Listen to the Littles – God in Us

Lucas now stalls bedtime almost nightly by engaging me in questions about God (this being Advent and him being almost 6 and all). And he’s got me pegged, because I often let waaaaaaay more talking occur when he starts in on that topic.

He’s smooth like that.

To be honest, we really haven’t done a lot of “God talk” in our house. We pray before we eat dinner, we celebrate holidays, I go to Bible studies, and he knows I believe in God — but directly relating to Lucas? No, I haven’t really gone into much of it. I made this decision partly because Lucas is so bright, I knew he’d immediately get into questions and topics that a 3-4 year old brain wouldn’t grasp. He’d worry more than anything else. He can literally find a hundred frets in a single sitting. I also chose to go this way because I feel there is a distinct difference between a faith of culture (family, school, upbringing) and a personal faith based on ones own questions, observations, learning, and conviction.

I want to keep the fire burning and the conversation accessible – but I also want my sons to steer the direction of our conversations and the depth to which we discuss these things. So until now I have kept the bigger discussions at arm’s reach. Waiting until questions came up from his own mouth and working hard to answer only what he asks.

The funny thing is… he doesn’t “ask” much. Rather, he makes observations – statements – and then asks if what he’s saying is correct/accurate/true. And that is awesome because it directs the conversation away from “teaching” and towards “discussion,” even at this early age.

It gives me space to honor all I do not know, while still speaking with heart and conviction about all the things I believe deep in my soul.

Cue tonight’s bedtime beauty:
We have a nativity scene and, being Advent, have talked about the Christmas story many times the last few days. Lucas loves the Christmas story (his four year old retelling video is a perennial favorite in our household).

I don’t have a book, so my words vary every time I tell it, and so tonight when I retold it I used a phrase something like, “And so God came to Earth as Jesus to live with us here and teach us how to love one another.”

Maybe I have never said it like that before. Whatever. All I know is that at 8:45 tonight, fighting sleep, the lad says to me, “So Jesus is God?”
“Yes, I believe He is,” I reply.
“And God is like air because he’s everywhere all the time all around us.”
“Sort of, yeah.”
“But Jesus was a person… so was God like air but inside of him?”
“That’s a good way to explain it, I guess.”

And then he said,
“When Jesus died then, it was like a balloon popping. The air used to be inside, but then it popped and the balloon is broken. But the air is still the same air, only now it’s back floating everywhere again – not just inside Jesus anymore.”

Now we haven’t really ever discussed the fact that Jesus died in any great detail or any of the nuances of what his death means for Christian faith. He hasn’t asked. I haven’t gone there. But I loved this visual he created. Like a very simplified visual description of the Holy Spirit.

And I told him so. I said, “I really like that Lucas. The image of the balloon and the air being the same no matter if it’s on the inside or the outside. When Jesus died he wasn’t gone because God inside was just released back to God outside.”

And then Lucas says to me, “God is like air in our bodies too. And when we die, it’s not bad because the God air just goes back out and mixes with God again, right?”

And I sit in silence for a moment — amazed to watch my son lay the foundations that will be used to talk about hard things in our future. To watch him figure and fidget with the idea of death in such beautiful ways that are sweet and simple.

And so I simply said, “Right.”
Andrew had fallen asleep cuddled next to me long before, and so with that I gave Lucas a final kiss goodnight, whispered my nightly sayings, and took my leave, so thankful that tonight I allowed the extra time awake.

Advent is my favorite season of the Church year – and one I have always held dear because is a season to talk about birth and life and hope and light. But tonight my literal lad immediately, without prompting, brought the discussion back to the facts. Because if we are celebrating birth and life and humanness — we are also speaking about death, right? About the whole package complete with joy and hardship and lightness and pain?

We don’t get to be human without both.

While my discussions with the kids this Advent will continue to focus on that sweet little baby and the fun and joy and lightness it brings — I know my own reflecting this Christmas will be deeply enriched because my son has reminded me to consider the bigger story — the life and death that followed that birth.

But more than that — this season I get to celebrate my belief that death isn’t an awful fate, dark and horrible and nothingness. Because I, too, believe I’m just a balloon — carrying my soul inside, doing the best I can in this body I’ve been given — until the time when the air gets to be released.

The air doesn’t change.
The air remains as it has always been.
The air in me. In my sons. In Jesus.
And in you.

