Saturday, December 29, 2012

My New Year's UN-resolutions

(This article was written for the Monmouth Daily Review Atlas and appears as a part of my regular column entitled 'Practical Parenting')

image from here
I love this time of the year. While I am still relishing in the joy of Christmas here comes the New Year creeping up on me with all its promise of hope and fresh beginnings.

It's amazing really that each and every 12 months we have the opportunity to start over again. Its like every year, no matter how bad it went last year, we still get a fresh start. How awesome is that?

So while my calendar is about to flip and while people start talking about resolutions, I am going to embrace the new year with a new angle. Instead of making a list of things I will do this upcoming year I am making a list of all the things I won't do in 2013.

For example, I am not going to spend one more year wishing I was thinner. Every January of my adult life I've resolved to lose weight. And seventeen years later I'm still the same size I was after giving birth to my first child. I'm a mom. I love to bake cookies and eat them with my children. I love treating them to ice cream on occasion and mostly I love creamer in my coffee. Lots of creamer. It's the magic potion that makes getting up in the morning and tending to the needs of my family bearable. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thank You Santa

Santa has been good to me two years in a row.
And when I say "Santa" I literally mean Santa.

Last year Santa came early. Loaded with presents and gifts for the family, his appearance restored my faith in many, many ways.

This year, as my kids waited for their Grandparents to arrive on Christmas morn, my husband noticed a package on the front porch.

The tag said "From Santa".

I set it under the tree with our other gifts and posted this instagram pic just before opening it.

Some friends asked what it was and I never answered them online only because I was processing. I don't know if you've ever been on the recipient end of an anonymous gift but it's really kinda ... something.

To think someone remembered you - it touches a part of your hidden heart. We, or at least, I carry on doing what I'm supposed to do, trying to do what I believe I was called to do and then in one small, sometimes insignificant moment, you realize you're noticed.
That someone remembers.
That you are seen and not an invisible member of the crowd.

So today I set my gift out on the piano next to the Nativity. And my heart is overflowing with a feeling of blessed-ness and reflection. This is what I know:

1. small gifts/gestures do matter
2. words of affirmation are powerful
3. you are not invisible. you are seen.

So please dear reader, I ask you to live your life in such a way that you take time to look for some tiny way to show kindness to a friend, sister, mother, neighbor or coworker. I ask that you use your words in a genuine fashion to build others up, to give them confidence and affirmation and to please remember you count. You are not hidden. You are seen and valuable and an important part of life. Don't feel forgotten.

Santa brought these 2 frames with my catch phrase
Believe me when I tell you these things because I know. I know life can feel mundane and it often feels like one big blur. But your life matters. Santa reminded me of that again this year and so today, I chose to use my blog to tell you the same.

Merry Christmas friend.
Thank you for reading.

(if you enjoyed my blog would you share?)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Tribe

The world didn't end.
It's Christmas Eve Eve.
The New Year is around the corner.

I'm feeling reflective
and blessed.

This is my family. We're a tribe. Just the other day while riding in the van one of the twins said, "Mom, I know what we are called a tribe!"

"You do?" I said.

"Yes. It's because a tribe is a group of people who stick together."

"Mmm-mm" is what I said. "Yes child" is what I thought.

We are a tribe. We are huge. We are hectic. We are smushed into a 1600 foot house with one shower. Life is .... great. We are healthy and happy. We do stick together. I am proud of my kids for that. They may not always like each other, but I think they are sensing a strong family connectedness that I can only hope transcends these years at home with me. I hope they grow up with their own relationships and I hope their kids are friends. But mostly I hope they will always know they can come home for Christmas. I will bake all the cookies in the world and set the world's largest dining room table for each and every holiday that they can make it.

Halee is our oldest. This is her senior year. She is enjoying it in a way that all seniors tend to enjoy the last year. She loves every minute of it while trying to get through it. She is thrilled for the next season of her life. She's spent hours writing essays and making college applications. Whatever she does, where ever she goes I have a keen sense she will do very well.

Ethan is our second and he is one amazing kid. He thrives on competition and excels whenever he gets a ball in his hand; baseball, football, basketball ... it doesn't matter to him, he loves to play. And play hard he does. He's all boy; full of testosterone and I think he's catching the girls' eyes. We're doing our best to raise him as a gentleman. At six foot two, Ethan looks down on just about everyone but his easy going personality makes everyone feel like they are his best friend.

Eric, well, he's third but don't think for a moment he doesn't hold his own in this Tribe. Stephen is his middle name and he is certainly my namesake. Eric has a servant's heart. He is aware of how others around him are feeling and it gives him a great personal sense of well being when he steps in to lend a hand. Eric is very smart. This, his first year of Junior High, is going tremendously well. Some of the best grades he's ever gotten have happened this year. I'm impressed with his ability to self organize and regulate for assignments. Eric is playing the same saxophone his father played as a child. He likes band and is trying the Scholastic Bowl team this year. It does all of that and still plays sports. He's one amazing kid.

