Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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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.


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Valentine Perspective

Valentine’s Day has historically been quite a difficult day for me.

I am hardly unique in this respect, but I venture to presume that the reason the 14th of February pulls at the scars on my heart is relatively unusual. It is not the lack of romantic attachment that brings pain. I am lucky enough to be married to my best friend. It is not a sense of isolation. My life is very full of love and companionship. It is not even a memory of past betrayal that sours this day, at least not in the traditional sense.

No. A cloud has obscured the heart on the calendar for the past 16 years because Valentine’s Day is also the day my Dad was born, and 16 years ago my Dad was no longer there to be celebrated. The previous summer, when I was just 19, my Dad had taken his own life.

Anyone who knows about grief can tell you how difficult anniversaries are. Birthdays, death days, any date that bears special significance in a lost relationship has the power to reopen wounds. For me, Valentine’s Day has offered a little extra twist to the knife of loss because of its irony. A day to celebrate love is such a fitting and awful day to associate with my Dad’s life. It emphasizes the love that I lost when he took himself away, but more than that it focuses attention on the pain that led him to that choice.

My Dad was a man driven by the search for love. I think all human beings need love, but for Dad that need was an obsessive compulsion. It is not that his life was without love. Even after my parents’ divorce he had people in his life who loved him, and I was near the top of this list. But the love that he had never seemed to satisfy his need. He was desperate for some unattainable romantic ideal that would fulfill the deepest longings of his soul, and ultimately that desperation led to despair.

Suicide is a complicated phenomenon. There were undoubtedly factors of biology, and past trauma, and triggering stress that laid the pathway for his suicide. And I could never claim to be able to enter into his mind and heart on the night he took those pills to explain all of his reasons. Nevertheless, I have always felt certain that his frustration at not finding the love he so deeply desired was a major factor in driving him to seek an end to the pain.

And this is why Valentine’s Day had long been such a difficult day for me. The pain has moderated over the years. I have lived almost half of my life since that watershed loss in my life, and it has been a good life. My wonderful husband has done a lot to add many wonderful associations to the day to try to balance out the bad; and it is impossible not to smile when I remember Princess Imagination’s shy pleasure in making valentines for her classmates (including one special one for a certain sweet little boy), or when the Gigglemonster smears the associated chocolate goodness of the day all over his face. Most importantly, the tears I have cried on this day always led me to the source of Love, and I have felt the love of God in those moments in ways that would have been impossible if I had not been so broken. Valentine’s Day still brings thoughts of my Dad, but these thoughts share space with others that are even more powerful.

That is why today I am thankful for the memory of my Dad on Valentine’s Day. Not just because it is important to cherish the memories of the 19 years I did have with him. But because even in death he taught me a really important lesson about love.

The romantic ideal of Valentine’s Day is NOT what makes life worth living. You can drive yourself crazy searching for that ideal… in fact, he did. But when love, especially romantic love, becomes an obsession it destroys life; it doesn’t fulfill it. Love isn’t flowers, or candlelight dinners, or sexy lingerie. Love isn’t even finding your soul mate. Love is finding your soul’s source, and knowing that no matter how many human relationships you have they will never come close to meeting the deepest need that is built into us – to know the love of God.

Tomorrow there will be a lot of grand romantic gestures around the world, and that is not a bad thing. It is good, even important, to make a big deal over our partners on special occasions. Tomorrow there will also be a lot of loneliness and tears, and maybe even some suicides, and that is a bad thing. I’m fairly confident that my day will not be marked by either extreme. [That is not a knock on my husband, just an acknowledgement that we have two young children and the romance gets a bit moderated during these particular years of our partnership.] If I could have one wish for this day, however, it wouldn’t be for my day. It would be for the lesson I learned from one, special, Valentine baby to reach others who need that perspective as much as I do.

So, if this story touched you, please send it on. You never know what romantic ideal could be breaking someone’s heart today.

