Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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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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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!


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Made-up Freedom: On Why Both I and My Daughter Need Me to Break the Chains of Beauty Ideals

At church this morning our adult sunday school was discussing various approaches to the Lenten fast (the practice of either “giving something up” or committing to some new discipline for the 40 days of Lent). I won’t rehearse the whole rich discussion here, but one particular idea struck a chord with me.

It was the story of a mother with two young daughters who gave up looking in the mirror.

I think some of our group members found this idea a bit strange as a way of preparing one’s heart for Holy Week, but I immediately knew this was a profound thing to do, as both a woman and as a mother.

First, as a woman:

One of the major implications of this decision immediately struck even the men in the group. “How would she put on her make-up?” I think all the women probably knew the answer to that question: she couldn’t. To say nothing of the likelihood of serious eye injuries from wildly waving mascara wands, there would be no point in the effort. Without a mirror, any make-up application would be virtually guaranteed to be disastrous. Better to go bare than to risk lopsided cheekbones, wobbly lip color, and the dreaded poorly blended foundation line along the jawbone. Obviously, the woman in question is going without make-up for these seven weeks.

This drew my mind to the no-make-up internet trend of the past few months. It’s a theme that suddenly started popping up in my Facebook feed around early February. First there was the cancer awareness challenge. The idea was to invite (i.e. challenge) friends to post a no-make-up selfie to their own FB wall and then make a donation to help fund cancer fighting research. Unfortunately, the donation part got a bit scrambled (I had to do a bit of research off of Facebook about the point of the whole thing to even hear about the donation element), but there were sure a lot of bare faces in the newsfeed. I supposed that even with the missed opportunity, the effort was still positive since it came with a general celebration of embracing one’s inner beauty without the façade.

Then, there was the frighteningly powerful Sacred Scared series on Momastery, which hosted 10 guest bloggers sharing, in short but compelling confessions, the deepest fears that they had to face in doing work they feel called to do. As if the stories weren’t exposing enough, they also had to post a make-up free picture of themselves. The idea was the kind of vulnerability that strips fear and self-doubt of its power and encourages us all to be real and carry on even when we are a mess. I’ll be real and admit that many of the posts had me in tears (even in awkward public places like restaurants).

Finally, I clicked on a link to a hysterical Tedx talk by Tracey Spicer, who catalogued all the crazy things women do to enhance our appearance, cited statistics on the thousands of hours this steals from our lives, and then proceeded to “strip-off” the make-up, the bouffant hair, the figure-flattering dress, and the three-inch heels to encourage a new wave of feminism that will reject society’s unfair expectations for women’s appearances.

I nodded my head, and laughed at the absurdity, and for about a day and a half I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the simple reason that I’m not addicted to make-up. I spend far less than the reported average of 27 minutes a day on personal grooming, and at least half the pictures taken of me in recent years have been make-up free since most days I never put any on. Time for a little gentle pat on the back, Serena. Wow – You’re so liberated from societal pressures! You avoid so much wasted time! You’re so much more honest about how you really look than the average Western woman

Then, I realized two things:

  1. The fact that I wear make-up only infrequently has not been an intentional moral decision, nor has it marked an effort to reject repressive social pressures. Instead, it has resulted from a combination of historical forces and competing priorities. Historically, I never developed the make-up habit because a) I like my sleep, and b) I had good enough genes (at least through my 20s) that I could get away with leaving with house with the same face I rolled out of bed with. Then, with my thirties came motherhood, and while that took care of the roll-out-of-bed-looking-decent condition it also sapped any motivation or time I might have had to suddenly introduce a beauty regime. What woman in her right mind is going to suddenly start devoting 27 minutes a day to moisturizing/exfoliating/ manicuring/straightening/applying/etc., when her sleep is suddenly cut by 30% and is coming in 2-3 hour chunks if she’s lucky, and her days offer the glamorous merry-go-round of diapers, and temper tantrums, and mealtime arbitration, and sometimes precious cuddle time reading Frog and Toad is the fort made of couch pillows and dubiously clean sheets? Sorry – the chances are that my sweater will have child-snot stains and my hair will have pudgy (and, very likely, sticky) fingers tangled in it before we leave the house, so fancy make-up all seems a bit pointless to me.
  2. I went ahead and took the Facebook selfie… and was horrified! Toward the end of the campaign, a friend challenged “all her friends” to post their all natural photo and I figured why not? It won’t be that different from all my other photos, but for that very reason there’s no reason to avoid it, right? Wrong! I thought I’d take the picture under the bathroom mirror light, since so many of these “no make-up” photos seem to be so poorly lit….I quickly realized why. By the seventh take I also realized that my eyebrows are bizarrely unbalanced (i.e. call for professional help IMMEDIATELY), that my skin is BOTH dry and shiny, that those laugh lines I’ve been glimpsing are actually deep canyons running from the edges of my nose to my jaw line, and that I REALLY CANNOT GO OUT OF THE HOUSE ONE MORE TIME WITHOUT MAKE-UP!!!!!
I really didn't want to, but here is the photo - I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn't handle them!

I really didn’t want to, but here is the seventh photo – I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn’t handle them!

In other words, my self-satisfaction is completely unearned. My blasé attitude toward make-up is not a reflection of my acceptance about how I look or my deliberate decision to reject societal expectations. It’s just a reflection of laziness and inattentiveness to just how far I have drifted from those expectations in the last 10 years or so.

Which gets to the real point behind all this clamor for exposure of make-up free selves, doesn’t it? The point is not just to get real, but to accept real. To not require BB creme perfection and thick eyelashes and sleekly styled hair as the minimum standard of beauty. To know that we do not look like the movie stars and supermodels, and that we never will, and to be OK with that. To reject the fear that we will be found deficient by society, or friends, or even ourselves. To look in the mirror and see not every little imperfection, but rather the perfect capacity to be the child of God we were created to be.

If that is really the goal, then giving up the mirror would not actually be very helpful for me, at least not at the moment. Giving up the mirror while still trapped by my desire for physical beauty would just be a way of hiding from my fears about how far I fall short. I need to deal with this demon of expectation because it is eating up my self-worth. It is obsessing about every pound of “moving weight” that I am not shedding. It is dragging down the corners of my mouth as my eyes follow the so-called laugh lines. It is pondering what wastes of time and money might help me reverse the clock. It is a dark, heavy, weight that is pulling me down. If I am going to be the woman I want to be, I desperately need to deal with my own fear of unpretty.

I also need to deal with it as a mother:

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Tracey Spicer’s Ted Talk is her recollection of a question her seven-year old daughter frequently asks her: “Why do women wear make-up, but men don’t?”

Reportedly, her daughter asks her this as she is standing watching Spicer don the required mask for televised appearances. It’s an inevitable question, because daughters watch their mothers. They watch them when they are going through their beauty regimes. They also watch them when they just frown at the reflection, or give their face a momentary lift with a finger tugging up beside the eyes. They watch and they learn that a woman’s appearance matters.

I have an amazing and beautiful daughter. She is six years old and most of the time she is blissfully unaware of how she looks and how other people react to this.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

But, even at six, this is starting to change. She has begun to stand in front of the bathroom mirror, posing and trying out different hairstyles. She has begun to anxiously ask me for fashion advice, although she has always had a fiercely independent sense of style. A friend gave her a cheap set of make-up and she has begun experimenting with enthusiastic, if unappealing, results. She wants to make herself pretty.

What kills me about this is not just that she feels like any intervention is needed in order to be more pretty, and it is not even that she is starting to waste all those thousands of hours that American women throw away on beautifying efforts. What gets to me, what terrifies me, is the suspicion that she has already accepted the lie that being pretty is what makes her valuable.

I don’t want to be an anti-society shrew who prohibits my daughter from playing with make-up or sentences her to hair cuts at the Mommy Salon until she’s old enough to pay for them herself. I know that all the pretty-play is part of the fun of being a little girl, and I’m OK with that. Really, I am.

I just want her to know that her value has absolutely nothing to do with what she looks like. I want her to know that it is the sweetness of her soul that draws people to her and that it is her identity as God’s beloved, chosen creation that gives her all the worth she will ever need.

And I’m worried that I am teaching her that with my words only, but not by my example. Because, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who cares far too much about the image looking back at me.

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, but I know I must do something. And I know that this something will need to last a whole lot longer than the 40 days of lent. But I have a hunch that lent might still have something to offer me in this challenge.

One of the most important realizations our group came to this morning was that “giving up” was pretty meaningless on its own. Simply removing something from our lives for the requisite 40 days is not transformative in and of itself, unless it that vacuum is replaced with something else. I have tried this before in other contexts. I have “given up” chocolate, or Facebook, or complaining, and instead committed to replacing the time I would have given to those things to prayer.

Prayer actually sounds like a pretty good place to remember the source of my worth and identity.

Lord, have mercy.

 


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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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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.


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My “Innocent” Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

 

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


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Deadlines and Lifelines

Although my relative blog silence may not indicate it to most of my readers, the past two months have been very busy for me. Much of this business has involved very prosaic activities (laundry, errands, carnevale & Easter goody bags for the kids’ classes). Of course, the unique context of my current sojourn in Italy colors even these day-to-day activities with unusual challenges and rewards, and it also offers amazing opportunities to otherwise fill my time (ski weekends in the Alps, school field trip to the Triennale Design Museum, shopping day-trip to Venice — I’ll stop before you all stop reading out of pique!)

The particular business of the last two months, however, has involved a few longer-term commitments that have combined into a lesson I didn’t realize I needed to learn. The first part of that lesson is just a reminder of something I already knew about myself: I am the kind of person who likes clear, concrete, defined goals, especially when said goals offer specific deadlines against which I can track my progress. Aficionados of psychological testing will nod their heads sagely when I reveal that my dominant personality trait all three times I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has been “judging.” This doesn’t mean that I am judgmental (I hasten to explain, since we “Js” highly dislike both ineffective communication and mis-categorization). What it does mean is this: while at different points of my life my score for my source of energy has slid across the line between introversion and extraversion, and my preference for making decisions has tended to balance nearly equally between thinking and feeling, there is no doubt that my lifestyle is governed by a preference for structure and organization.

This controlling preference has expressed itself directly, as I said, in a few longer-term commitments that have been dominating much of my time in recent months. The first such commitment is my writing. No, not my blog, I know. This particular medium of expression has been consistent only for its infrequency and its failure to meet even my modest self-imposed deadline of one entry per month. I’m referring instead to my commitment that before I leave Italy I will complete a long-term dream: to write a novel. I first dreamed this dream when I was 8 or 9 years old and tried my hand at penning a fantasy adventure story (that particular effort petered out after three or four chapters and is now lying in repose in my mom’s garage, if it hasn’t ended its sad little life in the recycle bin). My more mature effort, however, has been germinating for over a year and a half, and is the proud owner of an entire notebook filled with plot outline and character sketches, snatches of dialogue and random draft scenes. Until January of this year, however, the translation of all this planning into sequential written prose was going very slowly. While I love to write, there always seemed to be dishes to wash, or groceries to buy, or friends to meet for coffee, or blog entries to write, and I found it very difficult to carve out the time demanded by this serious ambition.

Then, one of those cappuccino-loving friends challenged me to start setting deadlines for myself. Not the vague, future goal of “finish before I leave Italy,” but a week-by-week schedule of chapter completion that would get me to my goal with a little room to spare. What a difference a deadline makes! The novel has transformed from an idea to an actual story, with nearly eighty pages and 8 1/2 chapters of substance stored on my hard drive. Granted, the schedule of completion charted in the margins of my calendar had me completing chapter 10 by April 5, but considering that I was only part way through chapter 2 in late-January (after 6 months of work) I will celebrate this page-count as a practical victory.

I am all the more inclined to revel in this progress because of the other goal that absorbed a lot of my time in the last two months – training for my first 10K race. Unlike the novel, this achievement had never been a long-cherished desire. Before February of this year I had never even run 5 kilometers at a go in my life and I have never considered myself an athlete. At another January coffee date, however, another friend suggested that I try to run the Stramilano of the 50,000 with her in March. That evening, just to see if it was even plausible, I went surfing the internet for a 10K training schedule for first-time racers. Of course, once I had that clear, beautiful schedule beaming off my computer screen, with the first two training runs fatefully set at the exact distance I was already running twice a week, I was hooked. This wasn’t just the gratifying structure of regular deadlines. This was a professionally constructed schedule of deadlines specifically prepared for runners in my exact situation. I organized my daily routine around that schedule — never scheduling coffee for Tuesdays or Thursday so that I could do my runs; trading my vacation morning of watching the kids (so that Tyler could ski) for an hour to run on the hotel treadmill; scheduling a babysitter on the weekend that Tyler was away so that I wouldn’t miss my first 3 mile training run. As the race day approached and my fitness improved I added a bonus incentive: the measurable goal of a run time. This system of deadlines, goals, and measurable results was magic. On the 24th of March even a sudden bout of vomiting minutes before the race did not dissuade me (note to other novice runners – don’t add an orange to your breakfast on race day, too much acid). When the loudspeaker boomed our “Via” and the hundreds of red balloons released into the sky above the Duomo, I was off: dodging race walkers (it’s a very non-competitive race), puddles (it rained the entire morning), and real runners coming up from the rear (a few of whom I gratifyingly re-passed later on once they ran out of steam). I certainly didn’t set any records, but at 68 minutes I beat my goal time by 2 minutes and felt the rush of a goal achieved.

So much for the affirmation of a character trait that 36 years has firmly established in the understanding of anyone who knows me at all well. The real point of this entry in the caveat that I must now add to my assertion that my soul yearns for structure, and organization, and deadlines: deadlines don’t work for lifelines. You see, the last two months have also contained the season of the Christian church year termed lent, and this year I tried to impose a deadline schedule on my spiritual practice for observing this season. Although the practice of “giving up” something for lent is relatively unusual in the generally evangelical branch of Christianity to which I belong, I have come to deeply appreciate this discipline in the past 7 or 8 years. It provides a chance to temporarily eliminate some small thing from my daily life that it not intrinsically bad, but that can be more fruitfully replaced with prayer or meditation. So, for example, when I gave up chocolate for the span between Ash Wednesday and Easter, my predictable daily yearnings for that sweet, rich confection provided a dependable reminder to re-center my awareness on gratitude to the God who gave up so very much more to reestablish a bridge for direct relationship with human beings, myself included.

So, this year my spiritual “fast” was from Facebook. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Facebook. To the contrary, since my move to Italy it has become a valued point of contact with “home” that allows me to know what is happening in the lives of my friends and to keep them informed about my European adventures without spending hours on the phone or e-mail, or composing generic mass letters. All the same, this useful tool can be a wasteful time drain and a distraction from precious moments with my children and husband. So, I committed to abstain from the little blue app on my phone for 46 days. The negative side of fasting, however, the “giving up” is not the full purpose of lent. Rather, the Lenten practice is aimed at replacing the denied pleasure with one that is spiritual in nature. And so, before signing off from Facebook on February 13 I made a list of all my Facebook “friends” and committed to pray for each of them at least twice during lent. Thus was born my Lenten schedule of deadlines. What a wonderful plan for my organizer’s soul. I could stay indirectly connected to all those distant friends and family in a spiritually vital way, and redeem some of that lost time I had been wasting clicking on electronic posters proclaiming familiar truisms as though they were the newest idea since the iphone5. This might be my best Lenten practice ever!

Well, yes and no. It was certainly good to pray for my friends and extended family, although this practice brought with it the uncomfortable realization of just how infrequently I do this except when I am aware of moments of crisis in their lives. It was also both good and uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on my inconsistency with prayer in general. While I aim for a daily time of prayer, early wake-up from kids and unplanned phone calls or class e-mails often disrupt these plans, and I was not aware of quite how often I miss my goal until I had a daily schedule. Planning to pray for 6 friends a day suddenly makes missing “a day or two” much more concrete when that list grows to 24 the next time I actually sit down with it.

Unfortunately, this spotlight was not very motivating. It turns out that prayer is really not much like running. When illness or travel temporarily derailed my training schedule I would sit down with my calendar and schedule out a shift to avoid getting behind in my progress toward my goal. When the Gigglemonster started his morning yell for “Mommy!” 45 minutes early, however, I would write myself a bleary mental note about doing my prayer time later that day, and then forget about it until the next day, when my reaction to “reading” that mental note was a mumbled “Oh crud, I only have 20 minutes, how am I going to get through 12 people plus reading scripture?” That’s not how I want to feel about prayer. I expect to have to drag myself to lace up my running shoes — that’s why I need a training schedule — but my prayer schedule seemed to work in reverse: it made into a burden what should have been a source of joy and renewal.

Now I want to be clear, even in my organizationally-obsessed mind prayer is not subject to formula; it is not a magical incantation that needs to be said just perfectly in order to “work.” Just the opposite, I experience prayer as a conversation that only “works” in the sense of the relationship it builds. The effectiveness of prayer thus depends upon the conversation partners, and in this relationship I have no illusions about where the problems come from. The God I pray to is no baal – he does need to be woken up, or called back from a journey, or interrupted in the midst of relieving bodily functions. God is always present and is always worth talking to, if I can get my head into the space where I can actually engage. And this is where my prayer schedule ran me into trouble. This Lenten journey has brought me to the realization that despite my type A, organization-loving, schedule-dependent nature, deadlines are limited in their utility. Deadlines are for things that you need to do despite the fact that they aren’t always fun — important, good for you, even necessary, but things that you are tempted to put off when there are competing options for how to spend your time. Problems come when I apply this model of motivating myself to activities that offer their own intrinsic motivation, because the deadline mentality replaces this motivation.

This pattern applies not just to prayer. The same danger arises when I start evaluating and calculating the minutes I spend in “quality time” interacting with my children (“Oh no! we haven’t done any art projects this week – quick, pull out the paints even if Princess Imagination would rather play let’s pretend and the Gigglemonster is screaming for the Wii”), or connecting with my husband (the compulsion to try to force a substantive conversation rather than another night of cuddling in front of the TV — regardless of how physically and mentally exhausted we both feel). When I start thinking in terms of quantifiable goals or benchmarks of adequate achievement the joy of the interaction gets lost in the task-nature of creating it. When I apply the patterns and structures of work to my sources of meaning and joy, then they become work. But while work is important for life, and I do sometimes need to put work into these sources of life’s meaning, I also need to remember the difference between life and work. The most important relationships in my life, with my God and with my family, are my lifelines to an existence that means more than a series of schedules and goals.

And so, as I embark on my 37th year of life, I have a new goal: to distinguish my lifelines from my deadlines, and to put them in their proper order. I can get satisfaction from meeting deadlines and achieving goals, but that is not what makes my life alive, and no deadline is more important that making sure that I really live each day.

(A few of the things that have been filling my time, and bringing me joy:)

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

Uno...due...tre...Via!

Uno…due…tre…Via!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Call her Princess Skier

Call her Princess Skier

 

"Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!"

“Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!”

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

 

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

It's finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

It’s finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

 

Look who lost her first tooth!

Look who lost her first tooth!

"Look what I can do!"

“Look what I can do!”

"Look. Mommy, I can do it too!"

“Look. Mommy, I can do it too!”

They're still my little babies!

They’re still my little babies!

Too cute not to share

Too cute not to share

They so don't appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

They so don’t appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

My beauty.

My beauty.

I love that they are friends.

I love that they are friends.

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

...love, love, love that they are friends.

…love, love, love that they are friends.

 

Gra'ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

Gra’ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

 

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy