Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Gifts of an Introvert

Several weeks ago, my friend, Jill, was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer.  She's fit, she's 36, and she has three little kids.  Cancer is no respecter of persons, which is one of the many reasons why I hate it so much.

Shortly after her diagnosis, one of our mutual friends set up a time for women who know Jill to come and pray for her.  Nichole's living room was full.

Jill and her family moved to Norman less than two years ago, and it seems like she already knows more people here than I do after a decade.  She's bubbly and outgoing, the kind of person who makes you feel at ease with being yourself, and she could probably have a better conversation with a wall than I can with an actual human.  Hence, the ladies who gathered on her behalf were from a variety of Jill's many walks of life, including her running group, church, kids' school, neighbors, and random acquaintances.

Jill and one of the aforementioned random acquaintances, Laura, met at the public library one day...the first week that Jill moved to Norman...because Jill and Laura are both the kind of people who meet people.  You've probably figured out by now that I am not.  If you were to Google the definition of "introvert", you would likely find my head shot next to the word.

Sometimes, I get down on myself because I am not a Jill Perry or a Laura Piersall.  I love people, but I am awkward and slow to get to know them.

Some of you reading this may have been to a church where there is a "meet and greet", usually before the sermon begins.  I hate that part of the service.  During the "meet and greet" at our church, Jill is inevitably hugging someone and flashing her huge, inviting smile at a complete stranger.  I'm in the bathroom, or refilling my coffee...or hiding behind the stage curtains.

I've learned to come out of my shell somewhat, and I'm fairly adept (now) at having one-on-one conversations with people who I've recently met, but these skills still do not come naturally for me.  It often feels like our society was created for extroverts, so after forcing myself out of my comfort zone for even a few hours, I am ready for a nap.

It is easy to convince myself that the way I was constructed is inferior to the way others were.  I know in my mind that I am "fearfully and wonderfully made", but there's this voice that sometimes tries to tell me that I'm not as fearfully and wonderfully made as people with personalities like Jill's,

If you were a body part, which one would you choose to be?  The heart?  Eyes?  Mouth?  Brain?  Hands?  Those are all great choices, and obviously very important.  I bet I can tell you which body part didn't come to mind.  The bladder.  Right?  Nobody picks that guy.  But guess what.  You would die without your bladder.  Also, have you ever met anyone with two hearts, two brains, or an extra set of eyes?  No, you haven't, because that would be excessive and impossible.

I need to learn to be okay with exactly the gifts that I have.  They're not inferior or unimportant.  Most likely, I won't make friends with you the first time I see you at the public library.  But I might after another time or two, and then I'll be your friend forever.  If you climb up in my dental chair in a few years, I'll ask you about yourself and listen to your answers.  (I really like listening.)  I am not the life of the party, but I can sure organize a good one.  And if you come to our house for dinner, my husband will carry the conversation, but I'll cook my mom's amazing spaghetti recipe, play with your kids, and make you feel welcome.

Perhaps the world does not need another Jill or Laura, as wonderful as they are.  The world definitely does not need Jill or Laura imposters.  Maybe today is a really good day to just be Mary Rachel, in all of my introverted glory, and to trust that the genuine version of myself is far better than a pretend version of my friends.

An introvert and an introvert-in-training

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Parenting in Isolation

There was a point in my life when I thought I could totally rock being a single parent.

Y'all.  Who was I kidding?

My husband and I have a running joke in our house that if he was the only parent, nothing would ever get done, and if I was the only parent, nobody would ever have any fun.  (I say that this is a running joke, but it's actually kind of true.)

In January, Andrew left for Hong Kong for ten days.  I get that military families and traveling business people do this kind of thing all the time, and for much greater stretches.  However, in our 3.5 years as parents, this was the longest that one of us has ever been gone.

When Andrew left, I had more offers for support from my friends than I even knew how to handle.  My girls and I weren't in crisis mode without my husband, but having experienced similar absences of spouses themselves, my friends knew that a normal day could turn into a crisis at any given moment and wanted to help.

Would it be helpful if I brought you a meal one night?

Why don't I watch your girls for an hour so you can ______?

I'm running to the grocery store.  Do you need me to pick up anything for you while I'm out?

Why is it so hard to say yes?

Being a young mother can be incredibly lonely (despite the fact that some little person is ALWAYS present and/or talking), but it seems that we are determined to seclude ourselves even further because of our pride, unwillingness to accept genuine offers of help, and fear of appearing incapable.

We're so exhausted, but we've made ourselves believe that we need to do it all and do it all well.  If our life isn't exactly together, let's at least pretend like we've got this.

