Category Archives: Unconventional Motherhood

Love and Struggle With Carrie Underwood and Mister Rogers

Leaving Uganda is always bittersweet. I know how fortunate I am to feel at home in two such distinctly different places in the world, I know what a rare gift that is. This trip has been unlike any other, all of our projects going smoothly or taking unexpected turns for the better. My husband likes to remind me that it’s ok, good even, that things went so smoothly.

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For me the biggest challenge has been balancing being a mother, being a daughter, and being true to the beliefs we hold dear within Vigilante Kindness. It was a tightrope walk for me. My prayers were often petitions for grace and wisdom and strength and understanding. My actual prayers were not that eloquent. They were more like, “I’m out of ideas here, God. Can you let me in on the plan?” Or “God, remind me to be kind. Help me understand.” I prayed that one a lot. But do you want to know the prayer I prayed the most? I hope you find this as funny as I do. I’m not even a country music fan, yet over and over again I prayed-and I wish I were making this up-I prayed, “Jesus, take the wheel.” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s true.

There were times on this trip where I was bad at being a mom, bad at being a daughter, or bad at figuring out where to go next with VK. Sometimes I was bad at all three at once and I’d take a quiet moment, most times while I was washing my clothes in the shower, because there’s something about water that makes me think, and I’d say out loud, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Then I’d throw my soapy hands up in the air like I was releasing a steering wheel. No joke.

I’m new to this mothering thing and this year I got to know my boys better, got to see some of their less desirable qualities. They also got to know me better and I’m sure saw some of my less desirable qualities, too. Mix that in a bowl with my shortcomings as a daughter and two cultures that often operate in opposite directions than one another and you’ve got a big lump of mess.

A big beautiful mess.

But over and over again we chose to love each other, to navigate our differences, our disagreements, to build bridges across the chasms created by our cultures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a quote from Mister Rogers about how the verb love is an active verb, like the verb struggle. Love is a choice we make over and over again. And to love someone as they are in this very moment, perhaps in an ugly mess of a moment, when love is the last thing you want to speak, and yet you dislodge loving words from your throat and speak them anyway, that is love.

I don’t know about you, but isn’t that great news, that in the throes of difficulty we can choose to love? Better yet, in tantrums of our own worst selves, we have people who choose the struggle, choose to love us. Best of all, God chooses every day to love our imperfect, praying in the shower selves.

Moms out there, I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. This motherhood thing isn’t for sissies. Maybe you’re like me, and you and your kid are unveiling the vulnerable and sometimes messy sides of yourselves. Maybe you aren’t bridging the cultural gaps we’re traversing, but maybe your kid is residing in the very foreign land of Teenager and you aren’t finding common ground. You’re not alone.

In the moments when you’re on empty, borrow Mister Rogers’ words. Choose to struggle for love, choose to struggle in love, choose love. And in the moments when all you can do is throw up your soapy hands and give up the wheel, Carrie Underwood and I are here for you, too.

Hot Nails

I’ve never been part of an Acholi forgiveness ceremony or seen one in action. I don’t know if it’s a practice that still takes place, but even if it’s only a part of history, it leaves me tinged with awe and wonder.
The gist of it is this: if you wrong someone, the person you’ve wronged gets to decide your recompense. Your recompense must be something that requires some sort of sacrifice on your part, but it can’t be something completely unattainable. Costly, but not impossible.

Once appropriate recompense is decided and attained, the offender presents it to the offended in front of the community, and sometimes in front of the entire chiefdom. 

Then it’s done. 

The offense is cancelled out by the recompense made and it’s as if the offense never transpired.

The slate is washed clean.

I’ve been invited to the 93rd birthday party of Uncle Patrick’s father, a highly respected elder. Uncle Patrick is my language tutor from last year. He’s also the father of Lydia, one of our work study scholars, the father of Olive, my current language tutor, and is the only father my kid, Martin, has ever been loved by. Though Patrick is really some sort of older cousin, he claims, loves, and treats Martin as his son. I love Patrick and his family dearly.

