Trunk or Treat: StoryMakers


Margot had her first communion and I wrote something about it. But, for a change of pace, it was published by Story Makers on their Sparks page. You can read it here:

Hope you enjoy and are encouraged to come as you are.


Toddler Regression and Other Thoughts

My youngest, Margot, is about to turn three and just entered into what experts call a “toddler regression.” She has gone from being our most independent, capable, strong-willed child to our most independent, capable, strong-willed baby overnight. She refuses to use real words, (which she knows and used before this moment), she wants to be held all the time, she colors on walls, refuses to attempt potty training and a host of other issues. It is honestly as though she has woken up as an 18 month old at best. A few days ago, I was at my wits end for how to help her after my usual bag of tricks was not working. So I did what anyone would do. I turned to the internet. And in this case, unlike the time I needed to know why I had a headache and left thinking I had a brain tumor, the internet did not fail me.

Most children go through regressions throughout childhood. They mature, develop new skills and then realize they are growing up and their little brain gets overwhelmed and they act younger than they are. It’s sort of a two steps forward, one step back situation. Or in Margot’s case, beautifully drawn pictures one day, scribbles on the wall the next. Everything I’ve read says this is a stage and to be patient and hold her as much as I can and give her lots of affection because all of this is a reaction to stress. The article I read suggested that parents ask, “Has anything changed in the child’s life?” Um, yes. We left the only home she’s ever known, all of the friends that she can name, her car, her park, her babysitter, her best buddy. Someone came and packed up her stuff and her bed and put it in a container and that container is somewhere between Antwerp and the port of Houston. I think it’s fair to say some things have changed.

Sometimes I don’t give my kids enough credit and in this case, I really think Margot gets it. She feels the change and is acting on it. She can’t say she doesn’t want to move or that it’s upsetting her to not have her things or her house or be able to go to her best buddy’s house. (That’s her term for her friend Magnolia, not my words). So in her own way, Margot’s trying to go back to a time that felt really stable and easy and safe.

When I think about it that way, I want to regress. Moving, despite being a main feature of my life, is hard. I’m not sure it’s fully hit me because we often come to Virginia in the summer. It’s not out of the ordinary yet. Then I remember we are not going back to Geneva. Our house doesn’t belong to us anymore. My stuff is in a container on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic. When my kids ask when we can go to Reid and Chase’s house, I just pause and hope they forget the question because the answer is, “not for awhile because it involves international air travel.” In some ways, moving with three kids has been a less emotional move for me because there are so many more details to manage. There are other people crying or upset and I need to help them process their emotions. I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on all we’ve moved away from or even on all we get to do in Houston. Though, maybe I do regress in my own way. Like a lot of adults, I rewatch tv shows or reread a favorite book. I respond more emotionally than I normally would. I find myself falling into patterns I thought I’d addressed and moved past. Maybe I am going through a regression. Maybe I just need to be patient and kinder with myself and hope it passes.

I have an advantage over Margot. I do know a little of what is coming. I’ve moved before and started over and I know that Houston has so many good things for us- family, friends, a great school, church, house. But for now, you can find me rewatching Parks and Rec and reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. Give me a break, it’s just a regression.

Lights, Camera, Christmas

It all started when my four year old daughter, Annie, was cast as Mary in the Nativity play at our church. I do not know if they intended to include the youngest children in the most important roles or if it was her long blond hair that made her such a natural fit for the part of Mary or if it was the only role they trusted her with as it was a non-speaking role. Regardless, when you provide the mother of Jesus for the nativity play, it is imperative you not be late.

We arrived early en masse, my son ready to play Joseph, another non-speaking part I might add, my youngest thrilled just to be invited “backstage” and Annie in a stubborn panic. She absolutely refused to even try on the costume. I offered nail polish, chocolate, anything. The people in charge came over a few times.

“Will we have a Mary?” one woman asked. I told her I was not sure and blamed stage fright, hoping for some empathy.

Five minutes later, the costume mistress approached.

“This is for her head.” She handed me a white gauzy veil with silver stars all over. I took the veil and tried to entice Annie with the glitter. No go.

Five minutes after that, she returned to tell me, “Well, if she won’t do it, you’ll have to.”

