Sermons and Step-Parenting

IMG_1654I gave my first talk in my new ward yesterday. It’s up at By Common Consent, if you’re interested. It’s difficult for me to know how much to share with new people; there’s a line somewhere between giving context, and giving oneself away. Of course, my modus operandi in my writing is being an almost entirely open book- but things are a little different in real life. Does one stand at the pulpit and pound a fist and say “Listen up! When I say I know what it’s like to be tried, I know what I’m talking about! And not just in the comfortable way of tight finances or a husband who forgets to pick up his towels!” Yeah… probably not. But sometimes I want to— I’m never dishing platitudes. Maybe that’s just part of getting older? I have less patience with people who love their problems, and more patience with knowing things usually work out, even when “working out” seldom means what we want it to mean. Anyway, that was the gist of my talk.

My husband’s ex-wife attended our ward yesterday. I don’t get nervous when speaking, so it didn’t really phase me on the stand- but it’s part of an emerging pattern of interjecting herself when we have the kids. A phone call each evening (which is what he does when the kids are not with us) is perfectly fine and reasonable, but half a dozen phone calls and twice as many texts in a few hours is a bit over the line. We clearly have some work to do.

I realize it must be very difficult to have another woman have access to and personal time with your children. This isn’t a challenge I’ve been given, but my capacity for empathy is decently calibrated, so I can imagine those shoes being uncomfortable, particularly at first. I want her to know that her kids are being loved and cared for with us.

Learning to be a good step-parent is like anything when you’re learning— you’re going to goof a few times, but sincerity and love go a long way towards cementing new bonds. I’ve never done this before, but I have been a step-kid and I have been a kid of a divorce, and I’ve been trying to remember what I needed; the answer always comes down to love. If I err on the side of love, I think it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

From day one, I decided all children in our new family would be treated and loved equally. There would be the same set of rules for all the kids. They are radically different children, and all five have wildly different needs many days, but it’s possible and necessary to make the family a place where everyone is loved, and everyone’s input is valid, and most importantly, wanted and heard. Despite the fact my own kids are here every day and my step-kids divide their time between two homes, all kids have dedicated space and a dedicated voice here. Taking the time to listen— really listen— has already opened up some unique and healing conversations with my step-kids and with my own kids, as we navigate combining families.

The kids are getting along better than I ever dared hope. They’re 17, nearly 13, 11, 10 and 8. They’re playing together, working together, helping each other, giggling a lot, staying up way too late talking, teasing each other, and now, even solving problems together. Just like siblings. At first everyone was understandably careful, but I see the problem solving and relaxing as evidence of feeling comfortable and safe— and that’s a good thing.

I haven’t been writing about this much because honestly, I haven’t known how to navigate the new interpersonal byways. My kids are used to being part of my narrative, and while I give them veto power now over anything I write about them, they still are used to being part of a somewhat public story. I’ll clearly be more careful with my step-kids’ privacy, but I simply cannot ignore the impact and beautiful part of our lives they are becoming. My husband encouraged me to just write; to do what I do best. So here it is.

For their mother, I want her to know what their father already knows— maybe it will help her feel more comfortable: They are safe and loved here in this newly formed, unconventional family. I will love and protect them as if they were my own. And that’s saying something.

Recipe: Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Slaw and Pickles

006-003The first time I had this meal was in the basement of Emma Smith Bidamon’s brick house on the rising May banks of the Mississippi River. I fell down the staircase after dinner, utterly and completely fulfilling my conversion to Mormonism, but my warmest memory is still sitting in the basement kitchen, listening to the cicadas and breaking bread (and pulled pork) with a group of friends I call family.

Bishop Brown, the same good man who drove my TARDIS moving truck from Washington State to Washington DC two summers ago (if you need an adopted father, I cannot recommend Bishop Brown highly enough) prepared dinner for his flock- and introduced me to the finer aspects of southern vinegar barbecue sauce, and the divine alchemy of brine-cured dills atop a pile fresh slaw. I cannot bite into it without tears of happiness welling at the corners of my eyes. This recipe is my July gift to you.

