With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Parting is such sweet sorrow

“Romeo:
I would I were thy bird.

Juliet:
Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
- From “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

Our holiday week over, I sit in front of the computer replete with happy emotions and a tinge of exhaustion, trying to determine where the time went. Hosting two siblings and my parents was truly a wonderful task, made easy by my mom’s constant help and everyone’s desire to supply dinner for the family (they have too much experience with my cooking!) Though we did not overschedule our time by any means, the days were quickly divided by different groups going shopping, baking, stealing out to grab coffee and chat, fit in exercise, and – of course – entertain the children with games, books, movies and art. We were able to host some friends on Christmas Day evening for dessert and drinks and what a wonderful communal table to experience. Now I am left with sweet memories and the sting of good-bye, made deeper by the great distance that separates my home from my family members’.

Interestingly, though we all get along quite well (I have four siblings), we have staked claims to different territories, putting down roots in such disparate cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Boston and Polson, Montana. Though certainly careers and economics have a role in determining our locations, there seems to be a deeper emotional connection to place which binds us to our locale and keeps us separate from each other. Two brothers have married amazing women with loving and devoted families who live in the area of their adopted hometowns, and these families are wonderful additions to our immediate unit and certainly help to anchor my brothers in their cities. I know that occasionally these close-knit tribes wonder how, exactly, we came to live so far apart, given that we are share strong bonds.

Certainly I have wondered that, too, despite my own love of place and desire to stay in Colorado. Perhaps our history of moving every 2 -3 years growing up (I moved three times between 6th and 11th grade) not only made us close to each other but also deepened our desire for a “permanent” place to call home. Perhaps we grew up each wanting to make a name for him or her self and felt the need to separate from parents and siblings in order to become a success. Perhaps we know that if we lived closer together we would run into the hiccups and hurdles that any relationship faces upon close examination – and close quarters. Certainly Juliet realized that if she had kept Romeo on a short leash (as her bird) she could kill him with her affection.

Whatever the reason, I am profoundly grateful for visits, be they fleeting or lengthy – and for the emotion of sorrow which accompanies family members’ departure. I used to rebel against the circumstances and bemoan the distance, but a wise friend quoted the following for me and forever changed my perception:
"He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wing├ęd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.”
- William Blake

I have kissed the joy as it flew above and around our home at Christmastime and will carry its memory in my heart as we move into 2010, trying not to bind it to me but to cherish its light.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sound of Silence

"Silent Night, Holy Night, All is Calm, All is Bright." - Joseph Mohr / Franz Gruber

The only way to hear our inner voices and to process knowledge gained is to feast in the halls of silence. I crave silence and carve out time during the day where I might pursue it and the ripples of peace it leaves behind. Perhaps that is why I love the hymn "Silent Night" - why so many love it. It is hard to find silence and darkness these days, hard to find a night sky where the stars are vivid. Without the silence and the darkness, how can we see the light and hear the truth?

I had a physical last week and told the PA about some pain I was having in my knees. She asked when this happened and I told her when I upped my running mileage from 3-4 mile runs to 6 - 7 mile runs. The doctor came in later after reviewing my charts and asked why I needed to increase the distance in the first place. I told him I liked being outside, away from distractions, and I needed an hour or more to unwind and not just thirty to forty minutes. I very rarely run with an Ipod and running gives me the silent time that I need. Certainly my liking for quiet is a primary reason that I have always loved to swim. Plunge into a pool of deep water and you will find plenty of time to process your own thoughts, even if a team of young people practices around you.

One important aspect of silence is listening. I have always struggled to listen well, preferring instead to talk. It startled me to read this in Richard Foster's Freedom of Simplicity: "Speaking and using words is a form of control, directing the situation. We have to practice being silent and letting things flow over and around us, giving up control" (paraphrased). Upon reflection that made perfect sense; I, like many people, enjoy control and the illusion of control. The more we talk in a conversation the more we feel like we control its flow and the direction of the other participants. Not only is this an illusion but it robs us of others' truths and mysteries. In addition, as Coach John Wooden remarks "why can't we recognize that others will listen better to us if we listen first to them?"

In this holiday season I wish for all of you moments of silence and peace. I write this in the pre-dawn hours at my full house, happy in the knowledge that so many people I love are here . . . and safely asleep. Amidst the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, parties and planning let us give up some control to listen and to breathe in the stillness. When we cultivate silence we can carry the memory of it with us during our full days, tapping into our memory of stillness to sustain us. These moments occur rarely after a baby is born; perhaps that is why the hymn points out the stillness before Jesus' arrival, and the need for all of us to appreciate the quiet and the time to listen.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Funny the Way It Is At Christmas


“Funny the way it is, if you think about it
One kid walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
On a soldier’s last breath his baby’s being born
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
Somebody’s broken heart becomes your favorite song.”
From “Funny the Way It Is” by Dave Matthews Band (Big Whiskey and the Gru Grux King) (http://www.davematthewsband.com/)

I excerpted the above lyrics from my favorite song by DMB, “Funny the Way It Is,” which is mixed in with my Christmas CD’s on the car stereo. When the song came on yesterday I felt like it was intruding on my holiday karma, but the fingernail sketch of life’s ironies hooked me anyway. While life’s strange twists and turns are often ironic and infuriating rather than funny, the message rings true at this time of year as it does at any other. Christmas brings some of these contrasts into even sharper focus and they create static in the message of pure joy we hear at church and certainly with the message of pure self-indulgence that we hear from our culture. Some of my personal ironies include the fact that we celebrate Advent in our warm house, relishing our electric blankets and lighted Christmas tree while members of Denver’s homeless population ride the bus, camp out at the airport or suffer in the deadly cold.

The song re-asks humanity’s perpetual question, “why do bad things happen?” (or the slightly slanted version, “why do bad things happen to good people?”) How does one maintain a joyous and grateful spirit while recognizing the pain and suffering of others and/or how do we maintain a joyous and grateful spirit while dealing with personal hardship and dark times? I find it hard to believe that good deeds are not right and that horrible misfortunes are not wrong. Perhaps tagging circumstances as right or wrong gives rise to the myth that there exists one person or set of persons to blame for the bad problems, and one person(s) who will save us from ourselves.

But wait, isn’t that the message of Christmas – that Jesus is born to save us, to bring peace, love and joy to the world? The holiday is such a happy time, emphasizing angels, light, small babies, mild and meek mothers and universal happiness. After listening to some of the traditional carols I start to think “game over! The good guys won.” I walk happily out into the cold only to be hit in the face with realities of homelessness, the impacts of economic recession, and people struggling with emotional or physical pain. Do we block out the negative realities for a month so we can really get in the spirit? Do we submerge ourselves in charity work and donations until we are exhausted and impatient with our children’s toy requests and candy-cane consumption?

