Adventures in Our Odyssey: Why We Drove to South Dakota

We drove for two and a half days, pressing on hard for our destination, with few stops along the way. So many miles–over 4,000 in all–with so much to do and so little time. We were a family on a mission, journeying from Georgia to South Dakota, trying to satisfy all our pent-up wanderlust in the proper, allotted vacation time like respectable folk. Sometimes I wish we were not nearly so respectable.

Crossing the Mississippi River

Our Honda Odyssey, aptly named, was jam-packed with enough clothes, snacks, books, CDs, camping gear, and supplies to carry our family of five through our 10-day adventure. An adventure that included camping in the Black Hills, hiking in the Badlands and around Devil’s Tower, traversing the Great Plains, and searching for diamonds in Arkansas. We did bring some entertaining electronics, but the kids were limited in their usage because–hello!–my husband and I wanted them to see and experience the trip. We did not embark on this journey so our kids could achieve new levels of video game expertise; we wanted them to experience this amazing world in a way that only a road trip can provide.

Buffalo Herd (yes, I know technically they’re bison, but I like the word “buffalo” better)

The open road has long called out to me, and my parents encouraged it with annual winter drives from New Jersey to Florida when I was a child. I loved the changing scenery, the quirky billboards (South of the Border in the ’70s, anyone?), the changing state signs to mark our progress (Welcome to North Carolina!), the truckers chattering on the CB radio. I loved the going and all that it entailed. The sheer joy of going somewhere away and different. I still love it, and I want to pass that on to my kids.

The road trip has its limitations, of course–like how far you can go on a 10-day vacation. But it also has benefits that flying to your destination just can’t deliver. The road trip provides continuity for your travels. You know where you start and where you’re going, and you get to see how everything changes in between. When we crossed two time zones between here and South Dakota, we changed our minivan’s clock each time. We knew when and where it happened; we didn’t just plop down in the midst of two hours’ difference.

A driving adventure allows you to really experience this great country of ours, both in the details and in the distance. If we had simply flown to South Dakota, we would have missed the winding roads and small towns, ButterBurgers at Culver’s in Iowa, the far-reaching corn fields, and very cute, little 13-stripe squirrels at a rest area in South Dakota. We might also have missed out on the realization of the great distance we had come.

His first ButterBurger

13-Stripe Ground Squirrel

 

The driving allows the places, the land, the experience to seep into your heart and soul. They become yours in a way that I believe flying cannot offer. We stopped to touch the waving prairie grasses, and admired the neat stacks of hay bales. The hot prairie winds pushed against us unrelenting while we marveled at the immense sky. We drove through towns that had been crossed by the Trail of Tears and the Oregon Trail, and learned a little about those who came before us.

Our kids were mostly awesome on our trip. Though I’m sure they had times of boredom, they hardly complained at all, so maybe they didn’t mind the driving too much. Maybe the driving was good for them. Maybe they will continue to grow in a love of driving and traveling and experiencing this great big world of ours.

The open road is calling…

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Which buys more – $3 or $30?

What is the true value of a dollar? When we spend our hard-earned money, what are we really buying? We usually like to think we know what we’re getting.

A chance encounter has made me think more specifically about what we get for our money. On the surface we’re buying ground turkey to make tacos, a new shirt to wear, or the latest book from our favorite author. But behind every purchase lies a deeper story, a bigger meaning. Recently some ground turkey got me a hug and a big thank-you from my son for fixing his favorite dinner. Well worth the price!

I look at the scattering of no-longer-played-with toys in our house, and it makes me hesitate to buy more toys. I’ve seen the scenario played out many times over the years: give kids a cool, new toy; kids play happily with new toy; new toy is set aside and forgotten.

