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 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 of reflection in the darkness has 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.” 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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Listening

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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Chaos and Comfort

This will be a short one, I promise. It is basically just an introduction and then a short piece of writing I completed for a completely different purpose, that has since been hanging with me.

So, first the introduction. I have previously mentioned my small but wonderful Thursday morning bible study group, which has become a source of learning, inspiration, and friendship over the last 8 months. The format is fairly standard, but for those for whom this form of religious practice is not familiar I will briefly summarize its two elements. First, each participant completes the study preparation, which includes reading the text for the week and answering a number of questions about it that range from basic summarizing to deeper interpretation to personal application. Second, the group meets to share and discuss their responses, as well as to pray and just share our lives. It is an enriching part of my weekly routine, but nothing very unusual for those in church circles.

Last week, however, there was an unusual task included in the preparation section. We were reading Acts chapter 27, which tells the dramatic story of the shipwreck experienced by the Apostle Paul and over 270 other people during his transportation as a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome (If you’re interested in the context, here’s a link to the online text http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2027&version=NIV). As part of our reflection on this story, the study participants were asked to write a description of the emotional experience of one of Paul’s companions on the ship during the more than 2 weeks that they spent buffeted by a hurricane before being marooned on the island of Malta.

At first I hesitated at this task. In past reading I have thoroughly enjoyed some imaginative retelling of pieces of the Biblical narrative (The Red Tent comes to mind as a wonderful exploration of the feminine world that lies mostly obscured by the Biblical account of the patriarchs). I think it can be appropriate and illuminating to start from the limited information provided in Bible accounts and then try to “flesh out” the story with the human experiences and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in the theologically driven original texts. Nevertheless, I quail at the thought of attempting such an exploration myself. While I thoroughly enjoy the process of character development in my fiction, to engage in this process with actual historical events, and more than that with events that are part of the revelation of God, seems too far beyond my ken. How could I endeavor to achieve the necessary truth in such an enterprise?

And yet, the assignment was there, and after initial hesitation I couldn’t just completely rebel (I am a consummate rule-follower, after all). Once I capitulated I found that there were actually several points of contact to help with my engagement. The fact that the scene involved a ship-wreck helped provide a sense of background. I know from my seminary studies how in ancient middle eastern cultures the sea was associated with primordial chaos: the ultimate evil that is contained or restrained in creation, but which always threatens to break free. That would have possibly given a special terror to the prospect of death at sea. My own personal experiences of sea sickness also offered an entry point for my imagination. If I don’t take chemical aids to fight it, I am bent double within 20 minutes of riding even the gentlest swells — even the thought of two weeks of being buffeted by a hurricane makes me nauseous.

I had those two concepts in my brain as I set pen to paper, but not much more. Unlike my normal writing process I had no outline, no sense of where I was going. I just started writing. The result stunned me. It also reawakened in me a sense of awe about the power and deliverance in my faith; an awe that can sometimes be hard to hold on to in the tides of daily life. I hope it can offer a sense of anchor for you as well, or perhaps offer a sense of the screaming of the wind. So, with no further adieu…

This is worse than a nightmare, because it just goes on. Day after night, night after day, week after week. It starts to feel like this is the only reality there is, and all memory of land, of stillness, of quiet, of happiness, were all just a delusion.

I have vomited so much that I feel utterly empty inside. The smell of my own bile is part of my skin now; eating at my teeth; matted in my hair; I cannot imagine ever being clean again. The sickness is so painful I begin to long for death… until I look over into the water and I recoil back from its churning, gaping mouth. The salt stings my eyes as the wind lashes a wave into my face, and something in me screams, NO! I don’t want to be eaten up by that bottomless chaos!

The power of the smashing waves terrifies me, but it is the icy stillness beneath that grips my heart with a fear deeper and more paralyzing than I have ever known. How deep will I sink? Will I die before I am pulled out of reach of all light? Or will my last moments be the terror of total darkness and the scaly touch of unseen creatures as my lungs fight helplessly to draw oxygen from the water filling them? Even this current hell of sickness and fear is better than that fate.

Then I see Paul, that prisoner who somehow seems to gain respect even from his captor, the centurion, Julius. He has… peace. Somehow in this chaos of howling wind and biting rain… somehow despite the incessant creak of the boat’s timbers that cackle to my fears of the imminent cracking and tearing that will throw us all into the sea… somehow none of it affects him. He even smiles at me as he moves past and reaches out a hand to stroke the vomit-flecked hair out of my face.

His touch is miraculous. My stomach quiets. For the first time in weeks pain is not pulling my insides into a riotous ball. I turn and follow him, captivated, and see him take up a loaf of bread before turning to the mass of hopeless men strewn across the deck.

He doesn’t have to yell. Despite the despair that pulls each man in on himself, gnawing on his own misery and fear; despite the cracking, crashing noise that had battered our ears for days without end; when he speaks we all can hear. He speaks with total confidence of reassurance, of the promise of his God to save not just himself but all of us. It is unbelievable.

But I believe him. I feel myself mysteriously filled with the same stillness I see in him as he breaks bread and tells us to eat. I have seen him and his friends do this before, speaking words about remembrance of this Christ they follow. As I take a hunk of bread from Paul’s hand the words come back to me. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

I don’t yet know what I am remembering. But I will find out.


