it in their eyes. Some mothers have an easy time of delivery, they make it look simple. Other mothers have deliveries that last weeks and weeks.  I just talked to a sweet kindergarten teacher who said she slept in her son’s bed for three weeks after he left for college and wore his sweatshirts each day.  She said two things helped her to transition, putting her heart into teaching kindergarten and remembering that her younger son still needed her. I didn’t understand how hard it was to say goodbye, until those first Braxton hicks hit me my son’s junior year.  I have successfully endured my first, graduation labor, and I must say it was harder than I imagined it would be.  But, it was worth it. 
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I still get teary-eyed when I talk about saying good bye to my oldest.  I still feel sore when I sit down at the dinner table and there is always one empty seat.  I still count kids on Sunday morning as we head out the door for Church and I always, always feel that someone is missing.  I mourn for the compact family life I have grown to love even as I am excited to learn a more expanded definition of family.
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But, I have a new life that I am loving.  We receive letters home each week from a man-child in Mexico City who is learning a new language as he is learning to love a new culture of people. He is still the same kid joking about poop stories and sending home pictures of the beautiful mountains around him. And, he is different, more humble, more independent. I like this stage. Jakob still teases his little sister and is still setting an example for her.  We hang pictures of him on our fridge and the emptiness I was dreading isn’t really an emptiness. I feel him with us. I feel him close to me. I didn’t realize that even though he is over 2,642.6 miles away, I can still feel when he’s having a hard day. 
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most likely to succeed
His heart is somehow still connected to mine. I’m glad for that.
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Labor is not something you can really prepare for, the first or second time you experience it.  Labor is an initiation ritual that qualifies you to be the sage women in the grocery story that has the authority to tell young teenagers to enjoy their youth and young mothers to cherish each moment. We know why there are bars on the windows and we also know that life beyond delivery is absolutely worth every pain we endure to get there. Life is beautiful. Growing hurts sometimes but the result is worth the process. Looking back, I cherish my yearlong labor. Because every single tinge of sadness I felt inspired me to really SEE each moment. I loved being a mother. And, love hurts sometime.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” (The Velveteen Rabbit, by Marjorie Williams)
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August 08, 2017

As He Grows From Boy To Man

We give our children roots and wings.
We want them to leave us, to learn, to grow, to serve.

And yet, as they progress to the next momentous stage of life we know they are leaving behind a stage that we love. We will mourn the loss of boy even as we love the new man.

Jakob has caused me my fair share of heartaches.  But oh how I love that kid.

We were out running errands and had lunch at some big taco joint.  I told him I really wasn't sad that he was leaving.  I'm SO happy for him and I really don't want him at home watching dumb TV for the rest of his life.  He looked into my eyes with his twinkling half smile and said.  "Ok mom.  So you won't cry when you don't see my coat hanging on the kitchen chair."  I cried just thinking about that.
I can't help it.

I love that child SO much. 
I LOVE having my kids all together, playing in the pool, singing in the car, squabbling at the dinner table, teasing in the church pew, laughing, sleeping, working, just being together.
THIS stage of togetherness has ended.
That hurts.
But, every single sunset in my life has been followed by a beautiful sunrise.  

I bawled when Jakob left for kindergarten.  Bawled.
And then, he came home happy and told me all the wonderful things he had learned.  And, my ache was less.
He was scared of the mean lunch ladies and didn't know what a "single smile line" was, but he figured things out.  
We both did.

When Drew left home the next year it was still hard (for me and him) but not as hard because Jakob had led the way, with a smile and a wave and the assurance that he would be fine.

God sent me Jakob first because He knew I would need his strength and confidence.

Oh my dear, dear boy.
Know every second of your life that you are loved.  Know that God is real, that He hears your prayers, that Heaven is near, and that you have angels on your right hand and on your left.
Serve with your heart, might, mind, and strength.
Love like your mom taught you how to.
And take lots of pictures.
We will miss you and celebrate all that you are.
Two years.  A life tithe.  
Oh, what a beautiful plan.  

I think I'm going to love this new stage.
Life is good.
This is the best kind of hard.

August 06, 2017

Family Dinner

(The Elders in our ward today.)
I believe in family dinner.

I'm SO excited for Jakob to serve a mission.  He is ready. I am ready.

But, I just get choked up at the little "lasts".

Tonight I made a one minute Instagram video of everyone sitting around the dinner table.  Our last Sunday dinner together for at least three years because Drew will be gone when Jakob gets home.

While I'm typing this Ellie is braiding Anna's hair trying to copy a picture she's looking at from Pinterest.  Ellie is telling Anna "You could let me do your hair everyday for school and you'd look so cute.  You're almost 16 do t you want to date guys?"

My years and years of wrangling little kids to Church is almost over.  Those years have been hard and wonderful.  

Today my 6 oldest kids all bore sweet, powerful testimonies.  They feel God in their lives. I love that.

I'm standing here on the edge of another milestone. An era of eight kids at home is coming to an end.  It was a good era.

Life's seasons are sacred.
I know it.
Life is good. 
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