Friday, November 18, 2011

present to the present moment

"Perfection consists in obeying every commandment of God and His Church
and in merely accepting what usually cannot be avoided anyway - 
in suffering with love - with resignation and sweetness - 
what is too often endured with weariness and discontent."
J. P. de Caussade

So often the snow starts at night. (Not in New Zealand, of course - and besides, it's summer here now). Back home it seemed like the snow usually started after the kids were in bed, asleep for the night. I'd always go for a long, happy walk in the storm and then come home and build the biggest, awesomest snowman I could as a surprise for the girls in the morning. We'd all enjoy Frosty for a few weeks and then inevitably we'd get some melty days - and one afternoon there'd be a small lump of dirty snow in an otherwise bare brown yard. A carrot and a few sticks would be poking out at awkward angles and that would be all that was left of my wonderful snowman. 

The same thing is happening to the baby in Bernadette. I only just realized it last night. She still has a few of those charming traits of babyhood sticking out quite prominently, but even these last lingering traces are rapidly giving way to the little girl she is becoming. Until Maria was three years old, I'd lay in bed with her every night and hold her in my arms until she fell asleep. Not just until she fell asleep, but for a little while afterwards too (because that was the best part). But I'm so often the only parent here at bedtime now that I almost never get to do that with 2 year old Bernadette. I just sort of chuck her in the general direction of the bed. We get time earlier in the evening to sit alone and read, but it's certainly not at sleep time. I've mourned this a bit - and consoled myself with the list of perks she gets as a second child, including having a live-in playmate who never interrupts a wildly fun game of running in circles to go fulfill some dreadfully boring adult responsibility like thawing the chicken for dinner. 

Last night I had the rare treat of really lingering with Bernadette at bedtime. She requested long, made-up stories and listened intently while running her fingers over the few wisps of my hair that hung down over her face. Then we reviewed the details of her entire day, pledged our undying love to each other, and then.... I got to hold her until she fell asleep. Plus some. It was while I was staring at her sleeping face that I realized that she is almost not a baby anymore. I really mourned that for a few moments, even though it is exciting and lovely to see the little girl that she's becoming. Then I got up, softly kissed her motionless cheek and whispered with humble sincerity, "It is a privilege to be your mother.I passed Maria's bed on the way out of the room, knelt to kiss her dreaming forehead and repeated the same. My heart was nearly bursting.

Motherhood has been much on my mind lately. It always is, but the Lord has been particularly active in this part of my life recently.... turning exasperation into compassion, helping me examine my previously unrecognized motives in many of my parenting choices; showing me that parenting is a ministry, a call to minister to the needs and hurts and poverty of the child; clarifying my "vision" for our family life. Most of all, He is directing me to be present. He's inviting me to come out from being "in my head" all the time, from being too absorbed in what I jokingly call "my rich inner life". If I'm not lost in Deep Thought then often I am busy, busy, busy - hating to sit still - wanting to get stuff done - sort the laundry, tidy the books, unload the dishwasher. It's very very very hard for me to just. be. present. So I'm working on that. Really hard. 

Even harder than simply being present is being at peace. In big things I'm so obviously helpless that I remember to turn trustingly to Jesus. Like when Joseph was sick. Jesus, I trust in You! I really meant it. But I so often forget all about Jesus when I'm faced with smaller things, things that I think ought to be under my control: when I can't find the overdue library book or the kids are arguing or the internet won't connect. If you put "peace" in a box and press "opposite", that's how I feel when the girls are crying and screeching over whose turn it is to hold the bigger of two sticks lying randomly in the courtyard. Of all the things I think I am "supposed" to be learning in New Zealand, the most important lessons are on peace - defining it, attaining it, sustaining it, living it, transmitting it to others. The peace the world cannot give (nor take away) is always and only possible through humble trust in the Lord - radical trust - for every detail.

