I Got Suckered By A Scam Artist

I walked past the shivering transient without really seeing her. I barely glanced up as I hurried to get out of the rain. I rushed through the door into the hotel lobby but my steps slowed when I heard a baby cry.

Turning my head, I looked more closely. The woman sat huddled under the overhang. She had a little boy on her lap and a stroller by her side. The stroller was covered with a blanket and plastic bags stuffed with odds and ends overflowed from the basket underneath. She held a cell phone in her hand and stared at the screen, seemingly oblivious to the wailing of her infant.

I watched for a moment and then walked away. I was cold and tired, ready to check in to my room and get some rest after a long day of training. As I handed the hotel clerk my credit card, I argued with myself.

She might be waiting for someone. There are plenty of other people here who could help her. She has a cell phone. If she can afford a cell phone, she can afford a room.

As I finished my transaction and turned to grab my bags, my eyes were drawn back outside. It was dark and I could barely see through the rain, but the screen from her cell phone cast a little bit of light. Her toddler was now running up and down the sidewalk. He splashed through the dark, stomping his feet in the puddles. She didn’t seem to notice him as he played.

She is oblivious to everything around her. She is probably on drugs. If she can afford drugs, she can afford a room.

But no matter how hard I argued against it, my conscience wouldn’t leave me alone. Begrudgingly, I stepped back outside into the cold.

“Do you need a room?” I asked her.

“What?” she seemed startled by my question.

“A room for the night. Do you have somewhere to stay?”

“No. I don’t have nowhere to stay,” she said quietly.

“Then let me buy you a room for tonight,” I said as I helped gather her belongings.

Tears filled her eyes and she followed me back inside, thanking me over and over again.

Several minutes later I was settled in my room. I showered and put on my pajamas. As I brushed my teeth I heard a commotion in the hallway. It was my new friend. She and her children must have been given the room next to mine. I smiled as I heard her shushing her baby. Her toddler chattered non-stop and it sounded like he was jumping on the bed.

Good. They will have a warm, quiet night in here. I’m glad I helped them, I thought as I climbed between my sheets.

I had barely closed my eyes when I was startled by the baby’s cries. The thin walls did little to disguise the sounds coming from the next room. I listened as he gathered intensity, his wails growing louder and louder.

But the mother was too distracted to calm the baby. She was busy welcoming visitors into the room. I heard the door open and close several times. More voices. Laughter. The clinking of beer bottles. I lost count of how many people were now in the room next door. I heard the toddler yelling. The mother yelling back, telling him to shut up. Then someone turned on the music and the party really got going. The bass thumped through my headboard.

The music mixed with the baby’s cries. The toddler started to throw a tantrum. I could feel him kicking the wall. Kick. Kick. Kick. The wall vibrated between us. It seemed I was the only one aware of the children at all. Everyone next door was either drunk or stoned. They laughed and partied and had themselves a grand old time.

I lay in my bed and listened to the chaos I had helped bankroll.

The party ended around 5:30am. I heard the last person leave and the room settled into silence. I think the mother and her children finally fell asleep just as I was getting up to start my day.

I stopped by the front desk on my way out of the hotel and I explained to the morning clerk what had happened. I wanted to be sure no extra charges had been placed on my credit card.

“Oh, this happens all the time,” the clerk said. “She sits outside and waits for someone to buy her a room. Don’t worry, though. She doesn’t ever charge anything extra. You should be fine.”

I didn’t feel reassured. I felt annoyed. She does this all the time? I thought I was helping but in reality I was simply enabling a scam artist.

As I walked out of the hotel, tired from lack of sleep and frustrated by this woman’s selfish actions, I realized something: I was still glad I had paid for her room.

Why do we help others? Why do we give or serve or obey? Should we do these things because the recipient has earned our kindness? Do we search for someone deserving before we give of ourselves?

How do we determine who is deserving in the first place? A checklist? Perhaps we should make sure people measure up to our standards before we give them anything.

No. I don’t think so. I don’t want to quantify my giving in that way. I don’t want to be responsible for judging other hearts. I have a hard enough time keeping my own heart in line.

I am not advocating senseless generosity. I am not saying we should become enablers. We must use our head and our heart when we determine how to best allocate our resources. But I am saying I can’t base my actions on another person’s intentions. I have to do what I believe is right, regardless of the deservedness of the receiver.

After all, are any of us truly deserving?

Christ died for me while I was still a sinner. He did not wait for me to be worthy of his gift. I will never be worthy. He gave his life for me even though I am undeserving.

I want to pour my love into the world freely, just as He did. Yes, I will occasionally get taken advantage of. It seems a small price to pay in exchange for others being able to experience a little bit more of God’s love through the actions of this one sinner.

Maybe when I handed a Starbucks card to the homeless man on the corner, he had a stolen bottle of whiskey hidden in his backpack. So what? He can still enjoy a hot cup of coffee. He can still hear me when I speak the language of kindness. He can still receive love even though none of us deserve it.


Ohana Means Family

We celebrated my daughter’s birthday this week. She turned fourteen. She is fourteen years old, sweet and sassy and beautiful.

My daughter has been alive for fourteen years and yet I have only known her for four. She lived ten of her years completely apart from me. 72% of her life does not include me.

No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I can not make up for those lost years. No amount of love can atone for the missing 72%.

Things happened during the 72% that I will never know. Memories she keeps locked deep inside, maybe never to be shared.

