Each day, life carries us in countless directions. Out into the wild world we go, traveling our various paths. We rush from thing to thing; each objective flowing into the next. The day is filled to overflowing, but still we squeeze in little detours; those tiny tasks that just don’t fit anywhere nicely, but still need to get done. We rush and rush and pray it all falls into place and then we rush some more. As the day winds down and the hurried pace begins to slow, we drag ourselves home and surrender the remainder of our lists to tomorrow. We haul our weary bodies back to that place where all paths intersect: the dinner table.
The dinner table is a commanding piece of furniture. It’s unlike any kitchen table that has ever existed. Many homes have a kitchen and dining table that are actually one and the same, but I believe that the name of the table changes with its function. Kitchen tables are for breakfast and maybe lunch. They’re used for tiny pauses in the day; breaks for nourishment and a very minimum amount of human interaction. Kitchen table chit-chat consists of, “Please pass the sugar”, “Pass the jam” or “Pass the newspaper”. Kitchen tables are quiet places for waking up slowly and thinking ones own thoughts. Having kids makes waking up slowly a lot harder, but even they (kids) understand and pardon the grunts and emaciated conversation of a kitchen table.
Dining tables are the one place in a home where the expectation is community and the goal is connection. It’s a place for conversation, camaraderie and laughter and it’s where a person’s sense of belonging is established. Whether single or married, massively dysfunctional or just moderately; all of us wish for that Norman Rockwell style dining table experience…maybe not for EVERY night, but definitely every now and then.
I am guilty of wanting that image of family closeness. I have a kitchen table that operates the way it’s meant to. I also have a lovely old dining table. We’ve sanded it, painted and stained it. It’s all geared up and ready for monumental mealtime moments. But sadly, I have maladjusted children. I have very sweet, smart, creative and loving kids, who, once seated at a dinner table, mystically deteriorate into bundles of hot air with an intention to annoy. Some nights, just the sight of the dining table makes us grownups feel twitchy.
Just as utter despair was beginning to set in; sure that we’d never experience a lovely family meal, the impossible happened! Last week we had the most amazing family dinner. The food wasn’t anything elegant. We feasted on beirute sandwiches (a Brazilian Smith family classic), but the mood was different. It was special. The kids were loving and sweet. They weren’t competitive or irritable like usual. They enjoyed each other and we enjoyed them!
Half way through the meal, our 2 year old began belting out a string of words that didn’t make much sense. After some careful listening and a little questioning we decoded her little song. The words were, “God raps in style!” She sang with passion and pumped her fist into the air. We were all captivated by the randomness and charm of her tune. And I’m pretty sure that if God were to rap, He would absolutely rap in style.
I’m still filled with love and delight over that family dinner. I’m uncertain when, or if, we’ll be capable of duplicating the beauty of that night, but I finally have hope. I have hope that maybe Normal Rockwell wasn’t painting an entirely unattainable, unrealistic dining experience. I'm confident that it didn’t always look quite as lovely as that painting might lead us to assume, but occasionally it did. And I can be OK with “occasionally”.
There was something so comforting…so constant about that soft, burnt orange carpet. It blanketed each room in our house. Like sand on a beach, it beckoned uncovered toes to play and dig…in those tall dense twisting threads. Even after 20+ years that carpet still looked newish. Not the color, of course. I think the color was maybe always retro, but it never felt rough, matted or nasty. It was plush and luxurious.
Where carpet paused, a long walkway of hypnotic, geometric tile ran in its place. But that carpet…that orangey-red disco party carpet; it felt like home. It was the foundation of my formative years. It’s not really as deep or philosophical as it sounds; it just literally covered the foundation of my family home.
I knew every corner of that house. After I started staying home alone, there were some days where I’d forget my house key, but I knew that even without my key I wasn’t really locked out. My home was like a huge protective friend who would never leave me alone in the cold (Southern CA cold…so not that cold). Over the years, my sweet retro home had shared at least 3 good ways to break in.
I knew every inch of our yard too. We had a huge hill in the back and “the hill” always made it to our short list of things to conquer on Saturdays. Some days we traipsed through distant, uncharted jungles and other days we’d crawl on our bellies, beneath the overgrown bushes and trees to discover and rediscover forts. All of our adventures ended with a compulsory slide down the highest part of the hill. My sister and I would squat and ride on our shoes the whole way down, with a plume of dust and a small avalanche of dirt trailing behind us. All of our little friends loved our hill too, but none of them were able to ride it without becoming a sad and uncomfortable owner of a dirty, brown bottom. We’d all meet on the grass and the looks were always the same, “could have done without dirty, brown pants, but it sure was a fun hill!”
