One Rockin’ Life

One.  That is the number of times I’ve seen my cousin cry.  And ironically enough, they were not tears of sadness, but tears of joy.  I’ll explain in a bit, but first I need to back up and introduce you to a young woman who has taught me much in her twenty-two years.

I was nineteen when she was born.  She’s the youngest of thirteen cousins, all of whom I spent a great deal of time with growing up.  I remember her baby years well, as missed developmental milestones evolved into concerns and then unknowns and fearful questions surrounding what her future would hold.  For a time, there was a lot of hushed talk among the adults and I remember a concerted effort to keep the doctor’s reports from reaching the ears and heart of my grandmother; fragile from living under the weight of her worried nature for so many years.  The amount of information compiled about the condition of her health seemed to parallel the growing number of prescription bottles that lined the counter during her family’s cherished visits with us.  


Once my cousin’s diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy was clear, the growing weakness in her muscles was defiantly counteracted by an undeniable and remarkable strength in the will of her family to create the most fulfilling life she could lead.  Both her mom and dad always were, and continue to be, open and direct about her condition and the resulting physical limitations.  However, they have also always been resolute in their determination to provide any opportunity for this amazing cousin of mine to move mountains.  From ballet classes as a toddler to dancing at family weddings in her wheelchair to making Dean’s list in college, this young woman, teamed with the relentless support of her family, is truly one-of-a-kind. From day one of learning of her diagnosis, my aunt and uncle dug deep, they did their research, perfected the skills needed to care for their daughter and set forth on a journey that would show everyone around them exactly what being a parent means.


I know I speak for each member of my family in saying we have deep admiration and respect for the selfless and tireless way my aunt and uncle love and provide for their children.  Her older brother, just as much an amazing force behind her success and smiles, is now studying to be a doctor.  He will bless the field of medicine immensely, not only as a result of his knowledge and dedication, but perhaps even more from his intimate understanding of the challenges set before someone with such significant health concerns.  His compassion has been beautifully refined after years of loving and caring for his sister.

As my cousin grew, her physical strength continued to decline.  She endured major surgeries that had the potential to crush the spirit of the strongest soul out there.  But my cousin persevered and we all sat back and watched this unique force of a girl fight her way back to that smile we have all come to cherish.  Years ago, when it became necessary for my cousin to receive a tracheostomy, there was concern that she may not be able to learn how to “talk around” the tube that would help her breathe.  I remember vividly the moment we received the news that the surgery was a success and shortly after learned that she was talking again. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that will keep this girl from sharing a good story:)  

Seventeen.  That is the number of Hunter Hayes concerts my cousin has seen.  She loves him, totally and unabashedly loves the guy; his music, his country charm, his cute face, his concerts.  A few years ago, the Make-A-Wish foundation granted my cousin her dream of attending the Grammy Awards.  It was during this fairy tale of an evening that she came face-to-face with her beloved young country star.  And this was the big moment the floodgates opened and this girl started to cry. Tears. Of. Joy.  Just last week, myself and several of our cousins got to share a piece of this joy with her when we all attended a Hunter Hayes concert together.  Front row, close enough to see Hunter sweat and marvel at the dread locks sported by his band mate.  I didn’t know a single word of his songs, it was a steamy 100 degrees in the venue and I was smooshed up against one-too-many sweaty strangers; and I got to watch my cousin smile from ear to ear from start to finish.  It was awesome.  

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Countless.  That is the number of hearts my cousin has touched in the past twenty-two years.  There are people in this world that stand and shout and teach nothing.  Then there’s my cousin who sits and talks at a whisper and everyone stops and listens because her message is one of remarkable strength and hope and because our hearts are yearning to see God in this way.  There are those who run mile after mile, train for hours in the weight room and take pride in their bulky muscles; all in vain if one’s spirit is weak.  Then there’s my cousin who shows us all that a positive and grateful spirit will bring you further in life than the strongest legs could carry you.  We live in a world in which the definition of a valued life is becoming smaller and more misconstrued every day. Judgments swirl around us with the force and destruction of the fiercest tornado.  Then there’s this young woman with a small frame and the largest of hearts that helps us all see through the storm and realize a cherished life is defined in the way it is lived.

Thank you, my sweet cousin and cherished friend, for your example of resilience and for showing all of us just how to “rock” this gift of life.


To Build It Well

I think the exact wording was, “This step is irreversible!”  It was in bold, appropriately decorated with an exclamation point to signal the importance of the user seeing the statement before moving ahead of themselves and creating a problem that couldn’t be fixed.  Me and my dad were the users.  And we didn’t see it; at least not before it was too late.  We were putting together a new basketball hoop for my boys and were a little too excited to bring our project to completion.  We snapped two of the pieces together and then grabbed the directions, only to realize we had done exactly what they warned us not to do.  Whoops.  

Fortunately, at least in my experience of the last forty years, nothing is entirely irreversible with my dad.  He really is one of those guys that can fix anything, a bit of a superhero with his tools.  He’s messy, unpredictable, and a tad overconfident, but his determination and know-how leave little to be desired.  His style is best described as “MacGyveristic”; aptly named after my dad’s favorite show from the 80’s.  The main character, MacGyver, would get into seemingly impossible situations yet always managed to narrowly escape with the gift of his ingenuity.  My dad would be the first to fix a pair of broken glasses with a paperclip and we salvaged the use of our old tv for years by warming up the tubes in the back with a blow dryer for ten minutes or so before we wanted to watch a show (much thanks to our guardian angels for seeing us through that idea).

Three years ago, my family was blessed to move into a new home.  After spending ten years doing several refurbishing projects in a home built in the late 60’s, it’s been a true gift to concentrate on more creative ideas in a house that is already soundly built.  Me and dad have tackled many a project together; we’ve built a headboard, decorated one of our walls with shiplap, built a set of shelves from plumbing pipes and wood, replaced a window broken by an errant soccer ball and constructed four large flower boxes for our front deck. The results are beautiful and have helped to create a home out of our house.  My favorite part of these projects however, is the part that no one sees; the part that involves time with my dad all to myself, conversations that might not otherwise happen and a finished product that holds special memories.

