Mourning Normal

Yes, yes, I know – “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” There’s almost a resistance to the word “normal”, a visual bristling that takes place at the mention of it, especially when using “normal” as a measuring stick or comparison tool. “Normal” isn’t bad, it isn’t better, but it is, statistically, a thing. It’s real. It’s the middle of the bell curve, the average, the typical. It’s what’s to be expected, what’s been planned for. It’s the experience of most, and surprisingly the disdain of many.

It’s also a gift, as I’ve written before.

We grieve a lot of things in our lives – jobs, relationships, deaths, disappointments. Stories that ended before we were ready and stories that continue on in ways we didn’t expect. This is where I find myself today, mourning. Grieving the death not of a loved one, but of a future, of expectations. Coming face-t0-face with the very real differences between what I expected to be “normal” and what is my “actual”.

For some it may be life after divorce. For others it may be life after an accident or illness. Continuing on after the loss of someone incredibly close. Hearing, “It’s a boy!” instead of planning for pink. Being forced to envision your future in an entirely new and different way after the loss of your dream job, or never having landed the position at all. The circumstances are all different, but the feelings remain similar – you had a plan, it changed, and now you’re left not only reeling, scrambling, planning for the new future, but also feeling the aching hole left behind by your original future, the one you’d looked forward to, prepared for. Your “normal” is suddenly gone, and your present is something you never intended or considered. Your present is now, by definition, “abnormal”, at least from what you’d been anticipating.

For me, I’m mourning a “normal” childhood for my son.

We can call it “neurotypical”. We can call it “average”. We can reference the majority of the population and refer to him as an outlier, an anomaly, an exception. What we can’t call him is “normal”, though the life I’d envisioned for him was.

I started homeschooling him a few months ago for a few reasons, and it has been fantastic. We’ve had a blast, I’ve noticed so much relief in him, and he’s absolutely loving it – it’s been a good thing. However, last week a parent from his former class shared a slideshow of moments from the school year… and I lost it. Full on, snotty, ugly, moaning, sobbing cries. Seeing the smiles, the crafts, the parties, the memories – they caused me actual pain. I saw this typical childhood in a typical school and felt the most intense sadness. They were so happy. They were doing what so many other kids their age did. In my eyes, they were easy and normal. Was I romanticizing their school experience, as a friend pointed out to me? Absolutely. Were those experiences things my son was even interested in? No way. Would him being present for those things make him happy? A booming, echoing NO. But I was suddenly hit with such intense grief over the fact that normal hadn’t worked out. It didn’t negate how much homeschooling is working for us. It didn’t lessen my love or amazement at who he is. It was grieving for what ought to have been. Recognizing that my current path had strayed from my intended one, and while lovely, I hadn’t yet let go of my original travel plan. Something was over, and no matter how poor of a fit it was, it brought me grief to know that it had ended, that is was no longer an option.

It’s popped up before, this grief, and I expect it will pop up again. And the thing about it is, it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to mourn. Mourning is not regret. Letting go of what might have been is not taking your current reality for granted. Being sad something didn’t work out, feeling the pain of that end is not wishing your present, wasn’t. You can be both sad at what is gone and appreciative of what you have at the same time. The tears that fell over knowing I wouldn’t see my son smiling in those photos did not erase the photos I have of him smiling with me. The tears just fell, and it was okay.

Grieving normal requires learning to think in new ways, retraining your reactions. Not many people start out their journey hoping they’ll abandon their destination and end up somewhere else entirely. The habitual way you think and react and plan has been practiced for a very long time, and now it doesn’t fit with your life. You may mourn normal every time you have to make a hard decision – at the very least you’ll be reminded of it. I once heard a beautiful analogy relating to the parents of special needs children that I feel fits so well to many, many more situations:

Imagine you’re planning to move to Paris. You pack your chicest clothing, research the museums, the language, the culture, the food, the rues. You tell everyone where you’re going and you imagine your exciting life once you get there. Only upon exiting the plane, you find that you’ve somehow landed in Holland. Huh?! Holland is not Paris. You’re shocked. You’re sad. You’re completely unprepared for Holland. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the customs. You know nothing about the food, the maps, the people. Your clothes are wrong, your plans can’t happen, yet here you are. You are now in Holland, for better or worse. You long for Paris, you may even declare intense hatred for Holland simply because it isn’t Paris. But slowly, slowly, you being to learn about your new home. You absorb the culture, begin to assimilate. Holland doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, but it does have windmills, and tulips, and it’s very peaceful there. Your friends come to visit from Paris and don’t understand it, but you go to visit them and find that Paris is loud, crowded, and a little smelly. You grow to love Holland, despite it never having been on your radar, and you appreciate your new life for what it is, find peace where you are, and are happy. Holland is never going to be Paris, but that’s okay.

Here is something I must stress, whatever normal you are mourning – GRIEF IS NOT GUILT. Feeling sad about the sudden change in your future does mean you are responsible for it, it does not mean you caused it, it does not mean you can change it. No matter how strong your feelings are, they cannot reverse anything. Do not trick yourself into feeling guilt over your situation or guilt for your grief. Feel your feelings. Identify your feelings. Accept them, work through them. You can change the way you think, but you must embrace how you feel in order to move forward. Assigning yourself guilt is not a punishment for experiencing grief.

Find someone you can talk with about your feelings. It may take a few tries and you may only find one person, but keep trying. People will say stupid things. I’ve written before about how we often attempt to measure the pain of others – it will happen. You will hear dismissive comments about the things you DO have that you SHOULD be grateful for. Don’t allow them to shame you into guilt. Don’t allow any statements that begin with “At least…” to bury your feelings. You know that being sad over what isn’t to come does not mean you are not grateful for what is. The thing about winding up in an unknown foreign territory, metaphorical or otherwise, is that it is terrifying. Sometimes you have no idea what to expect. Sometimes you DO know, and that’s even scarier. Change is hard, unexpected change is harder. But finding someone who can listen will at least mean you aren’t alone.

Mourning the end of your marriage doesn’t mean you want your ex back. Grieving the diagnosis your child received doesn’t mean you love them any less. Crying because you got a boy doesn’t mean you wish he’d been a girl. Remembering life before kids isn’t overlooking or disregarding the miracles that they are.  Missing your old home doesn’t mean you wish you hadn’t moved. It’s grief, it’s an end, it’s saying goodbye to what you thought your future would be as you learn what your new present is. It’s part of the process of letting go of what was “supposed to be”, what was your “normal”, and finding yourself in uncharted territory. Mourn that normal. Multiple times. And while your tears are still wet on your cheek, tell someone you trust how you’re feeling.

Whenever I feel inspired to write a post here, I typically write down some notes in a journal I keep. I think about it for a long time, I pray, I research when necessary. I have dozens of posts just waiting to be written, with rough ideas and random thoughts jotted down. But this post was different. I kept trying to make the time to sit and pray about it, to ask for wisdom. I was waiting for a time when I felt absolutely joyous about the current state of abnormal we’re in, so that I could offer some hope from the other side perhaps, so I could have a cute little sign-off, something to share that would inspire, lift, encourage. But it never came. Every day since that slideshow has been hard. Tomorrow will probably be hard, too. I began to feel very discouraged at it all. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why wasn’t I feeling more hopeful? Was I the world’s biggest hypocrite for wanting to talk about mourning normal and feeling this way? It hit me today – I was waiting for normal to return. I was waiting for this state of abnormal to stop being so abnormal so that I could write about it. I wanted it to feel normal while I discussed how it wasn’t. And so I grieve again, because mourning normal isn’t a period you go through, it’s a change in your lifestyle. It’s not a season, it’s a shift. Despite all my words, I still wanted normal to come back, and it just isn’t going to. And that’s sad. And that’s okay. I know over time this abnormal will become my new normal. I know over time I will feel that punch in the gut become softer and softer, with fewer and fewer blows. I know that we have made the right decision. But today, right now, in the middle of the sadness and fatigue and tears and doubts, I am sad. Not regretful, not ungrateful, I am in mourning.

Welcome to Holland.

 

 

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

The Tagged Photo

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I’m a big girl. I’ve written about some of the issues I’ve faced as a plus-sized woman here, here, and here. It’s not a big secret, it’s something I discuss openly, it’s something I’ve had to deal with for a long time now. Yet for all the struggles I’ve shared and the courage I’ve mustered, few things terrify me as much as the tagged photo.

You never know when it will strike, when it will creep up on you, completely unprepared and unaware. You step away from social media, have a lovely day, then come back to a strange surge in notifications – gasp! You’ve been tagged in a photo… and people have SEEN it! You can remove the tag if you want, sure. You can adjust your settings so that you must first approve tags (and I thought I had). You can walk around in full hair and makeup, sucking in everywhere you go and appearing to candidly laugh in the background at all times. No matter what precautions you take, it never fails that someone, somewhere, will at some point tag you in an unflattering photo. Such tragedy befell me yesterday.

