Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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Bravo for Uncertainty

For the past several months I’ve been undergoing a struggle with the presence of uncertainty in my life . It would be reasonable to connect this state with our imminent return to New Jersey, and the fact that I have virtually no idea what I will be doing for work once I get there. Strangely, though, I am not actually feeling terribly anxious on that front. Unbelievably for a slightly OCD, highly goal-oriented, hyper-planner like myself, I find myself strangely calm in the face of the vast blank canvas that is the next landscape through which my career will pass. I have this strange, passive, peace posture that has taken up residence in my mind and that keeps telling me “you’ll figure it out in due time. Don’t stress about it.” I’m a bit bemused by this development, and I am hugely grateful.

I am, however, wrestling mightily with a very different source of insecurity. The main catalyst for this struggle has been the church we are attending here in Milan. Given the fact that we are a Protestant, English-speaking family living in 95% Catholic Italy, our choices for church fellowship are what I would call limited. Add the fact that we have two young children, one of whom is voracious for a sunday school program that can feed her insatiable appetite for learning about God (in English), and “limited” turns into one church option. This option can, in my opinion, be fairly categorized as fundamentalist. I, in the opinion of anyone who has ever had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes, cannot be so categorized. In my more irreverent moments I may have occasionally referred to myself as a recovering fundamentalist, but usually I am content just to recognize that my faith journey has been a long one and leave it at that. I have walked in the shoes of biblical literalists and gotten painful blisters from them, and then come to realize that God didn’t make my feet (or my mind, to really stretch the metaphor) to fit those shoes. God has instead prepared much more supportive footwear that speeds me toward eager knowledge and worship of Jesus, and to the scandal of some I still deign to consider those feet shod with “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).

For many years I have felt at peace with the answers I have found to foundational questions about how God speaks through the Bible and how I can most responsibly engage the task of reading and applying scripture in the context of my life. I won’t pretend that these answers were easily come by, or that the process of finding them was without pain, and doubt, and anxiety, but until a few months ago I would have said those struggles were in my past.

But it appears that I can only be hammered on by fundamentalist preaching for so long before developing some bruises. My confidence began to shake. What if I’m wrong? What if “historical context” is just a screen I am hiding behind to excuse God and myself from things in the Bible that I don’t like? What if I’m really making an idol of my own mind by thinking that I have to wrestle with difficult texts instead of just submitting to them? What if I am rejecting God’s right to be God by questioning the absolute authority of the “plain meaning” of this or that text and subjecting it to the test of cultural changes that could alter its application.

I imagine that even the language and framing of some of those queries might have just alienated any of my readers who have not been frequently immersed in the theological morass of arguments about Biblical inerrancy. If that is you, and if you are still reading (thank you!), I apologize. It’s unfortunately ground that I have covered with too much angst, and argued with too many words to be able to just boil it down to plain talk. If I were to try, however, I guess I would summarize it this way. My pastor says that the Bible is God’s Word (and by that I think he literally means that it is essentially dictated by God with no interference from the human authors God used). The consequence of this position is that it’s my job to just do what the Bible says, no questions asked. When I put it that baldly it seems clear to me that some of the mystery of God is missing from that equation, and yet the absolute certainty of the position has a compelling seduction. Oh to be so sure of everything you believe. Oh to know, with no doubt, that all you have to do is read your Bible and you will know exactly what God wants you to do in every situation in your life. I don’t like a lot of the places that view takes my fundamentalist brothers and sisters in terms of beliefs and behaviors, but the assurance of it does demand some attention.

And so, I’ve been struggling: reading my Bible with renewed appetite to know what it says; praying painful prayers of confession about my own pride and of requests for guidance; talking to myself so incessantly that I am sick of my own voice inside my head; and reaching out to a few trusted family members and friends to seek community and advice. One of these friends recommended going back to trusted resources that have helped me with this struggle in the past. Again, my immediate context imposes limits on this endeavor, because most of my precious seminary books are locked away in some storage bin in Memphis during my European sojourn. There is one book, however, that I happened to pack in the Italy boxes (or that the Holy Spirit guided me to pack — fundamentalists don’t have a corner on that market!). It is a book by one of my former seminary professors called Cultural Interpretation and it applies the methods of sociolinguistics to the process of scriptural interpretation. Now, I may have just lost whatever hardy readers had been hanging with me through the first batch of ten-dollar words, but if any of you are still there this is the “basic tenet” of the theory of sociolinguistics: “context shapes the creation and use of language” (Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1995, p.vii).

