Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Yoga and Eucharist (and kisses)

I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.

What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.

I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.

I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.

I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.

I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.

I am just done with it.

Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.

It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.

And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.

So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.

I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.

I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.

“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”

No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.

But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.

I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.

But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.

And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.

Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.

God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.

At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.

And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!


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Anthropomorphizing Worms: On Politics, Religion, and Projections

I have never been very fond of worms. My first up-close encounter with the little, wriggling, invertebrate monsters was on a fishing trip with my High School bestie and his grandpa. We had two bait options: salmon roe and live worms. Without question the worms were vastly more attractive to the fish in our particular lake. I DIDN’T CARE! There was no way I was going to pick up a live worm with my bare hands and feel it’s mushy, squirming slitheriness on my fingers for the rest of the day. NO THANK YOU!

I have lived almost twenty years since that squeamish afternoon on a lake and I am thankful to say that I have matured a bit. I can now appreciate that worms do me a valuable service in my garden and I do not squeal or jerk violently away when one is unearthed by my digging. All the same, I am still not eager to touch them. I think it is the way they move – so snake-like. I can’t help feeling like their blind bobbing heads are searching for a way to wriggle up my sleeve to send shudders of revulsion down my spine.

The Gigglemonster also squeals when he sees worms…. but for a totally different reason. He is delighted by the icky little things! During recent spring weekends spent in intimate contact with the dirt of our flower beds the Gigglemonster has gotten giggly with excitement every time I unearth a new specimen for his inspection. He eagerly scoops them up with bare fingers, exclaiming over the way they undulate across his palms, and even crooning to them in his softest, most nurturing voice (the one he uses with babies and puppies).

The delight I cannot explain – unless by an allusion to the old nursery rhyme about what little boys are made of, and I try to make a point of resisting such gender stereotypes. The crooning, however, has a clear reason. He wants to reassure them. In his mysterious little four-year-old brain this comfort is clearly necessary because the worms are scared. After all, my violent spade work has just turned them out of their homes. What is more – apparently – they miss their Mommies. This is the reason he does not cherish any of his new “buddies” for an extended friendship. He has to put them back in the dirt so that they can find their Mommies again, “because little boys don’t like to be away from their Mommies.” (By the way, worms are all boys, according to my son, because they have no hair and girls have long hair. We haven’t gotten into the question of what the mommy worms look like. I don’t think my worm aversion could deal with the visual).

I share all of this with you not because my child is unbearably cute and the world needs to have evidence of that fact, but rather because his adorable anthropomorphic assumptions have me thinking.

It is easy to laugh indulgently about the silly ways that little boys ascribe human feelings and motivations to very non-human beings like worms, but perhaps there are parallels in adult life that are not nearly so silly. The particular inspiration for that conjecture is the Gigglemonster’s comments about little boy (worms) missing their mommies. It does not take a very long mental jump to interpret the reason for that belief. The Gigglemonster has been reacting a bit to my recent return to the workforce. Nothing too extreme, but he is clearly feeling the stress and needing even more reassurance and comfort than is normal for my already clinging youngest child. “Missing his Mommy” is how he feels, and he projects this feeling onto a very dissimilar being with only the thinnest veneer of justification for doing so. This is the pattern that suddenly struck me while simultaneously cringing and grinning at his one-way conversation with his worm friends.

It is just so easy to convince ourselves of the external reality of projections. So easy to believe that the attitudes or motivations we perceive are accurate. So easy to see another person – one much more similar to ourselves than a worm – and to honestly believe that we know where they are coming from. But, these beliefs are not necessarily any more accurate than my son’s deduction about the gender of hairless worms.

I am thinking particularly of the areas of human interaction that can exist in the absence of strong personal relationships, because relationships require some level of intimacy. When we know another person as an individual we have some awareness of their differences from ourselves. We experience them a separate. But our shrinking, digitized world is increasingly providing us with opportunities for interaction that lack this interpersonal, relational element. When those interactions also have the capacity to elicit strong emotional reactions we have a recipe for projections run wild.

I am thinking particularly of politics and religion.

Politics and religion. They have always been somewhat taboo subjects for polite conversation, of course, because of their tendency to engender strong emotions. In the age of online comment feeds, however, the taboo has been lifted. Why worry about being offensive when you are screened by the anonymity of a computer screen? And why consider the humanity of your adversary in a vitriolic word battle when those words are typed at arm’s length from your keyboard, or your smart phone screen?

Of course, it is not always apparent to us that we have stopped seeing other people as actual people – people with different thoughts and feelings than ourselves. In fact, on the surface it seems abundantly clear that we see nothing but their differences. But this is exactly the impression that the Gigglemonster’s worm-friendships helped me to recognize as a fallacy.

“Projection” is the term psychoanalysts use to refer to unconscious interpretations of another’s feelings or beliefs that arise not from that other person but rather from the person doing the interpreting. So, when we are engaged in a twitter battle with some faceless representative of the opposite side, and we are certain that we can precisely pin down their nefarious motivations for holding such an untenable position, the situation begs the question of exactly how we can be so sure. When our argument is not with a personal we actually know – someone with whom we have shared the kinds of interpersonal interactions that allow us to recognize them as a separate person who thinks and feels differently than we do, on what is this assurance based? Chances are, that sense of certainty is actually derived from projections.

In making these projections we have a least two possible paths to take.

The first is to imagine what feelings or attitudes we would be experiencing if we were exhibiting the behaviors we observe. In a sense, this is what I am doing when I squirm away from the wriggling residents of my garden. I see frantic-seeming motion and I subconsciously believe that I am interacting with a being under the influence of fight or flight instincts. My own heart beat elevates; I feel the sympathetic rush of adrenaline that tells me to lash out to protect myself; and I know that I want nothing to do with a creature acting under those kinds of stress. I am tapping into my less charitable tendencies and therefore ascribing antagonistic motivations.

In the case of garden worms, this does no real harm, of course. With people… it is not always so innocuous. I observe someone arguing for a position that I could not hold with moral integrity because of my belief system, and I assume they must lack moral integrity. I read arguments that from my lips (or typing fingers) would be ignorant, or arrogant, because they misrepresent the reality that I have observed, and I assume that willful ignorance or arrogance are character traits that define my opponent. I do not recognize the personal, individual humanity of the person with whom I am arguing and so I do not see that their position might come from a position of integrity within their own experience. And I know I am not alone. I have only to read one of the various open letters to some straw man archetype (“The mom on her iPhone” or “the gay supporting Christian”) to see evidence of this kind of projection. It is so much easier to win an argument with someone who does not really exist.

Of course, there is another way that projections can operate – one that is a bit more charitable. When my son projects his feelings onto garden worms he does so in an empathetic way. He looks for information about the situation they find themselves in and he projects onto that situation the way he would feel. This is a projection that elicits sympathy and efforts at understanding, however misplaced. In the end, he is probably no more successful at actually understanding the worms than I am, but his reaction to them is nurturing rather than antagonistic. He projects not his darkest side, but his most vulnerable, and therefore he reacts with compassion.

I don’t know that there is really much hope for genuine human dialogue in the realm of cyber communication. We are not conditioned to get to know one another before we challenge the comment we read after a news article. That takes too much time and actual human contact. All the same, if we are really going to be dealing with our own projections rather than the actual person on the other end of the comment thread, perhaps we could all take a tip from the Gigglemonster. Rather than projecting our hypothetical motivations for the words we read, let’s try projecting our empathy for the kinds of experiences that could produce such different beliefs.