I recently discovered my personal answer to these questions of how to live Christmas and marry its joy to the world’s realities. I found my role model and cheerleader in Mary, Christ’s unwed teenage mother from the wrong side of the tracks. Mary is no “meek and mild” chica; she is tough and focused as well as graceful and determined. One would have to be resilient to accept a miraculous pregnancy in the midst of a culture that stoned unwed mothers to death or chased them out of town to live (and die)alone in the desert. Mary’s song is found in Luke (1:46-55) and is sometimes called the Magnificat because she says her soul magnifies the lord (magnificat in Latin). Here is what she says:

English (The Divine Office):

My soul glorifies (magnifies) the Lord, *

my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.

He looks on his servant in her lowliness; *

henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me. *

Holy his name!

His mercy is from age to age, *

on those who fear him.

He puts forth his arm in strength *

and scatters the proud-hearted.

He casts the mighty from their thrones *

and raises the lowly.

He fills the starving with good things, *

sends the rich away empty.

He protects Israel, his servant, *

remembering his mercy,

the mercy promised to our fathers. *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificat

Mary not only accepts the tremendous burden placed on her by God – to carry and raise a child when she is young, poor and unmarried - but she accepts joyously and with a sense of purpose, recognizing that her mission is vital to the success of good over evil. Mary also sees that the world must change and seems to suspect that her son will be doing the scattering of the proud-hearted, the casting of the mighty from their thrones, the feeding of the hungry and the rejecting of the rich. Yet she has her own role to perform, one that is mission-critical.

We all have some such critical mission (though I’m hoping that I’m done with infancy, myself). Jesus was born to show us how to live but his arrival did not solve all humanity’s problems, did not iron out the wrinkles of our existence. We have a lot of work to do to fulfill the promise and joyous spirit of the holidays. There is a call and an admonition in the songs of Christmas if we are willing to hear them. In “O Holy Night” the lyricist wrote “Change shall He bring, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression must cease.” That message was written for us; we are the chosen to end oppression, feed the hungry and accept the responsibility God lays on us. I feel great joy that our role model exists, that our Jesus came, but I can celebrate with a more lasting and steadfast joy when I acknowledge the charge laid on us by the arrival of the baby. Our mission: to bring about change, to work for peace, love, justice and joy for all peoples not only now but every day of the year, all of our years. Should we choose to accept it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Give Peace an Effort, Not Just a Chance

"Everybody's talking about President Obama's speech last night. He's sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Right now, in Scandinavia, the Nobel Committee is really rethinking the wholepeace prize." -Craig Ferguson

Today is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, yesterday was the second Sunday in Advent – a period in the Christian calendar where we prayerfully practice waiting for the birth of Jesus - and the theme of the service was Peace. My innards have been twisting recently when talk turns to peace, or rather, as it turned to talk of war (again). Though I voted for and support President Obama, I am deeply saddened by the decision to send 30,000 more beloved individuals into harm’s way in Afghanistan. Ferguson’s comment (above) was no doubt meant to be funny; I found it quite painful. The Peace Prize supposedly goes to people who dedicate and risk their lives to further the cause of peace, not those who extend resources to the killing and destruction that war brings.

Over the past few years certain members of Congress have advocated forming a Department of Peace (http://www.thepeacealliance.org/content/view/278/23/), to promote the efforts and development that are proven to bring stability to diverse regions around the world. What a wonderful idea, to not merely protest war but to advocate construction of peace. For certainly there is a misapprehension that peace is the absence of war, requiring only a chance (as in “give peace a chance”) to succeed. One need only look at the past 100 years of human history to see that human natures do not lend themselves to peace, that friction, impatience and anger are the first and easy options. In order to short-circuit these tendencies we must work hard. Peace requires more effort than war, not less.

I think of how to explain war to my children, who play at battles and fighting easily as all children seem to do. They certainly do not understand the implications of real war: how one’s opponents in this war could turn out to be allies in the next, how publics are manipulated by propaganda and outright untruths to support war efforts, and how innocent children in another land could turn out to be “collateral damage” in our pursuit of national interests. I read a story once of a father who was driving his two children to dinner when they asked him to explain how wars got started. He said, “I’ll have to think about that for a minute,” and while he was pondering the appropriate language they began to argue in the backseat. The fight escalated until the father pulled over and said, “now that is how all wars begin.”

In raising children I am intimately aware of how difficult it is to hold my temper when their defiance and chaos obscures my own sense of peace. I realize that keeping peace between nations is so much more difficult and nuanced, but it is worth the effort. This week of Advent I will pray for peace, in my heart, in my home, and around the world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Another Home for the Holidays

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never even introduce yourself to, had life not done it for you." – Kendall Hailey

Yesterday I was indulging my coffee addiction at Peet's Coffee and the server who made my caffe freddo cheerfully handed it to me, saying, "Here you go, Gloria - have a great day!" Though I must have temporarily lost my powers of enunciation when I told her the drink was for 'Laura" I was secretly delighted at this permutation. What better name to be called by at this time of the season? (I am thinking of using it as a nom de plume.) Certainly I felt like giving thanks and glory yesterday as we celebrated the safe return of our family from a five-day Thanksgiving trip to visit with my husband's side of the family in Ohio.

Traveling at this time of the year gives me near-panic attacks and shortens certain key facets of life (conversations, attention span, temper) while magically lengthening other, more unpleasant items (to-do lists, laundry piles, time spent in airports). Every time we leave to go anywhere else for the holidays I ponder the trade-offs of the travel. The give-and-take has changed over the past ten years as we evolved from a young couple with no children to a harried couple with babies to a middle-aged couple with three school-aged children. In the beginning we took it for granted that we would travel to family at every opportunity, having both grown up in large families we needed the crowded kitchens, teasing banter and shared sleeping quarters to fulfill our holiday needs.

Traveling with babies made the jaunt much more difficult. Lugging carseats, strollers and diaper bags through airports is more challenging than an Olympic-distance triathlon and changing a baby's time zone and schedule guarantees one a sleepless holiday (never to be confused with a vacation). But we were still desperate for family, for their love and support and for the miraculous beginning of their relationships with our newest member. Now the dynamic has changed again; we have a loving community here, a church home and our own few rituals and habits that the children embrace. Travel itself is not so difficult but as we sink roots in this place it is harder to transplant ourselves to journey through winter weather, carrying and receiving germs as well as presents, and worrying about how to feed our gluten- and dairy-averse family.