When I am most honest, I admit to being jealous of the 72%. Jealous and angry and a little bit scared of the shadowy underbelly of that part of her life. I worry the darkness from her past might overshadow the brightness of her future.

She has only been my daughter for four years. Four years is barely any time at all, when you think about it.

When I asked her what she wanted for her birthday, there were only two things on her wish list.

She wished for a dinner date, just me, her, and her daddy.

She wished for the stuffed animal Stitch.


She is fascinated by Stitch. She loves to draw pictures of him and hang them around her room.


She talks about his story line and scenes from the movie as if they were real. She laughs when she relates the funny situations he gets himself into.

I think she sees herself in Stitch.

Stitch is an alien. Foreign. Displaced from his home. He finds himself living with strangers who don’t look like him. Who don’t sound like him.

He struggles with loneliness.

He feels isolated even when surrounded by people who love him.

He can’t figure out whether to stay with his new family or leave in search of his old.

No matter how much his new family loves him, they can never replace the family he left behind.

The tension lies in living between two families. Feeling pulled in opposite directions.

I do believe this is a tension he will always live with.


I do believe this is a tension that will always be a part of her.

This tension is woven into the very fabric of her heart. It has shaped her into the strong and resilient young woman she is. A young woman with a family who spans the entire globe. No matter where she goes, we will always be with her. We are a part of the tension.


This tension pulls us apart sometimes. It is a tricky thing to navigate, this unseen and often unacknowledged part of our relationship. It can appear at the most inopportune of times, coloring our words with frustration, flavoring our days with tears.

It nibbles around the edges of our family, an unwelcome intruder. She pushes me away. I harden my heart.

We are both getting stronger, though. Better at recognizing the tension and allowing it to shape us instead of break us. The more time we spend together, the better we understand each other. We are learning the true meaning of family.

Family is not about birth parents or bio parents or adoptive parents. Foster parents or step parents. It is not about “real children” or “your own children” or adopted children.

It is not about how long you have been together or the time you spent apart.

Family is not about blood.

It is about love.

Maybe four years is enough time after all. Enough time for both of us to reimagine our definition of family.




What My Daughter Taught Me About Believing In Yourself

I watched my daughter walk away from me. Her stride was confident and her smile bright as she waved goodbye. I had done my best to prepare her. Still I was nervous as she disappeared through the doorway.

When she first announced she was going to try out for the school play, I tried to talk her out of it. I explained that drama productions rely heavily on dialogue. That she had only spoken English for a few years. That her accent might be hard for the audience to understand.

But she was determined. She had dreams of becoming an actress and this was the perfect opportunity for her to start.

We spent hours together reciting lines, practicing enunciation, slowing down her speech in order to make her accent a little less noticeable. She pronounced the same word over and over again, trying to smooth out her r’s and sharpen her t’s.

We didn’t have to practice her acting skills. She is the queen of drama. She played her character well. Face alight with energy. Body communicating her emotions.

The day of the auditions I gave her a little pep talk. As I drove to the school, I told her how courageous she was.

“You are amazing, sweetheart.” I said. “You are energetic, dramatic, and prepared. I think you are an excellent actress. I am so proud of you for auditioning today. It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of people. This will be a good experience for you. First auditions are always hard. Don’t be discouraged no matter the outcome. If nothing else, today you will get to practice auditioning. Each time you audition, you will get better and better.”

I gave her a hug as she got out of the car. I snapped this picture as she walked away, feeling as though I had prepared her for the most likely outcome.

Whether or not she gets a part, she is already a star.

I posted the picture on social media with this caption:

I am so proud of this girl. She has more courage in her little finger than most adults have in their entire lives. Whether or not she gets a part, she is already a star.

“Whether or not she gets a part” was a euphemism for “Even though she won’t get a part.”

And then this happened:


I jumped up and down in the Walmart check out line. I hugged my daughter tight as tears filled my eyes.

“I am so proud of you, honey!” I said.

She smiled as she hugged me back. “Thanks, Mom. You didn’t think I would get a part, did you?”

Her words cut right to the heart of the matter.

She was right.

She had seen through my hollow words. She knew I didn’t think she could do it.

My daughter never held this against me. She appreciated the things I had done right: spending time practicing with her, filling out the application paperwork, driving her to the audition, encouraging her. We both thought it was a long shot that she would actually get cast in the play.

The difference between her and I? She believed she could.


Over the next several months I watched my daughter soar. She came alive on stage. But at home she struggled to balance school work and rehearsals. She gave up play dates and free time and watching television. She ended many days in tears as the stress threatened to overwhelm her. It wasn’t easy.

But she never asked for easy. She only asked for possible.

As my daughter worked hard for what she wanted, as she chased her dreams and believed she could catch them, she taught me a lesson.

[tweet_dis]Hard work and hours invested may be the building blocks of success, but belief is the cornerstone.[/tweet_dis]

Our dreams will never become reality until we believe in ourselves.

It is a powerful gift: believing in someone. I am going to give this gift to the people I love. I am going to give this gift to my children. I am going to give this gift to myself.

I have been struggling with self-doubt. What if they don’t like me? What if I am not any good? What if I fail? Trying something new is always scary. It is easier to stay safely within our comfort zones.

But great things never come from comfort zones.

Here’s the truth: if we step out into the deep end, we might sink before we swim. We might not win the race or get the part or sign the book contract. But our success comes in the trying, not in the results. It comes in the believing.

Let’s not allow doubt to keep us from our dreams.

