Found It!

Most visitors to Año Nuevo State Park this time of year are looking for elephant seals. Our family went in search of a snake. The San Francisco Garter Snake, to be exact, an endangered species that makes its home in that area. C20 has been desperate to find one.

We decided to make this President’s Day holiday a family day which, for us, almost always involves a trip to the beach. Facebook memories showed me a picture from our last trip to Año Nuevo, years ago, and that influenced our destination.

We couldn’t have ordered a more beautiful day. First stop: Santa Cruz, where we picked up lunch at Pizza My Heart to eat on the West Cliff Drive seaside bluffs. From there, we drove to Natural Bridges State Beach, hoping to see wintering Monarch Butterflies; we only saw a few flitting on the breeze and not the thousands that sometimes shelter in the eucalyptus groves.

Back in the car, we took Highway 1 to Año Nuevo, with ocean views to one side and fields of fluorescent yellow mustard and sour grass flowers on the other. On our way home, we stopped to take a picture in one of those fields and sank ankle-deep in mud. Wet and smelly, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

As we paid our park entrance fee, the ranger asked if we had a reservation for a guided seal walk, the only way you can access the seal breeding ground area. We said no, we were looking for a snake. She cocked her head in amusement and explained that snakes don’t often come out on chilly days, but that they’d be near the pond if anywhere.

Walking the path towards the pond, I muttered to Guy, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I was the one to find a snake?”

Guess what? I did!

I stopped to look at a vine with a distinctly violet hue–I’ve never seen a naturally purplish thorn bush before. As I leaned forward for a better look, I saw a tail slither away. I shrieked in surprise, which brought Guy and C running.

The shriek shook my Cool Mom I’m-so-good-with-snakes vibe, but I honestly did not expect to find the snake. I didn’t even expect that C would find one, though if anyone could find an endangered and elusive wild snake in the thorn bushes along a pond, it would be him.

The rest of us went to the beach while he just about crawled along the path. We saw a number of sleeping elephant seals, and someone did tricky aerial maneuvers in a biplane–disruptive to the beach-calm, but cool nonetheless.

When we had walked the length of the beach in both directions, photographed the log-like seals and some beautiful pebbles, and breathed in deep the salt air, Q14 came down the stairs to wave us back up.

Because he’d done it: C20 had found–and caught–a San Francisco Garter Snake.

Two surprises: 1) the snake is far more stunning than I could have believed, and 2) the snake appeared super chill that this strange dude was holding him and showing him off to passersby. C said the snake knew he wasn’t a threat, and it sure looked like the truth.

The snake may have been calm, but my kid buzzed with happiness. To all the detractors who think I’m nuts because I encourage his passion for creepy-crawlies, we do a lot of things that might seem crazy for the sake of love. And today we got a crazy-fun family day out of it.

P.S. No snakes were harmed in the making of this story, and we left snakey-poo right where he’d been before.

Surprise!

Parenting can be So Fun!

For example, today, when I told Q14 I would pick him up mid-school day but didn’t explain why. And he didn’t remember or figure out that TODAY is the day he gets his braces off! And I got to surprise him with one of the best surprises an adolescent can receive.

I texted him to meet me outside the band room after class and, as he got in the car, I smiled and handed him his toothbrush. Confused, he accepted it and looked at me for further explanation.

Despite the fact that the only times I’ve taken him out of school this year have been for orthodontic appointments. Despite the fact that, at his last appointment, they told him he’d get his braces off at the next appointment. In February. He still didn’t get it.

I laughed and explained, and he laughed in relief that Mom’s odd behavior didn’t signal something scary. Right, because I’m such a scary mommy…

It’s raining and our house was being cleaned, so I stayed in the car with the dogs while the almost two-hour process took place. He did let me take a before picture…

I raced to the upstairs office when they were done for a quick chat with the doctor and to confirm next week’s retainer appointment. Oh, let’s be real: I raced upstairs to see my kid’s sweet smile.

He tried to play it so cool, I’m sure processing this seismic shift in self-image through the pervasive fog of adolescent insecurity, but inside I know he has to be as excited as his mom who simply can’t stop ridiculously beaming at his pearly whites. He indulged me with an after picture…

We picked up Guy from work and hit Chipotle, our regular post-ortho appointment lunch spot, for a congratulatory burrito before dropping him back off at school for his last class of the day.

