Happy 1st Birthday, Julia Faith!

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Dear Julia,

What a wondrous year this has been! I wonder if I could have guessed, when I held your skinny, wrinkly, alien-like newborn body, what a lovely little girl you would become in only 365 days. You were so teeny tiny, and so very fragile, that all I wanted to do was hold you all day long. And I think I’d still love to hold you all day long…if you didn’t want to crawl all over the place exploring and discovering anything you can get your hands on!

We had a great day celebrating your birthday…well, after you endured a torturous two hours in the nursery while Mommy went to Bible Study. But then we got to go see Daddy at work…and his coworkers planned a little surprise party for you with lots and lots of presents! Daddy also got you a special ball, which you chased up and down the cubicle halls. You even whispered “Ball!” when you unwrapped it from the packaging. You are surely the office mascot.

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After that, we got to go see your first friend, Miss Casey, along with her mom, Ms. Eileen. They had presents for you, too! You loved tearing around their house on your hands and knees and seeing their fluffy dogs. When you opened the box that had a pretty pair of white sandals, you signed “please” until we put them on your feet!

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To make a good day even better, we went to Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop’s house because they finally arrived home after their trip to Africa! Boy, were they excited to see you! You had grown even in the three weeks since they had seen you last – they loved catching a glimpse of those two nice front top teeth that are really showing now. It is so cute how you show off your pearly whites when you wrinkle up your nose and laugh!

Besides words like “mama” and “ball,” you also like to say “uh-oh” whenever you drop something, and you will often say “Dadada” when your Daddy walks into the room. Recently, when we visited your Grammy and Grandad, you learned to say “Pretty!” when admiring Grammy’s earrings. And sometimes,  you just ramble off nonsense words that no one understands but you. You think it’s very funny when I start imitating your syllables, though! You are so fun to watch and interact with, and Daddy loves taking photos and videos of you in all your silliness. He recently made a little montage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUOYCt5vAQA&list=UUaZum2Oz89iBOQCIBIKnvWA

We’re working on getting you to eat table foods, but now that you’ve learned how to sign “please” and “more” and “all done,” you’ve realized that sometimes you have the power to be picky. So, Mommy has had to save your cheese and blueberries and crackers for only after you’ve had a good serving of peas or green beans. Fortunately, you still love Mommy’s milk (your other favorite word to sign), so I know you’re getting plenty of nutrition each day! It amazes me what a good little communicator you are, and I’m still in awe of the fact that only a year ago, your sounds were limited to a few little bird-like squeaks and cries.

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Daddy and I love spending time with you, Julia! We take you with us everywhere, and follow you around the house like your biggest fan club! Your favorite place to explore is going up the stairs, but until you learn how to come down safely, we’re going to keep that staircase gate securely locked. 😉 We’re proud of how fast you get around, and how much you love pushing your little walker, too, but we are glad that you’re in no hurry to take your first steps. You are a cautious little girl, just like your parents, and we love you just the way you are! Even when we had an early birthday party for you last week, you were very quiet and observant of all the commotion and the kids running around. You were especially cautious about the cupcake we put on your tray, since you had never eaten one before! But that’s okay. You are so cute when you are concerned.

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I am proud of all the physical milestones you have crossed this first year, Julia, but I am even more proud of how I see Jesus working in your heart. You are learning to stop what you are doing and turn around when Mommy says, “No, not for Julia,” and I am so thankful to see the beginnings of an obedient heart! These past few weeks when we visited your cousins, it was SO COOL to see you get along with other kids your age. You even learned how to share with your cousin Luke, and that made me so excited! (You also tried to tackle him once or twice when he had a toy you really wanted. Maybe we need to work on gentleness.) I pray that these little seeds of God’s Spirit working in your life will grow and grow every year as you learn about who God is and who He made you to be.

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Today was a happy day, little girl, but it also made me a little sad. Like every mother who has seen her tiny infant turn into a toddler before her very eyes, I can’t believe that I don’t really have a baby anymore. Every stage keeps getting better, though, and I love you more and more every month! May the Lord continue to bless your little life and work in your little heart this year, and in all of the years to come!

Love,

Mommy

P.S. I think we really wore you out with all the partying today!