I shook my head and said, “Why don’t we find a child understudy?” The woman looked around the room. At least three girls were dressed as angels and last I checked there was not a requisite number of angels. One of them could just be Mary.

“I don’t think that’s going to work.” The woman said as she smiled and walked away.

There was no way I was going to play Mary in a children’s pageant. I couldn’t. I’m an adult. It would just be wrong. And my stage fright began to set in. Now I understood Annie. I didn’t want to get up in front of everyone either. At least she was age appropriate for a children’s nativity.

Christmas pageants and I have a long and sparkly history. I grew up being a part of two annual Christmas pageants- one at my Catholic school and one at our evangelical church. The nativities could not have been more different. Every year at school, we did the same play. If you were in second grade, you were a drummer boy and you walked in and sang, surprise, surprise, The Little Drummer Boy. The kindergarteners were the sheep. The fourth graders the shepherds. The script never changed and you knew exactly what role you would play for the eight years you were a student at Sacred Heart. Smart parents kept the costumes because they knew they would use them for younger children. Then came Mrs. Iwata who wrote a new script that somehow involved a violet in the snow. Nothing else about the show changed. But, it was quite the controversy to add some updated dialogue.

At our church, we never did the same play twice. That would be boring, which was the worst thing we could think of. The choir director wrote full scale musicals, two acts of singing and dancing and acting for the Christmas pageant. The sets were elaborate multilevel constructions of glitter and lights. One year, we did a show in which my younger brother and I played Dot and Toby, in a Wizard of Oz meets Christmas homage. There were three rapping wise guys instead of a Tin Man. At the end of the show, we realized there was no place like home… for the holidays.

Another year, I was dressed as a cabana dancer, swing dancing to “Feliz Navidad” at the front of the church. Yet another year, I twirled around with a wooden snowflake to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas.” Every year was different and new and we began the rehearsals and preparation a year in advance. Christmas had to be flashy and bright to draw people in. Then there would be a five minute sermon to tell people the true meaning of Christmas and send them on their way.

Did I mention we did this ten nights in a row? With a break on Sunday and Monday of course. Two weeks of sold out Christmas shows in our church sanctuary with laser lights, smoke machines and kabuki cannons. All to make sure people understood the real meaning of Christmas. 

This is why I panicked when they asked me to be Mary this year. I do not do Christmas pageants anymore. I have put in more than my fair share of Christmas spirit. Ten times my share if you ask me. But, in the true spirit of Christmas, I was saved by a visitor.

Five minutes before our church service was to begin, a new family entered with a four year old daughter. They had been to the church once before and were just looking for the Sunday School room. I spotted my savior right away.

Bending down to be level with the daughter’s face, I asked, “Would you like to be Mary?”

The mom translated for me and the girl smiled. I happily handed over the veil and robe and that was that. Crisis averted. The little girl felt welcomed and involved and to be honest, she absolutely nailed the part. Annie sat in the pew coloring, Margot danced along from the back and Forest was perfectly imperfect on the choreography and timing. There were no laser lights, no explosions or cabana dancers. It was sweet and reminded us all of the angels message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men. And the saving grace of a visitor, a newcomer, arriving just in time.

Unfiltered Beauty

linds.jpgI never intended to share this picture. Taken hastily at an awkward angle by my brother who is a billion feet tall, it is a picture of two tired looking moms and two distracted kids. You can see the dark circles and puffy faces and very uncooperative cowlicks. When I first saw it, I noticed every single flaw. So I quickly filed it away on my phone. I did not want anyone to see it and judge me as lazy for not putting on make up or sleep training my baby or knowing how to take a good picture. No one would look at this picture and say “Wow, she is awesome. She’s got her life all figured out.”

But here is the truth about this picture. It is not physically or aesthetically beautiful. I know that. But I share this picture because I want to share my story, for you to know me better and I hope look past the appearance. The story beneath the surface of this picture is truly beautiful because it is full of beauty. This picture is of me and one of my very best friends. 

When I was younger, I hated the idea of a best friend. It felt so exclusive and usually was intended to point out who was not your best friend. It meant girls at school with matching heart necklaces. I always wanted someone to give me one half of their heart necklaces. I always wanted to belong and be known. But when I say Lindsey is one of my best friends, it is not an exclusive title like it was in middle school. She is really the best at being a friend.

