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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Virgin Flight To Heaven

Have you been to heaven? I have. Seriously! This last week I flew Virgin America to get there. After deplaning, I plopped my cowboy boots on to the pavement, following my husband and three kids to our Minivan rental car, and my blue jeans began to travel through a space where I had never been before.

“We are HERE!” I exclaimed to my exhausted family, as though the pearly gates had opened for us.

The 70-degree air tasted different. Sweeter, kinder, and fresher. My eyes saw a landscape smiling and arcing upward to blue space, lined with little rectangular buildings painted pretty pastel colors, reflecting dots of light before the hills came back down, pouring out gentle rolling paths and roads. I saw spots of peach-colored poppies springing up in surprising places, then yellow and white wildflowers scattered across green expanses of curves. Purple cone flowers poked up like Dr. Suess had propped them next to the curves on the roads just to make me smile. Soft purple grey mountains whispered a wise welcome from far away.

Snap, snap, snap. I took pictures. I wanted more more MORE of this place. I wanted to save it. Bottle it. Package it in a to-go container.

I was in heaven. I was back home, in Marin County, where my husband and I had raised our kids for eight years. I had not been back since our departure just one year before.

My oldest had thrown a tantrum as we had waited for our car. But the air had been circling like medicine, filling my nose, brushing my ears with a strange harmony. As I blocked my boy from hitting my daughter next to the rushing traffic, I barely felt much fear. Worrisome thoughts tried to surface, but they then sort of popped into the atmosphere like little bubbles, disappearing. (Like I said, it HAD to have been heaven.)

Later in the car, over my oldest boy’s nervous banter and flying fists, I tossed out random happy words as though they were freshly picked wildflowers blowing in the wind, “Oh look! Look at that HILL. Look at that SKY. Look at that WATER. Look at the BRIDGE.” I couldn’t stop. My kids peered up at me with slightly concerned faces as I stuck my head out the car window on the highway, smiling at the air blowing my hair into tangles. They became quiet.

It looked like I had devolved into a very na├»ve toddler. (My 6-year-old once told me that kids live in heaven, here on earth— all the time!)

We had driven these roads countless times before, but in the past, I had not been able to suck in their splendor in quite this way. My tightly wound mind had been cluttered with school issues, with flashing clocks, beeping times and dates. My focused stare had been distracted by my mistakes of the week, reminders of after-school activities, grocery lists, and corners of the house needing cleaning. I could not see this place, all of its richness, very often. In the past, there had just been tiny glimpses, but then my brain had flipped back to the ruckus. Back inside of the blinding atmosphere of stress that had encircled me, stealing heaven right from under my nose.

And all that time, the gates had been right there. Inviting me in.

As our visit continued, I ran along trails similar to those that I had jogged down hundreds of times before when we had lived in Marin. But back then I had been thinking about other things. Problems. What school, what teacher, what way to help my son? Support my other kids. What friend? What way to help myself? So I had not felt the mist that poured down on to the land from the warm sky. I had not slowed down to observe the stripes of pink in the rocks, the tiny green pieces of rock, thousands of years old, buried in the dirt. Often in the past I had taken pictures of the beauty, (I love taking pictures) but I had not FELT it. You know? I had not lived in it. I had not listened to the hum of the wind. Not like this.

And then came the people. I swear, it was like they all wore white wings. Halos danced above their heads. And their smiles were so big that I had to wear my sunglasses everywhere. The moms from school, the church friends, the pastor, the babysitters, the home-school teachers, the nature teacher, the therapists, the old neighbors, the new babies, the work friends, the grandfather, the grocery store clerks, the swim friends, the swim coaches, the old friends from the city, the old gecko Eddie (OK, he isn’t a person, but…) These people were not like REAL people. No sir. They were like those people you picture in heaven. Smiling, hugging, laughing, eating, drinking, playing. Being honest. Looking me in the eye. Loving my kids. Loving.