Then there's the twins. Life would be a lot less fun without them. The joy (and noise) they bring to this family is contagious. This is the first year they've chosen an extra curricular activity without the other. Abby choose to try swimming. Bell chose soccer. Both thrived at their chosen activity and it was heartwarming to see the twins support each other. Bell sits on the bleachers and cheers "Go Abby! Go!" while Abby attends Bell's games and yells, "Kick it Bell! Kick it!" They might be twins but somedays it seems like they are best friends/sisters.

Managing this tribe takes a lot of calendar savvy and patience. But we don't mind. It's our joy to be have been given each and everyone of these kids.

2013 is just around the corner. I don't know what it holds. But I look forward to facing it together. This Tribe of mine brings me great joy and a sense of nurturing that I didn't know I was capable of. I love them. It's an honor to be their matriarch.

Thanks for reading and letting me share them with you.
Merry Christmas friends.
May you hug your family as you celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dear Santa,

I hope this letter makes it to you in time. I know Christmas Eve is right around the corner and you must be overwhelmingly busy.

Have you heard about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut? Of course you have. I'm sure the name of each and every lost child was on the Nice List. Oh Santa, my heart is broken over this tragedy. I don't know anyone from Sandy Hook but yet their great loss remains heavy on my soul. I can almost literally feel the weight of it sitting on my heart and ever since hearing their news I have felt compelled to write you.

Maybe you'll think it strange to get a letter from a grownup. But as you know we are believers here. I've always encouraged my children to write you but the truth is it has been a long time since I've penned you myself. I'm sorry. I guess being an adult doesn't always leave time to nurture the wonder and innocence of childhood. That's a shame isn't it? Regardless, in the off chance you'll get this in time I was hoping you wouldn't mind if I sent you my Christmas list.

Santa, we all need joy this year. And not the kind that you feel when you unwrap that awesome new present. I mean, we like your presents (my twins are certainly counting on you for a toy or two as you know from their letters) it's just that most of us don't really need one more gadget, app or sweater. No, the kind of joy I would like for you to bring is the kind of joy that isn't based on what we get or have or own. I think we need a joy that runs deep like a well; the kind that refreshes the body from the inside out, a joy that brings smiles to hardened faces and relief to weary souls. I'm just sure that kind of joy could be a starting point for so many downtrodden folks.

You see, we're afraid. A lot. And it's not good. We are afraid to go to the movies or the mall and we're hesitant to drop our children off at school. Sometimes I feel scared too which really makes me mad because while I want my children to be safe and healthy I also want them to be free to run and play. It's tempting to call my kids home, lock the door and bar us all inside because at least here, with me, I'd feel a little less afraid. But that's not okay is it? Instead of spending our days constantly looking over our shoulders and jumping at every loud sound we need comfort. It's just dreadful that our hearts start beating out of our chests at the mere thought of something bad happening to us or our loved ones. I'm afraid that fear is sucking the life right out of us. We're not meant to live like this. Life is meant to be lived in abundance. So jolly old elf, if you have a package of peace could you leave it under our trees? It would make a world of difference to our chronic high blood pressure, bleary eyes and sleepless nights.

Finally, although I'm a little bit embarrassed to mention it, I wonder if I could ask you for a stocking full of tolerance. Because joy doesn't always come easy and because we're worried we're not safe, most of us have forgotten how important our dealings with other human beings are. We snap too quickly at our coworkers and cut in line at the grocery store. We start turf wars with our neighbors, have road rage and yell at our kid's coaches. If we could just feel more tolerant then it would be easier to be patient, forgiving and merciful to our fellow mankind. Can you imagine how much kinder the world would be if instead of scorning everyone else we offered small, genuine acts of kindness?

I know the world isn't going to be fixed anytime soon. Times are very difficult; people are struggling with the heavy weight of stress. Some days I wonder if we're too far gone to make things right again. But I have faith old man. I have faith in Christmas. I have faith in the goodness of man and I have faith in love. As you are out delivering packages I hope nestled between that rocking horse and skateboard you'll find what I long for in that magic bag of yours. It's a grown up wish I know. But if you have any joy, peace or tolerance to share with us I hope you'll be generous.

Thank you, Santa.
Merry Christmas,
Stephanie Sikorski

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Friday, December 21, 2012

We Can Learn A lot from Who-Ville

I've heard conflicting reports from Newtown, Connecticut although I won't bother to insert the links here. Truth is my tears fall and my heart sinks every time another reporter covers yet another senseless funeral. I can't bear to Google 'Newtown Shootings' one more time.

Maybe you've heard the same things I have: either Newtown residents are removing their Christmas decorations or, in honor, of the victims they are putting them up. I hope they are putting them up because if they are removing Christmas I would remind them of the Whos down in Who-ville.

As you know, the Grinch came and took trees, packages, stockings and food from the Whos. He took it all away so he wouldn't have to listen to their cheery, ridiculousness.

But as we know he was unsuccessful. The Grinch himself said, "Christmas came anyway! It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes and bags. Maybe Christmas, perhaps means a little bit more!"

