5 Stars: Clinging to the only reviews that truly matter

5 stars

I'm an Achiever.

I didn't need an Enneagram test to tell me this, or possibly to tell you this either.  But since I'm an Achiever, I took the test anyway.

Ambitious.

Competent.

Driven.

Status-conscious.

Overly concerned with their image and what others think of them.

I have been this way ever since I can remember.  I drive myself into the ground to prove to myself, but mostly to others, that I am capable.  Worthy.  Accomplished.  5 stars.

This perfectionism plays itself out in virtually every area of my life.  I've convinced myself that I need to earn a 4.0, to qualify for the Boston Marathon, to wear a certain size of clothes, and to have those 5 yellow stars next to my name on the dogsitting website, on our AirBnB listing, and in my Etsy shop.

Reviews make or break me.

I didn't realize this until recently, when I mused aloud to my husband, "It would absolutely crush me if I got one bad rating on Rover (the dogsitting app)."

The words didn't sound so flat and absurd when they were just swirling around in my head.

"Really?" he asked.  "You let the opinions of others hold that much power over you?"

Yeah, I guess I do.  Or at least, I have.  I'm trying to turn a new leaf.

The thing is, I love caring for people's pets and humans and hosting travelers in our home.  I love hand lettering, writing, and crafting.  I want to excel at those things.  But admittedly, I often crave excellence so that people will notice and so that those 5 little stars remain perfectly filled.  Rarely ever do I work hard for the sole purpose of doing a good job.

More often than not, the most important jobs are unrated.  Nobody is handing out stars for being a great mom, wife, or friend.  Unfortunately for me, this can mean that these most important roles are shoved to the back burner to make room for less important but more visible ones.

On the rare occasions when my priorities are properly aligned, I still seek positive reviews and perfect ratings in places where they don't always exist.  

This is especially true in my role as a mom.  I take my kids to do fun activities, but it's more for my sake than for theirs.  I tend to care about my appearance (on social media and otherwise) at the expense of their little hearts.

When we were going through the application and home study process to become certified as a foster family, the case worker interviewed our five-year-old.  One of the questions presented was, "What do you like to do with your family?"

"I just like to be together with them," she answered simply. 

She always gives some variation of this answer when asked a similar question.  She never names "the Instagram moments," such as the zoo, the splash pad, or even our vacations.  "I just like to snuggle with Mommy on the couch," she says.

present over perfefct

My husband doesn't care if I'm a 4.0 student.  My friends don't care if I'm an AirBnB Superhost.  My daughters don't care if I'm the perfect Etsy shop owner or marathoner.  In fact, they don't even care if I'm the perfect mom.  They only care that I'm their mom.  

It's time to start letting those closest to me tell me who I am instead of striving for admiration that is fickle and fading.

My favorite book is East of Eden (John Steinbeck) when I have to name an adult book and You Are Special (Max Lucado) when it is permissible to name a kids' book.  

In You Are Special, the wooden Wemmick people walk around all day, giving each other ugly gray dot stickers or beautiful star stickers.  They make judgments about each other and hand out stickers accordingly.  Everyone wants to have tons of stars.  (This sounds familiar.)  One Wemmick, Lucia, has neither stars nor dots because "the stickers only stick if you let them".  Since Lucia cares only what her Maker thinks of her, she is able to let go of perfection and competition and discover true freedom.  

In the words of John Steinbeck, "Now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."

Good. 

That's a perfect goal for me.

Looking Both Ways

"Look both ways before you cross the street."

These are the words that my mom, like many other mothers across the world, etched into the brain of her child.  Of course, Mom was advising me to pay attention to cars which could come from either direction and turn me into smut.  But she was also telling me to look at where I've been and where I am going.

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I've been a lot of places in 2017.  Speaking literally, that isn't totally true.  Aside from our winter ski trip to Colorado and a few random visits to Texas to see family, I've mostly stayed in Norman.  The rest of my life, though, has been all over the map.

I quit a few things this year, including dairy, gluten, and my job, but we began a lot more.  This blog.  AirBnBDoorpost Collections.  Piper in "big school".  Dogsitting and human-sitting.  The simultaneous newness of it all felt crushing at times.  I said "yes" way too much.

When your husband works for Hobby Lobby, you naturally take advantage of his employee discount and buy all of the things every chance you get.  After all, one can never have too many Christmas decorations, right?  This year, I purchased a new table runner.  It's mostly made of burlap, similar to seemingly all of the other decor in our home.  But if you look closely, especially when the sun is first streaming in through the windows and shining upon our kitchen table at dawn, you can see tiny gold threads woven throughout it.

