I AM NOT AN OBJECT- ONE GIRL’S STORY

I learned a lot by going to a strip club every week for over a year.  So much about my view of people and faith changed because of what I saw there. I was no longer able to label strippers as throw aways because of their choices and I learned as  much about my brokenness as they shared theirs.  Instead of being disgusted by the women in the sex industry, I became more compassionate and more determined to get to know them and hear their stories. I say that not to reveal my deeply loving heart but to expose that if a judgmental and  sheltered (by choice) person like me could become aware and eventually an activist then anyone could.

In the midst of going to the strip club, “sex trafficking” became a buzz word. Because I am a skeptic and refuse to jump on the newest and latest social justice train (because they are all equally important), I was not affected much by the new headlines about the industry. Wasn’t it just as serious before we started talking about it and wasn’t third world poverty still an important social issue? During this time I became more determined that I was not called to join a committee to talk about it or go to a banquet to acquire awareness. I felt like I knew enough about the tragedy to go out and do something about it so to the club we went.

All the clubs have their own unique atmospheres but there is one common theme- darkness.

Walking in the door I could  feel the oppression. The greed and the lust. But mysteriously at the same time I felt the presence of God’s light in a mighty way.  It was as if  the room was begging for the light but rebuking it all at the same time.

Within the first hour I spent at a strip club, I began to see a calling….and it was just so simple. Love these women. Show them that there was hope and that they had options. Just BE PRESENT. Listening and encouraging. And for the next year that is what we did.

I did not go in to the club to shut the place down. I never was looking for illegal activity to bring in the police. That was not my job. I was there to look at women in the eye and tell them they were important and their lives mattered. From there I knew God would take care of the rest.

During the time we were going we had some amazing conversations with women about worth and value. We also talked about our families and our struggles. I did not only see their brokenness. I also saw my own….my  insecurities that lead me to destructive behavior. It might not be taking off my clothes for money but I had my own pile of shattered pieces. Over the loud music, the lights and the pole, we had some sacred times sharing our hearts.

One of the women at the club intrigued me. Her name was Jasmine and everyone said that was her real name, not her stage name. There was a softness about her spirit and a humility that baffled me.  Since we went during the day and she often worked nights I did not see her often but her name came up a lot with the women and it always seemed positive.

Here she is on her first day at the club.

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Then a year ago, Jasmine (who is actually Ashley)  showed up at my house, scared, broken and seeking advice. When she came in the door I immediately felt that all those years in the club had led me to this conversation. She wanted out of the industry and was willing  to do what it would take. I have heard this story a lot so we set some goals to see if she was really serious.

She stayed at the club for several more months and was planning her exit strategy. What struck me about her was that she had a plan- cosmetology school, joining an in home business, and getting by on less cash flow. It really caught my attention that she was taking action to get where she wanted to be.

At the time she left the club,  she was pregnant so getting a job was difficult. We spent time together brainstorming money making strategies. We started having yard sales and at 8 months pregnant she would be out in the blazing heat sorting clothes and making deals. She started collecting people’s yard sale leftovers and selling them in Facebook groups. She would walk across town to deliver something and  it would be for $10. Soon people I know started to see her posts and donate more.

Then a realtor friend of mine let us go into homes she had on the market and sell what the previous owners did not take with them. Our first house Ashley helped me clean out was an all day endeavor and she insisted on helping. Her baby was 4 days old. Then the next house she got a cleaning job. They offered her $100. She said she would have done it for $20 because it was so much better than what she had to do at the club.

I saw a strength in her I knew I did not have. It was a fight in her to stay the course and integrate into a different way of life. Even though she had adapted for 8 years  into the lifestyle  in the club, she had come to the conclusion that she did not fit there and there had to be something more for her and her family. I watched as each week she got a little stronger and a little more comfortable in her own skin.

As I got to know her she told me her story. She was 19, working at Zaxby’s, with a 2 year old baby, living with her parents, and a friend from her childhood told her how she could make more money. She went to the club and as she looks back she not only appreciated the money but she said it “was fun.” Hanging out with the other women during day shift and drinking was a whole lot more intriguing than chicken tenders at $8 an hour. For a girl who struggled with anxiety and shame, she suddenly felt like “somebody.”   The club became a “second home.”  She did not have any friends outside the club so her social life revolved around the friends she made there and the excessive partying that took place each day and night.

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The money was great in the beginning because she was the “new girl.”  The older men are often drawn to young  girls who could be their granddaughters. Sad but true. Meanwhile Ashley became an alcoholic and could not raise the 2 children she  had so her parents stepped in and raised them. This lifestyle went on for the next 8 years.

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Last year there was a shift in her. She decided she could not stomach it anymore and began to disconnect. She was pregnant but she could have stayed working there- she worked throughout her last pregnancy.  “It is very dark. Dark world. It’s a whole other world inside those buildings and it starts to feel normal.” Then in February 2016 she walked out the door and has not gone back.

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I always wonder what keeps her from going back when the cupboards are bare and the bills are due and she simply says,  “I see there are better ways. I don’t want to live that lifestyle anymore. For the first time in my adult life I feel  respected.  When you work in a club, you never expect anyone to treat you nice because you feel so low about yourself.”  Her favorite verse which is tattooed on her foot is

2 Corinthians 5:7 “For we live by faith, not by sight.”

 

Ashley often quoted “I am not an object” when she was working in the club but her job required her to be an object for someone else to take advantage of….. but now she says, “I don’t feel like an object anymore. When you are in that industry you are not a person. You are not a girl. Just an object.”

It has not been easy. She has humbled herself to get food from church pantries and sell other people’s throw away stuff to make enough to help pay the bills. She can’t spoil her children anymore or buy expensive make up. But she is doing it. One yard sale item at a time she is  taking care of her children with the help of her boyfriend and parents, who are very supportive of her.  After being in an industry that is all about money, sex and drugs she has discovered that giving back has a much bigger impact on her than anything else ever did. In the midst of her own struggle I have seen her become one of the most generous and giving people I know. She attributes it all to how God has changed her because she could not have done this on her own. He rescued her from darkness and brought her into light.

