To the Young Folk and Old Folk. Maybe just folks, in general. Birthday musings from a middle-old folk.

I remember being 17, driving around in my car, singing Tim McGraw's "My Next 30 Years" and thinking, "Wow, that guy's old and SO WISE."  Now, I don't consider 30 old by any stretch, but I would like to take a moment to celebrate the ending of an era and the turning of a page.

For my 40th birthday, I'm giving you all a gift, a little thing I absolutely hate - unsolicited advice.  If you're younger than me, think of this as mentoring.  (YOU'RE WELCOME.)  If you're older than me, feel free to correct and admonish gently, but I'd obviously prefer a hearty "Hear, hear!"  I'm an introvert, a stewer (of thoughts, not soup), a chronic noticer, an over-feeler (in emotion, not physical touch, which lands dead last in my love language inventory), and a wannabe life coach (just kidding, I don't want to do that).  At 40, I feel ever-so-slightly qualified to comment on the world around me.  And so, as a gift to myself and my over-active brain, I'm composing this disorganized data dump of semi-ranting/perhaps-useful/not-at-all-exhaustive advice I've collected and/or learned the hard way.  For your reading pleasure?  Do with it what you will. 

Don't allow anyone to donate their first impressions of others to you.
Seriously, let it go in one ear and out the other or shut it down before it begins.  If someone you know tries to tell you about someone you don't, just turn your ears off.  Form your own opinions, especially if the intel you're getting is negative.  And also, don't be the person that slanders someone else.  We all have bad days.  Come on now.

Don't trust your own first impressions.  No matter how spot-on you think you are.

I have always prided myself in my first impressions.  (Red flag.) I think I can nail someone's character after just one interaction.  And I don't really allow for re-do's in light of my self-proclaimed first impression superpower.  I'm happy to say that I have given up on this and had many redemptive second impressions.  Thank the Lord for second chances.  I'm sure *I've* needed those over the years.

Spend 100% less time worrying about what other people think about you.

I give you this word as one I think I will struggle with for my entire life.  Literally no one is thinking about you.  And if they are, then what?  You might be misrepresented?  Oh well.  Right? What's going to happen?  Literally nothing.  Someone thinks wrongly?  That's on them.  Let it go. (Says the woman who obsesses over this very thing.  Lord, help me stop!)

Stop talking yourself out of living life.

I am basically afraid of everything.  Speaking from experience, this isn't good for you (for about a million different reasons).  There's  a life rich with opportunity and people and experiences waiting to be lived.  Don't let fear be the reason you missed out, on anything, large or small.

Laugh often and loudly.  

Laughing is a great coping mechanism for a world gone cray.  Highly recommend.  And I also think we should be able to laugh at ourselves.  It's not all so serious.  Relax.

Recognize the small things as the marvels that they truly are.  

Have you ever held a baby and thought, "Man, this is incredible.  This is an entirely new person right here in my arms?"  That should be our reaction.  We should equally marvel at tiny ants carrying giant loads, rainbows, germinating seeds, the circulatory system, Saharan dust storms, yawning, the benefit of music to our brains, conveyance of light...shall I continue?  It's all amazing.  Don't take these things for granted.  Right down to our next breath.  

Be flexible in most things, but stand your ground on the important things.

We are all differently convicted on things that, at the end of the day, don't matter that much.  (I won't give examples.)  In these things, extend grace.  Then there are the things that do matter.  In these things, stand firm.  

Parenting:  Do your best to emulate God's amazing grace and perfect justice in tandem.

(It can't be all grace and no justice.  Or vice versa.)

Paranoia isn't a good look.  

If you've ever wondered if there was a big conspiracy about [xyz], I'm going to just go out on a limb and guess that there probably isn't.  I'm not even talking about political or societal things, I'm talking about personal relationships.  No one is out to get you.  They just aren't.

The log in your eye is WAY bigger than your neighbor's speck.  Mind ya own business.

Oh, friends, if there were a most important tip, it would be this one.  I am a professional at pointing out the sins of others, and most often, the things that drive me crazy in someone else are usually what I need to deal with in my own life.  For example, I get angrier and angrier that someone is angry about something stupid.  See how dumb and ironic that is?  

Encouragement costs nothing to give.  If you notice something nice, say so.  If something nice isn't obvious, keep looking.  

Second to last in my love language inventory is "Words of Affirmation," but I will tell you what, most people (aside from yours truly) genuinely love these things.  Speak kindness and encouragement when you can.  Notice little things and big things alike and say it aloud.  When it's hard to find redeeming qualities in someone, keep looking.  This was an exercise a friend and I undertook in high school, to find nice things to think and say about the harder-to-love folks in our circles, and it has stuck with me.  It changes your perspective to look for good instead of dwelling on the negative.  LITERALLY NO ONE WANTS TO BE AROUND NEGATIVE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME.