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Good Enough VS. Good Guilt

In a recent post I shared about my not-so-innocent addiction to the little source of electronic distraction and entertainment that spends its days nestled in either my palm or my back pocket(see https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/my-innocent-addiction/). A dear friend of mine responded on Facebook. One response was indirect –  a link to a Pure Derry article farcically linking childhood weight loss to motherly obsession with my phone game of choice: “Candy Crush Saga” (CANDY TO BLAME FOR DRAMATIC WEIGHT LOSS); the other was a personal note to me gently suggesting that I am a bit too hard on myself.

I certainly enjoyed the entertainment offered by the article (I laughed so hard I cried when I read the allusion to a printscreen as an enticement to marital union). I also deeply appreciated the encouragement offered by her personal comment, and for several days it would return to me when I was feeling frustrated by my own failure to live up to the mothering and partnering standards to which I aspire. She’s right I would say to myself, my children are doing fine. They love me and they know they are loved. I can’t be perfect 100% of the time so I shouldn’t beat myself up when I hide in the bathroom just to get away for 2 minutes. The determination to rid myself of my addiction and to strive to be a more engaged and responsive mother and wife slowly settled back into the reassuring philosophy of “good enough” parenting. My cold-turkey detox from Candy Crush relapsed, and my husband kindly beat level 29 for me so that I could interact with the game in a less obsessive mode (the fact that I am currently engaged in a fruitless struggle to earn 3 stars on level 32 is beside the point). Everything was good. I had confessed my failing, exposed my dirty laundry, and instead of retribution and shame I got to laugh and feel reassured that at least my children weren’t being nutritionally deprived. I could stop worrying so much…except for this nagging feeling that I had lost an opportunity.

I mentioned in my “addiction” post that its appearance in the world of the web had actually been long-delayed by my secret fear that publicly sharing my struggles with electronic distraction would require me to do something about it. The old adage “the first step is admitting you have a problem” suggests that such an admission gets you stepping, moving, along the path to change. And it did get me moving for about a week. Then, I started to reassure myself with the “don’t be too hard on yourself” messages, and very soon my steps reversed themselves. As long as you don’t play when the kids are home it’s fine…never mind that your peripheral vision occasionally throbs with shadowy enticements of “stripy” candies next to “cupcakes.” The next step in the mental anesthesia progressed to, they are busy playing in the other room, I can check my Facebook feed… if the sound of John Stewart draws their curious attention to a video clip that might not really be that appropriate, I can forgive myself for that one little exposure, right?

I really love the idea of the “good enough” parenting philosophy — the perspective that getting too up-tight about all the little stuff actually detracts from the parent-child bond and disrespects the child’s need to learn about and make their own decisions in the imperfection of reality. The problem for me with this philosophy is that, in daily practice, it plays upon my tendencies toward laziness and self-justification. However well-intentioned they might be, encouragements to stop judging myself are not really what I need. What I need are encouragements to keep working to achieve the good that I want for myself and my family; encouragements that the effort and ‘sacrifice’ required to achieve this good are worth it.

This realization really came home to me in a discussion with the ladies in my Thursday morning Bible study group. Through a rather circuitous route that I can no longer remember we arrived at a discussion of the role of guilt in our lives, and whether guilt could be a good thing. As I listened to the sharing of these lovely, thoughtful women, I found my own voice articulating the reason for my discomfort with “going easy” on myself. Comparative morality doesn’t move me toward growth. There is always someone I can point to who is far more guilty that me in any particular area, and (often) despite this failing they are still doing alright by common social standards. If my bar for adequacy is doing better than most, then I can usually meet that standard in the areas I really care about, so there is no incentive to try harder. But “better” is not really the best that I want for myself or my family. In contrast, guilt (or conviction, as my friend Dawn clarified) can actually be a gift. Good guilt can focus my attention on the truth that there really is something in my life that is hurting me or someone I care about, however comparatively insignificant the hurt. Good guilt can motivate me to keep striving to live the life for which my renewed soul longs, and not to collapse into the numbed stupor for which my tired body, or spent emotions, or overwhelmed mind temporarily years.

The other clarification I have been coming to in my own spiritual journey is that I need to attend to the source of motivation in such efforts at self-betterment. The appeal of “good enough” parenting is that it rejects the false mission to earn my personal value or self-esteem from being a perfect parent. Such effort at proving my own worth is not only doomed to fail, it is in many ways arrogant idolatry! Of course I will never be the perfect parent, and trying to be one will make me crazy, so it feels logical that the better path is to relax and just try to be “good enough.” But this philosophy assumes that the motivation for parental striving is the achievement of perfection, and implicitly the consequent proving of my own worth as a parent.

But, in my opinion, that’s the wrong approach to parenting. My personal worth is not determined by whether or not I am a good mother. Rather, parenting is an awesome opportunity to pour into the lives of two little people I love intensely in a way that can potentially help them to grow into better people than they would otherwise be. My own worth is completely unrelated to that task. The payoff for my striving has nothing to do with my value, it has to do with the intrinsic joy of giving good things to my children. Thus, the more successful my striving, the more joy I have. It is the same principle that has transformed my personal life of faith. I want to live a holy and blameless life. I know I will never completely succeed, and that’s OK. My standing with God has nothing to do with my personal morality because Jesus took care of that for me already. But I still want to life a good life. My freedom is in the fact that such living does not earn me anything, and thus I can pursue it just because it is actually the best way to live. It honors the God who gave me everything I have and it makes me happy in the process. Sometimes that means decisions that feel like sacrifices in the moment (just as parenting sometimes requires ‘sacrifices’ like listening to the slowest reading ever of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rather than checking my Facebook feed), but ultimately it makes me less self-involved, which makes me happier.

This is a lesson that I want to teach to my kids in both my words and my deeds.  I want them to make good decisions not in order to prove that they are good people, but because the decisions themselves are actually good. This is so important because the reality is that they will screw up sometimes. It’s just reality. Those failures do not have to be a catastrophe unless their success or failure in reaching whatever standards they have set for themselves determine their personal value. A real danger of our self-esteem obsessed culture is that failure is interpreted just this way. By never wanting to tell our children that they failed, we set them up to be devastated by failure when it inevitably occurs. Of course, it is important to give our kids positive messages about their self-worth. I want my kids to love themselves and see themselves as intrinsically valuable… but not as perfect. As much as I love them – I know they do lots of things wrong! And if I didn’t tell them that I would turn them into either spoiled brats or psychopaths!. They need to know that they make mistakes and that these mistakes give them a chance to learn and grow and do better next time. This growing can be a joyful (if sometimes painful) process as long as their performance is not the source of their ultimate value. That value comes from their identity as children of a loving God, just as mine does.

So what does this mean for me, in both my personal development and my parenting? Well, I have realized that there are times when “good enough” is an important message. For example, Princess Imagination loves to sing despite the unfortunate reality that she struggles a bit to carry a tune. A friend who was playing at our house pointed this out to her, and we had a good discussion about how she can enjoy singing even if some people don’t think she sings very well. As long as she enjoys singing, it is “good enough” and she doesn’t need to worry about reaching an external standard of perfection.

BUT, I don’t think the “good enough” consolation is appropriate when I, or my children, or perhaps you recognize a flaw in our behavior or our character that makes us unhappy. That is the time to strive. We will certainly fail repeatedly in that striving. But when we do, the kind of encouragement we need is the kind that says – it’s still a good goal. Get up and try again. And if a little guilt about the failure gives us the kick in the pants that we need. Then I say that guilt can be good.


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Love and Pain

Various experiences this past Tuesday combined to confront me with the fragility we must embrace when we become mothers (parents). To bear and raise children opens our lives to a kind of love that empowers us to do things we never could have done before, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the hurts we cannot fix for our children. I am so grateful that, so far at least, my children’s pains have not been shattering. They are young enough that Tyler and I can protect them from most dangers, and the unavoidable ones have not targeted us for devastation. I know, however, that security today offers no guarantees for tomorrow. They are growing; their worlds are expanding; and there are so many, many ways that they could be hurt.

When I confront those dangers, my first instinct is to hold on tight. To try to gather my little ones to my breast and hold the evil world at bay.  When my spunky little Gigglemonster banged his head jumping onto his bed, I jumped to snuggle him into a little ball of comfort on my lap, offering kisses and ice and soothing sounds as he cried. But he didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to jump again, and hit his head again! I stopped that particular activity, of course, and other than a temporary goose egg on the top of his head there was no lasting harm to my little adventurer. But the jolt of panic when he let out that first scream left an echo in my soul. An urgent imperative that I have to protect my child.

Then I met Madonna on the street in the course of my morning, the young mother who begs on my street and whose struggles with deep poverty I have discussed in an earlier post (see Encountering My Privilege: https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/encountering-my-privilege/). I could tell something was wrong just from her face, and as we talked she explained that her daughter was sick. Madonna’s two children are back in Romania with family while Madonna and her husband try to earn money in Italy to send home. The family caring for them allowed the kids to play in some dirty water during a heat spell, and now the daughter had pneumonia. I can only imagine the panic that must create for Madonna – unable even to stroke her hand across her daughter’s forehead to impart a momentary coolness against the pain of fever, she must somehow find money now for medicine, not just food. I did what I could, and she was effusive in her thanks, but the encounter left me a bit shaken. What must it be to lack the resources to buy your own child medicine when they are sick?

Then I followed a friend’s Facebook link to a moving music video. It shows a young man, Zach Sobiech, performing his song “Clouds”, which he wrote about his experience of approaching death from cancer. The video cuts between shots of him singing and playing his guitar, short descriptions of the path his cancer journey has taken, and brief moments of his interactions with his family, including his mother whose adoring smile at him is an eloquent testimony of her love and pride in her son. The link that led me to this heart-breaking video explained that he had finally “found the clouds” after his long struggle. Watching his mother smile up into his face as the video played, I can only image the pain in her heart as she deals with that loss.

That afternoon, as I hugged my two healthy, happy children whom I get to see and love every day, my heart was broken for so many mothers who don’t have that joy today; so many mothers whose children face dangers they simply cannot protect them from. I offered prayers for Madonna, and for Zach’s mother, because I believe in prayer and I believe it can heal. But I also know that too often the promise “I will pray for you” becomes a trite and shallow offering that we can use to insulate ourselves from the pain another person is suffering. I don’t want to insulate myself from the pain. Every mother in the world is my sister, and I don’t want even one of them to feel that she is crying alone.