Lindsey and I met in 2002 on the steps of the Admissions building at UVA. I had heard of her because my parents knew her boyfriend. My mom told me that I would love her. My mom was right. Lindsey and I bonded quickly in our friendship and I loved that she was a no-drama kind of girl. She did not tolerate shallowness or self-indulgence— a rare treasure in the college girl world. 

Lindsey and I have been friends for fifteen years. She was the friend Josh called for ideas and help when he was planning his proposal. She is the friend I text when my children are driving me crazy or I do not know which haircut I should get. She is the friend who welcomes me and my family to her house for an afternoon while we wait for a flight. She is the friend who tells me I need to be more loving towards my family.

This picture is also beautiful because of the stories of the babies in it. Lindsey’s son Ben was born in China and adopted into their family last year. It was a honor to hear Lindsey speak about Ben from the first day she saw him and knew he was her son. Having heard about each step of the long journey he had taken, watching this little boy from Inner Mongolia playing in my friend’s lap was nothing short of a miracle. Margot, my youngest, could also have been missing from this picture had miracles not occurred. During my delivery of her sister, Annie, I had complications that almost required a hysterectomy. If they had not been able to save my uterus, Margot would not have even been conceived. If things had worked out differently, this picture would never have been possible. But still, upon first glance, I wanted to hide it and never share it with anyone, let alone post it somewhere for everyone I know to see. And that made me wonder why my first reaction was to hide it away.

After long considering the purpose of social media, ultimately I came up with one word: connection. We long to be connected to one another and we have an insatiable, innate desire to be known and loved. This is not new. The mission statement at Instagram is all about storytelling. We love stories because we see ourselves and our loved ones in them. I read as much as I do because I want to know others and their stories. I want to know my own story. As William Nicholson said, “We read to know we are not alone.”

But if we are going to be known and loved, we have to be honest. It’s easy to share only the beautiful, the perfect, the organized but ultimately it is dishonest and not fair to those who see our pictures or posts or tweets. I know this whole issue of social media and transparency is one that matters more to me than to most people. I generally cannot tolerate spin or flattery. The more I get to know myself, I realize this is both a blessing and a curse. This drive for honesty makes it hard for me to participate in surface social interactions because I am not one to just say “Oh, I’m fine” or believe you when you say you are fine. I am awkward in social situations because of it. But this has made me study my online activity too.

Our aspirational lives on social media are having an effect on us as women and as a society. Studies have recently shown that young women are struggling with depression and anxiety at higher rates now than ever before. When I was in high school, Reviving Ophelia came out and drew my attention to advertising and its effect on adolescent girls. We saw the waifs of high fashion ad campaigns everywhere and studies showed that eating disorders rose while self esteem plummeted in our ranks. The same is true for teenage and even pre-teenage girls now only it’s more pervasive and more dangerous. Instead of seeing perfect bodies of supermodels in ads on billboards or magazines, teens and pre-teens are seeing us in our highly edited social media feeds. No longer is it just a celebrity inspiring ridiculous ideas about appearance, it is cousins, friends, mentors and mothers who are living seemingly perfect lives. If I as a 34 year old woman have trouble distinguishing between real life and the life presented on Instagram, I can only imagine what a thirteen year old is thinking.

When I had just had my daughter, Annie, I was in our yard when a young neighbor walked by. She stopped to say hi to us and looked at my stomach, still swollen from pregnancy. Her eyes stayed on my stomach as she said, “I thought that went away with the baby.” While I was a little hurt, I realized it was an opportunity. “No, not for awhile, if ever,” I replied.  Later as I reflected on it, I realized that along with some of my disappointment in not having a perfectly flat stomach ever, let alone two weeks after delivering a baby, I also felt some hope. Maybe she will remember me when she has a baby and her stomach stays soft and wobbly. Maybe seeing someone accepting her body after a baby will lead her to love her own someday. 