Patrick’s invitation was followed by the phrase, “And my father only lives a hundred meters or so from Martin’s biological father, so you may be able to meet him as well.”

After the invitation I was barely able to control my face, let alone my mouthy mouth. I responded that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to attend because I’d already committed to being in another village that day. It was true and I was glad to have a real reason to consider going or not.

Here’s the thing about Martin’s biological dad, he gave Martin up, let him live on the streets and eat garbage. He only phones Martin when he needs something and when Martin isn’t able to help, his dad pulls a full on guilt trip on him and tells Martin that he never wants to help his dear old dad.

So meeting this guy is not #1 on my To Do List. 

I really want to throw rocks at him and say a few choice words. His whole personhood makes me want to spit hot nails.

But from somewhere behind my hot rage, from a better place within me, the Acholi forgiveness ceremony rises up and gently curls around my angry heart.

The person wronged gets to choose the recompense. This man has not wronged me. He owes me nothing. Forgiveness isn’t mine to give. Or to withhold. Ouch.

It’s Martin who was wronged and he’s forgiven his dad a million times over. Martin, along with every kid on the planet, still seeks his dad’s love and approval, something that may never come. It breaks my heart to watch him fall for his dad’s guilt trips every time, but in that same vein there’s a lightness Martin has that I don’t because each time his dad is awful, Martin forgives him freely and without expectation of recompense.

I truly don’t know if I’ll be able to rearrange my other village visit to attend the birthday party, and I surely don’t know that if I do I’ll be able to extend an iota kindness toward Martin’s biological dad, but if nothing else I’m determined to shut my mouthy mouth.

Swallowing those hot nails back down is proving to be painful.

Less than Nothing, More than Pork

Calvin unpacks his story of being a street kid beggar and I watch as my son, Opiyo Martin, seated next to Calvin, folds into himself, making himself small and aling, quiet. I see his eyes flash back to the time when he, too, was a street kid picking through the garbage to find food to eat, stealing to buy food when the garbage cans availed no sustenance.

I would give anything to take that part of his life away, to erase those years and rewrite his history, to allow him to be born to a mother and father who chose to love him, chose to keep him, chose him.
I’d rewrite those years if I could, even though it would mean he never would’ve become mine. He never would’ve given me my Acholi name. I never would’ve watched joy fill his face as he ate pork, his absolute favorite thing, second only to God. I never would’ve laughed until I cried when he first said to me, “Mum, I love you more than I love pork.”

Even still, I would remove those early pages of his life.

Seeing him fold in on himself as Calvin speaks, is more than I can take. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this conversation, how to take Martin with me. Instead I catch and hold his gaze and move the toe of my shoe until it’s touching the toe of his shoe, the one with the rainbow laces that remind me he’s still a kid. It’s a small gesture and I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I was better at being his mom.


In Uganda, dogs are the lowest of all animals, pesky nuisances, always begging for food, not worth throwing a bone to. The dogs here are all skin and bones, notched rib cages visible through thin layers of matted fur. There’s an Acholi saying, Adoko gwok, meaning “I’ve become a dog.” It’s a term for the destitute, meaning I’ve become less than nothing, a person unable to provide even my own food.

Opiyo Martin always feeds the stray dogs, coos soothing words to them, feeds them the best pieces of pork from his plate. He does this because he remembers feeling like he was adoko gwok, remembers feeling as if he was worth less than nothing.

When Calvin pauses in his story, Martin explains that he’s sorry, but he has to ride his bicycle back to his uncle’s house before it gets too dark. I jump up and walk him to his bike.

“Are you okay? I know it’s hard for you to think about your past,” I put my hand on his back, rub small circles like my mom used to do when I was sick.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m okay. I’m just thinking about how far God has brought me.”

My voice catches in my throat and I nod, blinking back tears. There aren’t words for the vastness of his statement.

Earlier in the evening, we’d been talking to each other about difficult situations we each find ourselves in, seeking advice from each other. It’s one of the many times, I’m grateful to have been his teacher and friend before I became his mother. How lucky am I that my kid is also my friend?

“Mom, I wanted to pray for you and your situation. Can I do that?”