Several years ago, during a bible study with a group of cherished friends, I was introduced to a woman who is a gifted author and speaker (by introduced I mean on YouTube). Funny enough, this woman’s name is also Nicole Johnson.  She gave a talk titled, “The Invisible Woman”, and in it taught me one of those life lessons that should have come wrapped with a bow.  Each time I am reminded of it, I find myself re-energized in my role as a parent. The lesson applies to both fathers and mothers and is one that deserves revisiting as we prepare to celebrate the men in our lives that serve the role of father.

Nicole constructed this particular lesson through the comparison of parenting to those that spent long, tedious years building the great cathedrals throughout the world. She highlighted the story of one builder in particular that was carving a beautiful and intricate bird in a corner of the ceiling.  The carving rested beneath a beam and would most likely never be seen.  When asked why he was spending so much time on something no one would see, he replied, “because God sees.”

I’m grateful that my children have a father that would have spent just as much time and put just as much effort into that bird.  And I’m blessed to say I grew up under that same kind of selfless, unassuming care.  I love that my boys have the kind of father that plays soccer in his work clothes with an empty stomach because he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to spend time with his kids. And I’m grateful that I have a father that sees each new project I place before him as a fun opportunity, rather than just another thing to check off his list.  I love that my husband teaches me again and again how to serve, even when no one is watching and no accolades are up for grabs.  I’m thankful that when I look at my father, I see only genuine, non-judgmental love.  

The influence, the inspiration, the impact of our fathers is priceless.  The love and attention our children deserve is as intricate and unique as the bird resting beneath the beam. Nicole Johnson beautifully summarized the love of a parent in the following message from God;

“You are building a great cathedral.  It will not be finished in your lifetime and sadly,  you will never get to live there, but if you build it well, I will.”

Happy Father’s Day to my husband, father and father-in-law; three of the most skilled builders I know.

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A Mother’s Heart

It was a classic Mother’s Day quote and slipped right on out between my sly smile before I had the maturity to rephrase what my heart was feeling.  “It’s ok babe”, I said to my husband, “we both know this Mother’s Day won’t be anything like what it’s supposed to be.”  Snarky, I admit.  One of those stripped down, bare statements that can only be spoken between husband and wife, understood for the humor that surrounds what was simply an undeniable truth.  There was no sleeping in, no breakfast in bed, no bubble bath run for this weary mama.  My partner in crime had been working far more hours than he was sleeping lately and had mercifully gotten up with our 5:00am-er the day before.  It was my turn.  Breakfast demands were made long before anyone else of cooking age was up to fulfill them.  A bubble bath was run, but it was for my five-year-old splash queen.  She got the soak, I got to sit and wash and dress and do hair.

Husband and son were up and out of the house early for a soccer game so I was left on solo duty to entertain our energizer bunny who loses all ability to play on her own come Saturday morning.  Laundry was done, dishes were scrubbed, kids were fed and house was tidied all before 11:00 am mass.  Being that we were late, I hurried in ahead of my crew to grab some seats and enjoyed a whole cycle of breathing before my son caught up with me, leaned over and proclaimed, “Ma, Mary has to poop.”  Of course she does.  Up and out of the pew to meet my little one downstairs, her sneaky smile revealing her desire to check out the bathroom rather than actually use it.  I denied her request, scooped her up and headed back upstairs, all the while feeling a bit of pride over my more “seasoned” intuition.  

That night, after making my own Mother’s Day dinner, I sat across from my three kids and searched my brain for words that would adequately describe how enormously blessed I feel to call them my own.  “You guys made my dream of becoming a mother come true”, I said.  It sounded so trite, even silly, but I hope they got it.  I mean, how often do you get to literally hold your dream in your arms?  I’ll take the cooking, the cleaning and the never-ending laundry if it means I get to love on these strange and fragile creatures day in and day out.

I’ve been thinking lately how incredibly appropriate it is that mother’s are celebrated in the month of May.  It is a month of rebirth after all; the month that springs us forward from the old to the new, the cold to the warmth, the short days and long dark nights to long bright days.  It is the fulfillment of a promise, that which sits void of life becomes full once again and hope seems abundant.  

The moment we found out we were expecting our son, my heart was forever changed.  My life was no longer my own.  I was no longer in control of my sleeping, my eating, my level of energy.  Even more foreign to the life I once knew, all of a sudden I was no longer in control of my emotions.  They were intimately tied to this little person.  He made his entry into this world and my joy was tied to his.  If he was upset, my heart ached.  If he was happy, my heart swelled.  If he wasn’t meeting one of the important milestones at just the right time, my heart was filled with fear and when he finally started sprouting hair on his two-year old cue ball head, my heart felt the beauty of relief.  One of the very definitions of spring is, “to be resilient or elastic”.  I just love that; it describes a mother’s heart perfectly.  I never knew my heart could be stretched to such extremes and still manage to function on a semi-normal basis.  With the addition of our second son and then our daughter, my heart became all the more elastic and stretched to include and absorb all the emotions, needs and love of these new and amazing little beings.

Anyone who knows the inner workings of this Mama’s heart knows I have a deep devotion to Mother Mary (our daughter carries her name after all).  To me, she epitomizes the strength, beauty, grace and selfless commitment to this crazy thing we call mothering.  While I can’t claim to know my bible all that well, what has always stuck with me are the stories directly involving Mary and her relationship with her son Jesus.  If any mother’s heart could have been utterly destroyed by fear and resentment, it was Mary’s.  If any mother could have been entirely justified in wrapping her child in bubble wrap and keeping him locked in the house, it was Mary.  I am both captivated and amazed at the amount of resilience and elasticity found in this mother’s heart.  

One of my favorite bible verses to reflect on is found in Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart“.  In these words, I find the secret to really loving our children, and more times than not, I find it incredibly hard to replicate.   The example of Jesus being lost for three days before finally being found in the temple is enough for me to award Mary five gold stars for her patience after finding him.  After searching for three long, fearful days, she finds her son and essentially asks him how he could have gone off on his own without any concern for them.  What she gets for a reply is comparative to one of the more snide comments we might receive from our teenagers when presenting them with an open (and what should be obvious) invitation to apologize profusely for the torment they caused us.  Once again we are told that “his mother kept all these things in her heart.”  She went through much of her role as a mother understanding very little about her son and what he would be called to do.  She trusted God and the perfect will he had laid for him and she was strong enough not to question but to accept.  Over and over again, she suffered, she feared, yet she trusted, she accepted.  Mary teaches us that the best way she could have protected her son was in her total surrender to and acceptance of God’s will.   