Weigh your words.

We think everyone wants to hear what we have to say (says the woman posting a blog of unsolicited advice), but I would caution you to weigh your words, and, at times, hold them completely.  Being proud of being the loud and obnoxious is foolishness.  The Bible has so much to say about words. "Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.  Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent." Proverbs 17:27-28

Be quick to forgive.

Unforgiveness is poison in your life.  Forgive and move on.  

Read your Bible.

If you are a Christian, this is your duty and privilege.  It is your literal lifeline.  We have so much to glean, and we need to know what it says.  "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." 2 Timothy 3:16-17  If you are not a Christian, I dare you to open up the book of Mark and give it a read through.  It's life-changing and of utmost importance.

I have no doubt there's more, but I think that's enough.  (More than.)  Thanks for indulging my brain dump of unnecessary musings. And thanks for the many, many birthday wishes.  I am indeed a blessed lady.

Passive Parenting and the Battle for Our Children's Hearts

I'm not old.  Despite what Abby says, pushing forty is not old.  (I promise, younger moms, I am not old.)  That said, I do find myself feeling...a little more tired day by day.  Things are getting to me that didn't used to, or at least didn't used to as much.  I am old enough that I've seen a lot of change in my lifetime, and even a lot of change in my nearly-twenty years as a parent.  (Okay, maybe I am old.)

I am definitely old enough to have seen a clear and obvious shift in parenting.  

Timeout.  (Here's where I give a few disclaimers.  But not as many as I used to, because, personal growth in the "fear of man" department.)  

My personal parenting philosophy is "I'm winging it" and "don't be jerks."  I am not an expert or guru.  I have made every mistake known to man.  My children are not perfect.  They, too, are sinners.  I think that might be hereditary.  I am not writing this post fishing for compliments or as an invitation for anyone to air my dirty laundry about the times my children and I were just flat out awful.  (I really prefer not to think about how many examples there are.)  I do not pretend to think there is a one-size-fits-all model, unless you've searched the Word and come to a conclusion based on it, and even then implementation probably looks different household to household.  

That said, friends, peers, we need to have a talk.  I want a peaceful, pleasant home life for you all.  I want you to put the work in to make life more enjoyable.  I want you to raise well-rounded, respectful ruckus-makers.  This comes from a place of concern.  

I'm not exactly sure when we collectively decided that all authority is bad and must be challenged...unless that authority comes in the form of a tiny tyrant we birthed ourselves.  Then, by all means, we must bow and cower to their every demand.  I am further lost as to when we decided that discipline and the doling out of consequences is somehow an inferior option to stooping down to to their level, plastering on a smile, and telling them how good they are and how you trust they won't do it again.  (Facts: They aren't. And they will.)  

Gentle parenting has emerged as the trendy parenting style, it seems.  I don't really know much about these things other than to overhear a buzzword and to observe the fruits of the collective labor from various vantage points in my everyday life.  I think the the idea behind this trend is great.  Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all!  It's frequently misunderstood, a lot like meekness.  Gentleness is amazing, but it's not to be confused with weakness at all.  Meekness is controlled power to be used beneficially.  It does not retaliate and is patient when wronged.  Gentleness, likewise, corrects without harshness.  Unfortunately, what I am seeing is not gentleness, but passivity.  Being passive is accepting or allowing what others do without active response or resistance, under the guise of "gentleness."  

If you are a Bible believer, you understand that we are all born in sin.  Our hearts are deceitful above all else.  Until we accept the free gift of salvation and our hearts are regenerated, we are lost in our sins, serving ourselves above others.  It is pretty clear that this is the condition of young children.  Think about the ironic shrieking of "They have to SHARE!!!!" as a child demands that someone else give up a toy they are actively playing with so that they, the shrieker, can have it.  That's not how this works.  The demand that someone yield to your authority as the louder child who wants something is the elevation of oneself above another.  It's not cute, funny, or age-appropriate for children to act a fool, willfully disobey their parents and teachers, or show physical aggression out of frustration for, I mean, who knows what.  I'm sorry (am I?), but it needs to be called out and addressed.

We need to teach our children (for starters):

Respect: For their parents, teachers, peers, and themselves.

"Maybe you don't like what I am telling you, but you may not hide under the table while we're having this chat."
"It is not okay to make barfing sounds while your teacher is talking."
"Pushing to the front of the line and crying because you want to be line-leader is a great way not to get to have that fun job."
"Learning to express yourself is challenging, but pitching a fit is something we need to not do, in public or in private."

Personal Responsibility: To accept when they have done wrong.