I pondered these dynamics while packing and transporting our family 1000+ miles to Ohio last week, keeping my eyes and my mind open to register the benefits for our slightly older children. I did not have to look far to see delight: my mother-in-law's happy face when we arrived (past one in the morning) the children's joy at seeing her and their grandfather. My son's magnetic attraction to his young uncle, my daughter's pleasure at helping her great-grandmother trim the Christmas tree. The easy conversations at Thanksgiving brunch where we attempted to catch up on the news of the past year, knowing we could never get it all but comfortable with the attempt and with the promise to see one another next summer. The pleasure of viewing a different landscape: factory towns and farms, 100-year-old barns, naked forks of forest trees abrading a low cloud cover. Amish buggies a delight for the children, being able to jog every day, relaxing our TV rule to watch movies, football, parades.

Most of all I thought about how fortunate we are to have these folks in our lives. Where else can our children go and see walls of photos reflecting their images from babyhood to now, elbowing out aging frames with images of their dad and uncles at all ages, both of the above peeking out occasionally from their own artwork, regarded as masterpieces by this uncritical audience. Uncles, aunts and cousins - good people with different life experiences than our adopted family and friends in suburban Denver - bringing their perspectives to our lives, their support and love to structure our holidays. Though occasionally I think wistfully of saving credit card airline miles for a trip to Costa Rica, I have to be honest in admitting that a trip to Ohio is worth more to my children. Their history is there - the border of the crazy quilt that is forming with their life experiences. Gloria, indeed.





Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In the Twilight

"In the twilight glow I see her
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.
As we kissed good-bye and parted,
I knew we'd never meet again.

Love is like a dying ember.
Where only memories remain.
Through the ages I'll remember-
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain."
- Written by Fred Rose, 1945 sung by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson

The twilight, when the angle of the sun's rays conveys messages beyond the mundane, so fantastical that a long-ago boyfriend's days were numbered the day I had to arm-twist him into watching the sun setting over the beach. [If a man can't find magic in a sunset and tropical twilight, romance will be scarcer than free time with three children]. Romance, sunsets, twilights . . . could this blog entry really focus on Willie Nelson's ballad? No - I admit that old Willie was a red herring to my real purpose; adding my musings to the effluence of writing and commentary on the Twilight books and movies, specifically the new movie, New Moon.

I saw New Moon with three good friends last Friday and admit that I had a magical time. Much of the glow resulted from the one (two?) glasses of wine we had prior to the show and the great conversation that flowed; I think the vulnerability we share in admitting our devotion to the Twilight books has helped to deepen our friendships. All of these women are Readers, critical thinkers and thoughtful people who just like to throw all rational thought out the window once in a while and remember . . . . remember the good old days when our frontal lobes weren't fully formed and our hormones were raging for much better reasons than peri-menopause.

We meant to arrive at the show early but were so side-tracked by our own dreams and musings that we ended up tearing around corners and dashing inside just in time to be allowed into the theater, surrounded by the (very) young women who comprise the majority of the movie's followers. However, a CNN article forwarded to me by my husband recognizes the large numbers of women in the 30s, 40s and beyond who are drawn to the film and the stories, and the actor who stars as Edward, Robert Pattinson, commented that women in their 90s ask him the same questions as girls in their teens.

What does this all mean? To hijack a phrase off the movie trailer for Letters to Juliet which played before New Moon "the best romantic tale is your own." When I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (the first book, particularly) the turbulent emotions of the novel evoked that first great passion and heartrending emotion of my own. The incredible rush of first love, young love, forbidden love, no wonder these are themes for the ages. After that first experience we are always more cautious, more rational, more protective - certainly positive traits but nowhere near as exciting as the roller coast ride, the big wave, of falling for another person for the first time, of realizing that someone outside of your family can think you amazing despite your flaws and foibles.

Admitting your flaws and being vulnerable - what startling and joyful gifts we can give in relationship. I find this type of gift-giving becomes harder with each passing year, each layer of varnish that hardens us to betrayal and rejection. Good actors, singers, and artists show this vulnerability as they turn their deepest emotions out for our witness; no wonder we are drawn to them. I think Taylor Lautner shows this type of vulnerability in New Moon (as well as amazing muscle definition!), and left me dreaming that night of a more personal, less photogenic pair trying on adult passions for the first time. Though Stephenie Meyer's writing is not in the same class as JK Rowling's and though the series tapers off to a less-credible finish, I have to hand it to Meyer for writing a tale that opens the door to all of her reader's memories and fantasies. Something about her tale becomes revelatory and brings us back to the passion that we had . . . that we still have . . . hidden within.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Series of Developments

Develop – 1. To realize the potentialities of / to aid in the growth of; strengthen 2. To cause to unfold gradually 3. To bring into being, make active 4a. To progress from earlier to later stages of individual maturation

Development – 4. A significant act or occurrence.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Definition, Houghton Mifflin 1982)

Oddly, though stages of development and developmental milestones often connote positivity and progression, they can carry with them a perfect storm of emotions and concerns for both parent and child. This past weekend we had two of our three children deal with major milestones and my husband and I kept making eye contact across rooms – eyebrows levitated to shockingly high degree – as we watched our progeny hurdle across previously untouchable barriers. Our middle child remained a pocket of happiness and relative calm; he turned the household upside down last year with his concerns over a new brother and the beginning of kindergarten.

My daughter headed off to her first Girl Scout camp – a sleepaway camp which required her to be away from home for two whole nights. She had only ever had one sleepover in her life, and that was next door. I have to confess that I had a hard time weeding out my own childhood fears and dislike of sleepovers when I was counseling her about her concerns. I knew that she really wanted to attend; she had tried to go last spring but fell ill with a fever at the last minute (either viral or psychosomatic). She nearly backed out last week, too, but we discussed the situation wherein you can have two strong feelings within yourself, and you have to choose which one to really listen to / act on even while you are sympathetic to the other.

So she decided to go, and left me in the parking lot of the school in the beginnings of a snowstorm, overly bright-eyed and quivery of lip but resolute in her decision. She had a great time, and though she confessed to me “there were a few tears that first night, mom” she was so proud of herself. I am proud of her, too – over the moon, actually – and pleased that I didn’t cry, either. I felt like I was missing a limb most of the weekend and checked the weather report reflexively every time I turned on the computer, but feel joyful that she is unfolding, that her character, her desires and her motivations are becoming clearer just as a photographic image emerges through processing. (Ironically, the subtitle on the dictionary that I used for this definition of development claims it is the “The single source for people who need to be right.” That used to be true of me, but as a parent ‘rightness’ has lost its meaning and desirability. Part of letting our kids grow up is letting go of that need to be right and just holding onto the need to be good.)

