Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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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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Yogi’s prayer

I have not been breathing enough lately. I don’t mean the processing of oxygen necessary for survival – obviously I’ve been getting that done. But life as a whole has felt mostly like “getting it done” and I haven’t been pausing for the deep, centering breath I need. I’ve been too busy just trying to check items off the to-do list at a pace to match all the items being added on.

Today I finally took a breath – I spent 75 minutes breathing in fact. That is the bliss of Tuesday afternoon community yoga class. It has been three weeks, and oh how I have missed it. In that precious time there is no ringing phone, or whining child voices, or urgent e-mails popping up on my computer screen. No one is presenting me with needs that I must meet. Instead, I am told to breath…just breath…through all the movement and poses…to first and always breath.

As I breathed for those golden moments away from life, I realized in a new way what a miracle it is for every moment of our lives to exist within the pendulum swing of breathing. Whatever imbalance we find in the haste or waste there is always this ultimate ebb and flow, in and out.

Yoga class is over now and its power is not so profound that it can magically alter the balance of my life. But I don’t want to forget the balance that flows through my lungs moment by moment. And I don’t want to fail to offer gratitude for this breath.

And so, my Yogi’s Prayer

Thank you for this breath that rocks my day
Inside the cradle of sustaining life

And how this sweet inhale, my body fills,
My soul as well, though mostly unaware.

How exhale gives release to toxic air,
And thoughts may follow if I’ll wield that knife.

Now, in this moment may I hold that peace,
And live inside a thankfulness for air.

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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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