The only thing that makes me a little sad? I won’t have a built-in to the schedule excuse for playing hooky with my kiddo. Still, I think now and then I might just pull him out of school anyway. Time together, especially in these critical teen years, is way more important than a PE class on a rainy day.

Advent 2018 Wk3 – Faith

The year C20 had his first birthday, Guy and I both turned 30 a few weeks before and after. Our birthdays span November to January so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s got wrapped up in the fun. We created a list of small celebrations we could enjoy each day during those eight weeks, simple activities like sweetening a mug of hot chocolate with a candy cane, going for a walk together, or watching an animated Christmas movie. We celebrated our lives and the holidays with flair.

As I spent this last week reflecting on joy, I realized that I might be doing Advent wrong. Or, at least, wrong for me at this time.

Other than chomping the daily chocolates in our Advent calendar, I didn’t grow up with an Advent tradition. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was simply Christmastime, when we listened to Christmas music and shopped and wrapped and enjoyed the season.

I appreciate Advent for its thematic focus, its intentionality, its lens on waiting for Jesus. But over the years, our church has adopted a fuller Advent tradition, limiting Christmas music to Christmas Eve and the following Sunday (and the annual Christmas concert, the one exception to the rule) in favor of Advent hymns. And since there are only two popular Advent hymnsCome, Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel–the music sounds like the rest of the year. So even though I used to start listening to Christmas music in October while I planned the church Christmas materials, I have mostly stopped listening to Christmas music before Christmas.

And I’m missing it. I’m missing the joy. I’ve employed the discipline without reaping the benefit, and I’m sorrier for it. I feel dry and dour.

Perhaps traditional Advent observance might also necessitate the observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas–Christmas celebrations commencing on Christmas and lasting until King’s Day on January 6. But I’m not there; when Christmas is over, it’s over. And since so much of life necessarily involves waiting for Jesus, I want to enjoy Him now. I want to celebrate Him today. I don’t want to wait any longer.

Besides, there is way too much good Christmas music to limit it to a day.

Those of us who follow Jesus live in tension between the already and not yet. Jesus has come, and He will come again. We have the joy of salvation now, but we won’t experience the fullness of life in His Kingdom until the second coming. So we wait.

But why in the world am I intentionally limiting the joy of celebrating His birth? Sure, His birthday is next week, but He’s already here. This year the discipline feels a little absurd, like not talking to my son for the month before his birthday just because his birthday hadn’t yet happened… What sense would that make?

This week’s focus is faith, that God will direct our paths even (especially) when the way seems foggy. I’m staring intently down some foggy paths of my own, and I do believe that Jesus will show up, that He will hold my hand and walk gently with me. And I’m going to celebrate that reality today, with some Christmas music, even as I wait for His eventual arrival.

Week 3 – Joseph’s Faith 

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light three candles (two purple, one pink): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith.

Read Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Read: A good man, Joseph found himself in what looked like a bad situation. While he quietly planned a way out, an angel assured him that he had no reason for fear: what seemed like bad news would be good news for everyone. Mary’s baby wasn’t just any baby—this would be God’s baby, Immanuel, God with us! When we accept God’s plan, God turns our fear to faith and our faith to joy.

Pray: Holy Spirit, where we feel fear, plant your seed of faith. Grow our faith into joy in your presence. In the name of Jesus, we wait and pray. Amen.

Monday Deuteronomy 7:8-9 How does God’s faithfulness inspire your faithfulness to Him?
Tuesday Psalm 93:1 How do you hang on in faith that God is in control?
Wednesday Isaiah 26:3-4, 12 What worries do you need to put in God’s hands?
Thursday John 14:27 Let go of your troubles and receive Jesus’ peace.
Friday Colossians 1:3-4 Who can you thank God for as an example of faith in Christ?
Saturday Hebrews 11:1 How do you define faith?

Suggested Activities
Make a list of things in which you put your faith, for example, that your alarm will go off in the morning or that the lights will come on when you flick the switch. Try to count as least ten. Then ask: Is it (or, why is it) sometimes easier to trust in these mundane things than to trust in the God who sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior?

Incorporate silence into your daily routine and use it as a chance to talk with God. Drive with the radio off. Go for a quiet hike. Sit in silence with your morning cup of coffee. Read your Bible, and let God share with you His perspective on what you’re facing each day.

Journal
When have you seen God show up in your unexpected or unwanted circumstances? Where do you need to experience His presence currently?

