Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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On Ashes and Boats: The Comfort I Find in Lent

Lent is not exactly supposed to be the most uplifting season of the church year – confronting my brokenness, remembering that I am dust and to dust I will return, preparing for the darkness on Good Friday … it could be a bit of a downer. Pile that resume on top of the confessions of my last post about my recent descent back into the quicksand of depression, and you might assume that I would be staying as far away as I could from church these days.

Actually, I have been bathing my soul in Lent at every opportunity and finding it very healing.

I want to share just two of the ways in which this season on reflection in the darkness as been a balm to my soul.

10983401_10152846484564635_5061977917613180810_nThe first came two weeks ago at the Ash Wednesday service. At the service my wonderful pastor spoke about the words that come with the ashes as a gift. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Again – seeing this denigrating statement as a gift might seem counter-intuitive. But my ears, re-tuned as they have been by depression, heard this like the sweet exhale of release. “You are dust” – yes, I feel like dust, and the struggle of trying to not be dust is almost unbearable. But to be affirmed in this, to know that dust is how I was created, and that my dust is blessed and loved and used as an anointing… that is an incredible gift. That is an absolution from the strain of needing to be gold. I am so, so glad to be told I am dust.

The second source of healing was an invitation to share my reflection at the mid-week Lenten service last week. The suggested text was familiar – the story of when Peter walks on water and doesn’t quite make it. I’ve heard countless sermons on this text, but yet again I saw a different story from the perspective of the quicksand.  Rather than explaining exactly how, I will instead use the rest of this post to share that reflection:


“Fear in the Water”

Matthew 14:22-33

 2 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.

27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”

29 And Jesus said, “Come.”

Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”

31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. 33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”

The thing about fear is that it feeds itself. Fear alters our perspective so that what we see – the facts or perceptions that stand out in bold relief to our wide, staring eyes – are the threats, the dangers, the horrifying possibilities. When we are in that state of fight or flight heightened awareness, somehow that awareness filters out the light of hope and all we can observe are the surroundings that reinforce our fear.

When I read this story of the disciples in the boat, in the storm, already far from the security of land, I can feel their fear. I curl in on the awful tightening in my chest as my pulse quickens and my breath becomes shallow. I taste the salt spray on my lips and try to strip its clinging chill from my skin. I fight the tearing tug of the wind on my hair and clothes – pulling me toward that black, roiling, angry, suffocating water.

This is the terror of the night – the sense of helplessness as I am tossed about like a despised and battered toy by the forces of the Darkness.

And then a light appears – moving smoothly –undisturbed by wind and wave – a beam of hope if I had eyes to see.

But I don’t see hope. I see only fear. I, with the disciples, see a ghost – a further terror to exceed even the fury of nature with a supernatural threat. “They were so frightened they screamed.” Me too. When in the grip of fear there is sometimes nothing else that I can do, but scream.

Jesus answers that scream. “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid. That’s a hard one. Maybe the sight and voice of Jesus could reach me through the crashing waves and howling wind. Maybe I, with Peter, could step out in faith just moments after I had cowered in fear. Maybe I could walk upon the raging waters and bring myself within the saving reach of Jesus’ arm. Maybe… but I kind of doubt it.

I think I am still clinging to the boat. I think fear still has me in its grip. I think the best that I can do is turn my eyes toward the crazy bravery of Peter, and hold my breath in terrified prayer that he will make it.

And when he almost does. When he comes so close, only to fail at the last instant, I gasp to hear the Lord’s reproof. “man of weak faith?” “why did you begin to doubt?” This is the worst fear of all. If even Peter has fallen short… if even walking out upon the storm-tossed sea cannot earn approval, then I am lost. My only hope is to cling to my battered boat, the tangible but fragile protections that I can build for myself … my only choice is to cling to this inadequate security… and scream.

But here is the hope in this story. Because Jesus does not let Peter sink beneath the waves. Nor does he turn with Peter and walk away, leaving the terrified others, leaving me, in the heaving, creaking boat that can’t keep out the waves of fear.

