Read an Excerpt
Wake Up Laughing
By Rachel St. John-Gilbert Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2004 Rachel St. John-Gilbert
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ugly Duckling Apartment
Ugly Duck Pasts, Swan Futures
After my husband was laid off, we left our home of fifteen years to move to another state. We put all of our worldly goods in storage, and since we had no idea if we would have work for weeks, months, or even years, we searched for a monthly lease that wouldn't deplete our weekly paycheck. After some SOS prayers and frantic research, we found a furnished apartment in an award-winning school district-at a price we could afford. We signed up sight unseen.
As I surveyed our "new" home, I wondered if we had been apartment hunting in a Time Travel Machine. To fit in, we'd need to invest in some bell-bottom jeans and a few tie-dyed shirts. Investigating my new digs, which I definitely did not dig, I entered the bathroom and noticed a white plastic duck adorned with yellow plastic daisies. Actually, I assumed the duck was white and the flowers were yellow. A thick layer of dust gave it all a gray tinge. I picked up the duck, and it disintegrated through my pinkies into a small heap.
"Well," I muttered aloud, "that explains the dust. Kind a like my life right now." Everything that resembled the life I used to live was gone-my home, my furniture and family photos, and hardest of all, my friends.
That was a low point-with just me and my little plastic duck. To make matters worse, my happy-go-lucky son felt neither happy nor lucky, and he certainly didn't want to go anywhere except home to his buddies. And as much as I tried to put on a brave front, I felt the same.
We survived That Seventies Apartment and moved to an unfurnished version a year later, gloriously filled with our own things. Eventually our home was also filled with the laughter and warmth of new friends. Our ugly duckling apartment life had transformed into a handsome swan life after all.
During some seasons in our lives, things crumble around us like a cheap plastic duck. In turn, we may feel like caving in on the inside. My sister says that sometimes we deserve at least a T-shirt for gutting it through circumstances that ruffle our feathers. My T-shirt would read, "I survived That Seventies Apartment, no money, and no friends." For you it might be, "I survived surgery and recuperating in a house with hyperactive twins." Or "I survived a philandering husband who married the girl next door."
Zora Neale Hurston once said, "There are years that ask questions and years that answer them." The farther I get from the apartment lost in time, the more I realize that it did one really great thing for me-it made me grateful for the little things. Every duck that doesn't disintegrate, every faucet that doesn't leak, every toilet that flushes without my having to lift the lid and yank the chain, every roachless countertop-things that most people take for granted make me flip cartwheels on the inside.
If you've lived through your year of pain (or two or three) and have come through to the other side, you know what I mean. If you're in the middle of a first-time pain fest, hang in there and take it from me and my disintegrating duck: Things will get better. God will reset the Time Machine to "forward," and the lovely swan in your future will replace the ugly duckling. And there's a good chance that the best benefit will be your ability to relish the little things in life.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11
Chapter Two Rich Barbie, Poor Barbie
The Comparison Trap
As a child, did you ever have a nemesis-someone you liked but who always seemed to be "one up" on you? If you ran a block, she ran two; if you got a trike, she got a bike. And if you made an A, she made an A+.
Each fall, my neighborhood nemesis, Tammy, and I eagerly waited for the Sears catalog to arrive. When it finally did, we circled our Christmas wish lists with an ink pen, beginning with the toy page, then moving on to bikes, and eventually to home furnishings (you're never too young to register your china pattern, you know).
One year when I was about six years old, I asked for the Super Barbie Camping Van, partly because it fit my tomboy personality. But make no mistake, tomboy or no, I (vicariously through my Barbie doll) still had my cap set on Ken. I felt that he, being an outdoorsy sort of guy, would really dig my new camper.
So that Christmas morning, I proudly hauled my brand-spanking-new orange and pink Super Barbie Camper down the street to Tammy's house. I knew she had asked for a Barbie house, but I was reasonably sure it was too expensive, even for Tammy's family. And besides, I was happy with my transformable van with pull-out couch, beds, and funky fuzzy accent pillows. Yes, I was satisfied until ... I walked into Tammy's bedroom. There before my widened-eyes was the mamma of all Barbie houses-a three-storied Super Barbie Penthouse with working elevator. Suddenly, my warm contentment was chilled like the champagne in Rich Barbie's ice bucket. I tried to take it all in stride. After all, my Barbie now had the richest friend in Barbie World. She would not only get to ride in Rich Barbie's penthouse elevator but would also ride shotgun in Rich Barbie's silver convertible.
However, as Tammy and I played together that Christmas day, I couldn't shake the feeling of being one-upped again. While Tammy's Barbie mixed cocktails and grilled salmon for a seaside date with Ken, my Barbie mixed lemonade and grilled cheese sandwiches on her camper stove at the local KOA campground. To take the one-upmanship a notch higher, Tammy had enough outfits and accessories to fill a dozen shoe boxes. On any given day, Rich Barbie could offer Ken a trip to the Alps for skiing, a jaunt to Cancun for sunning, or a visit to the English countryside for horseback riding. And she could provide equipment and matching outfits for both of them. While Rich Barbie was whisking Ken to the airport in her convertible, Poor Barbie was back at camp, cleaning the van's port-a-potty.
In about an hour, the joy of my new toy had dissipated into discontent. It wasn't that I wanted the penthouse but more that Tammy had a way of flaunting her stuff and insinuating that her Barbie and trappings were better than mine. And worse yet, that her stuff would make a happier Ken.
I'm now almost forty years old. I have to confess that sometimes I'm not too far removed from the six-year-old girl I used to be, who often felt like Secondhand Rose in Tammy's presence. Why is it so easy to feel small and insecure around others who have bigger, better houses, cars, clothes, and grown-up toys?
