on mothering from afar

Watermelon slice

There are watermelon slices sitting, in an alchemy that somehow encompasses both rotting and drying, uncovered in the fridge. Perhaps they’re from the one I bought 10 days ago, green and heavy and slightly lopsided. I forgot we had it. For me, this summer, the kitchen is just something that came with the house.

It’s morning now, and silent, but a riot of color, lent by stains I can’t identify and toys I don’t recognize, shouts from the oak floorboards of the kitchen and living room. I pick my way across, alone with the sunrise on that rarest of weekdays—no work, no hospital rounds, no trips, no sitters, no guests. Just me, here. Present in the company of my family, in the comfort of my home, but no one else awake.

I’m told that lunch yesterday consisted of chicken nuggets with peanut butter sandwiches on the side. A pair of shoes is missing. Soeren’s shoulders are sunburned. And Silas’s hair has gone from supernova to rock star to Laura Ashley model (on, it should be noted, the girls’ side). The compliments he gets from women have shifted from adoration of his cuteness to envy of his mane.

I am determined to trim that mane today, because last night as he talked to me, I sometimes couldn’t see Si’s eyes . . .

Or is it because yesterday, he used a long-fingered hand to casually sweep the surfer-white curls from his forehead as he addressed me, and was suddenly not four, but fourteen? I sat, transfixed, taken, awed, horrified. How magical and terrible that you must become something so separate and strong and unpredictable. How audacious of you to do it here before my eyes. How practical of you to do it, mostly, while I am not watching.

I’m cutting it, I tell you.

You will be four again. And perhaps, my blond-curled babe, I will forget that even now I can’t quite know you.

And Soeren. Your eyes, ever changing, now look like sea glass. You are so tan. And so tall—another few inches and I will be able to rest my chin on the top of your head. And you might let me, in the stray moments, in the same way you acquiesce, with a soft smile, to being hugged, or toweled, or tickled. I don’t wonder, yet, if it’s the last time for thoughtless cuddles . . . but I can see the wondering coming, ambling toward us on the winding, unpaved lane of growing up.

All of this—the changes, the surprises, the tallness—they would be happening, all the same, if I were here. But the inexorability of the process, when remembered, comes anew as a shock and a revelation. Because, at the heart of things, we mothers still think that growing up should not happen without us.

I don’t want you to keenly feel my absence. Wishing you pain for the benefit of my ego is too big of a burden for either of us to bear. But I do wonder what it means that my lack of everyday presence is not a tragedy. That you, my children, appear to flourish anyway.

Perhaps the lesson is that the real loss is simply mine. I miss kisses. Whispers. Small gifts with four or six or eight legs, or petals, or staples. The creak of the porch swing. Domain over the kitchen sink.

What does it mean that I never wanted that kind of household eminence—don’t want it still—but I ache as I type this?  Not enough to turn back, or quit, but enough to know, for sure, that there is indeed a cost.

Enough to add fervor to my prayers that “ok” comes in all shapes, that love comes from lots of places, that enough is enough is enough, whoever’s providing it.

My faith tells me there is no hell, but amazingly, that doesn’t touch the fear of damnation here, on this earth.

Not by others. They could condemn me or my choices—maybe they do—but in the final estimation, it’s not any person’s judgment that frightens me.

What I’m afraid of is bigger and deeper, a theological matter for our time. The final judge will be the limits of each 24 hour day and the reality of opportunity cost and the truth that to love is on some level to leave your heart lying helpless.

In the face of that, I wish–I wish us all, in fact–comfort and peace and strength for the journey.

-j

Absolution for the working mother

My love for you would break hearts
It does. It has–
I would know.

But not as a sun on a leaf through a magnifying glass
Or a portrait drawn from a single sitting
Or an unbroken line of oatmeal mornings and chocolate chip cookie afternoons.

I see you in the dappled light of moving tree branches
And candid photos
In full color, not sepia
Real and shining
And part of a true story–

Part.

The rest told in mudpies and milkshakes
served to other mouths
Footprints cleaned by other hands
The laundry, the sink, and the bathrooms
that say Daddy’s Rules

You laugh, and I hear you;
You laugh when I don’t hear you.

I know this.

And I smile
and swallow
and pray
That word,
balm to souls
who always knew
you can’t really have it all

Enough.

Just let it be enough.

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anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

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Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

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Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

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Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

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I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

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Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

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This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

-j

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Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

Theresa Soto

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

j

I did not fight the law . . . and we all win

I’ve been on the fence about sharing this story–where, and how, and if.

It’s not really an impression I want to leave you with, and it’s so simple to explain that I’m taking Soeren to visit my grandmother this week. And even if I tell you more of the truth, the easy thing is to tell it funny.

