Before I was Liz McEwan, I was Liz Bowater. And, back when I was Liz Bowater, I fancied myself a songwriter. And it’s true that I was a songwriter if all it took to call yourself “a songwriter” was, literally, writing songs. But that’s not enough, is it? Part of the creative process requires not only creating and releasing the product of our creativity, but also having an audience to receive it and (hopefully) appreciate it.
For ten years or so, I spent every extra moment writing and playing music. And those years were a lot of fun. I played some fantastic shows, met some amazing musicians and music lovers, traveled a bit and learned the joys (and loneliness) of days on the road.
When I moved to Cincinnati, my music was a first point of contact for me and was how I met many of my first friends. Cincinnati gave me a warm reception but my “career,” for what is was worth, was short-lived.
The truth is, I was never cut out for a music career. I don’t deal well with criticism and am really uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I’m a decent writer but a poor guitar player. And I don’t collaborate well. I didn’t know the first thing about promoting myself and I guess I simply “didn’t want it badly enough” to push and push and push.
So I self-released one last (mediocre) album back in 2011 and, when it didn’t really get any attention, I just sort of walked away. It was painful but not crushing. Realizing my music was never going to be a big deal was more of a slow acceptance than a moment of shocking realization.
At the height of my songwriting, I was deeply embedded in a crisis of my faith. I was having a hard time connecting with people. I was processing confusing thoughts and relationships and music became an outlet for expression and connection that I didn’t really have anywhere else. It was a bridge from me to other people. (For a taste of my greatest inspiration during this season of my life, read this quote by Frederick Buechner.)
When I stopped writing music about six years ago, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried and tried to put words on paper and to music and it just didn’t work. The proverbial well was just dried up. I think it was a mixture of a) embracing a new season of life that I hadn’t yet figured out how to process creatively and b) lifestyle changes that no longer allowed the same late-night-alone-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-a-cigarette writing method. I was now married with two young kids and things were just different now.
Somewhere along the line, I started pouring my creative, late night energy into blogging and then freelance journalism. These days, my writing gravitates more toward the cerebral. I’m writing more about other people. More about ideas. My own emotional processes, I suppose, are being handled differently.
It’s kind of embarrassing to think back on all the time and energy (and money) I spent trying to build a career from a few dozen decent songs. (And, oh Lord, the promo photos! What a joke, right?) Some of the songs themselves are worth forgetting altogether, to be honest. But I really do miss it. I miss the manic writing sessions. I miss the performing.
Most of all, I think I miss being able to package myself into a song and deliver it to friends and strangers so easily.
When I consider the future of my writing, I do a lot of self-evaluation. I ask myself why I feel so compelled to do this. Why am I willing to stay awake until 2am after a long day of taking care of four young kids just to get the words down? What is so important about these words (musical or not) that I absolutely must get them out of my head and out to someone else? What are my intentions?
I guess the answer to “why” is that it’s complicated. (For a peek inside the introvert writer’s head, read this.) I have sometimes written for selfish reasons and sometimes for idealistic reasons. Sometimes it’s just because I love language and I love ideas and I love engaging with other people about those ideas. Sometimes, especially in the past, it’s because I’m hurting or confused and I don’t know how else to reach out.
I don’t think I can stop writing. But I’m never sure what I’ll write next.
I have ideas for blogs and children’s books and non-fiction books and all sorts of exciting writing projects, including some church music if I can ever find my way back around to that sort of thing.
But one of the things I’ve learned from my experience of trying (and failing, I guess) at building a career at songwriting is that it’s never really just about the music. It’s about the connection. It’s about the bridge that music builds between people and the community those bridges shape.
I’ve also learned that our greatest artistic contributions to the world are only as great as our motives in producing and sharing them. The world can sniff a rat a mile away and can tell in an instant if we’re just one more clanging cymbal, dying to be heard at all costs.
And, lastly, this:
Sidenote: Have you hear this song?
Real Good For Free– Joni Mitchell
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green*
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.
Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free**.
* This is the namesake of my blog, by the way.
** Part of what inspired this post was my decision to dig up all of my recordings and release most of my songs online for free. You can find them here. I kept the most embarrassing ones for myself and those who were there the first time around and have the original hard copies. If you take a listen, let me know which is your favorite. It’s always fun to know.
I guess I knew it happened sometimes to some people, but I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of sexual abuse among my peers until I was a young adult and the stories started coming out in deeper conversations. The thought of so much abuse going on around me felt a bit scandalizing at first. But now, 35 years old and a mother of four young children, the statistics are maddening and make me flat-out pissed.
How is this even possible?
Why have we been pretending for so long?
As a kid, sex was not something I spoke about openly with my parents or my peers. And things like molestation and rape were like a plane crash–the chances are so slim that you can’t lay awake worrying about them.
But it turns out we were wrong.
Abuse is everywhere.
It’s in the Church, in our families, in sports and schools and the entertainment industry. (I read this article this morning, which is why I decided it was time to write this.)