So I dedicate the poem this day’s encounters inspired in me to every mother who is crying today. You are not crying alone.

“Mommy, my head hurts!”

The joyful play

of yesterday

has left a painful bruise.

So, I kiss, give a rub

and a warm, gentle hug,

reassured, this brief pain he will lose.

“Mommy, it hurts to breathe.”

Her ears can’t refuse

the frightening news,

‘Your daughter is sick in Romania.’

With cupboards bare

and nothing to spare,

How to cover the cost of pneumonia?

“Mom, there’s not much time.”

A young man’s song

pulls my heart along

on the painful, ending journey.

He’s now found the clouds,

but his song still plays loud

for the mother he left, now in mourning.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

How can I explain

the bittersweet pain

of holding my own children tight,

when I know of the loss

and the fear and the cost

for those mothers who face pain each night?

“Sister, I will cry with you.”

When love meets with pain

that can rend and can stain

all the joy that your child inspires,

may a chorus of voices

discard other choices

to give sympathy that never tires.

And may all of your tears

and your doubt and your fears

rest in love that flows now to you.

You are not alone.

My hearts hears you moan.

And my prayer seeks the God who renews.

 

(For now – I am relishing the laughter)

bubble rolling new haircut photo Princess Imagination


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Deadlines and Lifelines

Although my relative blog silence may not indicate it to most of my readers, the past two months have been very busy for me. Much of this business has involved very prosaic activities (laundry, errands, carnevale & Easter goody bags for the kids’ classes). Of course, the unique context of my current sojourn in Italy colors even these day-to-day activities with unusual challenges and rewards, and it also offers amazing opportunities to otherwise fill my time (ski weekends in the Alps, school field trip to the Triennale Design Museum, shopping day-trip to Venice — I’ll stop before you all stop reading out of pique!)

The particular business of the last two months, however, has involved a few longer-term commitments that have combined into a lesson I didn’t realize I needed to learn. The first part of that lesson is just a reminder of something I already knew about myself: I am the kind of person who likes clear, concrete, defined goals, especially when said goals offer specific deadlines against which I can track my progress. Aficionados of psychological testing will nod their heads sagely when I reveal that my dominant personality trait all three times I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has been “judging.” This doesn’t mean that I am judgmental (I hasten to explain, since we “Js” highly dislike both ineffective communication and mis-categorization). What it does mean is this: while at different points of my life my score for my source of energy has slid across the line between introversion and extraversion, and my preference for making decisions has tended to balance nearly equally between thinking and feeling, there is no doubt that my lifestyle is governed by a preference for structure and organization.

This controlling preference has expressed itself directly, as I said, in a few longer-term commitments that have been dominating much of my time in recent months. The first such commitment is my writing. No, not my blog, I know. This particular medium of expression has been consistent only for its infrequency and its failure to meet even my modest self-imposed deadline of one entry per month. I’m referring instead to my commitment that before I leave Italy I will complete a long-term dream: to write a novel. I first dreamed this dream when I was 8 or 9 years old and tried my hand at penning a fantasy adventure story (that particular effort petered out after three or four chapters and is now lying in repose in my mom’s garage, if it hasn’t ended its sad little life in the recycle bin). My more mature effort, however, has been germinating for over a year and a half, and is the proud owner of an entire notebook filled with plot outline and character sketches, snatches of dialogue and random draft scenes. Until January of this year, however, the translation of all this planning into sequential written prose was going very slowly. While I love to write, there always seemed to be dishes to wash, or groceries to buy, or friends to meet for coffee, or blog entries to write, and I found it very difficult to carve out the time demanded by this serious ambition.

Then, one of those cappuccino-loving friends challenged me to start setting deadlines for myself. Not the vague, future goal of “finish before I leave Italy,” but a week-by-week schedule of chapter completion that would get me to my goal with a little room to spare. What a difference a deadline makes! The novel has transformed from an idea to an actual story, with nearly eighty pages and 8 1/2 chapters of substance stored on my hard drive. Granted, the schedule of completion charted in the margins of my calendar had me completing chapter 10 by April 5, but considering that I was only part way through chapter 2 in late-January (after 6 months of work) I will celebrate this page-count as a practical victory.

I am all the more inclined to revel in this progress because of the other goal that absorbed a lot of my time in the last two months – training for my first 10K race. Unlike the novel, this achievement had never been a long-cherished desire. Before February of this year I had never even run 5 kilometers at a go in my life and I have never considered myself an athlete. At another January coffee date, however, another friend suggested that I try to run the Stramilano of the 50,000 with her in March. That evening, just to see if it was even plausible, I went surfing the internet for a 10K training schedule for first-time racers. Of course, once I had that clear, beautiful schedule beaming off my computer screen, with the first two training runs fatefully set at the exact distance I was already running twice a week, I was hooked. This wasn’t just the gratifying structure of regular deadlines. This was a professionally constructed schedule of deadlines specifically prepared for runners in my exact situation. I organized my daily routine around that schedule — never scheduling coffee for Tuesdays or Thursday so that I could do my runs; trading my vacation morning of watching the kids (so that Tyler could ski) for an hour to run on the hotel treadmill; scheduling a babysitter on the weekend that Tyler was away so that I wouldn’t miss my first 3 mile training run. As the race day approached and my fitness improved I added a bonus incentive: the measurable goal of a run time. This system of deadlines, goals, and measurable results was magic. On the 24th of March even a sudden bout of vomiting minutes before the race did not dissuade me (note to other novice runners – don’t add an orange to your breakfast on race day, too much acid). When the loudspeaker boomed our “Via” and the hundreds of red balloons released into the sky above the Duomo, I was off: dodging race walkers (it’s a very non-competitive race), puddles (it rained the entire morning), and real runners coming up from the rear (a few of whom I gratifyingly re-passed later on once they ran out of steam). I certainly didn’t set any records, but at 68 minutes I beat my goal time by 2 minutes and felt the rush of a goal achieved.

