Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Enoughness

The first week back from holiday travels left me a bit drained.

Actually, to be honest, it is not just the return to reality but also the two weeks of holiday that left me feeling out of balance. Or, perhaps the experience is better described as a distracting sensation of background buzzing that makes me want to shake my head, or maybe shake my whole life, to rid myself of the discomfort.

As I have struggled to find mental and emotional focus, it has become increasingly clear that this distress results from two strangely cooperating, though entirely opposite experiences: Excess and Lack.

Holiday Excess is a familiar theme.

Excess food – stretching my willpower and my digestion (not to mention my jeans).

Excess gifts – three different family celebrations leaving my children with the expectations that new presents should be offered every few days, and at least partially distracting them from satisfaction with the gifts themselves.

Excess luggage – to load into cars, and haul through airports, and cram into overhead bins while my aching back protests.

But the sense of overload merged discordantly with a suffocating sense of lack as well.

Lack of time – to just sit and talk and enjoy the people we travelled 3,000 miles to see.

Lack of home comforts – like my own bed, or a dresser full of sweaters I had not already worn twice in the prior ten days.

Lack of space – for the simple, restorative rest of solitude when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

It’s such a first world problem, I know, to complain about a two-week holiday in California with so many family members whom I love, but … I am a first world woman. The perspective to be able to recognize my privilege did precious little to actually resolve the emotional strain wrapped around me like a poorly insulating blanket as I stepped back into the cold New Jersey winter.

And that return brought its own sources of layered excess and lack. Excess of workload trying to pick up all the dropped threads of my two-week hiatus. Lack of hours in the day to give each task the attention is deserves. Excess of mess in my home after the luggage vomited its contents over every flat surface in the living room and the oozed around the rest of the house over the next few days. Lack of patience for my beloved family members who apparently did not consider this mess a problem, or at least not one they had any role in fixing.

Collapsing into bed each night this week I felt totally out of balance, with a body protesting its exhaustion and a mind already whirring with the to-do list for tomorrow. I needed rest and peace and centering, but even battling to fall asleep felt like a continuation of the tug-o-war. A few nights I whispered a faint prayer, but prayer for me is usually a discipline before it grows into a joy. And it’s hard to be disciplined when you are flailing your arms trying desperately not to fall.

Then came my return to weekly yoga class as I was praying (with or without discipline) for 75 minutes of blessed balance. That is I was incoherently muttering my prayer until I saw the teacher. It was not my beloved Suzette who has taught me the joy of breathing. No, it was Ruth, the G.I. Jane of community yoga. There would be no balance today. That is to say, Ruth would almost certainly push us to try some crazy arm-stand balance pose that would make me want to cry. But this class was not going to be a restorative, re-centering practice.

I wanted to just sit it out. I was tired. I was stressed. I was not in the mood to be pushed. But I have been trying to coast the kids on sticking with their commitments. Sitting on the lounge while they did their kids yoga class would be a little hard to explain.

So I did it. It was really hard. I was sore for three days after.

Something else has lasted even longer than my sore muscles however. That night I learned that balance might actually be about Enough.

The only way I was going to get through yoga that night was by doing Enough, and not too much. If I tried too much I was not just going to be waving my arms, I was going to fall on my head. So I didn’t. I pulled back.

It was so hard to do. I have always been an over achiever. I get far too much of my ego from accomplishments, and I have a driving need to be the teacher’s pet. Whenever there is an invitation to “challenge yourself” I try to take it. The encouragement at the beginning of class to “only do what is right for you today” never feels like it applies to me.

But this time, it did. It was humbling, but it was also balancing. Enough is a really solid place to stand.

I have tried to hold onto this lesson in the days that have followed. I have mostly failed. I said “no” to one request today, but “yes” to too many others. I still feel pummeled by Excess and Lack. I am still wind-milling my arms in a frantic attempt to avoid the plummeting fall. But when I have realized this, I have just repeated the lesson. “That’s OK. ‘Enough’ is hard. You can’t expect to get ‘Enough’ right on the first, or second, or tenth try. Just trying to do ‘Enough’ is Enough for now.”

And so I am writing this post – my one hundredth, a post that I had wanted to be beautiful, and poetic, and perfect – with a fuzzy head that doesn’t feel like I am really saying it all clearly Enough. But I am still writing, and praying, that maybe tonight my Enough will be a gift to someone.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

 


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Lessons in leaves

Autumn is a time for messes. Leaves fall from trees and make messes of lawns. Return to school rearranges schedules and makes messes out of lingering, lazy summer habits. Shifting weather demands widely divergent clothing from one day to the next, making messes of tiny closets forced to fit to two season’s worth of clothes.

