Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why I Have Hot Pink Hair

So, in case you haven't noticed from Facebook or Instagram or my picture on this page, I am currently rocking a very unnatural hair color. It's hot pink. In darker light it looks kind of a crazy red, but in the sun, it is full blown hot pink.

And I love it. I feel like a super hero. I feel like I am so much cooler than my minivan driving self has a right to be.

Sweaty pinky-red hair is awesome

I am somehow more approachable to random strangers. I've been shown the new rib cage tattoo of a female med student in the middle of a Starbucks. I've had total strangers yell at me across a parking lot that they like my hair. The women at Ulta, and Sally's, and the MAC counter treated me like one of them. When I asked for a fun new lip color for spring, she brought out PURPLE lipstick. Purple! If your job involves wearing a black smock for a living, we would probably make an instant connection if we met.

I make eye contact and share smiles with a different group of people than before. Not just the moms wrangling children in the Target, but also 20-somethings and maintenance workers and the white girl with dreadlocks at my church. We apparently share the bond of people who feel slightly off inside.

The reactions I've gotten from people who actually know me have also been enlightening. "I wish I could do that," "I wish I could get away with that," and my favorite (spoken by a beautiful and graceful homeschooling mom) "I wish I had the balls to do that" have been the most common. There have also been people who have not mentioned it AT ALL. People I see at least once or twice a week who have made absolutely no mention of the fact that my head now kind of glows in the light. Can they not see it? Are they practicing the Southern proverb "If you can't say anything nice...?" I suppose that's better than the fair amount of "look at your hair!" (not a compliment), "wow, that's different" (also not a compliment), and "THAT'S a big change" (still not a compliment).

Almost everyone asks me what prompted me to dye it all. And I haven't given any great answers. I've always wanted to (true), I'm probably having a midlife crisis (possible), I just felt like it (weak, but technically true). The real answer is a little bit long and a little bit dramatic and a little bit because I'm getting older.

When I was in my early 20s I had very long, very dark brown hair. And, although I loved the drama of short hair and bright hair I just didn't have the courage to change it. There's a special sense of self-consciousness that comes with your 20s that you really regret in your 30s. Anyway, I found myself thinking "if I had nothing to lose I'd cut all my hair off and dye it red." Over the next couple of years I saw a loved one lose her hair to cancer. A few months after she eventually lost her life I found myself thinking about cutting my hair again and realized that I actually have a lot less to lose than I thought. Some fleeting sense of attractiveness? The ability to blend in better with a crowd? I don't know what I was afraid of losing, but I was suddenly aware that I might not get as much time or hair as I originally thought I would.

After that first radical change it was easier every time I've cut it all off or dyed it blond or red or purply brown. It's been super short and pretty darn long and everything in between. There have been cuts I did not like. But it's hair so it grows and people forget if you looked weird for a few weeks.

So why now and why so bright? Well, I am getting older. I will be 40 this summer and I certainly feel that crunch of time and the fear that my best years may be over and the worry that I will be less and less interesting from here on out. But that's not the main reason.

Over the last year I've really struggled with feeling less-than. I don't have a job, or an amazingly Pinterest-worthy house, or a side business that (according to what I see on Facebook) I'm apparently supposed to have. I have gained weight and not worked out. I've made some big life changes, but been really uncertain about why exactly or what benefit they may have.

And I've been hiding.

Hiding in my baggy clothes because my others don't fit. Hiding in gym clothes because, really, why should I actually get ready everyday? Hiding by letting my striking pixie of two-plus years ago when I felt strong and brave grow into a nondescript shaggy mess. Hiding by refusing to write anything about any of this because I just wanted to sit on my couch and watch TV and eat chocolate in the quiet and not deal with my feelings.

So I decided I was done hiding. I don't want to keep the extra weight I'm carrying or the fear I'm holding onto or the self pity I've wrapped around me like a puffy coat. A puffy coat made of my jiggly stomach.

I was explaining this to my friend Erin who, conveniently, used to own her own hair salon. I casually asked if she thought I could pull off pink hair. She enthusiastically said yes. She also spent two years of her life with a buzzed head that she bleached every three weeks so I probably should have seen that coming.

When I told Erin that I thought it might just be a midlife crisis I said, "if I get 40 more years, 80-year-old me will enjoy this memory. And if I don't..." and just kind of trailed off. Erin finished the sentence for me with "And if you don't get 40 more years and you don't dye your hair your epitaph can just say 'she lived a short life with brown hair.'" Which is hilarious and also clearly made me want to go ahead with it.

So I did. Erin did all the leg work and make cookies and brought out toys to entertain my kids which eliminated the bulk of the expense and inconvenience. And I got to just chat with her for 4 hours so that was also a plus.

