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To Lucy, on your last day of being 5

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My dear girl,
I am standing on the sand, watching you run away from me. There is a perfect evening glow and your hair is even curlier than usual. It bounces around your shoulders as you race around, heading toward the crashing waves and then away from them, shrieking with glee or terror or maybe both whenever the water approaches your toes. Your feet are bare, your dress is pink, your eyes are the same blue as the sky behind you and just as sparkly. The beach is narrow here, but we have it to ourselves, and so you run as fast as you can, as far as you want.
So much about you mystifies me. You are constantly unexpected. Sometimes when you were a baby, I would hold you and gaze into your impossibly blue eyes and wonder where you came from. You seem to be taking everything in, your eyes wide and questioning, absorbing all the things you see and pondering them someplace inside yourself. I wonder if pondering is part of what you do when you are not sleeping, when the rest of the world is exhausted from the day. Whatever it is that drives you seems unwilling to be turned off just because it’s bedtime. I wonder if I will ever plumb the depths of your energy, your questions, your relentless quest to see and understand everything.
A couple of weeks ago, you decided it was time for you to learn to ride your bike. Watching you do this was almost exactly like watching you when you finally decided to start walking. No one could convince you to try it until the day you decided you were ready, and then there was no stopping you. I was afraid- afraid you’d catch your foot in the pedals and fall, afraid you’d pitch forward over the handlebars and fall, afraid you’d topple over sideways and fall, that you’d be hurt, that you’d knock out another tooth, that you’d scrape up your face or break your arm. I didn’t tell you, but I was afraid.
Often when I’m most afraid for you, it’s because I know you are about to do something and that there’s no way I can stop you. I’m not so much afraid of what is going to happen to you as I am of the knowledge that you will, in those moments, only listen to yourself. My fear is because I know from knowing you for six years now that once you’ve gone out to do something, you won’t stop until you’ve finished it, no matter what.
Were you afraid, that day on the bike? You say you’re afraid of so many things (stinkbugs in the car, spiders at the science museum, the page of icky insects in the encyclopedia on the living room shelf) but no one was going to stop you from riding that bike that day, by yourself, without help. You dragged it up to the top of the driveway, tugging at the pedals until they were where you wanted them, threw your leg over the top and coasted a few wobbly feet before putting your sandals flat on the ground again. “Again,” you said, and pulled the bike back to the top for another try.
I’m not sure how long you worked at it that day, but I watched you for at least an hour. I heard you tell yourself over and over, “One more time!” and “1, 2, 3 go!” and even once, “Don’t worry, you can do this!” I fetched three band-aids and one ice pack for a few brutal falls. I saw you almost get it so many times before you finally managed to get your feet up to the pedals and pedal down the driveway, beaming. And I was so proud. You got frustrated, but you didn’t quit. Getting the hang of things because you work hard at them is so much better than getting them because you are naturally good at them. You didn’t learn to ride a bike that day because you have a natural gift at balancing or pedaling. You got it from sheer will, because you decided you would, and you did.
This is the most encouraging thing to me as your parent.
Sometimes, as I watch you floating through the world with your feet barely touching the ground, singing a little song to yourself and taking it all in with your wide wonder-filled eyes, I worry for you. I worry that you’ll be hurt. I wonder how we can protect you forever from pain and suffering, because you seem so lovely and fragile.
But you’re not fragile. You’re gritty and determined, and you’re going to be more than fine. Life will knock you down sometimes, but you’ll get back up again, because at your core, you’re made of strong stuff. And if you ever forget that, I’m going to be right here to remind you.
Happy sixth birthday, my brave girl. I can’t wait to see what amazing things you’ll do in this next year.IMG_1819

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homeschool, learning

The value of frustration in homeschooling (and life, probably)

Today has been all about the threshold of frustration.

I watched Sam work with paper polyominos for over an hour this morning, trying to get them to fit into various shapes, moving them around and flipping them and lining them up before scattering them over the table, mumbling “nope,” and starting all over again. His frustration mounting, he started to crumple up some of the pieces. Suddenly, the corner of his mouth twitched and a ripple of understanding spread over his face. Eyes gleaming, he started moving the pieces very quickly into place and sat back hard, his chair making a satisfied “bang” on the hardwood floor.