Earlier this week I went on a field trip with my daughter and her pre-k class. She had a great time, talked about it for the rest of the day with the biggest smile on her face, just so excited about what we’d done together that day. The day was a success! Truth be told I was as excited as she was about the day and couldn’t wait to announce it on social media, it was such a fun time. But I didn’t. Over the course of the morning we took at least 30 selfies together, and none of them met my standards. We tried side light, low light, direct light, sunlight. Silly faces, vogue faces, the right side of our faces and the left side of our faces. Different backgrounds, different poses, different angles. I looked at every single one of them and dismissed them as unworthy of sharing because I didn’t like how I looked in them. My daughter, of course, was adorable in each one, even though the last dozen or so really began to show her annoyance with the constant pictures. I’m a photographer and this is my busiest season, so I’ve been staying up working at a computer screen until 6 am, getting about 3 hours of sleep a night, and it showed. I had bags under my eyes from editing, grey in my hair from parenting. My nose looked too pointy in one photo, too bulbous in another. I didn’t like the way I looked and controlled how my friends on social media saw me. Goodbye, photographic evidence of an otherwise lovely day.

Or so I thought.

Yesterday evening, my adorable daughter’s amazing teacher posted some photos she had taken of the day. Group photos of the class, pictures of her with some of the kids, parents… and then I saw it, the reason I’d gotten a notification in the first place – a photo of my little girl and I, together, and I was – gulp – tagged.

My cheeks instantly flushed, my ears burned with embarrassment. I was sitting, rarely a good pose for anyone and never a good one for a plus-sized person, and my tiny little daughter looked positively elfin next to me. There I was, obviously large, nothing and no none to hide behind. Just me. I was humiliated at how much of the photo I took up, how apparent my size was. I was disappointed, all my carefully-crafted, expertly-angled, creatively-cropped selfies gone to waste now because this photo was showing the truth. I felt exposed. Here I was and there was nothing I could do to change it. I’ll be honest, as silly as it may sound, my eyes burned with tears. I didn’t like what I saw and I didn’t want anyone else to see it.

But they already had.

The photo already had a handful of “likes” from friends who had seen me, the real me, in their newsfeed. As I stared at the image and dissected it, made a mental list of everything I hated about myself, I got a few more notifications that friends had “liked” the photo I was tagged in. Crap, there goes another one. And another.

I put my phone down and hung my head. I stayed silent for a while, just sitting on the couch, watching tv with my husband and feeling that gnaw in my stomach that comes with regret. I badly wanted to go back in time and either decline the photo op or set my daughter in my lap and smile over her shoulder, shielded from the camera, from the truth of who I am. I wanted to remove the tag. I wanted to investigate and look at who all had seen the photo.

I opened Facebook back up and checked my notifications. Yep, a few more “likes” on that embarrassing picture of me. I clicked on it and started reading the names of my friends who had taken the time to react to it. Not react – they liked it. Some of them even took the time to “love” it. Some of the friends I’ve never met in real life. I’d met them in groups where we shared similar interests and hit it off,  but we’d never met, never hugged, never shared a cup of coffee. These people had just gotten their first glimpse of me – the real me. The unflattering, sitting-down, chest-is-bigger-than-the-head-of-the-child-sitting-next-to-me, what-on-earth-is-my-hair-doing me. Some of the friends – there goes another like! – do know me in real life. They’ve hugged me, seen me cry, listened to my loud voice and smiled when I walked into a room. They weren’t duped. They’ve seen me look like that, every time they’ve been around me. They’ve seen me sit, seen me with lipstick on my teeth, seen me sweat and get frustrated and take my heels off in stores to walk around barefoot. They’ve seen me, and still they’re my friends. And they “liked” the picture. They support me, encourage me, and are happy to see me smiling on a field trip with my daughter. They may not have cared if I was sitting, they may have, but they’ve seen me and it didn’t matter. They “liked” it. Oh man, Amber just saw this picture of me. Come ON, I saw Amber in person two weeks ago, this picture isn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know about me!

Instead of seeing each notification as a nail in the coffin of my image, I began to see them as little high fives, little pats on the back, little gestures from friends who saw me, the real me, and were happy they had. Friends I’d encouraged to make sure they had pictures of themselves no matter how unhappy they were with their appearance. Friends I looked up to. Friends I grew up with. Friends who knew me when I was thin and friends who first met me when I wasn’t. It sounds so simple, they just “liked” my picture and went on scrolling. But it meant so much more. Instead of feeling exposed I was feeling accepted. Instead of feeling disgusted I was feeling loved. I may not have liked what I saw in that picture, but my friends did, and not because of how I looked, but because it was ME in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be changing my profile picture to that one any time soon. My profile picture which, by the way, is a carefully-angled selfie of me wearing a shirt that says “Plus is Equal”, picked from about 30 other attempts at the same shot and run through a filter or two. Do I look like that? Well, sure, from the right angle and cropped close in. But I sit a lot more than I stand on my porch in full makeup, looking up just enough to elongate my face and neck. I have bags and greys frequently enough, too. I’ve been hiding in plain sight, so scared of how I’d look that I forgot that this is how I really do look, that people in my life see me every day without a second thought. I’ve been laying bare my emotions and experiences and hiding my appearance, the very thing about me that so many posts have sprung from. I’ve been telling everyone without hesitation that I was a plus-sized woman but was too embarrassed to prove it.

So there I am. I’m not removing the tag. I’m not mad, I’m not upset. I’m still probably a little sheepish about the picture, but I’m glad I have it, glad to have a memory saved of that wonderful day with my girl, glad she’ll have something to look back at and remember. I’m challenged now to embrace who I am. I’m convicted that I’ve been using my voice to advocate for people who look like me but using any other means possible to keep people from looking AT me. My pants size didn’t change when that picture was seen by others, my weight didn’t fluctuate. I’m still exactly who I was and I still look exactly the same. My husband still loves me and tells me I’m beautiful, I still have 3 awesome kids, and the Backstreet Boys are still better than N Sync. Nothing really changed in my world apart from how terrified I’ve been to let my friends see me.

Now I challenge you, friend, to do the same. Let your friends see you. Let us know you. Don’t duck away from photos (guilty), don’t hide behind the camera so you don’t have to be in front of it (guilty), don’t pass up an opportunity to capture a memory forever because you didn’t want to see yourself in the present (also guilty). Take pictures. Heck, jump into the pictures. Who you are is not how you look, so anyone who calls themselves your friend has already decided to like you without knowing that you wear your belts under your bust instead of around your waist (so very guilty). So you look different than you used to – there’s a whole day devoted to laughing and musing over how much we’ve ALL changed, Throwback Thursday. So you don’t love how you look – you’ve got a lot of people who love who you ARE. I challenge you to answer these questions whenever you hesitate to share a photo, a memory – what is the absolute worst thing that can come from an unflattering photo of you being seen by others? Is it catastrophic or can you survive it? Is the memory of that moment more valuable than the image you’ve crafted up until then? Have you ever lost respect for someone or ended a friendship with anyone because they had a roll of chub showing or were in the middle of a breakout? If you have never been so shallow as to stop caring for a friend because they didn’t look perfect, then do your friends the courtesy of not assuming they will, either.

Let’s put ourselves out there, warts, tight shirts, wrinkles and all. Let’s be real. Let’s encourage and empower one another. Let us let go of the pursuit of perfection and remind ourselves that even Beyoncé has some embarrassing pictures tagged, and that while our social media images may be a little imperfect, at least ours aren’t as easily found on Google. Give your friends a chance to “like” what they see, and give yourself the freedom to accept just what it is they’re looking at.

Common Criticisms of the Church: What Many Say (and What Few Know)

I have started and stopped writing this post several times. I had to make sure each time that I was writing it out of a desire to educate and not to be passive aggressive. I am human, after all. But know that this post is not directed towards anyone specific, only intended to address some common criticisms – and memes – that I’ve seen.

