Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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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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The Privilege of Needs

My son had a bit of a meltdown tonight at bedtime. If you were to ask him this was because he was hungry and mean Mommy wouldn’t let him have more food. I have a slightly different version, which recalls that an hour earlier he was sitting at the dinner table in front of plentiful dishes of food whining that I was making him eat food he didn’t want. Despite his protests, that particular battle of wills was won by the parent brigade and he eventually ate a reasonable helping of dinner, although missing out on dessert due to the time it took to eat and the general drama involved.

Needless to say, the bedtime recurrence of drama was not actually about an empty stomach and was actually about petulance that his Daddy and I are taking a harder line on whining and general stubbornness.

Still…. when my four-year-old — consummate expert that he is in the art of conjuring big-glistening-tears to roll down soft-quivering-cheeks — peered through thick, wet eyelashes to moan “but I’m so hungry!”… IT GOT TO ME. I defy any mother to hear her child cry about hunger (real or imagined) and remain unmoved.

It was genuinely hard for me not to cave. My mind flitted downstairs to the kitchen, where a variety of quick, filling, and reasonably nutritious snacks were there for the taking. I started to mentally flicking through them. What could I offer that he would accept and then could eat quickly so as not to overly delay teeth-brushing?

But I stopped myself. Food was not what my son needed from me – boundaries were. He needs me to teach him important life skills like self-control, and good manners, and operating within a recognized and consistent routine. These skills will allow him to develop into a balanced adult who is able to form positive relationships and see himself as competent to organize his life and to meet his needs in appropriate ways.

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramide

imagine borrowed from http://www.simplepsychology.org

In my social work training the theories of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow where a central theoretical framework, particularly his “hierarchy of needs.” This theory identifies five primary levels of human need – physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization – and posits that these needs must be met in ascending order. In other words, physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter) are the foundation on which others must build. These needs must be met first before the psyche can spare attention for needs that are further up the list.

On Maslow’s hierarchy, the needs I am focusing on with my son at the moment are overlapping the third and fourth levels. The relational skills I am trying to teach him are important for his ability to meet his own social needs, and the lessons about his responsibility to control his decisions within a known routine are important to his development of a sense of mastery and self-esteem.

In the midst of tonight’s bedtime battle, however, a contrast of needs struck me with staggering force. When his shaking little voice spoke those three little words — “I’m so hungry” — I suddenly understood my own privilege in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before.

What would it be like for this conversation to actually be about food?

What would it be to see tears rolling down my son’s face, and to know that they were genuine, that his little belly really was grumbling, and to know there was no food in my kitchen to fill it.

Even the thought makes my hands start shaking and stings the corner of my eyes with hot tears. I really don’t think I can even imagine what that must be like.

But I know far too many women know that feeling all too well. I have met some of them. Some I have seen across the gulf of charity – handing them some money, or a bag of food at the food pantry. Some of them I have met in the course of research – sitting in their living rooms or in local libraries, talking about their struggles so that I could try to give them voice in reports that might gain the ear of a decision-maker. I have seen them as people. I have seen them as mothers. I have seen them as equals.

But I have never before understood my own privilege in contrast to their stories in quite the way that I did tonight.

I do not imagine that this realization makes any difference whatever for the hundreds of thousands of mothers who are putting their children to bed hungry tonight. If they had the time to read these musings they would probably sound irrelevant… I hope not offensive. But those mothers are doing much more important things than reading my blog. They are using all of their resources, and ingenuity, and over-taxed energy to meet their children’s basic needs, because those have to come first.

I don’t offer these musings for them. I offer them for the rest of us, especially those for whom it is so easy to discount the reality of privilege. Privilege is not a political idea or a word on a pyramid-shaped chart that social work students have to learn in their theory class.

Privilege is knowing it’s really about something else when your son tells you he is hungry.


