My Most Authentic Job

Creativity is great for the brain and the heart. That made me realize that my lawn looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Dandelions and weeds everywhere—in spite of some very expensive fertilizer stuff guaranteed to kill the bad and nourish the good. Truth is, my life sorta resembles a Pollock painting. There’s nothing linear about it at the moment. I’m circling in a lot of directions, splattering, and making a work of art that some people will love and others will judge as trash.

I’m good with that. So good.

That’s because it’s finally sinking in that I’m here to paint a life that God wants. That’s it. I’m not here to judge anyone—including myself. I’m not here to rant about the unfairness of the world.  I’m here to change my world. That means I love without borders. I give without thought of getting. I can’t worry what others think of me. Odd as it seems, that’s not my concern. My concern is to live a life that serves, restores, creates, appreciates, and grows the good stuff like love, forgiveness, laughter, joy, music, art, relationships, faith and loads and loads of hope.

Unfortunately, I’ve been brutal to myself. I’ve believed the worst that others had to say about me. Living in that deadly shadow has only made me feel insignificant and unwanted. It’s made me sick and weak on the inside, tho I might appear strong on the outside. Now I realize that I don’t have stop progressing because someone doesn’t approve of me. I especially realize that the self-judgement has to stop and the self-love has to flow.

Did you read the story about the teacher who took twin apples and secretly bruised the heck out of one, then set them side by side and asked her young students to speak kindly to one and cruelly to the other? When she cut them open, the apple that had been praised and loved was whole, crisp and juicy inside. The apple that had been mocked and judged and abused was brown and mushy and injured inside. That’s what bullying does. And don’t think it’s just kids who bully.

This Easter weekend as I reflect what it means to be a true Christian, I’ll focus on resurrection of the body and the spirit. I’ll reflect on a life that teaches me how to love and how to live now, so that death has no string. I’ll use my faith and the power of God to resurrect what’s bruised and broken and even dead within me.

I’m so far from the person I want to be. I’m so sorry it’s taken this long to learn that I’m not here on Earth to paint or criticize someone else’s art, I’m only here to create my own. (So sorry for the unwanted splotches I’ve flung at your canvases, my peeps.) I’ll be here if you need to borrow a brush or paint. I’ve got a lot of indigo to spare because that’s my favorite color. The Old Testament says it’s God’s favorite color too.

In the meantime, my hope for you is that joy sneaks up on you and hugs you tight. That sunshine warms your soul from the inside out. That whatever hurts within you begins to heal. I don’t believe I’ve ever been more grateful to be alive. Just alive. So get out there and paint the life that’s in you so you can share it with the world. Trust me, we need your beauty and creativity—every brushstroke matters.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

The photo is of my little Adelaide “wondering” what it would be like to jump into the Gulf of Mexico. I told her not to get wet, but she’s three and raging with curiosity. So I just stood in awe and took photos.

The etymology of the word wonder means of ultimate unknown origin. It also means to magnify or to be astonished. Have you ever wondered why your life has not gone as planned? I mean no one gets married planning to get divorced. No one drives to work planning to be broadsided by a semi. No one pencils “get cancer” into their weekly schedule.

Last week I heard a story about the Children of Israel’s plight when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took Jews captive. What business did “God’s people” have living in a land surrounded by idols? What business did they have living so far away from their beloved temple? The Babylonian king’s strategy was brilliant…let the foreign captives live among his own, and in time they were bound to adapt the Babylonian way of living and thinking, especially the younger malleable generation. The stunned and indignant Jews just knew that God would not leave them in Babylon for any length of time. So, they prayed and planned for their imminent deliverance.

I’ve read the Old Testament a couple of times yet I never realized that these good and faithful people wanted exactly what I want out of life—to live it according to plan. MY plan. The Jews prayed that God would vindicate them and return them to their rightful land. That was their plan, but God had a different plan. He told them to be patient, that their captivity would last up to seventy years, so they should settle in, build houses, plant gardens and eat what they grew. The people, especially the older ones, knew this meant they would never return home. Imagine how they felt. (Jeremiah 29)

For a lot of us, we don’t have to imagine too strenuously. We know how it feels to have our plans come undone. We live with ongoing disappointment. Well, after Sunday’s sermon I realized that faith in our Highest Power means having faith in divine unflawed love, a force that wants us to be happy and successful. Try telling that to the woman who desperately wanted a husband and children, but remains single. Tell that to the spouse who was faithful to an unfaithful partner. Tell that to my friend whose baby, the one they waited thirteen years to have, the son they hinged all their dreams on, was born with trisomy 21, an extra copy of chromosome 21.

My own life has known a lot more dead ends than long stretches of open road. I’ve learned that it’s better to be alone than in a toxic relationship. My friend who was initially devastated to learn that her son had Down Syndrome, now celebrates the fact that the kid manufactures pure joy. He’s taken his family on a wondrous detour they never would have chosen to journey. In the process, they’ve all evolved in a way their original plan could not have facilitated.

It’s fitting that a rabbi said: Man plans and God laughs. It’s time for me to stop complaining and start trusting that when I hit a brick wall there’s an unseen reason. Maybe it’s to make God laugh, the way a parent does when a toddler tumbles, only to spring back up to cheers. He knows that every time I get back up, I’m transformed. Maybe the wall is to stop me from making a mistake, or turn me in a different direction or protect me. No matter. I’m going to rewire my brain’s rutted circuitry and see it as a plot twist in the story that’s my life. What would a story be without an unforeseen plot twist? It’d be boring and predictable. I can hardly wait to turn the next page because the Author and Finisher I’ve come to know does not do boring and predictable. He does wonder.

Baby Brain Miracles

Yesterday I was honored to be present while my daughter ever-so-gracefully gave birth to my newest G-baby, Tomlyn Abree Rayne. I’m kinda squeamish, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch…you know, the actual birth part. But what an absolute wonder it was!

It took months of worry and curiosity…then it took anxiety filled days of anticipation, and an expectation that it would take hours and hours more, but in the end the whole thing happened with doctors running, nurses running, and Taylor championing through two minutes of the greatest imaginable miracle. Then she was here. Little Tomlyn blinked and looked around and found her mommy’s face and that was that. Eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart-skin-on-skin. We were all awestruck that something so tiny and new could be so wise and in charge. And so so so beautiful.

How can you NOT believe in a loving, all wise and perfect God when you’re privy to such wonder? Only four weeks into gestation, a baby’s brain is developing 250,000 neurons per minute. Billions and billions of links form between neurons and trillions of circuits weave their way right where they need to be. This is no haphazard act. This is perfection at its divinest.

Depending on how much stimulation lil’ Tomlyn can handle, her visual cortex and eyes will continue to develop. They are her introduction into this big ol’ marvel of a world. Over the next three years her brain will triple in size and develop more than 1,000 trillion neural connections. Her brain will prune itself of the connections that aren’t needed. Seriously. Prune itself. Her developing brain will hog half the calories Tomlyn consumes. Until she’s about five years old. When she starts to babble, the left side of her brain will literally “light” up. When she listens to her mommy and daddy sing to her, the right side of her brain will glow.

Tay has been using the right, or emotional side of her brain for the past months, preparing to bond with Tomlyn. If she’s been more forgetful than usual, that’s why. If she was more sensitive, that’s why. But now that the baby is here, her left or logical side is going to step it up. She’s going to recognize the baby’s facial expressions and the nuances in her cries. They’ll all sound the same to us, but not to Mama. She’ll know what Tomlyn needs. Her brain will tell her.

