Hurricane Thoughts

I’m a native Floridian. I’m also a professional worrier, so my mind last week was on Irma a lot, praying for friends and family in its path.

And coming after Hurricane Harvey, which probably elicited a Hail Mary or two from me, or the fires out West, which pretty much flew under my radar, I’m feeling some guilt about my completely arbitrary distribution of compassion.

I was talking about this with a friend recently, who at the time was fretting about what Hurricane Irma might do to her Outer Banks vacation, and of course feeling guilty about that, when so much greater suffering is occurring as a result. After all, while a hurricane might obligingly spin out to sea and leave everyone untouched, generally, if you’re praying for the safety of one set of people, you’re sort of sacrificing other sets who will end up in the storm’s path instead.

While we were talking, though, over breakfast in our church’s basement, she pointed to a poster with the photos of current seminarians in our diocese. She admitted that each year, as she comforted unruly babies during Mass, she’d pick, at random, one of the seminarians and pray for him over the course of the year. (I love this idea, don’t you?)

And suddenly, the arbitrary allotment of prayer didn’t seem so selfish. We are human; we are finite. (News fatigue is a thing, after all.) We form a connection, as deep as the third-generation Florida blood that runs in my veins or as serendipitous as a face chosen at random off a poster, and we devote our efforts deeply, if not broadly.

It’s the same reason, after all, that since returning from Uganda in 2009, J and I have devoted much of our (admittedly often limited) philanthropy and prayers to Uganda. We only spent six months there, almost ten years ago, but I have a bit of a better context to focus my prayers and guide my financial giving: I know the towns where the people we fund through Kiva live; I know bits of the Lhukonzo our Compassion International child speaks.

I can’t care as deeply for everyone affected by natural disaster as those living in the landscapes in which I’m mostly deeply rooted; I cannot grieve the losses of every child the way I pray for my Compassion child in the loss of his father. That’s not to say I can’t care more, pray more, give more — I have a very long way to go! It’s only to say that you have causes, and I have causes, and if each of us in the world take up a few causes of our own, dear to our hearts, and nourish them well, that might be a good starting place. Breaking the world into small, meaningful chunks and loving those around us as best we can — that seems like a plan we can just about manage.

 

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Epiphany

This year I found myself in an overstuffed car on Epiphany, brimful with Christmas gifts and children and a dog and spilled Apple Jacks. I had worn second-day tights to the early Mass in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that morning, and we’d stepped delicately over ice to load up into the car, and finally, after three weeks of travel, we were on our way home.

I’m not sure I ever noticed Epiphany before I became a mother, but when he was a baby, Pippin’s godmother thrifted him a copy of The Third Giftwhich at first mostly caught his attention because the protagonist looked to him like Aunt Beca. (At the time she was sporting a pretty great pixie.)

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The plot is merely a footnote or preamble to Epiphany: the life of a boy who apprentices his father in the collection of myrrh, and how some of that myrrh is sold to strangers from far away. It’s simple and lovely, and brought to life Epiphany for me in a new way, especially Bagram Ibatoulline’s concluding illustration: a little cave-like barn, on the horizon, the glow of the city; and in the barn, clustered haphazardly, mysteriously, those central figures we’ve seen all Advent, all of it looking like chance.

The story of the three kings has a sort of quiet fairytale beauty after the high drama and tinsel of Christmas, doesn’t it? That frisson of fear with big, bad King Herod looming. The mysterious star, the moonlight. Strangers on a strange landscape. An improbable meeting. Everything pointing to a future no one yet understands.

And maybe it was thinking about the little myrrh-gatherer that made the thought occur to me, but what became of those gifts? If Jesus is truly the child of the poor, a soon-to-be refugee, are the gifts hocked on the run to Egypt? Or do they later fund his ministry? Are they given to adorn the Temple? Or do they endure in secret long past Jesus’s death, tucked away in a basket, pored over by she who pondered these things in her heart?

In this little episode, we get all the otherworldliness and everydayness that is Christ among us. And we get Epiphany on the tail of our own gift avalanche, with its enduring tokens of far away people who love us, crammed inelegantly into our humble, aging car, pointing to the magic and beauty that lingers in the chaotic Christmas aftermath.

Rethinking Running

“It doesn’t have to be running,” the midwife reminded me cheerfully. “It can be any kind of exercise you like.”

But that’s the point. There is no kind of exercise I like. It turned out my resting pulse was a little high, and anyway, I’d been fighting the conviction for awhile. And so running it is.

Running, at least, has the nontrivial advantages of frugality and efficiency. I don’t have to drive anywhere or buy a membership. I just barrel out the back door, wheeze a ways, and wheeze back.