So much for the affirmation of a character trait that 36 years has firmly established in the understanding of anyone who knows me at all well. The real point of this entry in the caveat that I must now add to my assertion that my soul yearns for structure, and organization, and deadlines: deadlines don’t work for lifelines. You see, the last two months have also contained the season of the Christian church year termed lent, and this year I tried to impose a deadline schedule on my spiritual practice for observing this season. Although the practice of “giving up” something for lent is relatively unusual in the generally evangelical branch of Christianity to which I belong, I have come to deeply appreciate this discipline in the past 7 or 8 years. It provides a chance to temporarily eliminate some small thing from my daily life that it not intrinsically bad, but that can be more fruitfully replaced with prayer or meditation. So, for example, when I gave up chocolate for the span between Ash Wednesday and Easter, my predictable daily yearnings for that sweet, rich confection provided a dependable reminder to re-center my awareness on gratitude to the God who gave up so very much more to reestablish a bridge for direct relationship with human beings, myself included.

So, this year my spiritual “fast” was from Facebook. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Facebook. To the contrary, since my move to Italy it has become a valued point of contact with “home” that allows me to know what is happening in the lives of my friends and to keep them informed about my European adventures without spending hours on the phone or e-mail, or composing generic mass letters. All the same, this useful tool can be a wasteful time drain and a distraction from precious moments with my children and husband. So, I committed to abstain from the little blue app on my phone for 46 days. The negative side of fasting, however, the “giving up” is not the full purpose of lent. Rather, the Lenten practice is aimed at replacing the denied pleasure with one that is spiritual in nature. And so, before signing off from Facebook on February 13 I made a list of all my Facebook “friends” and committed to pray for each of them at least twice during lent. Thus was born my Lenten schedule of deadlines. What a wonderful plan for my organizer’s soul. I could stay indirectly connected to all those distant friends and family in a spiritually vital way, and redeem some of that lost time I had been wasting clicking on electronic posters proclaiming familiar truisms as though they were the newest idea since the iphone5. This might be my best Lenten practice ever!

Well, yes and no. It was certainly good to pray for my friends and extended family, although this practice brought with it the uncomfortable realization of just how infrequently I do this except when I am aware of moments of crisis in their lives. It was also both good and uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on my inconsistency with prayer in general. While I aim for a daily time of prayer, early wake-up from kids and unplanned phone calls or class e-mails often disrupt these plans, and I was not aware of quite how often I miss my goal until I had a daily schedule. Planning to pray for 6 friends a day suddenly makes missing “a day or two” much more concrete when that list grows to 24 the next time I actually sit down with it.

Unfortunately, this spotlight was not very motivating. It turns out that prayer is really not much like running. When illness or travel temporarily derailed my training schedule I would sit down with my calendar and schedule out a shift to avoid getting behind in my progress toward my goal. When the Gigglemonster started his morning yell for “Mommy!” 45 minutes early, however, I would write myself a bleary mental note about doing my prayer time later that day, and then forget about it until the next day, when my reaction to “reading” that mental note was a mumbled “Oh crud, I only have 20 minutes, how am I going to get through 12 people plus reading scripture?” That’s not how I want to feel about prayer. I expect to have to drag myself to lace up my running shoes — that’s why I need a training schedule — but my prayer schedule seemed to work in reverse: it made into a burden what should have been a source of joy and renewal.

Now I want to be clear, even in my organizationally-obsessed mind prayer is not subject to formula; it is not a magical incantation that needs to be said just perfectly in order to “work.” Just the opposite, I experience prayer as a conversation that only “works” in the sense of the relationship it builds. The effectiveness of prayer thus depends upon the conversation partners, and in this relationship I have no illusions about where the problems come from. The God I pray to is no baal – he does need to be woken up, or called back from a journey, or interrupted in the midst of relieving bodily functions. God is always present and is always worth talking to, if I can get my head into the space where I can actually engage. And this is where my prayer schedule ran me into trouble. This Lenten journey has brought me to the realization that despite my type A, organization-loving, schedule-dependent nature, deadlines are limited in their utility. Deadlines are for things that you need to do despite the fact that they aren’t always fun — important, good for you, even necessary, but things that you are tempted to put off when there are competing options for how to spend your time. Problems come when I apply this model of motivating myself to activities that offer their own intrinsic motivation, because the deadline mentality replaces this motivation.

