Gratitude My world last week was debilitating neck pain.  It was peripheral awareness of ebola spreading and ISIS advancing.  It was sadness for a friend's profound loss.

It was a long, heavy week, the kind of week you survive by allowing the laundry piles to spill onto the floor, the dust bunnies to remain untouched.

On Saturday, we woke up to the laundry piles and the dust bunnies, to children who once again needed to eat and be entertained.  CJ and I snapped at each other, tired and frustrated, burdened with the responsibility of it all.

But somehow, some way, grace broke in.  We ate chocolate chip pancakes.  We listened to our little girl giggle with one of her good buddies.  We invited friends over for a spontaneous lunch, and all four kids played quietly for fifteen blessed minutes. Other friends made us dinner and brought it over, allergy-free dessert and all.  It was a sweet day, and we went to bed feeling gratitude for the palpable fullness of it.

And then there was Sunday and Monday and Tuesday - days marked by the deep suffering of another good friend, by a fussy baby and a napless toddler, by my vain efforts to keep up with the piles and the dust bunnies.

At one point in my life, I would have gotten stuck here, frustrated by these very real days, certain that I was entitled to a week's worth of Saturdays.

But I think motherhood has taught me a particular gratitude for the sweet moments - for the little miracles of both kids sleeping in until 7:45, of children playing in peace, of conversations (and friendships) sustained in the chaos.

Life is hard.  It just is.  Sometimes, it's unbelievably, unbearably hard.  Often, it's simply exhausting.

But every now and then, in the laughter of children, in the swirling leaves of a perfect fall afternoon, in the companionship of seasoned friends, we get a little taste of what we were made for.

And when those precious, holy moments come, I am learning, we don't grab on tight and try to figure out how to recreate them.  We hold them loosely, and we simply whisper, Thank You.  

When Your Friends Prayers Aren't Answered And Yours Are

20140902-Waldron-LaughwithFriends I'm honored to have a guest post running on the (in)courage site today.  It's about being a mom of two living daughters and also being a woman who's experienced infertility and miscarriage.  It's about holding both life and loss in balance as I relate to women currently struggling with reproductive loss.  I hope you'll visit, read, and join in the conversation.

Pregnancy After Loss: Friendship

Today, I begin a series of posts entitled Pregnancy After Loss to explore some of the things I've been thinking about the first half of this pregnancy, as I deal with the reality I mentioned in my last post:  pregnancy does not always result in the birth of a living child.  The first post in the series follows below.

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A friend from high school wrote recently to tell me about some of her own struggles with fertility issues.  In her e-mail, she mentioned that she often feels like her world is divided into two groups:  friends who can have babies and friends who cannot.

I can relate.  When we struggled to get pregnant with Ellie, I was the only woman in my small group who didn't have children, and I felt terribly alone in that context.  It was much easier to relate to my friends from other places, friends who didn't or couldn't have children.  After losing Avaleen, I struggled too, even though I had one living child of my own.  On playdates and at mom's group, I often felt surrounded by women who seemed to pop out babies effortlessly, who to my knowledge hadn't experienced a pregnancy loss, and I felt not only envious, but also unable to participate in casual conversations about pregnancy aches and pains and newborn care, even though I could on one level relate.

One of the difficulties for me about this pregnancy is that I feel like I've shifted from one club to another without fully belonging in either.  I'm pregnant with my third child in three years.  I can no longer really claim that we've had significant struggles getting pregnant.  This pregnancy seems to be progressing well.  I am a woman who can have babies.

And yet my year of infertility and especially the loss of Avaleen have forever shaped the way I think of conception and pregnancy.  I know what it is like to watch month after month pass by with no plus sign on the pregnancy test, to struggle with the news that yet another friend is pregnant when you are not.  I know what it is like to lose a child, to be forever shaped by the absence of a life you once carried inside you and by the fearful knowledge that it could happen again.  The truth is I don't really feel like a woman who can have babies, but rather a woman whose family is growing through struggle and tears.  And even though my first child plays with her Daddy and my third is growing inside me while I write, I still very much identify with the woman who can't have babies.  I've lived some parts of her story, and while my pain has been lessened in ways that her's has not, I feel a kinship to her.