Of course, some toys last longer than others, and some draw the kids back in time and time again. But others are sadly far too short-lived. It’s entirely possible to spend $30 on a toy that for some reason never gets played with. Instead of getting happy, engaged kids, we get some plastic to clutter the floor and we’re out $30. Probably not a good return on investment.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to spend a mere $3, and change a person’s outlook on life, at least for a while. When I gave a homeless couple $3 for a pair of city bus passes so they could get to services downtown, their eyes lit up and they cried tears of thankfulness. Sometimes a mere $3 can get hope, encouragement, real help.

I wouldn’t stop giving gifts to my children, of course. But there can be an inverse relationship between the amount of things someone has and how much they appreciate what they are given. It might be good, even healthy, to give our kids less, which would perhaps increase their appreciation for what they do have.

It might also be good, even healthy, to give more freely to those in need who cross our paths. The truly needy are typically full of appreciation, and even a little help from us can impact their lives in a big way.

Some people say they won’t give if they don’t know for sure how the money will be spent. But I dare to think it might not matter so much whether we can accurately judge how well the money will be used. We give for the needy person’s sake as well as for our own. When we help others, it blesses them and us. There is a balance between taking a reasonable chance on someone and being foolish, of course. But if we use our best judgment and act in faith, we can let God handle the outcome on the other side.

So, what do we get for our money? What are we truly buying? If we have $30 or $3, we still have a choice. Sometimes we buy passing pleasures or things we need. Sometimes we find we have bought hope, encouragement, or tears of joy.

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When It’s More than Just an Oyster Roast

The sun sinks low beyond the marshes as we gather under the canopy of trees in the cooling night air. Family and friends, old and new, swap stories, speculations, and pleasantries. And the fire crackles in anticipation of the oysters.

Men place the square metal table over the fire. Once the table is good and hot, oysters are tumbled on, ready to be covered in wet burlap. Ready to steam.

Not a fan of oysters myself, I’m here for the company, as well as the other food–Lowcountry boil; grits casserole with collards, broccoli, bacon, and secret ingredients; twice-baked potatoes; and more.

Our hosts are gracious and welcoming, happy to share the beautiful winter evening under the oaks with the whole lot of us. Adults mingle around the fire. Kids flock together, playing games. More than a handful of dogs patrol the area on the lookout for wayward food or just a good belly-rub.

Before long the first batch of oysters is ready, and an eager throng huddles around a long table, oyster knives in hand. A woman from Atlanta tries oysters for the first time, and declares they are worth moving to this area. I muster my courage to try one, and I don’t mind it, but I’m content to leave the rest for the more enthusiastic eaters among us. My husband can eat my share. Besides, he has a little help from our 10-year-old son who realizes he likes oysters alright, but he really likes opening them for his dad.

Spanish moss drapes down from the branches as laughter rises up with the smoke to the wide Southern sky. Like a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of life. Somewhere through those branches above, the nearly full moon oversees the winding rivers and marshlands, impartial as a judge or a jewel set in the crown of this night.

My daughter and I sit a while at a picnic table, as my younger son fills up on crackers, cookies, and cake. My girl and I are eating Lowcountry boil when she announces we should do this more often. This oyster roast gathering of friends and family and food has made a good impression on her, and she’d like some more. And I think of how this is hers, in a sense, as it is ours.

This whole January-oyster-roast-with-friends-around-the-fire is part of the beauty and magic of the coastal South, an inheritance of tradition that mingles with the land. This land that clutches its treasures of history from Native Americans to Revolutionary War, through the Civil War to modern times, all cloaked in pine needles, acorns, and this sandy soil, and wrapped up in the distinctive scent of the salt marsh.

This is our inheritance, for those of us who call it home. Even for me, an adopted daughter of the South, raised here since the age of 12, the age of my daughter now. Here the hospitality is served with sweet tea, shrimp or blue crabs from the local river, oysters steamed outside on a chilly winter night, and good home cooking. Here we greet strangers, and hold the door open.

Though the heavy heat of summer drags on forever, and the sand gnats attack when the weather turns fine, still there is something special. The easiness in the sway of the Spanish moss in the breeze carries over into our easy manners, generous attitude, and good-natured stories. And our run-ins with alligators and snakes and flying palmetto bugs the size of your palm make for some great stories.