A mother’s heart is a beautiful thing.  The capacity for love, the strength for forgiveness, the courage to trust; every beat worth celebrating.  Next time you are standing in a room full of women living the role of mother, stop and take note of each heart and what is treasured inside, left to ponder in quiet, private moments.  Amazing to think about.  Whether we are living the role as mother to our children, have grown into the role of mothering our aging parents or invoke the role of mother through relationship with special people in our lives, our hearts are full.  We get up day after day.  We cook, we clean, we play taxi-driver; all the while carrying and pondering so much.

One 60 second glimpse into my world on the outside would show me cooking pancakes for my three kids while laughing at the silly things my daughter is doing and answering questions from my sons about the plans for the day.  60 seconds on the inside however reveals my fear that, despite my frequent warnings, my daughter will never understand that touching the stove could really hurt her.  “Why does she do that?”, I wonder.  “Why is she always vying for attention when it seems she is the center of it at all times?  How long will I have to be hyper-vigilant with this little love of mine before she finally understands what can be dangerous? By the way, why is my middle guy so quiet this morning? He seems so moody lately.  Is this what the next eight years of teenagehood are going to be like?  Am I missing something?  I wonder if everything is ok at school?  With his friends?  And why exactly does my big guy’s chest bone stick out so far?  There’s time to Google that before I need to flip the pancakes.  One site tells me this is pretty normal and the next tells me it could signify heart conditions.  Good Lord, time to call the doctor.  I’ll have to do that after breakfast.  What are we going to do today anyway?”

After all is said and done, it’s clear a mother’s heart can hold on to quite a lot.  The beauty is that we can’t hide anything from God even if we wanted to.  So, the “ponderings”, all the messy stuff we carry around in the midst of our more mundane duties, God see it all, He hears it all, and, if we let Him, He’s got it all covered.  And therein lies the beauty of letting go.

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Kindness Matters

My sister has been a teacher now for seventeen years.  If you figure an average of twenty kids in each class, that’s well over three hundred lives she has been a part of molding, guiding, and enriching.  That’s amazing stuff.  She doesn’t talk about her work often, but every now and then a funny story about her kids or an event in the classroom gives me a small glimpse into her world and the profession that has made her “that” teacher; the one who parents request when it is their child’s turn to make their way through third grade. One of her more recent lessons was titled, “Kindness Matters”.  She came up with the idea to challenge her class with the question of how and why people’s kindness to one another makes a difference in other’s lives.  

As a beginning, students were set with the task of considering some specific “groups” of people who are affected by the kindness of others.  They identified the elderly, those with physical and mental disabilities, kids living in foster care and even the animals that are sheltered down the road from their school at the SPCA.  The students’ understanding of the world was opened up through discussion of each group, what challenges those in each group may face and how the kindness and care of others can make their lives easier and more joyful.  It’s always a powerful lesson when you take the time to step back from your own life and reflect on those that carry the weight of a heavier cross.  It’s one of those lessons we all have to learn over and over again, as it is all too easy to rationalize the importance of staying focused on ourselves and concentrate on meeting our own personal needs.  We can be quick to look for fault among groups of people who are “different” and choose to remain comfortable in our judgement rather than in mercy and acceptance.

This is nothing new of course, and my sister took advantage of the opportunity to tie this seemingly simple lesson to major historical events, being careful to note how kindness strewn in and among otherwise horrific circumstances made a real difference.  They spoke of the Civil War, for example, and the inhumane treatment of men, women and children who were born with a different colored skin.  Her students were introduced to the Underground Railroad and the kind hearts of those that put their life on the line to save that of another.  

We live in a world where history continues to repeat itself; a constant battle forged between the so-called “norm” and those that fall into the category of “different”.  My hero in all of this is our most holy Pontiff, Pope Francis.  Pontiff comes from a Latin word, meaning, “bridge builder”.  How appropriate I find this title to be for this humble soul that has taught kindness from day one of his papacy and continues to challenge our divided world to come together with mercy and kindness for one another.  After all, that is the true heart of Jesus; a heart of mercy, and I adore Pope Francis for showing that heart to each and every person he encounters.

The reason I know so much about this particular lesson taught by my sister is because I was asked to be a small part of it.  Some of her students wrote up a list of questions for me about what it is like to raise a daughter with Down Syndrome.  Their questions were thought-provoking and forced me to consider specific times when another person’s kind or unkind treatment either helped or hurt our daughter.  I was asked how others look at her overall and if people are quick to accept her and her special needs.  It made me stop and think about the incredibly kind and supportive classmates Mary spends her days with in kindergarten.  The more I thought about the encouragement they consistently show her, the patience they have for her and the genuine desire to see her happy, I realized it was time for me to show a little kindness of my own and say “thank-you” for these little lives well lived.

The students in my sister’s class have moved on to a different lesson, but I have to believe the lesson on “kindness matters” is one that will stick.  I love to think of all the lives that will be positively influenced and all the hearts that will reap the reward of this newly gained wisdom and appreciation for the power of kindness.  A job well done Sis; thank you.

I’ve shared my letter to our daughter’s classmates below.  Each kindergarten class in Mary’s school is named after an animal.  Mary’s class is the Fish class, in case one might wonder why I’m referring to her classmates as “fish friends”.

Dear Fish Class,

Hello!  I’m Mrs. Johnson, Mary-Rose’s mom.  I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you face-to-face, but have caught glimpses of you during my visits to school, have had fun watching you play at your classmates’ birthday parties and have enjoyed stories shared of you from your teachers. I’ve learned something about all of you that makes me a very happy and grateful mother; you are patient and kind to Mary-Rose and I want to say, “thank-you”.

As you all know, Mary-Rose needs extra help to be able to do and learn all of the exciting things that are taught in Kindergarten.  As her mom, I was very nervous about how she would do and worried that she would be frightened by all of the new activities or feel sad because she isn’t able to speak to all of you in long, clear sentences.  It can be scary for parents to send their little girl to school knowing she might not be understood by her classmates and teachers.  