"I understand that Suzie called you a cotton-headed ninny-muggins, but throwing a chair at her was not an acceptable response and that's on you.  Check on her and apologize."

As parents we aren't fighting against a sweet, innocent child.  We are fighting against an unregenerate heart that needs to be pointed to Jesus, a person made in the image of God lost in sin.  We are literally competing against Satan for the hearts of our children.  If you think the enemy isn't crouched at the ear of our children repeating, "Do you really need to listen to you parents?" I think you're kidding yourself.  

A useful bit of advice I always hear and have probably doled out is "You have to pick your battles."  That's worthy counsel, but "picking your battles" inherently suggests that you are, in fact, choosing some battles to fight, not surrendering them all.  I know you're tired!  Me too.  Sometimes, you have dig deep.  Your "battles" may be different day to day and child to child, but you are the authority in your home.  You have been given this job as as gift from God to lead and teach these children well.  You can't do that from the sideline.  You can't do that with your hands tied behind your back.  And you can't do that when you've handed the reins over to your children.  

When I was a child myself, a friend of mine shared with me a little nugget that someone (maybe her grandmother) used to tell her all of the time.  It was:
The earth has an axis, and it's not you.
That might be a great lesson to start with for all of us.  On the front end it sounds a little harsh, maybe.  But let it sink in.  Our message to our children has been quite the opposite.  They are the center of our universe, the apple of our eye, the most amazing and perfect creatures that ever graced humanity.  And to you, they may seem like exactly those things.  I would caution you about creating little gods.  I love my children.  I think they're awesome.  I also think they ought to be taught that they aren't perfect, that we should put others first, and that we should respect people of authority.  If we disagree with the authorities, it is possible to do so respectfully and effectually.  

If you are a parent who desperately longs for bedtime because there is no peace in your home, your children have taken control, and you wish they would go to sleep because you don't even enjoy their company, I might consider whether you've allowed passivity to enter into your parenting.  I don't mean for this to sound like judgment.  Discipline and consequences are not inherently negative.  They might be unpleasant for a short while for both the administrator and recipient, but that short unpleasantness totally and completely outweighs a lifetime of strife and weariness.  Good results require hard work.  Hard work is usually worth it.  It is a guarantee?  No.  But wouldn't you rather risk a good result than a guaranteed bad one?  

Chaos is not what God wants for our homes and our families.  We live in an ordered world, designed by the ultimate authority who tells us that discipline is love. 
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace; for those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:5-11
Our children respect our discipline.  They need it.  

Things I truly believe our children will look back on retrospectively and be grateful for:

Being taught to show respect.
Being told no.
Having boundaries.
Being given privileges after they've proven themselves trustworthy.
Being given consequences when trust was broken.
Having parents with the fortitude to know better and act on knowing better when they were too young to understand.

Start simply, but be bold.  "Let your no be no and your yes be yes."

If you don't require your children to respect you, how can you expect them to respect any, single other authority in the world.  Teachers shouldn't have to handle undisciplined children.  Volunteers at church, coaches, substitute teachers, and grandparents shouldn't have to either.  We are manufacturing a generation of tyrants.  It doesn't have to be this way. 

If you desire to parent gently, I encourage you to, but I caution you to guard against passivity.  I would also encourage you, as you teach your children to express their feelings, to understand that there are consequences to actions and they are not always pleasant.  Whatever form of parenting you subscribe to, understand that there are generational ramifications.  How you train your children this very day will affect how they interact with the world - their immediate families, their teachers and classmates, their futures spouses and employers, their children (your grandchildren), and, not being hyperbolic at all, the world at large.  This is the long game, a marathon with a million little sprints along the way.  It's exhausting, but a privilege.  We were chosen for this job to guide these little people.  I know you're up for the challenge.  Pray for guidance and fortitude.  Be strong!  Be the leaders of your family.  I so greatly desire peace for your households.

Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire. Proverbs 29:17

Not that anyone asked...

Stranded: A Memoir

(I'm laughing out loud at the title.  I'm notoriously bad at titles.  To sum up for the TL:DR folks, we got stuck on I-95S in Virginia.  It was not what I would call my favorite experience, but we were completely and totally fine.  Feel free to read on, but I'm recording this for my own sake more than anything, for the memories and reminders of God's provision.)

On the morning of Monday, January 3rd, the kids and I packed up Big Blue after a somewhat uncustomary visit to Maryland for the holidays.  The week had held its share of challenges, apart from the weather, making the departure a little harder than normal.  The forecast the night before predicted a couple of inches of snow where my parents live, with the worst of the storm hitting southern Maryland with 3-6 inches.  In Maryland, this is not a major storm, especially since the temperatures had been high even as the precipitation started to fall and pre-treatment would prevent significant delays.  With the weather in mind, and knowing that Sam was going to be staying behind in Baltimore for work, we went to the grocery store the night before to fill our little electric cooler with lunchmeat and fruits so we could have at least one meal on-the-go without having to stop and add time to an already-long trip.  

