“My parents took us to a bar and rode the bull!”

The kindest and most proper secretary was stifling a laugh with huge shocked eyes when I picked up Katerina from her cozy elementary school.  Katerina seemed to be basking in the glow of her attention.

As we approached the car outside, Katerina announced that she’d told her Speech teacher as well as the secretary all about our Spring Break trip.

“Oh that’s great honey! Did you tell them about our museum visits and camping?”

“Not really, I forgot. But I did tell them about how we went to a bar and that my whole family rode the bull. Oh, and that Daddy left us stranded all alone at the campground because he got lost!”

I nearly doubled over and almost had gone back in to explain my daughter’s generous account of our trip, but just nodded my head and cringed. What could I say?

We were somewhere in the West Virginian hills and had pulled up to a campground.  The kiddos took off like dogs itching to be let out to chase squirrels.  Nikos put up the tent, I set out the camping chairs and was simply exuberant to be camping for the first time of the season.

Nikos suggested supper at the park’s lodge, but I protested, “No way sweetie, we’re going to cook over the campfire!  I’ve waited all winter to do this again!”  We decided we’d drive to the next town until we found a grocery store.  Katerina begged to stay at the campground, so I sent Nikos and the the older kids with a grocery list four items long.

The swift wind picked up and carried gray storm clouds over our heads.  Katerina began shivering, even with her fleece jacket, so I found an old lighter in my kitchen bin to build a fire.  The other lighter was naturally in the truck, because that would have been convenient.  I kept Katerina busy by finding twigs and small fallen branches, hoping the activity would warm her.  I had to go out in the woods and drag huge fallen logs to break apart and Katerina loved the adventure of it all.

The cold rain began.  My lighter was just sparking rather than maintaining a steady flame, but I jerked the dial till I’d worn a callous on my thumb. I began tearing strips from a paper grocery bag, rolling and tucking them underneath the kindling.  I glanced over at Katerina, sitting very still with a forlorn look on her tiny solemn face.  She frowned and whispered, “Mama, I don’t think I like camping anymore.  It’s lonely out here all by ourselves.  Where is everybody?”  The last thing I wanted was for my nature girl to dislike camping.  I explained that people didn’t typically camp in March.

The rain never ceased and neither did my silent prayer that I could get a campfire going with my faulty lighter.  Finally, a tiny flame took off and we had us a campfire!  I praised Katerina for being the one responsible for our fire, due to her hard work collecting all of the twigs.

The campfire warmed and cheered Katerina up, while she snacked on graham crackers.  Eventually however, lightening penetrated the sky and a full-fledged storm erupted.  We ran to the tent and Katerina began crying that she was scared and cold.  I wrapped her up in a blanket, rocked her and taught her how to sing Boom De Yadah.  We sang that song 553 times until at long last, 2.5 hours later, Nikos and the kids returned.

Nikos had gotten lost, he hadn’t a cell phone signal, and the ding dong spent $38 on steaks, even though it was pouring the rain.

It was 9:10, lodge was closed, and the fire was reduced to final embers and smoke.

I instructed everyone to get in the truck, and promised that we’d find a place to eat.  It didn’t take long till we pulled up to some rinky dink place, looked more like a garage, but it had the word “grill” on its sign-well, and “bar.”  I sent Nikos in to ask if it was really a restaurant and if kids were allowed inside.  That was when a big burly dude with a black leather vest stepped out, waved at us and yelled, “Y’all get outta that rain, and come on in!  We’ve got some real good burgers here!”

Elizabeth whispered, “Mama, are you sure we should eat here?”  I shushed her and walked inside to a dimly lit place the size of a roller rink, with lazer lights and zippity light dots dancing everywhere.  Katerina gasped, “Daddy is this a real bar?”  Then Nikolas pointed toward the back and yelled, “What’s that, a bull or something?”  I began to wonder if I’d sheltered my kiddos too much.