Instead, Jesus brings Peter back to the boat and steps in himself with all of us. He gets into the boat – the weak, inadequate, human construction to which I cling. He gets in with me. And he calms the storm. He doesn’t magic me away. That is not the hope he offers. He climbs into the center of the fear with me. And then, and only then can I finally understand.

“You MUST be God’s Son.”


I am not quite out of the quicksand, but I am dust, and I am in the boat, and I am not alone.

Thank God for Lent.


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Quicksand

The quicksand is making that terrifying, suctioning sound.
It has been a long time since I heard that sound as anything but a distant echo. More than ten years in fact. Up until a few weeks ago I had hoped that I would never hear it again. It seemed that motherhood had brought such a change in the daily landscape of my life that I was forever removed from the neighborhood of the dangerous bog.
But apparently not. Incautious and distracted feet have wandered back into old territory, and I find myself caught. The soft but relentless grip has closed around an ankle. And my instinctual flinch has elicited the familiar, inescapable sound of enclosing mud, pulling me irresistibly down.
Perhaps I should explain. Quicksand is my name for depression.
Several months ago I wrote about my past experiences with depression in response to the suicide of Robin Williams. In that post I offered this description:
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 to 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 post was the first time I shared publicly about the shadow seasons of my life, but the public conversation about mental illness happening at the time made me feel like it was important to do so. Plus the distance of those experiences made it easier.
It’s not so easy now. The quicksand isn’t a memory that I can flit in and out of with safety. Now it is a present reality, and that reality hurts.
It hurts in ways I can’t explain with a well-crafted metaphor, but it has to do with losing the spark of joy in my days, and watching myself fail to love and enjoy my family in one hundred ways, and trying to cram my pit of emptiness full of sugar (my mood altering drug of choice), and cringing from my reflection when that “medicine” only adds insulation around the outside and gives me something else to hate.
It’s innumerable little things that drain the color from my days and leave me so, so tired.
Tired.
And also scared.
Scared that I will never be free. Scared that I will hurt those I love the most. Scared that the whispers pulling me down into the pit are all true and I am just NOT ENOUGH to do or be the things that make it worth the struggle of escaping the quicksand.
And also scared to admit these fears, because then others might not trust me any more than I can trust myself.
It is one thing to share about past battles with depression. It is quite another to say that it is NOW. To express the pain and then just wait to hear what the response will be. To admit that I’m not handling everything and let that stand as the reality – no solutions, no plan, no control over this failure.
But I am admitting it. For at least three reasons.
First, the last time I wrote about this topic, I exhorted vulnerability. I preached that the only definitely “right” response to depression is to be present to it – to be honest about the experience from the inside, and to create safe space for that honesty from the outside. When I wrote that it felt like a lesson from experience to pass along to others, but now it feels like a challenge that I have to take up. If I don’t, I risk yet another layer of gravity to weigh me down – the shame of hypocrisy.
Second, my faith community is exploring the theme of “learning to walk in the dark” as we prepare for lent. As a church we are learning the value of the darkness that lets us see a light we cannot see in brilliance. This feels stunningly relevant to my current darkness – a divine disruption of my inner monologue of sticky, trapping lies that tell me my only options are to fight or to surrender. But maybe this is not actually a war. Maybe this is instead an opportunity for change. Maybe metamorphosis has to be painful to produce the butterfly. Maybe the quicksand is ripping away the scales that trap my wings. Any maybe one of those scales is the shame and silence in which I hide my imperfection.
Finally, I am blessed by real flesh and blood people who have opened their arms to my pain in the last few weeks. People who have not shrunk away from my confession, but instead responded with care and love. They are re-teaching me the power of weakness and reminding me that trust offers sweet rewards. And in my gratitude for these supports, I know not everyone who is caught in the quicksand has such hands reaching out for them. And for those who don’t, maybe even the words of a stranger can be a comfort and support. A promise that you are not alone.
I still hearing the dragging, sucking rattled of the quicksand.
It still terrifies me.
But I am doing more than listening.
I am also speaking.
I am speaking to know that my voice can be heard over the quicksand.
I am speaking because isolation only adds the weight of all the missing people to the forces pulling me down.
I am speaking because there is some mysterious anti-gravity in the most serious of words – a pull in the opposite direction – maybe even a lifeline to some other poor, lost soul caught in the quagmire.
Shall we pull each other out?