Dad holding me on my first Christmas

Dad holding me on my first Christmas


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Escalating

This entry is a bit of a departure for me. It is my first poem (since college lit. class), so I do not quite have the confidence in this format for communication to let it stand on its own. Thus, this brief explanatory note:

As will hopefully be self-evident, Princess Imagination and I have had some skirmishes this week. Their stimuli were nothing very momentous – things like not putting on her shoes, or my insistence that she brush her hair – but they have forced me to examine myself, my responsibilities, and my motives for discipline in the spotlight of her angry little glare. This examination has helped me to recognize in new ways the danger of my own unexamined frustration and anger. It brought me to a new understanding of the weight of responsibility in raising my wonderful, sensitive, strong-willed daughter. And, ultimately, it inexorably, thankfully, drives me to prayer. So without further adieu….

Escalation

Rushing headlong up the slopes of escalation

locked in the close embrace of argument.

Careening from defiance to exasperation,

pulled by the gravity of frustrated expectations.

We reach a pinnacle — a choice:

to leap together onto the angry rocks,

to crash and break, at least apart if not to pieces;

or to stop short and balance on the pain.

 

The pinnacle is a razor’s edge,

slicing deep into my feet, my foundation.

But I am the parent. I must hold her

back from the plunge, up from the slice of recrimination.

The stones cut deep to the supporting bone,

sheer away soft, self-indulging flesh

of ego, indignation, and entitlement.

These can’t support my daughter’s weight pressed into mine.

 

But the bones of love are diamond strong.

They find their grip, hold firm against emotion’s wind.

We will not fall, we will not break apart

to suffer loss of trust and scars of bitterness.

  

I hold her close for the descent

then gently set her down to climb together,

offer my bloody footprints as a guide

if she will choose to walk in them.

 

She is still young, still small enough to carry,

But she will one day scale these rocks with others.

God let the diamond light of love then guide her,

not mine, but yours you give me in the climb.

A few of my favorite recent snaps of my strong-willed, sparkling little girl)

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Christmas Kenosis

For many good and right reasons one hears a lot in the annual lead-up to December 25 about “the true meaning of Christmas.” “Christmas is about giving and not receiving.” “Christmas is about putting aside differences and appreciating our families.” “Christmas is about remembering those who are less fortunate.” “Christmas is about love, and joy, and togetherness.” And so on.

All of these sentiments are good, and important, and worthy of reflection and application not only at Christmas time but throughout the year. It is a wonderful thing that this season encourages all of us to collectively focus attention on socially-equalizing and peace-loving values, and to do so in affirmative ways that are too often missing from our communal dialogue. I must take issue with all of them, however, as characterizations of the “true meaning of Christmas.”

The word Christmas is the slightly abbreviated combination of two words: Christ and mass. Christ, obviously, is one of the most universally recognized names for the second person of the Christian trinity, also known as Jesus. Mass, although now primarily associated with the Roman Catholic church, can in this usage be understood more generally as a term for the full Christian service of worship. If, then, what we are truly wanting to understand is Christ-mass, the sacred celebration of the person of God who came into the world, then the true meaning of Christmas must be an encounter with the incarnation.

While not the most traditional Christmas text, the most beautiful description of the incarnation, in my humble opinion, comes from the New Testament letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verses 3 through 8).

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.

This is the real meaning of Christmas. That God — who exists so far outside the human condition that to take on the form and likeness of humanity was to voluntarily enter into slavery — did just that. And, that once this humiliation was embraced it was further eclipsed by the denigration of a criminal execution. This biblical poem uses the term kenosis in the original language, which means emptying. Christ “emptied himself” on the very first Christmas night.

Now, emptiness is not a term that we often apply to Christmas. Christmas is much more associated with fullness. Full stomachs as we gorge on feasts that take hours of loving labor and mountains of ingredients to prepare. Full eyes and ears as our senses are washed over by tidal waves of sparkling lights, colorful decorations, radio jingles, and Christmas carols. Full schedules as we struggle to find the time to address Christmas cards, complete shopping and wrapping, and participate in all the extra social activities of the season. Full spaces as we wonder how to find places for all the new clothes, toys, and other gifts that add to our accumulation of possessions. Full hearts as we look at the glowing faces of our children, or are transported into nostalgic memories of our own childhoods, or simply appreciate the precious moments to be with those we love.