We can certainly mince words about what, exactly, qualifies as “sexual abuse.” If I’m totally honest, I’m not really comfortable accepting the most extreme definitions of “abuse” because I do believe there is a difference between an abuser/predator and a confused kid (or an honest misunderstanding about intentions). Human sexuality is more complicated than most of us give it credit for being and the ins and outs of sexual relationships between people are not always cut and dry.
But, that said, nearly every woman I know has a story of sexual misconduct, whether it’s flat-out abuse, molestation, and rape or less overt indiscretions like sexual pressure from a partner, come-ons from a superior at work, or ugly cat-calls on the street.
When I take an honest look back at my life, the picture becomes pretty clear. I have my own share of stories, too.
The flasher who showed up at my 6th grade birthday party. The flasher in the church lobby (!!). The note from a friend (in 7th grade) that said her boyfriend kept pressuring her for oral sex (of course, she didn’t use the word “pressure”). The stories in high school about people having sex just to keep a boyfriend (or girlfriend) but him leaving anyway. The first time I heard someone openly profess to being molested as a child. (And other stories I’d rather not share here.)
Our culture has a sex problem.
And I could write and write and write my thoughts about what the problem is, where it comes from, and how to change it. But I don’t have time for that right now.
Instead, I want to share how I am protecting my children from sexual abuse. And I want to hear your ideas, too. Because even though I can’t keep every danger from our doorstep, I can at least teach my kids what to do when they see it and how to overcome it.
These are some of the steps we are taking as a family:
We talk openly and frequently with our kids about sex and sexual abuse. From a very young age, we teach our kids about sex and anatomy, what their body parts are called and what they do. We encourage them to ask questions when the questions come up, not only when we are having an official “sex talk.” But we do have official lessons about sexuality as a part of our school curriculum because sometimes it feels awkward to bring it up out of nowhere. Our kids are encouraged to use us (not peers) as a first resource and, if at any point they don’t want to talk to us about sex, we have promised to find another adult they can talk to instead of us.
We choose friends and a church community that takes sex and sexual abuse seriously. Because we know that most people who are abused are abused by people close to them, we surround our children with people we trust. It can’t guarantee that they will escape abuse, but it will guarantee a community that will act on abuse and support them rather than an abuser. (We are proud to be members of a denomination that has a firm stance on and policies for protecting its children from sexual abuse.) We teach our kids to look out for each other and for others.
We teach our kids to have boundaries with peers and adults. We teach them to respect the words “stop” and “no.” Once they are bodily-aware (which kicks in somewhere around 3-5 yrs old), we talk about the need for respecting privacy and for expecting the same from others. We tell them that, unless they need help dressing or using the bathroom, it is not appropriate for someone else (adult or child, even family members) to see them naked or touch them in their genital areas. If someone insists on seeing or touching them inappropriately, they need to tell us immediately. (We’ve taught a few “poke their eye out or kick them in their groin” lessons, as well.)
We don’t keep secrets and we teach them that there is never a good reason to keep secrets from us or to keep secrets with other people. (This is one part of the “tricky people” concept, which is a great safety skill for kids and much preferred to the “stranger danger” of my youth.)
We teach them to keep all physical affection and sexual activity in its place. From birth, we work to establish proper attachment with our kids and show consistent, physical affection within our family to help them develop healthy expressions of love and affection. When they are young, we teach them the role of sex in a marriage and reinforce married sex as the standard for behavior. As they get older, this conversation will develop more nuance as we talk about all expressions of sexuality and help them navigate dating and courtship, love and lust and desire.
We introduce the dangers of pornography early and, as they age, will teach them to recognize objectification and sexual idolatry and how they contribute to sexual exploitation and abuse. We will help them avoid sexually explicit materials and images by cultivating a healthy attitude toward the human body and an appetite for better expressions of love and devotion.
We will encourage them to avoid abusing drugs and alcohol, especially in mixed company and with people they don’t know. We will be honest about the connection between intoxication and negligent behavior/abuse.
We encourage immediate, judgement-free conversations about sex. We promise to listen and to answer honestly. We will believe them when they are victimized. We will help them navigate confusing/frustrating situations that arise as they age. Nothing will be a taboo in our house.
I’m sure this doesn’t cover everything.
What are you doing to protect your kids from sexual abuse?
Or All Hallow’s Eve!
My earliest memories of Halloween are of me donning my older brother’s football uniform so I could do the absolute bare minimum for the school costume parade in the third grade.
When I was young, our family’s participation (or lack of participation) evolved over time but, in general, we did not celebrate Halloween. By the time I was in middle school, I sometimes went out looking for candy with my friends, but my mom had adopted a full-on boycott. No candy for visitors. Front porch lights out.
I didn’t quite understand it then. But it makes more and more sense to me now.
Most of us don’t think too seriously about the finer points of syncretism and how it manifests itself in culture and in our religious traditions. Either we take for granted that all our favorite traditions are purely ours or we take for granted that no tradition can be pure. And, either way, we don’t really care too much.