I understand now that I don’t need to worry!  I can see that Mary is surrounded by friends that are patient and kind and work hard to help Mary succeed at school.  I am so thankful for the many ways you all encourage Mary when she is nervous to try something new, the way you are all willing to wait patiently while Mary completes her tasks and the time you give to her when she is trying to speak and play with you.  

Have any of you ever seen a big group of fish swimming together in the water?  I’ve always found it amazing how they stay so close together and all move at the exact same time.  I’ve learned that the fish do this to help protect one another from other bigger fish that may want to munch on them and also to work together to find food to eat.  They work and move as a team, much like all of you do as Mrs. Sullivan’s special group of fish!

Every time you all work together to help Mary and show her kindness, it matters. The way you treat Mary makes all the difference in her enjoyment of school, her confidence to work hard to do all the things she sees her fish friends doing and to feel good about herself and all the success she is achieving in Kindergarten.  You are all a part of that success and each one of you should be celebrated for your friendships with Mary.

As you continue to grow and learn all sorts of new things, always remember that the kindness you show to others is one of the most important things you will do in life.  You are all like little super heroes that have the power to make someone’s day wonderful and happy. I thank you for doing just that for Mary-Rose.

Enjoy the rest of the year fish friends!

Love, Mary-Rose’s family


A few of Mary’s “fish friends” celebrating Mary achieving something she was very nervous to do.

Nine Lives (Minus Five)

Her name was Mittens, appropriately bestowed on her in recognition of her four little white paws that perfectly decorated her otherwise black body.  She was my roommate while I was in graduate school, my furry little companion in what was a large, drafty and often lonely apartment.  Mittens was a bit of a funny little creature and developed some strange habits during our time together.  One of these oddities was her love of jumping into the refrigerator whenever I opened it.  There was plenty of room for her to jump right in, as I was, after all, a graduate student and had little to no time to ever cook a meal.  My fridge was empty, bar a few liquids on the top shelf.  

This particular day, I must have had an unusual amount of time on my hands, as I was embarking on the lofty goal of making mashed potatoes for dinner.  That said, I’m ashamed to admit, I had to make a call home to get a walk through of the recipe(?)  I picked up the phone, dialed home, walked over to the fridge to grab something out, noticed Mittens jump in and then shut the door and proceeded to enjoy a long conversation with my parents. My boyfriend at the time (husband now) was sitting at the kitchen table engrossed in his engineering studies and suddenly wondered why he hadn’t had a visual of Mittens in the last fifteen minutes or so.  He broached the subject of her disappearance with me and I, in horror, ran over to the fridge, opened the door and out she popped.  Cue boyfriend shaking his head and rolling his eyes.  Whoops.  Nine lives, minus one.

The little fur-ball also endured a few falls and her survival of the first is proof positive that cats always land on their feet.  Mittens used to love sitting in an open window.  She would perch herself right on the sill and lean her chubby body against the screen.  I thought it rather funny one afternoon when I noticed the screen missing from one of the second floor windows.  It took me a minute to sort it out, but once I realized what it all meant, I proceeded to run through the house screaming that Mittens had fallen out the window (I never did handle stressful situations well).  Mom and I ran outside to see the screen lying on the ground, but no Mittens.  It wasn’t long before we heard her cries from far up in a tree in which she fled out of fear and shock from her ordeal.  Poor thing.  Nine lives, minus two.

The second fall wasn’t quite as terrifying, but does merit mention.  Mittens was, for the most part, an indoor cat.  I was moving around a lot at that time and was afraid she would get lost with the change in surroundings.  I did take her outside for walks, but kept her on a harness for fear of her running off.  This particular day I was letting her enjoy the fresh air out on the deck.  She had her harness on and was tied to the railing.  (I feel it necessary to mention that her harness was not a leash around her neck, but rather went around her whole body).  Curiosity got the best of her and she decided she just had to see what was on the other side.  She sauntered right off the edge of the deck and was left swinging in the air until I reached over and grabbed her.  Silly cat.   Nine lives, minus three.

The loss of her fourth life was one of those things I just didn’t think I had worry about with a cat.  I had left my water glass out on the table and Mittens jumped up and stuck her head right in.  The glass was tall and slender and her head was, well, not.  I found her flailing her furry head around in an effort to remove the glass that was suctioned around her little face. We got her out and she didn’t seem any worse for the wear.  I however, was.  Nine lives, minus four.

Ok, one last story.  At this point you may be questioning why on earth I ever decided it was a good idea to have children.  Fair enough, however there are two sides to every story and I’m standing firm in my claim that Mittens was unusually curious and not the sharpest tool in the shed.  I can’t be entirely to blame for her more unfortunate experiences.

That said, the last of my stories pairs Mitten’s lack of prudence with her wonderment of the dancing golden light on the kitchen table.  She decided to investigate and, it wasn’t until I questioned the source of the smell of burning plastic in my apartment that I rescued her from searing all of her whiskers right off.  By the time I grabbed her away from the candle, I actually saw one of her whiskers curling right up as the heat snaked its way to her little pink nose.  Seriously Mittens?  Nine lives, minus five.

There have been plenty of times in my life where I’ve failed to land on my feet, so to speak.  And curiosity definitely has its way of snaking into my life and resulting in less than intelligent decisions.  Perhaps you can relate?  There is ample opportunity to fall victim to our more selfish culture and waste away our days perched on the windowsill, content in our chosen ignorance.  It’s so tempting to choose comfort over service, entertainment over quiet time in prayer, indulgence over sacrifice, gossip over truth, opinions over understanding, self over others.  Before we know it, the screen gives way and we are falling from grace.

While we may not have the physical dexterity and finesse to survive a fall to the ground, we do have a ticket to another chance at life.  Jesus bought us that ticket when He laid down His life on the cross.  The gates of Heaven are opened to us and the promise of redemption is ours to keep.  The celebration of Easter is the celebration of new life.  It places before us the ultimate goal and reminds us what this life is all about; the falls, the suffering, the work; Jesus makes sense of all of it for us.  

No matter how many times we fall, no matter how many times we take the wrong path or our curiosity gets the better of us, Jesus is waiting to pull us up and out of whatever trouble we have landed in.  It’s amazing really.  All we have to do is open our hearts to His love, honor the guidance He provides for us and we are promised to be made new again in a life that is better than we can even dream.  

We had some fun adventures together, Mittens and me.  All in all, I humbly submit that five out of nine ain’t so bad.  