That house held 17 years worth of Christmases, each one of them stuffed to the cathedral ceiling with a 13 foot tree. We’d get the tree the day after thanksgiving and decorate it over that weekend. Most nights leading up to Christmas, we expected Dad to gather us up to sit and admire our tree and its twinkling lights. Usually we’d sip warm eggnog too.
I’ve grown up to see my childhood home in an even holier light than I did as a kid. As if angels descend and ascend on a brilliant beam of radiance right over that roof. I’m sure that the current residents of my childhood home must feel a constant flood of blessing and peace. But if you ask the older generation how they remember the same house, the image darkens a bit. They remember the rooms being small and dark and maybe the house felt too close to other houses on that street. And no one could get over that one neighbor. The one who never understood which side of the street was his; who always parked his limping leaky old truck on the wrong side of the street.
Maybe I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, but I’d venture to say that most of us feel like there’s something exceptional about one specific childhood home. That “one” (house) that lives suspended in our minds, where only lovely memories are allowed to exist. Yes, bad times happened, but “that one house” stands unblemished and faultless. And when our big, grown-up stresses pile high, we steal away; sometimes just for a moment, and we rush at that pool of childhood levity. We cannon-ball, swan dive, pencil jump, belly flop into that sweet chunk of memories where all the burdens weighed less than fluffy clouds; where the worst day meant getting up for school, and the best…endless sunny possibilities.
Lattes and me…we go wayyyyy back. For nearly 20 years I’ve been a latte girl. I’m an enormous milk lover, so the choice to order a latte over any other beverage in a coffee shop is an absolute no brainer for me. It requires no more thought than breathing or...NOT joining a nudist colony. NO BRAINER!
I was the little girl who proudly carried a sky blue, (plastic) Star Wars lunch box (it was the 80’s… I LOVED Star Wars and EVERYthing was plastic). Then, somewhere along the way I personalized my precious lunch pail by slapping a HUGE “I LOVE MILK” sticker across the front of it. My declaration of love was so big that only hints of light sabers poked out from under the edges of my sticker. That was me, Star Wars and milk…but mostly milk.
I’m also a strong believer in the power of latte therapy! Lattes have always been my deep, cleansing breath in a cup. When life has felt stressful or too busy, it was nothing that a beautiful foamy, creamy cup of caffeinated bliss couldn’t right. Even on the worst of days, with a latte in hand, a better day is never far away (cheesy, but for me it always felt true). A good hot latte seemed to reduce the deafening noise of life to a soft hum that I could dance to. Lattes have never failed me, until last week with a fateful grocery store run.
I only needed a couple of things from the grocery store. So, I loaded everyone up and off we went. I ended up choosing the most dysfunctional, inhibited, stubborn, directionally challenged cart in the store, and it was down hill from there. We began walking (slowly) while I worked hard to maneuver the cart and herd my flock of kids. I should have immediately traded in that cart for a higher functioning one, but I thought it’d just be quicker to press on, grab my items and check out. I really should have traded the cart...
My "quick" grocery store trip, plus my four kids, reduced this once formerly elegant mom to a lumbering, flapping frazzled mess. I would have loved to have been able to hide myself in a long, hooded medieval style cape. Even if I'd looked like the unibomber, at least my frustration and stress might have been a little disguised and I’d have taken comfort in knowing that no one could have really seen my face clearly. Certainly under a hood, they'd never know that I was that crazed woman with 4 kids from the grocery store.
As we walked together through the store, my kids cut funky paths through the aisles. They'd step in front of me and fellow shoppers. Occasionally they'd jump across an aisle, wanting to show me something and narrowly avoid oncoming cart traffic. They were embarrassingly oblivious to their surroundings. When I'd pause they'd perfectly space themselves out, entirely clogging up the aisle. In defense of my kids and unwitting (Seattle area) aisle blockers: it's really difficult for ANY person (short or tall) to know they need to move out of a fellow shopper’s way if no one says, “Excuse me”.
Ever since moving to the Northwest, I've noticed something interesting...there's an unspoken rule that shoppers aren't supposed to acknowledge one another. That means no eye contact and definitely NO speaking to one another! Northwesterners will work their way down an aisle and then wait and wait and wait (or silently steam), behind fellow shoppers for really large chunks of time, without ever making a sound. They act like they possess super-human powers, allowing them to make their presence known by narrowing their eyes and focusing hard on the back of that aisle-blocker's head…and then voila, the path is clear! I really miss hearing those two little words: “excuse me”.
