What our Elf Brings to Us

For those who are on the sidelines of the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, I get it. They are creepy as one of my friends suggested. They are extra work during an already hectic season. Each year we scour Pinterest and look for new and ever more enchanting ways to bring delight to a month that holds the promise of Santa and the birth of Jesus, do we really need an elf to add chaos and joy to our little ones? Like Starburst flavored candy canes, are we missing something by distracting from the real flavors and reasons for the celebrations? The answer could be yes and yet we have an elf who visits each night when Plum is here, an elf who wakes up each year the night after Thanksgiving and goes back to sleep on Christmas eve. Elfie brings magic, Elfie bring joy, most of all Elfie is a dear sweet friend to a little boy who one Christmas season several years ago had a wounded soul and a broken heart.

I can’t remember how I first discovered our elf, I purchased him online rather than the ones available widely in stores. That one did seem a bit clown like, a bit more creepy to me. What we sacrificed in bendability we gained in a sweet face, more along the lines of a stuffed animal really. I do remember that my sweet Plum was in the midst of time away from his parents for an extended period, he was broken and his little eyes had lost their sparkle. As his grandma, of course I would do anything to bring that back, anything to show him the joy of Christmas when he was lost at such an early age. So Elfie joined our family. Each night Chef and I would strive to out do the night before, back when he was here every night, the challenge was great. Plum grabbed onto the idea of a special friend who was all his, someone who came to visit him and bring him silliness and make messes and sometimes a trinket or some candy and cared so deeply about him that he flew from far away just to be with him. Plum reconnected with his playfulness, he found an outlet for hope.

I have discovered along the way, even as I have sometimes struggled to find the next adventure for Elfie, even on the nights when I was too tired to mess with creating some mess I knew I would have to clean up again in the morning, when I would have preferred to go on to bed, that Chef and I have rediscovered our childlike wonder as well. Most nights I set up something, generally pretty lame I’ll admit, I am less than creative after about 3 in the afternoon so by 8 or 9 at night, I am toast. Then Chef takes over and blows us all away. Over the top fun ensues, he always takes it to the next level. Then we sleep and eagerly await, along with our Plum, the first light of morning if he sleeps that late, when he rises and rushes about the house to find his elf and see what mischief has happened while he was snuggled and dreaming.

As the Christmas decorations are stowed each year, totes filled with bulbs and garland and nativity sets, Elfie stays on Plum’s dresser. He is a reminder throughout the year of the importance of relationships, even ones that pop in and out of our lives, that we are to take our blessings as they come, even in the shape of a toilet paper strew bathroom or a frozen lego blocks, that laughter matters. This is surely our last year with the elf, already Plum has come home from school announcing someone in his class told him that there is no Santa, that the presents come from your parents. I will miss the little guy, in spite of the extra work. Next year we will talk about the joy of discovering an elf each morning and how God wants us to rejoice at discovering His Son each day, not just during the Christmas season. Our elf has become an important part of our story, bringing the spirit back to a sorrowful child. I think that is holy and a bit less creepy.

Runaway Legos and Packs of Gum

The tiny yellow Lego kept rolling off the table as we sorted the newest set he received for his birthday into colors, preparing to build. I generally am given the sorting task while he supervises, he checks my work for errors with a running commentary on my inability to see the difference between dark gray and black, the fact that I often choose to make an “all the rest” pile which he corrects for me, and his delight in a particularly interesting piece. He surveys the blocks like all the presents under a Christmas tree, taking in the joy of bright colors and multiple shapes, knowing everything there was waiting just for him. Yet this one piece kept escaping the pile, I was distracted and didn’t lay it flat. As it landed on the floor after many near misses, I remarked that this one piece was trying to get away from us. My Plum asked why, why is it trying to escape? I think it doesn’t want to connect with any other pieces, it just wants to be free, I replied as I moved another red piece into the corresponding pile. “Oh, yeah, I get that,” he told me. “We all feel that way sometimes.”

