Thursday, December 6, 2018

Our Ebenezer Christmas Tree

I haven't seen most of our Christmas decorations in two years. When I boxed them up the last week of December 2016, I probably wasn't thinking twice about what I assumed was the inevitable - their unboxing in December 2017. This is one of those funny questions that I get a lot from people following the flooding of our home, "Oh, your Christmas decorations! Do you have any?" The answer is yes, all of our precious ornaments were high and dry in the attic, along with our Fall decorations. I'm sure my husband would happily and personally have set a few pumpkins from my excessive Hobby Lobby pumpkin hoard downstream, but they all survived. Might I add, that I have a list of a few items of his that I too wish had made it to the curb. While I have a surviving cheap pumpkin patch, he has a t-shirt collection circa 2001 that still exists holes and all. Sometimes you have to laugh at what remains, but we are thankful that our Christmas memories have survived.

We've added at least one ornament intentionally to our tree every year. This year as I pulled out the ornaments, I was struck by how much they tell the stories of the seasons that have unfolded since we became a family. Ten ornaments. Seasons of varying length and scope. I'm reminded of the song Come Thou Fount and of the prophet Samuel and the Israelites as they faced battle after battle with the Philistines. "Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called it's name Ebenezer, for he said "Till now the Lord has helped us." - 1 Samuel 7:12.

There is the wedding cake. We put this on our tree as newlyweds bright with hope of a beautiful future and a lot of expectations. I laugh at the expectations part. Some would prove true, along with many that wouldn't and were found to not be set in reality or wisdom. The expectations of two imperfect people who didn't quite know what marriage was about yet or what the years would hold. When your marriage begins with the postponement of your wedding for two weeks because of a hurricane, you would think we would have learned a bit about expectations. In fact, we're still learning about what's important and what isn't to this day. I suppose we'll be students for life in this lesson. Thank the Lord for expectations that were not met.

After our newlywed year, the first few years' ornaments are nondescript. Picked out by two people working on their careers and learning how to become one. I can't even tell which ornaments are from which years.

Then there is the ornament from our trip to Sedona. I remember hoping I was pregnant for the umpteenth time and finding out again that our hopes were delayed.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light

The ornament nestled between the Spider Man and Buzz Lightyear is a reminder of both loss and also of joy not yet realized. It was at this point that I thought maybe the ornaments on our tree would go on as they had in the years before, picked out by a family of two.

I had no idea we would putting this ornament on our tree the following Christmas. A family of three.

Or that the next year we would be adding this one. Surprise! A family of three became four.

The following year we would lose two beautiful women, our grandmothers. My grandmother, a few days before Christmas.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one

Last year, we didn't even continue our tradition of getting a family milestone ornament. It was four months after we flooded. We were in our rent house, our decorations in the attic of our home. I bought a few things to make the rent house cheery, put up a tree with some of our ornaments, set out the nativity scene for the kids and called it a day. We were weary of hard work and loss and so ready to be home. Thankfully, I have a friend who came over one day so Joey and I could work on the house together. She and her girls brought craft supplies to entertain our kids and to make ornaments. One survived. (Sorry, Miss Crispy, we did our best.). It's really the perfect ornament for the year. A reminder of our family being held up so many times by our village. He'll hang the ornament even when you can't.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

Here's the thing about these ornaments. Some joy, some sadness. I wouldn't trade one of them for an ornament without purpose or meaning. You never know what next year's ornament may be. It may be one of loss or one of joy or a mix of both, but it is never without purpose. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." - Romans 8:28. Our good, his glory. It is through this that we find joy and hope, no matter the ornament that's hanging on this year's tree.

We have yet to pick out 2018's ornament. I'm waiting until we come across the perfect one that explains where we have been this year. Our tree is next to our dining room table. At least three times a day, we can look at these ornaments and remember God's faithfulness. Our Ebenezer Christmas tree. Sometimes God gives us a glimpse of his purposes in the middle of the hard stuff and that is a precious gift. Maybe it's not until years later. Or we may not understand it in our lifetime. It may not be until we have a perfect mind on the other side of eternity that we will finally be able to grasp the full meaning of both the small and big things that have happened outside of Eden. The beautiful complexity too much for our finite minds to comprehend. So until then, we hang the ornament. We remember his faithfulness. We trust for our good and His glory. We wait with expectation.

High King of Heaven, my victory won
May I reach Heaven's joys, O bright Heav'n's Sun
Heart of my own heart, whate-er befall
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Winner Winner Lentil Dinner

You're looking at an empty butter dish, a sad little butter dish.