Whether we admit it or not, much of what we do in church (and in life) is influenced by our own culture and the world around us. And some of us fight this influence more strongly than others. In the context of Christian worship, some churches follow a Regulative Principle of worship that says “whatever is not explicitly commanded/affirmed in the Bible has no place in Christian worship,” but most of us are not in this camp. So most will admit that many traditions are a matter of cultural preference–like the difference between an organ and an acoustic guitar–and most of these preferences are really benign. They may have theological implications, but they are not theological prescriptions.
The farther back we go in church history or the more we develop “new” traditions, the more they tend toward two extremes–either the church develops it’s own symbols and traditions based on their distinct Christian-ness or it adopts symbols and traditions of other religions/cultures and “christianizes” them for their own use (aka syncretism).
In 2017 America, since we seem so far removed from First Century paganism and Eastern religions, most Christians don’t give two thoughts about where their traditions came from. It’s assumed that, at this point, the potentially worldly roots of our traditions don’t matter anymore. We are, after all, a culture primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. And everyone else understand the Christian-ness of our symbols and traditions. Right? Well, maybe sorta. Or maybe not.
For most of America, today is Halloween. It’s an excuse to dress your kid up in funny or scary or ridiculously adorable costumes, visit with neighbors, and collect candy to get you through the long, cold nights until Thanksgiving (our next gluttonous holiday).
But for some people–primarily Catholics and some other Christians who fancy Catholicism–it’s All Hallow’s Eve. In some way or another, it’s a day to revel in the reign of Christ over evil and to mock the devil. (Some Catholics fast today in preparation for tomorrow’s Feast Day of All Saint’s Day so they save their candy for tomorrow. Bummer, right?)
People think I’m all kinds of crazy when I tell them we don’t celebrate Halloween. Apparently, it means I a) hate talking to my neighbors and giving them things; b) don’t want my kids to enjoy life; c) am just a stodgy old coot. In actuality, none of these things are true about me, I am a reasonable woman, and I have thought this through quite a bit.
Though my level of commitment to abstaining is still evolving–Will I hand out candy? Will we buy a pumpkin for the front stoop because it’s fall and pumpkins are cute? etc.–I am perfectly comfortable saying that, as a family, we don’t do Halloween. I believe this is a matter of personal conscience. It’s not something important enough for me to fight with friends over and it’s not something I’d draw a line about between myself and people I love. But it’s something I’m pretty committed to and I’m going to try and quickly explain my reasoning about the issue because, every year, someone seems surprised that I actually care enough to think about it.
Reason with me now.
No one seems to agree about the exact origins of Halloween. Did the Catholic Church institute All Hallow’s Eve as a distinctly Christian holiday, or was it an attempt to christianize the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain by slapping a Christian name on the same tradition? Were you there? Me neither. All you need is a quick Google search to prove that the jury is still out on this one. And this is true for many of our other holidays, too.
Young in our family life, we decided to try and focus on as many distinctly Christian traditions as possible and avoid pagan, secular, and Eastern traditions if we could. We downplayed Christmas (in the secular Santa sense) and embraced the season of Advent. We skipped the Easter Bunny entirely and focused on Resurrection Day. We tried to “purify” our family expressions of these great holidays as much as possible while admitting that it’s simply impossible to avoid all syncretism. The truth is that even our best intentions have left us with half-baked American traditions like Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings. Whatever. Imperfect is better than nothing.
One of the biggest questions in my mind has always been about what, exactly, is the nature or intent of the thing we’re appropriating into our expression of our faith? Is this a purely cultural expression? Or is it a religious expression? Can the two every be truly separated?
Take for example Indian culture and the practice of yoga.
A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook whether they believed the practice of yoga was a) inherently spiritual, b) imputed with spirituality by those participating in it, or c) purely secular. Responses were mixed. But it has always seemed clear to me that a practice created specifically as a spiritual practice for another religion cannot be stripped of its spiritual element and simply secularized or christianized by another user. We are not dualists; nothing done with our spiritual bodies is purely biological.
But, wait! I eat Indian food! Isn’t some Indian food somewhere prepared by Hindus (potentially) offered to a Hindu god? Well, sure. And if someone came to my table and offered a prayer to Vishnu over my food, I could still eat it (Biblically speaking), but it might make me feel a little weird about it. But knowing someone next door in the YMCA may be doing yoga isn’t the same as actually doing yoga myself, is it? So I see eating Indian food as less like doing yoga and more like wearing yoga pants. Which might be wrong, but for different reasons. (That was a joke. Maybe.)
So, back to Halloween.
Some of my friends seem to think that the only people still celebrating pagan Celtic festivals like Samhain are the 12 Druids living on a commune in New Hampshire. But I can tell you for a fact that pagan Druid spirituality (along with Wicca and actual Satanism) are real. They exist in 21st Century America. And if I had not once stood in a room of a few hundred totally normal American citizens worshiping the planet Earth, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. (Ask me and I’ll tell you the story sometime.)
And this is not even to mention the absurd world of horror movies and haunted houses that capitalize on the scary sentiment of Halloween just to scare the crap out of you and your children. And I won’t even talk about actual spiritual warfare. Ugh.
