Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Yoga and Eucharist (and kisses)

I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.

What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.

I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.

I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.

I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.

I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.

I am just done with it.

Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.

It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.

And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.

So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.

I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.

I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.

“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”

No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.

But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.

I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.

But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.

And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.

Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.

God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.

At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.

And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!

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My Hope Hole: Day 10 of the April Poetry Challenge

As part of the Messy Beautiful Warrior Project, I’ve been reading many of the thoughtful, inspiring, and vulnerable stories of fellow contributors over the past several days. I have been deeply moved by the courage that so many of these women have shown in painful situations, including some situations that connect directly to a piece of my own story. Their words have evoked my memories of the darkest time in my life, but those memories have brought not fresh pain, but rather an awareness of healing.

Today’s poem is for all those warriors who are fighting the pain each day. Here’s to hope.


 

They say “time heals all wounds.”

I think that’s true.

Near eighteen years past loss, and I’ve moved on,

lived nearly half my life,

and I am healed.

Yes! Even blessed.

No longer mangled by the ripping pain…

Dad’s suicide.

 

This week I’ve read so many tales of loss

by messy, beautiful warriors carrying-on

through the agony of darkness, barely gone:

a failed parent,

a bi-polar diagnosis,

a father died too young.

And each could be a trigger,

a sharp slap of memory:

of a Dad who couldn’t love me back,

of tortured, hurricane emotions,

of the final and irreparable loss.

 

And yet…

 I find that I am not undone.

I read the stories with deep empathy,

knowing the pain involved

from inside,

from experience,

but when I write my own messy beautiful tale,

Dad’s death was only a small footnote,

not the controlling center.

 

Ten years ago, it certainly would have been,

but

time heals.

 

The healing is not quite what I’d expected, though.

It has not made me whole,

returned my heart to its uninjured shape,

perhaps with just a scar to show the hurt.

Instead, the hole remains, unfilled.

Dad was and is still missing,

from my wedding,

from eighteen Christmases and birthdays,

from my children’s memories,

and that “missing” is a gap within the fabric of my life.

 

The miracle of time, of healing, is

that broken threads of love have been rewoven,

the edges of the hole no longer frayed.

My heart is not the same, how could it be?
But… it is whole.

The hole of loss has grown to be a part of my heart’s shape.

And in that hole, that space that can’t be filled with life that carries on,

there is now room to carry

Hope.


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Fear-Rejecting Parenting: Reflections on the Courage of an Amazing Family

I think I might have been more traumatized than the Gigglemonster when he fell and smacked his head on a hard, stone floor (notice the lump!)

I might have been more traumatized than the Gigglemonster when he fell and smacked his head on a hard, stone floor (notice the lump!)

Something they never tell you about becoming a parent is all the fear that suddenly invades your life when you take that precious, miraculous, fragile little bundle home from the hospital. Watching your heart (captured in the body of your child) grow, and discover, and slowly move away from you is both breathtakingly joyful and breathtakingly frightening.

In my experience, the fears of parenting run the whole spectrum of terrifying possibilities. I am afraid of the things that could happen to my children (be that physical pain and illness, or car accidents, or rejection by friends, or failure to achieve their dreams), and I am afraid about what they will be exposed to (from societal evils like consumerism and bigotry to the very individual dangers of evil people who might try to harm them). I worry about their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. I worry about their present and about their future. Moments of intense pride in their character and accomplishments are tempered by moments of fear when their whining, or selfishness, or timidity conjure up imaginings of how these traits might hamper them as they mature.

Added to fears for my children are the fears for my own failures as their mother: failures to protect them, failures to guide and teach them, failures to give them all that they need and deserve, and failures to back away so that they can learn independence and develop their own coping strategies when life is imperfect.

My own fears are probably holding Princess Imagination back from really learning how to swim. It's so hard to trust that she can learn to be safe in water.

My own fears are probably holding Princess Imagination back from really learning how to swim. It’s so hard to trust that she can learn to be safe in water.