In 5th grade I began attending a church for the first time with any regularity. I quickly formed a deep bond with the pastor’s daughter and we remained best friends for years. There were months at a time where I actually even lived with them, my best friend’s family, the pastor of our church. When I met the (super hot) man who would become my husband, I was 16 and he had recently become the children’s pastor at our church. We married when I was 19 and he was on staff full-time at a very large church. Now, almost 12 years of marriage later, we are still in full-time ministry. It’s all we’ve known as a couple, it’s all our kids have known as a family. My experience with ministry spans decades and denominations, positions and places. I’ve both witnessed it and lived it for the majority of my life. I also live in this modern society. I see the posts, the memes, the comments, the assumptions. I hear the complaints and the criticisms. I listen, I do. I don’t dismiss them as the ramblings of godless pagans (sarcasm font). As someone who passionately loves Jesus, it does me no good to write off an entire generation of people simply for having different beliefs than I do. But also as someone who loves Jesus, it does me no good if I don’t try to present the truth about what seems to bring up such strong negative feelings in so many people – the church. I don’t want to argue. I don’t want to taunt. And I certainly don’t want to use this platform as a chance to passive aggressively discuss how hard ministry is – I’ll openly tell anyone that, haha! I just want to take this opportunity to do my part to dispel some rumors and myths about churches and pastors, to the best of my ability. I obviously don’t speak for all churches or pastors, and there will of course be some who don’t adhere to the same beliefs or practices. There will also always be some bad apples in a bunch, regardless of profession or location. So I ask that you read this with an open mind and an open heart, willing to hear some truth about an institution you may have been hurt by or misinformed about. My intent is never to attack anyone, only to help.

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t pay taxes.”

We totally do. I’ve seen the meme making the rounds for years now, images of Joel Osteen’s or T.D. Jakes’ or Ed Young’s enormous homes, pointing out the assumed hypocrisy of their wealth and not paying any portions of it to the government like everyone else has to. And while I understand how many, many people would be turned off by those pictures, I guarantee you they paid taxes on whatever they earned to buy those homes. Pastors are considered self-employed for tax purposes and have to put aside their own taxes throughout the year, they aren’t automatically removed from paychecks. We’ve written our share of checks to Uncle Sam in April, believe me, pastors pay taxes. CHURCHES do not. Churches are nonprofit organizations – they literally do not turn a profit. Every cent that is given to a church is processed right back out of it, like the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, NPR, American Red Cross, ASPCA, St. Jude’s, Make A Wish, Ted Talks, Ronald McDonald House, Planned Parenthood, PBS, the Mayo Foundation, AARP, American Heart Association, the Humane Society, Susan G. Komen, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Habitat for Humanity, American Cancer Society, Amnesty International, and countless others. These foundations and organizations work on behalf of others using donations to operate, the same as a church. Employees of these organizations all receive a salary, but their salaries are set and are not impacted by the amount of donations received… unless the donations stop coming in. Just like a church. Simply to add more clarity and definitely not to defend, Joel Osteen does not receive a salary from the church he pastors. He, like T.D. Jakes and Ed Young, writes books. Books that sell millions of copies and generate a lot of taxable income. To summarize, pastors pay taxes, all nonprofit organizations do not.

Common Criticism: “Pastors are preying on people, always asking for money.”

They do ask for money, in the form of tithes and offerings. As a nonprofit, a church cannot operate unless money is donated. Electric bills that ensure lights and air conditioning, phone service that allows people to call the church office, employees to answer the phones, clean the church, mow the grass, and, you know, minister. In addition to just the common operating expenses, churches GIVE. They pay bills for those who come to them in need, they support missionaries around the world, buy school supplies for single moms, foot the bill for enormous outreaches, food ministries, homeless ministries… the amount of people a church can bless is only limited by the funds they receive. Aside from the Biblical call to tithe, if a church member wants to experience church, they must acknowledge that it costs to run that church. If they want to see that church do more, someone has to give more. In our denomination – and I know not all operate this way – churches are autonomous. Our church does not receive funds from a central office or district manager. What our church brings in is what our church operates on. Many,  many churches are not supported by higher-up offices and do not have free reign or blank checks when it comes to spending, so if a church is going to pay a bill, it has to have the money in its own account.

Common Criticism: “Churches don’t do enough. They should spend all their money on the poor instead of giant buildings.”

It’s a proven fact – the bigger the church, the bigger the reach. A church that seats 5,000 can do more than a church that seats 30. Neither is better than the other, neither is more holy. But when a church is more visible, it reaches more people. When a church has more tithing members, it has more funds to give, to send, to share. When a church can hold more, there are more opportunities for people to find someone to connect with. When a church has a large operating budget, it can afford programs and ministries during the week. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to attend them, but mega churches are not inherently, automatically evil. A room full of thousands of worshipers is a mighty thing for a community, not a symbol of greed. It’s crass, but the bigger the church, the more money it brings in, the more it can do. Jesus preached to thousands and it didn’t make him a sellout any more than preaching to one woman in the dirt made him ineffective. Christian crowds come in all sizes and shapes and numbers, and their reach is greatly increased when those sizes grow. The less a church receives in tithes and offerings, the less it is able to do. Electricity is not free. Food to hand out to the homeless is not free. Childcare for single mothers is not free. This is one of the most frequent criticisms I see of the church, a list of things people think the church should do, and every single time it is in the same breath as a complaint about pastors asking for money. EVERY. TIME. Divorce ministries cost money. Bibles cost money. After school programs cost money. Blankets, hot chocolate, gift baskets, anything kind you could think to hand out to someone – they all cost money. Counselors on staff cost money. Events cost money. Easter eggs full of candy cost money. Even filling up a baptismal costs money. Churches have to have money to be able to provide the things and services so many think they should, the things and services the Bible says they should.

Common Criticism: “Pastor didn’t come to my _(insert private event here)_.”

This is one of the biggest reasons people leave a church – offense at the pastor. I even know a few friends who are vocal atheists who have said the turning point in their faith was something a pastor did. It’s a big deal when people are hurt by their shepherd, and I’m in no way excusing or condoning the actions of some very flawed people. But I will address this frequent complaint, if you’ll allow me.

I’m just going to say it – attending graduation/anniversary/birthday/lawn clipping parties is not biblical. The Bible has some very clear guidelines for those in ministry, and modern society has added on a very long list of expectations. It is impossible, truly impossible, to meet them all, to attend everything, to keep everyone happy. In addition to the wants of the congregation come the needs of a family. The Bible makes multiple mentions of pastors caring for their families, this isn’t selfishness. I can tell tales of 7am Saturday phone calls demanding my husband attend someone’s game, of graduation seasons when I don’t see my husband for weeks. There is always, always something to do, which means that pastors can’t always, always attend. They are very busy people attending to the long list of responsibilities and expectations laid before them, and sometimes items just have to drop off the list. Not because they don’t care, not because you’re not special, but because they just can’t do it. So I ask you, when you’re offended or upset that a pastor hasn’t done something or made an appearance somewhere, ask yourself if your offense is biblical or personal. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s a lot easier than holding onto bitterness and offense.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t do enough. They just read the Bible and play golf.”

……………………

I had to take a break to compose myself, I was just laughing way too hard to type! Okay, I’m back.

One of the main questions my husband gets from young people is, “What do you DO, like, for a job?” They all assume that he works somewhere in an office, 9-5, and is able to toss together a service in his spare time. In truth, I don’t know of a single day he’s worked 9-5. Pastors are really freaking busy. When I lived with my best friend so many years ago, I was so surprised at the number of messages on the answering machine any time we got back from an errand. People calling at all hours for prayer, for help with a bill, hoping for a visit in the hospital, wanting to tattle on and complain about another church member. Two of my husband’s favorite hobbies are golf and fishing, neither of which he’s been able to do in a few years. Budgeting, board meetings, counseling, hospital visits, staff meetings, sermon prep, video prep, service outlines, more hospital visits, meetings with church members, taking phone calls, meeting people at whatever utility office they have an unpaid bill at, mission trips, outreaches, camps, event planning, volunteer recruitment, volunteer follow up, begging volunteers not to quit, visitor follow up, praying, not to mention the pastors who are responsible for cleaning the church, mowing the lawn, and doing the work in the community no one sees – there is not enough time in a week to be a pastor. If ever you’ve driven past the church and not seen my husband’s car, it’s not because he wasn’t working, it’s because he was out taking the church somewhere it was needed. We get phone calls, texts, and emails on “days off”, on our trip to Disney World several years back, and even during family members’ funerals. The work of pastoring is never complete and rarely seen. Recently my family left a church event we were enjoying because a man no one had ever met came through the doors in need of money for a prescription. We all loaded up and followed him to the pharmacy and paid for his medications… only to drive past his car in the parking lot of a restaurant a few minutes later. Pastors are always doing. During the first few months of school my husband is so busy that our kids can go days without seeing him – despite the church only being 10 minutes away from our house. The number one fight among all of the married couples I know who are in ministry, by far, is fighting over how much the pastor is gone. Pastoring. It’s a never-ending job, shepherding the flock, and the sheep rarely realize that the pastor is not with them simply because he’s with someone else. Definitely not because he’s on the golf course.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors only hang out with an elite group. If you’re not one of the chosen few, your pastor doesn’t care about you.”