It is not such a complicated or controversial idea, really. Especially not after nearly three years surrounded by a context and language that are palpably foreign to me. I had academically assented to this proposition when I studied it eight or nine years ago in seminary. I now experientially know it’s truth. Languages do not simply differ in terms of the sound combinations they associate with a given concept, as though the concept were an abstract reality that has some independent being apart from language (sorry Plato!) — the concepts themselves are bound up in the language. Alright, there are actual concrete objects, like a chair or a ball, where the difference in language is really just one of sound. But the important ideas (like what English-speakers mean by faith, and truth, and even God) cannot be so easily dissected from their linguistic roots. To speak a language with any level of fluency, you have to be inhabited by the culture and the perspective on reality that birthed it. I have noted frequently that I actually undergo a noticeable personality change when I speak in Italian rather than English. Suddenly I am more social, more friendly, more ready to agree with conversation partners and more hesitant to pose a counter point. This is not just a function of the limits of my fluency; it is the cultural context of the language itself. The language subtly changes the way I see the world and my role in it.

The point for this post is that language matters, not just which words you choose, but the bank of words that you have to pick from. For those who may have never experienced this language/culture shift, perhaps there is an example that can shed some light on the idea. A number of Italian words have made their way into English usage and thus will be familiar to my readers. This fact may appear to undermine my point, but stay with me, because the migration of languages can have an impact on the words’ meanings. In other words, borrowed words, at least more “conceptual” ones, don’t simply transfer all of their meaning from one language to the next. The cultural context of their new usage shapes their meaning. One such word is “bravo.” I have heard this phrase often enough in America, almost universally in the context of rather high-brow cultural performances. It is a word that is shouted to a performer from the audience to indicate appreciation of their mastery in a given performance. It is a very clearly defined and straight-forward usage, with a self-satisfied veneer of culture that relishes the European roots of the phrase.

This was my framework for understanding the meaning of “bravo” when I moved to Italy. I was almost immediately struck, upon entering the country, that something very different was meant by the term here. Setting aside the Italian particularity in terms of number and gender (“bravo” is only applied to a singular man or boy; for women/girls or groups the word is changed: brava, bravi, etc.). Beyond this variation, the word itself is thrown around with almost careless abandon. If I understand something said to me in Italian, I am awarded with a “brava.” If my children are well-behaved in a store, people comment to me that they were “bravi.” In fact, this is one of the most common positive descriptors that I hear. From to teachers, to nannies, to local business proprietors, everyone is described as “bravo.” Bravo isn’t just an expression of praise, a way of saying “well-done,” it is a character trait. For my first few weeks I was under the vague impression that Italians were simply mad for extravagant expressions of praise, but I slowly came to understand that the word just means something different here. To understand that meaning, I needed to learn more about the culture that used it. When a friend talked about wanting her son to be “bravo” she was describing a desire for his character that didn’t really translate to English when she switched languages and said she wanted him to be a “good boy.” Yes, she wanted him to be “good,” to be “well-behaved,” but there was another element to it as well, a component of conforming to a certain standard for behavior that would be worthy of eliciting praise. It’s an echo of the performance-centered American meaning, but it looks totally different as a character trait.

The point of this extended linguistic discussion to my struggle with uncertainty is this: once I understand how dependent I am on language to shape my way of seeing the world, and once I see how incomplete any given language is in its ability to express things that are outside the scope of its generating culture, the yearning for certainty cannot survive. To grasp such certainty I would have to condense truth down into a concept that could be fully contained within the English language, and that is palpably absurd to me.

I am not making any claims about absolute relativism with this statement. I am fully convinced that God has a concrete essence that isn’t dependent on any language, but that in fact illuminates the very inadequacies of that language. The greatest truth of my life is the experience of contact with that God who leaves me speechless in awe and love and gratitude for the chance to know (even if only dimly) and be known (utterly and completely).