We're officially weird. (Oh wait, you already thought we were strange? It's ok, we can still be friends). Our family has been through a bit of a shake up that began in August leading us to completely overhaul our diet out of necessity. No, really. We're going whole food plant based. If you're familiar with this term, you may think 'vegan' and you would be right. Except, with the nuance that all whole food plant based eaters are vegan, but not all vegans are whole food plant based eaters. That's a mouthful! After all, an Oreo is technically vegan, but not considered whole food. I'm getting ahead of myself. But see, I told you...weird.

If there is one thing that seems to raise an eyebrow, it is when people starting eating outside of the conventional box. Don't mess with the food. Especially not the bacon. We've been on and off again Paleo/Whole30/Yeast-free people for a long time. I would say before it was cool. People don't blink an eye when you use these terms anymore. It used to be "Say whaaa?" when you told them you were eating Paleo. I worked in alternative healthcare for several years on the marketing/education side of things, advocating this very lifestyle so we're pretty familiar with this way of eating. While I was a professional in this arena I also followed the plan fairly well personally. Years later when I took a new job outside of the wellness world I did allow more things to slide, but a lot stuck. Most importantly, I had an understanding of the Standard American Diet versus a whole foods diet. Once you learn something, you can't unlearn it. However, you can purposefully choose to repress it and eat Mexican food and queso (can I get an 'amen'?) for dinner every night because yum, but you're at least aware of the consequences. Don't ask me how I know this.

Now here we are again, learning new things.

But why are you doing this? I know that's what you're asking. But cheese...but meat...but bacon? I'm asking it too as I'm looking at my empty butter dish. I ask myself this question a lot and then I look at my husband and my kids. We've had a significant health scare. I'm not going to go into all the details here because it's my husband's medical history. He doesn't mind me sharing truly, but for now we can have that conversation about details in person rather than on this blog. We received several test results that were startling for his age. The options were few and not great. We were looking at medications with loads of side effects for the rest of his life and a poor prognosis even with those. While we went to doctors and figured out the best course of action, everything else has pretty much been on the back burner. There is also a certain amount of grief that comes with knowing such things.

Now, why plant based? First may I say, the Paleo/Whole 30 diet is vastly better than the Standard American Diet. It eliminates a lot of simple carbs, processed foods and dairy. In fact, when we first knew that things needed to change after receiving preliminary results back in early August, he started back on Paleo/Whole 30. But as additional test results came in and the seriousness became apparent, we began looking for something that would not only prevent more damage to the heart from occurring, but also one that could actually REVERSE some of the existing damage. Modern medicine told us that it was irreversible. A plant based diet has had some success with actually reversing the disease. We're hoping to trigger the body into beginning to heal itself.

As with so many other times in our life, God prepared us in unexpected ways for this new journey. While we were in the rent house during the Harvey Affair (I think I'm going to start calling it this as it has a certain dramatic ring to it) I just happened to come across the book The China Study by T. Colin Campbell on my library app. I was familiar with this book because back when I worked in alternative healthcare, after reading it my steak-eating boss went raw vegan. References to the China Study came up often during my time working in the wellness world. Not exactly the historical fiction that I gravitate toward, but I downloaded it. The research on the plant based diet was fascinating. After reading this book, we watched Forks Over Knives among other documentaries on Netflix and I was surprised to see so many names that I was familiar with from my days in alternative healthcare. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Rip Esselstyn, Neal Barnard...all these people I was familiar with were proponents of a plant based diet. I don't know how I missed this 15 years ago! What was most interesting to me was the diet's impact on heart disease specifically. Personally, I began to eat less meat and increased my veggie intake, but for the most part I filed it away.

Fast forward eight months and here we are. I asked the first cardiologist we visited what he thought about the plant based diet and his eyes lit up. He said it would certainly be the best plan if you could follow it and gave me a few more titles to look up including Reversing Heart Disease by Dean Ornish, Michael Greger's How Not to Die and Caldwell Esselstyn's Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. We thought, what the heck it's worth a shot.

Thus began our trek into figuring out what this whole food plant based diet is all about. It has been a learning curve for sure. We've watched loads of YouTube videos from plant based conferences, subscribed to so many podcasts and have read a ton both on and offline. I still feel like I have so much to learn!