Accepting help, in my mind, is not a sign of weakness but of courage.  In self-sufficient America, bravery is required to admit that you cannot function in solitary confinement.  It feels embarrassing to say, "Friend, I'm completely falling apart over here," but we've all been there.  When I've had another momma call me and admit those same words, I haven't felt embarrassed for her.  Truthfully, I have been relieved.  {Thank goodness I'm not to only one who lives in a zoo!}  Even that gorgeous, super-talented mom with five beautiful, perfectly behaved model children loses her mind, too.  Even her.

Also, breathe this in for a minute: People offer to help you because they want to help you.  Simple as that.  Nobody is twisting anybody's arm here.

If you're blessed enough to have family in town, take them up on their proposals to play with their grandkids.  They seriously eat this stuff up.  Just ask my mom, who offered to drive up to do that very thing during the Hong Kong trip and, you guessed it, I said it wasn't necessary.  (I'm a work in progress.)

Parenting isn't meant to be done in isolation.  This life isn't a contest to see who is the most independent.  We need people.

It is freeing, not embarrassing or weak or inadequate, to say yes to assistance.  If you try it next time, I will, too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Fourth Bedroom

This month marks two years that we have lived in our current house.

Closing Day 2015
When I found out that I was pregnant with our second child, the 1000-square foot home that we then occupied suddenly began to feel claustrophobic as I imagined another person sleeping (or not sleeping) in it.  First world problems, I know.

We began looking for houses with more space, focusing more on the ones with a fourth bedroom.  Technically, we didn't need it, but my husband and I (okay, mostly him) wanted a guest room so that we could open our home more frequently to others.  We found the perfect place in less than a month.  It had been on the market for less than 12 hours when we bought it, and it had its own private guest bedroom and bathroom.

For weeks before we moved into our new home and for months after, we prayed for ways to tangibly bless others through this gift that we get to call "ours".  We had neighbors and coworkers over for dinner and had showers and parties here.  My parents and other friends passing through town would occasionally sleep in the fourth bedroom.  

And then there was Kayla. 

In October, this 18-year-old came to stay with us.  She had aged out of foster care and was not in a good living situation, so when she asked me if I knew of anyone who was looking for a roommate or had an extra bedroom for rent, I could almost literally hear God whispering to my heart: "Mary Rachel, you do." 

Of course, I needed to address this situation with my husband, but after some prayer, he only asked one question about it.  "Do you trust her with our girls?"  Yes.  

Kayla moved in about a week later.

From the very day that she brought over her few possessions, the devil's attacks began.  Her stuff doesn't match yours.  Your house isn't going to always look perfectly put together anymore (like it ever did with two small children running around).  She has a cat.  MR, you don't like cats; they stink and they shed.  She doesn't have a car.  What an inconvenience!  You work with her; you're never going to have any "alone" time.  All four of us have to use the same bathroom so that she can have her own.  How annoying!  It's already SO LOUD in here, and we're adding another person to the noise level.  Your parenting is constantly going to be on trial before someone else.  She's going to see this circus that is your home and judge you.  You aren't good enough.

On and on the struggle went to hear the voice of truth louder than these other voices feeding lies into my head.  As my lips spoke words to her such as, "Kayla, you aren't a burden to us.  We want to help you," I realized that I was trying to preach them to myself, as well.  "Mary Rachel, she isn't a burden to you.  You want to help her."    

Kayla stayed with us for four months.  She got a car, and her previous living situation improved so that she felt safe in returning to be with her only family.  As quickly as she was here, she was gone. 

In the past few days since Kayla has moved out, I've been trying to process these recent months.  

Guys, it was hard.

I think that it is challenging to invite a non-family member to live in your house, regardless of who it is.  I am a private person, and I love comfort and my own space.  Any invasion of those things by anybody is going to throw me for a loop.  Layered on top of all of that was the fact that Kayla, though sweet and earnest, is a teenager with a dysfunctional upbringing, and I felt completely lost in my own home.   

I never questioned that we were doing what God called us to do.  He has given us far more than we need or deserve, and I believe that he expects us to be generous with our home and our time.  But, it is one thing to have this idea in your head of what generosity looks like and quite another to be so generous that your lifestyle actually has to change.  When generosity and good stewardship begin to make me slightly uncomfortable, I want to run.  And in this case, there was nowhere for me to go.  