The Christmas season fills us up in so many ways, and many of those ways are wonderful. This is not an harangue against the blessed fullness that we, as modern, Western, 21st Century people receive from the celebration of Christmas. What I hope it is, is a reminder that fullness is not the meaning of Christmas. Appreciation of all the gifts in our lives – those under the tree, and those we see more clearly in the late days of December – is important. It is something I am trying to teach my children about Christmas. When I recently asked Princess Imagination why we give gifts on Christmas she answered beautifully that it is to remind us that Jesus is God’s gift to us. That’s true.

But we need to also remember that this gift was and is kenosis, self-emptying. In that birth in a stable, Jesus released the honor, and authority, and perfection, and privilege, and power that is imbued in being God. There could not be a more complete or dramatic gift, and this selflessness is the real meaning of Christmas.

I had gotten so far in composing this post two days ago. Then it was time to get myself and the kiddos ready for Christmas Eve service. In the course of that activity my trick back decided that the action of bending at the waist to pick-up the Gigglemonster’s shoes was a sin punishable by severe pain of the shooting-down-my-legs-and-up-my-spine-and-continuing-for-hours-at-a-time variety. That would have been bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that the Gigglemonster was so wound up in anticipation of the first Christmas where he could understand the upcoming barrage of presents that he only napped for about 40 minutes (as opposed to his usual 2 hours). As a result, the monster side of his personality was definitely dominant heading into the 4:30 service at my in-laws’ church. When he decided that it had to be Mommy who held him every time the congregation stood to sing a carol (I lost track at 5, but it may have been more times than that), and when my back declared that holding a 37 lb. boy while standing was a physical impossibility, things got ugly! I spent the majority of the service trying to shush him, and bribe him, and otherwise prevent a screaming tantrum, and the remainder taking him out to go to the bathroom and them experiencing the full force of the tantrum in the ladies room when I suggested that he did not actually have to strip naked to go pee.

Needless to say, Christmas Eve service was not a terribly worshipful experience for me this year. Nor was it an easy context in which I could put into practice my preceding reflections about self-emptying. I am unfortunately NOT one of those people who stoically copes with pain. Quite to the contrary, pain brings out every selfish and petulant inclination in my personality. My children’s whining, coincidentally, does the same. And so, fresh from my soulful contemplation of Christ’s self-emptying, I was confronted by the broken reality of just how full of myself I am. Full of my needs; full of my expectations; full of my own plans for how things should go. While I cannot even comprehend the power and perfection that Jesus voluntarily released, I am forced to confess that I grasp for such things. I try with all my effort to achieve them, and when circumstances, or back pain, or tired children interfere with these efforts I get annoyed or worse.

And so, I have these contrasting reflections to offer you all on what is now the day after Christmas. On the one hand, the Christmas example of self-emptying, on the other hand the fullness-seeking inclinations of my own heart. The contrast is all the more poignant to me because Jesus’ action of self-emptying subjected him to just the kinds of negative stimuli that make self-emptying so difficult to me. The kenosis meant taking on a body that was subject to physical pain, just like mine. The kenosis meant being in relationship with other people who would consider their own needs first, if not exclusively. The kenosis meant encountering personally and directly all of the things that I use as excuses for why I cannot really follow Christ’s example.

And that’s why I have to take seriously the call to have the same mind in myself that is in Christ Jesus. It’s not that Jesus just doesn’t understand or isn’t subject to the stresses I face. Jesus volunteered to face those stresses – that’s the whole point of Christmas. And so, in the 364 days until the next Christmas, I want to keep trying to empty myself. I know that in the moments I do, I will be more full than I am at any other time. For, I will be full of Christ and full of the true meaning of Christmas.


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Parenting in the Air

I was working on this blog post when I heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. There is no adequate response. I have no right to try to address the pain of any of those involved and I have no great wisdom to offer about how the community or the nation should respond. This devastating event certainly raises issues that we need to deal with as a society, including issues of gun violence and adequate mental health treatment, but I don’t have the expertise or authority to offer my opinions on these issues in the immediate aftermath.

