On Using the Good China and Making Hard Stops

Photo credit: Sean

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

My Dad has been building a house, literally by himself, for about the last 30 years.  It is a wicked amazing house, set back at the base of a hill between some big oak trees, on his ranch in the south Texas hill country. The process of building started way back when I was about six years old. He and my mom poured over house plan magazines until they settled on one they liked. In the meantime, my brother and I helped him find and gather up all the best river rocks we could to serve as part of the future house’s walls. Big, flat, white limestone rocks pulled from the riverbeds in the Texas canyon where I grew up…we made piles and piles of them until at last my dad was ready to start building.

Over the last few decades, he has worked on this house whenever he could, a few hours here, a few hours there. He poured the foundation, plumbed the pipes, stretched the electrical lines, dug the well, and laid cinder block after cinder block, all by himself.  As far as I know, the only thing he accepted significant help with was putting on the metal roof and having custom kitchen cabinetry done by a local carpenter.  The house is now livable, but still has some detail work to be done.  It is wonderfully unique, well-built, and has a fabulous stone fireplace. It would pretty much take a nuclear bomb to bring that house down.

Truth be told, I have bittersweet feelings about this house, in all of its fabulous-ness, because of how it relates to my mom, who passed away almost five years ago now. That house was my mother’s dream, what she built her future around, and sadly, it was a future that was never realized.  It still kind of breaks my heart.

Being a bride in the 70s, my mom received beautiful china, silver, and crystal bowls for her wedding.  Every so often my mom would pull everything out from the dark recesses of her kitchen cabinets and we would polish the silver as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful pieces.  I would always beg her to let us use the china and silver for everyday use, it was so pretty.  But she would inevitably say, no, this is special…it is to be saved for the “new” house, as though the old ranch house I grew up in wasn’t worthy of beautiful dinners and lovely things.

Mom also talked of the dinner parties and family gatherings we would have when we finally moved to our ranch, away from the ranch that my dad managed. She subscribed to Southern Living and would pore over the magazine pictures, visualizing how she would decorate the new house. And most every time I suggested doing something with the house we currently lived in, she would say, no, let’s wait until the new house.

The china never got pulled out and set at the table.  The silver was never used to serve food at parties or even be displayed.  My mom died from cancer exactly a year after she retired from her college teaching job, just after all the kitchen appliances were installed in the new house, just after all of the custom cabinetry was done, and just after all the downstairs was painted a lovely, calming, buttery yellow.  I still choke up thinking about it. I don’t blame my dad at all for not getting the house done in time for her to live there…he has busted his ass for my family and his employer for the last 40 years, working harder than anyone I have ever known. But it hurts, nevertheless, that my mom never got to have that dinner party.


I found out this week that a grade school-through-high school classmate of mine passed away.  She was only 37, and left behind a daughter and young son.  The news sobered me and reminded me that life is not guaranteed for anyone.  It is one thing for me to work in a hospital and experience the illness and passing of relative strangers; it is entirely a different thing to experience the passing of people you know, or once knew well, especially when they are still young


Last week I took my boys up to the southern edge of Lake Michigan to celebrate a friend’s graduation from seminary.  A different friend joined us and we spent the day before the graduation sitting on the sandy beaches of Indiana Dunes. After 6 hours of sitting under a shaded umbrella while my boys dug in the sand and played in the water, none of us were ready to leave.  It was too calm, too peaceful, too thick of the life that we so often miss with our frantic, electronics-filled days that are jammed with commitments and obligations.

Our day on the beach made me recognize something.  I try to squeeze in meditation or contemplative sits into my days, I try to regularly exercise, and I try to keep up with all of my appointments and deadlines to avoid falling behind.  But I know this was not enough. All I have been doing is squeezing in thing after thing into my life, knowing that EVERY SINGLE DAY would involve either housework, or errands, or homework, or clinicals. These things, as important as they are, made every day feel exhausting and creativity-stifling. There are things I really want to do but am never getting to because I always feel like I should be doing something else…something productive, or useful, or adult-ish.  The things that make we want to get up in the morning were just squeezed in here and there as I could, never receiving my full time and attention.

I need regular hard stops in my life. Time to just set aside work and all the “should-dos”, time to really rest and recuperate and have fun and pursue creatively the things that really make me happy – a sabbath, if you will. I’ve known of people who have set aside a day in their week to do nothing other than what they wanted to do. I’ve known of people who even did this while in school, and amazingly, saw their grades improve. And while I grew up reading the Old Testament’s commands to take sabbaths every week and every seventh year to rest, I never saw the need until now.  I used to think the Sabbath was for God; now I know it is for us.

Today is my first hard stop, and I discovered a couple of things leading up to it. I worked harder this week on my schoolwork and other obligations in anticipation of quitting today. Instead of quickly falling behind at the start of every nursing school semester as usual, I am actually ahead. Second, I am not dreading the start of tomorrow and the next week, because I know that I will have another hard stop coming up in just a few days. I gave myself license to sleep in today, and to do whatever brings me joy, and I have experienced emotional and physical rest in that.


