Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Lion Kisses: Day 8 of the April Poetry Challenge

Yesterday was one of those sweet gifts in parenting when I had the time (took the time) to just stop and enjoy my son, letting him take the lead in play.

Such sweet inspiration…


 

Lion Kisses

 

“Roar and wrestle on the bed,

but always let me pin

you down, and Mommy, when I do

then toss me up again.”

 

A playful squeal, my cublet’s roar

collapses into giggles.

I answer back with joyful sound.

embracing his sweet wiggles.

 

A joy so pure, it nurtures me

and teaches me of love –

of sweet surrender, perfect trust

and what is born thereof.

 

A closeness that speaks not with words,

declaratives or wishes,

but rather beating heart on heart

and lion belly kisses.


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My Mother’s Kitchen Ceiling: Memories of Quiet Love

Today my mom celebrates the completion of another year. 25,933 days of life, most of which have garnered scant attention from me. I think, perhaps, that has always been one of the most generous gifts she gives me as my mother: our relationship has never been primarily about her. Mostly it has been about her giving me the care, support, resources, faith, confidence, and love to lead the best life I can live.

But, for today at least, I want to celebrate her. I want to acknowledge what she has done for me and just why she is the kind of mother and person who is worth celebrating. Happy Birthday Mom!

My Mother’s Kitchen Ceiling

*

I remember the ceiling in my mother’s kitchen

the bumpy surface of mid-century construction

random bits of plaster

shapes in silhouette

that take form in the imagination of a child.

*

My favorite shape was an oblong patch

off-balanced by a bulging side.

My mind’s eye saw there expectation,

a mother waiting for the life inside to soon burst out,

cradling love, protectively, with a sheltering arm.

*

Over the years I spent hours staring at that form,

because it looked down on the sink where my Mom washed my hair.

Lying on the counter,

my back pressed against peeling formica,

I would passively, unthinkingly, accept this act of care.

*

I didn’t like water in my eyes

*

So, Mom would clear the counter for my ever-growing body to stretch out.

She would cradle my head in one hand while testing the water’s heat on her own fingers,

and she would wash my long, thick, often tangled hair

while I stared dreamily up at the ceiling,

letting my imagination explore familiar, abstract shapes.

*

I remember so many ways she made space for my mind to explore:

books she read to me and asked me to wonder about;

projects she created for me to practice my creativity;

time she gave me to play, to learn, to explore

with the confidence that grows when a child is not constantly corrected,

told the right way,

told to follow the rules.

Of course we had rules in our house,

but only the necessary ones to keep us safe and healthy,

the rules to help us grow in care for others and our world.

Not rules to make her job of mothering easier.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever complaining about her lot in life;

how tired she was;

how she never got a break;

how her back hurt.

I don’t remember hearing any of the complaints my children echo back to me.

A witness to how much I must complain.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever interrupting my long, hard-to-follow child stories/

or her not having time to listen/

or her demanding that I wait until she was free to hear/

in painstaking detail/

about my latest discovery, or hurt, or question.

*

What I don’t remember is her distracting me with mindless activities so that she could do her own thing.

No television babysitter,

or “why don’t you go color in the other room,”

or “if you’re bored, I have a chore for you,”

just to keep me busy

so that I wouldn’t bug her as she cooked, or cleaned, or hung-up laundry.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever worrying about money –

although I know she must have done so –

in the lean years when we wore hand-me-down clothes

and got surprise gifts from “Angels Anonymous” to replaced the sagging, stained, green thrift-store couch.

She always found a way to put a full meal on the dinner table,

and if I complained about the frozen lima beans

she never heaped guilt and shame on my plate

by telling me it was all we could afford.

*

I don’t remember her complaining.

I don’t remember her being too busy for me.

I don’t remember her feeding me distractions.

I don’t remember worry.

But I remember the ceiling of my mother’s kitchen,

and I remember the space to dream.

It is a good memory.


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Playground Comparisons

304Yesterday the kiddos and I spent the afternoon at the local park with Gra’ma and my older sister.  Considering that this is our first week back in the States after our move from Milan, the title of this post might suggest that this entry will be a reflection on the differences between US and Italian playgrounds. Although such differences certainly exist, that is not the comparison that struck me during our afternoon. Rather, it was the theme of comparison itself that presented itself to my still-slightly-jetlagged brain as I interacted with and observed my children at play.

