I am choosing joy.

Thanksgiving is Thursday.  The holiday season is officially upon us. It’s been looming since early October when the stores pushed all the Halloween decorations to the clearance shelves and glittered up their aisles with red and green….well, everything…even candy corn and marshmallow snowpeeps?? I have done all I can to ignore it. I am traditionally a “no-Christmas-until-we-have-celebrated-Thanksgiving” kind of girl. I even panicked in the car this weekend when Steve zipped through radio stations and we heard a few chords of a familiar carol. “SHUT IT OFF!”

But today…I broke the rules.

Last night I was doing the dishes amidst total chaos. A wonderful, yet often exhausting, chaos ascended upon our household this fall. Henry is in school now and I think we forgot how much work it is to have a kindergartener. They have homework. Real homework…and they can’t read…so you have to read…but they desperately want to read…so you have to remember exactly what words they can read. It’s maddening for both the parents and the child. We have recently celebrated Steve’s graduation and the beginning of his new career. I was also blessed with a new job in August. Matthew has become a member of the local swim team which requires a significant commitment. All of this has turned our family calendar completely upside down in the very best of ways…but we are still in the “figuring it all out” phase. We have only completely forgotten to be home for the school bus once – thankfully we have awesome neighbors.

As I was clearing the dinner dishes last night my brain went in to overdrive. Do you have those moments when suddenly every little thing you need to get done in the weeks ahead comes blasting into your thoughts all at once? Your heart starts beating fast and your breathing pattern changes? That’s what happened to me. “How am I going to fit it all in? How am I going to be here when I need to be there? When am I going to get that exam written? How are we going to pay for that? Are we ever going to get this house cleaned up? “…I could keep going…but here’s what made me stop in my tracks…“And now we have to figure out the holidays on top of all of this? We have to put up the tree?” Yep. I went there. I was feeling overwhelmed.

verseAbout 3 minutes later a funny thing happened. We have an abundance of “clippy” magnets on our fridge. They accumulate coupons I never use, random notes and receipts I can never find when I need them, and the occasional picture. I was frantically searching the fridge for a lost recipe when one of the clips fell on the floor. I retrieved it and realized it held, right on top, the notes I took in church last Christmas Eve. Eleven months ago in hot pink ink I had circled “Luke 2:10-11” and beneath it I had written: “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”  GOOD NEWS. (I had these words underlined.) GREAT JOY. (I had these words DOUBLE underlined…as if I knew later I would need the reminder.) Interesting. I don’t believe in coincidences.

photoSo today I broke the rules. I started by bravely streaming some Christmas music in my office at work. An hour later I decided to try out my new USB powered light-up tree and put it RIGHT NEXT to my solar powered turkey! Crazy, right??? Yep, three whole days ahead of schedule. I am making a conscious decision to be joyful throughout this holiday season. I am choosing joy and I am starting right now. I want to let go of 2013 and usher in the New Year without ever forgetting how broken, and scared, and thankful and joyful I have felt this year.

Steve is okay. Our family is still whole. I am choosing joy. We have comfortable home. I am choosing joy. My kids have warm beds, coats and shoes. I am choosing joy. We have food on the table every night. I am choosing joy. We have friends and family who love and support us. I am choosing joy. I believe in a God who made an unthinkable sacrifice to save me from myself. I am choosing joy.

Everything else that the holiday brings is a “bonus.” If the holiday traffic gets to me, I can stay home. If the lines at Wal-Mart are 20 people deep and there are only two lanes open, I can leave. I am choosing joy. These years pass quickly. This is the only Christmas that Matthew will be eight and Henry will be six. Our circumstances may be drastically different next year than they are today. We have every reason to be joyful.  We can trim trees, visit, bake cookies and light yummy candles. We can play games, laugh and make memories. Yep, the holiday season is upon us. That’s good news, isn’t it?

Lucky Thirteen

You’ve heard the joke…”How do you make God laugh? Tell him what you are doing tomorrow.” I’ve always thought that was cute…now I really get it. Steve and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary today, and this year…the thirteenth…has been a real doozy. When I made my New Year’s resolutions for 2013, watching my husband go through open heart surgery and going “sort of vegan” were not on the short list.

I have spent years watching families go through difficult times, and often thought “I wonder how I would react if…” Now I know. You see, when it happens to you, there isn’t really time to react. You just do. I am thankful to know this, as I am certain that this will not be the last “bump in the road” for the Cook family. When I look back at everything we have been through in just shy of six months, it’s astounding…but it honestly never really felt that way. Yes there were tears, worry and fear. There were moments when I saw that exasperated “what else can possibly happen?” look on Steve’s face. My lowest point was sitting in a crumpled heap in an empty hospital corridor…listening to a friend’s voice pray in my ear and tell me we “could do this.” She was right. We could, and we did. We were held, supported and loved in a way that I never imagined.

In a recent message, our Pastor said he can always tell when people are growing in their faith, because their lives are “overflowing with thanksgiving.” God is laughing…and we are happy to entertain Him. He knew better. He always does. This whole experience, as awful and painful as it was, did not happen accidentally. The word “coincidence” has been stricken from my vocabulary. This awful, painful experience has made us better. It gave us a sense of purpose and a greater understanding of why we are here, why we are together and where we want our journey to take us. The thirteen years that are behind us were great, but the many years to come will be far more fulfilling. Because of that awful, painful experience we are learning to be better spouses, parents, neighbors and friends. We are overflowing with thanksgiving.

I am thankful to live in a house that is filled with joy (aside from the occasional brotherly spat). God is laughing…and we are too. Moments that seemed so serious a few short months ago, give us a smile now. Steve passed cardiac rehab with flying colors. In fact, he ran 9 miles on his fancy new arteries this Saturday…show off. We survived a summer sans ice cream, though we fought over the occasional “drippy edge” on the boys’ cones. I still sneak a little feta cheese on occasion, and probably always will. Oh, and I bet God got a kick out of my first couple attempts at cooking quinoa. (Rinse it first or it tastes like you bit into a sandcastle.)

Lucky thirteen! Looks like an early bedtime for 2 little boys tonight. We have a backyard date planned…homemade veggie fajita bowls and vegan brownies are on the menu. Happy Anniversary, babe. I love you and I am so thankful for you. You make me better.

I Ate a Cookie Today

CHALK BOARDI ate a cookie today. Not just any cookie. A giant, fresh gooey cookie that was no doubt laden with butter and eggs (both of which I eliminated from my diet months ago). I ate it to feel better. I ate it because I am stressed, and crabby and for whatever reason highly-processed, greasy food has traditionally been a source of comfort for me. This cookie had it all. Go big or go home, right?? This cookie had Reese’s Cups baked inside! It worked. Yep, for about five glorious minutes…I was worry-free.

I ran at the park today. It was hot, sticky and wonderful. I ran to feel better. I ran because it always gives me clarity and a fresh perspective. I have been running the same trails for over 15 years. If it weren’t for the occasional root sticking up in the ground, I could run them with my eyes closed. I am intimately connected to every twist, turn and elevation. I know where it’s sandy, and where the dirt is more packed under your feet. I know where it’s buggy and wet after a rainstorm and which way to go if you are seeking shade.

The trails know me too…I honestly believe that. It’s why I prefer to run by myself. Those trails wait for me. They know my secrets, and they know that sometimes I need to be challenged. Sometimes the trails have to set me straight. The trails demand my best, both physically and emotionally. Physically, I was all there today. I felt strong and confident. Emotionally, I was a cookie-eating wreck. But the trails demand my best: “Really? You need a cookie? You with the shelter of an air-conditioned home, a fully stocked pantry, a good job, two healthy growing boys, a loving husband? Really?” It’s incredible to me how four short miles can shift hours of frustration and worry into thankfulness and joy. Yep, the run worked. I will sleep well tonight.

I read my bible today. Unlike consuming large quantities of Doritos and running the trails, this has not always been a natural source of comfort for me. This year has changed that a little (ok, a lot). Today I read Psalm 27. Three times. I have been reading Psalm 27 for two weeks. Daily. Verse 13 is even written on the chalk board in my kitchen. I read it to feel better. It works. For me, personally, it is a reminder that my worries and fears are all part of a master plan. I am waiting. Waiting for change, and growth and opportunity. I am waiting for a reason and praying I don’t miss the lessons along the way.