A friend of mine and I got together for coffee a few nights ago. During our conversation, we talked about how we always tend to live our lives constantly reaching for the future, pursuing goals, and “saving the good china” for later because we believe that once we get “there” we will be happy.  But we both had to admit, that being “there” never makes us happier. When we get “there”, there is always some new goal to work towards, some new thing that we feel we need to be happy.  And we tend to find that we are usually never more happy or sad than we were in the past.  Richard Rohr says it this way: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.”  Basically, how you do things now is how you’re going to do them in the future.  If you’re not happy and content now, you won’t be happy and content in the future.

My friend and I concluded that happiness is a state of mind.  The only place to live is in the here and now, because that’s all there actually is.   In general, there is never really a “right” time to do things, either.  If we wait to live our lives and pursue our dreams for the “right” time to come, we’ll likely end up waiting forever.  Or, in my mom’s case, our lives will end before that time ever comes.

So this is my grand, or maybe not so grand, conclusion: chase after what you’re passionate about NOW, be grateful for all that you have NOW, schedule in regular hard stops to recalibrate yourself NOW, and use the good china TONIGHT at dinner.


Disappointment in Parenting


Photo credit: Brit-knee


Being a parent is HARD, y’all.  You know, we often ask new parents of young babies how they are sleeping, and we set up meal trains to bring them food, and we offer to clean their houses and watch the infants so Mom and Dad can go on a date.

Can I just say, after having had three babies, that parents need way more help when the kids are older than when they’re fresh out of the toaster?  When your kids are tiny, parenting is really only about being able to stay awake and learning the technical aspects of keeping a little human alive and well. Parents end up exhausted and cranky, but usually, the true existential crises don’t come until those little humans start talking and showing their personalities and wills.

I tend to laugh at movies and other programs when teenagers are handed fake babies to care for as a method of birth control. This is so ineffective in my opinion.  They should hand the teenagers toddlers up through eleven-year-olds, and a house with laundry everywhere, a sink full of two-day old dishes, toothpaste all over the bathroom walls, and pee everywhere but the toilet.  I believe this would be a much more effective form of contraception.

Now, I should preface before I go much further that I’m totally riffing off Rob Bell’s latest podcast on disappointment.  And, I also know I’m setting myself up to be crucified by people who have their lives more pulled together than me.  But I suspect I”m not alone in what I’m going to write about here, and I also admit that I’m processing my own thoughts about parenting while I write this.

I’m so disappointed as a parent.  Remember that book from years ago, Disappointment with Godby Phillip Yancey, where he voices questions about God that you’re not really actually supposed to ask out loud?  I don’t remember much of the book, but the title stuck with me. Here, in this post, I’m just going to say the things that you’re not supposed to say out loud about parenting – because it’s true, and real, and sometimes you have to say hard things out loud to be able to move forward.

Parenting is not what it was supposed to be. My kids are not who they were supposed to be.   Furthermore, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I have no certainty of the outcomes.  I really hate that – I want to have a foolproof plan for childrearing and I want to know that my plan will succeed with all of me still intact.

Disappointment, it seems, comes because the expectations we have about something aren’t met.  I had alot of expectations when I had my kids. First, I didn’t expect to become a parent when I did.  I had other plans in mind, another agenda in place, which was abruptly taken off the table. So, disappointed as I was at the time to have to suddenly change directions, I threw my shoulders back and took on the mantle of parenting. At the time, I saw my goal to be raising children for Jesus – get them on the straight and narrow from the get-go, and pave the path for them to cruise straight into heaven after they die, all the while growing up to be compassionate adults who engage in some meaningful work among non-Jesus-ified people before then. I would also homeschool them, push them to their limits academically, and mold them to be sweet, tactful, helpful little people. And all the while I would do it as a model parent, sure of myself and my role as their authority figure.

Yeah, well, those idealistic notions lasted about two seconds.  It took me only a couple of months with my first kid to realize I had no clue what the hell being a parent was all about.  And it didn’t take me very long to recognize that we tend to become parents for reasons and with expectations that will inevitably be tested.

Children, as it seems, have very little interest in helping us become fulfilled as humans. They aren’t concerned with how their personalities and temperaments trigger us. They refuse to stay cute, calm, cuddly, and docile. Now that all of my children are in elementary school, I have concluded that people should be warned against bringing these little creatures into the world unless they want all of their faults mirrored back to them on a regular basis, have every single decision they make questioned again and again, and be repeatedly brought to the brink of insanity.

I think my disappointment in parenting comes from the fact that I didn’t know, years ago, that raising children is nothing short of a spiritual practice.  We are not really our children’s teachers at a certain level; they are here to teach us about life and what matters. They are here to wear off our rough edges and make US fit for the Kingdom, (drawing from Christian language) not the other way around. They are here to pave THEIR own paths, not meet our emotional needs or help us feel successful.