No shopping trip in my family is ever easy, but this one was more absurd than usual. Rounding up and containing my kids felt like attempting to herd jumpy, flighty chickens. I lurched from one side of the aisles to the other, shooing my kids from the paths of other shoppers. With the way my arms were stretched wide, I probably looked like I was trying to scoop my kids together into a large hug and hold them in place.
To top it all off, my sweet, amazing, 2 year old decided to be less than amazing and pull a bunch of single-serve Mac-n-Cheese bowls from the shelf. When she didn't want to stop her pint-sized reorganizing, I picked up my devastated, screaming, ridged baby and tried to move us all toward the register. By this point I was feeling pretty emotionally fragile, so of course I couldn’t help but notice "the look" from a clearly childless, middle-aged man. It was as if I could hear him thinking, “That’s exactly why I don’t have kids!” Then again, maybe I wasn't seeing judgment at all, but merely a serious case of RBF…I’ll never really know. (For more info on RBF, check out this article. It's a real thing!)
Finally it was over but I felt wrecked. When we got home, I unloaded the kids and the car and fired up my espresso machine. But hours after the last drip of my latte therapy had disappeared I still felt traumatized. I’d mentally relived every nasty moment of my afternoon, over and over, and I sat feeling defeated and drained. Latte therapy had failed me! I was hating myself for how gristly I’d been with my kids and each review of the craziness at the store only darkened my cloud of discouragement. When Adam got home, I passed the parenting baton and took off for the only other thing I thought could right me: the gym.
While I drove, some music played and one string of words leapt out at me: “The glory of God has defeated the night”. Then the word “defeated” replayed over and over in my mind and it hung in the space around me. I wasn't feeling the old painful, sting of the word. I wasn’t being accused, the way I had all afternoon. Instead I saw my terrible day and all those perilous grocery store peaks; crushed and compacted beneath me. And there I was, standing victoriously on top of it all.
That divine moment restored me in a way that not even 100 latte therapy sessions could have. I realized that I'd lost sight of my true, unchangeable spiritual identity. I’d forgotten that even when I feel completely defeated, my identity in Christ says I’m victorious and I’m even more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37). Because of Christ, I can never truly be defeated (regardless of my feelings) because God has defeated and conquered all the things that wish to defeat me (Colossians 2:15). Even on my darkest days, I AM still victorious (1 Corinthians 15:57).
Latte loving or not, some days just require supernatural intervention.
I love thinking back on the early months of my marriage. This was long before any kids (although not nearly as long as I imagined it would be). It was an adventurous time and an indulgent time. Our time belonged to us; we could use it and spend it or completely waste it. It didn’t matter. The choice was ours alone and solely based on our whims.
Just a month after getting married we moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s a marvelous place where ancient castles still stand atop of cobblestone streets and sheep out number people by A LOT. Beautiful woolly cows and mysterious lake creatures beckoned us to explore the legendary highlands. The terrain was breathtaking; expanses of yellow-green hillsides and deep, dark mysterious lochs (lakes). We could drive and drive and drive on the left side of a two lane road without seeing any signs of human life. If the apocalypse were to happen while in the Scottish wilderness, it might be possible for a person to live very peacefully; completely oblivious of any ensuing zombie attacks or rabid monkey infestations. For the two of us, alone in the untouched, untarnished muddy countryside of Scotland, life was a mountain of possibilities.
Our itty-bitty (nearly microscopic) flat in Edinburgh was our first home. We loved it and the quaint view from our window of the private whiskey club across the street. We even sort of enjoyed the smells of fried food that wafted up from the chip shop down stairs. These were treasured times. We worked for minimum wage in separate coffee shops. It paid our bills (mostly) but what most delighted us was the tasty espresso and new friendships. We were so poor, probably the poorest we’ve ever been, but we had so much fun!
In Scotland we had no TV so we had to find other forms of entertainment. In the absence of TV we found books. Becoming a person not just capable of reading, but enjoying reading was a radical switch for me. As a kid, reading was a hugely difficult, anxiety riddled activity. I read slowly and I stumbled over my words. On those days, when my teachers would ask us (students) to read out loud; those moments were traumatic for me. Even thinking about it as an adult, imagining my turn coming closer and closer...it can still make my heart race, my palms sweat and my saliva build to the point that it threatens to drown me. Reading was so much effort and work. It wasn’t relaxing or fun. It wasn’t until Scotland that I began reading full books; book after book. And a love for reading was born!