While she was gone our youngest child moved through an emotional steeplechase of his own. He has two baby books of memories from Guatemala, with photos, postcards and documents of his babyhood, our first meeting, and our journey to Colorado. He has requested that we read these to him periodically over the past 18 months, showing varying degrees of interest and curiosity in their contents, but last week he picked up the professional photo book and requested it continuously. He pored over the contents, his eyes filling with tears, as he saw a sorrowful younger self in the montage of photos representing our first days together. “Why I sad?” he asked us, chin wobbly. “Where you?” We tried to explain that he was having a hard time saying good bye to his friends, that he was meeting us for the first time and it is always hard to say good bye to people and places that you love. We watched with our hearts in our throats as he grappled with the idea that he had lost something, that he had a life before us which we did not share and could not help him remember beyond our photos and the information we could procure in our short time in the orphanage. He looked at a photo of his sister by his crib and asked “where is her bed?” We had to explain that neither she nor his older brother had lived there, that their beds were in the house in Colorado. At this point he would give up the photos and launch himself at my chest or my husband’s crying “mommy, mommy” or “daddy, daddy.”

Our hearts were so full, the weight of his emotion and the depth of his loss pulling our eyes open to his reality as if our heart-strings were actually connected to our lower eyelids. We discussed what to say, how to confirm his feelings as good and right while reassuring him that he would be stuck with us forever now, that as far as we can control his changes are over. We consult friends and therapists for the right words as we continue to follow his lead in exploring his realizations and his past, which is such a large part of his young life. Even as he grapples with the knowledge of his loss and his uniqueness in our family, he develops closer ties to his siblings every day, exhibits more calm and focus in his school and his tasks at home, and puts down roots with friends and teachers. The dual prongs of development, pain and progress, function side by side in his 32-pound self and he shows amazing flexibility and depth as he incorporates this new understanding. We are so blessed to witness the growth and emergence of our children as unique individuals, each step another miracle in the chain of miracles that began with their birth.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

At the Comedor

I wrote a short piece about our church group's visit to the US / Mexico border south of Tucson, Arizona. We visited the crossing at Nogales (Arizona and Mexico), where buses drop off deported individuals on the Mexican side after the possessions and cash are taken from them. Here's the piece:

At the Comedor

We stepped hesitantly across the dusty street, warming already at 7:30 in the morning. Bypassing the line on the side of the road, we climbed a few steps into shady coolness provided by a tarp awning. Our guide said hello to the whirlwind of a woman behind a makeshift counter who was frying eggs, warming tortillas, cooking beans. Men and women shuffled slowly through the assembly line of breakfast, offering quiet thanks and moving purposefully to find a seat at one of the tables or couches randomly placed under the tent of the comedor, an oasis of compassion in the border town of Nogales, Mexico.

The hum of conversation flowed around us as we stood, out of place persons among persons without a place. Desiring to hear their stories, Gene LeFebvre and I moved into a circle of couches to introduce ourselves and learn about the paths that brought these hungry folk to the Catholic Church – run comedor, penniless and rejected, but not without hope. We had just come from the actual border station on the Mexican side of the wall, walking easily from our van across the border and south a few blocks to the eating spot; a straightforward journey for us but a militarized Grand Canyon for our fellow diners.

As I perched on the arm of a couch where three slender individuals sat, they hastily moved over to make room for me and one, a handsome young man, hospitably waved me into a seat. Via a jumbled Spanglish greeting we learned that his name was Roberto, his young wife, Julia. Their seatmate was an acquaintance of the Nogales sidewalk, where they had slept the past few nights.

I reassured the three of them of our intent. “We are from a church, an iglesia, in Colorado, and we came to Nogales to meet people and learn your stories.”

“Did you walk here from Colorado?” asked Roberto in broken English.

“No, no,” I said. “We took an airplane to Tucson and drove down across the border. Did you walk here yourself?”

“We walked part of the way,” he said. “We walked across the desert at night but la migra found us and bused us back yesterday. They took our money and our backpacks so we are here in Nogales with nothing,” and he shrugged his shoulders.

Roberto told me that six weeks ago he would have smelled the aroma of tortillas over Julia’s mother’s fire in the family home in Chihuahua, Mexico. I asked how they came to the Comedor.

Julia just shook her head, momentarily closing her eyes. Her eyelids may have registered stern faces of the Border Patrol agents who had found her and Roberto huddled under the shade of prickly mesquite trees in the border country not ten miles from where we now sat. Roberto and Julia had stumbled on blistered feet to the bus and suffered a day and night in the crowded detention center before the Border Patrol dropped them off – without their savings or possessions - just across the border.

Roberto continued their short history, of how work was impossible to find in their village in Chihuahua. He had tried every day for six months to find work without success. Julia worked whenever she could, cleaning houses for $7 a day, but a week’s worth of work (each day for 12 hours) only brought in enough money to pay for milk and diapers for their little boy. He suffered from a lack of additional food and adequate shelter; future school attendance seemed impossible. As with many poor countries, Mexican school is not subsidized by the state and each student must pay for a uniform and for books and other supplies. Roberto and Julia felt they had no choice but to leave their families to find work in the States.

“Do you have children?” concluded Roberto, looking at me.

“Yes, we have three. One, our youngest son, was adopted from Guatemala.”

“If you would like another,” he said in Spanish, “he could adopt my wife. She looks young enough to be his daughter,” and he gestured at Gene, who smiled good-naturedly but looked to me for a translation.

After a quick laugh he replied, “I may be old enough, but I would have a lot of explaining to do.”

“She is 19,” said Roberto. “I am 21 and our boy is 2 years old.”

It hurt to even imagine leaving such a young child. “Where is your son?” I asked.

“He is with my parents.” Julia’s voice was quiet. “I want my son to go to school when he is five. We will need money for books and a uniform. He must go or he will have this same life.” Her hand gestured widely, capturing the comedor, its guests, and their exhaustion.

“My only dream is for my son.” She looked down. “Right now they do not even know if we are alive. We cannot call them without money for a phone card.”

I translated with difficulty and our small group sat quiet, helpless to change her situation. Roberto put a dusty arm around her shoulders. The interview seemed over; we had nothing to offer them but our heartfelt sympathy and a list of places where they might find help in Nogales – agencies that might donate a phone card, Grupo Beta offices that may be able to provide transportation for part of the way back to their home. We had no way of knowing if they would attempt the desert crossing again, or what decision they might come to in this hostile no-man’s land so far away from their home, so far away from their dream.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Living up to Our potential

Report cards came home last week, pages of numbers and letters inside innocuous manila envelopes waiting to bear witness on our children’s fitness as students and our prowess as parents. The papers annoy me, remind me of my joyless student fixation with straight A’s, the potential frustration of seeing all of your efforts reduced to a subjective digit. My husband and I glanced over our children’s report cards privately, noting comments on their effort, making sure their work is done and they are grade-level appropriate, and then we put them away, dishing out a special ice cream for their hard work and moving on to different topics (what they want for Christmas, who hit whom, etc,).

