Just for Fun, Chapter One

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a little contemporary YA series since finishing The Chasmaria Chronicles. After completing the manuscripts for the second and third of the four book series, I’ve finally found my way to the beginning. Known affectionately as “the underwear series,” Commando Grace chronicles the high school career of a girl who runs with the boys, but stumbles in friendship. It isn’t, in fact, all about underwear, but about life, nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty life. As such, I’ve had to get personal, going places as a writer that aren’t especially comfortable and finding ways to immerse the reader, delicately but naturally, into Grace’s unabashed world.

With that preface and an open invitation for feedback, I give you…

Chapter 1

Life’s unfair, Grace. That’s what Dad always tells me, usually over pancakes with syrup glistening on his bottom lip. You can fight it, baby girl, but sometimes, you have to accept it.

Easy for him to say. He grew up with a younger sister in a house with a two-to-one ratio of humans to bathrooms. If he’d been the baby sister of six obnoxious boys all struggling for space in front of one bathroom mirror, he might find it a little harder to accept life’s injustices.

“Watch your aim. It’s my week to clean the bathroom.” Nathan’s voice comes through the shower curtain. He’s going to be even more insufferable now that he’s a senior.

Ed responds, the agony of morning adding to the weariness of his words. “Dude, why are you watching me pee?”

In the surge of the flushing toilet, my shower drains the last bit of warmth left in the water heater. I haven’t conditioned my hair or shaved my legs.

“Move over. I need the mirror.” Pete, fifteen and my closest brother in age, has entered the bathroom fray. “Seriously, Grace, do you have to leave your underwear in the middle of the counter?”

My underwear hurtles over the shower curtain and into the soapy water pooled at my feet. I turn off the shower and scurry to rescue the only clean pair of underwear I have left after forgetting to do my laundry Saturday. Life is unfair, but I can accept a few injustices. Someone invented leave-in conditioner. Jeans will cover hairy shins. Soaked undies, however, are a fighting matter.

I fling open the curtain, toss my wet underwear at Pete, and grab my Tinker Bell towel. Stepping out of the shower, I wrap Tink around my body. “What was that for, Peter? You heard Nathan. All last week, I’m leaving for school at 7:45 sharp. If you aren’t ready, you can walk. I don’t have time to dry my underwear.”

Pete moves aside to let Ed exit. One brother out, two to go. “It doesn’t matter. You won’t need underwear until the weekend.”

I stare blankly at him. Nathan peers at his reflection in the mirror, brushing his dark hair flat against his head. “I’m leaving in ten minutes.”

“Why won’t I need underwear?” I ask, shivering under my threadbare towel.

“The underwear thing.” Pete says. He rolls his eyes at Nathan. “Are you seriously wearing a polo shirt? Could you at least unbutton the top button? I have a reputation to build, and a dorky brother—”

What underwear thing?” Wet, cold, and ignored. My freshman year is off to a spectacular beginning.

Reaching around Nathan to get his toothbrush, Pete glances over his shoulder. “You don’t know about it?”

Nathan closes the medicine cabinet door, almost catching the tip of Pete’s toothbrush. He frowns in the mirror. “You didn’t tell her about the underwear thing, did you?”

“It’s a family tradition.”

“What’s a family tradition?” This is what Dad doesn’t understand. I’m always last—last to be born, last to shower, last to enter high school, last to do and know everything.

“You’re making a puddle, Grace.” Nathan steps around me, careful to avoid the water collecting on the tiled floor.

As the door closes behind Nathan, I glare at Pete. “Start talking.”

“It’s like this.” He spits, rinses, then turns and leans against the bathroom counter, arms folded. “Welches go commando.”

Welches go commando? As in, no underwear?”

Pete’s finger flies to his lips. “Quiet. Mom will hear.” He glances around the bathroom, as if checking for spies. “It’s a tradition. Kevin and John started it, then Jason, Ed, Nathan, me. First week of freshman year, Welches go commando.”

I rub a stray drop of water off my nose. “I don’t believe Kevin ever went commando. I don’t believe any of you did.”

The door opens. Nathan strides in, grabs his cell phone off the counter, and points it at Pete. “Five minutes or you walk.”

Scoffing, Pete pushes the phone away from his face. “ Hey, didn’t I go commando freshman year?”

Nathan stops in the doorway, half turned. “We all did, for the first week anyway.” His bland gaze rests on my Tinkerbell towel. “Why aren’t you dressed?”

About the Girl

A few days ago, I laid out some rules for dating my son. Because we like to treat our girl as her brother’ equal, I thought it would be only fair to lay out the rules for dating my daughter. So here we go…

To any young man who thinks he wants to pursue our sweet, beautiful daughter, I have  five words for you:

Dude, you’re on your own.

(Six words if the contraction counts as two).

The girl has three brothers, not to mention a father. If you’re worried about shotguns and other threats, you need to know something.

Those aren’t your biggest concerns.

Did you catch that she has three brothers?

She knows a thing or two about boys. Your usual tricks won’t work, so if you show up at our door, you’d better come carrying a bouquet of respect, humor, and intelligence. Just being a boy – if we’ve done our job well – won’t be enough. She knows you miss the toilet bowl. She knows you wipe snot in weird places. She knows you’re loud and sometimes stinky. (Warning: If she deceives herself into thinking otherwise, we WILL point her to truth).

She’s watched her brothers enough to know you want to be king of the hill. If her father and I have done our jobs, she shares your dream of standing at the apex, muddy and bruised and oh-so-proud of her hard-earned accomplishment. Be careful: She might knock you straight down the side of whatever mound of dirt you’re trying to rule. Her brothers, bless their rowdy hearts, have taught her how to fight for what she wants.

We’re doing our best to teach her not only to love deeply and forgive freely, but to think clearly, laugh often, and fight hard. Her daddy encourages her to get dirty, wipe off skinned knees, and keep pushing. I, a mother who sees her heart mirrored in her daughter’s, am whispering all the things I think she might need to remember when spring comes with tempting breezes that smell of love. Look for the funny ones, the ones who don’t pretend, the ones who want to be your friend because they value your heart more than your body. Those are the good ones, dear girl.

If the love of my life and I succeed, it won’t be her brothers or father or even her mother you’ll have to impress.

It’ll be her.

And when it comes to impressing our girl, you’re on your own. We can’t help you. Bring your best – your honest, snot-smearing best – because she’ll roll her eyes at all your bragging about whatever exploits you think you have to your young name. (Spoiler: She’s as accomplished as you are).

If it’s any consolation, we’re on our own, too.

If, somewhere on the side of that mound of dirt, she decides she wants to stand at the top with you – hand in hand, victors together – nothing we can say or do will sway her. Remember how I said her mother’s heart is mirrored in hers? I have a pretty strong feeling that when she falls in love, she’ll fall with hard determination.

(Dear boy, please be one of the good ones. Tough hearts break hard, and she cries like her mama).

You stinky, muddy king of the hill,

victor of my daughter’s heart.

We’re on our own as much as you are, but maybe we’re not. Maybe in loving you, she’s bringing both you and us a gift.

Please, come inside, out of the dirt. Sit at our table, get to know us. Let us get to know you. I promise, whatever my first impressions and motherly reservations may be, I’ll do my best to see what it is in you that made my sweet baby girl grant you the throne of her heart. I’ll teach her brothers to be your friends as much as her guardians. I’ll remind her father how powerless he is to keep his baby girl.

I’ll hope with all my heart that you are one of the good ones.

Rules for Dating My Son

Hey, you!

You with the cute shoes and optimistic eyes…

I’ve heard your name, and I see you sitting next to my son. I’m not sure what’s going on – if you’re just friends or just friends  – but we need to talk. No, I need to talk, if you can spare a moment of your precious adolescent time. Scoot this way and listen, you darling bundle of hopes and dreams and happily-ever-afters being written, erased, and rewritten on the secret pages of your heart.

Lots of moms these days are posting “Rules for Dating my Son” and other such stuff. Maybe I’m a terrible mother for not having a logically numbered list, but I do have some thoughts, so let me lay out a few things, just so you understand, darling.

First and foremost, and don’t you dare forget this: You are precious.

No, I mean that. You’re precious, you with a heart so big and beautiful and open wide to a world beyond your wildest imagination. I’ve done my best to teach my son to be gentle, honest, and faithful, and I’ve told him over and over that girls are strong, smart, and capable – and not to be trifled with. (His sister is helping me in this endeavor). I pray my son remembers all I’ve told him. I expect him to show you the utmost respect, as fully as possible comprehending the beautiful complexity that you are. I expect him to handle your heart with care for as long as you entrust it to him. I hope you’ll respect him as much as you deserve to be respected and that you’ll be as careful with his heart as I’ve taught him to be with yours.

But the reality is this: Most likely, one or both of your hearts will break. I beg you, woman to blossoming woman, be as kind as you can. On my end, however badly you act, however badly he acts, I’ll remind him how young you are, how young he is, how you’re teaching each other how to love – and sometimes how not to love. Happily ever after might take a few rewrites. Be kind to each other, even if you have to write each other out of your beautifully unfolding stories.

I thought I’d have more to say – all the other moms have lists of ten or so rules they expect you to memorize – but that’s it. I find, now that we’re face to face, I don’t have anything more to say to you than I would say and have said to him.

You’re precious.

Be kind.

However the story goes, be kind.

If I Go Silent

If I go silent, it won’t be because I have nothing to say.

It won’t be for lack of consideration, compassion, or interest.

If I go silent, it will be your fault

for failing to listen,

for screaming your views so loudly, so vehemently, so assuredly

that my thoughts,

coming slowly and carefully as I struggle to take into account all sides of the issue at hand,

find no space

in the short time you take

to refill your lungs

before screaming some more.

 

So if you really want to solve this problem,

please pardon my bluntness

shut up for a moment and

listen.

 

 

 

Thirty-nine and Counting

We women talk a lot about teaching our daughters to love their bodies, to be comfortable in their own skins, not to worry about impressing anyone because it’s their minds and hearts that matter and blah, blah, blah…

And then they ask how old we are.

“Nineteen.”

“Twenty-nine.”

The less deceitful say with certainty, “Thirty-nine and counting.”

It’s been a long week, so my Let’s-Put-This-Nicely is broken.

Let’s stop lying.

Let’s stop pretending our daughters will learn to love their whole selves when we can’t admit how old we are. Our girls are smart. They can do the math. You can’t turn twenty-nine six years in a row.

Wise and Wonderful tells me she’s proud of her age. Each year is a victory of love, of memories, of life. Not everyone gets to grow old. We should be thankful for, rather than ashamed of our advancing years. Besides, if you look forty, why would you want people to think you’re twenty? Far better to be even average for forty than to be a washed-up, matronly twenty-something.

She’s absolutely right. (Naturally. She almost always is.)

The issue for me is what expectations I will establish for my daughter. How will she view herself as she develops, as she births and nurtures her children, as she watches her body change from child to woman, from young to old? It isn’t enough to tell her her body is strong and beautiful and miraculous. I want her to know each year she lives is glorious not because of the shape of her body or the color of her hair, but because she – beautiful, capable, wondrous SHE – by the grace of God is a survivor.

So, I’m thirty-nine. For real. I have a few silvery white strands of hair. Once, when I pulled one out, the image of my paternal grandmother flashed through my mind. She smiled at me, but my attention was fixed on her stunning snow-white hair. I always thought, if my hair has to lose its color, I hope I go white like Grandma Puls. It only took a moment to realize the woman in my head wasn’t my grandmother. She was me, and she really wanted me to stop pulling her hair. I haven’t plucked a single shimmering hair from my head since, and while I’m in no rush to get to the nursing home, I look forward to seeing that old woman in the mirror someday – hopefully with a full head of vibrant white hair.

I won’t lie to my daughter. I won’t pretend the clock isn’t ticking. I want her to see the raw  and ever-changing beauty of thirty-nine, forty-nine, and hopefully many nines more. I want her to know age doesn’t go before beauty nor beauty before age. They go hand in hand through each passing year. Sure, there’s plenty I wish I could change when I look in the mirror (and let’s be honest, while I’ll never recapture my twenty-year-old figure, if I put my mind to it, I could get a lot closer than I am), but I hope more than anything to show my girl how to accept the natural changes of life, how to grow old with grace, confidence, and love for the woman she was and is and is becoming.

Next year, heaven help me, I’ll answer without hesitation,

“Forty.”

Out of the Thunder

We live in a thundering world.

More and more, it seems everyone has a cause – or an anti-cause – to which to win the masses. We must stand against this, for that, and so on and so on. We must do great things.

But I can’t.

I used to think I could, used to dream of all the great things I would do when I was older. But now I think, more and more, that I wasn’t made to save the world. Jesus was. Not me. These days I’m pulled, with a tenacious persistence that I want to lean into, toward little, quiet things, like a cup of coffee with a dear friend I normally see only in passing.