Pulled Pork

  • 3-4 pound pork roast
  • Salt and pepper
  • Penzy’s Barbecue of the Americas spice rub (but really, use whatever rub you like)
  • 1 cup water

Rub the roast with the spices, throw everything in a slow-cooker or crock pot in the morning, and let it cook all day on low. That’s it. It’s so simple.

Barbecue Sauce

  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt

Whisk all the ingredients in a bowl, and set aside in the fridge until the pork is done. Adjust seasoning to taste. I like the tang of vinegar, some like it sweeter. You can also, if you feel like it, use a store-bought sauce in a pinch, and it’s honestly almost as good.

Tracy’s Fresh Coleslaw

  • 1 head green cabbage, sliced super thin.
  • 3 large carrots, thinly julienned (I do this with a serrated veggie peeler)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp minced dried onion, or 1/4 cup fresh grated (I prefer dried here- yay food storage!)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp celery seeds

Shred the cabbage and carrots and set aside in a large bowl. Whisk remaining dressing ingredients in a bowl, then toss with cabbage/carrots. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Go buy some good brine-cured kosher dill pickles. Most commercial brands are cured with vinegar, and they’re great too, but a refrigerated brine pickles is a whole new party. Trader Joes carries a good brine pickle. So do most nicer grocers. If you can’t find them, regular ol’ pickles will still be really good. While you’re at the store, pick up some really yummy looking soft buns- something better-looking than regular hamburger buns, but those will work in a pinch.

When the roast is done and utterly falling apart, usually perfectly around dinner time if I started it before about 10 am, turn the slow cooker off and lift the roast onto a plate. Save the liquid in the cooker. The roast will fall apart- that’s a beautiful thing. Shred it with some forks, and return to the slow cooker. I usually add some of the pot broth back to make the pork super moist, but do what you think will taste best given your roast and your broth. Pour the barbecue sauce over the shredded pork and toss it all together.  Is your mouth watering? Mine is, just thinking of it.

To serve, pile the sauce soaked shredded pork on a bun, add a heaping scoop of the freshly made slaw, and top with some thin slices of your briny pickles. This is one of those particular dishes where the whole is sublimely greater than the sum of the simple parts.

I usually serve it with baked beans and follow with Ree’s Texas Sheet Cake, which is simply truly the best sheet cake ever. I won’t even try to top it. Now go watch fireflies and hang out with your friends while you all marvel at what a good cook you are!

NB: As a person with a bad gluten-allergy, I skip the bun and have everything else in a bowl like a salad. It’s just as good. Beware of hidden gluten in commercial barbecue sauces.)

Warp and Weft

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There are some deep stirrings and upwellings from the long-undisturbed layers in my bedrock. I haven’t figured out yet what they mean, or where they will take me, but it feels like it’s the roadmap for the next chapters of my life. What does one who learned how to breathe and swim and make a life in chaos and upheaval do with peace and stability? I don’t know yet. I suspect, like everything, it’s about trust.

Learning to be a wife again, to share parenting duties and household burdens and joys, to incorporate a life with five children instead of just three. Learning to share space and time again, and dropping the no-longer necessary armor from my solo-parenting years. It’s all a process, all about trust.

I’m comfortable in the space of uncertainty. Oddly enough, that fact gives me some certainty in navigating these new shoals of my life. There is stability where for so long there was nothing beneath my feet, and even though that stability is still so unfamiliar, comfort with uncertainty in my surroundings is something of which my navigational skills are finely honed and bedrock confident.

I feel like a mobius, both coming and going. A paradox, this because of that, but not that without this. I am laced in finely wrought tension, where the creation is beautiful beyond comprehension, now brought forth from the stored, vulcanized silks spun my entire life.