I could go on and on, but who wants to hear about neuroscience when there are baby toes to count? And cheeks to kiss. Check ‘em out. Tomlyn’s got cheeks for weeks. So I’m off, but I just had to pause long enough to share the great news that after all the fears, mother and baby are fine and dandy and our hearts are busting with gratitude. Hope that you’re all equally blessed.

I Was A Refugee

When I was in Syria I made friends with a woman who had lost her husband and her sons in a war she couldn’t understand. Pushed from her home and country, she now pays rent on a crate behind a café by selling her body. Up to ten times a night.

In Southeast Asia I was blessed to be part of a campaign to rescue children enslaved in human trafficking. These children, and I do mean children, were torn from their families, or SOLD by their families for money. Every one of them was a refugee.

By definition, a refugee is someone who has been forced to leave his or her home/country to escape persecution, natural disaster or war.

I’ve been honored to stand with refugees all over the world and to understand a little of what they are suffering.

When I was twelve years old something so horrific happened within the walls of our home, I was forced to flee for my life. I had nowhere to go. It was the middle of winter and by midnight I had run out of quarters telephoning and begging relatives to open a door. They all said no.

By three o’clock in the morning I was numb with cold, loneliness and despair. A stranger finally took me in and gave me a warm bath and a bed and a meal. The next day I was driven to the police station. I never went back “home”. I’d already lived in a number of foster homes. There were more in my future before an uncle and aunt took pity and gave me a real home. For them, I will forever be grateful.

I don’t share any of this so you’ll feel sorry for me; I share it so you’ll know that I know what it’s like to be a refugee. Sometimes for weeks at a time, I lived on city streets, dodging cops and perverts. Foster care usually only fostered abuse. But I’m cagey, and I survived. Today I am blessed beyond measure. What matters now is that I have a home that’s warm. I can open my doors to refugees. A couple of years ago I learned of some families that had arrived here with nothing. Eli and his friends went through our neighborhood late, late at night asking for various items to help set up these desperate families. It was easy to give a pan or a lamp or a blanket. In fact, when Dev and Mike recently moved to Hawaii, they donated most of their furnishings to refugees that had no dishes, no clothes, and no furniture. It was simple.

But now things aren’t so simple. I don’t know what to do to help. I feel frustrated and desperate. I understand that President Trump doesn’t want “undesirables” let into our country. I understand that America has enemies that would destroy all of us if they could. I get the policy. What I don’t get is a chance to help the hurting and that hurts me. If a stranger had not taken me in that December night so long ago, I would have frozen to death.

I can’t let that happen to anyone else if I can help it, and I hate that I’m being told that I can’t. Maybe that’s why St. Peter will never let me relieve him of his sacred Pearly Gate keeping duties. I wouldn’t check the records. I’d just push back the hinges and let everybody through.

Imagine such a heaven!

Right now I’m praying hard for those who are alone, afraid, abused. I am praying for the leaders of our nation and the leaders of the world. Mostly though, I’m praying for the children who are cold, hungry, hurt, confused, and feel abandoned. God be with you!

Things will get better because in the end, love will always, always, always trump hatred.

And Then There’s Henry…

I’m a crappy neighbor. I didn’t even pass out neighborhood gifts at Christmas. I don’t precision mow my lawn or murder weeds with a vengeance like my neighbors do. If they have dandelions sprouting in their yards, it’s because of me.

That said, I’d like the world to know I love my neighbors and I think they’re great people. I especially love their kids and hope they always feel welcome in our home.

A few years back when it was just Eli and I living home while everyone else was away, I had some serious surgery to fix my broken leg, ankle and knee. I was in a full cast for several months. It wasn’t easy getting around, but I managed. Then one morning there was a big snowstorm and I drove Eli to school early. When I pulled back into our little circle I saw that four of my neighbors were out shoveling their driveways and sidewalks. I thought, “I better do that too.”

So I did. I hobbled out there in my pink cast, doing my best to maneuver the snow shovel. I smiled and waved, but the men were busy shouting greetings to each other and didn’t acknowledge me. No problem. They owed me nothing, and to be honest, I’m the odd woman out in our little circle. I’m divorced. I’m opinionated. I’m independent. But I sorta kinda felt stupid. And that’s when I came to the edge of our property and realized that one of my neighbors had beat me to it. He’d shoveled a precise line in the snow to make it clear where his property ended and mine began.

I can’t tell you why, but that clean line was like a blade to my heart. It was a statement of division and separation and it hurt even though it was a fair and accurate line. It made me think of what prompted Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. It started with a question, “Who is my neighbor?”

I vowed that I’d try to be a better neighbor. But not right then. In that moment I felt wounded and alone and very, very weak. I felt “divorced.” So I headed back toward the house. But the Universe had a lesson to teach me. It was one of those Utah winter mornings when the snow muffles far away sounds and amplifies nearby sounds. Over the words and laughter of the four men came the grrr of an engine. And then came Henry on his four-wheeler with his snow plow.

The man was his own blizzard, waving and barreling down the road, up and down driveways and over the entire circle sidewalk—both sides. By the time he was done, Henry had obliterated that precise dividing line and had taught me what kind of neighbor Jesus called good. First, Henry saw me. Second, he had compassion on me. Third, he bound up my wounds.

With one swoop of service Henry had put an end to my pathetic pity party.

And it wasn’t the first time Henry and his family had proven to be “good neighbors.” When my life first imploded and I didn’t know how I’d draw my next breath, Henry came over, plopped down on my front step and said, “If you want to talk…I’m here.”

Later, when they suspected I had no money, they bought groceries for my kids to have cereal and milk.

Then there was the night that the kids and I were cold and cuddled together in one room. We ran out of wood for the fireplace and that’s when Eli disappeared. He trudged over to Henry’s house to ask if we could “borrow” one of their logs for our fire. A little while later Henry and Diane pulled up with an entire wagon filled with wood to keep us toasty warm.

And how about the time my friend Cindy was toilet papering my yard at midnight to surprise me for my birthday? Since Henry is an officer of the law, he thought he’d have a little fun with her. He turned on his lights and siren and scared the celebration right out of her, telling her she was on her way to jail for vandalizing property. Henry laughed a lot harder than Cindy did.

And then there was last Christmas when we were in the middle of Hanukkah and Henry and Diane knocked on the door dressed and Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Everyone got a chance to sit on Santa’s lap, whisper in his ear, and get a gift that Henry and Diane brought and paid for.

Yesterday Henry was back with his snow plow. He said, “I came to break up the ice in front of your house so it would melt faster and you could park your car easier.”

So yeah, I don’t want to forget this story. I want to remember it forever. I want to honor those who live close to me, and I want to be blind to dividing lines and see everyone as my neighbor. I want to be more like Henry.

I’ve got a LONG way to go, but my first act is to wish that you’re all blessed with a neighbor like Henry, and secondly, to share a quote from G.K. Chrsterton that gave me something to ponder: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

Love and blessings to all of you good neighbors!

3 Things Mothers Must Teach Their Daughters

Think about mother and daughter relationships. There’s no relationship more beautiful, meaningful and complicated. It’s woven of time, love, hate, admiration, dependence, resentment, tears, disgust, distrust, learning, forgetting, forgiving, pain, laughter, softness, faith, edges and glitter and agonizing freedom. No matter how different they grow to be or how far apart they move, nothing can fully sever the bond that is born when a mother risks her own life to give new life to a daughter.

At least that’s what I’ve been thinking lately. This week as Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher were laid to rest; I found it fascinating that Debbie said, “I live right in front of my daughter.” She was talking about logistics, but the statement took on deeper meaning for me. We mothers  live “right in front” of our daughters and our daughters see right through us. They know us in a way no one else can.

In our family we’re excited to welcome granddaughter #5. It the same time frame I’m helping move my firstborn far, far away. She’s taking two of my granddaughters with her. I can’t even type these words for the tears that drip down my cheeks and splash my keyboard.