Let me turn my eyes to that beautiful air as often as I can — both in myself and in others. I don’t care what you choose to call that “air” in yourself, whom you thank for it, or if you believe in it at all — but know that I see it in you all the same, and I think it is beautiful.

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The weight of 5

Those moments.
The ones where your child has held it together in the face of great sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, or all of the above ALL DAY at school — but collapses into a heap under the weight of all the feelings the moment he sets eyes on you.

I could see it coming from the very moment he turned the corner and locked eyes with me.  He was filled to the brim with awful. And he barely made it through the gate before literally, literally falling on the ground, bowled over by all the things he’d stoically, silently held inside all morning long.

The big things – kids being hurtful and mean.  Or maybe worse, not seeing him at all.

The big-to-him things – not making bread, even though it’s Tuesday and they always make bread on Tuesday and it’s his favorite thing of the whole damned week.  Maybe, even, the only part of school he really looks forward to at all.

The lonely things.  The change of routine things. The unknown things.
The weight of being 5 things.

They’re so unbelievably heavy, these burdens that 5 can hold.  I wonder at his resilience.  He’s so small.  How does he carry it even one more step?

***

I, too, found my eyes brimming as we got into the car, watching through the blur as that weight slowly and painstakingly transferred from his shoulders onto my own.  Unpacking one burden at a time, until with a heaving, exhausted sigh and two crackers in hand, he finally felt the lightness return.  Sweet relief.

Oh my friends, it’s hard to be the emotional sherpa for the family.  The one who sometimes only gets leftovers – the one who stands in the fray and collects shouts and tears and hits and angry words and buckets of snot rubbed onto her sleeves.

It’s. So. Hard.

And also so incredibly beautiful.

Because I am his safe space.  I am his always there.  

And these gifts that don’t feel like gifts?  Well it turns out I have been blessed with shoulders perfectly designed to support their weight with room to spare, even if only just.

How profoundly honored I am to carry these burdens.  To be entrusted with the seemingly impossible and somehow always find a way.  To realize that sweet rest can still be found in my arms.

Language learning, bridge making, and the necessity of low-hanging fruit

My eldest son doesn’t speak at school.

My loud, goofy, intelligent, creative boy, maybe utters 10 words a day – Spanish or otherwise.  Sometimes he responds to Spanish questions with the appropriate action, and sometimes he just sits there with a small, dismissive grin on his face – patiently waiting for the uncomfortable moment to just go away.

And at this very moment, exactly 10 months after our arrival, he’s carefully constructing a wall of anger and frustration around Spanish.  His own little barricade intended to stop the onslaught.  You can practically hear the strains of “Do you hear the people sing…” rising from his tiny soul in every defiant battle cry (cried entirely in English, of course). 

And yes, he may be an army of one, but he leads a feisty and determined battalion.  In fact, last Friday he declared his protest against Spanish to be “totally unbreakable.”

…Well except, of course, when the Spanish in question was “helado.”  Even General Eisenhower wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for ice cream.

There are plenty of days where I feel lost as his Mama.  Where I don’t know how to help because I, too, am a learner of this new language.  I, too, feel like my brain is broken.  There are mornings where I just want to stay home and disengage from this world of uncomfortable, muddy interactions.

There are days I simply don’t want to do it anymore.
I want to be understood.
I want to go home.

Oh my son, I know the weight of your bravery.  I simply cannot imagine carrying it on such a tiny frame.

***

But as with all things, there are lessons hidden in the muck – and on the days when I have the capacity to pick up my shovel and dig, I remember that the essential elements of this experience reach far beyond past tense verbs conjugations.

The truth is, with every passing day my heart is being made softer towards all fellow language learners out there.  Those new arrivals wandering supermarket aisles and school hallways with eyes searching for answers or staring defeated at the floor. Because now, I don’t just see their confusion. 

I also see the tears their children cry during breakfast as they muster the courage to cross the barricade into first period,

The way they avert their eyes, realizing that “unsocial” is a far more acceptable label than “stupid,”

The frustration boiling inside adults for whom even the smallest of tasks – filling on gas, buying eggs, paying a water bill, looking for tools at the hardware store – is time consuming and often insurmountable.

And I know how easily that frustration can morph into very real fear.  If I cannot even figure out how to buy a hammer and nails, how on earth will I ever…

… get a job?
… find a doctor to heal my son?
… go back to school?
… make close friends?
… buy a house?