This has a smidgen of truth to it. Not that anyone is elite, not that pastors don’t care, but that pastors are a little hesitant. First, there’s the time issue – pastors have very little, if any, free time. Nights out with friends don’t happen. Going to the movies doesn’t happen. Guys’ camping trips don’t happen. There really isn’t much time to hang out with ANYONE, so they often fall back to the friends who have proven to be understanding of their schedules over time. There is also a fear of being a status symbol. A lot of people want proximity to a pastor, not a relationship with them. The same for their spouses and children. The number of people who have declared devotion to helping my husband, who have proclaimed a dedication to praying for him and being his “armor bearer”, outnumbers the actual number of people in our lives… by probably 20 to 1. It’s just a fact that not everyone stays in a church, and it’s a fact that people hold pastors to an often-impossible standard. Add in the fact that people are imperfect, and you have a lot of hurt pastors who are lonely and afraid to let new people into their private lives. The statistics on pastors struggling with depression and loneliness are staggering. The numbers on pastoral burnout are worse – the overwhelming majority of people who enter into full time ministry will walk away from it, for good. Pastors have their own struggles and are often unable to share them with friends for any number of reasons – fear of judgement, fear of their confidence being betrayed, fear of being used to boost someone’s social standing. No one in church is elite. There’s not a list of the members who give the most money, and tithing doesn’t buy an audience with anyone. It IS hard for pastors to find friends among the congregation, but usually because they’ve been hurt before, not because you’re not rich/cool/young/old/involved enough.

Common Criticism: “My pastor didn’t….”

I once met a woman who left her church because her pastor didn’t approach her son with whom she was feuding. The pastor had no idea the argument was ongoing, the son didn’t attend the church so the pastor didn’t know him, and the woman never asked him to intervene. While pastors do hear from God, they can’t read YOUR mind. If you need something from a pastor, let them know before you criticize them for not providing it. Pastors have jobs, families, commitments, all the things anyone else is juggling, IN ADDITION to being needed everywhere all the time. If your hope and expectations are always in your pastor, you will always leave disappointed. The goal of a pastor is to introduce you to Jesus, not himself. Jesus is way more available whenever you need Him, too.

Common Criticism: “Pastors make so much money.”

……………………………………..

Okay, okay, stop! I can’t catch my breath with these jokes you’re making! Whew, that was a knee-slapper if I’ve ever heard one!

Yes, some pastors make a crapload of money. Yes, some pastors live well. But most live very, very modestly. An enormous number of pastors are even bi-vocational – they work a paying job in addition to the low-paying or volunteer position of pastor. Most denominations do  not offer parsonages – I’ve only ever met one pastor who lived in one. Our housing is not free, our bills are not free. There have been many times where we’ve had to collect groceries from the church’s food ministry or food bank. We rarely get Christmas bonuses. My kids qualify for free lunch at school. All of our bills are due the same time as anyone else’s, we definitely pay taxes, we experience the same raise in the cost of living, yet many pastoral salaries have actually DECREASED over the years. Because of the nature of his work and the hours involved in always being on call, my husband cannot get a second job, and he does not earn overtime pay. I read a hilarious satirical article I’ll link here, and it will tell you everything you need to know about the attitude often held towards pastors and money. Without going into too much more detail, we really, truly, do not get paid a lot. Our salary is set by the board and does not fluctuate with attendance – though a downward trend in giving and membership will absolutely lead to a pay cut, simply because the money isn’t there to pay the staff. No one goes into ministry for the money.

Common Criticism: “Churches are all full of hypocrites.”

Yeah, actually. We’re all imperfect, flawed, sinning people. We’re all doing our best. We’re all at some point in our spiritual journey – none of us are done. We’re all going to do the wrong thing sometimes, we’re all going to offend someone, we’re all going to stumble, fall, mess up, and look like the worst Christians alive. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian. So if you enter a church, be prepared to meet some seriously imperfect people. Me, especially.

Common Criticism: “My pastor’s wife….”

I’ll stop you right there. Homegirl is holding down the fort. She cannot be Your Pastor 2.0. Pastors have families, illnesses, bills, homes, tragedies, struggles, yards, laundry… they’re normal people. Just as the pastor can’t always be at everything, neither can his wife. Just as he will disappoint you sometimes, so will his wife. Just as he can’t always hang out with you, neither can his wife. They’re a team, no doubt. What he does couldn’t be accomplished without the help and support she offers at home. So again, examine your offense before you declare yourself to be wronged and ask if you had the same schedule and circumstances as she did, would you have been able to do what you expected of her?

 

Common Criticism: “This blog is too long!”

I agree. I’ve gone on way longer than I intended to (you thought pastors were the only ones to never stop talking?!), so I’ll leave you with this: Pastors are people. They struggle. Churches are trying. They’re made up of imperfect people. They do not erect walls with the intention to deceive or exclude anyone. Money is personal for a lot of people so I understand the reservations that come with writing checks. But please, what ever your criticism, what ever your questions, just ask. Pastors don’t go into ministry for the money, they go into it because they love and care about people. They want to help you. But because they are people, they can only give you what they have, in the form of time, money, or abilities. Please, ask. And if you’re a member of a church somewhere, remember that Pastor Appreciation Month is all of October. Wink wink. Your pastors could really use the boost… and a volunteer. 😉

 

 

 

What It’s (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

What It's (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

 

I know, I know. You probably rolled your eyes at the title. I did, too, if we’re being honest. The term “gifted” is what does it. It has an elitist air to it, seems snooty, sounds like I’m bragging. But the truth is, most parents of children who have been identified as gifted, those having an IQ score above 130 or two standard deviations above the norm, they aren’t bragging, they’re BEGGING. Begging for help, for understanding, for answers, for a system that will recognize and meet their child’s needs. You see, giftedness does not look at all like you think it does. Some of you know my tale of tears, the years of counseling, testing, praying, dieting, oiling, reading, and sobbing, all to be told that what was “wrong” with my child was giftedness. The years spent searching for a diagnosis, knowing something was different about my boy, knowing he was miserable and hurting, wanting desperately to help and find an answer, but always falling just short of sensory processing disorder, of bipolar disorder, of oppositional defiant disorder, of autism spectrum disorders, of ADHD. Really, THOSE are the labels that came to mind before I had to be told that my child was gifted, and that the behaviors he was exhibiting were NORMAL. Those extremes are what I thought about my child, never a high IQ. I knew he was bright, don’t get me wrong, but bright and the actual classification of “gifted” are two very different things, and what I knew of giftedness was chess champions, piano prodigies, and tiny little adults. My emotional, sensitive, intense child who never slept and always worried couldn’t possibly be a – gasp – genius.

Except that he kind of is.

It’s been a year and a half since we “found out” about him, and every day I learn more about what it means for him to exist in a world that is built for people different from himself. Many days I find myself advocating, emailing, sticking up for him. I’ve been asked more than once what’s “wrong” with him. I’ve asked that myself on many occasions. Some days I have people roll their eyes. Lots of days people feel the need to question or disprove his label. One day I even had someone walk away while I was mid-sentence. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding gifted kids – their parents are pushing them, their parents are bragging, everything is easy for them, they’re perfect kids, they can handle it. One of the most hurtful ones I’ve encountered is the apparent belief that there is some finite amount of intelligence in the world, some IQ pool that kids draw from, and my child having withdrawn more than the others somehow left less for their son or daughter. Those are the people who see him as a threat, who resent him for skipping a grade, who feel slighted that he earned a place on a math team that their child did not. Those are the adults who approach him with the sole intention of proving him wrong, tripping him up, who have made up their minds to blame him for something he cannot help and something he didn’t do. Who make no attempt to understand what it’s really like for him, how scary and overwhelming it is to have a brain that doesn’t turn off, to be able to take everything in but have no idea what to do with it.

People who think giftedness looks like this:

But have no idea it also comes with this:

 

People who assume the school sends us this:

But don’t realize they also send us here:

That’s what it’s really like, giftedness. To exist in a world that doesn’t understand you, that even resents you. To watch athletes be praised for their form of giftedness but to have yours dismissed. A world where a gold medal is earned but a grade skip is bragging. Sure, it can be high grades, athletic achievements, musical gifts and artistic abilities. But it’s also asynchronous development, where “cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the norm”, to have the brain of an adult, the body of a child, and the emotional stability of a toddler. It’s overexcitabilities, where the brain’s intensity creates disorder-like reactions to stimuli, creates more intense emotions than the norm, more intense physical needs than the norm, more intense everything than the norm. Giftedness is everything inside you going at 1,000,000% and not knowing how to cope, because no one else around you is having the same problem, no one else is bothered, bored. It’s having trouble finding friends because you read so many levels above your classmates but socially are so many levels beneath them, not being able to have peers because they don’t want to talk about politics in the second grade and don’t understand why you hide in your locker when things get to be too much.