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Mother to a Butterfly

butterfly smileI actually wrote this poem a few months ago. That particular night, however,  I did not have the emotional energy to post it, and since then the Princess and I have been sailing pretty smooth waters, so it has felt less relevant.

Today, however, it feels very authentic. It’s not that her behavior was so very unreasonable. She was justifiably frustrated about Mommy and Daddy working through virtually the entire snow day, while she and her brother had to entertain themselves. (By the way, I have discovered the downside of having a job that let’s me work from home).

Then at the end of this long, somewhat boring day, after Mommy had finally shut down her computer, Princess Imagination didn’t get to do her “show” at the exact moment she wanted to and she lost it. She’s seven. I understand.

I understand how she felt, and I also understand that sometimes my understanding doesn’t help. Sometimes she doesn’t need me to tell her that I understand. Sometimes she needs me to tell her that she is making poor decisions. Sometimes she needs my patience to sit and wait for her to work it through herself. And sometimes waiting for her to get over her fit of temper is so…damned…hard.


Mother to a butterfly

 

This smooth, hard floor is scraping at my patience

exposing an apparently raw nerve,

the urge to Just…Get…On with this damned metamorphosis.

This silent sitting nearly breaks my will

not hers, as I suppose I’m hoping for.

Resentment at this stasis brings distressing will to break.

But, staring at that fragile, frame curved in

around her anger, pain, thoughts I can’t read

I know cocoons must open from inside, I can’t break in.

And so I wait, exhaling stuttering prayers,

an incoherent hope that I won’t fail,

that love can still me long enough to give her time to grow.

Because, whatever started this display,

I know that what she needs is not my words,

but presence, that can prove I love her – butterfly or worm.

And then, soft miracle for both our hearts,

two quiet words, “I’m sorry” as she moves,

bright wings, unfurled now, curving around me; I get to see my butterfly reborn.


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Poverty and Worth – What Society Still Needs to Learn from Dr. King

Normally I keep this space for my personal reflections, but today I am breaking my own rule and cross posting a piece I wrote for the non-profit organization I am privileged to serve as executive director.

The piece is, in that sense, “professional,” but it is also very personal for me as it reflects on one of the influences that has shaped my own understanding of how to live out my faith in the world: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was lucky enough to take a semester-long course on King’s theology and social action during my seminary studies and those studies encouraged my emerging belief that the work of social justice could emphatically be ministry. I am now living out the effort to engage just such a ministry. It is much harder than it sounded in the hallowed halls of Princeton Seminary, and the daily grind of e-mails, and website edits, and politically worded communications often feel nothing at all like the work of the Kingdom. That’s why it is so very meaningful to me to be able to look to the words of a great leader like King and see that the work I am doing is about something so fundamental and holy as basic human worth.

You can read original post here.

 

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Enoughness

The first week back from holiday travels left me a bit drained.

Actually, to be honest, it is not just the return to reality but also the two weeks of holiday that left me feeling out of balance. Or, perhaps the experience is better described as a distracting sensation of background buzzing that makes me want to shake my head, or maybe shake my whole life, to rid myself of the discomfort.

As I have struggled to find mental and emotional focus, it has become increasingly clear that this distress results from two strangely cooperating, though entirely opposite experiences: Excess and Lack.

Holiday Excess is a familiar theme.

Excess food – stretching my willpower and my digestion (not to mention my jeans).

Excess gifts – three different family celebrations leaving my children with the expectations that new presents should be offered every few days, and at least partially distracting them from satisfaction with the gifts themselves.