I can tell you about our late departure from Lawrence on an afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. I can describe trying to make it all the way to Cheyenne to avoid the hell that is a hotel room in western Kansas with Si and Ren. I can tell you about the dry pavement, the absence of anyone else even on the road, the clear, starry night. I can share that we were making excellent time to Wyoming, and that we shared a laugh with a sheriff who seemed truly reluctant to write me a ticket . . . but then it turned out my driver’s license was back home in Lawrence, sitting in the center console of my car (we drove Craig’s.)

Not laughing? I can’t bring myself to make the jokes any more.  I also could not look myself in the eye if I contested this ticket.

Friends, I was going 94 miles an hour. My husband was in the passenger seat. Our two sleeping children were in the back.

The truth is, speeding is my vice. I never thought of it this way . . . I never thought of it much at all, actually, except occasionally to complain about the unreasonable-seeming speed limits on various roads. I have places to be, you see. And I could get there so much FASTER without these inconvenient restrictions. And yes, it’s expensive. But mostly only if you get caught.

In the meantime, my tendency to speed has caused familial concern and quips (Craig has joked that my title upon ordination should actually be “Reverend Leadfoot”)–but nothing has happened to convince me that I should observe posted speed limits.  In fact, I’m not sure this ticket would have either.  Not for the long term.

And then, in passing on FB, I saw this clip in my newsfeed a few weeks ago. I’m not sure which of you shared it; it doesn’t matter. I knew just reading the tag line that it was for me.   I don’t mean that you particularly intended for me to see it.  I mean that the universe did.

The spot hit home, and devastatingly, as I knew from the second I saw it that it would.  In fact, I read an article about the PSA series and what they were trying to accomplish with it before I watched the clip. Because I was stalling. Because I didn’t want to see.

Once I did watch, I knew that change was coming. (I hope you’ll watch it, too; it’s embedded below this post.  But in case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll give you what you need to know.  It’s not graphic at all, and yet is utterly soul-searing.  It’s two drivers.  One is speeding.  The other has made a momentary mistake of judgment.  They are suddenly standing outside of their cars, talking.  Trying to negotiate.  Trying to change things.  But it’s just too late.  There is a child, about Soeren’s age, in the back of one of the cars . . . we watch his face, and his father’s, as everyone realizes that there is nothing to be done at this pont.  The take home message is that if you can’t find a reason in your own driving, in your own family, to slow down, then perhaps what will register is that sometimes other people make mistakes.)

I’ve spent the intervening weeks in Chicago, not driving, and that has given me some time and space to think.

For instance, I have thought–believe me–of calling Kit Carson County to plead my case. I’m a mom of two, driving 400 miles into a snowstorm to appear in court for a speeding ticket–is there any possibility of a diversion? I’d laugh, apologize, ask for understanding and a larger fine.

It might be successful. I don’t know . And I won’t know. I am not going to do it.

Instead, we went this morning to rent a car with 4-wheel drive. The “midsize SUV” I reserved turned out to be a Suburban XL, in black. We are not making this easy.

I realize that this may not seem like much of a story for a post this dramatic. I was driving really fast and . . . someone told me to stop it.

Herein lies the grace, however–and it’s that grace, that possibility of a resurrected future, the kind you get to claim BEFORE you lose it–that leads me to share this with you. I am driving to Colorado for me. But I am telling this story for you. I made a mistake, in a larger pattern of mistaken thinking, and NOTHING HAPPENED. Thank you, God, for this blessing and this opportunity.

I don’t believe in penance, but I do believe in learning through action. That means we become different by being differently in our spaces, relationships, and routines.

Know, then, that if you see a large black SUV on I-70 today driving slowly and officially, it’s not the secret service. It’s me, practicing skills to keep my kids safe . . . and yours, too.

As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

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Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

rocks

As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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I refuse to do it all

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The other day I was talking with a dear friend about marriage and family life. “My only problem with my marriage,” Anna exclaimed, “is my children!”  I laughed in immediate recognition—how well I know that feeling.  Marry your best friend.  Make a home together.  Have a sleepover party every night.  Enjoy a life so beautiful that the only rational answer to it is to create a pair of expensive, destructive, talking-chewing-pooping machines and abandon all attempts at conversation for the next decade.

But Anna’s not just talking about her relationship with her husband . . . she’s also feeling the Parenting Effect on her self-image—and on her life.  “I just do not like parenting,” she confessed.  “I mean, I’m very good at it.  I do what needs to be done, and I do it well.  But I do not enjoy it, and it takes everything I have just to get through it.”