My point here is not that God is relative, but that God is not relative, while language is. God isn’t limited by language and it is one of the greatest of all miracles that we do have revelation from this God, but one of the primary mechanisms for that revelation is the written word, and to access that revelation I am dependent on my language as an access point. This dependence on language creates uncertainty, the recognition, when I am honest with myself, that I cannot possibly have an absolute lock on truth. My language isn’t that big. It is shaped by my culture and by experiences with words in all kinds of mundane settings. As such, all I can hope for this side of eternity is a small and shadowy approximation.

It’s not certainty, and that can be really hard. But after months of struggle I am starting to settle down with uncertainty. I’m starting to feel, after all this, that perhaps uncertainty is bravo.



This entry began more than a week ago. We were entering the last week of our 28-day whirlwind trip to California without Daddy and it was bedtime. For the last 8 nights the kiddos had been sharing Gra’ma’s living room floor with relative peace, thanks to a couple of reasonably comfortable foam pallets and a schedule of full days that left them blissfully tired each night. On night 9, unfortunately, the situation had deteriorated substantially.

Actually, that lead-up is not really fair to Princess Imagination as it suggests sibling feuding as the source of the problem. The true friction was along the Mommy-Son fault line. I won’t dwell on the un-pretty details but to summarize: the Gigglemonster was offering a master class in the art of behaving like an over-tired, defiant, needy 3-year-old. After a slow start (during which I naively tried practicing my “positive parenting” skills by acknowledging his frustration before suggesting alternative ways to express it), I finally started picking up what he was laying down. Within about 45 minutes I was totally acing the test on combining petulance, whining, and stubbornness with my oral essay entitled “Fine! You can lay on the floor and scream if you want. I’m going to go cuddle with your sister because she just asked my sweetly!” Every true master, however, can deflate the ego of a self-congratulatory journeyman and my instructor was not about to concede the podium. His lecture in response was a masterpiece of manipulation along the lines of “No, Mommy! I’m sorry. I’m listening now. I will lay down in my bed. I will listen. Please don’t leave me. I need you!” Oh crum! Now what do I do? I need to reinforce his decision to calm down and try to use this opportunity to get him to sleep, but his sister really did ask so sweetly and it’s not fair to give him all the attention just because he’s tantruming. My fumbling response was a quick hug and cuddle to the Gigglemonster and a promise to be back soon, then 5 minutes with Princess Imagination singing and rubbing her back (marred by anxiety lest my absence spur a renewal in my instruction), concluding with cuddling my now docile professor just as long as he wanted. Eventually the course concluded with a demonstration of exhausted slumber and I crawled to my own bed eager for a fresh start the next day.

Unfortunately, the pale light of that day revealed that the master-class turned show-down had produced a casualty, and, as so often happens, it was the innocent bystander who had been hurt. I didn’t notice the injury at first, because I was distracted by my internal debriefing about the strategies employed by both sides in the conflict. My analysis focused on the pivot point of the confrontation, and the unsettling impression left by the Gigglemonster’s radical switch – “now I’m listening.” Is it really listening if he only wrestled control of his behavior after the threat of my removal? I wasn’t convinced, but I struggled to formulate any alternative strategy that could produce from him more genuine “listening” to my pleas for cooperation and consideration of the needs of the whole family.

Ironically, I think Princess Imagination had to ask me about three times before I actively listened to her request that I come with her to the bathroom. When the plea finally penetrated my distracted mind I was confused.

“Sweetie, why do you want me to come with you? You can go to the potty by yourself.”

“Please, Mommy! I just want you to come with me. Please come.”

I was confused, but finally compliant. The mystery resolved itself as soon as the door closed.

“Mommy, I feel like (the Gigglemonster) gets all your attention at bedtime, and it’s not really fair. I don’t ever get to have you cuddle with me for a long time and he always does. It makes me feel sad that you never give me attention.”

I don’t imagine that you need to be a parent to guess at just how painful that particular blade is when it twists around in a mother’s insides. Princess Imagination’s complaint might have been worded in more absolutist terms than are strictly true, but the general complaint was valid. When it’s just me and the kids, my son and youngest offspring tends to “need” a lot more of Mommy’s time and attention, especially at bedtime, whereas my older daughter is wonderfully independent and generally able to soothe herself to sleep with limited parental involvement. It’s not a willful preference on my part, of course, but the imbalance in bedtime attention is indisputable.