Our new table runner is the tapestry of 2017.  At the beginning of the year, I chose a word that I wanted to define my life: joy.  While it is true that The Joy Project allowed me to see with clearer eyes and more gratitude, it is also true that many of my days were like the scratchy burlap that stretches across our table: stiff and dull.  I worried too much and prayed too little.  I obsessively filled my plate with obligations due to self-imposed guilt.  I struggled with my relationship with running, and with relationships in general.  I got mad at my kids and my husband.  I had a lot of monotonous, ordinary days that ended far too late because of studying for school and started far too early because, well, such is life with small children.  I strove for perfection and came up short.  And yet, there were these golden moments of joy that appeared every so often, these threads that God wove in to keep me both brave and humble.

This is where I have been.

I'm not exactly sure what the new year holds.  We could have a foster child in our home any day now, a fact which partially excites but mostly terrifies me.  I don't feel ready, but I'm not sure that I ever will.  When we began Piper's adoption process, we had all of the same feelings, but we closed our eyes, held our breaths, and jumped in anyway.  That is when we watched miracles happen.

Still.

That single word is my desire for 2018.  I know that stillness will require setting more boundaries and saying "no" more often, things which I have already begun to do.  But I also believe that there is more to stillness than the physical removal of commitments from the calendar.  I'm picturing myself in the middle of one of these tornadoes that frequent the plains of Oklahoma.  The winds are blowing up all sorts of debris around me, but I am not frantic.  I am calm.  Grounded.  Content.  Finding quiet in the storm.

This is where I am going.

family
Photo credits: JEShoots and Keeley RIckles

More than the sum of my parts.

running

Since my sophomore year of college, I've been defining myself as a runner.

My husband and I had been dating for about a year and a half when he suggested that we train for our first half marathon together.  

"I could never do that," I told him.  "No way."

Then, in May 2008, I did do it. 

I haven't stopped running since.  

I guess there is a bit of pride that comes with typing "Distance Runner" into an "About Me" section of a profile.  I've always known that most people will never run a marathon, so that makes me one of the few.  (That probably makes me more crazy than awesome.)

Part of me loves running because it is healthy and stress-relieving, but a bigger part of me has loved running for the way that it defines me.

Lately, I've been able to let some of that go.  Yes, I am a distance runner.  But that's not all that I am.  I'm also a Jesus-loving, coffee-drinking writer, momma, wife, student, business owner and friend.  I am more than the sum of my parts.

This past weekend, I ran another half marathon.  I stuck with my training for the most part.  However, I also learned to listen to my body and to modify when necessary.

And it was all fine because sometimes, to be great at the other things that I am, I can be just an okay runner.  I'm not less or more of a person because I did or didn't run for one day (or a few, or a lot).  

All of the above is where my head was before the Prairie Fire Half Marathon last weekend.

prairie fire marathon

At that race, I set a new PR.  I had the run of my life.  But about halfway through, because I was feeling strong, I decided to revise my longstanding goal of crossing the finish under 1 hour and 50 minutes.  That goal was somehow not good enough anymore, and I started dreaming about a 1:47 time and about catching up with my friend who was a mile ahead.  At mile 6.5, I threw my training out the window to compete against everyone else instead of against myself.  It was also at mile 6.5 that the race was no longer fun.  My final time was 1:49:44, and I finished 6th of 93 in my age group, but I was angry and disappointed.  

I'm going to take a step back from running, which is uncharted and scary territory for me.   I saw the number I've always wanted to see on the clock this past weekend, I saw my friends on the podium instead of me ... and I let those things tell me who I am.  Until I've gained a healthier perspective and am able to appreciate running for what it is instead of who it makes me, I'll be on a break.

For everyone's sake, hopefully it won't be a long one. :)

Would you still love me if...?

Almost 11 years ago, I was told that I had HIV.

***

As an unemployed, broke college student looking for an easy way to make cash, I thought that donating plasma would be just the thing to put a little change in my pockets.  So, I headed off to the plasma donation center.  The process went smoothly, and I left thinking that perhaps I could become a regular plasma donor in lieu of finding a "real" job.  The girl at the front desk did remind me that the center would call me after completing some testing to ensure that I was a worthy candidate for continued donations.  At that point, though, I was already deciding what to do with the extra 80 bucks per week. 