Excess luggage – to load into cars, and haul through airports, and cram into overhead bins while my aching back protests.

But the sense of overload merged discordantly with a suffocating sense of lack as well.

Lack of time – to just sit and talk and enjoy the people we travelled 3,000 miles to see.

Lack of home comforts – like my own bed, or a dresser full of sweaters I had not already worn twice in the prior ten days.

Lack of space – for the simple, restorative rest of solitude when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

It’s such a first world problem, I know, to complain about a two-week holiday in California with so many family members whom I love, but … I am a first world woman. The perspective to be able to recognize my privilege did precious little to actually resolve the emotional strain wrapped around me like a poorly insulating blanket as I stepped back into the cold New Jersey winter.

And that return brought its own sources of layered excess and lack. Excess of workload trying to pick up all the dropped threads of my two-week hiatus. Lack of hours in the day to give each task the attention is deserves. Excess of mess in my home after the luggage vomited its contents over every flat surface in the living room and the oozed around the rest of the house over the next few days. Lack of patience for my beloved family members who apparently did not consider this mess a problem, or at least not one they had any role in fixing.

Collapsing into bed each night this week I felt totally out of balance, with a body protesting its exhaustion and a mind already whirring with the to-do list for tomorrow. I needed rest and peace and centering, but even battling to fall asleep felt like a continuation of the tug-o-war. A few nights I whispered a faint prayer, but prayer for me is usually a discipline before it grows into a joy. And it’s hard to be disciplined when you are flailing your arms trying desperately not to fall.

Then came my return to weekly yoga class as I was praying (with or without discipline) for 75 minutes of blessed balance. That is I was incoherently muttering my prayer until I saw the teacher. It was not my beloved Suzette who has taught me the joy of breathing. No, it was Ruth, the G.I. Jane of community yoga. There would be no balance today. That is to say, Ruth would almost certainly push us to try some crazy arm-stand balance pose that would make me want to cry. But this class was not going to be a restorative, re-centering practice.

I wanted to just sit it out. I was tired. I was stressed. I was not in the mood to be pushed. But I have been trying to coast the kids on sticking with their commitments. Sitting on the lounge while they did their kids yoga class would be a little hard to explain.

So I did it. It was really hard. I was sore for three days after.

Something else has lasted even longer than my sore muscles however. That night I learned that balance might actually be about Enough.

The only way I was going to get through yoga that night was by doing Enough, and not too much. If I tried too much I was not just going to be waving my arms, I was going to fall on my head. So I didn’t. I pulled back.

It was so hard to do. I have always been an over achiever. I get far too much of my ego from accomplishments, and I have a driving need to be the teacher’s pet. Whenever there is an invitation to “challenge yourself” I try to take it. The encouragement at the beginning of class to “only do what is right for you today” never feels like it applies to me.

But this time, it did. It was humbling, but it was also balancing. Enough is a really solid place to stand.

I have tried to hold onto this lesson in the days that have followed. I have mostly failed. I said “no” to one request today, but “yes” to too many others. I still feel pummeled by Excess and Lack. I am still wind-milling my arms in a frantic attempt to avoid the plummeting fall. But when I have realized this, I have just repeated the lesson. “That’s OK. ‘Enough’ is hard. You can’t expect to get ‘Enough’ right on the first, or second, or tenth try. Just trying to do ‘Enough’ is Enough for now.”

And so I am writing this post – my one hundredth, a post that I had wanted to be beautiful, and poetic, and perfect – with a fuzzy head that doesn’t feel like I am really saying it all clearly Enough. But I am still writing, and praying, that maybe tonight my Enough will be a gift to someone.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

 


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Perspective and Engagement – I’m guest blogging

Well, if any of you have missed my little reflections, you can thank Sabrina over and familyandfootprints.com for calling me back to the blogging community. She invited me to pen some reflections on my expat experience for her amazing blog over at familyandfootprints.com. You can check out the post here.