But distance, I’ve learned, doesn’t diminish love. It solidifies it.

Last night I had dinner with my friend, Jane, and her mother, Elsa. Beautiful women, beautiful relationship. It was fun watching them laugh, finish each other’s sentences, and chat about people in their shared circle. Mostly, it intrigued me how they built each other up without even knowing they were doing it. A smile. A kind word. Which one would jump up to refill the water glasses first. It was love in motion. Years ago, the two of them used to run 5k’s together. Imagine having your Mom as your running partner. Should we all be so fortunate.

I realize that every mother/daughter relationship isn’t founded on love. That makes me so sad because every little girl needs the love of a mother so she knows how to mother.

I came home wishing I’d been a better mother. I wish I’d known thirty years ago what I know now. A day doesn’t pass when I don’t wish that I’d been given more time with my own mother. She died when I was 12, but addiction took her from me long before that. I grew up with loads of foster mothers. Not the same.

So I’ve been awake all night thinking about mothers and daughters and I came up with 3 essential truths mothers (or grandmothers or fathers for that matter) should instill in their “little girls.”

  1. SET OUR OWN VALUE. Don’t let the world slap a price tag on any part of you. By your existence alone, your worth is infinite. God didn’t make a duplicate you. There’s only one…that makes you priceless, so treat yourself according to that truth.
  2. GLASS CEILINGS ARE TRANSPARENT. 2016 was going to be the year when a woman shattered the glass ceiling and became POTUS. It didn’t happen and a lot of hearts got shattered instead. Hope is not dead, dear daughter. Hope lives within you. And as for that glass ceiling, it’s transparent, so don’t focus on the ceiling…focus on the stars you can see through it. You’re literally made of stardust, so aim for the stars, not the ceiling. Don’t let life limit you. Don’t limit yourself.
  3. TWO THINGS MATTER MOST. While you’re living a grand adventure, remember that only two things last beyond this life: the wisdom you gain and the relationships you forge. While all the other things you acquire and accumulate are nice, they don’t last. They’ll turn back to dust just like your body will. But your spirit? It’s eternal and will continue on in unimaginable ways, keeping your wisdom and your relationships. So learn all you can, love all you can.

Please share this list and make your own list. If there’s something wedged between you and your daughter, or you and your mom, I hope you’ll find a way to dislodge it, so you can carry on with the business of love.

(The picture is of little Adelaide being well…herself. And that’s all any mother can hope for…to raise her daughter to be the best version of who she was born to be.)

The Brain Spectrum Between Fake and Real

Maybe I’m missing the whole point. But I think I get it…and I don’t get it. What’s with all the hullabapoo over this “lifestyle porn” thing plaguing and rumbling many of my Facebook friends? In my humble opinion, it’s about people creating a perception of who they want the world to think they are. Think about that.

We’re all guilty. I’m absolutely guilty.

Long before there were blogs or Photoshop to create these perceptions and spread them around, I owned a private photo studio specializing in children and family portraiture. Over twenty-plus years I had some fun clients like Gap and Nordstrom. I even did some work for Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. But the bulk of my business came from locals who wanted me to create an image of their family for them to share with the people they cared about.

It was my great joy to do so.

But sometimes families with six, eight, ten kids would appear all dressed like they were ready for the cover of Vogue. I’d do a quick calculation and realize they’d spent at least $400 to dress each member. That meant thousands of dollars had been invested just in the coordinated wardrobe—oft times more. Sometimes this was for real, but sometimes…

“Excuse me,” the mother or father would whisper, “but can you hide the price tags? We’re taking all of this stuff back as soon as the photo shoot is over.” (Nordstrom, my employer, had a very lenient return policy)

I felt like I was being dragged into something deceitful, if not dishonest.

I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence. It wasn’t.