I recognize our great good fortune in living near a marvelous school with dedicated, talented teachers, and raising children who have (thus far) shown some aptitude in the 3Rs and have a personality makeup relatively conducive to sitting still for six hours. As a parent I wrestle with new report card-related issues; how hard to push, how much to help, how much to protest (the 90 minutes of homework required from my 8-year-old each day), just in general how to be in relation to my children and their school. Parents are told that we are responsible for our children “living up to their potential.” It feels like a huge weight and responsibility, but what does it mean?

Here’s the thing: I pursued good grades, a good college, and a good job as if they were the key to lasting joy and happiness, if not recognition and adulation. I cannot determine how I fixed on this path as the way to nirvana; my parents never pushed me that I can recall. They did work quite hard, and each had a good education of their own with plenty of smarts behind it, but I think it was the voice of our culture that I internalized. We are taught that a job title and the accompanying paycheck will not only bring security but happiness. I checked each item off the list, with little resultant joy. When I left the working world to focus on motherhood I struggled mightily with the loss of title and salary, trying to resurrect a meaningful identity out of the ashes.

I wrestled with depression and went to therapy, trying to determine who I was and why I had spent all of my parents’ money on an expensive college education if my salary now was zero and my various job titles included housekeeper, meal-preparer, laundress and driver. One of the stories I recalled vividly at this time was a scene with my father back when I was getting a C in freshman geometry. I sat studying for the final with tears running down my cheeks, pounding his nice desk with my compass. I wanted nothing less than an A, which would require an A on the final. My dad sat to my left, wisely out of range of the compass in my right hand, and said, “You will never be the best. Even world record holders are replaced after a few months, champions at the end of the next season. Let it go and just be the best Laura you can be.”

I rejected his advice, hands down. What new-agey cr** was this? I damn well would be the best; I would prove him wrong! Yet I never forgot this moment, and over two decades later I think I finally understand him. When teachers, coaches, and family urge me to get my children “up to their potential” I have a new reply.

Each of us has a completely unique makeup; the genetics of our DNA, RNA, mitochondria as well as our metabolic rates generate a matchless wavelength of energy. As Crosby, Stills and Nash said, “we are stardust,” and each a unique star at that. Combine our one-of-a-kind wavelength with the lens provided by our individual upbringing and experience, and we have a completely original voice to go with our cool vibrations and energy. The world needs each of us; our best energy fuels relationships, solves problems and builds solutions.

Each person must find the activities that they love, which fuel their energy, so it can be sent back into the world. Of course, we also need to do things that we don’t like. In order to function in a family, a classroom, in society we often need to meet expectations, fulfill obligations on time, and help problem-solve. Yet we can do those things best when we are finding joy in whatever sustains us, be it lego construction (my son), pencil sketches of horses (my daughter), or endless writing in a blog that no one else will read (guess who).

Just as I feel a sense of tragedy when I read of children dying due to poverty and preventable diseases, their voices and talents lost forever to the world, so do I mourn when my friends and acquaintances suffer through depression and self-doubt. The standards of the world are ruthless, reducing us to common denominators – numbers like salary, age, weight and titles like CEO, VP, Teacher, Mom. We may need to function in those capacities but that is not who we are. I feel most alive when I write, go for a long run outside, discuss deep issues with close friends, hug my spouse and my children. I can feel the energy vibrating within and outward and I want to run farther, sing and dance. On these occasions I feel like a star – in the heat- and light-emitting sense as opposed to a paparazzi draw.

I want my children to feel this energy, to function in the world and in society without accepting society’s labels or the trap of thinking that a good college and a good job are the sole requirement for lasting happiness. I want them to hear their inner voice, recognize and embrace their uniqueness and bring their own celestial energy to explore, solve problems, create and love. Somehow I think their report cards fall short of capturing this potential, that lists and rankings are feeble constructs before the star-like radiance of my children. Dad, it took 23 years, but I finally got it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching kindness

I received a thoughtful email from a friend today, noting that her daughter recently commended mine for her kindness. My friend added, 'congratulations on raising a nice girl!' My daughter has also been noticed for her recent kindnesses in Sunday School, on vacation with relatives, and by the mom of another friend. All of the folks who kindly relay the acts and the commendations to me also add their congratulations and/or approval of my spouse and myself. I have to cringe inwardly while honestly telling them that my daughter is a kind person because it is her innate nature - she probably learns more of what not to do from me.

One example that literally leaps to mind transpired when we traveled as a family to Guatemala to meet our youngest son and bring him home. My daughter was only 6 when we traveled to Guatemala City, a relatively timid first-grader. Both my son and daughter enjoyed playing with their new brother and his friends at the orphanage, a loving place nonetheless confined to a small concrete building, courtyard and diminutive play structure. Our youngest was not quite two years old, quite attached to his friends and caregivers at APIF, and desperately opposed to being left alone with us. All of the photos from our first day show him in a corner, searching for a way out, his big brown eyes wide over tear-streaked cheeks.

The trauma of the situation made a big impression on my two older children, who attempted vainly to woo their new brother with toys, balloons and balls. At the time of our trip I had contracted a kidney infection and my primary memory consists of the cold concrete floor underneath me as I watched the children at their lopsided play, wondering how on earth we would move forward.

Later that week we dined at a McDonald's within walking distance of our hotel in Guatemala City. Our little guy clung to his dad as he did the entire week, recognizing and quite logically hitching his star to the stronger, more rational and stable parent. The McDonald's entrance was guarded by a machine-gun wielding soldier, young and petite but nonetheless frightening to North American children (and parents). I collapsed at a table between the high chair and my daughter, holding on to my composure by the width of a french fry as I battled another 102 degree fever (note the litany of excuses - more to come).

Midway through the meal a young woman came into the restaurant, momentarily freed to enter by the brief absence of our guard. I could not understand her verbal request but her open palm, beseeching stare and young child on her hip made her need for money rather obvious - even to my children. As the young lady passed our table with her request, I looked at her and shook my head. "Lo siento," I said - I'm sorry. My purse was across the table in the diaper bag, my new toddler boxing me in on the left side, my desire to help swamped in self-pity.

She gathered pesos from several tables, mostly occupied by Guatemalan citizens, then fled as the soldier returned with decided disapproval on his face and a swing of his weapon. My daughter turned to me and said, "Mommy, why didn't you help that girl? Everyone gave her money except for us."