Obviously, not leaving would have been a better option, but my kids go to school one day a week on Tuesday, and missing that is the equivalent (in my mind) of missing a whole week.  We were determined to get back for that and so we set off, trusting the Maryland DOT to do their jobs and observing that the small suburban roads outside my parents house were still just wet when we left.  I anticipated a longer-than-normal trip, but slow and steady was my goal.  

As we set off at 9:30am, I took a picture of my parents' snow-covered home and posted on IG and FB with a quip:

The snow scared us. Heading back to Georgia.
The trek to I-95 from my parents' house was four easy miles with a stop at Royal Farms for some caffeine rations for Ben and me.  As soon as we hit southbound 95, the trip truly begins.  It's 600 boring miles to I-20 where we cut across South Carolina.  Under normal conditions with stops for gas, food, and potty breaks, the trip takes around 12-13 hours.  As expected, traffic was slower than normal, as one would hope in more treacherous conditions.  There was a little bit of slush on the roads, but nothing scary to drive in.  After exiting the Fort McHenry tunnel, the road conditions declined, but still I pressed on thinking even if I had to go super slow through that leg of the trip, the worst was supposed to be between Baltimore and Washington and that was nothing new, even without bad weather.

The fastest we went from that point was 30 mph.  Any progress was progress though, and I pressed forward thinking only of school the next day.  As the ETA on Waze kept updating later and later, I was feeling more discouraged about our decision to leave, but with each mile we progressed, I considered it that much closer to home and, in my mind, that much farther through what was supposed to be "the worst" of the driving conditions.  The closer we got to Washington D.C., the worse the roads got.  As we made our way around D.C. on 495, there was no more slush to be seen, only a sheet of ice.  When we approached re-entry to I-95, Waze recommended every exit as an alternative to the interstate.  I eyed the exit ramps that were mostly uphill and considered my precious cargo, knowing full well no one can control a vehicle driving on ice, no matter your experience driving in winter weather.  We watched vehicle after vehicle attempt to exit unsuccessfully and end up sideways, blocking exits, and careening off the road.  My internal monologue said "just keep going, slowly but surely" with the ever-present promise of the mess being almost behind us as we neared Virginia.  

In Alexandria, VA, I spied an exit ramp that seemed passable so I decided to get off 95 and see what things were like on the secondary roads.  To sum up, not better at all.  The roads had about eight inches of snow on them at that point and were mostly unplowed.  The way the GPS took me at the bottom of the ramp was left onto a road that crossed a very steep bridge obviously frozen over.  We watched from the stoplight as people slid backward down the road on their attempts to go over it.  I opted to go straight into a shopping center and ended up at a Shell station with the least threatening parking lot.  Having been in the car for 3 and a half hours to go 76 miles, we got out and used the restroom, unsure when our next opportunity would be.  I opted not to grab a coffee at the Dunkin' inside, a decision that would haunt me later that day.  I walked out to the pump and cringed at the $3.86/gal pricetag (at home gas was at least a $1/gal cheaper).  We'd only used about a quarter of a tank, but since we were stopped and the future was unpredictable, I went against my instincts to be cheap and topped it off.  Abby got to work making sandwiches and fed everyone lunch in the backseat.  

We snaked around the little town trying to find passable roads en route back to the interstate.  I considered my options: (1) turn around and go back to White Marsh, (2) stop wherever I was and look for a place to stay, (3) press on.  We had already invested hours on homeward travel, and I was still convinced the worst of it was right where we were.  The businesses at that exit were dark, and the parking lots snow-covered.  I couldn't fathom even finding a hotel in those conditions.  I audibly prayed as we made our way up and down a few questionable hills.  We passed an on-ramp for 95S, another uphill ice rink.  Three cars were already blocking it, disabled and sideways, and as we made the decision not to go up it, we watched another car coming down the ramp from the interstate.  Things were looking bleak.  By sweet Providence, a snow plow turned in front of us at a stop light and we followed it to an entry onto 395S which I considered a win.  Time, of course, would determine that was a lie.  The remainder of Monday beginning at 1:36pm yielded a total of 24 miles.