I ate a cookie today. I don’t regret it…but it wasn’t worth it. I’m better than that cookie. I have beautiful park trails nearby and strong, healthy legs to attack them. I have friends and family that love me unconditionally. I have my faith, and a handy bible app I should use more frequently. Let’s be honest…today’s cookie incident will not be my last. But I hope that I continue to learn that I have healthy habits that provide far more relief and inner peace than a few extra calories.

Let it rain.

I was supposed to lift this morning. I haven’t been sleeping well, so when I finally crashed at 4am, I decided it would be wise to skip my 5:15 appointment with the weights, keep my head secured to my pillow and postpone until this evening. I rarely deviate from my workout schedule, but by tonight my body ached for a run. Nothing else was going to do it for me. After work I quickly served up some dinner to the boys, fed the pups and drove to the park. On my way I noticed a few dark clouds in the distance. We have had beautiful weather the past few days, but the evenings have been dark and stormy. I stopped looking at the clouds and kept driving; maybe if I ignored them they would go away?

They didn’t go away. They got darker and stormier. It was only 7pm-ish but it was starting to look like 9pm-ish. I sat in my car and debated what to do next. I noticed many (but not all) people quickly finishing up their workouts and making their way to their cars. I got out and walked up toward the trail head to stretch. A park volunteer met my eye and pointed to the sky. “It’s coming fast, you aren’t going to have time!”, he said moving quickly toward the parking lot. “Let it rain!”, I yelled back to him. “What?” “Let it rain!”

With my feet planted on the ground and legs straight, I bent forward and hung my hands toward the ground to stretch. Let it rain. I closed my eyes and those words kept running through my head. Let it rain. I breathed in the humid air and just hung there for a minute…asking for rain. I wanted the skies to open. I wanted to feel cold rain on my face.

No less than two minutes into my run, my prayer was answered. And OH BOY did it rain! No thunder, no lightening…just a heavy, constant downpour. I had to talk myself through the first half mile. “This is going to feel slower than normal.” (You are slow all the time.) “My shoes are wet and my feet feel heavy.” (Perfect! You are supposed to be lifting.) “I am wearing Steve’s new running watch.” (It was pricey enough to at least be “water resistant.”) It was raining hard enough that I feared it would damage my iPod, so I tucked it in my shirt and just listened to the rain, and my feet sloshing in the puddles…

Puddles. The puddles made me think of Henry. My sweet, puddle-jumping, tree-climbing, ball-catching, bike-riding, snuggle-bug Henry. He reminds me several times a week now that in “a couple -a months” he is going to kindergarten. This makes me proud, happy, thankful and sick to my stomach all at once. He is my baby. Headed off to school. Let it rain. Let me feel the sting of watching him stroll down the driveway with his new lunchbox and backpack. Let me feel the weight of watching him blow out 6 candles on his cake in August. It’s a perfectly natural part of being a mom. It’s life. Let it rain.

I listened closely for thunder and watched for flashes in the sky. They never came. By my second mile my thoughts turned to the future – dreams that I want to make reality. Goals that continue to keep me up at night. The winds of change are coming and there will most certainly be storms to weather. Let it rain. Let the storms come. Let them make me uncomfortable and help me realize my purpose. This year I have learned that when storms become threatening, I know where to find shelter. I am not afraid. Let it rain.

I finished a third mile, and headed home. The rain never let up. Steve was tucking our two snuggle-bugs into their beds. I got to rub noses, smell hair and kiss faces. They got a kick out of the fact that mom could ring out her shirt. Let it rain. It makes me appreciate the sunshine.

Taco Night…3 ways

Do your kids always eat what you eat? Mine don’t. I used to have tremendous mom-guilt over that situation, but over the past year I have set it free. A few weeks ago I posted about the fact that my children eat the occasional chicken nugget, slice of pizza or hot dog. It’s true. There are nights when I am not up for food-based anxiety and I choose not to die on the “you must eat this grilled eggplant” hill. In addition, Steve and I have recently made some pretty intense dietary changes, and I am fine with my boys eating some healthy choices that are no longer a part of our day-to-day diet. Henry likes to try new things and eats most vegetables. Matthew is learning to try new things and has recently realized he does not “feel like he’s going to puke” when he eats baby carrots or zucchini dredged in ketchup. (I consider this a major victory.) I don’t like salmon or mushrooms, so I really wouldn’t appreciate it if you plopped them on my plate and forced me to choke them down. I have decided to give my kids the same respect; as long as they remain open to trying new things and make healthy choices most of the time. It’s working. Having said all of that – I am extremely interested in quitting my part-time job as an in-home short order cook. It wears me out.

The best solution I have found so far is to make meals that have enough options to satisfy everyone’s preferences. I like this because (1) it cuts down on the amount of work for me – it’s one dinner (2) even if my boys don’t eat everything offered, they are still being exposed to new flavors and textures that they see mom and dad enjoying. For example, tonight was “Taco Night” at our house…minimal prep, pretty quick to fix, and it was enjoyed three different ways…

Meal 1: Steve
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Steve is a fan of the traditional burrito. On his plate tonight: two whole wheat wraps, Trader Joe’s Refried Beans, grilled peppers and onions, fresh salsa and homemade guacamole.

Meal 2: Kate
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I tend to turn just about any meal into a salad. I love the stuff. On my plate tonight: chopped baby romaine lettuce topped with grilled peppers and onions, TJ’s Refried Beans, homemade guacamole and fresh salsa. I also had my fair share of multigrain chips…and more guac…and more salsa…

Meal 3: Matthew & Henry
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The boys prefer to have their plates look like something you’d find at Taco Bell, and I am happy to oblige. On their plates tonight: “1 soft and 1 crunchy taco” filled with organic chicken cooked in Penzey’s Chicken Taco Seasoning, homemade guacamole and a little shredded cheese, with a few multigrain chips & more guac on the side.

The best part of this particular “Taco Night” is that it was enjoyed in our own backyard on a beautiful evening! No tears, no food stress…and we all (sort of) enjoyed the same dinner…and I can’t WAIT for leftovers at lunch time!!

I Want to be a Fence Jumper

watson parkHave you ever had one of those days when you just. can’t. breathe? There is no physiological explanation for it, no related medical diagnosis and no one is smothering you with a pillow. You just. can’t. breathe. That’s how my day started yesterday. Recently I’ve written about my desire to improve certain aspects of my life. It’s more than a desire. It’s a promise I’ve made to myself, and it’s a drive that is keeping me up at night. It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me do crazy things like lift heavy, eat tofu and write a blog.

Over the past six months I have been challenged in both my personal life and professional life in ways I had never imagined. I have been offered new opportunities for growth and given myself permission to dream big. I have also watched my two boys grow out of everything they own, shed their training wheels and finish yet another school year. Time is moving fast…and I feel this overwhelming need to move forward, push on, refuse to settle…I want more. I want more for me, and more for my family. Yesterday morning it all caught up with me. I opened up my office door, grabbed my coffee, took a seat at my desk and realized I could. not. breathe.

Last October we adopted our lab mix, Watson. Most expensive puppy adoption EVER. On a whim I applied for him online. There were seven siblings in the litter, but I wanted the dopey looking black and white one in the bottom corner of the picture. He was the only one left when the Humane Society called us. “Meant to be” we said…and we brought him home. He is adorable. When he yawns his tongue is like 15 inches long. His bark is obnoxious. He lacks manners. He eats socks, steals food, chews carpet and licks electrical outlets. He lays down in mud puddles. He is 11 months old and weighs an awkward, smelly 90-ish pounds. He is also an avid fence jumper and a tree climber. Not kidding (you sort of have to see it to believe it). In order to maintain a good relationship with our neighbors, we have just made the decision to have a 6-foot privacy fence installed.

Last night I had some unexpected free time. Steve got caught in traffic and ended up taking the boys to their after school activities without stopping home. It was a beautiful evening, so I changed quickly, grabbed Watson and we headed to the park. I have been reading that some dogs have a “migration instinct.” Watson most likely has this trait…and the recommendation on the dog breed websites is to exercise these dogs “vigorously and regularly.” Poor guy is crated when we are gone (for obvious reasons) so I am happy when I have the time to get him out and moving.

I intended to let him set the pace. He wildly sniffed around at first and checked out our lovely surroundings; then we settled into our walk.  I walked a little faster, and he started to trot. I broke into a jog, and so did he. Within seconds I could feel my shoulders drop and all the tension leave my body. I looked down at Watson and I honestly think he was smiling at me. His eyes looked up at me as if to say “this is why I jump the fence!!” Mouth open, tongue out, his large, uncoordinated body lopped along beside me. We were breathing.

wastson tableThat’s when it occurred to me…it’s not only Watson that has a migration instinct…I do too. Watson and I understood each other perfectly on that run last night. For me, running is always a release. It’s the ability to process the day’s interactions and think through everything that is happening in my life. I, much like Watson, have a need to see what’s on the other side of the fence. Running does that for me. I can talk myself through problems, make game plans, figure out a better way. It’s a total escape. There are no boundaries. No fences. Just me, in my own brain, deciding where to go next in my life and how I’m going to get there. It’s total freedom, and it’s delicious.

Watson and I share a restless spirit. We love our families and the comfort of home (and we will always obediently return) but we feel the need to explore outside the fence. We only go around once in this life, and we are determined to make the most out of every day. I re-connected with a friend from my past this week, and I know she could sense my restlessness. She knew I was feeling a deep longing for change, and she could hear through the phone that I could. not. breathe. She offered simple words of kindness and understanding…but most importantly she reminded me of God’s timing. Yes it’s my life, my hopes, my desires and longings…but there are plans for me that I don’t know about yet. Slowing down and enjoying where I am right now is not settling, it’s simply giving God a chance to come beside me and give me some clarity and direction. When I stop relying on myself, the breathing comes easier.

Do you ever feel this way? Fenced in and so pensive about the future that you can’t even focus on the good life that’s right in front of you? How do you cope? What’s your release? I don’t intend to ever stop my quest to make the most out of life; but I do intend to pause more often to look around and be thankful. Yes, time is moving fast, and there are memories being made in my house every day that I do not want to miss. Change will come, in God’s time. Meanwhile Watson and I will continue to enjoy our trips to the park. Kindred spirits…a girl and her dog…migrating…dreaming big…and breathing.

I Want My Boys to Know that I Am Strong

PUSH UPThere are two females in our household: Luna (who often gnaws on her foot to fall asleep) and me. Basically that leaves me as the primary female role model for my two boys. That’s not a responsibility I take lightly. I have moments I am proud of…and moments when I feel like an epic failure. My behavior and the example I set for them now will in large-part shape how they view women for the rest of their lives. I want my boys to know that I am strong.

Monday I am starting a new strength training program. Matthew (an avid reader) found the manual that came with “ChaLEAN Extreme” and quickly brought it to my attention that there is a pre-test involved. I had planned to hide in the basement for the pre-test (or skip it) but Matthew had other plans. So last Tuesday, Coach Matthew put me through the paces. He counted my push-ups and squats, measured my flexibility, timed my planks and cheered me on as I performed shoulder presses and biceps curls. He said things like “four more to go”, “you are doing great” and “wow, are you even tired yet?” So cute. He was proud of me. I want my boys to know that I am strong.

COACHLast summer Henry was shocked to find out that snakes paralyze me with fear. We were at the zoo, and I refused to visit the Reptile House. He asked why…and I told him. His reaction was priceless. That kid has such a big heart! I know he desperately wanted to join Steve and Matthew inside, but he also felt compelled to hold my hand or do something to comfort me. I want my boys to know that sometimes I am afraid.

When Steve had his surgery it all happened very fast. I had to make many quick decisions by myself. (Steve had enough on his mind.) The toughest part by far was telling our boys. What do I say? How much should they know? They were staying with friends of ours. My dear friend Nancy let me break down and vent before I collected myself to talk with them. (We locked ourselves in the bathroom…it’s the only chance any mom has at privacy…and even that’s questionable.) I took the boys into a room and let them know that daddy’s heart was sick, and we had great doctors that were going to fix it. I had no choice but to cry…the wound was still too fresh…and I answered their questions as honestly as I could. I want my boys to know that sometimes I am weak.

This year has already taught me so much about myself and my family. Now, more than ever, I know what it means to be thankful. I have new-found motivation to improve myself physically, mentally and spiritually. I think Steve feels the same way. I have learned to ask for help when I need it – and to help others whenever I am able. I used to under-value the importance of providing a meal for a family going through a tough time. Not anymore. I want to be a better friend and neighbor. I want to teach my kids to be good friends and neighbors. I have learned that when I am at my weakest, I really am carried by my faith. He answers prayers. I want my boys to know that when I am weak and afraid, I find strength in my family, my friends and my faith.