That's part of why it's hard for me to announce this pregnancy so publically, even though I want to write honestly about all of my life.  I've spent the past 7 months talking to women (and men) who've expeienced disappointment and loss related to having children.  I've interviewed them for my book, and many of them have reached out to me because of my book - aquaintances from high school and church, friends from college I'd lost touch with, even friends of friends I'd never met previously.  I carry their stories with me, and my joy in my own pregnancy is tempered by my awareness that I've been given a gift many of them have not.

I pray for them often, and I grieve with them.  I don't have any easy answers for the pain they must sit in.  Part of me feels like I am betraying them with this pregnancy, like I'm losing my ability to identify with and to speak to them.   I don't know.  Perhaps that is true.  I can only be faithful to share from the experiences I've been given.  But today, I just want to say to all of my sweet friends who are struggling to have babies, you are on my heart and in my mind.  I may be pregnant, but you are not forgotten.

My First Guest Post

A few months ago, my friend Alyssa, who also happens to be talented photographer behind most of my favorite shots of Ellie, asked me to consider writing a guest post on her blog.  She's doing a wonderful series this summer called Together Through Pain, which features a host of guest bloggers describing how to care for people walking through various trials including unexpected death, childhood trauma, and chronic illness.  I've so benefited from reading the series and am very honored to be included.  As you may have guessed, my post is about miscarriage and how to care for a friend who's lost a baby.  You can read it here.  And while you're there, check out the other posts in the series; they're worth your time.

Lessons from Motherhood

When you have your own child, everyone tells you, you will know. You'll know their tired cry from their hungry cry. You'll know their routines and preferences. You'll even know their stool pattern.

It's a comforting thought, this idea of knowing. It sounds so clear, so certain, so confident. It sounds like the kind of parent I want to be.

But I have to say, that so far, three months into motherhood, I don't really feel like I know much of anything. Ellie's hungry cries sound pretty much the same to me as her tired cries. One night she sleeps nine hours straight; the next she is up every three hours. Somedays, she eats ravenously; somedays, she refuses to eat for hours on end. And stool patterns? Don't get me started.

The other day, I was telling my good friend Rachel, who used to be a roommate of mine, about how Ellie is so inconsistent and about how frustrating it is to me that I can't figure her out. She just laughed. "Sorry, Abby," she said, "I just think it's so funny that God would give you that kind of child."

This is, after all, the same Rachel who thrives on not having a schedule, the same Rachel who used to repeatedly move a flower arrangement in the bathroom we shared, just to see how long it would take me to put it back into place (not long, in case you're curious!).

Having a roommate like Rachel was good for me; she taught me to be a little more spontaneous, to worry less about having everything perfect and to spend more time enjoying life.

It's still too early to tell if Ellie's inconsistency is just part of her being a baby or if it's part of her life-long temperment, but either way, I am trying to trust that all the things I can't figure out about her, that which I don't know, is for my good, in the same way that having a roommate like Rachel was for my good.

Already, Ellie is teaching me too. She is teaching me to persevere, to keep trying when a particular approach or schedule doesn't work immediately. She is teaching me to find the middle ground somewhere between the two extremes where I tend to live - either adhering perfectly to my goals and plans or quitting altogether. And as a result, she is teaching me dependence on God, for this middle ground is not a place I can stay on my own strength.

As I work with Ellie, I am beginning to realize that my desire to know is really pride and self-reliance at their finest, my heart screaming to be able to manage, predict, and control - all by myself, thank you very much. Instead, God is asking me to cry out to Him for wisdom as I walk forward into this task of parenting, full of much which I may never know.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #21: Bethany Beach

On the East Coast, or at least in the mid-Atlantic region where I grew up, going on a family beach vacation is a summer ritual right up there with baseball games, ice cream cones, and flip-flops. In Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood, most families favor Ocean City, Maryland or the Jersey and Delaware shores. In Virginia, where I live now, the Outer Banks seems to be the favored destination.

For our family though, "the beach" has always meant one place - Bethany Beach, Delaware. For years, we rented a place there for a week each summer, and then when I was in high school, my grandparents bought a bayside cottage that I've visited at least once almost every year since, with family, and with friends from college, church small groups, and work.