I don’t mean to give the impression that motherhood is an endless labyrinth of fears and forebodings. In fact, the apprehension I feel is so powerful only because the love and joy of parenting my little ones is so intense. It is because there is so much to lose, so much indescribable happiness, that my hands occasionally shake when grasped by soft, plump little fingers. My life is incalculably better because of the two invaders who so completely upturned it with their presence and their needs.

And yet, I am unavoidably aware that my relationship to fear has undergone a qualitative shift since I became a mother. Fear now has a secret entry to my heart that was never there before. When my body gave my children entry into life, with all its dangers, it also opened a door for fear to fill the empty space where they once nestled under my heart. It’s as though the intense, physical dependence that began our relationship has reprogrammed me. I will now – I think forever – know myself as the one whose responsibility it is to protect and nurture my children. What that looks like changes as they grow, but the imperative does not slacken. A central part of my very identity is the absolute obligation to seek their well-being, and for me that includes a persistent awareness of everything that threatens it.

Perhaps that is why I was so struck by the story of Heather and Cameron Von St. James when I was introduced to it a few weeks back. Eight years ago they shared the awesome experience of bringing home their baby girl and encountering the joy of discovering all the wonderful ways their lives were now changed. That part of their story is intimately and sweetly familiar to me. The fear they faced just a few months later, however, is something I struggle to even imagine. Heather was diagnosed with Mesothelioma – a virulent form of cancer that usually results in death within 2 years of diagnosis. She was given just 15 months to live.

Fifteen months! That kind of diagnosis would be devastating to anyone, but for new parents … my parenting fears pale in comparison. Such a huge element of my fear as a mother is my immense sense of responsibility – the need to protect, and love, and guide my children in all the ways they need me. But what if I faced the near certainty that I wouldn’t be there to do any of those things? I really don’t think I can imagine what it must be to face that kind of fear.

What I can do, is to share my awe-filled respect for what Heather and Cameron did with their fears: they named them, and then they rejected them. They began a unique ceremony of inviting friends and family to join them for a backyard bonfire. In the light of that fire, a symbol of danger, they write their fears on plates and then throw them into the fire. They use the destructive power of the flames to smash their fears and reclaim their lives, and in the process they embrace each day they have with each other and with their daughter, Lily.

As it turns out, those days have been more numerous than the doctors ever imagined. It has been eight years since the lung removal surgery (the “lung leavin’ day” as they have dubbed it) that is the date for the Von St. James’ annual ceremony. Heather has been at every one.

Heather’s life, and her ability to be present in her daughter’s life, is miracle enough. But this amazing family has gone a step beyond by sharing their miracle with others as an inspiration for fear-rejecting parenting. They have taken a source of unimaginable fear and changed it into a chance to embrace love instead.

WOW!

I have often been comforted by the words of the apostle John (I John 4:18) that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear,” however I have also struggled to really experience them in my life. In all the relationships that matter most to me – those where my love is the deepest – fear seems to hold the opposite relationship to love. Especially as a mother, fear seems to grow with love, not be banished by it. But here, in this inspiring example, I think I am beginning to understand a bit more about how to claim this truth in my own life.

The Von St. James’ are not without fear. They hold their fear-smashing ceremony every year, because fear is not something that can be banished once and for all. The fact that Heather has beaten the odds does not remove all the fears that come with a cancer diagnosis as a young mother. She still has fears about the cancer coming back, about missing out on her daughter’s life. And so each year she rejects those fears – rejects their power to control her life and to tarnish each day of love that she has with her daughter.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” Casting out is a willful act – a decision. By writing a fear onto a plate and then throwing it into the fire this special family, and a growing crowd of others, make the decision to reject fear’s power to rob their love of its joy and beauty.

So, this blog post is my plate today. I am writing down my fear of failing as a mother – whether through my own imperfection or my inability to control all the evil in the world that can harm my children. It’s out of my control but that does not have to tarnish the joy of loving them. Perhaps, if I learn the discipline of regularly rejecting that fear, it will even help to liberate that love.

May today and every day be a day to throw fear into the fire and instead embrace the joy I have today.