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The Chairs That Kept Coming Back

Flashback to 1978. My paternal great-grandfather was a retired Methodist pastor. He and my great-grandmother lived in a little old house in New Jersey, where my mom and dad would come visit from time while they were still dating. Whenever my mom and dad came over, Great Grandpa would pull out from the closet two small, folding rocking chairs for their guests. They would sit and rock and talk and sit and rock and talk. These two chairs were solid wood rockers, with upholstered seats and backs, and a bit of carving at the top. They were low enough to the ground that the two recent college graduates had the awkward sensation of their knees being propped up a little higher than was comfortable. But spending time with grandparents is important, and it was a small price to pay. Great-Grandpa was always full of stories and wisdom, and Great-Grandma could sing any hymn on the spot – all the verses, word for word.

Fast-forward to April, 1979. My parents were married in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where they would both be working for IBM. Great Grandpa and Great Grandma Wilson came to the ceremony, proudly delivering their wedding gift – a new set of identical folding rocking chairs.

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It’s too bad my mom wasn’t the biggest fan of those chairs.

But they took their dutiful place in the closet, ready to be taken out and used if company ever came and wanted to sit and rock and talk.

Twelve years and two kids later, my parents were getting ready to move from the Hudson Valley to South Florida. In the process of cleaning out the house, they held a large garage sale. The two rocking chairs did not make the packing list, so out to the driveway they went. They were purchased by an older couple from our church, affectionately known as “Papa” and “Mama” Tatsche.

Great-Grandpa’s uncomfortable rocking chairs had been conveniently done away with, or so we all thought.

It wasn’t too many years later that Papa and Mama Tatsche also moved to Florida. Our family drove over to Naples to visit them in their new apartment, and had a wonderful time catching up with them. My sister and I were in grade school by now, and were as enthralled by the chance to be in a new place as we were by the jar of candy that sat on the coffee table. As we were about to leave, Papa Tatsche caught us in the foyer and said, “You know, we live in a smaller apartment now, and we need to get rid of some of our belongings. However, I just can’t bear to part with those chairs we had bought from you all. We’ve decided that you should have them – you can store them away and give one to each of your girls as a wedding present one day.”

I’m sure my mom must have inwardly groaned as she cheerfully and thankfully loaded the rocking chairs into the van for the journey home. My sister and I were pretty indifferent to the situation…if anything, it just seemed weird that someone would give us back the chairs that we hadn’t wanted in the first place.  Those ridiculous, uncomfortable chairs just kept coming back! How could my mom get rid of them now?

So, the infamous chairs that kept coming back were dutifully stored in our guest room closet for two more decades and two more cross-country moves, waiting for my mom to find an appropriate, dignified way of disposing of them.

Fast forward to this summer. Mom and Dad had re-modeled their bathroom and put in a brand new walk-in closet. In the process of moving into their new space, they took the opportunity to sort through the contents all of the closets in the house, which they had lived in for almost fifteen years by now.

The time had come for the dreaded chairs to make their final departure from my parents’ thirty-four year marriage. So, into the Goodwill pile they went.

And there they sat.

And sat.

Because nobody could quite conveniently bring themselves to drop those ancient chairs off at the thrift store.

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Change of Scene: At about this time, my little eleven-month-old was going through an anti-crib phase, where she was suddenly refusing to nap in her crib. She would sleep there fine at night, but during the day, it was a different story. Even if I nursed her to sleep and softly crept up the stairs, as soon as I crossed the threshold of her room, Julia would wake, arch her back, and loudly protest any attempt to put her in the crib. She would rather stand in there, gripping the rails, and yelling her little vocal chords ragged for an hour, than actually lying down and sleeping in her crib! I tried everything. In the end, the only thing that started to have some success was to actually nurse her in her room, wrapped in her blanket, with the sound machine and fan on full blast. That way, I just had to tiptoe a few steps before gently placing my tightly-wrapped bundle in the crib, and although she usually opened her eyes, she was comfortable enough to fall back asleep on her own. (Babywise mamas: Don’t hate. These are desperate times.)

Anyway, all that to say, there was not a chair in the nursery for me to sit in during this process of getting Julia to fall asleep. And since, in my mind, this was just a temporary solution to fix a temporary problem, I didn’t want to exactly go out and buy a piece of furniture. What could I use to rock my baby to sleep, besides the awful step-stool I was currently using to sit upon every day?

And that’s when I remembered the infamous chairs that kept coming back!

By this time, one of them was in complete disrepair, but the other was holding together just well enough to make it through this last mission. It has been sitting humbly in the nursery corner for a week now, where I go several times a day with Julia to sit and rock and hold and sit and rock and pray. Until she drifts off to sleep soundly enough that I can put her in the crib without a catastrophic reaction.