Will I ever feel at home in this place?  Will my child ever stop being afraid of all he doesn’t know?

For my family, I believe that answer is yes.  After all, it has only been 10 short months since we arrived and already I can see the glimmer of that delicious fruit hanging high in the trees.

Staying is the only way we’re ever going to reach it.  And I know it’s worth reaching — because there is just enough low-hanging fruit to get a taste of what joy there is to come.

Fruit that looks like hosting a dinner party all in Spanish filled with more laughter than discomfort.

Fruit that looks like me, flustered and unable to remember the Spanish word “to take,” but having my sweet boy pipe up saying, “Mama, you could use the word ‘tomar,’ right?”

Fruit that looks like simple conversations at the park and breakfasts without tears and invitations to birthday parties and getting the oil changed on my truck without trouble (on the first try, even!).

***

But I have a request to make of you.
Yes, you.

Do you know a language learner?  Someone who is standing on the brink of understanding but cannot yet quite clear the hurdle?

Choose this very day to be a bridge-maker.

  • Ask them simple questions at school pick up or at the park and allow them a safe space to stumble through simple responses.
  • Choose to sit next to them at community events, even if you fear it might be awkward.
  • If you see them looking flustered, offer to help when you’re in line at the bank or the store or waiting at the mechanic.
  • Point, gesture, nod, look, guide, and get lost with them.
  • Do you speak even 10 words of their language?  Use those 10 words!  Even if they are said incorrectly or with the wrong accent, your effort will grant the learner permission to make mistakes and they will feel safer to try.
  • Do you have children that are near the same age?  Offer to set up a play date at the park and get to know one another more.
  • Do they go to your church or school or community center?  Invite them into your home for dinner.

CHOOSE to share the burden of discomfort with them for an evening as you muddle through as best you can with broken phrases and vacant expressions of confusion.

Believe me, they carry that discomfort all alone every hour of every day out there.  They have no choice, and coming alongside them to shoulder a bit of it for 20 minutes or 2 hours will do you all a great deal of good.

You, my friend, can be the bearer of low-hanging fruit.
And those delicious samples of good things to come is sometimes all it takes to remove another stone from the barricade.

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Shaken

I often get things wrong.

I often overstep on my opinions – forgetting that they are not, in fact, facts.

I often am quick to think I know more about certain topics or places or situations than I actually do.

I often misread social cues, but believe the issue is the other person (or all the people, let’s be serious) and not me.

I often stop listening to the person speaking and, instead, start thinking about the next thing I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it.

I often make flippant remarks without considering what the long-term, underlying consequences of said remark might be.

I often feel really big, dramatic feelings when small feelings would suffice.

I often fail to ask enough questions, not to mention the right ones.

I often make broad-sweeping judgments based on case-by-case interactions.

I often gravitate towards those that are “like me” before anyone else.

I often yell at my children first, then seek understanding or forgiveness after the fact.

I often, when seeking said forgiveness, cannot help but still mention how they were also in the wrong.

I often lead with negatives rather than positives.

I often believe that my thoughts on a matter are truer or stronger or more well-thought-out than those of others.

I often know I am right.

 

Yes.
I am often not entirely the human I wish I could be.

And dwelling in this hard-to-stomach, don’t-wanna-admit-it, wish-I-could-hide-that-part-of-me space…

I often forget that you might be feeling the same.

That you, and I, might both be well served by a healthy dose of grace… and also a very stern reality check… every now and again.

An abrasive “Oye!” to get our attention and shut us up, followed by a stern glare and an impatient grunt of disapproval, followed by a deep soul-sigh, finished off with a gentle chuckle of mutual understanding and respect for good measure.

 

Let’s make that a thing, shall we?
Put a reminder in our phones so we don’t forget.  One set to go off every couple of weeks or so, telling us to man the watchtower for one another.

To keep us grounded.
To keep us honest.
To keep us striving for the good and the light.

The part of us that asks great questions and happily takes her place as third in line.

This necessary discomfort, it’s hard to get used to.  And I don’t relish it. I truly don’t.

But do it anyway.  Please.

Because as often as I am wrong, I have so much beautiful right nestled in alongside — and we all need a little shake now and again to keep that cream rising to the top.