So you’ve decided that Halloween is still no big deal because you want to meet some neighbors and your kid looks really cute as Elsa from Frozen (you returned the Moana costume because it’s culturally insensitive).
Well, my Halloween loving friends, you’re not alone. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person or a devil worshiper. I just think you need to ask yourself some questions about how you’ll celebrate the holiday well.
First: if you are going to use the “All Hallow’s Eve” excuse/clause, you have to ask whether your observance of Halloween really resembles the Christian tradition at all. If you want to know the truth about your family traditions, ask your kids. What do they believe they are celebrating? What do the symbols mean to them?
If I ask your kids can say to me “Oh! We’re mocking the devil because Jesus is King!” I might say, “Well, heck. Right on!”
Second: are you neglecting some of the distinctly Christian traditions in place of the more “fun” ones? If you are a Protestant, did you even tell your kids about Reformation Day today? If you are a Catholic, did you take the opportunity to throw eggs at my car? (Joking again.)
And how should you celebrate? Well, consider how much your family and children miss out on the Christmas story when the entire Advent season is not observed. The same goes for the season of Lent and Easter. If you really believe Halloween is a Christian tradition, then express it as one and go all out. Slip some Testamints into those candy buckets. (Joking. Don’t do that. They taste gross.)
But, here’s the thing about celebrating Halloween: you might think that it’s totally cool and in good fun for Christians to go around the neighborhood merrily mocking the devil by wearing cute superhero costumes, but your neighbors are probably not in on the joke. They might be watching a movie about serial killers to commemorate the occasion or could be waiting in a bloody clown costume to scare the crap out of your kid when she rings the doorbell or could be standing around a tree in the woods chanting about their sacred mother.
Or maybe they’re all in superhero costumes, too, and it’s really no big deal. I’m willing to admit that kids in superhero costumes are really cute.
The short story is this: participating in Halloween just seems really confusing to me–less like wearing yoga pants and more like sniffing the yoga mat. (Gross, I know. Sorry about that picture.) And if I’m not going to do yoga, I’m not gonna sniff the mat. (Most you probably do yoga, so you just realized I wasted all your time.)
Okay, so that was a lot to say about something that, at the end of the day, isn’t really a big deal. Like I said, it’s not a line in the sand for me.
But I do kind of take Halloween seriously. At least seriously enough to think more about it than just what candy I’ll buy.
For the record, I bought kit-kats and fruit snacks. Because we don’t celebrate but we also don’t ever turn away a stranger who knocks on our door, no matter how they’re dressed.
Earlier this summer, it was announced that the Cincinnati Public Library is pursuing selling off a part of their downtown branch’s facility and consolidating services into their main building. Under normal circumstances, consolidating services sounds like a grand idea. Save space. Save time. Save resources. Right?
The situation at the library is a bit more complicated than that for two reasons.
First, the word on the street is that the library’s facility could be sold off to a private developer, transferring an entire city block of beloved public amenities into private investors’ hands. Our community (OTR) is already burdened under the heavy hand of big investments from people who seem to think they know what we need better than we know ourselves and we’re tired of it. So this is not a welcome option.
Second, most of the services that will need to be moved and consolidated are geared toward youth: the children’s library and garden, the teenspace, etc. (plus the makerspace!). The threat of losing the entire building is scary for parents (and kids) like us who make frequent use of it and its kid-friendly services.
So what can we do about it?
Well, we’ve seen how these things work. By the time the public hears rumors of this sort of thing, backroom dealings have already occurred. So I understand that it’s probably too late to do anything at all.
Plus, maybe the experts are right. Maybe the library can consolidate and still offer the same quality of service. So maybe it doesn’t even make sense to fight it.
But, for those willing to hear, there’s a lot that needs to be said in favor of the library as it is. And there are certainly a few words left to be spoken about the Children’s library, in particular.
- The public library is one of the only free, indoor public spaces downtown. It provides public restrooms, comfortable chairs, internet access, water fountains, shelter from the rain and cold, etc. It is impossible to quantify the public good a library does by its very presence, in addition to any actual literary contribution to society. Losing any square footage, honestly, is a huge loss.
- Because it is a completely free public amenity, it attracts a diverse group of patrons. So long as you follow the rules (which are few), all are welcome. This kind of inclusive space exists almost nowhere. It is worth protecting. While attending storytime, public programs, or just browsing for books, my kids and I have felt part of a truly diverse community. This is one of my favorite things about living downtown and one of the best things about the library.
- The children’s garden is one of the city’s only public, enclosed outdoor spaces for kids. Washington Park’s playground is fenced in, as well, but the library’s garden is different. It feels like a natural escape in an otherwise concrete jungle. We’ve had picnics in the garden, school lessons, played tag, practiced bird watching, and more. There is another, very nice, walled garden at the library’s south building, but it is open to all patrons. Adding the natural chaos of children to such a dignified garden may be tricky for both parties.