I don’t want to add my voice to the thunder. In all the noise, I want to be a still, small voice… because that’s what I find I yearn for more than anything. I want to shut out the thunder and speak grace, but first, I want to hear grace.

I want someone to whisper, “This is the way; walk in it. Yes, right there. By grace, your steps are sure.”

The truth is, life is hard enough as it is and before I can enlist in an army to save the world from itself, I need to trust Jesus to save me from myself.

I need Him to guard my heart from discontent and doubt. I need Him to teach me how to cherish my husband when he’s working late, to nurture my children when day has surrendered to dark, to love my neighbor as I’m wiping cat poop off yet another shoe. I need Him to teach me to see beyond the messy uncertainties of life in the making, to trust that all is not vain, that glory comes in the end. Like the father who couldn’t see how his son could be made well, sometimes I need Jesus to help my unbelief.

I’m thankful, so thankful, for the people in my life who get this and who have been honest enough to admit it, the people who have assured me in my teary confusion, “This is the way; walk in it. Yes, right there. By grace, your steps are sure.” I’m thankful for the people who have been Jesus to me in a million tiny ways without even knowing it.

So if you want to run ahead, to save the world in a silver cape, go. The world needs the love that compels you. Most likely, I won’t follow, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the beauty in your passion and give thanks for the difference you are making.

If you push me from behind, I’m liable to dig my heels in and maybe slap you in the face. Remember, I’m still learning to listen to that still, small voice, and sometimes my hearing is very bad.

But if you can ignore the dirty dishes and half-completed tasks and sit with me for an hour, a day, for the rest of our lives…

I’ll let my coffee grow cold as fellowship warms our souls.

And maybe, in the quiet of our still, small conversation, we will change the world.

In Lieu of Candles

October is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month, in case you haven’t read the captions under the candles in your Facebook newsfeed. I have ached, reading some of my friends’ stories, acknowledging the grief they have carried for years. Even as they have rejoiced in rainbow babies and minivans full of laughing children, sorrow lingers. Death does that to a heart.

Fifteen and a half years and four healthy babies after the fact, I still recall the unexpected ending of my first pregnancy. It happened so early I’m sure many would wonder how I mustered the tears to cry. But cry I did. It felt like my entire world had crashed in on me.

I’m not lighting any candles (except to cover the inescapable dog scent inherent in owning a Great Dane), in part because I have this weird thing where I try not to acknowledge holidays on social media, in part because I don’t want anyone grieving for me over something I made peace with fourteen and a half years ago, when my second pregnancy ended infinitely more happily than the first. My personal grief, though intense at the time, passed gently away, thanks to grace and four beautiful babies who survived to fill our lives with joy and wonder (and ample snark, just to prove they are ours).

Like many women, I look back on miscarriage with only the slightest twinge of wondering what might have been and a whole lot of gratitude for what is. Other mothers suffer acutely, even decades afterward.

I’m not lighting candles on Facebook, but I do speak with my children about what was lost before any of them were born.

 

I tell them that life is fragile,

That up to 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage,

That often, there’s no way to predict, prevent, or explain it.

I tell them that life is fragile, but love is not,

That parents love their children long before birth,

Long before conception, even.

I tell them that death happens,

That it hurts.

But you go on.

Sometimes the hurt remains sharp,

Sometimes it doesn’t.

We need to talk about these things.

Really, we need to talk. When I experienced miscarriage at the age of twenty-three, I didn’t know any of the above. It came as a shock – a life’s worth of dreams forming only to disintegrate in the space of a week.

I want better for my daughter, better for my future daughters-in-law, better even for my sons. I hope none of them experience miscarriage or stillbirth, but statistics aren’t in our favor.

I want my daughter and daughters-in-law to know, should they experience pregnancy loss, that they are not alone. I want them to know that more women than they possibly imagine have been through this grief. I want them to see the childless mother’s strength, a strength that says to someone she never knew, “I loved you before you were born and love you still.”

I want my sons to understand the aching of their wives’ hearts and perhaps of their own. I want them to know that many, many grieve with them.

In lieu of candles, I’ll talk with  my children now and hope that, if ever death steals so cruelly from them, they will find some small solace in knowing their grief is shared – and a whole lot of strength in the examples set by those who have endured.