Aside from the massive lump of guilt that threatened to strangle my tearful apology, I had two lingering reactions to my daughter’s calm, quiet plea for more attention. One was actually mingled pride and joy at the way she had expressed her needs. Joy that, at 6 years old, she is already showing such emotional control and clear communication skills, including the patient strategy of contriving a private, focused context for presenting her clearly worded complaint. Pride because I get at least some of the credit for this, considering that I have (inconsistently, but intentionally) modeled for her this type of calm presentation of my feelings and observations. In whatever context, it is one of those priceless parenting moments when your child shows that they have understood the lessons you have tried to teach. On the other hand, the context in this case gave me no cause for pride. Princess Imagination had recognized the need for this effective model of communication because it was apparently the only way to focus my attention on a very legitimate complaint. At least, I assume that she had determined this strategy to be the only way to get me to listen that didn’t involve following her brother’s tantruming example (which she has learned generally gets less traction from her because she is “older”). That’s not really the stimulus I wanted for fostering my daughter’s emotional maturity and communication skills.

Princess Imaginations request was successful in drawing my attention, not only to the imbalance of bedtime attention, but to the problems with my attention more generally. Put simply, my attention is usually focused on what I am trying to achieve, as opposed to understanding the needs of those around me. Thus began my week of trying to actually practice the behavior I am constantly requesting from my children: “listening.” Listening to the sounds of rising tension in a game in the next room and interrupting my own activity to help diffuse the tension before it erupts into fighting and tears; Listening to the sadness in my husband’s voice as he comes home for the fourth straight week to an empty house, and recognizing that a daily phone call is really important even though we will be home in just a few days; Listening to the pain of other family members who are going through life-altering challenges and trying to remember to offer comfort rather than unsolicited advice.

This discipline of intentional listening brought with it a realization: listening is really hard work! It requires putting aside your own agenda, whether that be the activity you were engaged in or your own thoughts on the topic at hand, and instead focusing your attention on what the other person thinks is important.

Our family recently began another discipline as part of our nightly dinner routine. We each have our own hand-made “Bible memory book” containing passages of scripture we want to learn my heart, and we quiz each other each night on these verses. The very first passage I chose for this task was James 1:19b-20:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For man’s anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires.

When I memorized these verses my attention was focused on the part about anger, but the past week’s reflection has reminded me that being slow to become angry comes after being quick to listen. Listening to what other people need provides the foundation for being able to respond to them in a way that accounts for those needs. Of course, I can’t meet every need of every person all the time, but if I can at least strive to listen long enough to understand them.

And yet, this is precisely opposite to the way that I, and I think most parents, usually talk to my children about listening. Instead, “listening” is more commonly a word of command, as in “listen to me and do what I say!” I learned the Italian word for listen (ascolta), very soon after moving to Italy precisely because I heard it so constantly in the interactions between parents and children on the playground. Actually, you hear it frequently in adult conversations as well. The energetic Italian matron who helps me with  house-cleaning every other Saturday frequently prefaces her remarks to me with the phrase “Serena, ascolta…”. It is her way to gather my attention so that she can make a suggestion or ask a question. It is her way of politely, but directly, insisting that I focus on what she is saying.

The use of this phrase in Italian interactions may be more ubiquitous than in American conversations, but I don’t think that reflects an underlying cultural contrast. When it comes to listening, Americans (like Italians and I would guess members of most Western cultures) are generally primarily interested in demanding that others listen to them. Just consider the level of political debate in the U.S. From campaign “debates,” to radio talk shows, to Facebook comment threads, everyone wants to be listened to, and scant few demonstrate the capacity or willingness to really listen to anyone else. I am clearly guilty in this regard so I don’t make these observations from any moral high ground. Rather, I confess this difficulty as a serious challenge to the daily demand I make of my children.

How can I constantly ask my children to do something that most adults in both my native and temporary culture find so difficult to do? I expect this of them as though it were such a simple thing. And in one way it is. In the past two years I have learned again that comprehension comes before speaking in language acquisition. But, listening requires more than just the capacity to comprehend. As Princess Imagination so powerfully reminded me by sequestering me behind a bathroom door, listening requires also the ability to attend – to block out other stimuli in order to focus on the person speaking. True listening requires one more component as well, the receptivity to hear the other person’s perspective without interrupting this attention with a reversal to one’s own needs and point of view.