At 4:30pm, we got stopped near Triangle, watching the sun set and the roads turn into 4-inch thick ice-skating rinks.  We began watching the VDOT twitter page for updates on accidents.  We could see across the interstate median that the situation northbound was absolutely no different than the parking lot southbound.  The few exits we passed in those short miles were in no better shape and clogged with disabled vehicles, making exiting or turning northward unfeasible.  It seemed our only option was to carry on and so we did.  Watching the semi-trucks next to me continue to slide wherever their weight carried them after coming to "a stop" was about as unsettling as reality could be in that moment, but no better picture to describe the reason I was absolutely terrified.  I verbalized to my kids that I would do everything I could to drive safely and carefully and to be frank that wasn't much when you're on ice, but what everyone else did was completely out of my control.  And that's why I was scared.  I probably said too much in my attempts to keep myself calm.  
As long as I can keep even one tire on pavement, I'll feel better.  As long as I can keep creeping and not stop, I'm good.  As long as I can get to the top of this hill, I know I can get down the other side.  At least we're loaded down with as much traction as possible with this van full of who-knows-what from Grandmom.

Sam was on the phone with me for the bulk of the day, the contractor he was working for having told him not to come in due to inclement weather.  He was, as always, the voice of calm and reason.  I felt almost worse for him than us because of how helpless he felt.  I put on my brave face for my kids, who clearly saw right through it, but I always broke down when Sam got on the phone.  He's my safe place, and it's hard to be vulnerable in secret when you're on speaker phone in a giant van with eight kids listening in.  The gravity of the situation settled in when we crept along with the sight of the Marine Corps Museum remaining in our view for hours.  Sam would ask for an update and I would resist telling him.  Memories of stranded motorists in Atlanta ran through my head from years prior, an event which made a laughingstock of the south in a scant snowstorm that crippled the interstates for days.  I just kept thinking that Virginia, by snow standards, is decisively not Atlanta, and they have means of pretreating roads.  I further thought over and over again, "This is a colossal failure by the state of Virginia.  It shouldn't be like this."  I was mentally preparing myself for a night on the interstate.  For me, imagining the worst case is a coping mechanism.  Reality is rarely as bad as I'm capable of imagining.  And, in truth, it really wasn't.

By 7:30pm, we were stopped for what would become the entire night about a third of a mile past Exit 143 in Garrisonville, VA.  The next exit was three miles south.  When we passed 143, it was closed due to a combination of untreated roads and disabled vehicles.  The stretch beyond the exit was so unnerving due to the plummeting temperature, icy conditions, and hills that my nerves were completely shot.  It was literally a relief to come to a stop.  

On the bright side, my kids got to see me scared and praying audibly because there was nothing else I could do but pray and plead.  At this point, I need to give full credit to all eight of my passengers because they were absolutely awesome.  I'm sure they could sense my anxiety.  I'm sure some of them were unaware of how very few miles we'd actually traveled and were quite tired of being in the van already.  I'm also sure they really are good kids.  I don't want to forget all of the sweetness of those hours stranded together.  For a spell, Ben attempted an uncharacteristic optimism in Sam's absence to keep my spirits up.  Abby worked her magic to keep the younger children entertained and not crying.  Noah, Hannah, and Zachary took turns napping.  Noah did not get carsick or ornery.  Sarah and Leah were just their normal, good selves.  They took care of me more than I took care of them.  

A few things I wish to remember:

- Thanks to Noah's history of carsickness, we routinely pack a barf bowl/hurl holder/puke pot/vomit vault.  We've fine-tuned the receptacle over the years and landed on an 8-cup measuring cup with a handle.  While he did not need to use it for puking, the rest of the family was able to use as a makeshift toilet.  Inglorious, yes, but necessary.  For the record, no one needed to go number two.  (I've been asked, and I may as well answer.)

- Thanks to a combination of a grocery run and my mother's desire to send all of the junk food in her house with us when we leave, we had no shortage of food to eat.  Not Whole 30 or anything, but we definitely did not starve.

- While driving on ice and driving on dirt roads are not the same, I applied some similar principles Sam taught me in an attempt to stay a little safer.  I could hear his refrains echoing in my ear: "Whatever you do, keep moving.  Don't come to a stop." (And so on.) 

- Around 9pm, Sam suggested that I put out some feelers on Facebook for anyone who might have connections near Stafford, VA.  Though we were stuck, there was hope we could start moving at any time, at which point a driveway to park in for the night and maybe a legitimate bathroom would have been absolutely amazing.  The outpouring of concern and offers of help were above and beyond.  I had multiple friends offer me hotel rooms with their points.  I had a friend searching tirelessly for a solution, even tracking down a friend of a friend within miles of us (if only we'd been able to move) that was literally offering to open her home to all of us with beds enough for everyone.  She also called the hospital at the next exit and got permission to park there for the night (which became our goal, had we been able to get rolling).  I had a friend who lives in Virginia offer to drive to the nearest exit and walk provisions to our car.  I had friends I hadn't spoken to in years reach out with encouragement, concern, and prayers.  God sustained my spirits through prayers and the tool of social media which I have so often wanted to scrap altogether.  When I think back, even now weeks later, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude at the love we were shown.  