It is friend. Christmas is about more than gifts and trees and feasts. You can take all those things away. Christmas will still come.
You can have the nation's worst tragedy in your town and
Christmas will still come.
You can go to the funeral of your lost child and
Christmas will still come.
You might wish Christmas away but
Christmas will still come.

The media might be hounding you
and wooden angels line your lane
while 26 Christmas trees remind you of every lost soul,
the firemen can stand at attention when the hearse rolls by
but Christmas will still come.

I can only imagine the deep, soul wrenching waves of grief that roll over the Newtown's parents' souls. And my God I'm so sorry. The entire nation is sorry and we all are sending you our love and prayers.

But this I know. Christmas will come.
Don't try and remove it.
Don't take your decorations down.
Don't abandon your plans and your gifts and hold on tight to the family and friends you do have.

Christmas is coming.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Is it the Most Wonderfultime of the Year?

If I was a kid I would be having a nervous breakdown. I mean, is there any time of year that it is harder to be a kid than at Christmas time?
I am serious. What used to be a child's favorite time of the year is now one long marathon of waiting. Retail stores put up Christmas trees before Halloween, the television broadcasts more commercials than programming and the radio is inundating us with carols before we've even put away the leftover turkey. It must seem like it is perpetually Christmas in their little minds; except without the gifts. Isn't that torture?
Why must the holiday season embark on us earlier and earlier every year? Who decided to stretch Christmastime out to a quarter of the year rather than the month of December? And think about all the children who have no idea how long five minutes is let alone 90 days! Have you ever met a child who waits well? If they can't wait patiently for you during one five minute errand how in the world do you think they are going to keep it together from now until the time the big man actually comes down the chimney?
 And don't we lord the threat of Santa over our children with great precision? Parent's everywhere are reminding kids they had better be good or Santa won't bring them any presents. Who can take that pressure? A child can't be good all day for one day, how are they going to last until December 25th? Imagine what image of Santa they've created with all those threats! Instead of welcoming the idea that a red clad, friendly gent will leave them toys they must be scared out of their mind! Was I good? Wasn't I good? Am I good enough? Did he see that? Isn't the paranoia and guilt associated with his naughty and nice list kind of actually counterproductive to the joy Christmas? The song lyrics say you'd better be good for good-ness sake. Not for presents-sake. Perhaps we should remind children to be good because being good is the right thing to do. Not because Santa is a stingy, record keeping judge who will withhold joy from you on Christmas morning.
 And by the way, if you wrap your presents and set them out under the tree weeks before Christmas morning, don’t be surprised if instead of getting better behavior you get worse. I'm a grownup and even I can hardly wait for a pretty package. I’m certain if you showed me a present, told me it was for me, told me I had to wait to have it and then said I could only have it if I met your expectations of good behavior I can promise you I wouldn't focus on being good. I would be in constant concentration on that gift. I would not be able to stop wondering about it. Literally.
No, there are no gifts under our tree and everywhere I go people are worried for me asking if I've finished shopping for gifts. "I still have a month!" I told an inquirer recently. "Yes", she replied "but will there by anything left on the shelves much longer?" Seriously? Now I have to worry whether there is going to be a famine for stocking stuffers, CDs and games?
How does any of this sound fun or glorious? Children are tortured to believe they might be left out of Christmas. Grownups are rushing around fighting each other for purchases that they threaten to not give their children. Is this the message of Christmas?
Christmas is meant to be beautiful. It's about family, love, the joy of giving and the hope of a savior. Introducing the holiday season earlier doesn't prolong the beauty. It makes it more common. Let's not spend these last weeks before the holiday rushing and fighting over gifts. Perhaps we could even pull back on the empty Santa threats. Instead maybe the joy and peace of the season would be restored to grownups and children alike if we would focus on the gift that really matters. That’s what makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year. Why? Because I’m the mom and I said so! That’s why!
(This article appears as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting colum for the Daily Review Atlas)


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Expecting to be Awesome

I promised stories from my recent mission trip to Central Europe. While they are trickling in at a much slower rate than I wished for, I submit another to you today.

I admit I brought a lot of expectations with me on this trip - even though I know full well that expectations are one of the greatest causes for disappointment.

That is why they say  the Danish are among some of the happiest people on the planet. They keep notoriously low expectations in their lives.

I wished I had remembered that before I disembarked in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago with an entire suitcase full of markers, books, blocks and crayons.

Our mission was simple; bring Parent Education to two Roma communities. I was certain my prepared seminars were going to be life altering for the participants. Not that I expected standing ovations (although that did happen in one location...but that's another blog story) but I was sure I was going to make a difference. I dare say I was patting myself on the back before the trip had even begun.

When we arrived in Slovakia at our second presentation location we were informed that no meeting room had been secured for our classes. No meeting room meant no audience. No audience meant my awesome lessons would be lost.

Now, I know I sound pretty puffed up. But first, please remember I am very human. And secondly understand my job is parent education. I've spent the last 18 years of my career devoted to encouraging and supporting families. I've seen the benefit of the program and am wholeheartedly committed to it's cause. Children do better in school because of my home visits. Mothers yell at their children less because of the information I can provide for alternative forms of discipline. Children get age appropriate books because I give them away freely to low income families. This job does good. And I was going to wrap all that awesomeness up in a package and deliver it to families in Czech and Slovakia.
This mission trip was going to do good.
I was going to do good.
Why else does one go on a mission trip anyway?