The evening draws to a close, and most of the crowd is gone by the time our family says our goodbyes. We load up in the minivan, and make our way down the dark dirt road sheltered by stretching live oaks. It’s time to head back to the paved roads and our usual daily routine. But we carry a little piece of the magic with us. It’s always there, just below the surface, a part of this unfolding story of our land, our region, ourselves.

Back at home, when the breeze blows just right, the scent of the salt marsh drifts down our street, reminding me of this privilege, of this inheritance, of this story we become.

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Rethinking the Santa Lie

img_4030Santa is real. Or at least if you go back far enough in history there was a real man on whom the Santa story is based. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in Turkey, a staunch defender of the divinity of Jesus, and writer of the Nicene Creed recited by churches to this day–who enjoyed giving gifts to children. But add enough years and the marketing scheme of Coca Cola Corporation, and the man of faith is transformed into Santa Claus–jolly, magical giver of gifts to children everywhere. Weatherfolk across our nation seem to delight in “tracking” Santa each Christmas Eve, thus lending a certain credibility for innocent, trusting children.

But why do otherwise reasonable adults feel compelled to perpetuate the Santa lie?

For some, I’m sure they just never gave the issue much thought. They were raised believing in Santa (as I was), and they figure that’s the thing to do for their kids. Parenting comes with so many issues and decisions. Why think about Santa when you can go along with everyone else? It may be easy to not think about it.

Maybe some people would say they don’t want to deny their kids the magic and wonder of Christmas that Santa embodies.  Everyone loves to see that sparkle of wonder in a child’s eyes. After all, Santa has flying reindeer, elves who make toys, and a love for cookies and milk. What’s not to love?

But what about that other Christmas story?

The one with angels appearing to people. The one with ancient prophecies fulfilled. The one where the infinite God of glory becomes a little baby in a third-world nation. The one where Love comes down, bringing hope and peace to this tattered world. The one where we’re all on the Naughty list, but we get the best gift anyway.

Is there no wonder there? Nothing worthy of sparkling eyes and anticipation?

Maybe some tell the Santa story not because the Jesus story lacks in wonder and amazement, but because we have lost some of the wonder and amazement of it. Or we think it’s not enough. And Santa’s an easier sell anyway as he plays into our consumerist society. Maybe we sell our kids short.

But, if you’re going with the Santa Christmas story, here are some things to consider. How many lies are you comfortable with telling in order to prop up the Santa lie? And is the lie worth it as you try to teach your kids to tell the truth? How do you explain Santa’s apparent prejudice against poorer people–and how jolly is that?

I don’t have a problem with the story of Santa Claus; it’s a nice piece of fiction. But when the fiction is told as truth, and people go to great lengths to maintain the lie, something’s not right.

If you need help finding the wonder of the other Christmas story, go outside on a starry night and marvel at the stars. Realize how puny we are. Then think about the God who is greater than the universe entering in to our world, miniaturizing himself into an infant, going to such incredible lengths out of His amazing love for us. He came on a rescue mission that Bethlehem night. He came to give us life in the midst of our dying. (Not exactly a new tv, but still.)

Wonder. And be amazed.

 

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Giving Thanks No Matter What

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The Thanksgiving holiday calls us to think about what we are thankful for in the midst of turkey and the impending Christmas busyness. So what are you thankful for? What if you had no turkey for your table? Or no table at all? No sure, safe place to lay your head each night? Could you still give thanks? Would you?

This world is broken, fallen. There are so many reasons to be frustrated, angry, heartbroken, desperate. In spite of them all, or because of them, I will give thanks.

I will give thanks for the simple things. The crunching of leaves under foot. The smile of a stranger. The warm sun on my back. The giggles of children.

I will give thanks for the daily things. Food to eat. A home for shelter. Clothes and books and cars. Good health.

I will give thanks for the furry things. The fickle, independent cats. The adoring, wiggly pooches.