“Yes, and let me pray for you and your situation, too.” I grab his hand and standing by his bicycle we pray. We finish and I hug him tight.

“Amari, latina,” I love you, my child.

“Amari, mamana,” I love you, Mom.

“More than you love pork?” I tease.

“At least as much as I love pork,” he teases back. 

He swings a leg over his bike and I watch his rainbow shoelaces flutter in circles as he pedals away from me.

Later that night I lay under the cover of my mosquito net and hear the street dogs commence their nightly howling serenade. I wonder if they’ve found enough scraps to eat. I think of the children who are huddling in doorways and I hope that their bellies are full. I say a prayer of thanks that Calvin and Martin are no longer among them. My eyelids are heavy and I fall into a dream world where there are no longer hungry children or skin and bones dogs, a world where nobody feels adoko gwok.

Love at the Door

It was one of those days. The broken air conditioner had blown hot air at us all day. The stuffy classroom put all twenty-five first graders and me in a cranky mood.

Everybody was peeved.

Everybody was in everyone else’s space.

It felt like every syllable of every word was a tattle. “He looked at me funny.” “Her shoe is touching my space on the carpet.” “He’s breathing too loud.”

I wish I were making those up, but, fellow teachers, you know I’m not.

We made it through the day. By the skin of our sweaty teeth. But we made it.

After school an unexpected cart of new computers was delivered, a delightful surprise, except for the fact that the charging cart they’re required to be stored in is roughly the size of China. Since I was going to be out the following day, I knew I had to rearrange my room, lest the natural disaster called Leaving My Class With A Sub should strike and sweep the new computers up in its funnel.

So in the sweltering heat of my classroom, I lifted and grunted three dinosaur computers out of my room. The dust bunnies that had gathered behind the computers scampered away. I heaved the now empty table out and rolled the new computer cart into place, plugging it securely into the outlet, which is when the breaker box decided it, too, had simply had enough of this day. Every machine in my room went silent.

I stood in the silence and the heat, shaking my head. The clock was minutes away from 6pm. I was hot and tired and hungry. I wondered what else could go wrong.

You’d think I’d know by now not to ask that question.

After I’d located a custodian, who unlocked the breaker box and flicked the switch, I readied my room for the substitute. As I took a final look around my classroom, I heard what can only be described as a sizzling sound emanating from the outlet near the Books on CD station.

Sizzling sounds in the classroom are never, ever good.

The sizzling sound came from batteries recharging in the charger. I pulled the sizzling charger out of the outlet, threw the culprit batteries in the battery recycling container, and wiped away the battery acid magma that had oozed onto the table.

I slung my purse over my shoulder and glanced at the clock.  5:57pm.  I’d been at work 11 hours. Lunch felt like it was decades ago.

As I closed the door on the day, I had a fleeting wish that I was back in my Ugandan classroom. I had pangs of longing for the simplicity of teaching in an open air classroom under a thatch roof, where the only tools were a blackboard, me, and my students.

I stepped into the shared space outside of my classroom and nodded in solidarity at the handful of daycare kids who, like me, had been at school for 11 hours. Poor kids. Poor daycare teachers.

One little boy sat coloring at the round table just outside my door. I hadn’t seen him before.  I know I would’ve remembered him because his skin was the rich coffee bean color of my Ugandan sons. I paused to look at his picture.  His nametag sat like a tent on the table and the sight of his name stopped me in my tracks.

Amari.

His nametag read Amari.

Amari is the Lwo word for, “I love you.” It’s the phrase my Ugandan sons use when signing messages to me. It’s what we say to each other with our hearts in our throats when I leave Uganda and return home every summer.

i-love-you-Amari

At 5:58pm, here it was, waiting for me at my classroom door.

Amari.

Love.

I tend to forget the remarkable measures God takes to make me know that He sees me.  On days when I’m cooked and in the dark and hungry and any semblance of energy I once had has long ago left the building, He sees me.

I wish I were one of those people who picks up on God’s more subtle messages. I’m not. I probably never will be and that’s okay because the better news is that on days like that when I am, at best, a worn out thread of myself, God takes extraordinary measures to make sure I know that I’m loved.