The Bible clearly says where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also (Matthew 6:21). That sounds good in sermons but is hard to embrace in real life. The Bible also says our lives are only vapors ( James 4:14), but we don't see it that way. It's hard to train our hearts and spirits to look past this world and all it offers our senses and to envision a reality we can't see. But God calls us to a higher standard that will set our spirits free.
Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves that we probably have friends who have less than we have and fight their own battles of feeling inferior about us. May our Father teach us simply to love the people He places us with and to watch for and perhaps help with their needs and pain, for richer or poorer.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.... It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4, 7-8
Chapter Three The Middle Ages
Coming of Middle Age
Tonight as I stood in the grocery store checkout line, I had a Coming of Middle Age experience. I surveyed the contents of my cart, and the realization hit me like a ton of Metamucil: I was about to purchase my first pillbox. No wimpy seven-compartment pillbox for me. No, sirree. Nothing but the most advanced state-of-the-art deluxe pillbox for this tough old bird. Yes, my little plastic health helper is a real beauty in aqua green with four compartments per day for a total of twenty-eight tidy squares to hold the answers to all that ails me.
I could hardly believe my eyes. I had just eked out my last child, only to run headlong into the maintenance-heavy middle ages. Only yesterday I was holding my newborn baby! How could I, only a year later, possibly be old enough to take enough supplements and medication to require such a square possession?
It's not like I'm on enough drugs to warrant a field trip to the Betty Ford Clinic. Most of my pills are vitamin supplements to keep my cholesterol numbers in check. Still, it seems that just as I get one pesky condition under control, another pops up. It's like that arcade game where you whack a mole back into his hole, but it's impossible to keep him down. He keeps coming back like last year's fruitcake.
And another thing: Why do they call it middle age anyway? My theory is that we reach the age where our middle becomes the focus of our lives-bulging and expanding like an inflatable swimming ring with a mind of its own. Other signs of approaching middle age include transitioning from 100 percent cotton undies to 100 percent spandex; rolling out the welcome mat for our "irregular" monthly visitor, now cycling through about twice as often as we're used to; and having enough spider veins in our legs to resemble a walking atlas.
If you're a midlife mommy, things get even more interesting. I have to tell you that my heart leaps when I see a woman with a few gray hairs and crow's-feet, holding a baby who is clearly hers-and not her grandchild. It's nice to know I won't be the only mother attending PTA who will probably be mistaken for my child's grandmother and that my husband and I will not be the only parents hovering near sixty when our last child graduates from high school. So much for those idyllic, empty nest years!
Whether or not you are staring down the maw of middle age, you may be facing other life or bodily changes that remind you that things don't stay the same for very long. Change can be unsettling or it can be revitalizing, but we'd do best to make our peace with constant change. The only thing we can absolutely count on in life is change. Realizing I'm getting older and my body is showing it, the idea of my mortality is more real and not so far off.
My mom says that as she gets farther down the road, Jesus has proved to be all He promises to be. I find that reassuring. As missionary Jim Elliot has taught us, why wouldn't we give up things that we cannot keep for all that-in Christ-we cannot lose?
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day; Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see. O Thou who changest not, abide with me. "Abide with Me," Henry Lyte, 1820 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
Chapter Four Not So Technical Difficulties
When Life Gives You Lemons
Recently, I was reading AARP magazine. Not because I'm over fifty, but because I love to say AARP over and over again and pretend I'm a seal. Try it. Say it three times fast, and trust me, you'll be clapping your hands and demanding fish for dinner in no time.
A bit of frustrated actress is left in me from my portrayal of poker-playing Mrs. O'Malley in the Shackelford Junior High production of Funny Girl. Being a star, I enjoy reading about my peers. So, as I was reading the AARP magazine, an interview with British actor Michael Caine caught my attention. Although our ideologies don't move in parallel lines, I admire the fact that he's been married to the same woman for twenty-seven years (a rarity in our business) and that, vocationally, he has reached for the stars-indeed, became a star-despite growing up in poverty.
In the interview, the sixty-seven-year-old Caine was asked, "Do you have fatherly advice for your daughters?" He answered, "I was in rehearsals, waiting behind a door to come out while a couple onstage were having a row. They starting throwing furniture, and a chair lodged in front of the door. My cue came, and I could only get halfway in. I stopped and said, 'I can't get in. The chair's in the way.' And the producer said, 'Use the difficulty.' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Well, if it's a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it's a comedy, fall over it.'"
Don't you love it? I'm pragmatic, and at times my pragmatism used to slide into negativism. Well, God graciously saw fit to put some optimistic "producers" and "directors" in my life who have penetrated my pragmatism with sunshiny rays of encouragement in the face of cold, hard obstacles. And the mindset of looking for redeeming qualities amid difficult circumstances brought a big paradigm shift for me.
If this sounds intriguing, and if you didn't participate in the seal barking exercise above, here's another chance to join in. Think of an obstacle you are facing, and put a positive face on it. Lost your job? Thank God for a season to spend extra precious time with your children. Moving? Revel in the fact that you have an instant new wardrobe (no one in your new town has seen your old duds). See what I mean?
What do you think? It might be kind of fun to discover a positive for every negative event that life can throw at you. "Use the difficulty" to your advantage and to God's glory. So go ahead, take whatever is blocking your ability to move forward onto the Stage of Life with confidence and poise, and use it!
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
Chapter Five Creepy Crawler
An Appetite Only God Can Satisfy
When our baby, Whitney, started crawling, I was thrilled that she was right on target with her developmental skills. Our whole family passed more than a few happy hours (the merry kind-not the bar kind) observing the evolution of her movement.
Excerpted from Wake Up Laughing by Rachel St. John-Gilbert Copyright © 2004 by Rachel St. John-Gilbert. Excerpted by permission.
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