While I've been to beaches in Maryland, New Jersey, Canada, California, Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, it's hard for me to think of visits to those places, as amazingly beautiful as most of them are, as a true beach vacation. For in the same way that home, with its familiar, well-worn rhythms and rituals, is uniquely comforting, thirty years of trips to Bethany Beach has made it feel like vacation in a way that no other place does.

Part of that is its steadiness throughout the many changes in my own life. Sure, as my dad is quick to lament, dunes now prevent beachgoers from sitting under the boardwalk, and new, trendier restaurants like Five Guys and Baja Beach House have sprung up in recent years. But it is still a small beach, a family beach, and today, like twenty years ago, there are still the quaint, book-lined shelves of Bethany Beach Bookstore, the greasy comfort of Grotto's Pizza, and salt and vinegar laden DB Fries in their signature yellow paper tub.

But perhaps even more important to my conception of Bethany Beach as my vacation spot, it is a place that holds a lifetime of my memories, beginning with childhood visits to the rental house with the spiral staircase. Our family friends the Mellingers often joined us there, all six of us children crammed in the back seat of a station wagon at the end of each long beach day, sun-kissed and sandy, surrounded by piles of towels, beach pails, and boogie boards. When we weren't on the beach, there were bike rides on the boardwalk, endless games of pool and the card game War, and half-hearted attempts to fish and crab in the brown canal waters behind the house. And more often than not, my birthday happened that week, simple homemade chocolate sheetcake and candles, perhaps a present or two, surrounded by family and the closest of family friends. Pure happiness.

My teen memories of the beach are more introverted ones, long, lazy days of reading for pleasure, naps in the sunshine, shopping at the outlets on rainy days, people watching on the boardwalk. A welcome respite from honors classes, track practice, and college applications.

Then, for several years in college, my friends and I descended on my grandparents' beach house the week after exams for what at the time felt like the ultimate experience of community life: Techmo Bowl tournaments, National Geographic puzzle marathons that lasted until 2 a.m., puppy chow making sessions, football and frisbee on the still empty spring beach, laughter, and long conversations about life, love, the ever-looming future. Sweet moments of friendship, of life on the exciting cusp between adolescence and adulthood.

In recent years, the beach has become a place to both retreat from and explore the complexities of an ever-changing life. It is a place where CJ and my sister-in-laws have become, in a deeper sense, family. It is a place where I've gathered with friends to retreat, to pray, to fellowship, and in one case, to grieve. It is the place where I cuddled my baby niece while pondering the early days of the small life growing inside of me, the place where morning sickness first made me run to the toilet. Rich times, painful times, deepening times.

The future, as always, is uncertain. My grandparents are aging, and what might become of the beach house remains unclear. CJ and I are starting a family, and what sort of family vacation traditions we might institute with our own children are yet to be decided. I don't know if I'll spend as much time at Bethany Beach in the next 30 years as I have in the past 30. But I do know that I'm grateful for the gift of a home away from home, a place that has been the backdrop for so many scenes in so many seasons of my life, a place that will always be the storehouse for so many special memories.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #19: Washington DC

When I first moved to the metro DC area the summer after graduating from Penn State, I lived in perpetual awe of the importance and fame of my new hometown. My roommate Rachel and I, both fresh to the city, would often drive down Constitution Avenue at night on our way to visit friends, staring transfixed at the glowing orb that is the Capitol Building dome. In small Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I knew this view as the backdrop for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, but now, I lived within miles of the very place where so much world news actually transpired.

In many ways, living in the shadow of power suited me. Unlike my husband, I have never been particularly politically oriented, but I am driven and goal-oriented, qualities I soon found describe the personality of the average Washingtonian. People in DC expect to succeed, and they're willing to sacrifice a lot to that end, something I quickly noticed at my new job teaching middle school English. In Pennsylvania, when I was student teaching, most of the teachers I worked with would line up at the door of the school, waiting for their contract hours to end at 3 p.m. so they could go home. At my new school in Fairfax, most teachers voluntarily stayed and worked in their classrooms until 5, 6, or 7 p.m., sometimes later. As a lifelong overachiever, all of this felt comforting in a way, like I'd found a place where I fit, where I was surrounded by people who were like me.

But in other ways, I struggled. DC is a hard place to find community, which thrives on time, relational energy, and proximity, all of which are lacking in a city characterized by sixty-plus hour work weeks, lengthy commutes, and over-committed people. I made friends, both at work and through religious organizations, but they were scattered and fragmented, often living so far away that even if I had energy to visit them on a weeknight, I would have spent half of my evening driving there and back. I missed my small college town, where no one lived more than ten minutes away, where grabbing a meal or watching a weekly TV show with friends was simple and easy. I often felt tired of trying so hard to connect with people and lonely because I wasn't. There were many times I wanted out - out where the lanes were fewer, the parking lots emptier, the groceries cheaper.

Eight and a half years later though, I am still here. I often wonder why. It's not that I haven't tried to leave. In fact, there have been several times when I've developed an exit strategy (grad school, new job, etc.) only to find doors closing and myself still here in DC. Sure, there have been changes. I've moved a few times within Fairfax County. I've lived with twelve different roommates, including a now-permanent one. I've even tried to make my world smaller by living, working, and going to church within one small Fairfax County community.

But the reality is that I am still here in a place I never really planned to stay. I met my husband here. I own a home here. I am about to have a baby here. I very well may spend most of my life here.

And I'm okay with that, even though I am still not sure I'd choose it out of a catalog of "dream places to live." But having invested almost nine years of my life here, DC is now, for better and for worse, part of me. Were I to leave for smaller, greener country, I'd miss being able to walk to Egyptian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, not to mention Chipotle and my favorite little local bakery. I'd miss shopping at Trader Joe's and walking around Old Town Alexandria on a warm, spring evening.

But most of all I'd miss the many people, who as I realized at my local baby shower last week, have gradually become a community that, while still fragmented and scattered, has walked with me through the real joys and trials of my post-college years. They've come from scattered places - colleagues at both Frost Middle School and George Mason University, old roommates, friends from Navigators and from church, even friends I met while studying abroad in Cambridge. They don't all know each other, and some of them live further away than I'd like. But in God's kindness, they have made my experience of DC much less about being successful and much more about walking through life with people, even when it's hard.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #18: Discipleship