“Did it,” he declared simply, and got up to get some water.

Meanwhile, Lucy was on the driveway, pushing her bike slowly along with her toes, stopping every now and then to sigh heavily and shove the pedals around to get them out of her way. Her little brother zipped past her every few minutes, now on a tricycle, now on his new balance bike, whizzing so close to her leg that he ran over her foot one time. As he and her twin sister rode circles around her, she kept trying to pick up her foot and put it on the pedal. She would get it partway there, wobble back and forth, and then put her foot back on the ground with yet another gusty sigh.

I bit my tongue, resisting the urge to give her pointers.
She hates pointers.

Finally, after almost an hour of persistent effort, she dragged the bike back up to the top of the driveway where there is a slight incline. As she coasted down the tiny hill, balancing, she managed to pull one foot up to the pedal and start it going around. Her other foot swung uselessly in the air for a second, then made contact with the other pedal…and she rode. With both feet. Pedaling a bicycle. All by herself, with no help from me or anyone else.

This from my girl who waited eighteen months to the day to take a single step is a huge accomplishment.

It’s pretty amazing for a Monday- two instances of frustration overcome, persistence paying off, and goals achieved. As I watched them both struggle, trying to stay out of their way and fighting the urge to “help” them, I reminded myself that homeschooling (and parenting in general) is often more about learning to tolerate my own frustration than helping them learn to tolerate theirs. While they are working hard to solve problems and develop skills, they are building up their frustration threshold. Every time they work through that frustration before having a breakthrough moment, they’re learning that it is worth it to struggle with things that are hard. They’re learning that they are capable. They’re learning that they can persist and be victorious, even if it’s not easy. This learning doesn’t depend on me at all- they’re coming to it on their own.

The worst thing I could do in these moments is to jump in and “save” them. I’m working just as hard as they are, breathing through my own frustration, learning to watch them flounder a little without offering advice or telling them what they could be doing better.

Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching our kids is letting them figure something out on their own. Of course we often know a different way, a better way, a tip or a trick that might make something easier. But before we jump in with that helpful piece of knowledge, why don’t we let them struggle for a bit and see what they come up with? It is so hard to see them biting a lip, rocking a chair back and forth, drumming their fingers on the table or chewing a pencil. If we can take a deep breath, though, and see that frustration for what it is- the sign that real work and learning are happening, independent of our sweeping in and making everything okay- we will be allowing our children to learn that they are capable of figuring things out. We’ll be giving them the chance to try and fail while the consequences are still relatively small. We’ll be providing them space to struggle safely…and when that breakthrough comes, we’ll be giving them the chance to feel the rush of joy and satisfaction that comes with knowing they did something amazing.

And we’ll be there in the front row to cheer them on.

7 quick takes

7QT: the trouble with radio silence edition


Hi, y’all.

The thing about blogging breaks is that they aren’t really breaks. Life has a way of being full of things. I keep meaning to write about them, and instead of waiting for me to sit down and do that, life just keeps rolling on with more and more things happening. As a way to ease back into blogging, I thought I’d do a quick-ish catch up post to let you know what we’ve been up to the past few months.

1. This has been our most ambitious garden year yet. I built a fourth raised bed, made a new flowerbed/herb garden on the corner of the house by our patio, and dug up a huge quantity of weeds and garlic chives that had taken over a former flowerbed to try to create a cottage garden. Things have done well- we had more strawberries than ever this year, the tomatoes and cucumbers are out of control, and we had lettuce well into July because of its position in the shade of a corkscrew willow tree that has finally gotten large enough to cast a decent shadow. My lavender stayed alive this year, and the four o’clocks I planted have finally grown up enough to reach the trellis. The cottage garden is a work in progress, but I think it’s looking promising.

Despite all the good, though, this past week has brought record numbers of squash beetles and Mexican bean beetles, neither of which have ever been this big of a problem before. The cucumber plants have spots that turn into holes that turn into wilted, brown leaves and the cucumbers themselves are bitter. I’m trying to rally and keep things under control, but part of me wants to pull up the cucumbers and the squashes and just fill those beds with spinach and lettuce for a fall crop. Maybe some peas. Could I do that?