What does 'plant based' mean? No animal products - meaning no meat, dairy or eggs. This is vegan as well. However, we are focusing on this diet for health so the goal is to make our food as nutrient dense as possible. This means lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Nuts, seeds and some grains, but they must be whole and as close to the original form as possible. This is where the 'whole food' emphasis comes in.

I've learned more about food in the last month and a half than I ever expected. I've had to totally throw out my old ways of cooking and learn new methods. In the case of plant based folks who are eating for heart health, they typically do not use oils. No olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc. I've become a professional label reader and I'm also that annoying person who asks people a bunch of questions before purchasing food items. My grocery basket cracks me up every time I leave the store. I buy strange things like medjool dates, bulgur, and swiss chard along with the entire produce section. Also odd, I don't even venture into the meat or dairy sections (sigh, cheese).

Joey has been eating plant based since the day he received the offending test results. He threw away the Blue Bell and the beer that very evening. Not one cheat this whole time. If you know my barbecue and ribs lovin' husband, this is shocking. But he has truly amazed me. I am so proud of him. His friends have been great and have met him at places where he can stick to his plan. He's become a connoisseur of lentil soup. One can only laugh. When I've asked if he's sure he wants to do this, he responds that he loves spending time with me and the kids more than he loves steak. I love this guy.

We found a board certified cardiologist who is a proponent of plant based eating and Joey has been under his care for two weeks. He's a little over a week into a 28 day raw plant based detox among other therapies.  Thankfully, you have the option to get the food from the facility so the burden is not on us to figure out suddenly how to eat raw vegan for 28 days. By 'raw', I mean no cooking or real processing. Oh, and no coffee during the detox either. Where's a sad and horrified emoji when you need one? It is a tough regimen no doubt, but at the end of the 28 days he'll transition to a "regular" plant based diet. Lentil soup will be like Turkish Delight at this point. So far, he's ten pounds away from the goal weight that the first cardiologist gave him. His blood pressure is awesome and his cholesterol and triglycerides are now within the normal range. This is amazing considering where they were in August.

In the meantime, I'm testing out recipes on myself and the kids. Joey and I ate plant based last month and the kids ate maybe 70% plant based. Y'all, my kids are eating so many veggies! They try almost everything. I've had some homeruns and a few strikeouts, but I'm proud of them too for being so adventurous. We've been talking a lot about eating foods to fuel our bodies.

We're taking it week by week, result by result. In the end it will be about works for Joey. Does this mean we won't eat meat for the rest of our lives? Probably not to that extreme, but at this point it looks like it will be more of the trend for our family as we're a team. This isn't a decision based on fear, it's based on hope. It's taking a lot of stuff out, but putting a whole more of the good stuff in. I think we can get used to that. Now, what to do with all my butter paraphernalia?

Oh and before I forget please, please still invite us to dinner and parties! We'll either let you know what we can eat or we will bring our own stuff. It's not a big deal. We're not your vegan friends, we're just your friends and we still want to hang out.

Hiding in the Closet Eating Bacon (just kidding...sort of)

Friday, September 7, 2018

Faith Floats

Before you read this post, I want to acknowledge that everyone experienced Harvey in a different way. Often in hardship there are varying degrees of past and present suffering which color and shape each experience. There are the first responders and their families who sacrificed so much. There are the families who calmed little ones throughout the storm.  And then there are those that lost some. Some that lost all. Bits and pieces of these things may be parts of your experience too. This is just part of our story.

Our version of American Gothic
I read my last few posts below after not having blogged in a year and a half. Sometimes you just have to laugh...and marvel. At the time, we had finished the first round or two of simplifying our life. Drastically minimizing belongings (the word 'drastically' is so funny to me now, but at the time it was a drastic change), shoring up finances and changing our mindset and priorities to that of less for the sake of more. 

If you would have told me that within the next six months we would lose our home along with about 95% of our possessions, I could never have imagined it. Minimalist Dabblers would become by circumstance, Minimalist Extremists in a few short months. The 'me' on August 24, 2017 that went to sleep in our bed underneath my favorite fluffy duvet could have never imagined that in two weeks we would be in an unfamiliar rental house while our home dried out from holding several feet of sewage water for a week. The contents of our life and the physical memories of the past nine years rotting on the curb in wreaking, head-high heaps of garbage.

Different house. Different clothes. Different toys. Different bed. Different comforter. Different pillows.

Same husband. Same children. Same faithful God.

This is where I begin to marvel at the ways in which God prepares each us for the trials that we will face. And we will encounter them, believers or not.
As Peter affirms "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." 1 Peter 4:12-13
Christians don't suffer less because we believe, but as believers God uses every bit of our suffering and pain for his glory and our good. Nothing is wasted. To look back and see his hand in our lives is overwhelming.

