Five Minutes at a Time

Last year I read Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. Near the end of the book, the main character, Rabih, takes a picture: “Wanting to capture this moment, Rabih calls them to gather for a photo, then sets the camera on a rock and runs to get into the shot. He knows that perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time. This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

I was deep into a hard year of adjusting to having two small children; it was a joy-filled year, but I often had to fight for the joy. This quote resonated with me--tiny increments of perfect happiness at a time--as it might resonate with anyone who has small children.

I often found myself laughing so hard at something my children were doing and breaking up a fight in the next breath. By the time I ran to grab my coat, the joyous time we were having outside ended when someone tripped and skinned a knee. The fun preschool activity I planned lasted much less time than I had hoped. The car ride, which had such potential for being fun, was mostly listening to our little one scream and our older one complain. It felt like life was constantly disappointing me--like good and beautiful times were just outside of my grasp (and my children’s capabilities). I started to get resentful until I began turning this quote over in my mind.

A couple minutes of perfect happiness  at a time seems reasonable. And yet it bothered me: was I settling for too little? Shouldn’t I set my sights higher?

But I’ve found that accepting (not expecting!) five minute bursts of pure happiness does indeed lead to more contentment, more true joy. It’s an attitude that acknowledges that those beautiful peak moments come and go. And it’s okay--it’s necessary--to embrace them and capture them and celebrate them. But we can’t expect to live our lives in those bursts.

In a conversation recently, a friend pointed out that we tend to want all our lives to be full of those peak moments--the ones we imagine when we look at someone else’s snapshot. The whole vacation must have been as filled with joy as that beautiful moment captured by the canyon’s edge. The adjustment to two kids must have been so easy because look at the adoration in the big sister’s eyes. There were no awkward moments or bad moods at that family gathering--just look at that happy photo!

I want to get to a point where my life runs easily--where the hard things are smoothed out by my exceptional planning and lack of emotional lows. I want to control my own mood as well as the moods of all the other people in my family. I want those times with the potential for happiness--the grand trips, the long car ride, the trip to the children’s museum--to be full of near-perfection.

I want to wait to celebrate until all the ducks are cheerfully lined up in their row (they must be bright yellow, and the paint must not be chipping). I want to wait to rest until all the work is done. I want to hold myself back until I get it all together. And so I miss out on those perfectly good moments of happiness all the time because I want them to last longer or happen more.

The amazing thing is: those minute-long bursts of pure happiness blend together and stand out to make us look back fondly on a season or a trip. They’re why this year’s vacation never seems as glorious as last year’s until next year when we are looking back fondly on it.

And so, I focus on five minutes at a time and consider that a win. Was it fun to jump into the leaf pile for a few minutes? That’s an awesome blessing! Did my sons enjoy a few minutes of painting while listening to Mozart and drinking afternoon tea? That’s a special time! Did I remember to notice their own glee as they slid down the slide even if leaving the playground ended in a tantrum?

When I’m expecting things to go smoothly and be beautiful and near-perfect for a long period of time, I’m always disappointed and resentful. Our hearts long for true and lasting happiness, and one day, we will have it. But on this earth, in this beautiful but very broken world, being thankful for a few minutes of glorious happiness at a time leads to more joy than expecting everything I plan and every day to be a never-ending list of highs.

I read something last year about how the happiest families are those who celebrate not big stuff but small stuff-- who step back from their day to commemorate a lost tooth or a small promotion. These things stick and they matter because they show the people we care about that they matter. Celebrations give us something to look forward to, a time to pause and be grateful and create our own tiny increment of happiness.

So I’m trying to feel the freedom to celebrate more, not just the peak moments but the little things too. Most of our lives are lived in the mundane, and there are often incremental bursts of true happiness scattered all throughout the ordinary moments. It’s all about what I choose to focus on and accept with gratitude.