My joy bringer hands me snippets of wisdom at least as often as I offer him the opportunity to brush his teeth. Neither of us are particularly grateful for these gifts when we get them but maybe we both know they are in our long term best interests. While I am convinced that he is a genius guru joy bringer, the truth is probably that most children have words of wisdom to share, if only we listen to them. The beauty of a grandparent relationship with a child is we have the time, we can take the time, we can hear the snippets and remember to record them. I know my own children were quite verbal about feelings and were astute in ways of the world, surely they shared their views with me and I should have recorded them. Yet dishes and work and laundry and the other sibling and stress and stress and stress caused me to hurry and rush and miss what they could offer. Certainly I sought to atone for being gone during their early years, I listened attentively and cared deeply. Still, I was mom. When we are blessed, our true adoration comes from our grandparents. I know I am atoning with Plum for all the missed chances with Arrow and Stella. Yet ours isn’t a clear “grand” relationship either. Chef and I have stepped in far too often as parents, our roles with this child are cemented by age 7, he knows we are important caregivers in his life, we are his safe place. He can connect and still wish to roll away from some places in his life. I get it.

Accepting his wisdom does not mean I forget that he is still a child and needs us to help shape his character, to enforce rules and structure and consequences. His heart is so sweet and pure that when he strays into the dark side, my reaction is swift. I respond with immediacy and hopefully most often, natural consequences. During his birthday party, an overwhelming affair for anyone but certainly a boy who really just wanted to get to the present part and then the playing with the present part, sitting through a game of unwrap a ball of saran wrap looked tedious and horrible and mostly like torture. He chose not to play, instead he watched as his friends took turns unwrapping little toys or packages of gum.  Later as friends were leaving, one little girl couldn’t find her treat bag, which contained her circle of gum “tape,” a top prize. We searched but couldn’t find it so hurriedly created a new treat bag and wondered if someone picked hers up accidentally. This little girl is a neighbor to Plum at mama’s, a child who looks out for him, runs to get mama when he falls and gets a scrape, has a problem on the bus, needs his shoes tied. I felt horrible that this child especially had lost her prizes.

The next day, her equivalent in our own neighborhood, A, came to play with Plum. As they ran about the ever less haunted house while Chef and I dismantled it, A said she had something she had to tell, that Plum had done something bad at his party. He watched her share his secret, that he had hidden the other little girls bag, he wanted that gum. Plum and I moved upstairs to talk, after we supported A for telling the truth and following her conscience. My first question to Plum, did you know that was wrong? Everything that came after was merely faulty judgement, impulsive desires, selfishness overruling his heart, take your pick. We wondered if God had any rules about taking what isn’t ours, if we have been given any pathway to correct our mistakes, and finally if once we atone, we are meant to live in shame. He decided he needed to use his piggy bank money and buy new gum for his friend. We emptied out his pennies, took them to the bank inside the grocery store and the good folks there helped him count out what he needed. He selected the gum, rang it up, put his money inside the machine, bagged his gum and walked out with a lighter heart. That my sweet, I told him, is getting right with God. His friend hugged him as he delivered her gum, he ran to tell me how happy she was. He was clearly happier as well.

My Plum turned 7 this week and I know he will have ever more opportunities to bring me joy and share his wisdom. I know more and more though that our chances to cement his character, to have the foundation laid that will carry him into a safe and healthy future, those days are waning. We know that he will choose to be free of his connections someday, that he will test out his boundaries and push the rules. I feel the importance of each and every moment now, the inability to let something slide. This child is absolutely too precious to risk. That is my own atonement. For now, we are building Lego sets, we are giggling at runaway pieces, we are delighting in his friends who support his good choices as well, we are loving on this child who every day, brings us joy.