He has risen, Alleluia


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Climbing Out

I was volunteering with my daughter’s class during their designated library time.  Mary was sitting on the floor with her classmates listening to the librarian read them a story. She had several of her fingers lodged in her mouth, chewing away in an attempt to sooth the new adult teeth fighting for room in her already overcrowded gums.  I watched as she proceeded to take her tiny soaked hands out of her mouth, drag them across the carpet in front of her to dry them off and immediately shove them right back in, this time undoubtedly with countless germs along for the ride.  While this scene would have once sent me into panic mode, I sat still and simply prayed, “into your hands, Lord”.  

It’s a prayer I say often and is one of immense freedom for me.  I can now acknowledge that, while what Mary did was gross and may expose her to germs, I can not possibly be in control of her every move, nor does God expect or ask me to be.  What I can always be in control of is recognizing that, by continually placing my children in God’s hands, they will be taken care of.  The clouds have parted and the gift of clear discernment is once again my own.  The paralyzing fear that once kept me from living the joy around me has dissipated and logic and reason are mine to claim.

Healing is a beautiful thing and it would certainly make for an easy life if everyone who suffered from anxiety could follow the same simple formula to find their own. Unfortunately, like anything else, there are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to climbing out of what can feel like a bottomless pit.  Everyone’s path will be different and mine wasn’t necessarily straight and entirely easy to maneuver.  It is true, however, that God never gives you more than you can handle.  After much reflection on those few years when my anxiety was at it’s worst, I see all the hidden gifts that God provided to keep me faithful and trusting in His eventual answer to my prayer.

My husband and best friend was life vest number one.  I’m certain there were times when he wondered what exactly had happened to the woman he once knew and questioned whether or not we would ever truly enjoy this life and family we had worked so hard to build.  He’s a man of his word, however, and  he gave both me and God his word to love me through sickness and health.  And he never wavered from that promise.  He quietly and prayerfully worked to understand where I was at and what I was going through and supported me day in and day out,  from one fear to the next. He’s simply a beautiful soul and I have immense respect and the deepest gratitude for the sincerity of friendship and love he offers me every day.

I’ve always felt that there is no coincidence in life when it comes to one’s friends.  Rather, I do believe that each and every person you call a friend has a distinct purpose in your life. And I love to marvel at the thought of God smiling at the exact moment you meet one friend or another, thinking to himself, “ah, good.  now my plan is set in motion.”  During the worst of my anxiety, I had two friends that offered me what no one else could; genuine understanding.  They themselves were living with anxiety and, although it manifested itself differently in their lives, we understood one another in a way that was simply impossible for someone who didn’t live it, day after tiring, frustrating day.  We could call one another at a moment’s notice to talk through one fear or an other.  Tears, anger, shame; no words were even necessary between us to know exactly where the other was at.  Thinking of them, and the many other women I have since met that have lived with anxiety for too long, is a big piece of what compelled me to share my story.  It is so important for people to know that they are not alone in their struggles and I am personally amazed (and saddened) at the number of people I have connected with that understand anxiety on a deeply personal level.

Remember the name of the man who was asked, or perhaps more appropriately, ordered to help carry Jesus’ cross when he couldn’t go on?  Me neither.  But Google reminds us it was Simon, Simon of Cyrene.  My husband, my parents and sisters and my friends were all my Simon.  They weren’t necessarily asked to help me.  They never had any warning that this might be a piece of what they would have to do to love me.  The anxiety demanded they step in and they did, wholeheartedly.  They picked up the cross with me and we walked together until I was ready to lay it down and let God take over.  

There was a piece to the healing that surprised me and took me off guard.  Oddly enough, I can remember the exact moment when the feeling of shame overcame me and brought me to tears.  I was in my bedroom one morning making the bed and listening to my boys play happily in the other room.  It was one of those moments when my heart just swelled and I was overcome with the love that I have for them.  In that instant, I saw them for the innocent and precious little beings that they are and I was all at one wrapped in this cloak of guilt and shame, stitched together by all the times I hadn’t been that free-spirited, play-in-the-dirt mother I so wanted to be for them.  It was a hard reality to swallow.  I would never get those moments back.  The times they wanted to sit on the floor with all the other kids, push the button on the elevator, play outside unencumbered by my rules and regulations.  The more it became clear to me how illogical my behavior had been, the harder it was to forgive myself.  It was yet another layer to the healing and forced me to pull back my pride and live in the humility that was necessary to move forward.

A few weeks ago we took a trip to the Tampa Zoo as part of a vacation in Florida.  It’s hard to describe the joy I felt watching our youngest truly “live” the day.  She was fascinated with the world around her and I made no hesitation in allowing her to experience every piece of it.  She pet the sting rays, fed mr giraffe, rode the merry-go-round five times and even surprised us by riding a toddler-sized roller-coaster all on her own.  I literally gave myself a headache from smiling for the better part of the day.  Living a life free of the anxiety is a gift I do not take for granted.  I am always acutely aware of the many things I do throughout the day that used to be very difficult for me.

In the end, anxiety will always be a part of me, and I’m ok with that.  The memories of the worst of it, the gratitude for those that helped me through it and the awareness each and every day of the freedom I now enjoy has all been a part of shaping who I am and who I can be for others who are trying to understand it all and find their own healing.  I find myself stronger as a result of the cross, humbled by God’s mercy, enlightened by His wisdom and forever protected in His limitless love.


In the Midst of the Storm

His words felt like a betrayal; every assertion an unwelcome exposition of the truth I was fighting so hard to deny.  “We are going out to dinner after this appointment”, he said, “and I can tell you she won’t enjoy a minute of it.  She won’t be the one to open the door to the restaurant for fear of what germs lurk on the handle.  She will Purell her hands after touching the menu, wipe down her utensils with her napkin and avoid using the bathroom at all costs.”

We were at my therapist’s office and I was suddenly regretting inviting him along to my appointment.  My intention in including my husband on this visit was so my therapist could tell him what she had told me; that my anxiety was not a personality flaw.  She was supposed to explain to him that it all made sense; the combination of my type A personality, my family gene pool of “worriers” and the dramatic hormone shift and drop in serotonin as a result of pregnancy and childbirth had created these anxious moments and resulting behaviors.  She was supposed to stick up for me and encourage him to be patient and supportive as I continued to work through it.