I had done this all once, maybe twice, before: once during a busy semester in college when the doctor listened to my pulse, sent me to the cardiologist, and put me on a stationery bike; once when I was working part-time before kids and trying to keep the crazy at bay. (I’m not counting the three weeks I ran in preparation for the Dales Way, newly pregnant with Pippin, until the time I threw up in my hair and gave up on exercise for the duration.)

A turning point this time was coming to grips with the idea that for me, running is not ever probably going to be “me time.” I get up while it’s still dark, when I don’t have to, and I put on clothes that are hard to put on with sleep-clumsy hands, and maybe sometimes the sun rises beautifully over reddening trees, and maybe sometimes I see a deer, and maybe sometimes I enjoy my audiobook, but mostly, I grit my teeth and do my 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.

I was slipping into the vocal registers that are not OK, especially with my most threesome three-year-old, and I had done all the self-care measures I actually like, the carving out time for reading and getting extra sleep. I know running helps me to be less anxious, and anxiety and impatience were ruling my day, at least at high-friction times of the day like getting out the door, and the lead-up to nap time. I had apologized to my son enough, and it was time to try something else.

And so I run, and I don’t think of it as me time, or self-care, or all the other things exercise is supposed to be for women like me. I think of it as medicine. I think of it as penance. It is what I am doing to be a better mother, a better wife, a happier human. On those mornings, I am letting go of all the times I’ve failed to be those things, forgiving myself, having already asked forgiveness of those I’ve hurt. And I’m running toward a kinder, gentler future, one grudging run at a time.

At confession, recently, I shared my theory of running as penance with my confessor, who to my surprised relief didn’t immediately dismiss it. “Well, I mean, historically penance has been physical. It’s been bodily. It’s only lately that it’s all prayers.”

Huh. Fair enough. Maybe my Nikes are my hair shirt, my morning jogs a modern-day pilgrimage. A prayer with my body, for calm, for peace.

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The Patchwork Liturgist

In my adult life, I’ve passed through six translations of the liturgy: the old American Roman Catholic, England’s Roman Catholic liturgy, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Uganda’s simplified English liturgy, the formal Anglican liturgy favored by our church in Massachusetts (the 1928 BCP, maybe?) and the new Roman Catholic — not to mention all the masses I’ve participated in, however feebly, in French and Italian, Latin and Lhukonzo.

The result being, I stumble over the Nicene Creed, struggle with the clunky response, “And with your spirit.” I feel like an outsider, clutching my laminated card of responses, sneaking furtive glances to remind myself if it’s “For our good and the good of all the church,” or if that’s some other fragment I am remembering. It’s hard to enter in to worship and lose myself when I’m forever bumbling.

But what’s that idea from literary theory? Defamiliarization? The idea that there is value in language getting shaken up, in looking at the same thing in a new light. I get that from all the credal and geographic peregrinations of my twenties.

The legacy of these church shakeups is all the little bits and pieces that have struck me anew because in some sense they were new, to me at least. I’ve got the Song of Simeon memorized from the long soft twilights of my two newlywed summers doing Evensong each Thursday with Anglican friends in Tallahassee. I know the Agnes Dei in Latin from the beautiful immigrant-built church I attended in college, because, though a cradle Catholic who met my husband in high school Latin class, I’d never worshiped in Latin till I moved to Macon.

“It’s the Creed! It’s not SAT prep!” Stephen Colbert complained when the Church rolled out its new translation of the Mass, and while I hope time smoothes the awkward edges of our still-new English Roman Catholic liturgy, I still love falling into the rhythm of communal speech, of being pulled up short by my own stumbles, echoes that draw me back to holy places throughout my life.  A friend who has church-hopped nearly as extensively suggested that in our many mistakes, in lunging for the cheat sheet, maybe we make ourselves just a little more approachable to newcomers, and that’s valuable, too.

I’m not here to argue that they’re all equally right or even all equally beautiful. (The beautiful, cobwebby lyricism of the BCP will always win that for me.) But I feel deeply the romance of the universality that remains —behind impassioned scholarly debates between “born of” and “incarnate,” through the awkwardness of the word “consubstantial,” in the earnestness of imperfect words — in the beauty of the same supper celebrated by communities I’ve come to love the world over.

Just You Wait

“Sleep while you can, because when the baby comes, you’ll never sleep again!” she grins to the pregnant woman in the grocery line, who couldn’t go a two-hour stretch last night without waking up to pee.

“You think a baby’s hard? Just you wait until you hit the terrible twos!” the more experienced dad says, chuckling, to the harried new father.

“I raised twins! I didn’t have a moment to myself for years!” another older lady chimes in cheerfully when you confess at church coffee hour that your third baby reaching the mobile stage has temporarily overwhelmed you.