I could tell you many stories from this season. The words of an entire year have been building up and are too big. Sometimes the words are so many, that they can't make it to paper until they're processed through a bit. The story that I will share today is more about the thread that connects all the stories. It's not really about a flood or a hurricane. It's not an account or timeline of our journey.

It's about God's faithfulness. Here are a few of the pieces of faithfulness that have surfaced for us over the last year...

Almost a year and a half before the weary part of the journey began (read "the wet part"), God gave me a desire to simplify our life. I didn't know why, but I felt like our family needed to get light. By "light", I mean to shed the excess. I thought, 'Maybe we are supposed to adopt or go into ministry or move to Africa or I don't know...prepare for something drastic?' - there's that word again.

Something that we needed to be light for.

You can look back at my previous posts, but basically we got rid of a bunch of stuff and pared down. Yes, that freed us up a lot, but the bigger result of this process of "getting light" was the refocusing of our mindset to storing up treasure in heaven versus things of the earth. Do we enjoy things? Absolutely. But, it's a matter of enjoying earthly things without a white knuckled grip. Holding loosely. It was only the beginning of this lesson that I'm still learning, but I am so thankful that God began loosening my grip when he did. It's one thing to pry your own fingers away from something and quite another to have it wrenched away while holding fast. God was teaching me these things for something and it was...drastic.

In an effort to simplify overall, we had tightened our finances and made several decisions that would eventually help to ease the financial burden of what was to come. One of these decisions was to purchase flood July. It takes 30 days for a flood policy to take effect. Harvey came at the end of August. Yeah, I know.

I just thought we were saving money to pay off our house and make room for whatever was coming. and in truth we were, but I certainly never earmarked anything in our budget with 'in case of flood'. Typically when I think of Emergency Funds (i.e. Dave Ramsey), I'm thinking more like a car breaks down or an appliance goes out, not your home and belongings being under a couple of feet of sewage water. I've said it so many times, I couldn't have imagined this narrative for our family. We were like squirrels storing away nuts, yet oblivious to the coming winter.

In the wee hours of Friday morning, the night before Harvey's dimensions were really becoming apparent, my husband woke up at 3AM. I didn't know this until 5AM when I walked into the living room to find him watching the news. He told me he thought we needed to go to Louisiana. He felt it in his gut. At the time and much to my discredit, I balked. Really? We're Houstonians, we hunker down. We don't leave. Furthermore, no one was telling us to leave. Yet he felt really strongly about it. So I said ok, thinking we would avoid a few days without power with two toddlers. It couldn't hurt. We left around 7AM with four suitcases, two kids and our dog. Oh, and the kids' lovies, pillows and special blankets (thank you, Lord!). One more thing, an unflooded car! This was an unbelievable grace as rentals would be hard to get in the coming weeks. We weren't here for the incessant tornado sirens over the course of several days, seeing rising water in our home or eventually being boated out. We were spared this trauma and spent the whole time in Louisiana dry and being loved on by family. Yes, the trauma of change and loss is a lot, but we were insulated from the actual storm. And by insulated, I also mean that we gained a few pounds from two weeks of my father-in-law's cajun cooking.

On our way back to Katy

After we learned our home was certainly flooded and when we got back to Katy, God's provision really blew us away.

A family from Denham Springs, Louisiana drove with a trailer load of supplies to help our community. Their entire city had been through devastating floods the previous year. They wanted to help and happened to know our pastor and his wife, who we ended up staying with during the interim between arriving in Katy and finding a place to live. I can't tell you the blessing that they were to us during the whirlwind of the next week. They had the experience to prepare us for what was to come as part of the rebuilding process. He was a builder and had mucked out and rebuilt many homes in their community. This was invaluable. His wife and sister-in-law are so dear to me because they personally cleaned out my closet before the crew was able to get to it. There's something about people tossing your stuff without you that is deeply personal. Such a kindness.

Generous people supplied money for tools and necessities. We were able to find a rental home (we searched for apartments nearby to no avail) in the same neighborhood as some of our best friends and pastor. Also on that note, I made a new friend with three little precious kids that lived on the same street. A sweet friendship thanks to Harvey. Our church family made sure our rental house was fully outfitted with all the necessities as well as extra comforts. I was so worried about the kids' abrupt transition to the rental house lacking anything familiar, but it had a spacious backyard with a play structure (win!). The kids' rooms were respectively purple (to my daughter's happy surprise) and green. Beds and furniture were provided. Duplicates of previous owned toys were purchased for the comfort of our kids. Food was brought to us every day. Childcare was made available as mom and dad had lots of decisions to make. Remaining clothing washed for us. People helped disinfect anything that made it out of the house. Over the entire six months not one need went unmet.