Some things about Anna: she knows her son and daughter’s fears, hopes, accomplishments and petty jealousies.  She has cultivated bedtime and birthday rituals that make my own family’s catch-as-catch-can habits look downright negligent.  And once when we were on a trip together, sans kiddos, I watched Anna, hearing sadness at the other end of the phone line, stop cold and sing—in French—a favorite song, repeating it until her daughter could calmly go on with her day.  Anna is what you would recognize, whether on the street or in the paper or in a court of law, as a Very Good Mother.

Now let me remind you, also, of a few things about me.  First, I’m no stranger to the ennui, fear, and even outright depression that stay-at-home parenting evokes in some of us.  Second, I’m really not in Anna’s league in rising to the daily requirements of the parenting challenge, particularly while juggling other tasks.  Photographic evidence here.

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And third, despite those two things — or maybe, in some strange way, because of them —  I do enjoy parenting.  I love it.  It’s messy and maddening and terrifying, but I find that parenting, like life, is mostly quite hilarious.  But if I held myself to half the things Anna does (I try to be reliable in my promises, which I accomplish by making approximately two per year, and if you ever see me holding a hand-piped rosette, you can assume it’s because I’m about to pop it into my open mouth), I would be miserable.

Thus, to review: I like my raising my children and I like living my life.  But NOT because I am awesome at either.  On the contrary.  I struggle, and I mess up, and sometimes I fail epicly—and then I get up and do it again.

So, knowing this, I wonder what to do with messages like the ones I’ve been receiving recently:  “I don’t know how you do it all.”  “You are better at balancing than anyone I know.” “Wow, when do you sleep?”

These things really feed my perfectionist monster, quite honestly.  And it’s dangerous, because while on some level I would love to be that person—or at least, to look like I am — it’s a lie, and not a impression that I can keep up at close range.

In short, I’m not this person, friends.  And you know what’s hilarious?  There is someone who might be, in my own mind at least.  That’s right: it’s Anna.  Anna keeps those balls in the air.  Anna gets shit done.

Why do we do this to ourselves, and to each other?  And might we be happier if we walk away from the illusion that anyone we know, including us, is really doing it all?

So here you go, folks.  I’ve wondered whether to share this—if the projection people see matters, somehow.  It probably does, but not more than the truth: “I do it all, all the time, and I do it well” is an invasive weed.  It bars honesty, stifles potential, and feeds neurosis.  And in the meantime, I have seen post after post on Facebook this week–it’s that time of year, after all–featuring beloved mama friends and respected fellow seminarians, wondering if they are alone in their inability to juggle/accomplish/consume all of the tasks assigned to them.

Secret File Drawer Label Isolated on a White Background.

My big “secret,” and the reason I’m writing this post:

I don’t do it all.

You probably already knew that, right?  You actually know what, for example, my house looks like on a daily basis, or you’re familiar with laws of physics and know that they apply to us all equally.

Ok, then here’s the next part, which sort of is a secret.  It’s a societal secret, a thing that no one is going to tell you, something we’re all stumbling toward on our own:

I don’t even try to do it all.

Not parenting.  Not church.  Not graduate school.

I just don’t even try to catch a lot of the balls thrown my way—I know that I can’t.  And you can’t, either.

This might seem obvious, but for those of us still living by the Good Girl Playbook, it’s not.

Why? Because every person or organization you work with has a vested interest in getting you to catch what they’re throwing at you.  And they will use whatever they can to convince you that their pitches are the most important.  Frankly, if we’re in the modern mommy mindset, it’s likely that no one has to convince us at all—we’ve been carefully taught what “success” looks like.  And so–unrealistic expectations? We’ll bring ‘em.  Guilt?  Shame?  Got it covered.  Comparing ourselves disfavorably with others, but without any real knowledge of what the ins and outs of that woman’s life look like?  Plenty of that, too.

So overall, I get it.  I like to look like I have it all together.  I know that I in fact do not have it together–and in the space between those ideas, I struggle.

Interestingly, the most helpful tip I’ve ever received on this topic came not from a parenting manual, but from the dean of admissions at my law school.  Addressing our entering class on the first day, Reyes Aguilar said, “You may think that what makes sense is to work around the clock in these three years, so that you can relax after law school.  But I’m here to tell you that the way you live your life now will be the way you live your life later.  If you want to sleep, if you need to exercise, if your significant other is important to you—make time for it now.  Don’t wait.  Do what you love to do, right now, and you will be able to arrange your life around it.