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I have told Ashley several times that although I keep a healthy distance between me and the women I help, she is different. She and her family have moved from being a friend to someone I consider a part of my own family. Her tenacity and her endurance amaze me and I often think she is teaching me way more than I am her. People like Ashley change those of us who are willing to give them a chance. Our lives are richer because we see a strength that we have never known in ourselves.  It is turning pain into purpose. Shifting from surviving to truly living. You can see it in her face, the way she carries herself, but most of all you can see it in her eyes. She has come alive again.

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Moms, it is time…..

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As moms, we need each other.

We need each other when our kids are sitting quietly eating their ice cream while we talk to the insurance company for the 20th time in a day. We also need each other when our kids are running the aisles at Marshall’s farting and burping, calling each other butt faces. Either way….we need each other.

Today I watched a phenomenon….a mom giving birth to kittens. A feral mom we picked up last night and delivered her litter this morning. Hmmmm…..talk about not being ready for the delivery. I hadn’t even named her and she had now blessed my favorite blanket with afterbirth. That experience will bond a human and a cat very quickly. I have witnessed my share of kitty births but today’s was a huge awakening for me.

The mama kitty ( who my 5th grade vet techs named Amber)  had her first baby under my bed while I was in the other room drinking my morning coffee this morning. She did not pick the cozy nest I had made for her and she certainly was not deterred by the wads of dust bunnies in her newly made birthing center. As I dragged her out from under the bed with placentas and umbilical cords still hanging on, there was a kitten in a sack that she had not opened.  The kitten was struggling to breathe on his own but Amber was not tending to him. I broke open the sack, called my fellow doula, Kim, and rubbed it vigorously to try to revive him. Meanwhile, Amber was not eating the placentas or licking the other babies the way I know she was supposed to. My other new found doula friend, Mary Lucia, proceeded to suction one of the babies’ mouths because Amber was not able to keep up with the eating, nursing, licking, and birthing. No judgement here- I just pushed mine out and it did not require I eat something that looks like someone’s liver….and do it 4 times. Ewwwww…..

In my panic, I was frustrated with Amber that she was not doing what “all the other kitty moms were doing.” Didn’t she take childbirth classes? Didn’t she know it’s unacceptable to give birth under a dusty bed? Didn’t she know that neglecting the sick baby and not give it a chance was inexcusable?

Well, Amber came from a home of cat hoarders and lived outside in a neighborhood for a long time before a sweet lady decided to feed her and care for her until she found a home. Amber did not have a place to relax until 5:00 yesterday. She probably was plain tired of running from coyotes and male cats trying to hit her up and giving birth to these babies just felt like one more exhausting task. So after she had them all she curled up on the bookshelf and fell asleep. She needed a nap and she needed me to put them on her to nurse because she wasn’t ready for that part quite yet.

And in the 24 hours we have had her, she screeched all last night when she could not see me so I slept on the floor beside her so she felt safe. Since the babies have been born, when I reach out to pet her she puts her paw on top of my hand and falls asleep- she can rest knowing someone is there. She has needy moments of wanting her belly rubbed and head scratched, while my other cats were all too busy being moms to want attention for themselves. She still wants to be held and loved so she knows it is going to be ok.

How many moms do you know like Amber? Maybe they don’t have it “all together” and they yell too much or they aren’t “pulling their weight with the PTO”. Maybe they bring their kids to school in the same uniform shirt 3 days in a row and never make it to parent nights with all you “good mommies.”

Well, maybe just maybe those moms you were just judging need someone to show them. Someone to model parenting for them. Someone to be compassionate and understanding.

We take for granted that we have cars. Most moms don’t and the bus stops running at 5:15. No bus to go to the open house.

We take for granted that we have washing machines. Without cars, most moms have to load up the kids and the laundry and get on the bus. Oh that’s right….the bus does not run after 5:15 so she will walk to the laundromat.

We take for granted that our parents did not introduce us to drugs as children. Most addicts I know were giving drugs BY THEIR PARENTS.  Usually starting at the age of 12. If you don’t believe me, I have many women who can tell you their stories.

We take for granted that we can get jobs. When a mom gives a kid a joint at 12, grades probably start to slip so by high school they are dropouts. Ever tried to get a job with a 9th grade education?

When a child gets into her mom’s cocaine supply at 14 because they are dealers and it is all over the house, she will probably be a full blown addict by 15 and start to steal to support the habit. Ever tried to get a house or apartment to rent with drug charges?

Many moms, like my cat Amber, are children themselves. Desperate for attention and acceptance. They want someone to share their victories with  (first place of their own, first legitimate driver’s license, first month clean). And to share their heartbreaks (bad news at court, relationship problems, not getting to see their children).

Why is it our nature to judge and reject? Because to have compassion might require something of us. It might make us tender and make us feel….and God will call us to rise up and be THE CHURCH.

A little girl explained to me recently that she worries that her mommy won’t have enough money to take care of them and they will go to foster care. Her eyes widened as I explained to her the early church  in the book of Acts. They sold all their possessions to give to those in need. In that moment, I think she got it. My dining room table could be gone next week to help them pay their rent.

But when are WE going to get it? That our lives are not our own and that there is a desperately dying world out there crying out for help? You might not hear their cries because they are not chatting in the carline (because they don’t have a car) or sitting next to you at Outback (most of them have never eaten at a restaurant where the menu is not on the wall).  Or darkening the door of your churches (they have been led to believe that your sin is much cleaner than theirs and they would not be welcome in your pew or your gym). Or at the gym  or Target (no explanation needed).

We can’t do it all but we can do something. At any season of life and at any level of our own maturity we can make a meal, listen to a discouraged mom, or drive a mom to an appointment so she can get to work on time. We can all do that.