- The children’s library is heavy on books and lite on media. There are a handful of computers and iPads available for use (and, yes, my kids use them and love them), but the majority of the space is still occupied by books. Real books. The kind of books many libraries don’t even keep on public floors anymore. Consolidating the children’s library, I fear, means hiding all those lovely books behind closed doors. Which means we’ll now have to request a book from a librarian at the desk. Which means fewer children experiencing the pleasure of browsing through shelves of unfamiliar books to find literary treasure which is, honestly, one of the greatest joys of reading.
- Because of the way the building is currently laid out, the children’s library seems isolated from the rest of the library. I understand how it’s likely a logistical nightmare for staff and management because, I will admit, I don’t often make my way over to “my books” anymore because it’s so inconvenient. But this kind of set-apart “kid space” is a dream for my kids. We walk into the building and they instantly feel at home. They roam within the confines of their own library without me hovering over. And it’s not really about “safety”; it’s about ownership and comfort. They can wander and browse and enjoy their pint-sized library world with their own librarians, their own kids-sized bathrooms, their own computers to use, their own garden, their own public events and summers camps and storytimes. Babies even have their own toys. My fear is that moving the children’s library to the other building means surrendering their domain and being grandfathered into a building where–like everywhere else in their world–everything is made for adults. This is nowhere more evident than the computer labs in the south building where most of the adults are busy watching music videos, playing video games, and (I’m sure) some are watching porn. What adults do with their free time is their decision, but that’s not exactly the cultural experience I’m hoping to provide for my children when I visit the library. So, it’s nice to let kids have their own space to be kids.
A few weeks ago, I thought I might gather some friends to stage a “read-in” in solidarity for the Children’s library and garden. In my mind, I was going to be a big hero and I was going to save the library and we’d all live happily ever after in our safe, spacious, kid-sized literary wonderland. But, like I said, I think it’s probably too late to actually do anything about this. So, I am relegated to writing instead so I can at least feel like “I said something.”
My hope is that, no matter what decision is made about the fate of our library, those in power are able to design the new children’s space to be as beneficial to the community as the current one is.
We love the children’s library. And, if/when it’s gone some day soon, we will damn sure miss it.
Even if we love the new one, too.
“The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading.” – Charlotte Mason
Back in May, after we survived our first camping trip after the addition of a fourth child, a few friends asked if I’d share some tips for camping with kids.
Well, first of all, it feels a little silly to even write this. I am not an expert. I am not a “professional.” I’m not even super experienced. Since our oldest child was born, we’ve only been camping about 15 or 20 nights. (That’s not many.) And we’ve still never done any legit backcountry camping (hike in / hike out) with the kids.
But, though I’m not an expert, I’m a fairly confident and competent outdoors(wo)man. The outdoors bug was planted in me at a family summer cottage on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. Then, between summers at summer camp in Northern Wisconsin, volunteering at summer camp every year in high school, working in youth ministry in college, teaching environmental education post-college, and now having four kids of my own, getting kids outside and into the woods is now second nature for me. And since I did a bit of camping before we had kids, camping with kids doesn’t intimidate me.
A lot of my peers say they’re afraid to try camping with their kids, especially the really little ones. And I’m sympathetic. If I’m honest, getting my kids out and into the woods isn’t always comfortable for me, especially with my ongoing battles with anxiety (poisonous snakes, surprise bee allergies, falling limbs, creepy strangers in the tent nextdoor, etc.). But I’ve discovered that the right kind of physical and mental preparation can make a big difference for me. And I have found that the pay off is always worth the time and energy it takes to make it happen.
So, here are my top 12 (+1) tips for camping with kids:
Go with friends. My kids get along really well, but they get tired of each other. The past few times we’ve camped, we’ve gone with another family. It gives the adults some quality time together (while the kids occupy themselves with friends). And it means there are more adults to trade things like bathroom breaks and tending the fire.
Stay two nights because waking up and immediately packing up camp sucks. Give yourself a day between arriving and leaving to enjoy yourselves, take a hike, explore the woods, go fishing, etc. If things go really badly the first night, you can always call it a loss and go home early.
Do your research about campgrounds and, unless you’re desperate, steer clear of sparse, open field-style places. We like campgrounds with woods between rows of sites (bonus points for creeks). The trees provide shade and privacy. And the woods will give your kids a place to play within earshot of the campsite. My only caveat is that, at campgrounds with public bathrooms, try to camp near (but not next to) the bathroom. With children (especially girls), camping too far from the facilities means lots and lots of walking back and forth to the toilet. Pro tip: with toddlers and other little ones, consider bringing a travel potty to keep at the campsite to save yourself the walk in the middle of the night.
Cold isn’t fun, but wet is worse. Learn how to keep your tent dry. Trust me.
“Two is one and one is none.” This is a basic survival concept. Don’t rely on only one of anything you can’t do without: one pair of socks, one cutting tool, one fire-starter, etc. For example: I find cooking over an open fire tedious and frustrating. For the past few years, I have packed a simple cooking stove along with the rest of our supplies so that if the fire is taking too long and our bellies are starting to rumble, I can fire up the stove and get dinner (or morning coffee!) started in the meantime. I follow the same rule for headlamps and lanterns. I always have one more than we need, just in case.