I want my children to chase after their dreams. I am determined to be their first and best champion. They need to know I am firmly in their corner, cheering them on to greater heights. My voice will be louder than any doubts.

The night of my daughter’s debut finally arrived. Once again, we worked together to prepare. We practiced lines, enunciated words, slowed down her speech to control her accent. But this time I believed in her. I knew she was going to get up on stage and deliver an outstanding performance.

I believed she could.


And she did.



More Alike Than Different

“I hate you! I wish we weren’t sisters!”

My daughter’s screams echoed down the staircase to where I stood washing the dinner dishes. I dropped my rag into the soapy water and hurried towards the commotion. Angry voices filled the air as I climbed the stairs to my girls’ bedroom.

“Your pajamas are ugly! I wouldn’t want to wear them anyway.”

I rounded the corner to find all three of my daughters rolling around on the floor, pulling at each other’s pajamas, their faces twisted in anger. I breathed a quick prayer for guidance as I waded in and pried open clenched fists. Separating the tangle of girls, I pulled my youngest daughter onto my lap.

“They are wearing matching pajamas,” Hannah sobbed into the safety of my arms. “When I tried to wear the same pajamas, they changed theirs! They won’t let me match them.”

I gently rubbed Hannah’s back as her tears soaked my t-shirt. I glanced at my other daughters. They were huddled together on the carpet, dark eyes filled with defiance. We don’t want to be a part of your family, their eyes and their actions seemed to say. It is us against you.

Oh, Lord, I whispered as I looked at my hurting children. Help us to figure out how to become a family.

Everything had seemed so clear when we began the adoption process. My husband and I were living what we considered to be the perfect life. We had two beautiful children and a loving marriage. He owned a small business and I enjoyed staying home to raise our son and daughter. Life can’t get much better than this, I often thought.

Then we started hearing stories of the orphan crisis in Ethiopia. My heart broke as I learned of children growing up on the streets. Children living in garbage dumps in the hopes of finding scraps of food to eat. Children wasting away for years in orphanages. God seemed to speak directly to my heart and say: These children need love. You have love to give. You have room in your hearts and your home for more. Don’t close your eyes to the need you see in the world.

For the past two years we had followed God’s leading. Filled out paperwork. Completed background checks. Traveled halfway around the world to meet our new children: Hamdiya, Shukriya, Eba and Eyob. A sibling set. We had been given two more sons and two more daughters to love. God had combined our little family of four from America and with a little family of four from Ethiopia. Now we had to figure out how to become one family of eight. We had started our journey worlds apart from each other but were now joined together forever.

One way to knit our family together, apparently, was to wear matching pajamas. I began sitting in my daughters’ bedroom every evening as they changed. I monitored their choices for the night. We had so many differences working against us: language, skin color, history. I was not going to allow pajamas to become another dividing factor. I made sure all three girls were wearing the same pair when I tucked them into bed.


“Goodnight, sweet girls,” I said as I pulled the covers up to their chin. “The Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you. The Lord be gracious unto you and give you great peace.”

I kissed their foreheads and left them lying in the soft glow of the nightlight. Clean and sweet smelling from their baths. Dark curls dampening their pillowcase. Matching pajamas safely hidden under their piles of blankets.

It took many months and overwhelming struggle to build our new family from all of the broken pieces. Battles were fought and apologies accepted. Anger exploded and grace was given. We had to earn our children’s love. They needed to learn that they could trust us, that their hearts were safe in our hands. Eventually, the tears came less often and laughter flowed more freely.

One bright summer morning, almost exactly one year from the day the judge signed the adoption papers declaring us a family, I sat outside sipping my cup of coffee. The sun warmed my shoulders as I rocked slowly on the porch swing and enjoyed the silence. Suddenly, the front door burst open and two little girls tumbled out.

“Look, Mom,” they said as they stood in front of me. “We are same-ing! If you braid our hair then we will look exactly the same.”


I stared at my daughters. One dark and striking. One fair and lovely. They had chosen matching outfits to wear for the day: neon green tutus, bright orange t-shirts, silver sandals. Black curls escaped the messy bun on one. Silky strands gathered tightly into a neat ponytail on the other.

They held hands and giggled as they waited for my response. I quickly grabbed my camera.

“Wait right there, girls.” I said. “I want to take a picture of my beautiful twins.”

That night I climbed the stairs to tuck everyone in to bed. Long gone were the days of monitoring pajama choices. Instead, I stood in the hallway outside of their bedroom door and listened. Quiet laughter filled the air as three sisters whispered in the dark. I smiled as I thought about how much had changed over the past year. More joy filled our home. More hope filled our hearts. And more love than I ever thought possible filled our family.



We Have Lost Our Empathy

I looked down in disbelief. My shoes had been stuffed into the bottom of the toilet and were covered in urine. My classmates stood laughing outside of the bathroom stall. Tears filled my eyes but I angrily wiped them away. I would not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing my pain.

I reached down into the murky water and fished out both of my shoes. Opening the stall door, I walked through the crowd of middle school girls and made my way to the sink. I tried to ignore their insults as I rinsed their urine from my sneakers.

Moving to a new town and starting a new school is never easy. It is even harder if your parents lose their jobs and you are kicked out of your house. If you sleep in a tent and eat at the soup kitchen. If you are one bad break away from becoming a statistic.

I arrived to school every morning in our broken-down beater of a car. The exhaust billowed from the tail pipe and the headliner sagged low. I would climb out of the backseat wearing my Salvation Army cast-off clothing and hurry into my first period class, praying no one noticed me.