The Lord is asking me to trust Him more with the little things. I reread de Caussade lately and loved how he writes that God's will is hidden but present in every detail of my day. "The duties of each moment conceal under their outward appearance the true reality of the Divine Will which is alone worthy of our attention." God's will for my life is unfolding moment-by-moment - not just in the huge events but in the minutiae. Even if, like Job, sometimes it feels to me more like the work of the Evil One, nothing happens to me that is outside of the Lord's knowledge. Not in my life, nor in the life of my children. He can draw good from anything. He has a purpose in all things, though it often baffles my intellect to discover His designs. Nevertheless, if He permits something He has a plan to bring beauty and goodness from it in time. Since I assent willingly to all that in my mind....He's been asking me to be SO MUCH LESS UPTIGHT and to let go more and trust Him completely - in everything - down to the most tedious and tiny irritations of the day. He's teaching my will to cooperate with His will. If the girls are fighting over that stick, it's a moment filled to the brim with grace and opportunity. He can bring some good out of it. Can I let Him? Can I find the grace hidden in the moment?  When I can keep hold on that spirit of peace, it's not hard at all. I can perceive the argument as practice for growing in the virtue of patience, stepping in gently, seeing a great chance to coach them (again) in conflict resolution. Another day I can stand in awe for a moment at the simplicity of childhood wherein a blinking stick is worth fighting over. Or I can laugh it off and show them the humor in it all. Or maybe this moment is food for meditation - on the worthless "sticks" I argue over with other adults (in particular, the one I'm married to) and see through the eyes of God the futility of all bickering. My mind wanders off. I start identifying the "sticks" over which I've argued lately. I see clearly the absurdity and foolishness of my pet peeves. I begin to form some concrete resolutions - when suddenly child A snaps me back into reality by whacking child B with the coveted stick, which she has managed to pry out of her sister's grasp - by scratching her hands bloody. So the Lord reminds me.   Just.     Be.     Present. 

"God reveals Himself to the humble in the humblest things, 
while the great do not discover Him even in great events
if they do not penetrate beneath the surface."
jean pierre de caussade

Monday, November 14, 2011

some follow-up thoughts to last "night's" post

That little girl with the explicit magazines - she was a sincerely sweet and painfully shy little girl who was still wetting her chair in 8th grade. After graduation, she sometimes tried to contact me - but we lost touch and the next I heard she had killed herself. It stunned me. Looking back, I'm pretty sure that something very awful was happening to her and that she had showed me those magazines as a sort of cry for help. Although I was disturbed by them, I was only seven and I was as scared as she was to tell someone. I felt I needed to add this postscript to defend and honor her memory. The other little children who showed me bad things were not nearly so inculpable as she.

I know that a body wave is not an acceptable alternative to proper grooming. However, I've been doing it for so long that it's almost an invincible habit. I also know that the tag inside your shirt does not make you a happier person. That was a bit of literary license - but I did sort of suddenly understand that line from The Family Man where Jack Campbell tells his wife, "This suit makes me feel like a better man." Also, I forgot to mention that the mother of Maria's friend politely and indirectly suggested to me that Maria is perhaps getting too much sugar. She informed me that pink foods are the worst at causing hyperactivity in young children. I chose not to share that Maria drinks about 3 cups of pink milk a day. But I did think about cutting her off cold turkey. However, because I was up until 2am writing that post, I was too tired to give that a go when the kids woke up at dawn this morning.


Bernadette. Several inquiries have been made by faithful blog readers about little Bernadette. (These concerned individuals are probably all middle children too and are concerned that she has not received adequate attention on the blog.) Rest assured that my lovely Bernadette suffers from no deprivation of attention in real life. Even in the shuffle of ministry and maria and new baby, there is always room for Bops. Her cuteness alone is a gravitational force that draws adults irresistibly into her orbit. Nor does one want to resist. Those ultra-puckered lips enunciating each drawn out syllable - the dulcet tones of her lilting voice - the garbled vocabulary - the way every sentence ends with a long drawn out woooooooooooord. She calls sunglasses eyesuns and birds cheepcheeps. I wish I had nothing else to do in life but converse with Bernadette. "Mah-mee-ah, tan I peeeaase haf some strum-streeeaaaam?"  (Translation: Mama, can I please have some sunscreen?) See how she makes the banal beautiful! One could never tire of this nor neglect its source! Bernadette wields other weapons in her battle for a fair share of parental attention.... She's a very accomplished tattletale. She's "hungry" all the time - and never eats. She dissolves into choking sobs at slightest frown or the gentlest reprimand.  She insists on dressing herself and emerges with everything distractingly wrong - shoes on the wrong feet, flip flop thongs through the wrong toes, dress on backwards, waist through the leg openings of her topsy-turvy undies, shirts worn as pants. She's also unfathomably clumsy. It's not her fault - she's an engineering disaster. I used to say that her head was disproportionately large, but it's prettier to say that her feet are disproportionately small. So she's tall and top heavy, with an enormous belly pulling her center of gravity forward all the time. And her shoes are on the wrong feet, don't forget. I'm shocked she manages to stay vertical at all. She falls off the chair at least twice per lunch. And she loves Joseph. I mean, she loves him. She showers him (gently) with such intense affection, such tender words of endearment, such loving caresses. None of the rest of us receive any of this treatment from her. Ever. We're all a bit envious of Joseph actually. We can't even compete and there are no consolation prizes left over for us - all goes to him. No one has informed Bernadette that she is supposed to be in the terrible twos. She's sweet and lovely and she's easy company. Especially if you're Joseph.