 

 

Celebrating My Plum

Birthday week in Patches Of Light land and all things are Halloweeny. Our joy bringer was born 3 days before the holiday yet at age 7, this is the first celebration of him that is utilizing the seasonal theme. It was supposed to be easier and cheaper and in some ways that has proven true. Yet when all around, in every store and on all social media, I am assailed with decoration ideas and this quick easy set up and that especially cool spooky idea, I am finally ready to admit that I may have gone a bit overboard. The basement is becoming a haunted house, each room upstairs is readied for activities such as pumpkin painting  or glow in the dark bowling or mini pumpkin tic tac toe. Reminding myself that all of these decorations will stow nicely away and be used for years to come, like Christmas decor, has fueled my desire to create more toilet paper rolls with eye cut outs and creepy ghosts out of every old white sheet I own. Chef remarked last night that maybe we had gone too far, that he is only 7, maybe we are spoiling him. Silly man, of course we are.

I have been leaning into an idea, a foreign concept to me, one that blew my mind when I first heard it. I was told that to God, I am worthy of celebrating. Of course I had heard comments like this before but it sank in differently this time, my soul was open to the words and the corresponding affection that just such a celebration would bring. What would it mean to believe that one is worth celebrating, not for achievements, not for a report card, not for wealth, but merely for existing? I have always hated my birthday, hated the attention it brings to me. Attention is dangerous to one who maintains a hyper-vigilance, scouring my surroundings for potential abusers. I avoid the limelight, I hate crowds. But what if I claimed my safety in God and believed that I was of value because God chose me to be in this place in this time? Heady stuff.  As I work on really integrating this idea, along comes my Plum’s birthday. My Plum whom I adore and cherish, the child upon who’s every word I hang. I watch him fall asleep, I listen for his first steps in the morning as he rises. He brings my joy and I shower my love upon him, a safe receptacle who doesn’t judge me. Maybe we are spoiling him or maybe we are telling this child with his checkered history of adults in and out of his life that we believe 100% that he is worth celebrating.

In years past, when Lego was the theme or dump trucks in the dirt was the direction we went, we didn’t go so crazy. By celebrating the holiday with his big day, we get a twofer, and I know in the future all of these spiders and webs and skulls will be used. Seriously, the odds are in my favor. Post-Halloween sales might help us round out our collection of spooky creatures, in case we have begun a new tradition of a haunted basement.  After all, he IS going to be 8 next year and my God is this child worth celebrating. My anticipation for his big day may be a bit over the top, as a grandma I really ought to be more accustomed to birthdays and children aging. But this child is special.

Thoughts of his beginnings are never far from my mind, all the days of anticipating his arrival that were spent coming to know his mama. Plum began as a yes when everything pointed to no. A disconnected father, a young mother challenged by the pregnancy. We watched as she painted a little dresser Chef found for her, readied a nursery here in our home, moved the crib about a million times to get it just right. We had many bumpy years of moving that crib out as she sought to begin life her own and then back in again as she needed a reset. Finally he moved into a bed and his room has stayed stable since, a place to call his own regardless of other changes in his life. Under his bed he stores treasures, one earring or a necklace from my dresser, a lightbulb, rocks, my Lord so many rocks, the collars from beloved pets. Not long ago a friend offered an old military truck which has become the perfect treasure chest for a little boy to contain his hoard. On days of greater anxiety, I find him sorting through it, as if the bits and pieces of his story calm him, center him. He goes through it less and less, my measurement for his inner tranquility.

“Well, Plum, what are your thoughts on year six?” I asked as he was pooping  and I was hovering outside the open door.  I don’t care what he says, he isn’t all that grown yet if he still wants me around for that event. But I digress. “It was boring.” This was the year of completing his kindergarten, beginning first grade, those seem rather significant to me. Nope. Boring. “Well, what about the summer, you played almost every day outside with A, in the mud.”  Yeah he conceded, that was pretty okay but mostly it was boring. Hmm, I was stuck. I thought it was a fantastic year, he learned to read, he exploded his math abilities, he can even tie his own shoes, for heaven’s sake (actually we just checked that off the list a couple weeks ago, but I swear he conquered it on the first try when I showed him those bunny ears.) He can barely tolerate looking back though, he said, “Six is just so young.”