(To learn more about Heather and Cameron’s story, or to help them raise money for Mesothelioma awareness, you can visit their webpage: http://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/lungleavinday )

Each day with them is a reason to smile!

Each day with them is a reason to smile!


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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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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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My “Innocent” Addiction

Hi. My name is Serena, and I’m addicted to my I-phone. I have been clean for about 30 minutes.

OK. With that confession out of the way, I want to apologize to anyone reading this who has had their life ravaged by addiction (be it to a controlled substance, or food, or gambling, or whatever). I know my addiction has not risen to the bar, or dropped me to the depths, that typically moves someone through the doors of a 12-step program. Nor is it so extreme that I expect my husband and children will be seeking consolation in a support group. I do really know that because I spent a year of my MSW program running a weekly spiritually group for homeless addicts in recovery in Trenton, New Jersey. I have seen just how destroyed rock bottom can be, and I’ve never been there. I’ve never even boarded the bus whose final destination is Rock Bottom. I have deep compassion for people who lose everything to addiction and awed respect for those who somehow find the courage to try to climb their way back up from the chasm. I would never make light of their struggles and strengths.

I borrow the language of recovery, however, because I can recognize the patterns of addiction, even in an apparently innocuous form. I see the classic subterfuge when I am hiding in the bathroom with my phone on mute so that the tell-tale sounds of yet another failed attempt to master level 29 of Candy Crush won’t betray the real reason I told the kids I needed “privacy.” I recognize the addict’s twitch when I hear my phone ding its  friendly notice that “I have mail,” and my instant reaction is to move toward the sound, salivating to my own personal Pavlovian bell. I blush at the misplaced priorities when I feel compelled to “just send this quick e-mail” to the random mom is my daughter’s class while that flesh-and-blood daughter lays waiting for me to read her bedtime story (Really? The clarification about next week’s field trip can’t wait 20 minutes?). These symptoms warn me that I am giving control of my time management, and my emotional equilibrium, and most importantly my attention, to an innocent little device that slides so comfortingly into my back pocket.

While I won’t elevate them with the label “rock bottom,” there have been a few moments in the last week that have made it impossible to hush a persistent little whisper in my mind that murmurs “danger, danger, you are losing yourself and your professed moral priorities to the herald of mindless distraction.”

The first incident was last Friday night, while my family was out to dinner at our favorite little restaurant just around the corner. To say it had been a hard week is rather imprecise, since that category can cover so many diverse levels of challenge. We weren’t in Boston (or Darfur, or Syria) so on one level we had no cause for complaint. But, we were dealing with the follow-up steps after a medical crisis in our extended family, and Tyler had faced some frustrations at work over and above the norm, and we had both missed our 7 hour nightly sleep minimum by a mile, so we were feeling drained and exhausted. Time to leave the cooking to someone else, and get away from all the mess in the house, and just enjoy a quiet dinner in familiar surroundings. While Tyler took the Gigglemonster to the bathroom Princess Imagination asked for her sticker dolly dressing book, seizing the opportunity to maximize her time with that coveted entertainment that is generally rationed out for pre-food restaurant moments like this. Rather than just soak in the few moments of restful silence, my hand groped in my purse for its little blue companion, and within moments I was washing my brain with the flow of status updates, political “posters”, and pictures of various cuties from my friends’ progeny that is my Facebook newsfeed. Tyler and the Gigglemonster returned from the bathroom with the news that he had thought about peeing standing up (but opted for the alternative in the end),  but the excitement of the news slipped away as our little man’s fingers locked on the he had left on the table and he was lost in the world of Cars2. I clicked on “just one more” FB post whose picture had caught my attention, when Tyler’s tired voice called me back to the present. “My daughter is playing with her sticker book, my son is on the Leappad, and my wife is surfing Facebook. I’m so glad I took my family out to dinner!” Oops! Sorry. The phone went back to the purse and I resolutely clenched my fingers for the rest of the meal whenever its dinging voice called for their companionship. I have a problem, I told myself. I need to set some limits, and I clearly need to set a better example for my children!