- Determined to stay awake in case we started moving, I finally decided to turn Waze back on around 1am.  (I had turned it off because the ever-increasing ETA was depressing.)  Someone on map chat said they'd walked the entire length from exit to exit to see what was going on and multiple semis had slid together blocking the entire interstate with no hope of being moved likely until daylight.  The truck drivers were all sleeping, so I was able to give myself permission to close my eyes and sleep.

- The entire time we were parked, a total of 16 hours, we were never low on gas.  We were able to keep the van running and our bodies warm despite the temperatures in the teens.  It was 16 degrees overnight.  We had a lot of blankets and body heat, but grateful we were never without heat.  Furthermore, grateful we did not have to walk out of the situation like in Atlanta.  I packed only my well-worn, slip-on, knock-off Toms for the trip with a hole in them no less, and those would not have fared well on an icy hike.  

- I really did not do anything in particular to keep us occupied or pass the time.  We couldn't stream anything like audiobooks or music or movies because phone service was in and out.  (I guess everyone else was already watching Netflix.)  What I did do was allow them a whole lot of tablet time because I'd had the foresight to charge them all the night before we left knowing we had a big trip ahead.  Parenting win or loss, depending on your perspective.

- When we started to get low on water the next morning, our big kids took turns trekking over well into the median to grab water bottles full of fresh snow.  Bekah enjoyed it by the handful from her perch in between the front seats.  

- Rebekah woke up screaming from her car seat around 1:30am.  Given my opportunities to snuggle with her are growing increasingly more rare, we managed to squeeze together in the driver's seat for a couple of fitful hours of sleep.  Then, together, we watched the sun rise over the snowy horizon.  I can probably count on one hand the number of sunrises I've seen in my life.  It was breathtaking.  (But I'm still partial to sunsets.)

As the morning progressed, we watched the sun begin to melt the ice ever-so-slightly, despite the temperatures still in the upper teens and 20s.  (And goes to show how pre-treatment would have totally changed the situation.)  We watched the double-long Amazon truck get UNstuck from it's uphill perch on the northbound lane.  We started becoming a little more optimistic.  Sam found us a hotel room in Fredericksburg off Route 1 which seemed to be cleared from all information we could find.  We were exhausted, but hopeful to be out of the situation before another night came.  Having a destination seemed to revitalize us.  

We received a text message from some sort of emergency alert system around 9:30am saying that crews were working to get vehicles unstuck and that they were coming up and down the interstate going vehicle to vehicle to make sure everyone had water and supplies.  We never saw anyone, and we didn't need anything, but I hope they were really doing this and that people who actually needed help were able to get some.  It did help to know that we weren't simply waiting and that work was being done to get things moving.

And move, we did.  At 11am, we finally began the 3-mile trek to the next exit.  It was 30 and sunny.  Roads still coated with ice, and only when we were almost off, did we finally see any plows clearing the way.  Lanes were non-existent, every vehicle was doing the best they could to not get stuck.  We passed multiple tractor-trailers that had jack-knifed or were simply stuck spinning wheels.  We watched a rogue truck driver with seeming reckless abandon scoot past everyone in the treacherous left lane, only to realize he was singlehandedly stopping at all of the other disabled trucks to try to help them.  He was literally pouring jugs of salt under their wheels and bashing ice on the road by the tires with a giant wrench.  Once dislodged, he'd pop on down the road to the next disable vehicle.  It was a sight to behold.  His kindness, resourcefulness, and willingness to help moved me to tears.  (Even if, later on down the road he would verbally assault me at a stoplight for getting too close to a vehicle I did not realize was abandoned.  I'm over it because we were literally all exhausted.)  

The moment we got off the interstate, the conditions of the roads were instantly better.  By 2pm, we had made it to our hotel.  The parking lot was an icy mess, but we were not daunted.  We trekked up the hill through the foot of snow to find out their computer systems were down and they told me to check back in a little while as they were having it worked on.  We used the lobby restroom (HALLELUJAH!), grabbed some complimentary coffee, and went back on the road to discover that most of the businesses in Fredericksburg were without power.  No computer system was a small problem to have by comparison.

We landed at a Taco Bell for a feast of Taco Party Packs and chips & cheese.  There were no leftovers.  

We passed some time by building a snowman to assuage my guilt over having rushed off and not letting them play in White Marsh and not letting them play on the side of the interstate.