Of course I went with the hope and expectation that I had something worthy to contribute.
Darn expectations.

When we discovered we had no venue for our program we were, of course, disappointed. However, we were invited to visit the home of a woman named Sonya. We were told that some Roma families who were interested (and who could fit into her home) would meet with us there.
Our team loaded up in our van and headed across town.
To the outskirts of town.
To the literal and figurative "other side of the tracks".

It was a short drive in reality but as the van bumped along a dirt path and wove between shacks and cement walls I grew pensive and quiet, not even realizing that I was holding my breath.
The darkness in this neighborhood could not only be blamed on dusk but from a distinct sense that we had entered a very different world.

As I stepped out of the van my eyes took in the scene. Dogs sauntered down the road towards us. I watched as they stopped and marked our tires. My heart was beating out of my chest. I didn't know whether I was terrified for good reason or because my uncomfortablility level had just spiked to record high levels.

Trying not to look so middle-class American I put my finger against my nose preferring the smell of my own skin rather than the mix of wood stoves and .... I don't know what I smelled. Maybe it was garbage - although the team that came to this Roma camp had cleaned up the trash just a few months before - but all I can say for certainty is it was a startling unpleasant odor.

We were advised to leave our jackets in the car. The quarters inside the house would be close and due to the wood burning stove we were assured it would be very warm inside. I looked down at my clothes and felt ashamed. As I dressed that morning I was quite furious that my white, cotton blouse had gotten so embarrassingly wrinkled in my suitcase. I choose to wear a cardigan over it to hide the wrinkles. Now standing in the dark on a dirt road with wild dogs and funny smells I removed my coat and sweater. Suddenly the condition of my shirt was meaningless. I was standing in the center abject poverty. Turns out an iron and making a crisp impression were the absolute least of my priorities.
My how vain I really am.

Our team huddled for a moment before entering the house. We were given quick instructions on what we might encounter and advise on how we should and shouldn't react. Including a warning that if we were served food, and if it looked like sausage, it might perhaps be dog.

The home, while precisely pieced together by with random construction materials; wood and cement blocks, had an immaculate lot. Following the stone path from the street to the door I noticed the gravel that covered the ground from fence wall to fence wall was raked. In perfect rows, the rocks had been meticulously taken care of, I sensed, in anticipation of our arrival. Chained dogs barked from the corner alerting the home owners to our arrival.

As I crossed the thresh hold of that house I am certain I've never taken a deeper breath in my life.
Warm, dark skinned faces greeted us as we stepped inside. Hands shook, unfamiliar words were exchanged and it was clear we were welcome.

Inside 4 Americans with a Czech translator smiled politely at 8 or so Slovak Roma men, women and children. Pleasantries in foreign languages were made with lots of stiff smiles and nods. Communication was certainly a barrier.

As we sat and waited - for what I'm not sure - I decided to engage the children. They were staring at me anyway. Thankfully I had some of the cancelled seminar activities packed in my bag.

I moved to the floor and invited the children to do the same. We matched colors, sorted sizes, counted who had more pieces and patterned colors. All with little or no translation. It is amazing how much can be communicated with gestures.

In a way, we all speak the same language. Turns out we all laugh the same. And a smile in English is a smile in Slovak. We're really not all that different. Really.
It was another day before we found a meeting room. When we did, 50 or so people gathered for our parent education training. And if you count success in numbers I guess you could say that leg of the trip wasn't a wash after all.

But I've learned success isn't always measurable.

Turns out one of my favorite parts of the trip was sitting on that floor and playing with those children. The home was humble. It was hot. My ability to engage and communicate with the mothers and fathers was extremely limited. I even admit I was afraid to be in their neighborhood that night. Trust me when I say I would have rather been in a million other more comfortable places. But playing in that moment, on that floor - magic happened.

In me.

I learned an important lesson that evening; good things can happen everywhere.
I also learned that I am often wrong.
What I am inclined to call bad or scary can, in fact, be beautiful.

How many times in my life have I let my expectations about a thing or even a person shape my attitude? And how many more times have I missed out because of those expectations?

I thought you'd do that for me.
I wanted you to be like that.
I thought people from there were lazy.
I think your skin color means you _____!
I believed your wealth as a person was attached to your income level.

When our expectations come from mis (or lack of) information we are living more selfishly than we realize. And we must be very careful otherwise will may miss out. That experience in Sonya's home that night was unexpectedly beautiful. Her friends were beautiful. Those children were glorious.

Sure they didn't get to hear my carefully prepared introduction on the importance of brain development in children and how important a literacy based home environment is. But who am I to think I was the only one to had something to give on this trip?
How dare I not expect to receive as well.
How dare I?