I, for one, want to try…. at least with humans. I still don’t like worms.


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Lessons from Repatriation

The snow can't cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead - Stop-Caution-Go - which will it be?

The snow can’t cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead – Stop-Caution-Go – which will it be?

I seem to be experiencing a long period of living in between.

We have left Milan. The departure, with all its associated stresses and sorrows, joys and juggling is completed. We are no longer residents of Italy, and although saying goodbye to my beloved city and many dear friends was a wrenching pain, I am glad that the phase of anticipated loss is behind me. Living through an extended goodbye is a kind of exquisite torture – trying to relish all the last moments that I knew I would miss; trying to offer a meaningful arrivederci to all the friends who would never again be part of my weekly life in the same easy way. By the end of the month of leave-taking I was ready to be done: to move out and move on; to establish myself back in New Jersey (despite past experiences of poor welcome); to pick up the threads of daily life and weave for myself and my family a new daily routine that could wrap us in the comforts of home and predictability. There would be an interval of continued flurry, of course. The three-week Christmas holiday with its successive family gatherings and unpacking and repacking of bags, but then we would fly back to New Jersey and we could start to settled down again.

I should have known it would not really be that simple when New Jersey “warmly” greeted us with a very physical flurry less than 48 hours after we arrived. The first snow storm of the new year was not quite the storm of the century to which news outlets in Milan apparently compared it (judging from concerned messages I received from Italian friends and acquaintances), but it disrupted deliveries, closed schools and roads, and reminded me effectively just how much I dislike having cold feet.

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Today we are just on the other side of the second big snow storm, and my hatred of the cold is chilling my mood and making my temper as brittle and jagged as the icicles I kicked off my car’s bumper this afternoon. In fairness to frozen precipitation, however, the snow is not the real problem. I would be a bit emotionally fragile even if, by some miracle, New Jersey had put to doubt all questions about global warming and drawn the Southern California sun across the continent to warm my icy toes. The deeper source of my discontent is the unavoidable fact that in some very important ways, we have not yet arrived. True, we are back in residence in our sending state, but we are still waiting in a holding pattern of “not yet.” Our household goods are stuck in customs (thanks to the holiday, the foul weather backlog, and a random 1% chance screening that will take an undefined amount of time to complete). This means that we are stuck in a temporary furnished rental until crucial items like beds and cooking pots are confirmed to be just that by the hard-working men and women who protect our borders. (I don’t mean that to sound snarky, but – like I said – my temper is not on the most even keel these days). This stasis also means that my future planning is on hold, since my first responsibility is getting our household settled, before I begin the daunting task of seeking gainful employment after three years out of the workforce.

As I type these words I am conscious of just how whining and pretentious they would justifiably sound to the vast majority of the world’s population. Poor Little Rich Girl – you can’t move into the house you own yet, so you have to stay in a perfectly good furnished apartment. You have a whole 40-foot container of household goods that may take customs officials a while to clear. You have to take a few months to settle your home and your family before you start looking for a job that apparently is not required to pay for groceries this weekend. What a rough life!

Fair enough. Once I type it all down like that, I feel a bit petulant and I would really like to just erase the last two paragraphs, but that wouldn’t be very honest. So, I will let them stand and move on to the other way in which I am living in between.

I feel a bit suspended between cultures. I almost wrote stuck, rather than suspended, but that wouldn’t be right. I don’t feel squeezed into a space too small to accommodate me. Rather, I feel tugged in two directions, levitated off of solid footing by the magnetic pull of two places and two ways of being.

It’s not exactly that I am longing to return to Italy and reestablish my life there, but more than as I repatriate to America I am aware of how Italy has changed me.

Oddly, some of the things that I missed the most about the US upon first landing in Italy are now the very things that feel uncomfortable as I try to resettle into my home country. This includes as prosaic an item as food. OK – that’s not such a shock. The food is better in Italy, and I miss it. That much I expected. What I did not expect was my dislike for foods I used to crave. For example:

  • I used to miss Chinese food. There was no palatable Chinese take-out on our side of Milan, and I taught myself to cook wok-seared goodness because my cravings were unbearable. But now the noodles from our favorite take-out place in Hillsborough seem so much greasier than I remember.
  • I used to miss donuts. The Italian corollary (ciambelle) are dense and doughy, with a funky after taste not worth the calories. I literally dreamed about sugary, air-puffed donuts while I was exiled in Italy. But after sampling just one of my old favorite variety (boston cream) I’m disinterested. It felt like a thin veneer of fat covered my tongue and the roof of my mouth after only one bite.
  • I missed my flavored, American coffee. When October brought Facebook posts from American friends celebrating the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, I would weep into my iPhone. I wouldn’t order coffee after 10:00 in the morning, since past mid-morning only tourists order cappuccinos and I just couldn’t imbibe the stronger macciato or caffè (what Americans call espresso). But now, I’m foregoing both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in favor of my inexpertly prepared cappuccinos on the machine my lovely husband bought me for Christmas.
This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn't appetizing enough to finish.

This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn’t appetizing enough to finish.

In point of fact, I have converted to the general European snobbery about American food. So much of it tastes greasy, or over-salted, or just plain fake! The food that it supposed to be my comfort food is no longer comfortable.

Perhaps even more surprising to me has been the shock of reentry to an English-dominant environment. During our 34 expatriate months I felt consistently that the language barrier was one of the hardest things about our Italian residency. I felt awkward and uncertain in social situations; I game-planned conversations that required unfamiliar vocabulary; I had mild anxiety attacks before picking up the phone to make a call in Italian. I expected my final return home to feel like the relaxing exhalation of a breath I had been holding for 3 years, but it has not been quite so simple. For one thing, speaking English is not always a guarantee of effective communication. In various contexts (from discussions with contractors, to requests to have phone numbers updated) communications I didn’t think to worry about have somehow gotten scrambled. I am reluctantly realizing that I still need to pay careful attention and to double-check accurate understanding. Of course, I have those skills after years of painful awareness about my tendency toward confusion, but I had so hoped to let them lie fallow.

On the opposite extreme, some English communication is striking me as far too effective. The Gigglemonster, and to some extent Princess Imagination, have become little recording devices, faithfully playing back a wide range of advertising claims and jingles. There are the toys, of course (I have come to despise the little advertising inserts that come in every set from Playmobil, especially those that line up with the “free” DVD in the package). The Gigglemonster is already making shopping lists for his fifth birthday, which comes at the end of October. The mental invasion, however, it goes beyond items specifically targeted to grab my children’s attention. After a loud and enthusiastic serenade from my youngest, I had to very sternly prohibit any vocalization of the appalling jingle Verizon has taught my four-year-old son (“I want it. I want it. I want it right now!”). He has even absorbed advertising messages meant for me. On a quick trip to the grocery store the other day he grabbed a totally superfluous kitchen implement and waved it excitedly at me saying “Mommy – you need this! The TV said so!” I have often moaned about my children’s reluctance to acquire Italian fluency during our sojourn but I am starting to recognize what a gift that was. For nearly three years we were able to watch English-language television with the kids with virtually no advertising effect. When the far-spaced Italian commercials came on the kids tuned out. It was too much work to try to figure out what the fast-talking announcers were saying, even if the picture on the screen was of a pretty pink princess castle or an exciting loop-de-loop hot wheels track.

