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Two Years, Two Puppies, Two Girls

All TogetherToday Sam and I celebrate two years of marriage with two kids and two puppies, but it will be the last anniversary that we will go two by two. At 37 weeks, our house is being transformed to include another new life that is now well-contained in my belly.

There is no way I would be where I am (the pastor of a church, the editor-in-chief of an independent publishing house, the stepmom of two beautiful girls, and puppy mom to two rescue pups) without Sam. He continues to challenge me and see things in me that I can’t see.

Thank you, Sam, for changing my life, for changing me.

What is Normal?

As I watched the news this morning, I heard the news anchors saying again and again that what the Midlands community is looking forward to is returning to a sense of normalcy. I nodded my head in agreement at first, but then I realized that for some many families there won’t be a normal to be returned to.

I have already heard stories of people who are planning on moving from the Midlands because quite simply there is nothing left for them here. They have no house and no materials and so they are headed to family and friends’ homes who can support them during this time of rebuilding. Their lives will forever be marked by last week’s events and their normal Midlands lives may never exist again.

For the rest of us who were fortunate enough to maintain minor damages, our coming days and weeks will be filled with a new sort of normal that includes remembering to bring another bottle of water to put by the sink to brush our teeth, debating each day whether we really need to keep that one bathtub filled with water just in case, and including extra time in our commute to detour around closed roads.

As organisms operating in an ecosystem, the return to homeostasis is certainly something we are working towards, and the hope for this return to balance is what makes us get up and continue to work in our community amidst tired muscles and shock. As we work, we secretly know that there won’t be a normal like there was before. We know that we will have to adjust and change. We know that the way we view the world is slowly shifting.

We just hope that change makes us stronger and better neighbors.

Barefoot and Pregnant in the Kitchen

I looked down at my belly and my bare feet and realized that at that moment I was indeed barefoot and pregnant and standing in the kitchen. I had to laugh at myself because this stereotype that has been used and overused is just impossibly easy to live into when you are eight months pregnant because I am always in the kitchen snacking.

But of course, that’s not the aspect of the saying that strong, independent women react to. It’s the implication that a woman’s role is to always be in the kitchen cooking and to reproduce. As I have pondered what it means to be a stepmother to two daughters, I have wondered whether it means that I teach that this expectation is wrong or if my role is to teach them to use their voice, so that they can make their own choice and to fight against those who try to take away their voice and choice.

I’d like to believe that when our daughters are grown, the economic situation in our country that forces women back to work only days after having children will have shifted, so that if they do choose to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, that will be a viable option, but there seems to be little shift in the conversation about maternity leave or in postpartum care for new moms.

Having lived in Germany and enjoyed the use of a bike that a teacher who was on her yearlong maternity leave wasn’t using, I wonder if we aren’t on our way to burning out women, families, and our country in the way that we continually compete against each other. Already I am flooded with articles and pictures of how to lose the baby weight and our baby hasn’t even made his appearance. Although I consider myself a rational, thinking person, there is no doubt that the more articles I am exposed to, the more I wonder if it’s something I should really be worrying about.

As our conversations and debates continue to be more derisive and our interactions with each other competitive-based, we are slowly running ourselves into the ground as Americans. We are becoming the worst versions of ourselves.

There has to be a better way to live with each other.

On Having to Ask for Help Again and Again

As the third trimester gets closer and closer, I find myself in need of help more and more often whether that is trying to lift something or just needing to rest more. It’s not been an easy process for me. I watched Sam move piece of furniture after piece of furniture over the past two weeks as we rearrange our home to include room for Baby H. It was humbling to watch his dedication to our family and to our son and not be able to offer help. I felt lost

Before I was a minister, I was a teacher: two helping professions, so not being able to help others and having to ask for help instead is against my natural inclinations. I know that I have to change my perspectives so that I can help our baby grow and grow strong and that has asked me to analyze and reflect on who I am at the core of my being.

Maybe that’s what it means to be a parent though. Maybe this is just practice for asking for help again and again as we try to raise a child in this crazy, ever-changing world.

On Being Off Balance

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This weekend was full of celebration for Baby Boy H. It was great to gather with friends and family in Spartanburg on Saturday morning, but it was also surreal as I opened little footed-bear pajamas and overalls and baseball outfits.