Also – it seems fitting that, on the day I publish my thoughts about the anniversary of our departure from Milan, Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster decided to wear their old school uniforms to school. Apparently, they miss it too.

You can take them out of Italy, but they still have the clothes.

You can take them out of Italy, but they still have the clothes.

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Lessons in leaves

Autumn is a time for messes. Leaves fall from trees and make messes of lawns. Return to school rearranges schedules and makes messes out of lingering, lazy summer habits. Shifting weather demands widely divergent clothing from one day to the next, making messes of tiny closets forced to fit to two season’s worth of clothes.

And, I suppose, these shifts also tend to make messes in my mind. Much as I tend to live in the future – always planning for what comes next – the actual experience of the shift tends to overwhelm me and disturb me with the reminder that I really have very little control over much of anything.

Today I experienced once such reminder, and also an antidote, at least of sorts.

I spent 90-odd minutes of the afternoon watching a heartbreaking film, with my darling 7-year-old Princess Imagination cuddled beside me. The film was American Winter, and I was watching it because I am a panelist for a screening event tomorrow afternoon and I needed to know its content in order to prepare something intelligent to say about it. The film shares the devastating stories of 8 families who were basically flattened by the Great Recession. They were families experiencing homelessness and hunger, unemployment and foreclosure. They faced moments and months of stress, anxiety, and despair, and while the film also reported some glimmers of hope, there was not a nice, neat happy ending for most of them.

These are stories I have heard too many times, and stories that are in one sense my stock in trade – the reasons I go to work each day as well as the way in which I argue and plead for economic justice. But watching them with my sweet daughter at my side was something new. She kept asking questions – questions that made me stop my analytical assessment of how to frame my response and actually engage the pain spilled out across my screen. Her most frequent question was why, and the aching quaver in her voice spoke both of her innocence and of the innocence I’ve lost.

I was shaken by her horror that such things actually happen to people. That parents skip meals so that their children can eat. That children feel responsible for making sure their mom packs herself a lunch. That widows and their sons have to sleep on cots in shelters, and that families live for a month with no water and no electricity. I was shaken because these things truly are horrible, and once I get past my defense mechanisms as a professional advocate, I still don’t know how to deal with it.

I’ve committed my career to fighting poverty and I work hard at it. I can rattle off my economic arguments against trickle-down theories and list 5, or 10, or 15 policy changes that would make a practical difference for families trapped by poverty. But I don’t know what to do when my daughter’s eyes fill with tears about the pain of strangers. And when her soft, shaken voice whispers into my shoulder her confession that “I’m glad we don’t have to live like that,” my heart must honestly respond “me too.”

And so, my mind and my heart were a bit of a mess this afternoon, when the kids asked permission to go outside after the film. We took our big bucket of chalk out to our ample driveway to draw pictures and little messages of love. Then the mess of leaves strewn across our yard challenged an attack. So, we took up rakes and sallied forth to do battle. We conquered one small corner, and then conceded some of the hard-fought ground to celebratory pile-jumping and complicated maneuvers involving the red wagon as a transport device ill-equipped to move children and leaves in the same load.

It was a simple, silly afternoon and I was poignantly aware of just how fortunate we are to have that chance.

AND – I watched the light dance in my daughter’s eyes more delicately than the leaves she was throwing into the air, and that light lifted the cloud from my own heart.

The mess isn’t gone. My heart is touched anew with the pain that drew me to this work. I’m chafing at my own inability to bring order to an economic system that is leaving millions behind. And yet – the falling leaves call for play. And my guilt won’t help the families who have lost their own lawns. And sometimes, the best thing we can do with a mess is let the children play in it – knowing that, at least, I am teaching them to want enough for everyone.


 

To rediscover joy in curled brown leaves,

To squeal with giggles just to watch them fly

To live a moment wholly free from griefs

Despite a world that tells my heart to cry

 

To rake up leaves then scatter them again

To watch sun set and know we’ll still have light

To feel the stab of joy that’s taught by pain

This blessing and this weight I feel tonight.

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