But of course they did. They noticed me.

Middle School is a hunting ground for misfits, for oddballs, for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. I was the perfect target. Name-calling. Shaming. Exclusion. These weapons were used against me daily.

The urine-soaked shoes were the coup de grace. The popular girls waited until I changed out for PE, and then they dropped my shoes into the toilet. One by one, they took their turn urinating. Gleefully, they waited for my return and watched my reaction.

As a middle school girl, these kinds of incidents were crushing.

As a mother to three middle school girls, these stories are the perfect fodder for life-lessons on empathy.

I tell my daughters of the urine-soaked shoes, of the name-calling, of my shame at my living situation, my clothing, my lack of money. I tell them how those girls made me feel. I remind my daughters they are better than that.

And they ARE. They are BETTER than that.

Aren’t we all better than that?

I would like to think so, but sometimes I am not so sure.

[tweet_dis]Empathy is too often a lost emotion. It has been replaced by self-righteousness and indignation.[/tweet_dis]


My hometown has an epidemic of homelessness. The transient community seems to be growing daily. We see them congregating under the bridges, pushing their shopping carts down the sidewalk, sneaking into the bushes at the back of our neighborhoods, sleeping on the benches at the bus stop.

Something needs to be done. Yet no one can agree on what that something is.

How do we best address this problem?

Do we need more services at the homeless shelter? More early intervention to prevent homelessness? More police? More arrests? More jail time? More food banks?

I do not have all of the answers. But I do know one thing.

We need more empathy.

I read the news stories and I scroll through social media and I think we are acting like a bunch of middle school girls. The name-calling. The shaming. The exclusion.

Tweaker. Druggie. POS.


Hurting human being.

These are REAL people with REAL lives and REAL problems.

Our REAL solutions need to begin with empathy. With kindness.

We can’t paint the entire homeless community with one broad brush stroke. When we look closer, we will realize the picture is made up of individuals who are very much like you and me.


“My parents died when I was 18 months old. I moved here to live with my aunt and uncle. Once, when I was little, my aunt took me to the mall and bought me some new shoes. That was a happy memory. But my uncle used to beat my aunt. I would run to my room, put earphones on and curl up in a ball so that I couldn’t hear it. I went to foster care when I was 6. I aged out when I was 18. All I had when I left was $5 and a backpack of stuff. I’ve been homeless ever since.”


“This is Greg. Also known as Pops, Santa or Grandpa. Greg is a colorblind artist, a college graduate, and a fantastic storyteller. He is 69 years old. Greg stopped drawing after his wife left him for his dealer years ago. Greg is a meth addict.

As we all know, many of our homeless citizens are addicts. This comes as no surprise. As I’m taking part in various conversations surrounding homelessness I am hearing a recurring request. Many of you would like to weed out the drug users from the “deserving poor”, and focus our efforts on helping those who don’t have substance abuse problems. I understand this request because I’ve wondered the same thing.

But the other day I watched a TED talk about addiction that made me wonder if everything we thought we knew about addiction is wrong.

The man in the TED talk describes two experiments involving rats and heroin. In Experiment #1, the rats were placed in a box by themselves with one vial of water and another vial of water laced with heroin. In this experiment, every single rat eventually became addicted to the heroin water and used until they died. Simple enough, right?

All of our modern drug legislation is based on this experiment. Drugs are bad! Anybody who uses will become addicts! So let’s criminalize the behavior, make drugs difficult to obtain, and lock up anyone who uses. Makes sense, right? Easy.

The only problem with this line of attack is that it is completely ineffective. It doesn’t work. We all know it doesn’t work. Addicts never get help, their criminal record makes it nearly impossible for them to reenter society, and meanwhile, our jails get a never ending stream of revenue cycling through their doors.

Let’s take a look at the second rat experiment in the TED talk.

In Experiment #2, the rat is placed in a box that is essentially rat paradise. Their habitat has the water and the heroin water, but it also has colorful balls, tunnels, food, and most importantly OTHER RATS. While all of the isolated rats in Experiment #1 became addicts, none of the rats who were part of the rat community became addicts.


So, what if we’ve been looking at addiction all wrong? What if our addicted loved ones are really in desperate need of connection rather than the Scarlet Letter of a jail sentence? What if they have spent their lives carrying around back breaking burdens and have no skills to cope? And what if many of us have been spending our lives living in rat paradise peering down at our addicts in isolation saying, “just stop using, dummies. It’s not that hard.”

Did you know 90% of homeless people have experienced high levels of trauma as children? That statistic is not a coincidence. That statistic is our wake up call.

I’m meeting so many homeless drug addicts, but after our interviews I don’t see them as drug addicts. I see a 9 year old girl who never did well in school because she was always hungry. I see a 7 year old boy who joined a gang and started using heroin while his parents were too strung out to notice. I see a little 6 year old boy kneeling on raw pinto beans while his dad whipped him. I see the teenager who was sexually molested by the very people who were supposed to protect her. I see the 10 year old boy who watched as his dad’s body was being washed out of a truck.

While talking with these people, I have had to sit with uncomfortable realization that their story could have been my story.

I know loving an addict is hard. I know many of them lie and steal and manipulate. I can see why so many of you are frustrated. I also know that the culture of anger in our town is creating more of a divide and further isolating the very people who are in desperate need of us. Science has proven that they will die without connection. They will die. On our watch. While we look down from our respective paradises.