the most daunting ministry

In many ways, I had a very sheltered childhood. I was only allowed to watch black and white "Nick at Nite" reruns and nature documentaries. I got in trouble when I was caught listening - at age 13 - to a song more contemporary than Neil Diamond (Wilson Phillips' "Hold On").  I was only allowed to go over to play at the homes of nice little girls from nice families. My parents had to know the little girl's parents. They always knew who would be at home with us and what we'd be doing. But I was about 7 when I saw "adult" magazines for the first time and only 11 when I was first exposed to an "adult" movie. At the tender age of 13, I was shocked by the pages of a graphically illustrated Joy of Sex manual and had filthy passages from an "adult" novel read to me. All in the homes of nice little girls from nice families. All different nice families- families of church leaders, scout leaders, ministers -all the kinds of parents that other parents trust.

These experiences were devastating. In particular I recall a sleepover party in 6th grade: the birthday girl turned on the TV and we were all absolutely stunned by the X-rated movie playing on the screen. Some of the little girls began laughing. All were mesmerized. I was the only one who turned away. I began trying to brush another little girl's hair to distract myself but I couldn't block out the horrible audio. I remember how much my hands were shaking and the feeling of fear and shame. I went to the bathroom and ran the water for a long time but it couldn't block out the sound or the dirty feeling in the pit of my stomach. It didn't wash away the images burnt into my memory. The girl's mother suddenly came downstairs to check on us and she screamed. She screamed at her daughter to turn off the TV and then we heard her run upstairs and scream at her husband. He was watching the movie upstairs and had somehow streamed it accidentally down to us. We all waited downstairs, expecting to get in trouble. We didn't. The mother didn't tell our parents and neither did any of us.

These experiences all left similar aftertastes of shame and filth, though all were foisted upon me unsought. These were horrible, horrible experiences that seared through the precious innocence of a very sensitive child. Short of locking me in a box until I was 25, there was literally nothing more my parents could have done to try to protect me from these dark elements of our culture - but I nonetheless try to think what I can do to shelter my little ones from similar experiences. Maria is less than three years younger than I was when it all began. The Box-Until-25 Plan is looking better and better.

This week she was invited - for the first time in New Zealand - to play at a friend's house. The invitation came from the little girl at preschool Maria has most desperately wanted to befriend - a little girl who has kept Maria at arm's length for eighteen months (no small feat, might I add). The child's mother offered to pick the two little girls up after school and have them play for an hour at her house. I'm positive she intended to be kind and helpful, but... Over my dead body. I mean, Maria is four. Even when she used to play at her friends' houses back in the States, I was there too, and those were the houses of my closest friends. I have to work hard to remember this mother's first name when I see her at preschool. I've never met her partner. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they don't have stacks of Playboy magazine laying carelessly around their home, but how on earth would I know? You can't exactly ask people about that. I can't really casually say, "You know... Maria isn't allowed to have a Barbie - or watch any TV or movies - and the filthiest word she knows is bum-bum-poo - and in our house we don't really read too many pornographic magazines, so I'd kind of rather she wasn't exposed to any of those things this afternoon....."  Plus how on earth would I know if any of those rules were broken?

I decided to just frankly admit to the other mother that Maria had never gone to anyone's house without me. She wasn't in the least offended and said she had the same rule with her daughter. So instead of fretting about the potential bad influences Maria might receive, I instead got to go and watch her give bad influence for an hour this afternoon. She was rude to her friend's mother and baby sister, ungraciously threw the unappealing parts of her snack off her plate and onto the floor, whined loudly about the "yucky" taste in their apples, demanded another helping of marshmallows, invented annoying potty words and was disobedient and bratty to me when it was time to leave. If I was the other child's mother, I would never invite her back. I might even transfer my daughter to another school. Or emigrate. I was completely mortified. And yet, I hope she does get invited again. I realize that Maria needs practice and instruction and coaching in how to behave graciously in someone else's house. Lots of it. She did things today that she would never do at home. Christine, brimming over with birthday wisdom, had the insight to suggest that Maria is a bit insecure in social settings and goes wild with "nervous energy".  Man, does that sound better than the words I used in describing it all to Richard.