That requirement became all too clear to me on our 19-hour journey back to Milan on Thursday & Friday of this past week. Countless friends and family members have expressed some level of awe that I routinely make this transcontinental journey as a solo parent. I generally down-play the difficulty with some remark about the kids being really good travelers or the lessons I have learned about equipping myself with adequate entertainment and snacks for them, and I often throw in a little anecdote about how impressed my fellow-travelers express themselves to be at the end of most of our flights. Well, this last trip eroded my self-congratulatory confidence just a bit.

It’s not that the kids acted horribly, they just didn’t want to sleep. This trip we had departed from our usual preference for a long red-eye flight from the west coast to Europe and a short second flight to Milan that would land us home around dinner time. Instead we had departed from California in the early morning to make our transfer in New York and then fly directly to Milan for a morning arrival. It is not a terribly significant difference for adults, who can mentally adjust our internal clocks to a 9-hour time change. For the kids, however, it was a disaster. The early departure virtually guaranteed a longish nap on the first flight, which left them wide awake when we took off for our 8-hour flight across the Atlantic. Mommy, of course, hadn’t taken a nap earlier because I understood that the precious 8 hours of flight time would have to encompass both our dinner and our only sleep for the night. I tried to account for the kids’ west-coast time orientation, but when my watch showed me that there were only 4 hours left in the flight I got serious about bed time. Unfortunately, the kids didn’t want to “listen” to my demands that they go to sleep. They weren’t tired, and there were so many more interesting things to do, like watching movies on the personal entertainment device, or investigating the wealth of toys and books and snacks that I had so cleverly packed into their carry-on bags.

The next several hours demonstrated just how far I have to come in my effort to become a better listener. In that dimly lighted cabin, surrounded by sleeping passengers who weren’t likely to compliment my children’s docility on landing if we woke them up, all I could focus on was my need for the kids to be quiet and go to sleep. I cajoled, I hissed, I issued toothless ultimatums. None of it was successful, and none of it attended to my children’s needs. The Gigglemonster said he was hungry. “Then you should have eaten earlier when I was offering you food.” Princess Imagination wanted her backpack. “No, it’s time to sleep,” followed by “Fine, but you have to be quiet!” And my crowning parenting moment (delivered through angrily clenched teeth): “If you don’t stop making noise, I am going to take away all your cars!”

It’s not that I was wrong in my goal. We did need to be quiet so that other passengers could sleep, and we would have certainly benefitted from getting some rest ourselves (the last 3 days of painful jet lag are ample evidence of that). But my children were right too. They had needs that they were trying to express to me, and they couldn’t just suppress them because I was hissing at them to listen to all my practical reasons why they should go to sleep. Maybe if I had taken advantage of the available snacks promised by the business class menu the Gigglemonster could have filled his stomach with more substantial food and been able to get to sleep. Maybe if I had offered Princess Imagination her books, rather than free access to her whole bag, she could have settled down with a less-stimulating activity. Maybe if I had remembered that the Gigglemonster needs my physical presence to soothe him to sleep in unfamiliar beds I could have earned us both a few hours of rest. Maybe if I had listened, rather than just demanding that they listen to me, I could have actually achieved my own goal.

And so, as I struggle to emerge from the time-change/jet-lag fog that has held my family captive for the last three days (and nights!), I am confronted by the question of just how to teach my children and myself the skill of listening. It’s an important thing to be able to do. It’s a skill that could help our family to be much more connected and could help each of us individually to communicate much more effectively. I am beginning to understand, however, that it is not the simple task I imply by my frequent demand for my children’s attention. Especially, it is not easy for them to learn it when I am so inconsistent at modeling it for them.

It’s not impossible. Princess Imagination proved that she has listened to my teaching about how to share her feelings. I’m so proud of, and challenged by, her example. The last week hasn’t defeated my ambition to both practice and require respectful listening.  What it has taught me is that teaching and practicing listening skills starts with genuine attention.

I think it’s time I stop writing and start offering some of that attention now.

(We had a lot of fun on our trip too, so the pictures celebrate the joyful time)

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