After Taco Bell, wiper blade replacements at Autozone, and a few groceries at Weis, we returned to the hotel where I filled out the necessary paperwork to confirm that I did indeed have a reservation despite their ability to verify on their computer.  Then, in what felt like an episode of American Gladiators with physical and verbal assaults flying from a lobby full of disgruntled, miserable folks, we got the second to last room in the hotel for my crew, and in an uncharacteristic move, I went about as Mama Bear as I get when they attempted to give it away out from under me.  Bless those workers though.  They came in from homes with no power, bringing their kids with them and attempted to serve a host of angry folks.  They did everything they could.  Thank the Lord we got a room.  Plan B would have been another night in the van in the parking lot or a little more trekking down Route 1 to Richmond.  We all agreed that was the best shower and night's sleep we could remember.  

The next morning, we got on the road.

The last order of business was a stop for gas.  Unfortunately, all the nearby gas stations were out from the influx of travelers down Route 1.  I looked at my gauge, and Ben noted that we exactly a quarter of a tank in reserve - the very same amount of gas I almost decided not to top off two days prior at that first Shell station.  I almost cried (again).  God is good.  That quarter of a tank got us to Richmond where the gas stations were fully stocked, and the roads were perfectly clear like nothing had ever happened, a mere sixty miles from where we were stuck. 

The rest of the day went like any other trip home with the added bonus of Ben taking a long turn at the wheel.  We were so grateful to get back to Georgia safely.  

We arrived home around 10pm that evening to a home that had been "broken into" by dear friends who left us food in our fridge.  And another friend who had breakfast delivered to us the next morning.  We are so, so grateful to be surrounded by such an awesome community of loving, kind people.  To God be the glory.  

(Let's not do that again.)

In Defense of Teens

It's probably not a great idea to sit down at the computer late at night when I'm "fired up," but here's a quick message I think is important to share.

For the parents reading this, remember holding your new baby in the presence of someone who asked you how things were going?  Maybe you decided to give them a real answer instead of the canned "great" response.  Maybe you were vulnerable and replied that it was tough, the baby isn't sleeping well, he cries inconsolably during the daytime, you're exhausted.  And instead of a hug or a cup of coffee, you got the SUPER HELPFUL retort, "You think newborns are hard!?  Wait till he's a teenager."

A few years pass by and instead of a colicky baby, you have a strong-willed, cunning, bottomless-pit-of-energy and fearlessness wrapped up in a sticky, uncombed mess of a three-year-old.  You long for the time when you put the child down and he stayed there.  You have exchanged your sleepless nights for napless days.  It's all too real how much of a relief it is to know your precious angel is finally in bed for the night because you can stop wondering for a few hours if they're in peril from the inability to make wise decisions.  The stranger at the store watches as your wrangle your way across the parking lot and comments with a chuckle, "You'll miss this when he's a teenager."

In the blink of an eye after some very long days and nights, you reach the tween years.  At nine years old, your child is feeling big emotions and learning how to express them appropriately, albeit not always successfully.  Sometimes, they hit so fast you didn't see them coming.  He's not a baby anymore, but he's not an adult either.  These are more or less the overlooked years, which I guess is why we've given them the name "tweens."  You don't get as many overt reminders that the teen years will be harder, but you've been conditioned by so many to be wary of what's coming that it's always echoing as a refrain in the back of your mind.  "Just wait till he's a teenager."


A few years ago, I wrote a post about believing the words that I spoke only to myself about myself.  The same principle applies here.  On one hand, it doesn't seem beneficial to belittle the present-day struggles of a parent in the trenches by offering them a dismal picture of the future.  Additionally, it seems a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy to warn of the abysmal experience of raising teens.  If we expect that, it seems most likely that's how it will go.  One must also consider that our children are always listening.  If society expects teens to be the worst, why should they behave any differently?  Generations ahead of us paint our children with broad strokes - they're lazy, disrespectful, phone-obsessed, unmotivated, sassy, inappropriately-clad.  These things might be true of some teens, but not all.  Dare I say, these things might also be true of a similar percentage of the older generation's own general population.  

To the parents of littles, I offer you this encouragement:  Stay the course.  Put in the hard work in the early years.  You won't be this tired forever.  Don't let it slide.  Let them learn lessons the hard way now.  Expect good things from your children.  Pray with and for them.  Thank the Lord for sleep and new mercies every morning.

To the parents of teens:  Just love them.  Talk to them about little stuff and big stuff.  Work through politics, faith, social issues - give them the lens through which you would have them view this world.   Laugh with them.  Pray over them.  They're not to be feared.  These people you've raised are on the cusp of adulthood, and what better time to nurture your relationship with them then when they're preparing to launch?  

To the teens:  You're awesome.  I don't think people tell you that enough.  It's been my joy to laugh and learn alongside two awesome teens (so far).  I don't want to be all "I believe the children are our future" but we're counting on you to do the things you're capable of doing.  Do hard things.  Don't settle.  Don't compromise.  (And don't listen to anyone who says your generation is a bunch of hooligans.  We know better than that.  Prove them wrong.)

