Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cardinals and Big Bird

Faith is a funny thing. One minute you can be feeling sturdy in the cruise-ship of life, and then an unforeseen trial in the form of an iceberg creates an upheaval in your life that you never wanted to anticipate, but here it is. You're left treading water, and the question becomes, 'Who can you call for help?' Sometimes it's the opposite scenario: you're barely keeping your head above water and are about to surrender, when suddenly a hand seems to come from nowhere and you suddenly find yourself dripping wet, but plucked aboard a vessel of safety. Through the years, I think I have found myself in both of these scenarios. All I can really conclude is that, as we develop and grow, our lives will take turns that we never anticipated, and our faith has no choice but to do the same. I can wrestle with it, discipline it, and let it wander, but ultimately my faith only belongs to me and it remains my accomplice each day.

Two years ago I went through what I would consider a mildly-sizable crisis of faith. Though I never questioned the existence of God (I've been there in my college years, done that, and come out the other side) or his goodness, I found myself unable to come to terms with the injustice and sadness that life dishes out to many people. Read back, if you want, on my anger and despair over baby Aiden Smith's condition and his eventual passing, and you can easily spell out a girl flooded with grief and doubt about God's capability to change the world's circumstances. I began to believe at that point that prayer can be quite useful in changing us, but it cannot change our circumstances. I reasoned that God, who created love and is love, certainly loved this little boy more than I ever could, for how could he create me to be so without firstly having been so himself? And yet, if he loved Aiden at least as much as I did, why didn't he save him? I can't even pretend to know the answer to this question. I began thinking, I would rather believe in a God who created a world that he disallowed himself to intervene in, than to believe in a God who could save this baby and wouldn't. I wrestled with this new (to me) stance on faith, alternately finding comfort and despair in it. I sought the counsel of people wiser than myself, hoping for easy answers. The most spiritually-mature friend I have told me that I was only arguing with myself over semantics. "Jenny," she said, "This is not a hill to die on." She was right, because arguments about the nature of God are less important than what we do about our lives here on Earth. No easy answers came, and in the meantime, life got tougher.

Last October we lost Owen, and everyone who reads this blog knows that I don't even have to go deep into this pool to convey what his short, but big, life did to those of us who loved him. In my darkest moments I have found myself briefly questioning the idea of heaven and an afterlife. Seeing Owen pass into that place in the matter of a moment left me frantically wondering, 'What is he doing now? Where did he go?' Nearly always I imagine Owen in the autumn leaves, playing and tumbling with an exuberant smile on his face, totally at peace with his creator. Sometimes though, and I don't know why, I begin to wonder: what if the afterlife is something that we have made up to comfort ourselves? We as humans seem hard-wired to believe in something greater than ourselves, which one could argue is an evolutionary advantage that propels us forward as a species and provides us hope, except that it isn't true. I, on the other hand, believe that we're cross-culturally hard-wired to believe in something greater than ourselves because we were created by something greater than ourselves, and thus this sense of yearning was created within us. I will admit that acknowledging the idea of no afterlife--of nothingness--after this life, is a concept that is devastatingly empty and frightening to me. I scramble quickly from these thoughts because I find that no good can come from them.

Since two years ago, I have been praying about my questions, though not consistently. I may only now be finding answers, but perhaps what I am really finding is another curve in the road of progress. The wisdom comes from Mindy Sauer, Ben's mom, who is finding herself struggling with the kind of grief that many moms identify with and that all other moms cry to imagine--the grief that comes when a mother outlives her child. Mindy continues to write posts on her blog about how the family is doing without Ben, and she wrote a post earlier this month that challenged me deeply. Entitled "When God Winks," the post spells out a heartbreaking journey that the Sauer family made, perhaps prematurely, to their favorite vacation spot, but this time without Ben. She records that they could see and feel Ben in all things on their vacation, which brought a grief beyond what she and her husband thought they could endure. They would have gone back home if not for their kids, who were excited to be at the beach. But, Mindy writes, there was this cardinal that just wouldn't leave the family alone. Never in her many, many times at this vacation spot had Mindy ever seen a cardinal, but now, just when their grief was beyond enduring, came this beautiful red bird that accompanied them every day. The bird, which the family saw as a token from God, brought them great comfort and happy thoughts about Ben. Ben's identical twin Jack even called out, "Hello Ben!" and the family took delight in this 'coincidence' from God.

Mindy's quiet time on the beach, with a welcome interruption from daughter Megan, who contributed a neat shell in the heart over Ben's name
Mindy said that she did not think that the cardinal was a coincidence, but was rather a 'wink' from God, placed intentionally to provide comfort and small moments of happiness in her otherwise very sad life right now. Mindy cited a book called "When God Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life" by SQuire Rushnell, which she read at the recommendation of a friend right after Ben's passing. The book's push is that God works through 'winks' in your life to let you know that you're on the right path and provide comfort, and all you have to do is look for these winks.

I find this idea to be so charming and comforting. I so wanted to believe it, but I wasn't sure that I did. Like any true investigator, though, my purpose should be to challenge myself and not only read materials that align with my beliefs. So, I quickly reserved the book from the library and had it read within a few days. The book is divided into sections like "Coincidences in History," "Coincidences in the Arts," and "Coincidence's at Life's End." It is filled with stories of what seem to be amazing flukes or coincidences, both from everyday people as well as celebrities. Much as I detest the idea of testing God, I think I sort of walked into this book with the prayer of, "If this is true, then God please let me see it in this book, because I'm about to give up on this idea."

For the first half of the book, I wasn't terribly impressed. He seemed to be making lots of generalizations and wanted all kinds of participation exercises like journaling about one's past. No, thanks. But then I read a couple of sections that floored me and changed my gears--'coincidentally,' one of them was the section called "Coincidence's at Life's End." Without boring you with too many details, I will say that the book suddenly kept handing me stories and details that were simply uncanny in their relationship to my own life. For instance, SQuire (yes, the Q is also capitalized) Rushnell writes about the lifelong friendship between Jim Henson and Joe Raposo, who was the songwriter for Sesame Street. The author specifically mentions two songs only in that entire section of the book, one of them being the song "Sing;" incidentally, this is the exact song that emotionally brings me to my knees about Owen. See? I'm crying even as I type it. I cannot hear that song or even think about it without feeling literal pain and despair in my heart and welling up with tears. That song was played on loop during my first-ever visit with Owen, which was truly such a sad visit because we already knew his diagnosis and knew his life was to be cut short. Ellie was obsessed with that song at the time, and we must have heard it a hundred times. To read about that song right then and there seemed a powerful 'wink' to me. Within that text was the one song that hurts me the most about the one person I miss the most--and in the "Coincidence's at Life's End" section, no less. And he talked about the airing of the Sing! special and how it all incidentally occurred on the day of Jim Henson's death, which was May 16th, and I'm a little weird about death on the 16th's as it is (Owen, Aiden, and my grandmother all died on 16th's). Huh.

There were also two other coincidences that struck me as really odd. One was that he told this really long story about Jessica Savitch, who I know was famous but I didn't know anything about until a week before I read the book. I read an article that had mentioned Jessica Savitch and, since I wasn't sure who she was, I looked her up. The story of her career and her freak-accident death was interesting, and so I read about Jessica Savitch for like half an hour. Then, a week later I'm reading this "God Wink" book and there she is again! It's not like you read her name every day. Huh.

At present day, I can say that this post has been percolating in my mind for some time. I sat out back on the deck this morning working on reports, and was accompanied the entire time by a cardinal cheeping incessantly, and dare I say, wonderfully. After all, Van and I stepped out on the deck in the quiet morning at 6:15, and I asked God aloud, "One more time, please give me a sign by sending me a cardinal. I really need some help with this." And I began crying, because I was sad and I often feel sad when I'm short on sleep. And I was thinking of Aiden and Owen and Ben, and then I heard the cardinals before I saw them--the male and the female, both of them there, just as I asked God.

Enough is enough. I'm tired of asking God for signs and I'm tired of asking other people what they think about this. Like Heidi said, it isn't a hill to die on anyway. But right now I need the comfort, and for the first time in two years I don't feel like I'm deluding myself. I don't have to read too much into simple things, but I can let myself smile at the idea that God is occasionally intervening just to make me smile or let me know that he is taking care of the people that I need him to. What really seems to hit home is the idea that I need approval from no one in order to believe this, and so I can stop seeking it. Appropriately, Rushnell wrote, "Don't be afraid to be alone. You also need time to listen to your inner self instead of someone else suggesting how you should think."