The moral of the story about an impromptu home visit in Slovakia? Be aware of your expectations friend. Otherwise you may miss out on some of the most surprisingly beautiful experiences life has to offer.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

That Old Feeling

I try and live my life in such a way that my I don't allow my negative feelings to rule or dictate my day. That is, if I feel bad I don't HAVE to have a bay day.

Today I am certainly tired and I have a To-Do list that won't quit. However rather than sucumb to the feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm, I submit myself and my day to the nagging little feeling I sense in the back of my mind that I am blessed.

Today it's a small feeling. Just an inclining that despite what needs to be done, fixed and dealt with ... all is ok. It's ok because I'm ok. The frustrations are all external. Inside me I'm good.
I'm blessed.

And that is the thought that I will welcome today.
That's what I lean on when my enviornment tells me otherwise.
Blessed is what I choose today.
I choose.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Still Giving Thanks

I work a lot. I work outside the home. I work inside the home. I do mission work and retail work. I work at school. Sometimes I work on my attitude. I work within a budget and I work out (not that you can tell) but nothing, in my opinion, is as difficult as the work load of a mother.

Parenthood is undoubtedly the most important thing I do. It is a task I take extremely seriously, and it’s the one thing I think I most often find myself second guessing my job performance. Sometimes I joke that my "9 to 5" job is easier than being at home. I cram more chores, conversation and conflict into the few hours we are all home every night, than I do all day long. No wonder I collapse into my bed every evening.

Recently I left my motherhood post to take a trip. I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Central Europe to bring parent education seminars to some incredibly impoverished areas. I left the helm to my darling husband who, I gotta tell ya, really stepped up to the plate.

It’s not easy for anyone, mother or father, to parent 24/7, but special accolades go out to my guy who single-parented our five children for nine days. And he didn’t just do it; he did it well. There were no trips to the Emergency Room. The house was in near perfect condition and the pantry still had food in it. He’s a swell guy.

I could not have planned a trip of such great proportion without the love and support of my spouse and others. And that got me thinking about how much support we parents need. I am feeling much gratitude for the people in my life who, whether they play a big or small role, support me in a way that makes the motherload a little lighter.

It is not good for any of us to feel alone. I am very lucky to have a number of individuals who know me. Who listen to me, dine, drink and laugh with me. It is in safe conversations with close friends that I've unloaded some of my burdens only to find they are more than willing to help pick up the weight. When I've felt lost, down or alone their hugs and words of affirmation have pulled me through the dark, difficult days. My girlfriends have helped me be true to myself and in doing so have released me to be a better me. And a better me makes for a better mother.

Likewise, there are some people in life you can call on for a favor. Need your medicine picked up? A costume altered or a babysitter in a pinch? These folks are priceless. They mean the world to me for they are self-sacrificing, loving individuals who offer a unique form of support. A network of such people is truthfully sometimes hard to come by and those of us who have these folks on speed idal in our cell phones should realize how blessed we are.

In addition I am grateful for the care and concern I've always experienced at my children's schools. We've been in the district for thirteen years and no matter what building my children attended, I've always sensed that the staff has had the best intentions for us. Prior to leaving on my trip I asked counselors, teachers and secretaries to keep an extra close eye on my kids. I needed to know someone was aware they might have some extra needs in my absence. Every person I asked to help out made a point, upon my return, to express how well the kids did while I was gone. What a relief! How thankful I am for the built in network our local schools has to offer.

Sadly, we are not so lucky to live near family. Our tribe relies heavily on Facebook and email to keep family in the loop of holiday happenings and school functions. We don't visit Grandpa's house and aunts, uncles or cousins won't be attending any of our games or concerts. My children will never know what it's like to look out in the crowd and see the loving face of Nana applauding their efforts. If you have these experiences I pray you cherish them. Multigenerational support is often lost in our big, wide world. If you have family, and you love each other, be thankful.

That's the message of today's ramblings. Be thankful. Even though the official holiday for giving thanks is behind us I can only hope that as we approach the blessed Christmas season you take the time to recognize and extend your gratitude for all the friends, networks and support you have in this parenting journey. Because we need everyone; close friends, faithful spouses, teachers, babysitters, neighbors and coworkers in our life. For each supports us in good and separate ways. If we compile all that love and support we will find that our load can be lightened and parenting less perilous. So express your gratitude generously today. Why? Because I’m the mother and I said so! That’s why!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Lumberjack Friend

In 2008 when I went on my second trip to Europe I was a part of an international team who hosted a women's leadership conference entitled EMERGE.
It was one of my favorite trips of the eight that I've taken.

Certainly it was humbling and thrilling to be a part of an effective ministry and the women on the team became friends to me in a much needed season of my life and yet none of those reasons are the reason why that trip was my favorite.

That credit is reserved for Gabriela P.

my, Gabi & Anna in 2008
Gabriela was one of the two dozen or so women who sat in on my "Parenting on Purpose" workshop. While public speaking has never been a fear of mine, I know I usually do the best when I have a personal connection with the subject matter.

You see at that time in my life I was a pastor's wife. And like most pastor's wives I was sorta expected to have a ministry niche of my own. Which, I didn't mind that so much, it's just that I wanted to be really, really certain that in whatever way I contributed to the congregation it was because I had something to contribute - not because my husband was the pastor.