There’s a Man in My Kitchen

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It was in a tiny studio apartment kitchen in Capitola-by-the-Sea where I first realized I could cook. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a kid— my mother is an exceptional baker,  and like all kids, I “helped” her, but baking requires measuring, care in amounts, and a degree of precision that often made my attempts fall flat. Literally. While my mom’s baking skills are renowned, I took my failure to reproduce her fineries to mean a general failure in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I had my first apartment (shared with the daughter of a Beach Boy. Not even kidding.) that I realized cooking and baking are like Mars and Venus. Not even the same world. The first savory dish I ever attempted was a broccoli and cheddar soufflé. (Yes. I am Soufflé Girl.) It was spectacular. All these years later, I can still remember the gulls crying out my upper-story window and taste the salty Pacific air as I pulled the perfect soufflé from the oven, astonished that it actually worked!

My love of cooking was born. Right there, in that moment. It’s kind of cool to have a rubicon where I can clearly pinpoint a turning point in life. I went from being timid and skeptical to feeling like SuperGirl, in one divine moment of alchemy between egg, vegetable and sharp cheddar. I’ve never looked back.

Since then, I’ve gotten better at baking, but it’s still not my passion. Too much carefulness is required, and it annoys me that humidity, temperature and precision can all turn something lovely into a lumpy dumpy mess. Cooking is instinctual. Baking is science. (I bet Abby will take after her Grandmas.) Plus, adding in the whole “flour will kill me” issue kinda takes the joy out of baking.

For all of my adult life, the kitchen had been my realm. I’m a good cook— I can wing it, make my own recipes, and I have the instincts to combine things successfully into good food. More than that, I utterly enjoy it. Going into the kitchen is relaxing and calming for me- holding my Wustoff ten-inch chef’s knife (it’s been with me longer than my children) and slicing, chopping and julienning are transformative, therapeutic acts. The knife rocks over the scarred wooden boards of my block, and it becomes a meditation. My kitchen tools are loved, and most of them have stories, memories, and people attached to their acquisition and use. Sure, sometimes I toss dinner together from freezer-fixins’ just like everyone— but really cooking remains a simple joy.

Now… for the first time in my adult life… there’s another person in the house who loves to cook. And I don’t know what to do.

My dad didn’t cook. None of the men in my life have ever cooked. I don’t think my brothers made their own toast for breakfast until they were adults. And all of the sudden, there is a large man in the middle of my kitchen. He likes my knives, and how honed and heavy they are. He likes my thick cutting boards, scarred with time and memories. He notices the All-Clad pans that were worth the investment long ago. He appreciates the solid clay bowls, and the wooden spoons made in France. He himself chose the five-burnder gas stove for the kitchen I now call mine. He notices and enjoys the fineness of my tools. And he cooks.

He cooks. He bakes. He does the dishes. He sweeps up after dinner. When he’s in the kitchen, he’s not “helping” me— he’s just… in the kitchen, enjoying cooking as much as I do. I catch myself standing like a deer in the headlights, caught between movements, words half-formed and unsure what to do with my limbs as I find him once again effortlessly navigating the finer points of kitchen alchemy. I’ve been doing this alone for so long, my patterns are well established, and I keep tripping as I turn to do something, a step of the kitchen dance, and find I now have a partner in this timeless domestic rhythm.

He gently laughs at me, as I stall mid-movement, unsure for the first time in years what to do next. This is all new.

I suppose there is always an adjustment in a new marriage, in a new family. We seem to be doing really well in many ways- my kids adore him, and have for a long time. Both of our families are very happy with our choice of each other and have fully embraced us. His kids, while not here as much as mine, seem happy with us and are acclimating to having new siblings. Our belongings have melded together beautifully in the house. There’s a whole lot of harmony.