That is why I do not want to hide this picture anymore. I want younger women to know that when you have an infant, you might not look rested and alert. Your skin may be marked with hormonal acne or dark circles or age spots. Not sleeping has an effect on your appearance. Only a rare woman looks like a model the day after giving birth. If they do, they probably had on a lot of make up and did their hair. They used filters or good lighting. But young women will never know that unless we are honest about our lives. Our unfiltered lives are beautiful because they are full of beauty. Truth is beautiful because it allows us to connect over the joys of our lives and the disappointments. That is what I want my daughters to know and to see when they see these pictures. I want them to see the beauty of a fifteen year friendship, of a sacrifice of sleep, time and sanity. 

We all have a chance to be who we needed when we were younger. For me, I needed to see that perfect hair and perfect skin and the right clothes and house and a photogenic family are not the end goal and striving to attain those things is just not worth the effort. I needed someone to tell me that happiness is not found in perfection but in the joy of being known and loved. Social media allows us to connect with one another in new and interesting ways. We are able to see everyday and special moments in our friends lives. I stay in touch with friends from miles away, around the world. But if we are only presenting our filtered lives, we are not really known and therefore, cannot really be loved. I think in our quest for love we settle for admiration and there is a much richer life to be had. 

The beauty of this picture is that the woman standing next to me knows me, listens to my real life frustrations and excitements. That is worth sharing and that is worth celebrating. It is a gift worth infinitely more than good hair or organized kitchens. If we are going to live aspirationally, this picture is a good one to start with. Be a good friend, a loyal friend, a friend of fifteen years who still knows me on my good and bad days, a friend who tells me when I need to be kinder or more generous and who applauds me when I am thoughtful and wise. That is something to aspire to. And share those stories and those pictures with the world. We all need more of that truth right now.

Call Me Maybe

Recently I cancelled my US phone contract. I know. I know. I kept it because I did not want to lose my number and when I travelled to the States, I would use that phone. I suspended service when we were out of the country and assumed I would restart it when we moved back in 2015. But by July 2017, it was time to admit I did not need a US number anymore. So, on August 4, I gave up my US cell service contract with the help of Brian from Verizon. We spoke briefly about my moving to Switzerland. I was too embarrassed to admit I had kept an American contract while living abroad for such a long time so I told him I was moving to Switzerland that day. It was a white lie. Today- give or take four and a half years.

Brian was very helpful and asked all the right questions- Are you sure? Could someone else use this number while you’re gone? I can’t suspend service until August 9, is that okay? I assume this is because he was following a script but each question had a layer of finality and poignancy to it. I had that number for 15 years- as long as I have had a cell phone. It was a great phone number with some numbers repeated, easy to memorize. Was I sure?

After a brief pause, Brian said, “Mrs. Grizzle? I thought service would end on the ninth of August but I accidentally sent the request for termination for today so most likely this will be your last call on this number.”

My last call. On my lifelong number. Was spent speaking to Brian from Verizon.

All of this has led me to think about that number and my phone and how much meaning I attached to a ten digit number. When we lived in Houston, I got daily phone calls for two months from Ernie Cobb. He was an elderly man whose daughter had purchased a cell phone for him and he was convinced that my number was his number. So he called me regularly to check his voicemail. I thought at first that it was some kind of scam so I had Josh call him back. I sat next to Josh and listened as he spoke to Ernie for twenty minutes. Turns out Ernie had spent some time in Houston and now lived in Virginia. He and Josh had a lot in common. He kept calling after that but at least I knew it wasn’t a scam. For years I saved one of Ernie’s messages on MY voicemail, “Hi Jane. Guess we haven’t figured out this number thing yet. If you see this number calling just know it’s me, Ernie Cobb.” I don’t know what happened to Ernie but he stopped calling so I assume he figured out what his own number was.

I have a handful of numbers memorized. My mom and dad’s. My dad’s pager number. My brothers’ and my neighbors’ from growing up. When my water broke with Forest, I called my mom and found out she had the stomach flu and would not be able to be there for the birth. What did I do? I called the only number I could remember from childhood and got my mom’s neighbor to go down to the house to check on her. Thank God I had at some point memorized Dianna’s phone number.

