Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

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Wedding prayer

Tonight I had the amazing honor of officiating my baby sister’s wedding. There are not adequate words to describe how privileged I feel to have been included in this life-changing moment for this woman whom I love and respect so much, and the man who has turned a light on inside her to let the world see how amazing she is. It was an experience that I will always treasure.

I suppose it is as a memorialization of this precious jewel-moment in time that I share the benediction I prayed over them immediately before pronouncing them married.

With these vows and these rings you have taken the first steps in the celebration dance that will take the rest of your lives to complete. For all the steps that will come after, this is my prayer for you….

That you will hold each other tight enough and lose enough to dance with both security and freedom…

That when the noises of life fill your ears your hearts will keep beating to the rhythm of your dance…

That when your feet stumble, as they sometimes will, you will lean into each other for balance…

And that the beauty of your partnership will be reflected back for you to see in the eyes of those of us who get to watch you dance.

Let it be so. Amen.
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What I have learned in 14 years

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the day Tyler and I made the most important promises of our lives. We loved each other very much, AND we did not yet understand very much about love, or what all those promises really meant. That ignorance was OK, however. It has been part of the gift of our marriage – the chance to learn together about love, and all the work involved in love, in the context of a commitment to do that work together, however hard or unexpected it might be.

If I were to make those promises again today, I would understand them very differently…. and I would mean them more, especially  the promise to love. I would understand love in a way that was much less romantic, and much more about the daily texture of a shared life. I would understand love as a shifted center that creates not just a partnership but a family, which then proceeds to shift the balance yet again. I would understand love as a willingness to stay still instead of walking away, even when you don’t know what to say and know that saying the wrong thing could hurt both you and the one you love. Most of all, I would understand love as a joy that is so much more real than happiness.

So, for my shared reflection today, I offer this love poem to my husband and children about all the things that they have taught me about love and joy in daily moments.


 

What is this joy?

 

What is this joy?

that fills like helium,

one deep inhale and I am floating, tether-less…

What is this joy?

that sets my eyes to dance

in rhythm with the eyes I gaze and laugh into…

What is this joy?

in gentle fingers twined

through my long, tangled hair to make it beautiful…

What is this joy?

that fills the silent space

with promise that the words will come if I will wait…

What is this joy?

that rides the swells

and troughs and will not sink beneath the rolling waves….

What is this joy?

that forms a solid core

for this togetherness of constant, changing life…

What is this joy?

this joy is love,

the virtue that can only grow… when shared.

 


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Absolutes and Vulnerability

I have written about suicide before.

I have written about my processing of one such loss,

and the way that pain heals,

and the way that pain changes.

Losing my Dad to suicide when I was 19 does not make me an expert on suicide, but it gives me an urge to share from my experience. That urge is in part an element of my own healing process. That urge is also an effort to offer hope to others walking similar paths, because vulnerability can be one of the most powerful gifts to those devastated by this particular kind of loss.   

That power of vulnerability was in my mind for a completely unrelated reason as I scrolled through Facebook this evening. My feed offered a number of reflections on the suicide of Robin Williams.  The internet conversation on this topic is a mixed bag, of course, but one thread in that fabric grabbed my attention. I am referring to the commentary offered by blogger Matt Walsh about Williams’ death being a “choice,” as well as the impassioned response to his assessment.

I disagree with much of what Matt Walsh said, but those disagreements wouldn’t be worth a blog post. Most of my arguments were made by others in comments responding to the post. These comments cited research, and biochemistry, and personal stories – all presented with the same authoritative tone as the original blog post. And, while I agreed with many of the comments more than I did with the post, the whole feed left me feeling drained by the invulnerability of it all. It was as though the entire discussion was built on the common premise that the one who can claim the most invulnerable authority on the issue has the right to define, in absolute terms, the truth of suicide.

When we are talking about something as raw and devastating and confusing as suicide, absolutes seem to me to be incredibly unhelpful. And I think that help is really the most important thing that incidents like this can inspire. Help for those who are mourning suicides and help for those who are contemplating such an exit.

Now, I know that Matt Walsh trades in absolutes – that is his electronic identity in many ways – but this prioritization of helpfulness is actually evident in a key argument near the end of his post.

“To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.”
Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/08/12/robin-williams-didnt-die-disease-died-choice/#5DKJGMxl2YMEwGMT.99

Walsh’s argument is that characterizing suicide as illness rather than choice does the opposite of helping them, and therefore is absolutely wrong. It is a position that can be argued back and forth and the result will be (as evidenced by the comments on the post) … an argument. I do not claim that Walsh’s position would not be helpful to any person considering suicide. I do not, however, believe that it would be absolutely helpful.  I do not believe it would be helpful to every person considering suicide.

I cannot believe this because of my own experience with depression. Not my Dad’s experience, my own.