And since I’m only five feet, two-and-five-eighths inches tall, it’s okay that the seat is so low to the ground. I need my knees a little propped up anyway, to hold my little bundle without killing my arms. And it’s okay that the upholstery is sagging in the bottom, because it’s a reminder to be thankful that I’m not sitting there on a stepstool.

And it’s also a reminder that this is a temporary arrangement. Julia will not hate her crib forever. She won’t wake up in the middle of the night forever. She won’t be teething forever. She won’t have to be nursed to sleep forever. This too, shall pass. And then, it will really be the end of the line for Great-Grandpa’s rocking chair.

But just as it will be with much reluctance that I say good-bye to that old chair, as uncomfortable as it was, it will also be with some sadness that I move past even the difficult stages of Julia’s life. Because as uncomfortable as it is at the moment, I have to remember that one day I will look upon those nap time nursing sessions with great fondness and nostalgia.

In the meantime, I think Julia’s Great-Great-Grandpa would be proud.

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Battle-Winning Worship

I was reading one of my favorite Old Testament stories the other day and I just had to share it.

It comes from 2 Chronicles chapter 20.

One of the good kings, Jehosaphat, is leading God’s people into battle against a vast, vast army. Now, if you’re a king in Israel or Judah at this time, there are no guarantees that you will handle a situation like this the right way. There were plenty of rulers who took things into their own hands, made alliances with other pagan nations, or relied on their own military power instead of seeking God’s direction and help.

But fortunately for our story, Jehosaphat knew what he was doing. He brought everybody (and their wives and children and even the little babies) to the temple and stood before the Lord.

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And Jehosaphat said it like it was. He was like, “God, all these people are coming against us and there’s no way we can win without your help. We do not know what to do.”

Wow, how many times have I thought that in the past  year? At multiple points every day I think to myself, “I  do not know what to do in this situation! Lord, please give me wisdom!” Whether it’s deciding when nap time should be or deciding how to save for our children’s education, I feel really clueless pretty much all the time these days. (Read more about that herehttps://poolehousewife.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/this-is-hard/)

Wait ’till you hear what happens to Jehosaphat.

This guy named Jahaziel stood up with a word from the Lord. Now, I know it’s tempting to skip past the part where he’s identified as “son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph…” but in this case, this little verse tells us something really important. As a Levite, Jahaziel’s full time job was serving God in the temple. As a descendant of Asaph, this made Jahaziel specifically responsible for the music performed for the worship of the Lord.

He was a worship leader.

And this worship leader stood up in the assembly of the King and all of God’s people and said, “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s…You will not have to fight this battle…The Lord will be with you.”

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And then the King bowed with his face to the ground, and some of the other worship leaders (the Korathites and Korahites) led the people in singing praise “with a very loud voice.”

With this word of encouragement and moment of worship, God’s people went out into the fight. But they did not wage war as you would think they would wage war. They had learned from their worship leader friends. They set up in ranks, organized themselves, prepared to march in formation, and as they descended into the valley, guess what they did?

They sang God’s praises, of course!

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And as they marched and sang a song of thanksgiving, before they even reached their enemies, God won the battle.

I’m not even figuratively speaking here – God caused their enemies to turn and fight each other until not a man was left standing. When Jehosaphat and his singing army rounded the corner expecting to see a vast army, there were all the dead bodies!

When was the last time I was in the midst of an impossible situation and turned to God in praise? It’s easy for me to turn to Him in petition. “Oh, Lord, please give me wisdom!” or “Please fix this problem!” or “Please intervene in this way!” But God knows what my desires are before I even express them. He knows what I need, and He has promised to meet my needs according to His will. This story teaches me that in the most difficult times, I need to focus my attention not on myself, but on God.

And that is what worship is all about! Turning the focus and adoration of my life away from me and shining light on who God is and what He has done and what I trust He will do.

So I decided, starting this moment, the next time I’m exasperated with a “mommy situation” or troubled by something I hear on the news, or facing a tough decision for our family, I will not mope and be sorry for myself. Because the battle is not mine, but God’s. And instead of despairing, I will respond in worship. With a very loud voice. No matter who is listening.

Whatever battle you are trudging through today, I hope you will pause for a moment to give it up, and let your heart go! The Lord will hear your worship and be pleased with your little offering of praise. And in the midst of your thanksgiving, you might just find that the battle has already been won.

