ballerinas and boxes.

Been in the process of moving in the last two weeks…but amidst the piles of boxes and bags of things I’m pretty sure I don’t need, I got to take portraits for Miss Emily Scott, a dance major at Alabama. Thanks Emily for letting me drag you out at the crack of dawn for a hike 🙂

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will and sara.

so my rooms is engaged! we celebrated with lots of pictures 🙂 And the best part about photographing your best friends is that they let you drag them all over the world at eight o’clock in the morning because it’s when you can get the best light. I think it was totally worth it…

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taylor and shelby.

It’s just been one of those beautiful mornings. Woke up, went to take engagement pictures for Taylor and Shelby, and sat editing with the sun streaming into the kitchen, new music from Green River Ordinance filling the air, and a big ‘ole glass of orange juice. Just feeling so blessed I get to live this thing called life.

Thank you Lord.

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let’s become little old ladies together.

Four years ago…

and now…

Don’t really know how to express how this makes me feel with any other word other than thankful. So very thankful.

“Lets become little old ladies together.
We’ll stay up late looking at old pictures
telling ‘remember when’ stories,
& laughing till our sides ache.
Lets become eccentric together
The kind of old ladies who take long walks,
Wear silly hats, & get away with acting outrageous in public places.
& if anybody asks how long we’ve been friends
we’ll say, ‘Oh forever! since before you were even born!’
Let’s become little old ladies together
because a friendship that’s as special as ours
can only grow better through the years.”

The fact that we already do all of these things I think is a sign of greatness.

bon voyage.

I have had a lot of friends leave to travel near and afar after the end of college.

For one such friend, Miss Jackie Cadle, I had the privilege of taking photos before her departure to serve as a semester missionary in London, England.

So to all my friends traveling here, there, and everywhere…

May the Lord bless you and keep you

May the Lord make His face to shine upon you

May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Partings are quite bittersweet.

a grateful farewell.

So today is my very last day of being 21 years old.

I feel like 21 is the year that you’re looking forward to when you’re younger. It’s the final “landmark” birthday. You know, when you’re fifteen you can get your driver’s permit, at sixteen your license. At 18 you can vote even if you have no idea what you’re even voting about, and it makes you feel sophisticated and civilized, the middle-class equivalent of “coming out” into society. Oh and you can buy lottery tickets.

At 21, you can finally go and sit at a restaurant and order a drink, and (I’ve been told this gets old REAL fast) get a little excited when the waiter or waitress says, “May I see your ID?” Why, yes. Yes you can. You know why? Cause I’m 21. Read it and weep. What’s that? I ordered a diet coke? Well…can I show it to you anyways?

But once you reach that milestone, there aren’t quite as many exciting privileges to incur upon gaining another year of life.

Even so, I’ve been hearing a lot about thankfulness lately, and how gratitude has the ability to drastically change your outlook on everything…so for the last day of this milestone year, I would like to appreciate everything that made my 21st beautiful.

I’m thankful for wonderful friends, both old and new.

I’m thankful for adventures and my first speeding ticket.

I’m thankful for my family, in Roswell, in Athens, in Winder, in Kenya, in Haiti, and in Mexico.

I’m thankful for my church, and for the privilege of sharing the gospel.

I’m thankful for service and smiles and laughter.

I’m thankful for days of snow and creativity and calm.

I’m thankful for change, and I’m thankful for dependence in uncertainty and fear.

I’m thankful for community and hospitality.

I’m thankful for food, in particular banana bread, and its innate ability to bring people together.

I’m thankful for opportunities to go to new places, meet new people, speak new languages, learn new things.

I’m thankful for stories, and the joy of telling them.

On the material side, I’m thankful for diet coke, and my chacos.

I’m thankful for tears and the comfort they can bring.

I’m thankful for conversation and the help and healing it supplies.

I’m thankful for lunches, on Wednesday or other days, with friends in real life.

I’m thankful for honesty and redemption in friendship.

I’m thankful for words and the power they hold.

I’m thankful that what is lost can be found.

I am thankful for hope.

Most of all, I’m thankful that, milestone or not, I do not doubt that 31, 41, and 61 will be just as exciting, just as redeeming, just as full of joy and laughter and learning, as 21 was.

Goodbye, 21, and thank you.

peach.

I actually wrote this for one of my magazine classes last year, but given that last month I missed her birthday while I was in Mexico I decided to share it again:

With the way children came in and out of my house, it’s no wonder I believed for the greater portion of my childhood that babies really did get dropped on doorsteps by storks.

She came just like all the other kids.

Instead of a long beaked bird, though, storks came in the form of frumpily dressed social workers who knocked loudly on the door, stood on the crimson oriental rug in the foyer of my suburban childhood home, and exchanged children like a criminal making a drug deal in a shady Atlanta alleyway.