So when I was given opportunity to speak to our church, I never pretended and never tried to be impressive with my messages. I knew I couldn't compete with the beloved pastor so I set out to give inspirational messages from my heart. It was important for me to be true to me. I'm no theologian, I didn't attend seminary or ministry school. Heck, the only thing I earned was a PhT
(a certificate stating I had Put Honey Through
- I'm NOT kidding!). 

No, if I was given a chance to share I never pretended or regurgitated a bible study lesson. Instead I opened my heart and searched it for a story to tell.

And that's probably why I can remember almost every message I've ever given.
They were that personal.

That was the case when Gabriela was in my session in the Czech Republic as well. I remember being completely honest with the women in attendance about my struggle to find my place in ministry as a woman, how I searched for the balance to participate, be a present mother and the honest fact that sometimes in my quest to figure it out I often found myself quite lonely and disappointed in my performance.

Throughout that entire workshop Gabriela sat intently listening - literally soaking in every word.

I later invited her to share a cuppa coffee. We shared stories, laughs and even tears as we encouraged one another. I had made a friend. And thanks to the magic of Faceboook we've kept in touch for years.

The following year as I planned to return to the EMERGE conference I hoped to see Gabriela again. But she never registered for the event. Her son had become very sick with cancer and she was holding vigils in the hospital.

My heart broke for her.

Just two weeks ago I was in her country again, this time on a different assignment. I was hesitant to let her know I was traveling for fear it wouldn't be possible to see her again. When I saw that our itinerary had us staying one night in her town I sent her a message, hoping that we would be able to connect.

When I found her she was working in the kitchen at her church preparing cakes and coffee for attendees. I walked towards her to say hello and when she saw me I swear her eyes softened. She moved towards me and when we reached each other she enveloped me in the biggest, warmest hug. It wasn't a gentle embrace. She hugged me with her entire body and I felt happily lost in that split second.

We each stepped back and looked each other over. She looked good. Healthy. Her face was bright with surprise and once again she embraced me before swooping me off to receive a gift. Yes, a gift.

Gabriela started making jewelry while she sat in hospital rooms to pass the time. She was selling some items at the conference and asked me to pick out any piece I wanted.

Later that evening I invited her over to our hotel for a coffee. We began to catch up on each other's lives. Her son is home and  for the time being doing well. She and her husband have bought a fixer-upper in order to accommodate her mother who is expected to move in with her by the end of the year.

I sat and listened amazed. She was so strong despite all the factors in her life.  When she told her stories she told them with hopeful expectation. As if she one hand on the reality of her situation but another firmly grasped on hope. She balanced the tension beautifully as she talked.

I commented as much, I said, "Gaby, you look so good. You really are OK right now aren't you?" 
"Yes," she said, "I have very good therapist."
"Oh, that must be so helpful." I nodded in agreement.
"Yes I am now so much stronger."
"I'm sure, it is helpful to speak with someone. Good for you!"
"No, maybe I am not using the right word - strong. I am strong now from therapy" and she made a flexing motion with her arms.
She meant physical strength.
I was curious if something was getting lost in translation but before I could ask again she said, "Our new home is on much land. We have many trees. I go out and I take an ax and I chop the trees. It is my therapy. I am very strong inside and out now. I take all my anger and chop at the tree and I don't come in until my arms are not working or I feel better. This is my therapy."

I sat amazed.
Here this woman's world has been on the precipice of collapse and instead of putting her head under her blanket she goes out and knocks the hell out of trees.

Not knowing exactly what to say I affirmed my early assessment, "You look really good" I told her.
"Thank you" she answered and I knew, she knew, that she did. It was true, she looked really good. Gone was the broken woman I met years ago who was crumbling under self depreciation and hardships. Her head was higher. Her voice stronger. Her eyes no longer diverting looking around for acceptance.
Chop on, Gabriela! Chop on!

Gabriela is why I go on mission trips. To be a part of some one's story, a story of overcoming and brilliance ... it's amazing.

We talked so long that night that we missed dinner but as Gabriela turned to go she embraced me one last time. She whispered a thanks in my ear. She said something shifted in her the day I shared my story with her. I almost crumbled under the humility of it all. As she turned to go she looked over her shoulder and said, "Stephanie, my friend. If you can you should buy a house in a forest. It is good therapy."

I threw my head back and laughed.
And wondered if we have an axe back home I could use.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cafe Church

to right you see a cafe, to the left kid's play area
Just one week ago I attended church in Havirov, Czech Republic.

The church rents a room they've converted into a cafe-slash-kid play area.

From what I could gather they use the room all week long as a local hangout for the neighborhood and on Sunday mornings hold a service.
Pastor Michal was thrilled to show off the garden, or back yard, of the building as they've cleaned up a very large lot, added a sandbox and tables in effort to gather families and enhance the neighborhood.

It was really cool.