Actually, comparing is something I just started doing without any conscious thought at all. You see, there was this middle-aged man – I assumed he was a dad – who was coaching a boy of perhaps 7 or 8 years of age through various playground obstacles and activities. I use the term “coaching” advisedly, because he was setting tasks and providing guidance in an incredibly focused and intentional manner. The first comparison that sprung to mind was an insecure parenting reflex: Wow, that dad is REALLY engaged with his son. He’s giving the boy ALL of his attention. I’m just standing here watching the kids and chatting with my sister. I’m such a lazy parent! Maybe Italian playground disengagement has rubbed off on me?! (OK – there’s a little bit of Italy playground comparisons in here).

My shame-clouded eyes couldn’t turn away from the incredible spectacle of parental involvement. The intensity of the interaction was astounding. And then, as I stared, that intensity became more alarming than awe-inspiring. “Come on! Focus! Don’t look around. Listen to me. There’s the goal, OK. Jump over that. Oh, no. That was too easy. Here, I’ll move it farther out. Now jump!” Yikes, Fellow. Don’t you think that’s a bit much?!  He’s just a kid who wants to play. Play is supposed to be fun, not boot camp!

My momentary spasm of self-doubt eased off to be replaced by a self-congratulating condemnation of this other parent’s model. Good parenting doesn’t mean that I have to be in my kids’ faces every moment at the playground telling them what to do. Just because I’m letting them entertain themselves in a self-directed way doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them. It actually means I’m giving them room to explore and to discover their own capacity. Why, just look at the Gigglemonster! He’s made a new friend and they are creating new games together on the spot. That’s awesome.

Perhaps it was some lingering misplaced need to assert my success as a parent, or perhaps it as just a natural motherly instinct to rejoice in my child’s social skill, but I pointed out the happy twosome to my sister. “He’s amazing isn’t he? Everywhere we go, he just makes friends!”

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

It was a harmless enough comment in most contexts, but in that particular moment it was a rookie parenting move. That is because Princess Imagination happened to be about 5 feet away, well within ear shot. I hadn’t meant it as a comparison, just a celebration of my youngest child’s friendliness, but for a big sister who is often painfully shy, it triggered an episode of reclusive self-doubt. A few minutes later I noticed the backlash of my little boast. Princess Imagination had retreated from the play structure and was standing disconsolately near me, alternately staring at her feet and glancing longingly at her brother playing with his new playmate. Oops!

OK. Maybe I’d been a bit too quick to congratulate myself for my parenting skills, but I could fix this.

Honey, are you feeling sad about something?”

(mute nod)

“Is it because your brother is playing with that little girl, instead of you?”

(another nod, this time with a sniffle)

“I’m sure they would be happy for you to play with them.”

(head tucked in with a quick negative shake. This wasn’t going so well). My sister tactfully removed herself to supervise the oblivious youngsters and I kept trying. I offered advise about what to say to gain entry to the little play group. I regaled her with stories of my own shyness in childhood and the lessons that have helped me overcome it. I called the Gigglemonster over and extracted his invitation for Princess Imagination to join in the game. I talked for at least 10 minutes, but I don’t think I elicited more than 10 words from her in response. Eventually her painful silence defeated me and I just sat with her on the soft, blue rubber ground cover and ached. The pain of watching your child struggle with the same incapacitating shyness that stained your own childhood with lonely shadows is incredibly disempowering. I wanted desperately to make it all better, but all my ideas had met with that sad, stubborn silence.

Thankfully, that silence was my daughter’s own powerful way of communicating to me, once I stopped talking and just let the silence be. In the silence I began to watch her – watch how she was coping with the situation on her own terms, rather than in comparison to her brother – and what I saw was beautiful. In her silence and isolation she had observed the few square feet of her immediate surroundings and found inspiration for a work of art.  A discarded fragment of bright green foam (perhaps from a nerf ball or similar toy) could be easily torn by her nimble little fingers. A miniature pine cone was circled by small cavities just begging to be filled. Within a few short minutes she had constructed a little found-object masterpiece of contrasting colors and textures.

Princess Imaginations playground art work

Princess Imagination’s playground art work

It was beautiful and I told her so. I also finally told her the one thing that could actually help her when she was feeling shy, and excluded, and sad: I told her why she was so special. I didn’t compare her to her social little brother. I didn’t try to give her tips to master the skills that come so easily to him. I told her that she was amazingly good at observing the world, and seeing the things that no one else notices and then seeing how to make their beauty visible to others. She’s been like that since she was a baby and it is an amazing skill that makes it so very fun to spend time with her.

I watched her smile return as she proudly displayed her artwork to Gra’ma. Then, with new confidence, she joined the game of the Gigglemonster and his new friend.

Playing together

Playing together

With the crisis resolved I began to reflect on the problem of comparisons. Namely, they almost unavoidably carry value judgments along for the ride. I couldn’t just observe the dad/coach approach as different than my own and let that be, I felt the need to evaluate myself in comparison. Was I being too passive? Was he being too aggressive? The truth is, I have no idea at all about the motives and history controlling that interaction. Maybe there was a hidden disability that lay behind the routine they were practicing. Maybe he wasn’t the boy’s father at all, but rather an actual coach working with him on a set of skills. I don’t know and I don’t need to because it doesn’t concern me. There are as many different parenting techniques as there are parents, and making comparison for the sake for assigning superiority doesn’t usually teach me much of anything. It only feeds my insecurities or my pride – neither of which need any extra indulgence.

The same applies to my children. Comparisons don’t usually offer any useful life lesson, but the value judgments behind them spur the same shame/pride cycle in them. I know I can’t protect my children from feeling any insecurity. I also can’t (and don’t want to) interfere with their development of appropriate pride in their unique abilities and personalities. BUT, it is clear that this goal is best met by emphasizing what is unique and special about each of them, and they way that they can benefit those around them by using those gifts. How they compare to others should not be the foundation for self-understanding. It is much more important that I reflect for them all the positives I see in each child on her and his own terms, without judgment of others.

With that little lesson in mind I was again feeling satisfied. After all, parenting is nothing if not an exercise in trial and error. The important thing was to learn from the errors. Well, I had learned my lesson and the kids were playing happily so all was well…..

Of course, such a moralistic ending wouldn’t be real life. The happy play lasted maybe 10 minutes before I had a crying Princess on my hands again. The game had hit a snag and she was feeling excluded again. The little playmate was called away to go home then, and the Gigglemonster ran off to play with his Auntie, but Princess Imagination’s tears wouldn’t stop. There was clearly more going on here that a disagreement about which Princess she got to be in a game that was now over. After a little judicious use of silence (I had learned something from our earlier conversation), the heart of the pain came out between sobs.

Mommy, I don’t have any friends now!”

What could I say to that deep fear and pain? I could tell her the truth that I knew she would make new friends once we settle into our house and her new school. I could remind her that she is an amazing girl, and that’s why her friends back in Italy had wanted to be her friends, something that new kids would discover too. I could briefly rehearse for her the reasons that I trust God is directing our steps, based on 36 years of personal experience. I could and did say all these things, and they helped… a little bit.

The truth is, making friends is hard for her. It just is. It wouldn’t matter if I had never uttered the word “shy” around her or never once commented in her hearing about how easily her brother makes friends. As I had told her earlier – she is an observer. It doesn’t require my thoughtless evaluations for her to recognize that she and her brother interact differently with new children, and that she usually makes friends slowly. I probably haven’t been as careful as I should to model non-judgment and non-comparison, but I can’t eliminate that from her environment entirely. And with her seeing eyes and her analytical brain she can draw her own conclusions with no help from me.

So, where does that leave my sweet, sensitive, socially insecure daughter? And where does that leave me as her mother who desperately wants to protect her from pain? The fact is that we are moving back to a home she hasn’t visited since she was 3 1/2 years old, and there are only a few friends she even remembers. She will need to make new friends, and that has not always been so easy for her. Comparisons are irrelevant. It is the difficulty itself that has to be dealt with.

So, what can I do to help her? I can encourage her with reminders of all the friendships she has made in the past. I can build her up by noticing the wonderful, unique, amazing characteristics that are evident to anyone who really pays attention. I can expect great things from her, and from the God who is guiding our steps.

And when the inevitable comparisons come, I can remind her (and myself) not to get hung up on the judgments. She is not better or worse than her brother (or any other child) because of the way she makes friends. She makes friends that way because of who she is, and that “who” is a truly amazing person.

I wouldn't change her for the world!

I wouldn’t change her for the world!


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Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Collaborative Joy

This post hails from the beautiful sun-drenched, ocean-breeze kissed, ever-friendly land of California. The kids and I are temporarily “home,” and aside from a nasty head cold and the absence of the patriarch of our little family (thank you for staying in Milan to work, Tyler, so that we can have this wonderful life! We miss you!), life is good!