That's the number of days I have left on this earth, assuming that I've been given 70 years.  I recently began "numbering my days" (Psalm 90:12), and admittedly, there have been far too many of the past 120 when I've shuffled into the bathroom that I shared with three other people, marked off another day, and resented my lot in life.  15,092 is a lot of days, and it isn't.  The 120(ish) days that Kayla lived with us definitely wasn't a lot, and, regrettably, I spent many of them feeling sorry for myself and being annoyed with a situation that I chose.  If you've been reading this and thinking that I'm an awesome person because I opened my home to a teenager who didn't have one, you just got a peek into what's really in my heart.  It's gross.

Why did we do it?  

That's a multi-faceted answer, and I might have responded differently depending on the day that you asked me.  

Partly, I wanted our girls to notice us opening our doors and making outsiders feel welcome.  Those little people are watching everything we do, and I was hopeful that they would witness a glimmer of hospitality and aspire to imitate it one day. 

I also longed for Kayla to experience a functional family that loves each other.  I knew that we weren't perfect; however, I thought that we could show her something unique.  Conflicts were inevitable, but I yearned for her to see forgiveness and healthy resolution following them.  

In short, I wanted to change Kayla's life during her time with us.  Perhaps she would be so inspired by our gracious living that she would be a radically different person when she walked out of our front door than when she walked into it.

I don't know if Kayla learned a single thing by living with us (except for how much crying there is up in this place), and I'm not sure that she needed to.  Maybe that wasn't the point.  In my reasons for inviting Kayla into our home, I was hoping to see change in everyone else, but I think that what God was after was change in me.  (Isn't that usually how it goes?)  I'm stubborn, selfish, and ungrateful, but perhaps I'm the tiniest bit less that way than I was when the fourth bedroom became occupied in October.  

This I know for sure: Not one of His seen or unseen plans during the past four months was ever thwarted by my apathy and complaining.  And that's really good news for everyone involved.

"I am God, and there is no other.  I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.'"
-Isaiah 46:9-10

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Giving Up Gluten

This entry is going to be a little different than my usual "musings on marathons, motherhood, and everything in between" (because I'm not sure that the current topic fits neatly into any of those categories, including "everything in between").  Today, I'm discussing why I switched to a gluten-free diet about two months ago.

In October of last year, I wrote a blog post about my struggles with plantar fasciitis and how that injury sidelined me from my favorite hobby, running, for several weeks.  While I was dealing with plantar fasciitis, I dreaded putting my feet on our hardwood floors in the morning because I knew that the pain in my heel would send excruciating stabs all the way up my leg.  Resting helped to heal my injury, but I began to notice that my dread of our hardwood floors was not solely related to my heel.  Every morning when I woke up, my joints were swollen and achy.  My ring wouldn't fit over my knuckle for days at a time.  I felt like an old woman in an active, 28-year-old's body.

Knowing that these feelings were not normal for me, I got tested for rheumatoid arthritis, which runs in my family.  Negative.

Lupus.  Negative.

Thyroid problems.  Negative.

Scleroderma.  Negative.

All of the lab results, thankfully, showed no major issues.  However, these negative results left one major problem: I was a perfectly healthy woman with severe joint pain and swelling for no explainable reason.

I began to accept that all of this would just be my life for the next however many years God gives me.
Enter my friend, Gretchen Clark.

"Have you ever thought that you might have a gluten sensitivity?  Your symptoms seem kind of similar to those of this other gal I know..."

A gluten intolerance had not once crossed my mind.  But, concluding that this experiment could at least be worth a try, I decided to eliminate gluten from my diet for two weeks, certainly not expecting to discover a solution to the weird health issues I was facing.


Okay, I have to be honest.  The first few days were horrible.  I was having gluten withdrawals!  Headaches plagued me, and I was constantly nauseated.  I had to fight the urge to eat all the bread and all the pasta all the time.  My skin looked worse than a teenager's.

If I am anything, though, I am stubborn, so I stuck with the plan, and 7-ish...

This is a case of wishing that I would have taken before and after photos or kept a log of my symptoms or something because the changes have been so dramatic.  Not only do my joints feel normal again with no more swelling, but some pleasant unexpected changes occurred, as well.

I feel like a fog lifted out of my brain.  {This is impossible to explain really.}  I wake up feeling rested every morning, and I am able to concentrate better throughout the day.  I didn't even know that I was living in a fog until one day when I wasn't anymore.

My skin is the best it has looked in years.  This has been the greatest surprise of my gluten-free diet.  After my daughter was born, I tried almost every kind of topical medication and face washing regimen that existed, all to no avail.  My skin, with no makeup (!) and no camera filters, looked like this last week:

A couple of months ago, I would not have dared to take a picture without makeup because I was too embarrassed about my breakouts.