This is where I have to live up to my challenge about vulnerability. While I have blogged about my dad’s suicide before, I have never before shared my own struggle with mental illness in such a public way. While this is not an active pain, it still feels too private to share. But… my intensely personal experience is why I feel so strongly that arguments about absolutes are more harmful than helpful in this context.

I have Major Depressive Disorder, which has manifested in four major depressive episodes. I am incredibly thankful that I have not had a depressive episode in ten years, but I can still feel that pain in my memory as a visceral, all-encompassing reality.

My experience of depression is like the slow, inexorable descent into quicksand. It’s just a pressure at first, a sucking drain on joy and energy that feels like I should be able to just shake it off. But the effort to shake it off triggers a much more vice-like grip. I try to strip it away, but there is nothing get hold of. My fingers slide through the suffocating pressure – small grains of pain are too insubstantial to grasp and deal with, but the very ease with which they slide away creates a pocket of empty space to suck at scrabbling fingers, always pulling down. It takes so much effort to struggle, and the effort only hastens the descent. It saps all energy and will to fight. It’s so much easier just to stop fighting. I know it will eventually crush me with its weight but the slow compression becomes almost like a tight bear hug. I am lulled by the promise of a final enfolding of sleep – so much preferable to the violence of lungs filling quickly with the sucking, pressing, all-surrounding pain that will win no matter what I do.

That is my experience with depression, an experience that gives me a small glimpse into the pain that ended my Dad’s life. It is only a glimpse because I have never gotten very close to suicide myself. As technical diagnostic levels go, my depression only ever reached a one on a scale of one to three. But even my relatively minor experience teaches me how utterly enervating depression can be.

It also teaches me that there is no absolute about what helps and what hurts. Sometimes talking about it helped. Sometimes it drove me deeper. Sometimes prayer was a lifeline. Sometimes prayer made me feel abandoned and alone. Sometimes understanding my depression as an illness helped to alleviate the crushing sense of guilt at not being able to snap myself out of it. Sometimes the label of illness made it feel inescapable. Different episodes resolved in different ways and there was no formula, other than the presence of friends, my husband, and God. Presence – because the only way out of quicksand is for someone not caught in it to stand close enough to grab hold of.

And that is the problem of absolutes in the public discussion of suicide. Suicide is possibly the most personal phenomenon I have ever encountered. As a result of my own experience with it, I am attuned to the stories. I have been listening to them and talking about them with those most directly affected for 18 years. Every story is incredibly individual, to the point where absolutes just break down.

I sympathize with the need to find a cure – to present a path – to claim the authority that reassures us there is a right way to respond to this devastatingly final pain. I just don’t think that is really very helpful.

Try vulnerability instead. Be vulnerable to the scariness of it. Be vulnerable to your own pain and to other people’s. Be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is really the essence of presence.

 

 

 

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Aren’t We All Immigrants?

I am a child of immigrants.

Of course, that should be obvious to anyone who has seen my pale skin and pointed nose. My face is strong evidence that I cannot make any “native” claims to America. Thanks to my grandfather’s careful reconstruction of fifteen generations of family history, however, I know much more than the simple fact that my ancestors immigrated to these shores. I know names, and dates, and countries of origin.

On my father’s side my family immigrated from Germany ten generations back. My eight-times-great-grandfather, Johann Peter Gutin, arrived in Philadelphia in 1752 with a young son but without his wife, who had died making the journey. Lucky for me he remarried and had more children, including my many-times-great uncle who was a master trumpeter with Washington’s Guard at Valley Forge. His brother, my ninth generation grandfather (Henry Gideon) also served in Washington’s army, and when he passed away at the ripe age of 101 he was laid out in state in the New York City Hall as a fitting honor for one of the last survivors of the Revolutionary War.

On my mother’s side of the family I have to go back a bit further – a total of twelve generations to be exact – when Thomas Hollingsworth crossed over from Ireland and married a New Jersey girl named Margaret in 1683. Incidentally, this side of the family also boasts a Revolutionary War soldier, John Benson from the Sixth Duchess County Militia. If I wanted to, I could apply for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) with documentation supporting my claim from both sides of my family.

But the thing is, I don’t want to join the DAR.

This reluctance does not reflect any antipathy toward my ancestry. I am proud of my family. They have been hard-working people who have contributed to this country in countless ways. They have been engineers and farmers, pastors and furniture makers, soldiers and sailors, and teachers – many, many teachers.

They have also been people who fought for justice for the oppressed. The story from my family history of which I am most proud is my Grandfather’s recounting of the birth of his grandfather in Indiana. The story is powerful because the new father left his wife and newborn twin sons only hours after their birth, because he understood that his responsibility for care extended beyond his own family. His house was a stop on the underground railroad, and when two new passengers arrived unexpectedly he left his little family and drove 40 miles is sub-zero temperatures to get these two unknown women a little closer to the safety of Canada.