Dear One, maybe you needed that gentle reminder today, too.  On days when it’s all you can to do to put one foot in front of the other to wade through the wreckage, God sees and loves you.

Amari indeed.

Chickens, Of Course

My phone had been pinging all day long.  As I walked to my car that afternoon, I checked my messages and laughed at the group conversation my boys had been having while I was at work.  Normally I loathe group texts, group conversations and the straight EVIL that is the Reply All button.

But the conversation between my boys tickled me.  I struggled to translate their conversation from Acoli into English, but when I did, I saw that there were 28–yes, 28–messages about land prospects for the chicken farm, feed providers, which farmer they’ll buy the initial chicks from, etc.

There were also teasing barbs, typical brotherly ribbing.  Can I just tell you how much my heart loves the teasing they do?  My formerly orphaned boys tease each other like brothers do and it’s music to my ears.

I read along as their messages progressed into the evening in Uganda and when they settled down for the night and messaged a chorus of I love yous to each other, it was all I could do to scoop my puddled heart up off the floor.

Because of you, Vigilantes, my boys were starting to see that their Chicken Farm Project wasn’t just a dream.

Me?  I wish I had their faith.  I’d spent the previous night looking at the Chicken Farm Project donation thermometer, incredibly grateful for the $51 that had been donated, but also trying to come up with ways to make that thermometer fill up to the tippy top.

Fundraising Thermometer Widget ~ Fundraising Thermometer Graphic-2

Little did I know, on that very night, as I sat trying to think of ways to make this project happen, and the following morning as my boys chattered away about all things chicken, a Vigilante woman was praying about my boys and their future chicken farm.

This woman has asked to remain anonymous, so let me tell you just a little about her.  She’s a cancer survivor.  She volunteers at her local hospital.  She takes in foster kids.  She loves with her heart wide open.

After I finished translating the 28 messages from my boys, I received this message from this Vigilante woman.

After thinking and praying about this last night and today, I have decided to send you a check for $950 to fund the chicken project.  I’m impressed with the guys and their determination in coming up with an idea, a business plan, and a way to help others.”

Insert record scratch here.

Wait, what???

I read her message again.  She’d decided to fund the remainder of the ENTIRE CHICKEN FARM PROJECT.

I called her immediately and before the first ring, I was crying, snot dripping, mascara running, ugly crying.  I left her a blubbering voicemail and then called my mom, who cried right along with me.

I still laugh at the whole idea of this chicken farm.  Really, God?  You want me, the girl who is terrified of birds, to help my boys start a chicken farm in Uganda?  Chickens?  Really?  Of course. God’s sense of humor is obviously fully in tact.

God’s sense of compassion is also fully in tact.  I know this to be true because three formerly orphaned boys have not only taken up residence in my heart, but in your hearts, too.

My boys still struggle with the residual pain of being orphaned. Of being left by parents who died too young. Of being unloved. Of being treated like dogs. Of being children left to fend for themselves on the streets. Of being unclaimed.

I sit here fighting back tears again because you, sweet Vigilantes, whether you donated a single penny or a lot of pennies, have claimed me, claimed my boys, and claimed a whole lot of chickens, too.

Thank you.  Thank you so much.

Want to see something wonderful before you go?

Fundraising Thermometer Widget ~ Fundraising Thermometer Graphic

 

Chickens: A New Year’s Resolution

It’s no secret that I hate birds.  I’m talking the fire of a thousand suns kind of hatred.  Just in case you’re thinking my bird loathing isn’t justified, let me send you on a little trip down memory lane to the day a wild turkey chased me to school.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

See?  I hate birds and they hate me. Fair is fair.

Last summer, with just a few days remaining in Uganda, my three boys set an official meeting with me.  They’d been having “brothers only, no mother” meetings without me for a few days, so when they set this meeting with me my interest was piqued, to say the least.

I’m new to this parenting thing and I was a little nervous.  They’re not biological brothers.  Being brothers is as unfamiliar to them as motherhood is to me.  We’re all still working out the kinks of our unlikely family.