The response I do have in the immediate aftermath is one of grief as a parent. My heart breaks for all of the parents affected, especially the parents who lost young children but also the father of the gunman, the parents of the school staff, and the parents who now need to help their children understand what happened in their school. I do not know their pain, but my personal reaction to this crisis is experienced as a parent. I am hugging my children and telling them how much I love them and thanking God for one more day with them. And I am also feeling even more deeply the weight of my job as a parent. While my struggles of recent days are revealed as trivial by this tragedy, the lessons I am trying to learn from them are not. And so, I still offer these reflections about parenting because I have been reminded just how important it is for me to thoughtfully embrace each day I get to do this important job.

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Three days ago the munchkins and I made our third intercontinental trip as a three-some. While I would have naturally preferred it if my husband could have taken the extra week off of work to join this leg of the trek, I did not approach the trip with trepidation. After all, it is the third time I have travelled from Milan to California as a solo parent and I am fairly confident in my abilities. My anticipation of the roughly 19-hour journey was perhaps cavalier, but I try to hold the parenting philosophy that motherly anxiety usually breeds anxious behavior in children and that expecting the best generally produces more positive results.

I had not considered, however, how such positive expectations might impact my reaction to the challenges of the trip. To be fair to Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster, they behaved really well. There were no screaming tantrums. There was no refusal to walk, or to wait, or to get in the stroller. They sat in their seats with minimal excursions to the bathroom. They watched their videos and ate the food I had brought for them. They played together or separately and were generally un-disruptive to the passengers seated around us. In short, they confirmed my confident pre-flight declarations to friends that “they are great travelers, so I’m not worried.”

Princess Imagination loved the royal treatment in Business class (Thank you expat contract!)

Princess Imagination loved the royal treatment in Business class (Thank you expat contract!)

The Gigglemonster loved having his own TV almost as much as I love that little belly,

The Gigglemonster loved having his own TV almost as much as I love that little belly,

Taking his nap like a champion - he just fell asleep on his own!

Taking his nap like a champion – he just fell asleep on his own!

The problem was me. I was so relaxed in my confidence about their travel ease that I wanted the trip to proceed as though I were not responsible for two children under the age of 6. I wanted to sit back and watch my movies uninterrupted by bathroom trips. I wanted to enjoy my pre-flight champagne without the responsibility to prevent juice spills in the seat next to me. I wanted to eat my meal without the inconvenience of shimmying under my open tray table three times to open a stubborn zipper/locate a lost toy/select a new inflight entertainment option for my daughter seated across the aisle. Although I cringe to think about it now, I wanted to focus on my own entertainment and comfort and just not be bothered with entertaining and meeting the needs of my two precious children.

Looking back on that flight now, especially in the light of what happened in Connecticut less than 2 days later, I am overcome with shame, because my response to their requests for my attention was one of annoyance. I had the privilege of spending more than 13 hours strapped next to them on two airplanes (in addition to the 5 hours of driving, and moving-through and waiting in airports). 13 hours of time during which I had no competing responsibilities. No dishes to do; no laundry to fold; no class representative e-mails to send; no Christmas presents to wrap; not even any blog entries to work on. In this season of incredible busy-ness, I had the equivalent of one full waking day of uninterrupted time with my children. And I wasted it!

I had packed their rucksacks full of in-flight entertainment options: books, and coloring sheets, and stickers, and games. They were activities that they could do on their own, but they were also activities that I do not get the chance to sit and do with them nearly as often as I would like. Despite the fact that I “do not work outside the home,” there never seem to be enough hours in the day to just enjoy my children. There is always something that needs to get done. And so, I have come to think of sticker books and paint-with-water sheets as child-minders. They are fun activities that my children enjoy and that provide a more nurturing alternative than television. And so they have become my tools of distraction. When I am busy testing the emergency calling chain for my daughter’s class, or filing out insurance reimbursement forms, I can give them some stickers and paper and hope for 10 minutes of distraction-free time to work.

I am not saying that providing activities for my children represents poor parenting. I am so glad to have the resources to be able to stock a “craft cupboard” full of activities that entertain my children and encourage creative activity. But I have come to realize in the past few days that I too often lose out on precious memories with my children for the simple reason that they are such good kids. They don’t often throw tantrums to demand attention. They can sit and play quietly when Mommy is “too busy.” They will simply look at the pictures in their books, or stick to the ones my daughter can read, because Mommy doesn’t have time to read to them right now. And so, I have come to expect relatively low demands from them, and to think of this as a good thing.