He is right, as most often he is when we have these talks. But what he doesn’t know is that seven is still not grown. Anyone who comes racing off the bus with their shoe untied, cracking up only to tell me that it fell off as he was trying to get up from his seat at our stop. Apparently his buddy picked it up, held it to his face, and performed a disgusting act of maleness. “I swear, Gran, I heard him SNIFF!” Falling on the ground laughing again, backpack spilling Pokemon keychains and bouncy balls on the leaf covered lawn, he shattered the silence of my day with his giggles and delight. He is young enough still that he holds on to the sweet funny stories and events, he allows the tough things to roll off, to sizzle away like a droplet of water in a hot pan. It isn’t that he has such a perfect life that he knows no troubles, oh Lord no. I am confident that it is exactly because he has known trauma that he is resilient and determined to laugh when he can. I am at my utmost silly, I relinquish all dignity, ever willing to play the fool, just to elicit his laughter. Plum smiling means angels singing. When the angels sing, I know God is near. Truthfully, I know He has always been near to this child.

During this birthday week in Patches of Light land, I cannot help but reflect on not just who he is becoming but who has walked with him during the previous 12 months, who has shaped this year to help create this child. If ever there was evidence of the power the village plays in a child’s life, Plum is it.  His village rose up around him, he was prayed over while still in the womb. Our church has been beyond faithful in loving and supporting this child as well as his mother when she needed and was receptive. (His father has never left the prayers of the same community, God is walking that path with us, one with more twists and turns.) Plum occupied the front row closest to the praise band in order to dance and wiggle during the music portion of each service, he walks in as though he is the mayor of church. He feels ownership, as he should, as we all should. He knows comfort there, why wouldn’t he, these are his people. He glows with the love and support that surround his every step, he is unaware at his ages but one day he will realize that all those adults in his life were his prayer warriors, were placed there by God to lift him up out of his situation to become a man with a purpose in the kingdom. He will bring joy to many, not just his gran.

My joy bringer is 7 years old today, the baby I rocked to sleep, weaned from the bottle, potty trained, taught to sleep in a big boy bed and then to sleep all night. I was with him on his first day of preschool as well as kindergarten, I haven’t missed a milestone yet. But it is all the in betweens, the moments we talk amongst the bushes looking for insects or yes, even while he is pooping, that I truly treasure. This child carries my heart with him where ever he goes, as he grows. Today we will turn our home over to his many friends as they celebrate him. I will be listening for his giggles, confirmation that all the effort communicates to him, we know he is worthy. As the sun begins to rise, the early cold snap has brought flurries that catch my eye and chill my hands. My soul is warmed though, as I take these last few quiet moments before cutting apples for dipping into caramel and hanging streamers and blowing up balloons. My soul is quiet and peaceful, as I celebrate fully this child who God is sharing with me. My joy bringer, who helps me hear the angels sing.

 

 

We Forgot To Limp

Plum stubbed his toe this weekend, not the terrible first stubbing of spring that draws blood on tender flesh cushioned for months under socks and slippers and boots, but really more of a bumping of his little foot against the cement porch, a foot that has spent the entire summer roughening on the gravel road alongside our home. A closer inspection showed not a single drop of blood, not a tear in his skin, no mark of the injury that he felt. Hours of barefoot play in the summer sun and the steadfast refusal to keep shoes on brought about a tough exterior, one that belied the pain he was experiencing. We have extra bandaids for just such an injury, one that is more inside than out. He asked me how one limps, such was his determination in milking this event as well as the disappointment that nothing outward pointed to the level of pain he was knew. I showed him and he managed a limp for all of two steps before he was distracted and the pain receded. I understood his concern, though, I had worn my own bandaids all weekend.