By far, the most difficult ministry in New Zealand has been my ministry to Maria. For some reason I keep thinking that she'll turn the corner once we get back to Pennsylvania. I guess I feel like I'll have more control over every part of my life once we're back home, including the part of my life labelled Maria. I don't know who I'm kidding - I had very little control over Maria when we last lived in the USA. She was the kind of child who got a head start on her "terrible twos" at eighteen months old:  tantruming daily - kicking against doors while screaming all the worst words she knew in one hysterical raving screech: "Stop it Stupid Dang it POOOOOOOOP!" Some kids are verbally precocious. Others are more intensely physical. Maria is both. So I'm always wondering if the nuns ever found out how do you solve a problem like Maria? They sort of just married theirs off - but for us, finding a steadying Captain won't be a real option for so many years.

Last week I was invited to give a presentation to 35 school principals. (Topic: the value of having students involved in a youth ministry program.) It was my first time in a truly professional setting in four and half years. I wore Banana Republic, I ironed everything, I tidied my hair and used a touch of perfume. I don't do any of those things anymore. I wear hole-speckled t-shirts and my jeans are two sizes too big. The girls hide my hairbrush for days at a time. Rather than keep track of a back-up, I just have a body wave.  I've not been in a board room environment, speaking in collected, confident tones to colleagues since Maria's birth - until last week. And it was awesome. Seriously. It felt amazing. I literally was a different person for 60 minutes - like Cinderella in a twinset. I felt competent and sane. I felt intelligent and experienced. It only lasted an hour and then I was back in the chaos and the noise and the mess and the POOOOP. I know the beautiful thing to write would be to say that I realized that being with my children was far more enjoyable than the self-satisfied highs of the morning, but that would be a lie. Or a Nicholas Cage movie. For the first time in my short season of motherhood, I felt tempted to ditch the home scene - at least part time. So I've had to clarify my understanding of motherhood for the umpteenth time (is it for me or is it for them?) and embrace it again as ministry -  a ministry in which I will not always (nor often) feel competent or sane or tidy. I am certain that it is the ministry to which the Lord is calling me to give my whole self for this short season of my life. But He gave me the freedom to choose again. I looked longingly at the neat and peaceful grown-up world. But I chose the chaos. Freely.

I'm passionate about youth ministry. I feel really good at it. I'm far, far more invested in motherhood - even though I'm not nearly as skilled at it. I told the principals last week that youth ministry programs offer students an alternative culture and nurture their spiritual development. I think that motherhood for me is going to be a lot of trying to introduce my children to an alternative culture and nurture their spiritual development - while trying to contribute to the alternative culture and my own spiritual development. (Maybe this is what my spiritual director means by "You take life a bit too seriously"). With the amount of ugliness stalking the child in 2011, it's a demanding ministry. I want to give it my all. I'm grateful for the luxury of doing it full time.  And still I will fail. They'll hear bad words and give bad example. I'll never really be competent or sane and hopefully at some point I learn to accept that. But maybe it would feel nice doing it occasionally in Banana. At the very least, it's time for pants that fit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

my maria

hand churned butter by katrina and kate

Maria and I have been working our way slowly through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy for the past few weeks. I wanted to read her the Little House books, but can't find them in the library here. The closest I could get was Wilder's book narrating a year in the life of her husband's childhood. I wasn't sure if Maria would tolerate a long book about a little boy, especially since chapter books with few illustrations are very new to her. To my surprise, she's really into it. To my even greater surprise, I am really into it too. It's so much more fun than reading Curious George (for the 73rd time). I think I must have refused to read this book as a child because it was about a boy, but it's been a real treat as an adult. I'm fascinated by the way the Wilders lived and parented and churned butter. Every night after reading, I report back to Richard and update him on what homemade wonder the Wider family accomplished that evening. He's polite, but I would guess that he's not terribly interested in hearing about Mother Wilder churning 500 pounds of butter. But Christine is. It's really nice having another woman around. She was so interested, in fact, that she related the news to some of the youth. Kate and Katrina turned up at girls group last night with a small batch of hand-churned butter for me. exclamation point. !