Discipleship can be defined simply as following Jesus, living life in obedience to His commands and out of a desire to serve Him. In some Christian circles, the word discipleship is also used to describe the one-on-one relationship between a more mature Christian and a younger Christian, where the more mature believer tries to help the younger Christian grow in his or her faith.
I owe much of my spiritual growth to several women who, over my thirty years, have walked alongside me in this kind of discipleship relationship. I think first, and primarily, of my mom, a joyful, steady homemaker who I know began teaching me to know Jesus before I can remember it. Our's was not a formal discipleship relationship with a regular weekly meeting time or topic, but it was discipleship all the same, eighteen years of living life together in our home and as we interacted with our shared community. The things she taught me were often more by example than by word, but they were rich, important lessons about what it means to be a woman of God. Time after time, I saw her patiently and joyfully lay down her life for her family and friends, wrestle honestly with God through hard things, and humbly admit her weaknesses. And as I watched, God showed me a picture of the kind of woman I want to be some day.
In the first weeks of my freshmen year of college, suddenly on my own and feeling very alone, I met a woman who would disciple me in my pivotal undergraduate years. Karly, a blonde Iowan, was a recent college graduate herself, but in my eyes, she was old and wise and oh-so-grown-up. She did, after all, have a car and a real apartment and a college degree. She also led the freshmen Bible study I ended up joining with the Navigators campus ministry, and she took an interest in getting to know me. We did fun things together - going out for ice cream, playing pranks on some of the guys in our ministry, working out at the campus gym - but we also talked. A lot. We talked about boys and about school and about sharing our faith on campus. Karly had an awesome laugh, one that came deep from her throat and made her nose crinkle, but she was also willing to cry with me about my struggles. During the three years I met with Karly, I learned the importance of talking about my spiritual journey with others on a regular basis, and I caught a vision for investing in other girls, like she had invested herself in me.
The summer before my junior year, I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado for the summer to participate in what the Navigators called a Summer Training Program (STP). Imagine 50-60 college students living on the grounds of a Christian conference center, working on housekeeping, grounds, and kitchen crews, sharing cramped living quarters, and doing Bible studies and attending services together. Throw in some hikes up Colorado's many fourteeners, some midnight runs to Sonic, and lots of crushes and ultimate frisbee, and you've got the basic idea. That summer, I met with my team leader, an older, married woman named Carol, for regular discipleship times. I liked Carol immediately because she was taller than me, a rare and always delightful occurence in my world, and because she was a natural visionary and leader. I can't remember many of the specific things we talked about that summer, in various Colorado Springs coffee shops and on hikes up red-rocked ridges, but I do remember that Carol saw God-given potential in me, that she encouraged me to use my gifts for God's glory and to dream dreams as big as the Colorado sky.
My senior year of college, after Karly had moved on to pursue other ministry opportunities, I began meeting with the senior staff member of our campus ministry, Cathy. Cathy, who is perhaps the most sincere and caring person I know, wanted to help prepare me for life after college. In her living room and over Cokes at the Arby's in downtown State College, we talked our way through a five-part study on Biblical womanhood. But we also talked about life and about the Bible study I was leading for younger girls on campus, and I think in the end it was those conversations that most prepared me for life after college. Many of the girls in my study were dealing with deep issues like past abuses and depression, and Cathy wisely helped me learn how to help them and who to point them to when I couldn't help. In many ways, it was my first deep taste of the harsh realities of a fallen world, and Cathy's counsel prepared me to care for broken, hurting people - both in my Bible study and for the rest of my life.
After college, I moved from quiet, insulated, central Pennsylvania college town to the sprawling bustle of metropolitan DC. And God sent me Connally, a former English teacher turned Navigator staff member, whose ministry focused on twenty-somethings making the transition from college to career. That, thankfully, included me, and oh what a transition it was. Connally patiently listened to my desperate tales of a life that wasn't turning out the way it was "supposed to" and graciously drew me out about my unfulfilled desires for marriage and community and church. Time after time, God used her ability to understand me better than I understood myself to gently point me toward eternal truths that stood firm in the midst of the internal chaos I was feeling. And she also helped me to realize that I approached life as not only a thinker, but also an artist, a term I never would have applied to myself previously but now embrace as part of God's calling for my life.
I can't think of five more different women. In fact, the only thing they all have in common is that each of them loves Jesus and has committed her life to following Him. But God brought each one to me at the right time and used their particular strengths and gifts that I might grow to know Him more. Through each of them, I have been blessed.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #12: Rachel

Rachel and I with friends in DC (Rudy, Bethany, and Dave)

Visiting Rachel in Arizona (with our good friend Brynne)

When I first met Miss Rachel Kraines, I wasn't so sure we'd be friends. It was the first month of freshmen year, perhaps even the first week. Through a welcome week table, I'd made contact with a Navigator staff woman named Karly, who told me about a freshmen women's Bible study she was leading. I agreed to meet her and some of the other girls who were interested for a trip to a local dairy for ice cream.

As it turned out, the other girls had all met before and were already telling inside jokes about freshmen adventures like making macaroni and cheese in a coffeepot and randomly deciding to try out for the rugby team. Everyone was loud and energetic and full of laughter, and I wasn't sure I fit.

Little did I know at the time that through this very freshmen Bible study, Rachel would quickly grow to become one of my best friends. We were never roommates in college, but we (and our friends Becky and Eva, also from that Bible study) were inseparable throughout our freshmen year, meeting daily in the cafeteria for meals, spending our weekends watching movies, ordering pizza at midnight, and just hanging out. Rachel and I remained close throughout college and ended up deciding to move to DC together after graduation. We were roommates there for a year and a half before Rachel's job moved her to her current hometown of Phoenix, AZ.

Remember how I said in a previous post that I have a lot of friends who are NOT like me? Well Rachel is one of those friends. We share a similar heart and passion for ministry and come from similar families, but our personalities are almost total opposites. Rachel is an off-the-charts extrovert; I love people, but need my space. Rachel loves to be spontaneous; I am a master planner. Rachel's not afraid to try new things or meet new people; it takes effort for me to step out of my comfort zone.

