Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Relative Gratitude?

[warning – do not plan to enjoy thanksgiving leftovers while reading this post. It involves plumbing problems…]

The last few days have not delivered the Thanksgiving break I was planning on.

I suppose I had some warning. This past Sunday, when a load of laundry flooded the basement due to a blockage in the pipes, it was a foreshadowing of the dangers of home ownership. But an evening visit from the Joe the plumber (his real name), and a few hundred dollars later, it was supposed to be fixed.

Three days later Joe was back. More laundry. More water all over the basement. He diagnosed a blockage in the septic tank. That would be a few hundred more dollars, and we couldn’t get anyone out until Friday, but it was still a manageable crisis. It seemed that only large amounts of water were a problem. We could still wash dishes, flush the toilet, even shower. We could make it a few days without doing laundry.

And I really needed that to be the solution because I  didn’t have time for any more significant disruption of the household routine. Work has been so overwhelming lately that I regularly have to fight back panic tears if I let myself think past just the next urgent task. And then…Thanksgiving.

I love Thanksgiving. I discovered fresh turkeys and focaccia stuffing when we lived in Italy, and I am now embarrassingly proud of my Thanksgiving spread. I wasn’t cooking for a crowd this year – just my own little family and a dear friend from church – but still. It’s Thanksgiving, and that means The Works.

And I was already facing one challenge to this plan: a pesky little degenerated disk in my fifth lumbar region. It has been acting up off and on over the past few months. In recent days even the minimal exertion of 5-10 minutes standing on the hard tile floor in the kitchen prepping the kids’ school lunches leaves me with lower back spasms that take my breath away and make the task of holding back those stress tears a whole lot harder.

But…Thanksgiving.

I defy anyone to successfully prepare a full turkey dinner without spending significant time on their feet. So, I bought a second gel-cushioned kitchen mat, said a few prayers, and started basting.

A couple hours in I could tell I was going to be hurting pretty badly by the time we sat down to eat – but that wasn’t the worst part of the day. That came when Princess Imagination yelled up from the basement. “Mommy! You need to get down here right now, there’s a big problem!”

I hobbled down as fast as my gimpy back would allow. This time the backflow was from Tyler’s shower. Ugh! I guess this problem is bigger than we thought. At least the septic people are coming tomorrow. Tyler might have to rinse the conditioner out of his hair with the garden hose (thank God for the unseasonably warm weather), but the septic flush would fix everything.

Looking back, I’m glad we were still under that delusion during our Thanksgiving celebration. We had a lovely meal with our friend, and we even washed up all the dishes – cautiously –  without catastrophe. My back was definitely hurting, but I hoped that a good night’s sleep with good supportive pillows in strategic places would do the trick.

Then came Friday. I woke up to intense pain. And by pain, I mean that it felt like a metal clamp was slowly tightening on my lowest vertebra.  Even sitting completely immobile hurt. But try telling that to two enthusiastic little bundles of love hopped up on no-school-holiday-weekend-time-to-decorate-for-Christmas excitement. The fifth or sixth time one of them jumped on me in an overflow of glee there were more than a few angry words.

And then the septic company came, flushed the system, and concluded that “No. There was no blockage in the tank. Your problem is in the pipes.”

Re-enter Joe the Plumber (I swear that really is his name). Some trained listening, some experimenting, and we had a third diagnosis. Somewhere between the exit from the house and the septic tank, the pipe was compromised. As in – it will cost $3,000 to replace it.

But not until Saturday. It was a full-day job and it was after 3:00 in the afternoon.

I was very aware that it was after 3:00 in the afternoon, because I hadn’t used the bathroom since the night before. We were in a strictly no-flush situation and our two little ones needed the full remaining toilet capacity.

Now, in the long-term the $3,000 is going to hurt a lot more. But in the moment, my bladder was competing with my lower back for which could crack my pain threshold first. Which meant that I needed to venture out to find a public bathroom…on Black Friday…with a spasming back…not having showered since Wednesday morning.

As I tottered to the car, I was not in the most thankful mood.

Then I turned on the car, and NPR was on the radio with a story about Syrian refugees.

Perspective.

I was suddenly aware of the relative irrelevance of the hardships of my week. But more, I was suddenly also aware of just how hellish life is for the millions of people living for months on end without modern plumbing.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees there are more than 4 million Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Africa – 4 million mothers, fathers, aunts, children – most are in refugee camps.

I have been hearing these numbers for months, and the numbers are overwhelming, but also a bit emotionally deadening. My mind and heart can’t grapple with the concept of so many people fleeing for their lives. The pain of that imagined fear is too much. I can’t simultaneously think of them a people with the same kinds of physical needs that I take for granted being met everyday.

Until just a few are not met. Until my dishes pile up in the sink because I can’t put any water down the drain. Until I have to plan my bathroom breaks around trips out of the house. Until I am conscious of the grease in my hair walking into a coffee shop to buy an over-priced latte as an excuse to use the facilities.

Then I am aware just how quickly we humans can feel dehumanized by the loss of running water. Just water. I still have heat, and shelter, and a freezer stocked with ice packs for my aching back, and every other comfort money can buy. All I lost was water for a few days, and I feel just a bit subhuman. A day that I have been looking forward to – the decorate for Christmas day that was supposed to be a special togetherness time for my family – was marred by stress, and snapishness, and impatience. A little physical pain, and a disruption of our domestic conveniences, and the spirit of patience, love, and joy that is supposed to characterize this season was palpably missing from our house.

Just one, temporary thing can make such a difference.

And more than 4 million people have lost everything. Perhaps permanently.

The moral of this story is supposed to be how I have been reminded to be thankful for all that I have, but honestly that feels rather shallow. If all I learn from the devastation visited on 4 million of my brothers and sisters is to be more grateful for the incredible bounty in my life, then I am a callous and self-centered beast.

Their suffering is not about me. It is about them. I don’t know what I can do about it, and that is a heart pain that weighs heavily on me. But I do know one thing.

I know I can think of them as fully human. I can recognize that the relative safety of a refugee camp is not a solution to their problem. I can reject any narrative that says I shouldn’t care. And I can keep caring until every man, woman, and child has a home again. A real home, with running water.

 


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Yogi’s prayer

I have not been breathing enough lately. I don’t mean the processing of oxygen necessary for survival – obviously I’ve been getting that done. But life as a whole has felt mostly like “getting it done” and I haven’t been pausing for the deep, centering breath I need. I’ve been too busy just trying to check items off the to-do list at a pace to match all the items being added on.

Today I finally took a breath – I spent 75 minutes breathing in fact. That is the bliss of Tuesday afternoon community yoga class. It has been three weeks, and oh how I have missed it. In that precious time there is no ringing phone, or whining child voices, or urgent e-mails popping up on my computer screen. No one is presenting me with needs that I must meet. Instead, I am told to breath…just breath…through all the movement and poses…to first and always breath.

As I breathed for those golden moments away from life, I realized in a new way what a miracle it is for every moment of our lives to exist within the pendulum swing of breathing. Whatever imbalance we find in the haste or waste there is always this ultimate ebb and flow, in and out.

Yoga class is over now and its power is not so profound that it can magically alter the balance of my life. But I don’t want to forget the balance that flows through my lungs moment by moment. And I don’t want to fail to offer gratitude for this breath.

And so, my Yogi’s Prayer

Thank you for this breath that rocks my day
Inside the cradle of sustaining life

And how this sweet inhale, my body fills,
My soul as well, though mostly unaware.

How exhale gives release to toxic air,
And thoughts may follow if I’ll wield that knife.

Now, in this moment may I hold that peace,
And live inside a thankfulness for air.


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My Running Prayer

Running routeToday’s run wasn’t my best. That probably goes without saying considering that I was running outside in Milan in August, but the cognitive understanding that heat and humidity and heavily polluted air make running more difficult offered no comfort to my body as it labored under this three-pronged assault. After the first mile I felt more exhausted than I had felt at kilometer 7 of my last 10K (and that had been the hardest interval of the race ). I consoled myself by mentally composing a Facebook post that would be my futile revenge on this awful exertion.

Then, however, I remembered a new discipline I has planned to start this morning. The idea had come from a blog entry on prayer and stress that I had skimmed the night before (http://work4christ.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/too-much-stress/). It had offered the familiar encouragement that daily prayer is an important practice for spiritual and even physical health, advice that I know and strive inconsistently to follow. It also suggested some guidelines for the best ways to structure this daily practice, including the advice that you should NOT plan your daily prayer time at a period of the day when you are “tired and exhausted.” Well, that knocks out the very beginning and end of the day. And with the kids home all day for the summer, what does that leave me? Thankfully the post had another suggestion in passing: “perhaps time during your morning or evening walk will work well for you.” Well, the luxury of an evening walk is not something I have, but I do have my morning run 3 or 4 times a week…

And so the idea was born. Prayer first thing in the morning is usually a struggle for me, at least any version of meditation that extends beyond a whispered “thank you for this day God. Please help me to live in a way that shows your love.”  Attempts to be still before my God, or to focus my mind on the four pillars of praise, confession, petition and thanksgiving, tend to dissolve into blurry-minded distraction. I’m just not alert enough in my first 30 minutes of consciousness to give God my best. One of the things I love about running, however, is how it heightens my awareness, as though the rushing of blood through my veins rinses the cobwebs out of my mind as well. The immediate aftermath of this invigorating activity could be the perfect time to focus my awareness on the Truth that is so real it can be difficult to see in the haze of everyday.

So this was my plan. I would run the half mile to the neighborhood park that is my usual destination and add a few extra twists to my circuitous laps around this urban green space to bring my total distance to about 2.5 miles. Then, rather than racing home, I could walk the return journey and use the time to calm not just the beating of my heart but also the rushing of my thoughts. It would be the perfect time to focus my mind on the glorious Creator who has blessed me with a functioning, relatively healthy body and a beautiful (if polluted) city in which to run.

This fountain borders one edge of the normal park route... it starts to look really appealing by the 2nd lap

This fountain borders one edge of my normal park route… it starts to look really appealing by the 2nd lap

That was the plan… but as I heaved my way through mile two I was feeling anything but worshipful. I was over-hot and aching and not in the mental space I wanted to be to approach the One to whom I owe everything. But, another exhortation on prayer that I read recently wouldn’t let me abandon the plan: “Prayer is a discipline before it is a joy, and remains a discipline even after it becomes a joy” (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation with God: The Life-Changing Power of Prayer, Bethany House Publishers, 1999, p. 51). Prayer has often been a joy for me, but that wasn’t a prerogative and I needed to find a way to engage in prayer when it didn’t feel joyful; to embrace the spiritual discipline even when the physical discipline intended to prepare me for it had instead done the exact opposite. And so, for the last mile or so, I prepared. I didn’t try to pray, but I intentionally rejected all the negative thoughts that were crowding into my head and screaming up from my muscles and lungs. I might not be enjoying this run, but I wasn’t going to let that steal my gratitude for it. I was going to feel each wheezing breath as a reminder that I am blessed with life, and a life that does not bear the scrutiny of complaint. Not from a Sovereign who fought for each pain-wracked breath as he pushed whip-torn skin across the splintering wood of the cross on which he hung out of love for me.

And so, I finally slowed to a walk with aching lungs and a pounding heart, but also with a well-spring of gratitude re-opened in my soul. The prayer that flowed up from this inner renewal gave me a refreshment that I hope can bless others as well.

Running Prayer

Sweet Creator,

Thank you for the summer day,

even when it breaks too early on my drowsy bed;

Thank you for the shining sun,

even when it’s sharp heat assaults my sweating head;

Thank you for the air so full,

even when its weight cloys at my gulping throat;

Thank you for the solid stones,

even when their angles try to trip my toes.

Thank you for the spinning world that slides beneath my pounding feet,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Propelling.

stumbling blocks

Thank you for my churning legs,

even when they tremble at the distance still to run;

Thank you for my well-shod feet,

even when they murmur protest, longing to be done;

Thank you for my heaving lungs,

even when they gasp for air and then for rest;

Thank you for my pumping heart,

even when it beats a deafening rhythm in my chest.

Thank you this struggling body that moves against inertia’s pull,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Strengthening.

light through dappled leaves

Thank you for these wakened eyes,

to see your light refracted through the dappling leaves;

Thank you for these sharpened ears,

to hear the music of your breath refilling lungs that heave;

Thank you for these softened lips,

to whisper praises so soon after tasting of complaint;

Thank you for this opened mind,

to comprehend the weight of glory witnessed by the saints.

Thank you for your Spirit’s breath again, in sense and will reborn,

Pushing.

Resisting.

Finally resting in this grateful Peace.

 

(And thank you also for my little runners in training – such a joy and inspiration to seek health)

Gigglemonster running Princess Running