We fear what we don’t know….and we don’t know because we don’t want to.

If we are really honest, we want to shy away from poverty, brokenness, addicition, and prostitution because it is ugly and it messes up our day. It requires us to take our eyes off our dirty clothes piles and our need for order in our lives and forces us to go deep. Who wakes up one day and wishes that upon themselves? Well, if I am reading Jesus the right way….we all should.

So many moms out there never had a mom and if they did she sucked really bad. We are a generation of moms who have something to offer and it was not intended to be only poured out on our own offspring. We were given this nurturing ability to share it.  To pass it on. To break the cycle of abuse and neglect.

The day we decide to invest our lives in someone else’s  two lives will change and I promise that the first one to change will be yours.

Pain, Purpose, and Compassion

 

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Today I have struggled. Struggled with my own insecurities.  Struggled with mean, insensitive remarks from a stranger. Struggled with missing my best friend because we are always busy. Struggled with watching my friends deal with deep pain and hurts. Struggled with a friend who lost her dad. Struggled with feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. So what did I do? Cry all afternoon. Cried by myself and cried with four different people.  I was only awake for 14 hours. How so much pain and suffering?

Why tears?

I am one of those people who often cries at the sight of someone else’s tears. I guess it does not do wonders to make the person feel better when they have to offer ME a tissue. Now keep in mind I live in the land of boys and men….who don’t cry often. We do have the occasional moments of emotion but not like my estrogen infested self.

One of my sons literally walked in my room today while I was curled up in the fetal position boohooing, carried on an entire conversation with me about where one of the cats was, and walked out. REALLY?? No clue.  The others just look at me with a glazed over, what-do-I-do-now expression of helplessness. As baffled as they are about me, I am not sure what to do with dry ice exploding, lizard torturing, snake handling slobs so I guess we are even. Somehow in the crazy world, we make it work. I decided that when they are being crazy I can hide in the bathroom and pretend I know nothing and they can eat a cheeseburger when I am crying at a commercial and we can carry on. Disclaimer: I have very sensitive boys when I let them in on something  sad and tragic and they are very compassionate…but when it is a case of I-am-crying-because-of-the-state-of-the-world they really don’t have a category and I would rather cry into my blanket than explain what I don’t even understand for myself.

So as I try to make some kind of sense about my highly emotional self,  I seek Scripture.

“Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.”

Romans 12:15-16

First God says to embrace our friends’ happiness. That is the easy part. We all want to be around the people whose lives are going well. But what about the friends struggling, wandering, falling, and grieving? The friends who needs love from us when we don’t know if we have it to give? God says, “Share tears when they’re down.” Sometimes we have to engage in a cry fest together and we can’t even determine what are tears for us and what are for the other person.  That is the heart of God-sharing our burdens one to another and to Him.

The next part of that verse that tells us to get along with each other and “don’t be stuck-up.” What is worse than sharing your burdens with someone who acts as if she has it all together? It is horrible! And if I make the mistake of doing it once I certainly don’t do it twice. If we are not in tune with our own brokenness people avoid us and are fake around us. And a lot of people are good with that. Let’s face it- most people don’t want to hear other people’s problems because it might actually remind them that they have problems too. So relationships are then shallow and superficial so that emotions are not felt and both people lose out in that “friendship.”

“Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.” That sounds like my new tattoo. But seriously. It is such good, rich words! I am not a theologian and I don’t know any of the Bible in Greek (except the Greek alphabet from being in a sorority) but I do know this:

Make friends with nobodies. Don’t be the great somebody.

Now that I can do. Don’t need a concordance or a theology class to go love somebody who is broken and hurting. I know how to do that because I am broken and hurting.  A lot. If I don’t know my own pain how can I know someone else’s? And the part about not being the great somebody….I think that means we need to stop thinking that we are the answer to people’s problems.  Jesus is. As we lead people to the cross, we lead them to healing. Divine healing.

So this week I may be a slobbering, hot mess and if you are too….call me. We can be real and honest together. If you want a put together friend with all the answers….don’t call me. You will just be disappointed. When we all realize we are broken and learn to love because of it, NOT in spite of it…we will share kindness like we are made of it. I think I stole that from Bob Goff but it’s ok because LOVE DOES.

Pain into purpose and then always comes compassion.

 

Will Anyone Want Me?

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My name is Tippy. I am 3 months old and I am a kitten. They say I am a FOSTER kitten and that means I am waiting for my forever home. I did not know I was a foster kitten until Miss Jennie told me. I just thought I was a kitten who got moved all the time because no one wanted me. Last Tuesday, Miss Jennie put me in her lap, gave me a few yummy treats, and started to tell me the story and here is how it went…..

My mom was named Bella and she was a cat called a “stray”- that means she did not have a family. She grew up on the streets and got scraps of food wherever she could. Every night she tried to find a dry, safe place to sleep under bushes or bridges. Sometimes she would find bowls of food on people’s porches and she would try to eat a little bit but the owners always chased her off. Miss Jennie said my mom always wondered why the other cats had warm beds and owners who loved them and all the food they wanted. My mom always felt like maybe her colors weren’t pretty enough or she was too skinny or she meowed too loudly. She could never understand how those other cats could get people to love them and take care of them and she couldn’t.

One day my mom started to feel funny and she curled up in the back of an old barn on a farm with lots of horses, pigs, and cows and laid very still. Suddenly she realized she was having BABIES! That is when I was born. I came out first and then  my 2 sisters and 2 brothers. There were 5 of us in all. We were all black and white. I bet my mom had a hard time telling us apart!

Miss Jennie said my mom was really young when she had us and maybe she was not ready to be a mom. Momma cats are supposed to feed their babies and lick them clean every few hours, but the farmer, Mr. Ted, who found us told Miss Jennie what happened. When we were 5 days old our mom left us because she “couldn’t take care of us anymore.”  I asked Miss Jennie to tell me the truth of why she took off.  With a very sad look on her face, Miss Jennie told me that she left to go play with the other cats and have fun with her friends. I asked Miss Jennie why she would  choose her friends over us and this is what she said:

“Your mom loved you the way she knew how. She was never taken care of by her mom growing up so she never learned what  a good mommy did. When your mom was very young, she was left on the streets to take care of herself and when the animal control people tried to catch her she always ran very fast and hid under cars and in sheds.  She got pregnant with you when she was just a kitten herself and she wasn’t ready to have babies. After 5 days of taking care of you,  she got scared of the responsibility and she ran away.  Leaving you was not right but she did just what her mom did to her.  It was what she knew.  I hope you can forgive her someday. I promise she did not mean to hurt you. I know she loved you all very much and I bet she misses you a lot.”

When my mom left us, my brothers and sisters and I had no way to get food or stay clean. The farmer and his wife, Nelda,  were nice enough to take us into their home for 25 days and feed us with a bottle. She rocked us and smoothed our fur. When Miss Jennie was telling me this story, she pulled out a little book with my name TIPPY written across the front of it. When I saw my name, I jumped up and started leaping toward the book.  “Is that about me?” I asked, stuttering as I spoke because I was so excited. “Yes,” Miss Jennie answered. For the first time I saw a picture of me and my brothers and sisters!

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“Ms. Nelda started a Lifebook for you and when Ms. Donna dropped you off she gave it to me. It has pictures and stories about you and that is where I got some of the information I am telling you now. Unfortunately, I only got 3 life books from the shelter for you and your brothers and sisters. I guess 2 of them got lost. That makes me sad but I am glad we got a few of them at least. A lot of kitties don’t have anyone to make a Lifebook for them.” When Miss Jennie showed me the picture of Ms. Nelda rocking and feeding me, I remembered feeling all warm and full and I was happy I had a picture so I would never forget.

Miss Jennie put down the book and continued telling me my story.  She said that one day Miss Nelda  got really sick and had to go to the hospital. Mr. Ted wanted to keep us but he had to take care of Miss Nelda when she came home from the hospital hooked up to a lot of machines. They cried as they put us in the big box and took us to a place called an “animal shelter.” Mr. Tom told the shelter that I had been so worried about Ms. Nelda that I had stopped eating for 3 days. He was very concerned about me and asked the shelter to watch me very closely.

At the shelter, there were cats EVERYWHERE! Big cats, little cats, black ones, gray ones, and it was scary!! My brothers and sisters and I got separated into different rooms. Miss Jennie said I must have been very scared because I did not know if my brothers and sisters  were ok and I was the oldest kitten so I probably felt like it was my job to make sure we were all safe. As she said these words, I did remember feeling responsible for them and trying to sleep all the time just to forget how difficult it was.

 

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Miss Jennie said that someone came in and fed us with a bottle like they did on the farm and stroked our fur like Miss Nelda did, but it was so crowded and loud that she thought it probably wasn’t the same. As soon as Miss Jennie told me that part I suddenly remembered how I had felt for those long weeks at the shelter… I just wanted my mom to come back and get me.  But she never came. I sat and waited and looked at the door but she never showed up. Was she worried about me and my brothers and sisters? I thought maybe I wasn’t a good kitty and she had to leave to get away from me. Or maybe someone took her into one of those big houses with the warm beds and loving people so she forgot about us. No matter what anyone told me I was sure of one thing…..She was coming back. I knew it. When I started to think about it, I felt like I was going to cry. It made me feel really sad inside so I quickly asked Miss Jennie to continue with the story so I would not think about it anymore.

Miss Jennie opened my Lifebook again and it said:  “Tippy and his brothers and sisters had been at the shelter for 28 days and they really needed a family to come adopt them.” She showed me a picture of when I was in the cage waiting for someone to take me and I looked really nervous about what was going to happen to us. I remembered how other kittens were getting taken away from the shelter and no one ever picked me or my brothers and sisters. I had tried to sit up straight and meow really softly but the people always kept walking past my cage and did not even notice me. Maybe that was how my mom felt when she was a stray. Did that mean I was a stray too?

 

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Mr. Tom came back to check on us and the people at the shelter were on the phone talking about the 5 of us and how we needed to be rescued before it was too late. “Too late for what?” asked Mr. Tom. He waited at the shelter all day to make sure nothing bad happened to us. At 4:00 that afternoon, a lady came in, rushing and trying to catch her breath. She told the shelter that  she was there for me and my brothers and sisters. She said she was with a rescue and she was there to save us.

“STOP!!” I interrupted Miss Jennie. “I can tell you what happened during this part.  Ms. Donna was the lady’s name and she was very kind and sweet to us but I was super nervous about where we was going. Maybe we were going to be dropped off under a bridge somewhere and I would live like my mom did. I was ok with that though because maybe I would find her! I missed my mom so much.  I knew it would be hard to take care of the 5 of us but I had been looking after them since my mom left and I was getting pretty good at it. Even at the shelter I would listen to what the volunteers were saying to each other and was able to hear updates on my brothers and sisters.”

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I continued, “Ms. Donna took us to her house and there were other kittens there too but not nearly as many as the shelter. What a relief! She had big cats and little cats and they were friendly to us but I could tell they were wondering who we were. They had been there longer so they ate first and knew where to go to the litter box. I was confused about everything because it was all so new and I didn’t want to make a mistake and then I knew I would be a stray forever.”

“I tried to keep myself very clean and only eat a little bit so the other cats at Ms. Donna’s would not get mad at me and try to get me kicked out. I thought that I would stay at Ms. Donna’s for a long time but after 3 days she put us back in the big box and we left in the car. This time I knew I would be dropped off under the bridge. How many times could I move before they just dumped me somewhere?”

“You remember all that, Tippy?” Miss Jennie asked. “You were so young then! But research tells us that when young kittens experience a lot of loss and sadness when they are little those memories stay with them. They call what you went through “trauma” which means it was very difficult and you had a hard time understanding why it happened.”

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I replied, “Miss Jennie, will I always remember all the bad things that happened to me and not be able to remember the good?” Miss Jennie rubbed my head and said, “Maybe we will find someone you can talk to. They have people who let you come to their offices and play and talk. I think you would like it. It is called therapy. We can talk more about that later.”

I continued telling Miss Jennie the rest of the story. “Ms. Donna stopped the car in the parking lot at Target and we waited. A few minutes later a lady in a silver car pulled up and told Ms. Susan that she would take good care of us.

Opening the Lifebook I saw a selfie of Miss Jennie and the 5 of us in the parking lot getting ready to leave for her house. All that was going through my head was…..We were going to another home? I guessed that was better than the bridge but why did we have to keep moving? Did nobody want us?

 

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From here Miss Jennie and I were both reminiscing about how we met. She would talk and I would interrupt. Together our stories went like this….

Miss Jennie brought us all home and we got to meet her other cats- Brady, Ollie, Gracie, Noodle, and her dog, Tucker. She had 3 sons and a husband at home and again I was very confused. Would these people like me? Would they treat me well and feed me? Gracie’s kitten, Noodle, was busy drinking her mother’s milk when we got there. I tried to remember drinking my mom’s milk and I was sad that I was starting to forget even what my mom looked like, how she smelled, and what she sounded like when she purred. When I saw Noodle drinking her mom’s milk I got really jealous for a minute because I thought Noodle must be a better kitty than me because his mom did not leave him all alone. It made me wonder again what I had done wrong.

We watched the other cats and figured out where the litter box was and when Miss Jennie put down that yummy food from the can for us. After a few days, I started to learn the routine but I was way too scared to let the people hold me and if they even looked at me I ran away. I thought if they did not see me they might forget I was there and let me stay. I did not want them to think I was too much trouble so I hid most of the time under the couch until I had to go to the bathroom or get some water.

Then one day my sister went up to Gracie and started to drink her milk. Wasn’t Noodle going to be mad? Nope! Noodle moved over and let my sister drink the milk too. The next day all my brothers and sisters and I drank Gracie’s milk and it was the first time I could remember another cat showing me love like a mom does!  Gracie also licked us and watched to make sure she knew where we were and that we were safe. I was so happy! I wanted her to be my momma cat but I think she already had her own babies and probably did not need more but I was so relieved that she accepted us.

After we  were there for 4 weeks, Miss Jennie started talking to Mr. Kenny about finding us new homes. What??  Move again? No way. I was running away or I was going to be such a bad cat that no one else would take me and they would have to keep me here. I decided to start scratching everywhere, running around crazy and pooping in the middle of the floor so none of Miss Jennie’s friends would want to take me away.

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Miss Jennie could tell that I was not acting like myself and sat me down to explain. She said her job as a foster mom is to take kittens like me and clean them up, love on them, take them to the doctor, and then find them FOREVER homes. Is that how all the cats with people owners got to their homes? She said this big word- ADOPTION. I had never heard that word before! Miss Jennie said adoption means you to go to your forever family. WOW! Did that mean I could go to a family and never, ever have to move again? It sounded way too good to be true. I thought Mr. Tom was going to take me forever, then the shelter, Ms. Susan, and Miss Jennie…..if they did not want me who would?

Ms. Jennie tied these crazy bows around our necks and started taking LOTS of pictures. I almost fell asleep she took so many. When I saw them I was surprised at how handsome I looked!!

 

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Afterwards, she told me she was very, very careful about who would take us. She would not let bad people adopt us and she would check to make sure our new home was safe, they had food for us and would love us. I still was not sure any of them would want me. I had that funny white spot on the tip of my tail which may be the reason no one had wanted me before.

Miss Jennie told me again that I would get the perfect family and that they would come get me soon. I thanked her for telling me everything and I jumped down to play with my brothers and sisters.

The next day, Miss Jennie brought in a box with 2 really little kittens who kept crying and crying. I could tell they were hungry and I felt very sad for them. While Miss Jennie was getting their bottle ready, I started to wonder if I was sad like that when my mom left and I did not have her to feed me. I imagined that I was just as scared. So I jumped right in the box with the little kittens and licked them and helped them get warm and cozy. Miss Jennie kept taking pictures of me and I am not sure why- I was just doing what Gracie had done for me.

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I am writing my life story today, August 6, 2016 and I am waiting for my forever family. I am not sure who it will be but I think I am starting to trust Miss Jennie. If she says she will find a family for me, maybe I can believe her. When she talks to me about being adopted, I get a little excited. I don’t want to think about it too much just in case it never happens but I think it would be amazing to have my own family. All I can do is wait. I hope someone picks me. I would be a really good pet. I promise.

 

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The Photographs that Changed Me

domestic violence is never ok

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the gift of a son

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truth

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total acceptance

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I want to be a Marine like you, Dad…..

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The poorest of the poor and she wants to be a missionary

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I can do it too, Grandpa….

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life is complicated

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the beauty of age

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proud mama

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the pain of feeling emotion for the first time

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recognition for being a dreamer

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art brings life

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i will not fear voodoo

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buddy ball might be the best sports event ever

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showing mom what she missed while                                         he was in foster care

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Gifted

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a bond that cannot be broken

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courage to be a Dad….a true Dad

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the mountains are calling and I must go

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losing a 17 year old son will change you forever

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growth can happen in the most unlikely places

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beauty never ceases to be amazing

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you can never have too many sons

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when you cannot afford school you sell potatoes

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needs no explanation….

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a good coach is a one of the truest blessings

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the beauty of a cat thrown away

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leaving the old ways and returning back to them

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To all my friends who struggle with addiction

 

To all my friends who struggle with addiction:

I see you struggle. I mean I really SEE you. I REALLY see you. I really see YOU.