(Sigh) You don’t know what you have until it’s gone…

For all the discomfort that my homecoming is bringing me, however, the pull is not all one-sided. This place is calling me in some ways more strongly than it ever did before we left. When I thought of New Jersey during our Italian adventure it was not with great warmth (except for the few friends I had left behind). Along with the climate, the culture is cold as well – rushed, and intense, and sometimes socially hostile. And yet… on our first morning back at our Flemington church, I almost cried at the enthusiastic welcome. I have never felt more loved and cherished by a church family than by the small congregation at Living Waters Lutheran Church. I sat in my pastor’s office just over a week later, seeking guidance on an unexpected request, and I really did cry as we prayed together – tears of joy and awareness of God’s presence with us as we worked together to seek the path that would best honor the God we both love. If for no other reason than our church, it is so, so good to be home.

But it is not just the church. As I look with eyes that have been opened by all the difference I encountered abroad, I am finding much more to love in this state I always resisted. New friends are eager to know us. New schools fill my children with delight. A new appreciation for the natural beauty of this place, in all its cold starkness, pulses at the periphery of my city-dulled vision. Although a long-term return to California is still a dream (I promise Nanna & Gra’ma – it really is!), I am finding myself wanting to settle here for this present moment. In fact, that is a real part of the difficulty I am enduring during our time of unsettledness. I am eager to dig in to our new life here and make it mine.

And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson I have learned from my experience of repatriating. I am beginning to recognize that all the things I miss about Italy, all the ways that my life there was different, all the ways that my European adventure changed me, all these factors have actually made me MORE able to embrace the adventure waiting for me here. I spent ten years in New Jersey prior to our expatriate assignment and I never really set down roots. It wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever, so it wasn’t where I wanted to stay for now either, at least not fully. The ways in which it wasn’t California dominated my thinking about my temporary home and so I pulled back and complained and cast aspersions on the impenetrable high school cliques of native New Jerseyans, and the horrible weather that is relieved for only a few weeks in spring and autumn, and the frantic pace of work and life that races up and down the northeastern seaboard. I didn’t seek to develop friendships with those whom I wouldn’t have befriended “back home.” I didn’t embrace the rhythmic shifts brought about by clearly demarcated seasons. I didn’t look to relish all the differences in East Coast life that could help me see a new perspective.

It took Milan to teach me how wonderful strange friendships and uncomfortable culture shock and previously unimagined challenges can be. And believe me, they can be truly, blessedly, transformatively wonderful.

I miss Milan, and I will continue to miss it, possibly for the rest of my life.

I still long for California, and unless and until God guides our family back to the Golden State it’s magnet pull will forever disorient the compass of my heart.

But for now, I am in New Jersey. And I am determined that my life here will not be lived as a stop-over, a reluctant in between that must just be gotten through. I have things to do here. I have memories to make here. I have challenges to grow through here. I have people to love here. Thank you, God, for bringing me back a changed woman.


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Are My Children Too Young to Worship?

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

My children are young.

They are not so young that I assume every night will involve at least one cry for sustenance that is only available from my body. They are not so young that my wardrobe decisions are ruled by the preemptive value of washable fabrics that will camouflage shoulder spit-up stains. They are not so young that I am forced to carry a diaper bag, as opposed to getting by with a large purse that can accommodate a package of wipes, diverse toys and snacks, and at least one sippy cup. They are not even so young that the high-pitched announcement “I need to go potty” must immediately be followed by a mad dash to the nearest toilet with a grimacing child held out in front of me in the hope of avoiding any accidental leakage onto my clothes.For the most part, I can happily proclaim that those days are behind me. The Gigglemonster just marked the completion of his fourth year outside my womb which probably means that I am really and truly past the tiny tots stage.

Nevertheless, and despite my weepy birthday moments of exclaiming over how fast they are growing up, my children are still very young. And, what it more, I am discovering that my children’s passage though the indeterminate border region that divides “he/she’s too young to know better” from “she/he is old enough to understand that different rules of behavior apply to different situations” makes for some really challenging parenting moments. What is more, the younger one’s maturation process into a genuine playmate has somehow transformed the older one into a partner worthy of his happy-tornado personality. The sweet, shy, quiet little girl who has previously generated parenting angst only in concern about helping her engage more socially is rapidly morphing into an explosive ball of irrepressible energy who can’t seem to understand why I don’t appreciate her use of her own head as a battering ram to forcibly connect to the more sensitive parts of my anatomy, and who is suddenly resistant to my pleas to be a good example for her little brother in calming down when the situation calls for a bit more reserve. I love both my children to distraction, and no day could be perfect if they were not a major part of it, but Good Grief! I am desperate for someone in our family to identify some mechanism to moderate the wild, destructive energy that is pulsing through our lives and seems ready to pounce at me from around the corner of every parenting decision.

One such particularly mauling pounce occurred last week toward the end of our family’s 5-day whirlwind tour of London. To be fair to the kiddos, we asked a lot of them and didn’t trouble ourselves to request their input too much in the itinerary planning. To be fair to me, I did cut out all possible museum visits and tried to weight each day’s activities with child-friendly options. The Gigglemonster got to attend both a Manchester United match and an American football game (at both of which his team dominated, Go 9ers!). Princess Imagination got to decree that our visit to the Tower of London focused on the historical reenactment of famous female prisoners at the tower, which she found utterly fascinating. The only moments spent in the purse sections of Harrods were those we spent walking through in order to get to the chocolate room and the Christmas shop, and we ate lunch upstairs at the Disney Café. All in all the trip was really designed to please young children as much as possible, especially considering that this was not their first cultural tourist trek and they have given me good cause to expect that they will behave themselves well as long as they get regular snacks and don’t have to walk too much.

Cheering for the 9ers! (with his first foam finger)

Cheering for the 49ers! (with his first foam finger)

The Disney Café had a life-sized Rapunzel!

The Disney Café had a life-sized Rapunzel!

Unfortunately, the font of squirmy energy that has recently begun receiving fresh underground supplies from an unknown source chose a particularly inauspicious moment in our tour to erupt. That moment was Evensong at Westminster Cathedral.

My wonderful mother-in-law (Nanna as the kids call her) was along for the trip and stayed with me and the kids after Tyler had to return to work in Milan. She had never seen the famous and beautiful cathedral and we had decided together that a lovely way to experience Westminster would be the nightly Evensong service. The timing was theoretically perfect. The service was at 5:00, so we could give the  children a little snack beforehand and they wouldn’t be frantic for dinner until well after the service concluded around 6:00. The participation in the service was open to all interested people (no age limit was expressed in any of the descriptions), and it would offer the chance for our experience in the historic church to have more spiritual depth, rather than feeling like another tourism moment. Princess Imagination had participated two days earlier in a communion service at St. Paul’s (while the Gigglemonster was in Manchester with Daddy), and while the service wasn’t without incident it had been the highlight of the trip so far for both Nanna and I. We were both really looking forward to the hour of music and prayer.

If I had known how disastrous it was going to be, I would have found a nearby place to park with the kids while Joan went alone.

Just before we went into Westminster Cathedral. They look so sweet and well-behaved...

Just before we went into Westminster Cathedral. They look so sweet and well-behaved…

It all started well. We entered quietly and the kids stopped to light a candle and say a prayer (the part of Cathedral visits they always find most exciting). They needed a couple of reminders to keep their voices low, but they weren’t unusually energetic. As we approached the congregational seating area a priest ushered us to an aisle where he promptly removed a chair to make space for our stroller and I remember thinking how kind and accommodating he was. Oh the irony!