Keep it simple, especially cooking. If campfire cooking is new to you, start small. Pre-cook things so you’ll only need to reheat them in the fire. Or eat primarily foods that require minimal or no cooking (summer sausage, peanut butter and jelly, etc.) and supplement simple “add water”-only hot items like soup or noodle mixes, oatmeal, etc. Don’t be ashamed to admit you need coffee (and beer). And bring a waterproof table cloth because it’s so much easier to clean and sweep off than an old campsite picnic table (I learned this trick from a friend!).
Skip the sleeping bags (especially with babies). Sleeping bags are impossible for really young kids. I even find my 3 year old struggles to get comfortable. Consider building a family bed with blankets instead. And, as always, bring a jacket, socks and a hat for every member in the family. Sleeping outdoors can be surprisingly cold, even during the summer. A pair of socks under the blankets can work wonders for conserving body heat. Use a basic camping mattress (you can use a yoga/exercise mat instead if you have one) for insulating the space between you and the ground.
Introduce gear (especially tents) beforehand and practice at home. A few days before the trip, take them outside and each kids the proper way to pitch the tent. Older kids will love testing their skills at helping set up camp, so give them jobs. This will limit the novelty of new gear and make it easier to get down to business once you’re at the campsite.
Bring headlamps or lights, and a safety whistle to keep track of the kids. During the day, we let our kids wander (together) a bit away from the campsite. They stay within earshot, but not always within eyesight. If you’re uneasy about it, teach your kids to carry and how to use a safety whistle if they get lost. At dusk, I make my kids stay nearer to camp and wear their headlamps so I can keep an eye on them. For really little kids, headlamps and flashlights can be cumbersome. Try glowsticks on a lanyard or those cheap neon necklaces instead.
Keep it low-tech. When camping or hiking, our phones are with us but not in our hands. Taking an occasional photo or video is cool, but we keep it minimal. The only other electronics we bring camping are a set of walkie-talkies (with weather radio!). These came in handy the last time we went camping since we had no service on our phones and there was a storm rolling in. I know some friends who bring bluetooth speakers to play music at the campsite, which is kind of nice sometimes. We bring low-tech toys, games, and books for rainy days or nap/quiet time (if the kids need it).
Embrace the mud and dirt. Be okay with your kids getting their clothes dirty (almost immediately). I kind of like a “dirty clothes to play in; clean clothes at bedtime” philosophy. Choose easy on/off shoes for you and for your kids, preferably waterproof ones. It will make getting in and out of the tent easier (and cleaner), but don’t expect to keep a perfectly tidy tent. And since you can expect to get dirty, just take some extra time when you get home to wipe down, clean, and air out your gear before you pack it up for next time.
Store your gear so it’s easier to use next time. Getting serious about camping means curating your gear like you would the gear for any other beloved hobby (fishing, running, birdwatching, cooking, etc.). Our family has a lot of gear, but it is not expensive, high end stuff. We’ve been collecting it for upwards of 15-20 years and it hasn’t cost us a lot of money when you prorate the cost over time. I like to keep things organized (rather than just tossing it all in a single bin) because if I know what I already have, I’ll know what I still need and I can pick it up when I see it (and can afford it). We keep all of our outdoor gear together on one single industrial-grade rack. Things are organized and stacked and packed in a way that makes anything easy to grab and use when needed. (This also keeps things accessible in an emergency situation at home when we may need our sleeping bags, flashlights, etc.)
And, lastly, as with all parenting:
Attitude is everything.
Your kids will take cues from you. If they are already uncomfortable outside or in the rain or away from their iPad, you will need to encourage a good attitude about camping. If you cannot keep your cool when the fire won’t start or when you can’t read the trailmap, your kids will mirror your frustration. Laugh a little. Have reasonable expectations. Look for opportunities to learn and explore and be okay with things taking longer than you’d hoped. Part of the joy of camping is having the time and space to stop and, literally, smell the flowers.
Enjoy it and they will, too.
I know it’s dangerous business talking “mothering” to the childless when you have no personal knowledge of childlessness. It’s like a trust fund baby encouraging a friend to “just start saving for the future.” So, I get it. And I’ll try to tread lightly.
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m not much for holidays, but I know this particular day brings a lot of hurt and heartache for some of my friends. Some have lost babies before they were born, some have lost them after, and some have never even had the chance. Some are still longing for a partner to create future babies with and some, with a partner, have tried and tried and tried and nothing works.
Even on the worst of mothering days, when I’m crying in the bathroom alone wishing I could un-mother myself for a few minutes, I still know what a miracle children are and what a blessing it is to grow them and to watch them grow. So I try not to talk up mothering too much, and to not belittle it too much, mostly for your sake. Because I know how it feels to see my dreams lived out in the lives of others. And it really hurts.
It wouldn’t help to tell you that Mother’s Day is a lame holiday, just an opportunity for excited children to buy overpriced “Best Mom in the World” coffee mugs and shamed fathers to buy underwhelming roses. It’s a sweet gesture, and I’ll take all the sweet gestures anyone wants to offer, but it’s really not a big deal to me. But when “Mom” is the one name you’ve always wanted, even the overpriced coffee mugs can seem huge and hard to look at.
I can’t make you feel better, but I want to encourage you in three ways.
First, don’t feel the need to explain your desire away or pretend it doesn’t exist.
You are a woman. And in a perfect world, men and women would interact in a way that made the world of dating and marriage and sex easier to navigate. And in a perfect world, all women (and men) would be capable of bearing children and be able to raise them without the pain and heartbreak of infertility or miscarriage or infant loss.
You already know that we don’t live in a perfect world. But it helps to be reminded that part of what you’re feeling is the same thing we all feel, though in different ways. You know the brokenness of human relationships and human bodies. You don’t need to hide the knowledge of your brokenness or the longing for completeness.
To be sure: Motherhood will not “complete” you. Not in the way you really want it to. But I understand the “new life” symbolism of pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood and I understand why you want to embody it.
You may have a million voices telling you that motherhood is not a big deal that that you can do a million other things other than being a mom and still be a woman. In a way, they are right. But, in a way, they are wrong. It’s okay to want the crappy “Best Mom in the World” mug.
But, don’t obsess about motherhood.
Motherhood will not complete you. It will fill your days and at least 18 years of your life and your dreams (and nightmares). But it will not fill the deepest void you feel inside you. And it will not fill the deepest voids you feel between you and your partner.
Turning a good thing (even a very good thing) into the best or ultimate thing distorts its value and purpose. A sure sign of an idol is our all-consuming pursuit of it. If you “will not stop” until you become a mother or if you will pursue it at all costs, you may want to reconsider the depth of your obsession.
The truth is: you may never be a mother. And those of us who are mothers may some day find ourselves childless. There are no guarantees. Obsessing about something so fragile sets us up for crushing disappointment.
Making motherhood an idol serves no one, especially not our children. Don’t let your desire consume you.
But, please, don’t turn it off.
In the meantime, while you are in waiting, don’t suppress your desire to be a mother. Don’t ignore it and try to fill the longing with something unworthy of it. Keep yourself busy, stay faithful in other ways, and embrace life as it is without a child, put please keep your heart open and longing.
I say this, first, for selfish reasons because mothers need non-mothers. We need friends who have things other than potty training and teething and 2nd grade math homework to talk about. We need friends and family who keep the other, non-parent parts of us alive.
But, once you have kids, it’s hard to make friends with people who really don’t like kids. I once saw a t-shirt that said, “Love me, love my cat.” In this case, it’s more like “Love me, love my kids.” I absolutely want friends without children. But not the kind who think I’ve wasted the best years of my life by being bogged down by four attention-hungry children.
And, more importantly, the world needs non-mothers. It needs them badly.
First, there are obvious needs in foster care, education, adoption, after-school programs, church programs, nursing and medicine, etc. These places need women who aren’t afraid to let that mothering part of them pour into a child who is not (or not yet) their own. Their lives often depend, literally, on women like you.
And even if you’re not built for teaching or changing diapers for a stranger’s baby in the church nursery, I can promise that, at some point in your life, your mothering heart will find a “child.”
It may be as simple as a young mother who needs an extra hand while she digs through her purse at the grocery store (I’ve been that woman). It may be the middle child of a large family who feels invisible and wants to make sure someone big and important (like you) sees his drawing.
It may be a lonely child in your neighborhood who likes to look at your flower garden. Or it may be a college student far away from her parents who needs help finding a job or an apartment.
Years down the road, It may be a younger friend who just lost her mother to cancer and needs a shoulder to cry on. Or it may be an older neighbor who needs someone to read her a book when her eyes go out.
I know this might not make you feel better. Heck, it might make you feel worse because it means admitting that it’s possible your desires may never be fulfilled in the way you want them to be.
Nevertheless, even if you never give birth to a child or never manage to save the money to adopt, I hope you never let the mothering part of you die. I hope you leave it soft and open and ready for whoever needs it. Because we’ve all needed it at some point.
The world is full of childless mothers. Go ahead and be one.
First came bright Spirits…Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth wasSarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancingand throwing flowers before here?”“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”“They are her sons and daughters.”“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”“Every young man or boy that met her became her son–even if it was only the boythat brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat – two cats – dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”“They are her beasts.”“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”I looked at my Teacher in amazement.“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”– The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis
The first death I remember was a great uncle.
I was elementary school age and I barely knew the man. But he was family and my whole family was there and it was quiet and that’s about all I remember.
For most of us, the death of someone close is the first serious blow to our perceived immortality. For me, I was 14 and it was the death of a favorite uncle. Then, a few months later, a close friend. In the next five or so years, there were a few more: another friend, a few acquaintances, a friend’s little brother, my grandfathers, etc.