Sometimes I look into your eyes and I sense that you feel invisible. Like you are damaged and not worth a glance or a simple hello. As if you have shut off the part of you that feels because you have deemed yourself unworthy. I want you to know that I KNOW you are worthy of love, second chances, and long conversations where I hear your story. And you know what? Your story makes my head spin- all that you have been through and that you have survived. But you know what else your story does? It gives me compassion. Empathy. It helps me not judge you. It shows me how hard it has been and how brave you are when you surrender to a life of recovery. I think everyday what it would be like to have experienced a drug that makes you feel so free inside and how hard it would be to quit. That is why I never tried it- I was terrified I would not be able to walk away from it. I have an addictive personality too. I am hot or cold. Black or white. I would be an addict if I had been offered it like you have been at 10 or 11 years old. So to this day I have never experimented with any drug but that does not make me any better than you- it just means my rebellion looked different. But no better.

Sometimes you look at me like I have everything and what would I know of man problems, financial problems, parenting problems. I absolutely have dealt with all of these….I am just a little farther down the path of life than you because I am OLD compared to most of you.  I have been through my insecure twenties, my child rearing thirties and somehow in my forties I finally feel like my skin fits and that I am exactly who God created me to be- quite rough around the edges, clumsy, and downright weird but those all feel as if they fit perfectly like a well worn glove. I don’t know what it is like to struggle exactly like you do but I do understand what joblessness, loneliness, and really ugly parenting seasons look like. Boy do I ever.

Sometimes I wonder how you survive recovery. So many meetings, so many rules, and the marks for the messy rooms……yikes! But you are brave and you take it head on. I know you stumble through it and fall back into bad patterns but I also know you wake up every day and face the addiction and the control that the drug has over you at times. I am in awe that you can learn bus routes, day care, housing, funding, job hunts with the cards stacked against you, court, case plans, visitation……it is so much. But you know you have to do it for survival.  You know the stakes are high and you could lose your kids forever so you do it.

Sometimes I watch you slip away into the world of relapse and I feel helpless. I want you to know that you are better than that drug but you do not yet believe it for yourself. So you take one hit and then another and before you realize it you are back in your addiction. I hate that. I hate the drug. But I still love you.  When you are in the midst of it, I won’t come around or give you rides because you are not a safe person to me when you are using…..but when you are ready to face recovery again I will always be there to give you clean clothes and a ride to rehab. I promise.

And when you celebrate your one year anniversary for your sobriety and you want a cake, I will bake one for you or have a friend do it. And when you get your kids back, I will rejoice with you. When you move into your first place after rehab, I will wake up every few hours to pray for you.

I say all of this not to sound like Mother Theresa but to tell you that you matter a whole lot. You are worth fighting for. You and I don’t fit into a pretty perfect box and that is what makes us beautiful and cherished. We all want to be known. I want you to know my struggles and I want to know yours. I want us to know each other when we are old. I hope that if you relapse and I have to say hard things to you, you will one day realize it was all in love and I have not abandoned you.

I see you. And I think you are beautiful and smart and courageous. I know you fight a battle against addiction every day but you are worth the fight. You have to want it or it is too big and will take over your life. But we all want it for you- your kids want it for you. We are here to fight alongside you but you have to be the strongest warrior. God is bigger than the addiction and much more loving than I am or anyone else walking with you through this. He wants to see you win the fight. Light must break through the darkness. God has given you that light to lead you through the dark days. Don’t let that light grow dim. And if it does? Pick up the phone and call us. Hunt us down. You have to be able to ask for help. We want to be there. Will you let us? Or will you assume we will let you down like everyone in your other world did? We are not perfect but we will try. In our own brokenness we will love you the best way we know how if you give us the chance. Don’t assume that because we have not been where you have that we don’t have anything to offer. We have struggled and lost battles and gotten back up to fight it again and again. Some of us are losing battles you don’t even know about. Pray for those of us who you see as “clean” because a lot of us don’t see ourselves that way.

We need you. We need you to keep it real. Tell us how it really is. What to look for in our kids so we will know if they are experimenting with drugs. We need you to show us that the struggle is real and you are not going to let it defeat you.

You are a gift to me. I won’t speak for the whole world because I know a lot of people will never give you a chance….but do not give up. You will rise from these ashes and show them that addiction did not get the best of you and God will get the glory. You keep fighting, girl. And don’t you let your guard down for one day. It is in you to be a conquerer so now it is time to go do it.

 

The Process of Stripping

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In the past five years,  everything about me has changed (most significantly in the past two). Some have called it “mid life crisis” but since it is not a crisis, it was “transition.”  I have been called a hoarder, crazy cat lady, insane, and often given no words because people are speechless. I really don’t seek out these descriptions or even like them; however, they are all true.

It has really been a process of stripping. Stripping me of insecurities, Feelings of inferiority. Fear of being a nobody. Enslaved to other people’s standards.

My whole life I wanted to fit in, but my whole life I didn’t want to fit in. I wasn’t “in” and I wasn’t “out.” I knew that I did not fit. I was not categorizable. In high school I tried everything on for size and it was either too baggy or too snug. I struggled with who I was. I went to college unprepared for the other students with sorority pedigrees, limitless credit cards paid by daddy, and extravagant semester long debutante engagements in their hometowns. I knew that did not fit. My senior year I became a Christian and was semi-invited into that crowd but I was too late to the game for those who had been friends all four years of college. I knew that did not fit. I returned home from college and worked as a nanny to a little boy I adored while all my Vanderbilt classmates were either getting master’s degrees or corporate positions. I avoided the calls from the alumni association asking me for my updated career information for their records.

I knew I did not fit.