Coming home: coffee, chaos, and the importance of eyeball time

24 days ago we returned from Chile to begin an extended summer holiday in the United States.

Arriving on the 3rd of July, we were launched head-first into PURE Americana. Grilled food, fireworks, backyard lunch gatherings with friends, kids in wading pools. Ah yes, the North Country in July is truly an experience.

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After a few days we turned our sights south, loaded the family into the car, and headed to the Twin Cities and Southern Minnesota for 3 weeks — just 21 short days.

Oh how the time does fly.

But we Bartells know how to do 3 weeks well. After all, this isn’t our first rodeo. Give me a calendar and some flexible hours to divvy up and I can find a way to fit 6 months of social events into those 3 little weeks.

And SO, my friends, it came to pass that — even in that wee bit time — we managed to make eyeball to eyeball connections with OVER 80 dear friends and family members.

Yes. Over 80.

(pause for impressive oohs and aahs – I’ll wait).

Isn’t that AMAZING?

We somehow also found time to go to a children’s museum, a zoo, a county fair, a full-length musical, countless parks, 4 swimming pools, 3 lakes, an outdoor learning center, and no fewer than 18 restaurants or cafes (believe me, I have Lucas’s stashed hoard of children’s menu drawings and word search puzzles to prove it).

Oh yeah, and then there was that time I squeezed in a kid-free jaunt to Phoenix and road-tripped to the Grand Canyon.

This is NOT the minor leagues, my friends.
We play for keeps around here. 

***

Well, this evening we returned once again to the Northland –my mom and dad’s house. And I cannot tell a lie: IT IS GOOD TO BE BACK. To settle into the guest house and know that bags can stay comfortably unpacked for three whole weeks. To rest in this quiet space. To not battle the traffic and construction zones and general go-go-go that the City creates in us.

I breathe deeply tonight and have no official plans on the docket for tomorrow. Nowhere to be but right here. Yes ma’am. Glorious.

And yet —
I already miss my other heart home — that city that ushered me into adulthood and the people that reside within those cherished spaces.

People that quite literally span EVERY. SINGLE. CHAPTER. of my story. Childhood friends, college friends, work friends, Hong Kong friends, former students, mentors, cousins from BOTH sides of my family tree, aunties and uncles. Heck, I even ran into an old choir director of mine while haunting the late night aisles at Cub Foods!

These people: They are critically important to me and to my story. They are the music makers. They are the time keepers. They are the ones who show up again and again regardless of years and distance.

They remind me that who I am is anchored deeply in who I have been — and in those who have linked arms and walked with me all these many years.

What glorious roots have been strengthened these past 21 days. And all the bleary eyes and late nights and overpriced children’s meals are 1000% worth it.

Because the people are worth it.

Thank you, Southern Minnesota, for the beautiful soul hug. Oh how I cannot wait to do it all over again next summer!

… And Northern Minnesota, be forewarned:  We’re ready for ya!
xoxo

2018 Andrew

Come stand in the light: Fiesta de la luz

It is winter solstice; the longest night of the year.
My heart holds this night especially dear because my eldest was born on the solstice five and a half years ago – in another hemisphere, on another continent perhaps, but solstice all the same.

We named him Lucas.
Light-bearer.  Brightly shining.  Luminous.  

(I wish I could claim that the poetic beauty of this was intentional, but alas!)

Tonight his little mitten fits snuggly inside my cradling hand; although even now I can see that this will not always be the case.  Someday he will have fingers that stretch beyond my own.  Indeed, someday he may not wish to hold my hand at all — that is, until he grows enough to change his mind and double back to my outstretched palm.

But on this night — there is no hesitation.
Not when you’re five.

A raptor calls out, cutting through the icy air as it soars above our ceremony.  He is equal parts reverent and belligerent — not unlike our troupe of Kinder companions.  For many wee ones, this is their first Fiesta de la Luz.  It is also mine.  And as always, the list of things we do not know extends far beyond that which we do.

So we do what we have learned to do best:  we follow the one in front of us, use each of our senses to full capacity, and hold tightly to the hand that has chosen to accompany us into the unknown.

Rocks crunch and shift under our slow steps.  Lentamente. 

Candles flicker ahead and wait in patient darkness behind.  Respira Profunda.

A community of voices release their gentle words and melodies into the growing twilight.  Sube el fuego mas alto.