This season, I’m trying celebrate the fun we have and the memories we create without forcing it all to be perfect and free of wrinkles. I’m happily snapping pictures of these moments to remember and try to pay attention to all the details around me, to really breathe in the smells and hear the sounds and feel my feet grounded to the earth. These are all true gifts, even if they aren’t fully finished or perfect or lasting yet.

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Acknowledging the Hard Stuff

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Last night, we had a Horrible Diaper Situation in the middle of the night. As with all Horrible Diaper Situations, I prefer to stick the baby in the tub rather than deal with it in a more hands-on way. It was the cold, wee hours of a new year, and with the baby splashing away, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down a list with two parts: hard things and good things.

All year, I kept trying to convince myself that it was a good year—that things shouldn’t feel so hard. We had a beautiful baby and a fun, smart toddler. I had always dreamed of having a house full of kids, and I wasn’t going to let two kids be hard for me. So all year, I tried to be positive. To say: I’ve got this.

And why should my life be anything but easy? All year I’ve felt guilt about living in the particular time and place that we do. I’ve felt unease about the material wealth around me, frustrated at myself for ever complaining about anything, wondering why I—a mom in the suburbs—couldn’t get my life together and do more, be more, give more. I’ve asked over and over, “How do I live a life of Gospel sacrifice as a mom of two? How much can I ask my toddler and baby to sacrifice in order to sacrifice myself?”

So I told myself over and over to stop complaining, that my life was easy, that I was privileged. This was part of the story of the year.

But in the in-between times, I often fell into desperation, feeling like there was not enough sleep, not enough help, too many tantrums, too little patience. I often felt like all my nerve endings were exposed—as though one bad thing in a day could tip me over the edge. And it often did.

I could call it The Year I Realized I Was Not a Great Mom. Up until this year, no matter how hard motherhood got, I felt like I ultimately had it. This was the year I didn’t have enough patience, the year I tried to rely on my own strength, the year I felt so alone at times that it took my breath away. And in those moments, I chastised myself to get it together, to realize how privileged I am, how entitled I was being.

I constantly beat myself up for wondering how life could feel so hard because it should be so easy for me.

I told a friend recently that I tried all year to pretend that this was a good year and finally, in December, I realized it had been hard in so many ways. She agreed and pointed out concrete things that had made my year hard—things I hadn’t even noticed. And instead of making me feel discouraged, this gave me peace. Acknowledging those hard things was part of accepting and understanding this year. 

So last night, sitting by the edge of the bathtub with my notebook propped on the toilet, I finally forced myself to acknowledge on paper the hard things (because most of the time, for me, it has to be on paper).  And as I wrote them down, I felt freedom to say, “Wow! There really were a lot of hard things this year.”

My goal this year was to thrive. Though we were having a new baby, I didn’t want to end up in survival mode for so much of the year. I worked hard to make “thrive” my word.

But a short way into the year, after a series of exhausting days of toddler (and mommy) tantrums I was copying down these verses from James 1: 

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1: 2-4)

And I realized my word instead should be joy. I was going to find joy in the trials. I kept this verse at the forefront of my mind. And though joy seemed to me at the time like a cop-out word of the year, it wasn’t.

This year really was a fight for joy. I found myself fighting with every ounce of my mental and emotional strength some days to see the joy before me—in the beauty and in the sacrifice. I had to realize over and over again that there really is no joy or strength apart from the Lord. I have to seek Him and meditate on His word to find joy.

I also found myself finding so many little joys—even just five minutes at a time as Alain de Botton talks about in The Course of Love. I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty in the midst of the chaos and to accept that there will never come a day of perfect rest here on this earth. I long to discover the secret of keeping up with the laundry and having a good routine so I can  find time to write even with two babies running around. I want to not be tired when I invite friends over and to have meal-planning and grocery shopping be totally automatic.  But this year, I came to realize something important: I can’t wait to get my life in order before I start living. But surprisingly in the living, I often find order and discover priorities. 

As I listed those hard things, I found more of them than I expected. But I was filling up my list of good things even faster.