Then I got married to Kenny who was like no one I had ever dated. We really did not experience anything similar growing up but I was intrigued by how genuine he was. I had decided I needed to find out who I was and whether he fit into my not-yet-determined persona. That was a daunting task!  So I had one major test that I felt determined if he was the one…..Kenny drove a beat up car with issues. MAJOR issues. I loved it. The ceiling hung down so it was pinned up with push pins and every time he went in reverse and switched to drive it let out a horrible sound. Like “EEEEEKKKKKKK!!!!!!” There was no pretending it did not happen-you just had to wait for it and laugh. I thought it was hilarious but Kenny did not find it all funny. So the test was to see if he would drive it down to the Yacht Club when we went to play tennis. If he was too ashamed to drive it there, I was out. If he was confident enough to own the sounds, the exhaust and the overall ghettoness of it, then I was in. I guess you know he passed that test.

When we got married we lived in a one bedroom duplex for $300 a month and even that rent was stretching us. He was a middle school youth pastor and I was a preschool teacher. We barely made rent every month but I was the most content I had been in years…..but still had no clue who I was. Still searching. Living in a very poor neighborhood with regular robberies and gun shots going off and also joining the Junior League and serving hors d’ouevres at the elite museum gatherings when I could barely buy groceries for myself- trying them both on for size. Again neither one fit…..but Kenny was with me through all of it and I learned to draw strength through his confidence because I did not own it for myself.

As a mom at 28, 30, and 34 and then adopting at 38, I suddenly had a house full of boys….and I loved them, cherished them, and adored them but NEWS FLASH….I was not one of them. I did not like mud fights or wrestling or know the rules of baseball. I did not fit. That does not mean I did not enjoy motherhood or find purpose in being their mom but it was one more reminder that I was not like them in a lot of ways. Sometimes I felt like an outsider to the world of boys. I prayed so hard for a girl to come into our lives and even our first dog and cat were boys. Seriously??

I always wanted to be just enough- not too much or not too little. Not too loud or too quiet. Not too thin or too heavy. Not too overbearing or too laid back. I wanted to be JUST RIGHT. And I never was….so I kept trying.

Kenny has been in ministry since we started dating- so that is the 23 years we have been together. Youth pastor, church planter, seminary student, associate pastor…..and I have been his wife. For those who did not know me then, I was a great follower. NO LIE. When he took a new job in a church, I trusted him wholeheartedly that it was what was best for our family and I went. And I loved it. I still had no idea who I was. Did I want to be in the big, beautiful church or the small community of believers where we barely got paid? I had no idea and I did not want to figure it out so I went where Kenny was called and I made myself at home wherever we were. Those were amazing years for us but I still was so confused as to who I was created to be.

In all the years I have been on my own, my house has been predictable. I would buy a beautiful new picture from Kirkland’s to hang in my living room only to find out four of my friends had the same picture. I wanted everything clean, undamaged, and picture perfect. My kids, my house, and my life needed to fit in a pretty box with a big bow because that is where I felt safe. When things were not in order, I fell apart. Even when we moved into a 50 year old home, I wanted to tear out anything that looked old and make it new. I had no appreciation for anything that did not come out of a box from Lowe’s.

I always envied the hippy girls in college who pulled it off beautifully. I wanted to be the girl who went out without makeup. I admired the moms who felt that they could be a mess. I longed to be someone who had confidence and did not take everything personally. But it just did not come. I waited for something magical….I waited a long time.

My forties hit me and I started to feel free. I realized that time was short and I needed to figure myself out. Kenny graduated from seminary and I had been telling him that was going to be my chance to figure out ME. I had no idea where to start but eventually I realized I loved to write, take pictures, talk to people and walk with them through hard times, and I wanted to be a voice for those who have been forced into silence.  But what does that all mean? I was NOT a writer. I was NOT a photographer. I was NOT a mentor. I was just ME. But suddenly being me started to feel a little bit like it fit. And as I sought God and His path of healing for wounds I had carried my whole life, the burden became a little lighter. My identity began to form around who God had created me to be…..not who I had been told I was my whole life. I began to feel free. Alive. Whole. But God still had some stripping to do….

As a little girl, I distinctly remember telling people I wanted to be a garbage picker when I grew up. WHO says THAT? Apparently I did…..but it never fit into my life plan so I never thought anything of it. I learned when I was no longer that little girl that other people’s garbage by the side of the road is gross and dirty so why would anyone pick it??

Over the past five years, I have started to slow down and admire other people’s junk on the side of the road. I have plopped my kids in a chair down the street to save it until I could come back with the truck. I have stopped right outside Lakeland High School to get a table and been yelled at by my high schooler to PLEASE leave the junk just this once (and that one time I did). I started to think other people’s throw aways were pretty cool. I wasn’t always sure what to do with what I found because I was still stuck in the shiny, new stuff but I was intrigued. I wanted to put an old chair in the middle of my floor but…..no. Too risky. I wanted to hang my own photography in my house but I settled for professional prints because they were safe. I wanted to write my own story but other people’s words were much easier to hide behind.

Then a few years ago I wrote my story (still being written and I will one day write a book). Then I started a nonprofit with a close friend of mine that means I speak at women’s encounters about my own faith journey and my own brokenness. Then I quit my job to work full time for CPI Haiti and not have an hourly salary to depend on.  I began to see myself emerging and it did open my eyes to who I was becoming but there were still gaping holes of insecurity in the fiber of who I was.

Then I decided that I wanted to pierce my nose and get a tattoo. Who does that in their forties? Apparently I do. I began to feel free. No longer confined to what I thought others would think was acceptable for me. I decided I could do something even if I was the only one who liked it. . Of course this has little to do with actual ink and piercings and everything to do with who I was becoming.

I suddenly became obsessed with yard sales. Getting other people’s castaways. I started shopping on half price Wednesdays at Salvation Army for all of our clothes. I no longer needed new with tags and nice, neat aisles to walk down. I found great pleasure in trying on other people’s donated clothing and walking out without spending more than $10. Saturdays I got up at 6 AM while everyone was sleeping and hit as many yard sales as I could- looking for anything to take to Haiti or to give away. I still had to tell people I was obviously not shopping for myself when I went to their nice homes and they gave me funny looks that I was one of “those people.” Still could not own my personal love for yard sales- it was just what a good nonprofit person does for needy children.