As we seated ourselves the Gigglemonster squirmed out of the stroller and decreed a sitting arrangement that left me on one end next to him, while Princess Imagination was on the far side of Nanna. It wasn’t ideal, but the room was unnaturally quiet in the minutes of pre-service meditation, despite the hundred or so other worshiper, so I felt it was wisest to just sit down as quickly and quietly as possible. I leaned close to the small, pink ear of my smallest child to whisper a few calm reminders about needing to be quiet and listen in church so that we don’t disturb all the other nice people who are here to worship God too. He nodded agreement and I didn’t notice any tell-tale gleam of resistance in his sparkling brown eyes.

He lasted about 5 minutes. First he was not content that I be holding the order of worship as we rose for the first hymn. I should be holding him instead. That was fine, but he expressed his desire by ripping the card out of my hand and throwing it on the ground. Normally, that kind of unnecessary aggression would have elicited a firm redirection from me, but the shroud of absolute silence that seemed to envelope all participants in the service other than the official voices muffled my tongue. I let it be and cuddled him close, hoping that this affection would meet his needs and infuse him with some of the calm the service was supposed to impart. Ever curious, however, he next started with questions: about where the voices floating out from the quire were coming from, about what the archaic language of the service meant, about why it was dark outside, about any little thing he could think of.

In almost any other context we have worshipped in, his behavior wouldn’t have been exceptional – he was whispering softly and his wriggling body was at least confined to the two seats he and I had taken. Here, however, in the vaulted halls of Westminster, his violation of the unwritten rule of absolute silence echoed loudly. I felt my own tension rising to fill the huge, stone-arched space. I desperately tried to whisper answers with the barest breath of sound; I tried to shush him and remind him that he was distracting other worshippers; I tried to distract him with a small pen and pad of paper, but then he insisted in sprawling on the floor to do his “coloring” and I had a panicked foreshadowing of my attempts to apologize to the priests for a smeared line of blue ink across the storied marble tiles. Princess Imagination then entered the fray by shuffling down from her seat and making an effort to worm her ever-lengthening body onto my lap. That, of course, immediately precipitated a sibling squabble. I was near tears and perhaps farther away for a worshipful attitude than I had ever been in a church before that moment. I tried to shoo my daughter back to her assigned seat, but she stubbornly wriggled in resistance. The repressive atmosphere must have registered with her as well because at least she kept her voice low as she whined in my ear “but I want to sit on your lap.”

I snapped. “I want” is a phrase we have been talking about a lot in our family recently. It comes out of both our children’s mouth with a frequency that drives me up a wall, and we have discussed ad nauseam the importance of understanding that being a family is about cooperating. It is not wrong to have wants or to express them, but it is not OK to just stubbornly insist on them when your want is hurting someone else in the family. If you phrase your repeated expression of a desire for a given thing in our family with “but I want…” you are probably not going to like the result. Princess Imagination knows this very well. “I don’t care what you want,” I hissed into her ear “go back to your seat right now.” It wasn’t my finest parenting moment and I was ashamed of myself as soon as I said it, but she slunk sulkily back to her seat. In that tension-filled moment I was prepared to take an ugly win.

The Gigglemonster, of course, immediately jumped into the space his sister had vacated (as his right, given his original sitting position in the seat next to mine). It calmed him for about 30 seconds. Then he felt in my back pocket and whispered into me ear. “Can I have the iphone?” I jumped at the solution. I slid the sound function to silent and opened up the Feed Me game. Then I breathed. This was good, he settled down happily, his little face inches from the 4 1/2 inch screen, and began finger-dragging objects with intense concentration to appropriately match the shining color prompts. Miraculously, Princess Imagination joined him and they crouched soundlessly and cooperatively in front of the magical device to play together. We were half way through the service. Perhaps I would still have a chance to quiet my heart beat and still my mind to encounter the great God who had inspired such soaring beauty.

I was almost there. I had almost released all my frustration and angst and begun to rest in the meditative prayer of the service when our “accommodating” priest was suddenly bustling toward us with a reproving, even angry expression. “Please turn that off immediately.” “Please” was technically how he began the sentence, but it was not a request. I assumed he was worried about the potential for noise in the sacrosanct silence of the church. “It’s on silent…” I began in a conciliatory whisper, but he cut through my explanation. “Just turn it off now.”

OK. I immediately bent down and took the phone out of the Gigglemonster’s contented hands and turned it off with a murmured “I’m sorry, Honey, it’s the rules.” At this point in the story, I think my 4-year old deserves a round of applause. He could have grabbed for the phone with a loud objection. He could have protested querulously why his quiet, educational entertainment was being taken away. He could have thrown a full-on tantrum on the floor and disrupted the entire service. He did none of these things. He did whisper a “why?” and while I was floundering with my own responsive whisper of “I don’t know honey, the priest just said I have to turn it off” the priest provided a more complete (though to me incomprehensible) answer to Joan. Apparently the church would not tolerate toys of any kind in the service. It wasn’t just electronic devises. Children who came to the church were expected to sit for any hour like miniature adults in total silence.

Huh?

OK. I understand that Westminster Cathedral is not the casual, post-hippy environment of the evangelical church in which I grew up. I didn’t expect them to clear away the chairs at some point in the service so that we could all dance before the Lord like David did. I didn’t even expect them to invite the children forward for a children’s sermon that would have given them some context for understanding all the grown-up talk ,as other Anglican/Episcopal churches often do before the homily. This was an ancient cathedral and it was understandably a more formal environment. But “no toys of any kind”? Really? All worshippers are welcomed to attend, but preschoolers should be prepared to sit for an hour in the evening and listen to choral music, scripture readings from the King James Version, and a chant-like homily with absolutely no distractions? What boggles my mind even more is the fact that all responsible adults are apparently expected to intuitively know this rule and enforce it without intervention. According to Nanna’s recount of the reprimand, this was most certainly the attitude of our stroller-accommodating priest. It wasn’t reasonable for him to have to quietly inform us of this policy before he removed the extra chair, or for a discrete notice to be printed on the service sheet. We should have understood it independently and he was frankly scandalized by our failure to control my phone-wielding children.

Looking back on the incident it is fairly easy to recognize a lot of things I shouldn’t have done. I shouldn’t have depended on a whispered, “now, we have to be quiet during the service” as the sole preparation I gave my children as we entered the hallowed ground of the church. I shouldn’t have let my own anxiety in the situation escalate to a barely controlled tension that couldn’t help but communicate itself to my children and increase their unease. I shouldn’t have snapped angrily into my sweet daughter’s ear that “I didn’t care” about what she wanted, no matter how many times I have explained the inappropriateness of insisting on her own wants without listening to the reasons for why she can’t have them right now. I most certainly shouldn’t have spent the remainder of the service (and significant portions of the following hours and days) stewing in my anger at the rebuking priest who was just doing his job, no matter how ungraciously.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have even gone to the Evensong with my children, or at least I shouldn’t have approached the service with such cavalier expectation of a joyful encounter with God that ignored my responsibility to heavily prepare my children for a very different worship environment and to vigilantly supervise their behavior. The possibility that I just shouldn’t have gone, however, has prompted me to ponder the question that titles this entry. Are my children too young for worship? Are my children really too young to participate in the forms of Christian practice that are most purely reverential and submissive, those forms that require the most rejection of our own immediate sense of self in order to foster a shadowy awareness of God’s otherness and majesty, those forms that are in some ways most worshipful because they emphasize the distance between our natural state and God’s glory?

My own personal journey of faith took many, many steps before really appreciating this aspect of Christian worship. I grew up with a highly approachable God, the Abba/Daddy that Jesus prayed to. This was a God who loved me personally, and I could take anything to him. I didn’t have to worry about “not behaving that way in church” because God saw me all the time, and loved me in every context, and the stiff comportment required by uptight, mainline denominations was “too legalistic” and didn’t reflect our freedom in Christ. At family camp my Pastor actually wore cut-off jean shorts while preaching (gasp!).

This God is utterly biblical and much easier to explain to young children than the more distant and holy images of God that are also portrayed in the pages of the Bible (not to mention the violent and vengeful passages that, frankly, a lot of adult Christians are not emotionally and spiritually ready to acknowledge). Given the large swath of Christendom that shies away from the God Rudolf Otto describes as Wholly Other, it is hardly fair of me to expect my children’s young faith to relish the spiritual encounter with majesty in the context of grandiose silence.

And yet… One of the many wonderful blessings I have enjoyed during our European sojourn is the chance to experience spiritual growth through the medium of Europe’s grand Cathedrals. A slightly disdainful discomfort with the opulence and expense that these monuments represent has slowly been moderated by an appreciation for how they direct my mind to the transcendence and grandeur of God. Awe and reverence can frankly be hard to grasp when God is the buddy you carry around in your heart so you can pour out your troubles in any time and place that suits you with a quick “Dear Jesus” prayer. Much easier to really sink into an appreciation of just how great Christ’s choice to humble himself was, when I have to crane my neck back uncomfortably to gaze up at a broken body hanging from a cross in a context of glittering, awe-inspiring beauty. This enhanced awareness of God’s greatness and glory has truly deepened the power of my faith in my life, and I want that power for my children’s faith as well. I want to expose them not just to the casual, accessible God, but also to the God so far above us that we can never reach God on our own.

But how do I find that balance? It’s not just a curmudgeonly priest at Westminster Cathedral that I have to overcome. On our earlier visit to St. Paul’s my most docile child had struggled to comport herself in a manner that shows any understanding of the duty of reverence.

Our family on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, before the boys took off for the game.

Our family on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, before the boys took off for the game.

The national cathedral is an equally beautiful and awe-inspiring building that offered an entirely more open experience of worship (the priest kept inviting us to sit or stand or sing with the phrase “perhaps you will…”). Nevertheless, when the time came for interested congregants to come forward for communion, she threw a mini fit. I reminded her as we processed up the line that she would receive a blessing rather than communion, since she hasn’t yet been baptized. She got upset. Perhaps she was hungry and eager for a little snack. Perhaps she didn’t want an unfamiliar old man putting his hand on her head. Whatever the reason, she was not interested, and she angrily demanded that I leave the line to go back to our seats with her. I didn’t think it was appropriate to give in to this imperious order and I calmly said no. She didn’t actually throw a tantrum, but she nearly tore my arm out of its socket as she clung to my hand and retreated behind my back with an angry glare as the priest attempted to offer her the blessing. When we talked later about how rude that had been she could grudgingly apologize for ignoring my instructions and insisting that I forgo the communion, but she expressed no sense that such behavior was irreverent in a context of worship, a sense that had made my own experience of the incident much more mortifying.

Obviously, I made a lot of parenting errors in London churches and I am painfully aware that my own embarrassment when my children act out in public is far too acute. Nevertheless, I feel like I must be missing something in the way I am teaching my children about what it means to worship in church. I lack a language and a teaching context for helping my children to encounter reverence in worship. I want my children to know God as close, and loving, and intimate, but not at the expense of any sense that God deserves our deepest respect. Obviously, it’s not all on me. God has a stake in my children’s spiritual growth as well and God’s Spirit is the only one who had ultimately call forth faith. But I still feel heavily the responsibility to teach my children well.

So, I turn to you, my readers. What do you think? Is faith a journey of discovery in which we can present just one aspect of God early on until children are ready for more? Should we teach them about being quiet and respectful in church at the risk of an association between God and repression? Should we try to expose them to different contexts for worship or just abstain from opportunities to worship with other branches of the faith “until the kids are old enough?” Are my kids just spoiled brats that can’t handle rules because I’m too soft on them? OK, that last one in tongue-in-cheek, but I really am interested in your opinions.

What guidelines would you recommend for a Christian mom trying to teach her children how to worship of a God who is both near and loving and transcendent and glorious?


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Bravo for Uncertainty

For the past several months I’ve been undergoing a struggle with the presence of uncertainty in my life . It would be reasonable to connect this state with our imminent return to New Jersey, and the fact that I have virtually no idea what I will be doing for work once I get there. Strangely, though, I am not actually feeling terribly anxious on that front. Unbelievably for a slightly OCD, highly goal-oriented, hyper-planner like myself, I find myself strangely calm in the face of the vast blank canvas that is the next landscape through which my career will pass. I have this strange, passive, peace posture that has taken up residence in my mind and that keeps telling me “you’ll figure it out in due time. Don’t stress about it.” I’m a bit bemused by this development, and I am hugely grateful.

I am, however, wrestling mightily with a very different source of insecurity. The main catalyst for this struggle has been the church we are attending here in Milan. Given the fact that we are a Protestant, English-speaking family living in 95% Catholic Italy, our choices for church fellowship are what I would call limited. Add the fact that we have two young children, one of whom is voracious for a sunday school program that can feed her insatiable appetite for learning about God (in English), and “limited” turns into one church option. This option can, in my opinion, be fairly categorized as fundamentalist. I, in the opinion of anyone who has ever had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes, cannot be so categorized. In my more irreverent moments I may have occasionally referred to myself as a recovering fundamentalist, but usually I am content just to recognize that my faith journey has been a long one and leave it at that. I have walked in the shoes of biblical literalists and gotten painful blisters from them, and then come to realize that God didn’t make my feet (or my mind, to really stretch the metaphor) to fit those shoes. God has instead prepared much more supportive footwear that speeds me toward eager knowledge and worship of Jesus, and to the scandal of some I still deign to consider those feet shod with “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).

For many years I have felt at peace with the answers I have found to foundational questions about how God speaks through the Bible and how I can most responsibly engage the task of reading and applying scripture in the context of my life. I won’t pretend that these answers were easily come by, or that the process of finding them was without pain, and doubt, and anxiety, but until a few months ago I would have said those struggles were in my past.

But it appears that I can only be hammered on by fundamentalist preaching for so long before developing some bruises. My confidence began to shake. What if I’m wrong? What if “historical context” is just a screen I am hiding behind to excuse God and myself from things in the Bible that I don’t like? What if I’m really making an idol of my own mind by thinking that I have to wrestle with difficult texts instead of just submitting to them? What if I am rejecting God’s right to be God by questioning the absolute authority of the “plain meaning” of this or that text and subjecting it to the test of cultural changes that could alter its application.

