Behind the Curtain: Reflections on 2016

The word that came to mind at the beginning on 2016 was Diligence, probably because I lack that quality in nearly every area of my life. I am a person who can find a way to shortcut, divert, distract, never begin, procrastinate or just quit when circumstances become too hard, too involved, too long or complicated. I may begin painting a bedroom and then decide to rearrange all the contents of my kitchen, leaving the room half painted for the next 8 months. While putting away laundry, I’ll decide to donate everything in my closet, drive to Marshalls to shop for new clothes and instead end up bringing home a rug. I’ll sit down to write and it’ll dawn on me that I should unsubscribe from all those annoying emails because that visual clutter is obviously thwarting my creativity. I’ll start helping the kids with homework and suddenly I’m writing my grocery list. I’ll go for a run and once the vague traces of a sideache set in, I’ll walk so that I can reorganize my “Go For a Run” music playlist, because the one I am listening to clearly isn’t inspiring me enough (because if it were, I’d be running super far and fast, like every day).

So, yeah. Diligence was my word.

And then life happened, as if often does. I still get distracted while helping kids with homework, I have a hard time completing projects, I still think of ingenious ways to avoid putting laundry away. It seems the only thing I have been diligent about this year is feeling anxious about pretty much everything. 

This morning I was reminded to write the kind of blog I’d want to read. So, let me pull back the curtain a little to share some very real, Very Hard Things, I’ve been anxious about this year. 

I suspect, dear reader, that you and I feel anxious and overwhelmed about a lot of the same things: kids, time, finances, being good/smart/efficient/creative enough. Simply feeling like you’re not enough can be crippling, especially when we go to social media and glimpse other’s perfect homes and unblemished lives and end up feeling utterly discouraged about the state of our own. This is my apology to you if I’ve posted anything that has made you feel anxious, or made you feel like you’re not enough, or if I’ve discouraged you. My life is not perfect—it will never be—and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it is. I wanted to write this essay so that you would know the truth about me, and to remind you that we’re in this life thing together. We all are.

I am not going to tell you in detail about every time I felt like a failure, a fraud, a misfit, or an idiot this past year—this essay would be too long. Instead, I’d like to tell you a couple of stories that stopped me in my tracks this past year. For those of you who are new here, I’ll have to fill you in a little on my neighborhood to give you some context.

I live in Sherman Park, one of Milwaukee’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. In many ways, it’s like any neighborhood: people walking their dogs, mowing their grass, neighbors chatting with each other, kids playing outside, old homes and sidewalks and people heading off to work and school in the morning. There’s something about the people in Sherman Park that makes you take notice; there’s something about this place that draws you in because it means you’re part of something different and unusual and special, but we know that though it’s a beautiful community, it isn’t always an easy place to live. 

Back to the story.:

In May, nine-year old Za’layia was struck by an errant bullet inside her own home and later died as a result of her injuries, as did Laylah, Sierra, Bill, and most recently, Melanie. I don’t tell you about these children to bring attention to myself: the family of these kiddos ought to be the focus of our support, compassion and grief, not me or anyone else. But as humans, as moms & dads, aunties and uncles, friends and neighbors, we wrestle when these things happen. We ask why, we wonder what we can do to help, we wonder how to protect our kids. You may be asking yourself, “Laura, why don’t you move out of that neighborhood so you don’t have to worry about things like that?” Yet things like this can happen anywhere. The day before Za’layia was shot, a mother of two was shot and killed when her car was randomly targeted on the interstate while driving home from a family trip to Wisconsin Dells.

I felt overcome with fear and anxiety when Za’layih & Tracy were shot by stray bullets. We were in the process of ordering storm windows for the front of our home at that time—perhaps I should order bulletproof glass for those windows? Should we move? Am I a terrible mother for raising children here (in this house, this neighborhood, this country)? Yet these tragedies could happen anytime, anywhere—like on the highway on your way home—and I began to feel that nowhere was safe. How can I protect my kids—how can anyone stop something like this from happening? The storm window guy kept calling me to confirm the order and I couldn’t bring myself to call him back, at least not until I had thoroughly researched the cost and effectiveness of bulletproof glass, but if I seriously considered that, I’d have to look into bulletproof glass for the car, just in case our vehicle was randomly targeted on the highway. I knew I was being caught up in a downward spiral of fear but I didn’t know how to step out of it. I wanted to be present to both the struggles and the beautiful moments of life and I wouldn’t be able to if I stayed trapped in a posture of fear.

The same day that Za’layia died, an eighteen month old boy in my neighborhood died in a house fire. One of my neighbors called to tell me about the fire, which was one block away from my home. Once off the phone, I stepped out on my front porch and saw the smoke and the flames. I learned later that little Marshaun (MJ), had been trapped in the fire. I can’t describe to you what it’s like to be a witness a fire that killed a little baby from my front porch—there’s just no words. 

There’s just no words. 

At that same time, we had been considering renewing our foster care license. Social services had sent me a packet of forms which still sits in my “to do” file. I didn’t feel especially ready to renew our license--our lives felt very full with the work and responsibilities of our four children--yet it was something we wanted to consider. After the fire and the shootings, I wondered if renewing our license was something we should do even if we didn’t feel ready. I know that renewing our foster license wouldn’t stop things like fires or random bullets from happening. I know being foster parents doesn’t mean that we’re superheroes that will swoop in and save the day, or that we have the answers to reverse all the wrongs in the world. Yet I felt if we could offer any kind of help, we should. I felt helpless and wanted to do something—anything—to make that feeling of helplessness go away. 

The anxiety that I felt about those incidents spilled over into the rest of life. I made decisions and responded according to how anxious I felt. It became hard for me to discern if I was being unnecessarily neurotic/controlling or if I was making decisions based on necessary concern. I didn’t know who to talk to because I didn’t want people to give me an easy answer to complex problems or try to put my mind at ease; I didn’t want anyone to let me off the hook from wrestling with these questions. I also didn’t want to make other people feel anxious, especially people who don’t live in Milwaukee (which already gets enough bad press), people who never hear the extraordinarily beautiful things that happen here every day. I didn’t want to add this to their running list of reasons why they’ll never go east of Brookfield, or Highway 100, or 60th Street.

And then, this summer, the riots happened. 

I thought I was processing all of this as best I could. I felt like I was plugging along like everyone else.  Then we started to see stress showing up in our kids. Perhaps what I thought I was hiding inside was showing up on the outside after all. One daughter was struggling deeply with school and becoming super irritable. Another daughter started showing signs of anxiety in her behavior—and the resulting mom guilt was another thing on the list that made me feel anxious. 

So what will we do with 2017?  

My word for this year is Engage. I’m not positive what that means yet, but I figure it’ll involve new friendships, new mistakes, more opportunities to regret saying something dumb, more getting mad for the right reasons, digging in deeper in my relationships, praying, scheming, thinking of something brilliant, failing, collaborating with people I don’t agree with, trusting people, feeling fear again, taking a nap, reading books, running after the wild dreams that dance in my head. I’m not positive how it will play out, but I want to be engaged. 

Let’s do something this year.  It won’t be shiny or perfect but it’ll have our fingerprint on it. My fingerprint will be anxious and unsure and awkward but it’ll be there. 

Thanks for reading. 



  1. Dear Laura, 😍!
    Thank you, thank your transparency and a most wonderful ❤️; for giving permission through your honesty about life, feelings, realities that aren't perfect; and never will be this side of heaven, to dare to 'engage in the human experience albeit imperfect, full of anxiousness, but full of joy as well. And to value what really is important and has eternal value; people!
    Bless you girl for spilling your beautiful heart out with authenticity and offering the invitation to 'engage' to others. God bless you, keep you and make His face to shine upon you, He already has!
    Miki Keil

    1. Miki,

      Thank you for reading. I deeply appreciate your encouragement.