I was branded by her stare. Heartsick, I tried to explain, going through all of the excuses I have listed here for you. She just shook her head, noting "the baby looked hungry." So I compounded my error but asking my spouse for pesos, pressing them into her hand and saying, "Go under the table and head toward the door to see if you can catch her. I'll be right behind you."

Go running through a restaurant in Guatemala City under the nose of an armed man? That was not her idea of a mission, though when I finally extricated myself from the trap of McDonald's seating she was game to head out a few feet in front of me to look for the young woman. We went outside and around the corner together, but she was gone. Gone in our vision, gone for my daughter, but never far from my mind, especially when I hear compliments about raising children to be kind. I know what I did that day - and it was not an example of kindness.

Father Dan Groody has a great quote about kindness. He relates traveling near the border and viewing a man in great need, probably an undocumented person. His traveling companion, an elderly priest, friend and mentor, taught him a profound lesson. Groody writes that his friend saw the man and stated," 'I never take chances with people like that.' Surprised by his words, (Groody) said, 'What do you mean?' He replied, 'That's Jesus over there, and we need to welcome him.' " (From "Testimony of Being a Good Samaritan, Rev. Daniel G. Groody, in Trails of Hope and Terror, de la Torre, 2009).

In a Guatemalan McDonald's I failed to welcome Jesus, failed to give pesos to a hungry young woman and her child, failed to show my child an example of kindness, and failed myself. That's a lot of failure to fit into a 45-minute dinner outing, and don't think I plan to forget it. When people compliment me on my daughter, I truly thank God for the person she is and believe that she inspires and teaches me more than I can ever teach her.


Monday, November 2, 2009

A people fast

"There is a great need today to learn to fast from people. Most of us have a tendency to devour others and usually we get severe heartburn from it." - Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity p175

Having just returned from a joy - full family vacation to San Diego, I find my mind returning to this quote – a favorite. Over the past eight days I overindulged in food - a prerequisite of vacation - and folks. Creating sunshine-bathed memories of beaches, zoos, SeaWorld, LegoLand and relatives certainly fulfilled me and my husband. Watching the children scamper from one miraculous new experience to another, feeling the warmth and light on my face while Denver suffered through a 50-hour snowstorm that brought 2 feet of the white stuff to our back porch – well, we are extremely lucky people.

Can you sense the big “however” coming? The flip side of full days and busy children are tired, whiny hours in the late afternoon and evening, a dearth of naps for the 3-year-old and a complete absence of free time for mom and dad. As the week progressed I felt my internal strings tighten and twang with each late-afternoon temper tantrum; I looked at my unread book with longing, and managed to record only four or five sentences in my journal.

As wrinkles line up to decorate my face I crave free time and quiet more than diamonds, more than chocolate, almost more than a workout (cheating - is actually free time!). It seems that the only way to refill my store of energy is to take time to sort through my thoughts and emotions, take deep breaths, and indulge flights of fancy and occasionally philosophy. In the one evening I did find time to read my book, I came across this revealing quote:

“Wasn’t it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with, after making a family with that person, even in spite of missing that person, as Amit missed Megan night after night, that solitude was what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting diminished doses, kept one sane?” - From “A Choice of Accommodations,” Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth, (Vintage Contemporaries, 2008).

When I read this paragraph I knew in my bones that Ms. Lahiri was a parent as well as an accomplished writer (true - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jhumpa_Lahiri). The joys of solitude are hard to appreciate when one is single, with solitude to spare, or when a couple is childless, with ordered home and rooms of silence. After spending a charged week with three children and a spouse that I love dearly and would, in fact, die for, I am enjoying a spellbinding morning by myself, appreciating the time with my family only in the bas-relief of my time alone.

In contrast, the one thought I managed to record in my journal over our vacation was a sentence about the movie “Into the Wild” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_the_Wild). I watched the film the night before we left for San Diego and it moved me deeply. The protagonist, a gifted young man named Christopher McCandless, flees a painful past and constrictions of modern society through an epic road trip, and finally, a dramatic stay in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilds. The recorded description of the film – which I read prior to watching - notes that the young man’s trip is doomed, so I watched scene after scene, increasingly enthralled with the young man and ever more reluctant to watch his demise. Toward the end of the film, McCandless writes in his own journal (which was recovered by moose hunters) something to the effect that happiness is only worthwhile when shared. He comes to the realization too late to share the joy of new experiences with friends and loved ones, and forfeits the opportunity to reattempt his life with this new lens.

As with anything in life, then, balance would seem to represent the key to peace. Time spent with loved ones, sharing new thoughts and experiences and giving of oneself, balanced by time alone in meditation and reflection. These are not new thoughts, but as I process the reality of life with three children, pursuing a path to peace and self-mastery, the awareness feels new every day, immensely valuable and precious.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Laughter and climate change

"Be joyful though you have considered all the facts." - Wendell Berry

On Saturday, October 24th, events will take place around the world to convince business and political leaders to DO SOMETHING in Copenhagen in December, when they meet to draft a Climate Treaty to succeed Kyoto. The events are organized under the auspices of 350.org, an organization named for the scientific belief that Earth's carbon dioxide levels need to be stabilized at 350 parts per million to maintain life as we know it. Currently our CO2 levels are at 388 ppm and many changes are occurring. (See http://www.350.org/) Melting Arctic ice, destabilizing permafrost in Alaska, severe drought in Australia and the Sahel region of Africa. . . .not a lot of happy thoughts in that list. How then, to be joyful?

Over the past 11 years, the duration of my self-conscripted time in the "green" movement, I have learned many things about the state of our biosphere, few of which elicited a laughing response. My main motivating force is not laughter but my children. The thought of their future fuels me to educate other people and to try to build a movement for positive change - change in energy consumption, buying habits, eating habits, and policies that could encourage such changes. I want all of the cute kiddos on the playground to have clean air, (enough) clean water, myriad plant and animal species to view with awe, and a stable world both climatically and politically. When I read that "without drastic action, by the time our kids reach their 40s. the Southwest will have become a dust bowl" (Mother Jones, Nov/Dec issue p4) I tend to react. Yet in the next paragraph the Mother Jones editors admit, "no one enjoys dread and guilt," and suppose that this negativity is responsible for Americans' listing climate change at Number 20 on their list of problem issues.

How then, to educate people and encourage action around climate change? The answer must surely be as diverse as there are people in the world, and I have recently seen a few unique attempts. The Maldives' Cabinet members put on scuba gear and held an underwater meeting last Saturday, attempting to highlight the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to their country, the lowest-lying nation on Earth (http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2009/10/17/maldives-climate-change.html).
The accompanying photo really was quite humorous, as they had a complete table with name cards and official looking documents to sign. Definitely smile-worthy.