I imagine that even the language and framing of some of those queries might have just alienated any of my readers who have not been frequently immersed in the theological morass of arguments about Biblical inerrancy. If that is you, and if you are still reading (thank you!), I apologize. It’s unfortunately ground that I have covered with too much angst, and argued with too many words to be able to just boil it down to plain talk. If I were to try, however, I guess I would summarize it this way. My pastor says that the Bible is God’s Word (and by that I think he literally means that it is essentially dictated by God with no interference from the human authors God used). The consequence of this position is that it’s my job to just do what the Bible says, no questions asked. When I put it that baldly it seems clear to me that some of the mystery of God is missing from that equation, and yet the absolute certainty of the position has a compelling seduction. Oh to be so sure of everything you believe. Oh to know, with no doubt, that all you have to do is read your Bible and you will know exactly what God wants you to do in every situation in your life. I don’t like a lot of the places that view takes my fundamentalist brothers and sisters in terms of beliefs and behaviors, but the assurance of it does demand some attention.

And so, I’ve been struggling: reading my Bible with renewed appetite to know what it says; praying painful prayers of confession about my own pride and of requests for guidance; talking to myself so incessantly that I am sick of my own voice inside my head; and reaching out to a few trusted family members and friends to seek community and advice. One of these friends recommended going back to trusted resources that have helped me with this struggle in the past. Again, my immediate context imposes limits on this endeavor, because most of my precious seminary books are locked away in some storage bin in Memphis during my European sojourn. There is one book, however, that I happened to pack in the Italy boxes (or that the Holy Spirit guided me to pack — fundamentalists don’t have a corner on that market!). It is a book by one of my former seminary professors called Cultural Interpretation and it applies the methods of sociolinguistics to the process of scriptural interpretation. Now, I may have just lost whatever hardy readers had been hanging with me through the first batch of ten-dollar words, but if any of you are still there this is the “basic tenet” of the theory of sociolinguistics: “context shapes the creation and use of language” (Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1995, p.vii).

It is not such a complicated or controversial idea, really. Especially not after nearly three years surrounded by a context and language that are palpably foreign to me. I had academically assented to this proposition when I studied it eight or nine years ago in seminary. I now experientially know it’s truth. Languages do not simply differ in terms of the sound combinations they associate with a given concept, as though the concept were an abstract reality that has some independent being apart from language (sorry Plato!) — the concepts themselves are bound up in the language. Alright, there are actual concrete objects, like a chair or a ball, where the difference in language is really just one of sound. But the important ideas (like what English-speakers mean by faith, and truth, and even God) cannot be so easily dissected from their linguistic roots. To speak a language with any level of fluency, you have to be inhabited by the culture and the perspective on reality that birthed it. I have noted frequently that I actually undergo a noticeable personality change when I speak in Italian rather than English. Suddenly I am more social, more friendly, more ready to agree with conversation partners and more hesitant to pose a counter point. This is not just a function of the limits of my fluency; it is the cultural context of the language itself. The language subtly changes the way I see the world and my role in it.

The point for this post is that language matters, not just which words you choose, but the bank of words that you have to pick from. For those who may have never experienced this language/culture shift, perhaps there is an example that can shed some light on the idea. A number of Italian words have made their way into English usage and thus will be familiar to my readers. This fact may appear to undermine my point, but stay with me, because the migration of languages can have an impact on the words’ meanings. In other words, borrowed words, at least more “conceptual” ones, don’t simply transfer all of their meaning from one language to the next. The cultural context of their new usage shapes their meaning. One such word is “bravo.” I have heard this phrase often enough in America, almost universally in the context of rather high-brow cultural performances. It is a word that is shouted to a performer from the audience to indicate appreciation of their mastery in a given performance. It is a very clearly defined and straight-forward usage, with a self-satisfied veneer of culture that relishes the European roots of the phrase.

This was my framework for understanding the meaning of “bravo” when I moved to Italy. I was almost immediately struck, upon entering the country, that something very different was meant by the term here. Setting aside the Italian particularity in terms of number and gender (“bravo” is only applied to a singular man or boy; for women/girls or groups the word is changed: brava, bravi, etc.). Beyond this variation, the word itself is thrown around with almost careless abandon. If I understand something said to me in Italian, I am awarded with a “brava.” If my children are well-behaved in a store, people comment to me that they were “bravi.” In fact, this is one of the most common positive descriptors that I hear. From to teachers, to nannies, to local business proprietors, everyone is described as “bravo.” Bravo isn’t just an expression of praise, a way of saying “well-done,” it is a character trait. For my first few weeks I was under the vague impression that Italians were simply mad for extravagant expressions of praise, but I slowly came to understand that the word just means something different here. To understand that meaning, I needed to learn more about the culture that used it. When a friend talked about wanting her son to be “bravo” she was describing a desire for his character that didn’t really translate to English when she switched languages and said she wanted him to be a “good boy.” Yes, she wanted him to be “good,” to be “well-behaved,” but there was another element to it as well, a component of conforming to a certain standard for behavior that would be worthy of eliciting praise. It’s an echo of the performance-centered American meaning, but it looks totally different as a character trait.

The point of this extended linguistic discussion to my struggle with uncertainty is this: once I understand how dependent I am on language to shape my way of seeing the world, and once I see how incomplete any given language is in its ability to express things that are outside the scope of its generating culture, the yearning for certainty cannot survive. To grasp such certainty I would have to condense truth down into a concept that could be fully contained within the English language, and that is palpably absurd to me.

I am not making any claims about absolute relativism with this statement. I am fully convinced that God has a concrete essence that isn’t dependent on any language, but that in fact illuminates the very inadequacies of that language. The greatest truth of my life is the experience of contact with that God who leaves me speechless in awe and love and gratitude for the chance to know (even if only dimly) and be known (utterly and completely).

My point here is not that God is relative, but that God is not relative, while language is. God isn’t limited by language and it is one of the greatest of all miracles that we do have revelation from this God, but one of the primary mechanisms for that revelation is the written word, and to access that revelation I am dependent on my language as an access point. This dependence on language creates uncertainty, the recognition, when I am honest with myself, that I cannot possibly have an absolute lock on truth. My language isn’t that big. It is shaped by my culture and by experiences with words in all kinds of mundane settings. As such, all I can hope for this side of eternity is a small and shadowy approximation.

It’s not certainty, and that can be really hard. But after months of struggle I am starting to settle down with uncertainty. I’m starting to feel, after all this, that perhaps uncertainty is bravo.


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Why It’s So Hard to Love My Neighbor

I’ve recently been using a new book in my morning devotional time. I’ve turned to it in part because it offers a very simple formula that I hope may help with my consistency, and in part because it is based on the writings of Teresa of Avila (a contemplative, spiritual author, and Carmelite reformist), whose life and writings demonstrate a deep and transformative understanding of prayer in the Christian life. The formula that so appeals to me is as follows: 1) a morning reading, drawn from Teresa’s prolific writing, 2) a “mantra” from the day’s reading to write down and repeat to myself as a guide for meditation throughout the day, 3) an evening prayer that draws from the reading and focuses me on seeking God through whatever truth has been germinating in my daily reflection. No formula is perfect, but I have been finding Teresa’s words inspiring and the task of day-long meditation very fruitful.

Particularly today!