I’m not writing this to try to tie my year up in a bow. In fact, I can't tie the hard things in my life up in a bow right now (probably ever). Instead I’m writing it to acknowledge that God fulfilled his promises. I can strive and work for joy—and indeed sometimes I have to. But I can also find it by acknowledging that God is faithful to His promises no matter what is going on in my life. I can find it in realizing that I am part of a bigger story and, at the same time, that there are hard, unresolved things on this earth. I love this verse from a William Cowper hymn: 

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.

I learned this year that God is faithful and that the fight for joy is a fight for faith. I learned this year that I have to allow myself to acknowledge that some things really, truly are hard, that joy is sometimes a fight but always a worthy one.

I have to hold both these tensions in my heart—the true, very real pain of life on earth and the true, daily and forever joys found in God.

When I acknowledge the hard things, I see even more the goodness in the good things, gifts that come from a good God about whom Paul tells us (and this is amazing!):

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6)

I am astounded by God's goodness and faithfulness to me. I wouldn’t have thought I would write this, but as I reflect back on my year, though we were often more surviving than thriving, I realize this really was a year of Joy. 

P.S. If you, too, are struggling to find joy in a season of your life right now, this is one of my favorite resources.

Narnia, Slavery, and Living in This World

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Liam and I just finished reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at night. I’m not sure how much he understands, but it’s soothing, and he does pay attention. He’s fascinated by the idea of Christmas not coming, the concept of turning people into stone, and Mr. Tumnus.

One other thing that he constantly asked about is whether the witch would turn out to be good. He’s at an age where he puts “nice” and “bad” in constant opposition. When we read about animals, he’ll ask, “Is this a nice shark or a bad shark?” meaning, I believe, “Does it eat people or not?”

He wants to group things into categories like, “Are lions nice?” or “Are owls nice?” He loves to discuss the things bad neighbors or bad drivers do and contrast them with the things good neighbors or good drivers do.

When we first met the White Witch in Narnia, Liam asked, “Is she nice or bad?” I told him she was bad. And he asked several times during the story, “Will she stay mean?” or “When will she turn nice?”

And I told him, “She won’t.”

I remember that feeling as a child. I used to pray for the devil, that he would love Jesus. I was at an age when I thought all our problems actually stemmed from Satan rather than from ourselves. So Satan’s change of heart seemed like the simplest solution.

And I think we still want evil to turn good. It makes for such a redemptive story.

But true evil can never be good. And until Jesus comes back, there will always be true evil in our world. The problem is, it’s not embodied in one person (like the White Witch). Rather it’s inside us and in our systems and in the things that we make.

I read an article the other day about the inconvenient things women have to do to stay safe in this world—things like walking past their homes if they think they are being followed or texting friends before they go on dates with strangers. I think of all the college rape cases and how we want to just pin the evil on a person or persons. We don't acknowledge that we are all capable of evil. Sometimes I think we forget that we will never live in a place where we are totally safe, where people can be completely trusted. That’s just not possible without Jesus. 

I’ve also been reading about racial tensions. I want to say they don’t exist. I want to say we’ve moved past that as a society.

But the Civil Rights protests and demonstrations weren’t that long ago—within my own parents’ lifetimes.

I read The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything and was reminded of how truly horrific slavery was. When people chose to enslave other people, to grow a nation by using slave labor, they signed on for the longterm effects of such sin. Sin is generational and cosmic in its effect.

This means we can’t just snap our fingers and say, “Ok! No more slaves! We’ll all get along now.” Rather our own sin and the sin in our systems makes this a hard injustice to resolve.

It seems depressing to end this by stating that evil will always be present in this broken world. After all, we aren’t called to just sit around and let evil flourish. We’re called to “make God’s blessings flow far as the curse is found.” But Narnia again gives us an important message. beaversnarnia

After Mr. Tumnus is captured by the Witch and most likely turned into stone, Lucy and her siblings want to go help. Obviously Lucy feels responsible because Mr. Tumnus was imprisoned for helping her. She wants to go help him immediately (as I think we all would!), but the beavers have a different response: 

“The quickest way you can help him is by going to meet Aslan,” said Mr. Beaver, “once he’s with us, then we can begin doing things.”

