Cloud of Witnesses

I would consider myself, by nature, a cheerful person. I’ve always thought (somewhat proudly) that I am pretty level-headed and easy going, although in recent years (and after five children) I am starting to second guess that self assessment a bit. But all things considered, I don’t have a desponding personality, nor would I call myself a pessimist.

Nevertheless, if you have been following this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed a shift in the overall tone of my writing. As I myself look back over the last year or so, I can see that I am now more prone to paint in darker shades. Of course, it would have been difficult to wax despondent when blogging about doll-making or cake-baking. But since I have had to put those things aside for the time being, what remains for me to blog about is daily life. And daily life has been knocking us about of late.

It’s also, unfortunately, much easier to write when things aren’t going too well. A tale of woe is much more interesting to put on paper than a story about how everything is awesome. It’s no wonder books often seem to come to an end once things turn ‘happily ever after.’

I’ve thought about quitting the blog until I have something more encouraging to write- I wish perhaps, that I could tell you that we have made a ton of progress on the house or that one of the many difficult paths we have been treading has suddenly been made smooth. But it wouldn’t be true. Also, I can’t seem to give up the writing. So this is what you get.

As we have struggled along during this time, my continual prayer has been, “Lord, what do you want me to learn in all of this? What lessons am I to have engraved on my heart as I emerge (hopefully) from the other side of this rough patch?”
And some days, I feel as if I can glimpse a purpose to all of this craziness- sometimes sense the ways in which he is molding me to be more patient, more trusting, more faithful. And then there are the days when I just don’t make it through without throwing in the proverbial towel and going to bed in tears.

But I am privileged to be part of a wonderful church and in particular a Sunday school class whose teacher is remarkably gifted with words. He has the ability to paint pictures through stories that are at once funny, touching and convicting and he seems able to draw spiritual lessons from the most unlikely sources.
Yesterday, for instance, he was explaining to us how young men in the school where he teaches are trained to lift weights- how with enough practice and the proper technique, they are able to lift amazing amounts.
But with every student, there comes a point where they are maxed out. There is a moment where it becomes evident to those looking on that the limit has been reached, and it shows in subtle ways- turned in elbows- a leaning too far forwards- faults in training that might not show until the new and heavier weight was tried.
The same can be said for the spiritual life- when life becomes too heavy or unexpected burdens are added, we can suddenly see the faults in our training- the chinks in our armor, that we never knew were there.
This picture struck me forcibly, coming as I do from a background where I considered myself well-trained in spiritual matters. I always thought I was strong, but it has only been in the past few years that God has seen fit to start adding more weight- gradually at first, but then in ever increasing increments until my knees begin to shake and I cry out for mercy. I have begun to see how very weak I am. And each new trial seems to show not only myself, but also the devil all of my vulnerabilities and how he might prey on them.
I have listened to the tempter as he has turned my focus inwards, convincing me that I am alone in my struggles, that God has singled me and my family out for special hardships. He has taken the selfishness already present in me and expanded it in different ways. I have lately taken to wandering paths of self-pity before untrodden- my prayers that God would show me what he wanted me to learn barely audible.

As you may have heard, my birthday was last week and the celebration of that day left much to be desired. Thankfully, I managed to get a redo a few days later, inviting a few of my closest friends out to enjoy dinner with me. And as I sat there, drinking in adult conversation that can only truly be appreciated by those who spend long days with children, I was brought up short. For sitting around me were three women who have experienced, in the last several years, a remarkable amount of hardship and suffering- all varieties of trials and seas of sorrow that I haven’t even dipped my toe in. I watched them as they spoke and heard the evidence of the ways they have risen above their circumstances and each in their own way being witness to the mercy and faithfulness of God.

And there, literally staring me in the face, was the answer to my prayer.

“This is what God wants you to learn,” I told myself. “This is what he wants you to see. You have not been singled out for hardship, but instead have been called to join the ranks of those learning that painful but all important lesson that this world is not your home, but the place where you must live- by faith. And with those two words, the training of my youth kicked into gear and brought these others to mind.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Or, as the hymn that I had memorized before I knew what the hymn writer was even talking about-

Art thou weary, art thou languid, art thou sore distressed?
“Come to me,” says One, “and coming- be at rest.”

If I find him, if I follow, what his burden here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear.

Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs- answer yes.