I’m not suggesting that we start throwing money at people or creating expensive government programs. I AM suggesting that we cut through some of this anger with kindness. That’s it. Kindness.

I know we will have negative experiences with our homeless addicts. I know I have. But I hope our hearts can stay soft and kind, even when an addiction has swallowed our homeless loved ones whole. The real them is hiding in there somewhere, buried under years of trauma and drug use. My hope is that we can create a culture of kindness that they’ll want to join when they are ready to come out of hiding.

I’ll be right here waiting for them. I hope you will, too.”


(Thank you to People of Redding for providing these pictures and stories.)

Let’s set an example for our children. No more name-calling. We have the ability to create a culture of kindness. THIS is how we begin. THIS is where we start.

Let us build our solutions on a foundation of empathy.




I Almost Died The Summer of ’89

I almost died the summer of ’89.

It was the summer after my sixth grade year. My parents moved our family to a new city. My stepfather had a job offer that might afford us the opportunity to stop living paycheck to paycheck.

We packed up our Mercedes (I use the term loosely), the ’63 Mercedes of the sagging headliner, cracked vinyl seats, and missing air conditioning, and we moved to Redding, California.


It was June. Redding in June is somewhat like I imagine hell to be. Not a temperate climate on the best of days, we arrived in the midst of a particularly hot spell. The temperature hovered between 115 and 120 degrees for a solid week with no reprieve granted during the evening hours.

You must remember that this was in the days before cell phones and internet. When you moved from one city to another and you disconnected your phone line, there was no way to get ahold of you until you got to the other side. Somewhere between the packing of our luxury vehicle, the staple-gunning of the headliner to the roof, and the hot and miserable drive to our new destination, my stepfather’s job offer fell through.

We arrived in Redding to the realization that we were jobless and homeless. The rental house we had secured would not accept our family when we had no sustainable income on the horizon.

My parents did the logical thing. They moved us in to the KOA campground. This is where we would live while my stepfather searched for a job. We lived in a tent, at a campground surrounded by concrete and blacktop, in Redding, California, during the summer of 1989.


Did I already mention the three digit temperature?

Tents do not have air conditioning.

Our Mercedes did not have air conditioning.

We lay in our tent and slowly melted away, my brother and sister and I. Adding insult to injury was the fact that our campground was located directly behind a water park. We could see the towering slides from where we lay. We could hear the children laughing as they swam. Those children seemed to taunt us with their cool body temperatures. But we could do nothing but dream and sweat.

The heat was an all consuming problem for me, but my parents had bigger worries. They had to find a way to provide for their three children; to feed and clothe and house them.

It is a great testament to my parent’s unwavering faith that never once during the summer of ’89 did I doubt the outcome of our current situation. Never once did I hear my parents question God, question our circumstances, or question the future. They demonstrated a complete trust in His provision.

Sometimes His provision looked like a large orange block of government cheese as we waited in line to receive our allotment of food for the month. Sometimes His provision looked like a friend inviting us to sleep in the extra room above their garage, washing our dirty clothes and behind our dirty knees and filling our empty gas tank. Sometimes His provision was found around the table at the soup kitchen, eating dinner and rubbing elbows with other people like us. People who were struggling to fill their bellies with a little bit of food and their souls with a little bit of hope.

One time in particular His provision looked like toilet paper.

IMG_6074 (1)

It was near the end of the month, the days when we most closely guarded our pennies and counted down the hours until the next block of government cheese. We had no money for anything besides the bare necessities.

My parents did not consider toilet paper to be a bare necessity. Why waste your money on frivolities when there were plenty of good phone books lying around?

For some reason my brother and sister and I were not keen on the phone book’s tendencies to spread typeface ink on our behinds. As the oldest, I was elected to voice our concerns to our parents. I complained as only a junior high girl can complain. Annoyingly. Frequently. Whiningly.

My parents could have discounted our feelings, insisting that food was more important than clean behinds. They could have told us that we had bigger issues to worry about than something as trivial as toilet paper. But instead they took our complaints seriously. And they took their God seriously when He said that He would provide ALL of our needs.

My parents gathered our family together and prayed for toilet paper. Yes. We held a prayer service for toilet paper right there in the middle of the KOA campground. We prayed fervently, fully believing God would provide.

Surprisingly, no toilet paper fell like manna from heaven.

However, the very next day as we were driving down the road — headliner flapping in the wind, bare legs slick with sweat on the vinyl seats, windows rolled down to prevent heat stroke — toilet paper did fall from the truck in front of us.

That truck hit a pothole and a package of toilet paper bounced out of the grocery sacks sitting in the truck’s bed. The driver kept going, completely unaware of the role he played in God’s provision.

My mom pulled our car to the side of the road, jumped into the middle of traffic, and scooped up that package of toilet paper faster than you could say “clean behinds.”

God gave us toilet paper. But more than that, God taught a lesson to a very impressionable teenager. I learned that [tweet_dis]

God is actively involved in the mundane details of our daily lives.


My trust in God is built on a foundation of toilet paper.


My parents modeled a life of trust. God proved Himself worthy of my trust. I have been working on deepening my trust ever since.

It is not always forward progress, this thing we are building between us. I tend to trust in my own abilities rather than handing over control to my God. I can see my doubt rear up every time I clench tightly to my own desires and God has to pry my fingers open in order to reach for His goodness.

But God is gentle with me. He proves Himself time and time again. And whenever I stumble and fall, I find myself landing on a soft cushion of toilet paper.



{OUT OF ORDER} The Truth About Adopting Out Of Birth Order

My oldest son is fifteen years old.

My oldest daughter is thirteen years old.

Or maybe she is fourteen.

She could quite possibly be fifteen.

No one really knows.

When we brought our daughter home four years ago, the courts in Ethiopia assigned her a birthdate. We are fairly certain it is incorrect. She is completely convinced it’s incorrect. She knows she was meant to be the oldest child.

Leah basically raised her three younger siblings. Her mother was absent for long periods of time in order to earn money for their family to survive. Leah was left in charge. She figured out how to strap her baby brother onto her back and carry him with her while she tended the fire. How to entertain her sister with nothing more than corn husks and twigs. How to divide their single meal of the day into tiny portions and spread it out as evenly as possible between the hours and the hungry stomachs. Leah was forced to become a leader and it was not a role she relinquished easily.

My son, on the other hand, was comfortable in his role as firstborn. He was used to being the top dog among our children. He relished his role as king and was not willing to abdicate his throne.

These two were like oil and water. We tried to mix them together to create one family but they would have none of it. Neither one was willing to kowtow to the other.

This article originally appeared in Dandelion Magazine.

This article originally appeared in Dandelion Magazine.

Those early days together were stained by tears and trauma. Our family had doubled overnight with one signature on an adoption decree. The simple logistics of living as a family of eight would have been enough to overwhelm me. But when I added in the extra issues we inherited by adopting older children, adopting out of birth order, artificially twinning our bio daughter, and adopting a sibling set of four, I was teetering on the edge of insanity.

The issues festering between my two oldest children did not help my mental state. There was constant bickering. Frequent outbursts of anger. Defiance in word and in deed. They were both determined to be at the top of the pecking order, even if it meant wounding each other and their mother to get there.

In December, only five months after bringing our children home, we celebrated my daughter’s tenth birthday. I was battle worn and weary, but determined to prove to Leah how special she was. I wanted to make up for all of the missed birthdays in her past. I decorated and I baked and I wrapped her present with a big bow on top. I invited our family and closest friends to join in the festivities.

The day of her birthday was cloudy and cold. Inside of our home, however, it was bright and cheery. I placed her cake on the kitchen table as I lit the candles. Our family gathered around. For the very first time in her life, Leah blew out her birthday candles surrounded by people who loved her. We sang Happy Birthday as we took her picture.


My daughter hated it. She hated every single thing about it. She did not want to celebrate her tenth birthday because she felt it was a lie. She wasn’t turning ten and we all knew it to be true. But this was the birthdate the courts had assigned to her. It will be her birthdate forever. It is the date chosen to celebrate her life, regardless of the number on top of the cake.

She made her birthday miserable. For herself and for everyone who loved her. My heart broke watching her sabotage all of the joy around her. It was as if she didn’t believe she deserved anything good so she twisted it into something bad with the poison of her words and her actions.

Shortly after her birthday we started seeing a counselor. Singly. In pairs. My daughter. My son. Myself. We needed professional help navigating these tricky waters.

Our counselor was a godsend. She provided us with the tools we were so desperately searching for. She validated our feelings–all of our feelings. No one person’s feelings took precedence over any others. Our feelings were legitimate and deserved; the pitfalls were found in how we allowed those feelings to influence our behaviors.

Our counselor helped me to realize I was overcompensating. I was trying so hard to prove my love for my daughter that I often ignored what she really needed. She did not need a big birthday party with all of the trimmings and excitement. She needed me to come alongside of her as she searched for herself.

She had lost everything she once thought to be true about who she was. She lost her country. Her language. Her food. Her family. Even her name. She was adrift in this new life and was grasping at any token of her identity that might help her find her way. If one of these tokens was her status as oldest child, this was a position I could validate.


Our counselor helped my son to realize there was room for two at the top of the pyramid. He was no less my firstborn than he had been before we doubled our family. He was willing to give a little, take a little, and learn how to collaborate on the job of oldest child.

Our counselor taught my daughter some techniques for coping with her feelings. She put together a feelings bag. Inside was a stress ball, a journal, bubbles, a pack of gum. Whenever my daughter’s feelings overwhelmed her, when she felt she could no longer control her behavior, she was to get her feelings bag and find some quiet space to be alone.

The counselor helped my daughter to realize that the  number on a birth certificate did not need to define her. We all acknowledged that number to be false. And yet we were stuck with it. So we made the best of it. We decided that both of our oldest children needed to be afforded the special privileges and the unique responsibilities that came along with their job title.

The first step was re-arranging bedrooms. This was not an easy task for a family of eight who lived in a home with only four bedrooms. We had to build an extra room in the garage. We moved my son out there, into his own “man cave.” Then we gave Leah her own space, the corner room with the windows looking out over the tree tops.

Every night we tuck our four littles into bed and say their prayers. We turn out the lights and close their doors. And then we allow our two oldest children to stay up a little later.

They can choose a quiet activity–reading, finishing homework, listening to music. This “late night” time is something that they both enjoy as a perk of being the oldest.

Every Saturday we have chore day. Each child is responsible for one major chore (a bathroom, mopping the kitchen floor) and one minor chore (emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash). Of course, my two oldest children can handle a bit more responsibility than my littles. They are each assigned something extra. This something extra is completely at my discretion and depends on what I most need help with. Also on what I most hate doing myself. (By the way, I haven’t scrubbed the inside of a toilet for two years. That is my perk for mothering six children.)


The relationship between my two oldest did not improve over night. It took a lot of work to get them to where they are today. We had to be intentional. We had to seek professional help. We had to listen more than we talked.

Last summer I had two junior high-schoolers for the very first time. My son was in Grade 8 and my daughter was entering Grade 7. They decided they wanted to attend a summer camp for teens. Together, they researched and chose a camp near our home town. Together, they collected cans and bottles for recycling money to earn their tuition. Together, they spent a week at a cabin in the woods.


At the end of the week, I drove up the mountain to gather my children. They piled in my car: dirty, stinky, and tired. As I drove home, I listened to the chatter from the back seat. Their words were filled with mundane trivia–which boy was most annoying, which girl talked too much, which meal had been too disgusting to eat. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. They sounded exactly as my two oldest children should sound–happy.




I Don’t Have Time To Hate

I woke up this morning to the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I read the articles and I watched the videos and my guts twisted up while I drank my coffee. I felt myself becoming impassioned, mentally composing a response filled with angry words.

But I did not have time to sit down and write those words because I was busy raising my six children. Three boys. Three girls. Two white. Four black. All mine.


Instead of writing about oppression, I cut waffles into bite-sized pieces and poured glasses of milk.

Instead of writing about injustice, I braided my daughter’s hair and folded her clean laundry.

Instead of writing about inequality, I rubbed sunscreen into my son’s black skin.

Instead of writing about violence, I watched a back-flip contest in the deep end of our swimming pool.


Instead of writing about hate, I loved my children.

At the end of the day, after everyone was safely tucked into bed and I sat alone in the darkness of my living room, I was ready to give voice to the thoughts that had plagued me since sunrise. I opened my laptop and was appalled to read the news reports about Dallas. Eleven officers shot. Four officers dead.

Sitting there in the quiet, I realized I was no longer filled with anger. Anger is a secondary emotion, after all.

My anger had dissipated and in its place there remained a deep sadness. I felt sadness mixed with a touch of fear and a burning desire to affect change.

And at the absolute core of it all I felt love.

I love my children with a fierceness that startles me at times. I love them wholly and completely and profoundly. I see in them the possibilities of tomorrow.

It pains me to realize some people will see only the color of their skin.

Someone will miss out on my child’s compassionate heart because they notice only the shell in which it is housed.

Someone will miss out on my brother-in-law’s gentle soul because they notice only the police uniform he wears.

But, as I remind my children time and time again, we are not in charge of Someone. We can not control other people’s actions. We are only responsible for ourselves.

Instead of focusing on what Someone is doing wrong, I am going to focus on what I can do right. I am going to focus on love.

Love in my words. In my actions. In my home.

This is where we wrestle with the broken. On the couch where my daughter rests after coming home from school. She asks about Trayvon Martin and I must decide how best to answer her. Where we recognize the phrase “love is colorblind” for what it is: an insufficient band-aid for a centuries-old wound. Where we celebrate our differences while we discuss how those same differences might need to shape our behavior.

Around our dinner table. Where I invite a friend to sit across from me as I ask him the hard questions. How does the color of your skin change the way you experience the world? What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement? What do I need to tell my son about living as a black man in America?

At our family gatherings where I listen to my brother-in-law discuss his career in law enforcement. He uses words like “hostility” and “turmoil.” I hear the fear in my sister’s voice as she talks about the nights her husband works late and she doesn’t know where he is. I learn the code for their alarm system. The alarm system they were forced to install because of threats he received while in the line of duty.

Something has to change.

This change begins with me. It begins with you. It begins with our children.


Change begins with love.

The change our country needs can only be achieved if it is rooted in love.

Love is a verb. How will we be love to this broken world?

We must talk. With words bathed in truth and kindness. We must listen. With open hearts willing to receive each other’s stories.

Fear hides in the silence. We must not remain silent. Our voices will shine a light into the darkness. We can say, “Here, right here is where we have gone wrong. There, right there is where we can do better.” If I talk to my children and you talk to yours, we can bring about change where it matters most: in our families. [tweet_dis]A toxic river can not flow from a pure headspring. If we change the source, we change the world.[/tweet_dis]

This is not everything, but it is something. It is a beginning.

Darkness can not drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Let us be an example of the light and the love our world so desperately needs.




She Wears My Shoes

It was my son who first asked the question.

“Can I give them my shoes?”

I stopped and looked at him. “What, honey? Your shoes?”

“Yeah, mom. They don’t have any shoes. If I give them mine, can I borrow your flip-flops for the rest of the trip?”

We were walking the streets of Addis Ababa, searching for a taxi large enough to hold our family of eight, and we had gathered quite an entourage of street children. They followed us first with outstretched hands and then with laughter as we stumbled through our very limited Amharic.

They were hungry: it was obvious from the hollow of their cheeks and the way they snatched at the granola bars we offered. They were dirty: they lived on the streets, after all. Almost all of them were shoeless.


They followed us for almost a mile as we wound through the trash, the goats, and the street vendors. Chattering as they walked, the children called loudly to each other and seemed oblivious to the mud squashing between their toes. The recent rain left puddles of dirty water and soft ground between the broken concrete.

One little girl in particular stayed close to my elbow, staring at me intently as she walked barefoot over the rough terrain. Her head-scarf had been bright and colorful at one time but was now a dingy brown with tattered edges. Her dress sagged from one shoulder. Her face, hands and feet were dirty, colored by her surroundings. Using one of the few Amharic phrases I have perfected, I asked her name.