We were with my brother and his wife recently and she told us that he had made a point to memorize her phone number because they had read a study that showed that couples who knew each other’s numbers were more likely to stay together. I thought that was sweet but in light of my conversation with Brian, the study had more weight to it. We don’t memorize many phone numbers anymore so it shows a level of commitment and intentionality to commit these ten digits to memory. I think about numbers I used to know and numbers I have kept in my brain. I do not think it shows that I lack care for those I have not memorized but there is something special about the numbers I do remember. It’s the same with birthdays I remember without looking at the calendar or Facebook. Those analog memories mean just a little more somehow.

So, you can call me on my Swiss number. Just don’t try the 434 number. You might get Ernie Cobb.

Welcome Stranger

My five year old suggested that I give up sleep for Lent, since “it has to be something you really love.” He is nothing if not observant, that kid. I promptly informed him I’ve been fasting from sleep for five years and two months and I am still waiting for Easter. All that to say, YES, I am exhausted and no amount of concealer can hide it. But it’s not just the normal “I have three kids under five” exhaustion. There is an intellectual exhaustion, a sheer depletion of brain power that comes with being an immigrant in a country where they do not speak your language.

I looked it up on Webster’s to be sure and yes, we qualify as immigrants. I am “1 : a person who comes to a country to live there.” The adult definition included the word “permanently” and as we have no current plans to move back, we meet the requirements. So when I woke up this morning to word that the Trump administration has rewritten their executive order restricting immigration, well, disappointment would be a weak word for what I felt.

Prior to moving to Switzerland, when I heard the word immigrant, I thought of Mexican neighbors I knew in California. I didn’t know them very well but I went to school with their children or grandchildren and knew that some of my friends in grade school spoke Spanish at home. We celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which, outside of my tiny Catholic school, is celebrated mostly in Mexico. Other than that, I did not have any idea what life as an immigrant was like.

Please forgive my ignorance. I am embarrassed to say I never really thought much about immigration outside of these friends’ parents who had moved to the U.S. a long time ago and led very All-American lives. I deeply regret my lack of empathy and lack of attempt to understand what life as an immigrant to America is like. We lived in Houston, Texas for crying out loud and still I was able to stay happily unaware of the difficulties immigrants experience when they move to America.

So many different kinds of people immigrate to America. Some of them speak English fluently. Many of them do not. Some of them come for jobs. Some come for their family. I do not know all the statistics but I do have tremendous empathy for how hard it is to live in America if you are not from there because I live in another country and it is hard.

We moved here because of my husband’s job. He works for a company headquartered here and when we were asked to move, we knew it would be great for his career. We dreamed of our children learning French from birth and becoming fluent. We hoped they would develop skills and cultural awareness that cannot be taught in America. We were told it was a very international city and that we probably would find many English speakers. Someone even said “You don’t need French.” They were wrong. I speak French every day not just out of novelty but out of necessity. I have sat waiting for deliveries on the wrong day or at the wrong time because I could not understand what the driver said before he hung up. I have showed up for appointments at the wrong place. I have lost my spot on waiting lists for public preschool because I did not understand the system described mostly in French. I have offended people by not saying the proper greeting or adding the proper title. And that’s the entry level stuff.

I cannot communicate fluently with my son’s teachers. I speak basic French and can understand more than that but when I try to speak it back, I do not sound native. I stutter and stumble over conjugations and vocabulary. It takes time to learn another language. In English and in my home country, I am eloquent, well-read, informed and witty. But, in French and here in Geneva, I am not. I am halting, timid, embarrassed and anxious. I read 156 books last year but when someone on the playground asks me how my daughters are doing, I can only reply with the French equivalent of “They are good. They go to school. They are 2 years old and 7 months. They are girls.” I worry every day that I will embarrass my son by trying to speak to his friends or their parents. So far he is either unaware or very patient.

And that’s just the language. The cultural differences are numerous as well. You say hello to everyone. You greet everyone with their title, “Madame” or “Monsieur.” You may never meet your neighbors because they are very private. Parents are exceptionally hands off at the playground. You do not speak loudly in restaurants. You do not mind when people bring their dogs to the table next to you. Short emails are considered rude. No one uses voicemails. You do not wear work out apparel to the grocery store. Even if you just worked out. Athleisure is not a thing here. You cannot say “But that’s not how we normally do it” because you do not know how they normally do it. And any time we eat a lot or buy large pieces of meat or wear bulky white sneakers, I hear the slightly snobby, “Ahh, tres Americain!”