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Retiring Well

Not a lot of people work for the same company for 35 years.

Not a lot of people find a company to work for which uses their gifts, passions, and education to the fullest potential.

Not a lot of people experience success and recognition on a global scale during their career.

Not a lot of people change the world with their accomplishments and inventions.

Not a lot of people manage to be an amazing, involved, model father, husband, and volunteer, while also being a self-proclaimed “workaholic.”

But my Dad, Les Wilson, is one of those people. And today is the day of his retirement from IBM, 35 years to the day after he started in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he wanted to work on defense projects to win the cold war. I’m in awe of my Dad, and I want to take a little time today to celebrate him! He is not a person who likes to toot his own horn, so I’m going to go ahead and toot it for him, if you don’t mind.

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Many frequenters of this blog are already familiar with my Dad in his volunteer capacities – as Director of Video at church or Technical Arts/Production Director at school. You know how much he loves working with middle and high schoolers to teach them how to use technology in a creative way to solve problems and make mundane events turn epic. You might have seen him at school late on a Saturday night, scaling 2-story-high scaffolding, adjusting stage lights so that they will be perfectly aimed and colored for a specific scene in the upcoming high school musical. Maybe you were touched by one of his short documentary films shown in church, telling a story of a missionary engineer who built pipelines to bring clean water to thousands of people in rural Haiti. You might have admired his dedication for coming in at 7:15am every Friday morning to teach 12-year-old boys how to properly wrap microphone cables and run a sound board. You may have heard in passing about an online training session he conducted for missionaries living in Moldova or India. You might have wondered how he managed to fly a kite or a guitar through the air on an indoor school stage.

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And, like me (his own daughter), you might have thought to yourself, “Does he actually have a day job, or does he volunteer full-time?”

The answer to that question is, “Yes.”

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One of the hallmarks of Dad’s career from my perspective is that he managed to keep his home life unpolluted by the worries and cares of his work life at IBM. Granted, the company moved us cross-country three times, and there were a few scattered weeks in the 90s when Dad was working so late that he’d still be at the office in the wee hours of the morning. But my memories of growing up center around a loving father who attended all of my school events, took us on vacations, was home at 6:15pm for dinner every night, and was involved in guiding and shepherding the hearts of his family. Even after I’d gone to college and became a teacher, Dad’s most time-consuming volunteer efforts were the school productions in which I was also involved. But through most of the years that Dad was a software architect, I was either too young or too distracted to understand his current IBM projects. His career was not often in the forefront of my mind.

But today, on the day of his retirement, Dad and I sat down and had a two-hour-long cup of coffee. For the first time in my life, I asked him to tell me the story of that part of his world which had been obscured from my consciousness for too long. And beginning in 1978, he walked me through it, patiently, lovingly, and enthusiastically.

He talked about the transition from text-only computers to graphics based systems that had “windows.” He told me about what a revolutionary achievement it was when his team managed to perform graphics processing on a small graphics card instead of taking away processing power from the CPU. Dad recounted the struggle of integrating things like sound and video into a computer that was structured with neither of those things built in. And how they figured out how to not only play videos on a PC, but build into an operating system the ability to digitally create and edit video. They had succeeded in being the first to add features that we now take for granted, but at the time, they made IBM the first ones to make them available on regular computers.

He also told me about the times when his teams had done the impossible, broken into unchartered territory, produced what Academia had thought only theoretical, only to find the industry wasn’t quite ready and there wasn’t enough business sense to bring the project to market. Very common, but still a disappointment.

My Dad sometimes found himself a little too far ahead of his time.

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In our two-hour heart-to-heart today, I learned a lot of things about my Dad that I never realized before. Not just about what he has accomplished in his career, but who he is as a person. Here are the three things that impacted me  most:

• Don’t think of “work/life” balance as a pendulum – as if you either are in “work mode” (and neglect your family) or “home mode” (and neglect your work). View it as two dials – have your work life cranked up to the max, and have your home life cranked up to the max. Sometimes you may have to dial back one to compensate for the other, and that’s okay, but try not to always do one at the expense of the other.

• Always pursue what is right with everything you have inside of you, regardless of the outcome. If you have the opportunity to create or innovate something world-rocking, DO IT full-throttle ahead. Even if the literal bits and bytes you produce don’t end up on the store shelves, you will at least be requiring the competition to race after you. This is what drives the world to be a better place.