Our church moved 10 years ago to a brand new building, one that fit the dreams we all shared for more ministry options. This weekend was the celebration of that move and our 3 services would be combined into one but our church couldn’t hold us all at one time, thus the high school just down the road was chosen to be our worship site. The auditorium and cafeteria were large enough for us all, a perfect choice. Except that building held memories of my children, of Stella’s art exhibits, of decorating their lockers every year for their birthdays, of graduation ceremonies as I watched them cross the stage and look to their future. I walked those hallways as I registered them for classes each year and bought new sweatshirts and yearbooks, I met with teachers their for conferences. This was their high school, the place I drove Stella to early each morning when she missed the bus and picked them both up to drive to orthodontist appointments.  This building held memories that I had ignored. Yet walking though with Plum, I began to mentally limp, I felt the injury and knew no one could see me bleeding. Then it happened, I was distracted. Plum wanted to explore the stage, a friend tripped and fell, the food was plentiful and the friends were all around, I forgot that I had stubbed some memories. As we left the event, I realized I had survived without real damage to my psyche. Now in thinking about the school, I would also remember singing praise songs and would always consider that the students who sit in those chairs for assemblies will be covered in the prayers of our congregation.

Later Chef and I attended a wedding of a young woman from church, a woman who oozes grace and light. She sings with our praise team and sends me notes that lift me at exactly the moments I think I am sinking, she lives out faith actively. Chef and I had not been to a wedding since the civil ceremony of our daughter, the estrangement occurred one month after that and we were not invited to her actual wedding, the one with the dress and cake and music. I knew this would be a stubbing crashing smashing of memories, a bashing of hopes and dreams but I so respect this young woman we couldn’t not go. Bandaiding my heart, we entered the event hall and found that many other friends from church were there as well, we sat with some who kept us occupied and laughing and covered with joy such that we forgot to limp, we forgot to check for bleeding. This wedding was the perfect one to ease us back into life, to invite us to participate in joy and distract us from our pain.

I know it would be safer to avoid the gravel, to always wear shoes, to stay away from places that trigger memories that will break through to my bruised soul. Yet I am not called to be safe and protected, to hide and to be cushioned. I am asked to rely on the strength of God, who will guide me and keep me from harm. Running away rom those events that might possibly touch on my sore spots means I would miss the chance to heal ever so slightly, to replace some memories of what hasn’t been with an evening of laughter and new jokes to share and delight with friends instead of nursing wounds on my couch. Paul says we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, he doesn’t say we should stop doing the things that might rough us up. Today I trusted in God to protect my soul, and found his grace was indeed sufficient. Step by step, that is how I move ever closer to the light.

 

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

 

(photo credit to http://www.sweetsugarbelle.com/2013/01/that-funky-bandaid-color/ )

 

 

When a B marries an A+

Today is Chef’s birthday, the single most anxiety producing, shame infused day of the year for me. See what I did there making it all about me? Our opposite natures show themselves most vividly when an opportunity to give gifts arises. I avoid all mention of my birthday, I prefer the shadows to the limelight. Chef never fails to make a big deal of my birthday, against my desires. The enjoyment I show during the event is interpreted as  confirmation that his way is ultimately the best. Then, in a ploy I can only consider sabotage, or maybe he is trying to ease the burden for me, every year on his birthday he is either working or he has smudged up the calendar with outside events. He makes it damn near impossible to celebrate his birthday in like fashion. I know from reading “The 7 Love Languages” that we give what it is we hope to receive. Thus I know he wants a party, I want to allow the day to slide into the next. Each year I struggle over the perfect gift, his tastes are quite exact. I struggle with making a cake (is he preparing for a marathon or off sweets this year?) or finding the best meal to offer up as my gift. I just seem to fall short and each year gets worse as failure becomes my norm and the anxiety grows. I know this is not all about me but trying to measure up and show my love sets my insides to quivering and my outsides to frowning. Frustrated thoughts float freely in my mind: Why can’t he plan his own party, he is so much better at it, Why should I even try, I am going to fail.