So Maria and I are learning about old fashioned farm life and enjoying our lessons immensely. And Maria is also participating in her parents' missionary endeavors. Frankly, she's doing a better job of it. She's far more natural, unabashed, persistant. She's begun proselytizing her preschool teachers. We didn't put her up to this - we had no idea it was going on. When I fetched her earlier this week, one of her teachers had that look on her face - the look that says "Wait until I tell you what your child did today!" (I am very accustomed  to seeing that look after an adult spends any amount of time with Maria). Apparently Maria has been taking a census of her Montessori teachers to discover who amongst them goes to church and who does not. This particular teacher had responded in the negative, "No, Maria, I'm afraid I do not go to church." 
"Why not?"
"Well, I'm not sure. I guess I haven't found a church I like."
"Oh. Well, you could come to our church. And you could sit with us. 
But it's not as nice as our church in America."
(Someone please tell Fr. Howard. And please, no one tell Fr. Michael. Or tell him, but leave out that last little bit)
I didn't know whether to feel slightly apologetic or in awe of my daughter. I decided on the latter. The teacher, who is an absolutely lovely woman, wasn't offended at all and laughed as she shared the conversation, but added that she had spent the rest of the afternoon occasionally wondering why she didn't go to church. Maria, completely unaware of the depths of soul into which she had plunged her beloved instructor, blissfully returned home, drank some strawberry milk and began rehearsing to play Mary again in the school pageant. No, she has not been assigned the role yet, but it's good to have your skills sharp just in case. And who can resist practicing with a living prop? 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

spring in mt maunganui

We've been busy, busy, busy.... just a brief overview here complete with a few photos. Last term ended in a whirlwind of retreats and trips, leaving us all a little breathless and exhausted. We had two weeks to recover before plunging in to the final term of the school year before Christmas/summer break. Rich and I took the kids to visit friends over in Raglan. Raglan is one of the surfing capitals of the world and features indescribable waves crashing against sheer cliffs and black sand beaches. We took in the sights while staying with our friends on their picturesque little farm. The view from their front door is below. Their endearingly friendly kid (more puppy than goat) is above. 

We came back in time to host a world-class rugby world cup party. About 40 people crammed into our living room to watch the All Blacks beat France. Nearly all viewers had their faces painted for the festivities, including the Americans present. 

Then term four began. Our theme for the youth groups is "Five Phrases That Will Change Your Life". We're building talks around mantras, mottos and Scripture that can give grace in the midst of myriad challenges. Some examples incluse "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!" and "Jesus, I trust in You!" and "Be not afraid!"  Girls group is studying "pathways to God" - taking intense looks at the spiritualities of various saints. We've studied the little path of love of St Therese and Mother Teresa, who advocated serving God by doing small things with great love. We've trodden the peaceful path of trust of de Caussade, who recommended a simple self-abandonment to divine Providence in all things. We'll be exploring quite a few more paths over the coming weeks and will probably blog more about this fascinating topic. Rich and Glen are leading the boys this term on The Royal Road of the Cross, discussing the virtues of sacrifice and manly altruism. We've also celebrated the feast of All Hallow's Eve with the youth by organizing a saint-costume themed progressive dinner.

christine and I painted 16 nearly identical paintings 
to distribute to each membre of girls group

Our wonderful angel Christine has been accepted to NET and will be heading to Australia in early January. She'll be volunteering in youth ministry there for a year. [Rich's poor parents must be pretty sick of this side of the globe sucking all their family members away.....] We're all really really REALLY excited for her - and very sorry for ourselves. We'd love prayers (stat!) for another awesome woman to take her place for the young girls here in New Zealand. 

Lastly, in response to the many thoughtful queries about Joseph - he's doing fantastic! He's looking great,  happy, healthy - a wonderful miracle in the flesh! He's discovered how to sit and how to bear weight on all fours. He has been appalled at how much his three new teeth have hurt and is not pleased to have three more coming through. On the other hand, he is delighted to discover there is such a thing as ice cream in the world.  We offer him a taste of sheer bliss a few times a week to help him put on some pounds and he couldn't be more grateful. He wants to write a whole blog thanking Uncle Dave for offering that piece of medical advice! Today at his monthly hospital check-in he'd finally inched up above the 2nd percentile line and now holds a proud space halfway between the 2nd and 9th percentile. Way to go, Joseph! His liver functions took a small turn for the worse this month for the first time in a while, so please pray that ice cream therapy might turn out to be as beneficial to his organs as it has been for his weight.

thanks uncle dave!!!!!!!!!