My husband had a different plan and it’s an understatement to say it took me by surprise. Fact is, he had been patient and he had been supportive and he had enough of both.  He wanted his best friend back and he knew I was struggling immensely.  He wanted to look at me and once again see genuine joy, rather than a smile that was trying to hide one fear or another.  I can still see the look on my therapist’s face as she processed the reality of the information my husband lay before her.  Her response was the very last thing I wanted to hear.

Have you ever heard of the man who was trapped on his roof as a result of a flash flood? Fearing for his life, he cried out to God to save him.  Shortly after, a man in a small canoe rowed by and invited him in.  “No thank you”, said the man.  “I’ve prayed to God and I trust he will save me.”  A short time later a police rescue boat came by and offered to bring the man to safety.  Again he replied, “No thank you.  God will save me.”  As the flood waters continued to rise, a rescue  helicopter flew overhead and lowered a rope ladder for him to climb aboard.  Once again the man insisted that God would save him.  He perished in the flood and, upon reaching Heaven, immediately asked God why he did not save him.  And God replied, “My child, I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered medication before.  I had, for about two seconds.  I dismissed the need for medication entirely, much like I had been downplaying the reality of my current state for quite some time.  To me, medication felt like raising the white flag.  It was a surrender I wasn’t prepared for.  I had prayed.  Oh, how I had prayed.  I felt like such a failure, like my faith wasn’t strong enough to reward me with healing.  There was a stigma attached to this anxiety and an even larger one attached to taking medication for something I couldn’t see and didn’t entirely understand.  If I had a broken leg, I’d put it in a cast.  If I had diabetes, I’d take insulin.  Why was it so hard for me to accept this?  Was this God’s answer to my plea for healing?  Was this my canoe?

I knew if I stayed on that roof for much longer, I would continue to be flooded with waves of anxiety that would carry me further and further from the person I once knew.  The storm around me had continued to grow stronger, my obsessive-compulsive behaviors all the more consistent with someone who did not have it all under control.  My therapist had given a name to my feelings.  She had helped me connect the dots between my personality and need for control and the devastation I felt when that control had been taken from me with the loss of two babies to miscarriage. She had given me suggestions as to how to find a better balance between my worries and careful consideration of what was logical and what was based purely on fear.  I had walked as far down the road to healing with her as she was able to lead me.  I had much further to go and I was gripped with fear over taking the next step.

We all have a choice to make when we are faced with an uncomfortable or scary situation; fight or flight.  In the midst of my anxiety, I felt helpless, unable to fight.  When faced with a challenging situation, be it grocery shopping with the boys and wondering what germs they were going to be exposed to while happily sitting in the cart or the simple act of opening a door or pushing an elevator button, I immediately fled in fear.  There was no sitting still and fighting the illogical worry over the germs.  I ran to the closest solution; hand sanitizer, wipes, whatever I could use to “clean” the fear away.  A close friend of mine who walked this road with me explained what I was feeling so well.  She equated the panic associated with an anxious situation to stepping on an elevator.  As the doors close, and you watch each button light up signaling the rise in floors, you identify a worry and feel the blood rush to your face, feel shaky and uneasy and your discomfort rises.  While most would be able to think through the fear and stop the elevator, stepping off confidently onto the floor of reason and logic, those of us with anxiety careen recklessly to the top floor and, by the time we reach the top, our fear has turned to panic and we’ve convinced ourselves that the worst is bound to happen.

It wasn’t that I didn’t feel joy during the few years that my anxiety was at its worst.  I took full advantage of being home with my boys and have such precious and beautiful memories of that time in my life.  There was just this nagging uneasiness that traveled with me wherever I went.  I compare it to standing outside on a beautiful summer night trying to enjoy the sweet air and continually having to swat at mosquitoes.  I saw the beauty around me in my family and all the gifts God had given me, I absorbed all the love I was surrounded with and returned it tenfold.  But all the while, I was distracted by the incessant worry.

I was dying to jump in that boat and wanted to climb the rope to the safety of the helicopter that would fly me away from all of this illogical nonsense.  I was so tired of fighting for control that was never meant to be mine to begin with.  I reluctantly agreed to try medication and began down what was a bit of a long and winding road to finding the right one and the right dose.  Long story short, God brought me where I needed to be. Ironically enough, healing came with its own set of challenges, a new dose of shame and a heart full of mixed emotions.

My Walk With Anxiety

It’s a recurring nightmare and makes for a restless night’s sleep close to once a week.  I have to use the bathroom and I’m not at home to enjoy the luxury of my own clean, personal space.  I walk into the public bathroom and the scene before me is always the same, dark and filthy.  I make my way down the row of stalls and peer into each one, growing more and more horrified and anxious at the sight of my choices.  My stomach is literally in knots as I choose the least of the evils before me and carefully make my way in and shut the door, being ever so careful as to not allow my clothing to even brush against the germs I can feel swarming around me.  The walls close in tighter and tighter and I feel completely helpless in my fight to get through this without being utterly contaminated by the unknown.  I am gripped with fear and my only escape is to wake from the nightmare, at which point I thank God that this nightmare is no longer alive for me in the form of what once was a long walk with anxiety.

Over the past year, I’ve shared a lot through my posts.  I’ve mentioned several times how valuable I find the gift of understanding and find great healing in being able to relate and empathize with others.  As the weeks come and go, I do my best to remain faithful to listening to what it is God wants me to share and it never fails to amaze me at what length He will go to in affirming a certain idea or in encouraging me down a specific path.  For the past few weeks, I’ve been standing at the head of a path I am fairly reluctant to take you down, but remembering how alone I felt during the worst of my anxiety, I realize I have within me too valuable a gift to keep to myself.  In essence, that gift is simply experience. I’ve lived it and I can help others living it to feel less alone, less confused, less afraid and less ashamed.  My expertise on the subject  is not based on any sort of medical truths, only in the reality of understanding that each person’s walk with anxiety comes in its’ own unique form, takes on its’ own life and finds its’ own personal resolution.  I’ll share my story and let God do the rest.  And because it’s a rather lengthy one, I’ll spread it over three different posts; a mini-series if you will, the beginning, in the depths, walking out.