The Lord even provided on the day that we were finally able to muck out our house. (maybe 7-8 days after Harvey? It's a blur.) The National Guard had closed off entry to our neighborhood for many days after the rain subsided for high water, sewage contamination and electrical concerns. Our homes sat for days in nasty water and sweltering heat. My husband and a friend were finally able to kayak into the neighborhood and get a look at our house. They brought back some of our most important salvaged possessions.

Because we left our home without a clue that it would flood, we didn't put anything up high. It's also a one-story home. How many times can I say this, we could have never imagine this would happen! I've mentioned the lovies, but a neighbor pulled bins from under our bed and put them up high before the water entered which contained treasured items such as baby blankets, Joey's A&M stuff, etc. I remember opening each bin on our pastors' porch and being overwhelmed emotionally by each item that was saved. Our Bibles, journals that I have kept since I was young, sweet baby items and a few of my husbands' sentimental family heirlooms were all included. Because we had eliminated so much stuff the previous year, we had little to go through. Picking through the pieces that remain is overwhelming. We were so grateful for the sweet things that made it out, but also the fewer the pieces, the sooner you can move on. Being light on stuff ended up being such a grace for us.

The following day we were able to get to our block with an F250 and a crew of guys from our church, my sweet friend Tara and myself. Tara and I piggybacked in from the truck. I'm not going to say this day was a blast, but it was the perfect blend of people to walk with you through it. The threat of tears turned into laughter and the humor was easy to find. I quite enjoyed asking people to wipe their feet at the door. This day should have been horrible, but it wasn't. Laughter brings such healing.

It's one thing to have physical provision, but another to be given internal provision. I'm talking peace. It's something we truly can't manufacture on our own. Were we at peace every day? Nope. There was much to be sad about and a lot of loss. The physical and emotional weariness knocked me over many days in the eight months following Harvey. If you know me you know that decisions in the Luby's line can stress me out! Making large-scale to itty bitty decisions on the rebuilding and outfitting our home from top to bottom, totally spent me. I'm still tired!

Two mental images stick out to me.

Picture one. The first time I saw our home since we had left it several days before. We were in Louisiana glued to the TV as we watched nationally famous journalists giving reports from across our street at Creech Elementary. It was a video a friend sent me of a boat being pulled by a jet ski through our neighborhood while the passenger was videoing the devastation. I caught the smallest glimpse of our house as they passed by, the boat making ripples in the water by our house as it passed by. Surreal. The home that Joey and I came home to as newlyweds nine years ago. The home to which we introduced both our babies and grieved the loss of another. The home where I left a half-folded basket of laundry on the couch and dishes in the sink. It's a funny thing...after days of wondering, it was both devastating and comforting all at once to see our little house. I broke down, yet I watched it over and over again just to see it.

Claire's room looking into Keats' room

Our street many weeks after Harvey
Picture number two. Seeing your family's ordinary items of daily life all on the curb is shocking and quite the gut punch. Stuff we bought when we were married, kids' birthday gifts picked out with love, my beloved KitchenAid mixer, my daughter's Melissa & Doug princess dress dotted with mold, furniture piled high, black trash bags lining the street. Nine years worth of stuff and life, all there in a rotting pile on the curb. The same picture, block after block.

This was hard. Very hard. But here's the thing with this stuff. Although a lot of memories were attached to these things, they were all destined to this end eventually.
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:19-21
This verse has never been more real to me than in the last year. , I still struggle with it daily!

Getting ready to move back in
First night back home
We moved back into our almost completely rebuilt home six months later. My husband worked nearly every day during that time to get our family back home. So thankful for him and the numerous other people that helped to get our family back home. It was a sweet day.

Remembrance of loss still catches me by surprise even a year later when I'm reminded of something that no longer exists but in my memory. While in the garage I stumbled across a little jewel from the crown my daughter wore every day for two years. I keep it on the kitchen window sill. It's more than a memory. It's a touchstone serving as a reminder that God is faithful through it all. No flood insurance, he is still faithful. Boated out, he is still faithful. No lovies, he is still faithful.

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." - Lamentations 3:22-23