One particular manifestation of that goodness occurred yesterday, thanks to the creative thinking of Papa. He suggested a surprise trip for the kids to one of the local outdoor malls. Not to buy anything (other than ice cream), but rather to play in the amazing walk-in water feature that was apparently designed expressly for the purpose of delighting children on hot days. The “water feature,” for lack of a better term, consists of one central fountain/statue with a waterfall flowing down the back, surrounded by 30 or 35 grill-covered water-spouts that shoot up sprays of alternating heights for the pleasure/soaking of the children running over them.

My first thought as we approached this phenomenon of child-entertainment, contemporaneous with the delighted squeals of my children, was that this must be the greatest idea ever! The evidence of at least 40 children (ranging in age from approximately 18 months to 12 years) giggling and shrieking with delight quickly confirmed this initial assessment. When I noticed the designated “stroller parking” in a specially designed niche, the experience was complete. I was really home! I was back in a land where families are expected to do things together, and where, as a consequence, public space designers don’t devote their attention exclusively to one age group or the other. Not only can I look forward to nearly 4 weeks in which every restaurant I go to will have a children’s menu, and almost all public restrooms will have baby changing facilities (we don’t need them any more, but I still consider this a sign of advanced civilization), but even the shopping malls have made a supreme effort to balance the needs of children and parents. Looking around I completely understood the indulgent, relaxed smiles of the accompanying parents and grandparents lounging on the abundant supply of chairs surrounding the play area. This was a good experience for them, not just their children. They could sit in the shade watching the little ones’ delight in a context that didn’t require a separate trip and an expenditure of entertainment cash. They could divide their time – one adult staying to supervise while another stopped into a shop to make a purchase. I imagine at least one of the solo parents in evidence had probably negotiated whine-free shopping time with the kiddos: “If you can give Mommy 15 minutes to try on shoes, we’ll play in the water fountain before we go home.” Although there was no evidence of it that day, the parents could even join in if they so wished. In fact, when we go back, I think I just might!

For my American readers, this soliloquy might seem a trifle exaggerated, so perhaps I should explain. Two days before departing on this visit I received a survey from an English-speaking mom’s group in Milan. The survey was trying to collect information on baby/toddler/child-friendly resources in the area. The survey listed nine categories for which they were collecting information, and I struggled to produce answers for even four. For example: “restaurants offering healthy children’s menus” — well, since the only restaurant I have ever encountered in Italy that offers any children’s menu is McDonalds, and I don’t think Happy Meals qualify as healthy… sorry. “Restaurants that are otherwise child-friendly — including high chairs, play cots, diaper-changing facilities, etc.” — we have sort of re-adjusted our definition of child-friendly since moving to Milan. That now means restaurants that understand to bring out the children’s plate of pasta in bianco (plain pasta, no sauce) as soon as it is ready and that don’t give you dirty looks about the excess noise and mess that accompanies young children. “Facilities that provide private space for breastfeeding mothers” — I used to get strange looks for covering myself with a nursing wrap while breastfeeding in public because most mothers just whip it out … there is no perceived need for a private space. I have accepted the differences about how things are done in my new home, but I am still aware that my American assumption that we will do most things together as a family (rather than leaving the children with a sitter or the grandparents when I go out) means that the world we go out to will not be precisely designed to meet our needs. I can live with it, but it is oh, so nice to experience the alternative. So, in keeping with the patriotic theme of this particular week in the year, I LOVE AMERICA!

The gush of appreciation that welled up in my soul as I settled into my chair, however, was followed immediately by a surge of anxiety. If my quick guesstimate was right, there were significantly more children running around the water fountain than there were spouting water jets. This was a recipe for conflict. I braced for the inevitable collision when two tikes made for the same spurt of aquatic fun, or the cry of complaint that “the girl in the pink isn’t sharing!” In their natural state, children have this tendency to be selfish hedonists. We, as parents, try to moderate this intrinsic quality, but that effort takes years of consistent struggle. I was certain that we would have a problem within five minutes of entering the fun zone.

But the minutes passed and I heard nothing but laughter and exclamations of excitement from my children. Five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes, and no disputes. My anxiety slowly ebbed into incredulous amazement. There was no fighting. It wasn’t just my two little devilish angels. NONE of the children were fighting! They were just running and jumping and waving their arms wildly through the spray, and miraculously NOT hitting each other! In fact, in nearly an hour of water play I observed only a single glancing collision and one mild confrontation. The Gigglemonster had gone to investigate the reason that three children were standing crouched over a temporarily dormant geyser, and “the boy in the Lightening McQueen pants” had apparently told him to mind his own business. He shared this indignity with me, and then went back to playing. That was it!

If by nothing else I was flabbergasted by the apparent spatial awareness being displayed by my two little ones. I have been toiling literally for years to try to adequately explain the concept of not pushing past people when you are in a confined space (i.e. – when exiting an elevator, walking on the stairs, going through a door, etc.). We have talked about courtesy & kindness; we have evaluated the unnecessary nature of injuries that sometimes result; we have applied the Golden Rule and Jesus’ teaching on “the last shall be first” (that’s the only thing that has made any discernible impact so far, and it’s usually followed by a proclamation that “I’m really first, because the last shall be first.”). Despite all my parenting efforts, they still seem oblivious to the space being occupied by other people’s bodies when they have a destination in sight. And yet, in that chaotic context where their entire attention seems riveted on the water spurting from the ground, I saw my children flawlessly veering from their set trajectory to avoid a collision, and even pausing in their headlong race to allow another child to cross their path. This was nothing short of miraculous!

Then, disaster! The water spurts stopped. For some reason (likely water conservation, given the drought) the sprays shooting up from the ground took a break, leaving the horde of water-mad children with only the single waterfall flowing down the back of the statue. As the elimination of their amusement dawned in their disappointed faces I anticipated the mad rush of squirming, slippery little bodies endeavoring to claim their spot under the one remaining flow. I perched on the edge of my seat, ready to jump up and rush to the rescue if the scrum produced casualties. But, my vigilance was unnecessary. A good number of children abandoned the game now that the geysers had disappeared, but around 25 remained, gathered in the general vicinity of the waterfall, and then… took turns!

Again, perhaps my expectations have been a bit jaded by my last two+ years in the land of the anti-queue. I have become accustomed to the expectation that a new register opening at the grocery store immediately draws shoppers in inverse relationship to how long they have been waiting – since those at the end of the line can most quickly and easily shove their carts into the new line. I have learned that the only way to prevent new arrivals from jumping ahead of me in the line to enter the subway car with my stroller (and then plant themselves squarely in my way as I try to maneuver through the narrow opening) is to ram that wheeled conveyance into their shins or run it over their toes.  I have drawn too many blank stares when I have attempted to politely suggest that people respect the line of people waiting to weigh their produce rather than just shouldering their way to the front. Italy has cost me my faith in the sacredness of the line.

But, even in America, to see such polite and considerate group behavior from a mass of frolicking children?! That really seemed amazing. And so, as I watched my suddenly considerate offspring waiting patiently for their dousing, and then quickly moving out to provide space for the next child, I pondered the motivation for this consideration. I found it in their smiles.

JOY! I was watching a group of children bursting and bubbling with joy. And this joy melted away the petulant selfishness that too often mars the faces of those from one to 92. The fun was too marvelous to be spoiled by bickering and shoving for position. Much better to watch the enjoyment of their peers and build their own anticipation of how fun it would be to dunk themselves under the spray. What is more, the children weren’t looking out for number one and the rest be damned, because the rest were part of their joy. The water sprays would have been fun if Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster were the only children present, but they were much more fun with everyone else. The joy was contagious, it was exponential. Each squeal of delight from one child drew an echo from two or three others. They were reveling in the group experience and in that joy they found unity.

That realization was sweet with just a tinge of sadness. Clearly, our world is in great need of more unity. From the wars that ravage too many countries to list, to the economic exploitation and crisis that mar nearly every life on the planet, to the renewed anger and name-calling that have been stoked by last week’s historic Supreme Court decisions, we are a broken and divided species. I try to protect my little ones from that truth to a large degree, but the truth is that some of their playmates from yesterday will eventually land on the other side of some issue or resource that they hold dear, and then where will be the joy?

And so, I have written this story as a reminder to myself, and to them, of what they are capable of. I hope I will remember to pull this out when life is no longer so simple for them and they are struggle to know how to love their enemies. The child with whom they have to share the water is not really an enemy, and yet in knowing how to share their joy with this playmate, they are demonstrating their understanding of the ultimate unity of humanity. We are all better off, we share more joy, when we see the needs of others as well as our own, and work together to meet all needs. True joy is not maximizing one’s own joy. True joy is sharing it.

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Sharing with a little one

Sharing with a little one

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"It says 'No Climbing'!" Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

“It says ‘No Climbing’!” Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

families welcome!

families welcome!

"My bum is all wet!"

“My bum is all wet!”


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Chaos and Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Good Enough VS. Good Guilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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