Then this year I had a breakthrough of sorts. I hung the photography I had taken in Haiti in Mitchell’s (after periodic breakdowns that my work would be seen and judged by others for a whole month) and survived. Survival was not a given at that point. Then Alison and Amber asked me to do the artwork for an event called Red Tent. Also terrifying. My hidden insecurities started oozing out everywhere and I felt exposed. I was in this event with a bunch of hipster, cool artsy people and the ink of my tattoo was still fresh and I was still figuring it all out.  I wanted to own ME but ME was still morphing. So I just started to take portraits for the artwork of the event. And I felt alive. I needed to make frames and I stressed about it for over a month. I could not afford anything fancy and for the Mitchell’s pictures I did them all brown because that was safe. This time they wanted COLOR- fun colors. NOOOOOOO……I don’t know how to paint, do fun, make it work. And then I met one of the most spectacular people EVER….Kimberly. She agreed to help me paint fun, colorful frames. I was so nervous that day. I showed up with no confidence that I could do it. And she showed me that holding a can of hot pink spray paint could be life changing. Why? Because you can make something that looks amazing- even if it is only amazing to you. And if you make a mistake? You paint over it. Nothing is final and everything is a work in progress.

I went to Ace Hardware that night and bought cans and cans of paint…..I also got glaze, sandpaper, brushes, etc. and I went back the next day to learn more. And the next day. Before I knew it my entire back porch was covered in tarps, paint supplies and old, thrown away frames. I had fallen in love with creating something beautiful out of something not worth looking at. I felt free. Free to create. I came home and made a sign that has a quote by Henri Matisse that says, “Creativity takes courage.” And that day I gained courage.

And then I discovered my love for anything old and started going to yard sales because I am ok being one of those crazies who fights traffic and talks you down from $2 to $1 for something I think is a treasure. I get the eye rolls from the family for the “junk” I bring home but I see the potential that will come with some polish and some love. It took a lot of polish and love for me to emerge and I guess I see that same potential in old silver and splintered wood.

One yard sale day I bought a beat up old patio table that was not selling so they practically gave it to me. As we left I told Cooper that it was my favorite piece of furniture I had ever bought. He said, “Mom, you like old stuff, don’t you? I think it is because it tells a story.” YES! I had never realized it until my 12 year old figured it out for me. I love old because it tells a story. I see the jar and I wonder who used it to can peaches and where they were living and how it got to me.  So much more interesting than a new jar from Target that was made 3 weeks ago.

Mid life is INCREDIBLE. A time of discovery. Freedom. And most of all acceptance for who God knew I was going to be when He put it in my heart to be a “garbage picker.” It does not get better than that.

 

 

 

Loving without agenda

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We all want to love and be loved….we were created to cherish healthy relationships. The ones that make us feel safe, secure, and worthy.

But what about those who cannot love because their past keeps them trapped? Entangled in bitterness. They have witnessed too much disappointment. Betrayal. Too much loss.  Many hold their hearts at a distance because love is too good to be true. For them love is vulnerable and can be used as a dagger pulled out of someone’s arsenal at any moment.

To my dear friends who feel this way, accepting and giving love just is not possible. If you have ever watched someone try to love you but can’t, you know what complete helplessness feels like. You can hear their hearts screaming, “When are you going to leave too? When are you going to take advantage of me? Why would you love ME?” and they push you away, sabotage the relationship, and heap anger on you for all the other people who have hurt them and are not around to take the lashes. In these relationships, we are called to love deeply…..just as we love those who reciprocate. If we don’t, who will break down the walls? Who will chip away at the hardened heart?

We want to sit and wait to be APPRECIATED. We want our love to be accepted, nurtured, and returned. But what about those who cannot? The children in foster care who have been taught by life that being loved is not possible EVER. The children who were raped and are now prostitutes because they were taught that sex is all they have to offer and continue to be beat by their pimps and johns. The children who were given crack for their tenth birthdays by their drug dealer parents and have learned that if your parents won’t protect you, who will? The moms raising special needs children who have been shunned by the playgroup because “that kid” throws too many tantrums and “that mom” is too needy and now she drinks too much and turns off her phone. The shallow, materialistic prima donna  who degrades the manicurist and the grocery store clerk out of her own brokenness because she knows her husband is cheating on her but she won’t walk away because it would be an end to her extravagant lifestyle. The teacher who went from encouraging and uplifting to mean and stern in one year because she is taking care of her dying husband and resents her job because she has to stay to keep her insurance. The child sitting at his mom’s bedside while she takes her final breaths and is screaming inside  that God sucks and this is too hard. The CEO who was told by his dad his whole life that he was worthless and now takes advantage of people to make lots of money and earn the respect of his father and who is repeating the cycle with his own children.

What about them? Do you run the other way? Do you refuse to look them in the eye? Do you gossip about them with your acceptable friends?

The kind of love that Jesus talks about is sacrificial, often painful, and always inconvenient.

And how do we continue to give and not grow weary of rejection? How do we not take it “personally” when we feel attacked? We cry out to God and He hears us. We stop making it about us and realize that the other person’s heart is more important than our own need to be accepted. We love like Jesus loved and expect nothing in return. And we decide that we will do it all again tomorrow. And the next day. Jesus will so fill our emotional tanks that the constant withdrawals by others won’t deplete the resources. Our cups will overflow because of what HE has done. And when people tell us we do too much and that we need to rest and take care of ourselves, we will smile inside because we know where our strength comes from and who the Giver of Grace is. We will know that if we are connected to the Source of our strength, we are unstoppable.

And once we have loved like that, we will never be the same. The gift is not in the giving but in how it changes us.

“Weeping can stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. ”  Psalm 30:5