I hadn't intended to lose weight, but I've lost four pounds in the last eight weeks.  (Mom, I know you're reading this, and I can hear you freaking out from Texas.  I'm not wasting away; it's okay.)  I've weighed the same amount for several years, not including pregnancy (obviously), so this was unexpected.  I feel great and not bloated.  Again, I got used to feeling a certain way and assumed that was normal.

A couple of things I should mention...

1.  This is not a fad diet.  Did you know that no one possesses the enzyme needed to process gluten naturally in the body?  Some people are completely unaffected by this fact, while others with Celiac disease have severe reactions when consuming even the tiniest amount of gluten.  I'm somewhere in between.  You might hear my success story and decide to go gluten-free and not notice any difference at all, because your body is not my body, and this is not a diet where everyone loses weight who follows it correctly.  Or, you may be living in a bloated, achy, fog that you've thought is typical, and giving up gluten will rock your world.

2.  Giving up gluten is a lifestyle change, but it is not impossible.  In fact, it's not even hard.  I love pasta.  And cake.  And bread.  Muffins.  Bagels.  Pie.  2017 is a beautiful year to be alive and gluten-free because there are affordable, tasty options for people like me who are choosing this lifestyle.  I've made gluten-free pasta three times in the last couple of weeks, and my whole family of picky eaters gobbled it up and never even knew they were eating brown rice noodles instead of flour ones.  Also, my neighbor brought me a pan of gluten-free brownies, and guys, I ate that whole pan because they were good.  Pizza is definitely a big loss; that is one food that is not the same.  But, now that I see how much different I feel without gluten in my life, I'll never go back to my old diet.

I know that there is a wealth of research about gluten and how it affects people and blah blah blah, but I also know that it sometimes helps to hear a real person's experience.  So, there's mine for you to take or leave.

Happy eating!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

An Essay Contest

I haven't participated in an essay contest in years.  Usually I write because I want to, but today I wrote because I need to.  

We started a college savings fund for both of our girls when they were babies, and today, I'm trying to win a contest to get money added to their accounts.  Somehow, the words did not flow as easily when I did not generate the topic.  (Also, how do you explain life change in 300 words or less?!)  People sometimes ask me if I would want to be a writer for a living, and I'm not sure I could do it.  Much of the joy of blogging, for me, comes from posting whatever is in my brain and not having any restrictions on length or subject matter.  Anyway, here was my best attempt.  It never hurts to try, right?  

"Please explain, in 300 words or less, how the Oklahoma College Savings Plan has made, or will make, a difference in your own life or the life of your beneficiary."


"My husband and I met at The University of Oklahoma, and we are now raising our girls less than two miles from its campus.  College is obviously a special place for us, but not solely for the reason that we both obtained degrees from the one in our hometown.

I taught public school in Oklahoma for six years before returning to school myself.  During those six years, I worked at two very contrasting schools.  At one, kids could not afford to keep the electricity on year-round.  At the other, OU head football coach and millionaire, Bob Stoops, had successful twin boys who attended.  The schools were only a few miles apart, but they felt like opposite planets.  The education of these students’ parents was the primary separation.  I witnessed, first-hand, how a cycle of poverty can be perpetuated or broken based on whether or not higher degrees are deemed important and are attainable.  In places where college was an opportunity, it literally changed the lives of generations.

In 2013, we met a 17-year-old girl.  She was bright and motivated, and she was also pregnant.  _____ gave birth to our adopted daughter, Piper.  She finished high school and is now working on furthering her education, but when we met _____, she was forced to choose between college and a child.  She selflessly decided to give us this baby who she had carried for nine months, with the understanding that we would attempt to provide the best life for Piper.  Giving the gift of college to Piper will not only allow our daughter to have a greater future for herself, but it will be the fulfillment of a promise that we made to a brave young girl four years ago, a repayment for our precious gift.

Thank you for your consideration."


299 words.  I like living on the edge.

Friday, January 6, 2017

We like each other.

Shortly before Christmas, our community group from church left the kiddos at home and went out for hibachi, drinks, and Christmas lights.  There were 14 of us, all of various ages and in diverse stages of life.

Somewhere in between the onion volcano and the catching-the-egg-in-the-top-of-the-hat trick (how do those guys do that?), our chef asked what we were celebrating.

"Nothing in particular," said Gretchen.  "We're just friends."

"Really?  So how do all of you people know each other?" asked the chef.

"Church," someone replied.

"Oh."  {I could almost literally see the wheels turning in this guy's head.}  "So you're not celebrating anything, and you actually like being around each other?"