Religious leaders may exhort their church members to follow the moral imperative of living simply so that others may simply live, Denver urges its residents to do just five simple tasks to live greener, artists create giant sculptures of people or fabric, or make fantastic images to show the plethora of bottles, newspapers, electronics and other objects that we discard. Artists and rhetoricians use their voices powerfully, but they are lost in the shuffle of information that bombards our lives.

I have heard that people learn better when they are laughing; if that is true the climate change issue lacks educating heft. Punch lines are hard to come by in a shifting world where climate refugees already exist and where their numbers could increase exponentially. Yet again, one must pull away from statistics, realize the gifts we Americans have of clean air, water, bird songs, autumn leaves and ocean swims. . . and be joyful though we have all the facts. Thanks to Mr. Berry for reminding us that our joy is a powerful force by itself; let us take joy in our earth and then act to preserve its wonders for future generations.

This Saturday, if you are near a 350.org event, please take part.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gratitude

Last week a deep freeze blanched our autumn leaves, reducing their flame hues to ashen version of their best selves. Within our walls, a flu bag (H1N1 or a related intruder) similarly bleached our joyous Indian Summer spirits. The applesauce-making and leaf-collecting habits of our days halted by fevers and ear infections, we huddled inside watching shivers of snow hurry by the windows.

I kept my spirits up for a few days by holding on to a sense of gratitude. I felt gratitude for health care, kind pediatricians, prescription-strength cough syrup and a warm house.Honey and hot tea also got us through the weekend. When I finally succumbed to a lesser version of our virus, gratitude got lost in a hurry. Warm, fuzzy feelings are hard to sustain when all you want to do is put on the warm fuzzies and go to bed.

The world lost a few shades of color, the end was no longer in sight and my sense of joy had gone completely missing. Where did it go and how had I lost my 'attitude' of gratitude so quickly? In the fullness of my thirties I have come to the realization that a sense of gratitude can really affect my day. Two years ago I lost someone who meant a great deal to me in my teens - he died at the young age of 37 and the news shocked me. One of his close friends received this quote from him in his last days - I don't know if he wrote it or if it comes from another author so forgive the lack of citation:

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.....It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace today and creates a vision for tomorrow...."

Many writers have penned meaningful quotes on gratitude but the above lines mean the most to me as they come from someone whom I loved and who suffered. It knocked me breathless to read these words, knowing that he struggled and that he lost much of what I am grateful for today.

I walked slowly to school yesterday, fighting hills and phlegm, yet feeling a familiar glow start in my chest (unrelated to congestion). Gratitude for the warmer weather, for my children back in school and for a few remaining brilliant leaves, caught me up and changed the color palette in my head. When a leaf slalomed through the air in front of me, pursuing wildly placed unseen gates on its way to the ground, joy leapt up. I think gratitude stokes the embers of joy, keeping us warm and ready to spark with appreciation whenever the fuel is placed right. The flames themselves are impossible to sustain but the coals can keep us warm even when the deep freeze strikes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Woodworking

A woodworking book arrived in the mail last week, evoking the same sort of surprise we felt when a hummingbird recently crashed into one of our patio chairs. Who in the house has ever exhibited a proclivity for making furniture - or any other wooden object for that matter? As it so happens, the name that appeared on the envelope when I pieced it back together (the children are not gentle unwrappers) was my husband's, and light dawned.

My husband is an engineer; he had a double major in college of electrical and computer engineering. At one point during our dating years, I felt that perhaps we were too different; he would never enjoy Harry Potter books or romance movies with me, and I could never program a circuit or show wild interest in our TV remote capabilities. I eventually realized that our core values were so similar and our potential partnership too strong to be abandoned on the basis of these dissimilarities - though his wild support of Ohio State football nearly came between us when Michigan (my childhood team) beat the Buckeyes three years in a row. (Yes, I do realize that those victories came a LONG time ago.)

Let me come back to woodworking. Just recently my spouse showed an interest in furniture-making, and two sets of shelves and a table-top quickly resulted. The children swarmed avidly over the computer program he used to make his sketches and loved both the buying of wood and the sawing and hammering that accompanied his creative process. I spectated, as well, amazed as a piece of functional furniture emerged from a long board and sawhorse. I felt linked by our mutual creative urges.

Bemused at the parallels between our creative desires, I thought back to a conversation I had with a dear friend. Minor digressions in spousal priorities and pursuits had led us to wonder: would marriage be easier if we had a spouse with carbon-copy passions? If both advocated for social justice, for the arts, or for football, would the household be more harmonious and would our joint efforts spur us to greater achievement?

After much reflection I have to argue 'no'. Of course this arrangement can and does work for some people, but I don't feel it is a prerequisite for a strong partnership. If both my husband and I were passionate writers and social justice advocates we would have no money, and no time for the children; I doubt we would be successful. The strength of the bond comes from our support of each other's passion, and our mutual efforts toward the greatest creative act in (my) life - building a family and a community. I doubt that I will have any more lasting legacy than the relationships I build with our children, friends and family, and my husband has my back in those efforts; he has made it clear that family retains the top of his priority list, as well. Together we weave a tapestry of family rituals, adventures, travel, and visits with extended family. With this project in common, we need our own wild, specific tangents to fulfill our individual abilities, though I know I value his support and input to whatever I undertake. The kids and I will do the same for him.

Perhaps my husband's next project could be a birdhouse, for those poor befuddled hummingbirds that lunge across our patio. The kids and I will be happy to cheer him on!


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The present

"But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing-
Too present to imagine."
-From Carpe Diem, by Robert Frost

"Mom," said my daughter, looking up from her book report, "what do you call this time?" My head came up from email and I felt the blank look on my face.

"Homework time? Snack time?" She shook her head, frustrated by my glaring lack of intelligence.

"No, mom. Like the time before was the olden days, and Christmas is in the future and this time is the . . .what?" Comprehension dawned.

"Oh, you mean the present. The time that we are living in right now is called the present."

She nodded, satisfied, and went on to finish her book report while I mused over the fact that she had words for life both before and after the now, but not for the moment she was living.

I often make the same mistake by looking toward the nebulous "future" as the promised land where children have become magically self-sufficient, leaving me with free time in which to write the Great American Novel or volunteer for a wonderful peace and justice effort with my husband (or just take a nap). The past beckons also, as consciousness has edited the angst and trauma from those scenes.