I don’t honestly remember much about the ins and outs of the visitations and funerals I attended as a child and an adolescent. I remember how every one was different because every person’s story and family and friends were different. I remember it being confusing. I remember not knowing how quiet I must be, whether or not I could smile at friends and family, whether or not I was saying the right words to those in mourning.
But I remember a lot of hugs. A lot of crying.
And I remember how much the knowledge and experience of death changes us.
Death is on my mind because, yesterday, my family attended the funeral of a young man I never met but whose parents are friends. And, of the hundreds of people in the room (maybe more?), my four children were some of the only children there.
I bring my kids to funerals.
Not every funeral, of course. And we don’t always last the whole service. (And if I had different kids I might reconsider.)
But I bring my kids to funerals because I don’t believe there are many truly “adult things” (as distinguished from “kid things”) and, even if there are, death is certainly not one of them.
I bring my kids to funerals because they are painful and hard and confusing and uncomfortable. But I’d rather my children fumble through the uncomfortable experiences of life in the safety of a family who loves them and is willing to entertain dumb and silly questions about life and death and how we celebrate and observe them.
I bring my kids to funerals because, some day, someone close to them will die. It might be me. Or their father. It might be their brother or sister or grandparent or best friend. Lord willing, it won’t be for a long time. But it will happen. And, when it happens, I don’t want the experience to feel like showing up to their first job interview wearing the wrong color suit. Hard things take practice. We practice together.
I bring my kids to funerals because my deepest anxieties surround their mortality and I need to be reminded that their lives are gifts and they are here with me now even if I cannot be certain they will be with me tomorrow.
I bring my kids to funerals because I cry–oh boy, do I cry–when someone I love or someone someone I know loves dies. And I don’t let my kids see the vulnerable parts of me enough.
I bring my kids to funerals because babies are like puppies and they cheer people up (when they are not howling or chewing up the paper programs, of course, which is why we don’t always make it through the whole service).
But, more than anything, I bring my kids to funerals because they need to see how people with hope observe death.
I bring them because they need to hear about Jesus and Heaven and “forever” from people who really believe it and breathe it in like it’s the only thing still keeping them standing.
In their short lives, my children have already heard plenty from us about “God loves us” and “God takes care of us,” but they need to hear it from other people–especially people who are standing at that dark cliff of death, are stricken with grief, but can still say “it is well with my soul” (even if they’re not quite 100% there yet).
I bring them because Christians do not grieve as those who have no hope.
Death is still terrible and sad and I hate it with everything inside me. But Christians do death differently. And I want my kids to look at the world and look at the Church and know the difference more fully because they’ve sat in those pews and sang those songs and heard–with their own two ears– the voice of a grieving mothering declare the goodness of God over her child’s death.
This is powerful stuff and, as much as I wish I could, I cannot hide my kids from it.
When she hears music, my daughter starts to dance.
No matter what the music is,
something inside her tells her to move.
Yesterday, she heard a song humming
from the phone in the palm of my hand
and came closer to hear,
closer so she could
match her moving to the music.
Then she stopped.
And looked at me.
“Mommy,” she asked,
“Does God think I’m pretty?”
She is my third child.
Three of four.
And three years old.
In eight years of parenting,
I’ve heard a lot of questions from my kids.
“Why is our house red?”
“Where is Atlanta?”
“How do clouds make rain?”
Now, instead, she asks,
“does God think I’m pretty?”
It’s such a big, important question
for such a small girl
and it deserves
the best and truest answer
I can muster in the
little time she’ll give me
before this big, important moment
In the few seconds it takes me to
quiet the music and
look into her
clear blue, questioning eyes,
her question becomes my question
and my grey-blue-green eyes go misty
and my mind starts to wander.
I see ahead into her future and
I want to warn her that,
these silly, simple questions of her
three year-old self will not offer
the answer her 10 year old
or 16 year old
or 30 year old self
wants to hear.
Eventually the question will become,
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Does he think I’m pretty?
“Am I pretty enough?”
“Am I prettier than her?”
“Am I as pretty as I used to be?”
more often than not,
the answer she speaks back to herself,
whether it’s true or not,
will be a quick,
in that moment,
whether it’s true or not,
no simple truth will seem
big enough to satisfy her big need.
But, right now,
with three years behind her
and a million years ahead
and those big, clear blue eyes
looking to me for answers,
I tell her the truth
as simply as I can.
I tell her,
“Of course, sweetheart.”
But I don’t stop there.
I tell her,
“The God of the universe–
the God who made the trees
and the rivers
and the flowers
and the mountains–
He made you
exactly the way he wanted you to be.
And when He looks down
at the world he made,
He sees you
and calls you
‘the crown of creation’
and says you are
the most beautiful of all.”
So my daughter smiles
and is satisfied with the answer
and floats away
to tell her big brother and big sister
“God thinks I’m pretty,”
and leaves me to repeat my answer again
but this time to me
because I think it’s been years–
a million years, maybe–
since I was satisfied
with such a silly, simple, honest answer.