"Hmm.  You don't hear that very often."

I'd have to agree.  Sometimes I'm even shocked that an accumulation of such different individuals could not only get along, but want to spend time together.

Let's be honest: Church people can be cheesy, annoying, judgmental Bible-beaters.  With a few random exceptions, this was the perception I had of Christians for the majority of my life, until my husband and I reluctantly joined a small group at our old church and were pleasantly surprised to find something that contradicted all of our prejudices.

People were kind to us.  We brought a big, turbulent mess to a group that had been flowing smoothly, and we were welcomed with open arms.  Every week for a whole semester, someone from our group babysat so that we could have regular date nights.  People threw wedding and baby showers for each other.  Friends dropped off coffee or lunch to other group members' workplaces, just because.

More than just caring for each other, though, perhaps the most stunning thing about that group was that people were normal.  Yes, we all loved Jesus and tried to challenge each other toward being more like Him, but people had regular, secular jobs.  We read good books, watched good movies, and had parties that were fun and not lame.  Some families sent their children to public school, some to private school, and some homeschooled...and nobody cared what anybody else did or tried to change anyone's mind about it.  It was genuine and organic, and it was true community in, I think, one of the most unlikely places.

Andrew and I left that group about a year ago, not because we wanted to, but because we felt that it was important (and far more convenient) to do life in Norman, where we live.  Doubting that we would ever find community in church people again, we drug our feet somewhat in joining another small group at our new church.

But, we did find community in church people again, so that's twice now that my expectations have been completely defied.

We found friendship in this rag-tag group of folks who consist of a realtor, a teacher, students, a school counselor, an interior designer, a campus pastor, stay-at-home moms, university employees, and artists.  The youngest person in our group is four months, and the oldest is in her sixties.  We eat hibachi, watch each other's kids, have football watch parties, set up meal calendars for group members who are sick or busy, bring our chaos, and we invite other people to be part of this crazy thing we've got going...because we can...because, by the grace of this God who is seemingly all we have in common at times, we actually like each other.

You can also find this post here

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Fairy Tale Ending

My three-year-old daughter is all girl these days: baby dolls, nail polish, sparkles, pink everything, ballerinas, and fairy tales.

Fairy tales.  Sometimes I'd rather stick toothpicks under my fingernails.

Often, Piper asks me to read "Goldilocks" or "The Gingerbread Man", but her favorite fairy tales are the ones with princesses, the ones that make me cringe the most.

I remember going to see Beauty and the Beast at the mall.  It was my first movie to view in theaters, and it has a certain appeal to me as an adult today: A person falls in love with another human being who is, in many respects, completely undesirable.  I still enjoy witnessing stories in which rough characters soften under the pursuing and undeserved affections of someone else.

The stories Piper loves though, are the ones with the beautiful girls named Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel.  At her age, I'm sure I adored those, too, but now, they become increasingly more absurd with each nighttime reading.

"He saw her and immediately fell in love."

"The shoe fit, and they got married the next day and lived happily ever after."

"The princess woke up.  The spell was broken by true love's first kiss."


Kids and adults eat this stuff up, but have you ever really thought about the message of these tales?  Admittedly, I hadn't until recently.

Boys like the prettiest girls.  

It is entirely possible, and common, to fall in love with someone without ever having talked to her.  (I suppose that one is debatable, but I am personally skeptical of the idea of love at first sight.)

Marry the right person, and you live happily ever after.

People seem to want fairy tale endings.  They do seem easier.  Who doesn't desire a beautiful spouse and a "happily ever after" with no cares in the world?

As 2016 wraps up and I think about the end of another year, I'm realizing that I don't want a fairy tale ending.  I don't want it for myself or for my girls.  I want real life.

Real life is messy.  It's raw and not glamorous and gosh, just hard sometimes.  But there it is, in the very expression: It is real.  My desire is not to float through existence with my head in the clouds, happy but lacking true joy.  Because joy comes from having fully experienced deep sadness, loss, and waiting...and then waking up to a new day and realizing that you've tread through the greatest valleys and survived.

Fairy tales provide some sort of superficial, feel-good, momentary happiness, but they don't offer an abiding sense of contentment, which is what I ultimately crave for my little family.

That said, I'll probably read a fairy tale to Piper tonight, as I have for the past four months in a row...and throw up a little bit in my mouth as I do.  Tonight, she's three, and some battles just aren't worth fighting.

Happy New Year, friends.  May you experience real life, with all of its ups and downs, and find an ending that is better than a fairy tale in 2017.