2. We had a lovely trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my extended family. It was wonderful for our kids to have their cousins to play with all week…and to my astonishment, we actually had moments where both George and I were sitting in chairs on the beach while the kids played. This is definitely the first time since Sam was born almost 9 years ago that we’ve been able to both kind of relax at once.

3. A friend loaned us his copy of Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. It’s a story of a family of four children who spend their summer at a country house with a small sailboat. In Boxcar Children style, they are allowed to sail the boat to a small island nearby and camp out there. Adventures ensue. This charmingly British book was new to me, and it has changed my kids’ lives. They play at sailing all the time now, turning our play structure into a boat and wrapping our swings around the posts to be the rigging. If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s a perfect read-aloud- nothing earth-shattering ever happens, and yet it manages to be very exciting reading! The Audible recording by Alison Larkin is also quite good.

The sailors in my backyard were further inspired by their new favorite movie, Disney’s Moana, which is one of the best Disney movies to date. Moana is a strong, independent non-princess who sails her own canoe and manages to convince a demigod to do the right thing. Her grandmother, Grandma Tala, is my favorite character ever to appear in a Disney film. The sailing in the movie got wrapped into the sailing play…and now Felix struts around with his shirt off pretending to be Maui.

4. Sam joined the swim team this year and loved it. He had practice almost every day in the month of June, and we often listened to books (Swallows and Amazons) or the Moana soundtrack in the car on the way. In fact, we figured out that if we started the soundtrack in the pool parking lot, it would take us into our driveway as the final notes sounded. I cannot believe how many times I have heard those songs this summer. Swim team has ended now, but Sam is already talking about next year. And all of us are still singing the songs.

5. Felix celebrated his third birthday this week with coffee cake for breakfast, a trip to a favorite playground and lunch at Chick fil-A. He did not want a traditional cake and asked us to take him out for ice cream instead. I appreciate the chance to fulfill someone’s birthday dreams with such a simple request. Things seem to get more complicated as they get older, you know?

6. I spent many hours this summer working on a new study for the Blessed is She series of Blessed Conversations. The studies are designed for small groups to use as a way to dive deeper into Church teaching and grow in faith together. My study is on the cardinal and theological virtues, but there are six others by some of my favorite writers, covering a variety of topics from the Trinity to the Ten Commandments to the Beatitudes. There is also a leader’s guide for women who are facilitating small groups. They are available for purchase now. I really want to try out one of the ones I didn’t write and am thinking about getting a group together…because I always seem to want to start up new things as fall approaches…

7. …but maybe someone else will start a group and I can just go be part of it, because I have a bad habit of getting all excited at this time of year when school is about to start and suddenly I think I can do everything when there is about to be a lot more to think about and do! We have two first graders and a fourth grader this year, along with our energetic three year old who will definitely keep things interesting. I’m not sure how difficult it will be to have three people in academic subjects instead of just one- Kindergarten is pretty relaxed around here, and this is the first year we will be juggling multiple math books. When I start to get anxious about how hard it is going to be, I remind myself that it cannot possibly be as hard as going from one child to three children all at once in the first place. Giving birth to twins and bringing them home to your almost-three-year-old has to be more difficult than starting them in school with your almost-nine-year-old, right? That’s what I’m telling myself.

If you made it this far, you’re all caught up! How has your summer been? Ever read Swallows and Amazons? What are your thoughts on Moana as compared to the other “princessy” movies?

Linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum today for 7QT– be sure to go check out Kelly’s homeschool prep update and all the other assorted miscellany, all neatly organized into lists of seven. 

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To Felix, on the eve of your third birthday

This morning, we made play dough together.

You’ve been asking for days, since early last week, to play with play dough. We didn’t have any. I told you we could make some…but there was laundry to do and dishes to clean and errands to run and school curriculum to order. You were outside with your brother and sisters, or I was trying to convince you to take a nap, and we never seemed to get around to the play dough.

This morning is your last morning of being two years old, and if we can’t make time for it now, when will we? So I said “yes,” and we spent half an hour dumping flour and oil and cream of tartar and Kool-Aid and salt, mixing and stirring and tasting (yes, you did, and although it must taste awful it can’t hurt you, I guess) and kneading and rolling and patting and playing.