I wish I could say I refused. I didn’t. I did talk it over with my manager who only shrugged.

By the last few years of my profession, I was a somewhat jaded by the whole appearance thing. By then I’d photographed thousands of families who were kind and generous. When they sat before my lens it didn’t matter what they wore. They were beautiful people because they were genuine. Their love for one another shone through. Then they’d be the families that were unkind to each other, unkind to me, unkind period. But oh, how they wanted the world to see them as successful and loving. They were dressed, coiffured, and made up. They posed just right and beamed on cue. And yes, they looked good on film.

I closed my studio more than ten years ago, so I’d put those people away with my old Hasselblad equipment until all of this “lifestyle porn” stuff surfaced. I realized then that my experiences were relevant to the work I’m now doing—brain studies. Here’s what I discovered: We’ve got two recently discovered regions in our brains that help us process fact from fiction—the anterior medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulated cortices. fMRI data registers activity in these regions during autobiographical memory retrieval and self-referential thinking. That means our brains inherently tend to believe what’s real over what’s not. Good news.

Navigate this tricky part with me. We can change our brains by telling ourselves something over and over. So when we “appear” to be something and pretend to be something that we’re not, we confuse our own thinking.

This isn’t always a bad thing. It works for positive affirmations. We tell ourselves that we can accomplish something until we accomplish it. Bravo! But…when we tell ourselves that the doctored image that we send out into the world is real, we reshape neuropathways and alter the shape of cells, not to mention our lives. We deceive not only our friends and neighbors, but also ourselves.

But it goes deeper than that.

Why in the world do we think that we need to be something that we aren’t? What if the whole world just stopped faking it? What if we admitted that being married is very, very hard? That being single is hard too? What if we admitted that parenthood is colored in something duller than bliss? What if we talked honestly about the weight of debt? What if we told the world that we’re disappointed in life? And in ourselves?

What if we exhibited the confidence and worth to cry for help? What if we posted reality?

Oh, yeah. Never mind. I know what would happen because it’s happened. When people post the truth, things get uncomfortable. We ask, “Why on earth would someone post something like that?” And so we generally turn away. It’s easier to look at smiling, fit success than it is to look at weeping, muddled struggle. It’s how we’ve trained our brains.

Big sigh here because my brain hurts and my heart hurts. I don’t know the solution.

I only know that it’s exhausting to pretend for the sake of appearance. Frankly, I’m reached the age and wrinkled stage when I’m gonna put my resources elsewhere. Love me for who I am, or don’t love me at all.

I guess that’s what my rant is all about today. I want you to wrap your arms around yourselves and accept you for who you are now. Not who you used to be or will be. Extend that same unconditional love to others. Even to those who are still “posing to pretend.” And I’m going to ask you to think about how this world would change if we could learn to relate to each other in “real” time and “real” ways…if we could cut the crap and get to the heart. You know when you hear a story or see a face and your limbic system lights up with “ME TOO! ME TOO!” That’s the reality that connects humanity. Phoniness drives us apart. Friends, there’s room for all of us. And all of our flaws. There’s love enough if we’ll let it be enough.

That said, I’ve got a confession to make about where I fall on the fake spectrum. Sometimes I Photoshop my images (mostly my booty, but sometimes the bags beneath my eyes). And I might as well tell you the story behind the above photo. It’s NOT the Christmas card image I sent out for the world to see a few years back. That one was of my six kids standing still and smiling. This one—the real one—is the shot when Dallas made a snowball, aimed and fired at his brother Collin, but hit his sister Devyn smack in the face instead.

THIS one is precious to our family because it’s a recording of the “real” us. I didn’t send it out because it wasn’t picture perfect. Now, that I’ve learned some of the lessons I’ve learned, I kinda, sorta wish I had.

And I wish that we could start a dialogue about the freedom of reality. Maybe you could even include some images and stories of your own. That would be nothing shy of wonderful.