• At the end of the day…at the end of a career…what lives on the longest is captured in the people you influenced. Relationships are everything.

My career (motherhood) is in a different category. I may not ever really have a definitive “retirement.” But I am really, really thankful for the opportunity to celebrate my Dad’s career today! I know that there are a lot of people who lack a positive father figure in their lives, and I do not take mine for granted. He is the man I look up to most in the world, who has shaped who I am by more than just giving me his DNA. If it were possible, my respect and adoration for my earthly father increased to a new level even this morning.

By writing this post, I wanted to process everything Dad’s career has inspired me to do and be, and encourage you to live life today in such a way that you will be proud of how you spent your working hours and your “home hours.” My dad can look back on the past 35 years with an immense amount of pride and satisfaction, and I hope I can one day do the same!

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P.S. If you are interested, you can read his memoirs of his career (written to an audience of fellow IBM-ers) here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/x9y509srdvu38ap/N1jw7uy3uI

This is hard.

Well hello there, blog. Nice to see you! It’s been a while.

My lame excuse for not posting was that I haven’t felt like I had something worthwhile to share with the world. And the longer it got since I last wrote, the more epic of a post I felt I had to write in order to justify my absence.

Silly me.

You know, I thought that as I gained experience as a mother, I would have more and more wisdom to impart to mankind. But the opposite has been smacking me in the face lately. The longer I venture into motherhood, the less wisdom I feel I have!

So I decided I’d better swallow my pride and do some therapeutic writing, and hope my readers hadn’t given up on me.

Today is a day of honesty. It is a day of me releasing the preconceived expectations I had for myself and being completely true and real and transparent and vulnerable.

Today’s topic is: Motherhood is hard.

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Like, I’m not kidding. It is really, really hard.

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I thought being a music teacher was hard. I was on my feet all day, controlling large masses of middle schoolers, dealing with high school drama, schlepping sound equipment, grading papers, organizing field trips and concerts and productions, and showing up to parent conferences. I was good at teaching, and I loved my students, but it was exhausting. I was so excited when I turned in my keys and my badge to become a loving, purposeful, organized, creative, put-together, nurturing mother. How wonderful it would be!

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And it is indeed wonderful. Especially those first few months, when my newborn’s needs were easily solved with food, sleep, or a diaper change. I was obviously going to be an excellent mother, because God had given me this calling, and I had read every book on the shelf, right? I had two degrees, a wonderful church, and a supportive, intelligent husband! We had saved our money for four years before having kids so that we would be financially prepared! We did everything right! So we were going to be perfect parents, raising perfect little image-bearers as a model family for the Lord’s glory!

Right…?

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How little I knew.

I forgot that God only receives glory when I stop giving it to myself.

And thus began the slow process of the Lord breaking my pride and humbling my spirit. It wasn’t long before I started realizing that my plans for how Julia would behave and how I would train her began backfiring. Everything I told myself I would never let her do (watch TV, sleep in our bed, eat processed foods, nurse herself to sleep, etc.) she has already done. What I thought was early-onset separation anxiety at two months now seems like nothing compared to the panic and tragedy that befalls my daughter if I so much as look in another direction for three minutes. She has gotten sick multiple times, tumbled halfway down the stairs, struggles with sleeping through the night, refuses to drink breastmilk out of any form of bottle or sippy cup, throws her finger food on the floor, and has a non-stop tantrum if anyone but a select handful of people watch her. And most recently, she refuses to sleep in her crib during the day.

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I know there are lots of parents out there who have kids with major health crises, family tragedies, multiple children, financial difficulties, and relational issues, and I know that compared to them my life is cake. God has not called me to pass through those kinds of trials yet, so He has not given me the extra grace required to endure them.

God only gives enough grace for the life to which a person is called, and no extra. This is how He glorifies Himself – by requiring us to depend on His strength made perfect in our weakness.

This past week or so, I have felt like I’m teetering at the very edge of this “one baby grace.” There has been so much crying (on everybody’s part), so many questions, so many wrong decisions, that there have been many moments when I have felt completely broken.

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There are a lot of things that are bothering me deep down inside my sinful heart. The foremost is the realization that I’m not as good of a mother as I thought I was going to be. In fact, I pretty much stink at being a Mom. Every day I’m bombarded with my own failures – “I should have done this…” and “My sister-in-law would never have done that” and “Why didn’t I get this done?” and “Why did I just let her do that?” I get lost in my own sea of real and perceived guilt on a daily basis. Can any of you moms relate to this?