It’s sometimes making great grades, but it’s also sometimes struggling with being twice-exceptional – having both a gifted IQ and a learning or emotional disorder. Yeah, that’s a real thing. It turns out there’s a lot about gifted kids that most people don’t know. I share these things not to brag, not to garner sympathy, but to educate, to help. Ever since I first shared our journey to discovering our son’s giftedness, I have received almost a message a week from a friend, or from the friend of a friend, seeking answers, wondering if their child might also be gifted, looking for support once they discover that they are. So I’ll keep sharing, keep talking about it, for the parents who feel overwhelmed and alone, for the parents desperately looking for an answer to their child’s behavior that doesn’t seem “fixable”. I’ll endure the eyerolls and the sighs, the people who think I’m bragging, and I’ll continue to share about how we endure tears on a daily basis, emotions and thoughts that are too big for a little guy to handle, how we are caught in a never-ending race to meet his intellectual needs. I’ll tell about the testing, the never-ending testing, the 504 meetings and the IEP requests, the phone calls from school, the guilt and doubt I face when it comes to school at all. I’ll share about the anxiety, the overwhelming fear I have when he’s walking the halls of school or running on a soccer field, not knowing what will trigger HIS anxiety, what will reduce him to a crying toddler or ignite him to become a raging monster. I’ll tell you about how he doesn’t have birthday parties because they’re too much for him to handle, and he doesn’t really have friends to invite to them, anyway. I’ll write about how embarrassing it is to walk into a school office, knowing how a lot of the adults in there feel about your child, how humbling and remorseful it is to message another parent about what my own has done. I’ll tell of the expensive specialized psychologist we can’t afford and the hour it takes to get to her. I’ll share about how futile it feels to try and find a place for your square peg child in a world of round holes.

I’ll also tell you about how hilarious he is, how he makes jokes far beyond his 7 years and has mastered sarcasm on an expert level. I’ll tell you about how intensely sweet he is, how he snuggles me still and says he never wants to grow up and leave me, how his love literally makes me ache. I’ll write about how thoughtful he is, how he makes crafts and cards for people he loves, includes money, Starburst, or anything else he thinks the person may enjoy. I’ll definitely tell about how creative he is, how his brain works in a way that never ceases to amaze me, how he’s able to see things from a new perspective, from a place you didn’t even know existed, how he’s able to create entire worlds and mythologies with just 10 minutes and his toes. I’ll roll my eyes as I tell you about his love for Star Wars, how he has learned every single fact you never even knew was out there.  I’ll shout from the rooftops about the advocates he has on the inside, the teachers who have helped him AND me, who get him, love him, encourage him, support him, and want the best for him. I’ll marvel publicly at how naturally he picks up math concepts, how he reads novels in a day, his herding-like abilities on the soccer field, how he can identify insects and read Roman numerals and tell you about cultural customs all the world over. I’ll share wistfully about his infectious smile, his giant blue eyes that sparkle with mischief, and his sweet little feet that still have some of the toddler chubbiness left on them. I’ll declare firmly and confidently that I know he has a purpose in this world, and I believe it to be huge.

I love my boy. My gifted boy. My intense, emotional, overwhelmed, creative, hilarious, loving boy. He is not what people think he is. Giftedness is not what people think it is. It is a wonderful, exhausting, never-dull and never-easy experience. And for the last time, it’s not bragging.

D.I…. Why?!

I consider myself a crafty-ish person. I love to create and customize and transform. Plain black phone case? Blasphemy! A simple vase? It cannot be! My happy places are thrift stores and Hobby Lobby, my drugs of choice are glue guns and spray paint. One of my biggest character flaws is admiring something, turning over the price tag and scoffing, “Psh, I could make that myself.” I’m no Pinterest-level crafter, but I’m easily excited and often obsessive, so the thrill of a project gets me hooked, leaves me needing to scratch the itch. However, another character flaw of mine is overestimating my abilities, underestimating the cost, and just not even trying to estimate the time it would take to complete a project. My modus operandi often looks like this:

Step 1: Like something. Anything. It could be a wreath at Hobby Lobby, a craft from Pinterest, or a completely original idea. Either way, the seed is planted.

Step 2: Lie awake at night and allow all thoughts to be consumed by step 1. Food has no taste, birds have no song. There is only the empty hole inside me (or the blank wall in my house) which may only be filled by the completion of the project.

Step 3: Drop major hints to my understanding, patient, and forgiving husband. These hints include, but are not limited to: texts, Facebook messages, re-directing every conversation back to the potential project, and lying in the floor moaning.

Step 4: Curse the man who shot down the 24-hour craft store idea at 4am while simultaneously fantasizing about how much more improved my life would be if I could just jump into the project.

Step 5: Obtain the all-clear and run to Hobby Lobby. It’s go time.

Step 6: Spend 8 times the cost of the premade item that inspired the project on supplies alone.

Step 7: Come home and set down the Hobby Lobby bags.

Step 8: Forget about the project.

Step 9: Move the Hobby Lobby bags full of project supplies to the closet, stacking them on top of the other piles of Hobby Lobby bags full of project supplies. Note that 75% of the project supplies in these newest bags could have been found in the mound beneath, the Craft Idea Graveyard.

Step 10: Start all over at Step 1.

Okay, I don’t ALWAYS fall through. I really have completed several projects. Those have gone like this:

Step 1: Jump in with no measurements, plan of attack, or time estimate.

Step 2: Hope for the best.

Most of my ideas are really just creative holes to throw money into. But this knowledge – and the mountain of unused craft supplies – does nothing to deter me when an idea takes hold. I need a seasonal centerpiece and I need it NOW. So when I found a $5 side table and repainted it a few months ago, my husband was shocked impressed and I was hooked. The high was too great and too short. I needed MORE. I looked around my home for an opportunity to take on an entirely too-big project that exceeded my experience and abilities, and my eyes settled on the dining set.

It was more than 10 years old, and had served us well. It was small and round, had a glass top that was easy to clean and hard to stain or scratch, and 4 chairs (which had, of course, been spray-painted by me many years ago). However, we are now a family of 5, with the youngest just about out of her high chair, and there was no room for a 5th chair at our tiny, trusty table.

I began the hunt.

Many, many late nights on Craigslist and countless unanswered emails later, I found a steal of a deal on the perfect table… but it came with 4 chairs. Me being me, I set back out, and months later found 6 chairs… as part of a set. We now had 3 dining sets in our home. THREE. 14 chairs.  I combined the table from the first “new” set and the chairs from the second… but there was a big problem. The chairs looked like they came from a church office circa 1992.

DSC_0270

This was it. My moment. My chance to tackle a big project with big results, to scratch the itch, to create and transform and emerge from a project covered in paint and glory. The chairs were incredibly detailed, but those features were lost in the darkness of the wood, so I decided to paint them. This is where you find out how basic I am: I painted them white. Well, technically, I primed them white. Twice. THEN painted them white. THREE times. I also ran out of primer. Twice. And ran out of paint. TWICE. Always one to overestimate my abilities and underestimate supplies, it took me and my 8-year-old three days to do this. Not only did I not buy enough primer and paint, I didn’t buy enough masks. Meaning, I bought zero masks. After watching his first few sprays, I sent the kid inside for the sake of his lungs and brain cells.

chair2

Fun fact: bird poop is also white. So while priming and painting outside, I occasionally discovered surprise lumps that had to be dealth with.

At this point, I was over it. I’d already invested about 4 hours JUST in DUSTING the chairs, cleaning them up, killing the spiders who had made a lair under the seats during their time in storage.

I was determined to do this project the RIGHT way. With the money we’d invested (even though I’d found killer deals) and the amount of use these chairs would get, I really wanted to put forth the effort and know I did my best. But dear GOD. 4 hours for cleaning? Shouldn’t the entire project have been finished in 4 hours?!

After dusting and cleaning and priming and painting and coughing and sweating and fearing that the neighbors could see me bending over in incredibly unflattering shorts at even more incredibly unflattering angles, they were dry. Finally, the time had come for glaze. This was the part I was most excited about. This was the moment when angels would sing and all those details in the chairs would come forth, like a hero emerging from battle, worn and glorious. Yeah, all those details. All. Those. Details. The thing about glazing that nobody tells you is how futile it feels. There’s the first “Oh, crap, what have I done?!” moment when you paint the suuuuper dark glaze over what you’ve just spent a month painting.

chair3Then, once you’ve got an area good and covered…. you wipe it off. Yeah. After obsessing over every nook and cranny and carving, making sure every little detail is covered, you just wipe it off. Like it was no big deal, like you didn’t just pour your heart and soul into even strokes and hard-to-reach corners. You wipe it off and what’s left behind is meant to look accidental. And remember all those details? They all had to be glazed. They all had to be wiped. They all had nooks and crannies and carvings. Yet I pushed on. I tossed some crackers and fruit snacks to the kids and took about 6 more hours than I’d anticipated. Because it will always cost more and take longer than I think. Like pregnancy or road trips.

Being obsessive, I glazed the heck outta those chairs. If I’d spent this much money and this much time, they were going to look like it. (In hindsight, this isn’t the best statement, since I bought all of them second-hand.) I took the time to make sure the undersides of the chairs were evenly glazed, because what if the Queen came to visit and happened to select THAT chair to sit upon, and while her guards were patting it down they discovered the white, unglazed spots and confirmed the Queen’s suspicions that we are but peasants, confirmed her suspicions about America as a whole being lazy and unskilled, and the British tried to take us back? WHAT IF?! Onward I glazed, into the wee hours, because when you’re obsessive it’s near impossible to leave a project and come back to it later. 6 chairs, all highly detailed, all seeming to grow more than the standard 4 legs. Glaze and wipe, glaze and wipe. My body was sore, my stomach was empty, my bladder was full. Finally, at 5AM, they were done. I could rest!

Well, not exactly. They still had those movie theater seat cushions. I’m not a huge lover of color, and you already know I’m basic, so I chose a solid green. Honestly it’s a big deal that I didn’t pick beige or brown, like everything else in my house. Having spent more than I intended – financially and physically – there were a few weeks in between the completion of the glazing and the purchasing of the fabric. Really it’s a miracle I didn’t move on to another project and resign us to a life of those awful red velvet seat cushions. Not wanting to lose another minute, I jumped into re-upholstering the cushions last night. Now is a good point to share that I’ve never re-upholstered anything in my life. I can barely zip my jeans, I had no business handling this much fabric. When the adorably sweet woman at the fabric store asked me how much I wanted cut, I shrugged. Classic Jen, I hadn’t measured the cushions before purchasing fabric to cover them. At least I knew there were 6. Fortunately, when I got home and checked, there was enough fabric. I didn’t measure then, either. Just laid the cushions out and cut around, all willy-nilly. By now I was not concerned with what the Queen thought of my chairs. If she sat on a staple, then ‘Merica.

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Finally, at 3:30 this morning, I finished. The last staple on the last bit of fabric on the last cushion for the last chair. Done. I did it! I completed a project, start to finish! It cost more, hurt more, and took longer than I planned, and after spending so much time so up close and personal with these chairs, I’m not sure I even like them anymore, but by golly my family is going to sit on these for years to come.

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Obligatory “I was crafty so here are some close ups” shots”:

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My takeaway: this stuff is hard. There are people who do this for a living (and don’t charge enough) who have a passion for it and the skills, knowledge, and experience to back it up. They are small business owners who will happily customize whatever you want in whatever way you want, and it will be done quicker, it will be done better. You can sit on the couch and watch TV enjoy time with your kids while someone else sweats and fusses over your pieces. But I didn’t learn a dang thing, because I found a fantastic little vintage vanity and my husband is gone this week, so I’ll be priming that tomorrow.

PCOS – To Hell and Back

Heads up – this post will contain some TMI-ish mention of lady parts. Dudes don’t really read blogs, anyway – at least not ones I write – but just to be on the safe side, you’ve been warned.

As many of you probably know, I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, PCOS for short. It is characterized by, among a few other things, polycystic ovaries. Every month, when our awesome bodies are gearing up to ovulate (release an egg for possible fertilization), several eggs, called follicles, are called up to the front lines. In a normal woman’s reproductive system, one follicle volunteers as tribute, and the others go back about their business. There, the “dominant follicle” (potential baby) grows and grows and then, when the time is right, releases an egg, resulting in ovulation. In a woman with PCOS, those homies who came up to the front never go back to where they came from, and end up hanging out all over the ovaries, some growing and growing. The “dominant follicle”, rather than releasing an egg, just hangs out, either growing or not making babies, making it very difficult for women with PCOS to conceive. Occasionally, maybe once a year, maybe a few times in a lifetime, these follicles will rupture, causing extreme amounts of pain. I’m sure you all either know someone who has experienced an ovarian cyst rupture or had one yourself. Almost every gal who has been so fortunate as to experience this has ended up in the emergency room for treatment. It hurts that bad. (Don’t worry if you’ve had it happen, ovarian cysts do NOT equal PCOS!)