This, I suppose, is the difference in my parenting of you, my fourth child. I know now that now is as good a time as any. As hectic as it feels sometimes to have a two-year-old, things don’t necessarily get less hectic when he turns three, or four, or any other age. You’ll get better and better at cleaning up your own messes, and eventually you’ll be able to read Where the Wild Things Are to yourself every single night before bed instead of asking me to do it for you. You’ll pop into the bathroom and take your own shower and pop out again, maybe even remembering to hang up your towel, and I won’t sit by the side of the tub and watch you pour cups of water over your own head while you sing songs from the Moana soundtrack, all chubby cheeks and glistening skin and your sister’s heart-shaped sunglasses.

I’ll do less and less of the ordinary for you. You can already dress yourself and wash your hands and face and basically get your own breakfast. Somehow, though, your budding independence doesn’t result in our having more time to just hang out together.

Is it that you have more to do that doesn’t involve me? Or is it that I fill all those small moments when I would have been cleaning your hands with mopping the floor? Our house is tidier than it used to be when you were an infant, but I still feel like all I ever do is clean it up…and in exchange, I have a lot less time of smelling the top of your head in the rocking chair. You tag along with the big kids…out to the driveway to ride your tricycle or to the backyard to build a fort or to play hide and seek…and instead of hanging out and watching you, I run to the sewing machine or the computer or grab a book or my knitting and try to carve out a few minutes for myself to work or sing or create something that will remind me that I still exist apart from all that laundry. Your brother grabs himself a snack and gets you one, too. Your sister gives you a push on the swing or reads you that tiresome Clifford book for the thirteenth time today. You have people to do these things for you- people other than me.

Still, when you bump your head or scrape your knee, it’s my lap that comforts you, and my kisses still mostly work as the best way to take the sting out of your injuries. Although you’re quick to correct anyone who calls you “little,” you still pretend to be a baby monkey, climbing up my body and dangling from me as I shuffle down the hall.

I treasure your exuberance, your silly stories, your determination to tell knock-knock jokes even though you don’t quite understand the form. I always save you the orange cup and the purple ice pop and almost all of my croutons. You don’t like the way my reading glasses look and constantly ask me to “push those glasses up” on top of my head. If I have the book memorized, I do it just to oblige you.

You’re my “yes” kid. We said “yes” to the possibility of you, and I find myself saying “yes” to everyone else more often than I might have if you hadn’t joined our family. I’m older and wiser now on my fourth two-year-old than I was when I had just one two-year-old for reference. Beyond that, though, I know that wonderful things can happen when people say yes. Wonderful things and wonderful people, like you.

Happiest of birthdays to you, my littlest man. You’re sunshine in my heart.

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This Lent, know thyself (and thy temperament, too)

There are so many good ways to do Lent.

Every year around this time, I find myself overwhelmed by all the choices and wanting to do everything. I tell myself that I can, in fact, do everything…that I’m a little bit superhuman and that I can rock this Lent like no other.

I’m good at pushing myself just a little harder and stretching just a little further…until something snaps, and I find myself someplace around the end of February in tears and feeling like a big, fat failure at Lent.

For years, I thought this was just another way in which I am deficient- another weakness that I should be working with due diligence to overcome.

Then I learned about temperament.

Each of us has a temperament- a set of attributes and characteristics that makes us who we are. The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett does a wonderful job of explaining the four classic temperaments and how they affect our lives. Reading this book helped me to see that temperaments do come from God. They are how God made us in His image, with love. My own temperament (melancholic-choleric) tempts me sometimes to think that I have all negative characteristics and that the other temperaments are more desirable than mine…but temperament itself is neutral. It is how we learn to manage and work with what we’ve been given that matters.

Choosing our Lenten disciplines with temperament in mind can make them a lot more fruitful. One person might gain a lot by fasting from all sweets and coffee. Another person might benefit more from reading a spiritual classic. I tend to be very hard on myself about lots of things, so setting up opportunities where I’ll have lots of chances to judge myself harshly could actually backfire and put up barriers to my relationship with Jesus.

That’s the opposite of what we want, here.

So, this Lent, I’m taking my temperament and my life situation into account as I make my plans.