I didn’t decide to be a parent so that I could be perpetually disappointed, but that’s where I am. I’m not a masochist; if I had known how hard it is to be a parent, I doubt I would have willingly signed up.  Now, before people start beating me up and saying I’m heartless and evil: me being disappointed has nothing to do with how much I love my boys or how I would die for them without thinking about it, or how they have brought with them so many unexpected gifts into my life.

Disappointment is not always a bad thing, I don’t think, even though it hurts.  It has made very clear to me so many of my attachments to things that aren’t healthy or helpful. It has shown me that my children do not belong to me; they are simply passing through my hands for a short time.  And most importantly, I think, my parenting disappointments have taught me to be much more gracious to other parents who may be doing this raising kids thing differently than me, because parenting is damn hard and we are all just fumbling and doing the best we can.

Richard Rohr frequently talks about how we must become disillusioned with our own personal salvation projects, realizing they don’t get us anywhere, for us to really move forward.  He’s primarily talking about how we relate to God, but I think it applies to things like parenting, too.  It’s only when we absolutely reach the ends of our ropes with our kids can we truly begin to parent out of grace, and maybe, out of our true selves and not our egos.

I think I’m edging to this point. I’ve read SO VERY MANY parenting books from people across various philosophies. I’ve taken parenting classes.  I’ve tried to be the authoritarian parent and the benevolent democratic parent. I’m tried behavior modification, begging, threats, and though I no longer use it because it has only made things worse-spanking.

What I’ve found is none of these is a silver bullet solution. There is no one-size fits all pattern to parenting.  And sometimes, even when you’ve done every single thing right, you’re kid, OR YOU, will still screw up tremendously.

One of my boys has really been struggling this year.  Behavior issue after behavior issue, hitting, tearing things apart, being steely in his obstinance.  I get call after call and email after email from his school.  He’s been in the office this many times today for such and such.  He’s going to have in school suspension tomorrow for such and such. He just got kicked out of his after-school program for such and such.

At a certain point, all I hear is the Charlie Brown wah, wah, wah, wah.  I hear it again when everyone in my life starts throwing out suggestions, trying to be helpful.  Maybe he has ADD. Well you know, Julie, divorce is hard on kids. Maybe you should get him tested for this, or that, or that. Julie, you need to institute some real structure and consistency in his life. Julie, you need to be less demanding. 

My kids tend to work in cycles, too, and sometimes they tag team against me.  As soon as I put out a fire with one kid, another one flares up with a different kid.  It is exhausting.  And SO disappointing.   Because I wanted to be the GOOD Mom. The one who is always emotionally available. The one who always knows the right thing to say. The one who is always fair and just. The one who never spoils but is never rigid.

I’m disappointed because I’m not the person I thought I should be and wanted to be, and I’m disappointed in my kids because they aren’t the people I wanted them to be or who they were supposed to be.

Back to the personal salvation project idea.  This is what I’m tentatively realizing: life seldom brings to us what we think we want, but rather, it serves up daily what we truly need. If there’s one thing I know for sure, life undoubtedly brought me the perfect kids to reveal every flaw, and every shred of greed and selfishness, and all the lazy bits hidden down deep within me. I thought my personal salvation project was supposed to be about rocking it as a parent and raising brilliant, charming kids, all the while, never repeating the mistakes my own parents made.  But I should have known, growing up with the words of Jesus ingrained in me…to find yourself, you must first lose yourself.  I’m disappointed because I was secretly hoping I could bypass this part – maybe I’d get lucky and it wouldn’t apply to me.

My final great disappointment in parenting is that you can’t just fix things by finding the right book or parenting technique or just working harder. Sometimes no matter what you aim for, things will be hard and you will do the wrong thing and you’ll feel like throttling both yourself and your kids. Don’t you just hate this? It’s so counterintuitive in today’s world – we believe that if we just apply the scientific method and a bit of logic -Voilà!- problem solved and we will all get along splendidly!

My one great consolation right now as a parent is this: since my children have done such a magnificent job of tearing apart my ego and my understanding of what things are “supposed” to be like, I’m starting to believe that maybe there isn’t a “supposed to” anywhere.  Is there one right way to parent?  I’m thinking not. Is there one particular way children are supposed to act and behave? Really, who are we to say?

Maybe the whole point, if there is a point, is not to try and make our lives “look” like anything.  Maybe we are just to accept what comes, deal with it the best we know how, and receive the results as gifts, even if at the moment they feel like anything but gifts.  Maybe our attachments to outcomes and our expectations are causing us all of our problems and disappointment in the first place?

Right now I’m trying to learn to just “sit” in my disappointment, to let go of my attachments to what “should be.”  And I’m grasping on for dear life to the words of people who have been frequently disappointed in life, yet have found it to be an avenue with which to truly find themselves.

““Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings…”          – Thomas Merton