This pattern applies not just to prayer. The same danger arises when I start evaluating and calculating the minutes I spend in “quality time” interacting with my children (“Oh no! we haven’t done any art projects this week – quick, pull out the paints even if Princess Imagination would rather play let’s pretend and the Gigglemonster is screaming for the Wii”), or connecting with my husband (the compulsion to try to force a substantive conversation rather than another night of cuddling in front of the TV — regardless of how physically and mentally exhausted we both feel). When I start thinking in terms of quantifiable goals or benchmarks of adequate achievement the joy of the interaction gets lost in the task-nature of creating it. When I apply the patterns and structures of work to my sources of meaning and joy, then they become work. But while work is important for life, and I do sometimes need to put work into these sources of life’s meaning, I also need to remember the difference between life and work. The most important relationships in my life, with my God and with my family, are my lifelines to an existence that means more than a series of schedules and goals.

And so, as I embark on my 37th year of life, I have a new goal: to distinguish my lifelines from my deadlines, and to put them in their proper order. I can get satisfaction from meeting deadlines and achieving goals, but that is not what makes my life alive, and no deadline is more important that making sure that I really live each day.

(A few of the things that have been filling my time, and bringing me joy:)

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

Uno...due...tre...Via!

Uno…due…tre…Via!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Call her Princess Skier

Call her Princess Skier

 

"Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!"

“Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!”

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

 

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

It's finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

It’s finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

 

Look who lost her first tooth!

Look who lost her first tooth!

"Look what I can do!"

“Look what I can do!”

"Look. Mommy, I can do it too!"

“Look. Mommy, I can do it too!”

They're still my little babies!

They’re still my little babies!

Too cute not to share

Too cute not to share

They so don't appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

They so don’t appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

My beauty.

My beauty.

I love that they are friends.

I love that they are friends.

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

...love, love, love that they are friends.

…love, love, love that they are friends.

 

Gra'ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

Gra’ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

 

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy


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Encountering My Privilege

Today brought me an unexpected encounter with my own privilege that has left me floundering for an adequate response.

The day started out normally enough. I woke up a bit late because of yet another epic battle with the Gigglemonster about going to bed and staying asleep in his own bed all night (we are into week two of this new phase and it is leaving Tyler and I both exhausted, frustrated, and completely at a loss for how to master this new emergence of the monster side of our son’s personality). Consequently it was a bit of a rush to get the kids dressed and ready and out the door in time for school. We missed my target departure time by 11 minutes, but we still managed to enter the school just before the fateful hour when they close the main gate and the only entry available is through the shame-shrouded side door.

From there I waved a greeting to a few moms from the Gigglemonster’s class who were all looking very sleek and Milanese on their way to grab un buon caffe, and despite their warm friendly smiles I was painfully aware of my unwashed hair and muddy jogging shoes . Then I was off for my training run. I am signed up to “race” in the Stramilanino in 4 weeks. It is a non-competitive 10 kilometer organized run through the heart of Milan, and it is only a race in the very loosest sense. In my case the goal is simply to run/jog the whole way (completely disregarding time), but the fact that until a few weeks ago I had never in my life run even 5 kilometers in one go means that I am in training. Today the goal was 6.4 kilometers (4 miles for all my American friends) and it was my longest run to-date. I had mapped a circuitous course that took me from the school through some of the quieter neighborhoods of Southeastern Milan and up around Porta Romana to finish up at my own front door (I’ll walk back to school the afternoon where my car is conveniently waiting the drive the kiddos home). The run started out a bit labored with the cold air hitting my morning-fogged lungs, but my route offered lots of sunshine and I soon warmed up. I had my ridiculously over-priced but oh-so-wonderful running jacket (thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law’s thoughtful Christmas shopping), and its convenient sleeve pocket nestled my i-phone so that it could deliver Eye of the Tiger and other suitable exercise inspiration via earphones to my waiting brain.

I managed the run in 46 minutes and didn’t even huff too much on the long hill over the train tracks, and I felt good. I decided to run a few extra meters to the end of the block where I could cross over to one of my all-time favorite spots in Milan – the Forno Ambrosiano bakery. In addition to their focaccia (which truly is ambrosia), the Carnevale and Lenten seasons bring an additional high-calorie indulgence that is worth every extra pound: tortelli vuoti. The closest corollary that I can describe for those who have not tasted this magical confection is donut holes, but those are only a poor shadow of this greasy, sugary goodness. The bakery offers two other varieties (filled with crème custard or nutella), but our family always opts for the vuoti (meaning literally empty – so that there is nothing to compete with the taste of melt-in-your mouth sugar-coated fried batter balls). Understandably, this variety usually runs out first, and thus my decision to head to the bakery first, rather than stopping home for a much-needed shower. As I sprinted down the last 100 meters of sidewalk I passed Madonna, and began an internal dialogue about how to approach my return journey to my front door.

I should explain that Madonna is a woman who begs on the sidewalk  just outside the coffee shop that is 6 doors down from my building. I first got to know her about 4 or 5 months ago, when I asked her name as I dropped a small bill into her cup. In one of my college sociology classes a professor encouraged our class of generally liberal, faith-minded idealists to consider how to make our charity more humanizing. She suggested that one of the worst things about extreme poverty is the way that it cuts you off from social interaction. Those who are reduced to begging for change generally meet two reactions – either averted eyes that pretend not to notice them, or eyes that watch the small donation of loose change into their cup, but never make contact with their own. Professor Alexander didn’t insist that we should give to every panhandler we encountered, but she said that if we do choose to give, we should try to do so in a way that makes a human connection. Make eye contact, ask their name, offer an encouraging word, if time permits offer to buy them a sandwich and sit with them while they eat. Give them more than just loose change – give them the respect they deserve as a fellow child of God.