Compounding this problem is the fact that I used to think I was good at teaching – in fact, in my prideful heart, I thought I was really good at being a music educator. And now that I have exchanged my career for the full-time job of mommyhood, it  disturbs me deep down inside that I’m not “good” at this new occupation.

My whole life, I’ve always strived to be the best at everything I did. I was the straight-A student, the obedient daughter, the talented musician, the model Christian.

But I want to be totally honest with you right now and tell you that there have been many moments in recent days when I felt like I was good at nothing. 

I know this is a lie from Satan. And I’m not trying to throw a pity party. But in the moment when my ten-month-old child, who did not sleep through the night last night, and who has been crying all day, stiffens her legs and arches her back in a final screaming protest of her usually-beloved bath, and I have no idea why she is upset or what could possibly be wrong… it is very easy to believe Satan’s lie.

It is in this moment that I am most broken.

But it is also in this moment that I cling most tightly to Jesus.

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And this, dear friends, is why our sovereign, gracious, and loving Lord puts these moments of difficulty in our lives. In this last week, my relationship with the Lord has learned a new passion. My times of (mostly desperate) prayer have been sweeter. God’s Word has penetrated my heart with more power. My worship has been more transparent.

I had already discovered that clinging to my own abilities and qualifications as a mother leaves me more bewildered than when I started. But in the midst of a very hard week, I am seeing how the fruit of brokenness is hope.

My hope is not based on other peoples’ affirmation of what a great job I’m doing or what a wonderful daughter I’m raising. My hope is in the Lord’s ability to move and work in my family despite me. My hope is in Christ and Him alone.

So if you are doing something hard right now, take heart! It is in this very hour that God will speak to your soul most clearly. He has not left you – He is carrying you. And He wants you to be broken, so that He can pick up your scattered pieces and forge together a better and more Christ-like you. “He must become greater; I must become less.”

And for those of you who are not doing something hard right now…well, DO SOMETHING HARD! As a teacher, I saw a whole lot of students whose parents rescued them out of every difficulty. But doing hard things is the only way to really grow up. Don’t give up on something because you think it is too difficult. There is no such thing as “too difficult” for God. Maybe He will use the challenge to break you, and if so, Hallelujah!

May His strength be made perfect in your weakness.

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The Little Personality that Lives in my House

I get such a kick out of this girl.

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Julia turned 8 months on Saturday, and wow is she developing her own little personality!

I love watching her eyes and mouth open SO wide as she reaches…and rolls…and reaches…and army crawls… and reaches…until she finally grabs a hold of that tantalizing tag on the rug.

I love the enthusiasm with which she grabs my hair and pulls my cheek to her mouth when I say, “KISSES!!!!”

I love how she instantly starts bouncing her left heel on the table as soon as I put her in the Bumbo seat. Every time.

I love that little bottom lip that pops out when some strange adult is holding her and she sees her mommy take a step away.

I love how she sees me coming to pick her up and smiles so big that her pacifier falls out.

I love the random syllables she uses to talk to her toys.

I love the squinty-eyed, closed-lip giddy grin she puts on in the morning when she’s sitting in her pjs on the rug waiting for me to get dressed and spots me in the mirror.

I love how excited she is to grab her soft lovey bunny in her crib when I put her there for a nap.

I love how she bites her bottom lip as she bangs away on her little piano. As if she’s concentrating so hard to get those scales just right.

I love the little squeal of glee when I put her in the swing and say, “One…Two…Three…GO!!!”

I love the surprised little shout when, from her swing, she spots her Daddy in the distance, jogging another lap around the playground.

I love that little pursed-lip raised-eyebrows look she gives me from down in her stroller when we’re headed home after our evening walk that says, “This is nice, being outside and all, but will I be getting my bath when we get home? Just checking.”

I love the deep belly-laughs we shared tonight when she suddenly figured out what “splash” means and how to do it. Oh goodness, I haven’t laughed so much in ages! And I’ve never heard her giggle that hard, either!

I love how she goes from a squirmy wet bundle of giggles after bathtime, to the most peaceful, limp, precious sleeping face. I can’t resist kissing those cheeks one last time before surrendering her to the crib.

I love the person that little Julia Faith is becoming.

8 Ways to Turn Your Infant Into a (Musical) Genius

I’m turning up my music nerd side today, big time.

You’ve been warned.