I recognize that this is how I approach all of my most important relationships, especially with the One who gave me a birthday in the first place. The problem I think is in the very construct of wanting to show love to gain love. That isn’t pure unconditional love, no agape there. That is a contract, an exchange of services. Grace does not live in those deeds. Trying to be worthy, tying a gift or a meal to my value, I will never succeed. How can any material item encapsulate my fondness for his gentleness with our grandson, my appreciation for the care he shows in feeding me, my hope for more walks and quiet talks and years of watching him from across a room as he laughs? The parts of him that I love are entwined with his soul, his very charismatic nature that draws all the energy in a room, that cause the light to shine just a bit brighter over him. I ease back into the edges of the celebration, finding my comfort in his joy, I get warmth from the light he brings. I am reminded of click-bait stories that say did you know that this celebrity is married to that no-name person, the one no one has ever heard of or seen, yes, married to HIM! I often wonder about that “not in show business spouse, how she or he copes with never being as adoring as all the fans, how do they share their love in a way that counts?

Grace. I believe grace is the key, the central point that makes it all gel. With grace God tells me that I am good enough, that I will never be deserving but I will always be worthy. I cannot gift my way into a love affair with God, He has everything already. My efforts will come up short every time. So what is it He desires of me? Nothing but my all. And when I offer up a kindness to one of His other children, He smiles and says well done and sprinkles grace filled sunlight on my shoulders, telling me it is enough that I showed up, that I am trying. My mother’s words often echo louder than God’s, I am learning to hear Him more. My sense of not being quite good enough was cemented when I proudly brought my report card to my mother, sure I had achieved greatness and worth in her eyes. Showing her my A’s, waiting for the praise, I was destroyed when she asked why I didn’t get A+’s. I know God is not expecting such perfection, I hope my Chef doesn’t either. When I give to be evaluated, I am no longer giving of me, of my heart, out of rejoicing for the recipient.

To that end, this year, for my Chef’s birthday, I selected silly ridiculous gifts that may completely miss the mark. Hoping his sense of humor will rule the day,  I think I selected gifts that will bring out his smile and cause his eyes to light up. If I totally bomb though, rest assured I have 364 more days out of the spotlight to really show how I feel. Join me in celebrating him today, won’t you, and pray he is filled with grace as he walks through this day.  When you are an A+, the rest of us B’s need forgiveness.

Happy Birthday Rock Star, I am blessed to stand in your shadow.

When 8 turns into 400

In a world that often says “no” or maybe “not right now” or “I need more information”, when I encounter “yeses” I notice. It stands out. Working with the King Food ministry at my church, I experience those “yeses” as members of the congregation purchase a box of meat and vegetables and snacks to donate to those in our community who are food insecure. Depositing congregant’s checks with the accountant each month as the folks who need the food are identified, I am often in the tension between too much food or too little, that place of needing more families or more boxes. The program is not smooth yet as I strive to streamline processes with too many moving parts on my own. Still, each month I am awed by the donations and see the impact of giving a family a week’s worth of food, knowing their monthly budget has been graciously and beautifully impacted. People say yes to purchasing as well as receiving and the ministry chugs on.

This month was different, this month challenged deeply my abilities and my beliefs. While we usually have several boxes to donate that I need to manage as well as the boxes for individuals within the church, this time a woman at church told me she wanted to order 8 to give away. Initially I was thrilled but then became concerned, could I find enough people, would they come and pick up at our church, where would I store any that did not get a home… basically I began to whine about my big problem of 8 extra boxes.  I was trying to run this ministry alone, without considering that I have only to ask others for help and God would call the ones to rise up. As typically happens, when I whine, my God begins to teach me about focusing on my self instead of Him.

Eight extra boxes, I said. Eight of the biggest box offered, the one that feeds a family of 4 dinner for a week. So much food at 40-60% off the retail price, these boxes are a definite blessing to those who struggle to feed their children. Yet I fretted and moaned and worried. I lost track of the blessing as I focused on the daunting struggle to move food boxes from the delivery truck into our church and get it to a home within the safety time limit. I fretted about it to anyone who listen, I stressed that I didn’t have enough contact with those who needed the food, that I didn’t have a structure in place for them to come get it, rather than relying on my delivery to their homes. Too many moving parts, I whined. Then the delivery was delayed, requiring more communication with each recipient as King Food ministry dealt with a truck shortage as most around the country had been pulled to help with hurricane relief efforts.  The distribution was pushed from Friday evening to Saturday morning at 6, then 8 and then 10 until finally we were told the truck had been in an accident and distribution would not happen. Frustrated, I sent everyone home with the promise of more information as I received it and an inner question about the worth and viability of this ministry. It felt too big for me to manage alone.

Almost as soon as I reached home, I discovered that the accident, just 10 minutes away,  meant the contents of the truck, 500 boxes, were to be trashed.  The Sheriff felt we couldn’t get it to another freezer site within the time limits established by the health department, unless someone acted immediately. My 8 boxes became 500. First a call to Chef who marshaled his resources to get a refrigerated truck and driver to meet me at the crash site, then a call to key church members who sent out a wider plea for assistance all while I rushed with my little Plum in 90 degree heat to persuade the sheriff to allow us to salvage that food. When the refrigerated portion of the truck was reattached and stabilized, the sheriff inspected a box and agreed that we could take the food, given that we had another refrigerated source onsite. A chain was created between the broken truck and the new one, the last person working Tetris magic to stow as much as possible within the smaller space. We salvaged close to 400 boxes. Now my 8 was 400. I needed a home for it all quickly. Chef had the answer again: the huge freezer space at the commissary where he works was provided as a holding area.

I whined about 8 or 9 or 11 boxes this month so I was given 400. I was handed the challenge of a broken box truck with a driver who was injured and not in his home state. I was shown that this ministry is greater than my small role, that many hands are required to do the work of God and that I can coordinate it all if only I reach out to my friends.  The extra 380 boxes went to the local food bank and to a transitional housing facility. Eight found their way through our ministry to the recipients initially identified, yet thousands will now benefit from this very different donation. I am confident that next month when I have only a handful to distribute I will remember that God is the provider, that I am merely a conduit. My role is to get the food to the hungry, not worry or fret or whine about numbers. We can do great things through Christ who strengthens us, even as He turns 8 into 400.

Deeper Breaths as I Inhale Hope

I began smoking again after close to two decades of not on the day of my daughter’s wedding, when my Chef and I along with my brother and sister-in-law were doing a pub crawl to drown our broken hearts at not being invited. I didn’t intend to add that horrible habit back into my list of vices, it just happened as most tumbles off the wagon do, with an offer for one, just to be crazy for the day, to be utterly rebellious, to illustrate just how deeply we devastated we were and maybe to scream at the God we were striving to find, even in our drunkenness. That first cigarette led to another as the day wore on and my sobriety returned. Serenity in the routine, lighting one up, slow deep breaths, as I sat alone, exiled, who wants to sit with a smoker? The habit returned and for a long time, for many many packs of those Kool Blue shorts, I welcomed it as an indicator of my brokenness. Could God find me if I lit this torch in the wilderness, would God seek me out again and bridge the divide between my daughter and I if I was covered in this ash of repentance? I sat alone on my porch day after day, waiting.

The practice of repentance smoking grew with my loneliness and ache. While I didn’t really want to smoke, I didn’t really not want to either. Lost in limbo, unable to garner enough concern to quit, I allowed my routines to become enmeshed with the craving, first thing in the morning with my coffee, after every meal, before bed. Many nights I would rise out of a deep sleep and go outside again, just to smoke and wonder what I could possibly do to change my relationship with Stella as I gazed at the stars she used to identify for me. As I continued to smoke and she didn’t reach out, I accepted the horrid breath and the smoky clothes and the coughing and the harm to my body as penance. I witnessed the disgust in my Chef’s eyes, I listened as he walked away from me, further and further. I accepted my punishment. I imagined scenarios of her returning home and me throwing away the coveted pack of Kool’s, tossing out my lighter. I experienced plenty of alone time to think and imagine as no one wanted to be around me during my puffing sessions, I didn’t want them there either. Fifteen minute retreats into despair spread throughout the day, moments for me to indulge in smoking and sulking.