Worst. Birthday. Ever. (I hope)

Well, I knew this year’s birthday was bound to be a bit of a let down. Positioned as we are, with finances askew and the hubby literally working until 2 am most nights, I figured he wasn’t gonna have a lot of time or energy to put into, say, a birthday trip to Florida or even a super fancy, five-course meal made by himself, like the last couple of years. He has been so busy that I didn’t even want to mention it was coming up, nor was I sure it was even on his radar.
My dear sister, being aware of his distraction of mind, asked me what I would like to do for my big day, and I told her a nice lunch at her house (my birthday being Sunday) would be nice. Nothing fancy, just something I wouldn’t have to cook myself in the confines of the trailer.
On Saturday night the kids and I went to her house, as is our new custom, to wash away a week’s worth of grit and grime, do laundry and to touch base with the 21st century a bit ie., catching up on email and watching a movie on a big screen tv.
I also take this time to relate the week’s events to my sister and perhaps blow off a bit of steam.
I was telling her about the stomach bug that had swept through our ranks the week before- how I had never before appreciated how truly miserable a stomach bug could be until I had to face it without the modern conveniences of a washer/dryer or even hot running water, not to mention a real bathroom.
But at the end of my grisly tale, I could at least be thankful that the beastly stomach bug (realizing, no doubt, that a mother of five children could not afford to get sick) had decided to be merciful and let me off the hook.

“Well, happy almost birthday,” said my sister as I loaded all my laundry and squeaky clean, technology loaded kids into the car. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yep,” I replied confidently. But as I drove away, a sudden wave of nausea seemed to sweep over me.

“It’s all in your head,” I told myself as we got home and put laundry away in various baskets and drawers.

“It’s all in your head,” I assured myself as I tucked the boys to sleep in the tent where they have been sleeping on all these nice, dry nights.

“It’s all in your head,” I fairly shouted at myself as the hubby walked in the door, asking how my day had been and did I have any idea what I wanted to do for my birthday.

“I know what I don’t want,” I replied. “I don’t want to be sick.”

But before I went to bed, I put a bucket by my bedside.

It wasn’t the throwing up that actually woke me. It was the rain storm. We had been enjoying such a long spell of lovely, dry weather that we had become negligent in checking the weather report. I must admit, my first response to the rain was selfish. My stomach was complaining loudly and all I could think of as I stumbled to the trailer door was that I would have to go through the rain to get to the toilet. But then I saw the tent looking rather swampy and realized that, even with precautionary tarps etc., the poor boys were probably in for a wet night. I thought about going to check on them, but other things soon took precedence. The stomach bug had triumphed.

I don’t need to go into detail about the rest of that night. Suffice it to say, my birthday morning dawned chilly and wet and full of the sounds of bedraggled children making their way back to the trailer, complaining of wet blankets and soggy pillows.
I rolled over in bed where I had spent the last few hours curled up in a fetal position and told the hubby he was going to have to call my sister to cancel birthday plans and take the kids to church by himself. Even as I said it, a small, bright thought popped into my head- the thought that even though I was sick, a day off from the kids might be nice.
His reply extinguished that bright thought immediately.

“I’m sick too,” he groaned.

I’m not sure what happened to the rest of the morning. Sick as he was, the hubby took charge and got a hold of my sister, who earned several more jewels in her crown by coming and taking the boys to church herself and then kept them the entire afternoon.
We kept the baby with us and she had a glorious day toddling around the trailer, being mostly ignored. The hubby and I took turns crawling out of bed to change her diapers and make her bottles and then let her have the run of the place. I watched helplessly on as she tossed baby wipes like confetti, banged pots and pans, dumped a costco-sized pack of q-tips in the bathroom and emptied entire sleeves of crackers onto the floor, singing her little baby songs all the while. But at least she was happy.
All I could do, as the hours dragged on and I slipped in and out of sleep was to pray that this would be one of those twelve hour bugs, but the twelfth hour came and went with no relief in sight. My mother called to wish me a happy birthday, and I managed to have a conversation with her, which was a nice distraction. But throughout the day, every complaint was made worse by the elephantine headache I had, caused by the fact that I hadn’t been able to keep any coffee down that morning. The tylenol wouldn’t stay down either. I cursed my caffeine addiction and made vague and insincere resolutions that I would drink less coffee in future.

At some point in the afternoon, Steve managed to get into his car and run some work errands that absolutely had to be run before Monday. He was kind enough to take godzilla-baby with him. I then realized that in all likelihood, all the boy’s bedding was still soaking wet inside the tent. I dragged myself out there and did my best to drape the dripping blankets and sodden pillows onto a makeshift clothesline so that they might have something to sleep with that night. Then, spent with the brief effort, I went back to bed and slept like the dead.

My sister kept the boys until sundown, and when I heard the car doors slam and their cheerful voices coming up the drive way, I tried to prepare for their exuberant return by sitting up in bed and slapping a smile on my face. But as they drew near, they got very quiet and I could hardly hear their footsteps as they tiptoed into the trailer.
Then in a line, they came towards me, faces as somber as funeral marchers. One by one they each handed me a homemade birthday card, and in voices as quiet as they could make them, wished me a lugubrious “Happy Birthday, Mom”.
Despite my protesting stomach I had to laugh out loud at the pathetic scene before me, imagining how my sister must have drilled them not to disturb me too much with their well- wishing. I gave them each a hug and smiled over the brightly decorated cards, laughing at the childish messages of affection and early attempts at poetry.
My sister and her friend had written too- hilarious messages of condolence and understanding. And there was a card from my mother, who never forgets a birthday, with Target gift cards inside to boot. And thus I thought, looking at the respectable pile of paper before me and the crop of towheaded children surrounding me,

“Well Nicky, things could be worse. And next year is bound to be better……in theory.”



The stomach bug ran it’s course after 24 hours. As you can see, I woke up feeling much better this morning. And the first thing I did was to guzzle a cup of coffee. It stayed down. God is good.

Bricks and stones may break my bones

One of the wonderful things about this big old house of ours is the big old yard that comes with it. As aforementioned, it has already become the frequent scene of frolics and boyish larks- fort building and bike riding, sleeping in tents and eating al fresco meals, and even a few good water fights, early in the season as it is.

But delightful as finally having some property has been, it also has had its challenges. Now you might be thinking,

“Here’s the part where she starts complaining about all the extra mowing and trimming a big yard entails,” and you would be partially correct.
There certainly is a good deal more mowing to be done, and like any good southern yard that has been ignored for many years, it has done its best to return to nature by winding itself up in poison ivy and kudzu and a dozen other nameless and sinister vines and shrubs. But I like to mow, and trimming the hedges is a job I don’t mind too much- at least in the spring.
However, aside from the usual maintenance, I believe our yard is unique- unique in that over the years, it has become a kind of storage unit for the hubby’s many house project leftovers.
I sometimes wonder how so much stuff has ended up heaped in odd and assorted piles all over my yard and a mental image always pops up in my head in response to my wonderings. It’s usually a conversation between two imaginary men who work for my husband and goes something like,

“Hey man, so that job is finished. What do you think we should do with all this extra (fill in- lumber, brick, cinder block, sheetrock, etc.)?”
“Heck, I don’t know,” replies the other.
“I know, let’s stick it in the bosses back yard!” says the first guy.
“Yah, that’s a great idea,” agrees the second. “It’s not like they’re ever actually gonna live there anyway.”
And then they proceed to leave behind whatever was in the truck and drive away, laughing maniacally.

Of course, this scene is purely imaginary since we don’t actually own a truck and my poor van is usually commandeered for the purpose whenever Steve needs to haul something. But I’m pretty sure the van would never have been able to transport the enormous stacks of cinderblock that are sitting in our driveway or the piles on piles of lumber sitting in varying states of decay throughout my lawn. But there they are. Or I should say, there they were. Because a week and a half ago, I decided to tackle the yard.

There’s not a whole lot that can be done to the interior of the house right now since Steve is so insanely busy at work, so I wanted a project to keep my mind off all that wasn’t getting done inside. So I started in on the wood. A few years ago, we cut down several large trees in the yard and cut them into big logs, hoping to be able to use them in our wood stove at some future date. These logs had since become a moldering heap of mostly rotting wood, infested with every kind of creepy crawly creature imaginable.
So, armed with long sleeves and very thick gloves, I began the process of sorting through the remains, fishing out what wood was salvageable, squealing girlishly when a particularly leggy insect scurried into view and then tossing the rest onto a compost heap where they could finish the job of returning to whence they came.
And then it was on to transferring big stacks of two by fours to their new home under the house and the shoveling and removing heaps of sand and then burning old cedar shingles and siding in a rusty burn barrel.
I worked diligently, going to bed each night with aching muscles and a sense of accomplishment, but all the while ignoring the worst pile of all- the mammoth pile of bricks and stones. The bricks were the remains of chimneys from inside our house and several other places, the stones were all the big rocks that had been removed when we had dug out our enormous basement a few years ago. We hope to put them to future use in building walls, columns, etc.
I kept putting it off, hoping that somehow, magically it would disappear, or maybe those imaginary workers would come take it and leave it in someone else’s back yard.
Of course, I didn’t have to move that pile. I could have left it in the middle of my nice big lawn, all overgrown as it was with vines and a miniature forest growing out of the top. I could have waited until the hubby had time, which would probably be in about ten years- or could have called up all my girlfriends and said,

“Hey! Come for a playdate with your kids and we can all move bricks!”