Because Rachel is so different than me, her friendship has challenged me in so many good ways. It's thanks to Rachel that I:

*Engaged in such crazy college activities as "duck hunting" - which involved her, Becky, and I running around a farm we were visiting for a campus ministry retreat to try to catch a duck to put in the guys' cabin. Honestly, I have no idea why that ever sounded like a good idea, but Rachel is the kind of person who can convince you that almost anything will be fun. If it weren't for her, my college career would have certainly been a lot more boring. Rachel taught me that every day could be an adventure and that taking risks could be fun - even if you never did catch a duck.

*Survived my first years in DC. The transition from college to working world wasn't easy for either Rachel or I, but I know that it was so much easier than it might have been thanks to her energy and partnership as we explored our new home and season of life. I'll never forget driving the wrong way down one-way streets in DC, grocery shopping together, putting together boxed furniture on the kitchen floor, and of course, lots and lots of conversations about church, ministry, boys, and work. I learned a lot from Rachel in those years - how to cook with garlic and olive oil, how to decide what meals to make based on what is on sale at the grocery store, how to paint a house, and how to train for a race.

*Ask good questions. When Rachel and I lived together, I watched her with the endless stream of friends and co-workers who showed up at our house. I listened to how she talked with them and how she drew them out about what they were thinking and feeling. And I learned to follow her example. I think this is the most enduring way that Rachel has shaped my life - knowing her taught me to be a good friend, to ask genuine, open-ended questions that invited other to respond.

Thank you Rachel for the many ways you have shaped my life for the better and for the joyful, others-focused way you live your life.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #8: Becca

Exploring London together.
Wedding day

I have many friends in my life who are not like me. In fact, you'll be hearing about some of them by the time I finish this series. I like having friends who are not like me - they challenge me, complement me, and support me in areas where I am weak. This is a very real gift.

My friend Becca, however, is a gift of a completely different sort. She is a friend who is very much like me -frighteningly so at times. We are both oldest children with moms who are nurses. We both grew up in the church, became Christians at an early age, and walked with the Lord throughout high school and college. We both majored in English and taught English for several years. As a result, we've both graded thousands of essays. We are both idealists who struggle when reality doesn't measure up to our dreams (which is often, in case you're curious!). We both love coffee, Pottery Barn, ethnic food, and Ann Taylor. We both thought we'd get married young and actually got married at 28. We both have husbands who are engineers, love Settlers of Catan and sports, and challenge us with tender truthfulness in the face of our emotionality.

All that to say, our brains and hearts are shaped in much the same way. More than most other people I know, Becca understands my particular joys and struggles, the way they feel inside and the particular impact they have on my soul. This has been a wonderful blessing to me. Sometimes, when I am in a hard place, I just need to hear that I am not crazy for struggling like I do, and Becca is quick to remind me that I am not alone. Even more importantly though, she always points me back to God and to His word as my ultimate source of hope and comfort.

It's hard to believe I've really only known Becca for four years. In that time, she has grown from being an acquaintance I talked about teaching with to a European traveling partner to the kind of friend who notices when I've had my eyebrows waxed. She has rejoiced with me when I have rejoiced, even when she herself longed for the blessings I was receiving, and has wept with me as I have wept. She has seen me at my worst and has persisted as my friend, having faith for me when I didn't have faith for myself. She and her husband Seth are also some of CJ and my favorite neighbors, blizzard buddies, Settlers of Catan competitors, and marriage counselors.

Becca, thanks for being a faithful friend!

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #4: Lamont and Tyler

Outside, snow falls, fat flakes floating on still, heavy air. Inside, laughter and tears mingle with twinkling lights, sparkling ornaments floating in wine glasses. We have shared our burdens; we have entered into each other's stories. We stand in a circle and pray, hands linked.

The baby is sleeping upstairs. The snow settles onto branches. God hears our voices. I feel peace.

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Lamont and Tyler, this is just one of many such moments CJ and I have enjoyed with you guys. You have put in long hours helping us paint and move into our new place, you have sat with us in the midst of our deepest struggles, you have enjoyed us for the opinionated, emotional, crazy people we are, and you have asked hard questions and persisted in hard places of our lives. You have been the kind of friends to us that I hope we can be both to you and others. Thank you.