I will give thanks for the social things. My loving, quirky family. Good, solid friends. Friendly, helpful neighbors. Kind strangers.

I will give thanks for the higher things. The faith that stirs my heart with the hope of a better place. The grace that forgives the very worst in me–in us. The love unshakeable of the Most High God.

Though all the other things fall away, the sure foundation of the love of God remains. Everything else is icing on the cake. That alone is the greatest reason to give thanks this Thanksgiving and every day. No matter what people say or do or fail to do, His love and faithfulness are everlasting.

So whether we are passing the turkey like so many others on this national holiday or wrestling with issues we’d rather not name, let us give thanks. On Thanksgiving and always.

 

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Of Hurricanes and Elections and All that Remains

In the days after the hurricane the sound of chainsaws filled the neighborhoods. And as the chainsaws droned on, the piles and piles of branches, trees, and debris grew, lining the streets as we worked to recover our Normal.

The fierce winds and drenching rains of Hurricane Matthew had tested everything in their path, shaking free the loose, the weak, the broken. From small branches to old, mighty oaks to shingles and boats, the shaken things were everywhere. The cleanup and repairs can be overwhelming, and will continue for months to come.

But there is some solace in knowing the strength and solidity of the things that remain. There is a certain confidence in the trees that weathered the storm and still stand. They are survivors with strong, deep roots and healthy trunks and branches, and some good fortune of circumstance. They are reminders that not everything succumbs to the storm. That we can suffer some wrath and come out triumphant on the other side.

The storm will shake a lot of things, but sometimes after the shaking, we have a clearer understanding of the essentials. We give thanks for life, for family, for beauty, for the strong things that remain, for our community, for the beautiful blue skies that follow the storm. And there is hope. And life goes on.

Tomorrow is election day, the culmination of a dreadfully long period of ugly campaigning, mudslinging, and other horrendous behaviors I’d rather not mention. It has been a trial, a shaking of sorts for our nation, where “leaders” for the sake of political power and greed have tried to deepen divisions between friends, strangers, races, socioeconomic groups, genders, political parties, and more.

I don’t know that the shaking will end with the election of a new president (probably not). And I don’t know how things will settle out when it’s all said and done. But I know that even in the midst of the shaking we can see the strong things, the true things, the greater things.

These United States of America are greater than politics, greater than government, greater than political parties. We the People will keep on keeping on regardless of political outcomes. On the micro level, where we actually live, most of us have pretty good sense and good intentions. We know how to pull together and get along. There is still common decency around even though we’re hard-pressed to find it in the news and on social media.

Maybe, instead of drawing lines in the sand and fitting people into preconceived boxes, if we actually talked with each other, listened to each other’s points of view, and embraced our common ground, our government might get more and better things done.

So forget what you think you know about liberals, evangelicals, progressives, conservatives, minorities, refugees, and so on. Go talk to someone different from yourself with the goal of understanding, not persuading. Listen. Learn. Engage.

And celebrate the things that I hope will remain after this shaking: the great American experiment of government of the people, by the people, for the people; a land of freedom (even if we’re still working out what that exactly looks like); a nation of opportunity so great that people from other nations long to come here, both legally and illegally. God bless America!

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Remembering 9/11 and Why We Must

September 11, 2001. A day to remember. A day that showcased both the worst and the best of humanity. A day that changed America, shattering our sense of security, our sense of separateness.

I remember the unspeakable horror as I watched events unfold as “breaking news.” The planes, the collapse of buildings, the terrible loss of life, the eventual loss of hope for survivors.

I remember having the news report on the television at Friedman’s Jewelers where I worked at the time. One young man walked up to the counter, saw the news, shook his head, and asked, “What country is that?” When I told him it was our country, he joined the rest of us in disbelief.

I remember standing with many employees and shoppers at the mall (where our store was located) as we circled up, and joined hands in the center court to pray. Prayers for the tragedy, prayers for our nation. The buying and selling of stuff was put on hold so we could tend to our nation’s wounds in our own way.