That's such a beautiful reminder when we don't know where to start!

Sometimes I feel bogged down in the evil and sin—not just the injustices and evil in our nation and world but the selfishness and injustice in my own heart too. Sometimes I feel like the problems are too big. I live in fear or in denial. But the first step is to go to Jesus. The quickest and best way we can help in this broken world is by going to Jesus. Only through him can we begin doing things.

And that’s the beauty of the Christian life! God chooses to use us—to use fallen humans to help bring redemption and justice and right the wrongs. He lets us help him in this grand work of healing, and even though it won’t be complete until he comes back, there is much good work to do now.

Sometimes my good work seems so small or insignificant--sometimes I think it's just cheerfully meeting the needs of the tiny humans God has given me--but any good work always starts and ends with going to meet Jesus as I parent, as I love others, and as I live in this world that isn't yet redeemed but will be one day.

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P.S. If you haven't read The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything, highly recommend them!

When I Can't Stop Fearing for my Children

“The world was more dangerous than it had been a few weeks ago. It was a world that slipped and slid beneath you, where children died because mothers forgot to check the latch. How did you keep your child safe in that kind of a world?” -Sharon Guskin in The Forgetting Time 

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It started during pregnancy for me—the terrible feeling that something could happen to my baby, possibly something that was my fault. So I tried to be careful. I remember the relief I felt when my son was born—carrying him outside of me seemed to assuage the fear. I could watch his chest rise and fall and know that he was okay.

But the fear didn’t leave for long. There was always something new. I slept with him on my chest for months because I was so afraid of him dying in his sleep.

Then there were the articles—button batteries, falling furniture, pools. He learned to eat, and I had to fear choking. He learned to walk, and I had to fear stairs and falls. It’s relentless.  I think that the most exhausting part of being a parent is the constant vigilance and the fear that you aren’t being vigilant enough. I’ve had a slightly sinking feeling in my gut that has never quite gone away since my first pregnancy. 

I've always been fearful for those I love; I've struggled with worry, prayed for strength to trust God with my husband and family and friends. But with my children, there's an element of responsibility and control I don't have with others in my life.

Lately, the news has been full of seemingly preventable tragedies—children drowning in pools or being left in hot cars or the terrible Florida alligator tragedy. These parents are often shamed and blamed. And sometimes I quietly join in, thinking, “Oh, well that would never happen to us!” just because that gives me some control over the situation. But most of the time, there’s a deep element of fear because I know how easily those or similar stories could be us.

I’ve had so many nightmares lately, mostly involving my toddler drowning. It’s a kind of exhaustion that is really, really hard. I fear odd things—like my baby grabbing the railing of the bridge we're standing on and somehow catapulting himself over the side. But I also fear legitimate things. I’m not sure where the line of fearful vs. careful should be drawn, and I long for some list that tells me exactly how to parent in a cautious way.

The other day, I cooked some eggs and thought about offering a bite to my almost six-month-old. Last week we started giving him bites of things here and there because he is so interested in food. But I hesitated because what if he did have an allergy. Then I would be the irresponsible mother who gave eggs to a five-month-old. But if he didn’t have a reaction—if he did take just a bite of the egg on his chubby finger and stick it in his mouth and eat it—then I would be the relaxed mom, the one who intuitively knew her baby was ready for solids and cheerfully gave him some. Am I being fearful or just cautious?

We see so many articles about how to make our homes and lives safer, and these are juxtaposed with articles about being relaxed enough to let our kids fall on the playground and not hovering, and it’s just so hard to know what to do. “Be vigilant!” screams one side. “Loosen up—for your kid’s sake!” screams the other.