One more ebb in the faith river. We'll see what's around the next bend.

Owen, March 2012 during the Sing visit

Saturday, July 19, 2014


Tonight I made a move that I decided well over a year ago to make: I got Picasso'ed. Seven years ago when I got my first tattoo, the artist told me that he felt certain I would get another in my lifetime. I told him there was no way. One was enough. The wise man would have made money on me though, because after about five years I began longing for another, this one in symbolism of my children. Being a mother has been the most transformative experience that I could have ever imagined, and as if my body changes aren't evidence enough of that fact, I tattooed it on myself to remain with me through my days. BJ accompanied me and was, as ever, a great sport about my decision of body 'better-fication.'

The story behind the tattoo: Four and a half years ago, BJ and I decided to do an owl nursery theme, and we both agreed that Pablo Picasso's most famous "Owl" sketch belonged on the wall of the nursery.

I can't tell you how many times in the middle of the night I have stood beside the crib rocking a baby in my arms and staring at that sketch. Sometimes I marveled at the simplicity, sometimes I longed for sleep, sometimes I cried in frustration or joy, all while looking at the sketch. So, there you have the symbolism for the image chosen. That owl will always remind me of my three beautiful boys in the early years of their lives--the years that revamped my soul.

I chose the five night-sky stars surrounding the bird for several reasons, but primarily to represent Silas, George, Van, Owen, and Aiden. These five very special boys have filled my heart to its brim and beyond. Two of them are in Heaven and three are here on Earth, and all have made me a better person. I also chose five stars because there are five of us in our family, and I grew up in a happy, busy family of five. Only recently has the number 'five' come to mean even more, thanks to little Ben Sauer. His story has made me a better mom, and, at relatively the last minute, I knew I had to find a way to have him represented in this tattoo. The number five worked perfectly to embrace Ben as well though, as Ben was five years old and was born on May 5th--5/5. With Ben, the image was complete, with all of the special little boys, plus BJ and my own wonderful family-of-origin, finding a place in the framework. The stars, much to my tattoo artist Renee's chagrin, were to be drawn imperfectly, sort of Charlie-Brown style if you will. It was very hard for her to not draw them perfectly! You could see the effort she made just to try to mess them up. I love my decision, though, because I feel that the whimsical nature of the imperfect, asymmetrical stars encapsulates my personality, my love for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and perfectly accompanies my first tattoo, which is a very Dr. Seuss-ish pine tree.

Should I ever forget my fortunate lot in life and deliriously come up short on reasons to be thankful, I now need only look down as I put my best foot forward. Cheers, friends.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Keeping Austin Weird

We spent the last week in Austin because BJ had a conference there, and the boys and I felt it was only right to tag along. I had been very much looking forward to spending time in this truly weird city, seemingly in direct contrast to the fact that I spent not a single minute researching anything about it before we left. Nevertheless, Austin was waiting when we arrived, and based on some recommendations from friends we found our way around pretty quickly.

One of my greatest and favorite friends reported to me that she and her husband hadn't been nearly hipster enough for Austin, a statement which I only guessed meant that she thought the city was weird and wasn't a huge fan. I'm not sure. I'll have to ask her next time I see her. What this says about me I'm not sure, because I felt very much at home in the city and was extremely regretful about having to come home at all. I've never considered myself to be a hipster; I actually kind of have a self-image of being a goody two-shoes. I suppose upon deeper self-reflection, though, I must admit that a woman who is a cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breastfeeding-in-public, nose-pierced, tattooed, blue-voting mama might be a tad bit alternative when compared to the Oklahoma norm. Although I feel comfortable in Oklahoma, I also feel a kinship to most liberal cities with progressive social movements. Our four years in Minneapolis were fantastic, although I must say I never did feel completely at home in the broad-minded Twin Cities (save the divergent little community that somehow elected Michelle Bachmann into office)--but that was only because those people really love frigid, eight-month winters, a characteristic that I still can't wrap my mind around.