The Beginning…

Looking back to my childhood, I have to admit there were some glaring (like neon-fluorescent) signs that I had a personality perfectly suited for eventual inclusion in the obsessive-compulsive category.  When I was young, I remember getting masking tape and creating labels for pants, shirts and skirts, clearly designating each section of my closet.  I never went to sleep without first perfectly lining up all my stuffed animals along the side of my bed.  I loved going grocery shopping with my mom, not so I could pick out what I wanted, but rather because I got a total thrill out of perfectly packing the groceries in the cart.  Every item my mom picked up had its place I made sure it fit in a way that was neat and organized.  My room was always clean and tidy and I was the girl who was always “put together”, hair perfect and sporting an “outfit”.  I have the “best dressed” award from high school to prove my dedication to the outfit with a picture of me in a blazer, blouse and matching skirt (did I mention I went to public school?).  I stressed my way through school, always striving for the A and felt happiest when things were orderly and controlled.  

Fortunately for me and my compulsive tendencies, my childhood was blessed.  My parents were selfless, loving and dedicated to their children.  They kept my world neat and my heart full.  My memories are joyful and my path was straight.  I was raised knowing and loving God and was given the gift of faith.  My world never felt out of control and by God’s grace alone, I was never faced with any sort of traumatic event that may otherwise have led the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms to surface at a much earlier age.

Fast forward to my early twenties and I was met with the trigger that would serve as an open invitation to welcome the anxiety in.  At twenty-four years of age, my husband and I lost our first baby to miscarriage.  My world fell apart as I realized I wasn’t in control and everything in my life was not guaranteed to work out accordingly to my carefully constructed plans. The vulnerability I had miraculously dodged for the better part of my young life had entered stage left and would soon take center stage in my struggle to maintain control.

Several months after our miscarriage, we were blessed with the news that I was once again expecting and my need to control each and every part of my pregnancy became all-consuming.  I remember a co-worker of mine at the time describing my feelings perfectly. He equated being pregnant to carrying around a hot cup of tea.  You walk around careful not to bump into anything, keeping everyone at a safe distance and constantly wishing you were surrounded by a protective bubble so as not to spill a drop.  

The birth of our healthy baby boy was surrounded with indescribable joy.  We snuggled him up and left the hospital accompanied by all the so-called “normal” nerves new parents have.  As the weeks came and went however, my new-mother concerns slowly but surely morphed into obsessive worry and compulsive actions in an attempt to ensure the world this little miracle of ours lived in was perfect, clean and safe.  The more independent he became in exploring his space, the more my protection over him increased.  When he started to crawl, all I could think about were the germs he was being exposed to on the floors.  I soon enacted the “no shoes in the house” law and made sure every person who set foot in our home abided by it, regardless of how unwelcome and/or uncomfortable it may have made them feel.  No one could pick my child up without first being instructed to wash their hands and my trips outside of the house became more and more limited as I became less and less able to fight the worry about the germs that were lurking in all the public places.  

I remember story hour at the library (one of our few outings) was a particularly stressful event each week.  The adults and children would sit in a circle on the floor while the librarian read a few stories. My kid was the only one made to stay neatly on my lap.  All the other children rolled around on the carpet, while I sat horrified at the negligence of their mothers.  I just couldn’t understand how they could  let their kids play on the rug that we had all been walking over.  The risk associated with it just overwhelmed me and my logic grew to be more and more misconstrued.  I increasingly felt like an outsider, as I just had such a hard time relating to the other mothers.  On the outside, I smiled and did my best to project a relaxed mother who had it all under control.  On the inside, I felt as though I was always tied in knots.

In my quiet moments, I began to wonder what was going on.  I knew in my heart that my fears were illogical and unfounded, yet I was driven by this desperation to do everything I could think of to keep my son’s world clean and safe.  The “looks” I started to get from my family were becoming more obvious every time I wiped my son’s hands, furiously washed his pacifier that had fallen to the ground or became impatient with someone who wasn’t conceding to my strict rules.  My husband’s confusion with my behavior began to turn into frustration as he simply could never do anything quite right, at least not by my unrealistic standards.  I was stripping him of enjoying special moments and outings with our son by bringing along my obsessive worry everywhere we went. I continued to justify my behavior by believing that what I was doing was best for my son.

Twenty-three months after TJ was born, Noah came into the world and blessed our lives beyond measure.  I was overjoyed, overtired and falling deeper into the throes of anxiety. Now I had two precious lives to protect and the most exhausting part was not the late-night feedings or the early mornings, but the constant, ever-present worry.  It was draining me of the person I once was and I hated it.  I tried so hard to hide it all and keep things neatly concealed behind my smile, but I know my unhealthy state of mind was glaringly obvious to those closest to me.

One of the hardest things to deal with was the way my anxiety was affecting my relationships.  As far as I was concerned, no one could do anything quite right and I constantly felt annoyed and angry that others wouldn’t take the same precautions that I found to be obvious.

I was impatient.  I was frightened.  I was embarrassed.  I felt completely alone in my struggle to protect my children.  I knew my fears were illogical but had no idea how to put an end to the worry. Why were these thoughts creeping in?  I never used to be this way.  I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of in my husband and children and I can’t seem to get past the worry to enjoy these amazing gifts.  My God, where are you in all of this? quote about fear                  

Restoration Man

It’s called “Restoration Man”, and it’s my new favorite show.  Set in Britain, the show follows couples that bravely take on renovation projects that most wouldn’t even consider. So far, I’ve seen an old water tower, a 100-year-old windmill and a long-forgotten school-house transformed into incredible homes.  The vision the renovators have is nothing less than awe-inspiring.  They look at these old derelict buildings and something inside of them is stirred.  It becomes all-consuming and they find themselves sacrificing everything to bring life back to what seems a crumbling mess.

What adds to the show’s fascination is the work of the host (not to mention his delightful accent) to research each building, delve into its history and present the full story behind each brick and beam.  In his initial meeting with those heading the restoration, he reviews the plans and makes suggestions as to how they might be improved and also offers advice on how to ensure the historical significance of the building is respected.  I’ve found it so refreshing that each couple that takes on one of these projects comments on the responsibility they feel in preserving the dignity of the building and honoring the original purpose and use of the space.  They aren’t looking to raze the buildings, but rather bring new life and new use to what once was, all the while taking into account the many stories encompassed in its history.