I just have to get used to a man in my kitchen. A man who is a much better baker than I am

Unpacking Faith

 

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As I wander through my new (to me) home, slowly unpacking boxes, I keep swallowing hard. Since the day I lost Big House so many years ago, I’ve lived temporarily— knowing there would be further moving, further upheaval, further kitchens and closets, further schools… I’ve carried a box of my grandmother’s china from one coast to the other, never breaking the thin plastic packing tape keeping the precious dishes safe inside. More than many, I’m keenly aware of the sharp edges on the margins, of how tenuous life can be… particularly this past week, and I step softly through the rooms in a house I am now invited to consider my home.

Not a single room in the home is the same as it used to be- every single wall has been lovingly painted, and each paned window has been stripped of fussy draperies and box-valances, to be freshly dressed with simple iron curtain rods and pale cotton and linen curtains. The air is lighter, the sunlight cascades easily through the now open windows, and makes the warm wooden floors gleam. It’s more than I ever dared hope for…

The kids bounce and giggle on the trampoline in the backyard, and I can stand again at my kitchen window, hands covered in verbena-scented suds and watch them through the lacy pattern the giant oak leaves cast in the summer sun. One by one, I open the boxes of dishes and beloved kitchen tools; an old wooden recipe box from a great aunt, filled with treasured, yellowing handwritten recipes with directions like “use a medium hot oven…” I find a place in my kitchen, and open another. My mother’s antique clay bread-rising bowl is unpacked, safely transported thousands of miles now, and no worse for wear. The few cake stands that escaped the giant moving sale are removed from their bubble wrap, and join the recipe box on the shelf… and on it goes.

Every so often, my breath catches in my throat. I have to stop, squeeze back the tears, and remind myself that it’s okay to exhale. Unpacking those boxes is more than just moving my valued belongings into a structure. Unpacking, for me, is an exercise in faith.

Unpacking means faith in my new husband, and in my newly minted marriage. Unpacking means faith in the deeply good man who has opened his heart and life to me and my children.  Unpacking means faith that I won’t have to uproot my children yet again, and that they can make friends and establish patterns and call this new place home. Unpacking means faith in myself to manage a blended family where we can love and grow together. Unpacking means having faith that this is all real, and that it’s not a dream I will wake from, teary and steeped in sadness. Unpacking means being vulnerable.

Today, I am unpacking my grandma’s china. It’s the last box.

Random Crap: Hodge Podge

So along with the whole Getting Married thing, I was also packing up our house in preparation for a move. And doing all the end of the school-year stuff with the kids- there were so many nights, up late with insomnia and packing boxes, I wanted to write. So here’s your Random Crap Catch It All Up post!

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Pro-Tip: If you hit Walmart around midnight, they are restocking, and they will give you all the boxes you can take. If you’re nice, they will even load them in your car for you! For free!

Moving sucks. It seriously sucks. Even in my tiny two-bedroom townhouse, you wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff we’d managed to amass in less than two years. I donated piles of stuff, went through all the kids’ stuff and culled and sorted, and I still had more than I’d imaged. Gone are the days of packing it all in a Volkswagen and taking off… Mercifully, many boxes were never unpacked from the last move. Who needs great-grandma’s china and silver in a house so tiny we don’t have room for the regular dishes?

Behold, the chaos. I think I took this at about 2 am one night. So stinkin’ tired.

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In a concerted effort to get my cleaning deposit back on my place, we spent two solid days cleaning, including shampooing the carpets. That’s above and beyond, right? The place was spotless when we left- and I’d always had good interactions with my landlords. They’re nice people. But now it appears they might like to keep my deposit. I’m waiting, and trying to be patient… but seriously? Look at the place!

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The deposit is a lot of money to me, and I even washed all the curtains. The fridge looks new! I cannot fathom what else I could have done. Do landlords just look at the cleaning deposit as extra cash? Because I could really use it, and I kind of feel like it’s mine, and I fulfilled my part of the deal. I’m really hoping they refund it.