Politics and preferences aside, the five of us had a spectacular time. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown on South Congress Avenue and the river. Underneath the Congress Avenue bridge is an urban colony of something like a million and a half bats, and every night at sundown they all come flying out at the same time to hunt insects. A giant crowd gathers every evening to witness the spectacle, and it really was mind-blowing. Our hotel was within a two-minute walk of the site, which was fun. The hotel pool was a favorite with our family, and we could be found there everyday making new friends. Because the boys wore floatation devices and because the pool had very wide steps down into a large shallow part, it was quite reasonable for me to take all three boys to the pool by myself and never fear losing control of the situation. George even became comfortable enough that he would jump from the side of the pool in all by himself. Sadly, though temperatures routinely climbed into the 90's on all days of our stay, the hot tub was the bigger favorite among Silas and George. Favorite restaurants and food trucks (of which Austin has many) included Torchy's Tacos, Lucy's Fried Chicken, Home Slice Pizza, Hopdoddy Burgers, Genuine Joes, Elevation Burger, Amy's Ice Cream, and tons of local delicious beers. Some nights we enjoyed meals outside on communal picnic tables under shady trees with Christmas lights in them, and we were joined by an Austin community that loved to spend time outside even in the heat. Only in a place with great food could I chase three children all day, swim in the pool, sometimes go for a jog on the treadmill when they all went to bed, and still gain weight. Alas, it was worth it. Lastly, on the way home we broke up the trip into two days. On day one, we headed to Dinosaur Valley State Park, southwest of Fort Worth, to view fossilized dinosaur tracks from two separate species all along a riverbed. The second day we enjoyed the Dallas World Aquarium and lunch in downtown Dallas at El Fenix before piling into the car and heading home at the last possible moment. Grateful for getaways!

He caught the eye of many a lady in the pool.
Drinking straight half-and-half (or, as he dubbed it, "little coffees") at a pancake restaurant

Yup, I think they're all in there.
Painting at "The Thinkery"

The Thinkery was truly a very neat experience for the kids.

Van! Van! He's our man!--at Hopdoddy. We loved the hanging highchairs with chest harness!

Can you see all those little bats zooming out?

The boys and me at Sandra Bullock's deli restaurant, Walton's Fancy and Staple. Sadly, Sandy and I didn't become BFF's during this escapade...but only because she didn't make an appearance at her restaurant while we were there.

Van getting love from his bros. I only just now realized how blonde George is.

Acrocanthrosaurus tracks!

At the Dallas World Aquarium. Don't let him fool you. I wasn't the only one having fun.

My favorite shot of the trip

Let me put this into perspective: that crab was like three feet wide.

A boy and his daddy

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Playlist: "We're On Each Other's Team"

I don't have the energy for more than one big project at a time, it seems. Disappointing, huh? Recently, all of my extra energy has gone into our house, the location formerly referred to as The Bermuda Triangle. As it stands now, the purge is complete and all of our extra stuff is out in our garage, waiting for me to make the call to Salvation Army. We intended to have a garage sale, but we decided that the time and energy required to organize and price it all, not to mention sitting in the heat with it for more than one day, just didn't seem worth it.

Now that the purge is complete, it's time for me to focus my energy on regaining a healthy weight following Van's birth. I'm still packing some pregnancy pounds, which honestly doesn't bother me too much, but I'd like to fit into more of my older clothes. Mostly, though, I want to be in better shape because I enjoy setting running goals. During the purge it was impossible for me to jog because I was up until the wee hours of the night working each night, which zapped all of my energy. Even prior to that though, I was really struggling because of lower back pain. I have found that I can usually keep this managed with ice packs, and I suspect that building some core strength through yoga would do me a world of good, except that I still need the nerve to find and join a class. We are strongly considering a family membership at the local Y. Childcare while I take a yoga class or go for a jog sounds pretty fabulous, and I think we would really like being able to take the kids swimming regularly.