Or maybe I was different? Seeing differently. I was not afraid anymore. Not afraid to hug. To smile. To share. Not afraid to be disappointed. Joy felt like it was dripping from me.

“What is this?” I wondered. Oh yea— heaven.

And the grumpy people? Of course they were there sometimes, too. I sort of saw that one tall blonde mom with a great big chest who turned her extra long back into my face so I had to back away and end the conversation I was having (cause I couldn’t see or be heard anymore.) She didn’t remember me, of course. And I saw her, um, back. But I saw her image differently… Maybe her stress was too thick. Her insecurities too opaque. Maybe she couldn’t smile much because she couldn’t see the sky. (I felt no better or worse than her. Just undeservedly someplace else on that day.) But anyway, I turned my face away, toward another smile, and POOF, she was GONE. It was that simple. I didn’t look at her again.

I wonder— could heaven be found so easily— any old day, in any old place? Could it be a simple spin of the heart toward the good, away from that other place that pulls down our souls? Could it be a glance upward toward the sky?

Here’s the greatest part: I’m not writing this so that you wish you TOO could go to Marin (if you aren’t there already.) Or live there. Or go on my runs. Or know the same people. See, on my trip I learned that you don’t have to travel Virgin Air to get to heaven. God is not living somewhere else, somewhere far away. I think He is sitting right there next to you. In you. With us all— all the time. Patiently waiting for us to notice. He taps his foot, holding the door opened for me, for you, my friend, my reader, the person who believes he or she isn’t worthy. He opens it for the one who doesn’t believe heaven or God exists at all. He opens doors in pretty places like Marin County, but also in seemingly dreary places like, well, like the slushy East Coast where I live now! (I know, I know, that coast is gorgeous too, but in March, at times, one might think otherwise.)

Anyway, I think heaven waits in the arms of a tree on a grey slushy cold street in Connecticut. It is dressed as a sunset, smiling through a window in a crowd of slightly stuffy people. Heaven is gleaming from the dimples of the messy-haired homeless child holding a fluffy cupcake at the soup kitchen. Heaven is in the embrace of the teacher with the sparkle in her eye who loves my child despite his moods and struggles. It is in the stranger, or the new friend who smiles and asks you how you are feeling.

And so I came back from my trip to heaven with HOPE. Hope that I captured a little bit of my magical, undeserved experience in these words. Who knows, maybe I flew to heaven just so I could share it with you.

And if I remember what I learned from leaving my beloved Marin behind, from my flight to that wonderful place, then maybe I can live there more often, wherever I go. Forever and ever.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Daddy, Come Home!

“Where’s Daddy tonight?” my eight-year-old asked as we sat down for dinner. I glanced up at our nanny, Mona, my husband’s fill-in. We had often joked that she was my other spouse. Like a fixture in our home.  

A paper airplane flew over the table as my oldest boy’s screeching sounds cleaned out my eardrums. I turned to catch him jumping over couches, arms waiving, working his way into what we call “an unsafe place.” My body tensed. Mona took my place at the table as I hopped up to prevent chaos. One-on-one attention for my 9-year-old is always needed, or things become out-of-hand quickly at our home. Dangerous actually. I wondered how we would survive without Mona’s support. How I would stay sane. I hated thinking about that, as my mind generally painted pictures of a lunatic tangle-haired sleepless mom tying kids to chairs at dinnertime, shoveling cereal into bowls with a trowel.

“He’s coming home late tonight,” I answered over my shoulder, “has a very important meeting.” Then I turned to my hyperactive boy, “how bout if you go ride the exercise bike for a bit, T. You can wear the headphones and watch a show.” I suggested. He screeched louder, grinning, disappearing up the stairs. 

“Not again! Dad’s never around anymore.” sighed the eight-year-old. Trying to get my attention while  pushing his food around on his plate, unable to eat much.

My hand found his shoulder, resting there a second. “Sorry love, but…tomorrow he’ll be here.” 