My children are happy, and well-adjusted, and have the skills of self-soothing and independent play. These are good things. They make my job as their mother an even greater blessing than it would be otherwise. AND, they make it too easy for me to ignore their eagerness to spend time with me. Heaven only know how much longer they will offer me that treasure. Princess Imagination has already taken to shutting her door so that she can have “some time alone.” The Gigglemonster is discovering how great he is at making friends, and at some point in the future I know that friends will supplant me as his preferred companions. And any moment could be their last or mine. Their pleas to “read me a book Mommy,” or “help me color the doggie,” or “get this sticker off, so I can stick it on your sweater” are precious offerings. They are opportunities to interact with my children, and watch their minds and imaginations develop, and share in their process of discovering the world. My response should be one of joy and gratitude and not one of annoyance for interruptions of my agenda.

So, for the last few days I have been working on taking advantage of the little moments (hence the delay in this posting). My efforts are quite imperfect. Busy-ness is a difficult habit to break, but so worth it. What a joy to read the race car book three times in a row, or help Princess Imagination make a sparkly headband, or just have a tickle-fight. I am blessed with good kids who can entertain themselves when I don’t have time for them, but time is a blessing as well. My Christmas wish is to appreciate each moment of it.

A few of the moments of our first days of Christmas vacation with my family are captured below

Aunt Alia!

Aunt Alia!

The Gigglemonster made me "lunch"!

The Gigglemonster made me “lunch”!

Making a cornhusk doll with Gra'ma

Making a cornhusk doll with Gra’ma

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Princess Imagination painted both our faces!

Princess Imagination painted both our faces!

"Now you fix me, Gra'ma"

“Now you fix me, Gra’ma”

Resting (from jet lag) in the play ambulance and the Discovery Museum

Resting (from jet lag) in the play ambulance and the Discovery Museum

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Nightmares and Love

About one month ago I started having nightmares. They were all about my children, and they were all horrible. I would wake up in a cold sweat, gripping the covers with terror-convulsed fingers and sometimes struggling to catch my breath because of the weight of fear and anguish compressing my chest. I woke from many of the nightmares with no clear memory of the specific content of the dream, but with only the shattering emotional effects echoing through my body and the sense of dread for my children. The two most horrible dreams, however, have left a lasting impression.  I suspect that if I were to close my eyes now and allow myself to return to their dreadful phantasms, I would quickly be drawn back down into their disorienting, terrifying vortex. Even with open eyes and alert mind I can still feel the panic, the torture, of watching my children suffer horrific experiences from which I could not protect them.

I will not share the specific nature of the dreams — they do not deserve to be recreated in any form — but they do have one salient feature. The major part of each dream preceded the actual catastrophic event. Rather, they played out, in excruciating detail, the preceding minutes. Minutes in which I was aware of the extreme danger threatening my children, and minutes in which I strove with every ounce of strength, and bravery, and will that I possessed to prevent the inevitable conclusion. There was absolutely no thought in my mind, no motion in my body, and no word issuing from my lips that was not completely devoted to my efforts to save my children. Even though these experiences were “merely” dreams, they produced in me a feeling of total desperation that has forever transformed my understanding of that emotion.

As I said, these nightmares began about one month ago. I am sure that a psychoanalyst would find much fruitful soil in that timing, coinciding as it did with my youngest child’s exit from my immediate sphere of control and protection to enter pre-school. I, however, find much more weighty import in the timing of their conclusion. The last nightmare was in the early hours of last Saturday morning, about one week ago. It was so intense that my shaking actually woke my husband and left me in a state of such tightly wound anxiety that I could not relax back into sleep for more than 90 minutes. It stayed with me throughout the weekend, casting a dim shadow over all our normal, prosaic activities and causing me to frequently reach out, involuntarily, to touch or stroke my children’s’ little faces. Reassuring myself that they were well and happy.