And I have typed and retyped this waiting for the answer. I want some easy formula to follow that will guarantee that nothing outside of my control will happen to my child. I don’t trust myself. Where is the line between what I can control and what I can’t?

And what about all those “calculated risks” I take each day—the ones we have to do in order to survive or get anything done. When I step out of the room to grab something, leaving my baby alone with my toddler for a minute. When I put a blanket over the crib sheet because it gets too cold. When I ask my toddler to put his hand on the car door while I open the trunk, counting on him to listen.

The list goes on, and I’m sure you have your own. In fact, I’m confident that you would see things on my list and say, “No way! Never!” or "Why not? "That won’t hurt a thing.”

But we can’t know. We can take all the precautions and bad things can still happen. On the flip side, we can always be more cautious.

We’re so lucky in this time and place. We have vaccinations and amazing medicine and child locks and so much awareness of the many things that could go wrong. 

I still want answers. I turn to God to figure out “why?” and to ask, “Can I live without this suffocating fear? Will my children survive if I give it up?”

According to Creation, the way God intended the world to be, these things shouldn’t happen. Children aren’t supposed to die. The world is meant to be perfect and whole; children should be perfect and whole too. We shouldn’t have to live in fear.

But because of the fall, we do. The brokenness of the world is all around us and within us. I am broken, others are broken, and this world is broken. We will make mistakes, and others will make mistakes. By God’s grace, our mistakes often result in nothing more than inconvenience. But sometimes our mistakes may be more costly.

The Fall also reminds me that we can’t foresee everything. We shame parents for these preventable tragedies because our own desire to control is so strong. But if we parent long enough, we all have stories of something terrible that almost happened, something that would have been our own fault. Though I might not be able to imagine leaving my child in a hot car, there are things I may have neglected—dangers I can’t foresee. This world is broken; it’s not the way it’s meant to be.

As a Christian, I can’t stop at the Fall. Though mistakes can and will be made, we do owe our children the utmost attention we can give them. The near-misses or the tragic stories often help me to be more vigilant in the right ways. Often our systems become better due to these stories.

But there’s a deep fear in realizing that we may be one glance away or one misjudgment from disaster at all times. Having kids has made my brain run constantly, almost always trying to see ahead and plan for their safety. 

I remember one day I hit a car in a parking lot—just a little bumper ding (that cost a lot more money than it looked like it should). I was frustrated and asking God, “Why?” on the way home. It was just a tiny misjudgment. Why didn't God just prevent it? As I got off the interstate, a car swerved in front of me, and I barely missed hitting it. Still shaking and glancing at my toddler in the backseat, I breathed a prayer of thanks. Something so much worse could have happened. I’m thankful for a God whose restraining grace prevents tragedy and keeps me safe so often.

Stories of preventable tragedy can cause me to live paralyzed by fear or sit in judgment. But my faith teaches that a true response involves acknowledging that this is not meant to happen, that tragedy will happen in a fallen world, and that though I can learn from it, I can’t control everything.

In the midst of my fearful dreams, I had another dream last week as these ideas kept spinning through my mind. And in that dream, I realized that Jesus dying for us was a preventable tragedy. He could have said, “No.” God could have said, “Not my son!” But he didn’t. Because he didn’t prevent the worst tragedy, we don’t have to live in fear. In the midst of tragedy or just the fear of it, we have hope in a God who didn’t spare his own son.

There are still no easy answers. I still don’t know the balance between fearful parenting and careful parenting. But I do have faith in a God who didn’t prevent the greatest tragedy so that we could have hope. 

He entrusts these little people to us, body and soul. But he does this knowing we are fallible, that we will make mistakes. I can be thankful for his restraining grace as I navigate this fallen world. I can look to him for wisdom and comfort. And I can trust that he is in control even though things weren't supposed to be this way. The one who said, "Let the little children come to me" and counts every hair on our heads and the heads of our children is worthy of my utmost trust even when I don't have answers.

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