“It is faith that what happens to me matters to God as well as to me that gives me joy, that promises me that I am eternally the subject of God’s compassion, and that assures me that the compassion was manifested most brilliantly when God came to us in a stable in Bethlehem.” –Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace

Advent 2018 Wk 2 – Joy

Lately I have been impressed with stories of joy: people enduring difficult circumstances with genuine smiles lighting their faces and claims of, “Laugh or cry, I choose to laugh,” or “I was born a happy child,” or “I choose to do something I enjoy every day.” People who, in witness to others’ difficult circumstances, decide to get their hands dirty and serve, to make life that much easier or better for someone else, and discover joy in the shared experience.

Unlike happiness, tied to experiences that easily elicit smiles and laughter, joy is a choice. A decision to rejoice even when the circumstances don’t seem to warrant it. A connection to God who is the source of all true joy.

Like young Mary who, when greeted by a mysterious messenger with mind-boggling news–Hey, Mary, you’re going to birth God’s baby…–responded, Let it be, and My spirit rejoices in God who has remembered His humble servant…

Happy comes easy. Joy requires intention, effort.

I wore an audaciously bright pink scarf to church today (atop a gray/black pant/sweater set) and mentioned to someone that the scarf was in honor of Mary’s joy. Eyes wide, she chuckled, incredulous that I would match my outfit to Advent. Well, I suppose that’s an insight to the odd workings of my mind!

And, yes. We can find hot pink joy against a dark background. We can find joy in a cute Christmas mug filled with messy clumps of hot chocolate. We can find joy in the homemade and gifted decoration even though the mirror has cracked. We can seek–and discover–joy in the clumpy, broken, messy, difficult parts of life… That’s kind of the whole point: we rejoice in God with us, because God walks with us through life.

 

Week 2 – Mary’s Joy

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light two candles (purple): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope and joy.

Read Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, 46-49

Read: The angel announced, “Mary, highly favored one, the Lord is with you,” and Mary rejoiced at the role she would play in the coming of the Son of the Most High. God’s Spirit whispers to each one of us, “You, too, are God’s servant, with a special role to play in God’s story.” The story may turn and twist in ways we can’t anticipate but let us say “Yes!” to God’s calling and rejoice in His presence.

Pray: We rejoice in God our Savior who has been mindful of His humble servants. In the name of Jesus we wait and pray, Amen.

Monday 1 Samuel 8:6-7 How can you rejoice in Jesus your King today?
Tuesday Psalm 5:11 How does God’s protection increase your joy?
Wednesday Habakkuk 3:17-19 How can God increase your joy even when times are difficult?
Thursday Acts 16:33-34 How does believing in God give you joy?
Friday Galatians 5:22-23 Ask the Spirit to increase your joy.
Saturday Jude 24-25 Read these verses aloud as joy-filled praise to our good God!

Suggested Activities
Make a list of ways you can spread Christmas joy, such as:
Take a Christmas treat or poinsettia to someone who lives alone.
Find a way to serve someone, for instance, clean an older neighbor’s gutters.
Invite friends to join you for a cookie decorating party and/or viewing of a favorite Christmas movie.
Create handmade thank you cards and attach candy canes for your teachers or church leaders.
Gather a group and go caroling.
Pray over each Christmas card you receive, inviting God to rain joy over each household.

Connect Guest Post: Dan Seifert

In real life, not all stories have happy endings. Some stories just end, and the best we can do is find peace. I’m glad my friend Dan has found some answers and some peace in this story’s ending.

This year, I saw my deceased grandmother for the first time. No, she wasn’t a ghost, but seeing her picture was such an emotional moment that for the first time in my life I thought, “I have to sit down.” Let me explain.

My mother was adopted, and while that was never the most important fact about her, it certainly influenced the way she moved through the world; it had implications for my sister and me as well. We moved houses more often than necessary, and I believe that mom was seeking a sense of connectedness and home that she did not have because of the uncertainty about her birth parents.

I blamed the mystery bio parents, “Grandpa and Grandma X,” for things I didn’t like about myself, especially my unfortunate hairline. I would often get teary-eyed when I heard emotional stories about adopted children blissfully reuniting with their birth parents, and I would imagine what that would be like for my mom. (Spoiler: that isn’t how this story ends).