A little while later, I watched my boy storm up the stairs, head hanging over his slouched lips. I followed him, secretly grateful for the intensity of his love for his dad. I was thankful that he expected his presence rather than assuming that dads don’t belong at dinner anymore. Plus, I was a little bummed too.

“He wishes he could be here, honey. He wants to be, but his job…” and I looked beneath his messy hair to see tiny tears quietly drizzling down my boy’s soft skin.

“But he wasn’t here last night, Mom. I barely ever get to see him,” he choked.

“Well actually, you do get to see him more than lots of kids see their dads.” I tried a new sales pitch as I sat next to him on his bed. My angle felt cheap, though true. I thought about my friends with husbands who traveled all week, coming home eventually worn out. How did those dads connect with their kids? How did they really know them? I wondered. Then I pictured my exhausted friends without husbands who had been raising their kids alone because of difficult divorces. And my friends with husbands who worked in the city and could rarely make it home for dinner, seldom even before bedtime, if at all. My eight-year-old covered his head and body with his comforter.

“At least you'll see him at breakfast for a bit!” I tried to cheer him up through the thick cotton, picturing my tall husband running out the door after having a quick five-minute chat with my two kids who got up in time to join him for toast. “And tomorrow he says he’ll be here for dinner.” Though I knew often even those promises fell through.  

I pictured my husband’s brain and body attempting to be here and to be there and everywhere. Like a drone lost in the sky, arcing this way and that, spinning. How he tried to be the best at everything. At work, he felt he was never able to do or give enough. Everyone around him was working over 60 hour weeks, sacrificing time with kids, sacrificing time with community. So there was guilt when he left. At home, he was needed beyond comprehension. The exceptional needs of all of our kids erupted each time he entered our home. They needed to connect with him, to laugh, to share, to have arguments and tantrums and to be picked up afterwards and embraced. They needed to be known. They needed to play ball, to ski, to have Daddy visit school, to roughhouse, to share their insecurities, their fears. They wanted life lived with their dad’s face in the picture.

And my oldest. There were moods to contend with, defiant behavior, doctors to visit, therapists to understand, behavioral reports, the school to meet with weekly. There were new methods for helping him that seemed to change as soon as we learned them. There were new diets, new vitamins, and medication considerations. There was always a new worry, a new challenge.

Meanwhile my husband’s countenance had been becoming paler, his figure thinner, his hair greyer. The moments we could grab together were like gold, even if almost always tarnished because of child's bad mood, a tantrum, or a sibling spat. Our time together hasn't been close to perfect. But priceless time, nonetheless. Each memory has become important nugget in our life, in our children’s make-up, in their stories.

A few weeks ago, after much painful thought, countless meetings and discussions, my exhausted husband decided that he wanted more time in the family story. And so he returned home after resigning from his job. He left for multiple reasons. But primarily he knew that he had to make a choice. He chose our boys, our girl…and I suppose he chose me. He chose to search for a job where he will still act as the intelligent, passionate, creative business leader he is, while striving to balance work and life and family. His decision was incredibly hard for him and difficult for me to witness. He suffered because he decided to press against the norm, to dare to be different. But now, as a leader, he is marching toward a different horizon; he is heading toward a place that encircles families and community and compassion, all bound together by innovative business practices, hard work, and the desire to do good — I think his horizon reveals a complete and gorgeous picture. One that God has given us.

Today my little girl runs to her daddy like she never did before. He folds his long body downward and she whispers secrets into his waiting ear. She tells him stories. My boys hold his hand proudly as they walk to the bus in the morning or to the car after school. Their grins are contagious. They look up and laugh, seeing him draping our girl over his shoulder. They wait to share their day with him.

I don’t know what our future holds, and some days that feels really scary. (Another post will come!) But I do know that my kids are incredibly blessed. They have a daddy. And a good one. A daddy to wrap their little arms around, to laugh at their jokes, to worry alongside of me when they are hurting. They have a daddy who will be an essential part of their stories, into eternity.

Thank you God, so much, for daddies.