Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Our 10th Anniversary: Marriage Vows

I actually have more to say on marriage than recycling vows I wrote 10 years ago, but I have been thinking a lot about our vows in the last few days.  They were more prophetic than I realized they might be, like everything changing except that I want to be with him.  The "everything changing" will be for another post. :)

But here, unedited, are the vows I read to Steve at our wedding:

Standing here today, I can't conceive of a day I won't love you.  And standing here today, I can't fathom that we could ever change.  But I know it can happen.  Life tends to interfere with static conditions.  We're not immune just because we're in love, although it sure feels like it sometimes.  Life is unpredictable, and that's where my commitment to you becomes operative.  

I am not marrying you under conditions that you stay as you are, or that circumstances stay as they are.  Sometimes, people get diseases.  Disorders.  Sometimes, children are born handicapped.  There are no guarantees in life. 

None except this:  I am going to be there.  For you, for us.  Nothing that happens makes these vows void.  If so, it wasn't a real commitment.  

Life doesn't have to be perfect in order for love to be perfect, and I don't ask that is it.  I just want to be with you.

I love you so much, Steve.  Who you are, who you'll be, and all the stuff in between.  I want us to have room to grow.  To evolve, to change, to shift as life shifts.  

I'm going to be there every step of the way.  Making you smoothies, giving you foot rubs after your baseball games.  Admiring you and accepting you and cherishing you.

This is my version of "for better or worse."  Sickness, health.  Richer, poorer, all of that.  I love you so intensely.  I am so lucky to know you, and so amazed to be your wife.  Your partner.  

You can count on me, no matter what.  I commit my being to you. My body. My life.  I'm yours.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Because kindness does mean something.

Finding out that 10 new Sudanese refugees were arriving this week from Ethiopia was like a bomb going off in my life.  A good bomb, mind you...which probably means I need a better analogy.  But I have been emailing, Facebook posting, phoning, driving around, and collecting items for the families as though my own children were without winter coats.  Nearly all of our family conversations this week have had "the Lost Boys" somewhere in the beginning, middle, or end.  

Which is all to say: Here's the third post this week about the Lost Boys.

I run in some of the most generous, kind, wonderful circles of women I can imagine.  I can't believe how quickly they jumped into action when they heard there was a need.  People of all financial backgrounds, just wanting to help.  I am very grateful for the community around me.

But there's more. 

When I do the "drop-offs" - especially with new arrivals from Africa - I do feel a hesitation.  An insecurity, even.  And definitely some apprehension.  

These families are just off the plane from a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and knocking on their door is this woman with white-blonde hair driving a Toyota Sienna, handing them bags upon bags of food, clothes, bikes, etc.  It's like a ridiculous American stereotype, and I feel a bit icky being a part of that.  

It reminds me about the imperfect system in place.  

They come to America with this sense that it's a place of abundant wealth and easy-living, and in some ways, I'm representing that myth to them right off the bat.  Like: "Hey, we have all this extra stuff we don't is so easy for can have some, and we'll still be okay."

Let's be honest, that's a true statement.  Clothes and belongings really ARE in excess here. 

But that message has to come with the Full Story, which is:  

Just to let you is going to be very, very complicated for you here. It will be hard as hell to get a job.  Education is expensive and time-consuming, but almost necessary to get the job you'll need to have the life you envisioned for yourself in America.  

Finances are going to be more complicated than you imagined.  Getting a car to get to that job that was so complicated to find...then gas, insurance.  Rent on a place and utilities.  Family back in Africa (also believing the money-flowing-freely myth) will be begging you for money. 

When I grow up, I want to work for the International Refugee Committee.  And not just because I might meet George Clooney, although that would be a nice perk.  But there are some key things I'd love to change. 

Please don't make them pay for their United States visas.  

Please don't make them pay back their plane ticket here. 

They've been through enough.

When I grow up, I also want to set-up a non-profit that serves as a launch pad for new refugees.  Give them an orientation, and set them up with a mentor (from their own culture) who has been here for awhile.  Have rooms they can stay in for a few weeks while they find a safe, affordable place to live. Almost like a Ronald McDonald House for refugees.  Storage for all sizes of clothes, so they can store off-season ones and not keep them in their small apartments.  

And my biggest passion:  Teaching them about FAFSAs and college educations.  Resumes and job-searches.  Have a closet of interview clothes they can borrow to get jobs.  

Dental care.  Medical specialists who can screen for parasites, food allergies, and help them build their nutrient status so they can get the energy to work the long hours the jobs (that they're able to find) will ask them to work.

This is what I want for Christmas. Every Christmas. Birthdays too.