It isn’t that I haven’t felt pregnant because I certainly have (just ask Sam…on second thought, don’t ask him), but because the people who were gathered around me had known me since middle school and high school and some of them had even signed the registry for coming to see me when I was born. It was surreal because I was surrounded by the circle of life.

As we drove back to Columbia, I reflected on the fact that there was really no question anymore whether I was pregnant or not. There were no quick glances over the shoulder, no more wondering eyes. And if the stomach wasn’t a big enough clue, there were the moments where I bumped into counters I had been around my whole life at my mom and dad’s house and that one incident in which I knocked my two-year old nephew down because I didn’t see his head, which lined up exactly to Baby H.

Certainly the growing belly and baby are asking me to exist in this world differently from what I drink and eat to how I fill the space around me to how I interact with friends and family and even strangers. It is all so new and different sometimes and other times it feels so natural and like this is exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

And I wonder if we find ourselves in predictable patterns in life because there really are predictable patterns or whether we create this seemingly predictable patterns ignoring the fact that the world around us is changing. We are getting older, the people we grew up with are getting older, the Supreme Court is passing a Marriage Equality Act, the South Carolina State House is taking down the confederate flag, people are hacking into cars as people are driving on the interstate…

We can get so caught up in trying to maintain balance and equilibrium that we ignore the rapid change that is all around us because we don’t want to be off balance. We want to stand strong and confident and sure of what we believe and how the world operates. We want to know what the future holds and be sure that the way we are spending our time is the right way to spend your time.

But we can’t know that.

Because even the earth itself is sitting at a 23.5% tilt, a little off balance.

And maybe when we can get to the point that we acknowledge that we are off balance and we don’t know what the road ahead holds, than we can really hold this moment as something unique and special, something that will never happen exactly the same again.

Maybe that’s when we can truly become whole beings living in this off balanced world.

Leo Goes to Sunday School

I had just finished my first cup of coffee when it dawned on me. Leo was going to have to go to Sunday School.

Leonardo Speedy Harrelson is our 6 week old African Tortoise who joined the Harrelson Pack over Christmas. Leo is a great pet as his bobbing head, burrowing, and love of kale and collards provides constant sources of entertainment for us all. Although his life expectancy of 50 years has caused us to consider our life plans as well as our retirement plans (his vote is for somewhere warm with a nice humid air, so he won’t have to be spritzed twice a day), he was certainly a great pic by MH and Sam.

MH and Leo

We made the commitment that if MH wanted to take Leo back and forth between houses that we would all pitch in, packing up his three heat lamps, food, and water dishes so that she could have a pet at both houses, which is why last Sunday, Leo had to go to Sunday School.

There was no way anyone would have had time to run back by the house before heading up the mountain to Asheville to get Leo. It was also much too cold to consider leaving Leo in the car, so Leo camped out somewhere between Capernaum and Jerusalem as the girls learned about Jesus getting lost from his parents.

The packing up and sorting bags and tortoises and heat lamps is part of what we do week in and week out as parents. It’s part of the life of every parent who shares children. It’s a part of our lives that often ends up at the UPS store on Monday morning overnight something. It’s a part of loving our children, which means sometimes Leo has to go to Sunday School so that your church family can understand a little bit more about what it means for your family to be family.

“I don’t know if you’re religious or not…”

I remember standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. It was one of those rare occasions when either we had worn my mom down enough or the sale was good enough that we were able to get the mini boxes of cereal for our morning breakfast. As my younger brother and I stood there with the saran wrapped boxed in our arms after we had carefully checked out which ones had the most Frosted Flakes, we came back to the grocery cart to find my mom speaking to a woman. She was telling my mom about her family and her kids.

As they finished their conversation, we put the coveted mini boxes of cereal into the cart and I asked my mom, “Did you know her?”

She responded, “No, she just needed someone to talk to.”

That wasn’t the first or last conversation like this one my mom had with strangers. It happened in the post office line, at the drug store, at the curb at church, and in the carpool line at school. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was also training to be a minister.

Now, I found myself having those same conversations in the checkout lines, getting gas, and picking up groceries. Oftentimes, the conversation comes to a place where the person says:

I don’t know if you’re religious or not, but…

Sometimes I reveal my identity as a minister, most of the time I don’t because the person isn’t looking for me to be a minister in that moment. Instead, that person is looking for someone to see him or her and to hear the stories of his or her life. It’s lonely living in world where we constantly transact with each other, but hardly ever interact with each other. The internal voice that drives us and haunts us is not something we often want to reveal, but every so often you run into someone who is safe enough to reveal that inner person to. To be that person takes time and energy and the willingness to protect and take care of someone else’s story.