Immediately upon entering the building I felt like I was in my element.
All gathered in one place?
Yeah, I could move my entire office and parent education program right in and feel right at home.
The service was casual. People came dressed in jeans and comfy sweaters wrapped in scarves. Parents brought children. Kids ran in and out. Coffee cups clanged and chairs scraped the floor as people moved about.

It was so irreverent.

Or not.

I loved the experience despite what my Midwestern, American mind tells me is the "correct way" to hold a church service.

Because as a modern day woman who tries her best to be a follower of Jesus, I find that the stories of  Christ find him in similar, informal situations rather than dressed to impress, two hour Sunday morning services with full band worship and neatly packaged sermons with three points and an alter call.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.
I believe believers should gather.
I love music
and I love to be inspired.

These are all good things.
But they are not the only things. With or without music I like. With or without a message in my language. With or without what I think are elements of a "good church service" I should be able to worship.

Because if my relationship with God is ever only based on what happens in a service or my religious traditions I fear I'm missing the point.

It was a joy to witness the Havirov church service.
To be a part of something different.
I stood and worshipped, surrounded by people who spoke another language.

I couldn't have had a conversation with them if I wanted.

But as we stood, together, it was clear we had gathered for the purpose of worshipping.
Every difference fell aside as we brought our attention and voices together
in His name.
I've never been in a more beautiful church service.
Latte and all.

(p.s. check back this week as I'll blog more stories from my trip)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What 'Really' Happens on a Mission Trip

There are many, many benefits of going on a mission trip.
Some obvious, some subtle.

Some of the reasons why you go create feelings of accomplishment and the pleasure of knowing you've done good.

Sometimes the feelings are unpleasant and downright uncomfortable and yet you embrace them because you believe in the work you're doing. You believe the uncomfortabl-ity is a price you're willing to pay.
I mean a mission trip isn't a vacation.
You don't go to relax.

I've just returned from a mission trip. I, and a small team, traveled by van for 5 days to Kojetin, Czech Republic and Cachtice, Slovakia. Armed with markers, balls, books and blocks we were on a mission to educate Roma(ni) Gypsy parents in these communities. Tucked into my Thirty-One backpack were 4 seminars neatly typed out and organized with an introduction, body and proper conclusion.

It was so neatly organized and it was going to be so helpful
and it turns out it was so, so ... Western. (note to self, remember that lesson you learned about expectations and remaining flexible?)

Going there was what I wanted to do. Making a difference and being a part of something larger than myself is what I aimed to do.

However, missing my family, my life, my bed, my food, my friends, soft toilet paper ....
all of those are really sorta the aspects of mission work that I hate.

But every time I go, and I have made a point to go annually for 7 years, a shift happens in me while I'm gone.
A deeper level of appreciation.
That life that I complain about because its too busy and hectic?
Is precious.

My children who demand so much from me that I often wonder if I'm losing myself in them?
Are a gift.

That bed I complained about because its old?
It's more than just fine. It's luxury.

My job?
A privilege.

To be savored.

A gift.

Going away and going without - to any degree -opens your eyes to the fact that what you already have
and what you've already experienced
is a wonderful, wonderful gift.
Being away from my family
and my little life
and the comforts I call home
make my family, my little life and my home a TREASURE.
An absolute treasure.

Going on a mission trip sorta makes the scales you didn't even know you had fall from your eyes.
You get a fresh view of what you have.

And what I have - friends, family ... love - is a treasure.

Back on my home turf I am not just reminded to be thankful for what I've been given in this life,
I am instead completely overwhelmed as the feelings of appreciation and gratitude roll in crashing waves over my soul.

It is the Eve of Thanksgiving. Tomorrow I will sit -like every other American- around my turkey, gravy and table of bounty and reflect. This year, as I adjust to this time zone, I find that I am especially, deeply and profoundly grateful. Because THAT is what happens when you take a mission trip.

Consider finding a mission. A way to give. Be brave and travel. And help. And open yourself to the world and the people in it. For a mission trip is a wonderful opportunity to learn levels of gratitude you've never fathomed existed.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Honor of Menu Monday

I had the AH-mazing opportunity to travel to the Czech Republic and Slovakia last week. On the way I met awesome people, saw incredible things, made some unforgettable memories AND ... ate a wide variety of food.

In honor of my regularly posted Menu Monday I submit to you Menu Monday Mission Trip-Style!
Czech it out (get it!)

Sunday breakfast - Plain yogurt with Chocolate granola

Sunday lunch - Beef Tips with Bread Dumplings

Monday breakfast - scrambled eggs, poached potato, mushrooms, sausage & toast

Monday dinner - Margherita (aka cheese) pizza from this stone oven

Tuesday breakfast - a doughnut and latte from Tesco (similar to a Wal-Mart)

Wednesday - traditional Czech breakfast (bread, ham, cheese, scrambled eggs and ham)
I was supposed to get one OR the other but due to some for-real "lost in translation" moments I got a double breakfast portion. p.s. this happened to me more than once on the trip. p.s.s. therefore I did not loose a single pound while traveling.

Wednesday Dinner - a (flexible) chicken steak and mashed potatoes

Thursday breakfast - more ham and eggs for breakfast (looks identical doesn't it?)