What happened today....all these friends of mine banding together to ease these refugees into so many colors of beautiful, you have no idea.  

But there is this dark-side of the arrival to America that NO amount of generous spirits can fix.  Coming here is not a perfect solution.  It's not the END of their struggles; they're just trading the old struggle (not enough basics to feel safe, secure) and replacing it with an emotional struggle that is so difficult for us to understand.

I knew, pulling my Sienna into that parking lot and knocking on the door, that I was helping to perpetuate this myth...the Legend of America...that is actually going to cause them some pain.  

Even so, though, I can't solve the imperfection by not doing what happened today.  

The imperfection is so much bigger than all of this.  

It started 20 years ago, when they were 5, 6, and 7 years old, tending goats while their villages were massacred and their families were killed.  When they fled for a month to three months, running for their lives, many starving to death along the way.  When they lived as refugees on foreign soil, until finally their visa was approved to come to this mystical America.  

Which ends up not being as mystical as they might have heard or dreamed it might be.  

Where am I going with all this?  Quite honestly, I'm not sure. :)  There's not an Aesop's Fable message here, other than please don't massacre innocent villages and thank you for caring for the refugees with your incredible donations. 

Maybe this is just Writing as Therapy, which comes up rather often for me.  

Life is complicated.  Politics are complicated.  Human suffering is complicated.  Human kindness is complicated.  

And the best I can teach my children is to just jump in and do what we CAN this moment...without worrying if it's the perfect solution to an imperfect problem.

Because kindness does mean something.  I have to believe that.

Were we representing a myth today that might give false expectations?  Yes, I think we were.  Does that mean we should have left 10 brand-new refugees without basics of living, just because we didn't want to teach them that America is "too easy"?  

Yeah, that doesn't make much sense either. 

Maybe the best solution...the lesser of all bad to be there when they need the basics.  And then be there when they realize that life here is going to be so much more complicated than anyone promised it might be.  Showing them how to succeed and empower them to create a new life here.  

Because in the end, what they really want is to feel like their lives have purpose.  They are important.  They can take great care of themselves.  And that they are safe. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Raise up a child...?

Community service is a huge part of myself, and I was raised with it in my home.  My mother didn't work, but spent hours a week out in the community.  She went back and got a Masters degree to use it in volunteering.  There was a very Kennedy-style sense of supporting the community...appreciating what we had...and using our resources to help others. 

So I've seen that you can surround a child with that and create an expectation and appreciation of giving, instead of an aversion to it. 

But I am still very conscious about making service a positive in our children's lives.  When I've chosen ways to get involved in the community, I make sure my children can be a part of it.  For one, I can do more of it.  When I visit with Sudanese families, they come with me.  Meals on Wheels, the kids were an integral part of that.  I drove, but they wouldn't even let me carry any of the food to the doors. When I make meals for a new mom, the kids come with me and we talk about helping families when they have a new baby.  

I want that to be part of the fabric of their views on life. 

But I keep watching them, wondering if it will ever start to seem like a plus-one-minus-one situation.  Like if we give to the Sudanese or other persons, it will take away from them? 

Giving away clothes that are too small is one thing.  But buying Christmas presents for them, I watch that one really carefully.  

We're very simple with the things we buy our kids, but I'm different with the Sudanese families.  When you come from Plenty, the drive is often to scale-back...simplify and streamline.  When you come from Want, it makes you crave things (even hoard, at times).

So while I'm trying to scale back the expectations of gifts at Christmas in my own house, I'm creating this Christmas program that's about the very commercialization of the holidays that I'm trying to avoid.

Tricky situation, eh?

To be accurate, my kids get Christmas presents.  It's not like that.  We think really carefully about who our child is and a need to fill in their life.  Andrew is getting a climbing dome.  The boy needs to climb.  Simone is getting a dollhouse. She needs something she can entertain herself with while the boys wrestle in the next room.  It's not like my children get nothing...or even just token gifts...but we downplay the toy part of it, while I'm working to build that up for the Sudanese.

We spend most of the holidays talking about what to give others...making gifts for grandparents...doing Christmas outings...and having the presents be in the backseat.

I feel like it's one thing to opt out of having a big festivity of presents...and another to feel like an outsider to the American culture, and have this sense like everyone else is having this holiday experience you're not able to give your child.  The Sudanese have so many pressures on their finances - supporting family back in Africa, sponsoring family members in the boarding schools, paying for flights they took under refugee status to get here, etc.

We went shopping for one of our "adopted" children today, getting him the gifts I outlined here. Simone helped me pick out the gifts from TJ Maxx, so I wasn't sure how Andrew (especially) would feel about seeing these cool gifts, and knowing they were for the Sudanese children.  I picked out Mayuen's gifts specifically as things Andrew would like, since they were close in age.

I had nothing to be concerned about.

I happened to have my camera nearby, and snapped it as they were gathered around the gift, saying things like: "This is going to be GREAT for Mayuen!  He is going to LOVE this!"  And then all begged to help wrap it for him. 

I love these little buggers for so many reasons, but their giving hearts might give me more joy than anything else I see in them. 

Yes, they might debate who gets which color of bowl, whose song comes next in the car, and bicker over whose pancake was bigger...but whatever. Siblings will be siblings, and sometimes, I think they get a wee bit sick of each other. The way they treat other people is what means so much to me. 

Sudanese Christmas Program

This post is so I can send a link when there are questions about the Christmas program for the Lost Boys.  Sometimes people ask about the types of gifts to give to the Sudanese children, and this way, you can see one example.  There are many ways to do it, this is just one concrete example.  I know some people find that more useful.

We have a 3-year-old boy as one of ours, so we went to TJ Maxx to get the "large" items.  A large stuffed frog ($7), a Spiderman toy vehicle ($15), and a Melissa and Doug musical instrument set ($15).   

Our focus was on the largest size gifts for the amount of money budgeted.  There were quite a few smaller items that were also 7ish dollars, like some matchbox car sets, but I wanted something that looked larger.  Many times, these families can swing the small items... but not much money for bigger toys. 

For this child, we also included a down gray winter vest, bought for $9 at TJ Maxx, because it's his first winter in America.  Also, a package of 6 white socks in his size (clearance at TJM).  Not much fun for Christmas, but lightens the expenses for the parents a bit.  I don't wrap them, because that just seems mean ;)...but I deliver them at the same time.  Underwear is another good one, because even if they get hand-me-down clothes, new underwear is appreciated.

The kids and I went to the Dollar Tree for the stocking items, and even bought the oversized stocking for $1.  Stocking stuffers were a mix of fun things and useful items. 

The Lost Boys' motto is "Education is our mother and father" with gifts for them, I try to include teaching things, like alphabet items.

All these items listed were $1:
  • Spiderman toothbrush
  • Children's flossers
  • Toothpaste
  • Cookies with alphabet stamped on them
  • Animal crackers
  • Juice boxes
  • Sippy cup that he can decorate himself
  • Coloring book with Elmo (teaches letters)
  • Coloring crayons
  • Markers
  • Winter hat
  • Italian ices (not frozen, of course, but they can stick in the freezer)
  • Snoopy tissues
  • Dinosaur puzzle
  • 3 bottles of bubbles (set for $1)
  • Magnifying glass (plastic)
  • Superhero Squad coloring book
  • Santa hat
  • Hershey bar
Including the large stocking, this achieved my $20 budget for the stocking. 

Regarding wrapping:  I tend to pre-wrap the items (other than stocking), but include a note about what's in them for the parents.  That way, they don't have to get wrapping supplies or figure out HOW to wrap...especially the ones who've just arrived, and might be unfamiliar with the wrapping custom.

Hopefully that helps?  

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"You see, I'm a they"

So I'm going to list some of the things that I did between 8am and 8pm tonight.  Do you care?  No, you don't.   You did your own stuff.  But it's important(ish) to get to the point I'll make after the list-of-stuff-I-did.  So bear with me. 
  1. Andrew's friend slept over last night (cuteness!), so Steve made breakfast for everyone-plus-one, and then I got everyone dressed and in the car.  Steve stayed home to study. 
  2. They needed to be at the Air and Space Center for Cosmic Kids Club at 9AM, with a 40 minute drive.
  3. Dropped off the 3 boys at the ASC, then got Simone in the car and drove 30 minutes to Virginia Beach.
  4. Stopped at the Post Office.
  5. Bank.
  6. Thrift store to buy "pink books" for Simone.
  7. Stopped at FedEx to make photocopies of Simone's birth certificate for pre-school.
  8. Went to the pottery-painting place, so we could use up the Groupon that was about to expire.  I sat for an hour and watched her paint a plate, Christmas ornament, and tray for Steve in various shades of pink (and a bit of purple).
  9. Grocery shopping at Trader Joe's.  
  10. Got gas for the car.
  11. Pumpkin muffins from Panera. 
  12. Drove 30 minutes back to ASC to get the boys.  
  13. Got there half an hour early, so Simone played in the exhibits and I bought tickets for "Puss in Boots" on my Fandango iPhone app.
  14. Drove Samuel home.
  15. Took Jack back to Virginia Beach (30 minutes) for his Russian lesson at 1pm.
  16. Simone fell asleep, so Andrew and I hung out for awhile in the Oceanfront library parking lot.  He climbed around on things, I tried to read on my Kindle.  
  17. I gave up on reading and offered to take him to Chick-Fil-A drive-thru.  He took about a nanosecond to think, and then shrieked YES, nearly waking Simone. ;)
  18. Got our Chick-Fil-A then came back to the library.
  19. Cleaned out the car (dear lord, there's a lot of trash that piles up when you live in your car!). 
  20. Simone woke up.  
  21. We went inside to the library, doing double-duty.  I needed a folk-tale book for my Colonial America lesson plan on Tuesday, and the kids could check out books. 
  22. We played there for about an hour.
  23. We went to Target to get the Star Wars action figure I promised Andrew if he wore his glasses for a week without taking them off (much).
  24. Then we went to pick up Jack at 4.
  25. Drove to Jen's to get her donations for the Lost Boys Christmas drive.  
  26. Drove an hour back to Williamsburg.
  27. Home for 15 minutes (literally), just enough time to throw English muffins, pizza sauce, and some shredded cheese for fake-pizzas, put in the oven for 10 minutes, throw them on paper plates, get the kids back in the car, and then drive to the movie theater to watch "Puss in Boots."  [Author note: WHAT was I thinking, ordering movie tickets pre-bought to end a crazy day? More on that later.]
  28. Home at 8:30.
I promised you a point, and now you'll get it.  Or at least, my attempt at a point.

The reason I was filibustering our day, in part, was because Steve is neck-deep in schoolwork right now. Maybe forehead deep.  It's deep. So I was on my own for the busy day, and trying to make the best of it.  

When you break down all the Big Chunks of our day, it was about my children...: 
  • Spending time with a good friend.
  • Attending Cosmic Kids Club, which they love.
  • Giving Simone a special morning with just her mom.
  • Giving Jack another chance to see Natallia for Russian.
  • Having the experience of seeing a movie in the theater, and also giving Steve more solo time to study.
Friendship, fun learning experiences, following passions....those are absolutely my Mission Statement for my family.  

But in the midst of all the Big Chunks, I still need to grocery shop, send packages, go to the bank, get gas, etc etc. 

Not one of the things on that list really nourishes my soul directly.  If I was living a Sarahbeth-centered life, most of those bullet points would have been massages, facials, and finishing the Steve Jobs biography I'm immersed in.  

In so many ways, there's more "noise" in my life than I ever expected before motherhood.  It's more boring (in some ways) and chaotic (in other ways) to nurture three little spirits into their adulthood, more than I really understood.  I still would have signed up for it, but goodness!

I didn't even mention the group bathroom stops at Target, at the movie theater, etc.  Digging food out of grocery sacks and throwing it into the backseat when someone said they were hungry. 

There also wasn't a bullet point for Andrew, running full speed into a waist-high chain at the side of the sidewalk, flipping forward, and nearly smashing his face into the cement.  Where's the bullet point for my completely undignified scream in the middle of a busy town-square, and then crying (really) with relief when I saw he was okay?   Hugging him so tightly that I nearly squished him empty of air, because I was so-so-so-so grateful that nothing serious happened.

But there are good missing bullet points, too.  Like Andrew sitting on my lap during half of the movie, snuggling back into me, and the smell of his sweet, little boy head.  Knowing that I have so.little.time left where he will fit into my lap.  And wanting to devour every second of it. He is "precious" incarnate.

And as a backdrop to the entire day, I knew that we were giving Steve the space to do something that was important to him -- doing well in school, focusing on his work.  He's working so hard for our family, and taking a graduate program that isn't family-friendly at all.  I really love that man, and I want to help him succeed.

In that Five for Fighting song, 100 years, there's a part that I love:

I'm 33 for a moment
Still the man, but you see I'm a
A kid on the way
A family on my mind

Yes, that's it!  I AM a they.  Taking care of my family does nurture me.  More than I expected.  And not in a soul-sucking way, although I do know that feeling too. ;)  But my own personal spirit feels good about seeing smiling faces and happy little children, excited about life. And, supporting Steve however I can - even if it's about being gone all day. :)

Not always.  Sometimes, I really need a Criminal Minds marathon and a hot Epsom bath with no toys in the tub.  But in the big picture of things: If I know, at the end of the day, that my family's needs are met? It feels like a really good day.  Even if all I did was play chauffeur and disc jockey for the car music, taking requests from tiny voices in the backseat.

Someday, these little crazies will grow up and move on in their lives, and I'll think back wistfully to these hectic, joy-filled Saturdays.