Book 7 Teaser: Tell God what you want!

“Your problem is that you haven’t told God that you need a miracle. Tell him! Demand a miracle!” That was the advice my friend gave me when, seventeen years ago, we were drowning.

I was pregnant with my 6th, my husband had lost his job and the part-time job he had in the meantime wasn’t paying, and my adjunct contract wasn’t going to be renewed because of budget cuts. We were falling behind in our mortgage payments and our savings were gone. Very soon we’d be in very dire circumstances.

“Tell God exactly what you need and get that miracle!” my friend insisted.

So I prayed—earnestly and daily—telling God what I wanted: a good-paying job for my husband so that we could meet our financial obligations, and the ability to keep the house we’d built so our family could be raised in a great neighborhood.

Not much—just what all of our other friends and family had. Not a fancy car, not a dream vacation, not a huge house—just the bare necessities.

Others also prayed in our behalf—intently and constantly—until finally the miracle came: my husband got a job.

But the not-so-miraculous part was that it was 2,000 miles away from that great neighborhood and my family.

And it wasn’t going to pay enough.

And we’d have to leave our house.

But maybe, just maybe—it’d be ok?

With enormous reluctance and huge tears, we moved our family cross county, put our house up for sale, and waited for the next miracles.

But they didn’t come as I demanded. Where we’d moved was outrageously expensive, and my husband’s education-based income would never cover rent, so he found yet another job, this one a couple hundred miles away, leaving me and our six children to mooch off of his family for several months.

The sale of our house fell through—four times—and because we couldn’t get caught up on the payments during those eight months, it was going into foreclosure with letters sent to us almost daily from lawyers and banks.

I was so humiliated and depressed, alone and still drowning. Did we not have enough faith to make those miracles happen? What more was I supposed to do to get my prayers answered? What did I still lack? Why wouldn’t God give me what I needed and what our family deserved?

I began to realize something: demanding miracles from God wasn’t how it was supposed to work. God is not, as Harry Emerson Fosdick once quipped, “a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button and get things done.”

Maybe I wasn’t praying for the right things. Maybe I didn’t even know what those “right things” were?

So I stopped telling God what I wanted and needed, and started asking Him to help me understand. I asked Him to change my heart to be submissive, to meekly take whatever was thrown at us. I was so low anyway, I didn’t have anything else to lose. I was hopeless, in heart and spirit.

I was broken. That’s what God was waiting for.

That’s when miracles began.

Miracle #1–We found a house to rent across the street from my husband’s new job. It was condemned and would be torn down in six months, had mice and skunks (in the cellar) and roaches, but we could live there for $350/month and be a family again for a while. The fact that I was grateful for such accommodations after living apart for eight months? Miraculous. (I’ve written about this house before here.)

virginia house

And when it rained, water poured in on all the edges where the walls met the ceiling. But that was ok, because the vines growing in the house needed to be watered.

Miracle #2–We finally found a buyer for our old house, and the day before it was to be sold at auction we closed on it and were able to negotiate payments for the second mortgage, which wasn’t covered, down to a reasonable rate. We paid it off five years later.

Miracle #3–Astonishingly, the mortgage company hadn’t reported our delinquency properly, and on our credit report was only that we’d missed one monthly payment. Our credit rating fell a bit, but three months later we were in a position to buy a brand new house at $600/month.

A full year after I TOLD God what I wanted, I realized I was in a completely different situation than I’d ever imagined but . . . I liked it!

Our new life was giving us experiences that we never could have had any other way. Our kids were flourishing, our new house was adorable, my husband loved his job, and I had work as well.

And I was very glad that God did NOT listen to my demands.

A couple years ago we drove through our old neighborhood to see the dream house we had left and lost in 2000. I was so grateful that we did NOT raise our kids there. Not that there was anything wrong with the neighborhood, but I realized how limited and narrow our lives would have been had we never left, instead of the wealth of experiences God gave us instead by forcing us away.

He knew what we really wanted, rather than what we thought we should have.

The real problem, it turned out, wasn’t that I needed to demand a miracle and insist on my ways, but that I needed to ask God what His ways were for us. And His ways have always been far, far better.

     With growing despair, he sat back on his heels. It was time to send the general a message.

    “It’s the right thing to do, right, Puggah?” he whispered.

     It’s an intriguing idea, Young Pere. But is it the right idea?

     “Well, you did it! At least, you were trying to do it, then did it in another way—”

      Young Pere, think about that—I tried to do it but failed. It wasn’t meant to be. It isn’t meant to be with you, either. 

     He scoffed. “But you just said it was intriguing!”

     Yes it is. But just because it’s an intriguing idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea. Especially when the Creator has something much better in mind. 

~Book 7, The Soldier in the Middle of the World, coming October 2017

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The best birthday present: realizing I didn’t WANT anything!

For my recent birthday, a dear friend sent me an Amazon gift card. My teenage daughter saw it and said, “Ooh, lucky you! What do you want?”

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No, seriously, it’s not.

For the first time in my life I could honestly say, “I can’t think of anything that I want.”

Victory!

Ok, I know that’s a weird response, but for a large part of my life I was a “buyer.” Frugal—yes, but also very covetous. As a teenager, I saved up for months for a name-brand denim jacket because I was sure “looking right” would bring me status and approval. It didn’t.

As a young married, I scoured decorating magazines and watched HGTV for hours (back when it was still interesting) plotting how to decorate my own humble abode. Having a house that “looked right” would bring me happiness and contentment. Nope, didn’t happen.

Even now I still struggle with covetousness. Last week I passed by a gorgeous house for sale and thought, “I want that!” But I don’t need something that large, I can’t afford it, and I already know it won’t bring me additional happiness.

Because buying and owning things don’t make life better. Things just smother life.

About ten years ago, after some financial setbacks, our family of ten was renting a small place in a town I don’t care to remember. It was there that I realized something: I wasn’t any more, or less, happy there than I’d been when I had a nicer house and better stuff.

Duh.

My happiness came from being focused on the people around me, not the stuff around me. I was very worried about my kids, having moved them from one place to another, and yet another in a short amount of time. We didn’t discuss what we’d lost but what we still had, and fortunately for us our kids’ wants were few and easily meet with a trip to the dollar store. (Since we’d quit watching TV a long time ago, our growing kids didn’t know what was trendy and what they “should” want.)

More recently I’ve learned about minimalist movements and have written here and here and here about my own attempts at eliminating junk. Before our move from Utah to Maine, I took countless trips to the dump and donation center, worried that all we owned wouldn’t fit in the largest rental truck. I’m happy to report that I’ve missed NONE of the stuff we threw/gave away, and that our 26-foot moving truck even had some room to spare. Not bad for a family of nine and all their possessions.

I’ve still got a long way to go in minimalism, though. Because this rental house has no closets, my bedroom has four large boxes of comforters, sheets, and pillows–more than we really need. Half of the boxes we packed for the move we haven’t touched yet, but are sitting in the garage waiting for the next move to a more permanent house. Some of those boxes may never be unpacked but tossed instead, and I’d be fine with that. I have dreams of moving into a tiny home when we retire in twenty years, but right now I’m needing the space of about eight tiny homes for what I still own.

But in my old age (sliding to 50, so I’m growing reflective in my maturity and sniffing haughtily as I do so) I’m realizing that my happiness is linked to only a few things:

  • my family, healthy and progressing;
  • my ability to write;
  • places to walk;
  • a peaceful place to live;
  • time to study and worship; and
  • enough clothes for a week.
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I recently read that “women of a certain age” should avoid denim. I’m now avoiding things that tell me how I should dress.

(About those clothes: I’ve culled my wardrobe to have changes of clothes for one week, two batches for summer and winter. My uber-minimalist teenage son, who can fit all his possessions into two large bins, has taught me that I don’t need more than eight t-shirts and five pairs of jeans. But my sweaters . . . that’s still a work in progress. And I do still have a denim jacket, one that I inherited from a friend some years ago—it’s the one I’m wearing in my author photos.) ==>

My list above is short and peaceful. Quite the contrast to the lists of what I wanted when I was younger; those spanned 30 or 40 items. Seasonal duvet covers, dining room hutches, wall-hangings, couches, kitchen canisters, a bench for the front porch, skirts, jackets, sweaters, collectibles. (Oh, the dreaded collectibles! They’re all gone, now.)

But this year for my birthday, I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted, because I already have all I want!

(My husband and kids did buy me a boxed book set—the second Percy Jackson series—which I’m sharing with my 10-year-old because she shared with me her boxed set of the first Percy Jackson series. Yes, I’m very mature for sliding toward 50 and I’m still sniffing haughtily about it.)

I have to admit there was something I wanted this year: a family portrait. For one weekend, the first time in over four years, our entire family was together, and I paid money (and I hate spending money) for a photographer to prove that. Here’s the wonderful result:

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This is all I need: my family, healthy and happy. (With adequate clothes–note the prevalence of t-shirts and jeans.) But since I can’t live with all of them anymore, this reminder that they are still around, and still mine, has to be enough.

All I need for this portrait a frame. And maybe if I had a gift card to buy one . . .

Hey, Paula–guess what you bought me for my birthday!

     “The world is all about getting more, building higher, and looking better. The world believes ‘enough’ is defined by what they have, plus a little more. So they’re never satisfied. Their hearts are small and weak.” Gleace sat back and looked at his guests sadly. “And that’s why the world is dying.”  

     Perrin sighed. “I once told Shem I thought the most dangerous sentences began with the words, ‘I deserve . . .’”

    “Precisely right. The world will always believe it deserves more.”

~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti, Forest at the Edge series

The Economy of Enough

I’m writing this blog in an attempt to exorcise my desire for an IKEA kitchen.

ikea kitchen

Yep. Just like this one. Sigh.

Mahrree squirmed.
To find herself so immediately gripped with envy and desire surprised her.                  ~ Soldier at the Door

I suffer from this desire every few months, and I don’t even watch HGTV anymore—the channel that usually made me unsatisfied with everything in my house. I let my subscription to “Better Homes and Gardens” expire because I didn’t need to see any more examples of rooms I’d never have.