Participation in music makes people smarter. I’m not just saying this- they’ve proven it! Babies love music for a reason – it stimulates their brains. The earlier you can get your child learning and experiencing music, the easier it will be for them to develop more advanced musical skills in the future, and the smarter they will be. This is why scores and scores of people sign themselves up for mommy and me music classes like Musikgarten and Kindermusic almost straight out of the womb! These classes are fantastic and I love them. But, they can be cost-prohibitive. I want to give you a few ideas that will help your baby develop her musical intelligence without costing you a cent.

Disclaimer: Despite the title of this blog post, I am making no guarantees that by following some magic 8-step plan, your baby will be the next Mozart. I am, however, a professional musician, trained music educator, and new mom, who has been trying all sorts of music-related activities with my 7-month-old based on what I know about music and how it affects the brain! Probably, after I have more kids and they’re all grown up and I actually see what works and what’s pointless, I’ll read this blog entry and say, “What was I thinking?” But until then, I will wallow in my ignorance and spew out a whole slew of ideas that may or may not actually be effective. And of course, if you have done some things with your little one that you have found to be fun, post it in the comments section! This list is by no means exhaustive.

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First things first – let me explain WHY music makes people smarter. Studies like this one have shown, time and time again, how playing and making music creates new kinds of connections in the brain that other activities can’t create. For example, you’ve probably heard of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left brain is our verbal center, where we use logic, reason, and math. The right brain is our creative and artistic center, where we get our intuition. The two hemispheres are connected by a group of neurons called the corpus callosum. Although many day-to-day tasks in life mostly require the use of only one hemisphere at a time, you need a well-developed corpus callosum in order to do things like solve big problems, make decisions based on varied information, and anything else that might use both sides of your brain simultaneously. To use both sides at once, you need a well-developed corpus callosum so that the two hemispheres can communicate. As you might guess, making music is an activity that develops is set of neurons. In fact, research like this has shown that the corpus callosum is far more developed in musicians than in non-musicians. So, that’s one way that music makes a person smarter!

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If the neurological evidence wasn’t enough to convince you that your child should learn music, the practical evidence will surely win you over. People who participate in music as a child end up with bigger salaries as adults, regardless of their career choice. I’m not even kidding – here’s proof. They do better in school (partly because they’re smarter, as we’ve already discussed), are more likely to attend graduate school, gain all sorts of communication and collaboration skills, and end up making more money!

So, are you sold yet? Now, this post is mainly geared toward parents of babies, since I am one. Obviously, my little girl has a long road ahead of her before she is able to even begin to play an instrument, read notes, understand music theory, and all of those wonderful things I can’t wait to teach her. But even though she’s only a half of a year old, I can start getting her ready to understand music right now. Just like you wouldn’t send a kid to 2nd grade without knowing the alphabet and expect her to be reading chapter books by October, you can’t expect a grade-schooler to be able to learn music notation in 2 weeks of music class without having had any previous structured musical experience.

Readiness. It’s what makes the world go around.

(At least according to my music ed professors in college. If you went to school with me, you know EXACTLY who I mean. 🙂

Music has two aspects: the rhythm side and the tonal side. In laymen’s terms, rhythm has to do with the beat and the pulse in the music, and the way the notes are timed in the big structure of things. Tonality has to do with the pitches, and how they relate to the center (key) as they make up the melody and the harmony and the accompaniment and all that stuff. In making your child ready to understand music, you have to treat rhythm and tonality separately. So, I’ve separated my activity ideas into those two categories – rhythm and tonality.

The good news is that people learn music the exact same way that they learn language. Babies start off learning a language by repeating back the little patterns they hear – “Ba ba ba” and “gooo gooo goo” etc. Soon, they start recognizing words (like their own name) and associating some of these syllables with actual meaning. For example, we’ve just gotten to the point where little Julia has started saying “Ma ma ma” when she is hungry. It is years later in the process when a child learns the symbols associated with the words they already know (letters and written words.) In the same way, learning music doesn’t start with learning the written notes on the staff – that “symbolic association” skill should come very last. Learning music starts as simply as hearing and feeling rhythmic and tonal patterns, and then (maybe) repeating them back. This might be as far as you can really get with a 7-month-old, but it’s vitally important in their musical development! So let’s face it. Julia is not ready to compose a symphony. BUT, here are some little things I can do with her to develop her corpus callosum and get her ready for the big stage one day:

A. RHYTHM

1. Keep a Steady Beat – This is the most important thing. Ever. Now (before age 1) is your window of opportunity to help your child learn to internalize a steady beat. They have to FEEL this beat, not just hear it. So, whenever there is music playing, bounce, tap, or move your baby to the beat. I’m not talking about the rhythm of the words, but the BEAT – the steady pulse that keeps going through the whole song. Put them on your lap or between your legs, and let the bouncing begin! I’m not kidding when I tell you that I started teaching Julia how to keep a steady beat before she was even born. When there was loud music that I knew she would hear in the womb (and my hands weren’t busy conducting or playing the piano), I would often tap my belly to the beat so that she would feel that dependable pulse upon which all rhythmic meters are based. Steady beat is that important, I tell you.

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2. Move, move, move! Music is supposed to move us – literally. Our bodies help our brains focus and make sense of what we hear. When we use our whole bodies, it is easier to “feel” the beat and the form of a song. So, dance with your baby! Move their arms and legs in time with the music!

3. Focus on the Form. As you are moving to the beat, think about the different parts of the song to which you’re listening. Is there a repeated phrase or melody? If so, do the same thing with your little one every time you get to that section. For example, if you’re bouncing along to the beat of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” wave her little hands in the air every time you get to “E-I-E-I-O.” Doing the same thing with her arms when she hears the same thing with her ears will help your child pick up on repeated patterns.

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4. Stick with classical and folk (children’s) music. I love pop songs, but most melodies written in the last 30 years have syncopated rhythms, so the accents in the words often don’t fall on the main beats. This can make it confusing for a child who is trying to feel a steady beat for the first time.

B. TONALITY

5. Match pitch – When your baby makes those super-cute natural vocalizations, try to find where she’s “singing” with your own voice! You may find yourself singing pretty high, but that’s okay – those tiny vocal chords make high pitches a lot easier than our grown-up ones do. When you’ve found the notes that your baby is making, try singing something up there. Even if it’s just a little “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” your baby will start discriminating between pitches, and be encouraged to keep making singing noises. This is how how all famous singers got their start, right? Your little one will start hearing the difference between high sounds and low sounds, and will begin picking up on some of those tonal patterns – the “words” that will eventually make up her tonal vocabulary.

6. Experiment with timbre. Everything makes a sound. Ever notice how babies are fascinated by anything that makes noise? That’s because their little ears are learning how to listen! Listening skills are vital to music and to life in general. As a parent, you can help your baby listen critically by letting her experience slight variations in sounds (we call this “timbre”). Give her a plastic bowl to tap with her hands, and show her how the sound changes ever so subtly when she hits another part of the bowl. Take the same toy and let her tap it against various objects around her – most likely, she’ll be fascinated. And by all means, let your kid bang on that piano! There’s no better way for her to experience tonality and timbre hands-on as she bangs up and down the keyboard. Go ahead and use words like “high” and “low,” “loud” and “soft” when you are talking to your baby through these activities.

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7. Sing to your baby! Do I even need to say this? It doesn’t matter if you are a professional opera singer or a self-proclaimed tone deaf…SING!!! All the time!!! First of all, the more you sing, the better YOU’LL get at singing. But more importantly, your baby needs you, the most important person in her life, to model the tonal and rhythmic patterns that make up the world of music. You talk to your baby so that she learns language, right? Well, you have to sing to your baby for her to learn music! Sing your favorite songs. Sing your mom’s favorite songs. Sing that commercial jingle that’s stuck in your head. Sing made-up songs. And you may find yourself singing the same things at certain points in your routine, and that’s good. Long before Julia could recognize the sentence “Let’s change your diaper,” she recognized the little song I sang every time we were at the changing table. Music can help your baby make sense of her world.

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8. Listen to repetitious music. Okay, maybe you’ll end up wishing to do something cruel and unusual to whatever sick person decided to put those ninety-nine bottles of pop on the wall. But by listening to music that has catchy, repetitious melodic elements, your baby will easily start picking up on the tonal patterns that make up western music. They learn the meaning of words by hearing them in all sorts of different sentences, right? Later, when those musical patterns show up in piano lessons or music class at school, your child will recognize them quickly because she will have been listening to them all her life! She’ll be READY. And it’s all about readiness, remember.

That’s all for now, folks, so let the commenting begin! I’m sure you have some more ideas about how to develop your baby’s brain through music. So if you’ve tried something, and it was fun, leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts!