Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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Slowing Down

A few days ago I started re-reading the New Testament letter of James as part of my morning devotional time.

[Please note – I’m not sharing this out of any self-righteous desire to appear holy, especially not holier-than-though. My devotional efforts are consistent only for their inconsistency, so I could never hold myself up as a model in that regard. But I am grateful to be experiencing a new vitality to my spiritual life ever since I heard the “wind hovering over the water” in Tinos. Since some of the things I have been learning in the process may be interesting and relevant to others, I am making bold to share them. Whether or not you identify with the Christian faith, I hope these reflections can still have meaning for you.]

So, as I was saying, I have started re-reading James. It is a letter I have not studied in a long time — at least 5 years — although I am fairly familiar with its content as it is a much-quoted book. However, an allusion to one of the sections of the letter in a song recently drew my attention. So, on Thursday morning, I picked up my bible and started reading from chapter 1. I got 18 verses in and then I came to a short little section that I have heard or read innumerable times before:

 “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1: 19b-20 (New International Version).

Now, I do not consider myself an angry person. My father had some issues with anger and that has always been a strong motivator for me to avoid that particular emotion. What it more, I think my natural temperament is relatively calm. My parents named me Serena because of that intrinsic serenity, and as recently as two weeks ago yet another acquaintance observed that this name is particularly apt. A variety of friends have even commented on the calm attitude I maintain in dealing with my children. One friend insists vehemently that she does not believe I ever yell at my kids, despite my assurances.

I believe, however, that it is the change in my status from non-parent to parent that drew these two verses to my attention so unavoidably a few days ago. The moment I read them it was as though a not-so-silent movie began playing for the benefit of my mind’s eye: a flashback of the last few weeks with my children. I saw moment after moment of impatience and frustration; of exasperation and ill temper; of sharp words and snappy gestures; in short, of quick jumps from my natural calm to petulant anger in response to what were usually fairly mild behaviors from my children. These memories struck me with particular force because I know these weeks were relatively stress-free, comprising as they did the last few weeks of summer vacation with relatively few time-pressures or external expectations. In the next few days I became more conscious of these little fits of temper and I realized that they were the result of cumulative frustrations. The first time Princess Imagination grabbed onto my leg and in the process nearly pulled off my skirt I just asked her to stop. The forty-eighth time she does it I erupt with “DON’T pull on my skirt!” The first time the Gigglemonster tried to sit on top of the back of the couch I told him firmly, but calmly, that we don’t sit up there. The sixty-third time he goes climbing I pull him down not quite gently and issue a sharp rebuke. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I love my children deeply, they have an incredible capacity to get under my skin with little misbehaviors that feel so big when I have to correct them over and over. I know I am not a unique parent in this respect, but somehow that does not give me much comfort.

My discomfort is because it means I have failed to achieve a standard I set for my own parenting. Despite my many promises to myself to the contrary, my children deal with my anger on a nearly daily basis. Certainly the anger in question is not violent or explosive. I have never even considered exploding in a torrent of cursing or putting my fist through a wall. In my current surroundings, a culture that is much more emotive and expressive than my American heritage, I witness much more obvious parental anger almost every time I take the subway or go to the park. By comparison to many of my gesticulating Italian neighbors my temper is quite mild.

But the forcefulness of parental expressions of anger (so long as they are not abusive) is not really the relevant factor for comparison. What concerns me more about my frequent descents into anger is their overall effect. The fits of temper I saw from my Dad as a child frightened me, certainly, but their general impact was to impress upon my young mind a desire to avoid such extreme expressions of anger. While they taught by negative example, at least they taught a positive lesson. In contrast, I wonder whether my mild, seemingly innocuous fits of anger might not actually be more insidiously damaging to my children’s development. Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster show no signs of being frightened by my anger or dissuaded from exhibiting anger themselves. Much to the contrary, they also demonstrate a readiness to snap at each other in response to small annoyances, or to break into peevish whining or temper tantrums when I do or say something that makes them unhappy.

Of course, I do understand that this is common behavior for two- and five-year-olds. I cannot take the full blame for what are developmentally common behaviors. Nevertheless, I have come to recognize that there is an ironic cycle at work in our domestic patterns. The Gigglemonster lets out a shrill scream when Princess Imagination touches his new monster truck toy and tries to grab it from her hands. I respond by sharply raising my voice as I tell him to share and I snatch his hand away from her. Princess Imagination whines that she doesn’t want to clean her room right now and I whine right back that I am tired of her whining and disobedience. Whether they are learning from me or I am learning from them, the lesson being learned is clearly far from ideal. Do as I say, not as I do comes uncomfortably close to the mark. If I want my children to learn how to treat others with respect, to be patient and kind, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, then I certainly need to begin by modeling such behavior.

Man’s anger, Mom’s anger, does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. This warning matters to me, and not just because of any eternal consequences linked to “unrighteousness.” I believe in a forgiving God who knows my brokenness and loves me through it. But I also believe that the righteous life is worth living for its own sake. A life characterized by love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruits of the spirit is, in fact, a happy life. And it is the little things, like the way we treat those closest to us, that really determine the character of our lives. I may be serene and free from obvious or violent fits of temper to the casual observer, but I am realizing that I am not slow to anger. Even if my anger is mild, it is anything but slow, and I want this to change.

In the last several days I have been working on being slow. It is amazingly hard. The habit of the quick jump to peevishness is difficult to break expressly because it is not slow— it is automatic. I have been impressed, however, by how quick my children are to respond when my efforts succeed. When I am firm, but calm in response to their misbehavior something miraculous happens: they do not escalate, at least not nearly as fast. When, instead of snapping, I get down on their eye level and talk to them about why they need to stop a given action, they are much more likely to listen, actually LISTEN!

Of course, they are still two- and five-years-old, and I am still imperfectly serene. Our progress is slow. But I will take slow. Slow is good.

Last day of Summer vacation – enjoying the time together!


The Wind on the Water

Princess Imagination has fallen in love with the Wind.

Consorting with the Wind

It was inevitable that she would have some type of emotional reaction to the movement of the air on this starkly beautiful Cycladic isle. It was inevitable because the wind here is an omnipresent character of the island. Its voice and touch are inescapable the moment you step outside, and they make themselves known with resounding booms and eddying curtains even in the refuge of our villa. It was inevitable also because Princess Imagination encounters each day as an opportunity for observation and interpretation of the world around her. She studies objects and forces that the rest of us take for granted, and she ascribes to them explanations, emotions, and sometimes even analytical reasoning.

And so, she encountered the powerful breath of the island of Tinos and she fell in love. I know this because, being myself a paramour of the wind, I can recognize the symptoms: stopping short, with eyes closed, to let the caress of the air explore her hair, her face, her form; breathing in deep gulps of its invigorating oxygen; wanting its voice to echo in her mind to blow away all transient thoughts and cares. On our second day here she extended to me a precious invitation: “Mommy, come and listen to the wind with me.” It was a golden moment out of time. We sat on the porch, a little apart at her instruction, and silently gloried in the song and breath of the island. She is only 5 years old, and so the moment was soon over. She was off to romp and explore (and squabble) with the Gigglemonster. But that golden moment has taken up residence in my awareness. In those few minutes I was drawn back into my long-time love affair with the wind, but more importantly I was drawn into a new spiritual understanding. As I soaked in the sound and feeling of the wind and watched my daughter’s enraptured face, without even thinking I began to pray for her. I prayed for her present, and her future, and the life she has to give to this world. I prayed for blessings, and for the grace to make the good choices that would fulfill all the promise in her. In that prayer I felt the wind enfolding me, and breathing in my petitions. Unbidden, a verse from the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis came to me. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2; New International Version)

I have heard or read this verse hundreds of times, but the image of the hovering Spirit suddenly awoke in me with incarnated significance. You see, the Hebrew word translated in English as Spirit is Ruach. It is used frequently in scripture to refer to God’s Spirit, but it also means wind or breath. As I sat in the embrace of a powerful wind, and prayed with all a mother’s longing for her child, I felt God’s longing for creation.

In the days since, as a have looked out my window at the whitecaps freckeling the surface of the waters, the image of God’s Spirit hovering over the waters keeps resurfacing. I can sense the powerful presence of God’s Ruach (Spirit/wind/breath) hovering over the unformed world and breathing it into existence. I feel such hope, and joy, and blessing. To bring all of creation out of a formless emptiness far surpasses a human mother’s effort in procreation, and yet I can glimpse the echo of God’s will to bless creation in my overwhelming burst of desire to see my daughter’s life blossom. I can also sense, remotely but poignantly, the pain of lost potential: the grieving for a child, a world, a universe that has missed out on a portion of its intended blessing — the price of choosing its own way. That is my greatest fear for my own children, which drives me to my knees in petition for their future as the wind moans its song of pain. Ruach is a feminine word, and it is used as a feminine name for God. In that moment of windswept prayer, I believe I encountered the mother’s heart of God. The wind spoke to me, and continues to speak in alternating gusts and breezes, of overpowering love, and of gentle nurturing. Then, just as I relax in the luxurious support of that living breath, the wind whips past me and nearly knocks me off my feet. God’s Spirit is love, but that love is not tame. I cannot control the wind, for I am a part of the creation. I am God’s great delight, but I also sometimes push against God’s will for me, just as I sometimes fight the wind. And so, the wind speaks back to me now the prayer that I prayed for my daughter: for her present, her future, the life she has to give to the world. Only it is not only my prayer for her. It is also the Spirit’s invitation for me: for my present, my future, the life I have to give to the world. It speaks of willed blessing and feared pain. I am a daughter as well as a mother. The Spirit that birthed me breathed into me life: the potential to choose my own way. God will not control me, just as I know that I must not try to control my own daughter. But God wills me the blessings that flow from living the life I was created to live. And so, my prayer is now not just for Princess Imagination that she will live the life she was created for. It is also for me.

Ruach, hear my prayer.

The wind blows the kids across the pool!

The wind loves Alaina's hair too, although it tangles it beyond belief!

Despite loving the wind, Princess Imagination doesn’t like hair in her mouth.

The wind blowing the water out of the pool.

The wind played havoc with our hair when we tried to take family photos