Because I’m satisfied with what I have.
(Let me chant that to myself a few more times . . .)

This is my current kitchen, exactly how I saw it when the realtor showed it to us over five years ago. A bit outdated, the appliances are 15 years old, but it’s functional.

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(I went so far back in time, because only under the previous owners was the kitchen ever so clean. And I haven’t been able to update anything anyway.)

The kitchen’s small.
Really small.
Especially for a family of 10.
But it was all we could afford, in a nice neighborhood, and so I just sighed sadly and decided, “I’ll make it do.”

And I have, for five years, but still I’m plagued by daydreams of IKEA kitchens.

“This is hardly the way to impress others.”

Mahrree shrugged, never having been much concerned about Mrs. Hili’s opinions. “I’m not worried about impressing others. I don’t even know who I should worry about.” ~Soldier at the Door

virginia house

Cute, in the right light, and from the right distance.
(We won’t discuss the ever-present smell of decay, though. Or the smell of skunks, who lived in the crawl space.)

But here’s the thing: I had vowed back in 2001 that I would ALWAYS be happy with a modern kitchen–no matter its size–because for five months I didn’t have one. When we first moved to Virginia we lived in a house condemned to be demolished. When it rained, the water poured in from a dozen points. There were vines growing on the inside of the house, and the kitchen—

Ugh, the kitchen.
One sink, with no hot water.
One cabinet, no drawers.
Old stove/oven which had two temperatures—off and broil.
The fridge was less than 15 years old, but the carpet had been put in decades before. (Yes, very old carpet in the kitchen. You can smell it, can’t you?)
There was a pantry, along with several mouse traps.
Of course there wasn’t a dishwasher, we supplied our own microwave, along with a dresser drawer for utensils and a small table to act as a counter.

virginia kitchen

Bottom right corner you can see the edge of the stove/incinerator, and behind me is the fridge. And that’s everything. Really.

And I made that work, for five months, for a family of eight. That autumn we moved into a brand new house with beautiful oak cabinets and 150 square feet for the kitchen–and enjoyed it for almost six years–but I remembered the condemned house and realized I could deal with just about anything.

So why do I keep forgetting that when I look at my current kitchen?

“Does this mean you’re no longer satisfied with what the Creator has chosen to bless us with?”  ~Soldier at the Door

Why can’t I look at what I’ve made functional for five years and realize I don’t need any more?

“But if we don’t need more—”
“Everybody needs more, Mrs. Shin!”  ~Soldier at the Door

Maybe it’s just human nature, to look upon something and want to improve it.

Or maybe it’s just plain selfishness, wanting to pamper ourselves. I still can’t figure out why it’s so darn hard to buy into Alina Adams‘s philosophy, a Ukrainian immigrant and now a columnist about frugality in New York:

Coming from childhood poverty and a one-room apartment where she only had one dress to wear affects how she views her budget and what she actually needs.
“When you realize how little you need,” she said, “it is difficult to spend money on things you know you can do without.”

Years ago I read about a movement in Japan where people became minimalists, possessing only the barest of essentials. For one chef, that meant she gave up her rice cooker (shocking her neighbors) because she already had one pot. She eventually downsized so much that all she owned could be packed into the back of her Toyota.

But maybe it’s something else.

“What I’m trying to get at,” Mahrree tried to explain, “is that we’re simply not worried about impressing people. We’re more concerned about what the Creator thinks of us.”

Mrs. Hili shifted her gaze to Mahrree’s deliberately sweet expression.“Yes, yes of course. Although I think you’re completely wrong, Miss Mahrree. I mean yes, we worry about the Creator’s opinion, but we live in the world. We have to impress the world.”

“Why?” Mahrree genuinely wanted to know. 

Perhaps that’s still the root of my obsession with an IKEA kitchen. The few times neighbors have come into my house, I’m genuinely anxious that they’ll see my kitchen, and then . . . what will they think?

But that’s just vanity, I know. Years ago I thought I eradicated that fear of “What will others think?” I’ve done quite well in many aspects, but when it comes to my kitchen? Sigh.

Maybe it’s bigger than that, though. Our very economy is based on the premise that we’re never satisfied, that the notion of “enough” means, What I have, plus a little bit more, ensuring that we continue to be obsessed with getting more and spending more, and never reaching that elusive state of satisfaction.

Now, I don’t have thousands of dollars to throw on luxury, but daggumit, I want to make something beautiful! I want to add color! A new design! Improvement to my environment!

So despite all I’ve just written, I’ve decided I’m going to spend money on my kitchen, because my soul is hankering for something just for me!

I’m going to make a drastic change to my kitchen, and it will cost around $5.
I’m going to put up a photo–just one photo: the picture above of my daughter standing in the kitchen of the condemned house in Virginia.
Now every time I’m plagued with fantasies of IKEA kitchens, I’m going to stare at that picture.
Then, when I look at my current kitchen, in comparison it’ll be fantastic!
Because it truly is enough, and I will choose to be satisfied.

(Especially since I won’t let in the neighbors anymore.)