The 6’5″ or so-how would I know from way down at 5’2″?-guy sauntered over, wrapped his arm around me and repeated, “Folks, we’ve got some real good burgers here, the best on this side of the Mississippi.  Y’all just have a seat and we’ll feed you good.”  I told him I needed to borrow a flashlight to see the menu, and then I couldn’t read the writing, so he handed me his reading glasses that were on a chain necklace.  I took the kindly man’s suggestion, ordered some burgers, bottled water and cheese fries directly to the cook.  He explained that they made the burgers fresh, so to give him a few extra minutes.  I apologized that we were ordering so late, and he waved me off with “No problem at all mam, that’s what we’re here for.”  I swear these were the kindest most hospitable people I’d encountered in ten years of my life.

The kids were wide-eyed and hyper-stimulated by the fog machine and laser lights darting everywhere.  And that was when the DJ played Footloose.  I yelled out over the music, “Come on guys, let’s go dance!”  Not a soul was on the dance floor, but I got my big rear out there, and Nikos followed right behind. In fact, the bar was just about empty, besides a few playing pool, and some at the main bar hunched over minding their business.

Elizabeth was nearly under the table, mortified by her dreadfully embarrassing parents.  Nikolas was doubled over laughing at our dance moves, and Katerina was running around chasing the laser dots.  Minute by minute, all three kids made it out to the dance floor and our family of five jammed to Tone Loc, Kenny Chesney  and everything in-between.

Once the cook brought out our din, we chowed like little monsters.  Let me just say, those folks weren’t lying about their burgers!  The fries were typical, but I didn’t need to be eating them anyway.

We headed over to the mechanical bull, and competed who could stay on the longest.  Yes, I took my kiddos into a honkeytonk bar, and Nikos and I embarrassed them silly by our dancing,  but no, Katerina did not ride the bull-I do have limits!  I’d say Elizabeth won the competition, and that’s because she’d hold on till her hair turned gray just to show up her brother.

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While exiting the dance floor, a few onlookers at the bar applauded us, still not sure if they were glad to see us nuts leave or what.  I waved a goodbye to my buddy, and he responded, “Y’all be careful and stop on back again soon!”

As we neared our truck, Nikolas pointed sorrowfully to a used syringe discarded on the gravel lot.  The needle represented a stark contrast between the kind people who reside in these parts with the disease of addiction. Drug addiction has spread its sinister claws, a menacing presence that preys upon the innocent, often hopeless, and fully blind-sided people, who are also some of the warmest and sincerest families I’ve ever known.  Yet, as the ancient New River flows and shapes its environment, the solid and towering oaks provide shade, 19th century cabins stand erect up in beloved hollers, grandparents boast of their treasured grandbabies, frogs croak on a chilled autumn morn, and the whispered secrets of the hills are carried by soft breezes, the resilient nature of the Appalachian people will prevail, that I am certain.

It was late, nearly 11 when we made our way back to the campground.  We were hoarse from laughter or perhaps the fog machine,  and all slept soundly.  We’d a great time, based on silly mishaps and our perpetual lack of planning.

Now you have what I never managed to explain to Katerina’s Speech teacher or the lovely secretary at school.  Yes, Daddy got lost and left us at a campground, and we took our kids to a bar, and in fact, rode a bull.  But hey, we did indeed eat the best burgers east of the Mississippi, and you know what?  I’d say they were the best on the other side too!

 

 

Colonial Williamsburg-I’ve Lost That Loving Feeling

The last time we’d visited Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown was six years ago, both in the lovely state of Virginia. What used to be a quick five-hour drive was now a whopping twenty from Minnesota!

I used to be crazy over Williamsburg, even had a dress made to wear when we visited. Everything about the place used to make me giddy-the cute historic taverns, the educational component for the kiddos, and I even decorated our bedroom in the lovely blue and white toile Williamsburg design.

Katerina was excited to pack her bag for our Spring Break trip. One peek inside revealed her precious 7-year-old heart-four of her My Little Pony toys, broken crayons, scrap paper, Chapstick, one pair of undies (not sure of they were clean), a flashlight, and a miniature clock tower.