I took my exams and then went home for my first Christmas break as a college student.  About halfway through the month-long break, I received a phone call from the plasma center.

Receptionist: "Hi, is this Mary?"
Me: "Yes, this is she."
Receptionist: "I am calling about your results from the tests we did at the plasma center."
Me: "Yes ma'am..."
Receptionist: "It appears that you have an abnormality in your results."
Me:  "Which is..."
Receptionist:  "I'm sorry, I cannot disclose that information to you over the phone.  You'll have to make an appointment to come in and talk with one of the nurses."

I still had about two weeks remaining of Christmas break, and I would not be returning to Norman from my home in the Dallas area before then.  I told my mom what the receptionist had said, and we concluded that I was probably anemic.  I still worried somewhat about my test results, but mostly I enjoyed the rest of my holiday and didn't give much thought to the impending doom.

A new semester began, and I made my appointment to speak with the nurse at the plasma center.  She firmly planted me in a chair in a private room and jumped straight to Question #1.

Nurse:  "I'm going to need you to tell me everything about your sexual history.  How many partners have you had?"
Me:  "..."
Nurse: "Uh, ma'am...?"
Me: "Zero?"  

That woman didn't know me from Adam, but she definitely thought that I was lying.  She reminded me that "now is not the time to hide information" and asked me the same question about my sexual history (or lack thereof) in at least four different ways.  She also presented several other questions before announcing, in a most exasperated tone,

"The reason I'm asking you all of these questions is because your tests came back positive for HIV."

"Contact your doctor, good luck, and have a nice day."

It was not a nice day. 

I couldn't get out of that place fast enough.  I ran to my car and sobbed, unable to comprehend how this had happened.  I thought through all of the possible, and even the impossible, scenarios in my head.  Could I have gotten HIV from kissing someone?  Did a doctor once use a dirty needle on me?  I was responsible for the personal care of many adults at camp.  Did I get some bodily fluid into a cut one time?  Did I ever forget to wear gloves when changing someone? 

unconditional love

There were no other explanations.

I made an appointment with a family practice doctor in Norman, and I waited for what seemed like ages to get in as a new patient.  Then I waited for more test results.  Every hour of waiting was agony.

As it turns out, I do not have HIV. 

I don't think that the family practice doctor believed me about being a virgin any more than the nurse at the plasma center had, but he did explain that about one in every 10,000+ tests for HIV will come back with a false positive.  I was the one in 10,000.  I would not be allowed to donate blood or plasma again, but by then, an extra $80 per week was so not worth it to me.  I breathed a big sigh of relief and moved on with my life as normal.  Now, almost eleven years later, I can think about that story without being absolutely horrified.      

***

I haven't told the amazing part of all of this, although it is pretty amazing that I don't have HIV. 

When I was informed that I had a communicable disease, I had recently started dating Andrew.  We had known each other for about five months and had been dating for two, maybe.  After sitting down with the nurse that day in the plasma center, I debated whether or not I should break the bad news to Andrew.  For some reason, I decided that I should.  I remember sitting in his bedroom and crying for hours (literally) before I could get the words out.  When I finally did say something, it probably sounded like this: 

"IthinkIhaveHIV, IhavenoideahowbutIdon'tblameyouifyoudon'twanttobewithmeanymore."

Silence

For a long time. 

I felt sure that he was thinking of the kindest way to break up with me.

I don't remember exactly what he eventually said, but he wrapped his arms around me, told me that all would be well, and reassured me that he still wanted me.  He knew that staying with me meant that everything about our future would change if I did have HIV.  And it didn't matter.

unconditional love

***

We've been filling out stacks of papers for foster care, and tucked into the middle of one of those stacks are five pages of check boxes.

Will you accept a child whose parent did _____?

Would you accept a child with ________?  What about ______?  What if he/she has _____?

Essentially, all of these check boxes are asking the same thing:

Would you still love a child if ... ?

There are legitimate reasons for checking certain boxes and leaving others blank.  By no means are we checking every box.  However, my heart breaks for all of the times that one of the children in the system has asked the question (verbally or otherwise), "Would you still love me if ... ?" and someone has answered, "No.  I will love you, but only with strings attached."

There will be a host of tough things about foster care, but I can't wait to look into a child's eyes and say, "You're loveable because I love you" or "I love you for no other reason, except that you're (insert name here.)"  

I want to do this because this is how I have been loved.  My husband loves me this way daily, but ultimately, he is a mere reflection of the vast, unconditional love that Jesus has for me.