The horror of that day. So many people working just like any other day–suddenly gone. So many passengers flying to their doom. The jet-fueled fire consuming steel. The desperate who couldn’t bear to wait. The buildings’ collapsing, stealing away the hope of rescue for so many. The rescuers turned victims. The missing. The ache of the families searching for loved ones for so long afterward. The revelation that it was not an accident, but a planned attack designed to be horrific and devastating. The senseless destruction of life, of property, of the sense of security, of the world as we knew it.

The heroics of that day. The firefighters and first responders who ran toward the devastation in hopes of saving others. The “regular folks” who did the same. The courageous trapped inside who led others to safety with them against all odds. The brave passengers who overcame the evil, crashing into a Pennsylvania field instead of the terrorists’ target. The multitudes who helped and gave and prayed and did whatever they could.

We need to remember. To remember it all. Not just our personal stories or the stories of first responders. But also, especially, the stories of the Taken, the Survivors, the Brave, the Terror, the Terrorists. The immense distance between the deliberate choice to sacrifice in order to take lives and the equally deliberate choice to sacrifice in order to save lives.

In a way, this is the story of humanity. This is the story of us. Our lives, our hope, hang always in the balance.

We must remember.

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Why You Should Cross the Border

Sometimes it’s good to get out into the world and cross some borders. This summer our family drove to Canada–from Georgia–for our vacation. We crossed several state borders along the way, but, of course, the big one was the border into Canada, where we dared to leave our homeland behind, if only for a few days.

And so I’ve been thinking about borders recently. Borders are handy and necessary. We use them to define ourselves, to distinguish between Us and Them. We are Here and do things this way. They are over There and do things differently. Even in nonconformity, our borders define us: although I am Here, I am unique and do this instead. We draw our borders all around. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it sure is exciting to cross over now and then.

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When we crossed into Canada in early July, we had to show proper identification. Border crossing does not change our identity; it just lets us explore and appreciate more of the world. In the best case, it enables us to get to know Them better, to appreciate There in a personal way, to make connections beyond our usual realm, and to see the world through Their eyes.

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Border crossing helps you to examine your assumptions and make new discoveries. In Quebec we learned that a plate of french fries covered with cheese curds and a delectable gravy (a dish called poutine) could be heaven. We also discovered some unique signs appropriate for a place where winter reigns, though they seemed funny to We who live in the land of summer. We found that the simple act of driving can take a challenging turn as the traffic signs converted to French only, and used symbols that were strange to us. Crossing borders keeps you on your toes in exciting, surprising ways.

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I love to travel, especially far away. It makes me feel alive and filled with wonder. And our summer trip to Canada was amazing. I recommend traveling as much as possible.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to travel as much as I would like. But, whether traveling or not, there are always borders to cross if we just look for them. I’m not saying necessarily to eliminate borders, as they can be good and useful. But maybe we can consider where borders can, or should, be crossed–if only temporarily–and then watch our world expand.

Where have we drawn lines between Us and Them? Can we reach out and see the world from their perspective for a while? Not that we should all be the same (how dull would that be?), but that we should gain appreciation for our differences and our commonality.

There’s a great, big, wonderful world out there. Go out and explore. And if you can’t go far, then explore where you are.

 

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A Tale of Two Mothers, A Tale of Redemption

With the approach of Mother’s Day, I have been thinking about mothers and the role they play in our lives. Mothers are life-givers, and everyone has one. Some of us, like me, have two. One gave me life, bringing me into this world, while the second gave me a life, encouraging me to grow and flourish and become. Both are important, though obviously in different ways.

Sometimes people like to paint adoption as a wonderful, rosy situation. The poor, unwanted child gets the needed family while the unfortunate, childless couple gets the longed-for child. Sure, there are variations, but that’s the main theme. And mostly it is truly wonderful. Yet underneath the surface there is no denying the brokenness that required adoption as a solution in the first place.

Broken relationships, broken plans, broken hopes.