January is a big month for taking stock on one’s life.  Our bad habits sit around us like the rotting wood struggling to hold up the forgotten building.  As the end of December rolls around, we look toward January with excitement for all the possibilities it seems to hold. We are inspired by the thought of a new beginning and are quick to mark the first of the month as the beginning of what is sure to be a better life.

We’ve all heard the saying, “we make plans and God laughs”.  I often think of that as I’m meticulously planning out my day, my week, my year.  I am humbled in the reminder that I am not the master architect here and there may be alterations, additions and/or subtractions to my plans that will help me lead the life I am meant to live and bring out the beauty of who I was always meant to be.  I am forced to put down my pencil, sit back and allow for some reflection.  What does God want me to build this year?  What does He want to shed light on for me? What joys does He want me to pay forward and what struggles does He want me to use to help others?  Once again, I am gently reminded that I was never meant to be in control and the only real dependable plan is to hand it all over and strive to remain open to God leading me down whatever path He has chosen.

One of the many challenges people face in these restoration projects is the demand on them to use as much of the original materials found in the building as possible.  Materials are stripped, reconditioned and replaced with painstaking effort and detail. I’m always left amazed at the amount of usable material found in these building that look like they are just begging to be torn down. Interestingly enough, the same might be said for all of us.  I’ve found that so many of my lessons learned in these short forty years can be used for good if I allow God to show me how.  Just last week I sat with a cherished friend and relived much of my own journey with anxiety as I listened to her current struggles with this debilitating condition. I know that the simple fact that I understand exactly where she is at is more comforting than anything else I could offer her.  I feel the same way when I speak to other couples that have experienced miscarriage.  The gift in the struggle is the understanding I can offer to others experiencing similar crosses.  And that is God’s way of restoring me.  I love that.

The year has just begun and we all have our own personal plans and goals mixed in with fears and worry.  There are moments when I truly wish I could see the plan for me drafted neatly on a piece of paper.  I wish I could review them, make the changes I saw fit and give them my stamp of approval.  Of course we are all well aware life just doesn’t work that way.  I have yet to see a restoration project that didn’t encounter one or many major challenges once the work began and problems were revealed along the way.  I also have yet to see an episode where the restorers succumbed to the challenges and gave up on their dream.  As we delve deeper into 2016, I pray for the strength to remain always open to the true architects plans, (whether they match mine or not) and am truly comforted by the knowledge that God never tires of His role in restoring each one of us piece by precious piece.  In true British fashion, I dare say that’s just “brilliant”!

Charlie Balch,

Charlie Balch,

What Mold?

I wish I had video footage of the scene as it unfolded.  I can just imagine the look on my face and the various contortions it went through as I processed what was before me.  We were visiting with my in-laws and I was helping my mother-in-law get dinner ready.  She had pulled out a block of mozzarella cheese to use for the pizza she was putting together and I could immediately see the mold through the package.  The growth was rather abundant.  It would have made for a perfect lesson on the various stages of decaying matter and the pervasive way mold takes over what was once edible.  I fully expected her to head straight to the trash and dispose of the atrocity, yet she saw something in this hairy, green/black mess that I would have never even thought to look for.  

Unfettered by what lay before her, she grabbed a knife and sloughed off what was easily a half of an inch of cheese from each side while I stood beside her paralyzed with the realization that she was in fact hoping to use this on the pizza I was supposed to feed my children.  After a few moments, she turned to me with what remained of the cheese post-surgery and held it before me with a look of pride, much like that of a child showing off a prized art project.  And there we stood; waste-nothing meets OCD.  I smiled meekly and she immediately knew it was time to think of something else to put on the pizza.  We both laughed a little and fell into that rare and beautiful place of understanding and acceptance.  

With the start of the new year, people across the globe are formulating personal resolutions that they hope will create within them a renewed sense of being, a better self. I’m curious how those resolutions might change for the better if we were to look outside of ourselves and ask God how those around us could help us become the person we were created to be.  Each one of us is a unique and intricate creation of all the people that we have shared our lives with; those that have crossed our paths briefly and those that have walked with us for the long haul.  

At the risk of being too “cheesy”, I’ll ask that you bear with me in seeing this comparison through. Fact is, we can all be compared to that block of mozzarella.  Each one of us starts out a perfect, unmarred creation and, as we grow, we are heavily influenced by our relationships and contact with the people in our lives.  Some relationships bring out the true flavor of who we are and do much to shape our well-being and success in life.  Others weigh heavily on our souls, misdirect our steps and before we know it, the mold begins to grow.  So often we are left to question how we can create anything positive out of the hand we have been dealt.  We have a choice; throw it all away or hand it over to God who is perfectly and wholly capable of sloughing off the mold and using all of our experiences, be they good or bad, for positive personal growth.    

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, our lives have recently been filled with family and friends, those closest to us that have had a part, be it small or large, in defining who we are as individuals.  We’ve enjoyed many visits,  some too short and some too long. Conversations have been abundant, some with healing and others with resolute defiance that things will ever change.  Many gatherings have been joyous with the joining of family and friends that don’t often enjoy the blessing of time together and other gatherings felt the deep sadness of loved ones lost.  

There’s a lot of “de-briefing” that takes place after the holidays.  We are quick to comment on how Aunt Bertha’s weight continues to fluctuate like a yo-yo, how cousin Jimmy has grown into such a nice young man after some turbulent teenage years, how much Uncle Ed has aged since the last time we visited.  Too often we get so caught up in our opinions, we fail to absorb the richness of the diversity around us within the personalities of our family and all those God places in our lives. There is much God wants to teach us and, if we let Him, He will use those around us to gently whittle away misunderstanding or harsh judgments, refine our patience and increase our acceptance.  On the flip side, it’s so important to remember that we are gifts that God can use to do the same for others.  

In the end, I have to give my mother-in-law credit where credit is due.  She dug deep and sure enough, she found the purity left within that marred block of cheese.  I know it wasn’t easy for her not to use it on the pizza, but she respected where I was at and loved me anyway.  And, in case you ever need to know, parmesan cheese makes for an excellent substitute on pizza.

Copywrite, 2016, Nicole Johnson, Dominik Schraudolf, CCO Public Domain, Dominik Schraudolf, CCO Public Domain