Lanyero and Sons: Otim Geoffrey, Alicia, Oryem William and Opiyo Martin
Lanyero and Sons: Otim Geoffrey, Alicia, Oryem William and Opiyo Martin

The day came for our meeting and we sat outside at a table, drinking pineapple Merinda.  My boys began to speak.  They told me how grateful they are that Terry and I support their schooling and how grateful they are that we do so much for them.  They also told me how difficult it is for them to ask for our help, especially because they know we’re supporting all three of them.

I didn’t have much of a response except to say that I understand how difficult it is to ask for help.  Most days, I’d rather die than admit I need help.

I also told my boys that as their mom, part of my job is to say no when they ask me for things that aren’t in their best interests.  (Right moms?  That’s part of the job, right?  Oh, I’m so new to this.)

They continued, telling me that they’d developed a business plan so that they could begin to pay their own school fees and pay for other necessary items like books, food and clothing.

I took a deep breath.  Young boys with a business plan sounded like bad news to me.  I had “No” ready on my lips.

Then they pulled out photocopies of their business plan and I knew they were serious.  Typing up the plan on a computer and then making copies isn’t that easy when you don’t have access to things like a computer, a copier or regular electricity.

Martin, my middle kid who named me Lanyero, went over their plan in detail and I couldn’t help but giggle.

My boys had created a beautiful business plan to start a chicken farm.

A chicken farm, proof positive that God has a wicked sense of humor.

They even named it: Lanyero and Sons Broilers.

Lanyero means “joyful”.  The literal translation means “laughter”.  And, Lord have mercy, did I cackle at the thought of starting a chicken farm in Northern Uganda.

What brings me joy about their plan is that they want to tithe a portion of their chickens and eggs to local organizations that take care of people with disabilities, widows, and orphaned babies and children.

My formerly orphaned boys want to help care for orphans.

And just like that my heart melted.

So as people around me are making New Year’s resolutions to get healthy, get organized, get out of debt, I-the girl who is petrified of all things feathered-am making plans to get chickens.

Wanna help make the chicken farm come to fruition?  Here's your chance.  

Love Has Come

I ugly cried in church last Sunday.

I’m not a big crier.  Crying in front of someone or worse yet, lots of someones, is my #1 Top Most Embarrassing Thing Ever.

And yet there I was absolutely weeping.  Mascara dripping, nose running, shoulder shaking, flat-out sobbing.  I blame Jeremy Riddle and his song God of the Redeemed.  Go ahead, take a listen.

I didn’t even make it through the first verse.  “Love has come.  We’re orphans no longer.”  At that point it was all over.  I didn’t have time to swallow the lump rising in my throat before the tears started streaming.

By the time it got to, “Hallelujah, to You, the God of the redeemed,” I was a complete wreck.  All I could do was stand there, lift my face and cry.  The tears dripped down my cheeks and into my ears, so many tears that my ears filled up and overflowed down my neck.

I cried in joy because I’ll see my boys and all my other Ugandan kids in a few short days.

I cried for my boys who were orphans.

I cried because I’m overcome that they’ve chosen me as their mother.

I cried for my son who used to think he was nothing.

I cried out of gratitude for a school that in tangible ways shows my boys they’re worthy of redemption.

I cried the tears of a thousand hallelujahs.

And when I ran out of tears, I stood in silence doing nothing, not singing a word, barely uttering even a breath.  And in my quiet, in my stark nothingness, I stood and didn’t care how many people saw me cry.  In that moment everything else ceased to matter.

I’d been looking for a gift to give my boys, something to remind them that they’re not orphans anymore, that we have claimed each other as mother and sons.  I looked and looked, but nothing was right.  And then I saw them.

love rings

Simple rings, one for me and three for them, reminders that love has come and that the best love often comes in unexpected ways.  Meeting the love of my life when I was fifteen and filthy dirty from helping build a church in Mexico.  Finding my sons 9,049 miles away.  The baby in a manger who redeemed us all.

Love has come and it leaves me in such awe that it’s all I can do to whisper hallelujah.