Why the biology lesson, you ask? Because I need you to understand the situation I’ve been in. I had my first ovarian cyst rupture at the age of 11. After a night in the hospital and a very scary ultrasound, it was determined that the pain I was experiencing was a cyst the size of an orange bursting. An orange. That was the beginning of my PCOS journey.
I have now dealt with this awful disease for 18 years. That’s a literal lifetime. As I got older, it got worse. Every year. Then I had kids, and it got more worse. But wait, Jen. Didn’t you say that women with PCOS often struggle with infertility? Way to pay attention! You see, I have suffered, through the years, in agony, with extreme, atypical, and uncontrollable PCOS. A normal woman ovulates once a month. A woman with PCOS ovulates a handful of times a year, if that. I, for some unknown reason, was ovulating EVERY 8 DAYS. It used to be two weeks, then got worse. Then it was 10 days, but it got worse. And it finally leveled off that every 8 days, I was having a cyst rupture. Every 8 days, I was in agony for part of my day, in the type of pain that sends women to the emergency room. EVERY. EIGHT. DAYS. Because I was such a determined ovulater, a few follicles had the chance to break through, resulting in my gorgeous babies (whom I was told I would never be able to conceive without medical intervention). So while there’s THAT silver lining, every 8 days I was writhing in pain.
I saw, I think, 7 doctors last year, trying to find answers, help, RELIEF. Each time I’d leave disappointed or insulted. I’d go through testing with one doctor, just to be told I had PCOS and handed a prescription for birth control, the standard treatment. It didn’t help. I saw another doctor, went through the same invasive tests, just to be told I had PCOS and handed a prescription for birth control. Which didn’t help. I’d pick myself up off the floor, rally my spirits, and get the guts to try AGAIN. More invasive tests. More of the same results. More birth control. Every. Single. Time. Depressed doesn’t begin to describe me. Each time I had to explain, through tears, the awful symptoms. Each time I had to beg and plead for them to see my weight as a symptom, not a cause. Few listened. Some symptoms are too embarassing to tell the interwebz about, but you’re welcome to Google PCOS symptoms and imagine my life. Extreme fatigue, mental fog and confusion, acne, and the worst: incredible, soul-crushing weight gain. Once “my hormones came back”, we’ll call it, after I had my daughter, I gained 50 pounds in a single month. I could literally feel myself getting fatter and nothing could stop it. With being overweight comes a whole host of health problems, which God has thankfully spared me from. But it also comes with stares and assumptions and judgements and shame. I don’t look this way because I ate my way into Lane Bryant. I don’t look this way because I drink 2-liters of Pepsi a day, as one doctor suggested. I look this way because my flawed, human body is incapable of making the correct amount of hormones, and I was trying so very desperately to get someone to help me fix it. Doctor after doctor, disappointment after disappointment, suffering in silence and trying to explain why a hysterectomy wouldn’t fix it. The last doctor I saw I thought would surely be The One. She was very nice, more sympathetic than the others, and immediately got me scheduled for a morning of various surgical procedures. Friends, cannot express the depth of my absolute despair when I awoke from surgery to discover that nothing had been discovered, nothing had been removed, nothing would be different. I cried tears of absolute grief in the recovery room. I had incisions and no hope. The surgeon and my doctor hadn’t communicated well, it seemed, and only half of the procedures had been done. Only half of my uterus was explored. But the entirety of my heart was just shattered. Give me a moment to gather myself, I can’t see through the tears well enough to type.
It was hard. I kept trying and trying and trying, and no one was able to help. Rather than find out WHY my body was going rogue, they just handed me the cookie-cutter solution, no matter how many times I screamed that it wasn’t helping. I was in pain. Miserable. Fat. Something was wrong and there appeared to be no way to fix it, ever. Could I really live the rest of my life like this? I couldn’t let myself imagine another lifetime like the one I’d already experienced. So I just resigned myself, for the time being, to be a good little patient. I took my pills, I grew my cysts, I gained weight, and I lived in suffering. I prayed. Oh, how I prayed. Deep depression threatened to overwhelm me, creeping behind me like a shadow, ready to pounce. Like the pain, it was ever-present. Between the fatigue and my self-worth plummeting, I had no motivation. No joy. I knew God healed others, but for whatever reason, it did not appear to be His will for me. PCOS was, quite efficiently, ruining my life. I sought counsel in PCOS-specific forums, only to be shunned because I had been spared the pain of infertility. I was so alone, so sad, so ashamed, so hopeless. My birth control prescription ran out, and I had nothing left inside me to seek another one. Then it got a little worse.
You see, one of the symptoms of PCOS is elevated testosterone. Every woman produces a tiny amount of it, but some women with PCOS produce way too much. I, of course, am one of those lucky ladies. You can imagine the toll it takes on a woman’s womanhood to know that her ovaries are treating her like a man. Testosterone is believed to be the cause of the follicles that hang around and turn into cysts. It also causes acne, in grown stinkin’ women who have been out of high school for 11 years. (Just for future reference, asking someone about the rash on their face probably isn’t the best way to make them feel awesome.) It does other, more embarassing things, but it had one final blow to deal me: Hair loss. Male pattern baldness, to be exact. If you know me, you know of my hair. I’m not cocky, but I can admit that it is my crowning glory. It’s the one part of me that cannot get fatter, can’t get stretch marks. If I were ever to model, it would be for hair. I have lots of it, and I complain about the work, but the truth is that I couldn’t rid myself of the last-remaining quality I had to be proud of.
I started noticing TONS of hair coming out in my brushes, in the shower. I asked my hairdresser if she noticed a difference, but I have so much stinkin’ hair that she didn’t notice. But I did. I saw the handfuls coming out. I noticed when I started being able to wrap the elastic around a ponytail more times than ever before. Then I looked up and saw it: thinning hair, just like a dude. I was starting to look like Stabler on SVU, and feared I’d soon look like Cragen. I know, I know, there are worse things. I have a beautiful friend who has zero hairs. But to a photographer, who spends so much time surrounded by beauty, it cuts deep to not be proud of your appearance. As a woman, male-pattern baldness deals a heavy blow. I’d had enough. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t be fat, pimply, tired, dumb AND bald. So I took to Google, where I earned my Google University medical degree.
Deep in the pages of a hippie healing site, I found a glimmer of hope. Well, not really hope, because I was so devoid of it at that point, but more of an it-couldn’t-hurt glimmer. Saw Palmetto. An herb used by men to lower testosterone, usually when fighting prostate issues. It made sense – if excess testosterone is causing all these problems, take a medication that blocks or lowers testosterone. DER. So I took my hiney to our local hippie store and bought the small bottle, just to try, and asked my Facebook friends to pray for me. A little over a week later, I was sitting on the couch, marveling at my baby’s-bottom-smooth cheeks. Maybe not THAT smooth, but smoother than my face has felt in about 15 years. If it helped nothing else, it helped with breakouts, so I ordered a big bottle and kept taking it. I had been taking it about a month (too soon to notice any difference with my hair) when I commented to a friend that I hadn’t had a cyst rupture in weeks. Weeks! Like clockwork, because that’s just how my body rolls, I felt it. The stabbing, burning, rumbling that starts when a cyst is rupturing. Only this one didn’t stop. It hurt. BAD. As bad as my unmedicated c-section. It hurt from my knees to my lungs, felt like my trunk was melting, and the only way to know that I could still breathe was to scream. I don’t know who was more scared: myself, lying on the bathroom floor, writhing and jerking and vomiting from pain, trying not to black out, or my poor kids, confused and unable to help. My amazing husband rushed home and took care of me, and I survived. Obviously. It was the worst rupture I’d ever experienced, and the pain never fully went away, so two days later I went to the emergency room to make sure I hadn’t experienced ovarian torsion (Google it) or something worse. A sonogram and a CT scan later, I got the greatest news I’ve received in a long, long time. While the ultrasound showed fluid from a ruptured cyst the size of a cantaloupe (OUCH), it showed ONE cyst. ONE. One single, solitary follicle. But Jen, you still have a cyst there! Yes, you’re right. And it’s a fairly large one. But 7 months ago, my most recent sonogram before that, my two ovaries were hosting more than 75 cysts. You’re reading that right. My left ovary had 31 and she stopped counting at 46 on my right. This was WHILE on birth control, the standard treatment for PCOS. I teared up with joy, felt light with hope, and just about hugged the doctor. One cyst. Just one. Years and years of trying to find help, trying to find an answer, years and years of disappointment and depression and pain… and only one cyst. 18 years of having “devastated ovaries” (doctor’s words). Only one cyst. Am I still fat? Yep. Do I still have a lot to fix and figure out and tweak? Yep. But now I finally, FINALLY have something I hadn’t dared to attempt again: hope. I know that there is something that can help me. I know that my body WILL respond to SOMETHING.
Please note that I am not a medical professional and hold no formal training in any type of healing, other than prayer. I am not one to be a conspiracy theorist who accuses pharmaceutical companies of creating customers more than assisting patients. But why hadn’t this herb been mentioned before? Go ahead and Google “saw palmetto for PCOS”, you’ll find tons of information, testimonials, and recommendations. Why had no single doctor mentioned it to me? Why did they sit in their offices and stoicly watch me sob, plead, beg for help, then only offer me synthetic hormones that they knew would not make a difference? Each different prescription I tried came with pages of warnings, side effects, interactions, and more. Each pill I took caused an unfavorable reaction in one way or another, and none of them offered any respite. Pain and pills, that was my life. But this natural herb, to which no one holds a patent, has done more for me in a month than nearly two decades of labratory medicine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to modern medicine. Without it I wouldn’t know that I had too much testosterone, wouldn’t have Benadryl or sonograms or scientific proof that what I’m doing is working. But I am ever so grateful to God for giving us natural, working medicine. I am grateful to Him for wisdom, for access to healthcare. Did I mention that I only have ONE CYST?!
I’m sitting here, still in pain from the massive cyst that just exploded inside me recently, trying not to be vain about the fact that I’m fat enough for something the size of a cantaloupe to fit inside my stomach, but I have hope. Not just hope, but excitement. I am going to continue my current dosage and begin more natural options to heal the rest of me that needs fixing. With God and His intentionally-created nature, I believe that I can find relief, can find a life that I live happily, without chronic pain. I sit here hopeful, happy, in the process of healing. It’s said that the follicles on polycystic ovaries look like strands of pearls. But today, friends, these are the only pearls I have on.

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Planting Time

“It’s just a season.”
I hate this phrase. I hate it because it’s usually accompanying a really tough time, and the phrase, while meant to encourage the sufferer that their woes are temporary, often feels flippant, cliche, and dismissive of how horrible the trenches can be. Because in the middle of a season, it doesn’t feel like a season, it feels like forever.
But it’s true. Heck, it’s Biblical. “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, in case you’re wondering.) It’s scientific, too. Strawberries aren’t meant to grow in winter, snow isn’t meant to fall in summer. There are seasons for sowing, seasons for reaping. There are seasons for enjoying the spoils of a season spent working, and seasons for huddling and weathering the storms. Seasons where everything is in bloom and seasons where everything appears frozen and dead.
Seasons do not appeal to me, for the most part. I don’t like change. I like control, and I can’t persuade a season to stay, or to stay away. The beginning of every season is exciting, a new start, a change in perspective. Fall boots and Starbucks! Pedicures and ice cream trucks! CHRISTMAS!!! There’s always something to look forward to when a season changes. But then the allergies kick in, or isolation sets in. We’ve been cold and shut up inside with short, dark days or sweating for weeks during the never-ending summer days. Seasons always last just a little longer than we’d like them to. And with “seasonal” fruits and vegetables being grown and manipulated to be available year-round, indoor pools, and Peeps being sold during holidays other than Easter, the lines get blurred and we get bored. Quickly.
My season right now is one of planting. It’s a hard season. It requires lots and lots of work, time, attention, sacrifice, and sweat, with no indication of how the harvest will turn out, no taste of reward just yet. I have young children.
For a while I fought the season. We drug our children along with us and asked them to adapt to our schedules. We tried to plant during the wrong window. Since before we even began dating, I worked alongside my husband in ministry. If there was an event, I was there. If there was a girl in tears, I was ready. We stayed up late getting our calendars to look the same, dreaming up more ways to reach our students and spend time with them. I started wearing down, but there was no way I was going to admit I couldn’t do it all. I tried. Hard. I fought tired, hungry kids and schedules that were happy to eat me alive without a blink. I tried to be available to everyone, all the time. I scoured the internet for advice on being a ministry partner and a mother, I asked every pastor’s wife I knew, I cried, I begged, and I darn near collapsed every time I heard “It’s just a season.” I remember the disappointment, the near grief I felt when I thought I’d found a book that would give me the answers, only to discover upon reading it that nannies and babysitters were what made motherhood and ministry possible. I want to raise my children the way that God seems to think I can, the way He called me to. It was time to recognize that I couldn’t serve everyone else’s families while I served my own in such an important capacity. It was time to accept my season.
My calendar began to gradually look different from my husband’s. It’s still strange to me that there are new students who I don’t know, events that I don’t attend, sermon series that I don’t hear. Every now and then, someone will make a comment about my not being there, and it hurts, but I know I’ve made the right decision. I simply can’t do it all. And if I miss this season of planting with my children, I will not see the harvest in the next. God has called me to ministry, I just had no idea that ministry would be at home, and that three children could take up more energy than 100.
The best part about seasons, despite the fact that I can’t control them, rush them, or pick and choose what can be accomplished in them, is that they’re not permanent. We don’t live in the south pole. With babysitters not being an option, I can’t go to the movies right now. I can’t attend 99% of the things I’d like to. I can’t be by my husband’s side in ministry (although I’m learning that behind him in ministry is just as important). I have to turn down invitations and opportunities, friends and family. If a kid is sick, I stay up and stay home. It can often feel like a winter season, where nothing much changes, where I live in near isolation. But I am planting, planting, planting. Working the soil (complete with fertilizer, since one is still in diapers!). Learning how much water each one needs, giving each one the right amount of sun, nurturing growth, taking setbacks personally. I am a child gardener, throwing myself into the task of growing healthy, prosperous people. No matter how long this season lasts, it absolutely will not be forever, and will likely be over before I feel like I’ve had the chance to do my best.
Ministry or not, mother or not, we’re all in seasons. And we’re all in different seasons at different times. It can get really depressing really quickly to compare my sowing season to another’s reaping time. It can get really discouraging to try and live in a season other than my present one. Some days feel like they’ll never end, some days I even resent this season. But it won’t last. None of this life is permanent. Seasons come and go, seeds are planted and seeds grow. Harvest, winter, planting, growing… it’s all one big, ever-changing cycle that will continue whether we want it to or not. The sooner we (I) embrace our (my) season, the more effective we (I) can be in it. In the winter, we can rest and know that the sun is coming. In the harvest we can see the benefits of our hard work and understand how everything we did was so important. Dear friend, whether you are a parent, a single person, struggling or thriving, take heart and know this time will not last. There are plenty of other seasons ahead for you, and the change in season is not BECAUSE of you. The seasons change without regard for our feelings, but how often we allow the seasons to rule them. Embrace your season. Accept that it is only a season. Get the most out of your season. Know that each one prepares you for the next. Anticipate change even in the most monotonous of times. And if you don’t see me, it’s not because I didn’t want to be there. I just have a crop I’m tending to at home.