This is not how it was supposed to be, right? We can feel it in our hearts when the world goes awry, and something that should have been good and pure and whole has been broken.

The world is broken.

But more than a practical solution or a pretty fix, adoption is a story of redemption. Two separate broken stories are bound together as a family, something new and whole and good. It is a second chance, a new start, a gift of grace.

The truth is, though, we are all broken regardless of how many moms we have. Broken. Every one of us. So maybe, if we’re all broken and in this together, you might think it doesn’t matter. It’s clearly not special to be broken. Look at us. That’s just how we are. Big deal.

But it matters, and the big deal is that there is hope in the midst of our brokenness. There is One Who Restores, One Who Redeems. One who picks up all our broken pieces and makes us whole, like we’re meant to be, like we long to be.

Love pursues us.

Like new parents consumed with unquenchable love, God the Father loves us madly. He loves us so much that Jesus was broken to make us whole. And He freely offers adoption to all who believe. The God of Second Chances takes us wandering orphans, and makes us heirs of His kingdom, making us new and whole.

This Mother’s Day I am thankful for two moms, two adoptions, and one amazing life.

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How to find meaning in the Sprint store

It was a necessary evil, my visit to the Sprint store today. My cell phone has been on the fritz for weeks, and it had to be dealt with. Visits to Sprint are never quick, and when the guy told me he was “at a loss” as to what was wrong, I gave up my dreams of getting out of there any time soon.

To pass the time, I perused the newest phones and accessories, watched cars drive by, and couldn’t help but overhear other people’s conversations. There were three rows of seats that formed a triangle around a large center pillar adorned with large monitors facing each direction. No reception today apparently as they stared blankly back at us. I sat in one of the seats anyway, and looked around. I realized should have brought a book.

Other customers came and went. Lucky them. I waited, receiving periodic updates from the Sprint guy troubleshooting my phone. His coworker chatted so long and about such personal details with another young woman that I wondered if they were actually friends. Sprint girl is probably just really open like that.

An older man sat, eyes closed mostly, looking weary and holding his cane, while his wife discussed her issue with my Sprint guy (as he waited for my phone to respond). I guessed they were on disability. A little girl sat next to the man, eating a snack, and then hopped down from the seat. Soon she began circling around the large center pillar, and I watched.

When the girl noticed me watching, I smiled and she smiled back. Before long she would stop in front of me and play peekaboo for a moment before continuing around. After a while, she was chatting with me, smiling, and hopping up and down as she held onto the seat next to me. She was three, like the number of cell phones lined up near us, she pointed out. The remains of her snack decorated her cheeks as she pointed out cars driving by, showed me her pink flip flops, counted to four, and hopped. The young woman chatting at the counter heard our chatter and turned to smile. The older man and his wife paid no attention.

So there we were, in a cell phone store, surrounded by some of the best in distraction technology, both of us waiting without a gadget or screen. For a short while our two very different worlds intersected, and we made a happy connection. And I was reminded that this is what we are made for – connection, relationship, real life. It can be so easy to hide behind our portable technology, like it’s important, rather than taking some time to talk to someone. The ads promise to make us more connected, most connected, with cell phones, tablets, apps, and more. But it’s a lie they sell for a profit. When we lose real connectedness, we lose humanness.

Sure it’s risky to talk to actual people, especially ones you don’t know. They might be weird or crazy or think you are. It could be really uncomfortable, especially for the introverts among us (like me). But a part of me thinks it just might be worth the risk. A part of me dares to think that it’s healthy and good. That maybe this is the kind of thing that our culture is so sorely lacking. That maybe if more people talked to each other, people from all different realms and realities, instead of talking about each other, then maybe – maybe – we could all get along better.

When the wife finished up her business, the older couple called the girl, and they headed out of the store. The couple walked slowly like they carried a great weight, while the child bounced carefree. As they made their way past the large windows, my little friend smiled and waved, and I did the same. And the couple paid no attention at all.

 

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