Many times the only words spoken were name, age, and some general information if we were lucky. Then they would run over the checklist. Carseat? Check. Diaper bag? Check. Kid? Check.

“Alright, talk to you soon,” they would say to my mom. The majority of these exchanges would happen without them even noticing the wide-eyed elementary school girl cowering in the shadows of the piano room.

By the time the door slammed behind the social worker, I was usually on my knees next to the car seat, unwrapping the Christmas paper of the receiving blanket to see the exciting present underneath. Would it be black? Would it be white? Would it cry a lot? And, most importantly, would I have to share my room?

I liked black babies better. That sounds silly coming from the mind of an East Cobb first-grader, but it’s true. White babies looked to me more like a foreign alien race—eyes barely open, skin faintly transparent, oftentimes a stringy excuse for hair oozing from their head. Seeing this, I had no idea why my mother, after giving birth to one alien creation, had gone on to have three more. Black babies were more lifelike. More tangible.

More human.

Considering 51 percent of children in foster care in Georgia are African American, my odds were pretty much heads or tails.

Her name was Melina, and she was somewhere between our 45th and 51st foster child that my family had taken in since we started fostering when I was in the first grade, and one of the 15, 265 children in foster care in the state of Georgia in 2005.

She was an odd-looking baby, truth be told—her head disproportionate to her body, and her gangly, weak limbs flopped at her sides.

The specialists at the Department of Family and Children Services had labeled her “failure to thrive,” but when she first came, I just thought she was boring.

I would try to play with her, try to get her to respond to me, and she would lay limp in her car seat. I overheard bits and pieces of her story: “Her mom couldn’t take care of her;” “She was just held, all day long;” “she never had the chance to develop.” Then my mom would warn me, “You can’t tell anybody about that, Elissa. It’s a breach in confidentiality.”

But she grew quickly. I soon forgot about that day she arrived when she didn’t have the strength to lift her own head or swat at her mobile.

Sometimes life in my house was a little unstable.

Almost like a home broken by divorce, there were days when we were fractured. One of the kids would have to go for “a visit,” so my mom would load up the Chevy Venture and cart the kids downtown where they would meet for their scheduled time with a parent or relative.

And then one day they would be gone.

Sometimes they would go back to their parents who just got out of jail or rehab. Sometimes they would move to another state to live with a relative.

Sometimes they would get adopted.

Half the time I didn’t even know where they went, I just knew that it was time to move on.

It was like a member of my family passed away unexpectedly. I would cry. I didn’t understand why they had to be taken from me. I didn’t understand why these kids were forced into my life and then ripped away just as I was beginning to enjoy stability for a while. Just as I was starting to feel normal.

So one day, Melina was gone.

She was going to go to a relative’s in Texas, but when that fell through an aunt in Atlanta stepped up to take her in.

As we rode in the van one day before she left my mom explained to Melina, only 3 years old, that she was going to go live with Auntie Vanessa. Auntie Vanessa was going to be her new mommy. Auntie Vanessa was going to make her lunches. Auntie Vanessa was going to tuck her in, and read her stories before bed. Auntie Vanessa was going to love her.

My mom lied, to herself and to Melina.

Because we started taking kids when I was in first grade, it is what I’ve always known. I began to measure the years of my life not by the grade I was in or how old I was, but by the kids we had in our home at the time. We would tell stories around the kitchen table saying “Oh, that was the year with Andy and Tay” or “That was when we had Kim, Venice, and Jackie. Man was Venice a handful.”

Two-thousand and eight became “the year Melina came back.”

My mom called me while I was away at school starting our conversation with, “You’ll never guess what happened today.”

She had come back. My peach had come back.

She was still the same Melina. She still had the same disproportional head, a smile that could melt your heart, and a presence like a tranquilizer. My dad had especially appreciated this quality two years earlier when his sister passed away suddenly. Melina spent the entire funeral and visitation sitting serenely on my dad’s lap. He later said that he didn’t think he could have gotten through those days without her.

“It’s just her sweet spirit. She has a personality that can calm you instantly,” he said.

When she came back that year at five years old, it was like she had been away at war and returned home safely to her grateful family two years later.

But she still had the scars from battle.

Not external ones, like Andy who had come to our home covered in burns where his father extinguished cigarettes on his bare skin, but Melina’s scars were hidden, mental, and emotional scars—bursting out of the depths of her mind like a Pavlovian puppy when triggered with a memory treat.

One evening my mom and Melina were sitting in the living room watching the news when the trailer for a new movie Precious, about an abused teen, came on the screen.