The woman I called Nana was a nurse at the Philadelphia hospital where my mother was born. A private adoption was arranged because Nana and her husband could not have children. Nana didn’t give my mom much information about her bio mom, and what she did share was not pleasant. My mom did not want to hurt Nana’s feelings, so she waited until Nana died to begin the search process. Unfortunately, my mom got diagnosed with cancer and died in 2009 before finding the answers she sought.

[Mom, six months before she died]

I have seen the folder of information she collected during her search, which covered almost 12 years, and the picture it paints is heartbreaking. The State of Pennsylvania maintained sealed adoption records and, even as a woman in her 60s, my mother could not get access to the information on her original birth certificate. Mom wrote several letters to the courts; asked my uncle who worked for the State Police to help; and even hired a private investigator. That investigator found a name, Katherine Marnell (hang on to that bit of information), with a birth date that seemed to correspond with the information from Nana, and my mom focused her attention on trying to locate that person, to no avail.

That is where things stood at the time of my mom’s death, and that is where they likely would have remained. Except things started changing about a year ago. My wife and I had our DNA evaluated by Ancestry.com. Then my wife found an online group of people who had been adopted in Pennsylvania, and we learned that the State was going to open its adoption records starting in 2018. As a surviving child, I was able to apply for a copy of my mom’s original birth certificate.

When the birth certificate arrived, it listed my grandmother’s birth name as Kathryn Marnell and the grandfather as John Lowe. Ancestry listed a Kathryn Marnell, AKA Catherine Marinelli, who had someone in their tree with a genetic link to me. And, just like that, in our minds, the mystery was solved. My wife and I waited to see if they would contact us, because they could see the genetic link, too, and must have been surprised by the story. Eventually, my wife got a phone number and called the woman I now know as Aunt Lucille, who lives in New Jersey and is married to a man who is my mother’s half-brother.

If this were a movie, this story would lead to a tearful reunion with lots of conversation and questions flowing back and forth. But this is real life, and the fact is that neither of the men who are my half-uncles seem to care that much about the fact of my mom’s existence. Their mother, whose nickname was Kit, was a reserved person who didn’t like to talk about her past. She moved away from home and changed her name as soon as she could. She got pregnant out of wedlock, then gave the baby up for adoption when the man who was going to marry her (not the baby’s father), decided he didn’t want to raise another man’s child. Then, that man went away to World War II and came back broken. The man she eventually married seems to have been a good guy, and they had two sons together.

Aunt Lucille did send some pictures, however, which leads me back to where I started. This is my grandmother:

The similarity to my mother is uncanny. And, even if the story doesn’t include a beautiful reunion, this picture proves that the mystery is solved. The answer my mom sought for so long is in front of me, and that has brought a certain amount of peace.

Strangely, I am not all that interested in tracking down John Lowe, although since there was a court proceeding in which he denied patrimony, my wife believes we can get his information. It is enough for me to know that this woman, who is part of my life story, found some measure of contentment and joy in her life after placing my mother for adoption. Whether her surviving family ever feels the need to make a stronger connection with us or not, we are at least aware of each other.

Daniel Seifert lives in Westminster, Colorado, with his wife, two daughters, two girl cats and a neutered boy dog.  Though he is an employed and responsible adult, he is still, at heart, kind of a nerd.

Mom-ories

Facebook keeps tossing up pictures from when Q14 was little and, now that he’s in high school, they prompt all the Big Feels. I can’t even imagine what a mess I’ll be three years from now when he’s a high school senior – sheesh!

Last Monday was a no-school day. In our family, no-school days have always meant parents take a no-work day and we enjoy a family field trip. Facebook sent me a reminder from six years ago in one of our favorite places on the planet:

Which recalled for me that we did the same thing last year on this fall no-school day.

But not this year. This year both the college and high school kids had too much homework to do. Despite the three-day weekend, they couldn’t get all the work done, and it didn’t seem to me because they’d whittled away the time frivolously.

Even Guy had stuff to do that couldn’t wait another day. So I spent the day doing my hardest, best work to not throw a mom-sized pity party. I read my Bible and wrote in my gratitude journal. I did laundry and cleaned the kitchen counters because both needed doing. I made a big batch of Cookie & Kate’s The Very Best Granola–whole almonds and pepitas, a dash of sesame seeds and unsweetened coconut tossed in as the granola cooled–to munch for breakfast and snacks throughout the week. I made our favorite bean dip for dinner, then took myself to yoga.