On Sunday night our church had a special service run by the young adults’ group. Other than a short homily from the pastor and a poignant skit the night was devoted to worship through song. It was a wonderful time of joining together and the joy of worship completely washed the nightmares out of my mind. Then, toward the end of the service, we sang a song that included the lyrics “you gave your Son.” I cannot remember what the song was, or any of the other words because that one simple phrase sent a lightening bolt through my mind. I was instantaneously transported back into the terrorized center of my nightmares and heard a voice as clear and distinct as a trumpet call say to me “that is what I went through for you.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16). It is the most famous bible verse in the world, and it is so familiar to most of us (even those who do not believe it) that it has lost all meaning.  But in the echo of my nightmares I could not possibly dismiss with casual familiarity the statement that God gave his son. For the better part of a month I had been experiencing, in frighteningly real imagination, the desperation of a parent fighting to protect her children. The horror of the nightmares was most intense not only because of the horrible things happening to my children, but because they centered upon the soul-wrenching pain of seeing what is happening to them and being unable to prevent it despite struggling with every fiber of my being. I cannot imagine seeing my children in danger of any kind and not immediately jumping to save them, much less the combined horror of mortal and spiritual danger.

And yet, that is precisely the claim of the Bible. God the Creator (the parent-person of the Trinity) allowed Jesus (the Son who came from the very essence of God’s self) to suffer one of the most horrific deaths that human beings have ever devised to punish each other. What is more, the accounts of Jesus’ words on the cross make it clear that the physical pain of this experience was in no way the worst part of his ordeal. In taking  all human sin onto himself in order to break its power, Jesus was utterly separated from God the Father – the most shattering cosmic separation that could ever take place. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

As a parent, I cannot imagine the pain of hearing that accusation from my child — it would be hard enough to see my child suffering something unimaginable and to fail to stop it. To also be accused of abandonment by that child would be unbearable. In my rational mind I can argue that Jesus was not the helpless child that I see in the faces of my two precious little ones. He prayed to his Father to provide another way for him to accomplish his purpose on earth, but he ended that prayer with an acceptance God’s will — willing submission to the path of self-sacrifice. On an intellectual level this intentional participation makes all the difference. However, in my emotional imagination, the source of those horrid nightmares, I have never really been able to understand. The accusation that God is the divine child abuser has always been uncomfortably close. How could God be so cold?

But the voice that spoke in my mind last Sunday night was anything but cold. It throbbed with an intensity of emotion that exceeds my own capacity for feeling as much as the length of my sight is exceeded by the breadth of the universe. Suddenly I understood something that has somehow eluded me for more than 30 years of Christian life. Jesus is not the only one who suffered the pain of the cross. The Father-heart of God suffered far more desperately than I ever could, even if my nightmares were to come true. It was a level of pain that my experiences as a parent only allow me to glimpse dimly. The shuddering depth and power of that agony staggered me then, and a week later I am still overpowered by it.

And yet God the Father and God the Son willingly endured that horrible day of death, and the even more horrible three days of separation that followed. They voluntarily entered into an experience far worse than the nightmare scenarios that I fought against with everything I had in me. It is unbelievable, but I cannot do anything but believe. And I stand in awe.

I’m sure that there are some people reading this who do not believe in the spiritual significance of the strange death of a Jewish prophet nearly two thousand years ago. If that is you (and if you have kept reading this far) it is not for me to convince you otherwise. All I can do it to witness to the power of my own experience. For all of us, however, believing or not, I think that the claim of such a love bears consideration. Because love really is what that whole story is about. For God so loved the world… that both God the Father, and God the Son put themselves through an ordeal that we can barely touch on in our worst nightmares. All to save human beings from the even worse nightmare of total and eternal separation from God, and to instead give us the chance to become part of their family.

My sleep in the past week has been nightmare-free. I am grateful for that. And I am grateful for my family – my happy, healthy children and the amazing husband who shares with me the joys and challenges of raising and protecting them.

Beyond this gratitude, however, I am overwhelmed again by gratitude for that unimaginable sacrifice nearly two thousand years ago. I know that even in my very best moments of maternal devotion I am not capable of that kind of love. I am not capable of it, but I am so, eternally grateful for it.