Guess what?  That was true.  I read fiction each night before bed.  I spent time each week volunteering at the local grief counseling center.  I ditched a week of school to meet my husband in Paris, took a semester off to stay home with my adorable baby, and decided at the last minute to skip the on-campus interview process and apply instead to work for Seeds of Peace.

I certainly got some strange looks; a number of my classmates probably thought I was actually certifiable (a suspicion I imagine I’ve only reinforced in the years since).  I also got great grades, developed a clearer sense of myself, and a landed a job I loved in a field I am passionate about.

Do what you love to do, right now” is, in fact, some of the best overall life advice I’ve ever received.  It applies to working in any field . . .  including parenting.

So, you wonder if I sleep at night?  The answer is yes.  Yep, I do.  Eight hours, if at all possible.  I also run almost every day.  With the exception of the last month, I write for an hour (or three) at least three times a week.  Not school papers or e-mails or CPE applications—I just write.

I always have a book on my nightstand that I’m excited to jump back into.  I text and facebook chat with friends—the ones who make me laugh and the ones who have seen me cry—every day.  I make alone time with my husband a major priority—with kids like ours, scheduled quiet couple time is a necessity.  I have a long and lazy cuddle with my kiddos every single morning that I’m home.  And finally, I cook.  Not a ton, but one meal and one soup per week, both from scratch.

Why am I sharing this list of random things with you?  Because this is what I do for me.  This is what feeds me.  This is, at bare essentials, what matters to Jordinn-the-adult-human-being.  And so, this is what I make time for, in a sacred way.

What’s the cost?  I think you’ll find it in what I don’t make time for.

My house is guest-ready only when we know ahead of time that we’re having guests.  (Sometimes not even then.  Take it as a compliment if you get the family treatment.)  Preschool is hit and miss these days, and we have yet to contribute to a bake sale, turn in a book order or attend an optional evening activity.  Si wore his Superman t-shirt to school picture day, in small part because he always wears his Superman t-shirt and in greater part because Mama didn’t have “picture day” on the iphone schedule.  Ren can dance in the Nutcracker again this year, but you’ll only see Daddy on showbiz duty.  Everyone will wear clean clothes, and not jeans, to church, but hair combing may be optional for the junior set.  Birthday treats come from Eileen’s.  Birthday parties happen at locales I am not responsible for cleaning.

And how about my school work?  How do I juggle that?

The short answer is, I do what I have to, and I use what I love to power through it.  I love our classroom work together.  I love most of the reading.  I love some of the writing.  And a lot of the rest is just box-checking.  I finesse some things.  I go for big points when it counts big, and low-hanging fruit when it doesn’t.  I apologize a lot.

And you know what?  I am not only ok with this; I am 100% for it.  In fact, I fully intend to carry this approach into my religious professional life.  As a mentor in ministry told me recently: You have to get there if someone is dying, and you must have a sermon in your hand when you step into the pulpit on Sunday.  Everything else is negotiable—what, when, and how.  You do what works, when it works.

Friends, this isn’t about color-coding your planner, learning to do five things at once, or extending your productivity to any second in which you might otherwise sit down, stare into space, and let your mind simply breathe.

It’s about finding what feeds you, taking in the joy and delight available in each moment, and tapping into that as you discern what needs to be done, and when.

Rumor has it you’re “supposed to” catch those balls, but here’s a secret: the people pitching them to you are dodging balls all the time, too.  And more to the point, no one is waiting at the finish line of your life to give you a cookie for completing all the tasks that no one else cared about.  If you choose unhappiness to prove that you’re “good enough” for it, your own resentments will be your reward.

Cookie crumbs

So: is there something you can do, right now, in whatever area of your life feels most unfulfilling, to connect with the yearning of your own sacred self?  You can’t sing one more bedtime song; would you rather be dancing?  Is there a way you can let go of some of the box-checking, and in so doing, have more fun?

I can’t answer for you, and I will be the first to say that I am leading a blessed life and even writing this speaks to a place of privilege.  I believe, though, that we all have some blessings—so what’s here to support you right now?  If your soul is screaming, what does it want, and who could you enlist to carve out some precious time for that need?  Are there some things you could access . . . if you simply put down the facade of I-can-handle-it and asked?

You are worth it; no faking, no fooling.  Find what you love to do, right now—and go do it.

(After you sleep.)

j

things we lost in the fire

 

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The formation process, year 1.

It’s educational.  It’s beautiful.

It’s really damned hard.

There is something different, challenging, not what I expected every single day.

Often that something is small.

Wow, I wrote about religious community last fall from that perspective . . . but now I wonder if it looks more like this.

Or, hmm, I notice that I would dearly love to tell this person off.  Previous response: do it.  More likely current response: I wonder if I can sit with this feeling . . .