And I am definitely no longer hiding. I feel brave again. Terrified, but brave enough to move forward anyway--with writing and actually losing this weight and just generally walking around knowing that I am not imagining it and that people are actually talking about me when I walk by. As my friend Allison said, "at least you know what they're saying."

I don't have any idea how long I'll keep up my pink hair. It does take maintenance and I have a towel that will never be the same. I also drip pink sweat at the gym, but I'm choosing to call that fabulous instead of horrifyingly gross. I do know that I certainly don't regret it. Maybe I am kidding myself by thinking that I'm young enough to pull this off, but who cares? It's fun and ridiculous and makes me smile. Also, my daughter gazes at me adoringly and says things like, "It's just so PINK!" which is a grand compliment in her world.

You should do this. Maybe not pink hair, but whatever that thing is that you've thought "if I had nothing to lose, I'd..." You really don't have anything to lose that you're going to get to keep long term anyway. And maybe you'll get to feel like a superhero, too, and then we can roam around the world saving it all together. With or without pink hair. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Grow, Little Bloom, Grow

Such a Perfect Tulip in my Front Yard
I kill things a lot. Not like, animal things, but pretty much all plant things. I have two large peace lilies that I have managed to keep alive for about a decade, but they mostly survive on the force of my guilt. One was a gift at my grandfather's funeral and the other was from the funeral of his sister, so every time they start turning brown and scraggly I water them... because how terrible would I be if I let my dead relatives' funeral plants die? Have I no soul? Fortunately peace lilies are incredibly resilient so this plan is keeping them pitifully alive...so far.

But, basically, without strong guilt motivations I will just let stuff die. Because I am tired and moving seems too hard. Because I am poor at planning things ahead of time and "gardening" is not on my list even when I do make a plan. Because I am lazy. It is apparently not much of a priority so I don't create time for it in my life. It feels wrong, though...

Some part of me, perhaps the part that loved visiting my grandparents' farms as a kid, really wants to grow something. Both of my sisters-in-law are actually quite good at this despite their busy lives and little children and more than average levels of responsibility. They grow things to eat and lovely things to look at and I definitely do not.

The other day my brother's wife offered me extra seeds she will have after her first spring planting in their new house. I told her I would happily accept the seeds, but that I had no idea what I was doing. She said, "First rule of gardening: if it grows, take the compliments. If it doesn't, blame the weather."

I thought of this wise advice when I pulled into my driveway today and saw this:

Mailbox Joy
Tucked around my mailbox are 80 or so tulip bulbs that my sweet relative game me for Christmas. She and my niece snuck over to my house last fall and planted them while I was out of the house for the day. On Christmas, I opened an adorable picture of my 5-year-old niece posing with her handiwork and the information that, although they couldn't guarantee anything would grow, they promised that they worked hard to plant something.

Earlier this week I was writing something else (I'm working on a book even though I'm terrified that it will turn out that I've spent months and months of my life working on the world's least interesting pamphlet) and I was pondering the idea of investment in others.

None of us are going to live forever (depressing thought for the day) and the only thing of real value that we leave behind will be our impact on other people. And that impact, whatever it may be, is never the result of just one moment. There are days and weeks and months and years of words and touches and acts of kindness that go into forming how we influence those around us.

Right this minute, I am writing with little feet in my lap. As I sit here, snuggling a sick boy and his monkey, it is hard to imagine that this act will have a lasting impact on him. By itself, it probably wouldn't. But if I add up the sick snuggles and the words I speak and the moments I offer him attention, they become not just a series of moments, but rather something alarmingly momentous to his life.

A Boy and His Monkey

Our relationships, like the lovely tulips planted by the sister-of-my-heart, need those first acts. They need us to dig and plant and cover with care in the hopes that something will bloom. Even if we have no idea if anything will come of it. Even though we cannot predict the weather in which our efforts will get the chance to grow.

Our children need us to think that way. So do our parents, siblings (both biological and by marriage), our friends, and spouses. What relationships have we forgotten to plant? Where have we been watering just enough to keep it from dying like my peace lilies and where have we just let it die (like every other green thing I plant).

I am so grateful for people in my life who have bothered to plant things in me and for me out of love and grace. I am a better person than I could ever be without them. Let me plant things that grow.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I Have Pretty Hands (a compliment of motherhood)

I have four kids.

Sometimes I'll be doing something like reading the newspaper or running errands and I'll remember...as though I've forgotten... that I am the Mommy.

It's surprising and ridiculous and somehow inconceivable...how did I become the responsible adult in the lives of FOUR human beings? Clearly someone in charge has made a terrible mistake.

The first moment that Jay and I were left alone with our oldest child, she stopped breathing. She turned grayish blue and the nurse came running and we were terrified. And then they made us leave with her 36 hours later. To take home. To our house by ourselves where we mostly ate dinner on the floor while watching Seinfeld reruns and staying up crazy late binge watching DVDs of 24 (no Netflix yet).

I cannot POSSIBLY be the Mommy. I have pink hair.

But I AM the Mommy. And the Mom. And the Mama. I'm the finder of school pants and the re-builder of Lego sets. I'm the healer of cuts and scrapes and hurt feelings. I am the soft place to land and the watcher of countless "amazing" dance moves.

I am also the cleaner of pee soaked sheets, the nurse to vomiting children, and the wiper of behinds with diarrhea. Motherhood is a mixed bag.

A few weeks ago, my three year old lost his mind at bath time. I don't know if you are aware, but three-year-old children are clinically insane. They lull you into this false sense of security because they are adorable and squishy and can form intelligent sentences and then BAM! they go nuts because you cut their sandwich wrong.

Or they lose all sense of significance over small events. "I wanted to take the wrapper off the straw by myself" becomes a wail of pain as though flesh were being flayed from his body. It is not appropriate to flail about on the floor because you had to wear a green shirt instead of a purple shirt because you peed on the blue shirt. I don't really care if you even wear a shirt at all.

Anyway, he pitched a fit because it was bath time and then he pitched a fit because I made him get out of the bath and we wound up sitting on the floor in his room while I wrestled him into underwear and pajamas and he got so red he turned purple and had great big fat alligator tears rolling down his face.

Because this is my fourth kid, I found it hilarious. In the beginning, I would have been worried that there was something wrong with him. As a new parent to a three-year-old I would have looked for deeper meaning to his disobedience and inability to control himself. Now I know that tired children act like crazy people and you really just need to get them to sleep.

So in that moment I started to stroke his sweaty little tear-covered face and tell him that I love him. That I didn't want his day to end like this. That he is a kind boy with interesting things to say and I love him so, so much. That I am so grateful I get to be his Mommy.

He sighed, took a shuttering, shaky breath...


My bony, unkempt, pretty hands

I have pretty hands. Not because they are visually appealing. The crooked broken finger, knobby knuckles (is it really because I crack them?), and bitten-down finger nails prevent any kind of aesthetic pleasure. No, my hands are pretty because they are gentle. Because they are strong. Because they help change clothes and clean off dirt and make dinner and build shelves for Legos.

I have pretty hands because an irrational three-year-old was soothed and comforted and then angry that he wanted to let go of his fit and rest. Which is still hilarious.

How many Mommy compliments have I brushed aside because they came from one of those four people while still listening to the implied criticism of people I don't even know? When I feel less than because I no longer have a job...when I'm bummed because my stomach is jiggly...when I look at someone else's Insta-perfect account and feel like I'm missing out...why do I even care?

Why do so many of my thoughts and feelings of disappointment in myself come from the random people I don't actually care about?

Because, dammit, I have pretty hands.

My pretty hands shape the world of four entire human beings. How they view the world, what think about themselves, and what they learn about God and the universe is molded in my hands. They are their own selves, sure, but my hands are the beginning and end to their days, the comfort in their fear, and the only home they know at this point.

I have pretty hands. I pray I use them well.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Triumph of Trivial Distractions...

When Jay and I were younger, before we had children and a mortgage, we took the money we'd been saving for a down payment on a house and we went to Europe for a month.

We wandered around, finding hotels when we got to a new city and seeing all the things we'd read about or heard about or, in my case, had just started teaching about--that we could afford to get to. To be clear, that really only included Western Europe (except Spain, they were having a ground transportation strike. An older Welsh man tried to convince us that this was normal and happened in the US, too, but his only evidence was that air traffic controllers went on strike sometime in the '80s and we didn't know what he was talking about).

So we ate cheese and chocolate in Paris and had good beer in Munich and discovered gelato in Italy. One of the places I was most excited to see was Rome. Not just because of the aqueducts and the Roman roads that made my history geek heart soar, but also because of the art. I couldn't wait to see Raphael and da Vinci and Michelangelo.

You can't take pictures inside the Vatican Museum so this is me in the Coliseum on that trip. Those are the lovely tickets to the museum that I saved because we used to make scrapbooks before there were digital cameras and the internet. Also I was blonde for some reason.

On the day we toured the Vatican Museum we waited in an incredibly long line that wrapped around a large portion of the perimeter walls of the Vatican. It was crazy hot and there were very loud American teenagers in front of us, one of whom was wearing track pants that said "juicy" on the rear end and I thought, "that might not be the most appropriate outfit for touring the home of the Pope." Sadly, Jay and I don't speak any languages but English well enough to pretend we weren't American so mostly we just tried to edge farther away from them in line.

After moving through room after room of priceless art in what used to be the papal palace we entered the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling is perhaps the most famous series of Biblical scenes--most people know that moment of God reaching out a finger to meet Adam and deliver the spark that ignites the soul of mankind.

But the image that caught my attention was the The Last Judgment painted behind the altar. Michelangelo created the ceiling toward the beginning of his career and the far more frightening and overwhelming Last Judgment toward the end. It showed hundreds of nude figures engaged in the battle for the immortal souls of mankind with Jesus at the center. Michelangelo himself is painted into the work as a flayed skin.

I loved it.

Picture of The Last Judgment I totally stole from the internet

When I would teach the Renaissance to 15- and 16-year-olds, I always pointed out that the nude figures had caused quite a controversy (because saying nudity to a room full of 10th graders makes them pay attention). And although Michelangelo was following the Greek and Roman tradition of nudes (which he also did in sculptures--think the statue of David), critics condemned the use of nudity in this painting and eventually many figures had loincloths painted over them so as not to offend those critics.

The other day, Jay and I were watching a TED talk about the Sistine Chapel...you know, as we are wont to do. Art historian Elizabeth Lev gave a passionate overview of Michelangelo's work and if you're at all interested you should take the 17 minutes and watch it. Around minute 13:40 is when she gets to the part about the nudity controversy in The Last Judgement.

It's during that segment that she spoke a phrase that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. When she described the cover-up job done to make the nude figures more palatable to the critics, she refers to the entire conflict as "a triumph of trivial distractions over his great exhortation to glory."

I made Jay pause the video and go back. There was plenty to wrestle with in the painting: Does the raised arm of Jesus bring any comfort or just some good old fashioned smiting? Are the saints and angels rescuing people from hell or are those people crying out for God or is there even a difference if the end is finally actually here? Rumor was that the pope fell down and acknowledged his unworthiness when he saw it (no clue if that's actually true or not).

But instead of dealing with challenging thoughts concerning the struggles of the human condition or mankind's interpretation of God and expressions of faith, the naked people is what got the press. Veeeerry early press as the printing press was still relatively new, but press nonetheless.

The triumph of trivial distractions over the exhortation to glory.

How much does that phrase sum up our current political climate? Our current religious climate? Our over-scheduled and tech-filled lives in general? Will there one day be some historian using such a phrase to describe the years in which I lived most of my adulthood?

I just spent 3 minutes watching a trailer for Ice Age: Collision Course, also known as Ice Age 137. Why did I do that? They're woolly mammoths. I KNOW how this ends. And I'm sure I'll get to enjoy this artistic treasure when it comes out in a few months due to the whining of my kids. I don't need a trailer for more information.

I cannot in any way account for the amount of time I've spent on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter because it's become a weird sort of default while waiting in lines or, more embarrassingly, at red lights. But these are the obvious trivial distractions in my life...these are the ones I'm aware of caving in to when my mind is sleepy and wants brain candy.

My bigger fear is this: what other things in my life will look like trivial distractions the further I get from them?

When Biagio da Cesena, the pope's Master of Ceremonies and outspoken critic of the nudes in The Last Judgement, complained about Michelangelo's use of nudity I bet he thought it was a good use of his time. Maybe there were crazy nudes everywhere in Rome in the 1540s and he was just trying to keep his city clean. Maybe he was worried about distracting the future popes and cardinals to come (no one else was allowed in the Sistine Chapel at the time). Maybe he just found Michelangelo to be personally offensive.

But he wound up ignoring the pain of those descending into hell, the concern on the faces of the saints and angels, and the awakening of the dead in Christ. If he really wanted to point out perceived flaws in the painting he could have called out Michelangelo for using just as much imagery from Dante as he did from the Bible. Instead, he harped on the nudes and got painted into hell by Michelangelo for his efforts. In fact, his,,,um..."bathing suit parts" are tastefully covered by the mouth of a snake.

Biagio as Minos--another picture I stole from the internet

Whether or not Biagio was justified in his criticism isn't really my point. My point is that it was the easiest topic to fixate on, to spread information about, and to argue over. My point is that discussion was bogged down on one small aspect of the whole to the detriment of everything else. He spent his time and energy on a topic that, in the end, didn't really matter all that much.

Do you know what I talk about with people the most? Summer camps for the kids, places we visit, upcoming projects for the house. Occasionally I get into political discussions or talk about a movie I've seen. These aren't bad topics. They're things I'm doing in my life and things that have to be done.

But am I missing my exhortation to glory? Am I allowing my to-do list to triumph over the call to love my neighbor? Am I sinking into the safety of my ordered life while the battle for justice and freedom rages around me unseen?

I'm gonna go ahead and say yes.

What are my trivial distractions? What could glory look like? What might my imaginary future historian about this moment say if we all try to find out? What if we attempted to look around at the lives of others without jealousy over our carefully culled social media presentations? What if we stopped obsessing over raising perfect children or getting perfect bodies?

Let's not be known as a generation of people who allowed the triumph of trivial distractions to overcome the exhortation to glory. I think we can do it.