Elizabeth had a dance competition the first weekend of break, so we waited till Sunday evening to leave. As always, we couldn’t make up our minds where we were going. Nikos even suggested Arizona. Finally, we decided on Virginia, with Williamsbug and Jamestown in mind. I’d love the notion that we’re all cool and spontaneous, rather Nikos and I are two dummies who can’t make up our minds even over a stupid box of cereal at the store.

With museum stops, rest areas including vending machine binges, two of three kids almost puking from car sickness and Nikos being a huge grump the entire way, it took a freakishly long time to get to the “VA is for lovers” state.

I’d found a terrific deal at the Powhatten Resort, and it was worth the squabbling dysfunctional car ride, just to stay in that luxurious place! Our suite had a deck that overlooked trying to bloom trees, and we’d two bathrooms. Sorry, but I’m rough around the edges apparently, because I’ve never stayed in a hotel equipped with TWO bathrooms before! More toilet paper-Katerina yelled out, “Mama, here’s a present all wrapped just for you!” Only a few will get that if you’ve been reading my blog for years.

I wanted a quick start to experience the full day at Colonial Williamsburg, hastily rushed the kids through breakfast, all good until Nikos lurched to a stop in front of Duck’s Donuts. All hail to the homemade, dripping with frosting, so freaking yummy donuts! I was dancing in the donut shop-couldn’t help myself! We ordered more for the following morning.

The line at Colonial Williamsburg took a solid hour. I’d instructed the kids to sit in the adjacent room on a bench, but they kept coming by to tattle. My very mature kids also have a problem with voice volume, so that the other tourists were staring and undoubtedly judging, likely praising God that they never had such terrors for kids/grandkids. Elizabeth walked up and whined, “Mama, why are you forcing us to go to this stupid place? I can’t stand it here!” I gave her the trusty You have one second to get out of my face before I go mama crazy on you! look, the one that turns my eyes yellow, and she left in a jiffy, along with snickers from bystanders.

Here’s my omission and I’m sorry. I must be going to Hell, but I told the lady that Katerina was five. She’s the same size as a 5-year-old, and I already had to pay $135, with Katerina being free, and my discount for having a teacher’s license. Okay last one I swear, I said that Nikolas was twelve. He was four months ago-sheesh!

It was hot, and we weren’t used to the high eighties just yet. It snowed seven inches in Northfield while we were gone just to further explain why the heat was an adjustment. Nikolas and Elizabeth got in a fight just as soon as we’d begun the walk, a full blown brawl, and I regretted forgoing the shuttle bus.

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While chewing out the kids for their atrocious behavior, and consoling Katerina that she truly looks her age as well as apologizing for being a terrible example (I’m even a Sunday School teacher!!), some 18th century dressed dude sauntered up and announced, “Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg!” Oh crap, that started it, Nikos’ horrible British accent for the duration of our visit!

Katerina was thirsty. The quaint trading post style stand sold bottled water for $3.50-nope! We walked around looking for a water fountain-nothing. We bought one, then Nikolas drank it all, had to buy a second bottle. Elizabeth grabbed the bottle first, claimed she was scared of germs, and poor Katerina only got a smidgen. We were forced to buy yet a third bottle. This was payback for my sin, I just knew it!

The wait for Shield’s Tavern was supposed to be forty-five minutes, turned two hours. we tried to tour buildings, but they were all so crowded, and we didn’t want to miss our place in line.

It was close to two till we sat down to eat, and our waiter was such a trip! He’d inevitably been told that he resembled Johnny Depp, yet the hot factor seemed to flounder, especially when he spoke in his fake accent and swagger just a bit much to make me suspect what he was growing in the tidy little garden out back.

We emptied the pewter pitcher of water twice. I ordered pasties, forgotten how to pronounce the word, and I guess I was due to receive what some ladies wear in obscure places. Johnny Debb wanna be smirked and corrected my pronunciation. Nikos got some sandwich that looked no better than what I make for the kiddos for any given school lunch.