Occasionally, there are bigger issues.  My community ministry internship just started, and we’re not on campus again until January, so these come up most often in my connections with my home congregation.  They are issues along the lines of what Rev. Patrick McLaughlin referred to in this post about the bumps on the road from “congregant” to “seminarian.”  This can be a challenging path to navigate, and with two new seminarians—my congregation’s first, ever—it looks like we’re all in for an interesting church year.

And then, every once in awhile, there are Other Things.  Really Big Things.  They are things unanticipated—or worse, feared—that mean real sacrifice.  These things aren’t merely interesting, or uncomfortable, or even humbling and embarrassing—they are true gamechangers.  They are shifts so big that they affect not just me but my whole family–our daily lives, our friends, our support system, and our plans for the future.

After the latest earthquake, one that rates at least a 7 on the richter scale of unpleasant seminary-related adjustments, I had a realization.  It was horrifying.

My God.  This process is going to take everything.  There will be nothing left.

The words came, unbidden, into my head, in a moment that felt a bit like despair.  And yet my tendency, in times of fear and uncertainty, is to consider the worst case scenario and work backward from that, and I felt sure that I’d soon realize that “everything” is a an overstatement.

I will tell you, friends: I haven’t realized that, at least not in any way that offers solace to my scared self.  Instead, the words–and the changing reality behind them–have settled into my stomach with the weight of truth.

This calling—this process of being made and remade—it’s going to lay claim to everything that isn’t tied down.  Perhaps it will take even more than that—I am starting to picture a wave of flames washing over me, over my family, consuming whatever isn’t fireproof.  It will change our relationships.  It will alter the way we live.

I’m not worried for our lives, themselves.  The flames are intimidating, but they are truly scary only where I’m wrestling with them to hang on to all that is now.  This fire won’t harm us . . . but it is intent on consuming some things that feel very important to me.

And, get this: I’m just supposed to watch.  No, that’s not right.  I’m supposed to offer, willingly.  Take them.  Take this, and that . . . take everything holding me back, everything tying us to this place, everything standing between now and the future into which we must walk.

And it is so very hard.

It is hard to stop wrestling.  It is hard not to fight for the Things and all that they stand for—hard not to yell “MINE!” and cling to what I’ve earned, or paid for, or helped create.  It’s hard to let go of the dreams that are attached to those things, balloons of my hopes tethered to what are now someone else’s shiny prizes.

It is hard—it’s extraordinarily hard—to relinquish the “me” that I have been.  And it is hard—stunningly, choking-back-tears and struggling-to-inhale hard—to let go also of the things I thought I was going to be in the future.  To watch my family—to watch my husband—let go of those things, too.

What can you do when the fire comes?  Not beforehand, but now, in this moment, when it is too late for extinguishers or insurance, when it is too late to change anything that matters?

This question, of course, isn’t just about the formation process.  A congregation I know recently received the news that their minister is leaving at the end of this church year.  The announcement has caught them by surprise, and on one level, they’re scrambling to get ready.  On another, deeper level, they know that there is not enough time—perhaps you can save the family pictures, but not the cherished furniture.  On a deeper level, they know that there are some things for which you cannot truly prepare . . . and changes that you cannot hope to prevent.

Outside of congregational life, the fire awaits us, too.  An unexpected death.  A serious illness.  An adaptive challenge that gives us no real choice but to stand and face it, breathing and hoping and taking one more step until the smoke has cleared and we can count the costs.

So what does one do?

Here is my family’s answer: we will hold tight to each other, release everything else, and lean into the flames.  We will find out what is fireproof.  We will find out what is made to stay, what will be forever changed, and what will live only in our memories.

And we will remind ourselves of what we know . . . what we learned in the kind of community so special that it made firewalkers of us:

We have what we need.  We will have what we need.

We see it coming over the horizon, bright, hot, bigger than we imagined.  We do not run.

Instead, we take one more step.  We crouch low.  We hold hands.

Welcome, fire.  

parenting . . . on the edge

What happens when parenting isn’t perfect?  When life isn’t what you expected?  When things get hard in mommyland?  I wrote this a year ago, after discovering that my own answer is “Keep running.”  What’s yours, friends?

-j

running shoes

Maybe somebody has to explore what happens 
when one of us wanders over near the edge 
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

–William Stafford, “Afterwards”

Recently, it was my turn.  As Stafford’s poem suggests, you can ask, but there’s no telling why, exactly.  My personal cocktail of despair involved leaving my job to be a stay-at-home mother, a mass shooting that felt a little too close to home, and—oddly—a spiritual shift so fast and ferocious that it seemed likely to upend my tidy life entirely.  Welcome to life on the edge.