What I am doing:

cultivating a habit of praying throughout the day

My days run more smoothly when they are liberally sprinkled with prayer. I’ve never gone so far as to develop a rule for myself, but there are moments in the day when prayer is a natural fit. I have an alarm set at noon on my phone to remind us to pray along with our Angelus video while we get lunch ready. This Lent, I’m adding an alarm at 3pm to remind me to pray for mercy. I probably won’t always have time for the Divine Mercy chaplet, but that’s okay…thanks to a wise suggestion from a friend, I have labeled the alarm with “Lord, have mercy on us”- so even the act of turning off the alarm will be a prayer.

Thank goodness for smart friends.

I’ve snuck some other little prayers into spaces on the margin, like putting on my chap-stick (labeled with “set a guard over my mouth, O Lord- keep watch over the door of my lips!”) and drinking coffee (“my cup runneth over!”) I am trying to stop yelling when I feel frustrated and overwhelmed, so these little prayers help me to remember to keep my voice gentle and quiet.

practicing the daily discipline of finding God in the small things

I’m so excited about doing #HolyLens again with many of you. The community on Instagram has grown to become one of my favorite places to hang out. The discipline of finding God’s presence in everyday moments has really deepened my appreciation for the “thin places” where the holy and the mundane are rubbing against each other. These moments are all over the place- we just have to pay attention. Taking photos helps me do that.

practicing lectio divina…in the dark…on my phone

It is a true gift to have a scripture study written by busy moms for busy moms. My friends Nell, Laura and Nancy have put together a really wonderful study for Lent that centers on the practice of lectio divina, a focused, attentive, prayerful reading of a short scripture passage. There are written reflections for the beginning and ending of each week, but the heart of the study is just each woman alone with the word of God. It’s available as a pdf, so I can read it on my phone when I’m nursing a baby to sleep. That’s the only way it could work for me right now, as those seem to be the only quiet moments in my day.

If little, bite-sized chunks of thought-provoking scripture might work well for you, it’s not too late to join in this study. They even have an active facebook group where you can connect with other women who are participating. I haven’t found many minutes to get over there, but I love watching the conversation unfold.

What I am not doing:

giving up coffee

This is one sacrifice that would be harder on my family than on me. Since it’s not up to me to make their Lent miserable, I’m going to keep having that coffee in the morning. I do really love it, and it would definitely feel like a sacrifice to go without it, but as long as I have a baby who is waking up every night, I’m going to be tired…and as long as my children and I are together all day, I’m going to need that caffeine boost. It’s how it is.

studying all the writings of St. Francis de Sales

When I heard about the open online course that deSales University is offering exploring all the writing of Francis deSales, I was really excited to do it. I’ve long wanted to read some of his work, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. However, I’ve since realized that actually doing this would be too much for me right now with everything else that’s going on. I may still read some of his work this Lent, but it’s not going to be a focus for me.

With my family:

chaining together 40 days worth of prayer intentions

We always make a Lenten prayer chain with the kids, where we put the name of one person or family on each link and commit to pray for him or her on that day. We usually contact that person and ask if there is any special intention for which we can pray (and often, there is). It’s been a great way to remember our friends and family and to take extra time to hold their concerns before Jesus as we prepare for Easter.

limiting sweets to Sundays

We’ve become aware recently that our kids feel they “deserve” treats for almost everything. Whether we’d gotten overly reliant on treats as rewards or whether it’s just a stage our kids are going through, we decided as parents that it is best to nip it in the bud. So, no treats except on Sundays (which are little Easters and are exempt from our fasts). The kids are basically on board. We’ll see how it goes.

What are you working on this Lent? Are you well underway, or are you still trying to figure it out?

books, well read mom

To the former owner of my new copy of Wuthering Heights

Dear Gordon,

I’m not sure if I should really call you Gordon. Maybe Mr. Taylor would be more respectful. After all, you are probably older than I am, since during your life you both acquired and sold off your beautifully-bound copy of Wuthering Heights.

Since I am holding your Wuthering Heights, you are not holding it any longer. Why? What separates my life from yours…why am I in the habit of acquiring lovely books for my library while you are parting from the ones that once comprised yours?

Did you ever even read this book? If you did, you held it gingerly, barely opening the covers to be sure you wouldn’t put any pressure on the spine, the way my old friend Colleen does, wanting to ensure that her beloved books are always perfectly preserved. I searched the pages for telltale signs- your notes (not a one), a crease (no such thing), a stray pencil mark (no pencil has ever touched this book). Nothing gave you away until page 259, where I found a single, solitary crumb, maybe from some long-ago cookie. It left a tiny grease spot on the thick cream-colored page when I brushed it off. It might have once been oatmeal.