We approach, family by family, together through the darkening night.
Breath steaming. Cheeks pink.  Always wishing we’d worn that second pair of socks.

Now that our moment is upon us, ceremony takes full command of the ship and even the smallest of us can feel he has a part to play.  Step by step, hand in hand, we travel through the spiral of pine boughs and oranges and candles and songs.  My eyes are downcast as they so often are, fixed predominantly on my little charge.  And such a choice would seem regretful – the exceptional beauty of the enveloping moment lost on rocks and sweaty gloves and rubber boots.

Except it isn’t.  And I’m not. Because my view is tremendous.

Through it I see his eyes, bright and flashing – seeking the center where his teacher waits to greet him with bonfire and candle prepared.  I see his index finger twitch and wiggle as he adjusts his rustic string lantern with the least disturbance possible.  I see his sweet mouth moving – carefully shaping foreign words as he sings songs which are, to my endless amazement, no longer foreign to him.

We arrive to gentle smiles and nods that speak of wholeness and safety.  Of belonging.
And at long last, at the center, my son’s lantern is lit.

But not just his; I have one too.  It was there at the center, waiting for me the whole time.

And so we find that the journey out of the spiral is duly lit.  One entered, dark and cold.  Two emerged – filled with light.  Joining the chorus with voices all the stronger for having taken the journey.

Sube el fuego mas alto.
Ilumina nuestras vidas.

***

We stumble into this space together, grasping the same dark candle.  Seeking guidance, uncertain of our steps, filled with anticipation.

And the beauty in the journey is that we leave with our light ablaze —
But the miracle in it is that we leave with two. 

We are not sent into the encroaching darkness for the purpose of mere survival. One would suffice for that.  We are sent forward twice as rich and full as we arrived.

What shall we do with this abundance of light we now possess?

For surely the spiral doesn’t ever really end.  It extends to the very reaches of our galaxy.  To the center of our souls.  To the outstretched hand of our Father.  To the little hands nestled safely in my palms.

Light-bearers all.

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I have never

I have never had a day where I didn’t have access to food.

I have never had someone directly threaten my life or the life of my family.

I have never had to decide which bills to pay and which to “roll over” into next month.

I have never found my house/wallet/pockets/bank accounts entirely empty of money.

I have never seen the inside of an addiction rehab center.

I have never had to buy medical devices to aid myself or a family member in completing ordinary, everyday tasks.

I have never worried about a family member stealing from me or considered hiding valuables when they come over.

I have never feared that the outcome of an election would jeopardize my safety and security.

I have never stared into empty cupboards and refrigerators and wondered how I was going to feed my family.

I have never lost the function, even temporarily, of any of my limbs.

I have never sat across from a doctor and received a diagnosis for something potentially fatal.

I have never had to bury a close friend or family member as a result of an act of violence.

I have never been the victim of physical assault.

I have never been robbed of more than $50 USD.

I have never visited anyone I know in prison, or even a county jail house.

I have never been evicted from my place of residence.

I have never worried about the interest rate on my credit cards because I have always been able to pay them off in full each month.

I have never worried that a broken-down car might mean losing my job.

I have never raised my children alone.

I have never held more than 2 jobs simultaneously.

I have never opted out of bringing myself or my child to the doctor because I couldn’t afford it.

I have never been forcibly handled by a police officer, nor have I felt fear for my personal safety upon seeing someone in uniform.

I have never worried that my husband will hit me.

I have never filed paperwork for a visa to another country and worried that I would be denied.

I have never served in the military or witnessed armed conflict.

I have never found that my heat/electric/gas has been shut off due to not being able to pay my bills.

I have never been fired from a job.

I have never sat for hours at the bedside of my child, my spouse, my siblings, or my parents in an ICU, nor have I been in one myself.

I have never been in a serious accident requiring medical attention.

I have never been addicted to a substance that alters my decision making and lifestyle choices.

I was never beaten or verbally abused as a child.

Oh the things I haven’t done. Haven’t experienced. Haven’t lived. A never ending list of things I cannot understand or view through a lens of personal experience.

Humility. Empathy. Patience. Find me and guide me through my not-knowing. Help me remember the mighty list of things I cannot see. For this list is a thing of beauty, of gratitude, of privilege —

— of rarity.

Let me look into the eyes of those I meet and honor their own unspoken lists. Give me the strength to keep my mouth shut and listen for the untold stories that dance between their words.