I’ve always remembered that advice and I try to put it into practice when possible. I certainly don’t give to every panhandler I see, and I can’t claim to have any admirable system or criteria for deciding when I do. Most often it has mostly to do with how easily I can access a suitable denomination of coin and how much of a rush I am in at the time. However, on my way home from school one day in late September or early October I dropped a contribution into Madonna’s cup and made eye contact with a smile. Her responsive smile was enveloping, and she offered an enthusiastic thanks. We had a brief conversation, hampered by the limited Italian that is our only common language (she is from Romania), but eased by the responsiveness of her eyes and smile. It was a moment of humanity, and since then I have felt a certain connection with Madonna. I won’t claim that there are never times I pass without offering her a contribution – when I am balancing shopping bags and whining children or when I am completing or starting a training run and I have no money with me, but I always try to at least make eye contact and smile, and she does the same, usually with a friendly “Ciao, Bella” as well.

Then came the run-up to Christmas and all the business and activity that involves. I had not talked with Madonna for a week or two with all my rushing about, and I had been thinking (with a degree of self-satisfaction I am ashamed to admit) that the next time we met I would ask her what her two children would like for Christmas. I imagined the opportunity to take Princess Imagination on a shopping trip to pick out Christmas gifts for her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and what a great chance that would be to reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach her about generosity and passing on the blessings we have received. When I stopped one morning to hand Madonna a small bill, however, the interaction did not go as I had planned. She held my hand in both of hers, looked into my eyes with a look of desperation and explained that she had been hoping to see me. Her son had told her that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to go home to Romania to see their family, but she couldn’t afford the tickets. She had asked everyone she could, but she was still short by a substantial sum. The price was not really that high in the context of my life — perhaps the equivalent of two dinners out for Tyler, myself and the kids — but it was certainly more than I had ever given to someone on the street.

I was taken aback. Suddenly my warm and fuzzy sense of generosity was replaced by discomfort and even fear. Was the story true? Had the relationship I felt we had been building been genuine, or was it just part of a long-con to get a large chunk from the naïve American? I was fairly sure I had been conned by another “young mother” a few months back for a smaller, though not insignificant, sum and I felt wary. My instincts to help clashed with all the stereotypes of class barriers and I did not want to be taken advantage of. I told her I would have to think about it, which I did.

I thought. I anguished. I avoided walking along that stretch of sidewalk for over a week to prevent any need to confront her searching eyes again.  And finally I prayed. I came to the decision that I wanted my life to be more characterized by love than by fear, by compassion than by distrust. It was money we could spare, and ultimately I believed she did have need. Whether the money was really to pay to take her and her children home to Romania or not, it didn’t really matter. I gave her the money a few days before I departed for my astronomically-more-expensive trip home to California (paid for by the company thanks to a generous expatriate contract), and I felt wonderfully at peace. I had no doubt that I had made the right decision, and the tears shining in her eyes as she clasped me in a hug of thanks were a very special Christmas present that confirmed my faith in the value of humanity in all human contacts.

When I returned to Milan in January I did not see Madonna for a few weeks. When I gave her the gift she had said something about perhaps not seeing me again if she could find a way to stay in Romania (or at least, I think that’s what she said – our communication is imperfect). I wondered whether that had happened. Perhaps she had found work, or her husband had, and they had been able to abandon the failed hope of a better life in Milano. I was glad to imagine that possibility for them, but I have to admit that I was also glad of the prospect of not facing her beseeching eyes again.

You see, what Professor Alexander had not talked about when she encouraged us to make human connections in our charity, was how that raises all the complications of human relationships. Issues of trust, and selfishness, and relative power, and judgment arise when you acknowledge someone else’s humanity. In the particular relationship of informal benefactor and recipient these dynamics twist every interaction into a distorted parody of the more natural interactions of our daily lives. We had no natural point of connection other than the passing of money and there were no rules or standards for how to govern that exchange. What was enough? What was too much? What right had I to control how my donations were spent? What expectation could she have that she could ask a large sum from me again? Once our exchange had gone beyond the occasional coins or small bills, there was an increased stake in our relationship, and I was quite happy to avoid that prospect. And so, I wished Madonna the best in Romania.

And then she appeared again. Her smile for me was warm, but I felt something else behind it (whether genuine or born from my anxiety I am not sure). She asked when I would be walking by again. She had made a video for me back in Romania, to thank me for my help and to show me where her family lived. She would bring it if I would tell her when. We made a date a few days out when I knew I would be able to walk down that short stretch of sidewalk, and I left. When that day arrived I felt oddly hesitant. Feet that have newly accustomed themselves to run several miles at least 3 or 4 times a week felt heavy and reluctant to traverse just 50 meters of pavement. But finally I ran out of other tasks that needed to be accomplished and I made the walk. Madonna smiled her same welcoming smile as I approached and chatted in her friendly sing-song voice. At first she did not mention the video. Rather she asked about the kids, and my trip home. She then inquired about my faith. I confirmed that I am a Christian and she said she had a feeling – something about me just shone. She was not a Christian herself, but her mother in law was, and she saw the same love in me. It was a lovely compliment, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever received, but it laid another weight on the burden of responsibility I had grown to feel toward her. Now my actions toward her reflected not just on myself, but explicitly on God as well. I hoped even more fervently to be spared any further obligation that might come with her promised video. Perhaps she had forgotten to bring it? Perhaps I would be spared that tangible, physical tether to her need? But as I made to pass on she dug a paper-wrapped DVD out of her bag and handed it to me with a little explanation. The video showed her home and her family in Romania – so that I could see where she had gone. And, if I wanted to do something more to help her, or if I wanted to show it to my friends to see if they would like to help, she would thank me deeply.