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Waiting for the Bus: A Poem for Everyday Motherhood

With our return to the States, my little family has been introduced to a classic American ritual: the twice daily wait for the school bus.

Not only for Princess Imagination, but also for me, this is an entirely new experience. Having had a relatively unique elementary education in the comfort of my own home, my limited experience with school buses had been transportation for summer camp day trips. These memories are fuzzy: mostly involving the slightly sweet smell of childhood sweat, the uncomfortable sensation of legs in short cotton shorts sticking to vinyl seats, and the awkward anxiety of hoping to find a seat buddy who would be friendly to the shy, gangly girl who didn’t really know anyone.

Thankfully, Princess Imagination is forming much different associations with the school bus. The news that she would finally get to take the bus to and from school (rather than suffering – apparently – under the chauffeuring of Mommy) was one of the greatest benefits of moving back to the States and a new school. In her mysterious world, the chance to take the school bus is unaccountably afforded a rank of high esteem. She had repeatedly begged for this privileged transportation to her expat school in Italy, but that service came with a heavy price tag and I liked the chance for regular contact with the place and people who filled her day, so her pleas were emphatically refused. When we finally arrived in the US only to be marooned temporarily in out-of-district transitional housing, she visibly chaffed at the delay. It was unclear whether the chance to take possession of her fondly remembered “flower room” and be reunited with all her toys from the overseas shipment, or the chance to finally start taking the bus, was the more desired objective.

Now that this elusive goal has finally been grasped, she is glorying in the possession of it. No longing for a bus buddy for Princess Imagination. Despite my perpetual fears that my shy, introverted daughter will be haunted by my own childhood traumas, she has had no trouble making friends for the circuitous ride through the neighborhood. I hear more about these girls than most of the children in her class; each day her backpack is crammed with little notes and art projects they have made together on the ride; and today, when one of these girls was absent, she came home with a present from an entirely new friend whom she had never met before today but who was apparently captivated enough by my sparkling daughter to give her a color-change pencil.

Clearly, the bus is living up to all of her glorious imaginings.

My feelings for the bus, however, are not so sanguine. I am no longer fearing that she will endure the painful social awkwardness I faced. I am not suppressing panicky anxiety at the thought of my sweet baby stepping out of my protective sphere of influence (Little Miss Independent’s confident attitude – and the strong safety record of the school buses – make any such fears feel absurd). I am not even missing the sense of connection to the world where she spends her days (thanks to a teacher who is highly accessible via e-mail and several chances to get involved in class parties and PTA activities in the first few months). No – none of these typical and understandable associations with bus transportation are polluting my pleasure at the arrangement’s convenience and the satisfaction my daughter finds in them.

Instead, I am struggling with a banal but nevertheless alarming frustration. I hate waiting for the bus. It’s boring. It’s this weird, brief interlude in my day that gets under my skin and itches just enough to make me realize how pampered and self-centered my life can become in the blink of an eye. So this poem is both my confession, and my appeal to all the other moms out there who struggle to find meaning in the moments of daily drudgery.

Five Minutes

It’s only five minutes to stand on my driveway,

eyes fixed on the curve of the road;

squinting to read the black, block numbers in relief on school bus yellow;

the number that will distinguish her bus from all the others that lumber past;

alert for one whose speed slows just a bit more than the bend demands,

for the signal of my relief: the slow, quiet flash of yellow lights.

*

It’s only five minutes to stand in the cold, or the sunlight

not seeing the evergreen trees that line the drive;

not thanking them for the oxygen they give to fill my lungs;

not noticing how the fresh, clean air has cleared our habitual winter sniffles;

not marveling at the play of light and wind that make

the small ice crystals dance across the white expanse of winter lawn.

*

It’s only five minutes to shuffle in empty irritation,

without activity to keep me moving,

without tasks to keep accomplishing,

without the comforting jolt of anxiety to keep pushing me to do,

without the distraction of a broom, or a box, or a phone

that can fill any empty space in my soul with the command to attend to outside demands.

*

But…. I could be five minutes to breathe in the beauty of my surroundings;

eyes stroking the soft and sharp lines of snow on pine;

ears dancing to the rhythm of small animals rustling in the dense brush across the road;

senses drinking in the intoxicating scent of freshness;

skin relishing the chill that very soon will be removed with jackets

as our warm, dry home embraces me and my daughter together.

*

It could be five minutes to anticipate my daughter’s return;

to savor the sweet curve of her smile in my mind,

to know how it will float down the steep, bumpy steps

propelling her toward me with news of her day,

and also to remember the content of her daily schedule so that,

if her words lull, I can be ready with questions that will speak of my eagerness to know.

*

It could even be five minutes to commune with my God;

to contemplate the beauty surrounding me, and it’s source;

to appreciate the provision of this space to stand and wait;

to know, to really know, that I am blessed;

and to allow my heart to well and overflow

with thankfulness that changes simple moments into shining drops of time.

*

But it is only five minutes;

and so, most days, I stand and wait in shuffling impatience,

straining against inactivity,

made jittery by wasted energy that can’t be bothered

to fill up five minutes

with meaning.

 


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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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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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Encountering My Privilege

Today brought me an unexpected encounter with my own privilege that has left me floundering for an adequate response.

The day started out normally enough. I woke up a bit late because of yet another epic battle with the Gigglemonster about going to bed and staying asleep in his own bed all night (we are into week two of this new phase and it is leaving Tyler and I both exhausted, frustrated, and completely at a loss for how to master this new emergence of the monster side of our son’s personality). Consequently it was a bit of a rush to get the kids dressed and ready and out the door in time for school. We missed my target departure time by 11 minutes, but we still managed to enter the school just before the fateful hour when they close the main gate and the only entry available is through the shame-shrouded side door.

From there I waved a greeting to a few moms from the Gigglemonster’s class who were all looking very sleek and Milanese on their way to grab un buon caffe, and despite their warm friendly smiles I was painfully aware of my unwashed hair and muddy jogging shoes . Then I was off for my training run. I am signed up to “race” in the Stramilanino in 4 weeks. It is a non-competitive 10 kilometer organized run through the heart of Milan, and it is only a race in the very loosest sense. In my case the goal is simply to run/jog the whole way (completely disregarding time), but the fact that until a few weeks ago I had never in my life run even 5 kilometers in one go means that I am in training. Today the goal was 6.4 kilometers (4 miles for all my American friends) and it was my longest run to-date. I had mapped a circuitous course that took me from the school through some of the quieter neighborhoods of Southeastern Milan and up around Porta Romana to finish up at my own front door (I’ll walk back to school the afternoon where my car is conveniently waiting the drive the kiddos home). The run started out a bit labored with the cold air hitting my morning-fogged lungs, but my route offered lots of sunshine and I soon warmed up. I had my ridiculously over-priced but oh-so-wonderful running jacket (thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law’s thoughtful Christmas shopping), and its convenient sleeve pocket nestled my i-phone so that it could deliver Eye of the Tiger and other suitable exercise inspiration via earphones to my waiting brain.

I managed the run in 46 minutes and didn’t even huff too much on the long hill over the train tracks, and I felt good. I decided to run a few extra meters to the end of the block where I could cross over to one of my all-time favorite spots in Milan – the Forno Ambrosiano bakery. In addition to their focaccia (which truly is ambrosia), the Carnevale and Lenten seasons bring an additional high-calorie indulgence that is worth every extra pound: tortelli vuoti. The closest corollary that I can describe for those who have not tasted this magical confection is donut holes, but those are only a poor shadow of this greasy, sugary goodness. The bakery offers two other varieties (filled with crème custard or nutella), but our family always opts for the vuoti (meaning literally empty – so that there is nothing to compete with the taste of melt-in-your mouth sugar-coated fried batter balls). Understandably, this variety usually runs out first, and thus my decision to head to the bakery first, rather than stopping home for a much-needed shower. As I sprinted down the last 100 meters of sidewalk I passed Madonna, and began an internal dialogue about how to approach my return journey to my front door.

I should explain that Madonna is a woman who begs on the sidewalk  just outside the coffee shop that is 6 doors down from my building. I first got to know her about 4 or 5 months ago, when I asked her name as I dropped a small bill into her cup. In one of my college sociology classes a professor encouraged our class of generally liberal, faith-minded idealists to consider how to make our charity more humanizing. She suggested that one of the worst things about extreme poverty is the way that it cuts you off from social interaction. Those who are reduced to begging for change generally meet two reactions – either averted eyes that pretend not to notice them, or eyes that watch the small donation of loose change into their cup, but never make contact with their own. Professor Alexander didn’t insist that we should give to every panhandler we encountered, but she said that if we do choose to give, we should try to do so in a way that makes a human connection. Make eye contact, ask their name, offer an encouraging word, if time permits offer to buy them a sandwich and sit with them while they eat. Give them more than just loose change – give them the respect they deserve as a fellow child of God.

I’ve always remembered that advice and I try to put it into practice when possible. I certainly don’t give to every panhandler I see, and I can’t claim to have any admirable system or criteria for deciding when I do. Most often it has mostly to do with how easily I can access a suitable denomination of coin and how much of a rush I am in at the time. However, on my way home from school one day in late September or early October I dropped a contribution into Madonna’s cup and made eye contact with a smile. Her responsive smile was enveloping, and she offered an enthusiastic thanks. We had a brief conversation, hampered by the limited Italian that is our only common language (she is from Romania), but eased by the responsiveness of her eyes and smile. It was a moment of humanity, and since then I have felt a certain connection with Madonna. I won’t claim that there are never times I pass without offering her a contribution – when I am balancing shopping bags and whining children or when I am completing or starting a training run and I have no money with me, but I always try to at least make eye contact and smile, and she does the same, usually with a friendly “Ciao, Bella” as well.

Then came the run-up to Christmas and all the business and activity that involves. I had not talked with Madonna for a week or two with all my rushing about, and I had been thinking (with a degree of self-satisfaction I am ashamed to admit) that the next time we met I would ask her what her two children would like for Christmas. I imagined the opportunity to take Princess Imagination on a shopping trip to pick out Christmas gifts for her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and what a great chance that would be to reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach her about generosity and passing on the blessings we have received. When I stopped one morning to hand Madonna a small bill, however, the interaction did not go as I had planned. She held my hand in both of hers, looked into my eyes with a look of desperation and explained that she had been hoping to see me. Her son had told her that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to go home to Romania to see their family, but she couldn’t afford the tickets. She had asked everyone she could, but she was still short by a substantial sum. The price was not really that high in the context of my life — perhaps the equivalent of two dinners out for Tyler, myself and the kids — but it was certainly more than I had ever given to someone on the street.

I was taken aback. Suddenly my warm and fuzzy sense of generosity was replaced by discomfort and even fear. Was the story true? Had the relationship I felt we had been building been genuine, or was it just part of a long-con to get a large chunk from the naïve American? I was fairly sure I had been conned by another “young mother” a few months back for a smaller, though not insignificant, sum and I felt wary. My instincts to help clashed with all the stereotypes of class barriers and I did not want to be taken advantage of. I told her I would have to think about it, which I did.

I thought. I anguished. I avoided walking along that stretch of sidewalk for over a week to prevent any need to confront her searching eyes again.  And finally I prayed. I came to the decision that I wanted my life to be more characterized by love than by fear, by compassion than by distrust. It was money we could spare, and ultimately I believed she did have need. Whether the money was really to pay to take her and her children home to Romania or not, it didn’t really matter. I gave her the money a few days before I departed for my astronomically-more-expensive trip home to California (paid for by the company thanks to a generous expatriate contract), and I felt wonderfully at peace. I had no doubt that I had made the right decision, and the tears shining in her eyes as she clasped me in a hug of thanks were a very special Christmas present that confirmed my faith in the value of humanity in all human contacts.

When I returned to Milan in January I did not see Madonna for a few weeks. When I gave her the gift she had said something about perhaps not seeing me again if she could find a way to stay in Romania (or at least, I think that’s what she said – our communication is imperfect). I wondered whether that had happened. Perhaps she had found work, or her husband had, and they had been able to abandon the failed hope of a better life in Milano. I was glad to imagine that possibility for them, but I have to admit that I was also glad of the prospect of not facing her beseeching eyes again.

You see, what Professor Alexander had not talked about when she encouraged us to make human connections in our charity, was how that raises all the complications of human relationships. Issues of trust, and selfishness, and relative power, and judgment arise when you acknowledge someone else’s humanity. In the particular relationship of informal benefactor and recipient these dynamics twist every interaction into a distorted parody of the more natural interactions of our daily lives. We had no natural point of connection other than the passing of money and there were no rules or standards for how to govern that exchange. What was enough? What was too much? What right had I to control how my donations were spent? What expectation could she have that she could ask a large sum from me again? Once our exchange had gone beyond the occasional coins or small bills, there was an increased stake in our relationship, and I was quite happy to avoid that prospect. And so, I wished Madonna the best in Romania.

And then she appeared again. Her smile for me was warm, but I felt something else behind it (whether genuine or born from my anxiety I am not sure). She asked when I would be walking by again. She had made a video for me back in Romania, to thank me for my help and to show me where her family lived. She would bring it if I would tell her when. We made a date a few days out when I knew I would be able to walk down that short stretch of sidewalk, and I left. When that day arrived I felt oddly hesitant. Feet that have newly accustomed themselves to run several miles at least 3 or 4 times a week felt heavy and reluctant to traverse just 50 meters of pavement. But finally I ran out of other tasks that needed to be accomplished and I made the walk. Madonna smiled her same welcoming smile as I approached and chatted in her friendly sing-song voice. At first she did not mention the video. Rather she asked about the kids, and my trip home. She then inquired about my faith. I confirmed that I am a Christian and she said she had a feeling – something about me just shone. She was not a Christian herself, but her mother in law was, and she saw the same love in me. It was a lovely compliment, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever received, but it laid another weight on the burden of responsibility I had grown to feel toward her. Now my actions toward her reflected not just on myself, but explicitly on God as well. I hoped even more fervently to be spared any further obligation that might come with her promised video. Perhaps she had forgotten to bring it? Perhaps I would be spared that tangible, physical tether to her need? But as I made to pass on she dug a paper-wrapped DVD out of her bag and handed it to me with a little explanation. The video showed her home and her family in Romania – so that I could see where she had gone. And, if I wanted to do something more to help her, or if I wanted to show it to my friends to see if they would like to help, she would thank me deeply.

I left with a heart of lead. My fears were realized. The first request was being followed by more. I couldn’t just reach down my benevolent hand in a gesture of humanity and then retract it, with no sense of continued obligation. I was now her benefactor, with the potential (at least in her eyes) to identify still other benefactors as well. The video sat unwatched on a shelf in my house for several weeks. The thanks it promised to give felt tainted by the expectation of further gifts, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

So again, I avoided that stretch of pavement during Madonna’s normal hours, or I loaded myself down with parcels or schedules that did not allow for extended conversation. She occasionally asked if I had watched the video, but I would explain I had not yet had time, and then rush on with my busy life.

Until today. Today, as I walked home from the bakery toting my bag full of tortelli vuoti, I lectured myself with Professor Alexander’s words about humanity, and with the reminder that my life reflects not just on me, but also on my Savior and Lord. So I stopped and talked to Madonna, after handing her today’s contribution. She remarked on my running gear and I explained about my training, telling her I had never done anything like this before, but now I had the time. She was complimentary and enthusiastic, as she always is. I began to feel a bit of the ease return to our interaction. As I made to leave she asked again if I had watched the video, and I smiled my reassurance. “Oggi” I promised – today. After all, if I had the time to train for a 10K run, certainly I had 10 or 15 minutes to watch a video.

So that is what I did. I did my post-run stretching on my very expensive, double-thick yoga mat, laid out in my spacious company-financed apartment and watched her DVD on my big flat-screen TV.

The contrast took my breath in a way that no run ever could. Her home in Romania looks like an abandoned farm building. Only one room has a fully intact roof and walls, and it is furnished with one hutch, one chair, and a large couch. In it are seated her two children, her sister-in-law and her three children, and her mother-in-law. The only other “room” in the house has gaps between the walls and the rafters and thatching that make-up what there is of a roof and contains only large piles of fire wood and a rudimentary kitchen with some cupboards and what I assume to be a wood-burning stove. There is no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing.

She also explains that her children do not go to school because they cannot afford it. Her 6-year-old could presumably go to public school but that requires money for books, for school meals, for clothes, and for other fees. They do not have any money, so he cannot go to school. She does not say it, but it is an unavoidable conclusion that he will be trapped forever in the same poverty he lives in now, without even the basic education with which his father cannot find work.

Madonna’s sweet voice and smile narrate the film, and it is not a hard sell. It is just an account of her life, and her expression of gratitude for what I have done to help her. She and her children smile at her friend’s video camera and wave good-bye with a chorus of “Ciao Bella.”

And I sit in shock. How could I have just stood in front of her in my expensive jogging paraphernalia, holding a bag of confections with no nutritional value, chatting about the luxury of training for a race, and finally condescended to watch her thank you video after a month of procrastinating. I took a minute for self-recrimination before I moved on to the even harder question. What could I do now?

Her need is desperate. There is no doubt of that. She and her husband came to Milan to seek a better life for their children, but without work their poverty here is still desperate, even if their home here might have complete walls or electricity. But what can I do?

I have only two resources. The first is money. But the money they need to really change their lives is far beyond what I can provide. Tyler and I are certainly comfortable, but we don’t have enough excess to permanently support another family.

The other resource is knowledge. But I don’t seem to have the kind of knowledge that can make a difference. I don’t have any way to connect Madonna’s family to more sustainable support. Tyler and I have no connections that can offer her husband employment, and I don’t have the least idea what social supports exist for her in this embattled and bankrupt state. As someone whose career (prior to this move) was in the fields of anti-poverty research and advocacy, that ignorance is humiliating, but difficult to remedy. In any such effort my language barrier combines fatally with the confusion and opacity that characterize the Italian social system, which Italian friends have told me make the system nearly impossible for even native Italians to navigate. The election held in Italy over the last two days has apparently decided almost nothing and the national and European economic pressure is certainly not the context for expansive relief programs for undocumented immigrants, so I doubt any of the parties of coalitions have any solutions in mind for Madonna.

There is nowhere to look for a solution to Madonna’s problems, and I am left sitting on my comfortable couch, in my warm apartment, typing on my laptop computer about how I don’t know what to do with this juxtaposition of privilege and pain. I know there are lots of social arguments out their about personal responsibility — not having children if you can’t support them; taking the legal road to immigration if you want to work; doing whatever it takes to earn an honest living — but I can’t blame her as a way to escape from her pain. She’s a human being. Her children are innocent victims of an impossible situation. They will probably never experience the comfort I take for granted every day. And I don’t know what to do about it.

And so, I have written this entry. It doesn’t have a pithy conclusion where I tie it all up with my moral of the story. It doesn’t chronicle any momentum decision I have made that I think worthy of sharing. All it does is give witness to the injustice of the contrast between my life and Madonna’s. If I can do nothing else, at least I can give witness.