The main character stood at the top of the stairs as her mother yelled at her, “You’re a dummy. Don’t nobody want you. Don’t nobody need you.”

Melina said matter-of-factly, “That sounds like Auntie Vanessa.”

My mom carefully questioned, “Did Auntie Vanessa chase you up the stairs like that?”

“Yes”

“And what happened when she got to the top of the stairs?”

“She hit me,” Melina said. Once again, matter-of-factly.

Scars—slowly revealing themselves.

In her kindergarten class, they asked each child to write about a hero for an essay contest. Melina won first place for kindergarten and first grade:

“My hero is my mom and dad because they sort of adopted me. They took care of all the other children too. My mom gives clothes to children. My mom works for foster children and when I was a baby, they took me in. They took good care of me. I was three, I had to go to my aunties’ for 2 years because the caseworker made me. My auntie was a bad person. She has no love in her heart and she used to hit me with a belt. I was only 3 and a half.  Then God took me back to my foster home. It felt good and I am happy because they love me and I love them too. This is a good home for me to live in. I feel good.”

You can tell that she feels good now, too.

Only a few days after she was delivered back to my house, her caseworker came for a visit. My mom remembers the shock and awe on her face when the caseworker said, “Melina has smiled and laughed more in the last five minutes than I have seen her in the last two years.”

Boy, can she laugh. She has a laugh that expands to fill the air in the room so much so that it takes your breath away. Sharon Franklin, a close family friend and fellow foster parent, said that her favorite thing about Melina was her smile.

“It comes from the inside out.”

One day while sitting next to me on the couch in the living room, watching FernGully, Melina crinkled her brow quizzically.

“Elissa, can I ask you a question?” she said very seriously.

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Well, mom always says I’m full of bologna,” she said, “…and I don’t understand…‘cause I don’t even eat that much bologna!”

I laughed aloud. She joined in, not really understanding what she had said that was so funny, and we both rolled off the couch onto the floor and laughed until our sides ached.

“I love you peach,” I would tell her.

And she would always respond: “I’m not a peach! I’m a girl!”

She would always be my peach, even with her memory bruises. I have learned more from this little girl, now a curious 7-year-old, than any child we’ve ever had in my house.

The first day after she returned, we took a trip to Wal-Mart, and I reached for her hand as we crossed the bustling parking lot.

She gazed at our tightly clasped hands, greatly contrasting in color, and then up at me and exclaimed, “This is like friendship!”

“Yeah, peach, this is exactly like friendship.”

helpers.

Thinking about Kenya today.

After spending a lot of time in Nairobi, we loaded up the vans and cars and made our way out of the busy city streets and began the winding trek into the mountains of Naivasha to the orphanage Strong Tower. We stopped only to look over the Great Rift Valley and to take a tourist-y picture at the equator…you know the ones where you put one foot in each hemisphere and smile knowing that if you were flushed in a giant toilet the water wouldn’t spin.

Anyways, Strong Tower is on a hillside overlooking Lake Naivasha which looks like a lovely place to swim until you remember its filled with man eating hippos. It is run by the most lovely people who have a passion for God and caring for His children.

During our visit I got to talking to Martha about the kids there. She would tell their stories, one by one, each equally tragic and often involving neglect or abuse. But she spoke with joy at how the kids had grown since joining their family at Strong Tower.

And then she began to talk about Beth. Beth was the first person I met when I found out I was going to Kenya. She loves Africa more than I think she thought she ever would. I’ve seen her dance with the Maasai, scream at our safari driver wholeheartedly believing that a momma lion was about to make her dinner, and laugh hysterically after answering her bedroom door in her nightgown. Also, few people appreciate the Java House and a good mango juice more than she does. She sponsors a child named Charles who has a smile that takes over a room and lives life in a way you would never know he was HIV+. I hope that since one of my middle names is Beth that means I’m a little bit like her.

Martha was talking about what a difference Beth had made in the lives of these children. She said that the kids had very little, but whenever they would do something for another, whenever they would loan or give another kid something or help them in some way they would say to each other “I am going to be your Beth Cayce.”

I don’t cry in public, but I figured halfway across the globe I would make an exception just this one time.

It reminded me of a chapter called Dance Class in the book Grace (Eventually) by one of my favorite authors Anne Lamott. Anne goes to help out at a special needs dance class led by her friends, Karen. After an extremely interesting experience in the class, Karen told her later that one of the students had walked up to her later and said,”I liked those old ladies! They were helpers, and they danced.” Anne’s response was simple: “These are the words I want on my gravestone: that I was a helper, and that I danced.”

I think that phrase is appropriate for Beth: She is a helper, and she danced.

I hope one day someone can say that about me.