I won’t reproduce the full morning reading here, but the theme it explored is the teaching that is commonly referred to as the first and second commandments. Stated most simply in the opening of the reading, “Our Lord asks but two things of us: love for God and love for our neighbors.” It is an imperative so familiar to the lifelong Christian that it is sometimes hard to take in the full import of those words. They are formulaic instructions that do not often take active root in the routines and responsibilities of daily life. This day’s reflection, however, managed to give them new life for me. Teresa makes the point that it can be hard to evaluate how genuinely we are loving God, but it is much more obvious how we are doing with our neighbor-love obligation. What is more, this neighbor love, although “second” in priority can actually be the means to factually, concretely loving God. As summarized in my mantra for the day:

If we possess a true love of neighbor

we will certainly attain union with our Lord.

I found this argument compelling, but hard to really grasp. I’ve had the experience in my Christian life of what has felt like quite the opposite — where love for people (whether they be within my own family or disadvantaged groups for whom I have advocated) has felt like it is in competition with my love for God. Not that God doesn’t approve of the love and devotion I show to these others, but it is too easy for me to misprioritize and leave my devotion to God in the shadows of my more practical, visible loves. How then can my practice of neighbor-love be actually the route through which I achieve the union with God that manifests true, committed love?

As I began my day, I was wrestling with this question, unsure what answers I would find but sort of vaguely asking God for revelation. My morning agenda offered little opportunity for really exploring the concrete practice of neighbor love. There was some casual chatting with other moms at school drop-off, and a few facebook posts to respond to, but mostly I had a solitary morning of working on my book. I glanced at my post it note a few times, trying to internalize the message, but that was about it.

Then, 1:00 hit and I went to grab my shoes. Wednesday is an optional half-day at school from Year 2 and up, and I had promised Princess Imagination that I would collect her early for a little special Mommy-Daughter time without the Gigglemonster. Perhaps it was the morning spent perched sideways on the couch typing away; perhaps it was the final devolution of that knot in my back that has been bugging me for days. All I know is that I reached down to fasten my shoe, and I suddenly saw stars. The pain was like a micro explosion in the center of my back that radiated pulsing pressure in every direction and temporarily stole my breath away. I couldn’t move. Even just inhaling hurt.

As the minutes ticked toward the 1:30 pick-up I imagined my Princess’s shining face as the gates swung open, searching the crowd of maternal faces for mine. I can’t let her down! I have to be there. On a slow, relaxing inhale I used my hands for support as I eased back against the wall. Once my back was vertical it felt a little better. The stabbing pain disappeared as long as I didn’t try to move. That left only the pressure of an elephant compressing my spine. But I could manage that. I had to! I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer for miraculous healing, but added grudgingly at the end “not my will, but yours be done.” Apparently, sudden miraculous freedom from pain was not God’s will for the moment.

So here was my first chance to practice neighbor love – to go pick up my daughter instead of calling the school to cancel and then lying on an icepack for the next two hours. When I pictured her desolation if I failed to show I didn’t feel like I really had that much of a choice, but still it was a chance to see what Teresa was talking about.

The problem is, Teresa was talking about true love and that goes beyond making the painful drive to pick up the eager 6year old. That requires actually focusing on her needs over and above my own. I tried. I let her pick the art activity of her choice, and once I’d finished my 20 minutes of floor-bound ice packs I joined her at the table and happily made play dough spaghetti for the next hour. I know from her glowing smile and the energy exploding out of her for the rest of the day that this was a really special time for her. But…

This wasn’t really the neighbor love Teresa was talking about, the love that brings us into union with God. I knew that when each stab of pain made me wish I hadn’t promised her this afternoon together. I knew it when her enthusiastic pull on the purse slung on my shoulder ejected a verbal slap from my lips (“Don’t pull on my purse. My back is hurt!!!“). I hadn’t elected the most selfish option possible for my afternoon, but neither was I really putting her first.

As the afternoon progressed, and the ibuprofen and ice packs did their work, my pain relented to a reasonable degree and we went to pick up the Gigglemonster. After homework and a few books and cuddles the kids involved themselves in independent play, so I went scrolling on Facebook. What I found there was a Sojourners post about a Rick Warren controversy of which I hadn’t been aware. I won’t belabor the details, but apparently the well-known pastor (or his staff) had made an ill-advised post on twitter and Facebook. It was an image drawn from a propaganda poster for the Red Army and it was supposed to present a picture of the kind of motivation and commitment displayed by their church team. The blog post offered a strong (though I thought reasonable) critique, not only of the use of the image, but primarily of the justification that was posted after the image was removed. The critique argued powerfully for why the excuse of irony and joking displayed a failure to understand how hurtful and inappropriate these posts had been. (To see the blog post: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/09/25/dear-pastor-rick-warren-i-think-you-don%E2%80%99t-get-it).

I nodded my head vigorously, though figuratively (unnecessary spinal motion is still severely curtailed). The post exposed how unloving it is to ask an oppressed group to “take a joke” and I found a connection to the mantra I had been contemplating all day. However unintentional or uninformed the original decision to post the image had been, the real damage was done by the failure to take responsibility for causing pain or to even ask forgiveness. This was a key element to this love of neighbor that Teresa was describing. Love of neighbor requires humility, the willingness to respond not just to others’ physical needs but to their emotional needs as well. And sometimes, others’ emotional needs might require us to accept that we don’t always have the right to make a joke. By being vulnerable to another’s pain, even a pain we can’t really relate to, we make ourselves more open to union with the God who took on all our pain.

Feeling pretty good about my spiritual insightfulness I scrolled through the comments following the blog. Most of them were “like-able,” applauding the author’s clarity and message. Then I came to a response that rebuked the author for not offering enough grace to Rick Warren.

Wait a minute! I wanted to scream into my tiny I-phone screen. Did you even read the article? Warren’s the privileged white guy who does something really offensive and then whines that he was just trying to be funny. He’s not the victim here! If he won’t look for the truth in the negative feedback he gets, then he needs more negative feedback, not grace!

And then my eyes fell on that little post it note. If we possess true love of neighbor we will certainly attain union with our Lord. Well, I wasn’t feeling terribly unified with my Lord at the moment. Not that God never expresses righteous anger, but the thing with God’s anger is that it really is utterly righteous. There is no shadow of pomposity or strident self-justification. If God is angry it’s because the Source of perfect goodness has been violated and that demands justice. My self-righteousness, on the other hand, has a lot of personal ego and defensiveness and other less-than-savory ingredients added to the mix. I can’t really agree with the comment that rejected a valid critique because it lacks “grace,” but I’m not loving my neighbor when I compose scathing responses to his ignorance, even if they are just in my head.

With that stinging conviction on my brain I got dinner on the table. As the kids sat down I asked the Gigglemonster to pick a prayer. (The kids have a few books of children’s prayers on the dinner table and they take turns selecting prayers at meal time). Here is the gem he picked out for tonight:

Dear God,

People are all different, but you love them just the same,

Please teach me how to do this, Lord — to love them in your name.

Amen!

Stated here so clearly, in the language of young children, was the truth about love that I had been struggling toward all day. Loving my neighbor, and thereby drawing into union with God, is not about me! Love that builds unity is about understand God’s love for others that transcends all our differences. That kind of love doesn’t fall back on excuses for how I’m in pain and I really need to put myself first. That kind of love doesn’t ask others to understand my point of view. That kind of love doesn’t get defensive and self-righteous when faced with difference. It loves “just the same.”

I think I am starting to understand how Teresa can claim that true love of neighbor can draw us into union with God. I am very, very, far from that kind of true love, but I am starting to understand it and to at least want to be able to practice it.