Along with all of this, Jeffrey had his end of the year Band Concert- he’s getting really good at the Baritone Tuba, and has taken to playing the Emperors Theme at random times, like maybe when Bean is in trouble, or we’re running late. It adds to the general ambiance of the home. When I’m not trying to be mad, it’s really funny.

In the middle of packing, Abby was conducting science experiments (but so help me, none of them left marks on the townhouse!) I would be throwing things in a box, and find something that looked like this:

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To which, the following conversation would occur:

Me: Abby? What… is this?
Abby: It’s nothing mom, I’m trying to extract the iron from the cereal- I’ll be using magnet once it’s saturated.
Me: Um… oh.

Because that’s what everyone thinks of doing while in the midst of moving, right?

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The day of the wedding (we made our bouquets ourselves) I found this beautiful Magnolia flower in my new neighbor’s yard. I left it on the tree, but it was too beautiful not to capture. The Virginia humidity may totally suck in the summer, but there are some upsides.

Married? Yes. Married.

I’ve been holding a few very important and deeply personal cards close to my heart. Yesterday, this happened:

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A dear friend said to me yesterday, “You owe us one whale of a blog post!” Yeah… I probably do. Like every life and every good love story, it contains all the feels, from the lofty joys to wrenching sorrows. Life is hard, and it makes the rare moments of supernal happiness that much more sublime and sweet. Yesterday was one of those days.

There will be more… For now, here are some pictures, taken by a dear friend whose photography speaks for itself.

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Sword Juno Gold Omaha Utah

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Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. World War II has been on my mind a lot lately— mostly due to the abysmal two days Jeffrey’s middle school spent on it, and my sudden all-encompassing desire to both throttle the teacher, and to find a way to successfully augment his education. There are a lot of things I’m lackadaisical about, but World War II history is not one of them. It was a rubicon of modern life, a critical hourglass-like juncture; there is Before, and there is After. Too many of us are ignorant of our history, of the foundations of the societies in which we live. This makes us poorer citizens.

What I’ve settled on is Ken Burns’ documentary “The War”. It’s streaming on Amazon, and worth every minute. Like all of Burns’ films, it’s a deep and relational history, covered with real footage, photographs, letters, newsreels and personal stories. Highly recommended for anyone wishing to have more than a passing glimmer of American and world history.

My grandfather, John Beadle McKay, was there on the blood soaked beaches of Normandy, on this day in June of 1944. I usually needn’t say anything beyond that to for most people to understand important things about his life. That is a testament to knowing history.

As this generation passes from the world— as all of my own grandparents now have— it’s even more important that we not forget what happened, that we not forget their histories, their stories, and their sacrifices. When we know our own history, it helps us all be better people, and gives us a context and reference for the blessings and freedom in which we live our lives. That applies to each of us- whether we’re from the heartland of America, the cities, villages and mountains of Europe, or the atolls and islands in the South Pacific. Take a moment today to pause, reflect, and give thanks.

No Notion of Loving People by Halves…

Edmund_Blair_Leighton_-_On_the_ThresholdLife. We take it for granted. I mean, I know we do when we’re young- there is nothing more invincible that a young person who hasn’t been touched by tragedy. When we’re young, we just don’t comprehend preciousness, we don’t understand the gifts we are given. Life is fleeting, fragile, uncertain- we don’t want it to be— we build fences all across the landscapes of experience to give us semblances of safety. But, we cannot dwell there. We cannot think about what might be; if we do so, we can be crippled, stunted, and ironically, miss out on our own lived experiences.

This weekend, I lost a dear friend. We all know tragedy happens. There are accidents, there are illnesses. But coming face to face with the brevity of life, with how quickly and utterly it can vanish— causes one to pause and reflect a bit.

Do you remember Little House? Little House was owned by a wonderful woman who became a dear friend, long before I ever lived there. She filled her kitchen with delicious baked goods, she threw tea-parties with a dress-code of wildly ornate hats, she made aprons for each holiday, and she might throw a dinner simply because it was Tuesday, and Tuesday should be fun. She made the most beautiful quilts, and that was how I came to know her— sewing tiny scraps of fabric into beautiful heirlooms.