But that brought me to think of my own kids.

“Now hang on,” I told myself. “You had all these kids for a reason, right? You just never knew until today that you brought them into the world so they could help you move the biggest pile of bricks on the planet.”

Inspired by these reflections, I gathered my big boys around me and, being the nice mother I am, offered them a penny for every brick that they moved from the middle of the lawn to the parking area where they would be hidden, neatly stacked and denuded of weeds, behind the cinder blocks.
They were actually thrilled with the idea. I’m not the kind of mom who remembers to give her kids an allowance, so any chance to earn money is usually jumped at. They set to work with a will. I was pretty sure that they were going to give up quickly. I mean, one brick doesn’t weigh much, but the stooping and picking up and trundling wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load across the yard gets old fast. But they kept at it.
James had been doing the math in his head, and told me exultantly that if he moved 100 bricks, he’d get a whole dollar. I smiled inwardly, thinking they would never get that far. But they did. And then they reached 200, then 300, then 4. By the time the sun was setting they were stacking their 800th brick and couldn’t wait to start the next day. I was amazed and also slightly alarmed. The brick pile, as I stared at it through the twilight, did not look noticeably diminished. And my wallet held two bucks and one quarter, but I couldn’t part with the quarter as it was sacred to the purpose of my Aldi shopping cart.

By the next afternoon I had four eager hands stretching towards me, demanding no less than fourteen dollars. Still being without cash, I asked them if they would accept a new lego set in exchange. Oh boy, wouldn’t they! But they would like it now please, mom.
I decided to oblige them, since they really had worked incredibly hard, and goodness knows, I hadn’t wanted to move those bricks myself.
So I loaded everyone up and drove the 20 minutes to Target, where we wandered the lego aisle for an unbelievable amount of time, considering how short the aisle was and how few sets they could actually get for fourteen dollars. At last they had whittled it down to two sets, and had reached a stalemate- two boys wanted one, two another. To my untrained eye, one set looked pretty much like the other (who knew there were so many differences to be found in lego helmets!) but the fighting grew so bitter that I was obliged to flip a coin.
We arrived back home, two boys exultant, the other two sniffling a bit in a disappointed way. But off they all went to build the new set. I figured their brick moving fervor was now passed and I sighed as I looked at the remaining pile, figuring we might be half way through. I set to work, thankful that they had at least moved 1,400 of the darn things.
But I must admit, I’m not as young as I once was and I only managed 100 before calling it quits for the night. As I unloaded the wheelbarrow, sorting the bricks into two separate stacks (one for the smooth interior bricks, the other for the rough exterior ones) I found myself chanting to myself ,
“Rough, smooth, rough smooth, take the rough with the smooth, take the rough with the smooth….”
Then I had to stop and laugh, thinking how glad I would be to take the smooth at some point. It’s been rough for a long time now.

The next morning was a Friday, and as I worked with the boys on their lessons, I tried to gear myself (and the boys) up to tackle the pile again. But before we could, a friend called asking if James’ best friend could come and play for the afternoon. I agreed, and resigned myself to the boys disappearing on their bikes for the day.
But as soon as he got here, the boys had him surrounded, making wild promises of ‘free’ legos if he helped move the stack of bricks.
“Boys,” I said uncertainly, “I don’t want to make your friend come over here just to work…”
But he interrupted with, “Are you kidding! Where are the bricks? Let’s go!”

Soon the bricks were flying again. After about the tenth load, I suddenly had the brilliant idea to back the old van up to the pile, open the hatch and fill it up with ten times the bricks that the wheelbarrow could hold. The boys were thrilled with this arrangement, and I soon found their little friend was a born foreman, directing the brick laying, keeping track of the numbers and announcing with authority when they had a big enough load. Then they all joyfully tumbled into the back of the van, perching on the bricks as we bumped down to the stacks, where they formed a line and handed them to me one by one, shouting, “Rough! Smooth! Rough! Smooth!” and laughing all the while.
It’s a true saying that many hands make light work, and by the end of that day, they had earned another lego set. I even took them out to dinner as an extra reward and let them have a big sleepover in a tent in the backyard. The next morning, I finished the negligible amount of bricks that were left (only about 400) while the boys played with their hard earned legos.
But after their friend had gone, I found myself staring disconsolately at the remaining pile of stones, almost as big as the bricks had been.

“Take the rough with the smooth,” I muttered, but as I bent down to pick up the first rock.

“Hey mom,” said my oldest, suddenly appearing at my elbow, “We’ll be glad to help you with the rocks. And don’t worry, we’ll only charge you half price.”