Perhaps it is in part genetics that has convinced me of the absolute imperative to love my neighbor – even a neighbor that looks very different from me. I am certain it is also the heritage of deep faith, that teaches me to show special concern for the powerless, the orphan, the alien. And these convictions are the reason I have no interest in joining a women’s organization whose eligibility is restricted exclusively to those who can trace their ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. There is nothing wrong with pride in ancestry, but I find that this kind of focus too often results in drawing lines. The kinds of lines that let some people in and keep others out. I don’t like those kinds of lines.

Of course – those lines are the focus of national attention at the moment. Child immigrants are flooding our border and lots of people are making emphatic points about lines – lines decorated with signs and screaming faces; lines that keep people out; lines they don’t want crossed.

I understand that the political situation is extremely complicated, and that there is a logistical and humanitarian crisis that is not easily addressed. My little family history offers no solutions to the question of what to do with tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, and it certainly offers no remedy to the catastrophic violence that is driving them to make the dangerous and expensive journey to America.

I offer this story, though, because I do think it is relevant to the national discussion. My history is a classic American story, and it reveals what has made America great. At its best, this has been a place that welcomed new immigrants with a chance to make themselves a life and then give back. What has made Americans great is that very willingness to give back, especially on behalf of the oppressed and helpless, even when that giving costs something. Sometimes that cost is the financial burden for care of thousands of vulnerable children. Sometimes it is the precious hours of the first day of your own child’s life.

I don’t have solutions, but I have this story. And I have this reminder for my neighbors waving signs on the border – you are a child of immigrants too. Just like me.

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Yoga and Eucharist (and kisses)

I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.

What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.

I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.

I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.

I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.

I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.

I am just done with it.

Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.

It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.

And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.

So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.

I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.

I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.

“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”

No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.

But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.

I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.

But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.

And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.

Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.

God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.

At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.

And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!

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Life Magic

Today we took a little time out… from endless to-do lists, and dirty laundry, and spreadsheets, and electronic distraction… and we spent the day in Philadelphia just hanging out together as a family. It was not a perfect day. It took ages just to get out the door because of a tantrum about flip flop prohibitions, and our last stop involved a very tired little Crankymonster who did not care how pretty the river view was because he wanted to sit on Mommy’s lap and have his chicken nuggets RIGHT NOW!

Looking back on the day, though, these moments of frustration did not ruin an otherwise perfect day – they were part of it. Today was a chance to appreciate how lucky I am to live my life – in all of its imperfect reality – inside this little family.

Life Magic

This day was built of moments
none perfect, or inspired,
but lived together they were worth
the soreness, worth the tired.

My feet are sore from walking
at slow and halting pace
beside slow feet that lag behind
then hurry up and race.

My aching back is tired,
so too my drooping head,
but overflowing heart won’t let me
rush now to my bed.

For my heart aches to capture
ingredients of bliss,
to pen a recipe to tell
the magic in a kiss.

Or, I should say, one hundred
kisses rubbed into my heart
by gentle hands and whispers
that turn child love to art.

But joy was not the only magic
built into this day.
It had a few much harder moments,
sharper words to say.

Rebukes for selfish attitudes
and whining, angry tears.
The moments that play on
my insecurities and fears.

Am I doing this all wrong?
Teaching them to try
to win their wants by throwing fits?
Rewarding when they cry?

But in the context of this day
those moments fade to take
their proper place within the whole;
they’re part of what’s at stake.

For, as we build this family
we do so inside life,
made up with each a portion
of shining love and strife.

And now I know the magic
that so fills my soul tonight
is knowing how the loving
is always worth the fight
.

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18 Years: On How Grief Changes

Today is my 18th death day.

Not literally, I suppose. The demise that annually intrudes on my consciousness is not my own, at least not in a physical or encompassing sense. My life has continued on since July 17, 1996 and it has been a good life, filled with far more joy than grief. But it has now been eighteen years since my Dad left forever — through his own choice — and that loss has been one of the single-most shaping experiences of my life.

Eighteen years seems like an eternity in some ways – nearly half my life. Occasionally, when people learn about his death and express sympathy it is easy to brush their consolations aside. “It’s been so long…” But that dismissal rejects one of the fundamental realities of grief:

Grief grows with the life that bears it.

I don’t mean that grief grows in weight or importance. Generally time does offer healing, and the sharp intensity of pain diminishes over time. But growth does not always mean increase; it can also mean adaptation. As I have changed in the eighteen years since my Dad’s death, my grief has changed as well. It would have to – the grief of a confused nineteen year old would no longer fit inside my soul; it would not line up with the curves and shading of my more fully adult perspective. It also would invalidate the impact of eighteen years of coping, the way that learning to live despite the hole in my heart has shaped the way I do that living.

So today, on my 18th death day,  I offer this reflection to my still-healing soul, and to any with whom it might resonate.

 


18th deathday

 

Eighteen years,

the age of maturation,

shift from child to adult.

The age society declare

for independence.

 

It has taken eighteen years,

oh, subtle irony,

for me to finally see

it is OK to say

“I need you.”

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