Please teach me how to do this, Lord. Amen


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Fashion Miss

I have officially missed my chance to experience the couture euphoria that is the bi-annual Milan Fashion Week.

Although I have never been a fashionista, I had always assumed that IMG_0886I would take advantage of this emblematic experience of the fashion capital of the world at some point in my nearly 3-year residence. It’s the sort of thing you are just supposed to do. It’s like seeing the Sistine Chapel when in Vatican City, or taking a Gondola ride in Venice. The experience is not complete — you have not felt the beating heart of the city — without that essential component. These icons may not be elements of the daily life of the locals, but they are still bound to the identity of the city itself and thus are not to be missed, however far they lie from any individual visitor’s natural interests.

Of course, having introduced those parallel examples, I have to admit that my first visits to the cities of the Popes and of the canals did not include the requisite sites.

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica

The cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica

For our family’s first trip to Rome we had budgeted only one day for Vatican City and we hadn’t booked our tickets ahead of time. When we arrived in the square of St. Peter’s Basilica the line for the Museum (the only way to access the Sistine Chapel) had already wound the kilometer or so from the Museum entrance into the square. With a 21-month old in arms we weren’t eager for that 3-4 hour wait. So, instead we opted to climb the cupola of the Basilica. Of course, we hadn’t really thought through the whole infant-in-arms factor, since he certainly wasn’t climbing all those stairs, nor was then 4-year old Princess Imagination! Once we had recovered from that cardiovascular stress test, we called it a day!

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

The Gigglemonster found Daddy's hat much more entertaining than the view.

The Gigglemonster found Daddy’s hat much more entertaining than the view.

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco...

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco…

My first trip to Venice also lacked the quintessential experience of the canals because I was there with my Mom, my older sister, and my two little ones (rather than my husband) and I figured I would save the romance for another trip.

That’s one of the things about “visiting” Europe as a resident — it has always felt like I would have the chance to catch the things I haven’t yet done. In the last 3 years I have spent exponentially more time as a tourist than I had spent in my entire 33 years prior to landing in Italy, but I have done all that touring with the background knowledge that I’m not really that far from home. I would read my guidebooks and make my plans, but when the reality of travelling with young children inevitably derailed my schedule that was OK. I could always plan a do-over.

In the case of the Sistine chapel and the gondola ride, this was well-placed confidence. Along with Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, I now do know what it smells like in the Sistine chapel (sweaty tourists) and also what it sounds like (low murmurs in countless languages regularly interrupted by staccato loudspeaker demands for silencio). Less of a disappointment were my two gondola rides – the first with my younger sister who shares my enamored response to the city of magic waterways, the second cuddled next to my husband watching the delight play across the faces of our children. Both floating adventures offering a unique celebration of the romance of the canals.

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In the case of Milan, however, my casual assumption that I would eventually get to a Milan fashion show has not be fulfilled. The fall fashion week overtook the city last week, and I barely noticed. There was one electronic announcement of Vogue’s Fashion Night Out that floated through my inbox, but my life was too busy with grocery shopping, and sick children, and school events, and birthday parties to take much notice. I wasn’t even engaged enough in the manifestation of the city’s obsession to really regret my non-involvement.

To be more accurate I should say that I felt no regret UNTIL I drove past one final event yesterday afternoon. Our apartment, in a very non-posh residential area of the city, is strangely close to a permanent Calvin Klein showroom. This venerated space is usually closed up and walking by the tinted windows yield my curious eyes only glimpses in shaded silhouette of monochromatic clothing racks . Yesterday, however, the exclusive doors were thrown open and a small crowd of beautiful people were gathered on the street, the creative parking of their luxury cars blocking traffic and their air of sophisticated ennui gliding down the sidewalk to intimidate my mommy-blogger soul as I slunk past in my bright blue Citroen Picasso.

I suddenly hit me that this was it. I was never going to have a chance to blend into that chic crowd and experience my moment of glamour by association. The realization was painful. I don’t think my vanity is exceptional for a thirty-something American woman, but neither do I relish the obligation to think of myself as a fashion outsider. Considering my attire as my longing gaze slid past all the pretty people, however, I had to face facts. I was dressed in a plain, white, cotton sweater, boot cut Lucky jeans, and (cringe) scuffed up brown clogs! Back in the States this get-up would be perfectly acceptable attire for any number of social events (not to mention Sunday errands, which was what I was doing). In Milano, however, Lucky is not recognized as a brand, the only recognized style of jeans are skinny jeans, and I have never, ever, seen one single other person in the city wearing clogs. If I had tried to enter the fashion show in that pitiable outfit, it’s entirely possibly that the illustrious brand being presented would have permanently banned me from ever purchasing their clothing. They might not have actually sent wanted posters sporting my picture to all of their international stores, but then again…

It was a low moment for me. I wanted to be above it all. I wanted to be able to hold my head high and confess without shame that “fashion isn’t my thing and I don’t really want it to be.” I’ve always been happy to ignore name brands and style trends and just wear what looks good on me. But the fact is, Milan is contagious. Just as I could not visit Vatican City without absorbing some level of awe for the grandiosity of the Roman Church, and I could not escape Venice without inhaling a craving for the fragile beauty of blown glass and floating palaces, so it seems that I have not walked the streets of Milan without succumbing to the endemic worship of the god of fashion. I can roll my eyes at the price tags and wince at some of the more extreme attempts of the select fashion plate moms who frequent the kids’ school, but deep down I envy the women who could step out of the school corridors and onto a magazine spread. It’s not just their perfect size 2 figures (although that doesn’t help), or their glowing olive skin long after my summer tan has disappeared, it’s also the posh image they project. They look beautiful, and stylish, and like they belong, which leaves me feeling unattractive, and frumpy, and like an outsider.

Which leaves me with a question about I would change, if I could. Would I spend the time to follow each new trend and the money to adhere to it? Would I fill my closet with dry clean only couture that requires a second closet for matching shoes? Would I actually wear the daring fashions that look so chic on others because they have the attitude to pull them off? I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes long to look like that, but do I really want to change myself? Because, really, fashion is not just the clothes one wears, it’s also how one wears them.

I am aware at this point that this post could read as very judgmental, and that is not how I mean it. I am not judging the spiritual depth or the personal admirableness of any of the moms whom my jealous eyes follow. In fact, some of them have become my friends and the last 3 years have taught me a lot about judging by appearances.

But the realization this last fashion week has brought to me isn’t about them, it’s about myself. If were to embrace the world of fashion, committing the time, and energy, and money that would be required to keep pace on the streets of Milan, it would mean changing myself. It would mean a reprioritization that pulled away from things I really want to value more. I can confess that all the pretty people make me jealous, that they even make it hard to hold to my personal integrity. But jealousy is slightly different that value. And at my core I know that’s just not me.

So, the fact that I have missed out on fashion week is a bittersweet reality. I don’t doubt that it would have been fun. Had I managed to wrangle a ticket to some minor show I could have wrestled something from my closet that would have spared me total humiliation. I would have enjoyed the glimpse of glamour, and sophistication, and the life of another world. But ultimately, I can’t really regret the miss. The truth is that I am more than a little eager to escape the streets of Milan and their ever-present pressure to present a fashionable face. Italy I will miss: the language, the food, the many friends we have made. But I won’t miss the fashion that is so central to this city. It’s beautiful. But it isn’t me.

My family are the only accessories I really need.

My family are the only accessories I really need.