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The tea house was nice, and enjoyed a most delectable thick chocolate drink, peppered with cayenne.
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Elizabeth and Nikolas were excruciatingly bored. Katerina was tired, hot and wanting to be carried. I emphatically tried to wrangle up my crew, infusing enthusiasm, yet it was futile. I surrendered, recognized my defeat when Nikos abruptly stopped with his annoying British accent. After touring the palace, and taking some lackluster-smiling pictures, I reluctantly offered to leave.

I battled tears, thick nostalgia oozed inside my soul. Memories carried me back to pushing a stroller around six years ago, seeking out a shady spot to breastfeed my little one, having three precious kiddos with years of travels to go as a family. When you have a small gaggle of tiny kids, it’s inconceivable to grasp emotionally that such precious years will be so crazy swift as a dangerous current. I knew this was the last time we’d be here as a family. Elizabeth was graduating next year, and this was it. I’d take the squabbles, erratic hormones, griping in just-changed voices, every last morsel, just so I could hold on a little longer.

Williamsburg suddenly seemed sinister, artificial, forlorn essentially. I whispered to Nikos through tear-blurred eyes that Williamsburg had lost it’s sparkle for me, had gone downhill.

Nikos wrapped his arm around me and softly explained, “Rebecca, it’s gonna be okay. Williamsburg is the same, you’re the one who’s changed. You’ve taken us to so many historic places, you now see that it’s all pretty hokey. Besides honey, you’re a daughter of the Revolution-don’t ever forget that!”

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BRAVE. DEDICATED TO G.W. CARLSON

It’s an honor to publish the following article, written by Shawna Horn, pastor and friend.  You can visit Shawna’s website at pastormomma.wordpress.com.

BRAVE. DEDICATED TO G.W. CARLSON

Today my second grader brought home this valentine. It says, “You are good at living with half of a heart. You must have been brave, right from the start.”

Sometimes we don’t get to choose where we have to be brave. Sometimes we just have to be brave because we don’t get a choice. My son didn’t get to choose how his heart developed. I didn’t get to choose (I mean there was a choice offered, but I didn’t choose for his heart to grow the way it did.) We don’t always get to choose if our job works out or if our marriage works out. We don’t always get to choose when we get sick or how the ones we love get sick. We don’t usually get to choose when a war starts, the rain stops, the winds come.

There are a lot of things in this life we don’t really get to choose. But these are the things that often make us who we are. They set direction. They create definition. Or they become our excuse.

I was reflecting on Moses today as I continue on this Lenten journey. Moses didn’t have a choice in the world he was born into. He didn’t get to choose that his family had to abandon him or that he was adopted by his enemy. Now he did choose to kill an Egyptian soldier – and he did choose to flee into the dessert. He used his anger and rage about his situation to make a bad choice. It was his excuse.

And when he was found by God in the wilderness, living contentedly for 40 years, Moses continued to be full of excuses. God calls to him and reveals his plan… I have heard the cries of my people and I will send you to them to rescue them.

Moses responds, “Who am I?” Why me?

God reassures him… I will be with you.

Moses responds again, “Who are you?”

God responds, “I AM.”

Moses responds, “What if they don’t believe me?”

God responds, “I will give you what you need, the tools you need.”

Moses responds, “But I am not a public speaker. I stutter.”

God responds, “I will send your brother to help you.”

Moses didn’t get to choose any of the early defining moments of his life. But there is a sense that God spared him, protected him, and prepared him for this moment. And Moses tried every excuse, but God was not going to quit on Moses. Moses, be brave.

But God. God didn’t quit. He showed him who he was. He showed him who God is. He gave him the tools he needed and the support he needed.

In our own lives, we don’t usually get to choose those things that are hard. Those things that require real courage. We don’t get to always choose when or how our life falls apart or spirals out of control.