After two and a half years though, I knew the punishment phase of my grieving had to stop. Just as laying in bed and letting the world continue without me hadn’t brought her back, no amount of nicotine would either. Finally, embracing my health for me, I chose to stop. I am edgy and twitchy and wishing for my vice and yet I am freer. I see the sad woman sitting alone, and I don’t want to be that sad anymore. I see how smoking was a slow suicide, a jumper on the edge of the bridge, begging someone to stop them, give them a reason to live. I recognize I have reasons other than my children, yet being their mom was my core identity. That portion sliced away left me too empty, the space filled up only with deep inhalations of smoke and then each slowed release of my devastation into the air, polluting my body and my surroundings, creating synchronicity.

Still I quit, the latest act of acceptance that I have no impact on this child ever walking across the bridge I have built. Filling my days with all those 15 minute retreats left me shamed and isolated, filling that spare time now is daunting. Attempting to break the habit of missing her, of wondering what I haven’t done that might work, imagining scenarios of her car in front of the house every time I turn the corner, dreaming of running into her at the store, always always  seeking her face, I now have to take deep breaths and recognize that I cannot break that addiction. My craving for relationships to be rebuilt, to be rejoined with those who have walked away, I cannot kick this one. No big cosmic reward for avoiding the gas station, not picking up the spare pack this time, not searching the trash for a butt and feeling that momentary aliveness, even as it escaped my lungs, no now I am left with truth as any addict finds, that my problems are still my problems, just without the high to carry me through.

My Plum was ecstatic, the few friends that I have told grew tearful and celebrated with me. Still, I seek something to fill the void, to remind me to take those deep breaths and release my toxins. If smoking was the symbol of the cancer within my relationship, how will anyone know I am in pieces still, that I have not closed this chapter even as I crumpled the last box of cigarettes and tossed them away, that the tumor still resides within my heart? Each burnt offering I lit and consumed, the incense of filth I blew around my altar to a God who is not taking my calls, has blocked me on social media, is too busy with hurricanes to check His voicemail, the ashtray and lighter, my addiction paraphernalia evidence of past sins and secret desperate wishes for a Savior.  I no longer attend the church of self punishment, I don’t tithe my pack a day as the offering plate of an overflowing ashtray sits waiting on the table, but what should I worship now? I gave  up smoking and still no Stella.

I know that my friends and pastors would tell me that God is near, that Jesus is walking this horrible time with me and mostly I know it is true. Maybe I all the way know but I think most days now I don’t want to search for God, I want a miracle. I am out of offerings and apologies, I grow cold and old and wasted as I wait to be rediscovered as worthy by those who have snubbed me out of their worlds like each cigarettes I smoked down to the filter, looking at it with a mix of surprise and disgust that I had allowed that habit to form. My patience has diminished with my lung capacity, I no longer wait in faith, I don’t walk with the assurance of one who is supported by a loving God. I gave God an ultimatum I think, bring her back or I slowly commit suicide. I blinked, I gave in, God doesn’t pay up on debts I create. So God and my daughter stay silent and I have extra time now to not be smoking and alone and still I wait for a sign that I made the right choice.

I quit smoking. I shed a bit more shame and stopped polluting me. Yet even as I discard all evidence of these toxic 2 and a half years, I know that healing will take longer. Damaged bodies and broken spirits must be handled with care, to minimize suffering and reduce further devastation. My soul is seeking a response from my Creator. Maybe once the smoke clears, I will see Him again, will notice that He cries along with me and aches at my brokenness, that He sits in anger at a child who refuses to forgive, who accepts grace but offers none.  I want to see that God but more, I just want Him to save us both from this hell. I believe He can do it, just as I finally trusted that I could get through the day without smoking. I did it, I quit smoking, a stumble of faith. Now I want to hear Him say I chose wisely, to embrace life over death.  I want my daughter to call, text, email, walk over the bridge and give up her addiction to righteousness.  My offer of grace remains, without limits or scorecards. Alone still on the porch, I wait.

And notice the leaves begin to tumble to the earth. And crickets singing as the night disappears. And remember that hope as tiny as the hummingbird that flits around the last blooms of summer still resides within me.