She had married later in life, and while she hadn’t given birth to children herself, she had dozens of children in whose eyes she was beloved. Her wedding was a Regency celebration where Jane Austen would have been comfortable. I had the honor of making two of the flower-girl dresses for the wedding. When you were around her, you couldn’t help but be happy. Her jovial, hope-filled, and sometimes wickedly witty personality made most people instantly at ease. She was loved.

She had been fighting some health problems; pulled muscles and what she thought might be a kidney stone. Last week, she posted on Facebook that she’d been diagnosed with cancer. Last week. Her words were upbeat- she was ready to fight this and win. Her husband, who had just started a new job in a new city, was flying back to be with her.

Two days later, a family member posted that she was in a coma, and wasn’t expected to last the weekend. The next morning, she died.

All I keep thinking about is how much she didn’t get to say, didn’t get to do… quilts that are unfinished, words she would have wanted to give her loved ones, a legacy she would have wanted to leave behind. Mercifully, she didn’t suffer- that’s been the thread of hope most of us who love her have been able to grasp. She didn’t suffer. But oh God, I hope you really needed her home, because those of us here are going to miss her light more than we can express.

It really puts a fine point on the direction of our own lives when we lose someone we love so suddenly. For all of our plans, all of our ideas that we might get to someday… it’s trite and poets and artists have been trying to convey it forever: Someday might not come.

Go grab your loved ones and speak to their hearts. Say you’re sorry if you need to. Don’t waste a single precious moment of this golden, beautiful life on grudges, spite, or anything unholy. Embrace life with both arms and banish your fear. Create what you always wanted, and if you didn’t succeed the first time you tried, rewrite your story and make a new chapter. If there is something your soul yearns for, make the leap. Cease worrying. Take a deep breath, inhale and savor life in great, glorious gulps. It really is all we have. We’re all stories in the end… make it a good one.

I miss you, Betty. May the four winds blow you safely home.

The Little Girl

Scene: the local market today- it’s a small grocer, not a mega-market. There was an old man pushing a cart. He looked to be a grandfather- wearing a bowling shirt, pants belted high above his natural waist, velcro shoes, Mark Twain-ish white hair. He had a little girl with him, dressed in red and white party dress and maryjane shoes, with puffy pigtails tied with bright red ribbon. The man was white, the child was black.

We entered the sliding doors at the same time- he with the girl, and me alone. The girl was full of exuberance, and danced around the cart, requesting items and expending energy, and kids do in the grocery store. I assumed he might be her grandfather, until I heard her address him as “daddy”. Despite her cheerfulness and general childlike happiness, there was a running diatribe the most toxic criticism I have ever heard directed at anyone- let alone a child. And it never stopped. It was shocking enough that I turned around and asked him if there was anything I could do to help him- I was careful in how I spoke, but his words to the girl left me stinging and stunned. He brushed me off and told me he was fine, and immediately returned to verbally abusing the child.

I didn’t know what to do.

Making my way hesitantly down the aisle, I could still hear him- telling her to shut up, to leave him alone, to stop every last thing, from moving to chatting, to looking what he clearly perceived as the wrong way. I met the eyes of other patrons in the store, and I could see scowls and glances that mirrored my own- by the time I went to pay, the store was very quiet. The people in line were all listening to the same thing I was, and eyes slid over one another in confusion.

He seemed oblivious, and continued his unceasing verbal cruelty.

Had I seen someone physically abusing a child, I wouldn’t hesitate to step in. Instead, I stood in the checkout line, my back burning with indignation and growing horror at the old man, and shifted uncomfortably. I worried about what she might face at home if I approached him again. I wondered if I was over-reacting. I told myself it was none of my business, that a passing observation in a market is not enough to extrapolate a life situation. She remained cheerful and chatty throughout.

I can’t stop thinking about the little girl.