The kids went to the store and bought pico de gallo, chips, and guacamole, and after a post-yoga shower, we all met in the kitchen to toss together a huge taco salad. Then they insisted on watching a movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows part 2, the words to which one kid knows by heart), which we didn’t all see to the end since people were tired and Tuesday (this week’s version of Monday) was coming up hard.

I missed our family field trip, a day filled with memory-making in a beautiful NorCal location. But that evening, cozy on the couch with my favorite people, I realized we’d still accomplished my goal. We had shared time together and made a new and different memory. It might not have been as adventurous as I’d like, but it was sweet. I’ll take it!

Holiday Sales

Today is Memorial Day, set aside for the good citizens of the United States of America to remember those who have died while protecting and serving our country. Our remembrance might also extend to anyone who has served in the Armed Forces and, even further, to those who have gone on before us.

Like most holidays, retailers have made it a shopping holiday. All weekend my inbox has overflowed with emails promising huge holiday price reductions.

Mostly, I hit “delete, delete, delete…” I click on a few, just in case this or that company from which I actually shop has a deal on something I regularly purchase. So far, that’s meant one online purchase. To how many deleted emails?

Last week on holiday in Puerto Vallarta celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, we got sucked into the worst holiday sales pitch: the time share.

I’ve sat through a few time share pitches and, while I hate the hard sell, the experience came and went with little to-do. This one, though, made an impression I’m still pondering.

First, let’s be clear: we didn’t buy. We’re in no position to drop a chunk of change on a vacation property, especially with two kids facing down college. Family is our priority. You could say family benefits from awesome resort vacations (they did say that), but our family priorities look a little different.

We got snagged in the airport. A guy directed us to a counter to arrange hotel transportation. This, friends, was something of a ruse: we did get hotel transportation after we agreed to the time share presentation the next morning. We also got transportation to and from the resort (subject of the sales pitch), and (super expensive and amazingly cool) excursion tickets including drinks, sunset boat cruise, Cirque de Soleil show, delicious buffet dinner which we ate on a beach while being serenaded, and an entertaining lip synch ‘concert’ on the return boat ride. The perks outweighed the pain.

Still…

As the cab driver entered the gated resort property—and drove and drove through lush foliage that precluded our ability to see anything but road and plants—I was reminded of Jurassic Park. Had we been kidnapped, or otherwise lured into something that looked incredible but posed danger?

One smiling face after another directed us to Jeff, our guide, who took us to a pool-side breakfast. A young, good-looking American straight out of military service, he’d been on the job only three weeks. He’d travelled to Puerto Vallarta on a whim and found a job because he’d fallen in love with Mexico. He showed us around the resort—more accurately seven resorts which will be nine plus a Disney-style theme-park—including several ‘model’ rooms/suites at various price points.

The promised “breakfast plus an hour” stretched over four hours. Jeff gave an extended sales pitch. His boss presented us with four or five offers. Two other guys followed up: “The sales pitch is over. But have you looked at these numbers…?” By the end, it almost seemed if we could put down a credit card for a reasonable charge today, the resort would pay for itself within a few years. Math must work differently in Mexico.

Of course it would be lovely to vacation in PV every year, by ourselves or with the kids. But our vacations are so low-key. We don’t typically fly. We camp, or borrow a vacation house, or VRBO. We cook for ourselves. We get out into the wilderness and out with the locals. Those who stay at this place would never leave. It’s pristine. It has its own grocery store, nineteen pools, and obviously beach access. It also has the corner on excursions, which means that even if you get out, you’d do so with people working for or staying at the resort.

Toward the end, I gently challenged Jeff. The guy who admitted he lives with locals and speaks only Spanish after work, the guy newly committed to living an authentic Mexican lifestyle. I asked how he justified selling such an inauthentic version of Mexico to people who might never interact with Mexico because of their experience at this resort. He wouldn’t go there with me.

We don’t live in a perfect world. On-site, this resort employs 7,000 people. How many more off-site, at the airport or as excursion operators? And what about all the others, the landscapers, builders, taxi drivers, who benefit from increased tourism? All good.

Except it’s a manufactured experience. They literally took one landscape and created a new ecosystem. The resort may be in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean it’s Mexican.

I’m not one to judge, not at all. For those who have money and leisure to travel, this is a gorgeous option. And obviously the resort has created countless jobs benefitting the economy and the families of Puerto Vallarta. The parent company has done good, but I still wonder: at what cost?