The call to be brave. This call to trust in this God who is, who equips and provides, it has come again today. Today this world lost another incredible human being. G.W. Carlson was a friend and a mentor. And not just to me. He saw people for their potential. And he cared enough to take the time to teach them, encourage them, challenge them and lead them. One by One. Class by class. G.W. was brave enough to be honest, was brave enough to care. And all for purpose of encouraging leaders to do the work of the gospel, of sharing the Kingdom of God with the world. G.W. looked at this world and responded to God’s call by inspiring generations of leaders to live the gospel, prophetically, thoughtfully, always with humor and a bit of flattery.

And in this moment of grief, we don’t get to choose to be brave. We must be brave. Because we know, we know like G.W. knew, who we are in God. We know who God is. We can be confident that God will equip us for the challenge. And we know we are not alone.

The little boy who sent my son this Valentine, had no idea what he was really saying. But when I consider what it is to be brave from the start… Most of us are not. But we can be brave from this moment… We can choose to be brave because God knows us. God is powerful. God gives us what need. And we are not alone.

This is the journey of Lent. A call to embrace our humanity and not accept the state of it. A call to look at those hard things and challenge them, bravely. A call to embrace the hope of a God who wants so much more for this world and the people it contains.

My Funny Valentine

It’s an honor to publish the following article, written by Shawna Horn, pastor and friend.  You can visit Shawna’s website at pastormomma.wordpress.com.

My Funny Valentine

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.  And we did the typical family Valentine’s day things.  The kids each got a small box of chocolates.  They each made their own heart-shaped pizza.  Our third child, upon finishing his pizza, took one final piece of pepperoni and ripped it in half.

“It’s like half a piece of pepperoni, like my half heart,” he said.

My heart sank a little bit. We spent the rest of the evening playing games, trying to distract from all the hearts.

 

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There are a lot of reasons to struggle with Valentine’s Day. I get it.  For those who have not yet found their ‘valentine,’ for those who have lost their ‘valentine,’ for those who have broken relationships, Valentine’s Day is simply a reminder of the heartbreak in the world.

For my 8 year old, Valentine’s day is a constant reminder of his heart condition.  Everywhere he looks he sees hearts.  And it reminds him that he only has half of a heart.  Born with tricuspid atresia, his heart only developed two chambers, instead of four.  He has endured three major open heart surgeries by the time he was 3 and a 1/2 .

So Valentine’s Day, a day full of love and hearts, is a very real reminder of his mortality.

I can never know what it’s like to be a child and have to face my mortality on a regular basis.  It doesn’t seem fair, when you consider what is fair in the world.  It doesn’t seem fair in the world that children suffer at all.

And this is the journey of Lent.  It is the journey to both embrace our mortality and proclaim our hope of a better way.  It is embracing the fragility of life and at the same time recognizing that this world is the not the world that God intended.  It is about understanding that by becoming human, God was able to walk in our pain and overcome its finality.

It feels odd to have Valentine’s day during lent, but there is also something very poetic about it.  In a time where we reflect on the pain in our own lives, it is an invitation to consider the people around you.

It is an invitation to love others in the midst of their suffering.

This week as a Lenten practice, take some time to consider what it is to see someone else’s pain and then what it is to love them through it.

 

 

Mother

Mother
Elizabeth Stoufis

They say if you look into someone’s eyes

You can see their soul

Their hopes

Dreams
Regrets
Worries
But a mother’s soul
is made of love
of compassion for her children

They say if you look at someone’s hands
You can see all the labor they have done
All of the wrinkles in a person’s palm
Are to show all of their hard work
But a mother’s hands work hardest of all
They are made to care for her children
For their whole childhoods

They say if you look at someone’s feet
You can see all the places they have gone
All of the journeys they have traveled
How they stand in the world
How grounded they are
But a mother’s feet stand as strong as can be
She stands for what she believes in for her kids
Even if she is standing alone

Becasue she loves looking at the travel book with me
when I am sick
501 Places to Go and wishing we could go to all of them

She is very stubborn in her ideas
And it is very hard to change her mind

Sky blue afternoons taking walks in the park
Baking baklava
Painting the phyllo like an artist painting on a canvas
Camping with the smell of the fire
And the whisper of the wilderness

This mother is my mama
And I love her very much.