Anxiety comes with a whole goody bag of possible symptoms.  For me, however, it’s just one thing– the sense of danger around every corner–that has made day to day life challenging; that has, in fact, led to episodes both comical and worrisome.  A car backfires in an alley; I jump.  A teenager misfires with a water cannon at a pool party and everyone around me gets wet—I get grass stains, because I drop instantly to my knees on the lawn, a crazed ninja in a twinset.

Overall, I feel vulnerable, exposed, in harm’s way.  And the fear is particularly gripping where my children are concerned.

As it happens, I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on this: my younger son is a climber.  Silas climbs fearlessly and constantly.  At two he has had falls, stitches, and, once, after discovering that lamps do not make good handholds, surgery.  After Silas-proofing to the best of our abilities, we take the inevitable in stride.  We sigh.  We laugh.  We make “as long as you can get yourself down” the cardinal rule of our home.

And yet now I am so worried about what might happen—what could happen—what probably will happen if I’m not careful enough—that I start to feel incapable of parenting him.  Worry leads to fixation.  Fixation turns into paralysis.

This comes horribly to life one afternoon; the boys are in their rooms for what used to be called naptime, but which is actually, unofficially “mommy needs a break time, whether you sleep or rest or simply spend an hour picking your nose.”  I might use these precious minutes to read, write, or check Facebook; sometimes I sit and stare at a wall in silence.  On this day, though, I take a shower.  I am shaving my legs when I hear a crash.  A spectacular sort of crash.  Seconds later, my older son propels himself through the door and into the bathroom, talking in an excited jumble, “SilasfellandcrashedIthinkhe’shurtcomefast!”

At one point—in “the normal days”—I might have run, blindly, instinctively, or at the very least, swiftly, to the scene, mom-as-rescuer ready to do her thing.  I’d appear out of nowhere, cape trailing behind me, to snatch my child from the jaws of danger.  I think I would have, anyway.  On this day, what I do is: nothing.  Or nothing effectual, at least.  I switch off the water, grab a towel, stand dripping onto the shower floor, stare at Soeren.  He is nearly hopping with anxiety and excitement, chattering a stream of words in my direction, but I am looking through him, listening beyond him.  And what I hear is silence.

That silence—an empty nothing that echoes down the hallway—expands until I feel a terror that seizes my heart and kicks the backs of my knees.  I see pictures: Silas crushed by furniture.  Silas dangling from the cord of his window blinds, pinned in the space next to his bed, broken or bleeding on his floor.  I feel sick, guilty, terrified, each image worse than the one before.  And still I stand there.  I don’t make myself move.  I can’t make myself move.  I might be standing there still, I tell you truly, except that finally, miraculously—thank you, God—I hear Silas begin to cry.

This particular bogeyman disappears, a figment of my imagination after all.  I attend to Silas, we work together to clean up his room, and we move on with the day.  Later, though, I hear the quiet whisper of fear, and this time, it’s questioning me. My focus.  My dedication.  My abilities.  And honestly, I have to agree with it.

I’ve been spending time wresting with the dangers inside my head, but I wonder who my children might look to when the danger is real.  Increasingly, scarily, it seems like the answer is, “Someone else.” I don’t know how to keep my children safe.  I don’t know how to keep myself safe.  I’m not even sure I remember what “safe” feels like.

I talk with my therapist, my minister, my mother.  And they all say: Keep walking.  Trust yourself.  Trust the Process.  I picture that capital-P Process, an unbroken string stretching across a white background, and me, blind despite the brightness, grappling awkwardly toward it.  Feeling my way, step by lurching step, across the unknown.

Outside of my imagination, “keeping walking” looks like this: I stare into space; I wander, as if lost, through familiar rooms; I look down to see that I’m holding items I don’t remember picking up.  Homeschool papers and workbooks pile up untouched, shaming me; we don’t have a television, but we have Netflix, and soon my children memorize the theme song to the Backyardigans.  I do load after load of laundry, a task so discrete that it cannot intimidate, but I cannot make a dent on the mess in the kitchen.

Through all of this, my husband—acknowledged by both of us to be the more dramatic personality in our relationship—is strangely placid.  Why aren’t you worried, I ask.  He looks mildly amused.  He reads my drafts, takes my arm in crowds, catches my eye and smiles when the children are being maddening.  Mostly, though, he stands back.  Craig handles the tasks of everyday life and waits, the very image of Keep Calm and Carry On.  He has something, my husband.  I think it’s called faith.