To my elders:  I love you.  And I hope some day I remember the words I'm preaching to myself.  I know the world seems topsy-turvy, but I also believe the world has always been topsy-turvy.  Before you jump to conclusions about someone because of their age, just consider that you might be wrong.  

To everyone:  The good Lord knows I have a foot-in-mouth occurrence nearly six times daily (plus or minus).  I'm simply suggesting that we weigh our words and try not to diminish the struggles of others.  It doesn't help to tell someone who is having a hard time that someone else has it worse or that it will inevitably be harder later.  Be an ear.  Give advice (only) if they ask.  Coffee is usually a good idea.  

May the words we say be used to build up instead of chip away.  
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore

The Best Kind of Neighbor

I grew up in a relatively small community in the Baltimore metro area.  We lived in a modest, paid-for home that my parents bought in the 70's.  Our backyard was enclosed by a chain-link fence with a privacy fence on one side to keep us delineated from the four (to six) neighbors' yards (depending on how you counted) that abutted ours.  The house to our left was nestled atop a hill.  This hill was perfect for riding bikes down for a minor thrill.  We practically wore ruts in diagonal lines across that slope, but never so badly that a good rain wouldn't fluff the grass right back up.  

The woman who lived in that house on the hill was more than a neighbor.  I would say she was more than a friend.  She was family, closer even than many of my blood relatives.  Mrs. Ruth opened her back sliding door to us every time we knocked, offering us Tastycakes and refrigerated Hostess cupcakes and anything else she had in her pantry.  She and her husband joined us for Christmas brunch every year.  Mr. Bob trekked back and forth from their door to ours carrying packages like Santa Claus.  She brought with her a feast of homemade sticky buns and pistachios, which I ate until my fingers and face were dyed red.  (I recently asked her for her sticky bun recipe, and she mailed it to me! What a treasure!)  When she needed help delivering Avon books, my sister and I trekked them around the neighborhood.  When she went out of town, we took care of her parrot, George and her dog, Brittany.  When our clothesline was full, she let us hang our extra stuff on hers.  We kept her company at the annual craft fair.  My sister was in her daughter's wedding.  When she wanted to get the house ready for a family reunion, she hired us to clean. Then, she invited the four of us to her family reunions.  She never cared, at least not out loud, if she looked out her kitchen window and saw us climbing her trees.  

Not one moment was forced.  We just did our lives together.  

Now as an adult, we live in a similar type of neighborhood.  We don't have clotheslines so there aren't as many spontaneous backyard chats.  Our yards are mostly delineated by privacy fences to keep children and pets in and riffraff out (I guess).  Most folks keep their grass and flowerbeds nicely maintained, the trees trimmed, and their homes tidy.  Then there are some folks (ahem) that are in a season where other things like caring for and educating eight kids (ahem) take priority.  For the past year, one of these things has been adding on to our home (about which I could and really want to dedicate a whole bunch of posts.  Some day, Lord willing.).  When we began our renovations, all I could think was, "Our neighbors are going to hate us."  There is noise, traffic, bad parking jobs, trash, mud, gravel, and all manner of extra people coming and going at all hours of the day.  It's been in the works since July, and it's not over yet.  As one who wishes to offend no neighbor and who gets stressed out by ridiculous things like whether my kids are making too much noise in the public right-of-way of our road while riding bikes and if we've been parked on the street offensively-too-long, it's been an interesting few months.

This afternoon, as I took a break from frantic-feeling school lessons (Would you believe we're behind? Yes. Always.) to put some lunch on the table, I heard my phone ding.  I received a message from our neighbor to the right with this picture attached:

This is a view of my Leah from her backyard running across the muddy, clay hills in our own backyard like a raving lunatic, something she has enjoyed doing almost daily since they started moving dirt.  The note she sent me was absolutely precious.  I hope she doesn't mind if I quote it here:
That is a memory maker of a hill right there. I love it! They will have memories of that just as much as they are going to have incredible memories in your pool.
I almost cried.

That simple note from our sweet, sweet neighbor melted away eight months of meaningless anxiety.  This neighbor shares my sentiments on what's important - finding joy in the mundane, appreciating beautiful messes, taking pleasure in watching children make memories.  

I've been thinking a lot about neighbors lately.  I know I'm not to any of mine what Mrs. Ruth and Mr. Bob were to me.  I don't know exactly how to fix that, but I'm willing.  We have quilt literally built a bigger table.  Maybe they will come if I just open the door.  Our church touts the slogan "Life is Better Together." I wholeheartedly believe this is true, not only in our church family, but of our closest neighbors as well.

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