Church, Casseroles, and Lent

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My daughter and I visited a new church for the second time today. The first time, she went right into the kid’s program with zero hesitation. Today, she clung to my arm until I actually entered the kindergarten classroom. At that point, she released my arm and remained just outside and around the corner, which left me standing there, childless, in a room full of tiny tables and chairs.

Once the both of us were comfortably seated in the sanctuary, (comfortably meaning my rear end was straddling 2 chairs so that my lap could accommodate all 3 feet and 10 inches of my soon to be 6 year old without bumping either of our neighbors) we listened to the church announcements. In one announcement, they were seeking volunteers to make casseroles for foster families.

May Lee leans over and whispers, “We should ask Nana to make a casserole.”

“I can make a casserole.” I say in reply.

“Oh,” my child says in confusion and disbelief. I’m pretty sure she’s going to ask Nana if it’s true that her mother can make a casserole, and regardless of the answer she receives, continue to ask her Nana to make a casserole.

During the sermon, the pastor spoke a little bit about Lent, which is not a faith tradition that I have ever learned much about or practiced before, but I’m coming to see the usefulness of such a tradition in spiritual growth.

Upon returning home, we dined on a very traditional Sunday lunch of macaroni and cheese shaped like the characters from Trolls and some warmed up green beans. I pretended it was pot roast with potatoes and carrots. May Lee and I talked about church, Lent, and Easter. We talked a little bit about what Lent is, and I mentioned that I was thinking about giving up unhealthy food for Lent. Without missing a beat, she said “I think I’m going to give up….”

I interrupted her at this point, because I was startled by her eagerness to jump in, “You want to give up something for Lent too?!”

“Yes. I am going to give up trying to look so pretty all time. Trying to be all fancy.” she replied.

I was stunned. I really didn’t even know how to respond. Her response seemed wise beyond her years, and part of me felt really proud of that. The other part of me died a little inside that at not even 6 years old she is already struggling with the appearance thing.

“And I’m going to add exercising a little bit,” she said, finalizing her ideas for Lent. Which again, left me rather speechless as she is rather vocal about her disdain for exercise and how she finds it highly fatiguing.

“Well,” I said, “I think I’ll join you in adding exercise for 40 days. You know, Lent starts on your birthday.”

Her eyes grew wide. “It starts on my birthday?!”

I could see the wheels turning behind her eyes, thinking about the cake, ice cream, and candy involved with birthdays.

I leaned over and whispered, “Maybe you and I will start our 40 days on March 2nd”.

She grinned up at me in agreement and with relief all over her face.

So, I guess we are now a family that celebrates Lent….in one form or another. This year will certainly be an educational experience for us both.

The End of Summer Recap

May Lee starts school on Friday, which means that the final days of summer vacation are upon us. Kindergarten awaits, and while my child is naively excited about the prospect of homework and is demonstrating this excitement through a daily practice of pretend homework assignments, I am a little more anxious about this new chapter in our lives. I, for one, am not ready for the freedoms of summer to be over, nor am I excited about the prospect of adding homework to our schedule. But really, all of that is the small stuff that I use to distract myself from the fact that my baby is starting real school. We’re moving up to elementary school where attendance counts and grades are issued. We are no longer in the safe, carefree embrace of the freedoms that come with babyhood. We are taking those first steps into the world of performance, work habits, responsibility, and future plans. And maybe you are rolling your eyes right now and thinking “Um, it’s kindergarten, pull back on the drama lady”, to which I would nod my head in total agreement with you.

In reality, however, this is a developmental milestone, and it needs to be given some weight. As a parent, it is my privilege and responsibility to thoughtfully guide May Lee and myself through this transition. I realize that this last statement may give you the impression that I have wisely considered this major transitional moment in our lives and have thoughtfully mapped out the golden path by which I will lead my little family through a garden of roses and under a rainbow arch that will bring us into the promised land of kindergarten glory. But while we are speaking of reality, let me assure you that in true Shelley style, I am just as unfocused, all over the place, and fly-by- the-seat-of-my-pants as I have ever been. Most days, I need my own baby-sitter to make sure that I don’t wander off too far and that I remember to eat a proper meal rather than snack on junk food all day.

With that being the case, I am grateful that I did a little bit of thoughtful planning and preparation for the spring and summer. If I had to name a theme or intention for the spring and summer, it would be restoring relationships, and I believe that is exactly what happened. Last spring break, May Lee and I flew to Colorado where she got to spend her birthday with her half-brother (who shares the same birthday with her) and her half-sister. I was able to reunite with old neighbors who have turned into good friends. At the same time, May Lee and I had many adventures in the snow, made some great memories, and learned that a Corolla is not the car of choice for driving on mountain roads that tend to ice over as the snow blows sideways onto them as the sun sets.

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As for the summer, we made a trip to Florida and spent time in both of the cities we lived in on the panhandle. Kicking off the trip by attending our home church in Panama City was just a blessing beyond compare. Until the day I die, I will always look for friendships that model what I saw between Mrs. Sheri and Mrs. Lori and so many of the women at Jenks Avenue. I will always know the people of that church as the people who spoke truth and love into my life, my daughter’s life, and my ex-husband’s life in some of our darkest hours. Through that body, I can say that I’ve seen the church in action and in the spirit by which Jesus desires the church to be in action, and it has changed me forever. Let me go all out and say that I saw what I believed to be impossible become possible. I think until that time, I truly believed that the church and the christians in it acting in love and not in judgement in response to “the things of the world” was a myth, a fairy-tale, a dream never to be realized on this earth. Jenks Avenue opened my eyes and proved me wrong, and I am forever grateful.

The panhandle of Florida is full of special people, and I was blessed to work and play with some of the best. I tell you what, my marriage may have been going down in flames, but in His infinite grace and mercy, the Lord provided me with an unbelievable church that changed my mind about church and an unbelievable group of professional women that changed my mind about women. This group of ladies and the ladies not pictured here (Deanna and Erica), they are the real deal. Individually and collectively, these women are the epitome of real beauty, wisdom, compassion, talent, strength, leadership, heart, and a very real ability to change the world they live in. I am a better person because of this crew.

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Shortly after reuniting with these ladies, May Lee and I drove over to Destin to spend the last few days of our trip with my childhood friend Jolie, aka JoJo. Maybe it’s because we met in 7th grade (was it 7th grade?!) that our inner child tends to come out when we get together, with all the spontaneity and laughter that implies. All of the sudden, staying up late at night then getting up the next morning in time to drive through McDonald’s for coffee and catch the sunrise on the beach seems like an awesome idea. In our younger years, it seemed like so much fun to slam ping-pong balls at each other as hard as possible, and I predict that in our golden years we will be banned from operating those electric wheelchair carts at the grocery store because of some shenanigans that we dreamed up on an ill-fated ice cream run. It restores the joy tank of my soul to spend time with JoJo.

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Upon our return from Florida, May Lee and I turned around almost immediately and took off for Kentucky. My family lived there when I was a teenager, but it had been over a decade since I’d been back. My mother’s siblings were meeting up after several years of being apart, and that idea snowballed into an event now known as the Dozens of Cousins reunion. It was so good to see the cousins that I grew up with and family members that I hadn’t seen in so long. We were able to take May Lee out to the old family land where so many memories live. Memories of my great-father’s horses and of piling into the wagon attached to the back of his green tractor with all of my cousins. Memories of picking and snapping peas with my great-grandmother in her long white gardening coat and large, wide-brimmed gardening hat. Memories of racing my cousins up the ladder to the hay loft of the old, red barn. That was good stuff, my friends. I can’t help but leave that place and those family members with a deeper sense of legacy.

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If I may compare our summer to an ice cream sundae, those trips would be the giant scoops of delicious ice cream. The cherries on the top of the summer sundae would be art camp at AJ’s and 3 weeks of day camp at Wyldewood. Art camp has inspired May Lee’s current dream of being an art teacher when she grows up. I can tell that Audra had a tremendous influence on May Lee, because gift-giving is my child’s love language and she made a bracelet for Audra and took it to camp on the last day. The relationship blessings continued by way of the counselors at Wyldewood. May Lee came home every week with stories of favorite counselors and almost no memory of the actual activities she participated it. Without a doubt, it has been a summer of relationships.

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If history proves true, I will not be as prepared for school as some of the other mothers. On the first day, we will likely be getting dressed by pulling clean clothes out of laundry baskets rather than off of hangers from our closets or from neatly laid out garments that form a human silhouette. Once dressed, we will proceed to the carport by way of a living room that is cluttered with yoga mats, stuffed animals recently procured from yard sales, and several art projects in various states of completion, so that we may convey ourselves to school in a vehicle that has acted as a greenhouse for a combination of toys, food, and trash for so long that it has now decomposed to the point of forming a unified mass where the original components can no longer be identified. Even though we will likely qualify as hot messes by all outward appearances, inwardly our hearts will be full, and to me that is a pretty great way to start a school year.