Maybe a foster child has heard words of reassurance before, but likely she hasn't.  So whether she's hearing, "A thousand times, YES!" for the first time or the 51st, I hope those three little letters take root, and I hope that, deep down, she believes them.

One Thousand Gifts: The Joy Project

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"Some days I pick up a camera and it's a hammer ... the Farmer finds me with my hammer in hand, leaning over a plate of cheese grated and sitting in sunlight ... It is quite possible that the God-glory of a ring of shredded cheese may be lost on him ... Ridiculously happy over slips of cheese.  That I am, and it's wild, and, oh, I am the one who laughs.  Me!  Changed!  Surprised by joy!"

I roll my eyes, shut this absurd book, and go to sleep.  Who finds such joy in shredded cheddar?

Ann Voskamp does.  I started reading her book, One Thousand Gifts, in 2014, following the resolution of the most difficult time in our marriage.  The premise of the book is that, by naming the thousands of everyday gifts around us, we become more thankful and joyful people.  

It's a good idea, really.  But the plate of cheese scene was too much for me.  I am not a flowery or dramatic person when it comes to words.  I have this mostly-unbroken rule, though: If I start a book I will finish it.  

So I did.  I muscled my way through the remainder of One Thousand Gifts.  Although Voskamp's writing style frequently irritated me, I arrived at the last chapter of the book and got out of it what I believe she intended.  

What if I started naming my everyday gifts?  How would this change me?  Would it change me?  Would I find myself gushing over a plate of cheese by the end?

On October 11, 2014, I began naming my gifts and recording each one in my journal.  I didn't list something every day, but the first 304 were easy.  

2. Solitude

14. Legs that give me the freedom to run

34. Date nights

50. Amazon Prime

79. Health insurance

129. Pillows

180. Birds singing

210. When a favorite song comes on the radio

297. Pretty handwriting

Then I got lazy.  For whatever reason, I quit journaling as much as I once did, and the One Thousand Gifts Project was temporarily abandoned.  

Just before New Year's Day 2017, my husband and I, along with other members of our community group, chose a word that we wanted to define us in 2017.  

Mine was JOY.  The many mundane aspects of life had become monotonous to me, and I desired for something to be different.  On January 1, 2017, I picked up my pen again and resumed my "gifts list" at number 305, resolving to actually make it to 1,000 this time.

On September 16, 2017, an ordinary Saturday morning, I accomplished my goal.  

When I restarted The Joy Project in January, I knew that I would need to list an average of almost two gifts per day in order to finish before the end of the year.  Simple enough, I thought.  Some days, the gifts flowed out of my pen with little thought.

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365. When I can let my plans go and be okay

379. Walmart grocery pick-up

382. When Piper talks out loud to the TV

394. Conflict resolution

448. Speaking English

Other days, I felt as though I had already named every gift I've ever received.  

These were the moments that changed me.  

Instead of listing the gifts that were obvious (#450: Our dog), I had to start noticing.  I had to find joy in not only the ordinary, but also in the disruption of my plans and in the hardest days when giving thanks was anything but natural.   

Why is my kid asking SO. MANY. QUESTIONS?

486. Piper's curiosity

Spring allergies.  All the sneezing and itchy eyes.

544. Those beautiful white trees that stink, making me think that God has a sense of humor

Yet another kid birthday party this weekend.

556. People liking our kids enough to invite them to parties

Sister's eczema is horrendous today.

613. C's eczema giving us permission to not bathe her every night

If someone else touches me today, I might scream.

664. Having little hands that love to hold mine

I didn't get to do that thing I wanted to do this morning.

753. How motherhood has taught me to be more flexible

These are ways in which I view the world now.  

The Joy Project is no longer about writing down hundreds of gifts but about turning everything into an opportunity for praise and gratitude.

Admittedly, I never sobbed over a pile of cheese, but I began noticing the tiniest details (844: The way that eggs cook, changing from clear to yellow) and finding the good in everything from daily tasks to the most potentially upsetting situations.

Even after nearly ten consistent months of choosing joy, naming gifts still feels unnatural and sometimes awkward.  My tendency is toward anger, frustration, and annoyance.  But because of The Joy Project, I am more quickly abandoning those attitudes and adding to my gifts list instead.  

Now that I've reaching one thousand, I think I'll keep going.  Joy can be found everywhere, if we choose to open our eyes to it.  Who knows, maybe I'll make it to a million one day.

Photos by Kate Bernard