I wonder- do you like raisins or chocolate chips in your oatmeal cookies? And do you think a person needs to choose one or the other, or can someone really appreciate both?

(I’m definitely for chocolate chips every time.)

Wuthering Heights might not turn out to be the best book I read this year. I might not love it. I read it once before, in high school, and I remember almost nothing about it except the names of the characters and the windswept Yorkshire moors. I can’t predict whether I will love this book enough to read it again and again as I have some of my others. I just don’t know yet.

What I do know is that I am very much enjoying holding your book, and that even if I don’t enjoy it, I will keep it for a long time. When I buy books, I like to buy used ones, and I always buy the very nicest copy I can find.

My hunt for the very best copy I could afford, in this case, led me to your old book, now absent from you, its original owner, but still bearing your bookplate on the front page. It proudly proclaims that it was “privately printed and bound expressly for The Heirloom Library of Gordon J. Taylor.”

There is nothing at all wrong with a paperback book. Some of my most treasured book friends have been paperbacks, the covers eventually curling at the edges and separating from the spines as the glue ages. I have literally read them to pieces. Your book, your former book which is now mine, is not going to fall apart. It’s serious about self-preservation- the kind of binding my daughter Lucy would use as a stepstool to reach something forbidden on a higher shelf- solid, heavy, and clearly not going anywhere. The cover, a sort of medium blue, stamped with gold vines and flowers is the kind of cover my daughter Nora would trace gently with her finger and then carry off to hide under her pillow, hoping I wouldn’t notice it was missing from the shelf. The blue ribbon marker, a tiny bit frayed on the end, is substantial. It’s no cheap ribbon. It’s the kind of ribbon marker my son Sam would say “indicates that this is obviously not an inexpensive book.”

And so, just like that, we are connected, and I’m wondering about you- about this bond we now share, about whether you were a fan of British literature in general or just added this one to your shelf because it was the next in the series. Was this a gift from your grandmother, who always hoped you’d be a reader? Did you have children who borrowed it from the shelf to set up risers for their toys to have a concert or to build steps for a castle, the way I used to do with my dad’s never-opened collection of Harvard Classics?

Whatever the situation, I’m grateful to have your book now that you no longer need it. I promise to give it a good home. For now, it will be living on the table at the end of my sofa or on the one beside my bed as I make my way through it and get reacquainted with Heathcliff and Catherine. After that, it will live on the second shelf of my living room bookcase, snug beside Pride and Prejudice on one side and Jane Eyre on the other. I think it’s important for sisters to be together, and besides, the divide between fans of Austen and the Brontes has been grossly exaggerated, don’t you agree? I tend toward Austen over Bronte, although I reject the need to make such a silly choice at all.

Come to think of it, I would definitely put raisins in oatmeal cookies if I had no chocolate chips.

Thanks for the book, Mr. Taylor. I hope this note finds you happy and at peace, wherever you might be.

five minute Friday

Five-Minute Friday: Middle.

I’d never choose to be in the middle of anything
preferring a window for the scenery and a place to rest my head
or even the aisle, for making a quick escape with a restless child or a restless heart.

The middle is confining-
claustrophobia sets in.
I can’t easily go forward or back
and I feel stuck.

I’d much rather just have started
                in love with a new yarn!
                loving this story so much!
                delighted with a new training plan!
or be nearly done
                only three more rows to knit!
                just a page and a half to go!
                finish line in sight!
               
But life is teaching me that the middle has its advantages.
Hugs and snuggles from both sides,
a better view of the pictures in the storybook,
plenty of popcorn still in the bowl when it passes by,
sofa cushions perfectly broken in but with years of life left.

So I’m sitting in the middle more often these days,
cultivating an appreciation of the here and now
noticing what’s right in front of me
resisting the temptation to hurry ahead or linger, looking backward.

Sometimes the middle is messy, tear-stained, sticky, or covered in fingerprints,
  but it’s where we are right now.
If we can’t go over it, under it, or around it,
if we have to go through it anyway,
we might as well try to appreciate it.

For more Five-Minute Friday, visit Heading Home.