Adorable guilty dog photo (my dog-nephew, Huckleberry) courtesy of my sister Alexandra, of A Loves J.
The minivan smells like French fries.
Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome looks at me from the driver’s seat and pulls into our driveway. “Home sweet home! Are you ready to unpack?”
I grunt. (Translation: No. Eight hours of road-tripping have left me too exhausted to unpack. But seeing as our household servants only exist in my Downton Abbey dreams, I have no choice.)
Mr. Positive grins. “If we hurry, we can get them all in bed in an hour, and just… sit on the couch. Doesn’t that sound amazing?”
Yes. Yes it does sound amazing. Amazing and impossible, considering all the unpacking and laundry-ing and removing-of-gas-station-bathroom-grime-from-children’s-bodies that lies ahead. But we can fantasize. I take a deep breath and match his grin. “Let’s do it. You. Me. Vacant expressions on the couch. One hour.”
He punches the button that opens the minivan doors. Four children, eighteen suitcases, and thirty-seven empty Happy Meal containers explode onto our driveway.
A tornado of luggage and flip-flops, we stumble into the garage. The children are giddy: “Let’s go see Cole! He’s missed us so much!” Cole, our graying black Lab, has had fun with dog sitters in our absence, but even so, he hates it when we leave.
The kids sprint ahead of us into the house. Their supersonic shrieks make me smile as I wrestle with suitcases—Aw, they’re so happy to see Cole, how sweet—and Kevin goes in ahead of me. I hear more shrieking, but now it’s Kevin’s voice: “No no no no nooooooo!”
Kevin never shouts. Heart thumping, I drop my bags and race inside. Kevin heads me off in his office, boxing me out, blocking my view. “It’s bad—the dog—it’s so bad. You don’t even want to look.”
Horrible scenes flash though my mind on fast-forward: What’s so awful I can’t even look? Disemboweled couch cushions? Vomit? Gore? Has the dog chewed off his own paw in despair?
For a moment Kevin just stares at me, mouth working, eyes huge, trying to find the words. It’s Avery, the extremely loud and descriptive seven-year-old, who bursts in, shrieking: “Poop! Poooooooooooooooooop! There’s dog poop EVERYWHERE!”
I’ll spare you the details, because Avery has told you all you need (and want) to know. (I’ll just say this: Avery chose the word everywhere for good reason.)
Kevin and I have a longstanding deal: He handles pet poop and vomit; I handle human. I have never been more thankful for that arrangement than right here in this dark moment.
So poor Kevin quietly shuffles to the laundry room for a bucket and rags while I sprint past the Disaster Zone, shielding my eyes, trying not to see. (If I don’t see it, maybe it didn’t happen.) I start unpacking and de-gas-station-germing the children, while he sets about de-poop-ifying the carpet.
An hour later, as I’m in the bathroom scrubbing the youngest child, I hear him announce, “Well that was awful, but it’s done.” I shout an encouraging yay. I hear the door squeak open and the dog gallop back inside. Two point five seconds later—I am not exaggerating even a tiny bit—I hear Kevin shout again: “No no no no stoooooooooop! Coooooooole!”
I don’t ask.
I don’t want to know.
But Kevin calls the update through the house: “Cole just threw up on the carpet I JUST CLEANED! Aaaaaaahhhhhh!”
I shout something sympathetic back at him, close my eyes, and dream of Downton. Where oh where are Bates and Anna when we need them? I wait, expecting more shouting and moaning, but all is quiet from the Disaster Zone. Poor Kevin has shut his mouth and gone back to scrubbing.
Somehow, an hour later, all the kids are in bed and Kevin and I are sitting on the couch as planned. The carpet is hopelessly stained but semi-clean—as clean as carpet can get without professional help (which, by the way, we called the next morning).
As we prop up our feet, Kevin starts chuckling to himself. He is laughing—laughing!—about the absolute horror of the evening. At first I just sit there twitching and trying to breathe only through my mouth—my house’s new aroma, Eau de Bleach with Lingering Hints of Poop, has my head spinning—but then I sit there pondering what an amazing man this is sitting beside me on the couch.
I learned something from Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome that night. A lesson he’s taught me a thousand times in our marriage, but I still never seem to master as beautifully as he does. What’s the lesson?
When life hands us a mess, we can choose how we respond. We can choose how we respond.