We still romantically reminisce about the hours we used to spend side by side absorbed in fantastically, exciting novels. Sometimes we’d even walk and read, too captivated by our stories to set them down. Some of the books were cheesy, others more cerebral but all were fiction and absurdly far fetched. They swept us away to even further away places and we never missed the telly (TV), not even once!
For us, opening a new book would begin like a nerdy boxing match. Each of us in our opposing corners, books in hand. Then the flirtatious taunting would begin. One of us would raise an impassioned eye brow while the other might cast a crazed and menacing glare. Then an imaginary bell with clang and our fake seriousness would dissolve into laughter. We’d rush at those words…chewing through pages and chapters, a race to the finish.
I remember all those stories so clearly but it almost feels like they're a piece of someone else’s life. After coming back to the U.S., we did what big, grown-up college grads do: we got meager grown-up jobs. Then babies came and those cozy evenings, curled up on the sofa, each with a book in our hands and our legs intertwined…they stopped.
For a while I really mourned the loss of reading. Reading made me feel smart in ways I never had before. But I’ve found that reading is a lot like exercise, prayer and sex…the less you do it, the less you want it.
But over the last 6 months my dead, gray, lifeless love for reading has been resuscitated. It happened with the 2015-2016 school year, when I became an unintended ‘home school mom’. It definitely hasn’t been a joy ride although every day I experience a roller coaster of emotions. Our curriculum requires us to read heaps and piles…mountains of books together.
My tall sweet boy is exactly like I was with reading. He slowly feels his way over words, bumbling around. Then he’ll get to a longer word and obviously guess without truly trying, just wanting to end his misery. For him, reading feels like punishment…or a third world torture tactic. He’d maybe rather have his fingernails slowly pulled off or battle 1000 sword wielding men, than read.
Half of our school books, my son reads and the other half I read…out loud (my least favorite thing). At first it was just part of the job, a portion of our daily work. But then slowly I began looking forward to it…and I know Christian did too (although doesn’t like to admit it).
Last month, we read Freedom Train, The Story of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was an amazingly courageous woman who escaped slavery in the U.S. then selflessly sacrificed everything, over and over again, to free hundreds of slaves using the Underground Railroad (a network of God-fearing people who helped hide and sometimes transport slaves to freedom). Every chapter left me crippled with emotion, grasping for composure. Public displays of emotion have always made me feel naked and exposed.
I worked hard every few pages to swallow away the choking ball of tears in my throat. For weeks I was able to disguise my emotion laced words. Until one day, nearly arms reach from the book’s finish line, all my dammed up emotions overwhelmed me as I read President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The scene depicted in those couple of pages about thousands of slaves gathered with eager anticipation, waiting to hear the announcement of their freedom…it was too much for me!
“There was breathless silence in the grove. Throats were too choked for cheers. The commander of the First South Carolinas stepped forward to present a flag to his regiment – a flag made for the freedmen by the ladies’ sewing circle in New York State. As he help out the Stars and Stripes, a voice broke the stillness. It was a voice which had been heard before, on lonely paths in the woods under the North Star: My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
A quavering man’s voice joined in, then two women’s, until the whole assemblage was singing:
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride!
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
Verse followed verse, while the officers on the platform stood at attention. Then Harriet spoke the final words of the ceremony: “This is the first flag we have ever seen which promised us anything. This is the first day we have ever had a country.”
Such a beautiful, soul piercing scene! As I read that portion, I paused in odd places trying to keep myself from a full bodied weep: that unadulterated ugly howling sort of crying that always comes with a blotchy face and spit strings. Then, from the sofa behind me I heard a slightly mocking but also confused voice ask, “Mom…are you crying??? Are you crying over a book…??”
The tears needed explaining. Seems that sweet, smart, amazing 9 year old boys don’t always understand tears; not their own nor other peoples’. I tried REALLY hard not to sound defensive (which I was) or furious (which I also was) with the fact that an explanation was needed at all.
But there was a personal beauty in that awkward mother-son moment. I felt reborn, filled with life again! I’d been transported through my reading to another time. I too was standing there in that grove. I felt the mix of despair and hope. I felt my heart overflow with pride and relief when freedom was pronounced. And I marveled in awe that the now former slaves would choose to join together in song, in beautiful unison honoring the country that had so long enslaved them. What an incredible moment in history! None of this would ever be known except that it’s been written down and published in a book. I have a thousand reasons to be thankful for my time in Scotland, but one of the reasons closest to my heart is that it was there that I learned that I could love reading.
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.