I left with a heart of lead. My fears were realized. The first request was being followed by more. I couldn’t just reach down my benevolent hand in a gesture of humanity and then retract it, with no sense of continued obligation. I was now her benefactor, with the potential (at least in her eyes) to identify still other benefactors as well. The video sat unwatched on a shelf in my house for several weeks. The thanks it promised to give felt tainted by the expectation of further gifts, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

So again, I avoided that stretch of pavement during Madonna’s normal hours, or I loaded myself down with parcels or schedules that did not allow for extended conversation. She occasionally asked if I had watched the video, but I would explain I had not yet had time, and then rush on with my busy life.

Until today. Today, as I walked home from the bakery toting my bag full of tortelli vuoti, I lectured myself with Professor Alexander’s words about humanity, and with the reminder that my life reflects not just on me, but also on my Savior and Lord. So I stopped and talked to Madonna, after handing her today’s contribution. She remarked on my running gear and I explained about my training, telling her I had never done anything like this before, but now I had the time. She was complimentary and enthusiastic, as she always is. I began to feel a bit of the ease return to our interaction. As I made to leave she asked again if I had watched the video, and I smiled my reassurance. “Oggi” I promised – today. After all, if I had the time to train for a 10K run, certainly I had 10 or 15 minutes to watch a video.

So that is what I did. I did my post-run stretching on my very expensive, double-thick yoga mat, laid out in my spacious company-financed apartment and watched her DVD on my big flat-screen TV.

The contrast took my breath in a way that no run ever could. Her home in Romania looks like an abandoned farm building. Only one room has a fully intact roof and walls, and it is furnished with one hutch, one chair, and a large couch. In it are seated her two children, her sister-in-law and her three children, and her mother-in-law. The only other “room” in the house has gaps between the walls and the rafters and thatching that make-up what there is of a roof and contains only large piles of fire wood and a rudimentary kitchen with some cupboards and what I assume to be a wood-burning stove. There is no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing.

She also explains that her children do not go to school because they cannot afford it. Her 6-year-old could presumably go to public school but that requires money for books, for school meals, for clothes, and for other fees. They do not have any money, so he cannot go to school. She does not say it, but it is an unavoidable conclusion that he will be trapped forever in the same poverty he lives in now, without even the basic education with which his father cannot find work.

Madonna’s sweet voice and smile narrate the film, and it is not a hard sell. It is just an account of her life, and her expression of gratitude for what I have done to help her. She and her children smile at her friend’s video camera and wave good-bye with a chorus of “Ciao Bella.”

And I sit in shock. How could I have just stood in front of her in my expensive jogging paraphernalia, holding a bag of confections with no nutritional value, chatting about the luxury of training for a race, and finally condescended to watch her thank you video after a month of procrastinating. I took a minute for self-recrimination before I moved on to the even harder question. What could I do now?

Her need is desperate. There is no doubt of that. She and her husband came to Milan to seek a better life for their children, but without work their poverty here is still desperate, even if their home here might have complete walls or electricity. But what can I do?

I have only two resources. The first is money. But the money they need to really change their lives is far beyond what I can provide. Tyler and I are certainly comfortable, but we don’t have enough excess to permanently support another family.

The other resource is knowledge. But I don’t seem to have the kind of knowledge that can make a difference. I don’t have any way to connect Madonna’s family to more sustainable support. Tyler and I have no connections that can offer her husband employment, and I don’t have the least idea what social supports exist for her in this embattled and bankrupt state. As someone whose career (prior to this move) was in the fields of anti-poverty research and advocacy, that ignorance is humiliating, but difficult to remedy. In any such effort my language barrier combines fatally with the confusion and opacity that characterize the Italian social system, which Italian friends have told me make the system nearly impossible for even native Italians to navigate. The election held in Italy over the last two days has apparently decided almost nothing and the national and European economic pressure is certainly not the context for expansive relief programs for undocumented immigrants, so I doubt any of the parties of coalitions have any solutions in mind for Madonna.

There is nowhere to look for a solution to Madonna’s problems, and I am left sitting on my comfortable couch, in my warm apartment, typing on my laptop computer about how I don’t know what to do with this juxtaposition of privilege and pain. I know there are lots of social arguments out their about personal responsibility — not having children if you can’t support them; taking the legal road to immigration if you want to work; doing whatever it takes to earn an honest living — but I can’t blame her as a way to escape from her pain. She’s a human being. Her children are innocent victims of an impossible situation. They will probably never experience the comfort I take for granted every day. And I don’t know what to do about it.

And so, I have written this entry. It doesn’t have a pithy conclusion where I tie it all up with my moral of the story. It doesn’t chronicle any momentum decision I have made that I think worthy of sharing. All it does is give witness to the injustice of the contrast between my life and Madonna’s. If I can do nothing else, at least I can give witness.