May we all see and hear each other a little more clearly.

Celebrating 1 Year as Mama 2

As I sat watching the girls play in the Chick-fil-A play center searching desperately in my purse for my headphones amidst the discarded princess crown that “just wasn’t staying on” at Boo at the Zoo and empty candy wrappers, I realized that when my husband and I celebrated our 1 year anniversary last weekend it was also a celebration for me of one year as Mama 2. I have to admit that I didn’t think about it last weekend as my husband spoiled me.

But I did as I sat in Chick-fil-A yesterday listening in on a webinar in one ear and the girls giggles in the other. And I wondered about the years to come as I rounded up barbies and crayons and ladybug night lights cleaning up for the rest of our week as a husband and wife and not daddy and mama 2 (although those identities aren’t ever really shelved).

I won’t pretend that yesterday as a working mom is anything compared to the women who are doing it every day, but it certainly was a balancing act that took them to make copies of graded comments for my afternoon class of students and has led them to afternoon naps at church this summer because of their PK identity.

I’ll be the first to admit how hard it is to know that there will always be times in the girls’ lives that I am not a part of: both the times before I entered the picture and the times when they aren’t with us. At times, I find myself so involved in the what I’ve missed that I miss out on the being with. And yet, I know that the changing sheets and pajamas and baths in the middle of the night and the rocking to sleep and reading the same books again and again and finally finding that missing sock that was supposed to go back with them is forming a story that will be a part of their lives and my life.

We didn’t get to start at the beginning, but we did have a beginning that we can share. A different kind of birth story of when and how I came into their lives, of when and how we became mama 2 and daughters. And that story, now a year old, is worth celebrating and cherishing.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

One of the legends in the Neely household growing up about me is that I was always complaining to my parents that I wanted to live in a neighborhood. One of the main reasons I wanted to live in a neighborhood in high school was because my friends did, but also because during the summer, I always had to do training and that training was running. I wanted to be able to walk out my front door and just run and walk back into my house.

Because of where my parents live, I had to drive to find trails and places where I could complete my training. Now, my husband and I do live in a neighborhood. The dogs and I greeted kids for Halloween and there are frequently sales people on Saturday mornings who ring the bell, drive the dogs crazy, and try to sell us something. I have to admit, I love it!

This weekend we were moving a lawnmower out of the car and our new neighbor walked over and asked if we needed some help. I though to myself, this is just exactly what I imagined it would be like to have neighbors. So, of course I baked a banana bread the next day and walked it over to our neighbor’s house to say thank you. It’s a wonderful story about being kind to your neighbors, but if I’m honest with myself, it took me a year to even talk to our neighbors.

I was so caught up in our lives and our hectic weekly schedule that I almost didn’t notice the people who were living right beside me. In fact, I missed that another one of our neighbors had a baby. It takes practice to turn on your noticing eyes and see and hear the people who are around you, whether they are your neighbors or your co-workers or even your family. For me, I am hoping that I have learned something from the experiences I had this weekend and can actually tune into the needs both physical and spiritual of the people I encounter.

Now, we can’t do it perfectly, but the little hello or stop on your walk or run with your dogs to learn a little more about someone’s life says you are important; you are someone. No matter who you are, we all need that reminder every once and awhile.

Those First Students

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first students from my first class this May. Been wondering about whether they and their families are in this same position. The never-ending cycle is real and haunts too many people in our society:

But this subsidized housing is all she can afford. Most of Houser’s paycheck goes for things like food, diapers and gas. And she says what look like luxuries are necessities for her. They’re also mostly gifts from family or friends. She says she has a car to get to work, a computer to take online college courses, a cellphone to check up on her son.

But there’s one thing Houser doesn’t have, and that’s a lot of hope for the future.

She says she feels stuck in a never-ending cycle, constantly worried that one financial emergency — like a broken-down car — will send everything tumbling down.

“Poor to me is the fact that I’m working my butt off. I’m trying to go to school. I’m trying to take care of my son, and that’s just not enough,” she says.