“Kidist,” she said with a wide smile, happy to have someone interested in who she was.

The farther we walked, the more our numbers grew. A few adults joined the parade, laughing and pointing at the amount of children we had attracted. I began snapping pictures, amused at the spectacle we were creating.


We had given out all of our snacks. The granola bars had long since disappeared into empty stomachs. I wished we had more to offer them.

Then my son asked this question.

“Can I give them my shoes?”

I looked down at his Nikes, splattered with mud but sturdy and new.

“Yeah, mom. That’s a good idea. Can I give them mine, too?” My other children chimed in.

I surveyed the people around me. A mother holding her infant. A grandmother in a make-shift wheelchair. A young woman, not more than 16, one eye milky-white and unseeing, the other dark and imploring. My own children. Street children. Kidist. All walking along side by side.

There were too many bare feet. We did not have enough shoes to go around. We would not be able to help them all.

“Absolutely. Let’s give them our shoes.” I said.

We climbed into a mini-bus and removed the shoes from our feet. We each chose one person in the crowd and reached our hands out to them, passing our shoes to someone who needed them more than we did.

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I handed my sneakers to the young mother with a baby in her arms. I recognized myself in her eyes.

Kidist now wears my daughter’s shoes.

Closing the door to the mini-bus, we waved goodbye as we drove away.

No, we could not help them all. We will never be able to help them all. But we can not let this be our excuse for not helping one.



My Place Is Beside Her

I looked out the window of the mini-bus and saw her running up the alleyway. Her scarf slipped from her head and trailed in the dust behind her. Her feet, small and bare, carried her over the rough road towards her children.

The traditional Ethiopian cry of rejoicing, lament, and exuberance rose from her lips. This high-pitched trilling sound, repeated over and over again, took the place of mere words. Words seemed inadequate to contain the overwhelming emotion of the moment.

She reached her arms out before her, gathered her children to herself, and held them close to her heart for the first time in four years.


I watched it all with a mixture of feelings I barely understood.

Joy. So much joy.

Gratitude to a God who made this moment possible.

Happiness for my children’s sake. They were in their mother’s arms again.

Trepidation. What memories and emotions might this visit unlock?

Fear of the unknown.

Insecurity. Where was my place in this tangled knot of arms and hearts and histories?

And then she turned and looked at me. Our eyes met. With tears running down her face she reached out her hands to pull me close. She pressed her cheek against mine. I knew in that moment my place was beside her.

We walked hand in hand down the dirt path. Her arm first around the shoulder of one child, then around the waist of another. She matched her steps to theirs as she kissed their cheeks.


The neighbors stood outside their gates, watching us as we moved in unison. Brothers and sisters. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. Mothers. Children.

We ducked into her courtyard and I knew instantly she had prepared for this homecoming. The dirt had been swept into submission. Mats were spread on the ground under the shade of a large tree. She proudly pulled the curtain covering her doorway aside and showed us the neatly folded blankets in the corner of her single-room dwelling. It was cool inside, the thick mud walls acting as insulation against the harsh African sun.


We sat outside under the shade-tree. The breeze rustled the leaves over our heads and blew through the cornstalks growing in the corner of the compound. She gave us the place of honor, putting her only pillow in the center of the crowd and insisting we rest upon it. She ducked inside and came back bearing a beautiful loaf of bread. Round and thick and fragrant, she placed it on the ground in front of us and handed over the knife. Please, have the honor of beginning our celebration. My husband cut into the offering and we broke bread together.


The sound of laughter filled the air as people streamed in. Friends. Relatives. Neighbors. All were welcome to join.

We passed out trinkets to the children: lollipops, silly string, bubbles. We opened our crate and handed out the carefully chosen gifts: shoes, a new sweater, a photo album filled with four years of memories.


We looked through the pictures and told stories. Here is where your daughter won an award. Here is when your son graduated Kindergarten. This is your child’s life. It is happy. It is good. Can you see the love in these pages?


We told our interpreter to share our words exactly. We wanted her to hear our hearts. We asked if she had any questions for us. Was there anything she needed to know about our family? Her children? Our lives?

I don’t have any questions. I look at my children and I can see they are healthy and they are happy. I look at your family and I can see they are loved. I know in my heart it is good. I don’t have any questions because I can see the way you have raised them.

Soon we could smell the sweet scent of roasting coffee. She sat on her heels and carefully tended the small flame. When the beans had darkened to the perfect color, the same shade of ebony as the palm of her hand, she poured them into a bowl and began pounding. Over and over and over again, she ground the beans into dust. And we waited while the coffee brewed over the open fire.

Out came the gold-rimmed cups. Matching saucers. Little spoons. A tiny bowl of sugar.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is rich with tradition. She shared this with us. Her coffee, her culture, her tradition, her children.

Our children played in the dirt. They swung their newly-found little sister high in the air. They passed her back and forth like candy, sharing in her sweetness.

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Sticky fingers and laughing eyes, she held on to her new siblings and did not want to let go. She cried when we said our goodbyes, chasing after us as we climbed the hill back towards the mini-bus.

The family trailed along slowly. They smiled. They knew we would come back again tomorrow. We had four days to spend together. Four days to take the place of four years.

We hugged goodbye. We stood together, arm in arm, hugging our children. This time I did not wonder at my place in the circle.

My place is beside her.