And eventually, I do, too.  Not the kind I imagined, the unshakeable certainty you carry with you at the core of your being.  This is a faith you consider the existence of, a half-believed rumor, then crawl toward, grasp for and ultimately stumble into.  The kind you skin your knees tripping over and arrive, finally, splayed out on the floor but grateful in the knowledge that Things Will Be Okay.

That happens on a trip back home to Wyoming, in a sharp experience of clarity on a hike with the boys.  In an afternoon, I come face to face with my childhood and also with my powerlessness to protect my children—to protect myself—offered as a lesson by one of the most beautiful and hard-edged places I know.

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The truth I come back with, the only truth I know, goes like this: you can climb, and you might fall.  You can try, and you might fail.  You can live, unsafely . . . or you can die.

The acceptance comes in a moment, but the shift back to normalcy happens only gradually.  In the meantime, I take up running and move with a dogged devotion that my sale-rack athletic shoes cannot match.  I try ellipticals, treadmills and sidewalks before meeting, finally, the wooded trails on the edge of town.  We are matched, that patch of woods and I, not quite wild but definitely not fully civilized.  A little messy.  Too steep in places.

I run, and I breathe, and I come back to myself, but as the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, I feel a wistfulness tinged with fear for all the moments I cannot keep.  Under this worry might be nothing.  Or, it might be everything.

Am I losing this season?  Can I hang onto myself?  Is this my last chance to run this year?

Without ever consciously acknowledging them, I keep the questions on heavy repeat in my mind. As I wonder and I worry, I do what comes without questioning: I keep running.   And eventually I come to understand that there is only this.  Hot weather: keep running.  Cool weather: keep running.  Leaves turn: keep running.  Leaves fall: keep running.  Darkness settling in, the ground a changeable surface of debris over mud: walk, gingerly—but continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Finally, the return to rhythm touches the other parts of my life.  My cheeks hurt and I realize I have been smiling as I listen to my sons explain a game to one other, each playing by rules of his own making.  I kick through leaves alongside Silas, holding his hand, and find myself walking happily at half-height, that I might better hear his two-year-old observations on the world.  My husband and I reclaim our evening ritual of regaling each other with the three best parts of the day; we laugh so loudly that Soeren emerges from his room and demands that we stop waking him up.

It is fall, and it is beautiful.  I notice, and celebrate a spectrum of colors, and of feelings, that I had forgotten existed.  I label them as they come.  Ochre.  Ruby.  Anticipation.  Excitement. Joy.

And yet.  The edges of my life don’t fit together quite like they did before.  The frayed and knitted-together places remain invisible to most everyone else, but I can see the seams.  And I know.  I am choosing.  To engage with life means deciding, sometimes daily, to step away from the edge of risk—or not.  It is choosing whether to pull my children back from their own falls—the ones that life brings to each of us and the ones they create for themselves in climbing, pushing, experimenting.

We are all wandering out near the edge of falling.  It is also the edge of learning—the edge of flying.  But it’s a cliff.  It’s a canyon.  It’s a place without railings.

And still, we live here.

For my dad, on Father’s Day

turtle rock trail, Vedauwoo

Walk softly, like the Indians.  Take long strides. 

This is lichen.  That’s a beaver dam.  These are brook trout.  Rainbow trout.  Walleye.

This grass has roots you can eat.  Don’t touch those mushrooms.  Don’t eat these berries.  Don’t drink this water.

This is a handhold.  This is a foothold.  These roots will hold your weight; those won’t.  Pick a spot when you jump.  Use your knees when you land.  Find a cave in a thunderstorm.

This is a starling, a meadowlark, a hawk, an eagle.  This is a nest.  This is why you don’t touch it.

This is Saratoga.  This is Thermopolis. Evanston.  Laramie.  This is where you are from.

Those are thistles.  Those are stickbugs.  Here are moths . . . here are hundreds and hundreds of moths.  This is a vacuum.  This is your ceiling, safe again.

This is your grandmother, your great grandmother, your grandfather, your great grandfather.  These are my cousins.  These are your cousins.  These are the people who love you.

This is a mountain.  This is the prairie.  This is new snow, chilly air, bright sunlight.  This is what belongs to all of us.

Walk softly; take long strides.  This is who you are.

 j

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I love to watch you play: (or, why I will not be homeschooling my 6 year old)

I love to watch you play.

This post explains that these six words might change my life.  A friend shared it on facebook this afternoon, and I almost didn’t click.  I have things to do—that’s, uh, why I’m on the internet . . . (?) —and anyway, how often does Facebook sharing make the “life-changing” claim?  So, friend, you’ll need to specify: are we talking about the kind of life change that occurs when you realize that a coworker eats bacon with his chocolate?  Or is it the kind that means you can Lose Stubborn Belly Fat in 10 Days?