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Talking “the Talk”

I started this post two weeks ago, but could not finish it. It felt too unsettled and raw. I didn’t know how to conclude my observations honestly while still leaving the possibility to move forward in a positive direction. Well, I think I am starting to see that way, but I am leaving the beginning as I started it, because it is honest and hopefully witnesses to the important lesson I have learned. I hope the resulting narrative is coherent enough to make a good read…

Well, school has started. If I were to judge by Facebook posts from other stay-at-home moms, or advertising targeted at the same audience, I should be in a state of delirious bliss. For the first time, both of my babies donned school uniforms and backpacks and set of on the adventure of formal education. This leaves me with that previously elusive commodity; free time. Time to walk the city without a stroller or diaper bag; time to exercise; time to read non-picture books; time to engage in activities because I find them personally enriching (with no offense intended to the Itsy bitsy spider or Giro giro tondo).

While all of these things are a blessed luxury that I know I am incredibly privileged to have, I do not find myself luxuriating in the promised relaxation. Rather, I am feeling anxious. Anxious because of the one thing I am not free to do. I am not free to help my children deal with the stress that comes from being some of the few foreign children in an environment of Italian children; children who all share a common language and culture which creates unintended barriers to friendship.

Despite the fact that Princess Imagination has already spent nearly a year and a half attending their English-language school in Milan, the challenge for her of being a shy, American child has come home to me in a new way this year. Perhaps this is because I myself have begun to feel more comfortable here. I know the routines of the school schedule; I know the other parents in her class; I am even her class’s parent representative to the Parents Advisory Board, with some share of responsibility for welcoming new families. With this is mind, I sat my Princess down a few days before the start of school to have “the talk.” I was inspired by a wonderful entry on the momastery blog (see: http://momastery.com/blog/2012/08/23/the-talk/), although I simplified it down to be appropriate for a newly five-year-old. In essence, “the talk” is the exhortation to one’s children to be aware of other children in the class that are excluded, and to be intentional about including them. It is a wonderful lesson to teach children from a young age, and I am very committed to teaching it to our children. I also know that it may be a challenging lesson for Princess Imagination, given her shyness. Nevertheless, I talked about this responsibility to Princess Imagination. I reminded her how it felt to be the new kid in her class when we first arrived in Milan it February 2011. We talked about her first friend here (a sweet, Milan-born, British girl who has since moved to Australia), and what a difference this friend’s welcoming smile made in her first months at school. I encouraged her to be actively looking for any children in her class who were having a hard time fitting in, and to make a point of being a friend to them. We talked about all these things, she agreed, and I felt very good about my parenting.

Then I picked her up from school the first day. When I entered the classroom the children were busy talking and playing together. Or I should say, almost all of them were. My sweet Princess was sitting alone on the little reading couch looking around at all the other children with a sad little look on her face.  When she saw me she ran up for a big hug and was suddenly all smiles, but that look of loneliness had struck at my heart.

On the walk home we talked about her day. She liked her teacher. She liked being back at school where she could engage in focused learning activities. She liked the praise she received from her teachers for her good behavior and academic work. They had a music lesson that she really enjoyed. Then I asked about garden time (“recess” for my American readers).

Me: “How was garden time?”

P.I.: “Ummm, OK.”

Me: “Who did you play with?”

P.I.: “No one.”

Me: “Why not?”

P.I: “They were all playing with their friends from last year.”

Me: “But you have friends from last year.”

P.I.: “Um, not really.”

Just 16 words, but they hit me like a wrecking ball impacting somewhere in the region of my solar plexus. Emotions went spinning off from the point of impact in a variety of directions. I was devastated at the thought of my sweet little girl wandering around that play yard looking for a friend and not finding one – for an hour! I was overcome with the awareness of just how much I loved her and longed for her happiness. I could sense my mother bear instincts let out an internal roar, and I felt an instinctual impulse to protect her from anyone and everyone who hurt her with this rejection. I wanted to cry, and hug her, and tell her that she was the most amazing, kind, fun, lovable girl in the world and that anyone who did not recognize what a privilege it was to know her was blind.