And, I suppose, these shifts also tend to make messes in my mind. Much as I tend to live in the future – always planning for what comes next – the actual experience of the shift tends to overwhelm me and disturb me with the reminder that I really have very little control over much of anything.

Today I experienced one such reminder, and also an antidote, at least of sorts.

I spent 90-odd minutes of the afternoon watching a heartbreaking film, with my darling 7-year-old Princess Imagination cuddled beside me. The film was American Winter, and I was watching it because I am a panelist for a screening event tomorrow afternoon and I needed to know its content in order to prepare something intelligent to say about it. The film shares the devastating stories of 8 families who were basically flattened by the Great Recession. They were families experiencing homelessness and hunger, unemployment and foreclosure. They faced moments and months of stress, anxiety, and despair, and while the film also reported some glimmers of hope, there was not a nice, neat happy ending for most of them.

These are stories I have heard too many times, and stories that are in one sense my stock in trade – the reasons I go to work each day as well as the way in which I argue and plead for economic justice. But watching them with my sweet daughter at my side was something new. She kept asking questions – questions that made me stop my analytical assessment of how to frame my response and actually engage the pain spilled out across my screen. Her most frequent question was why, and the aching quaver in her voice spoke both of her innocence and of the innocence I’ve lost.

I was shaken by her horror that such things actually happen to people. That parents skip meals so that their children can eat. That children feel responsible for making sure their mom packs herself a lunch. That widows and their sons have to sleep on cots in shelters, and that families live for a month with no water and no electricity. I was shaken because these things truly are horrible, and once I get past my defense mechanisms as a professional advocate, I still don’t know how to deal with it.

I’ve committed my career to fighting poverty and I work hard at it. I can rattle off my economic arguments against trickle-down theories and list 5, or 10, or 15 policy changes that would make a practical difference for families trapped by poverty. But I don’t know what to do when my daughter’s eyes fill with tears about the pain of strangers. And when her soft, shaken voice whispers into my shoulder her confession that “I’m glad we don’t have to live like that,” my heart must honestly respond “me too.”

And so, my mind and my heart were a bit of a mess this afternoon, when the kids asked permission to go outside after the film. We took our big bucket of chalk out to our ample driveway to draw pictures and little messages of love. Then the mess of leaves strewn across our yard challenged an attack. So, we took up rakes and sallied forth to do battle. We conquered one small corner, and then conceded some of the hard-fought ground to celebratory pile-jumping and complicated maneuvers involving the red wagon as a transport device ill-equipped to move children and leaves in the same load.

It was a simple, silly afternoon and I was poignantly aware of just how fortunate we are to have that chance.

AND – I watched the light dance in my daughter’s eyes more delicately than the leaves she was throwing into the air, and that light lifted the cloud from my own heart.

The mess isn’t gone. My heart is touched anew with the pain that drew me to this work. I’m chafing at my own inability to bring order to an economic system that is leaving millions behind. And yet – the falling leaves call for play. And my guilt won’t help the families who have lost their own lawns. And sometimes, the best thing we can do with a mess is let the children play in it – knowing that, at least, I am teaching them to want enough for everyone.


 

To rediscover joy in curled brown leaves,

To squeal with giggles just to watch them fly

To live a moment wholly free from griefs

Despite a world that tells my heart to cry

 

To rake up leaves then scatter them again

To watch sun set and know we’ll still have light

To feel the stab of joy that’s taught by pain

This blessing and this weight I feel tonight.

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See Me: Day 22 of the April Poetry Challenge

Yesterday I spent several hours cleaning my house. Scratch that. I can not really categorize my frantic activity as “cleaning” because very little dirt was actually relocated from the floors and various surfaces of my house to somewhere more hygienic (like dust rags or the trash bin). Rather I spent those several hours shuffling items (toys, books, dirty dishes, smelly socks) from the various inappropriate surfaces where they were residing (the hallway floor, the fireplace hearth, the couch, the kitchen table) to their actual abodes.

This is by no means an unusual Monday morning activity for me, but this week was a bit different because I had a partner in my tidying efforts: my mother-in-law.

Please do not infer an eye-roll or a long-suffering tone of voice into that last pronouncement.  I LOVE my mother-in-law. She is kind, and fun, and loving, and supportive, and SUCH an amazing Nanna to the kiddos. She always goes out of her way to make me and my family feel comfortable (whether in her house or ours) and makes a very intentional point about not announcing her opinions about how we run our little family unless invited to do so.

All the same…. allowing my mother-in-law to see my home in its frequently untidy state has required a journey of nearly 14 years. You see, her home is always beautiful! Colors are coordinated, and furniture is tastefully arranged, and everything has a place where it lives – and these things do not go visiting beyond the time frame of their active use for a particular purpose. It is a mark of just how much she loves us that she allows my family to disrupt this beautiful order for weeks at a time when we come to visit, strewing matchbox cars and glitter stickers across rooms and cracker crumbs across her floors.

My habit of doing the mad-cleaning-act BEFORE her arrival is so ingrained that my failure to do so last Wednesday actually caused my mother (who was just completing her own visit) noticeable anxiety. This is a significant indicator of my long-standing obsession with presenting a tidy front to my husband’s mother, because…well… I come by my rather slap-dash housekeeping style honestly. That is to say, I inherited it – by either nature, or nurture, take your pick. This is not a knock on my mother. When I was little she was doing much more important things than keeping a tidy house: things like giving an amazing home-taught education to me and my sisters, and then supporting us and putting us all through college after Dad left. Thus, the fact that the mess engulfing my home prompted even her to ask me six or seven times whether “I didn’t want to clean up a bit before (her counterpart) arrived?” is an indicator of just how badly I have always wanted to impress my beloved mother-in-law with my ability to play house.

But, I am happy to report that I am growing up.

(Or, at least, I was really sick last week and had no energy to clean, and so I am claiming this as a moral victory to make myself feel better about the smashing disintegration of my mask). Perhaps it was really not that much of a conscious decision to finally be honest about my housekeeping, but sometimes there is personal development potential even in circumstantial changes.

And so, as I cleaned today and got an outsider’s glimpse into the inadequacies of my approach to household management, I decided to embrace the growth potential of the moment. Hence, today’s poetic offering.


 

See Me

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to look pretty.

I do not want you to see that one stubbornly yellow tooth

that is forever impervious to every tooth-whitening gel.

I do not want you to be able to guess

that is has been six months since my last professional haircut.

I do not want you to notice all the jiggly evidence

left behind on my body by the two precious passengers who started life inside me.

I just want you to see a perfect, cover-girl, air-brushed image of me.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to look competent.

I do not want you to know that clean clothes

sit in a heap on top of my dryer for three days.

I do not want you to see the way I struggle

to manage both my anger and my daughter’s mini-rebellions.

I do not want to admit that I have been writing and posting poetry for the last 22 days,

but I cannot actually define what makes a piece of writing a poem.

I just want you to see a skilled and confident woman, who can balance life and parenting with a flair of creative brilliance.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to actually look the way I am supposed to look.

I do not want to wonder if I look OK

and pass on crippling insecurities

to the little girl who watches my face in the mirror.

I do not want to shove the mess behind the closet door,

and then pretend I do not need my coat,

and shiver in the cold comfort of pride.

I do not want to hold my need for motherly authority

above my daughter’s need for actual mothering,

and my own need for help when I am floundering.

I just want to be the beautiful, competent, inspiring stranger in my poetic imaginings.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I don’t really want to be seen

until I realize that

until I let myself be seen

I will never be

real.


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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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The Gift of Imperfection – My Messy Beautiful

One of the wonderful blogger/authors I follow invited other bloggers to submit posts about our “messy beautiful.” It took me about 10 seconds to identify mine


I have a sharp memory of breaking into hysterical, hiccupping sobs in my Honors English class during the Spring of my Junior year in High School.

The precipitating event was the announcement of a new assignment that was not scheduled on my calendar of homework/study time/SAT prep. My hormonally-unbalanced adolescent emotions, and my sleep-deprived, Type-A mind couldn’t cope with one more stressor and I broke down. I don’t even remember what the assignment was anymore, but I remember my grade once I recovered from my anxious wailing and completed it.

I got an A.

I know this because I always got an A. It was a compulsion that wouldn’t allow me to ever do the minimum, or to live with even one substandard performance. While school was the focal point for this obsession, it controlled the rest of my life as well, trapping me in the self-consuming fire of perfectionism.

If I didn’t do everything right, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was a failure. And I couldn’t let that happen.

Not that my life was really perfect. My teen years were bracketed by my parents’ divorce at age 12, and my father’s suicide at age 19: life-shattering traumas that were completely out of my control. So, understandably, my response was to clamp down on anything I could control… and do it perfectly. That way I could know I was still good enough.

Of course, it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and my life has changed so much. My arena for performance shifted from academics, to career, but more significantly the years brought the self-awareness that perfectionism was my enemy, not my salvation. Time also brought new challenges like marriage and motherhood: utterly important efforts for which no grades are issued. It was disorienting to know the most important work I was doing with my life was not open to reassuring evaluation. My need for perfection was a source of more anxiety than reassurance.

But… tightly cherished coping mechanisms are so hard to release, especially when they mutate into new, more satisfying forms. I could accept that perfection was not a realistic goal. Being right on the other hand – that was something that could give me the security I craved. I pursued masters degrees and career opportunities that reinforced this instinct. As an anti-poverty researcher and advocate, I could stand firm on my moral high-ground and lecture those who were too ignorant or too self-involved to see the rightness of my progressive convictions.

Then came one of those explosive miracles God sometimes uses to knock down our temples built on the sand of self, and rebuild us on a much-more solid foundation.

My husband was offered a career opportunity that excited us both, and we made the decision to move to Italy for three years. Three years of beauty, and discovery, and enjoyment… and also three years to lose all the markers of achievement and forums for proclamation that I so cherished:

  • I resigned from my job – a blessed chance to soak up my children’s early years, and a terrifying loss of my non-Mommy identity.
  • I tried to learn Italian – a lifelong dream to become bilingual that was so much harder, and more painful, and more humiliating than I ever imagined.
  • I lost my connection to my knowledge base – my life contracted to the little matters of cleaning house and school plays, a life I loved that still left me feeling small.

Perhaps what rocked me most of all, however, was the change of church environment. We moved from an incredibly warm and nurturing community to a church of fire and brimstone teaching and precious few relationships. The church selection was a consequence of circumstance and language; the relationships were more our fault, since we weren’t sure we wanted to let these fundamentalist people into our lives. In the end, I did let a few in. I am so glad that I did.

Relationships were the perfect antidote to a spiritual battleground that could have torn me apart.

My controlling need to be right – in my theology, in my biblical interpretation, in my practice, in all of it! – was confronted by preaching just as convinced of a mandate to declare TRUTH without apology. It was a grating combination.

I spent nearly a year squirming in my seat each Sunday night, biting my tongue to hold back rebuttal verses and contextual arguments. It was an effort to suppress my controlling need to always prove I was right, but I didn’t actually engage in these hypothetical debates. The one time I had tried, the preacher acknowledged my right to disagree, but made it clear he wasn’t backing down from his responsibility to preach THE TRUTH.

I felt battered and abused, and sometimes wondered why we were even going to church. In a season of life when all my comfortable markers of success has been stripped away, the last thing I needed was a church that continually questioned the validity of my salvation. I needed a church that would support me and affirm me; I needed a God who had created me with gifts and intelligence, not one who demanded that I reject my mind to prove my faithfulness.

This story could have ended very badly, with a broken woman and an abusive church and the choice to either reject my faith or reject myself.

Instead, I found the miracle of imperfection. In a tiny woman’s Bible study in Basiglio, Italy, I formed relationships with women with whom I deeply disagreed … and those relationships weren’t about being perfect or right. They were about being present. We argued, certainly, and in those arguments I sometimes offered compelling arguments… and sometimes came up short. I sometimes lost the game of proof-texts, and floundered in trying to explain my disagreements. Our frame of reference was so wildly different that in the end all we could appeal to was the one thing we had in common: God.

What a gift it was to realize that my imperfection, my lack of authority and winning arguments, my need to fall back on my trust in the way God has loved and guided me so far… this was my source of security in my faith.When it wasn’t about mastering tough theology in seminary, or leading adult forum at church, or getting it all right, all I could fall back on was “because God.”

Because I know God.

Because I hear God’s voice in the quiet of my soul.

Because even when I get it wrong, I know God gets it right.

Because God made me imperfect on purpose.

Because God is what gives me value.

I have a soft memory of tears welling up from my soul and spilling out in prayer as I sat curled on my bed in my Milan apartment. God I’ve tried so hard and it’s so painful and I feel like I don’t really know anything anymore. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to cope and I need you!

The precipitating event was a fear that maybe the preacher was right; that maybe I’d been wrong all this time; that all my efforts to know, and to master, and to argue my understanding of faith were all efforts in the wrong direction. The insecurity was devastating and I cried out from the pain of my own uncertainty.

I remember exactly the response I received. “I made you just as you are and I want you to use your mind, and your heart, and your voice to know me and to make me known. And I want you to know you won’t always be right. Being right is not what saves you. I do that.”

So, so, so much better than always being right.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!