Fortunately, Audra posted just enough to let me know that this really might be relevant to my life.  And, because I like her and trust her judgment, and also because I love a good excuse not to exercise, I clicked.

And now I can tell you that the answer is: this is the kind of change that might make life easier inside my head and inside my house.  And friends, I’m all for easier.  I am a grade-a perfectionist, worrier, and control-freakista, and I can tell you that there is nothing inherently better, or bettering, about “hard”—not when it comes to domestic life.  There’s just the harder and the easier.  The undone, saved for the ideal time, and the done imperfectly.  The days when I wait for the moment of calm and peace, or the feeling that I have things under control (it’s a good thing I don’t actually hold my breath during these waits), and the days when I take it as it comes and dive right into the bedlam.

One of our church teens, and occasional babysitters, remarked the other day, “I am amazed that you and Craig are such calm people when you live with the children that you have.”  I wasn’t sure, initially, whether I felt offended or affirmed.  After a bit of consideration, though, I decided we need to take the truth where we find it—and this observation is Gospel.  In short, my people, my family is not making this look easy.  And that is fine.  Because it is not.

One thorny, knotty, rich-with-possibility-and-frustration, fraught-with-crisis-and-opportunity piece of this: homeschooling and my older son.  I am a licensed teacher.  My field is special education.  Early childhood special education, to be specific.  My son was five when we officially embarked on this experiment, and is what’s known in the business as 2E (that’s twice exceptional, meaning that he demonstrates both giftedness and one or more disabilities).  This arrangement—unfettered exploration, ample time to work on needed skills, project-style delving into passions—might have been perfect.

And yet it has not been, not for Soeren and me.  We have generally had a good relationship, but this change in the structure of our days, and my suddenly very direct responsibility for his learning, has put us on a collision course with one another.  Result: anxiety (both of us), frustration (both of us), yelling (both of us), tears (both of us, but not together).

Let me be very clear: I think homeschooling is a needed option in an increasingly widgetized, unrealistic, Matthew 25:29-inspired system of public schooling.  I particularly believe this for those children who really do march to their own beats.  You know if you have one.  (You know if you don’t have one because you may wonder what’s wrong with those other parents and/or their children.  My own personal journey with the children I have, whom I struggle daily to meet and walk with and honor as they are and as they may become, has persuaded me that “I know better” or “I could do better” is a function of the failure to truly apprehend that “there but for the grace of God.”)  I think that comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school reform is needed, and I expect to continue to be a voice—probably an ever-stronger voice—for those changes.

In the present moment, though . . . there’s me.  There’s Ren.  There’s our dining table, and a reading book, and enough anxiety and stress between the two of us to power large-scale weather disturbances.

There is so much I want to teach him.  There are so many things I’d like to share.  And maybe someday, I will be able to.  Here at this table.  Formally.  In the meantime, however, I’ve discovered that it feels safe to learn from me only incidentally.

While disappointing and not at all what I expected, homeschooling hasn’t been a disaster.  Following Ren’s cues, and trusting his drive to learn and my own gut, we moved to an unschooling model and have witnessed excitement, growth, and stability in the day to day.  The kids are all right.  And, though visions of academic glory still make my pulse race a bit—in fact, because this is true—I am learning to accept that all right is excellent.  For me, that is.  All right is exactly what I need to learn.

It may not be what Ren needs to learn, though.  And in that case, it is only my pride and my fear standing between him and a different set of experiences.  It is my insistence on being the teacher, the judge, the enforcer, the critic, the cheerleader, and the support person that is making it, at this particular time with this particular child, impossible to fully be any of those.  And it is making learning more scary and stressful—for both of us—than it needs to be.  I choose to believe that something more wonderful than this is possible.

The public school system is an odd place to look for it, but I’m choosing, for this next year, to put my stock in faith and trust and pixie dust—the kind that the right teacher, like Tinkerbell, knows how to manufacture.

And so, I’m going to hand over the reins for a year.  I’m going to stand back.  I’m going to trust our team of professionals.  And I’m going to say, I love to watch you learn.

I give this gift to my child.  I give it to myself.  Ultimately, I give it to our relationship.

And as I commit to do this scary, beautiful, risky thing, I wonder where else this lesson might be useful.  Because it’s not only true for parents, or for credentialed educators, but for we who are invested in helping those around us grow:

Sometimes we have the responsibility to teach.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn.

And sometimes we are simply called to witness the miracle of the moment.  We are there to watch it happen, there to honor the journey, there to say the words: I love to watch you play.

What a sacred calling.