And that is nothing about the feelings. All the feelings. We do love living here. Everything we hoped for has come to pass. My kids speak French. My husband is doing well in his job. We have built a community here. But, with all the great things come the tough things. I wish I could more accurately describe how exhausting it is to do simple things like get a drivers license or sign up for a class when you don’t speak the language. How lonely it feels to be unable to speak to anyone in the grocery store or cafe. How embarrassed I feel of my lack of knowledge. The simultaneous pride and envy I feel about my kids assimilating. The sadness of missing home. The guilt I feel for not being there and for enjoying being here.

As an educated, privileged American, I have access to all the resources in the world. I have apps and tutors and guidebooks. I can hire a babysitter so I can study a third language. But being an immigrant to Switzerland is exhausting. I am weary and tired and my heart breaks for those immigrants in America who are struggling with similar feelings and obstacles and especially for those who do not have access to all the resources I do. I can’t change anything about this immigration plan (or lack thereof) but I hope that when you meet a person who has immigrated to the United States, if they are speaking another language at the grocery store or they seem rude or cold, you give them the benefit of the doubt that they are intelligent, talented and a human therefore worthy of knowing. This new order may not seem like a big deal to you but it creates an atmosphere of unwelcomeness. If immigrants to America are anything like me, they are acutely aware of it.

I am reminded of the important words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I remember each person who welcomed me here, who smiled at the children or tried to help me fill out forms or find things in the stores. The people who ignored my ignorance and treated me politely. I was a welcomed stranger and hope that my words here can encourage you to be a welcomer of strangers too.


What is mine to do? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in my brain since I first heard it from my friend Suzanne Stabile on her podcast, The Road Back To You. I think that if we can answer that question, we will find a big clue to our purpose and calling here. And it seems so easy, “what is mine to do?”

The question can have a simple answer or a deep answer. Mine is the laundry and the cooking and the pick ups and drop offs and the reading to and singing to and tucking in. But mine is also the teaching, encouraging and affirming the three little selves that live with me. Mine is the caring for my husband who works in a bruising industry and comes home tired and worn out. Mine is the writing when I think of something and think it might be helpful. Mine is the welcoming of friends and family when they come to visit. 

I can usually answer what is mine to do but I get distracted by what I would like to be mine. I envy those whose things seem bigger than mine, those who preach the truth or fight injustice or write the songs or the books or the tv shows, who lead teams or change minds or create art. I can get so focused on what is yours to do that I lose sight of mine. I know I’m off track when I begin to feel discontent. I am never as satisfied or happy if I’m wishing mine was a different lot. If I find myself nostalgic for things that used to be mine to do in a different season of life. I know no one does it all at the same time and resting in the seasonality of life as my friend Jill reminds me helps me to patiently tend to what is mine to do in this season. 

Living in Geneva has simplified and distilled my answer to the question “What is mine to do?” See in the States, I would probably get involved in the PTA and the campaign to save my daughter’s preschool building and the local protests against construction and I would lose any chance I had of mindfully tending my own garden. Because I don’t speak enough French, my involvement in society is limited. I cannot crusade or argue but I do know enough to speak to another mom on the playground and politely ask how her son or daughter is doing. And that has to be enough for me. 

I consider myself a pretty smart person. I read a lot and listen to various podcasts, news programs, etc. I am a voracious consumer of information. But in this season of my life, I don’t have a lot of output. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to speak about these things and ideas because I cannot even really conjugate the past tense. So I am learning about being humble and not being a part of the smart or the active and just doing my things to do. It is hard to admit that my main tasks are menial at least in the here and now. But it is in the obedience in the small things that we learn obedience in the big things. Awhile ago I came across this quote from Helen Keller, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

I would love to be more involved in things and maybe someday I will be but for now you will find me wiping noses, reading books, vacuuming up dog hair and putting kids to bed. That is mine to do. And I am learning to be grateful for the language barrier that makes it much easier to focus on my own patch of this earth, to do these small tasks with the greatest care and focus on what is mine.