Then another thought supplanted all of these emotions with a new fear: that I had made this experience worse before it even happened. Suddenly “the talk” we had a few days earlier sounded much different when I considered how it may have sounded to her little ears. I had initiated “the talk” based on the blithe assumption that my daughter would be in a position to offer inclusion to any excluded child. But how would my encouragement to include others sounds to a little girl who felt excluded? Would it sound like an irrelevant instruction that was outside her control? Would it sound like a judgment of the other children, with whom she nevertheless wanted to be friends? Would it sound like a declaration of her failure to be included?

I had to do something, both to help her overcome this difficult experience and to manage my own swirling emotions. So I started to game plan with her. I identified children she should approach at playtime (based on friendships from last year and facility with English). I coached her on strategies to coax others to include her. I reassured her that the first few weeks of school it was hard for the Italian children to get back into the habit of speaking English. And I, perhaps belatedly, reminded her that she was a wonderful friend and that she did in fact have friends from last year who knew this.

My sweet, patient, little Princess accepted all of this well-intentioned Mommy interference with more grace than it deserved, and faithfully implemented most of my advise in the coming days. Each day after school I would ask about her day, and (I blush to admit), would quiz her about her social interactions when the information was not forthcoming. Some days the reports were good: she had played with a friend, she was getting to know the new girl in class, she wanted me to invite this or that friend over for a play date. Other days, she reported solitary garden time “just walking around”, or replayed an interaction where she sought inclusion and was rebuffed.

As we engaged in this daily report three things slowly began to dawn on me that have both humbled me and made me incredibly proud. First, I began to realize the intensity of my own reactions to her reports. When she talked about time spent with a friend I was elated. When she reported difficulties I was crushed. All mothers, of course, are invested in their children’s well-being and want them to experience acceptance and friendship, but I started to feel that perhaps I was taking this too far. Perhaps I wasn’t entirely reacting to Princess Imagination’s feelings of happiness or loneliness, but was rather projecting my own past experiences onto hers. As a shy child myself, who often felt excluded and longed for inclusion and friendship, perhaps I was responding more to my own unresolved insecurities than to her current feelings. As I confronted this possibility I made my second discovery: that Princess Imagination’s reports did, in fact, lack the emotional intensity of my responses. There were shades of sadness in descriptions of “not being able to find a friend to play with,” but no desperate loneliness or self-loathing. There was some happiness in reports that she had played with a given friend, or been included in another group, but not elation. In fact, Princess Imagination was generally taking whatever came as it came, and not making a big deal out of it. And this led to my third, most humbling realization: my own anxiety was creating a much bigger crisis for my daughter than would have otherwise existed. She was now required to report each day on her success or failure in a task that she found challenging. She had to process my emotions and insecurities as well as her own, and mine were substantially more volatile. She had to implement my strategies and solutions to improve her social standing, because if she did not she would certainly face questions about this failure. I had turned the understandable social awkwardness of an introverted American 5-year old in a class comprised almost entirely of Italian children into a problem that had to be solved.

I have recently been reading Dorothy Sayers’s amazing book The Mind of the Maker in the later pages of which she lays out a very detailed and cogent argument for why the habit of approaching life as a series of “problems” to be “solved” is both irrational and dangerous. I can now add my response to Princess Imaginations lonely garden time as another illustration of her point. When I approached it as a problem, with whose solution I was obsessed, I lost sight of the life that was experiencing this challenge and I forgot the truth that each day of her life is a part of her story that is building her character and providing her with the opportunity to grow into a strong and creative young woman who can cope when life is imperfect. A young woman who can even cope, with amazing tolerance and love, with an interfering, anxiety-ridden mother trying to re-write her own past through my daughter’s present.

As I said, this past few weeks has been very humbling. But it has also been a blessing. I am blessed to have a new vision of my daughter’s strength and wisdom as she takes a challenging experience she never asked for and makes the most of it. I am blessed with the knowledge that my mistakes are not irrevocable because she can forbear them and find some nuggets of helpful advice mixed with the garbage. And I am blessed with another reminder of just why I am not relying on my own goodness to perfect my soul, but instead resting in the grace of my Savior.

I have heard it said that parenting is the hardest job you will ever love. I would add that it is also among the most humbling experiences that will ever make your spirit soar.

Although I sometimes fail to recognize it, my Princess has her own kind of confidence

They always have each other.