Since I'm keen on getting my feet back into the old running shoes, I've been doing some short jogs this past week and setting a new running goal. This one is going to be a real doozy for me, but it's manageable: at the Yukon Chill Your Cheeks 5K, which is held annually the Saturday before Thanksgiving and coincides with the lighting of the park, I hope to run a 5K race in 29:59 or less. That would mean picking up my current pace quite a bit. In recent years I have found myself able to gut out distance when I really need to, but my pace is something like a disgraceful 12 minute-mile. At this point I'm not interested in adding distance accomplishments as much as I am speed ones. My fastest 5K time to date is 33:50, and that was when I was in good shape, so I will need to shave significant time off that. I have every intention of giving it my all though, and I'll be dedicating my efforts to the memory of Ben Sauer. (In case you missed my previous post about Ben and his influence on me in my role as a mother, read it and weep.)
My favorite picture of Ben, hugging his identical twin brother Jack
Jogging, for me, is an act of spiritual unification with other people. That sounds really weird, I know, but really and truly, I find myself connecting to humanity in strange ways when I am grunting out my efforts into a jog. It's suddenly like everyone everywhere is my friend, and my sense of being joined to others becomes rich and complicated. This is why I always dedicate races and running goals to other people; it instills within me a sense of thanksgiving for other people in this life. My music playlist reflects this sense of connection that I feel, as my songs are primarily chosen to remind me of good times with others, as well as positive associations that naturally come with good relationships. A few songs, like Lady Gaga's "Just Dance," are on there purely for the beat, but they are few and far between. I always start a race with Florence and the Machine's "Dog Days Are Over," using as the chorus my mantra of "Run fast for your mother and fast for your father, run for your children, for your sisters and brothers." I don't always run fast for them, but I always run for them! Here are some other examples from my jogging playlist and why they were selected:
  • "Mountain Sound" by Of Monsters and Men, which always reminds me of a fun day in the sun at Andy Alligator's Water Park in the summer of 2012. George was a baby, Silas was a toddler, and BJ and I enjoyed the day with my sister and her awesome little family. I heard this song on the loudspeaker that day.
  • "We Are Young" by Fun, which instantly transports me to the early months of 2012, as I rocked my newborn baby George on the right-hand seat of our bedroom couch and watched old reruns, falling in love with a new little boy.
  • "Home" by Phillip Phillips, a song that brings to mind positive memories with Owen, as well as the Summer 2012 Olympic Games, for which it was a theme.
  • "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z, which reminds me of fun times spent in one of my favorite cities in the world. I love New York. And Raine's Law Room with my best friends. The song also reminds me of the indelible Betty White, whose one-time hilarious hosting of the Mother's Day SNL episode in 2010 left me begging for more. Jay-Z performed "Empire State of Mind" that night and also dedicated his performance of "Forever Young" to Betty White.
  • "Walking With A Ghost" by Tegan and Sara: Every time I hear this song, I'm suddenly 23 again, enjoying a walk on a fall evening in 2004 with BJ and Tex in Logan Park of northeast Minneapolis, smelling Cinnamon Toast Crunch as it bakes at the nearby General Mills plant.
  • "Brave" by Sara Bareilles, a song which conjures within me a sense of unity with womankind in all of its bold little pieces
  • "Slide" by GooGoo Dolls: I can practically smell the Lake Texoma air and the hot dogs sizzling on the boat grill. This song, listened to a million times with my parents as part of "the lake tape," will always transport me instantly to the sailboat days of college summers.
  • "Machinehead" by Bush brings about a rush of adrenaline as I think about cheering on the Thunder in a close game from the friendliest section in The Peake, Loud City 303!
  • "Team" by Lorde, during which I always imagine that Sommer is running alongside me. I feel particular regard for these lyrics: 
We live in cities you'll never see on the screen,
Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things.
Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams,
and you know, we're on each other's team.

I'm a lucky girl. So many memories, so many good people that have guided me and are there for me even now when I ask for support. What a neat thing, this notion that this handful of songs that remind me of so many good people, can once again help me as I work toward my own personal goals--goals I want to meet to honor other people. It's like each memory that goes into these songs comes back to serve me yet again as I need it. And so I will run on, going faster and faster, fast as I can for Ben. Time to lace up the shoes, strap on the ice pack, and get busy. Ben is worth it, and so am I.

My first song during every race: "The Dog Days Are Over" by Florence and the Machine