Reasonable Expectation of Dignity

I don’t want to share this.

My hands are shaking. My heartbeat is visible through the skin over my collarbone. I’m so nervous and humiliated that I feel lightheaded. I do not want to share this.

But I have to. For a week I’ve been fighting this, and for a week I’ve tossed and turned and been awakened by my brain that seems to want to write this on its own. So while I don’t want to share this, I need to.

I love fashion. I hang out in sweatpants and Backstreet Boys t-shirts and revel in the no-makeup days, but I love fashion. I also love to laugh. It seemed a given that I would enjoy a marriage of the two, Fashion Police on E!. I DVR’ed the heck out of it, I wanted Joan Rivers’ job (and wardrobe!), I laughed, I looked forward to it. Until a few months ago when I read an interview with a random celebrity that I can’t even remember, but their words stuck with me. She said that she did not watch Fashion Police, because it was hurtful. The women they tore apart on that show left their house feeling beautiful, and those “judges” thought it was their place to say otherwise. Boom. I haven’t watched since.

Many of you know that I struggle with my weight. Yes, I say “struggle”. I’m still battling the irrational anxiety that has popped up in the last year. I went from fat and happy to fat and terrified. Terrified of what people thought, terrified of what people saw. Leaving the house means winning an internal battle some days. As much as I love to encourage others, I cannot seem to rally myself to hold my head up as often. Yes, my husband loves me and tells me how beautiful he thinks I am. Yes, I am HEALTHY. No, I never share this struggle with my children. Because this weight is beyond my control, I feel like I am grasping at nothing, drowning, falling down a well. I want to wear a sign that says “Yes, I know I’m overweight, but NO, I did not do this to myself.” I feel like I need to explain myself to the perceived disgusted public. It’s a truly overwhelming feeling to not have control over your body. Enter the hot tears. I can take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But the outside? The part that people see? All I can do is shave my legs, do my hair, and put on some makeup. Well, it’s winter, so the legs can wait. I have literally had panic attacks in the middle of stores because I was so ashamed of how I looked and what I thought people were thinking. Again, I know it’s irrational. But again, grasping at nothing.

Last week, my worst fear happened: I caught someone taking a cell phone picture of me. This is where my hands shake and my heart races again. This person was trying to go unnoticed, pretending to check emails or Facebook, until the flash accidentally went off. I was sitting alone, just a bare wall next to me. When I climbed far enough out of my shame cloud to tell my best friends and husband what had happened, they all tried their obligatory encouraging alternatives: “Maybe it was your beautiful hair! Maybe they liked something you were wearing! Maybe this, maybe that…” Nope. Momma was having a ROUGH day that day. Ponytail, my black flats with the holes in them, glasses. Also, we had been chatting, so a compliment could have been offered up at any time. I also know that this person is a member of a very trendy gym, one that prides itself so much on fitness that the various branches host competitions for members to prove themselves. I’m not calling this gym out, I’m just saying that given this person’s trained way of thinking with regard to fitness, and my appearance that day, it is not hard to conclude why that person took a sneaky picture of me.

I’m fat.

As a fat person, I’m allowed to say that. It’s not the worst thing someone can be, so I’m okay with saying it. It’s just a descriptor, it’s not my identity. But when that’s all someone bothers to notice about you, especially as a woman, it hurts. You can’t tell by the picture that person took that I love my family and friends, that I’m a beast with a glue gun, that I can quote every episode of Friends, that I’m freaking funny and flippin’ awesome. That picture doesn’t show my dedication, my creativity, my desire to help other people. It doesn’t show the rivers of tears I’ve cried over pants that stop fitting, the number of doctors I’ve met with to find a cure, or at least a STOP. It doesn’t show the fear I have when I approach a folding chair, an amusement park ride, or when I pass someone leaving a restaurant. It doesn’t show the internal battle being waged by my hormones, how my body is turning against me, how I have no control and no end in sight to this horrible, horrible disease. But you know what it does show, that image of my outsides? It shows the insides of the person who took it.   

As a photographer, I can assure you that this person was within their legal rights to take my picture. Once you attend a public event, you lose what is called a reasonable expectation of privacy. As a human, I want to shout that they had NO right. I am a mother, a wife, a friend… not a punchline. I may not meet that person’s standards of beauty, but then again, I’m not trying to. I can call that person rude, judgemental, callous, a butthead… I can say whatever I want, but it doesn’t take away the shame. Again, I wanted to scream, “I didn’t do this to myself!” I don’t owe that person an explanation, but I was so humiliated that I felt the need to justify my measurements. Instead, I just hung my head. My worst fear, that a stranger was internally laughing at my appearance, had just played out in front of me. Me, the strong-willed, opinionated, loud, energetic force of nature, had been reduced to a lump of indignity. My friends and husband also gave me the obligatory accolades, but the facts that I’m caring, sweet, thoughtful, funny, or made of concentrated awesomesauce don’t show up in sneaky, malicious cell phone pictures. It hurt. Bad. It still hurts. Writing this has helped some, given me a sense of control over how I will react to it. Like I said, it says as much about the person who took that photo as it does about the way I look. But beyond a personal victory, I needed to share this so to offer my perspective, the person on the other side, the person who is likely in someone’s newsfeed with a crude caption.

Please consider this side the next time you do the same. People of Walmart can be hilarious and mind-boggling, and you KNOW there are people who dress that way intentionally in the hopes of a POW appearance (or the $50 gift card), but what about the innocent ones? The people who don’t have any fashion sense, the people who say “Screw it, it’s Walmart and I need toilet paper!”, the people who don’t have the money for nice clothes, or even a home to hang them in? What about the people who don’t have the mental capacity to arrange a Milan-worthy look, the people you see wearing holey clothes, too-tight clothes, too-short clothes, too-dirty clothes, too-ugly clothes, too-old clothes… what if those are all the clothes they have? Can you imagine how they would feel to see their photo on a website devoted to judging peoples’ appearance, to read the comments of strangers about how they look, when no one knows their circumstances? I myself am guilty of taking a sneaky photo of a cashier who was dressed exactly like Blanche from Golden Girls. But now I ask myself, “Why?” Why did I need the picture? Why was it my place to secretly tease this woman? And what pain and embarrassment might she have felt, what insecurities might I have unearthed if she’d noticed? When did our desire to judge and tease become greater than someone else’s right to dignity? If I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), if I was knit together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), if I am God’s MASTERPIECE (Ephesians 2:10), then so are you, so is Blanche, so are we all. Taking pictures and laughing isn’t going to change that person’s life for the better. And it certainly won’t make you a better person. So please, stop.