Thursday lunch - Kofola (soda) and pasta with chicken
(and what most closely resembles ketchup sauce)

Thursday breakfast - latte at Tesco with chocolate croissant

Thursday dinner - fried cheese and half a cheese pizza

Friday- more lattes and more croissants

Friday dinner at Sonya's house. A buffet of sandwiches, pretzels, cake and chips.

And then later ..... Chicken schnitzel and chips.

Saturday lunch - chicken gnocchi and spinach

Saturday dinner (potluck with the roomie) granola bars, pretzels and trail mix

Sunday - dinner in Prague spinach soup, bruschetta and the star of the show gelato

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On a Mission

Today's blog comes from the Czech Republic.
My life's goal, To Write a Better Story, is playing out right this minute.
But that's the thing about life. It is moving. It's going. It is playing out and unfolding whether you mean for it to or not.
So shouldn't we be deliberate?
Shouldn't we be purposeful?
Shouldn't we make effort to make our life what we want and hope for?
I've planned for this trip for a very long time.
Over a year ago I learned about the need for parent education in Europe, specifically amongst the Roma(ani) Gypsy people. And here I am.
To say it is surreal is an understatement.
It is fullfilling.
And nervewracking.
And ground breaking.
And uncomfortable.
And memorable.
And important.
And meaningful.
And ...
I don't know what you dream for your life. I only know my own. But I hope you can believe me when I say your dream is worth nurturing.
Your hopes are worth having.
Your plans are worth making.
Take time won't you to dream and imagine? Because if there is one thing I know I know that another 5 minutes just ticked by while you were reading this blog.
Time is moving my friend.
What are you doing with it?
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Peace on Earth Starts with a Good Night's Sleep

If I was in the healthcare business I'd be wealthy. But since I'm not I'll just dedicate this article to my million dollar idea and hope for the sake of motherhood someone takes my plan seriously and uses it for good.

You know how moms are often exhausted? Wait, I mean always. You know how moms, especially new moms, are always exhausted? After giving birth, getting up at obscene hours for middle of the night feedings and all the mental energy that goes into transitioning into this new role in our lives we need rest like never before. And yet the one thing we need, sleep, often alludes us with frustratingly great accuracy.

Well, if it were up to me I'd understand this about motherhood and I'd offer a unique service that will not only equip parents to fulfill their job duties with a greater skill level, I believe my idea has the power to make mothers more happy in general.

Happier women? A. Who wouldn't want that? And B. Yes, sleep is that important!

I would create a new type of healthcare service for mothers. Obstricians help pregnant women. Pediatricians help children. Who is serving the women after they've given birth and are drowning in the trenches of parenthood?

It seems to me that hospitals have space dedicated to critical care patients, long term needs and even physical therapy. I think they are neglecting a huge and potentially lucrative clientele; the exhausted mother. I propose hospitals begin to incorporate a Mother Floor.

Why? Because there was a time in my parenting career that I would have paid big bucks to just get one completely, uninterrupted night's sleep. Big. Bucks.

Perhaps you are thinking that hotels are already in the sleeping business. Indeed they are, but do you know the hassle a mother would get if she told her children she was going to stay in a hotel without them? Children think hotels are for indoor pools, free breakfasts and beds to jump on. No mother would ever escape if her children knew she was going to a hotel. Mention the word hospital however and no child in their right mind would demand to tag along.

No, I don't need any amenities. I just need a good night's sleep.

For the sake of my mental and physical health admit me, give me a bed, turn off the lights and don't check on me until morning. Do not wake me up to take my temperature. Do not come in and check my vitals. Just let me pay you to rest.

If you want to make a package out of the whole experience go ahead. Offer me a hot breakfast and a gourmet cup of coffee. Offer a completely staffed nursery where mothers can even bring their children in the off chance they can't find anyone to stay with the rug rats. Heck, you can even throw in a hot shower and free internet so I can update and tweet about my awesome experience. I'd pay for any and all of it if I could just get a bed.

Don't you think my idea would boost the economy and create hundreds of new jobs? I think nurses everywhere would be clamoring to work on this Mother Floor. No temps to take? No machines to monitor? Sit around and cuddle cute babies that you don't have to keep? Sounds like a dream job, no?

Can you imagine the repercussions of such a service? If mothers everywhere could, on occasion, get a full night's sleep? If we weren't walking zombies living in the land of endless bottles and diapers we could conquer the world! Yes! We could solve the debt crisis and manage our households with extreme precision. Children would do better in school. Husbands would no longer be afraid to come home and the world would experience peace on earth.

I'm certain this idea is Nobel Prize worthy.

Yes, healthcare providers and insurance agents everywhere would be very wise to immediately implement this service to public. Happier women. Pleasant homes. Peace on earth. All accomplishable with one night's sleep. Why? Because I’m the mother and I said so!

(This article appears in The Daily Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series)

Who What When Where Why Mission Trip

Where I'm Going.

When I'm Going.

What I'm Doing.

Why I'm Going.

Who I'm Going to see.

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