Why is the present so crowded, so confusing, so difficult to imagine? Certainly our minds are bombarded by more images than existed when Frost wrote his lines, yet the busy-ness of our lives only clouds my real problem; accepting both the joy and pain, the delight and frustration of the moments that dot our lives like pearls on a chain. Even recognizing the value of the present (a "gift" by any other name) does not make it easy for me to embrace the flood of emotion that can overtake me when I am fully cognizant, fully aware.

Great, gulping sobs and mascara tracks don't play well in public, no matter how accepting the audience. I can overflow with emotion at any given poignant song, at any family reunion or documentary over justice issues. The tendency is to stifle the outward signs of emotion and to do that one must stifle the inner turmoil - swallow it down and present a bland front. Yet to stifle our empathy and compassion, to shrink back even from tears of joy, robs us of the ability to fully participate in our own lives.

When my book report - writing daughter was born I was both deeply joyful and traumatized. At my six-week appointment I asked my midwife why images from her birth refused to leave me, why I was stuck in an emotional well. Bless her, she did not blame my emotions on hormones or sleep deprivation. She said simply, "you were at the border of life and death." Sensing that border, feeling the precarious nature of existence, sets us free to appreciate life and live deeply. Pain and joy seem to be in a perpetual do-si-do with all of us, though I have been most fortunate to have partnered primarily with joy, or her close cousin, happiness, thus far.

Others live with a terrible burden in the now. Dear friends face the serious illness of a child, the death of a close friend, the pain of a relationship in transition. To me these situations hint at pain almost beyond bearing. I hear from them, though, that the pain is cleaner, is bittersweet for facing it immediately and for being grateful for life's lessons. Friends, I regard you with awe, deep respect and love. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. My thoughts and prayers are with you in your 'now'.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My personal tsunami

Have you ever experienced a phase of your child's development when you dreaded waking them up? You know that your "good morning" will be the 8.0 magnitude tremor that sets of a series of tsunamis, breaking the calm of your silent pre-dawn moments. I'm in such a period with my three-year-old son; I tiptoe into his room to soak up the image of his peaceful sleeping figure before I regretfully disturb both of our tranquility with my wake-up call.

Today we experienced five temper tantrums between my "alarm" at 6:45 and preschool drop-off at 8:05. One was over oatmeal, one over the center of a toilet paper roll that my daughter was using for a microphone - and that he desperately wanted. I cannot remember the source of the other three tsunamis that swept over us this morning, but my body still holds the tension and frustration. My chest feels tight when I try to take in the deep breath that *should* calm me down.

In my Just Faith class we studied heroes of non-violence, reading Gandhi, King, and watching movies about the Polish labor movement and the Chilean people's election to remove a dictator. I felt regret that I could not be a part of such a movement, could not follow a great leader. Here again I felt the sting of my "just mom" label. Yet . . . my motherhood profession offers great opportunity to practice peace, calming influence, and defusing tensions. This morning I once again realized that my reactions are the only thing that I can control in a given situation. I certainly cannot control my three-year-old! How difficult it is to speak calming words on the fifth temper tantrum, to control my thoughts and the angry words that threaten to break past my lips. My frustration and my failure to stay peaceful in the storm taste bitter on my tongue, as if I've swallowed some of the salt water in our tsunami.

We don't spank in our household, and use timeouts and loss of privileges effectively with my older children, but my youngest is not quite old enough to understand or to negotiate for what he wants. We only have a short time left in this phase, but I pray that it will be enough time for me to calm the storm - in him and in myself. Perhaps we can channel our passions into a river: water that carries strength, that can carve rock and nurture growth, but that can absorb disturbances with only a faint ripple.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just Mom

This morning I took a phone call and watched through the window as my three children chased each other, screaming (it was audible in the house) as they fought over a package of rice crackers. Apparently my oldest son had consumed more than his fair share, resulting in general hysterics.

My children are well-fed - to my mind, anyway - and their grasping over snacks truly upsets me, not just because they are loud and embarrass me in front of the neighbors, but also because I see accounts every day of children who die from malnourishment. Yet when I tell my children that boys and girls in Haiti make mud pies to eat because they have nothing else, they look at me blankly. "Where's Haiti?" one asked, with a mouth full of cracker.

The title of this entry - Just Mom - refers back to a class I have been taking for over two years called Just Faith. It addresses social justice issues of hunger, poverty (both local and global), environmental degradation, nonviolence and racism. The title incorporates two pillars of the class: Justice and Faith. I expect that many of the entries in this blog will deal with my struggle to incorporate my new knowledge (and resulting guilt) into a privileged lifestyle and a culture that teaches the importance of material things.

Of course, the flip side of the words "Just Mom" refers to those of us who parent as our sole or main profession. We have been dropped from the roles of legitimate careerists. No business cards, titles, or salaries attach easily to the "mom" or "dad" entry on a resume. (Many) blog entries on that to follow.

Judith Warner wrote an extremely interesting and impactful book entitled, Perfect Madness : Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead Trade, 2006), in which she discusses the struggles of American parents. To paraphrase one of her key points, parents in the US spend huge amounts of time and energy carving a big piece of the ever-shrinking pie for their children. If we all banded together and focused our energies on making the pie bigger, every child and society as a whole would benefit - maybe someday we could all relax.

Something to think about the next time I buy rice crackers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What is a Wild Specific Tangent?

Set me free, O God,
to go off with you today
on one wild, specific tangent after another,
immersed and amazed
in the wonder
and even terror
of your immense
creative beauty.
- From Earth Gospel, A Guide to Prayer for God's Creation (Sam Hamilton-Poore, p 62)

For a Type A personality immersed in the American can-do and must-have culture, the freedom to go off on a "wild, specific tanget" seems to dance just out of reach, yet I recently began to sense that I had to have that freedom or start gasping for air.

Most of my life I have lived linearly: followed the rules, planned for success to follow effort, and left the margins blank. A few years ago, the margins blurred and I started coloring life outside the lines. Just a hint, an aura, not a full-fledged rebellion. To be sure, full-time motherhood of three children and a life in middle-class suburbia does not leave an immense amount of room for healthy rebellion, but the need for creative freedom began to percolate.

The phrase "wild specific tangent" in the prayer above actually comes from a Reflection by Annie Dillard, which is quoted on the same page in Earth Gospel. Dillard writes, "The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font." Witness that exuberance in the flaming leaves of autumn, the red glow of late peaches, the crazed bees preparing for winter. The world is not logical, not always connected in ways that we can see (though always connected) and not controllable. I pray for the ability to relax my need for control, to see the beauty around me, and to explore the wild, specific tangents that cross my path.

Hopefully this blog will give me the opportunity to do so, with partnership and support from like-minded others.