It’s kindly meant, I know, but I never want to be one of those “just you wait” parents, who minimize all the suffering and struggle of folks newer to parenthood. I’m good enough myself at playing those scenarios in my head: if one baby is hard, how will I survive two? If I’m tired in pregnancy, how will I keep up with a preverbal toddler someday? Just wait till I have surly teenagers, if I can’t control my temper with a toddler!

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Oh, does that look like an impressive baby bump to you, first time mama? Just you wait until you look eleven weeks pregnant FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Some of the kindest, most awe-inspiring mamas I know haven’t made my small challenges feel trivial. I rode out the long waves of morning sickness with Pippin, resting confident in the advice of a friend and mother of five. “If you have a lot of morning sickness and feel dreadful while you’re pregnant,” she assured me, “labor won’t be too bad, because it’s just one tough day, and not weeks long. And the first weeks with a new baby will be hard, but not so hard, because at least then when you’re exhausted, he’ll be here.” A mom of seven at our old church, knowing I was expecting my second baby, encouraged me: “It actually gets easier after three kids. There’s less having to entertain them because they play together. Though of course there’s more housework!”

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Are you incapable of eating half a sandwich without throwing up, hugely pregnant lady? Just you wait until you don’t get to progress this far in pregnancy next time, and give birth to a 36-weeker!

These are women who could have minimized my struggles and made me feel lousy for even confiding in them. Instead, they validated me and encouraged me, that I could make it through motherhood, too. They remind me that we’re given grace for the stage we’re at — and in my case, not a lot of spare grace, the kind that would let me get ahead on developing my patience, or mop my floors. I guess that’s why it’s called sufficient grace.

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Was your first pregnancy taxing and exhausting? Just you wait until you do it while chasing (and lifting!) a sturdy toddler. May I recommend a back support?

These mothers seemed to recognize a simple truth that breathed through all their reassurance: Sanctification isn’t easy, and as a mother, you’ll work out your salvation in appalling diapers and public tantrums and, I suspect, missed curfews and endless soccer practices. It will almost always feel like a stretch, no matter what level you’re at, or how many kids you have. Just as you’re mastering that stage, the rules will change.

And it will be hard, and it will be OK, and it will be the making of you.

Just you wait.

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Sometimes, kind grocery store shopper, we can make it through the whole store with nothing more than a book and a doughnut and some mama cuddling. (Just you wait till the toddler won’t fit in the cart.)

Update on NO YELLING

So, I decided this year for Lent I’d give up yelling. I never fast from a food when I’m pregnant or nursing, and as I’ve been one of those every Lent since, um, 2012, I’m trying to get creative in finding disciplines and areas that will help me grow in my faith.

And let me tell you, this Lent’s fast has been really, really hard. The thing I like about fasting from a food, or TV, or whatever, is either you do it or you don’t. There’s a little room for interpretation — is an Instagram video TV? Is eating a chocolate cookie to be polite breaking your fast or not? — but it’s pretty clear cut. I am a girl who likes to get the gold star, to check things off neatly in a box.

So deciding whether my tone is contemptuous, if I’m raising my voice to be heard or in anger, if I’m extra angry (and yelly) because I’m not cutting myself enough slack, or if that’s a total copout and I need to try harder…it’s a slow, discouraging slog.

There’s been some progress. Right around Lent the kids went and got themselves slap cheek and in the sort of unfolding of events that never happens, suddenly started sleeping way, way better. The illness exhausted them, but the new sleep habits lingered even after their lurid cheeks had faded to normal human complexion. And you know, sleeping better did help morale around here, for all of us.

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THE ONE SIMPLE TRICK FOR GETTING YOUR KIDS TO SLEEP BETTER: It’s Fifth Disease.

But there are still so many times I’m distracted or overambitious and so completely overwhelmed. I gueeeessss there’s been an overall decrease in yelling around here, but not nearly what I would hope for.  And in the meantime Pippin has started saying both “crap” and “dammit” and if there was any doubt who taught him that, my sharp CRAP DAMMIT when the paper bag broke as I unloaded it from the car last week eliminated any uncertainty. (Related: Please let my potty-mouthed child still play with yours. We are really, really working on it.)

In the midst of it all, Pippin is doing this thing that is just wonderful and horrible. He’ll say, “I’m sorry” for his millionth tiny infraction and one of us will say, “It’s OK, bud,” half-listening, and he’ll answer with a furrowed brow, “Well, it’s not OK. But you forgive me.” There’s something so raw and humbling about coming right out and saying it like that. But I forgive him. Of course. And I hope to heaven he’s forgiving me.

I’ve got a lifetime of impatience and perfectionist impulses to war against, and there is no 40-day solution that I know of. But I’m trying, and falling back on forgiveness, and I guess that’s Lent.

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But will Pip ever forgive me for this?