Fast forward to last night. The frequent post-dinner fog hovers over my exhausted mind in the indeterminate hour before 9:00 bedtime, and I have slipped into the wishful assumption that Tyler is moving the kids through the necessary preparations so that I can have 5 minutes of blissful vegetation. (He is actually asleep on the living room floor while the Gigglemonster zooms cars over his stomach and around his head, but his far more excessive sleep deprivation entitles him to this mini-coma.) Enter Princess Imagination, searching the house for a mother who has answered her persistent, eager calls for attention only with vague promises of “in a minute, Sweetie.” “Whatcha doing, Mommy?” asked with the bright-eyed curiosity that I pray she never loses. “Oh, I just want to finish this one post, Honey. I’m almost done.” I’m ashamed to admit that this satisfies her – my little Observer who sees everything around her as an opportunity to inquire and learn doesn’t even bother to ask what the post is about, or what it means to “finish a post” on my phone. That’s old news, and the quicker she stops bugging me the quicker I will finish and give her some attention – she has learned that lesson very well. I finish the sentence and click the little blue button to send my “wisdom” off into the world wide web, but the irony isn’t lost of me. The subject of my post? My two cents on a comment string from the “positive parenting” web group about dealing with toddlers who throw tantrums when rushed through daily tasks. And the irony? In my post-toddler-stage-wisdom I was sententiously preaching about how you need to make sure you build extra time into your routines so that your children can move at their own pace, not yours.

Zing! That was the boomerang of self-righteous superiority circling back to hit me right in the solar plexus.

After bedtime last night my soul was feeling a bit staggered from the force of the dual-blows dealt to my self-image by these two obvious failures to live up to my own standards for decent parenting and partnering. I sought healing in the pages of a book Princess Imagination had inquired about earlier. The Book of Dads is admittedly not written exactly to me, but its humorous and soulful reflections on the other half of parenting might still offer me some commiseration in my failings. The introduction was witty, and real, and just what I was looking for, and I dove into the first essay full of expectation that I had struck on just the right pick-me-up. This particular reflection was from a Dad experiencing the very earliest stages of fatherhood, but his comments reached back to a time before parenting, when he watched his sister mothering her children and was awed by her example:

“…it was her nonstop selflessness that intimidated me, how she gave so much of herself, always, every day, a perpetual gusher of soul and spirit that left me exhausted just watching it.”

I had to stop reading right there. It just hurt too much.

You see, my younger sister said something very similar to me once, as she watched me mothering Princess Imagination a few years ago. This was before the I-phone, but also before I had the luxury of so much work-free time. In fact, this wonder-filled comment about selflessness had come when I was working fulltime and caring for a toddler while pregnant with my second. How was it that just a few short years ago I really did think nothing of devoting every moment of the wake-time I had with my daughter to focusing on her needs, but now, when my daily routine includes 6 whole hours of child-free time, I couldn’t put down my web-conversation with perfect strangers to respond to her call?  I clearly have a problem. I have lost my bearings in the world of easy-access information and entertainment and I am worried that I am wasting the precious time I have to be a mother who is actually sought out by her children. Worse still, I worry that I am setting an example of disengagement and distraction that could trap my children in a lifetime of electronic addiction as well.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

 

And so, I started this post with a confession, and I am ending it with a request. Please help. If you have struggled with this or a similar “innocent” addiction, I covet any advice you can offer to aid in my recovery. And if you are one of the readers who has contact with me in the “real world.” Please hold me accountable. You see, I started thinking about the danger of the technology-vortex last summer! It was going to be my third or fourth post. But other topics kept coming up that were more located in a specific moment. This was something I could blog about at any time. Besides, once I blog about it, I have to start doing something about it, and that might be too hard. But what would be really hard would be to gradually lose the most precious relationships in my life to the pernicious pull of electronic distraction. I would rather live the rest of myself without a single moment of electronic mail, or games, or status updates, than to see the light of excitement just to talk to me fade from my daughter’s eyes.


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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