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Me? My first response to mess is not pretty. It usually involves some kind of emotional mess of my own: frustration, anger, self-pity, catastrophizing (What’s catastrophizing, you ask? This poop on the carpet incident is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone anywhere. No human has ever suffered like this. Moreover, this moment represents my entire life: all my life, every day of my life, people (and dogs) have been pooping on my party. But wait! It gets worse! It’s not just me! It’s everyone. Whenever any poor soul on this rotten planet tries to be happy, look out, here comes poop! Life stinks. LIFE IS POOP.)
I know. It’s sad, this brain. Probably the worst brain, ever, in the history of—wait, there I go again.
Kevin? Well, he pretty much thinks the opposite of the way I think. Kevin assures me that he feels most of what I feel in any given life crisis, but he chooses not to act or dwell on those feelings. Sure, some of our differences come down to personality, hard wiring, and—ahem—hormones, but most of it is a matter of perspective, attitude, and choice.
Perspective. Attitude. Choice.
Three things we can control, no matter how our brains are wired.
Kevin’s example shows me that when we face a mess, we face a choice. We can freak out, stomp around the house, wail, shout, and abandon our Christianity for a period of temporary insanity. Or we can choose a better way.
When life poops on our party, our initial emotions and thoughts will be all over the place, because we are normal human beings and we hate poop and we feel things. But with practice, we can learn to maintain control even in the middle of a crisis. We might not be able to tame our feelings at first, but even in the heat of the moment, we can tame what we say and what we do.
A simple strategy that helps me mid-crisis is to find one simple truth and repeat it to myself until I calm down. It could be a Bible verse, like Be slow to speak or Love is patient. Sometimes I need something more convicting: Don’t say something you’ll regret. Don’t say something you’ll regret. Or this humdinger: Your children are listening. Your children are listening. (That one always gets me.) Sometimes I choose something that gives me perspective, like, This will be funny later. THIS WILL BE FUNNY LATER.
When it’s all over, we get to choose how long we dwell in darkness, how quickly we start climbing toward light. What perspective will we hang on to? What attitudes will we allow to linger? What will we dwell on when the dust settles?
Maybe one day, if we practice long enough and gain enough big-picture perspective, we can find a happier viewpoint even before the crisis ends. Maybe we can learn to laugh our way through the mess: at the mess, in spite of the mess, in the middle of the mess—even kneeling there on the carpet, up to our elbows in filth.
I don’t think I’ll ever be as even-keeled in a crisis as Kevin is, but I’m working on it. So far, I am learning to shut my mouth when I want to say very un-Jesus-like things. To recognize those moments when I should not take my own roller-coaster feelings seriously. To give all the poor people in the potential blast zone fair warning: Hey, I’m having a MOMENT here. Let me go hide in a corner and get this thing under control.
Kevin makes me laugh when I want to cry. He makes me want to be better, and shows me the way. I’m not all the way there yet—I may never reach his level of self-control—but with his help and God’s help, I’m making progress.
The next morning, our wakeup call went like this: four kids storming into our bedroom shrieking, “Cole threw up! AGAIN!”
Which just goes to show you: Do not leave your dog home when you go on vacation. The dog will get the last
poop vomit laugh.
Want some scriptures on this topic? Try Philippians 4:4–8, James 3:1–12, and Proverbs 25:28.
Angie Mangrum says
I really needed this today! Um, and tomorrow, and the next and….
Elizabeth Laing Thompson says
Meeeeee toooooo, Angie!
Cynthia Blaze says
Great post! I agree and your writing made me teary eyed. I can relate in so many ways. I appreciate your openness – especially about the catastrophic thinking. I go there and it’s a terribly downward spiral that usually last far beyond the actual event.
Keep up the good work of writing and more importantly loving God, your hubby and those beautiful kiddos.
Elizabeth Laing Thompson says
Thanks, Cynthia! It’s often the aftermath that gets me, too—the brooding…Philippians 4:8 is pretty much the theme verse of my whole life. 🙂
Gloria Baird says
Well….you’ve done it again!! Captured such a real life event
(Big challenge)…and put such a helpful response to it. We’re all in the fight some way or another, but your thoughts really apply to me and my cancer struggle. I continue to strive to CHOOSE JOY!! Of course, that only comes with God’s help!!!! Love and appreciate you so much!!!
Elizabeth Laing Thompson says
Thank you, Gloria! I so admire your determination to keep growing, keep giving, keep clinging to faith, no matter what life throws your way. Love and prayers to you…
I can SO relate to this. Seeing a physical mess causes an emotional mess in me, too. My women’s group yesterday talked about choosing our responses to things as well. Seems I need to hear it a few times 🙂 thank you!
Elizabeth Laing Thompson says
Thanks, Whitney! Glad you enjoyed!